Long Live the Arteta Dream, But Bring on Emery

By James McMahon

 

On Monday evening it became clear that the Arsenal board’s long and winding search for the man to lead the club out of the Wenger era had come to an end. In the last week, bookmakers had stopped taking bets on Mikel Arteta being that man, and pretty much everyone seemed certain that the former captain would be taking the step up. The name Unai Emery was barely at the tip of anyone’s tongue, and certainly not mine, until the news trickled out of the Emirates, and initial reaction has therefore been, well, a bit “meh”.

Having been firmly part of #TeamArteta for a while, I was initially quite angry at the news. Emery is surely the opposite of Arteta, an appointment based solely on the size of his trophy cabinet and some boring conception of ‘experience’ in stark contrast to the previous favourite for the job, who offered a concrete long-term vision for how football should be played at Arsenal, and who is regarded as a world-class coach. I’ve now slept on it, though, and had a chance to work my way down from that fit of mild annoyance, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not actually too bad a decision at all. And here’s why.

Unai Emery is still fairly young for a manager – at 46 years old, he’s younger than Guardiola, Klopp and Conte, and is the same age as Pochettino. He’s not an older Carlo Ancelotti-style figure purely appointed as a safe pair of hands who relies only on severeness and charisma, with little tactical consideration at all. In that sense, it’s not as backward-looking a decision as I initially feared would be made as soon as Wenger announced his resignation.

The demands Emery places on his players are huge. His tactical preparation for games is incredibly drawn-out and intense, he is extremely rigorous when it comes to positioning and defensive organising, and wants every single player, both at the front and at the back, to be absolutely certain of what they are meant to be doing at every moment in the game. The Arsenal dressing room has been crying out for this for some time now, and will, I think, be incredibly receptive to this drastic change in coaching style. I suppose what Arsenal fans wanted was a clean break with the Wenger era, and this is certainly that.

His most recent job was at PSG, where, to some extent he failed. Yes, he won a domestic treble this season, but that’s hardly a miracle when you have the Qatari state backing you. What PSG desperately want is the Champions League title, which Emery was unable to give them in each of his two seasons there, and they hardly gave a good account of themselves in either of their exits from the competition either. But PSG is not the sort of club in which Emery could ever have been as successful as he would have wanted to be. He has said recently that 50% of the dressing room were willing to get stuck in with the intense tactical analysis, while the other half (i.e. Neymar and his pals) most certainly were not. This is not necessarily Emery’s fault – PSG are run in such a way that the board and club president sign players not for the purpose of building a coherent team, but purely for the purpose of having a huge collection of superstars, the majority of whom are attackers. The decision to sign His Holiness, Neymar Jr, wasn’t taken by Emery, for example.

A more accurate reflection of an Unai Emery team comes from his Valencia and Sevilla sides. At Valencia, despite a practically empty bank account, he finished 6th, then 3rd three times in a row, even after losing David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata. He developed a reputation for improving average players while there, and his success with a squad of relative mediocrity should not go unnoticed.

At Sevilla he played a fast and intense style of counter-attacking football, leading them to three consecutive Europa League trophies, something Arsenal could do with next season. The extent of his tactical analysis became almost infamous while at Sevilla, as he would spend up to 12 hours analysing each game, producing USB drives for each individual player on their previous performance, and how to exploit their next opposition – the sort of game-to-game preparation that has been lacking at the Emirates for some time.

He also has a penchant for developing youth players, and, considering the number of prospects Arsenal have at the minute, this is really promising. Players like Maitland-Niles, Mavropanos and Reiss Nelson have all looked really impressive of late, and could do with a manager who takes them seriously, and who will instill a sense of tactical discipline, concentration and level-headedness in their play too. With Arsenal’s new managerial setup, with a director of football and a head of recruitment with a track record of signing young, exciting talent, a head coach who is going to give players like that serious game time is a really important thing to have – especially if reports of a measly £50m bank balance are to be believed.

Who knows, Arteta might be the next Guardiola, Cruyff, and Michels all in one, and Arsenal may well have missed out on a really exciting proposition. And while I still would have prefered Arteta to be the man to lead the club into the future, after having some time to think about it, Emery is far from a boring, regressive, safe choice. Let’s give him a couple of years and see what he can do. If everything falls quickly into place, and all the players buy fully into his philosophy, there could really be quite exciting times ahead for Arsenal fans.

Why Shouldn’t Arteta Get the Arsenal Job?

Written by James McMahon

Although the reaction to Mikel Arteta emerging as the clear front runner for the vacant Arsenal job has certainly been mixed, the volatile response from some sections of the club’s fan-base has been utterly baffling. After having been so vehemently opposed to Wenger and the old, it’s more than a little strange to see some fans so furious at such an exciting and forward-thinking appointment.

What do these fans want? They’ve piled the pressure on Wenger for years, working themselves into an absolute frenzy every time the man so much as uttered a word, yet who do they want as a replacement? Is it someone fresh, new, forward-thinking and exciting? An innovative choice, extremely highly regarded by the world’s greatest manager with a very clear footballing philosophy and who already commands a great deal of respect over the dressing room? No. They want Carlo Ancelotti or some other ‘big name’ manager to come in and do – I don’t know – just do something! Someone who will beat the squad into shape, who cares if there’s no direction to it? Fuck it, why not Mourinho, eh?

Mikel Arteta is a man who has worked under Pep Guardiola for two years. He has presided over, and therefore deserves a great deal of credit for, perhaps the greatest Premier League side England has ever seen. Guardiola is famously a difficult man to work for, he’s incredibly intense, immensely driven, and refuses to compromise on his clear and absolute vision. If Arteta has managed to remain the right-hand-man to this footballing God, and if said God is still reluctant to let him go, then how on earth could anyone doubt Arteta’s ability?

If reports are to be believed, Arsenal have a transfer budget of £50m this Summer. They’re not a club who can bring in some superstar manager who can entice a load of Galacticos to North London with an infinite pot of gold; they need a brilliant coach who will improve players, indoctrinate them into a clear, ambitious and positive philosophy of football, while Arsenal’s new recruitment structure oversees a vast, progressive scouting structure that can bring in the talent they need at the best value.

