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

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

My 2013/14 Premier League predictions

Straight away, I’m going to jinx the upcoming Premier League season – I think it’s going to be a cracker.

It’s certainly looking as if it’s going to be the hardest Premier League season to call for a while, and who wouldn’t be up for some unpredictability after Manchester United cantered to the title last time out?

Of course there are the usual rivalries to look forward to, and some new ones too as broadcasting newcomers BT Sport look to sink the all-conquering Sky Sports in the biggest ever battle of its kind.

There is also the addition of goal-line technology to muse over. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no major goal-line incidents to speak of for the Hawk-Eye system to judge – but that’s show business for you.

Anyway, let’s get started with the serious business. Counting down from 20th place to 1st, here’s my version of what the Premier League table will look like come Sunday 11th May next year.

20. Hull City Tigers (2012/13: Promoted, 2nd in Championship)

Has there ever been a team so hotly-tipped to go down as Hull City? (or Hull City Tigers as they have imaginatively been renamed).

At the managerial helm is Steve Bruce, perennial signer of has-been big-name players. Bruce has lived up to his reputation in the transfer market, signing the under-achieving Tom Huddlestone and Danny Graham, who will need to shoulder the burden of scoring consistently for his new side to give them a chance of staying up.

The acquisition of former Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is a good bit of business though, and Graham might have an exciting strike partner in the talented Yannick Sagbo. The backbone of the team also has a distinct Man United youth squad look to it, as so many of Bruce’s teams have done in the past.

Criticisms of Bruce’s managerial aptitude aside, Hull have a solid defence which hardly conceded in last season’s Championship, but I expect the step up in class to prove too tough for them on their return to the top flight.

19. Crystal Palace (2012/13: Promoted, Championship play-off winners)

Nearly every football fan in the country rejoiced when Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May. Not because they’re all Eagles fans, but because Ian Holloway would be a regular fixture on Match of the Day once more.

The colourful Bristolian may have lost Wilfried Zaha to Man United this summer but he has bought well to replace him. Jose Campana, just 20, signed from Sevilla for €2m while Marouane Chamakh has also penned a one-year deal.

Holloway’s excellent man-management and motivational skills should get the ailing Chamakh into better goalscoring form than in recent seasons while the exciting talent of Jonathan Williams will provide him with the creativity needed at Premier League level.

Palace, like Hull, proved tough to score against last season but being just as frugal in the Premier League will be much more difficult and consequently relegation looms large for them this season.

18. Sunderland (2012/13: Premier League, 17th)

Yes, you heard it here first. Sunderland to be relegated. Why? Because despite the Paulo di Canio effect the Black Cats very nearly faced the drop last season.

The trouble for Sunderland fans is that di Canio has made a whole host of distinctly average signings in the summer. They have been the Premier League’s most active club, signing ten players in all, but none of them carry formidable reputations and Mackem fans will be wondering if it’s going to be enough for them to stay up this season.

Does di Canio know his best team? And will the raft of new players destabilise the club rather than strengthen it? Time will tell, but I feel it could have a negative impact as di Canio sorts out his best line-up, tactics and alternatives.

That said, the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus is a good one and, if he can link up well with Steven Fletcher and fellow newcomer Jozy Altidore, Sunderland might just be OK.

Questions still remain over their defence though, and I expect this to be where Sunderland come unstuck this season. Few recognised reinforcements for an aged defence that conceded 1.5 goals on average per game last season is an ominous sign.

17. Fulham (2012/13: Premier League, 12th)

Joining Sunderland in a fight to stay in the top flight are Fulham. Martin Jol’s side finished an unrepresentative 12th last season, jumping four places after a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on the final day.

Jol knew that signings needed to be made and perhaps the most impressive of those is centre-back Fernando Amorebieta. Signed on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, the Venezuelan is powerful in the tackle, while his skill on the ball exudes a calming influence on those around him. He will form a strong partnership with Brede Hangeland in central defence.

