Friday, 29 August 2014

Why Di Maria’s Fee Is All About Timing

The problem with the English transfer window remaining open three weeks after the season starts is that clubs seem to begin their campaigns in a holding pattern.  Teams are stuck in a kind of limbo as journalists and fans speculate about that one last minute player who can transform their club’s fortunes.
That this is rarely successful isn’t the point but it’s tough to think of one recent example where a last minute big money addition has made that much of an impact.  Mesut Ozil maybe? 
It remains far more common to work the other way.  A glance at the highest fees ever paid by a British club will shortly have Di Maria placed just above Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, hardly the most auspicious of company.
That Di Maria is a fantastic player isn’t really up for debate.  For their reported £60 million Man Utd are getting someone who scored 36 goals and provided 72 assists in 190 games for Real.  Last season despite being moved further back into midfield to make way for Gareth Bale he was still the top assist provider in Spain.
Why then does this seem like a panic buy?  Partly it’s the fee, the general rule of thumb is that if PSG are pulling out of negotiations then you’re probably overpaying.  What hasn’t helped is the sense that Man Utd have pushed for this deal so hard because of their first two non-performances.
Van Gaal himself admitted after the disappointing 1-1 with Sunderland that his team had most let themselves down with their lack of midfield invention.  Di Maria will undoubtedly help with this.  Fixing it by himself is something else.
Also, given that this isn’t a new problem (it’s been evident since some time before Ferguson left) surely something could have been done to remedy it earlier?
Chelsea had two glaring problems with their team last year, a lack of goals from central midfield and not being able to call on a reliable central striker.  They signed Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa early and both are firing and already look settled.
Last season Man City had a plan, signed players early and won the league.  Man Utd ended the transfer window by enduring the disappointment of failing to land Ander Herrera and actually signing Marouane Fellaini.  This is a simplification of course but when you buy as much as who you buy is certainly a factor in their success.
In Germany business is normally done amicably (Dortmund and Bayern aside) and early.  When your club is being run as frugally as possible this is how it works.  Transfer deadline day in Germany now consists of watching the chaos unfolding in England with amazement.
Man Utd fans may well blame Van Gaal not being available until after the World Cup for the delay and there’d be some truth in this.  The two deals concluded early (for Luke Shaw and Herrera) were originally lined up by David Moyes.  Given that the problem was as bad last season under a different manager surely the blame has to lie with Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward?
There’s a sense that for whatever reason Woodward can’t get deals done.  Last year’s window ended with the club fighting the impression that they were panic buying.  This one has done little to alter that impression.

The problem with everything to do with Di Maria’s arrival is that it sums up what Man Utd are being forced to do to catch up on past mistakes.  He may well end up being a massive success (although you could argue they’re still two top class midfielders short).  The timing of it hasn’t helped anyone make that possible.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Premier League Preview

The Premier League is back.  Which of course suggests that it ever really went away.  The best and worst thing about it is that it’s always there, hovering over us at all times like a commercially mega successful Death Star looming over Alderaan.  This year more than most. We’ve already had a Premier League flavoured World Cup (in the early stages anyway) and the now traditional Premier League summer world tour.  Now at least the proper stuff starts again.

Given that last season was the most unpredictable in living memory it’s unlikely to quite reach those heights this again time.  When you’re still marketing yourself as the best league in the world this is impossible to ignore.  The richest?  Yes.  The most unpredictable major league?  Probably.  But the best?  Luis Suarez’s departure has further underlined it can no longer claim to be the home of the best players, the most exciting is their current mission statement.  And there’s truth in this.  The money pouring in from TV has enabled the clubs from the middle down to strengthen.  And mercifully, last season at least, the top teams all had something wrong with them.  Realistically though there won’t be any surprises finishers in the top seven.

