Sunday, 24 May 2015

Mid - Table Blues

Below is the Premier League table based on wages and it's resemblance to the actual league table is uncanny.  There are teams that have over or underachieved but for the most part the league table is an accurate reflection of a team's wage bill.

Rank League Position 2013/2014 Wages (£m)
1 4 Man United 215
2 2 Man City  205
3 1 Chelsea 193
4 3 Arsenal 166
5 5 Liverpool  144
6 6 Spurs 100
7 15 Newcastle 78
8 20 QPR 75
9 16 Sunderland 70
10 17 Aston Villa 69
11 11 Everton 69
12 13 West  Brom 65
13 12 West Ham 64
14 9 Swansea 63
15 7 Southampton 63
16 8 Stoke City 61
17 10 Crystal Palace 46
18 18 Hull City 43.3
19 14 Leicester 36.3
20 19 Burnley 25

There are a few important things to note about the above table.

1. The numbers are for the 2013/14 year and as such do not take account of recruitment and contracts that have been signed since

2. The figures quoted for Burnley Leicester and QPR relate to their last season in the Championship. No that is not a mistake QPR did manage to finish sixth in the Championship with a salary bill equivalent to 8th in the Premier League.

If we were to look at these numbers in 12 months time I would expect the rankings to be similar but Hull's and Palace's wage bills to be closer to £60m and both Leicester and Burnley would be paying considerably more. The Premier league FFP regulations might have a dampening effect on the wage spiral but given that retained profit and profit's from player sales and any growth in other revenues can fund increased wages I would be surprised if most of the club's wage bills had not risen by the time the 2014/2015 season kicked off.

One can can argue the merits of individual team's performance in relation to their wage bill (let's all laugh at QPR) but the broader trends are more interesting and explain the polarisation between the top 6 and the rest of the Premier League.

Firstly the difference between Newcastle (7th) and Stoke (16th) is just £17m or a Wayne Rooney and a Jordan Henderson. Not that either player is likely to be rocking up at St James Park any time soon but it gives a measure of the difference in wages between the clubs. In theory Newcastle's top earners will earn a bit more than Stoke's and that should be reflected in the depth and quality of Newcastle's squad compared to Stoke's. The fact that has not been reflected in the league table means that things are not quite right at Newcastle or Stoke are doing something right but the gap is bridgeable.

However the difference between Spurs (6th) and Newcastle (7th) at £22m is greater than that that exists between Stoke and Newcastle. That is the real glass ceiling whilst a long way behind their rivals for the Champion's Leagues Spurs are way ahead of the rest of the division in terms of spending power. Thus there is a cluster of clubs who are scrabbling for places in the lower half of the division with no way of breaking out and in reality not much difference in the quality of the playing squads.

Every season a team breaks out of the mid table quagmire Southampton Everton and Newcastle have all done so in recent years and unfortunately their reward for success is Europa league football. This is a huge problem because the depth of squad required for a successful European campaign alongside a Premier League campaign costs in excess of £100m. Even with the additional income that a Europa League campaign might generate those clubs cannot sustain a wage bill of that magnitude therefore they tend to regress back into the pack the following season.

Even without the burden of Europa League football it is very difficult for a club to buck the relationship between wages and league position for any extended period of time. Firstly if a group of players overachieves the most likely outcome is they regress back to their norm the following year. Furthermore the bigger clubs often poach players and coaching staff from the best of the rest and regression becomes a lot more likely than progression.

This further underlines the achievement of Southampton this season under the leadership Ronald Koeman having lost their Head Coach and 5 of their better players albeit for significant fees they managed to build on the previous season's achievements. However it is a difficult trick to turn and one that cannot be sustained forever. Les Reed the club's technical director has stated an aim of qualifying for the Champions League within 5 years. Unless something very dramatic happens on the south coast it isn't going to happen. Eventually Southampton are going to have to match the wages offered by teams with a lot bigger turnover than themselves or face continual rounds of sale and replacement which inevitably will go wrong at some point.

The majority of clubs and their fans are in the same boat stuck in desperately competitive mini-league with no means of upward escape but with the ever present danger of downward ejection. How fans feel about this varies and I think they might be summed up as

Just happy to be here

Crystal Palace,Swansea City,Hull City,Leicester City,Burnley,Southampton

Teams that either have more years outside the top flight than in it, recent experience of football in the lower reaches of the football league and near financial ruin. Generally just being in the Premier is great from the fan's perspective particularly when it is bolstered by a relatively comfortable league finishes in the case of Southampton Palace and Swansea.    

Is this it ?

West Brom Stoke West Ham Sunderland

Teams which have always lived in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours but have been in the top flight more often than not and are currently been in the Premier League for an extended period. Here there is a general sense of unease amongst the fans who probably realise their club's limitations but are frustrated by their role as the league's supporting cast.

Sleeping Giants 

Aston Villa and Everton

Clubs with big fan bases traditionally regarded as "big clubs" but simply unable to live up to their fan's expectations. The ownership at both clubs have realised that they can either manage the club within it's means or chase the dream. They chose sensibly not to go broke and in the case of Villa the adjustment has been a painful one.