Arsenal are not Manchester City. They can’t just get their own Pep Guardiola, sit back, spend a bit of cash and just watch the trophies roll on in – anyone who thinks the club can now challenge for the title just because Wenger is gone is nigh-on delusional. We’re talking about the exit of a manager of 22 years, who oversaw the move to a huge new stadium and endured a great deal of austerity as a result. They can’t spend £100m on full backs, can’t expect to instantly replicate the 03/04 season or win the league next year. But they can take a punt on a well-respected, world-class coach who can help them fight for those things 3 or 4 years down the line.

The cries for an Ancelotti figure come from a desperation for instant gratification. These fans want immediate results which simply aren’t going to come. If Arsenal supporters don’t get right behind Arteta, and if they don’t give him at least a year or two to work his magic, then I think their fan base is severely lost.

Who Should Succeed Arsène Wenger?

By James McMahon

Arsène Wenger’s long and impressive reign at Arsenal came to an unexpected close today, as he announced that he will be leaving North London at the end of this fractious and largely disappointing season. His record at the club, though, is nothing to be sniffed at, and his time there will obviously be revered for years to come, and the impact he has had on Arsenal’s style of play must, and will, be respected. When such a dynasty comes to an end, it’s particularly important to take a great deal of care over who is selected to take on the challenge of rebuilding the club after being landed in such a mess over the past year or two. The front-runners for the job come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes (perhaps signalling a worrying lack of direction on the half of the board), but there’s one name that is frustratingly absent from this list, who, I think, would be the perfect fit for the job. Before we get on to that, though, let’s acquaint ourselves with the favourites (according to the Evening Standard, at least).

 

Patrick Vieira – 10/3

The former Arsenal captain is currently the favourite to take on the role, with Wenger himself today stating that he reckons his fellow Frenchman is the most likely to succeed him. Vieira has had some experience in management, starting with the Man City U21 and U19 teams, before beginning his career in senior management with New York City FC in the MLS in January 2016. There, he has received praise for his coaching style, with intense training sessions and an aura of ruthlessness both cited as hallmarks of his mode of operation – something that has apparently been sorely lacking within the Arsenal setup. His time working in Man City’s youth system as well has cemented his views on the importance of developing younger English talent to allow them to compete within the modern, continental, style of football. Considering Arsenal’s past tradition of prioritising younger players, I suppose this wouldn’t be the worst move, but perhaps some experience of management outside of the MLS would be beneficial before taking on the reigns at a club like Arsenal.

 

Carlo Ancelotti – 6/1

Ancelotti is obviously a manager with an impressive history, and a decent record with some of the world’s biggest clubs. I don’t think he’s suited to Arsenal, though. He would perhaps be considered a safe pair of hands, someone who can maintain some stability at the club while not really offering anything particularly different, new, or exciting. His teams can often be rigid and a little inflexible. He’s not known for being a coaching manager, and isn’t big on bringing young players into the fold. His appointment would stink of directionless short-termism to me.

 

Thomas Tuchel – 6/1

Tuchel has been amongst the leading pack in this list for months now, and while on paper it would make sense, the fact that he’s still up here despite his appalling relationship with Arsenal’s new head of recruitment does baffle me somewhat. Sven Mislintat was director of football at Borussia Dortmund while Tuchel was head coach there, and said he never considered a move away from the club until he was given a training ground ban and forced out of the club’s inner circle by Tuchel. It would be just a little odd if Arsenal’s board made the decision to so radically restructure the way the club runs in bringing Sven into the fold, only to throw that all away by appointing pretty much the only manager that Mislintat might refuse to work with. It’s a no from me.

 

Brendan Rodgers – 7/1

Nah.

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Leonardo Jardim is an outside bet for the next Arsenal coach

Leonardo Jardim – 15/2

My second favourite choice, if that matters to anyone. Jardim has a fantastic record with Monaco, leading them to the French league title and a Champions League semi-final last season, and, considering the number of key players he lost in the summer transfer window, he’s done incredibly well to put together yet another bold, exciting team to lead them to 2nd spot behind the Qatari national team – all the while using young players and playing attacking football. He would be an excellent choice in terms of rebuilding this lost Arsenal team for the long-term within the remit of a dedicated positive philosophy – and can do it on the cheap. Not bad.

 

Mikel Arteta – 8/1

I’d love to see Arteta back at Arsenal, but perhaps not just yet. He’s currently learning from the best, emerging as Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man, and the experience he must be gaining while at Man City this season will surely serve him excellently in years to come – there must be a reason why the world’s best manager speaks so highly of him. He could do worse, however, than to land himself a job somewhere a little smaller first – clubs like Watford spring to mind, with a decent squad who can easily adapt to a fairly attacking style. If he impresses elsewhere, then he should be at the front of the queue the next time we find ourselves in this situation.

 

Joachim Löw – 8/1

Obviously anyone with a World Cup under their belt can’t be doing much wrong, but it’s a well rehearsed trope that national team managers can often find it fairly hard to adapt to the intensity of club management. Löw has worked within the German national team (first as assistant and then as manager) since 2004, which is a very, very long time to be out of club football. What he has achieved there is undeniably spectacular, but his previous stints in club management don’t make for an invigorating read. Frauenfeld, Stuttgart, Fenerbahce, Karlsruhe, Adanaspor, Tirol Innsbruck and Austria Wien isn’t the most convincing list of clubs, and while adaptation may well not prove to be a problem (he is, after all, linked with the likes of Real Madrid as well), it might not be a risk worth taking when there are other good options out there.

 

Maurizio Sarri – 40-1

There are other names in consideration as well, including Rafa Benitez, Thierry Henry and Sean Dyche to name a few, but going through everyone else would make this a very long article. The name, however, that sadly hasn’t really been featured anywhere is Maurizio Sarri, with SkyBet putting him at a lowly 40/1.

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Maurizio Sarri has done an excellent job at Napoli

While they may well not win Serie A this season, with a 4 point gap up to Juventus, the job Sarri has done with his Napoli team has been nothing short of incredible. Regarded by Guardiola as the best team he’s ever played against, Napoli have been an absolute joy to watch this season. A beautifully fluid and intense passing style of play has underpinned their success this season, and you don’t have to dig too deep to remember a time where the same would have been said about Arsenal.

