Tag Archives: Tottenham Hotspur

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.

Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham Hotspur: 6 Things We Learned from Anfield Rout

A Younes Kaboul own goal and goals from Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson handed Liverpool an impressive 4-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday, which saw the Reds climb back to the top of the Premier League once again.

Another flying start by Brendan Rodgers’ side saw Raheem Sterling combine well with Glen Johnson down the Liverpool right, forcing Kaboul to turn the ball into his own net. Suarez’s excellent left-footed finish after putting Michael Dawson under pressure deservedly doubled the Reds’ lead on 25 minutes.

Coutinho’s excellent low drive from range further extended the hosts’ dominance on 55 minutes, before Henderson’s free kick from the left flank evaded everyone in the Spurs box and sealed another Liverpool rout over Tottenham, following their five-goal demolition job at White Hart Lane back in December.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s excellent win. Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts below.

 

Impressive Rearguard Action by the Reds

Impressive Rearguard Action by the Reds

Jon Super

Take your pick from two well-worn cliches in the sports world: “The best defence is offence” or “Defence wins championships.”

Whichever your preference—and while Sunday’s result by no means confirmed anything in terms of the Premier League title race just yet—Liverpool showed both offensive drive and defensive steel against Tottenham, much like the reverse fixture in December.

Jon Flanagan bounced back from a quiet couple of weeks with a performance full of heart, commitment and excellently timed tackles, while Glen Johnson put in an admirable defensive shift, albeit against a toothless Spurs left.

Simon Mignolet was on hand to make a few crucial but routine stops—including an excellent left-handed parry of Christian Eriksen’s deflected shot in the dying minutes—to keep what was a rare clean sheet for Liverpool this season.

Martin Skrtel had one of his almost flawless performances featuring a few blockbuster last-ditch blocks. Even Daniel Agger, normally in the “cool, calm and collected” school of defending, saw fit to put in a few flying blocks of his own.

The clean defensive performance, which was admittedly due to a disappointing Spurs display, will be one of the key points stressed by Brendan Rodgers to replicate in the end-of-season run-in.

 

Liverpool Might Just Have the Best Right Flank in the Premier League

Liverpool Might Just Have the Best Right Flank in the Premier League

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

But enough about the defence: Besides keeping a second successive clean sheet against Tottenham this season, Liverpool have again hit four goals with no reply in the Premier League this season, making it 11 matches this season where they have scored at least four goals.

Even more encouraging for both Rodgers and Liverpool fans alike will be Glen Johnson’s return to fitness—and, it seems, to a level almost touching his flying best. It was Johnson’s run behind the Spurs defence that led to Liverpool’s early opening goal and one that fully illustrated his valuable contributions to the Reds attack.

And in reverting to his tried and trusted 4-3-3, Brendan Rodgers started Raheem Sterling on the right, which paid dividends both in the final third and also on the defensive end. The young winger, who by now must surely be on the plane to Brazil this summer, was a constant menace to the Tottenham defence, while a physical duel with Mousa Dembele before his substitution—which he won—was a sign of his growing confidence and maturity.

Johnson’s dovetailing with Sterling down the right made it once again Liverpool’s preferred attacking outlet, even while the hapless Kyle Naughton started as right-back on the opposite side of the pitch.

Pablo Zabaleta and Seamus Coleman, step aside—if Johnson and Sterling keep up their performances on both ends of the pitch, they’ll comfortably win any award for the Premier League’s best right flank.

 

Familiarity Breeds Success

Familiarity Breeds Success

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When Mamadou Sakho’s return from injury was announced, Liverpool fans would’ve been forgiven for wanting him to go straight back into the starting XI, with Daniel Agger not being at his domineering best this season.

When Lucas made a first-team comeback as well, many wanted him to return as the midfield anchor, releasing Steven Gerrard of his holding and controlling duties at the base of the Reds midfield and allowing the captain to push further up the park.

Instead, Rodgers has chosen to stick by and large with a starting lineup that has served him so well, if not entirely in defensive solidity then at least in results, only sacrificing Joe Allen for Sterling.

Besides the Allen/Sterling change, this was the same lineup that started Liverpool’s previous few victories, allowing them to have built up a winning momentum and a growing sense of confidence, which was increasingly apparent as the match wore on.

In sticking with a winning team, despite having other strong contenders on the bench, Rodgers has gone with familiarity, both as a sign of his confidence in his team and as a reward to those players who have served him well amidst the previous injury problems.

 

Tactical Flexibility Now a Liverpool Hallmark

Tactical Flexibility Now a Liverpool Hallmark

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It was the Allen/Sterling change, though, that reflected a return to the 4-3-3 formation that had been used to such excellent effect at times this season. (Lest we forget, the 4-4-2 diamond was, of course, a formation ushered in partly out of desperation.)

