Why Curiosity was Never Going to Kill Arsenal’s Mesut Özil

Ozil

London – You’d have to try pretty hard not to like Paul Merson as a TV pundit. Even if you insisted on making a public show of not liking him – rolling your eyes, clutching a scented handkerchief, pointing out, pedantically, that he often talks a load of rubbish – it would be hard to avoid secretly liking him all the same.

Maybe not in the same way you might like Ian Wright, who has in the past few years taken a breath, realized he can just say whatever is on his mind and become in the process the best football pundit out there.

This is not as easy as it looks. Martin Keown, for example, also seems to know his stuff and has good opinions, but still talks about football like a man delivering a terse, menacing funeral elegy for his recently deceased border collie. Michael Owen is good these days but in an oddly resentful way, with an on-screen manner that suggests he’s been taken hostage in a brightly lit bunker by unseen kidnappers and is now buying time by sitting on a sofa speaking in a guarded voice about link-up play and instant finishes while a police sniper unit maneuvers into position just out of his eyeline.

Merson is the opposite of this. At times he seems to have forgotten he is actually on television and is just sitting with some other people talking about Harry Kane for ages while a man in a suit keeps trying to change the subject. But he is always watchable and passionate, and often very persuasive. As he was this week while being right, for the wrong reasons, about Mesut Özil.

Merse has had enough of Özil. “He doesn’t work hard enough for the team,” is the latest variation on the doesn’t-run-enough strand of objections that have followed Özil around the Premier League. But it is impossible to argue with the natural conclusion. Özil is available to play now and may well shimmy back in with a goal or two, or an impudently brilliant assist against Watford on Saturday. But Arsène Wenger really does have to try to sell him in January. The idea of this Arsenal team as some high-grade Özil-centered machine has flickered at times. But that ship has sailed. This is over. It’s done.

Next week it will be the six-month anniversary of Özil’s last Arsenal goal. Since December 2016 he has contributed one – one! – assist away from the Emirates Stadium. The team play better without him in it. He has already earned £30m in his time at the club. There is nothing here to justify an astronomically improved contract. The Age of Özil is over, a fascinating footnote in the wider history of why apparently well-suited player moves sometimes just don’t work out.

This is the real point. Never mind debating the exact nature of Özil’s undoubted qualities. It is more interesting to understand why he has tailed off at Arsenal. English football has always loved calling people lazy or weak. The idea that your Özils are not native enough in style, lacking the basic fiber and guts to succeed in the world’s most energetic league is clearly quite appealing.

Whereas in this case the opposite is true. Firstly, as has been frequently pointed out, Özil does run quite a lot. Last year he covered more ground per game in the Champions League than any other player with as many goals to their name.

Secondly, like it or not, Özil’s significant failings are strikingly English in nature. What has happened at Arsenal is that he has failed to develop, has failed to add any further gears to his game. Football has changed a lot in four years. But Özil is basically the same player with the same skills, the same needs, the same strengths and flaws. This is a kind of laziness. But it’s not to do with running or energy expended on the pitch; more a familiar, and very native lack of curiosity, a complacency, a failure to learn.

And please, we know the excuses by now. I’ve set them out myself in the past, mainly because Özil is just such a seductively pleasing talent, a player who in the right team and the right mood makes everything look like a kind of dance, pirouetting in search of space, gliding the ball between a series of points with such ease you half expect to look down and notice he’s wearing flip-flops or holding a sandwich.

We’ve all heard the one about needing special privileges too, the idea Özil’s work is so finely graded as to be almost invisible to the uncultured eye, like the most delicate component of some purringly over-engineered luxury car.

The problem here is that club football has moved on. Often Özil’s best moments rely on his team having enough possession for long enough periods, as Real Madrid and Arsenal may have in the recent past and Germany still do. But opponents are less stretched by these tactics now, are less likely to find themselves pulled out of shape while Özil, or similar, wheels himself into place for the killer incision. His pure style has dated, just as Arsenal’s switch to playing a little more without the ball has hardly helped.

The proof is in the success of similar players with greater range. Kevin De Bruyne is the obvious counterpoint, a player who can also pass brilliantly, who has many of the same functions, but who has learned and adapted at a thrilling speed. De Bruyne can now do pretty much anything – central midfield, No10, manage the counterattack. He will find a way to affect the game. Similarly Christian Eriksen has improved in his own four years in England, and not only in the things he already did well. Meanwhile, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase, Özil hasn’t played 166 games for Arsenal, he’s played the same game 166 times.

