james debate
james debate

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Developed by Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Genre Tactical role-playing
Platform Switch

fire emblem three houses awakening switch nintendo smash brothers marth claude edelgard dimitri

The Fire Emblem series of games has enjoyed something of a checkered history. Some thirteen games have been made since the early 1990s, only half of which have seen release outside of Japan. Other than a few cameo appearances in the hugely popular Smash Bros franchise, Fire Emblem had barely made an impact in the worldwide markets, and as recently as the early 2010s it was rumoured that developer Intelligent Systems was on the verge of shutting down.

That all changed in 2012 with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS. The success of that title pretty much single-handedly revitalised the series. Now with Fire Emblem: Three Houses the franchise is making its return to home consoles, and continues the upwards trajectory of recent years with what is by far the biggest release that Fire Emblem has seen, and probably the best game.

Concept and Setting
As with most entries in the series, Three Houses establishes an entirely new setting with new characters, locations and lore. This entry takes place in the world of Fódlan, a continent divided into three nations united by a common religion. Players take the role of a professor at a prestigious academy on neutral ground, where they must choose from one of three Houses (each of which is affiliated with a particular nation) to lead. Later on the game war breaks out, pitting the three Houses against one another, and you against whichever former students were not in your House.

What ensues feels a bit like a JRPG version of Harry Potter. Everything, from House colours, to the school uniforms, and various inter-House games and competitions, effectively captures that winning blend of English public school tradition and magical fantasy.

The quality of the storytelling jumps out right from the start. Fire Emblem has always been a story-focused series, but the quality of the writing is considerably higher in Three Houses than it has been in the past. The dialogue in particular shows far greater maturity than in any previous game, with fewer trope characters and much more realistic personal interaction. These characters are actually shockingly well written. Even the ones who initially seem one dimensional turn out to be fully fleshed out and worthwhile. I struggle to think of a recent game where I have liked a cast of characters this much.

The core story itself is also more compelling than the standard Fire Emblem fare. The usual tropes are here, cruel empires, noble lords, secret bad-guys, but it's all layered on a surprisingly competent commentary on the insanity of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour. The fact that the game's second act sees you forced to take to the battlefield against your former friends and students highlights this fact to often devastating effect.

But it is the world-building and attention to the small details here that impressed me the most. Usually in Fire Emblem (and most games really) you have your kingdoms, you have your characters, and then you have some story, with basically no further context. In Three Houses there has been such a great effort put into fleshing out the world itself, with continents and nations all of whom have fully thought out histories and cultures. Each month is bookended with a documentary-style cutscene (accompanied by wonderful medieval-style artwork) that provides background on the cultural context of the month, including how the changing climate affects flora, fauna and the people of Fódlan, as well as the traditions that emerge from this context. These kinds of small details on the minutia of life in Fódlan might seem superfluous in what is essentially a turn-based battle simulator, but it's the kind of detail that adds richness to a setting. It all adds up to make Fódlan feel like a fully realised world, and one that is all the more immersive for their efforts. If anything, I came away from this game wishing I could have seen even more of this world.

Gameplay
At its core, the Fire Emblem franchise is a series of tactical roleplaying games. Turn-based battles from a top-down view, with RPG style items and special abilities. This remains the meat of the gameplay here, but with Three Houses the developers have added so much more to the formula.

The core gameplay loop is essentially as follows. The game proceeds through a month of the calendar. At the start of each week you set a lesson programme for your students, and on the last day of each week you get a choice between engaging in battle, delivering a seminar to students (to help them level up a skill), or exploring the academy. Sidequests generally take one of two forms: battles or fetch quests that you complete in exploration mode.

The battles are your standard Fire Emblem fare. But for the most part, and particularly during the early game, you will be choosing the explore option. This is the first time that a Fire Emblem game has featured a fully explorable open map, and they have managed to pack an impressive amount of content in there. Exploring the academy allows you to participate in various House games and academy activities such as gardening and fishing. It also enables you to bond with your students, or engage in some extra training. The caveat is that you only have a certain number of activity points that you can use each week, meaning that you will need to prioritise how you spend your time.

One of the unique features of the Fire Emblem series is the social aspect, where players develop the bonds between characters. This can unlock additional story scenes and side quests, but here it is also a mechanic for recruiting students from other Houses. While each House begins with a handful of students, it is technically possible to develop your relationship with the other Houses' students to the point where you can recruit them to your House, and this can be done with any student other than the House heads and deputies. It is technically possible to recruit everyone in a single playthrough (as I did), but it can require a lot of grinding.

While the natural instinct is to try and recruit as many as possible, it is also arguable whether this is even a good idea. After all, you can only deploy 8-12 units per battle, and splitting your training efforts between more units inevitably means that none will reach as high a level as they would otherwise if you had focused on just a small core team. Additionally, I can imagine that recruiting everyone also takes something away from the emotional impact of the main story. One of the crucial themes of this game is the pointlessness of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the idea of having to fight and kill your own students to whom you have become emotionally attached forms a key part of that emotional gut-punch. Personally I found the characters all so loveable that I felt compelled to recruit as many as possible to get the maximum amount of story, but in hindsight I can see that this may have detracted from the experience, turning the story from something weighty and impactful, to something resembling more of a traditional good vs evil videogame story.

This all works well at first, but the core gameplay loop somewhat falls apart later on. For all the content and storytelling in this game, there are surprisingly few sidequests. Given that your core reason for exploration (recruiting students) dries up about half way through the game, there comes a point where really there is not all that much to do between missions. More than 80% of my playing time was spent on the first half of the game, where I would often spend hours between missions developing the bonds between characters, leveling up skills, completing sidequests and searching for the various hidden items around the Academy. About three quarters of the way through the game I hit a point where there was no more recruiting, no more sidequests, and my characters were already so overpowered that I didn't even really need to worry about leveling up. I ended up pretty much just skipping through the last few months of the game because there really wasn't all that much to do.

This speaks to the game's second act weakness in general. That first act, teaching the students in the academy, is magical, memorable, and bursting with interesting things to do. The second act (the war), by comparison, just feels dry and monotonous by comparison (which I guess is kind of the point). One has to question whether it really made sense to continue the same gameplay loop in this second act, which really doesn't have the content for it and never quite feels right.

I also have to say, I am generally not a fan of these types of games which make you pick a path for the entire game, cutting off significant amounts of content and forcing you to do multiple play-throughs to see everything. I don't like the feeling of having to retread stuff that I've already done, and particularly for a game of this length, one good play-through is probably all I'm going to have time for. It is a shame that there is so much interesting content here that you can't see without playing the same story multiple times. Of course, this is only a half criticism, as the reason this is even a problem to begin with is because all the content is so compelling and well done.

Despite these minor criticisms, the game is a joy to play. The new features mark a bold new direction for the series, one that substantively adds to the experience.

Conclusion
Despite some second act weakness, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a delight, and one of the Switch's best games. The world of Fódlan is one of the best examples of world-building I've seen in a videogame for a long time, and the characters comprise one of the most compelling casts of characters in recent years. Three Houses represents a significant step up for the series in just about every regard, one which for the first time establishes Fire Emblem as a bona fide blockbuster home videogame franchise right up there with Mario and Zelda.











Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but now that we've had our approximately ten days per year of sun it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2019/20 preview


Premier League 2018/19 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Liverpool
Champions League qualifiers: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Watford, Brighton, Sheffield United
Golden Boot winner: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
Golden Glove winner: Alisson (Liverpool)
Player to watch: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
New signing to watch: Pepe (Arsenal)
Young player to watch: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Roy Hodgson (Crystal Palace)
Shock of the season: No Chelsea striker's goal tally will hit double digits



ARSENAL
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 5th
Manager: Unai Emery

It is fair to say that Unai Emery's first season did not quite mark the statement of intent that Arsenal fans may have hoped; trophiless and the season ending on a sour note with a decisive 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Chelsea. Nevertheless, they begin the season on a note of optimism. It seem that every season begins with some pundit or other making the declaration that "this could be the year" for Arsenal to re-enter the top tier of Premier League clubs (somewhere they clearly have not been for a number of years), but while few would entertain the notion of them being a serious title contender, they begin the season with every chance of returning to the top four.

