You don’t have to spend if you’re champions, but it helps

EARLIER in the summer, Liverpool were receiving some criticism because they had decided not to spend to reinforce their title-winning team. Jürgen Klopp made a public statement about the club not being run by an oligarch or a country and a few people got a little bent out of shape.

Sceptics suggested Klopp was making a subtle attempt to get some cash for new acquisitions. The Reds’ activity in the transfer market since underlines that his well-timed comments worked. Liverpool have since signed a few players and suddenly, their squad looks that little bit deeper.

It doesn’t always pay to throw your tentacles around the market too aggressively when you’ve won the league. For a start, your status adds a premium to the price of any player. But on the other hand, if your squad gets too comfortable, complacency can set in.

New players are needed to add creative tension to the dressing room and ensure there is competition for places. Furthermore, a team can get “found out” and struggle after winning the big prizes.

Already people are wondering if Klopp’s style will endure another season, just as they questioned if Manchester City have been rumbled last year.

Keeping it fresh

Jota, Liverpool’s new signing

From a commercial perspective, a major new signing sells season tickets as well as merchandise. The legendary Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson, liked to sign a big name every year to keep interest in the team bubbling away – players like Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean, Martin Chivers, Martin Peters and Ralph Coates were all signed in the period between 1961 and 1971, each time for around £100,000-plus and all keeping Spurs in the headlines, although they didn’t win the championship.

Today the transfer market is a lot more strategic and scientific, but there’s no denying that a major signing keeps the money rolling in.

If you are the league champion club, you really have to leverage your position at the top of the game in order to lure players your way – everyone wants to be associated with winners.

Liverpool finally swung into action and two of their signings, the excellent Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich and Diogo Jota from Wolves are very impressive acquisitions.

The arrival of these players should remove any doubts about Liverpool sitting back. Their net spend is around £ 65 million since the end of 2019-20, which is actually higher than Manchester City (£ 39 million), Manchester United (£ 35 million) and Arsenal (£16.5 million).

The fact is, the transfer market is now integral to the entertainment of the game and the fans expect their clubs to provide that in the form of a truckload of new signings each year. It is almost as if boredom sets in if a club doesn’t unveil new faces each close season.

The media has also created this sideshow, notably in the days leading up to the end of a transfer window. In the past, transfers were almost incidental and a solution to a problem such as an injury or loss of form of a key individual and maybe one or two new players were brought in. These days, almost half a squad can arrive in the summer window, especially at clubs who are cash rich.

Often a successful team that has been crowned champions signs a big name as a power play and it doesn’t work out as envisaged. A good example of this is Fernando Torres at Chelsea in 2011, signed for £ 50 million. Chelsea were reigning champions at the time, but they finally captured Torres too late, he had peaked, although he did play his part in the club winning the UEFA Champions League in 2012.

Big signings

Go back to 1985 and Everton signed Gary Lineker for over £ 800,000 after he had scored 29 goals for Leicester City in 1984-85. Lineker had a great season for Howard Kendall’s side, netting 38 goals in 56 games, but Everton sold him to Barcelona after that solitary season for £ 2.8 million. Similarly, Tottenham, who won the double in 1960-61, signed an unhappy Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan in December 1961 for £ 99,999 and although he scored 30 goals, Spurs lost their crown as champions. Likewise, Leeds, champions in 1969, pushed the boat out to buy Allan Clarke from Leicester in the summer of 1969 and their new man scored 25 times in 1969-70, but Leeds won nothing, despite being a better side on paper.

Allan Clarke runs out for Leeds, 1970

History has shown that some teams needed to strengthen their squad but a lack of action (or money) meant their side disappointed as they set out to defend their crown – Manchester City in 1969, Arsenal 1971 and Aston Villa in 1982 all could have used some additional talent when they began their follow-up campaign. In the case of Arsenal, they signed Alan Ball halfway through the 1971-72 season, while Villa snapped-up Coventry’s Andy Blair. More recently, Arsenal’s “invincibles” of 2004 only received a £ 1.5 million reinforcement in the form of Emmanuel Eboué. Interestingly, the regular Arsenal title-winning line-up of 2003-04 had an average age of more than 28.

Manchester City, meanwhile, spent £ 285 million in 2017-18, won the title and then paid out just £ 70 million in 2018-19 for new players. When they defended their second successive title, they had a net spend of £ 88 million. There were times when Manchester United, in their pomp, spent very little in the market, but then they had a very successful youth system which provided Sir Alex Ferguson with the core of his team in the mid-1990s. In the post-Ferguson era, United have been less dynamic in the market and have signed a number of players who have not lived up to expectations.

Ferguson liked to shake things up, but also knew the value of continuity, one of the strengths of Liverpool in their 1970s and 1980s heyday. Only one player, Virgil van Dijk, started every Premier League for Liverpool in 2019-20, perhaps emphasising strategic team selection or rotation. When Liverpool won the title in 1965-66, nine players played 40-plus games in the league, while Aston Villa’s 1980-81 team included seven players who played all 42 league fixtures.

