Jürgen Klopp Eases Liverpool’s Pressing Game in the Search for Solidity


Liverpool – It is not something you often have to consider but what if José Mourinho was right? What if, on Saturday, there was for once no bluff or manipulation, no attempt to provoke or deflect attention: what if the analysis he gave of Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Liverpool was straightforward and correct?

There was, of course, a passive aggressive jibe dividing the world into those who watch football for entertainment (the monsters!) and those who actually understand the game but beyond that his words seemed fairly straightforward. There was a – grudging – respect towards Jürgen Klopp for the way he had held his nerve, and perhaps that is evidence of a change in the Liverpool manager. The game never broke, Mourinho said, and so “for me the second half was a bit of chess”; this is not chess the actual game, of course, which can be played in as many ways as football, but “chess” the metaphor for something cagey.

“We came for three points but in the second half we felt it was difficult to do that with the dynamic of the match. I was waiting for Jürgen Klopp to change, waiting for him to go more attacking but he kept three strong midfielders all the time.” Klopp substituted all of his forward line but kept the three of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can in midfield; had he chosen to chase the game, he could have perhaps withdrawn one of them for a forward and pushed Philippe Coutinho deeper or into a central role in a 4-2-3-1.

That restricted United’s capacity to break, something about which Klopp was clearly delighted: he kept stressing after the game how United are “one of the best counterattacking sides in the world”, yet they threatened only once, on the one occasion when Henrikh Mkhitaryan had an impact, opening up the game for Romelu Lukaku’s one-two with Anthony Martial that led to United’s only shot on target. The Armenian’s anonymity was indicative of how well Liverpool countered United’s counters.

Whether Klopp was right, given Mourinho’s set-up, to remain so cautious is a matter of interpretation – as is the issue of whether Mourinho was right to sit so deep, given Liverpool’s recent form – but it was further evidence of a general shift in Liverpool’s play this season.

The question for Klopp at Liverpool was always going to be whether his hyperactive approach could be as effective in the Premier League in which everybody plays at a high tempo. Even towards the end in Germany, there was a suspicion that with other teams also pressing hard and high, Dortmund were diminished. It was no longer sufficient to run further or faster than other sides in the league. In addition, as teams become more used to counteracting gegenpressing, as their players become more inclined to hit long balls over the press, the tactic loses its power to shock. Klopp’s approach is no longer unique; it’s not even unusual.

Familiarity is one issue; fatigue, or rather efforts to stave it off, is another. Last season Liverpool’s form collapsed in January. This season, with the Champions League to worry about as well, the sense is that Liverpool have eased back. They are no longer pressing with the same ferocity. In Klopp’s first two seasons at Anfield, the average length of each spell of possession enjoyed by an opponent was 5.9 seconds. This season that is up to 6.5, which is lower than the league average but far from exceptional. Distance run and high-intensity sprint stats have dropped.

That, presumably, is part of a conscious plan – the fear for Liverpool is that it is a result of players losing faith in Klopp and not pushing themselves to their physical limits as a result – and given what happened in the second half of last season it makes sense. The problem is that by not engaging opponents high up the pitch, Liverpool are having to do more traditional defending in their own final third – and they are not very good at that. It would be misleading to say that the high pressing of the past two seasons masked defensive flaws, for pressing is itself a means of defense. But what is true is that by pressing less hard, Liverpool are inviting a form of pressure they are ill-equipped to resist, which is why going into the weekend they had the third-worst defensive record in the league.

On Saturday, though, that vulnerability was barely tested; United had only six touches in the Liverpool box. The nature of the game and the identity of the opponent perhaps legitimized a more cautious approach but it is hard then to avoid the conclusion that Mourinho might have tried to expose that weakness a little more rigorously. Just because his analysis was right doesn’t necessarily mean his approach was. In a game of chicken, neither manager blinked.

The Guardian Sport

Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge is Limping towards Life on the Sidelines


London – Just before Daniel Sturridge was withdrawn from proceedings on a grey northeast afternoon, he could be seen sitting on the turf clutching his left boot and looking in distress. He soon rose to his feet and headed to the bench as Roberto Firmino came on for him as one of two 74th-minute Liverpool substitutions, the striker’s expression turning to glumness as he did so. For those who follow Sturridge’s career it was a poignant moment and for the most pessimistic, further evidence that a player who once shone so brightly so often is slipping further into the darkness of a career unfulfilled.