It is easy to forget that Arsenal ended last season just one point away from Champions League qualification. Emery has built a capable squad with some genuine talent, most notably Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang whose electric season ended with a formidable 22 goal tally in the league last year.

They have also signed well this summer. The main headlines will rightly focus on the £79million man Nicolas Pepe, whose excellent track record in Ligue 1 has earned comparisons to Kylian Mbappé. The fee is astonishing, and marks the latest in a series of big-money signings for Arsenal in recent years. It will be hoped that this one fares better than some of the others. Equally, the club has done good business with the defensive reinforcements Willian Saliba and Kieran Tierney, the latter of whom in particular I am tipping to be something of a revelation this season. I expect the signing of experienced defender David Luiz will also prove to be somewhat of a boon in a squad sorely in need of big personalties.

You have to conclude that Arsenal have gotten stronger, but ultimately the question will not be whether they have gained on Manchester City and Liverpool, but whether they have gained on Chelsea and Tottenham (and maintained their advantage on Manchester United). With two Champions League places for grabs among those four teams, you would have to fancy Arsenal's chances this season.

Key Signing: Nicolas Pepe
Key Man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Verdict: Still a ways off from the top of the league, but with favourable top four prospects.


ASTON VILLA
Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,785
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Dean Smith

A return to the top flight for one of England's historic clubs, and a season ahead that is just full of delicious subplots. Jack Grealish back in the Premier League, assistant manager John Terry with his first coaching role in the top flight. Villa finished the season in good form, with just two defeats since February, ultimately clinching promotion against Frank Lampard's Derby County via the playoffs.

From post-season interviews, it is clear that the higher ups and Villa still see themselves as a big club, a Premier League club, and they have wasted no time in making a statement that they do not intend to just make up the numbers, with a large number of new faces brought into the team.

Signing Tyrone Mings on a permanent deal is a no-brainer after his impressive loan spell last year, while the club will be helping that club record signing Wesley can make up for the goals of last season's top scorer Tammy Abraham, who has since returned to his parent club. Still, Villa have spent a whopping £100million of that new Premier League money on some 12 players, and yet only two of those players have top flight experience. Genuine questions will need to be asked about whether they have spent wisely. For all the new faces, however, the heart of this team remains Jack Grealish, a man perennially linked with a move to a bigger club. If he performs, the club will do well.

Is this Villa side Premier League quality? Only time will tell, but I am tipping them for survival.

Key Signing: Tyrone Mings
Key Man: Jack Grealish
Verdict: Likely to be in the relegation battle for a while, but should have enough about them to survive.


BOURNEMOUTH
Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 14th
Manager: Eddie Howe

One has to respect the work that Eddie Howe has done with Bournemouth, the club now heading into their fifth season in the top flight. We've discussed here in previous years the astonishing transformation that the club has seen of late, and the reality is that Bournemouth are now a solid top flight club. Last season ended up being a somewhat comfortable lower mid-table finish, and the question will be whether they can now build on that.

The key for any club to build is to retain the core that has previously brought success, and Bournemouth will be pleased that they have managed to ward off suitors for a number of players. Former Chelsea academy product Nathan Aké remains a bedrock of the team's defence, despite allegedly stratospheric £70million offers from an array of top clubs. Lewis Cook (assuming he recovers well from his injury) is a stalwart midfield general. Up front, Callum Wilson and Joshua King are as tricky a pair as any team can boast in the league. They have recruited modestly, but smartly, with Lloyd Kelly and Arnaut Danjuma set to offer a new threat down the left flank.

The main problem the club faces right now is injuries, with a number of key names currently out of commission. Expect a slow start for the Cherries, but one that hopefully doesn't cause so much discouragement that they can't bounce back later on.

Key Signing: Lloyd Kelly
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: A similar lower mid-table finish is likely.



BRIGHTON
Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 17th
Manager: Graham Potter

Brighton's second season in the top flight was rough, but they managed to hold on and now embark on another season in the Premier League. A change in management has seen Chris Hughton replaced by the hotly tipped English prospect Graham Potter, but he has a lot of work on his plate if he is to steady this ship and keep them afloat.

Brighton will be pleased to have retained the services of captain Lewis Dunk, and he will be bolstered by a new partnership with the £20million signing Adam Webster. Other than Webster, the only major signing of note will be Belgian left winger Leandro Trossard, whom the club will be hoping can add some much needed goalscoring threat to their lineup. The main issue with this squad currently is age, and the club looks set to hand more opportunities to its youngsters in an attempt to remedy this, most notably with Taylor Richards and Aaron Connolly who look set to have a prominent role this season.

So it's a new manager crafting what many will hope to be a new look Brighton team. This league will give them precious little time to adapt, however, and they head into this season knowing that they are among the favourites for the drop.

Key Signing: Leandro Trossard
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for relegation.


BURNLEY
Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 15th
Manager: Sean Dyche

To what extent did Burnley's Europa League commitments affect their domestic performance? The steady improvement of the Dyche era has given way to a roller coaster of fortunes that has seen the club go from cannon fodder to top 7 and European football, and back last season to the depths of the table.

That European campaign was a welcome change of scenery for fans who had not experienced such a level of football before, but ultimately proved to be something of a strain on the players. So was it a blip brought about by overextension, or is the club really in trouble?

We shall see, but Dyche clearly appears to have confidence in the same group of players. The team has changed little over the summer, with Jay Rodriguez coming in up front, and Danny Drinkwater being brought in on loan. This means Burnley will still be depending on the usual crew, Ashley Barnes, Jack Cork, and Nick Pope. One to keep an eye on is the youngster Dwight McNeil, whose promising debut season has seen him being linked with moves to several larger clubs.

Key Signing: Jay Rodriguez
Key Man: Ashley Barnes
Verdict: Should improve on last season, but unlikely to repeat the highs of two years ago.


CHELSEA
Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Frank Lampard

Whatever happens, this is going to be a fascinating season for Chelsea. Rocked by a transfer ban, and helmed by a new, inexperienced manager, the fact that talismanic forward Eden Hazard finally made his move to Real Madrid would seem to be the cherry on top of what seems destined to be a disaster of a season.

That's the pessimist's view. The silver lining is that that inexperienced manager is none other than club legend Frank Lampard, whose debut season in management at Derby County was widely hailed as a success. He replaces a manager who, let's be honest, no one was sad to see go. Meanwhile that transfer ban looks set to finally force the club to make use of its Academy's considerable pool of homegrown talent. Chelsea's youth team are undoubtedly among the best in the world, having dominated domestically and across Europe for years, and a large number of Academy products have gone on to be stars across the continent. If Chelsea can finally find a way to integrate that great resource into their first team, then ultimately it may not end up having been such a bad thing.

But the key point to remember is that this is still largely the same squad that finished third and won the Europa League last season. Rudiger is a top defender. N'Golo Kanté is arguably the best in the world in his position, and perhaps the only nailed-on starter in this Chelsea team. He will be absolutely key.

The permanent signing of Kovacic is a good, albeit largely superfluous seeming move, while there will be much ado about Christian Pulisic, the American hotshot who has ostensibly been signed as Eden Hazard's replacement. Last season saw the serious first team participation of youth products Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi, and they look likely to be joined this year by Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Reece James amongst others in what could be the most youthful looking Chelsea side for a generation. Frankly, with the squad at their disposal, Chelsea will have no choice but to use most of those young players on a regular basis.

If Chelsea have a major weakness, it's up front. Their transfer ban means they have been unable to sign a first-rate striker. Giroud is a very useful workhorse of a player, but doesn't score many goals. Michy Batshuayi is quite the personality, but has not shown himself to have the quality or consistency for this type of club. Tammy Abraham has bags of potential on the back of a few goal-laden seasons in the lower leagues, but has not yet proven himself at this level. It is simply hard to see where the goals are going to come from. Chelsea are going to need the midfield to step up, otherwise it will be a long season.

So a Chelsea legend takes the club on a grand, Academy-focused experiment for a season. What could go wrong? Let's be frank, if this team ends up anywhere near Champions League qualification it will be a good showing.

