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3 Hot Takes
Tottenham, Man Utd, agent stuff
Hey, welcome to another one of these. I’m working on a bigger newsletter about Tottenham, but I can’t really write it all when they’re playing Saturday lunchtime and everything can change, so hopefully this should keep you going until that one is out.
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Chelsea beat Tottenham, and a whole lot of drama happens
Who says football matches need actual football to be entertaining?
Ange Postecoglou sprung a bit of a surprise in starting Brennan Johnson on the left instead of Richarlison, but otherwise, this was the team and shape we’ve come to expect from Tottenham. The full backs tuck inside to join the midfield, the wingers stay very wide, James Maddison has licence to join the attack as a dominant playmaker. They want to have lots of the ball while also moving it quickly.
Mauricio Pochettino had a few more questions to answer. Chelsea made good use of Cole Palmer as a false nine against Arsenal a few weeks ago, and it seemed like that might be the “big game” setup, but Pochettino started Nicolas Jackson as a conventional striker here. Conor Gallagher was the number ten, pressing as a second striker without the ball but dropping into midfield with it. Otherwise, it was as you’d expect.
Before kick-off, I’d have predicted Spurs would dominate the ball while Chelsea would be aggressive in forcing transitions and working it quickly up the pitch. It’s the kind of game where Postecoglou keeping his wingers so wide is important, because Chelsea were both horizontally and vertically compact. You can see below that you could throw a blanket over the Chelsea players. But while they’re compact, they’re not especially deep, so it should’ve been a game for speedy forwards, hence why Johnson started.
Of course, Tottenham get the first goal by shifting it quickly from left to right in the buildup, where Dejan Kulusevski is in a lot of space. It obviously takes a huge deflection off Levi Colwill to go in, so let’s not give them too much credit, but it was exactly the right idea from Spurs.
Spurs looked like taking full control before Son’s goal was ruled offside. When you want your forward line to be so aggressive at running into space, you have to accept they will be off at least some of the time. It’s the right approach, even if it’ll cost Spurs from time to time. But Chelsea were growing into the game even before the first red. Jackson had a good chance saved where the Blues forced a transition from pressing high, just as Pochettino would want. Raheem Sterling thought he’d scored the equaliser before VAR decided the ball hitting his hand was enough to disallow the goal. I really hate talking about refereeing decisions, so I’ll leave all of you to decide whether these were the right calls or not.
Chelsea were growing into the game as it was. They had a few decent chances that came from pressing Tottenham in the final third as well as set pieces. This was a really good contest with two sides taking contrasting approaches, Tottenham getting it wide in possession and Chelsea counter-pressing, and I would’ve really liked to see it play out over 90 minutes. Oh, well. We got chaos instead. Cristian Romero was sent off for a mistimed challenge in the box. He could’ve gone ten minutes earlier, but he found his way to a red pretty quickly. Palmer scored the penalty and it was level.
Postecoglou substituted Johnson for Eric Dier, moving Maddison into a slightly wider role with a sort of 4-2-2-1 shape. This totally ended the plan to get the ball into wide areas, but the manager probably assumed Chelsea would dominate the ball with ten men anyway, creating less need to break down a compact side. But we never got to see Postecoglou’s idea here because injuries meant Maddison and Micky van de Ven both had to be taken off for Emerson Royal and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Spurs were still playing a high line, but now they were the ones having to be compact within that while Chelsea spread the play.
The second half really became a farce once Destiny Udogie was sent off. Chelsea romped to a 4-1 win with two extra players. I understand Postecoglou’s argument that they should always play with the same aggressive approach, and he’s arguably right for building a coherent style that all the players instinctively follow. You’re not going to win a football match with two players sent off, so one could reasonably argue it’s better for long-term adaptation to stick with your usual approach. Much more meaningfully for Tottenham, James Maddison and Micky van de Ven suffered worrying injuries that should keep them out for a while. How much of a problem is this for Postecoglou’s exciting new Spurs? We’ll tackle that in a few days (by all means annoy me about it on Discord or Twitter if it takes longer than a few days).
As for Chelsea, they’ve been putting up dominant xG figures all season, but the fixtures are getting serious now. Their next four matches are against Manchester City, Newcastle, Brighton and Manchester United. I really do think this team is better than the league table and public perception suggests, but a bad run of results in those four matches might make the points deficit too big to turn around. I sincerely hope Chelsea stick it out with Pochettino because I like what he’s trying to do with this team, and I’d rate their long term prospects as worse without him around. But if Chelsea are still midtable at Christmas then that argument might not persuade everyone at the club.
Man Utd still haven’t pulled it together
During the first 40 minutes against FC Copenhagen, I really thought I’d be writing about how United are finally looking the part. A scrappy win against Fulham before a commanding victory in Europe is a story to write. But then stuff happened.
Man Utd went to Craven Cottage and the delightfully named Parken playing almost identical lineups. While Casemiro, Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martínez are injured, I think we can read that this is Erik ten Hag’s preferred setup. André Onana was in goal behind a back four of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Jonny Evans and Diogo Dalot. Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen formed a midfield double pivot, while Alejandro Garnacho played on the left and Bruno Fernandes was a number ten behind Rasmus Højlund. The only change was to start Marcus Rashford on the right against Copenhagen, whereas a Premier League footballer who I do not feel like doing the dignity of naming right now featured at Fulham.
They laboured their way through the Fulham match but showed real intensity and clear sense of what they wanted to do with the ball against Copenhagen. This was the first time this season that I’ve seen them move the ball quickly and purposefully. Then Rashford got sent off, and you can see what happened from the xG race chart below.
So, much like with Tottenham, we’re having to evaluate teams in red card situations. Does it matter that Man Utd crumbled again? Does it even count as crumbling when they were at a disadvantage? United were very bad down to ten men. They’re typically bad when they face some kind of adversity. But I’m really not sure this was the downer performance it’s being framed as.
They’ve got two highly winnable games coming up against Luton and Everton. This past week was not a failure and it did show positive moments. I still don’t think this team is very good, but they’ve been worse than they were over those matches.
The way football works these days
This isn’t quite brand new news, but I hadn’t seen others put all the pieces together, so I’m writing it here.
You’ve heard of Jonathan Barnett, right? Barnett definitely fits the definition of “super agent”, managing current stars like Jack Grealish, Eduardo Camavinga and Luke Shaw. The first time I remember hearing about him was when he was at the centre of the infamous “tapping up” scandal as Chelsea tried to prize Ashley Cole away from Arsenal. He was fined and served a ban for this in 2006, but that didn’t stop him becoming a major player in football. His most famous former client is surely Gareth Bale, as Barnett was at the heart of negotiating the Welshman’s record-breaking move to Real Madrid in 2013.
You might assume that agents like Barnett, Jorge Mendes or the late Mino Raiola are all-powerful figures, but you’d be wrong. Barnett’s agency, Stellar Group, was sold to the American company ICM Partners in 2020. ICM stands for International Creative Management, which gives you a clue as to its primary business. It’s always been an agency for Hollywood stars and literary publishing, though it also has US sports interests. Barnett became Executive Chairman of the newly renamed ICM Stellar Sports.
But in 2022, ICM itself was purchased by its larger Hollywood rival CAA (Creative Artists Agency). CAA, also a significant player in US sports, acquired Base Soccer Agency in 2019, home to players such as James Maddison, Raphaël Varane and Kyle Walker. The CAA/ICM merger brought two major football agencies under the same roof, likely without much notice from senior management. The enlarged CAA is run day-to-day by Bryan Lourd, a Hollywood power player most famous for marrying Carrie Fisher in 1991 before later realising he was gay. I don’t think Lourd spends much of his time worrying about Ivan Toney’s next move. It’s been a year since the merger closed and CAA have let Base and Stellar operate as separate entities, though you’d hardly be shocked if they were working together for mutual benefit behind the scenes.
Except CAA was purchased outright by French businessman François-Henri Pinault last month. On the face of it, he might look like another disinterested party, with his (inherited, though he calls the shots now) wealth coming from luxury goods and his celebrity status from his wife, Salma Hayek. But Pinault is most definitely interested in football. A lifelong fan of the club to the point of being a ball boy as a child, Pinault owns Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais. While he has been more frugal than a Roman Abramovich figure, he has been willing to financially support the club, and does involve himself in the running of things at Rennes.
And now he owns two of the biggest football agencies.
By total player value on Transfermarkt, the three biggest football agencies are CAA Stellar, Wasserman and Gestifute. Two of those three now have ownership ties to football clubs. What are we doing here? Will Rennes start leveraging the CAA connection to benefit the side? Might Pinault want to get involved with a multi-club model and really make use of significant power? I have no idea. But I think it’s worth keeping an eye on this.
What I’ve been reading
Scouted Football have put out some of the best analysis on the internet for years. The easiest way to sound clever about up-and-coming talents is to read their articles and hear about big names before anyone else. Their newsletter on the players to watch out for in the Under-17 World Cup that just started is no exception.
Something that’s not football
For All Mankind, one of my very favourite TV shows currently airing, is finally back for its fourth season on Apple TV+. It’s about an alternate timeline in which the Soviet Union put the first man on the moon in 1969, thus the Space Race never truly ended. Each season covers a different decade (we’ve now got up to 2003) and the radically altered world that would exist in the wake of a butterfly flapping its wings differently at the right time. “The West Wing meets Star Trek” is probably the easiest pitch, and I say that as a lifelong West Wing sceptic.
The real NASA used to have a sign in the office saying “Never apply a Star Trek solution to a Babylon 5 problem”. This meant that problems to do with money or politics, of the sort that Babylon 5 dealt with, could not be resolved by some brilliant bit of science or engineering you might see on Star Trek. For All Mankind flips this on its head. It says that the world can be better with the right use of technology, that the society we have was not fate, and that better things are possible, but all while embracing a kind of West Wing-esque optimism about the political system. Watch it.
Until next time.