English Premier League - a Telenovela! a Mid Season Assessment.
The English Premier League
EPL - A Telenovela! The mid season assessment.
At a recent gathering of “experts”, fans, and players, I was privileged to attend, someone referred to the current season as a Telenovela - those phenomenal latin american soapies with multiple plots and sub-plots that have kept gazillions of viewers enthralled and glued to their screens, not just in their native lands but across all borders. “La Usurpadora” for example has been exported with a license to over 100 countries and dubbed in 25 languages. The series averaged 38.4 million viewers per episode, in Mexico alone, and is estimated to have been viewed thus far by just over 1 Billion viewers world wide. Enthralling and captivating.
Its the first day of 2020 and the EPL is not just in full flow but barely at half way stage. Its been a ride of manic proportions thus far and it promises to continue much on the same vein for the remaining 18-19 games every team still has left to play.
In true Telenovela style, the EPL has to be responsible for some of the largest direct viewerships and peripheral side shows of any sport and any league, ranging from direct broadcasts to illegal streams, betting, fantasy leagues, banter groups and social media exchanges. In total, Premier League clubs recorded 2.7 billion fan engagements on social media platforms throughout 2018, while their heightened activity across a range of channels saw their cumulative social following grow by 13 per cent - this growth has continued unabated into 2019.
But enough about the economics of the EPL - the game is where its at. High paced and manic in nature, the evolution of the 80’s and 90’s with the introduction of foreign players into the league and in the 2000’s of foreign coaches, has arguably elevated the EPL into the No1 spot in terms of quality and certainly entertainment value. It is the Super League of world football. The demands of a December schedule, for all teams, especially those competing in Europe and multiple domestic competitions is unparalleled by any other league globally, and despite several coaches voicing their disapproval over the schedule, the fan base, those who feed the machine, wouldn’t have it any other way.
As a bottom’s up kind of guy, lets start this mid season review with the lower positions on the table. Watford and Norwich City occupy 19th and 20th spot, and although both have flattered to deceive with some fearless football, especially against some the “bigger’ clubs, these are the slots they are destined to occupy come the end of the season.
The big question is centred around who will join them for the drop. Only six points (2 games) separate 10th from 18th and a relegation spot, and some of the protagonists in this sphere include Premier league stalwarts like Arsenal, Newcastle, Everton and West Ham - the twists and turns of the Telenovela are abound at every turn, with the inevitable tumble of a big name.
Arsenal and Everton are interesting names on this list - both having recently (mid season) changed management expertise, in the hope of salvaging the second half of the season to pastures familiar. Arsenal an almost ever present of the top 4, replacing the vastly experienced winner Unai Emery with the largely inexperienced Mikel Arteta in the management seat, and Everton pulling off what is arguably the surprise management coup of the decade in appointing the habitual winner Carlo Ancelloti, to replace to vastly overrated Marco Silva. Interesting times ahead, for both new managers, with Arteta probably having the toughest of the jobs ahead of him, having to contend with disruptive player power and lack of confidence of the gifted few, the inheritance of poor recruitment and potentially the lack of funds to bolster the squad where it is needed. Fore-mostly, Arsenal need a back to basics approach in order to establish some consistency.
Everton on the other hand, seemed to have lost its essence - the culture and nature of a hard working, hard tackling, working class team, that challenged and protected against most teams, was lost. Marco Silva, tried to change a culture long entrenched by demographic and history. Couple that with limited management ability at this level and the downward spiral has been evident. Kudos to the men in the boardroom, who not only saw the light, but made the surprise acquisition of the decade. Carlo Ancelotti, surely does not need the money offered, or the headache, possessing a CV capable of warranting a position in most top clubs around the world. He accepted the job because he agreed with the vision of the board and what is there to be achieved. His ability to adapt to different cultures and environments, coupled with his soft but assertive demeanour are just what is needed for Everton to regroup and move forward. He will put his arm around Moise Kean (instead of breaking him down) and several others and allow them to express themselves. The less experienced Duncan Ferguson, will assist in indoctrinating the Everton culture back into the players psyche. Since appointment there are 2 wins from 2 and the improvement is visible. I see Everton consolidating and possibly challenging for a top 6 spot, if not this season, certainly next.
Similarly West Ham - not to be left out in the managerial merry go round, and a team clearly devoid of long term planning in the upper echelons of the club, has appointed a new manager. David Moyes, say what you want about him, possibly took on more than he could chew, at Manchester United, yet, sadly, this is the stint (despite his excellent stats - similar to Mourinho and Solksjaer), he will be remembered for. What he should be remembered for, is the incredible job performed at Everton, leading them to several top 6 finishes and European presence, with limited and scarce resources. His nurturing of talent like Rooney, Barkley, Baines et al. At West Ham, he will find talent in disarray - a lack of fighting spirit and a confused bunch of players who are unsure of the style of play they are to employ. David Moyes will bring stability and more importantly survival.
