Liverpool, Klopp and the FA Cup

THE RECENT decision by Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp to field a development squad in the FA Cup for the club’s replay with Shrewsbury Town has, quite rightly, not been well received. Klopp devalued the competition by going AWOL and tarnished his image with the game’s followers. It’s a pity as Klopp has been universally popular since arriving in England, but his attitude is consistent with how some see the competition today – an inconvenience.

Teams have been fielding weakened teams for some years, largely because they can get away with it and still win their cup tie. In Klopp’s case, it is clear that Liverpool’s priority this season is to win the Premier League, something they have almost achieved. There’s no denying that Liverpool will, when the crown eventually gets placed on their heads, deserve their prize, but there’s a little arrogance in the way Klopp has handled the FA Cup.

The popular view in the past was that only in England did the domestic cup competition get treated so seriously. The facts don’t necessarily support that misconception. The fact is, the reason the British newspapers would beat on about second-rate German, Italian and Spanish FA Cups not being a priority was based on media coverage in their own countries. In the UK, we could bleat on about the fact the FA Cup was “the greatest cup competition in the world” and we would enjoy extraordinary feats such as “giant killing”. We interpreted a competition with 500-odd teams in as representing the strength of the format rather than the fact all bar 25 teams had next to no chance of winning it.

In this age of rediscovered xenophobia, some people claim the decline of the FA Cup is down to foreign coaches not taking “cups seriously”. Since 1996-97, there have been 20 occasions where an overseas coach has led his team to glory. The last Brit manager to win the FA Cup was Harry Redknapp in 2008. The competition has been treated with such “disdain” that Arséne Wenger, José Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola have all won it. The one manager who has actually treated it with disdain is Klopp, who has yet to win the grand old trophy.

Managers always consider that league success is the true measure of their ability, and that is understandable. In Klopp’s case, half the Mersey nation’s hopes rest on his shoulders. That first league title since 1990 is drawing near but he was wrong and misunderestimated the currency of the competition. We like Klopp, but his attitude to the FA Cup has been disrespectful.

It is also wrong to assume foreigners lack an understanding of the value of the FA Cup and its place in English football’s rich heritage. The cup final was watched all over the world, the folklore of football is not actually built on leagues and league games, it is based on the one-off occasions that cut-throat football creates – hence, people remember Arsenal’s fabled 1989 league title win not because of their consistency, but because of the last-ditch victory at Anfield. Manchester City’s last two Premier titles, despite the records, the points and the goals, are overshadowed by the 2012 triumph clinched in the dying seconds.

Other countries have their grand finales, too. German football looks to the 1973 DFB Final when Günter Nezter fired home a winner for Gladbach against Köln. If you travel back to the 1970s when the FA Cup was at its cultural peak, Barca and Real won five Spanish cups between them, Italy’s big three won five Coppa Italias and the DFB Pokal was won by Bayern, Schalke, Frankfurt and Köln as well as Gladbach. In other words, the big clubs took it very seriously.

As for England, there were nine different winners in the 1970s, including relative underdogs Sunderland, West Ham, Sunderland, Southampton and Ipswich. You could argue that the FA Cup had weaker winners than the other main leagues, although some might counter that with the claim that England’s FA Cup underlined the strength-in-depth of the 92-club structure.

Liverpool’s decision hit at the heart of that very belief and implied the FA Cup is not all that important any more to them. Shrewsbury lost out on TV money as a result while Liverpool gave themselves breathing space for their own crusade. The Football Association should issue a timely reminder that the competition has been going longer than Liverpool and that the club’s FA Cup history precedes the arrival of Jürgen Klopp. A one-season ban may be an appropriate response. Not happy, big fellow? It’s only the FA Cup – you should worry.




Photo: PA

English football defies the xenophobes

Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea speaks with Hazard of Chelsea following victory after the UEFA Champions League group C match between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea FC at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on September 27, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Ahmad Mora/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

AS BRITAIN becomes increasingly intolerant of foreigners, football fans might like to be reminded that the nation’s teams are heavily reliant on talent from abroad.

In fact, in the Premier League, 61.2% of all appearances this season have been made by expatriate players. Among the “Big five” leagues across Europe, England have the highest percentage of overseas players. Italy has 55.1%, Germany 50.5%, Spain 39.4% and France 36.3%.

Research from CIES shows that England is not the place to be if you are an aspiring young player at a top level club.

It’s a bizarre situation given the size of the country and the history of the game. That said, England is a long way behind Cyprus, whose expat percentage is 80.2%, but this probably reflects the size of Cyprus and a shortage of talent.

But the worst “offenders” in England, if that’s the right word, are Chelsea and Arsenal, whose figures of 90.4% and 84.1% respectively are even higher than Cyprus’ overall percentage.

Chelsea have long focused their attention on overseas talent, even before the arrival of Roman Abramovich. One startling statistic is that John Terry was the last home-grown player to claim a regular first team spot at the club. Now with Terry gone, the only English players likely to have a say in team matters at Chelsea are Gary Cahill and new signing Danny Drinkwater, and neither of them are products of the club’s much-heralded youth scheme.

