MLS Strike: Players have resolve, if not upper hand, in labor negotiations

10 Comments
source:
MLS and the Players Union have reached an impasse as CBA talks continue down to the wire.

With just over two weeks to go until the start of the 2015 Major League Soccer season, the MLS Players Union (MLSPU) and the league have hit in an impasse with regards to agreeing on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Time is ticking as the current CBA deal, agreed on back in 2010, ran out on Jan. 31. Last week a mediator was appointed to act on behalf of both sides, however the increasing feeling is that the players hold supreme power in the CBA talks of 2015 and are willing to strike to get what they want.

[ RELATED: Cameron on the CBA talks ]

Speaking to various stars around the league, past MLS players and the head of MLSPU, one thing is clear: change is needed. And it is needed now as MLS enters a new era with new teams, a new TV deal and plenty more star names entering the fray. MLS was contacted for this investigation into the mood of the negotiations but after initial contact, all we got was radio silence.

The two hot topics which MLS and the players union are still far apart on is some form of free agency and increasing the minimum salary levels.

Bob Foose, Executive Director of the MLSPU and the man heading up the talks on behalf of the players, believes that his players are willing to strike to achieve a new set of regulations, which they believe will allow the league to flourish for the foreseeable future.

“We are going to work on this as hard as we possibly can and to be fair, I have seen nothing from the league to suggest that isn’t their intention as well,” Foose explained. “The last thing we want is a work stoppage. It is not our goal and we don’t think it is good for the league. That is not what we are aiming for but the players have made it abundantly clear to the league, face-to-face, and publicly, that they can’t continue to play under the current system.  There has to be real change here or they are not willing to continue to play. That’s the framework we all have to work within and we will all do everything we can to resolve it in the time that we have left.”

[ RELATED: Garber’s “2014 State of the League” address ]

Foose believes the current group of players are the most savvy he’s had in terms of their knowledge of the negotiations and, most importantly, the unity among the group across the league’s 20 teams is remarkable.

Toronto FC’s veteran defender Steven Caldwell, who joined MLS in 2013 after spending the majority of his career playing in the Premier League in England, sets out the players’ stall in his gravelly Scottish accent. Caldwell, 34, is one of 63 players (around 10 percent of the league) on a board of committee members for the MLSPU that has been in recent meetings with the league and has been influential in spreading the word of the union across locker rooms at every single club. The passion in the voice of a player who is relatively new to MLS, and is speaking about CBA negotiations for the first time in his career, is startling.

“We are fully together… Very unified. Nobody wants a work stoppage at any point in their careers but we are fully prepared for that,” Caldwell said. “I have never seen a more unified group of players considering the distances we cover and the amount of people our group entails. We are very unified and committed to what we are trying to achieve. We will continue to negotiate and try to see a path to an agreement. But just now, it is quite difficult to see that. We are extremely far apart in the most important issues.”

[ RELATED: Bradley believes players willing to strike ]

source: Getty Images
Captain of Toronto in 2014, Caldwell has sent out a strong message to MLS.

Many question if and why MLS players would want to strike and what kind of message that would send out to not only the sports scene in North America, but across the globe. With high profile stars like David Villa, Kaka, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard all entering the league in 2015, a work stoppage could impact the image of the league across the world and create a significant divide between the players and high-ranking officials in the league office.

Senior pros were influential during the 2010 negotiations and the role of Michael Bradley, Bobby Boswell and other veterans up and down the league have united the players five years later as the CBA talks this time involve more money, more teams and the stakes are undoubtedly higher. The message from the players is loud and clear: they are not afraid to strike, and it will happen if the league doesn’t listen to them.

“The goal is to find a new agreement, one that works for the league and one that works for the players,” Bradley told reporters in January. “Nobody is sitting here right now saying to themselves, ‘We want a work stoppage.’ That’s not the end goal for anybody. Should we get to a point before the season where things and negotiations aren’t where they should be, we are ready to strike. And we are united as a group to make real progress in terms of the way players get treated in this league.”

Boswell, who is the team representative for D.C. United and has played in MLS for over 10 years, has been involved in plenty of discussions between the two parties and although he revealed civility, he’s not too optimistic about deals being reached on free agency and player compensation.