At the top Chelsea look the most like they’ve fixed last season’s mistakes with their summer transfers, bringing in Fabregas and Diego Costa to bring goals to last season’s best defensive record.  Mourinho finally has the type of striker he believes in, leaving a manager used to bringing in trophies little excuse not to do so.  No wonder they’re favourites.  Their closest challengers will be Man City, who’ve reacted to conceding too many last season by spending most of their UEFA mandated FFP limit on Eliaquim Mangala.  They’ll never have a problem scoring goals with the strike-force they have.  Much will rest on the fitness of Aguero.  If he stays fit for the season they should win.  After their first trophy in nine years Arsenal will be confident of adding to it.  Decent summer business is headlined by Alexis Sanchez arriving.  Their failing last season was against the other members of the top four.  Sanchez up front offers a far more mobile option than Giroud (for all his strengths) does.  This should be enough for them to offer a better bet away from home in the biggest games. The likelihood is they’ll fall just short again.

Liverpool will hope that they haven’t done a Spurs and wasted their Suarez windfall on average players (although it’s worth remembering that before the start of last season most experts were praising the way they’d spent the Bale money).  It’s tough to think of even one example of a club selling their best player and improving.  Add in the added demands of Champions League football and it could be struggle for them to maintain their place in the top four.  With pretty much the same team Everton will be nice to watch but fall just short.  Pochettino trying to make Spurs start performing anything other than Spurs will likely take longer than a season to take hold.

Man Utd under Van Gaal have been gifted an easyish set of opening fixtures (in contrast to their ones from last season, David Moyes’ conspiracy theorists, if there are any, must be livid).  Van Gaal’s revolutions elsewhere have tended to take their time settling in though.  With a new 3-4-1-2 formation to bed in and players for the Iron Tulip to fall out it’s likely to be a transitional season.  Unless any major transfers are brought in before the deadline passes a top four place will be the best they can hope for.

At the other end of the table Crystal Palace post-Pulis must surely have entered the relegation conversation, something you wouldn’t have claimed if Tony had stayed.  With no money for signings, an owner looking for anyone to sell to and a seventeenth place finish last season Villa look doomed.  Unless new assistant manager Roy Keane can get a response out of them they could finally do what they’ve been threatening to do for the last few seasons and drop down a division.  If a newly progressive West Ham decide that Big Sam isn’t fulfilling his mandate to provide attacking football and sack him you could make an argument for them doing the same.  West Brom are another that might be sleepwalking towards the drop.  Stoke have bought well.  Joining them in mid-table should be the north east clubs who disappointingly look more stable than they have in years.  Whether that remains the case at the end of the season is harder to predict.

Out of the promoted teams Burnley provide the most fairytale of the stories (lacking either a Thai billionaire or Harry Redknapp).  They are sensibly run, have stuck with the players that got them promoted and already look down.   QPR look better equipped to survive, just that bit more streetwise.  Their summer transfers have brought in valuable experience, and not just with Rio Ferdinand either, Mauricio Isla should be an excellent signing.  It used to be said that winning the play offs was the worst preparation for a season in the division above.  For the last three years the play off winners have stayed up while the champions have gone down.  Leicester look well equipped to try and stop this stat continuing.  They have pace throughout their team and almost more importantly money to spend in January if needed to try and buy their way out of trouble.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Will It Be La Decima Or La Primera?

On the eve of the first ever European Cup final to feature anything resembling a derby it’s astonishing the difference in outlook between the two teams.  Real win their tenth European Cup and a twelve year long wait will be over, a period of time when they’ve managed to break the world record transfer fee three times and average a manager a season.  Their European obsession will be temporarily sated and their season a success.  Losing would be impossible to bear.  For Atleti a season that has already delivered an impossible league title will always be savoured as one of their greatest ever.  Winning the cup would be an incredible bonus.  How Real deal with the pressure will be key.

The two games in the league this season were played at an unbelievable intensity, due on no small part to the desire and spirit coursing through Simeone’s Atletico team.  Real struggled to get anywhere near matching them in the game at the Bernabeu, succumbing 0-1 to a Diego Costa goal.  The 2-2 scoreline in the reverse fixture was pretty fair, Atleti’s desire cancelled out by Real’s class.  The game Real are probably trying to focus on least is last year’s Copa del Rey final where an Atletico team inspired by a world class performance from Thibaut Courtois beat them 2-1 in extra time.  If Atletico perform like that again Real will have to be on top of their game to get close.

