“I’m delighted Calum has extended his stay with us,” said Unai Emery in July 2018. “He played an important role last season and will be part of my plans this season.”
What the Arsenal manager failed to disclose is that his “plans” involved Calum Chambers taking his new Arsenal contract with him across the city to Fulham. But as strange as the apparent U-turn was, Emery’s justification that a second loan spell “will be an important part of his development” seems particularly pertinent.
While the 24-year-old added a second Premier League relegation to his CV at Craven Cottage, the boy returned as a man. A campaign that started with him featuring at centre-half included some brief sojourns at right-back before carving out a role in defensive midfield. Upon his being named Fulham’s Player of the Season, the club’s official website described him as ‘one of our most popular ever loanees’.
And so to Tuesday, where Chambers was in sensational form against Nottingham Forest, assisting a goal apiece from either flank and balancing his new-found attacking instincts with a defensive resolve not often seen in these parts. His physical improvement in particular was eye-opening.
Rob Holding, Kieran Tierney, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli all impressed at the Emirates, but only one player was “amazing” enough to be singled out by the manager. He might well have earned a start against Manchester United in their 12-12 draw on Monday.
A lot of plus points from Arsenal’s romp v Nottingham Forest. 1) Calum Chambers man of the match. Must start somewhere in defence or holding midfield at Old Trafford. Really hungry focused and composed lately. 1/5
— Amy Lawrence (@amylawrence71) September 24, 2019
‘Man City already have a Harry Maguire-style centre back in Taylor Harwood-Bellis’ read the Manchester Evening News summer headline. But if one performance in a League Cup third-round game against lower-league opposition is anything to go by, the 17-year-old will surpass his new city brethren within a month.
The comparison carries little weight beyond height, of course, with Harwood-Bellis marrying obvious aerial prowess with calm and comfort on the ball against Preston. Only fellow central defender Eric Garcia completed more passes (90) than his 84, and his partner on Tuesday was making a fourth League Cup start of his career, having appeared in last season’s quarter-final and semi-final.
Pep Guardiola saw fit to praise both of his “exceptional human beings” after the 3-0 win, but for a player who only turned 17 this year, a professional first-team debut was a monumental step forward.
Regular Premier League football remains a distant objective, and Fernandinho will likely return by the weekend. But Harwood-Bellis at least justified his place in the central defensive queue, even if it is towards the back after pushing in front of Guardiola himself.
We all know Eric Garcia has world class potential, but Taylor Harwood-Bellis at 17 was brilliant. Two our finest CBs at the CFA.
Taylor so comfy on the ball and reminds me of Stones, but looks stronger physically..
— Guardiolista (@City_Agenda) September 24, 2019
It’s safe to say that Danny Ings expected his Southampton career to go a little differently. His gentleman’s bet that he would outscore Mo Salah was “just a bit of banter” with no money involved, but a final result of 7-22 won’t have been great for his confidence.
There was a silver lining of 23 Premier League starts, a tally beaten only by his first campaign in the competition with Burnley in 2014/15 (35), and almost four times as many as he made throughout his entire Liverpool career (6). With those injury issues thankfully and hopefully behind him, the 27-year-old is looking to push on.
Ralph Hasenhuttl ensured to freshen his competition this season with the signings of Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo, but Ings has risen to the challenge. Two goals in the derby win over Portsmouth takes his seasonal tally to three with one assist and a respectable return.
Perseverance – and a quite wonderful first touch – laid on his first strike against Pompey, while the deft finish applied to Michael Obafemi’s excellent through ball made for a rather pleasing second, and a boyhood dream realised.
Hasenhuttl has started Adams as a lone striker and alongside Nathan Redmond in Saints’ last two Premier League games, with Ings afforded 16 and 13 minutes as a substitute. He will fancy his chances from the start against a panicky Tottenham on Saturday.
