A View From Below

Sporting debate and opinion

Maverick Hatem Ben Arfa forgets French fights to find success in North-East England

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Ben Arfa is all smiles after signing for Newcastle in 2010

Hatem Ben Arfa is being lauded as the star talent in a surprisingly successful Newcastle side this season, with many writers stating that the diminutive play-maker is the most naturally gifted player currently gracing the Premier League.

It has been a rocky road from precocious starlet to international regular for the attacker, who is set to line-up for France in the upcoming European Championships. But here Ben Arfa now is, lighting up English football as the creative fulcrum of a sterling Geordie side.

Once more accustomed to starting arguments and creating rifts than instigating attacks and scoring goals, the Frenchman is finally starting to live up to the billing he carved out as a prodigious youngster in his home country. But don’t think it was easy going.

Hatem Ben Arfa was born in suburban Paris, in 1987. Hatem’s father was a former international for Tunisia, and with the help of sports journalist and agent Michel Ouazin, five-year-old Ben Arfa began to follow in his footsteps.

After playing for local sides in the Parisian region, Hatem was selected for the renowned Clairefontaine Academy at the tender age of 11. The famous French footballing school was so impressed with the youngster that they took him on despite being a year younger than his contemporaries, believing he may be the next Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka or Louis Saha to come through their ranks.

Light was shed on Ben Arfa’s development through a documentary entitled ‘A La Clairefontaine’, and a particularly engrossing episode shows the baby-faced midfielder embroiled in a heated exchange with Arsenal’s Abou Diaby. Diaby had clearly developed further physically than the youthful; Ben Arfa, with the video offering an insight into the tough love that the Frenchman must have endured as the runt of the litter.

This trivial example of conflict was to set the tone for a player whose reputation as a bad-boy began to outweigh his undoubted talents soon after graduating from the academy.

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Love-hate relationship: Ben Arfa and Benzema at Lyon

Much hype surrounded Ben Arfa when he made the move to Lyon aged 15. He signed a professional contract in 2004 despite interest from European heavyweights Chelsea and Ajax, and broke into the first team squad along with striker Karim Benzema.

Ben Arfa looked every bit the superstar during his four years at the club, winning the domestic title every year and picking up the Young Player of the Year award in 2007-08.

Rumours of a rift with former youth team colleague Benzema seemed likely when coach Alain Perrin admitted “I wouldn’t say they go out as best mates” ahead of Lyon’s Champions League quarter final clash at Old Trafford in 2008.

Ben Arfa looked to have put the issue behind him when he signed a contract extension with the French Champions later that month, but a training ground bust-up with another current Gunner, this time Sebastien Squillaci signalled an end to his time at Stade de Gerland.

Supposed interest from English big hitters Man United and Arsenal, as well as Real Madrid, failed to materialise in the wake of doubts surrounding the 21-year-old’s temperament, despite his clear ability.

A potential switch to a bigger club can’t have been helped by Ben Arfa publicly announcing his refusal to return to Lyon for pre-season training that summer, who finally cut their loses with the player and sold him to Marseille for around £10million ahead of the 2008/09 campaign.

The transfer was further complicated by involvement from the Ligue de Football Professionel, who were forced to intervene after negotiations between the two clubs turned sour. At the end of 2008 Ben Arfa stuck the knife into his former club, telling a Lyon newspaper that they ‘lacked class’ and ‘weren’t a great side’.

Less than a month into his spell with Marseille, Ben Arfa had another training session scuffle, this time with Djibril Cisse, who was promptly loaned to Sunderland.

Ben Arfa played well in patches for the southern French outfit, but he continued to court controversy. Clashing with team-mate Modeste M’bami during a warm up did little to alter public image of the eccentric forward, whilst a refusal to leave the bench and come on as a substitute drew the ire of boss Eric Gerets.

The season after he was fined nearly £10,000 for skipping training, and argued with new manager Didier Deschamps shortly into his reign. Despite their conflict, Deschamps liked Ben Arfa and he found some of his best form under the former Chelsea player.

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Fractious relationship: Ben Arfa and Deschamps didn't see eye to eye at Marseille

At the end of the 2009/10 term, Ben Arfa repeated his trick upon leaving Lyon and refused to return to the club’s training facilities. He spoke of his intention to travel to Newcastle in the hope that a deal could be struck, and talked with contempt about Deschamps.

He was forced to return to France, but didn’t stick around long. A move to Werder Bremen never materialised, and finally an agreement was struck between Marseille and Newcastle. Hatem had got his way once again.

Initially moving on a season long loan deal worth £2million, Newcastle were set to pay an extra £5m to sign the player outright if he made more than 25 appearances for the North East outfit.

Despite breaking a leg early into his stint with Newcastle, the club indeed made him a permanent member of the squad in January 2011 on a long term contract. With an injury hanging over him and lingering concerns over his attitude it was quite the risk.

