Friday, 16 September 2016

Leicester City - This Year's Conspiracy Theory

“It was like all the other teams let them win.”

I heard Spurs fans make this suggestion of Leicester as their own team’s title challenge petered out. As conspiracy theories go, the other Premier League clubs letting Leicester City win the league is about as far-fetched as fake moon landings and Piltdown man.

However, I’d like to make a case for why some Spurs fans would rather come up with an excuse than face the reality of why their team didn’t win and possibly make them feel better about being cast as the villain in what shouldn’t have been a two-horse race between footballing underdogs.

There is no denying that titles are not won in August, but they are almost certainly lost and Spurs fans need to look at the 3 points from a possible 12 at the start of the season as being far more important in the grand scheme of things than the woeful capitulation from the moment Chelsea got back into the game at WHL, precipitating a collapse and some of the most unfortunate scenes on a football pitch.

Leicester’s August was not title winning, but it was effectively guaranteeing them survival and while Ranieri kept banging on about 40 points, by November he must have thought the way he had the team playing that a mid-table finish was almost guaranteed. Yet, the inconsistencies of the big clubs meant Leicester never dropped out of the reckoning, instead it fuelled the team – obviously driven by confidence – and I believe the beginning of the key factor began to nestle into the heads of the other Premier League players for the other 19 teams – including Spurs – if we don’t win it, we don’t mind Leicester winning it.

I know, if you ran this theory past Mark Lawrenson or Danny Murphy, Alan Shearer or Dion Dublin they would laugh in your face and tell you that footballers aren’t that complex and they only play to win. Except, by late January the only two teams that looked like they had the desire to win were Leicester and Spurs – both went on fabulous unbeaten runs and with Chelsea long dead in the water, Man Utd flattering to deceive and Man City and Arsenal just not showing the right amount of consistency, the impossible started to become a reality; there was a good chance that one of the big four wouldn’t win the league.

If you look at the last six games of the Premier League season 2015/16 – at the point where pundits no longer believed anyone would catch Leicester – you would have been excused had you woken up in an alternative reality where the Foxes were the dominant team and there was a fading hope of someone else resting control from them. The amount of insipid performances against them; the seeming failure of coaches and squads coming to terms with what was essentially the same tactic week in week out; had it not been for those perennial ignorers of scripts West Ham, the East Midlands would have been celebrating long before Spurs implosion against the wind-up experts Chelsea.

Aggrieved fans will point out how West Brom produced arguably their best performance of the season to put a dent in Spurs’s title challenge, or how Chelsea, devoid of passion, found bags of it to deny Spurs. The closer the Londoners got to being a threat to Leicester, the harder their opponents seemed to try.

The simple truth is Mauricio Pochettino used less players in the closing 12 weeks of the season than 18 other Premier League sides; when it came down to the nitty-gritty, the manager did a Harry Redknapp and failed to trust much more than his preferred starting XI. I can see it even now – Poch sitting at home thinking, “If I play Ryan Mason or Tom Carroll or Nacer Chadli how am I going to live with myself if we screw up and lose the league by one point; I will be forever labelled as the man who lost the league because he played someone else instead of the knackered and under-performing Christian Eriksen...” Obviously Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele didn’t help matters and neither did the arguable lack of investment in something during the previous January when we needed something – even a short term loanee – the stir it up at the club and refocus the players.

But it’s much easier to say that 18 other Premier League sides gifted Leicester the title because it makes them feel better...

Fast forward less than six months and the top 7 of the Premier League looks more like how people expect the top of the league to look: the two Manchester clubs, three London clubs and, hello, the two Liverpool teams again. The seven largest clubs in the country occupy the top 7 spots and there’s the battle for the next eight months – three of them are going to miss out on prizes.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The 2016/17 Football Forecast

Every year my good, dear friend Roger and I become pundits and forecast the forthcoming football season and we put it up on our joint sports blog called Sports Discuss - which, in Internet terms, was as popular as someone's soiled underpants. Abandoning that idea, we're going to publish this jointly through our own blogs, for exposure more than anything else.

We were once known as The Wippo Brothers & Clive.


As is now well know, my predictions come from Missed It Meg, the most unreliable wizard in the universe, and a seer whose stygmatism inflicted second sight peers myopically through bottle-bottom thick glasses. Meg's predictions are to reliability what the Labour Party is to credible opposition politics, or, if I have to spell it out, a fucking, here goes:
AFC Bournemouth
Will veer between 11th and 17th and could finish anywhere in that range. Already there have been seven unspectacular additions to the squad, replacing six leavers and this will mean they will remain the Premier League's yo-yo team, up and down like the Assyrian Empire. I predict they will beat Spurs at home.
As a Toffee it is always galling listening to the interminable moaning of Gooners, but I can grudgingly understand their grouching given the unspent zillions under Arsene's mattress. About time the craggy old Frenchy retired methinks, or is it Wenger's plan to peg it in the dug out?. They'll do enough to scrape 4th as ever, having at some point been top and looking unbeatable. Plus ca change...
I know as much about Burnley than I do about lathe maintenance. Bottom, I reckon...which probably means Europa League qualification beckons. Will draw with Spurs at WHL.
Blimey, that Kunte Kante fella makes Jose look reserved, does he not? Have already spent over £60m of loose change on two new players, expect more to come, who with the gesticulating bloke should probably take a while to bed in. 2nd or 3rd.
Crystal Palace
A sort of classier version of Stoke, occasionally a bit mad, just like their manager. Will hover round the Useless League places.
I was going to hold off writing this prediction thing until we had actually bought someone, but given our track record that would mean the season would be a week old already. Even with Moshiri's wallet on board it seems we have been a bit slow off the mark, the only purchase so far being Leicester's director of football. An offer has been made for Witsel who is mulling over a £100K a week contract. ho-hum.
Koeman was the guy I wanted, but then so was Martinez, so who knows what will happen.
The obvious key to any improvement is keeping hold of Lukaku, and to a lesser extent, Barkley and Stones. Never a dull moment at The Old Lady since Moyes left, for sure. We can't do any worse than last season, so I'll go for 6th and a cup!
With no Barcodes to keep us entertained this season, 'Ull are making an early bid for the title of the Premier League Comedy Club. What an omnishables! Down, down deeper and down...
My prediction for the Foxes last season, like most, was waaay off, but at least I didn't predict them to go down. Surely there's no way they can repeat last season's miracle? I reckon upper mid-table. Right, I'm off to put a tenner on them being Champions again...
Klippety is the first likeable manager the Shite have had since Houlier, and he's now forging them into his own team, with 13 (!) departures and 6 additions so far. With no Euro distractions, I'm rather scared they'll do a bit too well for my liking. Only thing stopping them is the new team bedding in. Top four likely. :(
Man City
The team who on paper should win it every year. The key word is "team", which they seldom resemble. Is "The World's Best Manager" the man who can get them playing like they recognise each other? Hands off Lukaku or Stones, ye over-monied entitled fuckers...
Man Utd
There was an early and strong rumour that The Special One would actually take up a proper challenge (my lot), but unsurprisingly he plumped for the bottomless loaned wealth of the red half of Manchester. Like their neighbours they have been very quiet in the transfer market so far, so...hands off Lukaku or Stones, ye over-monied entitled fuckers...
A similar amount of transfer activity to Bournemouth, but unlike The Cherries they do not have a year's experience behind them. Will hover around the drop zone all year, but may survive.
They can't keep rebuilding and thriving each season, surely? Summat has to give. Another hard one to call. Mid table anonymity along with...
You can tell I've had enough of this, can't you?
Just been bought by a Yank, apparently. Good track record, Yanks owning football clubs, eh? Will scrap it out with the other three teams beginning with S for 12th.
Tottenham Hotspur
A great name that sounds like it came out of a boys comic, and a team who veer between brilliant and scared of their own shadows. The loss to Bournemouth and the home draw against Burnley will be what ultimately costs them the title. At least they'll finish above Arsenal at last.

Goodbye, Vicarage Road... ;)
West Ham
A almost spanking new and virtually free new ground (the bastards), a good manager and a good squad. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, probably, knowing The Hammers.
West Brom
I thought I'd finished this thing then realised I hadn't mentioned The the mix with the "Esses".

The Table:
1. Citeh
2. Spurs
3. Liverpool
4. Arsenal
5. Man Utd
6. Chelsea
7. Everton
8. Leicester
9. Crystal Palace
10. West Ham
11. Southampton
12. Sunderland
13. Stoke
14. West Brom
15. Swansea
16. Bournemouth
17. Middlesbrough
18. Burnley
19. Watford
20. Hull
League Cup: Everton
FA Cup: Everton
Champions League: Not Everton
Useless League: Paraguay


And I, for once, am rather more measured (with a surreal caveat)...

