What next for Hatem Ben Arfa?

Having seemingly all but forgotten what it felt like to step onto a football pitch, it seems a year on the PSG bench will have been what finally broke him: Desperate for anyone to put him out of his misery, Hatem Ben Arfa has now resorted to releasing motivational videos of him doing sprints on a beach to put himself in the transfer shop window. The title, though, ‘I wasn’t ready, there’, encapsulates his career rather nicely: a series of stops and false starts, punctuated by the odd purple patches.

After finally stringing together a season worthy of his obvious natural talent last year at Nice, Ben Arfa decided to jump ship to the then-Champions, presumably enticed by the prospect of absolutely no playing time and a disastrous working relationship with his manager. So, 3 years on from playing for Hull’s reserve team, he finds himself back at square one, yet again an outcast in his own team. Once again, just as his weight issues in England or behavioural problems in Marseille had held him back, he partly has himself to blame for his failed season – but, as was the case with Alan Pardew at Newcastle, it was also down to the fact that Unai Emery just didn’t take a liking to him, or his style of play.

Even if the most concrete links over the summer were with Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla side – who in Samir Nasri and Paulo Ganso already had their fair share of erratic soloists – Ben Arfa himself had spoken of interest from Chelsea and Barcelona amongst others. It was a phone call from PSG’s representatives, allegedly minutes before giving his approval for the move to Spain, that swayed his decision in the end. In fairness to him, the move was pictured as a sort of homecoming for the man from the Parisian suburbs (even if he did declare that Marseille was his boyhood club on arriving at the club in 2008…) and he was fairly vocal over how he was won over by Unai Emery’s playing philosophy and the prospect of appearing at the Parc des Princes. ‘I have no regrets’, he was telling France Football this time last year, ‘especially when I see what awaits me at PSG’.

By Christmas, he’d been phased out of the squad almost completely. With scarce playing time to his name and a reportedly toxic relationship with both his manager and half of his team mates, there was little to suggest that he could clearly see what was awaiting him. In another video he released where he outlines his situation at the club, he admitted to not thinking ‘it would be this hard’. Surely he must have known, though, that even if the club was in its post-Zlatan reconstruction period, that he wasn’t going to stroll into the starting eleven straight away?

It didn’t help that when he did play, mainly coming off the bench for the final minutes, he would do little to justify a bigger role in his manager’s eyes – ‘He should be less selfish and more focused towards the team’. Along with Emery’s other summer signings, Ben Arfa made too little an impact and often struggled to find any entente with his teammates. The culmination of this would come against Saint-Etienne at home, where the attacking trio, made up of Jesé, Lucas and himself, could only muster up a penalty goal in an uninspiringly tedious performance in which the Parisians scraped a draw.

There were, however, at times, signs that he would be able to carry over his form from Nice. He spent the opening matches of the season up front as a makeshift Cavani replacement, notably scoring against his formative club in the Trophée des Champions. Nevertheless, once Edinson Cavani returned, and Emery began trying to shoehorn Jesé into the role, it was clear that Ben Arfa had no future as the backup for Cavani. Back in a more familiar position as part of the attacking midfield three in Emery 4-2-3-1, he was consistently eclipsed by the often-injured Javier Pastore, and the arrival of Julian Draxler in January would only push the Frenchman even further down the pecking order. He’d also been injured in the last few weeks of the year – not that that affected his playing time in any way.

By the turn of the year Ben Arfa was seeing even less of the pitch, after a public falling out with his manager all but cemented his chances of succeeding in the capital as dead in the water. Compounded by the general failures of PSG, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the move a disaster for all parties involved. Meanwhile, Nice have gone from strength to strength, even after losing their two main sources of goals from the previous season in Ben Arfa and Valère Germain, and the former will surely be wondering what could have been had he renewed his contract at the club, or at least gone somewhere which could offer him regular playing time.

So once again, Hatem Ben Arfa finds himself at a crossroads after yet another false start, albeit this time in a more favourable position than this time two years ago. With Sevilla reportedly coming back for him and the door to a possible return to Nice creaking open, he may have another crack at making the most of what’s left of his career.

 

@rafajuc

Bordeaux’s Malcom – Another Neymar or just a flash in the pan?

‘Lots of people had commented on social media, saying that Bordeaux was too small a club, and that I shouldn’t go, it was too much of a risk’ he was telling ESPN last week. Nevertheless, 18 months ago, Brazilian winger Malcom ignored the call of the big European clubs – Arsenal and Manchester City amongst them – and set off towards southwestern France for his first taste of football in Europe.

