Ederson’s Bravery Exposes Liverpool’s Flaws on Jürgen Klopp’s Day to Forget

sports

London- If you can meet a 5-0 thrashing and a messy 1-1 draw and treat those two impostors exactly the same; well, there is a fair chance you will be a testy, process-obsessed Catalan super-manager, my son. Six months ago Pep Guardiola described Manchester City’s draw with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium as “one of the best moments of my career”. Fast forward to Saturday lunchtime and City’s 5-0 shellacking of the same opponents on the same ground left Guardiola a little restless, a little cagey in his judgments.

City’s manager was pleased and talkative but still rueful over the opening half-hour when Liverpool perhaps shaded it and when, if you had had to bet on a player being sent off, it would surely have been Nicolás Otamendi, whose performance combined ponderousness with a blind scything violence whenever he got near the ball.

City led 1-0 in the period before Sadio Mané’s red card. The goal came via Kevin De Bruyne’s perfect fizzed through-pass, some baggy defending and a fine finish from Sergio Agüero. But Liverpool had already gouged City open three times down their left side as Mohamed Salah sprinted into space between Benjamin Mendy and Otamendi, both players struggling with defensive positioning in the 3-5-2 system.

And so the wider narrative of this game had been settled long before the final whistle was blown. Received wisdom will say Mané’s red card killed the game, placing an asterisk against all that followed. Liverpool’s best player was sent off for catching Ederson with a recklessly raised boot as he ran through on goal. There are plenty who will defend an attacker’s right to challenge for the ball. Sadly for Mané these do not include football’s rule-makers, who deem dangerous contact involving a raised boot to be a strict liability offence. Mané was distraught as he left the field and has since apologised profusely for injuring his opponent in an “accidental” collision.

There are two things worth saying about the game’s central incident. Firstly, this was not some entirely random occurrence divorced from the skills and match-winning qualities of both teams. Ederson was exceptionally brave in coming for the ball. His fine goalkeeping was rewarded with a goalscoring chance snuffed out, a kick in the face and ultimately Mané’s sending off.

In that moment City’s player was more decisive and better at playing within the rules. In that moment the decision to replace Claudio Bravo with the more sprightly Ederson also found a reward – good managerial judgment from Guardiola, good play by Ederson, poor judgment from Mané. None of this sounds like a random event or bad luck, any more than poaching goals or winning tackles or making saves. The red card did not kill Liverpool’s game. Mané losing that duel to Ederson killed Liverpool’s game.

The second point worth making is that it was only a red card, not a mass contraction of the bubonic plague. Liverpool’s response was to collapse completely, conceding territory, possession and four more goals, two to Leroy Sané, who had only 22 touches but provided a bravura end note with a beautiful left-foot shot into the top corner as an exhausted midfield stood off him.

Red card or not, Jürgen Klopp did not have his best day. Liverpool are missing Nathaniel Clyne but exposing Trent Alexander-Arnold to an opponent and an occasion like this looked a vote of confidence too far. In the event Liverpool’s right-back had a brutal, exhausting afternoon. No shame there: his opposite number Mendy comes in just behind Marcelo on the list of best attacking left-backs in the world. Either one of James Milner, for his experience, or Joe Gomez, for his more specialist defensive skills, would surely have been a better option.

At the end Klopp was also strangely vague. In his press conference he seemed to think Liverpool’s next game, against Sevilla, was on Tuesday, not Wednesday, and had to be corrected. He was unsure whether his team were behind or not when Mané went off. Call them minor moments of forgetfulness but football managers, and indeed Klopp himself, tend to be razor sharp on these details – out of necessity, too. There are times you have to bristle and fib and “win” the aftermath of a 5-0 defeat. Alex Ferguson may have been a far less reasonable presence but he would have walked out bristling and full of motivating excuses. Klopp just looked drained by the day.

Similarly the best parts of City’s game may also go a little under the radar thanks to that red card. The defence did look vulnerable with Mané on the pitch. But playing against 10 men was perhaps a valuable exercise in itself, if only because for the first time this City team looked not just like a fine attacking unit but like a Pep-issue entity. At their best his Barcelona and Bayern teams would make opponents look like this even with 11 men: depleted, exhausted, incidental obstacles to the pass-and-move game. If this felt like a training game it was still a valuable training game and a moment when some of those vital cogs began to turn, the passing rhythms to settle.

Best of all, and to Guardiola’s obvious delight, the wide areas of City’s team were finally fizzing with intent. “With the full backs we have the energy, our wingers can play more inside, they can score more goals, we have more people in the middle as a result,” Guardiola said afterwards. “Kevin and [David] Silva are different players, they make things, they create. But they are not dreaming of scoring goals in the middle. It’s very important our wide players, Like Leroy, have that sense of ’I must score a goal’.” Penetration from the flanks is vital to Guardiola’s style. Red card or not, there was a clear sign at the Etihad of how City will hope to keep on winning from here.

The Guardian Sport

Germany’s Stand on ‘Despicable’ Fans Puts Silent England to Shame

Germany

London – That was some performance from Joachim Löw, the Germany national manager, after the jarring evidence during the international break that there are still a few troglodytes among his team’s support who seem hell-bent on providing living proof of Einstein’s theory that there is no limit to human stupidity.

Löw had just seen his team win 2-1 against the Czech Republic in Prague, maintaining an immaculate record in their World Cup qualifying group, but when he arrived for his press conference, face like thunder, the questions about his team’s performance had to wait. “I am neither upset nor sad,” he began. “I am full of rage, that explains my feelings better. I am really, really angry about this – that some so-called fans have used the stage of an international football match, and the stage of football, to bring shame on our country with their embarrassing behavior and appearance. We don’t want these anarchists. We are not their national team and they are not our fans. Their behavior was the lowest of the low and utterly despicable.”

It isn’t usual to hear a manager speak this way but, then again, these weren’t usual circumstances. A section of Germany’s support had disrupted a minute’s silence, abused one of their own players, Timo Werner, and followed up the traditional chants of “Sieg” (victory) towards the end of the game with an echoed “Heil”. It was an abomination and, at the final whistle, something happened that the people who follow die Mannschaft tell me they have never seen before. Germany’s players refused to go to the away end. They didn’t wave, there was no clapping, zero appreciation. It was a choreographed protest, a public disavowal and a clear, defiant message that they didn’t want any association.

For that, the players deserve our applause and Mats Hummels, in particular, as the captain who directed his team-mates off the pitch and made it absolutely clear it was a time to make a stand. “The chants were a catastrophe,” Hummels said later. “They started during the minute’s silence, which shows you the kind of people we’re dealing with. Timo Werner was insulted and ridiculed. Then the fans started shouting their insults. We distance ourselves completely from it and want nothing to do with it. And that’s why we didn’t go [to them].”

