Ndidi and Gray prove there’s life at Leicester post-Kante and Mahrez

Saturday marked five consecutive wins for the revitalised Foxes. With four of those victories coming in league action, the defending champions took yet another step to ensuring their Premier League status for next season. The juxtaposition between this term and last has been staggering, however, the recent Craig Shakespeare-led renaissance has breathed new life into the side and has once again seen the Foxes transformed into a cunning, calculated predator.

Many, quite rightly so, cited N’Golo Kanté’s departure as the main factor behind the teams’ swift demise. The Frenchmen’s continued monstrous displays for Champions elect Chelsea have given further credence to this notion and with Leicester failing to adequately replace Kanté in the summer, their tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation began to unravel.

Taking on the added responsibility of ball recoveries, Danny Drinkwater’s usual game of dictating the tempo with a wonderful range of passing suffered significantly. This coupled with Matty James and Namplays Mendy’s injuries, and a lack of quality from either Daniel Amartey or club stalwart Andy King forced Leicester’s hand to delve into the infamously awkward January market.

Subsequently, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Having previously tracked Genk midfielder Wilfred Ndidi for 18-months, Leicester’s relentless determination to push a deal through mid-season saw them capture the signature of the Nigerian in spite of interest from bigger clubs. His performances across Belgium and in the Europa League had pricked the ears of Manchester United and Arsenal, but with both clubs hoping to revisit the possibility of a move in the summer, they missed the boat.

At only 20 years of age Ndidi was expected to take time to acclimatise to the frantic pace of the Premier League but as he’s proved, no such transitional period was necessary. His wiry 6ft 2 frame resembles more Yaya Touré than Kanté and his formative displays on English shores looked to signal a more comparable skill set to the Ivorian as well. A stunning 25-yard strike against east-midland rivals Derby showcased his penchant for long-shots.

More recent showings have indicated he also possesses the requisite qualities to complement Drinkwater. In Shakespeare’s first game Ndidi notched no fewer than 11 tackles against Liverpool, a statistic that matched Kanté’s best output in any single game last campaign. Another stunning goal from distance against Stoke last weekend has made all fans sit up and take notice of this young starlet who has been integral to Leicester’s rejuvenation.

That brings us on to Demarai Gray. With Kanté ostensibly suitably replaced, questions have turned to Riyad Mahrez. Last season’s player of the year has looked a shadow of his former self and seems likely to depart in the summer. New signing Ahmed Musa has failed to impress in either a forward role or on the wing so once again, the Foxes have turned to a January recruit – this time from the year before.

Used sporadically this season and last, fans have only caught glimpses of the quality at the feet of the England under-21 international. The reasoning for his fleeting appearances have been down to a combination of the electric brilliance of Mahrez and a perceived lack of work-rate, something fellow teammate Marc Albrighton offers in abundance.

Having starred and also scored alongside Ndidi in Leicester’s FA Cup replay versus Derby, Gray dazzled spectators, showing what he’s capable of when given creative freedom. This weekend saw the Birmingham youth-product turn in a man of the match display against Stoke, despite only starting due to Albrighton being taken ill. The precocious talent yet again demonstrated his guile and panache and offered a solution to the expected loss of Mahrez, outshining the Algerian on the day.

Gray is only 20 years-old and both players look to have a big future in the game. It is highly unlikely Leicester will ever hit the heights of 2016 again, however – in Ndidi and Gray – they have a more than solid platform upon which to build.

 

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Why travelling could aid English management

Rafael Benítez’s Newcastle United are currently 2 points adrift in the English Championship title race from current table toppers Brighton, with many still considering the Toon to be favourites to win the race come May. Doing so would see Rafa become the first foreign (non-British) manager to oversee this feat in 17 years since Jean Tigana’s Fulham side amassed 101 points in 2000.

The Spaniard seems well on course to buck this trend with England’s second tier becoming ever more culturalised by European influence. At the time of writing, of the 24 Championship clubs only 6 play host to foreign managers, however, 4 have their respected sides in the top 8 of the division. It’s the kind of hegemonic norm we’ve become accustomed to in the top flight, with 7 of the current Premier League’s leading 8 sides under foreign employment.

