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.

Two points dropped for Monk’s men: Birmingham v West Brom report

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Birmingham City were held to a draw in the Friday night clash at St Andrews against newly relegated West Brom.

The Blues went into this game winless and that poor record continued, but not for the want of trying. A familiar story of missed chances and poor luck at the other end added up to mean that Birmingham end the game with just a point, in a game that they will feel they could and should have won.

Jota opened the scoring before missing a penalty, which summed up the story of the night for Birmingham: not clinical enough. Matty Phillips scored the equaliser just before half time which give Darren Moore’s side the time to regroup and fight for an away point.

Garry Monk’s side started the brightest in the all Midlands clash at St Andrew’s, with the pre-match favourites West Brom struggling to get into the game at all. Birmingham’s early advantage was evident but when the Baggies did attack, they looked dangerous.

The Blues’ territorial advantage was put to good work just before the half hour mark, as Birmingham opened the scoring through Jota.

The Spanish winger pounced first on a loose ball in the box to fire his side into the lead. Gary Gardner lofted a ball into the West Brom box which was poorly defended, allowing Jota to pop up and tap the loose ball into the vacated net.

Questions were asked of young left-back Conor Townsend, who made his first league start for West Brom tonight, ahead of Kieran Gibbs who missed the game through illness. The zippy full-back signed from Scunthorpe United switched off and let Jota ghost into a position of danger, ultimately costing his side.

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St Andrews’ was rocking with this goal, but the atmosphere was to go up a further notch a matter of seconds later.

Birmingham instantly won the ball back from West Brom, who were proverbially on the ropes at this point, and drove forward into the box through Jacques Maghoma.

The Congolese put a teasing cross into the box which Kyle Bartley tried to defend. Bartley, who spent last season at now league leaders Leeds, lofted his arm into an unnatural position and handled the ball in dramatic fashion.

The referee Andy Madley, who had an excellent night, pointed to the spot after eyeing the handball.

Just two minutes after his opener, Jota stepped up and saw his penalty SAVED by Sam Johnstone, much to the delirium of the travelling West Brom fans behind that goal.

The head of Jota evidently dropped, as Garry Monk knew this was a big chance spurned. His side entered this tie winless, desperately needing a win to match the pleasing performances.

Garry Monk was right. The missed penalty would go down as a rued opportunity, as West Brom equalised through Matty Phillips.

The Scottish international weaved through two defenders, including Kristian Pedersen who got beaten far too easily, before poking the ball past Lee Camp.

Phillips had been playing a wing back role for West Brom prior to the international break, but Darren Moore altered his system to a four-at-the-back shape, ahead of this clash.

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If you hadn’t watched Birmingham at all this season, you would never guess they were winless, as they were by far the better team against promotion tipped West Brom.

Chance after chance fell the way of Monk’s side, but to no avail. The best chance was for Che Adams, who skied a chance from 7 yards.

The young striker snatched at his chance that a more experienced player may have took a second and caressed the ball into the goal, rather than aiming for power over accuracy.

In fact, despite Birmingham’s dominance, West Brom looked the more likely to nick something at the end. Harvey Barnes extremely close, as he rattled the crossbar with ten minutes to play. Baggies players failed to get on the end of the rebound and Birmingham survived, as the St Andrews’ faithful took a collective sigh of relief.

Matt Phillips had another chance late on, but his shot had no real traction and was not going to beat the plethora of Birmingham defenders shielding Lee Camp’s goal.

Ultimately, it finished honours even at St Andrews.

The verdict: this game will be remembered as two points dropped for Birmingham and a point gained for West Brom. Winless in seven, Garry Monk’s side were extremely unlucky as they missed chance after chance. It is very early days of course, but the lack of a clinical edge in front of goal is seriously worrying for the Blues, who must look to address this immediately. As for Moore’s men, West Brom will look back on this as a point gained in a tricky away fixture, although some may go home thinking they could have gained maximum points as Dwight Gayle and the impressive Harvey Barnes came close. 

