Season start shows importance of finding a working defensive partnership

Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Just three defensive pairings that have been instrumental to the success of previous Premier League title winners.

But while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have received plenty of plaudits in the opening fortnight of the season, it is the sight of Callum Wilson running through the centre of the London Stadium like on a Boxing Day raid of Westfields that is my takeaway image.

In those seven seconds worth of distance run, the Bournemouth striker provided the perfect example of why finding the right defensive double act is paramount to success at any level of the game.

With Fabián Balbuena dangling a leg, former strikers Ian Wright and Chris Sutton debated on BBC 5Live this week how many goals they would score in the English top flight if they were still playing.

It’s not the first time this has been a subject of conversation among TV pundits in recent seasons, but it has never been more pertinent.

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho lamented the club’s failure to land his primary target of a centre-back with the summer transfer window drawing to an end.

Prior to United’s pre-season friendly defeat at Bayern Munich, he said: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.

“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.

“If we don’t make our team better, it will be a difficult season for us.”

After the unconvincing win over Leicester, the defeat by Brighton served to underline Mourinho’s point, as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof showcased their deficiencies with the 34-year-old Glenn Murray running amok against a defensive partnership worth £60million.

The United manager has tried several different combinations involving Bailly, Lindelof, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but with his third season now underway, the highest proportion of games played by a given partnership is Jones and Smalling on 13.

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In a managerial tenure that now stretches to 78 league games, the numbers indicate that Mourinho isn’t convinced by any of the six combinations – and his failure to identify the bedrock of his side has influenced how his team is structured, throughout.

The presence of Toby Alderweireld returning to the Tottenham defence on Monday night against United will be a sore point for Mourinho, even if the Belgian was reportedly overlooked based on his preference to play in a back three.

Conversely, Liverpool look set to thrive this term after solving their defensive issues. From the opening match, the absence of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren has allowed Gomez to form a partnership with Van Dijk.

Gomez is very highly regarded by Gareth Southgate – and would have gone to the World Cup were it not for the need for ankle surgery – but England’s loss is proving to be Liverpool’s gain so far after an encouraging start alongside the world’s most expensive defender and in front of the world’s second most expensive goalkeeper.

For Klopp, it has paid to find a working partnership in defence, and Everton manager Marco Silva had seen enough in a run of five pre-season games without a win to convince his sporting director Marcel Brands that something simply had to be done.

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Brands worked tirelessly to bring Yerry Mina to the club, in the face of United being touted as a potential alternative and with his rising cost following his displays at the World Cup with Colombia.

But Mina has thus far had to watch on from the stands, nursing an injury sustained in Russia, while fellow deadline-day arrival Kurt Zouma will also need to bide his time for opportunities.

While both Zouma – on a season-long loan from Chelsea – and Mina will have been penned in as Silva’s first-choice pairing, the Portuguese has been impressed by Mason Holgate’s first start since January in the 2-1 win over Southampton.

Mina has been ruled out until mid-September, meaning Holgate and Zouma will once more be fighting over one spot against Bournemouth alongside Michael Keane, who looks to have reacted well to two new arrivals in his position.

A clean sheet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday would further enhance Holgate’s claims to retain the jersey, even when Mina is fit and raring to go. Van Dijk’s £75m fee is now seen as a bargain but unearthing the best defensive partnership doesn’t always come at a price.

Silva has been careful not to blood all five of his new signings at once, an issue that has been handled differently elsewhere in the Premier League, with contrasting results.

Fulham have lost both their opening games having brought in 12 new faces, while Fabri has faced faced 15 shots already this term – more than any other goalkeeper.

West Ham are also on zero points as Manuel Pellegrini seeks solutions to an early-season injury crisis coupled with the need to blood nine new players. Calls for £24m buy Issa Diop to start at Arsenal could be met after Angelo Ogbonna’s horror-show against Wilson.

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Gunners boss Unai Emery and his desire to implement his own style with players who appear incapable of fitting to his set philosophy has filled plenty of column inches this week – but while on another day, more clinical finishing against Chelsea might have brought about a different end result, it was in defence that the same old weaknesses were laid bare.

The absence of Laurent Koscielny coupled with an unkind set of opening fixtures meant that Sokratis Papastathopoulos was always in for a baptism of fire, even before he was partnered alongside Shkodran Mustafi.

Having conceded at least twice in their opening two games, Arsenal’s array of attacking talent face having to score a minimum of three goals to win games at present, and while Chelsea were victorious last Saturday, Maurizio Sarri’s change in formation has left them potentially more exposed at the back.

David Luiz has been reinstated alongside Antonio Rudiger, while Cesar Azpilicueta has been moved to right back. Sarri knows the importance of a strong defensive unit having signed Allan for £10.3m from Udinese to play alongside Jorginho as a protective shield in his first season at Napoli.

But Sarri didn’t seek to sign a centre-back, and in earmarking Jorginho as his primary target and essential to achieving his objectives, the 59-year-old has thus taken a different approach.

Luiz has been identified as the mercurial footballer that he is; ruffle him up the wrong way, and he can be a liability, but he showed he can be a world-beater in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge.

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Sarri will hope that the Brazilian forges a relationship with the Portuguese-speaking Jorginho in front of him, while having a point to prove after being cast aside by Conte last season. If Luiz repays the faith instilled in him, the loss of Thibaut Courtois will be significantly minimised as Kepa Arrizabalaga finds his feet in England.

Pep Guardiola is known for rotating but even the Manchester City manager acknowledges the importance of stability in the heart of defence. John Stones – who was victim of his reluctance to tinker during the run-in last season – has been restored after a good summer with England.

