VAR: the future of football?

By James McMahon

It’s the hot topic of the moment in English football, with pundits and fans alike struggling to come to a definitive answer to the questions raised by the FA’s tentative dip of the toe into the world of video assistant referees. In the few games in which VAR has been released into the wild, it’s seen varying degrees of success, more often achieving little other than baffling spectators and fans at home – not quite the desired baby steps of a system designed to eliminate errors and confusion. It is, however, certain to be introduced to the Premier League for good in seasons to come, so perhaps it’s worth taking a gander at how the Italians have been getting on with their new toy this season, and the effect it’s had on the way the sport functions as a whole.

Back in January, Nicola Rizzoli, head of Italy’s refereeing association, convened a meeting of Serie A’s head coaches to conduct a mid-season VAR-review. Like in England, the reception so far had been polarised, as prominently demonstrated by Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi, who insisted that his side were somehow 9 points worse off than they would otherwise have been. Aside from the politics, though, the conference brought into play some interesting and unexpected statistics which shine a new light on the impact of VAR on how football has been played.

First off, there were 1,078 decisions taken that involved VAR. Of those, 60 corrections were made, 49 mistakes were avoided (don’t ask me what the difference is between the two, but you get the picture), and there were only 11 mistakes. Not what you would expect from VAR given the concern and damnation coming from sections of the British public – an error rate of only 1% must be seen as pretty successful on this front. On top of this, there have been fewer fouls, with 150 fewer yellow cards shown in the first half of this Serie A season than at the same point in the last, which is a staggering statistic. It seems players are becoming more wary of their behaviour, knowing that they’re being monitored by a video referee at all times, and accordingly ensuring they keep out of trouble.

While these stats are undeniably impressive, this improvement in adjudicative precision comes at an important cost, and perhaps the most interesting debate surrounding VAR has been about what it means for the purpose of the sport itself. Although it may well lead to the avoidance of many mistakes with a surprisingly low miss rate, it often comes at the expense of the supporters. While the introduction of all-seater stadiums, the corporatisation of clubs and the explosion of ticket prices since 1992 make up the roots of the separation of football from its fans, VAR, as small an issue as it seems, certainly isn’t helping our cause.

Of course, nobody wants to see their team erroneously denied a legitimate goal or penalty, but when you watch a VAR-officiated game you can understand the impact it has on us as spectators. To start with, those in attendance have absolutely no clue what’s going on when the video assistant awakes from his slumber. Four or five minutes can pass while a decision is being made, with fans in the dark about what is actually going on. Replays aren’t shown on the big screens (and, obviously, for good reason), meaning all spectators can do is shrug their shoulders, go fetch a £10 pie and sit tight until the referee allows play to continue.

On top of that, VAR tends to spoil those moments of ecstasy, euphoria and release that come when a goal is scored. Instead of jumping out of your seat to celebrate, you find yourself worrying for somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds about whether the referee missed a foul in the buildup or the linesman failed to spot a marginal offside – the football fan, ever the pessimist, always expects the goal will be disallowed. When the referee finally points towards the centre circle, that rush of excitement which forms the basis of our love of football has disappeared. Although, as previously stated, it’s a long time since fans have held a major stake in football as opposed to the monopoly of multinationals, sponsors and oligarchs, surely we should be clinging on to the spontaneity of football and the emotional twists and turns we are subjected to that drive us to the stadiums, pubs and television sets in the first place.

This is not a Luddite view. Goal-line technology, for example, has been a positive addition to the game because the decision is instantaneous. But if we can agree that football exists to be watched by and to entertain us, rather than purely as a showcase of athleticism and skill which must be accurately rewarded, or solely as a money-making enterprise for club owners and TV companies, then anything that so severely interrupts the flow of a match must be opposed, even if that means errors continue to be made.

I’m sure that the VAR train is now unstoppable, though, but in an era of Ashleys, Oystons and Venkys, £70 match tickets and £70m defenders at the biggest of the big clubs, football is already so far detached from its supporters. Let’s not continue to allow ourselves to be overlooked. While VAR may seem comparatively insignificant, it’s important to show that supporters can still wield power over those at the top of the sport. Let’s reassert ourselves as the heart of the game, one step at a time, and work together towards a future where you don’t have to be in the top tax bracket to be able to experience the thrill of following your team home and away. We can yet bring an atmosphere back to those dizzy, geometric arenas.

Four Solutions to the Sané Problem That Would Cost Manchester City Nothing

By Charles MacDonald-Jones

Leroy Sané’s unfortunate injury against Cardiff City has prompted much discussion and outcry, from Pep Guardiola arguing that all players need better protection by referees and Joe Bennett, the man responsible for the untimely challenge, apologising on social media. But perhaps the most curious talking point to come out of this is Manchester City’s last minute bid for Riyad Mahrez.

While Sané was still fit, City pulled out of a potential deal for Alexis Sanchez, citing that, in the end, £35 million was just too much money to part with, even for a player in his prime. You could see why, too: it would be hard to see exactly where Alexis would fit in the City starting XI, given the insatiable form of both Sané and Raheem Sterling, as well as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus (when fit) competing for the central position up top.

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Sergio Aguero: not bad for a backup striker

Now, however, the conversation has changed. Missing out on Alexis to Manchester United, and with Sané now out of action for six weeks, City are turning their attention to Leicester, with City allegedly prepared to offer £65 million plus a player to land Mahrez, who primarily shines on the right for Leicester, while Sané’s regular position is on the left. All of which begs the question: why?

