james debate
james debate

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Genre Musical Platformer
Platform Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

the artful escape francis vendetti annapurna best game 2021 xbox pc windows
This one takes me back. Even though The Artful Escape is a brand new game, it feels like I have been talking about it forever. It has become a mainstay of my annual Hot List since its originally scheduled release in 2017. Now after a series of delays, it finally sees release.

The Artful Escape is the latest production from Annapurna, a studio that is quickly establishing itself as one of the finest producers of games in the industry. Players control Francis Vendetti, an aspiring folk musician from a small Colorado town who lives in the shadow of his world famous uncle Jonathan Vendetti, a sort of Bob Dylan-esque figure. Struggling for inspiration and motivation, Francis has a sudden epiphany and decides to completely reinvent himself and in doing so create the most elaborate stage persona in rock music history, David Bowie style. What follows is a dazzling and surreal cosmic adventure in which Francis travels the galaxy crafting a mythology and style for his new persona. Think "Ziggy Stardust the videogame" and you won't be far off. 

The game itself is essentially a platformer. Run from left to right and jump over gaps until you reach the end, with the added twist of being able to shred a guitar while doing so. It's not an especially challenging platformer. The levels are quite simplistic in terms of obstacles, with the most difficult task being the timing of double jumps during certain segments in order to get past moving obstacles and closing doors. There are no enemies or combat, and the closest thing you have to a boss battle is the occasional Simon Says style musical section. There's no fail state. If you miss a jump or play the wrong note on a musical section the game just lets you try again. 

Let's be clear, this is not in any way a challenging game. More of a 2D walking simulator. Instead, the emphasis is on the experience. Fortunately it is one hell of an experience. The Artful Escape is a sensory treat in every respect. The visuals are incredible, among the most beautiful games I can recall seeing. Colourful, imaginative settings bursting with life and small details, and some breathtaking artistic vision. 

The music is also very impressive, from the Jonathan Vendetti tracks that sound authentically like some long lost folk masterpiece, to the soaring glamrock of Francis' galactic adventures. While the player's guitar shredding does not affect gameplay in any way (aside from some achievements), it does add to the game's backing track through some impressive technical wizardry that ensures everything is on tempo and in tune.

The quality of the writing is also very strong. The Artful Escape is full of memorable characters with satisfying arcs, while the dialogue is witty and mostly a delight. In classic Annapurna style, the studio has called on a number of its Hollywood buddies, resulting in an impressive cast. Jason Schwartzman in particular steals all of his scenes, but he is ably supported by big name actors including Mark Strong, Carl Weathers, Lena Headey and Michael Johnston.

I was pleasantly surprised by how far the game goes to immerse players in the fantasy of creating this Ziggy Stardust style character. Players can choose a name and backstory for Francis' persona as well as their appearance through a highly customisable hair and costume system. The flexibility and complexity of this system was far more than I was expecting and allowed me to design a rock star persona that I truly felt was mine. If I have one criticism here, it's that the player doesn't really have much input into the music itself. Guitar shredding is (outside those Simon Says sections) just a single button that the game uses to automatically match to the backing track. That being said, I didn't feel like this was sufficient to break the immersion or fun.

I can see why some people might get bored with this game due to the lack of any real gaming challenge. But for anyone with a love of music, sci-fi or quirky adventures, The Artful Escape is a delightful journey. It exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a colorful musical adventure, but not the absorbing world and characters. Annapurna have shown once again that they know how to craft compelling stories in the medium of videogames, and The Artful Escape is another jewel to add to their collection.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Produced by Charles Gillibert, Adam Driver, Vacharasinthu, Paul-Dominique Win
Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Studio Amazon
Running time 140 minutes

annette 2021 musical film broadway adam driver sparks mael marion cotillard oscars
I am honestly not sure if I can give this film a meaningful score out of five. This is the sort of film where you could have two perfectly reasonable and insightful people of good taste, one who thinks the film is extraordinary, the other that the film is hot garbage, and they would both be right.

Annette is a musical film written (and with cameo performances) by Sparks, a 1970s rock band probably best known for their bizarre stage personae and this song. On paper, it's a strange duo to be in charge of a major motion picture, and in Leos Carax they have found a director who can craft an equally strange film.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play a celebrity power couple, he an acerbic stand up comedian, she a renowned opera star. Tragedy strikes and shortly afterwards their child Annette, portrayed bizarrely by a marionette on strings, gains the supernatural ability to sing like her mother. All kinds of crazy shenanigans ensue. 

