Category Archives: European Football

It’s Time to Start Appreciating Karim Benzema

Featured Image by WONJONGSUNG from Pixabay

The Frenchman is now getting his time in the spotlight, time that has been due for a while now…

What if I told you there was a player out there who is among the best in his position of his generation and we are not appreciating him nearly enough? A player who came out of one of the best academies in Europe, won several league titles and a league player of the year award with his boyhood club before earning a big money move to European giants Real Madrid. At Real Madrid, he won three league titles and four Champions Leagues, adding to his already crowded honors list. He is currently Real Madrid’s fifth highest ever goalscorer with 249, their top assister with 133, and one of only four players to score 20-plus goals in eight or more seasons for Los Blancos, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, and Raúl. He amassed those 249 goals and 133 assists in a little over 500 games, with a goals-to-game ratio of around .50, seemingly the golden standard of being a world-class forward. He has just wrapped up a second consecutive season of being his team’s arguably best and most important player, and he has helped Real Madrid to their first league title in the post-Ronaldo era.

And this player is being underrated seemingly to a criminal degree.

Yes, this is not a guessing game. You read the title, so you know I am referring to current Real Madrid and ex-Lyon striker Karim Benzema. You probably have your own opinions on Benzema, quite a few people do, but hear me out first.

Benzema has begun to earn his deserved praise this season. He was arguably Real Madrid’s most important player and easily their most important attacking player, scoring 27 goals and adding 11 assists in all competitions. With Ronaldo gone, Bale permanently stuck on the bench, and Hazard struggling to fully adapt to life in the Spanish capital, Benzema has been the main guy for Zidane going forward. In a team that does not score too many goals, at least compared to previous Real Madrid teams, Benzema is often the irreplaceable part of their attack. Los Blancos only scored 70 league goals this season, so Benzema’s 21 league goals and eight league assists by himself accounted for a little more than 40% of his team’s scoring output in the league. You could very well make the claim that Benzema had the best season of any player in La Liga not named Lionel Messi, and that would not be an outlandish argument to make. Real Madrid’s 2018/19 campaign was one to forget, but Benzema was also near this level that season as well, bringing in 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions and being responsible for around a third of Real Madrid’s league goals that season. He was seemingly their sole shining light from a dreadful year.

This praise has come in the last two years, but it is long overdue. Benzema is obviously shining now, and you can argue he is simply just stepping up in Ronaldo’s absence, but he has been an important player in previous years as well. He just never got the credit he deserved.

Benzema was an unbelievable player for Lyon. I would argue he remains the most talented player to emerge from their now-world famous academy. He earned his big-money move to Real Madrid, where, yes, he did initially struggle. He played second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuaín, and he had issues with his fitness. The first two seasons under José Mourinho were very tough, but he fought through and earned his place in the team. Mourinho himself gave all credit to Benzema for transforming himself as a player to fit into the team. Succeeding in the famed white shirt is quite difficult, even for talented players. Just look at Hazard’s struggles this season. There is a significant list of talented footballers who failed to adapt to life in Madrid and failed to live up to the weight and expectation that wearing that white shirt brings, so Benzema’s ability to overcome initial struggles to have the level of longevity and greatness that he has had is something that is not commended enough.

But let us move on past those first few years. Since then, Real Madrid added Gareth Bale to their strike force, forming the notorious “BBC” triad up front. They were one of the best attacking units in Europe, scoring and winning at a historic level. Despite this, however, Benzema was still the target of criticism. He seemed to constantly be the butt of the joke, with many viewing him as the ugly duckling of the trio. He seemed to be viewed as the less shiny and flashy player surrounded by two superstars. To be fair, it is hard to truly shine when an all-time great like Ronaldo did ridiculous things on a weekly basis, but the conversation seemed to be more than that. The discussions seemed to center around how good Real Madrid would be when they finally sold Benzema and replaced him with a “better” player. I will forever stand by the argument that not only would replacing Benzema not have made Real Madrid better, it would, in fact, have made them worse.

I am not going to roll out the generic “Benzema sacrificed for Ronaldo” line, as I do not feel it is nuanced enough to describe Benzema as a player and what made him so important for those Real Madrid teams. Benzema is a very well-rounded forward, able to use pace to get in behind defenses and use strength to hold the ball up and act as a target man. Possibly his best strength lies in his positional sense and passing ability, which saw him mostly deployed as a center forward or “false nine”. In this role, he is able to do everything I said above, but also be tasked with dropping into space between the lines to receive the ball and pass, as well as make movements and runs that move around and draw the attention of the defenders, often opening up space for his teammates to occupy or run into. It is similar to the role that Roberto Firmino plays for this current Liverpool team. Firmino has the ability to drop into space or play as a traditional number nine, and his ability to make dummy runs and occupy the center backs opens up the space for Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to get into good goalscoring positions and make dangerous attacking runs. This similar idea is applied here. This role, and his traits that perfectly fit the role, has allowed Benzema to turn provider on several occasions, often being Real Madrid’s leading assister and why he has so many career assists for a striker, and to make the runs or take up the positions that opens up space for Ronaldo and Bale to attack. This, many times, happened between him and Ronaldo, where he was able to hold the ball up slightly or make a dummy run toward the left that moved the center back or fullback wider, opening up space for Ronaldo to cut inside. He also had the ability to make runs wide and make plays from a wide area, which allowed Ronaldo to swap places with him and move into the 18-yard box, able to take advantage of his physical skills to score off of crosses or other center forward-like goals. This is where the “sacrificing for Ronaldo” narrative comes from, but it really does not give Benzema enough credit. Simply saying he is sacrificing implies it is something any striker could do instead of it being a use of Benzema’s skill set and high football intelligence that actively makes those Real Madrid teams better. His understanding of space and ability to make the runs or play the passes that gets his teammates in great goalscoring positions is a very unique skill that very few forwards possess at this level, and his ability to combine that with a very good end product is what makes him such an incredible player. He has done significant work as a player to bind that attack together and make them the cohesive unit that they were at their peak. Had Real Madrid decided to sell him, those traits would be gone, and they would not have been as fluid of an attacking unit. There are very few players that Real Madrid could have brought in to truly replace Benzema in that team, as there are not many that bring the specific skills and traits that allowed him to glue that attack together. It is Benzema’s well-roundedness as a forward that makes him such an elite player and so important to that team.

Also, let’s not pretend that he was simply there to run around and allow Ronaldo to score. He has had some statistically impactful seasons in that “BBC” trio. Bar two seasons, he has scored 20-plus goals in all competitions as part of that front three, as well as adding a minimum of five assists onto that total. He reached double digit assists in the league three times and never had less than eight assists in all competitions since Bale’s arrival, amassing 16 and 15 in all competitions in Bale’s first two seasons in Madrid. People talk about his five league goals in 2017/18, which seemingly indicates a poor season for a striker, but people do not talk about that he had double digit assists, being Real Madrid’s leading provider that season, and he had five more Champions League goals in nine games on the way to Los Blancos being crowned European Champions again. His worst season as a member of the “BBC” was still a fairly good season. And let’s not forget those milestones I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. He is Real Madrid’s fifth-highest ever goalscorer, leading assister, and one of only four Madridista players to have at least eight 20-plus goal seasons in the famous white shirt. He seemingly remained the butt of the joke until recently despite constantly and continuing to be one of Real Madrid’s most important players in every sense.

Now, let’s talk about big moments. Every great player has big moments they are remembered for, right? When talking about Benzema’s big moments, one definitely springs to mind for everyone: his famous elastico-assist against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League in 2017. However, many of his other big moments seem to be ignored. People laugh about his fortunate goal in the Champions League Final against Liverpool in 2018, but many forget it was his two goals against Bayern Munich in the semifinal that got them into the final. He scored two crucial goals against Valencia in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey in 2013. He scored goals in Madrid Derbies and in El Clasicos, including a notable equalizer in a 2-1 Real Madrid win over Barcelona in 2014 that came very close to being a title-deciding match. This is also ignoring him scoring possibly the goal of the season, his volley against Valencia, and assist of the season, his back heel pass against Espanyol, as part of his scintillating form at the end of this past season. Yes, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo, no one on planet Earth is. However, Benzema has had his fair share of incredible moments in a Real Madrid shirt, moments that deserve recognition for a near-legendary Madridista.

In another sense, maybe this is where some of the criticism stems from. Yes, he has had fantastic moments and scored important goals, but he has had very few spectacular, “wow” moments in his career outside of that elastico-assist. When he was playing alongside Ronaldo and Bale, who scored brilliant highlight-reel goals on a near-regular basis during their peaks in Madrid, he often looked like a member of the supporting cast instead of one of the main protagonists. Football media also latched onto the extraordinary play of other forwards, who shined brighter than Benzema at times. He often looks ordinary, while Bale and Ronaldo, Falcao and Lewandowski, Mbappé and Griezmann, looked extraordinary. His “ordinary”, and it is still quite unfair to him to call him ordinary, has not made him a bad player, however, but it unfortunately cast him in the shadow of the extraordinary moments of his teammates or others who caught the eye of the football world. It is that “ordinary”, however, that is what made, and still makes, Benzema so important for Real Madrid, and his consistency in that regard has allowed him to outlast many of the shiny toys Real Madrid brought in to star in their attack. Real Madrid, as a club, lack patience and know how rich they are, having the ability to snap up the best and brightest talent from all corners of the globe. Benzema was one of those players, but he arrived with little fanfare compared to Ronaldo and Kaká, who arrived at the same time. Since Benzema moved to Madrid, they have also brought in the likes of James Rodríguez, Isco, Álvaro Morata, and Luka Jović, meant to be the new bright star to go into their forward line and take it to the next level. While they had their bright moments, they all faded in time, while Benzema still remains. New York Times football correspondent Rory Smith called Benzema the “Low-Wattage Galactico”, and I cannot think of a better way to describe this idea. His game was never the flashiest or the most ridiculous or insane, but Benzema was, and still is, a world-class forward who was and is an integral part of the Real Madrid team. His light just so happened to be a little bit dimmer than some of the players that he played alongside, but it did not make him any less integral to the team.

