Top ten biggest questions facing English football

Date published: Tuesday 18th February 2020 6:01

Liverpool Manchester City

10) Will Chelsea ever rebuild Stamford Bridge?
In March, the planning permission for Chelsea’s redevelopment of Stamford Bridge expires. Permission was first granted for the (then) £500m project back in January 2017, but the project remains on hold, with a club statement released in May 2019 citing an ‘unfavourable investment climate’.

Further to which, since the UK government delayed its renewal of his investor visa (which prompted him to adopt Israeli citizenship), Roman Abramovich’s relationship with his own club has become more tenuous. The assumption is that the Stamford Bridge project is dead in the water.

According to Chelsea’s most recent accounts – released at the turn of the year – Abramovich funded the club to the tune of £247m during 2018/19. It was also revealed that Chelsea had made their highest pre-tax loss since 2005 during the same period and, of course, that their match-day revenue had once again remained almost unmoved.

It’s a precarious situation. Their ability to survive at the top of the game depends on Abramovich’s continued commitment and upon their performance. If Stamford Bridge is not to be rebuilt, then it indicates a continuing dependency on the same ad hoc revenue streams – player sales, Champions League qualification and commercial activity. For very obvious reasons, none of those are guaranteed and any sort of protracted decline would have a critical effect.

It’s not quite a house of cards, that would be alarmist, but then neither is Chelsea’s position at football’s summit quite as permanent as we’ve been conditioned to believe. A bigger stadium is not a silver bullet solution anymore – it’s actually less important than at any point in history – but if that March deadline passes with no new developments, then it indicates that the club remain committed to walking the high-wire and hoping, long term, that Abramovich’s generosity never wavers.

 

9) Will West Ham learn their lessons?
Two questions, each dependent on this season’s outcome.

If West Ham survive, how does their attitude towards David Moyes change? He’s not exactly the attention-grabbing personality that Sullivan, Gold and Brady so obviously desire, nor does he promise much more than just bland stability. And even that depends on a reputation which looks increasingly outdated and, with hindsight, was probably overstated.

Still, ‘bland stability’ should be what West Ham aspire to. Five years of tedious, mid-table nothingness would do the club the power of good. The trouble is that these owners are anything but realists and the suspicion remains that as soon as safety is assured, they’ll lurch in another direction, throwing money behind another poorly conceived mini-project, hastening their return to exactly where they are now in 18 months’ time.

On the other hand, if they do go down this season…

Imagine that stadium in the Championship. The empty seats, the silent toxicity, the surrounding, dystopian nightmare of Stratford. It would be a footballing Chernobyl. An exclusion zone, but also a cautionary tale.

Given the haphazard way in which the current squad was assembled, consider also just how many of those player contracts might contain punitive relegation clauses or, as an expression of the owners’ hubris, fail to provide adequate financial protection in the event of relegation.

It’s probably not melodramatic to suggest that these are critical months within West Ham’s modern history.

 

8) Will any deference be made to player health?
In 2019, FIFPro released a report entitled ‘At The Limit’ which addressed the growing risk to player health.

This has been a background issue for some time, with a host of high-profile coaches making reference to it. Jurgen Klopp has had his say, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola too. The report is more blunt, though, and much more alarming, comprising tales of minimal recovery time, huge travel distances covered and, in some cases, an alarming lack of rest.

At its core were four recommendations:

  • Introducing mandatory off-season breaks of four weeks, and mid-season breaks of two weeks.
  • Limiting the number of times per season when players have back-to-back competitive games with less than the five days of recovery time in between.
  • Considering whether to impose annual match caps for each individual player to protect his health and performance.
  • Developing an early warning system to monitor player match load and assist with forward planning.

This is another point of conflict, because – quite clearly – football seems determined to move in the opposite direction. The industrial complex is growing all the time. Bigger European Championships, bigger World Cups, longer pre-season tours visiting more countries and selling more tat to more fans. Expand this, expand that. Make hay while the sun shines.

The impression is of a sport with next to no consideration for its players, meaning that a crisis point is approaching. What that point looks like is hard to say – that’s a question for a conditioning expert – but shortened careers and diminishing performance are inevitable as a minimum.

The report can be downloaded in full here. Read with the game’s ceaseless growth in mind, it’s really quite bleak.

 

7) What does Neil Ashton do at Manchester United?
Why is he there?

Superficially, it’s because United have an image problem and Neil Ashton has the influence to change how they’re portrayed by a certain type of journalist. But why is he there? Why him? Why a journalist of his particular profile?

Doesn’t the publicity around his appointment also defeat the purpose? The better move would presumably have been for him to recuse himself quietly from his media roles, slink off into the shadows and take up his new role on the sly. As it is, he announced it on an extremely popular television program and has seemed determined to remain visible in the weeks since.

As a result every positive story emerging from Old Trafford is treated as an Ashton construct, real or otherwise.

Which is to say nothing of the bigger issue. Why do United need someone like that? Instead of responding to criticism by performing as a super-club should – perhaps by modernising their departments, employing a qualified manager, appointing a director of football and improving recruitment – their focus seems to be on creating the illusion of progress.

Isn’t that quite strange? Modern football is covered in such a way that improvements generally speak for themselves. Just employing a new tea lady would probably entitle the club to some saccharine coverage from someone, because it’s not as if United are short of propagandists in the media.

Nobody turns more corners during a season than they do, nobody signs more players who will absolutely, unequivocally, definitely, definitely, definitely make everything alright.

True, every club needs communications experts. It’s a modern imperative for them to equip themselves in a way which allows them to present their best face. But Neil Ashton is presumably not being employed to design fluffy human-interest stories or take iPhone pictures of squad visits to pet shelters.

So what is his job: Head of Lies? Chief Obfuscator? Minister of Bullshit?

Wouldn’t it just be simpler for Manchester United to get better? After all, if you’ve got nothing to spin, you don’t need Malcolm Tucker.

 

6) Will football loosen its relationship with gambling?
Late on Friday night, Adam Crafton revealed in The Athletic that there is a growing determination within government to ban bookmakers’ logos from football shirts. Both main political parties had made manifesto pledges to tackle the issue, but – according to these reports – it’s far more of a priority than assumed.

That movement contrasts quite sharply to the Premier League’s own attitude, which is typically laissez faire and can best be described as ‘money is money is money’.

Richard Masters, the new chief executive:

“Sport and gambling have a long association. We’re certainly not sniffy about it; it’s up to our clubs whether they want to have their own gambling relationships.”

Half of the current Premier League teams have a gambling sponsor on their shirt, so there aren’t many ideological concerns there either. In fact, on the basis of how easy it seems to procure sponsorship from that industry and how many new companies seem to appear overnight, there presumably isn’t a commercial director in the country who would welcome such a ban.

A battleground is being formed, then. On one side, a government searching for a quick PR win. On the other, a league and its member clubs collecting an easy (reported) £70m a season. If a ban becomes legislation, then there’s only one winner, but the game won’t sit idly by in the months prior, watching on as one of its biggest revenue sources is snatched away.

It will be a quiet war. The kind which takes place in smoke-filled rooms, with tit-for-tat promises and compromises that the public will never hear about.

 

5) Will there ever be a proper deterrent against racism?
It was almost exactly 14 years between Samuel Eto’o being racially abused in Zaragoza (February 26 2006) and Porto’s Moussa Marega suffering the same treatment in Vitoria. Despite the gulf of time between them and the many opportunities football has had to develop a proper response, the two incidents were remarkably similar.

A black player suffered abuse. He then attempted to leave the pitch, only for his teammates and opponents to try to prevent him from doing so.
The only difference between the two incidents was that Marega was actually substituted, but the lack of a true contrast really highlighted the absence of meaningful progress in this area. For those who remember the Eto’o case, the scenes were eerily similar and the sight of white players forcefully trying to restrain Marega was both uncomfortable and also indicative of just how little understanding – or even empathy – there seems to be for footballers who find themselves in such situations. Even now, nobody knows how to behave, or what protocols are supposed to be respected.

To many players, the game is still all important and that’s an attitude which comes with all sorts of unhelpful platitudes about ‘hurting racists with talent’ or ‘taking revenge on the scoreboard’. All sorts of fallacies, in other words.

Elsewhere over the weekend, the manager, coach, and secretary of Atherstone Town all resigned their positions after the club’s supporters racially abused an opponent for the third game in a row.

Late on Sunday night, the BBC announced it was cutting ties with Craig Ramage, the former Derby midfielder now working as an analyst, after he expressed generalised criticism of the current side’s ‘young black lads’.

Three major incidents in a single weekend doesn’t portray a healthy environment. What it also suggests, unequivocally, is that the sport – FIFA, UEFA, domestic leagues, clubs and probably local media – has a very long way to go on its path towards equality.

While it may be right to claim that prejudice is a manifestation of society’s issues rather than a sport-specific ailment, that isn’t itself reason not to do a lot better at confronting it. Banners, adverts, menial fines; these sanctions pay lip service to a zero-tolerance attitude which, in reality, just doesn’t exist and eventually football will have to fight racism in a way that is more than just for the sake of appearances.

 

4) What are we going to do with VAR?
It’s terribly, terribly boring as a discussion point, but it cannot survive in its current form.

What’s alarming is just how rogue the Premier League and PGMOL have been. It certainly doesn’t seem healthy that IFAB officials are issuing terse reminders about the system’s application during the season, even less so that – as of February – we’re already on to our third, maybe even fourth definition of ‘clear and obvious’.

Offsides are a huge problem. The lack of clarity in the handball law is too.

The bigger issue, though, is that there aren’t many obvious solutions. VAR is less a system, more an attitude. It doesn’t matter whether margins for error are introduced or the pitch-side monitors are used or even if the time taken to reach decisions is reduced dramatically. For as long as the Premier League remains under the control of Stockley Park, it will be characterised by pedantry.

It’s a binary situation. Either the competition wants that identity or it doesn’t, because it was a terrible mistake to believe that there could be any shades of grey.

 

3) What is Manchester City’s future?
This can’t be anything but theoretical at the moment, because the CAS appeal is pending. But if that Champions League ban does hold, the consequences are almost endless.

Without revenue from the Champions League, City would be left with a serious compliance issue and, most likely, players would have to be jettisoned and summer transfer plans seriously rethought. Leo Messi? They wouldn’t even exist in that world anymore.

 

From reports, many of the current contracts at the Etihad include bonuses for European qualification and success and, individually, many of their players are dependent upon playing in the Champions League for realising their commercial potential. City have assured the relevant agents that they’re confident of overturning the ban, but – that industry being what it is – contingencies will already be being developed with other clubs.

But players are players; almost all of them are replaceable. The real damage could be to the idea of City and the notion of what they aspire to be.

If the ruling is upheld, it would almost certainly cost them Pep Guardiola. He is said to have provided guarantees over his future, but perhaps those are being instructed by the club’s utter conviction in their appeal. Publicly, City are behaving as if it’s inconceivable that they’ll actually face their punishment, so Guardiola may well be reading from the same script.

But without the opportunity to win a European Cup, what exactly would he be staying for? He would presumably prefer to re-exert his superiority over Jurgen Klopp, that would be a motivation of sorts, but he’s still going to want a seat at the highest table and, if City aren’t able to offer him one for two years, then what?

On the basis that their entire sporting structure was designed to attract him, what would be their direction if he walked away? There are some very fine head coaches on the market, all of whom City would be able to attract, but that next step would still have to be a compromise.

It’s also hard to envisage a situation in which the project itself isn’t irreparably damaged. If CAS confirms the sanction, then that’s its own PR nightmare. City are an outstanding football team, but they’re also a marketing tool. Needless to say, it becomes very difficult to serve the image of Abu Dhabi if the world believes that you’re football’s answer to Lance Armstrong.

 

2) What are the long-term consequences of UEFA’s ruling?
The retaliation is going to be quite something. Wealthy people tend to respond extremely badly to not getting their own way. When that jilted party is supported by sovereign and inexhaustible wealth, the sulk is likely to be apocalyptic.

In fact, it would probably involve creating a new environment and writing a new rule book.

On Friday, UEFA were being applauded for their backbone. Fair enough, perhaps, because – although it’s a punishment designed to accommodate a compromise – a two-year ban from the Champions League is significant.

But what do they expect? Manchester City to take this case to CAS, a ruling to be made and then, whatever the outcome may be, the issue just to be over? Even if City win their appeal, that’s not going to soothe their vengeful mood.

Think about who City are owned by. Think about what some of their ultimate aims are. Does anybody really think that they’re going to tolerate being dictated to by a mere sporting body? It’s not very realistic. Over the weekend, Jonathan Wilson wrote this piece for The Guardian and, really, it should come with its own organ music.

From the tone of the leaked emails, if they’re authentic, it’s clear that Khaldoon al-Mubarak views UEFA as an irritant. Ferran Soriano’s opinion of them doesn’t seem any more benevolent. To them, UEFA are a fly to be swatted, a bug to be stamped on. Inevitably, that mentality will instruct what happens next and the football world should absolutely be bracing for retaliation.

It will go beyond City, too. One of the more ominous lines from the weekend’s coverage was that Jorge Mendes is ‘sympathetic to the cause’ – how chilling is that? – and Gianni Agnelli is presumably another very interested bystander, given how aroused he gets by the dream of non-competitive, ring-fenced football with exorbitant rewards for a very small group of clubs.

City are behaving like the wounded party. In time, though, this moment will just further unify them with those who think in exactly the same way and mobilise that force against football’s culture of competition.

 

1) How will Liverpool actually improve?
This was written at the end of 2018-19. On the basis that Liverpool had plenty of latent talent, it preached doing as little as possible in the summer transfer window and reaping the benefits of continuity.

The same isn’t going to be true this time around. Liverpool have been building towards their current level for two years now and have showed a remarkable consistency in performance. Over time, though, a dip becomes inevitable. Nobody can hold a high note forever and that includes football teams in perfect harmony.

The slightly subtext is that Jurgen Klopp has been reliant on a small group of players and while that’s a conditioning risk, it’s also unhealthy to allow too many first-team players to remain unchallenged for too long.

There are other issues, too. The Africa Cup of Nations is returning to its more familiar January slot in 2021, which will likely rob Klopp of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita, and there’s always a possibility that some of the understudies at Anfield will want more prominent roles elsewhere.

Reinforcements will be needed and what an interesting challenge this will be. There are a couple of academy players who look up to the task. Neco Williams is already a fine full-back and Curtis Jones obviously has a future. And, while Harvey Elliott absolutely reeks of David Bentley, he’s clearly extremely talented.  But new elements will still have to come from outside and in a way which doesn’t upset the current chemistry.

At the time of writing, Timo Werner is apparently a possibility and – as an example – it would be fascinating to see how Klopp assimilates a player of that profile (and cost) without unsettling his front three.

Given what Mane, Salah and Firmino have all contributed to Liverpool’s rise, the arrival of a replacement has the potential to be a point of a conflict. Werner is not Divock Origi. Instead, he’s a forward from the highest shelf in the boutique and one capable of mounting a proper challenge.

Whose minutes would he take? And, collectively, how would the three incumbents – icons, really – respond to even the idea of being challenged?

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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