Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

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Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

The Football Business Column: A Latest Update on Globalization in Football

Germany continues its rise 

At this point, we’re all well-versed in the global financial and marketing power boasted by the English Premier League, otherwise known as the Barclays Premier League: the long-term partnership with Barclays Bank has given England’s top flight plenty of commercial exposure and opportunities. Manchester United have led the way with the corporatization of English football, and are one of the only professional sports clubs (never mind in football) to have an international office.

But German powerhouses Bayern Munich are about to join them. It’s recently been confirmed that they’re about to start a New York office, with Pep Guardiola taking his squad to the US for friendlies and training camps next summer, with plans for an office in China to come. This comes on the heels of Bayern’s rapid ascension towards the “super-club” class in European football, as they vie to win the Champions League in two consecutive seasons.

Does this herald the arrival of the Bundesliga (or at least of the German football club) in the global footballing elite? Bayern are storming into that select category of storied, successful and rich football clubs, and with their recent announcements seem to be aiming for world domination. With the Bundesliga receiving plenty of positive coverage in the past few years on their financial sustainability, profitability, and most importantly the coexistence of commercial successes with the strong development of the German national team, Bayern are riding the waves.

And it’s not going to stop anytime soon. For all the plaudits that NBC have taken for their coverage of the Premier League this season, the higher-ups at the US broadcaster need to beware: Fox have agreed a multi-year deal with the Bundesliga to deliver coverage across North and South America, Europe and Asia. If this is the start of an exciting rivalry between the Premier League and the Bundesliga, then football fans only stand to benefit.

 

Liverpool break into the emerging markets

For all of the contrasting criticism and praise that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group have had to endure in their stewardship of Liverpool, one unanimous agreement among all observers has to be that they’ve expanded aggressively on the commercial side of things. And the latest developments at Anfield show that not only do they have ambition to return to the top playing field in football, but they also have the financial and reputational clout that only the biggest clubs enjoy.

We’re talking of course about Liverpool’s recent academy ventures in both India and China, two of the world’s highest-profile emerging markets with fierce interest in football and populations to sustain growth and development. The phrase of choice is “market-leading development center for young players,” but the story for both the Indian and the Chinese academies is the same: It’s a chance to reach out to the young generation, improve football education and potentially unearth Liverpool’s first ever Asian superstar.

As ever in their coaching ventures, Liverpool will be working with local coaches and also adding a considerable portion of social education in the programs to develop youngsters as both human beings and footballers, but the underlying commercial opportunities scream out loud: a chance to secure a generation of kids as Liverpool fans, and the drooling prospect of shirt sales and marketing expansion with an Asian first-team player at Anfield.

With the success of Manchester City’s football school in Abu Dhabi, it seems that elite English clubs will continue their global expansion efforts, and Liverpool’s recent activities capture both the imagination of any football business fan and a fast-growing consumer base.

 

What happens when you put football with football?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the annual NFL games at Wembley, and Manchester City’s plan for MLS dominance with New York City FC. Put the US and two of the most popular and financially successful leagues in the world together, and you have a marketing bonanza, and that’s exactly what the Americans and the English have collaborated on and produced.

Except that it’s about to be taken to another level. Not only has new Fulham owner Shahid Khan considered playing an NFL game at Craven Cottage featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars (also under his ownership) in the future, but the NFL could even be exploring the possibility of opening a franchise in London. Which means that a London-based team could be competing in a league across the pond.

Even more interesting are the stadium plans associated with this global expansion of the NFL. Tottenham Hotspur, who have already been featured in a brilliant skit mocking football fans in America and American football this summer as part of NBC’s promotions for their Premier League coverage in the US, are reported to be interested in cohabiting a new stadium with said London NFL franchise.

This would mean that White Hart Lane Mark II (let’s call it that for now) would not only host two high-profile teams in two of the highest-profile sports in the world, but that it would immediately challenge Wembley’s status as the preeminent (only) American football stadium in London. Following the New York Yankees’ involvement with New York City FC and Manchester City, this latest reversal plan seems just to be the beginning of an intriguing soap opera.

 

This piece was part of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool Legacy Depends on Luis Suarez’s Future at Anfield

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(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

 

Just a few months ago, Liverpool fans were hurling vitriol Luis Suarez’s way for publicly expressing his desire to leave Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers was taking plaudits for the way he handled Suarez’s ultimate stay at Liverpool.

So for most Liverpool fans—and Rodgers himself, who has been full of praise about the quality, inventiveness and importance of the No. 7—Suarez’s fine current form is a welcome scenario and probably something that not many envisioned would still be taking place every week at Anfield.

Indeed, Suarez’s latest magician’s act on Saturday, with a thrilling hat trick against West Bromwich Albion, reaffirmed his fast rise as Liverpool hero again, and with six goals in just four league games, he’s quickly propelling himself up the league scorers’ chart, despite having had a delayed start due to his suspension.

Brendan Rodgers said after the match that he substituted his star striker—for that is what Suarez is, despite the continued protestations of top scorer Daniel Sturridge—so he could get an ovation from the supporters, according to ESPN, and continued his recent claims that Suarez is “better off” at Liverpool, after the public flirtations with Arsenal this summer.

And the way things are shaping up, Brendan Rodgers’ reign at Anfield—he’s almost halfway into his initial three-year contract—will be dependent on Suarez’s future at the club.

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The present form of the team has a lot to do with Rodgers’ current status in the eyes of Liverpool fans, and the present formation has a lot to do with that.

After several rounds of chopping and changing, and a few performances that delivered three points despite not playing in the fluid way we know his team could, Rodgers has, for now, settled on a variation of a 3-5-2 formation. (B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on the newly flipped midfield triangle and its importance in Liverpool’s most convincing display of the season.)

As Jamie Carragher pointed out in an absorbing analysis on Sky Sports, this 3-5-2 system allows Liverpool to play two of the league’s most devastating and in-form strikers up front and lets Sturridge and Suarez (now termed “SAS”) get right in the throats of opposing defenders.

And as soon as Suarez returned to the team, his form was too unstoppable to make him droppable, which was the reason Rodgers arrived at this formation in the first place. That Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho, on paper perfect fits for such a formation, were injured at the time were of no concern to Rodgers: SAS was simply too mouthwatering a prospect to not implement ahead of a fully fit squad.

We’ll leave the discussion of Coutinho’s role in a 1-2 midfield to a later time (and to get things started, check out Matchett’s article linked earlier in this piece), but SAS are so crucial to Liverpool’s successes this season that it’s nearly impossible to envision a starting XI at Anfield without the pair up front (except, of course, if injury strikes).

All’s well and good—and Liverpool are only third in the league table because of goal difference—but suddenly, just a few months after the possibility of weaning themselves off Suarez’s consistently distracting PR disasters, the club find themselves ever more dependent on the maverick Uruguayan forward.

Because, as has been made so apparent across all channels, it’s Suarez’s movement and unpredictability that allow Sturridge to go at defenders and do his own damage (and vice versa). It’s Suarez’s sheer presence that compels opponents to direct their attentions toward him and allows Sturridge to flourish. It’s Suarez’s partnership and telepathic understanding with Sturridge that allows the latter to continue his meteoric development and maturation into a world-class striker.

And it’s only just the beginning.

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The key, however, is that the early stages of such a promising partnership coincide with a defining season in Rodgers’ reign and in Liverpool’s short-term and medium-term future as a Premier League club.

It’s been well-documented that Liverpool need to return to the Champions League, and that this season is almost the perfect opportunity for them to achieve it, with the unpredictability of rival teams around them.

It’s also been well-documented that Liverpool needed Suarez all along to actually achieve their long-standing goal of getting back into the Premier League top four. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that they need Suarez to lead the line as one half of SAS to take them to the Promised Land.

But they also need Champions League football to secure Suarez’s long-term future at Liverpool Football Club. A player of his stature and ability could easily make a bigger and more instant impact at, say, Real Madrid than a certain world-record signing from north London.

Suffice it to say that Brendan Rodgers knows this. So while he adopted his hard-line stance in accordance with his bosses at Fenway Sports Group in the summer on Luis Suarez’s rumored departure, he’s turned his attentions to praising Suarez to the hilt since his return to first-team action.

Of course, Suarez’s excellent form and seemingly improved behavior on the pitch have helped things massively, but Rodgers’ Anfield legacy rests largely on Suarez’s future at the club. He finds himself in that curious dichotomy that he and Liverpool need Suarez more than he needs them, and keeping him in the summer only intensified such a one-way relationship.

Fail to qualify for the Champions League, and Luis Suarez may well leave for pastures new. And Rodgers would have to rebuild his side with just one half of SAS, starting nearly from scratch and competing against a formidable set of opponents in the Premier League for signings of Suarez’s influence and caliber.

By then, Rodgers would only have one year left on his contract. And Liverpool’s plans to return to the best club competition in the world will have been delayed yet again.

If he succeeds in bringing Champions League football back to Anfield, however, a Luis Suarez hungry to prove himself at that level with Liverpool could be just the start of a very beautiful symbiotic synergy with Rodgers in the position to fully harness it. If.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

English Football Weekly: Week 9 Recap; Fergie’s Book; Grassroots Football

EPL Week 9 Recap: Suarez’s Hattrick, Torres’ Revival, Hart’s Blunder

Player of the weekend? Luis Suarez, without a doubt. Liverpool faced a West Brom team in good form and who had won their last three fixtures against the Reds, expecting a rough ride, but their “flipped midfield triangle” (in Rodgers jargon) worked a treat against the visitors. And with a trademark nutmeg and finish, a header Andy Carroll would’ve been proud of, and a predatory finish from a precise Steven Gerrard free kick, Suarez delivered a striker’s masterclass at Anfield on Saturday to blow the Baggies away. Daniel Sturridge’s fourth wasn’t too shabby either.

The original Liverpool striking hero is doing pretty well too. Fernando Torres has upped his game at Chelsea this season under strong competition from Samuel Eto’o (but not Demba Ba) and continued his resurgence with an all-action display against Manchester City. Sure, he delivered a now-trademark close-range miss, but he made up for it with an excellent turn of pace and strength to dispose of Gael Clichy to set up Andre Schurrle’s goal, and capitalized on City’s defensive mix-up to continue Jose Mourinho’s excellent record at Stamford Bridge.

