I’m finally in England. After supporting Liverpool FC and following the EPL for five years now, I’ve traveled to London to “study abroad.” Honestly, the moment I found out I could spend a semester in London and get academic credit for it, I made the trip my goal. Although I’m here to take classes that will enrich my understanding of British culture, above all, I’m here to go to football matches and follow my beloved Liverpool.
That began last Wednesday, as Liverpool traveled to the Emirates for a tough draw with Arsenal on a cold and windy London night. Liverpool were coming off of a disastrous performance against Oldham in an FA Cup draw, but with the proper back four and 4-3-3 shape installed once again, I reckoned that we’d see a better performance from the Reds. A draw was always on the cards, and that’s just how the match ended up. 2-2.
It was disappointing to see Liverpool throw away a 2-0 lead in the second half, but Arsenal deserved those goals, as they out-shot, out-possessed, and terrorized Liverpool with consistent pressing and lightening quick build-up play. I’ll take the point.
Just like I did with the Boston match over the summer, I put together a mini-documentary of this match. I interviewed fans around the ground, got some great shots of the pitch, and ate my first pie! Watch it below. I hope to attend 2-3 more Liverpool matches, so look out for me England! I’m here!
This weekend’s English Premier League action has been very exciting, but the action seemed to take a back seat for the most part, because of revelations that took over 23 years to finally come to light.
The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were revealed on Wednesday September 12th. Thousands of documents from the disaster were being made public for the first time, and the findings confirmed that what the families of the victims, and Liverpool fans in general, had been saying about that day for over 23 years were the truth.
To sum it up in a paragraph would be incredibly disrespectful, as there’s so much more to the story that can be expressed in words. Alas, this is a football piece, and I have to try my best to do so: On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans who went to Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium for the FA Cup Semi-final against Nottingham Forest were killed by a crush that was the result of a lack of police control. The Independent Panel found that South Yorkshire Police changed or deleted 116 of 164 statements by officers to shift blame on to the fans in an orchestrated cover-up. To top it all off, it was found that ambulance services being allowed access into the ground could have saved 41 lives. They were lined up outside the stadium ready to go in but were denied access by South Yorkshire Police. Nobody to date has ever been held accountable for this disaster. After 23 years of fighting, the families have finally gotten the truth from their government, and can now begin the fight for justice and having those responsible finally be held accountable.
In the aftermath of this news coming to light, almost all grounds in England hosting a match this weekend held a tribute of some sort for the Hillsborough victims and the families of those who died. Reading played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the loudspeaker before their match against Tottenham. Everton held a particularly moving tribute prior to their match on Monday night against Newcastle, with Margaret Aspinall and and Trevor Hicks, heads of the Hillsborough Families Support Group and Hillsborough Justice Campaign, both of whom lost children on 15 April, in attendance. Sunderland showed a message on the screen showing their support for the families prior to their match at home against Liverpool. All of these acts are indicative of a rare moment of solidarity in English football, and it reminds us all of the fact that there is more to life than football, as we have all been reminded of the fact that 96 Liverpool fans went to a match 23 years ago and never came home.
With that solidarity being highlighted, it’s time for us to review the highlights of this weekend’s Premiership action:
TITLE CONTENDING: Man United’s 4-0 smashing of Wigan at home
I’m not gonna mention the shenanigans that took place at this match, as its already been beaten to death in the press. As far as what happened on the pitch, Man United took their chances at home and made it clear that they are back and hungry to reclaim the league title this season. After a scoreless first half, Paul Scholes got things started with a goal in the 50th minute, marking his 700th appearance for Man United with a goal at Old Trafford. Another usual suspect put the game to bed 12 minutes later, as Javier Hernandez scored to put United up 2-0. Then Alexander Büttner, making his debut for United, opened his account with a goal that resulted from a terrific run on his part, followed by a finish from a tight angle off the keeper and in. Late in the match, 17 year-old Nick Powell came off the bench for United to make his debut in front of the Old Trafford faithful, and capped it off with a debut goal of his own.
