Tag Archives: Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is extortion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He reminds me quite a bit of Vincent Kompany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Brand New Midfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donny van de Beek is a very good player.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry, Vikram. He will be fine.

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Getting Real with Manchester United: Overly relying on Bruno and Pogba and Defensive Shambles

When it comes to United, I prefer to think of myself as an idealist or an optimist. To most, it would appear that my loyalty blinds me and that I’m in denial of the pressing issues faced by the Red Devils. Perhaps so, maybe I am blinded, but I do think varying perspectives are needed to understand the United situation better. With that said, I do agree that we need to reanalyze the club’s position given our recent loss to Chelsea. It highlighted that we have several issues that need addressing, which were somewhat masked by the 12-match unbeaten run. The gloomy “we’re not good enough” narrative that many fans spew makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t offer much in terms of what the club should do and can do moving forward. So, I have decided to address these issues and look at what we can do moving forward. You probably won’t agree with everything I say, and heck you might disagree with me completely. I urge you though, to share your voice by submitting an article which we will post on the Fans Forum section!

What are our issues?

We have many problems that people have voiced out. Let me list them out for you.

  • Our over-reliance on Bruno and Pogba as a source of creativity.
  • No reliable defensive partnership despite having an abundance of centre-backs
  • A lack of attacking depth outside the first team
  • Inconsistency in goal and the Henderson-De Gea Dilemma
  • No clear youth progression plan
  • A skewed transfer policy

This will be a two part post looking at the issues that the club faces and in the first part, I will look over the first two points.

Over-reliance on Bruno (and Pogba)

It has become brazenly evident that United lack any sort of creativity without Fernandes and Pogba in the team. The FA Cup semifinal encounter with Chelsea showed this. Lampard clearly instructed Kovacic and Jorginho to frustrate and man-mark Bruno Fernandes, which the duo did with immense success. The Portuguese’s presence throughout the tie was significantly nullified, and this proved to be problematic because it prevented Pogba from playing in his free-roaming position. Lampard exposed United’s greatest issue, a system where there is an over-reliance on Bruno to make plays. There is literally no back-up plan when it comes to creativity.

Most observers would blame the lack of depth in the squad, and yes, that is true. However, instead of blaming it entirely on the quality of the current players, we also need to acknowledge that United do not have a plan B. If it’s one thing that Sir Alex did notably well, it was his ability to constantly try and adapt to the changes in the game. When his game plan wasn’t working, he always had a plan B or C up his sleeves, and that is how we, quite honestly, won several games. Under Ole, United appear to lack flexibility in dealing with situations. If the opposition manage to thwart elements of Oles strategy, United are usually in shambles and are painful to watch.

Granted, you need quality players who can adapt just as well to make alternative plans during the fixture to work. However, that should not be an excuse for a failure to adapt. Ole can’t play his 4-2-3-1 system without Pogba. Fred is not the same player as Pogba and never will be. Fred, however, has shown that he is a good player and has done well during Pogba’s absence this season. Ole and his coaching team need to find a system that best suits the rest of his players so they can switch it up when things do not go according to plan. I daresay this: yes, we do not have enough quality outside the starting 11 to play Ole’s system.

United have clearly benefitted from Fernandes’s presence in the team. However, I fear that the squad has become too comfortable with relying on Bruno to the point they have adopted an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. I mean he has been playing almost every minute since his arrival in January. The club has not looked at alternatives using other players or groups of players as pivots for the attack. The problem is, Chelsea have shown how easy it can be to throw a spanner in United’s supposedly successful strategy. Other teams will definitely take note, and while not every club will shut down Fernandes with the same degree of success, it makes United’s job (or rather, Bruno’s) that much harder.

Sorting out that Defense

I remember the days when United had a centre-back crisis. Remember when Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick played at the heart of defence one point in time? That’s how bad the situation was. Yet, we prevailed.

Now, even though we have a ton of centre-backs, most pale in comparison to our previous centre-backs. We brought in Harry Maguire for a whopping £85 million, but the real reason why he cost us so much was that he is English. While he has been solid at times, he has not really demonstrated why he’s the most expensive defender ever. Time to adapt is, of course, necessary, and we must be mindful that Manchester United fans can be unnecessarily ruthless towards players who fail to perform well (just look at our treatment of Pogba). Maguire has been in a poor spell of form lately, but he has also produced moments of defensive brilliance. Perhaps observing his performances next season would be a better indicator of whether he is up to the mark for United.

Then there’s the rest of the lot. Honestly, United seriously need to overhaul their entire defence and keep Axel Tuanzebe, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Brandon Williams and possibly Luke Shaw, as a backup utility defender, from the current crop. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo need to be shipped out ASAP. They are past their prime and it is best to free up some space in the wage budget. As much as I’d like to see Victor Lindelöf develop into a world-class player at United, I have been far from convinced by his performances. Sure, he’s had good spells, but he has made several blunders as well. A loan move would potentially do him good and perhaps that would be the best course of action or a transfer away with a buy-back clause inserted would also make a lot of sense.

Diogo Dalot desperately needs a move away from United for his own footballing development. Even though he has struggled with injuries this campaign, it is clear that Wan-Bissaka has cemented himself at right-back, and it will be hard to dislodge him from that position. Currently 21 years old, the Portuguese fullback is at an age where he needs regular first-team football to fulfill his potential. He is not going to get that while Wan-Bissaka is there. Who then acts as cover at right-back? Well, Ole looks to be giving Timothy Fosu-Mensah a chance next season to shine. The Dutch utility player can easily play anywhere along the backline and also play as a central and defensive midfielder. Everton are reportedly interested in a loan move for Dalot, and that would be a good move for the player – he would get more game time in the EPL and could potentially blossom, as Dean Henderson has while on loan at Sheffield United.

