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Europe’s Toughest League : Is Mourinho Right About the Premier League?

February 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Jose-Mourinho

Jose Mourinho is known for stirring the pot during interviews and press conferences. He has gone on record on numerous occasions to state that the Premier League is the toughest league in Europe. His argument is that there are more teams that compete to win the title than in the other major leagues. He has also emphasized that on any given day any side from the bottom of the league can beat one from the top and that is what makes the league the most exciting. In fact, that’s the theme of major marketing used by most of the major television networks that broadcast Premier League football. Mourinho’s statements seemed convenient last season during a difficult period when Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, whilst being held to a draw against Norwich. His assertions are usually acknowledged as fact by the mainstream press and audience and never really put under the microscope for analysis.

We will undertake analysis, which will compare how the top 5 sides in the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, arguably the 3 strongest leagues in Europe today, have fared against the bottom 5 in their respective leagues since the 2012/13 season. We will then go on to analyze the race for the Champions League in the respective leagues and the gap in points between the title winners and the final Champions League qualifier (4th placed side), during the past 5 seasons. We will also analyze the number of different sides that have won the aforementioned leagues and qualified for the Champions League over the last decade. This would illustrate how open the race for the “top 4” has been in reality. Finally, we will analyze the points per game averages over final league position for the 2013/14 season in all three leagues. Through this four-pronged exercise we will aim to either solidify Mourinho’s claims or debunk the theory that had been put forward. Let’s not forget that we are not attempting to prove which league is the “strongest” but rather the toughest for the bigger sides, because the former does not directly reflect the league’s standing but rather the strength of individual sides who may have extraordinary prowess above the league capability.

The Top 5 vs The Bottom 5

Premier League

PL Top vs Bottom

Looking at the Premier League’s top five’s results against their counterparts from the bottom of the table, one will notice that since the 2012/13 campaign the win percentage for the top 5 has dropped from 78% to 74% and currently stands at 72.5% for the current campaign. Matches against the bottom 5 are arguably becoming a little bit tougher for the top sides if the figures above are an indication. However, it is important to note that in terms of getting results (wins or draws) the ratio has improved from 90% in the 2012/13 campaign, to 96% the next season and currently stands at 94% (illustrating that the top 5 lose only 6% of their matches against the bottom 5). Interestingly, the Champions League sides (top 4) have an even more impressive win percentage since 2012/13 (77%), not losing in 93.4% of their matches against the bottom 5.

La Liga

La Liga Top vs Bottom

Whilst La Liga’s top sides have a significant winning record against the bottom sides, the slope is quite different to that of the PL. In 2012/13, they had a 70% winning percentage and followed this up with 76% in the subsequent season. During the on-going campaign this winning percentage currently stands at a staggering 87%. Games against the bottom 5 are moving more and more in the direction of the top 5. In terms of not losing, the top 5 stayed unbeaten in 96% of their games in 2012/13, 94% in 2013/14 and currently hold a 97% non-losing percentage against the bottom 5. The Champions League sides hold a 78% winning percentage against the bottom 5, not losing 95% of their matches against them.

Bundesliga

Bundesliga Top vs Bottom

In the Bundesliga, during the 2012/13 season, the top 5 had a 78% winning percentage, and followed that up with a 70% winning percentage in the 2013/14 season. In the ongoing campaign, the winning percentage stands at 72.4%. This illustrates that the bottom sides are proving to be more formidable opponents for the top 5 than they were a few seasons ago. In terms of not losing against the bottom 5 then the percentages stood at 90% in 2012/13, 88% in 2013/14 and 86% during the current campaign. The Bundesliga proves to be the only league where the bottom 5 get results against the top 5 on more than 10% of the times they face each other. Overall the top 5 “only” have an 89% unbeaten record against the bottom 5 (losing 11% of their match-ups).

The Top 2 vs Bottom 5 Sides in All 3 Leagues

It is widely accepted that there have arguably been at least 2 major challengers for the title during the last 3 campaigns within the leagues in question. This may have changed slightly in the Bundesliga over the last few months as Dortmund have fallen by the wayside. In La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona had dominated until Atletico won the title last season. Currently, the three sides have won all 18 matches against the bottom 5 this season and have created a pyramid structure at the top of the table. In the Premier League, Chelsea and Manchester City have been the two major challengers over the last few seasons although Manchester United did win the title in 2012/13. The records in question are exhibited below.