 

What’s more, Sarri inherited a fairly average team. He didn’t splash the cash wildly, instead he coached and improved existing players exponentially, and spent wisely and prudently, using the money gained from the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to strengthen parts of the squad he deemed unsuitable, specifically targeting players who would fit comfortably and immediately into a philosophy and style of play that he remains, and will always be, unconditionally devoted to.

 

His conversion of Dries Mertens from a winger into a lethal striker is a great example of his ability as a coach, as the Belgian has scored 17 times this season, and 28 in the last, compared to, for example, a total of 6 in the 2014/15 season. With managers at English top clubs such as Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino succeeding so impressively with a reputation of vastly improving and re-training players, Arsenal could definitely do worse than to jump on that bandwagon and introduce a coach like Sarri into their fold. And with his £7m release clause, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

 

If Arsenal are serious about wanting to get back in contention for titles, and be able to consistently find themselves in the top four, it’s not good enough just to appoint a short-term manager who, while perhaps being able to get some immediate results, wont lay sturdy foundations on which the club can build for years to come. Arsenal are a huge club, even if their league position and performances of late seem to tell a different story, and they’re a club with fans who deserve to be treated to some positive, long-term, joined-up thinking, and appointing a manager such as Sarri or Jardim is a massive step towards that. Obviously that won’t happen though, but, you know, we might as well hope.

VAR: the future of football?

By James McMahon

It’s the hot topic of the moment in English football, with pundits and fans alike struggling to come to a definitive answer to the questions raised by the FA’s tentative dip of the toe into the world of video assistant referees. In the few games in which VAR has been released into the wild, it’s seen varying degrees of success, more often achieving little other than baffling spectators and fans at home – not quite the desired baby steps of a system designed to eliminate errors and confusion. It is, however, certain to be introduced to the Premier League for good in seasons to come, so perhaps it’s worth taking a gander at how the Italians have been getting on with their new toy this season, and the effect it’s had on the way the sport functions as a whole.

Back in January, Nicola Rizzoli, head of Italy’s refereeing association, convened a meeting of Serie A’s head coaches to conduct a mid-season VAR-review. Like in England, the reception so far had been polarised, as prominently demonstrated by Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi, who insisted that his side were somehow 9 points worse off than they would otherwise have been. Aside from the politics, though, the conference brought into play some interesting and unexpected statistics which shine a new light on the impact of VAR on how football has been played.

First off, there were 1,078 decisions taken that involved VAR. Of those, 60 corrections were made, 49 mistakes were avoided (don’t ask me what the difference is between the two, but you get the picture), and there were only 11 mistakes. Not what you would expect from VAR given the concern and damnation coming from sections of the British public – an error rate of only 1% must be seen as pretty successful on this front. On top of this, there have been fewer fouls, with 150 fewer yellow cards shown in the first half of this Serie A season than at the same point in the last, which is a staggering statistic. It seems players are becoming more wary of their behaviour, knowing that they’re being monitored by a video referee at all times, and accordingly ensuring they keep out of trouble.

While these stats are undeniably impressive, this improvement in adjudicative precision comes at an important cost, and perhaps the most interesting debate surrounding VAR has been about what it means for the purpose of the sport itself. Although it may well lead to the avoidance of many mistakes with a surprisingly low miss rate, it often comes at the expense of the supporters. While the introduction of all-seater stadiums, the corporatisation of clubs and the explosion of ticket prices since 1992 make up the roots of the separation of football from its fans, VAR, as small an issue as it seems, certainly isn’t helping our cause.

Of course, nobody wants to see their team erroneously denied a legitimate goal or penalty, but when you watch a VAR-officiated game you can understand the impact it has on us as spectators. To start with, those in attendance have absolutely no clue what’s going on when the video assistant awakes from his slumber. Four or five minutes can pass while a decision is being made, with fans in the dark about what is actually going on. Replays aren’t shown on the big screens (and, obviously, for good reason), meaning all spectators can do is shrug their shoulders, go fetch a £10 pie and sit tight until the referee allows play to continue.

On top of that, VAR tends to spoil those moments of ecstasy, euphoria and release that come when a goal is scored. Instead of jumping out of your seat to celebrate, you find yourself worrying for somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds about whether the referee missed a foul in the buildup or the linesman failed to spot a marginal offside – the football fan, ever the pessimist, always expects the goal will be disallowed. When the referee finally points towards the centre circle, that rush of excitement which forms the basis of our love of football has disappeared. Although, as previously stated, it’s a long time since fans have held a major stake in football as opposed to the monopoly of multinationals, sponsors and oligarchs, surely we should be clinging on to the spontaneity of football and the emotional twists and turns we are subjected to that drive us to the stadiums, pubs and television sets in the first place.

This is not a Luddite view. Goal-line technology, for example, has been a positive addition to the game because the decision is instantaneous. But if we can agree that football exists to be watched by and to entertain us, rather than purely as a showcase of athleticism and skill which must be accurately rewarded, or solely as a money-making enterprise for club owners and TV companies, then anything that so severely interrupts the flow of a match must be opposed, even if that means errors continue to be made.

I’m sure that the VAR train is now unstoppable, though, but in an era of Ashleys, Oystons and Venkys, £70 match tickets and £70m defenders at the biggest of the big clubs, football is already so far detached from its supporters. Let’s not continue to allow ourselves to be overlooked. While VAR may seem comparatively insignificant, it’s important to show that supporters can still wield power over those at the top of the sport. Let’s reassert ourselves as the heart of the game, one step at a time, and work together towards a future where you don’t have to be in the top tax bracket to be able to experience the thrill of following your team home and away. We can yet bring an atmosphere back to those dizzy, geometric arenas.

Four Solutions to the Sané Problem That Would Cost Manchester City Nothing

By Charles MacDonald-Jones

Leroy Sané’s unfortunate injury against Cardiff City has prompted much discussion and outcry, from Pep Guardiola arguing that all players need better protection by referees and Joe Bennett, the man responsible for the untimely challenge, apologising on social media. But perhaps the most curious talking point to come out of this is Manchester City’s last minute bid for Riyad Mahrez.