I have shown you one of the best strikers of a generation. He is probably the most complete and well-rounded striker of his generation. He has won basically everything there is to win in football, he holds high accolades at arguably the biggest club in the world, and, when you get right down to it, he is an incredibly impressive and productive player statistically and has the skill set needed to bring a team together on the pitch. Other players rightly get praised for their ability to do exactly what he has been ignored for doing for nearly half a decade, and he is often criticized for not producing at a high level when, if you look at the statistics, he actually has been doing for basically his whole career. I have laid the case out in front of you; we have a player currently playing at a world-class level right now who is not being given nearly enough credit. He has done everything throughout his career to earn the title of “world class”, and his resumé and accolades include almost everything a footballer can win. As I said in the beginning:

It is time to start appreciating Karim Benzema, and we need to appreciate him for whatever time is left in his career. He more than deserves it.

An Absolute Bargain: Ferrán Torres’s Transfer to Manchester City and Wider Implications

For 23 million Euros, Ferrán Torres’s move to Manchester City is an absolute bargain. He comes in as a replacement for Leroy Sané, who moved to Bayern Munch on July 3, 2020, for an initial 45 million euros (that could potentially rise to 60 million euros with add ons). He may be only 20 years old, but Torres is a real talent and has played incredibly well for Valencia. A move to City is a definite upgrade for the player. Yet, I don’t know if it is the right time for him to move to the Etihad. 

Why? Let’s look at why Leroy Sané moved to Bayern in the first place – a lack of playing time. There is a good chance that Torres may face a similar predicament. Most of the time, he will probably find himself on the bench at City. Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva are above him in the pecking order and have cemented their positions in the wings. He also will face competition from Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden (if he stays) for a spot on the bench.

Thankfully, Manchester City are a club that have a winning mentality – they want to win every competition they play in and therefore need to rotate their team for the different competitions. Chances will come for the highly-rated Spaniard to shine, but he will not likely be playing the same number of games he did for Valencia this past season. Torres may not be playing weekly, but he will learn a lot under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola as well as under the mentorship of senior players like Riyad Mahrez.

Torres publicly announced that one of the key reasons why he wanted to sign with the Manchester club is because of their attacking mentality and style. That was not the only thing that he revealed to the press and went on to publicly criticize teammate and Valencia captain Dani Parejo’s leadership ability. Speaking of Valencia, Torres departure could be the first of a mass exodus of players after the controversial end to their season, which saw Albert Celades was sacked and replaced by Javi Gracia. As a result of missing out on European competition altogether and ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the club will reduce its operating cost by 40%. Part of this reduction involves potentially selling upwards of 100 million euros worth of players during this window. Torres himself did not want to leave Valencia but instead, was forced out of the club. While that may be, it is safe to say that Torres has escaped from a sinking Valencian ship, where Peter Lim is the captain.

Guardiola had one for the future in mind when he was making this deal. Perhaps the not so distant future. Mahrez is approaching his 30th Birthday early next year, and City need to look at long-term replacements for the Algerian. On top of that, Guardiola doesn’t seem to rate Patrick Roberts highly, and the English winger could be transferred out this window. Roberts had loan spells with Celtic, Girona, Norwich, and, most recently, Middlesbrough. Now 23, a move away would be best for the player where he can establish himself at a club as opposed to spending another season out on loan or featuring as a fringe player for City.

Torres is by no means a finished product. In 44 appearances across all competitions, he has racked up 6 goals and provided 8 assists, which is a fairly average return for a player slated to become the next breakout star. However, his low goals and assist return rate could be due to the formation he is being deployed in. At Valencia, Torres often plays in a 4-4-2 system, where he is played as a wide midfielder, as opposed to a conventional winger.

Under Pep’s system, Torres could better use his pace, dribbling skills and creativity, as he is given much more freedom to cut inside. Sterling is an example of a clear benefactor of Pep’s system and Torres could follow suit. At the same time, given his experience at Valencia, he can assist and contribute from wide positions as well. It makes him a useful player to have because he offers the Manchester City options in-game. Comfortable with both feet, Torres might develop into a hybrid between Sterling and Bernardo Silva, having the pace of the former and the creativity of the latter. What he needs, however, is time to adapt to the playing style in England. With a relatively low transfer fee involved, there is less pressure on the player to produce immediate fireworks. However, because of the hype surrounding the player, many will monitor his development, and Torres would be expected to develop into a quality player.

Let me end off with this point; the transfer fee surrounding the player. 23 million euros is slightly lesser than the wingers market value. It raises questions on why the fee was so low. Granted, Torres was entering into the final year of his contract and Valencia may have been desperate to cash in. It doesn’t explain why he was bought for a fee lower than his market value. As I mentioned earlier, missing out on Champions League football and disruptions caused by the global pandemic meant that Valencia needed funds. I raise this point because it supports the notion that we might see an overall reduction in transfer fees for players. Many clubs need to recoup their losses and might be less inclined to hold out for higher fees because of the urgent need for cash. We saw this with Werner moving for only 48 million pounds. It is concerning because the pandemic might usher in a greater imbalance in leagues, with richer clubs exploiting cash strapped sides and buying their star players for significantly lesser fees than their market value.

Image by jorono from Pixabay

A New Challenge Outside England: Angel Gomes Moves to Lille

When Angel Gomes left Manchester United at the end of June, many believed he would secure a quick move to Chelsea or another top-flight club in Europe. Rumours circulated that Chelsea were seriously considering signing the player. However, no offer came from Stamford Bridge, and since the start of July, the pacey attacking midfielder has been without a club. July must have been a difficult month for Gomes, who probably second-guessed his decision to leave Old Trafford in search for regular first-team football elsewhere. August, on the other hand, paints a different story for him, as he starts a new chapter in his footballing career.

Ligue 1 side Lille have recently signed Gomes and have shown that they are serious about the player’s development because they have done something that United failed to: loan Gomes out. For the upcoming 2020/21 season, Gomes would be on loan at Portuguese side Boavista F.C. A move to the Primeira Liga is a sensible one because the level of competition is relatively high and Gomes would surely gain regular playing time. Also, as a footballing romanticist, I do think it’s pretty symbolic of a spiritual restart to Gomes’s career. The player heads to Portugal, where his family is from, to gain some much-needed experience before he returns to Lille.

It is a smart piece of business from Lille, who look to rebuild their club with a host of key players expected to leave the club the upcoming transfer window. Victor Osimhen has already left for Napoli on a 50 million Euro transfer, and it will be hard to replace the Nigerian, who was Lille’s top scorer last campaign. Other players rumoured to depart the club include:

  • Gabriel Magalhães, CB
    • Linked with a move to Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal, Napoli
  • Boubakary Soumaré, CM
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Chelsea
  • Mike Maignan, G.K.
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea
  • Mehmet Zeki Çelik, R.B.
    • Linked with a move to Everton, Tottenham Hotspur
  • Jonathan Ikoné, FW
    • Linked with a move to Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund

These players formed the backbone of Lille, and the Ligue 1 outfit probably needs a season or two to rebuild and create a new spine for the team. Lille have already signed veteran Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis from Napoli as a short term replacement for Maignan if he leaves. In addition, the club has also signed Turkish icon Burak Yilmaz on a free transfer from Besiktas. The move for Yilmaz is a good piece of business as well. Lille get an experienced forward who adds depth to their frontline, which would be severely depleted if Jonathan Ikoné leaves.

Lille have also attempted to sign Colombian forward Alfredo Morelos from Rangers F.C., who would come in as a replacement for Osimhen. Morelos would be a shrewd piece of business for Lille. They get a good player to build a new spine for the team at a bargain price, and yes, while the Scottish Premier League may not be the most competitive in Europe, his statistics in the Europa League show that he is a lethal finisher. He has scored an impressive 14 goals in 16 appearances for Rangers in Europe this campaign, and Lille would have an upgrade from their current crop of strikers (other than Ikoné).

Another player heavily linked with Lille is Jonathan David, which indicates that the club is more than likely going to cash in on Ikoné. David is one of the brightest talents to have emerged from North America, let alone Canada. He has been absolutely brilliant for Gent in Belgium and will easily fill the boots of Ikoné. Only 20 years old, David’s impending acquisition is further evidence that Lille are in the process of a rebuild.

The decision to sign Angel Gomes is in line with this plan of creating a new backbone for the long-term. He comes in as a free transfer and represents a low-risk acquisition with no significant transfer fee involved. However, his inexperience in first-team football means that he cannot be rushed into the first-team. As much as people call Ligue 1 a farmer’s league, the level of competition in France is high, and Lille cannot afford to risk fielding Gomes weekly.

Manchester United and Ole take note, this is how you develop your academy prospects. Loaning them out to gain valuable first-team minutes at another top-flight European team shows the players that they are part of the club’s plans for the future. Gomes was stuck playing Under-23 football when he could have been playing on loan at a club like Celtic. Seeing his peers and fellow academy teammates get significantly greater playing time

For Gomes, Lille have offered him a new challenge and the chance to prove Ole and Manchester United wrong. As a United fan, I sincerely want Gomes to do well. I hoped that he would develop into a phenomenal player and become an integral part of the United team. That dream has been crushed with his departure, but he can become an essential player for Lille if he performs well with Boavista and remains free from injuries. Only time will tell. That being said, I am probably going to closely follow Gomes’s spell in Portugal and see how he progresses. Fingers crossed that he shines!

