If Liverpool win the League will it validate or repudiate Arsenal’s philosophy?

It looks like Liverpool are going to win the League for the first time in 24 years. And it looks like they are going to win the League after having forcibly kept their best player, with the fifth highest salary, and with a transfer policy that has spent money but not the huge sums that clubs like Chelsea, Man U, and Man City have spent. And after they win the League, Arsenal supporters need to prepare themselves for a summer of comparisons between the two clubs. But are the comparisons fair?

Perhaps the biggest link between the two clubs is over Liverpool’s star player, Luis Suarez. This summer Arsenal tried to buy Suarez after they were informed that the player had a £40m release clause. Liverpool’s owners famously asked “what are they smoking?” after the Gunners put in a £40m+1 bid for the Uruguayan but despite the bluster of John Henry Arsenal felt certain that the bid was enough to activate Suarez’ release clause.

Liverpool publicly denied that Arsenal’s bid was enough to force a transfer but behind the scenes, they were sweating because as it turns out Suarez did have a release clause and Liverpool were gambling big that he wouldn’t force through the transfer in the courts. Now that the dust has settled and Suarez is their star player, John Henry has publicly bragged that Liverpool essentially refused to honor Suarez’ contract. Henry posited that if players can refuse to honor their contracts with clubs by demanding trades — like Arsenal’s star players had done for the three seasons prior — then clubs shouldn’t honor the contracts either.

Some Arsenal fans now wish that their club had done the same with Robin van Persie the year earlier but the situations were vastly different between all four parties. With van Persie, Arsenal had a caustic character who was captain of the club yet involved in fist fights with the younger players. Van Persie’s demand to leave the club was sent via a letter to the fans which publicly remonstrated the entire Arsenal management team and ownership structure. Robin’s tenure at the club had become untenable. Suarez’ come and get me was done via an interview and was perhaps the most anodyne transfer request in the history of the sport. Whereas van Persie’s letter was a “hey guys, Arsenal suck, trade me” Suarez’ interview was “hey guys, I wish Liverpool would just honor their contract.”

Van Persie and Suarez’ situations were very different, for me the better comparison is Suarez and Cesc Fabregas. Van Persie was on the final year of his contract and threatening to destabilize the team with his attitude (just like he is doing at Manchester United now) and the fact that he would publicly sign for another club mid-season. Meanwhile, both Cesc and Suarez were still on a long term deals when their transfer sagas went down.

Moreover, Cesc and Suarez were both the heart and soul of their teams. You can see what Suarez means to his team just in terms of goals and assists and Fabregas nearly took Arsenal to a League title in 07/08 and the club were a backheel away from beating Barcelona in the Champions League. Since Cesc left, Arsenal have struggled offensively in the Premier League and the Champions League with their shots per game averages dipping drastically and with the club barely ambling in to the Champions League places instead of challenging for the League title.

Cesc was also sold for a song, Barcelona’s then president bragging that Cesc was worth €60m instead of the €40m they paid. Suarez has since renegotiated his contract and a new release clause has been added which doubles his value. In hindsight, getting Luis Suarez, who is leading his team to their first title in 24 years, for £40,000,001 would have been the deal of the century.

Cesc left Arsenal to join his boyhood club and fulfill his lifelong ambition to be a starting midfielder for Barcelona and it was classy of Arsenal to let him do that, especially after the player went on strike and had his entire country tapping him up to go home. Arsenal made no fuss, they simply negotiated the best deal they could and got on with life. Liverpool on the other hand were classless in their dealings, refusing to honor a player’s contract and publicly mocking Arsenal’s offer with their “what are they smoking???” jibes.

The other comparison that will be made between the two clubs is over the fact that Liverpool, supposedly, haven’t spent a ton of money to win the trophy. I say supposedly because in actual fact Liverpool have spent quite a bit of money and have been very wasteful with that money, especially in the transfer market.

Prior to the current ownership regime, Liverpool were so grossly mismanaged by the owners Hicks and Gillette that the banks forced the sale of the club to the current owners at what amounted to a cut rate price. The current ownership group has moved the club’s debts onto other companies that they own and gotten the books to look a bit better in the process but Liverpool are still a team that spends far more money than they earn and they spend most of that money in wages and transfers.

Their wage bill may “only” be the 5th highest in the land but at one point it was an astonishing 70% of their annual turnover. They have reduced that percentage to 60% over the last few years but that hasn’t stopped the club from posting a net loss of £49m this season. That loss takes Liverpool’s three year losses to almost £150m and means that when they apply to play in the Champions League next season, they will probably have to pay a hefty fine. UEFA could refuse them entry in the tournament and if there ever was a team that should be denied based on the Financial Fair Play rules, it would have to be Liverpool. After all, this is a club that were minutes away from bankruptcy just four years ago and whose new owners are simply loading more and more debt on to the balance sheets.

Their spending in the transfer market over the last three seasons almost directly matches those losses as Transfermarkt has them down £110m net. So, while Arsenal have a larger wage bill than Liverpool, Liverpool have spent lavishly on a transfer list that reads like a horror novel: Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Enrique, Coates, Joe Allen, Borini, Sahin, Sakho, Aspas, and Ilori have all failed to live up to their sticker prices.

You will probably be told this summer that Liverpool and Arsenal are similar in their spending patterns but nothing could be further from the truth. Both teams are sort of outsiders in terms of the huge spending teams like Chelsea, Man City, Man U, PSG, and Monaco but if we look at the last three seasons Arsenal have spent a whopping £19m and Liverpool £110m. And overall, Arsenal are in no way going to run afoul of Financial Fair Play while Liverpool could, in theory, win the League and be denied entry into the Champions League based on their debt and profligate spending — spending which ironically was meant to get them into the Champions League.

I struggle to find many similarities between these two clubs. Liverpool have loaded debt onto the club, have wasted money on terrible players, and have an ageing stadium which they look unlikely to ever afford to replace. Arsenal, to many a fan’s frustration, have kept a tight grip on spending, built a wonderful new stadium, and look like they are ready to enter a new era of rational spending at the club.

Even the dealings with their players provide a huge contrast. Liverpool kept Suarez by refusing to honor his contract and acted in a rather boorish manner toward Arsenal and Suarez. Meanwhile, Arsenal let Cesc leave on the cheap but it was to his boyhood club and the transfer fulfilled his lifelong ambition. Footbalistically, it was probably not the right thing to do, but humanistically it was. Still, looking back at the last three years I have to wonder what Arsenal would look like if we’d been just a little less classy and forced Cesc to honor his contract.

So, to answer my headline question, is Liverpool a validation or repudiation of Arsenal’s philosophy? Neither. Arsenal were top of the table for 19 weeks and then injury took toll. No team could expect to win the League if they lost their star forward (Walcott), their star midfielder (Ramsey), their record transfer player (Özil), and many of their best squad players all at the same time. The core of this Arsenal team is very strong but it needs a few parts to compliment that core and provide rotation to cut down on injuries. While Arsenal have been unlucky, Liverpool have caught a rub of the green. Suarez, after years of being a selfish, wasteful, and frankly mental football player — a player who bit one player and committed a racism against another — has turned in a career season, scoring 30 goals and assisting for 12. If there was one thing that they got right it was keeping Suarez.

A huge gamble that looks like it paid off big.


special one

Jose Mourinho loses it all at the Bridge

Jose Mourinho lost his first ever Premier League match at home and in the process lost the League title, his best midfielder, his assistant, and his mind.

Chelsea looked rattled by Sunderland’s in your face approach to the game from the start and no player was more rattled than Ramires. Ramires was subject of a fairly hard aerial challenge which put him off scoring and that was followed minutes later by a nippy tackle, both from Sunderland midfielder Seb Larsson. But the Brazilian’s reaction to his treatment was simply outrageous, he punched Larsson in the face. Worse, replays show that the punch was intentional as Ramires looks back at Larsson before lashing out.

No one knows if Mike Dean saw the incident since he didn’t stop play and seemed to be waving play on for the earlier Larsson tackle. But we must assume that he didn’t see the punch because if he did see it, then there is a serious problem with his judgement as a referee. Assuming that he didn’t see the punch, it seems a clear case that Ramires will be punished very harshly by the FA for violent conduct. Three match ban would be the minimum in this case but the FA could impose harsher punishment given the nature of the attack.

It was a fiery match but Chelsea looked good money to pull out the win and Sunderland were lucky to escape the first half with the scoreline 1-1. Chelsea started the second half the way they had ended the first, attacking Sunderland’s goal almost at will. The stats bear out the fact that Chelsea were unlucky not to win the match.

The Blues took 31 shots, 15 on target, 8 of the on target shots were right in front of goal and a further three of the missed shots were taken in the same positions. That’s 11 shots right in front of goal, any of which you would normally expect a top team to score. Yet a combination of good keeping by former Arsenal player Vito Mannone and good luck kept Chelsea at bay.

