Author Archives: jackt9818

Why did we need this International Break?

There’s literally a pandemic going on…

Why did we need this international break? It is a very simple question.

Now, do not get me wrong, I am not one of those people who bashes international football during every international break. I love international football; it offers a certain spectacle, a certain color and flair that the domestic game does not (even though, I will admit, the quality of play is often not at the same level as club football). Yes, being able to regularly watch talented France teams helps me in that regard, but there is joy in watching nations like Italy, Germany, Algeria, and Morocco rebuild around a young, talented, exciting core, and there is a joy in watching the Dominik Szoboszlais or the David Marshalls of the world become national heroes.

But now? At this specific time? Did we really need to do this? In the middle of a global pandemic that has impacted millions of lives? During a congested season that requires players to play more matches than ever before while having a significantly shortened preseason? Was this necessary?

I understand the need for qualifiers and playoffs. Ideally, we all want the European Championships and African Cup of Nations to go on without a hitch during their respective rescheduled times. Will that happen? Who knows, but I do agree that it is important to do everything reasonable and within our power to make sure those competitions can still go on. The Euros play off matches should have been played, and it is possible that, without other national teams playing, UEFA could have made that process much safer by forcing those playoff matches into a bubble, similar to how the Champions League was handled, to ensure there were no positive tests. The African Cup of Nations qualifiers would be more difficult to put in a bubble, but again, I am more willing to accept that those are matches that needed to be played. But these random friendlies? The Nations League? Did we really need to see France play Finland, or England play Republic of Ireland, or the United States play Panama? The Nations League match ups were cool, to be fair, but does anyone really care about the Nations League? Was this at all necessary?

I am not unique or alone in voicing criticisms of this international break, but it is just incredibly frustrating as a football fan to see FIFA, UEFA, CAF, and others insisting on carrying out this international break during a global pandemic, creating unnecessary amounts of intercontinental and international travel that only heightens the exposure and spread of COVID-19 to players. Luis Suárez, Mohamed Salah, and Alex Telles are among the players who tested positive for COVID during this international break, leaving their teams with serious issues going into major matches. It was the last international break where Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, leaving Juventus without their star man for several crucial matches, including their loss to Barcelona in the Champions League. And who knows if this is the extent of it. Irish midfielder Alan Browne tested positive after playing the full 90 minutes for Republic of Ireland against England, who then traveled and played Belgium several days later and will play Iceland in two days. How has the virus spread from that match? We have no idea. Matt Doherty, Browne’s Ireland teammate who did play against England, has since tested positive, though it is unclear whether the two events are connected. However, the fact that this is even a remote possibility over two matches that do not mean anything shows how incredibly irresponsible it was holding these matches in the first place.

While the spread of COVID is definitely the most important reason against holding international matches at the present moment, the congestion of the fixture schedule caused by the international break also impacts the health of footballers in another way. Due to the impact that COVID had on last season, the Champions League and Europa League, as well as the need to fit this full season into a condensed window to fit in the Euros, the players have not had enough of a preseason or an offseason to fully rest their bodies. The condensing of this season meant that, in the last month and a half, we have had to fit in weekly league matches, cup matches, European matches, and a smattering of international break matches as well. Putting a significant toll on players’ bodies without giving them enough rest and recovery time will, naturally, lead to an increase in injuries. We are now seeing the results of that. While the headlines have seemingly focused on Liverpool, who did add Joe Gomez, Jordan Henderson, and Andrew Robertson to their injury list, this plague of injuries has seemingly impacted several teams across the continent. Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could be out due to injury, and so could Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Stefan Savić, Kieran Trippier, and Héctor Herrera. Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Allan Marques both got injured as well. Nathan Aké, Christian Pulisic, Hans Hateboer, Corentin Tolisso, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, and Raheem Sterling are also among the names who picked up injuries during this break. With some important matches coming up in the next few weeks, this could dramatically change the outcomes of league seasons.

And what was this all for? I get that national team managers deserve time to work with their teams ahead of major continental competitions, and that is fair. Teams need to figure out who is and is not on the plane for the Euros/Copa America/AFCON at the end of the season, and some breakthrough talents deserve their first chance with the national team. Without these international breaks, Eduardo Camavinga would not have gotten his deserved chance with France, for example. However, I find it hard to believe that national teams need to play this often with this many fairly pointless friendlies against not great competition (I know France lost to Finland but this is valid otherwise) in order to figure out their best team. At this point, the more these national teams play, the worse off they could be for their continental competitions.

But, of course, just as it does with much of football at all levels, money plays a significant role in international break scheduling. This was put on display for this break, when England scheduled a very weird international friendly with New Zealand in order to fulfill a TV contract. When New Zealand bailed on the match due to COVID, England decided to schedule another random and weird friendly against Ireland in its place instead of giving their players a break. Money and TV contracts are likely the reasoning behind many nations scheduling friendlies, especially now, instead of resting players. The UEFA Nations League was itself a creation not out of necessity, but out of a desire for more lucrative international fixtures. I am not the biggest opponent of the Nations League, as I do think making the top international sides face each other more often, as well as allowing “lower tier” international sides to face teams more on their level instead of being the punching bag for the continent’s elite sides, allows for more exciting matches and an overall more interesting and enjoyable international break. There is no doubt, however, that it was done for money and not for any sporting reason. The real issue I have with the competition is UEFA’s desire to not move the fixtures from this season, knowing that the Euros will still be next summer and the season needs to be condensed in order to fit in continental competitions and account for the delayed end to last season. While UEFA might claim a desire to “preserve the new competition in its infant stages”, it is clear that this is not a major priority in the eyes of fans and media. Should this edition of the Nations League be moved or called off entirely, I do not think anyone would really be angry about it. In fact, it would likely help UEFA in the long run by preserving a better product for the Euros next summer, knowing fewer matches will help to reduce the major injuries and ensure that the best players will be playing in the Euros. UEFA’s insistence to continue shows their priority rests completely in their bottom line. Knowing this Euros could be without fans, they might have felt the need to continue the Nations League in order to pad potential losses with increased TV revenue from the high-tier matches in the competition. At the end of the day, everything in football revolves around money, and this feels like it is the case.

There is no reason for UEFA or CONMEBOL or CAF or FIFA to listen to me, some random guy with a blog, but please, football powers, listen to the concerns of the players and managers. Take a break with the unnecessary friendlies and Nations League nonsense. This season is already going to take a toll on players, and there is no need to make it worse. If you want as good of a product as possible on display at the Euros, Copa America, and African Cup of Nations, give the players the rest that they need and ensure they are safe during this pandemic. Do the responsible thing. None of these changes have to be permanent, but it is important for all involved this season.

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Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo… Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain. It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, […]

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It would appear that I truly have a knack of tracking down former Étoile FC players… To ardent Tanjong Pagar United fans, Anthony Aymard is not an unfamiliar name. The French defender spent 3 seasons with the Jaguars between 2012 and 2015. I managed to track down Anthony Aymard recently and interview the player about […]

Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo…

Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain.

It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, but yet we end every season in disappointment as one of the teams we expect to win the league always does. We saw the start of the Premier League season and hope that the bright start for Everton or Leicester or Wolves could lead to us seeing a different champion come May. While that is probably a false dawn, the situation unfolding in Spain is certainly looking more promising.

It has been clear for all viewers that the quality of La Liga has declined from the peak it reached a decade ago, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly shadows of their former selves. That did not stop those two from winning the last two league titles despite being in “crisis”, but now it seems like the issues going on at both clubs are beginning to seriously hold them back. A few years of papering over the cracks have come back to haunt both teams, and each of their poor starts to the season (especially Barcelona’s) implies more significant issues within the teams.

Barcelona’s almost-divorce with Lionel Messi this past summer was the boiling point of years of tension between players and board, as well as the poor sporting and development plan established by former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. On the pitch, they have barely held it together, having embarrassingly fallen out of the Champions League against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in consecutive seasons. Off the pitch, the club fell into significant debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the club being unable to enact the significant on-pitch changes needed. They have sacked two managers in the last two years, having a very messy divorce with Ernesto Valverde and ditching his replacement, Quique Setién, for ex-Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman. This brings them to this season, where the departures of Nélson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez, and Arturo Vidal led to quite a shake-up in the first team. While this was good in giving chances to younger talent, including the prodigal Ansu Fati, it left them without a first choice striker, having to use Fati almost as a false nine. Their strong dependence on Messi over the last few seasons has caught up, as the exhausted Argentine has started this season quite poorly. Draws to Aláves and Sevilla and losses to Real Madrid and Getafe leave them in eighth, lacking much in the way of true cohesion as a team. It has not quite clicked for Koeman, being responsible for the worst league start for the Blaugrana in 25 years. This is not just growing pains under Koeman, this is the manifestation of years of mismanagement at all levels. It feels much more systemic, and it feels like something that is going to stop Barcelona from winning trophies this season, in what could be Messi’s final eight months in Catalonia.

And for Real Madrid, things are also not going well. No, there is not the massive structural issues plaguing the club as there is with Barcelona. They won the league last season with basically the exact same team. However, that team last season had quite a bit of issues, specifically in attack and chance creation, that have not been solved. Zinedine Zidane’s team won the league last season by simply not being as bad as Barcelona, able to use what was normally a strong defense to grind out enough results to finish top. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo world in Madrid, the team has become significantly more defensive than in the past. Many times, if Karim Benzema did not score, there would not be many places where Zidane could find goals in his team. That worked last season, they were able to do what they had to do. They were great after the restart of the season, treating it as almost a knockout cup competition and grinding out results. This season, they have not been able to maintain that. It seems that the bounces, the calls, the luck that went Real Madrid’s way last season, and helped them grind out those close results, has stopped going their way. While they have not had as bad of a start to the league season as Barcelona, there are still signs that things are not right. A draw to Real Sociedad, a shock 1-0 loss to newly-promoted Cádiz, and their most recent 4-1 thumping against Valencia shows that the cracks that Zidane successfully papered over the last two seasons are still there. Bad European results also imply significant issues, as a team of Real Madrid’s pedigree should not be losing to a COVID-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk team or needing to come from behind to scrape out a point against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I am not saying Real Madrid are in crisis or Zidane’s job is in as much peril as Koeman’s, and I do still think Real Madrid will definitely contend for the title this season, but it is clear this Los Blancos team is vulnerable.

And both sides have been vulnerable for the past few seasons. None of these issues are really new, but each team were able to just paper over the cracks the last few seasons and figure out what they had to do to win the league title. The team that won it would have been the team that was less bad between the two. Why is it not safe to assume that they will not do the same again this season?

Well, the last two seasons, there has not been a team good enough to challenge the Clasico duopoly. Atlético Madrid finished second and third the past two seasons, but they were significantly behind the league champion each time. It has been a bit of a struggle for the usual third horse in the title race the past few seasons. Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad have each presented themselves as teams that were talented enough to challenge for the title the past two seasons, but due to form, injuries, or some other reason, they were never able to be consistent enough throughout the season to break into that top three. There just has not been a team good enough to contend with the two struggling giants, but this season, it is a different story.

The subheading of this blog implies a potential “year of Cholo”, so you know which team I am going to talk about. But Atléti are not the only team in this equation. Real Sociedad, as of right now, are top of La Liga and are the league’s highest-scoring side. La Real were one of the most enjoyable teams to watch last season, but many thought the departure of Martin Ødegaard would make them worse. While Ødegaard was immensely important for that team, they have seemingly survived without him, largely in part due to the contributions of the newly-arrived David Silva, the ever-reliable Portu, a budding superstar in Mikel Oyarzabal, and an incredibly reliable crop of academy graduates that are growing into underrated role players in the team. Villarreal are currently second, and while they have some issues to iron out with new manager Unai Emery, they are still a very talented team that could hang around the top of the table throughout the season. Sevilla was a team described last season as being a goalscorer away from being league title contenders, and while they have not had the best start to this season, they are still a quite talented team. If Julen Lopetegui can turn around their form, they are a team that could be in the fight at the top of the table. There are several teams outside the Claisco duo that have gotten stronger this season, making it a more interesting fight.

But there is one standing above the rest of the challengers. I truly believe this could be the year for Atlético Madrid to return to the top of the league. The oft-maligned Diego Simeone has had a rough last few years in Madrid, and there was legitimate concern that he was facing the sack during the first half of last season, when Atléti were struggling and at risk of falling out of the European places. A long unbeaten run, started after the league restart last season and carried into this season, has Atlético Madrid looking like genuine title contenders and, interestingly, looking significantly different from a typical Atlético team. While they have the league’s best defensive record so far, which is typical for a Cholo Simeone team, they are also the league’s second-highest scorers, scoring 17 goals through seven matches. It is easy to credit this to the free transfer signing of Luis Suárez, and in a way, that is correct, but it does not tell the whole story. As a team, in structure, formation, and pattern of play, they are more fluid and more attacking than the typical Simeone teams that came before them, and that makes them terrifying.

