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The ‘Club versus Country’ Debate is Pointless

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International football is great. Whether with the Copa America, the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers, the Women’s World Cup, or even the U21 European Championships (and various other age group competitions), there’s also been a great deal of the stuff on television recently, bridging the gap between club season nicely with a smorgasbord of football for viewers of almost all tastes.

International football is, however, intrinsically different to club football. Not on the pitch; it’s very much still eleven versus eleven, kicking a ball around with the aim of scoring more goals than the other team, regardless of whether the game involves Fulham or Fiji. No: it’s different in the sense that the models of being a fan are vastly different between club and country. This has many implications for the game, perhaps meaning that the much-heralded “club versus country” debate should be put to bed for good, finally seen as the irrelevance that it is.

Simply put, the different between the two forms is this: club football is, at its core, about inclusion; you can be born anywhere on the planet, but if you’re good enough you can play for any single club, and if you find yourself identifying with one specific club as a supporter, you immediately belong. A key part of Premier League clubs’ marketing strategies has been attempting to win over supporters in far-flung regions of the world, with the ill-fated “39th game” scheme and pre-season tours aiming to take English top flight football to global fans, old and new. It’s the same in other leagues; Bayern spent their winter break in Saudi Arabia for example, while other clubs in Europe spend time in Asia, America and Africa while warming up for the new season. The other end of this stick, of course, is the cynical purchasing of players; many have claimed that Manchester United’s signing of Shinji Kagawa in 2012 had less to do with his outstanding talent than the hordes of potential fans in Japan, while VfL Wolfsburg have tried something similar (but perhaps more overt) with Chinese midfielder Zhang Xizhe.

However, conversely, international football serves to propagate the current geopolitical boundaries of the modern world, with a limited amount of competitors across the world, and eligibility to play for each team much stricter. It’s very different to the club ethos; you require a link to a country if you wish to play for them, whether through place of birth, citizenship, an ancestor or naturalisation. It’s therefore a natural train of thought that a large part, if not an unavoidable part, of being a fan of a national team depends upon the same requirements to actually being able to represent them. After all, one of the big footballing dreams is to lift the World Cup trophy for your team. How can you do that when ineligible for your national team?

Still, this is an issue which has come to light a lot recently as fans of football around the world openly support a nation other than their own. A lot of this, in Britain at least, is borne from a disenchantment with their own national team; international success at the top level of the men’s game seems, at this moment in time at least, a remote prospect for fans of England, for example, and thus it’s quite easy to decide to sack off qualifiers away to Slovenia – whether committing a weekend to travelling to Ljubljana or just watching the ninety minutes on television – and enjoy a bit of South American flair, or keep up with some of Europe’s best sides in the likes of Germany, Spain and France.

Perhaps in another qualifying campaign it’d be similar for fans of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland; while the changes to Euro 2016’s qualification process have allowed all three to challenge quite strongly for a spot in France next summer, their prospects of success are even remoter than those of England, and so it’s certainly easy to see why football fans in Port Talbot, Lisburn or Fife might prefer to watch some of the world’s biggest names play during the international breaks. A strong shot at qualification, though, does certainly make watching the likes of Steven Fletcher and Simon Church attempt a shot at glory for their nations a more palatable prospect.

Many fans around the globe also follow other nations to their own. Obviously, there are a variety of reasons for this which can’t be boiled down to one specific cause in particular, but it tends to be fans of smaller footballing nations looking for a shot at enjoying success. Of course, this isn’t really an issue, but it makes little to no sense. A better shot at success could be attained by something as simple as supporting the smaller nation more vehemently, promoting the national game and helping it to progress through the trials and tribulations of current struggles. A good example of this recently is Australia, a country with a growing footballing culture which has allowed it to push on to becoming a perennial World Cup competitor – competing in every tournament since 2006 – and pushing on a generation of players to greater success, winning the Asian Cup in January 2015 in their home country. The efforts of Australian fans over the past handful of years have certainly played a large part in increasing their profile as a footballing nation, and also ensuring growing prospects in the world game as they look to submit yet stronger squads to future tournaments.