It feels almost like a trick of the mind to remember it was only three years ago, at the climax of the 2013-14 season, that Sturridge was being spoken of as being among the most deadly finishers in Europe. It was the days of Brendan Rodgers and Luis Suárez, a doomed but thrilling title charge and, for Sturridge, 25 goals in 33 appearances. He was at his peak, ready to kick on, ready to become an Anfield legend. And then came the painful demise, literally given Sturridge’s injury record. A long and varied list, taking in more than 640 days on the sidelines since he arrived from Chelsea in January 2013, and it would not come as a surprise if that moment of distress against Newcastle was the onset of another forced absence.

That is where we are with Sturridge, and to some extent it is unfair given the player’s attempts to get himself in shape to be a potent force for Liverpool once more. He underwent hip surgery in May 2015 and, the previous Christmas, flew to Boston in order to get fit. But the knocks have taken their toll and chipped away at the player’s talents.

There have been goals – 26 in 76 appearances since the 2013-14 season – and hence excitement and intrigue at the rare start he was handed against Newcastle by Jürgen Klopp as the German looked to shake up a side that has shown a severe lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Firmino was dropped to the bench, not a major surprise given the Brazilian’s somewhat tired displays in recent weeks, and Sturridge took his place as the focal point of a three-man attack, with Sadio Mané to his left and Mohammed Salah to his right. With Philippe Coutinho also deployed in midfield it was all set up for Liverpool’s No15, who had scored seven times in seven previous outings against Newcastle, to take his chance, in more ways than one. But ultimately he failed to do so as Liverpool drew 1-1 for the second time inside a week.

Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool captain and manager turned Sky pundit, described Sturridge’s performance as “labored”, while the judgments on social media were even more damning. The post-match statistics also did Sturridge few favors – he had just one shot on target during the entirety of his time on the pitch. And it was a decent opportunity, too, with the player clean through on goal following Ciaran Clark’s horrible slice just outside Newcastle’s area on 50 minutes. The Sturridge of old would have buried it; this version hit a tame shot straight at Rob Elliot’s feet and watched on as Salah also failed to convert the rebound.

In fairness to Sturridge, he did try to impact proceedings, during the first half in particular. Facing a deep-lying and compact back four, he drifted back in order to pull defenders out of position as well as to initiate attacks. On 19 minutes he put Salah through with a well-weighted pass and shortly after it was possible to hear the traveling supporters chant his name. They clearly appreciated Sturridge’s efforts, which while lacking Firmino’s relentless pressing did involve the closing down of opponents, as seen after just two minutes when Sturridge forced Newcastle’s captain Jamaal Lascelles to clear the ball out for a throw. But Sturridge’s display deteriorated after the break and it felt symbolic that he should be replaced by Firmino – for that is what has happened to the England international on a broader level following Klopp’s arrival at Anfield two years ago. A one-time regular is now a regular back-up option.

“It’s time,” the manager said when asked before kick-off why he had decided to start Sturridge, and few could disagree with that given Liverpool went into Sunday’s encounter having scored just seven times from their previous 126 shots. A high-quality finisher was required at a time when many of Liverpool’s top-four rivals have one of their own – Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Agüero, Alvaro Morata, Harry Kane. There was a time when Sturridge could stand shoulder to shoulder with them all, but no longer. The sharpness is not there, either with his movement or his finishing, and who knows when he will start for Liverpool again? Given their next two Premier League games are against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – either side of an important Champions League trip to Maribor – it is unlikely to be for some time.

“He was so disappointing,” Souness said. It was, and is, hard to disagree.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special


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

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


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

Kevin De Bruyne’s Perfect Touch Delights Pep Guardiola, Keeps Silvas at Bay


London- Just before the hour mark, and as Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Leroy Sané amid applause from the home supporters on the back of a devastating display in front of goal, Kevin De Bruyne could be seen speaking with David Silva and Sergio Agüero. The Belgian went over to each in turn and appeared to be telling them what to do. It was impossible to pick up what he was saying, but given everything that had happened up until then, it would not have been a surprise to have learned that his message was a simple one: “Keep going, lads, I’ve got this.”

Manchester City’s biggest home win over Liverpool since September 1935 was a collective pummelling – and one aided by Sadio Mané’s initially controversial, but ultimately justified, sending-off – but what it highlighted amid the showers and sunshine of an early autumn afternoon is just how good De Bruyne is, and just how central he could be, in more ways than one, to City reclaiming their status as champions.