Bravo, that man, and what a pity England’s players did not have it in them to do the same in response to that abysmal night in Dortmund six months ago and the absence of respect for their hosts from the corner of the Westfalenstadion decorated in St. George’s flags.

That occasion needed a strong voice, too, when virtually the entire soundtrack was about the second world war and the only real choreography came in the form of the outstretched arms, creating a fleet of pretend fighter planes, during the various renditions of Ten German Bombers, one lasting fully 15 minutes, and how “the RAF from England shot them down”.

Unfortunately, it did not get one. Gareth Southgate’s comments were, frankly, not nearly enough and let’s not kid ourselves: it won’t even have crossed the players’ minds that they might be in a position to affect change and try to stop it happening again. The modern‑day England footballer just isn’t made that way. You will never find one speaking in the way that Hummels did. And more’s the pity.

The only counter-argument is that the 21,000-capacity Eden Arena in Prague is a much smaller stadium than the Westfalenstadion, making what happened feel even more intrusive and lamentable, and the behavior was on a different, more sinister level than the backdrop to the Germany-England encounter.

Maybe that’s true. Reports in Germany say the 100 or so troublemakers were associated with Dynamo Dresden and a number of other clubs from the former East Germany, where right‑wing extremism is said to be more prominent than other parts of the country. They mostly wore black and targeted their own football association with chants of “scheisse, DFB” during what was supposed to be a minute’s silence. Rudolf Kocek, president of the Czechoslovak FA when they won 1976 European Championship, was one of the people the host nation wanted to remember. Rudolf Bat’a, the organization’s former general secretary, was another; and so was Lenka Civinova, who was on holiday in Egypt during the summer when a terrorist went on the rampage in two beachfront hotels. Civinova, 36, the Czech FA’s accountant, was among the seven tourists stabbed. Two of the dead were actually from Germany.

It isn’t easy to understand why anybody would want to shout that down, but don’t forget what happened when England arranged a minute’s silence against Brazil in 2013 to honor the people who died in the Munich air tragedy, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death and the 238 victims of a nightclub fire in Santa Maria. Perhaps you might remember the England-Wales match in 2004 and what happened after a request by the authorities for a minute’s silence for Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day.

The difference on those occasions is that it is very rare for anyone involved with England – the manager, the captain, any of the players – ever to dare criticize their own supporters, even when criticism would be deserved, and it is a shame they have never found their voice when Löw, Hummels and their various colleagues have shown that it is possible to make a stand and in the process, change the narrative.

The FA did hold a media briefing three months after the Dortmund game to go over what had happened but nobody from the England setup itself was prepared to go on record even though it was clear by that point it was more than just a few beery, offensive chants. The footage of England’s end showed people making Nazi salutes and slit-throat gestures. One member of the choir could be seen holding a finger above his lip to imitate Hitler, in between gesturing that he would stab the German fans. All of which brought to mind the verdict of one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after the United States had been awarded the 1994 World Cup. “What’s the first word to come into your head when I say: ‘British soccer fan’?” he asked. “It was ‘sub-human’, wasn’t it? I rest my case.”

It’s a nice line but, in reality, there are plenty of people who go abroad to watch England and enjoy their adventures without restoring to time‑warp chanting, 90-minute xenophobia or pretend patriotism about conflicts from another phase of history.

Yet it was still easy enough to find lads going through “No Surrender” in the queues on Wembley Way after England’s last game and, when it comes to next year’s World Cup, it has been interesting to hear from the relevant authorities about some of the supporters who will be making that trip to Russia and why those people had better wise up bearing in mind what could be waiting for them.

England’s troublemakers still tend to wear the same uniform that was fashionable on the terraces a quarter of a century ago – Stone Island, Burberry, Adidas trainers (more Gazelles than the Maasai Mara) – but it is a different form of trouble these days. The old category-C hooligans have gone, for the most part, and in their place it is a new breed of younger supporters, largely 19 to 25, who are not so dangerous but make up for that by adopting an anything-goes, stag-weekend mentality, whereby they take pride in behaving badly and regard England trips as a bit of escapism. When the FA’s travel club emailed its members after the Germany game a number of replies came back telling the FA to stop being spoilsports, arguing the behavior was exactly how they liked it.

The difficult part is breaking that kind of mentality and perhaps Southgate and his players missed a trick when the alternative, as their equivalents in Germany have shown, would have been to turn their backs and disown the people who still confuse international football matches with old medieval tournaments.

It doesn’t automatically mean that when Germany go on future excursions the demagogues and dunderheads will stay away or come with a new songbook. But at least the manager and players of the world champions have realized this kind of behavior affects them, too, and that it would be better to confront it rather than sitting on their hands and deciding it is somebody else’s problem. That has to count for something and, for that alone, it is tempting to think their English counterparts could learn a thing or two.

The Guardian Sport

Vialli: ‘I Look Out For Things That Are Going to Make Football a Better Game’

London- “We Italians need to feel like we’re under pressure, we need to see an enemy,” says Gianluca Vialli. “The pressure is a combination of expectation, scrutiny and consequences. That’s why we’re so good at managing, because we grew up experiencing pressure all the time. When Antonio came to England I think he almost felt it was easier but exciting at the same time.”

Vialli is well-placed to discuss the success of Antonio Conte (was he surprised when his old Juventus team-mate won the Premier League at the first time of asking? “No, no and no”). The former Chelsea manager, the first Italian to manage in the Premier League, had won everything in the club game by the time he moved to London in 1996. He became a star of the English game too, winning fans first with his pugnacious style of play, later with his urbane personality.

He remains equally distinctive today. When we meet in a lounge at Stamford Bridge, Vialli is dressed in a royal blue peaked cap, open-necked shirt and waistcoat, tan chinos rolled halfway up the calf and boat shoes with no socks. Half Guy Ritchie, half Marcello Mastroianni, it is thoroughly Anglo-Italian. So when Vialli speaks about the English game, he does so with a rare perspective. He knows what it means for an Italian to bring success to Chelsea. When he insists the Premier League is the most entertaining in the world because the fans make it that way, it is not necessarily the flattery of a guest.

“They say the Premier League is best league in the world. Or Roy Keane says we are brainwashed into believing it. He might be right. But I can definitely say it’s the most entertaining league. I’ve played here and managed here, and when you walk on the pitch the atmosphere brings the best out of you. So that’s already a plus. But the style of football in England is also affected by the atmosphere the fans create. It’s breathtaking, it’s 120mph. Yes, there’s a lot of errors, yes from a tactical point of view maybe it’s not the best, but in terms of entertainment … This is why the product is so amazing and why it is sold for so much money. I think the fans should get some credit for that.”

