Alexis brings Arsenal poison to Manchester

Man. Man. Man.

Second-placed Manchester United recorded a shock loss to Newcastle this afternoon. The Magpies, many many places below, somehow managed to conjure a 1-0 win against the cash-rich Reds with Pogba, Lukaku, and Sanchez, all in the team.

It just goes to show spending money doesn’t necessarily transfer to winning.

You could say the same thing again.

Arsenal have splurged millions on Mkitharyan and Aubameyang and the summer signing Lacazette is now the third choice striker! Like United, they have splurged millions on the front line, also tying Ozil down to a new contract.

Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! If you are a seasoned Arsenal fan, you would have known that is where the problem lies.

Actually, it seems the problem lies with the gaffer.

Tottenham showed Arsenal who currently rules the roost in the North London derby and are the best-placed London team now in third.

How have they done it? With a solid backline to complement a good front line.

It’s not rocket science – as Newcastle showed. Defend well, and catch the offensive team when they are tired or mentally unprepared.

The best teams always play a solid back four.

Strike Farce

The Premier League transfer window has closed and some crazy deals were done, and some crazy deals were not done. But thankfully, no one should be talking about Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil leaving Arsenal ever – it is time for the press to find a new angle!

Speaking of Arsenal, who was the biggest winner in the Arsenal – Chelsea – Dortmund strike triangle? Aubameyang’s release from Dortmund could only take place if they got Batshuayi, and Michy Batshuayi went to Dortmund on condition that Chelsea could sign Giroud. How complicated! It’s like being in a chain! Did the teams – specifically Arsenal not learn already from their transfer story in the summer, when A.S. was supposed to go to Manchester City on condition that Arsenal secured the services of Thomas Lemar? It is complicated when the deal involves two, but when it involves three … well, let’s just say luckily for Arsenal they managed to pull it off. If Giroud had missed going to Chelsea, you would have yet another striker going on strike. Like Riyadh Mahrez at Leicester.

Giroud’s aim to get regular football was with a view to getting selected for the World Cup. He had not been playing regularly for Arsenal and was worried he might be overlooked for selection. At 31, this would probably be his last World Cup, unless he does a Miroslav Klose and manages to keep up his intensity for another four years. His reluctance to leave London was because he had recently become a father for the third time, and the support network of friends and family are really based in London, where he has been since joining Arsenal in 2012. Arsenal’s deal with Chelsea with Giroud will be for an eighteen month loan, which suits Giroud because he gets to play first team football for World Cup selection, Arsenal get their new front three some regular time to play together, and then Giroud comes back to join them – possibly – or secures a permanent deal.

Chelsea have got an experienced Premier League striker to back up Morata. Win win for both.

And Batshuayi? I can’t say I know what Dortmund would make of him in the long term, but then again he has not really played much apart from the lead in to the transfer window when Conte gave him chance to peddle his skills as advertisement. He may have scored two in his debut against Koln, but remember that this is the initial rush of showing a new team what you can do – the difference is how he can keep it up in the long term, which of you’ve not played regularly for months, means you are going to struggle.

Don’t forget that the Bat man scored two in a game against the Bundesliga’s bottom club. Of course he would do well. It would be like Henrikh Mkitharyan debuting against Swansea.

Hang on. He did.

Where will Arsene Wenger play his new three? Make no mistake, he is probably reserving them for use in the Europa League. He has realised he is not going to get back in the top four, and is doing a Mourinho to get Champions League football by the back passage. And with three superstars ahead of him to take the flak for poor performances, at least Mesut Ozil can play creatively without worrying. And watch for Wenger to blood his new buys into the team with games against Ludogrets and Sevilla. And Alex Iwobi and Chuba Akpom to lead the line in Premier League games.

What a thought!

Star Wars: A New Hope

You know the feeling.

You go out regularly with a group of friends – perhaps you are part of a group or club like Scouts that meets at weekends.

And maybe one of the people in your group like the leader has bad body odour that affects the group. It’s the sort of thing that gets tolerated but uncomfortable. Within the group no one dares to say anything about it, because it is after all a sensitive topic.

So you get on with it, and get on with doing the group things, and the discomfort is tolerated.

And the members don’t say anything also because the group leader actually has good skills to impart and leads the group well.

Things go on fairly smoothly, but one day after someone makes the casual observation, things take on a negative tinge. The leader, offended, decides he will transfer to another group at another location when the year is out, or whenever there is a vacancy. You all get on with your activities, but it seems a bit like following through the motions, enduring the smell, and waiting for the leader to leave. The leader is in demand because of his skills, and there are frequent calls asking if he would like to leave, but things never really materialise. One day he is, the next day he isn’t, and instead of focusing on your activities, you all live with the uncertainty of your leader’s situation. It becomes a distraction. In regional competitions, your group under performs under this cloud of negativity.

