Go with a smile!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Phases of the English Premier League

Manchester City have a plan for global dominance.

I think we can put the English Premier League in distinct phases.

The first phase (1992 - 1997) was the era of Manchester United's rise to become a hegemon. They faced off the challenges of Liverpool, Leeds, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Newcastle to become, by some distance, the richest and most powerful club in England. This would be the last time the league would be genuinely competitive.

The second phase (1997 - 2004) was the era of Arsenal and Manchester United rivalry, where almost every year both clubs would finish in the top 2 spots. Towards the end of this era, Roman Abramovich would buy Chelsea and pump in loadsamoney.

The third phase (2004 - 2011) is the era of Chelsea - Manchester United rivalry. Arsenal would fade away and become a second rate power. Chelsea would win 3 titles in this period. Manchester United would recover and Alex Ferguson would build the last of his great teams and he would retire thereafter.

The next phase (2011 - 2016) is a period of transition, and the massive cash injection into Man City is beginning to have its intended effect. Man United is going downhill following the departure of Alex Ferguson. Man City wins the title twice, but Leicester, Man United and Chelsea win one apiece.

It remains to see if this current Pep Guardiola era will be a Manchester United style dynasty, or if, like Mourinho, he will burn out like he did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It remains to be seen if Chelsea's last 2 titles are a sign of a club that will continue to be great in the future.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Myth of the mid table club

You had the myth of the well-run mid-table club. I don't know much about what the Football league before the Premier League came about.

How many clubs have never been relegated from the Premier League? They are the big clubs: Arsenal, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea.

There are the clubs that have a proud tradition, but they've had to go down at some point: Manchester city, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland, Derby County, Leicester. Well, we should always mention Leicester's shock victory in 2016, but you had to have a season when all the big clubs were in transition for that to happen.

You had a club like Coventry City, and it seemed to be on a wonderful roll. They had 30 consecutive seasons in the top flight, they have ppl like Gordon Strachan, Mustapha Hadji and Gary McAllister playing for them. They even managed to win the FA Cup one season. Then they had one bad season, and suddenly they were relegated. And after they were relegated, they never managed to get back up.

Every now and then, there'll be a club that seems to buck this trend. They'll have a miracle worker who seems to do very well and carry the club up over and beyond what they're capable of. There was Wimbledon, and they were the crazy gang who came up from the non-League and managed top 10 finishes and FA cup semi-finals. They even had a half-decent team at one point, who, contrary to their reputations as being rough tacklers and long ball players, played their football on the ground. They had Neil Sullivan, Robbie Earle, Marcus Gayle, …. Then one day, they managed to land a manager who seemed completely in tune with who they were: Egil Olsen, the manager of another over-achieving Norwegian side around the turn of the century, who managed to beat Brazil. No dice.

There was West Ham, who once had one of the greatest bunch of youths that England had seen. They had Rio Ferdinand, Jermaine Defoe, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick. But not long after they were relegated in really unfortunate circumstances: They probably set a record for the highest number of points achieved by a relegated side.

There was Leeds United, who seemed like they were doing the right thing in getting youngsters together, they seemed like they had a young and exciting side. They bought Rio Ferdinand over from West Ham, they had Nigel Martyn, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Michael Bridges, Oliver Dacourt, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, David Batty.

There was a year when they were challenging for the title and after that, they got into the Champion's League and went all the way to the semi-finals. It seemed as though they managed to break into the ranks of the big clubs – not that they didn't have a great past, they were one of the best clubs between 1965 to 1975, and they won a title in 1992. There was even a time when their chairman, Peter Ridsdale seemed to be one of the best chairmen in England. It was as good as it got for that bunch. They had spent heavily and gambled everything on being able to make it to the champion's league every year. Then one day they didn't make it, and it turned out that many of their deals were highly leveraged. When they failed to pay back their debts, the club went into a death spiral and they were relegated the next season. They sold their best players and even got a good price for Rio Ferdinand. But for many of the rest, it was a fire sale.