Confused 

QPR

Countless millions have been thrown at this vanity project. The model is totally unsustainable the ownership have grandiose plans put their money where their mouth is but the whole thing is a shambles. After four years of inflated expectations and mismanagement the club faces an uncertain future in the Championship and QPR fans must be bewildered by the experience.

Seething 

Newcastle

After 20 years of mismanagement false dawns and shockingly a relegation, the third best supported club in the league and the 7th largest by turnover is lurching from one self induced crisis to another and the fans are not in the least bit happy. The economic reality for Newcastle is the same as the majority of clubs in the division but somehow the club has made that reality particularly unpalatable for the fans.

Managing the Reality

If seventh is the top end of most team's realistic expectations how do the majority premier clubs keep their fans engaged? While it is tempting to say look at Newcastle and do the opposite to that and a lot of it is just good PR but remember genuine progress on the pitch is virtually impossible.

1. Manage Expectations - Tough to do on the one hand the reality is not very exciting and many clubs are over achieving by just surviving in the league and fans do understand this but it does not need to be rammed down their throats. Clubs should always talk about making progress even when frankly it is unlikely and if  a reality check is required reference Man United not clubs that are seen as rivals

2. Respect the club's traditions Fan's emotional engagement with the club is about symbols and shared memories. There is everything to be gained by honouring them and very little to be garnered from changing them to try to appeal to a global audience.  Man U are a global brand with a world wide following not because they wear red but because they are the most successful club in the global TV era.

3. Value for money Ticket prices are an issue for teams that do not have a well healed following or one that is global. On the one hand a mid-table club needs to get every penny it can in to compete but it cannot offer a guarantee of success and the feel good factor that brings. In short most clubs are selling a broken dream and that cannot be sold at a premium price. Yes some fans are happy to see the worlds best players strut their stuff at their local ground but most are concerned about their team and how it performs and perpetual mid-table mediocrity is not very exciting.

4  The cups are a lifeline, Fans thrive on the excitement of cup competitions and clubs need to look beyond the apathy shown towards the early rounds (partly created by their own neglect and by the way football fans purchase football) and see the energising impact that a cup final appearance has on the mid-table clubs that make it to finals.

5. Engage fans A lot of the ill will that clubs have generated through half baked ideas could be avoided if clubs just talked to their fans and gauged their reaction. Fans might be overly wedded to their traditions and innately conservative but equally they want the club to succeed and will embrace change if it is required to move the club forward but owners need to at least try to take the fans with them. Clubs that exist in a state of perpetual war between fans and ownership seldom prosper.  

6. Style Matters Sam Alladyce and Tony Pulis must hate Swansea. Up until Swansea's promotion the the standard approach to surviving on a tight budget was a dogged defence hard work and grind out results, which was characterised by Pulis at Stoke and Alladyce at Bolton.  Swansea's emergence showed that free flowing passing football could be achieved on a budget and they became the style template that many fans aspired to rather than the more direct style that characterised many of the mid table teams in the Premier League. From a club insiders perspective survival is all that matters but fans crave entertainment and expect their team to at least to try to play decent football and ultimately fan discontent curtailed Alladyce's and Pulis's tenures at West Ham and Stoke.

7. Youth Development is absolutely key those clubs that do it well have a far better chance of breaking out than those that don't either because they can supplement their squads with home grown players or benefit from the profit generated by selling players at inflated prices to the Champions League elite. Equally fans are more likely to warm to players that have a strong connection with the club that has been established over the years that the player spends in the club's academy.  

Another Premier League season is drawing to a close and the whole circus closes down for the summer. Fans will be looking for their club to strengthen push on to the next level. For the most part it won't happen some clubs will rise some will fall but unless either one of the elite  has a complete meltdown or a club from the mid-table mix has a year of all years then the table at the end of May 2016 will look pretty similar to this years and the glass ceiling will remain intact.  

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

January Sales Madness

Despite the best efforts of the Sky Sports team to whip up some excitement around the January transfer window most clubs do the bulk of their transfer business in the summer.

Only the desperate plunge headlong into the January market which is any commentator will tell is difficult with clubs reluctant to sell their best players but eager to unload expensive duds.

The bad news is that the Albion were in the market which tells it's own story. A new manager wanting to stamp his mark on the squad and a couple of summers where the club has got it wrong has lead Albion into being a lot more active than anyone at the club would like.

In summary Albion's business at the close is

In 

McManaman and Fletcher 

Out

Samaras, Blanco, Varela, 

So we lost three  and gained two. The shape of the squad is pretty much unaltered on the face of it although Pulis has moved on players that he was never going to play and replaced them with ones that he might.

However those bald facts barely tell the story of a day which was remarkable in it's twists and turns. There were two additional signings lined up Martin Olsson from Norwich and Carlton Cole from West Ham which were scuppered in the closing hours of the window. As part of the deal that would have bought Olsson to Albion Graham Dorrans was heading to Norwich and there were on going reports of Brown Ideye heading off to the Middle East.

Both Cole and Dorrans were at their new clubs waiting for the all clear by the time things unravelled although it was never clear whether Olsson made it to the Hawthorns or was stuck in snow or unable to agree terms. Cole was on the threshold of joining the Baggies when a deal to take Adebayor from Spurs to West Ham collapsed and lead to a heated exchange between the player and his current manager (see here).

