N’Golo Kanté’s Relentless Drive Takes Him to Historic Title Double


London – The most misleading scene of this season came in late September, 40 minutes into Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Chelsea at the Emirates. Mesut Özil, facing his own goal about 10 yards outside Arsenal’s penalty area, sensed N’Golo Kanté bearing down on him and deftly rolled the would-be ambusher before galloping forward.

As he approached the Chelsea area, the German exchanged passes with Alexis Sánchez before sending a bobbly volley into the net from 12 yards. Kanté had tried to keep pace with Özil but ran as if towing a ship. Even the referee, Michael Oliver, overtook the Frenchman. Something was badly wrong.

Fast-forward seven and a half months and that all seems like a false memory. Arsenal are sputtering glumly in Chelsea’s wake, Özil is again accused of diffidence and Kanté is hailed as the Premier League’s most dynamic performer, voted the Player’s Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. He has become the first outfield player since Eric Cantona to win back‑to-back top-flight titles in England with two different clubs (the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer also achieved that feat with Chelsea and Leicester City but was a reserve who seldom played for either).

In many respects the two Frenchmen, Kanté and Cantona, could not be more different. The latter was a flamboyant artist whose greatest work came when he found a way to marry his team’s need to conquer with his own instinct to subvert and be vindicated. His blend of precision, flair, composure and volatility requiring careful handling.

Kanté plays with no swagger and almost without an ego. He is so self-effacing in the dressing room that team-mates say they sometimes do not even notice him. But everyone notices the 26-year-old on the pitch. He is impossible to miss because he is everywhere, harassing opponents, piecing together moves and covering more ground than Google maps. He did so much work for Leicester last season that Claudio Ranieri said they lost two players in the summer when Chelsea bought him for £32m. Leicester fans used to refer to him as “the Kanté twins”.

The embarrassment at the hands of Arsenal was a turning point in Chelsea’s season because it forced Antonio Conte to make changes that, among other benefits, enabled Kanté’s influence to grow. Before that the raggedness of Chelsea’s defence, especially the slowness of their right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, imposed demands for coverage that were excessive even for Kanté.

He had been able to make a 4-4-2 system work for Leicester when outnumbered in midfield because they, at least, had a rigid defence. Chelsea’s shift to using three centre-backs and a pair of mobile wing-backs allowed Kanté to concentrate his massive efforts sensibly. Sensible for him, that is; most other players do not have the vim and intelligence to dominate as he does.

It is rare in the Premier League that a player is so much better than his peers at a particular aspect of the game that he resembles an adult playing in an under-age tournament. Yaya Touré could give that impression in his prime, swotting away opponents as if they were Lilliputians as he marauded forward from midfield. There are speedsters such as Jamie Vardy who can leave defenders spinning helplessly.

But no one other than Kanté sets opponents aquiver just by his relentless capacity to dispossess them and be where they mean to be and do what they want to do. He does not merely overrun them, he squats their minds. Many must have felt as if they had no choice but to vote for him as Player of the Year. That is a brilliant achievement for a man who was not schooled in any academy, having been rejected by several in France before turning professional with Caen at the age of 22.

Kanté’s departure from Leicester was the key transfer of last summer, being integral to the champions’ collapse and Chelsea’s renaissance and the player has evolved since his move. Because Chelsea tend to have much more possession than Leicester did, Kanté has not needed to tackle so much this season (but has still done so more than anyone else except for Everton’s Idrissa Gueye) or make as many interceptions (he has made half as many as he did last season, although he is still in the top five in the Premier League for that, too).

He has, on the other hand, made far more passes, not simply to deliver the ball to more creative team-mates in the way that Claude Makelele used to at Stamford Bridge, but also to undo defences himself. His beautifully executed pass to Pedro in the buildup to Chelsea’s third goal in January’s 3-0 win at Leicester demonstrated the evolution neatly.

There is still scope for Kanté to improve. Conte says his passing can be honed further and he could develop more composure in the box, his jagged thrust and finish against Manchester United in October being his only league goal of the campaign.

Most of all, he needs to show he can maintain his influence while competing in Europe as well as domestically. Playing in the Champions League is a privilege that he is yet to enjoy, a test that he is yet to endure.

Next season will be the most challenging of Kanté’s career. He has risen to every one he has faced so far. Another title is certainly not out of the question for the Premier League’s Mr Relentless.

The Guardian Sport

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka: ‘It’s my Style of Play and Nobody can Make me Change it’


London – Granit Xhaka has said he will not change his playing style despite the criticism he has received for picking up yellow and red cards during his first season in England.

The Arsenal midfielder, who scored one of the goals in the 2-0 win against Manchester United on Sunday, has been booked 10 times and sent off twice so far this season but is adamant he can continue in the same vein and that he just has to be a bit “cleverer”.

“In football you get criticised if you are sent off,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s my style of play and nobody can make me change that. Even if I get another red card, then that [is what] happens. You become cleverer, and since my [last] red card, I think things have improved.”

Arsène Wenger publicly criticised Xhaka, who joined from Borussia Mönchengladbach for £35m in the summer, after the player was sent off for the second time of the season against Burnley in January and advised him “not to tackle”.

