Friday, January 31, 2014

January Transfer Window Recap

It should be said that the January transfer window is meant for relegation fodder clubs and the top teams do their business in the summer, but that doesn't mean that big business can't be done in January. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge both moved to Liverpool during the January transfer window, for example. But this transfer window seemed to be about the relegation threatened clubs more than anything else. So in this, a much shorter recap than the summer window one, we will look at who best positioned themselves to escape the trapdoor to the Championship, and if the big clubs might have changed their fortunes.

(In order of current Premier League standings as of January 31):

Manchester City: They did nothing. But then again, they needed nothing. Title favorites before January, and certainly favorites post it.

Arsenal: After the papers had linked Arsenal with Schalke starlet Julian Draxler throughout the last few days, maybe Gunners who live with their heads buried would be surprised to see Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom as the only addition. He might do well in the short term to ease the injury fears in the midfield, but he probably won't be the signing that pushes Arsenal to their first trophy in nearly 9 years.

Chelsea: The big club that did the most business in selling Juan Mata and buying Nemanja Matic, Mohamed Salah and Kurt Zouma certainly has stuck their noses in. Jose Mourinho is buying players not only for now but for the future as well (see Zouma), and Matic has already proven to give Chelsea better balance in midfield. They are 3 points off the title pace at present with a massive game at Manchester City looming.

Liverpool: They almost invite transfer sagas to come to them, and the Yeven Konoplyanka one was no different. The "will they, won't they" questions were asked all the way until the window shut, and in the end no moves were made to strengthen the squad. Injuries have hurt their depth somewhat, and it remains to be seen whether they'll be able to continue on their pace towards their first Champions League berth since 2009.

Tottenham: Lewis Holtby leaves on loan, and since Andre Villas-Boas' sacking he wasn't seeing the field at all, so this move makes sense. Jermain Defoe also leaves for Toronto FC at the end of February, but this move shouldn't fear Spurs fans all that much so long as Emmanuel Adebayor stays healthy. Their real boon comes in the form of returning injured players such as Sandro, Jan Vertonghen and Paulinho, and their depth is at the moment (biased view coming) probably the best of the Top 4 contenders. But will that translate into a 4th place finish? That negative goal difference isn't helping.

Everton: They sold Nikica Jelavic to Hull and let John Heitinga leave for Fulham on a free, and they signed Aidan McGeady and Lacina Traore, the latter on loan. Their depth has been tested because of a recent slew of injuries, especially at the back, and against Liverpool it really didn't show well. They've hit a recent lull in form, and combined with the injury problems, this could see them fall quickly from the Top 4 race.

Manchester United: Buying Juan Mata was an important purchase not only for David Moyes but for the club in general to show that they still maintain some of that ambition they had in the past. Mata already played very well against Cardiff in his first game, and their Top 4 ambitions will most certainly rely on him bringing a creative spark. Keeping Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie healthy is also key for Manchester United. With Spurs and Liverpool, they look to be in an interesting 4th place dogfight.

Newcastle United: Selling Yohan Cabaye is a worrying sign for the club since he played such a large role in their early season successes. They did need another forward, and Luuk De Jong is an interesting player, but he's been out of form for quite awhile and they'll be relying on him to score goals. They're in a weird position because they're not in any relegation danger, yet not really challenging for 4th either.

Southampton: There was fear after chairman Nicola Cortese left the club that manager Mauricio Pochettino would leave as well, and he would take Saints young contingent with him. The gaffer has stayed, and only problem child Dani Osvaldo has left on loan for Juventus. In what is really only a 2 team mid-table, Saints fall in as the other team aside from Newcastle. They'll need to begin to position for a summer charge on European places with the players they already have.

Aston Villa: After inconsistent form for most of the first half of the season, including some shockingly bad home form, Villa sit in 10th place. They are 8 points clear of the drop, but don't quite feel safe just yet. They've signed two players on loan in Grant Holt and Ryan Bertrand for depth reasons, and they haven't made large impacts, but should stem the tide until the starters return. Christian Benteke's apparent return to form is more important for Villa than any January signing would have been.

Swansea City: After being in an impressively deep rut for awhile, a win over Fulham midweek has them in 11th, but only 6 points clear of the drop. They've signed many players to help with their own injury crisis and imposing fixture pile up, and they include former Liverpool flop David N'Gog, former club hero Marvin Emmes on loan from Championship side Middlesbrough, and a bunch of youth players you haven't heard of. I doubt these players will play massive roles for Swans in future seasons, but in the short term they will help alleviate the pressure on the club dealing with injury and fixture problems to come. Their core should help them stay up, but with 2 losses the relegation boiler could be turned up again.

