Premier Class…

1 04 2010

Whilst sitting here fuming that the plumber which visited this morning to simply tighten a pipe has somehow managed to remove any hot water from anywhere other than the kitchen, I thought I would do what I promised a few days ago and write a blog on the Premier League and my expectations for the last few matches.

Lets start at the top. Chelsea will win it, Man Utd will come second and Arsenal third. I don’t like the idea of Chelsea winning it particularly, but they simply seem to have the legs whereas Man Utd and Arsenal seem reliant upon inspiration from individuals. The injuries to Rooney and Fabregas severely hamper their respective teams and their title challenges. Arsenal have no-one to suitably replace Fabregas, and the nearest pretender, Ramsey, is crocked for the long term too. For United, the loss of Rooney is a big blow, and whilst Berbatov has shown recently that he is good enough to replace Rooney, there are, for me, question marks as to whether he can provide as much inspiration and clinical finishing that Rooney does. Man Utd do not need a player to drift in and out of matches like Berbatov does, instead they need players to grab the game by the scruff of its neck and win them. Berbatov only does this in part.

For me Chelsea are looking like they are getting stronger, and with no European competition to worry them, the league becomes the priority. Add to this the bonus that their key men (of which, unlike their rivals there is more than one) are not getting injured in Europe but instead are getting stronger and better, and the only conclusion is that they will regain the title.

In the race for fourth, I still think Liverpool will just about get there. The two-man team that is currently the Anfield side is showing signs of significant improvement, and looking at their remaining fixtures, it is, realistically, only the penultimate game of the season which they should lose. All the rest are matches they need to, and should, win if they want that fourth spot. Compare this with Man City who still have to play Man Utd, Arsenal, Villa and Spurs. Or Spurs themselves who have Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd, as well as City. Villa, for me are slipping away, and are out of contention altogether for a fourth placed spot. I just think that the Liverpool bandwagon is finally gathering some momentum this season, and given the return to form of Gerrard, and the return to fitness of Torres, I wouldn’t bet against them coming fourth and winning the Europa League.

And so to the bottom, where it increasingly seems like two from three will accompany Portsmouth into the Championship. Strangely it is not Hull or Burnley for who I fear, but the increasingly agitated West Ham. In-fighting and, today,  out-fighting, are blighting the club in its attempts to stay in the league. The sounds coming out of the board-room, and from the manager make it seem like the club is struggling behind the scenes, and the remaining fixtures seem to suggest that it could be hard for Zola’s men to pick up many (if any) more points. Wigan and Sunderland are their best hopes, although a Fulham team distracted by the Europa League may also play into their hands. However, if they need points on the last day of the season, then a trip to Man City (who may still be fighting for fourth) is the last thing Zola would want.

As for Burnley, the match against Hull in a couple of weeks is vital for their chances, but three games against top-six opposition may render that result meaningless. Add to that an away trip to St Andrews, and you fear for their chances of picking up anything more than five points. Which may be enough, but it seems unlikely. This would leave them on 29 points.

On paper, Hull have a slightly easier run in, but have no ‘dead certs’. Most of their matches are against teams in the top half of the table, and whilst they may fancy themselves to pick up some points, I cannot see it being more than three or four. If this is the case, Hull would finish with 31 points.

This would mean West Ham would need roughly five more points to stay up, but looking at their fixtures, I’m not confident. It may even come down to goal-difference which decides who stays up. Either way though, West Ham look like they are in trouble.

Of the teams above them, I’m delighted to think that my team, Wolves, as well as Bolton and Wigan are all but safe from relegation. The recent spell of four games unbeaten has done wonders for the Wolves team, and whilst realistically we cannot expect that to continue against Arsenal on Saturday, it has launched us clear of the drop zone, with a bit of a cushion. If we add that together with the healthy goal difference advantage we have over Wigan, then things are looking up.