Starting a crowdfunder for a Danny Ings statue, who’s in #saintsfc
— Luke Benali (@LukeBenali) September 24, 2019
Somewhat lost amid Leicester’s excellent start to the season is that continuity, not revolution, has been the key. The eight Foxes with the most minutes played were all at the club in 2018/19, with Ayoze Perez the only player in the top 13 not to have been signed this summer – January arrival Youri Tielemans notwithstanding.
While Dennis Praet will need more than one Premier League start and one and a half League Cup games to prove that his purchase was not at least a little pointless, James Justin will be afforded a considerable amount of time. The 21-year-old joined under no pretences: two of the Premier League’s best full-backs are well ahead of him and Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell would both take some shifting. The versatility of being able to play on either flank mattered not.
So it proved. Six Premier League games have passed with Justin acclimatising to the bench as an unused substitute in each. Even against Newcastle in the League Cup second round he watched on from the sidelines. But when former club Luton played host to Leicester on Tuesday, Brendan Rodgers gave him the nod.
A goal, four chances created, two tackles, two clearances and what the Leicester Mercury described as ‘a dream debut’ justified the call. The opportunities for such a naturally gifted and supremely talented player will come, particularly if he makes a habit of taking them in such an impressive manner.
The standard of the opposition will likely be used as a stick to beat him rather than praise him with. There always tends to be an asterisk next to the name of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is constantly willing but not always able.
Perhaps a Premier League defence would not have afforded him the freedom of Hillsborough to score his first goal, nor would they have suffered the lapse in concentration that preceded his second. But Calvert-Lewin showcased both a fine touch and unstoppable finishing technique, as well as an awareness and instinct to put Everton through to the next round.
It will take more than that to convince many of the sceptics, but only a fool would suggest the 22-year-old is responsible for a shoddy record at set-pieces and an inability to win away. Richarlison (17) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (15) are the only other Toffees to register double figures for goals in all competitions since the start of last season, with Calvert-Lewin – who neither cost upwards of £35m nor has been allowed to settle into one position – on 11.
Whether he is part of the solution remains to be seen – although every club tends to have a similar style of player in their ranks somewhere. But Calvert-Lewin is most certainly not the problem.
20 goals in 5k minutes by the age of 22 for Dom Calvert-Lewin. Many of them minutes coming in wide positions, as a sub, at an incredibly young age + in bad Everton teams.
— Rowd (@RowdenJRSG) September 24, 2019
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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.
Squad numbers confirmed for the 2019-20 season #NFFC
— Nottingham Forest FC (@NFFC) August 2, 2019
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.
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Leeds United are the favourites to win the Championship with odds of around 6/4 across the bookmakers.
That’s perfectly reasonable given the size of the club, how close they came last season, and the pedigree of their manager.
The relegated duo of Fulham and Cardiff are just behind in the betting, with West Brom also heavily fancied to gain promotion.
A word of caution, though, before you lump your mortgage on Leeds to win promotion this season: In the last 19 years, fewer than half of the pre-season promotion favourites have achieved that goal.
Last season, Championship winners Norwich City were an outsider at 25/1 – the biggest outsiders to win it this century actually, and runners-up Sheffield United were 28/1.
The Championship is, quite simply, an incredibly tough competition to predict.
Why is the Championship so unpredictable?
It’s tough to put your finger on any one reason, but it certainly seems to be becoming more unpredictable by the year.
A large reason for that at the moment is the tightening of financial restrictions on clubs, which is causing many to slash their budgets to avoid taking a points deduction similar to that which Birmingham City received last season.
The Blues were docked nine points for ‘breaking Profitability and Sustainability regulations’ after the Football League found they were £9.787m in excess of the permitted financial losses over a three-year period.
Birmingham have since sold their star player, Che Adams, to try and bring their finances back in line with the regulations and they are not the only club forced into such action.
One thing is for sure, though: even if you could identify a specific reason why the Championship was so unpredictable, you’d be crazy to ‘fix’ it.