His partnership with Aymeric Laporte looks set to flourish as Vincent Kompany is gradually phased out, and the importance of deciding on a first-choice pairing is only more critical beyond the top six.

Huddersfield conceded six goals at the Etihad in the absence of Mathias Jorgensen, while Crystal Palace lost for the first time in 16 games with Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins as their defensive partnership against Liverpool last Monday.

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The sale of Van Dijk to Liverpool midway through last season severely compromised Southampton’s chances of survival, achieved on the final day despite the 1-0 loss to City, and Mark Hughes will hope the Dutchman’s replacement Jannik Vestergaard provides greater solidity.

Having made an encouraging start in keeping a clean sheet against Burnley, illness kept Vestergaard out of the defeat at Everton, where the Denmark international’s aerial presence would have been felt as Richarlison rose to head in what proved the decisive second goal.

Van Dijk has seen his stock rise at a time when the art of defending has been lost; Jamie Carragher described him as capable of surpassing Alan Hansen at Liverpool.

Tipping him to become a “legend” is high praise indeed and reflects the influence he has since his arrival at Anfield – but the defender’s performances have been accentuated by the struggles experienced elsewhere throughout the league.

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Premier League 2018/19 preview: Liverpool likeliest to push Manchester City in title battle

Manchester City signalled their intentions to continue where they left off in the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, but Pep Guardiola knows a repeat of last season’s exploits will be difficult.

The Catalan failed to win any silverware in his first season in England, while the Premier League has not been retained since Manchester United in 2009, but you get the sense that he is just embarking on his work on these shores.

Competition for places has been boosted by the return to fitness of Benjamin Mendy, while Phil Foden looks ready for this level despite only just turning 18; Aymeric Laporte will be better for his first pre-season at the club, and the only area that City appear slightly light in is cover for Fernandinho at the base of midfield.

Jose Mourinho can only wish for such minor concerns. United were a distant second last season, 19 points adrift, and the Portuguese admits he is relieved a tumultuous summer is coming to an end. He has been unable to strengthen his first-team squad beyond the arrivals of Fred and Diogo Dalot, both of whom will take time to adjust to England.

Liverpool have been hailed by many as the summer’s big winners having kept hold of their star names and added four keys signings to bolster their hopes of a first league title since 1990. The 5-0 dismantling of Napoli in Dublin was further proof of their credentials, and Jurgen Klopp has identified and acted upon areas of weakness.

Tottenham head into a new era at a new stadium having committed Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane to long-term contracts, but a failure to bring in new faces in addition to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Toby Alderweireld means supporters are understandably concerned about whether a title challenge is possible in this transitional year.

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Both Arsenal and Chelsea are under new management and face the prospect of a season dictated by Thursday-Sunday football due to their Europa League commitments; while Unai Emery can reflect upon an unbeaten pre-season within 90 minutes, Maurizio Sarri has swiftly become aware of the difficulties he faces, from choosing his preferred formation to having the right personnel to carry out his tactics.

Chelsea are likely to be without Thibaut Courtois, who has refused to return to training, while Eden Hazard has already set his heart on a move to Real Madrid. Losing both at this stage of the window would be catastrophic to the club’s chances of at least returning to the top four.

With two of the traditional top six at a stage in their cycles that is far from conducive to a title tilt, it does open the door to a possible outsider to break the status quo. Everton had been expected to do so last term, but poor investment left a lopsided squad that did well to recover eighth place. Marco Silva has been streamlining, but defensive weaknesses are yet to be fully addressed, so patience will be needed.

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West Ham co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan backed their new manager Mauricio Pellegrini by bringing in seven new recruits, spearheaded by club-record signing Felipe Anderson, while Jack Wilshere will be hoping to have more joy than Joe Hart in relaunching his career in East London. An intriguing season awaits even if the long-term absence of Manuel Lanzini comes as a major blow.

Leicester manager Claude Puel has thus far been frugal in the market since the departure of Riyad Mahrez, and while Jonny Evans’ arrival for £3.5m could prove the snip of the season, a lot rests on whether they can keep Harry Maguire away from the clutches of United. Kelechi Iheanacho has enjoyed a productive pre-season, scoring four goals in three games, and Foxes fans will hope he can fill the void in supporting Jamie Vardy.

Newcastle finished 10th last campaign, but that was largely due to a terrific spike in results after March, and with the players fighting with the club over bonuses, optimism is in short supply on Tyneside. A lot will depend on whether Rafa Benitez stays, but the Spaniard has at least secured striker Salomon Rondon, a player he rates highly and is capable of becoming a cult figure at St. James’ Park.

Another side who finished last season strongly are Crystal Palace under Roy Hodgson. The Eagles have thus far managed to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha despite interest from Chelsea and Tottenham, and the arrival of Max Meyer is somewhat of a coup, offsetting the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to Chelsea following his loan spell. If Palace can avoid their annual poor start, a productive campaign awaits.

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Bournemouth have taken their time to quietly go about their business with David Brooks joining from Sheffield United, while Diego Rico and Jefferson Lerma have cost a combined £35m, a year after they joined Levante and Leganes respectively for less than £1m. Eddie Howe will continue to play enterprising football that will win games, and keeping hold of Lewis Cook is a major boost, but the club are yet to strengthen at centre-half having conceded 61 goals last term.

Burnley were the surprise package in 2017/18, set on day one by their 3-2 win at champions Chelsea – but they have only added Ben Gibson and Joe Hart to a squad that will be stretched to the limit if they reach the Europa League group stage. Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, but clubs will be far more alert to their danger this time around. Sean Dyche will have a dilemma when all three of his goalkeepers are fit.

Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield and Southampton – four teams who ended within five points of each other last time out – will all target consolidation but the strength of two of the promoted sides means another wide-open relegation battle looms. Javi Gracia initially steadied the ship at Watford following the departure of Silva, but a poor end to the season and the sale of Richarlison points to an arduous nine months ahead.

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Brighton have added Alireza Jahanbakhsh for a club-record fee in the region of £17m and his versatility across the forward line will take the burden off Pascal Gross. Goals could again prove hard to come by with just 34 scored last term (the fourth fewest), so Chris Hughton’s search for a central defender in the coming days takes on greater significance.

Southampton moved to appoint Mark Hughes on a permanent basis after he managed to keep the club up at the expense of Swansea City, but the 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in their final pre-season game underlines fears that were heightened by Hughes’ admission the further business is unlikely to be forthcoming. Stuart Armstrong will be keen to prove a point having made the £7m switch from Celtic.

Huddersfield performed miracles in staying afloat last season, with Jonas Lossl’s heroics in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea epitomising the team ethos under David Wagner. The Terriers have a new badge while there have been eight new arrivals which have included Terence Kongolo and Florent Hadergjonaj’s loans being made permanent. The players now know what to expect, but offloading Tom Ince to Stoke for £12m could come back to haunt them given their dearth of creative options.

Such attacking flair propelled Wolves and Fulham back into the top flight, and both can be confident of avoiding a relegation scrap. Nuno Espirito Santo has become the Pied Piper of the West Midlands in coaxing big names to the Premier League newcomers; it is a project that will either catch fire or spectacularly fail, but the quality and experience of Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho means a mid-table finish should be the target.

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Fulham have enjoyed a fruitful pre-season with the surprise addition of Jean Michel Seri, while there was a surprising lack of competition in attracting Alfie Mawson and Aleksandar Mitrovic on a permanent deal. Slavisa Jokanovic is hopeful of adding Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal with Southampton now reluctant to strengthen a potential rival by selling Matt Targett. A lot will depend on how Ryan Sessegnon adjusts to the step-up in class having scored 16 Championship goals last term.

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock admits it would be his biggest achievement in football if he manages to keep his odds-on relegation favourites up, but with very little pressure on the Bluebirds, they will take heart from Huddersfield’s maiden Premier League season. Warnock will relish coming up against the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Klopp for what could his final time, so expect fireworks if nothing else.

Predicted Premier League table

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Tottenham
  4. Arsenal
  5. Manchester United
  6. Chelsea
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Crystal Palace
  10. Leicester City
  11. Wolves
  12. Burnley
  13. Fulham
  14. Bournemouth
  15. Newcastle
  16. Brighton
  17. Southampton
  18. Watford
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Cardiff City

England fall short but open the door for football’s honours to follow them home

From the very modern video reveal of the squad, England’s youngest at a World Cup since 1958, the FA’s message has been to reconnect with the nation. Box parks grew, while the inclusion of a designated YouTube channel, the Lions’ Den, had players speaking daily to their supporters.

We have all had our favourites from this band of brothers, from Jordan Pickford getting the rave on and Telford kitman Pat Frost putting up his flag before matches, to Harry ‘Slab Head’ Maguire telling his girlfriend Fern Hawkins to remember the bins on Monday.

Gareth Southgate’s rallying cries after Colombia and Sweden will live long in the memory for those fans whose journeys from Europe’s backwaters – from Valletta, Vilnius, Ljubljana – wound up here at Moscow’s Luzhniki.

They saw a moment of history in the Battle at Spartak Stadium, the impossible made possible by Pickford’s big left hand clawing away Carlos Bacca’s penalty, a first World Cup shootout win.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSweden were swept aside with such ease never experienced before in a tournament quarter-final. Versions of ‘Three Lions’ designed to be tongue-in-cheek – we’re here for a good time, but not a long time – took on a more visceral meaning. Football had already come home.

A 20-year-old Gary Neville was told by Stuart Pearce in the aftermath of the penalty shootout defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 to ‘enjoy this while you can. It may not happen again.’

The hope is that this is just the beginning, but the likelihood is that they will never get a better opportunity, a better fall of the draw to reach a World Cup final. If it was measured on world rankings, it would have been the fourth easiest route to a final in the tournament’s history.

They will return home heroes, but we will all be thinking of that window in the first half when it looked like England could have blown Croatia away. Ultimately, superior quality told. The brilliant Ivan Perisic punished a flat-footed Kyle Walker and wanted it more than Kieran Trippier in setting up Mario Mandzukic for the hammer-blow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGIt was England who tired first, and it goes back to naivety and experience. The initial high tempo led to them, not Croatia, looking more fatigued despite not being the side in their third successive period of extra time.

England players covered just under three miles more than Croatia (91.8 to 89), but they covered less when in possession of the ball (28.9 to 33.8), while England covered 38.2 miles without the ball compared to 31.3 miles by Zlato Dalic’s men.

England’s top speed during the match eclipsed that of their opponents (20.7mph from Raheem Sterling compared to 19.9mph) but 530 sprints from Croatian players to England’s 488 again pointed to the fact that one team was far more economical with their use of energy than the other.

Luka Modric began to dictate, 10 minutes into the second-half. Walker’s booking for dissent seemed to affect his game. The average positions for England players showed that both wing-backs played deeper than in previous matches, while Harry Kane was effectively a midfielder come the final 20 minutes.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaCroatia had shown too much respect for England in the first-half, but come the second period, Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic played in more advanced positions.

England had the chance to be bold and push forward, but they found themselves increasingly pinned back as more and more regains were picked up by those in black and blue shirts. There was a shift in composure.