Featured Image by Edar from Pixabay

The Jonathan Toto Exclusive Part 2 – Football Stardom in Singapore, A Greek Nightmare & Life after Football

In part 1, I examined Jonathan Toto’s career before playing in Singapore. From playing with Koulibaly and Pjanić in the FC Metz Academy to a stint with Hearts in Scotland, Toto had quite the eventful career by the time he was 21. It was this next chapter in Singapore where his footballing career really took off, and due to unfortunate circumstances, ended up peaking. After 2 years in the S.League, Toto secured a move to a Greek club but was then released shortly after, never to be heard from again.

Living the Footballing Fantasy in Singapore

In his short but eventful career, his two years in Singapore were by far the best. It was where he really lived out his footballing dreams as a star player. However, it wasn’t the motivation of becoming a star player that drove Toto’s decision to take up the opportunity to play in Singapore.

“After the failed Qatar trial, I decided to come to Singapore to get as far away as possible from Europe. I was fed up with the European footballing scene and all its problems. I didn’t have any family; I didn’t have any kids; I was young, so i decided to take my chance and come to Singapore. I had an amazing agent who linked me up with Étoile and I signed. This was where in my head, I started to think that a football career could be a real possibility. Before Singapore, I was training hard and playing well but for some reason [like agent troubles] i couldn’t secure a professional contract. I started to think if I was cursed. But Singapore man, I tell you, this was where [a professional] really started [for me].

“It was amazing; A French football club who wants you to make a career in Asia. You would be surrounded by French people, so you won’t be alone and they gave you money. I really enjoyed it. We had a special objective of retaining the S.league title and on top of that we needed to challenge the accomplishment of the previous Étoile FC team. People were talking how the new guys, us, were not that good, so we had a point to prove.”

The offer from Étoile FC was an amazing opportunity for a young Toto hungry for both professional game time and goals. And boy, did he do well in his debut season with the French club. Even though the club finished 5th, which was underwhelming given how the club had won the league the previous campaign, he scored 14 goals in 28 games in all competitions. I must say that a goal-to-game ratio of 0.5 is really respectable for any 21 year-old. Toto had many fond memories playing with Etoile and one of them was playing against Tampines at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

“I remember scoring against Tampines and that day, I saw [Aleksandar] Đurić. I remember people talking about how he was the Ibrahimovic of the league. When I saw him, he was so tall and I was happy to see and play against him. I love it when I’m on the field with superstars, better players, because they challenge me to do better and Đurić was one such player.”

However Aleksandar Đurić was not the only player that Toto looked forward to challenging. One other player was then-Home United talisman Fredric Mendy, who was part of the 2010 Étoile FC Championship winning squad. In many ways, Toto was brought in to replace Mendy for the 2011 campaign and naturally, Toto was fired up every time he faced Home United.

After the 2011 season concluded, Étoile pulled out of the S.League and opted to focus on grassroots football development instead. Many players returned to France or earned moves to other Southeast Asian clubs, with a few of them choosing to remain in Singapore. Toto was one such player who decided to remain in Singapore. Alongside Sirina Camara, he sealed a move to Courts Young Lions for the 2012 SPL campaign. He enjoyed playing football for the Young Lions team and huge reason for that was team manager Eugene Loo, who not only engineered the move but also made both French players feel right at home.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“He is an amazing person and Eugene Loo was always there for us. He was like a friend to both of us. He was somebody who took care of us. He was this person in the FAS who was very kind since the beginning. I remember how Étoile informed some of us hat we will be linked with the FAS to determine where we will play. Eugene called me and I spoke with him and that started my budding relationship with him. That is also how I became a Courts Young Lions player.”

Playing for Young Lions was indeed a special experience for Toto.

“We were two French guys playing in a squad full of local Singaporeans so it was a different experience to playing in Étoile. I was sort of used to this after playing Italy and Scotland but I had Sirina with me. Sirina is like a year younger than me and we were like brothers but Sirina wasn’t like me. I could speak English well but Sirina struggled to early on. They were tough on us, especially, because he was always speaking French. One day I told him, enough is enough and that we should only converse in English. I remember sometimes during training when Sirina asked me a question in French and I replied in English and it was very funny.”

Off the pitch, Toto enjoyed life in Singapore. He shared a condominium with Sirina and Canadian Under-23 player Sherif El-Masri, and he had a ball of a time. Life in Singapore was not that expensive for the forward, who loved the food and the city. Even though they were paid in Singaporean dollars, which was (and still is) weaker than the Euro, they were paid well for local standards, and Toto felt that life was really comfortable.

“I did not want to leave Singapore. People were amazing and I really loved Suntec City. I got all my stuff there. One thing I liked about Singapore was how there were luxury stores and at the same time nearby, you could have hawker centers or food courts where you could get chicken rice for a few dollars. It was amazing. In France, if you go to Paris and if you want to get a croissant or a bageutte, you can never get the same price as you do with the food in Singapore.”

Jonathan wanted to remain in Singapore and carve out a long career in the city-state. However, he couldn’t agree to contractual terms proposed by the clubs that approached him. He wanted the exact terms of the contract he had with Courts Young Lions, but none of the clubs were biting. He would then leave Singapore and head to Greece.

A Greek Nightmare & The Missing Piece to the Sirina Camara Story

After leaving Singapore, however, Toto came to realize that many Singaporean clubs, as well clubs around the region, were keen on signing him. He would later go on to regret this decision. To sum up his time in Greece in two words: “messed up.”

Problems started early on in his stint with Greek second division outfit Doxa Dramas. The agent that brought Toto to Greece told the forward everything he needed to hear, and then he left him there without any news henceforth. Being left alone was just the tip of the iceberg. Unpaid wages was the biggest issue that Toto faced during his time with Doxa Dramas. For an entire season, Toto was rarely paid. In fact, despite a relatively good season, most players in the club were not paid as well.

“They paid us a few times but that was it. It was so difficult to get paid without an agent present. And not just any agent, an agent that really takes care of players. I didn’t have that and I said I had enough of football, I went back to France to focus on myself.”

During his time in Singapore, Toto fell in love with tourism in Singapore, and he decided to invest in tourism. So, together with his family, they stared their own tourism business in Cameroon. Even though most of his wages was never paid while playing in Greece, Toto survived through the profits he earned through his tourism venture. However, his experience his Greece really soured his aspirations of becoming a professional footballer. Not only that, it also made him start asking himself some serious questions.

“I have goals in life, like I wanted to be married by a certain age, I wanted my own house, my driver’s license and have kids at a certain age. After Greece, I asked myself if I’m able to achieve my goals if I continued to play professionally. And the answer was no. I had sacrificed so much in my life for football.

“I started to look at other foreign players who played in Asia and realized they were leading luxurious lifestyles and had to spend alot of money. I did not need that. So, I had to make a decision at that moment after leave Doxa Dramas. If I don’t leave now and do something else, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

When the door to a professional football career was about to shut, a lifeline to keep the footballing dream alive came from an all too familiar friend.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Sirina [Camara] is an amazing person and I don’t think a lot of people know how good a person he really is. After I leave Greece, I go back to France and I get a call from Sirina. Sirina calls and tells me that after what I’ve been through in Greece, he wanted to help me. He was in talks with his coach at Home United about a potential contract. In some sense, he was my soccer agent. He was helping me negotiate my contract [to help me secure the terms that I wanted].

“While Sirina was doing that, I was looking for opportunities outside of football. My heart was still divided. Then, something amazing happened. I applied to university to further my studies and I got accepted into the course I applied for but my heart was divided. Then I get the best news from Sirina. Home United agreed to all the terms that I wanted. So then I had to decide between both offers not just on the same day, but within the same hour.

“I was praying; God, what path should I take and the answer was one that I did not expect. I came to conclusion that it was time I should build my life so I rejected the offer from Home United, even though the club offered me everything that I asked for.”

When Toto revealed this to me, I was momentarily speechless. It dawned on me how a few bad agents left him disenchanted over a career in football. Toto was by no means a bad player. However, poor guidance from agents ended what could have been a great career prematurely.

Understandably, Camara was disappointed with Toto. After all, the defender worked hard to help his friend out and secure all the conditions he wanted. However, Toto felt the need to build something for himself and create the life he wanted. After receiving a degree in tourism, he got employed at a champagne house and focused on his business in Cameroon. On top of that he became a motivational speaker, a pastor and he helped many youths in France. However, Toto felt a burning desire to get himself involved in football yet again.

Becoming an Agent to Help Future Players

Picture credits: Jonathan Toto (@jonathanmindset)

Currently residing in Reims with his wife and kids, becoming a football agent is the next chapter of Toto’s life. He feels that the best way to help French youths, namely young footballers, is to guide them properly as an agent and has been undergoing a 2-year course to make that into a reality.

Quite honestly, Jonathan Toto makes a perfect agent candidate. After suffering a lot from the decisions of bad agents, he wants to ensure that future generations do not face a similar predicament and make the mistakes he did.

“I want to give a chance to young players who are poor an opportunity. It really is all about giving players a chance. You can have a lot of talent and potential but if you do not give that player a chance, no one can discover that. Good agents give these players a chance and I want to give that chance.”