There is no doubting Vialli means what he says. It is why my eyebrow did not rise to its full height when he went on to describe it as the motivation behind a new business venture. Alongside another London-based European, Fausto Zanetton, Vialli has founded a company that looks to bring crowdfunding to professional sports.

“When I say what I do now, I say I work for Sky Italia but also, because of what I owe to football, I look out for things that are eventually going to make it a better game,” Vialli says. “Our business is about giving football clubs the necessary finance to build something that is not just 11 players on the pitch but everything that goes with that. Our business is about making clubs more sustainable.”

The company is called Tifosy and it claims to have raised more than £1m for football clubs. Crowdfunding seems a model suited to sport – “The great thing about crowdfunding in sports is there are already crowds,” says Zanetton. Tifosy has raised money for a new stand at Stevenage and the pioneering safe-standing enclosure at Shrewsbury Town. In turn, clubs can offer investors rewards (ie you give me money, I’ll give you a signed T-shirt) but on Tifosy they can also sell debt, in the form of micro-bonds, or even equity. Tifosy in turn takes between 6-8% in commission from the clubs.

For Vialli crowdfunding provides a chance for fans to take a stake in their clubs. “We’re not talking about fans owning the club, we’re talking about fans owning a share of the club,” he says. “A share that would give them a seat at the table. Clubs have sponsors. They are just there for commercial reasons but the club calls them partners. Then you have the fans. The fans are emotionally involved, they are loyal, and the clubs call them customers. I think fans owning a share of the club would mean the owners know what ‘customers’ really think and feel.”

There is a difference between getting to say your piece and having an influence, of course. Numerous small stakeholders make for unwieldy organisation. The owners of clubs, meanwhile, are not always to be trusted by their fans. Vialli and Zanetton say they have refused to work with clubs whose ambitions do not meet Tifosy’s principles.

In the end crowdfunding may be less about creating a new model of ownership than providing a new way for fans to show they care. For example, Community Shares, the crowdfunding company that works with grassroots clubs (and has raised more than £7m), has observed fans are far more likely to stump up to save a club from going out of business than they are to invest in something less urgent such as, say, new training facilities.

This, intriguingly, may also apply to those fans who never go to the stadium. The explosion of international interest in English football is really what makes businesses such as Tifosy viable. As Vialli puts it: “You’ve got 40,000 supporters going to the stadium but 1,000 times more available through the internet. I think in a way there’s more of a desire to get involved [from] the fans that are not regularly coming to the stadium. They think: ‘I can’t get to the stadium because I live 6,000 miles away but I really want to feel like I’m part of the club.’”

A Tifosy campaign for Bradford City raised donations from 20 countries. A recent scheme on behalf of Parma, a club in Serie B, managed 40.

“Italian football has a lot of appeal, even though it must improve,” Vialli says. “We are always moaning about English football but Italy should be the same. We complain ‘they’ve got more money’. Yes, that’s true. But why? Because they’ve got a better product that they sell abroad. If our stadiums were better, if there was less violence, if it were perceived as a clean game, less tactical perhaps …” Doing down tactics? Gianluca Vialli really has gone native.

The Guardian Sport

Coutinho, Van Dijk, Sanchez Need to Re-Find Feet after Being Stood up by Suitors

Coutinho

A penny for someone’s thoughts seems a ludicrously old-fashioned saying in the era of the £1.4bn Premier League transfer window. But now the whole brouhaha is over it is hard not to wonder what is going on inside the heads of players whose hopes were dashed on deadline day. It is the football world’s equivalent of being stood up for a dream date. Wake up full of nervous expectancy, impossible to think about anything else all day, then the wretched waiting before the bleak realization that nothing special is going to happen.

So what now for Virgil van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho, whose transfer requests were utterly ignored by their clubs and they will be expected to represent Southampton and Liverpool respectively with full professionalism as quickly as possible? What now for Alexis Sánchez, who will return from international duty by opening the door to his London home and his beloved dogs knowing that he was close to an exit from Arsenal’s problems but it never came off?

Football’s weird moral compass means that possible hissy fits or friction tend not to be major factors once the games come and the athletes are sent out to play. Remember the case of Carlos Tevez, whose reluctance to come on as a Manchester City substitute in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich led to him being frozen out, fined and going on strike to the apparent point of no return?

That turned out to be the same Carlos Tevez who was showered with love when he came back a few months later to score the goals that helped City to win the title. Football emotions can overstretch and suddenly bounce back if it suits everyone.

If Van Dijk, Coutinho and Sánchez, whatever their personal sentiments, get back on the pitch for the Premier League clubs they have generally graced with distinction, if they can find some rhythm and put in the kind of performances that made them so coveted by other suitors, they will be welcomed back into the fold pretty quickly.

It is the less needed players who have the hardest time readjusting if a transfer window move does not materialize. On the fringes of teams around the country are the players who remain trapped in the system which keeps them at clubs with a limited prospect of playing time. A penny for the thoughts of Vincent Janssen as he saw photos of Fernando Llorente trying on a Spurs shirt while he stayed moveless?

The Dutchman could not find it in himself to commit to guaranteed football at Brighton but life at Tottenham will surely feel frustrating at times if he has another season on the edge of the first XI picture.

How do players manage the situation when the optimism of a new chapter turns humdrum? Janssen joined Tottenham a year ago on the back of success at AZ Alkmaar on a four-year deal. Staying confident and positive about the impact one can make on the pitch is not easy without matches. A high salary is not always enough to make a player feel better.

The parable of Winston Bogarde is an important one. Bogarde is widely regarded as a benchmark of sorts for players who pick up a fortune while barely dirtying their boots in earnest. He made almost £10m at Chelsea while playing for them 12 times in 2000–04. But the reality tells of a man who felt lonely, desperate and misunderstood. “My situation was not very good and we tried to solve it many ways,” he said. “Like to maybe go on loan or sell me, or whatever. But in the end it didn’t work out. For a player, for me, it’s terrible not to play. Yet I had to return for training. Mentally it was very hard. To keep the motivation is very difficult.”

It was poignant to see footage of Lucas Pérez, who returned to Deportivo La Coruña on deadline day, arriving back at his hometown airport after a year of frustration at Arsenal being barely used. With his arm round his son, the door to the arrivals hall opened and he was greeted by the warmth of fans singing his name. “Si, si, si. Lucas esta aqui” Yes, yes, yes. Lucas is here. It looked obvious that in that moment his football motivation was reignited after a period struggling for opportunities and mulling over self-doubt.

