The Extended Squad has Been Announced

So the England squad for the upcoming European championship was announced this week. Roy Hodgson has managed to retained some of his favourites whilst thankfully deciding that some finally don’t warrant a place.

Goalkeepers

Fraser Forster, Joe Hart, Tom Heaton

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Absolutely no surprises here. Pretty straight forwards options. Not going to find anyone complaining about this selection. It’s just a shame that Jack Butland got injured as I certainly reckon he would have been pushing for the number 1 shirt as Hart’s form can be patchy.

Defenders

Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill, Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Rose, Chris Smalling, John Stones, Kyle Walker

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No complaints at all about the Full Backs. All are very useful players who get forward quite well. Sometimes their defence can be a bit suspect but that is a compromise that has to be made. However, ONLY 3 CENTRE BACKS??? Surely that isn’t enough. That’s not to mention their quality. John Stones seems to have all the talent in the world but he has not had a good season for Everton. Cahill doesn’t seem to have been that good for ages, but I suppose he provides a bit of experience. Chris Smalling is just a mistake waiting to happen, although of the three he has probably been the one in the most reliable form. I just can’t be happy with these options for centre back. There must be someone else, anyone else, if for no other reason than to provide depth. What are the options? Oh. Phil Jagielka you say. Never mind. I think 3 is plenty. I guess Dier has played centre back before and could cover in an emergency.

Midfielders

Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Danny Drinkwater, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, James Milner, Raheem Sterling, Andros Townsend, Jack Wilshere

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I personally feel this is where the team starts to become a bit more exciting. There’s plenty of talent here for sure. You have Dele Alli and Ross Barkley that can create something out of nothing and change a game single handedly. There’s plenty of reliability there too with Dier, Drinkwater and Milner. You also get bags of pace and energy from Sterling, Townsend, Henderson and Lallana. Great versatility here that will allow Hodgson to be flexible tactically. Delph though? I suppose you could say look at what Villa have been like this season since he left? That’s probably clutching at straws though. And I simply can’t find any justification whatsoever for Wilshere. He’s been injured all season. He’s not even that good. He must be holding a copy of a Roy Hodgson sex tape or something, I can’t think of any other reason he is in the squad. Worse though, is that it sets a precedent that some players are above the rule of players that have been playing a lot and have been in form, particularly when you have people like Mark Noble at West Ham who has been putting in 110% effort every week and been playing brilliantly.

Forwards:

Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy

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LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 27: Harry Kane of England celebrates after scoring on his debut during the EURO 2016 Qualifier match between England and Lithuania at Wembley Stadium on March 27, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

This is also very exciting. These players have plenty of goals amongst them. You have one of the most complete centre forwards in football in Harry Kane, one of the best finishers in Daniel Sturridge, and huge amounts of endeavor and impact in Jamie Vardy. Wayne Rooney is captain so he has to play. Whatever people say about him, he is class and that is permanent. However, if he is to start he may have to relocate to midfield, which he has proven he can do. Rashford is talent and has been a revelation this season but I don’t seem him making the final squad. He’s a player for the future though and this will be a good experience for him.

So all in all I feel that this squad is actually pretty good, almost as good as it could have been. Saying that, do I think England will see success? No, not a chance. But I do feel that it may be more enjoyable than recent previous tournament for England. Due to the resources at their disposal I’m hoping that we will see an attacking mentality with the players encouraged to go out there, enjoy themselves and maybe cause an upset or two. It’s also a relatively young team and provides a very good core of players as England look to the future.

Feeling un-expectant but positive for the future. You can’t help but get excited about a major international tournament.

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How Leicester City have proven that the Premier League is the best

I’ve got a confession to make – I’m a Tottenham Hotspurs fan. We’re not popular at the moment, the most unfairly vilified team in the league. Our only crime was being the sole remaining contender to Leicester City for the Premier League title. But now that it’s over we can all say that Spurs have played some great football this season and have done amazingly to finish second place. However, Leicester have been absolutely amazing and are clear, highly deserving champions. You can’t win a league, consisting of 20 teams and 38 games by chance. You can only earn it. They have been brilliant all season and it has been a remarkable story.ChndygDXIAAoM8e

Despite this, there have been people using this achievement as evidence for the decreasing quality of the Premier League. In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a Premiership team in the semi-finals of the Champions League who are only forth in the Premiership! If anything, the success of Leicester City only highlights the strength of the league both as a product and in terms of quality on the pitch. Let’s put it this way – there’s a reason the Premier League is the highest earning league in the world, with by far the most lucrative broadcasting deals.

