The Football Business Column: MLS Expansions, Premier League Interest and the Rise of Football in the US

The latest installment in the never-ending story surrounding Major League Soccer and its expansion plans arrived last week, as Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as the league’s 21st franchise, to join New York City Football Club as new entrants in 2015.

The story of football’s expansion and rise in the US is impressive, especially given the context of its domestic league’s relative young age, but a look at the FIFA World Rankings shows that at 14th place (as of the time of writing), the US is here to stay.

To explore just how football has developed in America though, we have to first look back across the pond and to the Premier League, whose increasingly globalized product is at the heart of it all.

 

NBC Sports deliver polished Premier League product to US audiences

The new PL carrier in England, BT Sport, recently struck a groundbreaking deal to carry the Champions League from 2015-2018, as reported by BBC Sport.

But they’re arguably not even the biggest newcomer to have caused waves through the football television industry. That accolade goes to America’s NBC Sports, who have well and truly taken football coverage in the US up several notches, especially in comparison with the likes of FOX Soccer and ESPN.

NBC’s coverage is a curiously familiar one, especially to those already well versed in typical English broadcasts. There’s little to interfere with normal play, and the analysis shows before and after the matches—as well as during half-time—all feature English commentators and pundits.

Essentially, NBC have stuck to the basics and not delivered any coverage that might come across as patronizing towards the American viewer; they’ve assumed that their audience is familiar with football and have promoted intelligent discussion with this as the basic assumption.

Add in the aggressive marketing campaigns that NBC have embarked on—especially in New York City in the buildup to the 2013/14 season—and the conclusion thus far is that the English Premier League has been an unequivocal success. Keeping with the core English base but adding some of that famous American marketing and broadcasting technique on top? Sounds like a winner.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesFootball’s rise in America

For avid fans of the Premier League—and no doubt for its executive team—the fact that NBC’s coverage has been a success in America bodes well for the future of what is surely now the world’s most popular and exported professional sports league, so much so that the PL is now seen in some circles as NBC’s flagship product.

But those worried about any possible decrease in interest in the US’ own Major League Soccer because of the widespread coverage of the Premier League need not fret: According to this New York Times report, since PL coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.

There was never any worry about Americans’ interest in their own national teams in World Cup years—whether it be the men’s or the women’s tournament. Neither was there ever any worry, especially in recent years, about support of their local MLS teams, who have boasted stadium attendance numbers to rival and surpass those of both the NBA and NHL, according to this Forbes article. Nor was there any worry about American football fans paying attention to their overseas-based stars, such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (the latter two have, of course, returned to the US).

So the fact that TV viewership of MLS is rising—and alongside the Premier League—is massively encouraging for the sport and its growth prospects in the world’s most sports-consumption-heavy country.

USA TODAY SportsMLS expansion, aggression and inevitable evolution

Given the Americans’ propensity and expertise at marketing, commercialization and business expansion—and especially given the increase in the number of American owners of European football clubs—was it any wonder that interest, both foreign and American, would eventually return to US shores?

Setting aside the increasing trend of relatively big names in Europe spending their final footballing years in MLS, the incident that really indicated the prospect of a “soccer boom” in the US was Manchester City’s investment in their joint venture, New York City FC, due to join MLS in 2015.

Sheikh Mansour interested in American growth and influence? A partnership with one of Europe’s newest big boys? Almost seems too good to be true.

If that wasn’t enough indication of a new era beckoning in American football (ahem), what about the recent announcement of the Orlando City SC franchise expansion—and the imminent possibility of a Miami-based MLS venture backed by David Beckham?

That both of these developments have hit the airwaves is not surprising: MLS have shown textbook aggression by aiming to capitalize on a rising wave of interest in football, by proclaiming that the Orlando-Miami rivalry will be one to look forward to, according to the Miami Herald. The bullish pronouncements of Orlando City’s owners, reported here by BBC Sport, regarding the possible signing of Brazilian star and AC Milan legend Kaka merely add to the hype.

And if even that wasn’t enough, surely the recent revelation that MLS franchises have increased 175 percent in value over the past five years (c/o SportBusiness.com) will do it. The current average valuation is $103 million, with seven teams—Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City—already surpassing it. (Don’t be surprised if NYCFC and OCSC join them at the top by 2016.)

Harry How/Getty ImagesThe growth will only continue. The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that once interest starts to grow, it snowballs. And the beginnings of a real football revolution are starting to take place in America.

Which, inevitably, leaves club owners and the league with big decisions to make over the coming years, regarding the direction that they want to take the sport in. Murmurs of instituting the promotion and relegation system, so ubiquitous in the European leagues but almost nonexistent in the US, are growing in noise level, and with MLS expanding to a grand total of 21 teams by 2015 (22 if Miami is awarded a franchise by then), that leaves MLS wanting to join the world’s collection of elite first-division football leagues with the most number of teams in it.

The rest of the infrastructure—league-paid transfer fees, league-owned players, salary caps and Designed Player systems—is currently still a universe away from what the top professionals in Europe are familiar with, and there will need to be an inevitable coming together of practices and policies if MLS are to break into that top bracket of leagues.

While that’s being pondered by Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and his executive team, they’ll continue to see the steady growth of the beautiful game in the US.

Perhaps one day, it’ll be they who look forward to exporting their product overseas.

 

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.

English Football Weekly: Liverpool v Everton; England’s Philosophical Troubles; Questionable Referees

EPL Week 12 recap: Manchester contrasts; Merseyside wonders

What a difference a goal makes. If it weren’t for Kim Bo-Kyung’s injury-time equalizer against Manchester United, they’d be two points ahead of Manchester City by now. A nine-match unbeaten run is now extended, but David Moyes will have been left ruing the defensive chaos and laxness of his side as they shipped a forgettable two goals to gain only a point. Top teams take points even when their performances don’t necessarily justify them, but a point away at Cardiff—acceptable as an off-day though it might have been during the Sir Alex Ferguson era—does no good for the Red Devils.

Especially when their city rivals roared yet again at home, scoring six goals against an admittedly woeful Tottenham side to take their goal difference to +22, a whole eight goals above nearest challengers Arsenal. Much has been made of Sergio Aguero’s star performance and burgeoning status as the Premier League’s premier player, and also of Fernandinho’s pivotal role in making everything tick—and Andre Villas-Boas’ side were every bit as embarrassing and disjointed as Manuel Pellegrini’s was slick and ominous. City need only replicate their form away from home; Spurs need desperate reinforcement in January.

As contrasting as the two Manchester clubs’ fortunes were on Sunday, Merseyside was united on Saturday in its appreciation for a good derby, a first openly attacking and truly end-to-end derby in many a season. Luis Suarez made sure that Aguero wouldn’t take all his spotlight, while Romelu Lukaku also put in a performance that can only be described as Didier Drogba-like. More interesting was Brendan Rodgers’ post-match comments and public criticism of Daniel Sturridge’s fitness, Ross Barkley and James McCarthy’s upper hand in the midfield, and Joe Allen’s miss. Oh, Joe. How can you redeem yourself from that?

At the Emirates, Southampton were actually not as bad as the final scoreline made it seem. But they had Artur Boruc and a soft penalty to thank, and so the Gunners machine rolls on. Newcastle also kept up a decent run of results with a 2-1 win over Norwich that takes them into eighth place above Spurs, with Yohan Cabaye impressing once again. The fall guys of the weekend? Martin Jol, who surely edged closer to the brink at Fulham with another defeat, and Gus Poyet, who, for all the right noises he’s made, is still rooted at the bottom of the league.

 

England dealt a lesson in philosophy and long-term thinking

If international friendlies—especially those that take place knowing that a World Cup place is secure—are meant to be experimental exercises, then Roy Hodgson will have learned much more about the state of English football than he did about his own players, after the deflating back-to-back Wembley defeats last week.

