On The End Of Season Awards
Bacary, who do you consider the Premier League’s best right back this season?
I think Kyle Walker has been the best right back in the Premier League this season. There was a point in the season where he didn’t play, perhaps Pep Guardiola wasn’t happy with his commitment and focus on the pitch, but since he has come back into the starting eleven, he has been brilliant.
His performances have been amazing. He is the complete right back; he can attack, he can defend. I think he has improved a lot defensively this season, and his focus in the team is more on the defensive side of the game because he doesn’t need to attack as much with such wonderful players like Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez in front of him.
We saw that when Manchester City played Real Madrid, Kyle Walker isn’t scared of any individual players – he loves the challenge of playing against the best and he normally comes out on top.
Which defenders have impressed you this season?
William Saliba from Arsenal. What really impresses me about Saliba is his composure. There were doubts about him before the season started because of the spells that he had on loan in France. When he joined Marseille last season, he was disappointed, as he felt that he hadn’t been given an opportunity to play for Arsenal and he spoke to the press quite a bit.
There were questions asked when Arsenal sent him on loan, but I think that was the correct decision for the club and the player. When he came back this season, he showed the ability he had in France. I think he was Marseille’s best player last year and he was one of the best defenders in France, but Ligue Un is not the Premier League, so to come in and have the impact that he had for Arsenal in his first season shows you his maturity and ability. Until he got injured, he had a perfect season and was one of the main reasons Arsenal played so well (this season) – they missed him when he was injured.
Arsenal are trying to tie him down to a new contract. Do you expect him to stay?
I think he will sign a new deal. Contracts are a mind game, but he is playing for one of the best teams in the league, living in a wonderful city. I think he has the trust of Mikel Arteta and he knows that he will play in most of the games. I think he will sign a new contract. Talks are happening at the moment – perhaps there will be some good news for Arsenal fans over the next few days.
Are there any others that have caught your eye?
Ruben Dias at Manchester City has been phenomenal. He wins most of his duels, he always puts his body on the line. One-on-one, he is so difficult to get past. His awareness is amazing – he always covers the mistakes of his partners.
Who do you think has been the Premier League’s best midfielder this season?
Kevin de Bruyne. Bernardo Silva has been excellent. I think Saka has been amazing - they would be my top three midfielders in the league this season. They make such a difference for their teams.
Erling Haaland picked up the Premier League Player of the Year, Premier League Young Player of the Year and the Football Writers Player of the Year Awards.
Erling deserves all of the awards that he has won this season. He has been amazing for Manchester City. He came into the league with a lot of pressure on him and he has lived up to the expectations that we all had of him.
Have you ever seen a player come into the Premier League and fit in as effortlessly as Haaland?
He may not quite have scored the same number of goals as Haaland, but the last player I can think of that had such a big impact once he got his place in the team, was Eduardo at Arsenal. Eduardo fitted in perfectly at Arsenal, he was amazing. He was something special. It is such a shame that he suffered that injury in his debut season. He made the Premier League look so easy. Like Haaland, he made scoring goals look easy. He was always in the right place and he was scoring goals for fun.
Can you believe that at some points in the season, people were saying that Manchester City were better without Haaland.
I know, its crazy.
Is Haaland the key that unlocks the Champions League door?
Yes, and he will unlock the Champions League door. He will have such a big impact during the final. He will give so many problems to the Inter defenders. The Inter defence better be ready for him. He has everything; speed, power, obviously he is a deadly finisher. He gives so much, and he plays with so much effort – I think they should be very scared of him.
What about his Norwegian international team mate Martin Odegaard? Haaland mentioned that he thought Odegaard was brilliant this season.
I think Odegaard has had a top, top season. He is one of the best number tens in the world. If you look at the impact that he’s had, not only this season, but since he joined Arsenal, it’s fantastic.
He can do everything. He has the quality to master every aspect of being a creative midfielder player. He sets they rhythm for the team and the tempo – he is the heartbeat of Arsenal.
He takes responsibility and enjoys the responsibility. I think this is why Arsenal went for him because they wanted a player like that. He suits the club perfectly. It looks like he loves the club and is a perfect fit for Arsenal and the project that Mikel Arteta wants to build.
