Jack Grealish was the best player on the pitch when Aston Villa drew 2-2 at Old Trafford last weekend. No-one else on either side could have scored that beautiful goal; very few players in the Premier League could have. Reports of his current buyout clause range from £30million to £70million. But just how much is Grealish worth?

As he picked the ball up on the left of the area, he already knew what he was going to do. His opponent Andreas Pereira had no idea. Earlier in the game – in a similar position – Grealish went to the byline and pulled the ball back with his left foot and on another occasion played a slide rule pass to his overlapping fullback.

A cunningly laid trap or fateful coincidence? What came before made little difference to the majesty of the goal Grealish was about to score, but was vital in creating the doubt that enabled him to do so.

The Villa midfielder didn’t look at the ball until the final point of contact – the whipped shot into the postage stamp located at the corner of post and bar. Before then he took three almost imperceptible touches, focusing his gaze not on the ball but avidly on Pereira’s feet, knowing the Brazilian would make the first move. And at the merest hint of motion from the midfielder towards the byline, Grealish made his own move, cutting in on his right foot to score one of the memorable Old Trafford goals, in front of the Stretford End.

Jack the lad – revitalised and much improved – is back.

First impressions are hard to shake, particularly when they are entrenched through a series of tabloid news stories that support the initial suspicion. But don’t be fooled by the slicked back hair, fake tan and low-slung socks that remain: this is a very different Grealish to the one relegated from the Premier League in 2016.

He’s still the cocky, brash, well-preened Brummie icon. But now, instead of using his sculpted calves to strut the length of Broad Street, he’s using them to glide past defenders and put them on their arses, like a Chris Waddle of old or a George Best of older.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was predictably asked about rumours linking the 24-year-old with a move to United post-game and gave the stock manager response of not being able to “talk too much about other teams’ players”, while simultaneously eulogising over him. Pep Guardiola has described him as “exceptional”, while everyone else remains bemused by his exclusion from the latest England squads. Speculation linking him with a move away will roll on in line with the exponential improvement in the maturity and calibre of his performances.

Villa use him in a roaming role, starting from the left. It’s not his most effective position or the one he wants to be playing, but one that utilises his talents in the way that serves Dean Smith’s side best: a team that lacks creativity needs their most inventive asset as close to goal as possible. But despite the position he plays for Villa, his aesthetics and the perception they’ve created, he’s much less a show pony than a conductor.

He’s not quite a Jorginho or Fabinho, but still the player capable of controlling the speed and direction of the football his team plays. A Big Six side would likely use him as a number eight, a position from which he could use his dribbling expertise to build attacks from deep and not necessarily deliver the final ball, but more often the pass before that killer blow.

To Villa, the question of how much Grealish is worth and how much Premier League football is worth are one and the same. With him they sit 15th in the table, one point above the relegation zone. Without his three goals and four assists – which if anything belittles the worth of his all-round game – they would be level on points with Norwich in 19th.

Letting him go in January would be tantamount to football treason. He’s more Villa than Harry Kane is Spurs or Trent Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool. Grealish is the lifeblood of his football club, and he – along with the fans – will fear what would happen should he up sticks and follow the lure of Champions League football – where his talents belong.

Tottenham have come closest to luring Grealish away, with the man himself admitting his head had been turned in the summer of 2018 with an offer on the table from Spurs. But when the north London side were unwilling to increase their £25million offer to £32million, the deal fell through and Grealish remained at his boyhood club.

If Villa now offered Grealish to any club with the means to spend £32million on the Birmingham-born midfielder, he’d be gone before you could say “Peaky Blinders”. He’s a ready-made leader with extraordinary talent, now without the can he do it in the Premier League? caveat or previously lingering doubts over his commitment to his profession. This is a footballer capable of more, but understandably tied to the club and community that have given him so much. He won’t be there forever, Villans, so just enjoy him while you can.

Oh sorry, what’s he worth? F*** knows…a lot.

Will Ford

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

The set made it look like the final scene of the first Bill & Ted film, the one with George Carlin, that Robbi Robb song and the low-budget sci-fi scenery.

The Best’s dynamic wasn’t quite that cheerful. The cold chrome and mood lighting were harbingers of something much more sinister. Maybe the world outside had been destroyed and that all that remained was this preposterous demonstration of FIFA’s self-importance.

Perhaps that’s a touch dramatic, but it’s a more than functional metaphor.

Mainly because this is how things seem to be now. These events have a script. Inside the building, of course, with the wooden banter and those strange Euro-American accents, but outside too, where the watching world always seems to respond in the same way. With mockery first, then bemusement, then outright anger.

That represents a strange contradiction. On every other night of the year, The Best is completely benign. It carries no weight whatsoever. Not just because it is only in its fourth year of existence and has none of the Ballon d’Or’s gravitas but rather, those issues aside, because it’s just plainly weird. It’s like a party thrown by someone who has no friends, who has no understanding for how humans interact.

Even now, at this early stage, its history is littered with anomalies. In 2016, for instance, it awarded Falcao – the Futsal player, not the Colombian forward – with a lifetime achievement award. A worthy nod of appreciation, but one never offered again; nobody has been recognised in the same way since.

Also in 2016, at the event’s inaugural running, FIFA recognised Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund supporters for that joint rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. A fine moment, for sure, but still representative of a central tokenism. Of everything that happened in 2016 – the fan initiatives, the collections for food banks, the stands against fascism, homophobia and racism – that was top of the pile?

