Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

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Time for Arsène to Go

Time for Arsène to Go

The indignity of an overhead plane calling for your removal is a moment no manager can survive. While it raises questions about the class of fan that arranges such a display, it is a clear watershed moment. Arsène Wenger wasn’t the first to befall this treatment, but he is the latest and it means bridges can never be rebuilt with a large section of the Gunners’ support. Before the situation declines further, he should do the most logical thing: announce this is his last season at The Emirates.

If only it was so clear cut. Wenger is an open book. His achievements during his time in North London are as obvious as his weaknesses. The main hindrance now being his stubborn nature. It’s that single purpose and drive that once made his Arsenal side become Invincibles. But that was a long time ago – a different era, even. His way is no longer the way. With each passing season when he digs in, Arsenal fall further behind.

His presumed principles should be applauded. On the surface he is against the modern way of buying success. He’d rather develop players. A by-product of this has been the club’s ability to quickly payoff the outstanding loans on their new stadium.

For a while, a new stadium – bought and paid for – was enough to satisfy the supporters. It was always accepted with the understanding once it was paid off, they’d once again compete in the transfer market. Well, the bricks and mortar no longer require financial nurturing but the team does. And Wenger refuses to budge.

What is baffling, is how the stance on transfers is broken now and again (Mesut Özil £42.5m; Alexis Sánchez £35m; Shkodran Mustafi £35m; Granit Xhaka £34m) without an air of caution or appreciation for market value. Still, a feeling persists they are two or three players short of a title winning team. The problem is, they’ve been short for years now.

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Not to take anything away from Leicester’s achievement last season, but that was Arsenal’s best chance to put a decade of being happy with top four, and title nearly rans, behind them. Chelsea were recovering from a Mourinho meltdown, Manchester City had a long, painful goodbye with Pellegrini, Manchester United and Liverpool were still missing in action.

Their local rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, showed they lack experience and maturity when it comes to leading the pack, eventually finishing below The Gunners. It was a case of “now or never.” Arsène’s players opted for the never.

And no matter how long he clings onto power, further success will continue to elude him at The Emirates.

FA Cup victories are not sufficient. Top four finishes – as lucrative as they are – are not satisfying. Success in Europe is, but that’s gone for another year. A Premier League title is, but even in the unlikely event Chelsea implode, other teams will be more likely to capitalise.

The truth is, players and fans alike no longer believe in the Frenchman. It is sad to see such a great record at Arsenal be bookended by disharmony and a lack of respect. But he has to realise his continued presence is having a negative effect as the club try to evolve.

Outsiders will never know if Wenger is carrying the can for the board. They say he has money, but behind closed doors the story could be much different, with his professionalism forcing him to tell the press a skewed version of events. There must have been pressure on Wenger from above because when they moved stadium in 2006, and up to 2013, they actually turned in a profit of £40m in the transfer market.

Had his ideology always been to spend less, develop more, why hadn’t Arsenal turned in a stadium-sized profit every season before this?

Historically, he was happy to bring in imports that required a final stage of development. The team that went unbeaten all season during the 2003/04 campaign added José Antonio Reyes in the second transfer window for £13m. That’s about £18m adjusted for inflation, which doesn’t take into account the new TV money and modern day premium on Premier League transfers.

Could you imagine Wenger sprinkling a player short of £20m on his squad in January nowadays? It’s less likely than when his team hadn’t lost a single league match.

Reyes was the final cog that had followed a series of highly priced acquisitions. The list reads something like this: Marc Overmars £7m; Patrick Vieira and Freddie Ljungberg £3m; Kanu £4.5m; Sylvinho £4m; Thierry Henry £10.5m; Lauren £7m; Robert Pires £6m; Sylvain Wiltord £13m; Francis Jeffers £8m; Edu £6m; Giovanni Van Bronckhorst £8.5m; Richard Wright £6m; Gilberto Silva £4.5m.

Thierry Henry

Those are just the most eye-catching (not adjusted for inflation) from the summer of 1997 to 2002, they are punctuated with many more that exceed millions and offer sparse evidence that Wenger has treated his time at Arsenal as a place to develop cheaper players.