Key Signing: Christian Pulisic
Key Man: N'Golo Kanté
Verdict: An exciting season awaits, but unlikely to remain in the top four.


CRYSTAL PALACE
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 12th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. This season could be Hodgson's toughest yet at the club, as he struggles to manage an ageing squad that is increasingly dependent on one player.

Whether Wilfried Zaha stays or goes in January could well be the difference between survival and relegation, such is the influence of the lad. Zaha is consistently rated as one of the best non-top six players in the league, and a move to a bigger club seems inevitable every time the transfer window opens. Matters are not helped by the departure of last season's star performer Aaron Wan-Bissaka, off to Manchester United for a frankly absurd amount of money. This is a small squad, and serious doubts persist over whether the club has done enough over the summer to strengthen.

So who has come in? Jordan Ayew from Swansea looks a good bit of business, while Gary Cahill may not help the age problem, but brings a wealth of experience and quality. Otherwise its slim pickings. The lack of squad depth may not necessarily be entirely Roy Hodgson's fault, but in this sport we all know the manager is usually the first to go when things don't pan out as planned. I'm tipping Roy to go and to go early this season.

Key Signing: Jordan Ayew
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A tricky season lies ahead.


EVERTON
Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 8th
Manager: Marco Silva

So established are Everton as the perennial "best of the rest" in the Premier League that it has become one of football's most pervasive memes. Last season saw the club finish yet again just outside the top 6, and Marco Silva has strong foundations on which to build as he heads into his sophomore season.

Everton can boast a very fine starting XI. Keane, Digne and Mina contribute to one of the league's meanest defences, while Jordan Pickford is a goalkeeper of the highest calibre. Gylfi Sigurðsson is as formidable as ever all over the pitch, while Richarlison on his day is a potent threat. Silva has added good depth to his squad over the summer with the likes of André Gomes and Alex Iwobi, but the standout signing for me is former Juventus prospect Moise Kean, widely tipped as a star of the future. It will be exciting to see how he settles and develops in the Premier League.

It's good news off the pitch as well, with the club finally moving ahead with plans for a new stadium, while the league's financial dominance ensures the club maintains the sort of healthy bank balance that had been missing in years gone by, with resources to spend. Indeed Everton have splashed more than £100 million this summer, a sum that would have been unthinkable for the club a few short years ago.

For all the positives, the question has to be to what extent can this Everton side pose a credible threat to the top tier of clubs above them. This team may well remain the best of the rest, but I'm skeptical that they have the kind of star power needed to push them into those upper echelons.

Key Signing: Moise Kean
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, top half of the table.


LEICESTER CITY
Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 9th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

It's been a rough old ride for Leicester since their still hard to believe title triumph a few years back. A few managerial changes and some pretty mixed performances. While few of the old guard remain, there were enough signs towards the tail end of last season, and particularly following the appointment of Brendan Rodgers last February, to suggest that they may finally be finding their level in this league.

I've always been a big fan of Rodgers. I saw first hand the exceptional work he did with the Chelsea youth team back in the day, and it's easy to forget that it was he who took Liverpool from a top 7 club to within one small slip of the Premier League title, laying the groundwork for the Klopp era.

Whisper it quietly, but this could even be a better Leicester side than the one that won their shock league title. The versatility of Ayoze Perez (signed on a permanent deal now) has freed up Jamie Vardy in a way not seen since the days of Riyad Mahrez, while in Youri Tielemans (also signed on a permanent deal) they have a bona fide prospect at the heart of their midfield. James Maddison, meanwhile, lived up to our pre-season billing as a potential star in this team, his breakout season establishing his name as one of the league's leading youngsters.

So what are their prospects, really? They're not top four challengers, but if they can achieve greater consistency than they did last year they could really be a force among the next best teams. A place in Europa League qualification is a very reasonable target.

Key Signing: Ayoze Perez
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: A potential top 6 contender.


LIVERPOOL
Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Plenty has been said of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side in a season which saw the club smash all kinds of records, be crowned European Champions, and yet still not win that long sought after league title. The fact is that regardless of which side finished one point above the other, there is no doubt that this Liverpool side count themselves among the world's top football teams at the moment, and at least an equal of Pep's very impressive Manchester City.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" appears to have been the thinking this summer, and Liverpool have done very little in the way of reinforcing what is already a strong squad. Of this summer's signings, only Adrian has featured in the early games, and even there only because of injury to first choice keeper Alisson. It's hard to argue with that logic. In Firmino, Mané and Salah, Liverpool have arguably the finest attacking three in the world right now. In Alisson they have one of the best goalkeepers, and Virgil van Dijk is almost certainly the world's top defender at the moment, if not one of the top players in any position.

There is certainly no doubt as to the target. Liverpool are not nearly-men any more. They are title contenders, if not favourites, and they will come into this season even hungrier after last season's exploits and near miss. In what otherwise looks to be a tight contest, that could make the crucial difference.

Key Signing: Adrian
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: Title or bust.


MANCHESTER CITY
Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

Which leads us nicely to the back-to-back champions. Manchester City have thrown the wealth of an entire nation into building a great football team, and have succeeded in doing so. They are one of the great teams in football at the moment whatever you think of their methods or their manager and his mixed track record. Yet for all their on-the-pitch success, the top prize in Europe eludes them, a fact that perhaps stings all the more when last season's close runners up Liverpool have managed two consecutive Champions League finals.

Suffice it to say, this is a squad with an embarrassment of quality all over the pitch, whether it's Laporte and Walker at the back, Silva, Mahrez and de Bruyne in midfield, Aguero up front. But it is the attacking talent of Raheem Sterling, seemingly improving year-on-year which wields the greatest influence in this side now, and he will be absolutely indispensible. Despite their great squad depth, City have seen fit to spend almost £200 million this summer, including two £60million+ players in Rodri and Cancelo. Of these new faces, Rodri in particular looks a fine addition, one of the few players who could walk right into this City side and make an instant impact.

Few would bet against them being in the running for the title this season. The question will be to what extent they can maintain their fine domestic record while balancing the demands of a European campaign, one which they are desperate to win. Very few teams have managed to win three in a row, and as good as they are, for City to join that elite club will be a difficult task, one that will cement their place along the league's greatest sides.

Key Signing: Rodri
Key Man: Raheem Sterling
Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.


MANCHESTER UNITED
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 6th
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

For a while it seemed that Manchester United might finally have been on the road back to greatness under José Mourinho. It's easy to forget that his side finished a credible league runner up just two seasons ago. Then everything fell apart, in a routine that has become predictable in the post-Fergy era. Ex-player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken José's place, and returned some of the good-time feeling to the club. Turning them from a top 7 side into a club of genuine Champions League quality will be another matter.

The jury is still out on whether Solskjaer can really become a top manager, or just a fan-friendly face to keep things ticking along. The bigger worry will be a squad that includes some excellent talent, and some massive holes. The club has tried to patch a threadbare defence with two big-money signings. Most of the attention will be on the astonishing £80million man Harry Maguire, but it is his new teammate Aaron Wan-Bissaka with the greatest potential to improve this side.

Paul Pogba has grown into his world record valuation and resides at the heart of this United side, while the departure of Romelu Lukaku sees the attacking responsibilities fall on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Both of those players have undeniable quality, but have seemed to struggle for consistency in recent seasons. Will they be sufficient for United to mount a top 4 campaign? We will have to see, but I have my doubts.

Key Signing: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Key Man: David de Gea
Verdict: Likely to fall just short of top 4.


NEWCASTLE
Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: 13th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. Rafa Benitez had appeared to finally be bringing some semblance of stability and accomplishment to a side well passed its heyday... then in classic Newcastle fashion he abruptly left the club, to be replaced by the rather more pedestrian Steve "I'll just about avoid relegation but don't expect much else" Bruce.

Bruce inherits a squad that Rafa had managed to put to good use, and in their defence the club has not been shy about backing their new man in the transfer market. A big money move for Joelinton has raised a few eyebrows, but his extra firepower up front will be invaluable as the season progresses. Elsewhere, new-boy Allan Saint-Maximin adds a different kind of threat down the wing.