Xhaka has stayed on the pitch since then and the Switzerland international does not think he has been targeted by referees during his first campaign in England. “I don’t know if that’s really the case, I don’t think so,” he said before adding that he is still learning about the Premier League.

“I’m not really a fan of talking about myself too much, maybe others should judge [how my first season has gone]. It’s a season that has had ups and downs, but that’s normal in your first season. I think that belongs to football.

“It’s not like I played my first football match in England. For me football is pretty much the same everywhere, the ball is round, but maybe tactically things are different than at other clubs I’ve played for.

Arsenal recently switched to a back three and Xhaka believes Wenger will keep faith in the system now that results have improved. “It doesn’t make a difference for me if you play with three at the back or four,” the Swiss said. “I played for a year at Mönchengladbach with three at the back. Of course it’s a different role but so long as things are going well, why change?”

He added: “It was an important win against United. We knew we had to win, we played a good game and deserved it too. This is a phase where we have to win every game, which we know. We have four games left that we need to approach in the same way as today. If we do that, I’m convinced that we can achieve what we want now.

Arsenal travel to Southampton on Wednesday before facing Stoke away on Saturday. They finish their league season with two home games, against Sunderland and Everton, in the final week of the campaign and Xhaka believes that victories in those four games will be enough to overhaul the teams above them and to finish in the top four.

“We always have hope – hope dies last,” he said. “It’s up to us, we need some luck along the way, but if we win the next four games, I’m convinced that we can do it. This is a top club, a great club. We’re having a season where things have been a bit more difficult but I’m convinced that in the coming years we can show another side.”

The Guardian Sport

Mesut Özil, His New Driveway and the Eternal Question of His Value to Arsenal


London – Arsène Wenger has become accustomed to putting on his best front for the pre-match media fandango. Given the volatile climate he arrives, straight bat at the ready, intent to defuse and dampen. It was all steady and predictable enough before this weekend’s visit of Manchester United when the line of questions suddenly took an unexpected bounce. What did Wenger think of Mesut Özil renewing the Tarmac on his driveway?


Was this a trick question?

Wenger looked momentarily baffled. What does Tarmac on a drive have to do with Arsenal’s predicament? The inquisitor clarified with the suggestion that maybe doing some home improvements meant Özil wanted to stick around a while. A promising sign for the contract situation, perhaps. “Oh, that’s a good conclusion,” Wenger replied cheerfully, enjoying a brief moment of levity.

Here is the thing, though. Özil’s form has dipped to the point where the handsome offer, on the table for ages, has become a serious debating point. Arsenal are not in the business of routinely offering players in the region of the £250,000 to £300,000 per week mooted to tempt Özil and Alexis Sánchez. So when they do it really needs to be worth that extra push.

There was a point earlier in the season when Özil began to look more than ever like the technical leader and inspirer-in-chief Arsenal were eager to pin their hopes on. On 1 November he scored a virtuoso goal that was the talk of Europe, a matchwinner at Ludogorets that seemed to crystallise a new sense the player was keyed up to score goals and influence games more directly than the stereotype of Özil the floating, vulnerable muse. He scored nine goals in 20 games leading up to December. It felt different. More anchored in notable determination.

Arsenal allowed themselves to wonder whether he had evolved enough to be their cake as well as the cherry on top. But the subsequent months – retreating to a period of quiet ineffectiveness on the periphery as the team struggled desperately for mojo – have allowed all the old reservations to resurface.

There are too many divisive figures at Arsenal these days and Özil has again become a figure that splits opinion. The purists cling to his inherent ability. The doubters wonder how he invariably seems to stay on for a full 90 minutes when he drifts through games. Is that form convincing enough to merit one of the most expensive salary offers the club has ever drummed up?

In his autobiography, Die Magie des Spiels [The Magic of the Game], Özil noted how José Mourinho accused him of not giving everything during their time together at Real Madrid, quoting the manager as saying: “You think two beautiful passes are enough. You think you’re so good that 50% is enough.”

Wenger agrees Özil is a character who benefits from some tough love. “We had some good conversations with him as well, you know,” he says.

Not for the first time, Wenger is compelled to offer up a defence of Özil while the critics sharpen their opinion of someone who can be an easy target because of his languid style. “Big players have to carry the responsibility of the team. People look at it like that,” Wenger says.

“Last Sunday [at Tottenham] to just criticise Mesut Özil’s performance does not reflect exactly what happened on the pitch. I think he did fight very hard in recent games – we looked at his physical performance and they were at a very high level. But like the rest of the team on Sunday we were below what we produced recently. The big players get more criticised than the others. His style is more fluid, less aggressive, but it doesn’t mean you want it less than others.

“At the end of the day his style is his style and what you measure with Mesut Özil is the efficiency. His basic quality is retention and the creation of goal chances.” Even in this patchy season Özil is currently the Premier League’s top passer in the opposition half, with a success rate that exceeds Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.

Wenger had an intriguingly evasive reply to a question about whether it suits Özil to carry the kind of responsibility usually handed to the highest-profile players. “I’m not sure,” he says. “I think he embraces the challenge to play big games. Does he embrace the challenge to be criticised? I’m not sure. Does he like to be criticised? I’m not sure.