How much interest the club had in selling Ideye remains to be seen but even allowing for Cole's arrival it would have left us short of a striker and I guess unless another deal could have been lined up then there was never any real prospect of Ideye moving on in this window although there has to be a long term question mark over his future at the Hawthorns and the club may yet have to take a hefty loss on their record signing. There is no such question mark over Dorrans it is absolutely plain his future lies away from the Hawthorns, tonight there is talk of the deal being resurrected as a loan deal.

Pulisball or bust?

How far down the road to Pulisball have we travelled? Firstly the arrival of Darren Fletcher from Man United is a vital part of the jigsaw as it gives Pulis a midfield all rounder that is key to making his 4-4-2 work. There is no doubt that Fletcher will go straight into the side and the only doubt is whether he will partner Gardner or Yacob.

Callum McManaman is pretty much a straight swap for Varela and as such will provide width on the right, a left sided counter part might have been on Pulis's wish list but for the time being he will have to make do with his current options which is Chris Brunt.

The non arrival of Martin Olsson leaves an interesting dilemma, Albion are not short of left backs there are 3, Pocognoli, Baird and Davidson (albeit he's been away at the Asia Cup) and it would appear that none are to Pulis' taste. The last two games has seen Lescott deployed as a left back with mixed results (bad and very bad) and it is clear that Albion's star Centre Back is not happy in the role. Personally I don't care which of the three he goes with but persevering with the Lescott experiment is doomed to failure.

Up front we are short of a Pulis style target man and Cole was lined up to provide the muscle and aerial threat that makes Pulisball effective. We are now very dependent on Anichebe with Ideye,Berahino and possibly Sessegnon providing support. I would worry if we lost Anichebe to injury and the medical staff will probably be working overtime to keep Vic on the pitch.

Conclusion

This window was very much the first step on the path to Pulisball but the certain trends emerging already. The signings and targets were unimaginative in every sense of the word. All were British based known quantities which is the hallmark of Pulis work in the transfer market.There was a plan to the recruitment he was filling in the obvious gaps in the squad although the left back thing is a bit of a puzzle. The full blown revolution will wait until summer if we are still in the Premier League I think will be in for an even more dramatic deadline day at the end of August.  

Saturday, 24 January 2015

It' s a Dog and It Barks

Within moments of the Albion team being announced on Monday evening for the game against Everton there were dozens of tweets along the lines of where's Varela? The answer was at home packing his bags for Parma.

The Portuguese winger was an undoubted talent but his time at West Brom had been blighted by injury and lack of fitness. Although there were signs that he was capable of making a contribution. However it was plain from the off that Pulis did not fancy him and he has been shipped out as part of the clear out that accompanies the appointment of a new Head Coach when the transfer window is open and a team is under going a turnaround.

To date Samaras Blanco and Daniels have also left and in truth these players were on the fringe of the team even under Irvine but certainly didn't have a future in Pulisball. I would guess that anything up to half the squad does not fit the Pulisball model and whatever happens during this window more players will be leaving in the summer.

Pulisball is based on a rigid 4-4-2 which sits deep and counters with wingers being the sole source of creativity in the team. It is based on solid defensive organisation and getting the ball forward quickly. It requires players to be physically fit and disciplined. Players are judged by their contribution off the ball as much as on it.

Throughout his management career Pulis has tended to shun rotation both at Stoke and at Palace he had a core of players he played week in week out. That is part of Pulisball methodology the more close knit the unit is the stronger is it's bond and the stronger the team ethic. As such he will settle on a line up he trusts and unless something happens to radically change things those players not in the side may as well pack their bags.

Bearing in mind this window is only the opening salvo in the Pulis revolution outlined below is how I see the squad shaping up or in some cases shipping out.

Goalkeepers Foster Myhill with the promising Rose being promoted to the first team as backup. Neither keeper is prone to thinking that they really are footballers and playing silly buggers with the ball at their feet which I guess would be a trait that would give Pulis a minor coronary.

Defenders are expected to defend and are judged on their contributions as defenders and this includes the full backs. It is little surprise that Gamboa and Pocognoli are out of favour both can be barnstorming as axillary wingers but can be a little flakey as defenders for Pulis this is the wrong way round. Wisdom and Baird are solid defenders hence their inclusion.

With regard to Centre Backs he will have a favoured pairing and it will be played week in week out. At the moment it would appear to be MacAuley and Lescott. The question marks around the centre backs are not specifically to do with the style of play but ones which any coach need to resolve at some point, namely does MacAuley have another year in his ageing legs? Is Dawson good enough to be first choice? If Olsson is not a regular starter will he be content to get the occasional outing  as a squad player? None of the answers to these questions will be resolved much before the summer unless we recruit another Centre Back which an answer in itself although to which question remains to be seen.

Midfield  A 4-4-2 requires central midfielders to be all rounders and be able to cover the ground box to box. Of the current squad only Gardner fulfils the specification. Mulmbu whose form has been sporadic for a little while is out for the next 4 to 6 weeks in any event and I fear that his indiscipline in a positional sense might not find favour with Pulis longer term.