As it turns out there is another group elsewhere with a slightly disenchanted individual with whom the leaders agree to a mutual swap. And when that day happens, your group is glad, because the smell is no longer there, and also because the leader’s situation is no longer a distraction. You can get on with group activities, and when the new leader arrives, not fully integrated yet into the group, existing members are keen to impress, to show their abilities, and there is a positive drive to group activities. Perhaps in the next few regional competitions, this positive spirit comes with a run of good results.

Such is life at Arsenal without Alexis Sanchez. A breath of fresh air.

Arsenal followed up their 4-1 demolition earlier in the Premier League of Crystal Palace with a 2-1 win over arch enemies Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. If this is what jettisoning Alexis Sanchez brings you, then perhaps they should have got his situation resolved earlier in the summer. Who knows where they might have been now? Sure, Pep Guardiola’s men would still be occupying the top – no change to that, but perhaps Arsenal would have been in a better position then outside the top four, looking up Tottenham’s bottom.

While Arsenal are on winning ways, and negativity towards their manager is forgotten, the same cannot be said of Antonio Conte. Last year, he was favoured manager, just like Arsene Wenger was when he won the league titles earlier in his Arsenal career. This year, Conte is not looking great.

There is a story about how Antonio Conte revamped the pre-game diet at Chelsea. Doing away with high carbohydrate foods like pasta and egg and replacing them with nuts, seeds and other foods that prevented players from carrying extra weight in games, and giving them the sharpness over their opponents. When you are winning, that looks great. When you are losing, that looks like rabbit food.

Bottom of the table Swansea found a way to win 1-0 against Liverpool. What a fantastic result! I was hoping that they would be able to manage that against all odds and they did. And why was I hoping for that, you may ask? It’s because the gap between the bottom HALF of the table and the bottom team is a mere six points.

A two game swing with still plenty of games to play for. Lose a couple, and you could be in the bottom two. The relegation places will change positions faster than the six chair challenge in X Factor.

Sanchezzzzzzz and er … Ozil

Is the saga of Alexis Sanchez ever going to end? Finally, the transfer that never was in the summer may be replaced by another transfer that … well, is still in the works at the time of writing. But the media reports about him are starting to get boring now … he would in retrospect be one of the most tweeted about in January, but it’s kind of dragged on a bit unnecessarily too long.

You can see why Arsenal’s form have stagnated – despite spending in the summer, they are still languishing out of the top four spots, a place they traditionally occupy. The transfer talk have definitely affected them and they should have just let him go and got £65 million then. Now, Sanchez will probably go for £35 million or £30 million. Has he contributed £30 million worth of effort to the team in the last six months? At a stretch, maybe he has – in the run up to the transfer window, the audition season – he has earned Arsenal a few wins and draws. But it is arguable that the talk surrounding him may have cost the team too.

The Arsenal board and Sanchez are like two grown ups going through a long drawn-out divorce battle, and the Arsenal kids are suffering while they have to live with the scrutiny of the various hypothetical situations playing out in their minds.

One particular kid is suffering. Mesut Ozil. Reportedly on the radar for Manchester United a few months ago, it is unlikely that he would be reunited with Sanchez. The hype around Manchester United landing Sanchez has almost certainly reduced the worth of Mesut Ozil in the eyes of United, and it is unlikely Ozil is going there anytime soon. Expect to see Ozil bearing the brunt of criticism again, talk of his poor body language, and him bearing the weight of the criticism directed at the team. When he remains at Arsenal, he will have turned out to be the child in the custody battle sent to live with the parent he didn’t really like.

And in a few months time, Ozil will become Sanchez 2.0, as the situation around his contract becomes the next thorny issue.

Will the form of the Arsenal team recover with the impending departure of Sanchez, the end of the custody battle? Not with Ozil.

But there may have been a shrewd deal done to get Henrikh Mkitaryan. The Armenian has skills similar to Ozil, and it may be Arsenal trying to get a replacement in early. It would be interesting though to see Ozil and Mkitaryan on opposite wings, supporting a lone striker like Lacazette, while Kolasinac and Bellerin roam the flanks. A back three protected by Xhaka and Ramsay.

And if Ozil goes, where would he be off to? Apart from China, and Paris St Germain, the usual pay day pit stops, and Fenerbahce, where his Turkish roots might endear him to the public, Ozil is likely to remain in the Premier League. And there is that one team that is so full of attacking talent, but in need of backup in case their talisman is injured; a team that needs a competent passer to deliver the balls to the attacking personnel.

Manchester City.

And Ozil would still get to live in a big city, buzzing from the adoration of fans, getting recognition for his work but without the blame that comes with losing, because they don’t lose very often, and there are plenty of others to share the blame around.

