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10 Reasons Brendan Rodgers Could Become Liverpool’s Very Own Sir Alex Ferguson

With three Premier League matches to go, Liverpool are well-placed to win their first league title in 24 years.

Brendan Rodgers has rightly received many plaudits for his work with the Reds this season, having succeeded Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish almost two years ago.

Contrast that with the fortunes of Manchester United, who this week dispensed with David Moyes after a disastrous 10 months at the helm of the Old Trafford club. Moyes’ troubles were not helped by the constant presence of Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager he replaced at the Red Devils.

The pendulum has seemingly swung back to Liverpool after Ferguson established a Manchester United dynasty, with a 51-point swing between England’s two most historically successful football clubs a damning indictment of Moyes’ disastrous reign.

Meanwhile, at Anfield, Rodgers is quietly going about his task with aplomb and could very well become Liverpool’s very own Sir Alex. Here are 10 reasons why.

 

Roots and Origins

Roots and Origins
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty ImagesIn terms of playing career, Brendan Rodgers and Sir Alex Ferguson experienced contrasting fortunes: The former had his career curtailed by a genetic knee condition, while the latter made over 300 appearances in Scottish football as a forward.

Rodgers started his management career in youth football before graduating to senior-level football with Reading and Watford, then found true success with Swansea City. Ferguson, on the other hand, started at East Stirlingshire and St. Mirren before landing an ultimately successful gig at Aberdeen.

It was at Swansea and Aberdeen, respectively, where the two managers found their first tremendous successes: Rodgers brought a Welsh club into the Premier League for the first time ever, while Ferguson gatecrashed the Old Firm duopoly by winning the Scottish league.

Those jobs proved to be stepping stones toward two of the world’s most storied football clubs.

 

Status of Club

Status of Club
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWhich brings us to our next comparison: the respective sizes, statures and reputations of their clubs.

That Liverpool and Manchester United are far and away the most successful clubs in English football is evident, though both clubs have had their fair share of ups and downs over the years.

Ferguson was the man to famously “knock Liverpool off their perch,” per Graeme Yorke of The Daily Mail, while Rodgers could be the manager to take advantage of David Moyes’ troubles at United to bring the Reds back to the top of the English game once again.

 

Home Record

Home Record
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThat Moyes has been criticized so roundly for his poor home record this season is a testament to the stunning successes of Sir Alex, who was responsible for turning Old Trafford into a fortress and “Theatre of Dreams” most seasons.

Rodgers has based his success this season on his record at Anfield, where Liverpool have only drawn once and lost once in 17 league games. They’ve scored 51 goals, an average of more than three per victory.

No wonder they’re calling it “Fortress Anfield” once again.

 

Man Management

Man Management
Sang TanPerhaps one of the most admirable traits Sir Alex showed during his time at the Old Trafford helm was his man-management technique. He was a no-nonsense manager who didn’t tolerate bad behavior but was also able to contain the personalities and egos of world-class stars.

He dealt with his players with consummate ease, with the underlying principle being that none of his charges could ever be bigger than himself or Manchester United, an approach that Rodgers perhaps referenced when he navigated the Luis Suarez transfer saga last summer.

Rodgers has also made a name for himself as an excellent man-manager and motivator: He has been able to coax improved performances out of Stewart Downing and Jon Flanagan, while Jordan Henderson has become a shining example of how Rodgers can help players develop.

 

Youth Development

Youth Development
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesIn the same vein, Rodgers has proven to be equally adept and eager to blood promising youngsters from the Liverpool academy. Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom broke onto the scene last season, while his current league-topping team is one of the Premier League’s youngest.

Sterling in particular has blossomed into one of England’s most exciting wingers, while Rodgers has unlocked Suarez’s potential and turned him into a 30-goal-a-season striker this year.

Ferguson was, of course, famous for his youth development as well, with his famous Class of ’92 one of the most well-known stories in the modern game. His coaching of Cristiano Ronaldo was a highlight of his reign.

