Thursday, 8 September 2011

He'll Live and Die in These Towns

Over the past couple of months the main topic of discussion for the bloggers, vloggers, pundits and journalists has been Arsenal Football Club. My blog really is no different, and it's easy to understand why. After all, losing your two best players, being the punchline for the '8-2 be you' joke, scrambling for five signings in the last 48 hours of the transfer window and continuing a striding streak of 5 years without a trophy doesn't go unnoticed. They signed Yossi Benayoun; even Isreal's watching.

It's not easy being Arsene Wenger

The pressure is really beginning to mount on Arsene Wenger, who saw his side humiliated against his own arch-rival Sir Alex Ferguson as his Manchester United side put eight past the deflated shadows of an Arsenal outfit. The dust may have began to settle on a media standpoint during the international break, but Wenger must be well aware by now that his own little 'famous five' will be the life and death of his time as Arsenal manager. Per Mertesacker, Park Chu Young, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta have had the unfortunate yet very well documented task of saving Arsene's job. Already it looks like a failing fight.

When it comes to the elite, it's hard to introduce new talent to the side, especially when those who have proven so successful have eventually departed. Wenger was presented that woe after Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were sold to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. Luckily, he manages one of the biggest sides in the world and as a result of the two losses has pocketed over £50 Million to not only lick his midfield wounds, but the cuts and scrapes baring across his entire side. The signing of Arteta was a particularly astute conclusion.

The Spaniard, blessed with experience of the Premier League thanks to his impressive era at Goodison Park, is basically a known quantity. His passing range, vision, work rate and ethic makes him a classically handsome choice to replace Cesc Fabregas. Even his flaws fail to work against him. The obvious age gap between Cesc and Mikel would normally spark controversy in the decision. When you need immediate success to save your skin, though, it becomes a matter of whether or not that can play here and now. Arteta certainly can. Despite it being a downgrade on what was Arsenal's talisman, it's not a step back too far to add sufficient quality to their midfield and fill the void that left for Barcelona.

The aforementioned problem of healing your wounds is the sort of puzzle a world-class managerial mind revels in solving. When the outcome includes Benayoun though, you'd hope there's a bit of spare change to replace the Casio used to calculate the solution. The season-long loan of the Israeli international brings a halt to the optimism that was quickly enlightened by the arrival of Arteta. After being heavily linked to Juan Mata throughout the summer to fill Nasri's space, it's a kick in the teeth to the fans and another cheap option lacking in ambition and potential. After years of bringing through a youth system to be proud of, and spending £12 Million earlier in the summer on youngster Alex Chamberlain, many would question why Benayoun was even considered as a stopgap signing. It's a square peg in a round hole, except this peg is broken and passed on by those who sit above Arsenal in the table.

Mata, of course, has joined up with Villas-Boas at Chelsea. Six or seven years ago, it'd have been oh-so simple to choose Arsenal ahead of a move to Stamford Bridge. Nowadays, it's that lack of ambition and intent to make a challenge for some serious silverware that leaves the club tasting the dust of their rivals, setting a pace that the Gunners simply can't match.

A failed attempt at trying to ambitiously panic-buy

Park Chu Young hardly helps the balance, either. In the South Korean captain we have a striker who has failed to read a career total of one goal in every three matches. I'm pretty sure Nicklas Bendtner has that role covered. With a goals per game ratio like that, you'd hope for some other aspects to his own personal game, but sadly there are few. Young is seen as a goalscoring striker rather than your typical brick wall, and even then, it'd be an odd inclusion an Arsenal side that prides itself on it's attacking style and creative talents. Whilst his career boasts a considerable contribution to the South Korean national side, it whispers about club football hoping nobody will notice.

And whilst Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos have come in as strong additions to the defence, it's signings that will probably have arrived too late. Santos, a £6.2 Million signing from Fenerbache, will arguably fit the Arsenal set-up with his vision for attacking flair more than Gael Clichy ever did. It's just another accepted hole to fill from Arsene Wenger, though, who has added more problems than he's fixed in the past twelve months. Mertesacker remains his shining light in a dismal summer, a no-nonsense defender who at the age of just 26 has represented his country over 75 times, a staggering statistic. His capabilities in the air should compliment the pace and control that his expected partner Vermealan offers. It's a signing to be proud of, and another under £10 Million, and one that Wenger pulled off three years after everyone else realised how much a defender of that mould was needed.

 The gamble starts this weekend as Arsenal play host to Swansea City. With suspensions, injuries, doom and gloom holding the dressing room by the scruff of the neck, these new signings will be the making or breaking of Arsenal's season, and surely with that Wenger's reign as Arsenal manager. Whilst the Frenchman has brought incredible success during his time at the club his presence at the club is struggling to keep gripped. The steps he takes from Saturday on will pave his future, and rightly so.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Ferguson's Rant Sails Wide of the Mark

As England's internationals await Sunday's confirmed squad to face Bulgaria and Wales for next month's Euro 2012 qualifiers, Sir Alex Ferguson took it upon himself to make sure his name was part of the frenzy. Ranting about the respect shown towards his Manchester United side by the Football Association, Sir Alex was quoted in a press conference today, ushering 'Maybe they will realise how important we are to England instead of treating us like s***'.