So, whilst I think the “big-four” monopoly over the Premier League will continue for now, it will not be without one hell of a fight. And the outlook for Portsmouth is bleak, certain relegation, financial collapse, and players looking disillusioned with the club mean that the tunnel for them seems very dark and very long. For Burnley or Hull relegation would not be the end of things, I think that their respective promotions came perhaps too early for the club, and the financial windfall provided should see them build and develop as football clubs as well as teams. Relegation could be a problem for West Ham, without the Premier League’s cash, and with a rush of key players likely to leave, as well as the manager, the tunnel is likewise pretty dark for them too. However I think it’s significantly shorter for them, and some sound investment over the next few years and I think they would be back stronger if they got relegated.


Window of Opportunity…

23 01 2009

The continual debate over the nature of the transfer window is one which will continue to raise its head throughout January’s in the future. There are many arguments both for and against the window.

From a fan’s point of view, the window provides excitment, discussion and gets people talking. The evidence is there in full for anyone to read on the BBC 606 fans forums. The window is something to look forward to half way through a season when the trials and tribulations of following a football team are becoming apparent.

Yet many players and managers dislike it. The window has the potential to tear apart their season. Wigan, I think, will be this years prime example. With the departure of  Wilson Palacios and (likely departure) Emile Heskey, not even the signing of Stephen Hunt could ensure that Wigan continue to do as well as they have in the first part of the season. Yes, their funds will have been swelled by the departures, but this money isn’t running out onto the pitch every week playing football.

For those clubs in financial difficulty, the window provides an opportunity to sell players to help the club survive.  But there is the painful catch-22 of selling your best players for larger prices and then falling further down the leagues. Luton Town are a good example, as are Leeds United. It is here that the window could be said to be a good thing. It serves to grossly inflate the prices of players, knowing that if the buying club really need a player in this month, they must agree. The market is a sellers one. Craig Bellamy, as good a player as he is, is never really worth the £14million that Manchester City paid for him. Lassana Diarra (Portsmouth-Real Madrid) is not £20million worth of player, and never has been. Roque Santa Cruz is not worth £40million, the fee that Sam Allardyce put on his head. The window makes good players very expensive, and average players just expensive. For those clubs who need the cash, this is a good thing. For everyone else, it isn’t. Somewhere along the line, the money must be generated. It invariably comes from the pockets of the fans. Subtle increases in ticket prices, or official shirt prices help the club chase those players more expensive. Someone has to pay somewhere, and it generally has to be the fans, and whilst we could think about other sources of income (sponsors for example), they are usually not putting as much in as the fans (season ticket, shirts, matchday food, programme- all told could be upwards of £700 a season, per person). It is the fans, undoubtedly, who pay.

Yet what about those clubs who need the players? Arsene Wenger has today said that the inability to sign players in January would be good punishment for those teams who failed to strengthen during the summer months. This view is interesting, but fails to take into account the variables in a football season, especially injuries. If a team had, for example, injuries to a certain number of key players, is it right that they then cannot reinforce their squads as best they can during one month? I think that removing the window would penalise such teams through no fault of their own. Wenger himself has a long list of injuries (Eduardo, Walcott, Rosicky plus others) and naturally, the chase of Andrei Arshavin is a different case to everyone else trying to sign players this month.

Those richer clubs, can, of course, afford to pay the prices, and here is the next counter-argument to the window. The poorer clubs are priced out of the market by the teams around them who can pay just that bit more. The poorer club then has to look at other players, cheaper, worse players if they want to strengthen their team, which is something of a paradox. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good, cheap players to be had, but generally, the poorer clubs are hustled out of the market. Is this just some warped version of the Darwinian survival of the fittest theory? Possibly. Is it fair? Certainly not. Should it change? I hope not.

The window has its faults, of course it does. There are many reasons to not like it, it contributes to the obscene amounts of money in the game, it makes average players seem good, it hinders smaller teams. These are all valid arguments, but I still like it. The drama, the debates and discussions, the potential of a new player to reinvigorate your team, these are reasons to love the window, and, lets face it, it isn’t going to disappear any time soon.