 

Man City’s £500m revenues explained: Football Finance expert Kieran Maguire talks to Lewis Steele

Lewis Steele, on behalf of City Watch, spoke to football finance expert Kieran Maguire about the Manchester City accounts that were released today:

Manchester City announced profits for the fourth consecutive year in their annual financial report, which was publically released on Thursday. City posted total revenues of £500.5m and a profit of £10.5m.

The club become only the second English club in history to surpass £500m in annual revenues, and only the fifth club to reach this figure, along with Manchester United – who release their results next Tuesday – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

It has been known for the past five years or so that Manchester City are here to stay at the top table in terms of footballing ability, having won three Premier League titles in seven years. However, it is becoming evident that the club are becoming a global elite that soon will be renowned as a ‘super-club’, not too far below the perch of the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

August marked the ten-year anniversary of the infamous takeover of his highness Sheikh Mansour, on that dramatic day that saw Robinho sign for the club.

At the time, many pundits and speculators predicted the money would dry up. The narrative was that City would potentially win a trophy or two, but then the Sheikh was to ‘get bored’ and walk away, leaving a trail of next to no business plan behind him.

Those predictions were false. City now have a sustainable model that has a clear plan, led by Sheikh Mansour who has a dream to build a global corporation that could change the game forever, whilst ripping up and re-writing the record books on the pitch in the process.

But, what do these numbers mean? Lewis Steele spoke to football finance expert Kieran Maguire (@KieranMaguire) to crunch the numbers and gain a qualitative perspective beyond the numbers on City’s results released on Thursday.

Maguire is a lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool and runs the website priceoffootball.com, which analyses the financial side of football. Often, PriceOfFootball is looking at the negative state of play at clubs such as Hull or Newcastle, but today’s results are exciting ones for all Manchester City supporters.

All graphs to follow are credited to Kieran Maguire and PriceOfFootball.

The key figure that will take the eye of fans is the simplest one: income. City sit second in the ‘table’ for income, with Manchester United’s 2017 accounts showing United as leading the way.

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It should be noted that the results from the other ‘big six’ clubs are taken from their 2017 results, and also that Arsenal and Liverpool’s figures should change due to the Champions League, be it not making the competition for the former or progressing to the final for the latter.

Maguire explained to City Watch: “City have the fifth highest match-day income in the Premier League. A combination of not being in London, fewer tickets available to football tourists and relatively low ticket prices have the club a way behind its rivals. City fans will welcome the ticket prices of course.

Where City have excelled is in relation to commercial income. The club is far less reliant on links with Abu Dhabi companies than a few years ago, and it is essential this area is used as  much as possible. It’s common knowledge that United’s commercial department are ruthlessly efficient but City have done well to take the number two position.”

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City lose out on match-day income but more than make up for it in broadcast and commercial income. City’s record-breaking season meant that they were often subject to being chosen for TV coverage and also the club constantly agreed new commercial partnerships for the new season, including the much mocked deals with Etisalat and Tinder, to name a couple.

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In the income split since the takeover stats, it is particularly pertinent to look at the decrease in the match-day income percentage when compared to an increase in the commercial income percentage.

In 2006, match-day income accounted for a quarter of City’s annual income. Twelve years later, it accounts for 11%, with commercial and broadcast incomes increasing in percentage.

From this, it could be said that City do not heavily rely on match-day income and quite literally, sadly, getting fans through the door isn’t the biggest concern financially. Should a club of City’s size reduce ticket prices, for example, it would not affect them massively, which is a belief that many German clubs have applied—that’s a debate for another day.

Being a big club obviously comes with drawbacks. City have a plethora of costs. The main costs for a club of City’s size are players, in terms of both wages and amortization, which is the cost of a transfer fee spread over a contract.

Maguire notes: “It’s a bit difficult comparing wages to the previous season, as City in 2017 produced accounts for 13 instead of 12 months, but they rose by about 6%. Partly due to bonuses paid for winning trophies, and partly due to increasing staff numbers by about a quarter.

