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
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2014 World Cup: My 2014 World Cup XI

With the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro fast approaching, it’s time to focus on the players that will make up the FIFA team of the tournament.

Of course, the public don’t get a say, but there is plenty to discuss with several world-class performances throughout the tournament.

Regular World Cup followers will see dozens of ‘World Cup XI’ selections over the coming days, but here is my team along with seven substitutes who have also caught my attention.

For those interested, I’ve opted for a standard 4-2-3-1 formation – you can see my team on sharemytactics.com.

GK. Keylor Navas (CRC)

Navas attracted plaudits from across the globe for a series of stunning displays as he almost single-handedly kept Costa Rica in the World Cup. His world-class saves against Greece in their last-16 penalty shoot-out were arguably his best but another impressive shot-stopping spree against the Netherlands in the quarter-final proved futile as the Central American team went out on penalties.

RB. Cristian Gamboa (CRC)

The contest for the right-back slot was close, but Gamboa wins out for his lung-bursting runs down the right flank. His tireless efforts gave the Costa Ricans a vital get-out to relieve heavy pressure against Holland and Greece and, refreshingly, he is a full-back who is equally at home in defence as he is going forward.

CB: Mats Hummels (c) (GER)

Hummels is Germany’s giant at the back and possibly their most reliable player of the tournament, making him the ideal choice to captain my World Cup XI. The centre-back makes defending look easy with his almost telepathic reading of the game and has also weighed in with two goals including the winner against France in the quarter-final.

CB: Stefan de Vrij (HOL)

Perhaps one of the most unsung players at the World Cup, de Vrij has quietly gone about his business as a quality centre-back. Like Hummels, de Vrij has an excellent reading of the game and seems to thrive on the pressure of tournament football with his performances getting better as the tournament endured. He kept Gonzalo Higuain at bay with ease for 120 minutes in the semi-final against Argentina and also scored in the 5-1 thrashing of world champions Spain.

LB: Marcos Rojo (ARG)

Rojo has shown during this World Cup why a move to a big club in Europe could lie in wait. His pace on the left has provided Argentina with a formidable left flank as Rojo has been deployed in tandem with Angel di Maria. The 24-year-old grabbed a goal against Nigeria in the group stage and looks set to enjoy a long international career.

CM: Toni Kroos (GER)

The German midfield is loaded with talent, but Kroos surpasses his compatriots with his deadly ability to take a controlling grasp of matches. He ducks in and out of attack and defence making him hard to mark and also has the nous to thread an incisive pass. His quick double against Brazil in Germany’s incredible 7-1 mauling of the hosts illustrates why Real Madrid are chasing his signature.

CM: Javier Mascherano (ARG)

He has his critics, but Mascherano has had an outstanding tournament. The gritty Argentine has been cast into his preferred central defensive midfield slot and his country has reaped the rewards. A stunning late block from Arjen Robben’s shot in the semi-final win over Holland was Mascherano at his typically hard-working best.

LM: James Rodriguez (COL)

With six goals Rodriguez is currently top goalscorer at this World Cup, the best of which was a stupendous volley against Uruguay in the last-16. Although Colombia crashed out to Brazil in the quarter-finals, Rodriguez had made his presence felt with a number of world-class attacking displays. Could he follow Ronaldo and Messi as the next footballing superstar?

AM: Lionel Messi (ARG)

The man responsible for dragging Argentina through to the final is unsurprisingly Lionel Messi. Part of an average Argentine side, Messi has provided his country with a winning touch having scored the winning goals in two games and having created Angel di Maria’s winner against Belgium in the quarter-finals. Despite his improved form at this World Cup, his critics will argue that until he wins football’s greatest prize he cannot be elevated above Pele as the best that ever lived.

RM: Thomas Mueller (GER)

Mueller has had another productive World Cup with five goals and is quickly threatening the all-time record tally. One of his finest strengths is his elusive nature. Always on the move, the German can drift to either wing to take possession or can be deployed as a ruthless striker – as his predatory hat-trick against Portugal showed.

ST: Neymar (BRA)

The darling of Brazil, Neymar’s tournament was cruelly cut short by a mischievous challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga which fractured a vertebra. Had he not been taken out so early he could have finished as top goalscorer, but his four goals gave an unusually dull Brazilian side hope of a home World Cup win.

Subs:

GK: Manuel Neuer (GER)

Solid, but not spectacular, Neuer’s tally of three clean sheets owes much to the powerful German defence as it does to his flamboyant sweeper-like antics.

CB: Thiago Silva (BRA)

Thiago Silva’s class during this tournament was defined by his absence in the 7-1 semi-final annihilation by Germany. He was the glue in the Brazilian defence and, when missing through suspension, they were leaderless and duly crumbled.

CB: Ezequiel Garay (ARG)

Garay has had an outstanding tournament for Argentina at the back, and his new club Zenit St. Petersburg will feel vindicated at the £12m they paid Benfica for his services.

RM: Mathieu Valbuena (FRA)

Arguably France’s best player at the World Cup, Valbuena was a constant menace on the right-wing with his pace and trickery. His deliveries from set-plays were sublime and he also scored a deserved goal against Switzerland in the group stage.

LM: Arjen Robben (HOL)

Despite admitting to diving during Holland’s 2-1 win over Mexico in the last-16, Robben earns a place on the bench. He terrified Spain with a brace in a famous 5-1 win and was full of his jinking runs even in extra-time periods against Costa Rica and Argentina.

ST: Robin van Persie (HOL)

The Dutch captain is worth his place on the bench purely because of an astonishing diving header against Spain, and he went on to notch two more goals despite being starved of service as the tournament progressed.

ST: Miroslav Klose (GER)

His goal at the second attempt against Brazil was a record-breaker for Klose as he overtook Ronaldo as the all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with 16. He has the chance to line up in his second World Cup final but has yet to score in one.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Manchester United sack David Moyes, but who will replace him?

That’s it, then.

The #MoyesOut Neanderthals have finally got what they wanted and David Moyes has been sacked by the Manchester United hierarchy.

After Sir Alex Ferguson lasted 26 years in the job, he then effectively chose Moyes as his successor who in turn only lasted 10 months.

A wiser decision needs to be made this time around to prevent a more devastating decline, but with Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp – arguably the best fit for United – already having ruled himself out, United’s net seems to be widening instead of tightening.

There are also plenty of people willing to poke fun at United’s situation, with serial comedians Paddy Power posting a price of 500/1 on Howard Webb (the Premier League referee) to become their next boss.

Amidst all of the lugubrious talk, here is my list of the top ten candidates to succeed Moyes.

10. Pep Guardiola – Bayern Munich manager – best odds 33/1

To some this might seem a ridiculous idea. Why would Pep move to United from the all-conquering Bayern? Well, it’s not as simple as that. There are rumours emanating from Germany that Guardiola is tired of the hierarchical structure within Bayern. Added to that, United have enquired about him as they begin a thorough search for the ideal candidate. All things considered, it’s difficult to see Pep moving but the United vultures are circling should anything dramatic happen in Bavaria.

9. Thomas Tuchel – Mainz manager – odds on request

Who? Yes, that’s right, Thomas Tuchel. Here are some crazy facts about Tuchel. He likes Thai cuisine, bitter chocolate and has an interest in furniture design. Those nuggets aside, he’s regarded as one of the best young European managers having worked wonders with Mainz, who operate on one of the lowest budgets in the Bundesliga. Mainz are currently on target to break into the Europa League, while Tuchel has been touted by German newspaper Bild as the next Jurgen Klopp. Some billing.

8. Carlo Ancelotti – Real Madrid manager – 33/1

Ancelotti is a man who rarely rules himself out of anything. Even with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale at his disposal in sunny Madrid, it’s unlikely he wouldn’t listen to other offers this summer. United are naturally hovering around the best managers in Europe, of which Ancelotti is one, but there are few plausible reasons for the Italian to leave Real other than to bolster his wallet.

7. Roberto Martinez – Everton manager – 33/1

Martinez is partly to blame for Moyes’ sacking. His revamped Moyes-built Everton side showed the Scot how easy, or not, it is to step into a new club and get players performing to immediate effect. The trouble United might find with Martinez, should they opt to attempt to prise him away from Goodison Park, is that the Spaniard is fiercely loyal. 33/1 is a fair price under those circumstances.

6. Mauricio Pochettino – Southampton manager – 40/1

The key to Pochettino is whether he feels he has reached the limit of his journey with Southampton. The Argentine has constructed a young and talented side with several players including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez consequently coveted by other English clubs. Does he sense those players are on their way out? And if so, could now be a time to leave to take a shot at managing one of the biggest clubs in world football?

5. Louis van Gaal – Netherlands manager – 5/4 favourite

The bookmakers have Louis van Gaal as the favourite to succeed Moyes but, upon closer inspection, any such favouritism is misplaced. Van Gaal will become available at the end of the World Cup when his contract with the KNVB finishes, but he is far from the ideal replacement for Moyes. At 62, his appointment would be short-term and therefore counter-intuitive to United’s philosophy, while his habit of leaving clubs after brief spells of success cannot be overlooked either.

4. Marcelo Bielsa – unattached – 79/1

If United are looking for a master tactician they would not be disappointed with the wily Chilean. Bielsa has twice faced United with former club Athletic Bilbao and twice his youthful, energetic and adroit side comprehensively outplayed the Red Devils. Bielsa is a man who will command instant respect and will almost certainly sure United up in their vulnerable defensive areas. Bielsa’s age, 58, might be a sticking point, but he represents a calculated choice should he be chosen.

3. Michael Laudrup – unattached – 50/1

One name currently, and wrongly, drifting under the radar is Michael Laudrup’s. After being unceremoniously sacked by Swansea it seems eerie to think that a manager of Laudrup’s calibre is not even in contention. His teams play an attractive brand of football – something that United fans have been desperate for – and he has enough managerial talent to sustain a tenure at a club of United’s stature. The big question is whether United are prepared to take a gamble on the Dane.

2. Diego Simeone – Atletico Madrid manager – 20/1

If he doesn’t sign for United, Diego Simeone will forever be remembered as the man who was kicked by David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup as England crashed out on penalties to Argentina. In his managerial career Simeone is crafting an exciting and ominous path forwards. His Atletico Madrid team have won a Europa League title, thrashed Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA SuperCup and have added a Copa Del Rey trophy during his time in Spain. They currently sit top of La Liga and are in the semi-finals of the Champions League having defeated rivals Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Simeone is on his way to becoming the next superstar manager, but can United tempt him away from the Vicente Calderon?

1. Laurent Blanc – PSG manager – 33/1

Blanc has built up a good deal of managerial experience at a high level, is only 48 and as a former centre-back will prioritise the rebuilding of United’s weak defence which is one of the main contributory factors to Moyes’ sacking. Blanc is also a former United player, speaks decent English and has shown he has the skills to rein in the egos at a top club – they don’t come much bigger than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s at PSG. He may not have the glittering trophy cabinet of Simeone, but he is the sensible choice to stabilise United at this time. After signing a two-year contract with PSG last summer, United should have no trouble in swooping for Blanc if they decide to pursue him. Right now, Blanc is the safest bet for a giant club on the brink of further recession.

  • 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.

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

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

The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89