Martin O’Neill Is in the Managerial Elite Even If a Top Job Eludes him

O'Neill

London – Blink, and you might have missed the part Shepshed Charterhouse, in the puddles and potholes of the Northern Premier League, played in the professional life of Martin O’Neill, back in the days when aspiring managers were prepared to start at the bottom and learn the hard way.

O’Neill’s first steps in management were actually with Grantham Town, grubbing around for points in the then Beazer Homes League, Midlands Division, a couple of rungs below the Conference. O’Neill arranged the deal at a bed-and-breakfast on the A52 and had a five-year plan in place until he ended up falling out with the chairman and, still in situ, found his job being advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. Shepshed were next but O’Neill’s time at the Dovecote was distinguished only by how quickly he came and went. The unofficial website for what is now Shepshed Dynamo summed it up rather neatly: “1989 – July – appointed Martin O’Neill as manager. October – sacked Martin O’Neill as manager. Wonder what became of him.”

In fact, O’Neill was not sacked and the truth makes for an even better story. O’Neill, like many ex-pros of that time, had been embarking on a career in insurance, working in the offices of Save & Prosper while his old pal and team-mate, John Robertson, his No2 at Shepshed, was out on the road trying to drum up business. It is a situation that could never happen now: two European Cup winners adjusting to a nine-to-five office job. The problem was combining that with trying to run a football team. “On one occasion we were almost late getting to a midweek match against Frickley Colliery in south Yorkshire,” Robertson recalls. It was obvious it could not continue that way and O’Neill gave up Shepshed to concentrate on Save & Prosper.

It is a great story bearing in mind what we know now, almost 30 years on, about his list of achievements, most recently as manager of the Republic of Ireland, the conveyor belt of players who speak about him in awe and the unmistakable sense, more than anything, that they will give absolutely everything they have to get his approval.

My first professional dealings with O’Neill came at Leicester City – the club where, I always maintain, he put together his most outstanding work. O’Neill had taken over in the same week that I had moved to the city and, as a young agency reporter putting out the old rotary-dial telephones in the pressbox, it was a marvel to see, up‑close, how much the players and fans at Filbert Street disliked him when he took over and how, by the end, he had the entire city dancing to his tune.

O’Neill faced down the makings of a dressing-room mutiny and transformed a second-tier team in such an invigorating way the people of Leicester, pre-2016, could have been forgiven for wondering whether it would ever get any better. There were four top-10 finishes after securing promotion with virtually the final kick of O’Neill’s first season, in the 1996 play-off final. His team reached three League Cup finals, winning two, and lifted their first silverware since 1964. They went to Anfield four times, won three and drew the other.

Everyone remembers Dennis Bergkamp’s improvisational brilliance for his hat-trick goal at Leicester in August 1997. What tends to be forgotten is that it came in the third minute of stoppages and O’Neill’s team still found the time to conjure up the final goal of a 3-3 draw. Bergkamp left the pitch that night shaking his head in disbelief and that, in a nutshell, was the O’Neill effect. In all the years since, it is difficult to recall more than a handful of teams with such a spirit of togetherness.

It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see Ireland qualifying, at the expense of Wales, for a place in Tuesday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs and there have been so many other examples of O’Neill’s expertise in the interim years it does feel slightly unfair, perhaps, that he has never been given a chance to manage one of the Premier League’s elite clubs.

It tends to be forgotten, for example, that there was once a time when O’Neill was the overwhelming favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. O’Neill was managing Celtic at the time, where he won seven trophies and reached the Uefa Cup final, and the Manchester press corps still talk about the 2003 press conference before the two teams played a pre-season fixture in Seattle. When O’Neill was asked about replacing Ferguson he answered with great diplomacy bearing in mind the man himself was directly to his left. Yet the journalist who asked the question was already feeling a pair of Glaswegian eyes boring into his skull. “Don’t worry about him,” Ferguson whispered to O’Neill, quietly enough not to be heard by his audience but loud enough to be picked up by the tapes. Ferguson always sounded extra Glaswegian and talked a little bit quicker when his temper had been roused.

