Friday, 20 November 2015

Roll Up! For the Managerial Mystery Tour

For a while now, the Premier League’s pantomime status has been secured not only by players, but by managers as well. TV coverage increased and post-match interviews gave rise to the manager’s media voice, and what we were left with was another dimension of football celebrity.

And by such measures the Premier League is in rude health, with premium managers occupying various car-sponsored leather seats in dugouts across the country. Arsene Wenger has his ‘Invincibles’, Jose Mourinho has tasted success everywhere he’s been, Manuel Pellegrini showed his credentials with an immediate league title, and Louis van Gaal went unbeaten with Ajax in both the Eredivisie and the Champions League in a remarkable 1994/95 season.

Van Gaal, of Ajax fame.

The addition of Jurgen Klopp, one of the most sought after young innovators in football management, has only gone further to suggest that the Premier League is moving into a dominant position in the managerial transfer market. Moreover, two of the biggest and best are rumoured to be considering moves to the self-proclaimed ‘Best League In The World.’

Pep Guardiola is one. The highly intelligent former Barca no.4 is coming to the end of his contract with Bayern, and with a penchant for restlessness and a desire to learn about the various cultures of the world, Pep is closer than ever to moving to England. If he were to take a year out, as he did after quitting Catalonia, his return would synchronise with Wenger’s current contract expiring. Equally however, Manchester City are strongly linked.

Carlo Ancelotti is the other. The Italian, who is one of only two managers to have won the European Cup on three separate occasions (Bob Paisley for those wondering) has indicated a preference for the PL upon his next managerial adventure. Carlo is unlikely to arrive just yet, but would represent a prime opportunity for any top club.

So why is the Premier League such hot property?

Obviously there’s the money. Did you know that in 2013/14, relegated Cardiff of the Premier League earned more in TV money than Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich? And I’m talking SIGNIFICANTLY more; many millions.

Equally La Liga has its own problems where TV money is concerned. Until very recently it was left to individual teams to sort their own TV deals out, and unsurprisingly Barcelona and Real Madrid took a vast chunk of it. Reports suggest that while these two earned over £100m from such deals in 2013/14, the next best paid were Valencia (around £35 million) Atletico Madrid (closer to £30 million) and Sevilla (around £23 million).

You know the league's rich when the golden lions wear crowns

These figures make it easy to see why managerial attraction to the Premier League is strong, but the money serves to make the Premier League more than just a bank. Despite seeming almost clich├ęd, the Premier League is an upwardly mobile place to be with the TV money gap relatively small between the top and bottom clubs, which in turn leads to greater competition.

While Spain and Germany are famed for relatively dull league narratives, the Premier League is heavily laden with spectacle, with the current league table a perfect example: Leicester, 11 games in, occupy third place while Liverpool sit in tenth and Chelsea sixteenth. West Ham, under the watchful eye of Slaven Bilic, sit in sixth place and look well at home.

And perhaps above all else, the pantomime of the Premier League is enticing. You can think of Scudamore’s empire as a Hollywood film; it is fast, action packed, and with not a little controversy and conflict. The tactical innovation and talent might be greater in Germany or Spain, but if it’s worthy cinema you want you can jog on to Cannes.

So what does this mean for English football?

First and foremost, high profile management attracts high profile players, something that is no doubt exciting Liverpool’s following with Klopp’s Dortmund links. Pep immediately took Thiago Alcantara with him to Bayern for example, and van Gaal delighted Manchester United fans with the transfer of Memphis Depay. Wenger has long used his status to attract talents such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and there is no doubt that the established figures of Ancelotti and Guardiola have pull in the market.

There would also be hope that these two could bring some tactical innovation to the party. While it is all we can do to revel in the chaos of the Premier League, the country’s best clubs are shadows of their former European selves. Pep and Carlo are two of Europe’s most successful tinkerers, and could represent a renaissance of tactical thought in England. Furthermore, with a gaggle of impressionable young up-and-comers such as Ronald Koeman, Roberto Martinez and Garry Monk, such presence could have a great impact on other managers in the league.

What once seemed like a household item in Premier League trophy
cabinets now seems out of reach for PL clubs.

Further to this, the FA would do well to learn from these two should they hop aboard the ferry to Dover. With the combined knowledge of a great pool of managers they might actually be able to enhance England’s prospects in future tournaments, and if the FA played their cards right, even attract someone like Pep or Carlo to the national team job one day.

So is it all sweetness and roses? Not quite. Clubs looking further afield for high-profile managers are destroying the chances of those plying their trade lower in the league or even further down the divisions. It is, for example, very difficult to imagine that despite his success at Swansea, a club like Manchester City would ever offer Garry Monk a chance. That’s just the way football has gone though, with the same argument having long been made in defence of the lower-league player.