Despite his compatriots’ lamenting that he had undersold himself by going to a midtable Ligue 1 club, he hadn’t just picked any French team at random. Bordeaux, at that point 6 years on from their last league title, had been a renowned testing ground for South American players making their first steps out of their home countries, aided largely by a host of partnerships with clubs around the continent – for instance, Newell’s Old Boys, Lionel Messi’s boyhood club. This link has also established been with the ‘Proyecto Crecer’ academy in Córdoba, with which Bordeaux have had the first option on their players since an agreement was signed 13 years ago as part of the signing of Juan Pablo Francia. Emiliano Sala – now at Nantes – and Valentin Vada – who arguably had his breakout season this year- have been the most recent beneficiaries of this partnership.

But beyond what is virtually a second academy for the club, the team’s recent history has seen a host of South Americans come and go thanks to a scouting operation led by former director of football Charles Comporro. The 2008/9 season saw Argentinian striker Fernando Cavenaghi’s goals be vital in the title win, while the Brazilian contingent has been a cornerstone of Bordeaux squads in past seasons, with Henrique, Jussie, Wendel, Mariano and Fernando all leaving fond memories behind on the banks of the Garonne. Bordeaux may not be Barcelona in terms of stature, but they it’s safe to say they know how to deal with a young Brazilian making his first step into the big leagues – and he would have had no shortage of past success stories to go by.

Arriving 6 months after being a key part of Corinthians’ title win – for which he chipped in with 5 goals and 4 assists – Malcom was arriving in a club environment which starkly contrasted. Bordeaux, still recovering from Laurent Blanc’s departure and the financial restrictions that followed the title win, had been languishing in midtable for a few years following the dizzying heights of a Champions League run to the quarter final in which they saw off both Bayern and Juventus. A revolving door of managers would follow, none of which managing to truly restore Bordeaux back to the upper reaches of the table, even if Francis Gillot would win the Coupe de France in 2013. At this point, it was Willy Sagnol’s turn at the helm of the club. If there’s one positive thing that would come out of the former Espoirs national team manager, it was his insistence on bringing young players to the fore of the team. Malcom would benefit from this and appear 12 times in the marine blue shirt before the end of his first half-season, scoring his first goal in the penultimate game of the season against Lorient. Along with Adam Ounas, he was one of the bright sparks in an abjectly mediocre campaign and impressed with displays of skills as well as an attacking versatility.

While Ounas has had something of a season to forget and has failed to kick on, the same can’t be said of Malcom, who has had his own breakout season this year. Part of Bordeaux’s ‘KLM’ attacking trio – Kamano, Laborde and Malcom –  the Brazilian has been key in manager Jocelyn Gourvennec’s rejuvenation of Bordeaux which has guided them back up to 6th place – which could have been 5th if not for a late resurgence from Marseille. Even if he did drift out of matches at times over the season and had periods out of form at the start of the season, his 7 goals, appearing in 37 games, have done little to quell the interest that already surrounded him at Corinthians. Arguably his best performance of the season came away to Lyon at the start of the season, in which his initial equalising goal and attacking drive set the tone for Bordeaux’s 3-1 win, and saw him on the receiving end of a horror tackle from opposition captain Maxime Gonalons.

What sets Malcom apart from the average Brazilian wonderkid is his versatility – instead of hugging the touchline and relying on his quick feet to show up in the highlights, the position where Malcom has arguably shone the most has been in midfield, in a more central role. His dynamism and technical ability have often been the key for Bordeaux in unlocking Ligue 1’s tough defences, and even if Gourvennec seems to have found his ideal formation in the 4-3-3 in which the Brazilian plays on the right wing, he can always drift centrally if needs be.

Virtually all Girondins fans would agree that Malcom is destined for big things, and more this is more than likely to be away from Bordeaux. While his billing as the new Neymar may be hyperbolic – just as Diego Rolán’s as the new Suárez was – it’s clear that the club have one of the most promising players to come out of Brazil of his generation, and there will be no shortage of suitors should he decide to leave this summer. His agent, Fernando Garcia, has nonetheless claimed that his client wants to stay at Bordeaux for another season before leaving unless ‘a big offer comes in’, while Malcom himself has said that his family has fallen in love with city. Amongst all this uncertainty, Bordeaux will surely be looking to keep him for as long as possible to build on the successes of last season. But with Manchester United, Liverpool and Sevilla all reportedly interested in him, that’s easier said than done.

 

@rafajuc

Nemzeti Bajnokság I (Hungarian top flight) end of Season Review – 2016/2017

As yet another thrilling NB I season comes to a close after 10 months of action, I take a look at how each team fared, from bottom to top.