This season that gamble has spectacularly paid off, with Ben Arfa finally banishing the argumentative demons that blighted the early part of his career, and the quick-footed star is now letting realising his undoubted potential on Tyneside.

Five goals in his last 12 games, including stunning individual efforts against Blackburn, Arsenal and West Brom have proved Ben Arfa has found the right attitude needed to be successful at the highest level, and much of this praise should be attributed to his manager Alan Pardew. Or perhaps it was just a change in culture that he needed.

Either way Ben Arfa has begun to conquer English football, and he will have one eye on damaging the national team at the Euro’s when France clash with England.

Whilst Three Lions fans hope that is not the case, Geordie supporters are just pleased they are seeing the best out of their talented play-maker. Now Ben Arfa is causing chaos against opposition sides rather than his own he can finally achieve the career in the game his talents intended.

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Fulfilling ambition: Ben Arfa is proving to be a shrewd acquisition at Newcastle

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April 7, 2012 Posted by | Football | , , | Leave a comment

Milan massacre unearths gaps in Wenger’s philosophy

SAN SIRO SUFFERING: the scene of Arsenal's midweek 4-0 thrashing

This week marked another watershed moment in what is fast becoming the most dreadful season in Arsenal’s recent history.

First came the publicly humiliating 8-2 thrashing at the hands of United, before the travelling support were treated to a startling 4-3 loss away to strugglers Blackburn Rovers, and January’s recent league spell for the club reads three games, three defeats.

In the midst of this tumultuous campaign have been few highs for Arsene Wenger’s beleaguered side, notably crushing Chelsea 5-3 at Stamford Bridge and exacting some revenge on Blackburn during a 7-1 thrashing at the Emirates.

However, Milan’s midweek destruction of the Gunners serves as a painful reminder as to quite how far the club has fallen since the ill-fated Carling Cup final disaster against Birmingham.

A year ago on Thursday, Arsenal looked to have come of age, coming from behind to complete an astonishing victory over European heavyweights Barcelona at the Emirates.

That night Jack Wilshere announced his talents in central midfield on a European stage against global stars Xavi and Iniesta, in a team that lined up with now departed stars Emmanuel Eboue, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas.

Carl Jenkinson, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta have replaced those players. Decent professionals but a clear gulf in class apart.

It has not been a steep fall from grace for Arsenal, more a gradual decline over the last 12 months.

Manager Arsene Wenger didn’t help his soldier’s cause last night, sending them out to battle without the red-hot Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (apparently due to concerns over the wings of the San Siro pitch) and veteran Thierry Henry, who looked desperate to return to New York on a high.

Defensive frailties resurfaced as Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs looked rusty in the fullback positions after only recently returning from injury. Thomas Vermaelen put in easily his worst performance in red and white at the heart of the defence after 10 games filling in at left back.

Another mystery is the 4-3-3 formation the French tactician persists with. This structure was built around for the talents of Cesc Fabgregas, and now he has left why not return to the 4-4-2 style that worked wonders for the Invincibles vintage of 2004?

Wenger’s failure to reinforce his defence this January and purchase a top-class centre forward to support Robin Van Persie, not just loan a 34-year-old club legend for less than two months, will prove his undoing come the end of the season.

The future is certainly bright for Arsenal. Goalkeeper Woijech Szczesny, rapidly improving defender Laurent Koscielny and precocious English talents Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offer undoubted hope for the future.

RVP THE MVP: will Arsenal's star striker be at the Emirates next season?

Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether the team’s leader, talisman and goal scorer will stick around much longer. You cannot deny Van Persie’s loyalty, but as he approaches the last contract of his career, who could deny him a move to a club with serious domestic and continental aspirations?

Arsene Wenger deserves the patience of the club, its fans and the media. This is a man who revolutionised Arsenal Football Club, and he should be given the respect he has earned.

However even he must be tired of failure by now, and it is essential that he bend his strict principles to allow on field success not to be skewed by the profit margins and revenue balance of the business.

Arsenal need serious investment and it has to be done this summer.

February 18, 2012 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Depression in sport needs to be tackled

Tonight at 10.45pm on BBC1 is a documentary on depression in sport. Made by Cricket star Freddie Flintoff, ‘The Hidden Side of Sport’ looks to be a hugely important piece on an increasingly worrying aspect of sporting professionalism. I wrote this article for Leeds Student Newspaper, which went to print on 2 December 2011. The feature was called ‘Last Word’.

This week the football world has been in a state of shock after Welsh manager Gary Speed was found hanged at his home early on Sunday morning.

The issue of depression in sport has returned to the fore, two years after the devastating suicide of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke.

These two tragic cases indicate that mental illness in sport must be combated, whilst the revelation that five professional footballers have requested help from the Tony Adams Sporting Chance Clinic following Speed’s death highlights the risk of further disasters.

