Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Well done Gareth Bale, but who's in the frame for next year?

Few would have contested the decision to award Gareth Bale a double victory at The 2013 Professional Footballers' Awards (PFA), as he claimed the prize for Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year. The Spurs midfielder became only the third player ever to win both awards in the same season, joining ex Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Bale with PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor. Who will take his
place in PFA Team of the Season next year? 

This automatically meant that he was first name on the team sheet for the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, as voted for by fellow professionals.

Here's the team in full: De Gea (Manchester United), Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), Baines (Everton), Carrick (Manchester United), Mata (Chelsea), Bale (Tottenham Hotspur), Hazard (Chelsea), Suarez (Liverpool) and Van Persie (Manchester United.

Congratulations to all of those players, it's hard to argue with any of their selections. However, I've decided to look ahead to next season, and line up the potential candidates for next year's PFA Premier League Team of the Season, based on their potential and performances so far this term.

GK - Hugo Lloris - Tottenham Hotspur

Hugo Lloris has made several saves during the early stages of his Spurs career that demonstrate why he is France's number one goalkeeper. Andre Villas-Boas has decided to rotate him and Brad Friedel throughout the season, due to Tottenham's involvement in the Europa League. However, with Friedel almost set for retirement, there will be no doubting the first choice goalkeeper at White Hart Lane come the first game of next season. If AVB can decide on a settled centre-back pairing and choose who will play alongisde Jan Vertoghen (who made the PFA team this year), Spurs will again challenge for the Champions League with Lloris set to shine.

RB - Cesar Azpilicueta - Chelsea

Azpilicueta was signed by Chelsea during the summer transfer window. Many believed he would play a secondary role to the already established Branislav Ivanovic at right-back, but the appointment of fellow countryman Rafa Benitez saw him become first choice full back at the club. He is strong, agile and quick and has adapted to the Premier League in a very short space of time following his move from Ligue 1. If Benitez's successor at Stamford Bridge shows similar faith in the 23-year-old, he will continue to grow as a player and could even displace Alvaro Arbeloa in the Spanish national side.

CB - Phil Jones - Manchester United

One of Phil Jones's greatest strengths is his ability to be utilised anywhere on the pitch. The fact he can play a holding midfield role, full-back on either side or centre-half means that he is consistently picked by Sir Alex Ferguson for Manchester United and by Roy Hodgson for England. Sooner or later, he is going to revert back to his strongest position at the centre of defence. That's where he was playing for Blackburn when Ferguson decided to spend £16.5m on the then teenager. Rio Ferdinand has played well through a series of reoccurring back injuries this season, but is unlikely to play as many games next year. Whether Jones plays alongside Ferdinand or instead of him, he could be influential to any success Manchester United might have in the future as they aim to retain their Premier League title.

CB - Vincent Kompany - Manchester City

Class is permanent, and Vincent Kompany is up there with the most complete centre-backs in world football. He has struggled this campaign with injuries and suspensions and his Manchester City side have not coped well with the pressure that comes from winning a Premier League title. They will be out for revenge next season, and if the Belgian can get fully fit over the pre-season period, he could form a formidable partnership alongside youngster Matija Nastasic for years to come.

LB - Luke Shaw - Southampton

Luke Shaw is frighteningly young at 17-years-old. Despite this, he has started 19 games for Southampton in the Premier League this season, and has rarely looked out of his depth. It may be a long shot to predict him featuring in next year's Team of the Season, but Southampton are only going to improve when Mauricio Pochettino gets a full pre-season with his side and is able to reinforce the high pressing style of play he has managed to introduce so far. Even if Shaw doesn't quite make the grade next season, he will be an integral part of whatever Southampton manage to achieve, as they do not look as solid or as threatening without him, even now.

RM - Shinji Kagawa - Manchester United

Shinji Kagawa is widely regarded as one of the linchpins of Borussia Dortmund's recent success. Before German wonder duo Mario Gotze and Marco Reus dominated the attacking midfield positions for the Champions League semi finalists, Kagawa was influential in his role just off central striker Robert Lewandowski. Kagawa showed early promise during his first few games for Manchester United, scoring on his home debut before a knee injury halted his progress at the club. If the Japanese midfielder can get back to full fitness in the closed season, he should be guaranteed a spot in Sir Alex Ferguson's line-up ahead of the inconsistent Nani and Antonio Valencia. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will benefit hugely from Kagawa's vision and passing range.

