Although the eyes of the national football scene, from Lands End to Berwick-upon-Tweed, will be fixated on the diminishing array of FA Cup fixtures this weekend (or last weekend, if you’re reading this later into its life cycle), I thought, in all my dumbfounded desperation for a topic this week, I’d take the opportunity to analyse the trio of high-profile overseas managerial revelations who are grabbing headlines in an unprecedented manner currently. Contemplating the success, or lack thereof, in the cases of Antonio Conte, the high-octane Italian at Chelsea, Jürgen Klopp, the methodical German steering Liverpool’s erratic ship, and Pep, or more correctly Josep, Guardiola – a fragile Spanish soul in the wake of worrying performances from his Manchester City side, in translating their entirely unique footballing philosophies into points and potential trophies on the English stage, is our goal this week, one that I’m sure will pose a number of thought-provoking queries along the path. Discussing tactics, signings, potential final league positons this season and the threat of owner impatience hanging over their highly-coveted heads, direct comparisons at such early stages in their respective careers at their chosen clubs could be viewed as unfair, but when the stakes are clear; achieve to line the owner’s, and inevitably the club’s pockets, or face the wrath of both the fickle fans and the unrepentantly callous board members, such objective critiques are necessary.
The benefits of hindsight should never be underestimated, especially in football, where the unfolding of certain recent events can be clearly pinpointed to the actions of particular individuals just months or weeks earlier, prior to even the appointment of the likes of Conte, Klopp and Guardiola. It is in this mind that we kick off our deconstruction of the events of the Premier League, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Champions League campaigns of each of these three distinct sides, under the helm of some undoubtedly world-class bosses, both this season, and in one case, partly last term too.
West London, and to the soon-to-be reimagined Stamford Bridge, is where we head first, in accordance with current table position. Appointed all the way back in April, but having only linked up with the Blues in the aftermath of his impressively resurgent European Championship campaign with Italy, in which the Azzurri dethroned Spain, only to suffer the heartbreak of having Simone Zaza’s infamous penalty, amongst a string of poorly executed spot-kicks, mark their defeat after 120 minutes of heroic action against world champions Germany, it’s fair to say Conte has been a masterstroke of an appointment by the notoriously picky Roman Abramovich. Continuing his wing-back-reliant tradition – from which he made his name at Juventus, and on international duty – in the British capital, after some gentle encouragement, it must be said, the conversationally reclusive, but typically passionate Italian successfully negotiated what had appeared a low-key, straightforward opening set of fixtures back in August. Using the period as a gauge of the side’s adaptation to various tactics which he was employing on the training pitch, Conte soon decided, bravely some may argue, to abandon a more common, in recent tradition, 4-2-3-1, in which Willian and Eden Hazard were relied upon to provide for Diego Costa in a re-enactment of their roles under previous boss Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, while on the subject, had to be commended for leaving the club in good health and rapidly recovering form following the implosion of Jose Mourinho just months after winning the 2014-15 season, as without his selfless efforts, Conte would surely not have had the groundwork on which to mount a title challenge.
This was by no means a minor tactical tweak, however. In the immediate wake of a damaging 3-0 defeat to a technically inspired Arsenal in late September, Conte soon realised his attacking midfielders, or number 10’s, at the time – Oscar and Cesc Fabregas, were the weak links in his team. Dropping them, which later led to the exit of the former to China, and the regular benching of the latter, in favour of an extra centre-back, the pushing forward of two wing-backs – with the seemingly out-of-favour Victor Moses and predicted bench-warmer Marcos Alonso being handed their chances – into midfield, and the formation of a new front three, including Pedro, for once, who seized his opportunity in place of Willian, was this momentous alteration. A series of tactical swaps which possibly decided the direction of the Premier League trophy, even by October. Soon demolishing Manchester United and Everton 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, the tactic, which gave his pacey, yet increasingly technically sound, attacking firing squad more freedom in which to work off each other – with lynchpins Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante, as well as mobile defenders David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta, himself a vitally, and dependably, versatile option, relied upon to cover more space than ever in stemming opposition forays. Since, it has been nothing short of outstanding, one of the single most ruthless solutions to the numerous challenges of the English Premier League in its history, and all by a manager completely alien to the division. Leading to a consecutive twelve weeks at the top of the table since that demolishing of Everton, the rest, as they say, is history.
Chelsea’s dominance to this stage, nevertheless, is not solely attributable to Conte’s imported tactical processes. His adept transfer tactics, as well as a man management strategy starkly opposite to that of, say, Mourinho, has aided his cause in arguably the ultimate test of domestic club football in the world no end, with his ability as a manager to turn his hand to many a distinct role akin to that of his highly talented squad. Targeting options for his 3-4-3, or in some cases 3-5-2, Marcos Alonso, as previously mentioned, was an inspired signing, but one that few Blues fans would’ve predicted on a transfer deadline day on which they also re-signed Luiz for a cut-price £30 million, given his pedigree as a former Bolton rotation option, with a loan spell at Sunderland also to his name, albeit one that could be attributed to the world-renowned Real Madrid academy. Noting his distinct development at Fiorentina, however, Conte swooped for the left-back, adding to the considerably earlier business - purchasing Michy Batshuayi and Kante, two stars with inflated prices from their productive Euro campaigns, and Premier League success in the latter’s case, and a vital duo who added different skills to the already title-worthy list of names on their books. Coaching these egos to fit the roles of his favoured tactic, and cutting those who didn’t fit the grade (which almost included Costa, before he backtracked from a move to China) meanwhile, is Conte’s biggest acclaim, as enforcing the discipline, along with a vital bond with natural instinct, has been a deciding factor in the West Londoners’ astounding, and overdue, return to the top.
Drilling such intricate tactical procedures into previously underperforming individuals is not a skill unique to Conte in this season’s title race, however, far from it in fact, and another leading face in this field just happens to be heading the resurgence of Merseyside’s primary club – Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. The perennially stubble-masked, bespectacled footballing philosopher, perhaps the jewel in the crown of the German FA’s well-esteemed coaching system with his revolutionary Gegenpressing scheme, has a universally appealing sense of humour, rarely attributed to managers and German citizens alike, making him a rare breed in an extremely competitive pond - and a refreshing contrast to the ever-pokerfaced Conte and Guardiola. It is not his personality that the Fenway Sports Group judge him upon though, and ultimately, results are what will prove his methods a success, with the buds of such accomplishments finally beginning to burst through the groundwork of the club this season. The Reds’ poor month to this point cannot be ignored, yet to prove their winning ability - other than when edging past Plymouth in a third round replay - without the perhaps undervalued presence of Senegalese pace demon Sadio Mane, having previously impressed in periods in which they had lost key figures Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, and a definite concern for Klopp heading into this weekend’s tie with Wolves (which at point of edit they seem likely to lose).
Yet, to the point at which Mane did depart for Gabon just three weeks ago, the Scouse outfit had hit domestic heights unrecognisable in the past 30 years for them – other than perhaps during Brendan Rodgers’ reign, and the infamous last-minute collapse of 2013/14 – with a footballing style that took the masses by surprise. Sporting a fluid 4-3-3 formation more commonly attributed to the Spanish obsession, perfected by Vicente Del Bosque on the international stage, with a high-tempo, fitness-dependent preference for rapid closing down of opposition threats, usually encouraging multiple players on a single opponent, Klopp has taken to Premier League life in a peculiar manner. While vastly improving performances, perhaps without patching up an unreliable defensive quintet – including the farcical goalkeeping battle of attrition between Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet – his overall effect on tournament performances has been put into question, particularly in the past few weeks. Falling to a previously out-of-form Southampton in a EFL Cup Semi-Final, a Swansea side clearly not as defensively incompetent as the Reds themselves in the league, and, as aforementioned, being taken to an FA Cup replay by a dogged Plymouth outfit, Klopp’s tactical tendencies have been brought into serious question this week, with only a single cup to fight for, and now all of ten points behind Chelsea in the league table.