Bruce has a job to do here. This squad has its fair share of bloat, and lacks the kind of star personalities that many of their lower half of the table competitors do. Jamaal Lascelles has been impressive at the back, and is rightly turning the heads of a few bigger clubs. Miguel Almirón and Matt Ritchie add to what is a decent top flight spine, but there's not much depth beyond that.

This has the makings of a tough season for Newcastle, with many pundits tipping them for a relegation battle. I think they have enough to stay up.

Key Signing: Joelinton
Key Man: Jamaal Lascelles
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.



NORWICH
Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,244
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Daniel Farke

The Championship's entertainers of last season, this Norwich side cut a very impressive attacking outfit, and it will be interesting to see if they can show some of that panache in a league of a higher standard.

Farke has got this side moving the ball forward quickly, and in Teemu Pukki a hugely prolific striker who has emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the latter stages of their career. Todd Cantwell and Jamal Lewis complete a spine that proved dominant in the lower division, and presents a good starting point to build for their return to the top flight. It is interesting then that the club have deigned not to make extensive use of that delicious Premier League cash, and their summer transfer activity provided only minimal reinforcement and bargain signings. It will nevertheless be interesting to see what Patrick Roberts, formerly the next big thing in English football and now signed on loan for the season, can do when given the opportunity for more first team football in the top flight.

Norwich make an exciting side to watch, but for their attacking talents the quality of their defence has been an issue, with a goals conceded rate that would have placed Norwich squarely in the mid-table of the Championship last season. They'll face a far greater attacking threat in this league and if they don't manage to adapt quickly, it could be a long season for them.

Key Signing: Patrick Roberts
Key Man: Teemu Pukki
Verdict: Lots of goals at both ends to be expected, but if they don't solidify at the back they could be at risk of relegation.


SHEFFIELD UNITED
Nickname: The Blades
Ground: Bramall Lane
Capacity: 32,125
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Chris Wilder

The rise of Sheffield United from League One to the top flight in just three seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. The Premier League is another beast entirely, and there is the impression that this may be as far as the fairytale goes.

They're certainly determined to make a go of it while they are here, and a summer of fairly confident spending has seen them splash more than £40million on forwards Oliver McBurnie and Lys Mousset. Elsewhere, former Everton centre back Phil Jagielka will bring some much needed experience, along with Ravel Morrison, the former Manchester United man who Alex Ferguson had once described as the most talented youngster since Paul Scholes, but whose career has since failed to meet its potential.

Elsewhere, Sheffield United's squad has just too many question marks about them. Can David McGoldrick bring his hugely impressive form last season against this much more difficult top flight opposition? John Egan and Jack O'Connell were at the heart of the Championship's tightest defence last season, but do they have the quality to face off against some of the world's best attacking talent?

It's a bit of a cliché, but there are no bad teams in the Premier League. Unfortunately, compared to some of their competition at the lower end of the table, this Sheffield United side just don't seem to have much about them.

Key Signing: Oliver McBurnie
Key Man: David McGoldrick
Verdict: A tough season that could see Sheffield United among favourites for the drop.


SOUTHAMPTON
Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 16th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

It's been a rough couple of years for Southampton. A meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the Premier League was duly met with a scavenging of the club's most prized assets (mostly by Liverpool). They've generated a lot of revenue from those sales, and yet somehow it appears to have been squandered. Add to that a number of managerial changes and a general air of instability, and Southampton ultimately found themselves just barely clinging to top flight football. If Ralph Hasenhüttl is not able to steady the ship they could be in for another difficult season.

While the golden boys may have moved on, there's still plenty to like in this team: the width offered from the back by Ryan Bertrand on the left, the mercurial talents of Redmond and James Ward-Prowse. The loss of Charlie Austen marks a change up front, but he will be well replaced by Danny Ings, who completed a permanent signing to the club this summer after spending last season on loan.

But this is a very vulnerable team, especially against opponents playing through the middle of the pitch. Depth is also a problem, especially given the last few seasons of disappointing signings. This is a squad in need of major rebuilding, and they just did not achieve that this summer. It could be a long season for the Saints.

Key Signing: Danny Ings
Key Man: Ryan Bertrand
Verdict: A real risk for relegation this year.


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 4th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Last season serves as a perfect embodiment of the frustrations of the Mauricio Pochettino era at Tottenham. So close to greatness, but just lacking that something extra needed to bring home the silverware. Last season started off in a rocky fashion, with Pochettino quite vocally bemoaning the lack of financial support and control that he had been afforded by the board. By mid-season they were flying once again, only to slump in the latter stages, only just clinging to a top four place. The somewhat inert league performance was somewhat mitigated by a stunning run in Europe, which saw them unexpectedly reach a first ever Champions League final, only to fall short again.

If there is one silver lining, it is that last season's doomed heroics appear to have finally convinced owner Daniel Levy of the importance of investing in the squad, a cool £100million being spent on Tanguy Ndombele and Ryan Sessegnon amongst others, while the tantalising prospect Giovani Lo Celso joins on loan.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura, and Moussa Sissoko all performers of the highest calibre. But the star man, as if there was any doubt, is Harry Kane, arguably one of the world's best strikers at the moment and a talismanic figure in this Tottenham team. Have no doubt, this side will be up there with the big boys again. The question is whether their new additions will give them that little bit extra depth to maintain the form of which we know they are capable over an entire season.

Key Signing: Tanguy Ndombele
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Will be right up there, top four but unlikely title contenders.


WATFORD
Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 11th
Manager: Javi Gracia

Watford have proven something of a livewire in the Premier League over the past few seasons, bursting out the gates each season with some recklessly attacking football that has endeared themselves to neutrals, only to run out of gas in the latter half of the season. It is a knack that has earned them a series of mid-table finishes, and most impressively their first ever FA Cup final appearance. Most pundits appear to be expecting more of the same this season, but in my view I see plenty more reason for fans to worry.

It is only natural for people to see a pattern and expect it to continue, but surprisingly few have really asked why Watford's late-season form has tended to tail off in such a dramatic fashion. This is a team that has sorely lacked for depth in quality, and has masked their deficiency with the verve provided by a few exceptional individual talents. Most of those talents have now moved on to other clubs, while a number of their key players have been plagued with fitness and injury problems.

Despite this, precious little seems to have been done during the summer to prepare them for a stronger campaign. The club's defenders have bafflingly declared "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies, never mind the fact that all of Watford's competitors will have strengthened considerably. They enter this season in a precarious position, with a real risk of being dragged into the relegation battle.

Key Signing: Danny Welbeck
Key Man: Troy Deeney
Verdict: A difficult season, with a risk of relegation.


WEST HAM UNITED
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 10th
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

Always a pundits' favourite. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them. One season they'll look on the verge of a big leap, only to slump to a safe mid-table finish the next. At their worst, they find themselves dragged in and around the foot of the table. So it is again, and with the Pellegrini hype in full swing, there's real talk of a top ten finish and maybe even a push for the Europa League. But such things seldom happen over night, and Hammers fans would do well to strike a tone of caution.

This applies particularly for the upcoming season, with significant transition around the team. Mark Arnautovic has departed, with new big money signing Sebastien Haller ostensibly taking on the responsibility of main forward. Noble and Hernandez aren't getting any younger, while key players such as Yarmolenko, Wilshire and Lanzini have struggled for fitness of late.

Still, this is a team that, on paper, should do well when firing on all cylinders. Haller will bring a potent goal threat to the Premier League. Fabianksi was one of the league's best performing goalkeepers last season. Lanzini pulls the strings quite capably in attack when fit, while Declan Rice is the beating heart of a very tough midfield.

Expect a slow bedding period for a side with this many changes, but if they can gel, and if they can bring a fresh attacking impetus to their game, then they can do well this season. There's not a whole lot between the teams in the middle of the table, and you could see West Ham finishing anywhere from 8th to 15th or so.

Key Signing: Sebastien Haller
Key Man: Manuel Lanzini
Verdict: A solid mid-table finish.


WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 31,700
Last season: 7th
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

One of the more interesting clubs to watch in recent years. Formerly a Big Club™ as recently as the mid 20th Century, buoyed in recent years by a wave of foreign investment. Their rise has been meteoric and they marked their return to the top flight with a hugely credible 7th place finish. The expectation this season has to be for another strong year.

