Tuesday, 10 July 2012

New Website Launch

The Football Matters blog is no more - in it's place, comes The Chalkboard (www.thechalkboard.org.uk)(@ak_chalkboard).

This is a website that aims to provide match reports with detailed tactical analysis, covering the premier league action. Posts will be made every Tuesday.


Despite the public demand for intelligent punditry and genuine tactical analysis, as exemplified by the meteoric rise of Michael Cox's ZonalMarking.net, the vast majority of mainstream analysis continues to frustrate with its tedious account of goals and failure to intellectually stimulate the average football fan.

At The Chalkboard, we think match reports (rather than retell the match's main events, something we can see for ourselves on MOTD) should offer insightful analysis of the game, examining tactical decisions, individual performances, strengths and weaknesses of each team, and how the two sides attempted to tactically outmanoeuvre each another.

As such, we will publish at least three Premier League match reports every Tuesday, giving a view of each game that, hopefully, leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of each team's formations and philosophies, and the tactical approaches of each manager. Ultimately, we want to explain why the match ended as it did.

We also hope that, by consistently producing Premier League match reports, the articles will layer upon each other. In the long-run, regular readers should build a more adept understanding of each team, with a knowledge of the game traditionally reserved only for those that have managed to watch every game live.

So - watch this space, and bookmark us (or follow on Twitter) so you don't forget to come back each Tuesday, and see what our writers have to say on the weekend's biggest matches. With your support we can continue to grow; our goal is to cover all ten Premier League games.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tiki-taka: Brilliant, or Boring?

Critics of Spain's tiki-taka success have misinterpreted their dominance as a sign of boring football.
Believing such tactical mastery deserves condemnation fails to recognise the genius that creates such overwhelming supremacy.

67.5% possession, 3096 passes made with 89.6% completed, 18.6 shots per game with 8 on target, 7 shots against them per game with only 1 goal conceded. And yet people still moan that the World Champions are boring.

Barcelona's and Spain's unparalleled 21st century successes have revolutionised football tactics, creating, developing and instigating a new philosophy that has outright destroyed any previous models of footballing excellence.

Emerging under Johan Cruyff in the 90s, Barcelona adapted Dutch total football – relying on player speed and positional fluidity – to one based on ball retention and pass speed, not player speed.
The pass-and-move approach requires obsessive repetition and hard work: exponents of the philosophy are expected to perform with relentless perfection. It is this combination of technical assurance and religious knowledge that makes tiki-taka such a complex and paradoxical beauty. It is a system modelled on elegance, creativity and exquisite football, yet paradoxically is constrained and contained within the narrow parameters set by constant repetition, until seemingly ingenious fluidity is reduced to instinct and simplicity.

It elevates humans to awe-inspiring levels of beauty and sublime, reduces humans to perfected machines. Yet recently, disturbing grumbles have begun to flutter in the recesses of the English media, as critics have finally, after years of low scoring matches, dared to utter the phrase, 'boring'.

The Spanish reacted angrily, disregarding the critics as philistines and misunderstanders of football's tactical, intellectual beauty. Sid Lowe reflected on the cultural implications of these descenting voices, positing that English football reflects the unexpected, Spanish football the technical: “That dichotomy says something about footballing cultures, the value placed on technique and endeavor, respectively[...] We cry out for the unexpected; football teams want to know what's coming. Few sides have ever achieved that quite as Spain is doing.” Spain are so reliable, so consistently excellent, matches no longer retain the excitement of uncertainty. But the reasons for any competitive-less tedium are not the Spaniards' responsibility.

If an absence of end-to-end entertainment translates as 'boring', then the blame for this actuality lies not in the style itself, but in the opposition response to the tiki-taka threat. The more they dominate possession, the deeper the defence drop. As Spain's dominance grows, scoring becomes harder. Xavi's angry response to this claim perfectly encapsulates the reasons for Spain's uneventful encounters: “What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid; we're European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single meter, not a second on the pitch. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We're playing bloody brilliantly.”

Tiki-taka has become so lethal, proficient, and impossible to contain, that teams are increasingly sacrificing their own football and defending extremely deeply. Indeed, some are even suggesting that Chelsea's semi-final victory over Barcelona indicated the Spanish philosophy has been 'found out'. Although this is immediately negated by the overwhelming successes of the national side, Chelsea's win may help to explain the increasing appearance of boring, unimaginative football. Chelsea's victory has become a byword for deep defensive lines, and although the constant reference to their victory is tiresome, this example has become so universally acknowledged that it has genuinely affected the way teams approach games against Barcelona or Spain.

The short-passing game is relentlessly carried to its extreme, as determined by the tiki-taka paradox. When the opposition abandon traditional counter methods and sit deep and compact, the opportunities to weave passes together and create goalscoring opportunities become progressively fewer. The patience and diligence of this style, however, means players refuse to pander to yearnings for excitement and unpredictability. Instead, with a terrifying and machine-like consistency, they continue to slowly coax the opposition out and exploit any minor chinks in their armour: 'You might give two passes that seem to lack any value but the third may be the decisive one', in the words of Xabi Alonso.

Anyone believing such tactical mastery deserves condemnation has failed to recognise the genius that creates such overwhelming dominance. Simply put, opposing teams are not good enough to make the style 'entertaining', in the traditional sense. Sid Lowe proposes that “it is the Spaniards' very brilliance that makes their games seem uneventful[...] Their opponents simply can't touch them. Maybe they are simply forced back. Maybe the blame for the lack of classic, end-to-end contests involving Spain actually lies with opponents that simply can't match them.”

If fans find this boring, then they may be more comfortable with a different sport. The tactical proficiency and constancy is both frightening and compelling – the 'boring' nature of their games is, conversely, a testament to their immense talent. Never before in the history of football has one team presented such possessional dominance, forcing oppositions to abandon their tactics. Even Mourinho, after failing to overcome Barcelona in his first season, ultimately resorted to deep and compact defending: "If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car,” Mourinho explained, “the only way I can win is by putting sugar in your petrol tank."

True footballing perfection is not founded in flair but in consistency, and this is achieved by the tiki-taka style in ways that did not seem possible a decade ago.

An emerging argument attached to dissenting voices of 'boring' football is that a more convincing system of success could be implemented in Spain, given the vast array of talent at their disposal. With a squad blessed with a perfect blend of Madrid and Barcelona stars, it is easy to see why some believe a different approach could unlock the individual talent of the side with greater efficiency, creating a side that wins 5-0 instead of 1-0. But Spain are achieving unparalleled success with their current system, despite its unwillingness to nurture the expressive and expansive capabilities of players like Silva, Pedro, or Torres.

The style relies on possession stats above 65%, and pass completion figures as high as 90%. Although a more traditional approach could ultimately find more pockets of space for entertaining footballers, they would not reach anything like these numbers; and it is the numbers that contribute to their defence, as much as their attack.