15 01 2009

That’s how much Manchester City are offering AC Milan for Kaka, former world player of the year. The fee is obscene, of course it is, but that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to say how sorry I feel for Mark Hughes. Reading his comments today that try to justify such a fee, it seems he is floundering amid the pressure of being manager of the richest club in the world, and not liking it one jot. It doesn’t make business sense at all. £91million is quite a lot of money for one player. Then you have various fees, wages and the rest. It will cost City’s owners a lot in the long term.

Nor does it make footballing sense. Manchester City are not floundering near the foot of the Premier League due to their inability to score goals, they have outscored everyone at home so far this season (with the exception of Manchester United). Their problems lie in their defence. The once impressive Micah Richards and Richard Dunne look bereft of confidence and, at the moment, ability. Vincent Kompany is not looking like the sort of player that fans of Football Manager know. Wayne Bridge has been bought to help the problems, but from left-back, it is hard to make a really telling impact in the centre of defence. Manchester City need world-class defenders, not attackers. If they sort out this problem, then they could begin to look at climbing the table, with the possibilty of considering a European place next season. Until then they will be top heavy, and will lose football matches.

I seem to remember Real Madrid making the same mistake. As they built a team of Galacticos at the start of this decade, they bought the likes of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Beckham, which had the effect of making them great going forward, but lacking in defence (despite the ever impressive Iker Casillas in goal). Yes, it did win them the Champions League in 2000 and 2002, and La Liga in 00-01 and 02-03, but then they won nothing for four more years, as the stars waned and got older. Their defence was always considered their weakest link (as evidenced by the importance to them of Makelele), but they had enough good players to win them games. Manchester City do not have that yet, and regardless of whether they add Kaka this month, this will remain the case.

Nor is it clever to assume the player will find top form straight away. Robinho has been good, but has hardly set the league alight in the same way as Van Nistelrooy or Torres have done previously. For a £32million player, you would be inclined to expect a little more. The same could happen to Kaka. Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive fan of Kaka, and have been for years (whilst he was still relatively unknown), but moving to a new country, a new club, a new climate, a new culture and a new league can impact upon players. Morientes was a great player in Spain, Shevchenko was great at AC Milan, but when both came to England, they struggled, and looked shadows of their former selves.

I genuinely hope Kaka doesn’t come to Manchester City this month. I think that he is too good a player to be found at a club like City (or indeed a club like Chelsea). I would much rather see him in a side that plays the game in the same manner as he does, exciting, flowing football, scoring goals for fun, that hint of genius running through the side. In the Premier League there is only one club I would like to see him at, and that’s Arsenal, but that Sylvan Wiltord is still Arsenal’s record signing tells you all you need to know about Wenger’s transfer policy. Money may well talk, but I really hope it doesn’t.

Mind Games…

11 01 2009

I am one for history repeating itself, and, over the past couple of days, I think it has happened again. When Rafa Benitez pulled out a list of various misdemeanours committed by Sir Alex Ferguson over the course of this season, it was apparent though that this was so very much the same, yet so very different.

Everyone remembers Kevin Keegan’s famous outburst as his Newcastle team faltered as the season drew to a close, allowing Manchester United to win the league. Many were praising Alex Ferguson and his team of kids. Ferguson had won, both on the pitch and off it. Fergie, one of the best managers of the modern era, plays the mind games so well, and he broke Keegan so completely that the latter fell apart so publically, letting Fergie take the glory. Keegan had no answers to Fergie’s questions.

As Ferguson has gone on and had so much more success, no-one, and nothing has fazed him. Yes, he has complained (in pretty much every press conference), yes he has moaned (about all manner of things, including fixtures, referees, the FA, other managers, and players), but he has never been beaten when it come to the mind games.

