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

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. 

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Featured

How could Lampard set up a new-look Chelsea next season?

With the additions of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech to compliment a youthful Blues side, how could manager Lampard position his side in 2020/21?

Embed from Getty Images

It is almost a year since Frank Lampard returned to Stamford Bridge. The Blues legend was facing a one-year transfer ban which meant he could not sign any new players until the summer of 2020. The ban saw local young players finally getting a chance to play for Chelsea instead of being loaned to a Championship side or any other team.

Many players like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori have benefitted from this transfer ban as they have embraced this chance and proven to us and Lampard that they deserve to play at the top level.

However, Chelsea’s ban was lifted last winter and they agreed terms with Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech who will join the Blues at the start of the new season. The Moroccan international will team up with the Londoners for a reported fee of €44m.

Embed from Getty Images

Recently, the Blues also confirmed the signing of German striker Timo Werner (above) who played his last match for RB Leipzig on 27  June and became the club’s top scorer with 95 goals. Chelsea are also heavily linked with Leicester full-back Ben Chilwell.

With their two new star signings and a host of impressive names also on their radar, Chelsea are looking to get back to the pinnacle of the Premier League. Here are a few ways how the can line up next season:

4-2-3-1

4-3-3

3-4-1-2

A picture containing green

Description automatically generated

4-1-2-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond)

Chelsea will be a team to reckon with next season and with the youthful energy running through the veins of their players who will be hungry to lift some silverware, Chelsea will have a chance in all the competitions they will be a part of. 

With their squad depth, they can easily rotate and keep them fresh for big games and can have a serious chance of going all the way in cup competitions if the players gel. 

Embed from Getty Images

With the Chilwell rumours looking strong, the Foxes left-back would be a great addition and can only make this brilliant team even better.

Chelsea fans will be really excited as their team strengthens in the correct areas and if they can perform consistently, they will surely be challenging for trophies next season.

Featured

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Featured

‘Outside The Box’ – new episode

I am proud to announce that the first episode of TOB’s ‘Outside The Box’ podcast is now available! The video footage of the Zoom call can be found on our official YouTube account and you can listen to the audio on usual podcast platforms such as Spotify as well as Deezer, Podchaser, Spreaker and Podcast Addict. I am still awaiting approval from Apple Podcasts but I’m hoping we should be live on there shortly.

The first episode features David Astill, an analytical football writer for ‘Total Football Analysis’. David, who has recently become Site Lead for sister site ‘Total Rugby Analysis’ was a brilliant first guest, very articulate, easy to speak to and had brilliant insight into the world of football stats and analysis.

Make sure to subscribe to our channels! Hit the notification bell on YouTube so you never miss a new podcast when one is up!

PS: I said the podcast would be weekly on the show but it’s actually monthly. As you can tell, I am still a little rusty as I’ve not podcasted since March and had never actually used Zoom before this!

Thank you to everybody for your support! Make sure you pop your email address at the bottom of this site’s homepage to get emailed whenever we put up new articles!

Thank you,

George Hartley – Founder of TOB Football

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.

Featured

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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. 

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Featured

Four free transfers Premier League sides should consider

As contracts wind to an end at the turn of the month, which top-flight English sides should consider which out-of-contract stars?

With the financial state of European football hanging in the balance and many unaware of how much clubs will be able to spend, some sides will surely turn their gaze to the free transfer market. 

Clubs are able to offer contracts to those whose deals are set to expire at the end of June. Some players have put pen to paper to extend their current deals until the season is completed but there will still be a rich market and some gems who won’t cost a single penny.

Here, we look at four players leaving their clubs this summer who could be easy business for your favourite Premier League club.

Robin Knoche | CB | 28 | VfL Wolfsburg | Germany

Embed from Getty Images

It can’t be denied that Robin Knoche has been a brilliant servant to Die Wolfe. The 28-year-old centre-back, born just a half-hour drive from Wolfsburg in Brunswick, has been on the books at the club since 2005. 

At the very least, Knoche would be a great squad player for most sides below “The Top 6” in the Premier League. Clubs such as Leicester City, Everton, West Ham United all lack depth at centre-back and Knoche would be a reliable addition to those squads.

Knoche, who is capped for Germany at under-20 and under-21 level, was a regular starter for Wolfsburg before the season paused due to the pandemic. Since Bundesliga’s restart, he has struggled for minutes, losing his place to Marin Pongračić and John Brooks. He has, however, featured from the bench.

The defender has experience of playing in both a back-three and a back-four just this season under coach Oliver Glasner. He is an able passer, achieving at 82.4% pass succession rate across the 2019/20 top-flight campaign. Knoche clears the ball around 3.6 times per 90 minutes – a rate similar to highly competent Newcastle centre-back Fabian Schär.