Yacob presents an interesting dilemma. He is absolutely not a central midfielder in a 4-4-2. His whole footballing education and instinct is to play as a no 5 in the classical Argentine tradition which in the modern game is most often associated with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The danger when deployed in a 4-4-2 it becomes a 4-1-4-1 which was pretty much the shape at Everton on Monday night although Yacob delivered defensive master class. While Yacob's willingness to tackle anything that moves will find favour with a coach that values defensive solidity above all else in the short term but longer term if the team is to become more progressive I suspect Yacob will be replaced with a genuine all rounder.

There are three players you could argue are best deployed as attacking midfielders behind a lone striker  Morrison, Dorrans and Sessegnon the bad news for those players is that role don't exist in Pulisball and if they are going to have much of a future they need to find a new role in the team. Morrison is too light weight to do the heavy lifting in the central midfield and while Dorrans is more physically robust there has to be a real question mark over his ability particularity as a central midfielder at Premier League level.

I could write a whole blog on the enigma that is Sessegnon but regardless of how he is deployed it is difficult to see Pulis being happy with the one brilliant performance in five particularly when he is not in the mood he really can be totally anonymous . Coaches have lost their jobs backing Sessegnon,  Pullis won't nor will he deploy him centrally unless he pushes him up alongside the main striker or perhaps as a winger. In truth I cannot see this working long term.

Finally Chris Brunt who now Varela has gone is the only wide player at the club (aside from possibly Sessegnon). Ironically if played with an attacking full back like Pocognoli Brunt can be quite effective in a 4-4-2. but he absolutely is not the type of winger required to make Pulisball work.

Attackers.

In a team which will typically sit deep a target man is a must ideally one that is good with his back to goal,win more than his fair share of possession and bag a few goals. Anichebe is okay in many respects but has a question mark over his fitness and has never been prolific. Neither Idye or Berahino are classic target men in the Pulisball tradition (think Crouch Fuller Beattie and Chamakh ) but partnered with the right target man i.e. one that would drop a little deeper and allow their partner sit on the shoulder of the last defender could be effective and deliver the team's main goal threat.

Ideye has not flourished since his arrival and part of that is his attributes are very much the same as Berahino's therefore it is difficult to imagine a partnership between the 2 working. Plainly at the moment Berahino has won the battle for the shirt and it does not look Ideye will be around beyond the summer if he is not moved on by the end of this month.

The question marks surrounding Berahino's future are nothing to do with Pulisball but are entirely dependent on his willingness to sign a new contract and even then the possibility of a stellar bid materialising cannot be discounted.

Recruitment 

This summer's work is currently being undone and the club is busy in the market trying to recruit as many as four players. There are many questions as to how system that delivered success as recently three summers ago could have completely unravelled in such a short space of time. I think the departure of Ashworth was key and since then there has been growing disconnect between the Recruitment Department and the club's Head Coaches.

With a bigger role in scouting for the coaching staff under Pulis with an extra coach hired and two Senior Scouts let go it should be hoped that any new arrivals will be hired to fill a role in the Pulisball model. Thus far the players where there is a confirmed interest namely McManaman. Fletcher and Ameobi are all players that fit the template and it is obvious where they might fit into the side.

However the one thing that the arrival of Pulis will not change is the player budget and fans that think there will be any improvement in quality of the players in the squad will be disappointed. The players might look better but that is only because they are playing in a set up that fits their attributes.

Conclusion

The arrival Pulis marked the end of a number of Albion careers and the beginning of the end for others. Pulisball is what it is, those fans that are looking for creativity in the middle of the park will  not find it. Players that don't deliver on a consistent basis won't be tolerated and the full backs will not be rampaging forward. To pine after these things or to expect free flowing high scoring football is pointless that is not Pulisball and never has been. You know exactly what you are buying into when Pulis is put in charge of your club you are buying a dog and it barks so you should not be surprised nor complain when it does.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Who You Going to Call ?

Track back or die, okay?
Stoke City and West Brom two similar clubs were promoted  from the Championship in 2008. Albion were managed by Tony Mowbray and Stoke City by Tony Pulis.

It was Cavaliers v Roundheads. Mowbray's side was a fluent passing team which won plaudits for the style of football as they swept to the title. Stoke on the other hand were dogged, hard working and played rugged no nonsense percentage football.

Many people thought the Albion were better prepared for life in the Premier League, alas that was not the case. Mowbray's team carried on getting plaudits for playing the right way but never the less finished rock bottom the following season. Stoke unencumbered by any notion of the beautiful game and often criticised for their robust approach stayed up comfortably. One - nil to the Roundheads.

Mowbray's departure in May 2009 (not sacked despite his side being relegated) marked the end of the Baggies Cavalier phase each management appointment since was a little bit more pragmatic than the last (Pepe Mel aside). The free flowing football was quietly ditched for something a little bit more solid and less expansive particularly under Hodgson. but the football was never as industrial as that served up by Pulis's Stoke sides.

Less than seven years on the chief Roundhead is about to take charge of the one time Cavaliers, which is a bit of a turn up for books. The fact that he has been invited to take the reigns is a reflection of how high his stock is following his transformation of Palace last season from relegation certainties to a team that looked entirely at home in a mid-table berth. To some extent his reputation has been further enhanced by the fact that Palace have regressed this season which makes him look even more like the Red Adair of the Premier League.

Equally the fact the board seems to be prepared to push the boat out financially and compromise on coaching appointments is a reflection on how the team has lost it's way recently and needs a strong personality to take it by the neck and give it a shake. The moment seems right for Pulis to come in fight the fires and steady the ship.

Longer term I am not sure that it is a marriage made in heaven. I personally still hanker after the Cavalier days of Mowbray. Swansea and Southampton have both shown that smaller clubs can thrive in the Premier League without resorting to hoofball, although both of those clubs laid down their blueprints while they were in the lower leagues and not burdened by the annual war of attrition to stay in the Premier League. Although the other leader of the Roundhead tendency Sam Allardyce has shown that given the players even he can move to a style that is a little easier on the eye. So maybe Pulisball will evolve into something a little bit less industrial there were signs that happened at Palace but let's not kid ourselves you would never of mistaken his Palace side for Brazil.

I am under no illusion that just staying in the Premier League is an achievement and 5 straight years in the top flight is not be sniffed at and if we want a sixth appointing Pulis is entirely logical, but  I feel it is surrendering any hope that the quality of our football will evolve or that the youngsters in our academy will be given a chance of breaking into the first team squad. For the club to grow that needs to happen, to get beyond the annual war of attrition to stay in the league we have to be bold. Unfortunately the Pulis appointment is the opposite and while we cling onto the hard won Premier League status maybe we are right to be cautious and maybe only when that battle is lost will we be able to properly regroup and rebuild under a regime that brings the Cavalier spirit back.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Much Ado about Saido

Berahino leading English marksman in the Premier League
Last year Saido Berahino burst onto to the Premier League scene with a winning goal at Old Trafford. At that point it looked like the Baggies had an unearthed a genuine prospect. A new contract was quickly agreed to keep him at West Brom for the next few years. He made 32 appearances in total but his form was at best fitful and his star was definitely on the decline on the back of some unwelcome tabloid reports that suggested that he was fonder of partying than training.

This "attitude" problem seemed to be at the heart of the post match bust up following the Cardiff home game when he gave the ball away in the dying seconds of the game which lead to Cardiff's equaliser. So enraged was James "the hit man" Morrison that he reportedly cuffed the youngster round the ear. At the time I thought that whilst Saido had shown naivety in giving the ball away there were nine Albion players behind the ball and there were at least three or four senior pro's who were as culpable in allowing Cardiff to equalise. I suspect that Morrison's over reaction was a consequence of Saido's big time Charlie attitude behind the scenes as much as anything that had happened on the pitch,  

By the close of last season Berahino's career at the Hawthorns seemed to be sinking into the morass that was Albion's Annus horribilis. From bright young thing to infant terrible in the space of six months, most Albion fans were losing patience with him and few would have suggested building the team around him.

New Season New Beginning  

The 2013/2014 season was one to forget for West Brom and change was needed. During the closed season Alan Irvine was appointed into the Hawthorns hot seat. This might have been the first piece of good fortune that Saido enjoyed because Irvine has a reputation for nurturing young talent from his Everton days. Equally a new Head Coach meant a clean slate and an opportunity to move on from his previous mistakes. The second piece of good fortune was that Albion's record signing Brown Ideye spent much of the pre-season kicking his heals in Nigeria because his visa application was delayed by mind numbing red tape and religious holidays. His delayed arrival gave Berahino a chance to stake a claim for a starting place.

It is fair to say that after grabbing 2 goals on the opening day Saido has gone from strength to strength. He currently has 7 goals from 9 games and has been one of the leading lights of the England under 21 set up. He is rapidly developing into the one of the best young players in the league and as such he is one again being thrust into the limelight. At this moment his coaches and teams mates have nothing but praise for him he seems to be enjoying life under Irvine and working diligently on his game.

The difference between this year and last is quite marked. It is notable that he looks physically stronger, at a slender 5ft 10 Saido is not the biggest centre forward and he will always be competing against larger Centre Backs but it is vital that he can hold up the ball up under physical pressure which is starting to happen. Secondly his decision making and awareness is improving. Finally he has always had an eye for goal but there seems to be more composure in front of goal and this was demonstrated most clearly against Man United when he had one chance and took it with great aplomb, when he was through on goal I would have bet my house on him hitting the target something I wouldn't have done last season.

Siren Voices 

So far so good, but a recurring theme of this blog is that fans and pundits are too quick to rush to judgement. A good run of form turns a decent prospect into a world beater and a couple of uncharacteristic errors turns a good player into the worst player ever. In this fevered environment it is small wonder that young players lose their way. Equally there are the siren voices that can lead players astray

In Berahino's case  the penny seems to have dropped, either he has worked it out for himself or he has at least listened to someone who has told him a party lifestyle and the life of a professional athlete are incompatible on any number of levels. Firstly there is the physical aspects of partying into the wee small hours and secondly there is negative PR, neither is good for a player. It would be unreasonable to expect a young man to live the life of Trappist monk but equally when you are making headlines for your lifestyle rather than your performances on the pitch it is time to take stock.

If Saido ignores the party siren he also needs to ignore the lure of the big move siren. Given his current form speculation is rife about a move to more glamorous surroundings. As an Albion fan I want two things to happen firstly I want Saido to live up to his undoubted potential develop into a 15 plus goals a season forward and secondly I want him to retire from the game as in his mid 30's with every major honour and still be a Baggie. The first is possible but the second is unlikely.

It is the nature of the modern game that once a player shines at a relatively modest club the vultures start to circle. From the player's view he only has one career and if he wants to scale the summits of Champions League football that is not going to happen at West Brom. The latest rumour is of interest is from Liverpool who are rumoured to be on the verge of offering £25m to lure him away which is £10m more than Spurs were apparently to be prepared to pay a month ago which demonstrates how fevered the speculation is that surrounds the game in general. The story will run forever on the basis of big club struggling for goals Berahino seems to be scoring for fun answer buy Berahino. Eventually it will come to pass but now is too soon for both player and club.

What Next ?

It is almost unreasonable to hope that Saido will score goals at his current rate and a down swing in his form is almost inevitable. It is then that we will find out if his apparent new found maturity is for real, it is easy to do the right thing when things are going well but it takes inner resolve to carry on when things are going less well. If he comes through that then we have to say he is the genuine article.

A new contract is in the pipeline and hopefully this will not go to his head in quite the same way as his first big contract did but from the club's perspective a long contract is vital to secure a top price should the almost inevitable move happen, but it is also pushes it down the the road for at least twelve months and quells the constant press speculation which is good for both club and player.

With regard to England he is going to play a key role in the under 21 Championship and given the choices that the England manager has he is probably only a couple of injuries from a call up to the full squad, but he is still behind Rooney Wellbeck and Sturridge. He needs two good seasons but by the time the 2016 Euro's come around he might force himself into the reckoning.

Club and player need each other in equal measure at this point in time. Saido is making a contribution in the here and now but the brighter his star burns the better for the club in the future. He is the poster boy for the club's academy which has struggled to hold onto talented youngsters but from now on we can point to Saido and genuinely say "stay with us if you are good enough you will get your chance"  and that is a watershed moment for the club which has struggled to re-establish a tradition of youth development which once produced the core of each generation of Albion players.

I do not want to get carried away by a few good performances but I am hopeful that in Saido Berahino we have found a home grown talent that we can be proud of.

Post Script

This week Saido was called up to the England senior squad, which was not entirely surprising given his form and Sturridge's continued absence. It might be a little too early for him but with limited options available to Roy Hodgson  it was almost inevitable that he would turn to Berahino. From a playing perspective given the quality of the opposition in Scotland and Slovakia Saido should be able to make the step up. However the level of attention surrounding England and the media circus is something that Saido has yet to encounter and something that many players who have been bought up at far higher profile clubs than West Brom have sometimes struggled to adjust to.  

 Almost as soon as the call up was announced at the pre-game  press conference Berahino said "My  ambition will be to play in the Champions League and be involved in England seniors and go and play in big trournaments like the World Cup and the Euros".  Not an altogether unreasonable  ambition for the top English goal scorer in the Premier League, but obviously sparked yet another flurry of transfer speculation and a few brickbats from the West Brom twitteratti.

Aside from obviously raising his profile a couple of notches the call up changes nothing with regard Saido's future as a Baggie. His contract position is such that there is no pressing need to sell him regardless of who comes calling in January. Everything else hinges on two things his continued form and secondly if he signs an extended deal with Albion. If his form dips interest will quickly dry up but assuming it does not and without a new deal there is very little hope that we will be retain him beyond next summer or at the very latest the following year.

I think we should enjoy his talent for the time being and trust the club to extract maximum value from the deal when the day comes for him to move on to the bigger stage.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Window on a Mad World

The cells are empty and the lunatics have taken over the asylum
Jim White's near hysterical reporting on Sky Sports News and the massed ranks of idiots drawn moth like to the Sky camera's up and down the land is entirely appropriate backdrop to the closing of the football transfer window. It looks bonkers, it sounds bonkers and it is entirely bonkers. At the close Premier League clubs have spent a staggering £842 even allowing for incoming fees of £440m that is still a net outlay of £402m

A number of factors have fuelled this turbo-charged spending spree. There is a lot of new TV money sloshing around the Premier League and this has driven prices up. The Suarez transfer for £75m injected additional funds into Liverpool who would have been strengthening in any event and one of the world's richest clubs Man United are rebuilding under a new coach after their worst season in a generation.

Hey Big Spender 

Club  Total Fees Out  Total Fees In Net Spend
Arsenal  £       83,000,000 £19,900,000 £63,100,000
Aston Villa  £         4,200,000 £1,000,000 £3,200,000
Burnley  £         4,200,000 £0 £4,200,000
Chelsea  £       92,300,000 £75,800,000 £16,500,000
Crystal Palace  £         9,660,000 £4,900,000 £4,760,000
Everton  £       33,000,000 £1,600,000 £31,400,000
Hull City  £       37,950,000 £15,000,000 £22,950,000
Leicester City  £       11,400,000 £0 £11,400,000
Liverpool  £      117,000,000 £84,460,000 £32,540,000
Man City £55,200,000 £25,500,000 £29,700,000
Man United  £      147,500,000 £31,700,000 £115,800,000
Newcastle United  £       35,800,000 £13,000,000 £22,800,000
QPR  £       30,500,000 £16,200,000 £14,300,000
Southampton  £       57,700,000 £92,000,000 -£34,300,000
Spurs  £       34,330,000 £26,020,000 £8,310,000
Stoke City  £         4,400,000 £3,000,000 £1,400,000
Sunderland  £       15,250,000 £4,400,000 £10,850,000
Swansea  £       22,700,000 £20,400,000 £2,300,000
WBA  £       15,500,000 £2,000,000 £13,500,000
West Ham  £       30,850,000 £3,000,000 £27,850,000
Total £842,440,000 £439,880,000 £402,560,000

The above figures are an estimated based on reported fees which may or may not be completely accurate equally some deals do include performance related add-ons and it is not always obvious whether the reported fee includes or excludes those elements. Even with that caveat it is obvious that the Premier League Clubs have spent a staggering amount of money on players.