 

Footballing Identity

Footballing Identity
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWhile the tactical approaches of Rodgers and Ferguson are quite different, the footballing identities that their clubs have adopted during their reigns have been equally notable.

Ferguson’s iconic successes in the 1990s came from a classic wing-heavy 4-4-2 formation, while his triumphs in the 2000s featured more flexible approaches, but devastating wing play and exciting counterattacks have become synonymous with Manchester United.

His ability to move with the times on the pitch was reflected by his evolving tactical approaches while staying true to an underlying footballing philosophy.

In the same vein, Rodgers has returned Liverpool to their famous pass-and-move roots and instituted a destructive attacking game as well. Not only are the Reds threatening on the counter, but they also keep possession intelligently and can build play patiently.

Rodgers has also shown tactical flexibility in shaping his team according to the strengths of his players, who are now comfortable in a variety of tactical formations as necessary.

 

Influence over the Media

Influence over the Media
Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty ImagesA glaring difference noticed at Old Trafford this season is the way David Moyes carried out his press conferences—his defeatist and pessimistic attitude were a marked contrast to the bullishness of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson was a master manipulator of the media; his success and longevity in the English game demanded respect and attention. He spoke with authority and arguably even held considerable sway over the Premier League officials.

Rodgers’ approach during his time at Liverpool hasn’t been nearly as controversial or confrontational as Ferguson’s was at United, but his authoritative stance and constant calmness in interviews and press conferences has been a refreshing departure from the at-times outlandish outbursts of Kenny Dalglish.

If Liverpool remain successful, Rodgers will be well on his way to becoming one of Europe’s most esteemed and respected managers as he develops his career at Anfield.

 

Dealing with Pressure

Dealing with Pressure
Matthew Lewis/Getty ImagesGreat responsibility and power come with the managerial positions of England’s most successful football clubs, and the pressure that finds its way to their managers can be overwhelming.

Sir Alex dealt with the pressure most of the time in the best way possible: by winning trophies and continuing his impressive record. But he also knew how to manage his players and the media to cast the spotlight on whichever party he thought deserved it at the time. Hindsight tells us that he was by and large very successful.

Rodgers hasn’t even completed two full seasons at Anfield yet, but the trials and tribulations he’s had to go through, especially in his first half-year, showed his calmness and composure in dealing with pressure.

Of course, in an unexpected but exhilarating title run this season, the Liverpool boss has managed to keep the pressure off his players by insisting that they have already overachieved this season—in the process making it Manchester City and Chelsea’s title to lose.

 

Synonymy with Club

Synonymy with Club
Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesOver the years, due to his longevity and success at Manchester United, Ferguson made himself synonymous with the club, in the process making the club’s identity his and vice versa.

He was the one who implemented the attacking football for which United have become famous, as well as all other values, such as the importance the club treat their youth academy.

Rodgers has grown into his role in the Liverpool hot seat to the extent that Reds fans consider him as an embodiment of the “Liverpool way.” His championing of the Hillsborough Justice cause has made him a perfect ambassador for the club, while his well-spoken ways have made him an ideal spokesperson.

 

Start of a New Era?

Start of a New Era?
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesWhen Sir Alex Ferguson took charge at Old Trafford in 1986, Liverpool were the dominant force in English football. It took him four years to win his first piece of silverware at United.

What followed was a legendary period of success in which he defined Manchester United and left behind a lasting legacy both at the club and in the league.

Sir Alex won his last title at United in his last season, which happened to be Brendan Rodgers’ first at Liverpool.

And now, with United having dropped dramatically this season and the Reds poised to win the title in May, what an interesting coincidence it would be if Rodgers put in place the start of a new era at Anfield…

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Manchester United’s Global Brand Is Affected by Missing the Champions League

An underwhelming season for Manchester United has been capped by the news this week that the Old Trafford club had dismissed beleaguered manager David Moyes, who succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson last July.

