The Premier League’s European Resurgence

Tonight’s game between England’s two most exhilarating attacking teams offers the opportunity for one to move a step closer to the semi-final. Manchester City and Liverpool have lit up Europe’s premier football competition over the last six months, but now they must face each other in the biggest game of their respective seasons. Simmo looks at how English teams have enjoyed a European renaissance in this seasons Champions League. 

English success in the Champions League has not been too common in recent years. In fact, the last time a Premier League team reached the final was all the way back in 2012. That year it was Chelsea and although they did bring the trophy home, their win merely papered over the cracks of a disastrous domestic season in which they finished in sixth place.

English success in the last five seasons of the Champions League (2013–17) has been so infrequent that only Chelsea and Manchester City have reached the semi-final stages, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Neither ever looked likely to move beyond that stage and their forays in Europe weren’t backed up by significant domestic success either. 

Compare that to the previous five seasons, (2008–12) when five English teams reached finals and two came home with the trophy; Manchester United in 2008 in an all-English classic, and of course Chelsea’s win in 2012. During that same period no fewer than eight English teams reached the semi-finals, including three in both 2008 and 2009.

After years of impasse, we are suddenly seeing English teams thrive on the European stage. But why after half a decade of mediocrity in Europe, are we now seeing a renaissance?

A big factor is the amount of money English are spending. It is well documented that the Premier League is the richest league in the world, but other major clubs also have deep pockets. This season though has seen spending records smashed with almost £1.5 billion spent by the 20 Premier League clubs. All five of the English participants in this seasons Champions League were among the 20 highest spenders in Europe. City spent more than any other club (£220 million) while Chelsea found themselves in fourth place with a spend of over £150 million.

However, spending money is not the only reason Premier League teams are doing well. At the helm of England’s biggest clubs is arguably some of the very best managers in Europe. Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Conte and Mourinho all led their teams into Europe’s most prestigious competition this season.

While some may debate whether Mourinho can still be classified among the elite, there can be little doubt that Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have improved their teams’ European performances.

Last season Liverpool did not even qualify, Tottenham finished third in their group, while City got knocked out in the round of 16. Only Leicester progressed to the quarter-finals.

In this season’s competition, Liverpool are the highest scorers with 28 goals from their eight games and Manchester City have kept the ball more than any other team with an average of 63% possession per game. They are also the only team to have completed over 6,000 passes in the competition.

Tottenham also enjoyed brilliant success in the group stages; winning both home and away against Borussia Dortmund as well as drawing with Real Madrid, last season’s winners, at the Bernabéu before comfortably beating them at home. Prior to their unfortunate exit at the hands of Juventus (runners-up the previous season) in the round of 16, they had won more points than any other team in the group stages.

The Premier League is unquestionably the most competitive league in the world. No other league can boast the depth of competition that it offers. However, in recent years, while the Premier League competition has continued to make compelling viewing, no team has been able to convert domestic trophies into major European success.

Now things seem different. Manchester City are the Champions League favourites; England is guaranteed at least one semi-final place as City have been drawn against Liverpool. Given the choice, both teams would almost certainly have preferred to avoid each other at this stage of the competition.

The results this season seem to suggest that the competition in the Premier League is aiding European performances. Collectively, English teams have performed considerably better. The acid test will be if English teams can maintain consistent performances in Europe over the next three or four years.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that English clubs are on the rise again, and the rest of Europe will be concerned.  

Why the FA Cup is dying

Football is a game now built on money. For a long time now sentiment and history have ceased in having any influence on the beautiful game. New found riches and the prospect of even greater financial reward has led to the decrease in stature of one of the bastions of the English football calendar; the FA Cup. In this article, Simmo looks at why the FA Cup is dying and why its sister competition, the League Cup, is continuing to go from strength to strength.

The FA Cup has always had this magical, mystical, even mythical side to it. It is the only competition in English football where a real battle between David and Goliath ever seems to take place. Right from its very first appearance in the English football calendar, way back in 1871, it has taken on an importance that no other major cup competition is able to replicate across Europe’s premier footballing nations.

Yet now, in an age where it increasingly seems that money takes precedence over both pride and history, the FA Cup is sadly losing its status as Europe’s most important national cup, and perhaps, even Britain’s.

That final sentence in particular may cause a few gasps from readers, however, there is certainly considerable evidence to suggest that top clubs are now putting a greater emphasis on the League Cup. Whilst it is certainly true that the League Cup lacks the prestige of its sister competition, it has a lot of elements that lie in its favour.

One of elements is something that big teams find especially advantageous. Premier League teams that qualified for a European competition in the previous season are automatically placed in the third round. Unlike the FA Cup, where all Premier League and Championship teams get an automatic pass to the third round, the League Cup usually sees all Championship teams begin their campaign in round one.


Number of Games

Either seventy or seventy-two teams enter the first round, with the winners progressing to round two. Here, the Premier League teams not involved in European competitions are added to the pool. When round two is finished the Premier League teams who qualified for Europe are added. It is at this point when the cup really does begin in earnest.

The reason why this is often so favourable for bigger teams is that they are often entering the competition when many of their league rivals have already been eliminated. Let us take the 2014/15 competition as an example. By the beginning of the third round a total of seven Premier League teams had already been eliminated. A quarter of the 16 fourth round ties were all Premier League affairs, with only nine teams from Britain’s top tier progressing.

There are other advantages too; for example, the number of games that have to be played to get to the final. Round three in the League Cup has only 32 teams as opposed to 64 in the FA Cup. Additionally, there are no replays in the League Cup, meaning that up until the semi-final, teams only have to play one game per round. The maximum number of games that a Premier League team playing in Europe has to play to reach Wembley is five.

The replay issue is a contentious one. It has been violently debated by those wearing suits at the FA. Whilst we all love to see a lower league team battle valiantly and earn a replay at a big club, there is a strong argument to suggest that replaying ties has a detrimental impact.

For example, let us take a Premier League team who have qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League. They are drawn against lower league opposition in the fifth round. The match is a dull affair with the minnows frustrating their more illustrious opponents for 90 minutes. The result is a 0-0 draw and all those at the smaller club are delighted that they have secured a replay at one of Britain’s biggest clubs.

For the Premier League team however, this is the nightmare scenario. The replay is sandwiched between several important Premier League games and the first leg of their Champions League knockout round.

Where is the incentive for them? Whilst those at lower league clubs are delighted to secure replays, partly due to the financial windfall that comes with achieving such a feat, the Premier League clubs know that finishing even one place higher in the league could bring about greater financial rewards than winning the FA Cup.


Financial Reward

Manchester United, the current FA Cup holders, won £1.8 million for their Wembley triumph. This does not include television money, nor gate receipts. When these have been calculated in, the money received from an FA Cup run increases substantially. Ultimately a run to the final can prove to be extremely profitable, yet like all things in football, it has to be revaluated in comparison to the revenue streams that can be had elsewhere.

All things are relative – £5 million to Huddersfield Town is the equivalent of about £40 million for Manchester United. There is no factual basis for this statement – it is just merely to demonstrate how bigger clubs have a different outlook on the financial side of the game. For Huddersfield Town, winning the FA Cup and receiving that sort of money would constitute a major success. For Manchester United winning the FA Cup would only be success if they had also managed to secure other financial success.

