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Martin Skrtel: ‘I think Steven Gerrard could be Jurgen Klopp’s successor at Liverpool’

Mon, 07/04/2022 - 18:19

Martin Skrtel walks in, takes his seat on a terrace in the Slovakian sun, removes his sunglasses, and looks strikingly younger than he did when he left Liverpool in 2016.

The 37-year-old retired from football in May due to long-term back issues, ending his career at Spartak Trnava, 21 years after he made his professional debut for Trencin.

You would suspect that not having to endure another pre-season is one reason he looks relaxed, although he points to spending quality time with his family as the most enjoyable element of hanging up his boots.

Talking to The Athletic during the European Under-19 Championship, where he was an ambassador for the Slovakian FA, it is not long before the focus turns to Liverpool and his former team-mate Steven Gerrard’s move into management.

“At the moment, we have Jurgen Klopp and he is the best man for the job,” says Skrtel. “But I see Stevie as manager after because he’s getting the experience now.

“I hope he can do a good job and then, one day, Jurgen or Liverpool will decide to go a different way and they bring new people in — he will be the one. That would be a perfect step for the club and Steve.”

Gerrard, however, would be the first to admit that he is not thinking about the job at Anfield.

The 42-year-old former Liverpool captain has a close relationship with Klopp, who signed a two-year contract extension in April that will keep him at Anfield until 2026, and is staying focused on taking Aston Villa forward.

Steven Gerrard Skrtel’s former team-mate Steven Gerrard has been Aston Villa’s head coach since November 2021 (Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)

Despite acknowledging that he knew Gerrard would become a manager, Skrtel predicted that Jamie Carragher would have entered the dugout sooner than his former team-mate.

“Everything from when he opened his eyes in the morning until he went to sleep was about football,” continues Skrtel. “He would be getting a massage and he was on the phone watching other leagues, watching the Italian league, so I thought he will be the one.

“I didn’t ever think that he will be involved in these TV shows or even be a fan of Instagram! But, yeah, Stevie has the personality and also his quality on the pitch. The guy loves and understands football.”

Skrtel is yet to decide whether he fancies testing the managerial waters, noting that he has completed the work needed for his UEFA A Licence but is yet to begin working towards his Pro Licence.

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Although he left Liverpool six years ago, Skrtel explains how you never truly depart the club.

The Liverpool red runs through his blood and the smile does not leave his face as he reels off Anfield, the training ground, the staff and the supporters as reasons he has such a strong emotional connection to his former side.

It is easy to forget Skrtel was voted the club’s player of the year in 2012.

“I think it was when Luis Suarez was suspended,” he quips when reminded of the moment.

“Liverpool is one of the biggest clubs in the world historically, but also the team and the club are working like a family,” he says. “Since I left, I have never stopped watching or supporting Liverpool. It’s something where you have to be there to understand.”

It is for this reason he hoped Mohamed Salah would sign a new contract — something he did 24 hours after The Athletic’s conversation with Skrtel — but Skrtel sensed it was always going to come down to the business side.

“There are many factors that players have to deal with and they have to deal with it in their own way,” he explains.

“We are talking about the biggest stars in world football, so maybe they have different opinions on some things that are happening around the team and the club.

“Because I came to Liverpool from a small country, I was happy to be there. I tried to enjoy every single day. I was proud to be part of the team. Every single day was like a big present.

“It’s different for every player but Salah has been there for such a long time and has achieved everything, so maybe there is a question of motivation, but his importance for the club and the team is big.”

Martin Skrtel, Liverpool Skrtel made more than 300 appearances for Liverpool after joining the club from Zenit Saint Petersburg in January 2008 (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

While Salah signed a new three-year contract, making him the club’s highest-ever earner on a package thought to be worth £350,000 per week, Liverpool were unable to retain Sadio Mane’s services.

The Senegal international, like Salah, had 12 months remaining on his contract but informed the club of his desire to leave once the season came to an end.

Liverpool accepted a £27.5million bid — which could rise to £35million if performance-related add-ons are met — from Bayern Munich and Mane signed a three-year deal with the Bundesliga champions.

This was done without hard feelings or public fallouts. There was only admiration and gratitude for one of the club’s best players in modern history.

“It is difficult to leave a club like Liverpool because if you are there, if you’re doing well like he was doing, and we can call him legend because of what he achieved in the club, it’s brilliant,” says Skrtel.

“But I think each player, at a certain stage of his career, has a feeling that you need to change. You need some maybe new motivation, a new challenge.

“After eight and a half years (with Liverpool), I also had that feeling like, ‘Oh, maybe I should change something’ to find a different kind of experience. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an easy decision for him to leave the club.

“But he gave his maximum and did really well for the club, and now all you can do is wish him luck. If they (Bayern Munich) play in the future against Liverpool, I hope he won’t be at his best!”

Mane, Bayern Munich Sadio Mane joined Bayern Munich from Liverpool for £35million last month (Photo: S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

As the conversation drifts back to Slovakia and the Under-19 Euros, Skrtel is not surprised to see England performing at the highest level.

Speaking before Ian Foster’s side beat Israel in the final on July 1, the ex-Liverpool defender believes the steps forward England have made in recent years will set them up for future success.

“We all know about the attitude of the English player; of how fast and how high the tempo is,” he said. “But when they get the technical stuff, they can become one of the best national teams in the world.

“In England, you can see many big teams have foreign managers. When I was at Liverpool, we had Rafa Benitez from Spain, so it’s a different kind of football.

“Now you have Pep Guardiola, you have Klopp, and many other coaches from abroad, and maybe they brought their own ideas and have tried to not change English football, but bring some points from other countries.

“That’s why the guys from the academies changed their way of playing and the English players became more technical.”

(Top photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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Liverpool mailbag: Jude Bellingham, Oxlade-Chamberlain future and Keita contract

Sun, 07/03/2022 - 05:30

From Jude Bellingham to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita’s contract situation, pre-season plans, the academy youngsters in contention for a senior breakthrough in 2022-23 and the stadium redevelopment, you wanted to know about a wide range of topics in our latest mailbag.

Thanks very much for all your questions and sorry if yours wasn’t selected this time.

Mohamed Salah’s future might now be assured after the 30-year-old signed a new three-year deal worth £350,000 a week but there’s plenty more to get stuck into.

Let’s dive in…

What are the return dates for the players in pre-season? (Andrew O)

It will be a staggered return. Those who didn’t go away on international duty after the end of last season will report back to Kirkby on Monday — just over five weeks after the Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid.

Jurgen Klopp has given those who were involved in Nations League and friendly international games in June some extra time off. I believe they will link up with the squad on July 9 for the flight to Thailand.

Will there be any more signings? I feel like Oxlade-Chamberlain should be replaced. (Adi M)

With the window open for another two months, I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty that there will be no more incomings. However, as things stand, senior Anfield figures have indicated that they don’t expect any further signings.

Klopp is happy with what he’s got. Strengthening the midfield is obviously a hot topic of debate but unless they can recruit the right player at the right price they’ll wait until next summer to further bolster that department.

As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool won’t stand in his way if they receive an acceptable offer and he decides he wants to move on in search of regular game time elsewhere. The 28-year-old, who has a year left on his contract, is valued at around £10 million.

Liverpool Oxlade-Chamberlain will be allowed to leave if the right offer comes in (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Oxlade-Chamberlain endured a difficult final few months of last season when he fell out of favour completely, but some of the contributions he made before that, especially during the Africa Cup of Nations, shouldn’t be forgotten. He played 29 times (17 starts) in 2021-22. Unless he pushes for a move, he will stay as a squad player.

Jude Bellingham. Is it likely? If so this year or next year? (Colm O)

Very interested. The England midfielder is a class act and it’s hard to believe he’s only just turned 19. However, he won’t be leaving Borussia Dortmund this summer. Having already sold Erling Haaland to Manchester City, the Bundesliga club don’t intend to lose another star name in the same window.

There will be serious competition for Bellingham’s signature in 2023. Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United are also in the race, with reports in Germany this week suggesting it would take €120 million (£103 million) to sign him. Bellingham doesn’t have a release clause and has three years left on his contract.

Liverpool will certainly be in the conversation and it helps that Bellingham has a good relationship with captain Jordan Henderson from their time together with England.

I don’t think that fee would scare Liverpool off as you’re talking about a player who could be at the heart of their midfield for a decade. However, the wage demands could be a potential stumbling block.

I’m a bit confused as to the plan with Nat Phillips. How come there’s talk of loaning him rather than selling? (Robin B)

Liverpool value Phillips at around £15 million. Bournemouth want to keep him after his impressive loan spell helped them clinch promotion back to the Premier League but they don’t want to pay that much and would prefer another loan.

Phillips is set to start pre-season with Liverpool and then his future should become clearer in the next few weeks. If there’s not an acceptable permanent offer for the 25-year-old centre-back then Liverpool will sanction another temporary move for a loan fee.

Nat Phillips trains with Liverpool Phillips training in pre-season with Liverpool in July 2021 (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Where do you see Kaide Gordon playing this season? Is he likely to go on loan like Harvey Elliott did? (Chris J)

I’m not aware of any plans at this stage to loan Gordon out. The gifted winger is still only 17. He impressed everyone with his maturity as well as his ability when he stepped up to the senior ranks last season.

If he has a good pre-season I can see him playing a bigger role for Klopp this time around, especially given the departures of Sadio Mane, Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi.

Regarding Darwin Nunez, will he adjust to Liverpool levels of pressing or will Klopp plan something more ‘laidback’ this season? Generally, are any tactical changes expected already? (Kostis P)

Liverpool’s mantra of “our identity is intensity” won’t change. Darwin Nunez will adjust to what’s demanded from him off the ball — Klopp and his staff don’t have any concerns about that. How quickly he starts games is down to him but I don’t envisage a long adaptation period. I think he’s got all the attributes required to make a massive impression at Anfield.

Nunez’s arrival does give Klopp the option of playing 4-2-3-1 more regularly with the Uruguay frontman as the focal point. You could have Luis Diaz on the left, Salah on the right and then Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino or Fabio Carvalho as the No 10 operating behind Nunez. But he won’t just ditch playing 4-3-3. The manager wants his team to be unpredictable so there are bound to be tactical tweaks for the season ahead.

darwin-nunez Liverpool hope big-money signing Darwin Nunez will hit the ground running (Photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Twelve months ago we saw Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role evolve with Salah staying wide more often and the right-back occupying more central areas when attacking. Klopp and Lijnders also brought in the guys from Neuro11 to work on the mental side of taking penalties, free kicks and corners. That relationship will continue and it will be intriguing to see what’s added to the mix this time around.

Do you think the squad is not as strong as last year? (James A)

Liverpool have lost Mane, Origi and Minamino, and gained Nunez, Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay. Answering that question is tricky at this stage as we don’t know what kind of impact the new boys will make. But from what I’ve seen of them previously I don’t believe the squad will be weaker.

I thought Klopp would sign another midfielder this summer (obviously Carvalho can play there as well as further forward). We know they were very keen on Aurelien Tchouameni before he opted for Real Madrid so it’s not like they aren’t looking at possibilities.

Centre midfield is the only area where I’d question the depth. But if Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones kick on like Liverpool hope they will and Thiago stays fit, then Klopp should have enough quality in that department for the challenges ahead.

Do we think Sadio Mane did LFC a favour saying he wasn’t extending early so we could make some money on him? (Rich B)

I wouldn’t say Mane did Liverpool a favour, it was just the way things turned out.

The situation with Salah was different because the Egyptian always wanted to stay but only if he got a contract offer which he felt recognised his status in world football. In contrast, Mane was reluctant to hold talks over a new deal. His head was turned by the offer of a new challenge and a bumper pay rise at Bayern Munich. He left on good terms and rightly so because he gave Liverpool six years of brilliant service.

Mane, Bayern Munich Mane moved to Germany with Liverpool’s blessing (Photo: S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

Mane could have sat tight and left on a free in 2023 but he didn’t want to wait and Liverpool ultimately got what they wanted from Bayern with that £35 million deal.

One thing Liverpool had to avoid was losing Mane and Salah in the same window. That would have left a huge void. Salah would have stayed put this summer, regardless of his new deal. With the signings of Jota, Diaz and Nunez, we’re seeing the gradual evolution of Klopp’s frontline but Salah is still the main man.

What’s happening with Joe Gomez? (Harvey J)

Liverpool hope Gomez will stay and sign a new contract. The 25-year-old’s current deal runs until 2024.

It was a tough season for Gomez with Ibrahima Konate’s impact and Joel Matip’s resurgence limiting his game time. He only made four league starts in 2021-22 but he’s still got so much to offer. Liverpool know he wants to play more regularly but it would take a big offer for them to even consider selling.

Why haven’t Liverpool been able to keep Naby Keita injury free and why offer him a new contract given his injury record? (Philip M) 

Liverpool are looking to get Naby Keita tied down to a new contract and talks are ongoing. I know he divides opinion among fans but I thought for the most part he did very well in the second half of last season.

As for his injury record, of course it’s frustrating and he’s had a lot of misfortune. However, he still made 40 appearances in all competitions in 2021-22. As well as the fact Klopp still believes in him, a new deal protects the 27-year-old’s value. Otherwise you risk losing a £52.75 million signing for nothing in 2023.

Any idea why Michael Edwards left? (John H)

Edwards made it clear that he felt the time was right to step away and have a break after a decade of service to the club. It’s a stressful role and he’s got a young family.

I think the fact there was a gradual handover to Julian Ward over the course of last season proved that it was all very amicable behind the scenes.

The owners were gutted to lose Edwards but understood his reasons for not wanting to sign a new contract. He’s been inundated with job offers and I’m not surprised that Premier League rivals are lining up to employ him. Last I heard he was going to take some time out. He’s earned it.

What are the expectations for Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott this season? With no major midfield signings it seems like Klopp is betting on one (or both) to step up in a big way this season. (Sam C)

Elliott was starting Premier League games on merit before that horrible afternoon at Elland Road. He did brilliantly to get back so soon but I think it was always going to be this coming season when we saw the best of him again. If Elliott performs like he can in that midfield role then he’s going to be a huge asset as he’s incredibly gifted.

elliott-jones It will be a big season for youngsters Elliott and Jones (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Jones is a couple of years older and in many ways this actually feels like a bigger season for him. Consistency was an issue for him in 2021-22. He went from starting to not even making the bench at times. He’s got so much potential but it needs to be fulfilled on a regular basis.

Klopp loves versatility in players. Elliott and Jones can both operate out wide but I think most of their game time will be in midfield.

How long is Kelleher going to be happy as a back-up? (Drew L).

Caoimhin Kelleher is developing into a fantastic goalkeeper. He will undoubtedly be a number one at the top level in the coming years but Liverpool want to hold on to him as long as possible because he’s a brilliant deputy for Alisson. It was a smart move by Klopp giving him the honour of starting the Carabao Cup final and that faith was rewarded.

Kelleher is still only 23 so hopefully it will be another year at least before he moves on. The goalkeeping department will have a new look to it this season with Marcelo Pitaluga loaned out and Loris Karius having left on a free. Adrian, Klopp’s third choice, has one more year on his contract.

What did you have for lunch today James? (Dimitri A) Are you vegan? (Peter S).

Finally, the big issues!! Chicken and salad, and definitely not a big bag of pickled onion Monster Munch on the side.

I’ve signed up for the Great North Run, a half-marathon, in September so desperately trying to shift some weight before stepping up the training runs. Peter, no vegans here I’m afraid. I just love steak too much.

With the mid-season break due to the World Cup, has there been any word regarding LFC’s plans for the players who will not be part of the tournament? (Lee S).

Nothing decided yet but I’d expect that month to be a mix of time off to rest and then a training camp. It’s going to be such a strange period for the likes of Diaz, Salah and Andy Robertson.

After playing on the weekend of November 12/13, Liverpool’s next Premier League fixture will be on Boxing Day – eight days after the World Cup final.

How is Anfield’s redevelopment coming along? (Tehchad K) Any plans to upgrade the Sir Kenny Dalglish stand and the Kop? (Rami N)

The £80 million redevelopment of the Anfield Road end is really taking shape and remains on course to be completed in time for the start of the 2023-24 season. It will add around 7,000 extra seats, taking Anfield’s capacity to around 61,000. Around 5,000 of the extra seats will be general admission with another 2,000 in new hospitality lounges.

Liverpool have around 20,000 supporters on a season-ticket waiting list, which has been closed to new applications since 2011. I asked managing director Andy Hughes about the possibility of expanding other parts of the stadium a few months ago and he said that wasn’t under discussion.

Do you feel that FSG are wasting the four years that they have left with one of the top three coaches in the world by not giving him what he exactly wants right now in order to win the Premier League again? (Vinnie J)

Let’s not forget Liverpool are coming off the back of a season when they won two cups, missed out on the Premier League title by one point and were unfortunate to lose the Champions League final to Real Madrid. I certainly don’t think Fenway Sports Group is wasting Klopp’s best years and neither does the manager.

He only signed that new contract in April because of the strong relationship he has with the owners and his belief that more great days lie ahead. I asked Tom Werner before the Champions League final and he was clear that FSG remains committed for the long-term.

I understand the frustration among fans at times because Liverpool can’t complete financially with Manchester City but nothing has changed on that front. FSG continues to do what it has always done, reinvest all the money generated by Liverpool back into the club rather than taking anything out. The wage bill has rocketed over the past five or six years.

It was only a few weeks ago when FSG sanctioned the £85 million deal for Nunez. And now Salah is the best-paid player in the club’s history.

salah-liverpool FSG has pushed the boat out to agree a new £350,000-a-week deal for Salah (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Do you think there will be any hangover from last season considering how hard we pushed in all competitions? Do you think it will be difficult to push like that again, especially after falling just short in the last week? (Cameron D)

It’s a good question. Of course there was heartbreak with missing out on the Premier League and the Champions League in such quick succession. And it will certainly be tough to maintain a challenge on all fronts like that again — no club had ever come so close to pulling off the Quadruple. But I honestly don’t think there will be a hangover.

Speaking to staff and players after the season had finished, they were all buoyed massively by that parade through the streets of the city. They didn’t know what to expect after losing the final but the reaction from the fans, with 500,000 people turning out, blew them away.

It meant they all went off for the summer on an emotional high rather than a crushing low. When you throw into the mix Klopp’s famed motivational skills and the lift provided by the new arrivals, I don’t see any lingering feelings from 2021-22 holding Liverpool back this time around.

(Top photo: Markus Gilliar/Getty Images)

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Why Liverpool made Mohamed Salah their highest-paid player in history aged 30

Sat, 07/02/2022 - 05:28

In late 2019, towards the end of another relentlessly hot day scrambling across Cairo’s concrete sprawl in search of fresh information about Egypt’s most famous footballer, one of his former team-mates found it easy to explain why Mohamed Salah had managed to do what only a select few from his country have been able to achieve.

