And Then There Was Özil: The Premier League’s Best Playmakers

Mesut ÖzilIn the dying moments of the summer transfer window, Arsenal had the news they’d been waiting for for days, weeks, arguably years. Arsène Wenger finally broke the tradition of years by splashing out more than £40 million on Real Madrid’s German playmaker Mesut Özil, the man who has racked up more assists and chances created than any other player on Earth in the last three years. Özil is unquestionably one of the best players in the world and it is a source of bemusement to millions that Madrid would let him leave, but he has big shoes to fill; the Premier League has seen its fair share of world-class playmakers over the years. Özil will be able to congratulate himself on a job well done if he earns a reputation to rival that of the others.

Gunners legend Dennis Bergkamp is regarded as the best foreign player to ever  grace English shores. Blessed with a feather-light touch, seemingly 360-degree vision and finishing to match any striker, Bergkamp was an integral part of the The Invincibles team of 2003-04, and was fellow legend Thierry Henry’s all-time favorite playing partner. ‘Dennis the Menace’ became known for scoring some of football’s all-time great goals, such as against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup or Newcastle in 2002.

Over a quarter of Bergkamp’s goals came from outside the box, but it was his passing range and assists that Bergkamp will really be remembered for at the Emirates. One touch from the “Iceman” was usually enough to take a defender, if not the whole defense, out of the game. In the record-breaking 03-04 season, he bagged 12 assists and scored four goals, meaning that almost a quarter of Arsenal’s league goals came through the brilliant Dutchman. He won seven trophies at Arsenal and countless individual honors throughout his glittering career, but it is not just the fashionable London clubs who have graced the Match of the Day highlight reels with brilliant playmakers.

Matt Le Tissier, potentially the best penalty taker of all time (48 out of 49 converted) and one of England’s favorite one-club men. Having been turned down by Oxford United, Le Tissier moved to Southampton at the young age of 17 and stayed there for his entire career (save a few games for Eastleigh and Geurnsey, his local teams). A quick YouTube search of his name brings up endless highlight reels of cheeky skills, long range screamers, and his fabled flicked free-kick against Wimbledon, and to this day, he is still worshiped as a semi-deity on the south coast.

A scoring record of better than one in three across 16 years for the Saints tells its own story, but he made little impression on the international stage; no goals in his only eight games for England. The first midfielder to reach 100 goals in the Premiership, Le Tissier left an indelible mark on Premier League history, not bad for a man nicknamed ‘Fat Le Tissier’ throughout the country.

JuninhoBut one player who couldn’t have been accused of being overweight was diminutive 5′ 5″ Brazilian Juninho, voted Middlesbrough’s all-time greatest player, as well as being one of the most popular foreign imports around the country. Boro caused a stir throughout the footballing world when they signed the Brazilian player of the year from São Paulo in 1995, and he quickly became a fans’ favorite on Teesside. ‘The Little Fella’ became known for playing football on the street with local children, but it was his exploits on the pitch with players like Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli that earned him plaudits for his silky dribbling, eye for goal and bravery on the pitch.

Juninho helped Boro to FA Cup and League Cup finals in 1997, but Boro lost both and were relegated from the Premier League by two points on the final day having been docked three points earlier in the season (they failed to fulfill a fixture against Blackburn after a virus swept through the squad), with Juninho’s crying figure slumped on the Elland Road turf now an iconic picture in the club’s history. He left to further his chances of making the Brazil World Cup squad but returned for two more spells on Teesside, helping Boro to their first major trophy, the League Cup, in 2004.

One team who have suffered considerably fewer trophy droughts over the years are Manchester United, and one of their greatest players, Paul Scholes (who retired earlier in 2013) is another one of the Premier League’s best playmakers. Scholes started his career just a year after the Premier League’s inception in 1992, going on to make 499 appearances for Manchester United in 20 years at the very top level (with a bit of a break after 2011). Players like Thierry Henry and Ryan Giggs list him among their favorite players, and the general consensus in the wider footballing world is that England were not as appreciative of Scholes’ passing as they should have been. If he had played for Spain, for example, he may have been much more celebrated during his illustrious career.

Scholes was never afraid to shoot - everyone remembers his 30-yard bullet against Barcelona - but a scoring record of better than one in five is all the more impressive when you think that the teams he played in have been centered around the goal-scoring exploits of players like Robin Van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. When it comes to one of England’s most technically gifted players, the final word must go to probably the best midfielder of the last five years, if not this century. Barcelona’s metronomic passing machine Xavi said of United’s Ginger Prince, “In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen - the most complete - is Scholes.”

Steven GerrardAnother English midfielder to have earned the respect of the greats is Liverpool’s living legend Steven Gerrard, who both Zinedine Zidane and Pelé rate as one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the greatest game on earth. Aged 33, Gerrard still has a few years left in the tank (injury permitting) and is one of a select group to have passed a century of caps for England, many of them as captain.