Sané is only out for six weeks. Granted, there are some important games in that time, including the knockout stages of the Champions League and the League Cup final, but this is only one first team player. City have an abundance of attacking firepower up front, as well as plenty of promising academy products. Here are four solutions that Guardiola could look to in case he can’t land his man – or if he just fancies saving a bit of money, instead.

1. Utilise a back three

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With Conte’s Chelsea winning the league with a 3-4-3 formation last season, a back three came back into fashion in a big way. Guardiola himself also used variants of a back three last season and earlier this season, occasionally to shoehorn Aguero and Jesus into the same side. If Guardiola were to take a leaf out of Conte’s book and play with a back three – which would be more natural now with the left-footed Aymerick Laporte able to fit in on the left hand side – then wingbacks Kyle Walker and Danilo could provide width, with Sterling and David (or Bernardo) Silva playing just behind Aguero.

2. De Bruyne as a winger

It is easy to forget that De Bruyne hasn’t always been a central midfielder, or “false-8” as he once described his role under Guardiola. He has solely played this position this season, but at Wolfsburg and earlier for City he was often found as a true attacking midfielder, either as a no. 10 or out on the wings.

He often pushes up and delivers crosses from wide areas anyway in this City team, so he could easily provide the width to the attack, with Sterling still drifting in as he is wont to do. This would leave a midfield berth for Ilkay Gundogan, whose performances of late have been more than promising, or even Fabian Delph or Yaya Touré.

3. Sterling staying wide, Bernardo Silva cutting inside

Sterling has started a number of games on the left, with him and Sané often interchanging anyway. He started the 5-0 win against Crystal Palace from this position, in which he scored two goals. City’s two (ostensible) widemen have more been defined by the roles that they play than which side of the pitch they are on.

Sané often holds the width, with Sterling coming inside and acting occasionally as a second striker. Bernardo Silva, a more natural attacking midfielder, is more comfortable drifting inside than staying wide. Sterling, however, can do either. If Sterling stayed wide and Bernardo Silva drifted into the box, City would still maintain their shape and provide much of the same attacking potency.

4. Use academy players

It is shameful that City are considering a £65 million “quick fix” for less than two months, when they have a number of academy graduates at their disposal. Brahim Diaz is a promising attacking midfielder, while Oleksandr Zinchenko is a left winger who has been utilised by Guardiola as a left back in the first team – it is not inconceivable that he could play either as a direct replacement for Sané, or as a wingback instead of Danilo.

And then there is Phil Foden, who lit up last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, as he won the tournament’s Golden Ball and helped England beat Spain in the final. A proven goal threat at youth level, Guardiola gave him a taste of Champions League action as an experimental City side lost to Shakhtar. Foden was played out of position as a left wingback. What he could add to City’s first team in a more familiar role remains to be seen. If Guardiola is as committed to youth as his reputation suggests, then it should not be too hard to find a replacement for Sané that isn’t a 27 year old Algerian.

Happily Ever After for Arsenal as Özil and Aubameyang Pledge Allegiance

By James McMahon

As a friend of mine just said to me, “as an Arsenal fan, I’ve never woken up to such good news”. Aside from last night’s disappointing 3-1 defeat away to Swansea, this morning did indeed come bearing fantastic news for Arsenal’s supporters and admirers with the arrival of Aubameyang and news of Özil’s contract renewal.

Arsenal’s season so far has been defined by Alexis Sanchez – it was far from secret that he wanted to leave, it had become apparent that he was an immensely divisive figure in the dressing room, and there were even reports that there were players he actually refused to pass to. The best kid in the playground, he elected to go all the way himself, only to inevitably concede possession, and threw tantrums when the ball didn’t find its way to his feet.

Despite this burden, the £35m transfer to Manchester City which was expected at the beginning of January seemed like a fairly poor option. Arsenal’s transfer game in recent times has famously been sketchy at best, and that money would unlikely be put to good use, perhaps triggering the departure of the club’s other leading player, Mesut Özil. But come the end of the transfer window, Arsenal are miraculously now in a stronger position than they were at the start of it.

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Alexis Sanchez tries on his United shirt

The swap deal with United for Mkhitaryan was a fantastic piece of business. Although the Armenian failed to make a real impact in Manchester, if his final season in Dortmund is anything to go by, Arsenal are welcoming a truly fantastic player to North London. With 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 games for BvB in the 2015/16 season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan clearly provides sensational returns when used in the right way. With Wenger’s arm around his shoulder, and with a more cerebral, fast, fluid and, vitally, attacking game, the midfielder will feel much more at home at Arsenal than he ever did under Mourinho’s defensive setup.

On the end of Mkhitaryan’s stunning list of assists in Germany was, of course, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. In that same season, the Gabon international managed an impressive 39 goals in 49 appearances, and consequently Arsenal have had to smash their transfer record to acquire his talents. While there are question marks surrounding his behaviour and so-called “bad boy” image, his long-awaited move away from Borussia Dortmund should weather his storm at least for a while.

On top of all this, Mesut Özil will be staying put, leaving Arsenal with a genuinely exciting midfield duo, both with the potential to be two of the best creative players in the league on their good days, hopefully bringing far more success than the likes of Iwobi who never really seems comfortable on the ball. We now face the possibility of an Arsenal with quite a fearsome attacking presence. Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang’s lucrative partnership is set to be rekindled, and Özil will be able to feed off and feed to another couple of fantastic players instead of becoming Arsenal’s new one-man show in the post-Sanchez era.

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It looks like Mesut Özil will be staying at the Emirates

Lacazette’s position, however, is slightly less certain – although he can play on the right wing, he’d rather not. Playing two up front in a highly attacking structure could be tempting, but Arsenal’s well-rehearsed defensive frailties would be an issue, and Xhaka can’t slot into defence in the same way someone like Fernandinho can. Although for a while it looked like Arsenal could swoop in for Jonny Evans during Man City’s chase for Aymeric Laporte, it seems Aubameyang’s move has put far too much of a strain on the club’s finances for them to contemplate another deal this afternoon.

