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Early returns from England’s offseason tell a tale of two Manchesters

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How much is Alex Ferguson worth in the standings? Or, more specifically, what will the difference between Ferguson and his replacement, David Moyes, mean to the Red Devils? Because if Ferguson was half as influential as his prodigious reputation implied, Manchester United’s going to take a step back. The big question is how much.

On one hand, trying to determine exactly how much Ferguson means over Moyes is a pointless exercise. We’ll never be able to verify our conclusion. On the other hand, it may be the most important evaluation United makes all summer. Before assessing their needs relative to Manchester City and Chelsea — before determining the financial commitment they need to make to maintain their English standing while improving in Europe — the Red Devils need to decide what they’ve lost. That may not result in a precise number of points they feel they’ve given back to their competition, but it will lead to a general plan of what they’d like to accomplish this summer.

I say “will lead” as if England’s champions haven’t already done this. Undoubtedly they’ve made their assessments and picked their targets, players that will go beyond the project right back they acquired last week. The Red Devils continue to have a need in central midfield. There are concerns wide, where their high-priced talents failed to produce last season. Unless they address those needs, either by getting more out of their players or acquiring new talent, the 11-point gap between them and Manchester City will prove smaller than it seems.

That’s why the relative silence from United should concern Red Devils’ supporters. While links to Marouane Fellaini, Robert Lewandowski, Leighton Baines and (even) Gareth Bale persist, most of those players have been linked elsewhere, with United’s place in the rumors serving as the normal “everybody sounds out Manchester United” part of most high-level gossip. Coming off a season in which they accumulated 89 points, it would be easy for the club to justify a stay-the-course approach.

Meanwhile, in the blue half of Manchester, United’s rivals have already made a number of significant changes. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla may not be a huge upgrade on Samir Nasri’s talent, but stylistically, he offers City a significant difference from the two wide-to-in playmakers they played as winger last season. On the opposite flank of David Silva, Navas gives City a needed alternative – somebody who have beat a man one-on-one, pick out City’s snipers from wide, as well as open up the middle of the field.

Through the middle, that means more space for Silva to cut in and orchestrate. It gives Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez more room to play beneath the back line. It gives Fernandinho and Yaya Touré space to get forward without the side effects that come with keeping Nasri and Silva wide. With Navas, a natural wide player, the team’s balance improves.

The biggest upgrade, though, may be on the sideline, with Manuel Pellegrini replacing Roberto Mancini. Il Mancho is a well-decorated coach, but Pellegrini’s on a different level. Throughout his career, Pellegrini’s never failed to improve the teams he’s joined, be those teams big or small, ambitious or recovering.

Particularly with the acquisition of Fernandinho, City is starting to look like a very Manuel Pellegrini team. The midfield duo will be able to confidently use a possession-based game to dictate play without making compromises defensively. They’ll be able to play patiently, using their variety in attack to test their opposition, with Pellegrini uses the depth assured by City’s finances to mix-and-match over the course of a season.

The bigger concern with Pellegrini is the fact he hasn’t won a title at this level; that he may not know the buttons that need to be pushed to transcend that 11-point gap. But if the early summer moves from Manchestern United’s rivals mean anything, that 11-point reference is far less meaningful than it was at season’s end. With Ferguson gone, Pellegrini on scene, and City having already made two huge moves, surely the quality difference between the two sides is a much more manageable number.

The better part of the summer’s still to play out, but based on initial returns, the offseason’s been a tale of two Manchesters. The blue side has acted quickly to address their needs, while their red rivals are taking a more deliberate approach.

And of course, we can’t forget that resurgent power in West London.

Higuain to seal $98.7 million Juve move; Pogba to Man United closer?

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 22:  Paul Pogba of Juventus is tackled by Gonzalo Higuain of Napoli during the 2014 Italian Super Cup match between Juventus FC v SSC Napoli at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on December 22, 2014 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
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A major domino has reportedly fallen in the summer transfer window pack.

Gonzalo Higuain is set to complete his monster move from Napoli to Juventus in Serie A.

Sky Italia says that the deal for Higuain has been completed with the Argentine ace arriving in Turin for a transfer fee of $98.7 million (his release clause) and on a four-year contract worth over $8.2 million per season.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC

Higuain, 28, scored 36 goals in 35 games for Napoli last season and has scored 71 goals in 104 Serie A appearances since arriving from Real Madrid in 2013. Obviously he can score goals but is he worth $98.7 million? At his age, maybe not, and especially with Juve making so many impressive signings already this summer as Miralem Pjanic, Mehdi Benatia and Dani Alves all on board, plus Paulo Dyabla looking razor sharp in preseason.

That $98.7 million transfer fee would make Higuain the third-most expensive signing of all-time, although he could be overtaken by one man very soon: Paul Pogba.

Apparently Juve are locked in talks with Manchester United to try and finalize a move for Pogba, 23, and this huge outlay of cash on Higuain could suggest they’ve agreed the reported $130 million transfer of the French international midfielder.

[ MORE: Winter break pros and cons for PL ]

Pogba has been seen laughing and joking on vacation in Miami with his agent, Mino Raiola, but it is believed that deal is being held up due to the teams not agreeing on who should pay the reported agent fee of up to $22 million. No wonder Raiola is laughing.

Seriously, though, let’s see how this plays out but it is highly unlikely Juve would’ve dropped that much cash on Higuain if they didn’t have some major cash coming in from selling a certain player.

We all know who that is…

Premier League winter break talks ongoing: What are pros, cons?

