Player Recruitment

Gunners back in business

The frantic activity as the deadline to this record-breaking transfer window passed left me with one clear impression, namely that Arsene Wenger and Arsenal are well and truly back in business. Wenger’s £42million capture of Mesut Ozil, from Real Madrid, was the stand-out signing in the Premier League on deadline day, one which, I believe, puts the Gunners firmly in a position to challenge for their first title success since 2004. Ozil is a world class midfield player, a 24-year-old who has his best years ahead of him and who looks tailor-made for Arsenal’s expansive, free-flowing style. The German international is that rarity, an all-round midfielder who keeps the ball, passes the ball, creates scoring opportunities and weighs in with his fair share of goals…he scored at the rate of one in five appearances for Madrid. It will be fascinating to see who Wenger leaves out from his talented group of midfielders, with Cazorla, Wilshere, Flamini and Ramsey to consider. I imagine one thing you can say for sure is that it will be Ozil – who looks like a hand-in-glove player for Arsenal – and ten others. This lad could be the missing piece of Wenger’s jigsaw, the player who elevates an already impressive team back into the title-challenging elite.

I can envisage a five-team title tussle, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham scrapping it out with the two Manchester clubs, United and City. I don’t want to write off early league leaders Liverpool too hastily, but I do feel it will be the other five clubs I mentioned who will be the serious contenders come the late stages of the race. Arsenal’s North London derby win against big-spending Tottenham produced evidence that they will be a force this season. Goalkeeper Wojcieh Szczesny has come on well and the centre-back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and the much-criticised Per Mertesacker suddenly looks formidable. I am a little surprised Wenger did not sign a striker, but, at the same time, Olivier Giroud, the goal hero against Tottenham, now looks the part after a shaky start to his career at The Emirates. Wenger, at 65 the oldest – and certainly the wiliest – manager in the Premier League produces teams the like of which I would have loved to play in as a centre-forward. I have the feeling he is on the verge of something special with this group of players. At their best, Arsenal remain as good as any team to watch and their clashes with similarly-talented Manchester City are a mouth-watering prospect.

David Moyes, at Manchester United, finally got his man when Everton were paid £27million for Marouane Fellaini, the Belgian midfielder who is clearly rated very highly by Moyes, who took him to Everton in the first place. I am on record as having doubts about Fellaini’s suitability for United. He was originally signed for Everton as a holding midfielder, but he did not have the discipline to nail down that role. He is competent with the ball but not what you would call a constructive player and his goals ratio of one in six for Everton is respectable, but hardly compares with Frank Lampard’s scoring exploits at Chelsea. Certainly, Fellaini, a big, strong lad, can be a handful for defenders and he might respond to being amongst better players (no disrespect to Everton intended) and the quicker, passing style at Old Trafford. I just don’t feel Fellaini is in the same category as those recent great United box-to-box midfielders Bryan Robson and Roy Keane or the men who I played with, Colin Bell at Manchester City and Alan Ball, at Everton.

Good to see that Everton did a bit of business on deadline day, splashing £13million on James McCarthy, from Wigan, and securing the season-long loan of Gareth Barry from Manchester City, players who should be very effective in centre midfield. My only cautionary note for Goodison manager Roberto Martinez is that McCarthy’s arrival means he has brought in FOUR players from Wigan, a club which was relegated. I know managers tend to steer towards their favourites from a previous club, but Roberto’s quadruple capture could come back to haunt him if things don’t go well. Ireland international McCarthy will give Everton a lot of energy and industry in midfield and he just might turn out to be a terrific buy. I hope so.





Pressure on the purse-strings

It is interesting to note, following my recent comments here, that Manchester United have now upped their dual offer for Everton’s Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini to £36million, which had to be the starting point of the proposed double signing. As I have already pointed out, it was at best cheeky and at worst insulting for United to offer £28million, with manager David Moyes adding insult to injury by accusing his former club of standing in the two players’ way by not agreeing to sell at that price, because Moyes, while Everton boss, had already been party to a £24million valuation being put on Fellaini. Now, United have seen sense, though I feel they will have to go a little higher if Moyes is to clinch his first major signings before the transfer window closes on Monday night.

Pressure to strengthen United’s suspiciously lightweight midfield is undoubtedly building on Moyes, who has seen attempts to sign Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara and Real Madrid’s Cesc Fabregas fail. As United’s fans grow increasingly restless, having watched arch rivals Manchester City and ambitious Tottenham splash around £100 million apiece this summer, news comes of a rejected £25million offer for Athletic Bilbao’s Anders Herrera and an enquiry for Roma’s 91-cap Italy star Daniele De Rossi. Moyes clearly recognises that midfield is the key area that needs instant, top-class reinforcement. I certainly believe that to be the case and I think the majority of United’s fans think so, too.  Michael Carrick was superb last season, the consistent performer as United won the title at a canter, but those around him are not as impressive. Brazilian Anderson has never quite lived up to expectations, Tom Cleverley, though now an England player, is yet to convince that he is top class, and the Japanese Kagawa, though  a delightful footballer, is a bit lightweight for the gruelling demands of a long, Premier League season. Moyes knows he needs one, possibly two, midfielders but the problem for United is that, as one of the world’s top clubs, they will have to pay top dollar to get the men they want. Herrera has a £30million release clause in his contract and Everton appear to value Baines at more than the £12million originally offered, suggesting they will want £36million-plus before agreeing to sell the two players. With four days to go to the transfer deadline, neither United nor Arsenal have spent a penny. They will have to put their money where their mouths are or risk more rejection – and the fury of their fans.

