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The Business of Football Kits: Sponsorships, Technology, Branding and Beyond

As we enter the final few months leading up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the national teams taking part in the tournament have been unveiling their new kits to ride on the wave of growing interest in international football.

Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France have all released new kit designs for the summer, with various big-name sportswear companies and top international stars at the helm of high-profile launch events and flashy marketing campaigns. (The Mirror has a collection of some newly released kits here.)

As with most commercial activity in football, however, not all the recent kit launches have been met with universal acclaim: Ben Curtis’ article on the Mirror is a cynical rant at the hype machines that these events have become, while Lizzie Parry’s on the Daily Mail highlights just how expensive replica kits, launched over increasingly short time periods, have become.

In February, we explored the importance of stadiums in the overall commercial strategies of football clubs. As top-level football increasingly becomes big business and a huge revenue generator, let’s take a look at another money-spinning side to the sport: football kits.

 

Vincent Yu

 

Sponsorships

One of the first things that comes to mind when football kits are mentioned these days is the staggering amount of money they can generate for football clubs, both from the merchandising side and from the corporate sponsorship side.

While club merchandise is generally dependent on the popularity and on-pitch success of the clubs themselves—and the annual Deloitte Money League results generally attest to that—the larger context is the money that sportswear companies actually pay to be the official kit providers of football clubs.

In recent years, just in the Premier League, we’ve seen many instances of eye-watering commercial deals involving kit suppliers. Liverpool’s 2012 deal with Warrior Sports, the latter’s first foray into football, would, according to Andy Hunter of the Guardian, net the club at least £25 million a year.

Just this January, Arsenal announced they would be changing their kit maker from Nike to Puma, in a five-year deal reportedly worth more than £30 million a year, per the BBC. And, as ever when it comes to business deals, Manchester United shocked the world this March with their world-record 10-year deal with Nike, which, according to Simon Mullock of the Mirror, will see the Old Trafford club earn more than £60 million a year.

Besides contracts with sportswear makers, the other big player in the football kit boom is the corporate sponsorship deals that have taken center stage in recent years. This 2013 J.J. Colao article in Forbes listed Manchester United, Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid as the biggest shirt sponsorship deals in the world.

Another interesting marketing tactic has been employed by Tottenham Hotspur this season, as they featured different sponsors on their shirts in different competitions, with Hewlett Packard their Premier League front and AIA their cup shirt partner. According to Kevin Palmer of ESPNFC, however, even Tottenham will revert to the traditional “principal partner” model at other big clubs, having agreed a lucrative £20 million-a-year deal with AIA for the next five years.

 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

 

Technology

But with all the money that goes into the kits, and their burgeoning price tags, do those who get to wear them actually benefit?

Specifically, do the footballers themselves get anything out of the constant kit changes, or are they just excuses to step in front of a camera for yet another photo shoot?

Just ask the Italian national team stars. According to the BBC, the high-tech football shirts they will be wearing at the World Cup this summer will be able to deliver massages during the game. The shirts contain a special tape that provides “micro-massages” for their wearers and “maximise muscle power” by allowing the body to recover from exertion more quickly.

Away from the luxury options provided to footballers these days, far more important is the shirts’ ability to keep their wearers warm in extreme cold temperatures. This article from PRNewswire.com lists a few examples of temperature-regulating technologies that are present in football shirts on the market.

Different sportswear manufacturers—the same who enter into the lucrative long-term contracts with football clubs and will rely on such technology to win such bids—integrate different functions into their shirts, but the underlying principles are the same: adding layers onto shirts that keep players comfortable, dry, warm or cool depending on the surrounding weather conditions.

With the digital space increasingly at the center of the football fan experience, besides featuring on shirts themselves, technology has also crept into the marketing side of football shirts and kit launches, so much so that organizing such events can be considered an industry in itself.

See, for example, this analysis on Liverpool’s new kit launch in 2012 on Dan McLaren’s TheUKSportsNetwork.com. Liverpool’s multichannel marketing and promotion strategy, across different social media platforms, was all about putting out a united front for the kit launch, which also had to match the club’s corporate branding.

But, as they’ve tended to do so in social media in general, Manchester City will take home the technology and marketing hybrid approach for football kits as well.

They’ve since switched to Nike as their main shirt sponsor, but City’s launch of their Umbro kits for the 2012/13 season, as covered here by SoccerBible.com, took fan engagement to a new level when they invited fans to decide how the new kit would be officially launched.

 

Ray Stubblebine

 

Branding

Using a new innovative campaign to bridge the marketing and technology worlds with branding in football was yet another Manchester City-affiliated project, New York City FC.

Since their official announcement in 2013, New York City FC have caught the attention with their cutting-edge digital-marketing campaigns despite the MLS outfit not yet officially competing in the U.S.’s highest-tier domestic football league.

NYCFC put their fans truly at the center of their business and branding strategy by inviting them to submit ideas for an official club crest, which was met with widespread acclaim and culminated in a win-win scenario where the club also got their hands on an excellent winner, shown here on the MLS official website.

An example of how the football kit itself has become more than just one of the components of a football club’s identity; it’s evolved into an integral part of the football club’s business strategy on the whole.

So eager have clubs and affiliated sponsors wanted to tap into their fanbase for merchandising dollars that they have begun creating hype cycles out of kit launches to boost profits and increase circulation among their followers—at the risk of straying into grey areas and stirring controversies.

In tandem with the ongoing, controversial narrative that football is becoming more and more middle- and upper-class and moving away from the traditional working-class fanbase that gave the sport its following and popularity, clubs and corporations have rushed into a branding frenzy and become eager to associate themselves as “premium” titles.

A major recent example was that of Adidas, who, according to Anna White of the Telegraph, may refuse to supply Sports Direct, one of the biggest sports retailers in the UK, with a variety of World Cup football kits due to concerns over its stores and customer service.

Said Adidas, “Like all manufacturers, we regularly review, season by season, where our products are distributed. We determine distribution channels for all products based on criteria such as in-store environment and customer service levels.”

In other words, sportswear manufacturers are eager for their football kits to be treated as premium consumer goods—indeed, the mooted £140 price tag for the new England kits by Nike almost automatically price themselves into that category—and they’re not afraid to incur the wrath of fans and middlemen retailers to achieve their commercial goals.

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

Prior to the World Cup row, Adidas also landed themselves in hot water with Sports Direct over their treatment of Chelsea’s official club kit. In light of the public spat, Matt Scott of InsideWorldFootball.com put together an excellent and in-depth analysis of the changing role of the football kit itself.

Linking the state and rationale of Chelsea’s commercial and branding activities with the area’s wealthy and exclusive reputation, Scott consolidates a list of the London club’s highest-profile official sponsors, who all pride themselves on their elite stature within their respective industries.

The ever-changing face of the football kit, then, is not just an evolution of modern shirt design and an extension of clothing technology into sport, but is a reflection of a shift in the status of merchandise and football itself in the eyes of football clubs, manufacturers and sponsors.