Not finding the breakthrough, and with their title hopes in the balance, the pressure started to mount on Chelsea and the cracks started to show. Fullback Cesar Azpilicueta made several crucial errors and in the 80th minute compounded a slip with a horrible tackle that brought down Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore in the penalty box. The sideline official waved for the foul and Mike Dean pointed to the penalty spot with his usual dramatic flourish.

Up stepped Liverpool loanee Fabio Borini and after a stutter step walk up, sent Mark Schwarzer the wrong way to put Sunderland in the lead. It’s ironic that Chelsea would have their title hopes undone by a Liverpool player on loan since Chelsea have actively pursued the loan system as a means to stockpile players while keeping their payroll down and destabilizing the Premier League.

Before the net had stopped rippling Chelsea’s bench went apoplectic and fitness coach Rui Faria confronted Mike Dean burning with rage. Held back by Mourinho and others, Faria was screaming at Dean over something and Dean had no choice but to request he be removed.

Chelsea pressed and pressed for the tying goal but there was no getting through and as the clock wore down fans watching on television knew that the most exciting thing to happen next was probably going to be Jose Mourinho’s post-match interview. And the Special One didn’t let anyone down.

Asked for his opinion of the match, Jose, his voice dripping with sarcasm, congratulated his players, the Sunderland players, the referees, and head of the referee’s association Mike Riley for a great season. Thankfully the Oscar music started playing in his head and spared us suffering through him thanking his dog for licking his face with such “perfect breath”, his wife for a “great back rub”, Abramovich for the “huge warchest”, Torres for “scoring bags of goals”, the British media for “fair reporting”, America for the “moon landing”, scientists for “global warming” and “evolution”, and god for “creating the world.”

Mourinho ridiculed Arsene Wenger earlier in the season calling Arsenal’s most successful ever manager a “specialist in failure”. But given his own history of outrageous behavior when his team lose, once poking a man in the eye, perhaps Mourinho should be branded a “specialist in poor sportsmanship.”



FFP prepares a toothless snarl at PSG and Man City

“Our lawyers are very competent.” – PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules promised the end of big spending, the end of clubs going bankrupt, and the rise of football as a self-sustaining enterprise. Their rules, along with the Football Association’s version of the same rule, were supposed to create a level playing field by punishing teams with ‘sugar daddy owners’ who spent beyond their means on transfers and salaries and who wracked up huge debts. But judging by the leaked news that UEFA is merely going to install a luxury tax and a sort of salary cap, along with the revelation that the Football Association is probably going to scrap their own version of FFP, and coupled with the unbridled spending of the last few years at all levels of football in England, it looks as if the lion of Financial Fair Play is simply a toothless old kitten.

UEFA have identified 76 teams who are under scrutiny this year but the two teams who are receiving the majority of the press are Man City and Paris St. Germain and for good reason. Man City lost £150m over the two year period where they were allowed a measly £37m in losses. Despite losing 4 times the allowed amount, nearly every reporter who has written about this topic seems to think that Man City are only due to receive a slap on the wrist from UEFA. From what I have read on The Times and Guardian Man City looks set to accept a fine and possibly some players will be excluded from competing next season.

Many fans, especially of the self-sustaining clubs like Arsenal, were hoping that UEFA would show some real courage and actually ban clubs like Man City from the Champions League but that looks highly unlikely since any club subject to such a ban would certainly sue in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Instead of litigation, UEFA are keen to work with clubs on “settlements” and Man City are reportedly ok with the terms that UEFA are offering.

From what I gather, City will pay a “luxury tax” of sorts (it’s being called a fine in some reports) and then they will be asked to exclude a certain number of players from Champions League play next season. The number of players excluded will be based on salary, so for example we could see “£10m worth of City players” barred from the Champions League next season.

One of the places where many fans are curious to see how UEFA will react in in some of the sweetheart deals that wealthy owners and states are offering clubs in order to balance their books. Man City have had their sponsorship with Etihad examined and from what I gather UEFA looks set to rule that deal OK. Part of this is down to City’s willingness to work with UEFA on “coming in to compliance”.

PSG on the other hand is reportedly being “haughty” in negotiations with UEFA. PSG is a Qatari owned club and were awarded a backdated deal worth €200m a year with the Qatar Tourism Authority. The backdated deal wiped their debt of €130m last year, the equivalent of a teenager coming up short in his till one day and the very next day “finding” a backdated check from himself covering the cost. UEFA is investigatig the deal but PSG’s president is quoted at the start of this article with his basic response: “we have lawyers.”