As rumors have surfaced aplenty across various media outlets speculating the causes of Moyes’ downfall and what exactly went wrong in his tenure at United, the club have appointed Ryan Giggs as their interim manager as they strive to look forward to the future.

Their underwhelming performances this campaign have led to a disappointing failure to qualify for the Champions League next season, as they are now well and truly mathematically out of reach of the Premier League top four, for the first time in 19 years, which has led to some concern about the direction of the 20-time title winners.

For a club of United’s size and stature, how costly would missing out on the Champions League be for their future and their brand image? How will they pick themselves up from the wake of their recent managerial departures—first Ferguson and now Moyes?

Let’s explore how Manchester United’s brand will be affected by missing the Champions League across three rough timescales: The short, medium and long terms.

 

 

CHRISTOF STACHEShort Term: A Harsh Economic Hit

The immediate future of Manchester United as a preeminent footballing superpower is murky at least: The notion that they are not a “sacking club” has been dispelled after Moyes’ dismissal, even though his results perhaps made his position untenable.
To fall from the lofty achievement of winning the Premier League title last May to a current seventh place with no hope of making the top four this season will rightly be considered a disaster from the club’s point of view, given Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity and record of success, which helped built an image of the club as a perennial contender and a winning institution over the years of his legendary reign.

So to fall from conquering England less than 12 months ago—and conquering Europe six years ago—to the prospect of regular Europa League football, or even no European action at all, will be a massive reputational dent: How can United keep up their global reputation if they’re not even continental?

In the wake of David Moyes’ sacking, Manchester United will miss out on a reported £50 million due to a failure to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition alone, according to Simon Goodley of the Guardian, who suggests that the same riches that are available to competing clubs will serve as a double whammy on top of United’s losses, considering their debts.

Goodley’s comparisons of United’s current situation with Bayern Munich’s in 2007—that they would need to spend massively to improve their squad without European football in a bid to catch up with their competitors—led him to estimate a potential £100 million summer outlay in transfer fees alone.

Which doesn’t include the wage expenditures for their high-earning star players and the considerable compensation that Moyes and his staff will no doubt fight for.

Make no mistake: As United count the costs of missing out on the Champions League, it’s not just to their reputation in the short term as a global sporting brand, but also a blow to their already shaky financial situation.

 

 

Jon SuperMedium Term: The Rebuilding Must Be Done Right

Considering the massive financial commitment that the club will need to make to steady the ship and turn it around, the short-term hit will only be compensated by an ambitious and focused rebuilding job done at all levels of Manchester United.
This involves many aspects across the front and back of the club, not least including a revisiting of the overall backroom structure in place at Old Trafford, which Gabriele Marcotti of ESPNFC suggests should include a Director of Football to alleviate the workload of the modern football manager, and a thorough review system to ensure that players are not signed for inflated fees (see Marouane Fellaini) or rewarded with bumper contracts despite being clearly surplus to requirements (see Nani).

That United have splashed £64.6 million on just two signings will not be lost on any observers: If anything, it will serve as an “eyes light up” moment to the agents of United targets and a major obstacle for the club to overcome. A quick glance at Liverpool’s eye-watering spending in the summer of 2011 will make for a horrifying prospect for many a Red Devil fan.

But besides the playing staff that have been the public face of United, both on and off the field for better or worse over the years, the figurehead that leads them to silverware and sustained success will need to be appointed as well.

The bullish nature and at-times extraordinary proclamations of Sir Alex Ferguson all added to the Manchester United aura and myth, which were almost instantly shattered by the defeatist and pessimistic utterances of David Moyes, who also oversaw the transformation of Old Trafford from a home fortress into a cauldron of fear.

They messed up a managerial appointment once; they can’t afford to do it again.