There is a lot going on that makes Annette such an unusual, surreal film, even aside from the aforementioned marionette. This is a film that features, among other things, ghosts, a musical sex scene, and constant fourth wall breaking. This is a supremely melodramatic, over the top, rock opera. It is a strange combination of knowingly camp, but produced with the artistic flair of a more serious film (not entirely unlike the ill-fitted pairing of Driver's trashy comedian to Cotillard's sophisticated singer). In many ways, this feels more like watching a theatrical production than a film. We are used to seeing the avant-garde and surreal on stage, but less so in a big budget film. Often the staging feels like something designed for Broadway with the way scenes unfold and how the actors address the audience. I suspect that many of the things here that strike a cinema audience as unusual probably would not look out of place on the West End.

Despite its sillier elements, the quality of production is very high. Visually, Annette is a treat with some very striking cinematography and memorable set pieces. The music is also generally very good, although the fourth wall breaking lyrics get quite irritating after a while, as does the heavy use of repetition. For the first one or two songs it can pass as quirky and mildly humorous, but when you're an hour into the musical and every song does the same schtick, it's a bit much.

Adam Driver's performance is exceptional in his intensity and brutality. Driver has a non-traditional physical appearance and carries himself with a unique physicality that makes him one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood right now. By contrast, Cotillard seems to be a bit under-utilised in this role but still manages to haunt each scene (in more ways than one) with her inimitable presence. 

Annette is a strange film, one that is very difficult to evaluate in any meaningful sense. It's an ambitious, sprawling mess at times, yet executed with undeniable artistry and panache. There are moments watching this film where I feel as though the producers are shooting for the awards season and others where it seems that they are instead trying to craft the next gonzo Rocky Horror Picture Show style cult classic. A film of excesses that is meant to be watched in groups at raucous late night screenings. The impression I am left with at the end is that of a muddled piece of work that probably doesn't fully succeed in hitting either of those targets, but genuinely doesn't seem to care.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Football is back, for real this time. With spectators and everything. This summer has been a welcome relief for starving sports fans with Euro 2020, the Olympics, Marble League 2021 and other highly entertaining spectacles, but few things can really compare to a new season of Premier League football. This season in particular is shaping up to be a scorcher, with a good four or five teams with a genuine shot at the title. So without further ado, let's dive into it and get the season underway.

premier league 2020/21 preview
For anyone wondering why I still use the old school Premier League logo, know this: I'm an old school kind of guy.

Premier League 2021/22 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool
Relegated: Watford, Crystal Palace, Norwich
Golden Boot winner: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Harry Kane (???)
New signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
Young player to watch: Billy Gilmour (Norwich)
First manager to get the sack: Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Shock of the season: Brentford to achieve a comfortable midtable finish in their first ever Premier League season

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 8th
Manager: Mikel Arteta

It is a challenging time to be an Arsenal fan. Two consecutive 8 place finishes, European football only a faded memory, and a general mood of doom and gloom that pervades every fibre of the club. 

Mikel Arteta simply is not ready to manage a club of this expectation and may never be. One can only imagine that the reason he has kept this job this is the controversial 2019 FA Cup win that was much derided for its questionable refereeing, this unearned triumph perhaps disguising what has otherwise been a near constant procession of disappointment and underachievement. It is strangely poetic that this sham of a football match may actually have harmed the club's development in the long run.

Knife-twisting aside, this is a squad that appears worryingly bereft of genuine top level talent. Talismanic striker Aubameyang had a quiet season by his standards, and when he doesn't fire Arsenal don't seem to have a plan B. Nicolas Pépé was somewhat improved although still struggling to justify his massive transfer fee. Willian proved to be a bit of a dud signing. There is some promising young talent in the squad from Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, and Bukayo Saka, but these players alone are not (yet) enough to form the spine of a top tier side. If Thomas Partey can hit the ground running this season and conduct this midfield, then Arsenal may yet punch above their weight. Otherwise, this is looking worryingly like a midtable season.

That their summer transfer business has been so lacklustre, with an astonishing £50million spent on former Brighton defender Ben White being the highlight to date, paints a troubling picture of a club that is either in greater financial trouble than they let on, or no longer offers allure to elite-level footballers.

Key Signing: Ben White
Key Man: Thomas Partey
Verdict: Another season of midtable obscurity awaits without a few more astute signings.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 11th
Manager: Dean Smith

Aston Villa's upwards trajectory has been most impressive in recent years. Midtable of the Championship in 2017, promoted in 2020 and last season achieving a very solid midtable Premier League finish. Sometimes a club reaches the top flight, rides that emotional high to a remarkable first season, and then fades away the next year. But with Villa that does not look to be the case, quite the opposite in fact.

This summer, the club have invested with ambition and they appear to have done so shrewdly. The addition of attacking trio Emiliano Buendía, Leon Bailey, and Danny Ings is some very impressive business for a club of this stature, especially when you consider they already have the likes of Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traoré in the squad. Grealish may have gone, but they have put that transfer kitty to good use. This is a Villa team that has become renowned for its grit and solidity at the back, but they are building a team that is capable of playing good, attacking football. If they can achieve this without sacrificing that solid core, then this could become a very capable football side.