Jonathan Toto’s professional football career may have been brief, but it was eventful and surprising. Plagued by constant agent troubles, Toto wants to become an agent so he can help future generations of footballers achieve their dreams and aspirations. He is looking to return to Singapore one day, and I told him that maybe he should plan something with Sirina Camara. Who knows, maybe Toto comes back as an agent and helps engineer a move to France for Singaporean players?

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Goodbye Alexis Sánchez. I’m Genuinely Sorry It Didn’t Work Out

It would seem that Alexis Sánchez’s time with the Red Devils is finally coming to a close. After a two and a half year “association” with the club, Internazionale look to make his season-long loan move into a permanent one. Quite honestly, it is a move that suits all parties: Inter would not pay a transfer fee for the Chilean international, Manchester United would save tens of millions in wages, and Sanchez gets to continue his fine form with the Serie A giants.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder what in the world went wrong.

On January 22, 2018, Manchester United announced the signing of Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan move the opposite way. At the time, I believed it was a brilliant move for all parties involved. Sánchez was running down the final 6 months of his contract, looking for a move away from the Emirates, and Arsenal did not want to lose the winger on a free. Manchester United wanted to offload Mkhitaryan, who, while he did not want to leave Old Trafford, was in need of regular playing time. That was my assessment then. Oh boy, how wrong I was.

In the history of swap deals that have transpired in the footballing world, the Sánchez-Mkhitaryan swap is by far one of the worst ones. Both players failed to live up to expectations and coincidentally find themselves on loan to Serie A clubs this past season. Mkhitaryan was loaned to AS Roma.

What I don’t understand is why Sánchez failed at Manchester United. He was a proven Premier League goal scorer and had an excellent track record before his tenure with Arsenal. He was outstanding for FC Barcelona and played well for Udinese. At Arsenal, he was lethal up front. The Chilean made 166 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners and scored an impressive 80 goals. He was supposed to continue his scintillating form at United, and was slated to form a formidable attacking partnership with Lukaku and Rashford.

However, from the get go, Sánchez was off. It wasn’t a case of him being a lazy player or wasn’t hardworking enough. He often ran for the ball when the team lost possession and he would make runs and attempt to link up with the attacking play. However, something never ever clicked during Sanchez’s time at United.

Was it due to Mourinho’s management? One could make a case for this given how the Special One often utilized a defensive (or how some would term “negative”) approach to the game. That could have contributed to why he racked up so few assists and goals. A lot of his teammates, like Rashford and Martial, appeared shackled under Mourinho as well. However, while the rest of the squad prospered after Ole took over, Sánchez still never took off.

Injuries hampered his second season season at United as well, and perhaps it affected the player’s ability to settle in. People often overlook this as a problem when it can actually make or break a players career at a club. The psychological well being of a player is really important, and maybe Sánchez never had the time to properly settle in the club. After all, he was brought mid-way through the season, and adapting to new teammates and tactics in a short span of time is by no means an easy task. That being said, he did have a full preseason with the club to adapt for the following campaign but still fired blanks most of the time.

One also has to look at why he performed so well at Arsenal, and there was one key reason for that: Mesut Özil. At United, Sánchez lacked someone like Özil – someone who was a playmaking maestro. Pogba could have offered what Özil did at Arsenal, but under Mourinho, he rarely featured in that attacking midfield position that the German occupied.

One thing is for certain, Sánchez was expected to come in and produce fireworks immediately. The United hierarchy were so certain that their new number 7 would be off the mark that they provided him with a staggering 500,000 pounds-per-week contract. That really did him more harm than good, and United fans circled the player like vultures whenever he failed to score or make an impact in the game. For 500,000 pounds a week, Sánchez needed to do better. He showed glimpses of his old form in some matches, but they were rare exceptions. He was pocketing a colossal figure weekly for regular sub-par performances and thus became a scapegoat for the club’s struggles. Maybe United fans were too harsh on the player, but time is a luxury in the Premier League, where instant results are demanded.

Sánchez is most certainly departing Manchester, and it makes the most sense for him to join Inter. Since the Serie A’s restart, he has been in fine form, and continuing that momentum with a team and system he is comfortable with makes the most logical sense. Offloading Sánchez also means that more resources become available for a move for Jadon Sancho. If the rumours are true, Sánchez will end his contract voluntarily, and it saves the Red Devils a ton of cash.

To conclude, I want to go over one last point. Some people might attribute Sánchez’s failure to the curse of the number 7. After Cristiano Ronaldo, every Manchester United player to don the (in)famous number has struggled. Memphis Depay, Ángel Di María, and Michael Owen are all amazing players, but they failed to reach the heights they were supposed to at United. Perhaps there is some truth to this “curse.” Not that there is some actual black magic spell put on the number, but rather the weight it carries. Many famous players have donned the number 7 and the expectations are immense. United fans have longed for another star player like George Best, Eric Cantona, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

You might think it’s stupid to blame the failure of a player due to the jersey they wear. It’s just a number on their back, it’s meaningless. Maybe. Yet, at the same time, perhaps we treat players like machines and fail to remember that they are humans which may be the problem. After all, Sánchez had at least a billion United fans expecting him to perform magnificently every game. It is a daunting task for any player to assume the mantle of the number 7 shirt. Maybe, just maybe, Sánchez cracked under the enormous pressure.

At Last! Leeds Are Back!

Leeds United have been promoted to the Premier League…

Feature Image by Mark Murphy from Pixabay

With Huddersfield’s 2-1 win over West Brom on Friday, Leeds United have secured promotion to the Premier League.

I am going to emphasize this again, because I am not sure you all are realizing how big of a deal this is.

After a 16-year absence, Leeds are back in the Premier League.

I promise, this is a massive deal, and to understand why, you have to know how Leeds got to this position.

Leeds United are one of the institutions of English football. While they are not among the most successful teams in the country, with only three first division titles to their name, they were usually a fixture of the top flight. They were, and still remain, one of the most popular teams in the country, with a loyal and fervently passionate fanbase that follows them home and away. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leeds were a force in the Premier League. They regularly finished in the top four or five places, being among the best teams but not quite ready to mount a title challenge. Throughout that time, they were assembling an effective team that blended promising young talent, including Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, and Robbie Keane, with experienced leadership, most notably talismanic Australian striker Mark Viduka and Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler. Despite an injury-ravaged 2000/01 season, they made it to the semifinals of the Champions League, losing out to eventual runners up Valencia. That seemed to be the moment when the gauntlet was thrown down. Leeds were putting it all together and would soon be able to challenge Manchester United and Arsenal’s dominance at the top of the table.

This would not happen, as the club soon ran into financial trouble. Club ownership had taken out several loans, banking on repaying them with the TV money the club would earn from Champions League qualification, but when the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for two consecutive years, they began to face a growing mountain of debt. The club began selling off players in order to begin paying off the debt, most notably selling then-club captain Rio Ferdinand to rivals Manchester United in 2002. They also sold club assets, including their stadium, Elland Road. Leeds rapidly descended down the table, and despite the best efforts of managers Terry Venables and Peter Reid, as well as the players, Leeds were relegated to the Championship at the end of the 2003/04 season. Life in the lower leagues would consist of play-off failures, mid-table nightmare seasons, and even more financial turmoil, with the club going into administration in 2007 and being relegated to League One, where they would remain for three whole seasons. Leeds United, Champions League semifinalists in 2001, were playing League One football in 2008. They eventually came back up, but life was anything but regular. Several ownership changes took place, ending with Italian entrepreneur Massimo Cellino purchasing the club. To spare you from the nitty-gritty details of Cellino’s reign, I will just summarize that he ran the club in a disastrous way, hired and fired way too many managers, was despised by the fans, and eventually sold the club to current owner Andrea Radrizzani due to pressure from within the club and from the EFL. Radrizzani brought some stability into the club and helped deal with the financial issues, including buying back Elland Road. After a largely below average first season, Radrizzani made the bold move of bringing in world-renowned manager Marcelo Bielsa, and Leeds’ fortunes instantly changed.

Bielsa, with very limited financial backing, transformed a mid-table Leeds team into promotion contenders immediately. It was truly a masterful coaching effort, improving nearly every player in the team and turning them into a real force, playing an aggressive but attractive style of football. In his first season, Bielsa’s team stayed in the top two for most of the season but declined near then end, eventually losing in the playoff semifinal to Derby County. This past season, he guided Leeds to a Championship title and their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Their 16-year wait is finally over.

Bielsa elevated Leeds to this level by coaching and molding his team into the perfect unit. Several Leeds players have grown drastically since the Argentine’s arrival, and no player represents this growth better than their dynamic, dreadlocked midfielder Kalvin Phillips. If you asked any Leeds fan two or three years ago about Phillips, they would have likely dismissed him as another midfielder that works hard but does not really bring anything to the table technically. Phillips, a Yorkshire-born boyhood Leeds fan, has been transformed by Bielsa into arguably the best midfielder in the Championship. His strong range of passing and composure on the ball has earned him the nickname “Yorkshire Pirlo” among Leeds fans, and he is able to combine those qualities with a more aggressive side, being tough in the tackle and fighting for seemingly every yard. He is the lynch-pin in Bielsa’s midfield, around which everything else operates. He attracted significant transfer interest last summer, but his loyalty to his beloved club drove him to stick around and bring them up, and he will likely stay once again to take part in Leeds’ first Premier League season since he was about eight years old. He has gone from being mostly an afterthought to a player at least within the frame of an England call-up, and depending on how his maiden Premier League season goes, he could find himself in the picture for the Euros next summer.

