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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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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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Three replacements for Jack Grealish at a Championship Aston Villa

Despite a double from Trézéguet securing three points for the Villans over the weekend, Dean Smith’s men are still struggling to escape the grasp of relegation.

The Midlands giants sit in 19th place, four points from safety, at the time of writing and are yet to face Everton, Arsenal and West Ham United.

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Relegation to the Championship can be detrimental for top-flight clubs trying to keep a team together and often results in them losing their star players.

For Aston Villa, not only are they facing their prospect of losing their star player. He is also their captain, hero and one of few Villa players to rise from their academy.

As Jack Grealish persists to be linked with the giants of English football, here are three players Villa could buy to replace him if they go down.

Eberechi Eze | 22 | Queens Park Rangers | England

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QPR midfielder Eberechi Eze is one of the brightest talents coming out of the Championship right now. The Londoner joined the club from Millwall as a teenager and began to establish himself in the first team before he turned 20.

Eze, who plays for England’s U21s, has a similar playing style to Grealish but exceeds the Villa man when it comes to goals and assists. The QPR star has scored 12 and assisted eight goals this term, becoming his side’s talisman in the process. Grealish managed six goals and six assists in his last Championship season when Villa were promoted.

Eberechi Eze has the ability to glide past defenders and give the impression the ball is stuck to his feet, much like Grealish. He also has an eye for a pass, completing 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes this season. He also completes three dribbles per game – almost double what Grealish put up in 18/19.

Villa would have to put a fight to fend off Premier League rivals for Eze’s signature should they move for him in the window. However, he knows the division and would be easily adaptable to a free-flowing Championship Villa side.

Arnór Sigurðsson | 21 | CSKA Moscow | Iceland

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A lesser-known star with similar attributes to Jack Grealish is 21-year-old Iceland midfielder Arnór Sigurðsson. The youngster, who joined the Russians from Norrköping in Sweden, dreams of playing for Arsenal so the Birmingham club may be a great stepping stone.

The Icelandic attacker is great at breaking through defences and getting out of tight spaces. Despite having no English football experience, these traits should help him adapt to a fast-paced, physical Championship.

Sigurðsson has also scored four goals and assisted twice but is always involved in build-up play and knows when to make a pass and when to take a bold shot from outside the box.

Sigurðsson is a greater risk than Eze but may prove a cheaper option and Dean Smith has a reputation to squeezing quality out of cheaper players from his time at Brentford. It is clear that Villa’s excessive spending hasn’t seen results improve this season, so building a team with more structure on a smaller budget could be key.

Bradley Dack | 26 | Blackburn Rovers | England

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A safe and experienced option to fill the void left by Grealish would be Blackburn talisman Bradley Dack. The 26-year-old Londoner, who joined Rovers from Gillingham in 2017, excels in a free role behind a strike partnership or loan striker.

He is blessed with impeccable timing, often breaking into the box late to get on the end of a pass. He is also renowned for scoring from distance and, not only that, racking up a remarkable 33 goals in his first two seasons in Lancashire.

The Englishman suffered an ACL injury in December and is set to be ruled out for the remainder of the campaign. However, when he returns to full fitness, Dean Smith could pounce on the midfielder who could be Villa’s star man (and a much needed source of goals) in the second tier.