FArewell

So what’s been going on this week?

Unless you have been hiding in a cave somewhere without electricity, you would have already known that this evening Manchester United beat Tottenham 2-1. The Spurs have now drawn one and lost one game since that game where Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane claimed the same goal, Kane one that had a dubious brush off his shoulder obscured by a goal post. The Spurs’ poor run of form since that game can really be attibuted to slightly strange statistics; a breakdown of team spirit caused by Harry Kane doing his team mate in, in a quest to become the top scorer of the Premier League (give it up Harry, because Mo Salah will ensure it never happens), as well as – slightly odd – a team wanting Harry to do it, and hence threading every ball to him in the hope that he can bolster his tally. The problem with statistics, as every player who has been on one can tell you, is that you become so focussed on the numbers it alters and eventually ruins your game. You try too hard and end up losing the natural form of your game that gave you the attention and recognition in the first place.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), one player was so desperate to continue his streak of getting double-figure rebounds (that is, ten or more), that he deliberately shot at his own team’s basket and missed in order to get the tally!

But the story of the week is not Tottenham Hotspur, nor is it Manchester United, who on balance, will be meeting Mourinho Old. That’s right, I predict a Manchester vs Chelsea FA Cup Final. Mourinho vs Conte. Lukaku vs his old team – one of them anyway. But that’s not the story of the weekend.

The main story is that Arsene Wenger is retiring. And what a way to announce it. On the eve of the FA Cup semi-final, which in itself for so many years had been the saving grace of the losing Arsene regime, the Gunners revealed that he would be leaving at the end of the season.

But while most waxed lyrical about how Wenger revolutionised things in England with his approach, one should not get too caught up in the plaudits. Instead, Wenger leaving Arsenal is like the deathly end to a terminal disease. You are sad, but you are also relieved because the pain and suffering can finally be over.

And let’s be cynical. Why did the Gunners choose such a time to announce this decision? Let’s play devil’s advocate here.

Wenger and Mourinho have never got on well. The latter calls him a specialist in failure, and Wenger famously shoved the Portuguese on the touchline in a game against Chelsea. Announcing it on the eve of a semi-final, where Mourinho would likely advance (and he did), would be like stealing Mourinho’s thunder. The fact that it was Spurs playing as well would be a way of undercutting their neighbours, the Gunners overshadowing the build up to Saturday.

This coming Thursday and next Thursday Arsenal play Atletico Madrid over two legs. The first is at the Emirates this Thursday. Deciding the manager’s future and publicly declaring it means that players go into Thursday’s game wanting to do their best for the manager, wanting to win one big competition for him, and the fans can be united behind the team, because whether you like him or not, there will be no more Wenger Out banners, no light aircraft, do battle lines among the fans.

They will need that against Atletico Madrid; I’ve said before, the road to Europa League glory goes through Atletico Madrid.

Wenger’s announcement is a way of leaving on his own terms. He will not let the result against Atletico be seen as influential in him leaving, had he decided to announce it later. He’s set it out, now he hopes the team can rise to the occasion by beating Atletico, however hard it may be.

Either way, it’s the end of an era. Question is, if Arsenal lose over two legs to Atletico, would it make any difference to you if Wenger had stayed or whether he had left?

Sharpening their Spurs in Europe

It’s not been a bad week for Tottenham Hotspur, has it? Even though the North London derby win brought them up to third in the table, before wins by Chelsea and Liverpool brought them sliding down to fifth again – out of the Champions League spots, they showed their mettle in the current Champions League campaign with a 2-2 away draw at Juventus.

The away side were slow to settle and gave away a 2-0 lead inside of ten minutes. You could have said that Juve deliberately targeted the Spurs backline, with youth in its side, and Gonzalo Higuain was on his way to a hat trick before he had even warmed up sufficiently. But Spurs showed their mettle and fought back slowly, first with Harry Kane slipping past Gigi Buffon to slot it, and then Christian Eriksen rounding a free kick past the wall to earn the Spurs an important advantage in the competition.

The 2-2 away draw means that Juventus are on the back foot on away goals – remember that after 90 minutes away goals count as double. The away goals rule was implemented to stop sides playing defensive football and hoping to make it through on penalties. It has been one of the more positive changes to the game to make it more exciting. Another has been the back pass rule – remember when a goalkeeper could pick up the ball from his own players and defences just kept rolling the ball back to the goalie? (You’d have to be a certain age to recall that, actually.) A change still not quite well-implemented yet is VAR.

Coming back to the game, the 2-2 draw in Turin at the Allianz Stadium means that Juventus have to go on the offensive. Spurs only need a 1-1 draw or better to progress. But it would be a mistake to simply expect to sit back and defend. Juventus with their front line of Higuain and Mandzukic et al are very good at scoring, and if you were behind that’s when their defence clamps down on you.