Former footballers Stan Collymore and Neil Lennon uncovered their battles with the demons of depression after hanging up their boots, whilst cricketer Marcus Trescothick and former rugby star Brian Moore have written books about their own experiences.

Despite the topic rarely forming on the lips of pundits, fans and the majority of sports stars, it is painfully apparent that mental illness is prevalent amongst elite athletes.

The main problems confronting depression in professional sport are the existing negative attitudes and the social stigma attached to the subject.

John Gregory, former manager of Collymore at Aston Villa questioned how the striker could be depressed earning £20,000 a week, whilst more recently Joey Barton reacted to the news of Gary Speed’s death by labelling the act of suicide ‘selfish’.

These beliefs offer an insight into the harsh and hostile environment that professional sportsmen encounter when struggling with self-doubt, anxiety, stress or melancholy during their careers.

The PFA is set to distribute a 36-page document designed to beat one of football’s last taboos, whilst former England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff is set to investigate depression in sport for a BBC documentary.

More initiatives like this are essential if the world of sport is going to help its stars overcome mental health suffering that for too long have been ignored or overlooked.

As the festive season draws closer, bringing with it a packed calender of sporting action, it is imperative that those who are struggling to cope in the spotlight are not abandoned.

Sporting governing bodies must act to help professionals who are suffering from mental health problems, and strive to ensure that there is not another repeat of the tragedies that have afflicted the footballing world in recent times.

January 11, 2012 Posted by | Sport | Leave a comment

January 2012 – The month of the veteran comeback

This January sees the Chinese embrace the Year of the Dragon. The theme in the Barclays Premier League this month is welcoming the return of the veteran.

First Thierry Henry answered the call of duty from the man that made his career – Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger – to return to the club the Frenchman insists ‘he loves’ and help lighten the weight placed on captain/goalscorer/inspiration Robin Van Persie’s shoulders.

Over at Manchester United a similar story evolved today, as it emerged that Paul Scholes was coming out of retirement to the fill the gaping void in the club’s midfield.

With Anderson and Tom Cleverly on the treatment table and with Darren Fletcher being forced to take an indefinite break from football due to illness, the ginger play-maker has been coaxed back to Old Trafford for the remainder of the season.

Whilst fans of both clubs (and neutrals too) have waxed lyrical about the comeback’s of these Premier League greats, such short-termism is a new trend developing in the upper echelons of the English game.

That is not to suggest Henry and Scholes’ returns will not be successful – I believe both clubs have all to gain from the moves – even if the players are not at the same level they once enjoyed.

It goes to show how experience, leadership and attitude are highly valued at the top clubs.

The 2-month loan of Arsenal’s all time record goalscorer will bring a buzz to the Emirates Stadium, as well as providing the team with a classy finisher and the perfect man to have around to pass on advice and guidance to the current crop.

Henry is likely to make the majority of his appearances between now and his return to America from the bench, where the club legend is bound to chip in with a goal or two, however his return is a cost-effective way of replacing Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh who are departing for the African Cup of Nations.

Arsenal fans will be hoping that the influence of Henry can help convince Van Persie to commit his future to the club – as the path of MLS’ star striker, who recently witnessed the erection of his statue outside the Gunners’ ground – evidently explains to the Dutchman that the grass is not always greener away from the Gunners.

As for Scholes, Manchester United have been lacking in central midfield in recent months, and whilst calls for the player to be involved at Euro 2012 seem ludicrously premature, he – like Henry – will add another body to the Red Devils’ squad as well as a touch of class.

Scholes’ presence around the Carrington training ground can help develop the potential that young midfielder Cleverly displayed before his injury, as well as display a genuine role model for United’s emerging stars to follow.

Sir Alex Ferguson will hope that having one of his most trusted lieutenants back involved at the club will ensure his team suffer less demoralising days as recent as defeats to Newcastle and Blackburn.

Time will tell if these short term experiments work for United and Arsenal, but it is certainly a gamble worth taking for the managers and players involved.

Other clubs may start to look at which former greats they could recall to the side, and fans around the country may start dreaming of seeing their favourite stars.

Here is five possible (and some comical) moves that would excite the English game further:

Newcastle – Alan Shearer
The Magpies have this season warmed to Senegalese goal machine Demba Ba, but Alan Pardew will be without his leading goalscorer during January as he departs for the African Cup of Nations. Shearer may well be comfortable with the BBC’s punditry team – but could he refuse the call for the Geordie nation?

Southampton – Matt Le Tissier
Another former pro turned pundit, Le Tissier is a staple on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday program these days, but you don’t need to be too old to remember Le Tizz gracing the Premier League. If he came back to the Saints he could even add to his puzzling low number of England caps, and its not like he ever had any pace to lose!

