Tag Archives: transfer rumors

Jesse Lingard and the Story of Second Chances

How Jesse Lingard’s rise from the ashes is the feel-good story of the season in the Premier League…

We all undoubtedly know who Jesse Lingard is at this point.

The English attacking midfielder has seemingly been in the world’s eye for years now, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The kid from Warrington, a boyhood Manchester United fan, had been in and around the first team at his boyhood club for nearly a decade now. He was living the dream that we all have as football fans, being able to play for the club you have supported your whole life. He was a kid with promise, another exciting talent to emerge from the Manchester United Academy during its heyday of talent production while Man United was on top of the world and winning silverware on a yearly basis.

It just never really happened for him, though.

Having had the unfortunate timing of becoming a first-team regular under the management of David Moyes, having narrowly missed out on the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson glory years, his first team emergence came at the most tumultuous time in the modern history of Man United. Maybe that impacted his development? Maybe it was other things? Maybe it was luck? But for whatever reason, it just did not ever really come together for Lingard. There were highs, such as his FA Cup-winning goal against Crystal Palace in 2016 or his “Emirates Dance Floor” performances against Arsenal, but there were also many lows.

Despite being one of the few people in football that Jose Mourinho liked, he struggled for consistency in performance under the Portuguese manager. Things did not change under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, as it notably took him until the final day of the 2019-20 season to register any goal involvement, scoring United’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Leicester City. He had become a meme for several years, always being the “perennially young promising player” despite being 28 and well into the prime of his career. His dancing at the Emirates was also memed, almost as an act of derision toward Arsenal, a sign that they should be embarrassed.

“How could you let Jesse Lingard score against you? He is a better dancer than he is a footballer and you made him look like Eric Cantona.”

He dealt with family issues that affected his mental health and performances on the pitch. He dealt with the ridicule and pressure that comes with playing for Man United. He was living his dream, but it seemed to be weighing him down at times. Fans often waited for the day when they could move on from Lingard and bring in a better player. The 2019-20 season was brutal for him, and it was sad for me to see him still trying but knowing what he was dealing with.

Things did not improve at the beginning of this season, not even featuring once for a United team that overcame a rocky start to be in title contention for a time. He was allowed to leave the club on loan in January 2021, reuniting with David Moyes at overachieving West Ham until the end of the season. And, well, the numbers speak for themselves.

In nine games in claret and blue, Lingard has tallied eight goals and three assists. A phenomenal return, beyond anything that anyone expected when he moved to East London. He went from not even in the team at United to a focal point of a West Ham side that could be playing in the Champions League next season. He went from afterthought to an England international once again, returning to the England team for the first time since 2019 and probably ensuring he will be in the team for the European Championships this summer. He went from a player that was constantly memed and ridiculed to one that inspires and excites and dazzles. A player that is, at least on form, one of the best players in the Premier League at the moment. He has gone from a player who United fans wanted gone to one that even Vikram thinks has a place in the United team going forward.

It is such an incredible story, one that we all deserve this season. In a season where COVID’s effects on the football world cannot be ignored, one where racist abuse of footballers through social media has become a distressingly regular occurrence, one where, in football terms, the Premier League has the least exciting title race of any of the “Top Five” major leagues in Europe, we get one of the best redemption stories in the last few years. We see a free Jesse Lingard, one not weighed down by the baggage he picked up in Manchester and playing with a joy and freedom we have not seen from him in quite some time.

That might be the best part of this, he just looks happier. Now, I do not know Jesse Lingard. I have never met him, never spoke to him, and do not know anyone associated with him, so I do not really truly know what goes on inside his head. From an outsider’s view, however, it seemed that he just was not in a good place in Manchester. The weight of the ridicule and expectation, on top of everything else he was dealing with in life at the time, was visibly weighing him down. For West Ham, he plays as if a massive weight was lifted off of his shoulders. As an outside observer, I can see a different sense of joy and spark of competitive fire in him, and it is wonderful to see because I really like Lingard. Again, I do not know him, and you can say what you want about how talented he is as a player, but he has always come off as a very likable person. His personality is infectious and it does make him quite a likable player. Seeing him succeed and playing with this sense of joy and freedom is fun to watch.

Life, more often than not, gives people second chances, and no area of life loves second chances and redemption stories quite like the sports world. After dealing with years of inconsistency, pressure, and ridicule in Manchester, Lingard was handed his second chance with West Ham. He has the ability to play free of pressure and show his talent to the world. His redemption story is happening right in front of our eyes, and it is lovely to see, regardless of who you support.

Which begs the question: what happens next?

Lingard’s United contract expires at the end of next season. United fans, once looking forward to moving Lingard’s wage off of the books, are now wondering whether he might be a useful player in their team moving forward. Bruno Fernandes is a central but often overworked creative attacking player in the United team, and with questions surrounding the future of Paul Pogba and Solskjær’s incredible, resilient insistence to not play Donny van de Beek, Lingard becomes at least an interesting squad player to help rest Fernandes, if not a player who can play alongside him in the first team. A return to his boyhood club to be a central role in this United team could be the ultimate ending to Lingard’s redemption arc, but does he want to come back?

I can understand the desire for him to return to Manchester, especially considering he is a Man United supporter, but him staying away is also attractive. He could stay at West Ham, where he might be playing a central role in the Champions League next season for a team that is surprisingly quite exciting and potent in attack. He might not have the ability to be this central to the team should he return to United. West Ham is also not the only option. Reports from ESPN, also shared by the BBC, state that PSG, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan are all scouting Lingard and monitoring his contract situation with an eye toward making a move for the Englishman in the summer. That is a bit staggering, right? If you told me a year ago that Real Madrid and PSG would be scouting Jesse Lingard, I would have thought you were insane.

Now, we all know that most transfer stories are not entirely true. Even with a reputable source like ESPN, the vast majority of transfer stories end up dissipating or being much ado about nothing. There could be no interest from any of these clubs, but I had an immediate reaction to seeing that report: a move to Inter makes a whole lot of sense.

For those who have not kept track of the Nerazzurri this season, they are having a very good time. On the cusp of winning their first league title since 2010 and with Juventus faltering, Antonio Conte is at a turning point where he could elevate Inter back to the top of the Italian game once again. Despite this, and despite the talent available to Conte, they could be moving toward some changes in midfield. Nicolò Barella and Marcelo Brozović are clear fixtures in the team, but there could be some changes around them. For example, Inter are linked with AZ Alkmaar defensive midfielder Teun Koopmeiners as a potential replacement for Arturo Vidal or Roberto Gagliardini and eventual heir to Brozović. A move for a more attacking-minded midfielder like Lingard makes sense, especially with continued questions around Christian Eriksen’s future at the club and how much of the creative attacking burden can be left to Barella and the wingbacks. Lingard coming in as an attacking midfielder, even as a rotational player, is an interesting prospect and makes sense for Inter to do. He is also close friends with former United and current Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, so that is an added benefit.

Ultimately, this is all good for Lingard. He has new life in his career, one that could lead to a big move or a big return to Manchester. This is probably still a good thing for United, as well. Lingard would be a very useful rotational player, but if he does not want to play that role, then they should allow him to move. They are still going to get a good transfer fee for a player that they initially thought they would have to wait until his contract expired to get him off the books. This provides help, albeit not much, for United in order to make signings this summer to push them toward contention.

But at the end of the day, after we consider all of the future moves and ramifications, we can just sit back and enjoy a great story. In a season full of turmoil, fitness issues, and cast under the shadow of a colossal health pandemic, we need to cling onto the feel-good stories, and this is definitely one of them.

Jesse Lingard is enjoying his football again, and I, like many others, am enjoying watching him.

Image by qian xie from Pixabay

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Harry Kane, It’s Time To Go

After their latest disappointment, it is time for Harry Kane to leave Tottenham…

Harry Kane, lad, you do not need this negativity in your life. You are a fantastic player; you do not need to be dealing with this.