The following clubs have broken their transfer record this window Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion Everton,Man United and Hull City. It is impossible to say who had a good window and who had a bad one there will no doubt be some expensive lemons but equally some inspired "free" transfer that surprises everyone.

Only in football would something that might cost millions would be labelled as "free" but this is the case with free transfers. Many fans would be staggered at the sums players receive as signing on fees. It is rumoured that in order to keep their wage structure intact Swansea agreed a cool £8m signing on fee for Gomis who joined from Lyon.

Loan fees are not in the above figures and these are seldom reported at all and the costs vary depending on whether the parent club as in the case of Nani is picking up all or part of the players wages. Whether this is a net  inflow or out flow is anyone's guess but it given the number of players being loaned it is not insignificant.

The bottom line is the figures probably understate just how much clubs have spent this window.

Where's the Money Gone

A large amount of the turnover has been between Premier League clubs but aside from Ligue 1 in France (even Newcastle cannot buy enough French players to make up for the folly of PSG buying David Luiz for £40m)  the Premier League has a balance of payments deficit with every other major football league totalling £406m of which £59m went to the Championship with the balance in excess of £342m going overseas.

The Curious Case of Shane Long

Whenever the market surges there is a "how much?" moment and this window's was provided by Shane Long. At the death of last summer's transfer window having made it clear that he would not be signing a new contract with West Brom Shane Long was about to move to Hull City for a reported £5m. The deal fell through when Hull tried to haggle the price down. In January with even less time to run on his contract a deal was done for £7m and Shane moved to Hull. Many Albion fans believed that was a good price imagine the shock when an not noticeably improved Shane Long went to Southampton for £12m.

However the deal demonstrates the market dynamics as follows

1. Strikers, even average ones go for a premium.
2 The known quantity of a player with 3 seasons of premier league experience also has a premium compared to the possibility of an expensive newcomer might not settle in the English game, Southampton themselves had their fingers burnt last summer with Osvaldo.
3. Contract length matters Long had 3 years left on his Hull contract compared to the 1 he had at West Brom
4. Southampton had lots of money following the mass exodus and a need to bring in players quickly, Hull knew this and exploited the situation. This is only a smart move if they can line up a replacement for less than £12m.
5. Between last summer and now other completely nutty benchmarks had been set by other clubs most notably Fulham's £11m purchase of Ross McCormack a player who has never kicked a ball in the Premier League.  

Taking everything into account it is possible to see how the price ended up at £12m. Does the deal make sense? No, but very few transfers fees do.

The Beacons of Sanity

Take a bow Burnley who seem not to have joined the party mindful that relegation would leave them with a massive financial hangover. Fans might moan about a tight fisted board but the Premier League bonanza might be short lived and the money does have to be build a better club long term as well as putting a team together for the here and now.

Too Much too Young

One of the highlights of the window was the absolute gem from Jose Mourihno about Chelsea's inability to compete for Luke Shaw. At a stroke Mourihno heaped pressure on Shaw and United by outing his £5m a year salary and got his excuses in early lest Chelsea have a less than stellar season.  However it is not just a bit of Mourihno boloney he does have a point. Shaw is a player of real potential with one and a half seasons as a first team player under his belt, but he has never tested at the highest levels. Despite this he is commanding a salary that would imply that he is the finished article, add in the jaw dropping fee £27m fee and you have another young English player going down the well trodden path of getting the big move early in their careers and not living up to the hype.

We Can see you sneaking out

If anyone is getting really excited about the big money signing their club has just made there are a number of players who joined the Premier League circus with much fanfare last summer who are left with a great deal less this window. Ricky Van Wolfwinkel leaving Norwich on loan to St Eitinee and Osvaldo heading back to Italy from Southampton are cautionary tales. Finally shortly after he passed on the poisoned chalice of British transfer record onto De Maria, Torres left Chelsea for Milan on loan, remember this is a player amongst other things "guarantees you goals", "shows Chelsea's ambition" and "justified  the fee because he is a world class striker". So the next time you hear one of these cherished clich├ęs being peddled by a pundit, remember Torres.

