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Chelsea’s Future Looks Brighter Than Ever—Despite Recent Trend of Buying Proven Quality

I recently spent 14 weeks in a cave, researching for a gargantuan project by the name of the Top 100 European Youth Prospects Aged 20 and Under.  Apart from likely shaving months off my life and damaging my eyesight in ways I’ll only learn of when I hit 30, it was very rewarding in a number of ways.

Chiefly, it restored my hope and faith in Chelsea’s youth system, as despite having a frankly horrible track record of developing homegrown players over the last decade, change could well be afoot.

Indeed, a brief check on the typical first XI nowadays sees many top-class purchases from overseas turning out for the Blues, with just John Terry representing the youth academy and what it stands for: hard work, dedication and achievement.

That could change dramatically in the coming seasons, with Jose Mourinho even admitting that three of the players featured in the aforementioned top 100—Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke—should be first-class internationals for England unless he does something horribly, horribly wrong.

'Lewis Baker - Future England International?

‘Lewis Baker – Future England International?

A whopping 10 percent of my top 100 youth prospects based in Europe are on the books at Chelsea. I’ve been to watch Chelsea’s youth side tussle, most notably in the FA Youth Cup last season, and impressed was not the word.

Bar Fulham’s Patrick Roberts, who stole the show, I came away from said games wondering just how far many of the players could go; the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen showed attributes rarely found in youth-level football.

Mourinho’s admission makes it easy to believe he will try to bring these players into the setup. Indeed, Christensen made his debut against Shrewsbury this week, while Solanke came on as a substitute against Maribor the week before. The intent is there.

The Blues’ involvement in multiple competitions—in addition to Terry’s age, Diego Costa’s hamstrings and the paucity of central midfield quality beyond the starting two—also adds to the optimism that the tide can change at Stamford Bridge.

Jeremie Boga, Lucas Piazon, Kurt Zouma, Charly Musonda, Nathaniel Chalobah and Co. give Mourinho legitimate reason not to dip into the market next summer. The conveyor belt of talent—accumulated largely by poaching from other academies, it must be said—is too strong to ignore.

Christensen could threaten Zouma (seen as more senior) and replace Terry. He’s commanding, smooth on the ball, positionally excellent and leads a superb, organised back line.

Piazon is the complete forward; quick for his size, he drifts wide, cuts in, holds the ball up and, critically, sticks it in the back of the net with aplomb. When Didier Drogba departs at the end of the season, there is no better player to incorporate as the third-choice striker at a one-striker club.

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Boga will face the prospect of tussling with Andre Schurrle and Willian at best, with Chelsea likely to look at other options next summer following the inconsistent play of the two this season. It’s easy to see Borussia Dortmund’s resolve being tested with regard to Marco Reus—what a midfield that would be!—but if not, Boga and even Musonda could provide an additional body.

It’s become normal to disregard the Blues as a talent provider, but history and past achievements have precisely nothing to do with the current strengths of the U-21 crop. Mourinho’s comments on Brown, Baker and Solanke can be extended to all 10 selected in the top 100, and you can probably add Nathan Ake into that mix too.

Dismiss the pre-dispositions you had about Chelsea and their ability to create talent; they are no longer applicable and should not haunt the current crop. Look out for a fresh, talented batch in years to come, and if they don’t make it at Stamford Bridge, pray your club picks them up and prospers.

Written by: Sam Tighe

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Big Sam Emerges from Pressure With New Squad, New Style and New Ambition

The life of a modern day football manager is an uncertain and stressful one at the best of times.

At its worst it can mean unemployment, and for Arsene Wenger to equate it to living atop a volcano given the fact that any day could be your last really says something of the profession. Sam Allardyce is all too aware of the fragile nature of Premier League football management, but is currently reaping the rewards of a boardroom who have more long-sightedness than many in this day and age.

