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Special report: City Football Group. Part one – empire building

https://theathletic.com/2244423/2020/12/09/city-football-group-manchester/

The City Football Group: a special report – The Athletic

A bad bounce, an untimely slip, the wrong tactics, awful signings, injuries, the bloody referee: these are the reasons most of us give when our side loses.

Ferran Soriano is not like most of us. He thinks such calamities are excuses, symptoms of short-term thinking and proof you have not thought hard enough about it.

He spent six years putting his theories into practice at Barcelona, wrote a book about how he might do it better next time and then got that chance when he met a different club in a hurry to win and with pots of cash.

The result is City Football Group (CFG), an empire that stretches from Yokohama to New York. Incorporated in 2013, five years after Sheikh Mansour’s money transformed the mothership Manchester City, it now has a “menu of clubs” — 10 across five continents — and chief executive Soriano is at the helm.

The Athletic has spoken to sources across the globe to help explain Soriano’s vision for CFG, why the group has chosen certain clubs and leagues, and how its sides share information and resources. In it we explain:

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In Part II we will look at how CFG identifies, develops, loans and sells players — highlighting New York City FC in particular — and analyse the commercial aspect of a business whose most valuable asset, Manchester City, is valued by US business magazine Forbes at $2.7 billion (£2 billion). We also ask what the future is for a business that aims to become football’s version of the all-conquering All Blacks, New Zealand’s men’s rugby union team.

For some, CFG will always be an exercise in sportswashing, an elaborate ruse to circumvent financial fair play or just a fun way to fritter away a fortune. But for a growing number of industry experts, potential investors and even rivals, CFG’s multi-club model is the answer to many of the game’s structural challenges, a sound investment in global demographics and the best way to ensure you get fewer bad bounces, slips, ideas, signings, knocks and calls than the other lot.


The vision: ‘Football as a sprawling entertainment business like Disney’

“There are essentially two fundamental components: Abu Dhabi and Ferran Soriano,” explains Professor Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School. “Together, they bring a distinctiveness in approach that differentiates them from other multi-club groups, such as Red Bull (the owners of clubs in Austria, Brazil, Germany and the United States).”

Chadwick first met Soriano in 2005, when the latter was halfway through a spell on Barcelona’s board that revived the club’s fortunes. They hit it off. A year later, the Barcelona vice-president gave a presentation to Chadwick’s students at the University of London — the professor has kept the slides. And they continued to talk when Chadwick moved to the University of Salford and Soriano became chief executive at Manchester City in 2012.

“He was a tech millionaire by 30,” says Chadwick. “When he became a board member at Barca, he had to lodge a bond of one million euros.

“Part of his education was at ESADE in Barcelona, one of the world’s best business schools. It’s founded upon the principles of Saint Ignatius. He believed individuals should understand the world and develop a more robust vision of it; that they should lead, think and act in new ways.

“You see how this has shaped Soriano’s view of the world, from his early days making money, reforming Barca and later envisioning football as a sprawling entertainment business like Disney.”

After Sheikh Mansour had spent £210 million on buying Manchester City from former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and clearing the debts, the United Arab Emirates’ deputy prime minister had run up almost £500 million in losses in four seasons. That investment brought an FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League title in 2012, but by that point, the club had been without a permanent chief executive since Garry Cook’s resignation nine months before. UEFA’s new spending rules had come into force and Sheikh Mansour had seen enough to know his money was leaking through too many cracks in the business model.

Having pipped Manchester United to the title on the last day of the 2011-12 season, City looked at their crosstown rivals and tried to work out how they could match their pulling power. City had attracted players every bit as good, if not better, than those at Old Trafford but the club down the road cited more than 600 million global followers. How could City bridge that gap? Trophies alone would not be enough.

According to Killing The Game, Daniel Slack-Smith’s 2018 book about City’s transformation, it took club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and his board three months to identify Soriano as their top candidate and another nine months to persuade him to join their project. Or was it the other way around?

“Abu Dhabi was looking for vision at City while Soriano wanted a way back into football so he could translate his view of football’s future into a new reality,” says Chadwick.

CFG, Manchester City

Manchester City chairman Al Mubarak (right) and chief executive Soriano in August 2012 (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“Abu Dhabi is an absolute monarchy — it is not constrained by the demands of its people or the vagaries of shareholder capitalism. Gulf economies are moving away from a dependency on carbon fuel revenues by diversifying into other sectors. This transition is designed to take decades, rather than a Premier League season or two.

“Abu Dhabi uses revenues derived from overseas investments to offset the need for a domestic tax system. By not having taxes, the ruling family legitimises its position. Getting investments such as CFG right are as much about remaining in power as they are about the emirate’s economic future.”

Both sides knew what they were getting. The English champions’ ambition could not have been more obvious, while Soriano had helped Barcelona become the dominant force City aspired to be. And City’s board could always read Soriano’s book, Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance, which Johan Cruyff and Lionel Messi were kind enough to endorse and included the author’s thoughts on the clubs that had become “global brands”.

In the book, Soriano explains that Europe’s elite must act like multinationals by developing better ways to engage with customers at home and abroad. He tells the story of Barcelona’s decision to launch a Japanese version of the club website and sell memberships to Japanese fans. That summer, the club toured the country and in a game against Yokohama F Marinos, the stadium was split evenly between fans of the home team and Barca’s local supporters. The latter even sang in Catalan.

Barcelona, Iniesta

    Andres Iniesta signs Barcelona shirts in Yokohama in December 2011 during the Club World Cup (Photo: Mike Hewitt/FIFA via Getty Images)

The experience clearly made an impression because, in 2014, City Football Group bought a 20 per cent stake in Yokohama F Marinos, making the Japanese side the fourth member of City Football Group.

The book goes on to outline three models for growing a club’s global brand:

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Soriano also explains how he met Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner Don Garber in New York in 2005 to find out if the American league would be interested in a Barcelona-branded team. First, they looked at Miami, then New York. He never closed that deal — although MLS ended up managing Barcelona’s US marketing and game promotion — but when he told City’s directors about it in the talks about the chief executive role, they loved it. In fact, what Al Mubarak wanted to know was: why stop at New York?

Seven years on, with MLS looking to add two more franchises, Garber again got in contact with Soriano — even before he had officially started at City, which had by then “risen to become a football powerhouse” in the commissioner’s eyes.

Soriano was sent to New York to start negotiations on his second day in the job. Nine months later, CFG became a reality when it paid MLS $100 million for the New York City franchise, the league’s 20th in total. As a senior CFG source puts it, “the alchemy for CFG happened during Ferran’s recruitment process”.

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CFG was wholly owned by Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), Sheikh Mansour’s private investment company, until 2015 when China Media Capital and Chinese state-backed investment firm CITIC Group paid $400 million (£298 million) for a 13 per cent stake. In November 2019, US-based private equity firm Silver Lake came on board too, paying $500 million (£373 million) for 10 per cent, leaving ADUG with 77 per cent.

Pacific Media Group’s Paul Conway is the co-owner of a football multinational of his own — the Championship’s Barnsley, Belgian first-division team KV Oostende and Swiss side FC Thun — and CFG’s positions make perfect sense to him.

“There are four key rationales for the multi-club model,” Conway tells The Athletic. “The first is commercial synergy and CFG does a good job of this. If you want to be a major sponsor for Manchester City, you have to sponsor the team in Uruguay (Montevideo City Torque), too. That bit of the deal might be only worth £50,000 but it adds up.

“The second is internal synergy, which is straightforward cost-saving. All these clubs do not need their own chief executives, chief financial officers, chief operating officers.

“And that leads to the third benefit: uniformity of strategy. It’s easy in this industry to lose money because of inconsistent or incompetent decision-making but you can mitigate that risk with a clear management structure and a single approach to commercial deals, player contracts and so on.”

The final benefit, Conway explains, is on the football performance side of the business: everything from having the right place to develop the right talent, to keeping transfer fees within the family.

There is, of course, another benefit to Sheikh Mansour’s massive investment in football: it has got people talking about how he has brought Sergio Aguero, Pep Guardiola and co to the Premier League, how he has poured money into East Manchester and even what a nice place Abu Dhabi is to visit, but not the UAE’s treatment of its migrant workers, poor human rights record or involvement in the brutal civil war in Yemen.

For organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, CFG is a giant exercise in misdirection, a brightly-painted screen behind which the UAE can hide attitudes and behaviour it knows will not play well abroad. And there are others who will simply scoff at all CFG’s claims of long-term investment horizons and rising enterprise values and say, “hold on, isn’t this all just a clever (but legal) way around FFP?” Or, as Liverpool owner John W Henry memorably tweeted when he heard about the £400 million, 10-year, naming-rights-and-shirt deal Etihad signed with Manchester City in 2011, “how much was the losing bid?”

Tweets are one thing, UEFA charges are another, and City’s owners have faced two sets of those since 2014. But just when it looked like the club’s relationship with its Abu Dhabi backers might derail the whole CFG project, City’s legal team won a famous victory over UEFA’s at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the threat of sanctions, if not the debate itself, was put to bed, probably forever.

‘We would rather have a B team or a feeder club but we can’t do that in this country, so we have to look at other opportunities’

Soriano does not speak in public much these days, which is why his Q&A, via video link, during October’s Leaders Week conference was so eagerly anticipated.

Noting that CFG had just bought Troyes of the French second division, the interviewer asked Soriano, “I think that’s your ninth club, what’s the thinking there?”

