The Per-fect appointment

A young prospect is signing on as a scholar at Arsenal. Pen in hand and grinning. Next to him, the 6’6” academy manager is also grinning, pleased with the first signing of his career. That man is Per Mertesacker and this scene will happen later in 2018.

#Repost @p_mertesacker ・・・ Dear fans and friends, clear decisions were always very important to me. I felt like that after World Cup 2014 and I take such a decision now again. From autumn 2018 onwards I will be heading up the Arsenal Academy as the “Head of Academy”. Which means at the same time that the upcoming season will be my last one as a player. I am delighted about this future challenge and job at the club who means so much to me. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, Arsenal London – these places and clubs formed me and made me the player and person I am today. It is important to me to pass on these experiences and values to young players in the future. But for the next months my clear focus is to give everything as a player for the club. I am looking forward to the things lying ahead of us, short- mid- and longterm. #COYG Yours Per /// Liebe Fans und Freunde,  klare Entscheidungen waren mir immer sehr wichtig. Das war 2014 nach dem WM Titel der Fall, so ist es auch jetzt. Ab Herbst 2018 werde ich die Leitung der Nachwuchsabteilung bei Arsenal als "Head of Academy“ übernehmen. Dies beinhaltet auch, dass ich jetzt in meine letzte Saison als Spieler gehe. Ich freue mich enorm über die neue Aufgabe bei dem Verein, dem ich viel zu verdanken habe und der mir sehr an’s Herz gewachsen ist. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, London – diese Stationen haben mich geprägt. Mir ist es ein großes Anliegen, diese Erfahrungen zu teilen. Für die kommenden Monate liegt mein Fokus aber ganz klar auf meiner Aufgabe als Spieler. Ich werde alles für den Verein auf dem Platz einbringen. Ich spüre große Vorfreude auf alles, was kurz- und mittelfristig auf mich wartet. #COYG Euer Per

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The announcement came two days after the high profile signing of Alexandre Lacazette and was met with as much enthusiasm by fans. It may seem odd to appoint someone who has yet to finish a distinguished playing career with zero knowledge of running an academy, however, looking back at the BFG’s (Big Friendly/F***ing German) passage in North London, the case in favor of the titanesque defender is strengthened.

Signed during the infamous trolley dash of summer 2011, Mertesacker was brought in to stabilize a team that had sold influential components in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Donning the formers number 4 shirt, the BFG made his debut in a home game against Swansea.

Arsenal hadn’t started the season well, a single point from three games which included an 8-2 deflowering at Old Trafford formed the backdrop of a nervous afternoon at the Emirates. The sight of Mertesacker getting out jumped by Danny Graham didn’t auger well for proceedings. Like the team, he wasn’t convincing but squeaked out a 1-0 win. People were right to identify the German’s head as his strong point, but it was the interior not the exterior.

 

A meticulous reader of the game, Mertesacker combines excellent positioning and interceptions to outsmart his opponent. His economic use of the ball sees him average above 90% pass completion rates, making him the modern defender’s primer. A nasty ankle twist at Sunderland ended his first season three months early, but it did not stop him from having a solid second season.

They say opposites attract, in the case of Laurent Koscielny and Mertesacker this rings true. The Frenchman is a high risk proactive marker of the ball. The Germans measured approach serves as his colleagues safety net thus allowing him to be even rasher! Not only did he establish himself in central defense, he also captained the side in a FA Cup tie at Brighton and headed in his first goal against Tottenham Hotspur, a sure way to endear yourself to the red half of North London.

Arsenal v Wigan Athletic
Ying and Yang (Photo credit: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

It also became apparent that the BFG (Not the explicit version!) was just that, always putting himself at the service of others on and off the pitch, such is his standing in the dressing room, he is charged with collecting fines. The thought of Alexis Sanchez storming out of training and the BFG shouting “That’ll be 1000 pounds mate!” is a hilarious possibility!