And isn’t that it? At its root, isn’t being a fan entirely about being a part of something? It’s a lot more difficult for someone to be part of something if their loyalties drift with the wind, or aren’t rooted in something solid or palpable. While this is similar to football at club level; you can’t expect to enjoy success anywhere near to the same extent as other fans if your loyalties change or are meaningless; perhaps the largest difference is that club loyalties are decided by more than lottery of birth or upbringing; it’s not exactly a choice, but it’s also not something thrust upon you in the same way that international loyalties are.

As for the club versus country debate – is it not rendered somewhat irrelevant when the way in which you can relate to either club or country is completely different? It would certainly be a lot easier for fans of the game to realise both forms of the game have their pros and cons and to enjoy both for their merits. After all, as great as it is to see your own team having a standout season, it’s brilliant to enjoy a tournament summer, or watch some sort of international super-team like Spain’s mix of Real and Barca or Germany’s mix of Bayern and Dortmund.

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Conor is a lifelong fan of Swindon Town. He hosts Dreierpack Podcast, a podcast about the Bundesliga, and writes about Borussia Mönchengladbach for the Bundesliga Fanatic.

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Everton 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from Goodison Park

Jake Jackman

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Manchester United

Manchester United managed to return to winning ways with an impressive away victory against Everton. This is a fixture that has caused United with problems down the years and Wayne Rooney was the focus of attention in the build-up as it was going to be only his second appearance against the club since leaving in the summer. It was a quiet one for the forward, as he picked up a yellow card and didn’t threaten as much as he would have hoped. The visitors took the three points thanks to strikes from Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. Here are three talking points from Goodison Park:

Jesse Lingard continues to impress and deserves his place in the starting eleven

The 25-year-old has been a slow developer, but he looks ready to step up a level and become a regular starter for Manchester United. He has been a good squad player for the club since breaking through as a young player, but he is now ready to make the move up to be a more important player at Old Trafford. He ended 2017 in impressive form and has started the new year in the same vein.

The attacking midfielder scored the second goal of the evening, as he struck an excellent effort to beat Jordan Pickford and put the result beyond doubt. He wasn’t short of confidence and looked to take shots at every opportunity. Lingard attempted five shots and his direct approach is one of the reasons he is in the team, as United need more goals from their midfield.

Lingard is an entertaining player to watch and isn’t afraid to take responsibility and run with the ball. He completed three dribbles against Everton and caused problems every time he got on the ball. Creatively, he will be hoping to improve during the coming weeks, as he made only one key pass on Monday. At times, his decision making could be improved, but he is headed in the right direction and his form in front of goal means that Jose Mourinho can’t drop him.

Everton need to sign a new striker

They didn’t have to deal with the return of Romelu Lukaku to Goodison Park as he was missing through injury, but it was clear that Everton need to sign a new striker in January. Oumar Niasse led the line against Manchester United and there was some good movement from him and the rest of the attacking players, but they caused few problems for the opposition when they had the ball.

The 27-year-old hasn’t fully convinced any of the three managers that he has played under at the club and it is unlikely that he is going to be the answer up front. There is no criticising his effort, as he was a willing runner and tried to impress, as his four successful dribbles show. However, he doesn’t have the required ability to deliver the level of performance that Everton want from their main striker.

Everton have been heavily linked with Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun and there had been speculation that a fee had been agreed, but the Mirror report that the deal is no in danger of collapse. It is a risk to sign a striker from Turkey and expect them to replicate the same form in the Premier League, but he appears to be the club’s primary target at the time of writing. If they can’t get his transfer over the line, they must move on to other targets. The current striking options aren’t good enough for a team with the Toffees’ ambition.