“There’s some progress,” Boswell told SoccerWire.com. “We both are optimistic that we can get a deal done. But we have some fundamental issues. We don’t agree with each other on how to get where we want to go. It’s not like [negotiators] are in there yelling at each other. It’s civil, but there are some issues we’re not eye to eye on and we’re pretty far apart on some pretty important stuff.”

[ RELATED: Evans believes MLS strike is imminent ]

That issue of free agency has become a real issue in MLS in recent years as players continue to be traded freely within the league and are forced to move their families from club to club at only a phone-call’s notice. If your team and the league decide you are getting traded from San Jose to Montreal, you are getting traded to Montreal. You have no say in it. The players union are fighting hard to change that, with proposals on the table to protect MLS veterans from being traded here, there and everywhere after they’ve had a certain number of years in the league.

source:
Michael Bradley believes MLSPU are unified and ready to strike.

Is that sort of agreement enough or is full free agency the best possible solution? Former Houston Dynamo and MLS All-Star Geoff Cameron, who now plays for Stoke City in the Premier League and the U.S. national team, believes a form of free agency needs to happen. And if the players are willing to strike for it, so be it.

“For people to say that a strike would look bad on the players, I think that’s completely false. Anybody can go online and look up the salaries and look up the situations where guys can get traded three of four times during a season,” Cameron said. “Is that fair for families to have to deal with that and not being taken care of properly? I believe the league now has a stable grounding, they have the stadiums and attendance figures are up. The wealth is there in the league. If MLS wants to be looked at as a major league around the world, and it’s getting there, then they need to respect the players the way other leagues around the world do.”

Caldwell echoes Cameron’s sentiments.

“It is a right enjoyed by every other soccer player in the world,” Caldwell explains. “I feel that MLS is in a position now where it has to reward good performances and it is certainly the way we need to go to build this league up to a stronger level. The league is growing all the time but the way we are going, free agency is extremely important. The system right now is unfair to players who are committed to and have built this league.”

[ RELATED: Vegas out of MLS expansion – Sacramento or Minneapolis? ]

Due to MLS still being a single-entity since it was formed in 1996, the whole free agency aspect is rocky ground. Lawyers have suggested that the league’s status as a single-entity could be called into question (especially with individual owners now in charge of every single club). And if an anti-trust lawsuit was filed by the players against MLS then they would have a decent case of winning. I put that option to Foose, but he reaffirmed the notion that the players aren’t looking to sue MLS. They just want what they think they deserve.

“There’s no question the league is a single-entity,” Foose said. “Our focus is on reaching an agreement. That is what our goal is and it is what we are putting all of our time and effort into. That is what we want to see happen.”

source: Getty Images
Cameron believes that MLS veterans deserve more respect as the league continues to grow.

So, what about the other big issue … How vital is it to increase the minimum wage?

Compared to other major league sports in North America, MLS is lagging way behind in the minimum salary it dishes out not only to rookies, that’s $36,500 per season by the way, but to squad players who occupy spots 12 to 18.

In the NBA the average salary for a player is $5 million, in MLB it is $3.8 million, while in the NHL it is $2.6 million and it’s above $2 million in the NFL.

The median salary for an MLS players is around $91,000 and with so much money coming into the league through expansion fees of over $100 million per club, upwards of $90 million a year in TV deals and more teams lined up to enter between now and 2020, players at the middle and the bottom end of MLS rosters are starting to wonder when things will change for them. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, somewhat predictably, chose his State of the League address in December 2014 to say that the league is losing over $100 million per season. With the CBA negotiations on the horizon, MLS had set out its stall that profits and progress weren’t as healthy as they had previously championed.

[ RELATED: Latest MLS standings ]

Yet with a huge number of Designated Players arriving since 2007 and plenty of those guys earning upwards of $5 million per year as we speak, the inequality of the salary structure in MLS is fast becoming a humongous issue with the MLSPU. So much so, that it’s something they are willing to strike for in 2015. DPs like Bradley, Kaka and Clint Dempsey are putting their livelihoods on the line to try and ensure that the guys they train and play alongside every day don’t continue to earn less than $40,000 a year, while they earn upwards of $6 million.

“In some ways it is a good message,” Foose says of the increased number of DPs in MLS. “We are happy that they [MLS] are investing and committed to further investing in the league. The concern is that it doesn’t strike the right balance in how you make MLS better going forward. It generates attention and that is good. We have no beef with that. We certainly have no beef with the signings of the Designated Players. Our DPs are great additions to the league, we are happy to have them and they are supporters of the union. We have no beef at all with the Designated Player rule or the DPs. We are all together. But it can’t just be all you do, it has to be more than that.”

source: Getty Images
With packed stadiums and expansion franchises thriving, MLSPU want improved deals.