Hungarian League Champions Budapest Honvéd

 

Gyirmót

 Before the season even kicked off fans believed that the club was doomed. Their squad mostly consisted of NB II players and NB I players who were left redundant by other clubs in the top flight. They struggled to score goals which is shown by the fact that the club’s top scorers – Csanád Novák and Mijuško Bojović (the latter being a centre-back) – were tied at 3 goals. They had a good run early on in the season where they went 5 games without conceding and winning 3 of those matches. However this successful spell was followed by an 8 game losing streak.  They struggled to compete with the rest of the league and were rightfully relegated at the end of the season.

 

MTK

Little can be said of MTK’s season. They played poorly throughout their campaign and were not effective in building attacks. On quite a few occasions Myke Ramos – who came back this season after being out for over a year – showed signs of brilliance, but even that was not enough to save the club from relegation. They failed to recognise weaknesses over the winter break, meaning the gaps remained for the duration of the spring as well.  In December they decided to change manager internally with Zsolt Tamási replacing Vaszilisz Teodoru in the dugout. Despite beating Videoton, Ferencváros and Vasas once, most of their performances were uninspiring and were deservedly relegated. It is always sad to a historic team leaving the top flight but MTK did little to help themselves to avoid relegation. What MTK will be remembered for mostly this season is the opening of their new peculiar stadium with two concrete walls at either end of the pitch and the use of a Michelle Wild porno to test their new electronic scoreboard.

 

Diósgyőri VTK

 DVTK were destined to go on to do great things when they won their first two games of the season. However they were unable to muster a win in the next 9 games. They were struggling in all their games and fans accused the players of not being committed to the club. Their situation worsened when their captain Ákos Elek left for Kazakhstan. The board eventually sacked Ferenc Horváth after not seeing enough ambition on the pitch. They hired Tamás Bódog who completely changed the mentality of the team. They approached each game from the first whistle onwards as a cup final – a matter of life and death. While the quality on the pitch did not necessarily improve much, he was able to bring the best out of his players. His work was rewarded by DVTK moving out of the relegation zone when it mattered the most: in the latter stages of the season. If they keep the positive mind-set going at the club, it is unlikely the team will be facing a relegation battle like they did this year next season.

 

Mezőkövesd-Zsóry

Mezőkövesd had a rollercoaster of a season. After securing promotion manager Attila Pintér was able to attract top players who have played under him in the past including Marek Strestik and Tarmo Kink. These signings greatly improved the club’s chances of survival. Throughout the autumn they played high quality football and you could see that the players were all on the same wavelength. Pintér masterminded the club’s successful run taking them from 6th in NB II to 5th in NB I in less than 12 months. However in the winter break Pintér decided to leave for the lucrative opportunity provided by Puskás Akadémia and soon after Mezőkövesd rapidly declined under the leadership of new head coach Tomiszlav Sivić. He was sacked when the club was facing relegation with 4 games to go. Many predicted that after the 5-1 defeat to Honvéd at home signalled the end of the club’s top-flight membership as despite the sacking of Sivić they kept on losing and shipping goals. However, new coach Miklós Radványi was able to secure safety miraculously with 1 game to spare. What started off as the club’s most successful season became a scramble against relegation.

 

Debrecen

 Debrecen is one of the teams that had a season to forget. Elemér Kondás resigned after 2 league games and a quick exit from Europe. His relationship with the fans started to sour in the previous season. The club hired Leonel Pontes in August and poor performances throughout the whole season meant that the club was battling relegation. Marquee imports like Robert Vittek and Suk Hyun-jun did not show enough on the pitch to justify their signings. Pontes was sacked after the penultimate game and interim coach András Herczeg took over for the final game where they defeated local rivals Diósgyőr and secured safety. The club has failed to have a successful transition from their golden generation that got them so many titles, and a thoughtful rebuild is required to restore their dominance.

 

Újpest

 Throughout the 2016/2017 season Újpest were unable to register new players due to a transfer ban. For the whole year their squad was weak and had gaping holes in key positions such as a viable striker. Jonathan Heris and Benjámin Cseke both played upfront even though one is a defender and the other is a midfielder respectively and at one point head coach Nebojša Vignjević played two defenders upfront. Újpest players moved to different positions throughout the whole year. Midfielder Balázs Balogh played at right back and winger Souleymane Diarra also played as a deep-lying midfielder similarly to Kanté at Chelsea. A 7th place finish is both relieving and frustrating for Újpest fans. On one hand they can count themselves lucky to have finished without getting relegated; something which was not totally out of picture after the first two games and in the latter stages of the season. However they threw away leads on too many occasions. At one point they drew 8 out of 9 games meaning they missed out on vital points that could have been beneficial for a top 4 finish. A stand out player this year was Enis Bardhi – the Alexis Sanchez of Újpest – who is set to leave the club this summer. This is just another gap that needs to be filled in the future.

