Gary Neville leaves Valencia a failure, but success is in his path

It seems rather fitting that both Gary Neville and Remi Garde left their respective jobs less than 24 hours apart. Neither man seemed suited to the needs of Valencia, in Neville’s case, and Aston Villa for Garde. Yet both went in, just four months ago, with good reputations, making it all the more disappointing that they failed to deliver.

The main difference between them, though, was the remit under which they were working. Garde, who had done great things with Lyon before departing there in 2012, stepped into a crisis situation at Villa, without the required track record to help save the club from relegation. Ten games into the campaign, having failed to win under Tim Sherwood, Garde was ushered in, but failing to secure a victory until January meant he was unable to have the desired effect. Having departed by mutual consent on Tuesday, he leaves them cut adrift and hurtling towards the Championship without hope of a fight.

Neville, meanwhile, joined Valencia, most likely thanks to his personal friendship with owner Peter Lim and brother Phil being on the coaching staff, with a proven knowledge of the tactical side of the game, a great personality and winning mentality. Crucially, he had never managed at any level before, despite a role as England manager Roy Hodgson’s assistant.

Success was never out of the question for him. He had, after all, rewritten the rules on punditry during four years with Sky Sports. That is by no means easy, but falling into the trap of mundanely stating the obvious, definitely is. Neville was able to portray immensely complex analysis in simple steps, all with intoxicating humour and great on-screen chemistry with former rival Jamie Carragher. Learning from the very best, Sir Alex Ferguson, during hid entire career with Manchester United also stood him in good stead for a career in management.

A first job, particularly these days with the average lifespan of a coaching job seemingly shrinking by the week, has the ability to make or break a career. Neville could hardly have entered into a more pressurised situation than the one he found at Los Che, one of Spain’s biggest clubs with the financial power and reach to return to past heights thanks to the input of Lim and super-agent Jorge Mendes.

The first campaign under that regime, with Nuno Esperito Santo in charge, went well, with the club gaining Champions League qualification for the first time in four seasons. Fans expectations, which have never been particularly low anyway, skyrocketed, and a poor start to the season, Nuno was sacked. It seemed a tall order for anyone to get them back on track, despite only being 11 games into the new campaign.

Neville was also arriving in the shadow cast by a second failure of David Moyes’ career, at Real Sociedad. Moyes spent a year at the Anoeta looking to rebuild after a nightmare stint at Man United, but ultimately his poor grasp of the language, culture and footballing style cost him dear. Neville had to learn from that, but faired worse, something he deserves some criticism for, too.

The Spanish media, particularly in the Valencia region, and fans never took to him. In that country, more than most, it is like swimming against a heavy tide when the respect of those is lost.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Neville’s claim that he would hurt his credibility had he ignored Lim’s call is not entirely correct. Not many would turn down such an opportunity, but his biggest mistake was not looking beyond the bright lights of Europe’s premier club competition and focussing on the fact he faced an uphill battle to succeed. No one has ever criticised his credentials, and he was brave not to shirk the responsibility by remaining in the comfortable Sky studio, but a job in this country would have given him a better springboard.

It is worth remembering Neville completely changed his public image during his television career. His playing days showed him in as an arrogant, competitive loudmouth, a persona which returned on the touchline in Spain. Those traits are needed for success as a coach, but must be honed and tailored if he chooses to step into another job any time soon. An honourable man, he knew his time was up because his results have not been good enough. After losing 11 of his 28 games in charge, he leaves Valencia just six points above the relegation zone.

Football is far too unforgiving. While Neville has made some errors in judgment, which can only be expected when taking his first steps, he remains the brightest footballing mind in Britain today. This entire experience has proven a stark reminder that a good pundit doesn’t necessarily make a good coach, as much as a good player doesn’t, but it would be interesting to hear Neville the analyst’s observations of Neville the coach. He did admit he would have reservations about the appointment as an onlooker, after all.

Gary Neville may be battered and bruised, but will come out of this experience much stronger. He took a job many would dream of an found it too much at this stage in a promising career. Perhaps Remi Garde’s old job would be more his speed, but some time away would do him good.

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Remembering The Greats: Johan Cruyff – Football’s prophet

The idea that FC Barcelona can call themselves ‘More Than A Club’ is seen as little more than a pompous sense of entitlement to some, but their philosophy has defined football in three separate generations, which has rewritten the entire identity of the club. Johan Cruyff was, is and will always be the main founder of an ideology which has gone much further than the 98,000 seats inside the Camp Nou.

Upon the tragic news of his death this week, aged just 68, there were calls for Barcelona to rename their stadium after the Dutch master. Football and religion are linked together far too often these days, it is a tiresome analogy which doesn’t truly reflect the meanings of either sport or faith. In the case of Cruyff and Barça, though, it fits perfectly. Upon arrival in Catalunya, some 43 years ago, having signed as a star player from Ajax, he was greeted as a saviour, some light at the end of a dark tunnel for a region of Spain so harshly treated by the iron-fisted regime of dictator General Franco. Cruyff represented more than just a footballer.

Symbolism is another overused cliche, yet Cruyff represented everything for Barcelona, as a football club and city. He was an innovator who worked on instinct, but studied the game so profusely, allowing to set the traditions in motion. He was lightyears ahead of his time, like no-one seen before or since, the archetypal ‘modern’ player in a prehistoric game. His most famous moment, a genius piece of skill in a match for Holland against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup which has been named after him, is taught as one of the basics of the game to those so eager to learn and join the revolution which he started.

Cruyff was like a prophet, hence the acceptable use of the religion metaphor. Whenever he spoke, it was worth listening to. His personal career, both as a player for Ajax, Barça and Holland, all under coach Rinus Michels, also incredibly central to the theories of ‘total football’, and a manager of the Catalan ‘Dream Team’ in the 1990s, gave him the credence he needed. Everything sounds incredibly scientific, but what came out of his magnificent brain could barely have been simpler.

“Quality without results is pointless, results without quality is boring”, he said. Winning is and always will be the main point of football, and sport in general, but Cruyff taught better than anyone about the importance of entertainment. The trophies he won prove he was right, and that continues as Barcelona continue to dominate by following his principles.

Cruyff’s impact on a young Joan Laporta, Barça fan and future president, was vital in their latest dynasty. Exactly 30 years after the Dutchman arrived, the former starry-eyed little boy began his tenure at the top of his beloved club. Laporta, who professed to having his hair cut in the style of Cruyff such was his obsession, set about recreating his hero’s work, with his help.

Dutch flare was key, something another former Ajax prodigy, Frank Rijkaard, brought with him when he took over as manager upon Laporta’s election. It was another of Cruyff’s ‘disciples’, Pep Guardiola, who renovated and polished the style to the best effect when he stepped into the hotseat in 2008. Guardiola is the most wanted man in football right now, lauded for his ideas and constantly fresh approach to the tactical side of the game. Without Cruyff, though, Guardiola would not be the man he is, something he openly admits.

Football is losing that purity which Cruyff fought so vehemently to preserve. Money is everything, meaning that results take precedence over the beauty of the game. The need to win is matched only by the need to sell a brand, something Barça battled intensely for many years, donning no sponsor on their shirts until very recently. Even in his adopted home, though, his values have somewhat been diminished, particularly since Laporta’s exit in 2010.

It was unsurprisingly Cruyff who took the opposite stance, though, claiming he’s “never seen a bag of money score a goal” when discussing whether money guarantees success. Even when not on the frontline, be it as a player or coach, he was constantly teaching the world how to improve the game.

Johan Cruyff may have departed, but his legacy will live on. His impact on football is permanent, but he gave so much more to life than that. Whether he is the greatest footballer of all time is, at the very least, up for debate. As a player, manager, philosopher and even politician of sorts, he proved himself to be the most important figure the game has ever seen.