“You want all your players to be at their best in every single game so when they don’t achieve that of course you are frustrated but we all played football. We know we are only human beings and you have to accept the ups and downs.”

Does this drop in form make Wenger reconsider the sense in the massive contract on offer? “Before we spend big money we analyse all the aspects of commitments, because we have not only Mesut Özil and Sánchez to extend. We have many other players to extend and you have to make sure you have the resources available to extend the other players that you think are needed to be successful in the future. For example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is part of that.”

The great Özil debate becomes a broader Arsenal-related discourse with the bigger picture question: can you build a team around him? The answer should be yes – as long as the other component parts are complementary and forgiving of the foibles of a delicate craftsman. Would Özil have flourished more in a Wenger team which had a midfield with the power and precision of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit behind him rather than the struggles of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey? Would he have produced more with the runs of Thierry Henry to aim for instead of Olivier Giroud?

The lack of balance in the team this season has not made for a perfect environment for Özil, even if he has not helped himself to the point that a tough old timer, Martin Keown, pulled few punches in his newspaper column this week when he claimed Arsenal “are simply carrying Mesut Özil and they cannot afford to”.

If too many big games are passing him by, Özil might remember that one of his best performances came in this fixture last season, when Arsenal defeated Manchester United 3-0. Özil was the architect of the opening goal and scorer of the second. He made a similar impact with Arsenal’s highest-calibre display this term when they beat Chelsea by the same margin.

The challenge to eke out more of those performances remains an Arsenal riddle, and it’s one that will be under consideration during the summer if Özil’s contract extension stays unsigned.

That begs the question of which clubs might queue up to spend lavishly on this gossamer talent and match or exceed those big wages for class that has not shone consistently for Arsenal. Have there been any offers, any signs of interest from other clubs? “No,” says Wenger bluntly. After another pause he offers a cryptic addendum. “Not officially.”

The Guardian Sport

Arsène Wenger Wins another Small Battle in Arsenal’s Unlikely Civil War


London – After 15 minutes of tepid football, Arsène Wenger rose from the bench for the first time and went for a wander around his technical area, presumably just for a change of pace. A few seconds later, despite not having done much in the way of experimental arm waving or bellowing in a bid to raise his team’s level, he meandered back to his seat next to Steve Bould. Like everyone else inside St Mary’s, Wenger had clearly decided that there was not much worth saying yet.

The Arsenal manager’s many critics might respond to that by pointing out that they’ve heard it all before anyway, and of all the charges against Wenger, whose CV surely explains in great length how he revolutionised English football in the 1990s, perhaps the one that riles him most is that he is yesterday’s man. It depends who says it, of course. When it comes to dealing with the bedsheet artists in the stands, the seething YouTubers who rant into cameras after matches and the journalists who ask him about his future at every press conference, Wenger can smirk and speak in Professeurishly weary tones about how a culture of impatience has ruined polite society, allowing him to play the part of the wise old football sage seeking to enlighten the masses.

Before this stodgy but crucial victory over Southampton, however, the first rumblings of boardroom insurrection alarmed Wenger sufficiently for him to respond spikily when one of his interrogators asked about the possibility of hiring a director of football. After 13 years of increasing angst and inertia, a power struggle approaches and for a manager whose stubborn streak knows no bounds, the idea that there exists a person who might know better than him amounted to heresy. “I don’t know what director of football means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left?”

After his brief early stroll, Wenger stayed on the bench for the rest of the first half. Little of any note occurred for long spells, expectations that Arsenal would swiftly stamp their authority on proceedings after Sunday’s welcome victory over Manchester United proved misguided and Petr Cech was the busier goalkeeper before the teams disappeared down the tunnel, reacting sharply to prevent Manolo Gabbiadini and Nathan Redmond from giving Southampton the lead.

It required something special for Wenger to rise to his feet again. Enter Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, the two stars of this Arsenal team. They had been peripheral until the hour mark, when Özil’s perceptive pass found Sánchez, whose splendid turn bewitched Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens, leaving the Chilean to slip a low finish past the previously underworked Fraser Forster and maintain Arsenal’s hopes of squeezing Liverpool or Manchester City out of the top four.

Yet for all the restorative qualities of Arsenal’s first win on this ground since the Invincibles era, it will continue to trouble Wenger that he has an opponent among Arsenal’s directors. Ivan Gazidis is Wenger’s unlikely adversary, the would-be moderniser who sees compelling reasons for a drifting, irritable, anxious club to bring in a fresh voice, someone who can share some of the burden with the manager.

Wenger only scents a threat to his authority. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, the art of canny delegation is not one of his strengths. Ivan or me, Wenger seems to be saying to the board, and it would hardly be surprising if it transpires that the most influential figure in Arsenal’s history is capable of garnering enough support to win this battle. Gazidis will have to tread carefully. He is the likelier casualty.

Away from the looming Arsène-Ivan civil war, Arsenal’s focus was on reeling in City and Liverpool. Victory kept up their pursuit and it was impressive that they won without the injured Laurent Koscielny, their finest defender. The returning Shkodran Mustafi coped well, producing one vital challenge on Dusan Tadic.