Liverpool played like they’d never even thought about veering away from their original 4-3-3, such was the fluency in their build-up and possession play, while Coutinho once again impressed as the most advanced member of the midfield trio.

Not that they played the entire match as a 4-3-3, though: Rodgers’ two substitutions between the 64th and 70th minutes meant that Allen and Lucas did come on to replace Coutinho and Gerrard, and Sterling was pushed back into the middle to revert to the 4-4-2 diamond.

In doing so, the home side displayed yet another trait it’s developed this season: a tactical flexibility that has allowed it to approach different opponents in different ways.

The Liverpool players have become so comfortable with each other and with Rodgers’ possession-based attacking philosophy that they’ve taken every formation change almost like a duck to water, and this can only bode well for the rest of their title-chasing season.

And it paid off spectacularly.

 

Tottenham Hotspur Are Stuck in Limbo

Tottenham Hotspur Are Stuck in Limbo

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Spare a thought for Tottenham Hotspur, as not only did their players not seem to have a game plan in mind, but their head coach also seemed to have lost his fiery passion for which he’s been so famous.

A 60th-minute double substitution aside, Tim Sherwood didn’t appear to take any initiative to improve his side’s fortunes, and he cut a lone figure in the Spurs director’s box as the match wilted away from a Tottenham point of view.

According to BBC Sport, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal is reportedly on his way to White Hart Lane as Spurs’ new manager after this summer’s World Cup. Judging from Sherwood’s demeanor, he might well feel like a dead man walking, with his opportunity to impress at the Spurs helm limited in the end to less than a full season.

In the meantime, however, a host of Tottenham players have been frozen out—the likes of Sandro, Mousa Dembele and Paulinho have been left out in favor of the youngster Nabil Bentaleb—and the lack of cohesion on the Anfield pitch on Sunday will have made for some jarring watching for Spurs fans.

Having spent in excess of £100 million in the wake of Gareth Bale’s departure, Tottenham were supposed to mount at least a strong challenge for fourth. Instead, they’ve lost all their league matches against the Premier League top four this season (barring a home draw against Chelsea in late September) and their season is well and truly unraveling.

Plenty of work to be done in the summer.

 

It’s All in Liverpool’s Hands Now

It’s All in Liverpool’s Hands Now

Jon Super

By notching their 22nd win of the Premier League season, Liverpool return to the top of the table in emphatic fashion, two points above Chelsea after the Blues’ shocking loss at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

While Manchester City have two games in hand and would yet reclaim the top spot with two wins out of two, the reality remains that Liverpool’s fortunes for the season are entirely in their own hands now.

From this point forward, if the Reds win all six of the remaining fixtures on their schedule, they will be crowned Premier League champions since both Chelsea and City have yet to visit Anfield.

For the first time in many a season, Liverpool only have themselves to worry about, without having to hope for rivals dropping points before they can look to capitalize.

Brendan Rodgers will know that this is a key advantage for his team in the run-in, but as usual, he will be stressing the need to keep calm and focus on the next game.

Bring on West Ham United.

 

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.

Andre Villas-Boas: 8 Things His Sacking Means for Tottenham Hotspur

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

His face during the game and after the final whistle said it all: Andre Villas-Boas was a man on borrowed time. And on Monday morning, a day after a 5-0 thrashing to Liverpool at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur have confirmed the sacking of the Portuguese coach.

This news comes in a Premier League of increasing turbulence: Villas-Boas himself was only appointed Chelsea manager some two-and-a-half years ago, fired by Roman Abramovich just a year and nine months ago and brought to Tottenham a season and a half ago.

And now he’s found himself out of a job. Again.

While Villas-Boas will surely be wondering whether or not he will get another chance to manage in the Premier League, let’s look at eight things his dismissal means for Tottenham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Sad End for Tottenham’s Winningest-Ever Coach

Surprise!

It might not seem it, what with the media, pundits and fans questioning his ability, but with 29 wins, 12 draws and 13 losses, Andre Villas-Boas is actually Tottenham’s winningest-ever coach in their history, with a win percentage of 53.7, according to the Telegraph.

Yes, conceding a whopping 11 goals to two teams in quick succession—which makes up almost a sixth of his entire goals against record at White Hart Lane—makes for terrible reading, but before we dissect the other implications of his removal at Spurs, we should take a moment and recognize the work that he has done as their manager.

Not only does he possess their most successful managerial record, but he also steered the club to fifth place last season, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification, and is now actually only eight points off Arsene Wenger’s league-leading Arsenal, despite having sold Gareth Bale in the summer.