Who has surprised you this season? It could be a player, manager or a team?
I think Newcastle deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve achieved this season. We know that they have a lot of resources at their disposal since they changed ownership, but what they have built isn’t based around money. They have managed to build a team and they have built an incredibly strong connection between the players and the fans. Newcastle is a proper football club that are coming back to the top.
Football isn’t only about the money you can invest in your team. You need a united squad that work hard for each other; you need players that can handle the pressure. They kept going this season and got stronger and stronger in the run-in. Next season they will be in the Champions League which is a fantastic achievement for them.
I was expecting Newcastle to collapse at some point, even though they have an amazing coach, amazing players, and a great team spirit. It was new territory for this group (challenging for the Champions League) and they were under a lot of pressure, which they dealt with perfectly.
It looks like the Newcastle project is a year or two in advance of where they thought it might be with Champions League qualification. Is the summer a golden opportunity for Newcastle to go to the next level? They will be able to attract even better players now.
Newcastle is a mythical English club. The city lives for football. Newcastle will be able to attract top players. Now they have the financial power to buy the best.
If you look at Leicester and Southampton, two teams that were relegated, they have some amazing players that will want to leave. Talented players like Maddison and Ward-Prowse will be looking for a new challenge. Perhaps they would be good additions?
I think Newcastle will be looking to recruit wisely this summer. They need to find the right players for their project and they will need to add players to make sure that they have another good season because it will be harder for them to manage playing every three days. The pressure will be more intense. They will want to build on what they achieved this season and to do that, they need more players.
On Manchester City
Three titles in a row for Manchester City, an FA Cup and a Champions League final on the horizon – what words would you use to describe your former club’s season?
It’s difficult to find the words to describe what City are doing at the moment. It’s been a very exciting season so far that’s not over yet. They still have so much to fight for. They made the league so exciting by fighting back and putting so much pressure on Arsenal, eventually overhauling them at the top.
They have an FA Cup Final to play, a derby against Manchester United. They will be looking to add that second trophy before the Champions League final, which is massive for the club. This is the most important trophy because they have never won it before and, they need to win it to take the club to the very top, top level. I think they will win the Champions League. I think Manchester City will squash Inter Milan in the final. Manchester City can write history in the next couple of weeks and finally get their hands on the most prestigious trophy.
What was the key moment for you in Manchester City retaining the title?
I think the key moments were the occasions where Manchester City dropped points. It didn’t happen often, but when it did there was always a reaction.
To retain the title isn’t easy. Doing it once is an achievement, doing it three times is incredible. Every time they were tested, they came back. When they lost to Brentford at home, where they had so much of the ball, and when they lost to Liverpool because they made silly mistakes, they were wake-up calls and they seemed to focus the group. Yes, they have quality, yes, they have amazing players, but in the Premier League, you can’t afford to make mistakes. They didn’t take anything for granted.
I think there was a moment in the season when they could have been thinking about other games, looking a little bit too far ahead, and that is when they dropped points. You can’t afford to do that in the Premier League – you have to respect every opponent.
You could see that they started to take things game-by-game after these moments.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Pep adapting his tactics and reimagining the role of the right back this season – that for me, was a crucial tweak that allowed his team to be even more dominant on the ball in possession. Was it a stroke of genius?
Pep Guardiola is very wise. He understands his players perfectly and they understand his methods. He understands that all the teams in the Premier League and the Champions League have quality, but he also can identify their weaknesses and he is an expert in exploiting those weaknesses.
He doesn’t leave anything to chance. He prepares his teams perfectly and they know exactly what they have to do on the pitch. Most coaches focus on their own team and their own style of play, but Pep spends as much time looking at ways to hurt opponents through their weaknesses. For example, if he knows that a centre back in the team that he is facing that isn’t comfortable on the ball, he will look to create scenarios where that player has as much of the ball as possible. He is always targeting the weaknesses of the other teams.
The treble is within touching distance, only a handful of teams have won three titles in a row before – how good is this Manchester City team – are we talking about one if the greatest footballing teams this country has ever seen?
