Historically it’s been said, in football, getting to the top of the league is one thing but staying there is a whole different ball game. More often than not teams fail to defend the league title that they had worked so hard to gain in the first place. Over the past 20 years in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, only a handful of sides have managed to successfully defend their league titles. The question remains what, if any trends, exist between the sides that have managed to win back to back titles and whether there are lessons to be learned by new-be champions from their predecessors who had failed to defend their titles.
What we will do here is to analyze seven cases of clubs that failed to defend their famous league title victory the next season. The study will analyze the period since the 1992/93 season in the Premier League (Blackburn Rovers winners in 94/95 and Manchester City winners in 2011/12), Ligue 1 (Lille winners in 2010/11 and Montpellier winners in 2011/12), Serie A (Roma winners in 2000/01), Bundesliga (Dortmund winners in 2001/2) and La Liga (Deportivo winners in 1999/00). It is worth stating that there had been a number of other sides within the respective leagues that had failed to defend their titles including Stuttgart, Arsenal, Marseille and Wolfsburg among others, however, it was decided that the above formed an interesting platform for analysis. When it came to analyzing sides that had managed to win back-to-back titles, the selection pool was considerably smaller. A small condition was also put in for the sake of the integrity of the study and that was for a team to have been considered for selection for this aspect, there must have been at least an 8 season gap between their back-to-back successes and their previous league triumph. This was done so to isolate a side that could lay claim to be considered part of a larger successful era over a longer period (take Bayern Munich and Manchester United for instance). With that in mind, Dortmund (2010-12), Chelsea (2004-6) and Juventus (2011-13) were chosen to examine. Whilst Juventus have not clinched the Serie A title yet, they are 11 points ahead of Napoli with 6 games to go and barring a calamitous breakdown they are set to defend the title they masterfully had won the previous season.
A number of criteria will be compared and contrasted within the study and this includes the club’s transfer spending vis a vis the second season both against itself and against that of the new champion (if there had been one), the sale of key players, changes in performances of key player/s, managerial changes, performances in the Champions League and whether it posed a distraction to the squad, and the squad’s ability to cope with more games, as well as the historical size of the club in its league among other things. We hope by doing the aforementioned, some light may be shed onto common themes.
Blackburn Rovers (Premier League Champions in 1994/95)
In the early 1990s, Jack Walker had begun bank-rolling the town-club towards success. Rovers arguably formed the prototype of rich owner done-good in modern football. However, just when things were supposed to be starting, the club failed to build on its success and was eventually relegated to the Championship within 5 years of having lifted the Premier League title. One of the first startling discoveries from the side that attempted to defend its 1994/95 title was the fact that the club barely spent in the summer leading to the new season. Only £2.7m was spent and even by amounts being thrown away back at the time this was meager, especially considering that Walker had given Kenny Dalglish over 3 times that figure the previous season. This led to Dalglish deciding to step upstairs in a director of football capacity. Rovers also sold one of the key members of the title-winning side in Mark Atkins and that coupled with injuries and poor form to Chris Sutton and Jason Wilcox hampered the side to a point of finishing outside the European places.
Deportivo La Coruña (La Liga Champions in 1999/00)
Little-known Deportivo capped off the most successful era of its history with a title during a period when it was a force to be reckoned with domestically and a giant banana skin in European football. An undeniable factor was their transfer expenditure, pushing Barcelona and Real Madrid to the limits at the time. One of the mistakes the title-defending champions made was selling 3 key members of the first team, most notably Flavio Conceicao. Interestingly, Deportivo may be the only club in our research that actually improved its league performances in the second season. Unfortunately, it was going head-to-head with the Galacticos of Real Madrid. The side from the capital had a net spending of almost 10 times what Deportivo spent that season.
AS Roma (Serie A Champions in 2000/01)
Francesco Totti’s Roma were a force to be reckoned with at the turn of the new century, highlighted by extravagant spending which led to the signing of players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Vincenzo Montella and later Antonio Cassano. All this happened under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. One of the first things that becomes apparent is that Roma significantly reduced transfer spending after winning the title and this happened at a time when Juventus increased spending to £156m in the summer transfer window. Roma only had a net spending of £23m that summer. Whilst Roma did sign Cassano and Capello’s favorite son Christian Panucci, they let go one of the cornerstones of the title-winning side in Cristiano Zanetti. A lack of goals also hit the side at the wrong time of the season and this is illustrated by the fact that Totti, Batistuta and Montella scored 20 less goals between them throughout the campaign compared to the previous season.
Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga Champions in 2001/2)
German champions, Dortmund, were experiencing a golden era in their history. This included back to back titles in the previous decade and their one and only Champions League triumph too. Little did they know that they were at the climax of their success and were about to face grave financial difficulties which almost led to their extinction. Again, just like the sides we examined before them, they decided to significantly cut down on spending after winning the title, whilst Bayern Munich spent 3 times their outlay. Two highlights of the new season was the departure of key players Evanilson and Jurgen Kohler, as well as the drop in performances of Bundesliga top-scorer Marcio Amoroso who only contributed 6 goals in the new campaign.
Lille (Ligue 1 Champions in 2010/11)
The French League is an interesting one. Over the last 20 seasons only 1 side has managed to defend its title and that has been Lyon. In fact, they defended it successfully 6 times. Less money is spent in the French league compared to many of the other top leagues in Europe and more time is spent on developing players and this could be one of the reasons that there has been such a close and level playing field over the past 20 years, only rivaled by the Bundesliga in this respect. The only time that this trend was broken was with Lyon who began competing on a European level. Lille had not spent any money the season they won the league and went on to spend £7.5m net when they had to defend their title. However, they did lose 3 key members of that title winning campaign in Adil Rami, Emerson and Yohann Cabaye. Interestingly, the new champions, Montpellier, spent virtually nothing when they won the title away from Lille.
Montpellier (Ligue 1 Champions in 2011/12)
Montpellier made the grave error of selling their key player after they won the league title. Olivier Giroud left to join Arsenal and was replaced by 2 or 3 lessor known strikers who have failed to get on the scoring-sheet regularly this season. Nevertheless, Louis Nicollin did allow some money to be spent this past summer. However, after a poor start to the campaign and an early exit from the Champions League, Rene Girard also lost his captain, Yanga-Mbiwa in a mid-season transfer to Newcastle United. The majority of the key members of the squad continue to perform admirably but in a league where the margins are minimal losing players of the caliber of those Montpellier have lost is an insurmountable obstacle.
Manchester City (Premier League Champions in 2011/12)
The Abu Dhabi Sheikhs bought Manchester City with the vision of turning them into the biggest club in England and later Europe. Whilst City wrestled the title away from city-rivals Manchester United they have failed to put up a successful defence of their title and formed the inspiration behind this article. The first highlight of their failed defence is a 40% reduction in transfer spending. Secondly, Manchester United out-spent them this season. None of the sides we have examined in the study have managed to defend their title having spent less the following campaign unless it was still a higher amount than their closest rivals. Next, Roberto Mancini sold 3 key members of the title-winning side in Nigel de Jong, Adam Johnson and Mario Balotelli. The club’s best performers also failed to hit the heights of the previous campaign and this is mostly highlighted in the goals contribution of their top-scorers. An early exit in the Champions League forms another stereotypical characteristic of failure to defend the league title. In short, Manchester City form the text-book study of how not to defend your title.
Those Who Succeeded in Defending their Title
Chelsea (Defended their Premier League Title in 2005/6)
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had just set a Premier League record-high number of points in 2004/5 and lifted the double. The following campaign saw them successfully defend their title. One of the highlights of the success was the fact that they strengthened the starting line-up with the signing of Lyon’s Michael Essien. They also added Asier Del Horno and Shaun Wright-Phillips, with the former making the left back position his own. It also helped that Chelsea out-spent runners-up Manchester United and the performances of their key players somewhat improved (Drogba and Lampard both improved their goal contributions).
Dortmund (Defended their Bundesliga Title in 2011/12)
German champions Dortmund not only defended their title but also completed the double having trounced rivals Bayern Munich 5-2 in the Pokal final. Dortmund did increase its own spending even if Bayern Munich managed to out-spend them. Their transfer activity saw one Turkish-origin star replaced by another with Nuri Sahin departing to Spain and Ilkay Gundogan replacing him. On paper it seemed like Jurgen Klopp’s side did not get the better end of that deal but time has shown that to be false. Dortmund’s players continued to excel with Robert Lewandowski improving his finishing and other players contributing more goals than previously. Dortmund finished 6 points better off than the previous campaign.