But for all the flashy additions, the key man at this club is the man at the back, Emiliano Martínez. I think people underestimate the extent to which his performances and organisation in the box have been a contributing factor to Villa's improvement. For anyone who has watched the transformation of the Argentinian national team since his promotion to the first team, however, the impact will be clear.

Key Signing: Emiliano Buendía
Key Man: Emiliano Martínez
Verdict: I like the look of this team and if they can gel they could be looking at a Europa League place.


Nickname: The Bees
Ground: Brentford Community Stadium
Capacity: 17,250
Last season: Promoted (3rd)
Manager: Thomas Frank

The pundits already have the knives out for Brentford. A team with little in the way of a storied footballing history, playing in the Premier League for the first time ever, with few experienced top flight players in the squad. It's predictable that this side would be tipped by many for the drop, but this does a disservice to the team Thomas Frank has built over the last couple of years. One wonders the extent to which any of these pundits have actually seen any of these people play.

In truth, there are a core of players at the club who seem well suited for top flight football: David Raya, Ethan Pinnock, Ivan Toney, and in particular classy midfielder Christian Nørgaard. Young striker Yoane Wisa formed one half of a deadly partnership at French minnows Lorient, while in Kristoffer Ajer they have signed a player of genuine elite potential who has been hotly tipped for a big move in recent years. The signing of Frank Onyeka, meanwhile, brings actual Champions League experience to the club. Without wanting to disrespect Brentford, the fact that a club of this relatively minor stature is able to summon the clout and financial resources to be making these types of signings reflects will on how powerful this league has become.

But it's important to stay grounded. This is a promising side and they will be on an emotional high coming into the season. The reality is that they will come up against some of the best football teams on the planet, in a league where even the smallest players command world class resources. Success is far from guaranteed, but likewise it would be a mistake to write them off.

Key Signing: Kristoffer Ajer
Key Man: Christian Nørgaard
Verdict: Could surprise people. A relegation risk but I think they'll survive and sit comfortable in the lower mid table.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 31,800
Last season: 16th
Manager: Graham Potter

A lot of very positive things have been written about Brighton over the past few years and the south coast revolution that owner Tony Bloom and manager Graham Potter have been promising to instigate. Despite this, I was rather more measured in my evaluation of their qualities and expected a finish somewhere in the mid lower half of the table. Indeed this is almost exactly what happened, leaving many to wonder if this club had progressed as far as it could be taken.

But the statistics reveal more than one can infer from the lacklustre results alone. In spite of their struggles at the foot of the table, Potter's side ranked near the top in terms of expected goals, a statistic that estimates the number of goals a side would be expected to score, given their attacking play and chances created. In fact, if Brighton had managed to score as many as the statistics suggest, they would have been in contention for European qualification, with a mean expected finish of 7th place.

Potter has got this team playing some good football. They are tight at the back with Robert Sánchez, Lewis Dunk, and Adam Webster, while Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard form a productive midfield. In Tariq Lamptey they have one of the league's brightest young players, if he can stay fit. They just need someone to finish all the chances they create. It is a bit shocking, then, that at the time of writing they have not yet made any moves for a new striker. That is not to say they have not been active, however, and the signing of box-to-box midfielder Enock Mwepu should add some additional energy in the midfield. Nonetheless, one feels that until they find that elusive goalscorer, this club may find it difficult to progress further.

Key Signing: Enock Mwepu
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: If they sign a striker, they could push into the upper midtable. Otherwise, more of the same.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,944
Last season: 17th
Manager: Sean Dyche

It could be his no nonsense demeanour, or his team's hard-fighting style, but Sean Dyche's Burnley has always been something of a media darling. An example of classic grit and overachievement. Many pundits had predicted a push into the top half of the table last season. This blog was one of the few who saw the troubles on the horizon.

This side has a lot going for it. Nick Pope is unironically one of the league's best performing goalkeepers. Ben Mee and Jack Cork have been in the top flight forever and know how to succeed in this league. But this is a razor thin squad with a lack of options going forward. Their business in the transfer market so far this summer has done little to rectify the situation. For all the hype they've had in recent years, this is a Burnley side that has done little to move itself forward in a league that is constantly improving, and the result could be a challenging season for the club.

If there is one potential bright spot for the club, it is the recent takeover by ALK Capital. This will be the key to building on what Dyche has created. Burnley need their new owners to back their man in the transfer market and build a squad that deserves to hit the heights of the club's finest moments.