Although selling your most talented player, especially to a rival (and more importantly, to Jose Mourinho), can rarely be considered the best of moves, Arsenal seem to have worked this transfer window very well indeed. Their fans are hopefully in for an exciting new burst of energy at the club over the rest of the season. Wenger hasn’t conceded the title yet for a reason.

Alexis Sanchez: the Perennial Winner

It seemed like it was the start of a new era: before the 2016/17 season began, there was a palpable sense of excitement around Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho’s reign had been ushered in with four relatively high profile signings: Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the lion, the legend, the king –  arrived on a free transfer as one of the best strikers in the world. Paul Pogba became the most expensive player of all time, and Eric Bailly arrived as a hotly tipped prospect for the future. And then there was Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Despite being the previous season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year, his United career never fully got going. He was often omitted from the United team early in his first season, and was hooked at half time against Manchester City in September. Although he eventually came back into the team, and even scored in the Europa League final, it is possible that he never really recovered.

Mourinho had questioned his fitness, but Mourinho’s definition of the word isn’t the same as other people’s. In addition to physical fitness, Mourinho has said, “With regard to the psychological side, which is essential to play at the highest level, a fit player feels confident, cooperates with and believes in his team-mates, and shows solidarity towards them.”

For Mourinho, there was, clearly, a an issue of fitness with Mkhitaryan. It may well have been mental, instead of physical. This is a player who, after all, did take some time bedding in when he first arrived at Borussia Dortmund. He needed time to adapt, to be 100% mentally focused. This is not to diminish his talents, for he remains a tremendous footballer, but it is clear that Mourinho was never convinced of his mentality.

It is in this way that we can see the stark contrast to Alexis Sanchez, who, as Mkhitaryan leaves Old Trafford for the Emirates, will move the other way. Sanchez is a winner; a player with the mental fortitude to drive him to be the very best. This has occasionally manifested as a problem at Arsenal. His frustration on the pitch at times has been obvious, as was his irritation at what he perceived to be a lack of ambition in failing to make big name signings.

While he clearly let this affect his performance on the pitch, often looking less than bothered in the last few months, it would be impertinent not to suggest that he has a point: Arsenal, the team who always finish in the top 4, ended up 5th last season. This time round, 6th looks much more likely. Arsene Wenger’s side have often looked bereft of ideas both on and off the pitch, and Sanchez’s agitation for a move was no doubt inspired by his desire to move forwards, upwards, just as much as it was by a bigger wage package.

He could have gone to Manchester City, where he would be reunited with his former manager Pep Guardiola, but in a way, he is much more suited to Manchester United than either Arsenal or City. Mourinho has instilled an almost galactico-style approach, fusing the superstar magic of David de Gea and Paul Pogba with an instilled work ethic by academy graduates and lesser names; Jesse Lingard’s constant tracking back, Antonio Valencia’s renewed consistency.

Sanchez can be another jewel in this team, allowed the freedom to attack at will. Mourinho might drill his team defensively, but he allows his attack to improvise, and surely Sanchez will relish this platform to shine. Under Guardiola, he could have been part of something more, but he would have no doubt been a much smaller cog.

The endless automations practiced by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea can be devastatingly effective, but at Old Trafford Sanchez will be given a blank slate; an opportunity to add a little sparkle to a team whose robust pragmatism has often bordered on tedium. Just exactly how well Sanchez and Manchester United do over the comings months will be no doubt intriguing, but if there is one thing for certain, it is that the Chilean will be up for the challenge.

This is the team you could have bought instead of Coutinho 10 years ago

Philippe Coutinho’s exuberant £142 million transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona this month has been touted as one of the more baffling moves in recent times. The switch itself is not a particular surprise – Coutinho wanted to move, Barcelona wanted to buy him – but the circumstances are a little more strange. Why now? Barcelona are pretty much a certainty to win the league, the player is ineligible for the Champions League, and £142 million is an awful lot of money.

Aside from this, there is the very real possibility that Liverpool won’t miss their playmaker all that much – the front three of Mo Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané did perfectly well without the Brazilian when he was sidelined earlier in the season – and yet still stand to gain an absurd profit (which, given Naby Keïta’s arrival from RB Leipzig at the end of the season, they might do well to channel into a better goalkeeper and fullbacks).

But £142 million is just the kind of crazy football transfer world we live in nowadays. Neymar’s buyout clause was supposed to be a hands off warning, but Paris Saint Germain pulled the trigger without thinking twice. Barcelona have now spent more than that figure on just two players. To put all this absurdity into context, we decided to find out just exactly what this money would buy 10 years ago, based on actual transfers at the time. It could buy a whole team, as it turns out.

Goalkeeper

Mark Schwarzer – £0

When Mark Schwarzer’s contract with Middlesborough expired in June 2008, there were a whole host of teams clamouring for the Australian, including Bayern Munich and Juventus, no less. But Schwarzer turned these down in favour of guaranteed first team football, which led him to signing a deal with Fulham, where he was first choice keeper for five years. Backup spells with Chelsea and Leicester followed, meaning that Schwarzer became the first Premier League player since Eric Cantona to win back to back titles with different clubs.

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Defence

Filipe Luis – £1,600,000

Long before his brief stint at Chelsea, Filipe Luis was a staple of Deportivo La Coruna’s defence. Initially joining in 2006 on loan, he eventually signed a permanent deal for approximately £1.6 million in 2008, going on to feature in La Liga’s team of the season, despite being just 22 years of age at the time. Now aged 32, he’s back at Athletico Madrid and is still one of the most consistent left backs in the league.