Ferguson's outburst comes a day after ending his feud with the BBC

The press conference, mainly scheduled as a regular opening to discuss their weekend's game, overshadowed the preparations for their game against Arsenal on Sunday afternoon with the national media having a field day. As of yet, no media source has spoken out against the Scot's outburst, and nor has the FA. Rather, the governing body for English football has decided to decline on a statement regarding the incident.

Ferguson's outburst follows the expectation of eight Manchester United players being part of next month's squad to don the England shirt. Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Young, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling are all probable inclusions for Fabio Capello's squad, leading Ferguson to praise his 'outstanding' players, as well as barking 'The FA may realise who has produced more players for their country than any club in the world'.

Recent incidents clashing Manchester United and the FA head-to-head include Ferguson's five-match touchline ban back in March after comments towards referee Martin Atkinson. The FA reacted strongly to the 69-year old's statement 'You want a fair referee, or a strong referee anyway and we didn't get that' following their league encounter with title rivals Chelsea, and imposed the touchline ban which saw Ferguson away from pitch side for a month. The ban placed upon Ferguson was actually an intended three-match ban, but evoked a suspended touchline ban of two games for a previous outburst at official Alan Wiley, who Ferguson claimed wasn't 'fit enough' to keep up with play.

The following month saw a two-match ban placed upon Manchester United and England striker Wayne Rooney after swearing into a TV camera during a mid-day match against West Ham United. Both decisions imposed upon the club's staff evoked reaction from their chief executive David Gill. 'There were some poor-ish decisions that wouldn't have necessarily hit others' stated Gill, 'the actual punishments were harsh'.

In reality, Manchester United have reacted poorly. Extremely poorly. Whilst the vast majority of managers in the Premier League refrain from commenting on refereeing decisions within matches, Ferguson is regularly forward and brutal. A case in point goes back to January 2010, where Ferguson's side saw arch-rivals Leeds United travel to Old Trafford and deservedly snatch victory in their FA Cup third round tie. Following the 1-0 defeat, Ferguson was quick to comment on the officials decision to add five additional minutes to the second half, deeming it a disgrace to the game. No comment was offered from the FA, though the media pounced, all national newspapers disregarding Ferguson's criticism. In the same season, Neil Warnock was warned for similar comments following a league match against QPR. Call it crazy, but that sounds like a favourable shadow was cast upon Ferguson, allowing him to walk away unquestioned.

The Manchester club has often had to dodge questions of favouritism in the past regarding squad selections, too. Whilst Blackpool and Wolves have recently faced questioning, warnings and punishment from the FA for fielding 'delibarately weakened sides', the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal pass on by having made similar number of changes to their side without so much of an question-mark from the Football Association.

And yet, whilst Ferguson remains paranoid of the treatment of his club, it's his comments towards Manchester United's offerings towards English football that should leave many staring with bemusement.

Danny Welbeck; One of the few English talents to break through Man Utd's academy

Referring back to the aforementioned eight expected to join Capello for the Bulgaria and Wales ties next month should be a clear sign of why. Out of those eight, only two originate from Manchester United's youth. Danny Welbeck (who scored against Tottenham on Monday night), as well as Tom Cleverley have come through the ranks at Old Trafford and have become parts of fresher and younger first team squad under Alex Ferguson. The other six, however, have been purchases under Ferguson. Not only this, but the total price of these six players set the Manchester club back by over £110 Million. Calling these an offering to English football is as audacious as paying for your wife's meal at a restaurant whilst claiming 'I made it from scratch'.

Digging deeper into the case, we notice that out of the 49 players who have represented England in the past twelve months, only two have originated from Manchester United's academy. Those two in question are the two already discussed, Welbeck and Cleverly. Clubs including Leeds United, West Ham United and Sheffield United have offered as much to the bloodline of the current English set-up than Ferguson's side. Bragging rights about what we've offered to the nation's side should rightfully go to West Ham, if anyone. After all, not only have they produced six current internationals, but also won us the World Cup in 1966. Indeed, many could question the involvement recently of Manchester United towards the upbringing of Welbeck and Cleverley, both of whom have had to seek loan moves in order to gain first team football before breaking into Manchester United's side.

Of course, the likes of Smalling and Jones will have not fully grown into their potential, and under the wing of Ferguson, will continue to grow and adapt into consistent England internationals. However, when the bloodline of the country's talent is drained from the beginning across so many clubs in our country, it's hard to agree with the rant by Sir Alex. Maybe it's paranoia, maybe it's old age. Whatever the reason, Ferguson has unfairly claimed credit for the work of so many across the country who have developed so many of these individuals. Such bias should not go unnoticed. The members of all the clubs and their academies who produced such talent below should hold great disappointment in Ferguson's outbursts today.