As Liverpool have moved to the top of the Premier League this season, so Ferguson has played his cards, and so he has got under Benitez’s skin, to the point the Liverpool boss cracked on Friday. The trouble is, everything Benitez said was true. His points were considered, they were thorough, and they were all correct. Benitez, in his mind, was merely airing an opinion and substantiating it in a very precise manner. Many pundits have agreed with his views, as have the fans. But that really isn’t the point any more. For everyone now, it is about how Ferguson has got to Benitez, forcing a response.

Such an attack has been read as Benitez failing to cope with the pressure of being top of the league. It has been read that Benitez has been affected by Ferguson’s various indirect snipings. I don’t agree though, to me it seems that, for someone who has won two league titles in Spain with Valencia, pressure isn’t an issue. I’m not sure Ferguson has won any mind games, yet. All Benitez was doing was highlighting the inconsistancies that occur when the FA deal with Ferguson as opposed to other managers. The outburst may have had the affect of increasing the pressure on his players, but such pressure exists anyway. Maybe it could have been saved for a later date, say, when Liverpool had won the title. The point though, had to be made, and hopefully the FA will sit up and take notice of Benitez’s comments, and take a good look at itself, as it is so badly run that it is painful to most football fans.

In the long term, I think Liverpool will lose the race for the title, and Manchester United will win it again. Whether this does, or does not happen will be irrespective of Benitez’s comments on Friday.

On another note, it is nice to be able to say I was right with regard to Manchester City and their fortunes this season. As they flounder around near the foot of the table, Mark Hughes has a real job on to save the richest club in the world from problems.

This Was the Week That Was…

21 09 2008

In a busy week for news, I am going to offer my brief thoughts on various issues which deserve to be looked at more thoroughly than I am prepared to do at this point.

First up is the increasing dissent within the Labour party ranks. Whilst those at BULS remain unwilling to discuss this growing concern, and those at the Labour party conference batting it away like an annoying mosquito, I firmly believe that there can be no doubt that all is not well within the party. We are bombarded with different stories of various backbench MP’s calling for Brown’s head. The arguement for keeping Brown is simple, there is no-one better. This is not an endorsement of his abilities (which he has himself defended today), more an observation about the potential of the other options. What, therefore, this boils down to is, he is the best of a bad bunch.

Another argument to keep him runs along the lines of: “We are in a difficult economic period. He has the experience to deal with such problems.” Whilst this is obviously true, there are a couple of issues I have with this naturally defensive statement. Firstly, that it should not be read as a pro-Brown stance, instead it should be read more as a “need-for-stability” stance (the two are subtlely different). Secondly, I don’t buy it anyway because, whilst he does have the experience, perhaps the need for fresh thinking is upon us. This one man has run the rule over Britain’s economy for the best part of a decade, some new thoughts and a new approach may be worth the punt.

Anyway, that’s enough about the Labour party’s problems. My next issue is with football.

Obviously I have already written about Manchester City and the huge investment they have received. My issue is with people who therefore make them ‘favourites’ to break into the so-called ‘big four’.  not this season I’m afraid. Yes, they have money. Yes, they have signed Robinho. No, this doesn’t mean they will claim anything above fifth for me. Robinho will make a difference, but he cannot, by himself, drag City into the upper echelons of the league. Essentially they have the same squad of players they had before the money came in, and will do so until at least the new year. By which time, they will be out of the running for the title, and be struggling to stick with whichever team is in fourth. Ryan Giggs is one of the few people I have heard talk sensibly about this, when he maintained the same thing to Sky Sports.