While Sané was still fit, City pulled out of a potential deal for Alexis Sanchez, citing that, in the end, £35 million was just too much money to part with, even for a player in his prime. You could see why, too: it would be hard to see exactly where Alexis would fit in the City starting XI, given the insatiable form of both Sané and Raheem Sterling, as well as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus (when fit) competing for the central position up top.

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Sergio Aguero: not bad for a backup striker

Now, however, the conversation has changed. Missing out on Alexis to Manchester United, and with Sané now out of action for six weeks, City are turning their attention to Leicester, with City allegedly prepared to offer £65 million plus a player to land Mahrez, who primarily shines on the right for Leicester, while Sané’s regular position is on the left. All of which begs the question: why?

Sané is only out for six weeks. Granted, there are some important games in that time, including the knockout stages of the Champions League and the League Cup final, but this is only one first team player. City have an abundance of attacking firepower up front, as well as plenty of promising academy products. Here are four solutions that Guardiola could look to in case he can’t land his man – or if he just fancies saving a bit of money, instead.

1. Utilise a back three

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With Conte’s Chelsea winning the league with a 3-4-3 formation last season, a back three came back into fashion in a big way. Guardiola himself also used variants of a back three last season and earlier this season, occasionally to shoehorn Aguero and Jesus into the same side. If Guardiola were to take a leaf out of Conte’s book and play with a back three – which would be more natural now with the left-footed Aymerick Laporte able to fit in on the left hand side – then wingbacks Kyle Walker and Danilo could provide width, with Sterling and David (or Bernardo) Silva playing just behind Aguero.

2. De Bruyne as a winger

It is easy to forget that De Bruyne hasn’t always been a central midfielder, or “false-8” as he once described his role under Guardiola. He has solely played this position this season, but at Wolfsburg and earlier for City he was often found as a true attacking midfielder, either as a no. 10 or out on the wings.

He often pushes up and delivers crosses from wide areas anyway in this City team, so he could easily provide the width to the attack, with Sterling still drifting in as he is wont to do. This would leave a midfield berth for Ilkay Gundogan, whose performances of late have been more than promising, or even Fabian Delph or Yaya Touré.

3. Sterling staying wide, Bernardo Silva cutting inside

Sterling has started a number of games on the left, with him and Sané often interchanging anyway. He started the 5-0 win against Crystal Palace from this position, in which he scored two goals. City’s two (ostensible) widemen have more been defined by the roles that they play than which side of the pitch they are on.

Sané often holds the width, with Sterling coming inside and acting occasionally as a second striker. Bernardo Silva, a more natural attacking midfielder, is more comfortable drifting inside than staying wide. Sterling, however, can do either. If Sterling stayed wide and Bernardo Silva drifted into the box, City would still maintain their shape and provide much of the same attacking potency.

4. Use academy players

It is shameful that City are considering a £65 million “quick fix” for less than two months, when they have a number of academy graduates at their disposal. Brahim Diaz is a promising attacking midfielder, while Oleksandr Zinchenko is a left winger who has been utilised by Guardiola as a left back in the first team – it is not inconceivable that he could play either as a direct replacement for Sané, or as a wingback instead of Danilo.

And then there is Phil Foden, who lit up last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, as he won the tournament’s Golden Ball and helped England beat Spain in the final. A proven goal threat at youth level, Guardiola gave him a taste of Champions League action as an experimental City side lost to Shakhtar. Foden was played out of position as a left wingback. What he could add to City’s first team in a more familiar role remains to be seen. If Guardiola is as committed to youth as his reputation suggests, then it should not be too hard to find a replacement for Sané that isn’t a 27 year old Algerian.

Happily Ever After for Arsenal as Özil and Aubameyang Pledge Allegiance

By James McMahon

As a friend of mine just said to me, “as an Arsenal fan, I’ve never woken up to such good news”. Aside from last night’s disappointing 3-1 defeat away to Swansea, this morning did indeed come bearing fantastic news for Arsenal’s supporters and admirers with the arrival of Aubameyang and news of Özil’s contract renewal.

Arsenal’s season so far has been defined by Alexis Sanchez – it was far from secret that he wanted to leave, it had become apparent that he was an immensely divisive figure in the dressing room, and there were even reports that there were players he actually refused to pass to. The best kid in the playground, he elected to go all the way himself, only to inevitably concede possession, and threw tantrums when the ball didn’t find its way to his feet.

Despite this burden, the £35m transfer to Manchester City which was expected at the beginning of January seemed like a fairly poor option. Arsenal’s transfer game in recent times has famously been sketchy at best, and that money would unlikely be put to good use, perhaps triggering the departure of the club’s other leading player, Mesut Özil. But come the end of the transfer window, Arsenal are miraculously now in a stronger position than they were at the start of it.

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Alexis Sanchez tries on his United shirt

The swap deal with United for Mkhitaryan was a fantastic piece of business. Although the Armenian failed to make a real impact in Manchester, if his final season in Dortmund is anything to go by, Arsenal are welcoming a truly fantastic player to North London. With 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 games for BvB in the 2015/16 season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan clearly provides sensational returns when used in the right way. With Wenger’s arm around his shoulder, and with a more cerebral, fast, fluid and, vitally, attacking game, the midfielder will feel much more at home at Arsenal than he ever did under Mourinho’s defensive setup.

On the end of Mkhitaryan’s stunning list of assists in Germany was, of course, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. In that same season, the Gabon international managed an impressive 39 goals in 49 appearances, and consequently Arsenal have had to smash their transfer record to acquire his talents. While there are question marks surrounding his behaviour and so-called “bad boy” image, his long-awaited move away from Borussia Dortmund should weather his storm at least for a while.

On top of all this, Mesut Özil will be staying put, leaving Arsenal with a genuinely exciting midfield duo, both with the potential to be two of the best creative players in the league on their good days, hopefully bringing far more success than the likes of Iwobi who never really seems comfortable on the ball. We now face the possibility of an Arsenal with quite a fearsome attacking presence. Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang’s lucrative partnership is set to be rekindled, and Özil will be able to feed off and feed to another couple of fantastic players instead of becoming Arsenal’s new one-man show in the post-Sanchez era.