It does look increasingly as though Wayne Rooney will stay at United and, given how fit and streamlined he looked against Chelsea last Monday, that, at least, is a huge boost for Moyes. I have never doubted Rooney’s commitment, but he has looked less than 100 per cent, physically, at times over the past couple of seasons. Not so at Old Trafford the other night, when his sharpness was a beacon on an otherwise dull occasion, one which reflected negatively on Jose Mourinho. You might have expected the second chapter of the Roman Abramovich-Mourinho partnership to provide something of real substance, but Mourinho’s decision to play without a recognised striker was disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given the way they went 2-0 up against promoted Hull City at home in their opening match – then went into their shell. These early signs suggest Mourinho has not changed his outlook and philosophy much while in Italy and Spain and that he remains, above all else, a supremely practical manager. Certainly, his team selection suggested he doesn’t have much faith in his strikers, Torres, Demba Ba and Lukaku. No wonder he coveted Rooney and no doubt the arrival of Samuel Eto’o on a one-year deal is designed to put pressure on the aforementioned players.

So, let us hope that Sunday’s heavyweight clash at Anfield between Liverpool and United lives up to its traditional billing as one of the crunch matches of the Premier League season. Sir Alex Ferguson consistently claimed the fixture was United’s biggest, though I tend to think that was a sideswipe at Manchester City. I think most United and City supporters would say the Manchester derby means more than any other match. One thing is for sure, Chelsea under Mourinho won’t lose many matches. The question is, will they get bums off seats like I hope Liverpool and United will do this weekend.


Treat in store

I believe Manchester City fans are in for a treat next season in the shape of £15m winger Jesus Navas. The Spanish international, signed from Sevilla, will light up the Etihad Stadium – and, hopefully, away grounds, too – if he reproduces the form he has shown during his appearances at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. I think City fans will be saying ‘here, at long last, is a winger to compare with our heroes of years gone by.’ Blues supporters of a certain age live with the memory of wingers like David Wagstaffe, Mike Summerbee and Peter Barnes. And, now, I reckon they have a player who has the ability to lift people off their seats, just as the aforementioned guys did.

Navas simply loves to take on defenders and cross the ball. And he has the speed and the skill to do both of those things. Okay, like all genuine wide players, Navas will frustrate as well as excite. And I’m not sure how much tracking back his team-mates can expect from him! But I am certain that he will embody one of the finest sights in football, that of a player surging past opponents and leaving defences rocking on the back foot. At 27 and after 10 years with Sevilla and 28 appearances for Spain, Navas is the complete, experienced package. Champions Manchester United have paid a similar figure for Wilfried Zaha, from Crystal Palace. But United bought potential when they signed the 20-year-old who will require some schooling before he passes the test. Navas, however, is a graduate and he is the real deal. Andres Iniesta, the superb Barcelona midfielder, puts Navas in the same bracket as last season’s outstanding Premier League player Gareth Bale, of Tottenham. As I say, City fans, you are going to see something special.

PS. I am delighted for Tottenham fans because it seems certain that Gareth Bale will remain at White Hart Lane, though possibly only for one more season. Reports suggest Real Madrid have put their pursuit of the Welsh wonder boy on hold, leaving 23-year-old Bale to continue his barnstorming progress with Spurs. Bale, understandably, will want Champions League football and Spurs, who have offered Bale a big pay rise, have underscored their desire to give it to him with the signing of Brazil midfielder Paulinho. It would not surprise me if Bale has a clause written into his new deal saying he can leave next summer. Who knows, if Spurs do qualify for the Champions League, he may not invoke it.

Case for the defence

Ian Holloway, a lovely guy, has shown what a good manager he is by winning a second Championship play-off final in three years, his success last week with Crystal Palace following the achievement he had with Blackpool. Now, as then, Holloway has an even bigger mountain to climb if he is to keep his club in the Premier League. Blackpool won the hearts of the neutrals with their open, attractive football, but they did not survive because they could not defend well enough to keep out the Premier League strikers. It is going to be a familiar problem for Holloway as he embarks upon a frantic summer of hasty planning and, hopefully, prudent transfer dealing. For, make no mistake you Palace fans, your team needs an overhaul if it is to survive the challenge next season. The blunt truth is that, in Wilfried Zaha, Palace had only one player of obvious Premier League quality. He is on his way to Manchester United.