We will continue with Manchester United because it is a good example. The 2014/15 season had seen them qualify for the Champions League after a two-year absence. Although they were eliminated in the group stages they made almost 10 times more in that competition than they did for winning the FA Cup. That is even before the TV revenue is added to the total.

Then there is the Premier League. Despite finishing fifth Manchester United were able to rake in a staggering £19.8 million in prize money. Once again, this is before the TV revenue is counted. When it is you can multiply the money received by five.

Now, before we go further it is important for us to talk about the finances involved with the League Cup. The winners of the competition only receive £100,000 – an almost irrelevant sum when placed in the grandeur that is the world of football.


Not just financial

It would seem then that there is a bigger reason as to why the League Cup has taken on an increased importance in recent years. It clearly is not down to financial reward – there is obviously something else that sways teams to take the competition seriously. Whilst winning the League Cup is worth substantially less than lifting the FA Cup trophy, there is no difference in the actual footballing reward.

With both finals being played at Wembley, and winners of both competitions are automatically entered into the Europa League, Europe’s second tier competition, there is little to distinguish the two competitions. One way this could be done is by introducing a Champions League qualification spot for the winners of the FA Cup. The financial rewards on offer there would encourage teams to take the competition more seriously.

Another major problem with the FA Cup is its timing. It is something that particularly affects the bigger clubs. The third round of the League Cup typically kicks off in late September, just one month into the Premier League season. In comparison, the FA Cup third round begins in early January – just after an extremely busy festive period. By the time the fourth round has started the two League Cup finalists have already been confirmed.

Essentially, a run in the League Cup comes at a better time than the equivalent run in the FA Cup. Players are fresher, and perhaps most importantly, the fixture list is less congested.


The Shocks

Yet there will always be the purists. The people who say, “well the FA Cup is the FA Cup, and nothing will ever beat it.” In many ways they are right. People, particularly those of older generations, have a real affinity with the FA Cup.

It was the Cup of the people. The one every young boy or girl watching football wanted to win. It was a Saturday not long after Christmas, a Saturday when the best teams came to play the smaller teams. The most famous players in the country were being tested in uncomfortable surroundings. It was the perfect recipe for a shock.

Shock is very much the operative word associated with FA Cup. There have always been shocks. Hereford vs Newcastle springs to mind, along with Wimbledon vs Liverpool. Games where the favourites were stunned, where the minnows triumphed against the odds. That was the magic of the FA Cup.

Nowadays they are less common. Indeed, Bradford were the last team to really cause an FA Cup shock when they won 4-2 at the Premier League leaders, Chelsea, after being 2-0 down. Even when surprising results do occur there are question marks regarding whether they can be truly classified as a shock result.

West Ham United, a Premier League club, lost 5-0 at Nottingham Forest, a team in the second tier, two years ago. In most normal situations people would describe this as a shock. Yet on the day West Ham had rested a number of first team players and had clearly set their sights elsewhere. Bournemouth did the same earlier this month, fielding a weakened team at League One Millwall, and in turn losing 3-0. Again, it went to prove that the FA Cup was not a priority.

Indeed, the League Cup has provided more shocks in recent seasons. Seasoned cup team, Bradford City, a club from the fourth tier of English football, enjoyed a miracle run to the final of the competition four years ago. They knocked out no fewer than three Premier League teams en route to Wembley. Although they lost 5-0 to Swansea City in the final, their run had inspired many. It had brought a bit of magic to the competition.

Non-Premier League finalists are rare occurrences. In fact, since 2000 only four teams from outside the Premier League have reached the League Cup final. You have to go back a further 19 years to reach the same number in the FA Cup. Prior to that there had been six finalists from outside the top division, with three even going on to claim the trophy.

It could be argued that the League Cup has provided more memorable moments in recent years than the FA Cup. Whether it will ever overtake its rival as English footballs premier cup competition remains unlikely. Yet whilst the football rewards remain the same and the money in other competitions continues to rise, clubs will continue to treat it as an important trophy, and one that is worth competing for.

Huw Jenkins: The Swansea Slayer

Swansea are bottom of the table and seemingly destined for relegation to The Championship. Simmo looks at why the Swansea chairman, Huw Jenkins, is to blame for the clubs pitiful demise. 

I feel sorry for Bob Bradley – if you were to ask most neutrals then they would probably say the same. The job he took on at Swansea really was a mission impossible.

Looking through that Swansea team it is difficult to see any other outcome other than their relegation to British footballs second tier. I can’t think of a single player, bar the goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and playmaker Gylfi Sigurðsson, who would get into any other team in the Premier League.

The demise of Swansea City is a sad one. When they were promoted under Brendan Rodgers they were an exciting, dynamic outfit that looked to play good expansive football. Players such as Scott Sinclair and Ashley Williams had excelled in the Championship and took their good form into their debut season’s in the Premier League.

It really was refreshing to see a newly promoted team play football out from the back. This was largely down to the philosophy that Brendan Rodgers instilled in the team. He believed that his teams should play in a particular way. It was brave and certainly admired. Rodgers’s reputation soared to the extent that he took over the reins at Liverpool in the summer of 2012. Huw Jenkins acted quickly and sealed the services of ex Denmark and Barcelona legend Michael Laudrup.

Laudrup’s appointment was seen as a bit of a coup, and indeed he was able to use his substantial connections within the game to convince a host of players to join the Swans during that summer. Players such as Michu, Pablo Hernández and Ki Sung-yueng arrived with burgeoning reputations.

At the beginning of his tenure, Laudrup looked to be building on the good work done by Rodgers. Whilst Rodger’s teams had often been exciting to watch, they lacked the defensive nous to succeed on a weekly basis in the Premier League. Laudrup looked to rectify this, and added steel to the Swansea backline through signings such as Chico Flores. Laudrup had looked to have taken the Swans to the next level. He was establishing them as a Premier League team and was picking up some very impressive results along the way.

Under the Danes stewardship, Swansea won the 2013 League Cup by beating fourth tier Bradford City 5-0 at Wembley. But even Laudrup’s success was not enough to prevent him from being fired. Poor form and alleged wrangling over contracts and signings led to Jenkins dismissing him in February 2014.

His replacement Garry Monk was a popular choice amongst fans. Having been with the Swans for a decade, he knew the way in which the club worked, and most importantly, was familiar with the squad of players available to him. As a young English manager, the Premier League can be a daunting place. Indeed, a host of far more established names have fallen victim to the trials and tribulations of England’s top tier. Monk, however, took it like a duck takes to water. He looked assured, tactically astute, and most importantly strong enough to deal with the pressures of the role. What’s more, he made what can sometimes be a difficult transition, from team mate to manager, look effortless.

Monk really did look like he had all the credentials to become a top Premier League manager. That was until Jenkins once again wielded the axe. A poor run of one win in 11 games led to Monk being ‘relieved of his duties.’ Jenkins will look to justify his decision by saying that Monk had accomplished all he had been brought in to do. When he replaced Laudrup there had been an almost instant upturn in form. Monk steered the ship to safety, but as soon as it entered difficult waters Jenkins was more than prepared to make his manager walk the plank.

The appointment of veteran Italian, Francesco Guidolin, was not seen as particularly inspiring. However, the 2015/2016 season proved to be a good one for veteran Italian coaches. Guidolin took Swansea back to basics and led them away from the relegation zone. They sealed Premier League survival with an impressive 3-1 win over Liverpool. Guidolin’s appointment had proved to be a successful one. He won seven of his 15 league games, including impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham.