Arguably, our best defender this season has been Chris Smalling, who is not even at the club at the moment. The Englishman is on loan at AS Roma and has been absolutely phenomenal in the Serie A. Ideally if Smalling wishes to return to Old Trafford, he helps reinforce a lacklustre defensive department, and that would save the club some funds. As things stand, the Red Devils appear relentless in their pursuit of Jadon Sancho, and even if they do sell their “dead wood” players, they would still need to fork out a ton of cash for a world-class left-back and centre-back. I would love to see Smalling back in the United squad, but I think the club should respect his wishes if he were to want a permanent move to Rome. If he chooses to extend his time in Italy, it is then up to the recruitment team to find someone else – which brings me to my next article where I discuss issues with recruitment.

You might be wondering, “wait, have I forgotten Eric Bailly?” Let me end this article with an honest reflection of the player. I have always rated Bailly highly, and I think he offers something different with his athleticism. I have always believed that an Eric Bailly-Harry Maguire partnership can become formidable. It is just really unfortunate that Bailly always appears to get injured. I was absolutely gutted to see Bailly stretchered off during the recent semi-final tie with Chelsea. Thankfully, he has returned to training and it appears that his injury was not as serious as it was thought to be. It did highlight the main issue with Bailly: he has terrible luck with injuries and is highly injury prone.

To conclude, United have their work cut out for them once the current campaign ends. If they have not already worked on potential transfers, then they need to as soon as they can because they are already lagging behind. Even Chelsea have bolstered their ranks with amazing signings in the form of Havertz, Werner and Ziyech (although, their defensive problem is still unaddressed as well). The management need to use the post-season break to look for alternative tactics that the squad can apply well in games if their opponents throw a spanner in their original tactical approach. In part 2, I shall focus on the other issues that I highlighted and as always, if you disagree with the points I make, either leave a comment or submit an article of your own! We would greatly appreciate it 🙂

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At Last! Leeds Are Back!

Leeds United have been promoted to the Premier League…

Feature Image by Mark Murphy from Pixabay

With Huddersfield’s 2-1 win over West Brom on Friday, Leeds United have secured promotion to the Premier League.

I am going to emphasize this again, because I am not sure you all are realizing how big of a deal this is.

After a 16-year absence, Leeds are back in the Premier League.

I promise, this is a massive deal, and to understand why, you have to know how Leeds got to this position.

Leeds United are one of the institutions of English football. While they are not among the most successful teams in the country, with only three first division titles to their name, they were usually a fixture of the top flight. They were, and still remain, one of the most popular teams in the country, with a loyal and fervently passionate fanbase that follows them home and away. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leeds were a force in the Premier League. They regularly finished in the top four or five places, being among the best teams but not quite ready to mount a title challenge. Throughout that time, they were assembling an effective team that blended promising young talent, including Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, and Robbie Keane, with experienced leadership, most notably talismanic Australian striker Mark Viduka and Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler. Despite an injury-ravaged 2000/01 season, they made it to the semifinals of the Champions League, losing out to eventual runners up Valencia. That seemed to be the moment when the gauntlet was thrown down. Leeds were putting it all together and would soon be able to challenge Manchester United and Arsenal’s dominance at the top of the table.

This would not happen, as the club soon ran into financial trouble. Club ownership had taken out several loans, banking on repaying them with the TV money the club would earn from Champions League qualification, but when the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for two consecutive years, they began to face a growing mountain of debt. The club began selling off players in order to begin paying off the debt, most notably selling then-club captain Rio Ferdinand to rivals Manchester United in 2002. They also sold club assets, including their stadium, Elland Road. Leeds rapidly descended down the table, and despite the best efforts of managers Terry Venables and Peter Reid, as well as the players, Leeds were relegated to the Championship at the end of the 2003/04 season. Life in the lower leagues would consist of play-off failures, mid-table nightmare seasons, and even more financial turmoil, with the club going into administration in 2007 and being relegated to League One, where they would remain for three whole seasons. Leeds United, Champions League semifinalists in 2001, were playing League One football in 2008. They eventually came back up, but life was anything but regular. Several ownership changes took place, ending with Italian entrepreneur Massimo Cellino purchasing the club. To spare you from the nitty-gritty details of Cellino’s reign, I will just summarize that he ran the club in a disastrous way, hired and fired way too many managers, was despised by the fans, and eventually sold the club to current owner Andrea Radrizzani due to pressure from within the club and from the EFL. Radrizzani brought some stability into the club and helped deal with the financial issues, including buying back Elland Road. After a largely below average first season, Radrizzani made the bold move of bringing in world-renowned manager Marcelo Bielsa, and Leeds’ fortunes instantly changed.

Bielsa, with very limited financial backing, transformed a mid-table Leeds team into promotion contenders immediately. It was truly a masterful coaching effort, improving nearly every player in the team and turning them into a real force, playing an aggressive but attractive style of football. In his first season, Bielsa’s team stayed in the top two for most of the season but declined near then end, eventually losing in the playoff semifinal to Derby County. This past season, he guided Leeds to a Championship title and their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Their 16-year wait is finally over.