Pep Guardiola would love Ozil to make long passes the way Kevin de Bruyne does.

But Pep wouldn’t be the only one happy to have Ozil in a blue shirt.

Think about it.

Manchester City vs Manchester United.

Former teammates Sanchez vs Ozil.

Mourinho vs Pep.

Egos vs egos.

It could keep media writers in employment for years.

So Ozil to Manchester City is the summer deal that everyone wants to happen.

Sub-plots of all sorts

Arsene Wenger must at least feel some tinge of happiness.

Not because his team are still in the top six and that the chasing pack led by Burnley haven’t made up much ground.

Not because the star of the show, Alexis Sanchez, looks to have his future at the club resolved, within 48 hours, in Wenger’s words.

Not because Jack Wilshere, before his most recent injury, looked capable of reproducing the form he had in the past, and could replace the want-away Mesut Ozil.

No, no, Arsene Wenger is happy because Manchester City lost to Liverpool.

Pep Guardiola’s team headed off to Anfield on Sunday. On paper it looked like a treat for attacking football fans, with the usual sub-plots. How would Liverpool survive post-Coutinho? The Brazilian had been an instrumental part of their season so far, and now that their Fab Four of Coutinho, Mo Salah, Roberto Firminho and Sadio Mane were now relegated to a Terrific Three, how would things be? It looked as if Liverpool would suffer. But the team managed without Coutinho, who like Alexis Sanchez, played with the form of his life in the run up to the transfer window. And they eked out a win against the City visitors, in a game of goals, edging the Blues out 4-3.

The Reds actually led 4-1 at one point, before the Disappointing Defence, the back four, leaked goals in to help City muster some form of comeback. But they survived.

But why is Arsene Wenger happy that Manchester City lost?

It’s because the record of an undefeated season stays with the Arsene Invincibles. Wenger still holds a record that looks ever increasingly difficult to emulate, and his name will still be long mentioned in Premier League history.

Few can argue that Wenger has been about records recently. He stayed on at the end of last season to surpass Alex Ferguson’s record of Premier League games managed, and in this day and age of changing managers that looks like one other record that is unlikely ever to be surpassed.

Ironically, one of the players that helped ensure his record for going undefeated in a season was the ex- Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who may increasingly see a more influential role with Coutinho gone.

A few weeks ago I predicted that the longer Alexis Sanchez’s transfer saga dragged on, the worse it would be for all parties. He is no longer seen with the same eyes by City, and I also predicted another team might swoop in. Lo and behold, now Manchester United are interested. It would make for interesting sub-plots.

Ozil and Sanchez combining at Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho getting one up on his arch rival Pep Guardiola by obtaining Sanchez’s signature.

Arsene Wenger facing the ire of the Arsenal faithful by selling United a player, despite saying he would not sell to them after Robin van Persie.

Some of the Arsenal faithful feel you shouldn’t believe anything Wenger says nowadays. Last season he was coy with the press, toying around about the negotiations with his contract. And while he later admitted at the end that the protracted saga affected his team’s form, he doesn’t seem to have learnt with regards to Alexis Sanchez. One of the reasons the team is sliding further away of the top four, is that speculation plants doubt, and doubt affects form. What are Giroud and Lacazette thinking? “After all the effort we are continuing to show, why are we still behind Grumpy Sanchez?” Why is Arsene Wenger still wooing Sanchez in the hope he might stay, like an old lecherous landlord whose advances to a young female tenant – who is determined to move out when her tenancy agreement expires – have been continually rebuffed?

Wenger really needs to go, and as I have suggested, the club should bring in Ryan Giggs. He is unproven at the top level, but the Arsenal faithful will give him time because he has winning in his veins. He is young, he has energy, and is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the rank Arsenal boardroom.

And Giggs has a point to prove after being overlooked for the manager’s role at his old club.

If Manchester United do one on Arsenal by taking Sanchez and Ozil, then Arsenal could do no worse than by appointing one of the United winners to kick-start the revolution.

Dwell on that for a while.

And the new manager is …

Where would you find the team “al”?

That’s Arsenal without Arsene.

Is Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal finally coming to an end? Last weekend’s defeat to Nottingham Forest, embarrassed 4-2 by a club with only a caretaker manager in his second game must certainly seem that this is the last season for a manager whose popularity is slowly dying, even among the most hardcore of Arsenal fans. And having surpassed Alex Ferguson’s record of most Premier League matches played, there is nothing really much for Wenger to aim for. He could try to have the best winning percentage, but he would have to win a lot more than he is winning now to have a chance of doing so – and it looks highly unlikely.

The only thing left for Wenger is either number of games managed – but he is about five hundred short of the 2155 set by Ferguson from 1974-2013, and he would need around ten seasons to accomplish that. Either that or he could manage teams in different parts of the world, or find one to manage in the summer break of the Premier League to shorten that length of time.

