Paranoia, backbiting and anger: How Premier League Covid-19 postponements turned toxic.

By Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic

This was the weekend when the patience of much of the Premier League community snapped.

When weeks of frustration about postponements, about alleged hypocrisy, about supposedly gaming the system, came to a head.

The Premier League’s decision to accept Arsenal’s request to postpone their match against Tottenham Hotspur despite only having one positive COVID-19 case has brought simmering tensions to the boil.

Spurs were said to be “incandescent” at the decision, their chairman Daniel Levy enraged, but this went far beyond the north London derby. “This always had the potential to get out of control and now it’s embarrassing,” one Premier League executive tells The Athletic.

Tottenham versus Arsenal was the 20th Premier League postponement because of a lack of player availability this season, all of them coming in a five-week period when the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has played havoc with the schedule. The constant postponements had already led to paranoia and backbiting among Premier League clubs because, as one senior figure in English football puts it, no two situations are entirely the same.The Premier League’s COVID postponementsORIGINAL DATEMATCHDecember 12, 2021Brighton vs TottenhamDecember 14, 2021Brentford vs Man UtdDecember 15, 2021Burnley vs WatfordDecember 16, 2021Leicester vs TottenhamDecember 18, 2021Man Utd vs BrightonDecember 18, 2021Southampton vs BrentfordDecember 18, 2021Watford vs Crystal PalaceDecember 18, 2021West Ham vs NorwichDecember 18, 2021Aston Villa vs BurnleyDecember 19, 2021Everton vs LeicesterDecember 26, 2021Liverpool vs LeedsDecember 26, 2021Wolves vs WatfordDecember 26, 2021Burnley vs EvertonDecember 28, 2021Leeds vs Aston VillaDecember 28, 2021Arsenal vs WolvesDecember 30, 2021Everton vs NewcastleJanuary 1, 2022Leicester City vs NorwichJanuary 11, 2022Everton vs LeicesterJanuary 15, 2022Burnley vs LeicesterJanuary 16, 2022Tottenham vs Arsenal

The combination of injuries, suspensions, COVID-19 positives, COVID-19 exposures and now even unavailability because of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has meant so many variables and the potential for claims that are deemed far less legitimate than others. This is “a toxic cocktail”, the source explains, adding how difficult it is for the Premier League to make judgments that are met with universal approval.

Arsenal’s one positive COVID-19 case (a subsequent case was picked up after the Premier League had made its decision) has prompted almost universal disapproval, however. And we’re now in a position where there is suspicion, mistrust and bad-mouthing of one another everywhere.

But there is an acceptance among many that the issue is not with Arsenal, or indeed any one club, but with the Premier League’s rules that it is felt are ripe for exploitation. Arsenal, after all, technically met the Premier League’s criteria for postponement since they did not have the minimum of 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper available for the game.

And while they did not have a large number of COVID-19 cases in this instance, the argument put forward was that their consistent positives over the last month (11 at the time of the request — now up to 12 — since December 21) has put a strain on the squad that led to the rash of injuries they have recently suffered. This is understood to have been taken into account by the Premier League, which requires at least one positive COVID-19 case to consider a team’s application for a postponement.

Many have very little truck with this argument and across the Premier League’s clubs, there have been varying degrees of rage at the situation. The next Premier League meeting is not until February 10 unless an emergency one is called to address postponements. Some executives believe an emergency meeting is possible given how high emotions are running right now.

There is, it should be said, some sympathy for the Premier League given the monumentally complicated issues that this season has thrown up. Dealing with such an infectious COVID-19 variant was always going to be a challenge and, for all the complaining, the Premier League clubs voted to approve the rules that determine whether games can be postponed.

The question now is whether there is any chance of the rules being changed. This is understood to be very unlikely midway through a season but is one of the issues being debated in the corridors of power at Premier League clubs.

What happens next and how we got to this point form the crux of this very messy situation.

Here, The Athletic seeks to answer these key questions and more in an environment that is increasingly characterised by fear, loathing and anticipated legal battles.


What’s been the fallout from the north London derby?

First of all, Arsenal don’t feel remotely guilty about the situation. They feel justified — they felt very hard done by at the start of the season when they had to play Brentford and Chelsea when heavily depleted by COVID-19 cases. Their request to postpone the Brentford match on August 13 was rejected on the day of the match and they lost 2-0.

Mikel Arteta and Ben White

Arsenal were beaten on the opening night of the season at Brentford (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

More recently, they point to how they’ve continued despite suffering from COVID-19 issues. The most high-profile example of this was when Mikel Arteta and some of his coaches were absent from the bench for the home defeat to Manchester City on New Year’s Day. Arteta and some of his staff also had to self-isolate during the days leading up to the game, which affected the team’s preparation.

On a wider scale, Arsenal point to the multiple COVID-19 player cases over the last few weeks and the knock-on effect they, and the Premier League, believe this has had. Players have had to return too quickly from knocks, and others have had to play through injury to cover those missing, which led to the point where they met the Premier League’s threshold to have the game postponed.

Some at Arsenal also felt the process over postponing Sunday’s game was unduly protracted — taking from late Friday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Saturday before a decision was reached. This, some felt, created more time for a backlash to build up against the expected decision. In the end, they met the threshold and postponement was the only realistic decision.

Outside of Arsenal, there is a suspicion of a growing sense of teams feeling they are “due” a postponement. The refusal to be granted one against Brentford coupled with Liverpool’s successful request ahead of their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg is seen to have emboldened Arsenal to make the request (their position of course is that they simply met the threshold for a postponement). Arsenal’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on December 28 was also postponed at their opponents’ request, and they made no complaint.

From the Premier League’s perspective, this notion of being “due” a postponement is not something that is taken into account. Its position is that all applications are filtered through a range of experts, including medical and football, to see if the club has a case before it reaches the board. The north London derby was no exception.

Tottenham, though, are furious. When the request went in on Friday, Spurs sources expressed their surprise and some at the club felt it wasn’t fair they were left to prepare for the game on Saturday without knowing if it was on or not. As for the Tottenham players, Eric Dier articulated the view of many with a tweet that appeared to endorse the stinging statement that was released by the club on Saturday night.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1482402386022912002&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Ftheathletic.com%2F&sessionId=5153b24fe8d9ae702151aeedd76df1c79d098c1b&theme=dark&widgetsVersion=86e9194f%3A1641882287124&width=550px

“We are extremely surprised that this application has been approved,” the statement read, before adding that “we do not believe it was the intent (of the Premier League) to deal with player availability unrelated to COVID.

“We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule.”

Spurs also expressed their frustration at the fact they had to forfeit a decisive Europa Conference League fixture despite suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak, and when they tried to rearrange it for the following week the Premier League refused, as it couldn’t move their scheduled match against Leicester.

In the end, the match was postponed anyway because of unavailabilities in the Leicester squad but it was too late for Tottenham to reschedule their match against Rennes and they were essentially disqualified from the Europa Conference League. The competition may have been derided but the loss of revenue is still a blow for the club, and the fact it came after a genuine COVID-19 outbreak made Spurs having to forfeit the game even more frustrating.

The postponement of the north London derby will also carry a cost, and it’s been observed at some other clubs that moving the game from a Saturday to a midweek evening in February will be a financial blow to Spurs, with the home team losing huge revenue and adding costs.

Outside of north London, there has been widespread fury at the situation. Most accept COVID-19 and injuries as legitimate reasons for having a game postponed, but the AFCON absences and recently loaning two players out (midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles joined Roma and striker Folarin Balogun went to Middlesbrough) have been particularly galling.

“Arsenal put two players out on loan and then cancelled a game,” says one Premier League executive. “They’ve got away with it because the rules are black and white. They shouldn’t be, but they are. But when have games ever been called off because players are competing at AFCON? It’s nonsense.”

Some executives wish the Premier League had made the point about having just loaned two players out to Arsenal and forced them to play, but they know this is unrealistic because the rules are quite clear. It also could be argued that the development of young players through loans should not be compromised just for the sake of them playing the odd game in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Tottenham

Tottenham trained as normal on Friday morning before the north London derby was postponed on Saturday (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

More broadly, many have expressed dismay at the fact that academy prospects are not deemed viable options even when a squad is so stretched. It’s been pointed out that Marcus Rashford only got his chance at Manchester United when they had 13 injuries.

In Spain, by contrast, the rule in La Liga is that if a team has five senior players available, and can add youth teamers, they have to play. There has yet to be a postponement this season, and Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has made it a priority that the show must go on. Largely, this stance has been accepted by the clubs.


Just how rancorous is the mood among Premier League clubs, and what are their complaints?

The view of one Premier League club executive — that there’s no transparency, no consistency and total abuse of the rules — is shared by many, and gives an idea of the mood music right now. Another is still sore their club was denied a postponement that, in their view, was completely warranted while watching other clubs seemingly get games postponed more easily.

The clubs are united in their anger, though, even if they are coming at it from different angles. For some, there is frustration at the perceived inconsistency of the decision-making.

Southampton, for instance, were incensed by Newcastle successfully appealing to have their match on January 1 postponed. “There were times where we had nine (players) out and we played academy players,” said the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl. “Injuries are not COVID cases. They (Newcastle) had seven or eight players on the bench during their last game. They should still have 13 players plus one (goalkeeper).”

The Southampton manager thought his side’s match against Newcastle should have gone ahead (Photo: Nick Potts – Pool/Getty Images)

The idea that clubs might be gaming the system has caused considerable discord, according to one Premier League chief executive. The bad feeling has spread around the league because clubs thought they were in it together only for some to be perceived as trying to find an unfair advantage.

Another fear club executives have is over the integrity of the competition, with some teams having so many games in hand. In the relegation zone, for instance, a team like Burnley having played so few games compared to its rivals (just 17 compared to Norwich City’s 21) could create a situation where they know exactly what they need to do in the run-in in a way that could be seen to give them an unfair advantage. The flip side is they are facing a fixture pile-up they are not equipped to deal with.

Across the board, the feeling is that there needs to be a higher bar for postponements. Some saw validity in Hasenhuttl’s idea last week that clubs should forfeit games if they can’t put a team out. Hasenhuttl also talked about the need for greater “transparency”, which is also a recurring gripe of some clubs.

In fairness to the Premier League, though, it has been transparent about the criteria needed for a game to be postponed — it’s just that some don’t agree with those criteria.


What are the clubs’ views on testing?

To get a sense of how much paranoia and mistrust there currently is among Premier League clubs, we can also examine some of the gripes that exist around how players are tested.

The Premier League recently moved away from PCR tests to lateral flows, and at the recent Premier League meeting on January 7, one executive went as far as suggesting that the testing by Prenetics at training grounds give some clubs an unfair advantage. There is no evidence to suggest this has been the case, but it gives an insight into how clubs fear they are losing out to their rivals at every turn.

The January 7 meeting was said to be “emotional” and there are other contentious issues around testing at play. For instance, how many staff need to be testing positive for this to really affect a team’s preparation? This can be harder to quantify than the “13 available outfielders plus one goalkeeper” rule.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s recent spate of what Jurgen Klopp called “false positives” ahead of their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal led to the English Football League, which is in charge of the competition, being urged to open up an investigation by some of its clubs.

The bottom line, according to one Premier League medic, is that no games should be getting called off given the size of the team’s squads and availability of back-up players from the youth ranks.

BURNLEY-WATFORD-POSTPONED-

Burnley against Watford was postponed in December (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

There is some sympathy for the Premier League, which is caught in a difficult position. Clubs are demanding transparency, but as one Premier League chief executive points out, this is complicated by the fact that medical confidentiality comes into play.