Kane is set to win the golden ball, but his performances dwindled since the group stages. The abiding memory will be his chance here after 29 minutes, long before Croatia grew into the contest. VAR will have ruled either one of his shots onside had he stroked the ball past Danijel Subasic. It was the double-save of the tournament never officially recorded.

Kane didn’t recover thereafter, and Croatia relied on their team ethic to overcome inexperience. England ultimately lacked the creativity in midfield, where Ivan Rakitic and Modric increasingly looked like they had the game in the palm of their hands as Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ran out of legs.

Possession dropped from 47 to 35 per cent in the second period as Croatia turned the screw, streetwise, targeting space vacated by Young down England’s left side. Eleven shots on goal, half the number managed by Croatia, with just two on target and 25 crosses fewer than their opponents tell you that England fell short.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaLingard and Kane failed to make an impact, while Raheem Sterling was hooked prematurely, making way for an out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford. Too many players just didn’t turn up on Wednesday night for England in an attacking sense.  Croatia deserve their place in the final, despite an improvement from Southgate’s side in extra time.

But the reflections of Walker the morning after the heart-breaking end of the dream encapsulates the overriding mood from this ‘glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer,’ as the Daily Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace described it in the opening bar to his match report.

Walker wrote: “I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.”

He continued: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

England players arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel at 6.30am on Thursday morning. Exhausted but in the knowledge that psychological barriers had been overcome during the course of the past three weeks.

GettyImages-996390742.jpgBelgium, again, on Saturday could well be a re-run of matchday three. It’s an opportunity for some of the players with fresher legs who have been part of the journey to show their qualities, to even put right their defeat to Roberto Martinez’s reserves in Kaliningrad.

The manner in which England faded in the second period suggests a return to an experimental side is the only way they can hope of achieving bronze, regardless.

The energy of Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks, with Fabian Delph alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier in midfield behind Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front would make a lot of sense.

Furthermore, the FA will be under pressure from Premier League clubs to allow Southgate’s first-team players to gain rest before the new domestic season starts in less than a month.

Trippier is unlikely to remain in Russia for another four days after hobbling off at the end of extra time, while stalwarts John Stones and Maguire may also step aside, but in shuffling the pack, England wouldn’t be conceding the contest as a dead rubber.

GettyImages-996430268.jpgWe all know what happened after Italia ’90, and the unexpected failures at the following European Championships and no-show at the USA ’94. The success of the junior teams can’t be lost on the senior squad.

The hard fact is that a group-stage exit in 2014 has been followed by a semi-final defeat after extra time, and this cannot become viewed as an isolated, beautiful break from the norm.

Academy coaches should be encouraged to blood players through rather than taking on those from abroad, while managers should look to English youth more in the belief they don’t have to spend big money on foreign imports.

The hope is that the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League – clocked last season at around 30 per cent – now experiences an upward curve, while British managers will also take courage from Southgate’s achievements.

How these brave young men emulated Bobby Robson’s boys of 28 years ago will not be remembered for avoiding one of the world’s great footballing superpowers, but for the camaraderie built in the forests of Repino.

For the inflatable unicorn races and fans bleating out Oasis’ hit Don’t Look Back In Anger behind the goal long after the final whistle, and those up and down the country who dared to dream that football, unexpectedly, was coming home.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSeven of England’s starting XI last night will still be in their 20s when the next World Cup comes around in Qatar 2022, while 12 of Southgate’s 23-man squad could play in the next two tournaments. They now understand the preparation that goes into such a slog.

Small details have cost England at the penultimate hurdle, but optimism remains for the future. The parade has been put on hold, at least four another two years, but the reception at Heathrow next week will resonate more for its spontaneity and raw emotion.

There will be no choreography needed. There’s no stopping fans from flocking to the streets to hail their national treasures. With the final of Euro 2020 scheduled to take place at Wembley, the challenge now is to handle the desire for more.

Silva yet to make a signing but keeping hold of Lookman would be Everton’s shrewdest piece of summer business

The summer of 2017 was like no other in Everton’s recent history. The club had just finished seventh under Ronald Koeman, and while all the talk was of Romelu Lukaku being sold after the bombshell of him not signing a new contract, Everton were on a huge spending spree.

What followed was the creation of a bloated squad, leading to the need for new manager Marco Silva to offload players, ship out deadwood, and start again under a restructured recruitment drive. Everton want to learn from the mistakes of last summer.

Nurturing youth is at the heart of this new transfer policy. The Blues have already sold Wayne Rooney to DC United, released goalkeeper Joel Robles and offloaded Ramiro Funes Mori to Villarreal, while the future of Kevin Mirallas remains uncertain after he returned to pre-season training following his loan spell at Olympiacos.

These players have served Everton well at times, but they won’t be those who take the club onto the next level.

RB Leipzig v VfL Wolfsburg - BundesligaThere are likely to be more departures as Silva shapes the squad in his image but in rejecting RB Leipzig’s starting bid for Ademola Lookman, the Portuguese has given the first indication that he is ready to make use of the talent already at his disposal.

And Lookman has plenty of talent. Quite often under David Moyes, it was said that on leaving Everton, the only way was down. But Lookman can quite reasonably argue that his career has stalled since his £10m move from Charlton in January 2016.

His impact was immediate, coming off the bench to score in the memorable 4-0 win over Manchester City, the highlight of Koeman’s tenure, but he was subsequently mismanaged and under-appreciated at a time when fans were craving the sight of a young Englishman in the side.

Everton were in no real danger of being relegated, out of all three cup competitions, and still licking their wounds from the worst Europa League campaign from an English side ever. Giving Lookman – who had shown his undoubted ability in the 3-0 win over Apollon Limassol in December – half a season to make the left side of midfield his own was denied.