MID-TABLE: Everton 2-2 Newcastle
This was a phenomenal match. Everton started off much brighter and got the opening goal in the 16th minute on a truly great finish by Leighton Baines. Newcastle started to get something going at the end of the first half, and was able to get the equalizer early in the 2nd, courtesy of Demba Ba. The match became much more open as a result of that goal, and, in the 88th minute, Everton appeared to have snatched a late winner with a goal from Victor Anichebe. Alas, this was not to be as Demba Ba scored yet another equalizer two minutes later to seal a point for a very injury-depleted Newcastle United.
RELEGATION: Southampton loses 6-1 to Arsenal at The Emirates
This might be a bit cruel to put Southampton’s 6-1 loss as the worst performance of the week, seeing as it was against Arsenal. But having already played Manchester United and Manchester City tough but losing 3-2 in each match, in addition to a 2-0 home loss to Wigan, this one hurt for Saints fans. They conceded two own goals in this match, in addition to one from Podolski, two from Gervinho, and one from Walcott in a 6-1 drubbing. They’ve lost four straight matches in the Premier League since being promoted, with this one being the worst of the bunch. It’s fair to say that this is worthy of being distinguished as a team in relegation form.
In a decade, we’ll look back on last season in English football and think, “Right there: that’s when it all went mad.” The madness was spawned by Manchester City, who spent nearly £1 billion in four years to grab the English Premier League title—their first since 1968. Chelsea ended up claiming their first Champions League trophy in the Abramovic Era, despite fielding arguably their worst, albeit it most expensive team, in recent memory. The Blues and the Baby Blues won the biggest trophies in club football last year, all through the might of the all-powerful pound. The astute managing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United wasn’t enough, and the stingy, yet measured Wengernomics of Arsenal couldn’t mount a serious challenge. Cash ruled everything.
The till hasn’t been emptied either. Chelsea have gone out and spent £80 million this summer, the crown jewel being Belgian attacking ace Eden Hazard. Manchester City only bought one player before splurging only £30 million on five players on Deadline Day. After all of their spending in previous years, nobody—except the always unsatisfied Roberto Mancini—is exactly mourning over City’s slightly tighter belt. United, despite the £340 million in debts laid upon them by the Glazer family, have written checks to secure Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. (It seems like they can live off of that £80 million Ronaldo fee forever.) Out of all of the clubs in the EPL, those three have the only realistic shots at winning the title, simply because they’ve outspent the rest of the pack.
The next tier of EPL clubs are now left trying to catch up. Arsenal had their best two players poached this summer, Tottenham lost star midfielders Luka Modric and Rafel Van der Vaart, and Liverpool remain unable to attract a big-name signing from across the continent. These clubs have, however, made an effort to reload. Arsenal brought in strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by RVP. Tottenham secured a permanent move for 17 goal hitman Emmanuel Adebayor, hulking midfielder Moussa Dembele, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, and American striker Clint Dempsey. Liverpool ousted four borderline Starting XI players and replaced them with three surefire starters in Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Nuri Sahin, and the first quick, tricky wing threat the club has had since Yossi Benayoun in Oussama Assaidi. (The ghost of Ryan Babel still haunts the Anfield wings too.)
Looks like an arms race to me.
Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool all know that they can’t compete with City, United and Chelsea. They can’t compete financially, because they’re short of pounds, and they lack the pull to sign the best talent from around Europe. There’s a reason why Hazard chose only between City and Chelsea. There’s a reason why RVP wanted out of Arsenal, and chose between only United and City. A decade ago, Arsenal and Liverpool might have been in the thick for Hazard, and RVP surely wouldn’t have traded shades of red. Players know the ambitions and possibilites of clubs just as much as management does, and the gap between the new “Big Three” of City, United, and Chelsea—the only three teams while realistic title aspirations—and everyone else is massive. Not only spending wise, but in terms of squad depth too. Sergio Aguero, City’s leading scorer last season, is out for a few weeks, but they have £70 million worth of striker options in Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, and Carlos Tevez to provide cover. Wayne Rooney is out for a month now for United, but no biggie—they’ve got RVP.
The gap in talent and spending has been properly reflected in the league table. In 2011-2012, Arsenal finished third behind behind the two Manchester clubs (both finished tied at 89 points), and they were still 19 points off the pace. It was the largest gap between the 1st and 2nd highest points totals since 2005, when Chelsea won the league 12 points clear of everyone.