Perhaps he will come again. He isn’t alone in failing to progress his career under Wenger. He often plays really well for Germany. For now it is hard to avoid the feeling of fate closing in. There was a genuine shiver of excitement when Özil signed for Arsenal. He was meant to announce and define an era, the embodiment of late Wenger-ism. And so it has come to pass. This has been the age of Özil. Just not in the way Arsenal will have hoped, more as an emblem of princely stasis, and of a paradoxically English refusal to adapt and learn.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea Handed Major Chance to Make up Lost Ground in Gentler October

Chelsea

London – Most of the Premier League attention will be on Anfield and the north-west derby on Saturday, even if Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season means Jürgen Klopp’s side already have seven points to make up on Manchester United. For different reasons that will probably suit Crystal Palace and Chelsea, who meet at Selhurst Park in one of the lesser London derbies.

Roy Hodgson said his struggling Palace side were like a boxer on the ropes after their last outing at Old Trafford, trying to fight in a class above their weight and taking too many blows to the chin. Just what you need in those circumstances is a visit from the defending champions, though the only sliver of good news for Hodgson and his stricken side – apart from Wilfried Zaha nearing a return – is that Saturday’s game is the last of a daunting run of fixtures. Palace take on Chelsea after two successive trips to Manchester, where City and then United hit them with a total of nine goals to no reply.

Normality resumes a week after Chelsea, in the form of a trip to Newcastle. Not exactly a doddle, but that’s the Premier League for you. After three Champions League sides in a row, Palace just have to be grateful for opponents more familiar with the Championship.

Hodgson is right in saying his side will not have to face top-four teams every week, though the awkward truth is that they have not been doing so. Admittedly mostly before he arrived, Palace were also beaten and held scoreless by such Premier League powerhouses as Southampton, Burnley, Swansea and Huddersfield. As Burnley are now sixth as a result of picking up points against some of the stronger sides around, it seems the Palace chairman, Steve Parish, blundered in not recruiting Sean Dyche in summer when he appeared to have the chance.

It remains to be seen whether Hodgson can turn Palace around in time to secure survival but no one is kidding themselves that the season will not be one long relegation battle after the most unpromising of starts. Should Hodgson succeed from here he will deserve even more credit than Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce for Palace’s latest astounding feat of escapology.

With each side having played seven games, this is the stage of the season when most of the zeros have disappeared from the Premier League table. Most of the way down there are only two that remain – no defeats yet for either Manchester City or Manchester United – but then you reach the bottom line and Palace have four of their own. No wins, no draws, no goals and no points. Hodgson’s side have twice as many zeros to their name as the rest of the division put together and, depending on what mood Chelsea are in, the situation may not have significantly altered by Saturday night.

Chelsea’s mood will not be improved by defeat in their last match against Manchester City, or by the hamstring injury Álvaro Morato picked up that is likely keep him on the sidelines for another week, though on the other hand the news from Belgium appears to be that Eden Hazard is fully recovered.

Chelsea never seem to kick on from winning the title; not since José Mourinho’s first couple of years in England has one successful season been followed by another. They managed to sack both Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho the season after their next two titles and it was hardly a surprise to hear Antonio Conte yearning for a return to his native Italy so soon after delivering the latest.

Given Chelsea’s record no one could blame him for fearing the worst, although that wily old fox Claudio Ranieri probably read the situation most accurately when suggesting Conte was simply disappointed with the club’s summer transfer business and apprehensive about what was turning into an uneven financial contest with the two Manchester clubs. Romelu Lukaku, in other words. Or perhaps, come January, Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez.

Yet before writing Chelsea off as also-rans it might be as well to remember that this time last year they were not doing particularly well either. They had just been thumped 3-0 by Arsenal and Conte was so dismayed he decided to change his system. They came back after the international break with three at the back and wing-backs, handed out a 3-0 thumping of their own to the defending champions, Leicester City, and never looked back.

It is already clear that Chelsea miss Diego Costa’s aggressive input up front, although Morata when fit has shown plenty of promise, though it is equally evident that Lukaku is working for United in a way that Conte must have hoped he would at Stamford Bridge. Especially bearing in mind that Conte probably thought Lukaku was coming as a replacement when ill-advisedly alienating Costa.