GettyImages-957652064.jpgBut, unlike those who looked elsewhere often under Moyes, the youngster chased down a Champions League berth at RB Leipzig and thrived away from what was known to be a tense environment at Finch Farm.

Silva has belatedly arrived at the club and his first port of call has been to assess his squad, but streamlining was a necessity, freeing up funds with the removal of players beyond their peak from the wage bill.

Everton plunged an inordinate sum of money courtesy of their billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri last summer on players that have yet to provide a return, barring the notable exception of Jordan Pickford.

Davy Klaassen has reiterated his determination to make a success out of his £24m move from Ajax a year ago, while the hope is that Theo Walcott and Gylfi Sigurdsson can build on promising moments last season to produce the level of consistency needed to challenge for the European spots.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier LeagueNews of Everton’s hands-off message to Leipzig over Lookman comes in the same week that the club have underlined their position on Mason Holgate’s future, with the defender seen as an important member of the first team squad.

The sale of Funes Mori and advancing years of both Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka mean that Holgate is expected to feature more in his preferred position of centre-back, but restructuring the defence is at the forefront of Silva’s plans.

Michael Keane experienced a difficult first season following his £30m move from Burnley, but Pickford’s exploits for England at the World Cup could prove a vital bargaining chip for potential defensive targets this summer.

The signs are that going forward, Everton will need the raw pace and goal threat of Lookman, whose mistreatment from Sam Allardyce was one of the early signs of distrust between fans and their old manager.

Olympique Lyon v Everton FC - UEFA Europa LeagueHis impact off the bench in the FA Cup third-round encounter with Liverpool was one of the few positives to draw from the 2-1 defeat, but after Allardyce had dismissed reports he would be loaned out last January, he insisted on being allowed to sample regular first-team football at Leipzig.

Lookman seemed to be spurred on by Allardyce’s disrespectful comments to the media on the matter, becoming an integral part of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side that finished sixth in the Bundesliga.

Five goals and three assists in 11 league matches tells its own story, and Silva is keen to see how Lookman reacts to the reported £12m bid being rejected. He should have more opportunities under a manager who relishes attacking football.

The pathway to more minutes is being cleared. Mirallas is likely to be sold while Yannick Bolasie has been linked with a move to Turkish side Fenerbahce after a disappointing return from injury.

The winger made an encouraging start to life at Goodison Park, linking up well with former striker Lukaku, but a serious knee injury has taken away the player’s most valuable asset, and pace is what this Everton side need.

Crystal Palace v Everton - Premier LeagueThere were rumours Silva would look to prise Richarlison from Watford even before he was confirmed as the new Everton boss, but Lookman now deserves his chance to make the left side of the three behind a striker his own.

Director of football Marcel Brands has quietly gone about his work during his first month at the club, and the Dutchman has previously spoken in glowing terms about how much he values Lookman’s technical qualities.

He tried to sign him whilst as sporting director at PSV Eindhoven when Lookman was still a Charlton player. Everton are yet to make a signing under Silva but keeping hold of the 20-year-old could prove to be the shrewdest piece of business this close season.

Having taken his chance at Leipzig, Lookman must now do the same at Everton.

Is Football no longer Coming Home? Have we lost our heads again over England at the World Cup?

“This week on Love Island,” began the narrator. “A twist. Six new girls. Six. New. Boys.”

Only, this happened last year, and will most probably be flogged to death until we’ve long since stopped watching.

“Like Big Brother, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent,” as the country’s future Prime Minister Danny Dyer said last night on Good Evening Great Britain.

Even the contestants knew about Casa Amor. The narrative has been just as predictable from the moment England arrived in Russia: give them what they want. But for how long will journalists following England at a World Cup be relevant?

England Media Access - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaFrom the sparsely populated mixed zone following their opening group game win over Tunisia in Volgograd, it was apparent that the rest of the world don’t think much of England’s chances of winning the tournament.

And yet the subsequent 6-1 thrashing of Panama led to a sense of euphoria in the press box not seen since Euro ’96, brought cascading back down to earth by the B team’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium that has created a “sense of anti-climax’ according to the Guardian’s London football correspondent Dominic Fifield.

Speaking on the Sunday Supplement podcast, he said: “There were too many changes, it was too disruptive, and I think it’s exposed the depth of squad quality that we’ve got. It feels a bit of a waste.” But has it really?

Does it merely show what happens when you throw a group of players together without a competitive match between them in over a month?

GettyImages-986404052.jpgThose who steadfastly defend Gareth Southgate for his team selection – which saw eight changes to the side which beat the Panamanians – claim this might prove a masterstroke. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel claimed he turned the World Cup into Sports Day.

Make no mistake, the pressure would most certainly still be on if England were facing Japan in the last 16. It would be even greater had the ‘A team’ lost to Belgium’s reserves. That would have been a sack race of a completely different kind.

By risking and ultimately relinquishing England’s position as group winners, Southgate has not only aligned England on the easier side of the draw; he has preserved the confidence of his leading men.

Matt Dickinson, chief sports writer at The Times, chose the word ‘deflating’. “As if the air had gone out”.

Southgate’s strategy was always to win this game, but when he moved Marcus Rashford to right wing-back to make room for Danny Welbeck, the extent to which he was willing to salvage a draw was revealed.

GettyImages-986359798.jpgSouthgate has always been about the long-term, and one defeat with a huge asterisk beside it should not lead to loaded back-page questioning of his tactics.

The ‘build ‘em up to knock ‘em down’ mind-set revisited by Matthew Syed in his Times column this week is now so well known by the public that it’s become a parody of itself.

Did fans truly think they’d win the World Cup after beating Panama and Tunisia? Or are they not just allowed to reminisce about their youth, wearing knock-down Fred Perry polos, singing Fat Les whilst drinking watered-down lager? The criticism of Southgate seems just as disingenuous.