When it suited, he spent big. It’s hard to believe he had a paradigm shift in attitude, unless he’s an all-out hypocrite. But even these big names moved on to pastures new, including golden boy Theirry Henry.

Since then the state of domestic leagues has changed. The Premier League has more cash but foreign top flights have the wealth of better players. The time to develop unproven talent is forever diminishing. To make matters worse, his record with young talent reads very poor.

Has Theo Walcott improved that much under Wenger? He’s one of many young players that have stagnated under him rather than reach full potential.

His methods are antiquated, his views romantic but out of date. One more season isn’t going to bring about the change he’s struggled to find in the last ten years.

The Arsenal fans should be eternally grateful to Wenger, likewise, he should acknowledge that those buying the most expensive seats in the Premier League deserve a fresh direction.

Financial Fair Palter

Financial Fair Palter

A little over two years ago I made my opposition to Financial Fair Play clear in Financial Fair Prejudice. At the time the arguments against the system felt like the final futile attempts of resistance before football’s fair days of competiveness would be glazed over by a constant status quo. But this week Michel Platini proved that money’s more fluid than the previous positive counter-arguments. He announced that FFP would be eased this summer.

Victory at last? Not quite, well, not quite yet. It won’t be until the end of June we see exactly how much UEFA will ease the current rules. It also remains open to debate how they will do this and maintain a governable system. It is a step in the right direction. Or more accurately, a shuffle away from the wrong one.

Throughout various articles here I have attempted to demonstrate the reasons FFP is wholly unfair. That’s not to say I scoffed at Platini’s other remarks this week, namely the claim FFP was “working well.” To some degree, it is. If you recall, I have always been an advocate of a system that prevented a future Leeds or Portsmouth situation. My distaste for FFP has never meant I’ve overlooked this sentiment.

The figures themselves highlight the areas where FFP has been a positive force for change. But these should be used with caution, as other figures indicate an alternative version why FFP is being eased. Far be it from me to think ill of Platini or UEFA, or question their motives, but one could argue they aren’t acting out of benevolence at this point.

First, those good stats. The easiest demonstration is the net debt across all of Europe’s clubs. This has fallen from €1.7Bn to €400M over the three years from 2011 to 2014. Here in the Premier League transfer spending was the same in the recent January window as it was twelve months before, but notably less (by approximately £95M) than the 2011 January window. If we examine the club punished on our shores due to FFP, Manchester City, they have reduced their wage bill by £40M over this period.

Some will argue clubs, such as Manchester City, have shuffled some wages on their accounts (it’s reported support staff at Manchester City now are on the City Football Group’s payroll) but no one can deny a concerted effort has been made by England’s leading clubs to become more financially responsible. This is if we ignore the example set by Manchester United since their departure from the Champions League.

Newly crowned champions, Chelsea, did their business in the summer and reluctantly had to balance the books to bring in the signings they wanted. Arsenal have been doing this for years and continued to do so. The aforementioned City may not have spent as wisely but it was all within the tight confines their punishment afforded. Relegated Burnley resisted the urge to splash to survive and depart the top flight as a healthy model.

As a whole it appears that the majority are making the transition from potentially reckless to greener pastures.

This article now sets a record for the longest I’ve spoken about FFP without a criticism. Don’t worry, I have a few to hand. One last positive before we get there, and an example why we do need FFP to some (lesser) degree, the QPR model. They claim to be cutting costs but they are leaking money without any sign of on-field progression. Shareholders wrote off £60M worth of debt but they are still accountable to the Football League for financial irregularities. This alone could see them plummet through another division. Tony Fernandes isn’t fooling anyone when he says the club has learned from previous mistakes.

Fernandes is also the embodiment of the fair-weather rich chairman, fans of clubs without money threaten to those with new wealth. Manchester City fans have heard for the last few years, “What happens when they get bored and take their money with them?” It’s similar to what people levelled at Chelsea supporters when Roman Abramovich first appeared on the scene. He’s still going strong and so will Sheikh Monsour for years to come. It’s the QPR owner that has invested in a reckless, ill-advised, foolish manner, without an overarching plan or ways to improve club revenue streams, and he’s also the only one that has flirted with the idea of turning his back on football.

