Monday, 20 July 2009

City’s Spending Will Only Tarnish Success

With the signing of former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor, Manchester City have now spent about £80million on players this summer, including the capture of Roque Santa Cruz, Argentine Carlos Tevez and England’s Gareth Barry. These are impressive signings and definitely signal the intention that Man City’s new owners mean business in their threat to storm the Premier League this season. This is not the end of the spending either, as executive chairman at the City of Manchester has already said that City will keep spending until manager Mark Hughes is happy with his squad. A bid for Everton and England defender Joleon Lescott has been rejected, and it has been made very clear by Hughes and the rest of the club that Chelsea captain and fan-favourite John Terry is their primary transfer target. On the arrival of the new billionaire owners their ambitions were made very clear, instantly putting in a £30million bid for Torres, and trying to snatch Dimitar Berbatov from their red rivals in a last ditch offer on the final day of the transfer window last summer. In these financially insecure times it is clear that Man City are willing to flex their financial muscles and cash in on collecting a Premier League winning team. However the question I wish to ask about all this big money spending and ambition is this… If Man City were to win the Premier League this season, or to finish in the top 4, will the footballing talent and achievement of the players be tainted by the obvious kamikaze financial process that brought them all together?

We have seen something similar to this before, in the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to Chelsea before the 2003/4 season. In that first summer they spent over £100million, including the signing of Inter Milan’s prized forward Hernan Crespo for £17m, Damien Duff from Blackburn for £17m, Adrian Mutu for £15m, Veron, a somewhat failure at Man Utd for £15m, as well as Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge and Claude Makelele amongst a host of other players. The following summer, after the first wild summer of spending only achieved 2nd (despite only being beaten by an unbeaten Arsenal) and once Mourinho was installed that next summer saw Drogba bought for £24m, Carvalho and Ferreira for £35m between them, and Robben and goalkeeper Petr Cech cost another £20m. After 2 seasons at the club and nearly £200m spent Chelsea finally won back to back Premier League titles, playing some excellent football and scoring some stunning goals, in the 04/5 and 05/6 seasons. Make no mistake, despite the ludicrous money spent Chelsea became the team that everyone wanted to beat. In an interview Man United’s John O’Shea said that Chelsea had become the ‘new team to hate’ taking Man United’s crown. Yet whilst Chelsea had achieved such success the financial basis on which this team was built lead many people to say they had ‘bought’ the title. This of course can be challenged by saying that it was the excellent football played by the team and managerial talent of Mourinho that allowed all these big-money egos to co-exist as a Premiership winning force and to a certain degree this is true, but quite simply without the huge sums of money spent on the players transfer fees, their wages and also the manager, Chelsea would not have been able to win the league. Winning the title a second time with relatively few additions in 05/6 helped subdue the opposing claims, and also with an English backbone of Lampard, Terry, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Scott Parker, fans had a reasonable amount of time for Chelsea even with the money.

Manchester City will find themselves in this position, however I feel the pound-note coloured taint on the Premier League trophy will be even more visible if City were to lift it this year, and any tactical or technical brilliance on the pitch will no doubt be smothered by the obvious notion that Man City will have bought the title. With the £100m bid for the Brazilian Kaka in January Man City proved that they were willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money for success. No matter how good a player, £100million pounds is obscene. In perspective, that amount of money spread to every team in the Coca-Cola Leagues two (tier 4) would bring 6 clubs out of administration and allow all 24 to survive with a green numbered balance at the end of each year for the next 20. The reported £500k per week wage he was offered could pay for all of those 24 clubs players wages for several months. Manchester City have the advantage that they can go to any struggling club in Europe (for example Valencia), offer them a stupid £40m offer for a player, and the other club would have to accept them because it will keep them in business for a few years. £40m is nothing to City, and thus could acquire the best players in the world by dealing with these cash-strapped clubs.
This move for Kaka also sent out a message to other clubs and players that City are willing to shell out stupid money to achieve their success, and thus Arsenal receive a bid of £22m for Adebayor (even Arsenal’s faithful will tell you he’s not worth that), who is now one of 9 strikers at the club. As much as these players want to play regular first team football, you’re not going to argue with £100k a week while you’re waiting your turn. Thus, despite the obvious ambition of the owners and the exceptional calibre of players they are bringing to the club, every player who goes there will get tagged with Benitez’ ‘Money, money, money’ label that he placed on Barry. For both Barry and Adebayor, who (Barry in particular) could have easily gone to play for any of the “big 4”, Man City seems like a step backwards.

