“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: givemesport.com)]

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.

Boxing Day roundup

On a day when Tottenham striker Harry Kane broke Alan Shearer’s calendar year scoring record with a 5-2 victory at Wembley over struggling Mauriccio Porchettino’s former Southampton team, what else happened?

Manchester United recovered from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2.

Liverpool put five goals past bottom placed Swansea. 5-0.

If you were Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, and you knew Harry Kane was seeking to break a record, would you not double team him for much of the game? Take him out of the equation, force the others to make plays without Kane, yet still try to go through him, and then strike on the counter? One wonders why Pellegrino did not consider that kind of tactic.

Bournemouth and West Ham drew 3-3, but the match ended in controversy when former Stoke striker Marco Arnautovic’s injury time goal was cancelled out by the Cherries Callum Wilson, who appeared to be in an offside position, and to also handle the ball.

The guy must think Thierry Henry is his idol. Henry, of course put the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup with his infamous handball.

If you take into account all the diving, handball and other misdemeanours on the field you may conclude that the modern game nowadays is about gaining an edge by deceiving the referee. And many players are tumbling like flies at the slightest jostle, yet referees seem apprehensive about awarding yellows for dives, or straight reds for lunges. Remember Harry Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling at Manchester City? Had he been sent off, he might have been banned and could have kissed the record goodbye.

How Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen. Last year after Sam Allardyce was sacked, he was touted as a possible manager, a young hand being steadied by an old manager such as Harry Redknapp. But now his team are in danger of being relegated, he no longer hears his name associated with being England manager any more.

It was goals galore at Liverpool and Tottenham, but the fact of the matter remains that outside the top six, only one other team – Burnley – has a positive goal difference. And that’s not much, because Sean Dyche’s men have only scored one more than they have conceded. And with James Tarkowski banned for a flagrant elbow that looked less intentional that Charlie Austin’s boot to the goalkeeper’s face, it is unlikely that Burnley will continue to maintain that positive goal difference.

Tottenham are posed to make a move for Everton’s Ross Barkley, currently out injured. Barkley was the thorn in former manager Ronald Koeman’s summer, as speculation over his future at Goodison continued to overshadow things at the club, even the departure of Romelo Lukaku. In a way Barkley was like the Alexis Sanchez of Merseyside, and perhaps when the transfer window opens both may find themselves being linked with other clubs again.

Ronald Koeman was boasted that he had Olivier Giroud nearly ready to sign for the Toffees but the deal collapsed because Giroud preferred to remain in London. Will Giroud consider Goodison again? He is behind Lacazette in the pecking order and also perhaps behind Sanchez, so it pretty much remains if Sanchez is going and Lacazette and Giroud play together. It would be interesting to see a 3-5-2 featuring Lacazette and Giroud as the forwards, as it would give the Arsenal wingers the chance to lob balls in the penalty area to trouble opposing centrebacks.

But the last Boxing Day word must remain with Harry Kane. He has only scored one less goal than Lionel Messi in all competitions and surely he must be in the running in the Ballon d’Or this year with a high chance of winning.

And then maybe it’ll be Kane to Spain. To one of the big two anyway.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

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.

 

What Chris Froome could learn from Jamie Vardy

Ah. Chris Froome missed out on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did it come as a surprise? Unfortunately in the week leading up to one of the most important sports awards of the year, the cyclist had a bad week in the press, savaged for his use of medicine in his sport … and the BBC of course could not risk giving him that kind of prestigious award under that kind of ominous cloud.

So Mo Farah got it instead.

Rewind back to 2016 in Leicester City’s magical season where they emerged champions. When the short list for the PFA Footballer of the Year was announced, it looked like this:

Dmitri Payet

Harry Kane

Jamie Vardy

Mesut Ozil

N’Golo Konte

Riyad Mahrez

Given that three of the six nominees were from Leicester’s team, it was a sure sign that one of them would win it.

But which one? If defense is your thing, then you would have voted Konte, now protecting the back four at Chelsea. But surely the award seemed destined for Jamie Vardy, in a fairy tale era where an Englishman set scoring records by scoring in consecutive matches and breaking the record long held by Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.

BBC. English corporation. English talent. Jamie Vardy. You might argue that Harry Kane was also in the running, but if you read the signs well, Leicester’s incredible season was not going to be overlooked. Harry Kane winning it over the three Leicester men? Unlikely.

Vardy seemed a shoo-in for the award, of which the ceremony was to be held on 24 April 2016.

Unfortunately for Vardy, in a match against West Ham on 17 April 2016, he was sent off. Not just sent off, but sent off for a theatrical dive with the intention to deceive the referee. He basically ran over his opponent’s outstretched leg and did his famous half-twist in mid-air. If you watch him now, he’s still doing it on the pitch. He must have had a lot of practice at that, the form’s almost always the same.

Vardy’s red card at a time the FA was trying to crack down on diving meant that it was impossible that he would receive the award. His subsequent protest and disrespect for the referee meant that if he were won the award, the FA would be endorsing a whole generation of disrespect towards referees.

So Vardy’s great season was undone by that one game close to that award.  It went to Mahrez instead.

Mo Salah won the recent African Footballer of the Year and impressed in the games leading up to it. But one wonders if he had slipped up in the run-up, whether he would have received it.

And Sadio Mane? While he may have been on the shortlist for the December announcement, he wouldn’t have been remembered for his outstanding play. It would have been remembered for the souvenir he gave to Man City keeper Ederson earlier in the season.

The lesson here? If you are nominated for any award, don’t do anything silly in the process.

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 …”