Vincent Kompany – £6,000,000

Despite recent recurrent injury problems, Kompany has been rock in the heart of Manchester City’s defence for a decade. He was initially purchased in the 2008 summer transfer window for £6 million from Hamburg, and made an instant impact at the Manchester club, making 45 appearances in his first season.

Branislav Ivanovic – £9,700,000

Usually deployed as a full back, Ivanovic proved to be an invaluable asset both on the right and in the centre for Chelsea. He moved to the London club for £9.7 million in the January 2008 transfer window from Lokomotiv Moscow. Having fallen out of favour with Antonio Conte, he has now returned to Russia to play for Zenit St Petersburg.

Pablo Zabaleta – £6,450,000

The Argentine spent 9 years as Manchester City’s right back, before signing for West Ham on a free transfer last summer, following the expiry of his contract at the Etihad. Arriving in Manchester from Espanyol, Zabaleta quickly established himself as a first team player for Manchester City in 2008, having chosen the English club over Juventus.

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Midfield

Samir Nasri – £14,000,000

Arsene Wenger had been tracking Nasri since before he was even born, apparently. Or at least since he was 17. So it was no great surprise when the Frenchman eventually joined his compatriot at Arsenal after making the switch from Marseille, after he topped Ligue 1’s assist chart for the 2007-2008 season. His form at Arsenal ensured a £25,000,000 switch to Manchester City in 2011.

Javier Mascherano – £18,700,000

Making his debut for Liverpool in 2007 on loan, Mascherano’s transfer from West Ham was blighted by contract difficulties. He eventually signed a permanent contract for the Reds in 2008, in a deal purported to be around £18.6 million, which included the player’s wages. Initially a defensive midfielder, his ability to slot into defence was fully by his current club Barcelona, who signed him in 2010, converting him into a fully fledged centre back the following season.

Luka Modric – £16,500,000

Still widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, Modric moved from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur, where he made 127 appearances over the next four years. When he was eventually sold to Real Madrid, Spurs got £30 million for the Croatian playmaker.

James Milner – £12,000,000

Where to begin with James Milner? Where to end? The Englishman has played all over during his career, from an auxiliary forward to Liverpool’s chief left back and penalty taker last season. But it was as a wide midfielder he made his name, moving to Aston Villa in 2008 from Newcastle. Former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini described Milner as the most complete player in the modern English game. Boring or not, he remains perennially underrated.

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Attack

Dimitar Berbatov – £30,750,000

The most expensive player in this team, Berbatov still represented good value for Manchester United after they bought him from Spurs, providing more assists than anyone else in the Premier League in his first season, and eventually going on to win the Premier League Golden Boot in 2010/2011.

Robbie Keane – £19,000,000

After a glistening six year spell at Tottenham Hotspur, Keane also departed White Hart Lane in 2008 alongisde Berbatov. His destination was Anfield, where he scored five times in 20 appearances, before moving back to Spurs the following January.

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All things considered, this team at the time would have come to £134,600,000 – give or take. With that kind of money you’ve still got enough left over for half a Marouane Fellaini, too.

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The Steel City Derby: A Neutral’s View

Although I’ve lived in Sheffield for the best part of seven years, this weekend’s Steel City Derby was only the third I’ve been around for, an indication of the two clubs’ hitherto diverging paths. It was the first time since April 2010 that they’d met in the second tier of English football, Wednesday having escaped League One at the first time of asking back in 2012, a feat that eluded United for six long seasons. But despite Wednesday’s impressive promotion pushes in the past couple of seasons, early evidence seems to be pointing towards the balance of power in Sheffield shifting in the Blades’ favour.

Disclaimer: even as a non-local, I’m not sure if it’s possible to be 100% neutral in Sheffield if you’ve lived here a while. Heretical as it might sound, I tend to wish both clubs well. I’ve enjoyed long and successful Football Manager careers with both, and I’ve been to Hillsborough and Bramall Lane plenty of times (admittedly I’ve seen United play more often, but that’s more to do with location and the cost of tickets than anything else).

Anyway, that is the mindset with which I watched the Steel City Derby: as a fan of Sheffield football in general. A Wednesdayite friend of mine had a spare ticket going, and I was delighted to be able to catch one of English football’s most storied derbies first-hand. I’d spoken to acquaintances on both sides in the days leading up to the match and the overriding feeling seemed to be one of nervousness. Walking through Hillsborough before the game, however, there was something of a festival atmosphere, with fans in decidedly high spirits sinking cans in the street and spilling out of pubs under the watchful gaze of police forces bussed in from all over the country. 

But there was scant opportunity for this mood to take hold at Hillsborough Stadium, with Sheffield United scoring a well-worked free kick only a few minutes after the match had started. David Brooks rolled the ball back to John Fleck, who smashed the ball past a bewildered Westwood. Then, at 15 minutes, a simple clearance from Enda Stevens found its way through the slipshod Wednesday defence to the feet of Leon Clarke, who dutifully steered it home with a journeyman’s finish.

For Wednesday, the rest of the first half followed a similar pattern of shaky defending, bad crosses and long balls that went nowhere. The players looked somewhat shellshocked and, to their credit, the home fans recovered quicker from the early double salvo to contribute to the derby atmosphere. As a West Brom fan, I was struck by how much time Westwood took on the ball: you’d think that he was Ben Foster safeguarding a hard-fought 0-0 against Newcastle, not a goalkeeper 2-0 down in the biggest game of the season.

