MONDAY'S BIG STORIES

Ouch

Football is cruel. And preseason football might be the cruellest football of all. None of it matters, really. Not when it comes to the results. But just as the players are looking for match fitness, so fans look to these games to carefully build football's most precious commodity: hope.
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Some nice combination play here, a promising run out there: it's going to be a good year. A new formation? They mean business this season. A new haircut? They mean business this season. Preseason sets the mood, transfer hype inflates it. Both can kill it, too.

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal gets some instructions from Arsenal Manager Mikel Arteta during the pre season match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on August 01, 2021 in London, England.

Image credit: Getty Images

Take Arsenal. (Old school comedian voice: No, please. Take them.) A couple of weeks ago, Granit Xhaka was on his way to Roma and everybody was wondering which exciting and brilliant midfielder would be coming in to play alongside the brilliant and exciting Thomas Partey. And then the transfer collapsed, for unknown reasons, and Partey collapsed, because he got kicked by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and now Arsenal's starting midfield for the new season will be … Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny?
That's not intended as an insult to either player, both of whom are perfectly acceptable Premier League midfielders. But when set against the Partey-Plus midfield that has been taking shape in the head of every single Arsenal fan over the last month, it's a sad trombone, a damp squib, a whoopee cushion straight to the soul.
Less abstractly, it's also a serious problem for Mikel Arteta. Arsenal's head coach kept his job on the understanding that last season's adventure in midtable was a one-off. His side will have to start proving that pretty quickly. Giving a manager a few campaigns to get the hang of things went out of fashion in the mid-90s, and just because centre partings and baggy jeans are coming back in, doesn't mean the Premier League's going to suddenly rediscover patience. That's even rarer than hope.

Transfer Saga Overdrive

We were starting to get worried there. End of July, almost August, and still no sign of the Jack Grealish-to-Manchester City drama we were promised. Like Vikings sat around a campfire in the biting cold, listening to our skald apologise for forgetting the words, we were waiting for a saga.
Credit where it's due, however. City have taken their time to get things going, but a bid of £100m is proper superclub behaviour. £90m, a few add-ons, a couple of incentives … that's business. But a big, fat, round £100m? That's an amount that arrives in a large briefcase. Or leaves in black duffle bags. It's a Dr. Evil bid.

England's midfielder Jack Grealish greets the fans after their loss in the UEFA EURO 2020 final football match between Italy and England at the Wembley Stadium in London

Image credit: Getty Images

Will Grealish go? You'd assume so. Villa want to keep him and have offered a new deal, apparently, but they're up against the laws of the Premier League: the big fish eat the little fish, then hand over large compensation cheques. And they do seem to be filling the space already. Emiliano Buendía arrived, Leon Bailey on the way, money on the table for James Ward-Prowse … sure, they could all play with Grealish. But just in case.
And if he does go, it's going to be fascinating to see what Pep Guardiola does with him. The comedy line on all this sets Guardiola's tactical discipline against Grealish's free spirit and concludes that they are hilariously incompatible. Grealish, sitting in a tactical briefing, ignoring Guardiola's frantic "guys, guys, guys, guys" because there's a very interesting butterfly flittering past the window. This almost certainly does a disservice to both parties.
But it's interesting to think about Grealish's style and what Guardiola might do with him, because we suspect the answer is: almost anything. Grealish can dribble and he can finish and he can pass, long and short; he can play the simple ball and he can see the complicated one. Think of any formation that City have played over the last few seasons; think of any of the attacking positions. Now think of Grealish. He could drop into most of them, right?
Grealish, cutting in from the left or the right, twisting defenders in and out before cutting the ball back for City to do that goal again. Grealish, making play from midfield, hitting fizzing diagonals: the heir to Kevin Du Bruyne. Grealish, the player that finally persuades Guardiola to embrace the traditional No.10. There is one possible universe where this all ends with Jack Grealish, false nine. Perhaps, if we're lucky, it's this one.
Ultimately, one of the world's best and most interesting coaches might be about to take responsibility for one of England's best and most interesting players. That's got to be fun to watch, whatever your allegiances. Unless you're a Villa fan, in which case you'll be ignoring the whole show. Too busy wondering if several very good footballers in a trenchcoat can replace one genius in an Alice band.

USA! USA! USA!

To win one final over your nearest rivals might be considered a decent summer's work. To win two? Well, that's just mean. Congratulations to the USA, who have followed up June's victory in the CONCACAF Nations League with victory in the Gold Cup. And commiserations to Mexico, neighbours and rivals and best of enemies, who got beaten. Again.
Last June we got a five-goal thriller. This time, we got a taut and nervy nil-nil that stretched on through 90 minutes, took in a lot of misdirected shots and some excellent goalkeeping, contained at least one flying kick to the head, and was destined for penalties from about the hour mark. Until suddenly it wasn't. The 117th minute: a good time to score.

USA celebrate CONCACAF win

Image credit: Getty Images

For the US, perhaps the most encouraging thing will be— well, it'll be winning the thing. Obviously. That's how tournaments work. And then it will be beating Mexico, because that's how rivalries work. But after those two admittedly important points, it'll be the line-up. No Pulisic, no Dest, no McKennie, no Reyna. No Yedlin. No Tim Ream. Of the team that beat Mexico in June, only Kellyn Acosta was there for the second final in August.
Proof, then, that all of the USA's Europe-based superstars are wildly overrated and none of those clowns deserve their place back. Or a demonstration of squad depth and institutional resilience. Pick your favourite. (Pick Miles Robinson.) But there are worse places to be than having two squads capable of winning an international tournament.
Did we mention the flying kick to the head? Yes? Definitely a yellow.

IN OTHER NEWS

Death. Taxes. And Dmitri Payet making the extremely complicated and difficult look insultingly easy.

RETRO CORNER

Happy birthday to Mohamed Al-Deayea, legendary Saudi goalkeeper and owner of more than 170 international caps. A couple of years after his retirement, Al-Hilal arranged a farewell testimonial against Juventus. Who turned up and scored seven.

HAT TIP

Sometimes, you can tell where a team is at, how they're feeling about their work, by their goal celebrations. And going by Sam Kerr's pop-eyed hollering throughout the Olympics, Australia are vibrating at a terrifyingly high frequency. Over in the Guardian, Samantha Lewis digs into how the Matildas overcame "Team GB" to earn themselves a place in the Olympic semi-finals.
Kennedy was banking on this. The centre-back ghosts into the void Kerr’s magnetism left behind her. She launches herself into the humid Kashima night and connects perfectly with Catley’s curling cross. One-nil; almost totally against the run of play. Just over half an hour has gone and the game is crackling with unpredictability.

COMING UP

It's Olympics semi-finals time! In the women's competition, USA take on Canada, which counts as a derby. And Australia face Sweden, which definitely, definitely doesn't. Those countries are a long way apart.
Ben Snowball will be here tomorrow with more preseason hope and despair.
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