Under Guidolin, Swansea started the new season well with a 1-0 win at newly promoted Burnley. However, he had lost the services of his inspirational captain Ashley Williams to Everton in the summer. The signing of Mike van der Hoorn for £2 million From Ajax was not the sort of signing that gave Swansea fans a great deal of confidence. Elsewhere, Andre Ayew joined West Ham in a £20 million deal. A sizeable income, however, nearly £16 million of that money was reinvested in the young Spaniard, Borja Bastón, a player who had made fewer than 40 appearances in Spain’s top tier.

It seemed glaringly obvious that Guidolin’s team lacked the required experience to maintain their Premier League status. After winning only one of their opening seven league games, Jenkins once again decided that enough was enough.

This led to the appointment of Bradley – one that was unsurprisingly met with a great deal of skepticism. Although he had managed both the United States and Egyptian national teams with moderate success, his last job in football had been in the French second tier with Le Havre. It was hardly the ideal pedigree.

However those who were judging Bradley by his past managerial experience were simply being naïve. Many managers have arrived in the Premier League from lesser know leagues and enjoyed great success. Look no further than Arsène Wenger, who was brought in from Japanese football.

Indeed there was a certain level of arrogance amongst pundits and British football aficionados. What could an American possibly know about the English game? Whilst it is true that Bradley’s results were not great, people focused on irrelevant details, such as him referring to a penalty kick as a ‘PK.’ The vocabulary that Bradley used certainly was not the reason that his Swansea team struggled so much. Bradley was brought in to try and help ward off another inevitable fight with relegation – yet he wasn’t even given a transfer window to bring his own players in. What was he supposed to do?

People will point to the fact that the Swans leaked goals under the American. Yes, this was certainly true. However Bradley would almost certainly not have sanctioned the sale of Williams had he been in charge.

Therefore the problems at Swansea seem to all lead back to one man – Huw Jenkins. He is the man that has now sacked four managers in the last three seasons. He is the man who let Wilfried Bony go, sold Ben Davies to Tottenham, and of course let Williams join Everton. He is the man that seemed to crave rapid Premier League success over a long term and clearly defined project.

His latest appointment, that of Bayern Munich assistant, Paul Clement is again an odd one. Whilst Clement is widely regarded as one of the finest British coaches around, having held positions with Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid, and of course Bayern, he has only had one very brief experience in first team management, a partially successful half season with Derby County. Once again it is hardly the sort of appointment that gives you much hope of ensuring Premier League survival.

In my opinion Swansea’s six year stay in the Premier League will be over come May. Either way, whoever is in charge when this Swansea side goes down must be given the chance to rebuild. Not since Rodgers has a Swansea manager been in charge for two consecutive seasons. This lack of stability is an inherent problem, and breeds uncertainty right the way through the club. Sustained long term success is only ever really achieved when people are given a chance in the short term. Jenkins has so far been unwilling to do that.

Why Chelsea must now be seen as favourites for the title

After extending their winning run to 9 games, Simmo looks at why Chelsea must now be considered favourites to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

Nobody wins the title in December, but you can most certainly lose it. Chelsea’s 3-1 win at The Etihad last weekend put down a marker to all the other teams in the title race. It is the sort of result that makes a big statement – and didn’t Chelsea do just that?

It was not just the the result that was impressive, it was the manner in which they won. Gary Cahill’s own goal just before half time had given Manchester City a deserved lead. In the first half they had outplayed Chelsea and had missed several good chances. Chelsea’s seven game winning run looked like it could well come to an end.

The second half began in much the same way as the first half had ended – City were still on top. However, the game was to be turned on its head in the space of three extraordinary second half minutes. When Jesus Navas crossed the ball to Kevin De Bruyne in the 57th minute, the Belgian looked destined to make it 2-0. The City winger was just six yards out with the whole goal to aim at, yet still, inexplicably managed to miss.

That miss seemed to galvanise Chelsea. When Cesc Fàbregas collected the ball inside his own half there seemed to be little in the way of danger for the City defence. Fàbregas, like Chelsea, has endured a difficult 18 months. Much maligned, criticised, and even at times written off, the Spaniard has looked a shadow of his former self. Persistent rumours have linked him with a move away from the club, yet in this game he perhaps demonstrated his value to the team. His 50 yard pass into Diego Costa was inch perfect, nevertheless, the Chelsea striker still had an awful lot to do. He chested the ball down beyond the hapless Nicolas Otamendi, before smashing the ball past Claudio Bravo.

The goal had come out of nothing – it really was the classic sucker punch. In many ways it was indicative of the sort of tactics Antonio Conte has brought to the Stamford Bridge outfit. It was unpredictable, quick, and lethal. City, for all of their possession had been outclassed and outdone by a goal that really was a throwback to goals scored in years gone by.

Fàbregas’ ingenuity, and Costa’s skill and technique were to be ably backed up by the finishing of both Willian and Eden Hazard. Willian, Chelsea’s best player last season, has had to settle for a peripheral role throughout much of this campaign. His introduction from the bench seemed to further reveal City’s frailties when facing pace. When Costa once again got the better of Otamendi, Chelsea used their pace to deadly affect. Breaking  on the City backline, Willian was able to out run Aleksandar Kolarov before calmly slotting past Bravo.

Chelsea’s third goal once again saw City’s lack of pace exposed. Pushing for an equaliser, they neglected their defensive responsibilities, allowing Eden Hazard to this time beat Aleksandar Kolarov before firing into the City net.

All three of Chelsea’s goals had a certain ruthlessness about them. Whilst City had their chances, Chelsea were devastating with their finishing. It is that sort of deadliness in front of goal that wins you titles. When Leicester City visited The Etihad last season they won by the same score line, and there were certainly parallels between Chelsea’s display last weekend and Leicester’s back in January. Both teams absorbed City’s attacks before breaking in numbers and showing good composure in front of goal. City, on both occasions were unable to respond.

Yet, despite the impressive nature of Chelsea’s win, the acid test for a title chasing team is to win when you are not playing well. Before this weekend, Chelsea were yet to demonstrate this. However, their 1-0 victory against West Brom proved that even when were things were not going as well as they hoped they were still able to find a way through.

West Brom had set themselves up to frustrate Chelsea. The 3-4-3 formation that has served Conte and his side so well in recent months was not having the desired impact. A change to a more conventional 4-5-1 proved the catalyst for a change in fortune, and the introduction of Fàbregas from the bench once again proved to be telling.

For much of the game Costa had looked isolated; his teammates had been unable to find any sort of decisive pass. Although the winner was more than a little fortuitous, it came from one of the few times that Chelsea went direct. Costa’s persistence and work rate paid off as Gareth McAuley dallied whilst clearing the ball. Still with a lot to do, the Brazil born Spain international rifled an unstoppable shot past Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.

The performance against West Brom was certainly not vintage, and it was not necessarily the sort of performance that sends out an intimidating warning to rivals. What was impressive was the fact that Chelsea were struggling and yet still managed to find a way to get the win.

This sort of resilience is what title winning teams have to demonstrate. You cannot play well for 38 games in a season – it is nigh on impossible. Therefore, it is important that on your off days you are able to grind out results.