That was not necessarily the case yesterday, but should make for good football in the return leg. Spurs are definitely the better team to watch in North London; have been for the last few years – if you haven’t already realised that!

Still can’t quite play in tune

New look Manchester United complete with piano-playing new forward Alexis Sanchez visited Tottenham last night, but the Chilean, the first to play for the big club Manchester United, could not quite inspire his team mates to the same result as they did over Yeovil United. He may have made his debut to a winning one, but as Sanchez discovered, playing against a Premier League side is still as tough as it gets.

Manchester United were down to a goal within eleven seconds, just one of the ten-second goal held jointly by Ledley King and Alan Shearer. After that Tottenham defended well and continued to dominate the match, with bad luck also affecting United, their substitute Marouane Fellaini having injured himself within seven minutes of coming on.

What is the shortest stay a substitute has had on the pitch before leaving? One of the shortest that comes to mind must be Steven Gerrard’s, he who was sent off within minutes of the restart after coming on as a second half substitute.

Sanchez played the whole game yesterday but must have been tormented by the White Hart Lane fans who continued to remind him he may have switched shirts but is still unable to beat them.

His fellow striker Olivier Giroud has joined Chelsea, so that makes it two strikers who have left Arsenal and leapt straight into Champions League teams. In their place Arsenal now have Mkitharyan and Aubameyang, two individuals who bring threat of pace, but difficulties for singing fans in having to think of new songs.

Lacazette, Mkitharyan, Aubameyang. Maybe Arsene Wenger is clearing out the whole front line, combining with Ozil who recently signed a new contract until 2021, and then his defence consists of the back three and Kolasinac and Bellerin. The combination would be good to watch were it not for the fact that Arsenal team still leaks in goals.

Next year is probably Arsene Wenger’s last year, if not this one. If he doesn’t succeed next year, then he has really no excuses left.

Cheque Mate

I’ve followed football on and off the last two years and I’ve got to admit that things are getting pretty interesting in Manchester especially.

Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola? Both interesting managers, adversaries going back to their shared time in Spain, managing two of the biggest clubs in La Liga, now battling it out in Manchester. Last year wasn’t Guardiola’s year, as it turned out to be the first barren season he had ever had in his managerial career. This season things are different. He is atop the Premier League and after a few more games it is likely he will start rotating his squad and play the second team, the youngsters in the Premier League, leaving Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero and the gang of Sane et al to play in the Champions League in May. It’s a clever strategy, you’ve got to admit. Tie up the domestic league title first, then get your first team rested for the biggest prize in Europe.

Jose Mourinho got in to Europe via the back door of the Europa League champions. This year he is looking up to Guardiola’s table status, seemingly not able to catch up. But at least he’s further on than Chelsea’s group, who may be realising that while Diego Costa was a rough brute, he at least scared and bullied opposing centre backs. Alvaro Morata is skilled but too nice.

How will City react after their latest setback? Leroy Sane, the talented left winger, won’t be making any marauding runs down the flank after being the victim of an ugly challenge in Cardiff. It’s like Liverpool without Mo Salah. But their capture of Laporte could be interesting, along with the impending return of Benjamin Mendy.

And how much have the two Manchester teams spent between them this season. A lot, a lot of money. Along with Barcelona and Paris St Germain, you could easily find transfers over a billion pounds this season. Just blame Paul Pogba, United’s 100 million Euros man, who broke the barrier to purchases. Will football be a game of wallets or skill?

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.

Sanchez’s lure declines with time

Is the star of Alexis Sanchez losing its shine? After the Manchester City summer deal to sign him for £55 million plus £5 million in add ons collapsed due to the Gooners being unable to secure the signature of Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, it seems that Manchester City have got on pretty well without him. So well that they are on a match winning run and Sanchez’s part in the DVD they are making could be reduced to only a cameo. Or if reports are to be believed, he might not even have a part. Manchester City appear to be coping well without him and appear willing to wait until the summer before signing him on a free transfer.

The longer this drags on, the worse it is for everybody really. City may realise that Sanchez may not even be a necessary purchase. In the summer he was seen as one who would take City to the next level, possibly one to replace Aguero, but this was before everyone witnessed the blistering form of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Sterling has scored a few late goals for City and was touted as a makeweight in the Sanchez deal, possibly moving to North London, but has since recovered the form that made City buy him from Liverpool. In fact, it almost seems that the Manchester City front line have something to prove to Sanchez – stop talking like you are destined to come here; which one of us are you replacing? – and are using it as motivation to play well. The boss Guardiola interested in reuniting with his ex-Barca mate Sanchez? Let’s give him something to ponder over.