CM - Phillipe Coutinho - Liverpool 

Many Inter Milan fans must be scratching their heads as to why the club allowed Phillipe Coutinho to leave for just £8.5m, a price that can only be described as an absolute steal in today's transfer market. Since arriving at Anfield in January, the young Brazilian has lit up the Premier League, with an exciting flurry of goals and assists for Brendan Rodger's side and produced a Man of the Match performance during Liverpool's 6-0 thrashing of Newcastle. Provided he stays clear of injury and continues to enjoy living in England, Coutinho is also my tip to win the Young Player of the Year award next time round.

CM - David Luiz - Chelsea

Rafa Benitez has received nothing but stick from the majority of Chelsea fans, despite making many positive changes at the club, including the shocking transformation of David Luiz. Luiz had struggled in the past at Chelsea and was regarded by most as an error-prone centre-back, before Benitez pushed him forward into midfield. Since the Brazilian has lined up alongside Frank Lampard or Ramires, he has performed exceptionally well, making important challenges, dictating the tempo of matches and has even scored several sublime goals. Chelsea's new manager must keep him in this position, as he could grow to become one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League, starting next season.

CM - Jack Wilshere - Arsenal

It must surely be time for Jack Wilshere to fulfil his potential. The young Arsenal midfielder has been described as the future of English football for as long as most of us can remember, but it is still yet to materialise. Fitness is the key for Wilshere, as it is for many of next season's potential candidates. If he can go a whole campaign unhurt at the centre of Arsenal's midfield, he will dominate teams both domestically and Internationally, as he has shown all too briefly recently against the likes of Bayern Munich and Brazil.

LM - Gareth Bale - Tottenham Hotspur

It is impossible to look beyond Gareth Bale. Provided he stays in England and isn't tempted by the likes of Real Madrid, there is little doubt that he will cement his place in next year's Team of the Season too. Whether he is deployed in a central role behind the striker or wide on the left, his combination of pace and fiercely accurate long-distance shooting means he has the ability to stand out, hence his double award this year.

ST - Romelu Lukaku - Chelsea

Admittedly, this position will probably be filled by an already established Premier League striker such as Suarez, Rooney, Van Persie or Aguero. Whilst it is hugely unlikely that Romelu Lukaku will feature in next year's Team of the Season, I don't doubt that he has the necessary ability. If Chelsea weren't too bust trying to justify spending £50m on Fernando Torres, the young Belgian wouldn't have even been loaned out this season. If however the striker was to be kept on by the new Chelsea manager, he could stake a claim for the lead role in Chelsea's attack. Lukaku has proved this season at West Brom that he is more than capable of scoring goals and playing up front by himself. If he has the magical trio of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard behind him next year, who knows how many goals he could score in a young and exciting Chelsea team.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Football is primarily a business for Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger will soon be held accountable for Arsenal’s eighth consecutive season without a trophy. As fans continue to revolt against the Frenchman’s willingness to settle for fourth and a place in the Uefa Champions League, Wenger remains defiant over his careful management of the club’s finances.

Arsene Wenger is the perfect manager for an owner
who prioritises financial stability over trophy wins

Arsene Wenger graduated in 1971 with a first rate degree in Economics at Strasbourg University. It shows. After becoming Arsenal manager in 1996, Wenger made the club his own, and oversaw a transformation that changed modern day football as we know it. He altered the diets of his playing staff to the nearest calorie, and concluded through science and statistics the exact minute a player would begin to tire and therefore need substituting.

It soon became clear that Wenger’s brain worked differently to other managers. It worked on the basis of mathematics and logic, and where he really excelled, was in the area of financial management. The Frenchman sold troublesome striker Nicholas Anelka to Real Madrid for £23 million, and as a result was able to assemble ‘The Invincibles’, the most successful football team in Premier League history. Kolo Toure, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry were all bought in to form the spine of a side that would go unbeaten throughout an entire season, 38 games without defeat in 2004.