Of course, it would help if Arsenal were a top team, playing Champions League Football and competing on various fronts. But Sunday’s defeat against lower opposition was surely enough for everyone – ex-players, the board, the fans – to see that the longer Arsene Wenger stays, the longer he hurts his reputation, and the longer he causes Arsenal to slide.

The last two seasons have been a difficult time. Last season light aircraft were flying the Wenger Out banners and they would have done the same this year, had Manchester City not so dominated the league that everyone else is fighting for the top four spots. The thing is, even the most hardcore of Arsenal fans looks at the team and sees overpaid, underachieving players. It is not their fault that they are underachieving. It is just that the manager doesn’t really motivate them to want to do well.

Arsene Wenger is not the kind of inspirational manager to be prowling the sidelines, gee-ing his team up in the most combative manner. He is reserved, a man more often seen to sit on the bench, rather than in the technical area shouting instructions to his team. He is less manager now, more executive coach. Has he, after two decades at Arsenal, lost the confidence of the team? The star player is vehement he will not sign a contract, the next best player is uncertain over his future, yet all Wenger does is live in a world inside his own head, so consumed by his own thoughts. The less vocal members of the group – Wellbeck, Giroud, Bellerin – perhaps seemingly tolerate Wenger’s presence, because he is such an authority figure that no one dares say the unmentionable and risk being another pariah like Alexis Sanchez. But the truth is, Arsenal are in decline, their ex-players are calling for Wenger to leave, the fans want him to go – depending on whether the team performs or not – and the players are not motivated by him.

The thing with Arsenal is that for all the talent they are stocked with, and all the internationals on their bench, they are not performing and this year no one even cares much if they get into the top four or not. In the past there was always hope that Arsenal might win the league, that their summer signings might help, that the year might always be that year, but they have always gone on a cold weather collapse. Lose in late November, from second to fourth, slide further within the top four in Feburary, and that has always been a source of the Arsenal fan’s disappointment – that the team do not live up to potential. In previous seasons they have always had Champions League football to blame, being stretched by a competition they would never win, but found redemption to stave off the execution by winning FA Cups.

This year, even without Champions League football, and with less matches, Arsenal have always had a bad November and December, are still losing to minor teams. Now without the FA Cup to hid behind, perhaps the patience with Wenger is starting to run thin.

Wenger hasn’t really learnt from his mistakes of the previous season. The uncertainty behind his contract last season influenced his team in the tail end of the season, so much so that their neighbours Tottenham overtook team in the standings. Not Premier League champions? Never mind. No Champions League football? Never mind. FA Cup winners? Who cares. But placing below Tottenham? It is the ultimate insult an Arsenal fan has to bear, being ribbed about it for at least a year. What’s more, Tottenham are still having a bad season by their standards, in fifth while they were second last year, but are still better than Arsenal in terms of points. They should have resolved Sanchez’s contractual situation in the summer, selling him off instead of letting him remain under a cloud. Sanchez has the potential to be a divisive figure. He pulls the team, but many despise him for his attitude. When he scored against Crystal Palace, only half of his team mates celebrated with him. But Wenger has to rely on him because he is such a star player. They might be further down the table in eighth or ninth without the heroics of Sanchez and Ozil, but had they sold them, they might not have been much worse.

Even if Sanchez had been sold in the summer with no replacement, things might have turned out better. He is like the Christmas present you don’t really want but have to keep because it was from your grandad Bertie.

How many recognised strikers do Arsenal have? Olivier Giroud. Theo Walcott. Lacazette. Welbeck. Sanchez. Ozil. Walcott, a signing from Southampton in his teens – he was so good that he went to the World Cup in the summer under Sven-Gora Erikkson before he had made an appearance for Arsenal – has had his development so curtailed and stunted that he is playing for Arsenal B, and not doing a good job of it all, considering how the team lost 4-2 to minnows Forest. Even Southampton are considering taking him back. How terrible it would be, to go back to the team he once played for, without having made much progress in the interim? Embarrasing.

It may be after the game with Chelsea, the semi-final of the Carabao club, that the full weight of resentment against Wenger is seen.

What can Wenger learn from former Stoke manager Mark Hughes? If you rest a team ahead of a key game, you’d better win the key game. And if the team has to lose in fhe key game, then don’t be embarrassed by a big scoreline. Hughes found himself at a difficult situaton losing 5-0 to Chelsea, then 1-0 to Newcastle, before losing in the FA Cup and being dumped by Stoke.

Wenger has already lost the FA Cup game. Recently he lost a few Premier League games against weaker opposition. A further loss to Chelsea would cement his fate.