Bielsa elevated Leeds to this level by coaching and molding his team into the perfect unit. Several Leeds players have grown drastically since the Argentine’s arrival, and no player represents this growth better than their dynamic, dreadlocked midfielder Kalvin Phillips. If you asked any Leeds fan two or three years ago about Phillips, they would have likely dismissed him as another midfielder that works hard but does not really bring anything to the table technically. Phillips, a Yorkshire-born boyhood Leeds fan, has been transformed by Bielsa into arguably the best midfielder in the Championship. His strong range of passing and composure on the ball has earned him the nickname “Yorkshire Pirlo” among Leeds fans, and he is able to combine those qualities with a more aggressive side, being tough in the tackle and fighting for seemingly every yard. He is the lynch-pin in Bielsa’s midfield, around which everything else operates. He attracted significant transfer interest last summer, but his loyalty to his beloved club drove him to stick around and bring them up, and he will likely stay once again to take part in Leeds’ first Premier League season since he was about eight years old. He has gone from being mostly an afterthought to a player at least within the frame of an England call-up, and depending on how his maiden Premier League season goes, he could find himself in the picture for the Euros next summer.

You could show similar growth in many other players. Patrick Bamford went from a rotation piece with other clubs to leading the line for Leeds, being a player specifically desired by Bielsa in his first transfer window as manager. Jack Harrison has gone from inconsistent Manchester City loanee to one of the unsung heroes of the team, bringing in a very respectable six goals and eight assists this season. He somehow dunked Pablo Hernández into the fountain of youth, as the 35-year-old Spaniard still impresses on a near-weekly basis, bringing in 12 goals and 12 assists last season and nine goals and seven assists this season. The work that Bielsa has done with this team is nothing short of extraordinary, and it will be interesting to see who all he can bring in with a Premier League budget to improve this team.

Which brings us to our final topic: what happens now? How are they going to do in the Premier League next season? Who do they need to bring in to improve the team?

Playing in the Premier League is a double-edged sword for this Leeds team. On one hand, they should be able to adapt to the schedule fairly well. Bielsa plays a very demanding style, and his “Bielsa Press” often requires his players to expend a lot of energy in matches. Leeds usually tailing off in form in the second half of the season was largely attributed to that, but now that they are playing the 38-game Premier League schedule instead of the 46-game Championship schedule, that burden may be removed. The overall issue, however, is that the step up in quality from the Championship to the Premier League is quite significant and, right now, this Leeds team is not good enough. They will likely get many comparisons to Wolves and Sheffield United, and discussion from many journalists will center around Leeds’ ability to replicate the success of those two teams, but right now, they are not good enough. It will be interesting to see what Bielsa can do with Premier League money in the transfer market, but it is clear that they need at least a center back, striker, fullback, and creative outlet to be brought in during the summer window.

Outside of Phillips, Leeds’ star man this season was young English center back Ben White. When talismanic center back Pontus Jansson left for Brentford, it was unclear how much the Leeds defense would be impacted. White came in before this season, and he seemed to solve every defensive issue. His athleticism made him a good partner to club captain Liam Cooper at the back, but his defensive IQ really shined despite his young age. His ability on the ball, specifically his effective passing range, allowed him to kick-start several Leeds attacks from the back. White was a star in the Championship, but his return to Leeds is not guaranteed. The Yorkshire club signed him on loan from Premier League side Brighton, so they must enter into another negotiation to sign him on a permanent deal. This will likely be much more difficult than the initial loan negotiation, as Brighton likely view him as having a role in their first team this season. He has also likely attracted interest from other Premier League clubs who may be able to make more attractive offers than Leeds can. It is incredibly important for Leeds to bring at least one center back into the club, whether that be Ben White or someone else. It appears that White enjoyed his time in Leeds and would be very open to a permanent return, but nothing is guaranteed, and it should be the top priority move for Bielsa and the Leeds hierarchy as soon as the season concludes.

Striker is also a priority position for transfer business. Bielsa largely relied on Patrick Bamford over the last two seasons, as he came the closest to the “target man number nine” model of striker that seems to be ever-present in successful Bielsa teams. Bamford is quite a far cry, however, from the Fernando Llorente/André-Pierre Gignac-level of striker that made up Bielsa’s successful Bilbao and Marseille teams. Bamford scored nine goals in the league last season and 16 this season, and while that step up is big, it is still not quite good enough. Bamford has also shown over several seasons with Premier League sides that he is not good enough to be a team’s starting striker in the English top flight. Bielsa still relied upon, perhaps over-relied upon, Bamford as his striker, largely ignoring loanee strikers Eddie Nketiah and Jean-Kévin Augustin, because of the traits that Bamford brings. It is clear, however, they need to find another striker that brings those qualities and is able to be a consistent goalscorer at a high level. They will likely be forced to sign Augustin on a permanent deal, as a clause in his loan agreement forces Leeds to sign him if they got promotion, but he is not the solution, either. Bielsa will likely need to spend money on another striker. With some rumors linking them with Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard, it seems like the club hierarchy recognizes the need. It is very difficult for a team to stay in the Premier League without a consistent goal-scoring striker, and Leeds will not survive without one.