The money that comes into the league creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby broadcasters willingly pay more money for Premier League rights as it is the most competitive league. Therefore it is the best product for them to sell. In doing this, the money they pay then goes into the clubs and serves to increase the quality further. But it isn’t this money alone that creates such a great competition, what is more important is how it is distributed. It many leagues, clubs are allowed to sell their own broadcasting rights. The result of this is that the best clubs sell their rights for significantly more money than the lesser clubs, meaning they are able to spend more money and create an ever-increasing gap in quality (See Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, or Bayern Munich in Germany).

Things are done very differently in England. Here the Premier League itself owns the rights for all of the games and all of the teams. So broadcasting rights for the Premier League are sold collectively by the league itself. This money then gets distributed among all the teams in the Premier League almost evenly. For national broadcasting rights, there is a small amount of favouritism towards the bigger teams, meaning they earn a slightly higher proportion of the money, but the rights sold internationally are distributed exactly evenly. Considering that the TV deal for the Premiership is the biggest deal in football, the collective selling of its rights means that even the poorest teams in the league are getting a lot of money, especially when compared to similar teams in other leagues.Premier_League_Broadcasting_2

Obviously money isn’t everything in football. But it certainly helps. For some of the lower teams in the Premier League it means that they can offer more money to their best players and keep them from moving to other clubs for money. It also means that they are more able to snap up playing or managerial talent from other countries who aren’t able to pay as much as they would get here. Overall it means that they are better prepared to compete with any other team in their division.

I’m not suggesting that the feats we have seen from Leicester this season are going to become the norm. Certainly not. It was something close to a perfect storm. The richer clubs will still always be richer and able to spend more money, but more and more teams will feel that they might have a chance. To me it really shows the strength of the Premier League. There are no easy games. Every game is competitive. Any team can beat any other team. You can see why people might be willing to pay more it. There is a competitive balance among the league that means that anyone can win on any given match day. The belief that good competition and uncertainty creates a better product is the reason that sport leagues in America use a draft system and put in place salary caps. Teams no longer have a position that they are expected to finish in the league; instead there is a growing fluidity of expectations. We may not have the best teams in the world, but as a collective entity the Premier League is definitely the best. Leicester’s achievements are extraordinary, in fact the whole season has been. It is evidence that romanticism in football isn’t lost, that real life underdog stories can happen. A team that was one moment fighting for its Premiership life, the next kings of the land. All the while lead by the manager who was the first victim of the mega rich footballing intervention taking the trophy from his successor.

The Moneyball Pioneer in the NFL: Why the Browns will trade their pick

For those that haven’t seen the film Moneyball, or better yet read the book by Michael Lewis (both of which I would highly recommend), I’ll start a brief introduction to the story and concept. The story is about the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the early 2000’s which managed to achieve some the best winning records in MLB over a number of seasons, despite only being able to afford one of the lowest payrolls. To put this achievement into perspective, all this happened at around the same time that the US government commissioned a Blue Ribbon Report on the Economics of Baseball which concluded that high spending teams in baseball have a significant, unfair advantage over the lower spending ones who couldn’t expect to achieve much success. The report recommended the introduction of a salary cap to even out the playing field.moneyball07

So how did the A’s manage to achieve such success? Luckily their General Manager, Billy Beane, realised that in order to obtain any kind of success they would need to think differently to other clubs, recognising that players valued highly by traditional scouting would be taken by clubs willing to pay them more. So he turned to a very analytical approach to team building. He used a process called Sabermetrics, which was the empirical analysis of player statistics, to find discover which attributes were most often undervalued and overlooked by scouts when considering the most important aspect of winning games, scoring run. Consequently, they built their team around players with these attributes, who other teams didn’t recognise the true value of, at a fraction of the cost.

Now on to the NFL. The big news this week was the Tennessee Titans have traded their first overall pick in the upcoming draft to the LA Rams. It’s pretty obvious that they have made this move so that they can draft one of the two top-rated Quarterbacks in this draft, Carson Wentz or Jared Goff. The second pick in the draft is held by the Cleveland Browns. There is a general consensus that the Browns might need a QB and will probably draft whichever of these guys are left by the Rams. Their other option of course, is to mimic the Titans and trade their pick for a greater number of picks. Given that there are other teams very publicly chasing a QB in the draft, most noticeably the Philadelphia Eagles, they should be able to do this easily. This is the option that I think they will take.

