Leicester’s success could spell trouble for managers.

Okay so I know Leicester’s story is what football is all about. The David versus Goliath fable no one saw coming and many other clichés that have been (rightly) used to describe their incredible and inspiring achievement. Here comes the flip side of all that positivity. What happens to the teams in the lower half of the league who have had expectations not just raised by Leicester’s achievements but propelled into the Premier League stratosphere?

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Under fire gaffer Quique Sanchez Flores

Normally amongst right minded people you could dumb down any ridiculous expectations but the world of football club owners in the Premier League is not exactly dominated but such people. You only have to look at Gino Pozzo at Watford to see that managing expectations is one of the hardest parts of the job for Premier League managers nowadays.

At the end of this season Quique Sanchez Flores will sit down with the hierarchy in the Hornets boardroom and undertake an end of season review. Nothing surprising there, it is common practice for football clubs up and down the land and further afield. Here’s the crazy part, the man is under serious threat of losing his job! This won’t be helped by the fact that everyone’s new favourite team won the league this year on a pretty similar budget.

What about Stoke? Hughes has spent good money at the Britannia and has brought in real quality leading some fans to rename the club ‘Stokalona’. For all of their flare and great performances this year there have been some equally bad humblings, especially in recent weeks. Does this mean the Welshman is now looking over his shoulder? With two games to go Stoke are tenth, a position lower than they achieved last season. So for all the exciting players they’ve brought in are they really any better off than they were under Tony Pulis?

Speaking of Pulis’ old teams what’s happened to Palace? At the beginning of this season people were talking of how Pardew had taken the team forward but for an FA cup final he too might be wondering if his days at the club were numbered.

Every great success has a consequence. It is always fantastic to dream of better times and new beginnings however it would be a catastrophe for the sides that finish in the bottom half if their managers felt the axe might come down on them at any time. For many that is already the case but Leicester’s success could and probably will ramp up that pressure. Many owners will ask ‘if Ranieri can do it why can’t (insert managers name here)’.

Some football fans are already waiting to see if Newcastle can avoid the drop so they can have a punt on them winning the league next year. If Benitez, a European cup winner, does manage to keep the magpies afloat then what price the Premier League title next season?

Everton fans have seen what another side in blue can achieve and are angry their man Martinez hasn’t done the same at Goodison. This is not a defence of the ever positive Spaniard as he has real talent and quality in that Everton side that has underachieved. You can’t help but wonder if the ‘dily ding, dily dong’ philosophy of another footballing nice guy will spell the end for him. In any other season it would just be written off as a bad one and time to start again.

Finally a man in the top half of the table who has been described by one of his oldest enemies as a serial under achiever, Arsene Wenger: In a season where both Manchester clubs have wavered, Chelsea lost the plot and Liverpool were once again rebuilding, Wenger is likely to see north London rivals Spurs finish above his Arsenal team. This season Arsenal didn’t bow out of the title race after pressure from one of England’s super powers, no this year they lost out on the title to Leicester City. The Foxes story is fantastic for neutrals everywhere. It’s everyone else who is worried.

Troy Deeney: A man whose troubled past laid the foundations for current success

In the last few years the Premier League has lost some natural leaders, many of whom have not been replaced. Liverpool are only just coming to terms with the loss of Gerrard; Manchester United have lost three pivotal figures in Gill, Ferguson and Vidic and Arsenal are still struggling to replace Adams and Vieira.  It’s likely that come the end of this season John Terry will walk away from a glittering career at Chelsea and yet another player from England’s golden generation will have ended their relationship with the Premier League.

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Watford Captain Troy Deeney

Another London club and one who can’t compete financially with Chelsea have no such problem. Having secured Premier League survival and an FA Cup semi-final, Watford owe much of this season’s success to the leadership of duo Troy Deeney and Quique Sánchez Flores. Deeney was a goal scorer in an otherwise disappointing 2-1 defeat at Wembley but no one could accuse the Watford captain of underperforming.  In an interview with Soccer AM earlier this year Deeney opened up about his relationship with his boss:  “He’s a legend. You can talk to him about anything from the things at home that might be stressing you out to not having enough sleep to train properly”. Not many players are so open about enjoying such a relationship with their manager which makes speculation that the Spaniard may lose his job at the end of the season all the more bizarre.

