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August 2013

Week 2 – Close the window (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

26 Aug 2013(Mon)

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“I don’t want Chelsea to do it before we go there,” said José Mourinho after his side’s midweek victory over Aston Villa. ‘It’, of course, referred to a third and decisive bid for Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney; ‘there’ being the deliciously-timed away trip to his current employers this Monday night. “Everybody in the club, in the board, they agree with me. They share that opinion – I think this period, by the ethical point of view, is a period where we’re going to be quiet.”

By insisting that focus be diverted away from Rooney’s potential transfer, Mourinho has sneakily ensured that all the more attention will be focused on Rooney’s potential transfer. There is no telling how events at Old Trafford may affect the course of the seven days and two hours that follow before the close of the transfer window – not least, because I am penning this column on Monday afternoon.

Perhaps, by the time you read this, Roman Abramovich’s henchmen will have schmoozed United’s inexperienced vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, into submission with a lifetime’s supply of vodka and caviar for the executive box. Perhaps Sir Bobby Charlton will have angrily intervened to boot them out the front door with all the forcefulness of his second goal against Portugal in the 1966 semi-final. Perhaps Rooney himself will have finally gone public, coming off the bench to beat David de Gea with a spectacular own goal, before sprinting over to the Chelsea fans and revealing that ‘Once a Blue, Always a Blue’ shirt he infamously displayed as an Everton player.

Obviously, I have just made all of this up. But then, that is the whole point. A year ago on these pages, I mused upon the whimsical, comedic, and even four-dimensional nature of this metaphysical window which, for its duration, serves to swallow up and define all narrative whether we like it or not. Sagas like Rooney’s – or Bale’s, or Suárez’s, or Fellaini’s – dominate the agenda regardless of concrete facts or developments to the extent that we forget about events on the pitch. It might all follow the principle of demand and supply – if it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t talk about it – but the distraction has now become worryingly detrimental to footballing competition.

Speaking last Thursday ahead of the home draw with West Bromwich Albion, the recently-installed Everton manager Roberto Martínez was clearly exasperated about a situation that leaves him waiting, uncertainly, on an acceptable bid for Marouane Fellaini and/or Leighton Baines from his predecessor David Moyes, now at United:

“I’ve said it time after time. I think it’s time for the football authorities to look into the situation. I think the transfer window is getting out of hand and really, really affecting the value of the league. I think it’s affecting the human side of the players in a very, very unfair manner and it’s about time that we stopped... the official games in the middle of the window. It’s not for me to discuss how long the window needs to be open, and I’m the first one to understand that you need to have the window... but you cannot have the window open when you’ve got official games.”

Some clubs deal with the matter better than others. After bitter experience in the past losing Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modrić too late in the day to sign a replacement – a move for João Moutinho 12 months ago missed the deadline by minutes – the hard-negotiating Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy has wisely moved to spend the Gareth Bale money while the latter’s world record switch to Real Madrid was still being negotiated. His satisfaction at nabbing Willian from under the noses of Liverpool, however, was overturned when dealings within the Russian oligarchy convinced the Anzhi Makhachkala man to opt for Chelsea while he was actually undergoing a medical at White Hart Lane. Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, attracted further ridicule for triumphantly announcing after Arsenal’s win at Fenerbahçe last Wednesday that “the transfer market starts for me now” – and not three months previously, as the rest of us had been inclined to believe.

The agents – some of whose less scrupulous variety care little for which club or country their clients may end up at – undoubtedly feast in the rewards of their brinkmanship. But it is clearly madness that pre-season preparations are allowed to be undermined by the politics of a window that extends beyond the third or even fourth matchday. FIFA’s vague regulations leave everything to the whim of the national associations by prescribing two registration periods – one of up to 12 weeks after the old season has finished, plus a mid-season amnesty of a maximum four weeks. This does nothing to quell the problem and, by allowing for discrepancy – Russia’s summer window, for example, ends on 6 September – there even lies the possibility for further unwelcome shenanigans.

Take the following, entirely hypothetical scenario. Later this week, Everton announce that their financial situation has taken a downturn and, with reluctance, Fellaini will be available for sale. Manchester United and Arsenal seize upon their vulnerability with bids of £20 million, but Zenit St. Petersburg blow both out of the water by offering the Toffees £30 million. The Russians’ offer is accepted and the English deadline of next Monday passes. When the Belgian arrives for his medical on Tuesday, however, Zenit announce that a mystery ‘health problem’ has forced them to withdraw their offer, but they are willing to renegotiate for £10 million. With no other eligible suitors and urgent bills to pay, an angry Everton have no choice but to accept, and the ‘missing’ £20 million is quietly divvied up between Fellaini, his agent, and the Zenit representatives.

The only fair and logical solution to the problems of August and September is for FIFA to introduce a uniform and fixed global transfer window of 1 to 31 July in the northern hemisphere summer, and 1 to 31 January in the winter.

Reducing the main window to a month may seem excessively short, but this would not be the case in practice. Since the windows are, as already stated in the current FIFA regulations, no more than ‘registration periods’, clubs would still be free to conduct their business in May and June. Deals can be signed and even monies paid in the early part of the close season, just as long as the transfer of the player’s registration is post-dated to July. J. League clubs could similarly negotiate through December; the evenly-spaced intervals of equal length ensuring there is no advantage or disadvantage for countries whose leagues begin in February and March. In fact, most of this would differ little from the status quo – the changes serve purely to eliminate discrepancy and encroachment into the playing season.

Maybe then we could all concentrate on the actual football for a change.


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Week 1 – Can’t be Arsed? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

19 Aug 2013(Mon)

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As with many professions so far this century, the job of the football journalist is changing rapidly.

