Tag Archives: Stoke City

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

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

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

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

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

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

 

Young Everton are here to stay

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

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

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

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

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: Arsenal 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.

EPL Transfers: 10 Best Value-for-Money Signings This Summer

Just like that, an entire summer of transfer sagas (Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney), big-money bids (Manchester City) and outrage over the lack of signings (Newcastle United, Manchester United)—culminating in a wonderfully exciting transfer deadline day on September 2—has ended.

In case we forgot, English Premier League football actually started in August, but now that the transfer window drama is all over it’s onto the football for real.

In the past few days, huge transfer sums have dominated the headlines, with Bale’s record-breaking move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid and the sensational deadline-day signing of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

But this is the Premier League, which has been awash with cash for most of recent history. Just look at Chelsea’s stacking of their midfield this summer and Manchester City’s spree following Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment—not to mention Tottenham’s stockpiling of attacking players in the wake of Bale’s big-money departure.

In a market with premium price tags and bloated wages, there is actually value for money out there. So at the end of all this, let’s take a moment to recognize the less heralded work being done around the Premier League.

Here are the 10 best value-for-money signings in the EPL this summer. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

As with any top 10 list, there are bound to be close calls that ultimately don’t make it in the final selection. The following three players were great pickups for their clubs and deserve an honorable mention.

 

Tom Huddlestone (Hull City, £5m)

When Hull City were promoted at the end of last season, critics and fans could’ve been forgiven for taking a look at their squad and expecting of an immediate relegation dogfight.

10 summer signings later, they don’t look so bad. In fact, even though their opening three games have just yielded three league points, their performances have belied the results, and at the heart of those performances is the new midfield duo from Tottenham Hotspur, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore.

Steve Bruce has strengthened well this summer, and in Huddlestone he has added a midfield schemer with class, quality and plenty of top-level experience for just £5m, as reported by BBC Sport.

 

Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City, £2m)

For a reported £2m, according to the Daily Mail, Stoke City and Mark Hughes have landed an Austrian international with experience all across the continent at Werder Bremen and Internazionale.

On the surface, Marko Arnautovic seems like the perfect bargain buy for Stoke—not to mention, his considerable physique and height suit the Potters to the hilt—but underneath the low transfer fee is a history of controversy and trouble.

If Hughes manages to get his new forward to get rid of his attitude problems, he may well have pulled off one of the signings of the summer.

 

Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, £3m)

Ajax, Italy, Fulham. Dutch. Goalkeeper. Sound familiar?

No, not Manchester United great, Edwin van der Sar, but if all goes well, you wouldn’t bet against Maarten Stekelenburg taking the same path (though David de Gea will have something to say about that).

For now, Stekelenburg will be focused on doing his job for Martin Jol, who brought him to Craven Cottage for just £3m this summer, according to the Daily Mail. If his performances at his previous teams and for the Netherlands international squad are anything to go by, Fulham have pulled off a brilliant signing.

 

10. Loic Remy (Newcastle United, Loan)

Hi-res-178929964_crop_650
Paul Thomas/Getty Images

In January, Loic Remy joined Queens Park Rangers, then in a relegation battle but flush with Tony Fernandes’ cash, in a reported £8m, £70,000 a week deal, beating out competition from Newcastle United, according to BBC Sport.

Fast forward seven months, and QPR are mired in the Championship after a dismal Premier League campaign and need to reduce their wage bill, so they have offloaded a number of players on eye-bulging wage packages, including Remy.

Remy has now taken up the No. 14 shirt at the club he turned down in January, having arrived at St. James’ Park on loan for the season, as reported by BBC Sport. Alan Pardew obtained a player who scored six Premier League goals in just four months, who has been rated as Marseille’s star forward in the past, and who has international experience for France.

Given Newcastle’s underwhelming transfer window this summer, Remy is the sole shining light among the club’s summer arrivals, and will become a key member of a team desperately short in attacking quality.

For a loan deal, however, and with the prospect of the World Cup looming next summer, Remy could be the striker to save Newcastle from relegation.

 

9. Victor Moses (Liverpool, Loan)

Hi-res-167502665_crop_650

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Victor Moses completed a triple haul for Liverpool in a deadline day that also saw defenders Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori arrive at Anfield, but the on-loan Chelsea man will surely represent one of the best deals of the summer.