I don’t have any idea what size of budget Ian will have at his disposal, but I do know he needs a lot of new players, starting with four defenders. It is easy for fans of clubs promoted to the top flight to dream that their heroes can, and will, rise to the occasion. But the reality is often different. The gulf in quality between the Championship and Premier League is distinct. That is why, if palace have any chance of keeping the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero at bay, they must have strength in depth in their defensive ranks. An even bigger problem is goal scoring at the top level. Of all the positions, striker is the toughest when moving up to the top flight. Simply because the defenders are that much better than those you have faced in the Championship. In Glenn Murray, Palace have a player whose 31 goals last season is a marvellous achievement. But, believe me, Murray will find it much harder to hit the net when tussling with the likes of Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Vidic. Top flight defenders tend to be bigger and quicker and that is why the majority of promoted strikers who have scored 20-plus the previous season struggle to get 10

A quirk of the play-offs is that they delay your ability to finalise your preparations for the next season and, so, though successful, your plans can be thrown into the melting pot. Ian will most probably be trying to re-arrange warm-up games, possibly now cancelling friendlies against Premier League teams, and he will face complications such as expectations of top-flight contracts from the players who won promotion. All in all, it adds up to an intense summer for Ian, who may need to be ruthless in his dealings with some players. When my Manchester City team won back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League in 2000, we signed three or four players, but needed seven or eight, and were relegated. Ian, after his experience with Blackpool, will be well aware of the size of the challenge. The biggest step up is for the forward players – but the case for the defence is imperative. Good luck, Ian.


Bale hunters set their sights

There was something poignant about watching Gareth Bale seal another win for Tottenham with another fabulous strike, only to discover that Arsenal’s win at Newcastle had pipped Spurs to the Champions League fourth place, thus denying this exceptional young player the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in club football. But you can bet that there are several clubs itching to offer him that very thing. As I’ve said already in these notes, Bale is THE player in the Premier League who will be the most sought after this summer. The best teams in England, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, would all be improved with Bale in their line-up.That means Tottenham have a big decision to make if they are to keep the man around whom the team revolves. In an era of outstanding athletes on the soccer pitches of the world, Bale has emerged as an elite performer, a player who combines impressive physique with power, pace and control and a gift for scoring goals from all areas.

Players of his quality understandably expect to perform at the highest level in Europe and that means the Champions League. I mean no disrespect to Wales, the country of Bale’s birth, but he is extremely unlikely to savour the ultimate thrill of international football, competing at World Cup finals, let alone European finals, proud though I am sure he is to wear the red shirt. There have been some world-class Welsh players in the past 20 years, like goalkeeper Neville Southall, midfielders Gary Speed and Ryan Giggs and striker Mark Hughes, all of whom never savoured the big international stage. Hughes and Giggs, of course, had the consolation of many European club campaigns with Manchester United. And that is what Bale will aspire to.

So, the challenge for Tottenham supremo Daniel Levy is to keep the predators who can offer Bale the glamour of the Champions League at bay. There has been talk of a huge pay rise offer, in the region of £170,000 a week, for Bale and Spurs fans can only hope he is willing to accept and continue to be their driving force next season. If not, you can be sure Levy will demand the highest price for one of the most coveted players in the world. For example, if Cristiano Ronaldo were to leave Real Madrid, the Spaniards would almost certainly try for Bale and Levy would insist upon a fee in the region of the £80million Real paid Manchester United for Ronaldo three years ago.



So, what can Roberto Mancini do to put runners up Manchester City back in title contention with new champions Manchester United next season? The answer is take a leaf out of United boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s book and clinch a marquee signing this summer.
Alex conceded that his champions were second best when losing 1-0 to Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, a lacklustre display by United possibly down to the fact that they didn’t have the same edge to their game as Chelsea with the title already in the bag. Not that Alex will be happy that some of his players appeared to be, as they say, “already on the beach.” The fact is, though, that Fergie’s masterstroke in beating City to the signing of 25-goal Robin Van Persie last summer proved the crucial difference this season. In effect, Fergie reclaimed the title from City last summer.
While my former club was spending tens of millions on signing five players, only one of whom, Serbian centre-back Matija Nastasic cemented a place in the side, Fergie swooped for class act Van Persie, who has gone goal crazy while City have spluttered up front. A man like Falcao, of Athletico Madrid, or Bayern Munich’s out-of-favour Mario Gomez could boost the Blues’ firepower. But the player who would really make the difference would be Tottenham’s awesome goalscoring midfielder Gareth Bale. Since his days as a full-back who seemd to take for ever to be part of a winning Spurs side, Bale has grown into a phenomenal player, the type who gets fans on the edge of their seats. He scores goals and he makes goals, his pace and his power causing opponents to back off, which gives team-mates an extra edge. He has become world class.
Every one of these players would cost top dollar but, the assumption is that money is no object at City. If that is, indeed, the case then City must swoop for at least one platinum player, especially as they know that Alex won’t be complacent following his amazing 13th Premier League title success. The wiliest manager in the game will be looking to do business in the transfer market again.
What City must not do is sign players eligible for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in January. The loss of key, powerhouse midfielder Yaya Toure, not to mention his brother and centre-back Kolo for this event, did City’s cause no good. Imagine Yaya Toure and Bale in the same line-up!