As it turned out, many of those wonderful batch of players played their best football for Leeds, with the notable exception of Rio Ferdinand. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were charged with beating the shit out of a South Asian guy, and maybe they never reached the heights their Leeds career suggested them capable of. For whatever reason, Michael Bridges, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Seth Johnson had recurring injury problems that prevented them from excelling. And that is a shame because quite a few of them were English and they could have made the so-called England's “Golden Generation” of the mid-00s even more golden.

There were clubs that seemed to have hot streaks for a few seasons. Derby had a few good seasons, and then faltered and got relegated. Sunderland had a few top 10 finishes, and also suffered the same fate.

One of the most notable “success stories” was Bolton Wanderers. They had a manger, Sam Allardyce, who used a combination of analytics, and being able to get the best out of players who were talented but either past their best, or seemingly unable to unleash their best performances elsewhere. Thus, he managed to get Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff, and el Hadji Diouf to play their best for him.

Then one day, Newcastle came calling, and Allardyce, tempted by the prospect of managing a bigger club, took it, only to find himself getting sacked after less than a season. He acquired a reputation for boring and predictable football, and this dogged him throughout his subsequent career. He was told to leave Blackburn and West Ham because that reputation for boring football preceded him. But in both of those cases, those decision backfired on their clubs.

Bolton seemed to defy gravity for a while, and it acquired a reputation for being a very well-run small club. In truth, this was mainly down to Sam Allardyce and when he wasn't able to get more funds out of his chairman, he quit and moved to Newcastle.

Another “success story” was Wigan Athletic. They seemed to defy their small club status after breaking through to the Premier League, and occupying the top league for the first time in their history. They struggled with relegation every year, but incredibly managed to win the FA Cup (and get relegated in the same year). Maybe this was down to the two managers they had while in the premier league, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez.

Ditto for Swansea City, who had a string of good coaches in Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. They employed Michael Laudrup and he won the League cup, but he turned out t to be not such a good coach and was sacked. Garry Monk seemed to be another great coach, but after one great season, he was also found to be out of his depth. The next two coaches – Guidolin and Bob Bradley turned out to be disasters and they would have been relegated if not for the appointment of Paul Clement, who saved them from relegation last season. They're no longer the miracle workers who end up in the top half of the table, and a lot of their best players got sold off to other clubs. At the moment, they're deep in relegation trouble, and they're probably in a position that reflects their true status – perpetual relegation fighters.

A word, then, for the overachievers in the current premier league. Bournemouth is a club that's already overachieved by being in the premier league – one of the few clubs that has a stadium of seating capacity less than 20000. They had a manager who excelled in the last 2 seasons, but time's catching up with them.

Southampton is a more interesting case. They've had a string of coaches who are pretty good, although they've not done much other than introduce many of those coaches to bigger clubs. Alan Pardew improved the team while they were in the lower leagues, but it wasn't good enough. Nigel Adkins brought Southampton to the Premier League but it wasn't good enough. Mauricio Pochettino was good enough but he got lured to Tottenham where he's done a great job so far of moulding one of the most promising and exciting new sides of the top 6. (Tottenham and Man City are the only 2 new additions to the elite in the last few years and Tottenham did it without spending a ridiculous amount of money). They got in Ronald Koeman and after having kept Southampton in the same position, he was lured over by Everton where he screwed up and got fired. Claude Puel also kept Southampton in the top 10 but he was also fired for still not being good enough. Southampton's hirings and firings look extremely harsh but they should be commended for so far being a mid-table side.