Expect United’s wage bill to be close to £300m when the results are published next week. What is good from City’s point of view is that the club does have control over this area, and is paying only £52 in wages for every £100 of income, a vast improvement from a few years ago.”Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 23.44.02

One big insult thrown in the face of City’s fans is along the lines of: “well, City have bought the league”, implying that Pep Guardiola’s men only won because the club had an open chequebook to throw around and sign whoever they want, regardless of the price.

Maguire says: “This is one in the eye for anyone who claims that City have bought success, as in the last five years in particular wages have been under close control.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 23.44.08In the early days of the Sheikh revolution, the wages/income percentage figures looked worrying, with City admittedly spending big money and often being made to over pay for players to tempt them to City, at a time when English domination was a dream rather than a reality.

Now, City do not have to pay over the odds. Obviously, if they sign the best players, they still have to pay them big money. But now, it is more that players see the project at the Etihad and want to join regardless of the money.

From a City perspective, one thing is particularly striking from the above graph. Around 2013, the figure suddenly drops, and remains consistent to this day.

Perhaps coincidentally, director of football Txiki Begiristain joined the club in late 2012. The ex-Barcelona winger and director of football has ran City’s transfer business excellently and is an expert negotiator, albeit sometimes has been criticized for missing out on big targets such as Alexis Sanchez and Jorginho due to his stubborn nature.

In the year to 30 June 2018, City spent £328m on players. Maguire said: “City spent £328 million on players in the year to 30 June 2018, a record amount. This was certainly a contributory factor to the club’s success, but has been followed by relative austerity as the accounts also show the net spend since then is only £42 million.”

With all these gritty numbers, the one that will make the headlines is the magic P word: profit.

Maguire told City Watch: “Profit is income less costs. There are more types of profit than there are bizarre excuses from Mourinho when United lose a match. The one we’ve used here is called EBITDA and is commonly used by analysts to work out how much cash profit a business makes from day to day trading.

City’s EBITDA profit was £125 million last season and further evidence that the club is on a solid footing. The investment in the early days of Mansour ownership saw heavy losses, but as City became established at the top table of the Premier League and regularly qualified for the Champions League these turned into profits.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 23.44.14In the first five years following the takeover, City recorded a loss. Sheikh Mansour’s strategy seemed rash, as he invested heavily at the start of his reign, but with successes on the pitch, many factors contributed to the fact that City are now a profitable organization.

Today’s results are definitely pleasing from a Manchester City perspective, with the future looking bright.

Maguire concluded: “The future looks good, despite broadcast deals starting to show signs of evening out, as other revenue sources can make up for them, and effect all clubs, not just City.”

City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak spoke about City’s excellent results on and off the pitch, and stated: “Our journey is not complete and we have more targets to fulfil.”

“Most of the developments visible today are the result of a carefully crafted strategy – one in which organic evolution has also been allowed to thrive”.

The report states that Mansour has amounted to “more than £1.3bn over the last 10 years”.

Sheikh Mansour’s money has certainly not dried up and as Manchester City continue to grow on the pitch, their finances grow in a similar fashion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Alastair Cook: An ode to the England cricket legend who found beauty in the simplicity

It was announced on Monday that English Test legend Alastair Cook will retire from international cricket after the the final Test in the series against India, starting this Friday. Lewis Steele takes a look back at the illustrious Test career of the ex-England captain:

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The first ball Alastair Cook ever faced in Test cricket was short and wide, as were the second and third. Aged just 21, Cook refused to play any of these balls. Just minutes into his Test career, Cook sent a message out to the watching world, emphasising his shrewd and sound judgement and that he was stubborn. Cook set the benchmark, he would stubbornly refuse to be baited in to playing risky shots, highlighting his sensible head and simplicity, which was the mantra he followed for the rest of his Test career which span twelve years.

Being flown in just days before to replace the injured Michael Vaughan, Cook was thrown straight in at the deep end, so to speak. The young boy from Gloucester hit 60 in his very first innings, the second highest in the innings behind Paul Collingwood.

12,254 runs later from that surprising selection, Cook heads into his final Test match at the age of 33, as a legend of not just English cricket, but the sport in general.