Perhaps opposition managers have finally found the chinks in Klopp’s supposedly efficiently-formed chainmail, maybe the sub-standard calibre of his playing options, at least in comparison with their title rivals, has been uncovered, with their tactical understanding maximised, or, alternatively, the extent of his considerably slighter budget has been reached. Even with the tactical mastery of an outstanding individual in his field, a man who led a side, not unalike from his current employers, fallen giants reliant on top coaching and adept financial management, in Borussia Dortmund, to be consecutive Bundesliga winners and Champions League runners-up in just five years in charge, the physical, and mental, capabilities of his players can only take him so far.
Be honest, who at Liverpool do you consider to be world-class in their role? Phillipe Coutinho? Roberto Firmino maybe? To be bluntly objective, these two represent about the extent of the club’s financial potential at this point in time, and, even as leading Premier League players, they can’t regularly break into the Brazilian national team. Forced into selecting James Milner, although revelling in life after retirement from England duty, at left-back is not what managers in a position to be winning the Premier League title should be doing. Employing Georginio Wijnaldum, Divock Origi and Trent Alexander-Arnold as replacements in the event of squad injuries, in the biggest of games as well, should not, similarly, be the option available to a boss of Klopp’s quality. His aficionado-like knack for developing young talent should not be dismissed, but to be openly performing this practice while in the midst of what could be a very tight title fight is an unenviable position to be in, and one that both Conte and Guardiola will be grateful, given their respective clubs’ financial positions, not to be in themselves.
Perhaps Klopp, the mystifying figure he is, revels in this task, building a squad specific to his needs, and has the support of John Henry and co. in this plan, but to witness his aspirations screeching to a bit of a halt recently has been painful for the neutral, and I’m sure amplified for those of the Liverpudlian faith. Comparing Dejan Lovren, Emre Can and Sadio Mane currently to Gary Cahill, N’Golo Kante and Pedro, or to Nicolas Otamendi, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling, is an unfair contest, as even in very similar roles, on their best days, there is a vast distance between their respective calibres for me. It will take time, and funds, for the Reds to develop into the side I’m sure Klopp envisages – challenging not just for national silverware, but also competitive on the continental stage (Champions, rather than Europa, League, preferred) – but in a league more competitive, both football-wise and financially, than any other in the world, with far more to prove in a shorter period, this is time and money that the Fenway Group can ill afford, even for a once-in-a-generation boss like Klopp.
As for our Mancunian representative on this managerial break-down, Pep Guardiola, it’s fair to say, isn’t having the best season of his career, which I’m sure has more to do with the off-kilter returns of his side, rather than the miserable Lancashire rain. Following a ten-match winning run (in all competitions) that seemed to have set the Catalan, hired for his highly-regarded, yet widely misunderstood philosophy, not to mention his track record of delivering trophies at financially well-endowed clubs, on a run that could even culminate in an unprecedented debut title, the dream, which the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss would’ve shared with Sheikh Mansour, has appeared to fizzle out since. Convoluting, needlessly trigger-happy and pompous are just some of the barrages that have been thrown at a seemingly broken Guardiola since, though perhaps in less eloquent terms, with the shocking 4-0 deconstruction to the hands of Everton, as well as the embarrassing implosions against both Chelsea, and, more erroneously, Leicester, markers of teething problems. A lack of discipline, in sharp distinction with a Chelsea side built on the attribute, has too often spelled their downfall, with four red cards more than Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United (each of whom have none), and the highest number of yellow cards of any side in the top seven being flashed their way over the course of 22 matches so far.
Defensive organisation, too, has been a noteworthy point of focus for fans and pundits alike, with Nicolas Otamendi the only regular fixture in a much-tampered back line that at some points features the highly-berated John Stones, at others Aleksander Kolarov, almost a City veteran and utility man better known for his free-kicks than his marking, and at various points, Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy and on rare occasions, even Vincent Kompany, a ghostly presence around the club in the event of his unfortunate injuries. Without a true back-up to Stones, in the awkward position that Guardiola appreciates his style, but not his execution, City are lacking stability alongside a rock in Otamendi, who, when partnered with a reliable ball-player, can live up to his experience as a World Cup finalist. Not to mention Claudio Bravo, the confidence-shot Chilean, a disaster of an executive decision by Guardiola, in that while widely berated for his tendency to ‘play with his feet, not his hands’, his command of the 18-yard box has been a distant shadow of that which the likes of Otamendi enjoyed from Joe Hart.
In my eyes, Guardiola has gone head-first with a foolishly un-English game, not an apparent issue when the likes of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Conte arrived, with the three playing distinct systems; one based on flowing passing moves, another on methodical, even torturous spring-trap counter attacks, and the final on expansive pitch coverage, but certainly a concern for a plan which places a large burden on the intelligence of existing individuals. Asking his side to adapt to positional techniques never previously demanded, for example Clichy and Sagna, ageing and unheralded full-backs, relied upon less to join attacking moves in the traditional sense, but to join the midfield, which mainly consists of just Fernandinho, behind a vastly more attacking quartet most commonly of Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and David Silva, Guardiola, has been expecting far too much from his resources. This is certainly true when considering his demeanour when things haven’t gone his way, batting off journalists and remaining strategically silent on refereeing issues. Misinterpretations of the background of his position haven’t gone amiss on the great Pep’s part either – with the team suffering when Toure is dropped deeper alongside either Fernandinho or Fernando, and Sterling, resurgent under what a system which personally allows more freedom, seemingly encouraged to dive for results after a last week’s draw with a markedly settled, well-structured side in Spurs – which would only reverse the winger’s issues back to when he was lambasted for diving a couple of years ago.
I feel that the marked separation between Guardiola and his Italian and German counterparts here is that while the latter duo have sacrificed much for the success, or potential future accomplishment, of their sides in a credibly selfless manner, the Spaniard has headed to England entirely self-conscious, aware that his record – a truly unbelievable one with 14 trophies in the space of just four years - was on the line, and sacrificing the understanding of his side for personal glory. By persisting with a tactic that, while appearing to make the best of what the club had, tinkered with individual roles to the nth degree, thereby creating a workload far greater for his players, far from the youngest, compared to that of Conte’s, Klopp’s, Pochettino’s or Mourinho’s, Guardiola created his own problems in a job that has become increasingly about a personal mission to prove his tag. Clearly, Guardiola is a footballing genius, one that many, myself included, may never fully comprehend the inner wirings of, but when it comes to the Premier League, I can’t help but feeling it is bound against him in its very existence.
There are no Messi’s, no Xavi’s, no Iniesta’s or Thomas Mueller’s for him here; he has to work with what he has, which currently encompasses Sergio Aguero, too often suspended, Kevin De Bruyne, not quite the player he was last season and David Silva, lacking the explosive give-and-go ability of years gone by, as its chief qualities. Guardiola has before adapted and built new approaches, yet his next tactical move will have to be drastic to bring evident accomplishment before a transfer window or two’s worth of preferred talent is recruited, by which time Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Stones and Sterling may have developed mightily. For this, Guardiola can but hope, while also dropping his stubborn pursuit of former glories, as inspiring the form of many of his players’ lives is the single most important factor in a manager of his qualities, behind even the strategic procedures of which for his players to successfully create openings, as with players of their calibre, that is always possible. Perhaps his regimental, conclusively cold approach is a turn-off for the likes of Stones, whereas the unremittingly positive psyche of Klopp encourages performances above expectations. Certainly, their respective managerial dilemmas apply to the phrase ‘it’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there’.
