Martial welcomes Ibrahimovic – but there is cause for concern

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You don’t buy a Ferrari to drive it like a Fiat, a brash Zlatan Ibrahimovic once screamed at then Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola. Unhappy with his role – playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi – Ibrahimovic has been difficult to keep happy throughout his career.

 

Ibrahimovic is expected to announce his next club on Tuesday along with the launch of his clothing brand. The Swede is also expected to sign for Manchester United in what would be one of the worst kept secrets in football.

 

Anthony Martial is one of a number of United players who is welcoming the 34-year-old to Old Trafford but in the case of the French forward, there could be a cause for concern.

 

The young Frenchman ended the season poised to become the man at Manchester United like so many before him. Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Yet he could return playing second fiddle to a man who while a genius on the ball is well known for being rather self absorbed.

 

Ibrahimovic throughout his career has always felt that the team should revolve around him. No doubt he is one of the best players in Europe and in his earlier years teams have been constructed to work with his strengths and cover what few weaknesses he has. However, last season ended with Manchester United in prime position to build around a sensation of their own in Martial.

 

Martial burst onto the scene with a sensational solo goal against Liverpool. The 19-year-old went on to be one of few bright spots in Louis van Gaal’s reign as he ended the 2015/16 season on the cusp of being a genuine superstar.

While he occupied the left hand side for the majority of the season the arrival of Ibrahimovic could well see Martial’s rise to stardom stutter – for a year at least. Marcus Rashford’s progress also.

 

It was clear that the former Monaco front man was becoming the star of the new Manchester United. Like Wayne Rooney before him, Martial could symbolise a new era at Old Trafford. In 2004 Sir Alex Ferguson paid around £30m for an exceptionally talented forward and years later it could be argued that it was the best £30m ever spent in football.

 

The budding superstar commanded a similar fee – depending on which reports you believe – and has flashed similar abilities of the 18-year-old Rooney. Rooney soon became the heart of the Man United team along with Cristiano Ronaldo and formed one of the deadliest front lines Europe has ever seen along with Carlos Tevez.

 

Martial possesses a similar ability and will blossom into just as formidable player if the team is constructed around him as it once was with Rooney.

 

Ibrahimovic will enter Old Trafford as Jose Mourinho’s guy. The pair have a bond stronger than most brothers. Hardly a surprise when you consider their respective personalities. Martial, as talented as he is, is not Mourinho’s guy. He is yet to build up the former Chelsea boss’ trust and that counts for a lot in a Jose Mourinho team.

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SOLNA, SWEDEN – JUNE 05: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden and Andy King of Wales during the international friendly between Sweden and Wales at Friends Arena on June 5, 2016 in Solna, Sweden. (Photo by Mikael Sjoberg/Ombrello/Getty Images)

We have seen talented players such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bryune suffer and ultimately be exiled due to Mourinho’s lack of faith in their ability. The pair have since gone on to become two of the most sought after talents in world football but it was Mourinho’s show – as it always is.

 

Martial made United tick with his directness and pace down the left hand side giving defenders nightmares. His injury time winner against Everton in the F.A. Cup semi-final was the kind of moment in time which all young sensations have. Will Martial’s effectiveness and boldness on the ball suffer with the demand to cater to Ibrahimovic’s ego?

 

Manchester United fans are excited about the arrival of the legendary Swede and they have a right to be. But for all his goal scoring prowess there are a selection of Red Devils supporters than have forgotten about how much of a prima donna he can be. Edinson Cavani, now settled with life at PSG, once had huge issues having arrived at the club as the most feared striker in Europe following his time at Napoli only to find himself out of position and pandering to Ibrahimovic up front.

 

Ibrahimovic possesses a lifetime of football experience but has never been one to mentor. A man who first and foremost looks after his own interests and expects the rest of the team to fall in line. Such an attitude will shackle United’s French sensation and even if it is only for a year we have seen what a draining of confidence can do. Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria are perfect examples from within the club.