It revolves around Suárez, but it is not all his doing. On paper, Suárez is easily an upgrade on the rapidly aging Diego Costa and good-but-inconsistent Álvaro Morata, but how the Uruguayan fits into this team is what forced Simeone to crank up the attacking ability of the team. Due to Suárez’s specific traits as a player, as well as his age and declining pace, Atléti cannot attack in the same way they would normally, and Simeone acknowledged this when Suárez was brought into the team. Normally, they are able to play in that famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) low block, forcing the ball onto the wings, pressing the ball when it gets to the wings, and using a long ball for a forward to chase down in order to launch a counterattack. They are not able to do that with Suárez, and, as Simeone has pointed out, Atléti need to start their attacks closer to the Uruguayan in order for him to be fully involved and able to use his best traits as a player. This has caused Simeone to rethink his line ups, choosing now to include multiple attacking players in order for Suárez to play off of several forwards when in attack. These players, usually two of João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco, are able to combine with Suárez in attacking moves, creating a more fluid and less predictable pattern of build-up play and causing significantly more issues for opposition defenses than past Simeone teams have done.

This has been big for Suárez’s ability to bed into this Atlético Madrid team quickly, but it has also been a massive step in the development of João Félix. Now constantly in positions where he is not isolated and able to be involved in attacks, we are seeing the prodigal player we all expected to see when the young Portuguese departed Benfica for the Spanish capital. With seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season, Félix has instantly become arguably Atléti‘s most important player not named Jan Oblak, a player that is playing with incredible amounts of confidence and is involved in nearly every attack. If Félix is able to play at a high level throughout the season, then it provides Simeone with the dynamic, game-changing player that can get you something from nothing or be the reason you win a match, a player they have lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. And the amazing thing is they probably have three more of that level of player already in the team with Suárez, Llorente, and Oblak. Atlético Madrid are a team that has often been plagued with not being able to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in the team, as they are often trying to shoehorn talented footballers into a Cholismo system requiring more in grit than in goalscoring. If Simeone is able to strike the balance between having a defensively solid team and one that can score goals at a more accelerated rate, then he may have created the best team in Spain.

I will admit this could be a massive overreaction. It could just be a poor start to the season. However, the reason I am writing this about La Liga and not the Premier League is because it does feel genuinely like more than just a bad start. In England, we had teams like Leicester and Wolves get off to hot starts to the season, but there is no reason to seriously believe that Manchester City and Liverpool will not be the two main title contenders come the end of the season. I have no sizable reasons to be confident in Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the sole title contenders. The issues at both clubs are too significant and have lingered for too long to be written off as a poor start. With the quality teams surrounding them, especially Atlético Madrid, it feels like we are looking at the scenario many people have longed for: a major league where the “Super League” club did not win the title. While the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 feel predictable, La Liga feels wide open, and I am very excited to see how it all plays out.

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The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European […]

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Turning a Corner?

After a difficult start to the season, are Manchester United showing signs of life?

To say the season started poorly for Manchester United would be an understatement.

The Red Devils started the season with a stunning 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace and followed that up with a fairly fortunate 3-2 win against Brighton and a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham. There seemed to be a crisis in Manchester, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was firmly planted on the hot seat.

There were some good results, but they came with caveats. United got some wins, but you could always respond to the result with a “yeah, but…”. Yeah, United did beat Newcastle, but it took them a while to take the lead and pull away from a fairly mediocre Newcastle side. Yeah, they went to Paris and beat PSG, but that was such an awful performance from PSG, and there are so many issues with that team and within that club right now (enough to write a completely different article by itself), and it was a largely pedestrian performance from Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. But here stood the biggest test of the season: RB Leipzig, last season’s Champions League semifinalist and considered to be one of the most balanced and complete teams in Europe, led by the young star of football management in Julian Nagelsmann, who traveled to Old Trafford as favorites. Despite the loss of Timo Werner, the Red Bulls retained much of their talented core, including young budding stars Dayot Upamecano, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku.

And United beat the brakes off of them. A complete performance. A strong first half paired with an incredibly dominant second half, and this was not an accident. United were the better team from minute one, putting out arguably their best performance of the season and one of the best of Solskjær’s reign. And in this game, we finally got a demonstration of something people had been calling out for Ole to add to his managerial repertoire for a while. He made a tactical adjustment, making the first move and forcing the opponent to respond. He made actual genuine tactical adjustments.

The “no tactics, just vibes” manager, in both of United’s Champions League matches to be fair, made significant changes to the starting XI, formation, and overall tactical game plan, and in both matches, the changes worked perfectly. The three at the back used against PSG allowed the team to absorb the threat of Neymar and Mbappe while maintaining the width needed to break on the counter. Again, that win can also be pinned on a very poor PSG performance, but it was still a notable tactical decision that paid off. Against Leipzig, Ole saw a team that wants to attack on the counter with pace, utilizing a back three and attacking fullbacks to break forward quickly. United needed to be able to control the tempo of the match, and Ole decided to play with a midfield diamond in order to overload the center of the pitch and control the tempo and possession more often against a team that only really fielded two midfielders. Matić played as a holding midfielder sitting in front of the defense, while Pogba and Fred played as more box-to-box number eights and Donny van de Beek played behind the strikers. It worked wonders, as Leipzig were just not able to get anything going their way early on. Following Greenwood’s opener, Leipzig changed to a 4-2-3-1, but it was ultimately not enough to get back into the game. Nagelsmann himself admitted that he did not anticipate United playing with four in midfield, as that is not a formation they had used previously. Being unprepared for this team, Nagelsmann and Leipzig were already a step behind their opponents, and United punished them for it.

United had never really played with a midfield diamond before, that is correct. But if you remember our piece from earlier regarding United’s purchase of van de Beek, I highlighted the options and variety that United could now utilize. Many questioned why United signed van de Beek, saying he did not fill a need in this team. Well, now we saw the answer. Having a player not only of van de Beek’s individual quality, but also of his level of intelligence and tactical flexibility, allows United to deploy a midfield diamond, a much different look compared to their 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 previously utilized under Solskjær. This allows United to have a more balanced and solid midfield while not surrendering their attacking options, and van de Beek has the ability to realistically play in any of the positions in this midfield, though he would likely thrive more as a 10 or box-to-box eight, and provide a level of attacking creativity and work rate needed to make everything work. While it was not a scintillating performance from the Dutchman, who came off in the 68th minute, his presence in the midfield was important in making the formation work. United’s midfield this season has struggled to find the right balance that allowed their star players to make an impact, and they seem to have found that sense of balance here. With less of a defensive responsibility, Pogba was able to get forward and have an influence on the attack, assisting Mason Greenwood’s opening goal. Bruno Fernandes was able to come on in the second half and make an impact in attack without worrying about what was going on behind him. It worked, and it was important in throwing Leipzig off of their game plan. However, it would be unfair to say it was only the formation that had an impact and allowed United’s midfield to be this effective.

No, we must have an entire section to offer a special shoutout to a player that has gone under the radar quite a bit recently. Fred, the midfielder that Jose Mourinho initially did not want, has become one of United’s most influential players. He is not glamorous, he will not score spectacular goals or provide breath-taking assists, but he is important. He does the work that goes mostly unnoticed when United are playing well. He keeps things ticking over in midfield, winning tackles when needed and playing the safe and necessary passes needed to recycle possession or get the dynamic attacking players into good positions to counter. His presence provided a bit of balance and calmness to the midfield, providing someone able to do the work needed to give players like Pogba and Fernandes and Rashford the platform to succeed. This is not new either, he has been at this level for a while now. Back in December, when United’s resurgence first began, it was the midfield pairing of him and Scott McTominay that began to provide balance to a fragile midfield. Against Sevilla, in a match United fans will likely want to forget, he was easily the best United player on the pitch. Should United stay in this midfield diamond, or at least keep it in the tactical portfolio, having a player like Fred play in this role will help them maintain superiority in midfield, especially against teams like Leipzig, who sacrifice midfield possession for speed. His remarkable turnaround from when he arrived under Mourinho is a testament to his ability and determination as a footballer, and it is something that deserves more recognition than he has received. The victory over Leipzig only reinforced the skill and necessity of Fred in this team.

There is obviously more to talk about from the match, but it seems ancillary to those two points. Marcus Rashford’s historic hat trick was a remarkable achievement for a player and man that can seemingly do no wrong. Anthony Martial finding the back of the net, even if only from a penalty, could do wonders in restoring his confidence. Mason Greenwood scoring and playing well in this second striker role bodes well for his ongoing development. However, the real reasons that gave me hope for a United resurgence were stated previously. This match showed growth in tactical management from Ole and a depth in personnel and performance that United have lacked when compared to their top four counterparts.

But why is this a question, then? Why are we questioning whether United have truly shown signs of life? It was laid out in front of us against Leipzig, right? Well, that is true. But the unfortunate theme that has been a constant for United since Ole took over as caretaker manager is that we really do not know what the real United looks like. Under the Norwegian, United have had runs of brilliance and runs of mediocrity. For a few matches, they look like they are one or two pieces shy of being title contenders, but then, almost on a dime, they turn into a team that look like they are clinging onto their Top Six status for dear life. When Ole was caretaker manager, they went on that now famous 12 match unbeaten run in the league, but only won four matches from the beginning of March to the end of the season. The following season, they were inconsistent at best and awful at worst, but in the second half of the season, especially after the league returned from lockdown, they were arguably the best team on form in the league. Since then, they started this season awfully, but paired that poor start with two fantastic Champions League wins.

So which is the real United?

Well, no one really knows. But for United to put these doubts to bed, they need to kick on from these wins and show an actual run of consistency in form and performance that they have not been able to go on since Ole got the permanent job. Their next two league matches, at home against Arsenal and away to Everton, will be crucial for their season. They are about as close to being “must-win” matches as can be for matches in early November. As much as overall league placement is important, as both teams will likely rival United in the hunt for European places, these two matches are more about laying down a standard for what this United team should be, and what we all know they can be should they find the level of consistency they need.

It is all well and good getting that big, headline win. Spurs know all about that this season. But if you are not able to maintain that high level of performance consistently, your team will never truly be a contender for major honors. It is not about the statement win, it is about what happens after. Ole has done well to get to this point, but now he has to figure out what happens now. United have not awoken from unconsciousness, but there is a heartbeat.

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Statement Signing Stipe Plazibat Shines as Sailors overcome ten-man Eagles

Lion City Sailors have been making waves in the local footballing scene since tech firm Sea’s takeover of Home United. Besides becoming a fully privatized club, the Sailors have recently launched their football academy, and they made the news recently by becoming the first academy in Singapore to receive AFC’s one-star rating. Geylang International were […]

The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European […]

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How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

City’s Defensive Wall Reshaped?

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English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence…

Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough.

This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This plan, dubbed “Project Big Picture”, was the brainchild of the Premier League’s “Big Six” football clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham), with the masterminds being Liverpool chairman Tom Werner and Manchester United chairman Joel Glazer. This plan aimed to help address the current pressing concerns facing football clubs in England, namely in the English Football League (EFL), the second, third, and fourth tier of the professional football pyramid in the country. These pressing financial concerns stem from the ongoing COVID pandemic, which has not allowed clubs to bring in match day revenue, but they also come from a widening financial gap between the Premier League and the EFL. There was already some serious fears for the survival of some EFL clubs before the pandemic, but that has only been heightened since this all started. On the surface, this seems to be an act of benevolence from the top of the game, wanting to help these EFL clubs, institutions in their communities, survive a serious financial scare. However, as you peel back the layers and see everything proposed in this plan, it takes on a whole new nefarious meaning.

So let us talk about the money. After all, the main purpose of this plan is to provide financial relief for the EFL. Unlike in the Premier League, where clubs earn the majority of their revenue from the league’s insanely lucrative TV broadcasting contracts, almost all of the clubs in the Championship, League One, and League Two, the leagues making up the EFL, earn the lion’s share of their revenue from match day earnings, mostly made up by ticket sales. Since the COVID pandemic began, fans have not been allowed to attend matches due to health and safety concerns, meaning all clubs in the country have lost a significant amount of earnings for this year. While this has led to some worries for big Premier League teams, this has been massively devastating for teams further down the football pyramid. British financial firm BDO found that every team in League One and League Two, as well as 92 percent of teams in the Championship, have taken advantage of Britain’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, while many clubs across the EFL have needed to roll out wage cuts or redundancies in order to save money. These financial issues have hit a league that is already not financially sustainable, and we have seen examples in recent seasons of clubs that faced serious financial peril or, in the case of Bury FC, are directly at threat of liquidation and extinction. As teams have increased their desire to hunt for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is the Premier League TV money, the EFL has seen an overall increase in player salaries and operating costs, which has, in turn, rapidly increased expenditures of most teams. This already present financial strain has been worsened exponentially by the COVID pandemic, and it is very possible that, without support, many clubs in the EFL will face extinction. And it is important to think about this not in the sense of these just being football teams, the random names you see in the lower leagues when you boot up FIFA 21, but these are cultural institutions. These clubs are sown into the fabric of the communities they exist around, often in smaller towns across England. They are not only a major employer in these areas, but they hold a cultural significance in the eyes of the locals, the club’s supporters. They may not have the regional or global draw of the bigger Premier League sides, but they are just as much a part of these communities, if not more so, than any other business or industry. Their survival is not just about keeping a football team in a league, it is about maintaining something that holds incredible financial and cultural significance for people.