If the manager is the leader off the pitch then Deeney more than fulfils that role on it. A vocal leader of men, his displays are at the very least full of effort. No one could accuse this guy of not living up to the job required.   Things were not always so bright for the Hornet’s number nine though. The lifelong Birmingham City fan grew up in Chemsley Wood eight miles out of the city centre.  At 14 he was expelled from school and left education at 16 with no GCSE’s. He began working as a brick layer before starting his professional football career at Walsall. In 2010 he signed for Watford for an eventual fee of £500,000.

In 2012 Deeney followed a path walked previously by his father who had spent various stints in jail. Troy was imprisoned for three months for his involvement in a brawl where he kicked a man in the head. Deeney describes his time inside as ‘the best thing that ever happened to him’ leaving with GCSE’s in Maths, English and Science. Above all else the he had a renewed sense of perspective.

Since then he hasn’t looked back and isn’t just Watford’s captain but their talisman. When it’s going well at Vicarage Road you can be sure Deeney is in the goals and assists. When they are struggling no one is more willing to roll up their sleeves and put a shift in. To describe Deeney merely as a hard worker is an insult to the goals record he has achieved this season and throughout his Watford career. Troy Deeney is a captain in every sense of the word. No one is more important to their team in an era where that is less and less the case in the Premier League.

Youth being let down at United

The club is famous for its promotion of young players to the first team. In fact for nearly 80 years Manchester United have had youth team academy products in their match day squads and starting 11.

When Alan Hansen proclaimed arguably his most famous words as a pundit ‘You can’t win anything with kids’ most would have agreed with him. Back then it was in reference to Gary Neville (aged 20), Paul Scholes (20), Ryan Giggs (21), Phil Neville (18), Nicky Butt (20), and David Beckham (20). Few could have predicted what that group would go on to achieve but they didn’t get to the top on their own.

A mixture of good fortune, brave management and strong personalities around the club helped form a perfect storm of youth and experience that would go on to dominate the domestic game for longer than any of them could have imagined.

Fast forward to 2016 and a new talented crop of youngsters are being spoken about in glowing terms from many inside and out of the club. A mixture of injuries and a small squad have somewhat forced Louis Van Gaal’s hand during his up and down tenure at United. Many at youth level have been given a chance to show first team players what they are about.

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Short of giving those older players a lift, much of the responsibility for getting results has been placed firmly on the shoulders of the youngsters. Never has this more prominent than in recent weeks where striker Marcus Rashford has been deployed as the sides main goal threat and Timothy Fosu-Mensah as an integral part of the back four.

Against Tottenham on Sunday Rashford was replaced by Ashley Young, a man who has played everywhere but up front for Louis Van Gaal, whilst Martial was kept out wide. Once that decision had been made United’s attacking threat in the game was non-existent and Spurs took the initiative. Having said that Manchester United looked as though they could cope at the back for long periods. That was until Fosu-Mensah was forced off with injury. Tottenham took full advantage of his absence and ran in three quick goals in a manner reminiscent of United of old.

The class of 92 were doubted at the beginning of their footballing journey but had leaders and generals all over the pitch to rely on and help them when things weren’t going well. At the back the Neville brothers had Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Schmeichel to help them through peaks and troughs. The midfielder’s all knew they could rely on their captain Roy Keane for leadership and Eric Cantona for inspiration as they grew and learned the game.

At this moment in time those young players who have made the break through are the players being leaned on. When they don’t come up with the goods, invariably the team fails. They are offered little to no protection or help on the pitch from the senior pros and when you look at the squad it’s not difficult to see why.

Under Van Gaal Adnan Januzaj has been allowed to stagnate whilst Andreas Pereira appears to have been frozen out of the first team after showing glimpses of real promise in the limited time he’s been afforded.

At the same time younger players have been brought in to enormous cost and pressure in the form of Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay. United can no longer look to Vidic, Ferdinand and co to put an arm round these signings. Instead Carrick and Rooney are left in charge of lifting players, which at the moment is a pretty unenviable task.

Whether it comes from the top down, the transfer policy and current management of the club may have offered youth a chance at Old Trafford but too many are happy to stand by and admire the youngsters work. If the talent currently on show is going to be given a proper chance to flourish, older heads in the playing staff, coaching staff and at a much higher level need to stand up and be counted.

