Every week, our own Luis Miguel Echegaray offers his latest thoughts from the world of football. You have the analysis; now comes LME's commentary.
Welcome to The Tap-In.
Mo' Money, Top Four Problems?
When the late Christopher Wallace -- aka The Notorious B.I.G. -- released "Mo Money Mo Problems" alongside then-called Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and Mase in 1997, the message of the incredibly popular song was clear: with spectacular opulence and success, the issues of greed, financial and social jealousy ("Know you'd rather see me die than to see me fly") will inevitably surface.
The song's beat, thanks to a sample from Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" and a refrain from R&B singer Kelly Price (she's the one who sings "I don't know what they want from me") was the perfect oxymoron to the actual message of struggle against fame. Biggie himself illustrates it, imagining himself on the cover of Fortune magazine whilst telling the listener of his tumultuous upbringing. Above anything else, it's a masterpiece of a dancehall/rap anthem of the 1990s and if you were a gelled-haired, overconfident, undoubtedly annoying teenager -- much like the author of this column -- it was a song you had to dance to ... wherever you were.
You may be asking "OK, it's a great song, but where are you going with this, LME?" I'll get there, I promise.
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In many ways, this record can serve as a great soundtrack to the frantic story that is the Premier League's top-four race. Money has now been spent and some key players, on positive and negative terms -- I see you, Joao Cancelo -- have come and gone. Some couldn't even do that thanks to society's favorite Achilles' heel: a computer glitch. Fax machines everywhere are rejoicing.
So in the words of Mase as he begins one of the greatest intros in hip hop history ("Now, who's hot, who not? Tell me who rock, who sell out in the stores?"), after all this money and ludicrous spending, are you in better or worse shape than before? Let's dive in.
January's expenditure in the league, which surpassed $800 million, is an incredible number. So much so that when you combine the next top 10 European leagues and what they spent, it still wouldn't come close. It was a massive increase from the previous January record, a measly $528m, set in 2018.
Chelsea, unsurprisingly, were the biggest spenders with more than $400m. Just as Mase attested to, Todd Boehly really won't stop until you see his name on a blimp. To be fair, I don't know if Graham Potter sees it that way and based on my conversations with Chelsea fans, I don't even think they will care if they get a top-four spot. "This is a project," they tell me. "Patience," they say. I mean, that's all well and good, but If there is one virtue that doesn't normally sustain in the Premier League, it's exactly that: patience.
Arsenal and England goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale takes on ESPN FC's Ralph Karumazondo in a blindfolded penalty saving challenge.
Potter is a fine manager and I think at this point, he is probably feeling a little overwhelmed at the players he now has at his disposal. Who knows, time will tell. The fact is that at this point, I can't even really mention Chelsea in this top-four conversation because they are ... well, 10th and 10 points from a Champions League spot.
Mase tells us at the end of the first verse to stay humble, but we do eventually see him in a black tunnel filled with fluorescent light dressed in a beautifully eccentric reflective jumpsuit, so I don't think I'm taking his words at face value. Neither will I accept that Boehly's master plan of Premier League domination needs time. He surely wants results soon; I mean, you don't spend $131m on a single player or bring in 15 additional players, with more coming this summer, and then say, "Take your time, kid."
Nevertheless, as my much-smarter colleague Gab Marcotti puts it in this excellent explainer, Chelsea's Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali are above anything else businessmen, so all the things on their to-do list -- the club's transfer spree, maneuvering their way into making sure they line up with UEFA's Financial Fair Play and the new financial and sustainability rules -- are a gamble, but gamblers never gamble to win. They gamble to gamble, because they know that despite facing the possibility of risk, the reward could be sweeter than anything they could ever have imagined.
From a footballing perspective, however, Chelsea, who are out of both cups and about to deal with a tough matchup against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, have to get European qualification this season at a bare minimum. No? Otherwise, I feel Potter will be out of a job in the summer and most importantly, they'd also say goodbye to the tournament's $100m-plus cash injection due to Champions League TV rights.