Now, we love loyalty here. Players building a connection with a club and supporters, sticking out through hard times to be there when the success is had, leaving as a cult hero among a community of people. That is an aspect of football that seems to be dwindling, rightly or wrongly, in this new generation. This is a very nice aspect of the sport for me, someone who supports two clubs that, in the grand scheme of the current football world, are not “big” clubs. We should love the amount of love and dedication and loyalty that Kane has shown Tottenham over the years, and he is without a doubt the most important Spurs player of this generation and one of the best to play for the club in my lifetime, if not ever.

But come on, man. You deserve so much better than this.

Tottenham’s 3-2 aggregate defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League, the latest in a long line of crushing disappointments, shows just how far away Spurs are from winning major honors. From the highs of the Pochettino era, Spurs have now fallen to the outside of the frame of main contenders, having to scrap for a Europa League place last season and possibly not finishing in a European place at all this season. They were one of the best teams in the league just a few years ago, but now they have fallen to a level where having talented players cannot save them from being largely forgettable. We are reaching the end of one of the brightest eras in the history of this club, an era that gave them a player who will likely end his career as one of the best Premier League strikers ever, and there is nothing to show for it.

Now, before you all come at me and say “but actually…”, yes, I know Spurs are in the EFL Cup Final. Yes, I know anything can happen in a cup final. While any halfway sentient living being would look at that match up and favor Manchester City and their team of football-playing terminator robots, anything can happen. And yes, I understand that, for a club that has not won a trophy since 2008 (that being their only trophy since 1991), winning the EFL Cup is progress. As a supporter of a club that has not won a trophy since 1995, I would gladly take Everton winning the EFL Cup to break that trophy drought.

But after all of these years, all of these goals scored, all of the fight and sacrifice, just an EFL Cup? Is that worth Harry Kane wasting his entire prime at this club? To have won the same amount of domestic honors for Spurs as Jermaine Jenas? To say that you have one (1) more trophy than Matt Le Tissier? And you are supposed to be one of the best English strikers ever? One of the best players in the world?

If there is one thing that was proven by that game in Zagreb, it is that the club has gone backwards under Mourinho. Tottenham’s peak, going wire-to-wire with Leicester for the title in 2016 and making the Champions League Final in 2018, is just that, a peak. They are descending down the mountain, the Pochettino highs getting further and further away as each day and each match passes. Mourinho was brought in to make this club into winners and reverse the defensive frailties that were becoming exposed under Pochettino, yet we now find Spurs out of Europe after a calamitous defensive display in Zagreb, ripped to shreds by Arsenal in the North London Derby, and falling further behind the race for European places. They are no closer to winning a league title than they were in 2016, and they have seemingly lost the traits that made them a Champions League constant under Pochettino.

This is obviously not Harry Kane’s fault. Without him, Spurs would likely be a mid-table team. But Kane’s adamant loyalty to a team that does not deserve a player of his talent is, quite frankly, ruining what could be a legendary career. Should he stay in the Premier League, it is very possible Kane will end up as a top four all-time league goalscorer, but that is about it. Will his amazing talent be overshadowed by being the “almost trophy winner”? He almost won a league title, he almost made it to a World Cup Final, he almost won a Champions League. Will this put him in the Le Tissier category of player instead of the Shearer or Agüero or Henry category? And if this admittedly fairly-ridiculous-but-not-completely-off-base take is even remotely close to being the case, then why should he stay at Spurs?

Kane clearly deserves better. He deserves to be playing for a club that is contending for league titles and European honors on a regular basis, and it is clear that Spurs are no longer that club. It is also clear that there is definitely a market for a player of Kane’s quality. Dortmund’s Erling Håland is obviously the most-wanted striker on planet Earth at the moment, but obviously only one club can sign him. Whether that be Real Madrid or Man City or Chelsea or whoever, that will still leave plenty of teams needing a striker who are unable to secure the Norwegian’s signature. And that is where Kane comes into the picture.

If it has not happened already, I imagine we will start seeing reports of Kane demanding to leave Spurs. Since he is still under contract at the club until 2024, Spurs will likely not be motivated to sell him for anything under a £120 million-plus mega deal, a world-class fee for a world-class player. The financial impact of the COVID Pandemic likely means that deal is not possible this summer for the vast majority of top teams in Europe, but it is still possible that Kane is able to pressure Tottenham to accept a lower bid. Who would be the contenders for his signature? Manchester United need a striker. Chelsea and Manchester City could be involved if they do not sign Håland. The same goes for Real Madrid and Barcelona, should Barcelona figure out how to balance their books that quickly. All of those teams, to varying degrees, would give Kane a much better opportunity to contend for silverware than this current Spurs team. And at the end of the day, Kane deserves his chance at winning trophies. He deserves to be playing for a team that is contending for league titles and Champions League glory, and right now, Spurs do not appear to be one of those teams. He has simply been wasting away his prime footballing years as an unbelievable player on a team that is at least good enough to be in conversations around top teams, but not good enough to actually be hoisting major honors or to contend on the biggest stages.

Harry, take this advice from someone who you have never and will never meet in your whole life. I know, I am clearly a very reputable voice, but still hear me out. Leave Tottenham. Push to leave the club. You have given them years and years of faithful, unquestioning loyalty and service. You are not a “Judas” figure for doing so, and there is no one on the planet that can question how loyal you have been to the club. But now you deserve to chase after the highest honors and play under the brightest lights, and at the moment, that requires leaving Spurs.

You do not owe them anything. You deserve your chance at greatness.

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The Curious Case of William Saliba

Why the Frenchman is nowhere to be seen, and how internal politics at the football club may cause Arsenal to miss out on a bright young star…

In July of 2019, Arsenal completed a massive transfer coup in signing Saint-Étienne’s wunderkind teenage center back William Saliba for a reasonable-but-not-insignificant fee of £27 million. The Gunners were competing with their North London rivals Tottenham for the signature of the young Frenchman, but while both clubs met the valuation that Saint-Étienne requested, Saliba chose Arsenal. This was a massive statement of Arsenal’s stature. Despite recent struggles, the club still had the appeal to not only land a major transfer target, but to land one of the best young prospects in world football at the time. Arsenal’s struggling defense would be saved, and part of their spine potentially for the next decade was brought in.

The player came with plenty of hype. Called the “center back Mbappé” by some, mainly due to him hailing from the same Parisian banlieue as Mbappé and even being coached by Mbappé’s dad at AS Bondy, William Saliba was considered the most promising and most coveted young center back prospect coming through at a French club since Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti came through at Lens and Lyon, respectively, in the early 2010s. Saliba was signed by Saint-Étienne in 2016 and fast-tracked through their youth set up, making his professional debut only two years later. He was the brightest gem of a Saint-Étienne youth team that famously won the Coupe Gambardella, France’s premiere u-19 competition, in 2019, a win that Saliba would not even be there to see as he had already made his move to the first team. After an impressive first professional season, one where he played an important role in helping Les Verts finish fourth and narrowly miss out on Champions League qualification, he attracted transfer interest from every corner of Europe. He ended up choosing Arsenal, the club he considered the “club of his dreams”, having grown up watching Arsenal’s French contingent of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, and Patrick Vieira be managed by the widely-respected Arsène Wenger. It seemed to be the ideal move for all involved, one that would help boost player and club to the upper echelons of European football. After a turbulent but still fairly successful loan back to Saint-Étienne for the 2019-20 season, Saliba returned to the club of his dreams ready to make a mark on the first team.

And he has still yet to make his debut, and no one really knows why.