So what does the plan propose? There are two different aspects. Firstly, Premier League clubs will give an immediate payment to the EFL in the amount of £250 million to account for lost match day revenue. Also, 25 percent of all combined revenue from the Premier League and Football League will be given to EFL clubs moving forward.

Looking at the revenue sharing first, I think it is a good first step, but not necessarily something that makes a massive difference. Yes, it does bring in extra money to all of these clubs, but it seems that this is largely just recycling some of the EFL money and putting it back into the EFL, on top of a not large but still significant contribution from Premier League clubs. Despite this concern, it is an overall positive development that should be helpful for EFL teams, but this is where my support stops in regards to the financial aspect of this deal.

The £250 million immediate payment to the EFL, on paper, looks like a very kind action by the Premier League, showing they care about lower league football and its survival. However, if you read the details of the plan, you notice this is not a donation or a grant, it is a loan, and the loan is taken out against the future revenue streams of EFL teams. This money, meant to represent the money lost by EFL clubs from lost match day revenue, money that is essentially already theirs, is being “gifted” to them by the Premier League, with the catch that all earnings from that point on would have to be pooled together in order to pay back the Premier League. This seems ever so slightly predatory, with Premier League clubs taking advantage of lower league sides during a time of serious peril. Throw on an interest rate, and one might mistake this for loan sharking. While this does not have an interest rate attached to it, it uses several other proposals, which directly benefit the bigger teams and, in many cases, hurts EFL teams, as a sort of quasi-interest payment. The one main charitable action from this plan, the immediate payment, is really nothing more than a predatory loan, and the proposals acting in place of an interest payment are quite something.

There are a variety of proposals attached to this plan, covering a wide variety of topics within English football. To be completely honest, I actually like some of them. For starters, they proposed a fan charter, giving a variety of benefits to football fans up and down the pyramid. This includes capping all away tickets at £20, subsidizing away fans’ travel expenses, a plan to bring back safe standing in stadiums, and an away fan allocation of eight percent capacity of the home stadium (it is currently between five and ten percent, depending on the size of the stadium). Also included in the plan is a proposition to allocate six percent of Premier League gross revenues to pay for stadium improvements for teams up and down the football pyramid, calculated at about £100 per seat. This is beneficial to everyone, as it allows smaller clubs and clubs in the EFL to carry out necessary quality-of-life improvements on their older stadiums while also allowing bigger clubs in the Premier League to carry out renovations of their own without having to raise ticket prices. We all probably remember the mass walk out at Anfield in 2016 after Liverpool’s ownership announced a £77 match ticket and nearly £1,000 season ticket price for the following season, meant to help finance their expansion project of the Main Stand at Anfield. This provision now allows bigger clubs to expand or refurbish current stadiums or potentially finance new stadiums altogether without risking the backlash that comes with increasing ticket prices.

There is also a plan to revamp the loan system, allowing clubs to have up to 15 players out on loan domestically at one time and up to four at any one club in the country. I have some concerns about this, as this could encourage the larger teams to hoard talented young players and loan them out while reducing the opportunities in lower leagues for experienced pros to find contracts, but it does offer a more potent path of player development. The Premier League 2 (PL2), England’s main under-23 developmental league, has not necessarily been an outright failure, but it has not produced the results that was intended. The difference in level of intensity and talent between the PL2 and the Premier League is colossal, and this cannot be considered itself a competent developmental path. This does not just benefit the “Big Six”, but also clubs like Derby County, Everton, and Blackburn, who have very competent PL2 teams but lack other serious paths of talent development without reform of the loan system. It seems to be a nice compromise from the “clubs having B-teams in the lower leagues” idea that was proposed by Manchester City. Some concerns, but still a good idea. These are all good ideas, things that have been discussed at length over the years and, especially related to ticket prices and safe standing, have been a rallying cry for fan movements for the last decade. However, after these points, things take a decidedly more nefarious turn.

There are several propositions that fall into one common theme: limiting access. Access to money, access to European football, access to accolades, access to influence. Understanding these propositions from that lens is key in understanding the motivations of the “Big Six” to undertake this. In the old “carrot and stick” analogy, the previous points were the carrots, and these are the stick. Among these points are the reduction of the Premier League from 20 teams to 18 and introduction of a promotion/relegation playoff including the 16th-placed Premier League team and the third, fourth, and fifth-placed Championship teams. This is tied in with retaining the 24 team EFL leagues, meaning the amount of teams in the English professional football pyramid will be reduced from 92 to 90. Also included are proposals to abolish the League Cup and Community Shield, a restructuring of the distribution of the Premier League’s television revenue, the potential end of “parachute payments”, and a later start to the season to allow more time for pre-season friendlies, including a mandatory Premier League summer tournament for all top flight teams taking place once every five years. There is a lot to unpack here, so let us look at each point individually, as they all do fit into this theme of limiting access.

Firstly, the reduction in size of the Premier League and introduction of a promotion/relegation playoff clearly limits the access of lower league teams into the top flight and, as a result, the lucrative TV contracts in the top flight. The teams currently in the Premier League will have an easier time staying in the league, and the teams in the Championship will have a harder time coming up to the league. The teams that do make their way up now have a harder time staying in the league, given that less matches in an 18-team league creates much less room for error when fighting relegation. The promotion/relegation playoff, while a neat idea, also limits access as it stacks the deck in favor of the Premier League side surviving. If you look at the leagues where there is a promotion/relegation playoff, the top division side almost always stays up, as the gulf in class between the top division and second division side is enough to keep them up most of the time. That gap may be even wider in this case, given the financial disparities between the Premier League and Championship. This effectively removes one promotion spot in many cases, meaning the path from the Championship to the Premier League, which was already quite challenging, becomes that much more difficult. The move to dock two teams from the Premier League also removes two teams from the professional pyramid completely, which leaves us to wonder how they planned to figure out the unlucky two to earn that honor. I have seen many come out in favor of this, saying reducing the size of the league from 20 to 18 improves the quality as a whole, which I do not agree with. If anything, last season showed us that the quality at the bottom end of the table is improving and has been much better than it has been in the past. While the three relegated sides did not function as well as a team, they were clearly much more talented than many relegated teams we have seen before. I mean, Norwich beat Manchester City and Watford beat Liverpool. The teams involved in the relegation race, especially Brighton, West Ham, and Aston Villa, were still very talented teams. Removing two teams just makes it harder for those on the outside to get in, which is the main intention, instead of actually improving the league in any way. In the short term, this plan may give EFL clubs immediate access to relief funds, but their long-term goal of getting the Premier League money to balance their financial instability would be much harder to achieve.

The League Cup and Community Shield have become the favorite target for many of the big name managers in the Premier League, all concerned about “fixture congestion”. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp in particular has been critical of the League Cup, criticizing the crowding of the match schedule that comes along with it and basically using the competition as an opportunity to field reserve and youth team players. Liverpool are lucky to have several talented youth team players that are able to be competitive, but it still shows Klopp’s aversion to the competition and lack of desire to take it seriously. To be fair, I do understand the competitive disadvantage for the top teams competing in European competitions, as England is now the only remaining nation containing a “Top Five” European league that has two major cup competitions instead of just one. However, proposing to remove it to add more friendlies over the summer? That is incredibly stupid, but again, it is about access. Taking a team to a final at Wembley is not only a great experience for fans, but it is also a great source of match-day revenue, especially for lower tier Premier League teams and teams in the EFL. It is much harder to get there as a “smaller” side, but that is the benefit of the meritocracy that English football is supposed to be. If your team is good enough, you will reap the rewards from it, and in a cup competition, it is easier for a team to make a run to a final than it is to slog out a league season. It is hard to remember, as a team outside of the “Big Six” has not won a cup competition in England since 2013, but winning the League Cup puts the winner into the Europa League qualifying rounds. It is a genuine and viable path into European competition for teams. As a result, it takes a European spot away from the top seven places, meaning if both cup competitions were won by a team outside of the top five, as was the case in 2013, then at least one of the “Big Six” would miss out on European competition. With the League Cup removed, that European spot automatically would go to the sixth-placed team, which is usually one of the “Big Six”. The pathway to Europe, and the financial boost that comes with European qualification, is now much more difficult, and we are removing the possibility of fantastic stories, such as when Wigan and Swansea played in the Europa League after winning the FA Cup and League Cup, respectively, in 2013. The meritocratic aspect of the sport is being removed in favor of shielding the teams with power from scrutiny and challenge.

Removing the Community Shield has nothing to do with attacks on English football meritocracy and not that much to do with removing access, but it just seems like a bad thing to do. Yes, the Community Shield is not exactly the most prestigious trophy in England, and it is usually between “Big Six” teams, as the league is almost always won by a “Big Six” side and no one outside of those teams has won the FA Cup since 2013. However, it is a great occasion for supporters. It is a trip to Wembley, a strong financial windfall for smaller teams but generally just an enjoyable time for fans regardless of the team they support. It is a much easier ticket to get than a FA Cup Final or League Cup Final ticket, making it easier for fans to enjoy a day out at Wembley at a relatively more reasonable price. It is for the fans, and football is supposed to be for the fans. The Community Shield also raises money for important charitable and community causes in Britain, and taking it away in favor of more preseason friendlies just does not sit well with me. It is a very small thing, one of the smallest issues I have in the massive horrid plan that is “Project Big Picture”, but it is something so simple and so inconsequential that it feels wrong to even discuss removing it.

Now, why do they want to remove the League Cup and Community Shield? Why do they want to start the season later? Fixture congestion is a somewhat understandable concern, as it is harder for teams to compete for their main goals when they have to contend with two cup competitions instead of one, but one of the justifications used is “a greater scope for pre-season friendlies” and a required Premier League Summer tournament every five years. They want to take away fixtures just to add even more fixtures? Remember: it’s about access. Yes, winning the League Cup as a “smaller” team is quite difficult, but if you are good enough, you can win it. That team realistically still has access to winning a major honor, as well as the financial windfall that making a Wembley final and qualifying for the Europa League comes with. For preseason friendly tournaments, it is a very closed system, reliant mostly on status and international brand recognition. The ability for a team like Liverpool to come to the United States in the summer and play in front of 70,000 people is massive for their global marketing efforts and ability to earn money from a highly lucrative market of viewers, but it is also something that only a handful of clubs in the world are able to do. Vikram and Rynaldy’s United fandom is the perfect tangible example of United’s effective marketing in Asia over a decade, which was spearheaded by preseason tournaments the club held on the continent. Pre-season tournaments, like the International Champions Cup in America, are not important in the slightest when it comes to the sporting impact on teams. In fact, the amount of global travel required might be more draining on players than if they just carried out a preseason in Europe. However, pre-season tournaments are huge for the financial and marketing abilities of big clubs, and that money is very difficult to get if you are not already one of the world’s biggest clubs, as the “Big Six” are. This preseason Premier League tournament, on top of sounding like it solves no problems when it comes to fixture congestion, is likely the owners’ “Holy Grail” idea, probably wanting to hold this tournament in America or Asia or the Middle East just so the big clubs have another injection of global marketing money that most other clubs will not get. They remove a meritocratic cup competition that allows smaller clubs a pathway into European competition in favor of extending preseasons to milk more money out of global markets. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

Now let us talk about money one more time. This plan aims to restructure the allocation of TV money to Premier League clubs. There was no official reallocation structure in the Telegraph article from what I could see, but some estimations believe it significantly widens the gap between TV money received from top of the league to bottom of the league. At this current moment, the allocation of TV money in the league is not equal, but there is not a very significant difference between top and bottom, and the amount of money they get is still staggering. Often, teams outside of the “Big Six” still receive as much, if not more, in TV revenue than some big clubs across Europe. The current allocation works at a ratio of about 1.8:1, meaning the club in first gets 1.8 times the amount of TV money as the team in 18th. The proposed reallocation, which adds a component that rewards finishes in the league over a three year period, could see that ratio widening to as much as 4:1, with that money allocation heavily weighted toward the top. With the added component of factoring in league table finishes over the last three seasons, it is clear that the “Big Six”, who more often than not finished in the top six places, would be receiving a significantly larger slice of the pie than anyone else in the league. Obviously this has major sporting impacts, as it rewards the already rich and powerful teams and makes it more difficult for teams outside of that “Big Six” bubble to break in, but it also has serious financial impact. While the Premier League’s TV revenue is staggeringly high, it is not as consequential for the “Big Six”. According to the Financial Times, TV revenue made up between 23 and 36 percent of total revenue for “Big Six” teams in the 2018/19 season, the most recent numbers I could find. For Wolves, Everton, and Leicester City, the teams that finished seventh, eighth, and ninth that season, respectively, the TV money makes up between 68 and 74 percent of their total revenue. For Brighton and Burnely, two of the lowest finishers that season who are still in the Premier League for the 2020/21 season, TV revenue makes up between 74 and 77 percent of total revenue. That gap is colossal, and this proposal would significantly limit a key revenue stream for teams outside of the “Big Six”. So not only have they made it more difficult to get into the Premier League, they have made it less profitable for doing so.