While he remains resistant to sweeping change, Wenger was not afraid to use tactical shock therapy after last month’s humbling at Crystal Palace, tweaking his team into a 3-4-3 system. Arsenal have had moderate success in their new formation, winning four of their five past five league matches and reaching the FA Cup final with a gutsy fightback against City, and they passed another test here, recovering when the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had to be replaced by Héctor Bellerín before half-time.

Arsenal were not at their most convincing. It felt ominous when Özil ruined a promising break by knocking a straightforward pass to Danny Welbeck out for a throw at the start of the second half.

But they had enough punch in attack to deal with Southampton. Soon Özil was creating Sánchez’s opener; Olivier Giroud, on as a late substitute, headed in the second.

It is still out of their hands, but their game in hand on Liverpool bolsters Arsenal’s belief that Champions League qualification is achievable. The players have woken up and while the big questions have not gone away, Wenger will feel empowered as he steels himself for one of the most important fights of his career.

The Guardian Sport

Paul Pogba Transfer Shows Mino Raiola’s Power in Stark Contrast to Fifa Inaction


London – The allegations about how the Monaco-based agent Mino Raiola has earned £41m from all three parties involved in Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United broke over Fifa just as its ousted ethics committee chairmen were accusing it before the annual congress here of cutting their work off at the knees.

It was, in a way, handy for Fifa to be able to confirm that an inquiry is ongoing into the Pogba transfer, supporting the idea that it is indeed regulating outlandish sums such as these said to have been banked by one individual – based in the tax haven of Monaco – for facilitating a single young player’s move from one top club to another.

But it was not made clear what the focus is of any such inquiry or how serious it is. Fifa spokespeople took care to say that its data-collecting Transfer Matching System asked for more details, but it does not amount to an investigation and remains far from a disciplinary matter.

In the 35C heat of another gulf state disproportionately involved in modern football due to its oil and gas fortunes, and as Diego Maradona and other greats were preparing to perform as “legends” for president Gianni Infantino’s attempts to rebrand Fifa, the bewilderment of Accrington Stanley’s chairman at Raiola’s £41m seemed a little remote.

Andy Holt had gasped at the “scandal”, the “madness” of so vast a sum being paid to one agent when smaller clubs and grassroots football struggle for subsistence – a snapshot of dramatic inequality worldwide, not just in Pennine Lancashire. The slapdown to Holt delivered by the Premier League reminding him and his EFL colleagues of the sizable money, but very small percentages, which trickle down to them, did not really address the Raiola question.

The reports of the Pogba transfer, based on contract documents published by the Football Leaks operation, agree that Raiola appears to have been paid a massive amount by Manchester United, who bought the player, Juventus, who sold him, and by Pogba.

The Danish newspaper Politiken, which says it has seen the documents, reported that the payment from Juventus, €27m, was not a sell-on commission on the club’s profit, but the fruits of Raiola acting for them as a contracted intermediary, to bid up the price.

United, determined last summer to land A-list players after the gloomy disappointments of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal periods of management, also contracted Raiola to represent them. That is clear from the Football Association document that records the agents who acted on deals, showing that Raiola did act for Pogba and United when the player signed last August for €100m.

Politiken reports that the United contract hired Raiola to secure the signing of Pogba “on terms acceptable to the club”. Although United really wanted Pogba, acceptable terms for a buying party would, in a normal world, mean the lowest price possible in the escalating circumstances. If Raiola was also hired by Juventus to act in the transfer that would not normally be disclosed and published to the English FA, as indeed it was not, because its records do not have to include the agents who acted for overseas clubs.

If this version of the deal is true, Raiola appears to have been paid by one club for achieving the highest price possible and by the other club, United, whose interest was in limiting the amount of money it paid. Even if the fee from Juventus was a sell-on clause, that would still invest Raiola with an interest in securing the highest fee possible from the buying club. United paid Raiola €19.4m, as well as the €100m to Juventus, according to the reports.

His lowest payment was the reported €2.6m fee United also paid on behalf of Pogba for negotiating his reported £8.6m annual salary – the business of representing the player that naive football folk always thought was an agent’s actual role.

The TMS system is portrayed as a tool to increase the trustworthiness of football’s tidal money flows, because all details have to be reported to it, but it is not investigating the “madness” of this transfer as it looks to Holt. Leaving aside the difficulty of comprehending £41m being earned by one agent for dealings such as these, another head-shaking feature of modern football is that apparent conflicts of interest are allowed, if all parties agree to waive them.

The FA’s list of player signings by all English professional clubs overwhelmingly shows agents are acting for both the signing clubs and the players. That in itself is an inherent conflict of interest: a club in principle would be looking to pay a player a limited, “acceptable” salary, while a player is entitled to seek as much money as possible.

The reality is agents are as they are now described, intermediaries, to whom players are signed up but who are also rewarded by clubs for putting the whole deal together. The player and club can then acknowledge that an agent acted for both of them, and give the conflict of interest a free pass.

If Raiola did act for all three parties, including earning multi-millions from each of the buying and selling club, he may only have taken on to a new level what is permitted. Usually pictured with the tool of his trade, a mobile phone, clasped to his ear, Raiola engineered himself as the key to making the deal of the year happen, involving one of Europe’s most coveted young midfield players, and he appears to have pulled off a triple representation – being paid by all three sides.