Roman and the Sheikh are successful business men. Most of these are rich because they are good with cash. They don’t consistently lose money. Rich football owners – those running the club with cash, not debt – are bound to apply similar rules. Losing cash isn’t in their DNA. The difference with Fernandes and his sporting ventures, QPR and the Caterham F1 team, have been treated like pet projects. Chelsea and Manchester City were extensions of successful business portfolios. As such they were examined and reshaped to flourish as a business. Success on the pitch was intertwined with eventual profits off it.

What irks me is the two-faced side emanating from Stamford Bridge in recent years. They should take applause for being an example of why FFP is bad for the game. The Chelsea model should be a term for how to achieve success. Instead they shade over their accelerated growth period and pretend they are on board with FFP for the good of the game. They’re on board to prevent new money clubs catching up with those in the elite party.

José Mourinho speaks as if he’s a crusader for FFP. That heavy spending – regardless of how it is sourced – should be stamped out. That this is Year One and the income you generate now is the only allowed money. No accelerated growth periods for anyone else. This is repulsive for more than one reason. Mourinho never mentions how Chelsea posted a £140M loss in 2005 in order to transform the club from also-rans into the outfit they are today.

During this heavy investment the model has seen Chelsea become the third largest generators of income in the Premier League. They only achieved this by spending in the first place. José also speaks as if they now comply because of the rules. This is a fallacy. In 2006, then Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon, claimed they would be self-sufficient within a year. His figures may have been out but the business model was clear: Roman didn’t want to run at a loss forever. Just like Sheikh Monsour, he knows to make a better business an initial loss has to be absorbed.

As usual Arsène Wenger sits in room complaining without many listening. This week’s snippet from Moan Corner was how UEFA lost FFP when it removed youth investment from the calculations. It seems Mr Wenger not only wanted to ensure the Have Nots never will have, but that the Always Haves also corner the youth market.

This encapsulates the reasons why the voices that at first appeared ignored, (I myself wrote: “There’s no point arguing against Financial Fair Play anymore,”) have suddenly found welcoming ears. The idea that clubs could never catch the big guns without being allowed to follow a well-implemented growth period, albeit running at a temporary loss, found traction. It did this slowly and with a dawning realisation across Europe.

The impending court cases levelled against UEFA have played their part. They highlight the moral hypocrisy of the current system but more worryingly for defence lawyers, the legal problems set off alarm bells. UEFA is tied to EU laws. And while the EU doesn’t want to see a sport in their lands defy current convention, they are accountable by their own mandates. Freedom of trade and competition laws being the major headaches.

Also, the money in football generates its own mini-economy. If the cash at the top is prevented from purchasing assets then smaller clubs find reduced revenue. Debts may reduce for those chasing the perfect model but ends can’t be met in smaller boardrooms. Blackburn Rovers are a solid example here. Their debt has increased by £24M in spite of reducing the wage bill. The secondary economy – but most important to me – is the impact on the fans. FFP, in its original form, will mean supporters pay the price as clubs try to balance the books.

Everything has a breaking strain. For the current FFP it came from European clubs struggling to stay on the top level without extra investment. They saw the Premier League sell its TV rights for £5.5Bn and realised the gap was about to become unbridgeable. Even Platini admits the Italians have asked for FFP to be eased even though it is other nations that currently benefit most from foreign investment. Monaco had already reacted by loaning out Falcao to remove his high wage from their books. Their loss was the gain of nineteen other clubs in the Premier League.

It’s possible big clubs like Manchester United – going through an accelerated growth period of their own – and Real Madrid lent on UEFA to lessen FFP because of the impending cases. They do operate with large debts; something that clubs like City and PSG have argued should be factored into calculations. Easing FFP takes the spot light away from those with big debt but large fan bases, reducing the microscopic moral investigation.

The most telling statement from Michel Platini was: “Any potential changes will look to encourage more growth, more competition and market stimulation while strengthening the emphasis on controlling spending and safeguarding financial stability.”

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He’s summoned up perfectly the Manchester City model, the very ethos I championed before FFP was introduced. But don’t worry Michel, hindsight is 20/20.