But what would increasing the minimum salaries actually do for the league? Foose believes it would help MLS compete better with Liga MX clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League and help MLS get to where it wants to be, one of the world’s top league’s by 2022.

“It bears itself out in very tangible ways when you look at things like the CCL and we are all very committed to competing successfully with the Mexican teams in that competition,” Foose said. “You really need to look no further to the depth and commitment of those teams and their salary structure to find out why we haven’t been successful. Across the Mexican league you see real depth in those rosters. So when you get into a competition like that, where you are not able to play your regular starting lineup in every game in the competition, due to the balance in the Mexican league you see a different level of player in those slots 12-18 than you can possibly expect in our league. That isn’t something which can be solved overnight, we acknowledge that, but it is something which needs to be addressed quickly or we are not going to be able to make the strides forward we want to make.”

[ RELATED: MLS statistics ]

Caldwell agreed that in order for MLS to develop and move to the next level, the minimum salary needs to increase.

“It is extremely important. It is very difficult just now with these young guys coming into the league with the minimum salary as it is,” Caldwell said. “For them to live like professionals, to be in a job where you have to be so dedicated in everything you do. In every form: where you live, what you eat, et cetera. It is very important that we raise that.”

Cameron arrived into MLS as a rookie in Houston after being drafted in 2008 from the University of Rhode Island. Thinking back to what it was like to be a young guy in MLS before the last CBA deal in 2010, Cameron is adamant that change is needed for the league to grow.

“I remember it was preseason and we were all planning on striking. The vote was something ridiculous like 385-2 in favor, or something like that. The players were really unified and that’s something they really have going on this time, and even more so this time around because the league is now more popular and more money is involved,” Cameron said. “But I vividly remember the warning that we all had as players. We were told to save money and to prepare for a strike. Throughout the whole preseason we were planning on striking and preparing ourselves for the possibility of a lockout or a strike. Fortunately they agreed to a deal a few days before the season started. It could come down to the wire this time but I think the players are fighting for even more than we did in 2010. It’s time that the core players who built this league need to be taken care of properly. My first year, I had a senior roster spot but I was making $30,000 a year and I was the lucky one. The guys who are on developmental deals were making $12,500 a year which was less than minimum wage”

[ RELATED: MLS schedules ]

source:
David Villa and other superstars like Gerrard, Lampard and Kaka will enter MLS in 2015.

Foose believes that MLS is doomed if the league only continues to spend its money on attracting DP players and does not address the inequality across the roster as the league continues to grow.

“This inequality has become very, very stark in the last few years with the commitment to the top of the roster we have seen,” Foose said, sternly. “At a time when we have needed to close that gap, we have been accentuating that gap. You could attribute it to growth. Those signings at the top of the roster is growth, but it can’t be the only strategy. If it is, it is doomed not to succeed when it comes to improving the quality of the league.”

But what is it like to be a young player who is worrying day in, day out about how they can get the bills paid in some of the most expensive cities in the country? Cameron explains.

“You have to bunk up with each other, players share a place. Being a rookie back then, it was tough. It was not easy,” Cameron said. “You were living from paycheck to paycheck, you weren’t able to save because you were just trying to get to the next month. After coming out of college, you are not hitting the big bucks. During my rookie year, a lot of the older guys knew how much the rookies were making and that is why they always passed off player appearances for us. It would always be the rookies doing it because there would be a small fee involved but that made a huge difference to the rookies. The older guys, they knew we needed the extra cash.”

The unity and togetherness between MLS players shone through throughout my talks on and off the record with plenty of them, from Portland to Toronto, D.C. to L.A. Caldwell revealed that the group connect on multiple conference calls and are involved in every decision the players union make, but it was the face-to-face meetings in Las Vegas last December that really provided an opportunity for the players to sit down and make sure every team was being represented properly and fairly. Simply put, across the board MLS players are ‘all in’ as their pursuit of a new and improve CBA agreement continues to the bitter end.