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Top rated QB, Carson Wentz

What has this got to do with Moneyball? Well, and I know I’m a bit late to the party with this, but I’ve only just found out that the Browns have hired a man called Paul DePodesta to be their Director of Strategy. DePodesta is a Harvard graduate with a major in economics, but more importantly was the right hand man to Billy Beane at the A’s and is considered one of the main pioneers of Moneyball. This move is a huge sign that the Browns are trying to change the game, like the A’s did, by taking a much more statistical approach to the recruitment of players and to determining which attributes are undervalued by traditional scouts. It is a risky approach to take in such a traditionally minded sport, but could become hugely successful if this innovation is given time to flourish.

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Paul DePodesta
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DePodesta was play by Jonah Hill in the film of Moneyball

Already there are signs that the Browns have committed to this Moneyball approach this off season. Firstly, they have acquired QB Robert Griffin III, a former Heisman Trophy winner, second overall pick and Offensive Rookie of the year in 2012. Considered a very athletic QB, dangerous both running the ball and throwing it, his stock has greatly decreased since his rookie season due to a succession of injuries that have affected his explosiveness. To me though, and I’m sure to DePodesta, this means that he could now be considered to be a hugely undervalued player. Sure his productivity has decreased in the run game, which is what many considered to be his greatest attribute, but he is definitely an underrated passer with a career rating of 91. I can certainly see the appeal that he might have to DePodesta.

Another sign of the Moneyball philosophy in play, is the number of starters that they have let leave during free agency whilst not bringing that many in. A major trait of Beane’s Oakland team was his willingness to trade star players for money or draft picks. Since 2011 in the NFL, the teams that have spent the least amount of guaranteed money in free agency (Bengals, Packers, Steelers) are some of those with the highest winning percentages. Instead of spending loads of money in free agency, teams that build their team through the draft by stockpiling picks have been some of the most successful. Further to this, Beane and DePodesta have always favoured bringing in younger players that they can mould rather than older players that they can’t.

Given this approach that the Browns seem to be taking under the influence of their Moneyball pioneer I find it extremely likely that they will trade their second overall pick. There isn’t a lot of value in drafting a QB that high. Sure, there is a chance they could be a huge success, but this isn’t a guarantee. What is guaranteed is that it would cost a lot of money. Besides, they already have a second overall pick at QB who probably costs a lot less. Instead, the Browns will probably favour having a higher number of draft picks that they can use to draft a higher quantity of players that have attributes they have identified as being most important.

What is it about the Masters?

I don’t even like golf that much if I’m being honest. Well I don’t dislike it. I love going to the driving range every now and then to slice a few balls as far as I can. I even wish I was good at it, I’d love to be able play a few rounds and go on a golfing holiday with my mates. But as a spectator sport I’m still skeptical. I mean it’s golf, right? I might have it on in the background from time to time, just as background noise on a lazy Sunday for example, but on the whole I don’t really care too much. I just don’t really find it very exciting apart from a few stand out moments.

That all changes for the Masters though. I don’t really know why but it just does. There definitely is something about the Masters though. Suddenly I’m an expert and I care about golf so, so much. Over the weekend I found myself following every step. When I couldn’t watch it I’d be regularly checking my phone, following the live updates. As soon as I got back in front of the TV though I wasn’t moving. As cheesy as it sounds, there is definitely some sort of magic that accompanies the Masters.

Maybe I’m a bit simple, but as much as anything, I love the Masters because Augusta National is just so beautiful. The amazing long fairways, always perfectly green, all surrounded by the famous magnolia trees. The weather always seems to be perfect as well. The combination of beautiful green fairways, perfectly blue sky with lovely bodies of water spread throughout provide me with such a sense of envy and wanderlust as I’m sat watching from my sofa. Every year I tell myself that I will go one day, just to take it all in myself and be a part of it all.

Something special always seems to happen at the Masters. It is such a difficult course where it is seemingly impossible to achieve perfection. Mistakes will happen and it is a players’ ability to recover, to hit the most unlikely of shots. These moments of magic are what really makes the Masters so compelling. When Bubba Watson managed to hook the ball out of the trees in the 2012 playoff top set himself up to win. What about when Tiger Woods hit that shot on the 16th in 2005? Moments that will long be remembered and used to epitomize the Masters.