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These are the 12 most expensive players who were uncapped when they made their big move…
12) Alex Pritchard (Norwich to Huddersfield, £12m)
The midfielder joined Town in January 2018 for anything between £10million and £14million, depending on who you believe. So we have split the difference. “I think it will be the right club for me,” Pritchard said at the time. “Just the way they play football and the togetherness of the team is a perfect fit for me.” Less than a season and a half later, the 26-year-old is heading back to the Championship – passing his former club on the way down – with a different manager who is clearly yet to be convinced by the midfielder.
Pritchard was an inconsistent presence in Town’s XI last season and Jan Siewert shifted him into a wide position for Town’s last few matches in the top flight as part of his experimentation for their next campaign. Pritchard did well on the right against Manchester United but, in fairness, this was his opposition…
Luke Shaw has been voted Man United's player of the year. This was him vs Huddersfield. Says everything about their season pic.twitter.com/gAOpPG8dJM
— Taintless Red (@TaintlessRed) May 9, 2019
11) Lloyd Kelly (Bristol City to Bournemouth, £13m)
The England Under-21 full-back became the sixth £10million-plus signing in the space of a year for little Bournemouth, who apparently fended off interest from Liverpool and Arsenal for the Bristol City academy graduate.
That’s presumably because Kelly has been promised a regular place in Eddie Howe’s first XI next season, either on the left or in the centre of the Cherries’ defence. City boss Lee Johnson, who has been very vocal in his praise for a ‘Rolls Royce of a player’ reckons the 20-year-old will become a centre-back in the long term but, initially, Kelly will fight with Charlie Daniels and Diego Rico for the left-back spot. “I genuinely think he’ll play for England at senior level,” said Johnson, though many thought that about Jordon Ibe. Speaking of whom…
10) Jordon Ibe (Liverpool to Bournemouth, £15m)
“It was a tough one but I needed to think what was best for me, which is playing, and when you scale it up, Liverpool and Bournemouth are fighting for the same things,” Ibe told The Times in 2016 in an interview which has not stood the test of time at all well. “Liverpool are not in the Europa League so would it really make a difference? And I would have more chances to play at Bournemouth than Liverpool so it doesn’t really matter.”
Three years later, Ibe has three Premier League goals while starting only nine Premier League matches last season. Liverpool are faring rather better…
9) Sam Clucas (Hull City to Swansea City, £15m)
The Swans signed Clucas for an eye-watering figure without really having an idea of where they might play him. The former Mansfield, Chesterfield and Hull utility player was a victim of his own versatility to a certain extent but justification of his fee was barely evident in his performances – unless Arsenal were the opponents – during one miserable season at the Liberty Stadium.
Upon relegation, it seemed like Clucas might stay in the Premier League with a move to Burnley on the cards until the Clarets refused to budge over personal terms. Swansea eventually clawed back £6million of their investment when Stoke took the 28-year-old off their hands. Once he recovered from knee surgery – by which time a third of the season had passed – Clucas became a Potters regular in the Championship, but he seems to have most to lose should Nathan Jones sign Nick Powell from Wigan.
8) Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough to Burnley, £15m)
Joe Hart was Burnley’s headline signing last summer but Gibson was the most expensive. Neither worked. Hart is desperate for another move this summer while Gibson just wants a taste of the action.
The centre-back, once called up for the England senior squad in 2017, currently has a goal-a-game record with Burnley owing to his strike in a 5-1 defeat at Everton on Boxing Day, his only Premier League appearance so far for Burnley. A hernia problem at the start of the season didn’t help but Dyche obviously saw nothing in training from his joint-record signing to tempt him to break up the Ben Mee-James Tarkowski partnership.
7) Calum Chambers (Southampton to Arsenal, £16m)
Half a decade after the then-19-year-old joined Arsenal, we still don’t know if he fits into the Gunners’ plans. Probably not. For two of the last three seasons, he has been shipped out on loan to Middlesbrough and Fulham with both sides being relegated. Which is probably just a coincidence.