Top 2 vs Bottom 5

The Race for the Champions League

Number of Champions League Qualifiers

Looking at the numbers above it is clear that one side has largely dominated each of the three major leagues over the past decade. A form of cartel has formed at the top of the leagues and in the cases of the Premier League and La Liga only 3 sides have won the trophy during the period in question. Whilst the Bundesliga was a little bit more inviting at the top of the pyramid, it has begun to solidify only two viable candidates for the title over the last few years too.

However, more interestingly, the race for Champions League spots is worth inspecting. In that case, the Premier League is the most “closed” of the leagues with only 7 different sides qualifying for Europe’s elite competition during the past 10 years. The Bundesliga has had 8 different sides qualify and that’s despite having only 3 spots a season until the 2011/12 season. La Liga remains the most open in terms of Champions League qualification as illustrated by the fact that 12 different sides have qualified for the tournament despite the undoubted dominance of two clubs at the top of the table. One must remember that TV and sponsorship packages are relatively balanced in Spain as long as one ignores the big two. In Germany, there’s also a more conservative financial spread between clubs. In the Premier League, however, there’s, arguably, a wider gap between 5-6 clubs and the rest of the league making it extremely difficult to break into the top 4.

Analyzing the Points Gap in CL Race

During the past 5 seasons, the gap between the Bundesliga winners and the lowest placed Champions League qualifier has been getting wider. However, it is also clear that the race for the final Champions League spot has largely been open and headed to the last couple of games of the season at the very least. This season, Augsburg, for instance, is aspiring to qualify for the CL. Wolfsburg will also be looking to return to the competition after a few years absence. Dortmund finds itself languishing well outside the qualification spots and is almost certainly going to miss out on next season’s edition unless it wins the trophy in May.

Bundesliga Analysis

The data on La Liga confirms that Barcelona and Real Madrid were in a league of their own over recent years until Atletico Madrid broke their stranglehold. Last season’s race was the closest in terms of 1st – 4th spot that it has been in a long time, no doubt aided by Atletico’s introduction into the equation.

La Liga Analysis

The Premier League provides interesting figures for analysis. It is probably the closest in terms of a group of 4 or 5 or so sides compared to the other leagues. In fact, only 7 points separated the top 4 last season. This is a record low and even betters the Bundesliga’s 9 points for 3 three sides during the 2009/10 season. Furthermore, one deduces that in the Premier League, the dominance is more in terms of Champions League than just the title, unlike the other leagues. A pack of sides have cemented their positions towards the top of the table. Even if there is a hierarchy within the sides in question, there is certainly an even wider gap with the rest of the league, who arguably have the priority of staving off relegation.

PL Analysis

Points Per Game / Final League Positions for the 2013/14 Season

The Vertical Axis represents an average of points per game for the 2013/14 whilst the horizontal axis represents a club's final position

The Vertical Axis represents an average of points per game for the 2013/14 whilst the horizontal axis represents a club’s final position

Some of the observations that are made above include a significant “break” occurring in the Premier League after 7th position. This is signified by a larger than 10% distance between any two adjacent sides in terms of points per game. This cements the thesis that the Premier League is divided into two sub-leagues, one that runs down to 7th spot and the rest which goes down from 8th all the way to the bottom spot.

Secondly, La Liga has the least sides averaging less than 1 point per game (2). The Premier League had 5 sides under the average whilst the Bundesliga had 4. Only two sides succeeded in crossing 2 PPG in the Bundesliga but it has the highest number of sides averaging over 1.5 PPG (8). This illustrates a strong top half but a relatively weaker bottom one, similar to the Premier League in many ways. La Liga has the tightest bottom half between the three leagues with only 13 points dividing 8th spot until 19th. The league averages in terms of PPG are 1.397 (PL) with 8 sides averaging above that figure, 1.395 (Bundesliga) where 8 sides (out of 18) sit above that average and 1.387 (La Liga) where only 7 sides sit above the average.

