Celebrity fan Piers Morgan, the newspaper editor turned chat-show host, continues to fire up the #WengerOUT campaign on social media, while a banner held aloft during the recent FA Cup win at Hull City read: “ARSENE, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BUT IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE.” The banner was condemned by Arsenal players past and present — as well as David Beckham — but it illustrated the deep discontent felt by certain fans, as glimpsed in the scuffles that broke out outside the Emirates following Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Watford. Arsenal are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the 20th season running, but after six successive last-16 exits they have become the competition’s perennial wallflowers — always at the party, but never on the dance-floor.
Loath to cite Piers Morgan, but here is a piece on where Champions League elimination leaves Arsenal and Arsène Wenger.
Having started just two of Chelsea’s final 16 Premier League games under José Mourinho, Mikel has started nine of 12 under Hiddink in the only notable non-enforced personnel change that the Dutchman has made to the starting XI. As well as being unbeaten in their 12 league games to date under Hiddink, Chelsea’s average number of goals conceded per game has dropped from 1.625 to 1, and Mikel’s defensive nous has been an important factor. “He’s the ideal player to bring balance to the team,” Hiddink said earlier this year. “He knows where the strength of the opponent is and he knows exactly how to cope with that. He doesn’t do it in a very brutal way — he’s very, very elegant. What I like to see very much is not just a quality player, but a player who can defend so smoothly. It’s beautiful to see.”
A piece for AFP on the role that John Mikel Obi has played in Chelsea’s return to form.
After becoming frustrated about his lack of progress at first City and then Chelsea, Sturridge did not begin to consistently showcase the staggering ability first glimpsed during his teenage years until he joined Liverpool in January 2013. An intelligent, technically accomplished and elusive striker, he scored 11 times in his first 16 games and contributed 21 goals to a mesmerising 52-goal partnership with Luis Suárez as Liverpool came agonisingly close to Premier League glory in 2013-14. Fondly admired by England manager Roy Hodgson, he went to the 2014 World Cup with the number nine shirt on his back and scored in their opening game against Italy. But since then a litany of niggling injuries has restricted him to 28 appearances from a possible 101 for Liverpool and kept him away from the international scene for over 18 months.
A piece for AFP on Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, who will be seeking to make up for lost time in Sunday’s Capital One Cup final.
Hazard was the Premier League’s showboater-in-chief in 2014-15, but his crown has been stolen by Mahrez, whose 14 goals and 10 assists make him one of the favourites to succeed the Belgian as England’s Player of the Year. The two players were born a month apart in 1991 and both are quick, skilful forwards who learnt their trade in northern France – Hazard at Lille, Mahrez at Le Havre. But it is where their similarities end that the symbolism begins. Hazard, a £32 million ($46.3 million, 41.3 million euros) signing from Lille in 2012, has become the sleep-walking incarnation of Chelsea’s slump from champions to mid-ranking also-rans. Leicester have taken their place at the summit and in the impish Mahrez, a £400,000 bargain buy from Le Havre, they possess a figure who embodies the Premier League’s startling democratisation.
How Riyad Mahrez stole Eden Hazard’s crown as England’s great entertainer – my piece for AFP can be found here.
Related link: From factory floor to record books for Leicester’s Vardy
Related link: Pluck and pizza propel Leicester to summit
Infantino only joined the presidential race in October after UEFA president Michel Platini was provisionally suspended over a $2 million “disloyal” payment from Blatter, which eventually saw both men banned for eight years. But he rejected the suggestion that he would be seen as a second-choice candidate and said he had felt a moral responsibility to act after US and Swiss authorities targeted FIFA in wide-ranging corruption probes. “It’s true that until a few months ago I was not thinking about being a candidate, but in life sometimes there are situations where you have to take decisions,” Infantino said. “When I saw what is going on, I thought you simply cannot sit and lean back and watch everything being destroyed or destroy itself. You have to do something. You have to do something for football.”
Find out what happened when I met Gianni Infantino to discuss his plans for the FIFA presidency. Read about it here.
Whereas close-season spending was driven by the leading clubs — Manchester City twice breaking their transfer record to sign Raheem Sterling (£44 million rising to £49 million) and Kevin De Bruyne (£55 million); Manchester United betting the house on unheralded French teenager Anthony Martial (£36 million rising to £61.5 million) — in January it has been a different story. Sky and BT Sport’s blockbuster £5.14 billion domestic TV rights deal kicks in at the start of next season, with the sale of overseas rights — expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks — set to swell that figure to £8 billion for the period 2016-2019. It means that the cost of relegation has never been higher, and it is the clubs at the wrong end of the Premier League table who have been opening their wallets the most eagerly during the mid-season transfer period.
A look at how the looming TV rights cash bonanza has affected the January transfer window in the Premier League – you can read it here.
Related link: English clubs impose Martial law in Europe
Untold riches will rain down upon the English Premier League in 2016, but for all their resources, the country’s leading clubs currently seem incapable of staking claims to the title. The record £5.14 billion ($7.72 billion, 7.06 billion euros) television rights deal due to kick in next year will reinforce the English top flight’s status as European football’s financial behemoth. But champions Chelsea have imploded, Arsenal and Manchester City remain hit-and-miss and while Liverpool find their feet under Jürgen Klopp, Manchester United appear to be stagnating under Louis van Gaal. It has fallen to Leicester City to make the early running in what former United captain Gary Neville has described as “the most bizarre league that I have seen in a long time”.
My review of the year 2015 in English football can be read here.
Related link: New money rises in England as old powers slip
Ranieri was derisively labelled ‘The Tinkerman’ during his four years at Chelsea, due to his habit of rotating his team, and his appointment by Leicester in July following Nigel Pearson’s sacking unleashed a tide of mockery. Former England striker Gary Lineker, probably Leicester’s most well-known alumnus, summed up the disdain when he tweeted: “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” “I had mixed thoughts, to be honest,” former Leicester captain Steve Walsh told AFP. “But he’s ‘tinkered about’ and added some good tactical things, so it’s worked out really well.” The genial Italian, 64, has been converting cynics to admirers with each victory, all the while maintaining the irreverent tone that made him a popular figure during his first spell in England between 2000 and 2004.
I’ve written a piece on the improbable rise of Leicester City – you can read it here.
Klopp promised “full throttle” football and he has been true to his word, with Liverpool’s aggressive high press central to their recent transformation. Opponents have been quick to catch on and it was noticeable that Southampton looked to hit frontman Graziano Pelle at the earliest opportunity at St Mary’s in a bid to negate the effects of the Liverpool press. Lucas Leiva, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Adam Lallana are among the players who are thriving under Klopp, whose tactile man-management style is characterised by effusive bear hugs.
A piece for AFP on how Jürgen Klopp has brought the smiles back at Anfield can be found here.
“He was always first for training and last out,” recalls Stocksbridge chairman Allen Bethel. “He was also the life and soul of the party, a Jack the lad.” Vardy’s roguish streak occasionally caused him problems — he was sent off four times in his last season at Stocksbridge, deterring suitors Sheffield United — and he had trouble controlling his temper off the pitch. A conviction for a late-night assault temporarily obliged him to wear an electronic tag and observe an 18:30 p.m. curfew, which would see him substituted midway through games so that he could get home in time. Remembering one such mid-match dash, former Stocksbridge manager Gary Morrow said: “He jumped straight over the railings and into his parents’ car without even getting changed.”
A piece on the rise and rise of Jamie Vardy.