Leeds could also use a boost in creativity, namely a replacement for Pablo Hernández. Hernández is still a very good player, but age and time will have to catch up to him eventually. He is 35 years old and is about to enter a league that is still quite physically demanding, arguably much more so than the Championship. Jack Harrison, also a loanee, and Mateusz Klich have done a solid enough job being creative outlets in the team, but it would be very helpful for their Premier League survival to sign a player in a similar mold to Hernández. Harrison looks likely to return to Elland Road on a permanent deal, but I would consider another signing in that role. A fullback might also be in consideration, as Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling are players that can be upgraded upon, despite their admirable performances in the last two seasons. It is also possible that they move for a goalkeeper. Kiko Casilla has been largely inconsistent and error-prone since his arrival at Elland Road, and after being found guilty of racially abusing Charlton forward Jonathan Leko this season, he should likely see his time at Leeds come to an end after this season. Youngster Illan Meslier has done a good job in Casilla’s place, but he is also on loan, having joined Leeds from Lorient this season. Leeds have been working on a permanent deal for the Frenchman, and I believe a deal will get done, but Lorient’s promotion to Ligue 1 might lead to the youngster returning to his parent club. Should a permanent deal for Meslier not be reached, Leeds should sign a new number one goalkeeper, as Casilla is not good enough quality-wise and, after the Leko situation, should not be allowed to play for Leeds ever again.

Leeds need reinforcement in the transfer window, but need to strike a balance that is very difficult for promoted teams to find. Bielsa and club director of football Victor Orta need to identify the positions they need to upgrade in, but they also need to not make too many signings and risk the team becoming unbalanced or being unable to gel. Fulham’s cash splash in the transfer window after being promoted in 2018 probably caused more harm than good, bringing in plenty of players who were not able to fully gel into the team, leading to their relegation. Leeds cannot fall into the same trap. It is a very difficult balance to find, having to avoid overspending and underspending, but it is important to ensure survival. I believe this should not be a massive issue, as Bielsa has a very clear idea of the type of player he is looking for and the Leeds hierarchy have shown their ability to accomplish much by spending little, but it is something to keep in mind.

The discussion around Leeds will be around whether they can match the level of Wolves and Sheffield United and if their goal should be finishing in the top half, but right now, Leeds should be doing everything they can just to secure survival. Staying in the Premier League should be the number one priority, and if they get into the top half of the table, that is just an added bonus. With the financial troubles that Leeds have gone through the last decade, maintaining this flow of Premier League TV money would be a massive deal in correcting much of the mismanagement that has plagued the Yorkshire side since their relegation.

But I’m excited to see what happens. One of England’s biggest clubs is back where they belong, and I welcome everything that Leeds will bring to the Premier League next season. Should we be in a situation where fans are allowed in the stadiums again, I am very excited to see the atmosphere at Elland Road, and I am very excited to see the return of their rivalry with Manchester United. I am excited to see Bielsa in the Premier League, hear his wild press conferences, and see him sitting on that blue bucket on the touch line. I do not know what is going to happen, but I know it is going to be eventful.

Welcome back, Leeds United. You were missed.

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What on Earth is Wrong With Everton?

Years of mismanagement and irresponsibility have made Ancelotti’s job that much harder

Everton’s humiliating 3-0 loss to Wolves last weekend was one that many Everton fans are familiar with. That same feeling of “one step forward, two steps back” has encapsulated the Evertonian experience over the last several seasons. The loss also demonstrated that, despite all of the great work Carlo Ancelotti has done since taking over at Goodison Park, there is still a long journey ahead of the Italian in his hopes to revive the fallen blue giant on Merseyside. Ancelotti has walked into a situation where he inherits a flawed team, somewhat restricted finances, and not much room for flexibility or error. Despite some strong performances when he arrived, it is now clear that he merely got the team performing above their level, something which is hard to duplicate repeatedly for a long stretch. Everton were flirting with a relegation fight earlier in the season, and while the squad was seemingly too good to go down, they are also not good enough to contend for a European place, as it looked like they could have done at the end of this season. There are significant problems that Ancelotti must solve, and the unfortunate thing for Evertonians is that these problems are deep-rooted, substantial, and date back several years, all pointing to one simple conclusion:

in a sporting sense, Everton are not a well-ran football club.

The fact that Everton are not in any better position years after Farhad Moshiri’s takeover and after hundreds of millions of pounds spent in the transfer window is a massive failure and a reflection on the poor leadership and disorder within the club. Let us look at their opponents last week as a comparison point. Wolves and Everton both received financial takeovers in 2016, Everton by Moshiri and Wolves by Chinese investment group Fosun International. At the end of the 2015-16 season, Everton finished 11th in the Premier League, while Wolves finished 14th in the Championship. In the four years that followed, Everton finished seventh, eighth, and eighth in the Premier League, and they look on course to finish comfortably mid-table this season. Wolves won promotion to the Premier League two years after their takeover, being remembered as arguably one of the best sides the Championship had ever seen. In their two years in the Premier League, they finished above Everton twice, finishing seventh in 2018-19 and looking like they will finish in the top six this season. Both clubs received their financial backing at the same time, but Wolves have grown exponentially more than Everton, and this reflects the operating of each club. Wolves had a clear vision for their club progression, tabbed Nuno Espírito Santo from the beginning as the man to create that image, and progressed from the Championship to the Premier League using a smart financial strategy on club operation and transfers. Everton have not done any of those things, for several reasons, and they are well behind in their rebuilding process because of it.

