Exciting new clubs need to hold on to best players to ensure Champions League revival is here to stay

It was a refreshing surprise to watch three Premier League clubs receive their comeuppance in this week’s Champions League matches against nominally lesser opposition who have arguably been more deserving of praise in recent times. While Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City (and Real Madrid, who lost to Borussia Dortmund) have grown accustomed to strolling through to the latter stages of tournaments off the running of players attracted to their multimillion dollar salaries and brand names, lesser lights in Europe have quietly been compensating by diligently working on their player development programmes, respecting their managers’ remit and poaching talents from right under the noses of the giant clubs. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, they seemed eager to announce themselves to the watching world and more appreciative of the occasion of the Champions League than their more illustrious opponents.

There was the irritating sense that Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had arrived for the kind of strolls in the park they seem to expect against lesser opposition in the Premier League, without bothering to give magnificent footballing theatres such as the Amsterdam Stadium and roaring Donbass Arena the respect of preparing with the utmost commitment. Manchester City and Roberto Mancini, in particular, were guilty of approaching their game with the same leisurely attitude that has suffused many of their recent near-scares in the Premier League, and the significant defeat inflicted on them by a vibrant, hungrier Ajax side has been a long time in coming. Arsenal’s emphatic defeat against Schalke should have conveyed the worrying message to Arsene Wenger that he can no longer claim to be miles ahead as a pioneer of sculpting exciting football teams from modest resources. Chelsea’s famously granite stubbornness was comprehensively shattered by the uniform wave of noise, ambition and quality that Mircea Lucescu’s enterprising club have been displaying for some years now.

In the face of these deserved reversals, it was a telling sign of the arrogance of the Premier League clubs and inertness of football’s competitive status quo that British papers should have already been focussing on which of the talents of Ajax and Shakhtar would be next to be plucked by their vanquished opponents. Willian of Shakhtar as good as put out the come-get-me call to Chelsea by describing them as “one of the clubs he was interested in” after putting in a starring shift against them for his employers. The Daily Mail noted that he left the Donbass Arena clutching a Chelsea shirt with his name and a question mark on its back given to him by one of the club’s supporters.

However, if Chelsea represent the best of the Premier League and Shakhtar showed that they can be more than a match for them on their day, then why should the billionaire owner of the Ukranian champions contemplate selling a player that they have helped turn into a star? For too long, smaller clubs in both domestic and European competitions have been happy to maintain the competitive status quo by selling their brightest players to bigger clubs in return for hefty sums of cash. This balancing of the books has neither advanced their sporting or business ambitions, and owners of these clubs have failed to realise that the surest way to grow their brand name is by success on the pitch. By retaining a core of players that displayed dynamism and fire in overwhelming Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Shakhtar have generated interest in their club that could be utilised to much greater financial benefit than any one-time sale of Willian. Rather than perennially serving as a stepping board for the ambitions of others, there should no longer be heresy attached to the idea of Shakhtar or Dortmund taking their ambitions as clubs to new heights.

The Champions League will be richer and more fascinating for it. The suggestion that players such as Van Rhijn at Ajax were driven to exceed themselves in the knowledge that the Champions League represented an audition of sorts to Europe’s traditional powerhouses is an insult to the clubs who nurtured them, and a shrug of the shoulders to the idea that the tournament will ever be anything more than an annual shootout between familiar names. If these players can drive success on the pitch, money will pour into the coffers that can be used to fund more lucrative salaries for them and provide an incentive to stay put. The theory implicit in Willian’s plangent call for a big club to take him off Shakhtar’s books was that the level of quality remains higher in certain leagues. To that the owner of Shakhtar can offer the sound riposte that their club beat the best in England in a competition that already represents the apex of European football. Shakhtar’s success will in turn inspire more interest in Ukrainian club football, and so it is vital for the landscape of Champions League football to be any different than the stale, monotonous state of the last few years that Willian stays put. Much the same could be said of Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund, who has recently been the subject of much interest. The list of pretenders for the final rounds of the Champions League has grown considerably this year, and it is making for a more interesting and vibrant tournament.

Deprived of the opportunity to exert financial muscle to cherry pick players crafted at other clubs, Premier League giants may just start rediscovering their sense of obligation towards bringing through youngsters, and creating teams of hunger and with a collective idealogy. There remains something ineffably exciting about witnessing sides such as Dortmund or Ajax in action, who have clearly been the product of creative ideas, hard work and a collective sense of purpose and are now reaping the rewards of their approach. The likes of Chelsea and Man City can offer nothing so tantalising beyond lumping together star names and pitting them in a yearly Champions League glamour match with another big European name. The continuation of this state of affairs, through breaking up the bright work of many rising clubs in Europe with money and power, would be depressing to say the least.

St George’s Park is merely the first step on the long road to success

With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.

While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.

The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.

These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.

Mancini’s great chance to take Manchester City forward lies in the Bernabeu

Tonight’s glamour match of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Manchester City represents an opportunity that Roberto Mancini would be foolhardy to pass up. City struggled badly under Mancini in a tough group in their first test in the deeper waters of the Champions League, during a campaign that did nothing to dispel the perception that a manager who had failed to replicate domestic success at Inter on the European stage had his limitations. However, if ever there was a chance for a manager and team who are both making steady and impressive strides to maturation to make the final leap to being serious contenders at the highest level, the luck of the draw has given them it. Cancelling out, or even overcoming as tough an opponent as they are likely to face in the Champions League is not beyond the realms of possibility for City anymore, and doing so right from the off will set them in good stead for the rest of the competition. If they seize the opportunity to shine against the best that has been presented before them tonight, it could serve as the graduation of City as a football team and Mancini as a manager to the highest level.