But we also need to talk about Joe Hart. Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that he was earmarked as the next best keeper in the world? It’s been an alarming drop in form in the past year or so, but never with as big an implication as now. Because last year City coasted to a runners-up place, and now Hart has continually dropped precious points this season, making him one of City’s biggest liabilities on the pitch. Which won’t help Manuel Pellegrini in what’s been a challenging first season in a club with the highest of expectations. January needs to come sharpish.

There was also Sunderland’s thrilling Tyne-Wear derby win over Newcastle on Sunday, in which Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, scored an outstanding long-range strike to seal the points in Gus Poyet’s first home game with the Black Cats, who have quadrupled their points total for the season with the win. Southampton and Everton continued their excellent starts to the season with a pair of 2-0 wins, taking them to fifth and sixth in the table, in the process establishing themselves as strong challengers for the European places. A thrilling few months to come.

 

Fergie reminisces about a time gone by

A few months after Sir Alex Ferguson departed Old Trafford with the fondest adulations and fresh memories of all the right things he’s done in his 26 years as Manchester United boss, he comes out with a book that has it all—but will only be remembered for the wounds he’s opened up again, the fights he’s decided to pick even after retirement, and the dressing room secrets he wasn’t supposed to spill.

As a man management and motivator, Ferguson rarely got things wrong. He kept the spotlight firmly on himself and manipulated the media (and his rivals) to an extent that he enjoyed near totalitarian domination (and admiration) from everyone in football. To be sure, there’s plenty of the managerial insights in his autobiography that will be interesting add-ons to the interviews he’s done as a subject for publications focusing on management and success.

The cynical, petty and no-holds-barred side also shines through. We’d always looked forward to the relevations behind David Beckham and Roy Keane’s departure from Old Trafford, but never did we expect so much dirt to be aired. We’d always expected barbs at old rivals Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, but never did we think he’d call Steven Gerrard “not a top, top player.”

But in describing his managerial philosophy—that no one should be bigger than the manager at a football club, and once any player violated that rule, he was moved on—Ferguson also writes about an era that is fast slipping away. With the exception of Arsene Wenger, who enjoys near-total control at Arsenal, English football is moving into the 21st century of corporatism, with brands, reputations, marketing, profits and spectacle in mind.

The Manchester United after him was always going to be markedly different, whether David Moyes became the next manager or not. In time, Ferguson’s book may be seen as a time capsule of an obsolete style of football management.

 

England’s grassroots football needs more than just facilities

Last week, it was announced that the Premier League, UK government and Football Association committed £102m to improving grassroots football facilities, which, in light of the recent opening of St. George’s Park and the increased emphasis on youth development and organized football, was encouraging news to all involved in English football.

Whether this means the end of pick-up football in a neighboring park with shirts as goalposts is still up in the air—though I’d surely lament the loss of organic football centered on just having fun—but with the advent of organized football coaching for kids up and down the country, and all across the world, this is the next wave of grassroots football finally arriving on English shores.

But what England really needs is more than just facilities. They already have arguably the best in the world on that front, but it’s not translating into on-field successes. We’ll leave the debate on whether a strong Premier League and a strong English national team are mutually exclusive for later, but to really inspire a generation of outstanding young footballers, there needs to be a revamp in coaching, club academies and footballing culture across all levels.

It means youth coaches—the most important in a young footballer’s journey to the top—need to focus less on winning games and more on team play, passing, movement and flair. It means that kids need to be encouraged to take risks and try new moves. It means that kids need to have the right platforms and competitions to play in during their rise through the ranks. This could lead to a remodeling of the reserve system to inject, say, an Arsenal B in League One (though the U21 Premier League has been a major upgrade over the defunct reserve system), but should definitely lead to a cultural reformation that prizes improvisation, technique and creativity over the clichéd “heart and guts” that the English are now stereotyped for.

The coaching and the culture are at the center of grassroots football, not facilities. Brazil grew generation after generation of World Cup winners on the streets, not fancy million-pound youth academies.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

The Football Business Column: The Business and Politics Behind the 2022 Qatar World Cup Controversies

“It may well be that we made a mistake at the time.”

Given the fresh controversy surrounding the death of migrant workers on the building sites for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Sepp Blatter’s public admission in early September to Inside World Football (h/t ESPN) seems all the more pertinent. If only he’d thought of such implications and possibilities before actually approving the final decision.

No matter. What’s happened has already happened, but FIFA are now left to pick up the considerable refuse that has been generated in the wake of the significant recent fallout over the decision to award the tiny Middle Eastern emirate the hosting rights of the world’s most prestigious single-sport tournament. The problems are rooted in politics, as they were always going to be given the universality of the world’s most popular sport, and the international involvement in and exposure to the game.

Surely more background digging should’ve been conducted prior to the bid, and surely more scrutiny should’ve been paid to the implementation process by FIFA and the Qatari authorities, to avoid any potential banana skin in their grand ambitious plan to bring the tournament to new and exotic places on the planet.

