Friday, 23 March 2018

No Kane, No Lukaku: The Home Straight

Ah, the international break. An FPL player’s nightmare, but an FPL blogger’s dream. Plenty of spare time in which to reflect upon the game, sites that need to bulk out their content and a bored audience who would be willing to read essentially anything fantasy-related. All of this makes it the perfect time to return with another ‘no Kane, no Lukaku’ update.

For those who have not been following this mini-series, the premise is that I will go the whole season without bringing in either Kane or Lukaku, the two players considered by many to be must-haves at the start of the campaign. The league is now reaching the business end, and so far I have stayed true to my word – many a Kane goal-fest has burned me, and on occasion Lukaku has punished his non-owners, but on the whole things have gone surprisingly well. Better than most of my previous seasons, in fact. My overall rank has recently broken the 100k mark, which is by all accounts a handy position to be in as we enter the final seven gameweeks. A significant reason for this is Mo Salah. He would be a hero even without the fantasy points he has showered down upon me, as he has fired my beloved Liverpool to a new level, but this extra plus point has elevated him to god status. Of course, anyone with any sense has the Egyptian at this point – captaining him, however, was far from a foregone conclusion until quite recently. The temptation of Kane proved too strong for many of the managers who had the English marksman; this paid dividends for them on occasion, but the sheer consistency of Salah’s returns have ensured that my captain has done well for weeks on end.

This brings us on to the most significant recent development as far as the strategy is concerned. I refer to Harry Kane’s injury. On one hand, it represents great news: for the foreseeable future, there will be no more watching Spurs from behind the sofa, and the one player always responsible for pegging back my progress in mini-leagues is out of the picture. However, if anything, the drawbacks are more significant. Kane owners are scrambling to sell, and with no obvious like-for-like replacements their budget is being spread more evenly across the squad. This means a lot of my differentials are getting snapped up, leaving me with little room to make ground on rivals. The price rises are nice – Firmino is now a staggering 1.3 million more than when I bought him - but they don’t directly translate to points. Meanwhile, those who are looking to swap Kane for something resembling an equivalent are bound to turn to Lukaku. The Belgian is re-finding his form, and Manchester United have some very nice fixtures coming up: many more FPL opponents are ready to take advantage of this now he has taken the ‘Kane’ slot in so many squads. In other words, it will simply be the United scores that I dread to check rather than those of Tottenham. It will be far from straightforward retaining a place in the top hundred-thousand during this run-in.

This is particularly true given the double gameweeks that have to be navigated. In terms of chips, I am in relatively good shape – I opted to use the free hit to deal with blank gameweek 31, and was rewarded with a 105-point haul, but the other chips remain available to use. The squad has been honed for many weeks to ensure that all fifteen are getting regular minutes, and that most have a double gameweek: the bench boost or the triple captain are thus ripe to be played in gameweek 34, with the remaining chip being saved for the next double gameweek in 37. Salah’s lack of a double poses something of a dilemma: anyone would think twice about not giving him the armband, and given that he has been so integral in allowing me to remain competitive without Kane it would be tough to give the triple captaincy to anybody else. However, other big hitters who will have an extra game in the week are hard to ignore – chief amongst these is the newly-acquired Heung-Min Son, who is leading the line for Spurs during Kane's absence. I currently sit second in both of my main mini-leagues: getting the triple captaincy right (or wrong) could make or break the entire season. On the plus side, Kane no longer being an option for my opponents, unless they choose to gamble on his late-season fitness, is something of a relief.   

A big perk of the strategy has been the ready availability of funds to invest in the midfield, where there have been multiple premium options producing high points returns. For the final few weeks, I have taken a punt on Mkhitaryan. As mentioned, I have ground to make up in my mini-leagues: his decent form of late, Arsenal’s seemingly endless capacity to start performing well when they no longer have anything to play for and their very kind fixture list made this a gamble I was eager to take. There is the risk of Europa League-induced rotation, which made the ineligible Aubameyang the more tempting option in many ways, but Vardy’s similarly nice run-in made me reluctant to sell him. Thus, my hopes are pinned on the Armenian. In my eagerness to execute this plan, I made my transfers before realising that the international break was imminent – there is now a nervous wait to see whether he or Son get injured while playing for their countries. This was foolish, but the strategy on the whole has proved surprisingly sensible: with any luck, I’ll be able to limp over the line with an overall rank with which I can be pleased.