When the Premier League assesses the 14 players available for a game it doesn’t get the names, just confirmation from the clubs of the positive tests. So, in fairness to the Premier League, it is flying blind to a degree (unless a club decides to name which players have tested positive).

On the one hand, you’ve got clubs asking for more transparency, such as over the weekend demanding that Arsenal publish who they had available, but the Premier League cannot do that because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).


What happens next?

At the last Premier League meeting, a month-long hiatus was suggested but it’s been clear throughout the season that the league want to continue as much as is possible.

If matches keep being postponed, though, the clubs may decide they need to meet sooner than the next scheduled meeting on February 10 to try and thrash out some solutions. These problems don’t seem to be going away — despite a hope among clubs last week that, with Omicron cases declining, the worst of the postponements might be over.

Supporters hoping for rule changes to the postponement criteria should not hold their breath, however. Doing so mid-season is fraught and has the potential for legal action and, according to one well-placed source, the Premier League will do anything to avoid a mid-season rule change.

“Integrity of the competition” is a term we often hear relating to the Premier League and postponements, and it would surely undermine the competition if rules that were applied and benefitted certain teams in the first half of the season were removed to the potential detriment of others.

Some also argue that there is some justification to the Premier League’s rules given that if one of the smaller teams had to face Manchester City with a decimated squad they would likely receive a hammering that could also be seen as doing little for the league’s integrity.

There doesn’t appear to be a big appetite, meanwhile, for Hasenhuttl’s suggestion that January signings shouldn’t be available for rearranged matches if they weren’t available for the original fixture. Clubs who were forced into postponements against their will don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to use additional players they bring in to bolster their squad in January.

What appears increasingly likely, however, is that we could be in for legal battles at the end of the season. Multiple sources have said they anticipate this happening, especially when relegation and Champions League places are involved. There is precedent for this, with West Ham agreeing an out-of-court settlement of around £20 million to Sheffield United in 2009 after Carlos Tevez’s goals helped keep West Ham up at their expense — despite West Ham having been found guilty by the Premier League for breaking rules on third-party player ownership.

There have already been murmurings of legal action when teams have looked to get matches postponed that their opponents did not feel was justified.

With so much at stake, and so little chance of everyone being satisfied by whatever the Premier League does, tensions are likely to get worse before they get better.

(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

How do you value a football club?

By Matt Slater, The Athletic

Imagine you are looking for a new house. You want something modern and you know what part of town you would like to live in — somewhere central and with growth potential.

You are not quite ready to start traipsing around places yet, so you start your search online and you quickly find something that looks right up your street and is just about within budget.

Hold on, what’s this? The same place on a different website for 15 per cent more? Oh no, it’s on this other website for 70 per cent more? Woah, here is something saying the owner will only listen to offers of twice as much as the first price! How much does this place cost? Can I choose the price I like?

Now imagine you are a Gulf state, hedge-fund boss or oligarch and you want to buy Tottenham Hotspur. Well, the club’s price tag follows the same path as your dream home.

In its most recent club valuation report, published last January, global financial services firm KPMG used its “proprietary algorithm” to give Tottenham a value of just under £1.5 billion, making them the ninth most valuable in world football.

But three months later, US business magazine Forbes released its annual list of the 20 most valuable football clubs. It had Spurs in 10th place but for a price closer to £1.7 billion. Pretty close.

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham is a difficult club to value (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

However, a year before, using numbers not skewed by COVID-19, the University of Liverpool’s football finance expert Kieran Maguire applied a bespoke valuation method to all 20 teams in the Premier League. This equation spat out a valuation of almost £2.7 billion for the north London side, making them the most valuable in the league and Spurs chairman Daniel Levy a very happy man.

Same club, give or take a season, three different prices, with a range of £1.1 billion. Blimey, you could buy two West Hams or four Southamptons with that… wait, are we saying West Ham are worth twice as much as Southampton?

No, that would be silly… they are worth closer to three times as much. And we know that because we can apply the best possible method of valuing businesses to those two clubs: how much somebody actually paid for them.

When Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky bought a 27 per cent stake in West Ham, he did so at a price that would value the whole club at close to £650 million. But when Serbian billionaire Dragan Solak bought 80 per cent of Southampton this month, he did so at a price that values the club at around £230 million. Kretinsky, by the way, has built his fortune by spotting value where others have missed it and some think he is the Habsburg Empire version of renowned American stock-picker Warren Buffett. He is no mug.

So what does explain the £400 million-plus difference between Southampton and West Ham?

The first thing to say is all of the club values mentioned in this piece are enterprise values, which is a pretty common concept on the business pages but appears to trip up some football fans and reporters. Enterprise value is a company’s equity value, the cost of the shares, plus its net debt. In a nutshell, you add the debt.

Now, this can seem counter-intuitive, because being in debt is bad, right? You might think you should take that off the price but you would not take whatever someone owes on their mortgage off the price of their house, would you?

The best way to think about enterprise value is you are buying an entire business, not just its good bits. In the example of Southampton and West Ham, the former has net debts of about £80 million, while the latter’s are more like £130 million.

Now, if we look at the good bits, they are both in their 10th straight season in the Premier League, having been promoted together — Southampton in second, West Ham third — from the Championship in 2012. Southampton enjoyed a four-year run between 2014 and 2017 when they finished eighth, seventh, sixth and eighth. And they have also made good money from selling players, mainly to Liverpool.

Those two selling points were probably what tempted Chinese businessman Gao Jisheng to spend more than £200 million on acquiring 80 per cent of the club in 2017. But recent seasons have seen the Saints slip back in the table to the nervous territory between the relegation zone and mid-table. The profits from player trading dried up, too, and Gao quickly lost interest.

Daniel Kretinsky

Kretinsky bought a stake in West Ham last year

West Ham, on the other hand, appear to have climbed the Premier League’s social-class ladder, as they are currently fourth, having finished sixth last season. There has been a big change off the pitch, too. In 2016, they swapped the much-loved but value-leaking confines of Upton Park for the sweetest of rental deals at the stadium built — at huge public expense — to host the 2012 Olympics. Now known as the London Stadium, until someone wants to pay to put their name on it, the venue is twice the size of West Ham’s old ground and with much better transport links to the club’s large suburban following.

In 2019, the last season before the pandemic, West Ham’s turnover was £191 million, compared to Southampton’s £150 million. Southampton have not filed their accounts for last season yet but West Ham posted theirs last month and they revealed the club’s revenue had grown to £192 million, despite playing a season behind closed doors. The gap to Southampton is likely to have grown.

But enough to justify the £400 million gap? And what about the most high-profile Premier League sale of the season?

“West Ham was the one that did surprise me a bit, particularly if you compare what the Saudis paid for Newcastle United,” says Maguire. “There is a London premium to these things, and West Ham have that amazing deal with the stadium (annual rent of £2.5 million a season), but that’s still a very big gap between the two prices.”

The Saudi-backed group that took Newcastle off British retailer Mike Ashley’s hands paid £305 million for the privilege. A steal for a club in a one-team city, which owns its 52,000-capacity stadium and had the eighth-highest turnover in the Premier League in 2020. But an illogical, trophy-asset price for a loss-making team in the Championship that has not won a major trophy for 67 years.

See, a club’s value, like its beauty, is all in the eyes of the beholder.

“Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to valuing a club,” says Roger Bell, the co-founder of consultancy firm Vysyble.

“The first is a relative valuation, where you might say because club X sold for five times its annual revenue, all clubs are worth five times their revenue. It seems to make sense but it can lead to some strange results, as it’s a bit like saying I bought some wellies in Marks and Spencer for £20, so the wellies in Harrods should cost £20, too. OK, it works as a rule of thumb but it can be very misleading.

“The second approach is to make an economic valuation, where you almost do the valuation in reverse. You say, ‘If you’re going to pay £100 million for a club, what should that club be doing to justify the price?’”

Tim Bridge is a director at Deloitte’s Sports Business Group and he is frequently asked to put prices on clubs by clients thinking about buying or selling one.

“Compared to other industries, the valuation approach in football is quite immature — we still don’t have a fixed model for doing it. If we were talking about a ‘normal company’, you would do a discounted cash-flow analysis, where you estimate future cash flows, discount the cost of capital and bring it back to a present-day value.

“But most football clubs are not run like normal companies — their revenues are inconsistent and they make losses — so the discounted cash-flow approach doesn’t work. It doesn’t reflect the intrinsic quality of clubs as community assets and that is why we always come back to revenue multiple as our starting point.

“We typically use a revenue multiple of 1.5 to 2.0 for a mid-tier Premier League club. We’d then look at net assets, the club’s brand value, the stadium. That type of thing. It is more art than science but starting with a revenue multiple makes the most sense.”

If we apply Deloitte’s quick and dirty calculation to the five Premier League clubs that have experienced significant merger and acquisition treatment in the last year or so — BurnleyCrystal Palace, Newcastle United, Southampton and West Ham — all apart from West Ham fit this “mid-tier” approach. West Ham, for whatever reason, get a multiple more in keeping with the “big six”, three to four times revenue.

“You never use one method, you use three or four, but I think you always start with a revenue multiple, then you look at EBIT or EBITDA (earnings before interest and tax, or earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, ie all the bad stuff), but the problem with football clubs is those numbers are often negative, so you need something more football-specific,” says Maguire, the man behind the Price of Football podcast and blog.

Southampton were bought recently (Photo: Wolverhampton Wanderers FC/Wolves via Getty Images)

When he did his last report for the University of Liverpool he used perhaps the only football-specific method anyone has been brave enough to publish, the Markham Multivariate Model: (revenue + net assets) x (net profit + revenue)/revenue x (stadium capacity %)/wage ratio %. Simple!

That formula, which is actually less scary than it looks, was the brainchild of Dr Tom Markham, a PhD student at the University of Reading’s business school in 2013. If you are thinking “who cares what a student thinks?”, you should know that Dr Markham went on to become head of business development for the makers of Football Manager and was a key advisor to the Bahraini group that bought Wigan Athletic. He also advised several Premier League sides on their business strategies.

He came up with the method because he looked at Forbes’ estimates, which appeared to be based on methods better suited to the more certain environment of North American professional sport, and realised they were miles off for European teams. He could see the obvious problems with a discounted cash-flow method (what cash flows?) and he thought revenue multiples were a bit, well, subjective (which club gets what multiple?).

But just to demonstrate that nothing has really changed since 2012, the example Markham used to show just how scattergun club valuations can be was Tottenham.

At that time, it was a publicly listed company, which should mean you can just multiple the share price by the number of shares issued to get a value, or market capitalisation. For Tottenham, a decade ago, that was just under £84 million. But if you applied the Deloitte revenue multiple, you got to £245 million. Forbes, though, had it at £351 million. No wonder nobody has bought them.

Perhaps this is all too theoretical for you, though.

“No one we know on the buying or selling side uses anything more than a simple revenue multiple minus enterprise value divided by EBITDA, or revenue before player trading,” says a source who has invested in several clubs in recent years.

“You can add net transfer receivables (instalments in minus instalments out) to the enterprise value, if you like, but all of our deals have been for less than one times revenue.

“If the club owns a modern stadium, you might go a bit higher on the revenue multiple, maybe to 1.5 x, but in lots of countries the stadiums are so old they’re the problem. Owning them would actually bleed cash and reduce value, so you prefer it if the town owns them.

“The multiple you use depends on how much revenue the league shares. In Germany, where the governance is strong, most teams trade for more than 2.0 x, while in England it is often below 2.0 x. In France, where there have been governance issues, the multiple is less than 1.5 x.”