Of course, this is closely associated with the changes that the information age have brought to the media industry as a whole – with the proliferation of satellite television, internet services, and social networks combining to bring key stories and on-demand match footage to the user faster than any hack in the stadium or office could pen a match report.

But partly due to the consequent changes in user needs, and partly as a result of the massive economic power the game has developed throughout this two-decade transition, the sheer breadth of subject that journalists should cover has expanded also. The narrative of football flitters from the pitch to the balance sheets, the murky political wrangling behind decisions on hosting rights worth billions of dollars, and the ethical implications of staging major competitions in countries whose attitudes to race, gender, and sexuality may not quite be in line with the progressive tone favoured, superficially at least, by the global governing bodies. Our own socio-politico-economic knowledge is inevitably less than absolute and we are hugely indebted to the specialist commentators who break everything down for us, but to present the overall footballing picture, we now regularly need to consider issues well outside our comfort zone.

In essence, our basic objective – to inform, further debate, and complement readers’ or viewers’ enjoyment of the sport – remains unchanged. It is the methodology through which we aim to achieve it that must be adapted to suit the times.

Fans, too, have adopted a similar approach in calling upon all manner of materials to inform their discussions and anticipation over what the near future might bring for their beloved clubs. Almost exactly three months ago, when a solitary Laurent Koscielny goal sealed nervy victory at Newcastle United and fourth place in the final Premier League table, the number-watchers reached a near-unanimous consensus. Arsenal supporters had every right to expect this to be their summer.

On the pitch, the Gunners’ immediate advantage was obvious. With the expected changes at Chelsea and Manchester City accompanied by a first changing of the guard in 27 years at Old Trafford, Arsène Wenger was the only incumbent manager among the Champions League quartet in place to start planning for 2013/14 early. Aided by the always magnificent Swiss Ramble
, a financial expert’s blog on football, I spent time ahead of the final episode of Foot! TUESDAY last season trawling through Arsenal’s financial reports to add quantitative weight to the feeling that now was the time to spend.

As of June 2012 – the last date to which such results have been published – Arsenal were the overwhelming English football leaders in terms of pre-tax profit with £37 million annually and a five-year total of £190 million. An operating cash flow of £28 million was the third highest in the Premier League, while years of positive operating cash flow had left the club with a whopping cash balance of £154 million. Yes, about £19 million a season had to be put aside to pay back the long-term bonds on the Emirates Stadium, but this would be more than offset by the windfall awaiting the Gunners thanks to the new deals with the television companies, their shirt and stadium sponsor, plus – reportedly – Puma for kit supply from 2014/15.

Evoking memories of an old Harry Enfield comedy character called ‘Loadsamoney’, chief executive Ivan Gazidis was very frank – perhaps to a fault – in acknowledging this strong financial position at the start of the summer. In June, when asked if Arsenal were now in a position to pay over £20 million in transfer fees and weekly wages of £200,000 for individual, top-level players, Gazidis boasted, “Of course we could do that. We could do more than that.

“This year we are beginning to see something we have been planning for some time, which is the escalation in our financial firepower... We have a certain amount of money which we’ve held in reserve. We also have new revenue streams coming on board and all of these things mean we can do some things which would excite you.”

Excited we all were – Arsenal fans in particular – about the prospect of a resurgence in North London and the prospect of a genuine four-, even five-way title race. Yet everything since has been little short of self-parody.

Seven first-team players were removed from the wage bill – plus three on loan – in preparation for all the new names, yet the only to arrive is still Yaya Sanogo – a young, promising but injury-prone forward from the French second division. The need for a new goalkeeper, centre back, and defensive midfielder was overshadowed by the excited pursuit of a star striker, during which Arsenal allowed original target Gonzalo Higuaín to slip off to Naples in the mistaken belief that a bid of £40,000,001 would contractually compel a less-than-impressed Liverpool to part with wantaway Luis Suárez. All huff, no puff, and come opening day it was simply same old Arsenal.

Wenger had reflected before the 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa on how the transfer market had changed in recent years. As he faced the media afterwards, with the angry fans’ calls of “spend some fucking money” still ringing in his ears, his tone was more exasperated:

“We are there to spend money. People say: ‘Buy players, buy players, buy players.’ But who? We analyse every single player in the world and work 24 hours a day for that. We are serious about it... We couldn’t go out at five [minutes] to three and buy six players. We were on the market before the game and exactly the same after the game.”

But who? Those in the stands who had made the demands would have had every suggestion as to where to fucking spend it. From Higuaín to Bernard, via Stevan Jovetić, Júlio César, Luiz Gustavo, and all the many others once seen as headed for the Emirates, not one would have been out of Arsenal’s newly-escalated financial reach. The sight of Jovetić joining three other big names at City – moving quickly to mount a renewed title charge in spite of the change in manager – and even neighbours Tottenham Hotspur snaring coveted stars such as Paulinho and Roberto Soldado while Arsenal did nothing must have been particularly galling. It will have been noted that the continental ‘sporting director’ model employed at White Hart Lane and Eastlands contrasts with Wenger’s all-controlling, ‘dictatorial’ status.

Indeed, Arsène, the market has changed. Once was the time where the Frenchman could boast a network of contacts and an eye for European talent unrivalled in a nascent Premier League where all but a handful of players hailed from the British Isles. Not so today. Even supposing that the Gunners boss does write a few cheques during the remainder of this month, few would now be confident in his ability to do so wisely.

One loss to Villa does not spell disaster. But it has devastatingly displayed how little Arsenal, and particularly Wenger, have evolved. Forget the title; the target once again this season is that mythical trophy you get for fourth place. And that, considering the promise laid out on paper this May, is simply unacceptable.

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