All this in an ever-increasing Premier League, which has also seen increasingly cut-throat approaches adopted by rival clubs to ensure that they stay ahead of (or at least in close competition with) the pack.

 

Premier League Chairmen Don’t Like Their Egos Bruised

Anyone who had any doubt that AVB’s career at White Hart Lane was in trouble during their hammering to Liverpool will have had their suspicions confirmed if they saw the facial expressions of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy on Sunday.

Of course this hurt: Spurs were hosting one of their rivals this season for a top-four spot—and before this season, Liverpool were seen as having fallen even out of the top six that had inaugurated the hosts as a new member.

What Levy saw unfolding before his eyes was a statement of intent, a demolition job brought about by a manager with a well-defined philosophy. What Levy witnessed was a disintegration of his dreams in front of him.

Add the humiliating defeat to Manchester City just a few weeks before and it became clear that no matter how close Spurs would still be after finishing the match with no points taken, losing to clubs considered as rivals would turn out to be too much.

Never mind that Spurs had only ever qualified once for the Champions League, despite their status as top-four pretenders. Never mind that big games with rivals only account for a small proportion of your points every season.

This was a result that hurt, and in the eyes of Levy and owner Joe Lewis, something had to be done.

 

Momentum Can Also Go the Other Way

It was just a month ago that Tottenham had one of the meanest defensive records in the country, having conceded six goals in 11 league games, but a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium kickstarted a downward spiral that has seen them ship 17 goals in five matches.

While the official Tottenham Hotspur Twitter feed announced in the aftermath of the Liverpool defeat that their “unbeaten run in December came to an abrupt halt,” the reality was that they had won unconvincingly at two clubs struggling near the foot of the table.

A defence torn to shreds by Manchester City perhaps opened the door to confusion, panic and self-questioning in the Spurs defence, and they haven’t been the same since.

Just this March, Villas-Boas had proclaimed that Arsenal, who were trailing Spurs by seven points then, were in a “negative spiral in terms of results,” as reported by BBC Sport, and that “to get out of that negative spiral is extremely difficult.”

He’s now found that out himself. “Momentum” is always brought up in a run of positive results; alas, it can also go the other way.

 

Gareth Bale Was, in the End, Too Big a Loss

Twenty-one goals and four assists in 34 league games.

So goes the record of the current holder of the most expensive transfer fee in football history.

But Gareth Bale, to Tottenham Hotspur, was about more than just goals and assists: He was the face of a young and ambitious team led by a young and ambitious manager. He was even the face of the Premier League in NBC Sports’ high-profile marketing and build-up of their EPL coverage in the U.S. for the season.

And on the pitch, Bale represented that missing link—that all-important attacking player who was capable of influencing play from deep and transitioning seamlessly from defence to attack.

On paper, when the players who were brought in eventually signed, they would make up for Bale’s goals and assists as a collective. We all know how it has turned out in practice.

So besides all the other ominous warning signs on show on Sunday, Liverpool’s thrashing was also symbolic in that it was led by their new stand-in skipper Luis Suarez—a player who had threatened to leave Anfield the way Bale so spectacularly quit Tottenham.

Suarez hit two goals right out of the top drawer. Meanwhile, Gareth Bale kept doing his stuff in sunny Spain. Two different worlds, one “coulda woulda shoulda” scenario.

 

Instability Is a Constant at a Selling Club

Chairman Levy’s relentless ambition and ruthless ways have served Spurs in memorable ways down the years. Their astute £8 million capture of Rafael van der Vaart in 2010 was one of the finest transfer coups in Premier League history and, not so long ago, Hugo Lloris at the same price last summer was considered another fine example of Levy’s transfer acumen.

But on the flipside stands perhaps the underlying reason for such bargain hunts: The recent sales of the talismanic Luka Modric, van der Vaart and Bale have presented Spurs as an unstable selling club, and this reputation looks to have been enhanced.

It might be a hallmark of a rapidly evolving and rising club, but the constant chopping and changing of both managers and players will not install the sense of stability that is sorely needed even in the corporate world.

That things are different at White Hart Lane is a reminder that patience is a prerequisite after all, and too much change might not actually be a good thing. Other Premier League clubs would do well to take note.

 

You Can Actually Have Too Many Good Players

“You can never have too many good players,” so the football cliche goes. Players in form and players of great ability give managers selection headaches; the more the merrier, right?

If the situation at Tottenham is anything to go by, the answer to that is a resounding no.

We mentioned the prospect of having a group of new signings collectively replace Bale’s importance at Spurs. The very idea of it is appealing and also effectively mitigates the risk of concentrating the club’s fortunes on one single player, but the way it has been carried out has been horribly miscalculated.