Cook will retire after the final Test with India at the Oval this weekend as a record setter in English Test cricket for the most: caps, runs, hundreds, catches, wins.

Cook, nicknamed ‘Chef’ or ‘Cookie’ retires slightly earlier in his career than some may have thought, but the time is right. Like Cook showed at the wicket throughout his career, he knows the right time to leave.

The last few years of his illustrious career have been disappointing, with his innings averages being around the 30 mark for the past few years.

A decline may be evident from the outset, but only because the summit was so high. The views from the top are unforgettable for any cricket fan.

When at his peak, Cookie inspired young cricketers around the country, whilst doing the opposite and breaking hearts of a nation down under, as he racked up some relentless scores in the 2010/11 Ashes series in Australia.

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To sum it up, Cook ruined Christmas for the Aussies.

If you were there, you were lucky to witness some of the best batting English cricket has seen in recent history. If you were watching on TV back home, you also felt humbled.

Back in England, fans would go to sleep with Cook batting and wake up before the sun to find that Cook is… still batting. ‘They must be showing highlights?!’ was the first thought of many round the country. But no, Alastair Cook was still batting.

That series will go down in history as the twilight of Cook’s career, as he made some unthinkable scores – scores that are unprecedented for English batsmen in Australia.

67 in the first innings at Brisbane was followed by a whopping 235 in the second. He scored 148 in Adelaide and an impressive 82 at the MCG, topping it all off with 189 in Sydney.

Those scores would’ve been higher if it was possible, but his 766 runs laid the ground for Australian defeats, meaning Cook just didn’t have chance to come back on.

That tour is unforgettable for many and a nightmare for Aussies, who will be haunted by Alastair Cook when he was at his peak. Grounds emptied and when Cook et al left the field, they often waved around the ground, but apart from the delirious Barmy Army, were gesturing at empty seats.

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Cook was never the prettiest, but the beauty and grace was found in his simplicity.

One summer, he tried to address this and try and add new dynamics to his game, but failed. This, in fact, was the slump of his career. He struggled against Pakistan and Bangladesh and was often out for low scores.

But, this slump changed Cook’s mentality: he realised that his game wasn’t perfect, but admitting this meant he could master his limitations. He returned to his simplistic manner at the Oval that summer and hit 110. Cookie was back.

Some predicted that after he stepped down and handed the captaincy to Joe Root, Cook may excel with less pressure, but it hasn’t been the case.

On Friday, Chef enters his 161st and final Test cricket match at the Oval and is expected to receive a special presentation.

After all, he deserves it. When at his peak, Cook was one of the best we will ever see, and we may not see one like him again.

Cook will continue to play for Essex, but can now watch Test cricket with his feet up.

Happy retirement, captain Cook.

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Talking Tactics: Javi Gracia’s Watford

Javi Gracia’s Watford are flying in the Premier League as we enter the first international break of the season, with four wins of a possible four to their name. Some say it may be a fluke, but you can only beat what is in front of you. Lewis Steele takes a look at Watford’s 4-2-2-2 and Javi Gracia’s styles that have overseen this superb start for the pre-season relegation candidates.

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It took a matter of minutes after the full time whistle at Vicarage Road for the inevitable to happen. The headlines and office jokes we saw coming when the idea of Watford beating Spurs first came into our head: “Can Watford do a Leicester?”, with bookmakers offering odds of 500/1 for Watford to repeat ‘the miracle of 2016’.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It has been a great start, but ‘doing a Leicester’ won’t happen again, not in the next decade or so anyway.

Despite this, something, evidently, has been going right at Watford. After four games, The Hornets have maximum points thanks to wins against Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and most recently an impressive victory against Spurs.

The shortened odds for Watford may be the talk of social media, but another bookmakers tip is quickly looking ill found: Javi Gracia was the bookies favourite to be the first through the proverbial door and the winner of the ‘sack race’ of 2018/19.