 

Manchester United have always been a club that have made young superstars the hub of their team. Sir Alex constructed a team around the class of ’92 and later around Ronaldo and Rooney waving in a new age of success. Perhaps that United is well and truly dead and buried as the era of short term success takes over.

 

While Ibrahimovic is the star name – Martial is the longer term option. There has never been a signing more representative of the era Manchester United occupy. A short term signing for short term success.

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The Inside Story Of Arsenal Under Wenger: A book review

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It has taken a while for me to finally finish the Arsene Wenger biography written by Daily Mirror Chief Football Writer John Cross. It has not been for the lack of great tales or nostalgia bait but simply due to a hectic schedule. However After powering through the second half of the book in a night and a half here we are, a review of the book at last.

 

While I have read several books centred around Arsenal in the past (see my review of Thierry Henry’s biography Lonely At The Top) This is the first one I’ve read that gave me almost an all access look into press conferences with Wenger, away day journeys to all kinds of places with all manner of interesting tales and tensions behind the scenes. As an aspiring sports journalist myself it was genuinely mind-blowing.

 

I think my biggest take-away from the book was Wenger’s emotion. Having worked in a few sporting environments by now I am well aware that what is said in front of pressing BBC or Sky Sports cameras is not always the prevailing feeling away from the prying eyes. However, throughout the book there are constant tales of Wenger’s emotions playing a part in his press conferences, interviews with the newspapers, his players – past and present, board members and rival managers. Wenger is very much a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His outbursts on the touchline and in the immediate post match interviews have mellowed in recent years and long gone are the days of explosive scenes and quotes like the ones given in 2005 in response to an interview Sir Alex Ferguson gave with the Independent. Wenger lashed out saying:

I have no diplomatic relations with him. What I don’t understand is that he does what he wants and you [the press] are all at his feet. The managers have a responsibility to protect the game before the game. But in England you are only punished for what you say after the game.

 

There are of course examples of Wenger’s emotion being seen in a joyous occasion and you don’t have to dig far into his Arsenal career archives to find it. When referee Lee Probert sounded off his whistle for the final time at Wembley on Saturday May 17th what washed over Wenger was relief as well as champagne. As Cross put it: “Wenger celebrated like never before. The players tried to soak him in champagne and then almost the entire squad lifted him up and threw him in the air.” His emotions make up a large part of Wenger’s DNA as manager of Arsenal and Cross details the Frenchman’s feelings expertly throughout the biography. When Wenger receives abuse from the stands while he looks oblivious to it all Cross makes it clear that he can hear it and it does hurt him to hear fans react so viciously when things are not going well on the pitch. One emotion that rarely crops up, and is therefore much more noticeable when it does, is anger. The two instances that stick out in the book are when his years at Monaco are explored and in 1993 they were consistently finishing second best to Marseille only for southern France team to be embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. The book details how Wenger felt betrayed by the Marseille hierarchy as well as officials and opposing players too. The other instance, which is chilling to the bone when reading the pages, is that Wenger faced a media storm when rumours about his private life started to circulate. Cross, via an interview with then press officer Clare Tomlinson, recalls how angry Wenger was:

All I remember is his reaction. I remember him going very still, very white. He was furious. It wasn’t like a Fergie red mist – he went white cold, just disgust, and I often wonder how close he was to just going outside, getting in a taxi and going back to Heathrow and giving up.