Wolves have made a habit of investing in good young talent, the likes of Ruben Neves, Diogo Jota, and Adama Traore, but with a bedrock of experience in Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio, among others. They have invested well again this summer with big money moves for the likes of Raul Jimenez and Patrick Cutrone. Of these new faces, Jimenez represents probably the most immediate upgrade to their existing lineup, but the high potential of Cutrone could bring the greatest benefit in the long run.

Once again, Wolves are buying talent like a big club, and crucially they have managed to hold onto their existing assets. They may be a lesser known name for modern football fans, but this is a strong team, and not to be taken lightly.

Key Signing: Raul Jimenez
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Another credible finish in the top half of the table.


Predicted table:
1. Liverpool
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Tottenham
5. Manchester United
6. Leicester City
7. Chelsea
8. Wolverhampton Wanderers
9. Everton
10. West Ham
11. Burnley
12. Bournemouth
13. Aston Villa
14. Norwich
15. Crystal Palace
16. Newcastle United
17. Southampton
18. Watford
19. Brighton
20. Sheffield United







Saturday, 20 July 2019

This month saw the first round of debates in the Democratic primary, a sign that the 2020 Presidential election is well and truly underway. A perfect opportunity, then, to present a way-too-early preview of how the race is shaping up and what to expect. With the election more than a year away, such discussion might seem premature, but this is no ordinary primary. The general perception is that whoever wins this contest has a very good shot at being the next President, making the next few months almost as crucial as the final vote in November 2020.

trump election 2020 democratic primary biden buttigieg pete beto bernie sanders kamala elizabeth warren tulsi gabbard

What is the state of play?
Let's get something out of the way up front. Donald Trump should win this election. The incumbent almost always wins a Presidential election, particularly when the economy is doing well, as is currently the case. In an ordinary year, I would expect the incumbent President to be about a 70/30 favourite, maybe higher with this economy. And yet, Trump goes into this election arguably only just about evens to win, and possibly even less.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. Foremost among them: Trump's approval rating is historically low, hovering around the high 30s and low 40s for most of his Presidency to date. No American President in the modern era has had such consistently low approval ratings, and none with an approval rating so low in the run up to election has ever won.

Of equal significance is the fact that Americans, by and large, do not credit Trump with the state of this healthy economy. The economy improved significantly under Barack Obama, and while it has generally remained strong for the first two years of Trump's Presidency, it has not noticeably improved for many, and by some measures appears more tenuous than at any point since 2008. This effectively disarms Trump's greatest talking point heading into election, and places him in a far more precarious position.

The final notable cause of worry for Republicans is the result of the off-year elections from 2017-2019, largely seen as a historic blue-wave for Democrats (to put it mildly). Certainly, it is not unusual for the President's party to suffer big losses in the midterm elections (just ask Bill Clinton and Obama, who lost big in midterms and both went on to secure second terms). Rather it is the state-by-state performance that will worry Trump, including historic swings in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, well above the national margin. These are all states that Trump won in 2016 and will be counting on again in 2020.

So as you can see, Trump heads into the 2020 election in a far more vulnerable position than just about any incumbent of the modern era. There really is a much greater than usual chance that the opposition candidate will win next year, making this a primary election of unusual significance.

So who is running against Trump?
One consequence of the perceived vulnerability of this incumbent is that there is an astonishing number of people running against him in 2020.

Trump has already drawn one major primary challenge in the form of former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and there are rumours that more could follow, including Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford or John Kasich. An incumbent President drawing a primary challenge is ordinarily a sign of fatal weakness, but I won't spend too much time discussing the Republican primary for two reasons: 1) The Republican Party has made clear that it will not support or encourage any such challenges, and it is allegedly considering cancelling all votes so that they can just rubber stamp a Trump nomination, and 2) Trump, for all his vulnerabilities, is still very popular among Republicans, and it is difficult to see anyone who could successfully challenge him for the nomination.

But it is not just the Republican primary. The Democratic primary has also drawn a remarkable number of candidates - some 25 who could be considered major candidates at the time of writing, with the bizarre possibility that still more could jump in at any moment.

There are more people running for President in 2020 than in any prior primary cycle, and the reason is clear: they all smell blood in the water and fancy their chances in a 2020 match up against Trump. But ultimately, only one major candidate will face off against the incumbent in the general election, which means we somehow have to whittle down this massive field to just the main contenders.

The field is large, but the polling to date shows a clear "big six". This top six has basically remained constant since the start of the year, and every member of the big six has been in the top three at some point polling as high as the high teens or low 20s.

The exact numbers vary from poll to poll, but across the total aggregate we can get a pretty good idea of where things stand. Joe Biden leads, with polls currently in the low to mid 20s. Behind him, essentially a three-way tie between Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren each polling in the high teens. Finally Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke are essentially tied in the mid-single digits (having both previously polled in the high teens). No one else in the race is or has previously polled consistently >1%.

For this preview we will look at each of the big six in turn, and finish with a summary of "the best of the rest".

The Big Six

1. Joe Biden
The former Vice President and "next in line" candidate. Joe Biden entered this race with near universal name recognition and the admiration of most Democrats, who identify Biden with the success of the Obama era.

His appeal is clear: he is a trusted, established figure, a moderate Democrat with appeal to the nation's centre. Crucially, he is a working class rust-belt Democrat who can potentially help win back the blue-collar voters who gave Trump Pennsylvania and Michigan.

He has begun the race with a commanding lead, but as was the case in 2016 with Hillary a large part of this appears to be a result of his superior name recognition, and the lead has tightened as the race has progressed. Biden's age is also a problem, and at 78 in January 2021 would be the oldest person ever to enter office. Given the advantage that incumbents hold, Democrats are hesitant to put forward a nominee who may not run for a second term (and so miss out on this advantage). But Biden's biggest problem is simply that politics has changed a lot in recent years. Biden has been around for so long that he is on record as having taken positions that were acceptable at the time, but wouldn't fly today, particularly when it comes to gender issues and race.

By historical measures, Biden's current polling and relative strength of the field suggests that while he is the most likely person to win the nomination, he is still more likely to not win. The favourite, but not overwhelmingly so.

2. Bernie Sanders
The runner up of the 2016 Democratic primaries, and a firebrand champion of the left with a devoted fan-base. Bernie took the world of politics by surprise in 2016, but this time he enters this race with universal name-recognition. Many had expected he would be among the frontrunners, and that is exactly what we have seen.

For most of the race to date, Bernie has polled behind Biden, but clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, as is the case with Biden, it is becoming apparent that much of this lead is down to his initially superior name recognition. Consequently, as the other candidates have become better known, his polling has suffered. Indeed most recent polls have shown him trailing one or both of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. For Bernie to be trailing his less well known colleagues at this stage is a very worrying sign for his supporters.

So why isn't Bernie doing better? As with Biden, age is a problem, and Bernie will be even older at 79 in January 2021. Bernie is also seen as a more polarizing figure than the other frontrunners. A lot of Democrats have a sour taste in their mouth from the damage his campaign dealt to Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as the ostensible support he has received from Russian election interference. That is not to suggest that Bernie has any complicity in this, but the fact that the Russian trolls do seem to want him to be the nominee is, in the eyes of many, a good reason not to nominate him. But the most significant reason may simply be that this time he has more competition, including several credible candidates who occupy his niche on the left. 2016 Bernie benefited from being essentially the only option for Democrats who did not like Hillary, but in 2020 those Democrats have other options.

3. Kamala Harris
As a prominent Democratic Senator, Kamala Harris has been discussed as one of the more likely Presidential candidates basically since the start of the Trump Presidency, and yet her campaign has so far flown strangely under the radar. She has consistently polled among the frontrunners, but has generated fairly mediocre fundraising numbers, and received considerably less media coverage than other candidates. As a relatively fresh face, her low name recognition obviously posed difficulties, as well as the fact that many of the younger, higher information voters initially flocked to media-darling candidates such as Beto or Buttigieg.