His match-winning double against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup Final will surely be remembered as one of the best individual cup final performances in living memory, and it is said that it was his half-time speech that led to Liverpool’s remarkable comeback against AC Milan on ‘that night in Istanbul.’ Many great players have passed through Anfield’s hallowed gates in the last 15 years - Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Emile Heskey, and more - but one player always remained constant through good times and bad, and Liverpool will be a much different place when he’s gone.

Liverpool have never felt the need to replace Gerrard, but one club who have had more than their fair share of playmakers over the years are Chelsea, and unquestionably the best of the lot was lovable little Italian Gianfranco Zola, now managing a free-flowing Watford side in the Championship. Zola joined Chelsea after a trophy drought that was a million miles away from their current situation, having not won silverware for 25 years. By the time he left in 2003, the Blues had begun to establish themselves as a major power in England, with four domestic titles and two European trophies added to the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet.

On top of his own individual gongs, Zola also won an OBE in 2004, with the British embassy in Rome saying that he was ”the most enduring and popular foreign player in the history of Chelsea” as well as praising his charity work. Zola made an instant impression in London, dazzling fans with his dribbling skills and brilliant goals; remember the mid-air back-heel against Norwich? Zola left on a high after winning his second Chelsea Player of the Year award despite fans’ pleadings for him to stay, and he has carried on his attacking philosophies into management, with Watford only narrowly missing out on promotion to the Premier League in the playoff final last year.

Cesc FàbregasZola’s departure from London in 2003 coincided with the arrival of another special little player, a Spanish teenager named Francesc Fàbregas, who joined the Arsenal academy from the fabled La Masia academy of Barcelona at the age of 16. Although Fàbregas was not focused on making the starting 11 when he joined - he instead concentrating on learning the language and learning from players like Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira - but after a month at the club he was already the youngest player and youngest goalscorer in the history of the club. He made his first league appearances in 2004, but made headlines for the wrong reasons after allegedly throwing pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson following a match against Manchester United.

In 2004-05, Fàbregas became the second-youngest player to score in the Champions League and took the #4 shirt of Vieira the following year. From then on there was no stopping his rise to the top, with an impressively calm and cool head on his young shoulders and the passing range of a cultured playmaker beyond his years. He started chalking up goals and assists, and soon he would be one of the senior players in an increasingly young team, taking the captain’s armband in 2008.

He continued his personal good form but became frustrated by the lack of trophies at the club, with Arsenal rejecting a €35 million bid from Barcelona for his services. After eight years at the club though, he made the switch back home to Camp Nou to play with close friends like Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta. He hasn’t held down a constant starting berth and was subject to several bids from Manchester United over the summer, so a return to the Emirates is far from impossible in future; Arsenal fans can only hope.

So there we have it; from London, to the South Coast, to Teesside and back again, we have been lucky enough to witness some truly breathtaking playmakers in the last 21 years or so, and with players like Juan Mata and Philippe Coutinho continuing the trend today, we can look forward to more Bergkamps and Juninhos gracing our shores in years to come. Missed out your preferred Premiership playmaker? There isn’t enough room in the world to include the whole 21 years of midfield brilliance on one page, so fight for their cause in the comments below!

Written by Sam France

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Are Manchester United Strong Enough to Defend Title Without Summer Signings?

David MoyesDavid Moyes sure has a lot going on in his mind right now, and I bet he is even suffering from insomnia. Sir Alex personally called him and invited him to his house, only to inform him that he was the new Manchester United boss. From that day on, Moyes’ life has changed drastically.

Being Manchester United manager is a huge task, let alone succeeding a legendary figure such as Ferguson. Three years after breaking Liverpool’s record and becoming the most decorated team in EPL history with 20 titles, Manchester United will be facing a colossal battle to retain their title. Is David Moyes up to the task? Are the Red Devils well equipped to defend what supposedly belongs to them? After seeing their city rivals snatch up the league title from under their nose in the last game of the 2011-12 season, United will do their best to avoid the reoccurrence of such drama, but it’s not going to be an easy task. With Mourinho’s arrival and Pellegrini’s appointment, the Premier League is accumulating quality day after day. Arsenal are yet to dip in the transfer market, but their ever present manager has promised big signings before the transfer deadline day.

Tottenham have already strengthened their squad with three signing, and Villas-Boas is still eyeing several additions. Brendan Rogers seems to have settled well in his new surroundings, and he is looking to build a team that will be a title contender in a couple of years. So this year’s title race will be one of the toughest in recent history, and Moyes’ troops will have to perform week in week out to compete.