6 - West Ham United (Ferdinand, G. Johnson, Carrick, J. Cole, Defoe, Zamora).
4 - Arsenal (A. Cole, Gibbs, Wilshere, Bothroyd).
3 - Leeds (Milner, Carson, Lennon), Sheffield United (Jagielka, Walker, K. Davies).
2 - Aston Villa (Cahill, Agbonlahor), Chelsea (Terry, C. Cole), Liverpool (Warnock, Gerrard), Manchester United (Cleverley, Welbeck), Middlesbrough (Downing, A. Johnson), Nottingham Forest (Wright-Phillips, Dawson).
1 - Brighton (Barry), Charlton (Parker), Derby (Huddlestone), Everton (Rooney), Gillingham (Jarvis), Ipswich (D. Bent), Lincoln (Loach), Luton (Upson), Maidstone (Smalling), Man City (Richards), Newcastle(Carroll), Norwich (Green), Shrewsbury (Hart), Southampton (Walcott), Stoke (Foster), Sunderland (Henderson), Tottenham (Crouch), Watford (Young), Wigan (Baines), Wolves (Lescott), York (Stockdale).

The list of 49 England internationals from the past 12 months.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Clayton Shines as Opportunity Finally Arrives

Twelve months ago, Adam Clayton's move to Leeds United had reserved judgement from the Elland Road faithful. Today, he stands amongst the crowd as a fans favourite after impressing early on in the season. The 22-year old midfielder had originally struggled to break into the Leeds United side, despite pleas from the Leeds fans to give the youngster a chance. After having waited patiently though, Clayton is quickly being touted as a future talisman for the long-term future at Elland Road.

Clayton on his Leeds United debut vs. Derby County

A transfer that came seemingly out of nowhere, Clayton joined Leeds after an initial short-term loan spell on an undisclosed fee from Manchester City. The midfielder had left City following a successful loan spell at League One outfit Carlisle United, where Leeds boss Simon Grayson first caught sight of the young midfielder. Clayton impressed in the Northern Section final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy against Leeds, scoring in the Cumbrian's home leg as Carlisle knocked out Leeds United on penalties. It was from then on that Grayson kept tabs on the young midfielder, then twenty, as a possible piece of Leeds' long-term jigsaw.

After 29 games and two goals at Brunton Park, Clayton returned to Manchester hopeful of a chance to prove his worth at the free-spending club. World Class stars flooded in, though, leaving the youngsters at Manchester City exiled. Grayson pounced on the opportunity and quickly loaned the Manchester-born star to join up with his squad for the first season back in the Championship at Elland Road. He featured for Leeds from the bench twice on his loan spell before completing his permanent move to Leeds on the last day of the 2010 summer transfer window, though failed to break into Leeds' short-term plans. On arrival, Grayson had stated his intent to use Clayton as part of a long term plan at Elland Road, and subsequently Clayton had to bide his time yet again.

Not many raised an eyebrow at Grayson's decision; The youngster, despite having almost a full season under his belt professionally, was still of a slim build. Many questioned whether he was yet ready to face the physical challenge presented by the Championship, and over the first few months, little was pondered on the transfer. After having shone in the league below, Clayton was having to prove his worth in reserve matches alongside Ross McCormack and Ramon Nunez, all of whom now reside in the first team at Elland Road.

Whilst Clayton continued to perform at reserve level, it wasn't enough to convince Grayson to offer him a chance at first-team level. He was subsequently loaned out to Peterborough United, where Adam started to turn his Leeds United career around. Having joined initially for a one month period in November, Clayton had little time to show off his abilities, but managed to become an instant hit at London Road, with the Posh fans admiring his tenacity and ability to break forward. It was during his time at Peterborough that Clayton had started to show a bit of extra bulk, something that had previously been missing whilst at Carlisle. No longer was he the light soul that had seen him immediately questioned at Championship level, this was a youngster capable of handling the physical challenges ahead. His impressive performances earned him an extension to his loan, keeping him at Peterborough for another month.

Another loan spell later on in the season with MK Dons returned another impressive review, with Don's boss Karl Robinson revealing he felt Clayton was one of the leading players in the division, and that he would jump at the opportunity to re-sign him if the opportunity was to arise again. His time at Milton Keynes saw him face previous side Peterborough in the Playoff semi-finals, and despite being knocked out, was judged as the star player of the tie.

Many fans at Elland Road had previously questioned the decision to loan out Clayton again, though, as Leeds' form had started to stutter. The midfield wasn't as connected as it had been during it's impressive unbeaten spell towards the end of the 2010 calender year which saw United climb to second on Christmas Day. Clayton's continued to impress in the reserves between loan spells, and many had questioned why manager Grayson hadn't offered Adam the chance of playing in the first-team, despite bringing in Jake Livermore and Barry Bannan from Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa respectively to fill in the problems in midfield. The decision is still questioned today, as Clayton continued to impress at MK Dons, whilst Bannan and Livermore failed to stamp their authority on games during their time in West Yorkshire.

Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny's departure from Leeds United offered a fresh start for Clayton, who took the pre-season confidently. He remained the regular starter in the United midfield, pairing with Zac Thompson, Jonny Howson and new signing Michael Brown. Short spending and wage restrictions meant many signings at Elland Road were unexpected, and the arrival of just Brown, after his release from Portsmouth, signalled as possibility for Clayton to claim a first team role at the club. Significant injuries to the strike force at the club meant the team travelled to their opening match of the 2011/12 season at Southampton with five in midfield, offering Clayton his first start in a Leeds United shirt. Southampton dominated the game throughout, though Clayton took pride from his performance, receiving rave reviews from the fans, following on from his praise throughout pre-season.