Leeds – Tony Yeboah
Yorkshire’s favourite ever Ghanaian is well remembered at Elland Road for his wonder goals thumped in during his spell in England. Yeboah now runs an international sports agency and a chain of hotels in his home country – but considering his love of Yorkshire pudding – could a comeback be on the cards.

Manchester City – Paul Dickov
Despite the riches available to Roberto Mancini, with strikers Mario Balotelli seemingly more focused on his nicotine habit that his footballing career recently, Edin Dzeko labouring out-of-form and Carlos Teves literally AWOL, legendary front-man Shaun Goater may well get the chance to add to his 101 goal club tally.

Nottingham Forest – Stan Collymore
Everyone’s favourite bad boy. These days Collymore strikes a more composed figure, broadcasting for TalkSport and acting as an unofficial campaigner for Depression Alliance – Stan certainly has the cojones to enjoy a twilight return to football. Nottingham has been a quieter place since he graced Robin Hood country.

January 8, 2012 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Capello needs to keep faith in youngsters ahead of Euro 2012

The penny seems to have finally dropped for Fabio Capello.

Nearly 18 months after the mauling England suffered at the hands of a young and vibrant Germany side in the Second Round of the 2010 World Cup, the Italian tactician has finally accepted that for his national side to progress emphasis must be placed on youth.

By all accounts, the so called ‘Golden Generation’ has failed to live up to their billing during the last decade, with the quarter finals stage at international competitions representing the glass ceiling that the Three Lions have been unable to smash, despite a supposed star-studded and talented team.

Ahead of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine next summer, coach Capello believes he has unearthed a new generation of gifted players, which he blooded during the recent friendly victories over Spain and Sweden.

“I looked for something new and found it,” said Capello, who missed his son’s wedding to be at the match against the World Champions on Saturday at Wembley.

England's youngsters need time to develop

“I’ve found it in [Jack] Rodwell, [Kyle] Walker and [Phil] Jones. These three are interesting. They are really good technically, really good physically and all three are fast. This is important in modern football.”

Strikers Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge were unfortunate not be included in the former Real Madrid manager’s praises, who both impressed in their substitute appearances.

Add to this the precocious but currently injured Jack Wilshere, out-of-favour but in-form Micah Richards, pacy wingers Theo Walcott and Adam Johnson and custodian Joe Hart and there is a real sense that a young and hungry side is ready to replace England’s old guard for Euro 2012.

Capello has the opportunity to blend youth and experience at next summer’s Euro’s, which will be his last tournament as national team boss.

Ashley Cole continues to stand out as the country’s first choice left-back, Scott Parker has excelled in the midfield engine room and Ashley Young has made great strides in his game since his move to Manchester United.

Capello has overseen a staggering level of upheaval since the World Cup in South Africa, with over a dozen members of the squad being consigned to the international scrap heap.

David James, Robert Green, Matthew Upson and Joe Cole have all fallen out of favour, whilst Jamie Carragher and Emile Hesky have retired from national duty.

Several others have fallen down the manager’s pecking order, such as Michael Dawson, Stephen Warnock, Ledley King, Michael Carrick, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch.

England’s performances at Africa’s first World Cup suggest that such squad revolution was necessary, although it begs the question why has the manager waited until now to place his faith in younger players?

Fabio Capello needs to keep his cool ahead of Euro 2012

No one is getting carried away with the optimism emanating from the England camp after back-to-back 1-0 victories, the first against a Spanish side tipped to add to their growing trophy cabinet in Poland and Ukraine, but England are in a decent position ahead of the tournament.

One pressing issue remains: The Wayne Rooney conundrum. You would struggle to justify leaving the talented front man out the squad, England’s one true world class player, even though he will play no part in the team’s first three group games.

But who replaces Rooney for the group stage? Darren Bent is the safe option but perhaps a more rewarding choice would be the exciting Danny Welbeck. You could go with pace, accommodating Gabriel Agbonlahor or Daniel Sturridge in the side. How about plumping for height and power with either Peter Crouch or Andy Carroll?

These are the selection dilemma’s that Fabio Capello faces in the next seven months as the national side looks to banish the ghosts of Bloemfontein and fans begin to turn their attentions towards the show-piece event, at which England’s side may possess a welcome youthful verve.

November 19, 2011 Posted by | Football | 2 Comments

Fabregas confirmed as ‘Battle of the Buffet’ culprit

Former Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas was the player that threw pizza at Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson after the ill-tempered Premier League encounter in 2004.

Martin Keown taunts Ruud Van Nistelrooy after his late penalty miss in 2003's league fixture at Old Trafford

Pundit and ex-Gunners defender Martin Keown revealed the Spaniard as the guilty party behind the astonishing act this week on 5 Live.

The game saw a 2-0 victory for Man United at Old Trafford that ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run at 49 games, ensuing a fiery post match fracas between players and management of both sides in the tunnel.

Before now rumours had surrounded who was responsible for the ‘Pizza-gate’ scandal, with Chelsea left back Ashley Cole only hinting at the identity of the perpetrator.