Yet what parallels can we see between these three special managers? Given their very immediate tactical approaches, each highly distinct and picked apart by pundits into oblivion, which define them as men, not just as professional bosses, they each appear a shock to the English norm. How any of them have succeeded is a testament to the universally appealing nature of the modern Premier League, encapsulating the best of a global melting pot of intellectual and physical brawn in which only the very best, or at least those who apply themselves at the pinnacle of their personal abilities, accomplish serious feats. It is a test unalike to any other; that is why so many have failed, and so many from outside the region have been recruited. English coaching systems are geared against such a rigorous procedure, with a vast majority of truly unique, inspired tactical attitudes sourced from foreign watering holes, and, from my outlook on the game, it is only these individual strategies which do ultimately succeed. Ultimately, Conte, Klopp and Guardiola will succeed. Whether each will be in England at the time is a tougher matter to gauge, as only one has so far exceeded expectations, importing the correct balance of managerial qualities. Our remaining duo certainly have made admirable attempts at this, but with little to show yet, the jury is still firmly out on Messrs Klopp and Guardiola heading into a historically decisive stage in the season.
Having been announced as the latest financially dominant club in the world of football, perhaps shockingly in many people’s eyes, by economic study group Deloitte on Thursday – it appears Manchester United are back on the unrealistically high pedestal on which they belong – if not on the pitch, then at least in the wildly fluctuating stock market that is major-league football. Overtaking both Spanish giants FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in the space of just 12 months, the Red Devils, or rather their Chief Financial Officers, Commercial Directors, Executive Vice Chairmen and Chairmen themselves, have made up hefty openings of a reported €31.3 million on the Catalans, and a further €57.5 million on Los Blancos, no mean feat when you analyse the competitive results on the pitch of Zinedine Zidane’s side against any other.
How have the Mancunians done it? Well, I think we all realise how, from their unparalleled, vastly extortionate commercial partnerships, not least from the Premier League and its global televisual income of around £10.4 billion – of which roughly £51 million goes to each club every season – but also from kit providers Adidas, from whom £75 million is parachuted in every season and kit sponsors Chevrolet, who pump £47 million into the club annually. That’s without mentioning the numerous other rather obscure global corporations, Abengoa, Casillero del Diablo, Mlily and personal favourites Nissin Foods Group, for example, as the ‘Official Sustainable Technology’, ‘Official Wine’, ‘Official Global Mattress and Pillow’ and ‘Official Global Noodle’ partners respectively, who certainly played their parts in contributing towards the club’s reported revenue of €689 million in the 2015/16 season.
But the overall question is not how the club have managed to pull off such an unexpected toppling, the first of Real Madrid - who fell to third, by a deficit of €0.1 to their national rivals - on the list for 11 years, despite the Red Devils’ lack of recent sporting achievement. Rather, it should be; how does this skyrocketing of financial performance, in the wake of painfully obvious footballing nonfulfillment, reveal the brutally elitist, heartbreakingly unjust, self-rewarding reality of top-echelon football in the current socioeconomic era of the sport?
There is an increasingly common phrase across all borders of sport these days. ‘Success breeds success’, apparently. Having been utilised to its fullest potential during the Rio Olympics last year by many BBC journalists, to describe first Adam Peaty’s world record-breaking win in the pool – the first of many British Golds at the Games – then by the man himself after Max Whitlock’s unbelievable double Gymnastics triumph – and finally as a convenient round-up to the complete performance of Team GB, a record-defying one at that, we all started to believe the adage. It became the mantra of personal trainers, sporting chiefs, sub-standard journalists and cringeworthily self-confident athletes everywhere – even having inspired University research on the topic, as well as a number of click-bait articles from sleazy news sites.
Perhaps this theory works on an introspective psychological level, or on the overall form of a sporting club on the pitch – though in any sporting pantheon, most runs of form are unlikely to last, unless you compete in as unchallenging a league as the likes of Celtic or The New Saints (whose ground is actually situated in England despite being the Welsh champions for five consecutive seasons) – but in the field of economic readings in football, it seems not to quite add up. How can a club, who have made their way through four managers since May 2013, while winning only one major trophy (excluding two Community Shields) and qualifying for the Champions League just once in that same period, be top of the global footballing revenue charts, in the wake of the second and third sides in that list winning two league titles, two domestic cups, a Champions League, a UEFA Super Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup (Barcelona) and a domestic cup and double Champions League-UEFA Super Cup-FIFA Club World Cup treble (Real) respectively? In short, how can Manchester United, despite their general lack of vitality following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, be more financially successful than the two most successful clubs in not only Spain, not only Europe, but the world, in the same period?
On a molecular level, it comes down to the established global fan base of the club. The ultimate trendsetters in the now imperative concept of overseas pre-season tours, jetting off to such various regions as Malta, Ireland, the Netherlands, Bahrain, Bermuda, Scandinavia, Thailand, Japan, Austria, Portugal, South Africa, Malaysia and, err, Torquay, in the decade from 1986 to 1996, United were able to expose tens of millions of potential fans to their image. Reaching not only those watching the games, but also those awakened by the hype surrounding the visit of what was at the time the prime British club, whom will likely forever be the most reputable in the UK, these tours garnered, and strengthened, serious support for the club moving into an increasingly commercially-reliant future, as fans meant money, through ticket and merchandise sales, as well as, more prominently as time passed, televisual income. The pre-season tour is a firm United tradition, recently reaching the likes of the USA, South Africa, Australia, Japan, China; all of which you may notice being well-renowned emerging nations for football, proving the credibility of United’s directorship in sniffing out such unprecedented opportunities, pouncing on the chance to beat the competition to market in which the door is being creaked ajar.
In exploiting such newfound fandom in each and every corner of the earth, no matter whether a tour has been taken there by players, such clubs, with the Red Devils as a perfect case study, are able to forge invaluable links with business in such regions, with the examples for United including Nissin and Kansai Paint (Japanese), Chevrolet, 20th Century Fox, EA Sports and Gulf Oil (America) and Mlily (China). Increasing their presence in each region through this practice, while also aiding the corporations no end by allowing them to plaster their brash logos and straplines across Old Trafford, in this case, the Glazers, and before them long-term Chairman Martin Edwards – who largely represented a number of different shareholders, much unlike the Glazers, who now own 75% of the club – had the foresight to realise how football was moving, always remaining one step ahead of the competition. Their business intuition, along with the strengths of the many instrumental advisors on their boards, allowed them to remain über-competitive even in somewhat of an off year, thriving off their past glories at some stages, as they arguably are, more than any stage in their history, today.
It is this business plan which has consistently allowed United to steer clear of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play sanctions, such as those encountered in recent years by the fifth and sixth sides in this year’s Deloitte Football Money League; Manchester City and Paris St Germain. In fact, with a hugely contrasting approach to both the Citizens and Les Parisiens – in that the Red Devils are a club in constant debt, with the Glazer’s empire built on innumerable tactical business loans, secured on the club’s assets and eventually repaid by competitive success and, since 2012, the sale of shares on the New York Stock Exchange – and the vast majority of the funds used in transfers stemming from actual revenue, rather the owners’ pockets. With Sheikh Mansour and Nasser El-Khelaifi, who both largely made their billions – aside from inheritance – from chairing investment corporations, pumping ‘their’ clubs with necessary funding by their own means, which far outstripped comparative club revenue, they were always likely to incur such fines and restrictions as Man City and PSG similarly experienced in 2014. Coming through the other side unharmed, however, these clubs, whom I doubt will challenge the top three clubs in Deloitte’s league in the foreseeable future - a result of their comparatively laughable match day attendances and corporate deals – will be nipping at the heels in a decade or so if their current progress transfers into continental triumph before too long.
Taking this logic into account, how, without any continental achievement to speak of since the 2010-11 season (in which they reached the Champions League final, before falling to a rampant FC Barcelona), other than arguably a CL quarter-final under David Moyes, can Manchester United sustain their financial prominence in the sport? Well, I guess there is the case of supporter (or, in the businessmen’s eyes, customer) loyalty, an oddity in this day and age, with Premier League fans, especially those from outside the parish or nation of their chosen club – of which the Red Devils famously have many - often mocked for their fickleness and infidelity, which the Glazers can be extremely grateful for. It is not an image that many can rid themselves of – becoming a United fan – as the glamour and coveted nature of the club draw many an outsider in, to never let them go. In fact, this fever has said to have infected almost 700 million people globally, of which around half are based in South East Asia.