Man of the Match performances against Hull City and West Ham United have cemented his role quickly into the starting eleven at Leeds, having formed a tenacious and hard-working partnership with captain Howson. It's a partnership that has proven to be a shining light in a dismal summer for Leeds United, as the fans grow frustrated with the board and lack of investment towards the playing staff. His quick impression amongst the squad, along with Ramon Nunez and Tom Lees, has started to paper over the cracks at Elland Road which should have been filled in by sufficient investment by chairman Ken Bates. It's a testament to the young talent within the squad and manager Simon Grayson that performances of such quality against the likes of West Ham and Hull can still be produced on what is a shoe-string budget.

His ability to show strength and tenacity on and off the ball has been something missing within a Leeds United midfield for years, and some suggest that this sort of presence could have seen the West Yorkshire outfit press on towards the playoffs towards the end of last season. It almost feels like a vital chance wasted by the management at Elland Road, with Clayton seemingly unable to put a foot wrong whilst in a Leeds United shirt. His attitude to the game is second to none, his effort so far cannot be questioned. Quickly, Clayton is building a rapport and connection with the fans that is rarely seen by a player that isn't 'born and bred Leeds'. It's quite incredible really to think the lad is actually from Manchester. After his equaliser and celebration with the delirious Leeds fans at West Ham on Sunday, it's become quite easy to forget that Clayton isn't 'one of the crowd'.

Despite it being early days in his own Leeds career, there is little to suggest why his sort of performances can't continue long throughout the season alongside Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and the aforementioned Howson in what has to be one of the most exciting midfield line-ups within the nPower Championship.

Clayton celebrates his first goal for Leeds, equalising in injury time at West Ham

Contracts are often discussed for Leeds United players, be it by the fans or the media. Jermaine Beckford, along with Kilkenny and Johnson, have all left Yorkshire after seeing out their contracts in the past 18 months, the club unable to agree terms with all three. Not only that, but there are significance doubts as to whether or not Max Gradel will sign a new deal, with his contract running out at the end of the season. Whilst it seems like a Ken Bates policy to leave contract negotiations until within the last year of the deal (something which happened to Luciano Becchio, who negotiated a new deal with six months remaining on his previous contract), some pressure must be on the boardroom to start offering the likes of Clayton new deals soon. Adam himself has just under two years remaining on his deal, though fans will be worrying about a similar situation for the new terrace favourite which seems to be hang over their star players like it has done in the past for Beckford, and currently for Gradel.

To most, it'd seem efficient business and a strong signal of intent for the future of the club to offer the likes of Clayton and Snodgrass (also with just under 2 years remaining) new deals. Pressure needs to be placed onto Bates to have these sort of deals sorted quickly, as these sort of players, with age on their side and bags of potential within them, could be the basis of Leeds United's midfield for years to come. With the protest against Ken Bates still going strong, and signs of unease within the Leeds support growing, it's only a matter of time before pressure is brought upon Bates not only to improve the investment into the playing squad in terms of transfers, but in terms of keeping hold of his star players too.

Bates himself should see Clayton and the like as an opportunity to build some bridges with the Leeds United fans. It may not get the monkey off his back, but a strong intention to keep the likes of Clayton for years to come, a player who's potential promises so much, could give the old man some breathing space away from his protesters.


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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Resurgence at Anfield as Kenny Never Walks Alone

It may turn out to be one of the most knuckle-dragging affairs of the campaign, but Liverpool's grit and resilience which saw past unlucky Arsenal this afternoon stands tall as the outfit of testament to the resurgence at Anfield being led by manager Kenny Dalglish.

Aided by the dismissal of Emmanuel Frimpong and a bitter own goal by Aaron Ramsey, the Merseyside club travel back to the north of the country with three vital points against what now must be seen as their main top four credential rivals. This follows on from an impressive performance against Sunderland last weekend which didn't attain it's warranted reward. A close encounter, in which Arsenal firmed a slightly stronger footing in the first half, was turned on it's head after the impressive Frimpong was sent off for a second bookable offence following a very early yellow card. With twenty minutes remaining, Liverpool pounced to apply the pressure and saw their late efforts secure two late goals as Luis Suarez added to Ramsey's heart-sinking error in injury time to seal a 2-0 victory over the Gunners.

All smiles for quietly confident Dalglish

This isn't to say Arsenal were poor, as they took the game by the scruff of it's neck and battled hard. Prior to his dismissal, Frimpong was outstanding in the centre of midfield and added a different dimension that can often be lacking in a Wenger side. Samir Nasri composed himself well despite transfer issues and put in a sterling performance. The rub of the green simply wasn't with Arsenal today, evident early on through the injury to Koscielny. This forced Wenger's hand, who had to bring on young Spaniard Miquel into the defence, already situated with youngster Carl Jenkinson. Add the sending off and the own goal to the equation and Arsenal were taunted by the cruel attitude of Lady Luck. Dalglish's men rode their luck to gain all three points, despite Arsenal warranting something out of the game. Liverpool have the added belief and determination to ride their luck, though. They pounced on their opportunities, signalling desire and passion which was somewhat AWOL twelve months ago.