Real Madrid’s relentlessly optimistic financial results beg closer scrutiny

Despite all the newly arrived clubs whose deep pockets are changing European football’s landscape, it is still Real Madrid whose actions and largesse provoke stronger criticism. Younger and older fans alike may struggle to reconcile the club’s habit for preening itself as an institution of history and tradition with its routine practices of amputating managers’ careers, accumulating trophies through spending near-grotesque levels of cash on players and capitalising on close ties with government institutions in Spain that border on incestuous. This is a club that wiped nearly 206 million euros of debt off at a single stroke by somehow convincing Madrid’s city council to spend such a lavish sum on purchasing their training ground, and that once again called on Spanish banks to secure £157 million of public money at unusually low interest rates in a time of recession to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009.  It would not be too far-fetched to claim that, given the amount of public money that Madrid have pilfered with the assistance of Spanish banks in a fifteen-year period, they are directly responsible for a significant part of the economic woes of the people who pledge them their support.

However, while the Glazers’ reliance on English banks to bankroll their takeover of Manchester United has seen the club fall into a logical, cause-and-effect based spiral of debt and struggles to refinance the debt, Madrid’s comparable levels of borrowing have not brought them the same problems. Rather, a club who reportedly took out 300 million Euros’ worth of bank loans at the start of Florentino Perez’s second spell as president have gone from strength to strength, proudly announcing a record turnover of 514 million Euros for last year and that their debt has been cut to 124.7 million Euros. Indeed, despite assembling a team that cost roughly 300 million Euros and having to deal with interest payments, there has not been a single financial year in which Madrid have failed to either increase their revenue or announce impressive profits. The latest revenue sums are, as the club’s website boastfully states, “the biggest of any sporting institution in the world” while Madrid have managed to continue reaping in more money than Manchester United and Barcelona even during a period that has seen them fail to claim the Champions League for ten years. We are constantly told that they have an enormous fan base spanning the world (and, in the eyes of Perez, probably any alien worlds as well), but anyone living in South and Southeast Asia will confirm that there are far more Barcelona shirts with Messi on them than Madrid ones with Ronaldo going around. In the Middle East, where Spanish football is more popular than the Premier League, their fan base is pretty much equally split with Barcelona. So too is their TV rights deal with Mediapro, which earns each club roughly 160 million euros a season.

So, if the allure of their players, their on-pitch successes and commercial draw has not been stronger than Manchester United’s or Barcelona’s at any point over the last six seasons, how is it that they are constantly in a position to declare themselves the most lucrative football club and best-performing sporting institution in the world? One suspects that the continued affiliation of Real Madrid with the Spanish government has seen them secure advantageous terms on everything from sponsorship deals, to loan arrangements, interest rates, and payment deadlines. If this did not have such a draining effect on the Spanish economy and its unemployed masses, it would not appear to so much resemble corruption. Yet as it stands, Madrid’s reliance on money to stay competitive is far more damning than that of clubs owned by sugar daddies whose extravagant expenditure was not sourced directly from a public who couldn’t afford it.

As they begin to implement Financial Fair Play rules in full force, it would be an oversight on UEFA’s part not to examine the sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements Real Madrid have secured, and adjudge whether the money accrued is the result of their apparently Midas-like business touch or more dubious special relationships with public institutions that have been in place since the dictator Franco anointed them his club and began lavishing them with his patronage. It is these murky foundations on which the “history” of Real Madrid, and its first five Champions League titles was built, and it is this same culture that has continued to prop up the club’s status today despite a relative lack of on-pitch success.

Ronaldo’s want of more money is an indictment of football’s cash culture

The problem is that, if it turns out to have been a question of money, he will lose the respect of a significant portion of football fans around the world – and he was not exactly ahead of Messi anyway – because at the end of the day, if Ronaldo feels undervalued at Real, he may have a reason to be ‘sad’ but, if he is only after more money, then his comments are an insult to those who have a proper reason to be upset.

The above quote formed the main thrust of a football article in the Guardian newspaper recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/sep/04/cristiano-ronaldo-sad-money-affection?commentpage=last#end-of-comments), which sought to condemn Cristiano Ronaldo’s apparent greediness in asking for more money at a time when the rest of Spain and Europe are locked in financial crisis.

I think people from the football community who are sanctimoniously deploring Ronaldo’s request for more money don’t realise just how two-faced and small-minded they sound. Every Madrid fan currently lambasting him for wanting a pay raise must have been punching the air in delight when their club lavished 80 million pounds of public money to buy him from Manchester United to start the fightback against Barcelona. Along with him as the flagship signing, Madrid’s squad is one of the most gratuitously constructed – financially speaking – in football, and it is the short-term demands of the fans that partly drives this vicious culture of spend-to-win. If you were looking for sporting culprits responsible for exacerbating the woes of the Spanish people, you would point the finger at Madrid first rather than Ronaldo. Football’s disregard for money is a cultural disease of which Ronaldo merely forms a symptom rather than an underlying cause. He has likely cast an envious eye at what Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero – players whose worth arguably does not outstrip his – are earning at clubs with similarly wanton financial cultures as Madrid’s and feels he is in line with a pay raise according to today’s market rates. It should be the clubs and, by association, condoning trophy-hungry fans who take the blame for inflating today’s market price to such worrying proportions rather than Cristano Ronaldo.

Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.

However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.

Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins).  It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.

It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.