It is a common misconception that tiki-taka is based purely on attacking football; the reality is a dependence on simplicity, patience and pragmatism, in all phases of play. Ahead of the quarter-final victory over France, coach Laurent Blanc highlighted the fundamental problem teams face against Spain: "When do you adapt to a team? When they have the ball. The problem with Spain is that they average 65 to 70 percent of possession. So you're left with a third of possession. But for 70 percent of the game, you have to adapt to Spain because they have the ball and you don't.”

Blanc has inadvertently revealed the underlying factor in the 'boring' nature of Spain games: their opponents, spending the vast majority of the game without possession, are not allowed to play in their own style. When in possession, the interplay is yours to mould: when not in possession, you must adapt to the opponents. If adapting becomes the primary structure (for 70% of the match), then how can any team realistically set themselves out to achieve their personal objectives? “You could go for it and play with four forwards, but the problem is that your wingers would spend the game playing next to their own corner flags."

The defensive solidity guaranteed by dominating possession is not restricted to this inability of the opposition to attack: it is also a matter of fitness. Not only are the opposition too tired to muster attacking threat, and not only are they too tired to avoid being tackled by their Spanish counterparts, but Spain know that with patience and determination, they will eventually break the exhausted ranks, and win.
The fitness disparity between the two teams is easy to understand: players are required to work significantly harder off the ball than on it. After Spain's 1-0 victory over Germany in the World Cup semi-final, Klose remarked: 'Spain forced us to run after the ball all night and that's hard. We should have forced them into mistakes but we didn't, we couldn't. We can only congratulate them, they had all the possession and we were running endlessly off the ball without stopping.” The Spanish kept going, and finally broke the Germans down in the 73rd minute.

The fitness of the opposition is rapidly depleted by this system, and this is complimented by the relative ease with which Spain can control possession. Their appearance of fitness is directly proportional to their opponents appearance of exhaustion. Raphael Honigstein writes that “it is such a devastating tactic because it's both defensive and offensive in equal measure. You don't have to switch from attack to defence or vice versa because you're always in possession. It's a significant upgrade of the Dutch "total football", a system that relied on players changing positions. The Spanish don't have to do that any more since the ball does all the hard work”.

The contrast in fitness levels created by this footballing philosophy is something the Spanish pounce on, capitalising on their significant stamina advantage by utilising a high pressing game. When they lose the ball, Spain's players harass their opponents, forcing them to hurriedly conceded possession. The opposing players are so tired, have so few players in advanced roles, and are so psychologically worn down by the dominance of Spain's passing, they inevitably, and almost immediately, concede possession back to the tiki-taka experts.

Invariably confronted by deeply defensive lines, Spain's excellence does not translate to dominant scorelines, mazy dribbling, or frequent one-on-one opportunities. It does, however, win them the match almost every time, achieving success with frightening consistency. It stunts the unpredictable excitement of football, and it prevents fans from viewing classic end-to-end matches.

That does not mean that it is not beautiful, and it certainly does not mean that it is boring. If you are bored watching the most rigorously orchestrated football tactic ever created, being implemented on the most talented footballers in the history of the sport, then maybe you should try watching something else. If you are bored of witnessing the most incredible feats of footballing dominance, characterised by inhuman levels of technical perfection and geometric intelligence, then this sport might not be for you.

The fluidity of Spain's passing and moving is scintillating, and extraordinary – the product of 20 years of rigorous training and youth development, that has culminated in the emergence of footballers with an almost telepathic understanding for one another. They caress the ball with effortless grace; and with a deceptive appearance of ease, have transformed football from a complex and enigmatic sport into a devastating mathematical art-form.

It is this revolution in our understanding of the sport that has led to a confused cry of 'boredom'. Attempts at countering the threat of this unique philosophy, unheard of until only ten years ago, has swiftly converted confident, attacking teams into cowering animals, desperately defending deep within their own half. We are witnessing the most stunning technical artistry and mathematical efficiency the game has ever seen.

The mightiest teams on the planet are falling to their knees, again and again. Uncompetitive? Maybe. Boring? definitely not.

Alex Keble

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Football Transfer Tavern Articles: Week 1

This week I began an internship with http://www.footballtransfertavern.com/, writing one article a day for their website on a series of topics. Each week I will post links to those articles I consider worth reading (i.e., excluding articles that are simple write ups of transfer rumours).

The sacking of Harry Redknapp, and who he should be replaced with: http://www.footballtransfertavern.com/2012/06/premiership/spurs-hunt-for-tactician-after-redknapps-outdated-approach

Analysis of AVB's failed implementation of a high pressing game, and why Chelsea have the worst disciplinary record in the league: http://www.footballtransfertavern.com/2012/06/premiership/avb-to-blame-for-chelseas-disciplinary-record

Why Karim Benzema's link with Man City should not be taken seriously, or why his agent is just being a dick: http://www.footballtransfertavern.com/2012/06/premiership/los-blancos-agent-is-the-driving-force-but-striker-perfect-for-city

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Didier Drogba: Africa's idol is the ultimate symbol of football's positive attributes. Its ability to instigate social change, and to showcase beauty both socially and artistically, are epitomised in Ivory Coast's national treasure

The passion, the heroism, and the artistry that lurk beneath the cold capitalist exterior of Didier Drogba exemplify how football, despite being a money-obsessed global industry, is way above the evils that bubble on the surface.

Didier Drogba, earning grotesque quantities of money for kicking a ball, appears to many as the ideal symbol of capitalist greed and inequality: the perfect emblem of everything grossly askew in football.
I would like to posit that football is still an egalitarian sport built on fraternity, with an enormous scope for social change. Once on the pitch, corporate domination is obliterated, and the raw socialist art of football becomes the only concern. The white lines of a football pitch represent the severance between the greed and inequality of modern capitalism and the socialist utopia of football.

Teamwork. Unity. Passion. Courage. Equality. These are the attributes on display in a football match. Adored by billions of people, all united in shared adoration of technical artistry and selfless teamwork, football remains the socialist art form that represents the antithesis, the saviour, of the alienation and disillusion that saturates 21st century capitalist society.

These positive attributes of sport are disregarded by many, with football given a bad name by the large majority of the public. The passion, the heroism, and the artistry that lurk beneath the cold capitalist exterior of Didier Drogba exemplify how football, despite being a money-obsessed global industry, is way above the evils that bubble on the surface.

Admittedly monetary obsession and corporate ownership plagues the modern day spectacle, threatening to consume its anti-elitist philosophical foundations, but football remains a sport with the potential to revolutionise society's values. It defies prejudice and champions the immense capabilities of our species, technically and mentally. It saturates billions of people with socialist values, moulding generations into admirers of togetherness, by uniting them in the timeless and spontaneous pleasures of sport.