Ali Fathi had shared five years of his teenage life with Salah when the pair were signed to El Mokawloon. In an apartment block to the east of Cairo, they would spend their evenings gaming, where Salah, on FIFA, would always be Barcelona – the club he dreamed of joining.

It had always been Salah’s ambition to move to Europe. He didn’t seem particularly motivated by a future at Al Ahly or Zamalek, the two Cairo clubs where all of the best Egyptian footballers tend to end up. It cannot be overestimated how unusual this was, because the passion for football is on a religious level in Egypt, where players are paid well enough to make it easier for them to stay at home when offers come from abroad.

Fathi, a left-back, whose career had taken him briefly to the Portuguese island of Madeira before he returned to the wild womb of Cairo, was injured at the time and trying to get back into the team at his latest club, El Entag El Harby.

Looking across the training field, he commented on the size and shape of his current team-mates, comparing them to Salah, who was thousands of miles away and trying to negotiate a British winter during a season where he would end up as a Premier League champion.

Simply, it had been Salah’s independence that made him different. He was able to think alone and this meant he looked after himself. After training every day, he would go to the exercise hall unaccompanied and lift weights for a minimum of half an hour. Later, he enrolled at a private gymnasium where he told an instructor that he needed to improve his stamina and acceleration, even though he’d already dazzled in his early professional career as an extremely fast footballer.

Fathi suggested that the diet of Egyptian footballers generally wasn’t particularly healthy because of their meat intake. Salah, however, took conditioning incredibly seriously – “more seriously than any Egyptian footballer I’ve ever met”.

He had not been guided by any of his coaches in this pursuit. Indeed, he might have been a Barcelona fan but from afar, he’d seen Cristiano Ronaldo with his Real Madrid shirt off after scoring a goal and realised the way the game was heading. “Mo realised he had to become a machine,” Fathi concluded.

Last month made it a decade since Salah’s departure from Egyptian club football. A new three-year contract at Liverpool will take him to within three seasons of the Egyptian player who holds the records for the longest career in Europe.

Yet perhaps Salah’s path would have been different had he listened to that same player; Hany Ramzy, a defender who represented their country at the 1990 World Cup, before he became a scout in Germany.

Ramzy spent 11 of his 16 years in Europe with Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. This meant he had a good understanding of the Bundesliga, which is where Salah could have gone first when he left Egypt had it not been for the intervention of Mohamed Amer, his manager at El Mokawloon, who advised him to wait.

Instead, he stepped from North Africa into Europe via Switzerland, where his performances in 18 months with Basel led to an offer from Liverpool. Had he agreed to move to Anfield in 2014 instead of joining Chelsea, you also wonder where he might be positioned currently on the club’s all-time goalscoring list.

mohamed-salah Salah has scored 156 goals in 254 games since his arrival from Roma for £36 million in 2017 (Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps it worked out for the best that his time at the club has coincided entirely with Jurgen Klopp, a manager who suggested that the player’s “best years are still to come” on Friday after Liverpool made Salah the highest-paid player in the club’s history at the age of 30.

This deal is not free of risk.

It has been claimed that Liverpool are treading similar ground to Arsenal two years ago, when they renewed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract at 31 before his influence wilted quickly.

These, however, are different footballers with different mindsets representing different clubs in different states of health, led by different managers at different stages of their relationship with the players concerned.

Aubameyang, after all, seems to have found himself again since moving on to Barcelona in January. For Salah, the risk, perhaps, relates more to his own game: how he, Klopp and his Liverpool team-mates adjust to him becoming older. Each party will need to ensure his output during this process justifies the investment.

Liverpool have made an exception for Salah in this agreement but it does not mean the decision is unprecedented.

While running all of its sporting interests, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Fenway Sports Group has rarely handed out huge contracts to sportspeople who are reaching a stage in their careers that normally would be beyond the physical peak of many.

Clearly, however, Liverpool do not believe this is the case with Salah – just as they did not with James Milner, who the club recruited as their best-paid player when he was soon to be 30 years old on this same date seven years ago.

Milner, of course, is ticking along just fine all this time later and after the players return for pre-season training on Monday morning, it would be a surprise if he and Salah are not at the front of the pack when they hurtle across the track in the otherwise dreaded kilometre interval sprints in the days that follow.

When comparing the Milner of 2015 and the Salah of 2022, however, there is a difference of around £200,000 a week.

Ultimately, Salah’s stay at Liverpool has always boiled down to money, no matter how the club, the player or his representative Ramy Abbas try to frame it now that all parties are happy about the outcome.

When Kevin De Bruyne, a month short of his 30th birthday, agreed a two-year contract extension in May of last year to keep him at Manchester City past his 34th birthday, Salah, with guidance from Abbas, figured they should be aiming for something similar. That is roughly what they got – although there were concessions from both sides because some of his £350k a week is incentivised around performance and achievement.

Despite concerns that this information might cause problems with team-mates and their representatives, who now know there is always wiggle room in any future negotiation, Klopp is particularly confident that the humility and intelligence in the Anfield dressing room mean it won’t be a problem.

The other Liverpool players tend to think of Salah as the side’s main man and see how dedicated he is because of the way he takes care of himself – as he has always done – and therefore, there is a recognition that he deserves what he’s getting.

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There are no obvious signs of Salah slowing up, but there were no obvious signs of Sadio Mane slowing up either before he was sold to Bayern Munich last month.

Sometimes, the future can be about a player’s will.

While Salah always wanted to stay providing the money was right, Mane had made it clear to Liverpool that he would not be signing a new contract to replace the one expiring in summer 2023. That is why Luis Diaz was bought in January as his replacement.

Mane, being the player and personality he is, managed to redefine himself in another position during the final months of his Liverpool career, a period when Salah struggled after his mid-season exertions in the Africa Cup of Nations, and the twin disappointments of Egypt losing that tournament’s final and, in March, failing to qualify for the World Cup. Liverpool understood the emotional impact in all of that but backed him. It is thought a summer of rest will have done him the power of good.

It will be fascinating to see how Liverpool use Salah from here.

For five years, he has been the left-footed striker on the right of a front three, but there are indications that changes are afoot given the way Klopp successfully tweaked the shape of his midfield and attack towards the end of last season.

Maybe he’ll need more No 10 options in this evolution. Maybe Salah will be one of the players who can help him with that.

He has nearly always been available for Liverpool. Physically, his body would surely be able to deal with the responsibilities of a more central role. He has become more unselfish over the last 18 months, servicing those around him.

Though he is a much more thoughtful footballer compared to the one that left Cairo for Switzerland, as well as the one that joined Liverpool from Roma, Klopp must think that he fundamentally remains the same machine.

(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

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Explained: BT Sport, Amazon, BBC and the grab for Champions League football

Sat, 07/02/2022 - 05:08

Forget Frenkie de Jong, Raphinha and Marc Cucurella, the real transfer come-get-me-pleas, tugs-of-war, raids and hijacks this weekend involve British football’s top telly talent.

Confirmation that Amazon Prime Video, BT Sport and the BBC will share the midweek European club action in the UK from 2024-25 has fired the gun on a race to secure the likes of Joe Cole, Ian Darke and Jermaine Jenas.

Will it be Salford, Stratford or a studio in the stands with Amazon? Gabby Logan or Alex Scott? Simon Brotherton or Steve Bower? Steve McManaman or Paul Scholes? Truly, these are the best of times for footballers who have played European club football this century.

Good news to them, then, but what about everyone else?

Well, without further ado, let us address what all this means for the broadcasters, fans, UEFA and wider football industry.

Sorry, what are we talking about? 

Apologies. For those who missed it, UEFA has just sold the UK media rights for all of its games in the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League between 2024 and 2027.

BT Sport has bought 533 of the 550 available games, giving it an extra 113 matches per season.

The remaining 17 fixtures have been delivered to Amazon.

The online shopping emporium will stream these games on Tuesday evenings, and fully expects them to involve one of Britain’s biggest clubs for as long as such a club remains in the competition.

And the BBC, bless its cotton socks, has grabbed a Champions League highlights package for Wednesday nights.

So, to recap, that’s Amazon with the best British game of the week on Tuesday evening, BT with everything else across Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, plus highlights and the three finals, and the BBC with Champions League highlights on Wednesdays.

Has nobody considered when Alan Shearer will find the time to write his articles for The Athletic?

How much have they paid? 

BT, as a listed company, has revealed that it is shelling out about £306 million a year, which is almost 25 per cent down on what it is currently paying for the exclusive rights. More games, less money, sounds good, right?

Well, Amazon has not said how much it has coughed up to nab the biggest British-involvement game of the week but industry sources believe those 17 terrific Tuesdays will cost them just under half of BT’s bill. Something approaching £150 million, then.

The BBC is not saying how many licence fees it has thrown at Europe’s richest football clubs, either, but it is understood to have made a surprisingly punchy bid for a slice of the midweek pie. One source suggested it may have gone as far as £40 million a year, although that sounds on the high side for non-exclusive highlights airing quite late on a school night.

Another way of looking at it is that UEFA wanted a 20 per cent uplift on the £1.2 billion it got from BT three years ago, and European football’s governing body is understood to have just about got there.

So, if you work backwards from that figure of £1.44 billion, Amazon and the BBC have combined to provide about £520 million over the three years, which would bring down the Beeb’s annual contribution to more like £30 million. For context, it pays about £70 million a year for Premier League highlights but gets two big weekend shows, and a nationwide audience, out of that investment.

Wait… 550 games? 

Yep, while you were distracted by Project Big Picture and the European Super League, Europe’s biggest clubs, with our lot in the thick of it, sneaked a massively expanded Champions League format past you, with a bigger Europa League and Europa Conference League, too, for the aspiring middle classes.

From 2024-25, the Champions League will grow from its current 32 teams to 36, and they will play a minimum of eight games in a single-league format, instead of being divided into the present eight groups of four, with six matches each.

salah-liverpool A TV cameraman films a dejected Mohamed Salah following Liverpool’s loss to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League final (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

This so-called “Swiss model” league will see each competing club play eight other teams — four at home, four away — with each team’s fixture list based on a seeding system to ensure fairness.

The top eight in the league will proceed directly to the last 16, as they do now as group winners. The next 16 teams will go into a round of two-leg play-offs — ninth will play 24th, 10th against 23rd and so on.  The winners of those eight ties will complete the last 16 and the tournament will then proceed as it does now, all the way to the final.

All told, that is 189 Champions League games, up from the current 125. In other words, UEFA is getting 20 per cent more money for 50 per cent more inventory. You can see why the big domestic leagues dug their heels in over UEFA’s original plan to make the “league stage” 10 games long. We are testing the law of diminishing returns here.

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Why has BT given up exclusivity? 

Having all of something means you have to pay a premium for it, and BT has long since given up on the idea of becoming a must-have for sports fans.

The company only got into sports broadcasting a decade ago to defend its position in the UK’s broadband and telephone market against Sky. It achieved that goal relatively quickly but at great expense, and has spent the last few years trying to get out of the sports-media business, or at least to find a partner to share the burden of these huge rights fees.

That partner emerged earlier this year, when BT sold half of BT Sport to American media conglomerate Warner Bros Discovery, which also owns Eurosport, in a deal that could be worth more than £600 million to BT, if certain performance targets are met for their new joint venture.

And what that joint venture will need is lots of live sport to show us.

“While BT loses exclusivity, this deal provides long-term certainty going into the joint venture, providing fans with more games, for less money,” media and telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore explains.

Dan Harraghy, a senior analyst with London-based firm Ampere Analysis, agrees.

“Amazon will probably take the headlines but it’s a notable deal for BT, being the first major contract agreed following the announcement of the joint venture,” Harraghy says.

“While exclusivity still has value, BT will feel it has acquired a comprehensive enough package, having been able to reduce its spend on Champions League rights by almost 25 per cent, while still broadcasting over 95 per cent of UEFA club competition fixtures.

“The loss of a major Tuesday fixture will be disappointing, but having long-term rights to a high-ticket competition gives BT some security at a time when the business and sports strategy is under development.

“BT has had the rights since 2015, so it is unlikely that the new deal will be a subscription driver. But, combined with owning Premier League rights until at least 2025, this deal provides BT with an attractive-enough sports offering to retain subscribers as the company goes through this period of transition.”

OK, makes sense. But what is Amazon up to? 

Ah, well, this is where things get a lot more exciting for UEFA, the Premier League, the top clubs, their players, their agents and everyone else in the football food chain.

Amazon, the world’s largest retailer outside China, has been in the video-on-demand business since 2006 but it was not until 2017 that it ventured into sport, when it bought some non-exclusive streaming rights for the NFL’s Thursday night games.

A year later, having already added tennis to the mix, it took its first baby steps as a football rights holder in the UK, when it picked up two whole rounds of midweek Premier League matches. It started streaming these games in 2019, usually once across a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night in early December, and then again in the days immediately after Christmas.

Remember, Amazon is first and foremost an online retailer. Everything it does with video is done to encourage you to subscribe to its quick-delivery Amazon Prime service, as Amazon Prime customers are loyal customers.

“The addition of Champions League football is a truly momentous moment for Prime Video in the UK,” says Alex Green, Amazon Prime Video’s managing director for sport. “Since 2018, we’ve seen millions of Prime members in the UK enjoy live sport on Prime Video, and it’s that passion and energy that has led us to this exciting next step.”

Amazon, almost by stealth, has become a very significant player in the global sports rights market.

In September, it will become the exclusive home of NFL Thursday Night Football in the US for the next 11 years. That deal will cost the company a reported $1 billion a year.

But Amazon now has almost as important a relationship with UEFA as it does with the NFL, as it already has the exclusive rights for Champions League football in Germany and Italy. It wanted the French rights, too, but lost the bid for the 2024-27 rights to Canal+. This is on top of the tennis and international rugby union it has in the UK and Ireland, and Ligue 1 and French Open tennis rights in France.

“Amazon is now establishing itself as a key provider of sports in the UK,” Pescatore says. “This will help drive Prime subscriptions and sales even further.”

Ampere’s Harraghy thinks Amazon has seen enough to know that sport reaches places other content cannot touch.

“Amazon currently broadcasts the Champions League in Germany and Italy and may have seen enough success in these markets to suggest subscriber and revenue growth will occur in the UK as well, ” he explains.

“For Amazon, this is its biggest investment in sports rights in the UK, spending around five times the amount it pays for Premier League fixtures. It is a notable investment, given how much it will spend to only broadcast one fixture per week and that it will not show the final.

“But since Amazon only broadcasts two rounds of Premier League games, giving sports fans the option to watch premium-tier football across a larger proportion of the year means the Champions League deal might help sports fans see the longer-term attraction in an Amazon subscription, especially with most games featuring English clubs.

“Amazon will then hope the wider Prime ecosystem – including ancillary content like the All Or Nothing documentaries and sports merchandise on the e-commerce site – will combine to reduce churn and increase spending among sports fans.

“Amazon has essentially been ‘dipping a toe’ into the European sports market, either buying exclusive rights for smaller events or a minority package to premium competitions. This has grown steadily to now include rights to the Champions League in three top markets and Ligue 1 in France.

real-madrid Vinicius Junior celebrates in front of a TV cameraman after his goal in May’s Champions League final (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

“It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on Amazon’s movements in the next Premier League rights auction, to see whether it looks to establish itself as even more of a key player in the market.”

And that point about “most games featuring English clubs” is significant.

Your eyes are not deceiving you: English clubs have been doing pretty well in European club competitions over the last five years. This is why England is now top of UEFA’s country coefficient rankings and, from 2024-25 onwards, the top two countries in that table both get a fifth place in the Champions League.

Furthermore, as The Athletic has written, the Premier League has emerged from the pandemic stronger than ever, thanks to its booming international rights deals. This financial clout has enabled all Premier League clubs, but particularly the top ones, to dominate the European transfer market.

Amazon has noticed all of this, too. It thinks it has a pretty good chance of picking a match involving an English club for all 17 of those Tuesday nights.

And this is good news for UEFA, too, right? 

Correct. The British market is massive for UEFA, which is why the governing body resisted calls from leagues in smaller markets to give all four of those extra league-stage slots to their champions instead of handing fifth slots to the top two leagues, one of which looks like being the Premier League for the foreseeable future.

This also explains why Premier League clubs were set to make up a third of the European Super League and why that project collapsed when the Big Six took fright.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin just about saw off the breakaway threat that time, but he knows that victory would be short-lived if the big broadcasters and global streamers did not fancy his revamped Champions League.

The early signs on that are very encouraging, though.

As mentioned, UEFA has also sold its 2024-27 rights in France. Amazon was pipped to those by Canal+, which really needed to keep some premium football after losing the Ligue 1 rights. The French pay-TV giant has bought all 550 games for more than £1.2 billion, an increase of almost 30 per cent on what it paid last time.

This big investment could have a negative impact on the next domestic auction of Ligue 1 rights. But nobody at Canal+ will be shedding any tears over that, as the French league ditched its old partner for a bigger cheque from Chinese-backed company Mediapro, only for Mediapro’s French operation to collapse within months of the new contract starting.

French football is still dealing with the fall-out from that debacle, but European club football marches on.

“UEFA has been able to increase the value of the rights by opening up the tender and packages to more players,” notes Pescatore. “However, this will not go down well with fans if they’re forced to fork out more during these unprecedented times with the higher cost of living.”

Finally! Somebody mentioned the fans!

It’s OK, we were getting there.

“More players means more fragmentation,” continues Pescatore. “But this should not be a huge issue because the surprising winner here is the BBC, which will be looking to replicate the success of Match Of The Day.

“More sport on free-to-air is a winner for all viewers, and makes premium European football more accessible.”

The question of how many different subscriptions the market can bear has been a live topic for years. It was not so long ago that a diehard Premier League fan in the UK only needed a Sky Sports subscription, because that pay-TV company owned the rights to all the games that mattered and free-to-air ITV had the Champions League.

But then Setanta took some Premier League games for a season before going bust, then ESPN tried it for a couple of years, before BT entered the fray. If you really, really had to watch your team play every time it was selected for a live match, well, you needed more than Sky, which has never been cheap.

Then after six years of two direct debits, Amazon came along in 2019 and made it three.

However, from a Premier League point of view, the argument has always been that nobody is forcing anyone to pay these amounts, and premium entertainment, like top-flight English football, is not a basic human right. After all, the money Sky et al have invested in the English game is the biggest reason why the Premier League is now top of UEFA’s coefficient rankings.

And there has always been Match Of The Day — the perfect answer to every difficult question about accessibility, fairness and not pricing out the next generation of fans and players. UEFA can now use the same excuse, too.

