Raheem Sterling get out while you still can

By Tim Todd, standing on platform 8 yelling at players to “get out while they can”

Raheem Sterling has played in 50 games for Liverpool this season, that’s one less than Jordan Henderson. And in those matches he has scored 13 goals, more than any other player, including Gerrard and Henderson who mostly score from the penalty spot. He’s also Liverpool’s most adept dribbler, averaging 3.1 dribbles per game, and because he dribbles so much he’s also Liverpool’s most fouled player with 2.6 per game. And to cap it all off, Sterling creates more shots for his teammates and himself than anyone else on the team, leading Liverpool in Key Passes with 63 total and leading Liverpool in shots with 74.¹

And Sterling is just twenty years old.

Liverpool are not a tiny team. This isn’t a young man coming through the ranks at West Brom, this is a young man who has wrestled the starting spot away from big money signings like Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic. According to those two players cost Liverpool €56m. Liverpool also spent 20m Euros on Ballotelli. That 76 million Euros worth of attacking players have combined for 7 goals and 4 assists in League play. Sterling has 7 and 7.

Sterling is the best player at Liverpool.

And Sterling is just 20 years old. He’s going to get better.

So, it’s no surprise that Liverpool are eager to keep him and have offered to make him one of the highest paid players on the team. But it also should be no surprise that Sterling wants more. Not more money, he wants to play in Europe. And despite all of their spending this summer, it doesn’t look like Liverpool are going to get there.

If you’ve been following the Sterling contract saga story then you probably know three things: Sterling is greedy, he smokes, and he does whippits. I mentioned (on twitter) how fortunate it is for Liverpool that these three stories all came out at the same time because they seem to improve the club’s bargaining position.

It improves their bargaining position if they want Sterling to stay, which they do. They want to force Sterling to stay despite the fact that they can’t offer him Champions League football, which is what he has publicly stated that he wants. With his reputation tarnished that destabilizes his ability to get offers from other clubs. Arsenal, Man City, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are going to be reticent to plunk down £50m on a player who has a reputation for drug use. His own manager even said as much in his most recent press conference:

“You’re a professional sports person at the top of your game, I don’t think it’s something you should be doing. Simple as that. But I’ll speak to him on it. I owe him that.

We want players here who are super professional. Focused on football. And I know that he is. He is very much focused on his football and improving as a player. But like I said before, young players make mistakes. As long as they learn from them that’s important.”

Rodgers hasn’t even spoken to the player, but he’s already condemned the player, while also praising the player. It is almost as if Brendan had some talking points he needed to hit and jumbled them up: Sterling is a model professional but he made a mistake, though we actually don’t know if he made a mistake because I haven’t spoken with him, and I owe it to speak with him before I condemn him, but still I condemn this kind of behavior, I mean “in general”.

What surprised me was the response to my tweet. I tweeted out something to the effect of “hey this is fortunate for Liverpool that all this bad press comes out against Sterling” and I expected people to tell me that I was wrong. But the overwhelming response was “that is how Fenway Sports Group (FSG) do business.”

I knew that FSG played hard ball over their contracts. Arsenal bid £40m+1 for Louis Suarez a few years back, thinking that there was an iron-clad release clause in his contract. Liverpool fired back with “what are they smoking” at Arsenal and essentially told Arsenal and Suarez that if they wanted that release clause to stick, they were going to have to sue in court. Later, after the deal fell through, Henry bragged that Liverpool knew Suarez had a release clause and simply refused to sell:

(Suarez) had a buyout clause of £40m. Arsenal, one of our prime rivals, offered £40m plus £1. What we’ve found … is that contracts don’t seem to mean a lot in England – actually, in world football.

It doesn’t matter how long a player’s contract is, he can decide he’s leaving. We sold a player, Fernando Torres, for £50m, that we did not want to sell, we were forced to. Since apparently these contracts don’t seem to hold, we took the position that we’re just not selling.

John Henry is bragging here that they got one over on a rival team and forced a player to stay who really wanted to leave. Proof that Fenway Sports Group play hardball over contracts.

But what I didn’t know is that FSG has a reputation for throwing dirt on former players and in the worst case of character assassination I’ve seen, on former manager Terry Francona. The Francona story is particularly harrowing: Keith Olbermann summarized the treatment Francona received thus;

The newspaper essentially printed an ownership implication that Francona had a prescription drug problem, that he was distracted by worry over the safety of his son and son-in-law, serving overseas, and that he lost focus because of marital problems.