That prediction is proving to be rash and the reason for that is the fact the Spaniard is probably the least known gaffer in the division. The Spanish coach had enjoyed stints at Malaga, Rubin Kazan and other teams across the continent, but is not a household name in management.

Although with no major top flight silverware to his name, Gracia made a name for himself when at Malaga for being a ‘giant killer’, often taking points off the big boys such as Barcelona, whom he got four points against in his first season at the club.

Before Malaga, Gracia won promotion with Almeria, adopting a 4-4-2 formation with Aleix Vidal and Charles as the strikers. Gracia left before the new season due to a rift with the board, who wanted to sell the players who got them promoted.

His sides press high up the pitch but in a staggered manner, forcing teams to go long, ‘like lions swarming over a gazelle’, as has been said by Spanish experts.

Gracia has an old fashioned view of the game, believing that the harder his teams work, the better results they will get, but in general he is a modern coach that relies heavily on high pressing off the ball and has a strong focus on analysis of future opponents to pinpoint weaknesses.

He wasn’t too dissimilar as a player, with a high emphasis on tactics and organisation.

“He was always talking, correcting, organising. He understood the mechanisms, tactically he was sharp, a leader. Sometimes, like with Diego Simeone who I played with at Lazio, you know they have something. Javi has that” said former teammate Darko Kovacevic.

Off the ball, for Gracia, the ‘pressing in stages’ is key.

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The 4-2-2-2 system that Javi Gracia plays is a sister of the classic 4-4-2 that many English sides used in the first decade of the 21st century.

As is evident in the above graphic, Watford’s formation off the ball is this classic 4-4-2 with the two banks of four behind the ball, led by Deeney and Gray who initiate the pressing.

The narrow structure as is clear limits the opposition to pass from side to side, rather than advance via through-the-lines forward passes.

Most of the best attacking teams use fast, vertical passes. Watford’s setup meant that on Sunday, Spurs often had to pass in a U shape, which doesn’t really advance the play. The staggered system invites long balls, with Gracia placing trust in Cathcart and Kabasele to mop up said long balls.

The hallmark of a solid side looking for safety is normally this rigid defensive structure, making themselves hard to beat. However, what they do on the ball is what makes them stand out from a crowd of many candidates vying for a mid table finish.

On the ball, Watford have Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes who operate in ‘free roles’. Listed on the team sheet as wide midfielders, the duo drift inside and play as central midfielders, with the former scoring three goals in August, making him a candidate for the player of the month.

Both of these attacking midfielders have dual functions and both have played many games in their career in central roles.

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In Will Hughes’ heatmap from the weekend win over Spurs (above), it is evident that although his primary position was in that deep defensive position on the right flank, but often he cut inside and affected the game from a central position.

In fact, the early season performances of Will Hughes have led to many questioning why he hasn’t been selected for the UEFA Nations League games by Gareth Southgate.

Against Tottenham, Hughes showed glimpses of his best and proved why he was brought into the Derby County side as a 16-year-old and won so many plaudits from such a young age. If he continues this form, he will certainly push for a place to fill the creative void in Southgate’s midfield.

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Hughes and Pereyra are key to Watford. They cut inside, so the width comes from the full backs Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas, the latter of whom has four assists to his name already this season, level with fellow left-back Benjamin Mendy at the top of the assists charts in the division.

The dynamic full back duo will bomb up and down the wing looking to create goals on the counter attack. Often, only one of them will go, allowing Watford to always have a three man defence should they be countered on.

With the importance of the wing backs and the wide midfielders highlighted, the most important role in Gracia’s side is the two who patrol the centre of the park: Ettiene Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure.

Football is Gracia’s life and passion, and his start to the season with Watford has been nothing short of exceptional.

His tactics bring a perfect balance – defensive solidarity and attacking prowess, caused by the use of positional play and interpretation of spaces.

By any standards, it is early days for Watford, but the tactics Gracia employs seem basic, but his players understand them and they are working to great effect.

Watford are eager to tie down the still young coach to a new deal, according to The Daily Mailand that is testament to his early season form, driven by his well thought out 4-2-2-2 formation.