All good fun. The problem for O’Neill if he did fancy that job was that Ferguson – “The Man Who Couldn’t Retire,” as the Daily Telegraph called him – stayed for another 10 years and when United did finally need a new manager, in May 2013, it was two months after “Squire”, as he is still known by his old Nottingham Forest team-mates (a nod to his university background), had been sacked for the only time in his career. Even the most accomplished managers tend to have one club on their CV where it goes wrong. For O’Neill, his spell in the managerial wasteland of Sunderland came at the worst possible time.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that his four years at Aston Villa are not remembered more fondly by their supporters. Villa finished 11th, up from 16th, in his first campaign and then sixth in each of O’Neill’s last three seasons at the club, qualifying for Europe and, in 2010, reaching a Wembley final. They improved their points total every season and in his second campaign they scored more times, 71, than they had since winning the league a quarter of a century before. The 1980-81 team managed 72 – but that was over 42 games, not 38.

The call won’t come now, though. O’Neill recently agreed a two-year extension to his contract with Ireland. He will be 68 when it expires and he might just have to accept that some of the elite clubs could be put off by his team’s lack of artistic merit.

Equally, take a close look at the squad before questioning why Ireland don’t pass the ball more elegantly. Eighteen of the players O’Neill called up for the Wales game were from teams in the Championship, whereas only 11 came from top-division clubs. Of those, only three played for teams that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Where Roy Keane once patrolled, it is now David Meyler of Hull City. For Robbie Keane, it is Daryl Murphy of Nottingham Forest. James McClean is now probably Ireland’s best player. He will run until he drops and his goal against Wales was taken beautifully – but, as wingers go, he is hardly in the class of Liam Brady. Or even Damien Duff. Is it any wonder the opposition often have more of the ball?

The point is there are all sorts of ways to win a football match. O’Neill won the European Cup for a side whose backs-to-the-wall operation against Hamburg in the 1980 final was denounced in the German press as “Blitzkrieg football” and described by Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times as “tactical cowardice”. Do you think Clough cared when he had the trophy on top of his television? And would you imagine O’Neill will worry about the unrealistic snobbery if he makes it to Russia next summer with one of the least distinguished groups of Irish players for some time?

For now, O’Neill’s CV is the best response. It always was. Robertson remembers what his mate was like in the world of insurance. “By his own admission, Martin’s knowledge of the financial services we were trying to sell was not the best. But he came across as though he knew the business inside out.”

The Guardian Sport

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

Chelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special

Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from the Weekend’s Action

sport

London – 1) Hughton hankers after firepower

Chris Hughton, the Brighton & Hove Albion manager, said it all when he highlighted how his team had not been “out of sight” against Arsenal, just as they had not been against Manchester City on the opening weekend of the season. On both occasions, the final scoreline of 0-2 hinted at respectability. Which, in truth, was Brighton’s priority. The gap to the Premier League’s top six clubs yawns like a chasm and Hughton’s approach at the Emirates Stadium – an approach born out of necessity – was characterised by damage limitation. Hughton used a 4-5-1 system and, even after Nacho Monreal’s early opener, Brighton did not come out. Their lack of firepower remains a worry. It was the fourth time in seven league matches that they had drawn a blank. However, their season will not be defined by away games like this. David Hytner

2) Vardy’s body needs some respite

After an uneasy start to the season, in which Leicester City have earned a meagre five points, Craig Shakespeare can find some respite before they host West Bromwich Albion on 16 October. The same applies for Jamie Vardy – omitted from the England squad – who will be given a steroid injection to solve his hip problem this week. His manager defended the striker’s decision to play through the pain barrier for his club but not country. “The idea for us and for England is he comes back once he’s had that little bit of a break raring to go again,” Shakespeare said, adding that medical staff from both parties had discussed the issue. “It’s never been questioned, Jamie wants to play for England and for Leicester. The time now: it’s right to give him this break, just to give a little bit of a rest, to fully recover from this injury.” Ben Fisher

3) Conte needs to find a plan B

Antonio Conte returns home to Italy for a few days over the international window seeking “a rest”, but he will spend the next fortnight stewing on the defeat to Manchester City. He has retained a league title as a manager before, though never in a division where the elite are quite this reinforced. At Juventus in 2012 he had been braced for a renewed challenge from Milan. “But, instead, they sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain, so they became weaker,” he said. “It wasn’t simple second time, but it was easier. Here, from last season to this, you have big teams becoming bigger.” Manchester City demonstrated as much at Chelsea’s expense on Saturday, and Manchester United, only off the top on goal difference, appear just as imposing. Therein lies the justification for Conte’s frustration, aired within Stamford Bridge over the summer, at the need for more significant squad strengthening to keep ahead of the rest. The head coach always knew life was going to be harder this time round. Saturday proved it. Dominic Fifield

