Memphis admits failure to deliver, hails “inspirational” Giggs

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LONDON — Looking focused yet mellow, Memphis Depay was honest when asked about his start to life at Manchester United and in the Premier League.

Simply put: he expects more from himself and knows he hasn’t delivered. Yet.

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Memphis, 22, joined United from PSV Eindhoven last summer after taking the Eredivisie by storm but has only scored six times in 33 appearances in his debut campaign in England as his struggles have coincided with those of his club who currently sit six points off the top four and are fighting for a spot in the Europa League Round of 16. Hardly ideal for Memphis or Manchester United.

Speaking to a small group of journalists at an underground venue in London, (in conjunction with Under Armour) as trains rumbled rhythmically overhead Memphis was softly spoken. He was loud and clear when stating his best is yet to come but admitted he hasn’t lived up to his own lofty expectations after arriving at Old Trafford for a huge fee of $37.5 million this summer.

“No, not yet. I know that and I will continue to fight for it. I have a lot of expectation from myself, that is important, and the club and I are busy trying to improve it,” Memphis said. “I don’t want to put a date on it [when I will be up to speed] but it will come, confidence will help, as will my experiences and learning from my mistakes. Belief in myself is also important. Those moments will come, I am focused on that.”

Staying focused will help the youngster get there — which isn’t easy as criticism continues to flow for not only him but his teammates plus manager Louis Van Gaal during a disappointing season so far — but also having one of the greatest wingers ever to play the game as your assistant coach should give you a further nudge in the right direction.

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United legend Ryan Giggs — who played a record 963 times for United and won 13 PL titles, two UEFA Champions Leagues, four FA Cups and three League Cups — has been helping Memphis fulfill his potential.

“Ryan Giggs is a legend,” Memphis said. “He talks a lot with me and gives me advice to equip me. He has experienced everything already so he helps with all kinds of things, he works a lot with me. [Working with Giggs] makes me even hungrier on the training ground, it makes me want to try new things. I ask him for advice because he’s been there; he knows how to read the circumstances, how to handle situations. It is really inspiring and, at the same time, helpful.”

Memphis also revealed United’s captain and talisman Wayne Rooney has been helping him out on the training ground and even though his struggles have been well documented, the Dutch national team forward is still young and has time to turn things around. Confidence is huge for any player and it seems like Memphis is lacking some of that recently after Van Gaal has put him in and out of the team this season, used him in various roles both centrally and out wide, plus small injuries have curtailed the flying Dutchman’s progress.

That said, Memphis still remembers just how far he has come in such a short space of time and believes he is still developing both physically and tactically as a player.

“I have the opportunity to play football and enjoy the game. Where I came from… I came from a young lad growing up on the streets and now I can play football at Old Trafford. That is major. That is a dream,” Memphis said.

Speaking about United’s hopes to end the season on a high, Memphis still believes they can sneak into the top four and win some silverware with winning the Europa League and FA Cup still a possibility.

“Of course in football anything is possible. We have to stick together and fight for every game that comes. We have to give 110 percent which each other. That is important,” Memphis said. “He [Van Gaal] is on the pitch doing the practice and he wants to see us improve ourselves, so he is really out there to work on everything. That is positive.”

One of the biggest factors for Memphis to master is to continue to adapt to the increased pace and power of the Premier League, with the Dutch winger admitting the topsy-turvy nature of the PL has surprised him as everybody appears to be capable of beating everybody this season.

“It is about quick decisions because the ball is under pressure every second every team tries to put pressure directly,” Memphis said. “Especially when you attack, you have to be creative. You have to think fast. It is what I have to improve to be a better player. I think it will come with experience, the more games you play the more of a feeling you get for it and the smarter you’re going to be.”

“It is really quick [the Premier League] and everyone puts pressure on you. Sometimes the whole defense puts pressure on you but they don’t see the running man so it has positive things you can see happen because they don’t put pressure in a smart way and somebody is free so you can play it out. That is also what I see in the Premier League. It is about decision masking being faster.”

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Speeding up his understanding of the game is something Memphis plans to do in the coming years to prove his worth at Old Trafford and become a key figure in United’s resurgence.

“I have really had to change my game because in the Eredivisie I could do what I wanted as I had time on the ball, I played on feelings. Here [in the Premier League] there is direct pressure so it’s hard,” Memphis said. “This has affected my game a little bit – everyone can see I’m not scoring every game like I used to but I can feel it getting better and, as I get to know the Premier League more, I feel better and my confidence is growing again.”

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.