 

Mertesacker can also be tough when the situation requires it, the sight of him giving Mesut Ozil a verbal dressing down for not acknowledging the traveling fans after a loss at Manchester City, made him the exception to the popular idea that: modern footballers just care about the money.

Perhaps it was all of this that was going through Arsene Wenger’s mind when he appointed the World Cup winner as club captain in 2016. Sadly he missed most of the season with a knee injury and due to competition for places he only made two appearances: In the last league match against Everton and the FA Cup final.

Suffice to say his contribution was more than what the majority had delivered in a lackluster season for the club. A fifth placed finish was a new low for a club equipped to win the league, but held back by a questionable mentality and complacent board. The cup final with Chelsea was a chance to salvage some pride, a 2-1 win did just that.

Everyone was in agreement that Mertesacker was superb with some calling his performance one of the greatest in the competitions history. His in match mentoring of young partner Rob Holding and their good cop/bad cop routine on Diego Costa will live long in the memory.

In a years time, after his training kit has been swapped for a tracksuit with “PM” emblazoned on the chest, the task awaiting the German is huge: Poor results, questionable recruitment and defensive ineptitude blight most youth teams especially the under-23s. But just like Mertesacker the player you expect Mertesacker the manager to make sensible decisions with a high success rate.

 

 

Sutton United 0-2 Arsenal: Pie-eating goalkeeper resigns over betting scandal

The weird, wacky and surreal were all present in a fairly comfortable victory for Arsenal. Never mind that Theo Walcott grabbed his 100th goal for the club or that Lucas Perez made it seven goals in nine starts, Wayne Shaw, Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper, is under investigation from the Football Association and Gambling Commission after Sun Bets offered odds of 8-1 against him eating a pie during the match. Shaw has since resigned.

Tipping the scales at 115kg, the 46- year -old “Roly Poly Goalie” had already been in the spotlight before the game, but his stunt which he called “a bit of fun” has backfired spectacularly and cost him his job.

Shaw who was also on the coaching staff, ravenously devoured a meat and potato pie in full view of the cameras, after his team had made all their subs.

The FA states that “A participant shall not bet, either directly or indirectly, or instruct, permit, cause or enable any person to bet on (i) the result, progress, conduct or any other aspect of, or occurrence in, a football match or competition.”

The Gambling Commission will also be looking at any irregularities in the market to determine if Sun Bet has met its license requirements as an operator. What works against Shaw is that he knew about the bet before kickoff and authorities have to decide whether his actions breached any rules.

The fiasco takes away from a landmark achievement from Sutton who are 105 places below Arsenal in the National League. The band of semipros are toiling in 17th place out of 24 teams, but were flying high in the FA Cup having upset Leeds United to reach the fifth round.

While Sutton will enjoy a £50,000 donation from their opponents and the exposure from the journey, Shaw has to live with one of the most infamous publicity stunts in football history.

 

Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama’s futures in doubt as transfer window opens for business

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Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe fell in pain. The culprit Victor Wanyama remained on the ground, resigned to his fate as the referee brandished a second yellow and then a red. The Kenyan’s dismissal was to prove costly as Alex Tettey’s strike insured that Norwich City prevailed over Southampton. Sadio Mané the other African, was dropped to the bench for a late show to the pre-match briefing.

Both men were linked with moves away from St Mary’s last summer, Wanyama interested Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were rumored to be keen on Mané. The Saints boss Ronald Koeman has made it clear that both players are not for sale, but the Norwich game might make him think hard about both men’s commitment to the team.

Southampton have lost 7 of their last 9 matches in all competitions, the 4-0 win against Arsenal a false dawn. Mané and Wanyama are both starters when fit, but have suffered from a dip in form. The 6’2″ Kenyan is an imposing presence in midfield however, this seasons  two sending-offs  were a result of accumulation of cards. This hints at a lack of control when playing on the edge.

