Influx of money into Premier League will probably hurt the fans

The 20 teams currently in the Premier League spent a combined £1.06 billion on transfers this season. That number includes a net transfer loss of £530 million pounds. In other words, Premier League teams bought £530 million worth of players more than they sold. To put this in context, the second biggest transfer spenders were the Primera Division in Spain and their net spend was £480 million pounds, though they sold a combined £497 million and had a balance of +£18m. And to put this into further contrast, the league with the second biggest net loss was the Bundesliga who spent £143 million more than they took in on transfers. The Premier League spent 70% more than any other league, lost more money in transfers than Spain spent net, and lost £377 million more than the Bundesliga in transfers. What we saw here in this season’s transfer market are the effects of the last international TV deal which saw the Premier League’s total broadcasting revenues top £5bn. It’s not hard to imagine what will come next now that the Premier League’s domestic broadcasting rights alone top the £4bn mark and the foreign rights will likely tack on another £4bn.

The biggest effect is going to be in transfers and wages. The English media have fanned the transfer flames for decades such that now any money in any coffers at any club are seen by the fans as their money, which they demand be spent on buying the best players. In the early part of Arsène Wenger’s career, journalists lauded Wenger’s insistence that spending money wasn’t the only answer. After the Invincibles team was disbanded, the journos turned against Wenger’s frugal philosophy and after every transfer window Wenger and Arsenal were taken to task for their lack of spending.

But even Wenger has joined the spenders. In the last two seasons Arsene has spent £130m in transfers. And if you had asked me eight years ago if Wenger would spend £44m on a single player I would have laughed in your face. Arsenal don’t buy £40m players, we make them. But this fact that even Wenger is spending, and spending lavishly, should give you pause. That frugal Wenger spent £130m in two seasons has to be the surest sign that the Premier League is about to get a huge injection of transfer spend.

Injection is the right word here too. I’ve often compared transfer stories to porn because they are unrealistic fantasies meant to titillate fans; quick, dirty, easy, buy someone, they come in and fix everything that’s wrong with your club. And if the regular transfer stories are porn, what we are going to be getting over the next three to five years is silicone injected, fake eyes, fake hair, fake bodies, 20-women on one man porn. You’re going to drown in wild stories, wild transfers, crazy transfer fees, and absurd salaries. It has already started and it’s only going to get worse.

West Ham spent £30m on transfers this year. Is it unrealistic to think that they will spend £50m next year? I don’t think so. If the television increase is 70% why wouldn’t they spend 70% more?

And they are all going to be foreigner’s too. When Arsenal bought Gabriel for £10m in January everyone wondered how he was going to get a work permit. It turns out that the FA are going to relax their rules on granting players an exceptional talent visa and from this summer forward, any player who costs more than £10m is going to be granted a work permit in England. I’ll let you speculate on whether the FA knew about the impending TV deal and influx of cash or if they just knew that the League needed to be able to recruit from further afield than the old rules allowed. But suffice it to say that English football is about to have a gold rush of players from the Americas. The colonists are about to return to Latin America and once again plunder their natural resources.

And not just Latin America. The salaries in places like Ligue 1 are so tiny that Premier League teams will be able to cherry-pick the very best players from all of the leagues in Europe. Leaving behind the dregs to play in empty stadiums in leagues where only one or two teams will ever win.

Along with the foreign players are going to come foreign managers and probably even more radical, foreign owners. Already 11 of the 20 Premier League teams are owned by foreigners. I not only see that trend continuing but penetrating deeper into English football. If you look at the top 20 capacity stadiums in England, there are already foreign owners of Man U, Arsenal, Sunderland, Man City, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Derby (partly), Sheffield United (partly), Southampton, and Leicester City.

But stadium capacity is only part of the equation in the calculus for foreign investment in English clubs. The TV money is more important for most of these clubs than the gate receipts. And speculation on future growth of all levels of the English game will probably see a lot of investment in lower division teams.

And finally, ticket prices. I know that there is a movement to lower ticket prices and I applaud the idea. Ticket prices in England, especially for top flight matches, are absurd when compared to the ticket prices in the Bundesliga.

But go back and re-read what I’ve written so far and show me where it’s possible for teams to slow down the spending on transfers and wages and invest that money back into the fan base? The base facts are that each club has a finite amount of money (including debt) that they can spend and they are going to be forced to spend it all on players, agents, and scouts.

