Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Is football about to shoot itself in the foot?

As suggested by Gareth Roberts (@robbohuyton for you twitterers) in his Well Red blog, hopefully the ‘green shoots of recovery’ are underway. We may well see these blossom into full recovery heading into the early part of 2010. Although a run of difficult fixtures against the likes of Spurs, Everton and Arsenal risk the opportunity for early 2010 prosperity. But we are starting to show that while, you may not fear us like you did last season, we are a team you really don’t want to play against. There are flashes of fluidity rather than lengthy periods but hopefully we are ‘on our way’ to building that much needed confidence.

While some may not agree that the impact of the credit crunch has impinged on our financial prosperity. The similarities between our club and the financial meltdown of the banking system are interesting - even down to the timing of the green shoots of recovery. The major difference being that the taxpayers haven’t jumped to our rescue to provide some much needed transfer funds.

This season has started to show the changing dynamics of the premiership. While talking about ‘green shoots’ I have been wondering of late whether we are at the root of some major changes within the Premiership. Tottenham, Villa and most notably (and dangerously) City have all made a bid to break up the top four dominance within the Premiership. Man City with their millions in transfer funds and ability to pay astronomical wages pose the greatest threat, although Spurs have also made significant investment in their team.

From a league perspective this has shaken things up considerably. While leading to a greater mixture of results the pressure has increased at least ten fold on the ‘top 7 teams’. Interestingly I also believe that we are seeing a knock on affect lower down the league as teams have ‘stepped up’. Fulham for example have consistently troubled the top 4 while others like Wigan and even Burnley have intermittently risen to the occasion.

I guess greater unpredictability leads to more variation and a more exciting season overall. It also shows where the strengths and weaknesses of a club are. Paul Tomkins makes an excellent case for showing the links between finance and success. I believe that success is delivered through four key areas:


The financial ability of the club can have a significant affect on the club, particularly if the other three factors are right as well. The ability to pay large transfer fees and support players’ costs undoubtedly means that clubs can buy more of the ’special players’ usually required.


This is where Liverpool under Rafa Benitez have balanced, to some degree, the financial aspects. Not only has he tactically outmanoeuvred some of the best managers in the world. He has also improved the quality of our squad considerably by increasing the playing abilities and thus value of players. With a net spend per year of £16-20m he has wheeled and dealed his way to a team, if not squad, capable of beating any other team (on their day).

Playing Squad Composition

This, I believe, is quite often overlooked by many. We hadn’t spent hundreds of millions to take us to second place last season. But the composition of the team was right. While we hadn’t spent millions the partnership of Gerrard and Torres was coveted by managers the world over who would have quite happily spent the £100m required to ascertain their services, had either shown any inclination to leave the club. Under Benitez both players have prospered under his tutelage. This goes to show that the right players in the right position, especially under the right manager, can take you towards the pinnacle; sometimes negating the need for the financial requirements.


The unknowns. The refereeing decisions which are supposed to balance themselves out, the beach balls and any injuries can all have a telling affect on a season. Imagine a season without losing any of our star players (Torres, Gerrard, Reina, Mascherano, Johnson or Aquilani) and you could feasibly see us push for the top spot again.

It’s a balancing act for us. To really push for the top we need Rafa to make up for the shortfall in our financial clout. He has to get the squad composition right and keep improving the quality of our existing players. Something he has done exceptionally well - the reason why the maximum amount of patience must be extended. However, the squad composition does not look right to me this season with a lack of striking options (which I don’t say to negate the input from N’gog). We have also been heavily weighed down with bad luck. Beach balls and injuries sustained while on international duty or even at home playing a key part in our season to date. It is unknown whether the squad composition is wrong because of Rafa or the financial abilities of the club.

To me this quite clearly shows the importance of Rafa. Who balances out our (lack of) financial abilities through his development of players, acquisitions (which on the whole have been good) and tactics.

The big danger of a top 7 is that their business models, following heavy investment, will all undoubtedly require champions league football. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that 7 doesn’t go into 4! This heaps the pressure on the teams within the top 7. Patience no longer being a luxury that chief execs. can afford, as highlighted by the recent Hughes incident.

It is in the nature of humanity that we feel the need to strive forwards purposefully. To improve and to better ourselves. There is a significant amount of business sense in setting your stall out for Europa football and remaining within the premiership. However expectations rise and that desire to improve comes to the fore.

This all leads to one question. Is football about to shoot itself in the foot? Is this desire to improve, requiring a break up of the top 4, going to ultimately lead to more Leeds scenarios? There is a lot to be said for stability. Especially when you consider how clubs either have to become reliant on an individual (a la Abramovich) or throw yourselves into debt to compete at the top. Neither of these options are appealing to fans if the truth be told and yet neither is stable mediocrity. Makes you wonder how any of the owners of the top clubs can win, unless of course they are the team lucky to be at the top of the table come May. If they’re not at the pinnacle then the investment in the team wasn’t high enough or the stadium isn’t big enough or they did or didn’t sack the manager when they should or shouldn’t have.

Interesting times ahead!