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It looks like Mesut Özil will be staying at the Emirates

Lacazette’s position, however, is slightly less certain – although he can play on the right wing, he’d rather not. Playing two up front in a highly attacking structure could be tempting, but Arsenal’s well-rehearsed defensive frailties would be an issue, and Xhaka can’t slot into defence in the same way someone like Fernandinho can. Although for a while it looked like Arsenal could swoop in for Jonny Evans during Man City’s chase for Aymeric Laporte, it seems Aubameyang’s move has put far too much of a strain on the club’s finances for them to contemplate another deal this afternoon.

Although selling your most talented player, especially to a rival (and more importantly, to Jose Mourinho), can rarely be considered the best of moves, Arsenal seem to have worked this transfer window very well indeed. Their fans are hopefully in for an exciting new burst of energy at the club over the rest of the season. Wenger hasn’t conceded the title yet for a reason.

Alexis Sanchez: the Perennial Winner

It seemed like it was the start of a new era: before the 2016/17 season began, there was a palpable sense of excitement around Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho’s reign had been ushered in with four relatively high profile signings: Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the lion, the legend, the king –  arrived on a free transfer as one of the best strikers in the world. Paul Pogba became the most expensive player of all time, and Eric Bailly arrived as a hotly tipped prospect for the future. And then there was Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Despite being the previous season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year, his United career never fully got going. He was often omitted from the United team early in his first season, and was hooked at half time against Manchester City in September. Although he eventually came back into the team, and even scored in the Europa League final, it is possible that he never really recovered.

Mourinho had questioned his fitness, but Mourinho’s definition of the word isn’t the same as other people’s. In addition to physical fitness, Mourinho has said, “With regard to the psychological side, which is essential to play at the highest level, a fit player feels confident, cooperates with and believes in his team-mates, and shows solidarity towards them.”

For Mourinho, there was, clearly, a an issue of fitness with Mkhitaryan. It may well have been mental, instead of physical. This is a player who, after all, did take some time bedding in when he first arrived at Borussia Dortmund. He needed time to adapt, to be 100% mentally focused. This is not to diminish his talents, for he remains a tremendous footballer, but it is clear that Mourinho was never convinced of his mentality.

It is in this way that we can see the stark contrast to Alexis Sanchez, who, as Mkhitaryan leaves Old Trafford for the Emirates, will move the other way. Sanchez is a winner; a player with the mental fortitude to drive him to be the very best. This has occasionally manifested as a problem at Arsenal. His frustration on the pitch at times has been obvious, as was his irritation at what he perceived to be a lack of ambition in failing to make big name signings.

While he clearly let this affect his performance on the pitch, often looking less than bothered in the last few months, it would be impertinent not to suggest that he has a point: Arsenal, the team who always finish in the top 4, ended up 5th last season. This time round, 6th looks much more likely. Arsene Wenger’s side have often looked bereft of ideas both on and off the pitch, and Sanchez’s agitation for a move was no doubt inspired by his desire to move forwards, upwards, just as much as it was by a bigger wage package.

He could have gone to Manchester City, where he would be reunited with his former manager Pep Guardiola, but in a way, he is much more suited to Manchester United than either Arsenal or City. Mourinho has instilled an almost galactico-style approach, fusing the superstar magic of David de Gea and Paul Pogba with an instilled work ethic by academy graduates and lesser names; Jesse Lingard’s constant tracking back, Antonio Valencia’s renewed consistency.

Sanchez can be another jewel in this team, allowed the freedom to attack at will. Mourinho might drill his team defensively, but he allows his attack to improvise, and surely Sanchez will relish this platform to shine. Under Guardiola, he could have been part of something more, but he would have no doubt been a much smaller cog.

The endless automations practiced by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea can be devastatingly effective, but at Old Trafford Sanchez will be given a blank slate; an opportunity to add a little sparkle to a team whose robust pragmatism has often bordered on tedium. Just exactly how well Sanchez and Manchester United do over the comings months will be no doubt intriguing, but if there is one thing for certain, it is that the Chilean will be up for the challenge.

This is the team you could have bought instead of Coutinho 10 years ago

Philippe Coutinho’s exuberant £142 million transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona this month has been touted as one of the more baffling moves in recent times. The switch itself is not a particular surprise – Coutinho wanted to move, Barcelona wanted to buy him – but the circumstances are a little more strange. Why now? Barcelona are pretty much a certainty to win the league, the player is ineligible for the Champions League, and £142 million is an awful lot of money.

Aside from this, there is the very real possibility that Liverpool won’t miss their playmaker all that much – the front three of Mo Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané did perfectly well without the Brazilian when he was sidelined earlier in the season – and yet still stand to gain an absurd profit (which, given Naby Keïta’s arrival from RB Leipzig at the end of the season, they might do well to channel into a better goalkeeper and fullbacks).

But £142 million is just the kind of crazy football transfer world we live in nowadays. Neymar’s buyout clause was supposed to be a hands off warning, but Paris Saint Germain pulled the trigger without thinking twice. Barcelona have now spent more than that figure on just two players. To put all this absurdity into context, we decided to find out just exactly what this money would buy 10 years ago, based on actual transfers at the time. It could buy a whole team, as it turns out.

Goalkeeper

Mark Schwarzer – £0

When Mark Schwarzer’s contract with Middlesborough expired in June 2008, there were a whole host of teams clamouring for the Australian, including Bayern Munich and Juventus, no less. But Schwarzer turned these down in favour of guaranteed first team football, which led him to signing a deal with Fulham, where he was first choice keeper for five years. Backup spells with Chelsea and Leicester followed, meaning that Schwarzer became the first Premier League player since Eric Cantona to win back to back titles with different clubs.

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Defence

Filipe Luis – £1,600,000

Long before his brief stint at Chelsea, Filipe Luis was a staple of Deportivo La Coruna’s defence. Initially joining in 2006 on loan, he eventually signed a permanent deal for approximately £1.6 million in 2008, going on to feature in La Liga’s team of the season, despite being just 22 years of age at the time. Now aged 32, he’s back at Athletico Madrid and is still one of the most consistent left backs in the league.

Vincent Kompany – £6,000,000

Despite recent recurrent injury problems, Kompany has been rock in the heart of Manchester City’s defence for a decade. He was initially purchased in the 2008 summer transfer window for £6 million from Hamburg, and made an instant impact at the Manchester club, making 45 appearances in his first season.