Across the Premier League plenty remain stuck. At Everton, in their post-splurge new world, the future is uncertain at best for Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Oumar Niasse, all of whom shook their heads at a potential deadline-day move knowing that they are not as wanted as others at Goodison Park. At Liverpool Lazar Markovic stayed put but will not expect to figure too much. Jack Colback is in a pickle at Newcastle. Diafra Sakho remains at West Ham after a particularly curious turn of events. He had taken it upon himself to travel to Rennes for a medical without a deal being struck between the clubs and ended up spending deadline day at Chelmsford Races with his agent hoping for a winning ticket. The move failed.

Life at the training ground goes on the morning after the window closes. Life on the edges goes on for the unwanted and disappointed wantaways.

The Guardian Sport

Disillusioned Arsène Wenger Calls for End to FFP in Major U-Turn

Arsène Wenger admits he used to plead for financial fair play rules but says ditching them is the only way Premier League clubs will be able to compete.

Arsène Wenger has lost faith in one of his guiding principles and called for financial fair play to be scrapped. The Arsenal manager says clubs have found a way to bluff around Uefa’s regulations and it has effectively rendered them unenforceable. He feels that if the Premier League is to “remain the best league in the world” the decision must be taken to revert to no financial limits.

Wenger reflected on a wild summer transfer window in which he suggested that Liverpool had most likely tapped up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before taking him from Arsenal for an initial £35m on 31 August. Four days earlier, the midfielder had played for Arsenal in the club’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield. Wenger said he did not know whether Liverpool had spoken to Oxlade-Chamberlain in the hours leading up to kick-off. He hoped they had not.

Wenger did not make his comments in an angry or accusatory fashion; they were underpinned by realism. In short, tapping up is a part of the modern game. Everybody does it. But Wenger was less willing to shrug off what he sees as the holes in FFP.

He was asked whether he had a view on the complaint made to Uefa by the La Liga president, Javier Tebas, about the summer spending of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. PSG broke the world transfer record with their £198m purchase of Neymar from Barcelona while they took Kylian Mbappé from Monaco on a season‑long loan with an option to buy him for £166m. Uefa are investigating PSG but not City, who have threatened Tebas with legal action. Wenger did have a view and it was strident.

“Financial fair play raises new questions,” Wenger said. “I always did plead for it. Today, I am not convinced that we can maintain it. Football is maybe only at the start of a huge financial investment. It has become the most powerful sport in the world. It means do we have to open the door completely to investments? It is a question we have to raise because, at the moment, it looks like we have created rules that cannot be respected. There is nothing worse than when you create rules that are not respected.

“Maybe we are at the crossroads and we have to think, do we open it with complete freedom to investment for people like the Chinese and Americans, who want to invest here [in England]? If you want to remain the best league in the world, that is certainly the way we have to go.

“Do I want to get rid of financial pair play? I think so because there are too many legal ways to get around it. The question, at least, has to be raised. At the moment, it looks like you can buy clubs in China and get the players there, and buy them in other clubs, then get them, after, here. You can get around [FFP]. Am I convinced that, at the moment, the rules are strong enough to make it respected? I’m not sure.”

Wenger’s remarks on tapping-up came as he explained why he was in favor of the summer transfer window closing before the start of the Premier League season. “You sit there before the games and in players’ minds, they have no clarity,” Wenger said. “Are they in? Are they out? Are they half in? Are they half out? Are they tapped up in the afternoon of the game by people who want to get them out?”

Wenger was asked whether any player in his dressing-room at Liverpool on the Sunday before last had been tapped up in advance of the game or on the day of it. It was clear that the question related to Oxlade-Chamberlain. “I don’t know,” Wenger replied.

Was it his suspicion? “Have they been tapped up?” Wenger said. “Of course. But on the day of a game? I don’t think so. I hope not. But it’s inevitable. France played against Holland on the last day of the transfer window. Do you really think that not one French player or Dutch player had phone-calls in the afternoon about do they move or not? You’re not naive enough to believe that.”

Wenger insisted that he did not regret starting with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the Liverpool game. “If I am a football player, I can perform even if Liverpool is in my head,” he said. “I don’t think that should stop you to perform. Did it? I think he was not worse than any other player on the football pitch.”

(The Guardian)

A Footballer Has Set Up a Careers Site to Help Retired Athletes Find Work

sport

London- Football dressing rooms can be ruthless places. The social hierarchy is established, the wisecracks are often merciless and there aren’t many moments for introspection or worrying about what to do once your career finishes. Exeter City forward Robbie Simpson understands the culture but at the age of 32 he has realised that a change in tone could help his fellow athletes. Simpson, who has played in all four divisions below the Premier League, has set up Life After Professional Sport (LAPS), an organisation that aims to help former professional athletes find full-time work.

“In professional football, it is very difficult to show any vulnerability whatsoever, never mind in the dressing room. It’s a place with banter and bravado. All of that is great, but also people don’t want to show any fear or even talk about what will happen next after their careers are over, which needs to change. At League Two level, the reality is, after it’s over, you’re going to have to get a job almost straight away, so we need to start this conversation now and think of life after sport.”

Simpson is a relative rarity in football. He had balanced non-league football at Cambridge United with his sports science and mathematics degree until 2007, when he graduated and joined Championship club Coventry City as a full-time professional. Simpson made his competitive debut in the League Cup against Notts County. He came on as a substitute in the 73rd minute and scored in the 78th minute. But things were about to get even better.

After a handful of substitute performances in the Championship, Simpson made his first start for Coventry against Manchester United in the League Cup. A few days after his graduation ceremony he was lining up at Old Trafford against a central defensive pairing of Gerard Piqué and Jonny Evans. United would go on to win the Premier League and the Champions League that season, but they were knocked out of the League Cup by Coventry City.

“I think the whole of Loughborough University was there at that game,” remembers Simpson. “I had been balancing my studies with non-league football, the perfect compromise I thought. Then after a great season in non-league, I got the opportunity to sign with Coventry and eventually gain that first start at Old Trafford. It was just ridiculous having been a student not long before. My path to the full-time game wasn’t normal, but it did give me a good perspective of life outside the game.”

Simpson’s degree earned him the nickname “the student” at Coventry. “It always made me laugh, I was no different to any of these lads. But I found myself, at 22, being brought into these pseudo-intellectual debates in the dressing room to settle an argument because I had been to uni. I was also asked by these senior pros for advice on tax returns. It was all quite bemusing for a young guy.”