There’s just something about devoting your entire footballing life to a single cause for just a moment that you can never release, and United, despite riding their luck in recent years through the inept tragedy of Moyes’ reign, the hilarious, yet tiresome, obscurity of Louis van Gaal’s stint and the constant fear of Marouane Fellaini’s impending disastrous urge, have played their cards well throughout. By offering supporters what, with the benefit of hindsight, may have been false hope in the signings of Juan Mata, Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, the distinguishable deals with Adidas and Chevrolet, and the dismissals of both Moyes and van Gaal after the fans’ demands became incessant – the likes of Ed Woodward and Group Managing Director Richard Arnold (both former accountants with sound business expertise) have performed admirably in such a tricky period for the club. Without the loss of too significant a number of customers during this period, the club have maintained, if not increased, season ticket and merchandise sales, while also expanding their array of corporate partnerships, significantly increasing their revenue, alongside bloated televisual sums, as Red Football Shareholder Limited (A.K.A. the Glazers) have convinced a heavy figure of individuals to believe in the United dream.
Whether that dream is to be fulfilled on the pitch this season is yet to be determined, but as a frustrating Premier League campaign under new boss and self-proclaimed managerial Messiah Jose Mourinho currently sees them lying in sixth, with FA Cup, Europa League and EFL Cup success still on the cards – but most likely in the latter – United seemingly aren’t living up to such lofty expectations naturally created when being the richest club in the world. All this while runners-up Barça are two points off top spot in La Liga and well-placed in both the Copa del Rey quarter-finals and Champions League RO16, third-placed Real are top in La Liga after a 40 match unbeaten run, also in the Copa QF’s and CL last sixteen, and Bayern Munich, fourth in the list, retain their familiar stranglehold over the Bundesliga, complete with a continental RO16 spot, then it appears England’s telecommunications income separates the sides a little more. It surely can’t be match-day revenue; both Barça and Real’s stadiums are fully packed out at higher capacities than Old Trafford, with the Allianz Arena only a matter of hundred seats behind the Mancunian Theatre of Dreams, sponsorship is evidently out of the equation as, according to a Forbes investigation in May 2016, Real’s trio of deals for kit providers, kit sponsors and ground sponsors totalled $220 million annually, a sneaky $11 million more than United’s similar treble.
In this case, it comes back to the fans again – through the means of those paying subscribers to Sky Sports and BT Sport – to propel MUFC to the top of the economic charts. Or at least you’d think, especially when factoring in the news in April last year that La Liga’s £1.8 billion broadcasting deal in Spain was to be shared vastly more equally, in a blow to both Real and Barça. But it’s important to consider that such a decree only came into action this season, while Deloitte’s test was based upon the 2015/16 season. Earning £51 million, the figure earlier noted, in league televisual income, in addition to an extra £89.6 million (enough, conveniently, to break the transfer record by re-signing Paul Pogba) in ulterior broadcasting income according to Deloitte’s findings, United appear to dominate such standings. In actual fact, from Deloitte’s investigation, it was the two Spanish giants who continued to bat off any English pressure in broadcasting stakes, with Real, for their global exploits, earning £170.3 million, while Barça garnered £151.6 million worth of TV attention. In fact, due to United’s short tenure in both European cup competitions, they even ranked behind their cross-city rivals, as well as Arsenal, Chelsea and 10th-placed Juventus in the broadcasting stakes, with the 27% of their overall revenue created by televisual income only lowered by three of the top 20 clubs in the list; Bayern Munich, PSG and 17th-placed Zenit Saint Petersburg. This was in stark contrast to 20th finishers Leicester City, who saw a staggering 74% of their £128.7 million seasonal revenue stem from broadcasters.
As United’s commercial income percentage of total revenue came to 53%, perhaps it was no surprise then that this was only bettered by the same three sides as aforementioned – the German and French champions, and the Gazprom-backed four-time Russian titleholders. No side could boast such a commercial record, and, come the time of reckoning for all club Chairmen, Executive Vice Chairmen and Presidents at the biggest global clubs on Thursday – as Deloitte unveiled their findings – it turned out this was the area in which United had out-fought their rivals, seeing them to a return to the top spot for the first time since the 2003/04 season’s conclusion. Also topping the standings for match-day revenue, surprisingly enough, despite lagging some 24,000 or so seats behind their second-placed Catalan rivals – down to their lowest season ticket price of £532 comparing to that at Barcelona of £113.93, and a match-day ticket costing at least £36 at Old Trafford, compared to £28.48 at Camp Nou. Factor in the extortionate costs of refreshment, light reading and grub at British grounds – in the form of teas, programmes and pies, then even more can be torn from the pockets of fans at Old Trafford than in sunny Catalonia.
What us fans are left to take from these annual results, other than a great sense of shame in the development of football into an intensely competitive industry, however, is that football is no longer the reason football clubs can strike rich. That’s what Manchester United’s financial readings inform us of, at least, as they have little sporting triumph in recent years to predict their economic upsurge and swift overtaking of their Spanish rivals, who have been the dominant forces in global football over at least the past five years, if not the previous decade. If reputation has been proven topically to mean little on the pitch, then it means a hell of a lot off of it, attracting fans in their hundreds of millions, their hard-earned cash and thereby a number of opportunistic, rapidly developing global corporations and businessmen, all into a particular club not in the wake of excessive achievement, but rather when they are compelled by a timely reminder of the club’s stature on the global sporting stage.
For the Red Devils, a consistent pack of forward-thinking, cunning market-leaders have powered their rise to dominance, utilising their many years of business know-how and arsenal of contacts to secure some of the most unfathomably valuable and extortionate sponsorship deals in sporting history. Considering commercial income makes up more than half of their world-leading revenue, there can be no doubt that exploiting their image, one that has been battered since the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, has been the major practice of United’s new breed of marketing and accounting gurus in their rise to the top of the global footballing economic rankings. This can be sure to press on over the coming years, but if this cycle is to continue in the same manner, if not on a grander scale, maintaining dominance over the Spanish styles, then it will still fall to men like Mourinho, captains like Wayne Rooney, and star signings in the mould of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović, still to fly the club’s flag. Football can become side-tracked by commercial pandering all it likes, as it is across each and every sector of its extensive existence in our era, but eventually, as always, nothing will come as a result unless those eleven players perform for that one manager across 90 minutes against a side hopefully equally as motivated for triumph on the pitch.
At least that’s what I prefer to believe. United’s story doesn’t tell that at this moment in time, but face further embarrassment in comparison to Fergie’s reign, and they will, undoubtedly, slip back down the rungs of relevance in an evolving sporting landscape. United are not a side who settle for League Cup wins and fourth place finishes. Mourinho is not a manager who will settle for such either. Ibrahimović, Pogba, Rooney, De Gea and Mkhitaryan are not players who should ever be content with sub-par performances. Something has to give, and being the world’s richest club, you’d presume it will, but for the signing of someone like the rumoured Antoine Griezmann to turn around the sporting performances of a club with such a complex financial outlook is surely nigh-on impossible. Yes, United’s squad does appear weak compared to those of their title rivals. But will a few big-name signings fix such a painful hole in what is an inwardly rotten club? Can the answer to the Glazers’, and Ed Woodward’s, dilemma, to satisfy the fans, as well as the American clan’s bank accounts, be to buy into Mourinho’s buy-big, win-big, philosophy with serious gusto, or would that spell the beginning of the end of the Glazers’ Mancunian odyssey, leaving them riled in the face of having to sacrifice personal profits on a game of footballing roulette? Surely, having employed their faith in the Portuguese’s skillset less than six months ago, this is the only path they can now follow if they aim to assert their global economic supremacy, with little room to manoeuvre in the matter? Give it another two years, I believe, and we could be in that very situation. As ever, only time will spell the fate of a club so esteemed by the global public, so revered in history and so financially prominent, and I’m sure it will be fascinating to witness unfold.