In a way, it describes what FIFA are. Or, more accurately, it confirms what those outside the organisation think of FIFA. They run the game, but they’re only interested in certain parts of it. Think of it this way: if there were a football-themed pub quiz contested by hundreds of teams from different countries and all walks of life, FIFA’s Executive Committee would come last. Always and inevitably.

On Monday night, Leeds United, who authored arguably the funniest cheating scandal of the last decade, were awarded a fair play award for allowing Aston Villa to score an uncontested goal. There’s no harm in it, but – again – its indicative of superficiality. You can imagine the meeting in which some of these categories were decided. Sharp suits, sharp haircuts, blank faces.

To say that this event exists only for the sake of sponsorship is hardly original. After all, there are entire sports which are built around the need to iron logos onto shirts, shorts or vehicles. But perhaps The Best’s greatest tell is in its tone.

On Monday night, several award winners used their platform for tremendous good. Jurgen Klopp announced his involvement with the Common Goal charity. Well done to him. Megan Rapinoe took the stage and urged proper action against the societal evils which continue to plague the game. Well done to her. But, then, look at how awkward Gianni Infantino looked at that moment, during the few seconds when the camera framed him.

His expression betrayed discomfort, this sense that – no – this was supposed to be a night of back-slapping. FIFA has always appeared to find football’s real issues deeply inconvenient. While it’s capable of constructing ever more complicated competitions – with more rounds, more teams and more broadcasting revenue – and it sails through the logistical challenges posed by such expansion, it becomes bizarrely impotent in the face of almost anything of real substance.

And we know this. And we talk about it all the time. And we understand how incidental these ceremonies are and how bereft of sincerity and significance they will always, always be.

And yet there’s always this great outrage at who gets patted on the back. The Best’s World XI is still fluttering around social media and people are upset by that. And by Virgil van Dijk not winning his Best Player category. Click further and you’ll find the inevitable retaliation. The statistical testimony which supports Lionel Messi’s case, a mini cultural thesis which proves that, in fact, he should win all awards, always. Go down the internet’s darker hallways and, presumably, the same is being said about Cristiano Ronaldo.

Someone. Even. Made. A. Graph.

So on the one hand the universal position is to mock these nights and to enjoy the ritual of machine-gunning facetiousness into the online ether. On the other, the tendency is to get really, really upset by all the trivialities it throws up. In fact, at the time of writing, there are journalists making serious points derived from voting patterns. Messi voted for this player, Ronaldo didn’t vote for that one; Five Things We Learned.

This is hardly a unique situation. Where there are individual awards, there are always squabbles. What makes this interesting, though, is that The Best is a commonly recognised nadir. For 364 days of each year, it’s ridiculed for the vacuum of self-celebration that it so obviously is. On the 365th day, it holds the power to start furious arguments.

Why is that? Broadly, of course, because supporters are loyal to players who represent their teams. But while that’s undeniably true, it’s also a thickening vein of tribalism. Once upon a time, a team’s defeat used to leave a fan in a days-long sulk. Now, the world’s failure to recognise a particular player can leave a fan fighting back the tears and punching his or her keyboard. Even when the award is meaningless. Even when a footballer’s loyalty is to his contract rather than his club.

Even with something like this, which was concocted and devised by the sport’s Charlatans-on-High and designed just to produce another revenue stream. Even now, it’s not okay just to shrug and move on.

Why?

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

 

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“You’re a grown-ass man, deal with it.”

That was Romelu Lukaku’s instruction when many of his Manchester United team-mates were wilting in the face of Jose Mourinho’s confrontational brand of man-management. But it seems the Inter Milan striker might consider taking some of his own advice.

Since leaving for Italy at the start of the month, Lukaku has gone into great detail over the premature end to his United career. The Belgium striker felt neither wanted by the manager nor appreciated by the supporters. And perhaps there is some justification to be found among his list of gripes. But none of Lukaku’s complaints acknowledge that, as the person best placed to alter people’s perceptions, he failed to offer tangible evidence that he was being harshly judged at Old Trafford.

His goalscoring record at United isn’t bad. Nor does it demonstrate the kind of prolificacy required to put Lukaku among the company he apparently feels he deserves to keep. He netted 28 goals in 66 Premier League appearances, and 42 in 96 overall. In the race for the Premier League Golden Boot, he finished sixth in his first season, and joint 16th last year on the same tally as Ayoze Perez and Luka Milivojevic.

In the league, he netted once every 179 minutes – one every two games – which puts him just above Louis Saha and Michael Owen in United terms, but some way behind Andy Cole (156 mins per goal), Dwight Yorke (155), Dimitar Berbatov (154), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (150), Robin van Persie (142) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (128).

Last season was the seventh consecutive campaign that Lukaku reached double figures in the Premier League, with only the last two years spent at a big six side. That represents some admirable consistency – but is it enough?

Goalscoring, ultimately, is how Lukaku should be judged and his ranking among that group of United centre-forwards offers an accurate summary of his contribution in two years at Old Trafford. Only in one of those seven previous seasons did he crack the 20-goal barrier, which was his final year at Everton that earned him his big move to United. Lukaku’s record there, while commendable, did not justify the £75million price tag or meet the needs of a side aiming to claw its way back to the top.