Many have tried to decipher the reasons for such with each drawing their own no doubt interdependent causes. Theories range from an absence of faith among the indigenous talent’s perceived managerial ability, to outright favouritism of their global counterparts. Burnley boss Sean Dyche, one of only 4 English managers in the Premier League, is very much an advocate of the latter view.

“Antonio Conte came in at Chelsea and he got commended for bringing hard, fast, new leadership which involved doing 800m runs, 400m runs and 200m runs. Come to my training and see Sean Dyche doing that and you’d say, ‘Dinosaur. A young, English dinosaur manager. Hasn’t got a clue’.” 

Now, I am only here to offer just one humble opinion but to me Mr. Dyche needs first to establish an understanding for the fundamentals behind such adopted concepts. You can feel the grievance that he has so exasperatedly expressed, yet one must appreciate the reasoning behind Conte and co’s training regimes before bitterly dismissing it as nothing more than pre-historic English methods. Parallels can be drawn between the Burnley manager and recently exiled England gaffer Sam Allardyce, who would often convey his dismay at never being afforded the opportunity to manage an ‘elite’ side based on the assumption it had something to do with his nationality.

In my eyes it is a lazy argument to suggest that ‘foreign managers are taking all the top jobs when we deserve them.’ I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that one can only prove oneself upon being given the chance, however, the pedigree of coach Allardyce and Dyche are comparing themselves to belong in another realm. They are the elite. All-encompassing strategic masterminds of the game who have travelled across Continental Europe in a quest to perfect and hone their skill set. I’d like to take this opportunity to note this is not a polemic against English management, merely an observation that a change of mind-set may serve them well.

In general terms, the phrase ‘well-travelled’ is associated with individuals of high intellect and the coining of such encapsulates the true gulf in class between our best native and foreign coaches. This is not to say some haven’t tried to broaden their respective coaching horizons. Recent years have seen the likes of McClaren, Coleman, Moyes and, for a brief stint, Neville all ply their managerial trade away from English shores with varying degrees of success. Many chastised their decision when, for whatever reason it didn’t work out, but it’s this toxic attitude which is poisoning the minds of so many young English coaches.

For years in this country we have been obsessed with the ‘English way’. Over-roaring arrogance has lead us to one tactical failure after the next on the international stage. Jonathan Wilson, author of ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ recalls a moment in his book after an international fixture where an English colleague of his exclaimed “Oh what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important.” Only for an Argentine woman to interject “The formation is the only thing that’s important. It’s not worth writing about anything else.” Of course this quote may be a bit simplistic, but it epitomises our nations culture towards complex tactics and in depth analysis.

They’re the same supporters that believe managers such as Josep Guardiola are ‘overrated’. Dismissing his footballing ideology as nothing more than a glamorised passing sequence, ending in the same result that could have been achieved through one long ball. “I don’t judge myself against Pep Guardiola, with what their squad is. It’s not a level playing field.” Those the words of the aforementioned Sean Dyche in keeping with his firm belief he could achieve similar levels of success if given the opportunity.

If Dyche was really serious about progressing his coaching methods and one day realising the dream of managing an elite side, then he has to look no further than himself. That inner self-belief and drive should be channelled into travelling. Learn a new language. Coach abroad. Immerse yourself in the very essence of another culture, adding different elements of what you find along the way to enhance and expand your own managerial portfolio. In a vastly globalised world, it is vital not to shut out other culture’s perspectives, but to learn from and embrace them.

Martí Perarnau, author of ‘Pep Guardiola: The Evolution’ discusses what drives the Catalan manager and how he has evolved through his time in Munich and now Manchester. “Pep has always embraced change. For him life is about learning and growth.” This is something I feel is essential for young, up and coming managers to take on board in order to enhance their own repertoires. Travel the world, watch the beautiful game. Break habitual norms held in our society and never be satisfied with what you know. Always strive to educate yourself further.

“When it comes to being an architect of change, I don’t know of any more effective blueprint than education” – Linda Katehi

An element of the game we always seem to struggle with is strategy. It is a common misconception that strategy and tactics are the same entity. They are not. A prime example of this would be Joachim Löw’s use of the 4-2-3-1 formation for the German national side. A tactic in itself but one which carries a clear strategy behind it of how Germany should implement it effectively. On the back of the country’s international success, many Premier League sides sought to adopt the formation with the media over-glorifying it as ‘the new way forward’.