4) Everton need to go back to basics

Everton’s struggles continue. While not replacing Romelu Lukaku’s clinical finishing is obviously a problem so, too, is Ronald Koeman’s defence. Michael Keane was signed in the summer from Burnley for £30m. But statuesque defending made Burnley look more like Barcelona as they combined for a total of 24 passes through nine players for Jeff Hendrick to apply the finishing touch past Jordan Pickford. Morgan Schneiderlin allowed Hendrick to ease past him, leaving Pickford stranded, and the lack of desire from the Frenchman and the unit as a whole shows a defence badly out of form. At this stage last season Everton had conceded four goals and kept three clean sheets. They have now conceded 12. If Koeman cannot bring his side back to basing their success on being difficult to beat then, regardless of how well his expensive attacking force play, Everton will continue the struggle. Graham Searles

5) Huddersfield crash back down to earth

Amid a cornucopia of perks, the downside to being a footballer is that you have to do your growing-up in public. So far in his short career Dele Alli has attracted derision for some naughty challenges, a rude gesture and, on Saturday against Huddersfield Town, a devious dive. Those deeds were varying degrees of bad. But if they are the worst things that this 21-year-old has done while rising to the top of a fiercely competitive profession, and if he learns from them, then who among us can honestly hold them against him for long? As for Huddersfield, they entered this match with the second best defensive record in the Premier League, but ended with their first home defeat in the league this season. “They’re one of the best teams in the league. You could tell that,” the Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy said after the defeat. Paul Doyle

6) Hodgson wants his players to show their mettle

Crystal Palace’s hammering at Manchester United makes it seven defeats from as many Premier League games, 17 goals conceded and none scored. Chelsea visit Selhurst Park on 14 October. So, how is the spirit among Roy Hodgson’s players? “It’s been excellent,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to get more fractious because we put our messages across quite strongly and there will be some on the field who don’t pick up those messages as quickly as others. But that’s nothing I can’t deal with.” Yet the manager will again be without three key figures for Chelsea’s visit. “[Christian] Benteke won’t be back for a few weeks, so we still won’t have a recognised centre forward. Wilf Zaha probably won’t be back [each has a knee problem]. Ruben Loftus-Cheek [ineligible] can’t play. So it’s got to be the lads I put out there who go out there and run their bollocks off, if you excuse my expression, to try to do the best job they can possibly do,” Hodgson says. It may get worse before it gets any better. Jamie Jackson

7) Lack of finishing power haunting Klopp’s men

Time was when Newcastle v Liverpool was a match anticipated like no other. Two aggressive teams who were seemingly interested only in attacking and with centre-forwards who could be relied upon to deliver in front of goal. The thing is that time was more than 20 years ago. While Liverpool’s aspirations have not changed much in that time, namely a first league title since 1990, Newcastle had to recalibrate theirs long ago. The death of Freddy Shepherd last week, and his commemoration at this match, served as a reminder of the Magpies’ Icarus-like brush with the Premier League title in 1996. For Newcastle, this draw will have given them encouragement in their ability to hold out against better sides. For Liverpool, the failure to convert chances, once again, haunts them, like that clock that has been ticking for 27 years. Conrad Leach

8) Pellegrino needs a rethink on forward options

There is an argument that Southampton’s attackers lost so much confidence under Claude Puel last season that it will take time for Mauricio Pellegrino’s ideas to take hold. But after this defeat by Stoke City, concern is growing about Pellegrino’s flexibility. Southampton’s two wins have come against Crystal Palace and a 10-man West Ham, and scoring five goals in seven matches has not exactly set pulses racing at St Mary’s. Pellegrino has favoured a 4-2-3-1 system and Shane Long started as a lone striker against Stoke, with Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini both on the bench. Long’s tireless running can be useful in that role, but his selflessness is rendered ineffective by the inability of Southampton’s creative players to take advantage of the space created by the Irish forward. Might it be time for Pellegrino to think about pairing Long with Austin or Gabbiadini? Jacob Steinberg