In Simpson’s experience, football clubs rarely offer pathways to employment after the final whistle has blown on their players’ careers. He commends the efforts of the Professional Footballers’ Association but thinks more could be done. “We work with a lot of different sports in LAPS and rugby particularly impresses me. Saracens, who are at the top of their game professionally, are also running day visits to the trading floor in the city to give players a taste of something else. We need to encourage that wider perspective across sports.”

Simpson has enjoyed a successful football career at clubs across the country, including Huddersfield Town, Oldham Athletic, Leyton Orient, Cambridge United and, currently, Exeter City. However, after one difficult summer four years ago when he was out of contract and looking for a club, he began to think about his future: could he get a job if his football career was over? He wasn’t fully convinced. His professional work experience was all in football and he started to wonder whether his skills had any value elsewhere.

“I had that fear one summer when I was out of contract that this could be it. I had dedicated the last number of years to professional football, but I was lucky in that I had a degree at least. What about the people who have left school at 16 with no qualifications to dedicate themselves to football? I knew that there were transferable skills available and after linking up with a friend who works in recruitment, we set up LAPS to create a vital resource.”

LAPS is an online tool available to former athletes who are searching for a career after the final whistle has blown on their careers. It contains a job board, networking opportunities, advice and case studies of former athletes who have moved into different lines of work. Simpson has spoken to hundreds of athletes since setting up LAPS. Many of them mental health issues and financial concerns and he wants to empower them.

“Not everyone can be an athlete and one of the things that makes them stand out in their profession is their commitment to a set goal. We want to inspire these men and women to think that there is absolutely a life after sport, and we are going to do everything we can to show them that there can be a fulfilling professional life after they’ve stopped as an athlete.”

Simpson is running LAPS while playing in League Two. Over the last few years he has seen positive changes in the attitudes of his colleagues. Eleven of his team-mates at Exeter City have either finished or are completing degree-level studies. Simpson’s former nickname “the student” makes little sense at his club these days and he is determined to help more athletes find productive careers after sport.

The Guardian Sport

Rafael Benítez Open to Job Offers Amid Anger Over Newcastle Transfers

Rafael Benítez no longer regards his job at Newcastle as a long-term project.

Rafael Benítez has lost virtually all trust in Mike Ashley’s regime at Newcastle United and, no longer regarding his job as a long-term project, would be receptive to alternative offers of employment at similarly sized Premier League clubs.

Although Newcastle’s manager will not walk out in the wake of a disastrous transfer window, Benítez is angry, deeply frustrated and ready to contemplate life away from Tyneside.

He came extremely close to taking over at West Ham two years ago, only for the mooted deal to be hijacked by Real Madrid at the 11th hour, but remains much admired by the London Stadium board.

With Slaven Bilic under considerable pressure at West Ham, it is not inconceivable the post could shortly become vacant. Were this to happen Benítez would seriously consider relocating to London – although Ashley would be expected to fight hard to keep him at St James’ Park.

A clause in the 57-year-old’s contract stipulates that either Newcastle’s manager or the club seeking to employ him must pay £5m‑6m to trigger his release, and Ashley would be expected to play hardball over exit negotiations.

With the Sports Direct owner likely to force Benítez to resign rather than offer a rival club permission to speak to him, any departure is likely to prove anything but straightforward.

Ashley’s apparent determination to retain the services of a manager whose presence he believes not only boosts Newcastle’s brand value significantly but can also help him eventually sell the club, seems at odds with his failure to fulfil the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager’s wishes.

Despite Benítez cutting the wage bill by around £200,000 a week in the last 10 days, Newcastle failed to sign anyone on deadline day, leaving a manager who no longer believes it will be possible to fulfil his ambitions of leading the team back into the Champions League under Ashley’s administration, without a fit specialist left-back.

Although Newcastle signed six players for a total of around £36m, 16 departures dictated their net spend on transfer fees was only around £20m – distinctly modest for a newly promoted club. Such apparent parsimony also left Benítez without an extra goalkeeper, striker, winger and central midfielder.

This failure to reinforce the squad represents a high stakes gamble on the part of Ashley who appears convinced Benítez’s stellar coaching ability can keep Newcastle in the Premier League.

A relegation skirmish was the last thing on the manager’s mind when, shortly after winning the Championship, Ashley promised him “every last penny” of available funds to spend over the summer, but now threatens to become a reality.

Concerns crystallized in June. By then Justin Barnes, a lawyer and long term Ashley confidant, had become heavily involved in club business alongside Lee Charnley, the managing director, and delighted in haggling over the fine details of transfers. Barnes’s determination to secure the best possible deal for his boss arguably led to Benítez missing out on a season-long loan deal for the Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham, who ended up joining Swansea.

A goalkeeper was always high on Benítez’s wish list but, early in the window, a similar failure to close the deal, saw him lose Manchester City’s Willy Caballero to Chelsea. Newcastle’s hierarchy questioned whether he needed a new keeper, leaving Benítez – who had thought that being given the title manager as opposed to head coach would confer a certain degree of autonomy – feeling let down.

If he became alternately puzzled and distressed over the board’s apparent refusal to fully trust his judgement, a general sense of dismay grew as it took almost two months apiece to complete the signings of Florian Lejeune and Mikel Merino respectively. That was despite the fact that Lejeune’s contract at Eibar contained an £8.8m release clause and Merino was arriving on loan from Borussia Dortmund.

As a Champions League winning manager who spent Wednesday at an elite coaches convention in Nyon, Switzerland, Benítez possesses peerless contacts but Newcastle’s peculiarly idiosyncratic modus operandi dictated he felt often unable to utilize them properly.

Aware the budget would be limited and the squad required pruning he was willing to wheel and deal this summer but now seems convinced Ashley will never finance an attempt to take Newcastle back into regular European combat.

More pressingly, a failure to recruit sufficient new faces has left Benítez – who only last week was adamant he required at least two signings before the window’s closure – needing to repair his relationship with Dwight Gayle. He had originally planned to sell last season’s leading scorer but, due to the lack of a suitable attacking replacement, instead ended up keeping him.

Similarly Benítez wanted to send Freddie Woodman, his gifted young England Under-21 goalkeeper out on loan but has been forced to ask him to stay put and serve as third choice keeper.

Individually and collectively it has turned into a summer of wasted opportunities which is ending with Newcastle’s much loved manager balking at what he now, reluctantly, regards as a strictly limited future on Tyneside.

(The Guardian)

Palace and Arsenal Epitomize Premier League’s Lack of Joined-Up Thinking

Frank de Boer has made a disastrous start at Crystal Palace but his players are struggling with an extreme transition after a relegation battle under Sam Allardyce.