In truth no formation holds precedent over another and the real question that needs to be asked is: ‘What formation allows me to best exemplify the qualities of the players I have at my disposal?’ A tactic in itself is meaningless when there has been little to no strategic thinking behind it. This has led to the bewilderment of elite managers such as Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp when coming to terms with the Premier League mentality of buying players to suit ‘your’ tactics and abandonment of others, branding them of inadequate quality. Antonio Conte and Victor Moses spring to mind.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” – Sun Tzu

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we don’t possess some great minds with a real thirst for knowledge. I hold young indigenous coaches like Eddie Howe and Gary Rowett in very high regard. It’s these sort of ambitious, dynamic and subsequently progressive coaches I would implore to travel outside of their comfort zones. Enhance their already deep knowledge and understanding of the modern game. It speaks volumes that a manager of Howe’s ilk expressed reluctancy in taking the England national team job recently, seeing it as something of a poisoned chalice.

A failure at international level at such a tender stage of his career could leave it in tatters. This coupled with his devoted love for current employers Bournemouth led him to quickly quash all circulating rumours of such. Should the time come for Howe to depart the South coast however, he could do much worse than taking a sabbatical, watching, learning, then moving to say the Eredivisie. A strategic hub of sporting innovation that focuses heavily on youth, thereby supplying Howe with a sharp learning curve for self-betterment.

With the gap between the elite and mid-table not so pronounced in the Netherlands, were he to be successful, Premier League clubs would be breaking down his agents door to offer him a contract at a top English outfit. Something Dyche and co so badly crave. It’s a risk. Of course it is, others chequered history of travel tells us that, but for England’s finest to reach the summit of managerial utopia as opposed to abiding by the usual plateau of mid-table mediocrity, risks must be taken. The ability to embed oneself in new cultural stimulants and implement them within your own ever expanding coaching methodology will form the bedrock of one’s innovation.

“If an idea isn’t absurd to begin with it’s not worth anything” – Albert Einstein

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Meet tomorrow’s elite

Nothing quite captures the imagination like seeing a youngster blooded at first team level. There’s always a keen sense of anticipation amongst supporters who will have no doubt eagerly tracked the player’s progress up through the youth team ranks, already having their own high expectation of what’s to come.

There’s a lot of pressure before a balls even been kicked. Some cope with it, some don’t. So when Moise Kean trotted out for his Juventus debut in that iconic black and white shirt, becoming the Old Lady’s first player born this side of the millennium to do so, you can imagine what must of been going through his head. Having already been compared to the likes of Mario Balotelli, Romelu Lukaku and Didier Drogba, many think they are looking at a future world class striker.

Below I have assembled a team of young players (23 & under) away from England that have been playing out their skin this season. This bunch of talented youngsters have shown they can mix it with the very best having put in some marvellous displays thus far. So without further ado, here are some of footballs brightest starlets.

GK – Gianluigi Donnarumma 

Team & Age: AC Milan, 17

Starting with the teams youngest player, Donnarumma has begun this season in the same vein of form that saw him break into the first team set up last term. Standing at 6ft 5? the Italian is an excellent shot-stopper with good distribution.

CB – Presnel Kimpembe 

Team & Age: PSG, 21

One of the French capital’s finest talents. With David Luiz having left for Chelsea, Kimpembe has seen game time aplenty and has not disappointed. Composed on the ball, the indigenous talent seems to have the future heart of the PSG defence covered with Brazilian Marquinhos by his side.

CB – Davison Sanchez 

Team & Age: Ajax, 20

Famed for their youth production, it appears Ajax have unearthed yet another gem. Sanchez has a nice blend to his game, capable of bringing the ball out from the back but also putting in a tough tackle where necessary.

LB – Alejandro Grimaldo

Team & Age: Benfica, 21

Having risen up through La Masia’s ranks, the Barcelona product opted for a move to Benfica last January and hasn’t looked back. Blessed with bags of technical ability and stamina, Grimaldo has made short work of Liga NOS so far this season.