Points per game tables

Conclusions

Firstly, when it comes to analyzing results between the top 5 and bottom 5 in the 3 leagues it becomes clear that the Bundesliga is the “tougher” league. The bottom 5 are more often than ever getting results against the teams in the race for the Champions League. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that Bayern Munich, the reigning champions and arguably the best club in Europe currently, have a 25 win, 1 draw and no loss record against the bottom five since 2012/13. Real Madrid is the only other side in the study that has not lost to any side in the bottom 5. They have a 22/4/0 record. In La Liga, the top sides are winning more now than they had been in 2012/13. In the Premier League, though, the top 5 are winning less than in 2012/13 but the occasions on which they lose to sides in the bottom 5 are now lower than ever. Draws are the new wins for sides near the bottom of the table in the PL.

Matches within which the Champions League sides have played against sides in bottom 5

Matches within which the Champions League sides have played against sides in bottom 5

Secondly, in the race for the Champions League spots, the Premier League proves to be a closed shop, so to speak. Fewer sides have experienced CL football from the PL than within any of the other two leagues. La Liga is the most open as 4th spot seems to be open season with a number of teams historically capable of finishing there. Whether this trend continues, with clubs like Valencia and Villareal back on financial track after a few years of turmoil, is yet to be seen.

From the perspective of CL qualification, La Liga is far more open than either of the other two leagues due to the strength and proximity of most of the sides from 4th all the way down towards the bottom. This, though, also means that in terms of a genuine title challenge it is unlikely than anyone outside the top 3 has a chance. But is it any different in the other leagues? As competitive as the PL is in the top 4, only 3 sides have won the trophy over the last decade and only 5 since its inception in 1992/93.

The Bundesliga is where the bottom 5 fare the best against sides in the top 5. This is largely precipitated by the fact that outside Bayern Munich and Dortmund (at least until this season), a number of sides were in genuine contention of CL football in recent seasons. Its the only league in which the top 5 are unbeaten in under 90% of their games against their counterparts from the bottom of the table.

Throughout the article, different tools have been utilized in the hope of unanimously confirming which of the major leagues is the “toughest”. However, it is our assessment that the only way to conclusively answer that question is to take a point of view relative. From the perspective of the top 5 then the Premier League is probably the most closed league when it comes to how the top of the table is laid out. This is cemented by evidence including the fact that far less sides have qualified for the CL from the PL than either of the other two leagues. Furthermore, it is now rarer than ever for a side in the bottom 5 to beat one in the top 5 of the PL and Mourinho’s assertions are probably undermined through this. Any results to the contrary usually bore out of the under-performance of the top sides. One must remember that PL sides have failed to dominate in European football over recent seasons, unlike La Liga sides or even the top German Bundesliga sides. Whilst Mourinho’s argument includes stating that sides in Spain know that they will lose to Barcelona or Real Madrid and therefore don’t put up enough of a fight at times might be valid to a degree, it is no indication of the weakness of the bottom sides as much as it is of the strength of those sides. The terrain is not far more different in the Premier League as our findings have illustrated.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Season Preview 2013/14

August 16, 2013 1 comment

Higuain

As another pre-season draws to a close, Europe’s major leagues are on the brink of relaunching again. France and Germany have kicked off already. England, Italy and Spain will do so shortly. The summer saw inflated transfer-fees and arguably as little value for money in the transfer market as one can remember. A number of major players changed leagues too. Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, and Gonzalo Higuain led the La Liga exodus. The Spanish league was arguably the biggest loser when it came to talent. It also lost Jose Mourinho and Marcelo Pellegrini to the Premier League. The Premier League saw an influx of talent from all over Europe. They included some of the above names as well as Fernandinho, Bony, Guy Medel, and Andre Schurrle. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, what can one expect from the season ahead?

Premier League

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Summary

The Premier League is the big winner of the summer transfer window on many levels. Its gained a couple of household names in the managerial merry-go-around. Its also seen an influx of talent from abroad. The biggest loss will be that of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Manchester United’s loss could be the Premier League’s gain (in a competition way). Its thrown the title race wide open. The margins between the top sides are as close as ever. Three sides go into the season with little between them (Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United). Tottenham will have title aspirations if they keep hold of Gareth Bale. Arsenal, well the less said about their summer activity the better. Its hard to see how they can strengthen the side now although buying Julio Cesar would be a start even with his high wages. Arsenal has missed out on many players that would have improved their side. The list is endless and could include Medel who joined Cardiff City recently. This illustrates that Arsene Wenger has not only lost players to rivals but to sides that are below Arsenal in the reputation table. Liverpool will be aiming to break into the top four and keeping Luis Suarez away from Arsenal makes sense on many levels as that would be the side they would be challenging for that spot.

