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About Vesper

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    Bluegirl Squad
  • Birthday 12/02/1992

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  • Gender Female
  • Location Stockholm, Sweden
  • Favourite Chelsea Player Mateo Kovačić
  • Fan Since Not Telling


  • Twitter ____Vesper

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  1. Chelsea's Transfer Targets

    indeed €120m release clause, lol ZERO chance
  2. Chelsea's Transfer Targets

    he fucking sucks massive cock-up especially signing him for seven years at almost £200K PW btw, that £190K PW was confirmed yet again by The Athletic lately I have been seeing a £150K PW number being shoved out there, often times by pure dogshit sites and their related ass-licker clones
  3. The Pub - Discuss Anything

    Redditors have discovered a simple way to remove ads from YouTube videos by adding a period to the domain name. The trick - first reported on Reddit and subsequently by Android Police - involves simply placing a period (or full stop) after the .com in the URL of the video you’re watching. This seems to remove all pre-roll ads, ads that might appear midway through the video and advertising overlays. it works
  4. The ‘ghost’: 4 top-flight clubs, 3 continents over 9 months. Zero matches played https://theathletic.com/1903793/2020/07/08/bernio-verhagen-viborg-court-mo-sinouh-transfers/ When someone makes a film about the bizarre, head-spinning tale of Bernio Verhagen’s time in football, there is a good chance that it will begin quietly, at the desk of a journalist. It will build up to the more obviously cinematic beats: the alleged identity fraud, Verhagen’s escape from the police, the web of lies that would be the envy of an entire spy network. It will eventually lurch into the violence that lends a more sober tone to the entire affair. But those dominoes will only start toppling over later. The story must start small, with an act of curiosity that sets the scene for all that follows. Sam van Raalte is the lead editor at Vice Sports in the Netherlands. He hosts a podcast and writes features. He covers fan culture and martial arts, but there is one subject that is particularly close to his heart: weird, wacky football transfers. “I love stories from the absolute bottom of the market,” he says with a laugh. “Players who aren’t good enough for the top leagues but go to these obscure parts of the world just to call themselves professionals.” One day in June 2019, Van Raalte was scrolling through Transfermarkt, a website that tracks the movements and values of footballers around the world. He was looking for Dutch players in foreign countries, with an eye on potential interviews. Most of the listings were fairly beige, but one stood out. It was for a winger who had moved to FC Dinamo-Auto, a tiny club in Moldova. It looked promising. When Van Raalte saw that Dinamo-Auto are based in Transnistria — a breakaway territory that is not recognised by the international community — and that the player had returned to the Netherlands before making a single appearance, he resolved to look into it. “He was this amateur player who went to this obscure part of the world and didn’t play,” says Van Raalte. “I just wanted to know what happened there.” The player was Verhagen, a 25-year-old who was born in Surinam but grew up in Tilburg, near the Belgian border. His only previous experience at a professional club had come a decade earlier when he spent a year in the academy system of Eredivisie outfit Willem II. He was a complete nobody, but that just made the idea of his Moldovan adventure all the more alluring. Van Raalte sent him a message, inviting him onto his podcast to share his experiences. A few days later, Verhagen strode into the Vice offices in Amsterdam. “In walked this calm guy with a Balenciaga sweater and golden earrings,” recalls Van Raalte. “We sat down and spoke for about 45 minutes. He had the funniest anecdotes. In hindsight, I could say that he came prepared. He told me about being shocked at all the holes on the highway from the airport in Moldova. He told me his team-mates had never seen a black guy in the shower and were very impressed by the size of his penis. All kinds of stories. Funny, cultural things. “He told me the first training sessions [for Dinamo-Auto] didn’t go well because it was too cold, and then there was an issue with his agent. I thought, OK, this guy probably just wasn’t good enough and they ended his contract. It felt like a small, innocent story.” The podcast came out on July 5. It went down well; Van Raalte was pleased. Then two emails came in. The first was from someone who had played amateur football with Verhagen. He said he was surprised Verhagen had managed to get a move abroad — even to an insignificant team — because he really wasn’t very talented. The second was more serious. It suggested Verhagen was not to be trusted. Van Raalte called Verhagen, who asked for the names of these “haters”. When Van Raalte refused to oblige, Verhagen hung up. It was an odd exchange that made Van Raalte question the tone of their previous conversation. He decided he would keep tabs on Verhagen’s career, even if, deep down, he suspected he would simply disappear back into the hinterlands of the Dutch game. “I didn’t see anything further happening,” says Van Raalte. “But then things escalated very quickly.” On July 26, Cape Town City FC, a first-division team in South Africa, announced a new signing. They published a photo — since deleted from the club’s social media accounts and website — which showed owner John Comitis shaking hands with a man wearing a black hoodie and an inscrutable half-smile. The man was Verhagen. His stay at the club lasted less than a month. He never played a match. On August 22, Audax Italiano, a first-division team in Chile, announced a new signing. “The player arrives as a result of the international connections that Audax Italiano has,” the club’s president, Lorenzo Antillo, told the press. “The idea is that he will be with us until December. He is a forward who plays on the outside.” The forward was Verhagen. His stay at the club lasted 61 days. He never played a match. On November 5, Viborg FF (VFF), a first-division team in Denmark, announced a new signing. He was presented with the No 28 jersey and talked up by the club’s sporting director, Jesper Fredberg. “He has some cutting-edge skills that we think are exciting,” Fredberg told Danish football website Bold.dk. “He was recommended by people close to the club, so we think it makes good sense to bring him in. It is up to us to get him to perform and to tap into the potential that we have seen in him.” The owner of the cutting-edge skills and the potential was Verhagen. His stay at the club lasted 19 days. He never played a match. By this stage, it should be clear why Verhagen came to be known in the Netherlands as a “spookvoetballer” — a ghost footballer. In the space of nine months, he joined four top-flight clubs in three continents, managing a grand total of zero appearances. From Moldova to South Africa, then to Chile and Denmark: it is quite the itinerary. Quite the head-scratcher, too, given that his last actual game, before all this globe-trotting started, came the colours of Den Dungen, who play in the eighth tier of the Dutch pyramid. Inexplicable transfers take place all the time in football, but when four of them involve the same person and go through in such rapid succession, things start to smell fishy. Why did all these clubs take a chance on a player with no reputation? Why didn’t he actually play for any of them? The answers to these questions are knotty. Revelations and accusations relating to the case have tumbled out slowly over a period of months, thanks to dogged investigative work by Van Raalte and colleagues in the Danish press. There are still grey areas now, but it is instructive that one agent who crossed paths with Verhagen along the way compares the events to Catch Me If You Can, the Leonardo Di Caprio film about a globe-trotting forger and conman. VFF claim they were victims of “a large scam… a serious crime involving fraud, document fraud and identity theft”, and took the case to the Danish police late last year. The other three clubs have been less forthright, but the suggestion is that they were fooled too. All will be watching with interest when he stands trial on charges of fraud and forgery in Viborg next month. All, it is safe to assume, rue the day they allowed Verhagen into their orbits. When Verhagen joined VFF, Van Raalte got back in touch with him. He had been puzzled by the Cape Town and Audax Italiano moves, but this was a bit closer to home. “I texted him to ask who the agent who was arranging all these deals was,” he says. “I wanted to know the process behind all these contracts.” Verhagen did not seem happy to hear from him. His reply was terse: “I want you to stop bothering me with your bullshit.” Van Raalte ploughed on. He contacted Den Dungen, whose head scout told him that Verhagen had only played a handful of games and “didn’t really stand out”. That chimed with two sets of quotes given to Bold.dk. “He was fast, but that was it,” said Ben Hoek, Den Dungen’s head coach. Andreas Baes, a former player for Naestved — a second-tier club in Denmark — said he remembered Verhagen arriving for a trial match, only to be sent away after being so poor in the warm-up. “I was shocked at how bad he was,” said Baes. On November 24, Van Raalte released the second of what would end up being five podcasts on the story. Verhagen texted him, threatening to sue. If he was on the defensive, that was probably understandable: by that stage, the first in a series of explosive claims about his modus operandi had been published in the written press. Danish newspaper BT reported that Verhagen’s move to Cape Town City had been initiated by Mo Sinouh, a director at Stellar Group – a prominent sports agency whose clients include Gareth Bale and Saul Niguez. Sinouh contacted Vasili Barbis, a South African agent, on WhatsApp. He told him that he had a player who had a lucrative transfer to China lined up at the end of the year, but needed to find a team in the interim. It looked like a chance to build a relationship with a big hitter in global football, so Barbis took it to Comitis, Cape Town City’s owner. “We didn’t know much about him initially,” Julian Bailey, a spokesperson for Cape Town City, later explained on Van Raalte’s podcast, De Wereld van Vice Sports. “We saw some footage and the chairman really liked what he saw. He came to train with us for a while and we ended up signing him.” There was, as BT reported, just one problem: “Mo Sinouh” turned out not to be Mo Sinouh, just an opportunist who had pinched a photo of him from the internet. By the time Barbis became aware of the fact — the real Mo Sinouh called him after being confused by a comment from a mutual contact — it was too late. The publicity photo was online and Verhagen was in Cape Town, working on his fitness with the club’s coaches. Verhagen has said he too thought he was dealing with the real Sinouh. But Barbis believes “Mo Sinouh” was Verhagen himself — “100 per cent,” he told Vice – and felt that the whole thing was carefully calculated. “He never had the intention of playing football. I think what he tried to do was bullshit a club for a certain period of time, then move onto the next. Good riddance.” The next club was Audax Italiano. According to documents published by BT, “Mo Sinouh” was called into action again, in a bid to woo Chilean agent Gaston Gonzalez Pezola. On this occasion, the con started with a fake letter, purportedly sent by Ajax, hinting at a future bid for one of Pezola’s clients. It then referred the matter to the fake Sinouh, who leveraged the goodwill to swing a trial for one of his own players. Verhagen flew to the town of La Florida. “He came for a test, but since we hadn’t used our quota of foreign players, we signed him up,” explained Antillo, the club president. The pattern of behaviour outlined in these reports clearly rung a bell at VFF. Club officials were already harbouring suspicions about Verhagen due to a string of controversies in his private life (about which more soon), but this was the final straw. A day after BT’s story hit the newsstands, they released a statement in which they detailed, at some length, their concerns about the sequence of events that had brought the Dutchman into their world. Their story ticked all of the same boxes: “Mo Sinouh”, a big-money move to China, a short-term deal with no strings attached. VFF admitted they had been seduced by “the great prospect of professional collaboration with one of the most reputable agencies” and had agreed to sign Verhagen “to strengthen the relationship”. When they had questioned his backstory in early November — he had made a terrible first impression in training — they claim the timely arrival of a memo from the Chinese club, printed on an official letterhead and stamped, had convinced them to hang fire on getting rid of him. Now, though, they were convinced they had been duped. “Viborg FF has not been hit financially, as neither a salary nor agent fees have been paid,” read the statement. “But the club has been greatly affected on the level of professional pride.” It seems unlikely the feeling was not echoed in Moldova, South Africa and Chile. After the case blew up, FC Dinamo-Auto head coach Igor Dobrovolsky told Reuters that he had never heard of Verhagen. The news item about Verhagen’s arrival disappeared from the club’s website soon thereafter. The Athletic emailed FC Dinamo-Auto for comment but received no response. Cape Town City denied Verhagen was ever formally added to the payroll. “He was never registered,” Comitis, the club owner, told Reuters. “He was going to, but we discovered that something was not right, so we pulled out of giving him an official contract.” The Athletic emailed Cape Town City and Barbis but received no response. “I have got involved in something I didn’t ask for,” Antillo, the president of Audax Italiano, told Vice. A member of the club’s media team told The Athletic that they would issue no further comment. Gaston Gonzalez Pezola did not reply to messages sent on WhatsApp. Viborg, refreshingly, opted for pure transparency, despite the inevitable embarrassment. “We hope that with this information we have shown sufficient openness about a completely extraordinary case,” read their statement. “We take our responsibility in this matter and hope that with this openness we ensure that other clubs and colleagues never get into a similar situation.” Two days after that press release, VFF terminated Verhagen’s contract. After collaboration with the real Stellar Group, the club handed a slew of documents over to the Danish police. On June 10 this year, Verhagen was charged with fraud and forgery, relating his dealings with the club. He is due in court on August 18. It is understood he denies the allegations and he has said he too thought he was dealing with the real Mo Sinouh. If there is a grain of comfort to be taken from the current situation, it is that nobody else has been tricked about Verhagen since last November. For one simple reason: he has been in prison since then. It is here the story takes a darker turn. Stories of fake footballers usually induce a smile. Carlos Kaiser, Ali Dia, Alessandro Zarrelli… these were puffy underdog tales in which no-one really got hurt. But the Verhagen case is different. He is, in the eyes of many people who know him and now in the eyes of the Danish legal system, a dangerous man. From the moment he landed in Viborg in October, rumours about his private life were rife. Most centred on his relationship with Nayaret Muci, a young Chilean woman who travelled to Denmark with him when he left Audax Italiano. On November 3, La Tercera, a newspaper in Chile, published an interview with Verhagen. Before their video call with the Dutchman, La Tercera’s journalists had seen concerning posts on Muci’s Instagram page, in which she claimed Verhagen was holding her captive in Denmark, and had assaulted and spat at her. When they got hold of Verhagen, Muci was in the hotel room and helped to translate. She told them it was hard to live “with a person who doesn’t let you out of the hotel” and that “he was violent with me”, but said things had blown over. On November 26 — hours after Verhagen’s contract was terminated by VFF — there was an altercation between the couple at Viborg’s main train station. Video footage showed Verhagen dragging Muci through a news kiosk. He was subsequently arrested. The next day, after a four-hour hearing, Verhagen was remanded in custody. Even in court, he was committed to his footballing dreams. “I have already spoken to another Danish club,” he replied when the prosecutor, Katrine Melgaard, asked him about his job situation. As for “Mo Sinouh”, Verhagen claimed he too had been duped. “We have been fooled by him,” he said. A dizzying number of accusations were levelled at Verhagen within the space of a couple of weeks. Danish paper Politiken claimed he stole money and jewellery from a former girlfriend. Van Raalte spoke to multiple acquaintances of Verhagen’s — including one of his relatives — who claimed to have been swindled by him. One woman told BT: “He is insanely manipulative. I have never met a person who can lie so violently.” In mid-December, the authorities got first-hand experience of his slipperiness. During a handover to correctional officers after another hearing – his custody was extended – Verhagen managed to escape and flee. He tried to put the police off his scent by posting on Instagram that he was heading to Sweden. After a frantic 12-hour search, he was found hiding in the basement of a residential building in Holstebro, a town just west of Viborg. On February 19, Verhagen was charged with 10 offences. They included issuing threats to two people in Denmark (the mother of his child and her father), rape, assault, robbery, the recording of a sexual encounter without consent, and escaping the police. On June 24, Verhagen pleaded guilty to escaping the police. He pleaded not guilty to the remaining nine charges. Muci gave evidence via video link from the Danish embassy in Chile. Judge Jacob Svenning Jonsson found Verhagen guilty of nine of the 10 counts but said there was insufficient evidence to convict him for rape. Verhagen was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The time already spent in custody counts towards the sentence. Melgaard, the prosecutor, produced a snappy line in her closing remarks. “Bernio Verhagen is lying,” she said, “and he’s good at it.” Whoever the fake agent is, they were sloppy. There were claims about former clubs, easily disproved by Danish journalists. There was the letter from “Ajax” to the Chilean agent, which was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. It was signed by a “Mark Overmars”, but Ajax’s real sporting director — as any Arsenal or Barcelona fan could tell you — spells his first name “Marc”. Barbis told Vice that he received documents, supposedly from China, that came from an email address ending ‘.ch’ — the country domain for Switzerland. Whoever is doing this, “is either the smartest guy I’ve ever known, or the dumbest,” Barbis said. It certainly seems fair to say that the forger was dedicated to his task. Witness the two-month gap between the date on which VFF claim they were first contacted by “Mo Sinouh” and the day Verhagen actually signed for the club, during which there was “almost daily communication”. The fake Sinouh put the groundwork in. Verhagen, if Viborg FF’s account is to be believed, knew how to work an angle. And for all of the repellent nastiness that rose to the surface, he was also capable of turning on the charm when the situation demanded it. “He came across as this guy who didn’t take himself very seriously, who was sort of… floating through life,” says Van Raalte, remembering the day when Verhagen came in to record a podcast. “And he was really funny. It makes you lower your guard. But he is a highly manipulative guy.” Nor do Verhagen’s dreams of being a professional footballer appear to have begun in 2019. A former girlfriend told Bold.dk he used to pose in FC Copenhagen tracksuits in a bid to convince her he played for the club. She said he then repeated that ploy with clothing bearing the logo of another Danish team, FC Midtjylland, and posted the pictures on social media. An old Instagram post, since deleted, shows him holding the yellow-and-black jersey of a third team, Hobro IK. On the back, printed above the number 23, is Verhagen’s name. In that interview with Bold.dk, the former girlfriend also claimed Verhagen went to the length of creating his own football club. He called it FC Ostjylland. “He even made the logo with the deer,” the woman said. “I saw him do it on my computer.” There is a picture on Verhagen’s Instagram page — dormant since that madcap dash from the police last December — that shows him in a white Nike strip bearing that crest. It was uploaded on February 13, 2018. It is one of only 14 posts that remain. The most recent of them dates back to August last year and shows Verhagen modelling Cape Town City’s home and away kits for the 2019-20 season. It looks like an official photoshoot. The bio line on the page reads, “Professional football player / jugador de futbol profesional”, but that appears never to have been true, for all he wanted it to be so. No, the real essence of Bernio Verhagen is better captured by a quote on his old Facebook profile. It was pinned just above a line that listed his employer as FC Copenhagen. “If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan,” the quote read. “But never the goal.” (Top image: Danish Police released the photo when he escaped)
  5. The English Football Thread

