Is Project Restart Already Void?

Is Project Restart Already Void?

Before the problems with Project Restart are placed under the microscope, let’s make something clear: this is one writer who actually wants to see this season completed. While nothing would humour me more than watching Liverpool being denied a title due to a void campaign, the reality is football needs to come back.

This opinion will be immediately met with disdain. For many, the suggestion sport returns before coronavirus has been eradicated is preposterous. They see it as the money in football coming before the nation’s health.

There are valid points in such arguments against the resumption of the Premier League. But with any risk, the handling of it is played off against the side effects of continued suppression. There has to be a point where the advantages of resuming football – or sport in general – outweighs the potential negatives.

Addressing the financial elephant in the room. Yes, there should be enough money in the game to survive such a setback. FIFA has a billion in its rainy day fund. But sport is business and businesses can be self-serving. Not all clubs will make it through the other side if the delay continues for too long.

Resuming the top flight could have a knock-on effect when it comes to redistributing wealth to the lower leagues. It’s easier to make the rich more benevolent when it’s a condition of them making money again.

A return of televised games would also help pacify a restless nation. With each passing day, the chances of people sticking to the stay at home guidelines diminishes. If they made games free-to-air – say, a couple each day as they chew through the outstanding games in the pile – it will subdue a large portion of the nation.

To make it work safely – and this is where the Premier League cannot get it wrong – it would be ideal to have a single location for all teams and support staff. Hosting all games in a closed village, with everyone tested going in and remaining in complete isolation from the outside world. It’d be a World Cup style tournament with Premier League and FA Cup games.

Integrity

The problem with this idea is teams will say playing at neutral venues calls into question the integrity of the competition. It is a valid point. Why should a club like Watford face relegation because they lost home advantage? The argument it’s the same for everyone is weakened by the fact it hasn’t been the same throughout the entirety of the competition.

Even if officials agreed to allow teams to play behind closed doors at their usual stadium, the question of integrity still stands. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has amended the rule on the number of permitted substitutions for competitions that will be completed within this calendar year.

Being able to make five subs instead of three puts a different take on the game. Those with bigger squads will clearly benefit and it’s a major rule change that only affects a part of the season. All the rules have to be the same from start to finish. The Premier League do not need to adopt this rule, but you can bet they will.

IFAB has also stated VAR can be turned off for the resumption of competitions. It’s the only coronavirus death that’s worth celebrating but further evidence that the proposed returning Premier League will be too far away from the competition that began last August.

There’s also the problem of player contracts. The squads submitted for the Premier League will become invalidated if players move upon expiration of their contract. A little more of that remaining integrity slips away.

So it seems there are two clear choices:

Bring back football, behind closed doors but using existing grounds, keep VAR (never thought I’d type that), and ignore IFAB rule changes.

Or,

Void the season as it can’t be completed in a manner that maintains the competition’s consistency and sporting integrity.

No clubs should be relegated, no titles handed out. Champions League places determined by average-points-per-game to calculate remaining fixtures. Although, there’s surely a UEFA coefficient system that can be used to ensure clubs like Leicester miss out but Arsenal and Manchester United can return.

However they wrap up this season (or don’t), some forward-thinking needs to occur before a new campaign begins. There’s a chance coronavirus could have a winter revival. The next Premier League season needs to be set up in a way it can deal with another lockdown without its integrity being called into question.

The country needs the distraction of sport but it needs competitions to be safe, sustainable and authentic.

What £100m meant in Manchester

What £100m meant in Manchester

Back at the start of the season, What £100m means in Manchester looked at the two differing approaches Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho took to their respective rebuilds at Manchester City and Manchester United. The main crux of the issue was Mourinho’s seemingly small recruitment drive, with a large portion of his budget splashed on one man – Paul Pogba. Guardiola was applauded for a policy of planning for the future.

As ever, football is a results business. Both managers had the luxury of being able to impress upon the board the size of the task ahead. José could nod to the failing of two previous regimes, Pep had – and still has – the bonus of being so vaunted by his employers, he is virtually “unsackable.”

This doesn’t mean he, or his United counterpart, is beyond criticism and analysis. Each would have entered the season with personal objectives, presumably closely aligned with the board’s. Despite the early bookmakers’ odds, neither would have courted the idea of a Premier League title.

Even six straight wins to kick off the league campaign, with cup victories interspersed, Pep seemed reluctant to talk-up City’s title chances. He went as far to say a defeat would be a good thing. Was this the first sign he realised his squad couldn’t live up to the hype? Did he want to see how players would react under adversity?

He didn’t have to wait too long.

Many point to the 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea as the season’s turning point. It was a game City rightly feel hard done by, but it wasn’t the significant moment many point to. That came on 21st September, with the laborious League Cup victory away to Swansea City.

Brendan Rodgers was declared the architect of City’s new tactical demise when they faced off in the 3-3 Champions League group stage match a week later. All he did was apply the same approach Swansea had. It was simple: City don’t like the pressing game played back on them.

When teams are winning, every decision the manager makes is genius, his transfer policy justified. By the 10th December’s 4-2 defeat by an underperforming Leicester City, with three defeats, three draws and three wins in the league since the start of October, it was time to ask questions.