Norwich City: They've scored the 3rd fewest goals in the Premier League this season, and that could be down to some of their summer signings not adapting well to the Premier League so far. They signed two players on loan in Jonas Gutierrez and Joseph Yobo, which could help out their depth, but they'll need players like Van Wolfswinkel and Hooper to score goals to alleviate fears about relegation for them. They are 6 points clear of the drop at present, but I have some serious fears about them.

Hull City: They broke their transfer record twice to sign two strikers in Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, and they should help Hull score goals, which they haven't been doing at a consistent rate so far this season. They are 5 points safe at the moment, but there are some fears about whether their 2 new strikers will adapt to the Steve Bruce system and disrupt what was already good team chemistry. Not entirely worried because of their good form at the KC Stadium, but a few bad results or injuries could change that.

Crystal Palace: With Tony Pulis, Palace now have a manager that has never has one of his teams relegated in his career. To prevent Palace from being the first, he signed 5 new players, including Tom Ince on loan and Joe Ledley from Celtic. Palace are starting to look a lot more like a Tony Pulis side at the moment, which is good news for their survival status this season, but probably not if you want a side challenging up the table in the future (just ask Stoke fans). Palace might be the least talented team in the league, but with Pulis they have a gaffer who knows how to avoid the drop.

West Brom: With new manager Pepe Mel trying to impose a more possession based style, one would think he'd sign players to help implement it. Instead, he's only signed one, a French striker from Spanish club Espanyol who he'd be familiar with. The squad is not set up to play this style of football, and it has showed in recent results against Aston Villa, for example. Their lack of activity makes me worry about them surviving this year, but their financial health will probably allow them to bounce back up quickly if they do drop.

Stoke: Mark Hughes' attempt to get Stoke playing more attractive football has worked... at points.  In this window, he signed two forwards in John Guidetti and Peter Odemwinge, and lost Kenwye Jones to Cardiff. There are times when Stoke look like they will stay safe comfortably, and other times where it looks like they'll finish at the foot of the table. Mark Hughes teams haven't had the same ability to escape relegation as his predecessor's teams did, so Stoke have some legitimate fears about going down.

Sunderland: For a good period, they looked a sure bet to go down. But Gus Poyet has them playing much better football, and despite a lack of goals from their strikers, they are scoring enough to pick up points. The signings Poyet has made has strengthened in all areas, but the most notable might be Ignacio Scocco, who should help provide goals and service to strikers that could desperately use it. Liam Bridcutt will also help out a midfield that could use it. If Sunderland survive, and on current form they will, they will have to do a massive roster clean-out, but until then everyone should chip in to help the Black Cats in their relegation fight.

West Ham: If there is one team I am sure of going down, it's West Ham. Even with their ability to play great "park the bus" football, they have issues almost everywhere on the pitch. They can't score goals, so they signed Marco Borrielo on loan to help alleviate that. They have issues keeping their midfielders on the pitch, so they signed Antonio Nocerino for that. Defenders getting hurt? Pablo Armero should be a decent short term fix. All of these players are solid, but will that help a squad whose core is old and hasn't done much this season? Probably not.

Fulham: If there was a club that needed to have a good January window, it was Fulham. And they responded in kind. They offloaded dead weight from the squad and wage bill, and added in quality everywhere. Kostas Mitroglou might get the plaudits if Fulham survive due to his price tag, but Lewis Holtby will be the engine that keeps Fulham alive. I rate him highly, and Rene Meulensteen will be hopefully singing the same songs by the end of the season. If they do have problems, it comes at the back, but their front-line signings should do enough to keep them up.

Cardiff City: After all the controversies involving Malky Mackay, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has signed 6 players in order to keep the Blue(red) birds safe. 3 of them were his former players at Molde, who will help in depth and spot roles, but the real key signings are Kenwye Jones, Fabio, and Wilfried Zaha. Those players will be crucial in keeping Cardiff above water, and the latter 2 especially because of their relationships with the manager. Despite my eternal hatred for the man in charge, his presence receding can only be good news.

3 Relegated Teams as of now, for me:

West Brom
West Ham

Amazingly, none of the promoted teams according to me on January 31st will drop back down to the Championship, and this will be the 3rd time that has happened in the Premier League era. I'm sure to be wrong, but this transfer window has certainly provided some good food for thought.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Access in Access

The 2014 Olympics are approaching fast, which means that it's time for the rosters for the hockey tournament to be revealed. USA Hockey used the stage of the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor to reveal theirs, with all of the pomp and circumstance that entailed. The stories however didn't focus on the snubs, goaltending controversies, or possible line combos and defense pairings. It centered instead on a story written by ESPN's Scott Burnside on the selection process. It contained some quotes that had a bit of fire to them about Bobby Ryan, who ended up not making the final roster (for now). The quotes themselves ended up eclipsing all other stories about the US team, but brought up bigger questions about access and embedding for reporters in those situations. The hockey had to wait, so it figures that this scribe would do the same thing... begrudgingly.