Financially, Everton seem to be in the best position they have been in for decades. Moshiri coming into the club hierarchy in 2016 injected new financial life into a struggling football club, helping them clear debt, invest in club infrastructure, and finally establish a solid plan for life after Goodison Park, with a stadium at the Bramley-Moore Docks currently under construction. Everton also got a refresh in the transfer market, having one of the highest transfer net spends in the league over the last five years, but that does not mean they are moving in the right direction on the pitch. It is somewhat of a misconception to think that you need to spend barrels of money on transfers to break into the top four. While financial backing in the transfer market, especially in the post-“Neymar to PSG” market, is important in securing talent, spending money alone is not a guarantee of impending success. A team must spend money in a smart way, making signings that improve the team and build into an overall idea of how the team should look and play. A player coming with a high transfer fee does not guarantee they will be good, and if a team invests less in transfers than their rivals but make more intelligent signings, then they will still likely be better than their rivals. Leicester City, Wolves, and Tottenham are examples of teams that do not spend at the level Everton and do not have a wage bill at the level of Everton, but have turned smart investments into success and Top Four/Top Six finishes. The best example of this, however, is that team on the other side of Stanley Park. Liverpool have indulged in the transfer market, especially in recent seasons, but their relatively low net spend shows how well the club invested their money. Liverpool sold Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling, and Philippe Coutinho, arguably four of the best players in the world at the time of their departure, and seemed to upgrade their team every time.

Everton, meanwhile, have massively struggled in this capacity. Romelu Lukaku leaving in 2017 left a massive hole in the Everton attack, and they have yet to fully replace the goals that left the side when the Belgian departed for Man United. They have spent a significant amount of money on transfers, but they have spent mostly on signings that have not consistently worked out in a blue shirt. Richarlison, Lucas Digne, and Idrissa Gueye are the ones that clearly worked, and while the jury is still out on some, there are others that clearly did not work. Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Michael Keane showed flashes of good performance, but have since stagnated or gotten stuck in a rut of bad form. Davy Klaassen, Alex Iwobi, Sandro Ramírez, Theo Walcott, and Cenk Tosun have all fallen or are starting to fall by the wayside, being unable to reach the level that Everton need them to. The list of poor signings is much more extensive than this, and this shows that there needs to be a significant change in how Everton scout and identify transfers. While you could defend some of the moves as having made sense at the time, some of the other ones seem to not have made much sense, with Alex Iwobi’s £35 million move from Arsenal being chief among them. They have spent significantly more on transfers and wages than teams above them in the league table. Their inability to use this money in an intelligent way, bringing in signings that improve the side and build toward an overall idea and picture of what the team should look like, has left them in this mid-table quagmire.

A substantial part of why their transfer spending has been ineffective has been their manager turnover over the last several years, which has impeded the creation of an ideal team. Everyone likes to talk about the succession of managers that have taken over at Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes took over from Ferguson going into the 2013-14 season, signing a six-year contract and being tabbed as Ferguson’s hand-picked successor. Within that six year contract window, United would hire four more managers: Ryan Giggs (interim), Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Five managers in around six to seven years. What is not talked about, however, is the significantly worse spell of instability on the other side of the Moyes departure. Since David Moyes left Goodison Park, Everton have made eight managerial changes: Roberto Martínez, David Unsworth and Joe Royle (interim co-managers), Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth again (interim), Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Duncan Ferguson (interim), and Carlo Ancelotti. In that time span, Everton finished no higher than seventh, reached one FA Cup semifinal, and found themselves in or near the relegation zone on multiple occasions. Martínez, Koeman, Allardyce, and Silva, the four main non-interim managers that preceded Ancelotti, each lasted no more than two to three seasons, with things turning quite sour at the end of each of their tenures. All four of them also had at least one transfer window to start building their team. Their short tenures in charge, however, halted their project and restarted the team with a new manager with new ideas. This has left Everton with a group of different players able to fill different roles and ideally fitting into different systems. A player identified by Marco Silva as fitting into his ideal 4-3-3 system may not be able to fit into Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, and so on and so forth for different players and different managers. This has left Everton with an aging, unbalanced squad that lacks in quality, does not necessarily fit the system of their current manager, and contains players on high wages that are very difficult to offload.

The managers have also had differing relationships with club hierarchy, namely within the director of football structure that Everton have tried to establish. In 2016, Everton appointed former Leicester City chief scout Steve Walsh as their director of football. Being the one responsible for bringing Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kanté, and Riyad Mahrez to Leicester, Walsh was seen as someone who could bring similar hidden gem talents to Everton. His time on Merseyside, however, was reportedly plagued by a poor relationship between himself, manager Ronald Koeman, and the higher-ups at the club. It does not change the bedrock conclusion that Walsh was not cut out for a director of football role, but the speculation around certain signings being the doing of certain people in that relationship did not help the idea that Everton were a well-functioning club. The move for Wayne Rooney, for example, largely came from the influence of then-chairman Bill Kenwright, rather than being something heavily pushed for by Walsh or Koeman. Walsh claimed after the fact that he had moves lined up for Erling Håland, Andrew Robertson, and Harry Maguire, but the moves were shut down by club hierarchy. While I question the validity of these claims, as they did seem like Walsh trying to manipulate the narrative to get his next job, it does highlight the flawed relationship within the Everton hierarchy at the time. Marcel Brands arrived from PSV to replace Walsh, and while he did make some solid signings, the relationship between him and Marco Silva was not entirely perfect. Sure, it was not as turbulent as the Walsh-Koeman issues, but there was some pickiness on Silva’s side that seemed to impact deals. Silva’s desire to bring in a “Premier League proven” center back, for example, left them stuck trying to build a deal for Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma instead of looking at other targets when it was clear that a Zouma deal was not going to happen. The Iwobi deal is also a head-scratcher, though I am honestly not sure if that was influenced by Silva. This high-manager turnover and troubled sporting director relationship has massively screwed with Everton’s transfer strategy, leaving them with several players who do not fit the current system, are seemingly fairly apathetic about remaining at Everton, and are very difficult to offload due to poor performances and high wages. This has been very apparent in Everton’s last few matches, as it is clear some players recognize that their time on Merseyside is numbered and are resigned to their fate.