And with seemingly unstoppable momentum behind money-spinning sponsorship deals, it seems that football kits will continue to be at the center of football’s paradigm shift. One only hopes that it doesn’t one day become only limited-edition items due to their exclusivity.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Stadiums Are Increasingly Crucial to Football Clubs’ Commercial Strategies

The Santiago Bernabeu revamp, the Etihad Stadium and the Anfield regeneration—it’s been a busy few weeks for high-profile stadium projects for high-profile football clubs.

From rebranding, modernization to capacity increases, stadium refurbishments and new stadium projects are becoming headline hitters for the amount of money they involve and the scale of commercial ambition they suggest.

The three examples above are some of the biggest news involving football stadia in recent weeks, but are by no means isolated cases: A big part of the discussions involving New York City FC and David Beckham’s fellow new Major League Soccer venture in Miami also revolve around the kind of venue and arena they select and subsequently develop.

It’s not just about Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool: A look across the top clubs in Europe shows that besides stadium capacity and modern architecture, stadium experience also matters to fans and, increasingly, football clubs.

We’ve always known that the live experience of a football match inside a stadium is a defining part of being a football fan, and one of the key factors that continue to pull in match-day revenue despite rising ticket prices, especially in the Premier League.

But now we’re seeing that football stadia are increasingly crucial to the commercial strategies of football clubs for a variety of different reasons. Let’s explore some of them with a few brief case studies.

Matt Dunham/Associated PressCorporate Sponsorships: Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium

The first example that comes to mind is Arsenal’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

Known as the “Home of Football” previously, Highbury was famous for its small pitch and the proximity of the pitch to the stands, and thus for its atmosphere.

While its peak capacity was in excess of 70,000, Highbury had to be reworked due to the Taylor report on the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which recommended that football stadia in England become all-seaters. For the majority of the Premier League era, Highbury was known for being one of the most compact stadia for a top football club: They only seated around 38,000 fans every week.

Naturally, this posed problems for the Gunners, especially as they were building their fanbase and were looking to challenge Manchester United on the domestic front. While Arsenal were scraping by with gate receipts from 38,000 fans a week, Old Trafford had expanded to 55,000 seats by 1996, which meant a corresponding increase of matchday revenue for United.

With Arsenal’s decision to move into a new stadium at Ashburton Grove, so they leapt forward into the 21st century and fully embraced any corporate sponsorship and strategic partnerships as they came forward.

Not only did they start fully adopting a transfer policy of buying young and cheap and selling high to maximize financial return—helped by the astute Arsene Wenger, who holds a degree in economics—but they also explored commercial initiatives to alleviate a significant potential burden in financing their new stadium.

Granada Media took a 5 percent stake in the club by investing £47 million, as reported by the Guardian, while Nike signed a new shirt sponsorship deal with Arsenal for a reported £130 million, according to the BBC. (Puma have since replaced Nike as kit makers in a lucrative deal announced this January by the BBC.)

In 2004, Arsenal added to their coffers with a £100 million naming rights deal with Emirates Airlines, which at the time was reportedly “by far the biggest deal ever undertaken in English football,” according to the BBC.

Out of the total £390 million that the Emirates Stadium cost, three major sponsorships footed at least £277 million, and in January last year, Arsene Wenger publicly stated that Arsenal had finally finished paying off their loans for their new stadium and would be ready to finance big-name signings, as reported by the Daily Mail. He stayed true to his word by smashing the Gunners’ transfer record with the deadline-day signing of Mesut Ozil.

As seen from their stadium move, Arsenal transitioned into the corporate age of football and became a commercial giant in the process. With their existing deals set to end and new, lucrative partnerships about to kick in, the Gunners may finally realize their full potential on the pitch with their advances off the pitch. The Emirates Stadium provided a platform and opportunity for Arsenal to become a modern, commercial organization.

Jan Pitman/Getty ImagesTournaments and International Prestige: Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena

This January, Bayern Munich revealed plans to increase its Allianz Arena home stadium from its current capacity of 71,137 to 75,000, as reported by ESPNFC.

The expansion plans will only boost Bayern up the stadium capacity ranks in Germany by one position, above Hertha Berlin’s Olympiastadium and behind Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, but Bayern’s ambitions, as we saw from their summer appointment of Pep Guardiola to take over from treble-winning Jupp Heynckes, aren’t limited to domestic triumph.

Consider the stadium’s use planned from the get-go: Since opening in 2005 with one of the most widely recognized exterior stadium designs in world football, it has been the home stadium of both of Munich’s professional football clubs, Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munchen, as well as a frequent host of the German national team.

Then there are the finances. In this 2013 article by the Economist, Bayern’s total revenue in 2012 was the fourth highest in the world, after Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United. The nearest challenger from within Germany was Borussia Dortmund with €189.1 million, about half of Bayern’s €368.4 million.

Yes: The same Borussia Dortmund who finished second to Bayern in both the Champions League and the Bundesliga in 2013 had just half the total revenue of Bayern.

Having conquered home soil, Bayern are going after world domination, and with a new stadium, they can place themselves at the forefront of German football—if they weren’t there already.

They have 2020 in their sights. Named as Germany’s candidate city for the 2020 European Championships, which will be taking place across European cities, Munich will be bidding for “Package A,” which includes three group-stage matches and one last-16 or quarterfinal fixture, and “Package B,” which includes both semifinals and the final.

The problem at the moment is that UEFA’s requirements are that stadia must meet 70,000 seats to qualify to host matches in the tournament: As Allianz Arena’s capacity is reduced to 67,812 for international games and UEFA competitions, it currently falls just shy.

Of course, there’s no stadium expansion or corporate super-club that doesn’t have its fair share of commercial deals and strategic alliances: The Economist article quoted above has plenty of coverage of Bayern’s considerable financial might as a result of their sponsorship deals, all the while operating in the Bundesliga context that mandates not more than 49 percent of football clubs can be owned by corporations.

Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesThe Next Level: Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu

For around just £60 million (lower than what Cristiano Ronaldo cost) less than what Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium cost to build, Real Madrid are redeveloping their iconic Santiago Bernabeu stadium for a whopping £328 million (€400 million).

According to the Guardian, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez didn’t mince any words in his proclamations for his club’s goals: “It’s time to face another challenge; we want to make the Santiago Bernabeu the best stadium in the world.”

Currently seating 81,044, the Bernabeu is already one of the biggest in world football, but with the planned redevelopments, according to Marca, it will become the third-largest five-star stadium in the world with 93,000 seats, behind Barcelona’s Camp Nou and the Azteca Stadium.

But it’s not purely about capacity expansion: A quick look at the mockups shown by the Mirror shows the sheer scale of Los Blancos’ ambitions. They will be building an entirely new exterior and adding a retractable roof, in addition to expanding the lucrative VIP areas and corporate box offerings like those at the new Wembley, which Marcasay generate at least €10 million a year alone.