Champion – Chelsea
Rest of Top 4 – Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs
Bottom 3 – Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Swansea to finish in top 6 / Southampton to finish in top 8
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Bony

La Liga

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

Summary

If one had to sum up what has gone on in Spain this summer, then it would be simple. The top 2 arguably got stronger whilst the rest of the pack fell further away. Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid each lost some of their best players and in some cases more than one. Did they replace them adequately? Not likely. What this means is that you can expect Barcelona and Real Madrid to be approximately 30 points away from the rest of the pack but it also means that one should keep an eye on the battle for the rest of the Champions League and Europa League spots. The summer’s biggest saga involves Barcelona’s pursuit of a center back. As the transfer window draws to a close it remains to be seen who they draft into the squad in a position that has hampered them over the past 2 seasons.

Champion – Real Madrid
Rest of the Top 4 – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic
Bottom 3 – Elche, Almeria, Valladolid
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Sevilla in bottom 6
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Morata

Bundesliga

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Summary

The biggest action was off-the-field this summer in Germany. Bayern Munich replaced treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. When it was announced some critics argued that the Spaniard took the easy way out by choosing a side that’s already on top, making it “easier” to add trophies to his already impressive haul. However, as the season started, signs suggested that it would not be as clear sailing as they had thought. Firstly, Guardiola has tried to stamp his authority on the team’s tactics as one would have expected. He has experimented with Lahm in midfield and going with a 4-1-4-1 which has seen Muller play as the main striker more than Croat Mandzukic. At the same time some question marks have been raised about his preference of Thiago in the hole which means that main-stay Schweinsteiger may not be an automatic choice. Whilst its still early days, there are sure to be some fireworks around the side that worked hard to lose the label of FC Hollywood in recent years. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp has arguably strengthened his side far more than one could have imagined. Having lost Mario Gotze, Dortmund fought tooth and nail to resist the sale of Pole Lewandowski, instead choosing to lose him on a free transfer next summer. They brought in Sokratis to add cover in defence with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the more advanced roles. The latter scored a hat-trick on his debut and adds immense pace to the Dortmund attack. Mkhitaryan is not only a goal threat but is considered one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming players.

Champion – Dortmund
Rest of the Top 4 – Bayern Munich, Schalke, Leverkusen
Bottom 3 – Braunschweig, Augsburg, Frankfurt
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Hamburg to break into top 6 finally
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Max Kruse & Son

Serie A

Summary

Juventus finally brought in the striker they had been aiming for the past couple of seasons. In fact, they purchased two this summer. Fernando Llorente and Carlos Teves. On paper they have all the credentials to form a lethal partnership but the team has not gelled as quickly as one would have expected in pre-season. Question marks already hang over Llorente’s long-term future at the club. As a new season begins, a lot of pundits are tying Juve’s chances with Andrea Pirlo’s form and ability at the winter stage of his career. That is also what Milan fans are being driven by. They expect Pirlo to wane sooner rather than later and allow their side to close the gap. The most interesting project seems to be the one at Napoli. Rafa Benitez has a winning track record however tactically it will be a lot of work to get things smoothed out quickly as Napoli aim to successfully convert a back 3 to a back 4. Question marks exist over Maggio and Zuniga’s ability to slot into full back positions. However, the most exciting signing of the summer is at the other end for Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is Europe’s most lethal finisher and he will help the Naples faithful forget the name of Edinson Cavani sooner rather than later. If Benitez is successful expect Napoli to push Juventus as close as they have been pushed in recent years. Inter Milan continue their rebuilding phase under Walter Mazzarri. It remains to be seen whether they can get back into the Champions League positions this summer, as the top 3 are likely to remain the same top 3 of the past season.

Champion – Milan
Rest of the Top 3 – Juventus, Napoli
Bottom 3 – Sassuolo, Verona, Chievo
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Fiorentina
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Martens

Defending Your League Title: Analyzing Failure

April 18, 2013 2 comments

Dortmund Hungry

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)

Rovers Title

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.

Rovers Fail

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.

Depor Fail

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.

Roma Fail

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.

Dortmund Fail

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)

Giroud

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.

Montpellier Fail

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.

Man City Fail

Those Who Succeeded in Defending their Title

Chelsea (Defended their Premier League Title in 2005/6)

Arsenal v Chelsea

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).