Remembering The Greats: Thierry Henry – A cog in many machines

Thierry Henry is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s greatest ever masterpiece. Arsenal have lost their way of late, and Wenger isn’t moving with the times as perhaps he should, but once upon a time he had a team packed with everything desirable for success, and a player who epitomised that better than anyone.

Around the turn of the century, the Gunners were an unstoppable force. They won two Premier League titles after the year 2000, the second of which, in 2004, without losing a league game; combining steely determination and dogged fighting spirit with a beautiful style of play which drew similarities with the finest art to be found in the Louvre. Henry fits in with that metaphor, as a Parisian, and he was the living embodiment of Wenger’s ideas, carrying them to the top with such grace, and at times, ease.

Past generations of football players, before both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hit top gear, have a rough deal. The records both continue to break on an annual basis look like putting the achievements of the likes of Henry to shame, but not many, if any at all, have come close to the Frenchman in the Premier League. Great players are not at a shortage in this country, but no one made playing at the top level look quite as effortless as he did at his Gunners best, almost walking through defences to score goal after goal, lighting up Highbury week after week.

What made that team, and Henry, so good was watching them develop. It was peak Wenger, whose ideas were so innovative and refreshing, that created such a prolific footballing monster. He didn’t just score goals, netting 175, the most of any foreign player in English top-flight, between 1999 and 2007, but he created too. Mesut Ôzil, Arsenal’s main protagonist these days, looks likely to go on and overtake him this season, but Henry’s assists haul of 20 in 2002/03 remains the record for the most in a single campaign.

The move to North London was the catalyst for his astronomical rise to the top and, especially without the domination of the Ronaldo/Messi axis to contend with, it is a crime he was never given one of world football’s most coveted individual awards.

It is something of a myth, though, that Wenger unearthed a hidden gem when he bought Henry from Juventus in ’99. By then, he had played in the Champions League for both Monaco. where he proved to be one of Ligue 1’s best youngsters after negotiating the fabled Clairefontaine youth academy. Most crucially, a year prior he became a World Champion, and added the European crown two years after that, all before he really began to command the upmost respect in England.

At Juve, alongside his World Cup winning team-mates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, and in a country where many others in that successful France side thrived, a young Henry floundered. Although he burst onto the scene with key goals at that tournament, and had done pretty well at Monaco, his goalscoring was never strong enough and he was mainly utilised as a winger in Serie A. It was then that Wenger, who worked with him at the Stade Louis II, sensed the opportunity to revive, rather than create, him.

Few players can profess to having such big impacts on the most successful eras of three different teams. To add to his joys with Les Bleus and Arsenal, where he became a considerable presence both on and off the pitch, captaining them after Patrick Vieira’s 2005 exit, he played his part for arguably the greatest club team ever at FC Barcelona.

When he moved to Camp Nou, just two years after Vieira’s departure and 12 months on from Barça’s Champions League final victory over Arsenal in the Stade de France, he was no longer king. Henry had to learn to blend in, not that it wasn’t part of the job alongside Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Dennis Bergkamp before, but as he even admitted, playing for the Blaugrana is like learning a new sport. Finishing as top scorer in his first season didn’t tell the whole story. In truth, he struggled, with injuries and the negativity around the club in Frank Rijkaard’s final, chaotic season in charge.

Playing through the middle was no longer an option, but he fared better out wide when Pep Guardiola solved the striking equation in his debut, treble winning campaign. Henry thrived alongside Messi and Samuel Eto’o, particularly in the 2-6 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, when Guardiola’s now trademark philosophy was executed with the most damning expertise.

Henry had grown from a talented Frenchman, to not only one of the best footballers on the planet, but one of the most famous faces too. His impact on MLS when at New York Red Bulls helped the league and American game in general develop. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is the struggle to pinpoint a highlight in a long and spectacular career.

Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough return could be as problematic as it is a relief

Football in the North East of England is like no where else in the country. Dominated by the fortunes of Newcastle United and Sunderland, it has become something more akin to a soap opera than a sport in the area recently, particularly this season. Disaster has been held at bay for a while, but as time goes on, it closes in like a dark rain cloud, casting a shadow. Most people see both as intense rivals, while those down the road in Middlesbrough are hardly with friendly with either, too.