Perhaps overshadowed in its build-up this week by the controversial, certainly undemocratic decision, which (sarcasm here) may or may not benefit African, amongst other less developed, football associations, from FIFA to expand the World Cup to an unprecedentedly vast 48 teams, the mutual enemy of most Premier League clubs kicks off today; the African Cup of Nations. With the biennial event, after its extensive warm-up period, finally seeing hosts Gabon take on minnows Guinea-Bissau in the capital Libreville tonight at 4PM sharp, marking the first game of the tournament, focus inevitably switches from cheap predictions to the real action on the pitch. In order to capitalise on the very last period available to me in which to launch my calls for the next 22 days’ action in the minor Central African state, I’ll be contributing to the waves of foolish, but hopefully educated, tips for potential tournament successes, in this week’s blog, with the intention of effectively using the stats, facts, bookies’ tips and knowledge – or lack thereof - available to me to foresee a winner amongst the 16 sides. Let’s just hope it goes better than my Euro 2016 predictions, in which I called Germany to win and our very own Three Lions to reach the semi-finals, alongside Spain, or my Premier League calls for this season, which saw West Brom placed in 18th (it could still happen, who knows?)…
Starting off with Group A, comprised obviously of hosts Gabon, their primary opponents Guinea-Bissau, infighting Cameroon and potential dark horses Burkina Faso, I believe the opening fixtures will be the deal-breakers. With newly installed (so much so that his Wikipedia page is bereft of any information on his month-long tenure) but highly experienced Spanish boss Jose Antonio Camacho pitting his certainly talented troops against a Guinea-Bissau side based at the core at Portuguese sides in a surely tense opening match, an upset for the West Africans, even to achieve a point, could prove decisive in what is likely to be a scrap for positioning in what appears a tight group. As Belgian coach Hugo Broos’ highly unpredictable, and star-rationed Cameroonians head to battle with an impressively experienced attacking Burkina Faso outfit under the leadership of Portuguese Paulo Duarte, himself with a chequered managerial past, there will also be a high degree of anticipation for both sides to escape with the three points, as no match in this group appears too one-sided.
You’d have to imagine, however, that as Gabon - with the infamous home advantage of playing their three matches in successive degrees of ‘difficulty’ finishing with the formerly continent-leading Cameroonians - have Emerick-Aubameyang, alongside highly-rated Juventus midfield youngster Mario Lemina, Sunderland anchor man Didier N’Dong and powerful Cardiff defensive presence Bruno Ecuele Manga in their spine, success in this group isn’t unlikely. Factoring in the 97 caps of goalkeeper Didier Ovono, the developing experience of Manga’s defensive partner Johann Obiang, and the enviably lethal goal ratio of second striker Malick Evouna, he of the Chinese Super League, (11 goals in 21 games, primarily against weaker defensive sides), and, even if Camacho’s stability in the nation is lacking, that of his squad certainly is not, with a major point on the checklist towards success ticked off for the Spaniard there.
For Cameroon, however, it seems there can’t be peace in the foreseeable future, as squad disputes with governing bodies persist, resulting this time in the loss of key players Joël Matip, Allan Nyom and Eric Choupo-Moting for Broos, surely making his task harder. While their indomitable – see what I did there – attacking ranks may not have been diminished too heavily, still boasting tank Vincent Aboubakar, the well-respected Benjamin Moukandjo and naturally gifted Clinton N’Jie, vast other sections of their squad seem drastically lacking in depth or serious international experience, other than in defensive marshal Nicolas Nkoulou, who will presumably take over the captaincy after Stephane Mbia was dramatically dropped by Broos before even the 35-man squad for the tournament. Honestly, even though their makeshift first eleven should make it through this group, we shouldn’t expect much of what is one of the worst Cameroonian squads in recent decades, a shame really for such a football-mad nation who deserve better.
In the cases of Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau, points should be a struggle to come by, even with the prominence of figures such as prodigy Bertrand Traore, FIFA 13 pace-burner Jonathan Pitroipa and dominant Malaga centre-back Bakary Koné for the Burkinabes, their only real glimpse of escaping their group is by pegging Cameroon to just the one point, and praying that their hosts can be hospitable by saving their goals for their final match on the 22nd January. Unfortunately for the Guinea-Bissauans, I can only see them finishing bottom, considering their overall dire lack of experience, the 141 caps between the 23 players involved averaging out at just 6.13 game’s worth of international football under their belts each in their very first AFCON as a nation.
3) Burkina Faso
Moving onto something entirely different, and in Group B, we arrive to find two of the tournament favourites in Algeria and Senegal, alongside total underdogs Zimbabwe and understated 2004 champions, Tunisia, who have the potential to spring a shock or two. The main story in Group B will, I suppose, be which of the two drastically dissimilar, yet seemingly even, sides finishes bottom. No, I’m only joking, what most punters are fixating on in this group is which of our main challengers can assert early dominance and possibly knock the other down a peg, for which we will have to wait until the 23rd January, when what will be billed as Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria take on Sadio Mane’s Senegal.
Aside from these two stars, both squads have diverse arrays of talent, of which both the Tunisians and Zimbabweans would be grateful to own even the weakest of the crop, as Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, Watford’s Adlène Guedioura and Leicester team-mate Islam Slimani complement Mahrez in the Desert Warriors’ attack, while Moussa Sow, Mame Biram Diouf and Moussa Konaté of Fenerbache, Stoke and Sion respectively aid Mané’s cause for the Lions of Teranga.
Perhaps it should be considered that behind this offensive plethora, Algeria, regarded as one of the most competitive footballing nations in the continent thanks to their regular recent World Cup appearances, however, have a small pool of experience upon which to call come the latter stages of the tournament, with only Guédioura, Slimani and Brahimi, in addition to long-serving goalkeeper Raïs M'Bolhi, striker El Arabi Hillel Soudani and left-back Djamel Mesbah, the oldest player of their squad at 32, having earned more than 30 international caps. With seven of their 23 names having played less than 180 minutes on such a stage, the consistency of top players, Schalke’s Nabil Bentaleb and Faouzi Ghoulam of Napoli included, and a little luck in the injury department, will be relied upon heavily for the North Africans, who are already without creative catalyst Saphir Taïder in one-time Belgium manager Georges Leekens’ first tournament in charge. Certainly a tough period for the largest nation in Africa, currently on course to fail to reach the 2018 World Cup, but in a fairly unintimidating group here, qualification to the knockout stages should be a minimum target.
For Senegal, another side currently behind the pace in World Cup qualifying after falling to a 2-1 defeat in South Africa in November, prospects are a little brighter for AFCON, with a settled, clearly promising, squad, consisting of a nucleus of Premier League and Ligue 1 talent. Mainly adopting a free-flowing 4-3-3 tactic, utilising marauder Mohammed Diame, workhorse Idrissa Gueye and lynchpin Cheikhou Kouyaté behind Mané, Konaté and either in-form Sow or Diouf, they have only lost three games since bowing out of a group of death at AFCON 2015, one their first game back from that disappointment – an AFCON qualifier in Guinea – and the others a friendly against Mexico and the aforementioned South African slump. Having proven their ability to turn over minnows during that time, it remains to be seen whether their big-game pedigree has recovered from two years ago, but having been tipped as second favourites for this year’s prize – the bookies will certainly hope it has.
I do feel sorry for Tunisia – they are well-equipped with the likes of wing magician Wahbi Khazri and Valencia centre-back Aymen Abdennour – but with two of the heavyweights standing in their way, I can only see a respectable third place group stage finish on the cards, as they can only smash a Zimbabwean side who will presumably be shot of confidence after successive fixtures against Algeria and Senegal, and bereft of any serious talent. Still, the minnows should be good comic relief with the likes of Hardlife Zvirekwi, Teenage Hadebe, Knowledge Musona and Marvelous Nakamba in their ranks…
Now to this tournament’s Group of Death, or as some like to call it, Group C, housing defending champions Ivory Coast, third-place finishes last time DR Congo, my personal dark horse Morocco and journeymen Togo in what is likely to be a high-scoring, high-intensity scrap to make the knockouts. Obviously, Les Èléphants are the favourites for both this group and the competition itself, possessing serious quality in patches and invaluable experience in others. But it cannot be understated that this Cote D’Ivoire team is nothing like that of two years ago; losing Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré and legendary goalkeeper Boubacar Barry to retirement, and yet to hand enough games to their unclear replacements, their only silver lining is the emergence of Championship marksman Jonathan Kodjia in the considerable hole of Didier Drogba. Eric Bailly, too, has come on leaps and bounds since his international debut at AFCON 2015, but, alongside Wilfried Zaha after his decision to quit England just a month ago, will require the guidance of the likes of Salamon Kalou, Wilfried Bony and Max Gradel in this squad in order to fill the roles expected of them in what many anticipate to be another winning run. It will certainly be a much heftier task than before, but providing they can finish top in this group, they are well set. No pressure...