All I can say is that the culprit wasn’t English or French, so that should narrow it down,” wrote Cole in his 2006 book ‘My Defence’.

Cole describes the event that has kept journalists and fans alike guessing for almost a decade: “This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush.”

The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped – the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned and all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit.”

Sir Alex Ferguson himself spoke out about the incident in 2006, which forced him to chance clothes before he did his post match TV interviews with the press.

“In the tunnel [Arsene] Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats, so I told him to leave them alone and behave himself.”

To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable,” scathed Ferguson.

The bad blood between the two sides has diminished somewhat since 2004, as Arsenal have been overtaken as the Red Devils main rivals by Chelsea and Manchester City.

But at least now Keown has admitted that Fabregas, 17-years-old at the time, was the man with pizza in hand, the hatchet can be buried on one of English football’s most scandalous stories.

2004's Old Trafford encounter was later coined 'Pizzagate' due to unsavoury scenes in the tunnel after the game

November 13, 2011 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Micah Richards voices his disappointment at England axe on Twitter

DISAPPOINTED: City defender Micah Richards

Manchester City full-back Micah Richards has taken to Twitter to voice his disappointment at being overlooked for England’s upcoming games against Spain and Sweden.

He joins Manchester United players Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney in being left out of the squad.

The trio, who hold a combined total of over 150 caps, have been ignored by Coach Fabio Capello for the upcoming friendlies.

Whilst Rio Ferdinand has only recently returned from injury and Wayne Rooney is overlooked because of his impending suspension, the exclusion of Micah Richards is a startling one.

Taking to his twitter page on Sunday, Richards tweeted: “Well well well!!!! Disappointed is an understatement!!”

The next morning he returned to the social media site with a more reflective message, tweeting: “Oh well better luck next time! Roll the sleeves up and work harder! #cantstopwontstopdontstop.”

Despite being currently the first choice right back for the Premier League’s leading club, Capello has chosen to take Liverpool’s Glen Johnson, Tottenham’s Kyle Walker and Man United’s Phil Jones over the former Leeds United trainee.

Speaking in the aftermath of Man City’s 3-2 away win at QPR, captain for the day Richards said: “In seasons before, I’ve not been playing up to my best.”

“Now I’ve started off well this season and we’re top of the league.”

“When you are up against [David] Silva, [Sergio] Aguero, Yaya Toure, [Mario] Balotelli and the rest of them it is hard,” he continued.

“It kind of makes you better as a player facing them every day in training. You have got to concentrate all the time. It is just good to be playing with such quality players and playing with them is helping my game as well, for sure.”

Richards has certainly begun this season in fine form, contributing four assists from defence and injecting pace into City’s right flank.

The 23-year-old has started all but one of his team’s Premier League games so far this term, and looked destined to star for England over the upcoming international period.

However, Fabio Capello has chosen to leave the powerful defender out of his 25-man strong squad.

In the past, Richards has been accused of a lack of focus and effort, and during a summer holiday to party island Ayia Napa in 2009 he contracted swine flu, initial believing the illness to be alcohol poisoning.

But the Birmingham born right-back has benefited from the tutelage of City manager Roberto Mancini, with both his attitude and professionalism now reflecting his performances.

Richards signed off his post-match interview at Loftus Road by saying: “I know what I’ve got to do – keep working hard – and that’s what I’ll do.”

Rio Ferdinand was perhaps too busy celebrating his 33rd birthday yesterday to get upset about his exclusion from the England squad, whilst his recent performances since his return from injury do make the decision somewhat unsurprising.

RED MIST: Wayne Rooney recieves a straight red card for kicking out at a Montenegrin defender

Wayne Rooney, a recent regular in the national set up, missed the cut this time around after Fabio Capello declared that he needed to assess the merits of the other England strikers following his talisman’s impending three game suspension at Euro 2012.

Commentators have been split over the decision to take Rooney to the European Championships despite being likely to miss the entire group stage.

Considering England’s lack of genuine world class talent in the attacking areas, however, it seems probable that Capello will take a gamble and find a place within his 23-man squad for the Manchester United forward.

United midfielder Ashley Young also misses this England squad through injury, after starting the season in sparkling form after his summer move from Aston Villa.

Youngsters Daniel Sturridge and Jack Rodwell, of Chelsea and Everton respectively, both make their first senior England squad, having starred together for the U-21’s.

Captain John Terry has also been selected for international duty; despite the pending police and F.A. investigations into racial comments made towards Anton Ferdinand in last month’s clash between QPR and Chelsea yet to be decided.

There have also been recalls for pacey Aston Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor and Man City defender Joleon Lescott, whilst Fulham forward Bobby Zamora keeps his place in the squad.

