On a hazy evening at Old Trafford in May 2003, Andriy Shevchenko took a deep breath. Facing Gianluigi Buffon, the Ukrainian icon was 12 yards away from securing AC Milan’s sixth European Cup, with the deciding penalty in a shootout against domestic rivals Juventus.

Sending Buffon the wrong way, he scored and sent the Rossoneri into raptures. It was the height of yet another powerful era on the red and black side of the San Siro, with Carlo Ancelotti, a key protagonist for both Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello in the late 1980s and early 90s, in charge, leading the likes of Shevchenko, Clarence Seedorf, Paolo Maldini and, a year or two later, Ricardo Kaka, to numerous successes.

In the very same month, and about 180 miles to the south of Manchester, West Ham United were in crisis. Despite having one of the Premier League’s more talented squads, packed with the likes of Freddie Kanoute, Jermain Defoe and Joe Cole, the East London side were relegated under the stewardship of Trevor Brooking, the club legend who stepped in after boss Glenn Roeder suffered a brain tumour.

There could hardly have been a greater contrast between the two clubs at that time, but football never stays the same and nothing is ever permanent. The fluctuations of the game make it so brilliantly unpredictable.

In this case, financial changes have made a huge impact. Now 13 years on, West Ham are in the hunt to take Milan’s top striker, Carlos Bacca, to the Olympic Stadium as the star attraction as the dawn on a new era rises, with a very good chance of sealing a deal for the Colombian.

While Milan have regressed for a number of years, under the faltering ownership of Silvio Berlusconi, this is just one example of a wider phenomenon sweeping the English game this summer. Some of the biggest clubs in Europe are now struggling to match the clout most Premier League sides.

When Xherdan Shaqiri left Milan’s city rivals Inter for the one-time epitome of football’s dark arts Stoke City last summer, it became the move with arguably the most media attention of the window. Eyebrows were raised, but with the way transfers are going, it looks like becoming standard practice nowadays.

Arguments and debate could continue forever, but with the lack of defined criteria, it is hard to know which league is the best in the world. Perhaps in terms of quality, the Premier League lags behind La Liga and possibly the Bundesliga, but from a business and marketing side, there really isn’t any competition.

Because the biggest stars in the world play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, it once looked as though there would become a real gulf in the world of football. Impressive performances from the likes of Atletico Madrid and Leicester City show the impact of effort and teamwork, but more importantly, none of that trio top the list for financial income with sponsorships, meaning gaps are shrinking.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool will all earn more from shirt deals over the next few years, giving them an advantage even before the brand new television deal, which is also distorting the whole of football.

In 2015, French side St Etienne’s co-president Bernard Caizzo claimed that, unless UEFA acted, the Premier League would become the ‘NBA of football’; something La Liga chief Javier Tebas insisted must be avoided in the same year. Per Caizzo’s request, European football’s governing body are powerless to stop the Premier League’s growth, with the Financial Fair Play rules not being breached as clubs spend what they earn: The TV money, for the most part.

Throughout the league, teams are able to buy above their station quite easily and it wasn’t just Shaqiri last summer who surprised. Newcastle were able to persuade PSV Eindhoven’s Eredivisie winning captain Gini Wijnaldum to swap Champions League football for an ultimately unsuccessful relegation battle.

All the while, transfer fees continue to rise. Gone are the days of £20 million buying a world-class striker, or £10 million being enough for a potential future star.

Traditionally, Real Madrid are the world’s wealthiest buyers, breaking the world transfer record no fewer than five times in the 21st century. Even they were priced out of the race for Paul Pogba, who signed for Manchester United for a world-record £89 million deal.

Both on an off the pitch, the age of the underdog is rising. From Leicester’s title to Iceland and Wales’ impressive displays at Euro 2016, David is proving he can beat Goliath, but soon historically big clubs could be on the receiving end of rude awakenings from seemingly average sides on these shores.

Just thirteen years have past since Shevchenko’s penalty and West Ham’s demise, but now Milan look like losing their biggest asset to the Hammers. The most shocking thing of all is it is no longer a deal where the word ‘audacious’ is an applicable description.

About the author – Harry De Cosmo

Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo, Squawka and The Press Association.

twitter – @harrydecosemo


Share this article:


“I think this is a key season for him. After two seasons at Tottenham, now is the moment for him. Not to put pressure, but it’s true. It’s a key moment for him to develop and to move on his game. It’s important,” were the words of Tottenham’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, when speaking about what a crucial season 2015/16 would be for the enigmatic Erik Lamela.

“We believe we can develop his game and I think we need to be patient with him,” he added.

It must be said, so far, that Lamela’s exploits this campaign have been a major improvement on his underwhelming previous two. Spurs’ patience and persistence is now beginning to pay off handsomely.

One aspect that’s embodied Lamela’s fabulous upturn in form has unquestionably been his tireless, aggressive defensive output. That’s not to say he didn’t contribute here in the past, but he’s stepped up his level dramatically this term, something that obviously Pochettino, a Marcelo Bielsa disciple, deserves plenty of credit for.

Instilling a cohesive, effective pressing stratagem takes time, and while the signs were there last season, now into his second season with Spurs, the Argentine manager is getting his team firing in this regard.