Again, it may be best not to form too hasty a judgment. While Lukaku at present leads the Premier League goalscorers’ table, United have not had the most demanding of starts to the league season. On Saturday at Liverpool they will be facing a side from the top half of the table for the first time. Chelsea, in contrast, have already come up against Arsenal, City and Spurs. Among the criticisms leveled at Lukaku after his move for an initial £75m from Everton, in addition to the legitimate concerns that his first touch is unreliable and his proportion of missed chances high, was that he does not always perform against top opposition. The cricketing expression would be flat-track bully, for Lukaku’s record suggests he picks up a lot of his goals against lesser teams and does not show up so well in games against title contenders.

The same could be said of Everton, of course, who did not always provide Lukaku with a platform to score against leading sides, so now he is at United he should have a better chance to answer his critics. Beginning this month, for in addition to Liverpool on Saturday United will meet Tottenham before the end of October. Spurs themselves face Liverpool and United in their next three games, meaning Liverpool have United and Spurs in the same period.

If Lukaku can keep up his scoring sequence through October he will go a long way to proving his worth. Conte will probably end up even more disappointed should that happen, though on paper there is no reason why Chelsea too should not have another productive October. While teams above and around them are playing each other, Chelsea’s next three games involve Palace, Watford and Bournemouth.

While it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are no easy games in the Premier League, it perhaps might be admitted that some runs of fixtures are slightly gentler than others, and Palace, Watford and Bournemouth certainly sounds a gentler October than the month facing United, Spurs and Liverpool. As ever, Champions League exertions can easily upset domestic calculations, though at least Chelsea’s game against Roma is at home, as is their Carabao Cup tie against Everton.

October, in short, could put the smile back on Conte’s face. Chelsea will know it is time to worry if he is still dropping hints about returning home come the end of the month.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special

Arsenal

London – The almost total lack of regard in which broadcasters hold football fans is no secret, so it should have come as no surprise to learn Sky Sports is proposing to reschedule Arsenal’s home match against Liverpool for Christmas Eve in what the Football Supporters’ Federation has described as “a new low point in putting the interests of football broadcasters over those of match-going fans”. And yet somehow it did come as a surprise. Even by the notoriously cut-throat standards of TV networks scrambling for subscriptions, this seems unnecessarily grasping.

With an already hectic festive grind looming, footballers would almost certainly rather not play on Christmas Eve. Fans, some with other commitments and others faced with the return journey to and from London from Liverpool on what is a chaotic day for transport, would almost certainly rather not travel on Christmas Eve.

Matchday staff earning not much more than minimum wage for their shifts would almost certainly rather not work on Christmas Eve. On a day that vast swaths of the British population set aside for last-minute trolley dashes, family reunions, festive roistering and all the domestic disquiet that entails, we could almost certainly do without the added distraction of Premier League football on television. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not, despite the fact almost everyone involved apart from the broadcasting company that paid £11m for British TV rights for the match appears to agree it is a ridiculous idea. Even before a final decision has been made, both football clubs involved have complained, as have their supporters.

But while Sky Sports has not yet publicly acknowledged any of these gripes, early indications suggest it is likely to respond to this almost unanimous groundswell of disapproval by – yes, you’ve guessed it – scheduling a second Premier League match for the same day and transforming Christmas Eve into a Super Sleigh Bell Sunday featuring two games instead of the more traditional and generally accepted none.

A spokeswoman for Sky said she was not in a position to comment given the fixtures for December have not been selected but that an announcement will be made in the next fortnight. “Twice in recent years [2011 and 2016] Christmas Eve has fallen on a Saturday,” says the FSF. “In both those years the Premier League has not scheduled any fixtures for that day, presumably in recognition of the significance of the date. For broadcasters now to move fixtures to Christmas Eve, and on a Sunday at that, flies in the face of that policy.”

On Monday, it emerged the second match being mooted for rescheduling to Christmas Eve is West Ham v Newcastle, which would almost certainly occupy the 1.30pm TV slot and mean a round trip of 560 miles for traveling Geordies, who, unlike Father Christmas, do not have the luxury of airborne sleighs drawn by reindeer to speed them home.

Expect more entirely justified disquiet from a set of supporters whose location means they are already treated particularly contemptuously by TV schedulers.

The clubs, despite their predictable carping, can have no complaints as they are lying in a cash-strewn bed of their own making. When Sky and BT Sport paid a combined £5.136bn for the UK TV rights of the Premier League in the famously lucrative carve-up of February 2015, it was the former network that paid the lion’s share of the money, £4.176bn, to win the vast majority of the TV slots available. Two of those are on Sunday afternoons, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 4pm, windows dictated at the time by clubs mindful of potential viewing audiences and hoping to rinse the maximum revenue possible out of the bidders.

Much to their delight the money duly arrived but in the ensuing contract negotiations the clubs either did not bother, did not want to, or perhaps just never thought to insist on clauses precluding Sky or BT Sport from rescheduling matches that would quite clearly inconvenience fans traveling long distances at great expense.

Evidently they also failed to reckon on Christmas Eve 2017 falling on a Sunday and the potential problems that might cause. Sky has two slots to play with on Christmas Eve Sunday. One can be moved to the previous Friday night, but this would still leave one Sunday slot vacant.

Should Sky decide to keep match-going fans and the FSF happy by not broadcasting Arsenal v Liverpool or any other match on Christmas Eve, it would to all intents and purposes be throwing away the £11m it paid for the right to do so. Even at a time of goodwill to all men, this course of action is one it would be understandably reluctant to take.

This could easily have been avoided. As equal shareholders in the Premier League, along with the 18 other clubs who comprised English football’s top flight at the time the deal with Sky and BT was struck, there was nothing to stop Arsenal, Liverpool or the other shareholders preempting such a scenario and colluding to ensure it never came to pass. They did not and, as usual, it is their fans who will suffer the most.

“Spirit Of Shankly have been made aware that Liverpool’s away fixture against Arsenal, scheduled for 23 December, is being considered for a move to Christmas Eve,” said a Liverpool’s supporters’ group, which pointed out the impact such a switch would have. “SOS are contacting relevant personnel to put forward our case that it is completely unacceptable to expect fans to travel for a match at this time. The suggestion of such a change again shows zero regard for supporters – much like the corresponding fixture where Euston station was closed over bank holiday weekend.”

The FSF has declared it will continue to work in conjunction with supporters’ groups to engage with the Premier League and broadcasters “to register our discontent and to seek full involvement and consultation with supporters in determining future scheduling”.

Good luck to them but history suggests their hopes of being paid anything other than lip service would constitute a Christmas miracle.

The Guardian Sport

Jack Wilshere Keen to Stay at Arsenal after Return to First-Team Fold

Wilshere

London – Jack Wilshere looks like a player determined to grasp every moment of football he is offered this season, and his mini renaissance since returning to fitness and the fold at Arsenal has made him want to commit to the club for the long term. Wilshere’s contract expires at the end of this season and given his injury history he is doing everything in his power to ensure he prolongs a connection that dates back to boyhood.

“Do I see myself staying? Of course I do,” he said. “I have always been at Arsenal, I love this club. They have been good to me over the years, I have a great relationship with the boss. He has played me since I was 17. He has put his trust in me since then. We have a great understanding and of course I want to stay.”

Past experience ought to have taught Wilshere to be cautious about what the future holds but his desire to play and enjoy football is so strong he walked off the pitch after an impressive 90 minutes against Bate Borisov in the Europa League on Thursday and could not resist saying: “I definitely feel I’m back.”

Wilshere’s positive vibes outweigh any wariness about how much football and how many performances are needed to convince others that this latest comeback has staying power. There were moments – imaginative touches and brilliant passes – that were classy reminders of his capabilities. Of that Arsène Wenger has no doubt. The midfielder’s capacity to produce his best over a season is less clear.

“You are always playing for your future but at the moment I am happy to be back, to feel part of the squad. It has been a while,” added Wilshere. “Last year I was at Bournemouth, year before I was injured. It has been a while since I felt a proper Arsenal player but I am back, in training, back in the squad, playing these types of games. I am doing everything I can to stay fit, training well, we will see. I am not looking too far ahead. We have another game Sunday, more League Cup and Europa League, so I am happy.”

He acknowledged that football critics have short memories and that being written off comes with the territory. “That is part and parcel of football. Football is a game where people forget. Everyone says ‘you are never fit’ but last season I was fit for the whole season. It was only in April that I got an impact injury. That was unfortunate timing but throughout my rehab it went well.

“People say it’s a long road but it was four months and I have had longer than that before. I felt good coming back to Arsenal and into training and the boss has been good. He has been speaking to me, been patient and I feel good and enjoy working with these top players again.”

Wilshere confessed that the night before the game in Borisov he was in the hotel and could not remember when he had last played a European away game for Arsenal. In fact, the answer was at Anderlecht in the Champions League in October 2014. Fellow team-mates that day were Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. It must feel like an age ago.

Wilshere has not yet worked his way into contention to start in the Premier League but if he keeps up his current progression that should not be too far away. Arsenal do not possess too many midfielders blessed with the vision he uses so instinctively.

“As a player you want to be in every game, especially when you have been injured, but at the same time I understand they have been winning and playing well,” he said. “Am I 100 percent back? Maybe not. I felt good in the first half and start of the second and then fitness-wise it started to go a bit towards the end. But that is normal. It will come and I am patient at the moment and we will see where I am in three or four weeks.”

Wilshere enjoyed the challenge of playing in a tweaked position in Belarus, pushed further forward as part of the attacking trio alongside Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud.

“I was playing a different position, coming off the line to link with Theo and Olivier and especially in the first half it worked really well. I wasn’t playing as an out and out 10, I was on the wing and the boss told me to come into the pocket and pick it up.”

The 25-year-old was instrumental in helping Arsenal beat Borisov 4-2 and hopes that he can go from strength to strength. There is a lot to pin hopes on – a new contract and the prospect of a World Cup at the end of the season – but for now he is taking baby steps. He has stopped even looking out for the England squad.

“I am getting back to full fitness and of course I want to be part of that. I have only played two 90s in four or five months. When I am fit and playing in the Premier League, we will see.”

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate Must Give Freedom a Chance after Numbing England Spectacle

England

London – Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely grueling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.

England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s goal but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle for those loyal supporters still willing to drag themselves out on a Thursday night to enter the vast money-rinsing concrete cauldron of the Wembley entertainment complex.

Victory may have sealed qualification, but it also deflated further any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should be of great concern to the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 for the pleasure of throwing paper airplanes at the pitch, which brought the loudest cheers of the night right up until Kane’s finish in stoppage time.

At the end England’s players gathered in the center circle and wandered around applauding the empty red plastic seats and the backs of people queuing to leave while the PA burbled gamely about the prestige friendlies to come. As an image of England football 2017, and the slow, gilded death for what was once football’s most compelling theater, it is probably quite hard to beat.

England were at least terrible in a grimly fascinating way. Gone are the days when a poor England team sent it long, seeking out the head of some game forward battering ram. Here they were terrible in the new style, passing to each other but setting out with two lumbering central midfield wardrobes shielding a defense threatened only by its own misplaced passes. In the opening hour they produced a performance so lacking in purpose and precision it was like watching a piece of performance art, a 45-minute Warhol-style short film called Wembley Angst No94.

England did improve after the hour mark but by then they had a lot of ground to make up from a standing start as the game congealed early on into another game just like the other games. Jordan Henderson had the ball quite a lot, worrying about from side to side, always looking back into the yonic safety of his defense. Midway through the half England produced a stunningly terrible free-kick routine, working the ball very slowly backwards and finally teeing it up for Henderson to perform a spectacular falling-over air-kick on the edge of the area. Grimly, Slovenia cleared.

Only Marcus Rashford seemed really interested in trying to run forward quickly. Raheem Sterling ran quite a lot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And that was pretty much that for the most soft-pedaled minor chord moment of qualification imaginable, given a spark of life at the death by Kane’s opportunism.

What now then? One thing is clear. England does not expect. It has been more than a decade since the national team had the luxury of traveling in a state of doomed optimism, the mood ever more stricken since that golden, foolish summer of 2006 when the world was still young, when Crouchie did the robot with Prince William, and when the idea of some grand Premier League talent-legacy waiting to be spent died for good on the fields of Stuttgart, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen.

The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. This has been a deathly qualification, with only 16 goals scored and a feeling of having spent endless hours watching England’s furrowed and fearful back five play a variety of keep-ball.

From here it seems absolutely clear Southgate needs to take a chance, to chuck out the Dan Ashworth handbook of mind-bogglingly dull and outmoded possession football, to accept that playing with adventure, life, pace, and risky attacking vim might revive not just the dwindling England brand but his own managerial career.

In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round under-card split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous 15st taxi drivers, the craft-free double defensive midfield bolt the managerial equivalent of tucking both your shirt and your vest into your underpants.

What is the point of playing this way? From here to next summer every moment of Southgate’s time should be devoted to trying to wring the most out of what he does have, a spritz of genuine forward talent in Kane, Dele Alli and Rashford. He needs a midfielder who can pass. And he needs to trust his defense to carry the ball forward.

Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.

There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When the away fans in Malta last month sang against their team, they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow. Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. For now England will travel with hope, as ever. But not much of it.

The Guardian Sport

England Reach the World Cup again – Can they do Better this Time?

England

London – England have qualified for the tournament in Russia and are so far unbeaten in their group but that does not guarantee they will have a successful tournament. Here we chart how they have got on after winning in 1966

Mexico 1970
England qualified as holders and finished second in their group, behind Brazil, the eventual winners. That meant a quarter‑final against West Germany. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side led 2-0 before losing 3-2, with Gerd Müller’s goal ending England’s hopes of retaining the Jules Rimet trophy.

