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Scouting Report on Reported Liverpool Transfer Target Martin Montoya

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The latest rumor doing the rounds at Anfield links Barcelona full-back Martin Montoya with a move to Liverpool in January, and according to the Guardian, the Reds’ Managing Director Ian Ayre traveled to Catalonia to open transfer talks.

In light of the recent injury blow to joint top scorer Daniel Sturridge—who, as reported by BBC Sport, is set to miss the next two months with an ankle injury—and the projected absence till February of left-back Jose Enrique due to a knee problem (c/o BBC Sport), both of which leave the squad short of first-team options, the recent Montoya links will be positive news for Liverpool fans.

Despite a surfeit of options in the center of defence following the Reds’ deadline-day swoop for Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori, they remain short on the flanks, given Enrique’s injury, on-loan Aly Cissokho’s disappointing form, and Martin Kelly’s continued absence.

Young Jon Flanagan, who impressed in his first few outings in the first team under Kenny Dalglish but suffered a loss in confidence and form since, has defied his critics in recent weeks with encouraging performances filling in on the left, but he remains a back-up option—and a specialist right-back.

Which brings us—and Liverpool, allegedly—to Martin Montoya. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons to his potential signing, assess his potential role at Anfield, and evaluate whether he’d be a good pick-up for Brendan Rodgers.

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Pros

The first pro is arguably the most obvious: Martin Montoya is a La Masia youth product and has grown up in the Barcelona way since the age of eight, before graduating to the first team in the 2011/12 La Liga season.

Considering the passing-dominant style of football that Brendan Rodgers wants to implement at Anfield, Montoya, with his comfort on the ball and encouraging passing statistics—this article from Squawka shows his pass success rate in the 2012/13 season to be 91 percent—would seem to be an instant cultural fit into the philosophies currently being put in place at Liverpool.

A just reward for his perseverance in the Barcelona setup, Montoya was awarded an extended run-out in the Blaugrana first team in the injury absence of regular right-back Dani Alves last season, and took his opportunity with both hands, making Alves bide his time on the sidelines despite the latter returning to fitness.

In his time with the first team, Montoya showed a tremendous work rate, as well as consummate ease transferring play from defence to attack, while his defensive work was uncompromised by his willingness to go forward and take on opponents. The same Squawka article quoted above provides the statistical underpinnings of Montoya’s solidness as a full-back.

In his seven appearances this season, Montoya has, according to WhoScored.com, averaged 2.9 aerial duels won per game, more than any Liverpool defender in this campaign, while his 2.9 tackles per game is bettered only by Glen Johnson (Jon Flanagan’s five tackles per game is averaged over the course of three appearances).

Then there’s his impressive versatility, which has seen him play on both flanks at Camp Nou with ease. His current status as first-choice back-up to Dani Alves suggests that he is most comfortable on the right, but he has also played on the left on three occasions this season.

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Cons

Such is Montoya’s completeness as a full-back that he hasn’t shown any obvious weaknesses during his time at Barcelona, besides the lack of a sustained run in the first team due to the importance and outstanding form of Dani Alves.

However, he has been dribbled past by an opponent an average of 1.3 times per game this season, higher than any Liverpool full-back, suggesting that work may be needed on both the mental and physical aspects of his defending.

His 0.3 key passes per game is lower than Johnson, Cissokho and Enrique (with Flanagan once again excepted), though his tendency to dribble may offset that as different facets of attacking and creative contributions.

Potential Role at Liverpool

Work rate, stamina, unsung squad player without a sustained run at the top level—on paper, Martin Montoya sounds a lot like Alvaro Arbeloa, who was signed by Rafa Benitez in January 2007 and went on to become a key part in his impressive Liverpool team.

Indeed, with the stats showing Montoya to be a reliable and all-rounded full-back capable of playing on either flank and of the odd surge forward, the 22-year-old Spaniard may prove to be an equally inspired capture in just a few months, if Ayre manages to secure a deal to capitalize on Montoya’s contract situation.

And at Anfield, Montoya would likely arrive as instant competition for Flanagan on the left flank in the short term. As impressive as Flanagan has been with his defensive work rate, he has not offered much of note going forward.

Enrique’s bursts into the final third, as an outlet for the likes of Philippe Coutinho, have been missed, and Montoya might just provide a bit more incisiveness and attacking threat with his dribbling and forward runs.

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What about in the medium to long term? Well, it’s becoming a well-known fact that Glen Johnson is about to enter the last 18 months of his contract, where in a year’s time he will be allowed to negotiate pre-contract deals with foreign sides—and even leave Anfield on a free transfer in the summer of 2015.

If he were any other key first-team player, Liverpool would have begun negotiations on a contract extension with Johnson already. But, as dissected by James Pearce in the Liverpool Echo, Johnson’s current £110,000 p/w deal at Anfield means that the 29-year-old will almost certainly have to consider a pay cut if he is to stay at Liverpool.

Which may explain why Managing Director Ian Ayre is reportedly so keen on securing Montoya’s signature this January, instead of leaving it till the summer to bring him to Anfield on a Bosman free transfer. If Montoya impresses in the next six months, Liverpool may well have secured their next long-term right-back on the cheap.