Drugs and a bad marriage are one thing, but Olbermann accuses John Henry and others of risking the lives of Francona’s children, who were serving in Afghanistan and who could be targeted if it was known that they were the kids of a millionaire baseball manager, just so they could have a scapegoat for the crumbling Red Sox.

Other tweeters pointed out that they did something similar to Manny Ramirez when he was itching to leave Boston. With Bill Simmons penning a lengthy piece on the way that Boston’s owners played hardball with Man Ram under the title “Manny is being manipulated”:

Boston’s hierarchy (Epstein and owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino) basically told Manny and Boras, “We aren’t giving you an extension after the best offensive stretch in Red Sox history that didn’t involve Ted Williams, and we’re also not deciding on our 2009 and 2010 options yet. Let’s see how you do this season.” In other words, welcome to no-man’s land! By not making a decision, the Red Sox did make a decision: They turned the situation over to Boras and expected his most impressionable client to handle himself with professionalism and class. Like that would happen.

Once Manny shifted into sulk mode, the Red Sox wasted no time painting him as a malcontent. After Manny berated the team’s 64-year-old traveling secretary and shoved the poor guy to the ground, the team did everything but hire actors to re-enact the incident on After Manny skipped a crucial game against the Yankees, claiming he had a sore knee, management made a point of getting MRIs on both knees and telling reporters he was fine. Did the team ever suspend him? Of course not. That would have made too much sense. Once the old school baseball writers started hissing that Manny didn’t respect The Game, for many Boston fans, that was the final straw.

Does any of this sound familiar? Raheem Sterling is in the midst of a contract negotiation, the terms of the contract are made public, and suddenly Sterling is all over the press being portrayed as a money-grubbing party boy.

Maybe Sterling is all those things I don’t know. I do know that he has publicly stated that what he really wants is Champions League football and that he would have signed for a lot less if the contracts had been renegotiated last season, when Liverpool nearly won the Premier League.

It’s not about the money at all,” the England forward said. It’s never been about money. I talk about winning trophies throughout my career. That’s all I talk about.” He added: “I don’t talk about how many cars I’m going to drive, how many houses I’ve got. I just purely want to be the best I can be.”

In the interview with the BBC, Sterling also said he would have accepted less than £100,000 a week had he been offered a new deal this time last year, when the Reds were chasing the Premier League title.

“If, at that point in time, I was offered a contract, I most definitely would have signed straight away, probably for far less money than being said now,” he said.

Others around the boy say that he is shy and unassuming. But this isn’t the story that Liverpool fans are being fed. They are told that he’s a mercenary and that besides which Coutinho is better, or whatever lower-level player Liverpool will bring in is going to be better. They don’t need Sterling.

I go back to what Brendan Rodgers said above, about how young players make mistakes but the important thing is that they need to learn from their mistakes. I agree with Rodgers and I think Sterling is on the verge of making a big mistake.

I’m not talking about smoking a shisha or doing whippits, that is tame stuff compared to what I’m used to seeing from American athletes. And I’m pretty sure that’s tame stuff in England as well. I’m also not talking about Sterling asking to be paid a huge contract, he is the best player on a team who look like they aren’t going to make it into the Champions League next season. The Premier League just saw a huge increase in television money and player salaries are about to explode. In that scenario, Sterling is probably asking for the right level of salary. I know that sounds crazy because you and I don’t make £150k a week to play football, but that’s where the football economy is headed in England.

No, I think the mistake would be for Sterling to sign with Liverpool. Given the track record of Fenway Sports Group and the way they treat their former employees, combined with the fact that Liverpool can’t seem to get the right players in to push the team into Champions League football, the mistake would be to sign for Liverpool. Instead Sterling should go to Man City, they are going to be rebuilding and need young English players at the core of their team. Or go to Arsenal, they’ve been in the Champions League for 15 consecutive years. And with the Gunners in second place in the League, look like a safe bet to make that 16.

There are a number of teams who treat their star players well and who play regularly in the Champions League. Sterling should pick any one of them, sign for less than what Liverpool are offering, and get out of Liverpool while he still can — before he is unceremoniously dumped at the end of his career like Steven Gerrard.


¹These stats all come from and Interesting side note about Sterling’s shots: he is actually tied with Coutinho with 74 shots each but Sterling took 49 of his 74 shots from inside the penalty box while Coutinho took 46 of his 74 shots from outside the penalty box. Shoooting from distance tends to wow the crowd and especially when you score from distance, but the most ruthless and efficient forwards take the majority of their shots inside the box where the percentages are much higher. In fact, the one thing Sterling needs to improve is his finishing. He’s getting into great areas to score, he’s just not putting the ball away yet. But like I say above, he’s 20. That will improve.

professor Wenger

Professor Wenger, Detective Coquelin, and the Case of the Red Herring

By Bunburyist, P.I.