Honestly, the way that Manchester City play, they have to be one of the greatest teams in English history. They are so impressive. Manchester United and Liverpool are the mythical clubs in this country, and City is slowly catching up with them in terms of trophies and overall standing in the game.
The style of play is incredible. They are now in the Champions League semi-final and finals on a regular basis. We can’t say that this Manchester City team is the best English team until they lift the Champions League – like the great Manchester United and Liverpool teams, but they are coming. That is why winning the Champions League in a few weeks’ time will be massive for the club.
On The FA Cup Final
Let’s talk about the FA Cup final. Obviously, a massive game, you know what it’s like to get your hands on the trophy with Arsenal, the first time City and United have met in an FA Cup final. United will want to win to lift the trophy but will also want to protect their own treble legacy – which club do you think is under more pressure to win it and why?
Manchester City are under more pressure because everyone expects them to win. City can create history – they are so close. City cannot fail against Manchester United on Saturday. We are expecting them to win the treble because it’s in front of them now.
If they lose to United, who are not on their level, people will think that they can’t handle the pressure, that is how it will be seen, so that is why they are under more pressure to get the right result.
What type of a match are you expecting at Wembley on Saturday?
I don’t know why, but I think Manchester United will give City problems on Saturday. United have some young, fearless players; the type of players that will want to play in this game and make a difference. They will be ready for the challenge.
This is a Wembley final. Everyone expects Manchester City to win, but there are so many elements to this game and United have a lot to play for too. City have been in a position where they can rest players, United haven’t really had that luxury. You never know if that will help the players or not – some of these guys won’t have played for eleven days, so will they be as sharp as they want to be? It will be interesting.
On The Champions League Final
Many people assume that Manchester City will beat Internazionale when the two sides meet. You of course played in Italy, is it dangerous to write off this Inter side?
No. It is not dangerous to write-off this Inter Milan team. Inter Milan better be ready for the amount of pressure that Manchester City will put them under, honestly.
The Italian league is slower than the Premier League. They wouldn’t have faced a team like City this season. City will be putting them under huge pressure from the first whistle. With all due respect to Inter, they will need to very, very prepared to face this team.
When City need to, they can go to another level. Kevin de Bruyne, when he was needed against Arsenal, he stepped up and they couldn’t live with him. I think Manchester City will blow them away.
If Pep Guardiola wins the Champions League then he has won everything with Manchester City. When he leaves, who would be the perfect replacement?
I don’t think there is any doubt that he will leave (laughs). I think he will stay at Manchester City for a long time – he could even stay for life! This is his home, it’s a family club and he is very comfortable. Where could he go that would be better for him? If it was me, I wouldn’t go anywhere.
It was a case of what could have been for Arsenal. There is obviously some disappointment there, but looking back at the season, how would you rate it?
Honestly, I will say that this has been a seven out of ten season. They could have been the champions. I think they missed out on winning the Premier League because of the strength in depth of the squad. When Arsenal had injuries, the players that came into the team were not on the same level. They did well, but, obviously, the starting eleven that played until March was the team that could have won the league.
I think we need to give Arsenal a huge amount of credit for what they have done this season. If you look at where Arsenal were as a club a few years ago to where they are now, you can’t deny that progress has been made.
It is a shame the season finished how it did. I think they let the title slip. Whenever they faced direct confrontation with City, they lost. They dropped points in games they should have won. Sometimes, you need to give up on playing well and just focus on the points – get the result over the line.
The problem is that City took six points from them, and six points is massive. They finish the season five points behind City. If they beat them once, they would have won the title. When you consider that they dropped six points against them and also dropped six points by drawing against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton in the run in, that is an awful lot of points.
What lessons will be learned from this season?
You can’t blame the players or the coach because the levels that they have put in for the majority of the season has been magnificent. Arsenal have been playing beautiful football for most of the season. The atmosphere at The Emirates has been amazing and there is a wonderful connection between the fans and the players. It’s been magic there this season and the fans always backed their team.
The difference was the strength in depth. Manchester City had a bigger, better squad. Arsenal needed some more experienced players, I don’t mean older players, but guys that are proven in the Premier League.