Drogba as icon

Despite receiving a significant animosity for his sporting persona, Africa's icon Didier Drogba perfectly symbolises this beauty, both socially and artistically.

If football unites communities, and offers a glimpse of absolute fraternity and ubiquitous passion, then the image of Drogba presents the acme of this experience: his omnipotence in sub-Saharan Africa closely resemble a religious phenomenon.

Streets across the continent are littered with Drogba shirts. Beers are named after him; dance moves are created in his honour: Drogba truly represents the ultimate symbol of African pride and togetherness. The unified mass of poverty-stricken people, taking immense pride and personal joy in the nation's or continent's sporting success, essentially concentrate this devotion into their idol. He is football.

The image of Nike and Adidas logos plastered onto 'Drogba 10' Chelsea shirts, as football fans unite in a shared yet unconscious interest in corporate branding shows, for some, that football is the ultimate capitalist venture: the opiate of the masses. Some critics argue that the monetary greed and competitive edge of modern sport, as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and McDonald's seep their way into the core of the industry, mimics the capitalist dream, consuming and absorbing the population in their leisure time, as we yield to consumerist greed under the pretence of an anti-establishment pastime. I cannot accept this theory.

Football may be facing this capitalist threat, but unlike many areas of life, sport is not dependent upon it. Corporate saturation is dissolving artistic merit across our entire civilisation, seeping into every element of modern culture and leaving nothing but wealth disparity and an impending sense of post-modern despair.

But our fascination is preoccupied with artistic grace: a subtle blend of ferocity and elegance that, like all art, strikes a chord somewhere deep within the human body and produces an emotion somewhat akin to religious experience. The masochistic intentions of corporate domination can consume the elements that surround the football pitch, but it cannot touch the art itself, and it cannot destruct the egalitarian fraternity of sport.

Children in abject poverty may be adorning Nike shirts, but the logo is not what unites them: it is football, and in this instance, it is Didier Drogba.

Drogba as socio-political figure

Football's potential for communion and democracy is exhibited most prominently by Drogba in his role in the Ivorian civil conflict in 2005, as an attempted coup divided the country in a bloody struggle between Muslims and Christians, immigrants and natives.

Football is the life-blood of Ivorians, and watching Ivory Coast perform with a mix of Muslims and Christians was an incredible sight to witness. Throughout the conflict, the national team were victorious on the international stage, qualifying for their first ever World Cup; they were a united front, a beacon of hope amidst the chaos of war, showing the potential for civil peace and cooperation.

Drogba remembers the period with pride: “in the national team, we are all brothers. After the game people would call and say 'we are so happy, everyone was in the street dancing'. And we'd say, 'There's war in Ivory Coast, but people are outside when we win? Is football that powerful? Wow.'”

Immediately after victory over Sudan sealed their qualification for the World Cup, Drogba called his team-mates and the media to gather around him for an impromptu national address.

"Ivorians, men and women, from the north and the south, the center and the west, you've seen this. We've proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this would bring the people together. Now we're asking you to make this a reality. Put down your weapons, organize the elections and things will get better. Please, let's all kneel."

In a moment of immense significance and national pride, in their finest hour amidst delirious celebration, the Ivory Coast national team dropped to their knees. The rest of the nation quickly followed suit.

It would be dangerous to attempt to quantify the political implications of this overwhelming gesture from the cooperative of Muslims and Christians that had achieved such glory. But Drogba's speech was replayed hundreds of times in the following months, as tensions palpably eased throughout the country.

Two years later, after tensions had flared once more, Drogba requested an international match be moved to Bouake, the rebel stronghold. Before the game, the Ivorian presented the rebel leader with a pair of boots donned with the slogan 'together for peace'. Once again, the gesture had significant implications: 'when Drogba speaks, people listen', as Kalou once said of the man. After a 5-0 victory in which Drogba scored the fifth, one newspaper ran the headline: 'five goals erase five years of war'.

He has spent $4.4 million on a hospital in his home town, has recently become a UN goodwill ambassador, and advertises local products across his home town. His charity work has only increased his popularity amongst a nation that reveres him as the instigator of piece, and a truly inspirational political figure.

Drogba's footballing skills

What has given Drogba this unprecedented political power? How does he command such reverence from the public? The answer is the sheer brilliance of the enigmatic art he creates on the football pitch, the stage on which he performs awe-inspiring feats of technical skill and terrifying physical strength.

Didier Drogba is one of the most compelling sportsman a spectator can witness live. His technical artistry is not unique (although remarkably high), and there are several players with more refined skill and dexterity than the Ivorian striker. But a fan with astute awareness of the game will find more to marvel at in him than in most other players.

What makes Drogba a remarkable athlete is his truly monstrous raw power and explosive strength. It is so alarmingly brutal, yet compelling to the point of sublime, we can only marvel at how such an incredible feat is achieved.

Watching a thunderous shot rip through the air, reducing world-class athletes to helpless spectators simply incapable of restraining the immensity of his talent, is sometimes closer to witnessing a divine experience than a football goal.

His effortless physical strength, when exhibited on the pitch, morphs Drogba into a titan capable of an inhumanly subtle blend of brute force and technical grace: it is no wonder he is revered as a god-like figure. If Drogba represents the pinnacle of football's capacity for social change, it is equalled only by the incomparable sublimity of his game play.

This is why we watch the sport. For the tremendous displays of artistic beauty, that transcend the expected limits of human capacity and present a raw example of the mathematical sublime. For the unique experience of watching something that sends adrenaline shooting through the heart, that punches the stomach with an almost religious feeling of trepidation and admiration.

No player gives the art of football a better name than Didier Drogba.

Drogba's mental attributes

The psychological aspect of sport is equally important to the technical; this we are all aware of. In fact, the psychological strains exerted upon the sportsman is more interesting, since it requires more passion than simply refining technical attributes. If watching sport is celebrating the potential for beauty in the physical acts of the human race, then our interest in the psychological strength required to compete is championing the beauty of the human mind.

Performing under the colossal weight of expectation that accompanies any top-level sportsman is impressive enough, but the strength, courage, and determination that it takes to step forward and lift your performance levels when everyone else around you is slowly falling to their knees, takes a confidence and mental strength of truly heroic proportions.

Didier Drogba is a big game player. He has scored 9 goals in 10 finals in a Chelsea shirt. His record when expectations are raised, when pressure is increased, when an indescribable level of emotional and financial weight is laid upon a single match, is unbelievable.

His goal in the Champions League final was truly the acme of psychological strength. When the determination and will of your surrounding team-mates has been dampened, it takes an inhuman courage, determination – arrogance, even - to be able to remain composed and confident enough to claw your side back into a game. The pressures that come with taking the final penalty in a shoot-out need no explanation.