 

While many managers loath the press the book depicts Wenger as a man who enjoys their company, will crack a joke, offer sharp-tongued quips in response to questions and is even sharp when responding to text messages from more trusted members of the media. Throughout the chapters we see his relationship with the media get increasingly frosty especially when Arsenal and Wenger where under the cosh for: their lack of silverware, his future and big players leaving for rivals. However in his early days as the boss at Arsenal Wenger was often jovial with the media – even after disappointing results. After a 1-1 draw to Middlesbrough in 1998 Cross inserts a Wenger quip: ‘If you eat caviar every day, it’s difficult to return to sausages.’ Such a result today has often prompted the Frenchman to give longwinded answers about togetherness, to keep fighting and so on. Yet in this instance Cross paints the picture of a man who was under no pressure from the fans or media after the wonders he worked with the Gunners in such a short space of time. His caviar vs. sausages comparison is the type of one-liner that became synonymous with Wenger amongst the press however such humour in public dwindled as the years went by, swapped out for answers drawn out of tension or annoyance – especially when being pressed to respond to comments made by one Jose Mourinho. It’s a fantastic look into the mindset of one of the Premier League’s most respected managers.

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Throughout the book Cross writes about Wenger’s interests away from football. Politics, culture and business are all hot topics Wenger enjoys discussing at length and in terms of culture Wenger enjoys engrossing himself in the culture of whichever country he is in. This has been evident since he started managing in England but it was something he learned in his early days the slender, well spoken manager embraced the culture of Japan and what Japanese football brought with it as Cross explains:

Japan seemed to reinvigorated Wenger and, in a rather understated way, seemed to help shape the way he is today. His experience there, the adulation of the fans, helped him realise the importance of embracing the culture of the country you are in, thus preparing him for his transformation into an adopted Englishman.

 

Details of the move to the Emirates has always been well documented in the public eye. Yet what Cross writes so poignantly about is how the move to their new home in 2006 took the best years of Wenger’s managerial career. The book mentions clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich trying to charm Wenger away from the Gunners during their baron spell. How would Wenger’s CV look had he taken one of the no doubt lucrative offers? When reading about the sums of money available, the measures taken to help pay off the £390m stadium and how the stress and boardroom unrest you get a real sense of overachievement on Wenger’s part and in hindsight – while the lack of trophies was an obvious frustration – a top four finish was often a remarkable feat considering the revolving door nature of the squad from 2006. The penny pinching did see Wenger lose out on key targets such as Gary Cahill as Cross explains that in the summer of 2011 when Arsenal refused to pay over six million for the England defender only for Cahill to join arch-rivals Chelsea six months later for just one millions more. Nobody knows what Arsenal’s squad could have looked like and achieved had Wenger been prepared to pay the extra million here and there but finishing fourth under such restrictions has to be seen as a success, to a degree at least, especially as Arsenal’s purse strings were forced to tighten around the same time Chelsea were becoming free spending. According to Cross, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and a close personal friend of Wenger said: “He had arrived, parked his tanks on his lawn and was firing £50 notes.” The expert detail in which Cross delves into Arsenal’s move to the Emirates and their finances paints a real picture of constantly fighting an uphill battle in every transfer window when it came to keeping hold of their star players as well as recruiting.

 

Wenger has always spoken about bringing players through the Arsenal academy. Nurturing young talent and giving them a platform to develop has always been one of Wenger’s top priorities and not just on the pitch but in life. The book articulates Wenger as a father figure who cares about the future of young players away from the football pitch. Cross writes about a Q&A seminar in 2013 while in Japan in which the Arsenal manager answered willingly and insightfully about all things football. When quizzed about nurturing young talent this was his response: “I believe one of the best things about managing people is that we can influence lives in a positive way. That’s basically what a manager is about. When I can do that, I am very happy.” It’s a common thread through the book that Wenger is always striving to win but wants the club to produce players that are not afraid to express themselves and will give any young player the chance if he thinks they are ready.

 

While so many clubs are obsessed by instant success and buying ready made superstars Wenger has moulded Arsenal into a club that will develop not just football players but young men. Throughout the book Cross writes about how Wenger is a very well liked man and how no players ever leave the club on bad terms with him. Such is the nature of Wenger that for many of the young, fragile players – many of them experiencing an entirely new culture for the first time – he doubles up as a father figure to them. Through listening, wisdom and protection from the media Wenger builds strong bonds with budding players who get the ultimate backing from a manger who has the upmost faith in their ability. Perhaps the most written phrase in the entire book is: “He is a very nice man.” Out of the wide range of ex players Cross interviewed about the Arsenal manager it is a common occurrence. This explains why it hurts Wenger even more when he has to sell players such as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry as he developed almost a father-son relationship with them watching them blossom from a rough-round-the-edges, enthusiastic starlet turn into a match winning superstar. 