Chelsea Success

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.

Dortmund Success

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.

Juve Success

Common Themes

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.

Who is Europe’s Deadliest Finisher?

January 17, 2013 1 comment

Falcao

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi continues to break goal-scoring records by the match. His performances have meant that soon enough there will only be his own records to better rather than that of his predecessors. If it wasn’t for the Argentine, Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring heroics would have had a more long-term place in the record books. At the same time, both Rademel Falcao and Robin van Persie are virtually scoring at a rate of 2 goals every 3 games. There had been a time when scoring 1 goal every 2 games was considered the target for top strikers all over Europe. However, during the past two seasons, the four aforementioned individuals have really raised the bar when it comes to goal scoring. As silly as this may sound, is that group of four simply the most clinical finishers in football? One would be hard-pressed to bite his lip and take a step back and analyze things closely before answering that.

Methodology

Whilst goals are the single most important measure of a striker’s ability, is it really fair to compare players playing at different clubs, receiving different levels of service and taking a varying amount of shots on goal? In order to fairly assess a striker’s “deadliness” in front of goal, we will take into account two factors. Firstly, we will assess how often the said player has shots on target in respect to the total number of shots he takes. This will reflect their accuracy. Subsequently, we will assess the ratio with which the said player converts the shots on target into goals. Combining the two variables and weighing them according to their importance will provide us with a figure which would reflect their conversion in front of goal. In order retain a level of integrity we will compare strikers across the top four rated leagues in Europe and examine statistics from the 2011/12 season as well as the on-going 2012/13 campaign. We will only consider players who have scored a minimum of 15 league goals during the period in question.

Bear in mind that assessing the difficulty of shooting opportunities no doubt plays a role but due to the intricacy involved and the lack of available data in the public domain, it has not been considered within the methodology of this study. Similarly, one school of thought may suggest that taking into account the amount of time a player’s team is in the opposition’s final third should play an indirect role at the very least. If a player’s side is taking the game to the opposition consistently then the player would be more prepped for taking his chances. However, if the team sits back and hits on the counter then the player’s anticipation and concentration levels must be at a higher than usual level and must be taken into account. This resembles the argument that goalkeeper’s, playing at top clubs, who face one or two opportunities a game must sometimes be heralded as even “better” than a keeper in the thick of the action, due to their higher concentration and motivation levels. But as there is no general consensus on agreeing upon or quantifying this element, it also has been left out, despite having been applied during the research stage of the study. Furthermore, failing to score a certain number of goals at this stage of the current season would count against the culprit, whilst hitting a certain number of shots on target would not go un-noticed.

Ultimately one always wonders how a player would fare had he been receiving the sort of service he would be getting at “insert top of the table club”. The goal of this exercise is to attempt to create a more level playing field when it comes to comparing the finishing ability of players wherever they may be playing.

Bundesliga

The Bundesliga has emerged as one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. An excellent ownership structure, financially sound clubs, rising attendances, consistent success on the pitch as illustrated through its gaining of an additional Champions League spot and some of the best young players in all of Europe are just some of the reasons why. Add to that Pep Guardiola’s decision to take over Bayern Munich next season and its easy to see why the spotlight is firmly on the league.

Two of the top finishers in the Bundesliga side-by-side, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez

Two of the top finishers in the Bundesliga side-by-side, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez

Mario Gomez fulfilled the criteria of the research the best and found himself at the top of the list of clinical finishers in the league over the past 18 months, although his lack of game time this season did count against him on the overall scale of things. In fact, Gomez had the best shots on target ratio between all the players analyzed in all 4 leagues, keeping 59% of his shots on target. His conversion ratio was also impressive, scoring 47% of the time once he had kept the shot on target. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came second in the Bundesliga, keeping 50% of his shots on target, whilst going on to convert 49% of those chances into goals. However, he has under-performed this season and this counted against him in the final standings. Vedad Ibisevic rounded up the top 3, with Leverkusen’s consistent striker Stefan Keissling coming a close fourth and Robert Lewandowski fifth in the rankings. If the study was simply based upon goals scored then Huntelaar would have finished first, with Lewandowski, and Gomez in second and third place.