“I have to correct you, we have 10, we acquired a club in Belgium,” replied Soriano, smiling. “Football is what we do and we have this network of clubs that allows us to help each other from a technical and football perspective, (as well as) develop good clubs that play good football and become financially sustainable and add to our group.”

Brian Marwood, managing director of global football at CFG, puts it another way. “We have clubs that we’re building to try to challenge at the top of their respective leagues, or to play in the Asian Champions League or the CONCACAF or obviously the Champions League,” he tells The Athletic. “There are other clubs that we feel can be a potential developmental platform for our young talent.”

CFG’s interest in developing young talent is a prime example of how it has evolved since plans for global domination were first drawn up in 2013. Marwood, City’s football administrator at the time, and director of football services Simon Wilson were moved into an external office to oversee “City Football Services”. It was at first, according to sources, primarily a commercial venture, with growing sponsorship revenues and the City fanbase prized far above all else.

The idea was simple: more eyes on CFG equals more commercial and brand partnerships and more affection for the club in Manchester. Player trading and development was essentially an afterthought, certainly compared to the sheer amount of time and resource pumped into it now.

At first, then, the huge emerging market of the US stood out (more on that later). Then came Melbourne and an opportunity for CFG to invest in an Australian club for only £7 million. There is a salary cap in the A-League but money has been pumped into infrastructure, coaching, medical, scouting and academy costs. One CFG source estimates an average category-one Premier League academy costs up to £3 million to run per year, which is equivalent to the amounts being spent on Melbourne City, which can also bring in revenue from crowds and television deals. The sale of Australia international Aaron Mooy, who moved to Manchester from Melbourne in 2016 before being sold to Huddersfield Town for at least £8 million, covered those costs for three years.

Last year, new ventures in the massive markets of China and India were announced, but CFG has adapted its approach over the past five years and the ninth and 10th clubs to join were those minnows in Belgium and France.

The change in thinking began within Manchester City’s academy. Part of the post-takeover plan in 2008 was to ensure the club, which had produced a large number of players for the first team in the 2000s, could still produce talent now that they had reached the next level, and were competing in the Champions League.

More than two years of research went into developing the City Football Academy as executives observed and borrowed ideas from the other sports around the world. They based their hydrotherapy facilities and recovery centre on those they saw in the NBA and NFL and visited Nike’s base in Oregon and the Australian Institute of Sport.

The idea was also to bring in some of the most talented 14-to-16-year-olds from around the world, including Karim Rekik (from the Netherlands), Rony Lopes (Brazil) and the slightly older Kelechi Iheanacho (Nigeria). They never made too big an impression on the first team but they were sold for big sums: Rekik for £4.5 million, Lopes £9 million and Iheanacho £25 million. Deals like those became regarded as proof of a business model and opened eyes to the possibility of replicating it on a global scale.

Manchester City, CFG, Karim Rekik

    Rekik facing Reading in the Premier League in December 2012 (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

As a consequence, CFG has shifted towards investing in clubs in more established footballing markets. The cycle had evolved. More fans means more partnerships, meaning more revenues that can be invested in better players who can be developed further to one day either play for Manchester City or be sold for profit.

With NYCFC and Melbourne, it was felt the future values of MLS and the A-League would soar, based on increasing broadcast deals. When Girona were brought into the group in 2017, they had just been promoted to a La Liga that had moved to a Premier League-style TV rights deal. This meant that instead of letting Barcelona and Real Madrid take the lion’s share, broadcast income would be distributed more evenly between all of the clubs.

A source close to the Girona deal says those commercial opportunities were the primary business justification for the investment, but the value of sending players to the Spanish top flight had also become much more important. CFG had recognised that there was year-on-year growth of 20 per cent in the transfer market and that even holding players for two years would see a rise in their value.

Manchester City had already been loaning players to Girona for a couple of years — 16 have moved from City to Girona since 2016. Pere Guardiola, Pep’s brother and an influential agent, and Jaume Roures, a businessman who has close ties to Soriano, had bought 80 per cent of the club in 2015. After the CFG investment, the two parties owned 44.3 per cent each, although following recent investment, Pere’s share has shrunk to 16 per cent and CFG owns 48 per cent.

Other clubs have been brought exclusively for their player development and trading capabilities.

Soriano has talked openly about his desire for Premier League clubs to have B teams in the EFL and the resistance to that has been another factor in CFG’s more recent determination to bring in clubs to help them develop and/or sell players.

“One of my biggest frustrations is that in this country we still haven’t recognised a greater ability to develop young players from the age of 18 to 22, and the loan system can be very hit and miss, it can create more problems than it solves,” Marwood says.

“In an ideal world we would rather have a B team or a feeder club but we can’t do that in this country, so we have to look at other opportunities. With Lommel (a club in Belgium’s second division), we can give opportunities to young players and allow them to grow and develop properly.

“We run the risk of losing that young talent. So we try to create platforms with some of our clubs and give these young players an opportunity.”

The acquisition of Uruguayan side Club Atletico Torque at the start of 2017 was “100 per cent” about investment in talent, according to one source. CFG is proud of the club’s promotion to the top flight but there is an acceptance that returns on sponsorship, crowd revenues or media rights will be small, at least at first. When City’s takeover was announced, Soriano noted the example of Bruno Fornaroli, a player CFG picked up from Uruguayan side Danubio for Melbourne and “became the best player in Australia”. Marwood cites the example of Valentin Castellanos, who left Torque for New York.

City have long had a big scouting presence in South America, headed up by Joan Patsy, a close friend of Manchester City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain, who had worked alongside Cruyff at Barcelona. The goal with Torque, rebranded and renamed Montevideo City Torque in January, is to help develop players across South America, although the focus is likely to be on Uruguayans.

“They have what’s called ‘baby football’ there, so they are playing football very, very early, on the kinds of pitches that would be akin to the ones we grew up on maybe 20 or 40 years ago,” Marwood says. “It’s a great place to start in terms of character and personality, having that kind of street fighting mentality, of hunger and desire. If you get the technical side right, you’re going to get some interesting players.”

Those familiar with CFG’s plans say clubs such as Torque provide “registration platforms”: in short, there is only so much space at Manchester City, so a network of clubs around the world helps CFG retain much larger numbers.

That has played a large part in the acquisition of Lommel and Troyes. Neither would be able to qualify for European competition as UEFA only allows one club under the same ownership structure to play in its tournaments. Lommel may also struggle to pick up fans given its relative proximity to Eindhoven and Genk, home to two successful and historical clubs.

But all of these clubs were obtained cheaply. Lommel were in disarray and would not have had their league licence renewed when City stepped in, clearing debts of around £2 million as part of the deal. Across the purchases of Troyes and Torque, CFG spent roughly £12 million.

Clubs in central Europe were also desirable because certain leagues and countries suit players better than others. CFG, for example, is doing more business in Japan thanks in part to Yokohama’s own scouts identifying top talents, and because they are generally very cheap. History shows that Japanese players have tended to do well in the Netherlands and Germany, and Belgium is seen as a similarly productive environment. Troyes or Girona, however, would be better suited to any players coming through Torque, as would MLS. Troyes also have a B team, providing further opportunities for player development.

The Australian market has also been popular because players generally cost no more than £150,000. They would be sent to more physical, English-style leagues. Marwood says the goal is to “create a menu of clubs” to give these players the best chance of success. There is another benefit to owning a club in continental Europe, too.

CFG, Manchester City

    Marwood speaks to England manager Gareth Southgate (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

“Owning teams in other leagues is a hedge against Brexit,” says Conway, who is currently trying to buy AS Nancy, the French second-tier team CFG looked at this summer before opting for Troyes. “There are 26 professional teams in Belgium and eight of them have strategic investors, with most having an interest in an English team.

“Look how much talent is coming from Belgium and France. In the past, Manchester City have spent €2 million on a development player but now they’ve just bought Lommel for the same amount. I don’t know why more clubs haven’t worked this out.”

From January 1, players who would have moved freely to English clubs in the past will now be subjected to the same points-based work permit system as non-EU players. English clubs will also no longer be able to sign under-18 players from abroad.

How can Manchester City keep buying promising young players, such as Pedro Porro and Pablo Moreno, if those players do not meet the criteria for a work permit? Easy: have a CFG club sign them instead.

It could prove a slightly harder sell when the team on the contract is Lommel or Troyes rather than Manchester City, although the pathway will be the same. Diego Rosa, the 18-year-old Brazilian, has been linked heavily with a move to Lommel next year in a deal that could rise to more then £20 million depending on appearances.

New FIFA regulations also seek to limit the number of players on loan from a club at the same time to just eight, eventually falling to six. The pandemic has slowed those plans but the CFG model means Manchester City are better placed than most to deal with them. For example, last January, City signed Japanese player Ko Itakura and loaned him to Groningen. This January, CFG will sign Koki Saito for Lommel.

Itakura, CFG

    Itakura playing for Groningen in October (Photo: Etienne Zegers/Soccrates/Getty Images)

As a bonus, players can get work permits in Belgium once they’re paid around £73,000 ($97,000) a year, while those playing in the Belgian league often come with lofty reputations and can be sold for big fees: for example, Jonathan David, a 20-year-old Canadian who signed for Gent in 2018, moved to Lille for £27 million this summer.

According to one source with knowledge of the market, that fee set a new benchmark and will soon be beaten again. As Marwood says, City intend to use Lommel for youth development and they have installed Liam Manning, academy director at NYCFC, as coach of a very young team.