 

Szombathelyi Haladás

 Haladás had a very average season. They got 7 points less than last year and did not pose a major threat to the European places. In their first half of the season János Hegedűs became a stand out player and was identified as one for the next generation. However his sale to Puskás Akadémia shocked both fans of Haladás and the rest of the domestic league alike.  Later on András Jancsó proved to be a hot prospect around whom they can build a team in the future. They have established themselves as solid mid-table NB I team since their near relegation in 2015. They need to make a few top signings in order to move on and pose a real challenge for the European places.

 

Paksi SE

 When considering Paks’ budget and policy of only signing Hungarian players you could be forgiven for assuming them to be relegation candidates. However, once again they defied expectations and not only moved out of the relegation zone where they found themselves at one point, but also went on a 9 game unbeaten run. It could be argued that their success could be down to making their ground a fortress, where other teams struggle to play due to its poor conditions. Nevertheless we shouldn’t take anything away from what Aurél Csertői and his team have achieved. It is difficult to predict how they will do next season as they can jump abruptly from inform to out of form in a relatively short space of time. Only time will tell what the future holds for them.

 

Ferencváros

 Ferencváros hugely underperformed this season with their 4th place finish. Even though they won the Hungarian Cup, they were expected to defend their title or at least challenge for it when taking into account they finished top 21 points clear of 2nd placed Videoton last season. Their failure can be put down to signing players in both transfer windows who did not fulfil expectations. Marco Djuricin was very wasteful infront of goal and Oliver Hüsing did not become the defensive rock he was predicted to be. László Kleinheisler’s arrival in January from Werder Bremen along with Ryu Seung-woo and István Bognár from Porto and DVTK respectively were meant to act as a boost to their title challenge, but they all struggled for minutes and failed to establish themselves as key players to the team. On the other hand the signing of Amadou Moutari paid off as he became a key figure in Ferencváros’ attacks. He will be an important player next season.

 

Vasas

Vasas shocked fans around the country when they won 5 of their 6 first matches; an impressive turnaround considering the fact that they avoided relegation on the final match day of last season. A Leicester-esque season was anticipated as they led the table for long periods of time and even as late as mid-spring they were still in serious contention for the title. Initially they relied heavily on goals from centre back Tamás Vaskó – a 32 year old Hungarian veteran who they signed from relegated Békéscsaba – who demonstrated his heading ability from set pieces. Their success could be put down to the expertise of head coach Michael Oenning and the squad he put together which included lots of young Hungarians, similarly to Honvéd.

 

Videoton

Alongside Honvéd, Videoton played the most attractive football this season. Their performances were fluid and it was a joy to watch their attackers from the Balkans – Danko Lazović, Mirko Marić, Marko Šćepović, Anel Hadžić and Asmir Suljić – linking up and showcasing spectacular plays. They scored more and conceded less than any other team in the league and often were able to win against bigger teams such as Ferencváros and Újpest very comfortably. However, too often they fell short by their inability to beat smaller teams like Mezőkövesd and strugglers including MTK and DVTK. It could be argued that dropping crucial points against these minor sides cost them the title. At the end of the season they decided to part ways with manager Henning Berg. Personally, I believe this was the wrong decision as Berg was able to challenge Honvéd all the way unlike other teams despite arriving less than a year ago in a new football environment and culture. He has already proved his managerial capabilities in Poland by winning the Polish League and Cup. Giving him one more season would have put him in a better position in terms of challenging for the title. Even this year conceding one or two less or scoring one or two more in critical close games could have seen them lift the trophy instead of Honvéd.

 

Honvéd

Honvéd deservedly won the league. They not only beat runners-up Videoton in the game described as ‘the final’ on the last match day, but also put in convincing performances throughout the whole season. The striker partnership of Márton Eppel and Davide Lanzafame proved to be effective as they had 27 goals and 15 assists between them. They played off each other well and were deadly on the counter. Many doubted Honvéd’s march to victory would be achievable when they sold right back Endre Botka and winger Dániel Prosser to Ferencváros and Puskás Akadémia respectively, key players who came though their youth academy who were labelled by the fans as traitors. Despite this, the rest of the squad showed resilience, which gave them confidence to march on. Even in the latter stages of the season – when often teams may crack under pressure – Honvéd were able to put 5 past both Mezőkövesd and Debrecen. There were many outstanding performers in the team other than Eppel and Lanzafame; for example the heroics in goal by Dávid Gróf, the spirit of Botond Baráth and the great crosses by Ikenne-King. Overall, all credit has to go to head coach Marco Rossi who developed this winning squad over 5 years.