[ RELATED: Gerrard signs for LA Galaxy ]

In 2010 an agreement was reached between the league and the players union just a few days before the start of the season. Can we expect the negotiations to go down to the wire once again? Now that a mediator has been appointed, just like in 2010, the hope is that both parties are willing to work together to figure this out. But the fact of the matter is, the mediator can be dismissed at any time if neither party is happy with the progress, or lack thereof.

Between now and the opening day of the MLS season on March 6, plenty needs to be done. Technically the players could carry on playing without a CBA deal agreed throughout the 2015 season, but that’s not an option for them. They will strike if they don’t agree on a deal and that would be bad news for everyone. Even though MLS owners don’t look like initiating a lockout, the players will walk away as one word dominates their mindset. Unity.

“We want to come to a solution but are far apart at this moment,” Caldwell said. “We want to negotiate and hopefully we can do that, but we are very unified and very together in this.”

source:
Kaka and Orlando City will enter the league in 2015.

New York City FC’s Jeb Brovsky echoed that sentiment in Manchester last week during his team’s first-ever preseason before they enter MLS.

“I would echo my colleagues in that the players are united and that is something very dear to a lot of guys in Major League Soccer,” Brovsky said. “We are going to stay united and we have strength in numbers.”

[ RELATED: Lampard on deal with MLS, NYCFC ]

Brad Evans, the MLSPU rep for the Seattle Sounders, believes the current crop of players deserve to be rewarded for their hard work in the last five years which has seen the league grow beyond many people’s wildest dreams.

“We feel we deserve it now,” Evans told reporters recently. “We feel we’ve put in another five years of growing this league and especially those that have played in the league for 10 years. We think we should be able to choose where we go. We don’t want astronomical prices. We understand the economics of it. We’ve had a phenomenal economics team look at where the league stands, where we stand as players, and we want what is fair for everybody.”

Agreeing on what is fair for everyone is the hard part. MLS is unlikely to commit to any arrangements with regards to free agency as they won an anti-trust lawsuit in 2000 when the structure of the league was called into question during plenty of financial mismanagement which saw the downsizing of MLS and more prudent growth models mushroom from it. Even though Garber and MLS claim the league is still losing money, the legal implications of allowing a form of free agency could hit the league hard as several anti-trust lawsuits could be filled against MLS. What the players want, well, MLS is simply not willing to give it up.

“We will meet every week from here on out,” said a determined Foose. “That would be the expectation. It is not that we aren’t trying, on both sides, but we are very, very far apart in two key issues. That’s free agency and player compensation.”

As for the deadline, the pressure continues to build on both sides of the ball to ensure a damaging work stoppage doesn’t become a reality. Crucial meetings between the players union and MLS will take place on Feb. 21-23, as talks will go down to the wire.

“We have not articulated any type of specific deadline but clearly we all have an eye towards the end of preseason and the beginning of the season,” Foose said. “That is the crucial juncture. We certainly feel pressure, and I think the league would agree that we all feel pressure. Over the next few weeks the aim is to make progress and to get ourselves to a point where we can make an agreement.”

If that agreement doesn’t arrive, the players will have made the ultimate sacrifice to prove their point: change is needed, and it has to happen now.

MLS was contacted by ProSoccerTalk to comment on this article but after initial discussions, a league spokesperson was not made available.

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

Getty Images
Leave a comment

AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.

Nuno expresses pride in Wolves achievements after Brighton draw

Leave a comment

Nuno Espirito Santo has expressed his pride in what Wolves has achieved so far this season after the 2-2 road draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

The team reclaimed sixth place in the Premier League table with the point from the Amex, and while Nuno knows there were moments to improve on, he still believes the team is headed forward and looks back fondly on where they’ve come from.

[ RECAP: Wolves, Seagulls draw ]

“We are very proud of what we are achieving day by day but we want to keep on going,” Nuno said after the match. “We need to compete and prepare ourselves for the last game in the Europa League.”

He pointed to mistakes that led to Brighton goals, ones he believes a little tactical instruction should snuff out. “I am proud of how we stayed organized. We did not do well when he had to restart the game after the 1-1, we should not have played a horizontal pass that was intercepted.”

The head man was frustrated by one key thing, as his winger Adama Traore was fouled four times, all coming in the second half. “He’s a strong boy,” Nuno said. “Everybody can see that. No matter how strong you are, if you are being kicked it’s impossible.” He was seen having an animated conversation with the fourth official during the later stages of the game, with two of the four fouls drawn in the final 10 minutes as the visitors pushed for a winner.