The harsh economic climate has raised something of a community spirit. Many bemoan the fortunes of the big clubs, currently struggling for Premier League safety, regardless of which side they are on. It looks more and more likely, with everyone else at least eight points clear of them both and Norwich City, that at least one of them will drop out of the top-flight. Middlesbrough have offered something of a beacon of hope this season, looking good to go the other way and reach the promised land, residing at the top end of the Championship.

‘Boro have endured their fair share of turmoil in recent years, from near extinction in 1986 and relegation in the 1990s to cup final defeats and a first ever trophy in 2004. Five years later they suffered the demotion that saw them drift into no-mans land, from which they are still recovering now. Comparatively, with local businessman and life-long fan Steve Gibson at the helm, they have been heading in the right direction for the main part. When Aitor Karanka replaced legendary former captain Tony Mowbray, who despite his status was in danger of getting the club embroiled in a battle to avoid the third tier of English football, as manager, it seemed like the final stage of the rebuilding process.

Gibson was showing the ambition and faith he was famous for, and the job on Teesside was not only a perfect fit for the Spaniard, but also an enticing challenge. Despite an impressive playing career at Real Madrid, winning the Champions League in 2002, it was his work as Jose Mourinho’s assistant which caught the eye.

When Mourinho took over in 2010, Karanka was working with the Spanish under-16s without any expectation of the promotion that was to come. The former Inter and Chelsea boss has his permanent staff who follow him where he goes, but he makes it his business to employ someone who understands the club to make the transition easier.

Karanka listened and learnt, and his stamp on Boro has been a particularly Mourinho-esque one. Defensively overall this season, you’ll have to go far to find a better side, having only conceded 23 goals and breaking a record for the longest time without letting one in earlier in the campaign. Despite the play-off final defeat to Norwich last year, everything seemed rosy as they challenged both Burnley and Hull City/ Karanka was a calm, intelligent man, the opposite character to those who led the area’s football teams into crisis.

That makes this week’s events all the more bizarre. Boro have struggled to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009 for a range of reasons, but they have never been stronger than they are now. The January addition of Jordan Rhodes, a serial goalscorer at Championship goalscorer, from Blackburn Rovers plugged the only hole. Having led the table for long spells, a recent blip in form seemed natural, but it brought an explosive response from Karanka, who walked out on training, only to be told not to return the next day, or take charge of the 2-0 defeat at struggling Charlton Athletic on Sunday.

He pointed the finger at his players, claiming they didn’t have enough pride or passion. It looked as though there was no way back, but he is set to continue the charge. How this has helped an already delicate situation is far from clear, but the whole sequence shows that unwanted drama is not solely reserved for their higher-placed rivals.

Most Middlesbrough fans, naturally, have backed Karanka. He has proven to be the most significant appointment the club has made in a decade, and it is him who has dragged the club back towards the big time. Whether he can galvanise those he criticised so intensely again will prove his real challenge. For a long time it looked as though a Premier League return was nailed on because of Karanka, now it isn’t clear whether he is a help or a hindrance.

Everything seems to be falling apart for Middlesbrough at the wrong time again. Aitor Karanka has proven himself to be one of the most exciting coaches around during his time at the Riverside Stadium, but his outburst has called his temperament into question, and therefore he must prove it won’t impact on the rest of the season to save his reputation.

The house he has built is his, and there is no one better for the job. The problem for him is he may have made a small cut which needed healing into an open wound that could kill off Middlesbrough’s promotion hopes once again.

Remembering The Greats: Paolo Maldini – Like father, like son

The name Maldini looms large in Milan. Along the halls of the San Siro, it is a symbol of what it means to play for the Red and Black, the Rossoneri. The city is split into two teams with very different philosophies. By definition, Internazionale, translated literally as ‘International’, are not afraid to look elsewhere for their stars, while AC Milan have a history of developing legends from within. No one defined such ideas as clearly as Paolo Maldini.