 

United fans will have to fight for change

For a number of different reasons this may make for uncomfortable reading for Manchester United fans. Their team’s humiliation at the hands of Danish minnows on Thursday night brought notable descent from the crowd who, somewhat creatively, reimagined their homage to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to vent frustration at the current team’s ineptitude.

For the most part the criticism was levelled at the players, that was until the full time whistle was blown. The fall out since arguably their most embarrassing European defeat has been extensive in terms of media and fan attention on the club. Whilst initial anger was directed at the performance of the players, soon attention turned to the dutch ‘trainer coach’ and his ally Ed Woodward. The owners however seem thus far to have gotten away unscathed from this season’s latest debacle and if United fans want to see real change they will have to start hurting the Glazer’s money laden pockets.

Ed Woodward is very much the Glazer family’s man. He has worked for them long before their affiliation with the Red Devils and is trusted whole heartedly by them. And why not? The shot caller at Old Trafford has generated huge sponsorship money for the club. That after all is their main priority. Manchester United is a cash cow to them, not a football club.

The only way Ed Woodward knows how to appease the fans is to throw silly money at ‘marquee’ signings in the hope that they will spark some life into a team devoid of pace and imagination. Those things used to be the cornerstone of everything Manchester United stood for now the club is more interested in increased market share rather than on the field performance. This business model has had limited success at Real Madrid in spite of this Woodward has publicly claimed on MUTV that it’s something United will look to emulate.

As a result of these uncertain times, Louis Van Gaal has been kept on and left in the firing line despite a stubborn refusal to evolve as a coach. He has dragged the players confidence down and moved on proven winners from the squad. If there is to be any change to the club’s current plight then the fans will need to  vent their anger in the form of much more than tweets and songs .

Here comes the truly painful part: The best approach to enforcing serious change at Manchester United will require fans to take a leaf out of their bitter rivals book. They must make it clear that season tickets will not be renewed, they must let their feelings be known at the ground through loud protest and silent walkouts just like Liverpool have done in recent times.

The Merseyside club’s fans first got rid of Gillett and Hicks and now have had a significant victory over ticket pricing with their new owners. Manchester United must go back to their green and gold roots if they want to spark revolution at the club. The only way to do that will be to hit the Glazer family where it hurts them most.

It is clear Ed Woodward has struggled with transfers amongst other football related issues in his role at the club. He must be made to realise that wasting money on new overrated players is not as important as making good football decisions. The ten months it took the club to appoint Nicky Butt as head of their academy is a damning indictment of where the club is at board level at the moment.

There is a level of disbelief amongst fans that Louis Van Gaal is still in a job but ultimately it will be them who decide his fate. A continued show of anger towards the club and manager is unfashionable but it might be the only way to get the change they want to see.

TV money and big team bullies

Like a badly made ‘who dunnit’ the main culprit for football’s latest shambles of an idea is obvious but this time there are some big time co-conspirators.

The premise is simple, you take the best supported clubs in European football and guarantee them a place in the Champions League. This is the idea being toyed with by television companies and clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and AC Milan. The 2018 competition could see teams like this seasons high flying Leicester lose out to a so called ‘bigger’ club if they had the audacity to finish in the top four.

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Whilst these clubs have no right to decide the fate of who can qualify for the competition beyond their own performances, the offer could prove to be an attractive one to TV broadcasters who pay huge sums of money for coverage of Europe’s premier competition.

Clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool who have little chance of qualifying for this years competition would make the grade as a ‘big’ club if the rule change is ever allowed to pass. The whole idea leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and although it is a long way off from being agreed, the lure of TV money may once again win the day.

This cannot be allowed to happen. The idea goes against everything sport in general stands for. It is anti-competitive not only for the Champions League but for the Premier League too.

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There is little incentive, beyond money, to finish in the top four for clubs like Leicester if they know there is no chance of a European place. To make matters worse clubs with rich history and pedigree in the both competitions have little motivation to compete in The Premier League knowing European qualification is pre determined. Their best players could and probably would be rested in domestic fixtures thus diluting the quality.

Make no mistake Leicester City, and clubs like them, will see this as an act of bullying by the rich European elite. For the good of the game the ban on hunting clubs like the Foxes must be enforced.

Too old for a kick-about?

A time before exercise was a commitment, cost or chore.