Paul Pogba showed why he is important to Manchester United

The French international continues to be doubted by many that like to point towards his huge transfer fee, but his influence can’t be understated. Paul Pogba is the most important player in the current Manchester United team. The club haven’t lost a Premier League game when the midfielder has played since October 2016. Meanwhile, United have lost five matches without him during this period.

Pogba is a forward-thinking player and is always looking to play positive passes. During the match, he completed five key passes and assisted both goals. As a creative presence from deep, there are few better players in the Premier League and there is hope that he can step up to the next level during 2018. He has been touted as a future Ballon d’Or winner and there is no reason why he can’t do that at Old Trafford.

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Three talking points from Newcastle United’s comeback against West Brom

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United fought back from 2-0 down to end their losing streak in the Premier League against West Bromwich Albion. They played poorly for much of the game, but their performance in the last 30 minutes has given them something to build on. This was a precious point and one that could be looked back on as a turning point at the end of the season. The Baggies will be disappointed that they weren’t able to hold on to the lead and it is crucial that they appoint a new manager sooner rather than later. Here are three talking points from the match:

Aleksandar Mitrovic needs to start

This has been a hotly debated topic on social media as Newcastle supporters have been demanding that Mitrovic is given a chance to start in then Premier League. Since Rafa Benitez was appointed as manager at St James’ Park, his relationship with the striker has been rocky. The Spaniard is a control freak and likes to have players that he can trust. He doesn’t trust the 23-year-old and that is why he has been on the sidelines. There is no doubting his talent, but he can’t be relied upon to carry out the manager’s instructions.

In recent matches, Newcastle have offered little in the final third, with Joselu being one of the players that has received most criticism for that. He offers little goal threat and needs to be taken out of the firing line to save what is left of his confidence. Mitrovic offered a lot more when he came on, as he ran the channels and worked hard pressing the opposition defenders. His link-up play was better than Joselu’s and he managed to score, although it was disallowed for an earlier offside. Benitez needs to change something in his attack and the Serbian deserves a chance.

Salomon Rondon has a lot more to offer West Brom

There was a lot of excitement when Salomon Rondon signed for West Brom and he has yet to live up to that billing. His performance against Newcastle suggested that he has more to offer the club and that a new manager could be what he needed to fulfil his potential. During the match, he won three aerial duels, completed two dribbles and made one key pass. It was a great display from the striker as he showed intelligent movement and link-up play, playing a huge role in the Baggies attack.

In the first-half, the Venezuelan international hit the bar from range, as he displayed incredible technical skill to scare Karl Darlow in the Newcastle goal. The one disappointment will have been his role in the equalising goal, as Matt Ritchie’s free-kick was deflected off the striker, but there was little he could do about it. Overall, it was an encouraging performance and continued his positive momentum since the sacking of Pulis.

Newcastle miss Jamaal Lascelles

There would have been many Newcastle supporters that would not have had Lascelles in their starting eleven this season, despite the centre-back being their captain. The second-half of the Championship season was underwhelming for him, as he made several mistakes and looked nervy in possession. However, he was suffering with a hernia problem and in reflection, it was clearly affecting him on the pitch. This season, he has been one of the stars of this Magpies team and moved into the thinking of Gareth Southgate.

Since the centre-back suffered an injury against Bournemouth, Newcastle have picked up only one point and conceded ten times in only three and a half matches. In the 10 matches prior, the Magpies had only conceded nine goals and it has become evident that Lascelles is key to their survival hopes. They miss the organisation and leadership that he offers, as it brings a calmness to the rest of the team. The sooner he is back, the better for Rafa Benitez and this group of players.

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Aleksandar Mitrovic’s career at Newcastle United is reaching another crossroads

Jake Jackman

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Mitrovic

It is clear to anybody watching that Newcastle United need a top-tier striker if they are to make the step up to the next level. In the long-term, Rafa Benitez will have one on his shopping list, but there may be a temporary solution within the current squad. There has been a lot of clamour from supporters on social media for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be given a chance in the first-team. The Serbian international has had a turbulent career since signing for the Magpies, but there is no denying that he has talent and has the potential to be a good Premier League centre-forward.