Simply put, the migrant worker situation should’ve been researched and taken into consideration in the bid process. It might have been a bit too political to go into the human rights records and agendas of host countries, but it’s FIFA, it’s the World Cup and it’s all about politics anyway.

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The Politics

“The World Cup and foreign labor abuse in host countries” sounds exactly like the kind of problem that should never have been inflicted on FIFA in the first place, such is the emphasis given to the separation of football from politics and anything of the sort. Sadly, this was always going to be tough.

Especially with, in Blatter’s words, football being “a global unifying force for the good, a force that offers to be inclusive in every which way and a force that has written anti-discrimination on its banner under my presidency.” Especially with FIFA’s goal to bring the World Cup to places that haven’t hosted it before—South Africa, Brazil, Russia and now Qatar (representing the Middle East); the likes of Australia and China are surely not far behind.

It’s in this context that Blatter’s admission to German newspaper Die Zeit (h/t The Guardian)—“European leaders recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar, because of major economic interests in this country”—appears particularly worrying. Not only this: UEFA president Michel Platini has one-upped Blatter and suggested to the Associated Press (h/t The Washington Post) that this sort of political influence was commonplace in international tournaments: “With the extraordinary influence Mr. Blatter has, he has only all of a sudden realized there are political and economic influences when we decide who will host an Olympic Games and so forth?”

A public spat that not only casts a pessimistic, cynical light over proceedings, but one that should be avoided in the first place. Not even Platini’s insistence that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t personally ask him to vote for Qatar despite Sarkozy’s political support will clear anything up.

And it’s led to Qatar’s FIFA 2022 World Cup Organizing Committee secretary-general Hassan Al Thawadi defending his country’s bid and its legality. There will be lots of questions thrown his way; he’d better get used to fighting the fire.

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The Scheduling

Possibly the biggest question of all when the subject of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is brought up is this: Will it be held in the summer or will it be moved to the winter?

The first thing that comes to mind when we consider a winter World Cup is: What happens to all the leagues that run throughout the year except during the summer? It just so happens that those are the European leagues that have the most worldwide interest, the highest-profile players and the best quality and competition. Just a simple statement from the EPFL, the umbrella body of the major European leagues, will have FIFA scrambling.

The potential problems brought about by disrupting the league calendar are quite significant. It’s not just about asking those leagues to move their domestic calendars for just a season. It’s not just about the feasibility of working out a schedule that also fits in with the Winter Olympics. And it’s not just about moving a four-week tournament, as they’re finally starting to find out, and FIFA will have all kinds of oppositions, protestations and storms to weather in the coming weeks and months (hopefully not years).

Speaking of the weather, never mind the considerations that FIFA should have made regarding the scheduling due to the summer temperatures in Qatar even during the bidding process; now that the question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup at all is being asked again, even the chairman of FIFA’s medical committee has come out in public opposition.

Michel D’Hooghe has gone on record questioning the prospect of holding the tournament in the summer from a medical perspective and has included aspects other than players training and competing in scorching temperatures while he was at it: He mentioned the delegates, the “FIFA family,” the media and would you know it, the fans as well. A FIFA executive keeping the fans in mind?

Another perspective also had the fans’ interests in mind, or so it claimed. This time it was the Australian Football Federation, who lost its original bid for the 2022 World Cup, who has asked for compensation in the event that FIFA do move the tournament to the winter, just because it feels like it’s entitled to “just and fair” compensation to “those nations that invested many millions, and national prestige, in bidding for a summer event.”

The FFA did give some context, acknowledging the place football has in Australia by citing the fact that the A-League runs through the Australian summer (winter in the northern hemisphere) because high-quality stadiums Down Under aren’t as accessible during the rest of the year. FFA chairman Frank Lowy claimed that “clubs, investors, broadcasters, players and fans would all be affected,” which is a valid argument and observation.

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The TV Money

Just in case we were getting carried away with the seemingly alien notion that football authorities actually care about the common fan, there are other high-profile cases that shoot us right back down.

Fox Sports, a division of the US television network Fox, have made public theiropposition to any potential switch of the tournament to the winter (h/t Nick Harris of the Daily Mail), simply because “Fox Sports bought the World Cup rights with the understanding they would be in the summer as they have been since the 1930s.”

In this case, it’s about the finance and economics of broadcasting such an event, which, when the numbers involved come to light, are hardly a small matter. FIFA earned a whopping $1.1 billion for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups; Fox paid around $450 million, while NBC Universal’s Telemundo division bought the Spanish-language rights for $600 million.

And these are US networks that have acknowledged the rise in interest in the “beautiful” game (in quotes for obvious reasons considering the topic of this article) by shelling out for the English Premier League this season, but that are also cautious about having football competing for high-profile prime-time spots alongside the traditional big American sports during the regular American season.

Such is the importance and influence of broadcasters that Ben Rumsby of The Daily Telegraph reports FIFA have allegedly held secret meetings with them in an attempt to “quell opposition to any move,” which all but shows that FIFA are the mercy of their own money-making engines.

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The Disillusion

The debate and fevered discussion will no doubt continue for a while yet over the staging of the World Cup—and indeed if it will still be held in Qatar at all—but one thing’s for sure: Given the amount of money and politics involved in the game now, surely these were things that FIFA should’ve considered before awarding the hosting rights to Qatar?

If there had been a clear plan and clear communication during the process—even accounting for the widespread unwillingness to change across footballing authorities and TV networks (understandable, considering the financial implications)—perhaps right now, instead of clashing over it all, everyone would be celebrating that the World Cup Finals are finally arriving in the Middle East.

A disappointing chapter in the history of arguably the world’s most inclusive and socially impactful sport, and an undoubted tarnishing of FIFA’s slogan: “For the game, for the world.” Plenty of work to do still.

This piece originally appeared on Bleacher Report and is also part of my Football Business Column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

5 Things Raheem Sterling Must Do to Take His Liverpool Career Forward

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Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

 

It was only last year that Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene with the Liverpool first team, and it’s only 11 months since he won an England debut after a scintillating start to his Premier League career.

He had the world at his feet: Born in Jamaica and playing in England as a winger, Sterling was quickly compared to Anfield legend John Barnes, and his impressive and confident performances won fans and attracted admirers alike.

But since the turn of the year, with fresh faces arriving and making instant impacts, Sterling has been taken out of the first team for a break and has recently gotten into trouble with the law, making it an underwhelming and unhappy few months for the No. 31.

Aged just 18—he signed his first professional contract in December 2012—Sterling still has an entire career ahead of him and a wonderful opportunity to blossom and grow under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers.

To make sure he takes his Liverpool career forward, here are five things Raheem Sterling must do.

 

Put His Focus Back on Football

Just a week ago, Brendan Rodgers issued a public warning to Raheem Sterling over his off-field issues and brushes with the law in 2013, as reported by the Guardian:

He needs to have a clear mind in everything in his life. He needs to stabilize his life, understand the remarkable opportunity he has at one of the biggest clubs in the world and focus everything in on his career. Once he does that and he is clear in his mind, he has no distraction and we can get to the level of performance of the first four or five months of last year.

A big pronouncement, and quite rightly so, given that Rodgers had granted Sterling a break at the turn of year, according to the Telegraph, from fatigue and frequent first-team action so early on in his career.

In late September, a court case against Sterling, where he had been accused of assault by an ex-girlfriend, collapsed due to a weak testimony, according to the Daily Mail. But, having also had assault charges dropped in May earlier this year, he has been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.

And that needs to change. To get his budding career back on track—and what a track it was—Sterling needs to knuckle down, get his priorities straight and focus back on his football, where he can express himself on the pitch and fulfill his undoubted potential.

 

Stay Hungry

It’s not every day you see a 17-year-old start in a Premier League first team against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea and deliver arguably the best displays on the field.

It’s certainly not every day—no matter what they say about England caps being easier to come by these days—that a youngster is awarded an England cap on the back of two months in the first team, never mind in the Premier League.

And, of course, it’s not every day that a hot prospect receives a glowing endorsement of his potential and nothing but pure praise from Gary Neville, ex-archrival and famously critical TV pundit.

So if we look at it from Sterling’s point of view, perhaps we’d forgive him for feeling pretty good about himself and what he’s accomplished in his short career to date.

But he can’t let that get to his head. Yes, he’s played in the Premier League, in Europe and he’s worn the England shirt, but he needs to stay hungry and focus on achieving everything he possibly can in what ultimately is a short stay at the very top of professional football.

He’s said the right things and now needs to make sure he goes into training with those goals in mind every single day.

 

Be More Assertive on the Pitch, Even as an Impact Substitute

And now we come to the on-field stuff.

In a thin squad at the beginning of the 2012/13 season, Sterling was one of an impressive trio, along with Andre Wisdom and Suso, to have established themselves in Brendan Rodgers’ first team for the first half of the season.

Getting opportunities to play at least an hour week in, week out will have done his confidence and development a world of good, while the exposure and competition with the England U-21s will also have helped complement that learning experience at the top level.

Since the arrivals of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and to some extent Iago Aspas, however, Sterling has found first-team minutes harder to come by, and with the exception of the Capital One Cup—a competition from which Liverpool have been eliminated after just their second game—has more often than not been considered as an impact substitute.

Which is a role that allows for less time to impress and less room to work with, but nonetheless is one that Sterling should embrace for the time being: After all, it is to Sterling that Rodgers often looks in the second half, rather than other options off the bench, so the feeling is that the No. 31 still has his manager’s trust in his abilities.

He made a big enough impression last year and continued to do so over this summer’s preseason fixtures, but now with his changed role, he needs to come alive instantly when he arrives on the pitch and deliver that same spark with the same assertiveness and confidence that he personified just 12 months ago.

 

Develop More Areas of His Game in a Changing Tactical System

It won’t come easy, partly because of the increase in options in the first team and on the bench, but also due to Rodgers’ tweaks to his tactical system this season.

From a 4-3-3 to an aesthetically pleasing 4-2-3-1, Liverpool have further evolved—both out of necessity with the injuries they have suffered and out of choice with their strength in depth in defence—to a 3-4-1-2 system in the 2013/14 campaign.

In this new system, which, considering the fine form of Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in the back three, appears to suit the Reds down to the hilt, the width is provided by two wing-backs rather than two attackers, and both positions already have incumbents in Glen Johnson (currently injured) and Jose Enrique.

With two central midfielders supporting a No. 10 behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the opportunities for a genuine winger or attacking midfielder to establish himself in the first team are rapidly diminishing—and even that No. 10 role, which has been filled by Victor Moses in recent weeks, is quite clearly destined for Philippe Coutinho when he returns from injury.

So could he reinvent himself as a wing-back to fit into this system or possibly a credible option in the hole? It all depends on whether he can improve on his already impressive defensive work and physical strength, as well as his creativity, passing and crossing.

Going out on loan in January or next summer is a real option for Sterling to get first-team experience at a top-flight club elsewhere without having to wait on the bench in a team currently right in the mix for a top-four spot—he’s good enough to play in the Premier League every week, especially when he’ll be 19 by then—but to fit into Rodgers’ blueprint for the Reds in the long term, adding more facets to his game will only help.

 

Bide His Time and Be Patient

It’s a cliche, but one that needs repeating: Raheem Sterling needs to be patient.

He will know that this is a Liverpool team that’s vastly different from the setup he so excitingly entered last year, when he was given a chance because of a lack of real depth on the bench. This year, after a fruitful summer, the squad is equipped with talent to fight for a Champions League finish, and certainly their results so far have been encouraging to that end.

So it won’t be easy for Sterling to force his way into the first-team setup, and it won’t be easy for Brendan Rodgers to change a winning team getting results on most weeks.

Rumors of a loan switch in the summer—this one from the Daily Star linked him with a move to West Ham United—may resurface over the next 10 months, and like Suso, Sterling may find himself looking for sustained first-team action at another club.

But since his debut for Rodgers, it’s been nothing but patently clear that his manager has high hopes for him and appreciates the improvement that he’s had in just over a year, so Sterling should take every chance he gets—be it at Anfield or elsewhere for the time being—knowing that he has the right mentor to develop him and help him fulfill his potential.

If he manages to focus on the right things for the sake of his career, we may well see Raheem Sterling develop into the world-class player that his talent suggests he can be.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal and Liverpool Shine, Steve McClaren Returns, The New Manager Effect

EPL Week 6 Recap: Manchester? It’s all happening in London and Merseyside!

You’ve probably heard, but it wasn’t a great weekend for Mancunian football, especially with Manchesters United and City both losing games they were expected to win, and indeed should have won.

We’ll have more on the David Moyes effect later in this week’s column, but suffice it to say that without Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney looks the Red Devils’ only hope of finding any match-winning inspiration these days. Rio Ferdinand was to blame for both of West Brom’s goals—and what fine goals they were from Morgan Amalfitano and Saido Berahino—but with Old Trafford’s invincible and indestructible aura at stake, Moyes opted for a League Cup lineup to rest players for their upcoming Champions League commitments. He’ll be hoping a limp 1-2 home loss won’t have affected those preparations.

If there were any consolation to be taken from Manuel Pellegrini, it would be that Manchester City actually played well at Villa Park, only to concede a third to the most hopeful of long punts from a goalkeeper and to come away with exactly zero points. Not an ideal Saturday for City, but they should take solace from the fact that they have kept up their performance levels, which somewhat justifies Pellegrini’s confidence in his side. 10 points from six matches—and seventh place—isn’t too bad, but the results and points must come if they are to re-up their title challenge.

Speaking of title challenge, let’s be honest: It’s been a downright impressive start to the campaign from Arsenal, who actually lost their first game of the season to Christian Benteke and Aston Villa (which wasn’t very impressive), but have won five straight games since. Perhaps Mesut Ozil’s arrival has really lifted the Emirates; perhaps it’s Olivier Giroud’s improved form and excellent movement to create space; perhaps it’s Aaron Ramsey rediscovering the sparkle that saw him labeled as one of the Premier League’s top rising talents before his horrendous injuries. Either way, when Santi Cazorla returns, this is one heck of a squad assembled by Arsene Wenger, and clinching a clean 2-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium provided ample proof.

Arsenal have dominated the headlines, but the other high-profile London clubs aren’t too far behind: In fact, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy third and fifth place in the table currently, and a thrilling encounter at White Hart Lane on Saturday showed just the abundance of talent currently in the English capital. For both teams, though, it seems that a top-quality, consistent striker is sorely needed: After a fine two-goal start, Roberto Soldado has vanished from Spurs’ overall play, and Fernando Torres followed up an encouragingly barnstorming performance with a needless red card. More to do then for the sparring Portuguese managers.