They were particularly brilliant in their stirring win vs. Manchester City, but in their recent 1-1 draw with Arsenal, a game they dominated for 70 minutes and were unlucky not to win, their pressure was magnificent.

Lamela really led from the front in this fixture. Watching his exertions was like watching a man possessed, as he pressed relentlessly, hunting his opponents with unyielding intensity. Completing eight successful tackles accurately depicted how effectively he did so.

Pochettino’s decision to deploy his wingers in rather narrow positions allowed Tottenham, and in particular Lamela, to make life extremely difficult for Arsenal to pass out from the back. This meant whenever Arsenal’s central midfielders received possession, they had pressure from everywhere. By congesting the midfield and applying such heavy pressure Tottenham forced many turnovers, with Santi Cazorla often being the unfortunate victim.

Moreover, when the Gunners passed to their left-back, Nacho Monreal, Lamela would scream over to the Spaniard and get in his face. When combining this with his ferocity to track back as well, the former AS Roma sensation certainly put in a shift worthy of praise.

Michael Cox aptly wrote on his excellent contribution, penning: “Lamela was everywhere. He made 10 tackles, of which eight were successful – starting on the right, switching to the left, often making challenges in central positions because of Spurs’ compactness, and at one point nearly robbing Petr Cech on the edge of the Arsenal box.”

That Cech moment Michael referred to summed up Lamela’s approach beautifully. In this instance, after pressing the Arsenal keeper, his overzealousness saw him fall over and hit the deck in his attempt to win back possession. But Cech, unaware that Lamela had immediately sprung back to his feet, was soon dispossessed by the Argentine, who slid in with a mean challenge from behind. Although Lamela’s intervention didn’t fall to a teammate, his superhuman effort epitomised his team’s philosophy and what a key component of it Lamela now is.

Picking up a yellow for a rash tackle on Francis Coquelin showed the former River Plate prodigy’s tendency to get a touch agricultural in his challenges, but his manager surely wouldn’t be too upset by this, as the desire and commitment he exhibits is precisely what he’s after.

Amazingly, Lamela ranks third in the EPL for players who have won the ball back most times in their own half, on 12, only one behind Leicester City dynamo Jamie Vardy and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. A clear testament to his outpouring of effort and mentality towards winning back possession for his team.

When you factor in Lamela’s superlative attacking gifts, which see him able to beat opponents with ease, find space masterfully in the final third and supply intricate passes to his colleagues it’s obvious what a weapon he is for Pochettino, on both sides of the ball.

Pochettino’s trust and faith has been pivotal in getting his countryman firing on all cylinders.

“A player always needs time. Different players take different times. Zidane arrived at Real Madrid in his first season and the supporters blamed him. He found it difficult and he was Zidane,” said Pochettino.

“You always know that if the player wants it enough, and believes in himself, we only need to give him the opportunity and his quality will show. He has the potential, but the last two seasons were difficult for him.”

Judging from Lamela’s outstanding displays this season it’s easy to decipher just how much he wants to succeed at White Hart Lane.

Although Tottenham have been made to wait for their €30 milion investment to come good, he’s finally now proving why he was well and truly worth persisting with.

About the author – Edward Stratmann

Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.

twitter: @licencetoroam


Share this article:


In the wake of West Ham’s first win over Liverpool at Anfield in 52 years, Hammers manager Slaven Bilic lavished praise on their outstanding Argentine, Manuel Lanzini.

“He was fantastic against Liverpool and not only because he scored a goal,” mused Bilic.

“Defensively he not only covered the left back, Joe Gomez, but he cut inside on Philippe Coutinho and James Milner when he went outside. He was great.”

Bilic’s praise was certainly warranted, for Lanzini put in a shift full of purpose, intensity and energy – on both sides of the ball.

From his post on the right wing, Lanzini would’ve known an afternoon consisting of plenty of defensive work lay ahead of him. Within Bilic’s supremely well regimented defensive setup, the Argentine adhered beautifully to the game plan. He pressed when required to, showed off his underrated ability to perfectly time his tackles, plus, as Bilic noted earlier, he tracked his markers and helped out his colleagues when necessary.

Stats from Stats Zone depict just how much essential defensive work he got through, as he completed an exceptional eight tackles and one interception.

On the attacking end, despite his side not enjoying a great deal of possession (only 37% to be exact), the technically gifted Lanzini also demonstrated his offensive quality suitably. While he didn’t touch the ball too often, it didn’t matter in Lanzini’s case, for when he did, he made the most of it. Using his nice blend of power, pace, intelligence and technique Lanzini impacted the contest markedly. Whether it was via mazy forward dribbles on the counter, combining tidily with his teammates in the final third or creating space for his fellow attackers with clever movement, Lanzini illustrated what a vital component of Bilic’s project he is, and can continue to be.

Having a flair player who’s prepared to work hard in all phases of the game was definitely invaluable to West Ham in this contest. He demonstrated his worth brilliantly by playing a key role in two of the Irons’ goals.

For the first, in the third minute, he timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Aaron Cresswell’s scuffed cross to score with a neat side-footed finish. There was no better way for West Ham to begin this pivotal clash at Anfield.