Key Signing: Nathan Collins
Key Man: Nick Pope
Verdict: Can't be ruled out of relegation, but should have enough to survive.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 4th
Manager: Thomas Tuchel

There's never a boring time to be a Chelsea fan, although sometimes I wish there was. This is a team that inherently lacks any sense of stability and yet somehow keeps winning anyway. Two Champions League victories, both of which took place in years where the manager was fired halfway through, says everything about how this club is run and the paradoxical amount of success that approach has brought.

Still even by the club's standard, sacking Frank Lampard after so impressive a start to his Chelsea managerial career felt gut-wrenching, even without taking into account Lampard's exalted history with the club. The replacement, Thomas Tuchel did not exactly get off to the most auspicious start either: initially benching the youthful Chelsea players like Mason Mount and Reece James that had brought such success the previous year (thankfully he realised his error pretty quickly), forcing out the club's top scorer for two seasons running Tammy Abraham in favour of the misfiring Timo Werner (the fact that he still finished club top scorer last season despite being frozen out for half the year says everything). Sure, the victories that brought Chelsea the Champions League title were remarkable, astonishing even. But they have somewhat papered over the humiliating bottling of the FA Cup final, and the lacklustre end to the Premier League season that saw Chelsea barely cling to a top four place.

But I will say this for Tuchel, he has given this Chelsea side the solidity and consistency that they sorely lacked under Lampard. The addition of goalkeeper Mendy doubtlessly helped in this regard, but so too have the defensive duo of Rudiger and Christensen found a brand new lease of life under Tuchel. The truth is that Tuchel had something of a teething problem when he arrived at the club, but seems to have now found a team that works. He's even learned to embrace Chelsea's impressive youth output. Really the only thing lacking right now is goals. Enter stage left: Romelu Lukaku. Nothing typifies Chelsea's transfer policy over the years than spending £100m on a striker we already had as a teenager and then sold for a song (let's not forget that a more patient Chelsea could also have had Salah and De Bruyne in this lineup). But Lukaku is undoubtedly one of the world's top strikers right now and he could be exactly what this club has been needing. The fact that his name isn't Tammy Abraham should hopefully mean he gets a few games as well.

So Chelsea enter this season filled with optimism and good feelings. They have recruited well to add to a squad that was starting to shape up nicely, with talent in every position. But the key to this team is and will remain Mason Mount. On and off the pitch, Mount is the beating heart of this club. If everything clicks into place, this team could challenge for the title.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: Mason Mount
Verdict: Genuine title contenders, but perhaps not yet at the level of City.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 14th
Manager: Patrick Vieira

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. It's the same old story. Last season I said that a tough year was in store for Roy Hodgson and sure enough he is no longer with the club. His replacement, Patrick Vieira, has got a real job on his hands if he wants to not only stay in a job, but stay in the Premier League.

He joins a stagnant and ageing Palace side that, for a number of years now, has been overly dependent on a single, talismanic Wilfried Zaha. That's no longer enough and Zaha is no longer the player he once was. A number of first teamers have left the club this summer and with Eberechi Eze out until the end of the year, a replenishment of talent is needed. Looking over their summer transfer business, it's not clear that they have done enough.

New defensive signings Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi will look to provide a platform for the club's attacking talent of Zaha, Eze and Benteke to build on, but personally I will be watching closely the on-loan midfielder Conor Gallagher, who has excelled in the Championship and is hotly tipped at his parent club Chelsea.

Key Signing: Joachim Andersen
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A genuine relegation risk if they are not careful.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 10th
Manager: Rafa Benitez

It is fair to say that the past 12 months have been an emotional rollercoaster for Everton fans. They entered last season at perhaps a high point in optimism for this club. A superstar managerial appointment in Ancelotti bundled with ambitious, big name signings. But it was not to be, Everton disappointed and Carlo left as soon as Real Madrid came calling.

After a season in which the perennial nearly-men finally looked set to push forward, it is now back to usual form. New manager Rafa Benitez, certainly not a popular man at Goodison for his Liverpool history, is nevertheless a safe and tested pair of hands who can get this club to perform and meet objectives. But manager aside, this is a squad that will ask some pressing questions of the new administration.

What is to be done with the injury-prone Rodriguez? The want-away Moise Kean? Richarlison is a supremely talented player, but remains inherently ephemeral. Instead, the focal point of this team remains Dominic Calvert-Lewin. It's clear from the signings of Gray and Townsend that the priority is going to be to get more balls to Calvert-Lewin and get the best out of their star striker. This is a good strategy and will result in a solid season for Everton, but at the moment there is no sign of that heightened ambition that we saw only one year ago.

Key Signing: Demarai Gray
Key Man: Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Verdict: Targeting a top half finish, but face plenty of competition.

Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Elland Road
Capacity: 37,890
Last season: 9th
Manager: Marco Bielsa

There was certainly a great deal of buzz around this Leeds team ahead of last season's long-awaited return to the top flight, but I don't think many could have predicted such an impressive debut from Bielsa's men. Every pundit under the sun has got their own opinion of whether this will prove to have been a one-season fluke, or the start of a new renaissance at Elland Road. But the truth is, no one is really quite sure what to expect.

On paper, there's no particular reason to think they would be in trouble this season. Patrick Bamford, far from arising out of nothing, has shone at Championship level for many seasons and long been tipped to be a top flight success. Kalvin Phillips, meanwhile, has continued his fine combative form for England at the highest stage. Stuart Dallas is just excellent.

But there have been warning signs. Leeds have had a rotten pre-season and have largely failed to bring in meaningful additions to the first team. There are tough questions to be asked of the defence. This is a team that largely thrived on its attacking intent and control of the midfield, but once teams learn to adapt and play them, they've proven surprisingly bereft of a plan B. It will be interesting to see how defender Junior Firpo, signed from Barcelona, can slot into this team and whether he can make a difference.

Key Signing: Junior Firpo
Key Man: Kalvin Phillips
Verdict: Shouldn't be a relegation risk, but will struggle to live up to last season's success. Lower half of the table.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,261
Last season: 5th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

The transformation at Leicester City in recent years has been one of the most remarkable stories in world sport. Their shock title victory a few years back is the stuff of legends of course, but while everyone was writing them off as a one hit wonder, Leicester have been quietly leveraging their financial muscle and newfound notoriety to build a team that is potentially capable of challenging, not as rank outsiders, but as equals. Despite this, the last two seasons have seen this team burst out the gates early and play at the top of the table, only to fall short at the business end of the season. 

Can they finally break into that top four? Leicester are a fine side, and getting better with each season. in Kasper Schmeichel they boast one of the league's finest goalkeepers, while a defence featuring the likes of Çağlar Söyüncü, Ricardo Pereira, and Daniel Amartey are bettered by few. Youri Tielemans is quickly becoming one of the league's star midfielders and forms a highly productive partnership with James Maddison. Then of course we have Jamie Vardy, one of the league's best players in spite of his advancing years.

Leicester are a fine team, but they have tough competition and those competitors have all improved this season. It's not enough for Leicester to be a good side, they have to be better than teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. If I compare the sides, I'm not sure Leicester have done enough to catch up to the rest of this group. As good as Vardy is, he will decline with age. The signing of Patson Daka should alleviate some of the pressure on their talismanic forward and it will be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make.

Key Signing: Patson Daka
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Will struggle to credibly compete for top four and will instead be looking at a best of the rest finish in 5-8th.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

The curious case of Liverpool FC. After a number of years competing for honours at the very highest levels, last season saw Klopp's men cut a surprisingly uninspired form, really only just squeaking into the top four in the dying stages of the season.

So what happened? Burn out? Injury problems? Lack of transfers the previous summer? It may have been all these things, or none at all. In my view it was a mix of things: defensive frailties highlighted by some notable absences and a once fearsome attacking three that had gone somewhat off the boil. In any case, rival fans should be under no illusion that this Liverpool side are finished. An impressive run in the final weeks of last season, earning 26 of the last 30 points, makes abundantly clear that they possess that winning mentality.

Make no mistake, Liverpool will be up there come the end of the season. This is still one of the finest attacking sides in Europe. Roberto Firmino may not have the form of two seasons ago, but in Sadio Mané and Mo Salah they still possess arguably the two best attackers in the league. Virgil van Dijk is, when fit, one of the finest defenders of any side in the world. Trent Alexander Arnold is a player who could offers quality all over the pitch. If Klopp can bring his team into this season with greater focus and consistency, perhaps adding a few more defensive recruits in addition to the newly signed Ibrahima Konaté, this is still one of the finest teams around and a major player in the title race, despite what the pundits say.

Key Signing: Ibrahima Konaté
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: There or thereabouts.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,017
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

While they may have missed out once again on that elusive European title, Manchester City's domestic dominance last season says everything you need to know. This is still very much the team to beat and one of the few teams unquestionably in the hunt for the title this season.

Despite this, a surprising number of questions hovers over this team. Now that Sergio Aguero is gone, they need a long term option to lead the line. Is Gabriel Jesus really that man? Can Raheem Sterling put last season's woes behind him and continue his fine form from Euro 2020? City have already splashed a cool £100million on Jack Grealish, and yet all eyes still remain on Harry Kane and whether he will follow his England teammate to the Etihad.

The good news for City is that aside from any questions that linger over their attacking line, the rest of their squad is still the finest the league has to offer. They boast an embarrassment of riches in defence and attack with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker, Fernandinho and many others. The fact that they have players like Nathan Aké, Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva not even guaranteed a starting place makes clear just how deep a squad they have. 

