A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It is the strangest of times. This season has been one of the most unpredictable in Premier League history. It’s long been noted, especially by this writer, that the technical standard of England’s top flight has been on the decline. Any doubts surrounding this can be erased by noting the recent performances of Premier League sides in Europe. For several years the excitement levels have increased while tactical know-how has been reduced. It couldn’t go on forever and have the steady balance at the top of the league remain. This season the status quo was demolished.

When Manchester City gate-crashed the top four party, they took their place at the established table with the look of a team willing to fit the mould. They spent big to play catch-up, only asking for a place in the Champions League that usually went to a team like Liverpool.

Their presence didn’t threaten the see-saw of dominance, that hadn’t moved for so long one could assume it had rotten to a rigid state. It was coincidence that City’s arrival at the top coincided with a slow drop-off in domestic tactical astuteness. La Liga sides had evolved, with most of that thanks going to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team.

Gone were the days of expecting two English sides in the Champions League semi-finals; just getting to the knockout phase has become an achievement. In tandem with La Liga’s intelligence growing at a rate faster than the Premier League’s, so was the Bundesliga’s.

Bayern Munich became the dominant force in Germany and won Europe’s top competition. It’s often remarked, in a negative angle, that there isn’t the weekly competition for Bayern that English teams have to face. La Liga has similar accusations aimed at it. There’s an idea there’s only two good teams – Barcelona and Real Madrid – and the rest are just walkovers.

If this was the case, these three giant teams would struggle. A lack of big games would lead to head’s drifting off. But they remain focused in Europe and it’s battle-hardened Premier League sides that struggle midweek. This season the sentiment that anyone can beat anyone in England has never been truer.

Even in the face of such inconsistency patterns were emerging that pundits and fans failed to recognise or accept. And even with normality taking a break, people expect old ways to return. Leicester City were tipped to drop away before the hectic Christmas period. When that didn’t occur the prediction was it would happen during. That never materialised so the next prediction was it would happen after.

We’re now in February and they still top the league.

The latest effort to reduce their expectations meets reality with the failing perceptions halfway. Observers still can’t allow themselves to believe they are in a title race – even after 24 games – but concede they are likely to finish top four now.

It’s a tremendous accomplishment. The Foxes started the season as a relegation candidate. Claudio Ranieri has taken a set of players that weren’t in the spotlight and instilled belief and most importantly: a strong work ethic.
There may be more money spent on players in the Premier League, both in transfers and wages, and new TV deals eclipse those from more successful European leagues, but that doesn’t mean the best players are here.

Leicester have exploited the weakness in the league as a whole, not the shortcomings of separate teams that expected to be placed higher. Now that they have momentum, stopping them will be hard.

Against Manchester City they face a team that won’t begrudge the Foxes any lasting success at the top. Fans of Manchester’s club can easily recall a time before the Sheikh’s money, when winning one more League Cup would have been a heady dream and chances of a Premier League title were folly.

Financial Fair Play (FFP) was seen as a tool to maintain a status quo for the traditional big names. The assumption being, only a massive outlay of cash could enable a side to break the top four.

Multiple articles here, and Financial Fair Prejudice, never spoke out against FFP to keep Manchester City safe. They already made it in the castle before the drawbridge was up. The bordering on illegal and morally ambiguous FFP meant teams feared that if weren’t already a big fish, they never would be.

Leicester have changed all this.

Okay, they do have billionaire owners that have restructured the club. But their accelerated growth period pales in comparison to Man City’s.

Their stubbornness to accept everybody else’s predictions and perceptions has been aided by a stuttering league campaign from the title rivals they face next. The Citizens have been equally consistent in their form by being the antithesis of Leicester’s attitude.

Instead of non-stop application, Pellegrini’s men appear to fire in spits and spats. When their backs are against the wall then a world class City emerges and brushes sides away with ease. Far too often they spend the first twenty minutes of matches drifting, as if their talent alone will ensure success. The effort comes later, when the task has been made harder than it should have been.

After Saturday there should be a clearer idea on where the season’s heading. The neutral will warm to the idea of Leicester City taking victory and then securing a title win so improbable Hollywood movie execs wouldn’t dare use it in a script. If the Foxes win, the press will say it is remarkable achievement that they won the “best league in the world.”