This league is a product, and there’s no point in kidding ourselves otherwise. Amidst the fun of the Premier League fair, the managerial carousel goes round, and it’s as much as we can do to buy some candy floss and enjoy the bright lights.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Eat my goal: The 'good' striker

A striker’s worth is apparently obvious to all. Their currency is goals, and unfortunately/fortunately for him or her, this is almost without rebuttal.

Consider Mesut Ozil. His season has by anyone’s measure been a success, in large part due to our penchant for consulting the hard numbers. Mesut has clocked up 10 assists – as well as a goal, the striker’s meat and drink – and as such has earned the country’s blessing as a top midfielder. However, somewhat more transiently he also boasts a phenomenal stat: Squawka say Ozil has created 54 chances for teammates, a stunning average of just under 5 chances a game.

Further to this, when Ozil isn’t creating hard data he is recognised as the oil of Arsenal’s machine, and in the opinion of his fans he has transcended the rudimentary nature of numbers. His is almost becoming a philosophical position. ‘If you love football, you love Ozil’ said Wenger. You are dared to judge Ozil by mortal reasoning.

No such luck for the striker.

Their fortunes are judged only in the cruel light of day, with both fine goal and cruel miss experienced just yards from the reaction of the fan. Isn’t that unfair, that a midfielder can hide between the lines, where the striker’s business is concluded in front of thousands of people every time? That’s the price of glory, a binary position, their experience on the pitch one of huge extremes; 89 minutes of chance after chance are irrelevant if you eventually persuade the ball over the line.

So let’s consider the finest of the 'modern' era.

Thierry Henry supplied them. His league career at Arsenal yielded well above the accepted average of one in two, scoring 174 goals in 254 games and although he was celebrated for the style of his goals, beauty had no influence on value. Ruud van Nistelrooy – Thierry’s Dutch contemporary - equally hit his targets, with 95 league goals in 150 games, and startlingly, 38 European goals in 47 games.

In modern times, Sergio Aguero is the most consistently excellent at providing goals, gols or GOLASSOs, with 84 in 128 league games. But there is a sub-group.

In MATCH ‘s 2005 annual, there is a feature on Luis Figo. In it, Real Madrid’s sporting director of the time Jorge Valdano, said ‘We are so used to Figo playing brilliantly that we think he is playing badly when he is just playing normally’.

It’s an important quote to consider when you look at what you might refer to as the ‘second tier’ of strikers. Not being Sergio Aguero cannot mean you are a bad striker, and there is a growing group of ‘good’ strikers in the current Premier League who basically are doing what they are being paid for.

Olivier Giroud
Romelu Lukaku
Graziano Pelle
15/16 league goals
Goals per game (PL)
0.43 (WBA & Everton)
6ft 4
6ft 3
6ft 4
Transfer fee (latest)
International record
40 apps 12 goals
40 apps 11 goals
8 apps 4 goals

A study of this sub-group reveals remarkable results. Olivier Giroud and Romelu Lukaku (considering only his time at West Brom and Everton) both have a goals-per-game record of 0.43 in the Premier League, while Graziano Pelle comes in only slightly lower at 0.36. Michael Owen scored at 0.46, Wayne Rooney 0.45, Ronaldo at 0.43 and Robbie Fowler at 0.43 also. Giroud and Pelle have six league goals this season, while Lukaku has seven.

Additionally, Giroud and Pelle both stand at 6 foot 4 inches, while Lukaku is 6 ft 3. They are all strong in the air, but eternally cursed also with phrases such as ‘not a bad touch for a big man!’ They boast power, and have all demonstrated skill, from aerial acrobatics to groundwork.

Their international records make for interesting reading also. Giroud has 40 apps and 12 goals, Lukaku 40 apps to 11 goals, and Pelle eight apps to four goals (a decent if slightly unproven record which sort of makes up for his slightly lower PL goals per game average). None have scored heavily. Respectable, but consider Neymar’s Brazil scrapbook: 67 apps, 46 goals. He is 23.

Their circumstances, and expectations, are somewhat different. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud has long plied his trade in the shadow of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie, three of the greatest strikers the league has seen. Pelle at Southampton is in a somewhat comfier position, challenging for European football, but under no great pressure otherwise. Lukaku’s hefty price tag and youth mean he is in the greatest position of the three to break into the top tier of goalscorer, but at Everton he is under no pressure to win the league.

Ambitions may change around them, and when those questions are asked they will have to consider their positions, but in their glorious trade of supply and demand they are rarely out of stock. In a soap-opera league these men do their jobs and do them well, and that's why the 'good' striker is OK by me.