Juventus (On Course to Defend Serie A Title in 2012/13)
Italian champions Juventus are back on top of the football pyramid domestically after a tumultuous few seasons, which included relegation due to match-fixing. Juve have virtually been alone in lavishly spending in recent seasons. This has helped them re-build their side. Whilst they decreased their transfer expenditure this season, it was still significantly higher than closest rivals Napoli. Antonio Conte also retained his key players and built on it by adding 3 key members to the squad in Giovinco, Asamoah and Isla. His side is on course to better its points haul of last season when it had gone unbeaten.
Looking at the above analysis, it is difficult to find a wholesome irrefutable rule of thumb in analyzing successes and failures when it comes to defending titles. Before attempting to do so, it is interesting to note that over the past 20 years the Premier League has seen 7 back to back champions (6 Manchester United, 1 Chelsea), the Bundesliga has seen 5 (3 Bayern Munich, 2 Dortmund), Ligue 1 has seen 6 but it all involved Lyon, La Liga has had 7 back to back champions (6 Barcelona, 1 Real Madrid), and Serie A is on course for its 9th this season (4 Inter, Juventus soon to be 3, with 2 for Milan). It must be added that Milan and Barcelona won their 1992/93 titles on the back of having won the previous season. What this suggests is that money plays a huge role in defining the legacy of the sides. Less dominance is found in the leagues where less money is spent.
One of the common characteristics of Chelsea, Dortmund and Juventus’ successful retention of titles is the fact that none weakened their sides during the summer after becoming champions. At the same time, Juventus and Chelsea both continued to invest in their squad and out-spent their rivals. Dortmund may have spent less than Bayern Munich but it must be noted that the figures being spent by either side would be dwarfed by some of the money being thrown around by lessor sides in some of Europe’s other leagues. So one could argue Bayern Munich’s expenditure in 2011/12 may have been higher than Dortmund’s but it was not at a level which could help shift the title back to Bavaria.
Another factor that must be highlighted is that all the sides that failed to defend their titles saw their top-scorer of the previous campaign fail to repeat his feats. Dortmund had Lewandowski score more goals than Lucas Barrios had the previous campaign. Juventus have three players 1 to 2 goals short of improving on last season’s top scorer with 6 games to go, whilst Chelsea saw both Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba improve on their tallies.
Amazingly, only Deportivo and Juventus made it into the Quarter Finals of the Champions League from the 10 cases studied. Lille and Montpellier were the only sides that increased spending after winning the title but failed to retain their crown. It must be added that Montpellier had a negative net expenditure though. Also, only one side improved its point tally and failed to retain the title and that was Deportivo.
Finally, it is clear from the analysis that only a few sides attempted to continue towards building a legacy after winning the title. Most of the clubs were happy to taste one-time glory and cash in on their success. This includes Blackburn and Montpellier. Others such as Dortmund, at the turn of the century, and Roma decided to keep the status quo whilst rivals continued to spend to make up for lost ground. Only a few sides attempted to create a legacy and these were the 3 sides that managed to defend their league titles and arguably Deportivo who just fell short. Lyon, who were not addressed in the analysis, also fit the bill. Therefore the motivation of the club owners is quite central to what happens next for the clubs in question.
The study above was undertaken with the goal of shedding light onto why retaining a league title proves to be difficult for most sides in Europe’s top leagues. Whilst there are certain intangible and unquantifiable elements at play such as the motivation and ambition levels of the players at hand, it is clear that lessons can be learned for sides that are in a process of winning a title after a long and dry spell. Certainly, the grounds exist for more conclusions to be drawn by those studying the data under the microscope.
Football is a game of two halves. This truism is one of the oldest cliches associated with the beautiful game. Some experts suggest how teams start every match sets the tempo for the rest of the game. Whilst that may be true, it may be interesting to look at how teams finish matches. When one thinks back of how important the final 10 minutes of any given match can be, then the most startling advert for the fact is undoubtedly the 1999 Champions League Final, when Manchester United scored twice in second half injury time to beat the Germans.
During analysis of the final few minutes of matches over a season, it’s fair to ask yourself whether you think results would mirror the strength of the teams without setting new patterns other than that which has been created over the previous 80 minutes of the match. What will it tell us about the mentality and personality of the sides involved? Is the destiny of games determined by the previous 80 minutes? These are some of the questions which we hope to answer by putting the magnifying glass over a few of Europe’s tightest leagues during the current 2012/13 season.
Firstly, the English Premier League will be analyzed, considering the tight race for Champions League spots as well as the scrap for relegation. Secondly, Serie A will be put under the eye of observation. Finally, the nPower Chanmpionship, the second tier of English football, traditionally seen as one of the most challenging leagues in all of European football will be analyzed largely due to its extremely tight proceedings this season. Currently, the team in 8th spot, Derby County, is still not safe from relegation, as its 5 points clear from 22nd spot, the final relegation spot, occupied by Huddersfield (only on goal difference being the worst of a set of 4 sides going up to 19th place Blackburn Rovers). On a side note, 54 points separate the top and bottom sides in the Premier League, with 47 separating those in Serie A and only 38 points keeping the respective sides in the nPower Championship apart.
The 2012/13 Premier League season has seen Manchester United wrestle back the title from city rivals Manchester City in what looks like a relatively early triumph. Critics argue that Roberto Mancini’s side failed to show the motivation and drive required to repeat their achievement of the previous season. This could also be the season which could see Premier League ever-presents Aston Villa suffer relegation. Continuing its seasonal pattern, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal is fighting to win its own Champions League, the coveted 4th position.
How much would the league table change if the full-time whistle was blown in the 80th minute? Some of the findings are riveting to say the least. First of all, a total of 56 results have changed during the final 10 minutes of games (plus stoppage time) this season. That means 18.3% of games have been decided during those minutes. Other startling facts include West Brom being the only side to twice throw away victories and accept defeats during this period, Everton have turned defeat into victory and vice versa on one occasion each, Newcastle has seen results change in 10 of their 31 matches during the final 10 minutes, an astonishing 32% of their games, with Reading experiencing a similar turnaround. Man City have recovered the most points (12) during this period, whilst West Brom have lost the most (9). Also, Swansea are the only side that has not surrendered a single point during the final 10 minutes of matches and QPR the only side that has not recovered any point during the same period.
Considering that Man City has won 12 points (4 draws to wins, 1 loss to a win, 1 loss to a draw) how does the claim that Mancini’s side haven’t shown the same urgency they had last season fare? Clearly, they have exhibited a never say die attitude and good levels of concentration as they have only once lost points during the final stretch this season. Reading and Norwich are two other sides that had 180 degree turns on results gained, by converting lost games into victories once each. Spurs has lost a game that it had been winning after 80 minutes. If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes without wanting to worry about missing anything then its likely that you can do so during a Sunderland – QPR game or a West Ham – QPR match-up. Only a total of 7 points has moved around during those between the sides involved throughout the whole season.
The table above shows if the final whistle was blown early, the biggest loser in the Premier League would be Manchester City. This may suggest that they have started slowly and sluggishly and a sense of urgency crept into their game as the match went on, especially in the second half of games. Ultimately, they would have found themselves in 5th place, fighting to get into the Champions League. At the other end of the table, Newcastle would have found themselves firmly in the relegation zone had it not been for their late game heroics. How long could they sustain such late surges before it catches up with them though? Their overall performances may yet prove to be costly at the end of the season. Other highlights are Spurs being in 2nd place, Arsenal being in 7th spot and unlikely to get into the Champions League whilst QPR only being 2 points off safety.
Juventus have not been as dominant as they were during their unbeaten title victory in the 2011/12 season. Some analysts have said that this was Napoli’s season to win but they have thrown it away having failed to capitalize on the leader’s blunders. In terms of the overall scope of the league, a total of 51 results changed during the final 10 minutes of matches. That translates to 17% of matches being decided during the said period, a slightly lesser ratio than in the Premier League, and probably indicative of the nature of Serie A.
Some of the findings from Serie A include the fact that Juventus have not surrendered a single point during the final stretch of matches and have won back the most points (12). Napoli have seen 9 results change during the final 10 minutes, the most in the whole league, and this includes converting a defeat into victory as well as seeing a win turn into a loss. Only two other sides have experienced such ecstasy (Bologna) and despair (Torino) this season and both in games against Napoli. The biggest losers of the final few minutes of games have been Palermo. They have surrendered 12 points and have only taken 1 point off their opponents during the closing stages of games.
If you’re looking to switch off your TV after 80 minutes then you’d be safest doing so during a Sampdoria – Siena match-up. Compared to the Premier League, only two matches saw 180 degree result turns during the final 10 minutes, whereas in the Premier League four matches saw similar turnarounds.