In the case of DR Congo, also lacking quite the resources of their exploits last time out, especially in the presence of madcap goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba – he of the ‘bum shuffle’ celebration – Yannick Bolasie and Werder Bremen midfielder Cédric Makiadi, such a run would be highly unlikely this month. Bereft of burly Benik Afobe – and heavily reliant upon inexperienced, but highly rated Cédric Bakambu, misfiring Dieumurci Mbokani and out-of-form captain Youssouf Mulumbu – a single injury could spell the end of their hopes, as their remaining squad leaves much to be desired. Still, providing they can scrape past a stark contrast, in terms of climate, footballing philosophy and squad capabilities – Morocco – their tournament could be reignited, leaving them second place in Group C wide open. I wouldn’t be too sure about the likelihood of that, however, especially with yesterday’s news that the team refused to train as a result of, unsurprisingly, pay disputes.
Morocco, for my money, could spring big surprises in this year’s tournament, as on paper, but only on paper, their squad pans out very kindly. Blessed to have captain Mehdi Benatia now with bucket loads of Champions League experience under his belt, as well as Feyenoord’s defensive shield Karim El Ahmadi, Monaco staple Nabil Dirar and wise head Mounir Obbadi of Lille adept higher-table, Europa League quality players, their spine appears rock solid. Perhaps only lacking a ruthless striking option, upon which they are relying on Youssef El-Arabi (who has 17 goals from 13 games in the Qatari league), as well as a regular number 1, their back-up options do, however appear reliable, as striker Aziz Bouhaddouz should not go unnoticed from the bench, Wolves defender Romain Saïss could prove handy, and Malaga prodigy Youssef En-Nesyri will want to announce himself. One thing to be considered is the double withdrawal of Nordin Amrabat and Sofiane Boufal, a double hit to the side’s creative chances, but even without these two, there are plenty of reasons to watch out for the Atlas Lions over the course of this coming month.
Only poor Togo remain in Group C, and with their two main characters, Emmanuel Adebayor and goalkeeper Kossi Agassi, similarly bereft of playing time as free agents, and reliant upon to carry the rest of the either low-quality or inexperienced squad in their arms, it would be nothing short of a miracle if they won more than a point during what will inevitably be a short trip. Coach Claude LeRoy should enjoy it, as he breaks the record for the most amount of AFCON’s qualified for as international manager, but this Togo side could be one of the Frenchman’s toughest challenges, especially with a disjointed mishmash of players from no less than 16 different nations – that’s if you include free agency as a nation as well – ranging from England to Cyprus, Moldova to Tanzania, Saudi Arabia to Sweden and anywhere in-between. An unlucky one to pull in the office sweepstake, I’d imagine.
1) Ivory Coast
3) DR Congo
Onto Group D, our last quarter of the first stage, then, and returning finalists Ghana, fallen giants Egypt, understatedly adept Mali and hard-grafting Uganda are our candidates for firing and hiring. For me, I expect this group to go to plan, with the historically dominant Egypt battling it out with Avram Grant’s refined Ghanaians for top spot, and the lower seeds pitching to pick up points the ugly way.
Certainly, it is Egypt, after their seven-year hiatus from the tournament, failing to qualify on three successive occasions, that are form favourites for this group on what they will hope to be a glorious return, especially after winning the 2010 edition last time out. Who was that final against? Well, none other than Ghana, and after miraculously edging out Nigeria, equipped with such quality as Alex Iwobi, John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa, in qualifying for this year’s tournament, hopes should be high for at least a run to the semi-finals under Argentine Héctor Cúper, who has currently won 12 of his 17 matches in charge of the Pharaohs. Relying primarily on human rocket Mohamed Salah, midfield engine Mohamed Elneny, utility man Ahmed Elmohamady and skilful youngster Ramadan Sobhi in the middle of the park, Braga striker Ahmed Hassan will look to keep up his impressive scoring record on the road to team success. With a vast majority of the squad otherwise filled by Al Ahly and Zamalek players, based on their records in the CAF Champions League, there is certainly no shortage of top-level experience in decisive tournament matches in this squad. With 43 year-old ‘keeper Essam El Hadary on target to break the record for oldest appearance maker in the tournament, be wary of their defence, but with such creative depths, goals should be no problem for the North Africans, certainly aiming to light the tournament up.
Grant’s Ghanaians, reclassified from manic miracle workers at the 2010 World Cup to tactically astute, responsible game managers, would be first on most pundits’ reputation guides in this group, but as we have discovered in the past 12 months, reputation counts for nothing in football. Still with the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Jonathan Mensah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and the Ayew brothers in their squad, Grant seems to be aiming to extract every last drop of desire and knowledge from these players, while also introducing the likes of Baba Rahman, Daniel Amartey and Frank Acheampong alongside them, developing his impressive array of youngsters. As Christian Atsu continues to improve, following a storming performance in 2015’s AFCON, in fulfilling his creative position, the team builds too, and if the West Africans are to match last time’s result, they will require similar performances from each and every member of their squad, especially the Ayew brothers, short of confidence and goals recently, but with the gauntlet thrown down, can they deliver?
As for Uganda and Mali, well, I can’t separate their chances too much, as while I feel Mali obviously obtain a talent advantage in Yacouba Sylla, Bakary Sako and Adama Traoré, Uganda’s work ethic cannot be overshadowed, and it will require a clinical performance from the Malians to fend off their defensive opponents. In breaking down a stubborn defence, – which claimed five home clean sheets last calendar year and held Ghana to a stalemate in October’s World Cup Qualifying - Sako and Traoré have to be at their lock-picking best, something I feel might require a little too much from just two bigger names in the squad, allowing the Ugandans to exploit. With a vault of caps upon which to call upon for Milutin Sredojević’s Cranes, plying their trade in such minor leagues from Vietnam to Iceland, Finland to Lebanon and back to Kenya and Ethiopia, they are certainly no strangers to such testing tactics, and as a settled squad, I believe that such a positive result in Uganda’s first AFCON for almost 40 years could be around the corner.
After drivelling on for so long, and with the considerable notes I’ve made on each team so far, I’ll run through my quarter-final and semi-final predictions to spare you further torture;
QF1) Gabon vs Algeria – Gabon WIN
QF2) Egypt vs Morocco – Egypt WIN
QF3) Senegal vs Cameroon – Senegal WIN
QF4) Ivory Coast vs Ghana – Ivory Coast WIN
SF1) Gabon vs Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast WIN
SF2) Egypt vs Senegal – Egypt WIN
Ivory Coast vs Egypt – Egypt WIN
An interesting proposition after completely alternating recent records in the competition for these two sides – Ivory Coast, defending champions, complete with manager Michael Dusseyer’s admirable AFCON record, with two quarter-final finishes in separate stints with Guinea, up against three-time drastic underachievers in qualifying, and rightful finalists Egypt; who should have proved their credentials with a tricky path to the final. (Note: That is, of course, if I am correct with my predictions, a highly unlikely occurrence).
With both sides’ strengths lying in attacking areas, but Egypt slightly edging the defensive comparisons if you ask me, despite Eric Bailly’s presence in the Ivoirians’ back line, I feel this final would have the potential to be much more of a test of each side’s ability to be pegged back and offer a response, much unlike the 22-penalty slog of a shoot-out against Ghana last time out. It has to be considered seriously whether the Coast’s youthful exterior will serve them well come the end of the tournament, and whether the loss of the Touré’s will just be too heavy for them in such high-pressure environments as this.