Related to this, there is also a proposal to end the league’s “parachute payments” to relegated teams. These are payments given to the three relegated teams amounting to about half of the TV revenue they would receive had they remained in the league, and these payments last for three years. The intention is to reduce the financial strain on relegated teams. As we saw in the paragraph before, it is clear that quite a few teams, especially at the lower end of the table, are very reliant on TV revenue, and while the redistribution of revenue to the EFL discussed previously will lessen the impact of relegation, relegation without parachute payments would still be a massive shock to the finances of many clubs. I have also seen people defend this proposition, arguing it removes teams who just go up to enjoy the payday and forces them to buckle down and invest to stay in the league, which is absolutely ludicrous. They also argue that it removes teams who constantly go down and come back up immediately with a financial advantage and opens chances for other clubs, which is not an argument reflected in reality. Firstly, “investing to stay in the league” is much easier said than done when we see the reality of the financial inequality in football, especially when you look at the amount in transfer fees and wages that is needed to compete at the highest level. Medium-to-long-term success for promoted teams requires either very innovative thinking, as shown by Bournemouth and Sheffield United, or serious financial backing, as shown by Wolves, Leicester City, and Leeds United. Should a team seriously invest and still get relegated, it risks ruining their finances and plunging the club into debt, something that is very hard for a club to recover from in this climate and especially so without the benefit of parachute payments. The “teams will just go up for the money, waltz through the Championship the next season because of the financial advantage, and go right back up” argument is ludicrous because that is just not the case. Of the little over 20 teams to suffer from relegation between the 2009/10 and 2018/19 seasons, only about half of them ever came back up, only five of them went down and came back up multiple times, and only seven of them are currently in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Portsmouth, Wigan, Hull City, Blackpool, Sunderland, Blackburn, and Bolton all currently play or have spent some time in League One or lower. Middlesbrough, Stoke City, QPR, and Birmingham have become consistent mid-to-lower-mid table Championship teams, while Reading and Cardiff City have come close to promotion but failed in the Playoffs. I know the “boing boing” reputation followed West Brom for ages, but this idea that teams can bounce around between the Championship and Premier League repeatedly just is not the case, especially with how competitive the Championship has become. Removing the parachute payments only makes the jolt of losing the Premier League revenue more violent, and it risks putting teams into difficult financial situations immediately. Access is key, and this makes it even more difficult for teams who have fallen out of the Premier League to get back in.

Now most of the things discussed previously, if done in exchange for financial relief for the EFL, have an impact on the big teams but also could provide some benefit to teams in the Premier League outside of the “Big Six”. The main proposition of this plan, however, does the exact opposite. The calling card, most discussed issue in this plan, and likely the most important aspect for the “Big Six” teams, is a restructure of the voting system among Premier League teams. Currently, the voting system allows every Premier League team to have one vote on approving or rejecting proposals, with 14 votes needed to approve any proposal. “Project Big Picture” would reduce the voting power in the league to just the “nine longest serving clubs”, which appears to be Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, Southampton, and West Ham. Only those nine clubs are able to vote on policy in the Premier League and EFL, and only six of them need to vote in favor in order for a proposition to pass. There is a very clear problem with this proposition. This removes any sense of democracy from the adjudication of the league, giving the entirety of the decision-making power to the “Big Six” teams. What are they able to vote on? Well, just about anything, it appears. The Telegraph report gives examples of voting on amended rules and regulations, agreeing contracts, removal of the league’s chief executive, and a “wide-ranging veto” that includes the ability to veto club ownership moves. This did not seem to be an all-inclusive list, so there are other areas that are able to be voted on outside of this.

This is a horrible idea. I know I do not need to be the one to tell you, but this is a horrible idea. Giving the entirety of the power over governance in English football to the “Big Six” is terrifying, and it is a move that will work to tear down the foundations of English football. Remember the issue of access. The “Big Six” having the ability to veto club takeovers will likely be spun in a humanitarian way, especially after the fallout of the attempted Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, but it is a surefire way to guarantee as little competition as possible at the top of the league, maintaining their “Big Six” hegemony and ensuring that the largest slices of the TV revenue pie and all of the European competition revenue continues to flow to them and them alone. Had this structure been in place in the past, it is almost guaranteed that the Newcastle takeover attempt, as well as recent financial investment into Wolves and Everton, would have been vetoed. There has been interest circling around a Qatari takeover at Leeds United, and it is very likely that West Ham will find new ownership in the coming years as well, but this proposal would ensure the “Big Six” are able to veto any move that looks to challenge their dominance. They aim to increase the gap between themselves and the rest of the league, ensuring that no other club is able to do what the likes of Leicester and Wolves have been able to do in recent seasons in breaking into the European places. This veto power could leave clubs in very precarious situations. Newcastle and West Ham, for example, are two clubs that are not exactly rich. Mike Ashley is notorious for a lack of spending at Newcastle, and David Gold and David Sullivan at West Ham are suffering from financial difficulties that leave West Ham potentially facing relegation due to lack of sporting investment. Should either club find a possible buyer that can relieve their current struggles and help them at least retain consistent Premier League status, there is a very real possibility the move could be vetoed by the “Big Six”. This is an incredibly destructive power, but it is not even the scariest part of this proposal.

The most terrifying thing, the one part that has me fearing for the future of English football, is that there is seemingly no outer limit to this power the “Big Six” would have. The list of topics that could be voted on, mentioned by the Telegraph, is not an all-inclusive list. There is seemingly no check or barrier on the “Big Six”; they get unlimited power to govern English football as they see fit. What mechanism is there to stop them from removing the financial aid to the EFL set in place in this deal or just leaving the EFL to rot completely? Is there anything to stop them from adjusting the TV revenue distribution ratio again? What about stopping them from changing the laws of the game in a way that benefits them, such as the addition of more substitutions or another revision of the laws around loaning players? Can they be stopped from introducing B teams into the EFL? Is there anything to make them maintain reasonable ticket prices or the universal £20 ceiling on away tickets or anything promised in the fan charter? The answer to all of these questions is seemingly no. With this voting structure, there is absolutely nothing there to stop the “Big Six” from reneging on every promise laid out in this plan or acting completely within their own interests instead of the wider interests of the league, fans, and English football as a whole. There is nothing stopping the “Big Six” from using their newfound power to open an insurmountable financial and sporting gap between themselves and the rest of the league, ensuring that no other club is able to break into their pack or destroy their hegemony.

There is also nothing to stop the implementation of a European Super League.

While the support of the “Big Six” does not guarantee the implementation of this league, the “Big Six” being able to speak for the entire nation in backing the concept would go a long way in seeing it become a reality. They are also six of the ten richest clubs on the planet, and with that status comes a great deal of influence in the overall football political landscape. While the Premier League strongly condemned the idea previously, it is no secret that the financial benefit for the “Big Six” would be staggering should the idea be implemented. Should the tides change around the idea in a few years time, this voting method leaves it very likely to be approved in England. Should it be approved, it would lead to the widespread death of English football, as the money leaves the leagues to follow the Super League. This proposal does not directly mean we are on the road to this becoming a reality, but it is something that is very worrying in this regard, as well as for all of the other reasons listed above.

I said at the beginning that there is a reason the title to this piece is as strong as it is. It seems like not many people are addressing this proposal in the terms that it necessitates, likely out of a need to maintain journalistic impartiality, which is understandable. But let us call it like it is:

This is extortion.

The “Big Six” are using and taking advantage of the life-or-death struggles of the EFL and promising to relieve them in return for extended power and influence. At best, that is predatory loaning, and at worst, that is extortion.

You might think that there is no way this passes. The outrage will be too massive. The plan will be buried and never see the light of day. And in some cases, you are right. Since the Telegraph leak, the outrage has been strong, and it did initially appear that the plan would massively fail, not coming close to getting the 14 votes it needs to pass. However, that is kind of the point. This is not a business deal, this is a hostage negotiation. The “Big Six” are holding EFL relief funds hostage, only giving them up in exchange for this plan passing, and they are counting on the situation becoming more dire and key stakeholders eventually relenting to the pressure. While the outrage seemed to indicate the plan would be swiftly defeated, it has not yet gone away. John Cross in the Daily Mirror indicated that there are 10 Premier League teams in support of this plan now. The plan also has the backing of EFL Chairman Rick Parry, who views it as necessary to give the EFL the financial support it needs, as well as some chairmen of EFL clubs. The plan seems to also have the backing of the FA, who, conveniently, receive a one-time £100 million payment as part of this plan. It is not going away, and it could very well succeed. The plan is working, and the hostage takers are currently winning the negotiation. As the second wave of COVID hits the United Kingdom, it does not look like Parliament will allow fans back into football grounds, even in a reduced capacity, any time soon. As we get into the winter and into 2021, the financial situation will only get worse, and the bargaining power of the “Big Six” in this scenario only gets greater. This plan will hang around. This plan could very well pass.

Too often, I have seen people talking about this plan only cover the surface level, boiler plate issues. They characterize it as “Americanizing the British game” or they say some of the ideas are strong without really delving into the destructive capability of this plan. So here it is, almost every aspect of this plan and how destructive it truly is. The “Big Six” are not acting in benevolence to save the EFL, they are acting to take as much power, influence, and money as they can while limiting access to teams below them. It is not about the “Americanization” of football, it is about access and power. As an Everton fan, I would be ashamed if Farhad Moshiri voted in favor of this, even as one of the clubs that retains their voting rights. It sets an incredibly dangerous precedent and puts in motion legislation and policy that only extenuates the financial divide in English football.

Do I have a better idea? No. I recognize how difficult this decision must be for the EFL, and any financial avenue they choose will have them likely repaying a loan with significant interest to the British government or an American hedge fund or wherever else. However, this plan is not the solution. This does not even help the EFL in the long run. Yes, it gives them immediate financial benefit and yes, it lessens the financial gap between the EFL and Premier League with the revenue sharing model, but it continuously builds even more roadblocks that limits the ability and access of EFL and most Premier League teams to financial and sporting growth, and it does everything possible to maintain the hegemony of the “Big Six”. It also creates a voting policy that allows the “Big Six” to reverse all revenue sharing deals with the EFL and abandon them to rot, possibly even abandoning the entire football pyramid to rot should a European Super League come to fruition.

This is not benevolence. This is not charity. This is a deal with the devil. This is predatory. This is extortion.

Football is meant to be for the fans, for the common person, able to be a point of community bonding and cultural unity. Football is supposed to be more than just a business, even as important as the business aspect can be. This plan removes that completely. This would be English football selling its soul.

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On Manchester City’s acquisition of Rúben Dias and how it may or may not fix their defensive issues…

Manchester City finally got their center back target this summer. Rúben Dias, the promising young Portuguese center back that launched into the spotlight in Portugal’s Nations League triumph, joins the Citizens from Benfica for £62 million plus £3 million in add ons, with City and ex-Porto center back Nicolás Otamendi going to Benfica for £13.6 million. City’s long hunt for defensive reinforcement finally comes to an end. Securing the signature of Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké earlier this window, Pep remained on the hunt for a top-line, world class partner to Aymeric Laporte. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was their top target, but after trying and failing to pry him away, the club redirected their search toward other options. Rúben Dias was the deal they could get across the line, and, value for money, is probably the best deal they could have gotten this summer, even better than had they signed Koulibaly. But more on that later.

You know the structure of this by now; we talk about how this move fits for the player and for the club that signed him. Let us talk about the player first, as Rúben might be more of an unknown prospect for many Premier League fans.

Rúben Dias emerged from Benfica’s world-famous academy, bursting onto the scene in 2017. He won the award for the best young player in Liga NOS for the 2017-18 season, making the Portugal squad for the 2018 World Cup. While he did not feature at the World Cup, he came back and had another phenomenal season, helping Benfica to the league title and making the Portugal squad for the Nations League Finals, starting alongside Jose Fonte in the heart of defense in the final against the Netherlands. Another strong season with Benfica saw him garner significant interest from other clubs, finally sealing a move to Manchester City earlier this week.