The two big players missing from either side (presuming Diego Costa doesn’t make it) will probably just about balance themselves out.  Xabi Alonso will be a loss in midfield for Real, their alternate options there not supplying the same mix of intelligent screening and physical presence.  Costa will be a big hole to fill for Simeone, not only for his goals but for the talismanic qualities he brings at the top of their side.  Earlier in the season in the win against Real it was the willing runs he made into the channels either side of centre backs as much as his goal that was key to their win.

The games they’ve played in cup competitions this season have actually both gone Real’s way, winning 0-5 on aggregate on their way to winning the Copa del Rey.  The difference in both those games was that Real were able to get themselves in front.  When Real have to take the initiative Atletico can hurt them.  This Real team are at the most lethal on the break.  Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria are set up to tear teams apart on the counter (although with an average of 58% possession in the league, above even Barcelona).  Benzema is the unsung hero in this, his movement allowing Ronaldo in particular to exploit his vacated space.  When Real are forced to try and dictate play Atletico tuck their two wider midfielders in and swarm all over whoever has possession in concentrated waves.  So far this season unless they score early Real haven’t shown they can live with their pressure.

If Atletico can do it not only will they have something to hold over Real forever but given the budgets of the teams involved Simeone would be responsible for one of the best seasons for any club side in history.  Glances are understandably already being drawn his way from boardrooms all over Europe.  This Atletico team is so inexorably tied up in his vision you’d worry about their future if he leaves.  Diego Costa is already off at the end of the season.  That’s fine, they’re used to losing a striker a season.  Courtois might well be harder to replace.  Whether they win or lose change is on its way.  You wouldn’t bet against Real getting rid of Ancelotti either way.  Lose and he’ll probably be sacked before the medals have been handed out.  And why would they consider changing the philosophy now?  It’s won them nine European Cups already. 

Suarez’s injury

The most refreshing thing about the build up to this World Cup from anyone with even just a cursory interest in the England team was the for once realistic assessment of our chances.  After a decent but fairly uninspiring qualifying and a group draw that had the chairman of the FA contemplating suicide it promised to be a refreshingly sedate approach to the tournament.  The first sign of this all going out the window was reached as news of Luis Suarez’s injury broke.  All of a sudden we had a chance as long as the Liverpool striker doesn’t make it.

Just to be clear any South American team should start as favourites against a team as notoriously timid in the heat as England.  Although FIFA’s rankings are anything but perfect Uruguay’s position of 5th suggests they might be able to put a decent team without Suarez, as does their status as current Copa America champions.  Plus there’s the fact that Suarez and Caviani in the same team tends to lead to one of them sacrificing themselves for the greater good (normally the positionally versatile and willing Caviani).  After a couple of poor games against Chelsea in the Champions League Caviani seems to be have given the old Zlatan Ibrahimovic role, that of a player with a great reputation abroad who the English press refuse to rate due to him not doing it against the Premier League’s finest.  The odds are more than healthy that this will come back to bite us.  It might have been better for our reputation if we were getting beaten by a full strength team.

U17 European Championship Win

At the end of a couple of weeks that started with a report into the apparently rotten state of the development of young English players what the hell are we supposed to make of the Under 17s winning the European Championship?  This isn’t a one off either, it’s the second we’ve won in four years, beating countries undoubtedly proud of their youth development in the finals of both, Spain in 2010, Holland this year.  Clearly then elite young English players have some talent.  Greg Dyke and the FA would say that it’s the next stage in their progression that we struggle with.  There would seem to be some truth in this.  From the 2010 final sides Conor Wickham started up front for England, Jese for Spain.  While Jese (before his injury) has had a chance this season to make a place for himself in the Real Madrid side Conor Wickham had two spells this season on loan to Championship sides before being given a chance to play for a Sunderland side not overburdened with strikers.  This season the number of English players given a debut by last year’s Premier League top four stood at 0 until Ryan Giggs began his 5 game run as temporary manager.  The talent would seem to be there.  The culture that results in them getting the chance to play less so.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