The highest six users of expat talent in the Premier are, naturally, among the most wealthy clubs – Chelsea (90.4), Arsenal (84.1), Manchester City (78.4), Manchester United (77.6). Then comes, surprisingly, Huddersfield Town on 77.1% and Liverpool on 73.5%.  The lowest in the Premier is Bournemouth on 31.5%.

It does make you wonder why clubs have youth systems given their reluctance to actually use the assets they have at their disposal. Youth academies appear to have a different purpose to their original intention. Are they now breeding grounds for clubs to develop players purely for sale in the market? Chelsea seem to have become good at farming out their youngsters – such as the talented but under-used Nathan Ake, who was sold for £ 20 million, despite making only a handful of appearances for the club.

Chelsea’s youth scheme is among the best in Europe in terms of results – the club has won the FA Youth Cup for the past four years and six times in eight seasons. But there’s little sign of any of their players making a breakthrough.

There’s another, more worrying aspect to CIES’ findings. England’s high score, 61.2%, shows an over-reliance of overseas players that reflects a lack of quality at home. Consider that hardly any clubs across Europe have English players in their squads – not a single member of the current England squad plays outside of the UK. Admittedly, the financial rewards of the Premier contribute to that, but it is not a new phenomenum. Players in England are not portable.

France, by comparison, has become very adept a developing players that are coveted all over Europe. In this age of globalisation, this goes some way to explaining why England, on the international stage, is now an also-ran. Likewise, Italy, which has a percentage of 55.1%, the second highest among the “Big five”, and their own international fortunes look to be in decline. Is it that English clubs, in order to be competitive, have to look beyond their own shores out of necessity? There’s another side to this – Britain has become very good at outsourcing employment to low-cost economies in recent years, is there also an element of this in football. Surely clubs in lower leagues do not need to hire from abroad when there are so many youngsters being nurtured at academies with nowhere to go?

Europe’s top clubs and where their players come from

  % of expat appearances in 2017-18 % of Domestic players in squad % of players from other European countries % of non-European players in squad
Manchester United 77.6 33% 52% 15%
Barcelona 52.1 37.5% 50% 12.5%
Real Madrid 51.2 46% 42% 12%
Bayern Munich 54.0 50% 38% 12%
Paris St. Germain 65.4 37.5% 25% 37.5%
Chelsea 90.4 14% 61% 25%
Juventus 73.3 35% 35% 30%

Note to media….make “Johnny Foreigner” sound better

The British media does not portray many foreign players in a favourable light. On countless occasions, I have cringed at some of the quotes attributed to German, Spanish or French players, indeed managers.

Our intrepid reporters might argue that they are merely repeating what’s been said in a post-match interview or training ground conversation, but if they were to be as accurate with English players, we would see quotes that are punctuated at every available opportunity with the post-modern footballing classic, “yer know”.

Perhaps it is the desire to make them sound like a stranger in a strange land. Maybe it makes them more interesting, almost an exotic product.  But is can also reduce them to a laughing stock at times. Eric Cantona saw through the media – his comment about “Sardines” was a sideways swipe at the gullability of the press. Jose Mourinho knows how to play the game, too. He can get away with making “sleepy” gestures to explain a cheap defeat in Switzerland,  but I can’t see Sam Allardyce doing likewise.

The media love to make Arsene Wenger sound a little like a visiting professor,  a “deep” Frenchman raised on the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and the novels of Albert Camus. But at the end of the day – excuse the match de la journee cliché –  Wenger’s just trying to get through an interview in a foreign language. He may be a thinking man’s football manager, but he’s not sharing great nuggets of wisdom – it’s football, after all.

I have a theory. Most top-class footballers are clearly media trained these days. Just listen to the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and other (past and present)  England players and they have perfected the art of saying nothing in a TV or radio interview. Gerrard, in particular, is a master at this. While some offer nothing but a cliché and a cup of tea, others demand that you “listen” to them or adopt the air of, “it’s right because I tell you it’s right”. They epitomize the zeitgeist  – footballers saying nothing are no different than the tight-lipped and evasive corporate leaders, politicians and police chiefs interviewed on BBC Radio 4 every morning.

All of this makes it hard for journalists to conjure up a credible story. The world doesn’t just spin on its axis, it spins itself to death when it comes to communicating. When a foreign player comes along, with limited English and, dare I say, a good level of education, he is fair game.

There’s no excuse for players to sound as though they are a 19th century explorer from Europe stepping of the cross-Channel ferry for the first time. Poor old Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea was made to sound like Basil Fawlty’s Manuel in the Evening Standard.”We can play better and do better games…..[the fans] came from London and a lot of countries to be here and we didn’t have our best game (describing Chelsea’s defeat in Basel).”  It would not have been out of place if he had added, “I speak English…I learnt it from a book.”

And then there was Arsenal’s “******* big German”, Per Mertesacker, who came across as the antithesis of a rugged centre-half in the same edition of the Standard. Mertesacker said, “I am very delighted here”, when asked about his career with the Gunners. “The club and the manager always trusted me in a very special way.”  Mertesacker, by the way, loves the word “delighted”. And there are other examples. No wonder Joey Barton put on a cod French accent to fit in with the Marseille press….