His start at the club was difficult for other reasons, as he dealt with a death in his family in May, something that, given the circumstances and the age of the player, could not have been easy to deal with. Arteta did a commendable job protecting his player, something that the manager is supposed to do, but after that ordeal, Saliba still could not find his way into the team. He was left off of Arsenal’s Europa League roster, while Pablo Marí and Calum Chambers, both injured at the time, were included. He has yet to make an appearance in the league and has also not even made an appearance in the Carabao Cup. One of the best young center backs in Europe was seemingly frozen out of the first team, and no real explanation has been provided.

Did he come into Arsenal rusty? Sure, but that is expected considering Ligue 1 ended their 2019-20 season at the beginning of the COVID Pandemic. He also did not appear in Saint-Étienne’s Coupe de France Final loss to PSG, meaning he basically did not play a professional match since February. Even then, he put out some strong performances for the Arsenal u-23s, showing the same skill set he showed for Saint-Étienne. The talent is clearly there, so why does he not play?

The decision is even more baffling when you look at the performances of his former teammate and ex-Stephanois center back Wesley Fofana, who signed with Leicester before this season. Fofana was part of that Coupe Gambardella winning team, coming through the youth set up with his own hype and renown, but he was not Saliba. While he is clearly talented in his own right and him being overshadowed by Saliba was a bit unfair, he just was not as good of a player. On the occasions last season where Fofana and Saliba started alongside each other, Saliba was almost consistently the more impressive player. That is not a knock on Fofana, that just shows how talented Saliba is. A year on, however, Saliba cannot get a game for a struggling Arsenal team, while Fofana is a star for a Leicester team currently sitting in the top four. I would personally back the claim that Saliba was the more impressive player when both were at Saint-Étienne, so why can he not get a game for Arsenal?

Truthfully, I have no idea. I think the rust he came into the club with, as well as the injury he was nursing and the death in the family he had to deal with, did set back his development and put him behind the 8-ball, so to speak. But to this degree, where he cannot even play at all? He cannot even be named among the substitutes? It all seems a bit absurd. I get that when Arsenal’s league struggles seriously kicked in, Mikel Arteta maybe wanted to rely on more senior players to get him out of the jam. It is a rational reaction for most managers at big clubs, especially in the heavily results-driven Premier League, to be less reliant on younger players when you really need results. However, it has seemingly worked the other way for Arsenal, as their recent run of good form has come because Arteta trusted younger players, such as Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka, and Gabriel Martinelli, to play key roles in important positions in the team. These young players showed the talent and fight that their senior counterparts were not showing. Why not continue a trend that is clearly working? You cannot tell me that Pablo Marí or Rob Holding or Shkodran Mustafi are so much better than Saliba that it is not even worth making it a competition for places or just even including Saliba in the senior team at all. Despite some minor defensive improvements under Arteta, the back four is still not all that great. You cannot seriously tell me that Saliba is not even good enough to warrant a spot on the bench.

Him not even being named in the Europa League squad might be the most absurd part of this whole story. Saliba played in the Europa League last season for Saint-Étienne, and while he only made two appearances, missing the rest of Les Verts‘ time in the competition due to injury, he played well. If he was good enough to play in this competition for his former club, why is he not good enough to play in this competition for Arsenal? Despite struggles in the league, Arsenal had a very charitable Europa League group, being drawn against Rapid Vienna, Molde, and Dundalk. With a group that easy in a competition where most big sides field younger and reserve players in the Group Stage to deal with fixture congestion, why in the world do you not even consider playing Saliba? Arsenal (rightly) gave chances to youngsters in the Group Stage, including the likes of Smith-Rowe, Folarin Balogun, and Miguel Azeez, and the utilization of six substitutes in European competition gives Saliba even more of a chance to feature, even if only for 20-30 minutes. Yet, he was not even included in the squad for the Group Stage. It is incredibly baffling. Sure, pressure in the league might force Arteta to field more senior players, but you cannot seriously tell me Saliba is not good enough to feature against Dundalk or Molde.

Which leads me to think there is more going on behind the scenes. The first sign that something was wrong was a comment Saliba left on an Instagram post from fellow Frenchman and Arsenal loanee Mattéo Guendouzi, where Saliba referred to Guendouzi as a player that was “locked up like me.” This came up at a time where reports were surfacing alleging that Arteta was beginning to lose the dressing room, with rifts developing between the manager and players. Guendouzi was definitely at odds with Arteta last season (Arteta probably being justified in his displeasure with the Frenchman’s behavior), so if Saliba’s relationship with his manager is anything like that, then there may be no way out for him. There were a few videos posted by Arsenal’s social media and YouTube team, particularly in a challenge video against Alexandre Lacazette on YouTube, where the youngster references his lack of playing time in a conversation that felt fairly awkward and uncomfortable for the viewer. While it was a simple joke on the surface, the under-layers of frustration were palpable. Later that month, Saliba was not named in the Arsenal team that lost 4-1 to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, with Mustafi starting the match. An article by Chris Wheatley at football.london later in December alleges that neither Arteta nor club technical director Edu Gaspar have told the Frenchman why he is not featuring, leaving Saliba’s team exploring moves away from the club. This has led us to where we are today, with Arsenal actively exploring loan moves away for the youngster in the January window. This feels like anything but an ordinary situation.

While the signs are there that something is wrong, I am not sure what set it off and I am not sure how it gets resolved. I do believe that this is larger than just an issue between player and manager, however. I believe this rocky relationship started when Arsenal did not allow Saliba to play in Saint-Étienne’s Coupe de France Final last season. The final was Saint-Étienne’s first since 2013 and their first Coupe de France Final appearance since 1982. For all intents and purposes, this was going to be the biggest match in which Les Verts have played in Saliba’s lifetime. The manic celebrations at full time of their semifinal win over Rennes, which Saliba was in the thick of, showed how much this final meant for the club. It was a match that Saliba was desperate to play in, and Arsenal told him that he cannot play. While Saliba put on a brave face for the cameras and gave a pretty well-rehearsed, media-trained statement about not being able to play, it was clear that he was disappointed. Saliba is a passionate player, it is not hard to tell his emotions, and he desperately wanted to play in the final and was very frustrated that he was not able to. The dispute between Arsenal and Saint-Étienne that led to this decision had a lot of factors, but, at least from my outsider perspective, it seemed that Arsenal did not let him play to avoid paying a few thousand Euros to ASSÉ as part of an additional loan fee, which, if true, is incredibly absurd for a club of the size of Arsenal. A chump change loan fee is a pretty fair compensation to avoid hurting your relationship with a player that could be a future star for your club. It feels like Saliba arrived at Arsenal not fully trusting the club, and the relationship only deteriorated further from there.

This potential loan in January feels much different from that last loan. It even feels different from the loan back to Saint-Étienne that Saliba almost got back in October, a move that fell through on deadline day due to administrative issues. I get the feeling that if Saliba leaves on loan next month, he will likely not return to Arsenal. I have no idea where it comes from, but it does genuinely feel like there is a sense of distrust between Arteta and Saliba, and I do feel that this relationship extends beyond the manager to Edu and the club in general. It does feel like Saliba wants out permanently, and this loan feels like an effort for Arsenal to try and get the player to play well so they can sell him in the summer and get some of their money back rather than to actually develop him into a future Arsenal center back. I could be wrong about this, and the club he signs for on loan will tell us quite a bit regarding how Arsenal are viewing the purpose of his loan, but it does really feel like this is the end for Saliba at Arsenal.