That’s why this summer, clubs are trying to load up just to fight another season. Without Champions League football, you’re doomed to the scraps of the transfer market, and have no possibility of making the leap to catch the Big Three. Liverpool have agreed to pay nearly £5 million in total fees just to have Sahin on loan from Real Madrid this year, because they know that they need to stock up on all the guns they can get their hands on before they run out of shots to take. Tottenham decided find a manageable, but high figure between within budget limitations to come close to Adebayor’s previous £175,000 per week salary to complete his transfer from City. They’ve even taken former Liverpool targets Sigurðsson and Dempsey away from Anfield by spending a little more, seemingly just to keep them away from the competition. The Big Three is loading up for a fight at the top, and the rest are just battening down the hatches to fight out the storm and survive.
For those other clubs, that golden sky at the end of the storm are UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FPP) restrictions. These clubs know that they’re just living year to year until FPP starts wielding a commanding influence over spending. UEFA will enforce FPP starting in 2013-2014, meaning teams that compete in UEFA competitions (Champions League and the Europa League) must break even on their balance sheet, or face consequences. Even in that 2013 year though, a deviation of £35 million will still be allowed.
Liverpool owner John Henry and Arsene Wenger have already expressed doubts over the effectiveness of FPP. Given the overall popularity of the sport and the still growing business of it all (no league or country has had the kind of new stadium boom that spearheaded the MLB, NBA and NFL to the top. Also, nobody has figured out how to maximize television and internet profits yet either, which is scary. There’s still billions to be made out there.), Henry’s states before that “clubs seem to be ignoring UEFA’s rules, which may be porous enough to enable clubs to say that the trend of huge losses is positive and therefore be exempt from any meaningful sanctions.” Wenger added that clubs aren’t doing enough now to cut wage bills in time for 2013: “I cannot see it when the wage bill is bigger than the turnover. Frankly, that cannot happen in one year.” Basically, clubs will continue to give FPP the finger until UEFA decides to grow some balls and take real action.
But only clubs that participate in UEFA’s competitions would be subject to FPP—it wouldn’t stop another Man City from being born. Any billionaire can still take a mid-table side, pump hundreds of millions into the squad, and turn them into a juggernaut. While FPP has the potential to curb spending for the current big clubs, it does nothing to account for any future giants.
So outside of the Big Three and Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and for now, Newcastle, what chance do the other 13 clubs have in the EPL? They have no hope of even nabbing a Europa League spot, and for the clubs that are good enough to not be in relegation danger, the only real joys come out of the occasional upset win. Given the upgrades some teams have made this year, however, those upsets might be plentiful. Sunderland have spent nearly £30 million on Louis Saha, Steven Fletcher, and Adam Johnson: two proven EPL strikers and a City misfit who can be one of the best wingers in the league on his day. Swansea City have flipped the Joe Allen and Brendan Rodgers fees into Michu, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kyle Bartley, and Chico. After two weeks, they’ve led the league in scoring. Everton have also had an early ray of hope, with former £15 million signing Marouane Fellaini scoring two goals, including one in a win over United.
With three legitimate title contenders and a whole host of teams that can grab points against them on any given day, this title race and Champions League race should be the tightest in years. Who’s going to deliver the kill shot this year? Well whoever spends the most money, of course.
I might have been a Fall Out Boy fan in my middle school years.
My table prediction:
1) Manchester City
2) Manchester United
9) Swansea City
11) West Bromwich Albion
13) Aston Villa
14) Stoke City
15) Queens Park Rangers
16) West Ham United
18) Wigan Athletic
20) Norwich City
Table projections based on TPI values simulated 10,000 times. (The value of teams based on transfer fees as of August 17th were used as input in a predictive model. Data using fees from 8/17-8/31 isn’t available yet.) As you can see in the far right column, there’s no clear cut 3rd or 4th place team. It’s that tight between teams going for the title and teams going for 4th. Via Zach Slaton for Forbes.
Less than a day after Arsenal chairman Peter Hillwood said, “As far as I am aware, nobody has made any offer for him [Robin van Persie] and he is away so we are not in any dialogue at all. We are not in the remotest bit interested in selling him,” RVP has come out of the woodwork and declared that he would not be renewing his contract with the Gunners, opening the door for him to leave.