It is estimated CFG has already spent around €12 million on talent and facilities at Lommel, making them one of the rare Belgian clubs to have a net spend rather than a net profit. The second-placed club in the top division, for example, spent €300,000 over the same period. Such spending is unheard of for a second-tier side but far from exorbitant by CFG’s standards.

The Yokohama F Marinos deal came about during discussions with a CFG global sponsor, the car manufacturer Nissan, which founded the Japanese club in 1972. CFG initially did not have a say in sporting director or managerial hires but, over time, the benefit of its global reach and resources has ensured a closer relationship. This benefits CFG through an increased understanding of Japanese football, culture and the local transfer market, even though it only has a 20 per cent stake in the club (Nissan still owns the other 80 per cent).

In China, progress is intended to be steady and CFG was slightly startled when its club, Sichuan Jiuniu, were unexpectedly promoted from the third tier to the second after the Chinese FA stripped 11 clubs of their licences for failing to pay players. Despite a £265 million investment from China Media Capital in 2015, CFG has found progress in the market slow and is happy to limit its expenses, establish relationships with local partners and bide its time before making its move towards the Super League.

“We’re learning the market,” says a CFG source. “We’re in a great city with a catchment area of 80 million — that’s more than the UK — we’re the standout professional sports franchise in the region and we’re ahead of schedule.”

The Chinese experience shows that not every club follows the same blueprint but an incredible amount of work goes into ensuring CFG’s 10 clubs, including its women’s and academy teams, are singing from the same hymn sheet.


‘Taking the car apart and putting it back together again’: The City Football Group manual

There is a manual by which NYCFC were built, Melbourne rebuilt and every other future CFG club will have to abide. New clubs are audited, processes put in place and it is made clear that certain standards must be met, from infrastructure and technology to playing style.

One of Marwood’s responsibilities is to make sure this happens. He calls this initial process a health check that’s “very, very detailed” and involves “taking the car apart and putting it back together again”.

It applies to people as well as processes, from the head coach to the kitman. One external source with knowledge of how the group works says CFG is quick to “clear out deadwood”.

The framework was drawn up in 2013 and is based on the transformation that took place at Manchester City in the years following the 2008 takeover. They aimed to learn from the good and the bad, and apply it to clubs in different regions with different budgets.

There is a centralised database of information that means coaches in Mumbai can teach their players Guardiola’s positional play, club doctors around the world can share research on injuries and recovery methods, and a team of scouts can identify players for the Manchester City first team, Chinese second division or the women’s teams in Manchester and Melbourne.

There are global leads of football performance, human performance and talent management, and a daunting amount of modules that govern what best practice looks like. Each of those modules is subjected to five subsections of scrutiny.

When assessing scouting and recruitment, for example, the five areas will assess whether the right people are in place, whether the right processes are being followed, whether the infrastructure (for example, travel) is adequate, whether the right technology is available, and if there is room for innovation to achieve a competitive advantage.

Melbourne had never seen detail like it and had no objections, although more recently established clubs have been a little more resistant to the changes. Ultimately, there is no other option.

“We can share a lot of the sessions that Pep does (in Manchester) with the guys in Melbourne, New York or Montevideo,” Marwood says. “But a lot of those sessions are very detailed, so the coaches need to be coached. We set up a network that develops our coaches. They can go online and get access to several tools, where they can educate themselves.

“All the sporting directors are fully aware of the style of play and what the requirement is. In some respects, we put that above anything else. We’re very protective of that and we work very hard to make sure all of the clubs implement that in the best way they possibly can.”

Marwood, who can watch every match of every club live from his home, will speak to CFG’s different sporting directors at least once a week, and his team are in constant contact with their colleagues on the ground. The manual that governs best practice is updated every few months, and if a doctor in Melbourne is having success with a recovery technique that is not used at other clubs, it can be incorporated into the central framework, across men’s and women’s teams. The group’s shared medical expertise has been particularly helpful during the pandemic, with staff at Lommel and City able to share information about changing protocols, for example.

Coaches also tend to move between CFG clubs. Erick Mombaerts has been working with CFG for eight years, having been recommended to Marwood by Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier. He has coached both Yokohama and Melbourne, stabilising those clubs with a more “no-nonsense” footballing style. Mombarts is set to take on a new role coaching youth coaches at Troyes, and was replaced in Melbourne by former Australia international Patrick Kisnorbo, who had stayed with the club since retiring in 2016. Nick Cushing, Manchester City Women’s long-serving boss, became assistant manager in New York earlier this year.

Melbourne City, CFG, Erick Mombaerts

    Mombaerts speaks to his Melbourne City players during the 2020 A-League Grand Final (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Aaron Hughes, the former Newcastle United and Aston Villa defender who signed for Melbourne in 2015, reached out to Marwood after finishing his career in India. CFG is now helping him complete a sporting director’s degree while he helps the group navigate the landscape of Indian football following their purchase of Mumbai City last year.

At many of its clubs, CFG has made an instant impact. The doctor’s office at Melbourne used to face the gents’ toilets, which had a door missing, meaning injured players were used to getting a rather full view of their team-mates. And that was nothing compared to the snakes in the dressing room. Torque didn’t even have a minibus and Marwood likens their facilities, both academy and first team, to a “pub team on a Sunday morning”. “It was appalling,” he says.

Not everybody speaks as glowingly about CFG methods, of course. There was also controversy around Anthony Caceres, who was signed by Manchester City from Central Coast Mariners and immediately loaned to Melbourne in 2016. There are no transfers allowed in the A-League and some rival clubs were livid that the rules had been bent. The Australian federation has moved to close the loophole, which is now known as the Caceres Rule.

While Melbourne reached their first Grand Final last season, some believe they would be better off focusing on big-name marquee signings, such as the spells of Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey at Sydney and Newcastle Jets respectively, to attract more fans. David Villa had a very short-lived spell there before his time at New York but CFG prefers to focus on development.

CFG has also ploughed money into Girona’s infrastructure but they remain lower mid-table in a recently published ranking of budgets in Spain’s Segunda Division. Their €4.25 million spend is dwarfed by Espanyol (Chinese owners) with €45 million, Almeria (Saudi) €27 million, Mallorca (US) €19 million and even Sabadell (a group of international investors), newly promoted to the second tier, with €4.8 million.

The message is that Girona are “not Manchester City 2”, but none of the CFG clubs are — they all serve a different purpose.

Look out for Part II of The Athletic’s special report into CFG on Thursday — does this approach actually work?

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Goals, tricks and winning free kicks: Grealish is like Eden Hazard at his peak

https://theathletic.com/2246515/2020/12/08/jack-grealish-villa-eden-hazard/

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In his final Premier League season, Eden Hazard was widely recognised as the player most likely to catch up with superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the pair entered the twilight of their remarkable careers.

The former Chelsea star hoped he could emulate Ronaldo and Messi by one day winning the Ballon d’Or.

“Messi, Ronaldo, they are on another planet, but yeah, why not? I try to be one of the best, so if I can be, why not?” he said in a 2015 newspaper interview.

In the same year, Hazard received the PFA Player of the Year award as he starred in the side that won the Premier League. For many opponents, the only way to stop the tricky Belgian was to chop him down.

Which brings us to Aston Villa’s captain Jack Grealish.

It was in the detailed analysis on Monday Night Football that Jamie Carragher drew the initial comparison between the pair, highlighting Grealish’s quick and inventive runs down the left side of attack and likening them to Hazard when he was on fire at Stamford Bridge.

Former Chelsea player Ashley Cole also compared their styles, saying: “He’s got that Hazard quality, he can beat players left and right.”

For close to two years, Grealish has been playing on the left side of attack, a blend of No 11 and No 10 — part mazy winger, part playmaker, part second striker. He is very much to Villa what Hazard was to Chelsea, and not just in terms of positioning, either.

As the Belgian was at Chelsea, Grealish is the star man in his team. He is Villa’s main source of goals and a great entertainer.

It’s too soon to suggest that he’s as efficient and productive as Hazard, who also had the on-pitch numbers (110 goals and 92 assists in all competitions) and trophies (two league titles, two Europa Leagues, an FA Cup and a League Cup) to back up his incredible talent.

But this season alone, Grealish is performing as well as the diminutive attacker once was.

Five goals and five assists after nine games means he’s on course to challenge Hazard’s 16 goals and 15 assists from 37 Premier League games in 2018-19 (his final, and most prolific, season in London).

jack-grealish-villa

Grealish is the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons (Photo: Tim Keeton – Pool/Getty Images)

Grealish is averaging the same amount of shots on goal (2.9) per 90 minutes in the Premier League as Hazard (2.9) managed in that season.

He averages around 20 fewer touches (63.3 compared to 82.4) per 90 minutes this season than Hazard did in 2018-19, yet makes more touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes (8.8 for Grealish, 7.4 for Hazard).

Hazard’s efficiency in his final season was what put him into that category to rival both Messi and Ronaldo.

His 16 Premier League goals had an expected goals (xG) value of 10.53, boosted by his spectacularly accurate finishing up to an expected goals on target (xGOT) rating of 15.24. The xG statistic measures the quality of Hazard’s shooting opportunities — i.e. how many goals he would be expected to score in a season. The xGOT rating measures the quality of Hazard’s shots from those opportunities. The fact that his xGOT is nearly 50 per cent higher than his xG shows that he was finishing chances excellently.