And that is a shame, because I really like Saliba as a player and was certain he would be a hit at Arsenal. I know I am a Lyon fan, and I do still hate Saint-Étienne as every Lyon fan should, but I cannot hide how blown away I was by Saliba when he came through with Les Verts. Even as an 18/19 year old kid, he seemingly had all of the tools and traits needed to grow into and become a world-class modern center back. He is great on the ball while having a composure that not many teenage players have. His defensive intelligence is also seemingly beyond that of a typical teenager breaking into professional football, able to read the game well, understand where he needs to be positionally at all times, and able to time his challenges to the exact moment. His physicality as a defender is impressive, being 6’4″ and fairly strong and quick, but he never seemed over-reliant on his physicality, as many young defenders are. In short, from my observations, the hype is warranted. He is a brilliant player that has everything needed to become a world-class center back. The much-used British phrase “Rolls Royce player” seemed to fit him perfectly. I thoroughly believed that he would be a lock for the French National Team by World Cup 2022 or Euro 2024. The move to Arsenal clearly has not worked out, and at this point, especially if I am correct about the relationship between the player and the club, a move away would be the best for the player. Arsenal may end up regretting how they handled this situation, as, if Saliba goes on to star for another club, the blame will fall directly on Arteta and Edu. Arsenal’s loss will be someone else’s gain.

As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

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What Sandro Tonali’s shock move to AC Milan shows about how Milan, and Inter, pursued this deal and how both are viewing next season…

Feature Image by chatst2 from Pixabay

Sandro Tonali, Brescia’s star midfield wunderkind and seemingly preordained future of the Italian National Team, is close to a deal to sign with AC Milan. The deal is basically all agreed, and, bar a massive change in direction or an act of God, Tonali will be joining the Rossoneri next season.

This is a big deal.

Given the level of talent Tonali is, as well as the clubs that were pursuing him, it is a little surprising he ended up at Milan. As the bidders fell out of the hunt, however, Milan became arguably the most logical destination. For those who had not been able to keep up with the Rossoneri this season, especially following Serie A’s return from the hiatus, there is some real, tangible positivity surrounding this team, a first after a long period of instability and negativity for the European giants. They were arguably the best team in Italy during that quick run up to the end of the season, putting in some very strong performances to get them into a European place, most notably beating Juventus 4-2 back in early July. There is a real spine forming in this team, mixing young promising talent with experienced veteran leadership. From back to front, the already present spine of Gigio Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Ismaël Bennacer, Franck Kessié, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ante Rebić is a team that will not quite win the Scudetto just yet, but one that is obviously building rapidly in the right direction. That spine is also joined by emerging, or already broken through, young talent, including the likes of Theo Hernández, Rafael Leão, Alexis Saelemaekers, Matteo Gabbia, and Pierre Kalulu, demonstrating the strong future that this team has. They are now adding Tonali, arguably the most promising young player in Italy, to this already solid spine. This is a move that brings another massive building block to this Milan team.

It is the Rossoneri midfield in particular that is now very intriguing, as the 20-year-old Tonali joins the 23-year-old Kessié and 22-year-old Bennacer in forming a very interesting, and good, problem for manager Stefano Pioli to have. Do you play all three of them together, going away from the 4-2-3-1 set up that seemed to serve Milan well recently, or do you only choose two of them to play in that midfield three alongside Hakan Çalhanoglu, a more natural number ten? It seems like Milan will use Tonali and one of the other two in a double pivot, using that depth and ability to rotate in order to balance playing in the league and the Europa League, but it is possible that they build toward a future of using all three, especially if they eventually replace Zlatan with a forward more able to drop into space as a center forward as well, similar to Roberto Firmino or Karim Benzema. It is hard to go wrong in this scenario, and the incredible depth that Milan now have in midfield is setting them up well to challenge for the Champions League places next season, and possibly, a few years down the line, the chance to challenge for the Scudetto as well.

It is still a risk, however, as, despite the pieces looking like they are coming together for Milan, there is still the chance it could all fall apart. The mess surrounding Stefano Pioli and seemingly-tabbed replacement Ralf Ragnick was definitely unfair on Pioli, who had done an incredible job getting the train back on the tracks in the second half of the season, but I do believe the jury is still out on whether Pioli is the right man for the job. That run after the hiatus was very impressive, but it could very well have been just a flash in the pan, possibly a strong run of form that would be reversed as Milan reverted back to their mean level of performance at the beginning of next season. There were genuine questions around Pioli’s management at the beginning of last season, questions that led to logical discussions around Ragnick replacing him. They will also soon have to find a replacement for Zlatan, who is crucial in their attack. Throwing all of their eggs into one basket like this is not always ideal, despite how talented and effective Zlatan still is, as despite what the 38-year-old Swede might tell you, he obviously cannot play forever. It is very possible, even likely, that Milan kick on next season, and they start the season with the momentum they got from how they ended last season and ride that to a strong 2020/21 season and potentially a spot in the Champions League. In that case, Tonali will have joined arguably the ideal club to play for, but if things do go wrong, it could bring up a large roadblock in the young Italian’s development, possibly derailing his career if things got bad enough. I do not think this is a massive risk, but the last half-decade of Milan’s history has had a strong “one step forward, two (or more) steps back” aura around them, so I am hoping the several steps back do not come.

It is impossible to talk about Tonali going to Milan without discussing the club on the other side of this massive tug-of-war. As the bidders fell away, it appeared the Tonali Sweepstakes had been reduced to only two teams: AC Milan and Inter. The two Milan giants duking it out over the signature of Italy’s next big young talent had a certain poetic feel to it, and it felt like a sign that the Derby della Madonnina was building back toward the iconic level the rivalry was at in the 1990s and 2000s. Curiously, though, Milan did not get Tonali because the player chose them, although it is possible that boyhood Milan fan Tonali did prefer to play for the Rossoneri. Inter pulled out of negotiations. Throughout this entire process, it appeared that Inter were the favorites to sign him, presenting Tonali with a chance to play in the Champions League and contend for a league title next season in a midfield alongside fellow Italian youngster Nicolò Barella and the experienced and quite underrated Marcelo Brozović. Tonali and Inter had even had personal terms agreed for a move since April. However, Inter weirdly decided to pull out of negotiations with Brescia, opening the lane for Milan to sign the player unopposed. It would later come out that this was a decision made by Inter manager Antonio Conte, who preferred that the club sign an older, more experienced player in midfield instead of the younger Tonali. This move came as Inter were reportedly closing in on a deal for Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal and potentially pursuing a deal for Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté. It is a decision that has garnered quite a bit of criticism, and it is a decision that Milan fans might be thanking Conte for in the years to come.

Do not get me wrong, I get the gamble that Conte is trying to make here. He is seemingly throwing all of his weight behind winning a league title in the next two years with Inter. While I do think Tonali could immediately play a role in a Scudetto-winning Inter team, the desire to go for more experienced and guaranteed-talent midfielders over a young and still relatively unproven player is at least somewhat logical in that sense. But that is the thing, it is a gamble, and a massive one at that. Conte is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at winning a Scudetto with this Inter team, a team that can probably stay at the level of legitimate title challenger for maybe the next two seasons, three seasons at the absolute most. If Inter do not win a league title in that time, then what are they going to have to show for their efforts? They will be left with a team with an aging core, not many emerging talents to replace the aging players, and the possibility that the young players already playing a major role in this team, including the likes of Barella, Lautaro Martínez, and the newly arrived Achraf Hakimi, could be long gone. This is seemingly a move done by someone who cannot see past the end of his nose, someone who is so obsessed with the immediate goal that he cannot see how the image of his team is shaping up in the next three to five years. As a result, Conte has handed Inter’s biggest rivals what could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle needed to bring Milan back to true prominence. This is not even the first bad transfer decision Inter have made with young players, even in the last two years. Inter lost out in the race to sign Atalanta winger Dejan Kulusevski to Juventus despite being the front-runners to land the young Swede, possibly due to Conte’s preference, and previous manager Luciano Spalletti willingly sent Nicolò Zaniolo to Roma as part of the move that brought Radja Nainggolan to Inter. The Nerazzurri could have had a young, promising midfield five of Kulusevski, Zaniolo, Tonali, Barella, and Stefano Sensi, but due to completely avoidable issues of their own making, they now have lost out on three of those players.

