Red and Blue

Did he or didn’t he?

Paul Pogba’s agent claims that in the January transfer window he offered his client’s services to Manchester City. Really?

Remember this is Mano Raniola, who reportedly does not get along with City manager Pep Guardiola. Their disagreement stems from the criticism of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whom Raniola also represents. When Ibrahimovic was at Barcelona, he accused Guardiola of buying a Porsche but driving it like a Fiat. Further digs have included comments such as “Mourinho brightens up the room, but Guardiola draws the blinds”.

So why is it that Raniola, who does not like Guardiola, would offer Pogba to the sky Blues?

Firstly, you have to remember that whatever agents do, they work for money and a cut of their star’s contracts. So it doesn’t really matter what he thinks of Guardiola. Raniola isn’t going to play wingback at City. If Pogba went there, he would get a share of the transfer fee.

Secondly, realistically you have to remember that agents do whatever they can to place their player in the limelight. So ahead of a derby between two Manchester clubs, it would have been a good time for Raniola to draw attention to his client, and mention that he was good enough to play for both. Not only does it draw attention to his client while the world is watching, it also is a message to the United hierarchy better not to take his client Pogba for granted.

Pogba had not been on good terms before the derby with Jose Mourinho. Until Alexis Sanchez turned up, Pogba was an influential player. But with the focus turning to the piano playing Alexis Sanchez – is it really him or does he have a body double? – it is dangerous to any football agent to have your client’s worth diminished. Think Cristiano Ronaldo when Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid. The world could have been enamoured with Bale, but Ronaldo found a way of maintaining his omniscience, making sure that his name still remained in the headlights. Pogba had been criticised by Mourinho and the press reported that they had fallen out. Raniola’s claim that his client could have gone over to the Blues is a way of hitting back at Mourinho.

Pep Guardiola is certainly a fan of Pogba. He will be more of a fan now that the Frenchman led a rejuvenation against his Manchester City team, taking them from 2-0 down to 3-2. What did Guardiola say to Pogba at the end of the game? “Well done, you played well, you have good skill, you and de Bruyne would really take us into the dazzling heights of Europe”. Did you see how the City boss fawned over him and tried to plant a seed of doubt into the Frenchman’s minds? Mourinho gives scathing criticism, Pep gives encouragement. It was so obvious it gave me the creeps!

And did Pogba really entertain a move across town. Don’t count on it. The way he taunted the City fans, telling them to be quiet and not to talk so much essentially means he is not interested. He probably wasn’t in the first place – it might have just been Raniola agitating for a bigger contract. But that blue hair dye would have annoyed the Man United faithful though!

David and Goliath

Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Little David, with his little slingshot and stone, seemingly pit against the mighty Goliath, who could ______ (fill in the blanks with superlatives here) and ______ and crush ten men with a sneeze. Yes, that story. The mighty Goliath, up to the point where he had to be confronted by David, was seemingly unbeatable, invincible. And then little David toppled him with the humblest of weapons, that story was big news and made him a worldwide sensation.

I repeat this story because it was perhaps not so much David’s prowess more than the unfailability of Goliath that kept people talking. Had David taken out any other opponent with the same amount of pizazz he would have probably received less publicity. It was not so much David, but more Goliath. Even if it had been bad news for the latter, it was what sustained conversations for weeks to come.

So when you read about how Liverpool destroyed Manchester City in the Champions League match at Anfield last night, this fact is underpinned by the supposed Premier League giant being toppled by a lesser neighbour that fuels the news. The Mancunian Blues got toppled by an opponent sixteen points below them in a league which they are expected to win. Can you name what Liverpool did right? True, they had a great attacking first half, and then sat back in the second. And if you read the morning papers, while some of them go on about little David’s conquest of Goliath, some write about how Goliath was dismantled. It is still all about Goliath.

City did miss the experience and guile of talisman Sergio Aguero. In him they have a proven champion and winner who is not fazed by big events. Remember who won City their first Premier League title with what was essentially the last kick of the game? The Cup was almost being flown across town to rivals Manchester United before being called back at the last minute. At least that year the engraver could have made a head start with engraving Manchester on it.