Bundesliga Rankings

Serie A

Inter Milan's Diego Milito leads the way in Serie A

Inter Milan’s Diego Milito leads the way in Serie A

In Italy, the man that stood out was Inter Milan’s Argentine striker Diego Milito. He has found a new lease of life during the past 18 months and converted an outstanding 56% of his shots on target into goals. In simple terms, as long as Milito keeps the shot on target then more likely than not he will score. He is 1 of only 2 players in Europe to have that sort of record. Edinson Cavani came in second overall with 46% of his shots on target and 48% of those shots on target converted. Miroslav Klose finished third, converting 49% of his shots on target into goals. Udinese stalwart, Antonio “Toto” Di Natale suprisingly finished a lowly seventh, despite scoring 37 goals during the past 18 months. This was largely due to the fact that he converts a lowly 34% of his on-target shots into goals.

Serie A Rankings

Premier League

Manchester United's Javier Hernandez has an impressive finishing ratio

Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez has an impressive finishing ratio

In England, only three of the final nominees break the 50% barrier when it comes to keeping shots on target and they are led by a Manchester United goal-scoring hero. Surprisingly, it is not the United striker you are thinking about. It isn’t even the second United striker that you’re thinking of. It’s Mexican super-sub Javier Hernandez. Chicharito keeps 52% of his shots on target and subsequently goes on to convert 46% of them. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is the most impressive midfielder in between all the players assessed within any of the leagues. He converts 49% of the chances that he has kept on target. Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher and Swansea’s Spanish talisman Michu fall into the next slots just ahead of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko who edges in ahead of van Persie, largely due to the fact that he converts a slightly higher percentage of his shots on target into goals. You might be surprised that players like Chelsea’s newly signed Senegalese striker, Dembe Ba, do not possess as good a conversion rate as you would have thought. Ba only converts 35% of his shots on target into goals, a similar figure to England’s Wayne Rooney, although that is still ahead of Fernando Torres who converts only 28% of his shots on target. The Spaniard has the lowest conversion rate between all the players assessed and that reflects some of his tame finishing even when the shots are on target and “test” the opposition goalkeeper.

Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge needs to work on his finishing if others are to accept his own belief that he's a central striker

Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge needs to work on his finishing if others are to accept his own belief that he’s a central striker

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez fares even worse than Torres on the overall scheme of things as he only keeps 36% of his shots on target, going on to convert 31% of those into goals. Other players who don’t make the list partly because they failed to hit 15 goals during the period include two English strikers, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck keeps 41% of his shots on target but only converts 23% of those into goals. Sturridge, who considers himself a center forward keeps 36% of his shots on target and goes on to convert 34% of those opportunities into actual goals.

Premier League Rankings

La Liga

Leo Messi maintains an incredible accuracy and conversion ratio despite taking over 300 shots

Leo Messi maintains an incredible accuracy and conversion ratio despite taking over 300 shots

Last but not least, Spain’s La Liga is home to Europe’s most clinical striker and needless to say he’s Argentine. Chances are 95% of you just named the wrong player. Lionel Messi only comes in second in La Liga’s rankings well behind his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Real Madrid’s Higuain is one of only two players in all of Europe who convert into goals more than 50% of the shots they had kept on target. The other, of course, was listed earlier and was Inter’s Diego Milito. Higuain betters Milito’s conversion rate as he scores an incredible 59% of shots that have been kept on target. Lionel Messi comes in second, keeping 56% of his shots on target. What makes that rate even more impressive is the fact that he’s taken over 300 shots in compiling that percentage. His conversion ratio stands at 46% which is still among the highest in Europe, and considering the range of shots he takes might be a little undervalued. Roberto Soldado and Falcao follow in the next two spots. Both have proven to be consistent goal scorers in recent years wherever they have played. Soldado converts 47% of his shots on target into goals, a rate better than four-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo does feature on the list however his numbers are not as impressive as one may have thought. He keeps 44% of his shots on target, no doubt hindered by the fact that he takes so many long range shots. He goes on to convert 35% of his shots on target into goals, possibly slightly hindered by the previous fact again. In terms of midfielders, Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas has impressive numbers. He keeps 56% of his shots on target, and goes on to convert 38% of them into goals.

La Liga Rankings

The Results

Now comes the interesting part where all the numbers are crunched into the formula in order to produce the results. As stated earlier, each factor is giving a weighing variable, and there are points to be gained and lost for the number of shots taken as well as failure to hit certain targets in the current season in order to provide as much balance as possible.