Then there's Leicester, who was a side which like Southampton spent the first decade of the century in the wilderness after being a constant fixture in the EPL during its first decade. People remembered them for their League cup wins under Martin O'Neill. They rose quickly through the tables under the new ownership, and after having spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, suddenly produced championship form during the last few weeks to secure a place in the next year's league. (Although there were a few hints of this early in the season when they thrashed Man U 5-3, still one of the most remarkable results). The coach who got them there, Nigel Pearson, was fired, some felt, harshly for his bizarre behavior (and he's been out of work mostly since) but he laid the groundwork for what came next, the most incredible season by anybody in the premier league – their title winning 2015-16 season, and basically this is the season that Newcastle should have had in 95-96, when they used a combination of a water-tight defence, devastating counter-attacking and most of their title rivals being in transition to win the title in the most improbable fashion.

But after that, they had a really wretched title defence, and inexplicably Claudio Ranieri, who very strangely never won a league title before anywhere in his career (even though he had a few second place finishes), ended up getting his side into a relegation scrap and fired in the next season. (interestingly, this was the second time a coach who won the title the previous season got fired the next season – previously Jose Mourinho who won the title with Chelsea, and who replaced him at Chelsea more than 10 years earlier, was the one who got fired for a bad title defence.

He was replaced by Nigel Pearson's assistant, Craig Shakespeare. Shakespeare guided Leicester to safety, and after another bad start to the season, it was Shakespeare's turn to get fired, and instead the job was offered to Claude Puel, himself the victim of a harsh firing from Southampton.

You could complain about the firings being excessively harsh, but you would not complain about the results from a club like Leicester. Perhaps they felt that it was best to bring in different coaches with different approaches. Of their title winning team, they lost Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, but apparently they managed to retain just about all the other big names. Coincidentally, Leicester's title win was also similar to Chelsea's of 2017 in the sense that it was based on a system that other teams in the league found difficult to counter. Leicester had their counter-attack strategy that was executed to perfection. Chelsea had their 3-4-3 that funnily enough, only came about 5-10 games into the season, thereafter Chelsea climbed to the top of the table and stayed there.

And then there is Stoke, a team which for whatever reason never got relegated in the last 10 years. For their first few years, they were the archetype for a certain type of team: the disciplined, tight defence who played boring long ball, but were hard to beat and they got their results. Then Tony Pulis was replaced by Mark Hughes, who tried to introduce some flair into the team, and they still look like a mid-table side, although a few bad results will probably put their place in the premiership in danger.

Tony Pulis was later hired by Crystal Palace as a rescue expert, and he got them out of relegation trouble and after that left the club. Then he went to West Bromwich Albion, who also played football the Pulis way. But after a few bad results, he got fired.

The English Premier League used to have mid-table teams. Not anymore. Now there is only the elite – Man U, Man City and Chelsea, who are capable of winning titles, and Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, who are not. Outside of this six, anybody can get relegated at any time. It used to be that Aston Villa, Newcastle and Everton were exempt from this, but Aston Villa just got relegated, Newcastle just got promoted from the League Championship, and Everton has had to fire Ronald Koeman for a string of bad results. If I'm not wrong, only the elite clubs plus Everton have never been relegated from the Premier League, and were there since the beginning.

Every club outside the elite has a rough idea of what it takes in order to survive, and possibly every club is equally capable of doing it. It used to be that only Bolton had cracked the code of what it meant to be an over-performer. Now people roughly agree on a few things:

1. When you are a top performer as a player or a coach and you emerge at a club outside of the big six, they might try to poach you. Because of that, overperforming does not last long. This is one good reason for trying to get an good older guy at the end of his career, because nobody would want to poach him.
2. Having a good analytics and sports science team is very helpful for you to achieve success.
3. Having an experienced hand as head coach is very important. Premier League clubs seldom give inexperienced coaches the time and space needed to learn on the job. One of the best ways is to take a club from the championship up to the premier league and make him stay there. That's how managers like David Moyes, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce made their names. But now, they are part of a manager merry-go-round, and they're probably taking up places that might have gone to a younger English counterpart. Put it simply, it's not that easy for a younger Englishman to rise up to part of the elite.