    Why Wolves’ double act of Traore-Jimenez is up there with Barcelona and Bayern https://theathletic.com/1919072/2020/07/14/traore-jimenez-premier-league-wolves-goal-assist-barcelona-messi-bayern/ The classic attacking partnerships used to be the “big man, little man” combinations; the big man was the classic old-school centre-forward, who was a target for long balls. The little man was the quick, nippy striker who sprinted in behind. At Wolves, Raul Jimenez, the 6ft 3in No 9, is a good candidate for the “big man” role. Adama Traore couldn’t reasonably be described as a “little man” in many situations — if you want to tell him that to his face, that’s on you — but in this situation the tag works well. Together, they’ve created 10 goals for each other this season. Jimenez has laid on three strikes for Traore, but the usual pattern has been Traore assisting Jimenez. That’s happened seven times this season — which, across Europe’s five major leagues, can only be bettered by Thomas Muller setting up Robert Lewandowski for Bayern Munich, and is matched by Lionel Messi assisting Luis Suarez at Barcelona. For Wolves to boast a combination comparable to those players speaks volumes about their overperformance this season, and the fine relationship developed by these two attackers. Compared to the relationships at Bayern and Barca, Traore and Jimenez’s combination play is different. After a spell out of the side at Bayern, and some appearances on the right, Muller generally ended up playing as a No 10 behind Lewandowski, the same roles that Messi and Suarez play for Barca — they combine naturally in central positions. Traore and Jimenez’s relationship is different — although Traore has occasionally been fielded up front alongside Jimenez, as in the 2-0 defeat by Arsenal last week, he’s generally played from the right flank of a 3-4-3. The assists, therefore, have followed a very familiar pattern. In the 2-1 win over Aston Villa in November, Traore picked up the ball inside his own half, dribbled 50 yards and then played a pull-back for Jimenez to sweep home for Wolves’ second goal. Note the Mexican absolutely pleading for the pass to be played his way. In the 2-1 victory at Bournemouth two weeks later, Wolves devised a clever free-kick routine — which they also tried the following week at Norwich — which involved Joao Moutinho sliding the ball forward for Traore’s run, with Jimenez rushing in to tap home his ball across the six-yard box. In the 3-2 win over Manchester City just after Christmas, Traore robbed Benjamin Mendy on the byline and played a short pass for Jimenez to tap home. And in a victory by the same scoreline against Southampton in January, the winner came after Traore ran in behind and, with his left foot, pulled the back for Jimenez to curl home. Since then, however, the nature of the assists have become even more consistent. In the 2-1 defeat by Liverpool in January, there was a well-weighted, dinked cross into a prime goalscoring position for Jimenez to nod inside the far post… ….and then, since the restart, Traore has provided deep crosses for Jimenez to head home at the far post against both West Ham… …and Bournemouth. Arguably more interesting than the nature of the assists, though, is the timing of them. Wolves have a peculiar habit of coming on strong after half-time this season; in a “first-half league table” they’d be sitting 20th in the Premier League, and in a “second-half league table” they’d be fourth. In keeping with that record, six of Traore’s seven assists for Jimenez have come in the second half. In chronological order, they’ve come in the 31st, 51st, 61st, 72nd, 75th, 81st and 83rd minutes. The only first-half goal was the first goal at Bournemouth — the aforementioned free-kick routine, the only goal that didn’t come from open play. Therefore, it seems fair to conclude that Traore is, naturally, most dangerous in the latter stages of matches, when he’s running at tired defenders. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s best as a “super sub”. Only one of these assists, the recent deep cross against West Ham, have come after Traore came off the bench. Otherwise, each have come when he’s started; when he’s personally contributed to wearing down the opposition’s left-back before taking advantage of their tiredness during the closing stages. While Traore has sometimes been used as a wing-back, or up front, all these assists have come when Wolves have been using Traore wide-right in a 3-4-3. Against Arsenal, the experiment with Traore up front alongside Jimenez was interesting — Nuno Espirito Santo was perhaps trying to get two players who combine so effectively playing closer together. They nearly combined well in the opening seconds, when Jimenez dinked the ball over the defence for Traore’s run, but Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez swept effectively and cleared the ball to safety. But Traore, for all his pace, hasn’t proved particularly effective at timing his runs when playing up front, or bending them to stay onside. It was telling that his clearest goalscoring chance came after Nuno switched to 3-4-3, with substitute Diogo Jota coming inside off the left to combine with Jimenez, who threaded the ball through the defence for Traore, who dinked over. Here, Traore was able to start in a deeper position, and his straight-line speed over a long distance is unmatchable. The exception to the rule came in Wolves’ 2-0 victory over Manchester City. Here, they scored two late goals in similar fashion while using the 3-5-2. This time, it was Jimenez assisting Traore. First he dribbled 50 yards and squared for Traore to convert… …and later he slipped in Traore, who burst in behind Fernandinho and converted the clinching goal. Jimenez’s other assist for Traore came in a 2-1 defeat by Tottenham. On this occasion, it was in the 3-4-3, and it was a long-range Traore strike rather than him being set in behind the opposition. It’s interesting, though, that there was another similarity to the goals at City: all three of Jimenez’s assists to Traore have been prodded with the outside of his right foot. But it’s usually been Traore setting up Jimenez, and it’s not unthinkable that they could equal a Premier League record. Two more combinations resulting in a goal, and Traore-Jimenez will become the joint-most prolific assister-goalscorer combination in Premier League history. The five combinations above them in the table, peculiarly, all happened in either 1994-95 or 1995-96. We’ve come to take Traore’s brilliance for granted this season, but there was little sign of this partnership last season — when Traore managed just one goal and one assist, neither of these goals featuring Jimenez. In 2019-20, this is the best partnership in the Premier League, and one of the best in Europe. It’s the big man-little man partnership, but not as we know it.
  6. The English Football Thread