I can't remember an impending football season with so much uncertainty about it, yet if you read the columns and listen to the early shots from the pundits you'd think it was already shaping up to be the same old same old. I don't think it will be as predictable as the experts think. For a start two new teams in the Champions League; Man Utd in the Europa Cup and a host of new managers, new players and new grounds.
Oh and for the first time since I've been doing this (must be 10 years now), you'll have to wait until the end to find out my positional predictions.

AFC Bournemouth: The problem for Eddie Howe's men is the other big problem that hounds the unexpected survivor of an almost certain relegation - Second Season Syndrome. The Cherries appear to have spent interestingly without really raising any eyebrows. The key to a second consecutive survival battle is not just who is worse but also how they improve on some excellent results last season. It's going to be tough. Animal Most Like - Possum

Arsenal: One thing you'd be silly to do is write off Arsenal as a serious top 4 contender, but if you hear some of the pre-season banter from Arsenal fans on the radio you'd think their season was over already. It would appear the lack of investment and new players has again mightily pissed off the fans, who argue, quite rightly at times, that if their team could only scrape into 2nd in a supposedly woefully inferior last season, surely some investment is needed to ensure they don't go backwards. I think they might start to go backwards, especially if injuries hit them hard early on. Animal Most Like - Wildebeest

Burnley: I really can't see this being a season with any real high points. They are not going to do a Leicester and might find themselves way off the pace from almost the word go. Will win friends and play some good football, but it just won't ever be enough. Animal Most Like - rabbit

Chelsea: With no European participation, a slew of new recruits (and more on the way) and a little more than just their pride at stake, I expect a faltering season from the former champions, but only because it will take Conte - the new man - a few months to get it right. The success of teams around them in Europe could dictate the final standings at the end of the season. Animal Most Like - Pike

Crystal Palace: Have been nothing but ambitious in transfers and targets and will fancy their chances if they hit a rich vein of form - which they are capable of, especially at home. Will be tough to beat this year and Pardew will have learnt from the second half of last season. Animal Most Like - Bald eagle

Everton: One of the real puzzles in this year's league battle. Ronald Koeman didn't so much transform Southampton as do what you'd expect a manager to do when he follows someone who has shown the team's vast improvement, he took it to the next level and Southampton sans some of arguably their best players were better without them. Koeman  also hasn't got big shoes to fill as Roberto Martinez's reign spluttered to a resounding end and a team with so much potential, in a season when they should have done so much better, was a flop. They don't appear to have signed anyone yet and despite having lots of money, this is a worry, especially if you're a Toffee's fan. Animal Most Like - Panda

Hull: A club in turmoil. Only 13 fit players in the squad. The manager has just quit and the club is essentially for sale. I'd have a fiver on them to win the league. I expect them to go down and badly but I said that about Leicester last season. Animal Most Like - Your crap dog

Leicester: And here they are, the Champions. Will they be champions in May. No. I'm positive of this. They will however begin the season like they finished last season and will remain tough to beat and difficult to play against unless you know how to close them down. A decent replacement for Kante is needed, but who was Kante last August? This is going to be as tough as old boots for them. Animal Most Like - Lupus Lupus

Liverpool: No Europe and we all remember what happened last time that happened? This time they have Jurgen Klopp, a lot of his style of players and definite signs at times towards the end of last season that a new ethos was taking shape at Anfield. This team, for the first time in years, worries me. Animal Most Like - Giraffe

Man City: The Premier League really is the Champions League of managers this season and few come bigger than Pep Guardiola. Had the other Special One not moved into Old Trafford you might have pretty much given the title to Citeh given the foregone conclusion-ness attached to them. For Guardiola, read Antonio Conte above, this won't be an easy ride, it will get better and all the signs will start to show that the future is scary, but maybe not this year. Animal Most Like - Gorilla

Man Utd: Determining factors - is Mourinho washed up? Will the Europa League hinder? Will they even bother with it? Will the weight of expectation become too high again? There's no denying the quality that's been brought in and that of those still being negotiated for. I just have a gut feeling that this could go horribly wrong and it's a real cheat to say it probably won't but I want to put it out there. Animal Most Like - Hyena

Middlesbrough: A dark horse for certain survival? There's something about them that suggests a resilience and staying in the Premier League isn't as difficult as it once seemed for newly promoted clubs. Have spent wisely and on some good players. Animal Most Like - Geordies

Southampton: my underdogs for the relegation zone. The new manager might yet be another brilliant pick and the academy still continues to churn out future stars; but it must be hard playing for a club with both a Europa League campaign and with the knowledge you play for a selling club. Unlikely to repeat last season and could struggle if things get tough. Animal Most Like - Seal

Stoke: I'm fed up with writing about Stoke and most years I write bugger all about them. Will frustrate and flatter to deceive. Mid-table as per. Animal Most Like - Shrew

Sunderland: David Moyes can turn Jermaine Defoe into a defensive midfielder. Surely a season of mediocrity but no real flirtation with relegation? Either this team will improve or no one will change their fortunes for a while. I think they'll bother neither end of the table. Animal Most Like - a very defensive minded sloth

Swansea: possibly the bottom has dropped out of Swansea a little and if Siggurdsson is prised away from them before the window slams shut then I fear for their future. Animal Most Like - lungfish

Watford: Who knows? What's the new manager like? How will the 30 new recruits slot into the team? Bizarre club. Animal Most Like - Cuckoo

West Ham: We all know Bilic is a top quality manager. How the Hammers settle into their new home is a huge uncertainty. Fortress or target? West Ham were the first team to win at the Emirates, I believe, expect Arsenal to return the favour. Europa League could hinder league progress a little, depending on how serious they treat it this year. Animal Most Like -  Peacock

West Brom: God, I so hope they go down. Animal Most Like - skunk

Tottenham: Optimism has never been in plentiful supply with me and my team and after a brilliant season, the team imploded to remind us all just how good they are at fucking up when Arsenal are sniffing at their arses. I expect nothing less than finishing above the Gooners and maybe we have the makings of doing more than that. The one key factor in Spurs failure to finish higher than 3rd was their failure to convert matches against obdurate opponents intent on a draw or nicking the win. The football they played, by and large, against the so-called big boys was irresistible at times and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue even with Champions League commitments. Sensible purchases, early on, and more brilliant raw talent being promoted from the youth coupled with something Spurs haven't had for a long time, continuity, means that I'm actually more than optimistic for them in a season with so many unknown factors at work. Animal Most Like - Vorlon

The Table:
1.  Tottenham
2.  Liverpool
3.  Man City
4.  Chelsea
5.  Man Utd
6.  Everton
7.  Arsenal
8.  West Ham
9.  Leicester
10. Stoke
11. Crystal Palace
12. Southampton
13. Watford
14. Middlesbrough
15. Sunderland
16. Bournemouth
17. WBA
18. Swansea
19. Burnley
20. Hull City

League Cup: Man City
FA Cup: Chelsea
Champions League: Bayern Munich
Europa League: Kazakhstan Korinthians

Saturday, 23 April 2016

And you thought this year was exciting...

The football season 2016/17 is so far away the 2015/16 one isn't even over, yet because of the abject failure of the Big Four to have much impact on the title, some pundits and journalists are already forecasting incredible things for next season.

Such is the belief of some journalists, by the ultimate week of next season there will be eight team all on 75 points, all with exactly the same goal difference and five more on 74 who could knick something if every result goes against what is needed. The other 8 teams will be vying for relegation. No one is suggesting that Middlesbrough, Burnley or Brighton could do a Leicester. In fact no one is suggesting Leicester can do a Leicester. If they do win it this year, no one is realistically even talking about them retaining it - not even the looniest Leicester City loons. This season is a one-off. Normal service will be resumed. Next season all the top teams will have the top people in place and, of course, next year, Rodney, we'll all be millionaires... Except, the poor joke is on me, next year all the Premier League clubs will almost be billionaires.

So, shifting focus away from my beloved Spurs, I thought I'd look at this coming August:

Arsenal - I know Arsenal fans who believe that Wenger will die in post. This is the one that's too close to call in because I think Wenger's time there depends on where they finish in the league this season. With two easy matches and a game against their rivals for 3rd, you would think Champions League football is guaranteed and therefore Arsene plays out the last year of his contract because he will have fulfilled the minimum requirements of said contract. I expect if that happens it won't get renewed and he'll be offered the chance to 'go upstairs'. That offer might come earlier if they find themselves in 5th, or even 4th, at the end of May, in a season where the top two were Leicester and fierce local rivals Spurs. Not good enough (huzzah).
Next season prediction: With Wenger and without serious investment a top five spot is unlikely; however, even with a new manager and a lot of money, there is no guarantee the returns will be instant, especially with so many clubs now having vast quantities of money. They blew it this season and without a change that will have psychological effects. Plus some of their stars are beginning to look nervously at the door...