You could show similar growth in many other players. Patrick Bamford went from a rotation piece with other clubs to leading the line for Leeds, being a player specifically desired by Bielsa in his first transfer window as manager. Jack Harrison has gone from inconsistent Manchester City loanee to one of the unsung heroes of the team, bringing in a very respectable six goals and eight assists this season. He somehow dunked Pablo Hernández into the fountain of youth, as the 35-year-old Spaniard still impresses on a near-weekly basis, bringing in 12 goals and 12 assists last season and nine goals and seven assists this season. The work that Bielsa has done with this team is nothing short of extraordinary, and it will be interesting to see who all he can bring in with a Premier League budget to improve this team.

Which brings us to our final topic: what happens now? How are they going to do in the Premier League next season? Who do they need to bring in to improve the team?

Playing in the Premier League is a double-edged sword for this Leeds team. On one hand, they should be able to adapt to the schedule fairly well. Bielsa plays a very demanding style, and his “Bielsa Press” often requires his players to expend a lot of energy in matches. Leeds usually tailing off in form in the second half of the season was largely attributed to that, but now that they are playing the 38-game Premier League schedule instead of the 46-game Championship schedule, that burden may be removed. The overall issue, however, is that the step up in quality from the Championship to the Premier League is quite significant and, right now, this Leeds team is not good enough. They will likely get many comparisons to Wolves and Sheffield United, and discussion from many journalists will center around Leeds’ ability to replicate the success of those two teams, but right now, they are not good enough. It will be interesting to see what Bielsa can do with Premier League money in the transfer market, but it is clear that they need at least a center back, striker, fullback, and creative outlet to be brought in during the summer window.

Outside of Phillips, Leeds’ star man this season was young English center back Ben White. When talismanic center back Pontus Jansson left for Brentford, it was unclear how much the Leeds defense would be impacted. White came in before this season, and he seemed to solve every defensive issue. His athleticism made him a good partner to club captain Liam Cooper at the back, but his defensive IQ really shined despite his young age. His ability on the ball, specifically his effective passing range, allowed him to kick-start several Leeds attacks from the back. White was a star in the Championship, but his return to Leeds is not guaranteed. The Yorkshire club signed him on loan from Premier League side Brighton, so they must enter into another negotiation to sign him on a permanent deal. This will likely be much more difficult than the initial loan negotiation, as Brighton likely view him as having a role in their first team this season. He has also likely attracted interest from other Premier League clubs who may be able to make more attractive offers than Leeds can. It is incredibly important for Leeds to bring at least one center back into the club, whether that be Ben White or someone else. It appears that White enjoyed his time in Leeds and would be very open to a permanent return, but nothing is guaranteed, and it should be the top priority move for Bielsa and the Leeds hierarchy as soon as the season concludes.

Striker is also a priority position for transfer business. Bielsa largely relied on Patrick Bamford over the last two seasons, as he came the closest to the “target man number nine” model of striker that seems to be ever-present in successful Bielsa teams. Bamford is quite a far cry, however, from the Fernando Llorente/André-Pierre Gignac-level of striker that made up Bielsa’s successful Bilbao and Marseille teams. Bamford scored nine goals in the league last season and 16 this season, and while that step up is big, it is still not quite good enough. Bamford has also shown over several seasons with Premier League sides that he is not good enough to be a team’s starting striker in the English top flight. Bielsa still relied upon, perhaps over-relied upon, Bamford as his striker, largely ignoring loanee strikers Eddie Nketiah and Jean-Kévin Augustin, because of the traits that Bamford brings. It is clear, however, they need to find another striker that brings those qualities and is able to be a consistent goalscorer at a high level. They will likely be forced to sign Augustin on a permanent deal, as a clause in his loan agreement forces Leeds to sign him if they got promotion, but he is not the solution, either. Bielsa will likely need to spend money on another striker. With some rumors linking them with Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard, it seems like the club hierarchy recognizes the need. It is very difficult for a team to stay in the Premier League without a consistent goal-scoring striker, and Leeds will not survive without one.

Leeds could also use a boost in creativity, namely a replacement for Pablo Hernández. Hernández is still a very good player, but age and time will have to catch up to him eventually. He is 35 years old and is about to enter a league that is still quite physically demanding, arguably much more so than the Championship. Jack Harrison, also a loanee, and Mateusz Klich have done a solid enough job being creative outlets in the team, but it would be very helpful for their Premier League survival to sign a player in a similar mold to Hernández. Harrison looks likely to return to Elland Road on a permanent deal, but I would consider another signing in that role. A fullback might also be in consideration, as Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling are players that can be upgraded upon, despite their admirable performances in the last two seasons. It is also possible that they move for a goalkeeper. Kiko Casilla has been largely inconsistent and error-prone since his arrival at Elland Road, and after being found guilty of racially abusing Charlton forward Jonathan Leko this season, he should likely see his time at Leeds come to an end after this season. Youngster Illan Meslier has done a good job in Casilla’s place, but he is also on loan, having joined Leeds from Lorient this season. Leeds have been working on a permanent deal for the Frenchman, and I believe a deal will get done, but Lorient’s promotion to Ligue 1 might lead to the youngster returning to his parent club. Should a permanent deal for Meslier not be reached, Leeds should sign a new number one goalkeeper, as Casilla is not good enough quality-wise and, after the Leko situation, should not be allowed to play for Leeds ever again.

Leeds need reinforcement in the transfer window, but need to strike a balance that is very difficult for promoted teams to find. Bielsa and club director of football Victor Orta need to identify the positions they need to upgrade in, but they also need to not make too many signings and risk the team becoming unbalanced or being unable to gel. Fulham’s cash splash in the transfer window after being promoted in 2018 probably caused more harm than good, bringing in plenty of players who were not able to fully gel into the team, leading to their relegation. Leeds cannot fall into the same trap. It is a very difficult balance to find, having to avoid overspending and underspending, but it is important to ensure survival. I believe this should not be a massive issue, as Bielsa has a very clear idea of the type of player he is looking for and the Leeds hierarchy have shown their ability to accomplish much by spending little, but it is something to keep in mind.

The discussion around Leeds will be around whether they can match the level of Wolves and Sheffield United and if their goal should be finishing in the top half, but right now, Leeds should be doing everything they can just to secure survival. Staying in the Premier League should be the number one priority, and if they get into the top half of the table, that is just an added bonus. With the financial troubles that Leeds have gone through the last decade, maintaining this flow of Premier League TV money would be a massive deal in correcting much of the mismanagement that has plagued the Yorkshire side since their relegation.

But I’m excited to see what happens. One of England’s biggest clubs is back where they belong, and I welcome everything that Leeds will bring to the Premier League next season. Should we be in a situation where fans are allowed in the stadiums again, I am very excited to see the atmosphere at Elland Road, and I am very excited to see the return of their rivalry with Manchester United. I am excited to see Bielsa in the Premier League, hear his wild press conferences, and see him sitting on that blue bucket on the touch line. I do not know what is going to happen, but I know it is going to be eventful.

Welcome back, Leeds United. You were missed.

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On Leroy Sané’s Move to Bayern Munich

Super Bayern 2.0

A long-rumored and long-teased transfer has finally been made official. Leroy Sané, after three very solid years of lighting up the Premier League, with a fourth basically ended through injury, has returned to his native country to sign with Bayern Munich. Due to his contract winding down at Manchester City, Sané’s move to Bavaria was for a cut rate fee of about €50 million (£54.8 million). What does this move mean for Bayern? For City? For Sané? Let us take a look at everything related to this blockbuster transfer.

As you can tell by the subtitle of this piece, yes, this is a fantastic bit of business for Bayern Munich. Sure, they did not get him when they wanted, having initially enquired about this move last summer, but they finally got their man and for much cheaper than they initially thought they would have had to pay. Before his injury in the FA Community Shield, the discussed fee between the clubs was around €100 million, and Bayern have now got him for about half of that. Bayern are adding an incredible talent, a winger who is world class on his day, and a player that slots in perfectly into their team. Sané will play on the left for Bayern, as he did for City, taking the place that Kingsley Coman filled in the team. Since the departure of club legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, Bayern have looked for attacking players that are able to have the level of influence on a match that the famous “Robbery” pairing did. Serge Gnabry has really cemented himself on that right side, but the rotating fixtures of Coman, Ivan Perišić, and others on that left side has been a key missing link in the Bavarian attack. The Bayern front four of Sané, Thomas Müller, Gnabry, and Robert Lewandowski now becomes one of the best in European football, cementing Bayern’s place as a Champions League contender for next season (Sané is not eligible to feature for Bayern in the resumed Champions League next month). Bayern also made this move on the relative cheap, meaning that if they are able to sell some players, they can still sign players in other positions. A €50 million move puts a significantly lesser strain on the Bayern books than a €100 million move, and that added financial breathing room allows them to continue upgrading the team and move better should some formerly key players, such as David Alaba or Thiago Alcântara, leave the club. This is undoubtedly a winning move for Bayern, and one that will launch them into the levels of Europe’s elite teams once again. They were dominant in the early 2010s, contending for the Champions League nearly every season, and this move will seemingly bring them to near that same level.