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There are 389 excellent pages about one of the most complex men ever to grace the Premier League. Themes such as his discomfort when dealing with confrontation thus creating a feeling of disillusionment towards his players are often countered with honest interviews with respected members of Arsenal’s past saying he always made them feel involved and appreciated. While managers will often dictate the nature of half time team talks Wenger is a man who would rarely be heavily involved, often leaving the players to discuss it amongst themselves before delivering a concise message about how they play for the rest of the game. There is much more I could write about the book discussing how Wenger enjoys attending international tournaments and soaking up the culture or how he truly believes in his squad using a sports phycologist but the best tale I can tell is the one I endured of nostalgia, intrigue and remarkable discoveries. Over his 20 years of management we have all seen and got accustomed to Wenger the football manager but Wenger the man is a subject so brilliantly dissected that a much rounder image of the man as a whole is formed. Emotions are a large part of Wenger’s make-up while an unshakeable belief in his player’s and his own ability is what keeps him firmly at the helm of the north London club.

Bilic’s bravado brings in new Hammers era

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When West Ham swapped Sam Allardyce for former Hammer Slaven Bilic it signalled a change in philosophy but also represented great risk. Allardyce’s West Ham never played the most attractive football but it was mightily effective – a trademark of the former Bolton boss.

 

The former Croatia national team boss is somewhat of a cult hero in East London and his likeable personality, great man management skills as well as his tactical shrewdness and adaptability contrasts greatly to his predecessor’s. Take nothing away from Allardyce – he brought and then kept West Ham up but his disconnect with the fans always left the club feeling uneasy. However, with Bilic in charge it seems a match made in heaven both in the stands and on the pitch.

 

Now at the tail end of the season and the decision made to bring in Bilic has been completely justified. Having been just seven minutes away from an F.A. Cup semi-final at the expense of Manchester United before Anthony Martial’s equaliser forced a reply and just two points off the top four West Ham have quickly transformed into an attractive side and one of the most dangerous in the Premier League.

 

Bilic, a contender for Manager of the Year, has recruited wisely and has unearthed a genuine star in Dimitri Payet. Payet is a microcosm of the new look West Ham: inventive, daring and classy. When David Gold and company made the decision to bring in the former Croatia manager it was for reasons being played out on the pitch and their hiring has played out in the best possible way.

 

The new era for The Hammers has started with a bang and with the move to a new stadium immanent Bilic is giving West Ham fans and The Boleyn Ground a farewell to remember. Along with Payet Michail Antonio, Enner Valencia and Cheikhou Kouyate have given the London side a swashbuckling attack capable of causing the biggest sides in the league nightmares.

 

A new attacking vigour has been discovered and Bilic has transformed his former team from steady mid table team into a legitimate European squad. So far this campaign West Ham have scored 45 league goals – one more than they did through the entirety of last season – and they still have nine games to go.

 

Even with them now boasting an upgrade in attacking talent Bilic has tried to keep a solid defence with The Hammers keeping ten clean sheets so far with them keeping teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham at bay.

 

The month of March has been an excellent one for West Ham as they beat title contenders Spurs before staging a remarkable comeback to come from two goals down to snatch victory from Everton 3-2 – Payet as he has done so often this season being the catalyst for the comeback. And most recently a 1-1 draw against Man United in the F.A. Cup – the moment of the game coming when West Ham’s French talisman thundered a superb free kick right past David De Gea. It would be hard to argue that out on that Old Trafford pitch the best player was not wearing claret and blue – De Gea being the only player who could challenge that.