What we learn from the above table is that Napoli would currently be leading the Serie A title race despite having a mixed record during the final 10 minutes of games. This is largely because their rivals Juventus have amassed 5 wins (converted from draws) during the final few minutes of games. Milan and Chievo are two other sides that have not relinquished any points during the final few minutes of games. Palermo, whose fortunes would be much the richer if officials blew the whistle at the end of 80 minutes, would have been 5 points above the relegation zone, virtually safe by now, instead of being firm candidates to go down to Serie B. Milan and Fiorentina would be having a much closer race for the final Champions League spot too, and Catania would be another “winner” as they would be on the verge of a European spot.
The Championship might prove to be the most exciting league in Europe if it comes down to how matches finish. A total of 99 results changed during the final 10 minutes of games. That is just over a staggering 25% of all games till date. Blackpool have been the undoubted kings of finishing off games strongly. They have “won” 15 points whilst only giving up 3 points during the final few minutes of matches. Cardiff City is another side that finishes games strongly, winning 4 games from drawing positions and drawing 2 games from losing positions. They have not given up points during the same period. Charlton’S games have the quietest finish when it comes to impacting the result. Only twice have they seen results change and both times it has been to their detriment. Leeds United have been one of the undoubted big losers when it comes to the analysis. Ten of their games have changed results during the final 10 minutes and only once has it been to their benefit. Crystal Palace, Blackpool, Ipswich and Bolton have seen 12 results each change during the period in question. That is just under 1 in 3 matches. At the same time, a total of 5 matches have seen 180 degree turnarounds for the sides involved (losses to wins).
What quickly transpires from looking at the table is that if the final few minutes of matches were not factored in, the whole complexion of the league would change. Firstly, four points would separate the top 4 with Watford benefiting most as they would sit at the top of the pile. Gianfranco Zola’s side have seen 18 points thrown around during the final few minutes of games and that is a league high. They would gain 5 points through the process. Leeds may have been the big losers when it comes to closing out games but that translates to benefiting from the projected league table as they would break into the play-off positions. Crystal Palace have lost the most points during the final few minutes, and despite having won quite a few themselves, they would jump into the 2nd automatic promotion spot.
What is even more interesting is the bottom of the table shake-up. Blackpool nosedive into 23rd position and would likely be relegated had it not been for their closing out of matches. Interestingly, Ian Holloway has had a stake in two of the most “active” sides in the division during the analysis period as the Tangerines are his former side, and Palace his current one. Make of that what you will. Peterbrough would be another beneficiary of the projection as they would jump to 9 points above the relegation zone. Blackburn, Ipswich and Wolves would also look to be quite safe.
Whilst the above analysis proves interesting reading, what conclusions can we draw? Firstly, its clear that the Championship is the most exciting league between the 3 in question when it comes to how important the final 10 minutes of games are. Secondly, there is no clear pattern in terms of the final 10 minutes of games correlating with the previous 80 minutes of the respective games. Whilst teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus and Cardiff close out games strongly especially when they need a result, other sides near the top of the table have mixed results. Spurs, Chelsea and Everton are 3 of the top 6 in the Premier League but they have lost more points than gained during the period in question. However, in Italy, the current positions of the side have a greater influence in how they finish games with Fiorentina being the only side, which has lost more points than won, in the top 7 of Serie A. In the Championship, perhaps due to the openness and end-to-end nature of the British game, there is a mixed bag again with 2 of the top 4 having lost more points than won.
Then there are a few anomalies to look at. This includes Newcastle, Blackpool and Palermo. The Geordies are currently surviving due to their last few minute heroics having won 6 extra points (net). Blackpool are currently 3 points off the relegation zone in the Championship but this is only because of the extraordinary 15 points that they have won during that period. They have only lost 3 points too. Effectively their numbers along with those of Juventus are the best in our study. What does that tell us about Blackpool? Whilst it needs further analysis of the games, one possible scenario sees teams sitting back deeper against what they perceive to be a bottom of the table side whilst the gung-ho nature of the Tangerines, born out of Ian Holloway’s image creates enough chances to convert. Teams like Crystal Palace, Leeds and Watford do not seem to have the tactical aptitude to close out games. Palace and Watford are both known to play expansive football and the high-tempo could prove to be costly towards the end of games. On the other side of the coin, Italian Serie A strugglers Palermo need to close up shop much better and working on the players fitness could be an aspect that may require further attention. The fruits of this research lay the groundwork which could be instrumental for the sides involved in gaining extra points in the future, either by working at closing out games better or taking advantage of their opponents inability to do the same.
The UEFA Champions League remains club football’s most sought after trophy for a multitude of reasons. Due to its ever growing status in the post-Bosman world of football, not least of which is due to the financial prizes on offer, simply qualifying for the competition is considered more important than winning a domestic cup or even the Europa League. Just ask Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager has gone on record to state “I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they don’t ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League.” Wenger is not in the minority with that viewpoint. Teams like Liverpool and Atletico Madrid face uphill struggles to retain stalwarts such as Luis Suarez and Falcao if they are not able to offer them Champions League football imminently. But what is the role of the Europa League in providing a balance to the dilemma? It is after all UEFA’s “second” big competition.
Gone are the days of the prestige of playing in and winning the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup. Big teams such as Barcelona, Juventus, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Lazio were among the winners of those competitions during their final years before a re-structuring was undertaken by Europe’s governing body. In fact, UEFA has played a central role in the demise of Europe’s second competition through neglecting it whilst the Champion’s League’s grew larger and more influential in world football. Their high-profile public re-branding of the Europa League in 2009 has done little to change the perception or reality of the situation. At the time, UEFA President Michel Platini stated “I am convinced the new format will give the UEFA Europa League a successful new impetus…these changes will improve this historic competition, which is very important for UEFA and for European football as it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football”
Firstly, the fact that less and less “champions” take part in the Champions League has simply depleted the prestige of the Europa League. It has been firmly given a second-tier look and feel, and that sense has never been reversed by the entry of the third-placed group stage “lucky losers” from the Champions League at the latter stages of the Europa League because those sides only see the tournament as a distraction to their quest of winning the league title or qualifying for next season’s Champions League through their domestic league. Secondly, UEFA provided the nail in the tournament’s coffin by confirming its position as a second-tier competition through the meager prize money on offer. For instance, winning a group stage match nets a team €140,000 in the Europa League whilst €800,000 in the Champions League. For a team in the Europa League to get that sort of prize money they would need to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament. On the flip-side, a team that qualifies for the semi-finals of the Champions League gains €4,200,000. The winners of the Champions League and Europa League attain €9 million and €3 million respectively as further bonuses. In short, if a team wins every watch on its way to winning the tournaments, starting from the group stages, they would gain €31.5 million and €6.44 million respectively in the Champions League and Europa League. This is even before the huge impact of television money is taken into account as that further widens the financial gulf between the two competitions.
Nevertheless, UEFA still encourages managers to talk up the Europa League. In October 2012, it was reported that a sheet was distributed to managers of sides in the tournament. The sheet, headlined “Discover the Drama”, included terms such as “prestigious” and “rich in heritage” and highlighted that the dramatic nature of the matches should be talked up during press conferences and interviews. It is a bit hypocritical, not to mention naive, to expect supporters, teams, players, sponsors, and the media to buy into a manufactured and commercial measure. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, UEFA has taken a fruitless approach that has further brought it ridicule as well as further undermined the value of the Europa League. Simply put, it is all talk and little substance. This brings us to the ultimate question. What can UEFA do to salvage the reputation and importance of the competition?
On one hand, increasing the financial winnings that are to be gained by clubs could prove to have a positive impact. If, as expected, “big” clubs, from the big leagues then begin taking the competition a little more seriously, then supporters would do so, as a consequence, especially in terms of TV audiences, and sponsors would begin to pool more money towards the tournament. However, this could prove financially costly for UEFA and it would take a considerable increase in prize money, possibly doubling it at the very least, to have an impact. However, the prize money would still fall quite short of what is on offer in the Champions League. At the same time, it does not fix one of the biggest weaknesses of the competition in that almost all the big clubs are already present in the Champions League. Unlike the past when winning the domestic cup was seen as far more prestigious due to the passage towards the Cup Winner’s Cup, today, it has also taken a back-seat to the domestic league’s passage towards the Champions League. In many cases, the winner of the domestic cup would already be present in the Champions League so the runners-up or next best-placed domestic league position not in European competition qualifies to the Europa League. All lit roads lead to the Champions League, whilst a dead end leads one towards the Europa League. It has firmly become the “black sheep” of European football.
On the other hand, if one takes a closer look at Arsene Wenger’s comments, then a viable solution could be found in raising the profile of the Europa League. It is clear that everyone wants to participate in the Champions League, and the Europa League is little consolation to clubs that miss out on that privilege. But what if the relationship between the two competitions was further intertwined? We already have clubs who drop down from the Champions League to the Europa League mid-competition, so why can’t the reverse journey be possible? The proposal is not as radical as it sounds.
