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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In the 17th minute, an unmarked Nur Luqman wasted a golden opportunity to equalize when his lobbed effort beat Sailors keeper Hassan Sunny also beat the post. Minutes later, Stipe came close to adding to his tally, but Zainol Gulam pulled a magnificent save. Similarly, Tajeli once again made his presence known in the match by keeping the visitors out with a goal-line clearance in the 35th minute after a spectacular move by the Eagles.

Drama unfolded just before the break, as Geylang goalkeeper Zainol Gulam committed a nasty challenge on Arshad Shamim in the penalty box, which resulted in a red card for the custodian. Substitute keeper Hairul Syirhan went the right way and almost kept out Song Ui-yong’s penalty, but the South Korean’s strike was too much for Syirhan to handle. Stipe made it three in the 84th minute with another simple tap in from Gabriel Quak’s low-driven pass. 4 minutes later, Singapore icon Sharil Ishak made it 4-0. 

Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

All eyes would have indeed been on Stipe Plazibat for this fixture. The Croatian transferred from Hougang United to the Sailors during the league’s suspension. He was brought in to replace Australian forward Andy Pengelly, who returned home to Australia following the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Pengelly came in with a lot of promise. He scored an impressive 52 goals in 34 games for the semi-professional outfit, Brisbane Queensland National Premier League (NPL). While it would have been interesting to see how Pengelly would have fared in Singapore, I don’t know if he was what the Sailors needed. He could have been a “Hidden Gem” that potentially set the league on fire. I mean, he did score in his first game for the Sailors. However, he could have struggled later on as well. We would never know. 

Stipe, on the other hand, is a proven striker in Singapore. Scratch that, he is arguably the best foreign player in our shores right now. With him leading their frontline, the Sailors have that statement signing that seemingly eluded them at the start of the season. His double against the Eagles brings his tally to 11 goals in 7 appearances for this season. The forward scored 9 in 6 for Hougang before the league’s suspension. 

At the start of the season, the Sailors looked like a disjointed team that had no bite. Pengelly scored the first goal against Tanjong Pagar, but the subsequent 4-0 thrashing by Tampines showed that the Sailors had a long way to go. The long break of 211 days certainly helped to promote team cohesion, and that probably helped build chemistry. That being said, I Stipe Plazibat’s acquisition helps to lessen the load on Song Ui-Yong and Sharil Ishak, the two primary sources for goals for Home United for the past couple of years. 

This is the Sailors’ first win of the season, and it sees them move up to 6th place. However, with two games in hand, they could see themselves top of the table if they win both fixtures. The Sailors play against Albirex Niigata next, and a win against the three-time league champions would really emphasize their calibre. It would be a real test against the White Swans though, who cruised past Young Lions in a 4-0 win this past weekend. Geylang, on the other hand, are now in 5th place after the loss and host Balestier Khalsa this Saturday. Based on Balestier’s match against Tanjong Pagar, Geylang have an excellent chance to come away with a victory.

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Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

I’m just really excited for local football to be back.

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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 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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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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Some of Manchester United’s Unanswered Questions before the start of the season

While the Premier League has officially started, Manchester United will only begin their campaign this weekend against Crystal Palace. The Red Devils were given an extended break after progressing to the semi-finals of the Europa League, and thus, their supposed opening fixture against Burnely got postponed. While other teams kickstarted their season, the Red Devils instead played a friendly against Aston Villa, losing 1-0.

Sure, a 1-0 defeat was not a total disaster and there were some positives to be taken away. The idea of the match was to give the squad some much needed minutes, and Donny van de Beek showed a lot of promise. However, I think specific issues need to be discussed following the friendly fixture, starting with a pertinent issue I have been raising for a while now:

What’s going on in the First-team Transfer Department

Donny van de Beek is the only first-team player that has arrived at Manchester United. The 23-year-old arrived from Ajax in a £35 million move. However, despite rumours of Jadon Sancho’s imminent arrival, attempts to hijack Liverpool’s move for Thiago Alcântara, and alleged reports that Alex Telles flew down to Manchester to discuss terms, no other transfer has materialized.

I understand that it is crucial that Manchester United not rush into transfers and simply overspend to acquire their targets. Yet, at the same time, as I see other clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal sign players like Timo Werner, Nathan Aké, and Gabriel Magalhães, respectively, I can’t help but think that we are not doing enough.