With so many outstanding stories this season West Ham have got lost in the mix. In a league where standing still is practically going in reverse Bilic has his ideas and imprinted them on the current squad quicker than most could imagine and has got this team taking huge strides forwards. The Boleyn Ground is getting a fitting send off with it being treated to some of the best football in the Premier League.

 

West Ham attack at electric pace using their wide men to devastating effect when they have possession. An interchangeable front four and a flexibility in their game makes them a joy to watch for any neutral. Forever anchored by their disciplined central midfield pairing of Mark Noble and Alex Song it is easy to see the freedom the forwards have. Bilic is constructing a perfectly balanced team where each element compliments the other.

 

West Ham could yet have a say in the title race with them welcoming Arsenal before travelling to Leicester City in April. Not only that but they could very well blow the race for the top four wide open should they repeat their result against Arsenal on the opening day of the season.

 

Bilic could, realistically, guide his side to third and an F.A. Cup triumph in his first season in England. Should he achieve one, or even both, then West Ham fans can dream big about their future in the hands of the capable Croat.

Quique Sanchez Flores becoming the Premier League’s next top boss

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during the Emirates FA Cup sixth round match between Arsenal and Watford at Emirates Stadium on March 13, 2016 in London, England.

While Leicester write their own fairy tale and steal every headline along with the nations hearts one club and their manager have been living in their shadow.

 

Watford recently booked their place in the F.A. Cup semi-final at the expense of holders Arsenal. Up to this point at least it is Quique Sanchez Flores’ greatest achievement as a manger and highlights the remarkable job he has done with his Watford team.

 

The Hornets are currently 12 points above the relegation places and are just three points away from Chelsea in 10th. Team that with their place in the last four of the F.A. Cup and Flores is manager of the year in any other season. Unfortunately for him Claudio Ranieri will surely be taking that honour when the time comes.

 

However, Flores has caught the eye of many this season with how he sets up his team and how the players are motivated to work for him. The former Getafe boss won Manager of the Month in December and has gained respect across the Premier League. His man management skills are superb and tactically he’s smart being able to get the best out of the personnel he sends out on to the field.

 

To draw a comparison, Flores has taken a similar route to the latest hot manager in the game, Mauricio Pochettino. Pochettino came to England by way of Southampton after being appointed from La Liga side Espanyol and quickly showed his qualities. Fast forward to the present day and he finds himself entrenched in the most intriguing title race ever.

 

Flores demands his sides work hard as a unit, play quickly on the counter attack and forms great partnerships all over the pitch – almost identical to how Pochettino set up his Southampton sides.

 

The best example of Flores’ work can be seen in the strike partnership of Troy Deeny and Odion Ighalo. Ighalo takes most of the headlines for the goals but his partnership with the industrious Deeney has caused teams many problems. The Watford captain is willing to drop into midfield to help and consistently supports his strike partner with clever passes, holding the ball up and decoy runs. Deeney epitomises everything about Flores’ Watford team – selfless.

 

With speculation around the futures of Louis van Gaal, Arsene Wenger and Pochettino managerial moves are sure to be made during the summer. Flores is not at that calibre yet – but the managerial merry-go-round could see him linked with a moved to a bigger club come the summer change the calibre of clubs interested in his services- again similar to the current Spurs boss. When the Argentine took over at Tottenham they picking up the pieces of poorly spending the Gareth Bale transfer money and a dressing room in great unrest.

 

Flores has the man management skills to be able to get a dressing room to respect him and work hard for him while playing good football. He has successfully turned round the fortunes of goalkeeper Gomes – a former Spurs laughing stock as well as Etienne Capoue – another former North London misfit. This is not to mention his excellent work with Chelsea loanee Nathan Ake who has proved he is ready to play at Premier League level consistently.

 

Watford are just one or two more wins away from almost guaranteeing themselves another season in the Premier League. Should they reach, or even win, the F.A. Cup final Watford may be fighting not only to keep their star striking tandem but also their manager who will certainly start cropping up on bigger club’s radar after a remarkable season.