A transfer policy that planned for the future failed to deal with problems in the present. It was no secret City needed full backs before a ball was kicked, and yet the team had no reinforcements and was even converting one into a makeshift centre-half.

Managers live and die by signings; the Claudio Bravo move was never popular with a core base of fans due to the Joe Hart connotations. It didn’t take long for the rest of the crowd to turn on the mistake riddled Chilean. It’s ironic that for a squad with two players named Jesus, it’s the goalkeeper that appeared to have holes in his hands.

Bravo Transfer Man City

City began to look one dimensional – good at the front, weak at the back, no plan B (a remark Pellegrini would smirk at now) – but signs of life were to come.

Over at Old Trafford, Mourinho did was he does best. He made the team hard to beat after suffering two consecutive defeats early on in the league. Unlike the Van Gaal awkwardness, there were signs the Portuguese manager was making strides forward. The problem was those around him took bigger ones.

United became experts at finding draws.

In hindsight, his more direct approach in the transfer market deserves plaudits. The four players brought in – Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba – all had good seasons. Pogba was the only player to face negative remarks, but that’s the cost of a £89m transfer clouding judgement.

Zlatan Ibrahimović United

Ibrahimović, season ending injury aside, did maintain the same high level throughout, dispelling concerns about his age.

All this United based positivity does, is fail to acknowledge one small minor issue: this isn’t the season José planned or talked about.

Before a ball was kicked, he spoke of getting his four players. It’s all he wanted. He gave his requests list to Edward Woodward and stated the quartet mentioned above was all he needed to make Manchester United competitive again.

When he made this claim (or should that be promise?) he wasn’t alluding to a sixth-place finish, England’s secondary cup and the Europa League.

This isn’t to devalue United’s achievements. Every fan that travels to Wembley wants to win and holds the League Cup in high regard on the day. And even though Mourinho himself has denounced the Europa League in the past, it is now an important prize.

Added to the equation it was the only piece of silverware United had never won and it feels like a grand achievement.

MUFC UEL

And it is, if only for the return of Champions League football, the riches it brings, and the players it allows clubs to attract.

But it was a last-ditch gamble from Mourinho. He went into the casino and placed all his chips on one colour (we’ll assume red) and hoped for the best. When he made his transfer requests to Woodward, so publicly as to bend his arm on the Pogba chase, a top four spot was the least of his desires.

To dip out, and in some fashion, would never have been the plan.

So, who spent their £100m best?

It’s hard to say – which indicates failings on both sides – but it comes down to who is positioned best moving forward.

City and United have slipped straight into the Champions League group stage. This will aid with some transfers and Guardiola doesn’t need to juggle an awkward qualifier this year. But just being in Europe’s elite competition isn’t good enough on its own.

The year of grace for both men has passed. Gambler or not, Mourinho needs to identify fast which players will turn his solid unit into a team with a sharp bite. Regardless of European performance this year, it’s hard to see the Old Trafford hierarchy accepting a league campaign that doesn’t have them in the title race.

The same goes for Guardiola, there has to be a clear upward trend. His transfers were a mixed bag. When the original article was written at the start of the season, the £100m figure was neat and tidy regarding both clubs’ Net Total. In reality, City spent a further £56m (£4m deducted for a youth transfer signed for in 2013) following the closing of the books at the season’s end.

Where Mourinho added several and worked with the rest, Pep brought in three times this amount but only kept six of the faces at the club. His nose for a bargain in the form of Nolito petered out, as did the belief John Stones would transform into a world class player before our eyes. It may still happen, but it was a burden the young Yorkshire man struggled with.

İlkay Gündoğan arrived injured and is so again. A gamble taken in a dressing room that often resembles a Bupa clinic. But eyes on the Leroy Sané’s second half of the season and Gabriel Jesus prove the Spaniard has a solid plan in place.

Gabriel Jesus

This was always a big undertaking. He isn’t trying to build upon the success of former managers, instead it’s a process of ripping out the footballing foundations at the club and starting again in his image.

Pep overvalued the talent at his disposal and underestimated the Premier League.

Unlike Mourinho, Pep – quite often to a fault – never criticises his players to the press. But one has to assume behind closed doors he’s been fuming. He must have expected more from them or that initial £100m would have been spent on emergency measures rather than youngsters – like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Marlos Moreno – who have yet to see a City shirt.

Mourinho’s experience and insight afforded him a more tailored approach. But the table never lies, and a year on from a change of managers, there has been clear – albeit, slow – progress at City. This will allow Pep more time to complete his vision.

He appears to appreciate the size of the task now, his early big money moves in the post-season prove this.

As for United, the Europa League success has given them a return to the perceived top table. If they fail to press those above in the coming season, a new type of pressure will come down on José. The safety net has been removed.

£100m meant both teams in Manchester breathed sighs of relief by the end of May. United had silverware for their endeavours but both clubs will look at the Premier League table and realise a monumental task still awaits.

Come August, we could be asking what £300m means in Manchester.