If UEFA begins offering the winner of the Europa League a spot in the following season’s Champions League it would almost certainly solve the problem permanently. It would offer clubs the chance to qualify for the Champions League following what could be as little as a 15-match campaign, less than half the matches it would take through most domestic leagues in Europe. In fact, in a knock-out competition most clubs would have more of a chance for success than a dragged-out 38 match league campaign. English teams like Everton, Liverpool and Spurs would find it more “attractive” competing with some of the sides present in the Europa League than their counterparts such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea for a spot through the league. Teams that get knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage may be suffering in terms of their domestic league as a consequence of their squad being stretched, as Spurs found out a couple of years ago, but re-entry into the Europa League would offer then a few matches to redeem themselves and give themselves a second shot at the Champions League the following season. In fact, one can argue that the winner of the Europa League has more of a claim to taking part in the Champions League than a 4th place side of a domestic league.
Having expanded the Champions League in recent seasons, it is unlikely that UEFA would have practical problems in offering a spot in the Champions League to the winners of its second-tier competition. In fact, to go further in gaining national association support for the idea, the Europa League winner’s “spot” could have special dispensation which does not endanger the final domestic league qualifier to the Champions League due to the fact that the Europa League winner finished outside those spots. So, in theory, England could have 5 spots one season or Italy could regain a 4th spot quicker than they would have expected. The proposal is certainly something that UEFA could look into if it has serious intentions in regaining the lost prestige of the Europa League. Whether it does so or not is a whole different debate. But there are no excuses left for UEFA and the clock is ticking for the Europa League.
Arsenal begin the 2012/13 season, on the back of having completed their very own 7-year itch and headed into the unwanted territory of a sequel. Having been unable to lift a major trophy since the 2005 FA Cup, Arsene Wenger spent the summer in full realization that time is running out for him to add a final chapter to his legacy as Arsenal’s greatest ever manager.
In retrospect, a shift in Wenger’s transfer policy had started during the summer window of the 2004/5 season when Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Nwankwo Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, all key members of the successful Arsenal side of recent years, were allowed to leave without being adequately replaced. However, the summer transfer window leading into the 2005/6 season then saw Wenger decide that club captain Patrick Vieira, having just turned 29 years old, had put his best days behind him, and sanctioned a move to Serie A, where the Frenchman would go on to lift 4 Serie A titles (a 5th was stripped due to the Calciopoli scandal that hit Juventus). He would later lift the FA Cup with Manchester City on his return to England. Robert Pires would also be released from the club, moving to Villareal in La Liga.
Wenger’s First Transfer Policy Shift
During the 2005/6 off-season, David Bentley, Jermaine Pennant and Stuart Taylor, all promising young English players joined Vieira and Pires out on the exit door. They raised circa £20m in transfer fees in that off-season. Until that point, Arsenal had been a net spender in all but one of Wenger’s seasons at the helm of the club. By the end of the season, Arsenal’s spending would have increased, having added big-money signings like Theo Walcott, Alex Hleb and Emanuel Adebayor among others. However, they had still raised more money from transfers out, if you were to take into account the sell-on percentages inserted into Bentley and Pennant’s contracts.
Wenger had clearly decided to build a team from scratch, one that would play a high-tempo fast-paced passing game and would be comprised of youth well ahead of experience. This would be the Frenchman’s “Third Project” to build and if successful his greatest achievement yet. No one questioned Wenger from the word go, despite the fact that Chelsea had broken the Manchester United and Arsenal duopoly in the Premier League. The belief that still existed around the club coupled with the backdrop of moving into a new stadium, the Emirates, meant that Wenger decided that spending “big” would no longer be a characteristic of Arsenal going into this project. This is not to suggest that Arsenal had been heavy net spenders under the Frenchman, as he had always been shrewd in the transfer market, in both bringing raw players in as well as selling them for a profit when they left, usually after they had accomplished their fair share of winnings at the club. It would be hard to recall the last player Wenger had signed but did not go on to make a profit on when the player was sold. Jose Antonio Reyes is one of the few players that fall into that category.
During the following season, the 2006/7 one, club captain Thierry Henry would leave the club to join Barcelona. Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Lauren, all established members of the starting line-up, would also be sold or released. Denilson, Lukasz Fabianski, Alex Song, William Gallas and Eduardo would be the sort of names that would join the club. Other than Gallas, who was 29 at the time, the other signings were young, raw and largely unknown.
During the summer transfer window leading into the 2007/8 season, Wenger surprised many when he spent more than he raised in transfers, bringing in Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, Lassana Diarra and Bacary Sagna. None of the transfers could be considered as household names or “winners”, although all had undoubted potential. Once again, Wenger had banked on potential over ability, bringing in young and exciting prospects. However, having sold Jens Lehmann, Freddy Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, much needed experience had left the club once again, and they would end the season empty handed once more.
The trend continued into the next season when Gilberto Silva, Alex Hleb and Matthieu Flamini, who had finally been coming into his own, all left the club. Wenger signed Andrei Arshavin, then 27, and a veteran signing with respect to Arsenal’s transfer policy. The Russian would bring in a much-needed winners background, having experienced winning the UEFA Cup and Russian League titles in the past. However, the weight of expectations on his shoulders and lack of other alternatives to carry the weight would be telling. Whilst he may have brought in his best form at the club during his first season and a half, the same cannot be said of his team-mates who were probably too young to match the Russians talent at the time.
In the following season, the 2008/9 one, Emanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure were sold to an up and coming rival in Manchester City. This proved to be a psychological blow, one that signalled that Arsenal no longer “willingly” sold their players, but had, for the first time, been forced to sell some of their best players to their rivals in the Premier League. Thomas Vermaelen would be the only big-money signing to join the club. A player of huge potential, he was still young and relatively inexperienced despite having captain Ajax.
During the next season, Wenger would again spend more than he would recoup, but the fees in question did not total to more than £14m in transfers in. Marouane Chamakh, Sebastian Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny joined the club. Whilst Squillaci was experienced, Koscielny was a raw player picked out from Ligue 1 on the back of 1 season in the top flight. He would need a full season before he began to show the quality that Wenger had been sure he could produce. Chamakh had never been a goal scoring forward but had just experienced his best return in Ligue 1 for Bordeaux. However, none of the three had boasted the sort of experienced pedigree required to nurture the club’s existing young talent.
During the 2011/12 season, Wenger would establish his biggest spending spree whilst at Arsenal with over £50m being sanctioned. However, when taken into the context that some of the signings were last-minute and rushed during the final hours of the summer transfer window and the fact that Arsenal had sold club captain Cesc Fabregas, Emanuel Eboue, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy among others for a combined total of over £70m, the picture becomes clearer. Whilst experienced players like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos all joined the club, none could boast the sort of winning mentality and background that would lift the Emirates Stadium towards past glories.
Although Wenger had always sought out young and talented raw players and developed them to the point where they’d lead Arsenal to successes on the pitch, the fact that the project had been reset to start from Day Zero meant that the players signed in the period 2005-2012 would not be supplementing an established winning group such as those Wenger inherited when he took over at Highbury as well as those he had nurtured to winning the league title as the “Invincibles”. This was a significant factor that inhibited the new group’s development. If one adds the fact that the lack of success on the pitch had a knock-on effect where the said young players would not realize their peak potential at Arsenal, instead choosing to experience that in a new team, then the blow for Wenger would be doubly painful and would virtually deem his “Third Project” a failure, based upon those two inter-related factors. The 2011/12 season would be one of internal strife for Wenger and a sort of interim period between projects. Question marks were raised about his position for the first time but by the end of the season he had arguably silenced those critics to a point, at least temporarily.
Winning the Alternative Premier League
Whilst it may be of no consolation to Gunners supporters, had the Premier League table been re-calibrated to be based upon a points per pound spent analysis, then Arsenal would have been league champions during the 2007/8 and 2009/10 seasons. This analysis was done using the m£XIR Analysis undertaken by Transfer Price Index. It provides interesting further reading on the relative successes that Arsene Wenger’s side have had in every respect other than winning trophies during the “Third Project”.
Admitting Past Mistakes
Whilst Arsene Wenger has not publicly and unequivocally admitted that the attempt to build his “Third Project” was a failure, steps he has taken during the 2012/13 season suggest that he has done so, at least, privately. The reasons established above already highlighted how Wenger’s policy had been undermined both by himself, through distancing the gap from experience to youth too quickly, as well as through a by-product of failing to be successful on the pitch (probably more so than not being able to compete financially). Consequently, Wenger became unable to retain the same sort of players that he had been purchasing as youngsters during his tenure as Arsenal manager to the point of them realizing their potential whilst at the club, instead of at their next club. Almost every major player that has left Arsenal during the 2005-12 period has gone on to win trophies at their new clubs, many if not all, experiencing winning for the first time during their careers.
