Off on Holiday

June 29, 2007

Fellow Gooners & football fans, I will be out for a month long holiday this month of July. Thus, I will not be adding any more articles until I return. Those few of you that do read my articles (which is very, very few), please comment using the ‘Comments’ link.

Cheers

Jason Pereira

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A foreign player quota; that is a limit on the amount of foreigners you can have in your squad. Discussed by world football’s leaders, many have blasted leading clubs to take into account players born in the country they play in, as those clubs prefer to sign cheaper foreign alternatives. The influx of foreign players in the English Premiership in particular has long been drawn up as a reason why England constantly fails on the international stage.

While just eleven ‘foreigners’ were listed to start in the first week of fixtures at the start of the Premiership in the 1992/93 season, a massive 59% of players that took to the field in last year’s campaign were foreign. Fans of the England international team will suggest that those foreigners are taking up valuable squad places for English youth, but is that the case? If those English youth players are good enough, they will be able to realise their dreams of moving to a top four club- as Theo Walcott, Wayne Rooney and Shaun Wright-Phillips have all done.

That’s not to say a stint at a top four club is the best for young English players because they will often get limited playing time. Often, a spell at a smaller club can benefit those youngsters greatly- the likes of Leighton Baines at Wigan, Micah Richards at Manchester City and Fabrice Muamba at Birmingham can testify to this. Whereas at a top four club the trio would be mostly bench players, they are allowed to flourish in an environment with less pressure and if they have not already, they will get their first England caps in the coming months. Even though the top clubs do not really take gambles on those players from the lower divisions, clubs further down in the Premiership do- as shown when Everton paid what could be an eventual £5m to bring Joleon Lescott to Goodison Park. Impressing greatly, Lescott has been one of the star performers of an Everton side that qualified for the UEFA Cup. Another young English player to do well in the Premiership is Nicky Shorey, bought for a mere £25,000 from Leyton Orient to eventually arrive with Reading into England’s top flight, and even earning himself an call-up to England’s friendly against Brazil a day before his wedding. The last example I bring you is that of once non-league winger Michael Kightly, who could soon be playing in the Premiership. The English player moved to Wolverhampton Wonderers from Conference side Grays Athletic, with Premiership champions Manchester United apparently interested in getting his signature. Once known as ‘the Ryan Giggs of non-league football’, Wolves have put a £2m value on Kightly and with his stock continuing to rise, it is likely he will make the step up sooner rather than later.

How does the influx of foreign players help the England national team, you ask? Foreign players have contributed to developing one of England’s greatest squads of all time, with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand all capable of getting into any football side in the world. The foreign ‘invasion’ has also meant English players have gained football knowledge and skills they would not have had there been a ban on foreign imports. Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon possess technical prowess matching some of the best continental players in the world, with the former regularly turning in virtuoso performances for Chelsea while the latter hoodwinks defences with his quick feet and ability to play in confined areas.

A quota on the amount of foreign players allowed in the Premiership would not just be detrimental to the league as a spectacle, but it would not help the national team either, with only a larger amount of mediocre players becoming available. Only the cream of the crop rise to the top, and in today’s difficult Premiership it is clear that those best suited to playing for England are doing so. All that is needed for the national team is a half decent manager and some serious, serious penalty practise and they will be up there competing with the best as with the likes of Bentley, Richards and Lennon coming through the wait for England to end their barren run on the national stage draws closer every time a promising youngster manages to break into the Premiership.

While the start of the Premiership season is still over a month away, eager fans have no doubt frantically checked the schedules for when their derby matches are, bought their supply of beer and locked up their non-supporting spouse in the cupboard to avoid being irritated during matches. Here, I give you a list of the top ten players I feel will shock the Premiership, some of them being spoken about worldwide, others seemingly unheard of. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are not included as them being so experienced, it is a disservice to class them as unproven “kids”.

Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)

The English-born player played in every single Aston Villa game last season, surprising many with his skill with the ball and blinding pace. His return of 10 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions is stellar for a mere 20 year old, often played on the wing as Aston Villa used other options up front. Agbonlahor has the mindset to succeed on the big stage, already scoring against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. However, he is not just a scorer of goals. The England U21 international also set up six goals for his team-mates, and both fans and players of Aston Villa will be glad to have such a selfless player in their ranks. Tipped for great things in the future, Agbonlahor will no doubt trouble more Premiership defenses in the upcoming season and will hope to continue his scoring record against the top four.

Denílson Pereira Neves (Arsenal)

Although a relative unknown in the Premiership, Denilson has already won the Copa Libertadores and the FIFA Club World Cup with Brazilian side São Paulo. He made just 12 appearances for them, mostly as a substitute, when Arsene Wenger parted with £3.4m to bring a player that was barely known in Brazil, let alone worldwide. While global audiences lusted after the talents of Brazil stars Kerlon and Alexandre Pato, only Wenger knew what a player he had on his hands. Wenger eased the Brazilian U19 international into English football as all his youth players are- by being given a run in the Carling Cup. Denilson shone, showing that he could not just attack, but defend as well. Firing in a series of highly powerful shots and highly accurate corners, it is surprising that he does not have more than just a solitary assist to his name but you can be assured of one thing- when the first goal comes, the rest will follow. His performances in the Carling Cup helped Arsenal reach the final where the team of Arsenal youth players and reserves lost to a full strength Chelsea side. Although he has only started four games in the Premiership, he is tipped for great things and will get a lot more games this season- satisfying many Arsenal fans wanting to see more of the young player they saw outclassing those many a year older in the Carling Cup run.

Nicklas Bendtner (Arsenal)

Bendtner comes to Arsenal far behind in the list of striking options, with Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott all ahead of him. While Arsenal search for another striker to replace the departed Thierry Henry, this is not to say Bendtner will not get games for the Gunners. Theo Walcott is being played on the wing at the present moment to give Arsenal some much needed width, while Emmanuel Adebayor will disappear for more than a month when the African Cup of Nations takes place. Having an aerial presence to add to great ball control and deceiving pace, Bendtner was sent out on loan to Birmingham- not just to give him regular first team games but also to see if he could compete in the physical Championship. By all accounts, he has done well. Steve Bruce, Birmingham manager has named Bendtner as one of his most instrumental players in securing their promotion to the top flight as the Arsenal man impressed greatly. With a scoring record of 1 goal every 3 starts, Bendtner did well at such a young age. The Danish player also set up 9 goals for his team-mates, leaving Arsenal fans waiting to see how he will do with the first team. Already a full Danish international, if Bendtner does not play much in the Premiership he will have the Carling Cup to show off his talents, and one would not bet against Arsenal reaching the final again if he plays as well as he did for Birmingham.

Matthew Anthony Derbyshire (Blackburn)

Blackburn have a new English striker ready to trouble defenses. His name, you ask? Matt Derbyshire. After shining at loan to Wrexham where he scored 10 goals in 16 appearances, Derbyshire came back to star for Blackburn as well. Ending the season with 9 goals in 14 starts for Blackburn’s first team, Derbyshire was subsequently called up for the England U21 team to play at the European Championships. Good in the air and at getting into the box, it seems Derbyshire has all the facets to become a top, top player in the Premiership and where better to bide his time than at a club like Blackburn. Competition is fierce at Blackburn, with the likes of Benni McCarthy, Jason Roberts and Shabani Nonda all competing for a place in the frontline but fans of the club will know that even if the inevitable departure of McCarthy takes place, they can rely on Derbyshire to score goals. Mostly used off the bench, it is sure that he will get to start more games for the club this season and Blackburn fans will be hoping their team can sneak into Europe if their performances improve.

Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha (Manchester United)

Better known as Nani, United shocked the world by spending a massive £17m to bring Nani to Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon. Dubbed the new ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’, Nani is seen as a long term replacement for the ageing Ryan Giggs. Possessing speed and guile that will make him useful to United’s quest to protect their Premiership title, Nani is equally capable of using either foot to cross or shoot with the ball and his celebration, consisting of a series of somersaults will keep him in the mind of those that have seen him score goals. A regular for Sporting Lisbon in the 2006/07 season, Nani helped them win the Portuguese Cup as well as finish just a point behind league winners FC Porto. Nani has an array of tricks, flicks and turns to beat opposition players and should he adapt to the English Premiership, he will be one to fear. Although he will not start many games for United this season, Nani will be a player that can come off the bench and change games- perhaps starting a few Carling Cup ties. Having already played for the Portuguese national team, the new United player will try to deliver on the great expectations being placed on him, as the boots of Welsh legend Ryan Giggs will not be easy ones to fill.

Anderson Luís De Abreu Oliveira (Manchester United)

Anderson Luís De Abreu Oliveira, better known as just Anderson was the second player bought United’s sensational £50m splurge. As with Nani, he could cost £17m pounds or more, depending on appearances and the like. Christened the new ‘Ronaldinho’ because of their resemblance both on and off the football field, Anderson is a central attacking midfielder brought in to replace Paul Scholes in the long run. Capable of playing all across the midfield, as well as covering at fullback, Anderson will be able to cover for United in case of injuries or suspensions- perhaps far better than United’s two current jack of all trades, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher ever could. Starting his football career playing for the same club that Ronaldinho did, Anderson’s performances at Gremio caused Porto to sign him. He returned the favour by helping them win the 2006/07 Portuguese league, getting the better of his new Untied compatriot Nani. Anderson has not played for the full Brazil national side yet, but he has still done well at youth level- winning the Adidas Golden Ball en route to firing Brazil into the final of the 2005 U17 FIFA World Cup where they lost to Mexico. United fans will hope that the acquisitions of Nani, Anderson and Hargreaves in their latest splurge will help them not just win the title, but be kings of Europe as well.

Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)

Once sharing a room with now-Arsenal prodigy Theo Walcott, Bale was tipped for great things in the Premiership, whether at his then club Southampton or for another team. As Southampton failed to qualify for the England’s elite division, losing to Derby County in the Championship playoffs, Bale was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for a £5m initial fee, eventually rising to a possible £10m dependent on the usual appearances & trophies. Gareth Bale plays as an attacking leftback, capable of filling in as a winger if needed. A deadly left footer to have in your team for set pieces, Bale surprised many Championship keepers with the pace and swerve he put into his freekicks. Winning the Football League Young Player of the Year award for the 2006/07 Championship season, the Welsh-born player should find the Premiership no problem to adapt to as Tottenham attempt to break into the top four. Already a Welsh international, Bale made his debut against Trindidad and Tobago on 27 th May, 2006, coming on as a substitute and setting up the goal that would win Wales the game from Robert Earnshaw. With Aaron Lennon already terrorizing defenses in the English Premiership, Bale would ensure that opposition players on the opposite flank get no rest as well.

Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)

The name Lennon is now widely known among followers of the English Premiership. The Spurs winger has made many a defender fall over with his ability to change direction at speed and his flashy footwork. Playing for England at the World Cup, Lennon was one of the impressive features of a side that slumped to a penalty shootout loss against Portugal in the knockout rounds. Tottenham fans point to Lennon as the perfect replacement for David Beckham when the LA Galaxy player decides to retire from the International stage, and few would disagree. Creating goals aplenty for his fellow Spurs players, Lennon will hope to add goals to his armoury, the one thing he currently lacks. Although the right winger made 13 goals for his team-mates, he only scored 5 goals himself. However, with the ability he has to get into advanced positions, few would disagree that he will get more goals in his career. Costing Tottenham Hotspur just £1m from Leeds in June 2005, his value has increased tenfold since then and he represents another player Spurs will have made a massive profit on if he decides to follow Michael Carrick’s footsteps out of White Hart Lane. Fans of the North London club will hope he doesn’t, as if he does they will have no chance of getting into the top four ahead of London rivals Arsenal.