Having spent all summer fending away several attempts to lure Wayne Rooney, then tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, trying to sign Cesc Fabregas, Manchester United have only succeeded in adding one signing to their ranks. Guillermo Varela is a 20 year-old full-back who was purchased from Penarol to offer a much needed cover. He is not in any way the finished article but possess qualities that will aid him in trying to win a starting place in Moyes’ team.

Manchester UnitedOf the top four teams last season, Manchester United conceded the most with 43 goals, and of the top seven teams, only Tottenham conceded more goals; even Everton conceded less than United. With Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, and Nemanja Vidic either on the wrong side of their thirties or plagued with injuries, and Buttner, Rafael, and Fabio still nowhere near being quality defenders, the team surely needs heavy defensive reinforcements to plug several holes in a now tired defense. Leighton Baines and Ezequiel Garay are two of the names linked to United, but nothing concrete has occurred until now.

While there was no shortage in goals scored with a total of 86 last season, United’s midfield is not as reliable. Providing cover for defense and creating chances for forwards are not abundant qualities these days, and in an inflated market such as this year’s, the task of finding a suitable midfielder becomes almost impossible. With Anderson still unable to live up to the hype that surrounded his arrival, Darren Fletcher suffering from an ulcerative colitis, Ryan Giggs reaching 39, and Cleverly still incapable of leading, the Red Devils surely need a midfielder with phenomenal attributes if they are to compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.

In a physical league such as the Premier League, matches are often won in the midfield, and that certainly won’t escape the mind of David Moyes as he embarks on the journey of rejuvenating his squad in the remainder of the transfer window. It has been reported that Ed Woodward shifted his attention to Marouane Fellaini after failing to sign Fabregas. 1.94 cm tall, Fellaini has the strength to provide cover for the Manchester back four. As energetic as they come, the Belgian midfielder will undoubtedly provide his team with qualities that were missing as of late, and not only does he defend well, he also has the ability to contribute offensively.

Manchester United posses a strong squad that should be able to challenge in all competitions, but with the continual risk of injury, increasing number of veterans, managerial changes, and chronicle defensive deficiencies, they will have to fortify their base if they are to mingle with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and their city counterparts. Maintaining is sometimes equivalent to declining, and standing still is not moving forward; this is exactly what Manchester United should avoid if they are to defend their title and build on last season’s success to get back to the top of European football.

Written by Hassan Chakroun

The Highs and Lows of Arsenal’s Season So Far

There is no denying that Arsenal are not at the level they used to be. The Golden Age of Henry, Bergkamp, Dixon, Wright, and Adams are behind us, and the new generation of Arsenal players are with us. Despite the addition of these new, young talents to the club, this new team hasn’t performed as well as fans were expecting.

Premier League

ArsenalArsenal are currently 5th in the Premier league with a game in hand against 4th placed Tottenham. They are currently 4 points behind the Spurs, yet their current run of form means that it will very challenging just to reach 4th place before the season’s end.

Arsenal currently has the best defensive record away from home in the league, yet at home, their defense is ranked in the bottom 8 of the league. You can now see why Arsenal’s defense gets such a torrid time.

Champions League

Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions league by Bayern Munich in the last 16. Admittedly, they were knocked before the second leg had even started after a poor performance in the first leg, losing 3-1 at home. However a valiant display in the second leg is surely one of the highlights of the season for Arsenal fans.

Domestic Cups

Arsenal were famously knocked out of the League Cup by League 2 minnows Bradford City. Bradford did eventually go on to reach the final, but lost 5-0 to Swansea. However, the worst thing about their performance was that Arsene Wenger fielded a very strong side. The likes of Cazorla, Podolski, Wilshere, and Vermaelen all started that game.

Arsenal also lost in the FA Cup to Blackburn. A quarter-final match, which Arsenal were expected to ease through, didn’t go to plan; yet another game that Arsenal should have won.

What Needs to Change?

Cesc Fabregas and Robin van PersieArsenal lack star power, having lost the likes of van Persie, Fabregas, and Song in recent years. A star needs to be brought in, someone who can change a game with a touch of class.

Arsenal also need a pacy center back to keep up with counter attacks. With Mertesacker, there is no pace, and often players can run in behind the defense.

Who Should be Signed?

Mario Götze has been outstanding for Borussia Dortmund and has showed his class and flair all season. His dribbling and creativity is exactly what Arsenal are missing.

Another option for Arsene Wenger is Edison Cavani, who like Götze, has been attracting attention by big clubs across Europe. Cavini is currently the top scorer in the Italian Serie A with 22 goals. His best traits are his impressive work rate and outstanding heading and finishing.

Plenty of rumors have been linking both these players to the club, and both Cavini and Götze have what Arsenal is missing. They would create and score lots of goals as well as having the star power they lacking at the moment.