Scoring for the Blues in all competitions last season—the Capital One Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Premier League—Moses played an integral role in Rafael Benitez’s squad, but with the influx of attacking midfielders under Jose Mourinho, has now been deemed surplus.

In stepped Liverpool, who, in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, have an outstanding recent record in rehabilitating hot young prospects whose stars have fallen slightly.

Prior to Moses’ move to Chelsea, he made waves across the Championship with his dazzling displays on the wing for Crystal Palace, and was considered one of the finest young players in all of England.

Will he find his form again in a red shirt? If so, his reputation will be restored, and even if there isn’t an option to buy at the end of his season-long loan deal, he could provide just that spark to take Liverpool to an elusive Champions League spot.

 

8. Darren Bent (Fulham, Loan)

Hi-res-178929963_crop_650
Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Darren Bent’s place at Aston Villa might have been taken by rising force Christian Benteke, but he still possesses the prized asset that Premier League clubs value and need: the art of goal-scoring.

And Bent knows how to score goals. To quote Martin Laurence’s ESPNFC column, “despite starting just 29 of a possible 76 league games in the last two campaigns, Bent remains one of only six Premier League players to have netted more than 50 goals in the last four seasons (53).”

So when mid-table clubs were looking for a proven striker this summer, Bent stood out as a player to take a chance on, even though his lack of involvement in build-up play impeded his career at Villa Park.

Martin Jol took a chance. Bringing Bent on loan and pairing him with the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov may well turn out to be a masterstroke. He’s already scored on his debut as a substitute against Arsenal. More of the same then.

 

7. Kolo Toure (Liverpool, Free)

Hi-res-177588939_crop_650
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Title-winning experience, pace, heading, physical ability and dressing room presence.

That’s what Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool got for free when they brought in the out-of-contract Kolo Toure from Manchester City, as reported by BBC Sport.

Taking over the No. 4 shirt (whose previous bearers include a certain Sami Hyypia), Toure instantly imposed himself on the dressing room and on the pitch. Brought in to replace the experience of the retired Jamie Carragher, Toure featured prominently in the Reds’ preseason matches and started their first two league games.

His pace allowed Rodgers to maintain a high defensive line when Liverpool were on the attack, and his power and heading kept the Reds at bay while defending against a pacy and strong Aston Villa forward line.

His all-action display and enthusiastic interviews have already seen him elevated to cult hero status at Anfield. Those same fans who wrote off his signing will have been the ones cursing the injury he sustained in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County.

 

6. Peter Odemwingie (Cardiff City, £2.25m)

Hi-res-150452092_crop_650
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Hands up if you still remember Peter Odemwingie’s shenanigans on deadline day last January (Independent).

Any wonder, then, that the Nigerian international has finally left West Bromwich Albion?

Cardiff City have added the likes of Gary Medel and Steven Caulker to their squad this summer, but for a paltry £2.25m, as reported by BBC Sport, their deadline day signing may prove to be Malky Mackay’s most important.

After all, Odemwingie was once West Brom’s top single-season goalscorer ever in the Premier League, and held the Premier League Player of the Month three times in his career at the Hawthorns. So his ability to put the ball in the back of the net will not be questioned.

Now he takes his talents to Wales, where he will be an important member of the first-team squad. Spearheading the Cardiff attack alongside Frazier Campbell or Andreas Cornelius, Odemwingie has every chance to resurrect his Premier League career at age 32.

 

5. Ki Sung-Yueng (Sunderland, Loan)

Hi-res-156934409_crop_650
Stu Forster/Getty Images

When South Korea international Ki Sung-Yueng signed for Swansea City, for what was a then club-record fee of £5.5m (per The Guardian), it was widely believed that Michael Laudrup had pulled off a coup, given Ki’s reputation as a hot midfield prospect.

He had, after all, become one of Europe’s top young midfielders during his time at Celtic, where he scored nine league goals in 66 appearances and impressed with his vision and creativity.

At the Liberty Stadium, Ki displayed time and again his excellent passing skills and composure on the ball, and even filled in in a central defensive role in the Capital One Cup final in February in a show of versatility. But he was made available by the Swans this summer.

Now on loan at Sunderland, under the tutelage of Paolo Di Canio and in a side that desperately needs composure and passing quality in the midfield, Ki has the perfect platform to restore his reputation.

His undoubted ability will be needed in what looks to be a tough campaign ahead for the Black Cats.