Now the honeymoon period has well and truly fizzled out, extinguished by so much sideways football that soon Louis van Gaal will be making a pilgrimage to Selhurst Park to see what all the fuss is about, it comes as no surprise to learn Crystal Palace appear to be wondering whether the man who said he would make his new team play like Ajax might not be up to the task of managing in the Premier League.

Judging by the grumbling emanating from south London last week, some members of Palace’s squad appear to have made up their minds already about Frank de Boer. If the writing is on the wall for him, it is largely because his apparently dissatisfied players have wasted no time sharpening their pens and, although that kind of insurrection could be seen as yet another damning indictment of the state of modern football, it is worth remembering no manager is safe if his methods raise eyebrows rather than spirits in the dressing room.

Perhaps it reflects poorly on English football that De Boer, who led Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles in his first managerial job, has encountered early resistance at Palace (highest Premier League finish: 10th in 2015). After all, everyone was on board when he outlined his vision in the summer and demonstrated an awareness that refining Palace’s style would not be easy, promising “evolution, not revolution”. Three matches in, however, Palace fans are still waiting to celebrate a goal, let alone their first point. More worrying than the results are the insipid, cure-for-insomnia performances, the dogmatism that makes Van Gaal’s Manchester United look even more freewheeling than Brazil’s 1970 team.

But why did the Palace hierarchy not see this coming? Before De Boer, the home dugout at Selhurst Park was the domain of the Proper Football Man. Since winning promotion under Ian Holloway in 2013, Palace have employed Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce, and the result is a gritty, direct team with few frills and little creativity or flair. One has got to go back 19 years to find the only other time they had a foreign manager, Atillio Lombardo, who could not save them from relegation during a brief spell as caretaker player-manager. Hiring De Boer was a departure from the norm for Palace and maybe it was to be expected they would experience teething problems. They will be accused of impatience if they decide to cut their losses; in reality, however, their biggest crime would be failing to lay the proper foundations for such a big change to their identity.

It would hint at the kind of structural shortcomings stemming from a lack of a philosophy within the club. Allardyce one minute, De Boer the next: it was too extreme. Palace had just survived a relegation scrap and there was no sense they had been gearing up to become the English Ajax. It is no wonder the squad has struggled to adapt to De Boer, who said his players lacked courage on the ball after the home defeat by Swansea City.

This can be a consequence when clubs attempt a quick fix instead of building gradually. Last month Palace hired Dougie Freedman as a sporting director. Yet it is difficult not to conclude Freedman should have arrived before De Boer and it is baffling that clubs with Palace’s resources do not seek to emulate the model at Southampton, where long-term planning ensures they are equipped to handle a change in the dugout. The expertise of the Pozzo family helps Watford punch above their weight despite their rotating cast of managers. What mattered more when Leicester won the title: hiring Claudio Ranieri or scouting N’Golo Kanté?

The director of football role remains staggeringly underrated in England. When it was put to Arsène Wenger that Arsenal could benefit from appointing one, he sounded as if he had been told to change his name to José. “I don’t know what it means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs the players left and right?”

A director of football could have challenged Wenger’s authority, forcing Arsenal out of their comfort zone. Instead his bosses shied away from making a tough decision at the end of last season, condemning Arsenal to two more years of stasis.

These are troubled times in the capital. Only West Ham’s miserable goal difference keeps Palace off the foot of the table. Time is running out for Slaven Bilic, who was found wanting tactically a long time ago. Yet while Bilic is fortunate to have his job, West Ham’s main problem is David Sullivan’s idea of a director of football seems to be David Sullivan. Gaping holes have not been filled and the club’s decision to focus on short-term acquisitions has left the team looking slow and old. How appropriate was it for the man in charge of transfers to be on holiday in Spain on deadline day?

So nothing changes. With the De Boer project looking doomed, Freedman is expected to step in on a temporary basis before making way for Roy Hodgson. Another emergency will force Palace back to square one, but it could have been avoided with greater foresight.

De Boer, schooled at Ajax and one of the most technically gifted defenders of his generation, appeared to have the credentials. More relevant than the 85-day stint at Internazionale, however, is the way Ajax became stagnant in his final two seasons, boring the Amsterdam Arena with laborious passing. Johan Cruyff disciples came to view De Boer as a Van Gaal man. He promised to bring excitement to Palace but so far he has offered precious little evidence of his Cruyffism.

(The Guardian)

France Have All the Talent in the World but They Look Like a Team of Individuals

Kylian Mbappé endured a tough night against Luxembourg.

There are no easy answers after France’s goalless draw with Luxembourg in Toulouse on Sunday evening. The hosts should have thumped their tiny neighbors. The disparities between shots, possession, saves made, pass completion percentages and more contemporary metrics such as expected goals clearly pointed to a home win, but it wasn’t to be. France remain top of their group but only by a point and their remaining fixtures – away to Bulgaria and at home to Belarus – could be deceptively tricky.

Bulgaria are no longer the force they once were but they have beaten Holland and Sweden in the group. Had they not lost to Belarus, they might even harbor a hope of qualifying. Belarus, while never too impressive, held France to a goalless draw a year ago. Neither match should be considered an easy contest for France, especially in light of Sunday’s result.

It would be remiss not to praise Luxembourg for a compact performance. They had given France a surprising amount of trouble the last time the two sides met, in the spring, and were similarly tough on Sunday. Veteran goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert, by far the oldest player in what is a very young side, made a host of superb saves, and the defenders, notably Metz’s Chris Philipps, were also superb. Qualification is mathematically impossible but, given the successes of some of the continent’s smaller teams at Euro 2016, manager Luc Holtz could have something to build upon in a year’s time.

France were without Benjamin Mendy, who is only just coming back into fitness, and Ousmane Dembélé, who didn’t feature for Borussia Dortmund while forcing through a move to Barcelona. The performances of the players who replaced them, Layvin Kurzawa and Kylian Mbappé, were poor. Mbappé perhaps deserves some sympathy. He barely featured for Monaco before completing his loan move to Paris Saint-Germain and was asked to play out of position, on the right flank, as Kingsley Coman lacked match fitness – his start in the win over Holland on Thursday was his first of the season for club or country save a German Cup match against amateur opposition.

Coman plays as an orthodox winger who beats his man and crosses the ball. While he struggled with injury last season, he is a capable player but one who is not at all like Mbappé. Mbappé scored a cracking goal on Thursday, which may have had an undue influence on Didier Deschamps’ decision to start him, but he has always played as either a second striker or as a left-sided inverted winger. Deschamps is well-known for having a bizarre adherence to players’ “footedness” and being that Mbappé is right-footed and may play on that flank for his new club, the manager may have thought him worth a gamble in an unfamiliar position, particularly against such lightly regarded opposition.