We only need to look at the bench on Sunday, where record signing Erik Lamela was yet again kicking his heels (or not), and at Villas-Boas’ constant rotation of his midfield to guess that they simply have too big a roster of midfielders to be able to build any sort of continuity in the starting XI.

In a league that’s becoming more and more about midfield partnerships and dynamic movement, the infamous rotation at Tottenham has become a textbook example of why not to stockpile players in one position.

Perhaps we should just amend that age-old adage then: “You can never have too many good defenders when your first choice backline is injured.” Poor Etienne Capoue was hapless out of position as a makeshift central defender.

 

Did AVB Actually Learn from His Time at Chelsea?

A few months after his arrival at Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas proclaimed that he had learned from his tough spell at Stamford Bridge, as reported by the Mirror, and the general feeling after his first few interviews and press conferences was that he had learned to open up to the media to get them on his side.

This was a new, softer AVB, they said. This was a less obstinate, a more open-minded AVB, they said. This was a great chance for him to prove that Chelsea and Roman Abramovich were a one-off, a mere blip in his bright career, they said.

A year later, according to BBC Sport, the same new AVB was sat in his chair getting involved in a high-profile spat with journalists over a few columns questioning his pedigree as a manager that he didn’t agree with.

Whether or not such accusations were fair is a discussion best left to the past, but by that time, it wasn’t just his methods of dealing with the press that had remained unchanged. His persistence with a physical midfield and a high defensive line had started to become major weaknesses and areas for opposing teams to exploit.

A strong, physical and energetic midfield that was supposed to provide a base for a budding Spurs attack had become an unimaginative source of creativity and the reason for a chronic lack of goals.

 

What Next for Tottenham?

It’s all well and good dissecting the ramifications of Andre Villas-Boas’ sacking and the messages it sends about Tottenham Hotspur, but as in any big footballing decisions, what matters most is how the club moves forward.

And in this case, though to a certain extent his departure was inevitable and understandable, there will be bigger things on Daniel Levy’s mind as he begins to contemplate life without his head coach.

Finding a manager with a pedigree and CV—or an ambitious vision and grand plan, as AVB once had—is hard enough to do, but finding one that can work within the constraints of a perennial Europe-chasing selling club and with a ruthless chairman and director of football is near impossible.

Unlike at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti had established an impressive winning record that proved too difficult to replicate, Andre Villas-Boas arrived at Tottenham to find a club striving to challenge for Europe but with the expectations of a top-four club.

Never mind the lack of available names in the market now; the job itself is fast becoming one of the most stressful in English football.

 

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.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch on Sunday

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Sunday, Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur in a clash that could see the Reds go just two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal if results go Liverpool’s way. However, if the home side are victorious at White Hart Lane, Spurs will draw level with Liverpool on 30 points.

Not so long ago, a crisis was being touted at Spurs, and Andre Villas-Boas’ job was rumored to have been in danger, according to ESPN. Two wins on the bounce see them climb back up to sixth in the league, just two points off fourth-placed Manchester City, but first they must welcome the visit of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League on Thursday night.

Tottenham’s recently creaking defence will be coming up against a Liverpool attack firing on all cylinders: Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 34 goals in 15 games—the second-highest tally in the league—and boast an in-form Luis Suarez spearheading their strikeforce.

As Arsenal travel to the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea take on Crystal Palace and Everton play Fulham this weekend, Tottenham-Liverpool may yet have wider ramifications on the top-four race—and the European credentials of either side.

As we look forward to an exciting match on Sunday, let’s preview six key battles that will be taking place on the White Hart Lane pitch that may just hold the key to all three points for either side.

 

Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet

If it weren’t for Tottenham’s six-goal thrashing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago, they’d still have one of the meanest defensive records in the Premier League. As it stands, with 16 goals conceded, they have the fifth-best defence this season, two places ahead of Liverpool with 18 let in.

A large part of Spurs’ defensive record has been down to their impressive French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool are indebted to Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for pulling off the third most saves thus far this season (55 in comparison to Lloris’ 39) and helping them to second in the league.

So White Hart Lane will feature two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Given Luis Suarez’s form and confidence, and Tottenham’s fondness for long-range shots—according to InfoStrada Sports, 55 percent of their shots are from outside the penalty area this season (via TheScore.com)—they’d do well to be on their best form on Sunday.

Lloris will be wary of repeating his blunder against Sunderland on Wednesday for sure.

 

Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez

From Tottenham’s point of view, Liverpool’s danger man will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez. Hardly a surprise, of course—he’s leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 14 this season, despite missing the first five games of the campaign.

He’s improved on his conversion rate to an impressive 25 percent (via BassTunedToRed.com). He’s added the free-kick to his arsenal of tricks. He’s cleaned up his act and cut out the petty moaning and unsavory simulation from his game.