    Liverpool have doubled their income in six years. Now they’re chasing Man Utd https://theathletic.com/1899560/2020/07/03/liverpool-title-money-deloitte-league-manchester-united-hogan-billy/ Billy Hogan joined Fenway Sports Group in 2004, the year the Boston Red Sox, the company’s first big purchase and prize asset, snapped an 86-year curse by winning the World Series. A born salesman, Hogan rose through the ranks and was the obvious choice to take charge of Liverpool’s commercial operation in 2012, two years after Fenway had added the Reds to the Red Sox. After all, if he had spent eight years working with one of the most famous franchises in American sport, what could be so special about a team that had just finished eighth in the Premier League? Hogan, who was only 37 when appointed chief commercial officer, soon found out that the Boston Red Sox open doors from California to Connecticut but Liverpool get you out of windowless rooms on the other side of the world. “I was travelling on club business some years ago to Jakarta and when you get there, you pay £25 or something for a visa that they put in your passport,” Hogan tells The Athletic a week after the team have broken their own 30-year title hoodoo. “But when I tried to do it, there were no more pages left and this caused a bit of an issue. I was taken off to some office deep in the airport and this guy was waving my passport around while smoking a cigarette and talking to somebody on the phone. He wasn’t very pleased and I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to make my meeting’. “But then he asked me what I was doing in Jakarta and I said I was there on business, and he asked who I worked for, so I said Liverpool Football Club. He immediately put the phone down and said ‘Big Reds’ and gave me a big hug. That’s our supporters’ club in Indonesia. “He peeled off a little stamp that was on the visa and stuck that in my passport. He then led me through the airport, gave me another hug and waved me on my way. “It’s always nice to see the red ‘B’ on caps all over the world and certainly, in the US, you would say the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are the two biggest brands in baseball. “But Liverpool are different because football is the most popular sport in the world, the Premier League is the most popular league in that sport and Liverpool are one of the most popular teams in that league. It’s just a different scale.” In purely financial terms, the two teams are pretty even. The Red Sox, who have won the World Series three more times since 2004, have an annual turnover of more than £400 million, while Liverpool cleared the £500 million barrier in 2019, the season they won their sixth Champions League crown. But in its 2019 sports team valuation list, the business magazine Forbes had the Red Sox £800 million higher than their soccer stablemates. That is a reflection of the huge broadcast contracts and tight wage control which help most US sports franchises make steady profits, year in, year out, with no fear of relegation. But Liverpool look pretty safe in the Premier League and when you factor in their potential to grow as a business, it is not hard to see what gets Hogan out of bed at 7am to answer questions about the club’s digital strategy. The Red Sox have 2.1 million Twitter followers, Liverpool have 14.8 million. On Instagram, it is 1.8 million versus 26.6 million, and on Facebook, it is 5.2 million against 36 million. And the weight of those numbers is starting to tell. According to Deloitte’s Football Money League, the £553 million Liverpool earned last season is the seventh-highest income in global football, only marginally behind Manchester City in sixth place. Barcelona led the way with earnings of £741 million, £74 million more than Spanish rivals Real Madrid. Manchester United were third on £627 million, with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain completing the top five. But Liverpool, now the English, European and world champions, look like a club with the wind in their sails. Their income has doubled in the last six years and, as Deloitte noted, they “have the clubs above them in their sights rather than those behind. The long-term ambitions of a top-five Money League position in future editions are not unrealistic”. Tim Crow is a sports marketing expert, who advises leading brands, teams and sports. “The historic context is important,” Crows explains. “Liverpool were dominant in the years before 1990 and this gave them a very big fanbase in this market and elsewhere, which is something they have in common with Manchester United. “These two are by far the biggest brands in British football and while Liverpool can talk about Shankly and their European titles, Manchester United have the Busby Babes, Best, Law and Charlton. And these allegiances have been handed down from one generation to another, which is why you have all these 30-year-olds celebrating their first Liverpool title.” So does that mean anyone could have made a financial success out of Liverpool? Is it not so much that they are back but that they never went away? “If I had to use a word to describe Liverpool before Fenway took over, it would be ‘chaotic’,” says Crow. “To give you an example, I worked on a campaign with Betfair when it was launched. We wanted the biggest possible audience and we also wanted to create a sense of competition, because that is how the betting exchange works, with fans betting against each other. “So we decided to go out and sign deals with Barca and Real, and Liverpool and United. We signed with Barca and United pretty quickly but we couldn’t get Real because they already had a betting partner, which happens. “But with Liverpool, the talks were such a shambles, we decided to walk away. I had to advise Betfair that these guys just wouldn’t be good partners. There are very few times in my career when I’ve walked away from a deal like that. “But from the moment Fenway came in, things have changed. They’re just very smart.” Hogan is too modest to say if he agrees with that but he does not pull any punches about the situation Fenway inherited when they bought Liverpool from American businessmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks for £300 million in 2010. “The position of the club was pretty stark. It was on the brink of bankruptcy, not in a good place at all,” he says. “The statement we heard a lot was that Liverpool was a sleeping giant and that seemed quite accurate. We knew Liverpool had a massive supporter base and wherever you travelled in the world, you could find Liverpool fans. “But everything is based on the success of the team. It’s why Fenway does this — whether that’s with Liverpool, the Red Sox or any of our other entities. “The goal is to win in a sustainable way and the more you win, the more commercial success we can have, which in turn, can help the football side of the club. It’s a virtuous cycle.” For Hogan, that cycle started in 2012 when Adidas walked away from a renewal negotiation for Liverpool’s kit deal, saying the club’s on-field performance was “not in the right balance” with Fenway’s valuation of the shirt. Many would have panicked. Hogan and his team went out and doubled the club’s money with a £25 million deal with Warrior Sports, a Boston-based brand keen to break out of their ice hockey and lacrosse niche into the world’s favourite game. Three years later, Warrior’s parent company New Balance took over the contract, a changing of the guard that coincided with Jurgen Klopp’s arrival on Merseyside. “Look at how they played the long game when Adidas walked away in 2012,” says Crow. “They went with Warrior, who nobody had heard of and it brought them a load of stick, but that became the New Balance deal, which has been a proper partnership, benefiting both parties. And now they’ve signed a deal with Nike that should take them to the next level. “On the sponsorship side, they’ve got Standard Chartered on the shirt front, Western Union on the sleeve and Axa on the training kit as their pillars, with a Manchester United-style multi-partner model that sits underneath that. It’s all very calculated and strategic. “They rode out the bad press. New Balance wanted to keep the relationship and they did a very good job with it. It was a world-class problem for Liverpool to have.” The problem Crow refers to is that New Balance loved working with a resurgent Liverpool so much it was willing to take the club to court last year when Fenway received a more exciting offer from Nike, the world largest sportswear company. Liverpool won that argument and, from next year, will be wearing the company’s Swoosh on their chests and seeing their shirts in shop windows from Boston to Beijing. “The general sense in the market about Liverpool under Fenway is they are smart operators, who have installed good people in the sponsorship and sales teams — they’ve really invested in talent and that has made a good impression,” says Daniel Haddad, the head of commercial strategy at the sports marketing firm Octagon. “Before Fenway arrived, Liverpool’s commercial operation was pretty underwhelming. Don’t forget, Adidas walked away from the kit deal a few years ago but last year, you had Adidas, Nike and New Balance fighting over them. Getting Standard Chartered to renew with a long-term deal was another good sign and Liverpool have the potential to go past United. All the research suggests they’re on a positive trajectory. “For a long time, United have been the leaders commercially, certainly in this country, a perception that was reinforced when the Glazers came in, but Liverpool were catching up even before Jurgen Klopp started doing his thing. “What they’ve been able to do much more successfully over the last two or three years is communicate what is unique about Liverpool as a club. They’ve learned how to speak to brands about the club’s appeal and not just fall back on how big they are or how many followers on social media they have. All of that is important, and some sponsors still only really care about the eyeballs, but the brand side of things is vital these days and Liverpool have been very good at behaving like a brand. “People take the piss out of the ‘This Means More’ stuff but it has been very effective because they’ve committed to it. It’s more than just a sales pitch.” Ah, yes, the slogan that one executive from a rival club recently told The Athletic “just winds me up. What does it even mean? It’s just typical of them!”. So, Billy, what does “This Means More” mean? “It’s a marketing phrase to some degree but it’s based on some work we commissioned a marketing company to do for us. They surveyed our fans, and people who aren’t fans, and asked what Liverpool meant to them,” explains Hogan (the company, by the way, was Octagon). “To our supporters, Liverpool FC is a family. We wanted to know how it felt when you pull on your shirt to watch the game. For our fans, Anfield isn’t just a stadium, it’s home. There is something magical about our club. “OK, you can say it’s marketing lingo, but the idea is based on data from our fans and it does resonate. Of course, to work, it has to be authentic.” And it does appear to work. Liverpool’s commercial income has tripled in a decade from £62 million to £188 million. Scroll down to the bottom of the Liverpool website and you will find a squad of official partners every bit as strong as Klopp’s team. “‘This Means More’ sounds more like a campaign to me than a motto but their sponsors love it,” says Richard Adelsberg, managing director at the sport and music agency Ear to the Ground. “It’s broad enough to apply to almost any brand and it’s easy to understand and translate. Having slogans like these does help you get your ducks in a row when you’re talking to potential sponsors.” But what really impresses Adelsberg, whose agency uses data from over 6,000 “tastemakers” to inform clients about what’s hot, and what’s not, is how Liverpool learned to let go. “Liverpool were quite traditional in their approach,” he explains. “A bit like United, they could almost be a bit arrogant about how they dealt with brands because they knew, barring a catastrophe, they would still be a big club. “But a couple of years ago, they noticed that younger fans were moving towards Manchester City and Chelsea. These younger fans aren’t interested in what a club did 30 years ago. They’re interested in what is happening now. What they really like is where sport, fashion and music intersect. “Liverpool spotted this just in time, to be honest, and they changed their approach just as the team picked up. One of the first things they did was reach out to Liverpool fans in the esports world, which gave them access to a huge, younger audience.” It’s unclear whether this was a result of, or the reason for, Fenway hiring Peter Moore from gaming giant Electronic Arts to be Liverpool’s chief executive in 2017, but the results are obvious. Last year, the club’s FIFA Ultimate Team star Donovan “Tekkz” Hunt lifted a championship trophy before club captain Jordan Henderson, although in this case, it was the ePremier League. “They have also been clever with how they have supported independent outlets like Redmen TV and (fans’ website) Empire of the Kop without trying to control them,” says Adelsberg. “Another good example would be the relationship they have with (musician) Jamie Webster and his BOSS Night events. They could have ignored this and decided it was too edgy or risky. Lots of other clubs would have backed away, but Liverpool didn’t and it’s developed into something that really resonates with young fans.” So they have a massive potential customer base, a good product to sell, a catchy slogan, some tunes and they are down with the kids. But there is more. “Liverpool never really went away but they have also certainly grown,” says Rory Stewart-Richardson, founder and chief executive of Connexi, an online marketplace that puts sponsors together with rightsholders and vice-versa. “Manchester United are still smashing it on the sponsorship front because of their heritage and the success they enjoyed under Fergie — that is still hugely appealing to brands, even if they haven’t been as successful on the pitch since Fergie left. “Liverpool were a bit like that but even before they started winning again. They were closing the gap commercially and the secret has been their digital strategy. “They have massively increased the level and amount of content they put out for their fans. They’ve done heart-warming and funny videos, interviews and vlogs, they’ve embraced new technology like AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality), and they have invested in cloud-based communications technology. “Liverpool have the fastest-growing social media presence in football. Everybody is doing it but nobody is doing as well as them. Yes, success on the pitch helps but Liverpool have nailed the digital side. “Look, everyone wants a viral video but Liverpool’s output is so varied and of consistently high quality. It’s genuinely fan-first content and that’s why it gets more clicks, more likes and more shares.” Football’s fight for clicks, likes and shares is almost as competitive as the matches. No club can get away with a photo of a manager watching a new signing pretend to scribble their name on a piece of paper these days. This week’s viral sensation comes courtesy of the Football Association of Iceland — a two-minute video to launch their new logo that references the Game of Thrones, the Cod Wars, Gylfi Siggurdson’s dead-ball prowess and the Viking Clap — but Liverpool’s digital team have been slaying dragons, too. Recent highlights include a Nivea for Men-branded video of Henderson surprising a life-long Liverpool fan with a Zoom call. The fan had recently lost his mum and dad and needed a good day. His parting comment that the call had “made my life” suggests it works. But Anfield churns out comedies, too, with February’s advert for coconut milk firm Chaokoh making unlikely light entertainment stars of Roberto Firmino, Joel Matip and Andy Robertson. “We have focused on digital because it’s quite simply the only way to reach and engage with a fanbase like ours, which is global,” says Hogan. “We don’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution, so while we work hard on our platforms — our app, our website, our social channels — we are present everywhere we need to be. So we’re on (communications app) Line in Japan, (video-sharing network) Douyin in China, TikTok and so on, and each platform brings a different demographic.” Of course, there will be some fans rolling their eyes at this point — assuming they got past the bit about “This Means More” — or shouting: “What have silly videos and computer games got to do with winning football matches?” But it really is simple. The club’s wage bill has almost doubled from £166 million to £310 million in five years, and Liverpool’s amortisation costs — the best indicator of how much they are spending in the transfer market — have gone from £59 million to £112 million over the same period. Every deal Hogan and his team can get over the line provides more money for sporting director Michael Edwards and Klopp to spend on players. “Liverpool’s Champions League win in 2005 was vital to keeping them at the top table, just as buying top talent like Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez was important, too,” says Octagon’s Haddad. “But what we’re seeing now is them holding on to their best players: they are not a stepping stone to somewhere else.” So what is next? “Our plan is to continue to leverage the club’s size and scale, as well as target growth in key markets like China, India and the United States, which in football terms, are developing markets,” says Hogan. “The prospect of where we might get to is amazingly exciting. We have said it’s important to enjoy this moment but we know this is a very competitive world on and off the pitch. Our philosophy is not to focus on others but to concentrate on what we’re doing. And my role is to keep helping this club grow.” Celebrate, concentrate, collaborate — it sounds like a good plan. Watch out Real, Barca, United: Liverpool are coming for you. Liverpool winning the league again is a huge achievement deserving of the best we can offer you here at The Athletic. So we are publishing one new in-depth read per day from our team of top writers. And we’ve got some more treats up our sleeve after that too. Here’s a schedule, so you don’t miss out. WEDNESDAY: Liverpool’s 30 years of hurt. By Oliver Kay THURSDAY: Jurgen Klopp — the fist-pumping genius who turned dreams into reality. By James Pearce and Simon Hughes FRIDAY: The tactical innovations that transformed Liverpool. By Michael Cox SATURDAY: Tom Werner interview: This just makes us hungrier to deliver more trophies. By James Pearce SUNDAY: How do Liverpool ensure this is not a one-off? By Oliver Kay MONDAY: Jordan Henderson’s journey to title-winning captain. By Simon Hughes TUESDAY: Michael Edwards — the visionary behind Liverpool’s remarkable rise. By Daniel Taylor and Adam Crafton WEDNESDAY: Understanding Jurgen Klopp — ‘It’s never about him’. By Raphael Honigstein THURSDAY: The passing styles that underpin the triumph. By Tom Worville TODAY: How the Liverpool brand rose again. By Matt Slater SATURDAY: What now for Klopp’s squad? By James Pearce and Tom Worville We’ve also produced a special edition of the Red Agenda podcast And our friends at Tifo have created a brand new video explaining how FSG turned Liverpool in Premier League champions
  7. How much power does Messi really hold at Barcelona? https://theathletic.com/1911358/2020/07/09/lionel-messi-barcelona-power-president-setien/ It’s autumn 2009 and Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola is sitting in the front seat of the team bus, alongside long-time friend and collaborator Manel Estiarte, when his phone buzzes. A text. It reads, “Well, I see I’m no longer important for the team, so…” The message was from Lionel Messi, who sat stewing further back down the bus. The team’s big summer signing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, had scored in each of his first five La Liga games. Messi had also been among the goals, and the two had even assisted each other already. But the younger, quieter man was feeling under threat, so reached for the only way he could bring himself to make that known. Guardiola quickly rectified the mistake, and Ibrahimovic lasted only one season at the Nou Camp. Messi was given an even more central role in the team, which went on to have such great success. Many things have changed at Barcelona since then, and the brilliant Argentinian has also matured and taken on more responsibility on and off the pitch. One thing has remained constant however as presidents, directors, coaches and players have come and gone. There is still one person at the club who it is all-important to keep happy. In February, Messi took out his phone again to send another message, although this time he was at home in his house in the Catalan capital’s very comfortable Castelldefels district. The provocation had come from Barcelona’s sporting director Eric Abidal, a former team-mate, who had suggested in an interview with Catalan daily Sport that the team’s players were to blame for the firing of coach Ernesto Valverde the previous month. “To be brutally honest, I don’t like doing these things,” Messi responded, in an Instagram post he composed himself. “But I think that every person has to take responsibility for their own duties and the decisions they take. That includes the players, in what goes on out on the pitch — but we are the first ones to recognise when we haven’t played well. Those in charge of the ‘technical area’ also need to assume their responsibilities and above all, the decisions that they make. Lastly, I think that when someone mentions players, they should give names because if they don’t, they are tarring everyone with the same brush and fuelling gossip — a lot of which is not true.” Messi followed up this post with an interview in Mundo Deportivo in which he explained why Abidal claiming to have been able to “smell” problems between Valverde and senior players had struck such a nerve. “I don’t know what went through his head to say that, but I believe I responded as I felt attacked. I felt he was attacking the players,” Messi said. “And too many things have been said about the dressing room, that it controls everything, that it hires and fires coaches, signs players — and above all about me. As if I have too much power and I take decisions. And it annoys me that a person of the club would say that, the technical secretary… that he puts the players in the frame for the firing of who was our boss, it seems crazy to me. The technical secretary takes these decisions and must take responsibility for them. He takes the decisions. That is why I came out to clarify it, I knew that I could not let it go, that the sporting director would attack me in that way.” When asked whether such frustration might affect his long-term future at Barcelona, Messi gave the same answer he always gives to these questions — that he wants to spend his whole career at the Nou Camp, but also wants the club’s hierarchy to demonstrate that they share his desires. “At many moments I had the chance to leave the club, there were many clubs interested and even ready to pay the release clause,” Messi said. “But I never really thought of leaving, and not now either. I will repeat again. If the club wants me, there will be no problem.” The problem though is that it can be very difficult for those who have to work with Messi to know exactly what he wants. He himself even struggles to clearly explain it, beyond saying he wants to play in a team that wins everything, especially the Champions League, as often as possible. The Athletic understands Messi’s anger over Abidal’s comments was very real and had been building for a long time. Barcelona’s performances and results this season have not helped with his mood, but the real issue is a huge sense of frustration over the idea he is responsible for everything that happens at the club and therefore is to blame personally when things go wrong. That was why the most important message in both the Instagram post and subsequent interview was that each individual at the club must take responsibility for their own decisions, their own mistakes. They definitely should not shift the blame onto Messi, who feels that he is an easy target, because of his profile and personality. Each recent season, and this one especially, has brought lots of Catalan press stories, usually fuelled by leaks from somewhere within the club, which holds Messi responsible for the team’s issues. If Antoine Griezmann has not settled yet and is not performing to his level, it is because Messi won’t pass him the ball. If Barcelona’s finances are creaking, it’s because Messi and his father Jorge are constantly asking for more money. The final straw was the feeling Abidal had suggested Valverde’s sacking had been his fault too. Such stories gain traction as it has become widely accepted by many inside and outside the club that Messi is so powerful he can just pick up his phone and make big things happen at Barcelona. A lesson learned from the Ibrahimovic experience a decade ago was that the Argentinian may be a shy and introverted character, but he needs to feel he is the No 1, and keeping him happy has to be the primary consideration for everyone who works at the club. However, it is also clear that if Messi really was in charge, things would have gone very differently at Barcelona over the last few years. None of the more than 30 players signed at a cost of over €800 million since 2014 have been his friends or former team-mates. Press stories have linked Barcelona with Argentina national-team colleagues such as Sergio Aguero or Ever Banega, but they have not arrived. He did call for Neymar to be re-signed last summer, but instead club president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s personal wish to sign Griezmann from Atletico Madrid was fulfilled. When big signings such as Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele do not work out, Messi feels people blame him, even though he was not involved in their arrivals. While speaking to those around the club, The Athletic was told that in the past Messi has been actually surprised to see a new team-mate introduced at training, having not even been aware their signing was concluded the previous day. For sure, Barcelona’s top brass try to make decisions they think he will agree with. The board knew signing another superstar attacker in Neymar in the summer of 2013 was going to be tricky to manage, so it was also decided to hire Gerardo Martino, like Messi a Rosario native and former Newell’s Old Boy player, as coach. Messi and his father have always denied they were directly involved in the appointment, and The Athletic believes that to be true. Then-club president Sandro Rosell made a big show of how he had personally travelled to South America and used his personal contacts and charisma to persuade Martino to join. But the Messis were certainly asked for their opinion before the decision was finalised, and were generally happy with the idea — until it quickly became clear that Martino was out of his depth, and Barcelona ended the 2013-14 season without a major trophy. Subsequent coaching appointments — Luis Enrique, Valverde and Quique Setien — were not in any way linked to Messi, nor did he voice any particular opinion on their suitability before they arrived. His relationship with them has not always been perfect – there was a big row especially with Enrique in January 2015 – but they always found a way to work together. Back in the day, Messi would ask Guardiola not to talk so much about tactics, just to put the best players out on the field and let them win the game. That remains his basic, rudimentary idea of football — and explains why he wanted to get Neymar back, as together they won the team’s most recent Champions League. Modern coaches generally have more in-depth ideas about setting up their team, but they also know they need Messi to feel comfortable to get the best out of him. Most recently, that has meant keeping Luis Suarez on the pitch even when not 100 per cent fit, both before and after the striker’s knee operation in January. It also means Setien finding a place for Arturo Vidal, who does not really fit with the coach’s favoured possession-based style but has good chemistry with his fellow South Americans on and off the pitch. Picking the team remains the coach’s responsibility, however. Messi himself just wants to focus on what he is good at — scoring goals and playing games. He wants other people at the club to also do their own jobs and to do them well. That is why he was so angry over being blamed for Valverde’s sacking. Nobody asked him before the decision was made, and Abidal as sporting director and Bartomeu as president have the authority there. So they should be big enough to accept responsibility for their own decisions. Not try to hide behind the shield of the views of the “dressing room” or “senior players”, which Messi generally takes to be a euphemism for him personally. Most recently, the slew of media stories about Messi’s apparent snubbing of Setien and assistant Eder Sarabia during the 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo 12 days ago has also been a source of frustration. It came at a very tense moment in a key game, with Barcelona’s chances of retaining the title clearly slipping away. Messi was using the second half drinks break to focus on what he needed to do, thinking about where the space would be on the pitch and what he needed to do to ensure Barcelona could win the game and get three crucial points. It was not that he was ignoring his coaches, just that amid the general mayhem on the sideline he did not even notice what was going on, or think for a moment that maybe the cameras were on him. Setien has also decided not to take offence — playing down the incident’s importance to reporters afterwards, and even claiming he and Messi were similar characters in some ways. “I was not the easiest to deal with either when I was a player,” said the former Racing Santander and Atletico Madrid midfielder. Off the pitch, it is not the case that Messi only communicates via text message and cannot talk face to face with his theoretical superiors. Setien says “they talk as much as they have to”. Bartomeu says they have regular amicable conversations around the training ground. That is believable, although neither man wants to do anything to provoke a direct confrontation. Messi sees himself as a pretty normal guy, maybe a bit shy, but not someone with ideas above his station. He is a player, he wants to play as well as he can. He does not want to make big, important decisions around picking the team, deciding transfers, hiring or firing coaches, choosing who gets to be club president. He wants to go to work — whether that’s just training or playing games — and then head home and spend quality time with his family. So he gets very annoyed with a public image of him as this passive-aggressive ogre imposing his will on everyone at the Nou Camp just with a cold stare. Especially when both the club and the team are in such a mess. He’d really like to be able to just ignore all the noise and hassle outside of the 90 minutes of games, or when he is enjoying himself at training. That is more difficult now since he replaced Andres Iniesta as club captain two summers ago, and he has accepted the need to speak more in public, especially to do more interviews with the Catalan press. These tend to be tightly controlled by Barcelona’s communications department, but he does his best to explain his own thoughts and feelings. Messi also knows that many others at the club — in the dressing room and boardroom — are regularly leaking things to friendly local reporters, and often the stories which result do not reflect positively on him. He sees some people complaining he is not a real leader and captain like his fellow countryman and former national coach Diego Maradona was. While others say he is trying to have too much power and decide everything himself. They can’t both be right. And it just adds to his frustration. It is clear that if Messi really wanted to wield his power, his achievements as a player, and the general weakness of the club’s directors and coaches currently mean nobody could even try to stand in his way. A source with long experience of the situation told The Athletic: “If Leo wanted to, he could easily come out tomorrow and say, ‘We need a new president and new coach’. He has the red button in his hand every day. But he never presses it.” When he feels he needs to, he can take to Instagram to make a statement, as he did again in March (below) to make clear it was the players, not the board, who had decided to take pay cuts to ensure the lower-profile workers at the club would be paid salaries during the COVID crisis. But he has never openly called for anybody to be sacked, nor has he gone to knock on the president’s door to make any demands. Nobody doubts that those who really do make the decisions at Barcelona still try very hard to keep Messi happy while balancing that with the other interests which are at play. Those who publicly cross the team’s best player generally find it was a bad idea. When director Javier Faus questioned, in late 2013, the need for the club to keep giving Messi a new contract “every six months”, he was quickly sidelined and did not last much longer on the board. Pere Gratacos’ long service in the La Masia academy did not stop him being removed from all public club duties for saying in January 2017 that “Messi would not be as good without Iniesta or Neymar”. In neither case did Messi have to raise his voice, either in public or in private, but others at the club deemed it easier to avoid any more conflict. Abidal remains as sporting director for now but his authority has already been weakened irreparably, whether that was Messi’s intention with his Instagram post or not. “I’m not going to give details, but Leo Messi has said many times he will end his working and football life at the club,” Bartomeu said on Movistar TV after Sunday’s 4-1 win at Villarreal kept alive their slim chances of retaining the Spanish title. “There is no doubt that Messi will continue at the club.” That was in response to radio show El Larguero claiming earlier last weekend that Messi had “put the brakes on” talks between his father and the club over renewing his current contract and was considering leaving when that deal expires next summer. The Athletic believes the reality of the situation is not so dramatic, that negotiations are still ongoing, and that it is all part of the usual process. Jorge Messi has been in Argentina all through the COVID lockdown, and no serious progress was expected in the short term anyway. Barcelona’s very weak current finances are a big problem for those at the club looking to get the now 33-year-old to agree to another long-term contract. Money has always been important to the Messis, as Leo’s nine salary improvements in the last 15 years make clear. There has never been a shortage of clubs who would have been happy to meet his economic demands — Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are among those to have seriously looked at trying to persuade him to leave, while there have even been meetings through the years between his father and emissaries of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. The biggest “crisis” of Messi’s time at the club came in 2013-14, and was directly related to Neymar’s arrival the summer before. The Messis had been assured the younger player’s salary was much lower than what Leo earned, but the extent of all the ‘extras’ and ‘bonuses’ being paid to Neymar and his father, who was also his agent, soon became clear. A bumper new contract at Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo around that time also made it clear Messi’s status as the world football’s highest earner was under threat. The situation grew so serious that Messi told Tito Vilanova, while visiting the then seriously ill former Barcelona coach in April 2014, that “I’m going, and it’s not a question of money”, without revealing to which club, according to his biographer Sebastian Fest. That came during the most frustrating season of his club career so far — the team won zero major trophies under Martino, he appeared in court to face tax fraud charges and missed two months of the season through injury. In the end, though, he could not bring himself to leave, and a new deal was agreed the following summer. There are parallels with the current campaign, given the mix of on- and off-field factors which have led him to feel less than comfortable. Although Messi was actually in a positive mood when La Liga returned post-lockdown in mid-June, believing that the break had been a benefit and that Barcelona could end the season well. They were top of the table then, but the optimism did not last. They have already dropped six points in eight games, and know they probably won’t catch Real Madrid from here as their rivals are one point clear with a game in hand. There is also not a huge amount of confidence around either that they can up their level in time to really compete for the Champions League next month. Another failure in Europe would hit much harder than missing out on the La Liga title — which Messi has won in 10 of his 15 completed seasons as a senior player. Domestic success is no longer enough to really satisfy, they have to win the Champions League, and doing so three times since he really established himself as a staple of the first team is not enough. Especially as Ronaldo won four in five years from 2014 with Real Madrid. The nature of Barcelona’s European exits in recent years —such as at Anfield last season, after winning that semi-final’s first leg 3-0 — have also been very difficult to take. “I’ve said many times before that my idea is (to spend my whole career at Barcelona), and while the club and the fans keep wanting this, there will never be any problem from my side,” Messi told Mundo Deportivo in February. “Many times I have also said that I would like to be here, and for us all to be doing well, the club, that the fans are happy with the team, that there is a winning project, and that we are fighting for all the trophies, as we always have at this club. That is my idea, to stay at this club. I want to win another Champions League, I want to keep winning La Ligas, and I always aspire to that.” Some Catalan press reports have claimed Messi favours a new president and coach coming in, and would, for example, be happy for Xavi to return to the club from managing Al-Sadd in Qatar as part of a general shake-up. The Athletic believes he is not in particularly regular contact with Xavi though, nor does he share his former team-mate’s tendency to get deeply involved in future planning. As the best player in the world, he takes responsibility to do everything he can on the pitch, but he does not have solutions for all Barcelona’s problems, nor does he like the idea people want him to provide them. He accepts that the club’s members — the socios — decide who is president and that the board then appoints the coach. He does not like the idea of being used by any candidates or campaigns to improve their own chances of winning a presidential election due to take place next year. He has never had a meeting with any candidate or got involved in electioneering. It is just not something that interests him, or that he sees as his place. Again, he is just a footballer, maybe the best one ever, but nothing more. Whoever is Barcelona president also knows that what Messi really wants to do is to win with that club, not anywhere else. If previously his main reason to stay at the Nou Camp was the incredibly talented squad he was surrounded by, over the years his family being settled and happy in the Catalan capital has become more and more important. Those who know him find it difficult to imagine him being happy in Manchester, Paris or Munich. A romantic return to Argentina, to finish his career at boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys, has often been talked about, and he still speaks with the accent not just of his country but his home city. However, the place has changed a lot over the years. Only last January there was a fatal shooting at the City Center Rosario hotel complex where Messi married wife Antonella in 2017, linked to drugs gangs which have made life in the city increasingly dangerous. It would just not be possible for the global superstar to return to the La Bajada barrio he left as a boy over two decades ago. In press interviews, Messi has also spoken a lot about how tying the knot has changed his perspective, and how his life experiences have helped him grow as a person. He is no longer the sulky kid who would retreat into himself and not respond for days when he felt slighted in some way. He also feels more comfortable taking on a leadership role in his professional life but in his own way. He wants so badly to be part of a winning Barcelona team, and feel the acclaim as they lift the European Cup again. He does not like being made to feel it is his fault when this does not happen. Messi is a different person now to the kid who sent Guardiola a text from the back of the bus. Although he remains the best player in the world, his powers are not as unlimited as many people make out. But he still has a phone in his hand and wants the ball at his feet.
  8. General Transfer Talk