So where does this leave Ancelotti and his rebuild? Well, there is a lot of work to do. The foundation needs to be ripped up from this team. Several players who make up the spine of this team need to be shipped on, and the Ancelotti-Brands pairing need to completely rethink Everton’s ideas on player recruitment and the ideal transfer targets for the club. There has been much written about the overhaul of Liverpool’s player scouting department and how it impacted their rise to dominance, and similar root-and-branch changes may have to take place here. Even though it could be argued that Financial Fair Play is now dead due to the Manchester City-CAS ruling, they still might see themselves as hampered financially in the transfer market due to COVID or FFP reasons. This is an ideal time for them to try and find better deals in the market, moving away from the Sigurdsson/Iwobi/Richarlison levels of financial investment into transfers. The recent rumored move for Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is more along the right track of the type of deals they should be looking for, moving for players who offer consistent statistical output in their positions and have considerable room for improvement while not sinking tremendous amounts of money into it. The 24-year-old Højbjerg is a player that has been a consistently strong defensive midfielder for Southampton, has put up impressive statistical performances in several defensive stats and in several passing stats, has considerable experience as a first team player, but also still has room to grow due to his young age and would only set the Toffees back, reportedly, around £25 million at most.

The players Everton should go for really depends on how Ancelotti wants to set up his team, formation-wise. Signing midfielders is probably a safe bet, given how weak Everton have been in that area of the pitch this season, but the type of player depends on the formation Ancelotti envisions. A 4-4-2 demands different things from your central midfielders than a 4-3-3 does. A move for a box-to-box midfielder, such as Napoli’s Allan for example, could work in both systems, but trying to utilize a “number 10” role, akin to where Alex Iwobi wants to play, does not work in a 4-4-2. The same idea works for signing wingers. An attack-minded winger like Wilfried Zaha or Cengiz Ünder might work better in a 4-3-3, where they have less responsibility to defend, than in a 4-4-2. A winger with attacking output as well as a high work rate and ability to track back when needed, such as Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía, might work better in a 4-4-2. Ancelotti has consistently started matches in a 4-4-2 at Everton, but his 4-3-3 approach against Spurs was a curveball, justified by the Italian saying he wants a team able to play multiple styles and formations. That is all well and good, but it does not really answer the question of how this Everton team will shape up going into the transfer window, which does not really give us a full picture of where and how Everton can strengthen. Ancelotti is a significantly smarter man than I am, so I have no doubt he has a clear picture of what he wants, but after years of Everton mixing up the signals in player recruitment, they need to go into this window with a clear vision of what this team will look like.

Ok, this article was quite negative, but Evertonians, I will throw us all a bone here and talk about some positives that Ancelotti is working with. There may not be that many, but there is one major area of positivity, and that is the performance of some of the younger players in this team. Richarlison just turned 23 and looks like he is a budding star. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, while he has struggled since the league season restarted, has shown signs of putting it all together this season when Ancelotti arrived, and it is possible that he is able to improve even more over the next 12 months, and he is also only 23. Mason Holgate has been Everton’s breakout star of the season, turning into a rock at the back and demonstrating flexibility in being able to also play as a fullback or midfielder, and he is also only 23. Anthony Gordon and Jarrad Branthwaite have shown considerable amount of positives since making their way into the first team after the season restart, and both of them are still teenagers. There is something there to build on. They have a budding superstar to build around in Richarlison and one part of a center back partnership in Holgate, and while there is still a considerable amount to build around it, that is still a solid start.

So yeah, what’s wrong with Everton? Quite a bit, but it all really centers around how they got Moshiri’s money and messed it all up. Everton is the rich kid who blew all of their money on stupid things instead of investing it to reap long-term rewards. This also completely ignores the mentality issue at the club, which especially rears its ugly head whenever they play away to a “Big Six” team or play at Wembley Stadium, but that is another article for another time. Everton had the resources they needed to succeed, but mismanagement and poor financial spending led to teams around them making the top six jump that the Toffees had always envisioned. Ancelotti has quite a bit of work to do; the rotting and molded foundations laid in the last five years need to be ripped up and rebuilt. This is going to take several years and several transfer windows. It is going to require a considerable amount of patience from all involved: players, club staff, and supporters. It is going to require every part and department of the club to read from the same hymn sheet, working to develop the image of the football club that Ancelotti and Brands envision. Structurally, at all levels, the club must improve, and they must work to find the one thing they have been unable to find over the last half-decade: stability.

Premier League Week in Review

The start of something special for a few teams?

Welcome to the Premier League Week in Review, where we take a look back at everything that has happened in the last week or so in England’s top flight league. We go over our player of the week, name three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned. And man, did we learn quite a bit.

Player of the Week

Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United

What else is there to be said that has not been said already? The Portuguese midfield magician has been a revelation since his arrival in Manchester, becoming United’s most important player and arguably among the best players in his position in the league. In United’s last two games, 3-0 and 5-2 demolitions of Brighton and Bournemouth, respectively, Fernandes was the best player on the pitch, pulling the strings from midfield and acting as the conductor of the terrifying Manchester United attack. His finishing ability and eye for a pass were on full display in both games, amassing three goals and two assists over those two matches. Two incredible performances from one incredible player, his rise to near-world stardom is coinciding with a potential phoenix-like rise of the new Manchester United.