Let’s finish off the recap and top six watch with a tribute to the happenings and developments on Merseyside, where Liverpool bounced back with a fine 3-1 away victory at Sunderland, and Everton continued their unbeaten start with a 3-2 win against Newcastle. The Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge tandem is working well for Brendan Rodgers, and when Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho return (and SAS get back to full fitness), this new-look 3-4-1-2 Liverpool have potential in abundance. Everton aren’t too shabby either: A fine deadline day at Goodison Park (Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry) has added quality and experience to the squad, while Ross Barkley has continued his precocious form with dominating displays in midfield. Good times for Merseyside so far this season.

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

On September 30, it was confirmed that Steve McClaren, he of Middlesbrough and FC Twente fame—and England and Nottingham Forest infamy—would be making a return to football management, after his appointment as head coach at Derby County.

A subdued but sensible return for a coach formerly considered to be one of the country’s top talents, especially with his achievements at Middlesbrough in the early 2000s. Yes, that ill-fated spell as England manager ended with the image of “the wally with the brolly” seared into many fans’ minds forever, but even his Dutch-accented English couldn’t mask what was a successful first spell in charge of Eredivisie side FC Twente, whom he led to the league title and into the Champions League.

It’s been just three years since he was awarded the Rinus Michels Award for Dutch manager of the season, so it’s clear that McClaren still possesses the quality to possibly make it back to the Premier League yet. He deserves commendation for being the first Englishman to manage in the Bundesliga, and no doubt his connections with top-flight clubs and around Europe will aid his cause, if his board are prepared to back him. After a few challenging years, Derby will provide a stern test of his credentials, but don’t be surprised either if we see the Rams back in the top flight within the next few years.

 

What good (or bad) can a new manager do at a club?

As Paolo Di Canio proved last week, sometimes a manager can outlive his stay. But this season, there have been marked changes in the management of Premier League clubs, with contrasting fortunes—and most of them not so good. The effect a new manager can have at a club can be the subject of many hour-long debates, podcasts and talk shows, but let’s consider three contrasting cases already evident six games in.

The elephant in the room is of course David Moyes, who took the toughest job in English football in the toughest circumstances this summer. Make no mistake: Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a tall order—just finding that aura and presence in the dressing room and among rival clubs alone was a significant challenge—but this is a squad that, compared to United’s all-powerful team in the Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Edwin van der Sar era, was in need of major strengthening anyway. But Moyes’ recent public admissions have harked back to his Everton “everything against us” days and a far cry from the bullish Ferguson reign. If Moyes is still hanging on to a small-club mentality at Old Trafford, this won’t go well.

On the more borderline contentious side, there’s Mark Hughes at Stoke City, who has notably changed the Potters’ style from long-ball, “rugby”-like under Tony Pulis to predominantly possession-based and progressive. Has this worked? A quick glance at the Premier League table shows that Stoke are placed 15th in the league with seven points from six games, which would land them just outside the relegation places come next May. Early days, but this is an evolution that has already drawn criticism: There’s a line of thought that Hughes is trying to do too much with a limited squad. The saving grace is that with his experience and reputation in football, he could easily bring experience and quality to the Britannia in January. Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic are but three reminders of the caliber of manager Stoke have.

Finally, we’ll end our case study with Roberto Martinez, who is in charge of a club that’s threatened to break into the European places but never strongly enough for the top six to consider as true rivals. Which is why Everton was granted two excellent Premier League players on loan on deadline day—Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry were presumably allowed to move to Goodison Park as they wouldn’t be strengthening a direct rival, but also because they wouldn’t have marched straight into the starting XI’s of any top six team. When Martinez was appointed in the summer, his latest project would either have ended underwhelmingly—like Wigan ultimately did with a team aspiring to play like Barcelona with Championship-level players—or in unexpected joy. So far, with a playing style considerably more aesthetically pleasing than Moyes’ last year, Martinez looks as if he’s confounding expectations: Everton are fourth and still unbeaten.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

Lucas Suspended: What a Lucas-Less Liverpool Lineup Could Look Like

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
 
 
In his sixth league game of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, Lucas earned himself a one-match suspension after sustaining his fifth yellow card of the season against Sunderland on Sunday.

This means the Reds No. 21, who has won a recall back to Luis Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side ahead of their upcoming friendlies, will sit out Liverpool’s hosting of Crystal Palace on Saturday October 5.

A chance, then, for Brendan Rodgers to continue tinkering with his new 3-4-1-2 formation with the absence of his trusted midfield enforcer, who has been rather underwhelming this season with his performances alongside Steven Gerrard.

Let’s look at what a Lucas-less Liverpool lineup could look like in its current context—but also how the Reds’ strongest starting XI would be if Lucas weren’t a fixture.

Let us know your thoughts and picks in the comments below.

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

With his impressive shot-stopping performances since joining Liverpool from Sunderland this summer, Simon Mignolet picks himself as the firm No. 1 in the lineup.

There have been moments of uncertainty for the big Belgian keeper, but if he improves his aerial command of the box and his distribution, he could turn out to be one of the Reds’ best ever.

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

Arguably Liverpool’s stand-out performer so far this season, Kolo Toure has proven to be an inspired signing for Brendan Rodgers this summer—and on a free transfer from Manchester City, will turn out as one of the bargains of the season.