So who to join the bottom two in relegation? My money is on a struggling Bournemouth. They seem shot of ideas, short on talent and short on vision and/or cash to be able to attract what they need for survival. When your best player is a loanee, things become more complicated.
The balance will create their own chapters of the Telenovela without really creating nothing more than a weekend dent, or the occasional tiny bumps on the road map of those with ambitions, slightly higher up the table. Survival is key with the money on offer from television rights in the EPL and the battles with be fierce. In the end the mid table will look mostly familiar, barring the odd (and possibly significant) changes up at the top of the six all important places at the top of the table.
The Top 6
So that top 6 - the gateway to Europe (may just be significant on the back of Brexit). The contenders, are 4 of the usual suspects with, one of recent suspicion and two new contenders, both of which are making commendable and credible cases for inclusion. As there are Seven, there will be tears from one of them, but whichever team gets that 7th spot, it has nothing to be ashamed of. The competition is fierce, and there may just yet be a consolation prize if any of the English sides still involved in both the Champions League and Europa League go on to win it - possible, very possible - last season both finals were an all English EPL affair.
Now here is where MY telenovela, takes a real surprise turn and I see Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur occupying the 5th and 6th spots with Manchester United lurking just behind them - maybe upsetting the 6th.
The reasoning follows that Jose Mourinho has a tremendous job on his hands - The talent at Spurs is abundant and clearly the visions of Jose and Daniel Levy are aligned, however the ego’s and private shenanigans of Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose, coupled with the obvious lack of depth in the squad and the pressure of a Champions League campaign, may just be a mountain to high to scale this season. Mourinho needs to offload and quick, whilst maintaining the morale of what was once a very tightly knit group. His recruitment needs to be spot on so as to satisfy those staying and not to be too disruptive. The positives are there already, with Harry Kane seemingly happy, Toby Alderweireld signing a much stalled new contract and the resurgence of Deli Ali. It is knife edge stuff and if anyone can do this, its Jose - time is required though.
Leicester City has, like in their Premier League winning year, been a pleasure to watch. Brendan Rodgers, is showing why he was so treasured at Liverpool and why his next step at Celtic was so successful. The squad looks fearless and creative, with the resurgence of Jamie Vardy and the “discovery” of James Maddison, Ben Chilwell and Ricardo. Kasper Schmeichel is proving as good, if not better than his father, remembering that Peter had a formidable back four ahead of him during United’s golden era. There are also no European distractions. These are advantageous positives. From a negative perspective, one swallow does not a summer make, and neither do three or four. The moneyed teams are bound to arrive in January for some of these names, and even if they do not leave, they have no cover - with or without. The squad lacks in depth and a few injuries and/or suspensions to these key names and Leicester could be challenged to make their mark. I can’t see the sustained run and the Gods that presided over the Ranieri miracle are out of town focusing on larger disasters.
Without being neglectful of Manchester United - they resemble Johannesburg during load shedding schedules. Some glimmer of light pops up, only to be unexpectedly damped with darkness - off schedule and with no sensible reasoning. Naturally being a widely supported club, there are many views and opinions on the unexplained collapse of the once almighty Manchester United. Fans are naturally impatient - most alive or supporting, never having experienced relegation battles and heavy defeats on a regular basis at Old Trafford. Most supporters in South Africa are new to the game (post SuperSport era), but it wasn’t that long ago that even the gargantuan Alex Ferguson was on the brink of the sack.
Football, like business and life itself (being Telenovelas), flows in cycles - its how the cycles are handled that make all the difference.
Manchester United had one manager (not always in good times) for 20 years, and now they have had 4 in 6 years - Is it the manager? We are talking Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho - Absolute winners. We are talking a handpicked David Moyes (by the master himself) and now a club legend. Is it the players? Is it the upper ranks of directorship? The recruitment team? The culture and assimilation department? The 370 Million Pound newly acquired debt? The heavy payroll?
Something is amiss and poor old Oleg’s wife must be horrified at how her husband has visibly aged in the last year.
Manchester United, like Arsenal (loosing Arsene Wenger) needs to re-access and go back to basics. Continuous spending on overrated players like Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, or cultural misfits like Alexi Sanchez and Luke Shaw, need to end. The story doesn’t end there. A clean up and rebuild is necessary. Manchester United’s famed youth structure produced their golden era with Beckham, Scholes The Nevilles and Giggs and more rising from the ranks at Carrington and Leigh. Glimpses of this are still apparent in Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood. Why Marcus Rashford is not the centre of the attacking force within the club is beyond comprehension, when the next options are Anthony Martial and fashion guru Jessie Lingard. Build a team in Zones - around players that epitomise the culture and strengths of the club.