This is just simple inflation. If every club can suddenly afford £10m players then £10m players become the norm. Arsenal bought Patrick Vieira for £3.5m in 1996 and just this January bought a backup center back for £10m.

Meanwhile, every team has more and better players on the books and competition for Premier League places is heating up. How many teams are fighting for fourth place?

As the competition heats up, the transfers heat up, mediocre players suddenly cost more. You’ve seen this happen already with the transfers of Downing, Carroll, and virtually any player that Liverpool has bought over the last few years. It’s the same story as before: Chelsea drove up player transfer costs when they put money into the game, Man City drove up player transfer costs even further and now Liverpool, Man U, and Arsenal are spending big. The more we spend the more expensive players become and the more important it becomes to buy the best players.

And the fans pay the price for the players. The average salary in the Premier League is almost £45k a week. The average salary in the Bundesliga is £28k a week. Ticket prices reflect this difference. It doesn’t matter whether the model is Man City where ticket prices are heavily subsidized by owner debt or whether the model is Arsenal where the fans are asked to pay an unsubsidized ticket. Even if you don’t go to the games, you’re still paying for the players. Your television subscription prices and other costs are going to go up as the player’s fees go up. It’s a never ending spiral of costs passed on to the consumers.

Worse than all of that, the away fans are treated with what looks like contempt already and I don’t see that getting any better. TV dictates kickoff times and if you think Sky isn’t going to demand further concessions over kickoff times or whatever else they want so that they can recoup maximum revenue you’re living in La La land.

It’s that simple, really. These rich people just paid a lot of money for your favorite pastime. That pastime is about to get more expensive as the players in it are about to get much richer and competition for places on the stage gets hotter. The clubs are now going to be seen as ripe for the plucking and foreigners looking to abscond from their backwater countries (like Russia) are going to put their money into the league. Meanwhile, the fans are going to be asked to pay more for their tickets, for their hot dogs, and for their officially sponsored player’s shirt.

One positive thing: the level of play *might* get better. There is no guarantee of this. Just buying players for more money doesn’t make them better, as we saw with QPR this season. But, there is hope. Southampton are a good example of a foreign-owned team who bought well in the transfer market, installed a foreign coach, play a decent brand of football, and have managed to keep ticket prices down to a dull roar. They have done all that (while developing players from their academy) and mounted a fairly serious campaign to get into the Champions League.

But even if the League does get more Southamptons and fewer QPRs the other problems are going to remain. The league is about to get silicone injections, and they are going to be paid for by the fans.



Gunners dominate ‘Boro on the day after Valentine’s Day

Match Report on location of the Tacoma Couch

Olivier Giroud slotted in two goals in two minutes and Arsenal ran out winners against a defensive minded ‘Boro side at the Emirates. In addition, have I mentioned that I’ve been sober now for longer than I care to remember?

Arsenal were on the front foot from the beginning and it’s hard to tell whether ‘Boro were simply pegged back or if their game plan was to sit deep for 90 minutes and give their goalkeeper a workout. Either way that’s what happened.

Arsenal’s staarting lineup caused quite a ruckus when it was announced that Alexis would start up front with Welbz and Giroud, and Wenger would eschew a traditional midfield and instead play former footballer, Mathieu Flamini in his testimonial role as DM along with forwards Özil and Cazorla. Wenger also shuffled the entire defense, starting Chambo, Gabrielbo, Kozbo, and Gibbo along with Hookah Joe in goal.

It was a stunning gambit by Arsene Wenger: playing Alexis after saying he is injured, playing Gabriel after saying he will give up goals, playing no midfielders, handing a start to Flamini who lost both legs in the war, and starting a clearly injured Alexis risking further injury to an injury injured team. The team selection had every Arsenal fan, save three, wringing their hands in worry about Alexis getting injured.

But Wenger, always keen to top the table, must have intentionally selected that lineup for the sheer banta he would be able to dole out after the Gunner’s won. And, in fact, he now tops the Manager’s Banta table on goal difference over Louis van Gaal, despite the Dutchman saying that Rooney is the best striker in the League but he’s going to play him in midfield anyway. Which was an epic bit of banta and nearly knocked Wenger off the top of the table after the “hand that to Fat Sam” dossier banta of last week.