    Sanchez is Conte’s restoration project – but can Inter and United strike a deal? https://theathletic.com/1921244/2020/07/12/alexis-sanchez-manchester-united-inter-milan-future/ On the eve of Inter Milan’s Champions League game with Barcelona in October, the inscrutable Alexis Sanchez opened up a little. He had barely been with his new team a month and yet the Chilean was already prepared to describe the experience as “a bit like falling in love with football all over again”. At Inter’s training ground in Appiano Gentile, a half-hour’s drive from the rippling waters of Lake Como, Sanchez had been reunited with old team-mates from his Udinese days, Samir Handanovic and Kwadwo Asamoah. His September debut also came against the club that brought him to Europe as a teenager and developed him into a player Barcelona decided to buy for Pep Guardiola. As Sanchez prepared to warm up before the game, he bumped into familiar faces and shared memories of a time when he was the pride of the city of Udine and probably the greatest discovery of that club’s famed scouting network. It was very nearly the perfect night for the 31-year-old, who completed his season-long loan move from Manchester United on August 29. Sanchez came on for Matteo Politano with 10 minutes to play and hared around the pitch desperate to make a good impression on the San Siro faithful. A backheeled pass came off, his link-up play was neat and tidy and he very nearly scored only for goalkeeper Juan Musso to work a miracle or get lucky — take your pick — and deflect his point-blank effort over the bar. As Romelu Lukaku rested a bad back, the player who followed the Belgian out of Old Trafford last summer stepped into the breach. It was a time when the LuLa partnership of Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez was still in its infancy. The pair were scoring goals but weren’t combining and Inter were winning games largely thanks to their midfield. For a brief period, when opinions are yet to fully form about a team, the flashes we saw from Sanchez up front with Lautaro set pulses racing. They offered opposition centre-backs no reference points and found each other with telepathic ease. For a player who arrived late, without a pre-season and on the back of another Copa America, the speed with which Sanchez assimilated felt surprising. His first start two weeks later is principally remembered for the second bookable offence he picked up early in the second half for an entirely unnecessary dive. It risked compromising Inter’s 100 per cent record as Sampdoria quickly scored to make it 2-1 and threatened to equalise. Inter coach Antonio Conte said the situation “could have killed an elephant”. But they stayed in front and even added to their lead. La Gazzetta dello Sport graded Sanchez’s performance a five out of 10, chastising him for thinking he could get away with simulation in the era of VAR. Conte wasn’t impressed with the act either although he didn’t lose sight of the positives on display in the first half of the game, which left him and the Inter hierarchy with the impression they had been right to take a chance on Sanchez. After all, Sanchez had scored his first Serie A goal since March 2011 and played a sensational dinked pass over the defence for Antonio Candreva only to see an offside flag cancel out the effort the wing-back had drilled past Emil Audero. Rather than punish him for his ill-advised tumble, Conte rewarded Sanchez with a start in Barcelona four days later and what followed was arguably Inter’s best performance in Europe — at least for an hour — since they won the treble in 2010. Sanchez lured Clement Lenglet out of position, drew a foul and then helped put Lautaro through in the space the Frenchman left to open the scoring inside two minutes. It was Inter’s first goal at the Nou Camp in 49 years, and the night Barcelona’s pursuit of Martinez really began in earnest. But Sanchez’s performance also provoked remarks in the directors’ box. This looked like the player Barcelona had signed almost a decade ago. Maybe he wasn’t finished at the highest level after all. It was only after Sanchez went off on 66 minutes that the momentum swung and Barcelona broke a 1-1 tie to win the game as Inter lost touch with their attack and saw their threat levels diminish. “In Barcelona and at Samp, I again saw the Sanchez we knew in Udine and London — the best Sanchez,” Inter’s sporting director Piero Ausilio said. Unfortunately, 10 days later, Sanchez injured a tendon in his left ankle during a meaningless friendly between Chile and Colombia. He grimaced as he pushed and prodded the affected area above the collar of his boot where “Humber”, the name of one of his Labradors, is stitched. Sanchez realised he was about to spend a lot more time with his dogs. The decision was taken to undergo surgery at Ramon Cugat’s practice in Barcelona. Recovery time? Three months. It was a bitter blow for Sanchez, coming as it did just as his career looked about to take off again. “It’s a real shame,” Inter vice-president Javier Zanetti lamented. Conte felt bad for him too. “We’d got him back (to his old self). He was starting to give a big contribution from all points of view. I’m sorry for him because he came here with great enthusiasm and the desire to prove himself.” While he rehabbed his injury, Lukaku and Lautaro began to flourish as a pair. It did not change Inter’s opinion of Sanchez though. Conte missed him — and dynamic playmaker Stefano Sensi — through the winter. Without them, the team became more predictable and lacked alternatives. Inter stopped teenage sensation Sebastiano Esposito joining up with the Italy squad for the Under-17 World Cup that started in late October and intervened when the January transfer window opened, signing Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen. Sanchez returned on schedule in the middle of that month but needed easing back into the team. While he did, COVID-19 was spreading around the world, with a series of outbreaks in the north of Italy forcing the government to declare a lockdown. Sanchez faced another three months without any football. By the time the season resumed in Italy, the initial terms of Sanchez’s loan were only a matter of weeks from expiring. Inter don’t have much on which to judge him: 484 Serie A minutes, in which time he lasted the full 90 minutes twice. As a sample size, it is too small to draw a definitive conclusion. However, Sanchez was undoubtedly effective in the limited time he spent on the pitch. On his first start since the return to play, Inter’s No 7 scored twice and assisted another goal for Ashley Young in an emphatic 6-0 win against Brescia where he clocked his first 90-minute appearance. His stats are impressive: six goal involvements in his four league starts. Sanchez could have had a couple more if only he’d been more clinical during a 15-minute cameo against Bologna last weekend. A misplaced pass and slip ended up leading to the visitors’ winner instead. Nevertheless, Conte and Inter’s hierarchy still wish to use what remains of this season to properly assess Sanchez. The situation surrounding Martinez has made that more significant than ever. Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta has admitted the speculation regarding a move to Barcelona has negatively effected the Argentinian’s performances. Martinez has failed to score in his last five appearances and Conte left him out of the starting XI for Thursday’s 2-2 draw away to Verona. What it means for Sanchez is Inter need him both as short-term cover for the out-of-sorts Martinez and to audition as a potential successor in the event Barcelona do somehow find the cash to sign the 22-year-old. The club will buy a back-up for Lukaku over the summer and only pulled out of signing Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud in January when the cost of the Eriksen deal climbed to €20 million. But the other slot is there for Sanchez to win. Which is why Inter are upset his time at the club will be curtailed. United have agreed to extend his loan until the end of the Serie A season on August 2, but Sanchez will leave Inter after their now single-leg Europa League last-16 tie against Getafe three days later. Although FIFA rules state a preference for loan players to complete a campaign on the team they started it with, the current guidelines stipulate it concerns domestic seasons only. They do not mention the Europa League or Champions League for those players involved in international loans, and as such, those arrangements need working out on a case by case basis between the clubs. Inter have denounced this loophole as an anomaly that urgently needs rectification. As it stands, their squad will be smaller for the Europa League than it was when the knockout phase began in February. Manchester United, of course, are also still in that competition. Don’t expect the brinkmanship to end between now and Sanchez’s scheduled departure date on August 6. United know Inter are open-minded about keeping him, while Inter know United would rather not have Sanchez’s wages on their books for another two years, particularly if the now widely expected return to Champions League football tops them back up by 25 per cent. A compromise will need to be found, whether it’s another loan or a permanent sale with Sanchez also taking a pay-cut. For now, the Chilean remains Conte’s latest restoration project. In football terms, Conte is that person you know who enters into relationships convinced he can fix whoever he is with. At times, he has come across like an oil-stained mechanic, head down under the hood of a car talking about hooking this wire up to that one and sparking a misfiring engine back into life. Some will point to the job he has done in parallel with Lukaku, who is now the first Inter player to score 20 league goals in 30 games in his debut season since Ronaldo. But those who know Conte believe a more appropriate comparison is to be made with Carlos Tevez and the calculated gamble he took with Marotta when the pair were at Juventus. That bet paid off. This one may yet do too.
  9. General Transfer Talk

