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The Art of Staying Up: Leeds United

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In this series of articles, we will take a look at the three promoted sides in the Premier League – Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham and how they should go about surviving in the top flight. First up, we take a look at the Championship winners, Leeds United.

16 years after being relegated from the Premier League, Leeds United are back in the top flight of English football. Marcelo Bielsa has arrived in the Premier League after convincingly winning the Championship title by 10 points and are the team most people are keen to see this season. How will they cope with the top flight, will they go down, scrape through a relegation battle or be a solid top half team? Let us take a closer look at Leeds and how they should go about staying up.

Championship winners

After a heart-breaking loss to Derby County in the 2018/19 playoffs, Leeds United needed to do everything to get automatic promotion the next season. Marcelo Bielsa, with an English football season under his belt, set out his Leeds team to be ruthless in the 2019/20 season. Leeds went on to accumulate 93 points and won the league comfortably in the end. They got 28 wins, four more than any other team. They lost only nine games, the second least after West Brom. They scored the second most goals with 77 netted and only let in 35, the least in the Championship. They were clearly the best team in the Championship and they were a completely different team from just two seasons ago. This was all down to one man.

Marcelo Bielsa

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This man is already a legend in the eyes of Leeds fans. You hear stories about him, such as he lives in a small one bedroom flat on the first floor above a shop, the praises he’s earned from all the players he has worked with and top managers in the world considering him the best in the business. I’m not the first person to write about him and his stories such as his three-hour long press conference following “Spygate”, will continue to be told in years to come. A complete football person, one who chooses his projects carefully depending on the club or country, the city and everything surrounding it. He is one man Leeds United cannot afford to lose.

He has transformed Leeds United as a club. Marcelo Bielsa is not a manager who invests huge amounts into the team, but a person who brings the best out of everyone already there and moulds players to fit his own tactical identity. He requires his players to commit completely and the Leeds players have completely bought into it. His Leeds team presses high and looks for quick turnovers of the ball. The players are constantly on the move and the press is executed to precision.

He is completely focused on tactics and fitness and he studies each opponent thoroughly and likes to be as prepared as possible. He is a manager who believes in playing and winning fairly even though controversy has come his way with the infamous “Spygate” incident.

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The game at Elland Road against Aston Villa in the 2017/18 season, when he instructed his players to allow Villa to score after a controversial Leeds goal is a prime example of that. Leeds ended up drawing the game which dealt a huge blow at their chances of automatic promotion. This season, he comes into the Premier League retaining most of his side from the previous season. However, some improvements to the squad and some replacements are needed to compete at the highest level.

The summer transfer window

Every promoted team faces a huge transfer window ahead of the new season. However, with the current pandemic situation, some transfers which Leeds could have made under normal circumstances might not happen this time around. They have signed winger Helder Costa and goalkeeper Illan Meslier on a permanent basis from Wolves and Lorient respectively after successful loan spells last season. They have also completed a move for the highly rated forward Joe Gelhardt from Wigan and have extended Jack Harrison’s loan spell from Manchester City. However, Leeds know they still have to strengthen their squad to compete in the Premier League, especially playing the high intensity way Bielsa wants them to. There are 3 main positions where Leeds require players.

Firstly, the number 9 position. They do not have a backup for Patrick Bamford and will have to play one of the wingers in that position if Bamford was to get an injury. However, it looks like Leeds United are close to solving this issue, with Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno (below) likely to join the ranks at Elland Road this season.

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To further bolster this spot, the club are also looking at Arsenal youngster Sam Greenwood as another backup option.

The next position which requires a signing is at centre-back. It will be a hard blow to take for Leeds if they do not sign Ben White on a permanent basis from Brighton. He is a player who perfectly fits the Bielsa mould, but the move looks unlikely with Brighton asking for over £40million. Replacing Ben White is key and Leeds are looking at various options.

Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (below) from Arsenal are being linked with a move to Leeds. They are young players who have experience in the Premier League and would fit the role well. An outside shout could be Joe Rodon from Swansea. He is a 22-year-old defender who is comfortable on the ball, has an impressive passing range and caught the eyes of many clubs last season in the Championship.