He converted 27 per cent of his shots and a remarkable 55.6 per cent of his 18 “big chances”, as defined by Opta.

This season Grealish has converted 19 per cent of his shots and two (40 per cent) of his five big chances. His five Premier League goals have an expected goals (xG) value of 2.58, boosted further to an xGOT rating of 3.03. He’s also created seven big chances after just nine games compared to Hazard’s 18 in his final season.

3873c85afa73a04384d72cc9981ccdae.png

That’s the data box ticked, but the true likeness comes from the way Grealish bullies teams. That relentless energy on the ball is exactly what made Hazard such a success when he played in England. On top of that, Grealish has reached pretty much every other challenge set by him at Villa over the years, and his game continues to improve.

In the latter years of his Chelsea career, giving Hazard the ball essentially became Chelsea’s entire attacking system, and that’s how Villa operate with their star man now.

Away from his attacking talents, a theme in Hazard’s career in England was that every manager wanted a little more from him defensively.

“In my career, I’ve frustrated all my managers and I’ll also frustrate the next manager I have,” Hazard said in 2019.

With a team packed full of quality, every manager also managed to find a way to allow him to roam freely by rejigging the set-up that also allowed Chelsea to flourish.

In 2014-15 Jose Mourinho stuck the reliable and consistent Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back, with Nemanja Matic on the left side of central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system that gave Hazard space to create. Diego Costa also occupied the centre-halves with strength and brute force as Chelsea won the league.

Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 set-up then allowed Hazard even more freedom to attack. Not only did Marcos Alonso as the left-sided wing-back offer protection, but Chelsea also had a left-sided centre-back mopping up, with Matic and N’Golo Kante acting as the ball-winners. Chelsea again won the league in 2016-17, finishing with 93 points.

Even in his final season, Hazard helped Chelsea win the Europa League under Maurizio Sarri. He made no secret of how much he enjoyed playing with Olivier Giroud, a powerful striker whom he felt complemented his game brilliantly.

Grealish, it should be said, does get down and dirty when he needs to. He tracks back and occasionally makes important blocks and interceptions as Villa, unlike Chelsea, have to grind it out more often.

But can they consistently find solutions in other areas of the pitch to get the very best out of their top performer?

eden-hazard-chelsea

Grealish typically wins Villa a few more points with his performances, but Hazard used to win Chelsea trophies and league titles with his. Therefore, when Grealish plays so well for a side that hasn’t won a trophy for 24 years and has averaged just 36 points per season in their last eight Premier League campaigns, the debate will always be whether playing for another club will help him scale even greater heights.

For now, though, it’s interesting to see whether Grealish can maintain his current level and cement himself as one of the Premier League’s most feared attackers.

There’s also no intention to sell, for two main reasons: 1) he’s just signed a new five-year contract, and 2) his value has rocketed to over the £100 million mark, posing the question: which club can even afford to buy him right now anyway?

The Hazard comparison rings true because there are so many other similarities. Take the fouls for starters.

Villa’s medical staff are amazed at how strong Grealish’s ankles are. The physios have lost count of the number of times they have winced in the dugout as another challenge has left Grealish in a heap. Their take is that if it was any other player, a lengthy spell on the sidelines would follow.

It was, however, the same at Chelsea when Hazard used to peel off his strapping to reveal the cuts and bruises, scuff marks and scars after games. He won 638 fouls over his seven years, an average of one foul every half an hour of game time or 26 touches of the ball.

Grealish, incredibly, has a one-in-14 ratio of fouls to touches this season. He’s the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons. Some suggest that he goes down too easily, but boss Dean Smith disagrees: “If they’re not fouls, then the referee doesn’t give them.

“You tell me the top forwards who don’t go down easy. They get their bodies in really good positions so the defenders have to go through them.”

In some ways, then, it’s an art that Grealish has mastered. Hazard had a knack of winning penalties in a way that Grealish wins fouls all over the pitch.

Those who know each individual well say the constant kicking during games irritates them, but not enough to stop either player from loving the game. They are both free-spirited mavericks and in some ways have never left their innocent childhood years behind.

In his youth, Hazard would ping shots barefooted into the top corner after sneaking on to the pitch behind the family home in Braine-le-Comte, whereas Grealish would visit his Birmingham City-supporting friend’s house “because he had a bigger garden” and play one-on-one “Villa vs Blues” games.

It was ex-boss Steve Bruce who said that when he watched Grealish train, he could still see the excited schoolboy in the playground. Bruce, now head coach at Newcastle United, also described Grealish as Villa’s “crown jewel”.

A worrying thought for opponents is that many of Grealish’s team-mates believe he will get even better when supporters are allowed back inside stadiums across the country. He’s taken his game to a new level this season. The way he glides past opponents and is able to slow down and then speed up play in the same way that made Hazard such a success is receiving global attention.

Grealish is no stranger to living up to high expectations, though. When he ripped the Championship apart, he was always asked to show his qualities in the Premier League. When he performed well for England, he was then challenged to do it against the bigger nations.

Now, he’s spoken about in the same breath as a Premier League great like Hazard. It’s a stretch to think that Messi and Ronaldo will one day come into the conversation, but like Hazard said when he was asked about the two greats: “Why not?”

Interesting stats...Grealish reminds me of Hazard at times because of his ability to draw fouls.

Kind of like Hazard but with less end product and flair, albeit being Villa's best chance creator last season.

I'll admit that this season he has really gone up a notch and those numbers are not for this season are not a surprise.

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55 minutes ago, Vesper said:

Goals, tricks and winning free kicks: Grealish is like Eden Hazard at his peak

https://theathletic.com/2246515/2020/12/08/jack-grealish-villa-eden-hazard/

Untitled-design-9-scaled-e1607442665848-1024x683.jpg

In his final Premier League season, Eden Hazard was widely recognised as the player most likely to catch up with superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the pair entered the twilight of their remarkable careers.

The former Chelsea star hoped he could emulate Ronaldo and Messi by one day winning the Ballon d’Or.

“Messi, Ronaldo, they are on another planet, but yeah, why not? I try to be one of the best, so if I can be, why not?” he said in a 2015 newspaper interview.

In the same year, Hazard received the PFA Player of the Year award as he starred in the side that won the Premier League. For many opponents, the only way to stop the tricky Belgian was to chop him down.

Which brings us to Aston Villa’s captain Jack Grealish.

It was in the detailed analysis on Monday Night Football that Jamie Carragher drew the initial comparison between the pair, highlighting Grealish’s quick and inventive runs down the left side of attack and likening them to Hazard when he was on fire at Stamford Bridge.

Former Chelsea player Ashley Cole also compared their styles, saying: “He’s got that Hazard quality, he can beat players left and right.”

For close to two years, Grealish has been playing on the left side of attack, a blend of No 11 and No 10 — part mazy winger, part playmaker, part second striker. He is very much to Villa what Hazard was to Chelsea, and not just in terms of positioning, either.

As the Belgian was at Chelsea, Grealish is the star man in his team. He is Villa’s main source of goals and a great entertainer.

It’s too soon to suggest that he’s as efficient and productive as Hazard, who also had the on-pitch numbers (110 goals and 92 assists in all competitions) and trophies (two league titles, two Europa Leagues, an FA Cup and a League Cup) to back up his incredible talent.

But this season alone, Grealish is performing as well as the diminutive attacker once was.

Five goals and five assists after nine games means he’s on course to challenge Hazard’s 16 goals and 15 assists from 37 Premier League games in 2018-19 (his final, and most prolific, season in London).

jack-grealish-villa

Grealish is the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons (Photo: Tim Keeton – Pool/Getty Images)

Grealish is averaging the same amount of shots on goal (2.9) per 90 minutes in the Premier League as Hazard (2.9) managed in that season.

He averages around 20 fewer touches (63.3 compared to 82.4) per 90 minutes this season than Hazard did in 2018-19, yet makes more touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes (8.8 for Grealish, 7.4 for Hazard).

Hazard’s efficiency in his final season was what put him into that category to rival both Messi and Ronaldo.

His 16 Premier League goals had an expected goals (xG) value of 10.53, boosted by his spectacularly accurate finishing up to an expected goals on target (xGOT) rating of 15.24. The xG statistic measures the quality of Hazard’s shooting opportunities — i.e. how many goals he would be expected to score in a season. The xGOT rating measures the quality of Hazard’s shots from those opportunities. The fact that his xGOT is nearly 50 per cent higher than his xG shows that he was finishing chances excellently.

He converted 27 per cent of his shots and a remarkable 55.6 per cent of his 18 “big chances”, as defined by Opta.

This season Grealish has converted 19 per cent of his shots and two (40 per cent) of his five big chances. His five Premier League goals have an expected goals (xG) value of 2.58, boosted further to an xGOT rating of 3.03. He’s also created seven big chances after just nine games compared to Hazard’s 18 in his final season.

3873c85afa73a04384d72cc9981ccdae.png

That’s the data box ticked, but the true likeness comes from the way Grealish bullies teams. That relentless energy on the ball is exactly what made Hazard such a success when he played in England. On top of that, Grealish has reached pretty much every other challenge set by him at Villa over the years, and his game continues to improve.

In the latter years of his Chelsea career, giving Hazard the ball essentially became Chelsea’s entire attacking system, and that’s how Villa operate with their star man now.

Away from his attacking talents, a theme in Hazard’s career in England was that every manager wanted a little more from him defensively.