So really, it is little wonder that no-one from within the club, be it Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Ed Woodward, spoke out in an effort to make Lukaku “feel protected”. Solskjaer made clear very early that Lukaku’s style was not conducive to the way he wants his United side to play and that being the case, it would suit neither player nor club for the centre-forward to sit on the bench. Solskjaer cannot be blamed for looking to move Lukaku on, nor can Woodward when Inter were willing to give United close to their money back.

Lukaku also took umbrage at the accusation that he is just not suited to this United side. “A lot of people don’t think I should be part of that system,” he said on the LightHarted Podcast. “That’s my feeling from the conversations that I have, I just know.

“For me, the thing that makes me laugh a lot is… how the hell is sh*t going bad in my team, but when I play in my national team, it’s good? And I’m happy.

“We all know that international soccer is different than club football but the playing style we play in the national team is the one we want to play at Man Utd. So is it me? Or do we need to have a conversation from man to man and tell each other the rules?”

Most centre-forwards would be happy playing with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. On his way to becoming Belgium’s highest scorer, Lukaku has scored 25 international goals in the two years while United have been paying his wages. An impressive stat, but one that deserves context. The list of sides Lukaku has scored against: Gibraltar, Greece, Cyprus, Mexico, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Costa Rica, Panama, Tunisia, Scotland, Iceland and Switzerland. Only two of those sides feature in the top 30 of FIFA’s rankings.

In five games against Portugal, Brazil, France, England and Holland in that same period, Lukaku has scored no goals and assisted only one. That is the sort of stage United would be looking for their players to thrive upon in the international arena.

Lukaku felt scapegoated by United supporters – but at least he didn’t feel like he was being singled out. “It is Pogba, it is me or it is Alexis. It’s the three of us all the time,” he said. “They have got to find somebody to blame… If they want to put the blame on me, you know what, f*ck it, do what you gotta do.”

The United players are fortunate that Mourinho carried the can for as long as he did. For once he had gone and the post-Jose euphoria had worn off, there was plenty of blame to share around the squad. And given the depths United plumbed at times last season, is it really so unreasonable for fans to shine a light on their two most expensive players ever and another trousering the highest salary ever paid by United – or indeed any other Premier League club?

Lukaku, Pogba and Sanchez are easy targets – but that doesn’t invalidate the condemnation. Shushing criticism has always been part of Lukaku and Pogba’s schtick but United supporters have grown tired of the flow of dismissive comments with no actions to back it up. In Sanchez’s case, he just doesn’t appear bothered either way.

Lukaku can’t have it both ways. You cannot claim to feed off criticism  – or ‘BS’ as he regularly describes it – then complain when it arrives, and certainly not when it is justified.

 

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‘Not bad for a fat boy’ he captioned an Instagram post last week in response to more criticism over his bulk. It is a debate that has dogged Lukaku throughout his United career. “Criticism about my physique? That’s some BS! Yeah, that’s some BS,” he told Bleacher Report last November. Just a couple of weeks before he admitted that he knew months before he was too heavy for the Premier League.

Many supporters might not be privy to all the nuances of elite performance, but it is not likely to escape anyone’s attention when their centre-forward turns up overweight. Nor did fans miss that Lukaku was playing for long periods of last season with “not enough intensity”, which he acknowledged himself. Lukaku was not alone in that respect but saying ‘I don’t think I was the only one playing bad’ offers no mitigation.

His frustration is understandable. He felt that joining United was his big chance to reach his “destiny” in becoming one of the world’s top strikers. But for a variety of reasons, many of which Lukaku should accept responsibility for, he was unable to achieve the targets he set for himself or those expected of a £75million centre-forward at Old Trafford. Taking potshots at United, their supporters and his critics won’t change that. Nor does it alter the perception that perhaps Lukaku’s skin is not as thick as he would have us all believe. The scrutiny isn’t about to get any less intense in Italy with Inter.

Ian Watson

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

1) If one of the main complaints surrounding the implementation of VAR is that it removes the basic human instinct of uninhibitedly celebrating a crucial goal, the sights and sounds in the Etihad Stadium at around 7.21pm disproved that theory completely. No Manchester City fan paused to contemplate whether Gabriel Jesus’s stoppage-time goal would be disallowed; no Tottenham supporter took solace in the fact it could be overturned. No manager, player or coach thought of anything other than how a 3-2 result would affect them.

Fate dictated that it was in this exact fixture where that argument was first put forward. When Raheem Sterling’s late winner in the Champions League quarter-final last season was disallowed for a marginal offside, there was outrage as to how fans could no longer celebrate for fear of being made to look rather silly. Everyone would have to temporarily suspend their reaction to a goal for a minute to ensure it would stand.

Not so. The case against VAR is strong enough without having to manufacture reasons to hate it. Fans in the stadium are inexplicably the most ignored when it comes to the new technology, but their ability to unashamedly celebrate a goal has not been impinged upon. Their ability to bask in it for a little longer than 30 seconds? Well…

 

2) As someone with no strong opinion for or against VAR – and such disenfranchised disillusionment is likely a problem in itself – it seems necessary to also defend it with regards to that handball call. Aymeric Laporte did not intend to handle the ball and seemingly did not even realise he had done so from a late corner before Jesus struck. But under the new laws, that no longer matters. Any instance of ball striking hand in the build-up to a goal will see it ruled out, intentional or otherwise.