However, during the 2012/13 pre-season, Wenger’s policy shifted once again. Firstly, on the back of the shock of losing 3 key members of his starting line-up the previous summer and only reacting to replace them during the latter stages of the transfer window, Arsenal would, this time, makee their forays into the transfer window quite early. They brought in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Podolski is an experienced German international who is almost certain to become Germany’s record goal scorer if he stays free from injury. He has 2 third place finishes in the World Cup with Germany, along with a runners-up spot in the European Championship. He’s also lifted both the Bundesliga and German Cup during his stint at Bayern Munich. He has just finished his best goal scoring return in the same league where Papiss Cisse shone, before joining Newcastle United.
Giroud, other other hand, has just won Ligue 1 with Montpellier where he finished top scorer of the league as well as being called up for France’s Euro 2012 squad. Worryingly, he has only scored 1 goal in 10 internationals. Podolski, currently 26, and Giroud, who will be 26 next month, are at an age where they should experience their peaks at the club. Wenger’s biggest coup, though, was without doubt the signing of Malaga and Spain maestro Santi Cazorla. Equally adept on the wing or in an attacking midfield role, the Spaniard is a World and European champion, so the winning mentality is definitely written into his psyche. At 27, he, too, should be entering the prime of his career. His passing quality had seen him called out to be heir to Xavi in the Spanish national team. Furthermore, he is possibly the most established world class player Wenger has ever signed, and probably also the club have since Dennis Bergkamp, not overlooking the fact that most of Wenger’s signings joined raw and with unfulfilled potential including players like Fabregas, Nasri and Robin van Persie.
Ridding the Rotten Core of the Third Project
Another big shift in Wenger’s approach this summer has been the lack of “fight” he has put up in letting go some of his players. In the past, the Frenchman had been quite resistant to his star players wanting to leave. This summer he sanctioned the sale of club captain van Persie as well as Alex Song, to Manchester United, in a bitterly sour blow to supporters, as well as Barcelona, respectively. Once again, Wenger received excellent transfer fees for both, as he has always done when he’s sold his star players.
However, one might argue that having privately admitted defeat in his project, Wenger did not resist two of the ever-presents of that project leaving, especially considering the fact that they, like many Arsenal supporters, had lost faith in the project. Even though Wenger is seemingly turning the leaf over, it may have been too late to re-embed new found belief to convince van Persie that a trophy would be in the offing. In the case of Song, question marks over his motivation had been raised in recent times and getting a fee of circa £15 million for a player who not many, if any at all, would consider world class, is some achievement for Arsenal.
From that original core of players that were almost ever-presents in the 7 year dry spell that Arsenal experienced, Theo Walcott is one of the last remaining members. He’s been hesitant to sign a new contract too and with Wenger’s new found ruthlessness, do not be surprised if the inconsistent winger is sold before the end of the season. Walcott has been one of the players who has arguably received the most support from Wenger throughout his inconsistent career and probably owes him a certain degree of loyalty. However, even if he is sold, the question remains would Arsenal truly miss him?
Arsene Wenger’s “Third Project” clearly failed. Even the Frenchman reluctantly agreed to this principle, at least privately. Whilst Wenger has continued to expand the club’s coffers as well as make big profit on players he signs, develops and sells off, it has seen Arsenal fall further behind the leading clubs in Europe.
Wenger’s main falling grace has been the fact that, contrary to the past, he’s been unable to develop his signings in a winning environment, where winning breeds confidence as well as ability. His signings have grown frustrated at the lack of honors at a time when they would be approaching their peaks and lose faith in the club’s project just when they are approaching their peaks and probably rightfully so. It had created a never-ending vicious cycle. The Frenchman probably did not envisage the importance of the experienced core that he held at Arsenal during the creation of his first and second groups of champions, culminating in the Invincible side.
However, this summer has seen a shift from Wenger. Even though, the club’s transfer activity continues to place them as net sellers, shrewd signings of 3 established players who have experienced winning at the highest level, bringing in a necessary mentality and leadership into a dressing room already disenchanted, will be uplifting. The next phase of this policy has been the sale of key ingredients from the failed project. Van Persie and Song have already left and so has Almunia. Nicklas Bendtner is on his way out and Theo Walcott may follow suit unless he commits to the manager’s new project. Arsenal arguably no longer have any more big “stars” from the previous project remaining. Vermaelen is the closest they have to one and he only joined during the latter end of that project. He has been made club captain and that does not bode well if history is a reflection.
Nevertheless, Wenger is still in the market for players and at the time of publishing this he was close to confirming the signing of Turkish international Nuri Şahin, a former Bundesliga winner with Dortmund during a season in which he was named the Player of the Year in Germany. His signature could be the missing piece to the puzzle which catapults Arsenal back into the mix of challenging for trophies in England.
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As Euro 2012 dawns upon us, football supporters, analysts, and commentators have undertaken months of preparations in order to get ready for the tournament in Poland/Ukraine. Getting accustomed to pronunciations and playing backgrounds is just a couple of aspects that needed attention. Whilst players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Mario Balotelli and Frank Ribery are established enough to expect them to star at the event, each country has a group of players who have quietly made enough noise to be highlighted by football connoisseurs but maybe not by the couch football fan. We’re going to highlight one such player from each team in order to keep an eye out for during Euro 2012.
Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
The Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder is only 23 years old and has made a solid start to his first season with the reigning two-time German champions, scoring 7 goals in a Bundesliga campaign where he found himself making an impact off-the-bench more than he would have liked. Perisic gives options across the midfield and is likely to find himself playing a similar role that he has been accustomed to with his club during the past season. What he does offer though is goals. He has scored over 31 goals during the last two club campaigns in Belgium and Germany.
Petr Jiracek (Czech Republic)
Already an established international midfielder, he is seen as the current hope of the generation after the golden one that had emerged in Czech Republic. Now 26, he made his international debut in September 2011, and scored a vital goal in the Euro 2012 play-offs against Montenegro. Wolfsburg pounced to sign him during the January transfer window as it was expected that his value would soar with an impressive tournament in Poland/Ukraine.
Andreas Bjelland (Denmark)
A strong center back who finished the season playing in Denmark’s Superliga with Nordsjaelland, he has signed on to join Twente after Euro 2012. He is yet another potential star who has already been scouted adequately enough and moved to a new club before the tournament has kicked a ball. Bjelland has displaced Simon Kjaer as the likely partner for Daniel Agger, such has been his progress during the past 18 months. At a push, he is also able to fill in at full back as well as central midfield. He scored his first international goal against Australia in a recent friendly in June.
Danny Welbeck (England)
The Manchester United striker impressed Sir Alex Ferguson during a loan spell at Sunderland in the 2010/11 season. That ensured his position in the first team for United during the recently completed campaign. He is usually praised for his team-work and off-the-ball movement more so than his goal-scoring prowess. He scored 12 goals in 40 matches for his club in all competition and netted his first international goal against Belgium during England’s final friendly before Euro 2012. He is expected to lead the line during Wayne Rooney’s absence through suspension.
Mathieu Debuchy (France)
The Lille full back has emerged as a consistent and sometimes spectacular player in Ligue 1 during recent seasons. He does pitch in with a few goals from right back and has already scored his first international goal recently. He is expected to start for Laurent Blanc’s side against England in Bacary Sagna’s absence. Nevertheless, it had been speculated that Debuchy may have displaced Sagna as first choice right back before the Arsenal defender’s unfortunate injury. He has been scouted by Manchester United during the past season.
Mats Hummels (Germany)
The former Bayern Munich reject has emerged as one of the leading central defenders in European football during the past two seasons. Forming a solid center back partnership with Nevan Subotic at club level, he has been unable to dispose either of Per Mertesacker or Holger Badstuber at international level yet, even though calls are increasing for his inclusion. In terms of overall attributes, he is arguably a better player than either of those two but his lack of international experience has counted against him. Whilst he is expected to start as 3rd choice center back, if he is to get a lucky break and come onto the pitch, expect him to take the opportunity with both hands. Currently rated in the €15m range.
Ioannis Fetfatzidis (Greece)
The miniature midfielder is adept in an attacking role or a place on the wings. He has been playing a central role for Olympiacos during the past two league campaigns. Calls for his inclusion in the Greece starting line-up have been increasing. He already has 3 goals to his name for his country. Nevertheless, he may have to be satisfied with a place on the bench initially, but watch out for his introduction. He faced a similar growth hormone deficiency as Leo Messi.
Claudio Marchisio (Italy)
The Juventus midfielder is known for his goals from midfield. He has consistently improved his tally season on season and finished the recent campaign with 9 goals in Serie A. He is expected to play next to Danielle De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo in central midfield and will be the one Prandelli looks for in making late runs into the box. He will aim to add to his solitary international goal to date.