As ever with football stadia these days, the Mirror claim that Real Madrid are looking to negotiate a lucrative naming rights partnership, with Microsoft and Coca-Cola as strong contenders to land a potentially record-breaking deal.

In a league where Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate television revenues due to a lopsided arrangement that earn them about 6.5 times the smallest team in La Liga, according to Bloomberg, despite an impending law that is expected to reduce this inequity, the dominance of Madrid will continue to hold when their redeveloped stadium opens for use.

The politics and implications of reducing the financial duopoly of theel Clasico teams are best left for another article to dissect, but while Madrid may not be able to recoup their eye-watering TV revenues in the short to medium term, their new stadium may provide a very comfortable cushion.

Not that Barcelona will be left behind, though. They’ve already put their own stadium expansion proposal to a vote this April: The upgraded Camp Nou would seat 105,000 fans, surpassing the Azteca Stadium’s capacity and becoming the biggest football stadium in the world. It would cost a whopping €600 million, according to ESPNFC.

The duopoly goes on.

Sharon Latham/Associated PressA Footballing Empire: Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium

Football clubs don’t seem to be content on just winning on the pitch anymore. Our last case study will be on Manchester City, who have caught the eye not just with their achievements in the Premier League and their star-studded squad, but also with their remarkable expansions across the globe.

Their entry into Major League Soccer with New York City FC has already been well-publicized and much anticipated, and just this January they extended their already considerable footballing might into Australia with their acquisition of the A-League’s Melbourne Heart, as reported by the Guardian.

With their tentacles spreading across the globe, City are well and truly building a footballing empire, and right at the middle of this are a few architectural projects back in Manchester.

If Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have all capitalized on their existing fanbases and historical success and catapulted into the 21st-century super-club, Manchester City have broken emphatically into that category in just a few years.

According to the Manchester Evening News, City’s commercial deals in 2012 helped them to increase revenue by 51 percent to become the seventh highest-earning club in the world, behind Arsenal, Chelsea and the aforementioned big three.

Besides City’s well-regarded social media campaigns and money-spinning world tours, they are also going ahead with plans to increase the capacity of their Etihad Stadium from 48,000 to 62,000, which would make it the second-largest stadium in the English top flight and take them into the realm of the European footballing elite.

And just like Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, City’s power brokers have been vocal in their ambitions for their team: Chief operating officer Tom Glick claimed that Manchester would have two of the top-five clubs in terms of worldwide revenues by the end of 2014.

If, as reported by the BBC, the Etihad expansion will be completed by the 2015-2016 season, then City will have with them a mighty financial arsenal in just a couple of seasons’ time. A far cry from its initial capacity of 38,000, and a development fit for an empire.

By that time, however, they might have a new competitor to deal with: Liverpool, who have continued to be a fixture in the top 10 of Deloitte’s Money League for the past few years, despite being the only club there without Champions League football, look ready to return to the European big time.

And, according to the Telegraph, they are planning to submit their own redevelopment proposals for Anfield by the end of the 2013/14 season.

 

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

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ FA Cup Fifth-Round Loss

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' FA Cup Fifth-Round Loss
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored one and assisted another for Lukas Podolski, before a Steven Gerrard penalty reduced the deficit, as Arsenal held on to a narrow lead to beat Liverpool 2-1 in their FA Cup fifth-round tie at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

Fresh from a demoralizing 5-1 hammering at Anfield last weekend, Arsenal set about the match in a revitalized manner, applying some excellent pressure onto the visitors to start the game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was a standout performer, but Liverpool threw bodies forward in the second half in hopes of snatching a result. First-half misses from Daniel Sturridge and a few wasted chances by Luis Suarez ultimately proved costly, however.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s FA Cup fifth-round loss to Arsenal on Wednesday. Let us know your views in the comments below.

 

Jordan Henderson Was Missed

Jordan Henderson Was Missed
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It was during the victory over Arsenal last Saturday that Jordan Henderson broke his wrist, so for him to have been rested for the reverse fixture on Wednesday was entirely understandable.

But as Arsenal took a leaf out of Brendan Rodgers’ book and applied a strong pressing game on the Reds from the start of the match, Liverpool increasingly missed the influence and relentless running they’ve been so used to seeing from Henderson.

Philippe Coutinho has developed his physicality and a newfound tenacity on and off the ball in the Reds midfield, but alongside a returning Joe Allen not operating at the peak of his powers, he was overwhelmed at times by the powerful running of the Arsenal midfield.

So it was no surprise that as Henderson came on for Aly Cissokho just past the hour mark, Liverpool started taking the game to their hosts and came close to equalizing and forcing a replay.

 

Daniel Sturridge Picked the Wrong Day to Misfire

Daniel Sturridge Picked the Wrong Day to Misfire
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Going into the match, Daniel Sturridge had an impressive milestone to achieve: If he scored against Arsenal on Wednesday, he’d become the first ever Liverpool player to score in nine or more consecutive games.

Sadly for him, his teammates, managers and fans, he wasn’t to break the record at the Emirates Stadium.

And not only that: Sturridge failed to bring his shooting boots for such a grand occasion, as he missed two early chances on his right foot and later squandered at least a couple more.

Beside him, Luis Suarez also suffered a rare off-day, as the prolific SAS strike pair failed to hit a barn door.

Liverpool fans will be hoping that Sturridge will be saving his goals to aid their Premier League top-four push.

 

Two of England’s Brightest Young Talents Were on Show at the Emirates

Two of England’s Brightest Young Talents Were on Show at the Emirates
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will take the plaudits after a stellar display on Wednesday, and rightly so.

His direct running, explosive pace, strong physicality and clever positioning caused Liverpool problems all match, and his goal and assist were just rewards for a scintillating performance.

His presence on the flanks gave Mesut Ozil a much more effective outlet to look for, while he is one of Arsenal’s best players transitioning from defence into attack.

On the opposing side was Raheem Sterling, who once again turned in a performance belying his young age, featuring slaloming run after slaloming run and an impressive shift as right-back toward the end of the game.

In two FA Cup matches tonight, we’ve seen three attacking midfield players who could form the backbone of the England national team for years to come.

Not only Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sterling belong in this group, but Ross Barkley of Everton is yet another genuinely exciting talent.

Who’s to say all three of them might not force their ways into Roy Hodgson’s squad for Brazil 2014?

 

More Refereeing Controversies Mar the Result for Liverpool

More Refereeing Controversies Mar the Result for Liverpool
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The foul from Lukas Podolski on Luis Suarez inside the penalty box right around the hour mark was obvious enough to justify a deserved spot-kick.

But the decision that came shortly after—to ignore Oxlade-Chamberlain’s blatant bodycheck and foul on Suarez following a free-kick attempt—was a puzzling one, to say the least, from Howard Webb, England’s representative referee at this summer’s World Cup.

Add Lukasz Fabianski’s late punch toward Daniel Agger’s head, and Liverpool could well have been awarded two additional penalties for Steven Gerrard to convert.

Of course, it’s not like the Liverpool captain should’ve been let off the hook, either: His frankly reckless tackling and diving in could’ve seen him receive a red card for another foul on Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Gerrard stayed on and almost inspired the Reds to a comeback.

Safe to say it wasn’t a good day for the men in the middle. After Liverpool’s lack of a result (and point) against Manchester City, however, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for having just a slightly bitter taste in their mouths.

 

Liverpool Outplayed Arsenal, at Arsenal

Liverpool Outplayed Arsenal, at Arsenal
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Last weekend was already noteworthy enough: Liverpool comprehensively outplaying Arsenal at Anfield—five goals worth of comprehensiveness.

But this week, especially in the second half as Liverpool took a stranglehold of the game at the Emirates, we have seen the Reds outplay the Gunners at Arsenal.

Even without Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s pressing was admirable, while the visitors also attacked with purpose and intent, only to be let down by the final finish.

An important change by Brendan Rodgers to recalibrate the midfield balance by sending Henderson on also allowed Sterling to show some of his defensive attributes, which have been developing impressively in the past few months.

While the result means that it is Arsenal who will face Everton in the FA Cup quarterfinal, Rodgers and his team can take heart from the fact that they have quite completely turned the tide around, after what was a comprehensive defeat at the Emirates in the league back in November.

 

Liverpool Must Focus on the Performance, Not the Result

Liverpool Must Focus on the Performance, Not the Result
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

While a 1-2 loss isn’t by any means a significant loss, the reality is that Liverpool outplayed Arsenal but still left empty-handed.

And so Liverpool must take heart from the performance they put in at the Emirates.

It may stand them in good stead as they prepare to focus solely on Premier League matters and finish strongly to try to qualify for next season’s Champions League, as they look to replicate the quick-pressing game plan.

Tricky league games against Swansea City and Southampton are on the horizon. Brendan Rodgers will ensure that they keep with the same overarching approach but with a firm emphasis on the results and points on board.

Onwards and upwards for the Reds, then, as they look to get back into the Champions League next season.

 

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

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Demolition of Gunners

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' Demolition of Gunners
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Two goals apiece from Martin Skrtel and Raheem Sterling, and another composed finish from Daniel Sturridge, handed Liverpool a 5-1 trouncing of Arsenal in the Premier League at Anfield on Saturday.

A ferocious performance from Brendan Rodgers’ squad started perfectly as Skrtel’s header gave them a lead within the first minute. He followed up with a brilliant header from a Steven Gerrard corner to double the Reds’ lead at 10 minutes.

Raheem Sterling then found himself on the end of a flowing Liverpool move and on the scoresheet, before Daniel Sturridge latched onto a glorious through-ball from Philippe Coutinho to score the hosts’ fourth.

After Sterling got himself a second—and Liverpool a fifth—Gerrard’s challenge on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain earned Arsenal a consolation penalty, with Gunners captain Mikel Arteta scoring from 12 yards.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s demolition of Arsenal on Saturday. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

The Curious Case of Liverpool’s Set Pieces

The Curious Case of Liverpool’s Set Pieces
Michael Regan/Getty Images

There were two set pieces within the first 10 minutes for Liverpool, and two goals, both created by Gerrard and scored by Skrtel.

So continues the curious case of Liverpool’s set pieces. How can a side known for being weak at defending set pieces be so prolific at scoring from them?

With 22 already notched, Liverpool have now scored more goals from set pieces (including penalties) than any other Premier League side this season (as of the end of the match). More than a third of the Reds’ 63 league goals this season have come from set pieces.

By contrast, they have conceded seven goals from set pieces, approaching a fourth of their 30 goals against, and that’s not counting penalties.

Week by week, Steven Gerrard continues to provide strong evidence that he is the Premier League’s finest set piece taker; today’s two assists today won’t have done that reputation any harm.

 

Raheem Sterling Continues His Rise to Prominence

Raheem Sterling Continues His Rise to Prominence
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Once in a while, a performance comes along that makes everyone stand up and take note of a new player coming of age. On Saturday, that was Raheem Sterling.

Sure, he got himself two goals, the first well taken and the second after a fortuitous parry from Wojciech Szczesny right back to him, but it wasn’t just about the double haul.

Not only did Sterling get into fantastic positions on the counterattack, but he didn’t for a second neglect his defensive duties and proved to be an important outlet on Liverpool’s flanks.

It was clear even from his first few months in English football that Sterling had more than just pace and dribbling about him, but since reestablishing himself in Brendan Rodgers’ team in December, he’s developed his footballing intelligence and taken more responsibility on the pitch.

To firmly establish himself as one of the best wingers in the Premier League, Sterling needs to further work on his finishing, to ensure that he gets the rewards from his excellent attacking play.

But will Feb. 8, 2014 prove to be the making of Raheem Sterling? Only time will tell, but his improvement so far suggests that he still has a long way to go yet.

 

Press the Midfield Like Your Lives Depend on It

Press the Midfield Like Your Lives Depend on It
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Saturday’s trouncing was all the more surprising, considering that Liverpool were quite comprehensively outplayed in November at the Emirates Stadium.

Skrtel’s early goal definitely made a difference, as it meant Arsenal had to chase the game right from the beginning, but the way the home side approached the match also had a telling influence on the outcome.

Whereas Aaron Ramsey powered his way through the Reds midfield time and again in November, this time Liverpool never allowed Arsenal to enjoy any time on the ball, as the entire midfield set about a frantic and relentless pressing game that forced errors and back passes from the Gunners’ midfield.

Jordan Henderson put in another famous workhorse shift, but it wasn’t just him: Luis Suarez defended from the front, Philippe Coutinho belied his slight frame with a performance of power and pace, and Sterling’s defensive work arguably outshone his attacking contributions.

This was Brendan Rodgers’ midfield blueprint blossoming on the pitch.

 

Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta Are Not a Title-Winning Midfield

Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta Are Not a Title-Winning Midfield
Michael Regan/Getty Images

With Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey both out of contention for Saturday’s clash, Arsenal’s midfield lacked bite, steel and energy.

Jack Wilshere was more petulant than probing, while Mikel Arteta’s lack of acceleration and pace on the turn proved an Achilles’ heel against the high-energy pressing game that the Liverpool midfield adopted.

With Wilshere showing his frustration via a few cynical fouls and failing to assert himself on a big stage, he showed that while he has the tools to become a great player, he still has a ways to mature and develop his mental game.

Ramsey has scored eight goals and provided six assists this season, contributing to almost 30 percent of Arsenal’s total league goal haul, and has been a big miss for Arsene Wenger’s side.

On Saturday, it was a fellow homegrown talent, Jordan Henderson, along with the previous holder of the “best box-to-box midfielder in the league” tag, Steven Gerrard, who formed the crux of a dominant midfield.

 

When Liverpool Are on Song, They Are Frighteningly Good

When Liverpool Are on Song, They Are Frighteningly Good
Michael Regan/Getty Images

In 13 home games this season, Liverpool have scored 38 Premier League goals, almost an average of three per game—and that’s including a draw and a loss.

They’ve scored four or more goals in eight league matches out of their 25 already played this season. Including a 5-0 rout and 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition of fellow top-four challengers Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, and now a 5-1 trouncing of a title hopeful.

In Luis Suarez (23 goals) and Daniel Sturridge (15), the Reds have the two highest-scoring players in the league. (Sturridge is tied with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.)

Simply put: When Liverpool are on song, they are frighteningly good. When the players carry out Rodgers’ pressing plans and passing game to perfection, Liverpool take some stopping.

Besides the aesthetically pleasing controlling approach that they are still perfecting game by game, they have now added the set piece and the counterattack to their arsenal.

What happens when they shore up their defence and boost their midfield?

 

Underdog Tag Suits Liverpool Perfectly

Underdog Tag Suits Liverpool Perfectly
Michael Regan/Getty Images

While Liverpool are now painted as favorites to finish in the top four, they still entered Saturday’s clash perhaps as underdogs considering the quality of their opposition.

Given the comprehensive manner of Arsenal’s defeat, just as they did after the Gunners’ loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, the attention may focus squarely on the weaknesses of Arsene Wenger’s team and how they may fail to win the title after all, leaving the spotlight firmly away from Liverpool.

That will suit Brendan Rodgers’ side just fine.

Liverpool have historically outperformed expectations when classed as underdogs—and given Manchester City’s draw at Norwich City this weekend, suddenly the Reds are just four points off third place.

That will probably slip under the radar for a few weeks yet, as the discussions revolve around Arsenal and City’s dips and Chelsea’s rise to the Premier League summit.

But if Liverpool keep plugging away and also winning those matches they’re favorites in, who knows what’s in store come May?

 

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

Predicting Liverpool’s 14 Remaining Premier League Matches of the Season

After Liverpool’s frustrating draw against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday, the Reds now find themselves fourth in the Premier League table, with 47 points and a goal difference of +29 from 24 games.

An underwhelming January transfer window ultimately saw no new arrivals at Anfield, which means that Brendan Rodgers will be taking on his last 14 games of the season with the same squad he started it with, and with a few injuries currently on list.

But push on he and his charges must, starting with an important clash with Arsenal at home this Saturday.

And what lies ahead of the Reds for the rest of the season? Here’s a complete set of previews and predictions of all of Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League games of the 2013/14 season. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League fixtures are as follows:

Arsenal (H), Fulham (A), Swansea City (H), Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Manchester United (A), Cardiff City (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), West Ham United (A), Manchester City (H), Norwich City (A), Chelsea (H), Crystal Palace (A), Newcastle United (H)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s last league win against Arsenal came in August 2012, and we’d have to go way back to March 2007 for the victory before that.

Suffice to say, then, that the Gunners have been a bit of a bogey team for the Reds in recent seasons.

The reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium this season ended in a 2-0 win to Arsene Wenger’s men, as the visitors were quite comprehensively outplayed by a masterful midfield performance, with Aaron Ramsey at the heart of almost everything positive the home side had to offer.

Ramsey might not be able to make Saturday’s game in time due to injury, but in his place Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has blossomed in a central midfield role, while Jack Wilshere might also return.

Joe Allen’s anticipated return to Liverpool’s starting XI, however, will add some much-needed stability and balance to the Reds midfield. With Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez in ominous form and Liverpool’s fearsome home record this season, this looks likely to end in a home draw at Anfield on Saturday.

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

Liverpool’s next midweek fixture comes a week from this Wednesday, when they travel to Craven Cottage to take on bottom-placed and relegation-threatened Fulham.

Rene Meulensteen deserves credit for addressing his side’s shortages and weaknesses in January, and in Lewis Holtby and Kostas Mitroglou he might just have found two players with the right quality to turn their season around.

But the Cottagers defence and midfield will be facing a Liverpool attack in buoyant mood and looking to consolidate their position in the league table.

Expect Liverpool to roll over Fulham for a clean and easy three points.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

February 23: Swansea City (Home)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBefore Swansea City got promoted to the Premier League for the first time for the 2011/12 season, Liverpool’s last encounter with the Swans was in 1990, when they dished out an 8-0 hammering in the FA Cup.

Since then, however, barring a 5-0 home win at the end of last season, things have been a lot closer between the two sides: In fact, that 5-0 win was Liverpool’s only victory in their last six meetings.

But this season, Swansea have dipped just ever so slightly. With just 24 points on board from 24 games so far and just two over third-from-bottom West Ham United, they lie perilously close to the relegation zone and look short of confidence.

If Michael Laudrup doesn’t turn it around soon, the result on February 23 will be closer to last year’s five-goal hammering than to last September’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

Since Mauricio Pochettino took the reins at Southampton, he’s played and beaten Liverpool twice in the league in the space of just over six months.

With the Saints’ brand of relentless, physical and energetic football, complete with a quick, strong and young midfield core, Pochettino’s side is one of the few teams in the Premier League equipped to exploit Liverpool’s relatively weak central spine.

March 1 looks to be just a few weeks too early for Lucas to make his return from injury, and while Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho will likely be available by then, Liverpool don’t look like ending their barren run against Southampton here.

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

March 10: Sunderland (Home)
Gareth Copley/Getty ImagesAt the time of writing, Sunderland’s 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle United in the recent Tyne-Wear derby is still vivid and fresh in the memory, an indication of how Gus Poyet has managed to improve the Black Cats.

Just a few months ago, Sunderland were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League in a mini-abyss, but now they’ve clawed and climbed their way back up the table to be level with Swansea on 24 points.

And Sunderland, with an in-form Adam Johnson looking to gatecrash the World Cup and a composed distributor of the ball in Ki Sung-Yueng, look very much like a potential banana-skin fixture for Liverpool on March 10.

Fabio Borini may be ineligible to play against his parent club as part of the loan regulations, but the home side may well be surprised by a sprightly Sunderland side.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

A loss and a draw! Gasp—another mini-crisis developing at Anfield?

Bring on Old Trafford, a ground that Liverpool have historically struggled on, save for that famous 4-1 victory in March 2009.

But this season it’s a different Liverpool, and it’s an ever-so-slightly-different Manchester United side, who have drawn and lost as many matches at home as they have won (six).

As David Moyes struggles to string together a few decent results in succession for United and his defence continues to rotate due to injuries, this is a fixture that Liverpool could well come on top in—provided that they deal with the considerably talented attacking trio that is Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt’s not been an easy season for Cardiff City, and we foresee that, despite the best efforts of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Bluebirds will still be mired in a tough relegation battle by the time March 22 rolls around.

Sure, they’ve added some notable names in January—Kenwyne Jones one of them—but as long as Liverpool keep quiet the counterattacking force that is Craig Noone, they should be relatively safe.

The famous Cardiff City Stadium atmosphere has intimidated many a Premier League team this season, but a Reds side looking to enforce their top-four credentials will turn in a display that keeps the critics at bay for another week.