Those laws have been set out by the International FA board and no-one else. VAR exists purely to implement that and many of the game’s other problematic rules. It has many legitimate teething issues – the amount of time taken to come to a decision and the alienation of fans in attendance among them – but anger needs to be directed to the right places and for the right reasons.

 

3) It just so happened that Tottenham benefited again, as they did in April. But Mauricio Pochettino will be under no illusions: they just lasted 12 rounds with Mike Tyson because he kept on tripping over his shoelaces, not because they came even close to out-punching him.

The most alarming thing for large swathes of this match is that the visitors had no tactical identity, no clear game plan. They stumbled through the first half before improving in the second, particularly in defence. But for much of the game City treated them like training ground dummies solely because they resembled them.

Yet this is a sensational draw against a team that had not dropped a single Premier League point since January 29. It is a mark of champions to secure a result when not playing well; it is something else altogether to do so against the champions when not playing well. They have found that mental strength and backbone Pochettino has so craved.

 

4) City will be disappointed, particularly having had victory snatched away so cruelly, but this was a freak result. They had ten times as many shots as their opponent, five times as many on target and more than six times the amount of corners. Even with such reckless levels of poor finishing, that would have been enough to overcome any ordinary side. The Champions League runners-up are anything but.

It will be of no consolation to Guardiola, who will not be accustomed to his side showing such human characteristics for anything more than a fleeting moment. Failing to beat top-six opposition at home in the league for only the second time since April 2017 presents the slightest of chinks in this previously unyielding armour.

 

5) Even from City’s first shot of 30, Tottenham should have realised how the hosts had planned to hurt them. After a quiet opening, Kyle Walker burst forward past Davinson Sanchez after Danny Rose was caught out of position on seven minutes. He stopped in his tracks, changed direction and quickly cut the ball back to Sterling, whose effort was blocked by Kyle Walker-Peters.

The 22-year-old was carrying a massive bullseye on his back as by far the most inexperienced player on the pitch, yet the champions would actually target Rose down the left for most of the match. Guardiola perhaps expected Christian Eriksen to offer less defensive support than Moussa Sissoko, but even he could not have predicted Tanguy Ndombele to be so passive as to let City overload on Rose at will. It is no coincidence both of City’s goals came down his flank – and the only reason it wasn’t more was because of profligate finishing rather than the gaping hole eventually being patched up.

 

6) “Where VAR has been implemented successfully in other competitions it’s been a very high bar,” said Mike Riley, general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, in July. “We don’t want VAR to come in and try to re-referee the game. We actually want it to protect the referees from making serious errors, the ones where everybody goes: ‘Well, actually, that’s wrong.’”

The above line goes someway to explaining why Erik Lamela’s apparent foul on Rodri from a 12th-minute corner went unpunished by both Michael Oliver and his VAR overlords. As the delivery came in, Lamela’s arm was wrapped around the midfielder’s neck and he was applying enough pressure to send both to the ground. Play went on as the stadium waited for an intervention that never came.

The football layman has heard the phrase “clear and obvious error” repeated ad infinitum, but just as important here was the advent of “minimum interference for maximum benefit”, and the desire not to “re-referee the game”. The threshold that must be cleared to change an official’s decision – or advise them to do so, at least – is considerably higher than that to support it. Had Oliver given the penalty, VAR would likely have judged it to be the right call. It was an incident riddled with grey areas and opinions, thus it would have been difficult to claim that the official made a “clear and obvious error” either way.

“If we keep to that really high bar there is more chance of keeping the flow of the game, the intensity of the game and people enjoying the spectacle of it rather than constantly referring to the video screen for changing decisions,” Dean added last month. Therein lies the explanation for City not being awarded a penalty: the importance of the “flow of the game” justifiably outweighed the need to interrupt it to mull further over a debatable decision.

 

7) Undeterred, City would soon find their breakthrough. It felt like only a matter of time before one of their waves of attack carried Tottenham away, particularly as Pochettino’s side were happily floating along instead of fighting the tide.

The move started and finished with Sterling, but not in the traditional sense. The winger was faced with a wall of resistance on the left-hand side and so played the ball back to Oleksandr Zinchenko, then Aymeric Laporte and finally Nicolas Otamendi. City, a matter of yards from the opposition penalty area, were back at the halfway line.

Within the course of a few passes, one sensational cross and one excellent header, they were in front. Otamendi quickly played it out to the right-hand side where Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were parked, and after the pair combined to create space, De Bruyne destroyed the defence with a cross from deep. Sterling ghosted in behind Walker-Peters at the back post to guide his header beyond Hugo Lloris.

It was a perfect summary of City: a team who will gladly approach any obstacle from a different angle if it seems impenetrable at first. The computer had frozen, so Sterling simply turned it off at the back to reset it, waited patiently and soon logged back in.

 

8) And it was a mightily fine finish, one that should not be underplayed. De Bruyne’s cross was brilliant but bending and fiercely hit. Sterling had to time his run and, even then, had the smallest of spaces of the goal to aim at from such a wide position. He duly obliged.

After the opening-day hat-trick, those familiar questions over his finishing are no longer relevant. Guardiola has coaxed an elite-level forward out of a clearly talented but frustrating winger.