It’s already being reported that a £22 million transfer fee with Manchester City for RVP has been agreed upon, with RVP making £225,000 a week in wages. [Editor’s note 8/15: Arsenal have agreed to sell RVP to Manchester United for £24 million. The points below still hold true.] It’s a huge blow for Arsenal on and off the pitch, but for footballing reasons, selling RVP now is the right move. Although he was the English Premier League’s Player of the Year last campaign, he’ll be 29 in August and has only had one injury-free season with the club. Wenger has a knack for selling players right as their descending from their peak (Henry, Campbell, Vieira), and this transfer is one that he’ll probably feel comfortable with.
As for RVP, nobody can blame him for wanting to leave. He knows his own mortality, and that he can only play at this level for 1-2 more years if injury-free. He needs to win now, and Manchester City United can gift-wrap him a medal next year. Can Arsenal? No, because they’ve joined the second-tier of English Football. Not the literal 2nd division, but the second-level of football clubs. They’ve lost their best player three-straight seasons (Fabregas to Barcelona, Nasri and RVP to Man United), have over £70 million to reinvest in player sales that hasn’t been touched (RVP’s transfer fee essentially pays for the Podolski and Giroud buys), and went another season without a trophy.
Once the RVP transfer goes through, Man United will have officially cemented English football’s new “Big Three.” Along with Manchester United and Chelsea, they’re now part of a Big Three that can outspend every other team. Let’s examine the Big Three, and where the other members of the old “Big Four” now lay.
THE BIG THREE
Forbes has listed the club as the most valuable sports organization in the world. Valued at over $2 billion, they’re worth more than the New York Yankees. Despite debts of over £400 million laid upon the club by the Glazer family, and despite the lack of big money buys the past few years, the team still has incredible spending power. A $100 million IPO on Wall Street doesn’t hurt either. Aside from their financial strength, Manchester United is always the odds-on favorite to win the League. Big Three material.
Winning the Champions League was nice, but they finished 6th in the League last season. Even with their floundering League form, Chelsea joins the Big Three because of owner Roman Abramovich’s billions. Realistically, he’s the only man who can compete with Man City’s spending. They’ve already fought off Man City for Eden Hazard’s signature this summer, so constant reinvestment into the squad to win titles will never be a problem for Abramovich’s Chelsea.
They’ve bought every star player imaginable. Owner Sheikh Mansour has spent nearly a billion pounds to since he bought the club, with roughly £565 million supplied solely by Mansour (the rest generated through Man City’s own operations). In September 2008, £500 million was set aside just for player investment—Man City has spent roughly £300 million of that in four years. They can’t spend quickly enough! All of that money finally returned something tangible last season, as they won the League title. Like it or not, Man City is now the most powerful club in world football.
THE “OTHER” BIG THREE
No trophies in over six years, no reinvestment into the squad, and watching their best players leave has caused a real split between Arsenal and the new Big Three. They just can’t compete on the same level so long as Arsenal’s board refuses to spend until Financial Fair Play regulations come in.
Still recovering from the financial and sporting calamity that was the Hicks and Gillett Era at Anfield, Liverpool finished 8th last season. New owners John Henry and Fenway Sports Group have the financial muscle to get Liverpool back into the Big Three’s zone (they’ve spent over £100 million out of pocket since their takeover), but the right mixture of coaching, players, and organizational principles will be needed to return Liverpool to glory. John Henry has to rebuild the organization from the staff to the stadium while trying to compete for Champions League spots. A difficult task that makes them a member of the second-tier.
They’ve only recently competed with the likes of the old Big Four and Manchester City, largely in part to the emergence of youngsters like Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon stars. Coupled with a bargain buy in Rafael Van der Vaart, and the loan of the season in 17-goal man (and former Arsenal striker) Emmanuel Adebayor, Tottenham has assembled a quality, top-four side. Where they’ll ultimately fail is their lack of cash. Adebayor may have to leave because the club can’t pay his wage-demands, and they haven’t spent more than £10 million on a player since 2009. Their record buy was four years ago in the form of £17 million David Bentley. At present state, they simply don’t have the investment to compete long-term.
With the new Big Three, and the “Other” Big Three being laid out, who do you think will finish in the top four next season?