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

Mention Tottenham Hotspur to any Liverpool fan, and he’ll fondly recall the 5-0 December thrashing at White Hart Lane.

That was one of those rare occasions where everything that could’ve gone wrong for a team did for Spurs, and everything that could’ve gone right for a team did for Liverpool.

Of course, then-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas has since been relieved of his duties, and Tim Sherwood has lifted his Tottenham side to just three points behind the Reds at the time of writing.

But the adventurous style of play Sherwood has instilled in his team has led to such results as a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City.

Liverpool, with the league’s second-most potent strikeforce, could take advantage once again to send out a statement of intent, just as they did in the 4-0 Merseyside derby win over Everton in January.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

April 5: West Ham United (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFast forward to April 5, though, and it could be an entirely different story.

Liverpool, so susceptible on set pieces this season, will be facing a menacing and aerially dominant duo in Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan at Upton Park, and may well succumb to an incessant aerial bombarding.

Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel will put up a good fight against Carroll and Co., but will it be enough against a famously stubborn Sam Allardyce team fighting against relegation?

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

Just as Southampton and Arsenal have appeared to be Liverpool’s bogey teams recently, so Liverpool have seemed to hold their own against Manchester City.

While City have rolled over many a Premier League side in recent years, before last December’s controversial 2-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium, City’s previous win came in January 2012, with three consecutive 2-2 draws sandwiched in between.

And playing at Anfield is very much a different prospect than the fortress that is the Etihad, despite City’s recent (at the time of writing) loss against Chelsea.

Liverpool’s attack will have plenty to ask of City’s defence, though it’ll also be a big ask of the Reds back line to deal with Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Co.

Don’t be surprised if it’s yet another 2-2 draw here.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

April 19: Norwich City (Away)
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesA week after the City clash comes a trip to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City, who have once again flattered to deceive this season.

With just four wins out of 12 and an equal amount of goals scored and conceded (11) at home at the time of writing, the Canaries have had a tough time trying to get going this season, and they look to be fighting relegation right down to the wire.

By contrast, Liverpool will be looking for their first win in April to finish the season off strongly, and as they have done so often in recent seasons, will be in rampant mood against Norwich.

Don’t be surprised if Luis Suarez enjoys another one of his now-trademark hat tricks against his favorite opponents.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

Rounding off a relatively tough month of fixtures will be a home match against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who will be challenging near the top by the end of April.

Mourinho has traditionally enjoyed a stellar record against Liverpool in the Premier League, and the comprehensive manner of their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December means that Chelsea will travel to Anfield as firm favorites.

Brendan Rodgers has yet to show that his tactical mastery is as accomplished as that of his mentor, though by April 26, unless he encounters any new injuries, he should finally have a fully fit squad at his disposal.

Factor in the Anfield atmosphere and Liverpool’s appetite for the game, and we could have a cracker on our hands.

Plus, surely it’s time for Fernando Torres to open his account against his old club?

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s penultimate fixture for the 2013/14 Premier League campaign is a trip to Crystal Palace, where Tony Pulis has done a considerable job lifting the Eagles out of the relegation zone at the time of writing.

While he may yet lead Palace to Premier League safety this season, Liverpool represent a different prospect altogether.

Thomas Ince, on loan at Selhurst Park from Blackpool until the end of the season, will be eager to impress against his former club, but the Reds attack will surely have too much in their locker, even for a Pulis defence.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

We’d need to travel as far back as 1994—more than 10 years ago by the time May 11 rolls around—for the last time Liverpool lost at home to Newcastle United in the league.

This matchup has thrown up plenty of no-holds-barred attacking football and goals galore down the years, and Liverpool’s last home game of the year looks to be no different.

The difference for Alan Pardew’s men? They don’t have Yohan Cabaye anymore: The French midfielder, who left for Paris Saint-Germain in January, has scored a few good goals against the Reds in recent seasons.

Does that give the license to Liverpool to end their season on a high at Anfield?

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

All the predictions above culminate in 28 additional points for Liverpool on top of their current haul of 47 at the time of writing, giving the Reds a season total of 75 points.

Would that be good enough to take Liverpool into the Champions League next season?

Well, as a reference, in the last five seasons, when the Reds have failed to finish in the top four, the points total for the fourth-placed team has fallen between 68 and 73.

Perhaps even in an extremely tight Premier League season, 75 points would do the business.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Manchester and Liverpool Roar; Fletcher’s Return; Managing in the Premier League

EPL Week 16 recap: Manchester and Liverpool roar

It’s been a while since Manchester United have made the headlines for anything positive, so before we get to Darren Fletcher’s return to first-team action, let’s give United their due credit for a professional job on Aston Villa at Villa Park. Sure, it’s a ground where they’ve traditionally enjoyed success, but we also saw Danny Welbeck score two (two!) and Tom Cleverley score (score!). That Wayne Rooney played in a deep, prompting Scholes-esque role (and that Welbeck was finally deployed in his favored centerforward position) was curious—a sign of things to come?

Which result was the bigger statement this weekend—Manchester City scoring six against Arsenal, or Liverpool hitting five at White Hart Lane? We’ll leave the debate to you, but what’s clear is that Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers, both known for their “philosophies” and approaches to the game, are apparently also masters in dissecting opponents and exploiting their weaknesses to the full. City’s sheer power through the middle saw Fernandinho and Yaya Toure give a midfield masterclass and completely blow Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere away, while Liverpool’s relentless pressuring, movement and dynamic passing dominated a Tottenham midfield that’s been tipped as one of the league’s finest.The gap between leaders Arsenal and fourth-placed City has now been reduced to just three. Liverpool are sandwiched just in between along with Chelsea.

That hasn’t deterred Everton, however, as they continued their impressive rise—documented in this column last week—with a 4-1 rout over Fulham, who themselves have exhibited signs of springing back into life under Rene Meulensteen. Seamus Coleman, Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas all got goals that their excellent campaigns thus far have deserved (so did Leon Osman), but Gerard Deulofeu’s injury will have been concerning for Roberto Martinez. An interesting set of December fixtures (Swansea away, then Sunderland and Southampton at home) may yet see Everton start the New Year in the top four.

 

Welcome back, Darren Fletcher

It was in 2010—over three years ago—that Darren Fletcher first captained Manchester United and then went on to be nominated as their vice-captain. He was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in April 2010 after a successful season, and aged 26, he had already undergone a transformation from “not good enough” to become an important member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.

So it was particularly poignant that Ferguson decided to pay Fletcher a special tribute in his retirement speech at Old Trafford, wishing him a speedy recovery and a quick return to first-team football. Of course, sandwiched in between was an unfortunate case of ulcerative colitis, which ruled him out of most of United’s matches for the seasons to come—and at one point, put his professional career into jeopardy.

And so it was particularly good news when Fletcher—widely seen to be a hardworking, honest model professional—returned once again to the field against Aston Villa on Saturday. The ovations were heard around Villa Park, and they won’t have been confined to Birmingham. But his presence and return will give David Moyes another experienced option in the Manchester United midfield, who have missed Michael Carrick and who haven’t been significantly bolstered or upgraded with the signing of Marouane Fellaini.