The only question now is how long he will remain at the Etihad. Sterling has become a two-time Premier League winner and one-time FWA Footballer of the Year in four seasons, yet it feels as though his City cycle could be coming to an end. For a player who once professed that his childhood “dream” to “play abroad somewhere” was fuelled by a quaint desire “to finish training and go home and sit in your garden and eat some dinner,” money is clearly not his main ambition (be quiet, Liverpool fans). The power of a kid’s ambitions should not be underplayed.

This is already the 24-year-old’s ninth season dining at the Premier League table; it will only be so long until he decides to expand his footballing diet and broaden his European horizons. Who can blame him?

 

9) Tottenham had 28% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the first minute to the 20th, then 59.8% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the 25th minute to half-time. An almost crippling inertia became an unfathomable level of control against such an overbearing side, yet they had nothing to show for their efforts.

Save for those five bizarre minutes during which they barely misplaced a pass, started to press and harry and equalised Sterling’s opener within 203 seconds, of course. Erik Lamela’s effort from outside the box seemed so out of place from what came before it and stunned the Etihad into silence.

The pass that preceded it from Ndombele seemed simple but it achieved what Spurs had struggled to before then. He received the ball in space from Winks and immediately looked up, found Lamela in a small space between Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan, and played a short, sharp pass to the Argentine.

Not only did it break the lines, but it almost goaded Lamela to press forward instead of taking stock to play it sideways or backwards. Ndombele’s pass was ever so slightly ahead of him and encouraged Lamela to attack. He dribbled ten or so yards before a curled finish.

If the intricacies in Ndombele’s pass were by design, you can see why Pochettino was so desperate to sign him. It might have been a happy accident, but there is something special about a player who can conjure such moments even during otherwise average performances.

 

10) Not that it should have ever got that far. Lamela was under no pressure when receiving the pass and faced a further lack of opposition as he sprinted forward with the ball. Guardiola was incensed as his midfielders and defenders simply stood off.

But Ederson was the main culprit. His positioning was lackadaisical and his reactions too slow to compensate as a fairly central shot flew past him. It was the first of two on-target shots he would concede over 90 minutes to cap a disappointing evening. You know you’ve f**ked it as a goalkeeper if David Preece digs you out.

 

11) Lloris was as impactful as Ederson was ineffective. The Frenchman still induces a couple of heart palpitations throughout any given match with his kicking and distribution, which was tested to its absolute limit by a ferocious City press. Yet this was a man-of-the-match performance to remember.

Bernardo Silva was denied from close range. Laporte was kept out. Zinchenko saw his rasping effort stopped. And that was just in the first half; Zinchenko, Silva, Sterling and, most acrobatically of all, Rodri were thwarted in the second.

Even when it seemed certain he would be beaten after Silva hooked a corner onto his crossbar as Otamendi waited to finish the rebound, Lloris predicted the flight of the ball and, facing his own goal with the City centre-half behind him, pounced to avert danger. Were the two keepers to have swapped sides and replicated their displays it would have been a decisive home victory.

 

12) Parity would be restored for no longer than 12 minutes. As Tottenham started to grow into the game City reminded them and the viewing public what makes them so dangerous: a predictable but unpreventable attack.

Walker, De Bruyne, Silva, De Bruyne, Aguero, goal. It looks simple because it is simple, yet there is no simple way to stop it. Do teams just fall into a default tactic of putting a defender in front of the six-yard box and a midfielder on the penalty spot when they sense City slipping into their mechanical mode? Would that even be enough?

Not with the quality of De Bruyne’s delivery. The way City manufactured space by pulling Rose out of position for the Belgian to find space down the right was magnificent, and his low, driven cross was masterful. Aguero’s movement baffled the centre-halves and he could hardly miss.

Jurgen Klopp can put forward Adam Lallana as “a new signing” if he so wishes, but the greatest buy City made this summer was that of time for De Bruyne to recover and regain full fitness. He really could be the difference.

 

13) From then on, the question was again how Pochettino actually wanted to approach this game. His line-up was industrious and, for want of a better phrase, trained in the art of sh*thousery. Lamela, Sissoko and Ndombele in the same side promises a few bruises and bloodied noses. But they were down 11-9 on tackles at half-time, with no suggestion that they could create another goal out of nothing.

Did this game call for the experience of Jan Vertonghen instead of Sanchez? Might Juan Foyth have offered a little more solidity than Walker-Peters? Was the balance of Giovani Lo Celso required? Was it possible not to leave Kane so isolated up front?

Yet perhaps Pochettino’s biggest call, starting Lamela ahead of Lucas Moura, doubly paid off. The former opened the scoring and the latter closed it within seconds of his introduction. For a manager who once struggled to alter the course of games with his changes, he has clearly learned. Having such talent on the bench helps, mind.

 

14) Moura’s looping, front-post header was excellent – although Ederson should have done better. Walker will be equally dissatisfied at being beaten in the air so definitively.

There was a delicious contrast in Lamela’s corner being converted after finding the first man and Eriksen’s generally failing to reach that point. The Dane was integral in helping Tottenham beat Villa last week, but could do worse than asking his teammate for set-piece tips.

 

15) That, in the 56th minute, was to be Tottenham’s penultimate shot. Their last arrived via the feet of Kane two minutes later, but did not find the target.