A banner at Upton Park once read “Fat Sam Out. Killing WHU.” His long-ball football was criticised not only by fans but by his peers too, and when Jose Mourinho described his tactics as 19th century football, many of the fans agreed despite obviously being delighted with the point they had just stolen from one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. It was a case, at times, of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

'Allardyce battled through'

‘Allardyce battled through’

While West Ham brought in Teddy Sheringham in order to improve the club’s attacking prowess, many of the plaudits must fall at Big Sam’s feet. He never lost confidence in his vision, and now has a squad that allows him to practice his beloved pragmatism with a little more leverage when it comes to attacking his opponents.

The long-ball tactic is not completely extinct (70 against Manchester City, per WhoScored.com) and to state otherwise would be irresponsible, but in Alex Song, Morgan Amalfitano and a far more involved and influential Stewart Downing, he has a balance in his squad that allows his side to gain a stranglehold in midfield. Throw the robust, hardworking Mark Noble and the lively Enner Valencia into the mix and you really can look at breaking down teams in other ways than through route-one football.

There are two telling statistics that will explain just how the side have developed this year. 70 percent of their passes are short, with only 16 percent being long balls. They are also relying less heavily on crosses into a target man, with only six percent being crossed balls. They have scored 10 goals from open play and six from set-pieces, which shows a tilt in the direction of which this club is going. As far as paying West Ham spectators are concerned, long may it continue.

Much of the criticism that was levelled at Sam Allardyce was steeped in genuine concern, and the fact was that the paying fans of the club were the ones who had to sit through some of the “19th century football” that Mourinho was talking about. Now they are getting to see what a team who have solidified themselves in the Premier League and are putting a greater emphasis on entertainment can do.

CSP-GW10-1ST-NOV

When at the start of the year Carlo Ancelotti constantly embraced the term “balance”—something that was lacking from his Real Madrid squad—all the way back in London, Big Sam was searching for his own form of balance. That appears to have been found now and is starting to pay dividends.

West Ham football club too must be afforded credit due to the fact that they stuck with their man, drowned out the noise created by a section of fans and the media and stuck to their guns. They’ve built a team together instead of uprooting their manager, changing backroom staff and refusing to believe that there are and always will be more issues at play than what the manager of a football club says and does.

Big Sam has seen turbulent times during his tenure at Upton Park but it would seem that, based on recent results, he has made it to the other side of these troubles with a new squad, a new style of football and a brand new set of ambitions.

Written by Robbie Dunne

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Release Your Inner Diva, Hull!

I once saw David Byrne from Talking Heads play live as a support act for Paul Weller. As he lined up his backing vocalists up to sing “Road to Nowhere,” with the precision of an Arsenal’s early nineties defence, a waft of dry ice came across the stage. He stopped singing, shouted “did I ask for f**king ice?!?” numerous times, then walked off stage.

I think Hull City should start adopting this tactic until they get some coverage on the games they play.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hull hadn’t participated in their previous two games against Arsenal and Liverpool. It must be even more galling for Tigers fans when they are currently only three points behind both these teams. Draws against two potential top-four (probably five) teams were excellent away results for the club, but they were overshadowed by their opposition’s media presence.

'Hull's draw was clearly because Arsenal were rubbish...right?'

‘Hull’s draw was clearly because Arsenal were rubbish…right?’

The main talking point from the Arsenal game was Danny Welbeck’s last-gasp equaliser, but even that was eclipsed by Arsene Wenger’s interview with Jacqui Oatley—which was a Christian Bale-standard of obnoxiousness. His acerbic answers to a genuine question about why he is allergic to buying quality defenders seemed to touch a nerve.  Cue the autopsy of every word he/she said as to whether it was rude, sexist, unprofessional or not.

The talking points from the Liverpool game were all about one man: Mario Ballotelli. Why is it always him? Well, mainly because you never stop talking about him. He’s one open goal miss away from going postal and filling even more column inches.