Supporters will hero-worship Drogba for that goal. Nobody, regardless of emotional ties or their interest in sport, should criticise them for this. What Drogba achieves on the football pitch, in inspirational moments such as the one in Munich, requires an outstanding mental and physical strength: it is, in short, an heroic display of what our remarkable species is capable of at its peak. The feats of sportsmen are achievements of the human race as a whole, and they deserve to be celebrated.

Didier Drogba's social and political presence symbolises the beautiful and powerful potential of football to instigate change. His technical ability symbolises the sublime, awe-inspiring beauty of football, validating its worth as an invaluable art-form. His inhuman mental courage and insatiable determination symbolise the magnificence of the human will.

He is the perfect sportsman, and the perfect icon for football's artistry and potential for social change.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

5 Things We Learnt From Oslo

There's only so much a manager can learn from a low-key friendly against relatively weak competition, and as such, Hodgson can be pleased with the amount of information we can gather from the 90 minutes in Oslo.

Ashley Young is an outstanding number 10
For over a year Ashley Young was given a free-role at Villa, playing behind the striker. He was brilliant in this position, using his flair, technical grace and particularly astute movement and tactical awareness to dictate play. Finally an England coach has remembered this period of his career, and Young rewarded Hodgson with a man-of-the-match performance. Usually deployed as a winger, Young's intelligence often goes unnoticed: he is not the average one dimensional wide player, however.
One aspect of his game relatively unknown is his movement and his instinctive anticipation. On many occasions he correctly and alertly made runs behind Andy Carroll, anticipating the knock-on. He managed to find pockets of space in front of the back four on several occasions, and won a large majority of the loose balls following Carroll's flick-ons. The goal indicates this, with Young finding space for the pass, linking up well with the big Liverpool striker.

Carroll is frustrating and awkward, even when playing well
There's something irritating about Andy Carroll. The clunkiness of his gait, his slow-motion agility, and the uncomfortable style with which he kicks a football, makes him look like a skilful player trapped in his own body. His touch is so clumsy, and his movement so effortful, he looks as if he's only just acquired his awkward figure, and is still trying to work out how to control all the body parts. It looks a bit like when one of those ludicrously dressed mascots tries to kick a ball with their oversized mammalian limbs. Nevertheless, he won most of his aerial challenges and all-in-all played well with Young. The only reason this is an issue is because his ungainly figure is incongruous against the intelligence and fluidity of England's midfield.

A pragmatic Hodgson chose intelligent midfielders, and it looked good
Before Gerrard was substituted, England's midfield looked organised and controlled, with neat interplay and swift passing exchanges. Milner, Downing, Young and Gerrard are all very intelligent footballers. Their vision and tactical awareness are excellent, and they worked well in combination as a result. England's attacks, spearheaded by the Carroll and Young partnership, were fluid, composed and thoughtful. 'Careful', might be a word to describe Hodgson's managerial style with England, which is unsurprising given the limited time he has with an average set of players. His midfield, with defensively capable wingers and composed passers looked balanced and, dare I say it, confident.

Hodgson has a plan
What do Capello, McClaren, and Eriksson all have in common? We had no idea what on earth they were trying to do. England were perplexed and disorganised, looking for all the world like a bunch of eclectic players that had no idea what they were supposed to be doing, or how to play with each other. Finally England have a manager with a plan. As indicated above, with his intelligent and defence-minded midfielders and Carroll-Young partnership, any England fan can see that he is trying to build something. Swapping Walcott and Downing round in the second half after Theo proved he was incapable of defending Riise, was possibly the first sensible, understandable, substitution made by an England manager for some time.

International football is boring
If the World Cup wasn't enough evidence to prove this point, then this summers Euros may finally make us switch off the TV and take up staring at brick walls instead. It seems as if every team plays cautious, defensive football in major tournaments, quite possibly a reflection of the current stage of tactical evolution in Europe. The 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 is favoured by the majority of sides, allowing an attacking formation to easily become one with 9 defenders and an isolated striker, requiring slow build-up play and possession football. The most obvious reason for the lack of excitement in international football is that there is simply no team chemistry. Given only a small amount of time to play with each other, we cannot expect instinctive football from any nation. Either way, if you expect to be entertained this summer, don't hold your breath. If England remain organised, defence-minded, and can keep possession with intelligent midfielders whilst organising attacks around a little-n-large strike partnership, you never know what they can achieve.

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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Michael Owen deserves a contract with a Premier League club: his goalscoring statistics are indicative of a striker still capable of performing at the highest level.

The explosive days of his England youth may be behind him, but Michael Owen still represents a dangerous threat to opposition defences. Get him on the pitch, and he will score.

The image of a teenage Michael Owen, weaving his way effortlessly through the Argentina defence, dragging a sluggish England to their feet with a powerful yet majestic slalom and finish, will live long in the memory for most of us. The explosion of a prodigious talent circa 1998 is epitomized by the effortless grace of that World Cup goal; direct, aggressive, composed, beautiful.

How things have changed. At 32 years of age, after a fifth season in seven years in which he has failed to reach 20 league games, Michael Owen will find himself a free agent following his release from Manchester United.

What now, for a striker adamant that he remains a physical force capable of competing amongst England's elite? Analysing his statistical record, and the comparatively small dent he would make in prospective suitors wage budgets, substantiates Owen's claims that he can still 'score goals at the highest level', even if the pace and agility of his exhilarating youth are now only fading memories. Owen could provide a valuable (if not part-time) service for a number of Premier League clubs.

Absence from United side: injury, or competition?

Explanation for Owen's release and desperately unfortunate recent history is unnecessary; injury problems have plagued the once great striker for over a decade. A dark cloud has lurked ominously over the head of the prolific goalscorer throughout his career, threatening to overshadow his talent; threatening to descend upon him in his prime; and threatening to ground his dribbles and slaloms to a halt.

Owen's medical woes have only exacerbated as his career has progressed, culminating in a measly 13 league appearances in two Manchester United seasons. However, despite spending 13 months of his 35 at United on the treatment table, there is another blindingly obvious reason for the absence of first-team opportunities afforded to him by Ferguson. These reasons are: Rooney, Welbeck, Berbatov, and Hernandez. Four very good reasons.

In fact, Owen's groan-inducing reputation as an injury prone player masks the hidden truth behind his abject appearance record – that he was consistently the fourth or fifth choice striker at Old Trafford for the entire duration of his tenure. His underwhelming twelve appearances in two seasons (scoring twice) owes as much to his inability to secure a place ahead of his world-class team mates as it does to his permanently fragile hamstrings.

Owen's goalscoring record at Man United

Two goals in twelve games is an unattractive figure, but it is misleading: a number of these appearances are as a substitute, and amount to several minutes apiece. A statistic more representative of the truth is that Owen has scored 2 goals in 230 league minutes; that amounts to 2 goals in 2.5 games, or a 0.8 goals to game ratio, higher than any player in the league.