England face a talented Spain side on Saturday afternoon at Wembley, before hosting Sweden on Tuesday evening.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Manchester clubs trail Spanish heavyweights in Balloon d’Or nominations

La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid dwarf Manchester United and Manchester City in the nominations for the coveted Ballon d’Or trophy, announced on Tuesday.

Of the 23 players short-listed for the award, eight are from Barcelona and five from Real Madrid, with just two from Manchester United and a solitary performer from Manchester City.

 

Barcelona and Argentina striker Lionel Messi won the 2010 Ballon d’Or trophy

 

Lionel Messi, Xavi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the early frontrunners for the prestigious prize, due to be decided at the second FIFA Ballon d’Or gala on 9 January 2012.

The short-list does little to close the gap developing between the two top clubs in England and their Spanish counterparts.

Sir Alex Ferguson commented on the Spanish dominance of the award, saying: “The nominations are not a surprise. But it is interesting to see which players are involved.”

“The fact that there are seven Spanish players tells you everything.”

The seven Spanish men in question are Casillas and Xabi Alonso, (Madrid) and Fabregas, Villa, Xavi, Iniesta and Pique. (Barcelona).

Staggeringly, four out of the five Spanish players from the Nou Camp are Catalan.

Brought up in the region, receiving their footballing education at the La Masia training centre, these players have been developed in the distinct Barcelona mould.

The local talents at Barcelona nominated for the Ballon d’Or could not contrast more with the situation in Manchester.

 

Manchester United’s commercial king Wayne Rooney is England’s only nominee for the Balloon d’Or 2011

 

United can boast Luis Nani and Wayne Rooney amongst the greatest players on the globe, whilst City can point to Sergio Aguero as a world beater.

However these players emanate from the Cape Verde, Liverpool and Buenos Aires respectively.

It may be fanciful to think that Barcelona’s system of youth production can be bettered or even matched in Manchester, but it looks to be crucial to their current golden period of success.

In May Barcelona outclassed Ferguson’s Manchester United in the Champions League Final, comfortable winning 3-1 at Wembley Stadium.

It was the second time in three years that Barcelona had triumphed over the Red Devils in Europe’s greatest club competition, winning the trophy in 2009 after a 2-0 victory in Rome.

Such is the talent at coach Pep Guardiola’s disposal, one would not begrudge the club its eight Balloon d’Or nominees, filling over a quarter of the entire short-list.

And the production line at Barcelona is not showing any signs of coming to a halt, with recent graduates Pedro Rodriguez and Thiago Alcantara breaking into the first team, it seems that the club could better their eight nominations for the trophy next season.

Barcelona pose a threatening prospect for Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini to contemplate this seaon, to mention nothing of Real Madrid, as these Manchester managers look to compete at the top table in Europe.

Barcelona celebrate winning the Champions League 2011, defeating Manchester United 3-1

 

November 7, 2011 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Walcott and Van Persie could emulate Henry and Bergkamp up front for Arsenal

Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers, aside from providing the club and it’s fans with some welcome respite from recent troubles, brought up Robin Van Persie’s 99th and 100th career league goals for the Gunners.

The Dutch captain had a tremendous game, truly leading by example (despite Alan Hanson’s argument on the contrary included in his ‘insight’ on MOTD) to lift the doom and gloom that has surrounded the Emirates Stadium since the summer, with two well worked goals to secure the 3 points before Alex Song’s late strike.

However, most impressive for the rest of the season was the link-up play seen between Van Persie and Theo Walcott, perfectly demonstrated during the second Arsenal goal. For some time now Walcott has been speaking of his desire to play in a more central striking position, and both the pros and cons of this debate were evident yesterday against the struggling Lancashire club.

On the plus side, Walcott was busy throughout the afternoon as he used his speed to his advantage. Surging through on goal after an Aaron Ramsey pass, Walcott’s blistering pace forced defender David Wheater to tug him back, giving the referee no choice but to reach for the red card, virtually denying Bolton any hopes of getting back into the game.

However, the Englishman’s main flaw was evident during a second half chance where he was played through on goal by Alex Song, and found himself one-on-one with Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskaleinen. Perhaps snatching at the effort too soon, Walcott dragged theshot which was beaten away by the Fin.

Therein lies the conundrum Arsene Wenger faces. The French manager has said numerous times he eventually envisages Walcott as a striker, a sentiment the player himself agrees with, so too John Terry, who spoke out about Walcott’s good finishing during a recent England meet up.

However, Walcott has yet to prove himself as a clinical and prolific goalscorer, as Robin Van Persie has done this calendar year, who has fired in a staggering 21 Premier League goals since the turn of the year.

Even so, with Walcott set to enter the final year of his contract next summer, it seems that a positional move will be crucial to those negotiations. Van Persie, Song and Vermaelen are all in a similar position with contracts, and securing these stars on long term deals in absolutely vital to Arsenal’s resurgence.