A good clearout might be good this summer. The central defence is either aging or inexperienced. There is Mertersacker or Koscielny playing, two aging warriors past their prime for Arsenal. Nacho Monreal is perhaps the most solid at a back three, while Calum Chambers and Rob Holding are inconsistent. Is it surprising that the defence of Arsenal is what lets it down? As with Liverpool, they can have a good attacking threat with the likes of Giroud, Lacazette et al, but when your defence leaks in goals and you are prone to conceding at set pieces you will lose points. It used to be thought that even if Arsenal were two goals up with ten minutes to play, they might just find a way to drop points. These days, it is still never sure. Arsenal may have played out a 2-2 draw with Chelsea but don’t forget after Hector Bellerin scored the equalising goal in injury time, Chelsea nearly won and rattled the bar after that. Arsenal just switched off and nearly paid for that!

Who have Arsenal got in the midfield? Ramsey, Wilshere, Kolasinac, Xhaka and Bellerin are a pretty good unit, but what would Wenger do now with Elneny and Coquelin?

A clearout would do some good. Start rebuilding the team. And you know’ what? There might be the losing of games, but really, Arsenal have lost so many and are really a top-table team, that the fans won’t really care. In fact, if the fans adjust their expectations to feel they won’t win every game, even against lower opposition, they might just get less annoyed with an underperforming team. But if you really want to start rebuilding and a clear-out, start with Wenger and Steve Bould.

Who would you bring in? Mikel Arteta? The former Gunners captain, who so impressed in his Everton days but found himself often injured, is now a Manchester City assistant coach. Wenger recommends him but anyone wanting a change is unlikely to want the scent of Arsene around. Arteta however does fulfil the criteria of the kind of manager the Gunners need. Young, emotive – the kind of manager who might swing a ballboy around when they score a winner. Not the kind of guy that is often seen fumbling with the zip of his raincoat.

This season could be Wenger’s last. In fact, I predict at the end of the season that Arsenal will have a big clear out and Wenger will be in the boardroom. The hunt for Arsenal’s manager starts now, but the position is so tainted, as the leader of an underperforming bunch, that top managers might avoid it. Just like top players seem to shun Arsenal.

So who do you get to replace Arsene Wenger? You want a young manager keen to prove himself. You want a young manager used to winning. You want a young manager with good playing credentials. The problem is, if you look within the organisation, you won’t find someone who fits the bill. You don’t want an ex-player turned pundit because everyone knows all they do is talk and they are rubbish managers. Just look how Alan Shearer faired, unable to prevent Newcastle from being relegated in four games. Look at Gary Neville, failed at Valencia. And really, despite it being ideal that the new manager be Arsenal through and through, the fans don’t really care if the new manager never played for Arsenal. Because Arsenal in recent years have been on a slide that being Arsenal through and through just means being, really, a loser.

Arsenal need a manager who is young, has the drive, the vision, and is equally keen to demonstrate his qualities, instead of the current one who is content to sit on his laurels.

Arsenal don’t need a manager with Arsenal in his veins. They need one with winning in his veins.

Does this manager exist? You bet. @Arsenal, you need:

Ryan Giggs.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning …”

Is Mark Hughes a good skater? You might have equated the former Manchester United striker with more of a ballerina outside of football, or some may even say a diver, but certainly the Stoke City manager appears on thin ice and his future at Stoke after four and a half years is at risk. If it wasn’t clear by now.

A run of seven defeats in ten games means that the gaffer’s position is under threat. Hughes rested a number of key players in the 5-0 drubbing at Chelsea, which to be fair, was a good decision. His team were highly unlikely to win at Chelsea, so why tire key players in a festive schedule that is so congested that it has even seen Pep Guardiola complain that it will kill? The latter has seen Gabriele Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne injured after a physical game at Crystal Palace – a turn of events which may seem now make Aguero the key striker and pave the way for Alexis Sanchez to Manchester City. But back to Hughes …

Hughes’ reasoning was that he had a must win game with Newcastle after Chelsea. So the drubbing was tolerated ahead of three expected points which would give them a bit of a lift. Unfortunately, Hughes lost that game 1-0 too. THe problem is fans can tolerate losing against big teams, but when you lose against fellow strugglers who are also in the relegation zone then it makes the situation more bleak and you would need to be the most diehard of fans to keep backing the manager. Or the most clueless. As Hughes said, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

The problem too, is there ARE a couple of managers out there who would do it. Managers who have caught a bad break, on hiatus, been sacked – even Swansea’s Paul Clement might be in with a chance after he was dumped by the club. The players’ response was to win one for the new managers, a trend I previously highlighed. Stoke’s best strategy might be to replaces Hughes and hopefully set of a chain of good results to lift them out of relegation.

