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David James On Liverpool's Champions League Final, Mane's Potential Departure, And More

David James On Liverpool's Champions League Final, Mane's Potential Departure, And More
Image Via Shutterstock

Written by 

Jake Bannister


31st May 2022 10:07

Liverpool came out of Saturday's Champions League final with their heads hanging low, a quadruple turned into just a double, with zero goals scored in finals. The following days have included rumours of Sadio Mane's interest from other clubs. We spoke with former Liverpool and England goalkeeper David James on esports' future in the mainstream, Liverpool's final, and more.

The games that will be at the Commonwealth Games are set to be FIFA, Dota 2, and Rocket League. Can you still get behind the fact that these will be athletes representing England at the games?

Yeah, I can. It’s interesting having come back from Paris I saw a [esports] workshop. It was in a massive building. I didn’t go inside, I was just going past in a taxi. You could see many people sitting around the tables playing the games. It looked like quite the community going on there, very luxurious in a sense. With regards to competition, there are a number of competitions that don’t require a lot of physical activity but still have a competitive edge. I’ve seen contests in Asia with Dota, which is as big as League of Legends in some areas. And so, the idea of being able to get people to be competitive using esports as a platform? Absolutely.

Flying back from the Champions League final in Paris, there were numerous PS5s set up within the airport. Our flight must have been delayed for about an hour and a half, and at our gate there were about 20 consoles, and the Liverpool fans were just playing FIFA. The idea of gaming is massively popular around the world, but when you’re making it in the sort of public social infrastructure - and I know the airport isn’t exactly public - people can still play the games and this competitive edge that you get from gaming is nice. I couldn’t hear any arguments. All I could hear was a few fans who just had a few sore heads!

Do you think there was anyone playing as Liverpool against Real Madrid?

(Laughs) Yes, I think there were one or two trying to get one back on them. What was really nice to see was there was a dad there with his child, and his kid was just saying that he had to get one more goal. Having kids myself, sometimes that competitive edge can boil over into a row, but we were in an airport with delayed flights, and there was no one arguing and there were thousands of people in there. It was just nice. I think this more public inclusion (of gaming) is actually beneficial rather than the other way. To have games like FIFA, Dota 2 and Rocket League, this is the sort of thing that is attractive to many different people, so if they can bring it into the Commonwealth Games, I think it’ll be a big success, so hats off and I’m fully behind that.

Do you think football clubs as teams could benefit from gaming? You often hear of the dressing room behind quite dull and taking from your experience for example in that airport, do you think some players would benefit from playing with their teammates and enabling a bit of spirit?

Yes I do. Though I wouldn’t say in the changing room before a game, definitely not! However, you know from my experiences on England trips with the lads playing SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs in the masseuse room and the medical area, from a bonding point of view, that was massively good. And, again, going back to what I saw in Paris, you could see people sitting around playing games but you could also see people sitting around encouraging people. The idea is that it encourages people to interact with each other and get behind each other. I think it would work and I know a lot of players do play different games, but in our England setup there were different games in different rooms, I think it definitely helps from a bonding perspective.

Last week, there was a major esports event (Counter-Strike Major) which had 40,000 people in attendance for the final and a peak viewership of 2.1 million viewers on just one stream. Do you think in the future this will be the norm with these games not only being streamed online, but selling out arenas and reaching standard television?

Yes. I remember watching a documentary on League of Legends and I’m sure they were going to the States and getting stadiums with tens of thousands of people attending to watch these games. I think it was just before the pandemic. It’s something that will happen. I can just envision it now, stadiums like Tottenham Hotspurs’ new ground being used as they will have the facilities to be able to put on full-on esports shows. Given the varied nature of the games and the increasing popularity of esports games, then yes, why not?

If you’re prepared to watch something that you’re not participating in yourself, and it’s entertaining, essentially watching a game of FIFA in a stadium will basically tick the boxes. Going back to the point about the Commonwealth Games, well, you can actually then try and be the person with a more realistic chance, dare I say, than watching Harry Kane at White Hart Lane and going out in the back garden trying to be Harry Kane. So yes, it’s going to happen without a doubt.

Speaking of Harry Kane, he’s been linked with a move to Liverpool. Do you think this move would work for your former club? Obviously, we also have the news of Mané’s departure from the club, would Kane be able to replace him?