The assumption, of course, is that beating a side incapable of gracing the English third tier had created a sense of momentum. It has been made by those who have travelled and reported on England for decades.

The core group of players who featured in the opening two games have already returned to full-blooded training today without the need for a recovery day ahead of the shorter visit to Moscow to face a Colombia side who were made to fight until the last second by Senegal.

The same Colombia side that is likely to be without James Rodriguez and who indeed were beaten by Japan in their opening game, albeit with 10 men for much of that match.

“The concern is we’ve gone down the same route as 2016,” continued Fifield, referencing the weakened team selected in the final group game against Slovakia. But why do we love so much to stick to this same narrative?

Why do we question when England will ever win a tournament again every two years when we seem to lose our heads at the thought of two similar scenarios being played out in entirely different circumstances?

This, don’t forget, will be like a home game for Colombia. Why? Because there will be thousands more yellow shirts in the stands. They will drown out the few thousand England supporters who have paid lip service to the scaremongering headlines that dissuaded them from visiting this wonderful country.

“The difference with Roy Hodgson’s team at the Euros was that team didn’t have any cohesion already,” reasoned Dickinson. “We were a mess, frankly. It felt like Roy was making it up as he went along in that tournament.

“Now, we know the first team very clearly, but I worry less about the word ‘momentum’. Obviously, all of us are concerned about Colombia, and it’ll be a lot harder than beating Japan. But if I was Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, I shouldn’t have lost my momentum.”

But the logic was lost of The Sun’s chief football reporter Neil Ashton, possibly from years of watching England from a privileged position, possibly from being drawn back to that same old narrative that sells.

GettyImages-986397622.jpg“At the full-time whistle against Belgium, I felt flat. Matt talks about tournament momentum and why that should affect Harry Kane, but I definitely felt there was a change of mood when the final whistle went.”

The Belgium defeat has created such a disparity even among those within the media, that being deemed ‘philosophical’ by some is being viewed as ‘using one’s brain’ by others.

Southgate was forced to backtrack on his outspoken belief that the English media should seek to act in the country’s best interest, and by rephrasing his views the following day, his next press conference will be one to monitor with a close eye.

He’ll be asked if he feels the media’s reaction to the Belgium defeat was fair. There’ll be several loaded questions looking backwards rather than forwards. It will be the biggest test of his tenure, getting the likes of the Mirror’s John Cross, who claimed his ‘halo has slipped’ back onside. But should he really be doing this when he has a last 16 match to focus on?

He won’t take kindly to some of the views shared in today’s national newspapers, designed solely to put pressure on him and his players.

Jordan Pickford, who has the potential to become the world’s best goalkeeper, has been grossly victimised in some quarters for the way he made a save in the first half before not keeping out Adnan Januzaj’s fine winner.

GettyImages-986372186.jpg“We have to trust the strategy, but some of it was unnecessary,” continued Fifield.  “I can’t believe Harry Kane will have wanted to sit on that bench last night.” But should we be assuming that had he played, England would have won, Kane would have scored and avoided injury?

What was the greater risk? Where would the momentum be now had England lost their talisman despite beating the Belgians? Southgate has taken what could be his only chance at guiding England at a World Cup to do things his way.

“You’ve got that problem in training.” Again, Ashton is wide of the mark. When you get to the sharp end of the World Cup, ask any player, and you don’t have this problem in training. You’re playing matches and recuperating in between.

When have you heard of a player getting injured in training at this stage of a World Cup? You could probably count them on one hand, in 21 editions. Metatarsal injuries happen in games.

GettyImages-977042740.jpg“He’ll be chomping at the bit on Tuesday,” Fifield said of Kane. “He wants to be two, three goals ahead in this race for the Golden Boot, let alone propelling the team forward.”

He’s right about the first part, but why should Kane’s desire to win an individual trophy come before the prime objective of creating the best potential set of circumstances for the team to win the ultimate prize?

The more astute point being lost is that England, whoever is in defence, have looked suspect at the back. Harry Maguire and John Stones are vulnerable. These are not Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. Both they and Pickford are a work in progress, and we all know this.

If Radamel Falcao is firing, that is why England will go out of the World Cup, not this tedious, phoney war seen in the past 24 hours… between the national team, the media and its favourite narrative.

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Loading up, Ashton asks, “Do we sometimes see that managers get carried away? That they meddle and start getting too clever, mixing it up, making too many changes and tactics along the way?”

“We just need to place out trust in him,” replied Fifield. “Because if we win the Colombia game –”

“We’ll be back to where we were,” finished Ashton. To where, exactly? To football coming home?

It is the media who shouldn’t be getting carried away. Southgate has kept his head when many appear to have reverted to type in losing theirs.

France happy to go under the radar, so why is momentum so important for England?

In 19 days’ time, two sides will walk out at the Luzhnicki Stadium to contest the World Cup final.

The shadow of France’s winning team of 20 years ago still hangs over the class of 2018, but after failing to excite the Moscovites in their first visit, few should discount their chances of returning to take up one of the dressing rooms on July 15.

Few in Paris will see a soporific draw with Denmark as diminishing their hopes of glory in Moscow next month, when other nations have feared that momentum might be lost with a poor showing in a dead rubber such as this.

A depleted France full of players who may never start another game out in Russia were unspectacular, like they were in a turgid stalemate with Switzerland at the end of the Euro 2016 group stage, but they ultimately grew in stature and were denied in the final by Portugal.

Denmark were in no real rush themselves, despite over half an hour in the second half when in the knowledge that it would take three unanswered Australian goals against Peru to threaten their progress.

