Tag Archives: English Football Weekly

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

EPL Week 12 recap: Manchester contrasts; Merseyside wonders

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

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

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

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

 

England dealt a lesson in philosophy and long-term thinking

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

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

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

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

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

 

We need to talk about the referees

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fergie reminisces about a time gone by

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

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

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

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

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

 

England’s grassroots football needs more than just facilities

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: Arsenal – Set Piece Kings, The Rainbow Laces Movement, and More

EPL Week 5 Recap: Set-Piece Arsenal, Self-Destructing Newcastle, Slick City

Imagine a 3-1 Arsenal v. Stoke City game at the Emirates where the victor has scored all three from set pieces and the loser from a slick passing move. In any other era, this would’ve been another loss for the Gunners against their rugby-playing bogey nemesis. But things have gotten weird since Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. They’ve taken on a new identity: increased confidence, better results, and—curiously—stronger set pieces. Imagine Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna all scoring—and a £42.5m Özil providing all three. Strange times in north London.

After a 1-4 opening-day capitulation against Manchester City, Newcastle United looked to be in trouble for the campaign ahead, not least because of their lack of signings (Joe Kinnear excepted). After two wins and a draw, and Yohan Cabaye returning to the fold, things seemed better. So the last thing anyone expected in a home game against newly-promoted Hull City was for another disastrous capitulation, but that was exactly what the 2-3 loss, surrendered from a winning 2-1 scoreline, on Saturday was. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, has notched the same number of points (7) as Alan Pardew, and the Tigers have been wonderful underdogs this season.

Not that Newcastle were the only ones to turn in horror shows this weekend, mind. Liverpool’s 0-1 reverse at Southampton showed all the things that could go wrong at Anfield if their opponents have the right setup to take advantage. The Saints have fast become the Reds’ bogey team in recent years; after all, the last league game Brendan Rodgers lost came earlier in the year at St. Mary’s. Speaking of losing away and things going wrong (Liverpool are, after all, only two points off table-topping Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), Sunderland turned in an abysmal performance again on Saturday—and lost their manager afterwards. More on that later.

The infamous 1-6 home loss in the Manchester derby remains a harrowing nightmare for many a Manchester United fan, but at least that was under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. So for his successor to begin life as a United manager by losing first to Liverpool and then to Manchester City—1-4 no less—surely even fewer encouragements. Yet it was the manner of the loss—that only Wayne Rooney, who scored a brilliant consolatory free kick—that was worrying. It was a limp display yet again, epitomized by the anonymous Ashley Young. Why David Moyes persists with the unconvincing and increasingly infuriating Young every week, only he knows.

On the home side, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s finest result since taking the reins at the Etihad Stadium this summer, and a scary proposition of what City could look like when they’re firing on all cylinders. We saw Sergio Aguero back to his best alongside Alvaro Negredo, who has surely usurped Edin Dzeko in the pecking order now, and Jesus Navas was equally rampant on the wing. Let’s reserve the biggest praise for Samir Nasri, who was castigated by Roberto Mancini for his part in Robin van Persie’s free-kick winner at the death last season. A complete turnaround—and this sets Pellegrini well on his way.

 

Arrivederci, Paolo Di Canio

13 games after his appointment on March 31, 2013, Paolo Di Canio has returned to the unemployment circle. He lasted less than six months at the Stadium of Light, and by the end, it was just a matter of time before chairman Ellis Short made the decision to let him go.

This was a guy who had a larger-than-life ego and a larger-than-life character, whose passion meant equally the provocation of his own fanbase and the spiting and crossing of opponents. For the last few weeks of last season, this could be tolerated, justified and even celebrated, as his 3-0 win in the Tyne-Wear derby and ultimately his rescue act earned himself a productive summer transfer window.

But in the end, Di Canio was just about talking the talk and not walking the walk. He talked a good game, especially when he first signed for Sunderland, criticizing predecessor Martin O’Neill and lambasting his players for their fitness levels. Just a week ago, there was his public shaming of new summer signing Cabral, and his confrontation of the angry away section after the dismal 0-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

Such controversial antics could be tolerated if the results were delivered along with them, but given that it all seemed to just be empty rhetoric, it became all the more inevitable that those fans would’ve given him abuse that they temporarily shelved following his salvation of Sunderland’s Premier League status. (Lest we forget, his political views and allegiances have courted far more controversy than necessary.) And it wasn’t just the fans: The final nail in the coffin was the players’ decision to complain about Di Canio’s actions. If your staff go beyond their means to get rid of you, your position is well and truly untenable.

What will last long in the memory and in his reputation, though, is the fact that he won’t change his style. If you’re to continue your career as a manager, Paolo, you’re going to have to work on that.

 

Rainbow laces aren’t enough

There’s been excellent work done around the globe in eradicating racism from football over the past decade, and barring some high-profile incidents resurfacing nowadays, most football fans proclaim that the beautiful game has come a long way, and long may it continue. Such organizations as Kick It Out have become part and parcel of the English game, and so it was just a matter of time before the winds of social change blew football’s way again, this time with homophobia as the focus.

This weekend, we saw the start of the Rainbow Laces Movement, if we can call it that, with high-profile players like Joey Barton, Phil Jagielka, John Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie about to adopt the laces, while BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker will also don a pair. Their attempts to publicize the plight and difficulties faced by gay footballers are admirable, as is the attempt to make #RBGF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) a trend on Twitter.

As ever, though, we have to consider both sides of the coin, and what the impact and legacy of this “movement” may be. It’s all well and good to don a pair of rainbow-colored shoelaces—which doesn’t require much of an effort at all—but the headlines and PR that this could and should attract on national TV run the risk of those involved becoming complacent in their actions. Ensuring a social movement is sustainable and productive isn’t just about the flag-bearers; it’s about what the follow-up actions are and how the lessons are taken on board.

And it’s also about how the movement is conducted. The gay-rights group behind the Rainbow Laces Movement, Stonewall, has seen considerable criticism with its PR approach, choosing to partner with a controversial commercial partner, Paddy Power, and not providing adequate communication in advance of its decision to send the laces directly to football clubs. This arrangement has allowed top clubs to, rightly or wrongly, boycott the campaign, either due to sponsorship interests or the lack of preparation time to decide whether or not to join up.

Either way, these shoelaces mark only the start of what will be a long, hard fight against homophobia in a testosterone-laden sport—if racism has taken this long to deal with and still remains a problem (albeit among just small sections of football fans), homophobia will surely take at least just as long. But a more sensibly run campaign could do wonders, and a more legitimately established organization like Kick It Out could see the right kinds of PR and activities involved. The FA, for one, have a toolkit that highlights several case studies involving football clubs, including Liverpool.

One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll take a lot more active involvement and inventiveness for any progress to be made. But this is a fascinating new movement in football, and we should pay attention to how the game is affected as a result.
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 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

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 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.