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Lastly, one spot which has cover but needs more depth to it is at left-back. Their only out-and-out left-back is Barry Douglas. Stuart Dallas has covered for him and midfielder Ezgjan Alioski has also played in that position. However, Leeds need to look at getting another left-back who will develop to make that spot his own.

One choice could be Vasyl Kravets from Leganes. He is a fast, six-foot-tall left-back who has a good cross in his locker. He has impressed at Leganes and seems to be have high intensity and high stamina, just what Bielsa looks for.

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Another option is Jamie Robson (above) from Dundee United. A number of Scottish left-backs have impressed recently like Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, and Jamie is amongst those coming up. He is still a bit raw and needs to improve going forward. However, defensively he looks really solid, being good on the floor and in the air. He is certainly a player who could improve massively under the right coaching which he will get under Bielsa.

What to expect

Leeds have learnt from their previous stints in the Premier League having spent massively on the wrong players and ending up in a bad financial situation. Luckily, the Leeds United set-up looks to cater to Bielsa’s style. The Sporting Director at Leeds, Victor Orta and Bielsa work together in terms of building the squad. They will look at players who are committed to the cause, which is what Bielsa expects the most, instead of big names. If Leeds manage to get the players they need in the three positions talked out above, we could expect them to stay in the Premier League for longer than a year.

Survival would be considered a successful first season back in the top flight, and once that is achieved, Leeds and Bielsa could look to establish themselves, as most fans expect them to, as a solid Premier League team, among the likes of Wolves and Leicester City. Leeds seem to have found the right man in Marcelo Bielsa to try and achieve this. Bielsa has taken them home, and now they will look to make themselves comfortable there again.

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The journey to the title: Liverpool FC under FSG

The Fenway Sports Group (FSG), previously known as New England Sports Venture (NESV) was founded in 2001 by John W Henry and Thomas C Werner. They bought the Boston Red Sox, a Major League Baseball team in 2002. In 2004, they broke the famous ‘Curse of the Bambino’ and ended an 86-year wait for their 6th World Series win.

John Henry famously hired Bill James after seeing what Billy Beane achieved with the Oakland A’s by using Bill James’s sabermetrics (statistical analysis in baseball). Bill James and Billy Beane became widely known in the sporting world with the publication of ‘Moneyball’ by Michael Lewis and the Brad Pitt movie of the same name. 

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Since 2003, the Red Sox have won four world series and have been one of the most successful teams in the 21st century. In 2010, FSG expanded their sporting interests outside the U.S., and took over Liverpool FC from Tom Hicks and George Gillett in October 2010. In this piece we take a look at FSG’s 10 years at Liverpool and how they took a seventh place club to the top of English Football.

The first five years

When FSG first took over from Hicks and Gillett, they were paying £340,000 per week on interest on loans. They were not in the Champions League and had a new manager in Roy Hodgson. The first transfer window they faced in January was a massive one. On 8th January 2011, they replaced Roy Hodgson with club legend Kenny Dalglish. A busy deadline day followed with Fernando Torres leaving the club, with Andy Carroll and Luis Suárez joining the club.

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The following season, Dalglish won the League Cup and provided FSG their first silverware in Liverpool. However, they still finished 8th, outside the European spots. This led to Kenny Dalglish being sacked with Brendan Rodgers came in to replace the Scot.

Under Rodgers they faced a steady first season. What followed was the 2013-14 season and the infamous Gerrard slip against Chelsea. Demba Ba took advantage of the captain’s error, meaning that Liverpool’s wait for the Premier League trophy had to go on for longer.  They finished second that season. Rodgers could not replicate this in his third season in charge and Liverpool ended up outside the top four yet again. The next season did not start great either and Brendan Rodgers was sacked in October and replaced by Jürgen Klopp almost exactly five years to the day since FSG took over at Liverpool.

The Financial Side

FSG have completely changed Liverpool around from a financial aspect. Hicks and Gillett had left the club in relative turmoil with huge debts and bad financial errors to correct.

In their 10 years, FSG have made Liverpool a financially stable club not only at the present moment but with a promising future. When you compare their situation in 2010 to 2019, commercial income has trebled from £67.7m to £188m, broadcasting revenue has increased from £74.6m to £263.8m and match-day Income has doubled from £42.5m to £83.3m. These three areas of improvement can be seen through different measures taken by the club.