That was until the first set of debates. For many, this was the first opportunity to see Kamala Harris on the big stage, and she made the most of it. Following the debate, Harris has shot up the polls and is now polling essentially in a three-way tie with Bernie and Warren, and just a few points shy of Biden.

Kamala Harris has a lot of things going for her. She is keen intellect and former prosecutor at a time when Democrats are looking for a candidate who is going to be able to grill Trump effectively on the debate stage. As an ethnic minority woman and lawyer, she is essentially the antithesis to a President who has been criticized for sexism, racism, and a casual disregard for the law. Her defeating Trump would be seen as the ultimate repudiation of those unseemly elements that he has embraced. But more importantly, she is cultivating an image as a strong and capable leader, one who embodies the progressive America that Democrats long to see.

4. Elizabeth Warren
Seen by many as heir apparent to Bernie as champion of the left, Warren has shown herself to be more than just an ideologue. Her's is a very compelling case: a firebrand liberal who espouses the same progressive policies as Bernie, but presented in a more establishment and moderate friendly package.

Warren had a bit of a slow start considering she was already reasonably well known, but she seems to be the type of candidate that people like the more they get to know her and her proposals. Over the course of the past year she has been quietly and gradually closing the gap on those ahead of her (mainly from Bernie supporters who perhaps see in her a similar candidate but with a greater chance of victory) to the point where she now consistently polls among the frontrunners.

Warren has become famed for her numerous highly detailed policy proposals, spawning the first genuine meme of the 2020 election in "Warren has a plan for that!". She is capably positioning herself as the wonkish, policy-driven candidate of the race, and that's very attractive for a certain type of voter. Unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of voters have no idea about policy proposals and won't care, hence why Presidents tend to be charismatic and slick rather than bookish and professorial. One has to wonder, therefore, if there is going to be a ceiling on her support.

Those arguments make sense on paper, but to her credit Warren has shown herself to be a likable candidate even among more casual voters, and her polling has been surprisingly robust, even in states where you would ordinarily not expect her to thrive. There may be questions over whether she is tough enough or charismatic enough to beat Trump in a televised one-on-one, but in terms of the primary contest she is undoubtedly among the top contenders.

5. Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete has been, without a doubt, the sensational story of the primary so far. A small-town mayor with absolute zero name recognition running for President, no one gave him a hope in hell. And yet, somehow he has managed to catch fire, propelling him right into the top tier of candidates. It is easy to see why he has caught the imagination. Pete is exceptionally articulate, and seemingly unflappable even when faced with tough questions. His policy proposals mainly place him in the moderate wing of the party, but his youth and energy endear him to the more liberal young voters. He frequently touts his military service, speaks eight languages fluently, and is a Rhodes Scholar.

On the other hand, there are so many reasons why Pete should not succeed as a candidate. He would be the youngest person ever elected President. His homosexuality is still, sadly, a liability in many parts of the country. His only political experience is as Mayor of a small town, arguably the lowest rung of political service in the United States.

And yet, such is the deftness with which he handles these apparent vulnerabilities that he manages to create strengths out of them. He stresses the executive experience of a Mayor in contrast to the lack of such experience among Congressmen and Senators. Pete and his husband Chasten have presented their marriage as such a posterchild of wholesome family values that it's hard to see them as anything other than the ideal first couple, especially when contrasted with the marital chaos of the current incumbent. And far from just reciting practiced lines, what has impressed about Pete is his repeated ability to think on his feet, to show humour and wit.

There have been signs that Pete's polling has been slipping in recent weeks, but there are still plenty of reasons for his supporters to be bullish. His fundraising numbers are phenomenal, the highest of any candidate for the most recent quarter, in spite of having considerably lower name recognition. In addition, while his national polling may have dropped, he still polls very strongly in the key early states. Pete is and has always been an extreme underdog of this race, but the signs so far make clear that he is not to be taken lightly. If he picks up a strong result in Iowa and New Hampshire then that could give him the momentum he needs. Regardless of what happens in this primary cycle, it is clear that Pete is a future star of the party, and will no doubt rank among many candidates' top picks for Vice President should he not win the nomination.

6. Beto O'Rourke
Rounding out the big six, and currently in a statistical tie nationally with Mayor Pete, is Beto O'Rourke. Beto was the star of the 2018 midterms, in which he narrowly lost to highly prominent Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, one of the reddest states in the country. A combination of soaring rhetoric and good old fashioned photogenicity saw Beto briefly labeled the next great political rockstar, and smashed the fundraising record books. But in truth it was his authenticity and idealism which won voters in droves. Facing off against one of the slimiest, nastiest politicians in the country, Beto refused to get dirty and resisted the urge to fight back. Beto's style is very much to focus on the issues, and the things that actually affect voters. That is an approach that stands him in good stead, even when the punchy, media friendly soundbytes may be lacking.

Beto's Presidential campaign got off to a similar start, smashing the week one fundraising records and shooting straight to the top tier of the polls. But somewhere in the weeks since, his campaign has hit a slump. While he has consistently maintained his polling position among the big six, he now finds himself at the tail end of that top tier, and his polling among the early states is even worse than his national polling, in spite of very extensive local campaigning.

There are many reasons why Beto has slipped. Mayor Pete has stolen his thunder as the youthful, exciting candidate, and Joe Biden has taken his place as the moderate of choice. But the biggest issue has been his media strategy. Beto made headlines in 2018 for visiting every county in Texas, and he has tried to replicate this state-level success by campaigning in the same way, as if this was a local election. That means a heavy emphasis on in-person and local events, and practically zero national coverage for the first several weeks. His staff have clearly woefully misunderstood the dynamics of a national election, and his campaign has struggled since.

Beto is certainly not finished at this point, but it is difficult to see a path back for him, especially as debating is not the medium of choice for a candidate who thrives most in pure oratory. His best bet at this point is to keep his favourables high, poll well enough to keep getting into the debates, and then as other candidates begin to drop out emerge as a consensus candidate. Still, one wonders if this may have been one election too soon for Beto.


The Best of the Rest
These six candidates are by far and away the leaders of the race so far, and the most likely to win the nomination. But this is a race with some 20+ candidates, many of whom are themselves fairly prominent and impressive figures. These candidates are "the best of the rest". It's a longshot for sure, but there is certainly a possibility that candidates from within this group could break out following a good debate, or later on as other candidates begin to drop out.

So who stands out among the other candidates? The obvious first choice is Cory Booker, another prominent Democratic Senator who has long been tipped for a Presidential run. During his time as Mayor of Newark, Booker was considered by many to be a future star of the party. Supremely charismatic and well-liked, Booker used to make headlines for doing things like rescuing people from burning buildings. In recent years he has been dogged by a perceived close relationship to Wall Street, but make no mistake he is a formidable and well-spoken presence in the party. At the moment he may not be many people's first choice, but I could easily see him being a lot of people's second or third choice, meaning there is the potential there to emerge as a consensus candidate once people start dropping out.

In a very similar mould is Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and Housing Secretary under the Obama administration. Castro first gained national prominence as a keynote speaker during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and was allegedly high on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton's potential Vice President picks. Much like Booker, Castro is a very charismatic and well-liked politician who arguably would be a contender in a less crowded field (specifically if a certain fellow Texan hadn't gotten into the race).

For voters more in the mood for an outsider, there's Andrew Yang, a successful tech billionaire and a man with absolutely no political experience. His hook is essentially that he is the candidate Donald Trump was pretending to be: a successful businessman free from the shackles and corruption of Washington. Unlike Trump, that's actually true. Also unlike Trump, Yang is actually an extremely sharp candidate with some genuinely clever ideas. After Warren, Yang is probably the most policy-driven candidate, with a fascinating mix of centrist libertarian policy and radical left wing (universal basic income). I suspect Yang will struggle against more seasoned debaters, and with primary voters who do not appear to be in as nihilistic a mood as Republicans were in 2016. But if the mood changes and Democrats decide they need to think outside of the box, they could do far worse than Yang.

And honestly, everyone else running might as well not be. I've seen some people make an electoral argument for Amy Klobuchar or John Hickenlooper, but I have seen little real-world evidence to lend those predictions much credence.