The difference between Man City and Chelsea not only lies in the complete insanity of the money City are paying opposed to Chelsea who paid just over the asking price of the players they brought in, but also if you look at where both clubs were in terms of rankings before their respective owners were brought in.
Despite Chelsea’s last winning of the English title before 04/5 being in 1955, since the creation of the Premiership have never been relegated, and since 1997 have never finished below 6th. Their style of football had always been inviting, colourful and always had a sting in the tale, they were able to acquire world stars such as Zola, Gullit, Di Matteo and Vialli, and were always regarded as one of the top sides in the league.
10 years ago Man City were in the then ‘Division 1’ (now the Championship), having just been promoted from the division below in the worst period in the club’s history. The blue side of Manchester was almost lost underneath the metropolis being built by the red side. (A red side who, I might add, have won the Premier League 11 times and have not once been regarded as having ‘bought’ the title, and whilst people may slam Sir Alex for his alleged manipulation of referees or the fixture list or whatever, no one can reject that his teams show more determination to win the league, and play appropriate football for doing so.) Whilst Chelsea have been a stable, successful Premier League team in the last 15 years, Manchester City have been up and down the divisions, and never finished above 8th in the Premier League since their return in 2002/3. Chelsea were already heading in a positive direction when Abramovich took over, and already had Lampard and Terry, yet City have had nothing better than mid-table obscurity, which is why a sudden rush to the top of the division would no doubt been singularly looked at as an achievement of the financial muscle of the billionaires, not of the players or the staff (which is a shame). Even if City don’t win the League and perhaps win a Cup, or achieve a Champions League spot, they have put themselves in a position where any success will be void of any credibility, and the brilliance of the players will be overlooked and instead people will instantly remark about the money.

Despite all I have said, I still do not believe Man City’s team is better than Chelsea, Man United or Liverpool, and I do not believe that they will waltz to the top of the league. However I think that should they prove me wrong, it will be purely because of the obscene hoards of money they’ve thrown at players that will have bought them success, and it will be to the detriment of all the teams who genuinely work hard to train youth players, scout foreign teams for hard earned signings and graft and fight to become the best in the business. Man City claim their new players will be exciting for the Premier League. A title that has been clearly ‘bought’ instead of ‘earned’, exciting?… I think not.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ponting Delivers Class in Leadership.

So the anxiously anticipated 1st Ashes test is over and England come out with a result that still leaves us with hope that overall victory is achievable, and has no doubt made the entire squad realise that they need to up their game to avoid another ‘escape’, a result that I believe we should not be cheering. Indeed the cheers from the River Taff crowd were more of relief that the golden light of the Ashes championship still glows after England’s flame was close to being extinguished. To have to come from a game behind to win the competition would have been a feat too great for an England side who, as the first test would suggest, are second best to the Australians. The result not only highlighted the willingness and desire of the tail end of batting line up, and the experienced mind of an excellent Paul Collingwood, but also the weaknesses in the English top end batsmen, and our under-estimation of the Australian team.