Newcastle face a difficult test against Manchester United this weekend and their main problems lie in attack, with the team failing to score in their last two Premier League fixtures. Joselu was a cheap summer signing from Stoke City and although he has shown some encouraging signs, he isn’t the natural goalscorer that the side needs. Dwight Gayle was the club’s leading scorer in the Championship last season, but there remain doubts about his ability to replicate that form at the highest level. Both have been given a chance to make the starting spot their own and they have failed to convince. Mitrovic could be the best option of the three.

Since Benitez arrived towards the end of the 2015/16 campaign, he has had a mixed relationship with Mitrovic. There was hope that the arrival of a world class manager would bring the best out of the striker and see him develop into the player that everyone hoped he would be when he joined from Anderlecht.

Their working relationship got off to a good start as the Serbian scored the first goal of the Benitez era. Mitrovic was a handful against Sunderland in the North East derby and got the equaliser to prevent an early embarrassment for his new manager. Despite the club’s relegation during that season, the young striker was one of the rare bright spots as he scored nine Premier League goals in a poor team.

He scored on the final day in the Magpies’ convincing win over Tottenham. It came too late to save them, but the performance on that day and the reaction from the supporters was enough to convince Benitez to stay on as manager, as he saw the potential of the club. It wasn’t the only thing that the manager saw that day. The naivety of Mitrovic’s character was on display as he earned a needless red card. There was no reason to make the challenge and that action has led to his current position in the Newcastle squad. That is a squad player that can’t be trusted.

Newcastle put together a strong squad to attempt to achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Dwight Gayle arrived and there was a competition to be the starting striker at St James’ Park. The number nine shirt was vacant, with Gayle and Mitrovic both vying for it. The former was given the honour and that was the first sign that it would be a frustrating campaign for the Serbian. He will have been annoyed by his role, but he only had himself to blame as his stupidity against Tottenham earned him a four-match suspension to serve at the beginning of the new season.

Benitez couldn’t build a team around a striker that wouldn’t be available for the start of the season. The Newcastle boss is a perfectionist and he needs to have full trust in each of his players to carry out his instructions. The unpredictability of Mitrovic means that he doesn’t have that with the striker. Last season, the 23-year-old started only 11 of the 46 Championship matches. Considering he is an international that cost £13 million, it was expected that he would take the second tier by storm. The reality was that he wasn’t mentally ready to take on that role.

During the summer, there were rumours linking Mitrovic with a move away from St James’ Park. Benitez would have been unlikely to oppose an exit if a fair offer came in, but the lack of funds given to the Spaniard in the transfer market meant that he couldn’t afford to lose the Serbian. It put him in a difficult spot, as he knows he isn’t wanted, but he is doing little to force his manager to change his mind.

Against West Ham United, Mitrovic was given his first chance of the season from the bench and what followed was a microcosm of his Newcastle United career. He missed a great chance, scored the next and then elbowed Manuel Lanzini. Although he wasn’t sent off on the day, he was later hit with a retrospective ban and he has only been seen once since.

One of the prominent reasons why supporters want to see him back in the starting eleven is his form for Serbia. Although he hasn’t been playing regularly for the Magpies, he has been a key part of his national team’s success in qualifying for the World Cup. The 23-year-old scored six times in qualification and his consistency during the process suggests that he can become a very good player. Neither Gayle nor Joselu are scoring regularly and the feeling is that Mitrovic would offer a bigger goal threat.

The recent poor form in the final third has led to the supporters revisiting the Mitrovic issue. He splits the fan-base, but there are a lot of questions that have yet to answered. The growing calls for the striker to be given a chance will only increase with every game. Benitez needs to put an end to this issue once and for all. The manager may well be right in his judgement, but he needs to give the player one more chance. If it works out, then Newcastle will benefit. If it doesn’t, then it will be known, once and for all, that the striker doesn’t have a future on Tyneside.

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