RB – Ricardo Pereira

Team & Age: Nice (loan from Porto), 23

Many players can be accredited for Nice’s ongoing success in Ligue 1 this year but whilst Balotelli has been grabbing the headlines, Pereira has been quietly producing sterling defensive displays. Equally comfortable going forward as well, his loan from Porto has bore instant fruit.

DM – Fabinho

Team & Age: Monaco, 23

Many may recognise Fabinho as a promising right back but this season the Brazilian has become an exceptional holding midfielder. He has synonymously moved position whilst maintaining great awareness and passing. Reminiscent of Philip Lahm.

CM – Raphael Guerreiro

Team & Age: Borussia Dortmund, 22

Another who established himself as a fullback. Seemingly in keeping with the modern-day trend, Thomas Tuchel was so impressed with Guerreiro when playing as an inverted fullback that he decided to change his position all together.

CM – Naby Keita

Team & Age: RB Leipzig, 21 

With the engine of N’Golo Kante and ball retention of Luka Modric it’s safe to say big things are expected to come from the current league leaders best central midfielder. The Guinean is a phenomenal athlete with the skill to match.

AM – Juanpi

Team & Age: Malaga, 22

Oozing with class, Juanpi is destined for a glittering career. Happy using both feet, the Venezuelan can pick those ‘eye of the needle’ passes unlocking even the best defenses. Having become an established part of the Malaga set-up it won’t be long until a big offer is on the table for the starlet.

ST – Gabriel Jesus

Team & Age: Palmeiras (loan from Man City), 19

Perhaps the best of the bunch. Jesus possesses lightening fast dribbling combined with deadly finishing. It’s a potent combination that has seen the Brazilian help his country to an Olympic gold medal and his club to a league title.

ST – Andre Silva 

Team & Age: Porto, 21

Having recently scored a hat-trick for his native Portugal after only a handful of caps, Silva looks the real deal. He is also free scoring in Liga NOS and the Champions League making him one of Europe’s most lethal marksmen.

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Project England

Trnava is a small city located in western Slovakia known for its scenic views and dubbed the ‘little Rome’ of its country. It’s also well renowned for its religious beliefs, playing host to numerous churches. It was perhaps fitting then, that another band of passionate, vibrant people with their own faith arrived there on Sunday – the English football fans.

There was a sense of reserved anticipation about this match, with Sam Allardyce acting as a Pope like figure to the onlooking spectators. The newly elected leader of their faith hoping to bring energy, fight and most importantly success back to a fallen giant of the game.

What followed over the course of the next two hours was hardly inspiring. A predictably dull team selection followed by a lethargic, underwhelming performance. A 95th-minute winner coupled with brilliant individual performances from John Stones and Adam Lallana saved the blushes of Big Sam on his debut and ensured he maintained a 9-manager long record of winning his first game in charge of the National team.

So just how big a job does Allardyce have on his hands? What should be deemed as success during his tenure? And was he the right man for the job in first place?

To answer chronologically, to change an entire International mentality built upon hope, expectation and excitement yet ultimately ending in underachievement and finger pointing is one hell of a task. But it is by no means impossible.

In my eyes, many of the failings can be put down to lack of organisation and not defining a clear style of play. In nearly every country, the nation’s culture and identity is reflected on the field. Take Brazil, a country full of vibrancy and flair, Rio carnivals, bright lights and lots of dazzle. That’s exactly what you get from their football team – skill, creativity and passion. Germany is a nation built on stability, efficiency and precision. All qualities evident in their football teams philosophy.

We seem to spend a lot of time in this country idealising others style of play and replicating it through our academies. Would it not make more sense to take true English qualities and values we’ve been raised on and install them into our nation’s side? Hard work, passion, determination and a sense of togetherness are all attributes we have in abundance. No one nation’s philosophy is correct and replicating others will not bring success. Let’s create our own.

Football tactics recycle themselves and as Leicester proved, a tried and trusted 4-4-2 is far from outdated. Why not play a system the players have been raised on and give them a sense of team, not individual responsibility?