A win is three points wherever you get it. It does not matter who it is against, it still is only ever worth three points. The match against West Brom was perhaps a greater test of character than the win against City. Had Chelsea lost at The Etihad few would have bat an eyelid; had they lost at home to a West Brom team who had not won at Stamford Bridge for nearly 40 years then there would have been many questions asked.

Chelsea have proved twice in the last week that they have the ability, steel, and capability to mount a genuine title challenge. They have proved it against the favourites, and they have proved it in a game where they were struggling to perform. There will be other tests before May, however Chelsea have certainly laid down a marker over the last eight days.

Why Stones needs more than just a Pep talk

Since joining Manchester City, John Stones has hardly set the world on fire. Poor performances in several games this season have led to questions regarding whether the 22 year old defender has what it takes to succeed at the club. But is Stones really at fault, or does City manager, Pep Guardiola, have to take responsibility for his player’s early season struggles? 

John Stones has had a poor start to the season. Anyone who fails to recognise this is really very much in denial. Since joining Manchester City for a staggering £50 million in the summer, the ex-Evertonian has been error prone, naive, and a genuine defensive liability.

Much has been expected of Stones. Ever since he left Barnsley to join Everton in late January 2013 he has been heralded as different from that of most other English central defenders. Composed on the ball, confident in bringing it into midfield, and able to pick a pass. What was there not to like about him?

Certainly his brand of football appealed to Pep Guardiola. When the Catalonian joined City in the summer he quickly identified Stones as the man to help him implement his passing out from the back style. Yet despite Stones’s outstanding technical ability, he has consistently demonstrated a lack of game awareness and an inability to perform even the most rudimentary defensive tasks.

Most people would agree that Guardiola’s teams play beautiful football. He believes that being able to play in all areas of the pitch enables his teams to attack vacated space and in turn penetrate the opposition. It has been effective – in Guardiola’s 7 seasons in management he has won a remarkable 22 trophies. He would point to this as a vindication of his methods.

Yet you nearly always get one chance against a Guardiola team. Essentially, he has hardly been a stickler for defensive discipline, and instead has very much shown a preference for attacking flare over defensive solidity. Historically, his teams have always been vulnerable at the back. It did not matter quite so much at Barcelona because he had Messi and co. to dig him out. At Bayern the relative weakness of the opposition meant that defensive lapses were not quite as readily punished. However, in his first three months in England, Guardiola has quickly found out that the Premier League is far more unforgiving. All of this may well lead to compelling viewing, yet it is hardly what Stones nor Manchester City need.

At 22, Stones is still in the infancy of his career; time is very much on his side. Yet worryingly he seems to have made little progress over the past 18 months. When Roberto Martinez was Everton manager, Stones and his team mates were given an almost tactical blank sheet. They were allowed to play their own brand of football almost wherever they wanted on the pitch. When mistakes inevitably happened Martinez would staunchly defend his players, suggesting that these mistakes were part and parcel of their development.

Of course what Martinez said had a certain amount of truth behind it; young footballers will often make mistakes, that in itself is not new nor surprising. However, what we tend to see after mistakes is a change and a realisation that things have to be improved. Martinez did not enforce that on his players, and particularly on Stones. Time and time again we saw the same schoolboy errors – playing passes in dangerous areas, diving into tackles, tactical naivety, and an inability to mark properly.

There would be those that argue that these mistakes are offset by Stone’s supreme talent on the ball. Michael Owen in particular has been vociferous in his praise for Stones, declaring he would be the only England player that would get into the Barcelona team. A somewhat sweeping statement, and one that is hardly a compliment to defenders who pride themselves on clean sheets and rock solid defending.

Others such as Rio Ferdinand, Phil Neville and of course Roberto Martinez have been forthright in their positive assessment of Stones. Yet this constant praise regardless of whether mistakes are made, seems to be having a negative effect on him. From the outside looking in it really does seem to have gone to his head – it is almost as if Stones believes his own hype.

If this is the case then it sets a dangerous and worrying precedent. Stones should not be allowed to think that he has played well, because, if we are being brutally honest, he has not.

When England played Scotland on Friday night there were reminders of just how vulnerable he is. His passing was lacklustre, his reading of the game was poor, and most worrying of all he seemed completely inept at marking from set pieces. In the first half, with England holding a slender 1-0 lead, he lost Grant Hanley at a corner. Stones’s body position, his inability to track the run, and then his petulant reaction shone a light on his defensive fragility. It was something more akin to Sunday league football, let alone an international fixture at Wembley.

Twitter was less than kind…

Although Hanley’s header was poor and sailed well over the bar, the incident was a reminder of how quickly things can change in football. Had he scored people would have been rightly criticising Stones and an inquisition into his defensive capabilities would have begun. Yet because Hanley missed, and England went on to record a comfortable 3-0 win, people chose to forget and avoid an issue which simply had to be addressed.

The worry is that Guardiola probably saw that mistake and yet will not have been particularly concerned. Stones will go back to City and little if anything at all will be done to ensure there is no repeat. Yet if Stones was still an Everton player he would be returning to a manager who prides himself on defensive resilience.

Ronald Koeman was one of the finest central defenders of his generation. A remarkable defender, his record of 253 goals in 763 games would please most centre forwards – for a central defender those sorts of stats are unprecedented.

Koeman played in the same Barcelona team as Guardiola, even captaining and scoring as they recorded their first triumph in Europe. That Barcelona team was managed by Johan Cruyff, seen by many as the father of the tika-taka football that Guardiola has employed throughout his managerial career. Koeman has also looked to adopt a possession style, yet he has never allowed his teams to be quite so readily exploited defensively. He simply would not have tolerated one of his central defenders defending like that from a set piece.

There are certainly parallels between Koeman and Stones; both excellent on the ball, neither conventional centre halves. Under Koeman, Stones would have prospered. The Dutchman would have been rigorous with Stones, ensuring that he learnt when to play and when not to. He may even have dropped him had he deemed it necessary.

Koeman has proved so much at Everton. Stones’s international team mate, Ross Barkley, has not been immune to criticism this season. Koeman’s approach is one of tough love, he is not one to pander to his players if he believes they are letting the side down. He came out and publicly criticised Barkley, and explained the reasons why he was being dropped and the ways in which he could improve and get back into the team. It is impossible to imagine Guardiola doing the same thing to Stones. Nevertheless, it increasingly seems that Stones would benefit from a Koeman-like approach.

However, there will be those who argue that Stones’s development is entirely normal and the mistakes are a small sacrifice for the other things he brings to the team. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that the immediate priority for any central defender is to keep clean sheets. That should be a pre-requisite, and it should give them as much satisfaction as a striker gets when scoring a goal. Quite frankly, anything beyond that should be considered a bonus.

The important question here is whether people see Stones as that sort of defender, or one that brings the ball out of defence and plays slightly more on the edge. Those who favour the latter would argue that such is his precocious talent on the ball that restricting it would ultimately be counterintuitive to his game.

It remains to be seen whether signing for City was the best for Stones’s career. Only time will tell, yet is he continues in the same vein of form then the signs are ominous. Something has to be done to address Stones’s failings, and the sooner the better.


Why a Scotland victory is not as unlikely as some may think

Simmo looks ahead to the England vs Scotland game, and discusses why Scotland could cause a huge upset. 