One could argue that he is unproven as he has never made his mark at a club besides Wolfsburg but, even if he were to flop, the buying club wouldn’t have spent a penny.

Adil Aouchiche | CAM | 17 | Paris Saint-Germain | France

Embed from Getty Images

On the other end of the spectrum, here is a player with little to no experience at the top level. However, all of his youth level performances point towards Adil Aouchiche being a future superstar.

The Parisian attacking midfielder was highlighted by The Athletic’s Jack Lang in 2019 who warned of the dangers of only looking at the youngster’s statistics, saying:

“Look only at the end product and you will miss out on his casual, low-slung elegance. You will miss the subtle changes of direction, the two-footedness, the way he manages the internal rhythms of the game. You will miss the not-so-distant echoes of Zinedine Zidane, a comparison that goes far beyond Aouchiche’s Algerian roots.”

Jack Lang, The Athletic, 15 Nov 2019

Aouchiche has been prolific for France at youth level, scoring 15 goals in 25 appearances for the nation’s under-17s. He has also assisted prolifically at youth level, using his natural agility and pace to shimmy past defenders with a drop of the shoulder or a sudden change in direction.

Unlike some young players, Aouchiche is unselfish on the ball and knows when to make a pass; something which he does incredibly efficiently. The Frenchman is also strong when it comes to free-kicks.

Aouchiche’s only real weaknesses come in defence. The attacking midfielder needs to focus some attention on his aerial abilities and defensive attributes. However, he will only turn 18 next month and so has plenty of time to hone those other areas of his game. If he joins a club with strong defensive players in midfield and at the back, this becomes even less of a problem.

Arsenal have been linked with the teen since it emerged that he was definitely departing the French capital at the end of his contract. However, Aouchiche would also be an ambitious prospect for a club such as Everton as Sigurdsson, who plays in a similar position on the pitch (albeit in a different manner), ages out. Mourinho could also consider the youngster as a potential challenger to Dele Alli in coming seasons.

Wherever he goes, Adil Aouchiche will remain a bright and compelling prospect. Remember the name.

Hugo Duro | ST/LW/RW | 20 | Getafe B | Spain

Embed from Getty Images

Versatility in the attacking third is something which is now more sought after than ever. Many of today’s top strikers, such as Mbappé, Aubameyang, Werner and Firmino have all played on the wing at various stages of their respective careers.

Getafe youngster Hugo Duro is a centre-forward by trade but his control of the ball in tight spaces and his strong pace have seen him utilised out wide on occasions. 

The 20-year-old has scored 11 goals in 23 games for Getafe’s B team but has not been able to fully fledge and move into the first team. Duro is a pinpoint shooter of the ball and his ability to move out of tight spaces may be beneficial if he tried to fit into a Premier League now dominated by fast, pressing sides.

Southampton have been too reliant on Danny Ings for goals this season with the Englishman netting 16 in his 30 games. Ings has been involved in 47% of Saints’ goals this campaign and, with an average of 0.57 goals per 90 minutes, he has been touted for the England squad.

Duro could certainly learn from Ings’ expertise and could ease the burden on the ex-Liverpool man when it comes to goalscoring in coming seasons.

Any promoted side could see the benefits of taking a punt on Duro too. He may not be proven at any top level but Duro could be a great, free addition to a few Premier League or Championship sides.

Mario Götze | CAM | 28 | Borussia Dortmund | Germany

Embed from Getty Images

Certainly the most established name on this list, Dortmund midfielder Mario Götze looks set to depart Signal Iduna Park for a second time. The German switched Dortmund for Bayern Munich in 2013 before returning to Westphalian side in 2016 under Thomas Tuchel.

Götze has endured somewhat of a stop-start career. Injuries and a rare metabolic disorder called myopathy have threatened his career at times. However, the former Bayern man has proven, when he’s played, that he still has the qualities which attracted the Bavarians some seven years ago.

In 2018-19, Götze overcame his hardships to score seven and assist seven. However, this season, the star hasn’t been able to displace the likes of Brandt, Hazard, Sancho and Reus and club sporting director Michael Zorc confirmed his imminent departure.

Götze would be an even better solution for Everton than Aouchiche. The German would slot straight into Ancelotti’s side, potentially in rotation with Sigurdsson who is on a slow downward trajectory. Götze would link well with Tom Davies and dovetail nicely with Dominic Calvert-Lewin in attack.

He would also be a valuable addition to an inexperienced Newcastle United attack. Miguel Almirón has struggled for large parts of his time on Tyneside and Joelinton could do with some extra support to facilitate his goal-scoring abilities.