FA Cup final: Kostas stings the Blues

Ultimately, the media got its wish and the narrative was fed just a little more. The double/treble/quadruple (delete as appropriate) is still on, the brilliant white teeth of Jürgen Klopp continue to gleam and the badge keeps getting punched by the tall German.

There was something inevitable about the outcome. Liverpool ooze confidence, have a system built over more than six years, Chelsea’s squad is a bolt-on project, the result of several managers’ influence and a less thoughtful approach in the market. It may rile Chelsea and their fans that they have been down-graded in the trophy-winning stakes – their Champions League success may turn out to have been the last throes of the dice – but the fact is, Liverpool’s self-belief at Wembley seemed a marked contrast to the slightly tetchy, end of the road show of Chelsea.

The tale of two players sums it up. For Chelsea, the performance of Romelu Lukaku, their lethargic £ 97.5 million investment looked like money poorly spent, while the mid-season acquisition of Luis Duiz by Liverpool (a snip at £ 45 million), appears to be one of the season’s bargain buys. In some ways, these two transfers underline the difference between the two clubs, one buying at will, the other purchasing astutely with the system in mind.

Lukaku, like Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, looks poised to become another disappointing big money striker. He looked lethargic, out of touch and slightly clumsy. Christian Pulisic, a more nimble and methodical front-runner, might have won the FA Cup for Chelsea with a shade more accuracy, but the Blues were never supposed to rely on the young American. Lukaku was meant to be the talisman, but he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Thomas Tuchel seems to know it and the new Chelsea regime will undoubtedly change the way the club plays the role of “kid in a sweet shop”. If anyone needed a reminder of how careless Chelsea have been, there was Mo Salah, conversing with Chelsea’s Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, wondering what might have been had he been given the right chance at Stamford Bridge.

Yet the game could have gone either way, it was remarkably even across the 120 minutes. Liverpool started with menace and Chelsea were fortunate to hang on to parity beyond the first 25 minutes. The pundits and commentators were convinced the day was all about Liverpool’s pursuit of glory rather than Chelsea’s bid to end the campaign with something tangible – “It’s only a matter of time,” claimed one mic man. Salah limped off after just 33 minutes, causing anxiety on the Liverpool bench, but his FA Cup in 2021-22 comprised 123 minutes, Klopp had used him sparingly.

Then Chelsea found their game plan and by the start of the second half, Marco Alonso  – arguably Chelsea’s best player on the day – had struck the woodwork. As the game looked destined for extra time, Tuchel removed Lukaku from the action – Chelsea fans must wonder if they will see him next season in the club’s colours. The half hour that followed was something of a phoney war as both teams tired and penalties loomed, never a satisfactory way to win a cup. But of course, the broadcasters loved it.

The model that served Chelsea well in the early years of Abramovich may have become passé

This week’s hero emerged as Kostas Tsimikas, the 21 year-old Greek defender signed from Olympiacos in 2020. Perhaps there was some justice as Tsimikas had played in most of Liverpool’s FA Cup games right up until the semi-final when the first choice guys took over. Somehow, those watching this vaguely compelling contest knew Liverpool’s “mentality monsters” would prevail. They simply seem in better shape than Chelsea, who really don’t know what to expect in the coming weeks.

If the final, indeed the season, represents the zenith of Liverpool under Klopp remains to be seen, but for Chelsea, they missed out on the chance to end the Abramovich age with a trophy. The resurrection of Liverpool also highlights how football has, and continues to evolve. Chelsea’s triumphs under Abramovich were often the result of bulk buying, impulse acquisition of the next big thing and continual turnover of managers. Although it was short-termism at its most conspicuous, and demonstrated a zero tolerance of failure, it also had a life span. Naturally, Chelsea fans lapped it up as their club was turned into winners after decades of under-achievement.

Somebody, somewhere, identified there was a slightly different way. It would be wrong to consider that both Chelsea and Liverpool are not beneficiaries of elitism, but whereas the London club has continued to hire and fire, Liverpool have allowed Klopp to build something that not only brings success, but also helps the club to operate smartly. Manchester City are almost a combination of Chelsea and Liverpool as they have almost limitless funds to play with, but they clearly use their money well. It is not only the age of Abramovich that has ended at Chelsea, it may be that the model that served them well for a decade or more has become passé. Since Klopp was hired by Liverpool and Pep Guardiola took over at City and, Chelsea have won four trophies to City’s eight and Liverpool’s four. The strategy is not as successful as it once was.

Chelsea’s challenge now is to remain relevant in a new business paradigm. Liverpool and City are on a roll at the moment and the gap between them and Chelsea (it is hard to agree with those that believe the Blues are streets ahead of fourth and beyond) is substantial. But they did run Liverpool very close at Wembley, not once but twice in 2021-22. Klopp’s ebullient team have not “beaten” Chelsea this season, although the records will show they won two trophies at their expense.

Look at the fundamentals and the two clubs have little between them, although it is very obvious Chelsea had to thank their owner for his generosity. They both made well over £ 400 million in revenues in 2020-21, there is just £ 18 million difference in their wage bills and over the past five years, Chelsea’s net transfer deficit is £ 43 million more than Liverpool’s net outlay. Both have very good squads and they have top-of-the-range coaches. These are facts that will puzzle Chelsea’s new owners, but the answer may simply be continuity, patience and planning.  And a bit of luck at penalty shoot-outs, perhaps?