It isn’t just the acquisition of players that Manchester United seem to have problems with. Offloading their deadwood is another issue that needs immediate attention. Manchester United do not need Marcus Rojo, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Phil Jones. There have been no efforts to sell any of these players or find potential new homes for them. Besides these players, do Manchester United need 4 first-team goalkeepers? It is time for either Sergio Romero or Lee Grant to be shipped out. As much as it pains me and probably most United fans, I’d rather sell Romero at this point. A player of his calibre should be starting matches, and a move to a mid-table Premier League team would do him a world of good.

Of course, Manchester United need enough players so that they can remain competitive in all 4 four fronts this campaign – the Premier League, League Cup, FA Cup, and the Champions League. However, to progress far and potentially win the competition, Manchester United need to bring in quality players for depth. When I looked at the line up against Villa, I was unimpressed with the backup options we had on the wings.

Ideally, Manchester United need to sign 4-5 more players. In another article, I ranked these positions in order and argued that we desperately need a right-winger. However, after some pondering (and a lecture from Jack), I’m more convinced now that we need to shore up our defence. Do we have enough firepower going forward? Well, barely. On the other hand, our defence is in desperate need for stability and we need to sort this out fast.

At the same time, I think decisions have to be made on James Garner and Diogo Dalot. I think a loan move would do well for both players. At this age, regular football would do them good, although it is almost guaranteed that they won’t find that at United. Garner has to compete with the likes of van de Beek, Fred, Mc Tominay, Pogba, and Matic for a chance to start in midfield, while Dalot appears to have fallen below Fosu-Mensah in the pecking order at right back. They can become fantastic footballers for United in the future, but for them to fulfill their potential, the club needs to orchestrate a loan move for them.

The de Gea vs Henderson dilemma

Seeing David de Gea start the match was quite intriguing, and like many other United fans, I’m clueless as to how Ole will appease both keepers with playing time. Will we see a situation where Dean Henderson plays in the Champions League and Cup games while de Gea starts in the Premier League? Maybe, vice-versa? Honestly, I’d rather Henderson start in the PL and de Gea start in the Champions League and Cup games instead. It is a gamble, but Henderson needs regular playing time at United to assimilate himself into the squad fully.

Or perhaps, Ole rotates the goalkeepers to give both players a chance to stake their claim as Manchester United’s number one. It will be interesting to see what transpires, but I hope that the competition between Henderson and de Gea keeps both players on their toes and that makes both of them better.

Plans to blood in current Academy players?

It was good to see Teden Mengi turn out for United once again, but I was even more excited to see Anthony Elanga come off the bench. I have been pretty excited about the current crop of Academy players at United. While I’d like to have seen Dylan Levitt play in some cup games, I am thrilled to see his development with Charlton Athletic after securing a season-long loan move to the League One side.

There is one player that I have been waiting eagerly to see make his debut for the first-team: Hannibal Mejbri. The French wonderkid moved to United in what is believed to be a €5 million move from AS Monaco in 2019, and I have been patiently waiting for him to make his debut. The opportunities handed to Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have assured me that Ole has faith in the United Academy. The recent purchases of several talented youth players have also indicated that Ole and the United hierarchy are serious about developing from within. The League Cup and FA Cup Matches could be good avenues for Ole to blood in young players. The Europa League proved to be an excellent platform for academy graduates to gain valuable first-team minutes. However, with the Red Devils now returning to the Champions League, can Ole afford to hand out as many first-team debuts and start academy players as frequently? I really doubt he will. We might see some cameos from promising players, but that is the extent of it truly.

The game against Palace this weekend will not completely answer some of the questions I have posted here. It may, however, provide us with some sense of the direction the club is heading towards for the 2020/21 season. Only time will tell if Henderson should start over de Gea or if we will see Mejbri feature in the first-team. One thing for sure though, the pressure will be on Ole and the Red Devils to perform better this season.

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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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Taking Youth Football to Another level – A chat with Habil Hakim

For Singapore footballing standards in Singapore to grow, we need to ensure that there are enough opportunities for youth players to develop. This is why football academies are essential. Given the limited number of professional Singapore Premier League clubs, and by extension, the limited number of Centre of Excellences (COEs), football academies play an instrumental role in developing our youth. These academies become institutions of formal learning for both sets of players, those who want to pursue a professional career or recreational players who want to get better.