Bournemouth - will not trouble the top half of the table and I say that with confidence and then I look at Leicester and 12 months ago you would probably have struggled to put a Rizla between Leicester's narrow-avoidance of relegation team and Bournemouth's Championship winning side. You can't say that now and who knows what investment Bournemouth might make even if their maximum ground capacity falls well short, or what standard of players they might be able to attract. The only drawback to all of that is the last few years have proven almost unequivocally that having a team is proving to be more consistent than having superstars. Eddie Howe is one of the best young managers in the country and he gets his team playing. Yet Bournemouth's success pretty much boils down to their ability to persuade people to go to the south coast, where lots of old people retire to.
Next season prediction: bottom half of the table.

Chelsea - there seems to be this belief in some quarters that Antonio Conte is going to have a kind of first-coming-of-Mourinho effect; in others is the belief that a huge amount of investment is needed. And then there's those who feel the club has more prospective excellence loaned out (40) it should look at itself rather than venture into the hit-and-miss world of hoping a great and mega-expensive footballer fits into your ways and methods. Some don't. Some world class footballers cannot adapt to some approaches. Plus, there really does seem to be something rotten at the heart of Stamford Bridge at the moment, like the fall out of the Eva Carneiro business had been brewing for months beforehand and we just saw the head of it and not all the pus stewing away below it. Has any defending champions ever looked so pallid and disinterested?
Next season: Hazard will go, so to could a few others. If Conte allows the youth to flourish and is given an entire season to oversee the repackaging of Chelsea (but has a couple of Galactico signings, so that Roman can feel all big in the trousers) then the season after next they might be worth a punt on finishing in the top four; but next season... top half only.

Crystal Palace - and repeat... I could pretty much say the same thing, but slightly different for every club, because the amount of money sloshing about in their banks come next season is going to make signing Messi a reality - in realistically metaphoric terms only - for some big named clubs, but is also going to mean some clubs picking up class acts who would normally not look at a club like Palace because if they want to play or want to sit on a bench or in the reserves of a 'top' club then they obviously are more interested in money than playing football. London is Palace's advantage.
Next season: we discover if everything people accuse Alan Pardew of is correct and whether Palace playing in Europe (A cup final spot against Man U would guarantee it) will really hinder the team or bring it forward. If the latter happens I see a struggle because of a lack of real depth - one that has been their undoing in the latter half of this season. Might struggle to make the top half.

Everton - I expect the Toffees will start next season with a new manager, but stranger things have happened at that club. Martinez should be fired for his failure to achieve anything in a season where LEICESTER won the title. At one point in January, the Merseyside club had the sixth best goal difference in the league and yet were 11th. This is a club with some real talent and yet they have the league table appearance of a 1990s Spurs side - high expectations and shit finishes. I liked their manager and I thought they got the better deal when my team got Andre Villas Boas...
Next season: Everton strike me as the kind of club with the right manager in place could hit the ground running. That said, they have to hope that this season of underachievement doesn't stimulate the likes of Barkley and Lukaku into wanting away, maybe to a club showing more ambition? Top half but need to keep their star players.

Leicester City - and here's the rub; Leicester will pocket a shed-load of cash from winning the league, but can they a) invest it wisely and b) keep the ethos of this team together? Can they compete in the Champions League and make a fist of defending the title? Could Jamie Vardy be a one-season-wonder? This season we have seen what the power of confidence can do and the power of a settled team - the top two in 2015/16 used less players than the 18 teams below them; next year the others will have a better chance of countering Leicester's style of play than Spurs' and I say that because history suggests that is what usually happens, while Spurs' style of play begins with them being as fit in the 90th minute as they were in the 1st - the only way to counter that is to match it.
Next season: I'm going to be optimistic. Leicester will scrape into the last 16 of the Champs League (but they enter the draw as a fourth seed given their absence from Europe for ever) and will finish 7th. Equally, they might get tonked in Europe and struggle against teams that mark Mahrez and Vardy out of games, but I think some of this year's momentum will see them all right.

Liverpool - the real threat, but there will be some changes and those changes could be crucial. I expect Klopp's Liverpool to be next season's Leicester or Spurs and that's because they are beginning to look like a well-drilled, organised and attractive GERMAN side. They could win the Europa League next month; they've already beaten a GERMAN team that humbled Spurs and having a fifth team in the Champions League would at least offset the worry that Leicester will bugger up our coefficients. They have started to look like an embryonic Spurs side - the one that started to look good at the back end of 2015, by next season they will have gained some consistency.
Next season: top 3

Manchester City - Pep Guardiola. I'll say it again, Pep Guardiola. So what? He's managed two of the greatest team ever in the same way that Andy Cole played up front for the best Man U side ever. Pep scores with stars. It would be nice to see what he'd do if he managed Orient or Fleetwood. Man City have fallen behind in many ways; they have some of the best players in the world in their side and I'm sure under the right coach they will prove this. But is Pep the right guy? Probably; but when you think about what Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool are likely to do in the transfer market, or the likely improvement in Spurs or the extensive rebuilding Pep has to do in certain areas, I no longer think this is a nailed on certainty. 
Next season will have expectations, but also a wee bit of patience. I don't think they'll win it, but they will finish top 3. They might be the only 'expected' team to place there.

Manchester United - with or without Van Gaal or Mourinho this is a team in transition and given history is likely to struggle to return to the position it believes it should be in. Van Gaal might win the FA Cup and finish 4th thus keeping his job for the final year of his contract. I kind of want this to happen because Man Utd are the new old Spurs - inconsistent but sometimes great. Yet, I don't believe Mourinho is actually that good, so him coming might be a great car crash. Equally, I refer you to comments about Pep Guardiola in the previous entry and ask if this possible manager could do it with no stars at his disposal and no budget?
Next season will probably be a massive disappointment yet like this season will have periods where they pick up plenty of points. The Man U era might be over, but they might still keep on the coat tails and sneak into 4th... Only
might though.

Southampton - if ever there was a collective side who could do a Leicester it's this team, but you just get the impression they don't know how to move up from where they have got. Keep Koeman and some of their outstanding players and you're looking at an outside top 6 club; lose him and it'll get no worse than mid-table. This is a progressive club that is almost single-handedly helping other teams rise above them by letting all their players and staff leave. That said I don't think of Southampton as being a 'new' Premier League side; I view them as a Premier League side who wandered off the plot for a few years (like Leeds, Bolton and the Sheffield clubs), so I'd be surprised if they allowed the club to slip out of the big time again.
Next season: probably won't seriously trouble the top or bottom six and in this era of billions that will probably be enough. Will have a big say in the outcome because on their day, at home, they are very tough to beat.

Stoke - I like Mark Hughes, but like Arsene Wenger, I don't think he's that cutting edge any more. He's been around too long now and seems capable of taking clubs to a certain level, but no higher. On paper Stoke look quite good; on the pitch on Monday night, Spurs literally took them apart and had fun with the pieces. There are some good (in Football Manager) players in the squad, but they seem to be reclaiming the 'thug' tag and also carry a lot of dead wood. Stoke aren't in any danger of doing anything remarkable, but they probably need a progressive manager to get the best out of their quality players and that manager also needs to develop youngsters while ridding the club of the likes of Crouch, Adam and Given.
Next season: nothing to see here, move along mid-table.

Swansea - the fact they're still here is testament to the way smaller clubs have adapted to the Premier League. However, this season while they never looked in danger of relegation, there were moments where they couldn't do anything right and Swansea and Palace both played themselves into a relegation race they should never have been in, considering their positions and points tally after Christmas. They were in danger because they don't seem to have come on and if they don't move up a few gears it will get worse.
Next season: bottom six, whether they will go depends on how bad three other teams end up.

Watford - who can say? Rumour has it that Flores is in danger of losing his job, despite Premier League safety by March and an FA Cup semi-final (maybe even Europa League football next season). An unlikely nomination to be the next Leicester, but as I've said, who would have thought of Leicester? They play nice counter-attacking football and have defied the odds and the pundits - this is a different Watford that has flirted with the top flight in the past.
Next season: mid table mediocrity and all the happier for it.

West Brom - this is an average side with an average manager and are likely to lose a couple of players in the summer. West Brom might think they're too good to go down, but as Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland can attest, reputations means dick. How does this club attract big players and play football that will make them more attractive? I have no idea, but they need something.
Next season: serious relegation candidates.