West Ham’s Deal With The Devil

“It’s not if you win, it’s the way you win.” Johan Cruyff
“I don’t give a shite.” Sam Allardyce   
It’s always been an odd fit, Big Sam as West Ham boss, a Faustian contract the club signed at their lowest ebb.  Never mind about the aesthetics I’ll get you promoted he promised, and then delivered (just).  Now after two years of survival and little else the club is in a holding pattern while they wonder if just surviving is enough.
The most fascinating thing about the criticism of the rudimentary nature of his team’s playing style has been Allardyce’s utter distain for it.  To Big Sam any questioning of style over results seems completely alien.  It’s as if he can’t even get his head round the concept.  His job is determined solely through results, the table is there in black and white if anyone wants to question him.  And it says he’s done his job (his complaints about West Ham having an undeserved reputation for attacking, easy on the eye football have some truth to them, although just because they haven’t seen any for a while doesn’t mean they can’t expect to see their team at least attempt to do it).
Stoke of course were in this position a year ago.  Tony Pulis was delivering survival season on season with an increasingly expensively assembled squad and supporters progressively more frustrated by the style of play.  Mark Hughes was brought in with the brief of playing more attractive football and they’ve just finished the season with their highest ever points tally.  This isn’t to say it would work that way at West Ham.  It might just be as likely they’d plummet again without Big Sam’s sobering influence.  It’s a risk either way.
Looming in the background is the 2016 move to the refurbished Olympic Stadium.  When they’re calling that home they’ll have 54,000 seats to fill every week.  Tough to do with the functional football they’ve been playing, pretty much impossible to do outside of the Premier League.
Big Sam might rightly point out that his job thus far has just been to keep West Ham up, one he’s done comfortably.  He might get one more season to prove that he can do this while getting his team playing more football (in fairness to him at this point in his Bolton career he did bring more flair in, although this is relative).  More than likely he won’t care.
The most important factor in top level football is perception.  You’re either a club that’s going forwards or backwards.  The best you could argue for West Ham at the minute is that they’re a club standing still.  And with a stadium move to plan for and paying fans disgruntled that might just be enough to make a change.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Where Will Ivan Rakitic End Up?

For a player to make the step up from being ever so slightly under the radar to being considered world class can happen in a few ways.  They can have a season spent in the very best of form.  They can impose themselves on a competition.  Or they can come up with a defining moment of genius.  For Ivan Rakitic this contains all three:
If there’s a finer example of a backheeled chapeu (which I’m reliably informed is what they’re called) then it’s not easy found on Youtube.  Among the many, many amazing things Rakitic is up to in that clip it’s that by the time the ball has left his boot on the backheel he’s already moving to go past Pepe, certain that the defender has been beaten.  The touch he takes on the run to leave it perfectly in his path isn’t bad either.  To do all that and unleash the perfect pass into Carlos Bacca’s path takes supernatural composure.  To do it at 1-1 against a flying Real Madrid side is almost beyond belief.

It’s been one of those years for Ivan.  12 goals and 10 assists only tell half the story of his importance to a Sevilla team rapidly becoming the fourth best in Spain (Bilbao fans will disagree with this).  Prior to this season he’s been criminally under the radar, even within his own club.  2013-14 has been his breakthrough album.  Before the season started £3 million would have apparently been enough to sign him.  Now his value must be ten times that. 

Part of his importance to his team is in his adaptability.  He can and has filled any position in midfield, although enjoys more influence when he plays central.  Although his most common position for Sevilla this season has been behind the striker his transfer value and probably long term future lies in his ability to operate as a deep lying playmaker.  With the current desire to have sitting midfielders be able to dictate play with their passing putting these players at a premium if he does move he’ll not be short of suitors. 