Egypt’s physical qualities should shine through, in my opinion, by this stage in the tournament, and with such a well-stocked squad, their depth should come to the fore in the event of injuries and suspensions, which are inevitable, come this stage. For me, Salah will be the shining light in both the tournament and this final, as his diminutive stance only offers a distraction to the fatal blows he can deliver to opponents, and, providing he stays injury-free, that quality should shine through, along with that of his side, during AFCON 2017. For now, though, such talk is cheap, and come 4PM today, the real action will start, and such players will really prove themselves to their countries, their continent and the world. Let’s just hope it lives up to the reputation of previous tournaments, and that football, especially in Africa, is the ultimate achiever in Gabon over the coming three weeks…
As former Chelsea, Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich assistant manager, and Carlo Ancelotti lovee, Paul Clement, was announced to have bravely assumed the mantle at defensively free-falling Swansea City earlier this week, the intrigue surrounding his appointment understandably drew a large crowd of reporters queueing up to welcome him into Premier League management. Breaking such a cherry with this press address early on Thursday afternoon, one of the local journalists posed the query of how so-called ‘Moneyball’ expert Dan Altman would affect transfer strategy at the club, especially in focus at this vital point in the season – the final transfer window before the closing months of the season. Unsurprisingly, the clean-cut Reading-born coach, who had only reached the heights of the Isthmian Division Two South and the Spartan Premier League during his playing career – ended at the age of 23 in pursuit of coaching - for Barnstead Athletic and the fascinatingly historic Corinthian Casuals, responded in plain diplomacy; that he certainly had a desire to explore such options to aid his thinking, but that the final say would always be his own.
This subject quickly got me pondering on how effective statistical experts could be, or already are, in specifically football, after their proven employment in overseas pastimes-turned-businesses; American Football and Baseball most notably. Has the utilisation of statistical analytics within football, from companies such as Opta, Prozone (recently rebranded as STATS) and Hawk-Eye, truly revolutionised the many angles in which we can now view the game, or was the introduction of such system simply an inevitable evolution in keeping with an increasingly technology-reliant age? Despite their hype, many systems have been foolishly disproven over the past few years, both on the pitch by specific teams and players, and off it by opportunist punters, so can they really be trusted with such responsibility, such as with transfers for a relegation-threatened Premier League club, with such defining vaults of cash set to tumble from their coffers if they ignominiously exit the division? These are the interrogations I will set out to answer this week, in your very first Talking Points blog of the year…
Just in case you hadn’t, by chance, been scrolling through the list of football articles on BBC Sport on Thursday evening (as I do roughly the same time each Thursday, scouring the archives for inspiration, unless a specific concept has already struck me), or been previously aware of the fabulous book and film of the same name, Moneyball, I’ll quickly run through the concept for you. Based on the economically, yet still sportingly, lucrative concept of sabermetrics, pioneered by the Oakland Athletics’ baseball team’s General Manager – equivalent to a Director of Football - Billy Beane, whose ardour for research and analysis led to the A’s to a string of four consecutive Major League Baseball playoffs – to my understanding two stages away from the World Series, for those unfamiliar, the MLB’s Final – the system, to be blunt, used statistics to be able to predict the exact point a player would reach his peak, in order to be sold at maximum price, and the numbers they would look for in a new player. Ingeniously effective, I’m sure you’d agree - even if the A’s, sometimes known as The Swingin’ A’s, never reached a World Series during Beane’s charge, coming closest in 2006, defeated by the Detroit Tigers when just one step away – and an inspiration for the future of professional baseball, notably setting the trend for another side with a slight wage budget – the Tampa Bay Rays – to win the 2008 World Series.
Beane’s, and the A’s, achievement was especially astonishing when considering the stat given that during their run to becoming the first side in 100 years of American League baseball (their division of the two the MLB is split into) to win 20 consecutive games in 2002, they had done it with an annual wage budget of just under $40,000,000 (equivalent roughly at the time to £27,000,000) – staggering, but paling in comparison to the New York Yankees’ expenditure of over $125,000,000, and the third lowest in the two divisions that year.
Where has this been repeated in football though? Well, it’s a growing trend, for clubs to follow such a path, and a prominent one when you consider the full title for Michael Lewis’ book; Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and that, in his own words, he explored in the book “the ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands”. Even though he was studying the inner sanctums of the MLB for Moneyball, it could well have been the Premier League, or any European League for a start, of today that he was apathetically condoning with that quote, with clubs like the well-publicised and respected breeding grounds of Southampton, West Ham, Sporting Lisbon and Ajax all, on differing scales than others, and amongst a few other examples I could mention, sacrificing youth prospects and key players to more financially powerful, trophy-chasing clubs, and having to buy well themselves to encourage Championship or Cup-winning runs in the near future.
Whether these sides use some of the aforementioned analytical systems to their advantage in the transfer market, or more just in game situations, is presumably a well-kept secret, which only some clubs, Swansea, now, but Brentford – themselves, alongside FC Midtjylland, owned by a statistics profiteer in Matthew Benham – much earlier, included, publicly reveal, perhaps wary of the inevitable backlash of naysaying fans and snapping journalists. Benham – for one – has yet to be proven in his analytical Chairmanship style, especially after sacking fans favourite, club servant Mark Warburton - who had led the Bees to their highest post-war league positon with the highest ever win percentage of any boss at the club - in one of his first acts, since having gone through three more managers, who have totalled 25 wins from their 69 games in charge – compared to Warburton’s 40 from 78 games, a difference of 14.05% in win percentages.
It’s fair to say though, in the case of Midtjylland, the club had this philosophy in its blood prior to his arrival, rather than enforced upon them, as long before his takeover as major shareholder in 2014, the club were making impressive profits from the sales of Simon Kjaer to Palermo for €4M and Winston Reid to West Ham for €4.26M. These two battering rams of defenders are just two of the products of their academy, made up of over 100 local clubs in their region of Jutland in Denmark, and a partnership with Nigerian club FC Ebedei, whom have three of their products currently with the Wolves – Paul Onuachu, the scorer of the winning goal in the 2-1 first leg defeat of Manchester United in last season’s Europa League - amongst them. It may also be worthwhile to notice that during this same period, the club has witnessed its inaugural major national trophy win – the 2014/15 Danish Superliga, as well as its second highest points tally (finishing third) and the aforementioned Europa League Round of 32 phase the season after, again sitting third so far this season. That is, of course, considering that the club only came into existence a mere 18 years ago, after the formation of two underachieving local rivals.
So, it is a proven concept for American, Danish and hopefully, soon enough, Dutch, sporting brands to follow; AZ Alkmaar, in fifth place in a competitive Eredivisie, with an upcoming Europa League RO32 also on their minds, just another of the clubs inspired by the methods of Beane, so much so that they have employed him as an advisor, thanks to his friendship with former Dutch Major Leaguer, Robert Eenhoorn, the GM there. The increasing degrees of serious achievement, or overachievement both on the national and continental stage considering their comparatively threadbare budgets, of these sides can be attributed to their keen eye for a deal; along with other well-renowned youth-developing hotbeds such as Ajax, and Southampton to a lesser degree, bearing in mind their financial prosperity now as a regular Premier League outfit. Nonetheless, the transfer tactics of Midtjylland, Alkmaar and Ajax, amongst others in increasingly obscure continental competitions, cannot fail to be commended within such difficult constraints; dealing with their position by feeding off the career cycle of many a player and club in even more constricting conditions, buying in a crop of African or South American talents, only to sell them down the line in a matter of months to the world players.
Of course, one of the only ways in which you can foresee the profitability of a particular player is by sizing up their stats; and, from the little that they might know, other than from the many uncredited scouts they have, the attributes, depending on position, can prove fundamental to a deal taking off. These stats go much deeper than what you might be able to find out on a simulator like Football Manager, however, and take in far more than the proportion of starts, goals, clean sheets, successful passes, shots on target, interceptions and clearances a certain option might have, if you’re lucky in that statisticians have tracked the performances of such targets.