Finding a blunt instrument with which to beat Arsene Wenger is difficult when things are going well for Arsenal. But it’s not a deterrent. Just yesterday, in a newspaper considered reputable as recently as 1990, Arsenal’s wonderful record since January was put down not to tactics, not to the return of key players from injury, not to the hard work of a manager whose team was assembled at some fraction of the cost of those above and below it, but rather to an accident: Francis Coquelin.

It seems the fairy tale of Coquelin’s sudden turn of fortune has mesmerized Wenger’s detractors as well. According to Henry Winter, whose article inThe Telegraph I summarize above, it was only by accident – namely the slew of injuries that forced Coquelin’s early recall from a loan – that Wenger finally figured out how to add steel to his midfield, and it is this factor alone that accounts for the club’s delicious run of form.

The motive for holding this opinion – as Winter, at any rate, makes clear – is to make Wenger seem a fool who deserves no credit for his team’s success. The cause-and-effect works like this: 1) Because forced, Wenger deserves no credit for Coquelin’s presence in the squad, 2) Coquelin is the main or even sole reason for Arsenal’s good form, therefore 3) Wenger deserves no credit for Arsenal’s form.

There is a Latin phrase for the fallacy committed by Winter and others who reason like him: post hoc, ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore because of this.” Imagine how stupid you’d have to be to believe that eating bananas caused rainfall because one time you ate a banana and afterwards it rained. Henry Winter is that stupid. After Coquelin, therefore because of Coquelin.

Speaking of fallacies, I might just have made a straw man of Winter’s piece. But regardless, you know what I mean, right? Right?? COYG! (unfair emotional appeal). Either you believe that it’s all because of Coquelin, or that it has nothing to do with him! (false dilemma). Wenger loves attacking players! Therefore he can’t identify defensive players! (non sequitur).

But the reason many fallacies ghost past our brains is because they contain a grain of truth in one of the premises. Wenger really does love attacking players, the Gunners should indeed “Come On, You!,” and Coquelin’s  rise was indeed a surprise. What credit does Wenger get for this?

Part of the allure of answering ‘none’ is that it gets you off the hook from having to think about how players are scouted, chosen, and developed by clubs. In the popular narrative, the fact that Arsenal scouted and signed Coquelin after giving him a trial is a non-event. The fact that he wasn’t sold, and instead given years at the training ground, in competitive games, and on loan to prove the potential Wenger saw in him is also dismissed. Any agency on the club’s part, however great or small, is summarily denied. Francis Coquelin was signed in 2008. Strictly speaking, for his current contribution to be a complete accident, you would have to believe that in the past six years, Coquelin took no part in any of Arsenal’s training sessions, pre-seasons, games, or strategic loan placements. In short, you’d have to believe a lie.

At some level, of course, the fact that any player ‘makes it’ is down to a number of fortunate circumstances, but this is not unique to Arsene Wenger’s teams. We might well ask why Louis van Gaal isn’t denigrated in the press for the emergence of Mata and Fellaini as the consequence of injuries and suspensions. Because that wouldn’t suit the narrative of ‘master tactician’ once confidently pedaled, but now undergirded with the rickety scaffolding of too much protest? Mata and Fellaini were signed by David Moyes. If it’s a lucky accident that van Gaal inherited them, then he deserves none of the credit for United’s good form, isn’t that right? Well, no, not quite, and van Gaal is undoubtedly a good manager, yet the fact we only see this faulty reasoning applied to Arsenal tells you everything you need to know about the biases north of Dover.

There is no question that Coquelin has surprised us as much as Wenger, and that only a terrifyingly long list of injuries last fall necessitated his recall. Wenger admitted as much, and, moreover, went on to admit that before the recall he didn’t think Coquelin would be an Arsenal player after his Charlton loan. So here’s something Wenger isn’t given any credit for in this situation: his honesty, and his humility. He could have justifiably pointed to the work he’s done with Coquelin. He didn’t. Can you imagine Brendan Rodgers, for example, making a similar admission or statement? No, and instead his interview would go something like this: “I always knew Coquelin was special. I scouted him, I signed him, and he’s going nowhere. Even though I loaned him out, I never had any doubt whatsoever that he would be a Liverpool player one day. I have always had a special relationship with him.”