England versus Scotland. It’s the oldest fixture in international football. Ever since its first contest way back in 1872, the two Auld Enemies have faced each other with unprecedented passion and pride.

Tonight’s encounter will be the 113th contest between these two great footballing nations. England lead the head-to-head 47-24 and are expected to increase their lead. Yet whilst England go into the game as overwhelming favourites, the Tartan Army travel south with great hope and anticipation. It could be argued that this confidence is somewhat misplaced.

The importance of tonight’s fixture is further exacerbated by the fact that neither team can really afford to lose. Scotland know that this game is crucial if they are going to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Both teams are in the middle of poor runs of form. Scotland arrive at Wembley on the back of a terrible 3-0 loss in Slovakia, a result that left them three points behind England in Group F. England did not fare too much better last time out either, escaping  with a point during a dour 0-0 draw away in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.

Prior to that, England had claimed two underwhelming victories away to Slovakia and at home to Malta, results that hardly washed away the pain of the dismal Euro 2016 campaign. Scotland on the other hand won convincingly in Malta but then suffered disappointment as they could only muster a  1-1 draw at home to Lithuania.

These recent results have left both teams in difficult situations. Internal investigations have yielded more questions than answers. Neither team has been able to find a remedy to the problems they currently face.

However, the problems facing Scotland are certainly of a different nature to those that England face. A quick examination of both squads would lead most footballing ‘experts’ to conclude that there can only be one winner. England’s squad beats Scotland comfortably, on paper at least. However, football matches aren’t decided on paper – if they were then England would have comfortably defeated Iceland back in June.

For Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan, the dearth of talent available will be a real concern. Indeed this has been an inherent problem for Scotland managers for the last 10 to 15 years. There probably has not been a single Scotland player, barring Darren Fletcher in his Manchester United heyday, who would have got anywhere near the England team since the turn of the century. The chasm in quality between the two teams has never been wider.

The reasons behind this are perhaps not as simple as one might think. The difference between the players is certainly not down to England’s exceptional pool of talent; no, it is more a result of  Scotland’s extraordinary lack of.

A quick glance through the Scotland squad reveals a stark reality. Just over half of those selected by Strachan ply their trade in one of Europe’s top tiers. Six play in England’s Premier division, but none for a team in the top half of the table. A further seven play in Scotland, of which four play for reigning champions and runaway leaders, Celtic.

Of those four only two can be considered first team regulars, one being Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, whose retirement from international football lasted only marginally longer than Sam Allardyce’s reign as England boss. Ollie Burke, the only player to play outside of the British Isles, features for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, but even he has only started one match since his big money move from Nottingham Forest. Of the remaining twelve, eleven play for clubs in England’s second tier, and one, John McGinn plays for Hibernian, in Scotland’s second division.

That compared to the group of players which England’s interim manager Gareth Southgate has been able to call upon. His squad of  25 consists of 24 players in England’s top flight, with Joe Hart, on loan at Torino in Italian’s Serie A, the only exception to the rule.

Certainly the two squads differ in quality. There can be no doubting that England have a very good group of players available, yet they seem completely incapable of gelling as a team.

This lack of unity and cohesion has never been more apparent than when England have played at Wembley. Indeed, the last time that Scotland visited the self-proclaimed ‘home of football‘ they led twice before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat. That night, like many others at Wembley, England players seemed incapable of dealing with the pressure of playing there.

There could be no serious suggestion that the players felt intimidated by the raucous crowd. Since reopening, Wembley has become notorious for its mellow and subdued atmosphere. It has even been argued that this may well have an adverse affect on those playing there. In other words there are those who believe that the tame atmosphere transmits itself onto the pitch affecting the players, the intensity of their game and vice versa. Yet to believe that would be an implying that correlation equals causation. Footballers are professionals, and they ought to be able to adapt to the the situations in which they find themselves in.

A stronger argument would perhaps be England’s inability to deal with situations in which they are the overwhelming favourites, as evidenced by the Iceland game. Whilst the following statement might sound clichéd, England players must endeavour to play the opposition rather than the occasion. They have to show bravery, strength, and most crucially, not wilt under pressure.

Too often England players seem unable to transfer their often excellent club form onto the international stage. This ultimately leads to accusations that England players are simply not good enough, or that they are overhyped – neither statement has any foundation at all.

If the pressure and expectation inhibits England, then the lack of certainly prohibits Scotland. The mantra ‘nothing to lose’ has never been more apt. A draw would be considered a highly successful result – a win would immortalise this group of players.

For this reason it is perhaps fair to assume that it is Strachan’s ideal fixture. If he could have picked any team to face it probably would have been England. He knows that he will not have to give a team talk. He knows that he will not have to rile his team up. His only job on the night will be to make sure that his players keep their emotions in check when the game inevitably begins to boil over.

If England allow that to happen then they will have really played into Scotland’s hands. Scotland will want a scrappy, fast, and aggressive game. They know that if they go nose to nose with England they will likely end up on the losing side. They will want the match to descend into a feisty and bad-tempered affair. If that happens then Strachan and his Scotland players will know that they have rattled their opponents.

The game will probably lack in quality but definitely not in intrigue. Both teams will approach this game with a certain level of trepidation, not wanting to take unnecessary risks; both know exactly what is at stake.

Defeat for England would lead to an internal inquisition perhaps even more severe than the one that followed the Iceland result. Defeat for Scotland would almost certainly signal the end of another qualifying campaign.

The winner really will take it all; the lose will be left standing small. Having said all that, it will most probably end up being a draw!

Remember the name: Wayne Rooney

Fourteen years since Wayne Rooney burst to national, and even international, prominence, we take a look at the player he once was, and why we should appreciate his achievements.  

When Clive Tyldesley uttered the words “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!” back in October 2002 it seemed to many that the latest England, if not global, football superstar had been born. The man, or should we say boy, was just 5 days’ shy of his 17th birthday. He had just taken down a long hopeful punt by Thomas Gravesen, swivelled, taken two further touches, before thumping an unstoppable shot past the despairing dive of David Seaman. That goal against Arsenal propelled him to almost instant fame.

He was a precocious talent, frightening in fact. He had the frame of someone who belied his young age, and the verve and arrogance of a seasoned professional. Arsène Wenger remarked after the match that he was the best talent he had seen since he had arrived in England some six years earlier.

What followed was a dramatic rise; 116 days after his effort against Arsenal he made his England debut against Australia at Upton Park, a game that will also be remembered for the debut of another Scouse prodigy, Francis Jeffers.

Jeffers actually scored England’s only goal in the 3-1 defeat, but that was to be his only goal and in fact his only cap for his country. Rooney would have to wait a further five caps before his first England goal. When it did eventually come, the equalising goal in a 2-1 away win over Macedonia, he became the youngest player to ever score for the Three Lions. Since then another 112 caps have followed, and a remarkable 52 goals.

It is perhaps poignant that 14 years on from that wonder goal against Arsenal, Rooney now finds himself at the lowest point of his career. No longer an automatic choice for club nor country, the Croxteth-born man has reached a crossroads in his career.

Fourteen years is a long time in any profession, but in football 14 years constitutes the vast majority of a career, if not a whole one. Rooney, still only 30, has, as we all do, aged. He has mellowed; thankfully we don’t see the constant haranguing of officials that used to dog his early years, nor do we see petulant acts of violence that tarred his reputation.