“In my career, I’ve frustrated all my managers and I’ll also frustrate the next manager I have,” Hazard said in 2019.

With a team packed full of quality, every manager also managed to find a way to allow him to roam freely by rejigging the set-up that also allowed Chelsea to flourish.

In 2014-15 Jose Mourinho stuck the reliable and consistent Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back, with Nemanja Matic on the left side of central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system that gave Hazard space to create. Diego Costa also occupied the centre-halves with strength and brute force as Chelsea won the league.

Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 set-up then allowed Hazard even more freedom to attack. Not only did Marcos Alonso as the left-sided wing-back offer protection, but Chelsea also had a left-sided centre-back mopping up, with Matic and N’Golo Kante acting as the ball-winners. Chelsea again won the league in 2016-17, finishing with 93 points.

Even in his final season, Hazard helped Chelsea win the Europa League under Maurizio Sarri. He made no secret of how much he enjoyed playing with Olivier Giroud, a powerful striker whom he felt complemented his game brilliantly.

Grealish, it should be said, does get down and dirty when he needs to. He tracks back and occasionally makes important blocks and interceptions as Villa, unlike Chelsea, have to grind it out more often.

But can they consistently find solutions in other areas of the pitch to get the very best out of their top performer?

eden-hazard-chelsea

Grealish typically wins Villa a few more points with his performances, but Hazard used to win Chelsea trophies and league titles with his. Therefore, when Grealish plays so well for a side that hasn’t won a trophy for 24 years and has averaged just 36 points per season in their last eight Premier League campaigns, the debate will always be whether playing for another club will help him scale even greater heights.

For now, though, it’s interesting to see whether Grealish can maintain his current level and cement himself as one of the Premier League’s most feared attackers.

There’s also no intention to sell, for two main reasons: 1) he’s just signed a new five-year contract, and 2) his value has rocketed to over the £100 million mark, posing the question: which club can even afford to buy him right now anyway?

The Hazard comparison rings true because there are so many other similarities. Take the fouls for starters.

Villa’s medical staff are amazed at how strong Grealish’s ankles are. The physios have lost count of the number of times they have winced in the dugout as another challenge has left Grealish in a heap. Their take is that if it was any other player, a lengthy spell on the sidelines would follow.

It was, however, the same at Chelsea when Hazard used to peel off his strapping to reveal the cuts and bruises, scuff marks and scars after games. He won 638 fouls over his seven years, an average of one foul every half an hour of game time or 26 touches of the ball.

Grealish, incredibly, has a one-in-14 ratio of fouls to touches this season. He’s the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons. Some suggest that he goes down too easily, but boss Dean Smith disagrees: “If they’re not fouls, then the referee doesn’t give them.

“You tell me the top forwards who don’t go down easy. They get their bodies in really good positions so the defenders have to go through them.”

In some ways, then, it’s an art that Grealish has mastered. Hazard had a knack of winning penalties in a way that Grealish wins fouls all over the pitch.

Those who know each individual well say the constant kicking during games irritates them, but not enough to stop either player from loving the game. They are both free-spirited mavericks and in some ways have never left their innocent childhood years behind.

In his youth, Hazard would ping shots barefooted into the top corner after sneaking on to the pitch behind the family home in Braine-le-Comte, whereas Grealish would visit his Birmingham City-supporting friend’s house “because he had a bigger garden” and play one-on-one “Villa vs Blues” games.

It was ex-boss Steve Bruce who said that when he watched Grealish train, he could still see the excited schoolboy in the playground. Bruce, now head coach at Newcastle United, also described Grealish as Villa’s “crown jewel”.

A worrying thought for opponents is that many of Grealish’s team-mates believe he will get even better when supporters are allowed back inside stadiums across the country. He’s taken his game to a new level this season. The way he glides past opponents and is able to slow down and then speed up play in the same way that made Hazard such a success is receiving global attention.

Grealish is no stranger to living up to high expectations, though. When he ripped the Championship apart, he was always asked to show his qualities in the Premier League. When he performed well for England, he was then challenged to do it against the bigger nations.

Now, he’s spoken about in the same breath as a Premier League great like Hazard. It’s a stretch to think that Messi and Ronaldo will one day come into the conversation, but like Hazard said when he was asked about the two greats: “Why not?”

I haven't watched grealish play at all but if he is really close to prime hazard. Everyone will offer 100 m for him next year. 100 m for 26 old prime hazard is bargain. 

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12 minutes ago, communicate said:

I haven't watched grealish play at all but if he is really close to prime hazard. Everyone will offer 100 m for him next year. 100 m for 26 old prime hazard is bargain. 

I can see it, provided one of the clubs has the cash

this coming summer is the last time for that for me, as he turns 26 next September, and so you figure you get 5 full prime years out of him, as he, like Hazard, is going to be beat down once he hits over 30, due to the incredible physical abuse he takes. Unless he changes his game (which he is capable of) I cannot see a 32yo Grealish being at the level he is now. I said the same thing about Hazard and I have been proven right on him so far.

I do not see either Eden or Jack as genetic freak types. Maybe Grealish a wee bit more, but nothing like Thiago, Giroud, Sergio Ramos, Giggs, Xavi, Zlatan, CR7, Messi, Maldini, Totti, Pirlo, Buffon, etc level (Lampard to a degree as well) Maybe Eden and Grealish prove me wrong.

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26 minutes ago, Jason said:

Is there anything that Klopp hasn't moaned about this season?

At this rate, he's gonna complain about why opposing teams are playing with 11 players!

'nice bloke' image shattered this season

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Liverpool this season in the CL and PL played 17 games and in 4 games with VVD they conceded more goals than without him in 13 games.

I really thought without him they would be 30% or 40% lesser side but even without him and Alisson they look the same if not better. I have hope in Mourinho to stop their home run next week.

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2 minutes ago, NikkiCFC said:

Liverpool this season in the CL and PL played 17 games and in 4 games with VVD they conceded more goals than without him in 13 games.

I really thought without him they would be 30% or 40% lesser side but even without him and Alisson they look the same if not better. I have hope in Mourinho to stop their home run next week.

You really want Spurs to win the Premier League, don't you...? :carlo: 

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Liverpool this season in the CL and PL played 17 games and in 4 games with VVD they conceded more goals than without him in 13 games.
I really thought without him they would be 30% or 40% lesser side but even without him and Alisson they look the same if not better. I have hope in Mourinho to stop their home run next week.
Liverpool will get exposed against Tottenham. Liverpools highline is made for Son to run in behind and to punish them. Tottenhams counterattack will kill them, but I can see Mane and Salah also score goals if Spurs park the bus.

One thing I know is that it's definitely going to be Liverpools toughest game. If they somehow manage to beat Spurs easily then I can't see anyone stop them from winning the league.
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3 minutes ago, Azul said:

Liverpool will get exposed against Tottenham. Liverpools highline is made for Son to run in behind and to punish them. Tottenhams counterattack will kill them, but I can see Mane and Salah also score goals if Spurs park the bus.

One thing I know is that it's definitely going to be Liverpools toughest game. If they somehow manage to beat Spurs easily then I can't see anyone stop them from winning the league.

Pretty sure Klopp isn't stupid enough to leave his side exposed against Spurs like Guardiola and Arteta did.

And moreover, Klopp has a good record against Mourinho over the years. Just 2 losses in 11 games and 1 of them was a part dead-rubber. 

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4 minutes ago, Jason said:

You really want Spurs to win the Premier League, don't you...? :carlo: 

I prefer Chelsea :lol:

But on a serious note, I think some of us Chelsea fans worldwide do not feel rivalry with Spurs in the same way like fans from London. I look at Spurs and Arsenal like Everton and Leicester. Completely irrelevant clubs. 

We fought for trophies with United, City mostly last 15 years or so. I mean we are 3 most successful PL sides in this period. Many games against Liverpool in CL as well. So they are biggest rivals for me, but ofc I understand that Arse and Spurs are probably bigger rivals because they are from the same city and I would feel the same way if I live in London and being surrender with them...

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8 hours ago, Jason said:

Is there anything that Klopp hasn't moaned about this season?

At this rate, he's gonna complain about why opposing teams are playing with 11 players!

A cunt is a cunt end of, we will see more of his bs all season

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10 minutes ago, Azul said:

Liverpool will get exposed against Tottenham. Liverpools highline is made for Son to run in behind and to punish them. Tottenhams counterattack will kill them, but I can see Mane and Salah also score goals if Spurs park the bus.

One thing I know is that it's definitely going to be Liverpools toughest game. If they somehow manage to beat Spurs easily then I can't see anyone stop them from winning the league.

Last season Spurs almost beat them at Anfield. Spurs were up and with like 25 minutes to go Son missed empty goal and hit the post.

1:05. That would be game over. After that Liverpool scored twice with Mane diving a penalty... And Spurs are now much better side and Pool without some serious players so I fancy Spurs chances.

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1 minute ago, NikkiCFC said:

Last season Spurs almost beat them at Anfield. Spurs were up and with like 25 minutes to go Son missed empty goal and hit the post.

1:05. That would be game over. After that Liverpool scored twice with Mane diving a penalty... And Spurs are now much better side and Pool without some serious players so I fancy Spurs chances.

But Spurs were still under Pochettino then and we all know Pochettino and Mourinho approach these big games differently. 

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If we want to win the title, then we need the Liverpool v Spurs game to end in a draw really.

