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The rise of Edin Džeko from besieged Sarajevo to breaking records across Europe

As originally featured on This Football Times, Lewis Steele charts the rise of Edin Džeko from the war-torn Sarajevo to the top of the footballing ladder.

The story of most world-class footballers starts on a local park, where the future star would spend hours a day kicking a ball around with friends from an early age. The standard edition is usually a case of something along the lines of: “he would rise with the sun and play football until the sun set at night”. A scout would spot the player and sign them up for the city’s top academy, where the kid would ease their way through the ranks of the academy setup and eventually make their name in a prestigious first team.

But, for Edin Džeko, it was different. The land the Bosnian spent his days on was worlds away from a fancy park with flat, even playing turf and an expensive ball. In fact, the park that Džeko mastered the techniques and traits that saw him work his way up the footballing ladder was in the centre of a war torn Sarajevo, which was populated with a rare blade of unharmed grass and a ball only in shape, rather than the average football that you can buy over the counter in a sports shop.

Many footballers have stories of tough beginnings to life and how they have been inspired— but this is the story of Edin Džeko’s meteoric rise from the minefields of Yugoslavia to the pinnacle of European football, where he has cemented his name as one of the most prolific strikers of the past decade or so.

For most of the formative years of Džeko’s upbringing, his hometown Sarajevo was a heavily targeted area for ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations by the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian War, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, and left a devastating trail of savagery and broken families in its wake.

Known as ‘The Siege of Sarajevo’, the siege was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, as the Bosnian capital was attacked by forces of the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’.

During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed the suit of other states and declared independence. The Bosnian Serbs had the strategic goal of creating a new Bosnian-Serb state known as Republika Srpska. They encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of more than 13,000, assaulting the city with artillery, tanks and other arms.

In the years of the war, nearly 14,000 people were killed, including over 5,000 civilians. Edin Džeko and his family lived in the middle of Sarajevo, so the sound of bombs and explosions were not rare.

Luckily, the Džeko family survived, but that didn’t prevent the events having a long lasting negative affect both physically and psychologically.

The family home of the Džeko’s was destroyed in this period, along with 35,000 other homes in the city. They had to move between substandard homes, if they could be described as ‘homes’, probably better described as a living space secured with not much more than a door diseased with bullet holes from the conflict, with no more than one meal per day.

Edin Džeko is tough, with a strong mentality. What was going on outside wouldn’t stop him from expressing his passion: football.

At the time of Džeko’s birth, Yugoslavia was becoming one of the powerhouses of football. The national team reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, to be knocked out by Argentina led by the great Diego Maradona, whilst Red Star Belgrade won the 1991 European Cup. Shortly after this, however, the conflict started as the Yugoslav army went to war with separatist Croatia, before Bosnian Serbs aimed to remove all other ethnicities from their land.

Sport as we know it today was virtually rendered into non-existence, especially in a competitive sense. There were no organised matches or tournaments to watch, as the war plagued leisure activities in Bosnia. This did not affect one thing: passion. The people loved sport, especially football, and Edin Džeko was no exception to this.

Bosanki Dijamant, which translates to ‘The Bosnian Diamond’, spent a large majority of his childhood kicking a ball of rolled up duct tape around the war torn surroundings in his hometown.

His mother, Belma, was skeptical of the idea of her young son being on the streets, but conceded that for Edin, the only way to disconnect from the tragic conflict was for him to follow his dreams and play football.

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Despite this, one day Belma refused and told her son that he must not leave the house on that day. She made the right call. That day, the field and area where the future Bosnian captain played, was bombed and all but destroyed.

The kids of today perhaps take their upbringings for granted, if you compare them to Džeko and other children of Sarajevo. The modern childhood probably consists of days playing video games and spending some time outside with friends. For Džeko, however, it was a matter of life and death – it is hard to play in a field that may be blown up the next minute.

These harrowing experiences never thwarted Džeko’s dream: to be a footballer. He never dreamt of being the star that he is today, he never thought about the fame, he never considered the money he could one day make. For Džeko, it was the simple fact that he lived and breathed football and he wanted to express his ultimate passion.

Often in life, bad experiences shape us. The war helped Džeko mature at such a young age – he had to, there was no other option if he wanted to survive. Football was one of the few things Džeko had in his tarnished childhood, so if anything, the war grew his love for the beautiful game that he has become a master of.

Džeko continued to follow his dreams and just after the war, was signed up by his first professional club, FC Željezničar Sarajevo. The name Željezničarmeant ‘railway worker’, originating from the group of railway workers who established the club in 1921. Finally, it looked as though Džeko had made his break in professional football and completed his dream.

Sadly, however, it didn’t work out for Džeko at the most successful club in modern day Bosnia. Fans and journalists close to the club described Džeko as ‘klok’, a slang word that best translates as (wooden) ‘log’ in English. Despite his childhood idol being Andriy Shevchenko, Džeko played as a midfielder in his early days. He was too tall and his lanky structure meant he struggled, as he lacked the technical abilities needed to thrive as a creative player. He was labeled lazy and told he was not cut out to be a professional footballer.

To succeed, he had to move – both playing position and country. And so he did. In 2005, Džeko moved to Czech Republic club FK Teplice for the fee of €25,000. Years later, one of the Željezničar directors claimed this fee felt like their club had “won the lottery”. After two good goal-scoring seasons in the Czech leagues, Džeko was signed for VFL Wolfsburg by Felix Magath for a €4m fee.

During his time at Wolfsburg, Džeko was part of one of the most historic seasons in German history, playing a huge role as Die Wölfewon their first ever Bundesliga title in 2008/09. Along with Brazilian Grafite and fellow Bosnian Zvjezdan Misimović, Džeko completed what was known as the ‘magisches Dreieck’, or‘magic triangle’, as the trio led Magath’s side to unprecedented glory.

The next season, Džeko scored 22 goals and won the golden boot in the Bundesliga. After years of struggling to impress professional scouts and coaches in his homeland, Džeko was thriving in Germany. He left his comfort zone and excelled – all those hours in the minefields of Sarajevo paid off, as Džeko looked like a natural born finisher with predator-like instinct of when to pop up in the box.

The Volkswagen Arena was the first place where Džeko truly played with no pressure and for this, he molded into a top striker.

His ex coach at Željezničar, Jiří Plišek, said: “I met him [Džeko] for the first time in 2003 when I started to coach Željezničar. He was 17 and amazingly no one saw him as any kind of talent, but I saw his gift.”

Sadly, this has been one of the themes running through the career of The Bosnian Diamond: many do not appreciate him for what he is and many do not notice or appreciate his vast array of talent – almost a case of, to quote teenagers going through high-school breakups, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it’.

That was the case for fans of his next club, Manchester City. In the Premier League,Džeko was often viewed as ‘good, but not great’, and would almost certainly feature in a fantasy XI made up solely of ‘super-subs’. In Manchester, Džeko played a huge role in two title wins for City under Roberto Mancini and then Manuel Pellegrini.

The first time round, Džeko was the prequel to the Agüero-ooooo goal, where his header leveled the score before Argentinian Sergio Agüero scored the most memorable goal in Premier League history to win his side their first league title in a whopping forty-four years. Three seasons later, Džeko played a pivotal role in City’s 13/14 title win, scoring 26 goals despite often playing second fiddle to the partnership of Sergio Agüero and Alvaro Negredo. Again, Džeko will often be secondarily cited as a reason for City’s success, instead many will note the brilliance of Yaya Touré’s heroics or Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip against Chelsea.

Džeko turned down the opportunity to play for the national teams of countries he played in, such as the Czech Republic and Germany. Instead, whenever he wins a trophy, as he did plenty of times in the sky blue of Manchester City, he drapes himself in the blue and yellow flag of Bosnia, grasping the flag aloft with the same pride as he held high the iconic Premier League trophy two times.

Now, Džeko is a dime of Bosnia. When he scores a goal for the national team, it represents much more than a goal to add to the score-sheet: it is a goal for every Bosnian that went through physical and mental pain in the 90’s; it is a goal for peace; it is a dedication to all those that were not as fortunate as Edin Džeko to survive and become a sporting great, or a national icon.

Muhamed Jonjić, ex-defender and first ever captain of the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team in 1995, speaks extremely fondly of Džeko: “We see him rise through all that and make his global career, to become a great – a Bosnian great, a world great – but he stayed the same boy. Genuine, kind and straightforward – that’s the beauty of his greatness.”

Džeko kept his humble character despite being a superstar. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup that Bosnia qualified, which is another story in itself, Edin Džeko took part in a charity friendly to raise funds and awareness for floods that engulfed villages and cities in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, that caused damage beyond repair. Along with his other team-mates, Džeko and the Bosnia national team played against 100 children from families affected by the devastating floods.