Admittedly, if Owen had featured more times, this average would most likely be significantly lower, and his absence from league matches is still insufficient evidence for his prowess. Let us, then, ignore the misleading league appearance statistics and analyse his record in the tournaments in which he consistently played (as a result of Ferguson fielding weaker teams to rest his star performers), namely the League Cup, FA Cup, and Champions League.

19 games, 14 goals. A commendable -nay, remarkable – record. The pinnacle of Europe's goalscoring talent, playing with the confidence and technical assurance that is built upon regular appearances, would be proud of this statistic. Owen on the other hand, produced this form whilst playing sporadically and amongst a group of individuals he cannot have been used to playing alongside. It is a statistic that should prick up the ears of a number of top level coaches across Europe.

Who would want him?

A similar record can, of course, be found throughout his sparkling, if not consistent, career. A brief homage to the proficiency of Michael Owen: Liverpool – 297 games, 158 goals; Real Madrid – 45 games, with only 15 starts, 16 goals (highest goals to minutes ratio in La Liga); Newcastle – 79 games, 30 goals. Not bad.

Owens' injury record may prevent him from providing consistency at any potential club (although he has been fully fit between August and January in all three of his Man Utd seasons), but his comparably low wages make him a low risk signing.

Owen is earning an estimated £30 000 p/w in Manchester, with the remainder of his contract dependant upon appearances – a 'pay-as-you-play' contract. Admittedly, many Premier League clubs would be unwilling to part with this figure, let alone on a player unlikely to figure each week.

However, analysing the player's recent interviews, acceptance of a significant pay reduction is highly likely. Owen's refusal to consider retirement is testament to his passion for the game; playing football is a more significant factor than monetary concerns, for a player described by Ferguson as a 'consummate professional'.

In fact, Owen took a £75 000 p/w pay cut to join Man United, further indicating his willingness to sacrifice money if required. Three years and several injuries later, Owen will be acutely aware of the unattractive figure he has come to represent. An almost exclusively 'pay-as-you-play' contract is a genuine possibility for any club that wishes to take a gamble on, potentially, an outstanding marksman.

Aston Villa, Everton, or Sunderland are all lacking in fire-power. Even Liverpool may consider a deal viable. After all, Liverpool and Dalglish have bemoaned their inability to convert chances into goals all season.

On a low wage with appearance clauses, the financial gamble is minimal. In return, Owen offers a service difficult to find, at any level. The explosive days of his England youth may be behind him, but Michael Owen still represents a dangerous threat to opposition defences. Get him on the pitch, and he will score.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Abramovich's managerial policy threatens to dismantle his Chelsea empire; victory in Saturday's final, and qualification for next year's tournament, is a necessity if Chelsea are to remain competitive at the summit of English football.

published at totalfootballmag.com

Abramovich's short-sighted business model - hiring and firing any manager that fails to bring immediate success - has undoubtedly caused the all-too-conspicuous absence of regeneration at Chelsea. An ageing squad and a temperamental owner hardly cut an attractive figure to potential candidates for the probable vacancy this summer; Di Matteo's cup success seems unlikely to justify appointment in the eyes of their ruthless overlord. The culmination of this knee-jerk management is possible failure to qualify for the Champions League, which could lead to severe financial consequences that signal the end of their association with Europe's finest. The match on Saturday may be immeasurably important for the long-term future of Chelsea Football Club.

Under significant pressure to produce immediate success, Chelsea's managers are forced to continue trends with players who, despite their quality, are slowly sinking below the required level to compete with the giants of the game. Any attempts made to refresh the club, or implement drastic measures to rebuild the foundations via slow regeneration, represents a courageous flirtation with danger. Stir the media-shy oligarch from his slumber by prioritising long term investment over immediate glory, and you are likely to incur the wrath of their merciless emperor - just ask Andres Villa-Boas.

Ferguson-esque seamless transition is an impossibility when managers are disposed of with a casual wave of the arm, and equally, a sudden influx of youth and redevelopment is inconceivable when each coach is given all of six months to produce results. Critics seem to have reached a unanimous agreement that AVB approached the Chelsea regeneration project with an almost excitable haste, whilst lavishing Di Matteo with praise for restoring order. Di Matteo may have steadied the ship for the time being, but it is still sinking; with 15 of its 20 senior members having played under Mourinho in 2007, progress is hardly a term one associates with Chelsea. Conforming to the job requirements by embracing short-term strategy has brought the interim manager initial success; but how much longer can Chelsea continue without a coherent plan for a sustainable model?

The combined effect of nearly a decade of impatience and impetuosity is a 6th place finish for a side that are, quite realistically, the 6th best in the country. Champions League qualification is now only possible via victory over Bayern Munich in the Germans' backyard. Access to the wads of cash Chelsea desperately need to keep their fingertip grasp on the edge of the English elite, now depends upon back door entry; and failure to qualify for the Champions League this season could irreparable damage to the club. I think we all know who is to blame.

The infamously reclusive Roman Abramovich now faces increasing pressure to emerge from the quiet recesses of his opulent empire, as fans demand explanation for their oil-rich owners whimsical attitude towards managerial appointments.

At times the frivolity of Chelsea's owner appears as some kind of perverse disdain for pragmatism and intelligent decision making; such is the callous insensitivity with which world-class coaches, welcomed through the diamond-encrusted gates at Chelsea FC with a warm handshake, are spun around and kicked out of the grounds almost within the same movement.

The cacophony of dissenting voices at the seemingly imminent departure of Di Matteo presents the tip of an iceberg that threatens to capsize Chelsea's aimless pursuit of global domination. Unfortunately for the Russian oligarch, wildly flinging cash at his project does not guarantee steering clear of collision with a fate that could, potentially, topple Chelsea from the pinnacle of football and undermine the billions of pounds injected into the club since 2003. If Chelsea continue on this course, dreams of becoming Europe's finest look ominous; the experiment may disintegrate as quickly as it blossomed.

Too dramatic? Possibly. But failure to sneak into the Champions League via victory in Munich on Saturday would produce a financial black hole for a side reliant on a revenue stream that has provided a consistent cash flow since 2004.

Only Chelsea know if their current financial health is acceptable for the careful scrutiny of UEFA, with the Financial Fair Play initiative beginning their monitoring next season. Clubs may record a £39.4 million loss over the first three years, excluding wage expenses for players signed prior to June 2010.

But even if Chelsea pass the first UEFA inspection, they will be expected to bring their losses down to £8.8 million by 2018; when examination becomes more rigorous, Chelsea need to make sure they are suitably stable. Their free spending days are over.

Knee-jerk management, then, could have cost the club dearly; the once titanic force of Mourinho's strong and powerful Chelsea side, having been jabbed by the meddling hands of their temperamental owner on one too many occasions, now appears disoriented and injured.

Their success in the Champions League this season has been heroic, in as much as they resemble a wounded animal limping its way through each battle, relying on resilience and pride, using its experience and the remainder of its strength to sneak past younger, more agile opposition.