West Germany 1974
For the first time since England entered the qualification process, in 1950, they failed to reach the finals. They had to beat Poland in a Wembley qualifier in October 1973 but despite taking 36 shots, forcing 26 corners, hitting the woodwork twice and having four efforts cleared off the line, they simply could not find a way past the Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, who was infamously dubbed a “clown” by Brian Clough at half-time.

Argentina 1978
England may have had a different manager in Ron Greenwood but for the second time in succession they failed to reach the finals. It came down to goal difference, with the Italians booking their ticket thanks to their 6-1 defeat of Finland.

Spain 1982
England required victory against Hungary at Wembley in November 1981 to reach their first World Cup in 12 years and managed it thanks to a slightly clumsy Paul Mariner goal. At the tournament they started well with a 3-1 victory against France. A goalless draw with West Germany meant Greenwood’s men had to beat the hosts to advance to the semi-finals. They drew 0-0.

Mexico 1986
Bobby Robson’s side qualified with relative ease, topping their group thanks to an undefeated record of four wins and four draws. In Mexico, Gary Lineker’s six goals guided England to the quarter‑finals, where they were undone by Diego Maradona through fair means and foul.

Italy 1990
Robson led England to a second successive World Cup finals after they finished second in their qualifying group. At the tournament, a Paul Gascoigne-inspired side reached the semi-finals and came home as heroes.

USA 1994
Graham Taylor’s one and only qualifying campaign as manager was a disaster. They were pipped to the two qualifying places by Norway and Holland and Taylor, who died earlier this year, became a figure of ridicule and humiliation.

France 1998
A defeat against Italy at Wembley was the only stain on a near‑perfect run in the qualifiers for Glenn Hoddle’s side, with a goalless draw against the same opponents in Rome sealing England’s place at the finals. There they faced Argentina in the last 16 and lost on penalties following a match including Michael Owen’s stunning goal and David Beckham’s needless sending off.

South Korea and Japan, 2002
David Beckham’s dramatic free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford sent Sven Goran-Eriksson’s side to a tournament where they got revenge over Argentina before eventually being knocked out by Brazil, via Ronaldinho’s free‑kick, in the quarter-finals.

Germany 2006
The “Golden Generation” secured their place by finishing top of their qualifying group. At the tournament, they flattered to deceive, eventually exiting via a quarter-final defeat, on penalties, to Portugal.

South Africa 2010
Fabio Capello side qualified with ease, winning nine and losing one of their group games. If only their performances in South Africa were as convincing – England stumbled into the knockout stages where they were thumped 4-1 by Germany.

Brazil 2014
Yet again England impressed in qualifying, going through their group undefeated. But, again, they were terrible at the tournament, failing to progress to the knockout stages after losing against Italy and Uruguay and drawing with Costa Rica.

The Guardian Sport

How England Can Find World Cup Spark and Repair Disconnect with Fans

Southgate

London – The sense of anticlimax was inescapable. Gareth Southgate had spent his evening on the touchline dodging paper airplanes, tedium-induced origami, and blocking out occasional spasms of booing from the home support, and was left to plead for patience after the match. It matters not that plenty of nations would love to be in England’s position. Argentina are in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970 after drawing with Peru in Buenos Aires. Holland are third in their group and in peril, while even the European champions, Portugal, are facing up to the likelihood of a play-off. The same fate almost certainly awaits Italy. England, in contrast, have emerged unbeaten through another qualification campaign and yet the mood was almost apologetic.

Southgate, asked if he was enjoying himself a year into his tenure, mustered a rueful smile. “Well, weirdly, I am,” he said. “Although I’m not certain I’m standing here thinking: ‘Wow, isn’t it brilliant to have qualified for a World Cup,’ feeling all the love. But I get it, I get it. I go back to the first objective being to qualify, and we have done that. Now we look at how we build, evolve and improve. In international football you don’t have a chequebook of hundreds of millions of pounds to spend. So we have to coach and work to improve people and the team, and that is the great challenge. I get how people are feeling about us at the moment but I also believe in the potential of these players. I want to build a team that the country are proud of.” Now Southgate has Sunday’s qualifier in Lithuania and, at best, four friendly fixtures before he must select a squad for the tournament in Russia. So what areas must England address most urgently if they are to repair the disconnect between team and support?