They needed players that could come into the team and keep the same level. Unfortunately, they didn’t have that. I’m not blaming those players (that came in), it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t perform at the same level - Arsenal were phenomenal until March and it would have been hard for most players coming into that team. They came in and went straight into a title race. Players that maybe had made a handful of appearances all season were then asked to step into a title race under incredible pressure – that isn’t easy.
It is easy to say that Rob Holding is not at the same level as William Saliba, but that is not fair on the player. You can’t expect Holding to perform in the same way. You can’t expect Saka to perform perfectly in every match, but you can also not risk playing him because when you take him out of the team, the overall level of Arsenal drops.
With Arsenal’s key players, when you take some of them out of the team, the level drops. I don’t think Arsenal bottled winning the title, I think they needed a bigger squad and that is what Mikel will be thinking about for next season, adding more quality to his squad.
Who do you think has been Arsenal’s stand-out player or players this season – who deserves a special mention in your opinion?
Bukayo Saka. Saka was incredible this season. He has been sensational. Saka seems to be a bit tired and not fresh enough to go the extra mile, that made a difference. You can’t blame him of course. He played in so many games this season.
Arsenal announced that Bukayo Saka has signed a new contract, great news for the club. He has had a brilliant season and gets better every year – how highly do you rate him in terms of the best young players in the game?
I think he is one of the best young players in the world. To think that he came from the Arsenal academy – everyone that played a part in his development should be proud. It’s been really nice to see him making the breakthrough over the last few years.
I looked at his numbers – 14 goals and 11 assists – at the age of twenty-one. These are better numbers than Cristiano Ronaldo recorded in the Premier League at a similar age. Could the Englishman go onto to have the same type of career as the Portuguese great?
I think it is a bit too early to be comparing Bukayo Saka with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s achievements are unique. Ronaldo won titles with United when he was younger, so Bukayo is already late in that regard.
I am not saying that Bukayo can’t get there, but it’s very difficult to compare. We’re talking about two great players, but let’s have that conversation at the end of Saka’s career.
Mikel Arteta is someone that you know very well. When he goes away for the summer, how do you think he will be feeling?
Mikel will be feeling the same way as the fans: disappointed. He has a winning mentality, so he will not be pleased that he didn’t win the title this season. We only remember the winners, so he will make sure that Arsenal will be adding players that can have a significant impact and will be focussed on finding the right ones.
He deserves a lot of credit for what he has done at Arsenal this season.
A lot of people are saying that it’s going to be even more difficult for Arsenal to challenge for the title again next season. Do you agree with that statement?
I agree with these statements; it will be more difficult for Arsenal next season. Every year, the Premier League raises its level. The league is so competitive and next season you will see a different Chelsea, Liverpool will be stronger. It will be difficult for Arsenal to challenge for the title again.
On Summer Transfers
When you look at the Arsenal squad, what area of the team do you think needs reinforcing in the summer?
I think Arsenal need to add quality in every department. These players need support and Arsenal need to add competition across the squad in order to compete across four fronts next season. Arsenal need to add players that can shine when they are called upon; players that can make a difference when they step into the team.
Arsenal have amazing players at the moment, but the players that they have will improve if they can add some competition to the squad. I think they need to add four or five players to the team this summer.
Are there any players that you would like to see Arsenal add to their squad this summer?
James Maddison from Leicester. I also really like Ward-Prowse. He is a player that can change a game on his own. Every team needs a player that can change a game in a heartbeat. You know when Arsenal used to play Stoke, Rory Delap was a player that could change a game on his own because of his long throws.
Ward-Prowse is a master at set pieces. When a game is locked and you have a player with his ability, that is so dangerous. His freekicks are the best in the league. I am not saying that he would start every game, but if you added him from the bench with 15 or 20 minutes to go, he would make the difference. You need players like that in your team. His free kicks are ridiculous. He takes them for fun.
Defensively, I think Arsenal need another really top centre back and an equally top right back.
Granit Xhaka likely played his last game for the club. Everyone knows the difficulties he has had at Arsenal, but, credit to him and Arteta for resolving those issues. If he is to leave after his best season in an Arsenal shirt – how much will he be missed and how do you think he will be remembered?
I’ve always been a fan of Xhaka. He had a difficult period at the club when the fans turned against him, but I always believed that he is a very good player.