In 2014, work began to increase the capacity of Anfield by 8,500 seats which opened in 2016. Improvements were also made to the corporate facilities at the stadium. This means Liverpool now earn the third highest match-day revenue in English football behind Manchester United and Arsenal who have bigger stadiums.

These improvements made Liverpool attractive to sponsors and thus leading to the increase in the commercial aspects. Liverpool made nine new commercial signings in 2018/19 alone. Liverpool also signed a massive contract with Nike to replace New Balance as their kit manufacturer from the 2020/21 season. This is estimated to bring £75m-£80m of revenue every season with Liverpool’s red strip being one of the most famous in the world.

Liverpool have signed many commercial deals with regional focus such as a new retail outlet in Malaysia, a real estate partner and a bank sponsor in Egypt, built around Mohamed Salah’s success at Anfield. These factors have all helped make commercial revenue the club’s fastest growing revenue source for the club.

The improvement on the field plus their historic status as one of the biggest clubs in world football certainly helped the cause. This has helped the broadcasting side of it as well. With new TV deals for the Premier League and Liverpool consistently qualifying for Europe plus reaching consecutive Champions League finals has massively increased broadcasting revenue since the decade began. The drastic improvement financially is not only seen through commercial deals but player deals as well.

Sensible and successful transfers

One aspect in which Liverpool have continuously succeeded in the past ten years is to replace big players who left the club.

They began in 2011, selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m and they found a replacement in Luis Suárez, who was the top scorer in every full season he played for the club. In 2014, Suárez was sold to Barcelona for a fee rumoured to be around £65m.

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The following year, Raheem Sterling went to Manchester City for an initial fee of £44m plus add-ons. Then in 2018 came one of the biggest transfers in football history when attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona for an initial fee of £105m, rising to as much as £142m. Liverpool had lost arguably their three biggest players but got received handsome fees, and, most importantly, they managed to replace them.

Liverpool signed Roberto Firmino in 2015, Sadio Mané in 2016 and Mohamed Salah in 2017. These players now constitute arguably the best front three in world football. Liverpool also made major upgrades to their weakest area, the defence. They recruited Roma and Brazil keeper Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, for a record transfer fee for a defender at the time.

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In 2017, they signed Andrew Robertson for £8m from relegated Hull City – a once-mediocre move which now looks like one of the bargains of the decade. In 2018, Fabinho was signed to partner Jordan Henderson in midfield who stepped up to the role of captain when Steven Gerrard left the club in 2015.

Liverpool do not seem to miss Suarez, Sterling and Coutinho, and at the moment have one of the best teams in the world. The credit definitely goes to the club’s transfer board and mainly, one man…

Jürgen Klopp

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FSG went about choosing Brendan Rodgers’ successor in an unbiased and tactical manner. Michael Gordon, the president of FSG, described the process as similar to an investment business decision before taking up a big position.

So, they set aside Klopp’s popularity and analysed his previous roles as the head coach of Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. They looked at his points per game, average goals in a season and the financial impact his teams had on the club. Klopp seemed to be a perfect candidate from am investment arithmetic point of view. Later, when Klopp met with Gordon, John Henry and Liverpool chairman Thomas Werner, FSG were convinced they found the right man.

From day one, Klopp set out to activate the Anfield crowd. His passion, charisma and desire on the touchline are a clear example of what his character is and it matched perfectly with the club.

Jamie Carragher has said that he had never seen a manager with this much power over the supporters. Liverpool fans have taken to Klopp and he has taken to them. In these five years, Klopp has taken Liverpool to a Europa League final, two consecutive Champions League finals and won at the second time of asking.

Finally, after 30 long years, Klopp helped delivered the Premier League title to Liverpool. FSG can be proud of the fact that they could not have chosen a better man for the job.

A New Hope

A bleak start to the decade for the Merseyside club has turned into a fairytale ending. FSG have done a stunning job to revive Liverpool and get them back to where their fans truly believe they belong; at the summit of English football.