But this also represents something of a gamble for the BBC, too, although it might be a gamble it had to take.

“It is certainly an interesting move for the BBC,” Harraghy says. “Highlights shows such as Match Of The Day have seen viewing figures decline over recent years, driven especially by the increased prominence of online video highlights and clips on social media.

“It is uncertain whether the investment in a traditional magazine show will be worthwhile in the long-term as viewing habits continue to shift online.”

People have been predicting the death of Match Of The Day since the days of Alan Hansen and Des Lynam. The host and the pundits may have changed but the programme is still there, and whatever the BBC calls its Wednesday night Champions League show it will still get a bigger audience than the live offerings on both Amazon and BT, and most likely win the time slot, too.

Alan and Des will be kicking themselves they’re not 20 years younger, though.

They would be the subject of the mightiest transfer tug-of-war between the UK’s new Champions League broadcasters and their war chests.

(Top photo: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Golden Games: The 50 greatest individual Premier League performances ranked

Sat, 07/02/2022 - 03:04

In the breathless moments after the final whistle in the Premier League, a player is ushered into a makeshift interview suite, told he has been named the man of the match and invited to make grand, sweeping conclusions about the game and its significance.

After a particularly impressive individual display, the player might be asked: “Where does that rank?” — to which the default answer is “Yeah, no, it’s right up there.”

“Right up there” is a safe response because, truly, how can a player be expected to self-analyse so soon?

Players know when they have played well or played badly, but over the course of 90-plus minutes of physical exertion and intense focus, in and out of possession, alternately going on instinct and making split-second decisions under pressure, they are rather unlikely to have considered their performance in any wider context.

The question will always be asked, though, because when watching sport we love to quantify the unquantifiable. It is never enough to say you have witnessed a great performance. There is always the temptation to wonder and debate where it ranks.

All of which brings us to Golden Games, a series in which The Athletic writers will pay tribute to what we consider the 50 greatest individual performances of the Premier League era. (And before anyone says it, yes, we know very well that football existed long before 1992 but, given that this summer brings the 30th anniversary of that particular rebranding exercise, it feels an opportune moment for this.)

So … 30 seasons. Would you like to guess how many individual performances that adds up to? Well, let’s talk you through it.

From the historic opening weekend in August 1992 — when all but 13 of the 242 starters were from the British Isles and when all the hype about “A Whole New Ball Game” seemed terribly misplaced — to that dramatic, climactic Sunday afternoon last month, there have been 11,646 matches. Each match has had 22 players in the starting line-up, so that’s … yes, 256,212. And top of that there have been 53,737 run-outs as a substitute, so that makes…

Yes, that’s right. Well done to all of you who knew that precisely 309,949 appearances have been made in the Premier League by a total of 4,488 players.

No fewer than 653 of those appearances, spanning a 20-year period with Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton and West Bromwich Albion, were made by Gareth Barry. That might sound like an awful lot until you realise that it is just 0.21 per cent of the total. You could throw Ryan Giggs (632 appearances), Frank Lampard (609), James Milner (588) and David James (572) into the mix and you would still be just short of one per cent of the total appearances made.

Will any of Gareth Barry’s 653 appearances make the final list? (Getty Images)

And here at The Athletic we’re looking to celebrate the top 50. That isn’t the top one per cent. That isn’t even the top 0.1 per cent. It’s the top 0.01613168618063 per cent. It’s like asking you to name the 50 best days of your life… if you lived to the age of 849.

But without wanting to give away too many spoilers, Ali Dia’s solitary appearance, that infamous cameo for Southampton against Leeds United in November 1996, didn’t make the top 50. Neither did Peter Enckelman’s nightmare for Aston Villa against Birmingham City in September 2002 or Jon Walters’ tough afternoon at the office (two own goals and a missed penalty) for Stoke City against Chelsea in January 2013. See? We’re three down already. We’ll be down to 50 in no time.

I’ll let you in on something. We didn’t actually put all 11,646 matches into consideration. We just spent weeks debating — and not just among ourselves — which performances over the course of the Premier League era stood out in our collective memories.

This isn’t just about the big names and the best players. We did that for our Premier League 60 series two years ago — and some of the arguments are only just beginning to quieten down. 

Around half of the players who made that list appear in this one too, but there are some very notable absentees, along with a few others who are best remembered for one extraordinary performance — a day when “Where does that rank?” might actually have elicited a straightforward answer.

Of course, our selections are subjective. Newspapers have run player ratings for decades and in more recent times there have been many more sophisticated attempts to use data to measure individual performance, but, whether it is whoscored.com or the Sky Sports Power rankings (which respectively had Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min as the best performer in the Premier League this season), no system is foolproof.

Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, was narrowly short of a perfect ten (9.7) when he scored a hat-trick for Manchester United against Norwich City in April, but was that really one of the great Premier League performances? Or was, say, his display away to Tottenham last October (one goal, one assist, a mere 8.5 on the whoscored.com scale) more impressive?

So this exercise was not data-driven — not least because data from the first two decades of the Premier League is so disappointingly scarce. Instead, we tapped into our memory banks, scoured the archives, debated endlessly and sought wider expertise to build a very, very long list of performances that was ultimately and arduously whittled down to 50.

As well as the beat reporters at the clubs we cover full-time, we sought the expertise of fans and writers from clubs like Barnsley, Blackpool, Bradford City, Oldham Athletic, Reading, Swindon Town and Wigan Athletic. If we couldn’t find room for, say, the goalkeeping heroics of Matt Clarke or a hat-trick from Jan Aage Fjortoft or Aruna Dindane, we wanted to make sure we did at least give them every consideration.

fjortoft Fjortoft’s performance was among the hundreds (and hundreds (and hundreds))) considered (Getty Images)

We had just one ground rule. No player could feature more than once. So if, let’s say, a brilliant Belgian midfielder at a club in the north-west was already on our list for one spellbinding performance from 2017 and he then produced another in the final weeks of this season, it would have been a question of picking between those two displays. That particular player might end up featuring once (spoiler alert) but neither he nor anyone else is going to make it twice.

Instead, we have produced a list that we feel reflects the great and the good and, crucially, a few performances which proved exceptional in more ways than one.

Inevitably we found more room for feats of goalscoring and creative genius — and goalkeeping — than for understated excellence in other areas. (Seriously, you try persuading your colleagues of the merits of Billy Kenny’s performance in the first Merseyside derby of the Premier League era when it’s almost 30 years since you watched it in a teenage, drunken haze and when, deep down, try as you might, all you can really remember is a couple of crunching tackles.)

But we have insisted on a variety, so that it isn’t just a case of recalling one hat-trick after another. We have also been careful to ensure a sensible spread. Some seasons don’t feature at all, but the early years of the Premier League feature prominently; in fact, at the time of writing (because you can never rule out a last-minute change with these things), I’m delighted to tell you that no season features more frequently than 1993-94.

Some of you might be annoyed or bewildered that a certain performance or a certain player — or even a certain club — doesn’t feature.

Please don’t be. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, designed to give our readers something more to enjoy during the gap between one Premier League season and another. (To give our writers something to write about over the summer, you mean? How dare you. There is always plenty going on. This is just another offering.)

As with the Premier League 60 series, we hope you’ll enjoy the content rather than worry unduly about the rankings or any perceived slights on your favourite player or club.

It is inevitable that some clubs feature more than others (and some not at all), but there is a wide range of players, a wide range of personalities and a wide range of stories behind the performances. And sometimes the context, the circumstances and the backstory will allow us to see a player’s contribution in a very different light.

In some cases, where the facility allows, we will use Wyscout to evaluate the performance and analyse it in painstaking detail. In other cases we might look at it through the eyes of his opponents.

And, where possible, we will get some insight from the players themselves — and perhaps now, decades on in some cases, they will be able to recall through the mists of time that the performance in question really was right up there. Right up in the top 0.01613168618063 per cent.

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)

We will thread every article in this series below, as well as collecting them together here.

No 50: Jamie Vardy, for Leicester City v Manchester United

No 49: Wayne Rooney, for Everton v Bolton Wanderers

No 48: Mesut Ozil, for Arsenal v Leicester City

No 47: Jay-Jay Okocha, for Bolton Wanderers v  Tottenham Hotspur

Jay-Jay Okocha, Bolton, Golden Games

No 46: Niall Quinn, for Sunderland v Chelsea

No 45: Mark Viduka, for Leeds United v Liverpool

No 44: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for Manchester United v Nottingham Forest

No 43: Jack Grealish, for Aston Villa v Liverpool

No 42: Sergio Aguero, for Manchester City v Leicester City

No 41: Ian Wright, for Arsenal v Everton

No 40: Neil Redfearn, for Barnsley v Liverpool

No 39: Paul Scholes, for Manchester United v Newcastle

No 38: Steven Gerrard, for Liverpool v Manchester United

No 37: Phil Jagielka, for Sheffield United v Arsenal

No 36: Fernandinho, for Manchester City v Liverpool

No 35: Tim Flowers, for Blackburn Rovers v Newcastle United

No 34: Emmanuel Adebayor, for Tottenham v Newcastle

No 33: David Beckham, for Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United, Davide Beckham

No 32: Philippe Albert for Newcastle United v Manchester City

Newcastle

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Salah’s new £350k-a-week Liverpool contract, why it makes sense and why it doesn’t

Fri, 07/01/2022 - 21:48

In late 2019, towards the end of another relentlessly hot day scrambling across Cairo’s concrete sprawl in search of fresh information about Egypt’s most famous footballer, one of his former team-mates found it easy to explain why Mohamed Salah had managed to do what only a select few from his country have been able to achieve.

Ali Fathi had shared five years of his teenage life with Salah when the pair were signed to El Mokawloon. In an apartment block to the east of Cairo, they would spend their evenings gaming, where Salah, on FIFA, would always be Barcelona – the club he dreamed of joining.

It had always been Salah’s ambition to move to Europe. He didn’t seem particularly motivated by a future at Al Ahly or Zamalek, the two Cairo clubs where all of the best Egyptian footballers tend to end up. It cannot be overestimated how unusual this was, because the passion for football is on a religious level in Egypt, where players are paid well enough to make it easier for them to stay at home when offers come from abroad.

Fathi, a left-back, whose career had taken him briefly to the Portuguese island of Madeira before he returned to the wild womb of Cairo, was injured at the time and trying to get back into the team at his latest club, El Entag El Harby.

Looking across the training field, he commented on the size and shape of his current team-mates, comparing them to Salah, who was thousands of miles away and trying to negotiate a British winter during a season where he would end up as a Premier League champion.

Simply, it had been Salah’s independence that made him different. He was able to think alone and this meant he looked after himself. After training every day, he would go to the exercise hall unaccompanied and lift weights for a minimum of half an hour. Later, he enrolled at a private gymnasium where he told an instructor that he needed to improve his stamina and acceleration, even though he’d already dazzled in his early professional career as an extremely fast footballer.

Fathi suggested that the diet of Egyptian footballers generally wasn’t particularly healthy because of their meat intake. Salah, however, took conditioning incredibly seriously – “more seriously than any Egyptian footballer I’ve ever met”.

He had not been guided by any of his coaches in this pursuit. Indeed, he might have been a Barcelona fan but from afar, he’d seen Cristiano Ronaldo with his Real Madrid shirt off after scoring a goal and realised the way the game was heading. “Mo realised he had to become a machine,” Fathi concluded.

Last month made it a decade since Salah’s departure from Egyptian club football. A new three-year contract at Liverpool will take him to within three seasons of the Egyptian player who holds the records for the longest career in Europe.

Yet perhaps Salah’s path would have been different had he listened to that same player; Hany Ramzy, a defender who represented their country at the 1990 World Cup, before he became a scout in Germany.

Ramzy spent 11 of his 16 years in Europe with Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. This meant he had a good understanding of the Bundesliga, which is where Salah could have gone first when he left Egypt had it not been for the intervention of Mohamed Amer, his manager at El Mokawloon, who advised him to wait.

Instead, he stepped from North Africa into Europe via Switzerland, where his performances in 18 months with Basel led to an offer from Liverpool. Had he agreed to move to Anfield in 2014 instead of joining Chelsea, you also wonder where he might be positioned currently on the club’s all-time goalscoring list.

mohamed-salah Salah has scored 156 goals in 254 games since his arrival from Roma for £36 million in 2017 (Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps it worked out for the best that his time at the club has coincided entirely with Jurgen Klopp, a manager who suggested that the player’s “best years are still to come” earlier today (Friday) after Liverpool made Salah the highest-paid player in the club’s history at the age of 30.

This deal is not free of risk.

It has been claimed that Liverpool are treading similar ground to Arsenal two years ago, when they renewed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract at 31 before his influence wilted quickly.

These, however, are different footballers with different mindsets representing different clubs in different states of health, led by different managers at different stages of their relationship with the players concerned.

Aubameyang, after all, seems to have found himself again since moving on to Barcelona in January. For Salah, the risk, perhaps, relates more to his own game: how he, Klopp and his Liverpool team-mates adjust to him becoming older. Each party will need to ensure his output during this process justifies the investment.

Liverpool have made an exception for Salah in this agreement but it does not mean the decision is unprecedented.

While running all of its sporting interests, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Fenway Sports Group has rarely handed out huge contracts to sportspeople who are reaching a stage in their careers that normally would be beyond the physical peak of many.

Clearly, however, Liverpool do not believe this is the case with Salah – just as they did not with James Milner, who the club recruited as their best-paid player when he was soon to be 30 years old on this same date seven years ago.

Milner, of course, is ticking along just fine all this time later and after the players return for pre-season training on Monday morning, it would be a surprise if he and Salah are not at the front of the pack when they hurtle across the track in the otherwise dreaded kilometre interval sprints in the days that follow.

When comparing the Milner of 2015 and the Salah of 2022, however, there is a difference of around £200,000 a week.

Ultimately, Salah’s stay at Liverpool has always boiled down to money, no matter how the club, the player or his representative Ramy Abbas try to frame it now that all parties are happy about the outcome.

When Kevin De Bruyne, a month short of his 30th birthday, agreed a two-year contract extension in May of last year to keep him at Manchester City past his 34th birthday, Salah, with guidance from Abbas, figured they should be aiming for something similar. That is roughly what they got – although there were concessions from both sides because some of his £350k a week is incentivised around performance and achievement.

Despite concerns that this information might cause problems with team-mates and their representatives, who now know there is always wiggle room in any future negotiation, Klopp is particularly confident that the humility and intelligence in the Anfield dressing room mean it won’t be a problem.

The other Liverpool players tend to think of Salah as the side’s main man and see how dedicated he is because of the way he takes care of himself – as he has always done – and therefore, there is a recognition that he deserves what he’s getting.

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There are no obvious signs of Salah slowing up, but there were no obvious signs of Sadio Mane slowing up either before he was sold to Bayern Munich last month.

Sometimes, the future can be about a player’s will.

While Salah always wanted to stay providing the money was right, Mane had made it clear to Liverpool that he would not be signing a new contract to replace the one expiring in summer 2023. That is why Luis Diaz was bought in January as his replacement.

Mane, being the player and personality he is, managed to redefine himself in another position during the final months of his Liverpool career, a period when Salah struggled after his mid-season exertions in the Africa Cup of Nations, and the twin disappointments of Egypt losing that tournament’s final and, in March, failing to qualify for the World Cup. Liverpool understood the emotional impact in all of that but backed him. It is thought a summer of rest will have done him the power of good.

It will be fascinating to see how Liverpool use Salah from here.

For five years, he has been the left-footed striker on the right of a front three, but there are indications that changes are afoot given the way Klopp successfully tweaked the shape of his midfield and attack towards the end of last season.

Maybe he’ll need more No 10 options in this evolution. Maybe Salah will be one of the players who can help him with that.

He has nearly always been available for Liverpool. Physically, his body would surely be able to deal with the responsibilities of a more central role. He has become more unselfish over the last 18 months, servicing those around him.

Though he is a much more thoughtful footballer compared to the one that left Cairo for Switzerland, as well as the one that joined Liverpool from Roma, Klopp must think that he fundamentally remains the same machine.

(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

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Champions League final: Why are Britain’s most senior politicians avoiding discussing Paris?

Fri, 07/01/2022 - 05:18

On the night of May’s Champions League final in Paris, the Labour Party realised it had a problem because four of its Liverpool-supporting members attended an event where people were crushed and then attacked by riot police. Later, many were dragged across the street by locals, beaten up, robbed and in some cases, molested.

Immediately, texts were sent to each of these politicians, to check on their welfare. Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor for the Liverpool city region, was unable to receive his because the phone in his pocket was stolen along with other belongings including all forms of identification.

Upon telling police of his experience, Rotheram was given the reply: “Welcome to Paris.” Officers only realised who he was when a group of Liverpool fans arbitrated, telling them, “that’s our mayor” and with that, they did a Google search and realised it might be in their professional interest to help.

Rotheram proceeded to the Stade de France where, in one of the executive lounges, he spotted Aleksander Ceferin. Shaken up, he approached UEFA’s president and told him about the carnage outside.

When Ceferin explained that the organisation he leads had “killed” themselves to get the final on in Paris after it was moved at short notice from Saint Petersburg and Rotheram reacted to that by saying he hoped the effort did not come at the expense of safety, Ceferin went cold and scuttled away to discuss his wider response in a huddle of suited men.

To Rotheram, it did not seem that Ceferin wanted to entertain the idea that UEFA might have got something wrong in their preparations. Since returning to Britain, he has been relentless in his public pursuit of letting the truth be known along with another Labour MP from Merseyside, Ian Byrne, who on Tuesday sent a letter to the French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera asking her to prove once and for all with evidence that ticket forgeries on an “industrial scale” caused some of the problems because “the ongoing smearing of innocent people cannot continue…”

Labour figures on Merseyside have received central support from the party they represent. Lucy Powell, the shadow secretary for digital, culture, media and sport has been in charge of the response and nine days after the final, she told parliament about how Liverpool fans particularly were “mistreated” and “wronged”.

Labour say it is Powell who speaks for the party on the issue and yesterday she told The Athletic: “From the top down, the Labour party stands with Liverpool fans following the atrocious treatment they’ve received from the French government and UEFA. That’s why we strongly supported Ian Byrne’s urgent question, forcing ministers to come to parliament and demanded the government gets to the truth about the incident and hold those accountable. The government should use every avenue to ensure the French investigate and fully apologise. Labour will continue to support Liverpool fans in their fight for justice.”

Labour’s leader, however, is yet to express any feelings about the night. As of yesterday morning, Sir Keir Starmer had posted on Twitter 57 times since May 28 and not one of those posts related to the scandal of Paris. While it is true that politicians should not be judged by the content of their social media pages, it does seem unusual that the efforts of Powell – one of his most senior appointments – has escaped his attention on such a significant platform.

Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan, who was positioned in the stadium as a Liverpool supporter as the mood turned dark, started Tweeting again two days after the final but there was no mention of where he’d been over the weekend.

Instead, he returned to social media with a comment about the Elizabeth line on London’s tube map and a “huge economic boost for London”. A month and nearly 500 Tweets later, you would not know Khan – the capital’s Labour mayor and a Starmer ally – was in Paris had it not been for photographs placing him there.

Boris Johnson is loathed in Liverpool because of his comments about the causes of the Hillsborough disaster, as well as his political allegiance as a Conservative. The city has been left-leaning since 1979 but even he, albeit through a spokesman, called for UEFA and the French authorities to carry out a full investigation because of “deeply upsetting and concerning footage”.

The French government and UEFA subsequently announced their own separate reviews. While Liverpool supporters appeared in front of the senate last week before an apology of sorts came this week from the country’s under-fire interior minister Gerald Darmanin, there remains huge concern about the direction of UEFA enquiries given it appointed its own man to lead a supposedly “independent” examination.

The process, therefore, already feels like a kid marking his own homework because the governing body’s failings should be at the centre of this story.

Liverpool fans stuck outside the Stade de France show their match tickets (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Will UEFA be empowered by what seems to be a lack of interest from the most influential politicians in Britain? While Johnson has said nothing else about the event since May 30, his sports minister Nigel Huddleston has spoken about the matter in parliament, most recently on June 6. Huddleston met his French counterpart for a virtual conversation the following day where both, according to Conservative sources, agreed that their respective governments will continue to engage in constructive dialogue alongside other relevant authorities on this issue, and that the French Government will set out the findings of its review as soon as possible. The details of this discussion have yet not been relayed to parliament. Labour, in the meantime, insist the party has not forgotten Paris and has agonised over the practical things it can do, insisting Starmer does care despite his silence.

There have also been denials that he took advice from a focus group, as he does with other key decisions, before forming his own conclusion about how to proceed. It has been offered that instead, Labour has assisted with diplomatic aspects including discussions with embassies on how best to prepare for such large-scale events before they happen in the future.

In cold assessment, Labour believes UEFA is not an organisation that will be swayed by the words of any politician yet there is an obvious gamble in any leader who really cares staying out of the conversation here, particularly when UEFA’s interest is aligned with those legislators in France attempting to protect a country’s reputation as well as their own careers.

What would Labour or, indeed, the Conservatives lose (without making any promises), if it called through official channels via their leaders for a full and truly independent enquiry to get to the truth of Saint-Denis and ensure that something like this never happens again whether it involves football or any other sport?

Had hundreds of British theatre-goers in Paris been dragged across the street and attacked for simply being there, it is imaginable the cross-party political noise would have been a lot louder.

Despite the words out of Johnson’s team on May 30, neither he nor Emmanuel Macron, the French president, were willing to express whether the brutal events of Paris formed a part of their discussions following various summits over the last seven days.

Police spray tear gas at Liverpool fans outside the stadium as they queue prior to the UEFA Champions League final at the Stade de France (Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, it seems more likely that Starmer believes it is simply safer for him to avoid the issue because it is too controversial, especially when his main political opponent is on the run and losing popularity, as indicated by the results in two by-elections last week.

If that is his approach on Paris, it is not out of character because over the last month he has not signposted his position on the Conservative government’s attempts to dump refugees in Rwanda. While he attacked Johnson for “not lifting a finger” to stop RMT train strikes, he did not support workers for their stance. Instead, Labour politicians were told by whips to stay away from picket lines.

Starmer certainly has not been let down by Labour party members in the north west over Paris. A Labour spokesman reasons Byrne was chosen to speak in parliament ahead of figures senior to him because his experiences in Paris were lived.

Previously, Powell, Labour’s MP for Manchester Central, defended the right of Liverpool supporters to boo the national anthem while speaking at a BBC Question Time event held in the city where she also condemned the actions of some Manchester City supporters who interrupted a minute’s silence at the FA Cup semi-final in memory of the Hillsborough disaster.

Yet by avoiding visibility and the supposed risks now, Starmer is playing a dangerous game with voters in Liverpool, who might begin to feel history is repeating itself because it does not seem to be receiving the level of support required to defend itself and potentially, begin the process of bringing about genuine change that might make it safer for all British visitors to France for sporting events.

Liverpool is already wary of Starmer after he promised at a rally on the banks of the Mersey river that while on the same leadership campaign trail he would not conduct interviews with the Sun, a publication which has disappeared from the shelves of stockists on Merseyside following its lies about the causes of the Hillsborough.

As Labour leader, he later started co-operating with the newspaper, starting with a column where he tried to turn focus back on the government by laying the blame for food and petrol shortages on ministers.

He should heed a warning from the past. In 1997, the new Labour home secretary Jack Straw was under pressure in Liverpool from families of the victims of Hillsborough along with Merseyside MPs to reopen an inquiry into the disaster.

Two months after Labour came to power, Straw appointed Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to lead a review of the evidence but before that review even began he told officials that he had already looked at the case, concluding there was not enough material to proceed.

Straw’s doubts were not expressed in the House of Commons at the time and early in 1998, the case was closed.

Later that year, Liverpool voted in a Liberal Democrat council which prevailed for 12 years.

(Top photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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How much are Premier League pre-season matches abroad really worth?

Fri, 07/01/2022 - 05:15

Premier League football clubs have been eagerly readying themselves for their first full pre-season since we first heard of COVID-19.

It will give them an opportunity to recoup a portion of the finances they lost because of the global pandemic while appeasing overseas sponsors, supporters and, hopefully, growing their brand in a different market.

With foreign travel disrupted for the past two years, this summer presents the first chance for clubs to start flexing their muscles on summer trips once again.

While some managers prefer to stay closer to home, there has not been a shortage of glitzy foreign tours announced.

Half of the teams competing in the Premier League have chosen to travel beyond Europe to participate in a number of fixtures and continue their preparation for the upcoming season.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City have opted for the US. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Manchester United are bound for Australia.

Palace will also visit Singapore, with United travelling to Thailand for a game against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side will spend time in Singapore, too. Tottenham Hotspur are booked to go to South Korea, while Real Madrid and Barcelona will play only the third Clasico to take place outside of Spain in Las Vegas.

Mesut Ozil and Arsenal in Shanghai in 2017 (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“There is a huge demand to go away now,” says Gary Hobson, who organises pre-season trips for Premier League sides and those further down the pyramid. “This time last year I was scrapping around for UK camps, but this year I have never had such a busy summer in terms of trying to get teams abroad.

“A lot of these guys haven’t travelled for a couple of years, the (travel) restrictions are minimal, and the mood is that the teams want to go away.”

But how much is a summer tour really worth?

The financial impact of travel restrictions on pre-season tours was laid bare in Manchester United’s set of accounts for the year ending June 2021.

United reported almost a £50 million drop in commercial revenue, down from £279 million in 2020 to £232.2 million, and attributed a portion of this loss to their inability to head overseas. A trip to India was pencilled in for the summer of 2020.

“COVID-19 continued to have a significant adverse impact on our reported results for the year ended 30 June 2021,” the club’s accounts read. “The impact is primarily due to a reduction in commercial and match day revenues following the cancellation of the first team’s pre-season tour at the start of fiscal 2021 due to travel restrictions.”

Although this is at the top end, you get a sense of how important clubs view pre-season in terms of generating revenue.

Some teams, however, prefer to remain in Europe and will focus on getting their players in the best shape possible ahead of the campaign. For those outside the established elite, it is not worth the travel, jetlag and disruption for relatively small fees compared to others.

“What I’m finding is the top-tier clubs, your global brands, are getting big enough fees and are commercially big enough so that they are exceeding their costs,” adds Hobson. “They are making money from it. They might pull in £4 million and only spend £1 million to achieve that.

“The issue is that for those outside of that top bracket, they are getting smaller fees yet still incur the same costs to travel. Commercially, it has to be worthwhile — especially for those travelling to Australia.”

Juli Nadal, Barcelona’s former head of global partnerships between 2013 and 2017, was responsible for organising the club’s pre-season tours and details their significance in bolstering finances.

Nadal says the landscape has shifted over time, with teams opting to move away from travelling to Asia and opting for the US instead.

This was largely down to the inception of the International Champions Cup (ICC) in 2013, an annual tournament held predominantly in the US.

Jose Mourinho and Chelsea playing in the ICC in New York in 2015 (Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Talking in general terms, Nadal said: “In one good summer tour, let’s say 10 days, you could do as much (financially) as you could do with a global sponsor in one season.

“But that is for Barcelona in the good days. It is not for everybody. It was a bit like bringing the Rolling Stones over.

“We went from the good money being made in Asia when a local promoter wanted to bring the club over there. The introduction of the International Champions Cup (ICC) changed that from around 2014. It made the US very attractive for the clubs again.”

Before the ICC, if a team chose to go on tour to Asia, they were usually reliant on several promoters as opposed to one body to organise everything. Logistically, this attracted them to America as clubs’ training facilities were taken care of and the matches were organised, with people assigned to them to make sure things ran smoothly. Plus the money on offer was not to be sniffed at.

One source suggested that sides such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and other members of Europe’s traditional elite can demand fees of over £2 million per game. It was also pointed out that some Major League Soccer teams will offer close to $500,000 (£410,000) to play against a “mid-range” Premier League club.

“Anything I’ve dealt with has been purely commercial-based,” Hobson says, when asked whether money is the sole factor behind trips to America, Australia and Asia. “Whether it’s (also) that club having a responsibility to their supporters as they are global brands with vast support networks across the world and they have a duty to be seen, I don’t know.

“The new emerging football nations are offering fees to the big teams to expand their own market. There are a whole raft of reasons, but they are mainly based on commercial.”

While the ICC tournaments proved lucrative for some, they did not come without relevant clauses.

Put simply, the organisers knew they had to sell tickets to start recouping the fees they were paying the clubs to make the trip. Accordingly, they would insert penalty clauses into contracts which would activate if certain players did not show up.

“A (Lionel) Messi is difficult to replace,” adds Nadal. “Cristiano (Ronaldo) is difficult to replace — and the value of your team is not that same without them in terms of selling tickets.”

Clubs could be looking at as much as a 25 per cent hit if their biggest stars, which would be agreed during the talks, did not attend.

As clubs began to realise their commercial worth overseas, aided by the explosion of social media which helped pinpoint exactly where their fans were following them from, it prompted some awkward conversations between different departments.

The manager’s priority is to prepare his players for the beginning of the season and travelling over several time zones for 10 days or two weeks is often far from ideal. Some managers have enough influence to put their foot down; others will ultimately have to do whatever the club decides.

As is often the case, however, money talks.

“It is a compromise,” explains Nadal. “By definition, the coach in the summer wants a pre-season where they just train, integrate the new players and get ready for the new season. That is in an ideal world.

“(But) after the last 10 years, everybody understands they need to compromise and go somewhere for 10 days.

“They would want good facilities, a good hotel, a training session in the afternoon and three games.

“You start to put together the schedule from a sports point of view. Then you start working out where you can fit in commercial activities.”

These events could include meet-and-greets between players and supporters, a trip to a kit partner’s store or visiting regional sponsors.

“It is the classic give-and-take that you need to have at a big football club,” continues Nadal. “You are not going to China or the US just to train.”

Barcelona in Miami in 2018 (Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Hobson recalls handling Arsenal’s pre-season camps when Arsene Wenger was in charge.

For many years, the Frenchman had “carte blanche” over what his side did during the summer, which usually resulted in Arsenal going to a base in Austria which Wenger first selected ahead of the 1997-98 season. As the financial pressure of paying for the club’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium grew, however, different decisions began to be taken.

“His compromise was that he would always stand his ground and say the commercial aspect should not impact his pre-season,” says Hobson. “We would do the Austria trip and then two quick games in succession on our way back. We could pick up substantial fees for two games in Germany. We’d do another game in Spain towards the end of pre-season.

“As commercial pressure grew, you then saw Arsenal travelling further afield as the commercial gains were bigger.

“I wouldn’t say Arsene lost control, but it came to the point where they would have to take the money if it meant paying the stadium off and so on. He bought into that.”

It is not uncommon for clubs which have global partnerships to have a clause inserted into the contract to visit that sponsor’s territory, or at the very least show a willingness to travel there.

This can lead to increased revenue because once that clause is activated, the team can usually expect to receive additional payments from their partner.

In light of the pandemic, the ICC stopped hosting its annual summer tournament and it is thought a new, streamlined version will replace it. No longer will there be 24 teams taking part.

This will undoubtedly continue to attract clubs to the US, especially as the alternative can often be stepping into the unknown if they decide to head elsewhere.

“It is a moment of big responsibility when you think about it,” says Nadal. “You are taking your first team to another country that you don’t know. You don’t know the stadiums, you don’t know the fans.

“Sometimes you would have offers from people that you would not take because the guarantees were not given in terms of facilities and logistics. A big club cannot afford to have a problem in pre-season.”

Nadal explains how clubs often receive offers from countries that may have questionable human rights records or, at the very least, might lead to uncomfortable questions being asked.

These tend to be the most financially lucrative but are usually not worth taking.

Barcelona’s former head of global partnerships has a golden rule that once a destination for pre-season has been decided, all of the money should be in the club’s account before the players board the flight.

This would normally be 25 per cent on signature, 25 per cent further down the road when the promoter has been able to sell tickets and the final 50 per cent before the aeroplane takes off.

Some clubs have already started working on next summer’s pre-season tours, with one Premier League side heading overseas before the end of the year to scout training facilities, such is the demand to get a good spot.

And after back-to-back summers where they were unable to travel, it is no surprise that they are trying to make up for lost finances this time around.

(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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Golden Games: The 50 greatest individual Premier League performances ranked

Fri, 07/01/2022 - 03:04

In the breathless moments after the final whistle in the Premier League, a player is ushered into a makeshift interview suite, told he has been named the man of the match and invited to make grand, sweeping conclusions about the game and its significance.

After a particularly impressive individual display, the player might be asked: “Where does that rank?” — to which the default answer is “Yeah, no, it’s right up there.”

“Right up there” is a safe response because, truly, how can a player be expected to self-analyse so soon?

Players know when they have played well or played badly, but over the course of 90-plus minutes of physical exertion and intense focus, in and out of possession, alternately going on instinct and making split-second decisions under pressure, they are rather unlikely to have considered their performance in any wider context.

The question will always be asked, though, because when watching sport we love to quantify the unquantifiable. It is never enough to say you have witnessed a great performance. There is always the temptation to wonder and debate where it ranks.

All of which brings us to Golden Games, a series in which The Athletic writers will pay tribute to what we consider the 50 greatest individual performances of the Premier League era. (And before anyone says it, yes, we know very well that football existed long before 1992 but, given that this summer brings the 30th anniversary of that particular rebranding exercise, it feels an opportune moment for this.)

So … 30 seasons. Would you like to guess how many individual performances that adds up to? Well, let’s talk you through it.

From the historic opening weekend in August 1992 — when all but 13 of the 242 starters were from the British Isles and when all the hype about “A Whole New Ball Game” seemed terribly misplaced — to that dramatic, climactic Sunday afternoon last month, there have been 11,646 matches. Each match has had 22 players in the starting line-up, so that’s … yes, 256,212. And top of that there have been 53,737 run-outs as a substitute, so that makes…

Yes, that’s right. Well done to all of you who knew that precisely 309,949 appearances have been made in the Premier League by a total of 4,488 players.

No fewer than 653 of those appearances, spanning a 20-year period with Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton and West Bromwich Albion, were made by Gareth Barry. That might sound like an awful lot until you realise that it is just 0.21 per cent of the total. You could throw Ryan Giggs (632 appearances), Frank Lampard (609), James Milner (588) and David James (572) into the mix and you would still be just short of one per cent of the total appearances made.

Will any of Gareth Barry’s 653 appearances make the final list? (Getty Images)

And here at The Athletic we’re looking to celebrate the top 50. That isn’t the top one per cent. That isn’t even the top 0.1 per cent. It’s the top 0.01613168618063 per cent. It’s like asking you to name the 50 best days of your life… if you lived to the age of 849.

But without wanting to give away too many spoilers, Ali Dia’s solitary appearance, that infamous cameo for Southampton against Leeds United in November 1996, didn’t make the top 50. Neither did Peter Enckelman’s nightmare for Aston Villa against Birmingham City in September 2002 or Jon Walters’ tough afternoon at the office (two own goals and a missed penalty) for Stoke City against Chelsea in January 2013. See? We’re three down already. We’ll be down to 50 in no time.

I’ll let you in on something. We didn’t actually put all 11,646 matches into consideration. We just spent weeks debating — and not just among ourselves — which performances over the course of the Premier League era stood out in our collective memories.

This isn’t just about the big names and the best players. We did that for our Premier League 60 series two years ago — and some of the arguments are only just beginning to quieten down. 

Around half of the players who made that list appear in this one too, but there are some very notable absentees, along with a few others who are best remembered for one extraordinary performance — a day when “Where does that rank?” might actually have elicited a straightforward answer.

Of course, our selections are subjective. Newspapers have run player ratings for decades and in more recent times there have been many more sophisticated attempts to use data to measure individual performance, but, whether it is whoscored.com or the Sky Sports Power rankings (which respectively had Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min as the best performer in the Premier League this season), no system is foolproof.

Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, was narrowly short of a perfect ten (9.7) when he scored a hat-trick for Manchester United against Norwich City in April, but was that really one of the great Premier League performances? Or was, say, his display away to Tottenham last October (one goal, one assist, a mere 8.5 on the whoscored.com scale) more impressive?

So this exercise was not data-driven — not least because data from the first two decades of the Premier League is so disappointingly scarce. Instead, we tapped into our memory banks, scoured the archives, debated endlessly and sought wider expertise to build a very, very long list of performances that was ultimately and arduously whittled down to 50.

As well as the beat reporters at the clubs we cover full-time, we sought the expertise of fans and writers from clubs like Barnsley, Blackpool, Bradford City, Oldham Athletic, Reading, Swindon Town and Wigan Athletic. If we couldn’t find room for, say, the goalkeeping heroics of Matt Clarke or a hat-trick from Jan Aage Fjortoft or Aruna Dindane, we wanted to make sure we did at least give them every consideration.

fjortoft Fjortoft’s performance was among the hundreds (and hundreds (and hundreds))) considered (Getty Images)

We had just one ground rule. No player could feature more than once. So if, let’s say, a brilliant Belgian midfielder at a club in the north-west was already on our list for one spellbinding performance from 2017 and he then produced another in the final weeks of this season, it would have been a question of picking between those two displays. That particular player might end up featuring once (spoiler alert) but neither he nor anyone else is going to make it twice.