I would like to make a special shout out to Tulsi Gabbard, who ostensibly appears to be the Kremlin's attempt at doing a Donald Trump, but for Democrats. Between her shockingly Putinistic talking points, often matching word-for-word the lines being put out of the Kremlin, and her being probably the only person in America other than Donald Trump to still deny that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, it's a wonder that anyone on the left still gives her the time of day. Fortunately, she seems to be garnering little support outside of the Russian bots on Twitter (which to their credit have been spamming Tulsi propaganda for months).

Summary
The huge Democratic field has become something of a punchline, and deservedly so. Many of the candidates really have no business running. But cut through the chaff and you find a core of some very capable leaders, any of whom would be a credible nominee. This Democratic field may be historically large, but it is also compellingly deep with quality candidates for all corners of the political spectrum. I for one can't wait to see how the race develops.








Wednesday, 3 July 2019


james bond secret cinema casino royale daniel craig

Let me preface this by saying that I am a great fan of Secret Cinema and what they do. Secret Cinema presents: Casino Royale marks the fourth of their events that I have attended, the others being Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, and 28 Days Later.

I love Casino Royale. I think it's a great movie and arguably the best of the James Bond franchise. There was an awful lot of potential here for an immersive experience and for the chance for people to live out those secret agent fantasies that we have all had. And while I certainly had a great time with Casino Royale, I have to say it was easily the weakest of the four.

Secret Cinema's latest offering has an awful lot going for it. After purchasing tickets, the company sends you details to help set up a secret identity and mission for the evening. You select an alias, are assigned a job, and have the option of purchasing costume and prop items. The latter, obviously, Secret Cinema's way of monetizing the event as much as possible, but nevertheless the quality of the items we ordered was actually not too bad. You are given a contact to seek out at the venue, and told to bring business cards to cement your fictional identity.

A similarly pleasing effort has also been put into the crafting of the immersive environment itself, a Dagenham warehouse impressively converted to recreate four different countries which form the setting of the film. Upon arrival, you are given some fake casino money, told to seek out a particular item or individual, which involves traveling to the various locations and chatting to the various actors and other attendees in order to gain the information you require. Spy stuff, basically, and it's undoubtedly entertaining.

There are a few reasons why it doesn't all work as well as it should, and the main one is timing. Casino Royale has a fairly muscular two and a half hour running time, which means that the showing needs to start that much earlier. On top of this, the entire evening begins with an unnecessarily long introduction, which for some reason they can only provide to a small group of attendees at a time. As a result, entrance is gained very slowly and in batches. We arrived right at the scheduled time, and it still took us over an hour to get into the event. By the time we were through the gates, there was probably less than an hour left to explore this massive warehouse before the film screening began. It's barely enough time to complete your mission, and certainly not enough time to both complete your mission and explore the other areas. As it happened, we never had the time to even set foot in one of the four countries. I advise attendees to choose between doing the mission or exploring, you won't have time for both.

In hindsight, it's probably just as well that there is so little time before the screening, because there actually isn't all that much to do in this immersive world. Back to the Future had an entire town full of shops, fairgrounds, a school dance and other activities. Dirty Dancing had dance classes, mini-golf, arts and crafts, etc. Even 28 Days Later, another indoors Secret Cinema, had a base camp bustling with games and activities. Casino Royale, by contrast, feels strangely devoid of anything to do other than the brief assignment you are given.

And unfortunately this is not the only example of the presentation being little more than skin deep. The assignment itself is fun, but ultimately pointless, with no consequence or reward for completion. Those business cards you brought? Pointless, they just pick an actor's card for the introduction (seriously don't go out of your way to order/print anything special). That casino money? Sure it can be used at the cards tables of the casino, but there are only two tables in a room containing more than a thousand people. Unless you head straight there and spend your hour queuing up, you won't get a chance to play.

The main problem is a familiar one for Secret Cinema: too many people crammed into too spare an environment, all in the name of a desperate attempt to recoup the expenses of their increasingly extravagant projects. I mean really all the money they spent to recreate four countries' worth of settings, in which the audience ultimately spends no more than a few minutes at most, has to be one of the most absurdly indulgent wastes of money in the history of the concept. The other problem is something new for the company: paucity of ideas. And that's more worrying.

Secret Cinema's attempt at James Bond provides a fun, albeit all too brief, opportunity to live out your secret agent fantasies. The film itself is still as strong as ever, but the whole product sadly falls short of what we know the immersive entertainment industry can provide.










Monday, 24 June 2019

Created by Russell T. Davies
Network BBC
Starring Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T'Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes
Genre Drama
Running Time 55-60 minutes

years and years bbc trump farage boris johnson brexit black mirror best new show 2019

If there is one silver lining to living through turbulent and disturbing times, it is the remarkable creative output that such troubles can inspire. Years and Years serves as a timely example of this.

Russell T. Davies is cultivating something of a reputation at the BBC, credited by many for his revitalization of Dr. Who, and more recently with last year's excellent A Very English Scandal. The latter ultimately garnered a slew of awards, not least of all a Debbie on this very blog. His latest project could well see him become the first writer to win back to back Debbies, and if so it would be well earned.

The premise behind Years and Years is disarmingly droll, following the Manchester-based Lyons family over a period of fifteen years, documenting their relationships, their career tribulations, and financial troubles. But the real story of Years and Years is in its extrapolation of future events based on the trends we see today, and its stark depiction of how those events impact on the lives of not only the Lyons, but the entire country.

Far from a ripple in the calm seas of the late 20th Century, Davies sees the current climate of instability as only the beginning of a much grander process. He maps out a world of glorious chaos which starts with a Donald Trump re-election in 2020 and the continued rise of fear-mongering populism in the UK. Without spoiling too much, each mini-shockwave gradually snowballs into military conflict and financial crisis, and much more beyond.

The brilliance in this series is twofold. First is in its darkly comic tone, with a combination of great writing and audacious production creating a sense of almost breathless panic as one event leads to another with seemingly no respite (in one instance in the final episode, to highly amusing effect).

The second is in how believable everything is (in the first few episodes at least), and in particular in showing the very real ways in which national and global events can impact real people on a personal level. It makes for watching that is, in the first four episodes in particular, often terrifying and extraordinarily evocative. Above all, Davies manages depict the impact of current events in a way that never seems overly ideological or stilted, and thus holds an impressive ability to reach a wide audience on these important topics without alienating driving a deeper divide.

One also has to give a shout out to the sheer quality of production from the visuals to the sound and music. The performances are as impressive as we have come to expect from a prestige BBC project, particularly Emma Thompson's terrifying Farage-esque politician, a performance that will surely earn a BAFTA nomination.

It's not a perfect series, as becomes apparent. The last few episodes take a surprising (albeit still hugely entertaining) turn into what can only be described as Dr. Whovian sci-fi thriller territory, and wraps up proceedings with a somewhat unearned ending that feels strangely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episodes. This can't help but feel something of a let down for a series whose (devastatingly effective) initial hook is in its adherence to grounded reality.

There are also times where it feels, such is the pace of the series, that some important topics are only lightly touched on. There are brief references to antibiotic resistance and deep fakes, likely major issues of tomorrow, which are only really discussed in the most superficial of terms. Similarly, while Years and Years does hint at the larger picture of the forces behind this seeming cascade of crises, it declines to give this anything beyond the most token of acknowledgement.

But for any flaws it has, Years and Years never ceases to be anything other than hugely entertaining. When its at its best, it ranks among the most incisive and remarkable commentaries of the day. This is lingering stuff that will stick with you after viewing, and its rough edges only serve to highlight the raw power of its vision. An essential series if ever there was one.










Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughan
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Studio Rocket Pictures
Running time 121 minutes


rocketman 2019 film elton john taron egerton queen rami malik bohemian rhapsody oscar academy

I was sceptical about seeing Rocketman. The new Elton John biopic came to within a whisker of making it onto this year’s Hot List, but ultimately I was put off by the feeling that there was something a bit cheap and opportunistic about the whole thing. I was naturally sceptical of another studio putting out a rock and roll biopic so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody’s award winning run, even more so with the unusual decision to depict a biographical film in the form of a jukebox musical, one which shoe-horns existing songs into a context for which they weren’t written. Fortunately this is one of those situations where I am glad to admit that I was wrong.