When Wednesday scored just before half-time, it was against the run of play. Gary Hooper wrapped his foot around a smart Ross Wallace cross and gave the hosts some hope. On the other side of half-time, Wednesday continued their mini-resurgence, passing the ball reasonably well and introducing Lucas João, who looked more mobile than the other forwards. Some tricky footwork by Kieran Lee in the middle of the park paid off, setting up Adam Reach’s cross for João to slot home.

Alas, the Wednesday renaissance was short-lived. Hillsborough had been bouncing for barely a minute when Mark Duffy turned van Aken inside out and beat Westwood at his near post. The goal was something of a deathblow, and I felt for the Wednesday fans around me (but I can also appreciate how great it must have been for those Blades who waggishly dubbed it the ‘Bouncing Day Massacre’). Leon Clarke compounded their misery ten minutes later with another goal, shrugging off the attentions of the two Wednesday centre backs far too easily.

The rest of the match was a foregone conclusion and Wednesday never looked likely to complete another two goal comeback. I was impressed by Sheffield United: it was the first time I’d seen them under Chris Wilder, and they had an attacking fluency that was often lacking under Nigel Clough. The main source of this was young David Brooks, who tormented the Sheffield Wednesday defence and looked incredibly assured on only his second league start. As for Wednesday, they seemed heavily reliant on long balls and crosses but struggled to make them work. Dare I say it: perhaps Atdhe Nuhiu and his velcro chest could’ve helped them out if they were so set on pursuing Pulisball in this game.

It’s only the start of a long Championship season and there are a lot of games left to play (not least the next Steel City Derby in January). But if Sheffield United can keep this up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were this year’s Huddersfield, thriving in spite of (or perhaps because of…) a lack of big name signings, instead working well within their own system of play.

The Race For The Most Hated Club in Germany

Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig & HSV set to compete for the honour of being Germany’s most hated club again this year

14th September 2017
Image result for red bull leipzig protestsHoffenheim fans see the funny side of the uproar surrounding their club and Leipzig, holding a banner up stating “we want our throne back” as Germany’s most hated.

It’s curious that, with a record 27 German domestic league titles, Bayern Munich are not even close to the most resented club in Germany. In the U.K., green eyes have often been shot at Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea for the success that has come with wealth. Fans of other English domestic teams cheer the opponents of our successful clubs in Europe namely for that reason. We tend to resent success.

Bayern Munich aren’t exactly popular across Germany,  indeed they’re far from it, but they’re also a long way from the level of vitriol directed at the likes of RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, two relatively new clubs without the history of the Traditionsvereine (tradition club) that many German fans respect. Hamburg, meanwhile, crashed out of the German cup this weekend to lowly Osnabrück. The utter abjectness of the performance on Sunday was reinforced by the fact they lost to their 3rd division opponents who played with 10 men after a red card in the 22nd minute. This is not a surprise – HSV lost 3:2 to Carl Zeiss Jena in 2015 and have consistently flirted with relegation since 2014. They have become to the Bundesliga what Sunderland were to the Premier League . It seems now like a matter of time before the inevitable.

Pride In Ownership & History

Whilst Hamburg fans are ridiculed for the appalling way in which the club is run (no fewer than 16 managers have come and gone at the Volksparkstadion in the last decade) the anger towards Hoffenheim and Leipzig is quite different. Over in Germany, fan ownership is not just seen as beneficial, it’s the law. The 50+1 rule ensures that external investors cannot have the majority of voting rights at a club. That’s the theory, anyway. The likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Vfl Wolfsburg have had huge backing from corporations such as Bayer & Volkswagen, allowing them to invest in talent such as Hakan Calhanoglu & Julian Draxler in recent years. These teams are viewed with some derision, yet when, in the year 2000, the founder of software firm SAP invested in Hoffenheim, a club located in a village in South-West Germany with a population of 3,000, German football was about to change forever.

Dietmar Hopp has led a pretty eventful life. He’s a hugely successful businessman, bought a spa resort from no other than Sean Connery & built a stadium for Hoffenheim football club worth €100m. He’s obviously got a few Euros pocket change. So much so that the alumni of Hoffenheim boast of the likes of Demba Ba, Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland, Luiz Gustavo & the once prolific Chinedu Obasi.

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Dietmar Hopp

The level of money that Hoffenheim were afforded was met with venom, particularly from the likes of Hans-Joachim Watzke, CEO of Borussia Dortmund, who stated that, “it would be a shame” if clubs such as Hoffenheim were allowed to compete. There were even suggestions that in 2008, when Hoffenheim first won promotion to the Bundesliga, that they would not receive their license from the DFB, Germany’s football governing body.

Fans across Germany voiced their displeasure, particularly Dortmund fans who had witnessed their beloved BVB whiskers away from financial ruin in 2005. Indeed, the atmosphere between Hoffenheim and Dortmund deteriorated so much that loudspeakers were placed next to Dortmund fans to drown out the whistles and chants of derision at Hoffenheim’s ground.

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Julian Nagelsmann watching his team in action

For all their faults, at least in the eyes of many fans of traditional clubs, Hoffenheim have somewhat redeemed themselves. After many recent years of flirting precariously with relegation (Watzke’s champagne still remains on ice) they promoted Julian Nagelsmann to head coach. The 28 year old guided Hoffenheim to safety in the 2015-16 season, before leading them to a miraculous 4th place a year later. The emergence of young German talent such as Niklas Süle & the development of Sebastian Rudy (both now sold to Bayern Munich) may have helped to soften the hatred shown towards them. However, it is far more likely the case that Hoffenheim have been able to slip somewhat under the radar over the last year as a result of a new enemy of the German football state – RB Leipzig.