A lot of time was clearly spent analysing the Australian bowlers, and a huge sigh of relief was expressed by England’s faithful when the Aussies 90mph powerhouse Brett Lee pulled out injured, but what was barely talked about on panel shows and websites was the sturdiness and stubbornness of the Australian batsmen. Ricky Ponting in particular demonstrated the Australian batting tactics in his play, and that was not to be reckless but instead just defend until the right bowl came in which was whisked away for a boundary. A comparison can be made between the Australian batting mentality and a five-a-side football match. In the football match one team goes three goals in the lead, and instead of pressing for another goal, the team simply pass, and pass, and pass, and aggravate the other team into making rash tackles and becoming impatient. You could see the impatience in Stuart Broad’s bowling once Ponting and Katich had got to their centuries. Calm, calculated, observant and malicious was the Australian attack, not worrying about time, making few rash decisions and rarely breaking from a stable continuity. Ponting in particular, took every ball in its stride, he hit nothing he knew would be risky, and instead took the runs when the right opportunity arose, and with the bowlers, in particularly Broad and Swann, becoming more frustrated the chances eventually opened up for some big hits. Ponting had clearly had this gameplan from the start, as the unlucky Hughes, and century winners Haddin and North displayed the same stubbornness in their time at the crease. It was made more clear from his awareness of the fielding positions, and the rare mistake that Ponting made in setting up the field when England were batting that Ponting is a master tactician, and you could see when a (rare) mistake was made his anguish and determination to put things right. Ponting has a rare ability to judge the flow of the game, and analyse where the balls from each bowler are likely to be hit, and whilst he can never be 100% certain, and also whilst there are of course other players and managers who can also judge, Ponting’s calmness and willingness to maybe lose a four, but in doing so learn to put a man in a position that prevents such a play from occurring again. There is no doubt that Ponting’s abilities are an inspiration on the teams, and is probably a huge reason why the Aussie bowlers, who will forever be living in the shadow of the world’s greatest spin bowler, also showed no fear and were willing to test the English batsmen to their fullest. Hilfenhaus and Hauritz both showed excellent accounts of themselves and Johnson was incredibly solid.

So I’ve praised the enemy, controversial maybe but they deserve it as even our captain described the draw in Cardiff as an ‘escape’. I think unfortunately the best word to describe England is ‘obvious’. Of course our tail-enders saved us, but we can’t be hoping for a ‘park the bus in front of the stumps’ performance from Panesar and Anderson in every game. I say ‘obvious’ because there was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary from our players, except the clever tactical performance from Collingwood. Panesar has always been criticised for being too 1-dimensional, and it was true of his bowling in this test, similarly Cook’s attack play in both innings was interpretable. Strauss and Cook both looked panicky in the 1st innings. Of course they were nervous, but they should expect the Aussies to be looking to take extreme strides to get them out early to make themselves comfortable in test cricket back on English soil. Cook in particular’s shots were rushed, and it can be seen by his measly 16 runs over two innings that he was not prepared, physically or mentally for his task of defending the opening assault barrage from the invaders. Cook’s form of late for both country and county has been poor, and he would be the first person I would look to replace for the next match at Lords. Strauss, although a much younger captain than the experienced master of Ponting, also displayed a certain panic that he would not have shown in his pre-captain years, and almost seemed too eager to get runs on the board. These two should be looking to bat, regardless of run-rate, for at least ¾ of the first day, so even if one of them gets stumped that opening defending mentality will exist instead of having a debutant like Bopara or a mid-order batsman like Pietersen having to push England over the 100 run mark. Batsmen one, two and three’s job is to make life easier for those further down the order when the Australian bowling arms and minds get more tired. Of course resisting some excellent Australian bowling, and even more so when Lee returns, is no easy feet, and for an armchair pundit to be saying all this could perhaps be left by the wayside. Yet all England have to do is look at the mentality Hughes, Ponting and Katich displayed, and with some more diverse bowling techniques could perhaps throw a few destructive spanners into a tightly constructed Australian foundation.

Lords is up next on Thursday, and England need to be looking to the fire and ambition shown by the tail-enders in bat for the test. Graham Onions in particular needs to be looked at, after a stunning performance against the West Indies earlier in the year he has proved that his bowling has the character to upset the Australian defence, and also I believe a recall for Harmison to hurl some balls at Australian throats would do well to remove the monotonous, predictable bowling of Broad and Panesar. However changing the bowling should not be the main concern, instead a few days practice of defensive shots and calmness under pressure for our key batters, of which I think Ian Bell should be one, replacing the almost woeful Cook, would do wonders in keeping England in bat and more comfortable against an Australian side who will be more eager than ever, after the injustice they believe happened on Sunday in Cardiff, to upset the English.