9) West Brom treading water despite money spent
There was a feeling that West Brom had made some brilliant signings when the transfer window closed, and the excitement around the Hawthorns was tangible. A month later the view about Albion’s activity in the market has not changed but the same cannot be said for the mood. Albion sit 10th, which is respectable enough, but the broader picture shows only three wins from 19 league matches and, perhaps most frustratingly for the supporters, no shift in the way the team plays, despite £40m being spent. Tony Pulis is never going to ask his teams to open up and play gung-ho, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the group of players at his disposal should be capable of coming up with a better way of holding on to a 2-1 lead than time-wasting almost throughout the second half. The tactics were overly negative and came back to bite Albion when Watford scored a 95th-minute equaliser. Stuart James

10) Clement’s cupboard is bare in attack

It was always likely to be a difficult season for Swansea after the departures of Fernando Llorente and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Their combination was pivotal in Swansea’s fight to stay up and it is no surprise they are toiling without them. Paul Clement could not hide his frustration after the defeat to West Ham, which pushed Swansea into the bottom three. The manager was pleased with his team’s composed passing in midfield but he was unhappy with their decisions in the final third and critical of his forwards for their timidity. Wilfried Bony had one effort before being taken off at half-time, while Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew were quiet. Yet Clement must also shoulder some of the blame. Swansea created nothing at the London Stadium and three goals in seven games is damning. They lack imagination and width and will be in huge trouble if nothing changes. Jacob Steinberg

The Guardian Sport

From Essien to Cole: the Story of Five Former Premier League Players in Indonesia

Michael Essien is watched by thousands of fans during practice for Persib Bandung, where he reportedly earns an annual salary of $750,000, around £10,000 a week.

Five former Premier League stars went to Indonesia this season and their adventures have been as varied and colorful as the vast archipelago itself, with lashings of cash, recriminations, culture shock and endings as predictable as most Enid Blyton Famous Five tales. In the space of a few weeks in March and April, Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mohamed Sissoko and Didier Zokora all arrived in south-east Asia. Two have already gone, one is a hero, and the other two players find themselves somewhere in between.

For a country without much history of big-name signings, this was a change. Lee Hendrie and Marcus Bent had provided a little Premier League pedigree in the previous decade. Mario Kempes and Roger Milla were more famous but their early to mid-90s spells were fading in the memory.

In truth, Indonesian clubs have had plenty of other things to think about in recent times. In 2015, there was no league at all as Fifa banned the country from the international game because of government interference in the sport, but that almost came as a relief after years of turmoil. In 2003 the federation chief, Nurdin Halid, was imprisoned for corruption. There followed breakaway federations, leagues and national teams. When foreign players made the headlines, the stories tended to be tragic such as the death in 2012 of the Paraguayan Diego Mendieta, who was unable to afford medical bills after his club failed to pay his wages.

Indonesia’s passion for the game is undeniable but can sometimes go too far – Save our Soccer, a watchdog group, estimates that a recent fan death was the 54th football-related fatality since the mid-90s and the 36th in the past five years – and the country’s interest in the game is matched only by its impatience. Frank de Boer could spare a thought for the Austrian Hans-Peter Schaller, sacked by Bali United just two games into his new job. In Indonesia, honeymoons are for beaches, not pitches.

All imports, famous or not, had better perform from the start if they are to avoid an early exit and that is especially true at Persib Bandung. The biggest club in the country signed Cole and Essien and expectations were intense. But with the season less than a month old (and fans grumbling about the style of play from a team that were then top of the table), it was clear that Cole was not going to last long. The former West Ham forward arrived in Asia looking as fresh as a Friday afternoon commuter after a week stuck in the traffic of Indonesia’s third-biggest city. The 33-year-old spent much of his time standing in the penalty area waiting for crosses that never came. He failed to score a single goal.

Rumors soon abounded that Cole had not been wanted by the team manager, Umuh Muchtar, and that there was a battle for control being waged behind the scenes at the club owned by the Internazionale chairman, Erick Thohir. Umuh kept up his offensive, saying in May that playing with the No9 was akin to playing with 10 men and claiming that Cole had been selected for a third game – his first start for the club after two substitute appearances – only to show curious fans why the striker was not being selected.