Even after everything he has accomplished so far in his career, Rúben is only 23. His first move away from Benfica was always going to be colossal in determining the path of his career, and a wrong move could stunt or derail what has been a fantastic start to a career. There are very few clubs that he could have joined that are more talented than Manchester City, and joining the Citizens puts Rúben immediately in the position to contend for and win major honors in one of the best leagues in the world, as well as consistently play Champions League football, something that Benfica were not able to guarantee. He also comes into the club in a very good position to feature immediately. City’s defense has been less than great over the last year, especially with the extended absence of Aymeric Laporte. Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were never able to reach the level needed to fit into that defense, and Eric García has not shown the consistency needed to see if he is able to reach that top level. Fernandinho, at age 34, was often asked in the last year and a half to play in defense, and Rodri had also been asked on occasion to deputize at center back. With Otamendi leaving and García heavily pushing for a move away, there are quite a few opportunities opening up in defense, and Laporte is really the only nailed-on starter in central defense. Rúben comes in with the experience and talent needed to contend for serious playing time early on. This seems to have been the best move the young Portuguese could have made. He joins a team brimming with world-class talent, contending for major honors, and that still has an opening he could realistically fill immediately. Pep also loves ball-playing center backs, so Rúben gets to learn from one of the best in the world. When looking at all of the clubs that were linked with a move for him over the last two years, choosing City was the right move.

So this move was a home run for City, right? Well, for the most part, yes. There are multiple facets of this move to discuss from a City perspective, so let us look at them all one at a time.

First, let us talk about what I said in the introduction. City signing Rúben Dias was a better deal, value for money, than if they had signed Kalidou Koulibaly. This is no disrespect to Koulibaly. He is one of the best center backs on the planet, a true world-class player that would have made City’s defense much stronger. However, Koulibaly is also 29. Yes, the obsession with player ages in this sport is ridiculous, but it is still obvious that you would not be able to get much out of Koulibaly at a world-class level at this point, and you would lay out a significant amount of money in order to do it. Rúben may not reach the level of Koulibaly, but he still is a great player and, at only 23, has plenty of room to grow and become a world-class player. Koulibaly was City’s top target, but they may have gotten the better deal at the end of the day. Rúben also better fits the mold of what City need in a center back.

There is a lot that can be said about Rúben as a player and how he fits into the City defense, but all of those ideas can be simplified and summarized into one sentence:

He reminds me quite a bit of Vincent Kompany.

No, this is not the first time you have heard this comparison, and it will definitely not be the last time you hear it. I imagine that, by the end of the season, you will be sick and tired of hearing it. But it is true.

Vincent Kompany is a City legend, and their defense has never really been the same since his decline took him out of the team regularly, leading to his departure from the club in 2019. Since his departure, that right-sided center back position has become a black hole, with Stones, Otamendi, and García being unable to fill it. Rúben comes in sharing many traits with Kompany. Neither player is particularly quick, but they are both very good positionally and in reading the game. Both players are very strong in the tackle and very good in the air, winning a high percentage of their aerial duels and tackles, and they are daring enough to step up and pressure the attacker in order to win the ball back. They both function well in a pressing defensive line, able to make the right tackle when needed. They are both very good on the ball, able to pass out of the back and set up their teams going forward, or just placing a pass needed to relieve pressure. They are both very good on set pieces, using a combination of strong athletic ability and good timing to be important in attacking and defending set pieces. Footballing-wise, they are seemingly cut from the same cloth. There is a lot that is similar between the two players, and, in theory, there is no better way to fill the void Kompany left behind than to bring in a player that is almost identical in playing style to him.

Most importantly, however, is that both Kompany and Rúben are very vocal leaders in defense. Many pundits and journalists have commented on how “quiet” the City defense is relative to several years ago. The void left by Kompany’s departure can be heard, as the booming voice of the Belgian, barking orders and instructions at his defense, is now gone. This seems like a very small thing, and that it should not be an issue for a team as loaded financially and in player options as Manchester City, but it can be massive. Having loads of talent is one thing, but ensuring they are organized and working as a cohesive unit is still important in having a very good team, especially in defense, where coordination and organization is immensely important. Communication in defense is important in relaying instructions to your teammates, such as when to press high or where to play the pass or when you need help marking an open runner. Lack of communication creates confusion, and when confusion strikes a defense, goal-scoring opportunities are conceded. During their peak under Guardiola, that City defense was a well-oiled machine with Kompany at the heart of it, directing his defense on when to press and where to be. He was the leader on the pitch, relaying Pep’s plan in real time. Since his departure, no one in the defense, or even in the team as a whole, has been able to fill that void.

Rúben comes in as someone considered a natural-born leader, having captained several youth teams during his formative years. Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira considered him a future club captain, and he will likely be one of the players in consideration to captain Portugal upon the eventual retirement of current captain Cristiano Ronaldo. He carried a significant amount of respect among his teammates in the dressing room, and that leadership was carried out on the pitch as well. Like Kompany, he is a very vocal player, shouting instructions to his teammates and making sure the high defensive press, which Benfica also has utilized, is executed effectively. In this sense, he is seemingly a like-for-like replacement. If he is able to build the same rapport with his teammates in Manchester that he did in Lisbon, he may grow into the effective leader that City have lacked since Kompany’s departure.

Now let us address concerns, as I do have some. The tag line of this article says how this signing “may or may not” fix City’s defensive issues. I do not believe it fully will, but that is because these issues are not as simple as not having good enough players. Yes, Rúben will likely be a better player than Otamendi, Stones, or García and, especially following the myriad of mistakes García made in City’s 5-2 loss to Leicester this past weekend, it is clear that having great players is a difference maker. However, he is not a magic “quick fix” for this team, and he should not be considered the savior of City’s defense, as many of the problems with City defensively do not stem directly from their center backs. Shown specifically in their league loss to Leicester and their Champions League loss to Lyon, their team press is quite disorganized. Most of the time, the defensive line does not follow the midfield and attack in the team press, and the attack and midfield are not always coordinated in when to press. As a result, if the opposing team is able to play through the first one to two layers of pressure, the pitch opens up massively for them.

For example, look back at Leicester’s first goal in their recent 5-2 win (Vardy’s first penalty). City’s defensive line did not follow their midfield and attack into the press, so when Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy was able to evade the pressure from De Bruyne, he had practically the entire pitch open in front of him. This allowed him to find Harvey Barnes in space, who ran at a terrified and backpedaling City defense and led to the penalty being won. The same applies to that match against Lyon, where Houssem Aouar specifically was able to find himself in space with time to pick out passes if he was able to get around the initial pressure. Sure, Rúben’s ability to step further up, challenge the attackers with pressure, and work in a high press can help here, but this is not an issue that he alone can fix. His leadership and on-pitch direction can help, but this is also a tactical issue. Guardiola needs to be the one that finds the solution, whether it be compensate more in midfield for his defense or finally find the “Fernandinho replacement”-level talent that many think is in Rodri. Regardless of everything I said before about how great of a signing this could be, the expectation on Rúben’s shoulders should not be the need to be a cure to all that ails City’s defense.

While the structural issues in the City team may remain, this is still a great signing. Rúben Dias is a fantastic young player, really growing into his own as a footballer and a leader and is destined for a great career. City shelled out a significant amount of money to sign him, but with his track record, it seemed to be a very logical deal. While not their main target, Pep has gotten the man who could be a fixture at center back for years to come, finally replacing the influence Vincent Kompany had in their team.

Yes, we are all tired of City signing defenders, they have only spent around £400 million on defensive players under Pep, but I swear this is one that should work out very well for them.

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Why Gareth Bale could, and could not, be exactly what Tottenham needs…

Tottenham announced the shock resigning of Gareth Bale this past week, with the player returning to North London on loan from Real Madrid. It was a deal that seemed to come out of the blue, almost seemingly being a tacked-on extra to Tottenham’s signing of Real Madrid left back Sergio Reguilón. Bale needed to leave Real Madrid, and a move back to his former club could be seen as a positive turn in the right direction for the Welshman’s career. Even if he is not fit to play until November, the excitement around his return offers the momentum needed to possibly help turn their fortunes around following a rough previous season and rough start to this season, potentially allowing manager Jose Mourinho to get the results that he desires.

As we have asked with every transfer on this site, let us examine how this Bale move will work out, and whether this is the right or wrong move for Spurs to make. It is certainly a move that has generated quite a bit of hype and generated many opinions and takes throughout the football world.

For Spurs, this move is a bit of a gamble while still filling an immediate need in the team. Under Jose, Spurs have often lined up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with Kane as the front striker with two wingers running off of him, sometimes utilizing a number ten behind him and sometimes not. Despite the tactical organization of Jose’s teams, the attacking strategy has often revolved around the individual brilliance of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. The third spot in the front three has been filled by several options, most notably Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn, but neither have consistently shown enough to be the solid third option. Also, when Son and Kane missed significant time last season due to injury, the attack struggled, having to rely on other players who were not able to contribute at the level of their injured counterparts. In Bale, Spurs have a player who can naturally fit into that right winger role, being a left-footed right winger able to cut inside and score, as well as play as a striker when the tactical situation demands it or if Kane were to be out due to injury. Despite whatever the last few years has shown, Bale is still a fantastic player on his day. Skillful and aggressive with an eye for goal and a pension for doing the spectacular, Bale quite simply makes Spurs better if he is able to find his footing and perform at the level that we all know he is still capable of. After all, we are only two years removed from him nearly single-handedly winning Real Madrid the Champions League against Liverpool with two incredible goals. There is still talent there, and if Bale is able to find form, then he could be in for a fantastic season.

I anticipate Spurs would line up in a 4-3-3 when Bale is fully fit and in the team, with him playing on the right in a front three with Son on the left and Kane playing through the middle. In this set up, Spurs more or less emulate Liverpool’s front three or, more applicable for Bale, Real Madrid’s Bale-Benzema-Cristiano partnership. Kane, while being known for being a great goalscorer, is also very good at playing somewhat of a false nine role, with the positional understanding to drop into space and occupy the center backs to free up space for his teammates. He is also a very underrated playmaker, with the vision and ability to pick a pass that many strikers do not have, as he demonstrated with his four assists against Southampton this past weekend. In an ideal attacking scenario, Kane’s movement is able to open up space for Son and Bale to attack, leading to plenty of goalscoring opportunities for both wingers, similar to Firmino for Liverpool and Benzema for Real Madrid. In this sense, Bale has re-entered a scenario where he had plenty of success, entering a team that emulates an attacking pairing he enjoyed during his prime in Madrid. In a situation not as toxic as the one he left behind, Bale will hopefully be able to fit into the Spurs team naturally and combine with the other attacking players to form what could potentially be one of the best attacks in the Premier League.

For Bale, this is the most logical move to make. Bale has long needed to get out of Madrid. While he is at fault for his share of the degrading relationship between himself and Los Blancos‘ manager Zinedine Zidane, it has been apparent for a while now that this loveless marriage between Bale and Real Madrid needed to come to an end. He needed to go to a club where not only would he play and play a significant part in the team, but he would also be comfortable. Even before the serious problems with Zidane began, it was clear that Bale was not fully adapted to life in Spain. Not only does he now return to the United Kingdom, but he returns to the club where he made his breakthrough into superstardom. It is this facet that has me believe that returning to Spurs was the better decision than going to Manchester United, the other English club that was seriously exploring the options to sign him. Sporting-wise, neither Tottenham or Manchester United are exactly in great positions at the moment. Neither club will seriously contend for the title this season, and they will likely both be in scraps to maintain Top Six status and chase a Champions League place against Arsenal and, potentially, Everton, Wolves, and/or Leicester City. A move to United would have likely been a permanent move, unlike the loan he is currently on, and he probably would have been paid more in Manchester and likely would have also started immediately, but he is not going to get the sense of comfort he will from playing for his former club. This ability to feel comfortable and be in an environment you are used to, especially after everything he went through in Madrid, will be important in allowing Bale to return to the level that we all know he can achieve.

However, there are plenty of reasons as to why I am skeptical of this move, or at least skeptical of this move being exactly what Spurs need to elevate them back into a top four side. First, let us revisit that attacking system we discussed earlier. This team, even with Bale in it, is still incredibly reliant on Harry Kane. It is still a system that needs Kane’s very particular set of skills to create serious attacking chances. Liverpool can at least rely on the fullbacks to create some chances, and Real Madrid could always find chances from Modric and Kroos, but Spurs have not shown to have any consistently serious attacking threats outside of Kane and Son. Bale could prove me wrong in this sense and provide some form of creative element, and I recognize this criticism is not necessarily about Bale, but I do not see this attack working nearly as well if Harry Kane were to go down injured again. Also, this is a Jose Mourinho team. Jose’s teams are not quite known for being high-speed attacking sides similar to the Liverpool team I compared this front three to. It is very possible that Jose’s pragmatic, more defensive approach means that we do not get to see this front three play with the handbrake off, and Bale’s influence in the team could be more limited. Again, another criticism about the Spurs team and not necessarily Bale, but these concerns with Spurs do show that bringing the Welshman back may not be something that fully revolutionizes the team overnight.

Ok, now let us actually talk about concerns with the player, as there are definitely some concerns about this move. Bale has had quite the unfortunate injury record since leaving London, and this has seen him spend several long stints on the sidelines and was probably the main reason that we were never able to see the full potential of the Bale-Benzema-Cristiano front three. Bale is now 31, having not played a significant role in a team for several years, so if his injury history has followed him back to London, it could be something that ruins his ability to gel in the team. Especially for a player like Bale, whose best and most famous trait has seemingly been his lightning-quick turn of pace, injury concerns could hamper his ability to contribute in the team. After all, he already comes in carrying an injury that has ruled him out until November. Considering the very unfortunate injury luck Spurs had last season, they better hope that does not carry over into this season.