For all of its idolization of an honest bloke, the British media can’t manage to praise a football manager admitting he didn’t see this one coming. Instead, the self-aggrandizing of Rodgers, and the plainly absurd “I represent English values” of Mourinho are the mainsprings of appreciative murmurs in red tops and studios across the land.

All of this ignores an even more fundamental problem: How is it that one player can be singlehandedly responsible for the drastic turnaround of a club’s fortunes? Conveniently, the focus on Coquelin also gets one off the hook of having to thoughtfully consider changes in tactics and the return of key personnel. Indeed, Coquelin’s arrival was accidental in another way, in that it coincided with a new push to press opponents collectively, higher up the pitch; coincided with the return of Ramsey, Ozil, Koscielny, and Giroud, which enabled a new formation, greater defensive stability, and a better outlet in the final third; and coincided with the dropping of Szczesny in favor of Ospina, and Gibbs in favor of Monreal (mostly), decisions which seem to have inspired confidence in the back four.

But according to the press, Arsenal fans are giving Wenger too much credit for Coquelin. In Winter’s words, we have lain “garlands…at the feet of the saintly Wenger” for the emergence of Coquelin. Who has done such things? Who is claiming that Wenger saw this all along? I have yet to read a single blog or report claiming that Wenger’s recall of Coquelin is evidence of the former’s genius.

Coquelin is a red herring. If you follow him alone, you’re led to the belief that Arsenal are nothing without him, and therefore that our strong finish to the season is as much an accident as his recall. If, on the other hand, you’re not susceptible to the smell of fish, you will find that Coquelin’s presence is but one of many factors contributing to our recent form, all of them the reward of Wenger’s thoughtfulness, patience, and, yes, good fortune.



Swapping Santi for Ramsey, staying home, and Coquelin: Arsenal’s New Balance

By Tim Todd, Sneakerist

I have a friend who called me up the other day and asked me to come have a drink with him. I’m not one to turn down booze and company so I agreed to meet him at the local watering hole. But before we got off the phone, and yes I did actually speak to him on the phone, he excitedly told me that he got some new shoes. “They are New Balance, I’ll wear them.”

When I got to the bar, he was already posted up on a stool, and when he saw me walk in, he let out a huge smile, then pointed to his shoes. “Do you like them?”

They were purple. I looked at him. I looked at his shoes and laughed, “no.” His response was about how I didn’t know anything about style and fashion, and I admitted that’s true. I don’t know anything about why a man would buy a pair of purple sneakers.

I never asked but I keep wondering if they were meant to be ironic. That’s the thing these days, everything is ironic do it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s authentic. I see kids wearing bow ties as they bag groceries at the local Fred Meyer. The bow tie was once worn exclusively to high society events, black tie events, and now it’s worn by kids to bag groceries.

Eyeglasses are the same. When I was growing up no one wore glasses. Even the kids who couldn’t see didn’t wear glasses. These days? People who can see perfectly wear glasses. It was all the rage there for a little while for NBA players to wear fake glasses.

But here’s the thing, if you’re doing something ironically, you’re still doing that thing. And one day, you’re going to find your old Facebook account and there will be pictures of you with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, a bow tie, fake glasses, and purple New Balance sneakers and you will look at that picture and say “wow, I was so coool. What happened to me?” And then you will yell at your teenage daughter for wearing some clothes that aren’t ironic enough. “You go to your room and put on some see-through yoga pants and a Journey tee-shirt right now, young lady! No daughter of mine is going to face the world with a semblance of authenticity.”

Unlike the hipster trend of the last 15 years, Arsenal’s New Balance is authentic.It’s a shift in managerial philosophy and from there the changes are rippling down throughout the ranks.

Tomas Rosicky let the cat poke its head out of the bag a bit last week when he talking about a shift in tactics and in match preparation.

We changed some stuff slightly in our preparation for these games. We’re doing a little more tactical work and we changed some stuff against the big teams. I don’t want to go into the details but there were some adjustments and it’s paid off for us. Recently we’ve been successful against the big teams but we still have to play Chelsea and Manchester United, so we would like to carry on like that.

And in terms of the games I think you can see Arsenal’s balance reflected in the relatively stable positions that players are taking up on the pitch. This new-found positional stability is a key reason why Arsenal seem to be able to cover for their teammates better all over the pitch.

Against Burnley on Saturday, Arsenal started with Giroud up front, Özil in the #10 spot behind him, Ramsey and Alexis playing wide midfield and Cazorla and Coquelin in the central midfield role. For the full 90 minutes each player stuck to his position, more or less, and kept the team shape.