The Red Bull Furore

Germans are, rightly, proud of their footballing heritage and prowess. This has largely been built from the backs of fans. 11 of the top 30 highest average crowds were to be found in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 (a notable mention for Stuttgart).  For the majority of football fans within the central European country, the game is nothing without fans. Indeed, one banner, at a protest from Bayern Munich fans against Arsenal ticket prices, read simply “without fans, football is not worth a penny”. This great support has allowed German clubs to invest in the highest standard of youth facilities. The end product has seen talented youngsters such as Timo Werner and Max Meyer recently break in to the national team, with Werner in particular looking likely to stay for many years to come.

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The Red Bull Arena on match day

The production line of talent was built on the backs of traditional clubs. The fans have paid for a quality of football over many years and it is the fans who are at the forefront of the Bundesliga. The 50+1 rule was brought in to stop commercialisation of the league, with many proponents of this law fearful that profit, not supporters, would become the main concern of the top brass at each club.

Bayer Leverkusen & Wolfsburg have both received signifcant backng from pharmaceutical giants Bayer & Volkswagen respectively. They have been the subject of much ire and anger from across the board & often referred to as “plastic clubs”. They have, however, roots steeped in history, with Leverkusen in particular noting that Bayer was an integral part of the club’s culture.

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BayArena, home of Bayer Leverkusen

This is significantly different from Red Bull Leipzig, or, to give them their now official title, RasenBallsport Leipzig. The team is only eight years old and only gained a license to play competitive football after Red Bull bought an amateur team license from another club, SSV Markranstädt. Dietrich Mateschitz, co-owner of Red Bull, had his wish. He had long pined for a footballing project in Germany and now Leipzig, with a population of 500,000, provided the perfect opportunity for Germany’s first properly commercialised club.

With teams already deployed in Austria, Ghana, Brazil & the USA, Leipzig became the company’s fifth project. The commercialisation of the club was further reinforced with the acquisition of the Zentralstadion in 2010, which saw the 44,000 capacity stadium swiftly renamed as the Red Bull Arena. Suggestions reported in the local media indicate that plans are in the offing for an 80,000 seater stadium to be built to the North of the city. 100 million Euros were planned to be pumped in to the club from 2010-2020. This level of financing saw opposition swept easily aside, leading to promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016, a mere 7 seasons after their founding.

Watzke has once again voiced his opinion, talking of a “culture clash” between commerce and traditional clubs. He has been joined by Heribet Bruchhagen, chairman of Eintracht Frankfurt, in calling for commercialised clubs to face stricter rules from the German FA, the DFB. Whilst some footballing chiefs have been vocally critical, organised fan groups from across Germany have taken their distaste of Leipzig to a new level. Friendly matches against Stuttgart, 1860 Munich, FC Union Berlin and others have been cancelled as a result of fan protests. In 2015, Karlsruhe ultras stormed the Leipzig team hotel in a frenzy of violence after sending threatening letters to the leaders of Leipzig fan groups if they traveled to support their team.

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Protests against Red Bull from the infamous Yellow Wall in Dortmund

Whilst the fans have made their point perfectly clear, others have given the Red Bull experiment praise. Wolfgang Niersbach, President of the DFB in 2014, stated that traditional clubs have not been successful for years and that “nobody should complain if a different approach is taken” which may lead to success. Klaus Allofs, a former national player for West Germany, was envious of the project but also claimed it was good for German football, with Beckenbauer claiming that Leipzig could challenge Bayern in 35 years for German footballing hegemony.

The club has also provided an injection of cash for other local clubs such as FC Sachsen Leipzig, who sold their youth team to RB Leipzig, allowing them to remain in business. 70% of Leipzig residents, according to a local media poll in 2016, see the project favourably.

An exciting season beckons for the East German outfit. A foray in to the Champions League (after eventually gaining the permit to play in Europe’s elite competition) will be a great test for the likes of Werner, Forsberg & the now Liverpool-bound Keita. Whatever happens over the coming nine months – RB Leipzig will be sure to continue to divide opinion.

Hamburg – The Last Dinosaur

Hamburg, or HSV, are the only club that has never been relegated from the Bundesliga. A clock in the Volksparkstadion marks the time since the inception of the league in 1963. They are a traditional club, markedly different from Hoffenheim & Leipzig, yet the level of vitriol directed towards them is on a similar level. Despite a history that boasts a European cup, six league titles & three cup victories, the club has slowly become a laughing stock, with the most recent major honour coming in 1983.

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The HSV clock, ticking since 1963

Since the defeat to Fulham in the semi-final of the 2009-10 UEFA cup, with the final held at the home stadium of HSV, the club have been in an almost terminal decline. The firing of Bruno Labbadia, who led the team to a semi final & seventh place position at the time of his demise, came just three days before the aforementioned defeat to Fulham.

The club have since gone on to hire and fire Thorsten Fink, Bert van Marwijk, Mirko Slomka, Josef Zinnbauer, Peter Knäbel and Bruno Labbadia (again). And that’s not even including interim managers. Markus Gisdol currently holds the poison chalice and whilst two victories from the first two games of the 17-18 season mark a brilliant start by HSV’s standards, it won’t take much for Gisdol to start feeling the pressure. Indeed, it’s a miracle by their standards that the manager was not fired for the first round cup defeat.

It appears that the reason fans of other clubs vehemently throw their weight behind HSV’s demise lies in the way that the club is run. Over in the Premier League, we are used to ridiculous rumours surrounding managers. Frank de Boer & Slaven Bilic appear to be circling perilously close to receiving their P45s after just three games of the current season.