I do believe that Theo Walcott has the ability and determination to to play as a central striker. Much like Thierry Henry, Walcott’s idol, he has started on the wing but may flourish through the middle.

That means Wenger must accomodate two strikers into his side’s formation, stark in contrast to the adopted 4-3-3 used to bring the best out of Cesc Fabregas. Now the Spaniard has moved on, Arsenal should look to bring out the best in their top current stars; Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere.

Van Persie was all over the park against Bolton, making his presence felt from inside his own half to his opponent’s penalty box. Perhaps now is the time to give RVP a free role, much like the role fulfilled by his former countryman, Dennis Bergkamp.

With Van Persie dictating the play from a deeper role that seems more suited to his natural game, Walcott could play on the shoulder of the last defender, utilising his speed to finish the many chances the Gunners create. The only issue here lies in Walcott’s effectiveness in front of goal, but such a partnership seems worth a shout for me.

Wenger has been a staunch proponent of a packed midfield in modern times, but there are glimpses of success around promoting the benefits of two strikers. Manchester United for one, look as dangerous as ever this season, with Wayne Rooney in a deeper role behind one of Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez.

Ok, playing two strikers shot Manchester United in the foot against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League final, where the Catalan ‘carousel’ trumped Fergie’s formation 3-1. In games against weaker sides though, United have dominated games because of their attacking verve, stemming from playing two frontmen.

It would be unfair to assume that Walcott and Van Persie could re-create the unmatched magic, deftness and pure skill of Henry and Bergkamp, they could strike up a similar relationship in the mould of their idols.

The omens are there, with both Walcott and Van Persie currently holding the squad numbers, 14 and 10 respectively, of their favourite past Arsenal greats. If these strikers could develop half the understanding that Henry and Bergkamp enjoyed, then it would be a gamble worth taking.

September 25, 2011 Posted by | Football | Leave a comment

Arsenal FC – Summer of crisis saved by deadline day moves

In late July I toyed with the idea of writing a season preview blog regarding Arsenal Football Club. However there were so many ongoing sagas an indefinite issues at the Emirates that I decided it would be best to wait untill 1st of September, after the transfer deadline has passed, to express my views on the Gunners summer and the season ahead.

And how glad am I now that I chose to wait until today.

From boy to man - Cesc Fabregas

Since late July, AFC has changed dramatically.
Arsene Wenger has lost his captain, talisman and most able player in Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona for £35 million including variables. He has also lost Samir Nasri, or as many Arsenal fans are now referring to him as, $amir Na$ri, to Manchester City for around £23 million.

The club has suffered the ignomity of being the only Premier League club in history to have had a player sent off in each of their first 3 games of the season, managed to scrape through to the Champions League group stages after a tough two-legged encounter with Udinese, and have been humiliated in defeat, 8 goals to 2 against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Even so, I write this piece on the first day of September 2011 full of enthusiasm and excitement for the season ahead.
Arsenal’s squad looks refreshed and revamped, our transfer policy seems to have modernised and the club now has the potential to adapt our wage structure to keep hold of our best players and bring in top quality stars in the future.

I must admit, however, that back in July I was much less optimistic. In the wake of Arsenal’s final friendly before the season started in earnest, we lost 2-1 away from home to Benfica. I drafted some notes on what I thought was necessary to haul the club out of the ‘crisis’ that was gripping the red half of North London.

Here goes; my plan will be split into 3 parts – sales, signings and team tactics and management.
Under to these points will be what actually happened, and whether I was right or wrong, and if AW has bettered my ideas.

Sales
(Gael Clichy had already moved to Man City for £7m & Jay Emmanuel-Thomas to Ipswich for £1million)

Sell Cesc Fabregas quickly for around £35million
Cesc Fabregas was sold to Barcelona. The fee was thought to be around £35 million, including add-ons.
I understand Arsenal were paid £14.5 million when he moved, will be paid another £14.5 million in October, and may receive another £5 million in performance related add-ons. Cesc himself waived his loyalty bonus, saving Arsenal shelling out around £5 million to the player himself.
Here I think all Arsenal fans now the player had to be sold. His heart wasn’t in it, and it was time to move on. However Wenger’s reluctance to let Fabregas leave left us short of midfield options and downbeat before the season started.
Verdict – Right: Fabregas should have been sold earlier in the summer

Sell Andrey Arshavin for around £10 million
Andrey Arshavin has stayed. Rumours talked of a move back to Russia, but likely due to Na$ri’s sale, as Arshavin is a senior midfield player he did not move. Gervinho has taken his played in AFC first choice XI now.
Verdict – Wrong, but probably only because of the sales of Fabregas and Na$ri

Sell Nicklas Bendtner & Denilson for around £5 million each
Both players went out on loan, explaining the difficulty Wenger had in shifting them earlier in the season and in getting substantial transfer fees from other clubs. Denilson went back to Brazil – Sao Paulo after a torrid performance during the club’s far East tour, and Bendtner went to Sunderland on deadline day. Both players will come back next season and may be integrated back into the first team or sold.
Verdict – Half Right, Bendtner and Denilson left the club, but only on loan