 

@tomicserep @bootdeball

Evaluating the condensed format of the NBI

For the start of the 2015/2016 season MLSZ (the Hungarian Football Association) had decided to implement the drastic measure of reducing the number of clubs in the top flight from 16 to 12 teams. The process had attracted a lot of controversy since teams were relegated that were not in the relegation zone due to licensing and financial issues. Many would argue that a degree of politics and corruption was involved as some of the clubs going down were not in debt.

However, I want to focus on the impact the changes have had on the Hungarian top flight. As well as reducing the number of teams in NBI (1st divison), the football association also decided to abolish the unsuccessful league cup, and similarly to the German league system, they introduced a rule by which B teams cannot progress beyond NB III (3rd division). The top flight saw an increase of 3 games per season as each of the clubs in the new 12 team league would play every other team 3 times (3*11=33).

Better Quality, Better Entertainment?
From the 2015 summer transfer window onwards the early impacts of the reduced number of teams in the top flight could be seen. The best players from the relegated teams were soon caught up in a tug-of-war between NBI clubs as they raced to get their signatures. For example the likes of Marek Strestik, Máté Pátkai and other Győri ETO players signed for NBI teams following their relegation to NB3 due to bankruptcy. This improved the squads of other clubs in the top flight. The lower number of teams in the league allowed talent to be more concentrated within it, which corresponds to the agenda of MLSZ to improve Hungarian football.

Over the last two years the league has undeniably gained in entertainment. The gap between the teams has been reduced and the outcome of games has become less predictable. The new format could mean that teams fighting against relegation could also potentially be involved in a struggle for the European places. For example, going into the winter break Paks were dangerously close to the drop zone. Thanks to 3 wins in a row during the spring restart helped propel the club up the table and now they find themselves 5 points off 4th, which could potentially be a route to the Europa League qualifiers depending on the outcome of the Hungarian cup. This acts as a testimony to the fact that the league has had an increased level of drama added to it and the potential of teams being ‘lost’ in the middle of the table – such as Kecskemét used to – has been eradicated.

The gulf in quality between the teams was also reduced in the new format. In the past there was a clear difference in standard between the top and bottom halves of the league. This was evident in the standard of football poorer teams offered due to their limited funding. Their poor financial position could be seen from the quality of the facilities they offered to both fans and players. The new system has allowed improved football matches to take place in better venues which are more likely to attract fans and investors alike. Questions may be raised on the holistic effect this will have on the Hungarian league system. In the long term a stronger top flight will make it more difficult for lower division teams to adapt and thus struggle to survive relegation, thus increasing the gulf in quality between the top 10 to 12 teams and the rest of the football clubs in the country. For example, while Gyirmót may have a renovated stadium, it’s clear that they’re unable to adapt to NBI which is shown by the fact they are sitting bottom of the league 9 points from safety. On the contrary in NBII recently relegated Puskás Akadémia are top of their division. While their position is certainly not assured, they have demonstrated their financial superiority over the rest of the league through the transfers they made which included Dániel Prosser, Péter Szakály and Gábor Gyömbér who were all solid NBI players with plenty of experience. It is also very likely that the team relegated from NBI this season along with Gyirmót will come straight back up again. Even though this scenario is far from certain, the development of a ‘super league’ top flight is possible and appears to be in the making.

National Team Effect
The new system provides financial benefits for clubs that play a certain number of Hungarian players and Hungarian youth players, which has resulted in the inflation of their value as they are in high demand. It could have a detrimental effect on the national team as clubs will be less willing to sell players abroad due to the monetary benefits MLSZ provides for them. For example, Vasas rejected a transfer offer from FC Midtjylland for Zsolt Korcsmár due to his importance to the team and the fact that he is Hungarian. Foreign teams may not be prepared to pay higher transfer fees, thus preventing Hungarian players from taking the next steps in their career.

Capital Centric
The new format also means that the top flight has become very Budapest centred. All the teams relegated in 2015 were from outside Budapest and today 5 out of the 12 teams are from the capital. This means that football is not as accessible as it used to be. The whole of the South East – more than a quarter of the country – has no football team at all in NB1. A top flight team in the region would allow more people to be engaged with the league and help promote it. A team in Szeged – the country’s 3rd largest city – could potentially support the league in becoming more nationwide. This would coincide with MLSZ’s aim of attracting more fans to the sport.