As 'King Kenny' walked away from the Emirates, he did so in a modest but confident manner. Quite rightly, he allowed himself to enjoy the spectacle of what this early season contest symbolised, but made sure to keep the manner of his Liverpool camp calm, and the attitude of his team set realistically with two feet on the ground. Whilst this only remains the second league game of the campaign, it follows on from the foundations set in the latter half of last season by Dalglish as Liverpool ended the season managing to compete with anyone, ending as a club like Liverpool should, as one of the most feared.

And the credit for such a transformation has to go to Dalglish in many respects. Despite having the funds to bring in players through the owners, the conditioning of the squad has been superb. It is an uphill challenge for any manager to settle and constructively adapt expensive imports from around the continent. As the Scot took the job as Caretaker in January, he was met with these challenges before he could get his foot under the desk. The surrounding drama revolving around Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres gripped the collar of Liverpool Football Club and threatened to force a struggle as the club tried to move on from the loss of their best player, whilst welcoming two new stars. In hindsight, it may have been the reputation that Dalglish already commands around Anfield which allowed the pressure over these deals to settle relatively easily. After all, it's hard to imagine Roy Hodgson coping with the pressures of that January transfer window. The ex-Fulham boss was a rarity amongst Liverpool history, a real stand-alone man in a club with firm beliefs of standing together in unity as a club.

Whilst some may say it's a given for Dalglish, having the ability to unify a support watching their esteemed club in crisis isn't something that should be taken away from Kenny. Having calmed the storm, Dalglish had united the support to the squad. Deadwood remains clutching to the fainting cracks, yet Kenny continues to unify and develop a squad through his own selection of talent from across the country as well as using the prospects from Liverpool's academy. It's an understated task to adapt youngsters into a club the size of Liverpool. As it is, the squad is large, the dressing room crammed with incredible ego's and wage slips. Dalglish has managed to embed Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jay Spearing into his first team squad successfully. Along with adding his own choice of selected talent from the best in Britain, Dalglish is combining the importance of acting efficiently to provide success whilst building for the future brilliantly.

At £6 Million, Enrique could be the signing of the summer.

Some have questioned the price-tags connected to some of Liverpool's purchases this season, but for Kenny's plans, that isn't really the issue. Liverpool have the cash to spend, and have set out their ambitions clearly. Each signing made under Dalglish has been a priority, never a second-option. The transfers of Jose Enrique and Stuart Downing, for example, have replenished the left-hand side of the starting eleven, adding real quality with little worry of a poor reaction. Enrique proved his worth as the standout player throughout Newcastle United's return to the Premier League, whilst Downing has proven himself as one of the best wide midfielders at club level in this country.

After suffering through unambitious and overpaid attempts to solve the woes in the focal points of the team, Liverpool no longer have to endure the droning process of waiting for Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic to prove their worth. The deadwood have had their chances and blown it. Whilst time was seemingly a spare commodity under Rafa Benitez towards the end of his era (an angle also shared briefly by Hodgson), Dalglish has refused to allow anymore time to be wasted. The additions of Suarez, Carroll, Downing and Enrique, along with prospect Jordan Henderson, boast just as much of a statement to the rest of the league as anyone else's signings. Whilst rivals Manchester United targeted David De Gea and Phil Jones to bolster their squad here needed, Liverpool can claim confidence in knowing that the arrivals of Suarez, Downing and Enrique act in the same way as United's signings do to their squad. Consistent improvements have been made, symbolising a matching ambition to the best in the league.

Dalglish's vision for the club is starting to mature, as the Scot has everyone at Anfield dancing to the beat of his drum.


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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Signs of Promise

Leeds United 4-1 Hull City.

Leeds' preparations prior to yesterday's match proved to mean little to the result as a shuffled squad grabbed the West Yorkshire club it's first league win of the season in style. Leeds boss Simon Grayson was without club captain Jonny Howson and Max Gradel after their dismissals on Saturday against Middlesbrough, adding to his frustrations consisting of a growing injury list; Billy Paynter, Leigh Bromby, Luciano Becchio and Davide Somma all receiving treatment for injuries which keep them sidelined.

McCormack's eye for goal has seen him net four times in the past five matches.

Andy Keogh joined the club on Monday afternoon to ease the injury worries, but with little time to train with his new players, and a new formation forced upon the squad, the match was set to test the resilience of the Leeds' camp. Hull themselves had a relatively full-fit squad travelling to Elland Road, with the likes of Dele Adebola and Aaron McLean not able to get a starting place for the match. On paper, Leeds' stretched squad should have faced a tougher task.

Leeds' early energy controlled the tempo and momentum of the game, and Hull were unable to compete in the opening moments. The addition of Keogh added to the versatility of the forward line, Leeds now seemingly capable of dealing with higher balls lofted from the defence. The Wolves' forward used his height and size to menace Jack Hobbs as they battled for aerial dominance. With McCormack and Snodgrass picking up the pieces, it was obvious that the most potent attacks would be coming from the team in white.