Antonio Conte is obviously a brilliant and very accomplished manager, but he is an incredibly stubborn individual. Conte is so set in his ways and in the players he wants, which have usually been older veteran players, that he is unwilling to have his team sign one of the world’s most promising young talents. This gamble could ultimately work out. Inter could win a league title or two with this team, and a player like Vidal or Kanté could come in and be an immediate contributor. Winning league titles could allow them to build even further, adding talent that would make them not miss Tonali in the slightest. However, it is a colossal gamble. If Inter do not win a title in this window, and especially if Tonali becomes a superstar at Milan, Interisti will be sat wondering what could have been.

The move is not official, but it looks about set. Sandro Tonali will join his boyhood club. Milan have secured the signature of one of the most promising young players in the world and a key building block in bringing this storied club back to prominence. I am incredibly excited to see how this team shapes up and to see how this Rossoneri core develops. There is tangible hope and optimism around Milan now, and it is exciting to see.

In the words of transfer guru Fabrizio Romano: here we go!

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What on Earth is Wrong With Everton?

Years of mismanagement and irresponsibility have made Ancelotti’s job that much harder

Everton’s humiliating 3-0 loss to Wolves last weekend was one that many Everton fans are familiar with. That same feeling of “one step forward, two steps back” has encapsulated the Evertonian experience over the last several seasons. The loss also demonstrated that, despite all of the great work Carlo Ancelotti has done since taking over at Goodison Park, there is still a long journey ahead of the Italian in his hopes to revive the fallen blue giant on Merseyside. Ancelotti has walked into a situation where he inherits a flawed team, somewhat restricted finances, and not much room for flexibility or error. Despite some strong performances when he arrived, it is now clear that he merely got the team performing above their level, something which is hard to duplicate repeatedly for a long stretch. Everton were flirting with a relegation fight earlier in the season, and while the squad was seemingly too good to go down, they are also not good enough to contend for a European place, as it looked like they could have done at the end of this season. There are significant problems that Ancelotti must solve, and the unfortunate thing for Evertonians is that these problems are deep-rooted, substantial, and date back several years, all pointing to one simple conclusion:

in a sporting sense, Everton are not a well-ran football club.

The fact that Everton are not in any better position years after Farhad Moshiri’s takeover and after hundreds of millions of pounds spent in the transfer window is a massive failure and a reflection on the poor leadership and disorder within the club. Let us look at their opponents last week as a comparison point. Wolves and Everton both received financial takeovers in 2016, Everton by Moshiri and Wolves by Chinese investment group Fosun International. At the end of the 2015-16 season, Everton finished 11th in the Premier League, while Wolves finished 14th in the Championship. In the four years that followed, Everton finished seventh, eighth, and eighth in the Premier League, and they look on course to finish comfortably mid-table this season. Wolves won promotion to the Premier League two years after their takeover, being remembered as arguably one of the best sides the Championship had ever seen. In their two years in the Premier League, they finished above Everton twice, finishing seventh in 2018-19 and looking like they will finish in the top six this season. Both clubs received their financial backing at the same time, but Wolves have grown exponentially more than Everton, and this reflects the operating of each club. Wolves had a clear vision for their club progression, tabbed Nuno Espírito Santo from the beginning as the man to create that image, and progressed from the Championship to the Premier League using a smart financial strategy on club operation and transfers. Everton have not done any of those things, for several reasons, and they are well behind in their rebuilding process because of it.

Financially, Everton seem to be in the best position they have been in for decades. Moshiri coming into the club hierarchy in 2016 injected new financial life into a struggling football club, helping them clear debt, invest in club infrastructure, and finally establish a solid plan for life after Goodison Park, with a stadium at the Bramley-Moore Docks currently under construction. Everton also got a refresh in the transfer market, having one of the highest transfer net spends in the league over the last five years, but that does not mean they are moving in the right direction on the pitch. It is somewhat of a misconception to think that you need to spend barrels of money on transfers to break into the top four. While financial backing in the transfer market, especially in the post-“Neymar to PSG” market, is important in securing talent, spending money alone is not a guarantee of impending success. A team must spend money in a smart way, making signings that improve the team and build into an overall idea of how the team should look and play. A player coming with a high transfer fee does not guarantee they will be good, and if a team invests less in transfers than their rivals but make more intelligent signings, then they will still likely be better than their rivals. Leicester City, Wolves, and Tottenham are examples of teams that do not spend at the level Everton and do not have a wage bill at the level of Everton, but have turned smart investments into success and Top Four/Top Six finishes. The best example of this, however, is that team on the other side of Stanley Park. Liverpool have indulged in the transfer market, especially in recent seasons, but their relatively low net spend shows how well the club invested their money. Liverpool sold Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling, and Philippe Coutinho, arguably four of the best players in the world at the time of their departure, and seemed to upgrade their team every time.

Everton, meanwhile, have massively struggled in this capacity. Romelu Lukaku leaving in 2017 left a massive hole in the Everton attack, and they have yet to fully replace the goals that left the side when the Belgian departed for Man United. They have spent a significant amount of money on transfers, but they have spent mostly on signings that have not consistently worked out in a blue shirt. Richarlison, Lucas Digne, and Idrissa Gueye are the ones that clearly worked, and while the jury is still out on some, there are others that clearly did not work. Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Michael Keane showed flashes of good performance, but have since stagnated or gotten stuck in a rut of bad form. Davy Klaassen, Alex Iwobi, Sandro Ramírez, Theo Walcott, and Cenk Tosun have all fallen or are starting to fall by the wayside, being unable to reach the level that Everton need them to. The list of poor signings is much more extensive than this, and this shows that there needs to be a significant change in how Everton scout and identify transfers. While you could defend some of the moves as having made sense at the time, some of the other ones seem to not have made much sense, with Alex Iwobi’s £35 million move from Arsenal being chief among them. They have spent significantly more on transfers and wages than teams above them in the league table. Their inability to use this money in an intelligent way, bringing in signings that improve the side and build toward an overall idea and picture of what the team should look like, has left them in this mid-table quagmire.

A substantial part of why their transfer spending has been ineffective has been their manager turnover over the last several years, which has impeded the creation of an ideal team. Everyone likes to talk about the succession of managers that have taken over at Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes took over from Ferguson going into the 2013-14 season, signing a six-year contract and being tabbed as Ferguson’s hand-picked successor. Within that six year contract window, United would hire four more managers: Ryan Giggs (interim), Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Five managers in around six to seven years. What is not talked about, however, is the significantly worse spell of instability on the other side of the Moyes departure. Since David Moyes left Goodison Park, Everton have made eight managerial changes: Roberto Martínez, David Unsworth and Joe Royle (interim co-managers), Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth again (interim), Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Duncan Ferguson (interim), and Carlo Ancelotti. In that time span, Everton finished no higher than seventh, reached one FA Cup semifinal, and found themselves in or near the relegation zone on multiple occasions. Martínez, Koeman, Allardyce, and Silva, the four main non-interim managers that preceded Ancelotti, each lasted no more than two to three seasons, with things turning quite sour at the end of each of their tenures. All four of them also had at least one transfer window to start building their team. Their short tenures in charge, however, halted their project and restarted the team with a new manager with new ideas. This has left Everton with a group of different players able to fill different roles and ideally fitting into different systems. A player identified by Marco Silva as fitting into his ideal 4-3-3 system may not be able to fit into Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, and so on and so forth for different players and different managers. This has left Everton with an aging, unbalanced squad that lacks in quality, does not necessarily fit the system of their current manager, and contains players on high wages that are very difficult to offload.