In short: He’ll be a handful for Michael Dawson, to say the least.

Spurs skipper Dawson has put in some steady performances this season, but the Tottenham back line have already capitulated once against quality opposition (Sergio Aguero of Manchester City) and will be on their toes to prevent the same thing from happening at the hands (or feet) of Suarez.

A lot will thus depend on the midfield.

 

Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling

Before we get to the midfield, though, we have a Liverpool wing to address, and on their right flank, Raheem Sterling will come up against Kyle Naughton in a clash between two hot young English prospects.

Villas-Boas’ stand-in left-back Naughton will likely start in place of the injured Jan Vertonghen, while Sterling should reprise his starting—and starring—role for Rodgers for his fourth game in a row.

In particular scrutiny will be AVB’s fondness for a high defensive line, especially at home: As Liverpool showed against West Ham United on Wednesday, they’re capable of building quick counterattacks that tear through opposition midfields. Sterling himself burst through the middle and went clear on goal on several occasions, only for his finish to let him down.

Just like Philippe Coutinho on the opposite flank, Sterling’s cutting infield will mean that Naughton will likely be dragged inside with him on multiple occasions, leaving Glen Johnson to storm down the Reds’ right flank as a dangerous attacking outlet.

 

Paulinho vs. Lucas

The midfield battle won’t just be Paulinho vs. Lucas, of course, but this particular matchup—where both protagonists are not your stereotypical Brazilian flair players—is very much symbolic of the respective midfields on show this Sunday.

Paulinho’s brand of physicality has been a hallmark of the Spurs midfield play this season. Whether he’s been supported by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Etienne Capoue, his barnstorming style lacks the intricacies and deft touches of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, yet Tottenham’s midfield domination over Swansea City at the beginning of the season provided a glimpse of the new Spurs.

By contrast, a Lucas-Steven Gerrard axis has more often than not been pedestrian and offered far less of a physical control in the middle of the park. Against sides with more robust midfields, such as Southampton, Liverpool have had their weaknesses exposed.

The injury absence of Gerrard—and Jordan Henderson’s fitness permitting—should see Joe Allen retain his spot alongside Henderson and Lucas slotting back in. The hope is that they will be able to offer the dynamism and relentless movement while Gerrard is out.

Villas-Boas has constantly rotated his midfield three this season, but whichever combination he puts out on Sunday, it will surely be a huge challenge for Lucas and Co.

 

Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan

Just as Sterling will prove a test for Naughton on Liverpool’s right flank, so Aaron Lennon will be a fearsome opponent for Jon Flanagan over on Tottenham’s right.

Martin Kelly’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Brendan Rodgers, but he will likely keep his faith in young Flanagan, a right-back by trade, and reward him for a series of solid performances in an unfamiliar position with another start on Sunday.

That will suit Lennon down to the ground. In recent weeks, the Spurs No. 7 has regained his starting slot on the right wing at the expense of Andros Townsend, and his propensity to bomb down the touchline will take advantage of Flanagan’s weaker side. And there’s also his pace.

A Liverpool left flank of Flanagan and Coutinho may offer far too little in terms of physicality and defensive presence—the injured Jose Enrique will be fondly remembered—to rein in the likes of Lennon and right-back Kyle Walker.

Without a doubt, this will be a problem position for Liverpool.

 

Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho

Prior to Tottenham’s last three matches, where they scored a total of four goals, they had scored just a solitary goal—from the penalty spot—in four games.

It would be unfair to heap the blame on four-goal, £26 million striker Roberto Soldado, but his replacement, Jermain Defoe, has seemingly won back his manager’s faith in recent fixtures.

It’s been well documented that an isolated lone striker has been at the root of Tottenham’s scoring problems this season. The lack of a Gareth Bale-like attacking midfielder capable of transitioning smoothly into the forward lines has been made clearer by the lack of mobility, and involvement in overall play, of both their strikers, who belong in the same “predator” category.

So while the Spurs midfield may well overwhelm Liverpool’s, the hosts’ strikeforce (if we can call it that) may not pose enough of a danger to a defence expected to be marshaled by the imposing and improving Mamadou Sakho.

Better for Sakho and Co. to focus on stopping the tidal wave coming in from the Tottenham midfield, then.

 

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

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

EPL Week 12 recap: Manchester contrasts; Merseyside wonders

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

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

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

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

 

England dealt a lesson in philosophy and long-term thinking

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

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

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

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

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

 

We need to talk about the referees

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: Arsenal Slip, Liverpool Close-In; A New Managerial Generation; BT Sport’s Champions League Megadeal

EPL Week 11 recap: Reds dominate; Spurs slip; United roar

There were no lingering memories of Liverpool’s forgettable loss at the Emirates last week, as the Reds took Fulham to task and practically ripped them apart. Four goals were scored at Anfield on Saturday, but it really should’ve been more like seven or eight, such was the Reds’ domination. Fulham’s form will have been the bigger talking point, however. This was a side that indulged the laxness of Dimitar Berbatov and kept a pedestrian midfield unmoved for 90 minutes. Surely Martin Jol is on the brink of the sack; he has to be, or Fulham will spiral into a relegation battle.