The final half an hour therefore saw City having 11 efforts without reply. It gave Sanchez and, to a lesser extent, Alderweireld an opportunity to atone for their earlier mistakes. It provided Ndombele, Winks and Sissoko the platform to prove that their collective first-half defensive aberration was the outlier. It offered Tottenham a reprieve as a side more famed for their goalscoring ability was allowed to show another dimension to their game.

They did not hold City at arm’s length, nor did they cling on by their fingertips. It was a performance riddled with mistakes but typified by a killer instinct at the right end. September is a fortnight away and Tottenham are already battle-hardened by a comeback victory and a smash-and-grab point away at the champions.

 

16) Sterling (6), Silva (5) and De Bruyne (4) all had more shots than Tottenham (3), as did Jesus (4) in 25 substitute minutes. Left-back Zinchenko, who seemed to pick up an injury at one point, matched them for efforts on target (2).

VAR will be blamed, but this was more of a mortal failure than a technological one. Perhaps City should have had a first-half penalty and a stoppage-time winner, but had they taken just one more of their many chances they would not be mourning either. VAR is undeniably imperfect but, on this rarest of occasions, City were even more so.

Matt Stead

 

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During long days and longer weeks they jog, sprint, stretch, pass, shoot and tackle. Everyone is desperate to re-familiarise themselves with the elite level of performance that slips away so easily after only a month or so off.

Pre-season is the chance at a fresh start, but also a time of uncertainty. Your club will sign new players, and look to shed others. The principle of shared camaraderie is tested as friends jostle for a place at the front of the queue. It’s survival of the fittest – often literally.

August brings with it the end of one road and the beginning of another. You walk down the tunnel and onto the pitch and the tingles return. In those tingles lies the proof that the hard work was worth it. Of course it was; it always is. This is what you live for.

Or at least that’s the plan, the shiny marketing image of a footballer’s life that sells adversity and determination as a prelude to guaranteed redemption. The sport’s drift from its working-class roots to celebrity culture has indoctrinated many into believing that footballers live rent-free on easy street. They are paid to do something that we – and they – love, after all.

But the start of the football season isn’t good news for every player. The focus may be on new beginnings, hopes and dreams, but some don’t get that start. If pre-season creates democracy or at least meritocracy, hierarchies are soon formed. Some players will feel cherished, some far less secure. Coaches understandably focus more on those likely to play regularly.

Watford currently have 34 players listed in their first-team squad. In the Championship, Nottingham Forest see that figure and raise you: their tweet detailing the shirt numbers for 2018/19 drew interest because it contained 38 players. Both clubs can only name 18 in every matchday squad, leaving an awfully long list of the disappointed and disillusioned.

A similar thing happens to greater and lesser degrees across the many professional leagues. For them, the new season is very different.

One of the results of shifting the transfer window to before the start of the season is that players can be caught in suspension. They spend pre-season desperate to impress coaches and manager, then have their unwanted status made emphatically clear on the opening weekend. Some will spend the next fortnight scrambling for moves to lower-league or European clubs that can only be described as panic buys for both parties. If that does not materialise, the next few months become crushingly predictable.

Being essentially on-call for a job that never arrives might sound cushty to the uninitiated or deliberately one-eyed – “You’re paid for doing nothing? Sweet” – but the reality is the opposite. Footballers are happiest when they are playing football.

This is the great myth of unemployment benefits, that vast swathes of the country are content to pick up their allowance and do nothing. It’s a damaging stereotype used to establish resentment in society. Everyone wants to feel valued and valuable.

Beyond that, sport creates unique issues for excluded employees. For footballers, football is life. Most of us can switch off the computer or leave the office and vow to do more tomorrow, but the life of an elite sportsperson is different. They have been hardwired to live and breathe the game; only through total dedication from childhood can they make the grade. Having that oxygen forcibly removed creates a cavernous gap.

A gas engineer never called out to a job will suffer financial consequences, but imagine that engineer had trained exclusively from the age of eight to fulfill that dream. The dedication fuels the fire of obsession that makes setback so much harder to process.

Sportspeople also have to keep training, or risk falling further back into the shadows. To accept their marginalisation is to allow decline to fester. Therein begins a tough cycle: Work harder to try and improve and impress, but in doing so only leave yourself more open to a greater fall. The more effort put in, the more the human psyche requires recognition for it.

Scientific research concludes that being excluded or ignored activates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) in the brain. That’s the same cortex that is activated when we experience physical pain, suggesting that that exclusion is processed in the same way as actual injury.

The psychological effects are predictable. It is accepted wisdom that feelings of worthlessness can change behaviour: increased paranoia, difficulties in maintaining social relationships, isolation and an erosion of self-confidence. That’s particularly cruel in elite sport, where confidence plays such a key role in performance. So if a chance does come, those players are less prepared to take it. They are placed on a path to continued failure that becomes harder and harder to shift.

Scott Miller, a former professional player who worked as a coach at Fulham between 2007 and 2014, describes the potential cycle: “For me it was a strange experience, as it was seemingly overnight that I began experiencing feelings of hatred for the game, which to you may sound strange, as it was my complete passion from an early age,” he told Ask Men.

Aaron Lennon, whose high-profile detainment under the Mental Health Act in 2017 helped shape football’s conversation about mental health issues, revealed in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that it was falling out of favour at club level that triggered his own decline.

“You start getting to that stage where you don’t actually feel like a footballer,” Lennon said. “You train throughout the week and you’re not involved at the weekend, then it becomes difficult. So that was tough. For me, not playing at the end of the week, you’re going home not a happy person and you’re not enjoying it.”