That day, there was only one Edin Džeko, for obvious reasons, but on the pitch, every child tried to imitate their hero, by wearing shirts with ‘Džeko #9’ on the back and trying to play football in the style of their role model.

After seemingly conquering England and Germany before it, Džeko sought a new challenge, so moved to the eternal city of Rome, signing for AS Roma. Whilst the Bosnian has no Serie A titles to his name, his legacy will live on with the Giallorossias he won the golden boot with 29 goals in the league, and has been part of many famous nights in Rome.

It was indeed Edin Džeko that started the unforgettable comeback as his side ‘rose from their ruins’ in Rome to defeat the mighty Barcelona, who had a 4-1 advantage going into the second leg. His name will rarely be mentioned when talking about that day, as it is when discussing City’s title win in the last minute against Queens Park Rangers. This adds to the common theme that Džeko goes rather unnoticed in the wider footballing community, and is vastly underappreciated.

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The story charting the journey of Edin Džeko is inspiring. It may not be the tale of a glittering career, dusted with Balon d’or’s and World Cup trophies, nor will Džeko go down as one of the best strikers to grace our leagues, but the story carries weight nevertheless.

It is the story of a boy, who kicked a ball around a park and went home at night not knowing if the park would be there the next day. It is the story of a Bosnian child who watched buildings and families be destroyed one by one alongside him, who went on to be a great. It is the story of how tragedy shaped ones passion and how a young man with a dream went on to represent his beloved Bosnia at a World Cup, despite having the chance to play for Czech or German national teams.

Edin Džeko will never be spoke about in the same breathe as the greats at his clubs. But, as the only player to have 50 or more league goals in England, Germany and Italy, he should be regarded as one of the most underrated players of his generation.

The war child from Sarajevo disproved the feeling that it was not possible to succeed from Bosnia as a sportsman, by clinging on to his love and passion for football at a time when there was little else to smile about. Džeko remained humble and rose from the depression of his house covered in bullet holes, to conquer three of the best leagues in the world.

As a story, Džeko’s career has a few chapters left yet. He isn’t a player that relies on pace. Instead he uses his ‘slow and lazy’ approach, which saw him sold by his first club FC Željezničar, to light up the biggest stages in world football. Thus, there is still life in the big Bosnian yet.

If you have learned one thing from this story, make it be: do not undermine or underrate the talent and character of Edin Džeko – he will continue to prove you wrong, just as he has done from a young boy through to becoming Bosnia’s greatest ever player and a prolific goal-scorer around the continent.

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Opinion: Bernardo Silva proves City will be in good hands when his namesake retires

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When Manchester City announced the signing of Portuguese winger Bernardo Silva from AS Monaco in the summer of 2016, eyebrows were raised at the £43m price tag.

Rival fans criticised Pep Guardiola and City for spending big money on a player who only really had one top season under his belt, and wasn’t even a guaranteed starter at The Eithad, with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané seemingly dislodgeable in the starting eleven.

Yet, supporters of the ever-growing club who announced a club record income and further profits this week, were delighted at the signing of the Portuguese trickster who starred in Monaco’s surprise Champions League run under coach Leonardo Jardim.

From all corners of the Etihad, the winger was an exciting acquisition and fans started to speculate. Although he played predominantly as a right-winger in his opening season, fans had a vision for Bernardo Silva: to eventually be moulded into a central midfield player where he could star for City.

In fact, it was more than become a midfielder that City fans tasked and envisioned Bernardo Silva with, it was to take the reign of David Silva, Manchester City’s greatest ever player.

He first made his name amongst the City fan base in February 2017, during the Champions League clash between City and Bernardo’s Monaco.

Kylian Mbappé’s performances over two legs were heavily dissected as ‘a star was born’, but for many, Bernardo Silva was the shining light both at the Etihad and the return leg at the Stade Louis II, where Monaco played Pep Guardiola’s side off the park.

That performance in the principality of Monaco surely took the eye of Guardiola, who reportedly contacted the Portuguese star.

Fast-forward a few months, Bernardo Silva signed for City, becoming Guardiola’s first signing of a summer that will be remembered long in the memory of City fans, as they added the likes of Ederson, Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to strengthen weak areas and set them up for a record-breaking season.

Although he made the most appearances for City last season, Bernardo Silva took a few months to get going, only really making substitute appearances in the first half of the season.

In the second half of the season, perhaps helped by the injuries of Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva came into his own, with fine performances against many top opposition that saw him on the scoresheet against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to name a few.

This pre-season signified a change for Bernardo Silva, however. After a below-par World Cup for Portugal, he returned to Manchester and was one of the first of City’s sixteen that went to Russia to join the pre-season tour of the United States.

There, Guardiola worked and worked on Bernardo Silva as a midfielder. After some eye-catching displays on tour in the States, it would seem that following a season used to settle into the new tempo of the Premier League, Bernardo Silva was ready for a place in Pep Guardiola’s demanding midfield.

In beating Chelsea 2-0 at Wembley in the Community Shield, his coach was full of praise.

“The performance of Bernardo Silva was a masterpiece,” Guardiola said.

“Right now, it is Bernardo and 10 others.”

“He is so intelligent, he is clever. He is a fighter, a competitor. I think he is the guy most beloved in our team and today he showed me a lot of things.”

Although Bernardo Silva showed promising glimpses at Wembley and in the victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, which included a well taken goal, the performance of Silva yesterday against Fulham was mesmeric.

City defeated Jokanovic’s side with ease at the Etihad, with goals from Sané, David Silva and Sterling, it was Bernardo Silva who was the name on many fans lips leaving the ground.

Bernardo managed five key passes, an 89.7% pass accuracy as well as 5 chances created. A smile could be seen on the face of the player who was awarded man of the match in the stadium.

The little magician, who was nicknamed ‘Messizinho’ when playing for SL Benfica, showed why he earned such names.

After David Silva made it 2-0 to City, I tweeted my joy for the player.

On a personal note, sometimes when I watch players I get a buzz inside. It is very rare and only a handful of players can bring this out of me. Lionel Messi did it when he was making his name at Barca, Kylian Mbappé was another with his performance against Argentina at the World Cup, Kevin De Bruyne against Stoke City when he racked up assist after assist in a 7-2 win, but it is rare.

Bernardo Silva did that. Watching him live at the Etihad yesterday was a pleasure.

I compared him to City’s biggest stars, the midfield partnership that ran the Premier League last season. The midfield partnership that sadly, only has a year or so left. If they had years ahead, there is no doubt they would go down as one of the best midfield duo’s in recent history, along with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta or Kroos and Modric.

Sadly for City fans, David Silva’s career is coming to an end. El Mago will be remembered as one of the greats of the Premier League era, but sadly, it is nearly over and the day of his departure is ever approaching.

But yesterday, City fans showed something that proved to them that Bernardo Silva could take that role and leave City in safe hands for years to come.

His nonchalant touch, his passing ability, the way he drove forward and linked the midfield and attack – just a few things to note from a memorable performance.

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“It’s almost impossible to be more pleased as a manager. That’s why he deserves to play all the minutes he’s playing. He’s a good example for us, all the guys”, said Guardiola after the game.

“Thank you so much to Manchester City for buying him.”

The only thing holding Bernardo back from getting full marks and a 10/10 was the fact he didn’t add a goal, missing a couple of chances that he could have done better with.

Soon, David Silva will move on, it will be a devastating day for all concerned with City, but yesterday especially showed that City are in great hands – Bernardo Silva is the heir to the throne that David Silva has reigned from for his eight-year stay in Manchester.

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Saúl Ñíguez is the heartbeat of Enrique’s new-look Spain side

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From being carried off the pitch at the BayArena in Leverkusen with devastating kidney problems, to being tipped as a mainstay in the new look Spanish midfield for years to come, Saúl Ñíguez is proving he is more than just a name easily made into a ‘Better Call Saul’ pun for tabloid newspapers, but a top class player. Lewis Steele charts his rise and offers his opinion on where the Atletico star goes from here: 

Spain’s wins over England and Croatia in the international break represented a changing of the proverbial guard in many aspects. Most notably, the week represented a change in the dugout in Luis Enrique, who fills the seat that Fernando Hierro sat in for all of a month after Julen Lopetegui departed from Spain on the eve of the World Cup. As well as the managerial change post-Russia, mainstays David Silva and Andrés Iniesta announced they were to step down from international football, both on the back of illustrious international careers. This paved the way for Enrique to experiment with his side, and perhaps give caps to midfielders who have been on the periphery for the past few seasons.

Let’s not feel too harsh on Enrique who lost Silva and Iniesta, as it is common knowledge in the football world that Spain have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to central midfielders. However, one man who particularly took the light in Spain’s wins was Atlético Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez.