The 26-year-old was sensational here, assisting City’s first two goals, scored by Agüero and Jesus, playing a role in their fourth – put away by Sané – and generally providing a muscular, intelligent and technically excellent display from an advanced midfield position.

De Bruyne did not stand out by a distance among those in blue, but he did stand out, and at times appeared to be playing a completely different game to everyone else, such was the time and space he was able to find on the pitch. Little wonder Agüero and Silva listened so intently to his instructions – they knew as much as anyone that De Bruyne was in control of proceedings; that he well and truly had this.

“I am so happy with his performance,” said Pep Guardiola of City’s No17. “He is good on balls on the feet. He is good running, attacking the space. He is a complete player, one of our captains.”

With his two assists here, De Bruyne has now provided 39 in all competitions since arriving from Wolfsburg for £51m in August 2015. There have also been 23 goals and numerous man-of-the-match displays. Yet he cannot consider himself undroppable, and especially while Guardiola continues to deploy a system containing a three-man midfield in which Fernandinho provides the defensive support to two playmakers.

De Bruyne is competing to fill one of those spots not only with David Silva but also Bernado Silva, who is increasingly getting up to speed after his late arrival from the Confederations Cup and having signed from Monaco for £43.6m in May. Then there is Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gündogan to consider, with the latter returning to City’s matchday squad on Saturday for the first time since tearing cruciate knee ligaments in December. The competition is fierce and standards for those involved in the battle for recognition simply cannot drop.

De Bruyne appears to be aware of that if his display here is anything to go by. Deployed alongside David Silva for a fourth league match in succession, he tormented those in red from start to finish, starting off in a right-sided position but continuously moving across and through the lines. On 20 minutes he popped up on the left and caused Liverpool’s right-back Trent Alexander Arnold such concern with his incisive running that the teenager, so assured so far this season, found himself with no other option but to yank the midfielder down just outside the area and subsequently receive a yellow card.

Five minutes later came De Bruyne’s first assist and it told you so much about his assurance and ability. There was a touch to control the ball after it came his way from Fernandinho inside the centre circle and then, with nonchalant ease, a perfectly weighted through ball to set Agüero running free through the heart of the visitors’ defence. The Argentinian’s goal made it six from six home league games against Liverpool.

The second assist, in first-half stoppage time, was more straightforward but no less perfectly executed – a left-wing cross that Jesus fired past Simon Mignolet via a header from an unmarked position – and then, on 77 minutes, came the pass to Sané, which eventually led to the German scoring the first of his two goals. Again De Bruyne was in a central position and, again, Liverpool had no idea how to handle him.

It should be noted that post-Mané’s sending off Liverpool were incredibly poor, all but giving up en route to their heaviest defeat under Jürgen Klopp, but that should not take away from City’s performance, one full of swagger and ruthlessness, and which suggests that for all their defensive frailties, which again were on show here, they have enough in attack to win the title.

And at the heart of it was De Bruyne, the reserved figure who catches the eye time and time again. Drop him if you dare, Pep. “This season he is in a good mood, maybe because he is a father,” said Guardiola. “We are a lucky club to have Kevin.”

The Guardian Sport

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


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

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


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

Emre Can’s Stellar Rise Shows how Jürgen Klopp is Transforming Liverpool


London – In the 130-second press conference that followed Arsenal’s latest capitulation at Anfield Arsène Wenger admitted his team were physically, technically and mentally inferior to Liverpool. It was a damning critique no doubt but, had he held court longer, the Arsenal manager could have given a fuller account of Liverpool’s dominance under Jürgen Klopp.

The Liverpool manager tactically outsmarted Wenger in taking his Premier League record against Arsenal to 10 points from a possible 12. Not that Klopp’s three-man midfield and three-pronged attack should have come as any surprise to the Arsenal manager after selecting Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka as his supposed midfield shield.

The victors were sharper and stronger, a reflection perhaps of a pre-season schedule geared to winning the all-important Champions League play-off and passage to the lucrative group stage. Their mental edge, Klopp claimed, stemmed from players wanting to prove to themselves they could replicate the highs of the Hoffenheim performance four days after it. It is also a sign of the unity Liverpool possess under their manager, something Arsenal patently lacked throughout their 4-0 defeat.

Another department where Klopp overshadows his Arsenal counterpart was demonstrated by the performance of Emre Can: individual development. The Germany international was outstanding in Liverpool’s midfield, as was the case in the Anfield defeat of Hoffenheim, where Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum also overran their abject opponents. Can’s contribution, creatively and defensively, underlined why Klopp would rather keep the player for what could be the final season of his Liverpool contract than bank a fee with his Anfield future unresolved.