A win for either side is not ideal at all, especially Spurs (HEAVEN FORBID!)...

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16 hours ago, Vesper said:

Goals, tricks and winning free kicks: Grealish is like Eden Hazard at his peak

https://theathletic.com/2246515/2020/12/08/jack-grealish-villa-eden-hazard/

Untitled-design-9-scaled-e1607442665848-1024x683.jpg

In his final Premier League season, Eden Hazard was widely recognised as the player most likely to catch up with superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the pair entered the twilight of their remarkable careers.

The former Chelsea star hoped he could emulate Ronaldo and Messi by one day winning the Ballon d’Or.

“Messi, Ronaldo, they are on another planet, but yeah, why not? I try to be one of the best, so if I can be, why not?” he said in a 2015 newspaper interview.

In the same year, Hazard received the PFA Player of the Year award as he starred in the side that won the Premier League. For many opponents, the only way to stop the tricky Belgian was to chop him down.

Which brings us to Aston Villa’s captain Jack Grealish.

It was in the detailed analysis on Monday Night Football that Jamie Carragher drew the initial comparison between the pair, highlighting Grealish’s quick and inventive runs down the left side of attack and likening them to Hazard when he was on fire at Stamford Bridge.

Former Chelsea player Ashley Cole also compared their styles, saying: “He’s got that Hazard quality, he can beat players left and right.”

For close to two years, Grealish has been playing on the left side of attack, a blend of No 11 and No 10 — part mazy winger, part playmaker, part second striker. He is very much to Villa what Hazard was to Chelsea, and not just in terms of positioning, either.

As the Belgian was at Chelsea, Grealish is the star man in his team. He is Villa’s main source of goals and a great entertainer.

It’s too soon to suggest that he’s as efficient and productive as Hazard, who also had the on-pitch numbers (110 goals and 92 assists in all competitions) and trophies (two league titles, two Europa Leagues, an FA Cup and a League Cup) to back up his incredible talent.

But this season alone, Grealish is performing as well as the diminutive attacker once was.

Five goals and five assists after nine games means he’s on course to challenge Hazard’s 16 goals and 15 assists from 37 Premier League games in 2018-19 (his final, and most prolific, season in London).

jack-grealish-villa

Grealish is the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons (Photo: Tim Keeton – Pool/Getty Images)

Grealish is averaging the same amount of shots on goal (2.9) per 90 minutes in the Premier League as Hazard (2.9) managed in that season.

He averages around 20 fewer touches (63.3 compared to 82.4) per 90 minutes this season than Hazard did in 2018-19, yet makes more touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes (8.8 for Grealish, 7.4 for Hazard).

Hazard’s efficiency in his final season was what put him into that category to rival both Messi and Ronaldo.

His 16 Premier League goals had an expected goals (xG) value of 10.53, boosted by his spectacularly accurate finishing up to an expected goals on target (xGOT) rating of 15.24. The xG statistic measures the quality of Hazard’s shooting opportunities — i.e. how many goals he would be expected to score in a season. The xGOT rating measures the quality of Hazard’s shots from those opportunities. The fact that his xGOT is nearly 50 per cent higher than his xG shows that he was finishing chances excellently.

He converted 27 per cent of his shots and a remarkable 55.6 per cent of his 18 “big chances”, as defined by Opta.

This season Grealish has converted 19 per cent of his shots and two (40 per cent) of his five big chances. His five Premier League goals have an expected goals (xG) value of 2.58, boosted further to an xGOT rating of 3.03. He’s also created seven big chances after just nine games compared to Hazard’s 18 in his final season.

3873c85afa73a04384d72cc9981ccdae.png

That’s the data box ticked, but the true likeness comes from the way Grealish bullies teams. That relentless energy on the ball is exactly what made Hazard such a success when he played in England. On top of that, Grealish has reached pretty much every other challenge set by him at Villa over the years, and his game continues to improve.

In the latter years of his Chelsea career, giving Hazard the ball essentially became Chelsea’s entire attacking system, and that’s how Villa operate with their star man now.

Away from his attacking talents, a theme in Hazard’s career in England was that every manager wanted a little more from him defensively.

“In my career, I’ve frustrated all my managers and I’ll also frustrate the next manager I have,” Hazard said in 2019.

With a team packed full of quality, every manager also managed to find a way to allow him to roam freely by rejigging the set-up that also allowed Chelsea to flourish.

In 2014-15 Jose Mourinho stuck the reliable and consistent Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back, with Nemanja Matic on the left side of central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system that gave Hazard space to create. Diego Costa also occupied the centre-halves with strength and brute force as Chelsea won the league.

Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 set-up then allowed Hazard even more freedom to attack. Not only did Marcos Alonso as the left-sided wing-back offer protection, but Chelsea also had a left-sided centre-back mopping up, with Matic and N’Golo Kante acting as the ball-winners. Chelsea again won the league in 2016-17, finishing with 93 points.

Even in his final season, Hazard helped Chelsea win the Europa League under Maurizio Sarri. He made no secret of how much he enjoyed playing with Olivier Giroud, a powerful striker whom he felt complemented his game brilliantly.

Grealish, it should be said, does get down and dirty when he needs to. He tracks back and occasionally makes important blocks and interceptions as Villa, unlike Chelsea, have to grind it out more often.

But can they consistently find solutions in other areas of the pitch to get the very best out of their top performer?

eden-hazard-chelsea

Grealish typically wins Villa a few more points with his performances, but Hazard used to win Chelsea trophies and league titles with his. Therefore, when Grealish plays so well for a side that hasn’t won a trophy for 24 years and has averaged just 36 points per season in their last eight Premier League campaigns, the debate will always be whether playing for another club will help him scale even greater heights.

For now, though, it’s interesting to see whether Grealish can maintain his current level and cement himself as one of the Premier League’s most feared attackers.

There’s also no intention to sell, for two main reasons: 1) he’s just signed a new five-year contract, and 2) his value has rocketed to over the £100 million mark, posing the question: which club can even afford to buy him right now anyway?

The Hazard comparison rings true because there are so many other similarities. Take the fouls for starters.

Villa’s medical staff are amazed at how strong Grealish’s ankles are. The physios have lost count of the number of times they have winced in the dugout as another challenge has left Grealish in a heap. Their take is that if it was any other player, a lengthy spell on the sidelines would follow.

It was, however, the same at Chelsea when Hazard used to peel off his strapping to reveal the cuts and bruises, scuff marks and scars after games. He won 638 fouls over his seven years, an average of one foul every half an hour of game time or 26 touches of the ball.

Grealish, incredibly, has a one-in-14 ratio of fouls to touches this season. He’s the most fouled player in the Premier League by some distance over the last two seasons. Some suggest that he goes down too easily, but boss Dean Smith disagrees: “If they’re not fouls, then the referee doesn’t give them.

“You tell me the top forwards who don’t go down easy. They get their bodies in really good positions so the defenders have to go through them.”

In some ways, then, it’s an art that Grealish has mastered. Hazard had a knack of winning penalties in a way that Grealish wins fouls all over the pitch.

Those who know each individual well say the constant kicking during games irritates them, but not enough to stop either player from loving the game. They are both free-spirited mavericks and in some ways have never left their innocent childhood years behind.

In his youth, Hazard would ping shots barefooted into the top corner after sneaking on to the pitch behind the family home in Braine-le-Comte, whereas Grealish would visit his Birmingham City-supporting friend’s house “because he had a bigger garden” and play one-on-one “Villa vs Blues” games.

It was ex-boss Steve Bruce who said that when he watched Grealish train, he could still see the excited schoolboy in the playground. Bruce, now head coach at Newcastle United, also described Grealish as Villa’s “crown jewel”.

A worrying thought for opponents is that many of Grealish’s team-mates believe he will get even better when supporters are allowed back inside stadiums across the country. He’s taken his game to a new level this season. The way he glides past opponents and is able to slow down and then speed up play in the same way that made Hazard such a success is receiving global attention.

Grealish is no stranger to living up to high expectations, though. When he ripped the Championship apart, he was always asked to show his qualities in the Premier League. When he performed well for England, he was then challenged to do it against the bigger nations.

Now, he’s spoken about in the same breath as a Premier League great like Hazard. It’s a stretch to think that Messi and Ronaldo will one day come into the conversation, but like Hazard said when he was asked about the two greats: “Why not?”

Have seen similar articles a fair bit but it's really pointless until he goes to a big club, prove he can do it at the highest level week in week out and lead that club to titles like Hazard did for us. Until then, it's gonna feel like he's just the big fish in a small pond even if he keeps producing the numbers in a side that is essentially built around him. 

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‘Brexit has killed the Premier League dream for young players. It’s a real shame’

https://theathletic.com/2249803/2020/12/10/brexit-premier-league/

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When Sebastian Kneissl started making waves at Eintracht Frankfurt as a 17-year-old, Ajax, Lazio, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid made advances. But the highly-rated striker never went to inspect any of those club’s training grounds. His mind was set on joining Chelsea, the only English side that had enquired about his services.

“I was fascinated by the Premier League, there was nothing else for me,” he tells The Athletic 20 years later. “Now, Brexit has killed that dream for young players. It’s a real shame.”

From next year, English clubs will no longer be able to sign foreign players until they are 18. The new rules (pushed for by the FA) also stipulate that Premier League clubs will only be allowed to sign six overseas under-21 players per season from 2021-22, with only three permitted in the upcoming January window.