Ñíguez, 23, scored in both fixtures as Enrique’s side convincingly did away of Russia’s runners-up Croatia in a 6-0 win, days after an impressive victory over England at Wembley.

For Saúl, it has been a tough start to his international career, with few minutes available. In Russia, he played a grand total of zero minutes. Even when the likes of Iniesta were replaced, there were players further up the pecking order or midfield hierarchy. It was a frustrating summer for the Atlético star.

However, Saúl showed in these games that he has what it takes to be a pivotal part of the next generation of Spanish superstars, a symbol of a new formed Spain.

La Roja were never convincing in Russia and were dumped out by the hosts on penalties, so it was perhaps wise to call an end to the international careers of the legends that will be remembered for the triumphs between 2008 and 2012, where they will go down as one of, if not the, best international sides of modern history. Along with Silva and Iniesta, Spain also said goodbye to Gerard Piqué, while Jordi Alba and Koke didn’t make the cut, with Chelsea high-flyer Marcos Alonso getting the nod over the former. In fact, only three World Cup winners remained in the 23-man squad Enrique picked.

The break brought positive performances from many of Spain’s young talent, including Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, José Gayà and Rodri. But Saúl stood out, perhaps symbolically more than anything else. Real Madrid’s star Asensio was excellent in front of goal, but we know Spain for the beautiful passing side they are, and Saúl captivated that in abundance, as he was the heartbeat that kept the Spanish ticking from minute one, to the final whistle.

The England performance won Saúl plaudits, but it was the game against Croatia that will be remembered by Saúl and his family for decades. The game was held at the Martin Valero stadium in Elche, which coincidentally, is where Saúl started his career in football.

Elche CF, the team from the town just inland from Alicante on the Mediterranean Coast, play in the Segunda Division, but boast an impressive 33,000 seater stadium which has played host to a rare few international games over the years. They are the club where the Ñíguez family made their name: father Jose Antonio played as a striker for the club for nine years, Saúl’s eldest brother Jonathan plays there now, while other brother Aaron played there for two seasons before moving on to pastures new.

So, on Tuesday night, the homecoming so to speak of Saúl Ñíguez was a huge incentive for the locals to go out and buy their tickets for the fixture. Everyone in the Martin Valero stadium went to see the boy that is slowly becoming the best thing to ever come from Elche.

In fact, the last time La Roja played at Elche, Saúl was thirteen. That day Spain beat Italy 1-0 through a David Villa goal. The teenager would have watched that game, and surely dreamed of potentially playing for Spain at his home stadium one day.

Although Saúl was tipped to be a star from this age, it was a long road to the top. His talent was spotted at Elche, with his elegant style noted by many top clubs. Thus, he was headhunted. At just the age of 11, Saúl moved to Madrid and signed for… Real Madrid.

Yep, that’s right. Atletico fans can’t even claim Saúl to be one of their own, technically.

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It was a tough time for Saúl across the city, as he was subject to bullying from fellow academy players.

He told El Mundo: “During that year with Real Madrid I learned many things, I matured a lot. It was a difficult year because many non-sporting things were happening.”

This was a mental setback for Saúl, but a physical injury was to follow that could have ended Saúl’s career.

In the years leading up to now, the midfield metronome had a serious kidney injury which meant he would often be out of breathe and at worst, urinate blood.

In 2015, away at Leverkusen in the BayArena, Saúl departed in the arms of the physio unable to continue, and remembers violently vomiting.

It looked like Saúl’s career was to fizzle out, but the young man showed determination to recover and it is paying dividends now, as he is moulding into one of the finest midfielders in the world.

Saúl has a knack of netting in big games, notably a goal v Bayern in the Champions League semi final of 2016, or his goal more recently in the UEFA Super Cup v Real Madrid.

If he can carry on, on this trajectory, Saúl Ñíguez could go down as one of the greats. With Spain looking to move away from the plagued ‘tiki-taka’ craze (a whole story in itself), Atletico’s dynamo will be crucial, as he has been early in Luis Enrique’s side as the heartbeat of La Roja. 

Want a midfielder good enough to replace Iniesta and Silva? Better ca— finish it, I can’t bring myself to recycle the most used headline in the history of headlines.

 

 

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Talking Tactics: Marcelo Bielsa’s Philosophies

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Marcelo Bielsa is quickly winning praise in England for his fast start with Leeds, but who exactly is ‘El Loco’ and why are his philosophies so lavished in the footballing world?

To the shock and delirium of many English football fans, Leeds United appointed ‘El Loco’ Marcelo Bielsa ahead of the new season. Literally translating as ‘the crazy one’, Bielsa adopts an innovative, fast moving style of football that has won him global plaudits from some of the best coaches in the game, including Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino.

Surprisingly, many neutral watchers in England knew nothing of the Argentinian coach, and some still don’t. A couple of months into his spell at Leeds, we have learnt that Bielsa is indeed a very interesting character: he sits on a cooler during matches, is not afraid to make first half substitutions if things aren’t going right and employs a translator to help him with his interviews in a very odd yet admirable style.

Bielsa’s first job in management was with Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys, who play their football at the stadium now called ‘Estadio Marcelo Bielsa’ in Rosario, Santa Fe.

Taking the job in his mid thirties, Marcelo Bielsa’s meticulous style became evident months into his two-year stint at Newell’s. The dedicated coach racked up circa 25,000 miles in his Fiat 167 as he fled around the country trying to persuade players to join the club. Often, it was his eye for talent that made him stand out from the crowd, as he brought the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Mauricio Pochettino to the club, both of whom went on to have playing careers at the highest level.

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Just like all revolutionary coaches in sport, Bielsa has a desire for detail. When the Argentine took over at Leeds, this was clear. He installed sleeping quarters at the training ground and went against the norm of English football training patterns, by insisting that Leeds do double sessions with the players allowed to rest in the sleeping areas in between.

In essence, he has transformed Leeds’ training from a couple of hours in the morning to a nine-to-five job, with the players having demanding physical schedules as well as intense lectures in front of a tactics board learning about their next opponent.

Before his arrival, Bielsa watched all 51 Leeds games from last season, so he knew his players inside out. He completely immersed himself in the club and its surroundings, and thus far it is paying dividends, with Leeds flying in the league.

Top coaches such as Simeone, Guardiola and Pochettino swear by Bielsa as one of their biggest inspirations in management. Pep Guardiola visited Bielsa in Argentina before he took the job as a coach at Barcelona B, his first job. In fact, the two spent 11 hours at a barbecue at Bielsa’s Rosario home talking football and tactics.

Why? Bielsa has won a couple of Argentinian league titles as well as guiding Argentina to Olympic glory, but why is he so coveted in the wider footballing community?

“I only believe in Plan A. Plan B is to get Plan A to work”

Perhaps taking inspiration from Bielsa, a vast majority of top coaches in world football tend to stick to their core beliefs and not stray away from them. For example, Guardiola would never ‘park the bus’ based on the opposition in the same way Simeone refuses to depart from his defensive counter attacking game.

Bielsa sees the notion of changing tactics mid game as failure or a sign of weakness. If he doesn’t believe in his own way, why should the players invest so much attention and effort to believe in Bielsa?

That doesn’t mean El Loco is afraid of change – far from it, in fact. In the game against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium a fortnight ago, Bielsa hauled off his key midfielder Kalvin Phillips with not even half an hour on the clock, for tactical reasons. When Leeds needed a goal, it was always going to be one striker for another, rather than throwing Bamford on for a defender and changing the game plan to throwing balls into the box.

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It doesn’t always work. In his early days at Lille, Bielsa made three changes before half time and ended up having to play an outfield player as a goalkeeper, before changing his mind and swapping the outfield player. Lille lost that game 3-0, to Strasbourg. His style is rash and sometimes backfires, but often it works.

As Kanye West would say – “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”.

The famous 3-3-1-3 and more conservative 4-2-3-1 styles

Leeds’ star coach has been hailed in world football for his tactical innovations, namely his eye catching 3-3-1-3 formation, which gained popularity in Bielsa’s Chile, Marseille and Bilbao sides.

The system demands highly demanding pressing, elaborate attacking and fluid transitions that combine for a very exciting style of play.

The eccentric formation consists of: three defenders ample on the ball; a defensive shield in the middle of two inverted wing backs; an enganche; a front three of a target man and two wide men.

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Perhaps most eye catching of the formation is the playmaker just behind the front three: most notable in this role was Dimitri Payet during Bielsa’s stint at Marseille.

This player is given the most freedom and is relieved of pressing duties, thus is the biggest creative outlet in the system. Enganche is the traditional playmaker that is the prompt for attacking moves.