In 2011, the F-17 football academy was launched to provide training programs tailored for male and female players across the various age groups. As one would expect from a school established by the Son of Singapore Football, the current coaching line-up is filled with a wealth of experienced personnel. Within their ranks, they have former S.league veterans, Syed Azmir, Fadhil Salim, Sevki Sha’ban and Abdul Rahman Hassan. Among them is a rising star in his own right, Habil Hakim bin Roslan. Habil is the current acting technical director with F-17. However, don’t get it wrong. Habil wasn’t handed the role on a silver platter – his story is one that exemplifies sheer hard work and determination.

I managed to speak to Habil a couple of months back (yes, I know, this is long overdue) and understanding the local football academy scene was a real eye-opener for me. 

Beginnings in Football

Habil Hakim played as a goalkeeper growing up. As a young boy, he played for Tampines Rovers Under-10s and rose through their youth levels till the under-17 level. At Tampines, Habil was coached by the late David Sivalingam, who had a massive influence on Habil. He was someone that Habil regularly saw during trainings and matches, and his guidance benefited Habil a lot.

Sivalingam was an excellent coach and it is hardly surprising that Habil looked up to him. The late coach did well with the NFA U-18 team that Harris Harun featured in and guided them to winning the Prime League in 2008. What’s remarkable is that the team were unbeaten that title-winning season. Sivalingam was managing the Youth Olympics Games team before suddenly and unfortunately passed away. Sivalingam may no longer be around, but he still influences Habil in many ways.

Besides growing up playing as a goalkeeper, Habil also grew up playing the game that most football fanatics love, Football Manager. Playing the game hours on end, he fell in love with the idea of management as an alternate pathway for his footballing career. Habil was an N-Level student who completed his NITEC and was doing his Higher NITEC in mechanical engineering when he decided to drop out. As soon as he turned 18, he embarked on this new journey of football coaching and management.

“I went to take my preliminary coaching license when I was 18 and everyone there (at the course) was telling me how young I was. I mean, I did it all for the game. (At the beginning), I got attached as an assistant coach with CDC programmes at ITE Balestier and I slowly gained confidence. Then, after that, I went to National Service.

“During my National Service, I was a high elements instructor and I was already dealing with NPCC kids. So even back then, I had some certifications working with youth and safety.”

After National Service, the job hunt began for Habil who was searching widely for a full-time coaching job. Soon, he found one at a place which he still treasures up to this day. It was here that he learned a lot of valuable skills and honed his coaching ability.

Image provided by Habil Hakim

Venturing into Academy Management

For the next 5 years, a Japanese Academy here in Singapore became home for Habil. This is where his journey into academy management and coaching truly started. However, the start was far from a bed of roses. Habil’s salary back then was a mere $1,000 before CPF and while most Singaporeans would be put off by such low pay, Habil seized the opportunity.

“The promise was you learn a lot for that (pay). I told myself, you know what, I’m just going to grab it. I’m fresh in this line of work and I really needed to learn a lot of things. When I spoke with my boss then, he told me that he would teach me things that other people would not and also about the academy business.”

The learning curve was steep. Habil was given a lot of tough love and he was always expected to give his best. After all, he was the only Singaporean then and was surrounded by other expat coaches from Japan as well as former Hougang United player, Robert Chinedu Eziakor (who’s currently a coach with the Cheetahs).  No local coaches have ever lasted that long with the academy, but it was through Habil’s perseverance that he not only managed to survive but also become a significantly better coach.

“It was tough. I remember my first meeting. As a rookie, I did not know what to expect or do. So, I went there without any materials or without dressing properly and my mentor would look at me and tell me to go back (home). He’d tell me to think (about why I was sent home). So the next meeting, I would come with some materials, like pens and some paper for note-taking, but I would not be well dressed. So my mentor would tell me it’s not good enough and told me to go back (home) again. Then, when I was finally prepared and dressed appropriately, he let me into the meeting.

“It was like a progression and this is the same for a lot of things with the academy. We have training plans that need to be vetted and if it weren’t up to the mark, my boss would either use a pen and cross out the entire training plan or crumple the paper and throw it away.”

When Habil’s training plans got routinely rejected by his mentor, he came up with three plans instead of one. In the event where his mentor rejected the first one, I had two more at the ready for vetting. That impressed his mentor a lot and Habil learned that his mentor was trying to instil a sense of professionalism in him. His boss was no bully. He just expected a lot and set high standards so that his coaches improve.