Ranieri Reign Makes Case for Manager Rules Review

Ranieri Reign Makes Case for Manager Rules Review

Claudio Ranieri – the man responsible for taking Leicester City to dreamland – was brought crashing back to reality with the ruthless nature of the Premier League once again being displayed by a twitchy chairman. He becomes the fifth top flight manager to leave his post this campaign, and the fourth out of the last five to win the title only to be axed the following season. The time to analyse each individual case on its merits has passed – if Ranieri can be sacked, there is no measure of safety to consider – it’s time to question the staff system as a whole.

Before offering an alternative to the current way of life for football managers, it’s worth noting every club making a change has clear (if cold) reasons for doing so. Swansea believed Bob Bradley was in a sink or swim scenario with his lack of Premier League experience and showed no signs of doing even a doggy paddle.

Mike Phelan on the other hand, had shown signs of improvement at Hull City. His seemed a thankless task: a small squad, no money, an eleventh-hour appointment. Despite the cards being stacked against him, he soldiered on. That aforementioned improvement didn’t translate into the only element club owners care about when faced with relegation: points.

That’s why Crystal Palace replaced Alan Pardew with Sam Allardyce. The former went on long runs without collecting many, the latter almost guarantees survival.

It’s the fear of not surviving that prompted Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to wield the axe at Leicester. (Yes, the chairman’s name was copy and pasted.)

It’s the players at the King Power who should be taking ownership of a change in their application and work ethic. It’s clear to see their interest levels have only peaked in the Champions League. They used player power, regardless of what Craig Shakespeare says in press conferences, to avoid taking direct responsibility for their attitude and performance.

Ironically, the man favourite to replace Claudio Ranieri – Roberto Mancini – left Manchester City for the same reason.

He lost that dressing room and Manchester City hired a pussy cat. The Foxes have gone the opposite way, fired Mr Nice Guy and hired a disciplinarian. Makes sense when people need whipping into shape but the players who lacked professionalism will rue the day they got a good man fired.

All these managers needed the same thing: Time.

The panic of losing Premier League status, and all its rich financial rewards, has chairman all too eager to press the panic button. The League Managers Association (LMA) have a thankless task. They have no negotiating power in the boardroom and can only transition managers into the job market. The chance of them ever taking a big club to tribunal is on the same scale as it was for Leicester to retain the title and win the Champions League this season.

If the managers and the LMA can’t enable a fairer work place, who can?

Well, it has to come from the top. It would require UEFA to make it law or for the Premier League to take a bold step and make rules for clubs on these shores that would remove the equal playing field they currently enjoy with the rest of Europe.

And while this sounds outlandish at first, it’s worth remembering the Premier League has set out to differentiate itself from its European equivalents. The new branding seen this year, without the need for a sponsor, was an effort to make the Premier League a global symbol like the NFL or NBA.

It’s from those American counterparts they could take inspiration.

Before we get to their methods, there is already a system in place that could afford managers protection: the players’ transfer window. Seen as an awkward disruption nowadays (ask a West Ham fan about Dimitri Payet) and a way for clubs to inflate prices, it does offer one thing to players – a settled block period without the threat of being moved on.

Of course, a club can fire a player by releasing him from his contract, but they see the financial loss as too great to ever do this. Unless the player involved is Joey Barton. This gives players a fighting chance to prove themselves. And when the writing is on the wall, at least they have time to prepare and fashion a deal with their agent for a new club.

The modern day manager goes week-to-week – sometimes day-to-day – with the threat of the chop in the background. If they were afforded the same protection by only being removable during the player transfer window, clubs would have to show the same commitment they gave on day one of the manager’s reign.

Maybe it would only result in the January transfer window becoming a crazy merry-go-round of players and managers, but there’s also a chance clubs would buckle in for the season. Clubs that still felt the need to part ways when relegation loomed would only be able to promote from within, giving backroom staff a chance and some form of continuity.

But maybe the Americans have got it correct. In NFL, coaches are fired on the first day of the regular season. It’s known as Black Monday and several sackings is seen as harsh. A regular debate within NFL is whether firing bosses actually improves results. They still make changes during the regular season but across American sports it’s not as prevalent as it is in football.

So, what if there was no transfer window for managers in football because clubs couldn’t replace a Head Coach with an external appointment at any point in the season?

It would ensure clubs got behind their managers 100%. They’d have to make it work. The time, and undue pressure a lack of it brings, would be afforded to coaches often struggling against resistant waters. Some players don’t like a new ethos or coaching methods and in today’s football world, they know all the power lies with them.

If a chairman had to retain his manager, that power would swing back to where it should be: with the boss.

These ideas are the extreme end of the spectrum but the results they offer would please fans and clubs alike. Currently agents have more influence than the people that work long hours coaching teams and preparing for matches. A safety net and legal assurances for managerial staff would reduce this ugly side-effect of today’s game.

It seems far-flung right now, but everything has a breaking point. If the Premier League carries on its current trajectory, it will buckle under its own weight. The manager sack race is just another indication football is in silly season.

It’s time for calmer heads to prevail, and loyalty and respect to have more bearing than the potential of a few short-term victories to snatch the pound signs flying around.