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Manchester United and the Power Of Shirt Sales

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Despite looking like they’ll end this season in the Champions League places, the illustrious history of Manchester United means that many see the last two years as a particularly low point in their history.  Things were always going to be difficult following the exit of Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of the 2012/13 season, but few expected the fall from grace that so swiftly and forcefully followed.

David Moyes was seen as a more than competent replacement and was chosen by Ferguson himself.  Cut to the end of that season, however, and Man Utd would finish 7th, out of the European places and with their worst finish of the Premier League era.  This left many asking – is the empire finally falling?  Was the place once dubbed The Theatre of Dreams actually producing nightmares?

Those were questions posed and ones which, as yet, remain unanswered.  However, recent revelations have proved that, where their performances on the pitch may have continued to suffer, their brand certainly hadn’t.  In the same season as their worst league finish of the last quarter century, Man Utd posted a record annual revenue of £433.2 million in the year 2014.  Given that the club had lost the substantial income normally brought in every season by regular participation in the Champions League, this was no mean feat.  But perhaps it was another revelation of the monetary kind which proved exactly how strong the pulling power of the Red Devils still is.

Statistics released by Mike Ashley-owned Sports Direct showed that none other than Angel Di Maria, United’s £59 million pound Argentinian signing had topped their replica shirt sales for the season 2014/15 so far.  Proof, if any were needed, that image and brand can really sell.  Di Maria undoubtedly started well on arrival in the Premier League but has hardly set it alight when the season is considered as a whole.  I hear what many of you may be thinking though – it doesn’t matter what club Di Maria plays for.  He was a star of the most recent FIFA World Cup and one of the rising stars in world football in the last 10 years.  But look at the rest of the top 10.  No less than 5 are Man United players.  This includes David De Gea, the only goalkeeper to make the grade.  Often an unglamorous position with few admirers, goalkeeping tops are amongst the lowest selling, so to make the top 10 is some achievement.  It’s doubtful De Gea would have made that list if he wasn’t between the sticks at Old Trafford, ability (remarkable as it is) aside.  As if to further prove the point, 3-goal-man and all-round expensive flop Falcao  still manages to make the list, outselling none other than Segio Aguero, Steven Gerrard and United teammate Robin Van Persie.

Some may scoff at the significance of shirt sales, of course.  Small change, you may think, in comparison to the TV deals, transfer fees and other wads of cash flying around in today’s game.  But the truth is, in a game where image is everything, where players have the rights to their likenesses written into contracts for  the sake of protecting potential financial reward, shirt sales are becoming a more important part of the to-and-fro of finance in football.  The first memorable instance of shirt sales being an integral part of a player transfer was in the transfer of David Beckham from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2003.  Brand Beckham was already in full swing and Real Madrid acknowledged this, with Adidas stating that Real Madrid shirt sales rose 350% in the year after Beckham’s transfer.  Beckham, himself, used this to his advantage, taking the number 23 in an attempt to piggy-back on some of the marketing opportunities exploited by Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball player.  There’s no doubt the tactic paid off for Brand Beckham.  In fact, throughout his career, it’s thought Beckham’s shirt sales exceeded £1 BILLION, with French club Paris St Germain making a staggering £15 million from shirt sales alone in Beckham’s 6 month stint at the club.

The phenomenon continues today and is a serious consideration for clubs seeking to recoup the ever-increasing transfer fees being spent.  Real Madrid again, though, seem to have this down to a fine art.  It’s believed sales of James Rodriguez shirts brought in £21 million pounds in revenue in just two days after he signed.  Furthermore, its believed sales of replica Cristiano Ronaldo shirts have. alone, exceeded the £80 million fee paid for the Portuguese star.  Ronaldo, like Beckham, has built a brand around it, using his shirt number and initials to create the ‘CR7’ brand.

S0 there you have it.  Shirt sales may once have meant nothing – but today?  Today, they mean a lot.  The dominance of Manchester United over the market over the past two years proves that, despite a poor spell in an otherwise trophy-littered history, they still have that special something.  They have that elusive quality of invincibility and attractiveness that others around them have tried to buy.  Sure, there have been high profile instances over the years where players have resisted the strong pull of Old Trafford.  Alan Shearer opted to join his boyhood club, Newcastle United, for a record £15 million in the summer of 1996, instead of heading to Manchester.  And we all know how close Paul Gascoigne came to pulling on the famous red shirt.  But the fact remains, Manchester United have always been a club with the ability to attract the very best and there’s no doubt that statistics show that attraction remains, not just for the players wearing the shirt, but also for the fans buying it.  With European football in the not-so-distant future, the excuse that ‘not being in the Champions League’ will stop players heading there will cease.  Manchester United may have taken a knock or two since Sir Alex left.  They may have been mourning what’s been lost.  But Premier League opponents need to be wary – they’ve been licking their wounds, hibernating and recovering.  And all the while, the till has kept ringing, lining the coffers of a club all but ready to bounce back.  Something tells me a return to old ways may be on the cards as soon as next season –  and Jose, Manuel and Brendan may get a lot more than they bargained for.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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