The Top 35

1 till 14

Gonzalo Higuain is by far the most clinical finisher in Europe's top 4 leagues

Gonzalo Higuain is by far the most clinical finisher in Europe’s top 4 leagues

15 till 28

29 till 35

As evident above, Gonzalo Higuain is the undisputed king when it comes to being clinical, finishing on 90 points (from 100). What is telling is that 3 of the top 4 are Argentines, firmly giving the national side a potency that makes them among the favorites to lift the upcoming World Cup in Brazil next year. Mario Gomez (79 points) splits Milito (82) and Messi (78). Although it must be said as the season goes on if Gomez fails to recover from injury he will undoubtedly lose his spot to Messi, even if the Argentine continues at exactly the same ratio as he’s performing.

Whilst the analysis takes into account the factors illustrated above, it has laid the groundwork for more intense research in the future. It is recommended to weigh the difficulty of the type of shots each player has taken.

A special thanks to for his mathematical and football insight.

The Big Brother’s Little Sister: What UEFA needs to do with the Europa League

November 21, 2012 10 comments

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”

Barcelona, here represented by Jose Mourinho, the late Sir Bobby Robson and Ronaldo celebrate winning one of the predecessors of the current Europa League, the prestigious Cup Winner’s Cup in 1997

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.

It’s time for UEFA to take steps before the Europa League is firmly left behind for good

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.

UEFA President Michel Platini must offer a little more substance and a little less talk in re-igniting interest and importance in the Europa 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.

Welcome to Arsene’s School of Poker

August 20, 2012 2 comments

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.

Two former club captains, Vieira and Henry, would leave the club in back-to-back seasons

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.

Kolo Toure and Emanuel Adebayor took the opportunity to run towards Manchester City’s newly found riches signalling a shift in Arsenal’s domestic transfer policy

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.

Arsene Wenger had to look within himself and re-assess the principles behind his “Third Project” during the 2011/12 season

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?

Conclusions

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.

Three Arsenal signings from the 2012/13 off-season (Cazorla/Giroud/Podolski) (From the Official Arsenal Website)

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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Euro 2012 Preview: Glimpsing Into the Future

June 7, 2012 6 comments

As we look back over the past 3 weeks worth of Euro 2012 action, in a tournament where the 4-2-3-1 and variations of it dominated the tactical approach, one has to highlight some of the players and teams that deserve to be recognized and name those who fell from the limelight. The Poland/Ukraine event was one of the first major summer football tournaments to play out under the backdrop of strong social media coverage, as supporters and fans never felt closer to the action, even if they were on the other side of the world.

European fans flocked into Poland/Ukraine for the 3 week tournament

The tournament started on June 8 when one of the hosts, Poland, took on Euro 2004 winners Greece. During that year, the Greeks beat hosts Portugal in the opening game. This time around they would not be as lucky or as dominant as Borussia Dortmund’s three Polish players, Robert Lewandowski, Lucas Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski starred in a 2-1 victory. The former scored the opening goal whilst Błaszczykowski scored the winner after the Greeks had equalized in the second half. It would turn out that the opening victory would be invaluable for the hosts as they would go into their final game against Czech Republic needing a win after being tied with the Russians on 4 points. Both sides would go on to progress into the Quarter Finals with the Russians, and the ever impressive Roman Shirokov, beating the Greeks 2-0 and finishing as group winners.

The co-hosts, Poland, impressed viewers with their slick football and ensured qualification to the Quarter Finals

In Group B, also known as the “Group of Death”, at least one of 3 traditional power weights would be eliminated. Whilst it was expected that things would go to the wire, the Portuguese national team and their manager Paulo Bento would go into the final group game facing an uphill struggle, which would prove insurmountable. The Germans, surprisingly beaten by the Oranje in their second game, would comfortably qualify with 6 points, but it would not be enough to overhaul the Dutch national side, who powered through with a fresh-looking Ibrahim Afellay tormenting opposition defenders on one wing and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben doing the same on the other. The Barcelona winger, Afellay, could have been on his way out of his club but with the tournament he has had, its unlikely that Tito Vilanova would let him go on the cheap. Bert van Maarwijk was blessed with having a player in the caliber of Rafael van Der Vaart coming off the bench to play in a deep lying play-maker role in the second halves of games, giving the Dutch extra class and control in the middle.