Fulham still have an older squad than most, which is not necessarily a problem, but a lack of depth beyond those experienced players is certainly evident. Dimitar Berbatov has a new strike partner in Darren Bent, signed on loan from Aston Villa today, while Maarten Stekelenburg has replaced Mark Schwarzer between the posts.

I doubt Fulham will be relegated, but should they suffer a spate of injuries they will be struggling.

16. Cardiff City(2012/13: Promoted as Championship winners)

Of all the promoted sides, Cardiff look best placed to upset a few of the more established Premier League sides this season.

They already had Premier League experience in Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell and the addition of Steven Caulker to bolster their defence has bucked the trend of their fellow promotees.

Having also signed Chile international Gary Medel from Sevilla, Malky Mackay’s side look in decent shape and should avoid the drop.

15. Stoke City (2012/13: Premier League, 13th)

Not many teams have signed a Barcelona player this summer, but Stoke City have. They welcome Marc Muniesa, a 21-year-old centre-back, to the Britannia this season.

He joins Dutch left-back Erik Pieters in the Potters squad as new manager Mark Hughes looks to improve upon 13th last season.

That placing flattered Stoke somewhat, particularly because they had been in relegation peril towards the end of the season, but they have a strong enough squad to survive the drop again this time round.

14. Aston Villa (2012/13: Premier League, 15th)

Villa have done well this summer to tie star striker Christian Benteke down on a new contract. Up top last season Villa looked as dangerous as any of the top sides in the division as Benteke was partnered by Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, but their defence remains shaky.

Awash with youngsters, it was very nearly Villa’s undoing as they conceded 69 goals with the biggest slump in form coming in an 8-0 drubbing away to Chelsea.

Still, Villa’s forward line should get Paul Lambert’s men over the line and they can continue to build their side after the World Cup in Brazil in what is undoubtedly a long-term project for the Midlanders.

13. Southampton (2012/13: Premier League, 14th)

Mauricio Pochettino has been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but his two signings to date have been big ones.

Southampton have splashed the cash on Victor Wanyama (£12m) and Dejan Lovren (£8.5m), fees which are widely held to be well above what each player is worth.

£12m for Wanyama looks particularly expensive considering Wilfried Bony, Mesut Özil and Shinji Kagawa also commanded £12m fees, but Saints have nonetheless made a statement in signing the Kenya international.

Their form last season following Pochettino’s move was good, but a poor finish to the season belied a decent middle stint where Manchester City were among their scalps. Could be fighting for a top ten finish.

12. West Ham (2012/13: Premier League, 10th)

Sam Allardyce is similar to Steve Bruce in that he often signs players with a big reputation, and he has lived up to that billing by signing Liverpool pair Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing for a combined £21m.

The two players should, in theory at least, link up well with Downing’s crosses seen as the perfect supply for Carroll to destroy teams with his mastery of aerial duels.

With a solid defence and a diligent midfield, West Ham will be well clear of the relegation scrap and should be aiming for a top ten finish, which may just be beyond them given the quality of the teams around them.

11. Newcastle United (2012/13: Premier League, 16th)

A new season and a new start for Alan Pardew after the lucklustre display his side turned in last season.

Pardew has bought sparingly this summer, adding Loïc Remy on loan, and he will hope that the French contingent signed in January will be enough to see his side avoid the doldrums of their last campaign.

Newcastle still need to make a few additions to their squad to be on the safe side, but they have a good enough squad to contend for a top ten place.

10. Norwich City (2012/13: Premier League, 11th)

There are few teams in this division with a pair of strikers of the quality of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper.

That Chris Hughton managed to secure their signatures for a comparatively small fee, suggests that Norwich have good reason to be chipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Van Wolfswinkel comes to Carrow Road with big promise and has a natural goalscoring ability which should alleviate the difficulties in front of goal that many Canaries fans had lamented last season.

Hooper has proven his prowess at Celtic and will be looking to kick on at a higher level with the carrot of a call-up to the England squad in World Cup year dangling in front of him.