West Ham - we tend to forget because of Leicester and Spurs that the most common conversation when Slaven Bilic took over was whether he could prevent the Hammers from being relegated. Nine months later they have pushed for a Champions League place without ever looking like they were serious. This is a good side and I expect them to get better; however a new stadium could be a blessing or a curse. Moving to Stratford is one of the biggest 'unknown' factors in next season's league. If they take to it they could do better, if it doesn't fit then this is a team that sometimes fall quite spectacularly.
Next season: top 10, nailed on.

As you can see, I've left out Norwich, Sunderland, and Newcastle because we have no idea which one will still be in the top flight next year, however I think whoever it is will be challenging for the bottom 3 next season.

I expect two, possibly all three, of Burnley, Brighton and Middlesbrough up next season and with the new money fountain, I can't really forecast where these clubs are likely to finish - next year is an odd one because of the levelling of the monetary playing field - clubs will no longer need to sell players in contract, can afford to raise their wages bill and spend more money on better players - so I wouldn't fancy doing any predictions with any conviction until I know who they are and what they're doing.

That said...

It brings us to...

Tottenham Hotspur - I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me what this current season would bring, because in many ways it was more ambitious than I've dreamt of. There hasn't been any speculation of any seriousness linking any of their players to 'bigger' clubs. Man U supposedly want Harry Kane, but that isn't going to happen - for a multitude of reasons. Could Dele Alli be tempted away with a £50million bid? I doubt it very much; I expect he will play for Liverpool one day - he is a fan - but I also expect him to be in his mid to late 20s when that happens. What about our brilliant defence or the likes of Eriksen, Lamela or Dier - couldn't they go if a Barca, Real or Bayern came calling? Yeah, but not next season - there's no need. Will Spurs keep Pochettino? Absolutely; his project is less than half complete and you see that look in his eye, the look of a man who knows this team is going forward and has no reason to go back, at all.
Next season: First. Top. Champions. Not only will they win it, they'll win it easily, with only two clubs giving them a run for their money. I say this based on the fact Spurs play the best football in the Premier League, have the best defence and next season the draws will become wins because they will have experience added to brilliant raw talent. They are a joy to watch sometimes.

My 'avin'a-larf table for May 2017

1. Spurs
2. Liverpool
3. Man City
4. Man Utd
5. West Ham
6. Arsenal
7. Leicester
8. Chelsea
9. Southampton
10. Everton
11. Stoke
12. Crystal Palace
13. Watford
14. Promoted #2
15. Promoted #1
16. Swansea
17. Bournemouth
18. West Brom
19. Norwich/Newcastle/Sunderland
20. Promoted #3

Friday, 8 April 2016

The End of Season Bash (part 2)

I want to make a point (again) about Leicester's participation in the Champions League next season, now that it is almost impossible not to happen.

I'm going to sound like every punter, ever, but with a fourth spot at Europe's top table under threat by resurgent Italians and the failure - en masse - of English teams in European competitions in recent years, there is a risk that inside three years, we could be 'relegated' to having just three Champions League participants (with the third place team having to go the play-off route). To stop this, we simply have to perform better in Europe than the Italians, especially next season, because if we fail again the co-efficients could well tip towards a fourth Italian side by the time the Champions League is revamped.

The Premier League, this season, has been a remarkably level playing field, which is why Leicester, Spurs and even West Ham have excelled way above expectations (and probably why Roberto Martinez will be sacked by Everton, because this talented side missed a big opportunity). It is still feasible, with Man City playing so erratically and Man Utd never guaranteed to turn up, that the Hammers could grab that fourth spot - a win against Arsenal would do lots of teams a favour. If next season England was represented by Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham in the Champions League, then I'd bet my house that 99% of pundits would realistically say that only Arsenal stood a good chance of progressing from the group stage, based on European Cup history. You could argue that Spurs should, but the star-studded side under Harry Redknapp was a better bet on a European stage than the current side and Spurs' lack of real depth showed in their two limp defeats to Borussia Dortmund, who never looked like the side they did in the following round against Liverpool.

The Premier League might be the 'best' in the world in terms of excitement and entertainment, but it clearly no longer has club sides that are dominant throughout Europe. When Alex Ferguson retired it seemed to take the heart out of English clubs European dreams. I accept that's a facile generalisation, but there no longer seems to be the urgency about Europe there once was and that might be down to the money being generated, via television, for domestic football. This also might explain why world class footballers are still preferring Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern over any of our own rich clubs - because it's easier for these clubs to win big trophies now and there's less demand on them.

The Spanish League is, of the big guns, the most difficult to win outside of the Premier League. There are three teams that could win it every season, two of them are the Galacticos, while the other Madrid side punch above their weight every year. There are others capable of giving these teams 'a game', but you could forecast correctly every season by picking these three teams. Paris St German are the only team in their league; they have a squad to rival the Galacticos and are becoming a dominant force in Europe. Bayern's biggest rival is Dortmund, there are other good teams in the Bundesliga but essentially it's Bayern then the rest. These four teams should continue to dominate the Champions League because there are very few demands outside of it. In England we have schedules that kill competitions and it is obvious that the Europa League simply doesn't work for English clubs because of the over all money at stake, not the prize at the end. Champions League generates far more money and when you're a business, money tends to outweigh glory of a secondary nature.

Would England take the Europa League seriously if next season you had Man City, Man Utd, Southampton and say Everton in it? Would no European involvement help Chelsea and their new manager? Can Leicester do it again? Can they challenge for the title and play at the top table and hold their own? I'd say doubtful, as would others and historically there's evidence to suggest they could end up treating the Champions League like the Nordic clubs - as cash cow rather than a winnable competition - their participation in just six matches would bring considerable riches, even if that was the be all and end all of their European jaunt and it was never repeated.

However, in a world with a level playing field it isn't inconceivable that a team such as Southampton or Everton couldn't do very well in Europe; there is enough money to have bigger squads to combat the fatigue and mental catch up side of the game, but the demands of the domestic game have grown so important that comments made by Laurent Blanc - manager of PSG - ring true; he said that fatigue from a long season could play a major part in whether English clubs can do well in Europe and evidence over the last few years is they don't do well in Europe (unless its to the detriment of their league form). It is obvious that something needs to be done to help club fulfil their potential.

It's all well and good condemning English clubs failure while pointing at the money, the managers and the profile, but when you expect top class athletes to perform match after match to the highest of standards (and they don't) you have to realise that Mo Farrar doesn't run 10,000 metres, in gold winning medal time, every week, while kicking a ball in front of him.

It is also incredibly difficult to mould a squad team - most top clubs have their best sides and a few players who can interchange seamlessly, but start making wholesale changes and form starts to dip. Only Spurs this season have been able to rotate a lot of their players and not look much different; but it has been the rotations that have caused the biggest loss of points (not huge this season, but enough to make a difference). If you asked Mauricio Pochettino what his starting XI for the rest of the season is it wouldn't change (apart from maybe Vertonghen coming back). That's the side that almost won the Premier League and the push on they will need won't be signing star names, but holding onto who they have and signing a few equally as good players to slot in during injuries and suspensions. Most clubs don't really have good B teams - adequate, yes, but unlikely to sustain anything. So, if a club wants to take all competitions seriously, they have to play with teams they think will win and that means some players could end up involved in 60 matches in a season - do the maths, it's just too much to expect.

The question is does English football want to be champions of Europe again or is it happy living off its domestic laurels? It would seem the amount of money about to wash about has made the competitive edge wane. The league is still the important one and for six or seven teams now it will remain that way. Leicester will want to continue being a great side. Spurs won't be looking at a top four finish but a title challenge. West Ham will see the Olympic Stadium move as a bonus to continue the massive improvement under Slaven Bilic. Chelsea will expect their new manager to have instant impact and success. Guardiola's arrival at Man City throws open the possibility that some of the world class players who baulk at our league might be tempted. Arsenal and Man Utd will expect something extra and there's Liverpool to take into account; they have to improve at some point. It all adds up to a forthcoming season where winning the league again becomes the most important thing and with seven or eight clubs in the mix the cup competitions are going to be viewed as a hindrance rather than a bonus.