Best that Fletcher gets to work and returns to form as soon as possible, then.

 

Still want to be a Premier League manager?

In recent weeks, we’ve read all about how Martin Jol is utterly incompetent, recently that Steve Clarke was ultimately not good enough for West Brom, and now that Andre Villas-Boas has become the latest to lose his job as a Premier League manager. There are rumblings of Sam Allardyce being on borrowed time at West Ham. In the Championship, Owen Coyle and Dave Jones have been sacked in the first two weeks of December.

It’s a peculiarity in modern football that so much emphasis is still being placed on the manager—sometimes styled as “Head Coach,” sometimes “First-Team Manager,” among other iterations of the title. It’s not happened overnight, and it’s largely been done behind the scenes, but the European model of football operations, otherwise known as the corporatization of Premier League football clubs, has almost entirely taken over in the Premier League. With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps only Arsenal employ a traditional all-powerful manager, but even he is working within the confines of a very American, very business-like setup.

So how much influence do Premier League managers actually have? Managers can bring a philosophy, a dream, a vision into their clubs, but how much room do they actually get to see it through? When your best players are being sold against your wishes and replacements are being brought in after consultation with “advisors,” “consultants” and “specialists” but not necessarily with you, how would you be able to fit them into your ideal starting XI to play the type of football you want?

Essentially, a Premier League manager has now become akin to a middle manager in the corporate world, who has to work within major constraints but is still expected to bring stellar results. Except corporate executives (generally) don’t have to endure mass protestations of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from 40,000-plus fans every single week, which in turn put more pressure on chairmen, whose backgrounds are usually in other industries, to take action, all in the name of sporting glory—in a league where there can, alas, only be one winner.

The plus side? You get to do a job you “love” and have always dreamed about—and the payoff, in case things just don’t work out, is pretty attractive.
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.

English Football Weekly: Week 15 Recap; Everton’s Revolution; Match-Fixing Scandal

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

Not that an impressive 2-0 home win would’ve been at all upsetting for Fulham, but was it Rene Meulensteen at work on Craven Cottage on Sunday, or was it just another case of the “new manager syndrome”? Only time will tell, but the confidence—even arrogance—in the way the Cottagers set up against Aston Villa will bode well for their fight to stay in the Premier League, and marked a huge contrast to the soulless, dithering squad in the final days of Martin Jol. Even Dimitar Berbatov turned up to play. He might not be accustomed to the wrong end of the table, but he’ll be important in Fulham’s resurgence—hopefully.

It’s been a while since the Britannia has been regarded a fortress the way it was when Tony Pulis first took Stoke up to the Premier League. Back then, there were Rory Delap’s long throws and other manners of rugby football play. Now, there’s the maverick flair of Marko Arnautovic, the cultured finishing of Stephen Ireland—and apparently also the magician’s touch from Oussama Assaidi. An example of Stoke’s resolve and fight towards a mid-table place? Or a public appeal from Jose Mourinho to Roman Abramovich to land them a striker in the class of Radamel Falcao? Either way, much work to be done still.

Alan Pardew tried to offer some solace in his interview after Newcastle’s first win at Old Trafford in 41 years, but his smug grin, which has been doing the rounds on Twitter, will say all there is about what’s going on at Manchester United—and to an extent at Newcastle as well. For while United toil in ninth place, some 13 points off leaders Arsenal and seemingly having lost that famous comeback spirit, Newcastle have defied critics, predictions and a barren summer transfer window to storm into seventh place, just three points behind City in fourth and four points ahead of United. What a strange season it’s been.

There to take advantage of the dropping of points by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City were Liverpool, who overcame a sloppy own goal and a 10-minute resurgence from West Ham to secure a 4-1 win. It’s been a few seasons since the Reds have found themselves still right in the mix in December, but the hard part is coming. Three formidable opponents and competitors, all away from home, will be obstacles to Liverpool finishing in the top four by the end of December. They’ll be hoping that Cardiff at home next weekend will provide some much-needed breathing space. Spurs, City and Chelsea will not be easy.

 

Young Everton are here to stay

There was never a chance Arsenal-Everton would’ve escaped mention on a weekly wrap; it was too exciting and unpredictable (see: “the perfect advert for the Premier League”) to leave out. But while football fans were expecting Arsenal to reaffirm their title credentials at the Emirates, instead we’ve come out of the game with a renewed appreciation of Everton and Roberto Martinez.

The manner in which Everton took their game to Arsenal was as impressive as it was audacious—possibly even ill-advised prior to kickoff. After all, Liverpool, having had quite a decent run of results this season, went defensive at the Emirates and still got battered. Surely Everton would’ve set up to defend a bit more, especially with Gerard Deulofeu on the bench?

Wrong. The difference between the Merseysiders is that the Blues have a far more industrious, dynamic and well-balanced midfield in comparison to the Reds, and it showed. There was Ross Barkley, brash and confident, taking on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta and strengthening his claims for a place on the plane to Brazil next summer. There was James McCarthy, working so well with Gareth Barry as the central midfield duo and largely nullifying the hitherto potent and unstoppable Arsenal attacking line. And there was Bryan Oviedo, who had impressed with goals in consecutive matches (including a famous winner against United), bombing down the flanks to such good effect that he might just render Leighton Baines a bit less indispensable.

It was a result, and a performance, to confirm that Everton aren’t now fifth in the league because of a fluke. It’s the start of a youthful revolution shaped by a young manager with a vision. The critics still have their knives out, of course, what with two key players and a secret weapon (Romelu Lukaku, Barry and Deulofeu) on loan, but that’s a concern best left for the summer—if it’ll still exist at all. If Everton qualify for Europe, they’ll be able to bring in a few good ones yet.

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

So it appears match-fixing has finally arrived on English shores. The recent reports linking the Sodje brothers and the likes of DJ Campbell will have presented a huge step back for English football and the FA.

£70,000 for a red card? £30,000 for a yellow? Surely players on such lucrative salaries in the English game won’t even bat an eyelid, and surely the competitiveness of the Premier League and the Championship means that sporting integrity and the chance of glory should by default render match-fixing a useless force in England? Why would a player on £50,000 a week sell out for that?

As easy as it is to criticize someone for holding the above beliefs, it is a true pity—but a real necessity—that match-fixing has been revealed to affect the English game, even at the top level. It’s a pity because all along it’s seemed that English football was too competitive, too pure and too exciting to even consider the existence of corruption and the evil influences of money. And for a long time, this image was sustained.

But now that this news has surfaced, it’s come as a huge smack in the face, and many a pundit, follower and fan will be smacking his head out of sheer frustration at his own ignorance. Because given the amount of money in the global game—an amount which will only rise with time—what could possibly have made England immune to corruption? Where there’s money, there’s corruption: It’s a sad fact of professional sports, and now it’s all coming to light.