Branislav Ivanovic – £9,700,000

Usually deployed as a full back, Ivanovic proved to be an invaluable asset both on the right and in the centre for Chelsea. He moved to the London club for £9.7 million in the January 2008 transfer window from Lokomotiv Moscow. Having fallen out of favour with Antonio Conte, he has now returned to Russia to play for Zenit St Petersburg.

Pablo Zabaleta – £6,450,000

The Argentine spent 9 years as Manchester City’s right back, before signing for West Ham on a free transfer last summer, following the expiry of his contract at the Etihad. Arriving in Manchester from Espanyol, Zabaleta quickly established himself as a first team player for Manchester City in 2008, having chosen the English club over Juventus.

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Midfield

Samir Nasri – £14,000,000

Arsene Wenger had been tracking Nasri since before he was even born, apparently. Or at least since he was 17. So it was no great surprise when the Frenchman eventually joined his compatriot at Arsenal after making the switch from Marseille, after he topped Ligue 1’s assist chart for the 2007-2008 season. His form at Arsenal ensured a £25,000,000 switch to Manchester City in 2011.

Javier Mascherano – £18,700,000

Making his debut for Liverpool in 2007 on loan, Mascherano’s transfer from West Ham was blighted by contract difficulties. He eventually signed a permanent contract for the Reds in 2008, in a deal purported to be around £18.6 million, which included the player’s wages. Initially a defensive midfielder, his ability to slot into defence was fully by his current club Barcelona, who signed him in 2010, converting him into a fully fledged centre back the following season.

Luka Modric – £16,500,000

Still widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, Modric moved from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur, where he made 127 appearances over the next four years. When he was eventually sold to Real Madrid, Spurs got £30 million for the Croatian playmaker.

James Milner – £12,000,000

Where to begin with James Milner? Where to end? The Englishman has played all over during his career, from an auxiliary forward to Liverpool’s chief left back and penalty taker last season. But it was as a wide midfielder he made his name, moving to Aston Villa in 2008 from Newcastle. Former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini described Milner as the most complete player in the modern English game. Boring or not, he remains perennially underrated.

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Attack

Dimitar Berbatov – £30,750,000

The most expensive player in this team, Berbatov still represented good value for Manchester United after they bought him from Spurs, providing more assists than anyone else in the Premier League in his first season, and eventually going on to win the Premier League Golden Boot in 2010/2011.

Robbie Keane – £19,000,000

After a glistening six year spell at Tottenham Hotspur, Keane also departed White Hart Lane in 2008 alongisde Berbatov. His destination was Anfield, where he scored five times in 20 appearances, before moving back to Spurs the following January.

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All things considered, this team at the time would have come to £134,600,000 – give or take. With that kind of money you’ve still got enough left over for half a Marouane Fellaini, too.

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The Steel City Derby: A Neutral’s View

Although I’ve lived in Sheffield for the best part of seven years, this weekend’s Steel City Derby was only the third I’ve been around for, an indication of the two clubs’ hitherto diverging paths. It was the first time since April 2010 that they’d met in the second tier of English football, Wednesday having escaped League One at the first time of asking back in 2012, a feat that eluded United for six long seasons. But despite Wednesday’s impressive promotion pushes in the past couple of seasons, early evidence seems to be pointing towards the balance of power in Sheffield shifting in the Blades’ favour.

Disclaimer: even as a non-local, I’m not sure if it’s possible to be 100% neutral in Sheffield if you’ve lived here a while. Heretical as it might sound, I tend to wish both clubs well. I’ve enjoyed long and successful Football Manager careers with both, and I’ve been to Hillsborough and Bramall Lane plenty of times (admittedly I’ve seen United play more often, but that’s more to do with location and the cost of tickets than anything else).

Anyway, that is the mindset with which I watched the Steel City Derby: as a fan of Sheffield football in general. A Wednesdayite friend of mine had a spare ticket going, and I was delighted to be able to catch one of English football’s most storied derbies first-hand. I’d spoken to acquaintances on both sides in the days leading up to the match and the overriding feeling seemed to be one of nervousness. Walking through Hillsborough before the game, however, there was something of a festival atmosphere, with fans in decidedly high spirits sinking cans in the street and spilling out of pubs under the watchful gaze of police forces bussed in from all over the country. 

But there was scant opportunity for this mood to take hold at Hillsborough Stadium, with Sheffield United scoring a well-worked free kick only a few minutes after the match had started. David Brooks rolled the ball back to John Fleck, who smashed the ball past a bewildered Westwood. Then, at 15 minutes, a simple clearance from Enda Stevens found its way through the slipshod Wednesday defence to the feet of Leon Clarke, who dutifully steered it home with a journeyman’s finish.

For Wednesday, the rest of the first half followed a similar pattern of shaky defending, bad crosses and long balls that went nowhere. The players looked somewhat shellshocked and, to their credit, the home fans recovered quicker from the early double salvo to contribute to the derby atmosphere. As a West Brom fan, I was struck by how much time Westwood took on the ball: you’d think that he was Ben Foster safeguarding a hard-fought 0-0 against Newcastle, not a goalkeeper 2-0 down in the biggest game of the season.

When Wednesday scored just before half-time, it was against the run of play. Gary Hooper wrapped his foot around a smart Ross Wallace cross and gave the hosts some hope. On the other side of half-time, Wednesday continued their mini-resurgence, passing the ball reasonably well and introducing Lucas João, who looked more mobile than the other forwards. Some tricky footwork by Kieran Lee in the middle of the park paid off, setting up Adam Reach’s cross for João to slot home.

Alas, the Wednesday renaissance was short-lived. Hillsborough had been bouncing for barely a minute when Mark Duffy turned van Aken inside out and beat Westwood at his near post. The goal was something of a deathblow, and I felt for the Wednesday fans around me (but I can also appreciate how great it must have been for those Blades who waggishly dubbed it the ‘Bouncing Day Massacre’). Leon Clarke compounded their misery ten minutes later with another goal, shrugging off the attentions of the two Wednesday centre backs far too easily.