What’s interesting is the Mané part of the conversation. This is a guy that has won so much and done so well with Liverpool. I look at him in a very positive way. This is a guy that has traveled around in his career a little bit, and therefore the idea that he could travel to another country would make sense. Having just turned 30, he’s sort of at the height of his powers. He’s been successful with a number of trophies with Liverpool, especially with two trophies this year, and with Senegal, qualifying for the World Cup and winning the Africa Cup of Nations, which is one of the major things he wanted to achieve. For any performer you would say, where is my best opportunity for me to make the next move and I would argue that now for Mané it is the right opportunity. It’s nothing against Liverpool. I don’t think many would argue against it.

With him vacating a position, what I’ve liked about Harry Kane in a sense is that he’s become this season more of a Pep Guardiola player, ironically. If you just look at his general play, I think he’s covering more ground, he’s doing more No.10 play rather than strict No. 9 play. He was always capable of it, but he seems to be doing it more now. That kind of versatility is something that would fit into a Liverpool side. If you’re losing Mané, I wouldn’t say Harry Kane is the perfect fit. Because Mané and Kane do play differently, what you’re looking at is an alternative. And I suppose for Liverpool they possibly need an alternative not strictly just because of Mané but after finishing second again in the Premier League.

It is a fantastic achievement, but something has to change to win the Premier League, when Man City have had four of the last five. So yes, why not? I love Harry Kane. I’d love him to stay at Tottenham for the rest of his career and one thing that might deter that move is the fact that Spurs have qualified for the Champions League now and Antonio Conte seems to have, dare I say, his mojo back, with what he’s done for Tottenham this year. But yeah, one side of me wants Harry Kane to stay at Tottenham forever, but if Liverpool were to show an interest and require his talents then it would make a lot of sense.

Do you believe another Tottenham forward, Son Heung-min, would be a better replacement for Sadio Mané than Kane?

Harry Kane has scored more goals for Spurs than Son, but Son’s mostly played as a winger. I’ve previously described one of them as a diamond and the other as a ruby. They’re both precious jewels but one of them gets talked about less than the other.

Son can do a lot of Liverpool-esque stuff and he’s proved that not just with the goals he’s scored but the assists he’s provided over a period of time. The question is, would Son want to move? I’m not saying that Harry Kane doesn’t love Tottenham, but you rarely see Son linked with a move away from Spurs and he’s always looked happy there. Harry Kane and Son would be fitting replacements for Sadio Mané, but if Harry Kane has given any indication that he wants to move then that’s something that Son hasn’t done, so the latter would be a harder transfer to seal.

Mohamed Salah has confirmed that he’s staying at Liverpool next season. Now if he’s to stay and his contract saga runs into the next season, where he can potentially leave for nothing at the end of it, would you rather sell him now or keep him? Would you rather cash in on an asset as valuable as Mo Salah?

There always seems to be a negative narrative regarding Mohamed Salah’s future at Liverpool. Every time I’ve seen him recently he’s been in good spirits. I don’t hear anybody at the club talking about there being a problem, it’s just a fact of the contract not being agreed upon.

If you’ve got Mohamed Salah in a good place, then would the proceeds of a sale outway the reward of keeping him? Salah, as well as Son Heung-min, have both done really well to have a share of the Golden Boot. If you’re Liverpool and you can keep your Golden Boot winner who gets important goals and assists, then you’re giving yourself a better chance of winning trophies. If his contribution is worth more than a sale then you should keep him there.

I hope the contract can be agreed upon, otherwise you’re going to have to bring in another body. Liverpool have shown in their recruitment that they would be able to bring someone in who could fit in. I don’t think there’s an overconcern regarding that and possibly the reason why Liverpool haven’t given into certain contract requests. I wouldn’t be rushing to sell him personally. I’d be looking to get the best out of him and if it doesn’t work then, like Mané, you’ve got a player there who’s loved by Liverpool fans across the world.

Do you believe Liverpool will be significantly weaker next season without Sadio Mané?

If Mané’s going then they have to replace him. Going back to my earlier point about Liverpool’s recruitment, I’m sure for any position in that team they’ll know who their targets are, what they’ll cost and all these things, therefore they'll be seeing that Mané could be leaving and know they’ll have to act fast. We’ve spoken about Harry Kane already as a potential replacement, but I’ll just chuck a name in there; you’ve got Patrik Shick who finished second to Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga goal standings. He’s a young player who’s got plenty of experience, so he could be an option for Liverpool.