Umuh was not the head coach, though, that was Djadjang Nurdjaman, a legend of the club who was also soon on his way out; team manager is often the more powerful position in south-east Asian clubs. Before he left, Djadjang put Cole’s and Essien’s lethargic starts down to a lack of pre-season, acclimatization and sleep. Cole’s nightmare finally ended in August after just 268 minutes of action. The former England forward, who had kept his cool when all about him were not finding his head, finally found his target on social media. “I haven’t been treated fairly but I kept my mouth shut and worked hard and kept everything professional,” he posted.

Essien is still there, better but hardly imperious. There have been touches, through-balls and the occasional assist and goal but the former Real Madrid and Chelsea midfielder has not shown the form that so endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful. If Essien, reportedly receiving an annual salary of about $750,000 (£10,000 a week), has not exactly excelled in Indonesia, then the same was true of Didier Zokora at Semen Padang. The midfielder did not score in three seasons with Tottenham and was not going to change that in just over three months in Sumatra. The Ivorian was released as the club struggled to pay his salary after eight matches and no goals.

There has been better news elsewhere. The former Liverpool midfielder Sissoko has impressed at Mitra Kukar, chipping in with five goals for the Borneo club. But there is no doubt as to which of the five is the happiest: Odemwingie may have been ridiculed in England for driving down to QPR on transfer deadline day in a failed attempt to secure a move from West Brom but the 36-year-old Nigerian has been driving Madura United up the table. In the first half of the season at least, he could hardly stop scoring: long-range howitzers, headers, tidy finishes and the occasional scuffed shot. He raced to 13 goals from the first 12 games.

A mixed, and expensive, bag then. But the most successful import of all could end up being Simon McMenemy. The 39-year-old manager from Aberdeen has led unfashionable Bhayangkara, owned by the country’s head policeman, to the top of the league with a third of the season remaining. Sometimes it is not all about the money and these days in football, that really would be a story.

(The Gurdian)

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

League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

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

sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Guardian)

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from This Weekend’s Action

Clockwise from the left: Raheem Sterling, Arsene Wenger, Harry Kane, Antonio Conte, and Frank de Boer.

1) Guardiola learning from Sterling, rather than vice versa
After Raheem Sterling again came to the fore, for the second time in six days, it was inevitable that Pep Guardiola would face questions about the in-form winger. What was not quite so expected was the Manchester City manager’s revelation that he has not been inspiring Sterling in training but that it has, in fact, been the other way around. “I learn from him,” Guardiola said. “The players improve the managers, believe me. The players have the talent, the talent from Sterling to dribble one against one, two against one, I am not involved in absolutely anything about that.” Guardiola insisted he cannot teach Sterling’s instincts in front of goal, saying that is purely his “talent”, but how then do his players improve? “I don’t know, maybe you improve, maybe you have to find another manager, I don’t know,” he said, grinning. Ben Fisher

2) Conte tries to reassure Chelsea he won’t walk out
Tension has been festering at Chelsea all summer, born of frustrations in the transfer market, but Antonio Conte has at least attempted to reassure the club’s support that his future will be at Stamford Bridge regardless of the board’s successes over the next four days. “My message for the fans is: I’m totally committed to the club,” he said. “Totally committed to improve my players. I’m a coach, not a manager. When you want to strengthen your squad, you have to give your opinion and speak with your club, but then the club goes into the transfer market to try and sort the situation. To try and help us. Sometimes it is possible. Sometimes it’s not possible. But I must be focused with things on the pitch and continue to work with my players.” That was not the outburst of a man likely to stomp away from a new two-year contract in a huff this week if things go poorly. Dominic Fifield

3) What next for Crystal Palace? The return of Allardyce?
Managers do not last long in the Premier League. I know that, you know that, Claudio Ranieri knows that. Nevertheless, the news that Frank de Boer is in danger of losing his job at Crystal Palace after four games in charge is pretty astonishing. Yes, Palace have been terrible under the Dutchman, no more so than against Swansea City on Saturday when they deservedly lost a third league match in succession, performing in a manner that was as shoddy as it was toothless, but a new approach – one that is also meant to benefit Palace in the long term in regards to how they nurture young talent – was always going to take time to bed in and having taken a leap of faith the least Palace’s board could do is hold their nerve longer than they appear willing. And what if they do sack De Boer– persuade Sam Allardyce to return? Good luck with that, Steve Parish. Sachin Nakrani