Impatience

The pandemic and the lack of time between seasons may meanthere will be less of a frenzy in the transfer window, although it is a game of brinkmanship to a large degree and we can expect poker faces and cunning agents to come to the fore as time runs out. Football is an impatient game and that’s why squads change so much – everyone hopes that mass turnover can change the mediocre into the outstanding, the unlucky into the lucky. There seems little time to nurture a side, which makes a mockery of supposed two or three year plans. How many managers are given the luxury of a three-year build-up?

Making a champion team into a better one is possible with the right signings, but there is a fine balance between enhancement and disruption. It is important to keep a squad fresh, both tactically and in terms of its composition, but how do you improve teams that have averaged over 90 points each over the past three seasons? How do you spend your money wisely?

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

Football behind closed doors is inevitable, but clubs need protection

EXPERIENCE of human nature tells us that panic and knee-jerk reactions are as infectious as the Coronavirus itself, so English football may be heading for “behind closed doors” matches just like Italy’s Serie A. The same fate could await football in Germany, Spain and other countries around Italy. Whether this strategy is effective or not is open to debate, but Italy’s decision will prompt discussions in government departments across the continent. As we have seen with financial markets and supermarkets, once a trend gets started, it spreads like wildfire.

The virus has taken on something of a dystopian angle, but when it affects football and travel, people start to realise the fabric of everyday life is seriously under threat. Given that global trade depends on the free movement of people, goods and services, if borders close and transit is made impossible, the problems will be more far-reaching than the postponement of football fixtures.

However, does it need to be as draconian as closing stadiums and suspending competitions? Football is an essential component of the morale of a nation and its removal from the routine of so many people will have a very negative impact. Even the Roman Empire realised the benefit of entertaining the masses.

Financial crisis

Furthermore, the financial status of a lot of football clubs will come under scrutiny if income suddenly dries up. If the Coronavirus does trigger a worldwide economic downturn, which is overdue, incidentally, then the collapse of trade will make things far worse than most people realise. We have already seen how feral people become as they attempt to clear supermarket shelves, stripping them of toilet rolls and soap, among other things. Restriction on trade will affect food supplies and if that happens, the scramble for extra-soft tissue will pale into insignificance.

There have been ominous signs this season that the bottom end of the football food chain is not in good health. Bury went out of the EFL and Bolton, Macclesfield, Oldham Athletic, Southend and Morecambe have all been in the news over their financial condition. If these clubs are in a parlous state how much will it take to send them over the edge?

Some clubs spend far too much of their income, leaving little margin for error. Southend, for example, paid out £ 5.6 million in wages from a turnover of £ 6.2 million in 2017-18. League Two’s wage-to-income ratio was over 70% in 2018. The Championship is regularly over 100%. The combined revenues of League Two clubs in 2018 was just £ 91 million, a mere fraction of a single club in the upper echelons of the game.

As the crisis gathers momentum, clubs in Leagues One and Two must be having sleepless nights. Wages account for most of a club’s income and there is little scope for manoeuvre if matchday income is suddenly suspended, even if season ticket sales are healthy and therefore, money has been paid up front. But given the size of crowds in the lower leagues, is ground closure really inevitable? Stadium utilisation rates are 57% and 40% respectively in Leagues One and Two. There is room to breathe at most grounds. Why not cut the capacity to allow more space between fans and therefore, limit the risk of infection? In the Premier, the utilisation rate is 97%, so some work would need to be done, but at the same time, it is unlikely the top division will run into difficulty.

Crunch

Aside from these measures, clubs need to start talking to their banks and providers now to anticipate a possible worsening of the environment. The crisis could spark off a credit crunch and also, supply chains will start to clog-up. Negotiation over payment terms may become necessary. Banks don’t like to send a club to the wall, regardless of what fans might think. In the modern business paradigm, reputational risk is as important as credit and counterparty risk, so the negative PR would not be welcomed by any bank CEO.

Clubs may also need to offer discounting for season tickets for next season if the disruption means fans miss out. The Football Association/UEFA/FIFA needs to work together to find solutions for clubs that get into trouble.

This is, for most people, an unprecedented crisis that is rapidly becoming science-fiction in nature. Some things will surely change in our daily lives when the panic subsides. We may not be so keen to be in crowded places and we may better provision for travelling in packed trains and buses. We may no longer shake hands so willingly. Let’s hope the affect of the virus doesn’t bring an end to football crowds – after all, football without fans is nothing.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Photo: PA

 

Why a super league could work if handled properly

NATURALLY,  nobody is happy about the clandestine discussions that may or may not have taken place over the past few months involving certain clubs to create a closed football league comprising the wealthiest names across the top five nations. A “super league” is what they are calling it, but effectively, it is a cartel of the “super rich”, a group driven by greed and entitlement.

That’s what this particular project amounts to, but in some ways, the time may be right to introduce a better competitive balance to European football. This latest proposal, or seed of an idea, is most certainly not the way to achieve that.

It’s an embarrassment for the clubs that have been named as leading the dialogue, why else would the denials have started? “We know nothing about it,” is the message some clubs are releasing, but smoke rarely billows out of the chimney unless there is a fire of some sort.