A title defence is far from assured. After all, such a thing has only been accomplished 8 times in the 30 years history of the Premier League, and just once in the past fifteen (the vast majority of those retained titles comes from United's 1990s domination), but they surely start the season as the favourite. The bigger question will be whether they can finally live up to their potential and claim the biggest prize of all, the Champions League. Such a thing may depend on what happens a certain wantaway Tottenham striker..

Key Signing: Jack Grealish
Key Man: Kevin de Bruyne
Verdict: Title favourites.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Arguably the fourth of this year's big title hopefuls. Solskjaer's men got off to a rough start last season and for  along period it seemed almost certain that he would get the boot. But the club were patient, they gave him time to turn things around and were duly rewarded with a fantastic second half to the season that saw United finish as runner up to Manchester City against all odds. I'd say that United are a great example of a club being rewarded for its patience and stability, and that certain other clubs could learn from them. But then Chelsea did go and win the Champions League, so what do I know?

For the first time in a long time this United side is playing with purpose, spearheaded by one of the league's standout players in Bruno Fernandes and arguably their best player last season Luke Shaw. Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, all strong performers in their role. But otherwise, this squad still looks thin for a title contender. Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are fine attacking players, but inconsistent and rarely capable of match-winning influence. Nemanja Matic and David de Gea are both long past their best. This strikes me as a side that can compete with any other in the league on their day. The question will be whether they can do so consistently over a season, responding to the pressures that a long campaign places on a squad. Compared to their other title rivals, United have been active in the transfer market this summer, with Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane signed so far, and rumours linking the club with another defender and striker. 

Solskjaer undoubtedly deserves great credit for the improvement this club has seen in recent years. Not least of all for how he has managed to steer the focus on the club away from its controversial ownership and management. But now three years into this job, the expectation has to be a genuine challenge for silverware (Solskjaer has still not won anything here). This may be a now or never season for this team.

Key Signing: Jadon Sancho
Key Man: Bruno Fernandes
Verdict: Title contenders, but face a stern challenge from their improved competition.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
Last season: 12th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. In spite of this, Steve Bruce does seem to have brought some semblance of stability to the club, but is it real or just paper over the cracks?

Mike Ashley is still here, and he seems content for Bruce to keep this club steadily, if unambitiously, safe in the Premier League. That may not be enough for the fans, however. Many of the Newcastle faithful still stick to this idea of the Magpies as a big-club-in-waiting and feel that with some of the, undoubtedly talented, players at their disposal they should be aiming for something a little greater.

As far as the playing staff goes, most will point to the revelatory talents of French youngster Allan Saint-Maximin, but I think the man to watch is Callum Wilson. The Premier League mainstay has shown himself to be as productive as ever at 29 years, with last season's tally reaching some 12 goals in 23 appearances and five assists, or a goal involvement every 120 minutes. Not a bad outlay for a team near the foot of the table. Summer business has been productive, with the £22million signing of Joe Willock, who so impressed on loan last season, the main bit of business to date and others allegedly in the pipeline.

But while this side should be good enough to survive, it can not be guaranteed. The Newcastle purgatory continues.

Key Signing: Joe Willock
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,359
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Daniel Farke

The last time Norwich won promotion to the Premier League, they lasted just a single season before going down. This year they look better equipped for the challenge, but it still may not be enough.

It doesn't help that Daniel Farke's side have lost probably their best player from last season, Emiliano Buendía. But they have been busy over the summer adding some ten players, not all of whom, mind, will necessarily feature for the first team squad. These include Ben Gibson, a central defender (on loan at the club last season) who will add the sort of qualities at the back that Norwich were lacking last time around, American forward Josh Sargent, and Milot Rashica, ostensibly the direct replacement for Buendía. But perhaps the most intriguing addition to the squad is the loan signing of Billy Gilmour, a Scottish youngster who has lit a fire of hype across Europe with his intermittent appearances for Chelsea over the past two seasons. No doubt many fans will be intrigued to see how he can perform over a full season of top flight football.

Otherwise, the qualities of this Norwich side are well known. Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson form a solid pair in central defence. In Max Aarons they have a very promising young fullback, assuming he can resist the allure of the bigger clubs allegedly courting his signature. This defence will need to be solid, especially as the club is otherwise still largely dependent up front on the same attacking talent who featured for the club last time they were relegated, Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell.

Norwich are not a bad side, they wouldn't have won the Championship if they were. But the Premier League is a ruthless place. This is better than the Norwich sides of recent Premier League seasons, but I still doubt if they have enough of a winning mentality to survive.