We have already seen that German football fans tend to reject the commercialisation of football and the way that it is subsequently run. The HSV board, with Jens Meier now at its head, has encountered financial difficulties so extreme & over such a lengthy period of time, that the only reason they are still afloat is a result of Klaus-Michael Kühne, co-owner of Kühne-Nagel, who has pumped millions in to the club.

Kühne has saved the club financially, and although only officially owning 17% of the club, his power in the corridors of the Volksparkstadion runs deep. Although rescuing the entire club from financial ruin, he has also caused a serious number of problems. Just recently, he labelled the Leeds-bound Pierre-Michel Lasogga as a “dud”. He has demanded that HSV should be able to run itself financially, and so his patience with managers wears thin quickly.  In essence, he runs the club like a business, with fans losing out. The sales of Hakan Calhanoglu & Son Heung-Min reflect this.

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Son Heung-Min & Hakan Calhanoglu were both sold to Leverkusen 

Kühne’s influence on the club isn’t the only reason there are numerous articles calling for the relegation of Hamburg on mainstream outlets such as die Welt. They also play absolutely terrible football. In fact, that’s probably an insult to those who play terrible football (I’m looking at you, 2009 Stoke City). Johann Djourou partnered Emir Spahic for two years in a row with disastrous results. Although they are now both out of the club, a lack of investment forced managers to play with two below-standard, ageing defenders. Lasogga showed glimpses of talent, but is slow and lethargic. Nicolai Müller, a big-money signing from Mainz, has led an injury plagued time in Hamburg, recently scoring a goal before ruling himself out for 7 months in the celebration. It’s all part of the Hamburg malaise.

A restart is needed for HSV. In many ways relegation may be a blessing in disguise. German football fans across the country are bored of the continuing HSV scandal. No money, no leadership, no good players. The clock keeps ticking, yet as one German journalist put it – “it’s just annoying now. The time is up”.

The mascot of HSV is Dino the dinosaur. It’s feeling like the leadership of this club remains in the dark ages in comparison to the rest of the Bundesliga. They either adapt now or end up facing another year of relegation struggles. The only competition they are in any danger of winning is Germany’s most hated club.

 

 

 

Premier League Roundup – Matchday 3

Same formula, different results

There was not a lot of difference between the way Arsenal lined up against Liverpool and the starting XI that won the FA Cup at the end of last season. Some of this can be attributed to the players agitating for a move – Alexis Sanchez looked out of the game, with Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlin also failing to impress. Yet Granit Xhaka was possibly the worst man on the pitch, and questions must also be asked of the entire defence, who still do not look accustomed to this back three. One player who usually does give 100% is Danny Welbeck, yet – with Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud on the bench – one wonders why he started at all. It is very early in the season, but already Arsene Wenger is feeling the pressure – in terms of his team selection, Arsenal’s new formation, and his ability to motivate his players.

 

Another short stay for Frank de Boer?

Frank de Boer lasted 85 days in the Inter Milan job, a record which he looks set to at least come close to if things do not rapidly improve at Crystal Palace. Sitting in 19th, they are ahead of West Ham only on goal difference, which still is scant consolation when Palace are yet to score a goal. The club want to instill attacking football – an “Ajax” approach – at Selhurst Park, but for the past few years they’ve struggled to make things click. After calling on Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce the last two times things went south, who is left to save them this time? Both the club and De Boer will both hope it won’t come to that, and that things will start improving sooner rather than later.

 

United show more patience, but also offer greater attacking edge

After Romelu Lukaku’s spotkick was saved by Kasper Schmeichel, you could forgive Manchester United fans for thinking that this would be yet another home game destined for a draw. However, United have changed this season. You genuinely got the sense that the goal was coming, even after the penalty miss. The Red Devils have scored most of their goals in the latter stages of games this season, evoking scenes from Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. Yet it is not just the timing of the goals. For the first time since the Ferguson era, United are playing with a genuine attacking edge – it seems the most successful club of the Premier League era have finally got their swagger back.

 

Routine win for Chelsea poses Everton questions

No-one would have batted an eyelid at a 2-0 result last season – champions elect vs a side who were good, not great. But this season, Chelsea had apparently been in turmoil before even a ball had been kicked, and certainly by the time their first game was over. But here it seemed to be back to business as usual for Chelsea, with more questions being asked about the opposition. It is no tragedy to lose to the champions, but Everton will have been expected to offer a little more given the huge amount of investment this summer.

 

Liverpool should hold onto midfielder coveted by bigger club

Emre Can has had an excellent start to the season, following up his brace against Hoffenheim with a series of wonderful surging runs and key passes in Liverpool’s demolition of Arsenal. The German has added more to his game going forward and is starting to show the potential that was promised when he arrived from Bayer Leverkusen. Juventus are rumoured to be interested, and Liverpool could do well to hold them off – and surely Can is the more logical player to keep than Coutinho. Liverpool want to prove that they are not a selling club, but with Can adding goals to his game and Naby Keita set to join next summer, £120 million for a player of Coutinho’s ability is surely too good to turn down.

 

Brighton running out of time

On the face of it, Brighton haven’t had the worst of starts in their first Premier League season – certainly not compared to West Ham and Crystal Palace. The 2-0 scoreline against the might of Manchester City’s forward line was fairly respectable, and they managed to get their first Premier League point when Southampton came to visit this weekend, meaning they aren’t quite in the bottom three. Yet they still haven’t scored, and their failure to provide adequate offensive reinforcements could prove costly. They have a few more days to make moves in the transfer market, but should no standout acquisitions arrive before midnight Friday morning, then it looks like their stay in the Premier League will be a short one.