Rumours of him ending up at Real Madrid are hopefully based on the fact they’ve quite often not been shy about signing up players good enough to hurt them.  Given that playing for the national team his performance in tandem with Spain’s second best Croatian midfielder Luka Modric hasn’t always been successful it surely doesn’t make sense to recreate it at club level.  Outside of Los Blancos Rakitic would make sense for almost every other elite team on the planet.  Just in the Premier League he would walk into any of the Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd or Tottenham teams.  And he’d be at least as good as anyone at Man City or Arsenal.

Not that it’s a given he’ll be leaving Sevilla.  Even after being offered around at the start of this season its clear Sevilla realise what they have now.  He’s become far and away their most important player.  His wife and family are apparently very happy where they are.  It’s an exciting time for the club generally, they’re two games away from a Europa League final and hanging around for a possible crack at the Champions League would be apt.  What’s clear is that if he does leave that this time he won’t be undervalued.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rage Against The Stream

There’s a lad I know, him and his group of mates share the log-in details for a streaming service offering flawless HD feeds of all Premier League matches.  One of them pays a PayPal account £4 per month for the privilege.  They’re all under instruction not to share the password with anyone, the logic being that the more people that access it the more likely it is to get shut down.  They know it will eventually though.  Just as they also know as soon as it is another one will pop right up to replace it.

That’s the world we’re living in.  And all it’ll take is for a host to base themselves in Sweden or one of the smaller island nations existing just for the privilege and there’ll end up being no practical way of shutting it down.  If things continue as they have been we’ll see the Pirate Bay of football streaming before too long.  If the history of the internet has taught us anything it’s that long term it will be pretty much impossible to stop the majority of people accessing supposedly copyrighted material.  And if football broadcasting has it’s that no matter how much you show people will watch it. 

The astonishing thing about the streaming debate is how little the powers that be seem to be doing to stop it.  Or perhaps more accurately how little they’re able to do.  On occasion you might see a press release when 30,000 streams get taken down in a year.  They might just be realising that in every stream they shut down there’s untold multitudes still up and at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection.  In this they’re not only fighting against the future, they’re trying to hold back the present.

And that’s watching at home.  In pubs if anything it’s more engrained.  Irrespective of the complex verdict in the Portsmouth landlady trial if you want to watch any match this weekend odds are there’ll be a pub a short distance away showing it.  A couple of years ago my local used to tell you what games they had on with a nod and a wink.  Now they’ll be openly advertised in chalk on the sign outside. 

This, as with everything about modern football that we don’t particularly like, is the Premier League and Sky’s fault.  Thirty years ago they didn’t announce what game would have highlights featured on Match of the Day in the fear that no one would show up.  Now there’s at least four out of ten games shown in full each weekend.  It’s only going one way.

More than anything this is a symptom of a larger malaise.  There’s a generation of fans being lost to watching football live in this country.  The reasons for this are broad and complex but can mostly be attributed to cost.  With tickets so expensive is it really a surprise that the accepted way to follow your team at 3 o’clock on a Saturday is now to watch them via a foreign satellite stream in a pub.

The usual reason given for not allowing 3 o’clock live broadcasts on a Saturday is to protect lower league football, the idea being if fans could chose to watch Premier League games on TV then attendance down the leagues would suffer.  If this was true you would have expected to have seen a large drop in the last few years when streaming became widespread which simply isn’t happening. 

Of course the Germans are much more efficient.  Every match from the top two divisions is broadcast live on TV and at the same time their top division is the best attended in Europe.  What Germany also has a pricing structure and ethos built around attracting young fans to viewing matches live in its stadia.  If there’s no chance of stopping people streaming matches, and in a practical sense there’s not, surely it makes sense to offer the same service but regulated?  It shouldn’t be beyond copying what the Germans are doing to simultaneously bring more young fans through the gates while offering armchair fans the option to watch every Premier League game legally.  It shouldn’t but it probably is.

The unspoken criticism of this will be why with all the thudding near constant availability of modern football is even more needed.  This is a fair point.  But at some point in the last 20 years we crossed that particular Rubicon and kept on going forwards so we might as well keep going till the end now.  Rightly or wrongly a generation of fans (myself included) has grown up in a world where the next big match is a short walk to the pub away.  While protecting the atmosphere of the people lucky enough to be inside the stadium is important this shouldn’t preclude allowing fans to get more of what they’re used to getting.