If you were new to football and you read that last sentence you might say “yeah? Isn’t that what the players are supposed to do??” And yes, that is what most teams and most managers have done for the majority of football history. But Arsene Wenger isn’t most managers and his teams in the last 10 years tend to have more fluid lineups, with lots of interchanging between left and right wings, pushing fullbacks up out of position, and other methods which seek to destabilize the opponent by playing a more improvisational, jazz-like football. But this team feels more orchestrated.

One of the key movements to Arsenal’s New Balance is that Wenger has swapped Cazorla and Ramsey, putting Cazorla centrally and shoving Ramsey out wide. It’s a counter-intuitive move. Both are central midfielders, and Ramsey excels at the link-up role which is now Cazorla’s. Meanwhile, Cazorla is used to playing in the #10 spot behind the striker and Arsenal fans are used to seeing Cazorla given a wide role when Özil is available, simply because Özil is a better #10.

But this swap pays off because Ramsey provides a little more defensive muscle wide while Cazorla provides a little bit better link-up play in the middle.

Here is Ramsey’s Dashboard (from the Statszone App) from the Burnley match:

RamseyFor the most part, Ramsey stuck to his task on the right wing. There were a few plays where him and Sanchez swapped sides but Ramsey largely stayed wide right. He also played deeper and more defensively than his counterpart on the left, Alexis:

FullSizeRender (6)As you can see by the green X’s, Alexis is still making defensive tackles, but he’s clearly playing a much more offensive role: he had 5 shots and 4 dribbles (the arrows are shots, the stars are dribbles), and almost all of his dribbles were in the opposition final third. Ramsey had just the three shots and despite his more defensive role (ironically!) scored the only goal of the game.

If there was any chink in the armor against Burnley it was that Ramsey mostly protected Hector Bellerin on his side of the pitch (there was one moment where Bellerin slipped but that was a one on one and hardly the fault of Ramsey) but because Alexis was going forward so much Nacho Monreal was attacked by the Burnley right side.

FullSizeRender (7)Burnley tend to focus their attack through their right side anyway and perhaps Wenger looked to keep the Burnley fullback, Trippier, occupied with Alexis but Burnley still got plenty of the ball down the right. All of those green X’s O’s and ^’s are Nacho Monreal being attacked mercilessly and him responding excellently. In fact, Arsenal’s clean sheet could easily be attributed to Monreal’s near-flawless defensive performance.

This is a key feature of Arsenal’s run of wins, the players stay home. During the run of 8 consecutive wins, Monreal has been chosen to start over Gibbs in each of those matches largely because he’s not as adventurous of a fullback as the Englishman. And so, if Wenger is going to play Alexis on the left, where he will look to come inside all the time, he needs a stay-home fullback behind Alexis to clean up when the opponent looks to counter. Thus, Nacho.

And finally, there’s Coquelin. Here’s his dashboard:

FullSizeRender (8)For years I have joked that Arsene Wenger doesn’t play defensive midfielders, he plays a guy who is “the most defensive midfielder on a team that doesn’t really play much defense.” But with Coquelin, Wenger has a true defensive mid. While it is true that Coquelin created two shots for his teammates (the aqua lines) and even took a shot for himself (the red arrow, it was way off target) there was a moment which illustrates his defense-first attitude.

The Burnley keeper hit a poor clearance which was collected well by Coquelin. The Frenchman drove forward with the ball and hit a hard pass to Alexis, who took a dribble, and then a shot. None of that was unusual, but what was unusual was that after Coquelin hit the pass to Alexis, he didn’t follow, he stopped running. He stopped because he knew it was his job to protect against the Burnley counter if Alexis turned the ball over or if his shot was blocked. This isn’t something I’ve come to expect from an Arsenal midfielder, to actually hold. They usually all run forward with abandon! That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean if you’ve watched Arsenal play over the last decade.

To my untrained eyes, it looks like it is a simple change that Arsenal have made to their game. Wenger is playing Cazorla through the middle in the role that Ramsey made his own over the last two years. He’s also pushing Ramsey wide and telling him to cover down the right, to not be as adventurous. He’s got Monreal on the left starting most games so that he can play Alexis in front of him. And finally, Wenger has Coquelin in midfield, a true defensive midfielder on a team which clearly decided to play a little defense from now on.

The good news is that Rosicky is saying that there is nothing ironic about this team. It’s not a pair of purple New Balance or a set of faux glasses and bow tie to make them “look” smart. The change is authentic. And personally? I’m a huge fan of authenticity.