 

4. Allan McGregor (Hull City,  £1.5m)

Hi-res-177089629_crop_650
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

After 205 appearances for Scottish club Rangers where he established himself as a Scotland regular, Allan McGregor has arrived, via a year in the Turkish Super League with Besiktas, in the Premier League with Hull City for £1.5m, as confirmed by BBC Sport.

Judging by his opening-day clanger against Chelsea, where he conceded a penalty five minutes into his Premier League debut, and subsequent conceding of a long-range Frank Lampard free kick, McGregor looked as if he might face a challenging first year in England’s top flight.

Not quite.

His stop from Lampard’s penalty was every bit as exciting as his double save towards the end of the first half, and from then on he has gone from strength to strength.

In subsequent league games against Norwich City and Manchester City, McGregor has been a reliable goalkeeper for Steve Bruce, manning the sticks with confidence and pulling off spectacular stops.

For just £1.5m, Bruce has acquired an established goalkeeper who will be instrumental to his sides’ hopes of Premier League survival at the first time of asking.

 

3. Leroy Fer (Norwich City, £4.5m)

Hi-res-178222788_crop_650
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Out of all Premier League clubs, and certainly out of all mid-table clubs, Norwich City’s transfer business stands out in terms of both quality and value for money.

Chris Hughton has brought in a plethora of players who will slot right into his starting XI—including international-class players like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Johan Elmander, as well as promising stars like Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond, all of whom could arguably feature on this list.

Most impressive of all, however, is the £4.5m capture of Netherlands international Leroy Fer, whose arrival at Carrow Road was confirmed in mid-July, according to the Telegraph.

A central midfielder with imposing physical strength and pace, tidy passing skills and an eye for goal—he scored 12 Eredivisie goals in just 47 appearances at previous club FC Twente—Fer adds energy, dynamism and goals to the Norwich midfield, as well as a “Dutch connection” that may be crucial in his partnership with van Wolfswinkel.

Fer has had no trouble settling into the Premier League and threatened to open his account on Saturday against Southampton, playing in the center of the park alongside Bradley Johnson. If he keeps it up, he could lead Norwich to a top-half finish this campaign.

 

2. Stewart Downing (West Ham United, £5m)

Hi-res-177622699_crop_650
David Rogers/Getty Images

Sam Allardyce caught Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers at the perfect time: For the price of a Liverpool-era Stewart Downing (a very much eye-opening £20m), West Ham United have signed both Downing and Andy Carroll.

Andy Carroll was the vastly more expensive one at £15m, and while he will look to repeat his barnstorming performances for the Hammers last season, Downing—who, according to BBC Sport, cost just £5m—may prove to be not just West Ham’s most astute signing, but one of the best of them all.

Here is an England international who has impressed at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, with both assists and goals from either flank, and who has shown his versatility at Liverpool by playing on both wings and even at left-back.

A player who buckled down amidst reports that he would be let go by Rodgers last season and earned his place back in the starting XI with a series of hardworking and impressive performances.

A winger whose crossing will be a perfect fit for Allardyce’s wing-heavy play, a perfect complement to Matt Jarvis on the opposite flank, and a constant source of chances for Andy Carroll.

Sure, he cost way too much when Kenny Dalglish signed him—but for £5m, West Ham have acquired one of the signings of the summer.

 

1. Romelu Lukaku (Everton, Loan)

Hi-res-177168586_crop_650
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

When the new season started with Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge, the main striking position at Chelsea was up for grabs. Lukaku, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were all candidates, until that infamous 4-6-0 formation against Manchester United—and until Samuel Eto’o signed on a free transfer (BBC Sport).

And so on deadline day, Everton swooped in for Lukaku, and now the Belgian international will spend the campaign on loan at Goodison Park.

The move was an astute one by new manager Roberto Martinez, who has already noticeably stamped his authority on Everton’s playing style and is in need of a striker who can deliver the goods.

New signing Arouna Kone hasn’t settled at his new club yet, while Gerard Deulofeu will provide more of a creative thrust rather than out-and-out goal-scoring—Nikica Jelavic has yet to rediscover his barnstorming form of a season and a half ago—which means that Lukaku has a chance to establish himself as the main striker at Everton.

17 league goals in 35 appearances for West Bromwich Albion last season. Thus stands Romelu Lukaku’s Premier League record and pedigree.

Lukaku turned out to be one of the signings of the 2012/13 campaign for Steve Clarke. He could be the one to lead another challenge for the European places for the Toffees.