TMS did contact United, in September, and United replied with confirmation that they did not pay Raiola a portion of the transfer fee, nor had they heard of the company, Topscore, which Raiola appears to have used to represent Juventus. Fifa said that the inquiries from TMS remain ongoing, but there is no sign or suggestion yet from Fifa that it is investigating any wrongdoing by any party. Juventus declined to comment.

As Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert, the two ethics committee chairmen whose terms are not to be renewed, raged in Bahrain that Infantino’s Fifa is neutralising the fight against corruption, the news of Raiola’s earnings washed over the gathering, just a timely tale of how modern football works.

The Guardian Sport

‘Disappointed’ Alexis Sánchez at the Heart of Arsenal’s Pivotal Summer


London – As usual the vast majority of the punters in the Club Level seats that ring all the way round the prime view at the Emirates Stadium took their time to re-emerge into the sunshine after half-time of Arsenal’s game with Manchester United on Sunday. It is a particularly expensive area of the stadium, with plush concourses and refreshments to enjoy at leisure. These are season-ticket holders who are especially important to Arsenal because they generate handsome income, with an outlay roughly between £2,500 and £4,000 per seat, per season.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these executive seats went out for renewal early, giving the marketing team more time for the sales pitch if needed. The pack to sign up for the 2017-18 campaign landed a few weeks ago. Many – both ordinary supporters with a few bob and corporate customers – have thought long and hard about justifying their renewals and have let the deadline lapse. Why? Primarily because they do not know exactly what they are paying for. Will Arsène Wenger still be the manager next season? Will Mesut Özil be there? Will Alexis Sánchez? Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Might they still be able to experience Champions League nights or will it be Europa Thursdays?

As a club Arsenal are operating on two quite different levels at the moment. The visible part is there for all to see and judged on each match day. The less visible part, like the duck’s feet whirring away under the water, is trying to operate the business side. But the trouble is the duck’s legs are tied together. They are struggling to generate momentum because so much is up in the air.

In three weeks the season will be over – possibly with an FA Cup after the final against Chelsea and a snatched top-four Premier League place but very possibly not. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the summer ahead will be a stressful one, with so many influential players coming into the final year of their contracts.

One of them is Sánchez, indisputably Arsenal’s most valuable asset. In a rare interview with Sky Sports over the weekend the Chilean attacker gave an insight into how his frustrations are in part because of his personality but also because he aims higher than the team is capable of reaching at the moment. He talks like a man obsessed with winning.

“I don’t think it has been a very good season for me because I came here to win trophies, to be competing in the Champions League semi-finals and to win the Premier League, and I feel disappointed that we aren’t in a position to win the Premier League or the Champions League,” he said. “We do have the FA Cup final coming up and we’ll give it our all to try to win it.

“When I got here, I thought: ‘I’ll win the title with this squad.’ I feel that we should win more games 3-0 or 4-0. That does sometimes happen when we play very well. I think Arsenal play the best brand of football in England. There have been games when we’ve been in a position to kick on and win, but we’ve made a small mistake and found ourselves 2-0 down. Sometimes that gets to me because winning those points is so important if you want to win the Premier League. I think that, if a player wants to be at the very top, he needs to win the Champions League and league titles. That’s what makes the great players truly great.”

There have been times this season when Sánchez’s body language has tangibly revealed his disillusionment. “As I always say, life is short and a footballer’s career is even shorter,” he said. “I want to win in every training session, I want to win every game I play in. That’s why I sometimes feel powerless when I go home after a bad result.

“It’s very tough, if I’m honest. Every player is very different. There are players who don’t mind. They go out and feel fine about it but the ones that want to win and be champions are the ones that put in the biggest effort, go home and get angry [if it has not gone well]. They lock themselves in and can’t sleep, which is what sometimes happens to me if we’ve lost a key game.”

The risk of losing Sánchez for Arsenal is a double blow in that not only would they be stripped of one of their most talented players, they would also undermine the way they have improved their status in the transfer market in recent seasons. Not so long ago Arsenal were regarded as a selling club whose most important assets could be prised away fairly easily. The summers ruined by the sale of Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie were painful. Putting an end to that, first holding what they have, then stepping forwards boldly enough to recruit elite quality in the shape of Özil and Sánchez, symbolised an enhanced sense of ambition. To lose Sánchez after three years at the club, when he is aged 28 and still very much in his prime, would send a damaging signal.

Will talks on his future hinge on whether Arsenal can get back into the Champions League positions? “It depends,” he said. “What I want to do now is to finish the season well, try to qualify for the Champions League, win the FA Cup and then I’ll sit down with the club to decide what I’m going to do. We’ve said that the two of us [with Wenger] will sit down together to discuss the topic in terms of what will happen, what’s best for the club, what’s best for me, what’s best for him. We’ll speak once the season is over.”

The Guardian Sport

Manchester City Taking Time to Adjust to Guardiola’s Methods, says Kompany


London – Vincent Kompany said Manchester City’s players have taken time to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s approach since his arrival last summer but expects them to end the season strongly and secure Champions League qualification for the eighth consecutive season.