- @JamesMartin013

Friday, 16 March 2018

Weekend Preview

It’s a limited Premier League schedule this weekend due to the FA Cup fixtures, but there are still plenty of games to get excited about both domestically and abroad. Leagues and knockout competitions alike are approaching the business end – the so-called ‘must-win’ matches are coming thick and fast.

One of the league games that does go ahead in England is Liverpool vs Watford. This should be well worth a watch. Notwithstanding the disappointing defeat to bitter rivals Manchester United, the hosts are in scintillating goal-scoring form. Salah continues to go from strength to strength in his debut season on Merseyside, and Sadio Mane appears to be emerging from his mini-slump just in time to help the team’s efforts to secure a place in the top four. Javi Gracia has steadied the ship at Watford since taking charge, but defensive frailties are still clear for all to see: Arsenal were able to expose these last weekend, putting three past the Hornets defence. It would not be a surprise if Liverpool were able to match or better this tally. However, the visitors are also capable of finding the net – Klopp’s men found this out in the 3-3 draw on the opening day. A repeat of such a scoreline is clearly unlikely, but a high-scoring fixture seems all but guaranteed.

The FA Cup also offers some interesting match-ups. The pick of these is probably Chelsea vs Leicester. The home side are looking to bounce back following the disappointment of being knocked out of the Champions League; Leicester are no Barcelona, but they might well fancy their chances of capitalising on the vulnerability of their opponents. Conte’s men actually played quite well against the Catalan side, but were undone by multiple moments of sloppiness at the back – few forwards are better-equipped to pounce on errors than Jamie Vardy. However, barring a rout against a woeful West Brom side last weekend, Leicester have not been in great form. Chelsea will undoubtedly feel they can at least manage to score against The Foxes; a performance anything like the one that they produced midweek would probably be enough to see them through to the semi-finals, potentially giving Conte a slight hope of redemption. Given Chelsea’s exit from all other competitions and unsatisfactory league position, a loss might prove to be the final nail in the coffin.

Further afield, Real Madrid vs Girona could prove to be a fascinating fixture. At the start of the season, such a statement would have sounded absurd – a walkover would have been considered essentially a given. This is still a possibility, of course: it was not long ago that the newly-promoted side were comprehensively dismantled by six goals to one against Barcelona. However, since then they have produced three straight impressive wins. Celta Vigo, Villareal and Deportivo have all been brushed aside, leaving Pablo Machín’s side in seventh place. Their opponents are only four places higher, in third; there is a danger of dropping down to fourth if Zidane cannot orchestrate a win in this match. This would leave a campaign that is already highly disappointing for Los Blancos on the brink of becoming disastrous. Girona, meanwhile, could move as high as fifth. To occupy a Europa League spot at such a late stage would be a huge accomplishment for the team playing their first ever season in the Spanish top flight. Real probably have enough to see off their challenge, but it is unlikely to be straightforward.

The final pick comes from Serie A, where Inter Milan travel to Sampdoria. The two teams are embroiled in fights for Champions League and Europa League qualification respectively, making this a massive game for both clubs. Inter are looking to capitalise on their game in hand over Lazio to move into fourth place – to do so, they must win. A victory for Sampdoria, on the other hand, would propel them above Inter’s city rivals into sixth place, just five points behind Inter themselves. The Milan side managed an impressive draw with high-flying Napoli last time out, putting a serious dent in Sarri’s title hopes, and will be confident of continuing that good form in this game. Sampdoria, by contrast, are looking to bounce back from a surprise drubbing at the hands of relegation-threatened Crotone, to whom they lost 4-1. Another loss here may well effectively end a campaign that had shown such promise. This may consequently be something of a cagey affair, and ultimately it seems likely that Inter will come out on top.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Liverpool: Klopp’s Long Game

Lately, something feels different around Liverpool Football Club. It is not just that performances are improving – although it is clear that they are. The steps being taken feel somehow measured. Since Klopp’s arrival at the helm, there has been a sense that a dial is being incrementally cranked up; it is at times so imperceptible as to prompt pundits to ask if there has been progress at the club at all, but taking a step back and looking at the holistic picture reveals that everything is definitely moving in the right direction. In the past, flirtations with success came about through individual brilliance: 2013/14 was the last genuine title charge, and it was spearheaded by the mercurial Luis Suarez. He tried to haul the team along with him in one great leap – as is so often the case with such things, he fell just short. Now, Philippe Coutinho has come and gone, and yet the steady march forward continues. Step by step. Qualification for the Champions League in consecutive seasons looks very possible for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, in the current season’s competition, Liverpool are alive and kicking after a decimation of Porto in the round of sixteen. Long-term faults are being looked at and, when the right personnel become available, addressed. In short, a dynasty is being rebuilt from the ground upwards.

Part of the excitement when Klopp took charge at Anfield was down to the fact that he is known for being a manager that commits to a project. Particularly in the modern game, his record makes good reading for a club that needs to be given a long-term direction. Mainz: seven years. Borussia Dortmund: seven years. The hope was that he might commit to such a stint on Merseyside, taking the time to shape a team in his image and ultimately restore the club to something like its former self. This is a process that is now well underway. For some while, however, there was much consternation amongst the fans – Klopp seemed content to work with what he had at the start of his tenure. He was instilling his philosophy, yes, but with a squad that many felt was operating at close to its full potential. Lots of fans turned against the owners while looking for answers to their questions: the absence of ‘Klopp signings’ seemed to make no sense unless it was a question of availability of funds. As Liverpool stumbled to 8th in the 2015/16 season, the only addition being a January loan of Steven Caulker, some had started to worry that they were facing yet another false dawn.

It takes time for the sun to rise, however. Time has revealed that a ‘Klopp signing’ is not all about finding someone with certain attributes desirable in a high-intensity system; it is about singling out individuals who the manager believes will make the biggest impact on his squad, and doing everything possible to secure the signatures of these players. Such a process takes time, and can result in frustration; the failure to acquire Van Dijk in the summer led to a further six months of a defence not really good enough to compete at the highest levels. However, this modus operandi is part of the package with Klopp. His perspective is longer than one transfer window, or indeed one season – he knew that the Dutchman was the man for the job, and refused to settle. Sure enough, in the few games he has played since finally signing in January, Van Dijk has started to show he was worth the wait. Similarly, Naby Keita could only be acquired for next season during the summer attempts to bring him to the club. Klopp was content with this – why would he not be, when one season is such a small price to pay in exchange for another piece in the puzzle that is Liverpool’s attempt to return to the very top?

In any case, faith in the current squad is central to Klopp’s attitude – it would be false to say that Klopp in any way ‘sacrificed’ this season in his pursuit of longer-term goals. That is not to suggest he refuses to acknowledge that there could be improvements, but his faith in his tactical system is overriding. He knows, of course, that the right breed of great players will thrive in his gegenpress even more, but in the meantime all he can ask of his team is to put in the effort. This is 90% of the formula – be prepared to run, get in the faces of the opposition in their own third, and try to prompt turnovers that produce chances anybody could finish off. This is an ethos as much as it is a tactic: naturally, it takes a while to become ingrained in a team. Liverpool are reaching that stage now, and it is no coincidence that consistency is slowly improving. There was out-and-out panic when Coutinho was sold and not replaced, with many envisaging a January collapse of the sort that saw Liverpool’s dream of a title crushed before it had really formed last season. Instead, results have actually picked up. Miraculous, no? Far from it. This is no act of God, but an act of Klopp; every member of the squad knows what is expected when they are called upon, and though they may not have the inspirational qualities of the Brazilian maestro, they have an unwavering understanding of what must be done to succeed in the German’s setup. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a fine example. He left Arsenal hungry for guidance: no doubt fearful of following in the footsteps of Theo Walcott, who burst onto the scene but then stagnated under Wenger’s tutelage, he forced a move away. He has absorbed his new manager’s instructions, becoming a blank slate upon which Klopp can make his mark. As a result, he has been a major asset. In some ways he plays second fiddle to the likes of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, who steal all of the headlines, but in a more fundamental sense he is one of many equal parts all striving for a common goal.

Where next for this march of progress, and where might it end up? Optimism is rife around Anfield, and rightly so: almost without anybody noticing, Klopp has brought his squad to the brink of greatness. A world-class goalkeeper and a new midfielder would be enough to mount a title challenge in the next campaign; add another top-level centre-back into the mix, and there is potential to become a dominant force. Of course, in embracing Klopp, one must accept that these additions will not be made unless the right people can be brought in – the names floating around are tantalising, particularly Alisson of Roma, but ultimately there has to be faith in the manager’s decisions. That said, the very existence of the rumours suggests that he has identified the remaining problem areas, and feels that the time has come to find the people to address them. These are exciting times to be a Liverpool fan, and for once the groundwork has been laid to ensure that the excitement only continues to grow in the coming years. 

Monday, 5 March 2018

Poppies, Ribbons and Political Neutrality in Football

In the context of legal philosophy, Ronald Dworkin argued that characterising a question as either related or unrelated to morality necessarily involves taking a moral position. Setting the boundaries of the question cannot be entirely separated from providing some sort of answer to that question. Perhaps surprisingly, this jurisprudential debate has recently become of relevance to The Football Association, albeit in a slightly modified form, in relation to Pep Guardiola’s ribbon in support of Catalan independence.

The FA are understandably eager to frame their opposition to the Manchester City manager’s ribbon as a simple manifestation of their rule against political statements. However, it is far from clear that such a blanket ban is in place. Not only does the chief English footballing body allow poppies to be displayed on shirts, it famously defied FIFA over the national team’s right to do so in late 2016. It is understandable why they argue that the symbol is not a political one; the poppy undoubtedly has its roots in a simple act of remembrance for those that gave their lives in the two World Wars. Even this is not straightforwardly unpolitical, but assuming that it can be so construed it is nonetheless apparent that the poppy now represents more than this. The Royal British Legion lists a host of recent conflicts in the ‘what we remember’ section of their website – one need only look to James McClean’s principled opposition to the poppy to understand that not all such military activities have been free of controversy. The symbol has therefore unavoidably taken on some kind of political significance.

The issue of independence, one might argue, is different in that it is not an apolitical issue that has been in some sense co-opted: the fight for Catalan independence is an inherently political movement. This may be true, but upon listening to Guardiola’s reasons for wearing the ribbon it is hard to sustain such an argument. In his understated but dignified explanation as to why he is choosing to ignore the FA and risk a touchline ban, he brought attention to the political prisoners who remain incarcerated after pushing for independence. At its core, this is a humanitarian issue – protesting an attack on freedom of expression is possibly less of a political position than implicitly supporting the actions of the British military, and it is certainly less of a controversial position. The cultural acceptance of the poppy, and its tie-in with the idea of patriotic values, are not reasons for calling it apolitical: in making such a judgement, the FA are unavoidably endorsing the political sentiment behind the poppy. In fact, they are endorsing it all the more thoroughly by refusing to even acknowledge that there are political issues at stake. The distance and ‘foreignness’ of the Catalan debate has allowed them to more easily conclude that Guardiola’s ribbon is political, in so doing impliedly casting aspersions on the validity of the cause while maintaining the guise of neutrality.

Perhaps it would be better to do away with the idea of keeping politics out of football altogether. The corporate money being pumped into the game is already causing something of a disconnect between clubs and their local fans; the idea that rules should be imposed to sever teams from their city’s culture and history once and for all is far from appealing. Take Liverpool. The city has a rich socialist history, and icons of the club such as Bill Shankly espoused a footballing ethos that reflected these values. Can it really be beneficial to enforce a kind of bland light entertainment status on football? Things such as bumper television deals and the introduction of VAR are already moving the game in this unwelcome direction, and the change should be resisted. Shankly’s oft-quoted words about football being more important than a matter of life and death were not meant to convey that winning or losing is everything. Quite the opposite: the cultural phenomenon of football, involving far more than just the games being played out on the pitch, was all-encompassing, embracing entire ideologies. This is being stripped away, and rules against political statements are a part of this.

To return to Dworkin’s idea, it seems clear that the FA’s rejection of the poppy as a question of politics is in itself a political position. By extension, so too is their classification of the Catalan independence ribbon as a political symbol – the very categorisation serves to call its legitimacy into question. This may be right, or it may be wrong, but however much the FA may want it to be it is far from neutral.