The boy wonder grew up. He became a dad, a family man, the captain of both club and country, a man with responsibility. Yet for all of these positives sadly Rooney is no longer the same player he once was. His burst of pace has gone, his driving runs and unpredictability are no longer in his armoury and his ability to beat people has sadly left him being an often quite one dimensional player. In essence Rooney now does not offer the threat, nor strike fear into opposition players like he once used to.

Yet to dismiss Rooney as a bad player would be verging on sheer ignorance. Football fans are notoriously fickle, and they have particularly bad memories. Rooney in his heyday was an extraordinary player. People seem to forget that he scored four goals at a major tournament at the age of just 18. People rarely talk about the fact that he scored a hat-trick on his Manchester United debut, nor do they remember the way he carried United during the 2009/10 season, winning the PFA Player of the Year award in the process.

No. For most fans Rooney’s legacy is his current form; the form that has seen him axed from the first XI for both club and country.

Since the age of 17 Rooney has harboured the hopes of a nation. That is not an exaggerative comment; Rooney has been the player that England fans have laid their hopes on ending their now 50 plus years of hurt.

Back in 2006, when he clashed rather innocuously with Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira in a league match at Stamford Bridge, the country held its breath. Back then fans knew and appreciated the gravity of the situation; the prospect of going to a World Cup without their talisman seemed incomprehensible.

Even Chelsea’s England contingent that day, Terry, Lampard and Joe Cole, despite lifting the Premier League trophy at the end of their 3-0 victory, seemed somewhat distracted and concerned for their injured international colleague. They knew, as did everyone else, that should England have any chance of success at the tournament, a fit and firing Wayne Rooney would be required. He was still only 20 years old, yet questions over his fitness amounted to little short of a national crisis. Imagine dealing with that pressure at 20 years of age?

Rooney had to, and he did. He recovered from injury, and figured in the latter part of the group stage and the Round of 16 win over Ecuador. The following match, the Quarter-Final against Portugal, will always be remembered his now infamous red card for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, and the behaviour of his then Manchester United team mate, Cristiano Ronaldo.

It could be argued that Rooney’s expulsion ultimately led to England’s exit. Yet Rooney wasn’t pilloried by either the press nor supporters in the same way David Beckham was for receiving a red card in similar circumstances eight years earlier. In many ways the events of that day only seemed to further endear Rooney to the English public.

For most back then Rooney still embodied everything that they loved in an English footballer. That street fighter mentality, dogged spirit, and a never say die attitude really struck a chord with passionate England fans. For them Rooney was the future, and with him England had a genuine chance of ending all those years of hurt.

Yet despite the extraordinary talent Rooney demonstrated in his younger years, he never reached the heights that many people had hoped and expected.

Players peak at different times. Whilst some may have their best years in their mid- to late-twenties, Rooney seemed to peak around the age of 18. Rooney at 18 was better than Messi and Ronaldo at the same age. Through the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that Rooney peaked too soon. Certainly if Rooney were now playing at the level he was 12 years ago, people would be waxing lyrical.

His goal scoring record was never as spectacular as some of his contemporaries, yet his all round play was nearly always of a high standard. Assists, driving runs, picking his team up when they were down were all things that seemed to come naturally to his game. That ability to change games made him stand out and made him such an enigma. Opposition teams feared Rooney and his unpredictability.

Nowadays this is sadly not the case. The writing does seem to be on the wall with regards to Rooney’s immediate future. On current form alone it is unlikely that he will ever regain the prominence he once held. Younger, more athletic players have come and dislodged Rooney from his favoured attacking roles. The midfield experiment has been tried and despite early promise looks unlikely to be revisited at club level at least.

But now is not the time for vitriolic sneers from so-called football aficionados. Now is not the time to dismiss Rooney’s prior achievements. Perhaps he has not had the career, that many of us had hoped for, yet he has still achieved infinitely more than most other English players will during their careers. Five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, and a Champions League trophy goes to prove that his achievements are certainly not to be frowned upon.

Whilst it may seem that Rooney’s days are numbered at Old Trafford, he will continue to be part of the England squad. In truth he does deserve to be. Having said he will retire at the end of the next World Cup, the least England owes him is a swansong. Realistically though he can’t offer the same breathtaking displays he once did. In many ways Rooney’s own footballing future really lies in his own acceptance of that fact.

But on the anniversary of his rise to international prominence, we should take a moment to remember the player that Rooney once was, the things he achieved, and the brilliant moments he gave us.

PSG: What’s gone wrong?

With PSG losing again in the league and signings failing to make an impact, Simmo looks at what’s gone wrong for the French champions. Has the quest for European success come at a domestic cost? Is Unai Emery already on borrowed time?


PSG have lost two of their opening seven league fixtures. On its own that statement isn’t completely shocking, lots of big teams have already lost games this season. Of the recognised title challengers across Europe’s top leagues, only Bayern Munich and Manchester City still hold a 100% record.

Yet for PSG this start is unacceptable. Last season they lost only two league games all season. Throughout the whole of Laurent Blanc’s three-year tenure, they only lost eight. During the same period Barcelona lost thirteen, Juventus ten, and Bayern Munich nine. In recent years, no club has dominated their own domestic competitions as much as PSG.

Yet there are those who will still maintain that PSG’s achievements have not been all that great. There are those who choose to dismiss Ligue 1 as merely a ‘Mickey Mouse’ league.

That sort of talk is unfair and utterly dismissive of the good work Blanc did whilst at the club. Under his stewardship PSG were lethal. Their supremacy was not accidental, nor was it because the league was exceptionally weak. No, PSG were just a very good team.

They blew teams away, scored goals for fun, and were a solid defensive unit. They accumulated a +191 goal difference during Blanc’s reign. No other team came close to matching them.

The debate will rage on about whether their success was artificial. Yes, it is true that their triumphs were largely built on Qatari oil. However, both Manchester City and Chelsea have all spent vast sums of money after being bought by foreign owners. Neither have come close to matching the complete domestic dominance that PSG has enjoyed.

Despite domestic success, the Qatari owners still craved one elusive trophy; the Champions League. For Roman Abramovich at Chelsea the Champions League had become an almost unhealthy obsession. Whilst he clearly enjoyed league titles and FA Cup victories, they only went so far. The hierarchy at PSG clearly have a similar view. Two successive trebles (Ligue 1, Coupe de France & Coupe de la Ligue) in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons had reaffirmed PSG’s position as the Kings of French football. Yet this success was spoiled by the seeming lack of progress in Europe.

Blanc’s Champions League record was good, just not good enough to save his job. In each of his three seasons in charge PSG reached the quarter-finals but no further. PSG’s inability to make any clear progress in Europe no doubt prompted the powers that be to terminate Blanc’s contract in June. This was despite him signing an extension as early as February. It seemed therefore, that PSG were measuring Blanc solely on his team’s performance in Europe.

Blanc’s replacement was chosen entirely for his record in European competitions. Unai Emery had won the three previous Europa League titles with Sevilla. His La Liga record was solid if not spectacular. Successive fifth placed finishes during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 season was followed up by a disappointing seventh last season.

For Emery the challenge was clear; maintain PSG’s monopoly in Ligue 1 whilst also mounting a serious European challenge. It was perceived by many that PSG’s domestic dominance would continue regardless. Nobody countenanced European success at the expense of continued domestic control.