The draw against Brighton was no anomaly – Wolves has achieved its impressive table position despite just five wins on the season. The key for them has been avoiding losses, with just two defeats on the year. They have drawn a shocking nine games, with the previous eight all either 0-0 or 1-1 before Sunday’s 2-2 finish. That leaves Wolves with an 11-game unbeaten streak, with the last loss coming in mid-September.

Nevertheless, Nuno knows the toughest part of the season is on the horizon. “The hardest part of the fixtures is going to start now. It will be tough for everybody.” Wolves has a match against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend before a festive season that sees the club play Norwich, Man City, Liverpool, and Watford between an eleven-day span.

Brendan Rodgers has Leicester City whirring

2 Comments

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Say it again with me. We’re doing this Good Will Hunting style, until you truly believe the words you are repeating.

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Four years after winning the title against astronomical odds in one of the most historic seasons in sports history, Brendan Rodgers has cemented Leicester City as anything but a fluke. This club is for real.

[ MORE: Leicester City tops Aston Villa ]

After three mid-table finished that allowed the club to institute a sustainable model of player acquisition, talent development, and asset maximization, the Foxes are back near the top of the table and look a club that has the ability to secure itself as a leading force in the English top flight.

This summer, the club put the finishing touches on two critical components of the plan, two moments that may prove defining decisions in the club’s history. The first was selling Harry Maguire and replacing him with young Caglar Soyuncu, a move which not only netted the club a massive sum of money, but also cemented Leicester City as a talent development hub capable of producing talent, offloading for a huge profit, and not losing a step on the pitch.

The second was replacing Claude Puel with Brendan Rodgers. Puel, in charge of Leicester City for two years, was caught in between instituting his preferred possessional style of play and changing the culture of the squad, a hesitation which cost the Frenchman his job. Last season, Leicester City was seventh in the league in passes per game but fifth in accurate long-balls per game, a testament to his inability to decide the squad’s identity. This season, Leicester City is fourth in passes per game behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and fourth in total shots per game, all while sitting ninth in accurate long-balls (for what it’s worth, Liverpool is 1st in that category while Man City is third, largely down to their exorbitant possessional advantages). This team has completed the transformation Puel wanted but never achieved – they are a dominant Premier League side that wants to dominate its opponents.

Even deeper, the numbers agree. Jamie Vardy is scoring at otherworldly levels, especially for a player at 32 years old. His 16 goals lead the league by six, and even with his outrageous finishing ability (he has a +5.47 differential between actual goals scored and expected goals scored, nearly double anyone else – Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki are second at +2.92), he is still second in the league in total xG behind Marcus Rashford.

James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, and Wilfried Ndidi are all among the top 5 in WhoScored player rating this season, while Vardy sits seventh. Soyuncu ranks sixth by in the league by WhoScored among central defenders in his first full Premier League season at just 23 years old, while his center-back partner Jonny Evans is eighth in his 13th campaign in the English top flight. Pereira is a tackling machine who gets far less screen time than new Manchester United signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka, owner of a reputation for that exact skill which earned him a big-money move. Ndidi, meanwhile, continues to rise in prominence as he leads the Premier League in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

Sure, Rodgers inherited a fantastic squad, but the list of players falls well short of screaming “second in the table” and the former Liverpool manager has metamorphosed them from budding talents to world-class players. He has mixed young talent with veteran experience flawlessly, making sure to keep title veterans Wes Morgan, Cristian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton involved despite their declining roles.

The club has also found itself the beneficiary of a few unique circumstances. Most notably, they have avoided significant injury to this point in the season. A large part of that has been Vardy’s international retirement which (at least, for the time being) has kept him fresher than most, whereas double duty has weighed down other top goalscorers in the league. Only Matthew James is currently sidelined for the Foxes who remain one of the healthiest teams in the league. They also don’t have European play to worry about, a proven ingredient for domestic success.

Still, Rodgers is the source of much of their continued improvement. The Foxes have conceded just nine total goals all year, the least of any English top flight side, and are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set-piece this Premier League season, a testament to their rigid and well-drilled discipline. And they have scored gobs of late goals under the current boss – they scored 10 goals inside the final 15 minutes of his first eight games in charge of the club, and this season they lead the league with five goals inside the final five minutes (even with Manchester City). Against Aston Villa he managed to pair Vardy with Kelechi Iheanacho up front, a prospect that left Puel utterly baffled.