Your team has to be in the one of the two UEFA competitions (Champions League and Europa League) in order to be subject to these penalties. Thus, Liverpool, who have made nearly £100m in losses in the last two years doesn’t even get investigated by UEFA, this year. However, if Liverpool finish in the top four, which seems very likely considering their position on the table, they will be eligible for European competitions next year and will then be subject to scrutiny.

Liverpool is a great example of how toothless these rules really are. The Scousers were on the verge of bankruptcy with £400m in debt when the Boston group stepped in and saved them from administration. Since then, much of the debt on the books has been retired (through inter-company, interest free loans) but the club continue to make huge losses season after season. This is precisely the kind of situation we were told that both UEFA’s FFP and the Football Association FFP rules would prevent: no team should be on the verge of bankruptcy only to receive a temporary reprieve and then start spending ludicrously again.

It will be interesting to see how UEFA deal with Liverpool’s books next year. They have lost money consistently year in and year out and only “retire” debt through inter-company loans. Chelsea have found similarly creative ways to cook their books. The so-called £2m in profits they made last year were actually £19m in losses if you don’t count their canceled shares in a joint venture with BSkyB, which Chelsea simply subsumed (e.g. Abramovich gifted). Chelsea has gone on to lose £50m again this season, but since the rules are structured so that losses are cumulative over two years, Chelsea once again avoid running into FFP’s toothless buzzsaw.

In the end, I would say that some of these revelations are disheartening except that what we are seeing leaked out of UEFA ahead of the actual decision at the end of the month is exactly what many feared. Financial Fair Play, whether it is the UEFA version or the Football Association version is not going to change the football landscape much. We’ve tried these sorts of soft caps in the USA and they simply don’t work. If you want to limit spending, if you want to control players costs, and if you want to make the playing field more level, European football needs to take an example from American Gridiron football and install a hard salary cap.


P.S. Tim Payton sent me a link to Oliver Kay’s piece on FFP in which Kay compares Man U to Man City: one club’s owners bought the team, loaded it with debt, and then took huge sums out and the other club’s owners transformed the club by pouring hundreds of millions of pounds in. The underlying argument of the Kay piece is that the Man U model is the real problem because they are taking money out of football, that Man U helped write FFP in order to protect their narrow self interests, and that billionaires should be allowed to spend recklessly.

It’s a variation on the “billionaire in every pot” argument that I have seen passed around for a while now. Basically, it is unfair to stop billionaires investing, that keeps small to middle teams small, and every team should get their own billionaire!

There is a pervasive notion that there are only two options: spend or do not spend. But the real answer is far more complex. There are many tiers to football and simply allowing billionaires to pick and choose which teams they are going to “invest” in is only going to benefit those few lucky teams who get chosen. Moreover, billionaires are going to pick teams with the kind of infrastructure ready for them to maximize their investments. The chances that some Oligharch is going to buy up Wigan and dump $1bn into the club are fairly small, I reckon.

Everyone else without a billionaire, regardless of history, and even perhaps in spite of hard work, will be relegated to the “have nots” pile. Manchester City is not blazing a trail for a new model, they are simply wanting to overthrow the old structure and put themselves at the top of a new one with new haves and new have nots. Along the way, the money that they have to spend in order to catch up, and catch up suddenly ruins the football market for everyone who doesn’t have a sugar daddy.

That last bit about catching up suddenly is a crucial component to this argument that no one wants to talk about. No one has a problem if Chelsea wanted to hire a manager who could, through prudent dealings in the transfer market and shrewd coaching, take their team from being a bus stop in Fulham to a Champions League club. What Chelsea, City, PSG, and Monaco have done is dump huge sums in to a sport that they know very little about in order to grow a business. These clubs’ early dealings prove that they don’t understand football, but rather just rely on huge sums of money to buy their way to glory.

Ironically, it’s the people who claim to be most traditionalist who support these billionaires. This despite the demonstrable fact that these billionaires know nothing about the sport and are merely dead set on overthrowing the very traditions that people claim to support.

No one wants their team to have all the money hoovered out of the coffers the way that Manchester United’s owners have over their time in charge. But the idea that FFP is the problem and that the billionaire model is the answer is risible. Chelsea and City could have become superpower clubs without insane investment, but it would have taken longer, it would have taken managers who knew how to spend wisely and not just buy the world’s most expensive players.

In short, they would have to have done it the Arsenal way.