Emery’s difficult start has shocked many from the outside looking in. Internally though it’s not been completely unexpected.

When Emery arrived his first task would have been to replace talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His four years at the Parc des Princes had yielded a staggering 113 league goals in a mere 122 games. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano scored more goals over the same period.

The loss of Ibrahimovic was always going to be difficult to deal with, however, nobody suspected it would have such dire consequences. After all, PSG had French footballs record signing, Edinson Cavani, waiting in the wings. The Uruguayan was a much heralded €64 million signing from Napoli back in 2013. In reality though his time in the French capital has been underwhelming. Cavani had to accept that whilst Ibrahimovic was still at the club he would be playing second fiddle. Either shipped out to the wing or having to settle for a place on the bench, Cavani was not often given a chance in his favoured strikers role. When he was he often flattered to deceive.

Emery was quick to identify the strikers position as one that needed to be strengthened. Although he came out in support of Cavani, there was always a suspicion that he did not fully trust the former Napoli man.

Kevin Gameiro, who Emery had managed at Sevilla, was linked with a return to the club he left in 2013. Gonzalo Higuain was spoken of before Juventus paid a whopping €90 million for his services. Others were mentioned, but PSG did eventually sign two attacking players to compete with Cavani.

Jesé Rodriguez, a €25 million signing from Real Madrid, was seen as a surprising choice. Hatem Ben Arfa less so, a free signing after his contract at Nice expired. With both players fairly unproven in a central role, there was a sense, particularly with 23-year-old Jesé, that neither was first choice.

This perception has only been reinforced by Emery’s selections. Having only started one of the opening six league games, it would seem that Jesé has fallen behind young Frenchman Jean-Kévin Augustin in the pecking order. Ben Arfa’s omission is even more puzzling. Despite scoring on debut in the 4-1 Trophée des Champions victory over Lyon, the France international has not played for three weeks and not even been included in the previous four match day squads.

On the pitch, the struggles at one end have been mirrored at the other. Salvatore Sirigu’s place as PSG’s No.1 had always been a bone of contention. A team littered with world class players, Sirigu’s name stood out for being one of the few that wasn’t.

His departure in the summer, oddly to Sevilla, was hardly unexpected. Kevin Trapp had been first choice the previous season and looked destined to remain so for the coming year. However, the German’s unconvincing displays, mixed with the emergence of Alphonse Areola, has seen him be displaced. Areola is a fine prospect, yet his promotion is perhaps indicative of Emery’s inability to find the winning formula.

In midfield there have also been issues. Under Blanc there was an established midfield trio. Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi were Blanc’s favoured options. They were humbly supported by Adrien Rabiot and Javier Pastore on occasion.

To supplement them Emery added Grzegorz Krychowiak for €30 million from (surprise surprise) Sevilla. The Pole’s place in the team seemed likely to be at the expense of the ageing Motta. Yet, like Jesé and Ben Arfa, Krychowiak has failed to make any great impact.

Additionally, problems have occurred where previously none existed. Defensively last season PSG were immense, conceding only 32 goals in 58 games across all competitions. The usually reliable Thiago Silva has made a less than impressive start to the season and there are still reservations about the level of defensive cover.

With David Luiz leaving to re-join Chelsea, Presnel Kimpembe has been thrust into the first team. Whilst the young Frenchmen will be back up to Silva and fellow Brazilian Marquinhos, the lack of depth will no doubt remain a concern.

Add Serge Aurier to the mix and there would seem to be all the ingredients for a defensive crisis.  The volatile and often toxic Ivorian felt the wrath of Blanc last season with several ill-advised comments. His sending off against Toulouse on Friday night cost PSG the game, and whilst he no doubt has talent, his temperament does seem to persistently let him down.

Questions remain unanswered. Whilst its still very early into Emery-era his shaky start has certainly failed to live up to expectation. Whether this affects his immediate future remains to be seen.

It would seem that entangled within this obsession with the Champions League there is a stark reality. As Abramovich found out, chasing a Champions League can come at a cost. He went through 8 managers before eventually winning his most treasured prize. The owners at PSG have been less inclined to to wield the axe, yet they showed with Blanc that they can be ruthless.

We can at least be certain about one thing. Anything less than continued domestic dominance and a marked improvement in Europe will constitute a failure in the eyes of the owners. Emery will have to hope that he can halt this mini-crisis.

The Curious Incident of Jack Wilshere & Not Enough Game Time

Jack Wilshere’s move to Bournemouth on deadline day caught many of us by surprise. The 34-time England international has decided to try and rebuild his career at Dean Court. Simmo looks at how such a promising career has sadly fallen by the wayside. 

Jack Wilshere’s departure to Bournemouth was met with mixed emotions by Arsenal supporters. On the one hand, many fans agreed that the local hero needed games, something he was unlikely to get at The Emirates this season. On the other, Gunners aficionados were incredulous, believing that the manager, Arsène Wenger, had let their ‘Jack the lad’ down.

Wilshere has been somewhat of an enigma for many years. Since coming to national, and international prominence for some sparkling displays (including one particularly brilliant performance versus Barcelona at the Camp Nou) during the 2010-11 season, the ex-Arsenal no.10 has suffered a succession of debilitating injuries that have prevented his progress.

Since then, Wilshere’s career has never reached the heights that he seemed destined to reach following his breakthrough year. Injuries and concerns regarding his attitude have certainly hampered his development. Between August 2011 until the present day, Wilshere missed nearly 900 days, and 150 matches out of a possible 275 through injuries.

Prior to requiring ankle surgery in the summer of 2011, Wilshere had enjoyed his most successful season to date. He had played 49 times for his club, won 5 England caps, and looked to be making a stellar impact on the English game. The future really did look bright.

Since that operation on his ankle, Wilshere has appeared in a paltry 85 Arsenal games at an average of just 17 a season. Despite winning a further 29 England caps, the early promise and optimism that surrounded this mercurial talent has somewhat subsided and been replaced by a regretful sense of what might have been.

Yet to blame Wilshere’s lack of progress on injuries alone would be wrong and would tantamount to blind ignorance. There are others who have perhaps contributed towards Wilshere’s sad, almost pitiful demise.

Injuries can blight any footballer’s career, however, it seems that those who play under Wenger at Arsenal suffer more than most. Indeed, whilst Wilshere’s injury absences have been the biggest hindrance on his career, other factors have also significantly prevented his development.

Wenger has long professed to being a fan of Wilshere’s; just last week the Frenchmen went as far as to describe the 24-year-old as “world-class.” This begs the question as to why a world-class player is now plying his trade for a team enjoying only their second season of top-flight football?

The answer is quite simple; Wilshere was prepared to bide his time at Arsenal believing that he would get his chance over, what promised to be, a long season. However, when Sam Allardyce, England’s new manager, announced his first squad, Wilshere was one of many noticeable absentees.

Knowing that his England career was going to suffer, Wilshere demanded a move in order to salvage his declining career. The reality is though, Wilshere is more than good enough to be starting week in, week out for this Arsenal team.

Wenger has simply not shown enough faith in Wilshere. We can never be sure whether this has been down to a reluctance to use him due to concerns over either his ability or fitness, yet when faced with the facts, the evidence is utterly compelling. During the previous 5 seasons, and even when fit and available, Wilshere appeared (and often only in bit-part roles) in fewer than 70% of the games he had been available for.

