How to Sweep up the Premier League Tactical Problem

How to Sweep up the Premier League Tactical Problem

It may be regarded as the most competitive top flight European league, but the Premier League has been going backwards tactically for some time now. This is evident by the declining performances, year after year, by English sides in the Champions League. It seems top sides here have suffered from acquiescence regarding their place in the pecking order. But there could be a way to stop them from faltering further.

On a weekly basis we see goals conceded that, while making the Premier League exciting and unpredictable, are a tactician’s nightmare. Some of the errors border on the schoolboy variety; others highlight how the pace of the English game makes defending a thankless task.

The solution could come from – quite ironically – an old European favourite: the sweeper system.

Before we go on, it needs to be pointed out, my personal level of football coaching begins on Championship Manager (the version before CM’93) and ends with Football Manager 2016. As a player, my greatest contribution was the post-match karaoke for the Sunday team I represented.

However, I did take England to two World Cup final victories and scored a screamer when hungover once (and just once, making me the least prolific striker in history). But you don’t have to be an all-time great to have valid observations. Indeed, the majority of top managers were, at best, average players.

The call for Premier League teams to adopt a sweeper system isn’t borne from some romantic notion. I’m not expecting John Stones to be the next Franco Baresi, although, it’s not too difficult to imagine. It comes from common sense.

The reasons that made European teams evolve away from the sweeper system are no longer valid in this country. Some factors apply across the board, including the Champions League.

Take the inability to apply a successful offside trap when employing a sweeper. When was the last time you saw an English side lockout Bayern Munich or Real Madrid because of their quick-thinking high defensive line?

Moreover, the offside trap requires linesman to never make a mistake. Okay, perhaps they can be afforded a few. And in days gone by the odd error would have been taken on the chin. But nowadays we have an overcomplicated offside rule. A defender can play a perfect “trap” and be caught out by the second or third phase of play. He can lose to the official’s interpretation.

A sweeper removes this area of potential ambiguity. He just clears up and prevents shock counters and breakaways.

Another argument against could be the modern defensive midfielder already does the role of sweeper but in a more advantageous position on the field.

To a certain degree, this is clearly true in some cases. The current Barcelona team never look like they need a sweeper. And Pep Guardiola’s conversion of Philipp Lahm to the defensive midfield role shows how versatile and effective it can be.

Under Guardiola, Lahm performed a similar role to the one Busquets had in Pep’s Barça side. Sometimes they slotted back, making a line of three centre backs, with the option for one to sweep. But it wasn’t an in-game reversion. The role of sweeper is too complex for players to cameo in the position. These instances were an example of a team responding to pressure and adapting for short bursts.

But aside from the very top sides, the role elsewhere is either performed by charlatans or capable players stuck in teams that don’t know how to support it. Take Manchester City, it can’t be argued they have the talent to play the modern defensive midfield role. They also have demonstrated how deadly it can be at times. But sides from Bournemouth to Middlesbrough to Juventus, have all shown how easy it is to bypass their midfield.

When that happens, you don’t have a sweeper sat in front of the defence – you have nothing but empty space protecting two centre backs.

This lack of cover combined with today’s blistering pace means even the best defenders will be made to look stupid. Eliaquim Mangala would have had an entirely different season if he’d have been given better protection in front of him. With a sweeper behind, he’d have excelled.

A sweeper would make teams more solid in the Premier League, the question then becomes: How would they fare in Europe.

This is harder to answer, mainly because it reduces some of the advantages English sides take into a game. The play goes slower still, the intelligence of the midfield to receive passes from a ball-playing sweeper needs to increase, and the best forwards in the world can try and camp out on your defensive line.

But the current weak imitation of how to play their style is sending Premier League teams backwards.

Perhaps a perceived disadvantage of the system would help English sides in Europe. The sweeper is seen as a waste of a defensive player when so many modern sides play with only one striker. This is an illusion at best.

A 4-3-2-1 soon becomes an out-and-out 4-3-3 when a good side is in possession.

The extra insurance at the back can deal with the morphing forward line.

Many will believe it’s outdated or impossible to try the system now. They’ll say defensive midfielders shore up a team. But ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a player properly anchor a side during a Premier League match?