The suspicion is that the authorities are happy enough to bask in the glow of the latest record breaking TV deal and not worry about what the future holds.  For all the signs of a breaking point being reached they can point to that as evidence of the system working.  In their attempts to deal with the issue of streaming so far they’ve resembled the music and movie industries in the early 00s, struggling to understand the scale of the challenge they faced as their business model eroded beneath them.  There is a chance they could embrace providing a platform to allow fans to watch any game live by 2015 to be included with the next round of TV bidding.  With so much money still being made through TV rights alone (News International paid £30 million to show mobile PL highlights for the next three years compared to a combined £3 billion plus from Sky and BT for TV rights) it’s unlikely that any change will be considered until those figures change considerably.  As football’s fan base ages it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to act. The suspicion is they’ll have missed an opportunity by the time they do.

The Southampton Hipster Club

The Premier League is a desolate place for the football hipster.  Everything about it is just too damn.. mainstream.  Where’s the joy in pledging allegiance to Arsenal say when even your Mum knows who Mesut Ozil is?  What you need is a team just left of centre enough to make following them cool while not being in any danger of actually winning anything (and no, Arsenal don’t count).  For this, Southampton are the only choice.

They’re perfect really.  Their current identity is based around them developing their own players and a bright young manager who insists on a style of football based around pressing the opposition.  They’re like Dortmund but without the reduction in cachet that actually winning stuff brings.  They’re just on the edge of being too mainstream, like a band just before their song is used on a Vodaphone advert. 

Manuel Pochettino’s commitment to making Southampton the league’s coolest club even stretches to insisting on still using a post-match interpreter when he can obviously speak excellent English (as opposed to Pepe Mel, who instantly ruined his air of Spanish mystery by proving he’d learnt our language).  Manuel knows that nothing removes your carefully cultivated aloofness faster than looking like you’re trying too hard.

Southampton stand out in a Premier League increasingly measured in money first and football second with their focus on bringing young players through.  Football hipsters love both developing youth and getting to complain when said youth is sold early for a profit.  Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers are just some of the players to have come through their rightly lauded academy in the last ten years.  This is good news.  Follow them and you can smugly recount how different your club is; we make players, we don’t buy them you can say.  Now that Barcelona have turned evil we’re the only bastions of club morals left.

Their playing style could have been designed with appealing to a better quality of fan in mind.  Possession football is so 2009, never mind Pep Guardiola and his Bayern side’s attempts to bring it back.  Pressing the ball when out of possession is what’s in now, winning it high up the field and counteracting quickly, distilling football down into a game of sprints.  To the level they do it they’re unique in the Premier League.  There’s only Chelsea who get close to their pressure on the ball and they tend to do it about twenty metres closer to their own goal line.  And who cares because they’re Chelsea.

There’s a real catch them while they’re here feel about them.  Bigger clubs are actively circling their talent.  Lallana is in line to be in the first team for England at the World Cup.  Luke Shaw apparently has to choose between Man Utd and Chelsea.  Hipsters should rush to follow them now, before they sell out and move to one of the big boys.

Following Southampton also allows you to ponder the bigger questions of football fandom, namely what is a modern football club actually for?  If it’s to win things then Pochettino’s decision to rest players from an entirely winnable 5th Round FA Cup tie is indefensible.  If it’s to bring the kids through while finishing in the top half of the table then they’re golden.  You’ll be too busy coming across as cool and mysterious to care. 

Basically Southampton are really the only choice for a football hipster looking at English clubs.  And really isn’t all this following European teams becoming a bit passé?  Liking Dortmund was fine when no one had heard of Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski’s FIFA stats were stupidly low.  After the Champions League Final and people remembering the Bundesliga highlights isn’t it all a bit played?  Braver to pick the one English team cool enough then.  Unless Marcelo Bielsa ever gets a job over here.  Then hipsters worldwide will be frantically ordering shirts online before he even gets off the plane.