FIFA is yet to finalise its new post-Brexit transfer rules concerning under-18s but some European teams thought they might still be able to sign British under-18s for their youth teams. However English clubs are pressing FIFA to standardise the process globally, so all players can only move countries when they turn 16.

The FA and FIFA are currently in talks about this — and there are discussions ongoing about whether the Republic of Ireland should be exempt from the new regulations.

A source close to the negotiations said: “They’re trying to put a Band-Aid on a compound fracture. They know they have to address the specific problem of Ireland’s young players but that opens up a Pandora’s box for the Premier League and the rest of Europe.”

Kneissl’s move to west London, unlike that of his compatriot Robert Huth one year later in 2001, ultimately didn’t work out as a series of injuries halted his progress.

Subsequent transfers to third- and fourth-division sides in Germany failed to rekindle his professional career. But the 37-year-old doesn’t have any regrets. He regards the new regulations as damaging for football.

“By taking away options for young players to develop in one of the most important football nations in the world, you’re taking away options and opportunities for them. It’s bad for the game. Robert Huth’s characteristics, for example, weren’t really valued very highly in Germany at the time, but as a tall and very physical player, he was perfect for English football. Now, that route is cut off for them at a critical time of their development.”

Munich-based Kneissl, who these days works as a leadership coach with professional footballers and helps them maximise their potential by honing their decision-making process and mental resilience, also believes that moving abroad at an early age can foster personal growth. “It was extremely exciting for me and Robert to stay with host families in a new country, getting to know a different language and a different culture. You learn to solve problems by yourself. You take on responsibility. In my mind, it’s a catastrophe that European players won’t be able to experience the same in the future.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of young players who might have been weighing up a move to England in recent months will feel very down about that chance suddenly being taken away from them.”

robert-huth-chelsea

There will be other knock-on effects. British players will be protected from foreign competition until they’re 18 but their clubs will miss out on many of the continent’s most promising youngsters in return.

There are currently 86 non-British EU teenagers signed to Premier League clubs’ under-18 and under-23 squads. Manchester United have the most on their books, with 12. Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Southampton follow with six each, while Burnley have none.

That total number includes Billy Koumetio, who became Liverpool’s youngest ever Champions League player on Wednesday night with a substitute appearance in the 1-1 draw at Midtjylland. The 18-year-old Frenchman joined the club from US Orleans in 2018.

Cesc Fabregas, who joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old in 2003, would have been prevented from moving from Barcelona, as would Hector Bellerin. Nicolas Anelka would have been blocked from joining Arsenal from Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 17.

Many Premier League clubs were busy this summer buying youth talent before the Brexit regulations came into play.

Under the new rules, all overseas adult players joining the Premier League will have to qualify for entry through a points-based system — European players will have to acquire 15 points to gain a governing body endorsement. By contrast, in Germany, there will continue to be no legal restrictions on signing adult foreign players for professional teams, although the German FA stipulates that 12 players must be natives in every squad.

Roy Rajber, Germany managing director at football agency Stellar, anticipates ”a shifting of market forces” that will strengthen the position of the Bundesliga in particular.

“They will be able to keep hold of their own players for longer,” he says, as England’s riches will be out of reach for young players. Meanwhile, fees and wages for British players will rise even further, as will the market values for adult European players.

At the same time, Rajber suspects that Premier League clubs will redouble their attempts to get hold of European talent via strategic tie-ups with continental clubs. “We will see more sides going down the route of Chelsea, who have a partnership with Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands, or Manchester City, with their extensive network of subsidiary clubs.

“Whereas the best teenagers would have gone straight to England before, they will now have to be persuaded to develop at one of the connected clubs before moving over at the age of 18, at the earliest.

“For some, starting at that lower level might be beneficial but this enforced detour will certainly take away from the intrinsic appeal of Premier League clubs. I’d expect the big Bundesliga sides to become the new number one choice of young European players, as they can promise decent money, realistic prospects of development and involvement in a high-level competition.”

Rajber name-checks United States international (and Portuguese passport holder) Giovanni Reyna, one of this season’s breakout stars.

The now-18-year-old was tempted by offers from half the Premier League before opting for Dortmund two years ago. “The next Reyna won’t have those choices available to him,” Rajber says. “Bundesliga clubs have a good chance of becoming the most-appealing destination for players who are at a similar stage in their career. They can point to the success of Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala or Florian Wirtz at Bayer Leverkusen and make a good case for themselves.”

Paul Conway, co-chairman of Barnsley, alluded to this in a chat with The Athletic, saying more clubs will look to replicate the Red Bull or City group model as a result of the Brexit changes.

He said: “We took control of Oostende in Belgium, in May, and then completely changed over the team from an older plotting team to an attacking young team, average age 23. And we have a small stake in a Swiss club called Thun. When we’re recruiting, especially post Brexit, we have a lot of flexibility on where the players are signed, both based upon the location and also the level of quality of the player at that time.”

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Bayern Munich’s campus director Jochen Sauer told The Athletic: “All English top clubs have about three or four European talents in the under-17 and under-18 squads. Without them, the number of interested clubs for top talents will dwindle somewhat. But we will still have to convince a 16-year-old to come to Bayern rather than to Real Madrid, Barcelona or Juventus.

“The direct impact on Bayern will only concern singular cases. In each year, there are 20 to 25 players that the six top clubs in Europe are after. It’s possible that there some slight ‘positive’ effects on wage demands at this level. English top clubs tend to offer very good wages for 16 or 17-year-olds in comparison with European clubs.”

Jurgen Klopp also addressed the issue, believing English players are benefiting from training with some of the best talent in Europe — which will no longer happen post-Brexit.

“People – the FA or whoever – want to make sure that the clubs don’t sign too many players from other countries because they are afraid that not enough English talents will make their way”, he said. “But if you look at the English youth national teams at the moment they are in the top two or three – if not the top – in nearly all age groups; talent-wise they are 100 per cent, and that is with the way we did it before.

“So let’s think about why that happened. They had a lot of players around them that played good football as well. It’s helpful. We cannot just create more talents because we deny other talents.”

The Bundesliga’s track record in developing budding professionals was already strong before the new Brexit regulations barred their move to the UK but since England and its money can no longer have as much sway over the market, talents will flock elsewhere.

“Half of the French under-17s team are queuing up to join us,” a Bundesliga official told The Athletic. He was only half-joking.

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Trashing the art created out of thin air by improvisational geniuses

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Bureaucratic nonsense, earlier.
camera.png Bureaucratic nonsense, earlier. Photograph: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

Scott Murray


OLD FIVER YELLS AT CLOUD

Every generation comes up with a few new ideas that change the world and move things forward: the wheel, the steam engine, the printing press, this hot new “Dixieland jass”. Play it to The Fiver! Play it! But the innovations being made by this current generation are ballsing everything up big style. In January, Brexit will make 1970s Poland look like an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Digital streaming means the Original Dixieland Jass Band now only get paid 0.0000000000000000000001p per riff. Daily satirical emails are not as good as serious reportage. And then there’s VAR. We really have jiggered the entire effing lot, haven’t we. Planet’s gone. Well done, kids!

“I used to be one of the people who said VAR is a good idea,” Jürgen Klopp admitted on Wednesday night. “I’m really not sure if I would say that again to be honest.” Jürgen joins The Fiver’s club after a farcical Big Cup match in which both Midtjylland and Liverpool scored goals that looked perfectly good to the [email protected] eye, only to be denied by some desk-bound bureaucratic nonentity who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, and left 22 muscle-bound athletes standing in the freezing Danish winter night while he toiled away in the warmth of his deep-pile-carpeted office, in search of any reason to trash the art that had just been created out of thin air by improvisational geniuses, spoiling the enjoyment of millions. “But now we have it,” concluded Klopp, saying more with one sigh than The Fiver could in an entire overwritten paragraph.

The fact that both calls were technically right isn’t the issue and doesn’t negate the central thrust of the argument, as anyone debating this subject in good faith knows full well. “It just took too long,” Klopp concluded, “and it was cold for the boys which didn’t help.” In bygone times, Liverpool would have warmed themselves up after the match with several generous glasses of that limited-edition Christmas ale the Danes have that tastes like Newcastle Brown sieved through a sock, but modern sport science means they can’t even do that nowadays. There’s probably no putting that particular Julebryg genie back in the bottle, but could we at least cut the plug off the VAR box? That’s almost certainly not going to happen either, though, is it. A depressed Fiver puts on Tiger Rag in order to cheer itself up. Don’t spend your 0.0000000000000000000001p royalties all at once, Original Dixieland Jass Band!

LIVE ON BIG WEBSITE!

Join Barry Glendenning and Scott Murray from 5.55pm for white-knuckle clockwatch coverage of Thursday’s Big Vase action, featuring four British teams that have already qualified and two more that can’t.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Goodbye Paolo Rossi, the unforgettable champion” – Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte leads the tributes after the 1982 World Cup winner died at the age of 64.

RIP Paolo.
camera.png RIP Paolo. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

FIVER LETTERS

“Dear Fiver, here are the final 16 in Big Cup: four teams from Spain, four from Germany, three from England, three from Italy, PSG and Porto. Here is the number of teams not from Spain, Germany, England or Italy to win Big Cup in the last 25 years: one (Porto, 2004). It turns out the European Superleague already exists. Uefa just needs to figure out how to replace Porto with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s free-form jazz collective (yesterday’s Fiver), and we’ll be all set” – Ursolin Waxoh.