Key Signing: Billy Gilmour
Key Man: Grant Hanley
Verdict: Certainly one of the relegation contenders, staying up would be an accomplishment.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 15th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

Southampton are an interesting prospect. Their league form in recent years has seem some impressive highs, buttressed by disappointing lows. They have nevertheless managed to strike some consistency and re-establish themselves as top flight mainstays, but it's not clear that enough is being done to move forward. 

It says everything that their best player, Danny Ings, was lured away by a club (Aston Villa) that only just achieved promotion last season. How they replace the goalscorer will be fundamental to their chances. Currently their summer business has included just the one forward in Adam Armstrong, who has been prolific in the Championship, but the top flight will require a massive step up. Otherwise, the club may look to on-loan youngster Armando Broja, who has been hotly tipped by his parent club Chelsea. Their business at the back, however, is a little more tantalising, with Brest's Romain Perraud a solid addition along with the former Chelsea youngster Tino Livramento, someone who I feel could have a break out season.

Of their current playing staff, it is clear who stands out. A box-to-box midfielder and deadly set piece taker, James Ward-Prowse is the captain and just about everything in this team runs through him. His midfield will be productive, but without a proven top flight goalscorer up front, I would worry. It also bears mention that Southampton were among the league's leakiest defences last season, and with less of a goalscoring threat this season that could be come a real problem. Much may depend on how well their new defensive signings can replace the outgoing Ryan Bertrand.

Key Signing: Adam Armstrong
Key Man: James Ward-Prowse
Verdict: Not beyond a possible relegation tussle if they are unable to fill Ings' shoes.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Capacity: 62,850
Last season: 7th
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

The post-Pochettino slide continues. Cracking Amazon documentary series aside, there hasn't been much for Tottenham fans to get excited about for some time. Still unable to win a trophy and lacking in managerial stability. The club that once looked set for great things now seems rudderless. On the bright side, in Nuno Espirito Santo they have captured a highly underrated manager, one who should be capable of steadying the ship and putting them back on course. But first, he must solve the various crises that face the club.

Crisis number one is, of course, Harry Kane. It's clear he wants to leave, it appears that he was promised he would be able to do so, and now he is not happy. I feel for the club, there is no easy solution here. They can sell the man and risk losing him to a rival, or keep him and risk destabilising the dressing room, not to mention the likelihood of his performances suffering if he is unable to leave. I think Spurs need to consider him lost, cash in, and use those funds wisely to beef up the squad.

And beef up the squad, they must. Currently the only signing is youngster Bryan Gil, who most likely won't feature in the first team. This has been part of a pattern of Tottenham not really doing much business in the transfer markets over a number of years. It's a questionable strategy given their on the pitch fortunes of late. With Kane most likely out of the picture, the key man in this Tottenham side has to be Son Heung-Min, on his day one of the league's most dangerous attacking players. It's easy to see him taking the focal point in this new look team.

Hopes are high, as always, but right now Tottenham have just too many question marks hanging over them for me to fancy their chances. I think this is going to be a difficult transition season. Anything more will be a significant accomplishment for Espirito Santo.

Key Signing: Bryan Gil
Key Man: Son Heung-Min
Verdict: Top half of the table, but not much more than that.

Nickname: The Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 22,200
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Xisco

Things are rarely boring at Vicarage Road. A regular seesaw between Premier League and Championship, a slew of managerial comings and goings, and between it all some entertaining and unpredictable football. This year it is fair to say that they are not fancied by many and that may well suit them down to the ground.

On returning the Premier League this time around, the club have wasted no time in bringing in a few fresh faces. Emmanuel Dennis brings some much needed pace and energy to the attack, along with some actual Champions League experience. Danny Rose has been brought into to bolster an otherwise intact defence. Many of the others, it has to be said, are hardly inspiring. A number of journeymen with a smattering of Championship appearances. 

A major concern this season will be the future of Will Hughes, arguably the club's most consistent player over the last few seasons, seemingly banished to the reserves following some contract disputes. In his absence, much will depend on attacker Ismaïla Sarr, a player of astounding pace with an abundance of top flight potential. Sarr will need to form an effective attacking trio with Dennis and Joao Pedro for Watford to have any chance this season, and even that may not be enough.

Key Signing: Emmanuel Dennis
Key Man: Ismaïla Sarr
Verdict: Certainly one of the top tips for relegation.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 6th
Manager: David Moyes

It's a good time to be a West Ham fan. David Moyes, it is safe to say, has simply blown past all expectations with a remarkable sixth place finish last season. It seems the club most perennially tipped for greater things, may actually be on the way. But will this prove to be a one season wonder or are the good times set to continue?

There were a number of bright spots behind last season's successes. Tomáš Souček was imperious in midfield, like a Marouane Fellaini with more nous. Fabianski held the line well behind a rock solid defence of Cresswell, Coufal, and on-loan Craig Dawson, who has now joined the club in a permanent transfer. But it is still Declan Rice in the heart of the midfield who is the essential man in this side, pulling the strings and dominating everywhere. 