English domestic cups are utterly devalued, despite what pundits are paid to say; no one takes them too seriously until you get to the business end and even then, depending on what else your team is involved with, there is an element of lack of urgency about them. The League Cup causes problems even now, adding to a fixture list that many managers think is already too busy. One solution would be to revamp that competition but any major changes would be opposed because it carries a European place and without it the competition would be even more devalued. I'm sure that the managers of mid-table Premier League sides would argue it is one of their few ways of realistically winning a trophy, while teams always chasing bigger things will use the competition to keep fringe players happy - with the added bonus of extra game time and the chance to impress. If that fails, then no big loss, the players get a few midweek breaks. The fans would be more than happy with some silverware and they don't care how its got. I'm sure Wigan or Portsmouth fans would struggle to give back their FA Cup wins for a place struggling in the Premier League every season?

The problem is in the post-mortem; this season will have some fans of some clubs wondering if their commitments to cups was the reason they fell short. I'm talking, specifically Spurs and their one big chance of glory in 55 years and how it might not happen because of the club's earlier commitment to the cup competitions. Could some of those draws been wins? So next season, if Spurs are challenging again, could we see them treat the domestic cups with less respect? Part of me actually wants the answer to be yes. If Leicester get through to both cup quarter finals but end up in 7th because of the amount of games they played, will they be happy if the eight points they dropped meant 3rd rather than 7th? Cup quarter finalists are never remembered. If any club can win the league why risk the rewards of a top ten finish with a ultimately pointless cup run? I know it's all to do with pride and glory but some clubs know that will elude them so its really all about money.

The upshot is if England start to treat Europe like a purse rather than a winnable competition it devalues European football. Europe is unattractive without English participation - TV deals become insignificant when a big part of your desired audience isn't in it. So it ultimately isn't in UEFA's interests for England to drift out of European reckoning. The status quo might be restored next season - Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd might dominate with the pretenders back to scratching around for scraps, but if it isn't (and why should it?) then the draw of the Premier League's participation in Europe continues to be eroded because the fan bases of the new breed aren't in the league of the big money clubs and progression isn't assured.

It's a little like solving a conundrum within a puzzle within an enigma and one which every time I try and think of a workable solution I'm stymied by some different wrinkle. Whether it's about glory, money or progression, there is something or someone that will have to give to ensure that it has a fair chance of working and football chairmen are notorious for not giving an inch.

Way back when the Premier League was formed and it went from 22 teams to 20, some people were saying it should be just 16 teams, with one team relegated and one team involved in a play-off with the side finishing second in the lower league. The knock on effect is you'd now have a Premier League 2 with 20 teams, a Championship (League 1) with 24 teams and two regional League 1s (League 2) with 24 (or 20) teams each (the top six from the National league would automatically join the following season. This would immediately solve a fixture congestion for Premier League clubs, with eight games less. Can you imagine the opposition to it now if someone suggested that?

Cups will remain important to the fans of teams still in it at the arse end of the season, that will never change, but it could end up remaining a very fallow period for all of the wannabe league and European champions because there is a bigger prize now up for grabs.

It brings us back to Leicester in next season's Champions League. They will be a fourth ranked team, regardless of their champion status because they have no European form; getting out of a group with at least two top ranked sides is going to be a big ask for them and to be able to maintain the momentum from this season. It will be worse if they're drawn in a group with an Italian side. England will be lucky to get a good return in co-efficient points from the Champions League next season, so ultimately the euphoria of something different finally happening in the Premier League might end up devaluing our place in Europe.

The End of Season Bash (part 1)

Champagne's on Ice, but what about St Totteringham's Day?

Congratulations Leicester City on winning the most unlikeliest prize of all. The claiming of the Premier League title has been a revelation that is both sweet and poison to football fans all over the country.

But... hang on, they haven't won it yet?

No, but they need a minimum of four wins from their remaining six games and while they face in-form West Ham, Man United (desperate for a top four finish) and dethroned champions Chelsea, they also have three very winnable ties against Everton, Swansea and Sunderland and that should be enough, given Spurs' tough run-in.

Arsenal, on paper, look better equipped to make a late challenge, despite having to win 3 more games than Leicester. Five of their final six fixtures are all pretty much guaranteed three pointers - Palace, West Brom, Sunderland and Norwich before a last day 'test' against Villa. However, they also face West Ham at the Boleyn Ground and Man City in sunny Mancsville - two games that will possible define their stop/start season. 15 points would give Arsenal 73 points, meaning Leicester would only need 5 points to guarantee the title.

Spurs have Chelsea away - never a happy hunting ground and against a team playing for pride. They have Man Utd at home, also another team the North London club struggle to beat, wherever they play and whatever form they happen to be in. Stoke away also poses a threat - Spurs can win there, but going to the Potteries is never, ever, a forecast-able result. That leaves West Brom and Southampton at home and a potential crazy last day when they go to St James Park in Newcastle to play a side that may or may not have already been relegated, but might also need a win to save their status. If Spurs can draw against Chelsea, and beat their opponents in the other five, that would give them 16 points and a total of 78 points, meaning Leicester would need to win four matches as Spurs have, by far, the best goal difference in the league. That, on paper could put pressure on Leicester, but the reality is, it is Spurs they are up against.

So, while the league title is still not mathematically impossible, most Spurs fans would have bitten your hand off at the start of the season just to finish above Arsenal, even if that was us in 16th and them in 17th. The gap between the two pernicious rivals is four points, but Arsenal have a game in hand, so that could be one point and a far worse goal difference to overcome - not impossible by any stretch of the imagination. The reality is the fight for runner-up is far more likely to stir up passions among two sets of rivals than the unexpected Leicester title.

Don't get me wrong. If Spurs were to defy the odds and win the title I would not have the slightest problem in partying like it was 1999 all over again, but I also accept that it is as unlikely as Leicester winning the title... oh... But, it has been a great season to watch and live and I never really expected something like this in my lifetime; there was always the hope but never the reality - Spurs usually fall short much earlier than this and it's the hope that gets you in the end.

I decided after the lasagne-gate incident - 10 years ago now - that I would be happy with a) supremacy over the Arse or b) just one year where we finish above the bastards; and, frankly, we've flattered to deceive and always managed to screw it up. This season, as a die-hard Spurs fan, is likely to have the same result, even if we finish 3rd and are guaranteed Champions League group football next year. 3rd would be a disaster if Arsenal were above us.

In the world of harsh realities, Spurs could end up taking just six points from their last six matches and if you were a betting man this is your best bet; except for 28 of the last 32 matches, Spurs have played like one of the two best teams in the country - many managers claim they are the best side their clubs' have faced and unusually Spurs are now tough to beat; they don't concede that many goals (less than anyone else in the top flight) and this is a team that has showed, time and time again, it doesn't know when it is beaten. Most un-Spurs-like.

Against Liverpool, in a game they needed to win and went a goal behind, I never once gave up; I could see us scoring - we did - and I could see us getting a winner - we didn't, but we didn't lose and not losing is a mentality that has benefited both Spurs and Leicester.

So I err on the pessimistic only because recent history demands it. History however has never had a Spurs side quite like this one, at least not for 55 years, and this team is ridiculously young and fit and has gained more points from losing positions than any team in the league; so there is room for some cautious optimism and, of course, this weird season could still throw up some curve balls. Sunderland are fighting for their lives - relegation this season will cost teams so much money it isn't funny - and we all know - because of Leicester's heroics last season - relegation-threatened teams somehow turn it around, sometimes. Sunderland face both Arsenal and Leicester at home and it is arguably their two most important games, because points taken from these are not expected, despite home advantage. Plus they have Big Sam and he likes a challenge, having never been relegated in his career.

St Totteringham's Day - the near-mythical day when Spurs can no longer overhaul their North London neighbours has only gone down to the last day of the season twice in recent years and both times the Arse have triumphed, despite Spurs being in pole position. It would be fair to say that I will be looking down the table over the next few weeks, not above.

If I had any finger nails, I wouldn't.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A Week is a Long Time etc...

Let's be realistic about this - the 2015/16 season has been a revelation - it has shown us all something unique in modern football and the fact that my Spurs are 2nd, still, can be looked back on as a definite improvement, even if they end up in 4th or even 5th place. Yes, it will be devastating after a season of more ups than downs, but the future does appear to have Spurs firmly in its sights and thoughts.

Looking more like the only winners are Leicester City, who are looking so nailed on to win the unthinkable, they could have it wrapped up by the beginning of May, with a delicious irony being they go to Chelsea on the last day and would receive the customary guard of honour from the former champions.

As it stands, Leicester needs 13 points from 24 to guarantee Champions League football; every time the teams outside of the top 4 drop points that target gets smaller; they have to be long odds on to be playing at the big boys table next season and frankly a massive crash is the only thing that make that happen. Spurs need 18 from 24 just to guarantee Champions League football, but are now considered by the bookies to be Leicester's only viable rival. They sit five points behind with eight games to go; the simple fact is in those eight games, Spurs have to win TWO more than Leicester and those eight games might as well be eight grains of sand in an hourglass. The only way Leicester won't be writing their way into the history books is if they implode and start playing like Aston Villa.