Spoilt children

At best, this is an attempt to squeeze more money out of UEFA and TV broadcasters. It isn’t the first time the big clubs have threatened mutiny unless they receive a bigger share of the pie, the English Premier League is the result of spoilt children stamping their feet, and this is arguably no different.

There’s an element of naïveté about the behaviour of these clubs, if only they realised it. Although the fans of this self-appointed elite group will support any new venture selling itself as the leading football competition in the world, deep down they will know that for the good of the game, it is destructive. It will also make these clubs extremely unpopular outside their loyal fan bases. It is being described as the death knell for domestic leagues across the continent but it could also force the game’s governance to implode, spelling the end for UEFA and FIFA as credible governing bodies.

Yet the concept of a Super League itself should not be the root cause of a tidal wave of destruction. But the introduction of a “closed league”, something which is almost alien to developed and sophisticated football nations, would remove one of the key elements of football as we have known it for over 100 years. Relegation is painful, especially in this age of inflated TV deals for premier divisions. The big clubs are, effectively, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s dragon, Smaug, laying on a bed of growing revenues. They jealously guard these riches and any structure that is “closed” will allow them to keep hold of their financial advantages.

But football is, if nothing else, a sport that thrives on the prospect of aspiration and “what might happen”, why else would the English structure have 92 clubs, most of which live for a time when they can achieve something remarkable? Take that away and football becomes meaningless, forlorn and sterile. The game has always been a distraction for the working man, an escape from a humdrum existence, perhaps, or simply an opportunity to let off steam. The local “United” may be hopeless, but they once belonged to the man in the shipyard, the Johnny at the coal face and the honest toiler seeking to escape from trouble at the mill. They all gathered on the terrace hoping that one day, the red and white striped local team just might win promotion. It is the very essence of the game, the big dream.

Take away the possibility of a team climbing the divisions, creating romantic stories like Wimbledon, Northampton, Watford and Bournemouth, and you hit at the heart of the game’s reason for being. Creating a closed shop – 20 years, yes 20 years without relegation for the chosen few – is selfish, arrogant and, ultimately self-serving. But it could be so different.

To a certain degree, we have a European Super League and it is called the UEFA Champions League. Just look at the final stages of each campaign and the same names appear with monotonous regularity. There are no romantic stories in the Champions League, it is an elitist competition that is compelling – but only when it reaches the final stages. Group matches merely remove the cannon fodder before the serious stuff takes place.

The main European leagues have become all too predictable and most clubs have no chance of any tangible success. As the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-German become richer and richer, buying players from each other and sending transfer fees higher and higher, the chasm in wealth becomes wider by the year. These clubs are, simply, far too wealthy to really be challenged any more. Fans complain about this new model and purists bemoan the evolution of corporate football, but it is not going to change and it will, if anything, accelerate. This means that in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, the prospects for 90% of clubs is to be cast in the role of a supporting act. While a visit from Real Madrid will bring valuable gate receipts to a smaller club, it is just one game a year (two if you include Barca in this equation). So, the question is, can these leagues expect to prosper long-term if they are, in all but name, already a closed shop or a private thiefdom.

A different way

Game of the People has advocated a change to the structure of European football, perhaps with the introduction of regional leagues to develop more competitiveness to geographies that are dominated by this handful of elite clubs. Take Real and Barca out of La Liga and what do you get? A more democratic league, for sure, perhaps financially poorer, but if clubs felt they could have a real stab at the title and perhaps gain promotion to the European Super League, would that not spark-off greater interest and, as a consequence, lucrative TV money?

But this idea, or any similar concept to recalibrate European football, would need to be the intellectual property of UEFA, not a hedge fund or a group of US or Middle Eastern business people. There have been rumblings and threats for some time and there was undoubtedly a warning when the audaciously-labelled International Champions Cup started to attract seriously big names. This, alone, should have been the catalyst for UEFA to start work on a sustainable plan to take the Champions League a stage further, but also to provision for aspiring clubs to gain entry, not to seal-off the competition for rich clubs wishing to preserve their regal status.

A UEFA-constructed Super League is the natural evolution for clubs accustomed to playing against teams that have become their peers. As we have said before, PSG and Manchester City are not building enormously expensive squads to win their domestic leagues, they are aiming for European domination. PSG do not need to spend as much as they have to win Ligue 1. If the feeling is that the domestic leagues cannot do without PSG or Real, they could easily field a team in both – such are the size of the clubs’ squads, but essentially, a Super League should be seen as an extension of the promotion and relegation system. Hence, it would not be a threat, but an additional element of success.

On no account should the idea revealed by a German magazine be allowed to flourish, but it cannot be ignored or the denials be a signal for the end of the matter – it will resurface. But this is a warning shot to UEFA and FIFA that the world’s most powerful clubs can threaten to take away their appeal, their drawing power and their financial clout from mainland football. It must be tempting to call their bluff, for there are many negatives for the clubs that are championing this cause. Let’s just say that it is in the best interests of the game that its structure is robust at all levels. And surely clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will sleep better if they know they are contributing to the health of the eco-system rather than being the instigators of its destruction? Another thing to consider – what DID happen to Smaug?

Photo: PA