The gap between football rich and poor

It was only the third game of newly-promoted Burnley’s Premier League season.

They would be facing a team in transition – Manchester United.

United, England’s most successful club, had named British record signing Angel di Maria in their starting line-up as the Argentine made his debut after joining for £59.7m from Real Madrid.

Di Maria’s price, and the reservoir of funds United have at their fingertips, completely eclipse anything Burnley have spent in their 132-year existence.

The Tykes have only splashed £45m on transfers since their inaugural season in 1882 but, facing a Manchester United XI assembled for £214.2m they earned a creditable 0-0 draw.

With this level of spending, United are hoping they will tempt the best players in the world to the club so they can return to Champions League football – something they missed out on this season under David Moyes’ leadership in 2013-14.

Burnley’s shoestring budget illustrates just how difficult it is to compete with the big spending giants of the Premier League, despite receiving £48m over four years since their relegation from the top flight in 2010.

Not only this, the three promoted clubs in 2014 gained a £60m revenue boost – £55m of which is from broadcasting fees.

Despite this combined stream of £108m for ‘yo-yo-ing’ between the Premier League and Championship, Burnley – and most of the league – still can’t hope to match the biggest clubs in the transfer market.

UEFA, European football’s governing body, sought to help rectify the current imbalance by introducing Financial Fair Play rules, but so far only Manchester City and Paris Saint-German have been stung.

This financial ‘sting’ is mere peanuts when compared to their financial clout, but each team competing in either the Champions League or Europa League received a share of their fines, amounting to €265,000 going to each of the 70 clubs involved in European football this season.

UEFA, though, are profiting hugely from Champions League and Europa League broadcasting revenues.

They expect their revenues to rise a whopping 30% to €1.75bn in the 2015-18 commercial sales cycle.

This is partly due to the extortionate fees that broadcasting companies are prepared to pay in order to show the world’s finest club competitions.

In Britain, BT Sport paid an astonishing £897m for the rights to show live Champions League and Europa League football for three seasons from the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign.

UEFA have been criticised for not giving second, third and fourth tier clubs a proportionate share of these huge sums of money, but the reality is that they probably could.

Before the 30% growth forecast for 2015-18, their income stood at €1.3bn, with €900m of that being shared amongst the clubs who participated in the Champions League and Europa League.

Some financial experts have even suggested that UEFA will look to bring in even greater financial rewards for the clubs that qualify for European competitions.

That potential move is aimed at reducing the gap between football’s super-rich clubs and the rich ones – but it widens the gap between the rich and the poorer ones.

In effect, the move would create a vicious circle.

The clubs with the biggest budgets attract the best players and tend to occupy the top spots in domestic leagues, thus qualifying for European competitions and earning UEFA’s prize money.

This makes them even richer and makes it harder for clubs to break into the clique-like qualifying positions for Europe’s top club competitions.

In short, those clubs who do not and who cannot qualify for European football are being cut further adrift.

It is a problem that UEFA has failed to address and is leading to problems with grassroots football across a host of Europe’s major footballing countries, including England.

A large share of the blame must also fall on domestic leagues.

In England, the Premier League are often ridiculed for their distribution of broadcasting fees.

The most recent round of bidding generated £3bn in broadcasting revenue, with Sky paying £2.3bn for live coverage of 116 games a season and BT Sport paying £738m for 38 live matches each season from the 2012-13 campaign.

£1.1bn of prize money was given to the 20 clubs in the Premier League last season, with clubs earning an additional £750,000 per live game on TV.

Additionally, teams earned £1.2m in merit money for every place gained, meaning Cardiff earned £1.2m for finishing bottom and Manchester City earned £24m for winning the title.

That meant the total merit money distributed by the Premier League came to £252m last season.

In total, that means £1.5bn has been distributed by the Premier League – just half of the three-year cycle of broadcasting fees alone.

So, while Premier League clubs are quite well off, the disparity between the top two divisions – in England and indeed most countries in Europe – is substantial and growing further still.

The question is whether FIFA, UEFA or the domestic governing bodies will do something to address the problem?

For the minute, the current arrangements certainly seem to ensure the football rich get richer and the poorer stay poor.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

My 2014/15 Premier League predictions

After a stunning domestic season and an extraordinary World Cup, the new 2014/15 Premier League season begins tomorrow – just 34 days after the final in Rio. 

Aligning with unwritten tradition, there has been the usual transfer frenzy as clubs await the return of World Cup players from their holidays.

In last season’s Premier League predictions blog, my choices of Arsenal (4th) and Spurs (6th) proved to be the only perfect predictions – but this season looks even more difficult to predict!

Nevertheless, here are my shouts for the 2014/15 Premier League season.

20. Burnley (2013/14: 2nd in Championship); Relegation odds: 8/13 favourites

The Tykes are the clear candidates to be relegated this season, but in manager Sean Dyche they have one of England’s outstanding young managers. It is a shame then, that Dyche has lacked funds in the transfer market to strengthen his squad.

Despite that, some astute cheap signings have been made, with the likes of Lukas Jutkiewicz, Matt Taylor, Michael Kightly and Marvin Sordell coming in for a combined £3.5m. Meanwhile, Danny Ings, Burnley’s top scorer last season with 22 league goals, could be crucial to their slim hopes of survival.

19. Leicester City (2013/14: Championship winners); Relegation odds: 13/5

Perhaps a surprising choice, given that The Foxes won the Championship last season, Leicester are my second pick to go down.

Boss Nigel Pearson has also found transfers hard to come by in the summer, and the over-inflated £8m paid to Brighton for striker Leonardo Ulloa might prove to be a fruitless gamble.

Pearson’s best business looks to be the free transfer of Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa, who has been in rejuvenated form during pre-season, but a lack of strength in depth could down the East Midlanders this season.

18. West Brom (2013/14: 17th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 13/5

New manager Alan Irvine has his hands full in his first season in charge of the Baggies, not least because of a light strike force. The club’s only two recognised forwards Saido Berahino and Victor Anichebe are joined by record signing Brown Ideye, who cost £10m from Dynamo Kiev.

Much will depend on Ideye’s transition to Premier League football and, if he doesn’t fire, the Baggies will be in serious trouble.

Despite that, Irvine has reinforced a strong midfield with Craig Gardner, while centre-back Joleon Lescott will look to resurrect his career after a frustrating spell at Manchester City.

Ultimately, it may be a lack of goals and a shaky defence that will relegate West Brom.

17. QPR (2013/14: 4th & Championship play-off winners); Relegation odds: 2/1

Harry Redknapp has long been a manager to sign big-name players, despite their age, and this season is no different having tempted Rio Ferdinand to Loftus Road.

QPR’s experienced midfield will be vital this season, and it has been strengthened by the arrival of Jordan Mutch from Cardiff for £6m, who will provide extra impetus going forward.

But it is in defence where Redknapp has improved QPR most, perhaps learning from Tony Pulis’ exploits at Crystal Palace, as Steven Caulker and Mauricio Isla join forces with Ferdinand.

The Hoops will survive the drop, but only just.

16. Aston Villa (2013/14: 15th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Villa’s off-field plight has dominated their summer as owner Randy Lerner struggles to find a buyer for the club.

As a result, transfer funds have been almost non-existent to Paul Lambert and new assistant Roy Keane but the manager has opted to bring in experience to compliment a youthful team as Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson join alongside £2m left-back Aly Cissokho.

With Christian Benteke set to return from a nasty Achilles injury in September, Villa should stay up despite the uncertainty over their future ownership.

15. Crystal Palace (2013/14: 11th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Crystal Palace had their Premier League future thrown into jeopardy on Thursday as Tony Pulis, widely acclaimed for the brilliant job he did in helping the Eagles to survival last season, left the club by mutual consent.

No replacement had been made at the time of writing, but during the summer Pulis had made two cute signings in striker Fraizer Campbell and centre-back Brede Hangeland, who bring Premier League experience for a combined £900k.

Palace will also depend upon Jason Puncheon, whose goals helped elevate them to eleventh last season, but in the main they look solid once again as they look to consolidate their Premier League status.

14. Hull City (2013/14: 16th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 7/2

This season Hull step into the unknown world of Europa League football, and are just two legs away from the main draw.

If they manage to overcome Lokeren they will face the difficult task of juggling European football with their Premier League campaign – a factor which almost relegated Stoke three seasons ago.

Hull have lost Shane Long to Southampton for a super-inflated £12m fee, but will need to replace him before the deadline shuts if they are to succeed domestically and in Europe.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce has spent heavily on Jake Livermore (£8m) and Robert Snodgrass (£7m) and will look to avoid another late-season dip in form which saw Hull slip to 16th, just above the relegation precipice.

13. West Ham (2013/14: 13th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

Manager Sam Allardyce dragged his side from an alarming position in the winter to comfortably survive, and has looked to address the problems he faced with some impressive signings.

£12m striker Enner Valencia brings a bagful of goals from ex-club Pachuca and seems set to be one of the best buys of the summer, while Cheikhou Kouyate (£7m) and Aaron Cresswell (£3.75m) are intriguing signings.

The Hammers should easily survive but the upper reaches of the bottom ten teams should be their ceiling position come May.

12. Sunderland (2013/14: 14th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 5/1

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet ensured the Black Cats stayed up, to his own disbelief, last season and will hope to build upon that success story with a strong following season.