It’s a shame this team isn’t among those competing in Europe this campaign, as they could surely challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, but they will almost certainly get the chance next season. They get a chance to play with the Premier League big boys soon during the holiday season, with back-to-back matches against Liverpool and Man City just after Christmas Day.

Claude Puel just couldn’t get it right. Vardy said earlier this season that Puel’s training sessions were “too slow” to the point where it was consequently “difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches.” That’s not a problem any longer. Brendan Rodgers has this team absolutely soaring at breakneck speeds towards a long-term place among the Premier League’s elite. The Foxes’ transformation from one-hit wonder to sustainable elite-level success should be a case study for other clubs looking to is still in progress, but has reached the final phase.

Eight games in a row they have won now, the most in team history. Brendan Rodgers called Sunday’s win “a historic day for the club,” but the picture is much bigger than that.

“Leicester City is a top Premier League club.” Say it again until you believe the words you are reciting. Know that they are true.

Manchester City is panicking

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City fell to Manchester United 2-1 in Saturday’s derby, and one thing was blatantly obvious above all others.

Pep Guardiola‘s side has begun to panic, and there may not be a way back from that headspace this season.

Down 2-0 to the Red Devils at home, Guardiola grabbed the big red metaphoric button, opened the plastic cover, and set off all the alarm bells at The Etihad. At the end of the 90 minutes, Manchester City delivered 47 crosses, completing just seven of them. They forced Manchester United to make 40 clearances in the penalty area, and the Red Devils were up to the task, only conceding on a corner that resulted in a bullet header by Nicolas Otamendi, who was afforded the chance at an attacking move thanks to the dead ball set-piece.

This isn’t a terribly new thing for Man City, but it has reached troubling levels. City – a squad with spectacular dribblers like Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling, plus world-class passers like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – leads the English top flight with 29 crosses per game, six more than any other team. Some of that is down to their gargantuan possessional advantage that lends itself to more deliveries of all kinds into the box, but that number is beyond reasonable explanation.

The trend has cropped up in big games over the past month or two, and it has not been helpful. Against Liverpool, Man City delivered 32 crosses, of which just five found its mark. In the Champions League disappointment against Shakhtar Donetsk, they delivered 29 crosses officially, but the strategy was far beyond that, forcing Shakhtar into 34 clearances. Against Wolves in the 2-0 defeat, they blasted 36 crosses into the area in a game that was scoreless until the final 10 minutes.  Panic.

A deeper dive is even more troubling. Even with all those crosses flying into the opposition box – again, attempting 26% per game more than any other Premier League side – they have just one player among the top 20 in accurate crosses. Kevin de Bruyne leads the Premier League with 45 total completed crosses this season, but even he has done so at just a 28% clip, which is nothing more than bang-on average. The rest of the list is completely devoid of any Man City players, forced to drop all the way to 40th in the league where Angelino, Olkesandr Zinchenko, and Ilkay Gundogan all sit with eight at a combined 29% success rate.

Clearly, strategy does not fit Man City’s strengths – the squad, as mentioned previously, is full of passers, dribblers, and general movers of the ball. They are not a crossing team. They are a spectacular passing team, with de Bruyne leading the league in key passes plus Sterling, Silva and Mahrez all in the Premier League top 20. Man City has six players in the top 10 in accurate final third passes. Yet here they are, blasting crosses into the box.

Pep Guardiola has talked repeatedly about how Manchester City is “still not ready” to win the Champions League, and yet it feels like instead the window may have closed. The team that won back-to-back Premier League titles in record-setting fashion may be in decline.

Injuries have no doubt had an effect. Leroy Sane’s knee injury has proven a much bigger absence than expected, while goal machine Sergio Aguero now finds himself on the sideline. As a result, Guardiola has leaned heavily on de Bruyne, a dangerous prospect given the Belgian’s own recent injury history.

Determining a fix is more complex than asking City to “go back to what they do best,” but any remedy certainly starts there. The problems are also not deep-rooted, as Manchester City still leads the league with 44 goals scored through 16 games, and a 45.89 xG proves that number is not a fluke. Still, the baffling tweak up front has left the team begging for goals when it needs them the most, unable to provide the killer instinct that flowed through the veins of the recent title teams.