This was game 37 of a thrilling World Cup that had been littered with controversy and incident, but there was nothing of the sort in the Russian capital, nothing to break the stand-off, the sense of ennui.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia“Australia have 25 minutes to find three goals, it’s some run-chase,” quipped the unimpressed Clive Tyldesley on ITV.

The Danish coach Age Hareide had appeared to light the blue touch paper by claiming France were nothing special beforehand, and their opponents did very little to disprove that opinion.

This was a forewarning for Belgium’s clash with England in Kaliningrad, but should Didier Deschamps be concerned? Denmark themselves were reluctant to break from their rigid defensive lines against a weakened team, but they are not expected to advance deep into the tournament.

The debate is over whether France can flick the switch. Time will tell if their failure to find any rhythm and refusal to show imagination in reaching the knockout stages will have a knock-on effect.

Despite the chorus of boos at the full-time whistle, Deschamps is still on track to join an elite group of men to win the tournament both as a player and manager. Only Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany have done so.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaStill the critics voice their doubts, with Zinedine Zidane and Arsene Wenger out of work, but after six years in charge, this was Deschamps’ 80th match at the helm, more than any French coach since the Second World War.

He won’t be cowed into entertaining at all costs, and by producing a swashbuckling victory over a second-string Belgium on Thursday, England could just as easily sleepwalk into a sea of trouble when they have the luxury of choosing a more calculated approach.

The Danes knocked France out of the World Cup when they arrived in Japan and South Korea as champions in 2002 – their only victory in their last seven encounters – but they didn’t look like improving that record here.

There was no Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe in the starting line-up but France are hardly short of options. They needed just a point to top the group and the Danish assistant John Dahl Tomlinson was listening in via radio to events between Australia and Peru 1,500km away in Sochi.

He will have removed his earpiece long before the end, but despite it being immediate from kick-off that Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen would line up in midfield in a defensive formation, Denmark made a bright start.

Andreas Cornelius, once of Cardiff City, won his first aerial duel to find Martin Braithwaite but the Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci waved away his appeal for a penalty under the challenge from Presnel Kimpembe.

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A fortuitous French win against the Australians followed by a far from convincing victory over Peru had hardly set the pulses racing for one of the pre-tournament favourites and stray passes in the opening 10 minutes, whilst a precursor for what was to come, initially gave the Danes further encouragement.

But France finally enjoyed a nice pattern of play with added penetration as Olivier Giroud won a corner after Lucas Hernandez went to ground with Henrik Dalsgaard for company. Thomas Lemar’s set piece was glanced harmlessly wide by Raphael Varane.

News filtered through that Andre Carrillo had given already-eliminated Peru the lead against Australia. The pockets of red voiced their approval, the pressure eased despite another penalty appeal after Djibril Sidibe’s cross struck the hand of Mathias Jorgensen from point-blank range.

A wonderful cross from Cornelius from a Denmark breakaway saw a combination of Steve Mandanda and Hernandez do just enough to thwart Christian Eriksen at his feet, before Ousmane Dembele shot a yard wide of Kasper Schmeichel’s post, but neither keeper were forced to excel with both teams knowing they were safely qualified with a low-key draw.

Momentum was frequently lost as Denmark slammed the door shut through their use of five defenders. France looked to the flanks given Giroud’s aerial threat, but both Sidibe and Hernandez struggled to find him.

The best chance of the half appeared to fall to Giroud, but it came after Antoine Griezmann had already been flagged for offside before the Chelsea striker blazed over.

Denmark v France: Group C - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

A tepid opening 45 minutes ended with Jorgensen cynically hauling down the Atletico Madrid man on the halfway line. Ricci wouldn’t even allow the free-kick to be taken, almost out of anger at the poor quality on show.

Into the second period and Paulo Guerrero doubled Peru’s lead, which threatened to kill this simmering contest stone dead. But a spill from Mandanda from Eriksen’s dipping free-kick very nearly presented an opening to Cornelius before the former Crystal Palace stopper recovered just in time.

Substitute Nabil Fekir lashed a shot into the side-netting before Mbappe was brought on for the last knockings, but it appeared a deal had been struck between both managers.

Giroud backed into Simon Kjaer seeking a penalty, but the match official waved play on. After the farce of Monday night, this was a game that craved a moment of VAR drama, like Sweden versus South Korea had done so earlier in the tournament.

The Russian neutrals began to jeer with 10 minutes remaining. Nobody would get hurt if it remained 0-0, but this was a victim of circumstance. The chance to store some energy would always be taken when it was clear Peru would defeat Australia in Sochi.

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The twinkling toes of Mbappe nearly presented France with a late winner but Christensen snuffed out the danger as discontent showered down from the stands at the full-time whistle.

But this was job done for France, who had created very little momentum in their first two games to feel that any was significantly lost.

If Deschamps’ side return to Moscow in a little under three weeks, the joke will be on those who sought swiftly to erase this gentle snore-fest from their memories.

The obvious argument is that England should seek to now avoid this apparent stagnation in their final group game, but it is just as presumptuous to claim that they, like Croatia later on Tuesday, haven’t peaked too soon if they do take the foot off the gas.

The unspoken truth is that Gareth Southgate is currently the English media’s puppet, swift to backtrack when showing any signs of speaking out last week following Steve Holland’s team-sheet “leak”.

Both he and those who attend his press conferences appear determined to stay on message when it comes to facing Belgium this week, highlighting the need to seek nothing but victory despite the obvious pitfalls which might come with falling on the tougher side of the draw.

Southgate has gone further, referencing England’s solitary victory in knockout tournaments in 16 years, but the unsubstantiated euphoria – seen in the cringeworthy beer-throwing gardens – created by wins over Tunisia and Panama should not mask the fact that this young side might in fact benefit from taking France’s route of going under the radar.