The wide men stay as wide as possible, creating overloads in the wide areas, allowing the playmaker to excel.

The un enganche y tres punta belief galvanized the French league at the time and Marseille fought for the title right until the end, where they were beaten by multimillionaire giants Paris St-Germain.

As is similar with most of the pioneer coaches of attacking football, many forget about the defensive side. Bielsa’s sides are more than equipped off the ball.

Chile adopted a high intensity style around this famous 3-3-1-3 formation and although not littered with talent, the South American nation have over performed in tournaments in the past decade, especially on the continent.

Whilst at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola stated that Barcelona’s draw at the San Mames, home of Bielsa’s Bilbao, was their toughest game of the season. He said that Bielsa’s men played like lions as the Catalan giants struggled to cope with their high pressing.

In that very season, the Basque club earned their way to surprising finishes in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, achieving the final in both competitions.

It isn’t just the eccentric 3-3-1-3 formation that Loco has up his sleeve, as he often turns to a 4-2-3-1 system with high full backs, which he is adopting thus far in Yorkshire.

Bielsa’s aim is to have one more central defender than the opposition have strikers, which facilitates his high line and pressing style of play, as only one spare defender means there are more players to push forwards.

“Concentracion, permanente movilidad, rotacion y repentization” – concentration, focus, rotation and improvisation.

Even though the shape may look slightly different, the idea and emphasis is the same. The key components are speed, verticality and fluidity: each player is expected to improvise within the system and fill in for one another.

Bielsa swears: “if football was played by robots, I would win everything”. He has a belief in his system that if players carry out his orders of where to be on the pitch, they will succeed.

The robotic comment seems strange, as Bielsa relies heavily on improvisation in situations for effectiveness.

He believes that totally mechanized teams are “useless, because they get lost when they lose their script”. The role of the enganche, in both systems, thus, is crucial.

Whether it be Dimi Payet at that high flying Marseille side in a 3-3-1-3 or now at Leeds, Samuel Saiz, the creativity and improvisation aspect is crucial. The playing style is about movement – you may watch Leeds and not know what position certain players are playing, because they have to be multifunctional similar to Pep’s City, where Kyle Walker pops up all over the pitch in wing back, midfield and centre back roles depending on the situation.

His interesting character and demeanour  

Bielsa has an affinity with fans and tries to drill into his players that they must fight for the supporters who work hard to afford to come and watch their team. He said: “[players] are an extension of fans, [players] are those people.”

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During pre season, Loco wanted to make the players know what it takes to earn a ticket, so made his squad go around litter picking for the time that it takes for the average earner to make enough to afford a Leeds United home ticket.

He believes that he is the boss, but he is separate from the players. The captain, Liam Cooper, was voted for by the players – Bielsa believes the captain is the voice of the players, so he should not have a say in who wears the armband.

What you do on the training pitch win you matches, but the finer details are what win you titles. The small changes Bielsa has made at Leeds will go a long way to making this side better equipped to fight for promotion.

This has always been the case: when at Chile, he changed everything from the dimension of the pitch to the font on the signage around the training complex, because he saw a font he liked at Santiago Zoo.

He speaks adequate English, but does not want his message to come across wrong, so relies heavily on his translator.

These finer details helped setup Chile’s golden generation which won back-to-back Copa America titles – they will be crucial for Leeds in a division which is so often decided on tight margins.

Leeds have started brilliantly, but they have done before. This feels different. Bielsa has a blueprint that he will stick by and the players can only improve, unlike previous years when it was potentially a new manager effect driving improved performances for a short period of time.

The buzz around the city is different and better than it has been for over a decade, with 20000 watching Tuesday night cup ties at Elland Road to see Bielsa’s Leeds in the flesh.

Bielsa has never had vast amounts of money to spend, so his ideas are crucial. He has a system that he believes in – if he can transfer this belief to the players, Leeds will go far.

Diaz and Jesus shine as City cruise to quarter-finals: Manchester City Player Ratings v Fulham

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Holders Manchester City continued their fine form in the Carabao Cup with a routine win over Fulham.

Pep Guardiola tinkered with the squad that narrowly defeated Tottenham at Wembley on Monday evening. The Catalan coach made 10 changes to the side, with just John Stones retaining his place in the starting lineup.

A double from Spaniard Brahim Diaz was enough to see off Slavisa Jokanovic’s side at the Etihad. Here’s how I rated Guardiola’s City players…

Aro Muric – 6

A second successive start in the Carabao Cup for City’s teenage goalkeeper, who is yet to concede a goal for City. In truth, he would have had to make a dreadful error to concede a goal, with Fulham being rendered to mere shots from distance – nothing to trouble the Montenegrin goalkeeper.

Danilo – 7

A pleasing return to first team action for City’s Brazilian, who has hardly featured this season due to injuries. Danilo was an outlet going forward and made some good tackles defensively.

John Stones – 6.5

Out of the two central defenders, John Stones looked like the one who had been playing at City for 10 years, not Kompany. The England international is growing in confidence although he had little to do tonight.

Vincent Kompany – 6

A solid night for Vinnie, who had little to do. The Belgian kept the tough striker Mitrovic quiet for the second time this season.

Oleksandr Zinchenko – 6

Was camped in the attacking half for the majority of the game, and looked promising. Not a lot else to say for Zinchenko, who looks to be enjoying his football in Manchester still.

Fabian Delph – 6

Slotted into Fernandinho’s midfield role with relative ease. Fulham didn’t really trouble Delph or City, with the likes of Tom Cairney struggling to get on the ball.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7

A worrying end to De Bruyne’s night – the Belgian limped off at the end holding his knee. Luckily for City, it seemed to be the other knee to the one that he injured at the start of the season. Apart from this, De Bruyne bossed the midfield and is starting to grow into his normal self after a slow return.

Phil Foden – 7

Another performance to get City fans excited for Phil Foden’s future. The 18-year-old is maturing game by game and looks like he could be the one to buck the trend of City academy graduates. He arrives into the box at the perfect time like a prime Frank Lampard, and turns his men at ease like a prime Andres Iniesta. Foden was unlucky not to have a goal, with a couple of narrow misses.

Brahim Diaz – 8

Two goals and a decent performance for young Brahim Diaz, who seems to be forgotten with the plethora of attacking options City have. Despite this, the Spaniard always makes a good account for himself when he plays, and tonight was no exception to that. Strong rumours have circulated of late that Diaz is probably not going to renew his deal, with Real Madrid reportedly interested. Based on tonight’s performance, he will be a big loss.

Gabriel Jesus – 8

Probably Gabriel Jesus’ best performance in a City shirt this season. The Brazilian made some excellent runs, interpreted spaces in the box with ease, and created chances for himself time after time. A goal would have topped off a brilliant performance, but it wasn’t to be, as he was denied by the post and goalkeeper a number of times. On a few occasions, it felt like Jesus was trying a bit too hard to impress, a bit like Riyad Mahrez this time six weeks ago. If he gets a goal and a run of games, Jesus’ form will start to return to what it was eighteen months ago.

Leroy Sane – 7.5

A great evening for City’s German winger, who gave Fulham defenders a terrible night. He dribbled in and out of Fulham with ease time after time, and created many chances for his teammates. He could have had a goal for himself, but his performance shows City’s depth is top quality.

Substitutes:

Riyad Mahrez (for Brahim Diaz) – N/A

Monday’s match winner replaced tonight’s match winner with little time to go, and didn’t really see the ball.

Claudio Gomes (for Kevin De Bruyne) – N/A

City’s teenage midfielder signed from Paris in the summer replaced De Bruyne in what was his Etihad Stadium debut. A proud day for the boy many refer to as N’Golo Kante 2.0.

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How the back-pass rule changed football in England almost overnight

Lewis’ latest piece for These Football Times looks at how outlawing the ability to pick up a back-pass in 1992 changed the English game for the better. 

Football is a simple game. Besides perhaps the offside rule, which may be complicated to an outsider who doesn’t watch the game, the rules are pretty self-explanatory. You learn these from the first moment you kick a football around your garden or schoolyard, and they transition into second nature fairly quickly.

Often, however, you may hear anecdotes of ancient football that seem unthinkable now, potentially via Alan Smith tediously explaining to you via commentary on a video game that we used to have square goal-posts, where a lot more bounced out than went in. Other unthinkable facets of the game may consist of goalkeepers playing without gloves, the absence of a crossbar, which enabled goals to be scored regardless of how high the ball was, and when throw-ins had to be done at right angles to the touchline similar to a rugby line-up.

When you think of these weird archaic rules of the game, your imagination probably paints a black and white picture in your head of butch working-class English men in their dark leather boots kicking around a tattered ball that looks like it weighs the same as a medicine ball.