But a quick glance at the latest Forbes and KPMG lists will tell you nobody is applying such a measly multiple to Europe’s elite, no matter which league they are in. The usual suspects are all there, in mainly the same order, all valued at £2 billion and above, or four times annual revenues.

That, of course, is more like the ratios applied to teams in North America’s professional leagues and what the European aristocrats share with those franchises is a near guarantee against relegation, the ultimate value-shredder.

Of course, a near guarantee was not enough for most of those elite teams last year, which is why they tried to create the European Super League. That star-crossed competition would also have had a strict salary cap, a value-creating mechanism that would have bumped up the revenue multiple even more.

Oh well, never mind.

(Top image: Sam Richardson)

Losing to Chelsea won’t define Tottenham’s season – North London Derby will be better indicator of future

The Athletic

After a chastening week that has highlighted the chasm that exists between Tottenham and Chelsea, the good news for Spurs is that their season won’t be judged on how much worse they are than Thomas Tuchel’s side.

They will most likely lose to Chelsea for a fourth time this season when the teams meet again a week on Sunday, and that too won’t be terminal for this Tottenham team.

The reality, uncomfortable as it may be, is that Chelsea aren’t a footballing rival at the moment. For them to be one, Spurs need to be far smarter than their west London counterparts in how they operate, particularly when it comes to recruitment. That has absolutely not been the case in the last few years, and so here we are watching Chelsea swat Spurs aside twice in the space of a week in what was an entirely uncompetitive Carabao Cup semi-final from start to finish.

It was hard to disagree with Antonio Conte’s analysis after his side’s 1-0 defeat on Wednesday night. “We cannot compare Chelsea’s situation with Tottenham’s situation,” he said. “It’s not fair to compare the two situations. It’s impossible to compare.”

Chelsea, the European champions, are operating at another level to Spurs. Looking at their substitutes bench last night, you could make a case that all nine (Marcus BettinelliMarcos Alonso, Thiago Silva, N’Golo KanteChristian PulisicRuben Loftus-CheekSaul NiguezHakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz) — most of whom were admittedly signed at a considerable cost — would have got into Tottenham’s team on Wednesday. But then they are also in a different league compared to ArsenalManchester United and West Ham, and ultimately it is how Tottenham compare to those teams, not Chelsea, that will define their season.

Which is why Sunday’s game against Arsenal is of such monumental importance. It’s one thing being outclassed by Chelsea, as unpalatable as that may be, but it would be quite another to have this kind of treatment dished out by their similarly limited north London neighbours.

Kane looks dejected after the match (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

On the flipside, all will be forgotten if Spurs can win the battle this weekend and then the war by finishing above Arsenal come May. If they can do that while also managing to finish above Manchester United and West Ham, two more teams of a similar standard to them, defeats against Chelsea will feel like an irrelevance. Likewise, if they get hammered at the Etihad and Anfield, as feels similarly possible based on the evidence of the past week, over the next few months.

This is just where Spurs are right now and they are lucky that two of the other Big Six clubs have been sufficiently dysfunctional over the past few years to be at the same level as them. Had either or both not been, then a top-four finish would feel as unrealistic as closing the gap on Chelsea anytime soon, rather than the distinct possibility that it currently is — for all that may seem ludicrous after being so comprehensively beaten over the two legs of this Carabao Cup semi-final.

Is this being too optimistic about the current situation or too kind to Conte after what was another extremely disappointing evening? Possibly, but there seems little point in dwelling too much on the decisions the head coach made on Wednesday night.

Conte received a lot of entirely understandable criticism from Spurs fans for selecting Pierluigi Gollini over the club captain and in-form goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, but it’s doubtful that would have made too much of a difference to the outcome of the tie.

Gollini was at fault for Chelsea’s goal on Wednesday but Tuchel’s side had so many gears still to hit, so many options to bring off the bench if they needed to and such a comfortable lead from the first leg that it probably wouldn’t have made too much of a difference. Having been asked twice about why he didn’t start Lloris and explained his rationale (giving Gollini a chance and resting Lloris before three big league games in the space of a week — as baffling as that will be to many), Conte pointedly said: “We have to try to think about situations that are much more important than this. Believe me.”

We can probably assume he would have given similarly short shrift to the other selection decisions for which he was criticised, such as whether he should have picked Ryan Sessegnon, who has largely been solid rather than spectacular under Conte, over the, admittedly very poor, Matt Doherty. Or if he should have started Oliver Skipp, who in reality would also have been unlikely to have turned the tie in Spurs’ favour had he been given the nod.

And otherwise, there weren’t really any viable options, especially with Tanguy Ndombele not in the squad as Spurs desperately try and move him on this month.

The reality is that Spurs’ squad is nowhere near good enough to absorb the loss of four important players — Eric Dier, Cristian Romero, Sergio Reguilon and Son Heung-min — to injury. “If we lose one or two players from our first XI we are in trouble,” Conte told Sky Sports after the game.

And in a sign of how inferior Spurs are to Chelsea, some supporters even thought more players should have been rested before Sunday’s north London derby, given its huge importance. Most fans were surprised to see Kane stay on for the closing stages with the tie so clearly over. It is pretty damning: to be losing a cup tie so badly that you would take off your talisman to protect him for a league game in a few days.

But here, we return to the original premise. Games against Chelsea will not be what makes or breaks Spurs’ season. What’s so strange is that despite how deflating the last week has been for Tottenham, the very healthy picture in the Premier League hasn’t changed.

The top four, a target that felt so remote when Conte was hired, remains very much in Tottenham’s hands, and a win against a depleted Arsenal on Sunday would put them above their north London rivals having played two games less.

And who knows, perhaps new signings in January will help Spurs close the gap on Chelsea. But if they don’t, it doesn’t mean all is lost for Spurs this season — even if the prospect of being the least bad of the rest doesn’t feel like that big a consolation.

(Top photo: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Tottenham v Chelsea, 2nd Leg EFL Cup (The Rewenge)

Tottenham boss Antonio Conte admitted his side face a tough task to overturn a two-goal deficit against Chelsea and reach the Carabao Cup final.

The second leg of the semi-final takes place on Wednesday after Chelsea won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, with a goal from Kai Havertz and Ben Davies’ own goal.

Chelsea will wait to see if defender Thiago Silva and midfielder N’Golo Kante have recovered from Covid-19.

Tottenham will be without Son Heung-min because of a muscle problem.

The forward picked up the injury during last week’s first leg and will not play again before the international break, which starts on 24 January.

“He came off during the game and no problem, but the day after he felt a bit of pain,” said Conte. “You know very well the importance of this player for us.”

On Tottenham’s chances of progressing to the final, the Italian added: “It’s hard, we know we’re facing a really top team that last season won the Champions League and in the summer they invested much money to improve the squad.

“At this moment we’re playing the best in Europe and when you play against this type of team it’s hard.

“Despite our problems with injuries, we need to try to give everything and show great desire to fight and a great personality.

“We have to show that compared to the first game we can improve and try to fight in the best way.”

Conte said that Argentina centre-back Cristain Romero was “very close” to returning to action after two months out after sustaining a hamstring injury on international duty.

‘We have no foot in the final’

Despite having a two-goal advantage, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel insisted his side would not get complacent.

“We have no foot in the final, we don’t think about that,” said Tuchel.

“It is another tough match in a tough stadium, they are a very good team and have a top, top coach.

“We are prepared and it is better not to expect too much, we need to be fully aware of everything.”

Tottenham have not won a trophy since lifting the League Cup in 2007-08 and have been beaten in the final in 2009, 2015 and 2021, losing 1-0 to Manchester City at Wembley in April.

Chelsea have won the competition five times with their last success coming seven years ago when they beat Spurs 2-0 in the final.

Tuchel backs back-up goalkeeper

Tuchel will be without goalkeeper Edouard Mendy as he is with Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations, meaning Kepa Arrizabalaga is set for a spell in goal.

“Everyone had trust in Kepa once he needed to play and I felt the same from him,” added Tuchel.

“He does not need to show what he is capable of in these 90 minutes, we trust him and it is not easy in his position.

“I am so happy to have him. There is genuine trust and I’m happy he can show it because he is absolutely ready to show it.”

BBC Sport

For the umpteenth time – why haven’t Spurs signed another striker?

By Charlie, The Athletic

And so here we are again. Asking once more: How can it be that Harry Kane is Spurs’ only senior striker?

It’s been a familiar lament over the last few years — ever since Fernando Llorente’s departure in the 2019-20 pre-season, either side of Carlos Vinicius’ eight months on loan from Benfica last season.

On Sunday, the issue was laid bare once more in embarrassing fashion.

Deciding that Kane needed a rest, head coach Antonio Conte was forced to start with attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Bryan Gil up front against Morecambe, currently in the relegation places of English football’s third tier, in the FA Cup’s third round.

Dele and Gil looked understandably unsure of what they were meant to be doing that far up the pitch and after 69 minutes of toiling ineffectively were replaced by Kane and Lucas Moura, with Spurs losing 1-0 to their League One guests.

Kane and Moura both duly scored, Spurs won 3-1, setting up another home tie next month against Brighton, and the crisis was averted.

Tottenham

Kane and Moura came on to save the day with Spurs trailing against League One’s Morecambe (Photo: Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

But it’s a situation unbecoming of a club with Champions League aspirations. Kane has had injury issues previously and shouldn’t be required to play every game in the way he is currently. Doing so feels like asking for trouble but, as the Morecambe game demonstrated, what choice does Conte have?

This was, in theory, the perfect opportunity to rest Kane between the two legs of a Carabao Cup semi-final against Chelsea and ahead of next weekend’s north London derby. Especially off the back of a busy festive period in which he played all but 26 minutes of Spurs’ five league and cup matches in 15 days.

Instead, Kane had to play the last 20 minutes plus four minutes of added time here, and, with attacking partner Son Heung-min already injured (himself all too rarely rested and really the only genuine alternative up front), will barely get any time off between now and the end of January at the earliest.

The absence of a replacement striker in the first-team squad also partly explains why Spurs are no longer in Europe this season.

When Nuno Espirito Santo gave Kane a rest for the Europa Conference League trip to Vitesse Arnhem in October with an eye on the Sunday’s trip to West Ham, Dane Scarlett, exciting but not quite ready for senior football at 17, barely got a kick in a 1-0 defeat. Tottenham were similarly blunt after Kane was taken off early in the second half of the 2-2 draw at Rennes the previous month in the same competition three days before a league meeting with Chelsea.

Many Spurs fans will not lament exiting UEFA’s third tier club competition, but the situation feels all the more ridiculous given that the club did briefly address the issue last season with the loan signing of Vinicius.

The Brazilian didn’t make a huge impact but he still scored 10 goals across all competitions and allowed Kane to be rested for a handful of games that he would likely this season have been required for.

We don’t know if there’s a direct correlation but Kane ended up missing just three league games in 2020-21, scoring 23 times and racking up 14 assists, while starting less than half the 18 domestic cup and European matches. To go into this season without a Vinicius equivalent felt like a major oversight, or an overestimation of Scarlett’s readiness to play the back-up striker role.

A secondary issue with having to improvise and ask the likes of Dele and Gil to play out of position is that you’re then compromising their opportunities to impress.

Dele struggled badly against Morecambe, but he can hardly be blamed for that and would have benefitted far more from playing in his proper position and having the chance to try and rebuild some confidence.

Likewise Gil, who has looked a threat in his debut season when stationed in his actual position on the wing, endured what felt like a wasted afternoon attempting to operate centrally alongside someone who had as little idea as he did about playing as a striker.

The fact that the transfer window is open makes the issue feel even more pertinent, and yet it will not be easy for Spurs to bring someone in before at closes at 11pm on Monday, January 31.