It’s not so much England having a disappointing day out against Chile—any upset, while, erm, upsetting, would be understandable as an off-day—but a case of a philosophical defeat to a young, energetic and vibrant South American side. Of course, the standard post-match talk was on the valuable experience that playing Chile provided, and that the players were looking forward to playing European opposition when they met Germany. One lesson that flew by.

The problem was that Germany, despite winning by a one-goal margin, also turned out to be comprehensive winners. And there, the second glaring lesson was impossible to ignore: England, a short-team team with a short-team outlook, had been beaten by teams that have realized the importance of a top-down philosophy and organized, pervasive infrastructure. In other words, England’s defeats were no fluke.

Granted, it’s a vicious cycle: A lack of long-term thinking means that qualification for the next tournament is what the media expect, and to meet those expectations, England throw out a team (hopefully) capable of winning the next game to secure the next point or three. A textbook example of short-termism. Which, of course, will have been the elephant in the room until Premier League action resumed and took back all the spotlight.

Another week goes by without much change. This inquisition will take place again when England underwhelm in Brazil next summer, again without much change. What an injustice to the new and talented generation of England youngsters.

 

We need to talk about the referees

So it turns out goal-line technology was the one that was the least needed. It was implemented, of course, due to its relative ease (just paying the installation costs and setting up the technology in stadiums would suffice) and the authorities’ unwillingness to discuss the governance of far more important—and far trickier—decisions.

But we knew that all along. So what’s been done to prepare referees for ever-trickier situations that arise in the ever-quickening pace of the English game? From the ample evidence on show this weekend, the answer is a resounding no.

As much as we don’t want to blame referees because of the lack of help that they currently receive in having to make such big calls on the fly, it’s clear that big decisions are having bigger impacts on the outcomes of games—and overturning those decisions post-match, just like the FA may do with Wes Brown’s nonsense red card, might even end up undermining the power and decision-making of officials on the pitch.

And it’s not just situations around the ball—like Wayne Rooney’s petulant kicking out at Jordon Mutch and Kevin Mirallas’ dangerous knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez—there are off-the-ball incidents too, like Gary Medel’s punch on Marouane Fellaini and Mirallas’ elbow on Jordan Henderson. None of which, naturally, received the adequate attention and punishments from the referees on show.

So what do we do? Defer to post-match punishment of both offending players and referees who happened to miss the incidents? Or take a more rational approach to video reviews like tennis, by allowing each team a few challenges per match to appeal to a video replay? The latter makes much more sense in the evolving integration of sports and technology, but given the reluctance in adopting even goal-line technology, we football fans probably have to endure a few more questionable calls yet.

 

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.

Everton 3-3 Liverpool: 6 Talking Points from Thrilling Merseyside Derby Draw

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Goals, drama and controversy. High tempo, high energy and intense atmosphere. Liverpool lead, Everton comeback and Liverpool equalize. Simply put, the 221st Merseyside derby had it all.

Philippe Coutinho got things rolling from a set-piece situation in a frantic opening 20 minutes, which saw Kevin Mirallas equalize before Luis Suarez’s exquisite free-kick saw the Reds enter the break 2-1 up.

Romelu Lukaku notched up two devastating goals for the hosts to seemingly complete a gutsy turnaround, only for Daniel Sturridge to come off the bench to tie things up right at the death.

Saturday’s Premier League opening game was a spectacle for Liverpudlians and neutrals alike, and displayed to a full extent the attacking philosophies of the respective managers on the Goodison Park touchline.

Here are six talking points from a thrilling Merseyside derby draw between Everton and Liverpool. Enjoy and let us know what you made of it all in the comments below.

The Spotlight Shines on Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet and Romelu Lukaku

After Luis Suarez’s goal, diving celebration and non-goal in this corresponding fixture last year, we knew there wasn’t a chance he’d let this one pass him by either.

If his free-kick in the 19th minute—an expert low curler from outside the box—was impressive, equally eye-catching and perhaps even more important was his fanatical work rate, desire and commitment to the Reds cause.

Sergio Aguero would have had something to say about this after his barnstorming performance in Manchester City’s demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, but there’s a very strong argument that Luis Suarez is currently the best player in the Premier League.

If Suarez is the best outfield player in the top flight, surely Simon Mignolet has an equal shout as the best shot-stopper currently in England.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will, in the aftermath of the draw, look at the positive side of Mignolet’s nine saves and conclude that he has indeed been an upgrade on Pepe Reina, and ignore all the insinuations that come with conceding so many shots on goal in the first place.

Mignolet has won the Reds many a point and kept them in many a game this season, but Everton’s loan star Romelu Lukaku made sure that the Belgian goalkeeper would have to concede three times before making the return journey across Stanley Park.

The cream of the crop among some fine transfer window business by Roberto Martinez, Lukaku simply had too much for Liverpool as they looked to recover from Joe Allen’s horrendous miss.

With two goals in 10 minutes, Lukaku enhanced his burgeoning reputation as the premier target-man striker in the Premier League and he’s only 20 years old.

Liverpool Hurt by Kevin Mirallas, Phil Dowd and Joe Allen

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be a Merseyside derby without its fair share of controversy and drama, and a single dose of Kevin Mirallas provided all the poison this traditionally fiery clash warranted—not that it needed it.

Currently doing the rounds on the Internet are comparisons between Mirallas’ knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez and the other noteworthy referee blunders of the weekend—starring Wes Brown’s sending-off and Wayne Rooney’s petulant lash—but he wasn’t finished there.

A further stamp on Suarez and a bloodying elbow to Jordan Henderson’s face ensured that Mirallas ended the game as the villain. So it was all too fitting that he’d opened the scoring for Everton before any of the above happened.

If Phil Dowd had stuck to the referees’ guidelines of sending players off for dangerous tackles to protect the recipients, perhaps this game would have turned out differently.

As it were, just as we predicted before the match, the referee’s decision and the Fat Lady came to the fore, like it did in both the derby fixtures last season. Mark Halsey was demoted to the Championship after his blunder against West Bromwich Albion a few weeks ago; Dowd might just be fearing the same.

Of course, Liverpool could’ve rendered any outside forces and chance to a mere afterthought if they had taken charge of their own destiny and made their own luck.

We’re talking, of course, about Joe Allen, who found himself clear with just the goalkeeper to beat from a mere 10 yards, and proceeded to fail to test Tim Howard so comprehensively that Everton—as though footballing karma actually exists—completed their comeback almost immediately.

Another “coulda-woulda-shoulda” for Liverpool, who, thanks to other results in the Premier League, keep their spot behind league leaders Arsenal for another week.

Time for a Change to the Reds’ Central Defence

After Mamadou Sakho’s heroics for France during their World Cup play-offs against Ukraine last week, one could’ve reasonably expected him to start in the derby with his confidence sky-high, especially against the sheer force that is Romelu Lukaku.

But marshalling the defence instead were Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, Liverpool’s tried and trusted central defensive pairing back in those days when they didn’t have any quality backup.

The problem, of course, is that the visitors do have alternative options these days, and in not playing Kolo Toure and Sakho, Brendan Rodgers opted—wrongly—for more of the same, and a continuation of old tradition.

Against a busy Lukaku and an energetic Everton midfield, and with a lacklustre and tired central midfield ahead of them, Toure and Sakho would have offered steel, composure, experience, physicality and pace as a defensive partnership.

Alas, the lack of strong defensive options meant that Saturday’s Liverpool had a soft core, and Everton’s approach play almost fully exploited it, like Southampton had done before them.

Without a strong right-sided central defender anchoring in beside him, Glen Johnson struggled as well, perhaps predictably, against the dynamic duo of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines, in a generally testy and nervy performance by the Liverpool defence.