You can imagine them already making their excuses for this year's success stories to fail next season: Leicester will, at best, return to mid-table mediocrity next season, especially with Champions League (should they get past the group stage). Spurs won't invest enough in players to sustain a challenge and an European adventure and West Ham are moving to a new stadium and this season's improvement is more down to the failings of the others. I'll bet they're already lining up a top 5 for next season featuring Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U and Liverpool - and most punters will place Spurs, Leicester, West Ham, possibly Everton (now they're richer than the Reds), Stoke and Southampton as the chasing pack. Logic dictates that's how it should be and as games run out, all that logic from all those pundits, is going to sound like Alan Hansen's 'You can't win anything with kids'.

Next season, if this one is anything to go by, could have 10 or 11 teams in the mix - everyone can still beat everyone else and just because Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte and possibly one or two other Galactico managers will be tyhrowing their weight against each other, what if Leicester (Claudio Ranieri), West Ham (Slaven Bilic), Tottenham (Mauricio Pochettino), Everton (Roberto Martinez or A.N. Other) can shake things up again next year? What's to stop a Watford (Sanchez Florez), or a Swansea (Guidolin), a promoted side or even Newcastle (The fat Spanish Waiter - if they survive) from throwing the 'form books' out of the window?

This might not be an exaggeration when I say the team that finishes 7th and won't play in European competition (by virtue of league finish) the following season will still pocket hundreds of millions of quids for TV and prize money - Bournemouth, by surviving, can afford to pay the same wages as Liverpool next season, if they choose to, and that means they attract players who would usually look at Bournemouth and shudder or laugh - because some footballers go where the money is.

The playing field in the Premier League has been levelled more than a little - just look at some of the players Stoke have. Top players will still want to go to the top clubs, but if the top clubs don't want them...

These could be exciting times because while anyone's team might end up struggling in this new order, they have a good chance of not. This year it will be Leicester and I congratulate them now on winning the league; too much has to transpire to prevent them and I would be delighted if my team finish 2nd. I won't say I won't be disappointed, but if you'd offered me this in August, after losing a game we should have at least drawn because of a fluke own goal, I would have bitten your arm off.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Every Game is a Cup Final

At around 4pm on Sunday 28th February, I thought I might have a heart attack. I felt giddy and light-headed and strangely exhausted. A bit of research concluded I had a touch of altitude sickness.

Let me put this into some context. My beloved Spurs had been as high as 3rd in 2012 and were quietly being talked about as outside challengers for the title; regardless of what followed, Spurs did something I've grown very familiar with, they dashed my expectations with insipid performances, dropped points and a failure to keep a huge lead of their North London rivals. They eventually limped into 4th place - a fantastic achievement until Chelsea - who finished 6th - won the Champions League and deprived us the place at Europe's top table we just about deserved.

When this title talk began, in January 2012, my eyebrows took on an almost permanent Spock, gradually wilting as Spurs became Spursy. It really was downhill all the way after that. Well, not exactly 'downhill' because finishing 5th, 6th and 5th hardly shows a massive decline. I expect fans of at least 86 other football league clubs would be heartbroken for us to have finished so poorly while playing mind-numbingly dull football.

The one thing any anally-retentive fan will point to were the number of lost points to teams that true challengers would beat. The 'if only' games that every year Spurs fans point to against relegation-threatened teams where we got done over. Every so often I'd find myself more worried about playing Villa than Arsenal and that was all down to expectations and hope: I expected us to win, I hoped we wouldn't screw up. I was disappointed more often than I care to remember.

Whenever Spurs have done well, the next hurdle always seemed like a step too far. Ever since Lasagne-gate some say, but I remember back in the early 1980s when a win would have put us top in a three-way battle with the two Liverpool clubs; instead we turned a lead into a defeat and ended up a long distance behind in 3rd. Smaller hurdles - win this match go 4th, win this game go 3rd and always the pressure seemed to be too much and Spursy turned up.

At the end of September, Spurs were 100-1 to win the league; they'd had an indifferent start but had only lost one game, the problem was they were drawing too many and not killing games off - a bit Spursy and pretty much expected. With the general lack of transfer activity (lots of deadwood shipped out and only a bunch of kids brought in) most pundits believed Spurs were in for another season of transition and very few had them challenging for a top 4 spot let alone an unlikely title tilt.

The draws kept on coming and while Leicester City were winning plaudits and more than a few strange looks, Spurs were just beavering away, dropping points but not losing games and then they broke back into the top 6 and from that point on something clicked.

The false dawns came and went this time. A bad defeat at home to a woeful Newcastle could have been the catalyst to a drop in form, but the young team came out and put that defeat behind them. They had been better in every department that day apart from scoring and this was to be repeated twice more at home before January was over. Leicester performed an admirable smash and grab victory to make everyone realise the Foxes were actually proper challengers and Spurs, well, they would be content with 4th.

After Leicester came Leicester and then Leicester; one draw  and one win (both in the cup) finally saw us get the better of them and since that league defeat the team has moved up a gear; only another home defeat in the FA Cup has blemished a perfect record as Spurs seem to have forgotten how to lose and that's (whisper this) usually the marker for future champions.

In February, Spurs went 2nd. It was almost comical. Expectations for the season had been dashed in the most contrary way, we aren't just punching way above our weight, we actually look like the best team in the league (with apologies to Leicester, but we do). The altitude hasn't bothered the team and neither it seems has the once cursed Europa League and their insane fitness levels mean they look fresher (especially at the end) having played four games in two weeks than the team who had a fortnight in Spain.

Revenge against a very competent Fiorentina side was as one-sided and easy as the fixture was for our opponents the same time last year and then a resilient Swansea decided to park a bus and see if we could break them down. I've watched Spurs dominate games this season without the reward and it looked like the old frailties were going to resurface on Sunday, but at no point during that game did I think we would lose; you don't have 34 attempts on goal without one or two sneaking past an ex-Gooner goalkeeper with a point to prove.

Then Spurs were made favourites for the title after that win. Favourites. Think about that. Favourites to win the Premier League. Wow.

I think the turning point in this team's development happened in the aftermath of their League Cup final defeat to Chelsea. Mauricio Pochettino made the team go and stand and watch Chelsea pick up their trophy and celebrate. I thought at the time it was an inspired move and that was when I started to believe in the manager.

And then I look at the table and I get giddy again. Usually I'd laugh and expect the fall, but is this what fans of challengers feel? Is it right to think my team is playing so well it's the other team that needs to be worried? I'm not confident, but I'll bet you neither are Leicester fans, while Arsenal and Man City fans are thinking practically - regardless of what the bookies say, our teams have won this before, logic dictates one of us will surely win it again and the heroics of Spurs and the Foxes will be consigned to the fond memories of their fans. Except, if I was a fan of either of these chasing teams I'd be worried how much longer my club can not play like champions and still stand a chance?

This wonderfully crazy season (unless you're a Villa fan) is giving neutrals the competition they all want, although I'm sure Chelsea and Man United fans aren't as happy as they'd like to be, but every team goes through transitional stages and if they were to piss and moan I'm sure everyone else will just point to their success and tell them to share the love.

So with a terrifying 10 weeks in front of us, where the Europa League and other teams' own fixture congestion also means we have Monday night matches, Thursday night, and everything points to us facing that 'catch up' which the pundits reckon is the psychological disadvantage to clubs in these kind of positions. I can't help feeling that this will spur them on and that should scare the crap out of teams we're facing. Swansea looked utterly shell-shocked from the constant bombardment of their half by a skilful and youthful team so full of confidence at their own ability, the Welsh will not have a more difficult game again this season. You could forecast that it'll all come crashing down, but that doesn't look like happening to these kids. They play like champions and if they can continue to play like champions for the next 11 matches, there's a good chance they could achieve something I've always secretly known I would never see.

But... While that's a good point to stop, think about this: if Leicester City is not a flash in the pan and they improve; if Pep Guardiola revolutionises Man City; if Arsenal can show some ambition; if Man Utd get Jose Mourinho; if Chelsea bounce back to the level we expect from them; if Everton can reinvest some of this investment money; if West Ham under Bilic can thrive at the Olympic Stadium; if Jurgen Klopp really can turn Liverpool back into a top team; if Southampton continue their improvements; if Stoke continue to attract great players and learn some consistency; if every club in the Premier League has almost a billion quid to spend and if Spurs can keep Pochettino, Alli, Kane, Lloris, heck all the team and can invest in clever squad players - can you imagine just how exciting next season is going to be?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Can We Start Thinking About the Unthinkable?