Whose in the relegation zone? Who is in danger of being relegated? The answer to the latter question is the last eight teams. If you look at the table at the moment, the bottom eight teams, from Newcastle down to Swansea, are all separated by only six points. As Newcastle found out, win one game and you are out of the bottom three, currently occupied by Stoke, West Brom and Swansea. Only nine points separate the tenth placed team – Watford on 25 – from Swansea at 16. The real battle this year, thanks to Manchester City’s dominance, will be at the bottom half of the table, with teams leap frogging each other each week. It’s like a game of musical chairs, or better yet, spin the bottle.

This round, it’s pointing at Mark Hughes. It might not be in two weeks.

He might be gone by then.

More English Premier League players? Change the youth game approach

Soccer has changed considerably over the past two decades. Tactics have evolved and are constantly evolving, often in reaction to previous tactical changes. Technically, there has been a shift towards a more possession-based game where keeping the ball for long sequences is emphasized. Physically, club scouts are now prizing speed rather than size and strength. More value, though arguably not enough, is being placed on the psychological element of the game. These changes have real and serious implications for the coach who is working to develop the youth soccer player. It is a necessity that coaches working within youth development are preparing their players effectively for a game that has changed significantly in recent decades, and which will continue to change.

Given the game’s rapid transformation, the coach is arguably preparing players for a kind of game that does not yet exist. It is therefore imperative that the coach remains up-to-date with the evolution of the game to keep their players up-to-speed. As a result, we need to examine how a ‘win at all costs‘ mentality affects the development of players in terms of their tactical, technical and physical development, within the context of how the game is evolving. We also need to inspect the implications of our coaching on the psychological and social growth of our players. We will find that all these changes are inextricably linked.

Creativity, imagination, risk-taking and personal expression are compromised to play in a safe and effective way. The greatest players in the world of soccer today grew up playing in the streets without adult coaching and supervision, and learned to play by freely trying things without the consequence of making a mistake. Learning becomes greatly impeded when mistakes are not tolerated.

Will your under-10 team learn more by ‘chasing’ a game and bombarding the opponent’s goal area with Alamo-style attacks and Rory Delap-esque throw-ins? Or by remaining calm and trying to penetrate the opposition’s defence with creative passes or a flamboyant individual pieces of skill? Will the players gain more in the long-term by forcing a crude equalizing goal or by problem-solving more creative ways of scoring a goal? Both questions are clearly rhetorical, but they appear frequently on youth pitches the world over.

A pet hate of mine is the simplicity of the pre-match team formation screens shown before televised games. It depicts, to the wider world, that tactics and movements are performed in straight lines when, in reality, they are free flowing and chaotic. I will accept that these simplistic visuals help the viewer quickly understand their favourite team’s formation, but basing our understanding of tactics in this way is very misleading. Soccer is not chess. The variables of a game are unending.

In Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed points this out in an explicit manner, noting that the complexity of predicting soccer is virtually impossible, unlike the predefined moves of pieces on a chessboard. [Some may argue that set-plays or ‘restarts’ are predictable as they can be rehearsed and staged. This argument, however, is only partly true as a successful set-play still hinges on the correct technique and decision-making of players, and also on the ability and reactions of the opposition.]

Syed tells a story of a group who were attempting to create a computer program that simulated the complex combination of combinations and variables involved in a soccer game – and found it impossible. We therefore need to produce players who can deal with these variables and chaotically unpredictable occurrences, rather than teach them to become tactical robots as represented to us on our television screens.

The role of the forward player is changing immeasurably. There has been a huge tactical shift towards playing with one striker, and indeed, with the success of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 and the Spanish national team’s European Championship victory in 2012, more teams are willing to consider playing with no natural striker at all. Playing with no recognized striker (or 4-6-0) is expected to be the next revolutionary tactical shift in the game over the next decade. As a consequence, strikers are becoming a dying breed, or at least those that are only goalscorers are.

Jonathan Wilson sums this up concisely in his excellent book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid: “The modern forward… is far more than a goalscorer, and it may even be that a modern forward can be successful without scoring goals.” Wilson traces the career of Michael Owen. Midway through his career, with the impact of teams prioritizing one multi-functional striker, a 25 year old Owen, with an international goal-scoring rate of almost one in every two games, was unable to find a Champions League club to invest in his services, and ended up joining (and being relegated with) Newcastle United. [Owen later joined Manchester United where he arguably became the club’s fourth or fifth choice forward, making an average of ten appearances a season for three seasons.]

Winner of the Ballon d’Or (the award for being the best player in Europe) in 2001, Owen himself admitted that he needed to evolve his game by adding skills such as link up play, dropping off the front, and holding the ball up. He felt he could no longer just be a goalscorer that made runs off the shoulder of the last defender. Had soccer tactics not evolved to prioritizing the use of just one main striker, there is a strong argument that the careers of goalscorers like Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe may have been even more prolific. The tactics or strategies that coaches adopt and implement need to reflect footballing chaos and variables, and allow players to survive in these types of scenarios. Players also need to be taught the technical skills required to thrive in this environment.