    Who wants to sign the best free-kick taker in Europe? https://theathletic.com/1916498/2020/07/12/real-madrid-leganes-oscar-rodriguez-messi/ Which player has been the best free-kick scorer in European football this season? Here’s a hint — he plays in La Liga. Ah, Lionel Messi then, I hear you say? Well, Messi has been pretty good. But no, the answer is Oscar Rodriguez, a 22-year-old midfielder on loan from Real Madrid at relegation battlers Leganes. Four converted free kicks this season put Oscar level with Messi across Europe’s top five leagues. But the Spaniard has had far fewer opportunities than Messi, taking just 16 attempts compared to 36 — a quite outstanding 25 per cent success rate against Messi’s 11 per cent. Most free-kick goals in 2019-20 Oscar’s free kicks are also the main reason suburban Madrid side Leganes have had even a chance of avoiding relegation this season. Each strike has been impressive, too. These aren’t free kicks that have deflected off the wall to wrong-foot a goalkeeper. The most recent was a 35-yarder that dipped and swerved before finding the net via the crossbar to equalise late on at fellow strugglers Mallorca. Even Mallorca’s co-owners Steve Nash, Graeme Le Saux and Stuart Holden feared what was coming when Oscar stepped up to take it. The other three converted free kicks have all been directly important in Leganes getting crucial results. When the pressure has been on, Oscar has regularly taken responsibility and delivered for his team. Against Real Sociedad in February, he stepped up with 93 minutes and 54 seconds on the clock, and the score at 1-1, to send the ball over the wall and into the top corner. That win lifted Leganes off the bottom of the table. The 20-yarders against Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo earlier in the season were taken from opposite sides of the penalty box, and went into different areas of the goal and brought four more points for the team. Such a variety of conversion methods shows confidence and technical ability, qualities Oscar has demonstrated since he started taking free kicks in Real’s “La Fabrica” academy. Those close to the player say there is no trick to it: he has always had his own ideas about taking them, not copying the approach of previous team-mates at Real like Cristiano Ronaldo or his former youth coach Guti. He does work very hard on perfecting the art, practising a lot from an early age, but excellent dead-ball technique comes naturally to him. “It almost seems biological,” says one source from Leganes. Oscar is not just about the free kicks. He has nine goals for Leganes this season, including a sharp strike on his (other) left foot to equalise in 1-1 at Valencia back in September, a swerving long ranger from open play against Celta and a spectacular hooked strike from 20 yards in a 2-1 win against Villarreal. There have been a couple of coolly converted penalties under pressure. His all-round game has improved over his two seasons on loan at Leganes, with last season’s coach Mauricio Pellegrino a big influence and support in adapting to the technical and physical demands of playing a central midfield role. However, the story is taking a sad turn. Leganes are La Liga’s lowest scorers so far this season, with just 25 goals in 35 games, but Oscar’s contributions are even more valuable as a result of mid-season transfers. Leganes lost their two main forwards in the winter, with Sevilla triggering Youssef En-Nesyri’s release clause in January and Barcelona using La Liga’s emergency signing rules to take Martin Braithwaite the following month. So Leganes’ present coach Javier Aguirre’s frustration levels had been rising even before Oscar left the pitch holding his thigh early in a goalless draw with Granada on June 22. He wanted to carry on playing that day but was then ruled out of the following game at Osasuna. With a squad that had scored three La Liga goals between them all year, Leganes lost 2-1 despite outshooting their mid-table opponents 21-6. When Oscar remained sidelined, combustible character Aguirre exploded in the post-game press conference at Espanyol on July 5, even after a first goal of the season from defender Jonathan Silva gave them a 1-0 victory to keep alive hopes of escaping the drop. “Well, Oscar… it’s a curious story,” Aguirre said. “Oscar wanted to play the second half against Granada. He almost got angry because I stopped him. But from there, I don’t know what happened. Oscar has gone from having nothing to having three muscle tears. It is incredible. Now he will not play for us again this season. “He guarantees us goals with his free kicks. He’s the only one in the team who scores goals. Now I don’t know why, but Oscar is not with us any more. Somebody spoke to him. It seems so strange to me. Whoever advised him, I don’t know. But I won’t cry. You’ll never hear me complain. I have 23 brave guys in there, who want to score goals, stop them, and stay in the top flight. Whoever does not want to be with us, well, good luck to them.” That outburst quickly led to speculation about who might have had a word in the player’s ear about his fitness and availability. He is represented by RR-Soccer Management, which is run by Rene Ramos, brother of Sergio, captain of Oscar’s parent club. The suspicion was raised that Real did not want to risk a valuable asset picking up a more serious injury before the summer transfer market. However, as the noise around the issue continued, Leganes club sources confirmed that Oscar had a torn thigh muscle, and also that his loan deal from Real had been extended until the end of the La Liga season on July 19. A generally quiet character who does not often do media interviews, the player kept quiet, although he did release a short Instagram video of a recovery session with Leganes physios. By midweek, Aguirre had changed his stance, at least partly. “I want to deal with the Oscar issue,” began the former Mexico national manager in a press conference, without even waiting for the first question from the reporters gathered over Zoom. “He wants to play and is very committed to the club. He has shown that over these two years. He is part of our family. But today the scan still shows a risk. We don’t want to take risks. I ask everyone to show him some love because he will end up helping us, as he wants to, despite all the people around him, all that has happened…” Oscar missed out on Thursday’s goalless draw at Eibar, a result that leaves Leganes in 19th with just three games left. Aguirre said afterwards he still hoped to have him available for today’s game at home to Valencia. Sources close to the player say that Oscar is very committed to recovering as quickly as he can to try to help his friends and team-mates. On Wednesday, Leganes visit Athletic Bilbao, before Sunday’s final game brings Real Madrid to Butarque having likely already clinched the title. Whether he does contribute may depend on Leganes’ other players keeping their survival chances alive. Whatever happens over the next eight days, Oscar will be at a different, higher-profile club next season. The Athletic understands that returning to Real is not really being considered. Having emerged as an important leader of a top-flight team over the last two seasons, he does not want his career to stall on the bench at the Bernabeu. Villarreal, Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Sociedad are among the La Liga teams to have made enquiries, while Milan, Schalke, Bournemouth and Norwich have also all registered an interest. Madrid are asking for around €25 million and have turned down an offer of €10 million for 50 per cent of his “rights”. A source close to Oscar suggested staying in Spain was quite likely, and that the most important consideration would be the “sporting project” of the clubs that meet Madrid’s price. Maybe Leganes can find the goals from somewhere to get results against Valencia and Athletic and keep their hopes of avoiding relegation alive up to the final day. Then Oscar could return against Madrid, maybe even off the bench, and stand over a 92nd-minute free kick, knowing that if he finds the net he can leave the club where he has developed so much over the last two seasons on a perfect note. If this unlikely situation does come to pass, then Leganes would want nobody else — not even Messi — standing over the ball with the chance to save their season.
  10. The English Football Thread

    Three and a half mad minutes could ruin Leicester’s season https://theathletic.com/1925219/2020/07/13/leicester-bournemouth-champions-league/ It took only 210 seconds for Leicester City’s Champions League destiny to be left hanging by a thread. It was three and a half season-defining minutes that could have more impact on Leicester’s campaign than any other game this season. Kasper Schmeichel fired a goal kick straight into the backside of his team-mate, Wilfred Ndidi, who then conceded the penalty that gave Bournemouth a lifeline. Minutes later, there was the atrocious defending that allowed Dominic Solanke to score the second goal and referee Stuart Attwell showed Caglar Soyuncu a straight red card after a petulant kick out at Callum Wilson. A promising season that had become frayed around the edges since the turn of the year is now in very real danger of unravelling. The emotions and reactions inside the Leicester camp were raw. Captain Schmeichel held up his hands to apologise to his team-mates for his error, as did Soyuncu for his rashness in kicking Wilson as they tussled over the ball in the net. The centre-back’s three-game ban means Leicester are without the Turkey international, who had seemed to have eradicated those costly mindless lapses from his game, for the rest of the season, further hampering Brendan Rodgers side’s chances of finishing in the top four. There was also anger, frustration and complete confusion at how Leicester could have capitulated in such a shocking fashion — they had been in complete control in the first half. There was also the realisation that there are serious ramifications. During a lengthy conversation in the away dressing room, the senior players, including Schmeichel, were ramming home the message to their young team-mates that their destiny is still in their hands. Regardless of what Manchester United do, if Leicester win their final three games, including a final-day showdown with United, they will qualify for the Champions League in the top four — but there can be no more slip-ups. Schmeichel and the other senior players were quick to pick their less experienced colleagues up, with Thursday’s must-win clash against Sheffield United looming. There is no time to dwell on the past when Leicester can still qualify by winning their remaining games, although there was the honest realisation that a dramatic improvement is required. Rodgers is a calm figure. Instead of throwing teacups, he would rather point out the ergonomics of their design and how they can aid his players’ rehydration. Having been berated by his own father when he was playing as a youngster in Northern Ireland, he doesn’t shout at his players or rant and rave, but his charges were still left in no doubt of his feelings in the dressing room at Bournemouth. If they didn’t get the message internally, Rodgers saved some home truths for the media. “I’ve always said we can never talk about that (Champions League) and you see, after a performance like that in the second half, you’re nowhere near the Champions League level,” he said. “We’re not experienced or consistent enough to worry about the Champions League.” It was the first time Rodgers, usually protective and supportive of his players, had been so damning of their performance, and more worryingly, their attitude and mentality. The gentle arm around the shoulder made way for a kick up the backside. After an astonishing first half of the season, in which they appeared to be the only challengers to Liverpool for the title for a short spell, plenty of praise was heaped upon his side. They were lauded as the exciting, youthful challengers to the established elite. They weren’t just European qualification contenders — they looked set for a place in the Champions League. They moved into third in September after six games and have not dropped out of the top four since, but they look likely to do so now. Since the start of the year, Leicester’s ability to cling onto that lofty status has had as much to do with the deficiencies of their rivals as their own abilities. The advantage they built up in the first half of the season, particularly with an eight-game winning streak, gave them a buffer, but that safety net has disappeared since the restart. Based on their displays since their New Year’s Day win at Newcastle, during which they have collected only three wins from 14 Premier League games, Rodgers side massively overperformed in the first half of the season, which raised expectations around the club. Supporters believed there should be more of the same but Rodgers’ young side hasn’t been able to deliver consistently. It seems some of his players have not been able to handle the hype without taking their eye off the ball. The inconsistent form and focus of some individuals have been concerns for Rodgers for several months. But it isn’t just his players who have come under scrutiny. For the first time since his arrival from Celtic, Rodgers is now starting to be questioned by some supporters. The displays of his side earlier this season took Rodgers stock sky-high, even leading to speculation Arsenal were interested in him before Mikel Arteta was appointed at the Emirates. But Rodgers’ tactics and some of his substitutions have been criticised by sections of the fanbase in recent weeks. His decision to replace Kelechi Iheanacho at half-time at Bournemouth, when Leicester had dominated the first half, and bring on central midfielder Dennis Praet, was blamed as a factor in Leicester’s sudden and uncharacteristic collapse. It may have played a part, but when individual players make such inexplicable and uncharacteristic errors as some did at the Vitality Stadium, it is difficult to point to one tactical move as the root cause. With three games to go, Leicester’s entire season hangs in the balance. Rodgers’ words of warning to his players were designed and delivered to get a response. At the start of the season, a top-six finish and European qualification were the targets. A top-four finish remains in their hands, although the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling on Manchester City’s Champions League ban makes it more difficult to qualify for the Champions League, with fifth place no longer offering a spot in the competition. However, as Leicester experienced on the south coast, fortunes can change very quickly. Leicester have three games. Sometimes, it only takes three and a half minutes.
  11. The English Football Thread

    Inability to keep the ball when pressed a wake-up for Manchester United https://theathletic.com/1927262/2020/07/14/united-possession-manchester-solskjaer-pogba-bruno-fred/ Usually it is Bruno Fernandes admonishing others over standards but on the hour against Southampton, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt compelled to urge improvement from the player who has dramatically invigorated Manchester United. “Bruno! Hey! Come on!” Solskjaer shouted from his seat in the dugout when Fernandes overhit a pass out to Marcus Rashford, ending an attack that had looked promising. It seemed a cry in context of appreciating what Fernandes is capable of and also a concern that not enough care was being put into United’s play in general. Little more than 10 minutes earlier, Fernandes had tried a similar quick pass to Aaron Wan-Bissaka which also failed due to its hurried nature and though that is part of the deal with the Portuguese, whose pass completion rate of 73.68 per cent was only his joint fourth-lowest 11 in Premier League games, the balance between risk and reward was a little off for large parts of the contest. The control that United have enjoyed in matches since lockdown lifted was not there against Southampton, particularly in the second half when Solskjaer’s side dropped deeper in attempt to protect their 2-1 lead. Too often passes were misplaced and there was frustration from Mike Phelan late on when Fred hooked errantly into the centre of the pitch, rather than play the ball down the line to Rashford. Phelan swivelled in angst and motioned his hand to show where Fred should have aimed, not only because it could have launched an attack but because it would have been a less dangerous place on the pitch for Southampton to gain possession. Phelan spent the entirety of the contest stood on the edge of the technical area, a sure sign matters are not progressing to United plans, and though Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team needed until the 96th minute to equalise, they were well worth their point. It was at St Mary’s in August that United recorded their highest number of lost possessions this season (183) and Southampton’s frenzied high press in this reverse fixture unsettled Solskjaer’s side again. United lost possession 141 times, significantly higher than in recent games against Sheffield United (107), Aston Villa (109), Brighton (109) and Bournemouth (111) — four of the five lowest totals this campaign. Pressing in the final third was of course the source of Stuart Armstrong’s goal, a two-pass move instigated by a smart and sharp hunt from Danny Ings when Paul Pogba turned on David De Gea’s pass out from the back. In the 18th minute, Pogba was again slow to the speed of Southampton’s forwards, with Che Adams seizing possession but fortunately for United playing a poor pass to Ings. Southampton’s approach did enable United space further up the pitch for those occasions they did beat the press, and Martial’s goal – fed by fluid passes from Pogba then Fernandes – was a perfect case in point. Martial and Rashford, who were both at their best, each created two further big chances through fast breaks and there was an exquisite backheel pass by Fernandes to set up Pogba. But United never really seemed at ease. Pogba for instance had a passing accuracy of 80 per cent and the only time he has recorded a lower number this season came against Chelsea on the opening day (76.19 per cent). Rather than blame his players, Solskjaer credited Southampton. “It’s the team that you play against,” he said. “They didn’t give us any respite. We knew before the game that we were not gonna get a lot of time on the ball, so it’s risk and reward. Of course we lost the ball on the first goal. We never got the rhythm really to play, because you have to earn the right. But when we did we scored some fantastic goals.” The average positions from the match shows Fernandes (No 18), Pogba (No 6) and Nemanja Matic (No 31) further apart than usual, and it was little wonder that Solskjaer implored his team to stay compact in the closing stages, squeezing his hands together to illustrate his point from the touchline. Solskjaer was trying to compensate after the injury to Brandon Williams, and there is an element of irony that United finished with ten men when Oriel Romeu was fortunate in the extreme to stay on the pitch after planting his studs down Mason Greenwood’s ankle in the first half. Even though Fernandes and Pogba had below-par performances, United’s possession did drop in their absence, from 55.3 per cent to 36.8 per cent once Fred replaced the Frenchman in the 63rd minute. It fell to 16.8 per cent for the final six minutes plus added time that Fernandes was in the stands. Overall United had 47.61 per cent possession, the first time since football returned that they have held the ball less than their opponents – and against a team who do not necessarily want to dominate play. Hasenhuttl reminded afterwards that his style is for dynamic attacks rather than methodical build-ups. A further point to note is that United’s passing accuracy fell from 84 per cent in the first half to 71.7 per cent in the second, while Southampton’s rose from 77.9 per cent to 83.9 per cent. Hasenhuttl’s side applied increasing pressure as the game wore on and ultimately it told. United will hope that is not an indicator of what might happen in the final three games of the season as the stakes get higher. Squeaky bum time got that bit squeakier with CAS overturning UEFA’s ban on Manchester City and United missing the chance to go third means the test of nerve for Champions League qualification will inevitably go to the final day at Leicester.
  12. The English Football Thread

    The story of Manchester City’s five months in limbo https://theathletic.com/1926335/2020/07/14/manchester-city-champions-league-ban/ Among the powerful Catalan contingent who bestride the corridors of power at Manchester City, the announcement on Monday morning brought an instant release of euphoria. On the Instagram page belonging to Manel Estiarte, a long-serving member of Pep Guardiola’s backroom staff, a picture rapidly surfaced. In the background, the rolling coverage of Sky Sports News played out and, in front of the screen, the grinning faces of City’s leading men beamed out. Guardiola and Estiarte posed alongside the chief executive Ferran Soriano, the sporting director Txiki Begiristain and the chief operating officer Omar Berrada. Behind the scenes, City’s handsomely-paid legal team have worked around the clock to file their ultimately successful submission to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). This week, all that expense paid lucrative dividends, eliminating a two-year Champions League ban and reducing the fine — for obstructing the original investigation — from €30 million to €10 million. Yet while the legalese secured headline-grabbing success, City’s head coach Guardiola and their Catalan executive staged a careful production of their own, managing the uncertainty pervading the dressing room and keeping a roll call of star turns on board. City’s most senior figures only discovered the verdict an hour before its public announcement and the five men pictured are understood to have taken in the news together when the call came in from Switzerland. In the City boardroom, the news soon went global. At 9.30am, CAS published their statement and, four minutes later, an email dropped into the inboxes of the club’s staff not only at their Manchester training base but also to offices in London, Singapore, Japan and Melbourne. Soriano conceded that “these have not been easy times” but praised the “resilience and character” of those employed by City. It carried a triumphant tone, telling staff that the outcome “vindicated the club’s decision” to challenge the decision taken by UEFA’s club financial control body in February. The email concluded by describing the episode as an “unwelcome distraction” and said the “club can now push ahead with recovery from COVID-19 and our performance on and off the pitch”. In the City dressing room, confirmation of the reprieve was greeted with similar acclaim. On the outside, City have maintained a stiff upper lip and a brave face over the past five months but even the most ardent supporter may have wondered how some of the squad’s most talented players would respond to a potential two-year ban from the continent’s elite competition. Sergio Aguero is 32 and Kevin De Bruyne, now 29, would have been 31 by the time Champions League football returned to east Manchester if the worst punishment transpired. There were red flags. Early in May, for example, De Bruyne said in an interview in his native Belgium that he would consider his future. The midfielder said: “Two years would be long but in the case of one year I might see.” Equally, The Athletic reported in February how Bernardo Silva, the Portuguese playmaker, would require some major persuading to remain at the club for the two years preceding the major World Cup of his career without access to Europe’s biggest club competition. Perhaps most curious, however, was the concern that privately gripped City over Raheem Sterling, now 25 and at the peak of his powers. Shortly before City travelled to face Real Madrid in the Champions League, Sterling afforded an interview to the Spanish AS newspaper and it is no exaggeration to say that eyebrows were raised internally over the player’s decision to pose with a Real Madrid shirt draped over one shoulder and a City shirt over the other. In Madrid, the antennae pricked up and anyone who has witnessed Real’s pursuit of star names over the years sensed it may be the beginning of a drawn-out affair. City, at the time, felt that making a big deal out of the affair may only serve to inflame a sensitive situation, although the player’s agent, Aidy Ward, had previously said publicly that Sterling would not leave the club. Despite the Sterling reservations, however, it is also true that not one City player approached the club’s executives during this period to state an intention to leave the club due to their fears over the Champions League ban and much of this loyalty is owed to the careful management overseen by Guardiola and Soriano. The news of a potential two-year ban dropped on City on the evening of Valentine’s Day, just as the club returned from their winter break on a Friday night. Guardiola rapidly called his players in for a meeting on the Saturday. In a conference room at the club’s training ground, Guardiola reassured his players he would remain at the club next season, regardless of the result of any appeal, and he rallied the troops. The tone was us-against-the-world and, ahead of their Champions League fixture against Real Madrid, Guardiola urged his players to show Europe “we are not money, we are talent”. Indeed, on the Friday evening that preceded the meeting, City’s executives took a proactive approach, reaching out to their players’ agents to give reassurances that the club would overturn the punishment upon appeal. While De Bruyne teased an exit in public, his agent did, however, reassure City, while representatives of Phil Foden made abundantly clear he wished to remain at the club. City’s players were further comforted when, shortly after the club returned to training after lockdown, Guardiola roused his group with a speech. In the address, he told his players that Soriano had reassured him that the club would be successful upon appeal and in the immediate aftermath, both Sterling and De Bruyne confided in team-mates that they would remain at the club. During the pandemic, most clubs broached the possibility of wage deferrals or reductions with their playing squad and it was notable that, despite an initial discussion over a five or ten per cent deferral, City’s hierarchy ultimately agreed to carry on paying the squad’s full wages. Perhaps most interestingly, those most closely familiar with these City players felt the major sticking point in the group could ultimately hinge upon how their successes in recent times would be framed in the event the ban stood. Yet City did fear their players may feel their achievements to be tainted due to the UEFA judgment, or an asterisk placed against the trophies won under Guardiola’s guidance. Not everybody, it should be said, was convinced City would succeed. While the super-agent Jorge Mendes sent a private memo of support, other agents gossiped privately, aware that the Ballon d’Or bonuses in their players’ contracts, for instance, would swiftly fade into irrelevance if their clients could not compete at the highest level. Players can receive five-figure windfalls through partnerships and sponsorships linked to European competition and some boot deals will include clauses based on the number of appearances a player makes in the Champions League. City’s future plans, meanwhile, would clearly have been compromised by an absence from the elite. City recorded a £10.1 million profit last season but £77 million of their income came from Champions League participation. In the absence of this cash flow, it is tempting to wonder whether City may have needed to do more to balance the books than simply sell Leroy Sane in his long-trailed move to Bayern Munich. Now, however, such concerns have dissipated. City are favourites to see off Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 and they will return to the competition next season with added sparkle. The club are determined to recruit players at centre-back, left-back, on the wing and up front this summer. At left-back, City are open to selling any of Angelino, Benjamin Mendy or Oleksandr Zinchenko. City conceived a plan to include Bayern Munich’s David Alaba in the Sane deal but the Germans could not be persuaded. Juventus’ Alex Sandro is a long-standing target who may return to the shortlist, while City have not yet abandoned all hope on Leicester’s Ben Chilwell, in a deal which may be revived if Chelsea fail to qualify for the Champions League. Southampton’s experienced full-back Ryan Bertrand, who has excelled of late, is also on the radar after Guardiola first considered a move for him in 2017. At centre-half, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake are contenders while Valencia’s breakthrough talent Ferran Torres is running down his contract and impressing suitors in the wide position. Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey are alternatives. While the targets are varied, the nub is clear: City want to recruit and Guardiola wants it done with conviction. Previous summers have irritated the City coach, particularly in the way the club were beaten to transfers by Chelsea and Manchester United for Jorginho and Harry Maguire, despite subsequent protestations that the club will not pay over the odds for players. While City go on the attack, both on and off the field, the reaction elsewhere has been shock and bewilderment. One senior Premier League club executive described himself as “flabbergasted” on Monday. Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group of leading European club directors rapidly exchanged messages to discuss the next steps for financial fair play within an hour of the news breaking. Soon enough, they were consulting external advisers and deliberating whether to lobby UEFA to take City to a Swiss federal court. Guardiola, for his part, is expected to be robust in his next press appearance and he has privately been unimpressed by the moves made by the European elite to circle on City. Earlier this year, Guardiola turned on his former club Barcelona, telling them not to “talk too loud” after the club’s president praised the decision to ban City. Guardiola may take aim at certain clubs, for City have been equally unimpressed by representations made by Juventus and Bayern over the years, as well as what they see as a concerted bid to cut the club’s representatives out of key positions on European Club Association and UEFA committees. There are no shortage of contenders for a Guardiola riposte but, deep down, the coach will be most content to know his City team will now be able to do their talking on the pitch.
  13. The English Football Thread