They must finish the job in Munich. The competition has injected £45 million in TV deals and prize money into their bank account already this season, not to mention ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising, which can double this amount. Last year the figure stood at £36 million, roughly the average income for any Champions League team that reached the second round.

Now for the bad news. Chelsea recorded a loss of £72 million for the financial year, down slightly from a £78 million loss the year before. It does not take a genius to work out that they need that ECL money. They also forked out £189.5 million on wages in 2010/11, up significantly from £174 million the year before. Take away the revenue stream that has provided at least £40 million per year to this club for the past 8 seasons, and you have, to put it lightly, a problem.

Chelsea may slip through the lax FFP regulations, but successfully rebuilding a squad with the loss of this money seems an insurmountable task, particularly considering the additional risk of repeat failures once their financial stronghold in the top four is initially broken.

Abramovich's failings as a chairman are innumerable, and their combined effect could see his empire crumble to the ground. His poor decision-making includes: signing Torres without consultation with Ancelotti, before sacking the manager for the resulting imbalance; sacking Mourinho because the footballing master-mind’s vision differed from his own; dismissing Villas-Boas before he was given the chance to instigate a revolutionary philosophy upon the side; sacking Scolari after 7 months in charge... the list goes on.

In fact, one could argue that Chelsea would never have reached the dizzying heights of Premier League glory, if the owner had not somewhat fortuitously stumbled upon the great Mourinho. Jose was perhaps the only man who could have achieved instant glory (as required of any coach brave enough to accept the Abramovich challenge), whilst simultaneously building a team that each subsequent manager has been able to ride off the back of.

Where has this left Abramovich's beloved toy? The current Chelsea squad is little more than an eclectic amalgamation of managerial visions: Gary Cahill and Juan Mata represent the composure and technical assurance favoured by AVB; Torres and Luiz the 'throw-money-at-it-and-hope-for-the-best' attitude favoured by Abramovich; Essien and Drogba the strength and power of the team built by Mourinho.

There is no tangible direction at Chelsea, and any manager brave enough to drastically revamp the squad must produce fruitful results immediately. This is why Chelsea may now fail to qualify for the lucrative Champions League. The game on Saturday is one of the most important moments in the club's history. Lose, and Abramovich might see his desperate clutch at global domination slip through his fingers, and drift permanently out of reach.

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Response to the Man City Article Fury: Explanation and Justification.

An article I wrote last week regarding Man City's financial exploits in recent years, entitled (somewhat hyperbolically) AManchester City Title May Signal the Death of Football As We Know It, received an enormous negative response on footballblog.co.uk. I've never been called a cunt before, but now I have - upwards of 30 times. Some of the responses were considered and fair, and these are the ones I've responded to below. Others were quite hilariously aggressive. In the last couple of days I have been described as:

- 'in the loosest sense of the word, author'
- 'bitter cunt. Read about 4 paragraphs and it became increasingly obvious that you're a jealous brummy
- 'bitter cunt – two words that sum this guy up succinctly'
- 'bitter, rancid, jealous, hate filled collection of bile'
- 'CUNT'

I'll leave these people to stew in their own hatred, but below I have tried to respond to the intellectual criticisms.

Firstly, my argument regarding 'tradition' was poorly phrased. My point here, was simply that an economic model running successfully, i.e. in profit, was the only viable way to run a football club. The concept of 'fairness' is important in competitive terms, since a combination of building the club as a whole and performing well on the pitch is how the vast majority of clubs reach the pinnacle of football. I did not mean this to imply you need 'history' (in the traditional footballing criticism use of the word). Naturally, any team that has reached the top division of English football has done this and fits the bill. I despise people who go on about 'history' and 'tradition', as if it has any effect on their 'right' to be a big team.

Man City, of course, have always been big and built upon success. As many people rightly pointed out, the Etihad was built before the takeover and the popularity and success of the club is what drew Sheikh Mansour their in the first place. I did not mean to offend the club itself and its supporters, but I stand by my analysis that the actions of the owner in the last few years, and hence what the club has come to represent, are a reason (amongst countless other variables) for many of the financial concerns within football.

With regards to the Villa thing – it was tactless of me to put something in about the club I support, giving weight to anyone accusing me of bitterness. I am frustrated, because I do believe football is heading down a path that has no long term future in its current mould, which I believe my statistics regarding EPL debt and clubs entering administration shows. City are a part of this, but it is just one part. Villa have been woeful and are not a team even worthy of discussion. Lerner did indeed pump millions into the club, but this was with a long term model for overall profit, as I have highlighted in the original article, and I do believe that this is different to Chelsea or Man City etc. that are happy to write off huge initial losses. I have far more concern as a neutral in watching the Beautiful Game than I do in one club, anyway.

Most of the comments refer to Man United's enormous transfer expenditure over the last 20 years, arguing that my article is biased. If you read the original article, I explain why this is a different thing, although I did not do it very succinctly. United's growth was based on an immense network of global branding. Their flotation on the stock market instigated their transfer activity in the early 90s, but the stock valuation that initiated this was as a result of their image and their worth. I am not trying to antagonise, and I recognise that talking favourably about one half of Manchester whilst bad-mouthing the other half is bound to lead to criticism, but I am simply trying to explain why United spending money is slightly different. They make year on year profits. Their success comes from a line of success (on and off the pitch).

Breaking the monopoly of the big four is obviously a great thing for everyone, but there remains a difference between a team doing it as part of a fantasy football-esque project that writes off billions (as I have tried to point out in the original argument, this really does have long term damage on other clubs) and a club that hopes to pump money in in the short-term to reap the benefits in the long term. As many commentors have pointed out, this will no longer be possible after FFP; again, this is something I pointed out in the article. People saying UEFA are to blame are partially correct, but I posit that it is the bizarre economics of clubs that cause negative knock-on effects, that force UEFA's hand into doing this.

The final general point, before responding to specific comments, is on the community projects surrounding Eastlands. I will hold my hands up and admit that I was ignorant of this element of City's investment. If Mansour's investment will genuinely provide jobs and renovate the local areas then, needless to say, this is excellent. If the improvements are significant (and i'm not suggesting they won't be) then it justifies investments or bending of the rules. It is more important than football.

On the Etihad deal itself, there has been an enormous amount of concern regarding the deal, with many critics regarding UEFA's decision not to investigate it as one of the most important moments in football history. It is of serious concern to many people - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2111563/Manchester-City-400m-Etihad-deal-banned-says-EU-watchdog.html.

I do not solely blame Man City, and I do not wish to offend supporters. The issues regarding debt in football are not even fully understood by economists within the game, and it would be naïve of me to attempt to quantify the role of 'sugar daddy' clubs in this.


I have read all of the comments, and I wish I had the time to respond to all of them. Hopefully a large majority of the views expressed have been addressed above.