Hull 'keeper Peter Gulacsi was tested early on from Robert Snodgrass as he sent an early attempt powerfully towards goal. A relatively simple save for the 'keeper, but a telling sign of how the game was going to pan out. Ramon Nunez was the next to threaten, as the Honduras international picked up the ball from 25 yards, positioned himself well and struck a lethal shot past the 'keeper, on loan from Liverpool, only for it to crash onto the bar.

And it didn't take long after that for Leeds to make the breakthrough, Gulacsi only managing to parry a Ross McCormack header a few yards forward, allowing Ross to nod in a second attempt to the gaping goal. Leeds' early dominance had warranted their lead, with Hull barely breaking forward to test the Leeds defence. It wasn't long before an individual error cost Leeds yet again, though. A relatively simple cross was met awkwardly by young defender Tom Lees, who's positioning allowed the ball to trickle into the bottom corner. Hull's first real break forward into the final third had paid dividends, and the tie was pegged back to level terms.

The Tigers started to take the game in their own stride after that, with Leeds looking shellshocked. Lees himself struggled to quickly get himself back into the game. Hull pushed on down the wings, now Leeds' weakest position. Young winger Aidy White was filling in at left-back due to Bromby's injury which saw Darren O'Dea move to his natural position of centre back. White's natural calling to push forward and attack left a few gaping holes for the likes of Joe Dudgeon to break towards the by-line and loft in some threatening crosses. Andy Lonergan kept up his impressive start in Leeds United colours though, meeting most attacks comfortably.

Leeds' error had slowed the tempo of the game down, with the Whites looking less willing to attack in numbers. However, with a handful of set pieces opening up, there still seemed a possibility for either side to go into the interval leading. On forty minutes, with Hull failing to convincingly clear the danger from a lofted corner, Tom Lees forced a shot through the crowd from the edge of the box to regain the lead and redeem himself for his earlier mistake.

Hull pushed their lines forward in the latter stages of the first half to force an opening, but the boost in confidence for youngster Lees had the Tigers' forward line stumped. Along with O'Dea in his natural position, the new changes to the back line had given Leeds a more confident and settled feel.

Hull started the second half by introducing Aaron McLean from the bench, the potent striker able to use his pace to pose problems to any defence in the division. Hull came out looking to attack the game to try and drag themselves back from behind, but faced an early setback as Robert Snodgrass bent in a free-kick from 25 yards within a minute of the restart. Hull's chances of breaking back had quickly diminished, and Leeds again had control of the tempo and momentum. Keogh and McCormack remained tireless throughout as Hull constantly struggled to settle themselves and play at their own pace. Adam Clayton and Michael Brown refused to give Paul McKenna and Robert Koren any space to create, and constantly were first to every second ball. The resilience that had too often gone missing in the centre of the park saw a triumphant return at Elland Road, as Clayton and Brown's performance allowed Leeds to continue attacking and breaking forward.

A rare breakaway for Hull saw a passage of play taken down the right hand side, before a cross delivered an opportunity for Aaron McLean to pull a goal back. His header was acrobatically met by Lonergan's scuttling dive across goal before O'Dea dealt with the clearance. It was from then on that Leeds took the right of way and added a fourth goal and settled the tie on 69 minutes. Keogh, McCormack and Snodgrass had all met well on the right hand side, drawing the Hull defence in, before McCormack sent a clever cross through to the left hand side. Ramon Nunez met the ball unmarked and placed the ball under the unconvincing Gulacsi to seal all three points for Leeds.

Gulacsi failed to impress as Leeds put four past the on-loan 'keeper.

As expected, the game fell flat, and Hull managed to loosen themselves up and treat it as more of a training exercise. McLean and Fryatt worked more space and created more options for themselves, using the height and presence of substitute Adebola to their advantage. The final touch was missing for the Tiger's, though, too many shots going stray without any test for the Leeds goalkeeper.

The final whistle rose a standing ovation from the Leeds fans who voiced their appreciation for a much improved performance. Leeds' hardworking ethic which had gone unrewarded at the weekend had continued into Tuesday and finally Leeds were off the mark. Simon Grayson can take solace in the knowledge that his side had dispatched a very promising Hull side who clearly showed signs of quality through their overly poor performance. Nigel Pearson's men looked like a side playing well below their usual expectations rather than a side lacking in quality. Pearson must be sweating under the collar at a second loan keeper in two years, though. The Hungarian loanee failed to show any quality to match the likes of Hobbs in the Hull squad and could act as their achilles heel for the coming season.

Tactically, Hull had not expected the resilience and pace from Leeds' paper-thin selection, and it hit them hard from the word go. A more promising opening connection from Hull could have seen a different result, but ultimately Leeds' control over the game earned them the result they deserved.


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Friday, 12 August 2011

Things To Do Today

After a World Cup final celebration fiasco, embarrassing offers and draining negotiations through the English and Spanish media, one of the past decades most talked about (and most boring) sagas is about to finish. Cesc Fabregas is about to go home. £35 Million will trickle into Arsenal's bank account as Cesc makes his way to Barcelona to tackle the challenge of breaking into one of the best midfield's the game has ever seen. Whilst Arsenal are set to lose their talisman in the deal, the transfer will oddly see two of the world's biggest sides benefit.