Honorable Mention: Mason Greenwood (Manchester United), Allan Saint-Maximin (Newcastle United), Jarrod Bowen (West Ham United)

Winners of the Week

1.) Manchester United

Yes, the competition was not great, but oh boy did United look good. Yes, there were issues in defense (R.I.P. Harry Maguire’s ankles), but United showed they have enough firepower in attack to be an absolutely terrifying team for the rest of the season and going into next season. The midfield pairing of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba has been nothing short of outstanding, and Ole has seemingly found a working front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood. The movement of the front three and ability of the midfielders to provide for them and score themselves makes United an incredibly fluid, difficult to predict, and hard to stop team when on the attack. They have the ability to counter with pace through all three of the front players, as well as utilize the creative ability of Pogba and Fernandes to pick apart teams sitting back and defending. This team is on the cusp of title contention, and while they definitely are not there yet, this attack is a major part of the larger solution for Solskjær. I would say United are currently the favorites to finish in the newly formed race for third place between them, Leicester, and Chelsea.

2.) Arsenal

In a similar vein to United, you can sense that the pieces are starting to come together for Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. The Spaniard’s shift to a back three has provided some needed defensive solidity and seemingly brought out a consistently solid David Luiz. The back three has also juiced up the Arsenal attack, adding in the element of attacking wing backs to the equation. The wing backs, Kieran Tierney especially, have shone in the last two games, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, and Nicolas Pépé have all put in solid shifts in attack. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos have been solid in midfield, despite some shakiness in the second half against Wolves, and things seem to be progressing on keeping Ceballos in North London for at least one more season. Positive improvement on the pitch sees the Gunners with a solid chance at qualifying for the Europa League next season, which is a massive improvement compared to where they were when the season resumed a few weeks ago. The most important developments have happened off the pitch, though, as the club confirmed new contracts for youngsters Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, and rumors in the tabloids indicate that there is positive momentum leading toward a contract extension for Aubameyang. For a season that seemed to be falling apart at the seams when the league was suspended, Arsenal and Arteta have done well to not only get back on the rails, but begin building toward something great.

3.) West Ham United

I will not lie, I absolutely did not see West Ham’s win over Chelsea coming, and I know I am not alone in this. The Irons have been largely hapless this season under both Manuel Pellegrini and David Moyes, but when they needed it most, they seemed to pull the rabbit out of the hat here. The Chelsea defense was shockingly poor, having difficulty dealing with the creative ability of Jarrod Bowen and pure dynamic unpredictability of Michail Antonio. It was a match seemingly defined by chaos, with Andriy Yarmolenko’s 89th minute winner the epitome of this, coming on a wild counter after Chelsea were pushing for a winner. It is one of those games that makes you miss having fans in the stands, as the delirium that ensued following Yarmolenko’s goal would have been that much better with fans in attendance at the Olympic Stadium. While their 2-2 draw to Newcastle was disappointing, having conceded twice from winning positions, results around the relegation zone meant that the single point they got at St. James’ Park lifted them to four points above the drop zone with five matches to play. They are not safe by any means, especially since they still must play Norwich, Watford, and Aston Villa, but they get a tiny extra bit of security from the drop. That win over Chelsea may be the reason that the Irons stay up.

Losers of the Week

1.) Norwich City

Norwich continued their trend of looking decent at times in open play but being unable to score, despite the talent they have going forward. A 4-0 demolition at the hands of Arsenal followed by a very disappointing 1-0 loss to Brighton caps off four matches without a point and without a goal since the league season restarted, leaving the Canaries seven points from safety with five matches remaining. While they have matches remaining against Watford and West Ham, they must also face Chelsea and Manchester City, two matches in which they would be very unlikely to pick up any points. It looks like Norwich will be relegated to the Championship. Their season can really be characterized by one lasting image: the shot of midfielder Todd Cantwell slumped onto the pitch following the Brighton loss, a look of defeat and resignation on his face. Despite the talent that Norwich have, including the dynamic, exciting Cantwell, they have never been able to fully figure it all out for an extended run of games.

2.) Sheffield United

Chris Wilder and his merry band of Blades have ran into a serious stumbling block in their hunt for European football next season. Sheffield United had failed to win since the season restarted before a 3-1 win over Spurs this week, but a 1-1 draw to Burnley in the very next match continued this stuttering form that has seen the Blades fall out of the European places into ninth, one point behind Arsenal in seventh with five matches remaining. The European dream is beginning to die for Chris Wilder’s team, and while their next four games (Wolves, Chelsea, Leicester, Everton) can reverse their fortunes completely, it is hard to envision Arsenal’s new form massively slowing down. It feels like it will be either Wolves or Arsenal occupying sixth, with the other occupying seventh. Eighth can be a European place if City’s appeal of their European ban fails, but it is not safe to assume that will be the case. Chris Wilder needs positive results in those four matches to get into Europe, but without that, it will likely be a mid-table finish for the Blades. Mid-table is nothing to scoff at for a newly promoted team, but the knowledge that it could have been much more might be painful for Sheffield United fans to deal with.

3.) Watford

Whatever good form and positive energy existed when Nigel Pearson was hired is now gone. Watford have failed to win a league match since their shock 3-0 win over Liverpool back in March, and that rut in form has dragged them right back into the relegation fight, leaving them clinging onto safety by only a point. The Hornets’ attack has struggled to find their feet since the league season resumed, with Ismaïla Sarr and Abdoulaye Doucouré especially being unable to regain their pre-lockdown form. They still must face Norwich and West Ham, which should allow them to pull away from the relegation places, but with Manchester City and Arsenal as their final two games, there is significant pressure to get positive results in their next three games before that awful finishing duo. Anything less than five points in their next three matches could leave them in serious danger of going down, with at least seven points being the ideal target. Watford are good enough to stay up, but that is the thing about the relegation race this season; you could say that about every team that is fighting the drop.