Next, as we know the season is but a month old, and the FA’s ‘Respect’ Campaign has received wide publicity, for all the right reasons. There seemed to be more respect to officials from players and staff and vice versa. However the cracks were there, as David Moyes was sent to the stands for explaining to the fourth official why his team should have been given a penalty as Leon Cort handled the ball in the box. He was right, the officials were wrong, yet they dismissed him anyway, and now he faces an FA charge. However, the death of the campaign came today as Manchester United travelled to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea. It was not the final score (a thrilling 1-1 draw by all accounts) but the nature of Man Utd’s play which was the final straw to break the proverbial camel’s back. They picked up seven yellow cards. The club automatically receives a fine for six yellows, so there was something amiss at the Bridge. The cards, for a variety of things, ultimately, I beleive, shows that the Respect Campaign is failing just weeks into the season, as the Champions cannot, and have not, given the campaign itself the respect it deserves.

Finally, I would just like to point out that the mighty Wolves are top of the Championship pile, and now three points clear of Birmingham City. The team are scoring goals for fun, and are really looking good. Obviously there is a long way to go, and injuries and suspensions will play a big part in the campaign, but the initial signs are encouraging. They are one of only two teams in the league who haven’t lost yet (the other being Cardiff), and have many fans dreaming of next May already.

The Big Sheik Up…

4 09 2008

This week has been one of the most unbelievable in footballing terms for a long long time. As new owners aquired Manchester City on Monday, they immediately agreed to fund bids for various players worth around the £30million mark. On Monday, long time Chelski target Robinho was the first arrival at what has quickly become known as “Middle Eastlands”. He arrived for £32.5million. Other offers for players such as Berbatov and Torres were soon made known too (Torres was apparently subject to a £50million offer). The new owners have quickly upset footballing circles, circles based in tradition and history.

As they plan to revolutionise football, I am left wondering quite what the appeal of Manchester City is. Yes, they have a brand new stadium (one less thing to worry about – look at the mess Liverpool are in with regard their prospective stadium), and some very good youngsters, but aside from that, were City really going anywhere? They got a new owner just a year ago, but Dr Thakshin’s dodgy finances have meant he has quickly reliquished power to the oil-rich buyers from Dubai. It is easy to forget, but City were in the Championship (or Division 1) as recently as 2002. There are more established clubs in the Premiership to pick from (Everton are crying out for investment as Moyes has struggled to finance players this summer). Manchester City just seems such an odd choice. I don’t get what the appeal is.

Then there is the knock-on effect this will have on the club. As I already mentioned, Manchester City have one of the most promising youth set-ups in the country. They have already brought through players such as Shaun Wright-Phillips, Micah Richards and Michael Johnson. There are others who have immense potential too. What will happen to this policy (of which I am in favour) once the best players in the world are brought to the club for stupid amounts of money? Will they be forced out to find other clubs? I think they will be left with little choice.

Then there is the manager. Mark Hughes (of whom I am a huge fan) is one of the best young managers in the league. But if he fails to match his employers ambitions with silverware, he too surely will be on his way, to be replaced with someone with more managerial clout (Jose Mourinho is still hot footballing property, don’t bet against a return to England for the self appointed “special one”). The best players, after all, need the best manager.

There is a short-term nature to this. If the man at the helm fails (as happens – Mourinho couldn’t deliver the Champions League despite huge financial backing) then they will be sacked. It’s a simple formula really, but one which is potentially very disruptive both to the players and to the fans. I have always maintained football clubs need consistancy, but this formula does not allow for a manager building a team, and a squad. It gives him a short-term goal of ultimate success, but nothing more permanent. In the long-term, this will put prospective managers off the job, simply because they are more realistic than the prospective employers.

So there are exciting times ahead for City, yes, but there is also a feeling of suspicion on my behalf. The Chelsea revolution has stalled, despite appearances, Manchester United have shown that money doesn’t necessarily buy success (compared to Chelsea they spent little – until signing Berbatov for £30million – this summer). City fans will be hoping that the same thing doesn’t happen at Eastlands. I fear it might, to the detriment of football as a whole.

There is much more I could add with regard to the huge sums of money involved in the game now, but that’s a different point for a different time.