“David Carr is quite right to note Neil Warnock’s near-Mourinho level of mind-gamery (yesterday’s Fiver letters). My observation was merely intended to badger Stoke for the state of the loos at a major professional sports arena. But to learn that it was actually a sunny afternoon – not a cold and windy night – that generated such an offensive smell suggests they’ve got an even more serious plumbing problem than originally thought” – Mike Wilner.

Send your letters to [email protected]. And you can always tweet The Fiver via @guardian_sport. Today’s winner of our prizeless letter o’the day prize is … Ursolin Waxoh.

RECOMMENDED SHOPPING

Available at our print shop now, Tom Jenkins’s pictures of the past decade. There’s also this Gazza picture there too.

NEWS, BITS AND BOBS

Antonio Conte is in a predictable funk after Inter crashed out of Big Cup and failed to even make Big Vase after a 0-0 draw with Shakhtar. “Throughout [Big Cup], we have been unlucky with referees and VAR,” he fumed. “Now that we are out, I feel I have to say this. It seems to me that Inter have not been respected, if you go back and look at the situations that have not been reviewed or evaluated.”

Easy there, Steven Taylor.
camera.png Easy there, Steven Taylor. Photograph: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane can’t see himself emulating Lord Ferg at Manchester United and staying for the long, long haul. “I will never be Madrid’s Ferguson, I’m sure of that,” he tooted after his team beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-0 to reach the last 16 of Big Cup, despite recent defeats. “What I really want is to enjoy what I’m doing, I don’t know for how long I will stay here so I don’t even think about it.”

Here are still the Belgians! Bobby M’s team have topped Fifa’s world rankings for a third straight year.

Having recalled him ahead of schedule for the north London derby, Arsenal will now be without Thomas Partey for the next few matches after a new case of thigh-gah. “In football you have a lot of unpredictable actions,” sighed Mikel Arteta. Some more so than others, clearly.

And Morecambe fan Cliff Crabtree, 90, got a birthday surprise after the team bus stopped at his house on their way home from last weekend’s game at Newport. “It was a complete surprise for him,” said Cliff’s son, Martin. “About 20 friends and family also stood outside his house, and the coach pulled up, and the manager and club captain presented him with a card and mug and scarf.”

STILL WANT MORE?

Classic YouTube features a tribute to Paolo Rossi, a Manchester derby preview and some acrobatic somersault throw-ins.

Our all-singing-and-dancing interactive of the 100 best female footballers in 2020 has reached the base camp of 11th, with the top 10 to be revealed on Friday.

Onwards.
camera.png Onwards. Illustration: Guardian Design

Ranked 51st is Caitlin Foord, star for both Arsenal and Australia, and she’s been talking about overcoming flamin’ potentially career-threatening knack in 2018.

Manchester United are out of Big Cup and Jonathan Liew is not one to miss a chance to dish out some well-deserved blame.

Dani Garavelli has written on the eeriness of young players starting their careers in empty stadiums.

Oh, and if it’s your thing … you can follow Big Website on Big Social FaceSpace. And INSTACHAT, TOO!

‘THE MOST THREATENING AURA IN THE VIP LOUNGE’

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Another of his world-famous man-management masterclasses

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José Mourinho
camera.png José Mourinho, emphatically killing Gareth Bale’s buzz. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Scott Murray


EU ADDIO

That risible scruffy indolent piece of work – you know the one – may be in the process of getting the back seat of his crumpled trousers handed to him in Brussels, but not all current British interaction with our continental cousins is a thoroughly avoidable embarrassment unfolding in real time and we’d all better get used to bread’n’spread for tea. Take our involvement in Big Vase, which last night was an across-the-board triumph. Leicester, Pope’s Newc O’Rangers and Arsenal all strolled to impressive victories, while the Queen’s Celtic won a five-goal thriller that, while too late to save their skin in Europe, should give the team a timely confidence boost as they prepare to reboot their 10-in-a-row challenge, and also gives Neil Lennon a stay of execution. Swings and roundabouts, then.

Spurs also recorded a welcome victory, on an evening that saw José Mourinho put on another of his world-famous man-management masterclasses. The deadlock against Antwerp was broken on the hour when Gareth Bale crashed a free-kick against the frame of the goal and Carlos Vinícius knocked in the rebound. Both players were immediately hauled off, unable to build on the moment and give their stop-start careers a further boost. Not allowed. Harry Winks was also withdrawn, and responded to his substitution by flouncing down the tunnel in the theatrical style, sending out a message to rumoured suitors Everton. That message being: it’ll work out better than the time you bought Vinny Samways, promise. It has to.

Everton are also reportedly interested in Dele Alli, who like Winks before him appeared to signal his discontent by conspicuously chipping off after Mourinho called up the last of his subs and it became clear the 24-year-old midfielder wasn’t going to get on. Alli has served up either a goal or an assist in every other game he’s played for Spurs, but José doesn’t appear particularly enamoured and on Thursday night shrugged insouciantly when explaining that it is “impossible” to keep all of his players happy. A parting of the ways seems inevitable, though Alli may be more interested in a potential loan move to Paris Saint-Germain next month. And who could blame him? An opportunity to win Ligue 1, perhaps Big Cup as well, and a guaranteed supply of food and drink from the world’s largest single market! Chances are, come the new year, we’ll be looking across the Channel at Alli in slack-jawed envy as we make the most of our minor Big Vase successes, and our weekly crusts-and-dripping treat.

LIVE ON BIG WEBSITE

Join Scott Murray for hot MBM coverage of Leeds 2-3 West Ham at 8pm GMT.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“I feel we’re getting better and better and looking more like a Man Utd team that I want” – Ole Gunnar Solskjær might want to hold on to some of his opinions until after the Manchester derby.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær
camera.png Big Vase won’t know what’s hit it. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

RECOMMENDED RANKING

It’s the final countdown! Our groovy interactive of the 100 best female footballers in 2020 has reached No1, so click here to see who won. And you can listen to an extra special bonus Football Weekly podcast counting down from 10 to one.

Top 100
camera.png Yeah, so this gives it away a bit. Illustration: Guardian Design

FIVER LETTERS

“Ah Jürgen, there was indeed a time when you supported VAR (Thursday’s Bits and Bobs). That time was in the first minute of the Champions League final in 2019 when your team was granted a bonus goal to set you on your way. Short memory indeed” – Andrew Walker.

“I’m probably one of 1,057 trying to figure out who the Big Vase’s ‘four British teams that have already qualified and two more that can’t’ are from yesterday’s ‘LIVE ON BIG WEBSITE!’. Spurs, Leicester, Pope’s O’Rangers and Arsenal all made it, and the Queen’s Celtic flopped miserably, so who is the second British team that didn’t make it? Qarabag? Lech Poznan? Or … Dundalk, the Republic O’ Ireland’s representative? I can see why you’d want to claim them. They did score an impressive eight goals (more than any team in Group F managed), even if their zero points isn’t quite as admirable. The Brits. Never not at it” – Stephen Glennon (and 1,056 others).

Send your letters to [email protected]. And you can always tweet The Fiver via @guardian_sport. Today’s winner of our prizeless letter o’the day prize is … Andrew Walker.

RECOMMENDED SHOPPING

Available at our print shop now, Tom Jenkins’s pictures of the past decade. There’s also this Gazza picture there too.

NEWS, BITS AND BOBS

Don’t ask José Mourinho to compare Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. “I don’t like to compare players, and some weeks ago I saw in some special media like I had chosen my all-time team,” he Trumped. “It’s completely fake.” Do ask him about his manager-of-the-month gong, though.

Steve Bruce has revealed two members of Newcastle’s non-playing staff are “poorly” after contracting coronavirus last week and a “big chunk” of his players are unavailable to face West Brom.

Many transfers are pure filth, an unpublished report has found.

Raúl Jiménez returned to the Wolves training ground this week after successfully undergoing surgery on a fractured skull, and manager Nuno Espírito Santo said it was “good to see him smiling” but no timeframe will be put on his return.

Alisson is in contention to face Fulham with Liverpool on Sunday after recovering from shoulder-knack.

James/Hames/Jamez Rodríguez is out of the Everton squad for the Chelsea match after suffering calf-knack.

And Jens Lehmann appears to think that Arsenal’s Class of 2020 are ruining all of his top, top marketing work. “All of us old players would try to help and make the Arsenal brand strong and big,” he blathered. “We are very disappointed because the brand name is deteriorating, and you simply cannot let that happen.”

Jens Lehman
camera.png Jens Lehmann, building the brand. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

STILL WANT MORE?

Italy’s World Cup hero whose quick feet earned redemption. Nicky Bandini pays tribute to Paolo Rossi.

“Now it’s the girls’ dream”: Mara Gómez on becoming Argentina’s first trans footballer.

Ben Chilwell chews the fat with Jacob Steinberg about Chelsea’s parallels with Leicester’s title winners and ending up in his role as a left-back by accident.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is haunted by Mauricio Pochettino’s ghost amid his Old Trafford high-wire act, reckons David Hytner.

The weekend doesn’t start until you’ve read 10 things to look out for in the Premier League.

Everton’s Ben Godfrey tells Andy Hunter about his mission to prove people wrong.

Oh, and if it’s your thing … you can follow Big Website on Big Social FaceSpace. And INSTACHAT, TOO!

IT’S TIME TO PARTY

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