Bale could also not be the right archetype of winger needed to make the most impact. Throughout his career, Bale has always been a very direct player, primarily effective as a goalscorer on the wing and not necessarily always known for creating chances for his teammates. Yes, Bale is still a need for the team and is still better than the other options at the club, but Spurs already have a winger of that style in Son, and something that they still immensely struggle with is chance creation. Since Christian Eriksen’s departure last season, they never really had a player who was able to create attacking chances to that degree. Part of that was by design, with Jose not really preferring Eriksen even when he was still with the team, but part of it was also due to the inability to replace Eriksen’s impact outside of an over-reliance on Kane. It is very possible that Spurs have these three very effective attacking players and not enough creativity behind them to get them the chances they need. Hence, my point in the previous paragraph, their over-reliance on Kane might still be a downfall in the team, and Bale might not be able to solve that.

I am also going to spare a moment to talk a bit about the first big-picture, domino-falling impact that this move has had: it has seemingly pushed Dele Alli closer to the exit door. Dele has been through a wild ride under Mourinho at Spurs. His revitalization during the early days of Jose’s reign was seen as the telltale sign that Jose was having a massive impact on the team, but he has seemingly since fallen out of favor with the Portuguese manager. After being subbed off after only 45 minutes against Everton and not featuring at all against Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the Europa League Qualifiers or against Southampton in the league, it seems that the Bale transfer is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that Bale’s return is too difficult of a prospect to turn down, and I understand that Dele has been inconsistent in recent seasons, but is it really worth giving up on him now from Spurs’ point of view? I am not quite sure. Yes, he has not consistently hit the levels he was at during his breakout seasons in North London, but I would argue that was not entirely on him. Yes, his attitude and injury issues were part of the problem, but his utilization was also an issue. Under Pochettino, he was slowly but surely shoehorned into a deeper lying role, away from his desired attacking number ten role and in a way that did not allow him to have serious influence on the attack. Mourinho started playing Dele back in that attacking role, and he thrived in it early on, but Mourinho slowly but surely forced him further back as well. Many look at Dele as a lost cause or failed talent now, but despite how long it seems he has been in the spotlight as a player, he only just turned 24. He has plenty of time to turn around his misfortunes and find the consistency in his career that he needs, but it does not seem that Spurs want to do what they need to do to get the best out of the player.

This is seemingly a story that is told at many clubs Jose manages; a young player not trusted by the manager leaves and has success elsewhere. At Manchester United, it was Memphis Depay. At Chelsea, it was Kevin De Bruyne. At Real Madrid, it was Nuri Sahin. At Inter, it was Leonardo Bonucci. Will Dele be another case of this? Bale is a very short-term risk; he is only at the club for one season, and even if it was not a loan, he is already 31, with a bad injury history and very high wages. This is part of Jose’s, and chairman Daniel Levy’s, plan to win right now, a gamble Jose often makes, which is part of the reason why clubs have often been left in a worse situation when Jose leaves compared to when he arrived. This is the bedrock of why this move is such a massive risk. If Bale is a star and Spurs win silverware or get back into the Champions League while he is at the club, then it is a massive success. If he does not thrive and Spurs finish outside of the top four, or potentially outside of the top six, it could lead the club down the road that most Jose managed teams have gone down, with key players leaving and the club falling from their peak. With this move, Spurs are essentially trading a player who could still become a valuable future asset for a player with a very limited shelf life remaining in an attempt to win immediately. If Dele goes to another club and succeeds, then it will likely haunt Spurs for the foreseeable future, especially if they do not win a trophy with Bale.

Gareth Bale’s move has sure got people talking, and with good reason. This could potentially make a very exciting Spurs team, or it is a massive risk that may or may not pay off for Jose Mourinho and Daniel Levy. For Bale, it offers him a chance to redeem his legacy. If he wins silverware with Spurs, then many will likely forget about the issues he has had in his last few seasons in Madrid. Bale gambled on himself, and Levy gambled on Mourinho’s ability to build him a winning team right now. Given all of the factors in this deal, I think it was the right gamble to make. Spurs need something that massively shifts the mentality and attacking side of this team, and taking a risk on a year of Gareth Bale is not a ridiculous move to make. I think Spurs might regret fully giving up on Dele Alli, but I feel his time in North London was numbered regardless of this move.

If it does not work out, I am sure there are plenty of great golf courses in the south of England that Bale would enjoy playing.

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A Brand New Midfield

What Everton’s new signings mean for Carlo Ancelotti’s team and their chances at finally challenging the Big Six…

Everton have been active in the transfer market, bringing in three big name signings in a matter of a week. Allan Marques, James Rodríguez, and Abdoulaye Doucouré joined the Toffees from Napoli, Real Madrid, and Watford, respectively, giving manager Carlo Ancelotti almost an entirely new midfield in the blink of an eye. All three players were brought in for a total fee of around £50 million, making this an incredible bit of business for Everton and sporting director Marcel Brands.

With Everton’s first league match of the season on the horizon, many assume all three players will take part in their match against Spurs this weekend. Those three players should make a big difference for this Everton team, but how specifically will they fit into Ancelotti’s system? Well, this gives them the one thing the Italian manager seems to love the most: options.

In Allan and Doucouré, Ancelotti now has two midfielders that are very good at many different things and seem to complement each other very well. Both are very hard-working, dynamic midfielders, but their individual proficiency in defensive and attacking roles, respectively, allows them to function well in a midfield together. Allan is a warrior defensively, saying he prides himself in winning tackles and recovering the ball all over the pitch. He is also a competent passer, but it is mainly his defensive work rate that will greatly benefit this Everton team. Paired with him, Doucouré presents a box-to-box midfielder able to contribute defensively while also being a threat going forward, specializing in late runs and getting a high volume of shots off relative to his position. In some respects, Allan is forming a similar relationship to Doucouré that he had with Marek Hamšik at Napoli. The system is different, however, as they are fitting in with James Rodríguez, a natural attacking midfielder, compared to their former teammate Jorginho, a defensive midfielder. Allan could still function as the defensive player in the midfield, allowing Doucouré and another midfielder to play ahead of him. Doucouré could function in a deeper lying role or more forward, as shown when he was playing almost behind the striker for Watford near the end of last season. The options are there for Ancelotti, but what will they do? How does the system change? How will Everton line up?

Ancelotti has historically not glued himself to one formation or system. While he strongly preferred a 4-4-2 during his early years managing in Italy, he has seemingly grown into a process of formulating a formation and tactical plan to suit the players available to him. For Everton, he returned to his 4-4-2 roots, a system that, while it was not fantastic, seemed to get the best out of the limited resources he had available upon taking over on Merseyside in late December. I wrote in a previous piece about Everton that it is difficult to envision who Ancelotti and Brands might target in the transfer window, as it is hard to pin down exactly how Everton were going to play moving forward. Three signings into the window, and the vast unknown idea of how Everton could line up has formulated into three separate systems, and the key player in how the final system will be decided upon is James Rodríguez. They could line up in the same 4-4-2 they used last season, with a flat midfield four of Richarlison, Doucouré, Allan, and James, but that would seemingly require quite a bit of work defensively from James on the right, taking him out of his preferred attacking role and putting quite a bit of pressure on the right back. There were discussions of James playing in a traditional “number ten” role, which would indicate the usage of a 4-2-3-1, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin operating as a lone striker ahead of Richarlison, James, and the right winger, likely Theo Walcott or Anthony Gordon. Allan and Doucouré would then operate as a double pivot behind James.

Of those two likely options, the 4-2-3-1 is probably the best suited to the personnel available. James can play in that inverted winger role, and we will discuss that further in a bit, but a 4-4-2 system requires quite a bit of defensive work from both wingers in order to support the fullbacks in defending the wide areas and marking the attacking wingers and wingbacks. James is not a lazy player by any account, but he is a player who needs to be further up the pitch in dangerous attacking areas in order to impact the match, and forcing him to operate in that 4-4-2 will either run the risk of pinning him further back or isolating the right back. Both scenarios are not ideal. While the 4-4-2 has an added benefit of two strikers, and the pairing of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison showed some potential last season, it still does not have an ideal midfield set up. The 4-2-3-1 is better, and while the “number ten” role is starting to die out in football, it is a system that still functions if used correctly. Some may argue it is making a comeback, as demonstrated by Bayern Munich on their road to Champions League triumph, as well as by Manchester United during their resurgence following the arrival of “number ten” Bruno Fernandes. James is a traditional “number ten”, so he would function well in a system that provides him with freedom going forward and the ability to focus on the attack. The pairing of Doucouré and Allan would be a solid double pivot, with Allan being a defensive workhorse and solid passer from deep and Doucouré being a dynamic box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, and they could also count on the potential inclusion of André Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin in that position. It is not without its negative aspects, as it breaks up the partnership of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison to put the Brazilian on the wing, and it also forces Everton to utilize a right winger, a position without much proven quality for the Toffees at the moment. Calvert-Lewin also hit his stride in a 4-4-2, and while he will definitely have much better service now than he did previously, he does run the risk of being isolated up top. Despite the negatives, the 4-2-3-1 seems the more logical choice to get the most out of his signings, so I would anticipate Ancelotti strays from his 4-4-2 to begin the season.

However, there is one system that could get the most out of James while not utilizing that now unconventional “number ten”. Everton could line up in a 4-3-3, with James as part of the front three with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin ahead of a (likely) midfield of Allan, Doucouré, and Gomes. In this system, James would function as a sort of inverted winger/inside forward, akin to how Hakim Ziyech was deployed for Ajax the past two seasons. He would have the room and space to drift inside, moving onto his stronger left foot and able to cross into the forwards, have a shot himself, or play a pass to the overlapping fullback. The cross specifically is tantalizing, as James has always been very good at the left-footed, in-swinging cross toward the far post. Calvert-Lewin is clearly competent in the air, but the potential late runs from Richarlison and Doucouré, who are both also very good in the air, onto that cross make it a very difficult move for teams to defend against. While his starting position is not as central as it would be if he were a “number ten”, this still provides James with freedom in attacking moves. The right back would still face a decent amount of pressure defensively, but at least the right sided midfielder would be able to provide some cover should the right back overlap James. A midfield three of Allan, Doucouré, and Gomes provides a nice blend of ability on the ball and defensive solidity, though the likely best third midfielder in that treble would be the now-injured Gbamin. Doucouré still brings goals from midfield to help lessen the goalscoring burden on the front three. It also means Everton do not have to field a right winger, where they are weak, and are able to keep Anthony Gordon as a game-changer coming off the bench. A 4-3-3 could also easily shift to a 4-4-2 defensively, with James moving up and Richarlison pivoting back to form the bank of four with the three midfielders. Calvert-Lewin would be available to knock down a clearing pass and James would be able to drop into space and play the pass to the darting winger or advancing midfielder. It is an unconventional set up, but it is one that just might work.

So how will these signings do? Well, they are definitely risks. For those who focus on resale value, which quite a few Everton fans have, these three do not have much in the way of resale potential. James, Allan, and Doucouré are 29, 29, and 27, respectively, so they have theoretically reached the peak of their values. Doucouré is a bit more of a known quantity than the other two, having played several seasons in the Premier League, but simply having experience in the league does not guarantee success. Everton fans know well that players who move from smaller teams in the league to bigger teams are not guaranteed constant success, despite having the notorious “proven Premier League player” tag attached to them. Allan has experience in a strong Napoli team and was part of their Coppa Italia triumph last season, as well as multiple European runs. He has not been at his best as of late, however, and there is a fear he could be on the decline as a player. James is the biggest risk, as the last few years have been very up and down for the Colombian. Success at Bayern Munich has been bookended by struggles for fitness and playing time at Real Madrid. The World Cup in Brazil, where James announced himself to the world, is getting further and further away, and this move to England represents a likely final hope at fully reviving James’ career. The risks are clear, and there is no guarantee any of these signings work out.