The signing of Jack Rodwell (£10m) will add extra bite to their midfield if he avoids injury, and the club are working on a £14m deal for Fabio Borini. If Poyet can’t close that protracted move then Connor Wickham will inherit the goalscoring pressure after his spell of five goals in nine games steered the club to safety.

Sunderland will be fine if they can sign another defender, while in Vito Mannone they have one of the outstanding young goalkeepers in the league.

11. Southampton (2013/14: 8th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

A mass exodus to end mass exoduses destabilised Southampton this summer as captain Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers all left the club after Mauricio Pochettino headed for Spurs.

New boss Ronald Koeman has used the huge revenue of those deals to sign free-scoring Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch Eredivisie, while Celtic and England goalkeeper Fraser Forster will compete with the flimsy Artur Boruc for the number one jersey.

However, Koeman still needs to find a suitable replacement for Lovren, but has been scuppered as targets Stefan de Vrij and Marcos Rojo have turned down moves.

Much could depend on the Saints’ defence and whether Morgan Schneiderlin is allowed to join Pochettino at Spurs, but Koeman has restored some balance at the club after a worrying June and July and they should enjoy an unspectacular mid-table finish.

10. Stoke City (2013/14: 9th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 13/8

Another finish in mid-table obscurity would suit Stoke this season, but they will fancy their chances of creeping into the top ten after a healthy summer of transfers.

Misfiring Barcelona reject Bojan Krkic will try his luck in the Premier League, while the trio of Mame Diouf, Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley were all clever free transfers as boss Mark Hughes strengthens his squad significantly.

Hughes will hope that Sidwell’s goals from midfield will remedy a long-term problem for the Potters, while much will be expected of the maverick Marko Arnautovic, who enjoyed a fabulous opening season with the club.

9. Swansea City (2013/14: 12th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 5/2

Swansea have become synonymous with a silky possession-hogging style of play in recent seasons and they will be a top ten fixture throughout this campaign.

The promising signings of Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis are Garry Monk’s key transfers, but the loss of Michel Vorm and Ben Davies to Spurs was tempered by the resulting return of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who will occupy an exciting midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey after Michu’s departure.

The Swans still have far too much about them to get relegated and, reliant on the goals of Wilfried Bony, they will be eyeing up a top ten finish with room to spare.

8. Newcastle United (2013/14: 10th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 6/4

Magpies manager Alan Pardew has continued his French revolution during the summer with the exciting arrivals of Emmanuel Riviere and Remy Cabella.

Another wise signing is Daryl Janmaat, who impressed for Holland at the World Cup, as he replaces Arsenal recruit Mathieu Debuchy at right-back.

The ever-expectant Newcastle fans will demand a European spot but that may prove too far beyond them, while Pardew will be out to make sure a slip similar to that of last season when their survival and lack of European football was guaranteed, won’t happen again.

7. Spurs (2013/14: 6th in Premier League); Title odds: 66/1

There is a breeze of optimism at White Hart Lane following Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as manager.

Safe in the knowledge that his midfield is considerably stronger than anywhere else, Pochettino has focused on the defence, bringing in Ben Davies and Michel Vorm (£13.5m), Eric Dier (£4m) and DeAndre Yedlin (£2.5m).

Pochettino will have to sort through the mass of defensive midfielders at his disposal in search of his best team, but should have an expansive attacking unit at his disposal with Emmanuel Adebayor, Aaron Lennon and Christian Eriksen all impressing last season.

A key early task will be playing Roberto Soldado into form, and it is hoped that Pochettino’s style of play will suit the Spaniard, who could become akin to a new signing if he improves upon last season.

6. Everton (2013/14: 5th in Premier League); Title odds: 150/1

The Toffees have made a statement in the transfer market by turning Romelu Lukaku’s loan move into a permanent one, paying Chelsea £28m for his services.

Meanwhile, Everton boss Roberto Martinez will have a headache in choosing a centre-back partnership with the emergence of John Stones and the combined age (67) of regular pairing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka a cause for concern.

In the exciting Ross Barkley, Everton have a young star but he may not be preferred to the unsung Kevin Mirallas, who quietly impressed amidst the bluster surrounding Barkley last season.

Everton will strive for a Champions League place but will probably come up short, making a Europa League spot a realistic end-of-season target.

5. Manchester United (2013/14: 7th in Premier League); Title odds: 5/1

The despair and disbelief of the David Moyes era has been replaced with renewed faith under Louis van Gaal as the Red Devils enjoyed a 100% record in pre-season, beating both European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool 3-1.

There are still major flaws in the side, with defence looking particularly vulnerable, and their midfield still requires rebuilding, even after the £28m arrival of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao.

New captain Wayne Rooney will partner Robin van Persie in a fluid 3-4-1-2 system and, with Juan Mata occupying the number ten role behind them, United look extremely dangerous in attack.

However, the jitters in defence still remain and United’s lack of reliable defensive options following the losses of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra may see them get picked off by their title rivals.

4. Arsenal (2013/14: 4th in Premier League); Title odds: 13/2

Arsene Wenger has again moved quickly to offset any worries over their financial clout by signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for £35m.

Defenders Mathieu Debuchy (£12m) and Calum Chambers (£16m) will bolster a defensive line which crumbled in the biggest games, the worst being a 6-0 drubbing against Chelsea, while captain Thomas Vermaelen has left for Barcelona in a £15m deal.

Arsenal are irresistible going forward but, in tighter games they can be overpowered in midfield and that could prove a significant factor this season too.

An impressive 3-0 victory over an under-strength Manchester City in the Community Shield was a healthy confidence-boost, but they are too reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and will look towards Sanchez for help.

3. Liverpool (2013/14: 2nd in Premier League); Title odds: 12/1

Dominating Liverpool’s summer has been the £75m transfer of Luis Suarez after his appalling bite of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

Barcelona were the only takers for the disgraced but super-talented Uruguayan, and Liverpool will keenly feel his absence after replacing him in bulk rather than world-class talent.

Eight summer signings have been made by boss Brendan Rodgers, with no out-and-out replacement for Suarez having arrived.

With £75m to spend, Liverpool appear to have bought unwisely, with some critics musing that a move for a proven world-class striker such as Edinson Cavani would have been a better option than to reinforce his strike-force with Rickie Lambert alone.

Liverpool will still be a huge threat this season, but they already miss the craft and guile of Suarez and will lose out on the title once more.

2. Chelsea (2013/14: 3rd in Premier League); Title odds: 2/1 favourites

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have made huge strides in the transfer market as their search for a world-class striker concluded with £32m man Diego Costa.

Costa endured an awful World Cup, but his form last season for Atletico Madrid attracted Mourinho and a good pre-season has served to alleviate any doubts about the Spaniard.

Cesc Fabregas (£30m) has also arrived after Frank Lampard’s departure to add to a diamond-encrusted midfield, but it is in defence where Chelsea will come up short in the title race.

Their defensive line of new signing Filipe Luis, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill appears solid, but at times last season the latter three were exposed by a lack of pace and inexplicable losses to lesser teams.

Mourinho, despite being the winner that he is, may have to settle for second this time out.

1. Manchester City (2013/14: 1st in Premier League); Title odds: 13/5

Rarely has a side in the Premier League built a squad capable of destroying teams as readily as Manchester City.

The strength in depth available to manager Manuel Pellegrini is luxurious, and the wily Chilean has moved this summer to improve City in their most vulnerable areas.

The £32m signing of Eliaquim Mangala from Porto partners him with Vincent Kompany in what looks to be the strongest centre-back pairing in the world, while Fernando (£12m), Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard are exceptional additions to a scarily-strong team.

City are the outstanding team in the league, but anything less than a title retention will be a massive failure for Pellegrini.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 World Cup: Ten young stars to watch out for

Can you hear the sound of the world’s biggest carnival yet?

When it wheels into the newly-built Arena Corinthians on June 12 over one billion viewers will be gripped by World Cup fever.

Home nation Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo to begin the month-long festival of football.

Of course, there is much expectation and pressure on the Brazilian team to win on home turf and there have also been well-documented clashes and protests surrounding the judiciousness of the finances released by the Brazilian government to host this magical tournament. (There will be more on that in a later blog).

To help get your football juices going this blog will be the first of ten special World Cup blogs to supplement your enjoyment of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Blog number one previews ten of the best young footballers to feature at the World Cup this summer.

To qualify, there are two criteria: A player must be aged 23 or under and must be making his World Cup debut.

So, let’s start the countdown. Who is set to be the brightest young talent of the World Cup?

10. Fabian Schär – Switzerland, age 22, centre-back (5 caps, 3 goals)

Perhaps a surprise inclusion at ten on this list, Schär is arguably one of the most exciting defenders in the world. His aerial ability from set-pieces is allied to an instinctive reading of the game and his impressive pace serves him well when faced with one-on-one duels. Recent performances for Basel in the Europa League suggest that Schär excels on the big stage and will be in contention for a starting place in Switzerland’s first game against Ecuador.

9. Mario Götze – Germany, 21, attacking midfielder (27 caps, 7 goals)

Undoubtedly one of the best German talents, of which there are many, but will he get a regular starting spot in Brazil? The competition for places in the German midfield could hinder Götze’s chances of making a big impact on the tournament but he has proven his goalscoring prowess at international level despite being in and out of the Bayern Munich side this season.

8. Son Heung-Min – South Korea, 21, attacking midfielder (23 caps, 6 goals)

After an impressive season with Bayer Leverkusen, Son will be carrying the affection of South Korea on his shoulders. Son usually plays just off the lead striker but such is his versatility and talent he can switch positions across a forward three and is also deployed on the wing. Son’s flexibility rids South Korea of a rigidity which had plagued their game in recent years but with their new hero they should be a threat to Belgium, Russia and Algeria in group H.

7. Adnan Januzaj – Belgium, 19, attacking midfielder (0 caps, 0 goals)

At just 19, Januzaj is part of a youthful and promising Belgium squad in Brazil. A long wrestling match between several countries is to blame for his lack of international experience but, after opting for Belgium, manager Marc Wilmots has wasted no time in including the Manchester United star in his plans. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him in the pecking order Januzaj could make a significant impact coming off the bench against tiring opponents with his jinking runs.

6. Ross Barkley – England, 20, attacking midfielder (3 caps, 0 goals)

Barkley’s place on this list is dependent upon Roy Hodgson giving him the playing time many onlookers are craving. The precocious young talent has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne but his technical ability stretches far beyond that of Gazza’s. Even if Hodgson prefers to be conservative in Brazil he is set to make substantial contributions when coming off the bench, particularly with his energetic and creative game.

5. Paul Pogba – France, 21, central midfielder (8 caps, 1 goal)

An authoritative and commanding presence in midfield, Pogba is very much in the Yaya Toure mould of footballer. He can rampage forward and score goals as a stellar season at Juventus has proven. Doubts still remain about his mentality but bearing his age in mind that is a problem he will overcome with maturity and should that process happen this summer he could be France’s star player in Brazil.

4. Mario Balotelli – Italy, 23, striker (29 caps, 12 goals)

Commeth the spotlight, commeth the maverick. Balotelli relishes attention and a World Cup in Brazil presents him with an opportunity to display his skills in the biggest arena of them all. His superb performances at Euro 2012 saw a coming of age for the rebellious striker and he has built upon that with some assured displays at AC Milan. He will be the spearhead of Italy’s attack versus England but can he control his temper to replicate his Euro 2012 showing?

3. Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, 22, goalkeeper (15 caps, 8 clean sheets)

Some may be surprised that a goalkeeper makes third place on this countdown, but Courtois will be one of the stars of the tournament. His potential is staggering and his acclimatisation to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid at a young age has been exceptional. A series of assured displays coupled with some outstanding saves shows why Chelsea paid €9m for him when he was just 19.

2. Eden Hazard – Belgium, 23, winger (43 caps, 5 goals)

A world-class talent but inconsistent with it, Hazard has the chance to exorcise his critics with a memorable display in Brazil. His tally of five goals in 43 games for Belgium is underwhelming but after enjoying a spectacular season for Chelsea there are signs he could flower into an international star this summer as part of a dangerous Belgium team.

1. Neymar – Brazil, 22, forward (47 caps, 30 goals)

There has been no expectation as high as this on any player in history. A home World Cup in a land where football is a religion. It seems made for Neymar and all his astonishing skill, but can he deliver under such a burden? His goal-laced performances at the 2013 Confederations Cup would offer a resounding yes to that question, even after an unconvincing opening season at Barcelona. Despite that, the Brazilian team is built to utilise his incredible talent with some tipping him to earn the Golden Boot. Could this tournament belong to the darling of Brazil?

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Cazorla downs battling Wigan in FA Cup shoot-out

Santi Cazorla scored the winning penalty as Arsenal came from behind to beat holders Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.

Jordi Gomez had given Wigan a second-half lead with a penalty after Per Mertesacker chopped down the impressive Callum McManaman.

Arsenal rallied after the penalty and Mertesacker redeemed himself by equalising from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed shot.

After a goalless extra-time there was to be no fairytale defence of the crown for Wigan as they missed two penalties in the shoot-out, allowing Cazorla to calmly slot home to record a 4-2 shoot-out win and send his team to the final in May.

The win lifts the pressure on manager Arsene Wenger after he selected a weakened starting-line up following a torrid 3-0 loss to Everton, placing faith in a young and energetic side.

Arsenal’s pace caused Wigan big problems and they should have taken the lead after five minutes when Yaya Sanogo powered a header straight at Scott Carson from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volleyed cross.

Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly asserted himself along Arsenal’s right-hand side and his pace almost created an opening as he chased a chipped ball, but an alert Carson stooped to turn the ball away for a corner.

For all of the Gunners’ early possession they created little in the opening quarter of the game as Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation set about stifling their opponent’s creative midfield.

It was left to Aaron Ramsey, making his first Arsenal start since Boxing Day, to rustle up some quality in a congested midfield.

His incisive pass to Sanogo was skewed away for a corner which presented Bacary Sagna with a good chance from an acute angle after Thomas Vermaelen’s knock-down, but the Frenchman could only lift the ball over the Wigan crossbar.

The Latics had hardly ventured into Arsenal’s half and a dismal Gomez cross that drifted out of play was a fair reflection of their start to the game.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side gradually worked themselves into the game and looked more dangerous with McManaman in possession – a point justified when the young winger briefly got in behind the slow Arsenal defence only to waste his opportunity with a heavy cross.

Arsenal were also proving to be profligate with their opportunities and Sanogo was again guilty of wastefulness when he blazed over from 20 yards after another threatening run from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

McManaman had easily been Wigan’s best player in the first-half and, after earning a shooting opportunity with his pace, a rifled shot was followed by a tame effort from Marc-Antoine Fortune who worked Lukasz Fabianski for the first time.

Moments later Sanogo’s poor finishing continued as he spurned the best chance of the half.

The inexperienced French striker was sent clear by Lukas Podolski’s clearance but a shoddy touch enabled Carson to close on him quickly and dispose of the danger.

For all of Sanogo’s impressive link-up play during the half his goalscoring ability has been in question and Arsenal might have led had his chances fallen to the benched Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal began the second half at a breathless speed, but it was actually Wigan who were the more menacing as a spell of pressure – including a weak penalty appeal after a nudge from Ramsey on James McArthur – induced jitters in the Arsenal defence.

The cup-tie was suddenly wide open and Wigan were the first to profit when McManaman held off Nacho Monreal before cutting inside and drawing a foul from the sliding Mertesacker to earn a penalty.

Arsenal were livid as they believed Monreal was fouled but, after a four-minute delay to treat the Spaniard’s groin injury, Gomez  confidently swept the ball home from the spot.

Rosler, who couldn’t bear to watch the penalty, reacted by replacing the excellent McManaman and Josh McEachran with Nick Powell and Jack Collison respectively.

Rosler’s counterpart Wenger also made a change at this critical phase of the game by hauling off Podolski for Giroud and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Arsenal consequently began to mount growing pressure on the Wigan defence and were desperately close to an equaliser when Sagna hit the post with a header from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross.

Seconds later a chipped cross was flicked on by Sanogo which released Kieran Gibbs on goal but he was denied by a fabulous save from Carson before Stephen Crainey hooked clear.

Eventually Wigan buckled and Arsenal equalised with eight minutes remaining.

Sanogo’s strength was again a key factor as he laid the ball off for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose mishit shot was turned in by Mertesacker at the far post as the German made amends for conceding the earlier penalty to take the game into extra-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo combined again to create the only meaningful shot of the first extra-time period, but the Frenchman could only fire at Carson after a neat swivel.

With just ten minutes of extra-time remaining, Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time when Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed an outswinging shot from 20 yards that crashed against the angle.

Wigan still looked a threat on the break, and a mazy run from Powell past the tired Arsenal defence might have produced a winning goal but the on-loan Manchester United man dragged his early shot harmlessly wide as the match headed for penalties.

Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Collison had dreadful penalties saved by Fabianski, enabling Arsenal to open up a 2-0 lead when Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom slotted home.

A Giroud penalty was sandwiched between successful Jean Beausejour and James McArthur spot-kicks but Cazorla was left with the decisive strike and he made no mistake to send Arsenal through to the final as they look to win their first silverware since a 2005 FA Cup win.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The Manchester United conundrum

It seems that some people think solving the Manchester United conundrum is as easy as flying an anti-David Moyes banner over Old Trafford.

Others believe it to be a task that will require more than a £100m splurge in the summer transfer window to complete.

Whichever way Manchester United’s current plight is observed, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

Perhaps the most startling difference between the 2012/13 title-winning side and the current 2013/14 squad is the defence.

Nothing has changed in terms of personnel yet it looks completely dysfunctional.

Having watched several Manchester United games this season from the comfort of a local pub, it has even appeared to be frightened, almost paralysed with fear.

This was so devastatingly demonstrated by Manchester City’s bludgeoning of their arch-rivals in the very first minute at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

City swarmed forward and fizzed around the United defenders as if their legs had been soaked in a concrete bath. They were motionless, scared and lacked aggression.

David Silva danced around two United defenders with embarrassing ease, before Samir Nasri’s simple shuffle and shot hit the post and fell straight to Edin Dzeko who tucked the ball away with the sort of unchallenged freedom strikers can only dream about.

Who would replace this ailing defensive unit, then?

Unfortunately for David Moyes, summer signings will be hard to come by.

Not only is the World Cup a traditional obstacle in transfer dealings, but the cunning Old Trafford executives have arranged a pre-season tour of the United States just weeks after the final in Rio.

This means that not only will world-class players be recuperating on holiday and therefore be unavailable to negotiate with, but any prospective signing would not have the chance to integrate with the squad.

Manchester United’s troubles don’t end there.

In midfield they lack energy, creation and combativity. Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be a dazzlingly questionable signing, while Juan Mata has failed to make an indelible impact since his £37m January move from Chelsea.

Tellingly, both new signings have failed to score since their arrival at the club.

Moyes has been very active on scouting missions throughout the winter and has reportedly had Sporting Lisbon’s holding midfielder William Carvalho scouted 12 times.

Carvalho would be an ideal fit at United but the English champions are not his only suitors – and there Moyes faces another problem.

It is becoming harder and harder to believe that world-class players and those of similar potential would choose United as their next club over another one such as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Moyes could do much worse than blooding the promising Nick Powell if his pursuit of Toni Kroos is fruitless, but it would be a blow similar to the failed chases of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas if Carvalho decided against a move to Old Trafford.

Would Manchester United’s under-fire manager then be forced to panic buy as he has apparently done with Fellaini and Mata?

All the current criticism of Moyes is not only misinformed, it is premature.

The Scot has barely had a chance to construct his own side, allowing the new recruits to gel and then getting them to play in the manner he wants.

Therefore he should be judged midway into the 2015/16 season, when it will become clear if his forthcoming transfer strategies have worked or not.

If he is to succeed he can afford no repeat of his previous transfer dealings. That said, the World Cup barricade might prove to be his maker.

Then there is the spectre of European football.

Before the home game against Aston Villa, a five-point gap separates United in seventh and Spurs in sixth. The final Europa League place is awarded to sixth place with a Champions League spot all but mathematically beyond United.

If United do miss out on European football they could struggle to attract the biggest names to the club – and that is a focusing chastisement of their deficiencies this season.

Given all his current challenges, and the ones that inevitably lie ahead, Moyes will be hoping that he is afforded the time he needs to reconstruct a side so alarmingly in decline – and with a six-year contract in hand it is logical for him to be given it.

Who are the best and worst Premier League chairmen and owners?

As Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, once said, “It is in men as in soils where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not.”

Worryingly, this quote could apply to several Premier League chairmen this season after a series of controversial and seemingly unwarranted sackings.

Latest of them all is the fiasco at Cardiff City, where manager Malky Mackay was finally put out of his misery by the oblivious Vincent Tan.

However, Tan is just one of a number of Premier League club owners to have shown little remorse in pursuit of good results and ‘better’ performances.

How long will it be before the Premier League’s managerial environment mirrors the Latin American one?

Only this year, Mexico employed four different managers in six weeks to get them to the World Cup finals.

Supporters of that cut-throat strategy will argue that it worked as Mexico made it to Brazil this summer, but opponents to it will point towards an apparent culture of ‘short-term’ gains where good results coincide with spiked player performances – brought about by a need to impress the new manager and therefore gain a regular starting slot.

Either way it’s clear that long-term stability, reputation building and familiarity are the best recipes for club growth – certainly in English football. With that in mind, who makes the top five best and worst Premier League chairmen/owners?

I’ll hit you with the good first:

5. John W. Henry, Liverpool owner and chairman

Liverpool fans across the country rejoiced when Henry made a bid for Liverpool in 2010. He was eventually successful and replaced the embittered and faltering Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. as owner shortly afterwards. A billionaire businessman, Henry built up a rapport with Reds fans when appointing club stalwart Kenny Dalglish in 2011. He then backed Dalglish by granting the £57.8m spent on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll after Fernando Torres’ £56m sale. The Suarez transfer is undoubtedly the best of his reign so far, and plans to renovate Anfield rather than move to Stanley Park are also proving popular. It seems he has no intention of enjoying the headlines and has the club’s best interests to mind – which is perhaps the ultimate sign of a good owner.

4. Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City owner

Love him or despise him, Sheikh Mansour’s billions have overseen a huge change in fortunes for the club historically seen as the second-biggest in Manchester. Rival fans have offered jibes of ‘can’t buy class’ and ‘Man-cash-ter City’ but the transformation of the club has been so comprehensive that they have usurped United as the giants of Manchester on current form. Mansour has also funded an investment in young talent and a symmetry with Barcelona’s youth academies which will benefit them in decades to come. Overall, it’s hard to see how else City could have reached their current level if Mansour had not delved into his pockets.

3. Bill Kenwright, Everton chairman

Kenwright has gradually increased his involvement with Everton, which peaked in 2004 when he became the club’s majority shareholder. He has been on the board since 1989 and supported the Goodison Park club as a boy. He is also an astute and loyal chairman in terms of managerial appointments, having enjoyed an 11-year stint with David Moyes at the helm and replacing him with Roberto Martinez, himself a loyal and passionate boss having stayed with Wigan through good and bad spells. Everton have not always had the budget to spend on transfers, but that is not a concern when wise purchasing and faith in young talent are among Kenwright’s beliefs.

2. Huw Jenkins, Swansea City chairman

Swansea are in safe hands with Jenkins as chairman, not least because of his tight purse strings. This summer he admitted that the idea of spending £12m on one player – Wilfried Bony – made him uncomfortable, but a recent history of transfers suggests he likes to pay little for more. Michu for £2m and Pablo Hernandez for £5.5m are cases in point, while manager Michael Laudrup could also be included on that list having done a superb job since taking over last summer. But Jenkins should be credited with saving the club from failure in the Football League, having cleaned up the club’s finances. Swansea now boast multi-million pound profits and also won the league cup last season under Jenkins’ guidance.

1. Peter Coates, Stoke City owner and chairman

It’s not often that a Premier League chairman has two bites at the cherry, but in the case of Peter Coates that much is true. A lifelong fan of the club, even having trials with them as a player, Coates will always have their best intentions at heart. His first tenure as owner lasted eight years until 1997, when he stepped down after protests from fans. However, Coates then set up bet365.com in 2000 and took ownership of the club again in 2005, showing loyalty and support to Tony Pulis who managed the team for seven years – a rare tenurial stint. Coates clearly knows how to run a big operation and his preference for British managers must also be welcomed in the modern game. His absence in the headlines is also good news for the club and, taking everything into consideration, Coates has done an extremely good job.

Now the bad:

5. Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United owner

Possibly the least-popular man in the red side of Manchester, Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club piled hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt into the Old Trafford outfit. In his defence he has always committed the necessary funds for big transfers, but that is largely due to the club’s ever-expanding sponsorship portfolio. Fans continue to worry over the rumours that the Glazer family is withdrawing funds from the club. The bottom line is that Glazer’s incumbency has been a shady one and fans are reluctant to trust him.

4. Ellis Short, Sunderland owner and chairman

One of the motifs of bad ownership is the regularity with which managers come and go. In Ellis Short’s case, since he assumed full control of the club in 2009 he has sacked three managers which is a healthy – or unhealthy – ratio. In particular, the appointment of Paolo di Canio caused a stir given the Italian’s constant flirtation with controversy, but in Gus Poyet he seems to have finally made a decent change. Short has also been criticised for his handling of Martin O’Neill, who was widely considered to be a success at Sunderland having saved them from relegation in his first season in charge. It is that type of impatience which earns Short a place on the bad side of this blog.

3. Assem Allam, Hull City owner

Another hugely controversial owner, Allam has done little to enamour himself amongst Hull’s home support. His proposal to Americanize the club’s “common” name of Hull City to Hull City Tigers has been met with widespread anger in the footballing community but Allam is showing little sign of relenting. It is effectively a marketing tool, but Hull’s hardcore support continue to resist by singing ‘City til we die’. Allam, in typical mood, suggested that they could “die as soon as they want.” Has there been a more charming owner?

2. Mike Ashley, Newcastle United owner and chairman

Ever since downing a pint in amongst Toon fans during a trip to the Emirates, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been a figure of fun in the footballing world. His popularity was initially high after appointing Kevin Keegan as manager, but his decisions ever since have proved extremely unpopular. Notably, his friendship with Joe Kinnear – who later became manager – and Dennis Wise, who worked closely with Keegan, were negatively received. After Keegan resigned, he put the club up for sale but never enticed a buyer. Other recent controversies include changing the name of St. James’ Park and reappointing Kinnear in a director of football role. Ashley’s tenure is a fine example of how not to run a football club.

1. Vincent Tan, Cardiff City owner

The king of the worst Premier League owners, Tan’s every action has been divisive and infuriating for Cardiff fans. Changing the club crest and kit colour was viewed as heresy by Bluebirds fans, but Tan’s ill-advised moves have not stopped there. He removed the respected head of recruitment Iain Moody and hired Alisher Apsalyamov – a friend of Tan’s son who, embarrassingly, had no previous footballing experience and worse still, was placed on work experience with the club at the time. Up until today Malky Mackay was in charge but, after a tumultuous public row, he was sacked. Mackay’s sacking was the end of a two-week conflict which came about after an email sent by Tan ordering Mackay to ‘resign or be sacked’ was leaked to the media. Despite great support from colleagues and supporters, a 3-0 loss to Southampton spelled the end for the affable Scot. Cardiff fans will be wondering when Tan’s spell at the club will end, too.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89