We will reserve our compliments for Jon Flanagan, who, despite the pre-match doubts of almost all Liverpool fans, put in a shift that Jose Enrique would’ve been proud of. Aly Cissokho went on record stating his hopes of making his loan move from Valencia permanent (h/t Sky Sports)—on current evidence, he’ll need to work a whole lot more.

A Tale of Set Pieces

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It is curious that one of Liverpool’s likeliest ways to get a goal these days is also one of their most vulnerable areas, and that the main protagonist in the former is also one of the main culprits for the latter.

Let’s mention attacking set pieces first, and salute the deliveries of Steven Gerrard time and again, for it was his corner kick that led to Philippe Coutinho’s opening goal, and it was his free-kick in the 89th minute that made Daniel Sturridge’s dramatic headed equalizer possible.

A week ago, of course, two Gerrard set pieces got the ball rolling at Anfield against Fulham. It’s no surprise that with the captain in such inspired form from these situations, he currently leads the Premier League in assists, with five.

On the flip side, as inventive and effective as Gerrard has been from set piece situations, he has unfortunately been equally lethargic and lacking in mobility as a central midfielder, which would be less obvious if a dominant defensive midfielder were supporting him.

As it is, the combined energy, pace and positioning of Lucas and Gerrard have created holes in the midfield this season that have let opposing midfielders run past them all too easily, especially those with the physicality and power to do so.

This leads to the unfortunate propensity of conceding free-kicks in the Red half. Not an ideal situation, especially given the set-piece frailties that still plague Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Liverpool fans will be fervently hoping that Yann M’Vila, spotted in the stands on Saturday, was doing more than just paying his friend Mamadou Sakho a visit, as was rumoured by the Liverpool Echo.

Young Blues Full of Pace, Power and Promise

According to the main events in the match, it seemed like Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku stole the spotlight for Everton and will be the Blues’ main men this season.

After all, both profited from defensive mishaps to score the goals to almost win all three points for the hosts, and with five assists and seven goals respectively, they are high in both charts thus far this season. Mirallas leads the assists table with Gerrard, while Lukaku is joint fifth in goals scored with Robin van Persie and Olivier Giroud.

But many of the excellent performances that Everton have put on this season have been down to their young midfield duo, Ross Barkley and James McCarthy, both of whom put in mature displays on Saturday in one of the biggest matches in the Premier League season.

Barkley’s driving runs from midfield were relentless as they were tormenting, while McCarthy’s composure alongside the experienced Gareth Barry set the platform for the hosts’ impressive second-half comeback.

Just as Lukaku has been a brilliant loan signing, so too has Barry been a real bargain for the Blues. Looking long term, the trouble is whether or not Martinez will be able to replace them in his starting XI. But that’s a problem for another day—for January, or for next summer, perhaps.

For now, this Everton side have added pace, dynamism and an aesthetically pleasing brand of attacking football to their play. Martinez’s philosophies—and his excellent summer signings—seem to have found their place at Goodison Park already.

Daniel Sturridge Has Much to Learn

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
With his match-winning goal-scoring prowess, affable confidence and crowd-pleasing dance celebrations, what’s not to like about Daniel Sturridge?

From Brendan Rodgers’ post-match press conference, however, it seems that this exact attitude may have found its way into Sturridge’s own head, with the Liverpool manager citing “different personalities, different types” while comparing Suarez’s competitiveness to Sturridge’s lack of fitness, according to the Telegraph.

It is indicative of Rodgers’ man-management approach that he has embraced the qualities of Sturridge—qualities that were evident as he scored a dramatic equalizer after coming off the bench—but also that he has seen fit to criticize Sturridge’s fitness in times like this.

When your strike partner is Luis Suarez, though, it means you almost have to improve in every facet of your game.

Suspended for the first five games of the season, Suarez has roared back into first-team action and is already currently tied with Sturridge on nine league goals (just one behind league leader Sergio Aguero). But Suarez also brings with him a tremendous work rate and an eagerness to compete, even in training, which Rodgers has brought to attention.

“A lot of players, especially the top ones, are never 100 percent fit. Suarez will never have been 100 percent in his time here.”

For all the right noises that have been coming out of Daniel Sturridge, there is still plenty for him to learn. Fortunately for him, he’s got the perfect role model alongside him—at least for this season.

 

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

Everton vs. Liverpool Preview: How and Where the Merseyside Derby Will Be Won

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Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
 
 
The Red and Blue halves of Merseyside will meet for the 221st time on Saturday, as Liverpool prepare to travel across Stanley Park to take on Everton at Goodison Park.

After two successive derby draws last season, the rivalry has a different complexion to it this time around: Having finished outside of the European places last May, Liverpool enter this fixture second in the Premier League table, while Everton, with 20 points in hand, are just a solitary point behind fourth-placed Chelsea.

As we look forward to a Merseyside derby with a renewed significance, let’s look at five areas—outside of focus on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge strike partnership and Everton’s in-form Romelu Lukaku—where the points might just be won on Saturday.

Enjoy, and let us know your views in the comments below.

Full-Backs and the Flanks

Let’s start first with a position that both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers consider to be integral to their style of play: the full-backs.

With both managers preferring wingers that cut in and build through the middle, the full-backs figure prominently in the tactical setups of both Everton and Liverpool—Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have been every bit as impressive and important as the Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique duo over at Anfield.

And with Enrique out with a knee injury (according to BBC Sport, he will likely face surgery), Liverpool’s deputy left-back—whether it’s Aly Cissokho or Mamadou Sakho—will face a battle on his hands against Coleman and the talented Kevin Mirallas.

Johnson and Baines over on Everton’s left flank will be a battle between two of England’s most all-rounded full-backs, and will be equally mesmerizing. We can’t rule out a Baines free-kick or a Johnson stunner as the match-deciding goal either.

Steven Gerrard and His Young Pretender

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The central midfield at Goodison Park will likely feature a matchup that more than fans of the Merseyside derby will be keeping an eye on: Premier League fans, England fans, England manager Roy Hodgson and journalists looking for quick headline fixes will be paying attention as well.

That’s because in Steven Gerrard vs. Ross Barkley, we have the makings of a battle between the present (and soon-to-be past) and the future of the England central midfield.

Everything that Steven Gerrard is and used to be—the influential midfield playmaker, talismanic captain and erstwhile match-winning driving force—Ross Barkley, at 19 years of age, is currently aspiring to emulate.

And everything Barkley has been for Everton this season—a young, energetic talent with a penchant for the spectacular, and a snappy attitude to boot—Gerrard wishes he still had in his locker as a precocious teenager.

A changing of the guard, one that Liverpool fans surely wish was happening at Anfield instead of the derby, could also be pivotal in determining the result on Saturday.

Potential Match-Winners off the Bench

But it’s not just the starting XI that will influence proceedings, especially given the talent present in both squads these days. The match could easily be affected by a managerial masterstroke.

Let’s look at the home bench first, where on-loan Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu is clearly the danger man for the Reds to keep an eye on. His pace, dribbling and eye for goal will be a threat to the Liverpool defence—the No. 10 might even find himself in the starting lineup on Saturday.

Outside of Deulofeu, Everton also have Steven Naismith, who scored the winner against Chelsea back in September, and the admittedly short-of-confidence Nikica Jelavic to call on. Three goalscoring options off the bench, then. Not too shabby.

Quite on the contrary, Liverpool don’t have any strikers to call on, but they do have one of the league’s best strike partnerships in Suarez and Sturridge, of course. Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling are valuable attacking options that will help open up the midfield for SAS and Philippe Coutinho to push through the middle and attack.

Luis Alberto and Joe Allen also help add a sense of calm to the midfield possession play and could be crucial in changing the tempo of the game.

The Swansea Old Boys

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As we look ahead at a new and freshened up Merseyside derby this weekend, it’s also time to pay tribute to Swansea City, for it was at the Liberty Stadium that both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers made their names as up-and-coming managers.

Indeed, it was Martinez who implemented the aesthetically pleasing and now-famous passing style at Swansea, and Rodgers who continued that legacy and brought the Swans into the Premier League for the first time.

With their similar footballing philosophies of emphasizing technique and passing on the ground, Martinez and Rodgers share one other unique trait: Both were linked with the Anfield hot seat in the summer of 2012.

It was Rodgers who ended up receiving the offer, of course, which potentially makes Saturday a chance for Martinez to settle a personal score with his predecessor at Swansea. It’s already been referenced in the South Wales Evening Post.

The Daily Mail tells us that Martinez has never beaten Rodgers in the league, with the latter winning four and drawing one of their five meetings. Let’s see where the record stands at the end of the 90 minutes.

Referees—and the Fat Lady

Suffice it to say that the men with the whistles have been at the center of the past two Merseyside derbies.

For Liverpool fans, this fixture last year should’ve yielded all three points to the Reds—Luis Suarez’s would-be winner was wrongly chalked off for offside in injury time—while Everton fans will have been incensed at Sylvain Distin’s own ruled-out effort in the reverse fixture in May.

And it’s not only the ruled-out goals: Since the start of the Premier League, the Merseyside derby has seen more red cards than any other matchup, making the referee a central figure in such matchups. According to the Mirror, Phil Dowd will be officiating the 221st derby.

There’s also the small matter of luck. Lady Luck will look to make her presence felt in a pivotal game like this, but that’s the subject of a totally different analysis.

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

The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Four: The Fans)

So here we are at Part Four, the final episode to this four-part series covering big data in football.

So far, we’ve looked at three key players in the burgeoning industry of football analytics and statistics: the scouts, the coaches and the scientists. We’ve seen the ways that data-driven analyses have revolutionized and modernized the beautiful game, and we’ve discussed the ways that clubs, managers and players all stand to benefit.

But undoubtedly, the most important player in all of this—and the player that will get the most enjoyment out of this new big data revolution in football—is the fan.

Because after all, it’s because of the fans that football as a profession (extending to all associated occupations) exists. It’s because of the fans (and the money and consumption power that come with them) that leagues strive to design the best and most marketable product possible, and clubs in turn do all they can to boost performance, win silverware and attract even more fans.

It’s all a beautiful cycle that—overlooking the cynicism surrounding money in modern football—will only spin faster, and the components will only get more closely knit together.

Not only will fans benefit from the better competition on the field of play, but they have also been at the forefront of the analytics movement: They’ve driven some of the newest innovations themselves with their own interests in statistics, and as such there have been whole industries created and extended to include football in their reach.

To best gauge where the big data movement in football currently is and predict how it’s going to further develop, we turn to the fans to best see what we’ll experience next.


A sample of Opta’s offerings, courtesy of optasports.com

Data Providers

It’s hard to really trace football analytics back to one founder, but Charles Reep, a former wing commander, is probably a good person to start with, in the early 1950s.

Reep went about collecting football statistics by himself to suggest that “the key to scoring goals and winning games was to transfer the ball as quickly as possible from back to front,” thereby indirectly starting the long-ball movement in English football. This must-read Forbes article details his monumental role in both football analytics and as such the stereotypical English footballing style.

Over the years, football statistics have evolved into a profession in itself. As we have covered in previous installments of this series, there are now professional statistical analysis firms like ProZone and Opta, who provide data to football clubs, coaches and leagues, who pay for such services to ensure they can remain in control of their performances and results as much as possible, by monitoring their players and opponents.

And through fan interest, more and more statistics and related analyses are being made available to fans for casual enjoyment, either to back up a viewpoint in a friendly bar conversation, or to challenge a friend’s opinion.

At the center of this, again, is Opta. With the expertise and reach that they provide—not to mention their reputation—Opta now supply the data at the heart of many a football statistics website and app (we’ll cover more of those later). As we can see in their official About page, Opta pride themselves on a “consistent and reliable approach across [their] global data collection operation.”

Behind many high-profile platforms, such as Sky’s innovative touchscreen app used by their football analysts on live TV, lie Opta and their statistical work. (Of course, they’re not limited to football either; their rugby coverage has also been met with critical acclaim.) A large number of websites also make use of Opta’s statistics to produce critical analyses and come up with insights and scoring patterns of their own.

This blog entry from AnalysisMarketing has a good selection and review of popular football sites that use Opta as their statistical backbone. Two of them, EPLIndex.com and WhoScored.com, are frequently quoted for their statistics-heavy commentaries and opinion pieces; indeed, their tweets are popular during football matches, though not as iconic as Opta’s own tweets, which have been the subject of case studies and awards.


The Sky Sports touchscreen technology, courtesy of thedrum.com

Fantasy Football and the Future

At the intersection of the Internet, the sports world and a growing fascination with numbers is the phenomenon that is fantasy sports.

For years, American sports in particular have been a huge hit with their fantasy leagues and games that are contested among fans—the March Madness bracket of college basketball has found its way to national prominence, with President Barack Obama a keen fan and follower, and it’s often more difficult to find a young college student without a bracket than another with a set of constantly changing predictions.

While fantasy American football is exploding and becoming a hugely lucrative and exciting industry, so fantasy football has been expanding in its own right, largely and not surprisingly coinciding with the increase in interest in the numbers and statistics behind football.

Fans of fantasy football will know well the three big versions of the game offered by the FA Premier League, ESPN and Yahoo!, and the differences in how they tabulate and score points for each position and each contribution towards the game show emphases on different aspects of the game, and has naturally prompted discussion on the merits of each fantasy league.

When we look at the burgeoning interest in fantasy football as it is, it’s hard not to ponder the potential that the game has for fans, for number-crunchers and for statistics lovers. (Before we do that, let’s also take a moment and pay tribute to Football Manager, the original statistics-loving football fan’s wonderland, still more powerful in 2013.)

Current protocol has it that defenders and goalkeepers score points for clean sheets while forwards do not, that they score more points per goals scored than midfielders and forwards—generally that each position is awarded points based on the player doing what essentially is in his job description on the pitch.

But how tantalizing is the thought—and we wouldn’t be surprised if this movement were already starting—that, with so much data being made available to fans, they would be able to design leagues by themselves among like-minded friends who wanted to focus more on niche attributes?

Would midfielders who tried more defence-splitting passes and completed more key passes per game score more than those who are simply their clubs’ designated penalty-takers? Would defensive midfielders who allowed fewer dribbles past them and achieved a higher tackling success rate be as valuable in the fantasy football world as forwards who scored goals? Would defenders who ventured forward more and played a larger proportion of their passes on the ground be more highly prized than those who simply got points by staying back, defending and keeping a clean sheet?

How these combinations and permutations would be constructed and conceptualized is entirely down to the imaginations of fans—and in the future we could see fans not just asking whether you’re playing the official EPL fantasy league, but whether you’re in the tiki-taka school or the long-ball-merchant hall.

How’s that for a communalization of football statistics?

 

Apps, Casual Analyses and More?

But we’re not done yet.

The natural extension of award-winning statistics-based websites is the mobile app, and we can start our discussion here with the Telegraph’s compilation of “essential” football apps.

One of the most high-profile football data apps is probably FourFourTwo’s award-winning Stats Zone app, which is driven by data from Opta and covers a wide range of leagues across the globe. Its unique selling point, for those who don’t already have it on their phones, is that it allows fans to pinpoint their own areas of interest and can share their analyses over social media and email.

Unsurprisingly, this innovative approach and user-centric design has led to a quick expansion of the Stats Zone app, which has been met with considerable joy from fans all over the world. (That last part was based on pure conjecture, but we suspect that it’s mostly true, even without data to back us up.)

Another product that has seen a remarkable rise within a year is Squawka, which styles itself as a second-screen app, riding on the unmistakable wave of second-screen technology currently taking over mobile devices.

It’s this provision of data visualization and easy-to-manage statistics and graphs that have propelled Squawka to their unique position as a favorite tool both for fans and for advertisers, who see unparalleled screen time due to its continued, undistracted presence on a tablet screen for a viewer. No surprise, then, that Squawka has quickly added commentary pieces and news articles to its burgeoning collection of football information throughout the past year—it launched in June 2012—and no surprise that it’s received significant interest from outside the football industry and from investors excited at a new business frontier.

And it doesn’t stop there. Squawka also looks at trends beyond what’s happening on the pitch. A groundbreaking project with DataSift allowed Squawka to track social media activity on Twitter during Chelsea’s home defeat to Manchester United on October 28, 2012 (less than five months after its official launch). The relative spikes in activity in correlation with key moments in the match provided insight into fan behaviors, and there’s more to come.

The quotes from Squawka cofounder and CEO Sanjit Atwal towards the end of the Guardian piece hint at future potential of data visualization and tracking beyond football: “Does a bit of ultimately unnecessary skill boost online reaction more than a simple yet effective pass? Do foreign players get more abuse for diving than their English counterparts?”

More than just helping stimulate reactions towards 22 players kicking a ball around a stadium, these analytics companies are trekking into unchartered territory: human behavior, social psychology and anthropology.

Ladies and gentlemen: Football, the beautiful game.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

Analyzing Jordan Henderson’s Role, Improvement Areas and Future at Liverpool

With his recent call-up to the upcoming England friendlies, Jordan Henderson has returned to the England fold with his reputation reinstated.

After all, his previous international involvement was in Euro 2012, where he took over Frank Lampard’s No. 8 with much derision. This time around, Henderson joins the squad as an overdue reward, after he was overlooked for England’s qualifier matches in September despite starting his club season in great form.

At this point, we’ve all heard about Henderson’s turnaround at Liverpool: He arrived from Sunderland for a price tag that was too high and heaped unrealistic expectations on his shoulders; he played way too often in his debut season despite mediocre performances at best; he was the fans’ favorite to leave in the summer of 2012 for a massive loss; he was offered to Fulham in exchange for Clint Dempsey but decided to stay to fight for his place; he worked hard and forced his way back into the starting XI; he’s now an indispensable member of the first team.

Which is all well and good—and Henderson deserves major credit for fighting his back into Brendan Rodgers’ thinking and into his first-choice starting lineup. (Rodgers, for his part, deserves credit for putting his faith in his abilities and granting him a chance to show his worth.)

But with the January transfer window coming up and with the midfield surely a priority area for further strengthening in the coming months, what can we make of Jordan Henderson’s role at Liverpool?

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At Present: Ever-Present and Versatile

The good news for the No. 14 is that right now he’s in great form and full of confidence after an encouraging start to the season (as B/R’s Karl Matchett has broken down here), so much so that he’s played in all of Liverpool’s Premier League games this season and has become an integral part of Rodgers’ current system.

Whether it’s a 4-2-3-1, a 3-4-1-2 or a variation of a 4-4-2, Henderson’s tremendous work rate allows him to get up and down the pitch and exert pressure on opposing midfields, and while he started his Anfield career seemingly not able to channel his energies to useful contributions and positions, he’s now much more tactically aware, as his manager has acknowledged here in the Liverpool Echo.

With a high defensive line and midfield pressure key to Rodgers’ footballing approach, Henderson’s physical attributes have a crucial role in the current setup, and so it has proved, with Joe Allen kept out of the side since returning from injury due in part to Henderson’s impressive form.

His versatility has also seen him keep his place despite the constant changes to Liverpool’s tactics and formations this season; he’s filled in in a more attacking midfield role, a defensive-leaning central role, a right-sided free role and also as right wing-back, all to modest success, and this sets him apart from other competing midfielders.

Given his obvious improvement and his willingness to work hard for the Liverpool cause, it’s easy to see why Rodgers has put his trust in Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool fans are starting to come around to him being an integral part of the setup.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Further Improvement Areas and Potential Evolution

But while he’s put in encouraging shifts this season, Week 10’s trip to the Emirates Stadium served as a timely reminder of how much he still needs to work on.

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey—himself also a rejuvenated hot midfield prospect—took home all the plaudits in a marauding display reminiscent of a certain young Steven Gerrard, with Henderson’s trusty midfield pressure being reduced to little effect as the Liverpool midfield were simply overrun.

Symbolic of the long, hard journey Henderson must still take was a chance early on in the game, when he ran the length of the midfield and bore down on goal, but only managed to fluff his shot so badly that Wojciech Szczesny wasn’t even tested.

Clearly, goalscoring is a key area that Henderson must work on if he is to remain an important member of Rodgers’ squad. The on-fire front two of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have shouldered the vast majority of Liverpool’s goalscoring burden thus far this season and look likely to do so for the coming months, but the midfield must be looking to chip in with the occasional goal, and Henderson, especially in an advanced role, must add goals to his game.

We’ve seen glimpses of his ability to strike a ball during his time at Anfield; now it’s a matter of adding the composure and consistency to test goalkeepers every week: Simply being a chance-creator—something he has been known for since his days at Sunderland—is not enough for the long run.

While the mercurial through-balls of Philippe Coutinho are a prized inimitable asset of the No. 10, Henderson must still look to influence the game more with his passing in the final third. According to WhoScored.com, Henderson has notched an 87.4 percent pass success rate and an average of 1.6 key passes per game, but only 0.3 crosses per game and a solitary assist this season.

In a current narrow system that puts the onus of wing play on full-backs Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, the crucial creative forces, besides the SAS strike partnership, are the central midfielders, which suits Henderson to a tee, considering his natural technical and physical attributes.

A simple change in formation, however, and the likes of Victor Moses, Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Luis Alberto, who are kicking their heels on the bench and waiting for a run in the first team, would be eager to take to the field and showcase their dribbling, one-on-one take-ons and cultured passing, all of which can’t be considered Henderson’s forte.

But with endless stamina already on the books, Henderson could and should model his game on the likes of the born-again Ramsey and Chelsea’s Ramires, both of whom drive as box-to-box midfielders despite not being the most physically formidable (Yaya Toure seems to be a class apart). If he adds goals and more creative side to his game, Henderson could evolve into a true modern top-class midfielder.

Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Future: Squad Player or First-Teamer?

And he would do well to add such dimensions to his midfield play, as this current Liverpool setup is vastly different from the one he joined in 2011.

Back then, the Reds were wounded from the fatal last months of the ill-fated George Gillett and Tom Hicks ownership and the disastrous half-season reign of Roy Hodgson, and Kenny Dalglish was parachuted in to salvage the campaign—and brought in a host of British players to try to build Liverpool with a home-grown flavor.

Anfield was a place of low expectations back then, struggling in the league, and Henderson was gifted unconditional trust in the midfield without having to prove his quality week in, week out.

But the Liverpool of 2013 is different, and Anfield has a different vibe to it. Currently placed second in the league, Rodgers’ men are aiming for a place in the top four, with whispers of an unlikely title challenge if their current form holds up.

Recent transfer window acquisitions have been encouraging and mostly successful, and with the central midfield a clear weakness in the current team, club management look likely to purchase real quality to strengthen the middle of the park—and likely to bolster the attacking areas as well.

Jordan Henderson is currently an integral member of the first-team squad, but it still feels more like he is a jack-of-all-trades hard worker than a top-class midfielder with genuine quality starting every week at the top of the Premier League.

He will need to further improve his game like he has in the past year to retain his status as a first-teamer in a much stronger and confident team, or else risk being a casualty of the inevitable culling and rebuilding in the Reds machine.

And we wouldn’t be surprised if he proves the doubters wrong. Again.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Arsenal Slip, Liverpool Close-In; A New Managerial Generation; BT Sport’s Champions League Megadeal

EPL Week 11 recap: Reds dominate; Spurs slip; United roar

There were no lingering memories of Liverpool’s forgettable loss at the Emirates last week, as the Reds took Fulham to task and practically ripped them apart. Four goals were scored at Anfield on Saturday, but it really should’ve been more like seven or eight, such was the Reds’ domination. Fulham’s form will have been the bigger talking point, however. This was a side that indulged the laxness of Dimitar Berbatov and kept a pedestrian midfield unmoved for 90 minutes. Surely Martin Jol is on the brink of the sack; he has to be, or Fulham will spiral into a relegation battle.

After a promising start to the campaign, suddenly it doesn’t look so rosy anymore for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham, which on the surface should just be ludicrous—20 points and joint fifth in the table doesn’t spell crisis in any way. But after the three Premier League clubs at the bottom, Spurs are the fourth lowest-scoring team in the top division, and it’s starting to hurt them big time. Sunday’s loss against Newcastle, albeit against an inspired Tim Krul, represented their second loss in three home games. For all of the money AVB spent on the midfield in the summer, he has yet to find someone to link the middle with the front.

On the flipside, Manchester United are rising again—and fast. David Moyes crowned an encouraging run of performances with a statement of a display against Arsenal on Sunday. Given the tightness of the league this season, it won’t have caused the seismic wave that’s been mentioned in too many quarters in the immediate aftermath, but it does give United’s rivals plenty to think about—and Arsene Wenger will have plenty to think about as well. It’s not the end of the world for the Gunners, not still leading the table going into the international break and almost a third into the season. The January window will be key for both clubs.

That Southampton won yet again shouldn’t be a surprise anymore: They’ve won more often than not this season and find themselves just three points behind the league leaders. Title challengers? We can’t be sure yet, but they’re definitely European contenders right now. West Brom also delivered a very credible draw at Chelsea, who will be very relieved that their controversial penalty gave them even a point. Norwich’s 3-1 win over West Ham will also offer some much-needed breathing space for Chris Hughton and co.—about time his summer acquisitions started hitting the net. Let the international break be over sharpish. This league is too much fun.

 

A new generation of managers is emerging

In the Premier League top four currently are two managerial stalwarts who have practically won it all in European football—Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. But it’s the two other occupants that intrigue, for they are relative novices at the top level.

But Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino, and the style of football they preach, are a breath of fresh air in the fast-changing Premier League landscape—and a very welcome change of scenery at the top as well. Look just a bit further down and we see the likes of Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas, who also champion the merits of possession, energy and pressing. And this can only be a good thing for English football.

It’s always seemed that English football has been slower to catch onto emerging footballing trends. After all, it’s taken until now for possession-based technical football based on an energetic, high-pressure playing style to take root in the Premier League. But it’s taking it by storm, and we as fans are reaping the benefits.

As managers bring with them a philosophy—not just a winning mentality—this inspires clubs to revamp their structures, academies and internal setups to catch up to the rest of the continent (clubs that trust their managers enough, mind). As the coaching setup is increasingly tailored to cater to youngsters from around Europe (due to the globalizing nature of football), coaches and methodologies need to be updated to reflect the relentless growth and development.

Could the Premier League and the English national team end up not as adversaries, but as mutually beneficial endeavors? Food for thought as we consider another side to football below.

 

BT Sport, the latest game-changer in football

The buildup to Week 11’s Premier League action was dominated by the earth-shattering revelation that BT Sport secured the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Champions League and Europa League starting from 2015—for a massive £897 million.

How will this affect English fans? Well, this allows them to tune into one broadcaster only for their European fix, which is much easier to manage for cable subscribers. It also frees up the Champions League final and at least one match featuring each participating British team to be shown free-of-charge every season, which is a boost to everyday viewers as well.

Those already sounding the death knell of affordable football for the everyday fan need not panic just yet; the goal behind this money-spinning deal is to get even more interest to ramp up the bids the next time around, so there will be mechanisms to make European football coverage at least as affordable as it is now (inflation permitting).

What it also means is that starting from 2015, European football will be even more of a cash cow for top clubs than ever before. (Yes, “European football,” given that the Europa League will be given much more of a boost as well.) While this news has gotten the Daily Mail to proclaim an imminent rise in significance and importance of the FA Cup and League Cup, it also means that the much-mocked Arsene Wenger Fourth-Place Trophy will edge ever closer to reality.

Those clubs that are fighting to get back into Europe—and especially the Champions League—by the start of the 2015/16 season might be tempted to shell out even more on prospective signings in the coming few transfer windows to stock up enough ammunition to launch a real fight for the top four, which will have UEFA scrambling to impose its controversial Financial Fair Play rules—but also raise the quality of the Premier League even further, perhaps at the cost of creating a “Big Eight” in the English top flight.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface here, but BT’s deal has already changed the landscape. Now they should consider shelling out just a little bit more to bring Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over from Sky. Then it’ll make a tad more sense.
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.

How Has Simon Mignolet Fared as Liverpool’s New First-Choice Goalkeeper?

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
This summer saw a confusing situation develop at Anfield, as Simon Mignolet was brought in from Sunderland for £9 million, and after a move to Barcelona didn’t materialize, Pepe Reina left for Napoli in a whirlwind late loan move.

Since then, Reina has gone on record stating that he is enjoying life at his new club, according to Sky Sports’ Simone Bargellini, and Mignolet has quickly become a familiar fixture between the Anfield posts.

Now let’s take a more in-depth look at Mignolet and the various facets to his game and analyze his start to life as Liverpool’s new first-choice goalkeeper.

Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Shot-Stopping

When Mignolet signed for Liverpool in July, many pundits may have questioned the signing given that Reina was still at the club, but undisputed across the board were the ex-Sunderland No. 1’s shot-stopping abilities.

At relegation-fighting Sunderland in the 2012/13 Premier League season, Mignolet was almost alone in performing week in, week out for the Black Cats and salvaging precious points for his team with his agility and brilliant reflexes—and so far he has carried this form into his career at Anfield.

If there were any doubts about his shot-stopping credentials—and there might have been a few given his shaky start to the game—he quickly dispelled them with a thrilling double save right at the death in the opening game of the season against Stoke City.

More than just saving two points (for the saves ensured that the Reds hung on to their 1-0 lead), Mignolet’s debut contribution allowed Liverpool to start the season in morale-boosting fashion, a run that has culminated in an encouraging position in the top three after 10 gameweeks.

This season, Mignolet has made the second-highest number of saves in the league outright—first place is newly promoted Cardiff City’s David Marshall—with 38 in 10 games. That means he’s made just under four saves per game on average.

Considering that he has only let in 10 goals so far, we’d say the No. 22 hasn’t done too badly in the shot-stopping department. See the video above for more evidence.

 

Aerial Dominance

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As he got through his last couple of seasons in a Red shirt, Pepe Reina showed a decline in his shot-stopping, so in that regard, Simon Mignolet has certainly proved to be an upgrade. So how do they compare in an area that traditionally has been seen as Reina’s signature?

For all of his tendencies to punch and clear crosses, as seen in the above graphic from WhoScored.com, Reina actually didn’t have the statistics to support his instincts—certainly not in the 2012/13 season, and certainly not when compared to Mignolet.

Sure, the Belgian keeper exhibited signs of nerves when he failed to claim a cross in his debut match against Stoke, which led to Robert Huth hitting the crossbar from a mid-range chance, but since then, Mignolet has admirably stuck to his instincts and performed.

Liverpool have seemingly brought their vulnerability at set pieces on to this season, and Brendan Rodgers and Co. still have a lot of work to do to tighten up the holes in such situations, but in Mignolet, he possesses a keeper that has continued to improve on his aerial attributes.

Aerial ability is thus another area in which Mignolet has offered an upgrade on Reina this season.

 

Distribution

Now onto Reina’s famous attribute: distribution, and there, Mignolet still has a long way to go.

Not because Mignolet’s distribution is below par—it was his long throw that got Luis Suarez on his way to score his second goal in the away win against Sunderland—it’s just that Reina’s qualities in long passes and throws were a staple to Rafael Benitez’s swashbuckling, counterattacking Liverpool side of 2007-2009, and indeed was a key player in making that system tick.

Now that Brendan Rodgers has favored a much more patient buildup—even though this current Reds team have developed a mean capability to counterattack at pace—Mignolet’s comfort on the ball has made him an outlet for passes and helping to recycle the ball at the back.

His kicking hasn’t hit the heights of the Reina era, and as Rodgers’ team continues to become more multidimensional, Mignolet will have to work on improving his distribution.

 

Mental Attributes

When Liverpool lost both Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina in the summer, questions were asked about the dressing room atmosphere with two of their main men gone in the space of a couple of months.

Carragher had provided the experience, and Reina was famous for being a jester-like presence and a popular member of the dressing room—were the new recruits going to be able to make up for two major losses and survive in a quieter dressing room?

The camaraderie we’ve seen from the Liverpool team this season has suggested that the answer to that question has been an emphatic “no,” with the likes of Kolo Toure contributing his experience and jovial personality to the team. Mignolet has also chipped in with a confident presence in the dressing room—not quite the jester that Reina was, but still a strong presence and personality.

As for other mental aspects that a good goalkeeper needs to have, concentration is high on Mignolet’s list of strengths. Not that he’s had many quiet periods to sit through—West Bromwich Albion aside—given how many saves he’s had to make so far—but in games where Liverpool are expected to dominate possession, having a keeper who can pull off a save to salvage points is essential.

We’ve seen that in matches against Stoke, Aston Villa and Manchester United, and his teammates—especially now that the midfield weaknesses are becoming increasingly exposed—will continue to rely on him, at least until January rolls around and reinforcements can be made to shore up the midfield.

 

Conclusion: Pepe Reina Has Not Been Missed

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
All of this means that Simon Mignolet has unequivocally been an upgrade on Pepe Reina, especially the Reina of the previous two seasons, and that he has enjoyed a quite superb start to life at Anfield as Liverpool’s new first-choice goalkeeper.

Liverpool fans will be glad to know that Reina, a crowd favorite and Reds legend, is enjoying a new lease of life in Naples, but they will also rest assured that in Mignolet, they have a top young goalkeeper ready to make the No. 1 spot his own for the next decade.

If he continues to mature and improve, especially in his distribution, then Liverpool will have one of the best keepers in Europe in their ranks for years to come.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Week 10 Recap; Joe Hart’s Fall from Grace; Lloris’ Head Injury

EPL Week 10 Recap: Arsenal Impress; City Run Riot; Cardiff Win Welsh Derby

It was supposed to be a fascinating battle between Liverpool’s SAS and Arsenal’s central defenders, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were nowhere to be found, and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny didn’t need to be present, as the Gunners’ midfield took center stage in a clash that had “Arsenal: Potential title winners” written all over it. This was Arsenal at their best, and Liverpool’s midfield had no answer for the movement and dynamism of Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. And they still have the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to return. Manchester United, beware.

United won in impressive fashion too, but even that was overshadowed by their noisy neighbors, who turned in a masterful performance in their demolition of Norwich City (not sure if it was City who were brilliant or Norwich who were absolutely abysmal—probably a bit of both). Joe Hart was a spectator, and Costel Pantilimon was virtually another (more on them later), but Sergio Aguero and David Silva showed once again that they have the ability to dominate the Premier League week in, week out. Oh, and how about that free kick from Yaya Toure? Sensational stuff once again.

On Sunday, for the first time ever, a Premier League fixture was played between two non-English teams. So did the much-fancied and much-lauded Swansea beat lowly Cardiff? Steven Caulker headed in the winner in what would’ve been considered a major upset, in a result that gives Malky Mackay extra leverage in his allegedly troubled relationship with club owner Vincent Tan. On the other hand, after a great start to his Swansea career, Wilfried Bony seems to have dropped down the pecking order in a thus-far underwhelming campaign for Michael Laudrup. There’s work to be done in Wales.

Another upset was Newcastle’s win over Chelsea, which represented a dent in Jose Mourinho’s quest to catch Arsenal at the top of the league. A clean 2-0 home win was the perfect way for Alan Pardew’s men to bounce back from a last-gasp Tyne-Wear defeat last week. The much-anticipated clash between Everton and Tottenham ended up a drab draw with no goals scored. Spurs dominated the possession statistics, but Andre Villas-Boas should surely be concerned at the lack of support for Roberto Soldado and the striker’s own difficulties in integrating with his midfield. The upside is that, despite not really getting going yet, they finish Week 10 in fourth.

 

We need to talk about Joe Hart

They weren’t the most troubling of oppositions, to be fair, but Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last week and Norwich in the Premier League this weekend had something in common: They didn’t score against Costel Pantilimon.

It’s been well-documented that Joe Hart has suffered a drop in form for the best part of a year, and when given the chance, Pantilimon has always impressed—though his chances have been hard to come by. So from his perspective, it’s a well overdue chance to show his worth in a first-team, competitive setting—and he’s gotten it, after Manuel Pellegrini’s recent announcement that Pantilimon will start this week’s Champions League tie against CSKA Moscow.

But what about Hart himself? It won’t be easy for him to accept a place on the bench—as much as Pellegrini has said he’s “reacted well”—and what follows now is a massive test of character, not least because City have the financial power to strengthen in the January transfer window. They’ve already been linked with the likes of Iker Casillas.

And what about England? City won’t be too big a problem long-term: Goalkeepers are but one position on the field, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to do what it takes to build a top-class side, but England is a totally different situation. The only realistic option as a replacement is Celtic’s Fraser Forster, but his lack of experience doesn’t bode too well looking ahead at next summer’s World Cup. There aren’t too many others.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hart was rated as the next best goalkeeper in the world. If this spells the beginning of the end of Joe Hart, that would be the latest in a series of high-profile tragedies involving unfulfilled potential.

 

Football needs to deal with the head injury problem

The only incident of note in the otherwise dour 0-0 between Everton and Tottenham was Hugo Lloris being knocked out by Romelu Lukaku’s foot. He was visibly dazed in the immediate aftermath, but refused to leave the field and demanded to stay on. Spurs fans and Andre Villas-Boas will have been thankful for his save from Gerard Deulofeu, but his decision to not take his goalkeeper off has met widespread criticism.

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Lloris should be cleared of any blame. As a professional athlete, it’s completely understandable that he would want to stay on the field for as long as possible. Brad Friedel has been rightly usurped as the Tottenham No. 1, but that Lloris might have had one eye on keeping his place in the first team would come as no surprise.

What’s more controversial is the role of the physios and the manager. Spurs have issued a statement noting that Lloris’ post-match CT scan was positive and the on-pitch assessments by their medical team allowed him to play on. Which is all well and good—and fortunate—but what if the CT scan didn’t end with an all-clear? What then?

In that regard, the criticism that has come Spurs’ way is totally justified: Safety first should be the protocol observed when it comes to serious injuries, especially to the head, and the fact that Lukaku’s knee was bandaged and he had to come off after the challenge indicates that it wasn’t a light collision by any means.