City miss Aguero for various reasons. When they were behind, they would have tried to contain. It has been said of Aguero that had he been playing, he would have known not to make those runs in deep behind the centre back, but would have dropped back to help his midfield. Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sana lack the experience to monitor the game like that.

It was also unfortunate that the City bus came under attack on its journey to Liverpool. Now, say what you like about it, but you cannot disagree that the City players were shaken on their journey in, and would have been shaken on the pitch too. But Pep Guardiola has a point. The attack had been mooted on social media days before and the police did nothing about it. Or at least, they did not take it seriously enough. What would have happened if the City players merely had a typical journey into the grounds? They would undoubtedly have played a better game and would have been more focussed.

The unfortunate thing is, after all that has been written about how the Liverpool fans suffered at Hillsborough, incidents like these, and the ones at Heysel Stadium during the UEFA league clash with Juventus, paint a darker picture.

You can almost be certain that on the return leg, the Manchester City fans will not let it go and there will be crowd trouble.

Going around, coming around

Brighton missed the chance to advance further up the table this weekend, losing 2-0 to Leciester City. Question though, does it matter much? Further down the table, both West Brom and Southampton lost today, so as things stand, we’re all no better or worse off, but there is one game less to play.

The Seagulls hosted Leicester at home, facing Leonardo Ulloa’s old team, the team which he felt had not treated him right – remember his tweet saying he would not play for the team again, in the time of Ranieri? Ulloa transferred back to his even more previous team, the team he had played for during the Championship, but Brighton were unable to make it past Claude Puel’s team. No matter. Claude Puel’s old team, Southampton, were soundly beaten.

Wonder why Southampton let Puel go? He apparently was doing well enough. But since his departure Leicester have rode their way out of the relgation zone, while Southampton has slid into it. Bet Puel is laughing now.

Southampton lost 3-0 to West Ham at the Wembley Stadium. Fans will remember the chaotic scenes weeks ago when the Hammers played Burnley – who incidentally showed class by allowing West Ham kids to watch the game from their subs bench. The Hammers did well on the back of a stellar performance by Marco Arnautovic, facing his old manager Mark Hughes. In the previous meeting, when Hughes was still at Stoke and Arnautovic at West Ham, the Stoke home fans gave their ex-player a torrid time, and as he was substituted even Mark Hughes had a go at him, telling him to go off. Arnautovic obviously remembered this, gesturing at Mark Hughes after he had scored the Hammers’ second goal. Perhaps Hughes presence with his new club was the motivation for the ex-Stoke player’s magnificient performance. The Hammers seemed galvanised and the events of a few weeks ago were forgotten.

Mark Hughes current team are a place ahead of his old team. Now, Opta does not probably keep track of this, but is he the first manager to manage two of the bottom three that – on the current state of things – end up relegated?

Everton lost to Manchester City at home, with two old Man United boys, Wayne Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin playing in the middle of the Everton field. Rooney had a stellar career with Man United but against City he was way past his best and one fan remarked that he should retire to America for a golden payday on that form, where he would end up playing with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Did you know that Los Angeles was The Zlatan’s preferred destination instead of Manchester United? After his signing was complete, Zlatan claimed that America had been his preferred place but he signed for United instead. What a stab in the back for the Reds fans who had sung his name from the terraces and supported him during his rehab! But that is what arrogant players do.

Romelu Lukaku, formerly of Everton, helped Manchester United close the gap on the league leaders, but let’s face it, you should count on City picking up the title now. They are one point away from the Premier League points record of Chelsea, Lukaku’s previous team, and could better that.

Isn’t it strange how ex-teams and ex-players merry go around in this little world of football?

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?

Sanchezzzzzzz and er … Ozil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester City.

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

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

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

Think about it.

Manchester City vs Manchester United.

Former teammates Sanchez vs Ozil.

Mourinho vs Pep.

Egos vs egos.

It could keep media writers in employment for years.

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

Sub-plots of all sorts

Arsene Wenger must at least feel some tinge of happiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is Arsene Wenger happy that Manchester City lost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwell on that for a while.

“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.