The rest of the match was a foregone conclusion and Wednesday never looked likely to complete another two goal comeback. I was impressed by Sheffield United: it was the first time I’d seen them under Chris Wilder, and they had an attacking fluency that was often lacking under Nigel Clough. The main source of this was young David Brooks, who tormented the Sheffield Wednesday defence and looked incredibly assured on only his second league start. As for Wednesday, they seemed heavily reliant on long balls and crosses but struggled to make them work. Dare I say it: perhaps Atdhe Nuhiu and his velcro chest could’ve helped them out if they were so set on pursuing Pulisball in this game.

It’s only the start of a long Championship season and there are a lot of games left to play (not least the next Steel City Derby in January). But if Sheffield United can keep this up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were this year’s Huddersfield, thriving in spite of (or perhaps because of…) a lack of big name signings, instead working well within their own system of play.

The Race For The Most Hated Club in Germany

Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig & HSV set to compete for the honour of being Germany’s most hated club again this year

14th September 2017
Image result for red bull leipzig protestsHoffenheim fans see the funny side of the uproar surrounding their club and Leipzig, holding a banner up stating “we want our throne back” as Germany’s most hated.

It’s curious that, with a record 27 German domestic league titles, Bayern Munich are not even close to the most resented club in Germany. In the U.K., green eyes have often been shot at Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea for the success that has come with wealth. Fans of other English domestic teams cheer the opponents of our successful clubs in Europe namely for that reason. We tend to resent success.

Bayern Munich aren’t exactly popular across Germany,  indeed they’re far from it, but they’re also a long way from the level of vitriol directed at the likes of RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, two relatively new clubs without the history of the Traditionsvereine (tradition club) that many German fans respect. Hamburg, meanwhile, crashed out of the German cup this weekend to lowly Osnabrück. The utter abjectness of the performance on Sunday was reinforced by the fact they lost to their 3rd division opponents who played with 10 men after a red card in the 22nd minute. This is not a surprise – HSV lost 3:2 to Carl Zeiss Jena in 2015 and have consistently flirted with relegation since 2014. They have become to the Bundesliga what Sunderland were to the Premier League . It seems now like a matter of time before the inevitable.

Pride In Ownership & History

Whilst Hamburg fans are ridiculed for the appalling way in which the club is run (no fewer than 16 managers have come and gone at the Volksparkstadion in the last decade) the anger towards Hoffenheim and Leipzig is quite different. Over in Germany, fan ownership is not just seen as beneficial, it’s the law. The 50+1 rule ensures that external investors cannot have the majority of voting rights at a club. That’s the theory, anyway. The likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Vfl Wolfsburg have had huge backing from corporations such as Bayer & Volkswagen, allowing them to invest in talent such as Hakan Calhanoglu & Julian Draxler in recent years. These teams are viewed with some derision, yet when, in the year 2000, the founder of software firm SAP invested in Hoffenheim, a club located in a village in South-West Germany with a population of 3,000, German football was about to change forever.

Dietmar Hopp has led a pretty eventful life. He’s a hugely successful businessman, bought a spa resort from no other than Sean Connery & built a stadium for Hoffenheim football club worth €100m. He’s obviously got a few Euros pocket change. So much so that the alumni of Hoffenheim boast of the likes of Demba Ba, Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland, Luiz Gustavo & the once prolific Chinedu Obasi.

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Dietmar Hopp

The level of money that Hoffenheim were afforded was met with venom, particularly from the likes of Hans-Joachim Watzke, CEO of Borussia Dortmund, who stated that, “it would be a shame” if clubs such as Hoffenheim were allowed to compete. There were even suggestions that in 2008, when Hoffenheim first won promotion to the Bundesliga, that they would not receive their license from the DFB, Germany’s football governing body.

Fans across Germany voiced their displeasure, particularly Dortmund fans who had witnessed their beloved BVB whiskers away from financial ruin in 2005. Indeed, the atmosphere between Hoffenheim and Dortmund deteriorated so much that loudspeakers were placed next to Dortmund fans to drown out the whistles and chants of derision at Hoffenheim’s ground.

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Julian Nagelsmann watching his team in action

For all their faults, at least in the eyes of many fans of traditional clubs, Hoffenheim have somewhat redeemed themselves. After many recent years of flirting precariously with relegation (Watzke’s champagne still remains on ice) they promoted Julian Nagelsmann to head coach. The 28 year old guided Hoffenheim to safety in the 2015-16 season, before leading them to a miraculous 4th place a year later. The emergence of young German talent such as Niklas Süle & the development of Sebastian Rudy (both now sold to Bayern Munich) may have helped to soften the hatred shown towards them. However, it is far more likely the case that Hoffenheim have been able to slip somewhat under the radar over the last year as a result of a new enemy of the German football state – RB Leipzig.

The Red Bull Furore

Germans are, rightly, proud of their footballing heritage and prowess. This has largely been built from the backs of fans. 11 of the top 30 highest average crowds were to be found in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 (a notable mention for Stuttgart).  For the majority of football fans within the central European country, the game is nothing without fans. Indeed, one banner, at a protest from Bayern Munich fans against Arsenal ticket prices, read simply “without fans, football is not worth a penny”. This great support has allowed German clubs to invest in the highest standard of youth facilities. The end product has seen talented youngsters such as Timo Werner and Max Meyer recently break in to the national team, with Werner in particular looking likely to stay for many years to come.

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The Red Bull Arena on match day

The production line of talent was built on the backs of traditional clubs. The fans have paid for a quality of football over many years and it is the fans who are at the forefront of the Bundesliga. The 50+1 rule was brought in to stop commercialisation of the league, with many proponents of this law fearful that profit, not supporters, would become the main concern of the top brass at each club.

Bayer Leverkusen & Wolfsburg have both received signifcant backng from pharmaceutical giants Bayer & Volkswagen respectively. They have been the subject of much ire and anger from across the board & often referred to as “plastic clubs”. They have, however, roots steeped in history, with Leverkusen in particular noting that Bayer was an integral part of the club’s culture.