It's hard for me to fully include Liverpool in the top-four conversation and I agree with my colleagues Tom Hamilton and Mark Ogden: there's much that needs to happen off the pitch before things can be rectified on it. They're out of both domestic cup competitions, ninth in the league and their opponent in the Champions League is Real Madrid, a club Liverpool hates to play. They are basically Klopp's proverbial gum stuck on the sole of his shoe.
At this moment, therefore, stability is the most important necessity and it will take longer than this season to solve it. The fact that at this point no one is fully committing to buying the club from Fenway Sports Group, and that there seems to be no legitimate project, is slightly concerning.
Well, at least they're not Everton.
Let's discuss the actual leaders, Arsenal, who I think had a very good window. They were the third-highest spenders (hello, Southampton) at just over $65m, but it's the type of personnel they acquired that really sticks out.
To me, Jorginho and Leandro Trossard were perfect purchases. They're experienced players both in age and stature who can offer stability to a young squad looking to win the league for the first time in almost 20 years. Jakub Kiwior, the young and very talented Polish center-back, is one of those gems who went under everyone's radar. With this, Arteta now has deepened his squad without shaking it. The Basque manager is feeling good, relatively confident and despite not getting Moisés Caicedo from Brighton (more on him later), he knows his team is getting better and healthier. (Gabriel Jesus is also doing well with his rehab from injury.)
Basically, Arteta is personifying Puff Daddy's words -- "I call all the shots, rip all the spots/Rock all the rocks, cop all the drops/I know you thinking now, 'When all the ballin' stops?'" -- in the second verse. Yes, there are still doubts from some corners of the footballing sphere as to whether Arsenal can indeed win the league for the first time since the famous Invincibles era. To them I say this: The biggest obstacle standing in Arsenal's way is Arsenal themselves.
As for Man City, I remain perplexed by Cancelo's departure. Yes, I know, there were a series of uncomfortable events with Pep Guardiola that led to the Portugal star's exit and yes, I get it. A manager's word should be sacred, respected and covered in golden glory. Yes, yes. But still. We are talking about one of the best, most versatile defenders in Europe, who coincidentally can prove to be an extremely important asset, especially as Champions League football is round the corner. Couldn't you have figured out some sort of amicable reconciliation, Pep? Perhaps a comped dinner at your Spanish restaurant in Manchester? Two tickets to see "Mamma Mia" at the opera house?
City's loss is Bayern Munich's gain because if there has ever been a loanee that seamlessly fits a system and league, it's Cancelo and Julian Nagelsmann's system. In fact, it took him only 17 minutes to prove this point as he delivered a beautiful assist for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's opener against Mainz on Wednesday.
CANCELO ASSISTS CHOUPO-MOTING IN HIS BAYERN DEBUT 😨 pic.twitter.com/72YxXoCDbd— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 1, 2023
As for City, they now have only one recognized left-back in Sergio Gomez. There are other players like Nathan Aké who can cover the position, but I am imagining Pep's new muse will be 18-year-old Rico Lewis, the impressive English defender who is still young enough to soak in as much information as he can. We'll see if he and Man City can continue to add pressure in this title race.
Puff Daddy: "Ain't enough lime here for you to shine here."
As for Newcastle and Man United, two teams desperately hoping for a larger sense of the limelight, they remain third and fourth in the race respectively and it just so happens they will also meet in the Carabao Cup final later this month in Wembley.
For their part, Newcastle did spend in January, notably with Anthony Gordon, who was the cause of some Evertonian drama after handing in a transfer request because of Newcastle's interest. He will provide some more creativity on the wings for the Toon Army.
Gab & Juls aren't convinced that Newcastle should make a move for Everton's Anthony Gordon.