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What if the Premier League had a winter break?

That is a topic of hot discussion in the UK after new England manager Sam Allardyce called for a midseason break during his opening press conference as the new Three Lions manager on Monday.

[ MORE: PL preseason schedule

With the Premier League confirming that discussions between themselves, the English Football Association and the Football League are ongoing, it is obviously something the governing bodies which run English soccer are seriously considering.

It is believed that if a winter break was given the green light, it wouldn’t take place until the 2019-20 season at the earliest.

[ WATCH: Stream every PL game live ] 

On Tuesday the executive chairman of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, discussed the notion of a winter break and was asked by Sky Sports about the feasibility of Allardyce’s proposal.

“He’s been very consistent. He’s been calling for it for a very long time, as has every England manager. We are not against a winter break,” Scudamore said. “We have gone on record saying that we are in discussions with the people we need to be in discussions with which is the Football Association and the Football League. It is an integrated calendar. Those discussions are taking place. I don’t know how close or far we are because I wouldn’t want to compromise those negotiations or those discussions.

“Even if the three of us, the three [governing] bodies come up with that solution, we then of course have to road test that with the clubs that are involved and the fans and everything else. We are in discussions, there is a willingness to make it happen but I can’t put anything like a timescale on that.”

Intriguing comments from Scuadmore as the PL seems to be in favor of at least giving the winter break a try. The English FA have been pushing that agenda for quite some time as they believe that heading into an international tournament the English national team suffer due to the long, hard slog of a season with a packed schedule through the winter months. At least, that’s what they’re going with after so many disappointing tournaments in recent years…

So, it’s worth asking, how much of a difference, if any, would this make? What are the pros and cons of a winter break?

Straight off the bat, it must not eradicate the traditional Boxing Day or Dec. 28 games. Those dates are sacrosanct in the UK sporting calendar. My proposal would be to keep those two matchdays and then have a break from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12, giving the teams over two weeks off.

In the PL there are obviously 20 teams which means that it isn’t quite as easy as the Bundesliga, for example, having a winter break as Germany’s top-flight teams only has 19 teams, meaning teams only have to play 36 games instead of the 38 games each Premier League side has to play. The FA Cup opening rounds would also have to be slotted back to late January but it could be more beneficial for the English national team and PL teams playing in European competitions as they would also have the same amount of rest as teams in Spain, Germany and Italy who all have winter breaks.

Well, regardless of what you think, here’s a quick list below looking at some of the potential positives and negatives of trying out a break.

Pros

  • Players rested, less injuries
  • PL teams could advance further in European competitions
  • English national team may have better chance in major competitions
  • Higher intensity in games throughout the season
  • Less midweek games during the season, more spread out schedule
  • Midseason breaks to warmer climates, small friendly tournaments could take place in USA or Middle East

Cons

  • Possibility of reduced games around the festive period
  • Confusion around when FA Cup third round would begin
  • Season running longer into May, possibly June, meaning less time before international tournaments

Report: Sakho sent home from Liverpool’s US tour by Jurgen Klopp

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Mamadou Sakho‘s days at Liverpool seem numbered.

According to multiple reports the French international defender has been sent home from Liverpool’s tour of the USA by Jurgen Klopp.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC ]

Per the reports, Klopp is said to be upset with Sakho’s behavior on the trip to California as he turned up late for the flight to the USA and that was brought up in one of Klopp’s interviews while the team visited Alcatraz.

Sakho’s attitude around team training sessions at Stanford University was also questioned by Klopp but the towering defender isn’t actually training as he continues his recovery from an Achilles injury which will see him miss the start of the upcoming Premier League season.

All of this caps off a turbulent few months for 26-year-old Sakho who was only cleared of a doping violation by UEFA earlier this month. European soccer’s governing body accused Sakho of failing a drugs test following a Europa League Round of 16 win over Manchester United in March.

Sakho hasn’t played since April — which forced him to miss the Europa League final and France’s EURO 2016 campaign — and now his future at Anfield must be in serious doubt.

It is believed Sakho will arrive back in the UK on Tuesday and will continue treatment on his injury at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground.

Klopp’s side face Chelsea at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on Wednesday in their first International Champions Cup game, before then facing AC Milan on Saturday in Santa Clara, Calif. Their U.S. tour concludes with a friendly against AS Roma in St. Louis, Missouri on Aug. 1.

Report: Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker out five months with serious injury

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Per Mertesacker of Arsenal celebrates at the end of the UEFA Champions League Qualifier 2nd leg match between Arsenal and Besiktas at the Emirates Stadium on August 27, 2014 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Numerous reports are claiming that Arsenal will be without their BFG until 2017.

German central defender Per Mertesacker has not traveled with the Gunners on their tour of the USA with the club confirming their vice captain suffered a knee injury during their friendly win over Lens last Friday.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC ]

Sky Sports in the UK claim that Mertesacker, 31, could be out for five months and they believe the club will announce that news in the next 48 hours.

That leaves Arsene Wenger with a real problem at center back.

Gabriel has also not traveled with Arsenal due to tonsillitis and Laurent Koscielny is also missing after being given extra time off following his part in France’s run to the EURO 2016 final.

That means only Calum Chambers and new signing from Bolton Wanderers, 20-year-old Rob Holding, are around as center back options for Wenger. Nacho Monreal could also slot in for the time being but Arsenal may now look to get another center back in before the end of the transfer window this summer.

The Gunners have arrived in the USA and play the MLS All-Stars in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, then Chivas de Guadalajara next Monday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.