Their priority is signing a right wing-back, and there’s confidence that a deal can be done for Adama Traore of Wolves, but unless Spurs can move players on it will be hard to find the funds to sign a striker. And it only becomes more difficult to shift some of those fringe players when their opportunities to impress come in a striker-less team that looks as incoherent as Tottenham did on Sunday and have done for pretty much the entire season whenever Kane has been absent.

So the likelihood is Spurs will rub along without a Kane replacement for the rest of the season.

Already out of Europe and with the fixture backlog hopefully cleared before too long, maybe they will get away with it.

But just getting away with it doesn’t feel like a particularly sustainable strategy. It was how things played out against Morecambe, but those first 70 minutes were another reminder of how bleak things look without Kane.

There have been far too many over the last few years.

(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Chelsea v Tottenham, Carabao Cup 1st leg

Tottenham boss Antonio Conte says he will be emotional as he returns to old club Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg (Wednesday 19:45 GMT).

Conte, who was appointed by Spurs in November, managed Chelsea from 2016 to 2018, winning the Premier League and FA Cup, and returns for the first time.

“I spent two amazing seasons, I created a lot of friendships at the club,” Conte said.

“I thank Chelsea because they gave me the possibility to work in England.”

The Italian added: “Now, I’m the manager of Tottenham and I want to give this club 100% and more to try to improve the team.

“It’ll be good and for sure I’ll have emotion to come back to Stamford Bridge.”

Spurs have fresh Covid-19 concerns, but Conte, who was waiting for the results of some of his players’ tests, did not say who could miss out.

Cristian Romero, Ryan Sessegnon (both hamstring) and Steven Bergwijn (calf) are all injured.

Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku could return, after apologising for an interview saying he was not happy at the club.

He was dropped for Sunday’s 2-2 Premier League draw with Liverpool but returned to training after talks with boss Thomas Tuchel.

Trevoh Chalobah is out injured and fellow-centre back Andreas Christensen is a doubt, but striker Timo Werner could feature after a few weeks out.

“Timo trained yesterday,” said Tuchel on Tuesday. “We have one more session to go and he feels much better, which is a really good sign.

“He took part in full training, at full intensity and had no reaction at all. If today’s training goes well for him, then we will look to have him on the bench and maybe give him some minutes.”

The second leg of the tie is on Wednesday, 12 January at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with the winner facing Arsenal or Liverpool in the final.

The only people biased in the referee debate are us fans.

By Stuart James, The Athletic

“Mike Dean is one of the worst referees in the history of world football, to me, and one of the worst men to have ever lived.”

The person at the other end of the phone is a passionate but measured and mild-mannered football supporter — certainly not the sort to spend a game gratuitously effing and blinding at anyone and everyone. Put it this way, I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with him at matches and found myself cursing a hell of a lot more than him… thinking about it, I’m not sure that counts for much.

Anyway, I guessed what would happen if I pressed his buttons with Mike Dean on Sunday morning and asked him to tell me what he thinks of the man. The messages kept coming, together with the incidents, the year of the games — 2009, 2011 and 2017 — and the footage. “There are more, but they’re the big ones,” he added, after reeling off stories about penalties and red cards.

Dean, in short, is biased against his club, in the same way that Stuart Attwell is biased against Arsenal for not giving a penalty against Manchester City on Saturday. Actually, it turns out via a little bit of research that Dean is biased against Arsenal as well, and Leeds too.

Attwell angered Arsenal for giving Manchester City a penalty (Photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Kevin Friend is biased against Aston Villa for disallowing a goal at Crystal Palace. Anthony Taylor’s performance in the 2020 FA Cup final was confirmation that he is biased against Chelsea. As for Paul Tierney, he’s biased against Liverpool. Martin Atkinson is biased against Manchester United — Sir Alex Ferguson was once handed a five-match ban for saying that he “feared the worst” after hearing that Atkinson was appointed to take charge of a Premier League game against Chelsea.

It’s important to point out that Taylor is also biased against Manchester City because, according to Twitter, he’s a Manchester United fan. Actually, that outrages Liverpool supporters as well for obvious reasons and means that Taylor is also biased against them. Mark Clattenburg was biased against Everton because, apparently, he’s a Liverpool fan. Clattenburg was also biased against Crystal Palace.

The list goes on and on and, truth be told, it’s all a bit ridiculous. We — football fans — are bonded by our blindness. Put our club allegiances and football’s tribalism aside for a moment, and we’re all united in the belief that every referee is against us, even when our opponents feel the same way.

Human error is fine when it comes to one of our own players missing a gilt-edged chance — we can gloss over that because it doesn’t suit the narrative after a defeat — but if a referee makes a mistake, or is embroiled in some kind of controversy, it doesn’t take long for it to turn into a conspiracy theory that ends up with an official being vilified for having a personal vendetta against our club. Or, to put it another way, they’re biased.

Three years on, I still find it hard to forgive Andre Marriner for ruining an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City by giving a dubious penalty against my team and allowing an offside goal to stand. Marriner (also biased against Wolverhampton Wanderers, by all accounts) has been back to Swansea once since, for a league game that was played behind closed doors, and I’d convinced myself in the build up to prepare for the worst. As it happens, we won 2-0, which, naturally, changes nothing in my eyes.

The reality is that we only see what we want to see when our own team is playing, and in the case of Arsenal on Saturday that means brushing aside Granit Xhaka being a danger to his own team in his penalty area (something that he has form for) by stupidly pulling Bernardo Silva’s shirt, or Gabriel losing his cool and letting his team down.

What about Ederson’s challenge on Martin Odegaard, I hear you say? Why didn’t VAR intervene on that decision too? The analysis on Match of the Day on Saturday night showed just how difficult that decision was to call. Personally, I thought it was a penalty at the time and couldn’t understand why Attwell wasn’t asked to look at the incident pitchside.

Jota felt he should have had a penalty at Tottenham (Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

After watching it over and over again since, and looking at one angle in particular on Match of the Day, I’m not so sure. Either way, it takes quite a leap to suggest that Attwell chose not to point to the spot in the first instance because of some sort of inherent dislike for Arsenal.

Step back from the emotion of a game involving your own team, watch a match through a neutral lens, and it’s a totally different experience; you might even feel sympathy for a referee or the VAR. What do we actually expect from them? Consistency is the obvious answer, but consistency implies that decisions can somehow be grouped together. Was Ederson’s challenge on Odegaard exactly the same as Xhaka’s challenge on Bernardo Silva?

The mind goes back to a Zoom call that The Athletic hosted with Michael Oliver six weeks ago, when the referee was asked by a 13-year-old wannabe referee about VAR and its impact on the game and officials. “People thought it was going to be utopia and everything was going to be fixed and everything was going to be perfect,” Oliver, the leading Premier League referee, said. “It was never going to be that because you’ve always got an area of subjectivity to it — the VAR’s opinion looking at replays. But you’ve got a higher likelihood of getting things right.”

None of this is to say that referees are beyond criticism or that they don’t have bad games; of course they do. Some decisions are unfathomable. For what it’s worth, I couldn’t understand how Diogo Jota didn’t get a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight ago or why Harry Kane escaped a red card in the same game.

But trying to put that, or any of these decisions, down to biased refereeing… the only people who are biased in all of this are people like you and me — the supporters.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

The Five Kingdoms of Football

From John Miller, The Athletic

You wake to a whistle blowing in your ear. Behind you lies the wreckage of your ship and the last 10 of your soaked and bedraggled men. In front of you is a craggy, sad-eyed Glaswegian wearing a jacket embroidered with crossed hammers on the breast. He blasts his whistle again and hurls something round at your head.

“What are ye waiting for, lad?” he yells. “Put it into the mixer!”

“The what?”

“Shut yer pus and put it in the mixer, ye numpty,” he says, scooping up the round thing from the sand and throwing it at you again. This time it bounces off your forehead and lands in your lap. The grooved surface looks like a Day-Glo leopard pelt decorated with cryptic runes: a purple lion’s head, a strange swoosh.

It’s pretty clear the guy isn’t going to knock it off with the whistle until you put his ball somewhere, so you struggle to your feet and march your men up the cold grey beach to a road. A sign pointing left says “ROUTE ONE”. To the right, a snowy plain stretches off toward distant mountains.

As you’re trying to figure out which way this mixer might be, the Scotsman sneaks up and starts blowing his whistle practically inside your skull, which really isn’t as helpful as he seems to think it is. You start to jog in the direction of the snow, hoping it will be too cold for him to follow.

“The Counter Kingdom, is it? You’ll be wanting this then!” He lobs a scroll at one of your men as you flee, but you’re too afraid to slow down and unroll it.


The Counter Kingdom

A week’s march leads your squad across a frozen tundra dotted with igloos. You show the locals your leopard ball and they kick it around clumsily on the ice. No one appears to know how to put it in the mixer, if they even understand what you’re asking about — it’s hard to tell. They speak in inscrutable tongues: Italian, Spanish, Broad Norfolk, Black Country.

Frankly, these people seem less interested in playing with the ball than in keeping you from kicking it, which is a little weird, but as long as you don’t get too close they’re a pretty peaceful bunch.

Farther up the snowy coast you meet a druid. Actually, he calls himself a “football data analyst” — more impenetrable dialect from the locals, but in English, it seems to mean druid or mage or something. He’s carrying enchanted parchments painted with numbers and colourful shapes. You catch a glimpse of one that sort of looks like a pizza.

The Counter Kingdom is at war, the druid tells you, against not one rival sovereign but four. The Five Kingdoms have always been at war. He says no one remembers exactly how it started but the whole conflict has to do with a ball.

“This one?” you say, fishing the Scotsman’s ball from your bag.

The colour drains from the druid’s face. You’re not sure he has ever kicked this thing in his life.

“That’s the one,” he says. “Put that down, come look at this.”

As he spreads one of his parchments on a rock, you realise it’s a map. The Five Kingdoms of Football are all there: the Counter Kingdom in snowy white; the dirt brown End-to-End Kingdom to the northwest; and beyond that, farther north, the golden Controlled Kingdom. Your ship must have run aground near the border with the vast grey Bunker Kingdom, which dwarfs the tiny red Launch & Squish Kingdom on a volcanic south-western peninsula.

The druid explains that this entire land was created once upon a time by casting UMAP dimension reduction and Gaussian mixture models clustering algorithms on a sacred book known as FBref, which sorted the many peoples according to their customs with and without the ball. Tribes that behave similarly to one another are cursed to live in nearby towns, though the kingdoms’ global arrangement means nothing. You snort at his magical mumbo jumbo and shove him out of the way to get a closer look at your corner of the map.

There’s an awful lot of ground to cover here if you’re going to find this so-called mixer. You think about asking the druid for directions but he’s shuffling through his parchments again, mumbling something about attacking third touches and progressive pass yards and pressures per 100 actions. Worried about what kind of spell he might be casting, you hurriedly roll up his map and slip away.

When you stop to secure the stolen map, you discover something else in your bag’s parchment pocket: the scroll the Scotsman threw at you. It appears to be a record of the Counter Kingdom’s cultural tendencies:

Fortunately, there are notes on the back of the parchment that explain what this stuff means. Three green dots next to passing accuracy means they’re about average at kicking the ball to each other, which is a generous description of what you saw back in the igloo villages. But five red dots on the other side of the same “stat” — a word you’ll need to remember in this peculiar kingdom, apparently — means their opponents on the battlefield kick it to each other more successfully. No wonder the ice people didn’t like you having the ball.