Conclusion

It is mad, clubs never seem to learn the lessons every time new money comes into the Premier League it goes out in the form of fees and inflated salaries. In the meantime the grass roots of the game struggle to find the resources for decent pitches and youth coaches are barely paid a living wage. The English national team is struggling on the World stage but the circus carries on regardless. One does wonder what happens when the money runs out and the English game wakes up with the hangover to end all hangovers.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Global Search

Gardner the first of many?
This is going to be a busy summer at West Bromwich Albion. While the World Cup is unfolding in Brazil the club's recruitment team will be burning the midnight oil to find anything up to 10 players to supplement a squad much depleted by players contracts expiring or in the case of those on loan not taking up the option of permanent moves.
One could argue the merits of some of those decisions but on the back of a poor run of form stretching to the back end of 2012/13 few fans could argue that the squad needed to be overhauled. The question is can the club get the right players in and can the new Head coach get them to gel into an effective unit?

I wrote a this last summer (Full entry) in part because I thought that the club were pretty smart operators in the market but they abandoned what was a winning strategy under the wholly malevolent influence of Clarke and McDonough. The winning strategy had been built on seven principles six out of seven were broken last summer

1. Build a team - The club had a bloated squad of 25 Senior Pro's trumpeted as the biggest and best squad in the Premier League era but no effective first 11.
2. Research Research Research We had scouted Lugano we had concluded he was not right for the Premier League and McDonough ignored the scouting reports
3. The Wisdom of Crowds Clarke and McDonough drove the agenda and marginalised the opinions of the scouts
4. Multiple Targets We got mired in the protracted pursuit of Kalou and when it fell through it was very evident there was no plan B.
5. Target Players on the Up Escalator Only Vydra from last summer's recruits could have been described as up and coming the rest were recruited from backgrounds which suggested plying their trade at the Hawthorns was a bit of a come down.
6. Plan for Failure Possibly the only thing we got right given the structure of the contracts we were able to get rid of Anelka Sinclair and Lugano who were possibly three of the worst signings in the club's history
7. Never Shop at Harrods Last summer we did try to shop at Harrods but with an Aldi budget it didn't work.

Back to Basics

The dismissal of McDonough and Clarke and the hiring of Terry Burton to oversee recruitment marks a return to the principles that underpinned the club's success in the market. From Burton's comments in the a recent interview in the B'ham Mail it is apparent the squad will be slimmed down and there will be a greater emphasis on developing our younger players. This window there will be focus on quality rather than quantity which should be music to every Albion fan's ears.

Back to his Midland root Lescott signs

To date we have picked up two players on "free transfers" from other Premier League clubs in Lescott and Gardner. Both add something to the squad Lescott is a hugely experienced defender and Gardner is a midfield all rounder that we have needed for a couple of seasons. My only concern is about their motivation as a move to the Hawthorns does not represent a step up for either player and I hope both are consummate professionals in the Scharner mould rather than egotistical has been that was Anelka.

As ever we have been linked with a myriad of players Cresswell, Snodgrass, Robertson Hibbert, Rodwell and Riviere amongst others. How real the club's interest in any or all of these players is hard to tell. Given the absence of any full backs in the squad obviously we are in the market for full backs and probably another striker but after that a lot depends on how Alan Irvine wants to set up his team (see point 1 above).
Outbound

Letting players go that don't fit or are on the fringes of the squad is very much part and parcel of managing the club's playing resources and moving on senior pro's who are not part of the first XI is vital to clearing a pathway for younger players. Two of Albion's most promising younger players have handed in transfer requests both Dawson and Thorne have grown frustrated at the lack of first team opportunities. Whether either merit starting places is debatable but their frustration is understandable and not helped by the fact that the squad got bloated last year. During the first half of the season there was always at least 5 senior players not getting into the match day squad, in that environment it is difficult for youngsters to see a way into the first team.

If any of our existing senior pro's do not fit into Irvine's plans they need to be moved on there is no point in retaining players as third choice in their favoured position nor trying to fit square pegs into round holes or keeping a player because he might be useful on the off chance the coach might want to depart from their stock formation.

On this basis I would be surprised if all the existing squad make it through the window.

Harrods is Closed

There is no value in the Premier League transfers that involve a fee. I think the £8m deals for Snodgrass and Livermore prove that beyond reasonable doubt, there might be an exception but I am hard pressed to remember it across the last few windows. Equally the World Cup is an awful shop window I absolutely guarantee that a player will be snapped up by a European Club on the basis of a few good games in Brazil and completely flop. Gonzalo Jara is having a good World Cup he was released by West Brom and Nottingham Forest for a reason,I rest my case.

If not Harrods where? The answer is the continent unless a team is in the Champions League Albion can pay better wages than most of the continental clubs with the exception of some of the Russian and Turkish teams. There is talent in abundance at reasonable prices in Holland Germany, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy not to mention the lesser leagues. The smaller clubs in these markets along with the Championship have to sell to balance their books and as such they are more likely to accept a reasonable offer i.e. they cannot get through a window without selling. The key is to avoid a multi-way bidding war for high profile talent like Bony under these circumstances the price is much more likely to be akin to a Premier League transaction, that is to say devoid of value and loaded with downside risk.

Conclusion
I don't think the club will be repeating the mistakes of last summer, however as ever I think the fans who crave high profile signings with the big fees will be disappointed. Unless they are a very dedicated follower of every European league many of Albion's potential signings will need to be Googled by fans to get a some idea of who we have been linked with. Equally until the window closes at the end of August will we have the full picture of what the squad will look like. I will venture it will be better balanced and smaller than last year's but aside from that I would not try to second guess it's composition. 

PS
I think we might sign a full back or two