What’s important now is not to hide and be embarrassed about match-fixing in England, but for the government, the police and the FA to join forces and crack down on the antagonists. Heavy punishments should be issued for those found guilty, and points should be deducted—with relegation implemented—for teams that have been complicit, if it emerges that any might have been.

It’ll be a long, hard journey and will require active policing—even racism has apparently resurfaced in recent years—but it’s the only course of action that makes 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.

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.

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 Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Three: The Scientists)

In this four-part series, we’re covering the burgeoning field of data science in football, with each part looking at one specific player in this ever-expanding market.

We’ve looked at the scout and the coach in previous segments, so let’s dive straight into part three and give the football scientist his due.

We can start with this summary of Arsene Wenger’s time in England and how he’s played a major part in bringing English football up to speed and into the 21st century, and also recall the coverage we’ve paid to both Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers (who, if you’ve followed the series, have shared a few common principles and key figures along the way).

In doing so, we can reflect that football science and its contributions towards a football club are intricately tied in to the big data revolution in football, and came into the sport together with all the statistical and data-driven analyses that we’ve heard about (hence their inclusion in this series).

In Part Three we’ll change focus and give ample coverage to AC Milan and Liverpool and how they’ve incorporated science to help players not only in terms of tactical knowledge and pre-game preparations, but also to maximize their physical potential—and how this is also a way for the clubs themselves to mitigate any unnecessary risks.

milanlab2

Medical Tests

Let’s start with the famous and ubiquitous (during transfer season) medical.

We can turn to renowned resource PhysioRoom.com for a brief explanation of a pre-signing medical, but more insightful is this outstanding piece of football journalism from the Daily Mail’s Matt Fortune, who went through the process of an actual footballer’s medical and wrote a fascinating insider’s tale about it.

We’ll leave it to the experts to tell us what actually goes into a medical, what club doctors actually look for and what kinds of problems they’re keen to avoid—and they vary from club to club—but what’s become increasingly clear over the past few seasons is that the medical has become arguably the most important part of the signing process of a player.

There can be lots of work going into the scouting of a player (as we discussed in Part Two), his strengths and weaknesses, and his potential as a player for a specific football club, but it is the medical department that has to give the final green light before a coach can even start working with the player in a full-time capacity.

It’s in this context that we bring Italian powerhouse AC Milan into the discussion. Their Milan Lab project, which has attracted lots of attention and was a high-profile feature in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, was one of the major players and pioneers in European football in terms of its meticulous approach towards football science.

With a state-of-the-art research headquarters at the Milanello sports center, Milan Lab served both the first team and the youth setup, and was in charge of assessing players in all capacities, whether it be in the pre-signing stage, over the course of the season, or in case of injury problems. Its success in applying scientific research and unique methods allowed veterans like Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta to play into their forties.

Milan Lab also told David Beckham, upon his first loan move from the LA Galaxy in 2009, that he’d be able to play under he was 38, according to this feature in FourFourTwo. Evidently Beckham had taken that advice fully on board: He retired at the end of the 2012/13 season, aged 38.

You may have noticed that we’ve talked about Milan Lab in the past tense. Sadly, this pioneering venture was closed in 2010 after presiding over a period of unprecedented medical success at AC Milan (yes, we’re asking the same question you are). But fans of English football, fear not: As of February 2013, Milan Lab founder Jean-Pierre Meersseman has been involved with the Premier League and its clubs in a consultancy role to advise on football science.

Let’s turn our attentions to Liverpool, who in recent years have leapt into the modern era with their advents in data analysis and sports science. Incidentally, they have also been the subject of an “Inside Liverpool” series on Bleacher Report, and their first feature was with Chris Morgan, the Reds’ head of physiotherapy.

Throughout the interview Morgan sheds light on his role and involvement at the club, and his working relationship with the coaching staff. In the context of this discussion, what stands out interestingly is his summary of the two main aims of physiotherapists: “to ensure that the player is rehabilitated as quickly and safely as possible,” and “to learn from the injury.”

Nutrition and Diets

Science’s involvement in football naturally extends beyond physiotherapy and medicine. Before we continue with Liverpool, let’s hear again from Arsene Wenger.

He speaks here on the importance of how the players themselves prepare for matches and view their own careers, with eating and sleeping patterns factoring into this “non-visible,” “outside of training” part. Naturally, diet control has been a hallmark of Wenger’s regime at the Gunners, and it’s a trend that has spread throughout football.

Back to Liverpool. Dr. James Morton speaks in a feature on nutrition in Bleacher Report’s “Inside Liverpool” series, where he reveals the role he plays as a consultant for the club’s nutrition program.

This involves planning both team menus and individualized dietary plans, as well as education programs to staff and players on the importance of nutrition and how it affects their performances and preparation. Players “asking for advice on what to put in their shopping trolley” is a far cry from those days where they would go out for a pint at the local bar after a Saturday match. Sometimes the modern game does away with time-honored traditions for the sake of improvement. Or maybe it’s just the game improving and becoming more professional.

Another football club that has embraced sports science and nutrition is Manchester City, which we’ve already covered at length in previous segments. It turns out that City also employ a nutrition specialist to look at dietary habits and design appropriate nutritional and recovery strategies.

In this BBC Sport report on City’s industry-leading work in the football science sector, we see the benefits of a well-planned diet and also recall the importance of meticulous fitness planning and assessment.

Football Science and Conferences

There are a host of other high-profile football clubs to look at in this discussion, but let’s bring Part Three to a close by considering the possibilities of sports science and its potential to keep expanding its influence in football and look at the resources that are now available to clubs and sports scientists.

In other areas of sports and football, there are high-profile conferences such as the world-renowned MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and football’s own Soccerex Global Convention. Football science is increasingly getting its own due and coverage, with the Science and Football Conference and the World Conference on Science and Soccer, which are attracting high-profile participants both as speakers and as attendees.

And slowly but surely, academia is getting involved as well. The University of Liverpool offers a Football Industries MBA, while institutions like the Sports Business Institute of Barcelona and the Johan Cruyff Institute of Amsterdam provide a selection of football-specific courses and degrees to obtain.

The most interesting (and relevant to the topic at hand) of all, though, has to be the Bachelor of Science degree in Science and Football at Liverpool John Moores University (incidentally a key partner for Liverpool Football Club), which covers physiology, psychology, performance analysis, applied science and nutrition.

As we see more and more examples of football science (and opportunities for people interested in these areas), so we witness the continued growth and evolution of the beautiful game itself into a more data-driven business and sophisticated, learned industry.

But the driving force behind all these changes isn’t club management or any industry regulator; it’s the fans. It’s because of the fans that football has become the high-profile sport that it is, and will probably become the highest-earning sport in the world in the future.

So while the coach, the scout and the scientist are all inevitable components of the proliferation of data-driven analysis in football, we’ll return to that key player at the heart of it all in our fourth and final part in this series: the fan.

Stay tuned.

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