    Manchester City’s Champions League ban lifted – everything you need to know https://theathletic.com/1925259/2020/07/13/manchester-city-uefa-cas-champions-league-explained/ Manchester City’s two-year ban from UEFA competition has been overturned after the club’s successful appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. But what does this mean for the club — and their rivals — going forward? The Athletic explains… What has been decided? Sam Lee: The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled the allegation that City artificially inflated their sponsorship agreements was “not established” (not proven) or “time-barred”, so there is no Champions League ban at all and City will be in the competition next season. It did find they had breached Article 56 of the club licensing and Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations by failing to co-operate with UEFA’s investigation, which is why there is a £9 million fine — reduced from the £25 million UEFA imposed in February. Now that is all cut and dried, City are in the Champions League, but City’s reputation and the future of FFP could well be decided in a few days’ time when CAS’s full written reasons for why and how they came to these decisions are published. The alleged breaches were “either not established or time-barred”. What does that mean? Matt Slater: Apart from the actual result, this is the most interesting sentence in the CAS press release and we will not know its full meaning until we have seen the full written decision. In short, “not established” means UEFA failed to prove part of its case and “time-barred” means the alleged offences happened too long ago to be considered now. UEFA has five years to bring an FFP case against a club and as these allegations dated back to a five-year period between 2012 and 2016, most of them fell outside that statute of limitations. UEFA obviously knew that but its legal advisors clearly decided the alleged deception at the heart of this case should overrule that limit. This is a well-established legal principle and was perhaps best seen in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, where most of his wrongdoing would have been time-barred if he had not lied about it. We really need to see the full CAS verdict before saying anything further on City’s conduct in this case, particularly as the press release also says UEFA simply failed to make part of its case stick. But how much of City’s apparent exoneration is down to technical grounds (time-barred) and how much it owes to UEFA not having the evidence to support those sanctions (not established) will frame the debate about City for years to come. Hang on — but City have still been hit with a fine. They failed to cooperate with UEFA. This isn’t a complete exoneration, is it? Oliver Kay: A win is a win. And for City, who were facing the threat of two years without Champions League football and with a huge stain on their reputation, this is clearly a highly significant victory — hugely important for their on-pitch ambitions and for the wider credibility of their project under Sheikh Mansour’s ownership. It is, though, a result with certain grey areas. Even with their ban overturned and a ban reduced from £25 million to £9 million, and with CAS concluding that the club “did not disguise equity funding as sponsorship contributions”, it is not the total vindication City hoped for. The CAS statement said that City had shown a “disregard” for UEFA’s regulatory process, citing their “obstruction” of the investigation, hence that significant fine. CAS said that “most of the alleged breaches reported by the adjudicatory chamber of the (UEFA) CFCB were either not established or time-barred”. That is embarrassing for UEFA but it also raises the possibility that there might have been a different outcome if either (a) City had cooperated with the UEFA inquiry or (b) Rui Pinto had hacked into their email server a year or two earlier. There were many damaging allegations in the “Football Leaks” reports. City have complained that those allegations were “out of context” but they have never denied the authenticity of the content. We will find out more when CAS publishes the written reasons for its findings but it appears that some of those allegations have been rejected simply because of the amount of time that has elapsed, rather than because they were untrue. Either way, City are entitled to feel an overwhelming sense of relief. The result from CAS was not quite the emphatic vindication that they might have hoped for but it was certainly a significant victory and one that will ensure that the whole unedifying story gradually fades from the memory (as City’s FFP sanctions 2014 had been forgotten by many until “Football Leaks” blew open the whole issue once more). What can be said with far greater certainty is that, for UEFA, it is an extremely damaging defeat. Will the Premier League take any action? Sam Lee: This is very interesting now as the Premier League has been investigating for about as long as this whole UEFA process has taken. The feeling is that the Premier League has been waiting to see how UEFA got on and now we know the answer — not very well. In any case, the Premier League’s own FFP regulations are much less strict than UEFA’s and allow losses of up to £105 million over three seasons. There is another slightly less well-known rule, however. Under section J7 of the Premier League’s handbook, “any club making a false statement (whether made verbally or in writing) in an application for a UEFA Club Licence or falsifying a document produced in support of such an application shall be in breach of these rules and shall be liable to be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of section W of these rules (disciplinary).” This is another example of why CAS’s full, written judgement regarding the time-barred element will be so interesting. If CAS says that UEFA could not act on breaches that did take place because they happened more than five years ago, the Premier League may take that as evidence that there were breaches and act on those, either in line with their FFP regulations or the falsifying of documents. But it should be said that CAS’s decision does make the chances of a Premier League punishment far less likely. FIFA gave City a £310,000 fine in August 2019 for breaching rules regarding the recruitment of minors but the club avoided a transfer ban. Now they have seen a European suspension lifted and been given another, admittedly more considerable, fine. From a City point of view, you might expect them to say to the Premier League: “Look, guys, UEFA threw everything at us, FIFA threw everything at us… are you really going to try it too?” What do other clubs make of this? Adam Crafton, David Ornstein and Matt Slater: It’s worth remembering that eight of the top 10 Premier League clubs — excluding City and Sheffield United — submitted an application to CAS in March arguing City should not be allowed to play in the Champions League while their ban was under appeal. City have not forgotten this. It has also not gone unnoticed that a question about monitoring sponsorship valuations is generally raised at most Premier League meetings. City’s Premier League rivals are keeping their counsel publicly for fear of sounding hypocritical or disparaging. Even if they thought City would end up with some sort of European ban, the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City and Sheffield United have just been trying to concentrate on winning enough points to qualify for Europe in their own right. Arsenal, we know, are very supportive of FFP. Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will be keeping a very close eye given they operate sustainable financial models too. Meanwhile, things just got a lot more interesting in the race for Europe for Chelsea and Manchester United. “I was never pinning my hopes on it meaning an extra team got in,” said Chelsea manager Frank Lampard. “We worry about ourselves. I wouldn’t like the players to have been thinking, ‘There is an extra place, does that mean we can relax a little bit more?’ It can’t be the way. It’s just clear now what the positions are and we have to fight for it.” In terms of European rivals, La Liga president Javier Tebas, a long-time outspoken critic of “dangerous” City with their “petrol money and gas money”, has already had his say. “We have to reassess whether the CAS is the appropriate body to which to appeal institutional decisions in football,” he said. “Switzerland is a country with a great history of arbitration. The CAS is not up to standard.” Major European clubs tend to operate with a little more subtlety but they won’t let this lie either. UEFA’s statement highlighted how the European Club Association (ECA), the umbrella group of Europe’s leading clubs, “remain committed to its principles”. The Athletic understands some of City’s rivals called external advisors this morning to discuss the next steps, while elite Champions League clubs have a WhatsApp group where they’ll be discussing what to do. The next step for the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Inter Milan is to hold a call in the next few days to decide their approach. If — and that “if” is not certain — the full written verdict reveals the decision is more down to the allegations being “time-barred” than “not established”, one could imagine UEFA being goaded into an appeal by public sentiment and private pressure: possible, not probable, as UEFA will have to be convinced it has a chance of success. The success rate of UEFA winning an appeal at a Swiss federal court, the next port of call after CAS, is understood to be very low. The alternative would be to seek a more conciliatory approach with City, who are very much on the outside looking in when it comes to the elite of European clubs. The ECA’s 24-person executive board includes representatives from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and two from Bayern Munich. There is no representative from City. It’s the same with UEFA’s executive committee, which includes Juventus chairman Andreas Agnelli and PSG’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi as the two ECA reps. Former Manchester United chief executive David Gill is still a vice-president and treasurer of the UEFA executive committee, while United’s vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is also on UEFA’s Professional Football Strategy Council. PSG have shown it is possible to infiltrate Europe’s inner circle, having received a £20 million fine for breaching FFP restrictions in 2014, but the French club’s Qatari ownership and close links with television giant beIN Sports have undoubtedly helped in this regard. A source at one leading club said: “There’s never been a coordinated vendetta against City by UEFA or the established elite. The focus for all of us now is making sure the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater. It’s a shame if the City case overshadowed the strides FFP has made. It’s worth preserving that.” What does this mean for other Premier League clubs fighting for European places then? Sam Lee: Quite simply, there will be no extra place now. The top four will get the Champions League spots as normal and fifth, sixth and possibly seventh will get a Europa League spot. The FA Cup winner also gets a Europa League place, unless they have already qualified. So, if Arsenal win the FA Cup and finish eighth in the league, they would get the Europa League place. If City, Manchester United, or Chelsea win it (or Arsenal win it and finish in the top six) then seventh place will get that final spot. Wolves or Manchester United could also gain a place in next season’s Champions League by winning this year’s Europa League. How have City and UEFA responded? Matt Slater: City and UEFA have issued short statements that make predictable but sensible points. City’s 66-word statement starts by saying the club and its legal advisors have not yet reviewed the full ruling but the verdict is a “validation” of its position and “the body of evidence that it was able to present”. This is consistent with City’s messaging on this matter from the moment Der Spiegel published its allegations in November 2018. While the club’s official statements on the matter have been few and far between, they have always strongly denied any wrongdoing and projected a supreme sense of confidence that they would, eventually, be exonerated. UEFA’s statement is twice as long but does not say much more. The most significant sentence is the second, in which it notes the three-man CAS panel found there was “insufficient conclusive evidence” to uphold all of the Club Financial Control Body’s (CFCB) “conclusions” and “that many of the alleged breaches were time-barred due to the five-year time period foreseen in the UEFA regulations”. This is a signal that UEFA believes the battle may have been lost but the war is not over. All this doesn’t sound good for the future of FFP… Matt Slater: Once the dust has settled from the big scuffle, this is very much the next one. Cards on table time. Back in November, we wrote that City would not be banned but would get a significant fine. We are not claiming to be right retrospectively, as we thought that would be the result at UEFA level, not CAS. But we also wrote that if that was the ultimate result, it really would be the end of FFP as it would have meant UEFA admitting it no longer had the stomach to police its spending rules, particularly when it could be argued they had achieved their primary objective of reducing the amount of debt in the game, therefore making it more sustainable. And in that regard, FFP has worked. Numerous studies have been published over the last few years have demonstrated how European club football’s cumulative debt has fallen and wage bills have become more closely aligned to revenues. There are, of course, exceptions to this — we are looking at you, Championship — but FFP has acted as a soft salary cap and steered dozens of clubs away from the precipice. UEFA believes FFP still has a role to play in this regard and defeat in the City case does not change that. “UEFA will not consider FFP to be dead but it has been a disaster of communications,” said a source familiar with UEFA. “It has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of what FFP is about. It was never introduced to stop investment. It was about financial health. This has actually been achieved, if you study club accounts across Europe, in what it set out to do in that regard.” But is that all FFP was meant to achieve? Former UEFA boss Michel Platini, its main advocate, certainly hoped it would also address the competitive balance by levelling the financial playing-field a tad. In this regard, it has emphatically failed, with the elite clubs looking more entrenched than ever. And UEFA is complicit here as Champions League broadcast revenue has been the rocket fuel that has helped the top clubs in every country achieve separation from the rest. On the flip side, you could argue that UEFA has an impossible task, as it may want to rein in the big clubs and encourage the type of competition American sports fans take for granted with their closed leagues, salary caps and draft picks but knows it cannot push too hard or the elite will pick up their ball and form their own closed league. So FFP was always going to be a balancing act and is likely to remain so. By taking City on, UEFA has signalled its commitment to the principles of the rules — keeping your spending in line with your income and not allowing unlimited support from rich owners — but defeat does suggest evolution is required. UEFA will say the rules have evolved — and it is certainly true that rules are now less about debt, which was never really a problem for likes of Chelsea, City, Manchester United or PSG, and more about a sustainable investment that does not upset the game’s equilibrium — so they can evolve again. But as stated above, how that process plays out will depend on what is in the written decisions from the CFCB and CAS. If City escaped on technicalities, there will be pressure to address those. If City were cleared because UEFA’s evidence was flimsy, there will be calls to find more credible, defensible and transparent ways of keeping a lid on spending. “For sure, this judgment may mean owners thinking, ‘Come on, let’s get the chequebook out’,” added the source. “But don’t forget that City have now had £25 million fines between the two cases and I dread to think of the legal fees. There will be a huge expense to this that nobody should doubt, a real cost implication. What this all does mean is UEFA has to start implementing FFP in a conciliatory way, working with clubs in an open book transparent process rather than ‘investigation’.” Bit embarrassing for UEFA this though, isn’t it? Will they regret picking this fight? Matt Slater: It is understood there was a debate internally at UEFA about whether this was an FFP issue at all and it should perhaps have been treated as a case for its disciplinary committee instead. This then would have become an argument about the behaviour of City’s senior staff, as opposed to one about the club’s revenues and spending. There is a theory that UEFA always knew the time-bar issue could be its undoing at CAS but felt — for the good of the game and the survival of FFP, which it views as one and the same thing — it had to prosecute City regardless and let someone else make a decision on whether the time limit should apply or not. If UEFA had gone down the disciplinary route, it would not have been so constrained by “time-bars” or its 2014 settlement with City, but any sanctions would most likely have only applied to the likes of chief executive Ferran Soriano, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and so on. UEFA clearly decided it had to defend FFP and, if City had breached the rules, any sanctions should be applied to the team. There will now, though, be an inquest in Nyon as to whether they made the right call. What does this mean for Pep Guardiola and the future of the City squad? Sam Lee: City were planning to spend big this summer anyway, but the only doubt would have been whether the players they have already lined up would want to join them once the reality of no Champions League football for two years had hit. Of course, that is no longer an issue and City will set about refreshing their squad in key areas. We understand they will make attempts to sign at least one centre-back, a left-back, a winger and a striker. As for Pep Guardiola’s future, this decision will not be the key factor. What is most important is that he and the players feel fresh and motivated after five years together. This is very good news, of course, as it would’ve been harder to convince him to stay with no Champions League football and possibly a Premier League punishment. Without those barriers, he can look ahead but there are bigger factors. Can UEFA challenge the decision? What happens now? Matt Slater: Both parties can challenge this decision but it is hard to see why City would wish to do so. A fine of £9 million sounds big — and nobody is suggesting that sum is trivial — but it is only one-third of what UEFA’s independent panel demanded and not an amount that should stretch the resources of City’s owners too far. It has also been levied because CAS agreed with UEFA that the club had not cooperated with the investigation, which tallies with what many sources have told The Athletic. Part legal strategy, part indignation, City took the most hostile possible approach to this case from the outset, even trying to persuade CAS to throw it out before UEFA’s process had been completed. UEFA now has a big decision to make about what it does next. While we must wait to see how CAS reached its verdict, it appears it has either rejected UEFA’s argument for ignoring the five-year time bar or decided that much of these issues have already been dealt with in City’s 2014 FFP case and subsequent settlement with the governing body. If that is the case, it is hard to see how a Swiss federal court will unpick that. https://theathletic.com/podcast/144-the-ornstein-and-chapman-podcast/?episode=111 Why Manchester City’s Champions League ban was lifted The Athletic's David Ornstein, Sam Lee & Matt Slater explain everything you need to know on the ruling that saw Manchester City's two year Champions League ban overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport We delve into the details and answer these questions: - What was the reaction inside City to the verdict? - Were they always confident or preparing for the worst? - Why have CAS decided to rule in City's favour? - Why have CAS said some of the allegations were 'time-barred' and what does that mean? - What does this ruling mean for the future of Financial Fair Play? - Could UEFA still mount a challenge to this decision? - Could the Premier League decide to take action against City? - Will this boost City's summer transfer plans? - Will the verdict raise eyebrows in rival clubs boardrooms? Elsewhere we're joined by The Athletic's Simon Johnson for the latest on Chelsea's pursuit of Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana and what that means for Kepa's future, we also check in with Phil Hay to take the temperature at Leeds as they inch closer to promotion, and David has insight into what a likely lack of European football will mean for Arsenal's transfer plans this summer
  14. The English Football Thread