Things came to a head this season; fit, bar for a small and unfortunate knee injury suffered in late July, Wilshere was keen to stamp his authority on the team. Yet despite this, the Stevenage-born midfielder was surprisingly left out of the starting XI for the first three games of the season. Players such as Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny were initially preferred to him, neither of whom even come close to matching Wilshere’s ability.

If those two had been the only obstacles in Wilshere’s way then he may well have decided to ride out these early disappointments. However, Wenger invested heavily in Granit Xhaka during the summer, seemingly pushing Wilshere further down the pecking order. Add to this the return of Santi Cazorla, and the consistent, if not sometimes bewildering insistence on picking Aaron Ramsey in a central role, Wilshere faced a situation where he could have feasibly been Arsenal’s sixth choice central midfielder.

For Wilshere, enough was enough. Being overlooked by players so clearly inferior to him, seeing his England place suffer, and not having any guarantees regarding consistent playing time, all contributed to his decision to leave for the South Coast.

At Bournemouth, it is highly likely that Wilshere will receive the playing time he longs for and so badly needs. The Cherries’ youthful manager, Eddie Howe, has employed a variety of innovative training methods in order to ensure he understands the way each of his players best operates.

This is likely to benefit Wilshere. Too often in the recent past Arsenal players have suffered severe long-term injuries. Whether this is down to training methods or simply just bad luck will likely remain a mystery. However, Raymond Verheijen, a fitness conditioning expert who worked for the Welsh national team, certainly believes it to be the former. He has been outspoken in his criticism of Wenger and his medical staff, suggesting that their methods are outdated and too severe.

Verheijen’s point is an interesting one, and if Wilshere does manage to avoid injury for the rest of this season people may begin to take his point more seriously. Nevertheless, Wilshere has to ensure he gives himself the best chance to stay fit.

In recent times pictures have emerged of him chuffing on cigarettes outside seedy nightclubs or in swimming pools while on ill-advised holidays with the ‘boys’. This behaviour is hardly symptomatic of a professional athlete.

For Wilshere, this is very much last chance saloon. If he wants to make use of his indisputable talent, then this is the year he has to do so.

Mourinho: Myth Busted

Simmo on José Mourinho and his alleged preference for experience over youth.

Mourinho is a winner. He’s won just about everything worth winning in club football. The majority of football supporters would long for a manager of his stature at their clubs. With eight league titles won in four different countries, two Champions Leagues and countless domestic trophies, there are not many managers who can measure up to Senhor Mourinho.

However, the reality is not quite so black and white. While Mourinho guarantees success there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this success is destined purely for the short-term. For all of the trophies that Mourinho’s won he’s never stayed longer than 4 years at a single club. The man works for now, not for later.

Closer analysis of Mourinho’s successful teams reveals one stark similarity; nearly all of them have been relatively experienced. For example, when arriving at Chelsea, Mourinho was quick to build the team around a certain Claude Makélélé. At Inter Milan he used Javier Zanetti in a similar role and relied heavily on the experience of Marco Materazzi, Christian Chivu, Walter Samuel and Lucio. At Real Madrid he re-signed Ricardo Carvalho and used him extensively during his first season in charge. All those players have one crucial aspect in common – experience.

Indeed, it has long been assumed that Mourinho has a penchant for the games  older statesmen. But do the facts really back this up?

The answer is really quite surprising. Staggeringly, the title-winning Chelsea team during the 2004–5 season was the youngest in Premier League history. The average age of that team was just 24.3 years. Fergie’s Fledglings won the 1995–6 title at the ripe old average age of 25.

In fact, at Real Madrid the average age of Mourinho’s signings was just a fraction over 24. During the same period, Arsène Wenger’s signings at Arsenal (a club famed for its trust in young players) had an average age of over 26.

Further study shows that Mourinho has often been brave enough to give responsibility to young players. Upon arriving Chelsea, Mourinho was faced with a team lacking any experienced leaders. The previous captain, Marcel Desailly, had just left the club and there was no obvious replacement. Mourinho eventually plumped for John Terry. Terry had come up from Chelsea’s academy, through the youth teams and into the starting XI. Mourinho clearly saw potential leadership qualities in the Barking-born defender. While Terry had made over 150 Chelsea appearances by the time Mourinho arrived, he was still only 23 – a comparatively young age for an established central defender and even younger for a captain.

Mourinho’s decision was vindicated. Terry would go on to lift the Premier League trophy at the end of Mourinho’s first two seasons in charge, and was selected for the PFA Team of the Year for both seasons.

Mourinho also showed an interest in developing young defenders at Real Madrid. He added the 18-year-old Frenchman Raphael Varane, from Lens to his squad of ‘Galácticos’. Although Varane was by no means a regular, Mourinho trusted him enough to throw him into some big games.

During his second spell at Chelsea, Mourinho decided to splash £12 million on another young French defender, Kurt Zouma. He had so much confidence in Zouma that when Nemanja Matic was suspended for the 2015 League Cup final against Tottenham, he thrust Zouma into the unfamiliar role of holding midfielder.

It also seems that Mourinho has a penchant for young goalkeepers. During his first spell in charge of Chelsea he picked the relatively young and inexperienced Petr Cech over the reliable, well-established veteran, Carlo Cudicini. Cech went on to become a club legend and break the all-time clean sheet record in the Premier League. Whilst Cech now plies his trade for Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal, his contribution to Chelsea during his 11 year stay in South West London was immeasurable.

During his second spell in charge at Chelsea, Mourinho decided to promote Thibault Courtois above Cech. The Belgian had been out on loan at Atletico Madrid and had already won a La Liga title and played in a Champions League Final by the age of 22.

So, does this dispel the theory? Is Mourinho in fact a big believer in young talent?

Well, the answer isn’t really that simple. Now managing Manchester United, a club that has always prided itself on promoting young players, Mourinho has decided that he needs to cut some deadwood from the vast squad he took over from Louis van Gaal.

Since joining he has allegedly told no fewer than 7 players who are 23 old or younger that their futures lie away from Old Trafford. Timothy Fosu Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Will Keane, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira and Tyler Blackett have all been told that they are surplus to requirements, for the meantime at least.

It’s true that there are question marks over the ability of several of the aforementioned youngsters, yet they’ve all played for the Red Devils and were deemed good enough by previous managers. This time, José’s transfer dealings indicate a preference for age over youth; he has signed 3 players with an average age of just under 28.

Is this a change in stance by Mourinho? Has he decided that he needs to sign players with more experience and sell those youngsters trying to break in?

Difficult to say. We are only two months into Mourinho’s Old Trafford reign and he hasn’t yet managed United in a competitive match. If José is around this time next year then we may get a better understanding of his transfer strategy and whether or not he has indeed abandoned his former willingness to embrace youth.

So where would Mourinho sit on the now infamous (and highly inaccurate) “You won’t win anything with kids” saying coined by Alan Hansen back in the mid-90s?

He’d almost certainly disagree. The fact is that Mourinho seems likely to pick players who are good enough to make an instant contribution to the team and not let others down. If a player does not reach that standard, he will be banished to the youth teams or, worst case scenario, shipped out somewhere else. For Mourinho’s players there is a steep learning curve. However, if you prove you are good enough, then, for Mourinho, you’re almost certainly old enough.