You state that FFP is to rein in debt - why then are MUFC not bothered by FFP at all? Debt is not the issue here. If you can pay your debt from income as United do (to the tune of £500m since the Glazer's took over) then FFP won't affect you.

I thought I would use this comment to respond to a general concern running through the comments, suggesting my article is flawed in its discussion of the Glazier's debt at United, Man City's long term plan to become profitable, and the idea that they are investing money that stays in the sport.
United's debt does not affect FFP (apologies for writing 'reign in debt', that was a carelessly slip of the keyboard) because they can still make a profit. By doing so, their finances are solid and maintainable, and a model for all clubs to work towards (Arsenal are another club with an excellent financial system). City, I am sure, will become profitable in the long run in alignment with the FFP, but the initial investment, and the money being written off in the process, is where my concern is (for the reasons given in the article). I do not think it is accurate to say that money is being invested into football, or that there is a 'trickle down' effect. The inflation worries I highlight in the article have been expressed numerous times by coaches at lower levels who have experienced the effect first hand.

I don't know any other industry where you cannot invest your own money! Where rules are put in place that prohibit freedom of choice in the way FFP does.

On a similar note, it is dangerous to assume football can run like any other industry. Personal investment to get a company up and running is one thing, but intentionally splashing billions, without expecting to see a full return, is different. As one comment pointed out, Microsoft run an operating loss on their consoles to make money back on the games; Tesco lose money on bread and milk in order to earn more in the rest of the shop. That's life. Well, as far as i'm concerned, we should not just accept that this is inevitable. It is immoral. The world of football cannot afford to let people do this, and I can't be going mad here - why do people think FFP is being initiated in the first place?

Clearly your preferred world is the one dominated by Arsenal and Man U, leading the fab 4. Where the CL money guarantees the same 4 every year. Big clubs stay big and small clubs stay small. CIty gate crashed somebody else s party in the only way possible and you know what, I’m loving it.

A common complaint i've had is summed up in this one. It is a fair point, but one that comes from my article perhaps being too aggressive, giving the impression that I lay sole blame with City. There are numerous reasons, which perhaps I will write about in future articles, for the current financial situation. Gate crashing was attempted by other clubs like Spurs and has had some degree of success. The gate-crashing at City or Chelsea is another level. There is no model in place to find a return on the investment once success is achieved. I am sure you are loving it, and I'm sure I would enjoy it too if it happened to my team, but that doesn't mean that it helps the game as a whole, and I am trying to be neutral.

The business of football has grown global, with global investment – it’s a natural economic progression, and unless you can invent a time machine to undo all that has come before, then learn to live with it.

It is not a progression. Some comments seem to think that the investment stimulates the game and stays within it, and that increased money suggests a thriving system. This isn't the case; football is living in a bubble of spiralling debt, inflating faster than it is expanding.

we don’t borrow a penny, it is our owners personal money that has been in the past converted into shares. So no debt here mate.
Sheik Mansour has invested his own money, not borrowed money.

He owns it, sure, but the club itself is still running a loss. If he was to leave right now (and i'm sure he wouldn't) then City would collapse because of the losses they are making. It still counts as loss, just because it comes from the owners pocket.

would not the death of football come from people under-investing in it?

'Investing' is a leading phrase, because it suggests economically sound implications. A lot of the money put in is being written off on wages, for example. Wage expectations of players (who as we know hold increasing power over clubs) rise when a club is suddenly able to double their wages, and hence our knock on effect on smaller clubs. Over-investing, without practical methods to actually turn a profit (and I don't mean year-on-year somewhere down the line, I mean overall including initial investment) damages the infrastructure of the league.

Why haven't Arsenal, Villa or Everton re-invested the transfer money they received from City into buying players of the same quality or better than the ones who left? 

As I wrote in the article, the problem here is that replacing quality is so difficult. It is not easy to replace the club captain, or indeed a winger who was always better than the club itself. Naturally, they both may have been sold to other big clubs for this very reason; that's football. The reason why I feel it is different when the money comes out of nowhere is that, after a team builds for years (and I am not just talking about Villa, who frankly don't concern me as much as watching the Beautiful Game as a neutral), they are sold not to one of the top teams, but to a club of similar stature that has received a sudden influx of money. These days if City bought a Villa player (highly unlikely!! want to take Heskey off us? Please?) then you could not begrudge the player for leaving.

Thanks for reading. I hope I have cleared up some of my points. I understand why people saw my article as jealous and bitter. I do not hate Man City fans (the ones who have always supported the club). Unfortunately, because of what they have come to represent over the past few years, I do not like the club. Oh, and by the way, I do not like Man United either.

Alex Keble

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Man City Title May Signal the Death of Football As We Know It. They have Undermined the Integrity of the Sport Financially, Competitively, and Morally.

Newcastle United were swept aside on Sunday as Man City almost certainly sealed the Premier League title. A bit of English football died today.

£24 million Toure scored the goals, the stand-out performer amongst the £82 million Man City midfield. Do we need another scary statistic? Well, their starting 11 cost £179 million, with collective wages of over £1 million per week. Say what you like about Mancini's managerial qualities, City's fight back when the title seemed beyond them, or simply the feat of outmanoeuvring Alex Ferguson; Manchester City have bought the Premier League trophy.

There are numerous economic reasons why the oil-rich billionaire's toy is having a drastic affect on football, but let's start with the most obvious. Football is a sport built on very simple ethics; a successful club is built on a tradition, and it is built on slow progress.

Manchester United's current position has come from decades of brilliance. Their stadium, their fan base, their commercial power, their ability to attract players – in short, their success – is built from a long history of achievement, each contributing to the next generation, each weaving a stronger thread into the complex tapestry of their success. The same can be said of Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Everton (amongst others).

In modern football, success is dependent on money. Whether you see this as a blessing or a curse, it is difficult to deny. A successful league season will be rewarded with prize money or lucrative European football, which will allow a club to build towards the top. Villa almost got there, Tottenham are getting close. Manchester City, on the other hand, skipped this bit, pretending they were a big club and producing money out of nowhere.

As an Aston Villa fan, let me use the Villa as an example of how football is supposed to work. Founded by 4 men convening under a lamp post in 1874, Villa became one of the world's biggest clubs in the Victorian era. Slowly gaining household status after FA cup and league success, crowds flocked to watch the Villans, leading to an eventual move to a larger ground, now known as Villa Park. Over the next hundred years the stadium and fan base grew, with Aston Villa remaining a famous name in European football. Today, the 40 000 capacity stadium, the club's financial position, and the club's Premier League status, are all a result of this chain of success.

Man City have not grown to their current position. They have produced money from an industry that has nothing to do with football, and used it to buy the world's best players, cheating the system and frankly destroying the integrity of club football.