Mané at 5’9″ is not as physically intimidating as Wanyama, but has the pace, stamina and quick feet to trouble the most robust of defenses. The Senegalese international scored the quickest hat-trick in Premier League history, clocked at 176 seconds against Aston Villa last season. His impact on the field has been hindered by off field misdemeanors: A no show at a team meeting early last year resulted in being dropped from the starting lineup against Liverpool who won 2-0.

There is a trend when Mané is dropped from the squad, Southampton lose. It is not inconceivable to think that potential suitors might be put off by the duos comportment, if indeed they’re trying to push a move through. For two of Africa’s hottest stars, the January transfer window could be an eventful one.

 

UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw reaction

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©Getty Images for UEFA

The annual last 16 draw of the UEFA Champions league took place this Monday in Nyon, Switzerland. As can be expected, some exciting ties were drawn out of the bowl in what is likely to be another entertaining round of fixtures.

UEFA Secretary General Gianni Infantino conducted his second draw in three days after Saturday’s Euro 2016 draw, but didn’t seem fatigued as he enthusiastically welcomed and briefed the delegates who were representing the 16 participants.

There was praise for Christiano Ronaldo who top scored in the group stage with 11 goals and in the process, became the competitions all-time goalscorer with 88. A hell of an achievement.

Infantino also welcomed former Internazionale Milano Captian, Javier Zanetti to the stage. The 2010 Champions League winner is this season’s ambassador for the final, which will be held in the San Siro, a stadium that Zanetti knows well.

UEFA Competitions Director Giorgio Marchetti’s arrival, as has in previous years, heralded the beginning of the draw. Here are the matches:

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Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The one that immediately sticks out is Arsenal vs. Barcelona. The English team were beaten by the current holders in the 2006 final. They were also knocked out by the Spanish side in the 2009/10 quarter finals and the 2010/11 round of 16.

The match heralds reunions for a few players: Alexis Sanchez  left Barcelona for Arsenal last year. Hector Bellerin a product of La Masia, has the opportunity to play on a pitch he dreamed of walking on when he was younger and former Gunners Captain, Thomas Vermaelen, might face his old side if either Javier Mascherano or Gerard Pique are unavailable.

Paris Saint-Germain face Chelsea for the third consecutive season in the knockout rounds with both teams eliminating each other in the two previous years. PSG lead the French league by 17 points while Chelsea are currently 16th domestically.

AS Roma were a bit disappointing in the group stages. Unable to beat Bate Borisov at home in their last group match, they qualified because of Bayer Leverkusen’s inability  to beat a weakened Barcelona. Rudi Garcia’s team must improve if they want to shock 10-time champions Real Madrid.

FC Bayern Munich are always favorites in this competition. But their credentials will be tested by a Juventus side that reached the final last year. Kingsley Coman featured sporadically for Juve, but has flourished this season in the colors of Bayern. Expect him to have a point to prove.

It is the battle of the striped shirts when PSV Eindhoven meet Atletico de Madrid. They met before in the 2008/9 group stages, Atletico won both games. But the Dutch club will feel confident having qualified at the expense of Manchester United.

Two knockout round debutants in Vfl Wolfsburg and KAA Ghent will aim to make history by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time. Wolfsburg may look stronger on paper, but the gutsy Belgians beat Champions League regulars Olympique Lyonnais and CF Valencia to get to this stage.

SL Benfica will meet a familiar foe in the form of Football Club Zenit’s coach, Andre Villas-Boas who coached FC Porto. The Portuguese flavor continues with Zenit playmaker Danny, who’ll want to make an impression when he returns home.

Last but not least we have Manchester City who are relived not to be facing Barcelona again and will view FC Dynamo Kiev as manageable opposition. Kiev knocked City out of the Europa League in 2010/11, a similar victory would be a big triumph.