On, and by the way, both Lukaku and Downing featured on our list of the Premier League’s 10 worst signings of the 2011/12 season.

Football, bloody hell.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

The Football Business Column: Enhanced TV Tech, Total Immersion and Video Games

New season, new technology

It’s a new season in the English Premier League. For American fans, this season’s experience should be vastly different from previous years: NBC has taken on the exclusive broadcasting rights to the English top flight in a way that has revolutionized coverage of football in the US; the marketing efforts that have gone behind promoting this whole new offering, as well as the degree of professionalism and thought put into assembling a top-notch broadcasting team, deserve mention and full credit.

But there have been more subtle improvements in Premier League broadcasting that new EPL fans in America would perhaps have taken for credit. The first is the introduction of goal-line technology. In what’s been a considerable (and frankly surprising) turnaround, the higher powers in the game have approved its use, and HawkEye technology—which is known for its use in tennis—has been installed across EPL grounds this season, and it was immediately put to use on Saturday when Hull City goalkeeper Allan McGregor parried a shot off the line against Chelsea. No goal was given, but a long overdue addition of some simple technology in the game: The lack of emotional and irrational debate on online forums in its immediate aftermath was welcome.

liverpool v stoke city

Courtesy of SI.com

And just like TV viewers will have been able to see the HawkEye analysis and replay of McGregor’s decision, so they too were treated to another simple data set on Saturday. When Liverpool’s Daniel Agger handled inside the box and Stoke City midfielder Jonathan Walters prepared to take the penalty, a brief infographic of Walters’ previous penalty attempts flashed onto the bottom of the screen. Walters had a tendency to shoot towards the keeper’s right, and it turns out that Simon Mignolet had the same information as we all did—just that he’d had it prior to the match—and dived onto his right. A little additional feature for viewers: Nothing too major, but some helpful graphics are always welcome.

GoPro goes pro

In the new era of Manchester City, they’ve been one of the quickest in European football to adopt and embrace the latest in technology. Their social media presence and YouTube features have won rave reviews for their interactivity with fans and depth of coverage, and their latest partnership proves that City are once again on the frontier when it comes to technology in football.

On August 21, City announced that they will be partnering up with California-based video camera-maker GoPro to go even more in-depth into the lives of professional footballers. GoPro has been popular amongst extreme sports enthusiasts, and will now be used to film exclusive behind-the-scenes happenings in and around the football club. Players will be wearing it in training (and have done—see the promotional video) and pre-match routines, similar to Nike’s highly-rated “Take It to the Next Level” commercial series.

With Google Glass the newest hype in American sports—the discussion now is on whether referees in the NBA should wear it on the court—how long will it be before the latest technology is widely adopted in the English game? Exciting times.

The business of football games

Football fans can be divided into two camps: The ProEvo camp (Pro Evolution Soccer, or Winning Eleven) or the FIFA camp. It’s not surprising that EA Sports, the developers behind FIFA, have seized on the world’s most popular game as a huge business opportunity, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, there were once major doubts at Electronic Arts whether to develop the game at all. For a fine, fine piece of journalism marrying video games and football, check out this piece on the story of FIFA.

So how best to capture the worldwide football fanbase? EA Sports have recently entered into partnership deals with Manchester City (yup, them again), Liverpool and Everton to act as the clubs’ official video games partner, which means that their coverage on the FIFA games will be even more extensive. Everton’s Goodison Park will be eligible for selection as a stadium in-game, and the EA Sports team have traveled onsite to capture the likenesses of their players to deliver a more authentic representation of the teams in the game. (Here’s a video of Liverpool players getting their images captured.) And of course, there will be EA Sports-sponsored corners in the stadiums for fans to play with each other—and for EA to promote their FIFA games.

Oh, and there’s a final category of football fans. That all-encompassing category—Football Manager. Take it from me: It is a magnificent game, but be warned, for you might end up spending hours on it. That is, if you’re not already an FM fan. Here’s another fine piece of writing covering the FM mania.

 

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

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

Hi-res-176676967_crop_650x440

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.

In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.

But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.

Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.

His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.

On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.

And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.

Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.

At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.

So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.

Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.

But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.

And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.

A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.

It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.

And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.

Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.

Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.

Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.

Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.

There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.

A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.

For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.

Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.

A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.

And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.

A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.

That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.

Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.

Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.

Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.

But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.

Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.

With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.

A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.

If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.

With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.

Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.

Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.

As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.