    ‘I went straight to my car’ – the ignominy of being substituted at half-time https://theathletic.com/1925212/2020/07/14/half-time-substitutions-mason-mount-derry-blake-perch/ It is one of the hardest things a footballer has to deal with: you’ve just given your all for 45 minutes but the manager decides your performance is so underwhelming that a change has to be made at half-time. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not quite as bad as “the ultimate indignity” — a substitute being substituted — or a player failing to even make it to the interval before getting the hook but it’s right up there in terms of demeaning moments any player wants to avoid. “You just feel embarrassed,” former Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers midfielder Shaun Derry explains to The Athletic. “The Premier League is always scrutinised, even if you’re at a smaller club. “On the times it happened to me, I was gutted. You go home, you’re quiet. You just went to get back on the training pitch to put it right. Games come round quickly, so you can move on to the next page. You just want to play again, to show the quality you do have.” One can only assume that is exactly how Mason Mount is feeling ahead of Chelsea’s game against Norwich tonight. The England international has suffered the ignominy of going off at half-time twice in as many weeks. Mount, as well as fellow youngsters Billy Gilmour and Reece James, suffered the consequences for Chelsea’s underwhelming display in the first half at Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-final on June 28. Head coach Frank Lampard’s ruthless streak paid off, because his team ended up winning the tie 1-0. The 21-year-old caught Lampard’s eye for the wrong reasons once more at Sheffield United on Saturday. He was replaced, along with fellow academy graduate Andreas Christensen, although the defender at least had an injury to blame. This time, the changes made no difference as the home side, who led 2-0 at half-time, went on to cruise to a comfortable 3-0 victory. Derry knows exactly what emotions Mount and the other early-subbed Chelsea players have been through. The 42-year-old will never forget QPR manager Neil Warnock brutally axing him at half-time twice in October 2011. On the first occasion, QPR trailed Fulham 3-0 at the break (they went on to lose the match 6-0) and the second came halfway through a 3-1 loss at Tottenham. “Neil was always black and white with me in terms of being positive and negative,” Derry explains. “He’d tell me if I’d done well or was poor. At half-time against Fulham, we were 3-0 down and I hadn’t played well. It’s as simple as that. As an older player, you understand your game a little bit more and I knew I’d not done myself justice. “He had this pretty honest way of communicating with me. Some days, he would tell you. Others, he wouldn’t even look at you. This was one of those days where it was the former — it was along the lines of, ‘Shaun, that’s you done, son’. “You don’t put up a fight. There’s no point. We were getting absolutely battered. It was time for a change and a manager has the right to do that. I just sat there and took my boots off. “He said the same to Adel (Taarabt, who was also withdrawn at half-time in both matches). But at Fulham, being the young man that he was at the time, he stormed off into the showers. It later emerged he walked out and was seen at a bus stop outside the stadium. “I didn’t know he had left until we were on the bus back to the training ground and I realised he wasn’t on it. We didn’t really talk about it because that was Adel. We’d become used to some of his decision-making. I didn’t care because we’d seen it often, even during the good times he’d had. That was just the way he was. “When both of us were taken off at half-time again at Spurs a few weeks later, I didn’t take it personally. We were fighting for our lives. You didn’t have 10-12 consistent players every week in a team like ours. The highs and lows are regular. As a manager, you will constantly change to find a formula. I knew I’d still get my shirt back because of the way I performed in training.” The strength of Derry’s relationship with Warnock, much like Mount’s is with Lampard, was such that it didn’t develop into something more negative or sinister. In the Chelsea youngster’s case, he has still featured in every Premier League match this season and the brief introduction of the five substitute rule, as well as an intense fixture list, does encourage coaches to use their bench more regularly than normal. To say Robbie Blake was quite so forgiving when he was hooked at half-time against Manchester City in April 2010 would be inaccurate. Manchester City were four goals up inside 20 minutes at Turf Moor, so manager Brian Laws opted to replace Blake with Wade Elliott, while Jack Cork came on for Kevin McDonald. In some ways, it worked, as Burnley kept the second-half score down to 2-1 to City. Yet the decision backfired because both withdrawn players disappeared while the match was still going on. McDonald ended up getting fined, having been spotted in a local pub. Dressing room morale was arguably dented more by the fallout than the result itself, and Burnley were relegated come May. Blake never started a Premier League game for the club again and moved on to Bolton at the end of the campaign. Looking back on the encounter, Blake reveals: “It was incredible, really. He (Laws) was hammering the boys at half-time, saying words I can’t repeat, and then he said, ‘There are only some boys who can come out with a little bit of credit here, and that’s him’ — and he pointed at me — ‘and Kev. They’re the only ones who are trying’. He waffled on a bit longer, then he said, ‘Well, anyway, I’m going to make two changes. You’re coming off and you’re coming off’ to me and Kev. “My first reaction was, ‘It sums you up’. Being a coach now (at non-League Bognor Regis Town), I can understand certain situations but the guy, at that level, was just struggling. He didn’t know how to give a challenge or how to deal with that. If someone else had taken me off, who I had a bit more respect for, it probably would have hurt me a bit more. “Genuinely, I was laughing inside. I’m not trying to be disrespectful now, or then, but I thought, ‘You haven’t got a clue, mate, so I find it a compliment that you’re going to take me off’. People have disagreements, but I felt the job was too big for him. It didn’t make sense, we were (being made) the scapegoats, really. He didn’t even change the formation. “I listened to the second half as I was driving home. I went straight out of the dressing room and at Turf Moor, you can go left or right. Kev turned right and went into the pub where his dad was. I turned left and got straight in my car and drove home. “It was devastating (to leave on that note). I had a meeting with (director) Brendan Flood and he was saying, ‘Please stay, please stay’ but I was replying, ‘I can’t stay while he’s in charge. If you think you’re going to go straight back up, you’ve got another thing coming’. It was a nightmare.” Clearly, the way a manager handles such a sensitive subject is key to how quickly people can move on afterwards. Egos, pride, confidence and relationships can be damaged if an individual thinks they’ve been slighted. James Perch played for Newcastle as a right-back under Alan Pardew. On the final day of the 2011-12 season, he had no complaints after having his afternoon cut short during a 3-1 loss at Everton. However, in what proved to be his penultimate appearance for the club, Perch took great exception at Pardew’s drastic response to going into half-time 2-0 down at home to Liverpool a year later. They went on to lose 6-0. “For the most part, the team was awful,” Perch concedes. “But, I have to be honest, I thought I did all right. But he just took me off. I was raging. I don’t think I deserved it. “There was no explanation. We just came back to the dressing room and he said, ‘Right, Perchy, you’re off’. It’s disappointing and it’s not nice because, sometimes, you feel like you’ve been made to look a bit of a scapegoat. “Sometimes, I felt like I was the easy option for the manager to take off, rather than some of the ‘bigger names’. He could have changed a whole host of players against Liverpool ahead of me but he chose me and I didn’t think that was right. It was maybe less of a story if it was me than someone else. “So straight away, I just took my boots off, took my kit off and walked into the shower. I didn’t want to listen to what he had to say. I wanted to let him know I was disappointed, and I’m sure he got the message!” With so many professionals seeking a career in coaching or management once their playing days are over, it is inevitable things they have seen and been through may be used to help them in the dug-out. Lampard’s call to take Mount, James and Gilmour off at Leicester led to comparisons with his former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who used all three substitutions at half-time during an FA Cup tie at Newcastle in 2005. Indeed, Lampard was one of the individuals who came on to try turn a 1-0 deficit around. It didn’t work, partly because Wayne Bridge soon had to go off due to a broken leg, meaning the visitors were reduced to 10 men. Derry, who is now in charge of Crystal Palace Under-23s, has no doubts Lampard will be helped by lessons learned when he was younger and will handle the situation accordingly. “Lampard is a fantastic communicator,” he says. “I did my UEFA A licence with Frank and (his Chelsea No 2) Jody Morris. There couldn’t be two better individuals to look after the young players at Chelsea, because they have been young players at Chelsea and succeeded. “Frank will stick with them and explain things to them — what is really required. For example, it was a dip at Leicester, something three of them experienced together. “I’ve been in the same situation as a coach. I’ve brought on a substitute and taken him off again. That’s not a nice thing to do. But at the same time, I can always refer back to my own experiences and say, ‘It happened to me’. When you can tell that story, it resonates a bit clearer with the player. “The coaching staff at Chelsea won’t let it be a situation that gets out of hand. The big factor is coping with it. Do you know what? I don’t think it is a bad thing. It will turn into a real positive for their futures. The journey is not always smooth. There will be dips in the road as footballers.”
  15. 2. Antonio Rudiger

    Rudiger has not had a vintage season but numbers suggest it hasn’t been all bad https://theathletic.com/1922861/2020/07/12/rudiger-woe-chelsea-sheffield-united/ At a time when Chelsea’s season will be defined as a success or a failure, the club’s most experienced centre-half finds himself out of the starting line-up and with question marks over his future at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Rudiger surely never envisaged the possibility of being named on the substitutes’ bench for three successive matches. That was something that had never happened since he joined Chelsea from Roma for an initial £29 million in 2017… until now. The Germany international has clearly paid a price for Chelsea’s first defeat of Project Restart, when he came under heavy scrutiny for the goals Frank Lampard’s side conceded in their 3-2 defeat at West Ham — since then Kurt Zouma has been named alongside Andreas Christensen in the middle of defence instead. Rudiger’s unwelcome hat-trick of omissions was completed against Sheffield United on Saturday evening. Yet there was still a chance to catch coach Frank Lampard’s eye for the right reasons when he replaced Christensen for the second half. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old only succeeded in setting up David McGoldrick’s second goal of the evening with what looked like a tame lay-off straight into the forward’s path. Should Rudiger be blamed for the defeat? Of course not. The damage was inflicted before his introduction at the interval, by which stage Chelsea were already 2-0 down and playing with an inexcusable lethargy given a place in next season’s Champions League is at stake. But with coach Frank Lampard clearly already having one eye on his desired set-up for next season, now is not the time to be making eye-catching blunders. The Chelsea boss suggested as much immediately after full-time as he said rather menacingly: “I learned a lot and I won’t forget that.” With two years left on his current deal, Rudiger is reaching a significant juncture. It is at moments like these that clubs often decide to either offer a player an extension or sell up in the hope of avoiding big losses should the player run his deal down. After all, not everyone is Eden Hazard (sold for up to £150 million to Real Madrid in 2019 despite having just a year left). There were reports in April that negotiations between the club and Rudiger’s representatives had begun over a three-year extension, with the option of an additional 12 months. However, sources have told The Athletic that talks are yet to take place and there is no offer on the table. When you consider this is all occurring amid the backdrop of Chelsea aiming to buy another centre-back, with Declan Rice one of their main targets for the role, then the reality of Rudiger’s current situation shouldn’t be dismissed. In saying that, The Athletic has been assured the former Stuttgart star and his family are very relaxed about the situation and feel there is no rush to begin a conversation about an agreement. As far as the Germany international is concerned, he is very happy at Stamford Bridge and will do what he perceives to be the right thing for him at the right time. Lampard also downplayed any suggestions there is an issue between him and his player, telling The Athletic: “He has been very positive (after being dropped), very positive in training. “I have selection problems, I say this in every press conference, with trying to pick a team out of the squad because of competition within the group. There is no problem with him.” But having been regarded as a bit of a fan favourite for his first two years in blue, Rudiger has become the subject of intense criticism during 2019-20. It was something he discussed with Sky Sports earlier this month and it clearly rankles a little bit. He said: “You will always have people (saying things). Football can be up and down. You win and everything is good. You lose, then it’s… “This is not my problem. Everyone can have their opinion and I’m fine with that. “It is something we have to deal with. The most important thing is what the coach says, not what is said on the outside. You can have your opinion, no problem, but this doesn’t count to me. “Fans go with emotions. This week can be like this (he raises his hand upwards), the next week you’re the worst. As players, we just have to keep a cool mind and look forward to the next game.” But it is not as if he is in complete denial about his form under Lampard either. One shouldn’t forget, he returned from a knee injury which kept him out for five months at Wolves in September, only to suffer a groin problem during the contest and came off at half-time. Rudiger wasn’t seen in a Chelsea shirt again until December and during the third appearance of his second comeback, complained of being racially abused at Tottenham. Things obviously haven’t been easy. “The season didn’t start really well for me with all those injuries and everything,” he added on Sky Sports. “Yes I have been back, but I am not looking for an alibi or something. Personally I am not really happy with my season. But I don’t have time to think about that because we have games upcoming. I want to be in the Champions League next season.” So how bad has it been compared to the two previous years, when the chant ‘Ruuuudi’ was affectionately shouted out by the Chelsea crowd on every occasion he made a strong tackle? As always statistics only tell part of the story. Memories of the way Rudiger was outjumped for goals by Newcastle’s Isaac Hayden and Manchester United’s Harry Maguire, let alone the McGoldrick assist, will be hard for some to forget. However, his overall Premier League numbers compare quite favourably with those from previous seasons. This season he has won 80 of 140 duels at an average of 57.1 per cent. His averages in the previous two seasons were 52.9 per cent and 52.5 per cent respectively. There have been 116 recoveries at a rate of 6.82 per match, the previous two seasons came in at 6.48 and 6.24. For a defender, he has made a surprisingly low 50 tackles in nearly three seasons in English football but this year’s record of winning 61.9 per cent of them is an improvement on the 47.1 per cent of his first season, although is a slight decline on last season’s 67.7 per cent. There is a suggestion he is more susceptible in the air, but there has been no radical decline over the last three years. He won 60.2 per cent of aerial challenges in 2017-18, 52.5 per cent in 2018-19 and his current return for 2019-20 is 58.1 per cent. There is little difference in the average amount of headed clearances made in a league fixture over the three campaigns either: 1.9, 1.75 and 1.71. He has also already made more blocks (eight) than the previous season (seven) despite playing a lot less (17 Premier League appearances to 33). Sometimes spending too long with your head in the numbers can leave you in as much of muddle as Chelsea’s defenders at set pieces, and it paints just a bit of the picture. But it does raise the question of whether Rudiger’s form is as bad as some are suggesting. Lampard has a lot of tough decisions to make in the short, as well as the long term, to get the squad where he wants it to be. Rudiger’s situation is one to keep monitoring, but he shouldn’t be written off yet.