Conjure some kind of creativity in central midfield

Adam Lallana should have played again for Liverpool by the time England confront Brazil and Germany, Fifa’s top-ranked sides, in friendlies next month and will be reintegrated immediately at international level, but he will find his reputation has soared in absentia. England’s shortcomings are felt most keenly in a lack of creation. Everything was a plod on Thursday, as it has been so often in a qualification campaign littered with slow starts, with the shepherding of the ball as labored as the movement of the players when confronted by massed defense. Oh for a bit of zest, some incision, a burst of quality in the pass. Lallana’s forte is his movement, and his front-foot urgency and aggression in the pass will make a difference. Southgate must wish Jack Wilshere had not slipped so far down the pecking order at Arsenal, for all that he cannot rule out the 25-year-old still making a late case for involvement. “We’re in a position where there’s no way we would dismiss any creative player,” he said. “But, of course, people have to be playing at a good level.”But where are the other options? Has, say, Harry Winks done enough to suggest he can be the answer? Is there anyone else out there? Southgate believes there are players in the system who will go on to impress at the highest level, but they are 18 months to two years away from being ready. So, if the personnel are out of reach, a system of play must be employed that taps better into what qualities the current collective do possess.

Is there scope to explore a back three again?

Arguably England’s most persuasive performance under Southgate’s stewardship was the narrow, and unfortunate, defeat by Germany in March when the manager experimented with a back three with some success. Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane started in Dortmund behind a pair of midfield anchors, and with the energetic Dele Alli and Lallana supporting Jamie Vardy. There was width and pace from full-back and proper bite on the counterattack. It was a tactic to which the team resorted in the latter stages against Slovenia on Thursday when the visitors went for broke, and it may be an approach that ekes the best from this group against more fancied, enterprising opponents at the finals. England will surely be more of a threat on the break against better teams than they are when asked to break down opponents. Germany and Brazil will test that theory.

Pray English players benefit from involvement in the Champions League latter stages

Southgate was at pains to point to this group’s lack of experience – “they’re young players and most of them have never been to a World Cup so this is a big moment in their careers”– and acknowledged they will find themselves in the company of sides laced with Champions League and league championship winners. That rather overlooked the reality that, in Cahill and Ryan Bertrand, he has two European Cup winners, not to mention players who have claimed the Premier League with Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. But he was right in hoping the likes of Marcus Rashford and Alli, Kyle Walker and John Stones, sharpen their skills in the Champions League this season and thrive at that level. “The younger lads are playing more big games in the Champions League and, if they get to the latter stages and maybe the finals, all these big-pressure games will help this squad,” said Cahill. “We’ve held our own against the likes of Spain and Germany but to have the knack to go on and win those games … that’s something we can learn. To kill teams off when we’re playing well. That’s the gap.” Game management in highly pressurized occasions is something that has to be learned. The more familiar this group’s key players become with tense elite contests, the more likely England are to make an impact in Russia.

So, if we acknowledge we cannot be like Spain, can we be like Iceland?

“Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months?” asked Southgate on Thursday night. “No, we’re not.” But, if we can accept England’s options are not going to blossom unexpectedly, can we not at least aspire to be like Iceland at the World Cup? Not necessarily in style, but in structure, playing to a distinct and clear plan that brings the best out of those available? Iceland’s strength at Euro 2016 was an unswerving belief in their approach and an ability to implement a relatively simple gameplan. The approach only took them so far, of course, and they were found out by France. But, by then, they had seen off England and reached a quarter-final. Southgate would thrill at the prospect of doing likewise in the context of recent tournament traumas. Yet another troubling aspect of England’s qualification is that, for all the talk of progress, on the pitch a clear plan and thought process have not always been evident. The management team feel a plan is being implemented. They believe they are drumming it into the players at every get-together. Yet it is not always easy to notice from the outside looking in. If the supporters can identify what the team are trying to achieve, maybe the skepticism will recede.

The Guardian Sport

Syrian Refugee Suspected of Links to London Subway Attack

London

London – The second suspect in the failed London subway attack has been identified as a Syrian refugee, British media leaks.

In a telephone call to Scotland Yard, the police refused to disclose to Asharq Al-Awsat the identity of the suspect, who was arrested on Sunday.

“The personal information of a suspect cannot be disclosed as long as charges are not filed against him,” said a Scotland Yard spokesman.

Two suspects have so far been held in the failed attack. The police expected charges to be filed against them within two days.

Through surveillance footage of the attack, British media identified the Syrian suspect as Yehya Farroukh, 21, who had sought asylum in Britain in 2014. The police raided his Surrey residence in west London where he was living after he moved out of the home of the British family that had taken him in as an asylum seeker.