For Man City, this move is unfortunate, especially for how little he went for, but it is not the end of the world. It was no secret that, for some reason, Sané had fallen out of favor with manager Pep Guardiola. The German was always immensely talented and was exceptional when he did play for City, but near the end of his time in Manchester, he found himself riding the bench more often than not. He was living life as an attacking super sub instead of being a regular starting player. Guardiola preferred a set up utilizing Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva as his wingers, and the arrival of Riyad Mahrez and emergence of Phil Foden demonstrated that there were several other players ahead of Sané in Pep’s mind. This likely motivated Sané’s desire to leave City, refusing to sign a new contract and outwardly pushing for the move to Bayern. Sané was not going to heavily feature for this City side, so it is in Pep’s best interest to allow an unsettled player to leave the club. This move opens up some financial flexibility to allow City to make the upgrades they need to challenge Liverpool for the title next season. City’s attack, even without Sané, is still among the best in the league and the continent, but their defense was exposed several times this season, especially after Aymeric Laporte was injured. City could use the extra money to bring in an upgrade a center back over John Stones or Nicolás Otamendi, or possibly an upgrade at left back over Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Obviously, City’s wealthy owners do not need the money, but with many more eyes on them following their FFP violations, they would be wise to abide by UEFA’s financial regulations. Bringing in money from a player sale is important in balancing the books and their ability to make a big name signing when the transfer window opens. Football-wise, this move opens the door a little bit wider for Phil Foden, who has shone in his chances with the first team since the league season resumed. Foden was always immensely talented when he emerged from the City Academy, with Guardiola calling him one of the best young talents he has ever seen, but he has lacked any chances in the ultra-talented City first team. Debates have raged over whether he should leave the Etihad for first team opportunities, and while that debate might still be valid, it is undoubted that Sané’s departure, along with the imminent departure of David Silva, has opened the door for the young Englishman to earn opportunities to feature with the first team. Foden could become a future superstar shining in the role in which Sané once played, and he did not cost City a penny. Yes, Sané is still a world-class footballer, and his departure is still unfortunate for City. They will also rue their inability to get more than €50 million for the talented winger, possibly having gotten more had he not gotten injured in the Community Shield, but his departure is ultimately not a massive loss for City or for Guardiola’s vision for the team.

So what does this all mean for Sané? Well, football-wise, he leaves a team where he possibly felt under-appreciated and like a bit-part player and goes to a team where he is the main guy, or among the two or three main guys. Sané will be a star player in Bavaria, playing every week and being among the biggest names in the team. He will be working with Hansi Flick, a man whom he worked with in the German National Team set up. Fit-wise, he is returning to his native country and to a league he is very familiar with. Adaptation to England never seemed to be an issue, but this return to familiar pastures may be even more beneficial for the player.

Is the fit in the team perfect? Well, sort of. Adding a world-class talent like Sané is clearly not going to make Bayern worse, and replacing Coman with Sané in that front four does make the Bavarians a much more imposing attacking team, but the one question I have is about the potential relationship between Sané and left back Alphonso Davies. Coman and Perišić, as right-footed left wingers, have the natural tendency to cut inside on their stronger foot, which allows Davies to overlap into the wide areas and cross the ball into the box. Davies also built a good understanding with the wingers, especially Coman, to know when to stay wide and overlap and when to cut inside or attack the channels on forward runs. Comparatively, Sané is a left-footed left winger, and while he is adept at moving wide and inside, his movement will lead to him wanting to end up on his preferred left foot. While this seems to be a minor detail, this can lead to a much different dynamic between Sané and Davies, and it is possible that the same wide overlapping space that was available for Davies this season will not be there for him next season. With Davies being billed as among the best attacking left backs in the world at the minute, it is in Bayern’s best interest to get the most out of his incredible technical and physical abilities. Sané and Davies will need to build a strong relationship and understanding on the pitch for Bayern to get the most out of the talent at their disposal. I do not doubt that Sané will be brilliant for Bayern, but this one seemingly small question could make the difference between Bayern becoming the best team in the world or missing out on another Champions League title.

Leroy Sané’s move to Bayern is a very big deal in European football. I have no doubts that it will elevate Bayern to another level as a team, and it will help City restructure their team for another title challenge. I have some questions about how Sané and Alphonso Davies will function in the same team, but if that minor issue is sorted out, the Bayern become an absolutely terrifying team. Sané will enjoy his time in Bavaria; he will be a success in Hansi Flick’s reformed Super Bayern.

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An Unforgettable Stint in France: The experience of 3 Singaporean teens at FC Nantes

Étoile FC has a special place in S.League history, mainly because of the many records and accolades they hold. Besides being the first club in Asia to be entirely comprised of European players, Étoile holds the distinction of being the first foreign club to win the S.League and the first club in Singapore to appoint an ambassador to represent the club (that ambassador was Sidney Govou). However, after 2 seasons in the S.League, the club pulled out of the competition in 2012 and instead focused on grassroots development. Rebranded as Etoile FC Academy, the club fell off the local footballing radar mainly because they had youth teams. However, Étoile did not stagnate and instead has grown from strength to strength over the last 8 years.

In November 2019, Étoile reached a new pinnacle moment in its history when the club sent 3 of its Singaporean players for a week-long training stint with 8-time Ligue 1 winners FC Nantes. The three players who Etoile selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity were Jonathan Prashanth, 15, Indera Iskandar bin Imberan, 16, and Muhammad Ashrul Bin Abdul Kader, 16 (ages reflected are those in 2019). Coincidentally, all three players also attended Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and knew each other well through their time at Étoile and in school. Even though the stint lasted a week, it was a thoroughly memorable experience for the players, and I had the pleasure of interviewing all of them.

Travelling to France for the First Time

Jonathan, Iskandar, and Ashrul felt excited about the trip not just because they were going to train with a top-flight European club, but also because it would mark the first time they travelled to France. In fact, for Iskandar, the trip marked the first time he flew.

“I was very nervous and excited. It was my first time travelling anywhere. I couldn’t sleep the whole trip cause I was really nervous, so I ended up watching movies the entire time,” reveals Iskandar.

Together with club director Ludovic Casset, the boys departed Singapore on November 8, 2019. The trip comprised a 12-hour flight to Paris, an hour layover, and then a 2-hour flight to Nantes. Ashrul reveals how his “legs and butt cramped up because of the long flight time”, and it didn’t help he sat in the middle seat, sandwiched between his teammates. Despite the long flight time, the boys were excited when they finally landed in Paris.

During the one hour layover, the players asked to walk around to experience the cold weather, something they have never experienced before. A 2-hour flight to Nantes later, the quartet reached the FC Nantes grounds pretty exhausted. The first day was rough for the boys because they felt really homesick. It was the first time that all of them had been so far away from their families, and they really missed home. However, that feeling of homesickness gradually disappeared, and instead, the longing to remain at FC Nantes took over.

Residing on the club grounds: Breathing football 24/7

Even though language was an issue at times, they managed to get by through simple gestures, and Ludovic also acted as a translator for the youth players when he was around. However, football is truly a universal language, and the love of the beautiful game helped the Singaporean teens form bonds with the FC Nantes youth players.

The experience of living in a football academy was a refreshing and unique experience for Singaporean youth players. They were in awe at the sheer size and magnitude of the club grounds, which included a few football pitches and accommodations for both youth and senior players.

“I learned a lot about French culture and respect when I was living there. I felt so grateful that they treated me like one of their own. If I could stay there longer, I really would,” mentions Iskandar.

“It was interesting to see players living on the club grounds and even attending school together nearby. We actually went for a tour around the school,” explains Jonathan.

The players marvelled at the extent to which the players were well taken care of. The Nantes players were fed nutritious food much like a professional athlete would eat. Iskandar was shocked at how clean their meals were. He recounts how one meal comprised nothing more than empty macaroni, with olives, and chicken breast. Surprisingly, the young striker found the meal to taste nice.

Overall, their stay at FC Nantes was a really enjoyable one, and the world-class facilities on display really made them happy.

Acclimatizing and Training with the Nantes Under-17

The next morning after landing, the Singaporean trio commenced their first training session with the Nantes Under-17 team. Even though the boys felt excited, they were also nervous. What significantly intimidated the boys initially was the large physical build of their Nantes U-17 contemporaries. Besides that, other factors caused all three players to struggle during their first training session.

Ashrul mentions, “the first training session was challenging for me because the FC Nantes players were really tall and had big bodies. I was very small in comparison. They bodied me easily, and I struggled to keep possession. I also felt that I became tired more easily because of the cold weather.”

Jonathan also adds, “Before going there, I was intimidated because I know that we are smaller in physical stature. I remember one player was at least two heads taller than me and my height is 1.75m.”

“The weather was a very big issue for the three of us. It was very very cold weather. We complained a burning feeling in our chests when we were playing in the cold,” Iskandar explains.

However, after struggling in the first day of training, the players felt that they gradually performed better in the subsequent days. Jonathan and Iskandar both managed to snag in a few goals during the training matches and Ashrul also felt he adapted better defending.

The high level of professionalism and discipline that the Nantes U-17 players displayed impressed the players. Ashrul recounts how, during one of the days out with Ludo, he had bought some potato chips and brought the packet back to his room in the academy. When he offered his Nantes teammates some chips out of goodwill, they politely declined because they deemed it unhealthy for them. The episode emphasized how serious the French players took their footballing careers, and that amazed and inspired the trio.

“Our teammates never once criticized us but they always pushed me to do better. If I made a mistake they always encouraged me. I really learned about the importance of professionalism and how important the small things were,” explains Iskandar.

“They never joked around during training. They took things really seriously and it was so different to how we do things in Singapore. It was really heartening to see the French players so dedicated. They would come to training half an hour early and do their own preparation,” mentions Jonathan.

The extent of medical care available for youth team players also stood out for the players. After each training session, players that suffer injuries or discomfort are sent to the physio for assessment. Ashrul, who had been experiencing occasional pain in his legs due to a previous injury, explained how the therapists gave him advice and taught him specific exercises to help overcome the issue. On top of that, he got a relaxing massage that helped alleviate the pain.