The managers have also had differing relationships with club hierarchy, namely within the director of football structure that Everton have tried to establish. In 2016, Everton appointed former Leicester City chief scout Steve Walsh as their director of football. Being the one responsible for bringing Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kanté, and Riyad Mahrez to Leicester, Walsh was seen as someone who could bring similar hidden gem talents to Everton. His time on Merseyside, however, was reportedly plagued by a poor relationship between himself, manager Ronald Koeman, and the higher-ups at the club. It does not change the bedrock conclusion that Walsh was not cut out for a director of football role, but the speculation around certain signings being the doing of certain people in that relationship did not help the idea that Everton were a well-functioning club. The move for Wayne Rooney, for example, largely came from the influence of then-chairman Bill Kenwright, rather than being something heavily pushed for by Walsh or Koeman. Walsh claimed after the fact that he had moves lined up for Erling Håland, Andrew Robertson, and Harry Maguire, but the moves were shut down by club hierarchy. While I question the validity of these claims, as they did seem like Walsh trying to manipulate the narrative to get his next job, it does highlight the flawed relationship within the Everton hierarchy at the time. Marcel Brands arrived from PSV to replace Walsh, and while he did make some solid signings, the relationship between him and Marco Silva was not entirely perfect. Sure, it was not as turbulent as the Walsh-Koeman issues, but there was some pickiness on Silva’s side that seemed to impact deals. Silva’s desire to bring in a “Premier League proven” center back, for example, left them stuck trying to build a deal for Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma instead of looking at other targets when it was clear that a Zouma deal was not going to happen. The Iwobi deal is also a head-scratcher, though I am honestly not sure if that was influenced by Silva. This high-manager turnover and troubled sporting director relationship has massively screwed with Everton’s transfer strategy, leaving them with several players who do not fit the current system, are seemingly fairly apathetic about remaining at Everton, and are very difficult to offload due to poor performances and high wages. This has been very apparent in Everton’s last few matches, as it is clear some players recognize that their time on Merseyside is numbered and are resigned to their fate.

So where does this leave Ancelotti and his rebuild? Well, there is a lot of work to do. The foundation needs to be ripped up from this team. Several players who make up the spine of this team need to be shipped on, and the Ancelotti-Brands pairing need to completely rethink Everton’s ideas on player recruitment and the ideal transfer targets for the club. There has been much written about the overhaul of Liverpool’s player scouting department and how it impacted their rise to dominance, and similar root-and-branch changes may have to take place here. Even though it could be argued that Financial Fair Play is now dead due to the Manchester City-CAS ruling, they still might see themselves as hampered financially in the transfer market due to COVID or FFP reasons. This is an ideal time for them to try and find better deals in the market, moving away from the Sigurdsson/Iwobi/Richarlison levels of financial investment into transfers. The recent rumored move for Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is more along the right track of the type of deals they should be looking for, moving for players who offer consistent statistical output in their positions and have considerable room for improvement while not sinking tremendous amounts of money into it. The 24-year-old Højbjerg is a player that has been a consistently strong defensive midfielder for Southampton, has put up impressive statistical performances in several defensive stats and in several passing stats, has considerable experience as a first team player, but also still has room to grow due to his young age and would only set the Toffees back, reportedly, around £25 million at most.

The players Everton should go for really depends on how Ancelotti wants to set up his team, formation-wise. Signing midfielders is probably a safe bet, given how weak Everton have been in that area of the pitch this season, but the type of player depends on the formation Ancelotti envisions. A 4-4-2 demands different things from your central midfielders than a 4-3-3 does. A move for a box-to-box midfielder, such as Napoli’s Allan for example, could work in both systems, but trying to utilize a “number 10” role, akin to where Alex Iwobi wants to play, does not work in a 4-4-2. The same idea works for signing wingers. An attack-minded winger like Wilfried Zaha or Cengiz Ünder might work better in a 4-3-3, where they have less responsibility to defend, than in a 4-4-2. A winger with attacking output as well as a high work rate and ability to track back when needed, such as Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía, might work better in a 4-4-2. Ancelotti has consistently started matches in a 4-4-2 at Everton, but his 4-3-3 approach against Spurs was a curveball, justified by the Italian saying he wants a team able to play multiple styles and formations. That is all well and good, but it does not really answer the question of how this Everton team will shape up going into the transfer window, which does not really give us a full picture of where and how Everton can strengthen. Ancelotti is a significantly smarter man than I am, so I have no doubt he has a clear picture of what he wants, but after years of Everton mixing up the signals in player recruitment, they need to go into this window with a clear vision of what this team will look like.

Ok, this article was quite negative, but Evertonians, I will throw us all a bone here and talk about some positives that Ancelotti is working with. There may not be that many, but there is one major area of positivity, and that is the performance of some of the younger players in this team. Richarlison just turned 23 and looks like he is a budding star. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, while he has struggled since the league season restarted, has shown signs of putting it all together this season when Ancelotti arrived, and it is possible that he is able to improve even more over the next 12 months, and he is also only 23. Mason Holgate has been Everton’s breakout star of the season, turning into a rock at the back and demonstrating flexibility in being able to also play as a fullback or midfielder, and he is also only 23. Anthony Gordon and Jarrad Branthwaite have shown considerable amount of positives since making their way into the first team after the season restart, and both of them are still teenagers. There is something there to build on. They have a budding superstar to build around in Richarlison and one part of a center back partnership in Holgate, and while there is still a considerable amount to build around it, that is still a solid start.

So yeah, what’s wrong with Everton? Quite a bit, but it all really centers around how they got Moshiri’s money and messed it all up. Everton is the rich kid who blew all of their money on stupid things instead of investing it to reap long-term rewards. This also completely ignores the mentality issue at the club, which especially rears its ugly head whenever they play away to a “Big Six” team or play at Wembley Stadium, but that is another article for another time. Everton had the resources they needed to succeed, but mismanagement and poor financial spending led to teams around them making the top six jump that the Toffees had always envisioned. Ancelotti has quite a bit of work to do; the rotting and molded foundations laid in the last five years need to be ripped up and rebuilt. This is going to take several years and several transfer windows. It is going to require a considerable amount of patience from all involved: players, club staff, and supporters. It is going to require every part and department of the club to read from the same hymn sheet, working to develop the image of the football club that Ancelotti and Brands envision. Structurally, at all levels, the club must improve, and they must work to find the one thing they have been unable to find over the last half-decade: stability.

Arsenal’s Guendouzi Situation

On the crossroads facing Arsenal and their young French midfielder, and why the right choice may not be the obvious one…

Mattéo Guendouzi arrived in North London as an unknown, rose to be a promising and exciting young prospect in an Arsenal team with several exciting young talents, but just as quickly as that all happened, he may be on his way out.

For those not caught up with the situation, I will fill you in. Guendouzi was more of a regular fixture in the Arsenal team under the management of Unai Emery, but upon arrival of Mikel Arteta in December, he has seen his role dwindle. Guendouzi has always been a bit of a hothead on the pitch, prone to episodes of frustration and anger that have never completely gotten out of hand, but have came close. The most famous prior example was his rugby tackle on Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha in October, a foul equally born out of tactical necessity and sheer frustration at the situation Arsenal found themselves in. In Arsenal’s match against Brighton last Saturday, however, it seemed to elevate to a step worse than before. Following the Gunners’ frustrating 2-1 loss on the South Coast, Guendouzi was shown grabbing at the throat of Brighton forward Neal Maupay, leading to a scuffle between the two teams. This seemed to be the start and finish of the situation, but Maupay’s interesting post-match interview, seemingly targeted at Guendouzi, hinted at other issues throughout the match. It would come out later that Guendouzi was taunting the Brighton players throughout the match, insulting them and stating that he and his Arsenal teammates will earn more money than they ever will. According to some accounts, this is not the only time that the young Frenchman has engaged in this type of behavior.