Arsenal took the lead when Cazorla played in Gibbs, who slotted to Giroud and then the French guy chipped, lefty, into the goal from an acute angle. This is such a thing with Giroud, this ability to get to the wrong side of the goal and chip it kind of over his shoulder that I’m starting to wonder if Giroud is even capable of scoring a goal from any other angle?

Have you ever played H.O.R.S.E.? It’s a basketball game between to people where each one has to make a shot and the other person has to mimic that shot. Usually this results in outrageous shooting from all over the court. “Over the back, off the backboard!” that kind of thing. Well, I think Giroud was playing H.O.R.S.E. and he was on the E when his opponent said “PROVE IT!” and Giroud had to shoot the same shot again. This time he made it even harder as Alexis whipped in a dipping corner and Giroud took a similar shot to his first, except off the volley and from an even more acute angle.

Can Arsenal please sign Mario Mandzukic and get rid of this Giroud guy?

After that Arsenal were in cruise control and I was able to come up with…

Your metaphor of the day

Caazorla’s hair looks like a shark fin which is appropriate because he’s like a little black-tipped reef shark. It’s one of the smallest sharks, it’s lightning quick, it darts in and out of spaces, and it just gobbles up minnows like Middlesbrough.

Cazorla was the best player on the day. I think he had, literally*, a million dribbles. He probably should have set up another dozen shots and goals and he ran the show in the Ramsey role.

Now, I know that Özil, technically, had 7 key passes and that both he and Cazorla had the same number of dribbles. And I also know that Özil had almost as many passes as Cazorla and that he was 4/6 from his crosses. But what do the stats guys know anyway? HUH???

Their keeper made 8 saves, by the way. Three of them were boring and the rest probably saved a great Arsenal goal. It was one of those keeper’s performances that Arsenal somehow get out of the opposition and had Arsenal not had Giroud, I imagine Arsenal would have been punished. Did I mention how much I love Mandzukic? I remember when everyone was all “dude, you’re clueless, Mandzukic is so much better than Giroud!” and I defended Giroud then, but I really can’t defend him any more. Until he starts scoring ordinary, boring goals I’m going to have to admit I was wrong, Giroud is much worse than Mandzukic. Where is Mario playing now? Is he backup to Torres at Atletico Madrid?

‘Booooro really only had a couple good chances. They were dug in deeper than an Alabama tick for most of the match but got forward toward the end when they put on their best attacker, the fullback named Reacher. One was snuffed out with a good tackle by Gabriel and the other was saved by Szczesny who celebrated with a stick of nicotine gum. Good lad. Off the smokes!

Arsene responded by putting on Rosicky and Walcott and pulling off Sanchez and Welbeck. I’ve always liked it when a substitution is described as “pulling off”. I also love it when one team “pegs” the other team. Pegging someone and pulling them off in any context except this VERY sober match report would certainly have the censors reaching for the homophobic red tape.

Anyway, Rosicky came on and played almost the exact same ball to Theo that he played against Hotspurms and instead of punting it into the end stands, Theo got a good shot off and forced a save. I guess his touch is improving and good for the boss to throw Theo on to peg Boro back and get Walcott some good touches.

In the box.

Arsenal scored. Arsenal kept the sheets clean.

Whew… I have to go play football.



fa cup

Arsenal v. Middlesbrough: stats preview

Here is something a statistician should never do: look just at a team or player’s stats and write an article. What I mean by that is, you need context to use data properly. If you see someone comparing Mephis de Pays’ stats in the Eredivisie to Cristiano Ronaldo’s stats in La Liga without some method of at least adjusting for the League and the team strength they are selling you snake oil.

This is a major reason why I canned an article this summer which compared all the defensive midfielders in the world to one another. You simply cannot take Paul Pogba’s tackles numbers (he is 48/64 in 1625 minutes) and compare them to Schneiderlin’s tackle numbers (54/81 in 1423 minutes) and confidently declare anything.

The leagues are different, they have different referees who judge tackles differently, and they have different league cultures with more and less freedom to dribble. The teams are different, Juventus have 60% of the possession yet are 11th in Serie A in tackles per game. Southampton are 8th in possession and 2nd in tackles per game. And each player’s teammates are different, Schneiderlin plays with Wanyama and Pogba plays with Vidal.