This, though, is where some complain that ‘Moneyball’ tactics in football will never work. They perceive, quite understandably, that due to the differing circumstances of football, rather than, say, baseball, cricket, American football and rugby, in that not every touch of the ball, pass or shot will be vital to the outcome of a match, due to the enduring statistical complexities, yet similarly constant unpredictability, of football, no player can ever be truly signed based on spreadsheets of organised sums and figures. They argue that football relies a considerable amount more upon instinct; upon the mental capabilities and physical make-up of a player compared to his rivals, rather than on the amount of successful crosses, or headers, he has made.
Perhaps, this is more because in football, fans, managers, and chairmen alike can all decipher, whether in the stands, on the touchline, or in the executive boxes, whether a player is good or not. I hesitate to use such an unapologetically blunt adjective as good, but we all know it; when a player has it, he has it, and when he doesn’t, well, you get my drift… and nothing he could later possibly do would change our minds on that. Football is a thoroughly subjective sport for the masses; it almost entirely depends on your own perspective and interpretation of the action - both on the pitch and off it -, and that is what can so clearly lead to the downfall of so many, yet the triumph of so few. In cricket – which I may or may not cover in a blog over the coming year, depending on how starved I am of inspiration -, the selections, signings and sackings of players and staff are almost entirely objective, factoring in the batting averages, bowling averages and fielding success for players, and, you might notice, the win percentages, significantly further down the list. Cricket is a game that, as with many others, relies exclusively upon individuals to perform their role over any responsibility they may have as a team member, even if they have to remain united.
Football is much a different beast from that extreme. While strikers might get paid more, with a larger share of the plaudits, as the commentators quip, for their game-winning goals, than many other players on the pitch, it is their overall contribution to the team which will be the decisive factor when it comes to possibly signing, or offering a new contract to them. Perhaps the irrelevance of statistical analytics was best portrayed within the sport by Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – alright, before you go and look it up on Wikipedia, it’s Bebé - the outspoken Portuguese winger once infamously signed on the trusted word of close friend Carlos Quieroz, yet, before long, quietly forgotten by Sir Alex Ferguson.
As an innocently optimistic United fan at the time, I for one always felt that Correia’s lampooning, both at the time, and ever since in such cheaply produced click-baits as ‘The Top 10 Premier League Flops’ or ‘The Top 10 Worst Fergie Signings’, was always undeserved – personally, I will never forget how he burst onto the scene against Wolves in the Carling Cup, and the subsequent article I read about his exploits the next day on the train back from one of my first visits to London. You may not care for my opinions, however, when I tell you that, in addition to my continuing curiosity for the career of the recovering Portuguese – currently at Eibar in La Liga – my favourite player of the culminating era of Fergie’s reign, coinciding with my own golden age as a wide-eyed fan, was Alexander Büttner.
Add into the Bebé-heavy mix right now of statistical disasters the recent trough of Brentford, which we discussed earlier, for whom, so far this season, 19 of their paltry total of 30 goals has come from Warburton-era signings or youth products, rather than apparently savvy recent purchases. In Midtjylland’s case, 14 of their 33 goals this season have also been scored by pre-Benham signings, impressive when considering only one of the six players fitting that category is a striker; Onuachu, and that there has since been six active transfer windows for the club, including this current one, since Benham’s mid-2014 buyout. I don’t know about you, but personally, leaving the romanticism behind, I feel that the Brentford fan’s investment at the very start of their ultimately title-winning 2014/15 season had very little to do with such success; as the framework was seemingly in place prior to the cresting he took of their wave. After all, manager Glen Riddersholm had already been in charge for over three years, and the only signing of the summer 2014 window; midfielder Tim Sparv – for any FM players, a well-respected man with great talent – despite his steely credentials, still yet to score in his first 60 league appearances for the club.
When admiring Southampton’s credentials as a successful nursery for players inevitably nabbed by Liverpool, as profiteering as a young Alan Sugar, however, surely there must be some decisive proof behind their statistical business moves? Or are they in fact majorly deceiving us, instead simply filling a hole, which previously fell upon a number of uncredited clubs to spot, in a perfect transfer cycle, which allows less financially flexible outfits to profit off the increasing greed and gluttony of the fat cats?
Well, let’s admire the individuals which they have added value to over the years; Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Nathaniel Clyne, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, and likely, soon, Virgil van Dijk, he of links to the Manchester clubs and Chelsea for £35 to £40 million. With a reported rough amount of £161.8 million in profits coming in, with another possible £7 million in disclosed add-ons, from these first eleven players, and £23 to £28 million more on top of that if van Dijk sells to his price tag, and vastly improved Premier League performances on the pitch throughout what should’ve been a tough period, especially after losing two classy managers who learned their trade there; then surely this method has to be adjudged as a roaring triumph. To not only have consolidated themselves as a provider of top-class home-grown talent, but to also successfully be able to continue to reinvest with cheaper, and, as it turns out, just as fruitful, options, to help their financially dependable mid-table, and even Europa League, PL finishes, is a great achievement, just proving that football can be done right. That is providing that there are the same evil forces at the end of the production line to gobble up such offerings, however.
Analysing my findings then; I find an obscure eccentricity to the statistical returns, in that wherever any side is openly passionate in their sabermetric-friendly ethos, embracing of the inevitable comparison to Moneyball, of the Chairman to Beane, or more romantically, Brad Pitt, who depicted the man himself in the film, they tend not quite to crumble under such expectation, but to revert to what they know. The beauty of the story of Beane and the A’s was that, at first, they went under the radar; nobody believed in what Beane and his Harvard-educated assistant GM Paul DePodesta had set out to achieve, and they had no right to; bringing in physical damaged goods in elder statesmen David Justice and Scott Hatteberg, and effective freak-pitcher Chad Bradford, their decisions seemed whimsical. In fact, when their analytical genius came into the equation, Beane and DePodesta had worked, within the constraints of their budget, what was, for a short period in their 20-match winning run, the most efficient baseball side in the world.
With football, you just wouldn’t be able to do that. Sure, targeting undervalued players to replace your own highly-valued items and for it to pay off isn’t too much of a rarity, but to upset the bookies at such a rate, and with such a thoughtfully, I’m sure extensively, measured, system, is unprecedented. Not even Leicester City can claim to have had such a stroke of genius, as their success did not lie in the transfers when building their squad, but rather in their team performances on the pitch. While their title-winning team was built on a comparative shoestring, at a reported wage total of £48.2 million for the 2015/16 season, paltry when tallied up against Chelsea’s £215.6 million in player expenditure, the Foxes did have the funds to spend on top of that certainly, had their Thai owners, the Srivaddhanaprabhas (phew), opened their wallets a little. By the very fundamentals of the Premier League, each team has very fair financial capabilities on which to compete - and let it be known, they do compete - nothing like those which Beane had to manage.
In those low-key cases of sabermetrics personified, Southampton, Ajax, Athletic Bilbao – the plucky Basque club who live on the principles of pure home-grown talent, which have turned out very profitable for them – those who possibly make headlines for other reasons, that is where I feel football can be most proud of itself. Maybe not when you consider that the capitalist market of football is openly flogging the labour of young men for profits, but overlooking the extremities of the footballing world – which is what I might have to do this year to remain sane – we have to appreciate when previously undervalued, smaller, clubs attain the opportunity to level their playing field by haggling with those they are, over time, reeling in. Maybe, just maybe, there is an exact formula to the perfect transfer strategy. If so, I would claim that the closest examples to it lie in plain sight; those academies, which start off with such positive intentions for the next generation, end up paying their worth, in as positive way as an thoroughly profitable industry can; as cash cows when a bumper crop arrives. Whether many individuals in football have the prudence or intellect to realise this, or that transfer strategies exist, of course, is entirely another thing.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!