But there are still absolutely reasons to be positive about these signings. Doucouré has been a very solid player for several years, being a key player in a Watford team that regularly went through managerial and tactical changes. He demonstrated an ability to function in multiple roles while still being a difference maker in a Watford side that struggled at times throughout the years before their relegation last season. Allan was a favorite of Ancelotti while he was at Napoli, and he seems to bring the fight and toughness that the Everton midfield has lacked since the departure of Idrissa Gueye. He has many characteristics and personality traits that the Everton fans should love, and he brings a level of experience and leadership as a veteran and a trophy winner into a dressing room that already has quite a few Portuguese speakers in it. James’ best season since his breakout World Cup year came at Bayern Munich under Ancelotti. They have a good relationship, and Ancelotti tried to bring the Colombian to Napoli before his eventual departure from Campania. I still trust Ancelotti’s judgment as a manager, and if he sees quality still in James, then I trust that judgment. If you needed another testimony, you can look to the other team in Madrid. Diego Simeone was very interested in bringing James to Atlético Madrid before last season, and the deal was apparently very close to being finished. It was reportedly Real Madrid’s 7-3 loss to Atléti in their preseason match up in the United States that pressured Real Madrid to cancel the deal, not wanting to seemingly aid a direct rival. Simeone is also no fool, and he is a manager that is hard to impress as a player if you do not bring the level of effort and defensive work rate that fits into Simeone’s system. James does not seemingly bring that, but if El Cholo pushed hard to sign the Colombian in spite of that, then there clearly has to be some level of talent still there. There are clearly risks in these signings, but there is indisputable star power in all three of these players. If they are able to come into the team, fit into Ancelotti’s system, and find form, then Everton suddenly become a much better and much more dangerous team.

Ancelotti’s revolution on Merseyside is more than underway, and it will be interesting to see what else Everton can do in this window. If this is it, then it is definitely not a failure of a transfer window, and it shows how far Everton have gone in the last few years that they are able to attract this level of talent without the promise of European football. This team is far from the finished article, however, and there should not be an expectation of breaking into the Top Six this season. Everton are not there yet, but this has the potential of being a massive step in the right direction toward that goal of getting into Europe. At a bare minimum, this is an immediate upgrade on the Toffee midfield that struggled through the second half of last season. The phrase “scared money don’t make money” comes to mind, and while this was a risk, the reward is also quite high.

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My Response to Vikram’s Article About Donny van de Beek

He may not be an exact fit, but that does not make him a bad signing…

Two days ago, Manchester United announced their first signing of the summer. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek joins the Red Devils from Ajax for an initial £35 million fee, not including add-ons. The 23 year old signed a five year deal with United with an option for sixth year.

This is a signing that I was unsure about, and some of the reasoning was echoed by Vikram in his blog post recently. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is a sound signing, and many of the issues with the deal have very little to do with van de Beek himself or this deal in isolation.

There is quite a bit to discuss regarding this deal, the fit, the structure of United’s midfield, and where United’s transfer priorities should lie, but let us ignore all of that for just one second and talk about the first main point about this signing:

Donny van de Beek is a very good player.

For three years, van de Beek brought a combination of youthful aggression, dynamism, and technical brilliance into an excellent Ajax team, bringing a great blend of goalscoring and assisting from midfield into that team, alongside a bulldog-like mentality. He was a key player in the Ajax team that won an Eredivisie title and made the final of the Europa League and semifinals of the Champions League, quite possibly being the main unsung hero of that team. In a team full of incredible, budding world-class talent, van de Beek seemed to miss some of the acclaim that Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech, and others received. This might be most exemplified by his performance in their 4-1 win over Real Madrid, where he was arguably the best player on the pitch outside of Man of the Match Dušan Tadić despite not really receiving much in the way of deserved recognition from that match. He ran the show from midfield and carried the team forward into attack, finding Ziyech, Tadić, and David Neres in space in order to threaten a stagnant Real Madrid defense. Van de Beek shone this season in midfield following de Jong’s departure, demonstrating a flexibility and tactical understanding that allows him to feature in any role in midfield, even as a defensive number six outside of his preferred attacking role. United are bringing in a technically brilliant, tactically flexible, intelligent, and dynamic midfielder who, at only 23 years old, has quite a bit of room to grow before he reaches his ceiling as a player.

But let us look at Vikram’s points specifically. The two points he brought up were in regards to van de Beek’s utilization in this United team and questioning how this signing fits into what United’s priorities should be in the transfer market. These two ideas are connected, but we will first look at how van de Beek fits into the team before looking at the grand scheme of United’s transfer market.

It is clear that United’s midfield still needs some work. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are clearly locks in the team, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær has seemed to want to fill that third midfield role by committee, utilizing one of Fred, Scott McTominay, or Nemanja Matić in a midfield three in his 4-2-3-1. With van de Beek coming into the team, will he be the third midfielder United are looking for? Well, maybe. While van de Beek has the ability to fit into any role in midfield, his key technical traits and desire to get forward makes him best suited to a box-to-box role, similar to Pogba. There were times where he played as the deepest midfielder in the Ajax 4-3-3, but he usually played in a role where he had the freedom to get forward, with someone like Frenkie de Jong, Daley Blind, or Lisandro Martínez playing in that defensive role. However, this does not mean that he cannot play in a defensive role for United, and Ole’s tactical set up makes it somewhat easier for van de Beek to play in this role. In Ole’s 4-2-3-1, the two midfielders playing behind the front four operate as a double pivot. This means that both midfielders sit in front of the back four when the team is defending, but when they are going forward, one of the two is able to join the attack, while the other stays back to shield the defense. The midfield is “pivoting” through those two players, one going forward to help carry the ball from defense to attack while the other stays back. In this case, Pogba and van de Beek operate as the double pivot. Both are very strong players going forward, and both are capable enough to cover the defensive needs of being in that role.

I will admit, however, it is not the most ideal pairing. Even in a double pivot, many teams utilize one player that is more of a playmaker and another that is more of a defensive-minded player, or they will use a deep-lying playmaker paired with a midfielder more prone to get forward in attack. This could be seen with Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matić at Chelsea, Thiago Alcântara and Joshua Kimmich (or Leon Goretzka) at Bayern, and, a pairing that Vikram and Rynaldy will remember well, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes at Man United. A pairing of Pogba and van de Beek is a bit weird in this sense because they are two similar players who will want to do the same things, neither fitting into this ideal pairing. Having that double pivot would be very effective for United against teams that sit deep in a low block, as they now have three midfielders able to pick out key passes and break down a defense, but they do risk being caught out on the counter if all three midfielders are forward. It definitely can work, but it will require very strong positional discipline from both players. Pogba has, at times, shown a lesser defensive work rate than would be ideal, and while van de Beek’s engine can make up for that, a double pivot of the two would likely need very good defensive discipline from both players to work. Both players would need to understand when they needed to stay back and would need to sacrifice for each other when both want to get forward. It is a partnership that definitely can work, and can work wonders, but I do admit there are issues with it that would stop it from working, and van de Beek may not have been the most ideal signing to fill that role. The aforementioned Thiago, as well as Arsenal-linked Atlético Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey, would have fit into that role perfectly, cost about the same or only marginally more than van de Beek, and likely would have been more logical signings for United in this role.

This does not make this a bad signing, as this move meets two crucial needs for United: it offers them depth in an important position and provides them options tactically and personnel-wise. One of United’s biggest weaknesses as a team last season was a lack of ability to rotate Pogba and Fernandes, forcing Fernandes especially to play nearly every minute from the time he made his move to Manchester until the end of the season. Solskjær also lacked a “Plan B”, and he seemingly had nowhere to turn when he needed to make an alteration to change the course of a match. While this is partially a reflection of Ole’s weakness in game management, it is hard to look at that United bench and see many players who can come on and impact a match. These two issues were exemplified in United’s arguably two biggest losses of the season: their FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea and Europa League semifinal loss to Sevilla. Against Chelsea, Ole heavily rotated the team, taking out Pogba and leaving Fernandes as the only creative outlet in the team. They struggled massively to create anything going forward, with Chelsea’s midfield game plan effectively able to stop Fernandes, knowing there was no other player United could use, apart from Pogba, that could have that level of creative impact. Against Sevilla, United struggled to create chances for most of the match, outside of a strong first 15-20 minutes of the second half. Ole did not have anyone to bring on to change the match, however, and he only made his first substitutions in the 87th minute. This is partially on Ole’s poor game management, but also it shows that he had no one to turn to when he needed someone to come in and make a difference. Van de Beek fills both voids. He is a player who offers more in that creative or box-to-box role than any player currently at United, able to be rotated into the team when Fernandes or Pogba need to be rested or get injured, or he can come on late in a match to be a spark of creativity. He also presents a tactical plan B, as this allows Ole to play with a midfield four if needed, likely deploying van de Beek as one of two box-to-box midfielders on either side of a diamond. In a situation where Ole feels that he needs another player in midfield to sure up the team or to overwhelm the opposition midfield, van de Beek is able to come in and fill that role very well. United now have viable options when things need to be changed.

But this is too much to pay for a squad player, right? Well, not really. A fee of £35 million definitely is not chump change, but in this market, that is not a bad fee for a player who will not immediately play but offers, at minimum, a great influence off the bench and a high future potential. He also acts as the eventual successor to Pogba, should the Frenchman decide to not extend his contract with the club. Especially when the reported fee for the player was in the £50-60 million range last summer, getting him for £35 million a year later is a great deal, possibly one of the best deals of this window, financially speaking.

Now for the final point that Vikram brought up: a player like van de Beek is not a priority for United in this market. In many ways, he is right. I would argue van de Beek offers that depth and “plan B” role that United do very much need, but I would not say a midfielder in his profile is something United were desperate to sign this window, especially when compared to their need for a center back, left back, and proper defensive midfielder. But, for the reasons I have stated, this is still a great move and makes sense for United football-wise and financially. The overall view of this move might end up being influenced by whatever else United do in this window. The club has seemingly turned a corner under Solskjær’s management, getting back into the Champions League and seeming to be only a few pieces away from potentially challenging the Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly on the league title. They are also seeing the moves that Chelsea and Arsenal are making, knowing they need to make upgrades in key positions to at least keep pace with their top four rivals. This window is absolutely crucial for United, even with the impact of COVID on the market. If they do not sign anyone else between now and October 5th, then van de Beek will always be prefaced as “that player United did not need”, which is massively unfair on him. This window will be the greatest referendum of Ed Woodward’s role in this football club. He did a very good job bringing a high rated youngster like van de Beek to the club for a financially reasonable fee, but his ability to bring in the players this United team desperately need will have a much bigger impact in their fortunes next season, especially with the moves that clubs around them in the table will be making. Van de Beek could work out as a United player or he could not, and while I have faith that he will be a great signing for United, I do feel that people’s reflections on this move will be too influenced by whatever else the club do in this crucial window, instead of solely focusing on the player and his performances.

I have more faith in this move for United. I believe this is a very good signing, possibly the best pound-for-pound signing in this window among Premier League teams. Even if he cannot be the crucial third midfielder in that United starting XI, he will still be a very good player that can grow into a starting role in the post-Pogba midfield. Concerns about his utilization in the team are unfounded, and while he is admittedly not a major priority for United in this window, that should not take away from how good of a deal this is financially and when looking to the future.

Don’t worry, Vikram. He will be fine.

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Sandro Tonali, Brescia’s star midfield wunderkind and seemingly preordained future of the Italian National Team, is close to a deal to sign with AC Milan. The deal is basically all agreed, and, bar a massive change in direction or an act of God, Tonali will be joining the Rossoneri next season.

This is a big deal.

Given the level of talent Tonali is, as well as the clubs that were pursuing him, it is a little surprising he ended up at Milan. As the bidders fell out of the hunt, however, Milan became arguably the most logical destination. For those who had not been able to keep up with the Rossoneri this season, especially following Serie A’s return from the hiatus, there is some real, tangible positivity surrounding this team, a first after a long period of instability and negativity for the European giants. They were arguably the best team in Italy during that quick run up to the end of the season, putting in some very strong performances to get them into a European place, most notably beating Juventus 4-2 back in early July. There is a real spine forming in this team, mixing young promising talent with experienced veteran leadership. From back to front, the already present spine of Gigio Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Ismaël Bennacer, Franck Kessié, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ante Rebić is a team that will not quite win the Scudetto just yet, but one that is obviously building rapidly in the right direction. That spine is also joined by emerging, or already broken through, young talent, including the likes of Theo Hernández, Rafael Leão, Alexis Saelemaekers, Matteo Gabbia, and Pierre Kalulu, demonstrating the strong future that this team has. They are now adding Tonali, arguably the most promising young player in Italy, to this already solid spine. This is a move that brings another massive building block to this Milan team.

It is the Rossoneri midfield in particular that is now very intriguing, as the 20-year-old Tonali joins the 23-year-old Kessié and 22-year-old Bennacer in forming a very interesting, and good, problem for manager Stefano Pioli to have. Do you play all three of them together, going away from the 4-2-3-1 set up that seemed to serve Milan well recently, or do you only choose two of them to play in that midfield three alongside Hakan Çalhanoglu, a more natural number ten? It seems like Milan will use Tonali and one of the other two in a double pivot, using that depth and ability to rotate in order to balance playing in the league and the Europa League, but it is possible that they build toward a future of using all three, especially if they eventually replace Zlatan with a forward more able to drop into space as a center forward as well, similar to Roberto Firmino or Karim Benzema. It is hard to go wrong in this scenario, and the incredible depth that Milan now have in midfield is setting them up well to challenge for the Champions League places next season, and possibly, a few years down the line, the chance to challenge for the Scudetto as well.