10 years after they took over, John Henry and company have managed to end another title drought. Klopp and FSG have brought a sense of belief and pride back to the club and every Liverpool fan believes that the wait for their 20th top-flight title is going to be much less than the painful 30 years.

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Wigan Athletic’s 2013 FA Cup winners: Where are they now?

Just seven years after their famous FA Cup final win over Manchester City, Wigan Athletic have gone into administration.

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The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the club’s finances and they are desperately looking for new buyers. They are currently fighting in a relegation battle in the Championship and Wigan fans can only hope that the situation will not worsen by having to play in League One next season.

This Wigan side is in an awful situation and the club faces a difficult road to ensure it has a future. With this current situation in mind, we take a look at the FA Cup-winning Wigan side and see where they are now.

GK: Joel Robles

The man who started in goal and kept a clean sheet for Wigan was on loan from Atlético Madrid in 2013. He played nine times for the club with his most important performance earning him a FA Cup winners medal. Joel Robles followed his Wigan manager Roberto Martinez to Everton in 2013 where he made 42 appearances over five seasons. He later joined Real Betis in 2018 where he is currently plying his trade as their No.1. They currently sit 14th in La Liga and look likely to stay in a mid-table position come the end of the season.

RB: Emmerson Boyce

Wigan’s captain on that day played in his usual position at right-back. He led them to a FA Cup win and lifted the cup with non-playing club captain Gary Caldwell. That day at Wembley was definitely the highlight of the Bajan’s (below) nine seasons with the club and, after 263 appearances, he left in 2015 on a free transfer to Blackpool. In 2016 he retired from football and re-joined Wigan as an academy coach where he still is to this day.

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CB: Paul Scharner

The first of Wigan’s centre backs on that day was also a loanee from overseas. Paul Scharner (below) came back to Wigan on loan from Hamburger SV in 2013. He had previously been at Wigan from 2006 to 2010 making 145 appearances and scored 14 times for the club. He returned in January 2013 going on to make 14 further appearances for the club. The Austrian retired later that year in September.

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CB: Antolín Alcaraz

The Paraguayan was Wigan’s other centre back on that day. His FA Cup-winning season was his last for the club. He had spent 3 seasons with the club before leaving for Everton just like Joel Robles in 2013. He spent 2 seasons with the Toffees before moving to Spain with Las Palmas for a year before moving back to Paraguay. In 2016, he joined Libertad for another 2 seasons. Now the 37-year-old plays for the record Paraguayan champions Olimpia where he has played with Emmanuel Adebayor.

LB: Roger Espinoza

Roger Espinoza completed the backline for Wigan on that day, playing at left-back. He joined the Latics in 2013 from Sporting Kansas City. Espinoza made 43 appearances for the club before returning to Kansas City ahead of the 2015 season. The Honduran had an unsuccessful loan spell at Swope Park Rangers in 2019, making just one appearance before returning to Kansas City for the second time.

CM: James McCarthy

Now we move to the midfield where we find Irishman James McCarthy (below). The Glasgow-born star played 120 times for Wigan before following the popular route to Everton along with his manager in 2013. He spent six years on Merseyside, making 108 appearances for them. He later moved to London in 2019 and joined Crystal Palace where he currently plays under Roy Hodgson.

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CM: James McArthur

James McArthur played alongside McCarthy in central midfield on that day. The Scotsman played a vital role in midfield for Wigan over his four years at the club. Strangely, McArthur’s career has mirrored that of similarly named McCarthy many times. Both kicked off their careers at Hamilton Academical and both now play for Crystal Palace.

He left Wigan in 2014 having made 129 appearances.

CM: Jordi Gómez

The Barcelona youth product completed Wigan’s midfield trio on that day. He was the only player in the starting 11 to not complete the full 90 minutes, having been substituted for Ben Watson after 81 minutes. He later left Wigan in 2014 moving around England to Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers for one-year spells  at each club. He returned to Wigan in 2016 before moving back to Spain in 2017. Now he plays for the Cypriot side AC Omonia.