Due to the variables involved in a soccer game, a coach must encourage technical creativity and risk-taking in his players. How else can they learn to deal with the diverse situations that are thrown up by the game? The same coach, however, must accept that if you facilitate this creativity, players will make mistakes, and the team may lose games as a consequence. FC Barcelona’s risk-taking in possession, and their ultimate effectiveness of ‘possessioning’ the opposition into submission, is a direct product of players being allowed an abundance of trial and error as they evolved as youngsters. The club and its coaches had the foresight, during these early years, to allow this risk-taking to flourish and allowed players to develop into the adult footballers they are.

Taking risks, being creative, and ultimately making mistakes are true learning curves for players. It is vitally important to foster this. Ensure players know that it is okay to lose, so long as they learn the lessons from defeat. Technically, defenders and goalkeepers must now have the skills in possession that are at least comparable to their midfield team-mates. It is therefore exceptionally important that, during the full pressure of match days, these players are allowed to test and develop their technical skills in ‘real’ situations.

Asking a goalkeeper to whack it down the other end of the pitch any time he is in possession does not develop any type of skill. It stunts their ability to play out from the back and stunts the development of receiving players. Defenders are also required to have the technical traits to be able to manipulate and move the ball. The modern defender no longer just kicks and heads it. He receives possession from the goalkeeper and is the starter of attacks. He relieves pressure from midfield players and advances up the pitch in possession.

Take defender Jamie Carragher as an example. Carragher is not a player who is especially renowned for his technical qualities. Despite this, the Liverpool centre-back had a somewhat surprising pass completion rate of 92% from 24 games in his last Premier League season at the club (2012/13) (source: Squawka.) In addition to this, of the 10 players with the best pass completion rates in Europe in the 2012/13 season, three of them were centre-backs (Dante 90.8%; Gerard Pique 91%; Per Mertesacker 92.2%). [Players must have played at least 20 games and completed at least 1,000 passes.

The unsurprising number one on the list was Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez, with almost a 3% higher pass success rate than the list’s number 2, Mikel Arteta (source:]

If your young defender is taught to ‘get rid’ (an often heard term to clear the ball as far away as possible), the coach is doing him a great long-term disservice. A young defender needs to be taught passing and receiving skills, as well as the key movements needed to be able to play his position in a modern way. Once again, it is only by allowing players to trial and error this within competition that you can affect real improvement, tolerating a mistake and a lost goal along the way.

The technical qualities required by the modern midfield player are vast given the different types of midfielders that exist. They vary from those who sit deep and distribute, to those who ‘carry’ and run with the ball, to those who score and provide goals. Midfielders need to be expert in terms of passing and receiving, taking the ball in defensive areas, and controlling and manipulating the ball in tight attacking situations. They need the ability to score goals, intercept passes, cross, dribble, and more. If these players spend their youth watching their defenders ‘getting rid of the ball’, and goalkeepers thumping goal-kicks as far as they physically can, it is unlikely that they will develop their skills sufficiently to move their game on.

The rate of change in the role occupied by strikers has huge implications for youth coaching. During their development of young strikers, coaches need to add more and more traits to their forwards’ repertoire. José Mourinho is quite clear about the need for “multifunctional strikers”. He noted, “To them (English youth coaches) a striker is a striker and that’s it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross…”

The changing role of forward players has had knock-on implications in other areas of the pitch. More and more midfield players are given greater freedom and license to get forward, score goals, provide assists and bridge the goalscoring gap that not playing with a natural goalscorer leaves. These attacking midfield players ‘play between the lines’ and are constantly searching for pockets of space between the opponent’s midfield and defence. They have excellent receiving skills and make penetrative passes between defenders. Plus, they score goals. Certainly in England, this type of player is rarely produced.

Arguably the most prominent player of this ilk produced in England in recent decades has been Joe Cole. Cole, however, spent a career being asked to play in more stringent wide positions rather than his natural position playing ‘in the hole’. As a teenager he was constantly summed up as a player with lots of quality, but someone who needed to eradicate maverick-type flamboyancy from his game. It is possible that had Joe Cole been born ten years later, this flamboyant nature may have been prized more highly.

With the prominence of these types of creative players, and a future reliance on them, it is imperative that youth coaches work to produce attacking midfield players that encompass these skills. In the English Premier League (2012/13) the top five players to play passes in the final third were all foreign imports: The Belgian Eden Hazard, Spaniards Santi Carzola, Juan Mata and David Silva, and South Africa’s Steven Pienaar, all of whom could be considered physically diminutive.