Man City's rise to Premier league champions has been anything but organic, and to achieve a rapid ascent to success relies on incredible transfer sprees. Since there is not an infinite pool of world class players, this inevitably hinders the progress of those clubs who have persevered with a more traditional, honest approach, before seeing the talent they have nurtured lured by City's billions. Their signings ripped the heart out of Arsenal, Aston Villa, Everton, Newcastle, Valencia, West Ham – the list goes on. Everton, fighting heroically for European football on a small budget, had Joleon Lescott lured away from them in their prime. Aston Villa, desperately trying to finish in the top 4 and consolidate their rebirth under Lerner and O'Neill, saw captain Gareth Barry and playmaker James Milner taken from them in successive seasons, with the latter transfer culminating in the resignation of the manager. Wenger's endlessly 'transitional' Arsenal side were cut down by the sales of Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri to Man City.

Of course, the reason these players leave is because Man City can offer wages and transfer fees that are (seemingly) impossible to refuse. Prepared to make a substantial year on year loss, the amount they invest is essentially 'free money'; there are no repercussions for spending grotesque amounts on footballers that will bring them trophies. It is quite simply an abuse of economic power, treating the structural integrity of the sport carelessly, with no consideration for the long term effects of their actions on the industry as a whole. Losing one billion pounds in four years may not affect Manchester City, but it has huge repercussions on the rest of English football.

It is common knowledge that the debt of English clubs is spiralling out of control. This is almost entirely due to inflated transfer fees and increasing wage demands that do not correlate with the finances of top level football. 17 of the Premier League's 20 clubs are making a loss each year; that is a failing industry. Millions of pounds are written off every season, making players and agents wealthier and football clubs (and fans) poorer.

When did it get out of control? Certainly football finances have been managed ineptly across the board, but the game never really got out of control until the creation of the Premier League, and the first ludicrous football investment at Blackburn Rovers. Rovers would win the league in 1996 after creating a dream team from the millions made available for transfers, but being built without lasting foundations, their decline was almost as rapid as their ascent.

This story, along with similar exploits at Leeds in the late 1990s, Chelsea in 2004 and Man City in 2008 had an enormous impact on the market, doubling or even tripling the valuation of footballing talent and raising wage expectations. Abramovich can flippantly throw £50 million at Fernando Torres, but any club without the luxury of being able to record a loss, cannot afford the knock on effect of inflated fees.

There is an undeniable correlation between the over-paying of Blackburn, Leeds, Chelsea and Man City during their periods of heavy spending, and the overall inflation of player valuations. The trickle down effect of this is hard to see, but football economists claim that an increase in the average price of a premier league player increases the valuation of players at every level. Teams in the lower divisions of English football cannot make up this gap without serious consequences.

In a conventional confined economic system, a market will fluctuate based on supply and demand. Logic would assume that clubs would baulk at inflated fees and refuse to pay them, thus bringing prices back down. Unfortunately, the stakes are too high for such stubbornness.

Since the creation of the Premier League in 1991, TV deals have become an integral element of football finance, and short term success is crucial in maintaining TV income (such is the disparate spread of generated revenue). Relegation threatened clubs cannot afford to risk refusing increased transfer fees. Short term failure could cost them upwards of £60 million in the following financial year. Equally a team desperate for European qualification is forced to yield to the market even to tread water, with the difference between 4th, 5th and 6th costing a club tens of millions. This catch 22 is exactly the same with regards to the increase in wage demands. The average premier league wage today is £22 000 p/w, with some earning £250 000 p/w. When free-spending Blackburn signed Alan Shearer in 1992 he was paid around £8 000 p/w.

The type of success Man City have bought has contributed greatly to the rise in transfer fees, which has directly affected the enormous debt that looms over football, threatening to completely obliterate the sport at professional level. If the current situation persists, it is simply impossible to see football surviving another 20 years in its current format. Fortunately, the first wave of clubs to sink into administration this millennium (QPR, Hull, Bradford, Leicester, Derby, Ipswich, Wimbledon, Leeds, Southampton, Portsmouth, Rangers) have all been rescued at the last minute. It cannot be long before one club is left to drown, and when one club is liquidated, many more will fall.

Unless of course, UEFA's Fair Play initiative has anything to say about it. Firstly, it is worth mentioning that this system, although likely to reign in club football debt (Chelsea have begun a 'sell to buy' strategy now and many other Premier League clubs have begun cutting their wage budget), the system has already had setbacks. The £400 million sponsorship of Man City's stadium by Abu Dhabi Group owned Etihad is, overtly and unashamedly, just another way to pump £400 million of their own money into the club. It is cheating, and it undermines the system, again. But even if this system does work, there is a very high chance that it will be a poisoned chalice.

From next season clubs must be profitable; their expenditure cannot exceed their turnover by more than £5m, or they face transfer bans, withholding of prize money, or even bans from European competition. Although appealing, this initiative holds one fatal flaw; it does not allow for the risk of investment for long term gain.

Aston Villa and Tottenham, two sides who have challenged the top four (with varying degrees of success) in recent years spent £120 million and £140 million respectively in the space of four years. The idea being that initial investment will break the monopoly of the big clubs and bring Champions' League qualification, which is worth up to £70 million per year in TV revenue and prize money, offering an eventual return on the money spent. If such gambles are stopped, then the rich clubs will simply cement their dominance, relying on financial might gained from European football to ensure nobody else can take their spot away from them. The league is in danger of becoming repetitive and non-competitive. Newcastle may break the top four this year, but there are already rumours that their key players will be signed by bigger clubs, and it is unlikely that they will be able to repeat their success next season. A system that may cause more problems than it creates has only been instigated as a result of the morally dubious exploits at clubs like Chelsea and Man City.

Early signs of this are already becoming apparent. The gap between the big clubs and the rest is so plainly evident that owners may have begun to realise that there is no financial gain in attempting to be competitive. With £9 million prize money separating 17th from 5th, and £60 million+ separating 17th from 18th, what is the use in investing, aiming high, when the chances of any monetary gain are so small?

This is clearest of all at Villa. McLeish was seen as a 'safe' appointment, ahead of a riskier one that would try to build something challenging the top 6 again (of course, we can now see how foolish he was in thinking McLeish was safe, but that's a different matter). Boring mid-table obscurity becomes an attractive prospect for an owner who has seen significant financial investment fail to turn into anything substantial.

Clubs creating wealth from nothing, like Man City, are the cause of this dearth in competition. They have forced UEFA's hand that may reduce long term competition. They have taken key players from burgeoning sides and thus stunted growth and increased competition. They have made it impossible to sign players without running up insurmountable debts, thus reducing the ability for others to compete and causing the financial system to fold in on itself. They have contributed to the wealth disparity that has led to pragmatic management aimed at safety, not glory. And they have done it through means that essentially amount to cheating the system, producing money out of nowhere, leaving nothing but chaos in their path.

That is why we are watching a two team league. We are lucky it is as competitive as that.

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