There is no easy answer; perhaps no answer at all. Football is competitive sport, not a school sports day where everyone wins a prize. Managers who people please are likely to provoke their own failure. The key lies in support for those who suffer rather than a cure.

For too long, the effects of exclusion were exacerbated because footballers were programmed not to display any signs of weakness. Doing so might further harm their chances of breaking into the team. The hope is that the conversation is changing, but we must do more. Society has its own role to play, because sympathy for footballers is still thin on the ground. Remember the golden rule that too many cannot accept: money is no vaccination against mental health issues.

For those scratching around with little to do and little choice but to keep on keeping on, August can be a tough month. If pre-season at least brings everyone together in the same boat, they soon drift apart. A new season brings new hope, but remember the travails of those who aren’t involved.

Daniel Storey

 

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As a leading player among the established elite, Manchester United would likely baulk at the prospect of imitating nouveau-riche Paris-Saint Germain. But despite rising to power from contrasting backgrounds, the two clubs currently have more in common than the Red Devils might be prepared to admit.

United and PSG are in the unfamiliar position of finding themselves on the sh*tty end of the transfer saga stick, bogged down in palavers which threaten to overshadow pivotal summers for both clubs. The hierarchies in Manchester and Paris would rather the world focused on them flexing their own financial muscles as they pillage other clubs but, instead, both boards are preoccupied by attempts by Spanish giants to plunder their prized assets.

Neymar and Paul Pogba are each desperate to leave PSG and United respectively and neither are afraid to say it. Both have spoken of their desire for ‘new challenges’, Neymar seeking another only two years after he arrived in Paris looking for his last one.

There is one crucial difference amid the ever-changing landscape of the transfer window. Pogba reluctantly reported for United duty at the end of his summer holidays; Neymar interpreted PSG’s summons back to Paris as a request rather than a demand. Subsequently, he is officially AWOL.

Pogba certainly looked as though he would rather be anywhere else when he returned to Carrington on Sunday morning before being ushered onto the plane which took the midfielder and his United team-mates as far away from Manchester as they could feasibly travel. His presence in Australia grants United further licence to maintain their ‘nothing to see here’ stance over Pogba’s future. But refusing to acknowledge the problem in public does not resolve a huge problem in the dressing room.

Ed Woodward and his minions within the boardroom seem to view Pogba’s desire to quit as a personal affront. In many ways it is. The France star, like everyone outside the club, has observed the shambles enveloping Old Trafford – though he evidently lacks the self-awareness to recognise his role in its development – and he does not want his reputation to be tarnished by association any further.

United’s attempts to save face by refusing to publicly acknowledge the Pogba problem are having the opposite of the desired effect. It is widely reported that United would be willing to sell their record signing for a hefty profit on the £89million they paid Juventus three years ago but Woodward is too proud to say so. Which is strange because a sale of anything close to £150million would represent savvy business, which is what United value most these days.

Instead, while Pogba’s stated desire for a move hangs over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad while Mino Raiola blows enough hot air to keep the discontent rising, United are maintaining what they presumably see as a dignified silence.

PSG, on the other hand, confronted their problem head on and, consequently, seized control of an unwanted situation.

Within hours of Neymar’s no-show on Monday, the Parisians had responded with a pitch-perfect statement of their regret and the promise of recrimination for the world’s most expensive player. Almost immediately, sporting director Leonardo doubled down on the club’s stance.

“Only one thing is certain today: he is under contract with us for three years. And since we have not received an offer, there is nothing to discuss.

“We have not received any offers. But we have had, it is true, superficial contact (with Barcelona). They said they want to buy him but that we are not selling. It was [Barca president] Bartomeu who said that. But we have not seen that Barcelona are truly in a position to buy him.

“A move of this magnitude is not just a question of emotions. It is a financial question. Neymar can leave PSG, if there is an offer which suits everyone. But up to now, we do not know if anyone wants to buy him, or at what price. It will not be done in a day, that’s for sure.

“PSG want to count on players who want to be here and build something big. We do not need players who are doing a favour to the club by being here.”

Leonardo could barely have stated any more clearly PSG’s reluctant readiness to part with their most-talented player. But rather than paint the Parisians as surrendering or submissive, PSG have now assumed the high ground.

If Woodward is struggling to find the words to address United’s Pogba problem, he should simply lift Leonardo’s statement, replacing the words ‘Neymar’, ‘PSG’, ‘Barcelona’, ‘Bartomeu’ and ‘three years’ with ‘Pogba’, ‘United’, ‘Real Madrid’, ‘Perez’ and ‘two years’.

Immediately, it would lift the Pogba fog (Fogba? No, sorry…) currently stretching the 15,000 miles from Old Trafford to Perth while shifting the spotlight on to Florentino Perez. Real have willfully fluffed Pogba’s ego and the player’s belief that a deal will be done, despite demonstrating little appetite to stump up the necessary funds.

Real’s approach in this instance, unlike the other five big-money transfers they have completed so far this summer, seems to be to wait and play on Pogba’s desperation and United’s exasperation as the deadline approaches. The Red Devils’ silence only serves to encourage Perez to sit tight.

In the meantime, United’s pre-season preparations will mostly be spent on the back foot while PSG run with the initiative.