Overall
The new format of the league has made NB1 much more exciting than it used to be, both in terms of the football matches and the league table. The teams have also improved as talent has become more concentrated in one league. However it cannot be denied that the formation of the 12 team NB1 has resulted in the exclusion of lots of clubs outside of Budapest and increased bonuses and financial aid have made it more difficult to enter into group of elite teams.

This article was also published on http://www.hungarianfootball.com

@bootdeball @tomicserep

A free agent: Philippe Mexès

 

For many, Philippe Mexès is the epitome of an impetuous player, one who has lost the plot on many occasions throughout his career. Nevertheless, he spent over a decade in Serie A and has undoubtedly made his mark on the league with stellar performances, though accompanied by numerous mistakes, red cards and suspensions.

Image result for mexes

Mexès’ career was blighted with controversy early on when he earned a move to AS Roma. He was brought through by Guy Roux, a manager also known for developing notable players such as Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc over the course of his 40 years at Auxerre. Having established himself as a solid centre back at Auxerre – where he even won the Coupe de France in 2003 – Mexès was looking to move on to a club of a higher calibre.  He transferred to the Italian giants without the consent of his domestic club, and, having violated his contract, Mexès was about to face a 6 week ban.  His suspension was lifted whilst Roma were appealing, thus allowing him to make his debut in September 2004. However, the appeal was then rejected and the ban came into effect in February 2005. The transfer saga resulted in Roma being banned from buying players in the whole of 2005. While it may have come as a huge blow for the club, it was a huge blessing for Mexès to kick-start his career at the club. It allowed him to establish himself as a key player for the team over the upcoming years.

He would really begin to make his mark in the Roma shirt in the 2006-2007season. Forming the backbone of the team’s defense with Cristian Chivu, Roma were able to reach the quarter finals of the Champions league and would also go onto win the Coppa Italia. Mexès played a key part in making sure that the team only conceded 34 goals in that season’s edition of Serie A. When Chivu left the following year to Inter Milan, Mexès successfully stepped up to the challenge of being the defensive general in the team. He scored a goal in the 2008 Coppa Italia final, helping Roma to defend their title. Fans had high hopes for upcoming seasons, but Mexès would never reach the same wuthering heights. He did remain a key player for the team, but he faced tough competition for his position, something he hadn’t experienced in previous seasons. He eventually left the club in the summer of 2011 on a free transfer having chosen not to extend his contract as he wasn’t sure if the club was heading in the right direction.

After the era of Maldini and Nesta perhaps it is easy to understand why AC Milan fans were a bit disappointed with the signing of Mexès. In an interview after joining the club he said “Milan offered me a 4 year contract despite my injury, which shows that they rated me”. During his first season he was third choice in his position, but after Nesta retired and Thiago Silva left, he formed a defensive partnership with Zapata. While he tended to be a solid player for his club, mistakes started to creep in while playing for the national side, which would start his demise. A poor display at Euro 2012 with future club teammate Adil Rami forced him into international retirement.  His hot headed nature started to get the better of him in his club career, collecting a total of 17 game suspensions for red cards and misconduct in his Milan career alone. While Mexès has averaged 20 games a season for Milan in his first 4 years, the club were always lookout to replace him. In the 2013-14 and 2014-15 season the club conceded 99 goals, proving that Mexès was not a reliable option anymore due to mistakes and the ugly side of his game becoming all too frequent. Last year Milan chose –much to the disappointment of the fans – to sell Rami and extend the contract of Mexès for one more year. While this could have been the opportunity for Mexès to prove himself worthy of wearing the Milan shirt, he failed to do so, only making 5 appearances in the league. He was released at the end of the season in 2016.

 

 

What next?

Mexès is a free agent, but any club signing him would be taking a risk. His feverish temper could hinder his chances of being successful once again. While he has a tempestuous character, he has proved in the past that he can be a top class player and leader on quite a few occasions. Although this does not happen all the time, it might be worth the risk to give a final opportunity for this hot headed French warrior.  At the age of 34 it is almost certain that he will never reach the heights of his Roma career, but he could still play a key role for a less prolific team, for example a mid-table Ligue 1 club.

@bootdeball    @tomicserep

 

In defence of Pierre Mankowski, France’s U21s coach

Also published on Get French Football News

When Pierre Mankowski was promoted to the France under-21 (‘espoirs’) side in 2014, much was expected of the coach that had won the country’s first under-20 World Cup the previous year. His team – featuring the likes of Paul Pogba, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Samuel Umtiti and Alphonse Aréola – had seen off a stern Uruguay side on penalties and confirmed themselves as one of France’s most promising generations yet. In letting him follow the players he had worked with up to the next level and succeed the Bordeaux-bound Willy Sagnol, the French federation saw the opportunity to solidify this group of players, many of whom were destined for big things.

By October 2014, several months following his appointment, Mankowski was a playoff against Sweden away from taking his side to the 2015 European Championships. France, boasting some of the most promising players on the continent such as Nabil Fekir and Giannelli Imbula, were logically favourites. Having won the first leg 2-0, Les Bleuets had disastrously conceded three to the Swedes in the return leg before scoring in the dying moments of the game, securing themselves, as they had thought, a place in the Euros. What followed, though, was a 90th minute winner from Sweden’s Oscar Lewicki, condemning French youth football to a new state of crisis. The lasting image from the game would inevitably be fullback Layvin Kurzawa’s premature gloating celebration in front of the opposition, which was then reciprocated by striker John Guidetti after Sweden’s 4th and again by the whole team several months later, on winning the tournament. It would have been difficult to imagine a worse start for Pierre Mankowski as manager of the under-21 side.

Given the recent explosion of French youth players and their propagation throughout Europe, though, it could easily be argued that Mankowski had already made a sizeable impact on French football over the last few years by bringing to the fore a host of players – if the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Kurt Zouma or Anthony Martial are now plying their trade abroad, it’s not solely thanks to their club form. It’s under his tutelage that they progressed at international level.

Nowadays, however, his tenure as under-21 boss – the final step before the senior side, of which he had been assistant manager between 2002 and 2010 – is continuing the way it had started. After two defeats in qualifying for the 2017 European Championships, Les Bleuets are no longer in control of their own destiny, trailing Macedonia in the sole qualifying spot by a point before the final round of games in early October. The latest of those defeats was dealt by a last minute winner from Ukrainian midfielder Yurii Vakulko, at the end of a match which had largely been dominated by Mankowski’s side, but with an end product that was sorely lacking. In the following days the French Football Federation President Noel Le Graet would comment that ‘We have the players, but not the team’, a considerable reversal in his attitude just 12 months beforehand, following the first defeat in qualifying – ‘I expect them to qualify. The first match was an accident’. Has his trust in Mankowski eroded over the past year? There’s some truth to Le Graet’s latest statement, though: surely, given the staggering wealth of talent running throughout the French youth ranks, he should be able to provide more convincing results?

On the other hand, is the task of a youth team manager necessarily to win games at all cost? It’s far more prudent to use youth teams for their actual purpose – to give young players a taste of international football, give them the tools necessary to succeed at the highest level, and to move them along the conveyor belt up to the senior side. This is especially true of Pierre Mankowski, who, after seeing many from his 2013 World Cup winning side make the step up a few years before, has had to contend with recently losing Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman, arguably France’s biggest hopes in that age category, to Didier Deschamps. This is the nature of a youth team – players come and go and there will never be a stable squad, making lasting success unviable whatever the quality of the players or the coach.

The results are often inconsistent, but it’s undisputable that Pierre Mankowski has provided a base for the players he has coached to build on – whatever the age group -, as evidenced by the number of young debutants for the French national team over the last 24 months. He may not help France win the under 21 European Championships next summer, a tournament they last won in 1988, but on the basis that his primary task in running the team is to prepare his players for an international career, he is indisputably succeeding.

How Monaco’s focus on youth could be undoing PSG’s dominance

Two summers ago, embroiled in a legal battle with his wife following his divorce and faced with the prospect of losing half of his fortune, Monaco owner Dimitri Rybolovlev oversaw a shift in Monaco’s behaviour in the transfer market. This change in policy – also said to have been caused by sudden threat of FFP sanctions which had already come down on PSG, and the downturn in the Russian potash market from which Rybolovlev derives much of his wealth – marked a sudden halt to an ambitious project that could have promised French football another giant.

A project that began all guns blazing in 2013, following the club’s return to  Ligue 1, with the arrivals of then-rising star James Rodriguez from Porto and Falcao – arguably the best finisher in the world at the time – from Atletico Madrid cooled down considerably a year on. Instead of bolstering a strong – albeit ageing for the most part – squad that narrowly lost the league to fellow New Money PSG, Monaco took advantage of James Rodriguez’s rise in  stock from World Cup performances by letting him become Real Madrid’s summer marquee signing to rival Barcelona’s signing of Luis Suarez. The extent at which his injury sustained in a Coupe de France match would affect his overall level still unknown, Falcao would also leave the club on deadline day to begin his descent into mediocrity.A strong link with super agent Jorge Mendes was put to good use as Monaco brought in  young players from Portugal to go with the newly-arrived Leonardo Jardim – first Bernardo Silva and Wallace, then Cavaleiro and Helder Costa the following year –  as well as focusing on domestic talent – Bakayoko, Nardi. Overall, the summer marked a sharp turn in the club’s policy, and although this presented its clear benefits Ligue 1 fans were all too aware that this would signal the end – or at least a temporary halt – of Ligue 1’s main selling point, its blockbuster rivalry.

The next two years would see PSG comfortably consolidate themselves as French football’s behemoth whilst Monaco would duly qualify for the Champions League, though posing no real threat to the Parisians in doing so. Nevertheless, a reputation for being a strong defensive side grew under Jardim’s reign, and paid early dividends as Monaco qualified for the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2015 – making it 2 French clubs in the last 8 that year, while no English teams were present – and narrowly missed out on a semi final berth. While he was limited in terms of selection, Jardim effectively built up a squad that blended this influx of youth with the club’s more seasoned players – Ricardo Carvalho, Jérémy Toulalan and Andrea Raggi for instance – but domestically, PSG’s rampant spending proved too much to compete with. A rivalry that French football had welcomed with open arms, one that would propel it to the international stage, had evaporated before really beginning.

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Come this summer, though, it was PSG’s turn to undergo a revamp with the departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – undisputably the face of the QSI (Qatar Sports Investment) era and one of the main reasons for the club’s crushing success – and Laurent Blanc, often unfairly criticised for his supposedly ‘easy’ building of a team that has won the domestic treble twice in a row. Once Blanc received his 22 million euro settlement on leaving, in came Unai Emery, followed through the door by Grzegorz Krychowiak and Hatem Ben Arfa in a fairly tame summer window by PSG’s -admittedly astronomical – standards.

While his European exploits with Sevilla were the main motivation for Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s decision, Emery’s average recent league record with Sevilla had seemed like a major sticking point in his appointment, not least exacerbated by his catastrophic away form : not a single away win in the league last season. It’s obviously far too early and unfair to make any sort of definitive judgement on the Spaniard after a handful of games at this stage in his first season, but there is an overwhelming sense that PSG have regressed this summer.

Of course, the likelihood is that Cavani will duly reach the 20 goal mark by the end of the season, and Emery will have put PSG back on the winning trail, dismissing this early season period as an acclimatisation to his new club. Business as usual, but is there any progression? By contrast, Monaco seem to be striding forward relentlessly, having already claimed a convincing victory over the champions and clawed out a win at Wembley against Spurs.

Monaco has always been an attractive destination for any cash-injection style takeover: the principality’s status as a tax-free haven made it ideal for attracting top players, especially when contrasted with France’s harsh tax laws on the rich – in this regard, Monaco have had the economic upper hand over the rest of the league (since June 2015, though, the club has had to comply with French laws after their agreement with the federation was deemed illicit). Whatever the motivation was for switching the club’s focus to youth, though, – and it probably wasn’t borne out of any noble sense to bring through football’s hopes for the future – it’s paid dividends for Dmitri Rybolovlev and has ensured that Monaco have a sustainable base from which they will be able to build on long after he pulls the plug on his investment, far more solid than any injection of big money signings could ever do. Monaco has always been  a breeding ground for France’s elite, make no mistake – the likes of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit came through the Monegasque ranks (in fact, most Ligue 1 academies tend to do very well – Lyon and Lens for instance)- but this big a youth project is unprecedented on the Cote d’Azur.

Over the last 2 years Leonardo Jardim will have been able to compensate for the losses of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Layvin Kurzawa – who both emerged from the club’s youth ranks – and a handful of disastrous signings – arguably the price to pay for such a strong link to Jorge Mendes – by being given the tools to mould together a team orientated primarily towards youth, but with a host of seasoned players to effectively steer the team – the returning Falcao, for instance. The team’s roaring success so early on in the year is proof of his success in doing so. The likes of diminutive playmaker Bernardo Silva, defensive midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, and versatile fullback Djibril Sidibé and the outrageously talented Thomas Lemar have already emerged as the main protagonists of Monaco’s season to come, and will no doubt be crucial if any title comes their way this season. Slowly but surely, Monaco are progressing and returning to the level they were reaching in 2013/14.

Monaco aren’t the only French team building for the future, though –  Lucien Favre’s Nice have progressed from a solid 2015/16 with a team built around prospects such as Vincent Koziello, Alassane Pléa, Jean Seri and Yoan Cardinale who are already carrying over their good form form last season, and with the arrivals of Mario Balotelli and Dante the Aiglons are destined for a strong season. Along with Lyon’s promising start to life in their new stadium, it’s hard to see PSG dominate as emphatically as they did last season. If anything, it’s Monaco look to be the early favourites for the Ligue 1 title.