It is still a risk, however, as, despite the pieces looking like they are coming together for Milan, there is still the chance it could all fall apart. The mess surrounding Stefano Pioli and seemingly-tabbed replacement Ralf Ragnick was definitely unfair on Pioli, who had done an incredible job getting the train back on the tracks in the second half of the season, but I do believe the jury is still out on whether Pioli is the right man for the job. That run after the hiatus was very impressive, but it could very well have been just a flash in the pan, possibly a strong run of form that would be reversed as Milan reverted back to their mean level of performance at the beginning of next season. There were genuine questions around Pioli’s management at the beginning of last season, questions that led to logical discussions around Ragnick replacing him. They will also soon have to find a replacement for Zlatan, who is crucial in their attack. Throwing all of their eggs into one basket like this is not always ideal, despite how talented and effective Zlatan still is, as despite what the 38-year-old Swede might tell you, he obviously cannot play forever. It is very possible, even likely, that Milan kick on next season, and they start the season with the momentum they got from how they ended last season and ride that to a strong 2020/21 season and potentially a spot in the Champions League. In that case, Tonali will have joined arguably the ideal club to play for, but if things do go wrong, it could bring up a large roadblock in the young Italian’s development, possibly derailing his career if things got bad enough. I do not think this is a massive risk, but the last half-decade of Milan’s history has had a strong “one step forward, two (or more) steps back” aura around them, so I am hoping the several steps back do not come.

It is impossible to talk about Tonali going to Milan without discussing the club on the other side of this massive tug-of-war. As the bidders fell away, it appeared the Tonali Sweepstakes had been reduced to only two teams: AC Milan and Inter. The two Milan giants duking it out over the signature of Italy’s next big young talent had a certain poetic feel to it, and it felt like a sign that the Derby della Madonnina was building back toward the iconic level the rivalry was at in the 1990s and 2000s. Curiously, though, Milan did not get Tonali because the player chose them, although it is possible that boyhood Milan fan Tonali did prefer to play for the Rossoneri. Inter pulled out of negotiations. Throughout this entire process, it appeared that Inter were the favorites to sign him, presenting Tonali with a chance to play in the Champions League and contend for a league title next season in a midfield alongside fellow Italian youngster Nicolò Barella and the experienced and quite underrated Marcelo Brozović. Tonali and Inter had even had personal terms agreed for a move since April. However, Inter weirdly decided to pull out of negotiations with Brescia, opening the lane for Milan to sign the player unopposed. It would later come out that this was a decision made by Inter manager Antonio Conte, who preferred that the club sign an older, more experienced player in midfield instead of the younger Tonali. This move came as Inter were reportedly closing in on a deal for Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal and potentially pursuing a deal for Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté. It is a decision that has garnered quite a bit of criticism, and it is a decision that Milan fans might be thanking Conte for in the years to come.

Do not get me wrong, I get the gamble that Conte is trying to make here. He is seemingly throwing all of his weight behind winning a league title in the next two years with Inter. While I do think Tonali could immediately play a role in a Scudetto-winning Inter team, the desire to go for more experienced and guaranteed-talent midfielders over a young and still relatively unproven player is at least somewhat logical in that sense. But that is the thing, it is a gamble, and a massive one at that. Conte is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at winning a Scudetto with this Inter team, a team that can probably stay at the level of legitimate title challenger for maybe the next two seasons, three seasons at the absolute most. If Inter do not win a league title in that time, then what are they going to have to show for their efforts? They will be left with a team with an aging core, not many emerging talents to replace the aging players, and the possibility that the young players already playing a major role in this team, including the likes of Barella, Lautaro Martínez, and the newly arrived Achraf Hakimi, could be long gone. This is seemingly a move done by someone who cannot see past the end of his nose, someone who is so obsessed with the immediate goal that he cannot see how the image of his team is shaping up in the next three to five years. As a result, Conte has handed Inter’s biggest rivals what could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle needed to bring Milan back to true prominence. This is not even the first bad transfer decision Inter have made with young players, even in the last two years. Inter lost out in the race to sign Atalanta winger Dejan Kulusevski to Juventus despite being the front-runners to land the young Swede, possibly due to Conte’s preference, and previous manager Luciano Spalletti willingly sent Nicolò Zaniolo to Roma as part of the move that brought Radja Nainggolan to Inter. The Nerazzurri could have had a young, promising midfield five of Kulusevski, Zaniolo, Tonali, Barella, and Stefano Sensi, but due to completely avoidable issues of their own making, they now have lost out on three of those players.

Antonio Conte is obviously a brilliant and very accomplished manager, but he is an incredibly stubborn individual. Conte is so set in his ways and in the players he wants, which have usually been older veteran players, that he is unwilling to have his team sign one of the world’s most promising young talents. This gamble could ultimately work out. Inter could win a league title or two with this team, and a player like Vidal or Kanté could come in and be an immediate contributor. Winning league titles could allow them to build even further, adding talent that would make them not miss Tonali in the slightest. However, it is a colossal gamble. If Inter do not win a title in this window, and especially if Tonali becomes a superstar at Milan, Interisti will be sat wondering what could have been.

The move is not official, but it looks about set. Sandro Tonali will join his boyhood club. Milan have secured the signature of one of the most promising young players in the world and a key building block in bringing this storied club back to prominence. I am incredibly excited to see how this team shapes up and to see how this Rossoneri core develops. There is tangible hope and optimism around Milan now, and it is exciting to see.

In the words of transfer guru Fabrizio Romano: here we go!

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Super Bayern

How Hansi Flick’s Bavarian Revolution turned a season nearing disaster into one of complete European conquest…

Feature Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Bayern Munich are champions of Europe for the sixth time in their history. It was never really in doubt, was it?

Aside from a few scares against Lyon in the semifinal and a tense first half against PSG in the final, it seemed as if Bayern coasted to the Champions League title. They demolished Tottenham, Chelsea, and Barcelona on their way to the final, and looked fairly comfortable against PSG when they got there. They won the league by 13 points and demolished Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal Final. They cruised all the way to a European treble, only the second in Bayern’s storied history, but was there ever really a doubt?

Well, yes there was.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, Bayern’s title defense once looked like it was going off the rails. On November 2, 2019, Bayern were demolished 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bavarians were fourth, their manager, Niko Kovač, had just resigned, and it looked like their season was on the brink of collapse. We were only 10 matches into the league season, but this just felt different. Bayern were very unconvincing throughout the whole season, Leipzig and Gladbach looked like genuine title threats, and this Eintracht loss seemed to indicate that this would be the year that a team not named Bayern went home with the Meisterschale.

Appointed to replace Kovač was his assistant, Hans-Dieter “Hansi” Flick. The long-time Germany assistant arrived in Bavaria before the season, intended on acting as the number two to Kovač. When things were falling apart, he was thrusted in to act as an interim, righting the ship until Bayern could find a more permanent replacement. Flick was always well-regarded in Germany but lacked major first team managerial experience, and while no one opposed the move, he was working under the assumption that he would only be there temporarily while the club worked to find their next big-name manager. Flick impressed in his interim spell, and while Bayern did lose twice, they strung together enough positive results to get their season back on track, and, with a 4-0 win over Dortmund, showed they still had the quality to win the league. He was given the managerial job until the end of the season, seemingly to give the club more time to find a suitable replacement.

Those two games Bayern lost during Flick’s interim period would be the last two games they would lose the whole season. They would fail to win only once more, a 0-0 draw against Leipzig in February. They won every single other competitive match they played (I am not counting the friendly they lost to Nürnberg), and they averaged scoring about three goals per game during that run. When Kovač was sacked, they had scored 25 league goals through 10 games, and by the end of the season, they had reached 100 league goals. They became the first team to win all of their Champions League matches, a trend that started under Kovač but was accelerated under Flick. A eight-month run that can only be described as absurd has ended with Bayern winning everything under the sun. A season teetering on the brink of disaster has ended with maybe the best Bayern team of the last decade being crowned champions of Europe and completing their second-ever European treble. How did this transformation happen?

This Bavarian revolution revolves around Flick and the incredible changes he was able to make in the short time he has been manager at Bayern. Under previous regimes, there were always seeds of discontent in the Bayern changing room. Veteran players were consistently unhappy with the tactics, changes, and mentality of several previous managers. Specifically under Kovač, many inside and outside of the club were upset with the defensive, reactive style of football the Croatian had been utilizing. Many managers had under-utilized, or completely dropped, Thomas Müller within the team, and they were struggling to replace the departed Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Flick arrived in a tumultuous changing room and seemed to smooth things over. The veterans in the team seemed to lock in step with him, and the rest of the team followed suit. Manuel Neuer, David Alaba, and Jérôme Boateng enjoyed revitalizations in defense, and Thiago Alcântara has emerged as one of the best midfielders in the world, but the main key of this man-management turnaround was the un-shackling of Thomas Müller. The Bavarian-born Müller was taken from an afterthought and made the life-blood of the attack, returning to his Raumdeuter roots and being able to make a difference in all areas of the attack. While Robert Lewandowski got the (deserved) praise for his incredible goalscoring season, Müller glued everything together, with his positioning, intelligent runs, and creative ability on full display. Müller became the Bundesliga’s assist king for the season and broke the league’s single-season assist record, just one of the several records Bayern broke this season.

Flick also passed a significant amount of trust and responsibility onto non-veteran players this season, and they have repaid that trust with some incredible performances. Everyone by now knows the story of Alphonso Davies, the young Canadian who has gone on an incredible journey from Liberian refugee to young stud MLS winger to arguably the best left back in the world before he even turned 20. Davies is genuinely that good, marauding up and down the left side, terrifying opposition defenses while being able to cover his own position exceptionally well, which is truly remarkable for someone who was turned into a left back a few years ago. The “FC Bayern Road Runner”, as Thomas Müller affectionately called him, was so good in such a short amount of time that he displaced former club stalwart left back David Alaba, though the Austrian is currently thriving in a center back role. Further forward, Serge Gnabry has truly emerged as a world-class winger, firing in 12 goals and 10 assists in 31 league matches, as well as 9 goals in only 10 matches in the Champions League. His pace, ability on the ball, cleverness, and underrated ability to pass and shoot with both feet make him such an incredibly deadly attacking player. He has begun to fill the void left by Robben. Joshua Kimmich has emerged as one of the best utility players in the world, able to function incredibly well either as a right back, holding midfielder, or even as a center back if needed. He is a crucial cog in the Bavarian machine, able to link things together between defense, midfield, and attack. When combined, Flick has been able to get the whole team locked into his management and philosophy, creating a motivated and terrifying Bayern team.

Calling this a success story of man management does not give enough credit to Flick, however. He has put together a tactical philosophy that is able to get the best out of his team and play a fluid attacking style and high-press system that forces mistakes, creates plenty of chances, and scores plenty of goals. Flick was always regarded as an intelligent tactical mind in the Germany set-up, and he was able to put that to good use in this role. Bayern attack by utilizing the space in wide areas to create overloads and space for their attacking front four. This space created opportunities for their forwards, which mostly fell to the brutally lethal Robert Lewandowski, but they also found goals from Gnabry, Müller, and others. Defensively, their remaining back three of (usually) Alaba, Boateng, and either Kimmich or Benjamin Pavard were able to hold the line at the back when Davies ventured forward, and the inverse was true of Davies and the other two staying back when the right back ventured forward. Their two holding midfielders also did their fair share of defensive work. Their high press is also a crucial part of how they play, as Barcelona unfortunately learned the hard way. They use their front four to aggressively pursue opposition defenders when they play out of the back, initiating the press when the ball is ushered toward wide areas or toward the goalkeeper. This rapid, fierce pressure in these areas often led to mistakes, creating easy chances and goals. It was not by chance or fluke that Flick’s Bayern scored this ridiculous amount of goals in a short space of time; they are a team designed to play at a quick tempo and score frequently.

Flick also demonstrated at times, namely in the second half against PSG, that he can craft a team that can slow the game down and see out a result. He is able to utilize those center midfielders to slow the pace down by having them get their foot on the ball and slow down the build up play. They are not rapidly looking to fire passes into space in the wide areas, but looking to maintain control and play easier, more methodical passes. Their defensive block was able to limit the chances of the opposition and ensure that, even in close games, it would not be too nervy of a finish. This was done very successfully against the Parisians, as their fearsome front three of Neymar, Mbappé, and Di María hardly got many good looks in attack during that second half. All great teams can play in different ways when situations called for different methods, and all great teams are able to dictate the match to their opponent and force the opposition manager to adapt to their style of play. It only took Bayern about eight months to reach this point under Flick, and they are still able to get so much better.

Bayern being this successful was no accident, but it was also no guarantee. We have seen plenty of talented teams underachieve over the last several years; it really takes the right blend of talent and management for good teams to become great. Bayern’s season was on the brink of disaster back in November, but in only a few months, Hansi Flick has led a revolution, turning an underachieving team into conquerors. The Bavarians are deserved champions of Europe, and Flick has laid the groundwork for a dominant Bayern Munich team on the domestic and continental stages for years to come.

Oh, and this team is adding Leroy Sané next season…

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