Ian Watson

 

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Harry Maguire is a man in demand but, as it stands, he is going nowhere. Literally, rather than metaphorically, because the centre-back and Leicester are on to a good thing together. If that is to change, then the responsibility for breaking the current impasse around the England star falls very much on Maguire’s suitors.

There are only two and both are casting envious eyes towards the King Power Stadium from Manchester. United and City are working through very different summers following hugely contrasting seasons, but the one thing the derby rivals share is the need for a top-class centre-back.

There aren’t many around. United have been linked with a few – Matthijs De Ligt, Toby Alderweireld, Kalidou Koulibaly, Samuel Umtiti and Issa Diop – but Maguire appears to be their primary target. For City it seems the 26-year-old is their only target.

You can’t blame United for keeping their options open because their need is so bleeding obvious. Jose Mourinho recognised a gaping void in the centre of his defence a year ago, but Ed Woodward reckoned he knew best. The United boss was sacked in December with his browbeaten, barely-arsed team having conceded 29 goals in 17 league games at an average rate of 1.7 goals per game, giving them the fifth-worst defensive record in the league. They had shipped only 28 during the entirety of the previous Premier League campaign.

It didn’t get much better under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with that ‘goals conceded’ figure dropping to 1.4 per game despite a run that saw United lose only one of their first 17 matches under the caretaker boss. The conclusion is clear: Mourinho was right, United need a top-class centre-back. Perhaps two.

City’s need is rather less desperate, especially when you consider that the champions conceded only one more goal than the Liverpool defence which was lauded as the best in Europe. But Pep Guardiola is short on quantity rather than quality. Vincent Kompany’s departure leaves a void while Nicolas Otamendi is said to be considering following the former City skipper out of the Etihad door.

From four quality central defenders, Guardiola is facing the prospect of being down to two. And doubts still persist over just how much faith he retains in John Stones.

The England centre-back endured a miserable Nations League campaign but his problems began well before the end of the domestic season. Stones started only two of City’s final eight Premier League games and featured in none of City’s Champions League knockout matches. Prior to being dropped from the match-day squad for the Manchester derby at Old Trafford in April, he had started just three of the previous 15 games in all competitions, with 33-year-old Kompany trusted instead to guide City’s defence through the run-in.

The preference for Kompany suggests Guardiola would not be too concerned by the absence of rapier-like pace the City manager identified in Maguire in November 2017, when Amazon’s behind-the-scenes documentary showed him telling Kevin De Bruyne to look for space around the centre-back because “the guy is not fast”.

Maguire has other attributes Guardiola demands in his centre-backs. Explaining his tendency to rotate in the centre of his defence, the City boss said: “Sometimes I play Nico and Vincent because they are both amazing at winning duels. Defensively, winning duels, both are perfect. In some games, I need that. In other games I need more of the build-up.”

Maguire does both. He won 73% of the 249 duels he competed last season – Otamendi was City’s best with 66%. In possession, Maguire has demonstrated his credentials for England, with Gareth Southgate encouraging his defenders to play like Guardiola’s. Maguire looks more comfortable with that brief than Stones.

Still, despite the fact that Maguire looks a seamless fit and a ready-made solution for both United and City’s problems, both clubs are apparently refusing to budge on their £65million valuation of the England defender. Which isn’t going to satisfy Leicester now or any time before the deadline.

The Foxes are refusing to let Maguire go for anything less than the figure Southampton squeezed out of Liverpool for Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman has made £75million look a bargain, though few anticipated the instant and substantial impact he would have upon the Reds’ ropey rearguard.

Leicester’s valuation is entirely justifiable and given they have no pressure to cash in on Maguire, the price won’t be coming down any time soon. So United or City must come up.

There have been reports that Maguire would prefer a move to City, which may explain the champions’ stance. City have spent big in recent years but they have yet to go above £60million for anyone. They will break that barrier for Maguire but their desire to avoid straying closer to the very top end of the market is clear. If City are aware of Maguire’s preference for them over their neighbours, then they can afford to bide their time and prod Leicester into reaching a mutually agreeable deal.

United are negotiating from a far weaker position. Their tactics didn’t work with Crystal Palace, who eventually wrung out of Ed Woodward the amount they wanted from the start for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, despite the absence of any bidding war. A similar approach won’t wash with Leicester.

Woodward appeared reluctant to get involved in the fight for De Ligt’s attention for fear of being used but playing it cool over Maguire will only play into City’s hands. The only ace up Woodward’s sleeve is United’s financial clout and now – with Maguire at stake – is not the time to get shy. Coming up closer to Leicester’s valuation, above the sum City are comfortable paying, seems to represent their best and only chance of success.

United cannot still have reservations over paying such a huge sum for a defender. They only have to look at Liverpool for a reference over the difference a top quality centre-half can make or, if they prefer to look closer to home, Rio Ferdinand offers an encouraging precedent for paying a record-breaking sum for a stopper.

And this is where United’s priority must lie. Though they need perhaps two more midfielders and a centre-forward should Romelu Lukaku leave, a more potent attack will be somewhat futile while the back door remains wide open.

Woodward kept the money in his pocket last summer and look how that turned out. Both City and United need Maguire but the champions can afford to take a more patient, prudent approach. United’s bargaining position makes this no time for penny-pinching, especially in the absence of credible alternatives.

Ian Watson

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