We miss Manchester United as a competitor, but unless hard decisions are made, we aren’t going to seen them out there very soon.
The Top 4
Top 4 it is then….or is it 2nd to 4th? Manchester City, Chelsea and Wolverhampton Wanderers (just), should take care of that.
Manchester City have too much in the tank to be ambling in 3rd and the current form blip is just a timely inconvenience. They are a complete team, probably more so because they have two complete teams - something no other premier League team can bolster - including runaway leaders Liverpool. The focus must now surely be the Champions League - something that has eluded Manchester City and even Pep (of late). The Qatari ownership sees the Champions League as the holy grail and its all systems go for its achievement. In shifting this focus, automatic qualification needs to be assured for next season and as we saw last season they are very capable of putting on a sequence of 14-15 unbeaten games to secure second spot. Bookmakers beware in the “winner without Liverpool” betting.
The next two places are exciting to me, as they should be to every football purist out there.
Chelsea, the notorious champions of managerial musical chairs, decided to appoint one Frank Lampard over an exiting chain smoking winner (who brought them two trophies but was deemed not good enough). Frank, filled with inexperience and armed with tremendous amounts of courage and exuberance, found himself hampered by a transfer ban, but encouraged by a ‘nothing to loose” approach. He bet on a mixture of youth and an experienced central defence and a re-invigorated N’golo Kante, himself arguably one of the top three defensive midfielders in the world, and sent them out with a clear message - PLAY. They have been naive and often simple in approach, but they have entertained and blossomed unequally. The players have smiles on their faces, and train with a man who can ping a long ball on a pound coin, even at his age. He is a manager, but also a peer. Respected - without doubts - at all levels of the club, from board to fan base and with a fantastic new gift about to be opened come the 1st of January - the removal of the transfer ban. Lampard will spend - wisely and not suffer fools in terms of player hype. Chelsea will continue to entertain and I wouldn’t be surprised if they bagged one of the smaller trophies they are still competing for.
Wolverhampton Wanderers or Wolves as they are affectionally known, have been a revelation ever since the take over in 2016 by Fosum International. Ownership is often as important as the management and players at a club and in Fosum, Wolverhampton Wanderers seem to have investors who understand the heritage of this ever popular club - one of the twelve founding members of the Football League, and once (50’s) a fountain of constant success. They invested with a vision, managing to convince emerging talents like Raul Jimenez and Ruben Neves to ignore many premium suitors to join a dream in the Championship. Three years on and promotion was achieved, followed by a 7th finish which allowed for participation in the Europa League (compliments of Liverpool’s Champions League win). The progress continues with shrewd acquisitions and the rebirth of players like Adama Traore (once of Barcelona). They enter the second half of the league in 7th again, only 5 points off the top 4 and on the back of two extremely credible performances against the top 2. They are extreme value for a top 4 finish (even at this late stage) and almost certain of a top 6 ending.
That leaves us with that enviable 1st spot, the EPL 2019/20 Champions seat - the epitome of domestic success.
The charismatic and legendary Bill Shankly once said “For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side” and in the season’s of 2018/19 and the 2019/20 this is exactly what Jurgen Norbert Klopp has found and nurtured at fortress Anfield. I won’t bore you with the stats, the ins and outs, the below average net spend, or what has come before (2018/19) or in other competitions, but its safe and factual to say that Liverpool is unbeaten this year, and above all has gone 50 games unbeaten at home. They lead the league by an astounding 13 and 14 points from their nearest two challengers and have a game in hand.
Now the sceptics may say, “Liverpool have bottled it before”, i.e. 2014 - but this is different. In 2014 two players carried a team, with a supporting cast of one or two. Today, there are 11 players carrying a team. The team is replete with accolades and achievement and the mentality to run through those brick walls, to the very last, is unabated. They win well, they win ugly and above all entertain. Liverpool would probably have to loose almost every one of the next 19 games to avoid a top 4 finish this season.
At this point, you can probably sense the writer is an unashamed Liverpool supporter - long suffering but never alone - but assuredly the numbers are there for all to see? The bookmakers specifically, are offering a best price ranging from 1/16 (one globally) to 1/30 ON. Bookmakers are typically the best risk assessors of the lot and with next best at 14/1 - looks to me like it is just a question of time before a brave one pays out on the winner at a very early stage.
And onto the next episode of the EPL Telenovela - 9 games, with the first kick off at 14h30 local time - go Frank’s boys!!!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Paulo Do Carmo