Ibrahim Afellay (Holland)
Even though Afellay, known as Ibi to his club team-mates, is playing for one of the best club sides around, he has slipped under the radar, so to speak, during the past two seasons. Having joined in hype from PSV Eindhoven, he enjoyed a quiet first 6 months at Barcelona before being ruled out for the majority of the 2011/12 campaign through injury. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Oranje fans and Bert van Maarwijk alike. Afellay has looked fresh and hungry during recent friendlies and has cemented a place in the starting line-up at the likely expense of Dirk Kuyt.
Ludovic Obraniak (Poland)
The French-born Polish international was a Ligue 1 winner with Lille before joining Bordeaux. He is an attacking midfielder who can play on the wings too, although he lacks blistering pace. He has always scored goals at every level and already has 5 goals in twenty-odd internationals. He will be a key creative force for Poland during Euro 2012 and his set piece acumen may be key in deciding how far the Poles can progress.
Nelson Oliveira (Portugal)
The young Benfica striker is seen as the most naturally gifted striker to come through the ranks of his country for decades. One of Portugal’s biggest downfalls during the past 20 years has been the lack of a truly world class finisher. Whilst Oliveira is not at that level yet, there is no doubt with his natural instincts for goal-scoring, he may have a good chance at breaking that hoodoo. He is likely to start as a back-up option but with the pressure Paulo Bento is under in the “Group of Death”, Oliveira may find himself on the pitch sooner than he would have imagined.
James McClean (Ireland)
The Sunderland winger has been the wildcard entry into Ireland’s squad. Trapattoni largely stayed loyal to the core of players that helped his side qualify but it was too difficult to neglect McClean’s emergence during the last 5 months of the season. The Italian has tried McClean at left wing during his international debut in May and it is likely that he will provide an option on either wing off the bench.
Roman Shirokov (Russia)
The 30 year old Zenit central midfielder can play as a holding player, deep-lying player or in central defence, although it is likely that he will play in midfield for Russia as he has done throughout his career. What he offers is late runs into the box and an eye for goal. He recently scored 2 goals against Italy in an international friendly in Zurich. As the Russian strikers may have trouble scoring too many goals, it is likely that their progress may depend on players like Shirokov popping up with important goals.
Jordi Alba (Spain)
One of the last truly “unknown” quantities in the Spain national side. The Valencia left-sided player is on Barcelona’s shopping list and is expected to join them later this summer. He is currently valued circa €15m and offers surging runs from a full back position. His defensive capabilities are better than one would expect for someone of his stature and size. He is equally adept at playing on the left wing. He is seen as the long-term replacement for Joan Capdevila at international level.
Ola Toivonen (Sweden)
The Finish-born PSV Eindhoven striker is seen as one of Sweden’s main goal threats. He scored the winner against Holland in the Euro 2012 qualifier which effectively sealed Sweden’s spot in the tournament. It is likely that he will start for his country giving captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic a freer, deeper, play-making role in the side. He has scored 35 goals during his 3 years at PSV.
Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)
The left-footed Dynamo Kiev forward is one his nation’s main goal-threats during Euro 2012. He is able to play a more withdrawn role too. His international scoring record is impressive with 8 goals in 20 matches although he has not scored during his past few games. With the problems Oleh Blokhin is facing with selection in goal, it is likely that players like Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka may have to play at their full potential if Ukraine is to progress from the group stages.
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With relegation confirmed for Blackburn Rovers after a 11-year spell in the Premier League, their longest ever run in the top flight, in the post-war period, supporters, once again, turned their anger towards the owners, Venkys, and, manager, Steve Kean. As the dust begins to settle on the disastrous season, the mainstream media, for the first time, has taken an active interest in the on-goings at Ewood Park. Some of the “revelations” of the past few days have been well known to most of the supporters for the good part of the past 6 months. Nevertheless, with Steve Kean emphatically stating that “I’m here for the long term” as well as the owners being “100% right for the club” as well as how “these are exciting times for the club”, one has to wonder what happens next and whether Venkys are too out of touch with reality to be able to salvage the situation and stabilize a sinking ship.
If you ask any Rovers supporter whether there is anything Venkys can do to make them want to retain them as owners, the answer would be a resounding and instinctive “no”. However, if one approaches the situation as a realist, considering the fact that the ideal scenario of Venkys wanting to sell the club and potential buyers coming forward to make an acceptable offer to Venkys may not exist, supporters may have to reconsider the “no negotiation” stance that they rightfully hold. At this point, we want to present a “four-point plan” which is likely to “reset” the situation between owners and the supporters. The question, however, remains do the owners actually care what the fans think? And do they really want to make a success of their tenure? If the answers to those are yes, then they need to take a close look at the following, not for inspiration but for application.
1) Sack Steve Kean
Steve Kean undoubtedly has a poor results record in “management”, the primary criteria of judging a football manager. Whichever way he may want to spin the situation, the facts remain facts as highlighted as early as December 2011. Kean is, without a shadow of a doubt, beyond the point of no return with supporters and its not purely down to results on the pitch. His handling of the media, dubious transfers and team selection, the lack of acknowledgement of Rovers plight, and what fans see as a disrespect to their existence and views, combined with the circumstances within which he got the job in the first place, as well the “unsackable” tag which has been given to him have not made Kean a popular man. Whilst Kean survived the first wave of criticism which hit their peak during December 2011, the national media failed to look too closely at the facts, and Rovers supporters decided to “back off” in the interest of supporting the side in the most complete fashion. Instead of acknowledging that, Kean came out with ludicrous statements such as one where he said he receives “500 letters of support from fans everyday”. This time around, on the back of relegation, the national media is no longer as negligent and Rovers are under the microscope and so is Kean. Venkys should have sacked their man by now, but they must not waste another second in doing so and that is the first step towards “salvation”.
2) Acknowledge their Mistakes
Even before replacing the manager, Venkys must come out and finally communicate with the fans in a transparent and honest fashion. The whole footballing world is aware of Rovers plight and it is clear that the decisions that the owners have taken in the last 18 months have resulted in relegation. Yes, the owners are new to football and they have made mistakes, but if “no one is to blame” as Venkatesh Rao states during a telephone interview with Indian media only a few days after relegation, then Venkys are delusional. There is enough blame to go around and the owners need to acknowledge that before they continue promising success and achievement for the future, something which they have been doing, foolishly, from day one.
3) Hire an Experienced and Popular Manager
The title says it all. At this point, Venkys need to think long and hard about the next manager. Not only must he be the right choice from a footballing perspective but he must also be “popular” enough with the fan-base in order to quell the frustration, worries and apathy which Venkys and Kean have instilled onto the fans. Supporters have lost faith and have spoken with their feet. Approximately 3,000 fewer fans were attending home games from just before the end of December, compared to after it. That is a crushing blow to the owners, even though they do not seem to understand its implications yet. More fans are expected to “walk away” by the time the upcoming season begins largely of the post-relegation fiasco including Kean’s unbelievable press conference for the Chelsea game. Names like Avram Grant and Dave Jones, who has an SEM link are simply not going to work. The new manager must bring the fans together and there must be no inkling of controversy around his appointment. Alan Curbishley, a tandem of Graeme Souness with club legend Tugay, as well as Mick McCarthy may all have the experience, personality and character to get supporters “on-side” and would all be available for work. However, it would be a valid question as to who in their right minds would work for Venkys with the way they have been running the club, and that leads us to the next point.
4) Bring in the Professionals to Take Care of Business
This measure is on par with sacking Kean as manager in terms of its revitalizing effect and importance. Venkys must approach to re-hire John Williams and Tom Finn. Whilst it is unclear whether both men would be interested to return to Rovers in the first place, the Indians need to make it clear to them that they will have carte blanche in re-stabilizing the club and will have no interference from Pune. A communication line will be re-established with supporters, the media, and the owners and the club can be run the way any good club is supposed to be run. They will be popular appointments with the fans and bring back a feeling of familiarity as well as stability to Ewood Park. The playing staff will also be relieved and question marks over the “running of the club” would be quashed immediately just with their presence. Venkys will gain a sense of legitimacy in the process too. People can accept mistakes, but to repeat the same mistakes and to be oblivious to your responsibilities would be a fatal error on the part of the owners.
With a critical summer coming up for Blackburn Rovers, the right decisions need to be taken on who to sell, who to retain and who to buy in order to best position the club for the upcoming campaign. Williams and Finn have the background, experience and know-how to undertake those tasks as smoothly as possible whilst having as blind a support from fans as possible, in the process. With them at the helm there will be no question of vested interests over transfers either.