4) Saints should sell Van Dijk unless the circumstances are just right
The official line from Southampton is that they expect Virgil van Dijk to remain in their employment beyond transfer deadline day on Thursday. That makes perfect sense if: (a) the club are convinced that the player will swallow his disappointment and resume performing at his imperious best; and (b) the club have enough money to improve their misfiring attack without selling their best defender. If those two conditions cannot be met, then Southampton should sell Van Dijk this week, even to Liverpool – especially if they could get Daniel Sturridge as part of the deal. Paul Doyle

5) Arsenal brought a paintbrush to a gunfight
Liverpool will swarm plenty of teams this season, but few will collapse with Arsenal’s alacrity. It is important to state how well the hosts played at Anfield, and this must reflect how well they prepared because there are no secrets to Liverpool: they are fast, hard and aggressive, especially at the start. Yet Arsenal sauntered about cluelessly, bringing a paintbrush to a gunfight and the hiding they received was richly deserved. Arsène Wenger will take most of the flak, but his board and players are culpable too. Daniel Harris

6) Will Old Trafford finally make some noise under Mourinho?
What will it take for the Old Trafford atmosphere to rise above the lukewarm? José Mourinho was critical of the noise levels at home last season and was at it again after the win against Leicester on Saturday, making an unprompted half-joke that he knew Marcus Rashford had scored because it was the first time he had heard the crowd. The clearly premeditated point came as no surprise to anyone who, a couple of minutes after Marouane Fellaini had made victory certain, saw Mourinho turn to the fans behind his dugout, cup his ears and shrug his shoulders. The disappointments of the post-Ferguson era may well have taken a cumulative toll but there is clear evidence that Mourinho is taking United in the right direction and perhaps he is right to wonder whether everyone might pull together a little more. United are going well, but there will be days when they need the kind of push he feels they are not receiving. Nick Ames

7) Merino reminds Benítez of Xabi Alonso
If the cold war between Rafael Benítez and Mike Ashley is far from over, victory against West Ham United prompted a temporary resumption of normal life with the manager answering questions about pure football rather than internecine politics. These included a query as to whether Mikel Merino, the Spain Under-21 midfielder and Borussia Dortmund loanee, who excelled in central midfield, showcasing some defence splitting passing, reminded him of Xabi Alonso. “There are similarities with Alonso,” Benítez said. “They’re both Basques and they’re similar because of the way they read the game. Alonso’s long passing was better but Merino is more mobile and dynamic.” Aleksandar Mitrovic simply remains a liability. The scorer of Newcastle’s third goal could well receive a retrospective red card for an off-ball elbow on Manuel Lanzini. While it will be no surprise if Mitrovic departs Tyneside this week, Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham seems almost as uncertain. Louise Taylor

8) Heaton the reason why Kane’s ‘August drought’ continues
Harry Kane has scored a goal for Spurs in August; against AEL Limassol in a 2014 Europa League qualifier. So let that be the end of that talk. He is still to get one in the Premier League for sure and the wait will continue for another year after several chances came and went against Burnley. As with the question over whether Wembley affects the Tottenham team, it is tempting to speculate whether this quirky statistic might have been playing on Kane’s mind. Was he nervous? Unlikely. Was he too keen to score? Perhaps. But the most prominent factor in his failure to find the net was the positioning and anticipation of the Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton. In fact, when Spurs forced the game too much at 1-0 up in an attempt to kill the Wembley hoodoo for good, Kane stayed calm and did the rational, optimal thing. It’s what he always does. He’ll be back in the goals soon enough.Paul MacInnes

9) Brighton badly need a striker before the transfer window shuts
For a team yet to score a goal after three matches, the biggest problem Brighton & Hove Albion face is to try to solve the shortage of striking options. Chris Hughton did not shy away from the fact that his team did not even have a centre forward on the bench as they tried to engineer a match-winner at Watford. Unluckily, one of their main summer targets, Raphael Dwamena, failed a medical last week. “It’s not a usual set of circumstances, but all you can do is move on from that and go to the next set of targets,” says Hughton. He acknowledges that is easier said than done with the market unrecognisable from the last time he was in Premier League football. “I’ve not seen a jump in the [transfer fee] levels like we have seen this summer,” the Brighton manager says. The clock is ticking to recruit a striker before the window shuts. Amy Lawrence