Aaron Ramsey has battled back from injury to settle in to the Gunners First Team

Arsenal had themselves forced the deal from Barcelona's hand and practically confirmed the offer at the start of the week; Adding Cesc to the Champions League squad to face Udinese was a stroke of recent rare genius by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Had Cesc still been around at the Emirates Stadium for that game and participated, his right to play for another team in the Champions League for the 11/12 campaign would've become void. Leaving the ultimatum to Barca to pay up now or miss out on their main target for another year finally seems to have settled the deal, and the Spaniard will most likely complete the transfer over the weekend. Cesc himself has been left out of Arsenal's squad to face the first game of the new Premier League season, along with Samir Nasri.

With Arsenal failing to impress  in the Transfer Market thus far (only having Gervinho to really shout about with any pride), having £35 Million doesn't seem like a naturally positive thing. Their lack of intent to snap up a goalkeeper and centre back in the transfer window has left question marks surrounding their chances of a top four finish. Why should having £35 Million in the last month change their ambitions to change what should've already been done? After all, any other club would naturally need to be using that money to replace their star man.

Arsenal are different, though. Over the past few years, whilst they've passed on trophies and settled for consistency within the top four, they've managed to build one of the best set of youth players in the country. The likes of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are quickly becoming men, and for Arsenal to have long term success, the team needs to be built around those in the centre of the park. The long term successor to Cesc already sees himself at the Emirates Stadium, and it's time for Arsene Wenger to use a new nucleus or their side. After bouncing back strongly from his horrific leg injury, using loan spells with Nottingham Forest and Cardiff to prop himself back into full fitness, Ramsey is striving to be part of that nucleus.

This now leaves a £35 Million and pressure on Arsene to succeed after settling to the loss of Cesc Fabregas. Gaping holes that have been regularly picked at by the press remain eye-catching a mile away. With Igor Akinfeev and René Adler reportedly available at the right price, Arsenal must have their eyes casting over scout reports and enquiries ready to send. Both could be snapped up for around half of their cash-in on Fabregas, leaving over £15 Million to bring in a solid centre back.

It remains to be seen who Arsenal will capture to solve their defensive woes. Every day their linked feverishly with a new name, though most frequently Christopher Samba. The Blackburn centre back, strong and resolute, fills the bill for the requirements on attributes. Whether or not Samba's ready to challenge for a team of Arsenal's calibre is yet to be seen. His last two seasons have seen links to Manchester United and Liverpool, though, so recent reviews speak highly of the Congolese international.

Chris Samba has been linked with greater things for three years

Samba could well be an astute buy for the Gunners, after all it has become the top four challengers norm to delve into the more scrutinised signatures this season. Sir Alex Ferguson has already snatched Ashley Young from Premier League rivals Aston Villa as well as Phil Jones from Samba's current home Blackburn. Meanwhile, Liverpool have been raiding anyone and everyone with their recent cash injections to re-ignite their top four credentials, the pick of the signings being Stuart Downing and Jordan Henderson, leaving their Villa Park and Stadium of Light homes respectively. With Chelsea also testing raw talent in Romelu Lukaku, Arsenal could be breaking into the regular rotation of the current campaign's transfer market.

Either way, for their plans to come to any success in the upcoming season, Wenger will be putting his job on the line to create a team worthy of silverware. The middle of the park still has the potential to ripen quickly with Ramsey and Wilshere showing incredible maturity in young and exciting pockets of quality. It's a path to success, but as long as it's the road taken on, starting this weekend.


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Friday, 5 August 2011

Money Talks; We're Tired of Listening

A travelling army of 6500 will shuffle with excitement at the Ricoh Arena tomorrow afternoon as Leicester City kick off their 2011/12 campaign with an away tie at local rivals Coventry City. Blessed with £10 Million of transfer expenditure and thousands upon thousands leaking towards wages, it's an exciting time for the Foxes. Not that it hasn't been for some time, now. Since their pit-stop in League One, Leicester have entertained crowds and proven themselves to be amongst the best in their division, no matter what that division is.

Nigel Pearson; The figure of Leicester City's League One title win

Under Nigel Pearson, Leicester had a presence of class. Not only were they winning, but they won with honour, with dignity. It was a beautiful aspect of the beautiful game shining even in the lower leagues. Hard working ethics and young talent balanced well under Pearson's guidance. They ran away with the League One title in 2008/09 and never looked insecure of their position as top dog. Such brilliance in a side, especially one so young, can often breed arrogance. Those so young can become so cocky and self-obsessed, allowing themselves to not only buy into their own hype, but shower in it, and make sure everyone is watching. Luckily, this didn't happen. Pearson has a touch of class about him, and refuses to allow such disdain to occur. They played with pride in their game but a focus on the prize. They were runaway winners far too regularly, but with it they acted like true champions. They respected their rivals and worked hard for what they earned. It was a team built on professionalism and maturity, and that shone through from the way they passed the ball to the way they won and lost games. Nobody could question the class and awe of Leicester City throughout that season, or the next.