Imagine you're new to football. You watch a team in blue from a Midlands city play and then you watch a team in red, from a Northern city. The blue team are better. You look at the league table and see the blue team are 10 points clear of the red team - this makes sense; the blue team are better. There is no evidence, at all, to suggest the red team, or for that matter any of the other teams of the same standard as them, are going to turn the current form book on its head over the last 15 games of the season.

Let's get a couple of things clear. The top four teams with the best goal difference finish as the top four every year, apart from the lone year Everton finished fourth. This means unless there's a colossal change in form and a shedload of goal difference changing, the top four teams in the premier league this season will be Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur; in what order these teams finish is still very much a mystery, although experts will tell you that Leicester have by far the most scary run-in (they don't). This scary run-in means that fans of teams from Manchester United (5th - 5 points adrift of 4th) to Chelsea (13th - 14 points adrift) will hope an impressive run of form might allow their teams to achieve unlikely salvation. On current results this isn't likely. We can't use history as a point of reference for Leicester because they have never been here before and no team bottom for most of the previous season has gone on to win it the following year. For Tottenham, the history is usually to blow it. Two fourth place finishes during the last ten 'challenging' years - one of which became obsolete - cements Spurs' reputation as bottlers.

This means, if the pundits are to be respected, it is a straight fight between Arsenal and Man City. To the neutral this is the most likely scenario with whoever holds on for longest finishing third. We all know that's how it will end up, probably with City beating Arsenal with a weekend to spare and Spurs being pipped by Manchester United for 4th because of a run of 1 win in 10. Except... the form book is saying it's a tough one to call because these four teams have been the four best teams in the Premier League so far and there's not that much left.

Let's examine those run-ins:
Leicester City: Currently 1st on 47 points

Leicester v Liverpool
Man City v Leicester
Arsenal v Leicester
Leicester v Norwich
Leicester v West Brom
Watford v Leicester
Leicester v Newcastle
Crystal Palace v Leicester
Leicester v Southampton
Sunderland v Leicester
Leicester v West Ham
Leicester v Swansea
Man Utd v Leicester
Leicester v Everton
Chelsea v Leicester

This is tough. Liverpool have beaten them at Anfield. City and Arsenal are their two closest rivals, so the next three matches are crucial. If they lose these matches and results go against them, they could be fourth and up to six points behind the leaders by the end of February. The thing is Leicester have ten winnable matches in this list and five tough ties, so I feel the best Leicester can achieve is 77pts.

Man City: currently 2nd on 44pts

Sunderland v Man City
Man City v Leicester
Man City v Tottenham
Newcastle v Man City
Liverpool v Man City
Man City v Aston Villa
Norwich v Man City
Man City v Man Utd
Bournemouth v Man City
Man City v West Brom
Chelsea v Man City
Man City v Stoke
Southampton v Man City
Man City v Arsenal
Swansea v Man City

This isn't easy either and while you have to fancy City to beat supposedly inferior teams they have had problems all season and have a tendency to implode at times when their defence goes AWOL. Crucially, I see a guaranteed 33pts here which would put them on 77pts - level with Leicester, but they already have a better goal difference. City, however are still involved in four competitions, Leicester just have the league to play for now.

Arsenal: currently 3rd also on 44pts

Arsenal v Southampton
Bournemouth v Arsenal
Arsenal v Leicester
Man Utd v Arsenal
Arsenal v Swansea
Tottenham v Arsenal
Arsenal v West Brom
Everton v Arsenal
Arsenal v Watford
West Ham v Arsenal
Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Sunderland v Arsenal
Arsenal v Norwich
Man City v Arsenal
Arsenal v Aston Villa

And this is why some people put Arsenal as favourites because they feel the run in is easier and the likelihood of them beating Barcelona in the Champions League means less fixture congestion at the business end; that said I think they will only get 32 points from their remaining fixtures (putting bias aside) which means they would finish the season with 76pts.

Spurs: currently 4th on 42pts

Norwich v Tottenham
Tottenham v Watford
Man City v Tottenham
Tottenham v Swansea
West Ham v Tottenham
Tottenham v Arsenal
Aston Villa v Tottenham
Tottenham v Bournemouth
Liverpool v Tottenham
Tottenham v Man Utd
Stoke v Tottenham
Tottenham v West Brom
Chelsea v Tottenham
Tottenham v Southampton
Newcastle v Tottenham

Arguably the most difficult run-in, but also a mix of matches which could have consequences for all teams. Spurs participation in the Europa League also is a handicap and the FA Cup is another competition that the young squad won't shy away from and this will be a fatigue issue - the manager's desire to do well in everything too doesn't help. This is why I doubt Spurs have a serious chance of finishing in the top 3. I believe from their remaining 15 fixtures they will claim 30 points to finish on 72 points and this should be enough to see them finish in 4th and get a Champions League shot next season.

I see Man Utd claiming between 27 and 33 points, which would not be enough to claim 4th. Chelsea would need to win every one of their remaining games to get 73 points. None of the other teams capable of obtaining enough points have shown the form or have enough combinations of games to make achieving 40+ points from their run ins. Only a massive collapse in form of the top four will now allow one of the other clubs in.

I believe it will finish:
Man City 77 (Goal difference 25)
Leicester 77 (GD 19)
Arsenal   76 (GD 22)
Spurs      72 (GD 24)

So, you can think about the unthinkable all you want, but there's very little to suggest we're going to have that major an upset, but we should see Leicester and Spurs in the Champions League next season and have to hope they can do us proud or this season will end up being for nowt.

As for relegation: I did similar forecasts and it'll be Villa, Sunderland and probably Norwich to go down, but depending on whether or not Everton can win the League Cup, they could get seriously dragged into a dog fight if, like previous League Cup winners, they retire to the beach in their heads for the rest of the season. 40 points could be a big ask.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Damned if you do or don't...

Every year, my mate Roger and I forecast the coming football season by predicting where we think the 20 teams will finish and most years we're not that far off; we usually get one or two really wrong - I never had QPR ever getting relegated, he had Wigan relegated every season apart from the one they actually went down. Usually though we get it within 2 places and while there's nothing to be proud about, it's a bit of fun. This season we both had Chelsea finishing in the top 2 and Leicester relegated. Had you shown us the table from January 2016 back at the start of August 2015, we both would have probably accused the compiler of being a hopelessly romantic Leicester fan with a hate on for Jose Mourinho.

On Wednesday, the surprise package of the 21st century Leicester City beat my Spurs to go joint top of the Premier League with the hated Arse. It is about the fifth time this season Leicester have either been top or shared it with someone. They haven't done what every pundit in the country has forecast; they haven't fallen to pieces. They had a blip; that blip consisted of three games without scoring, but they still only lost once - so only really a blip if you're one of the elite top four clubs; 12 months ago Nigel Pearson would have bitten your hand off for two points from three games.

I know a couple of Leicester fans and the mixture of amazement and elation is etched on their faces; they can't quite believe it and the longer it goes on the more that disbelief is compounded - they aren't getting complacent or blasé, they're just getting more convinced they're in a dream and they'll wake up with Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal fighting it out at the top and Leicester already relegated, in November. I think Leicester's story has been incredible. I wasn't even pissed off they beat us at home and prevented/pushed back our own unlikely challenge for the top, but in reality, as much as I hate to say it, I kind of wish they'd been relegated by November...

English football faces a huge dilemma, one that will have massive repercussions to the Premier League and its brand name and saleability. The EPL is in danger of losing one of its Champions League spots and as it stands, unless they have a couple of really good seasons in the Champions and Europa Leagues (this season isn't looking too clever), the Italians will regain their fourth spot and the only way we'd get a fourth spot is to win the previous season's Europa League - not impossible, but on current evidence, not probable either.

You all need to be aware that every season since the EPL was created and further back, the top 4 have always been four of the five sides with the highest goal difference and 90% of the time the 'other' team with a high goal difference has finished in 5th or 6th place (so has gained a European spot of some kind). This little factoid is important when you look at the current league table. The current top 6 are pretty much nailed on (historically) to finish roughly in this order:

1 Arsenal21134437211643
Won against Man City Lost to Southampton Won against AFC Bournemouth Won against Newcastle Drew with Liverpool
2 Leicester21127238251343
Won against Everton Lost to Liverpool Drew with Man City Drew with AFC Bournemouth Won against Spurs
3 Man City21124539211840
Lost to Arsenal Won against Sunderland Drew with Leicester Won against Watford Drew with Everton
4 Spurs2199334171736
Won against Southampton Won against Norwich Won against Watford Drew with Everton Lost to Leicester
5 West Ham219843324935
Drew with Swansea Drew with Aston Villa Won against Southampton Won against Liverpool Won against AFC Bournemouth
6 Man Utd219752720734
Lost to Norwich Lost to Stoke Drew with Chelsea Won against Swansea Drew with Newcastle
7 Stoke219572422232
Lost to C Palace Won against Man Utd Won against Everton Lost to West Brom 
Obviously Liverpool (under Klopp) and Everton (draw too many) will fancy their chances and Palace and Watford - both having above-average seasons - will also fancy their chances, but unless the Hammers or Man U discover top 4 consistency between now and May, this top four will be playing for the EPL in next season's Champions League, while two of three will go into the Europa depending on who wins the League and FA Cup.