Sanchez is playing like his days at Arsenal are numbered. Play well and he only emphasises to Arsenal how much they need him. But play badly, suffer a loss of form and he might demonstrate to all teams that they can actually do without him. He is in a tricky situation really – he doesn’t really want to give his best for a team he wants to leave, and in all fairness it is hard to motivate yourself to do so, but he has to in order to attract more suitors – but they may realise, with time, they can cope without him. His form has already stuttered in the three or four months since the proposed transfer. What would happen with an additional half year of waiting, for a transfer that might never happen? Would his form descend to the point it would suffer by the time he gets to leave Arsenal?

The ones in the driving seat are City. They can wait until the summer to sign him because they know he wants to join them, they can save millions of pounds, and at present it seems they only risk damaging their good team chemistry if they sign him now. If Sanchez joins, would he sulk about not being able to play? Would he create divisions in the Man City ranks? He is almost a shoo-in every time he plays for the Gunners, and if he is unable to play all the time at City, would his sulking cause problems? If you sign a guy for say £30 million, what do you do? Play him, to the annoyance of those who have set a record for consecutive wins without him? Or leave him on the bench as an expensive paperweight?

It may not be that much of a surprise that Sanchez leaves Arsenal, and it may not be much of a surprise if he doesn’t actually doesn’t go to Manchester City. What? Pardon? Not to City? I wouldn’t be surprised if in six months time City think they can manage without him, and Sanchez ups sticks to head for the other Manchester team instead, reigniting a partnership with Mesut Ozil as the former Gooners. Lukaku is under criticism, Ibrahimovic is declining, Rashford and Lingard need mentoring, and his quick play and runs would suit a counterattacking Manchester United, one that slightly slows down with Lukaku. Think about it. Manchester City wait another six months for him and then decide they can do without it. Sanchez decides to join the other Manchester team as a snub. It may turn out this way.

Just focus on the more important prizes

Ah. Jose Mourinho.

While he may not have admitted that at the press conference, to the one member of the media – pulling another quick media conference, after the Bristol City boss Jose Mourinho may be the next happiest person. Why? Because it leaves him free to concentrate on the things that matter. Such as:

  1. The Premier League race
  2. A top four position
  3. Champions League football
  4. Catching Man City

Jose Mourinho may not be under any illusions that the Premier League title is going to swing the other way to Manchester Red but believe me, he is going to go all out to make the gap respectable. This is what he meant when he said he would be on holiday if he were conceding the title. While the other football teams may be hearing the Manchester City fans chant “We beat you to the title” or words to that effect, United fans are going to be hearing “We beat you to the title by XX points.” The gap does matter. At least, in Manchester it does. And for the fickle football fan it may be a reason to switch sides from Red to Blue. So it does matter.

So it may be relief for Manchester United that they are out of the competition. Let City, Arsenal and Chelsea fight for that title. Maybe they may get a few injuries in the process, like Olivier Giroud and his hamstring injury last night. Jose Mourinho is probably thinking that any injuries picked up in the Carabao Cup may impact on the Premier League race, and that can only work to his advantage.

Does winning the Carabao Cup mean anything?

Well … you get to be the notable winner of a competition that:

Paired Charlton with two opponents, Exeter City and Cheltenham;

Messed up some first round draws and opponents;

Had problems with feeds;

Made you watch a pre-recorded video for a draw in one of the rounds;

Selected a match to kick off at 4:15am.

Yep, no one should win the Carabao Cup. It is a laughing stock of a trophy.

Mourinho would be delighted to let his adversaries squabble over it.

Counting down the days

Is Arsenal’s Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez merely counting down the days to the transfer window? Former Gunners legend Ian Wright seems to think so. The former striker said of the current striker that he appears to have clocked off, and is not putting a shift in for the Gunners.

At this point last year, Sanchez had already scored twelve goals, but this year he has only scored four.

Wright, whose scoring average was around 0.666, believes that mentally Sanchez has switched off and is not giving of his best. This is in contrast to what Arsene Wenger has always said of Sanchez, that he is professional, gives of his best, and honours his contract.

Why is Sanchez so keen to leave? One reason may be that he sees the Gunners as a top-four team, and nothing more than that. The only competition they appear to be winning and aiming for is the FA Cup, but at the current rate they may soon be dropping that and aiming for the Carabao Cup instead. Owner Stan Kroenke appears to be satisfied with merely qualifying for Champions League football, while Sanchez, accustomed to winning with Barcelona, may not want to stall his career by merely finishing in the top four and semi-finals of the Champions League. He wants a Champion League winners medal, and with Guardiola and Manchester City, he sees a potential winner.

Would it affect his sales potential as Wright suggests? He is already on the shopping list, and has been since the summer. His supposed poor form is not going to put them off. He really is caught between a rock and a hard place. Play well and Arsenal refuse to release him. So maybe he has to pitter patter his feet a little bit to see if he can actually make Arsenal release him out of disgust.

And what about his counterpart in contract renegotiation? Long ago it was suggested that the agents of both players were banding together and trying to leverage Arsenal management into giving them enhanced contracts. It was said that Sanchez’s agent would discuss the proposed terms his client had received with Ozil’s agent, and vice versa, and both were driving up the weekly wages.

And if Sanchez and Ozil do go, they would find themselves on the opposite side of the Mancunian spectrum, with Sanchez to City and Ozil to United, both reunited with former managers. But who would that leave Arsene Wenger with to lead the strike line? Lacazette, Giroud, Welbeck and Walcott? The latter two have not exactly been their best – Welbeck flourished in his initial move from United, but injuries have taken his toll and he and Walcott are currently the number 5 or 6 strikers.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of the Arsenal strikers? Sanchez is definitely not accepting being the leader of a top four team and is hungry for more. He only has a few more Xs on the calendar to mark.

 

Saturday Round-up

Can anyone stop Manchester City? This is the question that everyone seems to be asking after the City train steamrolled Tottenham Hotspurs, pretenders to the throne, and all but showed them that if they ever want to be possible Premier League Champions, they still have a long way to go.

Remember when it was not long ago that everyone was gushing over Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen? No one seems to be speaking about them now.

Dele Alli seemed to have cottoned on to something though, something that Manchester City’s past opponents didn’t seem to have registered. If you want to stop Manchester City, you have to stop Kevin de Bruyne. Stop Kevin de Bruyne. Don’t double team him, don’t man-mark him, don’t zone him. Just stop him.

It’s fairly predictable that the three-man panel will give Dele Alli a retrospective ban for the first class stamp on de Bruyne.

Does Manchester City’s fine run mean that Alexis Sanchez’s stock has gone down? Four months ago he was touted to be off to join Pep – maybe as the backup to Sergio Kun Aguero? – but now City have gone on their brilliant run without him. If he does go over in the transfer period, wouldn’t it be said that he merely transferred over to the Premier League champions without doing anything to help them earn it?

In fact, this is what Arsene Wenger should be selling Sanchez. Wenger should tell him, “You want to be recognised for your contribution, sign a new contract with us. Over here the fans recognise you are one of the pulling powers of the team. Over there you are one of many stars. If Tottenham is a Harry Kane team, Man City are a Kevin de Bruyne team. But Arsenal is the Alexis Sanchez team.”

But wait a second, I hear you say. What about Alexandre Lacazette?

Presumable Wenger persuaded him to sign for the Gunners by telling him he could make them the “Lacazette team”. But having spent a fortune signing him and then not playing him in the big games, he is really the £52.6m bookmark. Pretty much like Fernando Torres in the Chelsea days.

“This is my team now. Take a hike.”

“I might hitch a ride on the Wenger Out plane to Man City.”

 

Was Mesut Ozil’s strike against Newcastle one of his last few for Arsenal? Wenger insists Ozil and Sanchez will not be sold to rivals, especially top four ones who could do Arsenal out of a Champions League place.

It’s all shaping out to be an interesting transfer window.

“I’m going to off-load that whinging Sanchez. What the heck, Man City are going to win the league anyway. But if you stay, Arsenal could be known as the Mesut Ozil team.”

And did you see that goal by Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucoure? That is going to win the next Goal of the Month competition.

“I predict that Arsenal are going to be known as the Olivier Giroud team …”

Last Chance Saloon?

You get the feeling Chelsea manager’s last few chances at silverware lie with the Champions League or the FA Cup. The former has just been made more difficult with a tie at Barcelona, although the Catalan giants aren’t really the feared forces they once were. Was the departure of Neymar a big factor? The feared triumvirate of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, abbreviated to MSN, is now, well MS.

Chelsea may win the FA Cup, but let’s face it, something short of Premier League repeat as champions or European glory is likely to be seen as satisfactory. Still, the FA cup is the one thing managers try to win as a baseline silverware measure – one enough to say to their fans, “Hey, I won a trophy!” (Hello, Arsene Wenger.)

Chelsea seem to be missing a certain toughness and teams seem to fear them less. Do you think Diego Costa is laughing at their form somewhere? Troublemaker as he was, he gave them a bit of an edge, and will Morata is technically gifted, he’s too nice.