That is not to say Inter do not pay attention to their own youth, nor does it suggest AC, more commonly known as Milan, much to their delight, fail to attract big names from afar. It is, though, quite emblematic that the Nerazzurri’s (Blue and Black) most recent answer to the legendary status of the Maldini name is Javier Zanetti, an Argentine who arrived in 1995 to become a permanent fixture for them across a number of generations. He lasted a remarkable 19 years, five years short of Paolo himself.

Maldini is not just synonymous with the red half of Milan through one generation. Paolo’s father, and later manager with both Italy’s under-21s and senior side, Cesare, won the European Cup with the club at Wembley in 1963. Both were defenders, and when Paolo took to the first team at the age of 16 just over twenty years later, his father’s legacy was both a help and a hindrance. He would be given time to prove himself, not that he needed it, but the pressure would soon be on to deliver.

No bigger compliment can be paid to Paolo than the fact that he not only lived up to, but surpassed his father’s legacy. Cesare played over 300 Serie A games for Milan in 12 years between 1954 and 1966, before leaving and retiring at Torino a year later. Paolo, who never pulled on another club’s shirt despite a plethora of big offers, didn’t retire until he was 40, in 2009, after almost 700 league outings, seven scudetto titles and a remarkable five European Cups.

The symmetry between the pair was made particularly special in 2003. At the scene of his fourth European medal, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford, Paolo emulated his father’s feat from 40 years earlier as captain, lifting the famous trophy in England.

His achievements have made it hard to pin him down to one specific era, such is his spectacular longevity. He was not only a key component in arguably the greatest Italian side ever, under Arrigo Sacchi in the 1990s, but also that for former teammate Carlo Ancelotti a decade later.

Alongside Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo not only made up one of the best defences ever to play the game, despite Sacchi’s propensity to attack with high energy and pressure, but he also set a precedent. Milan have become notorious for helping ageing legends continue at the top for a long time, dedicating their Milanello training complex to that end.

In 2007, when Paolo lifted his fifth and final continental title against Liverpool, it was effectively the same spine of the team that beat Juve, and lost to the Reds in spectacular fashion two years earlier. Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf, the only man to lift the trophy with three different clubs, all benefitted from the conditioning to enjoy long and successful careers with the club.

Paolo was never the aggressive type, he never looked like fighting for the cause, in a way that, for example, Carles Puyol at Barcelona would, but there is little doubt he’d have died for Milan. His refreshingly modern style of play, combining brilliant skill on the ball with a natural knack of defending and fantastically athletic physique, afforded much versatility in his game. He took a trial as a right winger, but was equally as effective at centre half or fullback.

To this day he remains quiet, never looking for the limelight his glittering career entitles him to. But his ability to lead by example, stay calm in the face of pressure and perform consistently on the pitch made him Milan’s greatest captain. Despite not featuring in any of the Azzurri’s four World Cup winning sides, and suffering heartache in the Euro 2000 final at the hands of France, a record 126 caps make him a candidate for Italy’s best, too.

His father said it best on a series of documentaries most fittingly named Football’s Greatest: “He is a real Rossonero, his soul belongs to Milan.” As a child he followed Juventus, he had the chance to try out for Inter too, but the love affair between player and club was destined to happen. Testament to the family name, when he retired, it was announced that only Paolo’s sons could don his number three shirt.

AC Milan are a truly legendary club, one for which success is part of it’s DNA. Recently, hard times have hit, without the same steady stream of big names to keep the flame burning. They are missing Paolo Maldini, as they always will, because he is arguably the greatest defender to ever play the game. It remains to be seen if the family tradition will be continued.

Remembering The Greats: Ronaldinho – Entertainment Personified

It took Stamford Bridge a good few minutes to catch its breath. Chelsea were stunned into silence, Jose Mourinho could only watch on. A small pocket of Barcelona fans could be heard roaring with joy at the outrageous act that had just occurred. The 2004/05 Champions League quarter final wasn’t over yet, Ronaldinho had reminded the watching world he was the best player on the planet.