One rule change dates back to just 1992, however: the introduction of the back-pass regulation. For the younger generation, imagining a game where goalkeepers are able to pick up back-passes probably decorates the mind with the aforementioned black and white pictures of bare-handed goalkeepers trotting around a goal made of three planks of square-edged timber. But no, football only moved on from this a quarter of a century ago.

But why fix what wasn’t broken? Why fix the beautiful game and change the laws so dramatically a century after it became popularised in a competitive sense.

Well, surprisingly, the whole game was in a languid state on the back of the 1990 World Cup and the 1992 European Championship, which Denmark won after not originally qualifying, given a chance when the former Yugoslavia were forced to withdraw. Also, while Italia 90 may be remembered for some iconic moments – Gazza’s tears, Maradona breaking Brazilian hearts, Roger Milla’s dancing – it was not one for the football purists, with an all-time low average of only 2.2 goals per game.

The outlawing changed the game for the better and was one of the key factors in driving the success of the Premier League. The game changed seemingly overnight – at least in England and, to an extent, Italy – but this leaves a place for nostalgia around this pre-watershed state.

Read | The origins of football: a game born of savagery

From here, there is only really one example to start with: Graeme Souness to Chris Woods in 1987. Still in his playing days – technically a player-manager – for Rangers, Souness received the ball midway into the Dynamo Kyiv half with seconds left on the clock. Nowadays, the prescribed method to see out a game would be to take the ball into the corner and keep it there until the referee blows his whistle.

Instead of this, Souness turned away from the defenders and played a 60-yard pass to his goalkeeper, Woods. The ‘keeper picked the ball up, strolled around his box for as long as he could, bounced it a couple of times for good luck, and launched it back down the other end for a big striker to feed off. Pop it into your search engines if you haven’t seen it, you won’t be let down.

The fact that Souness would later go on to manage Liverpool, who were one of the teams that suffered in the early years of the rule change, makes for a good irony, but the back-pass against Dynamo can only really be looked back on as the undeniable masterpiece of the back-passing genre.

This ancient tactic of pumping the ball back to your goalkeeper wasn’t all fine and dandy. You would often get strikers just lurking in what would be an offside position if his team had the ball, just anticipating a back-pass. Also, there were a few bloopers, none better so than Lee Dixon to David Seaman in 1991. The Arsenal defender turned and attempted a long pass to his goalkeeper, but miss-judged it and actually chipped his compatriot, scoring an owl goal.

The Dixon-Seaman blunder is probably best reserved for the classic goalkeeping blunder DVDs, but it paints a picture of the weird state of football at the time, especially in Britain.

For a century, football, in the main, ran on fair play. It was only really the late 1980s and early 90s that teams started to exploit rules and turn their tactics extremely negative. In one game at the 1990 World Cup, against Egypt in Palermo, Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner held the ball for almost six minutes without releasing it. The game ended goalless and many regard it as the most boring passage in World Cup history.

A general rethink of the laws of the game were promoted by these moments, which can only be described as odd, coupled with the negativity of the international tournaments of the early 1990s.

One of the last players to ever legally pick up a back-pass would have been the legendary Peter Schmeichel, who went on to be one of the best shot-stoppers the English game has ever seen. In the drab European Championship of 1992, his side quite literally back-passed their way to glory in the final. The great Dane gave this particular strand of gamesmanship a rousing send-off in the final against Germany as they completed their unexpected triumph.

Some magazines are meant to be kept

To see out the game, Schmeichel would have his defenders lined up either side of him on the corners of the box, before passing to one of them. The defender would, without hesitation, immediately return the ball to the grateful hands of the white-haired goalkeeper, who will be remembered as the icon of that tournament. Schmeichel and co repeated this tediously to see the game out, but while Denmark celebrated, the governing overlords of football sat in despair at the state of the so-called beautiful game.

With the change came the beginning of a new era: the founding of the Premier League ahead of the 1992/93 season, a new era of English football that would go on to be much more than a division. Instead, it would become a multi-billion pound product that would attract rich investors and advertisers from around the world. But it needed to be an entertaining product, so changes were necessary.

Law 12, Section 2 was implemented into the Laws of the Game and this changed the Premier League for the better ahead of its inaugural campaign. A generation or two before the days of Pep Guardiola arriving on our shores and hunted a goalkeeper for his ability on the ball over his shot-stopping, ‘keepers were largely there just to keep clean sheets and hoof balls upfield.

The outlawing was greeted with pessimism from sections of the Premier League. “I don’t think this is going to enhance the game at all,” complained Arsenal boss George Graham. Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson felt the new ruling would be counterproductive and it would instead promote long-ball football. Wilkinson’s views were not necessarily wrong in the short term but it is telling that his Leeds side fell from champions to a meager 17th place in the inaugural Premier League campaign.

The rule change wasn’t designed to prevent negative tactics; it was introduced simply to add to the drama of the game and increase the entertainment. Football was too slow and fans had experienced one back-pass too many – the game was turning into a pedestrianised sport like cricket, with too many stoppages in play.

It was on 15 August 1992 that football changed dramatically in England, and it didn’t come without its fair share of comedy. Fans had seen tasters of what was to come in pre-season, notably when Manchester City goalkeeper Andy Dibble suffered a broken leg when hesitating with the ball at his feet.

The giants of the 1980s struggled in this post-normality state. Nottingham Forest were relegated in the first Premier League season, with Brian Clough’s style not adaptable to the newfound tempo of the game. Liverpool, the most successful team in the 1980s, also suffered.

Read | How Vienna’s coffee houses gave rise to a new era of intellectualism in football

However, nobody was troubled more than the goalkeepers. Ex-England goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson complained: “The new rule is making a mockery of my profession.” Goalkeepers, who had spent their whole life training to use their hands, now had to use their feet. Crazy – the idea of foot-ballers having to use their feet. But at the time, it was a new idea. Decades before the Edersons and Alissons of the Premier League, many goalkeepers frowned at the idea of using their feet. There were some exceptions, of course, but that’s often what they were – exceptions.

Despite all the early complaining, the back-pass rule change undeniably improved football, especially in England. It had teething problems, obviously, but after a year of adjustment, it helped the game flow better and it made football a more entertaining spectacle, one built for the TV packages and industry it has become.

Twenty-five years on from the change, the Premier League is now by far the most watched league in the world. The quality of football grows each season, overseas players come to the league to fulfill lifelong dreams, while the whole Sky Sports product is now a cinematic experience with a growing worldwide viewership.

The majority of coaches in the Premier League now insist on building from the back, adapting the principles of luminaries like Johan Cruyff. The revolutionary Dutch legend was a keen student of Gusztáv Sebes’ Hungary team of the 1950s, who was faithful to the idea that goalkeepers were the 11th man and football wasn’t a game of 10 outfielders. Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has sought to build on those examples, and in his record breaking Centurions season of 2017/18, his goalkeeper, Ederson, was a crucial factor.

Ederson wasn’t the first goalkeeper to play out from the back, nor is he the last, but 25 years on from the rule change, he will be cited as one of the pioneers of the modern art of goalkeeping in England, which stretches beyond the primary role of guarding the net.

Outlawing the handling of back-passes changed the game seemingly overnight and prevented teams from exploiting loopholes to see out games. It is wholly coincidental that the rule change arrived on the eve of the Premier League’s inaugural campaign, but it can be firmly stated as a causal reason for the rise of the best league in the world.

Previously attempted rule changes failed, such as to make penalty shoot-outs ice hockey styled with a 30 yard run and five seconds to score, but this change worked and it is one of the driving factors behind the excitement of the game in the 21st century. The more time the ball is in play, the more excitement we have, and the more we get to experience the great players the Premier League is populated with.

Match Review: Barcelona v Real Madrid

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Luis Suàrez netted a hat-trick as Barcelona demolished a poor Real Madrid side to heap more misery on Julen Lopetegui. 

Philippe Coutinho gave the hosts an early lead at the Nou Camp when he met Jordi Alba’s cross and Luis Suàrez doubled the lead from the penalty spot after being fouled by Raphael Varane on the half-hour mark.

Madrid stepped it up for the first ten minutes of the second half, with Marcelo pulling one back for Lopetegui’s side.

Benzema came close minutes later and Los Blancos struck the post in what would have levelled the game.

Despite this, Suàrez put the game to bed with two quick fire goals – the first being a delightful header from a wonderfully weighted Sergi Roberto cross.

‘Rey Arthur’ Arturo Vidal completed the rout from close range a few minutes from time.

Talking Points

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Valverde shows tactical maturity 

Barcelona fans are quick to criticise Ernesto Valverde if their side aren’t at their best, but when things go right tactically, Valverde deserves praise.

