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.

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.

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.

The case for video replay

This is why we need video replays.

In the local derbies on Sunday – the Mancunian derby featuring Manchester City and Manchester United, and the Merserside derby featuring Liverpool against Everton – all four managers found themselves discussing penalty decisions or ones which could have been given but were not, and which turned out to have significant impact on the game and the final scoreline.
In the game of two Manchesters, United manager Jose Mourinho fumed that a late clash of feet between Ander Herrera and Nicolas Otamendi, which resulted in the former tumbling in the box, was deemed a dive and resulted in him receiving a yellow card. The game’s other talking point was the dive by City’s Gabriel Jesus, one where no contact was made but he grimaced and fell spectacularly, more so than Herrera, yet received not so much as even a talking to.

The other game ended in a draw but the taking point was one in which the tying penalty had been attained. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp was in an explosive mood, claiming Dominic Calvert-Lewin had gone to ground under the slightest of challenges. Everton manager Sam Allardyce of course defended his centre-forward’s actions, claiming that there had been a push in the box by Emre Can.

The referees were criticised in the post match interviews. Under Premier League rules referee performances should not be discussed, and both managers will pick up a fine for doing so. Klopp’s bitterness was apparent for all to see in his criticism of the referee and how he felt Everton had been let back in the game. Mourinho went one step further, criticising the referee by name and giving his own personal critique. “Michael Oliver had a good game but made a bad decision”.

But the managers were not the only ones questioning the referees. Players confronted the referees during key points in the game, and also after. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson could be seen raising his arms and shouting “What??” when the penalty was given.

The speed of the modern game has increased, and also the intent to deceive. Players are now playing more to get an opposing player sent off, because one men less means a numerical advantage at set pieces and changes the intent on the team with less players. If you have ten players you are more defensive and less attack minded because the other team will have more players and you will soon run out of energy if you try to match them, which is when you concede goals. Some teams – hello, Jose Mourinho even play defensively when they have eleven men, let alone ten! At the Manchester United game, the City fans taunted the home fans with “Park the bus, park the bus, Manchester United” – which is what they were doing with eleven men in a home game at Old Trafford.

How would video replays be implemented? This is where football could take a leaf from its American cousin’s book. The American football has a referee, sideline judges, ball judge, video official among other officials to manage a game of 60 minutes. Each team is allowed three challenges and if a challenge is unsuccessful a team is charged with a timeout. The modern football game could implement a system where teams get two challenges over the whole game. And if they lose a challenge then perhaps one player in the team has to sit out for five minutes of the game.
Implementing video replays has wider implications outside the game.

Football managers always blame the referees after a game because it is way of taking the heat for the team, deflecting the press. But it is not the reason for implementing video replay. The real reason is to stop a whole generation of youngsters challenging officials in game, copying what they see on the pitch from their idols, and developing a disrespect for authority, not just in the game but outside of it.

Video replay has implications outside of football. And that is why we need it.

Coutinho goes, Wilshere stays

Is it time to get excited about Liverpool and Arsenal yet? Both teams recorded large wins against Europe’s top teams in the Champions League. Liverpool recorded a thumping 7-0 win on Tuesday, while Arsenal, not to be outdone in the glory stakes, recorded a 6-0 win against BATE Barisov at the Emirates stadium.

Both performances were notable for various reasons. Philip Coutinho, the Brazilian long on the radar of top teams such as Barcelona, scored a hat trick for the club, recording yet another brilliant performance to match the one on the previous weekend against Premier League opposition. Jack Wilshere, previously on loan to Bournemouth and recalled to Arsenal second string, in what is Europa League competition, produced a man of the match performance and had social media pundits reflecting on his performance. During the game there was even talk of taking him to the World Cup in Russia, over established players like Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. Some even dubbed his performance in the match as The Jack Wilshere Show.

Some viewers did exercise caution though. Both Liverpool and Arsenal are attacking minded teams, good at scoring and creating chances, and the general opinion was that against tougher opposition, or teams that prefer to clam up against team to frustrate them, then blitz on the counter and set pieces, they might be found wanting. Arsenal’s win, obtained despite fielding a team of youngsters, made it clear that there is still a gulf in quality despite playing teams that finish in the top three of their own leagues.

And what should we make of the play of Coutinho and Wilshere? Should we judge the invigoration of Coutinho’s play as a statement of intent to stay at Anfield? Unfortunately it appears not. As I have discussed in the previous post, players peak before the transfer window opens in order to attract interest from other teams, or leverage offers from other clubs to force a wage rise. Could it be that Coutinho is trying to attract the great Catalan club into making a move for him? They tried so hard to get him in the summer, and it is fair to say apart from Neymar and Alexis Sanchez, no one else created more transfer interest.

Should Jack Wilshere stay or should he go? Yesterday’s performance may be enough to secure a loan move to a club tempted enough to take a punt on an injury prone midfielder. Yet while Wilshere may have done enough to spark off some interest, and he would if he continues that form, his fate really depends seemingly on what happens to Mesut Ozil. With the midfield cramped with Hector Bellerin, Saed Kolasinac, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshire’s place may hinge on whether Arsenal decide to go with a 3-5-2 shape, spearheaded by Lacazette with Alexis Sanchez or Olivier Giroud or even the forgotten Danny Welbeck. If Mesut Ozil, the assist king departs for another team or is sold, the combined creativity of Ramsey and Wilshere may be enough to compensate for that loss. So bet on Coutinho going and Wilshere staying in January.