The Catalans travelled to West London for the second leg with a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o at Camp Nou. But an incredibly fast start, typical of that Blues side, saw them take an early 3-0 lead. It was the season that Chelsea really announced themselves on the European stage, with a particularly strong defence. Petr Cech broke the English record for the longest amount of time without conceding a goal that season, but not even he could do anything about the piece of vintage Brazilian magic that was to come.

A bad tempered first game had set the tone for the return. Mourinho, whose bad blood with Barça is well documented nowadays and goes back many years, accused referee Anders Frisk and Frank Rijkaard of conspiring together at half time after a Didier Drogba red card 10 minutes after the break. Death threats resulted in the Swedish official quitting the game for good. Rijkaard, understandably, didn’t take too well to it either.

Barça were desperately looking for a way back into the tie. Despite their nightmare start that evening, they still felt they could go through. Ronaldinho, reigning World Player of the Year, picked the ball up on the edge of the area. What probably struck the most fear into the hosts’ hearts was his lack of motion, but with one swift flick of the outside of his right boot, he curled the ball, with no back lift, past a blindsided Cech. The bewitched look on Ricardo Carvalho’s face on the slow motion replays tells its own story.

Ronaldinho then netted a penalty and looked like leading them through, only for a John Terry header to knock them out late on. That goal, though, a moment that brings shock, awe and joy in equal measure with every viewing, sums him up. The animosity, unfortunate circumstances, and even Barcelona’s defeat, are just secondary story lines, compared to arguably the greatest show of individual brilliance of his career. He has quite a show reel, so take your pick.

You’ll have to go far to find a more naturally talented person to have ever donned a pair of boots. He combined an ability to do things that few could do if they dedicated their lives to trying without a second thought, with the most intoxicating enjoyment for just playing the game he loved. Particularly at the height of his powers, when he inspired Barcelona to back to back La Liga titles and the Champions League in 2006, there was no one more entertaining player to watch than him.

Unfortunately, the lack of longevity and consistency in his performances throughout his career have tainted his reputation. Now 35, and after failing to settle after spells in his native Brazil, despite winning the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Mineiro in 2013, and Mexico, he is a free agent. The rather anticlimactic end to life in Spain in 2008, after his lack of work rate failed to impress the winning obsessed Pep Guardiola, has set the tone for his later years. He moved to AC Milan in the hope of recapturing his best form but couldn’t, not doing so since.

There are more defining moments in Ronaldinho’s reign at the top than most, but his impact at Barça is what he should be most remembered for. His sour finale and rise of successor Lionel Messi mean he has, to some degree, drifted from the very height of Barça folklore. But when he walked through the door, signing from Paris St Germain in 2003, he found a world renowned institution on its knees, proving the catalyst for the most remarkable resurge. FC Barcelona would not be such a fo in the modern era if it wasn’t for him.

Even the achievements of his replacement as talisman may not have happened without him. Messi came into the first team at Barça as a 16-year-old in 2004, looking to learn from the star attraction. Ronaldinho saw the greatness before the majority, but instead of taking a selfish route filled with petty jealousy, he put his arm around and befriended a young, slight, timid youngster, giving him the confidence and belief to grow. Fittingly, he set up the Argentine’s first goal, against Albacete, with a delicate through ball.

That goal against Chelsea is just one example of the unique ability of Ronaldinho. He could do anything with a football, see a move before anyone, play a pass that would even bamboozle his team-mates. He hit world fame with that stunning, some say fluke, goal against England in the 2002 World Cup before winning the trophy and being named Midfielder of the Tournament. If that doesn’t define him, then receiving a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu for an audacious brace in El Clasico against Real Madrid definitely should.

It is sad to see what has become of Ronaldinho in many ways, and it may take a number of years to see just what he did for football during his remarkable career. He captivated creativity, recognised the world over for his ponytail and buck-toothed grin, which showed just how he thought when a ball was at his feet.