In this match, Valverde showed his tactical eye. Jordi Alba’s role was crucial, Barca reacted to Madrid’s early second half dominance with key substitutes, while Barca overloaded the middle allowing the likes of Roberto and co to thrive in the wing back roles.

In the first ten minutes of the second half, Real Madrid looked well on for at least a point. Marcelo pulled one back and Lopetegui’s side had a plethora of other chances, as well as dominance on the ball. That was thanks to the change at half time to a 3-4-3, which Real Madrid fans may become accustomed to should Antonio Conte take the job when Lopetegui is inevitably sacked.

This change of shape confused Barcelona, but after a crash course of a ten minute period, Valverde acted.

He sent on Nelson Semedo and pushed Sergi Roberto to a right wing role, which allowed Barca to thrive. His other change at this point was Ousmané Dembele, who changed the game back in Barca’s favour with his assists and overall play.

The whole tactics of the game are another issue, but in a very brief nutshell, Valverde should get much more praise than he has received.

Time to go 

*Disclaimer* When writing this, Julen Lopetegui is still officially the Real Madrid manager. The ‘Comunicado Oficial’ has not occurred, but it will, surely.

After the game, Real Madrid sit in 9th in La Liga. Before the fairly easy analysis of why Lopetegui should be sacked, which he should, it is needed to have a little sympathy for the man who gave up his country for a club, and now is on the eve of losing both.

The 52-year-old had the reigns of the biggest club in the world for just 14 games – winning six and losing six.

Lopetegui will argue the sale of Ronaldo had robbed his team of 40 goals. It did.

Nothing about his appointment felt right, and although you have to have sympathy for Lopetegui, the downfall of his career was written the second himself and the Spanish federations agreed to announce his appointment at Madrid on the eve of a World Cup that Spain entered as one of the favourites.

Florentino Perez worried that a poor tournament for Spain would have diminished the size of Real Madrid’s coup, making the appointment out of paranoia and worry over the national team.

The blame can be shared, but for on the pitch matters exclusively, Lopetegui must be sacked.

‘Flopetegui’ will go down as one of the worst Real Madrid appointments in recent decades, but to sack him now means there is still plenty of time for the new boss to recover the form.

Despite that, the embarrassing loss at the Nou Camp means that the league title seems more of a dream than a potential reality.

El Clasico del futuro 

All the headlines and buildup in Spain leading up to this one centred around not who was going to be on show in the classic fixture, but who was going to be absent.

Lionel Messi watched on from the stands, with an arousing smile on his face, while Madrid sulked in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who they are missing greatly since his departure to Turin.

Barcelona showed that life can go on without Messi. Ousmané Dembele may not have the potential of the Argentinian legend, but he showed off the bench that he can mature into a key figure for the Blaugrana.

The worldwide viewing figures may suffer in the absence of the big two, but the entertainment will not: El Clásico is still the biggest fixture in club football.

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Player Ratings

Barcelona: ter Stegen 6; Roberto 8, Pique 7, Lenglet 6, Alba 9; Busquets 7, Rakitic 7, Arthur 8, Rafinha 7; Suarez 10, Coutinho 7.

Real Madrid: Courtois 3; Nacho 6, Ramos 5, Varane 4, Marcelo 7; Casemiro 7, Kroos 5, Modric 5; Bale 4, Benzema 5, Isco 5.

 

 

EFL Weekly – Gameweek Roundup 12-13 October

No Championship? No Problem.

The second international break of the season may be upon us, but Leagues One and Two more than stepped up to the plate with yet more pulsating games and outrageous goals, despite neither division enjoying a full complement of fixtures.

But who were the big winners of the weekend?

League One

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Conor Chaplin scored the only goal late on as Coventry beat Wycombe at the Ricoh Arena

Barnsley backed up their hammering of Peterborough last weekend by putting on a dominant display against Luton in front of the Sky cameras at Oakwell.

Daniel Stendel’s Tykes went into the lunchtime kick-off knowing that a win would see them go second and pile the pressure on their promotion rivals, but also that their visitors would provide stern opposition looking to extend their six-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

But it didn’t take long for the hosts to break Luton down, as within five minutes they were ahead.

Wriggling away from a couple of challenges, Brad Potts – scorer of two in the 4-0 rout at London Road last time out – drove forward, and drilled a low shot across goalkeeper James Shea and into the corner from just inside the D.

James Collins thought he’d equalised for the Hatters only to be denied by the offside flag, and then things got worse with twenty minutes remaining of the half.

The ever-dangerous George Moncur broke free down the left before making his way into the box. He cut inside the sliding Glen Rea and teed up former Luton man Cameron McGeehan – a key part of the Kenilworth Road squad that earned promotion back to the Football League in 2014 – who side-footed home from fifteen yards to double the hosts’ advantage.

On loan Nottingham Forest man Jorge Grant hit the post from a free-kick as Luton searched for a route back into the game, but they did eventually get their lifeline on half-time when Harry Cornick was felled by Ben Williams in the area, and marksman Collins converted the resulting penalty with ease.

Despite the minor setback, Barnsley continued to assert their authority in the second period, and McGeehan almost made the points safe with a header from a free-kick, but he was denied his second by the post.

Mamadou Thiam did look to have finished the visitors off with just over ten minutes to play however, as a poor clearance fell straight to the substitute on the left corner of the box, before he took three deft touches and unleashed an absolute rocket into the side netting of the far post.

Nathan Jones’ Luton were determined not to go down without a fight though, and they did set up a nervy finish as Kazenga Lua-Lua’s cross cannoned back off the far and dropped for Collins who showed good technique to half-volley in his second, but it wasn’t enough as Barnsley held out for a well-deserved three points.

But would Portsmouth and Peterborough, who had been the top two in SkyBet League One for almost the entire season up to now, be able to respond in their 3pm kick-offs, just one week after suffering morale-crushing home defeats?

In a word, yes, as both enjoyed wins on the road.

Pompey remain top after inflicting a third straight defeat on AFC Wimbledon by winning 2-1 at Kingsmeadow, whilst Posh took second spot back from Barnsley with a solid 2-0 victory at Scunthorpe thanks to a brace from Matt Gooden, who becomes the joint-top scorer in the third tier.

Below the Tykes, Doncaster also responded from a loss last week with a 3-2 away win at Rochdale, whilst Sunderland retain their playoff spot despite having their game with Blackpool postponed.

Walsall also didn’t play and so did drop out of the top six, and taking their position are Accrington, who continued their fantastic start to life back in the third tier with a comfortable home win over Bradford.

Talismanic striker Billy Kee got things going with a first half penalty, before Offrande Zanzala made it two early in the second.

The Bantams pulled one back through Eoin Doyle just after the hour, but less than five minutes later, Stanley were out of sight again through Sean McConville’s strike.

David Hopkin’s Bradford remain third from bottom as a result, and there was a huge game taking place just below them.

Oxford, who became League One’s basement side last weekend, hosted a Plymouth team that leapfrogged them with their first win of the season, but this time around it was the Yellows who received the plaudits at the Kassam Stadium.

Jamie Mackie gave Karl Robinson’s men the perfect start inside four minutes, and Curtis Nelson sealed the victory with a quarter of an hour left, before Yann Songo’o was dismissed late on, compounding Argyle to yet more misery.

The win ends a run of eight without for Oxford, and they now sit two points off safety after a difficult afternoon for most of the sides in the bottom half.

Bristol Rovers remain in the relegation zone after a late 1-0 defeat to Burton which lifts them clear of danger, whilst Gillingham lost 2-0 at home to Southend, leaving them still nervously looking over their shoulders.

Wycombe and Shrewsbury also lost and stay just two points clear of the drop, after going down 1-0 at Coventry and 2-1 at Fleetwood respectively, with both their victors recording back-to-back wins.

League Two

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Lincoln put six past Port Vale in a devastating display on Saturday afternoon

There was an interesting match-up at Sixfields on Saturday, as lowly Northampton – on a run of seven games without a win – took on Forest Green Rovers, the last remaining unbeaten side in the EFL.

The Cobblers have struggled to the extent that manager Dean Austin was sacked after a 4-0 hammering at Mansfield and replaced by Keith Curle, but with the new boss earning his first victory at League One Oxford in the EFL trophy on Tuesday, there were perhaps reasons to be optimistic heading into this one, despite the form book being very much against them.

But Northampton were just a point above the drop zone and without a win at home all season, so it perhaps came as no surprise that Reuben Reid scored his fifth league goal of the campaign to fire Rovers in front just moments before half-time.

Forest Green, who went into the weekend in the playoffs, seemed set to cement their position, but were pegged back just after the hour.

A far post corner was headed back across goal, and on hand in the middle of the area to power in the equaliser was Aaron Pierre, to give the hosts a much-needed lift.