Instead, we have produced a list that we feel reflects the great and the good and, crucially, a few performances which proved exceptional in more ways than one.

Inevitably we found more room for feats of goalscoring and creative genius — and goalkeeping — than for understated excellence in other areas. (Seriously, you try persuading your colleagues of the merits of Billy Kenny’s performance in the first Merseyside derby of the Premier League era when it’s almost 30 years since you watched it in a teenage, drunken haze and when, deep down, try as you might, all you can really remember is a couple of crunching tackles.)

But we have insisted on a variety, so that it isn’t just a case of recalling one hat-trick after another. We have also been careful to ensure a sensible spread. Some seasons don’t feature at all, but the early years of the Premier League feature prominently; in fact, at the time of writing (because you can never rule out a last-minute change with these things), I’m delighted to tell you that no season features more frequently than 1993-94.

Some of you might be annoyed or bewildered that a certain performance or a certain player — or even a certain club — doesn’t feature.

Please don’t be. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, designed to give our readers something more to enjoy during the gap between one Premier League season and another. (To give our writers something to write about over the summer, you mean? How dare you. There is always plenty going on. This is just another offering.)

As with the Premier League 60 series, we hope you’ll enjoy the content rather than worry unduly about the rankings or any perceived slights on your favourite player or club.

It is inevitable that some clubs feature more than others (and some not at all), but there is a wide range of players, a wide range of personalities and a wide range of stories behind the performances. And sometimes the context, the circumstances and the backstory will allow us to see a player’s contribution in a very different light.

In some cases, where the facility allows, we will use Wyscout to evaluate the performance and analyse it in painstaking detail. In other cases we might look at it through the eyes of his opponents.

And, where possible, we will get some insight from the players themselves — and perhaps now, decades on in some cases, they will be able to recall through the mists of time that the performance in question really was right up there. Right up in the top 0.01613168618063 per cent.

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)

We will thread every article in this series below, as well as collecting them together here.

No 50: Jamie Vardy, for Leicester City v Manchester United

No 49: Wayne Rooney, for Everton v Bolton Wanderers

No 48: Mesut Ozil, for Arsenal v Leicester City

No 47: Jay-Jay Okocha, for Bolton Wanderers v  Tottenham Hotspur

Jay-Jay Okocha, Bolton, Golden Games

No 46: Niall Quinn, for Sunderland v Chelsea

No 45: Mark Viduka, for Leeds United v Liverpool

No 44: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for Manchester United v Nottingham Forest

No 43: Jack Grealish, for Aston Villa v Liverpool

No 42: Sergio Aguero, for Manchester City v Leicester City

No 41: Ian Wright, for Arsenal v Everton

No 40: Neil Redfearn, for Barnsley v Liverpool

No 39: Paul Scholes, for Manchester United v Newcastle

No 38: Steven Gerrard, for Liverpool v Manchester United

No 37: Phil Jagielka, for Sheffield United v Arsenal

No 36: Fernandinho, for Manchester City v Liverpool

No 35: Tim Flowers, for Blackburn Rovers v Newcastle United

No 34: Emmanuel Adebayor, for Tottenham v Newcastle

No 33: David Beckham, for Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United, Davide Beckham

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Jay Spearing’s new role at Liverpool: ‘I’d say this is the best decision I’ve ever made’

Thu, 06/30/2022 - 05:24

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Spearing is back at Anfield in a player-coach role designed to help ensure the conveyor belt of academy talent at Kirkby keeps on rolling...
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Michael Edwards would be a brilliant signing for Manchester United or Chelsea – but is the timing right for him?

Wed, 06/29/2022 - 05:13

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Michael Edwards is considered among the best in the business – maybe even the best – when it comes to buying and selling players
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How the crypto crash has impacted each Premier League club

Tue, 06/28/2022 - 05:15

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Almost every club in the Premier League played a role in promoting volatile unregulated financial assets to fans as prices crashed
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Can Liverpool’s midfield still excel without fresh blood?

Mon, 06/27/2022 - 05:18

The Liverpool squad will report back for the start of pre-season training next Monday. Five days later, they will embark on a week-long tour of the Far East.

Uruguay striker Darwin Nunez, who was signed from Benfica for a fee which could rise to a club-record £85 million, will be the star attraction.

Jurgen Klopp is also relishing the prospect of getting to work with fellow new boys Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay. Carvalho will provide an exciting injection of attacking quality following his £7.7 million move from Fulham, while fellow teenager Ramsey arrived from Aberdeen in a £6.5 million deal. The Scottish full-back will give Klopp high-calibre cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Sadio Mane, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino have already left Liverpool, with Neco Williams, who has attracted strong interest from Fulham and Nottingham Forest, set to follow.

The Anfield hierarchy have indicated that’s likely to be it in terms of incomings. Klopp is happy with what he’s got. The club’s priorities in the transfer market have already been addressed by new sporting director Julian Ward.

However, there is one remaining area of the squad that could arguably still do with being strengthened.

A year ago, many supporters were concerned when Georginio Wijnaldum wasn’t replaced following his departure on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Now, a similar debate is raging about Klopp’s midfield options.

Liverpool’s stance was vindicated last summer as they embarked on a remarkable campaign which saw them win both domestic cups and narrowly miss out on both Premier League and Champions League glory. The question is: can they hit those heights again without some fresh blood in the centre of the park?

For Klopp and Ward, it’s a case of finding the right midfielder at the right price rather than settling for second-best or a stop-gap. As a result, they are prepared to wait until 2023 unless an attractive proposition emerges in the coming weeks.

It’s no secret that Liverpool held a strong interest in Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni but they always knew his preference was to sign for Real Madrid. The €100 million price tag was also prohibitive.

England international Jude Bellingham is admired by Klopp and the club’s recruitment staff, but they know signing him this summer isn’t realistic with Borussia Dortmund having already lost Erling Haaland to Manchester City. Bellingham’s contract runs until 2025.

So where does that leave Liverpool?

Certainly, numbers-wise, Klopp isn’t short. He has eight senior midfielders in Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Carvalho’s long-term future is expected to be in midfield, although initially he’s set to get opportunities further forward. The arrival of Nunez gives Klopp greater freedom to switch to playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 at times, having long since favoured a 4-3-3 system. The manager wants an element of unpredictability.

Midfield was the department where Klopp rotated the most during a gruelling season which spanned 63 games in all competitions.

Liverpool midfield

The most common midfield he picked was made up of Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago. They started 11 times together in 2021-22. When fit, they were Klopp’s first-choice unit.

Thiago excelled when he was available and was deservedly named in the PFA Team of the Year, although injuries and illness meant the 31-year-old Spain international was only involved in 25 out of 38 league games.

Fabinho, Henderson and Keita started five times together — the same as the trio of Fabinho, Henderson and Jones. Elliott would have been more heavily involved but for the serious ankle injury he suffered against Leeds United last September. He’s expected to play a much bigger role in 2022-23.

Liverpool

Henderson, who recently turned 32, played more minutes than any other Liverpool midfielder last season. The long-serving captain clocked up 3,869 in all competitions. Fabinho (3,690) was next, followed by Thiago (2,381), Keita (2,083), Jones (1,528), Oxlade-Chamberlain (1,524) and Milner (1,387).

In terms of attacking contributions, Fabinho led the way in terms of goals with eight, while Henderson provided the most assists with six. Thiago and Milner were top in terms of assists per 90 minutes with 0.19.

Earlier this month, Milner signed a new one-year deal to extend his Liverpool career beyond his 37th birthday. He featured in 39 games in 2021-22 (25 as a substitute) and Klopp has made it clear he hasn’t just been retained because of the example he sets in the dressing room.

“A lot is often made of James’ leadership skills and his influence in the dressing room, and of course, that’s correct and justified, but nobody should overlook his quality on the pitch, where he continues to perform to a level that meant we simply couldn’t afford to lose him,” says Klopp. “We had the longest campaign possible last season and Millie only got stronger and better, and more influential as it went on.”

Liverpool

It was another stop-start year for Keita. The Guinea international made some vital contributions, particularly in the second half of the season, but had to settle for a late cameo off the bench in the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid.

Keita actually played more in the Premier League in 2021-22 than in any season since 2018-19, but that was still represented only 34.3 per cent of the club’s minutes. He made 14 top-flight starts. That figure would have been slightly higher but for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Liverpool are in the process of trying to agree a new contract with Keita, whose deal runs out next summer. The 27-year-old’s battle to live up to his £52.75 million transfer fee on a regular basis is ongoing but Klopp’s faith in him remains.

Liverpool

One midfielder who could move on this summer is Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool won’t stand in his way if the right opportunity comes up for him to secure regular game time elsewhere. The 28-year-old, who has a year left on his contract, is valued at around £10 million.

Having played just 7.4 per cent of the club’s top-flight minutes in 2020-21, that figure climbed to 23 per cent last season. However, he still hasn’t played more than a third of the minutes for Liverpool in the Premier League since 2019-20.

Oxlade-Chamberlain made 29 appearances in all competitions in 2021-22 (12 as a sub) but fell increasingly out of favour and didn’t feature again following the FA Cup tie win at Nottingham Forest in March. What happens next depends to a large degree on what other options emerge for him. If he starts pre-season brightly, then Oxlade-Chamberlain may decide he’s better off staying put and backing himself to force his way into Klopp’s plans.

If Liverpool don’t sign a midfielder, then many fans will view his potential departure as a risk. Klopp would be heavily reliant on Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson staying injury-free, Keita progressing, Milner continuing to defy the ageing process, as well as Elliott and Jones stepping up and fulfilling their rich potential.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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Calvin Ramsay’s rise to Liverpool: ‘A six-year-old talking a team-mate through a game is unique’

Fri, 06/24/2022 - 05:17

Calvin Ramsay has just joined Liverpool, but his football journey first began at Cove Youth Football Club in his home village on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

He was aged five and it became quickly apparent to Brian Johnston, his first ever coach, that this young player had something about him.

“He was a special player even then,” Johnston tells The Athletic.

After two years of being Cove’s best player, Ramsay, who played in defence and midfield at the time, was picked up by Aberdeen. He was one of three Cove players who joined the Premiership side, but the only one to be kept on.

“His balance and his skills on the ball were great,” says Johnston, who still works for Cove Youth. “He always had the ball under control and he used both feet, which was unique at that stage. He had amazing awareness of space. His dad Graham was also a decent player in the local junior teams in Aberdeen, so when I saw Calvin I thought, ‘Maybe it is in the genes’.”

Ramsay’s father was on the coaching staff at Cove too, and would record their games. He would watch them back with his son and look for areas to make improvements.

“His work ethic comes from his dad,” Johnston adds. “And even though Calvin was head and shoulders above (others in that age group), he was always working on his game and looking to improve. When he went to Aberdeen, we knew he would get much better coaching and he would go from strength to strength. And he has.

“There’s a lot of natural ability there but a lot of hard work goes into it.”

Despite standing out at Cove, Ramsay always put the team first.

“He was a much better player than any he was playing with, but he never ever just took the ball and ran with it,” Johnston says. “He would never go and be a striker. He wanted to be involved in the game rather than standing at the top end waiting for the ball.

“He always was looking to pass. He was always playing as a team. We had some players who wouldn’t pass to someone who might lose the ball, but not Calvin. He was always looking, always part of the team.

“He was so supportive of his team-mates. He knew he was better, but he didn’t make it a big thing. He helped the other players and talked them through the game. Having a six-year-old talking another six-year-old through a game is unique.”

Johnston remembers setting up one particular quite complicated training drill. He says Ramsay took to it straight away as others struggled.

“I remember shouting over another Cove coach. I said, ‘Come and see this kid’. We just stood there for a few minutes, watching him. The technique and balance, the way he was using both feet. That’s when I knew that Calvin was a player.”

After joining Aberdeen, that work ethic continued to serve him well.

The club’s academy director, Gavin Levey, can recall first meeting Ramsay when he was eight years old.

“He just loved playing games,” Levey says. “He loved unstructured sessions when it was small-sided games. He just loved just playing and he just wanted the ball all the time.”

Levey admits the journey to one of the sport’s iconic clubs has not always been smooth. There were low moments too — including when Ramsay broke a wrist and got bundled into his car to be taken to hospital.

calvin ramsay Calvin Ramsay in training for Aberdeen (Photo: Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“I spoke to his dad for half an hour yesterday when it was all official,” he says. “We talked about those ups and downs.

“His dad said that one of Calvin’s first memories of Aberdeen is coming into our old training ground, Balgownie. He said I stood up in front of them all and said, ‘If you’ve got ambition and you want to be here and want to be the best player you can be — whether that means playing lower league or in the Champions League — then try to do it’. He said it always stuck with with Calvin. His ambition was to compete at the highest level possible, and he had that belief that he could do it.

“He used to come down and watch other teams and he would always have a ball and he was always keeping it up.

“And I remember seeing him when he was an under-10. We were training on public astroturf and he was at the other end of the pitch, because he knew it would be available that night as we had booked it out. He was just doing keep-ups and then volleying off the right foot and then going again and volleying it off his left.

“He just had that real desire to practise. He was competitive. He wanted to be the best. He was very quiet as well, but he’s always had that kind of competitive edge and that little streak. He would kick you in training — and he’s probably still got a bit of that in him.”

Ramsay had a breakout year at Aberdeen last season and while Levey believes the club helped mould him into the player he is, he acknowledges the teenager has always been determined to get there, one way or the other.

“He would play matches having done a 10k run in the morning, or a 5km along Aberdeen beach,” Levey says, laughing. “He’d be going trying to beat his personal best on a Saturday morning along the beach boulevard, and then he would come to play for us.”

It is coach Steven Sweeney who is credited for having transformed then-midfielder Ramsay into a right-back at age 14. It wasn’t a position he enjoyed at first but it enabled him to play more games and with higher age groups, so Ramsay soon understood the benefits.

“There was maybe three boys that were within the older group that were probably deemed slightly ahead of him in in different areas of the pitch,” Levey reveals. “And he hated the fact that he wasn’t at where they were. And he just worked and worked and worked to get there.”

As with Cove, everyone at Aberdeen — not just the club but in the city — is buzzing for Ramsay. The same can be said for the Scotland set-up, too. The 18-year-old has not yet won a senior cap but has featured at under-16, 17 and 21 levels.

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“You have to give him credit. He’s made this happen,” Scot Gemmill, Scotland’s under-21s head coach, says. “He’s got this opportunity from what he’s done with with Aberdeen and what he has done with the under-21s.

“These players go through the academies, but it’s getting the opportunity to play for the first teams that is the real crucial thing. So you have to give the managers at Aberdeen credit — Jim Goodwin, who finished the season as manager, and Stephen Glass before him. They’re the guys that have given Calvin a platform to go and put himself in this position of signing for Liverpool.

“He’s got a good mix of attacking qualities and also defensive qualities. He’s still trying to confirm his talent. Everybody thinks he’s going to be a top player, but he has to go and prove it and confirm that. He’s in a very good place to do that.

“Liverpool’s recruitment has been incredible in the last few years, if not longer, so the fact that they’ve identified Calvin is a huge feather in his cap. But he has to keep going and do more.”

(Top photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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Best Premier League performances: No 40, Neil Redfearn for Barnsley v Liverpool

Fri, 06/24/2022 - 05:05

To celebrate 30 years of the Premier LeagueThe Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here — as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.

Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.

One of Neil Redfearn’s former team-mates says you could always tell which shirt was his in the pile they left for the kit man after training. It was the one that was soaked wet through with sweat.

He was that sort of player: a tenacious, relentless, box-to-box midfielder. He would run through the proverbial brick wall for his team, never shirking a challenge.

The first 15 years of his professional career were spent toiling outside the top flight at Bolton Wanderers, Lincoln City, Doncaster Rovers, Crystal Palace, Watford and Oldham Athletic. By the time he finally made it to the Premier League with Barnsley in 1997, he had almost 700 hundred senior appearances to his name and he was 32, desperate to make up for lost time.

From the moment they won promotion, Barnsley were written off as relegation fodder. Playing an open, attacking style of football under Danny Wilson, they lost 6-0 to Chelsea, 5-0 to Arsenal, 7-0 to Manchester United, 6-0 to West Ham United and spent much of the season rooted to the bottom of the table.

But they never lost heart. Nor did they lose belief in their free-flowing football. For as long as Redfearn kept breaking forward to score goals from midfield, Barnsley retained a glimmer of hope.

“When we got promoted, we were really swashbuckling, really front-foot,” Redfearn says. “Danny Wilson was a manager who encouraged us to take risks, get players forward and try to outnumber the opposition. The fans used to sing, ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’. I had never played in anything like it in my career. Oldham was similar, but not as good as this. 

“Maybe when we first came up, we were a bit too loose, a bit too open. We were trying to out-football teams like Chelsea and Arsenal and there were games when we shipped six and seven, but as the season went on, we became a bit more solid while still playing our football.”

As they approached the run-in, things clicked into place. They won three games in a row, beating Wimbledon, Aston Villa and Southampton. With nine games remaining, only goal difference left them in the relegation zone, just behind Tottenham Hotspur. Everton and Newcastle United were another two points ahead, but increasingly anxious.

All of which leads us to Oakwell on Saturday, March 28 1998, and a match that is recalled through gritted teeth in that corner of South Yorkshire almost a quarter of a century on: Barnsley 2-3 Liverpool.

Yes, this is an oddity in our “Golden Games” series for two reasons: 1) it ended in defeat for the player in question and 2) the headlines were claimed by someone else. More on that later.

But it was a day when Barnsley pushed themselves to their limit, driven on by their relentless captain. They had beaten Liverpool at Anfield in November (“but we just defended that day,” Redfearn says). At Oakwell, in front of their fans, they played Liverpool at their own game — and for 52 minutes they played them off the park.

Redfearn was at the heart of everything, relishing the midfield tussle with Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp and then taking the opportunity to get the ball forward — and get after it.

On 37 minutes, after a typically precise build-up from the back, Martin Bullock cut inside and played a dangerous ball into the Liverpool penalty area. Redfearn, timing his run to perfection, controlled it, turned and shot low past Brad Friedel to put Barnsley firmly on course for a fourth straight win.

“I swivelled and just passed it into the corner,” Redfearn says. “I’d always been a goalscoring midfielder, but when I got into my 30s, that’s when the game really started making sense to me. The penny dropped. You mature as a player. You understand the game and, for me, that moment came just when I reached the highest level in league football. I was at the height of my powers.”

By contrast, Liverpool had fallen some way from the peak of their powers, but they had Ince, Redknapp and Steve McManaman in midfield and they had the experience and know-how of Karl-Heinz Riedle alongside the prodigious Michael Owen in attack. And they were comprehensively outplayed until Barnsley took one risk too many just before half-time and Oyvind Leonhardsen set up Riedle for an equaliser Liverpool scarcely deserved.

Seven minutes into the second half, though, Barnsley’s day took a significant turn for the worse. From McManaman’s through ball, Owen was racing clear, only to be sent sprawling. Gary Willard, the referee, was certain Darren Barnard had tripped the teenager, denying him an obvious goalscoring opportunity, and out came the red card — the first of three for Barnsley in an extraordinary second half.

The television footage, with one camera angle, suggests there was a trip. Redfearn maintains that, if there was a tangle, it was accidental. Either way, Barnsley’s players and supporters were seething. The mood darkened further when Riedle struck a spectacular 30-yard shot to put Liverpool 2-1 up.

As for what happened next, it still infuriates Redfearn to this day. On 64 minutes, Owen sped past Chris Morgan, chasing the ball towards the corner flag. Owen went down again and out came Willard’s red card again.

Morgan was no angel — as many an opposition centre-forward would testify — but on this occasion the contact seemed minimal. A foul? Possibly. A straight red card? Surely not. “Michael Owen went down really easily and it was almost like the ref couldn’t wait to send Morgs off,” Redfearn says.

As tempers frayed, one Barnsley fan ran onto the pitch, making a beeline towards Willard. Who knows what would have happened if Jan Aage Fjortoft, their Norwegian forward, had not intervened and wrestled the fan to the ground?

The growing anger from the stands was enough to prompt the match stewards to escort Willard off the pitch for his safety. For four minutes, the players were left wondering what on earth was going on. By the time Willard re-emerged from the dressing room, the hostility towards him had increased. Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said the referee’s brief disappearance “only antagonised rather than calmed the situation”.

“And it was all Gary Willard’s doing,” Redfearn says. “He had an absolute shocker. That’s what caused this volatile atmosphere.”

Rather than beaten by a sense of anger and injustice, Redfearn and his team-mates felt overpowered by it. Barnsley had only nine players — players whose status and achievements in the game did not begin to match their opponents’— but they kept fighting and they kept playing the football they believed in.

Redfearn was like a man possessed. Ince, Redknapp and McManaman were good at playing the ball in triangles in midfield, but the Barnsley captain simply would not let them. Even with nine players to Liverpool’s 11, he and Darren Sheridan kept winning the ball back. It did not look possible. They were still taking the game to their more illustrious opponents, threatening an equaliser, refusing to accept their fate.

“I always got the feeling that it was something we felt we were used to,” Redfearn says. “We were used to being open and leaving space behind. I don’t think they (Liverpool) were used to a team playing like we were playing with nine men. We were playing well and the crowd sensed we were onto something. We were still carrying a threat, particularly after Georgi Hristov came on up front.”

With five minutes left, Hristov was brought down by Phil Babb and, when Willard pointed to the penalty spot, the celebrations were as if Barnsley had scored a last-minute winner.

But Redfearn still had to score. Nearly seven years earlier, he had converted a stoppage-time penalty for Oldham against Sheffield Wednesday to secure promotion to the top flight, but this one, in a febrile atmosphere at Oakwell, felt just as pressurised. 

“I usually liked to go across myself, i.e. take it with right foot and go back across the keeper’s right-hand side,” he says. “With that one, I had the idea to look to go that way but then I did a little stutter in the run-up and played to the keeper’s left.”

Brad Friedel dived the wrong way and the net bulged. By now the celebrations were off the scale. The crowd were baying for blood — Liverpool’s now, rather than Willard’s. They were urging Barnsley to push for a winner, but Redfearn says the intention at that point was to “hang on because if we could have got a point, it would have been nothing short of a miracle”.

They could not hang on, though. In the final minute, McManaman broke free to put Liverpool 3-2 up. This time there would be no Barnsley fightback — apart from Sheridan prodding a finger in Ince’s face, for which he was sent off as his team were reduced to eight players. A further pitch invasion followed, with Willard once again the target of the Barnsley fans’ fury.

Referee Gary Willard sends off a third Barnsley player at Oakwell (Photo: Bob Collier/EMPICS via Getty Images)

At the final whistle, Willard required a police escort off the pitch. It speaks volumes for Redfearn that he helped the referee reach the sanctuary of the dressing room. “Well, the damage had been done,” he explains. “The game had gone and we couldn’t change that. What we didn’t want was any more sanctions or the police getting involved, so I think it was important for me, as captain, to make sure things didn’t get any worse. It was the right thing to do.

“It was a shocking performance by the referee. It looked awful, to be honest with you. But he should still be allowed to leave the pitch safely like everyone else.”

A mob was waiting for Willard when he finally emerged, again with police protection, almost two hours after the final whistle. Sixteen Barnsley fans were arrested that day and Wilson did not hesitate to say that “the one or two idiots who tried to get to the referee deserve to be banned for life because that’s absolute stupidity”. But he did add: “You can understand their frustrations.”

When the dust settled and the anger began to subside, Barnsley’s players were distraught. Many of them, like Redfearn, had spent years trying to get to the Premier League and, having got themselves into a position where they could see a route to survival, they felt as if something had conspired against them.

“So many of my team-mates had put so much effort into getting where we were,” he says. “I think at that point, we could have been forgiven for being irate.”

It wasn’t just that they lost. It was the loss of three players to suspension and a loss of momentum after three straight wins. Of their final nine games, they won one, drew one and lost seven, and ended up relegated along with Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace. That traumatic, turbulent afternoon against Liverpool seemed to take too much out of them.

It’s not even a bittersweet memory for Redfearn. It’s just bitter. Unlike many of his team-mates, he had the opportunity to play in the Premier League after with Charlton Athletic and Bradford City, but, more than anything, he wanted to stay up with that Barnsley team and he feels they deserved to. To this day, he maintains that if they had been allowed to keep 11 players on the pitch against Liverpool, they would have won that game and stayed up.

He was, as he said, at the peak of his powers. He scored 14 goals in all competitions that season, 10 of them in the league, and he suggests that anyone who had performed like that for Liverpool or Manchester United would have been in the England squad. “No doubt about it,” he says. “Because I don’t think there was another midfielder in the league that season doing what I did in that Barnsley team.”

It is the only time in our conversation that Redfearn talks himself up. He is reluctant to take praise for a single performance because he feels — the Roy Keane approach — he was merely doing his job. He spent 15 years striving to get to the Premier League, so he was not going to let it go easily.

That game against Liverpool — when it was 11 against 11, then 10 against 11, then nine against 11, then briefly eight against 11 — demonstrated what Redfearn was about. He never gave up and, on that sunny afternoon in South Yorkshire when everything seemed to go wrong for his team, he produced the performance of a lifetime.

(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)

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Why signing Mane from Liverpool is such a statement of intent from Bayern Munich

Thu, 06/23/2022 - 05:15

The new man will not kick a ball in earnest for another six weeks but his arrival in Bavaria is already being debated as epoch-defining.

“Is Sadio Mane the biggest star to come to the Bundesliga in history?” asked Sky Germany.

You would expect the national TV rights holders for Germany’s top flight to serve up exactly that sort of breathless spin. Hyperbole aside, though, it’s impossible to overlook the momentous importance of Mane’s transfer from Liverpool for Bayern Munich’s self-esteem and sense of place.

You could see it in the giddy excitement on the faces of sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, executive chair Oliver Kahn and president Herbert Hainer. You could feel it at any given moment during the one-hour press conference on Wednesday when the festive and immensely self-satisfied atmosphere was more reminiscent of a trophy presentation than the unveiling of a new player.

As far as the German champions were concerned, they had just won the next best thing to the Champions League: the signature of a superstar forward.

Bayern Munich (Left-right) Kahn, Mane, Hainer and Salihamidzic were all smiles at the Allianz Arena (Photo: S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

Mane will not just positively impact the goals and assists tallies but will strengthen the team’s mental fortitude and togetherness. He will also improve the public standing of the club hierarchy, enhance Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical options, provide restorative comfort against fears of a sustained sporting decline and amplify the league’s international visibility.

Anything else? No wonder Bayern think this guy can win the Ballon d’Or three times in a row.

“Sadio Mane is a world-class player who underlines FC Bayern’s gravitational pull and the appeal of the entire Bundesliga,” Hainer said jubilantly, spelling out a big chunk of the 30-year-old’s multi-faceted usefulness.

The cumulative effect of the Premier League’s dominance combined with the Bundesliga’s limited marketability, state-funded clubs, COVID-19 losses and a Bayern transfer strategy that has delivered a few too many misses in recent years had some worried the club might be forced to adopt the Borussia Dortmund strategy of buying future stars rather than top-shelf reinforcements.

Wednesday, by contrast, was “a show me the money” moment; a €41 million or £35 million (with add-ons) sign that spells out the club’s motto “Mia san Mia”/”we are who we are”.

By capturing one of the Premier League’s best-performing players, Bayern have convinced themselves — and, they hope, a few others — that they continue to be relevant. “We are proud to have signed him,” Salihamidzic said.

Mane, Bayern Munich Bayern thanked Mane for making his mind up quickly (Photo: S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

There are more practical considerations, too. The sporting director, and to a lesser extent his superior Kahn as well, were under intense pressure to reshape a side plagued by too much mediocrity beyond the starting XI. Mane, the first marquee signing of the post-Uli Hoeness/Karl-Heinz Rummenigge era, makes them both look a lot better than they did a few weeks ago, having presided over a demoralising Champions League quarter-final exit against Villarreal.

Salihamidzic pointedly thanked the player for making up his mind early on — “I could straight away see myself in that team and decided (to join them) straight away,” Mane said — and his agent Bjorn Bezemer for concluding business swiftly. Negotiations with Liverpool sporting director Julian Ward were described as “hard but fair”.

Having been booed by sections of the fans who blamed him for the awful denouement to the season a couple of weeks ago, Salihamidzic suddenly appears a lot more secure in his post. He has pulled off the triple haul of Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui (both from Ajax) and Mane for a very reasonable €60 million (£52 million), all in a very quick and relatively pain-free manner.

And there’s probably a bit of room on the balance sheet yet for one more midfield addition after the departure of Marc Roca (Leeds United) and Corentin Tolisso (end of contract). Nagelsmann would very much like to re-acquaint himself with RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer, for example.

Apart from the need to add depth, the bosses’ post-season analysis also unearthed attitudinal defects. “I said at the end of last season that we needed fresh blood and changes,” Kahn told reporters. “After a long run of success (and 10 championships in a row), some players relaxed. We needed to change the situation. That’s what we’ve achieved by signing Sadio Mane.

“I know what this kind of transfer does to a team, it lifts the level and the quality of everybody else. That’s why it’s so important to have such top players.”

Mane, the “mentality monster” as Salihamidzic called him, will put pressure on the somewhat inconsistent triumvirate of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman to up their game, while instantaneously furnishing Nagelsmann with possibilities for a more unpredictable set-up that breaks with the 4-2-3-1 of the last decade. Internally, there is talk of a shift to a Liverpool-inspired 4-3-3 as well as the manager’s preferred 3-4-3 formation coming to the fore.

Most intriguingly, Mane’s ability to play through the centre has made Bayern a lot more relaxed about the possibility of Robert Lewandowski upping sticks for Barcelona.

Officially, the Poland striker is still not for sale. Kahn emphasised the 33-year-old was under contract for another season and the club expected him to “turn up on the first day of training”.

The former Germany goalkeeper was not minded to repeat his more definitive mantra from May (“he has a contract and will fulfil it”) and instead claimed that Bayern were “currently not even thinking about” a future without Lewandowski.

Lewandowski Lewandowski’s future remains up in the air (Photo: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)

It is a somewhat implausible approach, though, given the centre-forward’s wantaway stance has been the No 1 talking point inside the dressing room for a couple of months. A source close to a veteran player told The Athletic the team expect Lewandowski to move on. Quite a few have grown a little tired of his public posturing, to say nothing of the return of his egotistical streak on the pitch.

Mane, by contrast, could not have been more humble on his second day in the Bavarian capital. Asked about his preferred position, he jokingly pointed at his new coach sitting in the auditorium: “This needs to be answered by the boss!” He declined to voice any preference for a particular shirt number (“not important to me”) and added that he would be happy to play “anywhere apart from goalkeeper or defence”, as long as it helped the team.

Mane, Bayern Munich Mane’s arrival makes Bayern relevant again (Photo: S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images)

In a meeting with Salihamidzic and technical director Marco Neppe at the player’s house, Nagelsmann had detailed his many possible roles in a variety of formations, which further suggests that Lewandowski is more likely to go than not. You do not really plan too much for contingencies when the most reliable goal-machine since Gerd Muller is around.

Losing Lewandowski will probably hurt the Bundesliga more than Bayern, especially after Erling Harland’s departure to Manchester City. Then again, big names leaving is something that the league has become accustomed to and, for once, the familiar pain will be offset by the novel sensation of a world-class performer coming in.

Only Bayern are strong enough to break the mould at that exalted level, which just goes to show the league’s enduring challenges. But a little bit of hype is surely better than none at all.

 (Design: Sam Richardson)

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Premier League five-a-side teams: who would you pick for your club?

Thu, 06/23/2022 - 05:10

Which players will “the streets never forget”?

Emile Smith Rowe?

Thiago?

Dan Burn?

We tasked our Premier League reporters with picking a five-a-side team from the club that they cover. There are some obvious picks — and some less obvious ones.

The rules

  • The ball is not allowed over head height
  • Slide tackles are forbidden
  • Each team must have a goalkeeper and they can’t come out of the area
  • Outfield players are not allowed in the area
  • They can score from anywhere outside the area

Here we go then. Please feel free to disagree wholeheartedly with their picks in the comments section…

Arsenal

Even though goalkeepers can’t come out of their box, their ability to distribute the ball effectively in tight spaces will be of crucial importance. With that in mind, Aaron Ramsdale makes for the obvious choice between the sticks for Arsenal.

The first outfield name on the teamsheet has to be Bukayo Saka. He is the ideal five-a-side player: two-footed, athletic, and brilliant when operating in tight spaces. If you’re going to include Saka, it’s tempting to put Emile Smith Rowe alongside him — having come through the academy together, they have a fantastic understanding. Both players bring creativity, work ethic and goals. They’re natural choices to storm up and down the flanks for our five-a-side team.

Smith Rowe, Arsenal Emile Smith Rowe should link up well with Bukayo Saka in Arsenal’s five-a-side team (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

At the base, I’ll go for Thomas Partey. It’s tempting to include a defender like Ben White or Takehiro Tomiyasu, but Partey has ball-winning abilities as well as the ability to dribble through the most congested parts of any pitch. All those rondos during his football education in Spain will come in very handy here.

Then the team needs a spearhead — someone who can finish chances, but also tirelessly close down the opposition. I’ll go for Gabriel Martinelli — a tigerish predator who could seize on any loose ball.

James McNicholas

Aston Villa

The best five-a-side teams are fun, fluid and full of goals. It’s all about outscoring the opponents and Villa have four outfield players who could cause some serious damage in this format.

But I’m bottling it and instead of playing four forwards and a goalkeeper, I guessed this group will need Tyrone Mings somewhere along the way. So, for his blocks and speed over a short distance (plus he’s a handy dribbler when he gets going) he’ll sit in front of Emi Martinez. Pepe Reina would have got in if it was 2020.

Creating all the damage with their silky skills and quick feet will be Emi Buendia and Philippe Coutinho. Who cares if they can’t play together in 11-a-side? This is different. The South Americans will occupy so many opponents and it will be brilliant to watch. 

Philippe Coutinho is a tricky opponent for any side (Photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)

With space, freedom and endless goalscoring opportunities, Danny Ings is my man up top as he’s still a better finisher than Ollie Watkins.

Gregg Evans

Bournemouth

It would be difficult to look past Mark ‘El Pulpo’ Travers in goal. While ball-playing isn’t one of his strengths, he should still get by — especially if his cat-like reflexes keep the team out of trouble as they did last season.

For a defender, Lloyd Kelly looks more comfortable on the ball than some midfielders. His athleticism means he can cover the space to man the defence on his own and his knack for coolly winning the ball by brushing opponents off is even more of an asset in this format.

Lewis Cook is the perfect player to patrol the middle of the pitch. He plays like he has eyes on the back of his head, loves a tackle and his eye for a pass is unlike any other Bournemouth player. That kind of awareness is so valuable in the confines of a five-a-side cage. Combative, creative and has an eye for a screamer too. What’s not to like?

As the most skilful player in the team, Siriki Dembele gives the side its X factor. Stepovers, rabonas, nutmegs — he’s got it all and can use any wiggle of the right analog stick to bend markers to his will. Just pure “HOW HAS HE STILL GOT THE BALL?!” energy.

Finally, every team needs a marksman and Bournemouth don’t have to look very far to find theirs. Left foot, right foot, long-range finishes, solo goals, tapping home lovely passing moves, Dominic Solanke can do it all. The only slight trouble is where the rest of the goals will come from.

Ahmed Shooble

Brentford

David Raya is potentially the best-suited goalkeeper in the Premier League to five-a-side football. The Spain international is quick, extremely nimble and grew up playing futsal so passing the ball under pressure and through the lines comes naturally. 

We need to make some sacrifices to squeeze our best attacking talents into the side. Pontus Jansson or Rico Henry would have been reliable options at the back, but instead, Christian Norgaard, who normally plays in midfield, starts in defence. He attempted the most tackles and completed the fifth-highest amount of interceptions in the top-flight last season so should excel in his new role.

Christian Eriksen is our playmaker, because this fictional tournament takes place before his contract expires, and he will combine with Ivan Toney to devastating effect. As an added bonus, Toney is unafraid to throw his weight around which will be helpful on a tight pitch and deter opposition players from being too clever with their tricks.

CHRISTIAN-ERIKSEN-BRENTFORD-2 Christian Eriksen will add creativity to Brentford’s five-a-side team (Photo: Federico Maranesi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The final spot comes down to the flip of a coin between Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbeumo. They are both agile, tricky forwards who can wriggle between tight spaces and provide a special spark. Mbeumo’s work rate is superior, but Wissa is more efficient in front of goal so he gets the nod.

Jay Harris

Brighton

Unsurprisingly, I’ll start my five-a-side team with Robert Sanchez in goal. A commanding figure who wears the badge on his sleeve. It’s almost a shame he isn’t allowed outside the box or to slide tackle because he would definitely volunteer himself for a last-ditch-dodgy-slide attempt to stop the opposition scoring — his sending off against Newcastle comes to mind.

Choosing a defender is the hardest part considering the amount of talent Brighton have at the back. Difficult. But I’m going for perhaps the wildcard option of Joel Veltman. He can defend like a centre-back and run with the ball like a wing-back… and he scores goals. So I reckon he’s a good shout. 

No Brighton team is complete without the intelligence of Alexis Mac Allister, he’ll be the general playmaker of the team with secret weapon Moises Caicedo sitting behind the Argentinian.

Finally, the cherry on the top of the Brighton cake, Leandro Trossard will be up front. With his swift turns and long-range shots, he will be perfect for shooting along the ground outside the D. 

Dayna Richman

Chelsea 

This was harder than I thought. For starters, I’ve left out Chelsea’s first-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy! But I went for Kepa because as this is five-a-side, the keeper will see a lot of the ball and that is probably Mendy’s biggest weakness.

Thiago Silva was in to begin with and then I realised I had to find room for Reece James. He’s so strong, fast and comfortable in possession, he can be in charge at the back instead. 

You need two confident guys who are combative in the tackle close by to help out. That’s where Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount come in. They’re faster than the ageing pair of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante and have more of an understanding with each other than Chelsea’s other attacking midfielders. Both can dribble and do fancy flicks going forward.

Kai Havertz doesn’t have much competition for the striker role. But his silky touch and movement is just what you want to outwit opposition defenders.   

Simon Johnson

Crystal Palace

Judging by how poor I’ve always been at it, five-a-side football is all about speed across short distances, skill and energy. With a dose of sound technique, close control and power thrown in.

So Wilfried Zaha walks into the Palace team, with Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze — both better at tracking back and contributing defensively than they once were, for all that I’m already pining for Conor Gallagher in this selection — flitting around the Ivorian.

Marc Guehi can be the defensive organiser, not least because he is so comfortable in possession.

I could have picked any of Palace’s three senior goalkeepers, but let’s go with young Joe Whitworth, usually with the under-23s, not least because he has already demonstrated how comfortable he is with the ball at his feet.

Dominic Fifield

Everton

Word doesn’t seem to have travelled much further than Goodison, but Jordan Pickford arguably had his best season yet in goal for Everton. I’m backing him to shine in this five-a-side team thanks to his quick reflexes and ability to build attacks.  

In front of him, I’ll go for Yerry Mina. The Colombian is Everton’s best defender when available; so commanding that he calms down everyone else around him. If only he could string a regular run of games together…  

This feels like an ideal environment for Alex Iwobi to showcase his skills. As a child, he grew up playing on the caged pitches of east London, looking to emulate his uncle Jay-Jay Okocha. His industry, quick footwork and ability to manipulate the ball in tight spaces would be invaluable here. 

Alex Iwobi and Dominic Calvert-Lewin would be surefire picks (Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

Up front, I’ve paired Richarlison’s goalscoring instinct and grit with Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s hold-up play and ability to sniff out chances close to the area. A formidable duo, but can Everton keep hold of them this summer? 

I’m confident this side would improve on Everton’s 16th-place finish in the league last season. With Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines and Duncan Ferguson in the ranks, the coaching staff would field a decent team too. 

In fact, can I pick them instead?

Paddy Boyland

Fulham

If you’re not comfortable in possession, you aren’t getting in Marco Silva’s all-conquering Fulham side — you’re certainly not earning a spot in this five-man joga bonito extravaganza either.

Marek Rodak, a pillar of Fulham’s last two promotion-winning campaigns, gets the nod in goal. With his imposing frame, the Slovakian is capable of stunning reaction saves and is comfortable with the ball at his feet, not that it matters too much in this instance — all he will be doing is passing to Tosin Adarabioyo.

The towering centre-back carries out his defensive duties aggressively, as Silva demands of his defenders, and is capable of getting his side up the field quickly with his penchant for a marauding run — echoes of Joel Matip, perhaps.

Captain Tom Cairney may not be a permanent fixture in Fulham’s starting line-up anymore, but his composure, passing range and devilish left foot makes him a sure-fire figure in this side.

Welsh playmaker extraordinaire Harry Wilson takes up one of the two attacking berths. Like Cairney, his left foot is a thing of beauty, making him a goal threat from pretty much anywhere, while his intelligent movement and weight of pass are bound to bamboozle opponents.

Finally, Aleksandar Mitrovic will hopefully have the time to give Neeskens Kebano a lift to the cauldron that is this hypothetical 3G pitch. As dominant as the Serbian was last season, the ball not being allowed over head height takes away a key facet of his skill set and, while his link-up play improved significantly in Silva’s first season, what “Mitro” has in brutish brilliance, he lacks in agility and fluidity. Step forward Kebano, fresh off the back of his best season at Craven Cottage, to be the resident skillsman (not a word, but should be) of this side. Agile, pacy and direct — a nightmare for any defender hot-tailing after a long day at the office.

Rhodri Cannon

Leeds United

Illan Meslier is a big, big fella and five-a-side goals were not made for him but there’s no other goalkeeper you’re picking at Leeds United so the gloves are his.

We’ll have Kalvin Phillips for the defensive duties, which he can easily do on his own — assuming he has not left Elland Road by the time we kick off. Smash everyone, that sort of thing, and keep it simple.

We’ll want Raphinha (also transfer dependent) for his tricks and the ability to embarrass people, not to mention his quality in tight spaces. And speaking of quality in tight spaces, Joe Gelhardt gets the nod with instructions to serve up goals and assists like the one against Brighton last month. Gelhardt seems like the sort of player who scores about 10 in the average game of fives, a proper street footballer.

Sanchez Brighton Leeds Gelhardt gets a shot away against Brighton (Photo: Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)

And last but not least, Mateusz Klich. Okay, we haven’t seen peak Klich for a good while now but short passes and quick interplay are his strengths and like Raphinha and Gelhardt, he can also cope without acres of room to work in — a handy trait in cage football.

Phil Hay

Leicester 

No head heights, so no set pieces — which means Leicester could excel at The Athletic’s five-a-side. 

The keeper would be a given for me. Kasper Schmeichel, for his shot-stopping abilities.

In front, I would go for athleticism and versatility, so James Justin gets the nod at the back, although Wesley Fofana and Ricardo Pereira would be good shouts as well. 

In midfield it would have to be the guile of James Maddison — City’s master of the nutmeg — teamed with the industry and power of Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, and in attack the evergreen Jamie Vardy. Although he is a penalty-box striker, and he can’t go inside the box in our rules, his finishing is still so cool and clever. 

Rob Tanner

Liverpool

Alisson, who grew up playing futsal, is the goalkeeper. If he fancies a run outfield donning a slick hairstyle I’m letting him. He picks himself. So does Trent Alexander-Arnold. There’s no one quite like West Derby’s finest.

And who wouldn’t want Thiago in their five-a-side team? He would be doing some ridiculous flicks and tricks melting the heads of the opposition. Luis Diaz would be doing the same. He’s in the team because he likes to beat you and then go back and beat you again. He’s punishing and so is Mohamed Salah, cutting in on his left and curving his shot into the corner.

Thiago would be a joy to watch on any five-a-side pitch (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Can we have substitutions please? Because Roberto Firmino is desperate to get off the bench and do some no-look genius.

Caoimhe O’Neill

Manchester City

You’d surely struggle to find a group of players better suited to five-a-side than Manchester City. Their players live in a rondo, and could ping it about in small spaces better than anybody. So the difficulty here became selecting the most suitable in a squad full of prime candidates.

Ederson is obvious in goal because he could easily score if he wanted to, and his passing is just about as good as anybody. In defence, you could have John Stones, Aymeric Laporte or Oleksandr Zinchenko but Rodri surely has enough defensive instincts to get by and his passing is truly top-tier.

With Bernardo Silva, you’ve then got a wonderfully gifted technician who can move the ball in tight spaces but also beat a man, cover lots of ground and score goals. It was very tempting to pair him with Phil Foden, who’s exactly the same, but what do you do about the rampaging brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne?

And let’s go with Erling Haaland because the idea is simply hilarious (we were also able to twist some arms at the Premier League to register him before July 1). Julian Alvarez could be a decent contender one day, as he’s more of a technician and he knows where the goal is, but you’ve got to go for Haaland. Imagine him banging the goals in.

Sam Lee

Manchester United

I’m writing this with the additional rule that this team is playing in a cage/enclosed pitch so you can kick the ball off the walls. 

David de Gea has weaknesses to his game that will thankfully be covered up with these mandates, so he gets the nod in goal here. Harry Maguire is a physical, ball-carrying centre-back who will do much of the talking for this team. You can practically hear him yell, “I’ve got two here!” as he retreats to deal with a counter. 

Last summer, Jadon Sancho said, “Street football is about the megs and all that, so you want to violate a couple man”, so he’s going straight into the team. Marcus Rashford was in the top five for nutmegs in Europe in 2020-21 along with Sancho, so in he goes too.

Up top is Cristiano Ronaldo. The directive for this team is “badding people up”, as Sancho once said. 

Carl Anka

Newcastle United

If Bruno Guimaraes and Allan Saint-Maximin are thrilling to watch in the 11-a-side format, imagine how exhilarating the pair of them would be on the smaller courts that shaped them as youngsters?

Guimaraes learned his craft playing futsal, which is where he developed his trademark flick control, while Saint-Maximin honed his stepovers and flamboyant skills in the caged courts of Meudon in Paris. In truth, across the entire Premier League, Newcastle probably possess two of the players most ideally suited to five-a-side football.

Saint-Maximin Newcastle puzzle Allan Saint-Maximin’s skills are perfectly suited for five-a-side (Photo: Getty Images)

To add end product to the beautiful and explosive build-up play, Callum Wilson, Newcastle’s top-scorer, is a shoo-in up top. Then, in goal, Martin Dubravka maintains his No 1 berth, mainly because of his consistency and the paucity of alternatives. I did consider fielding Jonjo Shelvey as a makeshift goalkeeper, just so he could display some of his magnificent passing range from inside his own D, but I don’t think he’d be best pleased with that suggestion…

For the final spot, I had to go for a defender. Kieran Trippier as captain was given serious consideration, but the head-height rule means he can’t whip crosses in and acted against him, and Fabian Schar’s footballing skills were close to getting him the nod. However, Big Dan Burn, who somewhat surprisingly won national futsal tournaments as a teenager, can use his enormous frame to stride up and down the pitch and lead this exciting side to Premier League five-a-side glory.

Chris Waugh

Nottingham Forest

Another reason to want the master of shithousery, Brice Samba, to remain at Nottingham Forest would be to have him in goal. A great shot-stopper but he would also talk the opposition into submission — or just a blind fury.

As a defender, let’s make a Steve Cooper-style big call and leave out Joe Worrall in favour of Scott McKenna who, while not quite yet the new Des Walker, has taken over his chant. It’s a long way round him and he can play.

Ryan Yates would launch you in the air, but be polite enough to pick you up and apologise. Before doing it again seconds later. More energy than a six-year-old full of cola. Cafu alongside him in midfield, just because his love for the game is so infectious. And his goal celebrations at Powerleague would be just as joyous as they were at Swansea.

Brennan Johnson would just be the so-and-so who everyone would try to kick, but would repeatedly stick it in the top corner, regardless.

Paul Taylor

Southampton

Fraser Forster would have been my first choice, given he has a tendency in certain matches (I’m looking at your turf, Arsenal) where he just seems to sprawl every flailing limb successfully. Alas, he isn’t here anymore so I’ll go with Gavin Bazunu, whose athleticism prevails over Alex McCarthy.

I need an all-encompassing defender capable of dealing with counters (yes, they do exist in five-a-side) and can play out under pressure. Mohammed Salisu, providing he’s at his best, gets the nod.

This may surprise you but Oriol Romeu will anchor my midfield. He’s been slowly improving his ball progression but he’s not here for that. Not only is he a very nice man, who will probably pay the subs, he’s more press resistant than James Ward-Prowse and when spaces on the pitch are small, he covers them excellently.

Southampton, West Ham Oriol Romeu will form part of Southampton’s midfield (Photo: JOHN SIBLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Kyle Walker-Peters, the jinky, elusive dribbler, will work alongside Romeu. Ralph Hasenhuttl has used Walker-Peters in varying midfield roles intermittently, noting his inherent ability to work between opposition lines. This may be a slightly defensive lineup on paper, but Walker-Peters was arguably Southampton’s most incisive attacking outlet last season.

The shootaholic Adam Armstrong will lead the line. His first season at Southampton was lukewarm at best, but his shoot-on-sight style and quickened step pattern around the box — he does a little two-step shuffle if you watch closely — may work well.

Jacob Tanswell

Tottenham

Given goalkeepers can’t come out, I’ll avoid the temptation to select five outfielders. So, in goal it’s Hugo Lloris who, to be fair would be extremely useful in a cage with his laser-sharp reflexes. 

My defender would be Cristian Romero who, let’s face it, would be absolutely terrifying in that kind of confined environment. Can you imagine chasing a ball into a corner with him?! No chance he would respect the “unwritten rule” and allow you to back out if you got there first. 

Next up would be my wildcard pick Tanguy Ndombele. Yes, he might start flagging in the second half of games but his skill and close control in tight areas would be absolutely mesmerising. Having someone who can take out opposition players from a standing start is invaluable in fives, and so I’m giving a lifeline to the Spurs outcast. 

Tanguy Ndombele’s skill and close control in tight areas would be suited to the small-sided games (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

My final two picks would be Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Kane would be invaluable, not only because of his goals and assists, but the fact that if he wanted to he could play in pretty much every position. Even if Lloris gets injured, Kane has gone in goal for Tottenham before and you know would back himself to give it a go again. 

Then there’s Son, whose two-footedness and ability to whip a ball into the corner from outside the box (no going inside the area, remember) would give this team an even greater threat. 

I’ve talked myself into the idea that this team would be essentially unbeatable. Especially with Dejan Kulusevski as first reserve in case anyone’s running late after work and can’t make kick-off. 

Charlie Eccleshare 

West Ham

Alphonse Areola would have got the nod over Lukasz Fabianski had West Ham completed his signing before the deadline for this piece. Fabianski nonetheless is still a good option with reflexes one of his strengths. 

For a five-a-side game I need a defender who will have no issues tackling opposition players to throw them off their game. Kurt Zouma is perfect for this but honourable mention to Craig Dawson who narrowly misses out.

In colloquial terms, I need players who have “tekkers”. With it being a small-sided affair Declan Rice, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen complete my team. Rice has the ability to dictate the tempo, Benrahma is capable of providing assists, scoring and humiliating the opposition, while in school terms Bowen is that kid on the playground who always gets picked first for games like these.

There is experience, flair and leadership in my team. We are massive, now can someone give us directions for where we collect our trophy? 

Roshane Thomas

Wolves

Given that Wolves have an international futsal player in their ranks, the first name on the teamsheet is clear. With apologies to Conor Coady, Max Kilman is in as captain, ball-playing defender and the voice of experience when it comes to competitive, small-sided football.

Jose Sa is the clear choice in goal where, with keepers banned from leaving their penalty areas, the game will be all about shot-stopping —  the area where last season’s player of the year is especially adept.

And then three attacking players are needed, two of whom are no-brainers.

Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves are top-quality performers who could pass opponents off the pitch as well as chipping in with goals, and they are on the same wavelength too.

While it is tempting to add a No 9 as the attacking spearhead, physicality is less of an issue here so Pedro Neto gets the nod for his individual flair as his eye for goal.

Steve Madeley

Who do you think is winning the five-a-side Premier League then?

Let us know in the comments below…

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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When will UEFA start to accept blame for Champions League final chaos?

Wed, 06/22/2022 - 05:22

Frequently over the last three weeks, my thoughts have taken me to a crossroads in an estate in the south of Saint-Denis.

There is a crusty old sign that says “Stade” pointing me left with thousands of other people. The road ahead is clear but nothing at all is sending anyone that way.

So, I follow the crowd and end up in a huge queue, which develops into a crushing situation and leads to more decisions that endanger lives closer to the venue I am trying to reach a few hours later.

By the end of the night, the security operation at club football’s most-watched fixture has collapsed completely and I am running back in the direction of Paris hoping I get home safely because local gangs are proceeding with impunity due to a lack of police protection.

The Champions League final of 2022 could have been remembered differently had organisation been in place on the tarmac of this otherwise insignificant-looking part of the Parisian suburb, which is now infamous across Europe as it has been for a long time in France.

Had there been a reaction by the authorities to a train strike, which ruled out arriving at the Stade de France via the La Plaine metro station at any point before 5.30pm, then one of the busiest routes to the arena would have been accessible.

All they needed to do was tell supporters where they needed to go, leading them towards La Plaine. Some stewards, some signs, a funnelling system — whatever. Just show them there was another way to get to gates X and Y, as well as other points at the eastern side of the stadium.

Yet a recommendation that two lanes of pre-filtering in this area be implemented following a meeting between organisers on May 25, three days before the final, was not followed.

A Liverpool fan is tear-gassed at the Champions League final (Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

This resulted in pressure at another checkpoint failing and with that, the problem moved to the stadium’s gates. From there, locals pushed their way to the front and the police, expecting football hooligans, reacted as expected by sending tear gas into the foul, airless atmosphere.

Yesterday, when UEFA had the opportunity to explain what had contributed towards the near-disaster in front of the senate in Paris, the organisation’s CEO of events Martin Kallen breezed over this significant feature of May 28 before he was reminded by a congressman that his preferred reasoning of counterfeit tickets was “not the main problem”.

There was instead, according to the congressman, “the transport strike, the flow management problems, the interventions of the police, the problems of delinquency”.

“Speaking only of forgeries,” as Kallen had done without providing evidence, was, put simply, “not right”.

It had been difficult to tell whether some of Kallen’s comments were born out of institutional incompetence or genuine attempts at subterfuge.

He claimed, “the fact that most of the fans arrived by RER D surprised everyone,” when, in fact, it should have surprised no one because the train strike on RER B leading to La Plaine had not only been well-publicised but it was discussed in the aforementioned planning meeting, for which any responsible organisation should surely have a record.

Perhaps that went the same way as the CCTV footage outside the Stade de France, which was somehow deleted before the French public were able to see it and form a better idea of exactly what happened and who might be answerable for the problems that got worse and worse as the night progressed.

Later, the chairman of the senate Francois-Noel Buffet invited supporters of Liverpool and Real Madrid to speak about their experiences by stating, “Let’s be clear before we start. We know that English football fans were not the cause of what happened at the Stade de France.”

Yet with UEFA barely detailing the impact of arrangements in its own public testimony, European football’s governing body was asked by The Athletic on Tuesday to respond to the following questions relating to the hugely significant factors that did not feature in Kallen’s reasoning.

  • Why was there a complete lack of updated signage between RER D station and the stadium?
  • To what extent does UEFA think this oversight contributed towards overcrowding at the first checkpoint?
  • Why did the route to the stadium differ from the one fans were instructed to follow on UEFA’s app?
  • Why was the recommendation to split fans into two separate pre-filter queues not taken up?
  • Why did the authorities not try at any point to communicate with fans about the problems at the pre-filtering point at the gates?
  • Why did UEFA suggest the kick-off delay was down to fans arriving at the stadium late?
  • It was also suggested that the organisation does not seem to be willing to acknowledge its most basic errors in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence.