RW: Callum McManaman

The Wigan academy graduate (below) was the club’s Man Of The Match on that day, giving arguably his best performance in a Wigan shirt at Wembley.  The Englishman spent eight years at Wigan from 2007 to 2015. He joined West Brom then Sunderland with a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday in between, before returning to Wigan for a second spell in 2018. The second spell just lasted for a year and in 2019 he joined Luton Town where he currently plays.

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ST: Arouna Kone

The Ivorian international (below) started as Wigan’s No.9 at Wembley. Arouna played just a single season at Wigan but ended up with a FA Cup winners’ medal. The striker was among the four others from Wigan’s side that day to join Everton with his manager at the start of the 2013-14 season. He spent four years with Everton before moving to the Turkish side Sivasspor, where he still plays.

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LW: Shaun Maloney

The man who took the famous free kick at Wembley to win the FA Cup (below) completes the starting XI. That corner was his most important contribution in his four years at the club. He joined Chicago Fire in 2015. He was in Chicago for just eight months, before moving back to England with Hull City where he played till his retirement in 2017. The former Celtic and Villa man is now employed as the assistant coach of Roberto Martinez for the Belgian National Team, his former manager from his time at Wigan.

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Eddie Nketiah: Arteta’s first choice No. 9?

Arsenal youngster Nketiah has been showing his value this season under Mikel Arteta. But does this cement his place as a starter under the Spaniard?

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Arsenal finally got off the mark in Project Restart by getting all 3 points in their third game back against Southampton. Mikel Arteta yet again went with Eddie Nketiah to lead the line instead of Alexandre Lacazette, and it paid off.

The youngster scored Arsenal’s first goal in their 2-0 win. Nketiah has started 5 out of the last 6 premier League games for Arsenal and the 21-year-old looks to have won the trust of his manager. So, what does the former Chelsea youth product give to this side which Arteta is looking for?

Arsenal fans will remember the day Nketiah made his debut for the Gunners. He came on and scored with his first touch of the ball in an EFL Cup tie against Norwich City, going on to score the winner just a few minutes later. He became an instant household name amongst the Arsenal fans, who were hoping he wouldn’t be another youth product who would not live up to his potential.

At the start of the 2019/20 season, he was loaned to Leeds United to get more playing time. He impressed in his first few games at the club, with Marcelo Bielsa calling him a ‘complete’ player. However, he was seen as second choice to Patrick Bamford and did not start any of the first few league games.

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Bielsa was going to give him his first start against Queens Park Rangers, but Nketiah picked up a lower abdomen injury which ruled him out for a month. He finally started a league game in December against Birmingham City and another on New Year’s Day, but the loan spell was not going as planned for Arsenal and he was called back to the club in January.

Initially when he came back to Arsenal, Nketiah was not starting many games. His first start came against Bournemouth in the fourth round of the FA Cup where he scored Arsenal’s second goal in their 2-1 win. He made a few appearances off the bench in the Premier League against Sheffield and Burnley.

His strikes against Bournemouth and Everton really showed that he was a born striker with the instinct to score goals. That, coupled with his work rate, meant Lacazette would continue to warm the bench. In the friendly game against Charlton Athletic just before the Premier League restarted, Nketiah got himself a hat-trick, and has played all three games since the restart, starting two of them. His goal against Southampton really captured his value for the team, and it was the reward for his industry. 

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Mikel Arteta clearly prefers Nketiah over Arsenal’s £45m Lacazette who has not got an away goal in more than 18 hours of football. Due to the tight fixture list, Lacazette will definitely get his opportunities to show what he has got, but he needs to prove to his manager that he is willing to do the dirty work and he needs to find his confidence soon if he wants to be a part of Arteta’s plans beyond this season.

Throughout the season, we have seen many young players stepping up at Arsenal, especially since Arteta took over. Players like Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli look really promising and have given Arsenal fans hope for the future. Eddie Nketiah also comes under this bracket and looks like the man Arsenal could hand over the no. 9 shirt to in the future. Arsenal are six points behind sixth place and need a strong end to the season for them to have any chance of being in Europe next season.

With many injures to their backline, Arteta will look to his strikers to provide the goals they need to win games, and it certainly looks like the youngster Eddie Nketiah will the one to partner the captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front for Arsenal in the last few games of the season.