So what about Hull? are they really that dull? Does Steve Bruce have to do The Goonies “truffle shuffle” on the sidelines just to get you to notice them?

In both the Arsenal and Liverpool games the Tigers defended well. Wenger complained that Hull rarely came out of their own half, but isn’t football about playing to your strengths? With strong acquisitions like Mohamed Diame, who has scored four goals in five games, credit should be given to Hull for improving the squad and collecting unexpected points.

November brings Southampton, Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United for Hull. In terms of hyperbole, they all have better stories than the Yorkshire-based team which will capture the headlines.

Southampton “still in shock that they’re good after selling half the team”; Burnley “patronising pat on the head, in a bless em’ they tried way”; Spurs “Oh god they’ll have to play in Milton Keynes soon” and, well, Manchester United don’t need a reason to be in the press—they just always are.

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Hull City’s chairman is doing his part in getting the club noticed. His recent outburst on Football Focus about refusing to spend any more money on the squad until he is allowed to change their name to Hull Tigers, have been dismissed as “empty threats.”

There is something to be said about progressing quietly under the radar, but as Oscar Wilde once said “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

I look forward to seeing how far up the Mariah Carey scale Hull can go.

Written by: Laura Jones

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England’s Full-Back Dilemma: From Famine to Feast in a One-Time Problem Position

Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first match in charge of England was memorable for many reasons. It was the first home international to be played outside of Wembley since 1973, and the future World and European Champions, Spain, were comfortably beaten by three goals to nil.

But what created more interest was the decision to offer debuts to both Chris Powell and Michael Ball, as the newly appointed Swedish coach quickly discovered how few quality left backs he could call upon. Thankfully, Arsene Wenger resolved that particular issue by successfully converting Ashley Cole from a winger to a defender.

'An Embarrassment of Riches'

‘An Embarrassment of Riches’

Four World Cups on and suddenly there is now an abundance of talent available in either full-back position for the England manager, and pleasingly they are all experiencing first-team football at their respective Premier League clubs—injury permitting.

No longer is Kieran Gibbs a deputy to Gael Clichy, or Ryan Bertrand languishing in the Chelsea Reserves. Luke Shaw has made the move to better himself alongside the likes of Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind, while Calum Chambers features regularly in the Champions League for Arsenal.

The transformation in little over a decade has been phenomenal. And it has taken place despite continual investment in foreign players. The advent of Financial Fair Play and home grown player quotas could potentially have impacted on an increasing trust in England-eligible players, but that would ignore the recent acquisitions from abroad of Daryl Janmaat, Cesar Azpilicueta and Alberto Moreno.

There is no denying the positive effect that Ashley Cole has made on the perception of the full back role, though. Before the widespread introduction of the 4-2-3-1 formation, the relationship between the defender and wide midfield player ahead of him was rather straightforward—you fed the ball to a pacey trickster who would glide past his marker, or alternatively you’d create an overlap.

With the gradual decline of the old-fashioned winger, more often than not the full-back is now presented with acres of space to exploit. Ashley Cole’s impressive reserves of energy afforded him the luxury to attack and defend in equal measure, which enabled his manager to strengthen the midfield battleground with an additional body.

The fact that like Cole, Gibbs and Danny Rose were also once aspiring wingers, coached into the role of full-back, it has in some ways made the position more desirable to play in. No longer is the position restrictive in terms of its potential for attacking rewards. You needn’t look any further than England’s current incumbent, Leighton Baines, for evidence of that.

Last weekend I witnessed the most technically proficient defender I have ever seen in League Two. On loan from Bolton Wanderers, Andy Kellett demonstrated the composure and awareness of a seasoned central midfield player. His exquisite first touch and pin-point delivery earned him Man of the Match recognition in his maiden home start for Plymouth Argyle.

His tender frame and lack of defensive instinct suggested the role of full-back was one he had not craved as a youngster, but considering his thoughtfulness in possession there is certainly enough to suggest that he can be coached into the role, much like Ashley Cole previously.