Premier League Roundup – Matchday 2

A managerial masterclass but players lack pedigree

Huddersfield Town were well set up by David Wagner when Newcastle came to visit on Sunday. Well organised at the back, they rarely allowed Newcastle to threaten. But while their organisation was to be applauded, there was a distinct lack of quality – more often than not promising moves would break down because of a simple misplaced pass. This was true of both teams on the pitch. Time and time again possession was ceded in the middle of the park. Dwight Gayle, always impressive in the Championship, was hooked after less than an hour. Wagner and Rafa Benitez might both be exceptional coaches, but both teams may lack the quality to avoid a relegation battle.

 

Jesé shines amongst Champions League winners

It’s safe to say that Stoke’s policy of buying the European Elite’s nearly-made-its hasn’t worked that well so far. Despite the exciting attacking prospects they could do worse than looking to Burnley or West Brom for an example of strength and defensive stability. But perhaps Jesé is the exception, after fitting seamlessly into this Stoke City team against Arsenal. After winning three points for his club on his debut, Stoke might find themselves heavily indebted to Jesé come the close of the season if he can help them avoid a relegation scrap.

 

Never write off the champions

Regardless of the murmurs of discontent growing between Antonio Conte and the Chelsea board, it was still a little premature to write off the champions after one game. Despite their almost comical level of implosion against Burnley last weekend, this was still a team full of champions. They might not look quite as strong as last year, but even without Eden Hazard playing, they still managed to find the quality to beat a very good Spurs side.

 

Flat back four offers defensive solidity

Huddersfield Town, West Brom and Manchester United are not only sitting pretty atop the table with two wins out of two, they are also the only three teams yet to concede a goal. What is striking, on a weekend when nearly half of the teams in the Premier League started with three at the back, is that all these teams played with a back four. While it would be premature to draw conclusions from this oversimplification – and some back threes have thrived in the Premier League following Chelsea’s example – perhaps there is a word of caution here: it is not always wise to make changes just because it is in vogue.

 

Pulis and Mourinho bucking the trend

It is not just their continued use of a flat back four that stands out for West Brom and Manchester United – after all, there are other teams who still use four at the back in the Premier League and Mourinho’s United themselves experimented with a back three in pre-season. It is also the height of the two teams. They are the tallest teams in the league  at a time when shorter, more technically gifted players are commonplace and this has certainly been to their advantage. West Brom’s winner came from a set piece last weekend and Eric Bailly got his maiden club goal following a corner against Swansea. For West Brom this is nothing new, but being a threat from set pieces may be another important string to United’s bow in their title challenge.

Premier League Roundup – Matchday 1

Manchester United are beginning to click into gear

We are only one game into the season but there already seems a greater awareness and understanding between Manchester United’s attacking players than there was for most of last year. Marcus Rashford’s delightful through ball for Romelu Lukaku’s first goal was one of many such moments of brilliance from United’s attackers and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, starting in the number 10 berth, linked everything together. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic ran riot in midfield, with the newly signed Serbian not only sound in his defensive duties but also not afraid to surge forward to support Pogba in attack. This United team look – dare I say it – like the old United for the first time since Sir Alex’s retirement.

 

Same old story for Arsenal and Liverpool

Arsenal played brilliantly at times on Friday night in their 4-3 victory over Leicester, with Alexandre Lacazette already slotting well into this new system and Olivier Giroud reminding fans he still has a role to play at the Emirates, coming off the bench to net the winner. Similarly Sadio Mané looked devastating in Liverpool’s attack in their 3-3 draw against Watford, and there were signs of promise from Mo Salah. But it was a different story in defence, with Arsenal’s back three not looking at all assured – with the possible exception of new man Sead Kolasinac – and Liverpool still struggling to defend set pieces. Indeed, the first two games of the new season brought to mind these two teams’ encounter on last year’s opening weekend, in which Liverpool surged into a 4-1 lead before clinging on for dear life as the game ended 4-3.

 

Conte’s patience wearing thin

Regardless of what he said in his post-match press conference, there was definitely the feeling that Antonio Conte’s team selection was an intentional message to the Chelsea hierarchy. Despite spending £130 million new players, Conte is not happy with the club’s transfer business so far. Having failing to land Lukaku and watching Leonardo Bonucci move to AC Milan for roughly the same figure the Blues paid for Antonio Rudiger, the manager clearly feels that the board’s ambition does not match his own. It is not just incoming transfers that are the issue: with Diego Costa still on the books and a whole host of departures on loans and permanent deals – most notably Matic to title rivals Manchester United – a tension between the club and manager is growing.

 

Summer strikers look ready to prove their worth

While Conte may have some misgivings about Chelsea’s transfer business, the club can at least point to Alvaro Morato making an instant impact as a source of positivity. The Spaniard scored one and assisted another against Burnley in the half an hour he was on the pitch. Lacazette also made a scoring start for Arsenal, finding the net after just two minutes, while Lukaku became the fourth player to score a brace on his Manchester United debut. All three should be vying for the Golden Boot this season, but with Sergio Aguero already off the mark and Harry Kane presumably not wanting to give up the trophy so easily, it is set to be a fascinating battle between the top strikers of the top clubs.

 

Huddersfield the surprise package?

David Wagner has done little short of working wonders in his time at Huddersfield, guiding them up to the Premier League in his first full season at the club and seeing them top the table for 24 hours before Manchester United leapfrogged them on goal difference. His managerial prowess will be crucial if Huddersfield are to stand a chance of staying up. But if things aren’t looking quite so good after Christmas, wouldn’t it be nice if he were given a chance to stay and fight, rather than most clubs’ trigger happy approach to firing managers? If any recent manager of a club at Huddersfield’s level deserves that little bit of respect and belief, it is surely Wagner.