Blackburn Rovers is currently in the doldrums. Steve Kean and Venkys may not want to acknowledge it and may be promising “exciting times ahead” but delusions such as those do nothing but to infuriate an already tortured fan-base. In an ideal scenario, the owners would decide to sell the club. However, Venkys have been adamant that they would not consider a sale. If they are serious about that and they are serious about getting it right as they have been telling many people in recent months, then the time for change and action is here and now. The four point plan presented here does not guarantee success on the pitch. But it does promise to unify the fan-base and get people to focus on matters on the field instead of distractions, largely caused by mistakes undertaken by Venkys, during the past 18 months. It would also give Venkys as close a clean slate as possible with many fans, even though it may be a case of “forgive but not forget”. Digressing from any of those four points would negate the plan. This is emphatically true in terms of sacking Kean and approaching John Williams and Tom Finn. If one was a betting man, based on Venkys prior history at Rovers, you’d have to think that they would not go through with such a plan, but if they thought long and hard about it and found that their goals match those highlighted initially in this piece, then they’d be foolish not to. As much as they are the actual owners, supporters see Venkys as custodians, because after all, in their eyes, this is the club that Jack Walker built.
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November 19, 2010 heralded a new era in the history of one of the founding clubs of the English leagues, Blackburn Rovers. Venkys London Ltd, a newly established subsidiary of Venkys India, a regional poultry giant, completed the purchase of the club from the Walker’s Trust, which had been running the club since the death of Jack Walker. Immediate talk of European football, and bringing in top quality international players followed. You wouldnt begrudge the supporters for beginning to dream. Sam Allardyce was managing the club and having kept Rovers up in his first season, after taking over from Paul Ince, he followed it up with a respectable 10th place finish and a league cup semi-final.
Whilst Allardyce had his detractors in the stands, due to a combination of his history at Bolton, his so-called long-ball football, and presumed negativity and throwing in the towel against the “Big four”, you wouldn’t argue with the relative success Allardyce had at the club with the lack of finances at his disposal and an average looking squad, which continued to see its best players being sold off to help finance the running of the club. This was a strategy that had worked well for the club in the past since the days of Mark Hughes, but it arguably only worked due to stable management off the field as well as entrusting the squad to the hands of a safe manager. What you could be sure with Allardyce was that Rovers rarely ever lost against teams in the bottom half, especially at home.
Cue forward to December 13, 2010 and Sam Allardyce is sacked with the club lying in 13th place and 5 points outside the relegation zone. The owners said it was a decision taken in line with their “wider ambitions and plans for the club”. They also said that they wanted a manager who would instill “good football” and take Rovers to “fourth or fifth in the league”. They hired Steve Kean, one of the coaches in Allardyce’s backroom staff, on temporary basis. Kean had no managerial experience, but was considered to be a respected figure within the coaching community. Whatever people felt about Allardyce, the sacking was a shock at a critical time in the season, which would define whether a club pushes for a top 10 finish or ends the season battling relegation. The owners clearly did not understand what the latter was. Kean took over with a cloud of uncertainty over both his appointment as well as the direction the club were heading. Within a few days Kean was given a contract till the end of the season, after a 1-1 home draw against a poor bottom of the table West Ham, as the owners seemingly continued to search for the man who would take Rovers towards Champions League football.
Kean began to feel more comfortable in his surroundings, especially during press conferences and began talking about attractive football, qualifying for European competition, bringing in young players as well as making the supporters happy, all of which were easy digs at Allardyce. One thing Allardyce had done at the club was making Ewood Park a fortress. Only Chelsea had Arsenal had won during his last half a season in charge. Throughout the previous season Rovers only suffered 3 home defeats to Manchester City, Spurs and Everton. In celebration of a his full-time hiring, Kean led Rovers to their first defeat at home against a bottom half club in almost 18 months when they were blanked 2-0 by Stoke on Boxing Day. On January 4, Rovers Chairwoman, Anuradha Desai spoke of a “2-3 year contract for Kean who is a hard-working man”. This happened on the back of Kean’s infamous monthly trips to Pune for some face-time with the onwers. On January 20, he signed his 2 and a half year deal to end speculation over the management position at the club and seemingly provide stability. His record at the time had been 2 wins, 1 draw and 3 defeats.
Kean took Rovers on a 10-match win-less run from February until the last day of April when Rovers won 1-0 at home to Bolton after finding themselves under massive pressure with the poor league run. Throughout it all, Kean spoke of “more attractive performances”, “positive results”, and bringing in “younger players like Hoilett and Jones”. Granted Rovers rigid style had loosened a little but it would be a hard push to quantify either of those two first claims. The final statement was something that Kean tried to take credit for even though it had been his predecessor who introduced both to the squad. However, it is fair to say that Hoilett’s form took a turn for the better under Kean. Rovers went on to win only one more game until the end of the season, a final day victory at Wolves to seal the club’s fate in the Premier League; however Kean spoke of “nine positive results” which ran towards the end of the season. These included draws against Blackpool and Birmingham at home and West Ham away, and only two wins.
The 2010/11 season was the 11th successive one for Rovers in the Premier League, during a period where they have finished in the top 6 twice, won a domestic trophy and reached a number of semi-finals too. The season began in the worst fashion with a poor home defeat against Wolves and that was followed up with two further losses. Rovers picked up its first win against Arsenal in late-September but did not use it as a platform as the poor season and results continued. Home losses had now become a regular occurrence at Ewood Park. By December 17, 2011, almost one year to the anniversary of Allardyce’s sacking, Rovers found themselves in 19th place with only 10 points picked up from a possible 48. It was the Bolton fixture last season which sealed Allardyce’s fate. It may well be the same fixture but at Ewood Park in a few days that seals the fate of his successor, although Rovers fans wont hold their breaths on that.
Whilst we have tried to remain objective throughout, it may be pertinent now to present a set of facts and statistics on Kean’s reign at Blackburn Rovers by analyzing the facets and elements that are important when judging any manager’s tenure.
When Kean took over one of the first changes he promised was playing attacking football with two strikers. Allardyce had favored one-striker systems with David Dunn usually favored to play behind the lone target-man. Kean proved to be a man of his word in the early days lining up with two natural strikers on a number of occasions including a game at home to West Brom, during which Niko Kalinic and Roque Santa Cruz both started. However, soon enough as “positive results” failed to materialize Kean reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation which he has stuck with throughout his tenure without exception.
One of the major criticisms of Kean has been a lack of flexibility in his tactics. It does not seem that Rovers ever set up based upon how the opponents play. Kean sets his team up in the same fashion regardless of opposition and regardless of in-match events. He does not react to changes during a match. Very rarely do you see any tactical changes from Rovers under Kean. At best, personnel changes will take place.
In early days, Kean’s side was set out to play a more short-passing game, which was pleasing on the eye but not reaping the results. Backers suggested it needed time. Detractors suggested teams in Rovers position do not have the luxury of time nor the quality of players to pull it off. As time has passed, Kean has begun bringing back more and more elements of Allardyce’s side. However, he has not been successful in optimizing the performances which Allardyce got out of his side.
Only, Stoke City have less of the ball than Blackburn this season. Rovers average less than 42% possession per game. Rovers are 18th in the league when one looks at successful passes, where they stand at only 72%. They also have the second lowest amount of shots per game, averaging 12. Even worse is the fact that Rovers have the least amount of possession at home in the whole of the league at 39%. What is more striking is that no home side in all of Europe’s top leagues of Spain, Italy, Germany, France and England has less of the ball at home than Rovers.
Furthermore, only Stoke plays a higher percentage of long balls to short ones in the Premier League than Rovers. It’s also Stoke that is the only side in the league that averages less short passes per game. Rovers only average 270 passes a game, a shockingly low amount. Whilst, Rovers and Stoke have similar sorts of statistics as each other, one striking difference is the fact that Stoke wins the most aerial duels in the league, while Rovers the 14th highest. By trying to play a direct long-ball style, dependent upon set pieces, Rovers would need to be winning far more 50-50s and aerial challenges. For a side that depends so much on playing without the ball, the off-the-ball defending is even worse. Kean has been unable to get the defense organized from day one and Rovers concede schoolboy goals which could be prevented by closing down especially shots from long range, not giving away cheap fouls in dangerous areas as well as better marking on set pieces, all basics in modern football coaching. No clean sheets all season says it all.
Overall, one gets the sense of imbalance between defence and attack in almost every Rovers line-up with far too many light-weight attack-minded players lining up and arguably only one defensive player, if any, in the front 6. That puts a lot of pressure on the defence, and even though Rovers are averaging more goals than usual, they let in far too many easy goals to even reap the benefits of misusing statistics like Kean had recently when he said “we’re 6th in the league when it comes to scoring goals”. In terms of the type of goal scoring, Rovers score almost 40% of their goals from set pieces. Sam Allardyce who?