The dice has rolled and the stage is set. Initial prognostics will change as form fluctuates and fortunes turn. This is when the games will be played:

First legs:
16 February: Paris v Chelsea, Benfica v Zenit
17 February: Gent v Wolfsburg, Roma v Real Madrid
23 February: Arsenal v Barcelona, Juventus v Bayern
24 February: PSV v Atlético, Dynamo Kyiv v Manchester City

Second legs:
8 March: Wolfsburg v Gent, Real Madrid v Roma
9 March: Chelsea v Paris, Zenit v Benfica
15 March: Atlético v PSV, Manchester City v Dynamo Kyiv
16 March: Barcelona v Arsenal, Bayern v Juventus

 

Is it disrespectful to celebrate against a former club?

It’s one of the most painful sights to see as a fan: A former player who used to play for your club, scoring and celebrating against you. Post match the uproar begins, he is ungrateful! He should have more respect. The idiot has forgotten who made him… and so on and so forth. But isn’t that a subjective view from the fans perspective? Why should the player hide his real emotions?

This Saturday Arsenal host Manchester United in what is one of the standout fixtures of the English calender. There is already a subplot: Danny Welbeck born and bred in Manchester facing the team that let him go during the summer. It’s no secret that Welbeck was adored at United, former players and fans aired their disapproval at the move. The fact that he was a local lad who came through the ranks ,rather than his goals (29 in 142  appearances) made him a likable figure ( He also works his bloody socks off!).

One of the first issues on United fans lips was Danny scoring against them in the fixtures against Arsenal. Funnily enough most of them weren’t worried about him celebrating because if I may borrow some slang from Manchester “Welbz is not dat guy.” He is too humble too respectful to do something like that. Well don’t cross your fingers United fans, you don’t have to look further than Manchester’s number 20. Robin Van Persie.

The Dutchmen made the move from Arsenal in the summer of 2012 under controversial circumstances. After nearly a decade of service, where the club stood by him during a stay littered with moments of class but also injuries, the then Arsenal captain decided to force a move by issuing a statement stating that he didn’t agree with the direction the club was going. Of course Manchester United one of Arsenal’s biggest rivals had to get him.

The first meeting between the two clubs that season saw Van Persie jeered throughout the match. Inevitably he scored and raised his hands as if to ask for pardon, keeping a stoic expression while his teammates joyously surrounded him. In the return fixture in London, Van Persie was serenaded with more jeers on his old stomping ground. He scored. No reaction whatsoever. The next season the Dutchmen scored on his old club for a third time … but this time he celebrated. Running, screaming with his arms open ready to embrace the player that had assisted him.

Now some people might say that he finally cracked after receiving so much abuse from the Arsenal fans, I beg to disagree. He was tired of hiding his true emotions. Anyone who has played football at any level understands the ‘rush’ you get from scoring a goal. Submerged with joy and adrenaline your behavior in the next ten seconds cannot be accounted for.  Some can handle the ‘rush’ or simply keep it on a low, others let it take control. It does not necessarily mean that you don’t respect your former club, rather that you are happy to find the back of the net at that moment.

There might also be another factor that might influence Welbeck to celebrate: Seeing the man who regarded him as ‘not at the requested level’ to play for Manchester United, coach Louis Van Gaal. Welbeck is a nice guy but he is no pushover as he showed when he cited his being played on the wing instead of his natural center forward position as stifling his progression. A response no doubt to Van Gaal’s comments.

Whatever happens on Saturday, United fans shouldn’t raise their eyebrows if their former favorite nets and celebrates. Instead they should see it for what it is, a 23 year old man enjoying another goal with his new teammates.

 

 

 

Mesut Özil’s knotted way of thinking

Mesut Özil has established himself as one of the best number 10’s in world football. Whether  representing Germany or Arsenal Football Club, this incisive passer goes about his duties with calm and consummate ease.

However, this genie of the ball will not take to the pitch if his right boot isn’t put on first and laces done in multiple knots. Blessed with a touch that gently caresses the ball, Özil feels that the knots give him more control in his instep. As a practicing Muslim, Özil takes to heart the teachings that the right side of your body is your dominant side hence will enter the field with his right foot first. Even though he is left footed!

Click on the link above to checkout his interview with Adidas where he discusses these rituals.