Throughout the Liverpool squad there are individuals whose form and influence have risen markedly under Klopp. If the reason for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s discontent at Arsenal is his sluggish personal development, and not the contract terms on offer, then he would be forgiven for eyeing the opposition ranks with envy last Sunday. Can has flourished this calendar year despite playing with injury last season and harboring some reservations over his role in the team – a factor in his new contract remaining unsigned.

“It was a big, big performance against Arsenal,” said the 23-year-old, who has entered the final year of his deal. “A big compliment to the team. I think everyone did great and I think you can’t play much better than that. Don’t forget we were playing against Arsenal. When was the last time that Liverpool won against Arsenal 4-0? The performance was just great. Of course it will give us confidence and now we go into the internationals and everybody’s happy. It’s a good start now but we have to keep working.”

Juventus have been regularly linked with the former Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich midfielder. However, Klopp hopes a realization of his importance to the team, one that has returned to the European elite, and the potential for further development will encourage Can to commit to a new deal that the manager wishes had been resolved months ago. There was no evidence of the midfielder having problems with his offensive instructions against Hoffenheim and Arsenal, or in the aftermath of Sunday’s resounding victory.

“The manager expects that from us midfield players and I tried to do it,” Can said. “Of course I can’t do it every time but I tried to do it more often than last year. It’s worked good so far. I think you could see on Wednesday that we played a high tempo and again against Arsenal. You could see that we worked very well in pre-season from the two games. Everybody feels good, everybody feels in good shape and that’s very important.

“If you see the bench, we are strong, we are deep. We are strong in the squad. Divock Origi was not in the squad against Arsenal and he’s a great player, so you see just how strong the squad is. We have confidence and we are playing good football. Our performance was good but we need to keep it up. It’s just the start.”

The Guardian Sport

Champions League: Group-by-Group Analysis


London – Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all look likely to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, but Tottenham have been dealt a harsh hand with favorites Real Madrid. The Guardian Sport examines the draw with a group-by-group analysis of who will likely qualify to the next round and who will leave the tournament early:

Group A
Benfica, Basel, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow

José Mourinho will be pleased with the draw, no doubt. United have bought wisely in the summer – Romelu Lukaku has added goals and will be joined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they get through the group – and Nemanja Matic looks an inspired piece of business to strengthen the midfield. Benfica are still the best Portuguese team in the competition despite selling Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nélson Semedo this summer. Bruno Varela is a very good replacement for Ederson and they have kept Pizzi and Álex Grimaldo. CSKA, meanwhile, have had a relatively poor start but have improved in the past few weeks. Igor Akinfeev has finally kept a clean sheet in the Champions League after 11 years of failing to do so and in the new manager, Viktor Goncharenko, they have a more attack-minded man in charge compared to Leonid Slutsky. Basel, who have just been hit by the retirement of club legend Matias Delgado could well finish bottom. Ricky van Wolfswinkel now leads their line.

Prediction 1 Manchester United 2 Benfica 3 CSKA Moscow 4 Basel

Star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)

Group B
Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, Paris St-Germain, Celtic

All eyes will be on the French club this season as they have finally, after years of trying, made the kind of signing that should see them elevated to the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The impact of Neymar’s arrival on PSG cannot be overestimated and it is easy to forget now that they came within minutes of eliminating Barça last season, even without the brilliant Brazilian in their team. In Bayern they have a superb group opponent but are the German champions stronger than last season? Arguably not with Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso having retired. Corentin Tolisso has arrived from Lyon for £36.4m and James Rodríguez joined on loan from Real Madrid, but he has struggled to recapture his 2014 World Cup form. Celtic can probably snatch third place from Anderlecht – and possibly trouble Bayern and/or PSG at home – but this, sadly, looks like quite an uneven group.

Prediction 1 Bayern Munich 2 Paris Saint-Germain 3 Celtic 4 Anderlecht

Star player Neymar (PSG)

Group C
Chelsea, Roma, Atlético Madrid, Qarabag

Atlético Madrid are the team to beat considering their Champions League record of two finals in the past four years. They are working under a transfer ban and have had to loan out their only summer signing, Vitolo, who arrived from Sevilla for £31.8m. At least Antoine Griezmann decided to stay. Chelsea looked out of sorts against Burnley and then back to their defensive best in their 2-1 win against Tottenham, however Antonio Conte had two attempts at the Champions League at Juventus but was eliminated in the quarter-finals in 2012-13 and at the group stage the following year. Roma have had a summer of wholesale changes under their new sporting director, Monchi. Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rüdiger (to Chelsea) and Francesco Totti will be hard to replace but they have brought in 10 players. Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify for the group stage. The manager, Gurban Gurbanov, has been there since 2008 and prefers to play three up front with the South African Dino Ndlovu as the focal point.