Luis Antonio Valencia (Wigan)

Far to good to be playing in a team as dour as Wigan, Antonio Valencia impressed greatly playing on the wing last season. His dynamism and electric pace brought in another dimension and him adapting quickly to English football was one of the main reasons Wigan avoided relegation. A valued member of the Ecuador national team, those of you that watched the World Cup would have noticed Valencia putting in accurate crosses from the byline, as well as helping his team out in defense when the need arose. Voted as the Best Youth Player at the 2006 World Cup in the official poll, the young players’ fast growing fanbase were disappointed when tournament officials awarded the gong to German forward Lukas Podolski. Merely on loan from Villareal at present, Wigan’s new manager Chris Hutchings looks set to confirm a new one-year deal for Valencia. Constantly running up and down the pitch to help both defense and attack, the Ecuadorian international’s selfless play has allowed his teammates to shine. One for the future, Valencia will try to improve on his solitary goal from last season and will be a fearsome player to come against in the future.

Giles Barnes (Derby County)

Giles Barnes, attacking midfielder for Derby will be able to display his talents in the Premiership arena for the first time next season. One of Derby’s most important players as they secured promotion via the Championship playoffs, Barnes even helped provide for the team’s most important goal of all- the cross which Pearson converted to beat West Bromwich Albion in the playoff final was his. A goal-scoring midfielder, Derby’s number 28 scored 8 goals himself and made 6 goals for his teammates on his way to becoming a fans’ favourite at the Pride Park Stadium. Not just blessed with pace, Barnes has the physical build to compete in the unforgiving Premiership. An entertainer, the English player’s impressive performances have led him to be linked with Tottenham and London rivals Arsenal, but his rejection of Tottenham as a possible destination will no doubt increase his standing in many Gooners’ eyes. New to the Premiership, Derby are assured of not being humiliated as long as Barnes and manager Davies stay with them and who knows, they could surprise a few teams along the way.

‘He’ll never sign for Arsenal, he’s English. Don’t you know Wenger hates English players?” This is the response a friend of mine gave me when we discussed Arsenal being linked to Leighton Baines. Although the first Wenger team was built of an English back five (Seamen, Dixon, Adams , Bould and Winterburn), these players were inherited from a previous Arsenal manager, George Graham. Even so, they have surmised that Wenger’s stringent diet routine and methodical training schedule increased their careers by at least another five or so years. The sight of Parlour marauding up and down the right flank was a common one at the start of the new millennium and of course which Arsenal fan can forget Ian Wright latching on to through balls to round the keeper and score.

However, in recent times Wenger’s transfer policy has been to sign mainly foreign players. Why, you ask? Wenger has always been priced out of the market for the top class England players. Wayne Rooney, a player who Wenger admired went for a reported £30 million pounds, whereas Wenger found the world class Van Persie for around £2.75 million pounds, less than a tenth of Rooney’s cost! Other examples would include £30 million pounds for Rio Ferdinand compared to £150,000 pounds for Kolo Toure, or even £1 million pounds for the prodigious Cesc Fabregas whilst Michael Carrick went for £18.6 million pounds.

Nevertheless, many critics of Wenger’s transfer policy say he could sign other less priced English players, such as Joey Barton, or Steve Sidwell, or even David Nugent. What they fail to realise is that Wenger has had his hands burned thrice by English players and thus is wary of taking the risk again. Pennant, a promising winger and thought of by many of being capable of replacing Ljungberg on the right wing was constantly drinking after games, arriving late for training and getting into the press for bad behaviour. Francis Jeffers, the supposed next English Michael Owen tempted Wenger to part with £10.5 million pounds for him- but he developed into a flop of the highest order and was quickly jettisoned for a huge loss. Lastly, all Arsenal fans can remember being knifed in the back by club idol, and possible future captain Ashley Cole. The England left back met London rivals Chelsea’s manager and director of football in a hotel just a week before a big game and then wrote a book critisising all at the club- manager, players, and fans included.