The other interesting aspect when dissecting the number of Englishmen currently plying their trade in a full-back role are those who look destined to blossom in a centre-back role in the longer term, but are capitalising on a less risky route into the first team.

Offensively speaking, the recent criticisms of Calum Chambers’ performances against San Marino and Estonia were largely fair. And the same could be levied against John Stones, who likewise lacks genuine quality when crossing into the box, or the skill to go beyond a marker.

However, their dependability defensively and their undoubted promise has offered sufficient encouragement to both their respective club and national managers to persevere with them. One Englishman—criminally overlooked in his prime—endured an almost identical start to his career. Jamie Carragher was forced to play at right- and left-back for much of Gerard Houllier’s reign, until he finally usurped Stephane Henchoz in the centre under Rafa Benitez’s expert tutelage.

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His education in the art of defending could only be enhanced by learning other roles within the team. Being exposed to quality opposition at an earlier age allowed him to develop at a rate faster than could be achieved in reserve-team football.

With the full-back role becoming more decisive and its occupiers more diverse, I was keen to understand what may be happening at a grassroots level. Plymouth may not be famed for its football, but while Southampton are receiving plaudits for its youth structure, people ought to be mindful from whom they picked up Jack Stephens and Sam Gallagher.

Dan Gill, 30, was once an attacking midfield player before being encouraged to play at right full-back when representing Plymouth Argyle at U-14 level. Having twice won the South West Counties District titles as a player and now manager, I queried how he decided on his full-back selections: “I had weak options at full back and a lot of midfielders trialling. So I tried a couple of other lads at full back as they had displayed the rationale required for playing the role”.

Fresh from returning with a 100 percent record at last summer’s Isle of Wight festival, I questioned if there was an increasing trend in full-backs demonstrating the attributes of orthodox wingers: “I would say that due to the fact that formations have changed and teams tend to now pack the midfield and play three up front (4-3-3), this encourages the full backs to play as wing backs and burst forward as much as they can”.

Given how quickly the media and fans alike bemoan the lack of English talent breaking through it feels as though this particular moment should be cherished. Competition for places can only breed further individual development, and the continual raising of the bar will surely permeate through to the younger age groups.

That four of the ten photographed above have this week been shortlisted for UEFA’s Golden Boy Award only serves to emphasise the advantageous position we currently find ourselves in. For now we must pray that their playing time at club level remains so consistent.

Written by: Steve Clift

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Marouane Fellaini’s Manchester United Renaissance is Ideal, But Consistency is Key to a Long-Term Future at Old Trafford

When Manchester United went into the half-time break at the Hawthorns, something clicked inside Louis Van Gaal’s devious mind. For all their possession, United faced a one-goal deficit and had barely threatened the West Brom goal in a tame first half display which saw them out-fought by a dogged Baggies side.

Enter: Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s arrival was met by groans from most of the Red Devils fanbase after a torrid 12 months which had seen him become something of a laughing stock at the club. But they were in for a shock; Fellaini’s arrival completely changed the game.

United were no longer second-best in the midfield battle, with the 26-year-old making his mark straight away with a fierce right-footed drive into the roof of the net. The post-mortem of Van Gaal’s decision was that he had realised United’s lack of physicality in the first half. He stated in his post-match press conference: “(I knew) after 30 minutes. And then I said (to Fellaini) to look what Herrera is doing because I want you to play. We have to look also for physical talents and maybe that’s our problem.”

The presence Fellaini was able to bring to the match gave them a different dimension, making some United fans realise that the Belgian could have a future at the club after all. Despite being seen as a £27 million flop and something of an on-field scapegoat for David Moyes’ failed reign, it is obvious Fellaini is able to offer this United side attributes which the other midfielders don’t possess.