Signings
(Gervinho had already signed from Lille for £11 million & Carl Jenkinson from Charlton for £1 million)

Sign Gary Cahill from Bolton for around £15 million
Gary Cahill stayed at Bolton after bids were turned down from Arsenal, and after a late flirt with Spurs. His future seems clouded as he will be a Bosman free agent next summer if he doesn’t sign a new deal. Arsenal signed Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen instead for around £8 million. A top quality centre half, and at 6 foot 6 inches is exactly the defender fans wanted to see. His form has been poor in the last 18 months or so, but new surroundings may be just what he needs.
Mertesacker is a former Werder Bremen captain and has 75 caps for Germany, appearing in the 2006 & 2010 World Cup’s, and holds Champions League experience.
Verdict – Better, Wenger has signed a top centre half and saved the club money

Sign Juan Mata from Valencia for around £20 million
Juan Mata moved to Chelsea for around £25 million. After 1st of July the price for Mata moved from around £20 million after a clause in his contract expired. It was then that Guillem Balague, prominent sports journalist pronounced Arsenal’s deal for Mata dead.
Instead Wenger’s move for a wide midfielder saw Arsenal secure Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea on a season long loan deal. Benayoun is the Israeli captain with 83 international caps and a wealth of Premier League experience.
Verdict – Worse, Arsenal could have got Mata for £20 million in June, and although he is more talented than Benayoun, the Israeli holds more experience.

Sign Jose Enrique from Newcastle for around £5 million
Jose Enrique went to Liverpool for just over £6 million. Arsenal did enhance their left back options by signing Fenerbache’s Brazilian defender Andre Santos for £6.2 million to compete with young Kieren Gibbs. A top signing who replaced Roberto Carlos in the Turkish side and holds 22 international caps, Arsenal’s options at full back look strong.
Verdict – Better, Enrique has PL experience but Santos has higher international pedigree.

Sign Craig Gordon from Sunderland for around £5 million
Craig Gordon stayed at Sunderland. No goalkeepers came in or out at the Emirates, which mysteriously sees Manuel Almunia remain at the club. Szczesny’s impressive form shows why he was promoted so quickly to the first team while Fabianski and Mannone are decent back-ups
Verdict – No change

Sign Danielle De Rossi for around £20 million
De Rossi stayed at Roma. This was a long shot, where I felt Arsenal needed a midfielder of stature to come in. This man emerged last night as Mikel Arteta, for £10 million from Everton. I think whilst this is not the ‘marquee’ transfer many fans were hoping for, but I feel the deal will prove a good call for the club. With more PL experience than any of our current midfielders and impressive seasons at Everton in the bank, Arteta can add a lot to the current first eleven.
Verdict – Better, Arteta is a class player and will improve the side.

Team tactics and management

Agree a new long term deal and central role in the side for $amir Na$ri
This clearly became impossible after the Frenchman jostled for his big money move.
Verdict – Wrong, like Spurs should have done with Modric, sometimes it is better to bank the cash and move on when it comes to a clearly unhappy player.

Make Robin Van Persie captain with Thomas Vermaelen as his deputy/vice captain
I was spot on here as RVP was given the armband with TV5 as his second in command.
Verdict – Spot on

The other deal Wenger tied up were to sign Park Chu-Young, a South Korean international striker from Monaco for around £3 million. Whilst letting Bendtner and Vela go out on loan, Arsenal needed cover and brought in S. Korea’s captain from under the noses of Lille to compete with Marouane Chamakh as back up to RVP.

Squad
In my opinion, Arsenal now look as strong as they have for a long time. The deals on and just prior to transfer deadline day were well worked, and whilst the fans may question why business has been done so late in the window, they should be happy at the players brought in.

2 International captains have signed, in addition to 2 former club captains. Leadership, Check.
Over 200 international caps have been added to the squad, as well as a midfielder with more Premier League experience than any of our current players. The age of the signings are 26, (Park) 28, (Santos) 26, (Mertesacker) 31, (Benayoun) and 29 (Arteta). Experience ,Check.
And for fans such as Piers Morgan, who so vocally told Arsenal to “Spend some f***ing money, they have, with a late outlay reaching nearly £30 million. Money spent, Check.

The Arsenal squad has been rejuvenated and spirits have been lifted after Sunday’s mauling. Whilst we may not compete for the title this season, (which seems to be on the way to Manchester if you are unfortunate enough to listen to Robbie Savage) we now have a squad to be proud of, a manager to commend for adapting his principles, and a team who can challenge for trophies.

Now, roll on Swansea next weekend and let’s try and beat them 8-2!

September 1, 2011 Posted by | Football | 2 Comments