Norwich can be defensively unsteady at times, and that is where their weakness lies. However, the exciting partnership up top and an underrated midfield including Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan will be good for a top ten spot.

9. West Brom (2012/13: Premier League, 8th)

The Baggies have prepared for the new season by signing experienced players of the calibre of Nicolas Anelka and Diego Lugano.

Yet, as is well known, both Anelka and Lugano are mercurial – Anelka especially so. Whether he will be consistently putting in 100% at the Hawthorns remains to be seen. If manager Steve Clarke sees him as a replacement for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, he could be sorely disappointed.

Lugano, meanwhile, looked past his best at the recent Confederations Cup for Uruguay and, in my opinion at least, represents more of a liability than a reliability.

Despite the relative lack of signings, West Brom should be competitive. An energetic and incisive midfield is their strength and if they can convince Peter Odemwinghie to stay they can aim for a top ten finish.

8. Everton (2012/13: Premier League, 6th)

Everton enter into the new season with a new manager for the first time in over a decade following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United.

Incoming boss Roberto Martinez is certainly a respected manager and he will look to build upon the watchable style of play that Moyes developed during his tenure.

Key to their success will be the retention of Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, with the club so far resisting overtures for both men from Manchester United.

New loan signing Gerard Deulofeu comes in from Barcelona to provide strength to the Toffees forward line, which is also bolstered by Arouna Kone, who followed Martinez from Wigan in a permanent deal.

The Goodison Park faithful will have to be patient with the new regime – a European place (fifth) might be out of their reach.

7. Swansea City (2012/13: Premier League, 9th)

Swansea’s season has already started with qualification for the Europa League, and they look well placed to improve on an impressive ninth place finish from last season.

New signing Wilfried Bony looks strong and has linked up well with goalscoring sensation Michu so far. The Ivorian’s presence allows the Spaniard to drift into his favoured position just off the first striker, so Swansea may well benefit from that this season.

Swans manager Michael Laudrup has raided Real Betis for Spanish duo Alejandro Pozuelo and Jose Canas, with Pozuelo looking a very promising player in the playmaker role.

Fans at the Liberty Stadium will be hopeful of a good Premier League assault and their team could well deliver a top six place if one of the top six teams falters.

6. Tottenham Hotspur (2012/13: Premier League, 5th)

The crucial question at White Hart Lane this summer is whether prize asset Gareth Bale is going to leave the club.

Real Madrid have reportedly had a world-record bid of £87m turned down, and their interest has since cooled.

Bale has remained silent – some say this means he wants to leave – but chairman Daniel Levy is intent on keeping his star player.

If Bale were to leave, Spurs will rely heavily on £26m striker Roberto Soldado to score goals after Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe endured difficult seasons.

Paulinho, a £17m acquisition from Corinthians, looks a very good addition to the squad but the loss of Bale is expected to take its toll and I think Spurs will miss out on Europe – unless they can win a domestic cup.

5. Liverpool (2012/13: Premier League, 7th)

Liverpool flattered to deceive at times last season. They finished with 71 goals – the fourth highest in the division – but they were inconsistent and eventually paid the price when they missed out on European competition altogether.

They have also resisted Luis Suarez’s attempts to leave the club, with Arsenal having had two bids rejected, and have got their business done early, signing four players fairly cheaply.

Simon Mignolet will be first choice in goal after Pepe Reina left the club (on loan) to link up with former Reds boss Rafael Benitez at Napoli, while the addition of Spanish duo Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto will provide Daniel Sturridge with assistance should Suarez leave.

Philippe Coutinho is being tipped for a superb season alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will be hopeful – rightly so – of a Europa League place at least.

4. Arsenal (2012/13: Premier League, 4th)

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market – but it has not been for want of trying.

The Gunners have twice failed in attempts to sign Luis Suarez and their only signing so far this summer has been French youngster Yaya Sanogo.

A fit again Jack Wilshere will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans to launch an assault on a Champions League automatic qualifying spot, but with the calibre of teams ahead of them I feel fourth place is as good as Arsenal will get – for now.

3. Manchester United (2012/13: Premier League, champions)

Like Arsenal, United have added one player to their squad this summer – young Uruguay full-back Guillermo Varela. Interest in midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas has not resulted in a signing, while a bid for Leighton Baines has also been rejected.

Rumours are now abound that new manager David Moyes is looking to bring in playmaker Mesut Özil, and with time fast running out United fans are beginning to think a marquee signing may never materialise for the Glaswegian.

If it doesn’t chances will fall to exciting youngsters such as Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard, while Nick Powell will be involved once he recovers from a pre-season hamstring injury.

Wilfried Zaha, who was signed in January, has also looked sharp in pre-season and prolific young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez scored midweek for his country.

Wayne Rooney has been tipped for a move to Chelsea, but the club have rejected two bids and expect him to stay.

Despite the Rooney saga, the future looks bright for United, but they are in a transitional phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an automatic Champions League spot will be Moyes’ realistic end product.

2. Manchester City (2012/13: Premier League, 2nd)

New manager Manuel Pellegrini erased memories of last season by doing his business in rapid fashion early in the summer.

His £90m outlay on Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas has strengthened City greatly, and they will be extremely difficult to beat as a result.

City enjoyed the best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 34 goals. They scored a measly 66 though – and Pellegrini has addressed that problem emphatically.

I think City will just be pipped to the title but it will be a close battle with the usual title suspects.

1. Chelsea (2012/13: Premier League, 3rd)

Jose Mourinho has picked a good time to return to Chelsea.

They have the squad to mount a serious challenge in Europe, let alone domestically.

Romelu Lukaku returns to the club following a successful loan spell at West Brom and he is favourite to beat Fernando Torres to a regular starting spot up top.

Kevin de Bruyne also looks a very good prospect, as does new signing Andre Schürrle, while another young talent – midfielder Marco van Ginkel – has been promised games under the terms of his signature.

Should Chelsea manage to keep David Luiz, they have a defensive backbone to a team that is capable of delivering the title and I fully expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy next May.

The Transfer Silly Season

When it comes to football transfers, few leagues are as captivating as the Barclays Premier League.

With the hugely entertaining Confederations Cup now several weeks past, the players involved have returned to their clubs and others have jetted off to their new ones.

It was widely thought before the 2012/13 season ended that most business would be done after the Confederations Cup finished – and those premonitions have been emphatically proven in England.

In recent weeks there have been a flood of deals concluded, thwarted and hijacked. Some clubs are beginning to feel the pressure too – notably Arsenal.

Having only signed Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from Auxerre in this transfer window, manager Arsene Wenger has been keen to dispel the accusations that the North Londoners are featherweights in the transfer market.

The money is clearly there for Wenger to spend – the club have turned in successive years of profits – and he has confirmed this by bidding £35m for unsettled Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.

This first approach was robustly swatted away by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, but it did not deter Wenger, who sanctioned an improved £40m + £1 bid for the Uruguayan this week.

That triggered a release clause in Suarez’s contract which permits him to talk to the Gunners, but Liverpool want a figure in excess of £50m with Rodgers, somewhat justifiably, believing that Suarez is worth as much, if not more, than his compatriot Edinson Cavani, who was snapped up by PSG for a cool £55m.

Yet if Suarez moved to Arsenal, it would go against all the clues he has given as to where his future lies. He has publicly admitted his fondness for Real Madrid, but they have not made an offer yet.

That could be because Madrid are busy trying to lure Gareth Bale away from Spurs. A figure in excess of £85m is rumoured to be the price tagged on Bale’s services, but Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is reluctant to sell – for two reasons.

Bale has quickly become the face of the club – he features on almost every promotional banner and marketing strategy the club unveils, and secondly his value to the team is colossal.

21 goals and 9 assists in 33 games last season proves why he is coveted so fervently by Madrid, who have spent heavily as usual this summer.

Midfielders Isco (€24m) and Asier Illarramendi (€32.2m) have both signed deals at the Bernabeu, and a further outlay of €98.5m on Bale would be more than the €93.9m they paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

Bale is the closest player on the planet, in terms of free-kick technique and running with the ball, to Ronaldo and it would be interesting to see how they would both fit into the same team.

Spurs fans will be hoping Bale doesn’t move but Spanish newspaper Marca, renowned for its close ties to Los Blancos, ran with a story on its cover this week with Bale rumoured to have agreed a six-year deal with his pursuers.

Marca have previous, which is why Spurs fans should be worried. They correctly broke the enormous Ronaldo and Kaka transfers and would not publish such a story without specific knowledge of the deal. There is no smoke without fire, and Spurs are likely to lose the Welshman unless they pull off something miraculous.

Bale has also been linked to Manchester United who, like Arsenal, have had a very quiet summer.

United have failed with deals for Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas – the latter the subject of two rebuffed bids of £25m and £30m – and have also seen fellow target Kevin Strootman opt to join Roma instead.

A £12m move for Leighton Baines has also proved fruitless and United fans have reason to worry with unknown Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela and Wilfried Zaha the only new signings so far this summer.

With United clearly on the hunt for a central midfielder, any approach for another midfielder could also be futile with the subject of that hypothetical bid being their third-choice behind Thiago and Fabregas.

United would do well to blood some youngsters though. Nick Powell looks mightily impressive at 19-years-old and is tipped to become an England regular in the future, while Tom Cleverley established himself in the first team last season with a string of composed performances.

But it hasn’t all been about incoming players at Old Trafford, as Wayne Rooney will testify.

The 28-year-old has been linked with Chelsea ever since returning manager Jose Mourinho made a bid of £30m for the England striker. That deal, United said, included the pick of Juan Mata or David Luiz, but that is likely a mischievous attempt to publicly unsettle Chelsea’s two most influential players.

Chelsea have bought well this season, adding German striker Andre Schürrle and Dutch midfielder Marco van Ginkel to their squad in deals totalling £27m. Highly-rated Belgian loanees Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne have returned to Stamford Bridge and their presence will be similar to new signings.

Manchester City meanwhile, favourites alongside United and Chelsea for the title, have bought swiftly and impressively, signing midfield duo Fernandinho and Jesus Navas and strikers Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for a combined £90m.

In signing four high-quality players, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has avoided what his predecessor Roberto Mancini did last season and bought well to improve the team.

While City have been very proactive in the transfer market, they have been outgunned by Sunderland, who have signed nine players so far as boss Paulo di Canio looks to refresh the team and exert his influence on the squad.

Southampton too, have bought with power, signing centre-back Dejan Lovren for £8.5m and Victor Wanyama for £12m. Some critics have pointed to what seem to be inflated fees for the duo but the signings are a signal of intent from manager Mauro Pochettino, who has been impressive since taking over from Nigel Adkins last season.

There will be more outrageous rumours, ballooned fees and surprising sales before the transfer window shuts in five weeks, but with the total amount spent by Premier League clubs currently bubbling at just under £300m, England’s biggest clubs will be keen to continue to splash the cash to show they can compete with Europe’s superpowers in the transfer market.  

If they don’t the danger of this great league becoming full of selling clubs, much like the scenario now seen in countries such as Holland, will loom ever larger – and that, for a league which boasts of being the best in the world, could be lethal.

Ferguson retirement opens door for Moyes

“Football, Bloody Hell.”

Those were the immediate thoughts of the soon-to-be knighted Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of Manchester United’s iconic 2-1 victory against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final at Camp Nou.

Goals in the dying minutes, first from Teddy Sheringham and then sensationally from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, gave the club a second European Cup triumph.

It was Ferguson’s first European title at the Old Trafford club – but his thirst would prove to be unquenchable.

He would go on to manage arguably the biggest club in the world for 14 more seasons, collecting 38 trophies in all before announcing his retirement this morning.

United are now left with a gaping hole in their managerial hot seat – a hole that might never disappear completely.

The white-hot favourite to succeed Ferguson is David Moyes who, at 1/20 on with some bookmakers, is expected to be announced as the 71-year-old’s successor in a matter of hours.

But is Moyes really the best candidate for the job?

Ferguson’s fellow Glaswegian has managed current side Everton for 11 years on a restricted budget – in fact his rule at the Merseyside club is the third-longest in the Premier League as it stands.

Moyes has long enjoyed a pleasant relationship with Ferguson, and has often accepted advice on his career from the outgoing United boss.

Additionally, United are thought to be keen to employ a manager who bears the same managerial traits as their beloved retiree.

This would place Moyes in a strong position due to his loyalty and willingness to involve young players in first team matches – indeed it was Moyes who gave 16-year-old Wayne Rooney his Premier League debut in 2002.

Further strings to Moyes’ bow include his knowledge of the Premier League and his man-management skills, but several serious blotches on the 50-year-old’s CV mean that he will be a massive gamble to a club of United’s pedigree.

With just a handful of European games (most of those in the Europa League) as manager of Everton, Moyes has a minute amount of experience in a footballing environment – as proved by the successes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – that is rapidly evolving.

His Champions League experience stops short of the competition proper, with a disappointing 4-2 aggregate defeat to Villarreal in the third qualifying round in 2005 providing further reinforcement to those who believe he is under-qualified for the United job.

Then there is the fact that Moyes has never won a trophy in his managerial career.

Arguably, this is hardly surprising given the finite resources he has at Everton, but that record would normally be unacceptable for a club of United’s history, especially given the rich success that Ferguson has enjoyed.

Signing Moyes might also dissuade big-name players from joining the club in the future too.

Past signings have spoken of their admiration for Ferguson, the club and the supporters, but would reported United targets such as James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski actually be convinced enough by Moyes as a manager to sign?

Transfer pulling-power aside, Moyes has never had a massive transfer budget at his disposal and should he get the United job it will be a test of his nous as a manager to make astute signings.

A warning has already been cast by his current arch-rivals Liverpool, who delved deeply into their pockets at then manager Kenny Dalglish’s behest to acquire the services of Andy Carroll for £35m, Stewart Downing for £20m and Jordan Henderson for £16m – all of whom have failed to light up Anfield since their arrival, with Carroll even joining West Ham on loan this season.

Such ill judgements were indicative of a man who had never had as much money to spend before – but will Moyes, when faced with the same scenario, prove just as foolhardy in the transfer market?

His transfer history at Everton suggests otherwise, having bought well over his decade at the club to secure the signatures of players such as Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta, Kevin Mirallas and Leighton Baines.

Despite being the overwhelming favourite for the United hot seat, Moyes has competition from Jose Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp.

Mourinho, just days before Ferguson’s announcement to retire, seemed destined to leave Real Madrid for Chelsea.

That does appear to be where the flamboyant Portuguese will end up, especially a lack of endurance at former clubs suggests his short-term stints are at odds with United’s wish for a long-term manager.

Then there is Borussia Dortmund’s Klopp, an exciting young German manager who has wrestled with the might of Bayern Munich in his home country to produce successive Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final this season.

At 45, Klopp has exhibited the tactical awareness and innovation needed to dismantle sides such as Real Madrid, even destroying Bayern 5-2 in the German DFB-Pokal Cup final last season.

Yet Klopp, who is at the forefront of the German revolution in the Champions League, is contracted to Dortmund for another season and has little experience of the English game.

United fans would be impressed by his tendency to create sides with attacking flair and defensive diligence, but Klopp is unlikely to be considered with Moyes so close to being chosen as Ferguson’s successor.

So the 1/20 price appears to have Moyes’ name all but announced as the next United boss, but will his lack of experience in European competition and a trophy less cabinet eventually prove costly?

Or will the skills displayed during his time at Everton evolve into those fit for the helm at Old Trafford?

Manchester United already seem to know the answers to those questions.