After a promising start to the campaign, suddenly it doesn’t look so rosy anymore for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham, which on the surface should just be ludicrous—20 points and joint fifth in the table doesn’t spell crisis in any way. But after the three Premier League clubs at the bottom, Spurs are the fourth lowest-scoring team in the top division, and it’s starting to hurt them big time. Sunday’s loss against Newcastle, albeit against an inspired Tim Krul, represented their second loss in three home games. For all of the money AVB spent on the midfield in the summer, he has yet to find someone to link the middle with the front.

On the flipside, Manchester United are rising again—and fast. David Moyes crowned an encouraging run of performances with a statement of a display against Arsenal on Sunday. Given the tightness of the league this season, it won’t have caused the seismic wave that’s been mentioned in too many quarters in the immediate aftermath, but it does give United’s rivals plenty to think about—and Arsene Wenger will have plenty to think about as well. It’s not the end of the world for the Gunners, not still leading the table going into the international break and almost a third into the season. The January window will be key for both clubs.

That Southampton won yet again shouldn’t be a surprise anymore: They’ve won more often than not this season and find themselves just three points behind the league leaders. Title challengers? We can’t be sure yet, but they’re definitely European contenders right now. West Brom also delivered a very credible draw at Chelsea, who will be very relieved that their controversial penalty gave them even a point. Norwich’s 3-1 win over West Ham will also offer some much-needed breathing space for Chris Hughton and co.—about time his summer acquisitions started hitting the net. Let the international break be over sharpish. This league is too much fun.

 

A new generation of managers is emerging

In the Premier League top four currently are two managerial stalwarts who have practically won it all in European football—Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. But it’s the two other occupants that intrigue, for they are relative novices at the top level.

But Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino, and the style of football they preach, are a breath of fresh air in the fast-changing Premier League landscape—and a very welcome change of scenery at the top as well. Look just a bit further down and we see the likes of Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas, who also champion the merits of possession, energy and pressing. And this can only be a good thing for English football.

It’s always seemed that English football has been slower to catch onto emerging footballing trends. After all, it’s taken until now for possession-based technical football based on an energetic, high-pressure playing style to take root in the Premier League. But it’s taking it by storm, and we as fans are reaping the benefits.

As managers bring with them a philosophy—not just a winning mentality—this inspires clubs to revamp their structures, academies and internal setups to catch up to the rest of the continent (clubs that trust their managers enough, mind). As the coaching setup is increasingly tailored to cater to youngsters from around Europe (due to the globalizing nature of football), coaches and methodologies need to be updated to reflect the relentless growth and development.

Could the Premier League and the English national team end up not as adversaries, but as mutually beneficial endeavors? Food for thought as we consider another side to football below.

 

BT Sport, the latest game-changer in football

The buildup to Week 11’s Premier League action was dominated by the earth-shattering revelation that BT Sport secured the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Champions League and Europa League starting from 2015—for a massive £897 million.

How will this affect English fans? Well, this allows them to tune into one broadcaster only for their European fix, which is much easier to manage for cable subscribers. It also frees up the Champions League final and at least one match featuring each participating British team to be shown free-of-charge every season, which is a boost to everyday viewers as well.

Those already sounding the death knell of affordable football for the everyday fan need not panic just yet; the goal behind this money-spinning deal is to get even more interest to ramp up the bids the next time around, so there will be mechanisms to make European football coverage at least as affordable as it is now (inflation permitting).

What it also means is that starting from 2015, European football will be even more of a cash cow for top clubs than ever before. (Yes, “European football,” given that the Europa League will be given much more of a boost as well.) While this news has gotten the Daily Mail to proclaim an imminent rise in significance and importance of the FA Cup and League Cup, it also means that the much-mocked Arsene Wenger Fourth-Place Trophy will edge ever closer to reality.