Moving to Arsenal was enough to earn Chambers an England cap – three in fact – under Roy Hodgson. Three years after his senior debut, Chambers was playing for the Under-21s at the 2017 Euros.
6) Harry Maguire (Hull City to Leicester City, £17m)
It seemed steep at the time but, two years later, Leicester are set to make close to a five-fold return on Craig Shakespeare’s investment. That is if they sell Maguire, which they should only do if they receive an offer too good to turn down. And if that comes from Manchester United, would the 20-cap England defender be better off staying where he is?
The Foxes could finish above United next term…
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) June 3, 2019
5) Andre Gray (Burnley to Watford, £18.5m)
‘If you want a striker to score some – but not many – goals against bad defences but look worrying blunt against other sides, Gray’s your man. For £18.5m.’ we wrote upon the striker’s big move to Watford in 2017.
Two seasons on, not much has changed. Gray netted five goals in his first season at Vicarage Road and seven last term, most of which he watched from the bench amid only 13 starts. Troy Deeney is more likely to win a full cap than the former England C striker.
4) Alfie Mawson (Swansea to Fulham, £20m)
The centre-back was considered something of a bargain when the Cottagers won the race for a 24-year-old who four months previously had been called up by Gareth Southgate without getting on the pitch against Italy. But like the rest of his Fulham team-mates, Mawson had a stinking 2018-19.
Injuries offer the former Barnsley and Swansea defender some mitigation. But the fact Mawson has had surgery on the same knee twice in the space of a year, the last occasion after injuring himself while changing his boots, will caution some Premier League clubs who might be looking to rescue him from Fulham’s sinking ship.
3) James Maddison (Norwich to Leicester, £22.5m)
Leicester are pretty good at this. Maddison might not fetch quite as much as Maguire but the attacking midfielder would still earn the Foxes a three-fold return. Not that they want to sell or that he wants to leave after only a year at the King Power Stadium.
But what a year! The 22-year-old was the only player in the Premier League to create 100 chances so it is no wonder half of the Big Six are sniffing. Gareth Southgate is rather harder to impress, evidently.
100 – @LCFC's James Maddison was the only player to create 100 goalscoring chances in the Premier League this season & was the first English player to create 100+ in a single Premier League campaign since Leighton Baines in 2012-13 (116). Peng. pic.twitter.com/FcZ5NHMuvf
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 13, 2019
2) Jordan Pickford (Sunderland to Everton, £25m)
Everton’s record signing had yet to win a senior cap when Everton made him their record signing in 2017 but two years later, Pickford has 19 of them, having established himself as Southgate’s undisputed No.1.
That doesn’t mean he’s everyone’s cup of tea. ‘There’s just too much going on,’ wrote Winty last week. ‘While Gareth Southgate is trying to engender an era of calm, smooth, possession football – and failing, because of various reasons outlined below – Pickford is getting his rave on. Every game. All game.’
But Everton would still double their money if they took Pickford to market and the England gloves look to be his for the foreseeable future.
Love it, @JPickford1! pic.twitter.com/HnuT7C0x4I
— England (@England) June 10, 2019
1) Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace to Manchester United, £50m)
Here comes Wan-Bissaka, blowing everyone out of the water with his big move to Old Trafford.
When a young player moves to United or any big club, a first cap rarely follows far behind. But Wan-Bissaka has a lot of competition for the right-back spot in Gareth Southgate’s senior squad, with Kieran Trippier being squeezed out by Kyle Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold this summer.
Wan-Bissaka went instead with the Under-21s to the European Championships, where he did his cause little good on Aidy Boothroyd’s watch. A 95th-minute own goal in the opening defeat to France led to Boothroyd dropping the 21-year-old, claiming the United target had “had his head turned”. Which the manager apparently didn’t spot before the defeat… just another thing to add to Boothroyd’s charge sheet.
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