 

 

Handout/Getty ImagesLong Term: The Structure Is in Place for a Resurgence

As a football club, Manchester United have led the way in England and in Europe for many years, both on the football pitch and off it in the commercial realm. United were perhaps the first club to have built any global brand of note and formulated a wining commercial strategy that was based around silverware won on the pitch and the superstars that brought United that distinct success.
News that the club’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange has rebounded to a pre-Moyes, according to the Mirror, is both cruel on the newly deposed manager and reflective of the club’s standing in the global financial game, while Alex Duff’s commentary on Bloomberg.com considers the club’s power in terms of attracting lucrative commercial sponsorships and strategic partnerships.

Any new manager arriving at Old Trafford would be walking in a dressing room, while needing the injection of some much-needed fresh blood, still featuring some world-class stars, and operating within a commercial giant that is peerless in world football with a brand name that still resonates around the globe. Any comparisons with Liverpool’s dramatic downfall are as a result premature and naive, as the Anfield club have only recently caught up on the commercial side of things, whereas United were pioneers at building a commercial enterprise.

But while United fans shouldn’t panic at the current state of their club, even if the Champions League anthem won’t be playing at Old Trafford next year, they will realize that the club will only be able to bounce back—and the club officials will realize its brand power will only be fully realized—if they overcome a potentially significant short-term hit and approach their rebuilding job correctly.

Because if they don’t do it right, the Manchester United brand, which has been built so strongly over the years because they have become synonymous with success, will wither as a result of their on-field disappointments.

It’s imperative that they get it right this time, before it becomes a vicious, self-defeating cycle.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vincent Yu

 

Sponsorships

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

 

Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ray Stubblebine

 

Branding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

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

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

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

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

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The True Financial Cost of Manchester United Missing out on the Champions League

The gulf in class on the Old Trafford pitch was evident on Tuesday night as Manchester United succumbed to another 3-0 home defeat to a major rival, but David Moyes added more insult to injury as he claimed that Manchester City’s standard and level were something to “aspire” to, per Sky Sports.

For Red Devils fans, who had been used to seeing years of Premier League dominance and a true winning dynasty under Sir Alex Ferguson, this statement—that United were now, suddenly, looking up to their “noisy neighbours”—will have irked, much more than their overall lethargic play has already this season.

It hurts, not just because it was United’s sixth home defeat in the league this season—their most ever in the Premier League—but also because a glance away from the scoreboard and at the league table shows just how far they’ve fallen from their supreme title-winning season last year.

As we approach the final weeks of the 2013-14 Premier League season, Manchester United are left staring up rather than down, contemplating what exactly a failure to qualify for next year’s Champions League—and they are on the brink—would mean to the future of the club.

But what exactly would it mean? Here’s a brief study on the true financial cost of Manchester United missing out on the Champions League—and it doesn’t look too rosy.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesPremier League Payouts

Qualifying for the Champions League requires a minimum of a fourth-placed finish in the Premier League, so let’s go from there.

It’s a well-known fact that the Premier League provides payments to its competing clubs at the end of every season—and it’s because of the league’s astonishing financial successes that those in England’s top tier receive huge amounts of revenue from television rights and so on.

While we won’t know the exact payouts each club receives for the season until late May, after the season will have officially finished, our benchmark will be from last season, where the fourth- and fifth-placed clubs were Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

For their efforts last season, Arsenal received a total end-of-season payment of £57.1 million, £12.8 million of which were “merit payments” from the Premier League based on position, according to the league’s official announcement. Spurs, on the other hand, received £55.9 million and £12.1 million in merit payments.

It’s easy to calculate the difference just in merit payments as a reflection on the gap between the fourth- and fifth-placed Premier League clubs, but the other components of the payout—the “facility fees,” given each time a club’s matches are shown on TV in the UK, and “overseas TV” costs—are also tied intricately into their performances in the league and in European competition.

So the difference in overall payments is likely a more reliable indicator on the gap. In this case, it’s £1.2 million.

Not too significant as a lump sum, but when it comes to Manchester United, the fact that they were so successful in the league last season means that the hurt will be inevitable—and more considerable.