Rocketman does not officially release in cinemas until later on this week, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a preview screening, and I have to say it was one of the more enjoyable cinema excursions in recent times. 

I have already mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody once in this post. Given the similar subject matter and proximity of release it is perhaps only natural that people will make the comparison. Still, I don’t like to review things by comparison, so I will discuss it only once more, and very briefly. Rocketman is a considerably better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. From the filmmaking, to the writing, to the acting, just about every element of Rocketman on another level to Bohemian Rhapsody, so much so that to even compare the two in terms of film quality is a bit laughable. Still, it has to be remembered that despite its modest success on the awards’ circuits, Bohemian Rhapsody was given quite mediocre reviews by the critics, so I will go even further. Rocketman is not just a better film, it is a very good film indeed in its own right.

This is, of course, the biopic of Elton John. A latter-day John in rehab forms the framing device for the singer's life story, from his early childhood to first commercial success, and ultimately his self-destructive spiral and comeback. It's the classic rock-star's parable, uniquely told through some visually spectacular set-pieces and extravagant musical numbers.

And extravagant they are. There's no faulting this film for its sense of style. This is a visual treat from its flamboyant set design and abundant use of colour to its sumptuously indulgent camera shots. Things start off somewhat slowly and more in the mould of a traditional biopic, until the turbulent events of John's childhood smash all semblance of John's grounded reality and send him into the wild journey of his career. As John's mental health deteriorates, so too does each scene become increasingly surreal and chaotic, blurring into one another until even John can't tell where he is from one moment to the next.

Of course, it helps that the music is this good. Ordinarily I find it a bit tacky when a musical forces existing songs into its story, with lyrics that clearly weren't written for the script. Mamma Mia and David Bowie's Lazarus are prime examples of this that come to mind. But for some reason it didn't bother me here. Perhaps it is because the set-pieces are surreal and abstract enough that you don't try to take them as literal depictions of narrative, or perhaps the songwriting is such that it simply better lends itself to different contexts. Whatever the reason, it works a treat here, and several moments in this film even gave me goosebumps with just how brilliantly it was all choreographed.

But above all it is the electric performance of Taron Egerton that steals the show. Egerton throws everything of himself into this role, capturing the soul and energy of his subject right down to a tee without ever resorting to impersonation. It helps that Egerton turns out to be a fantastic singer, more than doing justice to these classic tunes. Egerton is hardly a new face in the industry, but this nevertheless feels like a career making performance, one that will surely see him launched into the awards circuit and those upper echelons of stardom.

It is much to this film's credit that it does not shy away from the dark elements of John's life. Unlike other musical biopics, this is not a sanitised depiction of his life. The full gamut of John's narcotic use, psychological issues, and sexual extravagances are on full display, and the result is a story that is disarmingly honest and personal.

If there is one main criticism, it is that after spending two hours building up to John's complete breakdown, the whole mess gets resolved far too quickly. There is no depiction here of the struggle to recovery, of the misery of getting free of addiction. Falling to rock bottom was a journey, but getting back up again seems far too easy.

Similarly there are times where the psychological exploration of the film's troubled subject feels only little more than skin-deep. It is a torment that gets told primarily through decades old lyrics and figurative dance numbers more than actual analysis or discussion. Rocketman certainly doesn't shy away from the topic, but seems content to give viewers the headline and move on, rather than delving further into the detail, or more importantly, the struggle to overcome.

Ultimately these are minor criticisms that can be forgiven for the sake of artistic licence. While there are moments where you wish they would go further, Rocketman nevertheless manages to capture the bright highs and dark lows of being an artist better than most films, and does so in a way that is constantly exhilarating and ultimately hugely uplifting.

Rocketman makes for thrilling viewing. It is extravagant, outrageous and over the top, capable of beauty and brilliance, ugliness and folly. It is a mesmerising ride that never falls anything short of hugely entertaining, just like its subject.










Monday, 13 May 2019

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

Manchester City champions 2019
It has been a nail-biter of an end to the season; not just in the Premier League's record breaking title race, but in the relegation and European qualification battles that last right up until the final curtain. It has been riveting stuff, and best of all since Manchester City won again, I don't even need to look for a new picture for this article!

Liverpool ultimately finished runner up with a frankly astonishing 97 points, a haul that would certainly have won the title in just about any other season. It is a testament to two highly accomplished sides, both of whom can look back on the season with a great deal of pride.

Meanwhile, a battle for Champions League qualification that featured Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United proved fascinating for quite different reasons. Each of those four teams has had an absolutely torrid end to the season, playing poorly with results to match. The fact that Chelsea, out of the running for much of the season and seemingly completely incapable of a win in the latter weeks, managed to eke out third place right at the death speaks more to the utterly shambolic form of their competitors than it does to their own performances. Time and time again Chelsea dropped points in a pathetic manner, only to be granted a reprieve by their equally dismal rivals, such that fans of the eventual victors and losers alike can only help but be embarrassed for each other.

Otherwise, it was a season of high drama, but relatively few shocks. Everton, West Ham and Leicester took their customary position in the top half of the table, yet entirely clear of European contention. Nouveau riche Wolves delivered a hugely impressive campaign as expected, whereas on the other hand noveau riche Fulham delivered a limp relegation-bound attempt at a season, as frankly few expected.

But someone had to go down, and this year that burden falls to Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield. Cardiff and Huddersfield will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone, but Fulham had been expected to make a decent go of it on the back of a £100 million pound spending spree, and there will rightly be an inquest as to what has gone wrong this season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.


The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2019:

Winners: Manchester City- Winners by a hair, and still undoubtedly one of the world's top sides. Deserved champions.

Relegated: Cardiff City, Fulham, Huddersfield Town - Little was expected of lightweight Huddersfield or the shambolically run Cardiff City, but for Fulham to have even been in the relegation discussion after spending so much money will surely go down as one of the league's great flops.

Player of the Year: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) - While his team may look increasingly unimpressive, Hazard remains the league's standout talent and he proved as much again this season by leading the league in assists whilst also achieving a new personal best in goals. No single player has been directly involved in as many goals this season.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - A second year in a row for Alexander-Arnold, undoubtedly one of the great young fullbacks in world football and a potential star of English football for years to come.

Best Goalkeeper: Ederson (Manchester City) - It has been a formidable season for the Manchester City shot-stopper, whose reliability between the posts has been a huge factor in the often narrow results that eked out the club's 1 point advantage over Liverpool.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) - A difficult choice between the top two, but whereas Pep inherited a largely title-capable side, few can discredit the singular impact that Klopp has had on transforming this Liverpool team into one of the world's best.

Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) (22 each) - Rare to share this award, even more rare to split it three ways. Last year's winner Salah may not have hit the astonishing heights of last season, but nevertheless ended up as one of the league's leaders alongside teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal's much improved Aubameyang.

Most Assists: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) (15) - See above, arguably his best season yet in a blue shirt, despite the struggles of his club.

Overachievers: Wolves - It is true that many, including this blog, had predicted this heavily invested Wolves side to be something of a surprise package in this year's Premier League, but actually going and living up to that promise is another matter. For a newly promoted side to have such a strong debut season, ultimately finishing the best of the rest outside the top six, is an impressive achievement, regardless of how much has been invested.

Underachievers: Manchester United - Last year's Premier League runner up had been expected to number themselves among the frontrunners in this year's title challenge, but that's not how it turned out. For United to have not even qualified for the Champions League will have come as a bitter disappointment. One manager has already been sacked for it, and we may yet have a second face the chop before too long.

Best signing of the season: James Maddison (Leicester City) - Making the step up from Championship to Premier League is a big ask for any young player, few succeed. James Maddison has thrived and established himself as one of the league's brightest new faces.

Worst signing of the season: Fred (Manchester United) - Every season has a big money move that fails to live up to its billing, and this year that is Fred. A £52 million fee makes Fred the 4th most expensive signing in the club's history, and yet he has only managed 10 starts in the league. Fans will be hoping for more next season.


The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2019:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019


So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!




Newer Posts Older Posts Home