One other big takeaway for Habil was learning the fundamentals about the business side of running academies. His mentor taught Habil everything he needed to know on how to run youth tournaments. His mentor then challenged him to find sponsors for an upcoming tournament as a means for Habil to learn, something that he learned a lot from.

F-17

After 5 years, Habil moved on to greener pastures for a new challenge. F-17 came to him with a proposal and an offer. To Habil, it was the best feeling in the world because it was a testament to how far it had grown. Instead of applying for a job, his ability and efforts had merited him an offer that was too good to turn down.

Habil was blown away by the structure of the organization and the facilities at their disposal. However, he only accepted their offer on the condition that he was able to do things his way (or instead, the Japanese way he learned at his previous academy) because he felt that the kids at F-17 could be pushed more.

According to Habil, the training plan is the most crucial element for coaching to be successful. Previously, he has encountered many coaches who do not have any training plan and go into training with whatever is in their head. When he explained it to me, it made sense why a training plan is so important for the development of youth footballers.

“If you have a training plan, you start asking yourself questions like, ‘why is this training needed?’ It allows you to (determine) how much time you would want to spend on a certain drill and what coaching points you would want to give.”

From a coach’s point of view, this is something that had been lacking in the local scene. At F-17, coaches are expected to maintain a professional image, prepare training plans, teach values, and have open communications within the coaching team.

In 2017, Habil was promoted as the General Manager of F-17. In this role, he oversees the recruitment of coaches and acts as an intermediary between the directors and coaching team. Habil has always looked up to Johor Darul Ta’zim owner, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, as a role model in how he manages. The Crown Prince of Johor has revolutionized the Johor club and have made them into a real Asian powerhouse. Similarly, Habil wants F-17 to be a platform to revolutionize football in Singapore and improve the overall footballing standards.

Credits: Funroots International

Since becoming GM, F-17 has secured multiple partnerships with academies overseas. In 2018, F-17 managed to secure a partnership with David Villa’s DV7 Academy in Japan. F-17 players are sent over to Japan for training stints to improve their game but also coaches learn a lot from the different training methods ran by DV7. Besides the Japan link, links had been formed in academies in Spain and Thailand. Currently, F17 has also partnered up with Wolverhampton Wanderers where the coaches in Singapore learn from their counterparts in England through webinars.

Credits: Funroots International

Giving a Voice to Youth Football

One thing that impressed me was how Habil runs a video podcast series called Youth Football Talk, which runs on IGTV. In this series, he gives youth footballers a chance to tell their stories and share their experiences. As someone who tries to tell footballing stories myself, I do appreciate Habil’s commitment in this initiative. These are just a few of his episodes.

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Future Aspirations?

I had to ask Habil this question though: What about progressing his career into managing and coaching first-team squads? He responded with the following analogy.

“There are doctors who can treat everything, and there are specialists as well. Like the specialist doctors, I want to be a youth specialist. I want to stay in this youth category. Some have been asking me why I don’t manage the Under-23s or the adults, and I mean I could do that for leisure, but it really isn’t my main interest.”

One thing is for sure, though. There are bigger things in store for Habil’s future. Recently, Habil was approached by a football academy in Japan who were interested in signing him. The academy paid for his flight and hotel and flew him to Japan for a 3-day trip to discuss a potential move. However, Covid-19 might have put a hold on Habil’s aspirations, but his future is a bright one.

I think Habil Hakim’s story shows that hard work and resilience pays off. Yes, opportunities are important but Hakim, in all honesty, is a self-made man. He started with literally nothing, and he really made the best of the opportunities that he received. This interview also gave me hope for the future of Singaporean football. Some may ridicule Project 2034, Edwin Tong’s ambitious plan for Singapore to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals, but if there were more coaches like Habil Hakim out there, it is not an impossible target. We need to work on the current generation of youth footballers to improve our footballing future.

I also am a big fan of Singaporean players and coaches venturing overseas to further their game. Players and coaches can’t expect to get better if they stay in Singapore. Moving overseas to hone their craft is necessary for development. On that note, I do sincerely hope that Habil does go to Japan and takes his coaching game to another level.

Featured Image by Habil Hakim.

P.S Shout out to our reader Mhod Mahsum for helping us reach out!

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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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