United finished the season as runaway champions, netting a league-high £60.8 million in payouts, which is a full £4.9 million difference from Tottenham’s eventual payout. And it doesn’t stop there: United’s current seventh place was where arch-rivals Liverpoolfinished last year, and the Merseysiders received £54.8 million.

If the Red Devils drop from first place and finish seventh come May, they will have missed out on at least £6 million just in league payouts—and we haven’t even adjusted for the inevitable league-wide increase yet.

 

Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesChampions League Payouts

Then there are the official payouts from the Champions League, which, if United do miss out on the competition itself, they will naturally not be entitled to next season.

For all their domestic woes this season, United’s run to the quarter-finals this season has by and large been smooth, barring a first-leg shock against Olympiakos in the round of 16. Their easy win of Group A was secured on the back of four wins, two draws and no losses—but this is also why an exit from Europe’s elite cup competition will hurt all the more.

According to the official UEFA website, the Champions League paid a minimum base fee of €8.6 million to each participant in the group stage last season.

An additional €1 million was awarded for each win and €500,000 for each draw, meaning that on their group stage form this season, United netted at least €13.6 million just from the group stage alone.

All clubs competing in the round of 16 received a €3.5 million payout, whereas each quarter-finalist received €3.9 million each.

Added on to the group stage payments, that’s at least a €21 million total that they will earn from this season’s Champions League run—and, again, that’s not adjusted for the inevitable competition-wide increase yet.

And who knows—if David Moyes manages to mastermind a famous victory over two legs against the fearsome and record-breaking Bayern Munich of Pep Guardiola, there could be further payments yet.

Translated into pound sterling, the Champions League prize money from this season is at least £17.5 million (and counting), which puts the total opportunity cost at £23.5 million.

Just exactly the amount Marouane Fellaini would’ve cost last summer—if Moyes submitted his bid before the Belgian’s release clause expired on July 31, 2013, according to BBC Sport.

 

Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesThe Intangibles

If only the cost of missing out on the Champions League was just £23.5 million.

Just ask Liverpool, perennial arch-rivals to Manchester United, who slipped into several years of mediocrity—including a couple through financial difficulty—after finishing seventh in what turned out to be Rafael Benitez’s last season at Anfield.

Whether it was down to the personal draw of the managers that succeeded Benitez, or due to the lack of top-quality competition that Liverpool were to be involved in, we may never know, but the truth remains that Liverpool’s signings since that exhilarating title challenge in the 2008-09 season had dropped down several notches—and only resurfaced in the past year or so.

In many ways, Manchester United’s current situation and Liverpool’s back then are similar, especially since both clubs are two of the most prestigious in England (and the world), two of the most historically successful and two built on pride and tradition more so than pure financial muscle.

To lose out on what has traditionally been a key part of the United brand—namely their winning tradition and stature in Europe—would be a huge blow to Manchester United’s appeal to prospective players.

David Moyes stressed in January that “the amount of big players wanting to join United is incredible. It’s because of the club and what it stands for in world terms. Players are not looking at the share price. They are looking at the football club,” per ESPN FC.

A Manchester United without the Champions League simply does not provide the same attraction and a scan at Liverpool’s reported missed signings over the years is testament to that.

Far more than the £23.5 million base loss, which less than half a season under the terms of their kit deal extension with Nike can already recuperate, via the Mirror, this might well be the true cost to Manchester United missing out on the Champions League.

Unless, of course, they change tack and throw their financial weight in to compensate for the lack of European competition, in which case the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain become their main competitors.

And they’ve all got Champions League football.

 

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

Film Focus: Breaking Down Liverpool’s Impressive 3-0 Win over Manchester United

Two Steven Gerrard penalties and a Luis Suarez finish handed Liverpool an impressive 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. And it could’ve been much more.

Besides Steven Gerrard’s performance, which, despite missing his third penalty of the night, was more than enough to see him awarded the Man of the Match, there were a number of interesting talking points from the match.