Marcel Desailly? Nigel de Jong, at a stretch.

The sweeper system is a solution that keeps getting ignored. Someone needs to try it. Failure to do so ensures the European dominance stays with the German/Spanish power share and the domestic game will continue to suffer tactical devolution.

Modern Game, Archaic Attitudes

Modern Game, Archaic Attitudes

 

Last week the Daily Mail, a publication not renowned for high class output, once again confirmed its status as a small minded rag, pouring out the worst of society’s views. The target this time was Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid; a man many believe is the greatest player on Earth. The article didn’t centre on any of his on-field activities, instead it speculated what he enjoyed doing in private – with other men.
The Daily Mail wrote: Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo is in a gay relationship with a Moroccan kickboxer, it has been sensationally claimed.
Proving that in the world where low-end papers exist, it’s always the 1970s. It doesn’t matter if Ronaldo is homosexual or not. It shouldn’t be newsworthy.
The real problem is how a paper known for its xenophobia is using the rumour as some sort of slight against the Portuguese player.
It’s indicative of a fault well rooted in football’s primitive attitudes. In a sport that can change with the times when it comes to generating income, it still hasn’t learnt one thing since the days of Justin Fashanu.
He was the first £1m black footballer and the first professional player to come out as gay in England. The high fee was paid by Brian Clough who took him to Nottingham Forest. The legendary manager admitted in his autobiography one of his biggest regrets was his poor handling of Fashanu.
This came with the benefit of hindsight, coloured by the eventual suicide of the once promising talent. At the time Clough lacked the understanding and knowledge surrounding the issue. Like many back then, he was ignorant when it came to the subject of homosexuality.
Instead of being the father figure he later wished he’d been, when he first found out about Justin’s lifestyle he barred him from training with the first team. Then he hauled Justin into his office and broached the rumour in the manner recalled here, as written in Clough’s autobiography:
“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him.
‘A baker’s, I suppose.’
‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’
‘A butcher’s.’
‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?’”
It must have worn Justin down over the years, and by the time he was accused of sexual assault after an incident in America, he feared his colour and sexual orientation would make his case impossible to win.
Watching the many struggles he endured, it’s not hard to understand why only one other player has openly come out since. The fact it was Robbie Rodgers, a free agent at the time and hardly a household name in this country now, proves no top flight players believe it’s worth the risk.
More recently Sol Campbell became the centre of nothing more than gossip. A rumour spread that he left during Arsenal’s halftime interval with West Ham in 2006, a game The Gunners lost 3-2, because his agent had informed him a national newspaper was going to run a story about his sexual preferences.
Pink News printed comments made by Sol Campbell explaining how the racist and homophobic remarks were hard to deal with, he said, “There were moments when it became too much. West Ham at home with Arsenal I couldn’t come out in the second half. It was a chipping effect over the years. I suddenly couldn’t face it.”
The irony is, Campbell is one of the most outspoken players of his generation, had the rumours been true he would have been one of the first to come out and stand tall. But the tabloid press wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way of a story, even if it meant the well-being of a top England international was going to be damaged.
In the end they did run a story, omitting all names, only referencing the person in question as a current Arsenal and England defender. This led to Ashley Cole taking the heat. Something he put to bed when he married Cheryl Tweedy.
It was another example of sexuality being used as a negative. There shouldn’t have been a story to print. It isn’t in the public’s interest and doesn’t affect how a player performs for his club. How it’s used as a shaming tactic is disgusting in this supposedly enlightened age.
It was only a few months ago the Daily Mail (them again) reported that before the start of next season two Premier League players would come out as gay. Once more, an absolute no-news story, reported for the shock and shame value. Of course any player in the closet will expect some chants from rival fans but most of this will be more like pantomime and banter than anything close to hatred. It’s only papers such as the Daily Mailthat try and spread that.
Players should also have zero concerns about teammates making life difficult. They are protected by laws and men in other male dominated sports, such as British-born NBA basketballer John Amaechi, and Welsh Rugby star Gareth Thomas, have had no trouble since coming out.
The Ronaldo article shouldn’t have asked if he was gay, but simply: Who cares what he does in private with a consenting adult.

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.