What we Learned

1.) Arsenal and Man United are building something special

This has been covered in other areas of this post, but it is worth emphasizing again. Both teams began a rebuild this season, and you are beginning to see the image of what these rebuilt giants can become. Manchester United have built a terrifying attack, with really an attacking five that can rival the best in the league. Arsenal have found stability in a back three that is able to get the most out of the players at their disposal. Both are moving toward finishing in a European place this season, which will provide them a solid platform to build on in the coming transfer window. Both have flaws in defense, Arsenal especially, but the vision is there for what Solskjær and Arteta want to create. Next season might be too soon to consider either a true contender, but they are two teams to watch over the next 12 months.

2.) We all aren’t sure what to take from Man City 4-0 Liverpool

Part of me thinks this resounding victory for City was Pep’s men throwing down the gauntlet for the title challenge next season, staking their claim as arguably the best team in England despite their unfortunate season this term. Part of me also thinks this was an über-motivated City team taking advantage of a figuratively, and probably literally, hungover Liverpool team. Part of me wants it to mean everything, and another part of me wants it to mean nothing. That is where I am at. This is a match that served as a good reminder that City are still a very strong, albeit flawed, team that is capable of winning the title and Champions League basically every season. However, the results around this game, mainly City’s losses to Chelsea and Southampton, remind you of the major flaws in this team (notably in defense) and why Liverpool won the title so easily in the first place. City will likely be title contenders next season, as I do not see Liverpool running away with the title again, but they still have things to fix in order for them to fully be in contention again. It is wild that we are saying this about arguably one of the best teams ever assembled in the Premier League era, but here we are. Leroy Sané’s departure will likely hurt the Citizens, but it does provide them with the funds to bring in a much-needed center back partner for Aymeric Laporte. Bringing in help at fullback will also be important, and while the COVID impacted transfer market will likely not hinder City all that much, it is ever more important for them to stay within the UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, since their entire organization now operates under a microscope. So in conclusion, does City thrashing Liverpool mean anything? Not really. Will City be title contenders next season, though? Probably.

3.) One step forward, two steps back for Everton

It was very difficult to find a place in either the winners or losers tab for Everton, despite being a team that we need to discuss. Carlo Ancelotti’s team seemingly took a massive step toward European football with two…let’s call them gritty…wins against Norwich and Leicester, but their drab and uninspiring 1-0 loss to Spurs yesterday acts as a sudden crash back to Earth for the Toffees, seemingly in a way that only Everton can provide. Ancelotti deserves incredible praise for the work he has done so far on Merseyside, guiding a very weird squad to an outside chance at finishing in a European place, seemingly punching above his weight with a thin and not incredibly talented Everton team. Europe was seemingly a bridge too far, however, and unless Everton win their remaining matches and a miracle happens around them, it is unlikely that they will be playing in the Europa League next season. There is definitely an argument that not being in the Europa League, and especially not having to deal with whatever wild schedule comes out for the Europa League qualifying rounds, is a blessing in disguise for an Everton team that is not quite ready for that step up. However, having to deal with their neighbors’ title celebrations must make life especially difficult for Evertonians, who are still frustrated at the apparent lack of progress in their team after all of these years. They are on the right track, but they have a long road ahead of them. Trust the process, Evertonians. Trust the process.

4.) Great week for young English players

This was a momentous week for four young English players in the Premier League: Manchester City’s Phil Foden, Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, and Liverpool’s Curtis Jones. Foden started proceedings in City’s 4-0 thumping of Liverpool, scoring and assisting in a fantastic display against a very good side. Greenwood followed suit with three goals in two games, with his second thunderous strike against Bournemouth being the pick of the bunch. The young United striker continues his Wayne Rooney-esque ascendancy to superstardom, while, across the city, Foden demonstrated that he just might be able to live up to his “Stockport Iniesta” nickname. The other two are an interesting pair. Arsenal forward Bukayo Saka and Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones both signed new deals at their respective clubs this week, with Saka’s coming at a major relief to Arteta and the Arsenal hierarchy. Both are considered to be very promising young players at their clubs, both being academy graduates, and both clubs and managers will likely be overjoyed having them tied down to long-term deals. Both also scored their first Premier League goals this week, both ironically on half-volleys, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Wolves and Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa, respectively. Both players are very good stories, and seeing them succeed at the top level for their boyhood clubs is heart-warming. If you are English, seeing the progress of these four players has to be exciting, and given the amount of young talent in the England player pool at the moment, one has to think that it is only a matter of time before “football comes home”.

5.) What a goal from Che Adams

Let’s just all take a moment to talk about Che Adams and his goal against Man City. Firstly, if you have not seen it, go watch it. Now that you have, yeah, what a goal. The goal by itself is already quite impressive, having the confidence to chip a keeper as good and athletic as Ederson from that kind of distance as well as having the technical ability to pull it off, is quite remarkable. However, that is not the full story. That goal was Adams’ first ever Premier League goal, having arrived at Southampton from Championship side Birmingham City before the season started. He featured about 30 times for Saints in all competitions, failing to score until this moment. I genuinely cannot think of a more astounding way to score your first Premier League goal, considering the manner the goal was scored, the opponent it came against, and the fact that it was the winning goal. A moment so unique and insane for the young English striker that it deserved its own special shoutout.

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