Under Steve Kean there has been a huge turnover of players, both in and out of Ewood Park. One of the first things that Kean did when he took over was to gain the support of senior players. That was achieved by signing them all onto longer, more lucrative deals. During his first season, Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica joined on undisclosed amounts, although Rochina cost one-third what the agent brokering the deal made out of the deal. Little detail is available on Formica’s transfer. Kean also signed Roque Santa Cruz and Jermaine Jones on loan deals. The latter was one of the key performers that helped keep Rovers up in the Premier League. More should have been done to sign him this season on a permanent deal as his performances had been priceless. He made a lesser team get better results than it even should have.
This summer, Kean signed Myles Anderson, son of an agent close to Steve Kean, Serbian international midfielder Radosav Petrovic, David Goodwillie, Brazilian journeyman Bruno Ribeiro, Simon Vukcevic, Yakubu, Scott Dann and Jordan Slew. Anderson was signed “for the future” whilst Ribeiro, 28, and a right back, a problem area for Rovers this season “has not adapted”, according to Kean. Goodwillie, signed from Dundee United, was highly rated in Scotland but after starting a couple of games early in the season has been sitting on the bench for most of it and looks short of the pace or skill to succeed in the league. Dann has had mixed performances this season at center back, whilst Vukcevic has only recently started after an injury to Junior Hoilett. Petrovic has not caught up with the pace of the Premier League and seems too similar to Nzonzi, who is already at the club. Jordan Slew has been more a case of Jordan who? On a brighter note, Rochina and Formica have both played regularly for the club this season. Only Yakubu can be judged a success as of this point.
Looking at the current make-up of the starting line-up, having signed a right back in Ribeiro, Jason Lowe has been playing there in Michel Salgado’s absence. Most recently at home to West Brom, Salgado was said to be injured by Kean, even though he had traveled to Hamburg to play a charity match a few days earlier. Morten Gamst Pedersen has featured in central midfield even though Petrovic was signed for that area. Kean has spoken about signing a goal-scoring striker in January even though he signed 3 strikers in the summer window.
Overall, there has been a poor handling of transfers in and out of the club. Who has signed these players is a valid question. If it has been the manager, then that’s another nail in his performance as manager. If it has not been the manager who has signed them, then that creates a whole array of different questions.
At the end of the day, managers are judged on results. Whether the supporters like him or not, if they win, everyone is happy, unless you are Brazil and then winning isn’t everything. Steve Kean’s league record as Blackburn Rovers manager reads played 37, won 7, drawn 11 and lost 19 matches. He is one short of a 38 game Premier Leaague season, but currently stands at 32 points during those 37 matches and has 0.86 points per game. Even if he picks up a win in his next game, 35 points is a very low total that would result in relegation during most seasons. His record this season is even worse, as a stand-alone one. He has picked up only 0.62 points per game, winning only 19.6% of points available.
Kean’s 2011/12 record is even more striking when put across some of the worst managers to lead teams in the Premier League, including a man who many considered the worst manager they had ever seen at Rovers, Paul Ince. Ince was in charge for 17 matches, ironically, and led his side to 3 wins, 4 draws, 10 defeats with a total of 13 points, giving him 25.5% of points on offer.
The worst managerial record, in terms of percentage of points won against matches managed, in Premier League history falls to Portsmouth’s Tony Adams who had 15 games in charge. He won twice, drew 4 times and lost 9 times, giving him 22.2% of the points on offer, still a higher than Kean has managed this season. Even Avram Grant, relegated twice, with Portsmouth and West Ham, has a better record. He has managed a Premier League side 63 times, won 12 times, drawn 18 and lost 33 times, giving him 28.6% of the points on offer. Those facts ultimately mean that Steve Kean’s stewardship this season makes him the worst manager in Premier League history. Overall, even when coupled with his poor record last season, he is still among the worst managers that have ever led a team at this level.
The half-time team talk is one of the cornerstones of a manager’s role. Endless games are won from losing positions. Endless games are lost from winning ones and a lot hinges on those 15 minutes which a manager has with his players. During Steve Kean’s 37 Premier League ties, the following holds true. In the 2010/11 season, if matches ended at the end of the first half, Rovers would have had 5 wins, 12 draws and only 3 defeats under Kean. They would’ve had 27 points instead of only 22. However, what is more striking is if one only looks at the second half scores, Rovers would’ve had 1 win, 6 draws and 11 losses. Overall, Rovers won only 2 points from losing positions and lost 9 points from winning ones.
In the current campaign, if only first half scores were taken into account, Rovers would’ve had 3 wins, 8 draws and only 3 losses giving them 17 points. If second half scores only stood, then Rovers would’ve had 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats, giving them 12 points. In either scenario, Rovers would have been better off than now. The side has won 5 points from losing positions and lost 10 from winning positions.
What does this all mean? Effectively, when it comes to pitting wits against other managers, Kean almost always comes out the loser. A lot also goes back to his inflexible tactics and the lack of changing things as a reaction to what the other side does. Maybe he simply does not know what to do. At the same time, a key element of Rovers season has been dropping back deeper and deeper in second halves especially if in a non-losing position. As that happens, Kean stands motionless on the sideline, seemingly giving his blessing to a suicidal move, which has cost Rovers at least 10 points (statistically).
Press Conferences & Attitude
Some of the press has recently picked up on the fact that Bolton’s Owen Coyle is currently going through form which is even worse than Steve Kean’s Rovers. They’ve begun to wonder why Kean has been getting the bulk of the criticism lately whilst Coyle has been safe, at least in the papers. Coyle hasnt talked a big game during his time at Bolton. He has been humble, kept his head low and taken the criticism on the chin. In fact, he recently said that fans have the right to boo their performances and took responsibility for their predicament, as any manager would and should.
Steve Kean, on the other hand, has only tried to keep one friend during his time as Rovers manager, and that is the Chairwoman, Mrs. Desai. It has kept Kean his job for this long, but its a losing battle for him. He has not tried to be diplomatic with the fans at any time. He has never tried to be realistic with his targets, promising Champions League football within a couple of seasons, European football in the near future, and top 10 football when at the bottom of the table. These assertions infuriate supporters who are watching the side on a weekly basis and can see what the side is capable of and what it is not.
The general media does not follow events at Rovers too closely and is mostly arm-chair followers who comment from time to time, hence some criticism of the fans for being fickle as well as a “good manager does not become a bad one overnight”, famously quipped by Rovers legend, Alan Shearer. The stats disagree with the ludicrous assertion that Kean was ever a good manager.
A manager manages the resources at his disposal and that includes creating a harmonious atmosphere at the stadium, bringing in the right players and ultimately getting the right results. Kean most recently in the aftermath of the West Brom defeat said that “the table will look better if we beat Bolton”. In reality, it will not. Rovers will still be in the relegation zone even if they are closer to getting out, they will be no closer to moving towards the “top 10″ fantasy which Kean has been selling to the owners for a long time. His infamous “only 1% of fans are against me” comment also served to add tension to an already heated situation.
Had Kean taken an approach like Owen Coyle has done off the pitch, chances are Rovers fans would have received him better, although the circumstances over his hiring would have always had a dark cloud over him and this marriage may have been doomed from the start. Nevertheless, if Kean had gotten the results, none of the other things would have mattered and ultimately putting all subjectivity aside, results are what matters and Kean has failed miserably.
What Happens Next?
A majority of Rovers fans have prepared themselves for relegation and financial meltdown as a consequence. The running of the club in terms of the financial side currently has major questions marks over it and that is worrying. But as long as Rovers are in the top flight, then supporters would be able to hope for better days on the financial and management fronts.
Blackburn Rovers end the calendar year with two tough away matches at Liverpool and Manchester United. Money will be on the home sides during those games. That leaves a do or die match at home to struggling Bolton. Anything less than a win would make it impossible for anyone to save the club, considering that Rovers would have to play 6 matches against the “Big 6″ during their last 19 games. That would leave 13 matches of which Rovers would need to win at least 9 of them to survive. That is Champions League form. Win against Bolton and things do not change that much but at least there is more realism to the scenario.
At either rate, Steve Kean should have been already sacked. No logical reason points towards his long stay at the club. There is nothing that supports anything that he is doing is leading the club towards any light. Win, lose or draw against Bolton and Kean has to go. Venkys already take the blame for hiring such an incompetent manager in the first place, but they may somehow buy some reprieve if they choose the right man to succeed him. They must look at facts and not hire a man without the right experience, or winning track record. Football is a simple game. Stats and facts usually don’t lie. Upturn in fortune does not happen baselessly. Kean’s delusion may lead him to actually believe that he feels that “we will go on a long unbeaten run any game now” but there is nothing to even suggest that Rovers will win back to back games let alone go unbeaten.
Note: Only managers with at least 15 matches managed at Premier League levels throughout their career were considered for the statistics provided above