‘The moment Van Gaal turned to Fellaini’

‘The moment Van Gaal turned to Fellaini’

On paper, the United midfield looks extremely lightweight. Daley Blind is their holding midfielder but is still quite slender, young and has a lot to learn about the role, meaning he is by no means feared by any opposition—yet. Ander Herrera has been a fine addition to the squad but in the brutal Premier League, his similarly slim stature will get found out in certain fixtures, without much protection behind him. The same can be said for Juan Mata this season, as he has not looked like the same player who once won Chelsea’s player of the year award, after a superb start to his United career.

Van Gaal realised this when United’s midfield were being bullied by West Brom and his renewed faith in Fellaini continued at home to Chelsea. After almost letting him move to Napoli in the summer, it appears the Dutchman has had a re-think as experience in a tough Premier League has taught him that physicality in midfield is almost a necessity. It’s nice to be able to field a midfield full of neat and tidy playmakers, but having the correct balance is key in that area of the pitch.

Fellaini was able to win over yet more of his critics with a fine shackling job on the in-form Chelsea schemer, Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard has been unstoppable since moving to Stamford Bridge from Barcelona in the summer, which prompted Van Gaal to field Fellaini from the start for the first time. The Belgian was given two jobs: the first one was to man-mark Fabregas whenever Chelsea were in possession, in order to stop him having an influence on the game, and secondly, Fellaini was asked to run in behind the Chelsea midfield  to drag Fabregas and Nemanja Matic out of position.

The plan worked. Fellaini was able to get plenty of joy on the left-hand side of United’s midfield three as the Red Devils went toe-to-toe with the league leaders. His link-up play in the first half with the lively Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw was a particular highlight, but the major plus point was that Fabregas was barely able to string a pass together, particularly in the first half where he completed just 11 in total, due to Fellaini’s pressure.

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Even in the second half when Chelsea were dominant, the Belgian worked extremely hard, despite not being the most mobile. The 4-3-3 formation which gives him licence to join attacks and wreak havoc in-and-around the penalty area suits his game perfectly.

Now we know Van Gaal desires a physical presence in his team, it appears Fellaini may have a big role to play in the coming months. The question is: is he good enough to nail down a long-term position in this United side? I’m not so sure.

There is still plenty of work for him to do in that regards. His short, two-game renaissance has been great and all, but if Van Gaal has only started contemplating the lack of physicality and dominant figures in United’s midfield, surely he is currently just a short-term fix.

When the January and summer transfer window roll around, we will have our answer as to how much faith Van Gaal really has in Fellaini. He will want to bring his own players in which fit his philosophy perfectly, eventually. Kevin Strootman and Arturo Vidal have been the names on every United fans lips in recent months but there are a number of other options should the manager dip into his hefty transfer kitty once more.

But for now, having Fellaini at Old Trafford is no longer a hindrance, it is a massive help, which is a welcome relief after a forgettable start to his United career. He has started to win the fans over and you can see the confidence beginning to flow as he finally feels as if he has a role in this team.

He still has a lot of work to do to nail down his place in the long-term, so he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. The performances must keep coming.

Written by: Tim Simon

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Diafra Sakho, Graziano Pelle and A Warning From the Premier League Half-Season Wonders

There are few things in the Premier League quite as bewildering as the half-season wonder. The footballer who takes no time to adjust or acclimatise to the hustle and bustle of English football, hits the ground running before hitting the wall some six months later.

Starting well is no guarantee for a continuous upward curve in performance levels, and for some it creates an unrealistic expectation that becomes impossible to maintain. Yet still it boggles that the same footballer can go from scoring from any angle with any given part of his anatomy, to horrendous miscontrols and astonishing misses when the initial bounce of playing in a new league deserts him.

This spectacular fall from gracehas afflicted its fair share of Premier League players over the years, yet it has always felt more dramatic and pronounced when it has befallen strikers. This season Diafra Sakho and Graziano Pelle are experiencing that unquantifiable initial bounce in form, and already it is leading to unrealistic expectations about how many goals they will score come May and the years ahead.