Mikel Arteta has responded by dropping Guendouzi from the team. The Frenchman did not feature in the starting XI or on the bench in Arsenal’s league win over Southampton or FA Cup Quarterfinal win over Sheffield United. Arteta probably did this to send a message to the youngster, as well as his whole team, that the behavior Guendouzi displayed against Brighton is immature and unacceptable in his team, but instead of deescalating the situation, things took another turn. According to French outlet L’Équipe, Guendouzi has approached the Arsenal hierarchy and demanded to leave the club, stating that he feels his development as a player has stagnated since Arteta’s arrival. Arteta and the player held private discussions to “clear the air”, but the rumors seemingly have not subsided. In Arteta’s pre-match press conference before their FA Cup tie, he said he only wants players at the club who are fully on board, and anyone who is not is free to leave with his blessing. The fact that this could have been targeted at multiple players is not a great thing for Arsenal fans to think about, but it is likely that one of the main intended recipients of this message was Guendouzi. Arsenal next play on Wednesday, hosting bottom of the league Norwich City, so we will see if Guendouzi is brought back into the fold for that much, but for now, that is all of the developments.

Mattéo Guendouzi is quite an interesting figure. The kid is clearly talented, and he has shown this talent in brilliant flashes while wearing an Arsenal shirt, to the point where it earned him a call-up to the French national team. However, he has also been very inconsistent, at times being just a player who runs everywhere without actually contributing much to the team or, worse, getting into needless trouble with officials or other players. Inconsistency is not unusual for a young player. Development is rarely a straight line, so it is natural for a young player to experience bumps in the road and setbacks. The trouble comes in the environment he has been in. The insanity of Arsenal has probably taken its toll on his development, and Unai Emery did not do a good job at forming an environment and dressing room that is conducive to developing a young player suffering from maturity issues. In the right environment, Guendouzi will likely develop into a fine player and have a great career, but he is at a major crossroads now, with the wrong choice potentially derailing a possibly stunning career.

So what should Guendouzi do? Let us look at the options.

There are three clubs reportedly heavily interested in securing Guendouzi’s signature: Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, and PSG. Let us weigh up the options, starting with PSG.

Guendouzi hails from Poissy, one of the outer suburbs of Paris, and he began his career with the capital club as a youth player. From age six, he played within the PSG youth system before being released, signing with Lorient in 2014. He has previously talked about the motivation that being released at PSG gave him, and he famously was on the Lorient side that beat PSG in the French u17 Cup Final in 2015. He made it in the Lorient first team before signing with Arsenal, and it appears that the Parisians want their former youth player back. For a player who says he wants to go to a club to continue his development, PSG seems to be the wrong move. There are definitely positives. A move back to his native country might be more comfortable, and the ability to work with and compete against true world-class talent on a regular basis would help Guendouzi grow in training and be mentored by quality senior players. However, there are still significant issues. The Parisians have a notedly poor recent history with developing their young talent, with Presnel Kimpembe being among the few PSG youth products to break into the first team in the last few years. Guendouzi knows this well, having been released by PSG during his youth career, so I question why he would want to return. He has also just seen two players from within or near his age group at PSG, Adil Aouchiche and Tanguy Kouassi, leave the club for developmental reasons. If he wants to develop as a young player, all of the signs seem to say PSG is the wrong choice. He would also start out fairly low in the pecking order for center midfield spots, behind Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gueye, Leandro Paredes, and Ander Herrera. At his age, being at or close to the first team should be the priority, and it is hard to see how he fits in competing with those four for two starting places.

A move to Atlético Madrid or Inter would pose similar issues. Unless some notable departures happen, both sides have set midfields. For Atléti, the trio of Koke, Saúl, and Thomas Partey seem immovable, and the emergence of Marcos Llorente would be another obstacle to the pitch for Guendouzi. At Inter, the trio of Christian Eriksen, Nicolò Barella, and Marcelo Brozović seem to be the set starters, and with the club actively courting Brescia wonderkid Sandro Tonali, very few spaces in the team are left. Inter does have one slight positive, in that outside of those main three, there are very few quality midfield options. Stefano Sensi was very solid prior to dealing with injuries, but Inter could definitely do better than Borja Valero, Roberto Gagliardini, and Mathias Vecino. There is an opportunity there for Guendouzi to be a trusted substitute or rotational piece, but if he is not happy with a similar role at Arsenal, then he will not be happy with the same in Italy.

There have been some reports linking Guendouzi with a move to Manchester United, which I do not completely buy. United’s needs lie elsewhere, and I do not imagine they would pay a high price for Guendouzi when they already have an excessive amount of midfielders. Nothing would surprise me with Ed Woodward’s transfer policy, however, and Guendouzi definitely is not the first Arsenal player with temper issues to move to a Premier League rival. I am more skeptical of the United link than the others and do not think it would be a good move for either party, but hey let us keep it in.

Now, all of these are just rumors, but if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Arsenal, and especially if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Guendouzi’s agent, then it shows evidence of something that I fear with young players. Guendouzi, either through poor advice or immaturity on his part, has decided to leave the most ideal current situation for him and is courting interest from clubs where his development will actually stagnate. Yes, Guendouzi should stay at Arsenal. It seems that the obvious choice is to hop off the sinking ship, but that would probably be the worst thing Guendouzi could do. Although he may not be featuring at the moment, he will likely find significantly more time in the first team next season, considering the questions that still surround the future of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in North London. At the end of the day, a player at Guendouzi’s stage of his career needs to play. It at least seems that Arsenal have reached a point of tranquility with Arteta as manager, and with a likely rebuild coming, Guendouzi has the chance to be one of the center pieces of this new look Arsenal team, rather than just be a forgettable extra at a bigger club. Arsenal will likely not sell, as they will probably not get that much in return in this COVID-impacted transfer market, but Guendouzi needs to realize that staying in North London is an opportunity, rather than a punishment. Arteta is a great man manager, and as a former Premier League veteran player in a position similar to Guendouzi, he is an ideal mentor for the young Frenchman. Ceballos will likely return to Spain at the end of the season, which allows Guendouzi to step into his preferred midfield position. Yes, Arsenal are not on the same level as those other three clubs, but to be honest, Guendouzi is not yet at that level either. He is not at the level or have the consistency as a player necessary to be a difference maker for a major Champions League side, and while Arsenal are definitely not in a good state, Guendouzi has more opportunities as a player, now working with a competent manager that can build him into a great professional.

This is a major turning point, and a major growing up moment, in Guendouzi’s career. In a team where many key players may have their minds set on moves elsewhere, it is easy for him to begin speculating about a move away from North London. However, there is a very harsh lesson to learn about the grass not always being greener on the other side, and while Arsenal may be on the verge of losing several players, Guendouzi cannot think of himself as one of them. His actions may have caused problems between himself and Arteta, but that relationship is not beyond repair, and there is still time for the youngster to realize that the best place for him to be is exactly where he already is. Guendouzi’s immaturity has cost him on the pitch before, but he cannot let it cost him off the pitch as well.

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The Paul Pogba Question

Is there room on Solskjær’s new project for the Frenchman, or is his time in Manchester over?

Feature Image by Jakub Mularski from Pixabay

Paul Pogba.

Merely the mention of his name could make Graeme Souness incensed. The French midfielder is firmly in the prime of his career, with a World Cup winner’s medal to his name and, when fit, is among the best and most technically gifted midfielders in world football. He has been a star at times, but inconsistent at others, during his four years in Manchester. His transfer fee, while probably low by today’s inflated standards, made him a lightning rod for criticism from all different media outlets throughout England, and despite his clear talent and the highs of his time with United, many consider his transfer a failure.

United have seemingly found themselves at a crossroads. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will seemingly be given more time to continue his rebuild, as his team’s uptick in form following Christmas has given him some leeway with the board and the fans. Any success this season has come without Pogba, as he has missed the majority of the season due to injury. The transfer speculation continues to circle, and his contract is winding down. With the rebuilding path United are currently on, they find themselves staring directly at a massive, immovable question:

is it time to sell Paul Pogba?