He is the type of player that every team needs. He never gives up – he works so hard. He plays with a fire in his belly and he is always trying to raise the level of his team mates. He was a good soldier for Arsenal.
We know that he isn’t at the level of de Bruyne or Gundogan, but he has been a key player for Arsenal this season and he will be missed.
Arsenal have been heavily linked with a move for your old team mate and Manchester City captain Ilkay Gundogan. If Arsenal could bring him in, what that be a good move?
I think Ilkay Gundogan would be a great signing for Arsenal. He is a top player who can dictate the game.
Arsenal have also been linked with Declan Rice. Do you think Arteta could take the England international’s game to another level if he were to join the club?
I think Declan Rice would improve under Arteta definitely. We saw Xhaka perform in a slightly different role for Arsenal this season, where he had an impact in the offensive part of the field. I think that is where Arsenal would be looking to use Rice if they signed him – I can see him fitting into Xhaka’s role perfectly.
How would Declan Rice fit in Arsenal's line-up? How should Mikel Arteta operate him?
I think he would play with more freedom at Arsenal than he currently enjoys at West Ham. I think he will find himself in situations where he will have the opportunity to add more goals to his game because he will be receiving better service at Arsenal and he will be playing with better players who will be able to find him like Odegaard.
I think that the only way for Arsenal to allow Xhaka to leave is by signing Declan Rice. If Xhaka leaves, then I would hope Arsenal may very well have something lined up with Rice.
Emile Smith-Rowe hasn’t really featured for Arsenal this season. Are you worried about his Gunners future? Would you like to see him stay and handed more of a role next season?
Of course, I would like Emile to stay and have more of a role next season. I think he is a good player. He is another player that has come through the academy. He is someone that can make a positive impact at the club.
It’s been a difficult season for him. Players want to play, but if they can stop him from leaving, that would be nice.
Joao Cancelo has been linked with a move to Arsenal, another City player. Is that a move that would make sense in your opinion?
Cancelo is a class player, of course he would be a good addition. I really like Sacha Boey from Galatasaray. There is a younger player who I really like called Noah Fadiga who is French Senegalese. He plays in Ligue Un for Brest. He has huge potential. He is tall, technically he is superb. He is quick. I would advise any big team to take a look at him because he has lots of quality. He will be one of the best right backs in Europe soon.
Listen, the last player that I was talking about was Mudryk when he was 19 and he became an Arsenal target. I also identified Slonina, the goalkeeper that Chelsea signed. I enjoy looking at the next generation and I think Fadiga will be an amazing player. For people reading this interview, pay attention to Noah Fadiga.
When Roberto De Zerbi was appointed Brighton manager, you told me he would take the Premier League by storm. How happy are you to have been proved right and how big of an achievement has he overseen to get the club into the Europa League?
It’s amazing what he has done. I’m not surprised of course, but to take Brighton into the Europa League, against all the odds, that is something that is really special. The first games were difficult for him, but the impact that he has had over the course of the season, the way that they play, its wonderful. I think he has made them better and they are playing some of the best football in the league. The players have so much confidence in his methods and are loving their football under him.
As you predicted, the football has been incredible, the secret is out Bacary! Do you think he can push Brighton one step further next season – can they go for the Champions League?
Champions League qualification will be too difficult for Brighton to achieve next season, but I’m convinced that they can maybe reproduce a similar season to what they have achieved this year. Now the challenge is to turn Brighton into a club that consistently challenges the top eight.
You mentioned that you called him ‘Mini Pep’. Pep praised him recently – he will surely be a man in demand over the next few seasons.
I recognised after one week that he was a top coach. I did an interview in the Italian press a few weeks later and, when asked about De Zerbi, I said that he was amazing and reminded me of a mini Pep Guardiola. The way he trains. The way he reacts, the way he wants his team to play. His passion, his bravery.
When I went back to the training ground, the players started to make fun of me. They thought it was very funny, but I know what I’m talking about. Now, whenever I see an article in England that praises De Zerbi, I send it to my old team mates and I make fun of them!
If you could send one message to De Zerbi, what would it be?
Congratulations coach! I am very pleased to see your achievements, but I’m not surprised.
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