Gabriel Jesus’s equaliser five minutes from time against Middlesbrough on Sunday maintained City’s one-point lead over Manchester United in fifth spot, with Guardiola’s side also level on points and goal difference with third-placed Liverpool as the season reaches its climax.

Crystal Palace are the next visitors to the Etihad Stadium towards the end of a first season under the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager that many had predicted would end in a title challenge.

Since winning their first six Premier League matches, that hope has petered out with only three victories in their last eight games while Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have moved clear in the top two places. Kompany, who made only his sixth start of another injury-hit campaign against Middlesbrough, believes the best is yet to come from City.

“You can’t compare Barcelona and Bayern Munich to Manchester City,” he said in an interview with the Belgian television channel Play Sports. “Guardiola has come to City with a very unique style. And he wants to continue that philosophy. We had to work to adapt to his style. I don’t want to sugarcoat it but I think next season we’ll see if his approach was the right one. It looks like everything is already here but we are still a club under construction. Next season we’ll have to perform better.”

After Palace, City must also play Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion at home before ending the season at Watford. Kompany hopes that could hand them an advantage in the race for the top four and insisted the squad was focused on ending a disappointing campaign on a high. He said: “We will do everything we can to win the last four games but it’s in our heads. It’s not about looking at one game we don’t have to win, or looking at one game above another.

“Every game is priority and we approach every game in that way anyway. I’d swing the hammer if I had to, if I thought there was a lack of motivation or lack of desire. That’s something we shouldn’t allow but I really believe that’s not the case.

“Finish strongly now and we give ourselves something to look forward to next season, because you want to be in four competitions. Sometimes exceptional seasons are built on seasons like this.”

Kompany has started five of City’s past six games – his longest run of matches for nearly two years owing to niggling injuries. The 31-year-old signed from Hamburg in 2008 still has two years left on his contract and, if he can remain fit, has set his sights on leading City to a Champions League triumph before his time is up.

“I’m very happy. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve fought so hard for this,” he said. “My motivation has always been high. I’ve never doubted myself. I’ve that happy feeling: look, I’m back again! I have always been rational. I know my situation and I know why I came back. As long as I feel that inner strength, I’ll be all right. My only wish is that I could be part of the team that reaches that final goal [winning the Champions League]. One day it will happen – I’m sure.”

The Guardian Sport

How Rebecca Lowe Went from England to Become the US’s Face of Football


As a girl in west London, Rebecca Lowe simply aspired to be like her mother, Judith, and become an actor. So how in the world did Lowe end up as a sports broadcaster on a US television network, with a weekly commute across America?

“I have loved football since I was very, very small, and my dad used to take me to games,” she told the Guardian recently. “That’s what comes from my dad.”

Her father is Chris Lowe, a longtime BBC News presenter before he retired in 2009. So when she wound up landing a job in 2013 as host of NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage, she was following in her family’s broadcasting tradition.

She has been married for nearly four years to Paul Buckle, an English former player and manager who is now the coach of the Sacramento Republic, a club in the second-tier United Soccer League. They have a son, Edward Christopher, or Teddy.

So now Lowe flies from her home near Lake Tahoe to the NBC studio in Stamford, Connecticut, where she anchors NBC’s live pre-game, half-time and post-game coverage, most of it in the mornings because of the time difference.

Her English accent adds authenticity to NBC’s coverage, but she says she is just trying to be herself – neither playing up her nationality nor playing it down. “There’s enough to deal with from changing from British TV to American TV,” she says. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”

The Premier League, of course has less of a tradition in the US than it does in England, but she says: “We can teach without being patronizing. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done. We feel, at this moment, like we’re getting the balance right.”

Lowe has earned high marks for her approach to the job. She signed a six-year contract extension with NBC last year that will keep her in her current job until 2022. She has also been an NBC presenter at the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, and she will participate again in 2018, 2020 and 2022. She says she likes the Olympics because it is different, more mainstream.

But she is still very much the network’s face of the Premier League. Asked if she felt like she was a de facto ambassador for English football in the US, she laughs and says: “The Premier League is the product. It sells itself. It represents itself so naturally. I’m just a messenger.”

This is not Lowe’s first go-round in America. During her gap year between Notting Hill & Ealing High School and the University of East Anglia, she studied at the Mercersburg Academy, in south-central Pennsylvania.

“I’m not a trekker, not a backpacker,” she says.

But she already was a football fan. Her dad was a longtime supporter of Crystal Palace, and he’d often take Rebecca and her brother, Alex, who is now a sports reporter for the Times of London.

But Lowe did not really know she wanted to try becoming a broadcaster until 2002, when she decided to fill out an application for the BBC’s talent search for a new football reporter after graduating. She chose not to reveal then that her father was a BBC news presenter.

“I didn’t know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing,” she says.

After she beat about 650 other applicants to win the search, she recalls a BBC employee referring to her father’s connection with the network and saying: “Thank God you didn’t tell us that. They were actually kind of glad I didn’t tell them.”

She was a football reporter for the BBC for five years, filing reports and features. She was one of three network reporters at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. After two years in a similar role at Setanta Sports, she joined ESPN UK in 2009, hosting that network’s Premier League coverage from England.