The second point to address is the delusions of grandeur throughout English football fandom. Yes we created the sport and yes the Premier League is one of the best leagues in the world but that does not give us a divine right to be the best. In my eyes a barometer of success has to be built on progression. FIFA rankings aside, England are not one of the top 5 or maybe even top 10 sides in world football right now but we should certainly be beating teams of Iceland’s standard.

Doing the basics right and getting positive results in comparison to our current modest ability should be deemed as success right now. Qualifying top of our group for the 2018 World Cup then, based on a generous draw, a quarter-final appearance should be well-received.

Finally, love him or loathe him, Big Sam was part of a very small handful of English managers with a pedigree capable of taking the England job. The debate will rage on about foreign managers, however, it has brought no proven past success and those who have the calibre to buck that trend would not be interested in the job.

Was Allardyce right to allow the players who performed so woefully at Euro 2016 a chance to shed their demons last night? In my opinion no but I can see his thinking. Regardless, from this point on it is crucial that he sets an agenda. A system that the majority of his squad are comfortable with, a style of play that embodies our national identity and a policy of form over reputation when it comes to selecting personnel.

England is a great country with a rich heritage and a lot to be proud of. I hope Sam makes our football team part of that again.

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Do world class managers guarantee success?

So Euro 2016 has ended and all eyes will now be cast keenly back to the upcoming Premier League campaign. In a tournament that may not go down as one of the most exhilarating, one thing was an ever-present – tactical warfare.

Two of the best teams to come out of the recent Championship were Italy and eventual winners Portugal. Similarities can be drawn between the pair in the sense that neither were considered genuine pre-tournament contenders, nor did they have the most glamorous of squads. Perhaps the most striking comparison, however, is how they were both moulded into fearsome, counter attacking outfits by two astute managers.

One of these two in the form of Italian coach Antonio Conte now finds himself on English shores taking the reigns at Chelsea and he’s not the only Premier League managerial newbie. The last few months have seen an influx of true high-quality managers migrating to England from veterans of the British game in Mourinho to unknown entities in Bilic.

So, does having a world class manager guarantee success for the Premier League’s elite?

In short, no. There are numerous interdependent factors that dictate an English teams fortunes or failings and the manager is but just one of these. Everything from an over-strenuous fixture list to unrealistic, impatient chairmen play their part in hampering the top clubs in European competition.

One thing that these new swanky coaches do bring however is a deeper level in the understanding and importance of tactics. Now this may seem silly but to those who don’t watch Europe’s other top leagues regularly, tactical awareness is something that the Premier League lags miles behind in. Look at the managers that have come to ply their trade here. Each brings their own unique playing style with proven success:

Jurgen Klopp – a genius in reinventing gegenpressing allowing his team to play a fast, exciting counter-attacking style that the man himself dubs ‘rock & roll football’.

Jose Mourinho – capable of completely shutting opponents out through implementing defensive master-classes and turning stuttering teams into serial trophy winners.

Josep Guardiola – a modern day football visionary playing his own brand of passing football, dominating the centre of pitches and indeed every side in his path.

Antonio Conte – showing that a defensive five-some alongside a striking duo is far from outdated whilst being able to get the very best out of notably average players.

Add these names into the mix with the relatively young yet incredibly intelligent Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Slaven Bilic and the old heads of one-time invincible Arsene Wenger and defending champion Claudio Ranieri and you have an implosion of tactical nous.

Despite clear structural issues within the Premier League itself, you’d have to say that although success is never guaranteed, these men posses all the relevant qualities to give our teams the best possible chance in European competition. (That and all the money from the new TV deal!)

Even if continental trophies are still beyond reach in the coming years, the teachings from these visionaries may still bare fruit for the next generation of English talent. Think of Guardiola’s time at Bayern. Reaching the Champions League semi-finals yet never progressing in all three campaigns under his leadership. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Still, his brand of football has been ingrained throughout the German National team giving them new concepts and ideas of how the modern game can be played which in turn, led to their coronation as World Champions in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a second suggesting England will emulate such a feat but one can’t help but be fascinated at the lessons that will be embedded in the psyche of future England internationals from the greats of our game.

Never before has expectation weighed heavier on the shoulders of English club football and although success is far from a formality, you can’t deny it’s bloody exciting!

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