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BayArena, home of Bayer Leverkusen

This is significantly different from Red Bull Leipzig, or, to give them their now official title, RasenBallsport Leipzig. The team is only eight years old and only gained a license to play competitive football after Red Bull bought an amateur team license from another club, SSV Markranstädt. Dietrich Mateschitz, co-owner of Red Bull, had his wish. He had long pined for a footballing project in Germany and now Leipzig, with a population of 500,000, provided the perfect opportunity for Germany’s first properly commercialised club.

With teams already deployed in Austria, Ghana, Brazil & the USA, Leipzig became the company’s fifth project. The commercialisation of the club was further reinforced with the acquisition of the Zentralstadion in 2010, which saw the 44,000 capacity stadium swiftly renamed as the Red Bull Arena. Suggestions reported in the local media indicate that plans are in the offing for an 80,000 seater stadium to be built to the North of the city. 100 million Euros were planned to be pumped in to the club from 2010-2020. This level of financing saw opposition swept easily aside, leading to promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016, a mere 7 seasons after their founding.

Watzke has once again voiced his opinion, talking of a “culture clash” between commerce and traditional clubs. He has been joined by Heribet Bruchhagen, chairman of Eintracht Frankfurt, in calling for commercialised clubs to face stricter rules from the German FA, the DFB. Whilst some footballing chiefs have been vocally critical, organised fan groups from across Germany have taken their distaste of Leipzig to a new level. Friendly matches against Stuttgart, 1860 Munich, FC Union Berlin and others have been cancelled as a result of fan protests. In 2015, Karlsruhe ultras stormed the Leipzig team hotel in a frenzy of violence after sending threatening letters to the leaders of Leipzig fan groups if they traveled to support their team.

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Protests against Red Bull from the infamous Yellow Wall in Dortmund

Whilst the fans have made their point perfectly clear, others have given the Red Bull experiment praise. Wolfgang Niersbach, President of the DFB in 2014, stated that traditional clubs have not been successful for years and that “nobody should complain if a different approach is taken” which may lead to success. Klaus Allofs, a former national player for West Germany, was envious of the project but also claimed it was good for German football, with Beckenbauer claiming that Leipzig could challenge Bayern in 35 years for German footballing hegemony.

The club has also provided an injection of cash for other local clubs such as FC Sachsen Leipzig, who sold their youth team to RB Leipzig, allowing them to remain in business. 70% of Leipzig residents, according to a local media poll in 2016, see the project favourably.

An exciting season beckons for the East German outfit. A foray in to the Champions League (after eventually gaining the permit to play in Europe’s elite competition) will be a great test for the likes of Werner, Forsberg & the now Liverpool-bound Keita. Whatever happens over the coming nine months – RB Leipzig will be sure to continue to divide opinion.

Hamburg – The Last Dinosaur

Hamburg, or HSV, are the only club that has never been relegated from the Bundesliga. A clock in the Volksparkstadion marks the time since the inception of the league in 1963. They are a traditional club, markedly different from Hoffenheim & Leipzig, yet the level of vitriol directed towards them is on a similar level. Despite a history that boasts a European cup, six league titles & three cup victories, the club has slowly become a laughing stock, with the most recent major honour coming in 1983.

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The HSV clock, ticking since 1963

Since the defeat to Fulham in the semi-final of the 2009-10 UEFA cup, with the final held at the home stadium of HSV, the club have been in an almost terminal decline. The firing of Bruno Labbadia, who led the team to a semi final & seventh place position at the time of his demise, came just three days before the aforementioned defeat to Fulham.

The club have since gone on to hire and fire Thorsten Fink, Bert van Marwijk, Mirko Slomka, Josef Zinnbauer, Peter Knäbel and Bruno Labbadia (again). And that’s not even including interim managers. Markus Gisdol currently holds the poison chalice and whilst two victories from the first two games of the 17-18 season mark a brilliant start by HSV’s standards, it won’t take much for Gisdol to start feeling the pressure. Indeed, it’s a miracle by their standards that the manager was not fired for the first round cup defeat.

It appears that the reason fans of other clubs vehemently throw their weight behind HSV’s demise lies in the way that the club is run. Over in the Premier League, we are used to ridiculous rumours surrounding managers. Frank de Boer & Slaven Bilic appear to be circling perilously close to receiving their P45s after just three games of the current season.

We have already seen that German football fans tend to reject the commercialisation of football and the way that it is subsequently run. The HSV board, with Jens Meier now at its head, has encountered financial difficulties so extreme & over such a lengthy period of time, that the only reason they are still afloat is a result of Klaus-Michael Kühne, co-owner of Kühne-Nagel, who has pumped millions in to the club.

Kühne has saved the club financially, and although only officially owning 17% of the club, his power in the corridors of the Volksparkstadion runs deep. Although rescuing the entire club from financial ruin, he has also caused a serious number of problems. Just recently, he labelled the Leeds-bound Pierre-Michel Lasogga as a “dud”. He has demanded that HSV should be able to run itself financially, and so his patience with managers wears thin quickly.  In essence, he runs the club like a business, with fans losing out. The sales of Hakan Calhanoglu & Son Heung-Min reflect this.

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Son Heung-Min & Hakan Calhanoglu were both sold to Leverkusen 

Kühne’s influence on the club isn’t the only reason there are numerous articles calling for the relegation of Hamburg on mainstream outlets such as die Welt. They also play absolutely terrible football. In fact, that’s probably an insult to those who play terrible football (I’m looking at you, 2009 Stoke City). Johann Djourou partnered Emir Spahic for two years in a row with disastrous results. Although they are now both out of the club, a lack of investment forced managers to play with two below-standard, ageing defenders. Lasogga showed glimpses of talent, but is slow and lethargic. Nicolai Müller, a big-money signing from Mainz, has led an injury plagued time in Hamburg, recently scoring a goal before ruling himself out for 7 months in the celebration. It’s all part of the Hamburg malaise.

A restart is needed for HSV. In many ways relegation may be a blessing in disguise. German football fans across the country are bored of the continuing HSV scandal. No money, no leadership, no good players. The clock keeps ticking, yet as one German journalist put it – “it’s just annoying now. The time is up”.

The mascot of HSV is Dino the dinosaur. It’s feeling like the leadership of this club remains in the dark ages in comparison to the rest of the Bundesliga. They either adapt now or end up facing another year of relegation struggles. The only competition they are in any danger of winning is Germany’s most hated club.