On current form, Toure is an integral part of Rodgers’ starting XI, and as the season progresses, his experience and leadership will prove just as important as his pace, stamina and physicality.

Martin Kelly is a fantastic prospect waiting on the sidelines to return after his injury hell, but he’ll have to wait before he can hope to dislodge Toure from the lineup.

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on why a three-man defence could be the way to go at Anfield, but a key reason is that the Reds now have a plethora of options in central defence to choose from, and summer signing Mamadou Sakho is one of them.

A nervous debut at Swansea City has been followed up by two solid performances in the league, and with each passing game Sakho is starting to justify both the hype he had as a prospect at Paris Saint-Germain and his £15 million price tag.

With him continuing his imperious form with an impressive set of defensive attributes, vice-captain Daniel Agger will have to bide his time before returning to the starting XI.

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

It could well be that Agger could make his return to the starting XI in a central sweeper role, but Martin Skrtel’s impressive form in the heart of the three-man defence right now means that may take a while to happen.

Martin Skrtel’s performance against Manchester United in the second league game of the season turned out to be the start of a very encouraging upturn in form, and his no-nonsense brand of defending will continue to be important to the Reds’ fortunes.

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

With Glen Johnson injured for at least another few weeks, Brendan Rodgers has been using Jordan Henderson as a right wing-back in his 3-4-1-2 formation.

Lucas’ suspension, however, may change the first-team setup a bit, and perhaps for the better.

We’ll touch on what we think could be a useful role for Henderson in a few slides.

But we posit that young winger Raheem Sterling could be an interesting experiment in a slightly more defensive starting position, given his pace, work rate, surprising upper body strength, and well-known penchant for bombing down the flanks.

Given a few more weeks for the rest of the team to settle into this formation, however, when Johnson—a player tailor-made for a wing-back role—makes his first-team return, that’s when things could well and truly become exciting.

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

Jose Enrique is a player capable of two extremes: the brilliant and the downright frustrating, such are his attributes as a left full/wing-back.

His defensive qualities, barring a very apt use of his size and strength, are at times suspect (especially his positioning), while his crossing, shooting and decision-making leave much to be desired. But it’s no doubt that he offers a useful outlet on the overlap and a valuable contributor tracking back.

This is why a three-man defence, with Mamadou Sakho being another man supporting him from behind, could be the key to unlocking Enrique’s finest form.

Johnson, on the other hand, showed himself to be a more than competent left-back—in some quarters one of the league’s best—when standing in last term, but will only be moved over if other options on the right flank don’t work out.

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

Whisper it quietly, but though he delivered the corner that Daniel Sturridge turned in for Liverpool’s first goal against Sunderland on Saturday and the breathtaking diagonal pass to send Sturridge on his way for his side’s second, Steven Gerrard has been far from his best form this season.

How much this has to do with Lucas’ underwhelming form beside him, or with his own ageing years, we’ll leave for another debate.

But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that in the context of Liverpool’s young team and Brendan Rodgers’ inexperienced side, the club captain remains indispensable at the moment.

With a more energetic and positionally smart central/defensive midfielder beside him, Gerrard could rediscover his playmaking form of old, dictating matches week in, week out.

If anything, his set-piece prowess still sets him out as one of the Premier League’s finest in that regard.

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

Enter Jordan Henderson, who has continued to justify his selection every week with steady, consistent performances in an attacking midfield role.

Given Lucas’ suspension, however, this could be a good time to try the No. 14 back in his favored central midfield position. Here, the Reds could use some good positional and tactical sense, excellent work rate and tracking back and, most importantly, the stamina and pace to track midfield runners and close down shooting opportunities from opposing teams.

Henderson’s tidy passing and ability to deliver a neat first-time through-ball also adds to the reasons we suggest him as a potential partner for Steven Gerrard, while Joe Allen’s form in this position early last year also means he could be an interesting contender for the role as well.

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

There’s no doubt that when fit, Philippe Coutinho will start in his favored—and strongest—No. 10 position supporting the striker(s).

Given his injury problems at the moment, Victor Moses has been used in this position, but has been relatively underwhelming due to his natural tendency to stay wide and influence proceedings from the flanks.

It’s fair to say that while Moses has an array of tricks that make him a dangerous winger, he doesn’t quite have that ability to unlock a defence with a composed pass or a delicate piece of skill that a Liverpool No. 10 should.

While Henderson has been used in that position with some success as a pressing No. 10, we suggest that Joe Allen, who was deployed in this role to good effect over the course of preseason, be given a run-out, especially if Coutinho is still injured when he returns.

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

When fit, the front two in this 3-4-1-2 system picks itself.

Daniel Sturridge, currently top scorer both for Liverpool and in the English Premier League, has shown even while not fully fit that he is maturing into a top well-rounded marksman.

He is likely to remain a key player for Brendan Rodgers for a few more months to come.

 

ST: Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez has come straight back into the Liverpool XI after his 10-match suspension even given his public protestations this summer, but it was always too big a temptation to resist.

Following up a lively performance against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup with a two-goal display at Sunderland, Suarez has played his way back into the hearts of the Liverpool fans again, and will play an important role for the rest of the season, at least.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.