On this basis, can anyone really trust UEFA to secure the safety of anyone attending a big football match and to reflect on and learn from any mistakes if things go awry?

To all of that, a spokesperson replied: “UEFA will not be commenting further on the topic until the Independent Review has been concluded.”

Given the gaps in Kallen’s public account are so enormous and so obvious, the credibility of a review being led by someone they appointed is not a good look. How likely is it that that person will be able to get answers to all of this, when the senate could not?

(Top photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Sterling to Chelsea? Jesus to Arsenal? Why the Big Six need to sell to each other

Wed, 06/22/2022 - 05:15

Is the time approaching when the most powerful clubs in English football — and power, let’s be clear, means money in this sport — might have to get over some of their old insecurities when it comes to how they view one another?

It might be that we have actually reached that point already if Manchester City are willing to negotiate the proposed sale of Raheem Sterling to Chelsea and, in the process, relax their previous approach that a club in their position should never sell to a direct rival.

The last time City allowed a prominent player to join another Big Six club, other than on a free transfer, was ten years ago. This summer, they could conceivably do it twice. As well as Sterling’s proposed move to Stamford Bridge, City are open to the idea of selling Gabriel Jesus to Arsenal

Something, plainly, has changed and perhaps we should not be too surprised if it turns out Sterling is merely Example A when footballers at England’s top clubs, especially the elite footballers, are paid so much it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find the same kind of riches elsewhere.

Just try totting up the number of clubs outside England who could realistically match the mind-boggling salaries that City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur pay their higher earners. Clue: it won’t take long.

Transfers between the Big Six SeasonTransferTransferTransferTransferTransferTransferTransferSturridge (£12m - Chelsea to Liverpool)Van Persie (£24m - Arsenal to Man United)Adebayor (£5m - Man City to Tottenham)K. Toure (Free - Man City to Liverpool)Moses (Loan - Chelsea to Liverpool)Mata (£40m - Chelsea to Man United)Welbeck (£16m - Man United to Arsenal)Sagna (Free - Arsenal to Man City)Cech (£10m - Chelsea to Arsenal)Milner (Free - Man City to Liverpool)Sterling (£44m - Liverpool to Man City)Sanchez and Mkhitaryan (Swap deal between Arsenal and Man United)Caballero (Free - Man City to Chelsea)Solanke (Tribunal - Chelsea to Liverpool)Oxlade Chamberlain (£35m - Arsena to Liverpool)Walker (£45m - Tottenham to Man City)Matic (£40m - Chelsea to Man United)Giroud (£18m - Arsenal to Chelsea)David Luiz (£8m - Chelsea to Arsenal)Willian (Free - Chelsea to Arsenal)

Paris Saint-Germain are one. Bayern Munich have shown, in the case of Sadio Mane, that they can make exceptions. Juventus are doing the same with Paul Pogba. Real Madrid will always be one of Europe’s superpowers and Barcelona have enough self-regard to consider themselves the same way (just a shame, perhaps, about the £1 billion of debt at Camp Nou). Yet La Liga has fallen a long way behind the Premier League in terms of its finances — and it is the same in Serie A and everywhere else.

So where else can a player with Sterling’s financial requirements, reputedly earning £300,000 a week, end up when it would involve a transfer fee in the region of £35 million and the player in question, turning 28 later this year, is at an age when he has virtually no re-sale value?

The short answer is that there are very few alternatives — and that, in a nutshell, is why Chelsea have appeared on the scene. Only the rich can afford to buy from the rich, or super-rich in these cases.

PSG cannot just gobble up everyone, even if the club of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar give the impression they would have fun trying. Madrid can no longer blow everyone out of the water with their financial power. And perhaps the upshot of all this is that England’s elite clubs might have to learn to do business with one another more often. Maybe that process is underway.

This is never the easiest of subjects for the fans of those clubs when, as anybody who has been in this position can testify, it always jars when your team sells a prominent player to a rival. 

Ask Arsenal’s supporters about Robin van Persie’s defection to United and what it was like to watch their former player inspiring Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to the league title. That is the risk that City would be taking if they allowed Sterling to join Chelsea. Selling Jesus to Arsenal is another matter entirely. But Sterling to Chelsea? It is easy to understand why many City fans will dislike the idea, and many of the people inside the club, too.

Veron swapped Old Trafford for Stamford Bridge in 2003 (Photo: John Stillwell – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Let’s not over-egg this either. Nobody is imagining United and Liverpool removing the barriers that have prevented England’s biggest two clubs transferring a single player since Phil Chisnall left Old Trafford, for £25,000, to sign at Anfield in 1964. Nobody should expect the first cross-Manchester transfer since Terry Cooke swapped United’s red for City’s blue in 1999. Some rivalries run far too deep for the dynamic to change that much. 

United did negotiate a fee of potentially £1.35 million to re-sign Charlie McNeill, then 17, from City’s academy in 2020, six years after the teenager went the other way for £12,000. But is it realistic to think the same could happen with an established first-team player? No, is the blunt answer. Nor City-Liverpool because of the way their rivalry has taken shape in the Pep Guardiola-Jurgen Klopp era. And nor Arsenal-Spurs, 20 years since Rohan Ricketts became the last player to be sold between the two clubs.  

There are other options. One is to move the high-earning player out on loan but that often means paying a sizeable proportion of the wages, so how is that ever satisfactory? Just think of the ‘dead’ money United wasted on Alexis Sanchez by contributing £175,000 a week towards his salary at Inter Milan. These clubs might be mega-rich, but who wants to lose millions of pounds this way?

All of which brings us back to the original point about whether the Premier League’s Big Six might have to re-assess some of their relationships when it comes to what is strange, and what is not, in the business of selling and buying players. 

If that is already the case, it probably should not be a surprise that Chelsea are in the thick of it. This is the club that persuaded Liverpool to sell Fernando Torres, sold Petr Cech to Arsenal, took Juan Sebastian Veron from United and allowed Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic to go the other way. Of all the Big Six clubs, Chelsea have always seemed more relaxed about doing business with their rivals.

Chelsea sold Mata to Manchester United (Photo: Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It is always complicated, though. Around the same time United signed Mata, Chelsea wanted Wayne Rooney and had been led to believe the player was keen to join them. More than once, a message reached Ed Woodward, then United’s chief executive, that the relevant people at Stamford Bridge were open to sitting at the other side of the negotiating table. Each time, he politely declined. Woodward had no intention of selling Rooney but knew it would be difficult to begin negotiations for Mata if he had to inform them they could forget about anything happening the other way.

What happened instead can be held up as a case study about how complicated and sensitive these big-money arrangements can be. United used Mata’s father, Juan Sr, and Colin Pomford, a Madrid-based agent, to arrange everything over several months of positioning and political bargaining. It was one of Woodward’s greatest victories, possibly because he kept a strategic distance. As remarkable as it might sound, the entire £37.1 million transfer was put together without as much as a direct telephone call between the two clubs.

In Sterling’s case, the suspicion at City was always that he fancied a move to Madrid rather than the possibility that the former Liverpool player might end up eyeing up another English club. 

That suspicion was probably valid, too, if you remember the time Sterling appeared on the front page of AS, one of Madrid’s sports dailies, in February 2020 with a City shirt over one shoulder and a Madrid shirt hanging off the other, almost like the angel and devil of his conscience whispering conspiratorially into his ear.

The image was striking and so was the timing, five days before City played at the Bernabeu and a week after their two-year ban from UEFA competitions (subsequently revoked) had been announced. It was an unauthorised interview, set up by Sterling’s agent, and the relevant people at City were distinctly unimpressed.

Nothing, however, has materialised that way and nothing seems on the cards even though Madrid’s long pursuit of Mbappe has ended badly for them. Perhaps this is no longer the club where Jorge Valdano, formerly their sporting director, once proclaimed, “You can never have too many stars.” And, again, it comes back to the same issue: if Sterling genuinely wishes to leave City, how many places can afford him?

The same applies to Mohamed Salah, which is probably why there are people close to the Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year who are talking about the possibility that he, too, could remain in England if he chooses to leave Liverpool when his contract expires next year. Chelsea, again, would be a decent bet, simply because of the finances involved and the small, diminishing pool of alternatives.

It is not something any Liverpool fan would wish to contemplate. But it is also the reality in this age of modern football when the tills-ringing, money-spinning Premier League is one giant fruit machine.

(Photos: Getty Images; graphic: Sam Richardson)

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Why Liverpool signed Nunez and how Klopp might switch to 4-2-3-1 to help him

Mon, 06/20/2022 - 05:13

Liverpool’s scouts were called to a meeting at the AXA Training Centre in Kirkby last month, where prominent figures from the club’s recruitment department challenged them to improve.

A necessary message, apparently, not because standards have slipped but because of the fear they might.

The operation at Liverpool is one of the most respected in European football but this is a period of change, with Julian Ward taking over from Michael Edwards as sporting director.

The transition has been gradual and subtle rather than sudden and significant, but Ward cannot afford for any of the employees representing him in the field to let up — even if the division he now leads is earning more recognition for the stealth and speed at which it has brokered deals for Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez across successive transfer windows.

luis-diaz Luis Diaz (Photo: Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

It is a sign that nobody in a position of influence at Liverpool believes they have cracked the market.

Ward’s watchers were also impressed by Benfica’s Rafa Silva in the process of their research on Nunez and had the right-sided attacker been a few years younger, then maybe Mohamed Salah’s future would have become a little clearer.

Instead, the Portugal international — who turned 29 in May — remains in Lisbon and Salah will form part of a Liverpool forward line next season, which will pose new questions for rivals because of a redesign.

Like Ward, Jurgen Klopp does not think the team he leads is infallible. Last season, Liverpool found it harder against opponents like Tottenham Hotspur, whose point at Anfield tipped the title race in Manchester City’s favour. Spurs could have won that night, having defended well from their 18-yard line as a narrow back five, keeping the ball in front of them as much as possible before targeting the space left by Liverpool’s attacking full-backs.

As the campaign climaxed, Klopp’s tactical adjustments in each of Liverpool’s final two games were understandably lost as the story of the day switched towards City reclaiming the Premier League title and Real Madrid succeeding in the Champions League final.

Against Wolverhampton Wanderers, whose set-up was similar to Spurs, Liverpool had toiled until Klopp switched from the 4-3-3 formation to 4-2-3-1 with the introduction of Roberto Firmino as a No 10. Though Firmino’s touch was off for the remaining 20 minutes of the game, his presence freed up space for those around him. A 1-1 draw became a 3-1 victory – not that it seemed to really matter given the afternoon ended with celebrations in Manchester.

The following weekend in Paris, Klopp turned to Firmino again and he had more joy individually but could not change the course of the game. Carlo Ancelotti’s assessment of Liverpool’s predictability after Real Madrid’s victory was damming.

“It helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare the way that we did,” he said. “We knew what strategy to take — don’t give them space behind the defence to run into. Perhaps our football wasn’t extraordinarily beautiful on an aesthetic level, but playing out from the back to incentivise their pressing wasn’t a great idea.”

(Photo: Joosep Martinson – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Firmino’s future has barely been spoken about given the focus on Salah and Sadio Mane but Klopp clearly still values him. Perhaps the arrival of Nunez will give the Brazilian an opportunity to redefine himself for a second time in his Liverpool career and alter the threat angles from the team as a whole.

Firmino arrived in 2015 as an attacking midfielder and was initially deployed on the right. For six years, he was Klopp’s centre-forward but Diogo Jota’s yield and the performances of Mane in the position last season seemed to bring that era to an end.

In 2021-22, Firmino played just 20 league games but that number will surely increase if Klopp accommodates Nunez and makes Liverpool less predictable by using a shape he was familiar with at Borussia Dortmund.

At Kirkby, it is still believed that Firmino’s touch is better than any other player. His capacity to connect team-mates and drag defenders around could prove to be vital if Klopp leads with 4-2-3-1 or leans on it when the going gets tough. The addition of Fabio Carvalho will also help Klopp in this area.

During his time as Liverpool’s manager, Klopp has deployed his team from the beginning of matches in a 4-3-3 formation on 300 occasions. Thirty-five times, he has used 4-2-3-1 and in 13 games, 4-4-2. This preference has led to Liverpool’s creation points being in the wide areas.

Last season, Liverpool created 29 per cent of their chances from central areas of the pitch compared to 38 per cent from the right and 33 per cent from the left.

Across the league, Liverpool’s record from central areas was the fifth lowest. Adding a No 10, therefore, might improve creativity from the centre and overload an opponent’s back five with as many as six attacking players (four attackers plus the full-backs).

As an energetic forward who relishes one-on-one battles with defenders, it is thought Nunez’s presence will help Liverpool pin other teams back and give those behind him the room to do damage. A tactical switch of this kind would suit Thiago, allowing him to create from deeper positions while also offering Liverpool double the protection in midfield from any counter-attack.

There is a confidence that Nunez will be able to adjust quickly to Liverpool and the Premier League. 

One of the vogue online jokes relates to Liverpool’s longstanding interest in the players they sign. Roberto Firmino? His talent was recognised fresh from the womb — but, of course, they waited until he was mature enough to move him to Anfield.

There is, however, something that connects Firmino to Nunez, in that both players emerged far away from their country’s cultural centres — and, therefore, far away from any believable vantage point.

Firmino was born in Maceio, more than a thousand miles to the north of Rio de Janeiro, and Nunez was brought up in Artigas, a town on the opposite side of Uruguay to Montevideo. Salah and Mane were the same — forwards whose lives were defined by Egyptian and Senegalese villages before they became national heroes.

In that process, there has been rejection and sacrifice. Firmino was turned away from some of the biggest clubs in Brazil, Salah was ignored in his homeland and Mane’s route to the top was indirect and without certainty.

Klopp tends to work well with characters like these because he knows — as with himself — the desire to prove something has the potential to propel a career further than any natural ability.

Liverpool did not know about Nunez in Artigas, but they do now and this increased the belief that he possessed the right profile for them. They knew, for example, that the first time he went to Penarol, the most famous club in Uruguay said no. They also knew that when he returned, he found it difficult to adapt, and that years later, he suffered a serious injury and almost gave up football.

In 2013, Juan Ahuntchain had taken over as a coaching coordinator at Penarol when he received a call from Nico Gomez about an “interesting” footballer in Artigas, where he operated as a scout. Gomez was going to send him three boys but there was also Nunez, who had already been turned away by Penarol.

Jose Perdomo, a former club captain who led Penarol to the Copa Libertadores title in 1987, was dispatched to the north of the country. In Nunez, he saw a pair of skinny legs but after only a few touches of the ball he could see that he had the speed, power and courage to pass defenders who were bigger than him: a “European-type”.

The boy from the interior did not like it in Montevideo. He missed Artigas, where he returned only to be convinced back again by his representative Edgardo Laslavia, who made living arrangements for him to stay in a house that could accommodate his parents whenever they wanted to visit.

Nunez liked to train, and he listened closely to the advice of the coaches. He began to grow. His running strides became longer, he became more aggressive in everything he did, including his shooting.

This earned him a promotion to the first-team set-up at 17. He would still play for the under-18s, however, and in his desperation to prove himself, he started to do too much during youth games. This led to him tearing a cruciate knee ligament. Though he was told initially the recovery would last six months, it was nearly a year before he was training fully again and during this time, he told coaches that he felt an enormous weight of pressure, “that everyone was betting on him and he could not provide answers”, according to Perdomo.

Though he thought about quitting football and returning to Artigas, “we convinced him with his team-mates not to leave”, Perdomo recalled. “His team-mates were very important because they contained him when things didn’t work out.”

In November 2017, he made his first-team debut, but his knee still wasn’t right and he did not feel ready to play. Through gritted teeth, he proceeded but this led to him needing a second operation.

His entry point to professional football was not easy. By 2018, he was playing regularly for Penarol but struggling to score. There was criticism from journalists and fans. Upon his departure from the club to Almeria in 2019, he had not convinced everyone that he was ready for Europe. Those who really knew him, however — men such as Perdomo and Ahuntchain — saw his potential in a more positive light.

Nunez in action for Penarol (Photo: Jorge Bernal/AFP via Getty Images)

His performances for Almeria attracted attention from the Premier League. In the summer of 2020, Brighton & Hove Albion thought they were close to securing a deal for him having previously dealt with the Spanish club over the transfers of Leonardo Ulloa and Tomer Hemed. Almeria had just been beaten in the second-division play-offs but COVID-19 restrictions put a spanner in the works because they could not bring him to England for face-to-face talks.

Nunez was regarded then by Graham Potter as a younger, more mobile version of the 36-year-old Glenn Murray. He went to Benfica, instead, after the Portuguese champions missed out on Edinson Cavani when he joined Manchester United, prompting the Portuguese giants to switch their attention.

Last summer, Brighton tried again but found the process complicated this time because Benfica were trying to reach the Champions League group stages. The price kept going up and once Benfica had qualified, they weren’t interested in selling.

In January, West Ham believed they were very close to securing a £45 million deal but Benfica were never likely to sell at that price when they had progressed to the knockout stages of the Champions League, which meant that the player’s price had the potential to skyrocket.

That is exactly what happened. Before Liverpool’s quarter-final with Benfica — where Nunez scored in each leg — Manchester United had arranged to meet Benfica’s president Rui Costa to discuss a deal but Costa and his family suffered food poisoning celebrating his birthday. With the meeting postponed, United officials were unconvinced and took it as a snub. It did not help United that new manager Erik ten Hag, who likes Nunez a lot having seen him score against Ajax in the Champions League, was not appointed by the time Liverpool started to gain headway in their pursuit. Ten Hag, it is believed, has also since prioritised other positions for improvement — particularly midfield.

After a 3-3 draw at Anfield, Klopp approached Benfica’s caretaker manager Nelson Verissimo and congratulated him for his team’s run in the competition, along with their performance in the game. During that exchange, he also told Verissimo that in Nunez, Benfica were in possession of a fine footballer.

Geography had made it easier for Liverpool to examine Nunez’s development since moving to Spain three years ago. The reports on the club’s database go back to Penarol, however, where he was a team-mate of midfielder Maxi Rodriguez, the former Liverpool midfielder who testified for the player’s appetite in training.

According to Rodriguez, he was a “fighter”, who always turned up early and seemed to push himself further than any of the club’s youngest players. For Klopp — who takes time-keeping very seriously — this was another reason to bring him to Anfield and place him at the centre of his second Liverpool.

When he rocked up in Kirkby last week to pose for photographs and conduct interviews with the club’s in-house media team, he lived up to his reputation by arriving much earlier than anyone expected.

(Top photos: Getty Images/Design: Kris Sheasby)

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