With respect to teams in the Europa League, their results will be important, but it'll be the four teams, next season, in the CL that will have the fate of English football on their hands. Can you imagine how much of a change only having three teams in the CL will be to the entire set-up of our league? But, look at that top 7 again - Leicester, West Ham, Stoke, even Spurs? The fact that Liverpool and Everton are fighting it out for 8th at the moment puts a little bit of surreal perspective on the entire season - this might not be a blip; this season might not be a fluke.

Stoke have players like Bojan, Shaqiri, Butland and Anautovic - these aren't Stoke players! These are borderline world class footballers who, you would think, would be vying for a move to Manchester or London, not the Potteries!

On the counter of that is Leicester - apart from Gokan Inler - who can't even make the starting XI - you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would walk into a Champions League side, yet they're suddenly Greece in terms of team spirit and playing the style that suits the players. If they win the league, which everyone agrees they won't, they will be the breath of fresh air everyone has needed after years and years of domination by the money clubs and they might as well win it, because evidence now suggests they're nailed on for a top four finish, which means they will be playing more than European Cup rugby in Leicester next season.

The Foxes will need to invest £100million+ between now and September 1st; they cannot possibly hope to compete on any level having to play a minimum extra 8 games between between September and December and the irony is with TV deal they probably have £1billion to spend on players (if they could), but it doesn't matter how much money they have, they're going to have to increase the squad by 25% and these players can't be unproven now. They can afford to gamble, but teams spend years trying to get what they suddenly have on their doorsteps.

Even if Leicester declare themselves one of the new four elite clubs and buy Messi, that is still no guarantee they'll either get through a qualifier or the group stage. This is the Champions League and it took Man City three attempts to not look totally out of their depth. Spurs have previous in this competition but not for a while and now without Bale, Modric, King... an entire team apart from Kyle Walker. I want CL football for my club, but we're no nailed quarter finalists (which is pretty much what all four English clubs need to achieve and hope the Italians struggle to do anything) even as good as we can be.

Suddenly the fantastically competitive and totally unexpected Premier League is only looking attractive to the neutral and the fans; Richard Scudamore must be cacking his trousers at the thought of no Chelsea or Man Utd in the CL and all of our hopes resting on Arsenal and Man City - both with wonderful records in said competition. 

If the Premier League isn't even competitive enough to get four spots, how can it promote itself as the best league in the world? Oh, yes, the billions of quids slushing around and suddenly instead of sounding like a twat, Alan Sugar sounds almost prophetic. 

I really like Leicester - the city and the football team (I have little time for the Tigers, tbh) - but I'd like to see them plummet into, at best, a Europa League spot because the future of English participation in Europe possibly hinges on them collapsing.

Now, ordinarily that'd be it, except I don't think Leicester are going to slump and even if they do the teams all around them have been up and down like the Assyrian Empire, so there's no guarantee anyone outside of the top four could overhaul them on current evidence. Everyone, including the pundits, will be 'over the moon, Brian' about it all and Claudio will win manager of the year, much to the chagrin of Arsene, who just led Arsenal to their first title in 11 years. 

If that happens, what do they do?

Let's say the top four is how it is now at the end of the season. I'm not sure if it's next season or the one after when Spurs are playing at Stadium: MK, but that is on the horizon and could have unexpected effects on the team and those playing there; even if they're not it means Daniel Levy will have to either invest in some more players or hope he employs better physios than we've had in previous regimes. Even with a team full of international bright young things, Spurs' lack of real depth is beginning to show and of the top four they look the most likely to stutter and fall of any of them.

This means Leicester will have to spend. Ranieri has a lot of experience in the CL so that won't be an issue and if they can continue to play the way they do you'd fancy their chances, but you know that it's going to be ridiculously hard juggling the two for a side that a year ago were nailed on relegated; it is for the 'best' teams.

This means that we are going to lose our fourth spot because of coefficients and the only way to regain it would be to target the Europa League, because if this season isn't a fluke then there are going to be more Leicesters appearing on the horizon. In case you hadn't noticed, Bournemouth are making a fist of staying in the Premier league. That's B-O-U-R-N-E-M-O-U-T-H for people who don't understand the statement. Pre-season everyone was queuing up to tell you just how fast Watford were going to get relegated, especially given they usually swap managers every six games (and still got promoted) and yet Watford must fancy their chances of getting a Europa spot given that everyone around them is losing to each other. 

Even Man City, with their side of almost Galacticos, are getting undone far more often than you'd expect and I get the impression Pep Guardiola is going to be joining the league at a time when it doesn't matter if your team is owned by a multi-billionaire, there's so much money about it doesn't matter who you play for as long as you don't get relegated and that means everyone has a chance of doing better than before. 

You'd think that would be good for the game? You'd be hard pressed to argue against it especially if you support teams like Spurs, Everton, Liverpool, Leicester, Derby, Coventry, Hartlepool, Kettering Town ... Because the playing field would, finally, level out at the top and instead of a 'quadropoly' there'd be that thing that every football fan wants - a chance.

Except, what happens when our three CL spots are in danger of becoming two? Admittedly, at the moment, that's a long way from happening and I expect it would be highly unlikely to happen; but what happens when Man Utd, Chelsea, even Man City are no longer guaranteed a place in the lucrative European campaigns because everyone gets a billion quid a year from the Premier League deals and it doesn't matter how much money a sheik throws at you, Bill from Liverpool, or Fred from Scunthorpe can do the same. If a new team gets the chance to play CL football every couple of years and screws up our coefficient will plummet faster than Portsmouth have since winning the FA cup.

These major clubs are still bigger global brands and therefore hold a lot of power. FIFA is in such disarray that many are saying a new world body is needed to replace the tainted FIFA brand. UEFA's chief is suspended on corruption charges and anyone and everyone knows UEFA is only interested in generating money and when FIFA is done with, I expect UEFA will be next.

The brand name clubs will want to form their own superstar leagues and the lure of money will create them; but as BT has discovered, they might have bought into football at 'peak football'; for the first time since Sky came onto the scene the uptake of cable/satellite has slowed and because austerity is biting even modestly wealthy homes, more and more people are giving up their Virgin or Sky packages in favour of Freeview and hard drive recorders with Internet access and unless the government can police the internet completely, you will always find a feed or a stream for a live Premier League match. The time to create a new European Super League might have been 10 years ago.

That leaves teams from Manchester and Liverpool, London and Birmingham playing more and more exhibition and meaningless foreign competitions - ala the Harlem Globetrotters - and exhausting their galacticos and rendering them less than useful for FA International competitions such as whatever World Cup reappears and European Championships.

This could all happen if England's coefficient drops to a level that means we become second tier qualifiers. It might not, but if we lose that guaranteed 4th spot - and we are more likely to than not as it stands - can you see the Premier League doing anything to aid the European qualifiers in their attempts to win or at least challenge in both competitions? No, of course you can't because the EPL is in the thrall of the television companies and their schedules and it will always be that way while TV bankrolls football.

The reason English clubs have treated the Europa League like a diseased tramp while European teams treat it with dignity and respect is the stress it places on the teams involved; forget all the stats and arguments, it's quite simple, at some point the difference in value became more important than a trophy. The teams that finish 5th-7th and/or with the cups simply couldn't afford the depth of squad the top four could to be able to feel comfortable on both fronts - they maybe can now, but there's a mindset in place and that Thursday-Sunday catch up does have psychological effects and stats have proved this. Spurs winning the league this year would go a long way to dispelling this theory...

The problem is you can't change things because the TV companies don't want to. Maybe losing a 4th spot might be the catalyst for common sense to return to football finances; the problem is do any of us think that is likely to happen? No. And if all this happens it'll be because of Leicester. The price of their success could be far-reaching, but there's one thing all the pundits are ignoring - if Leicester do the unthinkable, perhaps they will play well in Europe and maintain a challenge. There's only one way to find out.