Arsenal enjoyed dominance under Wenger’s fast-flowing, eye-catching pass and move football. Other teams were unable to cope with the tempo of passing inspired by Arsenal’s midfield triangles. By this time, clubs had decided to compete in the only way they could; financial muscle. A certain Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich had taken over at Chelsea and was quick to make his mark on the transfer market, buying sought after players for hugely inflated transfer fees, which other clubs simply couldn’t afford, including Arsenal.

Even if Arsenal did have the money to spend, there was a feeling that Wenger would have persisted with his own transfer philosophy of buying players at extremely low prices and selling them on for profit after they had developed under his guidance. It was Wenger’s belief that players begin to digress at the age of 28, and so introduced his own age restriction policy. His ‘Invincibles’ side had finally lost to Manchester United, and things were never to be the same. It was time for a period of transition in English football.

Patrick Vieira, who was bought by Wenger for £2.5m, was sold for £14m. The trend continued, and the height of Wenger’s profit making transfer policy came following a deal that would see the club sell Cesc Fabregas back to Barcelona for a staggering £30m profit. Despite such an incredible return on the player, the move came at a price for Wenger. Fabregas was club captain of Arsenal and one of the best players in the Premier League. Wenger’s decision to sell the most talented and influential individual on his playing staff sent out a signal to fans that Arsenal were no longer able to compete at the highest level. Rival clubs took advantage of this fact and Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie all followed Fabregas out of The Emirates, leaving behind them a set of angry Gunners fans demanding that Wenger should spend heavily on their replacements.

But he didn’t. Arsenal are rumoured to have a transfer fund of £136m, but Wenger didn’t spend more than £11m on a single player during that same transfer window. Simon Kuper of The Financial Times believes this is because Wenger thinks so deeply about football’s potential economic collapse, that he is trying to protect the future of the club: “Wenger and Arsenal think that the football economy is a bubble: clubs are spending beyond their means and risking collapse. The argument is at bottom one about football being a business. Wenger manages Arsenal as if he is going to be there for the next 100 years.”
Kuper is not the only one who has likened Arsene Wenger to a businessman. Many believe that Wenger has kept his job at The Emirates despite his lack of silverware because of his ability to bring money into the club. The aforementioned player sales will have compensated and replaced any outgoings from the pockets of board owners Ivan Gadiz and Stan Kroenke, so what reasons do they have to fire a man who has a proven track record when it comes to earning money?

Wenger has wrapped himself into the foundations of the club, literally. His visions and planning were an integral part to building Arsenal’s 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium, following their move from Highbury. Arsenal Football Club now earn £3.3m each and every home game on ticket sales alone, making them the most profitable club in the country, further proof that Arsene Wenger sees football as a business. He played the game at an extremely low level for a modern day manager, so perhaps his management style isn’t clouded by blind passion and dressing room experiences of the past. He is able to analyse football from the outside, making decisions he feels will be of most benefit to the club, and it’s clear he chooses to place more importance on financial reward than titles and trophies.

“To other managers, £15m might be simply ‘a big number, but not to Wenger. When he weighs up potential signings, he judges like an economist pricing assets as much as like a coach seeking quick wins”says Kuper, the author of Soccernomics, a book based on football’s troubled financial underworld. Wenger’s rule at Arsenal has been fuelled largely by business, but also by stubbornness and strong personal morals. Arsene Wenger is so against the Abramovichs’ and Glazers of this world, spending money that they don’t have, funding wage bills on insurmountable debts, that he installed his faith in youngsters and products of the club’s youth academy. Whereas Wenger used to scour the globe to buy unknown young players from abroad, these same players are now choosing to go to ‘bigger’ clubs than Arsenal, such as Chelsea and Manchester City who are willing to offer the mind-blowing wages demanded by footballer’s agents and advisors.

Arsene’s faith in the club’s own youth academy has yet to be rewarded. An 18-year-old Denilson was expected to develop into a ready-made replacement for Gilberto Silva, a strong, combative midfield captain. It never materialised and the Brazilian has since been loaned back to his native South America, and is set to depart permanently in the summer. Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Larrson and Fabrice Muamba all promised to break through at the same time and form a new first-team spine, but were deemed not good enough and shipped out to various other Premier League clubs. Several promising Englishman also came through the ranks, Jay Simpson, an explosive striker, is now plying his trade with Hull City after failing to make an impact under Arsene Wenger. Kieran Gibbs remains at the club but has struggled with a series of muscle injuries that have prevented his development. Simon Kuper believes Wenger’s decision to rely on the club’s academy was a mistake. “Separately from economics, Wenger made another fundamental misjudgement. He dreamt of building a team produced in Arsenal’s youth academy, rather than bought as adult stars. Another truth of football is that it’s almost impossible to predict whether a great untried teenager will make a great adult footballer. Only really once a teenager has achieved success in actual professional football, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale, can you know he is the real thing, and by then richer clubs than Arsenal will be chasing him.”