Conclusion

All of this leads to our conclusion that Martin Montoya should be a key priority for the Reds this January transfer window.

Whether it’s for the short term—to fill in for Jose Enrique and challenge Jon Flanagan—or for the long term—as a potential replacement for Glen Johnson if a contract extension doesn’t progress as smoothly—Montoya has the ability to establish himself in the Liverpool first team.

Compared to Johnson, a regular top performer for four seasons and an integral part of this attack-heavy Liverpool team, Montoya still has some development to do before he will mature and evolve into a top-class complete full-back, but his grounding at La Masia will have provided a stellar platform for his continued growth.

At a potentially discounted price due to his contract situation, Montoya would be too good an opportunity to pass up—and a potential regret for Brendan Rodgers and co. if he ends up at a Premier League rival on a free come next summer.

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

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The Football Business Column: The Money that Goes to Agents, Technology and Stadiums

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The Money that goes to Agents

We can’t go anywhere in football without hearing about the money side of the game, such is the prevalence of commerce, sponsorships and brand partnerships, and the importance of financial might and ambition. So when it was announced this summer that the Premier League spent a record £630 million in the transfer window, no one really batted an eye.

It couldn’t have come as a big surprise though, given the enormous TV deals that were secured by the Premier League with broadcasters Sky and BT Sport. After all, the number of big signings and the amount of big money being flown around this summer—not least that mind-boggling world record deal for Gareth Bale—showed that money has become less and less of an object to Premier League clubs. (Crystal Palace paid £8.5 million for a League One player, Dwight Gayle from Peterborough.) It turns out, though, that it’s not just the Premier League, and it’s not just the signing fees.

As we saw from the Neymar megadeal to Barcelona, there are (too) many parties involved in a transfer deal. There are “investors”, “stakeholders”, agreements to play friendlies, first-option commitments and, of course, agents. And when your dad happens to be your agent and you happen to be Neymar, your family can suddenly become €40 million richer.

But it’s not just in conjunction with the biggest names in football that agent fees are considerable. The Football League released a report last week on agent fees at the Championship, League One and League Two levels, and the results were quite staggering. In the 2012/13 Championship season, 23 clubs (Blackpool excepted) paid a total of over £18.5 million in agent fees for 431 agent-involved deals, meaning that, on average, each club spent over £800,000 in payments to agents and each deal cost £43,000.

And that’s just at the Championship level. We await (dread) the official numbers affiliated with the Premier League for more discussion (depression). We haven’t even asked the all-important question yet: Are agents even worth it? (Blackburn Rovers spent over £3.5 million in agent fees—which is more than enough for a quality Championship-level player—and ended the season closer to relegation.)

The Money that goes to Technology

When we talk about money in the Premier League, the topic inevitably focuses on the lack of it spent on youth development and as such the promotion of homegrown talent, which adversely affects the performance of the English national team. And we all know the history of underachievement of said English national team in international tournaments, specifically in penalty shootouts, quite unlike their Premier League counterparts.

Fear not: Money can also be a solution there! Need to provide players with a simulated match environment? With a realistic atmosphere like a World Cup Finals penalty shootout? No problem. Engineering company BAE Systems are currently working with UK Sport, “the UK’s high performance sports agency,” to produce virtual reality simulators for Olympians and Paralympians to better prepare them for real-life tournament scenarios, and according to this Guardian report, this technology could be on its way to football as well.

And why not? Given the amount of money devoted to the mental and physical side of football these days—there’s also the sports science side, which has led to the spawning of many a sports science department at major football clubs, as well as the data analysis side—it’s only natural to see money being thrown at technology that can give teams and players that slight extra chance of success.

But is it really that smooth-sailing? Will virtual reality be able to compare to a real-world penalty shootout environment where everything is at stake? Unless BAE add a feature that projects a virtual reality of burning effigies in the penalty takers’ minds, it might not be enough…

The Money that goes to Stadiums

As ever, England isn’t the only country with huge financial burdens in football. Let’s cross the Atlantic for a moment and look at Major League Soccer, where DC United’s proposed new stadium has attracted criticism for its fee.

$300 million is the sum in question for the Buzzard Point, Washington DC location, and while there are obvious benefits to fans of the club and league, the mooted amount has been met with significant criticism from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, who will have had the current economic climate in mind.

It’s not only in the US where public spending on stadiums have attracted scorn. The 2013 Confederations Cup this summer was marred by public rioting and protesting in Brazil throughout the tournament, against the Brazilian government’s extravagant expenditure on stadiums for next summer’s World Cup and 2016’s Olympics. A total of almost $17 billion is estimated to be spent in conjunction with these two events, and well, there could be a variety of things that this money could be used on otherwise.

But even that is a drop in the ocean compared to Qatar (or should that be a grain of sand in the desert?), who will be spending a whopping £134 billion on their controversial 2022 World Cup tournament, the Middle East’s first ever. How’s that for stadium spending?

 

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

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.