Those clubs that are fighting to get back into Europe—and especially the Champions League—by the start of the 2015/16 season might be tempted to shell out even more on prospective signings in the coming few transfer windows to stock up enough ammunition to launch a real fight for the top four, which will have UEFA scrambling to impose its controversial Financial Fair Play rules—but also raise the quality of the Premier League even further, perhaps at the cost of creating a “Big Eight” in the English top flight.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface here, but BT’s deal has already changed the landscape. Now they should consider shelling out just a little bit more to bring Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over from Sky. Then it’ll make a tad more sense.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 10 Recap; Joe Hart’s Fall from Grace; Lloris’ Head Injury

EPL Week 10 Recap: Arsenal Impress; City Run Riot; Cardiff Win Welsh Derby

It was supposed to be a fascinating battle between Liverpool’s SAS and Arsenal’s central defenders, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were nowhere to be found, and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny didn’t need to be present, as the Gunners’ midfield took center stage in a clash that had “Arsenal: Potential title winners” written all over it. This was Arsenal at their best, and Liverpool’s midfield had no answer for the movement and dynamism of Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. And they still have the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to return. Manchester United, beware.

United won in impressive fashion too, but even that was overshadowed by their noisy neighbors, who turned in a masterful performance in their demolition of Norwich City (not sure if it was City who were brilliant or Norwich who were absolutely abysmal—probably a bit of both). Joe Hart was a spectator, and Costel Pantilimon was virtually another (more on them later), but Sergio Aguero and David Silva showed once again that they have the ability to dominate the Premier League week in, week out. Oh, and how about that free kick from Yaya Toure? Sensational stuff once again.

On Sunday, for the first time ever, a Premier League fixture was played between two non-English teams. So did the much-fancied and much-lauded Swansea beat lowly Cardiff? Steven Caulker headed in the winner in what would’ve been considered a major upset, in a result that gives Malky Mackay extra leverage in his allegedly troubled relationship with club owner Vincent Tan. On the other hand, after a great start to his Swansea career, Wilfried Bony seems to have dropped down the pecking order in a thus-far underwhelming campaign for Michael Laudrup. There’s work to be done in Wales.

Another upset was Newcastle’s win over Chelsea, which represented a dent in Jose Mourinho’s quest to catch Arsenal at the top of the league. A clean 2-0 home win was the perfect way for Alan Pardew’s men to bounce back from a last-gasp Tyne-Wear defeat last week. The much-anticipated clash between Everton and Tottenham ended up a drab draw with no goals scored. Spurs dominated the possession statistics, but Andre Villas-Boas should surely be concerned at the lack of support for Roberto Soldado and the striker’s own difficulties in integrating with his midfield. The upside is that, despite not really getting going yet, they finish Week 10 in fourth.

 

We need to talk about Joe Hart

They weren’t the most troubling of oppositions, to be fair, but Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last week and Norwich in the Premier League this weekend had something in common: They didn’t score against Costel Pantilimon.

It’s been well-documented that Joe Hart has suffered a drop in form for the best part of a year, and when given the chance, Pantilimon has always impressed—though his chances have been hard to come by. So from his perspective, it’s a well overdue chance to show his worth in a first-team, competitive setting—and he’s gotten it, after Manuel Pellegrini’s recent announcement that Pantilimon will start this week’s Champions League tie against CSKA Moscow.

But what about Hart himself? It won’t be easy for him to accept a place on the bench—as much as Pellegrini has said he’s “reacted well”—and what follows now is a massive test of character, not least because City have the financial power to strengthen in the January transfer window. They’ve already been linked with the likes of Iker Casillas.

And what about England? City won’t be too big a problem long-term: Goalkeepers are but one position on the field, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to do what it takes to build a top-class side, but England is a totally different situation. The only realistic option as a replacement is Celtic’s Fraser Forster, but his lack of experience doesn’t bode too well looking ahead at next summer’s World Cup. There aren’t too many others.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hart was rated as the next best goalkeeper in the world. If this spells the beginning of the end of Joe Hart, that would be the latest in a series of high-profile tragedies involving unfulfilled potential.

 

Football needs to deal with the head injury problem

The only incident of note in the otherwise dour 0-0 between Everton and Tottenham was Hugo Lloris being knocked out by Romelu Lukaku’s foot. He was visibly dazed in the immediate aftermath, but refused to leave the field and demanded to stay on. Spurs fans and Andre Villas-Boas will have been thankful for his save from Gerard Deulofeu, but his decision to not take his goalkeeper off has met widespread criticism.

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Lloris should be cleared of any blame. As a professional athlete, it’s completely understandable that he would want to stay on the field for as long as possible. Brad Friedel has been rightly usurped as the Tottenham No. 1, but that Lloris might have had one eye on keeping his place in the first team would come as no surprise.

What’s more controversial is the role of the physios and the manager. Spurs have issued a statement noting that Lloris’ post-match CT scan was positive and the on-pitch assessments by their medical team allowed him to play on. Which is all well and good—and fortunate—but what if the CT scan didn’t end with an all-clear? What then?