Whoever the replacement is, considering the goals Liverpool have scored this season and finishing behind Manchester City by one point again, then there has to be an improvement considering Erling Haaland is heading to Man City. If you’re not going to improve yourselves then what chance do you have? Liverpool lost four games in all competitions this season, so you would argue that means they’re the best team theoretically, but the problem was that there were too many draws that cost them the title in the end. One win instead of a draw would have given them the advantage they needed. One goal stopped them winning the title, but with Erling Haaland next season at Manchester City, then the difference isn’t going to be just one goal, it may be multiple goals. Liverpool have to make that improvement. It’s doable but the recruitment will have to be spot on again.

Manchester City have won the Premier League, Liverpool won the League Cup and FA Cup. How do you expect the trophies to be divided up next year?

Across all four competitions this season, Liverpool came first twice and second twice, which is absolutely ridiculous. It’s easy to argue that the Premier League and the Champions League are the bigger out of the four but they still came second in both. The paradox here is that, considering the successful season Liverpool have had, they could have been more successful if they weren’t competing on all four fronts. Real Madrid live for the Champions League and since 2012, they’ve won more Champions League titles than La Liga titles.

In the last two weeks, Liverpool have had to go and try to win the FA Cup, Premier League, and Champions League. Real Madrid had one focus. It could have been better for Liverpool if they were knocked out of the cup for example as they would have time to focus more on less, but more achievable, goals. You just imagine next season that Manchester City and Liverpool once again will be challenging tooth and nail for all domestic competitions.

I’m not going to say who’s going to win what as it’s a bit premature, but what I will say is that both sides theoretically could have a worse season and drop three or four points and still be by far the best two teams in our league because what they’re both doing is astonishing. The likes of Chelsea and Tottenham are going to have to have exceptional seasons to try and compete, let alone winning titles. I can’t see anyone in the Premier League testing either Manchester City or Liverpool at present.

As we mentioned previously, Erling Haaland will be a Manchester City player next season. Do you believe there’s any chance whatsoever that he won’t be a success?

Using Chelsea as an example with Romelu Lukaku, at the beginning of the season I have to say I was one of many who thought that Chelsea were then going to go on and challenge in the Premier League: ‘This guy will score 30 goals no problem”. But it seemed quite evident that there was an issue, technically or tactically speaking, fitting him into a side that was already in a very sweet spot. They were Champions League winners without a No. 9 and all of a sudden they’re having to change the way they play.

At the moment when you look at Haaland, the capability is there for him to be versatile - positionally and the way he plays. But I think fundamentally it is going to change the way we see City play at the moment, and therefore it’s whether or not he’s confident enough to make a quick adaption or whether there’s a more timely introduction to his Manchester City career. If you look at that City outfield, Rodri played 30+ games, Bernardo Silva played 30+ games, but of the attacking outfield - which pretty much includes everyone, actually! - I mean the midfield and forward line-up, those guys are playing around 23, 24 games, so there’s a tremendous amount of rotation there, unlike Liverpool who do a lot more of their rotation towards the end of the season.

For Haaland to be the 30-goal-a-season scorer, I think they’ll be a slower transition. I mean the guy’s 22 in June, he’s got time on his side and he’s got the ability to be more diverse in his playing role. Having said that, Pep might be swayed to play him more often. The one concern I do have, and I do want to flag this is, is the fact that he missed ten games through injury last season. Obviously it isn’t a concern for Man City because they have signed him, but if there’s any sort of legacy there then that would have to be monitored and taken care of. It supports the idea that he won’t be a week-in-week out player, and will be slowly introduced.

Aston Villa and Manchester City are both linked with a move for midfielder Kalvin Phillips. It looks like City are the current frontrunner for the Leeds midfielder. Now firstly, can you see him getting much game time at City? If the answer is no, then do you believe this could affect his prospects of starting for England at the 2022 World Cup? Manchester United are also said to be interested in Phillips. Now it will be a big move for the player crossing the Manchester-Leeds divide, but do you believe that would be a more beneficial move if you think he will be one of the main men in that United midfield rather than a bit-part player at Manchester City?

That’s a very good question: would he get game time? I suppose I answered the question with regards to Rodri as one the highest-played players for Pep. Kalvin Phillips is an absolutely fantastic player. When he’s with Declan Rice for England, it’s like two peas in a pod. So would it work with Rodri? I think Rodri plays more ‘his’ role than ‘Declan Rice’s’ role, if that makes sense, and therefore there might be an issue fitting them both in regularly, and whether Pep would trust that kind of rotation is questionable. He seems to like Rodri playing that role. So possibly not at City. Having said that, you’ve got a player who’s young enough to change the style of play, in a way. As we know with Pep, he doesn’t bring players in and expect them to do what they’ve been doing before. They always seem to be doing something different by the time they become regular first-team players, and therefore that could occur.