Mbappé frequently took up a more central role and he did do well to link play with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, but he also left France with a dearth of width on the right flank. Djibril Sidibé did his best to make up the deficit but, much like Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Thomas Lemar, the way Mbappé continually took these positions played into the hands of Luxembourg’s low block.

While Mbappé’s positional discipline could be improved upon, perhaps more blame lies with Deschamps, especially when he could have played Florian Thauvin, Nabil Fekir or Alexandre Lacazetteo in that position. Even so, Deschamps would have been labeled a killjoy had he not found some way to start Mbappé. It’s not a manager’s job to please fans, per sé, but in a carnival atmosphere away from the usual venue of the Stade de France, he could perhaps be forgiven for this tactic.

Defensible as Mbappé’s performance can be, Layvin Kurzawa’s was beyond the pale. The left-back, a day before his 25th birthday, was asked to start instead of Barcelona’s Lucas Digne with Mendy unfit. He is much more physical, direct and pace-reliant than the Manchester City man but, perhaps wishing to impress Deschamps, he offered his best impression of his compatriot, albeit a very poor impression.

Mendy’s recent success has come as a result of an improved work ethic, good pace and a sublime ability to cross the ball. With Giroud playing as a target man, France have profited immensely from this approach, with Giroud’s second goal against Luxembourg in March the product of a pearl of cross from Mendy. Kurzawa, despite being afforded plenty of space and time on the ball, was very poor. He lost the ball 41 times, a stunning figure no matter the circumstances.

Giroud, in particular, was visibly frustrated by Kurzawa, who delivered 17 crosses, none of which found their intended target. Again, Luxembourg’s aerial prowess deserves some credit, but Kurzawa’s bizarre insistence on playing in crosses when this is never his normal style of play was maddening. He was also guilty of a poor first touch when receiving a ball into the flat, with a raking ball by Pogba into a dangerous position mis-controlled ahead of the interval. Digne will have been encouraged by this performance.

Paul Pogba was nearly as culpable as Kurzawa, shooting as often as he pleased from range. Despite drawing a fine diving save late in the first half from Joubert, he rarely looked like troubling the back of the net. Opposite Mbappé, Lemar, who had been so irrepressible on Thursday, looked dull as he added to the congestion in midfield by cutting inside and forcing Kurzawa wide. The normally reliable Laurent Koscielny nearly gifted the visitors what would have been an even more shocking win late in the match, only for Luxembourg substitute Gerson Rodrigues to hit the post on the counter.

Even the normally unassailable Griezmann snatched at a few chances. He wasn’t the only player to lament his misfortune, as Lacazette saw a curling effort cleared off the line and Pogba also hit the woodwork late on with a looping header. In reality, France did create enough chances to win the match, but when bad luck is combined with performances as poor as those of Kurzawa and many of his team-mates, the blame has to be shifted to the players’ lack of quality and effort.

The returns of Mendy and Dembélé will be a welcome tonic for France come October, but this match should rightfully cast a long shadow on Les Bleus in the intervening weeks. For a side as talented as France patently are, they too often look like a team of individuals, over-reliant on skill rather than invention and tactical discipline to batter mediocre opponents. As this result, the draw in Belarus and the loss to Sweden showed, football can be a game of fine margins. Without a necessary injection of tactical coherence, this supremely talented group could find themselves disappointed come next summer should they not heed Sunday’s warning.

• To say Monaco’s transfer window was a successful one might seem a little facetious, but Leonardo Jardim won’t be too displeased with the outcome. From a revenue point of view success of course is an obvious conclusion. €90m for two relatively replaceable players in Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko amid €350m worth of sales amounts to superb business. Along with Bernardo Silva, the losses of Bakayoko and Mendy were envisaged. While considering possible further damage, Monaco will be content with the state of their squad as it stands. Despite the fact that Thomas Lemar and Fabinho were close to leaving, Monaco eventually decided to halt PSG advances for the Brazilian and while Arsenal and Liverpool were close to snaring the young Frenchman, Lemar, for now, has decided to stay and both men remain crucial to Monaco’s season. This despite the fact that Arsène Wenger has stated, rather ominously, that Arsenal would be back for Lemar. Although losing Mbappé to rivals PSG is tough to take, €180m (eventually) for a player that they have proven they are capable of living without, one that they wouldn’t be able to hold on to for more than another year anyway and an individual that they paid nothing for in the first place should be seen as a good deal, despite Mbappé’s supreme talent. For the most part, Monaco have had things their way, the large turnover a necessary part of their model. Acquisitions of the exuberant Keita Baldé and Youri Tielemans, the arrivals of Ligue 1 prospects Rony Lopes (returning from loan) and Adama Diakhaby as well as the shrewd €11m pick up of Stevan Jovetic equals an astute end to business with the club quietly confident that they can usurp PSG once more.

Talking points
• Kylian Mbappé’s arrival in Paris and the capital club’s inability to rid themselves of a big-name forward gives Unai Emery an issue. Assuming Paris Saint-Germain retain their 4-3-3 set-up, Mbappé will have Javier Pastore, Julian Draxler, Lucas Moura, Edinson Cavani, Ángel Di María and, of course, Neymar to compete with for three places in the starting XI. Managing such an array of talents could prove troublesome especially as, should they all be available, then one of the four of the seven who miss out on the XI might not even make the bench. Attempts were made by PSG to move along at least one of their now congested forward line. Pastore, Lucas and Draxler were all offered individually to Monaco as part of the Mbappé deal and all were flatly declined. Di María and Lucas were reportedly offered to Tottenham; Di María was also subject to unsuccessful advances from Barcelona; while Draxler was supposedly told he could find another club, having signed as recently as January. Although this was later refuted, Liverpool and Arsenal were strongly linked. In the end, 21-year-old Portuguese striker Gonçalo Guedes, himself signed in January from Benfica for €25m, joined Valencia on loan. This is, of course, not to mention Hatem Ben Arfa, who failed to finalise a move away despite being effectively banished by Emery, and Jesé, who resurfaced in Stoke. Although the situation could be eased by deploying Pastore in central midfield or moving to a 4-2-3-1 formation, whether this bottleneck will breed competition or sow discontent is unclear. How Emery handles the consequences could be crucial to his team’s success come May.

