Featured

The Art of Staying Up: Leeds United

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Featured

Joe Hart: The English Exception

With the former England number 1 making a surprise move to Spurs, we take a look at his downfall and what led him to team up with Mourinho.

Embed from Getty Images

As the last days of summer fall away, the Premier League readies itself for its short-awaited return. It has for company such well-worn maxims as “If so and so were foreign” and “But can he do it on a rainy day in Stoke?” By contrast there is little to be said about the English player; very few go abroad, and it is largely considered bad form to talk about their travel troubles in polite circles.

At 6’5, 197lbs, Joe Hart is the biggest (and highest profile) Englishman to play overseas since David Beckham. His signing in mid-August with London based Tottenham Hotspur marked the end of a three-year mid-table journey that included stops at both Burnley and West Ham and Serie A outfit Torino.

Embed from Getty Images

None of these misadventures netted success for the stopper, at least not to the extent to which he had grown accustomed to at Manchester City. His arrival at the Turf Moor in 2018 coincided with a period of newfound optimism at Burnley, who had recently qualified for Europe for the first time. But his participation as a starter was to be cut short after only 19 league games by the recovery of regular goalkeeper Tom Heaton. The previous year spent in Torino had been met with similarly indifferent results; the Serie A side finishing 9th in a season in which he started 36 games. 

To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino’s portrayal of down-and-out coach Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday, “I don’t care if you make mistakes…make them big.” The former England international and Man City mainstay has taken such advice to heart; his unmitigated descent from starter for the national team to out of fashion at Torino punctuated by consistent unforced errors. I vividly remember Joe Hart sprinting off his line to punch a ball outside of his box that was no longer there (having been played back to him by Nastasic). And that was about the same time a crossbar saved him from Andrea Pirlo. So perilous was his time as a keeper in Serie A that the club president made mention of it, saying that they “did not expect so many mistakes from an English international.”

Embed from Getty Images

On £135,000 a week (at least until 2018 when he was signed by Burnley), and fundamentally incapable of meriting his contract: professionally, it’s a hell of a move. Though signing to be the third-choice goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur – probably also a mistake – certainly represents the end for him internationally on a club and national level. With talk of MLS or another move abroad making way for a switch to Mourinho’s Spurs, Hart will surely see himself behind Lloris and Gazzaniga.

Despite the transfer looking fair on paper, this is yet another missed opportunity for Hart to regain his form with regular first-team minutes.  On the other hand, it’s good to see the Shrewsbury-born keeper back at a club fighting for the European spots.

Featured

“The most ambitious project in Romanian football”: The club’s words on FC Hermannstadt

Around a month on from our first piece on the club, TOB catches up with Cosmin Călinescu, the PR officer of FC Hermannstadt, to discuss the club’s rapid rise, investment and the future under new head coach, Rubén Albés.

This article is a follow-up. Click here to check out the initial piece!

Cosmin Călinescu is a self-described “one-man orchestra” at one of Romania’s most exciting clubs

TOB Football: So, what does your role at FC Hermannstadt involve?

Cosmin Călinescu: “I am the PR of FC Hermannstadt. In addition, I deal with videography, photography, social media, graphics, web administration and I’m a press officer. I’m kind of a one-man orchestra.”

TOB Football: In your opinion, what is the secret behind Hermannstadt’s consecutive promotions?

Cosmin Călinescu: “Work and work and work.”

TOB Football: What has Anamaria Prodan’s ownership brought to the club?

Cosmin Călinescu: “In my opinion, Mrs. Anamaria Prodan came with an extra image, an added value both from an economic point of view and from a sports point of view. Planning is the key to long-term success in football.”

TOB Football: Why did you want to work for the club?

Cosmin Călinescu: “I love football! Football is my life! I also played at the level of the third league in Romania. I have been at AFC Hermannstadt for almost 5 years, since the club was in the 4th league. When I came here, I took everything as a long-awaited challenge. I filmed matches in very difficult terrain, I sacrificed time, physical resources, but … I am happy at FCH! It was worth it and I hope to continue this challenge for as long as possible.

I want to especially thank Mr. Claudiu Rotar, the investor who made this project possible in Romanian football. Without his contribution, a special man, this team would have disappeared a long time ago.”

Rubén Albés (centre) has previously managed the ‘B’ teams of Celta Vigo and Real Valladolid

TOB Football: What can football fans expect from Hermannstadt in the near future?

Cosmin Călinescu: “We are a family. We remain a family, no matter who comes or who stays here. It is important for everyone that this club goes further towards good performance.”

TOB Football: Rubén Albés is a big fan of Marcelo Bielsa – are his managing style and tactics similar to those of the newly-promoted Leeds boss?

Cosmin Călinescu: “Rubén is a very, very meticulous coach and attentive to everything that means tactics and, as they say in modern football, man management. All aspects of a football match, as well as those related to the team’s preparation, are equally important for him. He is a perfect professional and a visionary that Romanian football has not had until now.

The fact that he is a Marcelo Bielsa fan certainly helps him, but I think that rather his own ideas are what determine him to become a better coach from match to match. I hope the results help him too, and we, the oldest in the club, help him to have accomplishments.”