First was, of course, the sheer number of penalty kicks that referee Mark Clatternburg could have called over the 90 minutes. Marouane Fellaini’s first-half trip on Luis Suarez was let go, while Michael Carrick’s second-half swipe of Daniel Sturridge’s feet after Gerrard’s missed penalty was also not called.

Then there were the decisions that Liverpool perhaps got away with, namely the lack of contact over the visitors’ third penalty, which saw Nemanja Vidic sent off for a fourth time in this fixture for a tackle that didn’t actually connect—and a Glen Johnson handball inside the Liverpool box.

And then, there was David Moyes’ curious decision-making. It wasn’t limited to just deploying record signing and specialist No. 10 Juan Mata on the wings again. It was the lack of instant reaction from the United manager that saw his first substitutions take place on 76 minutes, a full half-hour after the hosts went 2-0 down.

Away from these three general observations, we felt there were four instances that symbolized the match and its eventual outcome. Let’s take a more detailed look at four scenarios that occurred throughout the match.

 

Robin van Persie, deep-lying playmaker?

That Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have spectacularly failed to strike up a useful and threatening strike partnership this season has not gone unnoticed—but their lack of interplay on Sunday will have been very disappointing for Manchester United fans.

More alarming, however, was the manner in which van Persie and Rooney tried to link up with each other (or at least make it seem like they were).

So isolated was van Persie up front that he often drifted out to the left wing in pursuit of the ball, depriving United of any forward presence up front and in theory allowing the supporting midfielders—and Rooney—to charge forward.

But after so many jokes at the Red Devils’ expense in recent months about their crossing-only attacking play, Sunday was yet another exhibition of why their incessant crossing is so unfruitful.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this first-half shot, van Persie has come so deep that he’s literally on the halfway line (yellow circle on the left). Rooney’s charge forward (yellow circle on the right) brings him level with the last man in the Liverpool defence—Daniel Agger—and there are a full three United players between van Persie and Rooney that the former can look to go through.

Instead, his next move is to play a cross-field ball that ends up cleared away all too easily by the Liverpool rearguard. Not a very inspiring attacking approach.

The sad thing was, this was only one of the many times this sequence occurred.

 

Manchester United’s undisciplined defending

By our count, Liverpool could’ve easily had five penalties called on Sunday—a remarkable stat given that their first, after Rafael da Silva’s handball against Luis Suarez, was the first penalty conceded at Old Trafford in the Premier League since December 2011.

While Rafael’s handball was all down to individual carelessness (and he could arguably have been issued a second yellow card), the second penalty was very much down to a collective lack of discipline in the United defence.

In the immediate buildup to the penalty, Jordan Henderson deserves much of the credit for spotting an excellent Joe Allen run into the box and then producing an exquisite flick over the top to find his fellow midfielder. Allen’s use of the body allows him to take control of the ball, which puts the United defence under pressure.

But let’s take a look at the positional errors that the hosts have committed in this single piece of defensive play.

 

BBC Match of the DayThis freeze frame, taken right as Henderson is about to release the ball to Allen, comes on the back of a long ball over the top towards Raheem Sterling on the right side of the penalty box, where he is only tracked by Nemanja Vidic.

United left-back Patrice Evra (blue circle on the left) arrives late on the scene and is dragged back by the ball, while Marouane Fellaini (blue circle on the right) also follows the ball into a zone very much out of his own. Evra and Fellaini have almost switched positions here—bear in mind that Evra should have been tracking Sterling and Fellaini, as the defensive midfielder, should have picked up Henderson or Allen.

These positional errors leave centre-backs Phil Jones and Vidic exposed and under pressure from Allen’s run, as Vidic (yellow circle on the right) is also dragged toward the ball and thus behind Allen’s run (white arrow).

Jones’ disadvantageous starting point (yellow circle on the left) means that he could’ve left Vidic come into Allen’s path (red box) and tackled on his right foot, but the former’s rash movement bundles Allen over and concedes the penalty.

2-0 to the visitors.