If Manchester City remove Leicester’s point advantage it could be the start for the final push. Players are now fighting for their careers as they try and impress incoming manager, Pep Guardiola, from afar. With Arsenal commencing their annual fall away, only Tottenham lurk as the other potential dark horse.

If Man City win the title in Pellegrini’s final year, the press will comment on the lack of a legitimate challenger and make more news about the low number of points needed to win a weak league. The points spread is currently being used to rejoice at how competitive and tough it is.

But there’s nothing but truth in the statement: the league never lies after 38 games. Whoever that is will deserve it most, all other factors become irrelevant.

The City that takes three points Saturday lunch time will start to imagine their hands on the title.

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.”

MCFCAc

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.

How to Make The FA Cup Great Again

How to Make The FA Cup Great Again

Paul Lambert claimed this week that if asked, and they answered honestly, most managers would rather like to do away with The FA Cup. What a grim view of the oldest domestic cup competition in the world. The greatest domestic cup, in fact. I understand the sentiment he was trying to make but he is wrong.

As I have discussed in blogs here, and extensively in Financial Fair Prejudice, football today is a business. Lambert was highlighting how Premier League survival is more important than a good cup run, or even cup success, it seems. The implication that he’d trade places in The FA Cup for three points is disrespectful to the great competition. Whilst I understand the money on offer by competing in the Premier League overshadows the domestic cup competition in the modern game, I fail to believe proper fans want mid-table mediocrity for their entire existence over an FA Cup being added to an otherwise sparse history with regard to successes.

Of course the chairmen will take mid-table – hell, even a relegation battle every year – as long as the Premier League money keeps rolling in. Surely it’s better to go down, survive on the parachute payments, then return and be able to say you’d won the domestic big one. If Wigan do return to the Premier League in the next few years they’ll be no worse off than they were previous but their history is richer. The taste of one glorious day at Wembley makes an inevitable relegation easier to bear. And from disappointment tinged with success great things can grow. What Lambert suggests is we should all be happy with a bleak existence.

For those – like the Villa manager – that will never agree to this, that dream of one day flirting with a six place finish so they can qualify for the Europa League, which they can do if they win The FA Cup, I can offer one alternative. Wouldn’t it be great if The FA Cup winners gained entry to the Champions League? Suddenly the dismissive comments made about competing in The FA Cup disappear. Suddenly it’s one lotto every chairman in the land wants to buy a ticket for.

Thusly the problem emerges: UEFA would never want to allow the risk of a Wigan entering the top European competition whilst potentially battling in the Championship. I see the conundrum but it is a shame. Ignoring the fact the Champions League itself turns into a knockout tournament, so is a little lottery when all said and done, the fear a team too weak to qualify would prove unfounded. The prize of Champions League qualification would mean the top sides would try even harder to win it. To the point any team – even one from outside the established top six in the Premier League – would have to be deemed worthy as they’d need to defeat a usual Champions League opponent at some point. An opponent firing on all cylinders, focused on the ultimate prize.

If Champions League qualification was attached to The FA Cup imagine how electric the Wembley final would become once again. For children of my generation cup final day was the highlight of the year. The Superbowl of Soccer, if you will. By making victory equate to what only the top three teams in England gained after a long thirty-eight game season it’d have fans around the globe on the edge of their seats.

I mention the top three because clearly that qualification spot would be grabbed from the fourth placed team. This year’s Premier League has been the most open and engaging for a long time, imagine how much more fascinating it would be with less league qualification spots and the cup wildcard thrown in. And how’s this for a kicker – if a team outside the top three happened to win the Champions League that year it’d only be the top two and The FA Cup victors that would qualify alongside them. Those chairman in the usual top six would be the most reluctant to slim their league chances further. They’d be the minority. The majority would crave FA Cup football. At the moment everyone is lukewarm to The FA Cup and a minority placed in Premier League relegation fights seem to actively dislike it.

Let’s do what’s good for the many – not the few. The many clubs that would love a cup competition with such a rich prize, not to mention history. And the many, many fans. It’s always the fans that should matter first. Not chairmen blinded by money, or managers lacking imagination and desire.