A hurtling tide riding from the coast of Thailand has changed the perspective and beliefs around Leicester, though, as their new owners rode in on millions and changed the face of the Championship for the upcoming season. With Millions thrown around like pocket change and no signs of stopping, there isn't a remaining sign of what Nigel Pearson built at Leicester City. His departure to Hull wasn't so tragic in the beginning, after football enthusiast Paulo Sousa joined the Foxes' managerial side. A poor start and no reward for beautiful style caused his tenure to abruptly end, though, leaving the owners with one choice.

It wasn't to scout the best the league had to offer and battle on a level playing field. It wasn't to bring through a young and promising manager who can learn and develop from the benefits a club like Leicester can offer. It was to buy the league, and buy it big.

Comical Sven, known for his womanizing and fear of a 1-0 lead, was the first piece of the jigsaw. In his own right, Eriksson has to be considered a world class manager - His record speaks for itself. His involvement with Notts County, however, along with his illustrious personal life makes him a questionable character - A primitive playboy, if you will. To see Eriksson battling amongst the stars of our game almost seems comfortable and fitting. To dabble in the lower leagues has an awkward sitting position, though. Those who know football know that this connection wasn't born through a love of Leicester City or passionate football. The heart of the relationship remains in the negotiating room, and is signed on cheques weekly. It was Leicester's paving stone treatment and an insight into what the future held for Leicester.

Today is that future, and today Leicester have flaunted their cash at anything that moves. Having signed eleven players to their books already, you'd have thought enough would be enough. After all, their poor start to the season was met by a resurrection under Sven, as they finished the season on good form and closing in towards the playoff positions. The likes of Hobbs and Weale acted as solid Championship players who could still develop and prove themselves at a higher level. To do so, though, would require maturity, responsibility and professionalism. It's much quicker to import a dozen players from around the continent though; strap them into their luxury cars, luxury suits and luxury accessories, all paid for on their luxury wages, and you'll soon be accompanied by the stars that can offer something else.

It leaves a bitter taste and a sour impression to the rest of the country, though. Talented and young defender Jack Hobbs has moved on from the King Power stadium and now is back under the professional that is Nigel Pearson at Hull City. In his place, Matt Mills has been thrusted upon, with the Thai owners throwing whatever they grabbed out of their leather suitcases without even counting the notes. It remains as just one example of close to a dozen that has flooded the Leicester side with rich, pompous attitudes on thousands of pounds a day and a heap of expectation upon them. Years ago, when teams started to splash the cash and dare to dream, they had the decency to keep it quiet once the deals were done and keep their noses clean. They pushed on with the work and made sure the job was done. City seem lost in the modern game. The expectancy acts as their catalyst to reach arrogant levels, and it's worn tiresome on the rest of those watching. Forums across the country have discussed in detail the risk Leicester City have taken, and yet the conclusion remains the same. The risk is only seen from the outside - It's promotion already. Champagne is bought and so is the ice - They obviously won't need the ice, but heck they have the money so why not get it anyway?

A deer in headlights. Konchesky epitomises the Foxes 'reputation' buys

Stepping back from the delirium that surrounds the "King Power" Stadium, though, and an alarming pattern is being noticed. The arrogance remains unjustified. Leicester have actually bought poorly, and it's time for them to recognise their flaws. Paul Konchesky, for example, has had a career spanning mainly throughout the Premier League. Those that say class is permanent will defend him to the heavens saying he still has the class. This hasn't actually been recognised for years, though. His last season at Fulham was deemed mediocre and followed up by a sinking finish, accompanying Roy Hodgson to a lonesome walk along Anfield's woe. A brief stint at Forest couldn't bring back the 'permanent' class, and now Leicester are proud owners of a confidence ridden, quickly past his prime defender clinging on to his reputation for a job. He's not the only one who doesn't deserve the platform he's mounted upon, either. Kasper Schmeichel, son of Peter, is just another in the long list of those using reputation to bring themselves into the team that money bought. A poor season at Leeds was the result of a quick departure from Elland Road, a rival club that Leicester now feel 'above'. And yet, the fact is ignored that he wasn't deemed good enough for that inferior side.

We could spend all day comparing the lack of class and decency that is within Leicester City, but we'd be trampling across covered territory. Up and down the country, the 23 other Championship clubs remain focused on their own work, and keeping quiet as to what they have to do. What remains untouched, though, is the lack of professionalism that is striking from any angle that views the Foxes revolution. There is no sense of earned justice from Leicester City, only a level of expectation which if not met will be a gambling slip thrown in the trash for the Thais. It doesn't represent the pride and passion of a hard season's graft like Leicester revelled in just three years ago. To be a fan of a club spending such money must reap it's own reward. The excitement and desire will be something that most in the league won't feel for a long time yet. Based upon how Leicester have conducted themselves, though, who'd want it? When Leicester look back on their season in May, whether it be promotion or not, I doubt they'll feel as proud as they did when they took the League One title. It's a bought story, a tale that nobody wants to hear.


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