Over the longer term, players that develop physically earlier and who dominate games purely because of size can, in fact, see a huge reversal in their influence on games as they age and their peers begin to catch them up physically. Big players need to be taught other skills involving ball manipulation, vision and fundamental movements so that they have the tools to adapt their game as their physical advantage diminishes.

Likewise, those that develop late physically need to be trusted by coaches and be given ample playing time to learn the game, rather than being cast aside as ineffective in the short-term. With this trust and foresight, their long-term development is secured and the moral fibre of the coach remains intact.

If these late developers can learn, on a regular basis, how to affect games through technique and individual traits, they will possess a very accomplished armoury once they hit their growth spurt and will able to match other players physically. Because they lack relative size and power initially, maybe they will inherently adapt their game and start to play in-between players, rather than in close combat against them? Maybe they will learn to receive more quickly and move the ball on more quickly before the big guy gets too close? Maybe this will produce more Carzolas and Pienaars that have spent a childhood playing in tight areas and pockets of space? They would have the physical, technical and tactical skills to bypass their peers. Not to mention the ability of taking and dealing with physical contests where they are disadvantaged.

Pacemakers play peacemakers

Ah Alexis Sanchez. How many times have we said all those words in the same breath? He continues to impress yet frustrate, the will-he won’t-he saga threatening to overshadow much of Arsenal’s season. It is best they deal with it as fast as possible, and in this it might be better if he were released in January, rather than the Gooners holding on to a toxic asset.

The Arsenal striker’s skill has been clear for all to see in recent weeks. Against Liverpool, he led a fightback by scoring a goal from a header he should have had no business in winning. Hector Bellerin whipped in a cross, and Sanchez sprinted ahead of Joel Matip to nod the ball through Mignolet’s legs. The goalkeeper, who has been blamed for Liverpool’s struggles and may be slightly relieved to see Virgil van Dyke in front of him now – although it may mean he carries more blame if goals get conceded – absolutely had no chance with Sanchez’s goal. Yet while he may have been at fault with Granit Xhaka hitting his belter from far, there is no denying that Sanchez did inspire a comeback of sorts.

Sanchez also inspired a win over Crystal Palace, a 3-2 grab at three points. He scored two of the goals, but as many have noted, a few of his team mates refused to celebrate with him. The refuseniks – mainly the Arsenal defence – were Saed Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Kosicleny and Calum Chambers which may lead us to believe the training ground bust up after the game at Burnley’s Turf Moor last month may have been about Sanchez voicing his displeasure about a leaky defence. If that were the case, then it is not good news, considering that a division between attacking players and defensive players is not one you wish to have.

So the real question is why Arsene Wenger continues to hold on to Sanchez. See what happened at Southampton with Virgil van Dyke? The protracted discussion about his future with the club caused them to play under a cloud and go on a slide. Now that he is gone, watch for Southampton to play better with a better sense of team spirit.

Arsenal have managed to do well with Sanchez in the squad but Wenger is playing a dangerous game. Arguably his best player, Sanchez is increasingly becoming an influential but divisive figure. Arsenal have had a good run of results on the back of their out-of-contract players, Ozil and Sanchez, but Wenger needs to weigh up the results with the team spirit. Favour Sanchez, and he risks losing the faith of the eleven other players. And by the time Wenger lets Sanchez goes, he may find he may need to earn back the respect of the other players. If anything, having Sanchez around for the moment deflects from the Wenger Out cries, and turns attention away from the team’s results and performance.

Another fortunate event has been the form of leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men have so dominated the league that it is a case of will they win it or will they lose it. It is them against the chasing pack of teams traditionally in the top six. But this means Arsenal no longer have the expectation of winning the league, and are not expected to by their fans, and are not being blamed by them for every poor perfomance because they are still in the same boat as high spending Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal fans this year will be content with a top four finish, a return to Champions League football, and the Kings of North London football crown; their fans will be happy as long as they beat Tottenham after 38 games.

It should make for an interesting transfer window when it opens on Jan 1 2018. And one player pleased to see the new year will be Adrien Silva, the signing that Leicester tried to make previously but ended up a mere fourteen seconds late. Fourteen seconds! It was a high price to pay, those fourteen seconds. It meant he remained a Sporting Lisbon player even though he had also disengaged from the team, but could not train with Leicester. In a bit of limbo. A bit like Alexis Sanchez.

And so, with the transfer window opening again, it should make for an interesting start to 2018. And you can be sure all eyes are on the Alexis Sanchez situation. Will City sign him now and risk losing their chemistry? Will they wait for the end of the summer when his value drops? It may make better sense but waiting may mean other teams may start to consider him, as his affordability would drop to theirs. It is likely that Manchester City or some other team will sign him first to snap him out of the others’ grasp.

But for now, while Sanchez lingers at Arsenal, and the rift between him and the defence continues, the midfielders, the engine room of the team – the pacemakers – have to play the peacemakers.