Arsenal are unlikely to win a trophy again next year. Their playing squad is not good enough to compete with Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, and those clubs are set spend sufficiently in the summer before FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules come into fruition. As Tottenham and Everton continue to improve, they might even find it difficult to finish in the top four. That still won’t be enough to make Arsene Wenger open his chequebook and make ‘big-money’ signings. That is not his approach to business, or indeed life. Whilst he continues to oversee financial stability and generate such great revenue at The Emirates, his job will be safe. His bosses will be happy. Club owners and Chief Executive types in football boardrooms will always take money over cup wins and tournament glory. That’s why they are happy to make him the highest paid manager in England on £7.5m a year.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tottenham need a striker to banish end of season curse.

Andre Villas-Boas has had a relatively successful first season in charge of Tottenham Hotspur as they sit fourth in the Premier League and occupy the final Champions League place. However, a poor result at home to Basel in the Europa League and an inconsistent run of domestic form, could see a season full of eye-catching performances and impressive results go entirely unrewarded.

Spurs have been far too reliant on Gareth Bale's
goals from midfield this season

Spurs often suffer from end of season syndrome, and have been known to implode at this time of season in the past, which usually means granting success to their North London rivals Arsenal, who sit two points behind with a game in hand. It has been well documented that Tottenham have been over reliant on Gareth Bale's goals season, and the Welshman may well be angling for a move away from the club during the summer transfer window. Emmanuel Adebayor was absent for over a month whilst on International duty with Togo at the 2013 AFCON and has struggled with league goals this season, scoring just three times. Jermain Defoe has a typically impressive goals to minutes ratio with 10 league goals in 25 starts for the club, but has struggled with a series of muscular injuries and doesn't always seem comfortable as the lone front man in AVB's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Tottenham need strength in depth up front and Daniel Levy must add to his strike force if his club are to challenge for honours until the final game of the season. Here's a look at some of his likely targets.

Loic Remy

Remy has taken no time to settle in England
and has always been a target for Spurs

Loic Remy only joined QPR in January but his agent secured a release clause of just £8m should the Hoops be relegated. That looks increasingly likely following Wigan's last minute equaliser at Loftus Road on Sunday to leave Harry Redknapp's side 7 points adrift of safety. Remy has adapted seamlessly to English football and has scored 5 goals since his arrival, making him the club's top goalscorer. Tottenham owner Daniel Levy had previously shown interest in signing the French striker from Marseille, but was deterred by the £15m valuation. His versatility could make him Tottenham's number one transfer target, as he can also be utilised on the right side of midfield to provide competition for Aaron Lennon should he not be first choice striker at White Hart Lane.

Christian Benteke

A move to Spurs would help Benteke become
Belgium's number one striker

The Aston Villa target man has been unstoppable at times this season. 15 league goals for a team that have been fighting relegation is an achievement that makes him a potential candidate for the player of the season award. Villa's young side have struggled under Paul Lambert and have often had to rely on the Belgian striker's goals and influential line-leading performances to get results. At just 22 and with three years left to run on his current deal, he won't come cheap, but it would be difficult for him to resist a move to Spurs and the lure of European football should they secure it.

Leandro Damiao

Damiao is a natural finisher and became top
goalscorer at the 2012 Olympics

The young Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao is another player Daniel Levy has been watching for some time. The Internacional forward was the top goalscorer at the London 2012 Olympic Games and is a reported target for a host of top European clubs including PSG, Napoli and Arsenal. Damiao lacks pace and is nowhere near Benteke and Remy in terms of speed, but he has an unteachable eye for goal and always hits the target when in and around the penalty box. He would add another dimension to Tottenham's strike force and provide a good alternative to either Defoe or Adebayor. He has the ability to operate alone up front, but whether he would be able to settle in England and adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League remains to be seen.