The same goes for team stats. So, for example, I want to compare Middlesbrough to Arsenal and it simply can’t be done. I can tell you how Middlesbrough plays within the Championship. I can tell you what their strengths and weaknesses are within that league. But I cannot tell you what Saturday’s match will look like. I can tell you stats, but only in their original context. If you abstract them out and try to fit them into the context of an FA Cup match, well, that’s on you. I’m not doing it.

With that in mind, here are some Middlesbrough stats, in the context of the Championship, which may indicate some of their strengths:

1 - They are top of their league by 1 point over Derby County and Bournemouth
28 - They have a +28GD which is actually third best in the Championship
20 - Their goal differential is based on the fact that they have the best defensive record in the Championship and have only allowed 20 goals in 30 games all season (.67 GA per game)
6 - They have given up just 6 goals in all competitions since November 2014. That’s 6 goals in 18 matches. And 12 clean sheets in that time. Yes, they have only conceded 1 goal in each of those games.
2 - They have conceded two goals on just two occasions this season and three goals just once. The remaining matches have all either been clean sheets (18!!!) or 1 goal losses, draws, and wins.
49 - They lead the Championship with 49 yellow cards for fouls
11 - They are second best in the Championship for allowing shots, just 11 per game
16 - They are 16th in the Championship in tackles per game and 17th in interceptions while also being 7th in possession (nominally more than 50%)
73 - They have the fewest blocked shots in the Championship, this (along with their fewest shots allowed stat, their tackles and interceptions stats, along with their possession stats, and the fact that they get a high number of offsides) indicates to me that they control the game in a bit of a higher block than I would have thought
48 - They have only scored 48 goals this season which is 5th best and well below the top 4 (4th place Norwich have scored 57 goals). It puts them in the same offensive group as teams like Ipswich and Brentford.
2 - They scored two goals on Liverpool and Man City in the League Cup and FA Cup respectively
8 - They have scored more goals from the penalty spot than any other side
11 - Grant Leadbitter, their defensive midfielder, is their leading goalscorer with 11 goals, 8 have come from the penalty spot
7 - They have scored 7 goals off corners this season, 6th best in the Championship, and have generated 43 shots off 100 accurate corner passes, 4th best in the Championship and 2nd best in the Championship respectively. They also have 5 direct assists off those 43 key passes. That puts Middlesbrough’s percentages thus: 50% accurate on their corners, of which 43% become shots, and 11% of those shots are assisted for goals. All total they are about a goal every 28 attempted corners. Watford lead the Championship with 9 goals off corners in 190 attempts. A goal every 21 corners.
10 - They haven’t scored off a throw in but they do have 10 key passes off throw ins, the second most in the Championship
188 - They are second in the League in accurate crosses (188 accurate of 665). This is important because Arsenal seem to have a bit of an Achilles heel off crosses. However, ‘Boro are 7th in key passes off crosses (97) and only have 8 assists off crosses. Percentages go: 28% accurate on crosses, 52% of those become shots, but only 8% of those are scored. They score a goal on average every 83 crosses.

My reading is that they are a defense-first team but not the kind that dives into tackles constantly or tries to play the passing lanes but rather patiently controls space. They are foul-happy and take a lot of cards but they don’t get a lot of red cards (just 2). Grant Leadbitter is their aplha and omega: he leads the team in goals (11), assists (7), yellow cards (8), passes per game and crosses. They are heavly reliant on penalties (they won a penalty in the Liverpool CC match). They cross well. They defend tough. But I think if Arsenal can keep Leadbitter quiet Arsenal should be able to get something out of this game.

The frailty of the defense-first team is that they eventually have to score. This is especially problematic if the defense-first team doesn’t have an outright goal scorer and instead relies heavily on a defensive midfielder to be the creator and scorer. For Arsenal, I would suggest that we need to be wary of the crosses. Don’t dive into tackles in the box. And play on the front foot for 90 minutes and Arsenal should have enough quality to beat them.

Saturday I will not publish. Sunday I will write a post-match reaction here and on Arseblog News. And Monday I’m going to share some of my thoughts on the new Premier League TV rights contract.

Until then.