This is not to say that a stint on the books of Arsenal Football Club is bad for English players. There are many examples of English players leaving Arsenal to go on and shine at other clubs. Steve Sidwell, who flourished at Reading, being one of the most exciting players in a team that took the Premiership by storm has now gone to FA Cup winners Chelsea. David Bentley, a promising talent that could play either on the flank or as a secondary striker (in the Dennis Bergkamp role) sadly could not wait for his chance as he had the then great Pires and Ljungberg ahead of him on the flanks as well as Bergkamp himself in his role up front. He has since moved on to Blackburn, where he has impressed greatly and was recently linked with Premiership Champions Manchester United for a reported £6 million pound move. Jermaine Pennant is of course at UEFA Champions League finalists Liverpool, driving forwards and pinging in crosses from his favoured position on the wing. Even a mere season at Arsenal will help no end as Harper and Stack at Reading, Jerome Thomas at Charlton, Fabrice Muamba at Birmingham as well as many others scattered across the lower leagues of England will tell you.

Wenger does not ignore English players, he merely looks at what is best for the club and if he can purchase a foreign player, at a fraction of the cost, of an English player with similar talents, then he clearly is doing what is best for the club and its supporters. Even so, there are still English players blossoming at Arsenal Football Club. Theo Walcott, one of the upcoming stars of the next generation was wanted by Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool among others but he chose to come to Arsenal as he saw young players have a good chance to succeed with the Gunners. His skill and pace enticed Arsene Wenger to fork out £5 million pounds rising to a possible £12 million depending on appearances and trophies won, making the then sixteen year old Walcott the most expensive player of his age in the history of British football. Along with Justin Hoyte, an England U21 regular, Walcott makes up the second half of just two English players in the Arsenal squad.

Do not be fooled by the scarcity of English players however- Arsenal still have a great interest in developing English youngsters. The problem with buying English players is that very few of them have the technical skill required to perform on the big stage in Arsenal’s passing game. Only the likes of Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole possess this in the current England setup, and since both of those players play for direct rivals they are off limits for the near future. Arsene Wenger is a smart man and quickly found a way around this problem. By developing youngsters in Arsenal’s very own youth teams, the ability to adapt to Arsenal’s continental style of football is instilled in these players from a young age. These players although not ready to make an impact now will form an English spine for Arsenal in a few years. The likes of Henri Lansbury, a swift attacking midfielder will provide competition for places when he is ready. Along with Marc Randall, another central midfielder, Matthew Connoly, a central defender and current captain of the Arsenal reserves and Jay Simpson, a striker that scored the first ever hattrick at the Emirates Stadium, these players will undoubtedly push for Arsenal places in the coming years. Even if they do not make it playing for Wenger’s Arsenal, they will find other clubs gladly willing to take them on their books due to their thorough Arsenal education. I write this to inform and educate those that do not know of the miracle we are currently witnessing at Arsenal. Too often Arsenal fans are taunted by those supporting rival clubs about the lack of English talent at Ashburton Grove, now those remarks can be buried in the scrapheap as they deserve. Although not possessing many English players in the current first team, it is undoubted that the future is not just red and white for Arsenal, but red and white for England as well.

Real Madrid Club de Fútbol. 30 La Liga titles, 9 European Cups- that is what you think of when the name of the current Spanish title holders is mentioned. Synonymous with tapping up, big name players and a succession of sacked managers, Real Madrid is arguably the biggest, and certainly one of the most interesting clubs in the world of football. In the past seven years of football alone, Real spending in the transfer market for a who’s who of world football includes- £47m for Zinedine Zidane, £39m for Luis Figo, £26m for Ronaldo and £25m for David Beckham. These four were the main stars brought in as part of president Florentino Pérez’s Galáctico Era, in which he promised to bring in one Galáctico, or star player , every year.

Vicente Del Bosque was the manager at that time under Pérez and renowned for his calm and emotionless demeanour. He created a team capable of outplaying and outscoring any team, and his star -studded team won trophy after trophy- the Champions League in his first season followed by two La Liga triumphs and another Champions League win in his four years in Madrid. During these years Real Madrid were not just the rulers of Spain , but of Europe as well. While all good things come to an end, it was a surprise how the end came about at Real. Del Bosque, the man who had so calmly managed the big egos at Real , was sensationally not offered a new contract just a day after he had orchestrated the club’s march to its 29 th La Liga title. Under Perez, Real had always focused on attack rather than defence- their belief seemed to be that they would always outscore their opponent and thus it did not matter how many the opponent scored as long as they scored more. This failure to view defence of major importance led to the departure of Claude Makalele to Chelsea, the best defensive midfielder in the world leaving after he was not offered the same wages as the Galácticos Real employed. Patrick Vieira, one of the world’s premier midfield maestros, also rejected Madrid’s advances because they refused to offer him the same salary offered to Real’s attacking players.