Watching a Live Ligue 1 Fixture and a gift of a lifetime

After training, the players were also invited to watch a live Ligue 1 match between FC Nantes and Saint-Étienne. When the players reached the stadium, the players were in for a real treat. Club president, Polish millionaire Waldemar Kita, met and greeted the players, but that was not all. He also had a present for the trio: an official FC Nantes jersey that had their names and favourite numbers printed on the back of the shirts. It was a surreal moment for the players when President Kita presented the jerseys to each of them, and they all agree that they will cherish the jerseys.

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

“It was the first time I saw 35,000 in a stadium just supporting one team. In Singapore, not many people support Singaporean teams. Also, The FC Nantes supporters made so much noise. When the opposing team pushed their player, the fans made a lot of noise and scolded [the opposition players],” says Ashrul.

“I cannot believe my eyes. It was so crazy. There were tons of people outside. Also, sitting down and meeting the President was a real honour because they told me the president seldom meets people. When the President gave me the jersey, it was really unbelievable. I was beaming. The atmosphere was so crazy; the shouting, the cheering, all of it,” Iskandar describes.

Meeting ex-United player Fabio

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

Fabio da Silva now finds himself playing for Nantes, and the players had the opportunity to interview the left-back. As a life-long Manchester United fan, I won’t lie; I’m kind of jealous.

“It was a dream to meet such a player and I was really excited to meet an ex-Manchester United player. I asked him questions like ‘how was it playing with Ronaldo?’ He also talked about Rafael and how both players trained together as kids and had always intended to move to the same club so that they can play together,” reveals Ashrul, who instantly connected with Fabio because, like him, he played as a left-back as well.

“Luckily, he could speak English. I really looked up to him. He told us how he wasn’t as good as his brother but he always worked hard. He also shared his experience playing with [Robin] Van Persie,” mentions Iskandar.

The trio were over the moon when they each received personal autographs from the ex-Manchester United stalwart.

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

The players really wanted to meet Fabio again, and so they devised a plan. Early next morning they woke up and headed down to the first team training grounds.

Jonathan recounts, “We waited by the gates, hoping to catch hold of the Brazilian. After waiting for almost 45 minutes, he finally arrived. To our surprise, he actually remembered us and he was very friendly.”

This time, the trio came equipped with their FC Nantes scarves. Fabio happily signed their scarves, before heading for his training. Even though he only spent a little while with them, they really appreciated the gesture, and meeting Fabio was one of the highlights of the trip.

What’s Next for the Trio

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

Ashrul is currently studying at ITE Central and has plans to play football professionally one day. He wants to play for Balestier Khalsa if given a choice, but he knows that he needs to put in the extra work to be at the level required to play in the Singapore Premier League one day.

Jonathan, on the other hand, wants to be a veterinarian. While he is not giving up on football totally, it would appear that he will not be involved in local football for the foreseeable future. He is aiming to head to Australia to pursue his ambition and is open to the prospect of playing football in Australia part-time.

Iskandar, unlike his two peers, is on course to become a professional footballer. Despite being just 17 years old, he now turns out for Singapore Premier League side Tanjong Pagar United’s Under-21 team. While he is playing with boys way above his age, Iskandar is enjoying the challenge at hand and is keen to become even better.

Regardless of the pathway that each player chooses, they will never forget the experience that Étoile FC Academy had provided them. As an avid local fan, I think overseas training stints are a great way to expose young players to other footballing cultures, help them gain confidence, and show that they too can achieve a lot one day if they put in the hard work. Étoile is doing something right, and other local clubs can learn a thing or two from this episode.

Here’s a video of what the boys were up to in France!

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The Jonathan Toto Exclusive Part 1- From Rubbing Shoulders with Pijanic and Koulibaly to an Unrealized Scottish Dream

Featured Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

At one point in time, it appeared that Jonathan Toto was destined for footballing greatness. He played alongside Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly in the FC Metz Academy, but his career took on a different trajectory, partly due to the roles played by his agents. He was a journeyman forward whose brief professional career saw him playing in France, Cameroon, Italy, Scotland, Singapore, and Greece.

I remember Jonathan Toto well during his time in Singapore. Part of the same Étoile FC team as Sirina Camara in 2011, he moved to Courts Young Lions together with Camara in 2012. However, while Camara went on to spend an additional 6 years in Singapore, Toto left for Greece where he only played a single season for second division side, Doxa Dramas. After that, I assumed he decided to hang up his boots, not long after his 23rd birthday, because he vanished from the footballing world altogether. He was even untraceable on social media because he deleted his social media applications after quitting football.

If luck would have it, I managed to track down Toto after he reposted the Camara interview on his Instagram Story. One thing led to another, and I managed to interview the former S.League forward to unravel his footballing story—what a story it was.

Beginnings in France and Italy

Born in Paris to parents of Cameroonian descent, Toto went to Africa shortly after his first birthday. He would remain in Africa for the next 12 years and when he was around 13 years old, he returned to Paris. However, it was only when he was 14 years old did Toto pursue football seriously. Up to that point, Toto focused his time and efforts in track and field because he was a speedy runner. Football was a hobby, and he caught the fixtures of his boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain on the television. However, Toto’s father, who was immensely passionate about football, had aspirations that his son would become a professional footballer. After a failed trial with AJ Auxerre, Toto managed to impress in trials for FC Metz, and his footballing journey properly began. At FC Metz, Toto progressed through the various youth levels and played alongside current European stalwarts Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly, something he remembers fondly.

“When we were young we [Pjanić and I] were still speaking with each other after I left Metz, even after he [signed for] Lyon. I saw him playing with the likes of Juninho. After a while, we just drifted a part because he was concentrating on his career and I was concentrating on mine. But, he became a real superstar.”

After reaching the Under-16 level, the forward would leave for SM Caen, but he only played a single season there because he was causing too much trouble for the club. As a hyperactive kid, he was “always moving, playing, and joking around.” So he only lasted a year before moving to Italy.

“I had an agent who sent me to a Serie C club. I was in the Under-17 team of FC Castelnuovo and I spent two years there and then I left to join Legnano. After Legnano, I had some issue with my family and my [agent].”

This marked the start of agent troubles for the Frenchman, something that would prove to consistently plague his career.

“I tell this to the young players under my care today: It is not because you are good that you may succeed. Success doesn’t come because you are a good player. Success comes because you have good people around you. It comes because you are clever [about] your decisions.”

Returning to Africa and the Unrealized Scottish Dream

Toto felt like he needed a breath of fresh air and believed that a return to Africa for vacation would allow him to clear his head and consider his next move for his footballing career. He also reunited with his mother, who was in Cameroon then. Toto wanted to spend time with her because his parents had separated when he was young. After they had separated, he spent most of his time with his father in France.

“I was presented so many opportunities [to pursue a professional career]. During my time in Italy, some people were interested in me because of the way played football. I got trials and opportunities. One of them was a trial to Qatar. It was an amazing opportunity but I decided not to follow through with it because of the conditions of the contract.”

I didn’t sign the professional contract [offered to me by Qatar], and I separated from my manager. I also needed distance from my father because our relationship wasn’t that good at that point in time. I decided to go back to my house in Africa to gain back my strength.”

Hearts vs Blackburn 7th Aug 2010, Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

It was after that trial in Qatar that the biggest opportunity of his professional career came knocking. Edinburgh giants Hearts offered Toto a trial, and he relished the opportunity to sign with the club and play in the Scottish Premier League.

“I really had the time of my life [at Edinburgh]. Scottish people, man, they’re amazing. I don’t think they’re living in the same world as us. I was 20 years old when I had my trial with Hearts FC. My uncle managed to get me the trial. He was a professional player in South Africa. He was playing in Johannesburg.”

While Toto impressed in the trials for Hearts, the Edinburgh club found the forward to be an expensive player, especially for someone who has yet to feature in top-flight professional football. Why was he expensive, you might wonder? Well, some agent (surprise, surprise) was maybe asking for a hefty agent fee for his services. After all, Toto was a young physical French forward who honed his craft from the famed Metz Academy and showed that he had what it took to become the next breakout star. Toto was confused as to why Hearts found him expensive. The only logical assumption was that his agent was demanding high fees from Hearts, which had dire consequences for the forward’s career.

Despite his agents constant pressing for higher agent fees, Hearts were unwilling to gamble on a relatively inexperienced Toto for such a large amount of money. On top of the enormous agent fees, Hearts would have had to pay mandatory fees to FC Metz, since that was where Toto began his footballing development. However, the Hearts management were blown away by Toto’s technical ability. He was already training with the first team at the age of 18 and earmarked to feature right away once he signed with the club.

Hearts finally decided on the matter. Instead of agreeing to the terms laid out by Toto’s agent, Hearts made a deal with Greenock Morton that would see the forward play for a year with Scottish Championship side. Hearts engineered the move so that the forward could demonstrate his ability on the field on a high level and for an extended period. In essence, it was for Toto to prove to the Hearts board that he was worth the fees demanded by his agent.

And so, he started his professional career with Greenock Morton, but the dream soon became a nightmare. Not long after signing, Toto suffered an injury. However, due to the arrangement between both clubs, he was made to play through his injury.

“I knew in my mind that there is this arrangement in place, but at the same time, I know I couldn’t play. I couldn’t really do anything on the field because it was a tough level. It was very physical in Scotland, and I didn’t do good in Greenock Morton. So when I went back to Hearts, my agent told me that he wanted me to go to another second division club and I said that I was done with it and I want to go back to France.