10) Does Pulis deserve to be ‘slaughtered’ by his old fans?
Tony Pulis may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it would be fair to say that freeflowing, expansive attacking football has never been his thing, yet it still felt strange to hear the Stoke City supporters at the Hawthorns turning on their former manager and a style of football that they accepted for many years. “Tony Pulis, your football is shit,” was the chant that surfaced from the away end on several occasions. Pulis spent seven years at Stoke in his second spell, taking the club back into the top flight for the first time since 1985. By the end he had outstayed his welcome – the fans were no longer willing to tolerate direct, uncompromising football when Pulis had better players at his disposal, which is fair enough. Whether Pulis deserves to be publicly slaughtered in the way that he was at Albion on Sunday, however, is another matter. Stuart James

(The Guardian)

Why Are So Many Premier League Teams so bad in Defence?

sport

London- Even before the Premier League got round to the traditional kick-off time, 13 goals had been scored in two games. A total of 31 goals were scored over the opening weekend as the first three of last season’s top six to play all conceded three. Take that, Spain, with your Cristiano Ronaldo controversies! Take that, Italy, with your resurgent Milan! Take that, Germany, with your finely tuned pressing structures! Take that, France, with your Neymar, your Bielsa and your Balotelli! For drama and giggling hilarity, the Premier League remains king.

It’s not king, obviously, if you want success in the Champions League. Nor is it king if you want to develop young players for the national side. And it’s certainly not king if you believe football clubs should have a pastoral role towards the communities they at least nominally represent. But for excitement and spectacle, for the sense that any daft thing could happen at any moment, it still rules.

That’s partly to do with the number of high-quality managers and players in the league, it’s partly to do with a general competitiveness and it’s a lot to do with the fact that a number of the top sides simply cannot defend. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all have major issues to resolve before a weekend in which they face Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, all sides who have troubled them in the recent past.

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

Both of those are, of course, hugely positive developments; for everything else that has gone wrong with the game’s governance over the past couple of decades, the law changes have been broadly positive, encouraging teams actually to play the game.

There are also wider tactical issues. Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s demand for the “universal player” and Pep Guardiola’s related comment that he dreams of a side of 11 midfielders may be the abstract concerns of the very elite, but the mentality has percolated the game. There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

The central defender as auxiliary playmaker is a core tenet of the Cruyffian line of thinking that has shaped the modern landscape, from Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard to Javier Mascherano and David Alaba. It’s why the likes of John Stones and David Luiz are excused their lapses, and why Arsenal on Friday started with a back three featuring two left-backs.

Almost all full-backs these days, meanwhile, are in effect wing-backs. It’s a crude measure but, last weekend, players who started as full-backs or wing-backs in the Premier League made 83 tackles and put in 123 crosses; their job is increasingly to provide attacking width rather than simply to defend. That, inevitably, can create issues: Hoffenheim’s penalty against Liverpool on Tuesday night, for instance, came because Alberto Moreno closed down the goalkeeper, leaving a huge gap on the left side when the ball was played beyond him.

The recent preference for a back three is in part a reaction to the attacking nature of modern full-backs, but the mentality often seems to be that the extra body can hide defensive flaws – only for them then to be exposed by savvy opponents.

But it’s not a coincidence that the Premier League has become the global home of shambolic defending. That seems a natural consequence of the soap opera of the market, the endless lust for new signings. A lot of defending is about drilling, about the same players – not just defenders – doing the same thing over and over and over again until they learn the patterns of interaction that maintain a shape that is difficult to break down. If there is constant flux in a squad, it becomes almost impossible to build up any level of familiarity.

Virgil van Dijk is an excellent defender but if he joins Liverpool today, they won’t suddenly become a side with an excellent defence. There will have to be time spent familiarising himself with the pressing game Klopp favours, getting used to how the full-backs push forward, to how his fellow centre-backs like to play, how Liverpool’s midfield reacts to situations. Dejan Lovren, it may be recalled, also left Southampton with a fine reputation and Liverpool remain far from secure at the back.

But it’s not just Liverpool where that’s an issue. It’s as though English football exists in such a swirl of comings and goings that the idea of working things out on the training pitch doesn’t exist any more. The one manager who did do that last season, Antonio Conte, now has to handle a squad that appears weirdly fraught and demoralised, a situation exacerbated by his own clear dissatisfaction at a lack of signings.

That’s an internal political issue; for a number of others, though, now might be a good time to start addressing basic flaws of concentration and structure.

The Guardian Sport