This blinkered view towards defence, a failure to let new managers have ample time to build a team and a series of bad signings led to four barren years at Real, during which not a single trophy was won. Seven different managers came and went in those four years and many signings failed to impress, such as Walter Samuel, Antonio Cassano and Julio Baptista. This unfruitful period reached it’s lowest point when Real’s squad of ageing superstars were thoroughly outclassed by a youthful Arsenal side in the Champions League, where Real were seen off due to a wonder goal by once targeted striker Thierry Henry. Finally, on February 27th, 2006 Florentino Perez resigned, ending the Galáctico Era and signalling the start of a new time for Real Madrid.

This new period started on July 2nd, 2006 when Ramón Calderón was chosen as club president. Calderón started off by putting Fabio Capello in control of Real’s squad . As Capello had led AC Milan, Juventus and AS Roma to title wins in the notoriously defensive Serie A, it was clear he would sort out the defensive issues Real Madrid had faced. Immediately going back to his old club to sign Emerson and Cannavaro, available on the cheap after a disruptive Serie A scandal, Capello also added Mahamadou Diarra from Lyon. These three defensively minded players were regarded as being among the best in the world in their respective positions. Lastly Capello went to Manchester United in the English Premiership and bought star striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy for a mere £10.3m- a bargain for one of the best goal-poachers in the world.

Season 2006/07 started off poorly, with the club’s dour style compared to prior years coupled with poor results left them behind Barcelona and the season’s surprise package Sevilla FC. When Real were knocked out of the Champions League on away goals by the also struggling Bayern Munich, fans of the club were calling for Capello’s sacking. With hindsight, they will be glad that their cries were not answered as Real’s performances improved in the second half of the season due to a return to form of their right winger David Beckham- even after Capello had previously said that the Englishman would never play for Real again. The partnership between Beckham and ex Manchester United team-mate Ruud Van Nistelrooy, contributed to many goals for Real; Beckham pinging the ball in from the right while Van Nistelrooy rose to power a header past a helpless goalkeeper was a common sight in Real’s revival. The club snatched top position in the La Liga standings for the first time that season after a late winner against Espanyol, coming from 3-1 down to snatch all the points in the last minute was coupled with a last minute equaliser by Betis’ Brazilian striker Rafael Sobis in the Barcelona-Betis match. A never say die attitude coupled with Barcelona’s complacency meant Real kept their position at the top till the last day of La Liga. Real Madrid were ahead of Barcelona despite having a weaker goal difference by virtue of a better head to head standing, which is how La Liga determines positions when two teams are level on points. Sevilla FC, just two points behind fell out of the race as they slumped to a 1-0 loss to Villareal. Barcelona started the day better, Puyol putting the Catalan side ahead as Valera gave Mallorca a shock 1-0 lead against Real. Barcelona’s 5-1 victory was proved to be all in vain by the end of the night as Capello’s inspired substitution, taking Beckham off for Jose Antonio Reyes, the winger on loan from Arsenal reaped rewards. Reyes fired in two goals to leave Real with their first trophy in four years while Barca nursed their wounds.

Even though Real have just won La Liga for the first time since the 2002/03 season, it would not be Real Madrid without internal disputes. Despite Capello’s success, Calderón has still not confirmed that the ex-Juventus man will be there next season, publically stating he had drawn up a list of four possible managers to replace Capello- Arsène Wenger, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and Bernard Schuster. One would have to be extremely overconfident to sack a coach after he has just won you a domestic title, and Real Madrid fans will point to the barren years that followed Del Bosque’s departure in the hope Calderón does what is best for the club.