With regards to Manchester United, it’s an interesting angle because the Manchester United this season wouldn’t have been a good move, given what Manchester United achieved this season - or lack of achievement shall I say. But with Ten Hag in charge, there’s going to be a different approach to the way Manchester United play. Looking at Manchester United’s midfield from this season, it definitely needed an improvement. Not that the players who were already there weren’t capable, but for one reason or another they’re not going to improve that performance from last season and Kalvin Phillips would be a great fit. It’s a massive club with aspirations of getting into the Champions League first of all. I think there’s a long way to go to try and become a title contender at the moment, but someone like Kalvin Phillips, I would argue, would suit them down to the ground and Ten Hag's style of play. Either Manchester club would be a great move, providing first that Ten Hag can get Manchester United playing - we already know that City are going to be there and involved in whatever happens at the end of the season. It pains me to say this but it suits Manchester United more than it would Manchester City.

Chelsea and Real Madrid are both linked with a move for Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. If you were Raheem, which option would you choose; Real, Chelsea, or stay?

The easy answer is, stay at City! First of all you’re going to have an opportunity to win trophies. He gets the game time, as I say, with the rotation, Raheem’s one of those 24, 25 league appearance players. You’re going to get enough regular time in a successful side. It’s going to be a little bit congested before the World Cup but within that you’re going to get enough game time, and enough rest I would argue, to be fresher for a World Cup. The Real Madrid one, I don’t know Raheem personally so the answer could quite easily be yes, with regards to his personality and what Real Madrid requires. But the one thing we’ve seen and a lot of the conversation from Paris has been about what a Real Madrid player is, and it’s not just someone who’s skillful who can score a few goals.

You basically have to commit yourself to a football club, and everything is beyond the pitch. If you’re not that kind of player, you’re not going to work at Real Madrid. Is Raheem capable of committing and basing himself to being Real Madrid, rather than just playing for the club? If that’s the case, and I like to think the answer is yes, then, go and do it. We talk about big clubs in the world but Real Madrid are up there with the biggest. A lot of people were saying that Real Madrid is the ultimate football club to play for. I know there’s the arguments for Manchester United and Liverpool, but there just seems to be something about Real Madrid that is just slightly different.

With regards to Chelsea, I mean this is a testament to how well Raheem Sterling has done, linking him to Real Madrid and Chelsea; the two massive European champions in recent years. Manchester City, Chelsea, or Real Madrid wouldn’t do Raheem Sterling any harm for playing in the World Cup. You do question, given how soon the World Cup is, and what can happen with a move - like with Manchester to London, for example - there might not be the external adjustment that could affect form. He’s an experienced player so you would like to think that he would handle that. If there is a move and it is to Chelsea or Real Madrid, it shouldn’t be a problem for Raheem. He’s more than capable of doing the performances on the field. It’s a pat on the back for Raheem.

You’ve previously told us that you’re a big fan of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. Apparently he wants to remain at the club and fight for his place under Erik ten Hag. Do you think a change of manager is the perfect solution to his lack of form? Or do you believe he should aim for pastures new? Is he a first-team player for Manchester United if they are going to compete with Manchester City and Liverpool?

I don’t know Ten Hag. Obviously I don’t know him to know how he communicates with his players. I think on the back of the Champions League final, [Carlo] Ancelotti is amazing. I mean this guy gets the team to win the Champions League, to win La Liga. A serial winner. And from anybody I know who knows him or knows of him, this guy’s communication is fantastic. He’s not the guy who’s going to stand around chatting all day long or shouting at people, he says what he needs to say and he gets the performance.

Now, onto Ten Hag with Marcus Rashford. If he can talk to Marcus Rashford in a way that will get Marcus Rashford to believe and understand his true capabilities, and Marcus Rashford who is one of these players - I’ve heard him speak after game - he gets it, he fully gets how to play football (there’s a lot of players who know they’re good but they’re not quite sure why they’re good), I think Marcus is one who knows why he’s good, he just needs someone to help him with it, potentially. And I think Ten Hag acquiring Kalvin Phillips, with Kalvin Phillips giving you the ball, I think is going to give you what you need for an attacking player to go forward and in a position to score goals. If he’s giving you the instruction and the communication to improve you then in Marcus Rashford’s case, stay there and become someone who, personally, I believe, makes it to the World Cup, starts in the England line-up, scores goals for England and gives all us English football fans hope for winning the World Cup. Because, in regards to talent, I think Marcus Rsshford is exceptional.


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