Prediction 1 Atlético Madrid 2 Chelsea 3 Roma 4 Qarabag

Star player Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

Group D
Juventus, Olympiakos, Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon

A horribly competitive group with Juventus favorites having eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Both teams, however, have lost important players with Leonardo Bonucci joining Milan in a shock move and Neymar jumping the Barça ship for Paris Saint‑Germain. Juve looked defensively shaky in the Italian Super Cup defeat against Lazio but they still have a superb squad and have added Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a whopping £35.7m. There is unhappiness among Barça fans after a summer during which they failed to secure Marco Verratti and signed the former Spurs midfielder Paulinho instead. They are still pursuing Philippe Coutinho and have signed Ousmane Dembélé, though. Olympiakos should finish third and are enjoying a renaissance under their new manager, Besnik Hasi. The Greek club have spent almost £20m on players this summer; Sporting, third in Portugal last season, will struggle to compete against the other three teams and Jorge Jesus’s side could still sell the midfield linchpin William Carvalho.

Prediction 1 Juventus 2 Barcelona 3 Olympiakos 4 Sporting

Star player Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Group E
Spartak Moscow, Liverpool, Sevilla, Maribor

An even group with Liverpool slight favorites ahead of Sevilla, who are on their third manager in three years. Sevilla, who beat Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final, now have Eduardo Berizzo in charge and while they have sold Vitolo to Atlético they have signed Éver Banega, Jesús Navas and Nolito. Jürgen Klopp has assembled a squad with an enormous amount of speed up front but they are still suspect at the back. Spartak were outstanding last season as they won their first title since 2001 but are 11th in the league and Massimo Carrera (Antonio Conte’s former assistant) may get the sack. The Dutch winger Quincy Promes, though, is a huge threat. Maribor have won one of 12 Champions League group games in their history and the former Leeds manager Darko Milanic has a huge task to improve on that record, especially as they have lost their best player, the attacking midfielder Dare Vrsic, after failing to agree a new contract.

Prediction 1 Liverpool 2 Sevilla 3 Spartak Moscow 4 Maribor

Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

Group F
Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, Manchester City, Feyenoord

There can be no excuses for Pep Guardiola this season. He has spent more than £220m this summer with an astonishing £128.5m on full-backs. They should qualify comfortably but already, this season, Everton have exposed weaknesses at the back. Napoli are one of the most exciting sides in Europe, Maurizio Sarri’s side crushing Nice 4-0 on aggregate in the play‑offs. Goals can come from everywhere with Dries Mertens, José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Marek Hamsik all in the squad. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian league by 13 points last season but they have lost their best Brazilians, such as Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, in recent seasons. Playing in Kharkiv rather than Lviv should help the atmosphere. Feyenoord won the Dutch title for the first time in 18 years last season under Gio van Bronckhorst but they are now without arguably their three most influential players in Dirk Kuyt (retired), Terence Kongolo (Monaco) and Rick Karsdorp (Roma).

Prediction 1 Manchester City 2 Napoli 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 4 Feyenoord

Star player Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)

Group G
Monaco, Besiktas, Porto, Leipzig

One of the more even groups with, frankly, all teams capable of going through. Monaco are the favorites despite losing some of their key players, with Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko all joining Premier League clubs. And there has been the saga about Kylian Mbappé’s future. Not helpful. Porto have a new manager, Sérgio Conceição, and have sold the prolific André Silva to Milan but have retained the even more prolific Tiquinho Soares. Rúben Neves, of course, has joined Wolves. RB Leipzig will make their Champions League debut having kept Naby Keïta and Emil Forsberg but they lost their first league game of the season, against Schalke, and looked lackluster. Big-spending Besiktas will hope to do well as part of their president’s plan for a more global profile. They have won the past two league titles and have a competitive team with this summer’s additions of Álvaro Negredo, Pepe, Jeremain Lens and Gary Medel among others.