In that regard, the criticism that has come Spurs’ way is totally justified: Safety first should be the protocol observed when it comes to serious injuries, especially to the head, and the fact that Lukaku’s knee was bandaged and he had to come off after the challenge indicates that it wasn’t a light collision by any means.

But until there are rules put in place to govern such situations, there won’t be any standardized procedure on how clubs and managers should handle concussions and head injuries. It took Fabrice Muamba’s life-threatening collapse to spark the FA into action—and English football fans would surely not prefer to require another such serious case before drastic action is taken—but should physios be relied on for decisions like this, especially when their clubs have an important result at stake?

One suggestion would be to have independent medical staff employed by the Premier League present on standby at every football ground to offer expert consultative advice in cases like this. That’s probably the least that will happen now.

 

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

The Football Business Column: A Latest Update on Globalization in Football

Germany continues its rise 

At this point, we’re all well-versed in the global financial and marketing power boasted by the English Premier League, otherwise known as the Barclays Premier League: the long-term partnership with Barclays Bank has given England’s top flight plenty of commercial exposure and opportunities. Manchester United have led the way with the corporatization of English football, and are one of the only professional sports clubs (never mind in football) to have an international office.

But German powerhouses Bayern Munich are about to join them. It’s recently been confirmed that they’re about to start a New York office, with Pep Guardiola taking his squad to the US for friendlies and training camps next summer, with plans for an office in China to come. This comes on the heels of Bayern’s rapid ascension towards the “super-club” class in European football, as they vie to win the Champions League in two consecutive seasons.

Does this herald the arrival of the Bundesliga (or at least of the German football club) in the global footballing elite? Bayern are storming into that select category of storied, successful and rich football clubs, and with their recent announcements seem to be aiming for world domination. With the Bundesliga receiving plenty of positive coverage in the past few years on their financial sustainability, profitability, and most importantly the coexistence of commercial successes with the strong development of the German national team, Bayern are riding the waves.

And it’s not going to stop anytime soon. For all the plaudits that NBC have taken for their coverage of the Premier League this season, the higher-ups at the US broadcaster need to beware: Fox have agreed a multi-year deal with the Bundesliga to deliver coverage across North and South America, Europe and Asia. If this is the start of an exciting rivalry between the Premier League and the Bundesliga, then football fans only stand to benefit.

 

Liverpool break into the emerging markets

For all of the contrasting criticism and praise that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group have had to endure in their stewardship of Liverpool, one unanimous agreement among all observers has to be that they’ve expanded aggressively on the commercial side of things. And the latest developments at Anfield show that not only do they have ambition to return to the top playing field in football, but they also have the financial and reputational clout that only the biggest clubs enjoy.

We’re talking of course about Liverpool’s recent academy ventures in both India and China, two of the world’s highest-profile emerging markets with fierce interest in football and populations to sustain growth and development. The phrase of choice is “market-leading development center for young players,” but the story for both the Indian and the Chinese academies is the same: It’s a chance to reach out to the young generation, improve football education and potentially unearth Liverpool’s first ever Asian superstar.

As ever in their coaching ventures, Liverpool will be working with local coaches and also adding a considerable portion of social education in the programs to develop youngsters as both human beings and footballers, but the underlying commercial opportunities scream out loud: a chance to secure a generation of kids as Liverpool fans, and the drooling prospect of shirt sales and marketing expansion with an Asian first-team player at Anfield.

With the success of Manchester City’s football school in Abu Dhabi, it seems that elite English clubs will continue their global expansion efforts, and Liverpool’s recent activities capture both the imagination of any football business fan and a fast-growing consumer base.

 

What happens when you put football with football?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the annual NFL games at Wembley, and Manchester City’s plan for MLS dominance with New York City FC. Put the US and two of the most popular and financially successful leagues in the world together, and you have a marketing bonanza, and that’s exactly what the Americans and the English have collaborated on and produced.

Except that it’s about to be taken to another level. Not only has new Fulham owner Shahid Khan considered playing an NFL game at Craven Cottage featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars (also under his ownership) in the future, but the NFL could even be exploring the possibility of opening a franchise in London. Which means that a London-based team could be competing in a league across the pond.

Even more interesting are the stadium plans associated with this global expansion of the NFL. Tottenham Hotspur, who have already been featured in a brilliant skit mocking football fans in America and American football this summer as part of NBC’s promotions for their Premier League coverage in the US, are reported to be interested in cohabiting a new stadium with said London NFL franchise.

This would mean that White Hart Lane Mark II (let’s call it that for now) would not only host two high-profile teams in two of the highest-profile sports in the world, but that it would immediately challenge Wembley’s status as the preeminent (only) American football stadium in London. Following the New York Yankees’ involvement with New York City FC and Manchester City, this latest reversal plan seems just to be the beginning of an intriguing soap opera.

 

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