Defending champions Spain would continue to struggle breaking down opponents and scoring goals. They would have to rely on solitary goals to beat Croatia and Italy and would top the group despite being held by Ireland. The much hyped Italy vs Trapattoni duel would be a deciding game in the group but Mario Balotelli and Claudio Marchisio scored goals to give the Italians a 2-1 win and confirm their qualification to the Quarter Finals. The Irish went out despite losing only once. Slaven Bilic bowed out as Croatia manager disappointingly at rock bottom.

Roy Hodgson took a page out of Chelsea’s page in his approach to matches. Whilst this was expected against a rampant France side, during the sides opening match of the group, it was received less well by England supporters, more so than the media, during England’s matches against Ukraine and Sweden. Despite the safety first approach, England bowed out disappointingly scoring just 2 goals in the 3 matches, with Andy Carroll and the controversial John Terry scoring them. Laurent Blanc’s France side were the most impressive side of all in the group stage with Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema starring as they took a clean sweep and topped the group with 9 points. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden proved to be the consistent tournament side as they once again made an impact and finished 2nd to qualify. Zlatan’s deeper play-maker position, similar to a role he has played with Milan during last season, proved to be fruitful for the national side. Ukraine could not match their co-hosts exploits and bowed out at the group stages with their leaky defence proving to give forward players Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Andriy Shevchenko too much work to do.

Roy Hodgson already under pressure after early exit

As the tournament wore on in the Quarter Finals, Jogi Loew’s Germany began to hit levels that they had been expected to reach pre-tournament. Mario Gomez, whose scoring exploits off the bench earlier in the tournament earned him a start ahead of Miroslav Klose against Russia, justified his selection by scoring another goal in a dominant German victory. Shirokov would score again for Russia but this time it would be in vain. In the second Quarter Final, Spain would be pitted against Sweden. Vincente Del Bosque’s side were looking to make it 3-major tournament triumphs in a row, but would find strong opposition from the Swedes, until the game turned on its head when captain and talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic bowed out of international football with a red card. Jordi Alba, impressive at left back and soon to be officially confirmed as a Barcelona player, teed off the vibrant Fernando Torres for the second goal as Spain went on to win 3-1.

In the next Quarter Final, hosts Poland’s fairy tale run would end against the impressive Dutch side led by Robin van Persie’s brace. The 18 year old Jetro Willems continues to impress at left back having been a surprise selection at the time the squads were named in May. Finally, perennial rivals France and Italy would face each other yet again. The marauding right-back Mathieu Debuchy would give two assists as Samir Nasri and Adil Rami scored goals to give France a place in the final 4 and stretch their unbeaten run further.

In the Semi Finals, Germany and Spain would face-off yet again in a major tournament. In what would prove to be the game of the tournament, the Germans would finally emerge victorious through a winner by Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller in extra time. Once again, the Spaniards found it difficult to add width to their game in a match that closely resembled some of Barcelona’s lower points from the previous season. Despite bringing on Pedro and Jesus Navas, Spain failed to overturn a 2-1 deficit late into the game and would not go on and defend their European title. In the other match, France and Holland would face each other for a place in the Final. The French led by the sublime Ribery would prevail 2-1, having been up 2-0 at half time.

July 1st. Olympic Stadium Kiev. The 31st and final match of the last 16-team European Championships. Germany looking to win their first major trophy since 1996 would face France, arguably the most impressive side at Euro 2012. Six months before the tournament started, the French would not have been considered a serious threat whilst the Germans were neck and neck with the Spaniards as favorites. But how time changes it all. Loew’s side wanted to culminate the renaissance of German football, which started with Jurgen Klinsmann, with a major trophy. The French would put up an excellent fight but Ribery, Nasri and Benzema would run out of steam at the final hurdle as Germany would finally win that elusive trophy, after their 2-1 win.

Victorious German manager Loew points at Germany’s first major tournament success since 1996

Team of Euro 2012

Neuer – Debuchy, Badstuber, Rami, Alba – Shirokov, Schweinsteiger, Kroos – Robben, Ribery, Benzema

Notable Mentions

Lloris, Lahm, Marchisio, Błaszczykowski, Afellay, Gomez, Lewandowski

Underachievers

England/Portugal

Did Themselves Proud

Poland/Sweden/Russia

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