• Although the attention during closing hours of the transfer window was understandably focused on Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, a number of intriguing moves were made beyond the big two. Rémy Cabella’s lacklustre spell at Marseille came to an end as he joined St Étienne on loan. The club has been quietly productive under new boss Oscar Garcia but their midfield remains workmanlike, little change from previous coach Christophe Galtier’s reign. However, the addition of Cabella will finally add some guile and vision, perhaps even providing the catalyst they need to make a genuine charge for the top six. Meanwhile, Nicolas De Preville’s move from Lille to Bordeaux is one of the more eye-catching transfers of the summer. Striker De Preville rose to prominence at Stade de Reims before they were relegated in 2016, swiftly outgrowing the historic club before making the move to Lille. Injuries curtailed his run in a poor Lille side last season but he still managed 14 league goals. His waspish style and ability to affect the game from both flanks will fill a sizeable hole in Jocelyn Gourvannec’s side as Gaëtan Laborde continues to misfire. De Preville paired with breakout Brazilian winger Malcom and the jinking Francois Kamano in support could be one of Ligue 1’s most devastating and illusive forward lines in 2017-18. Alongside De Preville and Cabella, whether or not Aymen Abdennour’s two-year loan move to Marseille can help solidify a creaking back line, if Wahbi Khazri can recapture his Bordeaux form after an ill-fated spell at Sunderland or will Gianneli Imbula prove his career can be rescued at Toulouse are all threads to follow for the season to come.

(The Guardian)

Arsenal’s Continuing Malaise at the Heart of Operations

Arséne Wenger and the Arsenal bench feel the strain at Anfield.

If Brian Clough was displeased with a performance, his players knew about it.

There was an occasion at half-time during a Nottingham Forest match when, unhappy with a couple of failed stepovers and a cross that went behind the goal, he punched the culprit, Nigel Jemson, in the stomach.

Understandably enough, that’s not going to happen in an Arsenal dressing room when Arsène Wenger confronts his players in the middle of another catastrophic display. The trouble is that nothing is going to happen.

During Alex Ferguson’s quarter-century at Old Trafford, Manchester United very seldom crumbled in the way that has become all too familiar to Arsenal’s fans. When United looked as if they might be in danger of a meltdown, Ferguson would do something. Anything.

Like the day in the spring of 1996 when, on the way to their third title under Fergie, they went to Southampton and found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. What the manager did next went down in legend. During the interval, he made them change their kit.

The grey away strip, he said, was making it impossible for them to pick each other out with their passes. So he sent them out for the second half in their alternative away kit, blue and white. That didn’t save the match, but they did win the second half 1-0 with a goal from Ryan Giggs to salvage a scrap of self-respect.

Almost a decade later Lee Sharpe told this newspaper that the grey strip hadn’t made any difference. They had been able to see each other perfectly well. But Ferguson showed that he was not going to accept the first-half performance without doing something to change it. Anything.

All Wenger does in such a situation is lean forward in his padded chair, rub his face and look distraught. The Sky Sports cameras close in on him, waiting for some telltale gesture of distraction, something either embarrassing or potentially symbolic, or both, like the habitual fumbling with the zips on his quilted jackets.

They don’t see him change anything, not even the players’ kit. That’s because he never does, beyond a handful of substitutions late in the game. And so a half-time score of 3-1 will turn inexorably into an 8-2, as it did six years ago this week at Old Trafford. A 2-1 at the Etihad will become a 6-3, as it did in 2013. A 4-0 will become a 6-0, as it did in his 1,000th match in charge of the club at Stamford Bridge in March 2014.

They don’t see him talking to the man sitting next to him – Steve Bould, his assistant – because he never does, at least in public. Bould’s stone face might disguise a desire to initiate a conversation about the way things are going, but Wenger’s own expression does not appear to encourage debate.

After the 4-0 pasting at Anfield on Sunday, it was seemingly left to Petr Cech, the goalkeeper, to raise his voice in the dressing room. Ever since sanctioning Gilberto Silva’s premature departure in the summer of 2008, Wenger has been asked time again why his side has no leaders on the pitch of the kind who, when the going is tough, know how to direct, motivate and inspire their colleagues.

It’s a question to which he has perfected a dead-bat answer, and three FA Cup successes in the past four years have just about provided him with the evidence that, in a one-off match, today’s Arsenal can still get their hands on a trophy. But in terms of achieving competitive consistency, he has no answer at all.

Gilberto Silva was the club’s last central midfield player worthy of the name. Wenger’s best midfielders of the last decade – Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla – have been inside forwards or playmakers. The number of failures in the crucial defensive-midfield role since the Brazilian’s departure must now be approaching double figures, with Granit Xhaka the latest.

Abou Diaby was never fit and Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin were not good enough. Lassana Diarra and Alex Song certainly were good enough – good enough, anyway, to play 87 La Liga games for Real Madrid and 39 for Barcelona respectively in that position after Wenger had let them go.

He had two chances to sign N’Golo Kanté and missed both of them. In other positions there have been a string of disasters. Who knows what he saw in Sébastien Squillaci, Yaya Sanogo or Shkodran Mustafi?

In the last decade he has failed to help so many of his young British players realise their potential that the departure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Liverpool now looks like a test case. If, under Jürgen Klopp, the player succeeds in fulfilling the huge promise he showed as a teenager, the verdict will be obvious.

Then there are the Frenchmen. Right from the beginning, when Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry swept all before them, Wenger has tended to favour signing his compatriots. He is still at it, except that now he tends to sign the wrong ones. He acquired Alexandre Lacazette in July for what could turn out to be £53m but put him among the substitutes on Sunday because, apparently, he is still trying to adapt to the Premier League.

Perhaps Lacazette will turn out to be the real thing – although if he is, shouldn’t it have been a case of the Liverpool defence trying to adapt to him?

But it’s the heart of the team, in the hole that Kanté would have filled, where Arsenal’s problems loom largest. The day before their collapse at Anfield, Sam Clucas made his debut for Swansea City, following a £16.5m transfer from Hull City, and won universal applause for his role as the team’s defensive midfield player in the win at Selhurst Park.

Clucas is 27. Released by Leicester City’s academy at 16, he played a season for Nettleham in the Central Midlands league while studying for a sports degree before moving on via Lincoln City. He played for Jerez Industrial while spending a fruitful 18 months with Glenn Hoddle’s academy for rejected young pros in Spain, then Hereford United, Mansfield Town and Chesterfield.

Not a CV, one imagines, that would attract Wenger’s interest. Afterwards Clucas spoke on Match of the Day of how he had been attracted to the idea of working not just with Paul Clement, Swansea’s head coach, but also Claude Makelele, Clement’s assistant.

“He played in my position,” Clucas said – a bit of an understatement, since some would say Makelele invented it – “so you’re working with the best.”

Which member of the current Arsenal squad could put his hand on his heart and say that?

(The Guardian)