Secondly, for his side’s 29th minute goal, his determination not to allow himself to be beaten served as the catalyst for Mark Noble’s competent finish. Here, after attempting to dispossess Dejan Lovren near the right touchline, the smaller Lanzini found himself knocked to the ground and outside the field of play. Lovren, thinking Lanzini was now out of the picture, dallied about with the ball while he assessed his options. To his dismay, though, West Ham’s new number 28 had sprung to his feet briskly with a keen eye on getting back at the Croatian defender. And he did just that, robbing Lovren and firing a teasing ball into the box that ultimately fell to Noble.

This passage illustrated that Lanzini’s always willing to fight for the cause and not give up on any situation, no matter how badly the cards may be stacked against him. Dedicating himself so vigorously will have undoubtedly endeared him to not only his manager, but also the West Ham faithful. He’ll be hoping the good times will roll on for him, following the international break, when West Ham face a winless Newcastle.

Prior to him signing for West Ham, though, Lanzini had a truly fascinating journey to the top. The man who initially joined the famed River Plate academy as a nine-year-old eventually went onto make his debut for the Buenos Aires giants at just 17, and while he showed glimpses of his undeniable talent, injuries and inconsistency disappointingly hindered his progress.

Not long after, in 2011, the diminutive midfielder ventured over to Brazil, where he played a season on loan at Fluminense. Featuring on 37 occasions and scoring five goals for the Tricolor, Lanzini impressed hugely in the Brazilian top flight, so much so that the club were extremely interested in signing him to a permanent deal. Fluminense weren’t willing to pay the €15 million option to buy clause River had set, though, meaning he returned back home to Argentina.

Handed the number 10 shirt, much was expected of him, but while he wasn’t bad, on the other side of the coin, he wasn’t superb either.

In 2013, the year before he signed for Al-Jazira, Lanzini actually rejected a move to the UAE based club. However, his decision in this instance was completely vindicated, as River went on to win the title that season.

“That time I decided that it was best to stay in River because I felt that I needed to give something to the club and luckily we became champions. Now if another offer comes, I am going to analyze it,” he recalled.

A subsequent offer in 2014 arrived, and after being duly analysed, it was accepted this time. Intriguingly, when he signed for the wealthy club, at 21 years of age, he became the youngest player to ever play in the UAE Arabian Gulf League.

He marked his Al-Jazira debut with a bang, scoring a brace, which included a fine individual effort. Unfortunately, the man nicknamed “The Jewel” could only muster up a further six goals at the club, impressing only sporadically. Questions still remained over his consistency, and this is something that’s plagued him throughout his career to date. When he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant, but when he’s off, he flatters to deceive.

This is precisely why Al-Jazira were willing to offload him to the Hammers on loan.

Now at West Ham under Bilic, who has put his faith and trust in him, and who notably showed a keen interest in the player while managing Besiktas, his encouraging start to life in London might suggest he’s ready to add some crucial consistency to his game under the Croatian’s guidance.

“I watched him two years ago and I wanted to take him to Besiktas, but it was difficult. Now, the chance has come to get him, he’s going to help us a lot as he will add even more creativity in the crucial parts of the pitch,” explained the now West Ham manager.

“He’s a good player, he’s young and it’s good that we have got him on loan with an option (to sign).

“At the age of 20, he was given the No 10 jersey at River Plate who, with Boca Juniors, are a massive club of course.”

Many felt the slightly built starlet would have issues coping with the physicality of the Premier League, but this was importantly not a view shared by his manager, who gave this response when quizzed on the issue: “When he came in some of the people who were not for him and were for other players were slagging him off and said he looks more like a jockey than a football player.

“Maybe, but he rides the challenges. He’s not afraid of them and he goes right into the challenge,” said Bilic.

“He reminds me of Luka Modric. You can have tiny players who go into the tackle. He can do that.”

Lanzini’s joy upon making the move to London was well documented when listening to him speak on his arrival.

“This is a new challenge for me and that can only help in the future. It will test my ability in one of the best leagues in the world, so I am looking forward to getting started,” he said.

“I am someone who always gives 100 per cent. I’m an attacking player, I can change the game’s tempo and I hope to give my maximum for the fans to appreciate me.”

Most encouraging for teammates, fans and the coaching staff alike is his exemplary attitude towards always striving to improve and better himself at his chosen craft.

“I play football, a beautiful profession, and to be able to dedicate myself to it is a pride and a privilege,” humbly stated Lanzini.

For such a gifted, creative, technically exquisite player like Lanzini, questions will constantly be raised in regard to his physicality and value to the team. But in Lanzini, Bilic knows he has a footballer who contributes so much to the team and one who will never take for granted the opportunity the club’s afforded him.

West Ham are grateful to have him and you can guarantee Lanzini is overjoyed to be there. Lanzini will be massively keen to make a name for himself at the historic club, which is something his mindset and attitude should ably assist him in his quest to achieve.

After all, he doesn’t see it as his God given right to be at West Ham, it’s a privilege for him.

About the author – Edward Stratmann

Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.



Share this article: