Man City lack control, Everton don't need it, Premier League's TV payday: 3 Hot Takes
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Data is from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
Man City stumble again
“If we play at the levels that we showed against Liverpool and Tottenham, we’re going to win [the league] again”, Pep Guardiola said on Tuesday.
But then Manchester City did not play at the levels they showed against Liverpool and Tottenham away to Aston Villa. Not even close.
I’ve never seen Man City so easily dominated as they were at Villa Park. Unai Emery’s side were playing the ball through midfield and pinning them back in their own third. Man City! With apologies to Villa fans right now, I’m going to focus on Man City and let’s say I definitely owe you a full article on what Villa are getting so right at the moment.
Rodri missed this game through suspension, so Guardiola was again left with the puzzle of how to play their football without him. The move this time was to play John Stones in the “Rodri role”, while Manuel Akanji played the “Stones role” stepping up into midfield from centre back. That meant Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias and Joško Gvardiol formed a back three behind Stones and Akanji in possession. Rico Lewis and Julián Álvarez were the “free eights” just ahead, while Bernardo Silva (on the right) and Phil Foden (left) stayed wide behind Erling Haaland.
The midfield “box” of Stones, Akanji, Lewis and Álvarez totally failed to control the game (enough so that Guardiola moved Lewis out to the right and pulled Silva inside after half time). There’s a simple story to tell of City missing Rodri’s calm passing and control here. Stones has always been a better ball carrier than a passer, and Akanji is a very competent centre back being asked to do things he’s never done in his career. Lewis is 19 and it must be accepted that he’ll be in and out of form, while it’s still not quite clear whether he will mature into more of a passer or a carrier. Álvarez isn’t, by the incredibly high standards of Man City, really a ball-playing midfielder as much as someone who can get in the box. They didn’t have a poor man’s Rodri in the midfield.
As I must have said a million times at this point, playing with a Rodri-esque passer in midfield will always be core to Guardiola’s approach. That was his position as a player, and one he felt was disrespected by the time he retired. “I became a regular at Barcelona aged 20, because I had a manager, Johan Cruyff, who played a certain way and who believed in me and because football was different back then”, he explained in 2004. “If I were a 20-year-old at Barcelona today, I would never make it as a professional […] I am not quick, I never had the stamina to run and run for 90 minutes like central midfielders have to do today. I am not particularly good in the air, I am not physically strong, I don’t dribble past opponents and I am not a good tackler. But I can pass the ball fairly well.”
Guardiola felt the more direct style of the early 2000s badly maligned players like him. I’d argue he’s spent his managerial career trying to prove a point that you can play with that profile of midfielder and win. So starting with someone like Rodri in what he’d call the pivote role will always be an organising principle in his teams. But he only has one of them in this squad. He brought on two midfielders from the bench against Villa to try and gain some control with neither of them turning the tide. Mateo Kovačić is really good at keeping the ball in tight spaces through his dribbling skills, but his passing is more limited. Matheus Nunes is still adapting to Guardiola’s system, but he’ll have to adapt a lot because his dribbling and tackling seemed like more obvious skills at Wolves. His third substitute was a 20-year-old called Oscar Bobb, who he sometimes uses in midfield despite being listed online as a right winger. It’s not great, Bobb.
Kalvin Phillips hangs over all of this. He was supposed to be the person who could come in for Rodri. This is his position. Obviously, his transfer has been a disaster. What I don’t quite understand is why the two summer midfield acquisitions, Kovačić and Nunes, are both more comfortable carrying the ball than passing it. City were so strong in the closing stretch of last season with Stones pushing up to form a double pivot next to Rodri, one a passer and the other a dribbler. City have several players for the dribbling half of that equation but only one true passing midfielder at Guardiola’s standards.
If this happened last season, Guardiola would’ve moved Ilkay Gündoğan into a deeper midfield role and the team would’ve probably been fine. Gündoğan was a Swiss army knife of a midfielder in this team, equally comfortable as the passer, the dribbler, or a more advanced player getting into the final third. Kovačić has come in as his replacement but isn’t anything like as fluid in his passing. I really don’t understand why Guardiola has left himself so light in a position that’s absolutely crucial to the way he wants to play.
Maybe Rodri will start every game for the rest of the season and none of this will matter. Maybe Guardiola will find a tactical tweak no one else saw coming. But right now, it’s definitely a question mark.
Everton out of the relegation zone, making problems worse for others
Six points down, four to go.
Everton definitely aren’t a bad football team. The only reason they’re in a relegation fight is down to a huge slump against xG in the first four matches of the season and the ten-point deduction they’ve now clawed the majority back from. They’ve won 19 points from their last 10 games, which is Champions League-qualifying form. I’m not suggesting that run will last, but they really have been good. And the underlying data has their back. Look at this xG chart that Twitter user Michael (@greenallefc) put out.
Without the points deduction, Everton would be tenth right now, and still underperforming xG! I don’t know what else there is to say at this point. Everton are just a good football team.
That means the three promoted sides – Luton Town, Burnley, and Sheffield United – are now in the relegation places. Sheffield Utd have finally pulled the trigger and replaced Paul Heckingbottom with Chris Wilder. That’s long overdue because the Blades are unspeakably awful. Their 32.5 expected goals against is the worst in the league and they’ve still conceded 8.5 goals more than that in reality. That’s sometimes a sign that this defence is terrible in ways beyond what the model can detect. Their attack is also the worst in the league. Wilder should win manager of the season if they stay up from here. Burnley are 19th and, for all the branding of Vincent Kompany as an advocate of good football, the midtable defence is the only thing giving them a fighting chance right now. They’ve conceded quite a few more goals than xG, but I’m willing to put that on random chance and James Trafford’s struggles. Change the goalkeeper in January and it’s unlikely but not impossible to survive. Luton I still can’t reasonably make a good case for. These teams are surely the most likely to go down.
Premier League agrees new rights deal in the UK
So we’ve got an answer: Sky Sports and TNT Sports will continue to show the Premier League in the UK until 2029. TNT will show Saturday lunchtime kick-offs as they currently do (though I’m guessing the odd one will continue to be moved to Saturday evening, as we’ve seen recently), while Sky snapped up the rest of the games on sale.
The biggest news from a UK viewer perspective is that more matches will now be shown. The Premier League continue to be the only significant supporters of a 3 pm blackout that
limits supply to juice demand “protects lower league attendances”, despite the broadcasters reportedly voicing objections as they see the blackout as a gateway to piracy. At the very least, though, all the games outside the blackout will now be broadcast. Last Sunday, for example, Chelsea vs Brighton, Liverpool vs Fulham and Bournemouth vs Aston Villa would’ve been broadcast along with the two matches already shown if the new deal was already in place. We still have another 18 months of the existing contract to run, so don’t get too excited just yet.
BBC will continue to show highlights.
Now let’s talk numbers. The Premier League will tell you this is a record-breaking deal, and it is, technically speaking. The headline figure has never been higher at £6.7 billion (about $8.4bn/€7.8bn). But there are some key details, the first being that while previous contracts were three-year deals, this is four years. On an annual basis, by the Premier League’s own admission, the new contract represents only a 4% increase over the existing deal (which doesn’t totally track with the numbers I’ve seen floating around online, but I’ll give CEO Richard Masters the benefit of the doubt and assume his information is just more accurate than what’s out there).
The current deal was actually “rolled over” during the height of the pandemic in early 2021, with all involved having to prioritise certainty over driving a hard bargain. The last time the rights were up for tender in an auction was 2018 with a contract starting in 2019. Inflation since 2018 has been quite a bit more than 4%.
£6.7bn divided by four is £1.675bn per year. I know this is a crude measure, but when I put the numbers floating online into the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, in 2023 money the Premier League was receiving £2.08B in the first year of the previous contract auctioned. In real terms, we’re looking at a reduction. All while adding more games to be sold.
If we look at the per-year rights value adjusted for inflation since 1992, you can see what’s happening. Obviously, there will be at least some more inflation in the later years of the new deal, but we don’t know what it will be yet. Yes, I know my graphs aren’t very good.
It’s perhaps clearer if we show it on a logarithmic scale. And let’s add a trend line just for effect.
In the rights deals from 1997-2016, each new auction saw, on average, a 59.5% increase in real terms on the annual value of the previous contract. We were seeing an exponential increase. If that rate of growth had continued for the contracts starting in 2019, 2022 (imagining the auction went ahead) and 2025, we’d be looking at around a £36bn deal for the four-year contract just agreed, instead of £6.7bn. Line stopped going up.
Considering the high-profile issues selling domestic broadcast rights in Spain and Italy, this is still furthering the Premier League’s strength. The international rights are increasingly the bit that really matters, even if the UK is by far the largest single market here (by comparison, the second largest deal is with NBC in the US for $675m or £537m per season). But the Premier League only became the global leader by having such a strong domestic revenue to invest in top players and managers, so these are uncharted waters.
What happened? The most obvious problem was a lack of competition in the auction. The only time during the year’s explosive growth years when the rights didn’t increase was in 2004, when Sky Sports had seen off all potential rivals and could thus drive the price down a little bit without serious competition. When Setanta Sports entered the market in 2007, they brought genuine competition for the rights and thus pushed the value higher than ever before. ESPN (Setanta’s effective replacements) brought modest increases before BT Sport came in and started bringing big increases in 2013. BT saw live football as a way of bringing customers to their much more lucrative broadband internet business, and were able to pay very big sums to do so, forcing Sky to up its game at the bidding table. We’ll never know the real numbers but, considering BT Group since sold half of BT Sport to Warner Bros. Discovery (who rebranded it to TNT Sports), I think we can assume that strategy failed. Sky and TNT have both reached a point of tolerating each other’s existence and there’s no great desire between them to push the prices up fighting over every last rights package.
Sky is now Coca-Cola and TNT is Pepsi. Yes, in an ideal world, Pepsi would love to overtake Coca-Cola as the biggest selling cola drink. But is it going to happen? No. Pepsi can still be profitable without destroying everything to chase Coke, so it’s really not worth the effort.
The league thought they’d found a major new revenue source in tech companies. Amazon Prime Video entered the space in 2019 through a smaller package aimed at select midweek and bank holiday fixtures, in a package clearly designed to entice such a player. They didn’t even enter the bidding this time, with Bloomberg reporting that Amazon “did not want to bid for the volume of games on offer”. It seems like one Champions League match a week from next season is enough for Amazon, which has to be a big disappointment for English football. The other major Silicon Valley players seemingly weren’t interested, while DAZN may have looked into it but not at these prices. If Sky and TNT are now the only players in town then they might be able to drive the rights down further in the next auction.
Obviously, the state of the British and global economy matters here. BT entered the market during the zero interest rate era, when it was relatively easy for a big company to borrow lots of money and enter a new market to attempt big growth. That’s over now. Everyone’s wallets are a little tighter, it’s harder to borrow money, and that’s going to impact the amount that these companies will spend on live football rights. And even if things continue to look much rosier for the Premier League than anyone else, the bottom line isn’t looking as good as it did a few years ago.
Something to read
This was a couple of weeks ago now, but Hannah Price at BBC News’ report on Premier League clubs’ continued refusal to seriously deal with players accused of sexual abuse was as harrowing as I feared it would be. We all need to recognise what’s happening here.
“One woman said the FA and clubs' lack of action when she reported a player for rape contributed to her decision to attempt to take her own life.
"I didn't want to exist in a world where I'm constantly reminded that rape allegations can be ignored as long as you're talented enough," she explained.
Another woman, who spoke to the BBC, says if the FA and club had acted when they were first alerted to a rape allegation by a different woman in 2021, she wouldn't have later gone to the house of the same player where she alleges he sexually assaulted her.
All the women, who are speaking for the first time, say they decided to share their stories because they are concerned that while the men remain in position, other women may be at risk or too scared to come forward.”
Something that’s not football
Ok, this is my section of my newsletter, so no one can stop me talking about the restaurant scene here in little old York.
I had the tasting menu recently at Izakaya, a tiny little “Japanese-inspired, Yorkshire-driven” restaurant on Grape Lane full of really exciting dishes (they seem to have already changed the menu, which is great but annoying for these purposes). And there are a lot of really great options right now, like Fish and Forest serving freshly caught fish and vegetables with a menu that changes every day based on the produce, or Los Moros with its modern and creative approach to North African food. Skosh, where every small plate brings a fresh surprise, is undoubtedly the top dog. But it’s getting so exciting that old favourites, like traditional French restaurant Rustique, don’t quite stack up anymore.
York has always been in a slightly unusual spot, sitting right in the heart of the supposedly deprived North of England but with the kind of upmarket wealth more associated with the South. It might not be the major city it was hundreds of years ago, but its status as a tourist magnate has kept the place punching above its weight for a long time. The universities are a big part of that. More recently, being only a two hour direct train ride from London has made it a better attraction for people working from home who don’t want to pay capital city rent. It might be in the North, but the only thing that matters in practical terms is how quickly you can get to London, and York is well situated on that front.
Is this “gentrification”? I don’t know, and if it is I can hardly complain. I suppose I’ll always be nostalgic for a childhood that’s mostly fiction, and I should just enjoy the nice restaurants and such while they’re here.
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Until next time.