 

The movement and magic of Suarez and Sturridge

It’s a testament to how badly United fared that Liverpool didn’t even really get out of their first gear over the 90 minutes and still came away with a comprehensive win.

Arguably the most impressive (and productive) piece of forward play from the Reds’ league-leading strike force came when Luis Suarez took advantage of a Daniel Sturridge mishit and finished with aplomb past David de Gea to take the score to 3-0.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this freeze frame, the dotted red line represents the path Sturridge would undoubtedly have wanted his shot to have taken. If that shot would’ve gone through, David de Gea, who had just forced the corner from which this play started after a brilliant stop from Luis Suarez at point-blank range, could’ve been equal to it, or perhaps parried it out for another corner.

Instead it hits Phil Jones and lands at Suarez’s feet, who controls and finishes it with his left foot past de Gea.

That this play started from a corner was instrumental in the buildup to the goal. Martin Skrtel had stayed forward after the corner and made his presence felt in the penalty area: Jones (yellow circle) has his attentions occupied by Skrtel.

Patrice Evra (blue circle) is once again in no-man’s land as he is woefully out of position once more, while none of United’s players tracked the brilliant run that Suarez timed to perfection. As a result, Jones is caught in two minds, and by the time the ball arrives at Suarez’s feet, Jones and all of his defensive colleagues are nowhere near Liverpool’s No. 7, who couldn’t miss from there.

While the goal ultimately came about in a fortuitous manner, with the ball ricocheting off Jones’ legs to find Suarez, the manner of the runs and the positioning in the buildup suggest that this goal could very easily have been conjured deliberately.

If Sturridge had spotted Suarez’s run and decided to play him in with a deft pass, Suarez would still have been in with an easy finish. More importantly, while Sturridge inadvertently turned creator here, it’s not difficult at all to envision a role reversal here, with Suarez pulling the strings and feeding Sturridge through with an exquisite pass.

The fact that both of Liverpool’s strikers could have played either part in this goal shows exactly why the Reds are increasingly far and away the most prolific scorers in the Premier League.

 

Liverpool still have a midfield problem

With all this said, however, we will also pick one scenario that focuses on the deficiencies that Liverpool still have, even if it wasn’t at all exploited during the game. It’s just as food for thought and a note of caution for Reds fans.

 

BBC Match of the DayThe scene shown here is a Manchester United attack—their only shot on target during the entire 90 minutes—toward the end of the first half, from which Wayne Rooney forced a good reactive save from Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

Toward the bottom of the screen, Rafael is on the charge with the ball on the right flank. Right before this scene, Rafael’s good combination play with Adnan Januzaj leaves Jon Flanagan for dead, and the Liverpool defender is now forced to chase back after missing his initial tackle (blue circle and arrow).

As Daniel Agger is drawn out of position to mark the supporting Januzaj and Martin Skrtel is trying to maintain a presence in the penalty box, it’s now left to Steven Gerrard to track back and cover for Flanagan’s positional mishap (yellow circle and arrow).

However, Gerrard’s run toward United’s right means that his customary central defensive midfield zone has been left vacant, leaving a huge gap in the middle (red box) for Wayne Rooney (white circle) to storm into.

Rafael does subsequently find Rooney on the edge of the area, and the United forward unleashes a shot that Mignolet parries.

Fortunately for Liverpool, they held out to end the half 1-0 up and scored immediately after the second half.

From there on out, it was just a matter of wrapping up the three points. But as convincing as Liverpool looked on Sunday, they still have some work to do on the training ground.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

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

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

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

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

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

EPL Week 16 recap: Manchester and Liverpool roar

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

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

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

 

Welcome back, Darren Fletcher

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

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

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

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

 

Still want to be a Premier League manager?

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

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

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

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

The plus side? You get to do a job you “love” and have always dreamed about—and the payoff, in case things just don’t work out, is pretty attractive.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

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

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

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

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

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

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

 

Young Everton are here to stay

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

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

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

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

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: 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.