Even this year saw extreme drama, albeit of a different kind. Jordan Spieth was cruising, having hit 4 birdies in a row it seemed just a matter of when rather than if he would win his second consecutive green jacket. But then suddenly, in the space of 3 holes he was no longer cruising, instead he was all but out of the championship picture. It was heart-breaking for Spieth, while at the same time joyous for Danny Willet as he kept his nerve to win the competition that he wasn’t even sure of entering two weeks ago as his wife was giving birth to their first child.  It was his first ever major victory and made for a wonderful story. No matter who’s side you were on it, was compelling viewing.

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Golf definitely has a reputation of being tedious and dull. Often it is. I can certainly see its appeal, particularly when playing it, but on the whole it isn’t really for me as a spectator sport. But at the Masters, and Augusta National, it is just so much more that simple golf. There’s a certain lore that surrounds the place, and within it, everyone knows lies myths and legends.

How can Test Cricket catch up

The dust has finally settled. Poor Ben Stokes. He’ll come back. He’s too good not to. The exhilarating thrills of the T20 World Cup came to a dramatic end as England cricket fans everywhere felt the familiar pains of heart break while millions watched on. Even for those that look down on the shortest format of the game there has to be some acknowledgement of its appeal and how it has become so popular. Just from following England throughout the tournament you would have seen everything that makes cricket so special. In the opening match against the West Indies, we got to see how the individual brilliance of a great player can single handedly win a game after that great Chris Gayle century. The stroke play and power of that man alone creating such a brilliant spectacle. Next came England’s miraculous victory over South Africa, where England somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by performing the largest run chase in T20 World Cup history against one of the strongest teams in the world. Following this England experienced a large scare against Afghanistan, in a game many thought would be a stroll in the park. England managed to grind out a victory in the end but it can be fatal to underestimate an underdog in this form. Then in their final group game, a winner takes all encounter against Sri Lanka, England looked comfortable, were in a very good position as Sri Lanka were trying to chase down a just-above-average total. Until suddenly they weren’t comfortable. The reigning champions were suddenly clearing the rope with their hitting and were steadily getting nearer the target. England managed to hold their nerve though, to set up a semi-final against New Zealand which they won with ease. The final saw England facing the West Indies, the only team to have beaten them so far. What a game it was! It had too many ebbs and flows to document but left me with the familiar heartbreak that I’ve become used to from following England cricket. I never thought I could feel this way about T20 cricket. This isn’t real cricket. Why do I care? But care I did. T20 cricket just gained another fan.

So while this format is thriving, the same cannot be said for test cricket. For the purist, particularly for us in England, test cricket is still considered the best and most important format. However, we are increasingly becoming a minority in this respect. Test matches in England are often sell-outs and the atmosphere is great regardless of the opponent. When Australia, the best test team on the planet right now, hosted the West Indies in Melbourne for their famous boxing day test, the average attendance over 4 days was just under 32,000. This seems like a lot on the surface, but it was the lowest total for an MCG test for 21 years and saw only 7000 turning up for day 4. Put into context, the following week the MCG hosted a Big Bash T20 league game between the Melbourne Stars and Melbourne Renegades which saw over 80,000 people pouring through the turnstiles.

The appeal of T20 cricket is obvious. To me though, even as a T20 convert, test cricket is still the pinnacle, the most interesting and the format I get most excited about. I want to see It remain relevant but to do so it may need to change in order to increase its global appeal. To me the biggest difference that T20 has in appealing to the masses over test cricket is its accessibility. T20 matches are only about 3 hours long so they can be played in the evenings. This means that spectators can go along after a day at work and see the whole game. The nature of test cricket is that it is long and drawn out, potentially taking a whole 5 days. If someone wants to go along for a day of test cricket, they either have to give up a whole day on their weekend or take a day off work. This is less of an issue in England where cricket is often seen as a sport for the middle and upper classes so fans can afford to take a day off work to go to a test game. Many other test playing countries don’t have that luxury.

Luckily it seems that the ICC has already recognized this and the very first day-night test was played in Australia last November. This test started play in early afternoon and continued until late evening. Essentially the morning session was move the just after the traditional evening session. This could be a very important move for test cricket as it allows to spectators to show up after a day at work, at a reduced price, and still have a lot of cricket to watch. It’s not a perfect solution though. Mostly because the host venue will need to have the right conditions: dry. It wouldn’t work in England, for instance, due to the dampness from dew that forms in the evenings here. There are also worries that the pink ball that has been developed for its visibility behave differently to the traditional pink ball, as it noticeably scuffed up more quickly.  It’s definitely a step in the right direction and there have been more day-night tests announced in Australia for their next season. The technology will only improve and hopefully will signal a new lease of life for, what is in my opinion, the greatest form of the greatest sport.