TOB Football: How is the club run on a day-to-day basis?

Cosmin Călinescu: “My opinion is that we are the most ambitious project in Romanian football. We were in the fourth division, we reached the top division and we stayed there. We will do it again this season. Let’s not forget the fact that we reached the final of the Romanian Cup from the position of second league team. So, the future is ours!”

TOB Football: Who are the key players at FC Hermannstadt?

Cosmin Călinescu: “The key players of FCH are everyone. The team is the key player.”

Featured

Led by “The Mourinho of Romania”: FC Hermannstadt’s rise and potential fall

The Romanian side have risen through the leagues and have the backing of a former Playboy model. But what does the future hold for Hermannstadt?

Embed from Getty Images

When one thinks of Romanian football, the likes of Steaua Bucuresti and maybe CFR Cluj come to mind due to their domestic success and runs in Europe. However, there is another club on the horizon which is grabbing the attention of hardcore football fans across Europe. 

The story of FC Hermannstadt is a unique one. The club, based in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, formed in 2015, is now the only club representing the city in professional football. The side were introduced into the league system in 2015, starting in Liga IV, the fourth tier of the Romanian game.

As the information surrounding Hermannstadt is relatively hard to come by online, I spoke to Romanian football writer Viorel Berbece, founder of Ziarul de Sport, to understand their ascent a little better.

Berbece said: “I followed FC Hermannstadt’s ascension with sympathy, as they represent an important city in Romania. They were very solid from the beginning of their existence, but also the level of the lower divisions in Romania was, and still is, very poor. So it came as no surprise that a team that had the financial support and the proper players and coach to get successive promotions.”

The financial support Berbece speaks of is that of Anamaria Prodan, a football agent and ex-Playboy model Anamaria Prodan. The model has almost 650,000 Instagram followers and was previously married to footballer Laurențiu Reghencampf (below).

Embed from Getty Images

Prodan, 47, became President of the club last month and seems intent on further assisting Hermannstadt to rise to the top of Romanian football.

But let’s take a step back. Before the interest from Anamaria Prodan and the club began to get more worldwide recognition, what defined their journey to the top?

After gaining initial promotions to the second tier, Hermannstadt’s coach was one of the main reasons they achieved success, according to Viorel Berbece.

He said: “The level of the Second Division was also quite poor when Hermannstadt acquired promotion. But they also had an expert coach for that level, in Alexandru Pelici. With an all Romanian team in 2017, they managed to not just gain promotion but also to reach the Romanian Cup final.”

This is the moment when the club first began turning heads across Romania. Coach Alexandru Pelici had brought in players he had previously managed elsewhere and Berbece acknowledged their “tactical tightness and enthusiasm” to be key in their road to Liga I

Having reached the top division in Romania, however, Hermannstadt began to realise the change in quality pretty quickly.

Viorel Berbece remembered the struggles the club encountered early on, saying: “So there was great enthusiasm in the city when the team was getting ready for its debut in the First Division. But the shock was too big. Mainly because lots of players from the first team didn’t play at this level before, but also because the team couldn’t play at their home ground for a very long time due to the everlasting reconstruction of the stadium.”

Embed from Getty Images

“Then money became a great issue for the club, even with the arrival of former CFR miracle makers Iuliu Muresan (President, pictured above) and Razvan Zamfir (ex- Bari Sporting Director). Hermannstadt barely avoided relegation in their first season in Liga I. They continue to struggle since then.”

These thoughts make the football fan wonder… Why didn’t the club strengthen the squad in a thoughtful and coherent manner? Hermannstadt signed international players such as PSG reserve defender Kévin Rimane (below on the left, pictured with Kylian Mbappe), a French Guiana international and Ousmane Viera, another defender with almost 20 caps for Ivory Coast.

Embed from Getty Images

It seems these internationals simply are not of the quality to compete against the big boys of Romanian football. The club also brought in ex-Portugal youth players Afonso Taira, Cristiano Pereira Figueiredo and David Caiado but still don’t have enough to even think about challenging the top teams in the league.

The club also allegedly have financial issues which could ultimately lead to their relegation, should they not go down due to their performances. Anamaria Prodan, who took on the challenge of leading the club to success despite its debts, recently brought in Spanish manager Rubén Albés, who she calls the ‘Romanian Mourinho’.

The Spaniard has managed Celta Vigo and Real Valladolid “B” teams and claims to be a huge proponent of Marcelo Bielsa. But, having lost his first two games in charge, supporters are already questioning Prodan’s bizarre admiration for the Spaniard.

Sitting just above the drop zone, Prodan’s Hermannstadt face an uphill battle to stave off relegation. However, should they stay up, it is likely that she will pull some strings to bring in players of a higher quality.

On the matter, Berbece said: “I am sure that if they somehow manage to salvage in the end, Prodan will massively change the squad as she represents players at most of the Liga I teams.”

It is certainly an interesting story and one which is worth checking on. Their meteoric rise to the top epitomises the way in which good coaching and squad building can quickly create success for teams in lower divisions. Equally, their approaching decline shows us that work persistently needs to be done and that no team is ever complete.