Germany’s World Cup defence starts with chastening defeat as wall joke backfires

“Sorry Mexico, today we build the wall,” ran a headline on Sunday morning in conservative newspaper Die Welt. But the joke was on Germany after a first loss in a World Cup opener since 1982.

The tone of the front pages was far more morose 24 hours later, with one Bild columnist asking, “Has anyone seen our world champions?” while the Berliner Kurier blasted the national team with “Fiasco instead of fiesta.”

Coach Joachim Low remains upbeat about his side’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages in Russia – with games to come against South Korea and Sweden – but there have been concerns about preparations for this tournament for some time back on home soil.

This was Mexico’s second win in just 12 meetings with Germany – the last coming in a friendly in 1985 – but there are suggestions these were problems that had simply come home to roost.

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The world champions trounced Mexico 4-1 at the Confederations Cup 12 months ago, but former goalkeeper Oliver Khan was not alone in his post-match assessment that Sunday’s 1-0 defeat in Moscow had been the result of nothing new.

Hirving Lozano’s winning goal – 10 minutes before half-time – was no less than Mexico deserved with Low having been tactically outsmarted by his opposite number Juan Carlos Osorio.

Osorio had been booed by his own supporters in the Central Americans’ last game – the send-off victory over Scotland – and there had been fears of more upheaval after claims in the Mexican media that Javier Hernandez had thrown a pre-World Cup birthday party involving escorts.

But representing his country turns Hernandez into a different animal as he led the line and played a key role in Lozano’s decisive strike, while Germany looked slow and cumbersome in retreating when moves broke down.

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In not tracking back, there was an arrogance about a performance that lacked defensive intelligence. Germany improved following a naïve first-half, but with more composure, Mexico could have won more handsomely.

Indeed, this was Die Mannschaft’s oldest starting XI for a World Cup match (27 years and 310 days) since the 2002 final against Brazil – the moment when the nation began their last major rebuild which led to six successive semi-final appearances at major tournaments.

Low has little time to devise a new plan of attack, and his post-match analysis suggests he will keep the faith in those who had shown a severe lack of guile and pace in transition.

“In tournaments, losing a match can happen and you have to accept it. We will not become reckless,” he said.

“We will continue to look forward. There is no reason to panic. We have two matches and ample opportunities to correct this result.”

Germany v Mexico: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Mexico were ruthless and almost appeared to offer Germany the ball back in order to exploit the space. According to reports, when Lozano scored, he triggered an earth tremor back in the city of palaces.

“Our motto was play with the love of winning and not the fear of losing,” Osorio said afterwards.

Low had no Plan B. Germany were behind for just eight minutes at the last World Cup, but here they were not able to solve that problem, with the space left behind down the flanks for Mexico ‘more like runways’, according to German football expert Archie Rhind-Tutt.

Mats Hummels was the most forthright in his views with the Bayern Munich defender saying in his post-match interview that Germany simply were unable to heed to wake-up call from Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up game – a laboured 2-1 victory that ended a six-match winless run.

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He said:  “If seven or eight players attack, then it’s clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability. That’s what I often talk about internally, to no affect. Our cover wasn’t good, too often it was just Jerome [Boateng] and I at the back.”

But the inquest into this ‘embarrassing start’ – as Bild labelled it on Monday morning – focuses on the displays of Hummels and those who have formed the backbone of recent successes.

To the German press, it is too simplistic to say that the world champions lost because Manchester City’s Leroy Sane is not in the squad. It was the lack of protection provided to the defence by Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos that has been pinpointed as a major source of concern heading into the Sweden game next Saturday.

In short, Germany’s system played into Mexico’s hands, and Khedira looked ponderous and problematic in the centre of midfield, where Mexico had constantly put a man alongside Kroos and deliberately allowed Khedira to see the ball, knowing that he was ineffective.

Germany v Mexico: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Khedira has lost both pace and speed of thought, while Joshua Kimmich was exposed positionally. Marven Plattenhardt had never played a tournament match before, but Mexico didn’t opt to exploit the full-back, choosing rather to use Carlos Vela often as an additional midfielder to squeeze Kroos when in possession.

The tactics worked a treat as Mexico attacked through Lozano down the opposite flank and they could have scored four or five times on the counter-attack. Osorio was expected to deploy the high press, and they were brave by keeping three players forward in defending set pieces, seeking to pick off their opponents on the break.

The result leaves Germany facing an uphill task to qualify from the group, where finishing second might result in the somewhat daunting prospect of encountering a Brazil side in search of avenging the Mineirazo of four years ago.

Today, it is the Germans who are in need of soul-searching, and the six-day wait to take to field in Sochi. Low’s side had 26 shots – the most without scoring in a World Cup game since Portugal’s failure to net against England with 29 in 2006.

The closest they came was through Julian Brandt’s instinctive shot that clipped the post from outside the box, but there was no need for gravity-defying stops, no Alamo on Guillermo Ochoa’s goal.

Germany v Mexico: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

The signs of weakness were there even in 2014. They were thankful to Manuel Neuer at times during the 0-0 draw with Algeria during the group stages in Brazil, while Portugal were profligate before being trounced 4-0 in the opening game.

Of course, Germany are not the only reigning world champions to lose in their opening defence, with several of the pre-tournament favourites yet to find their groove. There have been suggestions the break between the club season finishing and World Cup starting is too long.

This is the third consecutive World Cup in which the reigning champions have failed to win their opening match, while other nations – most recently Spain in 2010 – have gone onto lift the trophy having lost their opener.

All is not lost, but six points from their remaining two group games are a must.