Now, this is a very difficult decision. Pogba, despite his critics and despite his inconsistencies, is still an immensely talented footballer that would make basically any team in the world better. His past labels of being a “luxury player” are quite inane and ignore the peaks he has had while playing for largely average-at-best Man United teams. While he has been inconsistent at times, and his flirtations with Real Madrid and Juventus in the past have not helped his case either, United’s struggles during Pogba’s time are not fully down to him, despite what some people may have you believe. The blame for United’s struggles can be pinned as much on management as on any player. Jose Mourinho’s turbulent tenure as manager, as well as the decisions of club executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, did not leave United in a very good state going into this season.

Despite the vultures circling around Ole Gunnar Solskjær for the last year and a half, he has seemingly figured something out. United are still rebuilding, yes, but this team has promise. The signings they have made in the last year, including Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, have melded in well and created a team that is starting to click. Things are not completely rosy for the Norwegian, but you can see the vision and idea of what they are working toward, and this was mostly done without Pogba. With Pogba returning to the team from injury, he can slot into a three man midfield in a 4-3-3 without major issue. While fitting him and Fernandes into the same midfield could have some growing pains and need an adjustment in understanding of role for both players, the potential of that midfield is staggering. Pogba and Fernandes are both dynamic, attacking-minded midfielders, able to function as an 8 or a 10. Both are very good on the ball, have an eye for a pass, and are a goalscoring threat. Both could play well alongside an attack including Marcus Rashford and United’s rumored striker signing. When on form, a United midfield including those two would be among the best in the league, possibly only being rivaled by Liverpool and Manchester City, and could be the key in remaking United into a perennial title contender once again.

Now there are reasons for selling Pogba as well, and it does revolve around how Solskjær elects to use him and Fernandes in the same team. United will likely play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, despite the wide variety of tactical systems they have used in the final two months before the season was suspended, as it allows star forward Marcus Rashford to take up his preferred position on the left wing. The layout of the midfield does drastically change how Pogba and Fernandes could work together. In a 4-3-3, with both players in the number 8 role, both would have license to get forward, using their attacking creativity and skill to cause mayhem for the opposition, while also both having to share some of the defensive burden. It takes Fernandes out of his preferred number 10 role, but it is the best way to utilize the ability of both players. Issues stem from neither player being known for defensive ability or defensive work rates. While Pogba has played as a double pivot defensive midfielder in the past, it does not allow his best characteristics to be on display, and he can get caught up the pitch at times. Pogba would not be the ideal partner in this system, in my opinion, as I would prefer a midfielder in the mold of Atlético Madrid’s Saúl or Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, both of which are linked with moves to United. Both of those players are solid to strong attacking players, but are also solid defensive players, able to fill the mold of the “jack of all trades” box-to-box midfielder. They will join the attack late, but give the room and freedom to Fernandes to pull the strings going forward and occupy threatening spaces, while providing help for the defensive midfielder against a potential counter attack.

Similar negatives exist in a 4-2-3-1. Pogba played in a double pivot in France’s 4-2-3-1 during the World Cup alongside N’Golo Kanté, and while he did perform well there, it is not exactly an applicable example. Pogba was allowed ample time to go forward, as Kanté basically never did and Blaise Matuidi, playing on the left, was able to pick up any defensive slack when Pogba was caught forward. Also, France largely played a defensive-then-counter style, which allowed Pogba to defend with most of his team around him. Playing in a double pivot in a United team that will mostly control possession, he could be caught forward on counters, leaving the defensive midfielder and back line by themselves. It provides more freedom in the midfield to Fernandes, playing behind the striker, but it takes away the best traits from Pogba’s game. United’s best probable formation moving forward, in my opinion, is 4-3-3, so these concerns are not fully valid. However, it is still worth having the conversation.

Outside of formations, the biggest draw to selling Pogba is the money they could get back. Pogba is a brilliant midfielder in the prime of his career, so he will likely bring in a large transfer fee from whichever team wants to sign him. The fee may not get near the £89.3m that United paid for him in 2016, but it will still be a significant. United have very publicly aspired to make a big signing, with Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane being their prime targets. Both of those players will demand a massive fee, on top of whomever they sign to replace Pogba or to fill any other position, so they will need to bring in some revenue from outgoing transfers to keep the books balanced and avoid violations of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. United have a bit of a bloated squad, so they could make some money from selling fringe players, but probably not enough to afford a Sancho/Kane level player while keeping Pogba. Pogba has had some public transfer flirtations with several European clubs in the past, mainly Real Madrid and Juventus, so if those clubs are interested and make offers, it may be difficult to convince him to stay. It is never a good case, for any team with any player, to keep a player that does not want to be there, so it should be in United’s best interest to part ways should Pogba want to leave.

The COVID-19 impacted transfer market may influence all of this, with most teams having less money to spend on transfers. United may not get as much money back on a transfer, and some clubs could prefer money plus player deals, which could be less than ideal if the player offered is not a good fit. United could make a similar deal that Liverpool offered Luis Suárez, guaranteeing he will be sold to his preferred club if he stayed another year, in order to wait out the worst of the COVID-market and allow things to return to normal. They may think the risk of waiting a season could lead to a higher transfer fee in a year, but whatever extra profits they could get could be hampered by Pogba being in the last year of his contract (if/when United exercise their club option for an additional year). This is the calculus that United have to run, the potential cost/benefit analysis of selling now vs. keeping for a year and how that could impact the team’s rebuild and their timeline toward becoming a title contender, as well as the risks of missing out on a big name transfer.

See, this is quite difficult, right? There are quite a few different aspects to this decision. Would a Fernandes-Pogba partnership in midfield be as good as it sounds on paper? Will they be provided the time to work out any issues? Does the United hierarchy think they have a chance of bringing in a big name signing? Would they need to sell Pogba to finance it? My heart goes out to Solskjær, this is difficult.

So what would I do, you may ask? I would choose to sell Pogba, but I would ask myself a few questions first. Firstly, I would see if Pogba wants to leave. If the transfer flirtations continue, then it is probably time to let him go, but if he says he wants to stay, then I would definitely strongly consider keeping him for at least one season and seeing how things work. Related to this point, I would gauge his willingness of signing a new contract. They cannot afford to make the “Arsenal” mistake of letting an incredible player run down his contract and leave for a cut-rate fee, or worse, for free. Even with the poor transfer market, I would not risk keeping Pogba one more season and selling next season if he does not sign a new contract, as that would massively affect the fee United could get for him a year from now. I would also gauge the market for Pogba. If the interest is there, then the decision to sell him is much easier to make. Ultimately, I believe selling him is the right decision because, at least from my perspective of looking at the United rebuild, they need a forward much more than they need another very good attacking midfielder. If the media rumors are to be believed (and most of the time they are not, but still), United are close to a deal with Ajax for van de Beek, who would be a very solid signing. Van de Beek, combined with Fernandes and the emerging Fred, as well as Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić, makes the Red Devils’ midfield solid enough to be successful, but they still need a striker and, possibly, a winger. The fee they could get back for Pogba allows them to shop for a top-tier forward, including the Harry Kane/Jadon Sancho level player they have wanted. Yes, this summer transfer window may be significantly different from past years, but it definitely appears to be the time to go after Kane and Sancho, who both appear to be at major crossroads in their careers. If United want to sign either of them, now appears to be the most ideal time. Pogba is a brilliant player who served United well the last four seasons, and he should be given a proper send off for his service to the club. However, now appears to be the time to sell.

While I personally believe it is time to sell, I think the impact that COVID-19 has had on the football world will delay major transfers one season. This will likely lead to drama over Pogba’s contract next season, making transfer negotiations more difficult for United next summer. Pogba should be relatively healthy again, however, and he should take his place in the midfield next to Fernandes, so we will all at least get to see how this potential partnership works out in reality. The debate will likely continue to rage around Pogba, and this one article will likely be a drop in the ocean of stories on this topic that will be written in the next year, but it appears, one way or another, Pogba and United have reached a crossroads in their relationship.