When her contract with ESPN UK ran out in 2013, Lowe was not sure she wanted to continue in broadcasting. She says: “I was finding out that I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I wanted to.”

NBC Sports had announced in late 2012 that it had signed a three-year, $250m deal to televise Premier League games in English and Spanish beginning in the 2013-4 season. The network needed talent. Lowe’s agent called her. NBC had something for her.

he and her husband had only got married in June 2013, with the NBC job requiring them to move to the United States. Her husband stepped down as the manager of Luton Town and, Lowe says, “was forced to start again from scratch.” He became the technical director at the Metropolitan Oval soccer academy in Queens, New York.

Later, Buckle returned to England to coach Cheltenham Town, but his stay was brief and unsuccessful, so he returned to the US. He was hired in Sacramento in July 2015, when Rebecca was expecting Teddy.

One weekend every Premier League season, she does get to return to England for professional reasons, playing host to a version of the US broadcast, only from the side of the pitch, similar to NBC’s NFL telecasts late in the season. This year’s shows were televised from White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and the Riverside.

The Manchester United-Chelsea match, with an 11am ET kickoff, drew nearly a million viewers in the US. Through 26 April, six matches televised by NBC have drawn at least a million viewers. NBC Sports has televised 16 of the top 20 matches aired live in the United States.

She is happy, at least for now. Lowe says: “I’m a real planner. My husband tells me to stop looking too far in the future.”

But she has a general idea of what she might like to do some day: host a morning show. She likes to interview people, and the wider variety of people, the better. She says, laughing: “There are a lot of people who like hearing about the prime minister and chicken pot pie, back to back.”

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte Set to be Latest Italian Maestro to Win the Premier League


London – The expectation in pre-season was for a sophisticated coach from Europe to arrive at his new Premier League club and drive them to the title. It was supposed to be Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or José Mourinho at Manchester United. Goodness knows, they were backed to the hilt in terms of money for new signings.

It was not supposed to be Antonio Conte at Chelsea. And yet, as he looks forward to Monday’s home fixture against Middlesbrough and Friday’s visit to West Bromwich Albion, he can almost touch the glory. Were Conte to pull it off, and the coming week will surely be decisive with Chelsea’s final two games at home to Watford and Sunderland, then the achievement will be celebrated just as loudly in his native Italy.

Maybe not as loudly as when another Italian surged to the title in England last season. Claudio Ranieri’s feat at Leicester City was the ultimate Cinderella story, but Conte would be feted and is set to become the fourth Italian coach in eight seasons to win the Premier League title. The sequence started with Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea in 2009-2010 and it also took in Roberto Mancini’s triumph at Manchester City in 2011-12.

It is not just in England where Italian managers have thrived and are thriving. Ancelotti has already wrapped up this season’s Bundesliga title for Bayern Munich, while Conte pointed out that his former assistant with the Italy national team, Massimo Carrera, has Spartak Moscow clear at the top of the Russian league. Max Allegri is on course for the title with Juventus and he also has one foot in the Champions League final after last Wednesday’s 2-0 semi-final, first-leg win at Monaco.

What is it about Italian coaches? Certainly, Serie A offers them the comprehensive grounding. Paul Pogba, the Manchester United midfielder, who spent four seasons at Juventus, described Italy’s top division as “the university of football, especially at a tactical level”. Then, there is Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation’s acclaimed technical centre and finishing school for managers.

To Conte, it comes down to the flexibility of Italian coaches and it is a trait he has demonstrated during what has been a wonderful season for him. His most high-profile tweak was to a 3-4-3 system after Chelsea struggled in the early weeks, but there has been so much careful man-management behind the scenes. He has adapted to the individual needs of his players and he has helped, say, Eden Hazard to feel good about himself, which has enabled him to hit top form. Diego Costa has simmered for much of the season but Conte has still been able to push his buttons on match days.

“There is a good school in Italy but, honestly, when you arrive in England and you face this league, you must change your mind on a lot of things,” Conte says. “You must adapt very well and very quickly to this league. It is very difficult, very strong and it’s totally different to the Italian or Spanish leagues.

“In every single game, you must fight a lot. You must put all of yourself into every game and if you think you’re playing a team at a medium level you’re actually preparing for a defeat. For this reason it’s not easy [for an English team] to reach the end of a European competition. Also, for the national team, it’s very difficult to do very well in the World Cup or the Euros because you arrive at the end of the season and the players are tired.”

When Conte was unveiled at Chelsea last July, he alluded to the importance of adaptability. “The coach is a tailor, who must make the best dress for the team,” he said. It is plain that he feels further evolution will be needed next season, when the club make their return to the Champions League.

“It’s important to finish this season and then find the right solution – to prepare our team to face next season,” he says. “Are this Chelsea team good enough as they are for the Champions League? On this, I like to tell my opinion to the club, not the papers. The first pass must be to the club, to tell my opinions about this season and the next, and to find the right solution to be more competitive. Then, it is to face the situation – to sell or to buy new players.”