Hearts vs Blackburn 7th Aug 2010, Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

“I went back to France, and this was when my career started to have a harsh time, a very harsh time. In my head, I was down. I was alone with an agent who gave me false promises. But then, I had this opportunity coming from Singapore.”

In part 2, I will look at Toto’s footballing experience in Singapore, his time in Greece, and what he’s doing now.

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On the Arthur-Miralem Pjanić Swap Deal

And what it tells us about…well…a lot, really…

So a week or so ago, rumors started to come out around a very peculiar deal. Barcelona and Juventus were in discussions over a deal for Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanić, which is not necessarily old news. People had been covering Barcelona’s potential interest in Pjanić for a few weeks, if not a few months, now, but the terms of this arrangement were significantly more peculiar.

A few days ago, we got confirmation of those rumors. Two separate transfer deals were agreed, sending one Barcelona player to Turin and one Juventus player to Catalonia, almost like a faux swap deal. Pjanić would be making his way to the Catalan club for a €60 million + bonuses fee, while Barcelona midfielder Arthur Melo went the other way for a €72 million + bonuses fee. While they were two separate deals, the end result was the players swapped teams and Barcelona made €12 million. This deal seems very weird at face value, especially when looking at the fees for those players in a COVID-impacted market, but when digging deeper, the deal begins to make much more sense as long as you accept one reality:

The primary motivation behind this deal was financial, not sporting.

This motivation can be said for both teams, but very much so for Barcelona. Barcelona have been in a very serious financial strain for the last few years, but it was rapidly accelerated by the acquisition of Antoine Griezmann last summer. As a result, the club was put into a pinch to sell players and make that money back, and they have been actively trying to sell quite a few players in the team, mostly focusing on younger and fringe players. Samuel Umtiti, Jean-Clair Todibo, Ivan Rakitić, and Philippe Coutinho were among the names linked with moves away, and youngster Marc Cucurella recently made his loan to Getafe a permanent deal. However, there were no significant moves made, and they were in a pinch to make around €60-70 million in player sales before the end of the financial year on June 30th. Should that fundraising not happen, the Barcelona board of directors would be personally liable for a portion of the losses, in accordance to laws governing football clubs in Spain. I encourage you to read anything Sid Lowe has written on this for the Guardian or for ESPN to get the details, but long story short, Barcelona needed money and needed it quickly.

Along comes Juventus, a team that, if rumors are to be believed, are also not in the greatest of financial situations. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 was a landmark moment for the club, but it was also a very expensive moment for the club. Ronaldo made the move to Turin for around €117 million, and when adding on the €31 million net wage that the Portuguese forward commands, the move has put significant pressure on the Juventus finances. I, personally, would argue that the move for Cristiano made the Juventus team around him weaker due to the lack of money Juve could spend in the transfer market (apart from one large Dutch outlier), which led to the increased struggle for the Scudetto this season, but that is for another day. The point is that they needed to lighten the financial strain. The situation is not as dire as the one in Catalonia, but if Juve wanted to bring in players to upgrade their team and challenge for the Champions League title they brought Ronaldo in to win, they needed to balance the books, and there were a few outlier players on high wages that the Bianconeri looked at moving on. One of them was Miralem Pjanić, a midfielder who was among the best in Serie A for several years, but age and changes in manager and system seemed to take him past his prime. Despite his reduced role in the team, especially this season under manager Maurizio Sarri, Pjanić still has the fourth highest net wage of any player in the club, ahead of several crucial players such as Paulo Dybala, Wojciech Szczęsny, and Rodrigo Bentancur. He was a player the club wanted to part ways with, especially in their goal to find another midfielder to upgrade the Achilles’ heel of their team. Barcelona have had at least mild interest in Pjanić for a significant amount of time now, so when the deal evolved into the final “swap” deal, it was hard for Juve sporting director Fabio Paratici to say no.

So this is where we are at. Two clubs came together to give each other a little bit of help balancing the books. I am almost convinced that this deal could have been a number of different players and still would have gone through. Despite this, there is at least still some form of sporting impact and reasoning for this deal, especially on Juventus’ side. Barcelona have long searched for the “next Xavi” in midfield, and initially thought that person would be Arthur. The board seemed to have given up on that dream, opting for the more experienced Pjanić to try and fill that void instead. Juventus have been searching for ways to upgrade their midfield, easily the weakest area of their team, in order to counteract the growing title challenges from Inter and Lazio. Their attempts to sign Paul Pogba and Houssem Aouar have so far failed due to financial restrictions, but the move for Arthur allowed them to get a solid, young midfielder who could develop into a great player, with the added bonus of moving Pjanić out of the team.

But that is not really the point, now is it? It is clear that this was not for sporting reasons, especially for Barcelona. While it does make sporting sense for Juventus, it shows that they are starting to get a bit nervous and desperate. They know the move for Ronaldo was massive, and they need to at least get to a Champions League Final before he leaves, but they have steadily declined as a team overall since his arrival. They now have two genuine challengers for a title, with Inter looking like the most formidable over the next few years. Arthur could genuinely become a great player, and they got him for basically a paltry €12 million, but their desire to move on from Pjanić for very little concrete monetary value is a sign of panic regarding their wage bill and desire to scrape money from anywhere to build a team around Ronaldo.

For Barcelona, it seems to confirm what many already know: there just is not a plan. Barcelona’s leadership act on whims, panics, and guesses, especially in the last few years. Let’s look at how they handled Arthur, because it is a microcosm of a larger issue. Arthur arrived in Catalonia in 2018 riding sky-high expectations following his shining three seasons at Grêmio. The Barcelona board considered him the Xavi’s rightful heir, a player who they never really fully and effectively replaced when he left the club in 2015. Two years later, Arthur showed flashes of what he could be but could never consistently reach at or near that level, which, naturally, should be expected for a player who is still only 23 and having only played two seasons in Europe. The Barcelona board however, to cover up for their other litany of financially irresponsible decisions, decided that this was not good enough, and they considered him excess to requirement, which is patently absurd. If you are comparing him to Xavi, you would not say that Xavi really “arrived” on the scene as a world-class midfielder until 2008, when he was named in the FIFPro World XI. He was 28 years old. Setting that level of expectation on Arthur is insane, but again, this is just Barcelona’s board seemingly mortgaging future assets to save from personal financial trouble. Neither manager Quique Setién nor his teammates wanted Arthur to leave, but the board needed to dig themselves out of a hole. This hole was accelerated by the departure of Neymar, a player they viewed as the one to take the mantle from Messi when he left. The quite expensive acquisitions of Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, and Antoine Griezmann were quite knee-jerk reactions to Neymar’s departure, and, so far, none of those players have found really any success in a Barcelona shirt. They have been actively searching for clubs to sign Dembélé and Coutinho and, if the rumors are to be believed, might be trying to move on from Griezmann after just one season.

The Neymar saga was really just the tip of the iceberg, though. Just think about the laundry list of players Barcelona has signed since 2015, and there are a lot of them. How many would you say were actually successful signings? Dembélé was not fully successful but could still come good, but outside of him? Maybe Arturo Vidal? Clément Lenglet? Nélson Semedo? Samuel Umtiti had his moments, but is he really a success? This is me clutching at straw here, because there are way more players on this list who were not successes. Remember Kevin-Prince Boateng’s loan move? They took on his very high wages for him to score no goals in four games. Remember Malcom? I remember his dazzling goals for Bordeaux, but I will not lie, I genuinely had to google him because I forgot he had ended up at Zenit. Barcelona paid €41 million for him to play maybe a little more than a dozen games. They paid combined fees upwards of €75 million to sign Lucas Digne and André Gomes, only for them to make about 70 combined appearances and both end up at Everton. There are so many more names, so many more embarrassing moves that chipped away at Barcelona’s bottom line. This has left them with this deeply flawed team, led by a manager with seemingly no sense of an attacking plan outside of let Messi do everything. They have yet to find a replacement for Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué, who are both rapidly approaching the end of their careers. They went through an embarrassing hunt for a back-up striker to fill the void of the injured and still rapidly-slowing Luis Suárez, having to use loopholes in league rules to get around the transfer window rules and sign Martin Braithwaite because their cheapskate plan to sign Rodrigo did not work. Their obsessive, panicked pursuit of a Neymar replacement left them really having to rely on Messi and 17-year-old Ansu Fati to be the dynamic attacking players in the team.

The end result is that the Barcelona board have seemingly wasted away most of Lionel Messi’s prime. Yes, they won their fair share of La Liga titles over the last few years, but their main prize, one more Champions League for Messi, has eluded them. Since winning the trophy in 2015, they have only reached the semifinal stage once, that one time being their infamous meltdown at Anfield last season. After each failure, there is no measured discussion over how to improve the team overall or improve the system, it is just panic and buy, and the panic seems to continually get worse while the team gets more flawed. With Messi’s contract expiring at the end of the 2020-21 season, it is very possible that Leo decides to get away from the madness in pursuit of that one last Champions League triumph.

Yeah, we covered quite a bit here, didn’t we? A simple swap deal between two players tells us everything wrong with the current Barcelona management. Sid Lowe said this deal would be a failure regardless of outcome because of the reasoning behind it, and he is exactly right. Barcelona have learned nothing in the last five years, and this deal is just a signal of them continuing to try and get out of their mess by digging themselves deeper into it. Juventus could have gotten a steal in bringing in Arthur, but this was really motivated in trying to fix their broken wage structure. Two clubs trying to fix financial messes agreed to help each other out. Voila! One of the weirdest swap deals in football was born.

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