Both have ticked the boxes that come with the territory of a half-season wonder; consistency combined with spectacular and important goals. Sakho has plundered six goals in seven league games this season: one of them a delicate chip over Simon Mignolet in a 3-1 win against Liverpool, the other a brilliantly planted headed winner against Manchester City.

Sakho’s impact has been instant, outperforming his more expensive strike partner Enner Valencia in the process and coinciding with—or inspiring, perhaps—West Ham United’s rise to fourth in the Premier League table after nine games.

Pelle’s prolific start too is intrinsically intertwined with Southampton’s charge to second in the table; his six goals so far, one of them an early contender for goal of the season, an overhead kick against Queens Park Rangers, have not gone unnoticed.

But to carry this form on beyond the early months of the campaign, as the nights draw in, the pitches worsen, the winter bites and the gruelling winter schedule takes its toll, is another thing entirely. Just ask Amr Zaki.

The Egyptian international is a notorious personality from Premier League history, a £1.5m one-year loan signing from El Zamalek in 2008 by Wigan Athletic. The striker had a propensity for stunning volleys—most memorably on his league debut against West Ham, and at Anfield a few months later—and a larger than life on-field personality.

He was likened to Alan Shearer by chairman Dave Whelan, who said, “When you look at this lad and his build…he has the same confidence when he gets the ball, he knows where the goal is, he doesn’t need to look up, he has this instinct. Strikers like that have an instinct as to where the goal is. You can’t describe it, you can’t give it to anybody.”

Amr Zaki

Zaki struck eight times by the beginning of November—nine in his first 13 in all competitions—and by the new year he was the league’s third top scorer behind Robinho and Nicolas Anelka with 10.

But after December 28th he failed to find the net again, and was reduced to late substitute appearances after failing to return for training on time after international duty. Steve Bruce gave him a less than glowing recommendation.

“I just feel it’s time that we went public on just what a nightmare he has been to deal with,” said the Wigan manager. “I can honestly say that in all my time in football I have never worked with someone as unprofessional.”

It is not just the summer signings who have struggled to sustain their form over a whole season, and in fact it is more impressive when a January signing makes an immediate goalscoring impact—especially given the circumstances that make it that much harder to integrate into a new side without the benefit of a pre-season.

In January 2012 Newcastle United sat in the top half of the Premier League, six points off a Champions League place. Sensing the opportunity the club dipped into the transfer market for the £9 million Papiss Cisse. A debut winning goal from the Senegalese international was a sign of things to come, a rifled half volley into the top-corner from the edge of the penalty area.

After a glut of nine goals in five games between March and April, Cisse finished with 13 goals in 14 games, and Newcastle, who had been level on points with fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur at the end of April, finished four points off the Champions League.

It wasn’t so much the quantity of these goals, but the diverse nature of some of the finishes. He was a poacher, clinical in the 18-yard box and intelligent in his movement, but capable too of the downright extraordinary from improbable angles.

His crowning glory came on a May evening at Stamford Bridge, as he struck two individually spectacular goals; the first an instinctive volley into the roof of the net, while the second came from an implausible swing of his right boot that swerved the ball over the despairing Petr Cech that cannot be done justice by mere words.

That the Senegalese scored less goals in the next two full seasons says as much about Newcastle’s drop as it does Cisse’s, but it remains a half-season of Premier League folklore. So too the impact that Nikica Jelavic made at Everton after that same January window.

Nine goals in 13 league appearances, he looked the poacher that David Moyes had been seeking for years to finally transform Everton into a top-four side. But like Cisse, the Croat’s touch and finish deserted him, and only seven goals followed in his next 46 Premier League games for the Toffees.

Zaki’s turbulent yet astonishing time in England is a unique example, but the fates of Cisse and Jelavic since their initial goalscoring splurges should be a warning for anyone expecting Sakho and Pelle to continue their extraordinary goalscoring form through the season.

Written by: James Dutton

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