Big Picture thinking: From the land of closed leagues and franchises?

WHOEVER advised Liverpool and Manchester United to propose a reset of the Premier League/EFL couldn’t possible have known too much about the culture of football in Britain, indeed Europe. Why on earth did these clubs, supposedly two of the most emotionally-driven football institutions in the world, think they would get away with launching a power grab in the middle of a global crisis?

It’s a shame, because there are some positives in Project Big Picture, but the outrage, the audacity and the self-interest wrapped in the cloak of the philanthropist will overshadow any good samaritanism it might do. 

Gestures

We all knew football had problems before covid-19 descended upon us, huge financial imbalances, the culture of greed, the scent of Wall Street and those ludicrously-paid players at the very top level. Football has never been more detached from its audience in terms of affinity, common agendas and appreciation of its audience. Oh yes, “hearts and prayers”, letters to fans from departing players, emojees and physical gesturing all imply a caring, sharing game, but the law of the jungle prevails.

The Premier claimed its top clubs were going to make huge losses through the crisis, but the transfer market blazed away during the window and now an idea, almost certainly constructed in Boston and Florida, which tables a third of a billion coming from the Premier to the cash-strapped EFL, confirms what we already knew –there is no need to worry about the bank balances of the top clubs. It’s nonsense to weep over clubs having to cut their cloth accordingly.

The project may act as a bail-out to the EFL clubs, but it comes at a sizeable price – the “club” at the top of the game with its six heavyweights and invited guests, will have more of a say in how football is run. That includes preventing any “undesirable” new owners and any change in TV deals. When clubs other than the establishment started to get rich, the biggest complainers were Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Basically, their position as the game’s hierarchy was under threat. Having adjusted to the new world, which weakened all three clubs, with only Liverpool coming back strong, this latest attempt at moulding the game would possibly stop any further erosion of the power base. Interestingly, there was talk that the failed attempt by Saudi Arabian investors taking over Newcastle United was partly due to certain clubs sticking their boots in with the Football Association.

The Premier League’s influence trickles down the pyramid, going as far as non-league football. The Championship, the biggest basket case we have, is a game of dancing on a volcano, where wages outstrip income as clubs crave the financial rewards of the Premier. League One clubs hanker for the Championship and League Two wants to stay away from the drop zone into non-league football. The non-league game, awash with former Football League clubs or clubs with FL heritage, lives beyond its means with some clubs full-time and most part-time. Lower down, clubs that play in front of 350 people have wage bills of two, three or four thousand pounds a week. It’s a crazy world where the heart rules the head.

Wrong

The virus, we were told, was an ideal time to recalibrate many aspects of modern life. We needed to slow down, appreciate what we have around us and smell the flowers. But we also needed to smell the coffee – too much of football depends on everything going as planned, no hiccups, now scope for error. In other words, when things are ok, most clubs get by. When the world is turned upside down and enters a sci-fi environment, everyone is running for the exit and seeking bail-outs, fan assistance and local authority understanding. 

The LivMan idea of £ 350 million heading the way of the EFL is to be applauded, but this is also a form of acknowledgment that “actually, things have been wrong all along”. Henry Winter in the Times noted the “big six” are basically offering what they paid to intermediaries and player agents in 2019. Interestingly, the idea leaked just after Liverpool were humiliated 7-2 by Villa and United were thrashed at home by Spurs. A case of “look, we have a competitive product that can only get better”. If ever there was a time to claim all things can happen in our league, it was these bizarre results!

Nobody is going to admit to being paid too much, hence it will not be given by kindly benefactors wishing to help their poorer neighbours, a form of sporting paternalism. This is where it all goes wrong, for creating a structure that effectively has the rich running the game rather than a governing body, is another example of tails wagging dogs. Big, monied dogs, admittedly.

It all adds up to a very poor week for the Premier League members. First we had the pay-per-view idea of existing subscribers paying £ 15 for certain games on TV. This came as Premier clubs spent another vast sum of money in the transfer window when other leagues were tightening their belts. We also saw a huge green dinosaur, the lovable Gunnersaurus being made redundant by Arsenal when the club had just shelled out a big fee for a player. Alright, the last example was relatively unimportant (although not to the man who had lost his job), but it showed that somehow, football has lost its heart and soul.

Although many fans would disagree, the pandemic should provide an opportunity to rationalise top level football. Reducing the Premier to 18 teams is a logical move, but let’s look at the agenda that is underpinning it. At some stage, the subject of a European Super League will emerge once more, with the continent’s top clubs holding UEFA/FIFA to ransom. The proposals, such as a smaller league and the abolishment of the EFL Cup, will allow for more lucrative European football. 

Consolidate

Outside the elite bracket, English football needs to consolidate and reduce its 92-club structure where too many clubs have lived hand to mouth. Part-time football needs to be introduced at a higher stage and the non-league world has to revert to amateurism below a certain level. The chances are, the LivMan proposal will spur the FA into action and come up with a plan, which may be the Big Picture’s intention all along.

EFL clubs will, naturally, be seduced by the idea of £ 350 million solving all their problems in one hit, but the longer-term result would change the face of British football and create a competition that really isn’t competitive. The Premier and EFL would, in theory, be closer than at any point in the last 28 years, but read the small print (and it is not that small) and the reality will be an industry run for the big clubs by the big clubs. No longer a game of the people, but a game for the shareholders. The hypocrisy will kill us.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA