‘I gave you the tools and you couldn’t use them right.’ – Mr Scudamore
February 2015. Premier League executives are celebrating. Richard Scudamore and his acolytes have just sold the TV rights for their product, netting a record-breaking £5.136 billion. They’ve negotiated a massive, 71% increase of BPL valuation from the season 2015/16 onward. The money Sky TV and BT Sport have put on the table soon starts to flow from the top down – right into the hands of clubs’ boards and managers.
In terms of a sheer, brutal math, this was probably the biggest shift in the history of football finances. Over the course of just one summer, the sharks learned how to fly and the guppies learned how to be the sharks – all thanks to a massive boost of buying power all across the league. If 2014/15 champions, Chelsea, received around £100 million for their winning campaign. 2015/16 relegation sides (at the moment: Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich) are expected to make between £97 and £101 million – purely on the basis of being there. At the same time the value of a league crown increased to £146 million, causing…
The Resource Curse
Effects were soon to be seen. £36 million for Anthony Martial, £49 million for Raheem Sterling, £32.5 million for Christian Benteke, £21 million for Pedro… Big clubs have quickly become bigger than ever. But behind those deals, a string of other purchases followed. Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke – £12m; Salomón Rondón to West Brom – £12m; Son Heung-min to Tottenham – £22m; Aleksandar Mitrović to Newcastle – £13m. Every low-profile club was able to afford their own starlet – and, at the same time, many players who failed the last season were mercilessly shipped out.
Fast-forward to the windy, rainy weekend in the middle of December, 2015. Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions League by Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven. Arsenal had to pull off a miracle to avoid the same fate. City, despite being victorious in Europe, were comprehensively outplayed at Stoke and needed a fluke, last-minute goal to avoid a draw against utterly dreadful, manager-less Swansea. Chelsea have been winning league points at the staggering rate of exactly 1 per game. Liverpool’s manager got sacked and their new boss actually scored several great results… before his team managed to lose to Newcastle and salvage a home draw with West Brom.
The money signings didn’t help nearly as much as it was expected. Martial – 5 goals in 17 league and UCL games; Sterling – 7 goals in 22 games; Benteke – 5 goals in 16 (including Europa League); Pedro – just 1 goal in 15 starts. Behind the backs of clubs-giants, things weren’t rosy either: Shaqiri provided only 3 assists in 12 appearances; Rondón – 3 goals and 2 assists in 15 attempts; Mitrović – 3 goals plus 1 assist in 12 matches; Son – 3 goals and 5 assists in 12 tries. Some of those records are fairly decent, but let’s face it: so far, none of the lads mentioned here has turned out to be the new Henry, Drogba or Van Nistelrooy – not to mention the new Cristiano Ronaldo.
But this weekend was something else. No, not because all aforementioned players have finally showed up and proven the doubters wrong. No. As they were having yet another run of mediocre performances, a quite incredible string of coincidences occurred elsewhere – all across the continent.
Or, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all…
— Bayer 04 Leverkusen (@bayer04_en) December 12, 2015
Revenge of the Rejects
It started on Saturday, in Darmstadt. Ex-Chelsea winger Salomon Kalou has helped his Hertha to set up an opening goal against SV98 only to score one for himself late in the game. The 30-years old Ivorian has been instrumental to The Old Lady’s success this season, as he bagged 8 goals and led his team to the 3rd place after 16 gameweeks. Too bad that Chelsea have decided to replace him with Eden Hazard in 2012 – the same Hazard, who’s been absolutely dreadful recently…
Three hours after Kalou’s magnificent performance, the show has been taken over by the strikers. Iago Aspas scored a La Liga winner against Espanyol; Javier Hernández has found the net three times in a hit Bundesliga clash against Gladbach; finally, Stevan Jovetić’s goal helped Inter to trash Udinese at Stadio Friuli. Just couple months ago, those three guys were considered nothing more than a deadwood for the top Premier League teams. Their clubs didn’t want them. Their managers wouldn’t even give them a real chance. Nobody really cared that they costed loads money which could’ve been spent on something (or someone) more useful than their services. They came, they fell into obscurity, they left. And this weekend, they’ve all been quite excellent.
Saturday turned into Sunday and still, there were no brakes on the ex-Premier League players’ train. Shinji Kagawa used to be ostracized in Manchester; in Dortmund, he came from the bench to smartly set up Aubameyang’s goal against Eintracht. At the same time, in Italy, Arsenal misfit Wojciech Szczęsny made a claim to the Man of the Match award at San Paolo, keeping it 0-0 for Roma despite facing 12 shots and 60% ball possession from on-fire Napoli. Less than an hour later, a cross from former MUFC lad Patrice Evra has found the head of a Chelsea’s prodigal son Juan Cuadrado and Juventus managed to equalize against Fiorentina. Again – those were all players considered either too old or too incompatible to continue their careers in England. Again – they’ve rebuilt themselves immediately after leaving the UK.
While Juventus were slowly regaining control over the game in Turin, PSG took on Olympique Lyonnais. It wasn’t that difficult for Les Parisiens to destroy their injury-plagued opponents – but without Angel Di Maria, things might have been different that evening. The Argentinian, considered a massive Man United flop last season, assisted Serge Aurier with a free-kick cross that produced a 2-0 goal. Another cross – and it was Cavani, who celebrated the success in front of Anthony Lopes’ post. The 5-1 rout was complete when Di Maria caught OL on a counterattack and sent through Lucas, securing his 3rd assist of the night. All that while his former position at Old Trafford is being awkwardly contested by Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and flopping Memphis Depay…
The last word of the weekend belonged to Villarreal’s Roberto Soldado. Two and a half years ago, he’s been packing his bags and moving from Valencia to London, to seek a bigger game at Tottenham. Brought to White Hart Lane as one of the replacements to compensate for Gareth Bale’s departure, he might have been the biggest disappointment of the 2013/14 season. After two years consisting of scoring penalties and altering between benches and stands on various English grounds, he’s finally returned to Spain. On Sunday night, the 30-years old striker has dismantled his childhood club, denying Real Madrid an opportunity to catch up with Barcelona and Atletico. As we speak, Soldado is on 5 goals and 7 assists in 18 matches this season. At the same time, Spurs’ leader Christian Eriksen has 3 goals and 7 assists in 17…
Today Tottenham lose at home to Newcastle. Later Soldado scores winner against Real Madrid. pic.twitter.com/SATGLnDHE0
— Footy Jokes (@Footy_Jokes) December 13, 2015
Too Rich to Care
So. What makes Premier League so inaccessible to those, otherwise brilliant, players?
Is it the ever-lasting competition for a first-XI football? During his spell at Etihad Stadium, Jovetić had no chance to win a rivalry against David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Cuadrado had to prove himself better against Willian, who’s one of José Mourinho’s absolute favorites due to extreme consistency of performances he’s displaying. Always considered a back-up option to Berbatov, Welbeck, Rooney and van Persie, Hernández finally had enough of this and moved away to Bundesliga. As of Szczęsny and Kalou – they’ve departed even before any sort of in-squad rivalry happened between them and their successors. One thing is in common here: all these players have not been given any time or real chance to create something on the pitch; Premier League has basically recycled them all.
But that’s not the only reason. After all, Kagawa, brilliant this season, used to be very good every time he pulled Manchester United’s shirt. Sadly, his problem was Wayne Rooney: £300k per-week MU captain, who reportedly has even a word or two regarding transfer policy at Old Trafford. A leader back in the days, Rooney has recently become an uncomfortable burden – a burden United were already willing to accept back in the day, when they offered him a ridiculous new contract. The Americans in charge of Red Devils went all the way through with it because a) they had the money and b) they were afraid that the player will ditch them in favor of Chelsea or some other Premier League club. The magic of supposedly ‘big names’ combined with the growing competition for quality players’ signatures. Rooney stayed. Today, he’s disappointing everyone.
And so do English teams in Europe. Yet another paradox: a single win in Champions League yield around £0.72 million to a Premier League club. A single, one-spot climb in the final table of the domestic competition earns them between £2m and £13m, depending on the specific position. Of course, a club needs much more wins than one to accomplish the latter feature; but in a current situation, where anyone can beat anyone, a single victory could make all the difference between making money and losing it. So when City, Chelsea, United or Liverpool are fielding their strongest lineups for their continental duties – the rosters might be the same, but the level of motivation, at least subconsciously, isn’t.
Besides, the league itself is enough of a challenge. Pace, power and strength: yes, despite the addition of many Spanish, Brazilian and Argentinian players, those traits remain at the absolute top of BPL’s priorities. Which leads to another problem: big, strong, energetic and not necessarily ingenious technical players are doomed to bring the pain upon each other. It’s only December and how many outstandingly gifted lads we’ve seen overwhelmed by various fitness problems? Kompany, Agüero, David Silva, Payet, Shaw, Herrera, Amavi, Coquelin, Cazorla, Koscielny, Sturridge, Baines, Krul? All that, while the referees are slowly losing the reputation of protecting players’ legs: this season, they’ve shown 552 yellows and 27 reds in 159 matches; at the same time La Liga officials went for 808 yellows and 49 reds in just 150 games…
The only man who can be mildly pleased with the situation…
Amidst the chaos, exhaustion and brutality, there’s one man with a plan that could work against all odds. Arsène Wenger and his players will certainly be eliminated from the Champions League by Barcelona next year – but the Premier League almost invites them to come and take the winning prize. Apart from hard-fought defeats to West Ham, Chelsea and West Brom, Gunners have been excellent this season. Petr Čech and the defensive line in front of him suffered fewer lapses of concentration than most of it’s big-club counterparts. At the same time, Mesut Özil has found the form of his life. While the German will be looking to break all-time assist records this season, his teammates simply have to take the chance while it’s there. No excuses anymore: it’s been 4251 days since the famous Invincibles have managed to bring the main FA Trophy to the club’s trophy cabinet.