Tourism, Marketing and More

Near the end of the Christmas break I was sat thinking about how I’ve spent previous holidays over the years. With the Premier League providing a footballing feast that could rival mum’s Christmas dinner there can be no doubt that football enthusiasts are provided with everything they could have wished for over the festive period.

As I sat in a local pub taking in the second half of Watford vs Man City through the reflection in well placed picture I couldn’t help but think that in years gone by, no matter what the weather was doing, I’d have been out with mates with a ball at my feet and the cliched jumpers for goalposts.

There are plenty of ways a man in his late twenties can get his footballing dose of exercise; there’s five-a-side and weekend teams a plenty but all of this means money and commitment. This begs the…

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The ‘ten’ obsession and decline in number nines

Sometime over the last ten years something clicked in the minds of those managing top flight football clubs in England. No longer could sides afford to play two up top and so the art of a ‘deadly duo’ or strike partnership has slowly waned. In his autobiography Gary Neville credits Carlos Queiroz for Manchester United’s deviation from English football’s most tried and tested formation as a way to counter European sides who were overrunning English midfields in the Champions League.

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The switch away from 4-4-2 has had a dramatic effect on three areas of the pitch. No matter which alternative is used the defensive unit is now afforded more protection in either a defensive midfielder or an extra centre half. Midfield options and shapes have changed to accommodate diamonds and Christmas trees which has lead to wide players being pushed either further forward as part of a front three or back as wing backs. Some teams abandon wide players altogether outside of the defence and therefore the onus is on the full backs on either flank to provide width. Arguably the biggest change has come in the pursuit of the perfect number ten.

The ten role has been around for almost as long as 11 a side football but the job of a ten has changed to suit the times. For a long time in England the number ten was merely a second striker, the little man to the burly number nine or vice versa as a hold up man. Either way they were expected to chip in with a decent strike tally but share that work load with someone else whose sole purpose was sticking the ball in the net. Nowadays some might argue not much has changed. A ten is still expected to provide goals in the shape of creativity, assists and good old fashioned goals but it would seem the position is used to harbor those seen as indispensable to the team. Roberto Mancini would rarely substitute Yaya Toure when under the cosh instead he would choose to push Toure further forward at the expense of a second striker, usually Dzeko. At Manchester United they have been through Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Adnan Januzaj and even Marouane Fellaini in the position in the last three years without mentioning Wayne Rooney. It is difficult to know what a number ten is expected to provide for the team nowadays apart from that ever elusive ‘x factor’.

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

Arguably the best to wear the ten shirt

A by product of this obsession (or possibly just a coincidence) is a serious decline in top quality centre forwards. Because of the Ronaldo and Messi effect teams are now expected to get large numbers of goals from other sources. For Chelsea Frank Lampard took the role of goalscoring midfielder to new heights in the Premier League but it must be remembered that we are exceptionally privileged to see the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in the same generation and looking for wingers and other forward minded players to chip in with 50 goals a season is fantasy beyond those two greats. The baton then must be picked up by those number nines the world over but where are they?

Ron and Mess

Arsene Wenger has taken some huge criticism for his lack of activity in the recent transfer window but the investment in huge scouting networks for all Premier League clubs means the days of finding talent no one else has spotted are long gone. The only alternative then is to ask (with huge sums of money) football’s biggest and richest to give up their rare talents.

In bygone years you could spend an entire evening discussing and reeling off the list of talented number nines in European and world football, that simply is no longer the case. According to the press Arsenal failed in their attempts to buy Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Barca have Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 34 years old and German giants Bayern have Robert Lewandowski. In England Manchester City have Sergio Aguero and Chelsea have the time bomb that is Diego Costa. Outside of that list there are some good strikers but none are super stars. The lack of world class talent in that position has lead to the great Brazil playing with a chap upfront called Fred! Worse than that some sides have such a depth of talent in other positions they have experimented with not playing a striker at all. For both Barcelona and Spain Cesc Fabregas has been employed as a ‘false 9’, something up until recent years would have seemed impossible to contemplate. For the sake of the game a new crop of top strikers needs to emerge soon or that all important art of goalscoring might be left up to made up positions and the new Ronaldo and Messi. Long live the number the centre forward, striker, attacker. Whatever you call them they used to be the players most kids aspired to be. If we are not careful they might just turn into a nostalgic distant memory.