But until there are rules put in place to govern such situations, there won’t be any standardized procedure on how clubs and managers should handle concussions and head injuries. It took Fabrice Muamba’s life-threatening collapse to spark the FA into action—and English football fans would surely not prefer to require another such serious case before drastic action is taken—but should physios be relied on for decisions like this, especially when their clubs have an important result at stake?

One suggestion would be to have independent medical staff employed by the Premier League present on standby at every football ground to offer expert consultative advice in cases like this. That’s probably the least that will happen now.

 

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 Midfield Issue: A January Transfer Wishlist for Liverpool

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

 

On paper, it was a 0-2 loss to Premier League leaders Arsenal—only the second time Liverpool had dropped all three points in the league this season. After all, the Reds find themselves in an encouraging third place in the table after 10 games.

But in reality—and this will come as a huge dose of that after the previous weekend’s 4-1 hammering of West Bromwich Albion—this was another display, after the loss to Southampton a couple of months ago, that highlighted the deficiencies in the current Liverpool setup.

Besides the sheer class and quality in the Arsenal midfield ranks (with Mesut Ozil providing a premium addition to the likes of Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and the ever-improving Aaron Ramsey), we saw at the Emirates Stadium the clear lack of steel, poise and presence in the Liverpool midfield.

So, in coming up with a January transfer wish list for Liverpool, we consider the midfield issue and have drawn up a list of eight midfielders that Brendan Rodgers et al should be looking at. Let us know your comments and suggestions in the comments below.

The Essential: Maxime Gonalons

Back in July, Maxime Gonalons decided to stay at Olympique Lyonnais after being linked with a £10 million move to Arsenal, according to the Daily Mail.

If Arsene Wenger’s storied record of successful signings from France weren’t a good enough reason in itself already, there’s also the fact that as Lyon captain, Gonalons has established himself as one of the best and brightest young players in French football.

A product of Lyon’s academy, Gonalons rose to the first team in impressive fashion. He possesses tactical and positional intelligence, as well as tidy passing, tackling and box-to-box stamina. In short: a much-needed presence in the Liverpool midfield.

It’s no surprise that, according to Goal.com, Napoli are interested in the anchorman. At £10 million, Gonalons seems too good a deal to pass up on (just like Tottenham Hotspur’s £9.8 million capture of Etienne Capoue this summer).

All of this makes Maxime Gonalons the essential target for Brendan Rodgers.

The Premium: Nemanja Matic

The defensive midfield name doing the rounds in recent headlines is Benfica’s midfield general Nemanja Matic, most recently linked with Liverpool by Ben Jefferson of the Express.

The former Chelsea starlet, signed aged 21, sent on loan to Vitesse Arnhem and then to Benfica as part of a £21 million swap deal for center back David Luiz, has developed impressively at his current club, winning the Portuguese Primeira Liga Player of the Year award for the 2012/13 season.

The physically formidable midfield destroyer is quick and accurate in the tackle and would add steel to the Reds’ spine.

The stumbling blocks? He’s also being linked with a return to Stamford Bridge by ESPN FC, and at a rumored £38 million (according to the Daily Star), he would cost an arm and a leg.

The Alternative: Blaise Matuidi

£38 million Matic too expensive? Not to worry, for Brendan Rodgers has two great alternative options staring right at him.

The first is Paris St. Germain’s Blaise Matuidi, who has dominated opposing midfields in a PSG shirt for two brilliant seasons. A deep-lying midfielder, Matuidi is an all-round defensive midfielder with strong tackling ability and a creative knack going forward.

His performances in France have attracted interest from abroad, and this has only been exacerbated by his contract situation at the French capital club: His contract runs out in the summer of 2014, and according to the Independent, Premier League powerhouses Chelsea and Manchester City are already preparing pre-contract offers for Matuidi in January.

But with a little ambition and nothing to lose, Rodgers could, and should, enter the fray and change the landscape by opening the bidding with a transfer fee in January. It wouldn’t be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The Steal: Fernando Reges

The second alternative option also has a contract that runs out next summer and is also a powerful defensive midfielder.

The man in question is FC Porto’s Fernando Reges, who incidentally was linked with a move to Liverpool back in 2011 for a fee of £17 million, according to the Daily Mail.

He’s slightly slipped off the radar since but was strongly linked with a move to Liverpool’s cross-town rivals, Everton, toward the very end of the summer transfer window this year, according to the Mirror.

The deal eventually fell through, leaving his club with a tricky contract situation on its hands—and potentially opening the door for Rodgers to swoop in for a cut-price fee in January for what would certainly be a top-class addition to his first-team squad.

The Rough Diamond: Yann M’Vila

By the time January rolls around, it will be a year since Yann M’Vila, previously one of French football’s very finest prospects, surprised all onlookers with a move to Russian club Rubin Kazan.

Blessed with passing ability and superb vision, M’Vila also has stamina, work rate and a mean tackle to boot, making him an ideal defensive midfielder in the Premier League. Indeed, if this BBC Sport report is accurate, M’Vila was close to signing for Everton last January and was also targeted by Queens Park Rangers, then still fighting for survival in the Premier League.

According to a report on the FIFA website, then-club manager Frederic Antonetti had this to say about him back in 2011: “He reads the game like Claude Makelele, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure.”

Unfortunately, he’s courted controversy with his antics off the field—his period in the national team ended after an unauthorized night out while with the U21 squad—and has been criticized for his outspokenness and attitude.

But with news that Everton are again in the frame, according to Ben Jefferson’s article in the Express, Liverpool would do well to fend off interest from their Merseyside rivals and bring M’Vila in. Given Rodgers’ man-management ability, this would be a good chance for a young prospect to fulfill his undoubted potential.

The Prospect: Will Hughes

Moving away from the defensive midfield (finally) and onto more attacking players, we come across that name on everyone’s lips when it comes to Liverpool and January signings: Derby County’s Will Hughes.

A central midfielder who is technically proficient, adept at dribbling and has an eye for a pass, Hughes has, according to this Telegraph report by John Percy, attracted the attentions of many a top Premier League club, including Liverpool.

Such is the air of resignation that Hughes will eventually leave Derby that manager Steve McClaren conceded that he will eventually “be too good,” but the Rams are still looking to keep him at Pride Park for the rest of the season.

Rodgers may well put that to the test with a bid in January for England’s next midfield hope, but would in all probability need to beat tough competition to succeed.

The Luxury: Javier Pastore

As Brendan Rodgers tries to solve his midfield conundrum and fit Philippe Coutinho into an advanced midfield duo—a system that worked well against West Brom—instead of a solitary No. 10—Coutinho’s customary position—a rumor has arisen that would represent a luxurious addition to the Reds first team.

Javier Pastore was the marquee signing to show that the new owners at PSG meant business: His £30 million capture from Italian club Palermo sent shockwaves around Europe and suggested that PSG might be a new player in the super-club class.

After scoring 17 goals in 66 Ligue 1 matches, Pastore finds himself out of the weekly starting XI as PSG’s revolution continues, and he has duly been linked with a £17 million move to Anfield, according to the Metro‘s Jamie Sanderson.

An attacking midfielder with an eye for goal and exciting creativity, Pastore would be the big-name signing craved at Anfield—but not the final piece in the Liverpool puzzle.

The Dream: Juan Mata

Nothing can excite the Liverpool crowd enough at the moment, however, than the mouthwatering prospect of Juan Mata at Anfield, far-fetched though it may be.

Sitting out of Jose Mourinho’s first team in Chelsea’s first few games this season was enough to see Mata heavily linked with a shock loan move to Liverpool this summer, as reported by the Express, but it was enough to send minds and imaginations soaring.

As long as headlines like this from the Daily Star continue to do the rounds, Liverpool fans won’t stop dreaming of a Mata arrival at Anfield.

And who could blame them? Mata wouldn’t solve the central midfield problems at Liverpool, but he could be the Reds’ own Mesut Ozil-esque ground-shaker.

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