Orlando City’s Kaka key in battle of the stars against New York City this season

He may have won the Champions League, Serie A, La Liga and even the World Cup, but Kaka is prouder of few moments in his career than this. When New York City FC travelled to the Citrus Bowl, a 70,000-seater stadium, to face Orlando City Soccer Club in both sides’ inaugural Major League Soccer match 12 months ago, it was an engulfing watch. The game finished as a 1-1 draw, Mix Diskarud’s strike for the visitors being cancelled out by the Brazilian’s freekick, netting the Floridians’ first top flight goal.

Not many have played football more gracefully than Kaka over the past ten or twenty years, and his smooth style was one of the first to redefine the position of the ‘number 10’. Gone are the days of the second striker, the little, pacey man darting to reach his partner’s flick on. Thanks, in part, to the quiet, unassuming, humble Christian turned world superstar, a deeper, more effective attacking midfield role has become fashionable.

After years playing for Milan, Real Madrid and, in two spells, hometown club Sao Paolo, Kaka took a huge step in his career last year. It is nothing new to see a household name play out his final years in the States, in fact he followed on from a long line. Gerd Muller, George Best and Johan Cruyff all headed over for at least a semi-retirement before American soccer was even as well marketed as it is now in the shape of MLS.

Interest in the sport has blossomed since David Beckham made the step across to LA Galaxy in 2007. The importance of the former England captain moving to the club was paramount, not only because of his standing in both football and showbiz, but because he joined at the age of 31, rejecting much more high profile offers to head to Hollywood.

Beckham sacrificed his European football career for a few years, before joining Milan and Paris St Germain. He helped raise the profile hugely, opening the league up as an ideal place for big names to leave their mark. Former England teammates Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole recently joined the Galaxy, while Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and, David Villa are residing in New York’s latest franchise.

It is Kaka, though, who has taken the biggest risk. Still only 32 when he signed for Orlando, he admits he spoke to Beckham about the pros and cons of the league before signing for what he describes as a “baby” team. Orlando a club which did exist prior to their debut campaign in MLS last year, but unlike the Manchester City-funded New York, they look like taking a much longer route to the top. Kaka is not just the marquee man, he is captain, chief motivator and central to everything they do.

When the two sides met a year ago, Lampard was on loan at cross-pond partners Man City and Pirlo’s deal from Juventus was not yet in the pipeline. The game was billed as the clash of two former heavyweights of the game, Kaka vs Villa.

There was little to separate both teams, proven by the final East Conference standings. Orlando edged it by a place, finishing seventh, but neither could do what has only been done once before, reach the playoffs at the first time of asking.

In an interview with Sky Sports last week, Kaka made it clear that Orlando’s aim this season has to be a top-six finish, reaching that end of season party. The same is probably true for New York, but despite former Milan and Juventus midfielder Antonio Nocerino’s summer move to the home of Disneyland, the Lions, as they are nicknamed, could be eating dust from the Big Apple.

The links with the biggest ‘City’ in England, and all the money their owners bring, gives New York a huge advantage long term. No new signings have yet been announced, but Kaka’s former partner in crime at San Siro Pirlo, Lampard, and Athletic Bilbao’s former stalwart fullback Andoni Iraola, will all have settled in much better this season. The man tasked with moulding this impressive constellation of stars into a team is none other than Patrick Vieira, making his first-team management bow.

Pressure is something that he, and those big names at his disposal, are used to dealing with, but they will have to this season. Much like in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola will be coaching next season, Sheikh Mansour, the mega-rich man behind everything, expects results.

That star quality is clear and seems to be a permanent fixture for NYCFC. Kaka has had to shoulder most of the responsibility in his early days at Orlando, and while Nocerino can offer some valuable experience, the men in purple will have to galvanise a real team spirit if they are to once again better their new found adversaries.

