The cashless Non-league society and Luiz in Brazil

OK, it was my fault, I didn’t read the small print, AFC Rushden & Diamonds don’t take cash – unless, of course, you buy a programme. Whatever the reason for the club not to take hard currency, they are making a mistake. Non-league football is not big-time football – there were just 387 people at the game with Hitchin, not 38,700. The stewards claimed it was protecting their people, a bizarre statement given the rest of the ground was free and easy and there appeared to be no obvious precautions in place. They may only be losing a dozen or so fans per game as a result, but as a percentage of their average gate, that’s not to be sniffed at. Non-league football needs the casual fan who decides to turn up on the day, or at the very least, needs the facility to accommodate last minute decision-making. Hitchin, by the way, operate a similar system, although to be fair, they did show some flexibility at the recent FA Cup tie with Cheshunt. Non-league isn’t wealthy enough or popular enough to exclude people. On this occasion, I made an error of judgement and did not bring a wallet with cards, just a cash holder, but I truly believe operating cashless non-league football is flawed and not in the spirit of inclusiveness. Presumably, the clubs now pay their players electronically these days rather than little brown envelopes? The game, incidentally, was half decent, Rushden edged it 2-1 with a late header.

Crisis at United – again?

The new season is underway and we’ve already witnessed the start of the game-by-game assessment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After the hysteria over the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, United have now lost three games, a 2-1 setback in Bern in the Champions League, a 1-0 home defeat against West Ham in the Carabao Cup and now a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa. People are now talking about 2021-22 season being make or break for OGS and insist he has to win a trophy. The Norwegian must be tired of the constant examination of his future. United do not have the playing resources to be genuine title contenders and their reliance on a 36 year-old striker is not exactly forward-looking. The Villa defeat was their first of the campaign and the Carabao Cup game saw a much-changed United team take the field. In the Young Boys game, they were reduced to 10 men. United’s season has not taken a turn for the worse, at least not yet. Nevertheless, OGS continues to be two or three games from the sack if you believe the rumours.

Familiar at the top

CIES Football Observatory, who provide some of the most revealing statistics and data in the football world, have published their forecasts for the big five leagues in Europe. The results are far from startling, as one would expect. According to CIES, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan will be champions. In the Premier League, Newcastle, Watford and Norwich will be relegated, and the top four will be unchanged from 2020-21. In Serie A, Juventus will finish sixth, according to CIES, with Napoli coming in second behind Inter.

Flamengo and Luiz dancing to the final

Brazil’s Flamengo won the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final, beating Ecuadorian side Barcelona in the first leg. The second leg is on September 29. If they succeed, they will face fellow Brazilians, Palmeiras or Atlético Mineiro, who drew 0-0 in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This year’s final is on November 27 in Montevideo. The cup tie with Barcelona saw the debut of former Benfica, Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal defender David Luiz, who recently signed a 16-month deal with Flamengo. Luiz had an impressive first game and was roundly applauded throughout the game. Flamengo were delighted to capture the 34 year-old. Their official site trumpeted his arrival: “He’s won all over the world, and now is in a place where our anthem says, ‘win, win, win’. We want to welcome Luiz to Mengao! Our nation is more than ready to see you in the Sacred Mantle!”

The Grey Neutral: Does continuity always bring success?

ASTON Villa may have been beaten by Manchester City this past week but their most fielded 11 players have accounted for 86.9% of their playing minutes this season, the highest figure in European football. Villa have certainly had a stable line-up in 2020-21 and they’ve enjoyed some success, notably their 7-2 victory over Premier League champions Liverpool. They also have the youngest squad in the Premier.

Five other teams in the Premier have used their most used 11 over 80% of the time: Southampton (85.3%), West Ham (84%), Leeds United (81%) and Burnley (80.6%). At the other end, struggling Newcastle United have the lowest figure, 67.6%.

A study by CIES Football Observatory reveals the long-time accepted wisdom that a stable team is a successful one doesn’t always ring true. Paris Saint-Germain, for example, are top of the Ligue 1 table, but they have the lowest percentage (58.1%) in France’s top flight. It all comes down to quality and strength-in-depth. PSG have choices that other clubs in France do not enjoy. Similarly, Red Bull Salzburg and Young Boys Berne are top in Austria and Switzerland but they have low figures, 63.7% and 68.7% respectively. 

Interestingly, Aston Villa’s last league title, in 1980-81, was a great example of consistency and stability in their line-ups. They only used 14 players in the league that season, with six appearing 42 times. In total, their most used 11 accounted for 89% of appearances. Liverpool in 1983-84 used 15 players of which their top 11 appeared 90% of the time, which was nine percentage points higher than Liverpool 2019-20. When Tottenham won the league in 1961, their 11 most-used had 93% of playing time. 

Modern squad sizes suggest it is far more unlikely that a champion club in the 21st century will use the same 11 players virtually every week. Manchester City’s most used 11 players played just 75% of their league games in 2018-19, but Chelsea and Leicester’s figures for their recent title wins were 87.08% and 89.23% respectively.

Across the big four continental European leagues, the league champions in 2019-20 used their squads sparingly. Real Madrid (72.97%), Juventus (71.77%) and Paris Saint-Germain (63.30%) generated quite low percentages, while Bayern Munich came in at 80.21%.

In 2020-21, according to CIES, the statistics are low by past standards: PSG 58.1%, Bayern 73.1%, Juve 67.6% and Real 74.6%. Barcelona, who not enjoying a brilliant season by their standards, are at 70.6%. Something to do with that pandemic?

Inter Minimal

IT’s interesting that Inter Milan are soon to undergo a rebranding and will be known as Inter Milano and a new logo will feature the letters “I” and “M”. Juventus went through a rebrand a couple of years ago, using the “J” as an instantly recognisable corporate identity. It has worked for the Turin club, even though it is quite likely the die-hards and purists, not to mention veteran fans, absolutely hate it. It is easy to see why Juve, and now Inter, are following this path. Italian football lost its cachet a few years back and their top clubs have been overtaken by the leading Premier, Bundesliga and La Liga clubs. The name of the game is global reach and Italian clubs need to appeal to new markets in Asia, the Americas and Africa. Inter, who have been sponsored for some time by Pirelli, are set to change their shirt sponsor to China’s Evergrande. This all comes at a time when there is growing talk of the club being sold to a private equity firm. What should the fans be more worried about – cosmetic changes or the involvement of PE?

The danger of tampering with legacy

IF IT goes very horribly wrong at Stamford Bridge and Frank Lampard is relieved of his job as Chelsea’s manager, it will be another example of a club legend failing to live up to his own high standards and his legacy. If Chelsea sack him, there will be a lot of awkward people around the club. Chelsea have been in this boat before with John Hollins, who was shown the door in the late-1980s after gracing the club’s blue shirt just a few years earlier. It’s a situation that also exists at Manchester United and if Steven Gerrard does end up back at Anfield, they could, one day, have to sack a player who is still idolised by the Anfield faithful. Hiring an old player comes with hazards that include spoiling a reputation, falling out with old pals, and not knowing where to look as an old hero and friend walks out. As I once said to a non-league manager who was appointed at the club where he had played for 20 years and captained the team with honour. “Not sure it’s a great idea… how the hell do we sack you?”.

Photo: PA