Careful study of some other stats suggests that this is a feeble kingdom. They like to attack via through-balls, which you gather is a good thing, but also via crossing, which you suspect is not. They pass straight and long and wide; their opponents pass short. They press infrequently and poorly; their opponents do it often and well. They dribble too much. They lose the ball a lot. Must be all that time on the ice. Most damning of all is a stat called “field tilt”, which shows that the Counter Kingdom fights defensive battles. Whatever the mixer is, you’re pretty sure you won’t find it here.

You march your men south, past a circle of tiny French-speaking villages that are awfully hard to tell apart, and hang a right at Spezia to enter the Bunker Kingdom.


The Bunker Kingdom

A messenger greets you at the border, bowing deeply as he recites that he was dispatched to the east a fortnight ago by his glorious chieftain, Sir Moyesy of West Ham, to convey this scroll to the learned—

“Wait, hang on, you mean the Scotsman? The guy with the whistle?”

“Oh cool, yeah, you met him,” says the messenger, visibly relaxing. “Anyway, here’s the scroll.”

At first glance, it’s hard to tell much difference from the Counter Kingdom. Here, too, the natives are bad at kicking the ball to each other, bad at pressing, bad at getting out of their defensive third (the foreign military jargon is already starting to come easily to you). The distinguishing characteristic of the Bunker clans seems to be that they kick the ball even worse than their neighbours — higher, longer, and faster, with little regard for accuracy. The upshot is they carry the ball less and get called offside more, a term the notes on the back are a little fuzzy on, but it sounds like having a scout captured behind enemy lines?

“We’re not all bad, you know,” says the messenger.

You’d forgotten he was still here, to be honest, but you nod and smile politely.

“No, seriously. Some of us are actually pretty good at fighting. Like my city, for one, or some of the Germans up by the lake,” he says. “This game’s all in the details.”

According to the parchment map, it looks like the kid’s right — this is a big kingdom, carved into distinct territories by the spiky Long Range. You’ll have to pick your path carefully.

Nights in Genoa and Hertha are uninspiring, to say the least. The troops at Everton seem better trained but hopelessly demoralised. As you continue on your way, you realise you’ve made a terrible mistake by not turning north at Dyche’s Peak, toward those lake fortresses the messenger told you about.

The mountain trail opens onto the coastal Route One. It’s a desolate, windswept place where few of the half-feral residents seem to have any better idea than you what to do with the ball. You try to kick it to the guards at Cadiz and they run away screaming, dropping their weapons in the snow.

The next day, as you and your men struggle through a blizzard, you spy a pale man with a red goatee stomping around in nothing but a shirt and tie, grinning like a maniac.

Too long on Route One would drive anyone insane. This can’t be the way to the mixer, can it?


Launch & Squish Kingdom

Eventually, the ashen ground of the Bunker Kingdom gives way to cracked earth singed by subterranean fire — or maybe you’re smelling the actual bonfires from a ring of barbarian camps up ahead. They’re just as terrified of your ball as the Route One heathens were, but here you sense a clearer plan of attack. True, the plan seems to involve inflicting wanton violence on anything that moves, but it is a plan.

They’re happy enough to give you their kingdom’s scroll; it doesn’t really feel like they’re all that big on literacy around here.

These tiny Spanish tribes — Granada, Alaves, Getafe, Osasuna — have survived in inhospitable conditions by fighting differently than other kingdoms. It’s clear you’re still on Route One, but unlike Bunker and Counter villages, these barbarians press and foul freely. The style isn’t always that effective at keeping the ball away, though that seems to be the general idea; it is, however, extremely effective at making opponents act like Launch & Squish tribes themselves. When everyone fights dirty, the barbarians win.

The last encampment is bigger than the others. It’s ruled by a warlord named Bordalas, whose name you recognise from your map. Must be a big deal around here. By bribing some soldiers with wine, you learn that Bordalas recently sacked a once-proud city, Valencia, and dragged everything his horde could carry back to his homeland.

“Funny thing is,” the soldier said, “we’re better off for it.” You realise to your horror that you’re standing in what’s left of Valencia. It looks strong enough surrounded by sharp wooden stakes, but this isn’t the place you’re searching for.


The End-to-End Kingdom

Your men are all too happy to escape the harsh southern territories into the milder End-to-End Kingdom. This land will take weeks to cross, but it’s mostly empty, split in half by the vast Valley of Meh and the Mid-Table Mesa. You decide to pitch camp and send out scouts.

When they return, it’s hard to believe they’re describing the same place. The scouts who went east tell of peaceful towns around the Featureless Forest that seem to be perfectly average in nearly every way. The scouts who followed the west coast come back haggard and exhausted after being chased through the hills by tribes that hunt in packs for sport. Your smartest lieutenant barely made his escape from Leeds by weaving through the gnarled petrified forest of the Bielsa Burnout and every once in a while tossing a ball to his pursuers, which seemed to confuse them.

Funny thing is, the kingdom’s two competing belief systems — passing in the east, pressing in the west — seem to be equally mediocre on the battlefield. Neither side of the kingdom can stay on the attack consistently. Despite their relative wealth and power, these cities seem unwilling or unable to share ideas from one coast to the other that might spark some kind of cultural enlightenment.

The result is — well, you can see it on the scroll one of your scouts brought back…

This kingdom is perfectly average in almost every way. Wherever the mixer is, it must lie farther north, among the cities of gold.


The Controlled Kingdom

After a long trek north through the Half-Space, you camp outside the walls of a city called Milan that must once have been glorious. Your troops haul water from the burbling Sacchi Spring, and as you drink deeply, these strange words you’ve been puzzling over ever since you washed up on these shores — passing, pressing, carrying, build-up, offside, crossing, closing down — all start to make sense together. This must be the kingdom you’ve been looking for.

Once again, your scouts dispatched to different coasts come back with pretty different ideas of what this place is all about. This time, though, there seems to be some knowledge-sharing going on. The more civilised metropolises to the east — ArsenalManchester United, Atletico Madrid, a handful of Italian giants under the Cliffs of Coverciano — can do a decent imitation of defence when they’re not passing circles around opponents. The Visigoths to the west — Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Dortmund, Leipzig — are as ferocious with the ball as without it.

This kingdom is very good at what it does:

Unlike in the lesser kingdoms, citizens here are careful with the ball and carefully organised without it. You notice that they score on the lower end of the scale not only for the height and length of their passes but also for width — they don’t hit switches or crosses much, which seems to help keep them tight for more successful aggressive defending. They rarely lose the ball from loose passes or touches, but when they do, they win it back faster than anyone.

If there is any crack in the Controlled Kingdom’s armour, it’s those through-balls and close offside calls that come with sky-high field tilt numbers. When they can’t win the ball, the only weapon opponents have to fight back with is space.

Leaders around here seem like they know a thing or two. Surely someone can fill you in on this mixer you’re supposed to put your ball into.

You decide to march your squad not east or west but north instead, to the glamorous-sounding Gold Coast. You cross Michels Meadow, a place of indescribable beauty after so many weeks in the gloomy Bunker and Counter kingdoms. You stop at Cruyff Chapel, which locals report has been a little neglected ever since Barcelona moved its camp out by the raiding tribes.

As you crest Bald Fraud Hill, you can see three cities of unimaginable wealth beside the sea. The two off to the east, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, look shiny but slightly shoddy in their construction, like an Atlantic City casino developer’s idea of luxury. But the one closest to you, Manchester City, is so sleek, so elegant and modern — so perfect, really — that it almost hurts to look at.

The city’s prince is a beloved eccentric, rumoured to be a genius but quite possibly nutso. Just to enter the city you have to surrender your ball and watch helplessly while the Mancunian guards amuse themselves by playing keep-away from your outmatched men. He’s toying with you, this prince. You can feel him watching you.

Granted an audience in the throne room, you pour out your whole story. You tell him about the shipwreck, the Scotsman, the map, the scrolls, the scouts, your long journey through the Five Kingdoms. “So I guess all I need to know,” you conclude, “is about this thing called the mixer—”

“Shhh,” says the prince. “We don’t say that here.”

“Well, what do you say?” you ask, sounding ruder than you meant to.

“Hush, hush,” he says. “Listen.”

Through an open window, you can hear the men in the courtyard. Your troops still haven’t got their ball back, but something sounds different. They’re not squabbling or kicking strangers like they usually do. They’re just… communicating.

The prince climbs down from his throne and leads you to the window, where the sunlight gleams off his bald head. “These scrolls of yours,” he says, “they tell you what happens on the ball, yes?”

You tell him that’s how it works, yes.

“And that’s useful, yes?”

You agree that it is.

“But what they don’t tell you,” he says, smirking a little, “is that the real mixer” — he pauses to tap his shining head with a single skinny forefinger — “is in here.”

The guards and courtiers packed into the throne room burst into rapturous applause. “But what does that mean?” you shout. “How do you score without a striker?” Your voice is a leaf in a hurricane, lost even before it escapes your lips. There’s only the cheering and the sunlight and the ball zipping through the courtyard below in crisp, perfect triangles. Your men are still lost, but they look happy.


So, how on earth did we create the Five Kingdoms?

UMAP is an algorithm that arranges data with lots of dimensions and squishes it down into a two-dimensional representation, sort of like a map. GMM clustering is a different algorithm that calculates which points on that map belong to one another in separate clusters. To create the Five Kingdoms of Football, first UMAP tried to plot clubs with similar stats near one other, then GMM tried to break that map into distinct kingdoms.

The stats that went into the algorithms are:

Possession

  • Field Tilt: attacking third touches per 100 combined attacking third touches
  • Live: live passes per 100 pass attempts
  • Offside: offside per 100 pass attempts
  • Build-Up: <40 yard passes per 100 goalkeeper pass attempts
  • Crossing: crosses per 100 penalty area entries
  • Through-Balls: through-balls per 100 penalty area entries

Passing

  • Accuracy: pass completion rate
  • Length: long passes per 100 pass attempts
  • Directness: progressive yards per 100 total passing yards
  • Switches: switches per 100 pass attempts
  • Height: headed passes per 100 pass attempts

Carrying

  • Directness: progressive yards per 100 total carrying yards
  • Dribbling: dribble attempts per 100 pass attempts
  • Lost Balls: miscontrols and dispossessions per 100 pass attempts

Defending

  • Pressing: pressures and tackles per 100 touches against in attacking two thirds
  • Success: successful pressures per 100 pressures
  • Closing Down: tackles and blocks per 100 defensive actions
  • Fouling: fouls and cards per 100 pass attempts against

Explained: A*****l ruling and what it means for Socios ‘fan tokens’

By Joey D’Urso, The Athletic

Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) issued a landmark ruling yesterday on Arsenal’s promotion of Socios “fan tokens”, deeming that the club “trivialised investment in cryptoassets and took advantage of consumers’ inexperience or credulity” in a promotion for Socios that featured three first-team players.

The ruling could have big implications in a league that is deepening ties with Socios — Crystal Palace recently became the sixth Premier League club to sign up after Arsenal, Aston VillaEverton, Leeds and Manchester City, despite fierce opposition from fans’ groups.

Earlier this year in a special investigationThe Athletic revealed how alongside “fan engagement” in the form of polls and competitions, the Socios ecosystem is a hotbed of volatile, risky and unregulated financial speculation, with users of the product on social media far more likely to be engaged in talk of “pumping” and “dumping” than anything to do with football.

The ASA ruling focuses on Arsenal, rather than any other club, simply because a complaint was made regarding Arsenal.

“We take our responsibilities with regard to marketing to our fans very seriously,” an Arsenal spokesperson said. “We carefully considered the communications to fans regarding our promotions and provided information regarding financial risks.

“We will endeavour to comply with the ASA’s guidance regarding future communications in this fast-moving area, however we will be seeking an independent review of the ASA’s ruling to seek greater clarity on the ASA’s position.”

What are fan tokens?

Fan tokens are cryptocurrency-based digital assets issued by a Malta-based company called Socios. They have taken the footballing world by storm in recent months. Six Premier League clubs have signed bumper sponsorship deals as well as many European big-hitters, including Barcelona, Inter Milan and Juventus.

So far this sector has gone almost completely unregulated, with seemingly no government bodies keeping tabs on what these products are and the potential risk to consumers — until yesterday’s ruling.

The tokens are based on the “blockchain” technology underpinning cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and are marketed to supporters as an opportunity for “fan engagement” by facilitating votes on club matters via the Socios app.

In the Arsenal example, this “engagement” was the opportunity to vote on a poll called “which song should be played at Emirates Stadium after we win”, listing possible options such as Kanye West’s Stronger, chosen by Ben White, and Levels by Avicii, chosen by Calum Chambers.

Arsenal ticket holders have been offered a free token, while others could buy one at a “Fan Token Offering” for an initial £2, before it ballooned in value, then slowly declined. Fans who “hold” the tokens had the right to vote on the music poll.

It is an advertisement promoting this, featuring the three players and now deleted from social media by the club, that the ASA has ruled on. Since the Arsenal deal was announced to great fanfare back in July, promising “countless engagement opportunities” for holders of the $AFC token, there has been barely anything aside from this one.

For Arsenal and other clubs, many of the “engagement opportunities” seem trivial, and there is little evidence of fans taking an interest. The only other engagement poll for Arsenal was a vote in September to “pick your favourite Arsenal goal against Spurs for your chance to win a signed football” — seemingly a glorified Twitter poll — and some competitions to win VIP tickets.

What does the ASA ruling say?

Although the club and Socios have claimed these “fan tokens” are simply a route to engagement and votes about football, the ASA saw otherwise, arguing “the product was a cryptoasset regardless of how it was promoted”.

The value of cryptoassets and cryptocurrencies skyrocketed in 2021, leading to a boom in related products, many of which have flooded into football. Regulators including the ASA and Financial Conduct Authority are scrambling to get to grips with this fast-moving area.

Intriguingly, there is something core to the ASA’s ruling that has not come up often in discussions about Socios: tax.

palace-socios

Crystal Palace fans hold up a protest banner during the Premier League match against Everton (Photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

“The ads did not contain any information that capital gains tax (CGT) could be payable on profits from investing in cryptoassets,” the ASA’s statement said. “We considered the potential tax implications were not made sufficiently clear to consumers considering investing in it.”

Arsenal’s website now contains a lengthy passage about tax, although this is not the case for other clubs which have partnered with the company. Martin Calladine is an author and independent journalist who was an early critic of Socios.

“This ruling should be a wake-up call for any club putting their name to crypto products,” he said. “It’s time clubs took responsibility for properly vetting partners and their products and stopped allowing themselves to be used in cryptocurrency recruitment schemes that have the potential to harm their fans.”

A Socios spokesperson said: “We welcome Arsenal’s call for an independent review. This is a fast-moving area and clarity is needed to ensure all companies can adhere to the latest guidelines.”

A crypto frenzy?

A Twitter search of Chiliz ($CHZ), the cryptocurrency underpinning Socios or club coins like those for Manchester City ($CITY) or Arsenal ($ARS), finds frenzied speculation that appears to have little to do with football. Much of the online hype comes from Turkey where hyperinflation has eroded the value of the Turkish lira, so consumers are seeking out crypto gains to hedge against their devaluing bank account.

The company’s channel on the Telegram messaging app sees users discussing how to flip these digital assets to try to bank a quick profit. For example, as Paris Saint-Germain’s coin ($PSG) surged and then collapsed in value in August, token holders took to the channel to speculate about “pumping” and “dumping”, phrases used by cryptocurrency speculators which seems a world away from football fan engagement.

The Arsenal token was sold at a “pre-sale” price of £2 a token, shot up in value when it publicly traded, and has then steadily declined in value to less than half its peak.

Although the “fan engagement” on the Socios app seems of little interest to anyone save Britain’s regulators, it is easy to find speculators breathlessly tweeting about the price movements of the $AFC token in foreign languages. This frenzied trading element is not made clear in Socios’ marketing.

What next for fan tokens?

The company is already partnered with six of the league’s 20 clubs and, given Socios’ breakneck expansion across world football, more may be in its sights.

However, the ASA ruling will put pressure on clubs to add lengthy disclaimers before promoting Socios, which may muddy the claim that this product is simply about fan engagement in football.

Arsenal has called for a review into the decision, a move that is supported by Socios.

Much will turn on the success of their application. Unless they win, this may well not be the last we hear from the ASA on the subject.

(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Tottenham v West Ham, EFL Cup

Antonio Conte says defender Eric Dier can become “one of the best in the world” in his position as Tottenham prepare to host West Ham in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals on Wednesday.

Cristian Romero remains out with a hamstring injury while Ryan Sessegnon has a minor problem following Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool.

Dier, 27, has impressed in the middle of a back three since Conte’s arrival.

“That position is perfect for him,” said the Italian.

“Eric Dier can become one of the best players in the world in that position. For sure he needs to work and continue to improve and understand the movement with the defensive line.

“He has to lead more, because in that position you have to speak a lot because you have to stay in the middle, at the back where you can see everything.

“He has a great space for improvement but we are talking about a really good player, strong physically with a good personality and good technically because he was a midfielder.

“This role is perfect for him. He has to continue this way because he can become one of the best central defenders.”

Tottenham’s last silverware was the League Cup in 2008 while West Ham, who have never won the competition, have not won a trophy since the FA Cup in 1980.

BBC Sport

Liverpool and Tottenham’s iconic duos define enthralling Premier League clash

By Jaime Braidwood, The Independant

In an enthralling Premier Legaue clash that lacked midfield authority, a key battle between Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson and Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Son Heung-min defined the day

Continue reading “Liverpool and Tottenham’s iconic duos define enthralling Premier League clash”

Liverpool, Tottenham and Mourinho’s sliding doors moment

By CharliE, The Athletic

After beating Manchester City last month, Tottenham Hotspur have now conquered Anfield. This 2-1 victory over champions Liverpool gives Spurs a three-point lead at the top of the table and has to be one of their best wins in the Premier League era.

Anyone who harboured any doubts about whether Jose Mourinho’s side are serious title contenders must surely now accept that this team is the real deal. Those who wrote Mourinho off as past it must also be feeling a little sheepish.

These were the kinds of tributes we came so close to writing this time last year.

On Wednesday, December 16, Spurs went to Liverpool and very, very nearly pulled off a win that would not have been undeserved.

They were brave, attacked their illustrious opponents in the second half and missed three excellent chances through Steven Bergwijn, twice, and Harry Kane. The latter had two other second-half efforts in a game where Spurs recorded the higher expected goals (xG) figure, 1.16 to 0.98, and had a proper go at the champions.

Spurs went into the game top of the league, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference. They were unbeaten in 11 league matches, winning seven of them including a jaw-dropping 6-1 victory at Manchester United and a convincing 2-0 home success over Manchester City.

After the 2-1 last-gasp defeat at Anfield, though, they also lost four of their next eight league matches — winning just two and plummeting to eighth in the table following a February 4 home defeat to Chelsea. In a little over a month, Spurs went from genuine title contenders to barely even fighting for a top-four finish.

So as Tottenham prepare to face Liverpool again this weekend, almost exactly a year on, it feels like time to consider a Sliding Doors moment in their recent history.


There’s a decent chance that even if Spurs had won that game at Anfield last December, Mourinho would still have left by now.

Perhaps it would have just delayed rather than prevented everything unravelling as it did between Christmas week and his April exit.

But there’s also a good chance Tottenham would have built on the platform provided by wins over United, City, Arsenal and Liverpool before the midpoint of the season to at least have qualified for the Champions League (even with their disastrous second half of the campaign, they were still only five points outside the top four after 38 games).

And if that had happened, there’s no way Mourinho would have been sacked at the end of the season.

Steven Bergwijn sends the ball towards the Liverpool goal that night at Anfield – but his shot hit the post (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

It’s easy to forget how strong a position Spurs were in as they travelled to Merseyside for that first-vs-second clash.

Yes their football had at times been functional, and there were plenty of people saying it was unsustainable, but Mourinho had just schooled rivals Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, to a lesser extent, Frank Lampard (Spurs got a 0-0 draw away at Chelsea in late November), and was seen as very much a man rediscovering his magic touch.

“I respect him a lot,” opposite number Jurgen Klopp said of Mourinho ahead of the match. “Has he reinvented himself? I don’t know. It looks a little bit like that when you see him on Instagram, or at least that part of him, but I think he is just so experienced and smart that he knows what he has to do. He asked at the beginning for time and I think that has paid off.

“Tottenham has the quality of the top teams, 100 per cent, and when they have the ball they show that. They also defend like a top team and have, at the moment, the best counter-attacking movements out there. They only need two or three passes to be on one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

“It is not that they just play a little bit of football and are not bothered about defending, they are a proper package at the moment.”

Mourinho meanwhile was relishing his return to relevance, and was in good form on the eve of the game.

His side’s momentum had been checked by a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace on the Sunday but he enjoyed one reporter’s noisy washing machine disrupting the Zoom pre-match press conference, and provocatively dismissed talk of a Liverpool injury “crisis”. He predicted — incorrectly, it turned out — that Joel Matip would be fit to play, and said that only Matip’s fellow centre-back Virgil van Dijk was missing from Klopp’s first-choice XI.

The game itself was excellent, and Spurs more than played their part.

Liverpool dominated the first half, but in the opening 20 minutes of the second, with the score 1-1, Bergwijn missed two glorious opportunities, Kane had a decent effort from range and also missed a wonderful headed chance.

The minute when Bergwijn raced through on goal only to hit the inside of the post, followed by Kane heading over the resulting corner from about six yards was possibly the most significant of the Mourinho era.

Spurs were made to pay when Roberto Firmino netted a 90th-minute header to condemn them to their first league defeat since Everton won 1-0 at the new White Hart Lane on the opening weekend of the season.

“A match that could be pivotal to how this season goes on to develop,” Guy Mowbray said in commentary on the BBC’s Match of the Day. He was right of course, just not in the context of the title race as he and everyone else had assumed.

Mourinho was furious at the injustice of it all, telling Klopp afterwards that “the better team lost”. Bemused, the German disagreed and could point to his side creating plenty of chances of their own and having more than three-quarters of the possession.

Nonetheless, it was clear Spurs had emerged as a genuine threat to Liverpool’s domestic dominance, with Klopp describing them as “a counter-attacking monster” after the game.

Micah Richards, on pundit duty for Match of the Day, described the visitors’ second-half performance as “incredible”, while Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson was even more effusive: “Tottenham have improved so much this season. They’re ruthless, they’re good at what they do. We knew we were in for a really tough game today. It’s always nice to get a win over one of your rivals.”

Roberto Firmino heads Liverpool’s winner in the final minute of normal time (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It seems inconceivable now, or even in the weeks immediately afterwards, for Liverpool to be describing Spurs as one of their rivals. Which shows how quickly things can change in elite-level sport.

Had Tottenham won that night, the confidence generated might have bled into their next game against Leicester City and the weeks afterwards. Instead, they were beaten 2-0 at home on the Sunday by Brendan Rodgers’ side, who leapfrogged them in the table as a result, and suddenly a side who had walked into Anfield four days earlier as league leaders were not even in the top four.

Four months later, Mourinho was sacked in mid-April after a string of further indifferent results had left Spurs languishing in seventh.

It’s easy to think that the way things ended was inevitable, but chance, whether we like it or not, plays a huge role in sport.https://theathletic.com/report/podcast-clip?clip_id=4875

And had Bergwijn got lucky with that shot that hit the post or, depending on your perspective, not been unlucky with it a completely alternative reality could have played out. One where Spurs didn’t keep coughing up leads, or where the players, fuelled by the results, fully bought into Mourinho’s methods. Where Kane, who even as things imploded remained loyal to Mourinho until the very end, kept scoring the goals to stop the wheels from falling off.

Things would have gone up in flames eventually — quite possibly by now, even if Spurs had finished in last season’s top four. But it’s an interesting counter-factual, especially against a team in Liverpool who seem to have been there for many of Tottenham’s pivotal moments in the last few years: The 2019 Champions League final, kicking on to win the Premier League in a way Spurs never could, signing players in Sadio Mane and Van Dijk whom Mauricio Pochettino had pursued.

And so on to Sunday in north London, where it’s time for Spurs to end the narrative of near-misses and counterfactuals against Liverpool.

Klopp’s side have won the last seven meetings between these teams and not lost in the fixture for over four years. Tottenham need to redress the balance.

(Photo: Peter Powell/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Leicester v Tottenham

TEAM NEWS

Defender Jonny Evans, who has a hamstring injury, is one of nine Leicester players unavailable due to a combination of injury, illness and Covid-19.

Caglar Soyuncu is the other new absentee from their win at Newcastle but Daniel Amartey is fit.

Tottenham’s past two matches have been postponed because of a Covid-19 outbreak.

They had just 16 first-team players available for training on Wednesday.

MATCH FACTS

Head-to-head

  • Since Leicester’s top-flight return in 2014, the 14 meetings have produced 54 goals.
  • Only one of the 102 all-time league meetings has ended goalless.
  • Tottenham are one short of 50 league wins and 200 league goals against the Foxes.

Leicester City

  • Leicester can win three consecutive Premier League home matches for the first time since a run of seven in 2019.
  • A defeat would establish an unwanted club record of nine top-flight home losses in a calendar year.
  • The Foxes have conceded a league-high 12 goals from a set-piece situation this season.
  • Jamie Vardy still needs one Premier League goal to surpass Ian Wright’s record of 93 after his 30th birthday.
  • James Maddison has scored in Leicester’s last three home games in all competitions.
  • Youri Tielemans has scored four goals in his past five league appearances.

Tottenham Hotspur

  • Spurs have taken 10 points from four league matches under Antonio Conte, who has made the longest unbeaten start by a Spurs manager since Tim Sherwood began with five wins and a draw in 2013-14.
  • However, Tottenham could go three league games without an away goal since March 2014 under Sherwood.
  • Harry Kane’s 17 goals in 16 matches against Leicester in all competitions is his best record against any team.
  • However, Kane has failed to score or assist in 12 of his 13 Premier League appearances this season.
  • Antonio Conte was unbeaten in all six competitive fixtures as Chelsea manager against Leicester.

What have we learned from the first month of Antonio Conte’s reign at Tottenham

By Jack Pitt-Brook, The Athletic

This week’s enforced coronavirus break has the effect of drawing a line under the first phase of Antonio Conte’s Tottenham tenure.

It was just over one month ago that Conte arrived at Spurs, as Daniel Levy pulled the trigger on a plan he had been working on in secret when he saw the crowd had turned against Nuno Espirito Santo. It was unquestionably the right thing to do, upgrading from Nuno to Conte, although it presented Conte with a particular challenge: how to teach the team his style of football, and get them fit enough to play it, right in the middle of a busy season.

This has given the last few weeks an especially hectic quality. This is a busy time of year anyway for a club competing in Europe and in the cups, playing twice every week either side of the international breaks. There is not much time to catch your breath. And certainly not the time and space needed to transform a whole football team while still playing games.

So what have we learned so far?


Spurs have improved their xG at both ends

Conte has had six games in charge already, as well as the two-week international break in November. Two games in the Europa Conference League do not tell us very much, as Spurs beat a poor Vitesse Arnhem side 3-2 at home and then lost 2-1 at NS Mura, leaving their European progress in doubt even before Thursday’s final game with Rennes was postponed.

Far more instructive are Spurs’ performances in their four league games since Conte took over, in which they have shown steady but clear improvement. They have taken 10 points from a possible 12, moving them closer to a place in the top four that looked extremely unlikely under the previous management. Conte promised to get Spurs well organised defensively when he took over and the early evidence is promising. Tottenham have only conceded one league goal, and not many chances either. (From Conte’s four Premier League games, Spurs have conceded 3.69 expected goals, at a rate of 0.92 per game. Under Nuno they were averaging 1.58 expected goals against per league game.)

At the other end of the pitch, Tottenham have been moving in the right direction too. The wins over Leeds United and Brentford were their two best creative performances of the season, and after a slow start at Everton, Spurs are averaging 1.64 expected goals per game under Conte. Under Nuno this number was just a touch over 1.

There are already signs of a clearer attacking shape

The Brentford game was Spurs’ most complete performance under Conte so far, with the team attacking in a way that shows they are learning Conte’s style of play already. Their second goal — Harry Kane to Sergio Reguilon to Son Heung-min — was a classic Conte counter-attacking goal, and a moment of real pride for the coaching staff.

When Tottenham faced Norwich City three days later, it was maybe the first time under the new manager that fatigue had started to show. Spurs worked hard — their players covered more distance than they have done all season — but they lacked the sprinting intensity that Conte demands from his players to give them the extra edge. Still, even if they did not play as well as they did against Brentford, they won the game 3-0.

Conte’s Spurs are clearly starting to take shape. You can tell how he wants the team to play, with brisk planned attacking moves when they get the ball, taking advantage of the speed of Reguilon down the left and of Son’s running in behind.

Lucas Moura has once again come to the fore at Tottenham since Conte’s arrival (Photo: Getty Images)

The industry of Lucas is preferred to the individualism of Ndombele

The aforementioned creativity owes more to mastering Conte’s playbook rather than the imagination of individual players. It is telling that Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso have started just one game so far under Conte.

Obviously Kane and Son would start under any manager but it is telling that Lucas Moura has made himself indispensable as the third part of their front three. The initial thinking was that while Son and Kane got up to speed, the team needed another energetic forward to help them to press and Lucas’ work rate, productivity in the final third and commitment to the manager’s instructions have made him an integral part of Conte’s team. It no longer feels as if his presence in the team is just a transitional measure until Ndombele or Lo Celso get up to speed.

Early signs of a new spine

Lucas has probably been the biggest winner of the Conte era so far but it is telling which players have most benefited from the new manager coming in. Eric Dier and Ben Davies are not necessarily the most exciting players in the squad but a long list of Spurs managers now have trusted them in difficult times. Given how much Conte focuses on attitude, application and adherence to his style of play, Davies and Dier have been important parts of the back three. Dier is the lynchpin of the defence while Davies has been a dangerous attacking threat too.

In midfield Conte has shown the same trust in a reliable pair: Pierre Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp have provided the energetic heart of the team, rather than players who might be considered more technically gifted. Skipp is looking a better player with every game and is starting to add more quality in possession, too. Clearly there are improvements that can be made to the team, in the transfer market and on the training pitch, but the outline of what Conte wants is already there.


The plan was that Tottenham’s season would continue with this relentless run of two games per week, giving Conte precious little time to coach his players between games. But now Spurs find themselves with their position reversed. Rather than having lots of games and no downtime, Tottenham now have lots of empty time and no imminent football.

The training ground was closed on Wednesday after several Spurs players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the first half of last week. With many of the first-team squad — and even more of the coaching staff — suffering from the virus, it was impossible for business to continue as normal. There is no certainty at this point about exactly when normality can and will return.

At some point early this week the training ground will reopen but it remains to be seen whether Spurs will be in a position to play Leicester City away on Thursday evening. They would certainly need an improvement in their situation in the next few days to be able to complete the fixture. It might be that a more realistic return to action will be Liverpool at home on Sunday, by which point Spurs will have had an enforced mid-season two-week break. Of course, Conte wants his players to keep training but that has not proven simple, not least because the training facilities have been inaccessible.

Spurs surely will return to action at some point this week, whether Thursday or Sunday, but there is little point in speculating what physical condition they will be in when they next play. The whole situation just shows that even for a coach who plans as meticulously as Conte, right down to every detail on and off the pitch, some things remain completely out of his hands.

(Top photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Tottenham don’t look like ‘the Harry Kane team’ anymore

By Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic

Too often over the last few years it’s been the case that if opposition teams could stop Harry Kane getting goals or assists, they’d also stop Tottenham from scoring.

We all remember Pep Guardiola’s “the Harry Kane team” dig four years ago.

Kane remains pivotal to this Spurs team, with head coach Antonio Conte going as far on Friday as saying: “Honestly, I don’t see this team starting without Harry.”

And yet numbers-wise, he’s nowhere near his usual standards — just one goal and one assist this season from 13 matches. His overall performances have also not been at quite the level we’ve come to expect.

But the point is that at the moment it doesn’t really matter. Kane is still playing well and providing a focal point in attack, and critically others are stepping up — Spurs have managed seven goals in their last three Premier League games (all wins), none of which have been scored or assisted by Kane.

On Sunday it was Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min who really shouldered the burden in an attacking sense, providing two goals and an assist between them as Spurs beat Norwich 3-0 to move within two points of fourth with a game in hand.

The combination between the two for Moura’s opener was particularly impressive. The outstanding Moura produced a lovely bit of skill before playing a one-two with Son and smashing a long-range effort into the top corner after a sumptuous drag-back.

And this kind of link-up between the two was by no means an isolated incident. Just before the half-hour, they combined again, with Son’s shot eventually deflecting wide off Kane. In the second half, a beautiful first-time flick from Moura returned the ball to Son, whose through-ball Kane couldn’t bring under control. Another interchange saw a blocked shot for Son after slick approach play from Moura and Kane.

Son ended the game with three shots and four chances created; Moura with two and three.

The pair each had individual moments of brilliance as well. Moura was in one of those moods where he glides past players with such ease that he looks like someone playing on FIFA on much too low a difficulty level. One such moment in the first half led to a blocked shot; another caused Billy Gilmour to decide that committing a foul and taking a booking was his only option.

Lucas Moura was in gliding mode against Norwich (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Now it’s about doing this on a more consistent basis, and continuing to provide slack for Kane if goals and assists remain elusive for the England captain.

“I think he scored an amazing goal but he has the quality to score more goals and he has to score more goals in the rest of the season,” Conte said after the game. “We need this type of situation. He’s very good, I think up front we have great quality with important strikers. Lucas has great quality and surely my expectation is to see much more goals like this, but a good performance with and without the ball.”

Son is already at the level of producing this kind of quality more regularly, and after a bit of a dip he’s been excellent in the last couple of games. Following on from his goal and the one he helped create against Brentford on Thursday, the South Korean registered both a goal and assist on Sunday.

His goal was set up by Ben Davies, another player shouldering some of the creative burden at the moment. Even writing that feels ludicrous about a player who for so long has been a steady full-back and is now nominally playing as a left-sided centre-back. But Davies has been outstanding since Conte took over, and as he revealed to The Athletic last week, has far greater licence to get forward under the new head coach. On Sunday, not only did he set up Son’s goal with a burst forward and smart pass, he also created Davinson Sanchez’s second by flicking on Son’s near-post corner. Against Brentford on Thursday, his aerial challenge led to Sergi Canos’s own goal.

Ryan Sessegnon also contributed to Spurs’ attack, providing a welcome thrust down the left after replacing the injured Sergio Reguilon early on. Steven Bergwijn meanwhile was only on for the closing stages, but he still found time to produce a delicious flick out by the right touchline.

Producing moments of magic against the Premier League’s bottom club is one thing, doing so consistently is another matter.

Because the reality is that even a striker as good as Kane will go through the odd phase where goals and assists are harder to come by. For too long, since Dele Alli faded and Christian Eriksen left, when that’s happened Spurs have been too easy to play against. Last season, Kane either scored or assisted 54 per cent of Spurs’ goals. By way of comparison, that figure is at 13 per cent this season.

There’s still too much reliance on Son when Kane isn’t firing, and Spurs’ general lack of goals until their last three games shows they remain some way off addressing the issue of a reliable third goalscorer. Since the start of last season, own goals (four) are the joint-third top goalscorer of any current Spurs player — level with Moura, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele.

But Moura and others stepping up is very encouraging. Against Brentford it was Oliver Skipp who played with more creativity and purpose, and again on Sunday he took the game to Norwich — driving forward and producing a shot on target in only the fifth minute.

Far stiffer tests await, but on the flip side, just think what the team will look like when Kane rediscovers his best form.

(Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Tottenham v Norwich

TEAM NEWS

Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte is again without the injured Giovani Lo Celso, who is not yet ready for a first-team return.

Defender Cristian Romero is out until the new year.

Norwich City midfielder Mathias Normann remains out with a pelvic issue, but should return next week.

Milot Rashica has been ruled out for up to a month but Todd Cantwell is available again, having missed Tuesday’s game due to Covid reasons.

MATCH FACTS

Head-to-head

  • Tottenham have beaten Norwich in three consecutive home league games for the first time since a run of five between 1989 and 1993.
  • Two of Norwich’s three Premier League victories against Tottenham have come away from home, in December 1993 and April 2012.

Tottenham Hotspur

  • Tottenham have won all three of their home matches under Antonio Conte in all competitions.
  • Only Norwich and Wolves have scored fewer goals in the top flight than the 13 by Spurs this season.
  • They have won 28 of their last 32 home league games against promoted sides, including each of their last three without conceding.
  • Harry Kane has scored five goals in three league appearances against Norwich.
  • Spurs have won six of their last seven Premier League home fixtures played on a Sunday.

Norwich City

  • Norwich are unbeaten in four Premier League games for the first time since February 2013. Their eight points during that spell is two more than they managed in their previous 25 top-flight fixtures.
  • Teemu Pukki has scored three goals in his last four Premier League appearances, matching his total from the previous 24 top-flight games.
  • He has scored 63% of Norwich’s Premier League goals this season, the highest proportion in the top flight.
  • The Canaries are on 99 wins and 299 defeats in top-flight away matches.

BBC Sport

Tottenham v Brentford

TEAM NEWS

Tottenham defender Cristian Romero has been ruled out until at least the New Year because of a hamstring injury.

Giovani Lo Celso misses out again but he might be fit to return against Norwich on Sunday.

Brentford’s Christian Norgaard, Rico Henry and Sergi Canos came off with injuries during their win over Everton but are all available.

Mathias Jorgensen, Josh Dasilva, Tariqe Fosu, David Raya and Kristoffer Ajer remain out.

MATCH FACTS

Head-to-head

  • This is a first top-flight meeting between Tottenham and Brentford.
  • Spurs are unbeaten in 11 games in all competitions against the Bees since losing to them in 1948.

Tottenham Hotspur

  • Tottenham have won six Premier League matches so far this season, all by a single-goal margin.
  • They have just 11 league goals in their 12 fixtures this campaign – only Norwich have scored fewer.
  • Spurs have lost five successive Premier League London derbies, including all four this season.
  • They have lost three of their last five Premier League matches on a Thursday (W1, D1).
  • Harry Kane has scored just one goal in 11 league appearances this season.
  • However, he has eight goals in his past eight Premier League games that have taken place on a Thursday.

Brentford

  • Brentford have lost just one of their six away matches in the Premier League this season (W2, D3).
  • The Bees could win back-to-back top-flight games for the first time since 1946.
  • They have scored seven of their 17 league goals this season from set-pieces – only Liverpool and Chelsea have managed more prior to the midweek fixtures.

BBC Sport

Burnley v Tottenham

Antonio Conte said "we need to work a lot to improve the quality of the squad" after defeat to NS Mura

Antonio Conte said “we need to work a lot to improve the quality of the squad” after defeat to NS Mura

TEAM NEWS

Burnley striker Ashley Barnes faces a spell on the sidelines after tearing a muscle in his thigh.

James Tarkowski and Ashley Westwood are suspended after both picked up their fifth booking of the season last week.

Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte made nine changes for Thursday’s Europa Conference League defeat by NS Mura.

Oliver Skipp has returned from suspension and may be one of very few to keep their place from midweek. Cristian Romero remains out.

MATCH FACTS

Head-to-head

  • Burnley have won just one of the past 12 league meetings (D3, L8).
  • Spurs have scored in all but one of their 14 Premier League games versus the Clarets.

Burnley

  • Burnley have only managed one victory in 15 Premier League fixtures (D6, L8).
  • However, they are on a four-match unbeaten league run (W1, D3).
  • The Clarets have scored nine goals in those four games – one more than they managed in their previous 13 combined.
  • They have scored a league-high six headed goals this season, while Tottenham are yet to score from a header.
  • Burnley’s last six goals against Spurs have been shared between Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, with both scoring three each.

Tottenham Hotspur

  • Tottenham’s six league victories this season have all been by a single-goal margin.
  • Only Norwich have had fewer shots in the Premier League this season than the 124 by Spurs prior to the weekend.
  • They could go three successive away league matches without scoring for the first time since 2014.
  • Harry Kane has eight goals in his 10 previous Premier League appearances against Burnley.
  • Kane has either scored or assisted in each of his last six league games against the Clarets.

BBC Sport

Conte knows ‘everything, everything, everything’ has to improve at Tottenham

By Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic

In many ways this felt like the natural next step for Tottenham Hotspur’s strained relationship with the Europa Conference League.

A competition that has offered pretty much unremitting bleakness since it started for Spurs seven matches and three months ago cranked up the sadness with the latest instalment of ineptitude: a 2-1 last-second away defeat in Europe’s third-tier competition to Mura, a team mid-table in the Slovenian league with the lowest UEFA coefficient ranking of any team in the competition this season.

This after battling back with 10 men to draw level after Ryan Sessegnon’s first-half red card. Yes from the competition that brought you a 1-0 defeat to Pacos de Ferreira and a 1-0 loss at Vitesse Arnhem so dismal that Harry Winks looked visibly shaken, this was a new low.

It leaves Tottenham facing a fight to even qualify for the next stage, and they are now in a position where they cannot win the group. That means that if they do go through they will have to play a two-legged knockout tie in February, against one of the teams that finish third in the Europa League group stage. Either side of a trip to face champions Manchester City.

No wonder head coach Antonio Conte was so devastated. He admitted that he is “starting to understand the situation” at Tottenham, whose level he said is “not so high”.  He then channelled David Moyes’s infamous Manchester United “must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending” admission when he said Spurs had to “do better in everything, everything, everything”.

And so as much as this may pain those who think Spurs should be trying to win every competition they are in, the reality is that they are not good enough. And they cannot afford to keep having their resources drained by the Europa Conference League. “To win (a trophy) is always important, but then you have to understand if you are ready to win,” Conte said.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to see what the benefits are of them staying in the competition — a point I made on the View from the Lane podcast in August at the qualifying round stage.

Yes they can end their trophy drought and qualify for the Europa League by winning it, but the drain of playing 10 more matches to get to that point does not seem worth it. Not when exiting the competition will give them so much more time on the training pitch that will leave them in a far stronger position to finish sixth (if not higher) and qualify for the Europa League via the Premier League. Especially with one of the best training-ground coaches in the world in Conte, someone who won the Premier League with Chelsea in his first season with no European football.

DELE-ALLI-TOTTENHAM

Alli, right, again struggled having been recalled (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

On the winning a trophy point, would lifting the Europa Conference League shift the dial? It is a competition with no prestige, one that is derided as the “Europa plate” or “shield” by some in the game, and this is partly why it is always felt like Spurs are in a no-win situation. They go out and they are viewed as not good enough to even win such a derided competition, or they do win it and they will get mocked for going after such a third-tier tournament. Obviously being mocked should not be a genuine deterrent to trying to win a competition, but Spurs have far more pressing priorities.

Like trying to improve their league position for instance, which may take a direct hit from Thursday’s exertions. Playing for an hour with 10 men was hardly the ideal preparation for travelling to Burnley on Sunday, and there were other obstacles to overcome. Spurs were told that Maribor airport was not available for use outside daylight hours, so they had to drive two hours to Ljubljana after the game to fly from there. It meant a later return to London before training on Friday morning.

It is all just so Europa Conference League.

There are other issues too with the competition. As a head coach you essentially make wholesale changes and risk creating a two-tiered squad, or you play strong sides and risk overworking your key players. Doing the former was the beginning of the end for Nuno Espirito Santo, which is possibly the best thing that has happened to Spurs in the competition.

The ECL is also a competition that is at an awkward level of difficulty. Starting all Spurs’ regulars would feel like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it is not at such a level that they can play the youngsters and feel confident of picking up points. Doing so, while also giving fringe players valuable minutes, were seen as some of the benefits of the tournament, but it’s really not panned out like that.

With the former, Dane Scarlett is the only youngster to have been given much of a chance, and when he has played he has barely touched the ball. With the latter, few of the fringe players have done anything to improve their reputations.

In Arnhem and then again on Thursday night, there was genuine sadness at seeing former stars like Dele Alli struggling so badly on such a diminished stage. At the very least, it was all supposed to be a bit of a laugh, but the trips to Portugal, the Netherlands and Slovenia have been more sobering than enjoyable.

Financially, there is no great incentive to staying in the competition. Winning it would mean around £9.25 million in prize money, plus a fairly paltry cash injection from the television deal, which although welcome would hardly change things given that Spurs revealed this week that their debts increased from £605 million to £706 million in their most recent annual accounts.

And in any case, qualifying for the Champions League would be immeasurably more valuable to Spurs, which there is a chance of if they exit the Europa Conference League. It is hard to see them doing so with this squad if they stay in the competition.

And one final gripe: the Europa Conference League anthem is the same as the Europa League! It doesn’t even have its own anthem.

There will be embarrassment if Spurs go out but in the long term, it really may be no bad thing.

(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

NS Mura v Tottenham

Tottenham boss Antonio Conte will make changes to his side for Thursday’s Europa Conference League game at Slovenian side NS Mura.

Spurs are second in Group G on seven points – three behind leaders Rennes – with two games to go.

The group winners will go through automatically and the runners-up will play a two-legged play-off in February.

“For us this competition is important. We want to take this fixture seriously,” said Conte.

Tottenham have not won a trophy since 2008.

Before he was sacked as manager this month, Nuno Espirito Santo rested his first-choice XI for the defeat at Vitesse Arnhem.

Spurs travel to Burnley in the Premier League on Sunday, but Conte said “all the players available” were making the journey to Slovenia for his fourth match in charge.

“I said on Sunday that I need to make rotation because there are players that are a bit tired because they played many games with the national team, and also we worked a lot in the last two weeks,” he added.

“There are other players that need game time.”

Mura have lost all four group games and cannot progress. They were beaten 5-1 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September.