The storm really kicked up when Nick Kypreos, insider for Sportsnet in Canada, made comments on "Hockey Central" regarding the article Burnside wrote. He said that the "onus is on Burnside to not publish things that will damage players". Predictably, most who are media and journalism-savvy became enraged, as well they should have. But the story goes deeper than just "defending players" (even though that would have meant going against all journalistic tenets- and for what it's worth Kypreos is a former player), it goes to the question of access. As consumers of media and all sports, fans have more access to players than ever before due to social media, the hunger to get more stories out faster than ever before, and more programs like 24/7 that give us new insights on the lives of players behind the scenes (although this year's edition felt more forced than earlier ones). Access is now of paramount importance in order for the eyeballs to go to your story or show. What Burnside, and Kevin Allen of the USA Today, got was unprecedented access to the selection process for USA Hockey, with a few translucent strings attached. Those strings turned out to be hung in the wrong place, or hung where only one person could see them, since the Kevin Allen story about the same selection process is noticeably more restrained. Whether USA Hockey did have a set of "guidelines" about what should or should not be published is an open question, but if they did exist, the punishment for failing to meet them clearly was not severe enough. But journalism is about sniffing around the boundaries anyway, and the Burnside piece is a paragon of access journalism that few have been able to write recently. So while Kypreos is wrong about what a journalists job is, his comment has sparked debate and question. But it does trigger in the mind's eye something to ponder about access in general, thanks to another similar story involving another US National team.

In March of last year, Brian Straus, then of the Sporting News, wrote an article using anonymous sources talking about divisions in US Men's National Soccer Team camp that caused a furor and the whole of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure in question. That article is largely similar to the Burnside piece, although the main difference in the sourcing provides a good context. That article was widely panned, and the team eventually went on a run afterwords where they failed to win only twice up until September. The quotes are fascinating in equal measure:

When talking about Carlos Bocanegra not starting in Honduras, a player said: "(Jurgen) already broke Carlos' heart. Why drive the knife in and twist it?" Compare this to a member of the selection committee talking about Bobby Ryan, with no name mentioned. He said, "I think he's sleepy. I think he skates sleepy." These quotes are spoken anonymously, and are nearly equally disparaging. As the stories go on further, the quotes get more disparaging, but the sourcing differs. About Jurgen Klinsmann, a source called the players, "overtrained and undercoached", a sentiment is echoed in further quotes. When talking about Bobby Ryan, his former GM, and frequent lightning rod, Brian Burke said, "He's not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary. It's never going to be in his vocabulary. He can't spell intense." Hyperbole aside, these comments seem equally disparaging, but one became the match that sparked massive debate, and the other (and others like it) became part of a motivational mechanism.

The Straus piece fails in the same way that the Burnside piece works because of the access. It's a double-edged sword that journalists have to use correctly or else be beheaded by (as Straus would later learn). Both pieces are insights into otherwise closed ecosystems that the general fan would never be able to experience, and both are sometimes uncomfortable looks inside. As Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughter houses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian," which seems to be an appropriate refrain for these kind of stories. We all want the access, but sometimes it's a double-edged sword for the viewer/reader as well. But just because we don't like what we may see inside the "slaughter house" doesn't mean we shouldn't be privy to it.

That is really the essence of the flack between Ryan and Burke, Poile/USA Hockey and the media. Hockey people know that all players are talked about like this by scouts, GM's, coaches, etc. but most of the non-savvy media and fans don't, which means quotes like those above can be gobbled up and cause controversies like the one seen today. The people granting access, whether it be the military, Monsanto, or USA Hockey all have to be sensitive when granting access knowing it's a double-edged sword for everyone involved (which is why stories like this almost never get published). The onus is on them to prevent things like the Burke quotes from being published, and that fact alone is why stories using solely anonymous sources as the backbone often fail, as the Straus story did.

Everyone involved in access stories, including readers, have a right and desire to know what often is shielded behind closed doors. But not everyone can deal with the backlash that will come from it. Sports are no different. So next time one of these stories are published, appreciate it and fear it in equal measure. Appreciate it for the journalism from the access provided...

And fear it for the controversies from the access provided. (And yes, this includes you too Joe Thornton).

For further reading, here is the March Straus Piece, and here is the Burnside selection piece. For further reference, here is the Kevin Allen piece about the same selection process.

2013-14 NFL Playoff Predictions

Time for my sure to go wrong NFL playoff predictions, since most of my other predictions end up looking the same way: bad.


(3) Bengals over (6) Chargers
(4) Colts over (5) Chiefs

(2) Patriots over (3) Bengals
(1) Broncos over (4) Colts

(2) Patriots over (1) Broncos


(5) 49ers over (4) Packers
(3) Eagles over (6) Saints

(1) Seahawks over (5) 49ers
(2) Panthers over (3) Eagles

(1) Seahawks over (2) Panthers

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks over Patriots

Sorry to the Seahawks in advance.