Orlando Soccer Club could well be a big hit in future. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Hernandez are just two of the names linked over the closed season, but there are stronger vibes coming from New York this season. Kaka, Nocerino and co. will have their work cut out if they are to compete at the top this coming season.

 

Arsenal’s rose-tinted glasses slowing progression under Arsene Wenger

There is a sense of entitlement that surrounds Arsene Wenger, only replicated once in England before. Many see him as managerial royalty, in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, meaning he should have complete control over the destiny of both himself and Arsenal.

Comparisons between the pair, though, do Ferguson a huge disservice. The Scot is unrivalled in terms of both success and longevity, an anomaly in the modern game, which has seen a rise in the quick fix culture. By the time he retired in 2013, he was part of the Old Trafford furniture, making every decision. He had been successful for so long it was too late to call him on any failure, proven by exiting the Champions League at the group stages and surrendering the Premier League title to Manchester City in hid penultimate season.

He vacated his, for lack of a better word, throne, after 27 years. Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 now, which in itself is a great achievement, and the main reason for the similarities with one of his oldest adversary. Both have won trophies, built teams and are the architects of their respective clubs’ recent success, but the difference is Ferguson’s victories were consistent, Wenger has ridden the wave for about a decade.

Stability is a huge part of any club who build some sort of dynasty, as both have under Ferguson and Wenger. The former’s remarkable ability to constantly move with the times kept up his hunger and avoided him becoming stale. Wenger was incredibly intelligent man, years ahead of his time when he stepped through the doors at Highbury in 1996.

Ferguson successfully built about four teams, only failing to win trophies during bedding in periods. Wenger, on the other hand, masterminded seemingly indestructible era, blending the British steel of Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, with the French flair of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.

The beautiful thing about that team was, particularly in Vieira’s case, it had both skill and grit in equal measure. Three league titles and two FA Cups were won between 1998 and 2004, the latest with that unforgettable unbeaten season. To this day, Wenger both lives off and is judged against the success they brought.

But where he falls down when measured against Ferguson, is his inability to rebuild since the likes of Vieira and Henry departed. His commitment to a change in style, moving away from strength and power, focussing on technique and players with a low centre of gravity shows just how smart the man is, and proves he understands the game’s development like no-one else.

Yet, such a dedication to that has become detrimental, and instead of adding to the good things from the glory days, they have been forgotten. Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford raised questions over the leadership and mental strength of his current side, two things taken for granted before. These issues have been raised for many years, but this time it was worse.

It is not to say Wenger is all bad, and his defence is a strong one. Simply put, the club would not harbour dreams of dominating England again if it weren’t for him, and he has added back to back FA Cups to his collection, becoming the most successful manager in the competition’s history.

His shortcomings in the Premier League title hunt were down to a mixture of the rebrand of his team, their move to the Emirates Stadium in 2007 and the rise of some rather financially wealthy rivals to add to Ferguson and Manchester United. Their neighbours, City, and Chelsea, not to mention the Gunners’ fierce rivals Tottenham, have proven worthy opponents for Wenger in the past.

Now, though, it is time remove the excuses. This season, despite the inconsistent form of City, the continued post-Ferguson malaise of the Red Devils and Chelsea’s surprise slump, allowing Leicester City to top the table, Wenger and Arsenal are in the process of blowing yet another title bid.

There is a perception surrounding Arsenal that there team is young and developing, even now. The idea that Wenger is still nurturing his side has also been part of the narrative, but an average age of 26 last weekend, compared to 24 for Man United, show that, in reality, the problems lie with one man.

Every transfer window is the same for Arsenal, whether they need a striker, midfielder or central defender. Those three positions have not been convincingly filled for a number of years, meaning Wenger has neglected to properly strengthen the spine of his side to launch a real title assault.

Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man whose work has revolutionised both Arsenal and football in England. He deserves the immortality he receives when looking at his early years, but his mistakes have led to disappointments later on. Now was his time to bounce back, the excuses no longer work, but the same problems remain. A parting of the ways in the summer looks best for all parties.