All of a sudden there was a feeling of belief around the place, and but for Robert Sanchez getting down low to keep out a Sam Hoskins free-kick, Northampton would have been ahead.

Despite their pressure, the home side couldn’t find that elusive goal to steal the win, until deep, deep into added time.

Substitute Kevin van Veen headed a ball forward from halfway which looked comfortable for Rovers defender Liam Shephard to deal with.

The full-back had at least ten yards on the striker, but van Veen’s persistence saw him close down his opponent – running towards his own goal – and nick the ball away inside the penalty area.

Dutch striker van Veen then had the awareness to pull it back for the man on the spot, veteran Andy Williams, who turned it in from six yards out to spark wild celebrations at Sixfields in the 97th minute.

Forest Green were floored, their unbeaten record in tatters, but a huge sense of jubilation erupted for the hosts. Fans spilled onto the pitch to celebrate a first home success of the season with their heroes of the day, and is this a sign that the slide is being stopped for a side relegated from League One last season?

The result lifts them four points clear of the drop for now, as the teams below them either lost, or didn’t play in the case of Notts County, Grimsby and Cheltenham.

Bottom of the table Macclesfield equalled an unwanted record on Friday night in their 1-0 loss at Tranmere, by becoming the second side to go 36 consecutive English league matches without a win – their last coming in 2012, when they were relegated to the Non-League.

Only Derby (2007-08) have endured as bad a run – albeit in the Premier League – and it was Harvey Gilmour of Tranmere who condemned the Silkmen to it in the battle of the promoted sides, with a result that moved them into the playoffs.

Cambridge also lost against a team in the top seven as they went down 1-0 at home to fourth place MK Dons who secured a third straight win, whilst making it four consecutive losses for the U’s who remain in the drop zone.

Joining Tranmere and the Dons in the playoffs are Colchester – who won 3-1 at home to Crawley – and Stevenage, despite the Boro’s dramatic 2-1 loss at Newport.

There were a whole 97 minutes between the Exiles’ goals, but ultimately Antoine Semenyo’s strike at the death was enough to maintain County’s three point lead over fourth spot.

They also kept pace with second place Exeter – 2-0 victors at home to Swindon – and leaders Lincoln, who hit Port Vale for six at Vale Park, winning 6-2.

Elsewhere on this international weekend, former academy graduate Nicky Maynard came back to haunt Crewe by earning a point for current side Bury at Gresty Road, and Morecambe made it three wins from five by beating Carlisle 2-0, who blow the chance to move back into the playoffs.

EFL Weekly – Gameweek Roundup 6-7 October

With the latest international break looming on the horizon, teams across the SkyBet Championship were eager to put on a show to send fans home happy and give themselves momentum heading to the imminent two-week break from action.

As ever, there were plenty of goals, drama and surprises to keep you on your toes, and today, we at Steele Sport take a detailed look into the weekend’s activity and who the big winners were across the second, third and fourth tiers.

Championship

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Trevoh Chalobah’s goal sealed a first league win of the season for Ipswich in the Championship

Rewind to May 7th 2016.

A Cristhian Stuani goal – now a regular sight for fans of Girona FC in La Liga – was enough for Middlesbrough on the final day at home to challengers Brighton & Hove Albion to earn the point necessary for the Boro to return to the pinnacle of English football after a seven year absence.

But the mastermind behind it all? One Aitor Karanka.

Fast forward almost two and a half years, and the Spanish manager was returning to the Riverside with new club Nottingham Forest for only the second time since his sacking the following season.

A lot has changed at Boro since promotion and relegation to and from the Premier League, but as back in 2015-16, the North Yorkshire outfit head into this campaign on the back of playoff disappointment and as one of the heavy favourites to earn promotion back to the top flight under the guidance of the vastly experienced Tony Pulis.

And it’s no secret that Middlesbrough have started well – particularly at home – where they went into Saturday’s meeting with their still much loved former manager’s club having played five, won four, drawn one and conceded no goals at the Riverside in 2018-19.

Forest on the other hand could have been forgiven for being a little pessimistic heading into the fixture, having thrown away a two-goal lead at home to Millwall on Wednesday night and a record of just one win in their last thirteen trips to the Riverside – which ironically, came during Karanka’s tenure in Yorkshire.

The Reds lost the corresponding match-up last season 2-0 when Karanka made his debut return, and it wouldn’t have been a great shock to see the same scoreline again this time around.

For fans who had made the 260-mile round trip from Nottingham, that’s exactly what they did see – but maybe not in favour of the team they had possibly expected.

After a tight first half which saw Boro hit the bar despite an impressive Forest display, it was the visitors who exploded into life less than five minutes into the second courtesy of in-form talisman, Joe Lolley.

The January signing from Huddersfield picked the ball up about midway in the opposition half and drove forward before unleashing a venomous strike from outside the box into the far corner, giving Darren Randolph no chance in the hosts’ goal.

Forest were deservedly ahead, but Lolley wasn’t finished there.

The winger could have had a second with a volley that was smartly saved by the goalkeeper, but after former Reds striker Britt Assombalonga came off the bench to be foiled by Costel Pantilimon, Lolley turned provider.

After his corner was initially cleared, the 26-year-old received the ball straight back after an incisive pass from Ben Watson, and drilled a dangerous cross into the six yard box which was stabbed home – in true poacher’s fashion – by Lewis Grabban, who notched up his fifth goal since joining from Bournemouth in the summer.

Forest had seen a two goal lead slip just three days prior at home to relegation-threatened Millwall, but there was no danger of the same happening today, despite full-back Jack Robinson’s dismissal ten minutes from time for picking up two yellows.

Karanka’s new side professionally saw out the win – their first on the road this season – to lift them into fifth heading into the international break, whereas for his former charges, it was a big chance missed after an interesting result in the early kick-off.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds had to settle for a point at home to Brentford, but it could have been much worse for the Whites who had found themselves trailing to a second half penalty from the Championship’s top scorer, Neal Maupay.

The strike was Maupay’s tenth in the league this season, but it was cancelled out by Pontus Jansson’s 88th minute equalising header – earning ten man Leeds a point after Luke Ayling was sent off deep into stoppage time.

That result at Elland Road – combined with Boro’s home defeat – opened the door for in-form Sheffield United, and the Blades took full advantage with victory – albeit unconvincing – at home to struggling Hull.

Chris Wilder’s Blades won a tight Yorkshire derby courtesy of David McGoldrick’s spot-kick twenty minutes from time, in an outcome that secured the Bramall Lane side’s fourth straight win and saw them go top of the table for the first time this season, whilst Hull become the division’s new basement club.

Hot on the Blades’ heels are West Bromwich Albion, who came from behind to eventually comfortably dispatch of Reading 4-1 at the Hawthorns – helped in part by two more Dwight Gayle goals.

Joining Forest in the playoffs after an impressive away victory are Sheffield Wednesday, who recovered from losing striker Stephen Fletcher to a first half injury to win 2-1 at Bristol City on Sunday and go sixth, just six points adrift of their Steel City rivals.

Missing out on the top six however are Norwich – whose impressive unbeaten run was halted at home to Stoke – and Derby, who drew 1-1 away to former manager Steve McClaren’s QPR side.

At the bottom, there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel for Ipswich fans, as Paul Hurst earned his first win as manager in a topsy-turvy game at newly-relegated Swansea.

Despite trailing to an early own goal from Janoi Donacien, the Tractor Boys found themselves 2-1 up at half-time after two quick-fire goals – one of which also being an own goal from Swansea’s Mike van der Hoorn.

Manchester City academy graduate Bersant Celina levelled things up late on, but it didn’t last, as Ipswich won an engrossing Liberty Stadium contest through Chelsea loanee Trevoh Chalobah to lift them above Hull.

There were also welcome wins at the bottom for Preston, who thumped Wigan 4-0 at Deepdale, and Millwall, who lift themselves away from danger with a come-from-behind victory at home to managerless Aston Villa.

Elsewhere, Lukas Jutkiewicz scored a hat-trick to make it eight unbeaten for Birmingham as they beat Rotherham 3-1 at St Andrews, and Bradley Dack was on the scoresheet again as Blackburn won the televised Lancashire derby at Bolton 1-0.

League One

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Fleetwood put four past Doncaster to end a run of five league matches without a victory

It certainly wasn’t the only result that raised a few eyebrows on Saturday, but there was a major upset at Fratton Park as table-topping Portsmouth’s unbeaten record was left in tatters after a superb display from strugglers Gillingham.

The Gills went into the meeting on the back of a ten-game winless streak in all competitions – which even included a 4-0 hammering at Pompey in the Checkatrade Trophy a month ago – but Steve Lovell’s side threw the form book out of the window as Tom Eaves fired them ahead in the first half.

Alex Lacey made it two in stoppage time before the break, but despite it almost seeming inevitable their hosts would respond following the interval, it never came, and Gillingham held out for a morale-boosting victory that lifts them out of the relegation zone.

But despite their defeat, Kenny Jackett’s men remain top, after an even worse afternoon for Peterborough at London Road.

After successive draws, Posh were looking to respond at home to one of their automatic promotion challengers, but were embarrassed by a Barnsley team that ran riot against Steve Evans’ troops.

George Moncur opened the scoring before a Brad Potts double and Jacob Brown stoppage time goal rounded off a perfect afternoon for the visiting Tykes, who won 4-0 to go two points behind their opponents with a game in hand.

Sunderland also closed in on the top two with victory in an ill-tempered game away to Bradford which saw both sides reduced to ten men.

Jack Baldwin was the eventual match winner, scoring just two minutes after Anthony O’Connor had cancelled out Josh Maja’s opener, but the action was far from over as first Max Power was dismissed for the visitors before the Bantams also lost a man in stoppage time after Sean Scannell was sent off.

Bradford remain in the bottom four, but joining Sunderland and Barnsley in the top six are Walsall – who were 1-0 winners away to another relegation-battling side in Bristol Rovers – and Doncaster, who retain their place despite a crushing 4-0 home defeat to Fleetwood, as Accrington’s impressive unbeaten run was brought to an end 1-0 at Shrewsbury.

At the bottom, Wycombe lift themselves out of the drop zone and ahead of opponents Burton with a 2-1 win at Adams Park, Plymouth enjoyed their first victory of the season thanks to Freddie Ladapo’s goal at home to AFC Wimbledon and Oxford now sit bottom as a result after drawing a blank at Southend.

Meanwhile, Luton went to within two points of the playoffs with a 3-2 win at home to Scunthorpe, Amadou Bakayoko scored a late double to help Coventry come from behind to beat Charlton, and Blackpool made it nine league games unbeaten by drawing 2-2 with Rochdale at Bloomfield Road.

League Two

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Robbie Simpson scored a penalty deep into stoppage time to round off a 3-0 win for MK Dons against Cheltenham

Lincoln City returned to winning ways and doubled their lead at the top of SkyBet League Two with a gritty 1-0 home victory over Crewe.

In a largely uninspiring game, it was a substitution from manager Danny Cowley that made the difference as Tom Pett fired an effort in less than sixty seconds after entering the action at Sincil Bank.

The Imps did have a chance to make the points safe late on through a penalty, but Ben Garratt saved from Lee Frecklington to prevent the scoreline from getting worse for the visitors.

It was far from a pretty win, but one that takes Lincoln four points clear as both Exeter and Newport failed to keep the pace.

The Grecians could only draw 2-2 away to Yeovil despite a brace from leading scorer Jayden Stockley, whilst County also picked up a point on their travels in a 1-1 draw at unbeaten Forest Green.

Portsmouth’s defeat in League One on Saturday means Rovers are now the only side yet to lose in the EFL this season, although that may not have been the case had Mickey Demetriou converted his second half penalty for the Exiles.

The Gloucestershire-based side retain their playoff place, as do both MK Dons and Stevenage, who recorded 3-0 and 3-1 home wins against Cheltenham and Colchester – the latter dropping out of the top seven as a result.

Taking the place of the Us are last season’s National League playoff winners Tranmere, who won a bonkers game at the Globe Arena against Morecambe.

After going behind inside a quarter of an hour, Micky Mellon’s men found themselves ahead at the break through Ollie Banks and Harvey Gilmour goals.

It was then 3-1 early in the second half as Jonny Smith got in on the act, but the home side fought back to equalise with ten minutes remaining.

Gilmour had the last laugh however, as the Sheffield United loanee curled in brilliantly to win it with the game in its dying embers.

Tranmere sit seventh, but their opponents Morecambe continue to struggle – sitting just two points clear of the drop zone.

The bottom two remains as you were, as Macclesfield lost 1-0 at home to Notts County – marking a third straight win for Harry Kewell’s Magpies – and Cambridge were beaten 2-0 at Crawley.

Northampton remain winless under new boss Keith Curle, although picked up a respectable point at Swindon in a 1-1 draw, whilst a first minute goal from Wes Thomas helped Grimsby to back-to-back victories with a 2-0 success at home to Port Vale, which lifts them away from the threat of relegation.

And rounding off this edition of EFL Weekly are Carlisle – who won 3-1 away to manager John Sheridan’s former side Oldham – and Mansfield, who are still yet to register a win on their travels after a 95th minute equaliser from Nicky Maynard earned Bury a 2-2 draw at Gigg Lane.

‘The fixture to define this Premier League era’ – Liverpool v Man City preview

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Klopp v Guardiola. Super Sunday. The best two teams in England go head to head. Heavy metal gegenpress meets the super-attacking jugo de posicion. Judgement Day. Sky Sports can push whatever slogans they want in the lead up to this match, it won’t boost their numbers that much, because everyone from around the world will be tuning in to watch the footballing spectacle that is Liverpool v Manchester City on Sunday afternoon.

The Premier League champions and leaders travel to a place where they haven’t won since 2003, to face a Liverpool side who seem to be the only team in the English game who can say they can go toe-to-toe with City and outperform them. Other teams in the league have done it, such as Wolves, but lightning won’t strike twice with those teams, it does with Liverpool. Consistently, Klopp’s men up their game for the visit of Manchester City: the crowd up the ante from the stands, whilst the players seem to start the match at a 100 miles per hour tempo, which seems to only be reserved for the visit of City.

Here, we look at Liverpool v City and try and preview what will be a fascinating tactical battle…

‘Forcing a rivalry’

It’s become clichéd by now, but Liverpool and City fans love to accuse each other of ‘forcing a rivalry’. Whether it be bricking a coach, singing about each others failures at games not involving one another, or simply just getting hit up about the other seemingly more than either team would for Manchester United these days, the fans of the opposing clubs would talk negatively on this and accuse the other of the aforementioned.

Don’t beat around the bush. There is a rivalry.

Liverpool v City is the modern-day Arsenal v United, the grudge match of the decade. People will look back on this period in a decade or so’s time and conclude that this was the era defining fixture.

There may be no Vieira’s or Keane’s on the pitch, but there certainly is talent in abundance. Two revolutionary coaches and a couple of star-studded teams that could dominate the English football landscape for years to come.

The attacking styles that Guardiola and Klopp have brought to England will set a blueprint in the league just as the styles of Wenger and Ferguson in the late 90’s. Just as Arsene Wenger and Sir Alec Ferguson popularised the whole idea of a second, deeper lying striker (Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona), in ten years, a vast portion of the league may use goalkeepers of the Ederson or Alisson breed, or play with the ‘number 6’ style of midfielder that Kevin de Bruyne is.

It may not be a bitter rivalry yet, but the fixture could be looked on as England’s answer to the Clasico, the two big hitters going toe-to-toe to out-tactic one another.

Should Guardiola alter his ways?

In his press conference ahead of this game, City boss Pep Guardiola admitted that to play defensive would be ‘boring’.

Does that mean he can’t alter his tactics to be slightly more pragmatic? Pragmatism isn’t putting 11 men behind the ball, in fact you can be offensive by being defensive. Mourinho used to deploy three men on the half way line when defending a corner, which in turn meant the box was less crowded. Guardiola won’t do this, but the essence rings true.

Playing his usual 4-3-3 plays into the hands of Liverpool, and ‘taking the sting out of it’ via playing simple passes in the first fifteen minutes just doesn’t work. You either need to go all out and try to score a goal first, or sit back (which Guardiola won’t).

The main thing for City and Guardiola has to be to stop the early goal. In the last five or six visits, City have gone one down within the first half an hour. From there, it has been an uphill battle. If they do this, it makes for an entertaining spectacle, where both teams can feasibly win.

Will Liverpool’s front three turn up?

So much has been made of Liverpool’s scintillating start from the widespread media that it has been near impossible to scratch beneath the surface of what has been a relatively poor start for ‘the front three’, for their standards at least.

When talking to Liverpool fans, they will admit the fascinating trio of Mané, Firmino and Salah look like they have never played together before, and look disjointed.

While Sadio Mané started the season in impressive fashion, Salah and Firmino have struggled to find the form of last season.

Despite this, if history repeats itself, Liverpool players should up it for the visit of Guardiola’s City.

Predictions

Taking my neutral hat off for a second, I am not confident. Less confident than ever. I think that City may get a draw from Anfield, but I can’t see it. Liverpool up their game for the visit of City every year and while I think City will give it a better go than last, I am going with a Liverpool win.

2-1. Salah and Mané to score, with David Silva scoring a consolation for the visitors.