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.