The aforementioned Carabao Cup final is important, as the Magpies have not won a major trophy since 1955. Despite the continued battle to remain in a Champions League spot, Eddie Howe's side will also hope that United's focus is elsewhere as Erik ten Hag's side are the only English club still alive in every available competition to them (Europa League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup) and with Christian Eriksen's injury, the Dutch manager will surely be extra careful about his rotational decisions. Marcel Sabitzer is a smart loan arrival to fill the midfield, but even with the Austrian's help, Ten Hag has to be smart with player management. A top-four spot -- alongside a Europa League trophy -- is ultimately the most coveted objective.
Either way, neither team will want to do the other any favors.
Tottenham, oh Tottenham. I don't have any idea what to make of you and honestly, neither does Antonio Conte. There were some intriguing departures and arrivals (Arnaut Danjuma and Pedro Porro are two notable members who can have an immediate impact) but the question remains: can Spurs make a legitimate run with what they have? It can't all be on Harry Kane, and yet it somehow seems like it is.
Conte's side are not far from fourth -- only three points behind Man United -- but they're also not far enough that they can relax from the likes of Brighton, Fulham and Brentford. Unlike Spurs, those teams know who they are and play with a confidence that is founded on a strong culture.
Then there's the issue of Conte's future as his position remains in reported uncertainty. There is an option to extend his deal for an additional year, but right now, that's all it is: an option.
So my question to Spurs -- and I guess the remainder of this top-four race -- is much like Biggie's final question in the third verse: "Where the true players at?"
Time will tell, and eventually we will find out who will "wave their hands side to side" in celebration.
Flowers for Fulham, Brighton and Brentford
It's extremely refreshing to see three teams pushing the limits of European qualification against the so-called Big Six. All from the south of England. Two from London. One who just returned to the Premier League.
Let's begin with the latter: Fulham. The Cottagers are resilient, reactive and they remind me of peanut butter and jelly. At face value, it really seems like they shouldn't work together. Firstly, their squad feels like it was randomly constructed on Football Manager at 2 a.m. by a university student, but honestly, it's delicious and so cohesive. Under Marco Silva, they play some lovely football. They're fluid, strong and not scared of anyone. I used to work the turnstiles at Craven Cottage so I have a soft spot for this West London club.
Stevie Nicol reacts to Liverpool being ousted by Brighton in the FA Cup.
Brentford, on the other hand, are a beating heart of the Premier League. Their stadium is always loud, pulsating to The Beatles' "Hey Jude" as their team dances to Thomas Frank's rhythm. A well-organized squad, where their striker (Ivan Toney) continues to play as if he's mad at the pitch. The fact that they have only lost four times this season says a lot about who they are.
Finally, Brighton, a club who I admire tremendously. Their success lies in their culture and they are the antithesis of "silly spending." It's social capitalism at its finest. The organization of the club is founded on unbroken principles and their scouting is another example. Whenever they lose a player -- or a manager -- there is no panic or knee-jerk reactionary decisions because they have a plan, one that's been in the works for months.
I remember talking to their CEO Paul Barber during the worst times of COVID-19, and the club undertook so many smart ventures in order to generate revenue despite the lockdown. Players are carefully analyzed and brought in as opposed to rushed and pressured.
Kaoru Mitoma, for example, was a step-by-step process. The same with Moisés Caicedo, who is now valued by the club at $123 million. His story in January was a perfect example on how Brighton handle business: the moment they saw Arsenal's (or Chelsea's) interest in the Ecuador star, they removed him from training until after the window ended so he could remain focused and most importantly, maintain serenity throughout the squad.
Leandro Trossard's friction with Roberto De Zerbi was another example of how culture rules the land. With the club five points away from a Europa League spot, we'll see if they can achieve it, but that's not important to them. What's important is that their success is determined by profit, on the pitch and off it, in order to continue to represent the community.
Tweet of the week
Newcastle United have made it to the Carabao Cup final. It's a first major cup final for the Magpies for the first time since 1999. Needless to say, I think their defender and all-round entertainer Dan Burn is happy about it.
Dan Burn is away to get his suit MEASURED! 😂 pic.twitter.com/xx23JFlM09— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) February 1, 2023