Best and Worst Players

For me Santi Cazorla has been Arsenal’s best player this season by far. He has scored 12 goals in the Premier League as well as creating 7 assists. He commands games with his skill on the ball and his vision. Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, and Lukas Podolski came close but couldn’t quite beat Cazorla. Jack Wilshere could have beaten Cazorla if he hadn’t been injured for much of season.

Andrei Arshavin has been very poor for Arsenal this season. He looks bored when he is playing and lacks a desire to create anything remotely decent. When he joined Arsenal in 2009, he was brilliant. He showed pace, skill, and a lethal shot, but now he just looks lazy. Gervinho ran Arshavin close, but his recent performance against Reading showed he still has what is needed to perform well.

Young Talent

Jack WilshereArsenal’s academy is still one of the best in England, and new talent is constantly arriving. The likes of Wilshere and Gibbs came through the ranks at Arsenal, and many new players have the potential to do the same. Recently watching a U21 game, the one player that stood out was captain Ignasi Miquel. He towers over the other players at 6 feet 4 inches, yet is so agile and good with the ball at his feet.

Another name for you to remember is 20 year old Thomas Eisfiled. The young German is said to be the new Götze because of his excellent play-making abilities.

Summary

This season has been disappointing for Arsenal fans and well below Arsenal’s usual standards. At times, the football has been great to watch, but the results have not been good enough. Players must be brought in to change the team for the better. On the plus side, there are plenty of new stars in the academy ready to come up and create a new generation of Arsenal players.

Written by Eleanor Martin

Barcelona Defeats Sevilla Despite Losing 2-0 at 50′

Barcelona managed to extend their winning streak even further after striking twice against Sevilla in the final minutes of the game. Los Rojiblancos previously played Real Madrid, whom they beat 1-0 due to Piotr Trochowski’s early goal. Despite being up 2 goals at the 50 minute mark, they were not able to extingish Barça’s fire, though.

Piotr Trochowski scored the first of Sevilla’s two goals after striking home at 26 minutes. Alvaro Negredo doubled their lead just short of the 50 minute mark, making the possibility of having a double win over the top two teams in Spain even more realistic.

Barcelona was not ready to give up though, as Fabregas began their series of goals after making it 2-1 just 5 minutes later. 18 minutes before the end, Sevilla was reduced to just 10 men, after Gary Medel was taken off the pitch when fouling on Fabregas. Cesc’s purpose had not been served yet with that first goal, though. After an assist from Messi, Fabregas easily slid the ball right under goalkeeper Andres Palop to equalize the score at 2 goals each. Just two minutes later, the Argentine forward set up another goal for Barcelona. Villa put the icing on the cake as he scored their 3rd and final goal far into stoppage time, preserving their 100% winning rate.

Barcelona currently has a total of 18 points on the La Liga scoreboard and is 11-points ahead of arch-rivals and 2011-2012 La Liga Champions Real Madrid. Sevilla remains in 5th place, behind Mallorca, Atletico, Malaga, and of course Barcelona.

Real Madrid, currently in 9th place after receiving only 7 points from their first 5 games, will play Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday. The first El Clasico of the season will occur next weekend, where undefeated Barcelona will take on downcast Real Madrid in an event that fans all around the world will watch.

Written by FutbolPulse

Portugal vs. Spain Recap

The Spanish rejoice after their win agianst Portugal when Cesc Fábregas makes the final penalty kick.

In many ways, the Portugal-Spain game was like the one between Italy and England. In both games, all 120 minutes passed without a single ball getting in the net. During the penalty shootout, both games ended in a 4-2 win for Italy and Spain. The last quarterfinal was mostly a one-sided game, with Italy having dominant possession of the ball and significantly more chances on goal. On the other hand, in the first semifinal game, the match was very well balanced, with more-or-less equal possession and about the same number of shots. Both teams in the Protugal-Spain game got some very nice chances. Spain had 57% possession of the ball and 11 shots (5 on goal), while Portugal had 43% possession and 10 shots (2 on goal). By the 30th minute, Spain had two great opportunities to get the ball in the net, but the shots from inside the penalty area by Álvaro Arbeloa and Andrés Iniesta went above the crossbar. In the second half, Cristiano Ronaldo had two chances, one from a free kick and one from inside the box; both sailed over the goal. Extra time was completely owned by the Spanish, with some nice breakaways and very close shots from Iniesta and Ramos. The first two PKs from Xabi Alonso and João Moutinho were saved. When it was time for Portugal’s 4th kick, Bruno Alves’ kick hit the post, giving Spain the victory after Cesc Fábregas’ goal. I feel that it was a big mistake by Portugal for not having Ronaldo shoot earlier in the PKs. Out of all the people on the team, they should have let the world-class forward kick the first penalty. He could have changed the entire game by making the first penalty and giving hope to the Portuguese. In the end, Spain finally sealed their well-deserved win, and they will play Italy in the Euro 2012 Final on July 1st.

Written by FutbolPulse