That is for the summer. For now, Conte is consumed by Middlesbrough and the final title push. It stands to lead him into elite company. “For sure, I looked at the past in England and I saw many Italian managers had won the title,” he says. “It’s great for our school and it’s logical to be proud, no? Last season, I supported Claudio Ranieri a lot to win the title and in Italy we celebrated this win in a great way.”

The Guardian Sport

Novak Djokovic Goes for ‘Nuclear’ Option in Bid to Arrest Worrying Slump


London – It will be surreal in the extreme when Novak Djokovic goes on court in defence of his title in Madrid next week, glances up at his box and the growling, comforting countenances of his fiercely loyal Serbian friends are missing. The troubled world No2 called the nuclear clearout of his support staff on Friday “shock therapy”. And it does have the unmistakeable ring of a psychiatrist’s formula, a decision reached after a deep discussion about life and tennis. It also has the ring of desperation.

Whatever the agreed public stance of mutual agreement, these are close friends and confidants he has let go, not just employees. They have been with him most of the past decade and were a tight-knit unit.

Djokovic’s departing coach, Marian Vajda, had been alongside him since 2006, before he won the first of his 12 slam titles, fitness coach Gebhard “GG” Phil Gritsch was there “eight years to the day”, as he said later, and his physiotherapist, Miljan Amanovic, had been a part of this imposing inner sanctum for just as long, rarely quoted, unquestioningly committed to the cause. Others also gathered around him for big matches. It was some posse.

Players split with coaches all the time. Although Andy Murray has been reconciled for a year now with Ivan Lendl after a messy divorce, he has said goodbye to half-a-dozen mentors with professional ruthlessness. Even the ever-calm Roger Federer needed a couple of years with Stefan Edberg, his personal hero, to brighten up his game, before the Swede moved quietly out of the picture at the end of 2015.

It will seem different altogether, though, when Vajda, GG and Amanovic are not there for Djokovic in Madrid against either of the expert Spanish clay-courters, Tommy Robredo or Nicolás Almagro. Either opponent would regard Djokovic as beatable. He has not been this vulnerable on court for a long time.

Quite who Djokovic will call on to replace his compadres is a mystery. He followed Murray’s lead three years ago when he turned to a former leading player in Boris Becker and he might do something similar again. There will be no shortage of candidates and whoever it is will have the luxury of a relatively free hand.

Even the ebullient German sometimes wondered if he was as deeply embedded as the others. He notoriously risked his boss’s wrath when he revealed last year that they often called out to their employer during a match in Serb or Croat, possibly passing on advice that bordered on coaching, which is not allowed. When Becker left, it was thought the Djokovic camp would turn inwards again and remain strong. For a while, they did.

Vajda’s exit is not a complete surprise. He had long ago tired of the travel and cut down his overseas commitments during Becker’s three years, so that separation had already begun. The first signs of a more fundamental change arrived about a year ago, though, almost imperceptibly.

Into the mix stepped Pepe Imaz, a former fringe Tour player from Spain who sells contentment through meditation. Imaz was prominent courtside, giving headline writers a gift when he arrived in flowing robes and long hair. Djokovic did not like his friend characterised as a guru, but an hour-long video of the player speaking at one of Imaz’s meetings did little to dispel the notion.

Coincidentally or not, Imaz joined the Djokovic caravan about the time the then world No1 was experiencing what he would later describe as personal issues. Whatever was troubling him, his game suffered. An elbow injury struck, too. At the Rio Olympics, Djokovic was a not-so-shock first-round loser to Juan Martin del Potro. The Serb was inconsolable in defeat. There could be no doubting his desire to do well for his country.

At the Paris Masters, he collapsed to hand Murray his world No1 crown and retreated with unusual grumpiness. While his relationship with British tennis writers has always been cordial, it briefly deteriorated, culminating in a verbal spat with a tabloid writer after he had lost to Murray at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. The exchange went viral on social media among the Serb’s thousands of aggrieved fans.

The new season brought no respite. Djokovic lost to Denis Istomin in the first week of the Australian Open, just before Murray lost to Mischa Zverev, which opened the door for Federer’s astonishing return after six months away. Neither the new world No1 nor the old world No1 has properly returned to his best since – which seems to have unsettled Djokovic more than it has Murray.

When Djokovic lost four sets in a row against Nick Kyrgios in consecutive hardcourt tournaments this year, mild concern grew into genuine consternation. Nobody beats Djokovic twice in a row, to borrow from Vitas Gerulaitis.

In a carefully prepared statement on his Facebook page on Friday afternoon, Djokovic asserted: “I want to find a way to come back to the top stronger and more resilient. I am a hunter.”

Before he fell to earth on his second visit to Paris last year, Djokovic was the hunted, the world No1 for 122 weeks in a row. Even after losing to the estimable David Goffin in Monte Carlo last month, he was adamant: “I fear no one.”

That is the Djokovic the game needs restored to full power. He has been an awesome sight and will surely be so again, perhaps when he returns to Roland Garros as champion next month. But it will not be as easy as it once was. Far from it. He is involved in a serious personal battle of character and self-belief. Uncertain as a prodigy, he grew in strength as his talent blossomed and he crushed his peers. Now, for the first time in his career, he must do it alone.

The Guardian Sport