The other suspect in the failed attack is an Iraqi refugee, 18, who was detained as he was attempting to leave Britain through the Dover ferry port.

Farroukh’s cousin described him as a “simple man, whose goal was to work and study.” He said that he was supporting his sisters, who are living in Egypt.

In addition, he revealed that his relative was not religious and that he loved living in England.

On Friday, an improvised bomb went off prematurely near Parsons Green subway station in London. Thirty people were wounded in the attack that was claimed by the ISIS terrorist group.

Police said that the casualty list would have been longer had the bomb not went off prematurely. They also stated that they have so far not found any evidence to indicate that the attack was linked to extremist groups.

Transfer System Isn’t Perfect but Premier League Plans Don’t Make Sense

League

London – The news that Premier League clubs are considering closing the transfer window before the season starts is not a particular surprise. Complaints from virtually everyone in the game are long-standing that transfer business dragging on alongside actual football provides too much of a distraction as rumors fly, agents scheme and players sulk.

Philippe Coutinho’s situation was the most prominent recent example: a back injury was the official reason for his unavailability for Liverpool’s first four games, not Barcelona’s looming with an enormous pile of cash.

There was already plenty to do in the first month of a season: formations to mull over, players to assess, panics to calm, the optimism of pre-season shattered or inflated. On top of this managers have to deal with constant questions about who is leaving and who is coming in, the implication being that buying players is the one true way to solve any problem a team might have.

Few had a good word to say about the state of affairs. “It would have helped us this year,” said Jürgen Klopp when asked if the window should have shut earlier. “It’s a huge mistake from Uefa,” said Pep Guardiola this summer. “I think the market should finish when we start the season. It’s too long, too large.” And back in 2015 Arsène Wenger said: “Does it bother me the window is still open? Yes, because it creates uncertainties. At the start of the season everybody should be committed, not half-in, half-out.”

The sense that the whole thing is a media construct is difficult to escape, all leading up to the “event” of deadline day as exasperated Sky Sports reporters stand in car parks, bringing the nation news of what amounts to admin being completed in the buildings behind them, presumably strongly considering the life choices that led them to this point.

Changing the parameters of the transfer window would simply bring that forward but it would at least eliminate the absurdity of those times when matches are played on August 31. This year deadline day fell in the middle of the international break, which provided even more japes.

And yet the opportunity to sign players while games are still going on can be a positive too, simply because managers can make more informed decisions on what works and what does not. We are all aware that pre-season games mean little, so why should teams make decisions they are stuck with until January based on them?

“You can look at it either way really – whether it’s glass half-full or empty,” Derby County’s manager Gary Rowett told the Guardian recently. “It would make life a lot easier if the transfer window finished the day before the season starts but I think there’s an advantage in that, if you’re three or four games in and you feel like you’re missing something, you’ve still got an opportunity to strengthen.”

It makes sense. A manager might think his team are fine throughout the summer but once they play some real games he might realize the midfield is no good or the center-forward has lost his touch or the player earmarked as a wing-back cannot handle the running. A few weeks in August with the transfer window still open might not be ideal but at least it gives teams a chance to fix things based on reliable evidence.

Additionally this change would not actually solve many problems if only Premier League clubs agree to it. Any attempt to implement this change across Europe would be a logistical impossibility, given the different times at which seasons begin. Had the English transfer window closed on August 10 this year, it would still have been open for the rest of Europe for another three weeks, meaning Coutinho would still have been looking up flights to Barcelona. At least this way, if a player makes such a scene or an offer so big arrives that a club has little alternative but to sell, they can still replace him: if Premier League clubs treat themselves as an island and end only their own window early, they could be left with the worst of all worlds.

Of course the alternative is to scrap the transfer window altogether and return to the days when moves could occur throughout the season. Panic-buying would be eliminated and Daniel Levy could spread his work over weeks rather than cramming it into one day. It is worth remembering, too, that transfer windows take away the option for poorer clubs to raise quick cash by selling a player.

But do we really want that? Would Wenger, Guardiola and Klopp really welcome the distraction of being asked in every press conference about transfers, rather than just in August and January? At least this way they – and we – can broadly concentrate on actual football between September and December, then February and May.

The way the transfer system is set up is a far from perfect. Perhaps removing transfer windows altogether would ultimately be beneficial. But Premier League clubs voting to end it early simply because it makes things less messy for them feels like a halfway house that could simply create more problems.

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