Prediction 1 Monaco 2 Porto 3 RB Leipzig 4 Besiktas

Star player Youri Tielemans (Monaco)

Group H
Real Madrid, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Apoel Nicosia

The reigning champions look favorites to complete the first hat-trick of European Cup wins since Bayern Munich in 1974-76. All their stars have stayed and are now being pushed to even greater heights by younger players such as Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos. Dortmund are still a force to be reckoned with but there is no doubt the departure of Ousmane Dembélé has cast a long shadow over the club. Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Peter Bosz as manager while Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang is staying and Julian Weigl is fit again. Spurs’ chances probably depend on whether they can perform at Wembley and why shouldn’t they be able to now that they are playing league games there, too? In Harry Kane and Dele Alli they have a pairing that can hurt most defenses. Apoel are likely to finish last in the group, having lost Pieros Sotiriou, their top scorer last season, to FC Copenhagen.

Prediction 1 Real Madrid 2 Borussia Dortmund 3 Tottenham 4 Apoel

Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

*The Guardian Sport

Liverpool Will Break Their Transfer Record to Sign Naby Keïta…Is he worth it?


London- The story that Liverpool will sign Naby Keïta from RB Leipzig has gathered exponential pace over the last few days. The move seemed unlikely a few weeks ago but the clubs are rumoured to be meeting in the coming days to thrash out a deal. Keïta, who was linked with Liverpool last summer, was one of the stars of the Bundesliga season as RB Leipzig secured an unlikely second-placed finish, a fine showing in their first season in the top division.

Keïta excelled and his valuation skyrocketed as a result, with Leipzig now demanding £70m for the 22-year-old midfielder. Liverpool would have to break their transfer record for a second time this summer to land the Guinean. Keïta has a release clause worth around £48m, which will become active next summer, but Jürgen Klopp wants him now. Leipzig do not want to sell one of their best players as they prepare to play in the Champions League for the first time, but they stand to make a massive profit on a player they signed from sister club RB Salzburg for £12.75m last summer.

Liverpool have already made Mohamed Salah the most expensive signing in their history and they were prepared to do the same for Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk before being forced to step away from a deal. Pumping more money into the squad to sign Keïta would be a serious statement of intent from the club.

Liverpool’s defence remains a problematic area for Klopp, but Keïta would undoubtedly improve their midfield. His ability to play in any number of roles in Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 formation is part of the reason the manager is keen on the Leipzig No8. Only Ousmane Dembélé (103) completed more dribbles than Keïta (83) in the Bundesliga last season, while only Nabil Bentaleb (nine) played more accurate through balls than the young Guinean (seven).

Keïta won possession in the midfield third 37 more times (180) than any other Bundesliga player last season. He also scored eight goals and provided seven assists showing that, as far as midfielders go, he is a master of all trades. His rating of 7.60 earned him a place in our Bundesliga team of the season in his first year in Germany.

He is versatile enough to play as a destroyer – as shown by his returns of 2.6 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per game – but using him as the deepest-lying midfielder would be a tremendous waste of his ability to get from box to box. If given a more advanced central role, Keïta could take the Premier League by storm.

Keïta would be an ideal fit for Klopp’s high-intensity approach but he would have to adjust to playing in a team that enjoys a larger share of possession than Leipzig, who are set up to play on the counter. Leipzig averaged 51.9% possession to Liverpool’s 58.3% and, while not a huge gulf, he would need to alter his style accordingly.

He is not one to shirk his responsibilities when his side have the ball. He made 45.9 passes per game last season, which was fifth at his club, but his pass success rate of 81.8% leaves room for improvement when it comes to successfully retaining possession. At 22, time is very much on his side.

Klopp isn’t in dire need of midfielders but if the chance to sign Keïta presents itself the club simply have to take it. With Liverpool returning to Europe – and the Champions League – Klopp needs strength in depth. Keïta’s all-round quality in both defence and attack would offer the team a further dimension.

Titi Camara, the former Liverpool and Guinea player, says Keïta has “his heart set on” Liverpool, that Leipzig are “looking for a replacement” and that the player has requested the No8 shirt as it is his father’s lucky number. It’s an iconic one at Anfield, but Keïta’s qualities and style of play suggest it would be the ideal fit for him. He was the player of the season in the Austrian Bundesliga in 2015-16, when RB Salzburg won the league and cup double; he has stepped up in his first season in Germany; and he has all the makings of the perfect Premier League midfielder. So, if Liverpool can finalise a deal, they will count themselves very lucky.

The Guardian Sport