If there is a problem area in this team it is up front. Michail Antonio is the main man, but not especially prolific for the frontman in a top six team, and Moyes has yet to find the right player to complement the forward and provide him with the support he needs. There's still time for that to change, but unless it does I find it hard to see West Ham improving, or even matching last season's exploits, especially with the added physical demand of a European campaign.

Key Signing: Craig Dawsom
Key Man: Declan Rice
Verdict: A solid, if less inspiring season seems likely, with a midtable finish.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
Last season: 13th
Manager: Bruno Lage

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 first few seasons upon returning to the Premier League bade well for the future, with creditable performances and contention for European qualification. More recently, however, there seems to be the sense of a team having gone off the boil, and last season's slump into the lower half of the table does not deceive.

Losing manager Epirito Santo was a big loss, for sure, as was the departure of Diogo Jota to Liverpool. The fact is that following that initial very impressive transfer window upon arrival in the top flight, Wolves haven't managed to replicate the feat and build on what they have. Moutinho and Jimenez are now in their thirties (and the latter well below his best form). Fabio Silva has so far failed to live up to his price tag. There is only so much that Ruben Neves can do on his own to win football matches. There is some genuine excitement over the signing of Francisco Trincão from Barcelona, but the expectation is that this is more a signing for the future that one to immediately bring success to the club.

When Bruno Lage replaced Espirito Santo, his mission was to implement the kind of attractive football that befits a supposed top six club in waiting. He has the track record and early signs indicate that he can bring his vision to this team. Now he needs the financial backing to replenish this squad and bring the kind of players that he needs to make that style of football a success. Right now, Wolves look a big transfer window away from where they need to be.

Key Signing: Francisco Trincão
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Without further reinforcements will struggle to improve upon last season's midtable finish.

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

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Created by Robert Kirkman
Network Amazon Prime
Starring Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh
Genre Superhero Animation
Running Time 40-50 minutes

invincible season 1 2 steven yeun sandra oh jk simmons seth rogen jon hamm amazon best new show 2021
There is no shortage of superhero media available for streaming. The genre is big business in entertainment and recent years in particular have seen a glut of films and TV series inspired by lesser known properties such as The Umbrella Academy and Jupiter's Legacy, to the point of market-saturation. Even Amazon Prime has its own The Boys. Most of these series fail pretty quickly. It takes a lot to stand out in a crowded field, especially when you don't have the fanbase of a well known DC or Marvel on which to rely. It is somewhat remarkable, then, that Invincible manages to not only carve out its own identity but to stand out from the pack as one of the most exciting new television series in years.

A lot of the show's success is due to the quality of the source material. A satire of the superhero genre, Invincible draws on a number of familiar genre tropes, from the heroes themselves and their backstories to the villains, the plot devices and sense of humour, but then subverts expectations with its darker turns and often shocking violence. For newcomers, the first hour of the series will feel like a very traditional superhero origin story. It is only in the dying moments of the first episode that the true nature of Invincible reveals itself. It's one of the most genuinely shocking turns I have seen on TV for quite some time and sets the standard for a series that constantly surprises and flouts convention.

Granted, the idea of a superhero story with dark elements may no longer be as fresh as it was when the Invincible comic series first launched some twenty years ago (again, see Amazon's own The Boys). What still sets this story apart from others is firstly the reverence that its writers clearly have for the material that influenced the original comic series. This is, first and foremost, a damn good superhero universe that they have crafted, with all the fun and humour that one would expect of the genre, complete with rich world building, rules, and dynamics. It evokes a sense of nostalgia and familiarity that makes the more shocking turns all the more impactful.

The second element that still sets Invincible apart is its cast of characters. For all its thrills and spills, Invincible also serves as arguably the most nuanced take on superhero psychology since the original Watchmen novel. The TV adaptation, wisely, leans heavily into this character-centric storytelling and brings them brilliantly to life with its all-star cast that features the likes of Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh, Seth Rogen, Jason Mantzoukas, Jon Hamm, Mark Hamill, and many others.

But even the best source material doesn't guarantee a good TV series and an equal amount of credit needs to be given to those behind this adaptation. The writing is sharp, the pacing pitch perfect, and the general direction and presentation is extremely well formed. You can tell these are people who absolutely love the genre and cinema as a whole, and understand what works and what doesn't. If I were to make one criticism of the adaptation it would be on the technical side. For whatever reason, the audio levels are way out of whack on this series, whisper quiet one moment and deafening the next. This can sometimes be an issue when watching certain TV series without a decent sound system, but in this case it really is quite jarring and from the online buzz appears to be a common complaint.

Even at a time of mass over-saturation of the genre, Invincible stands out as one of the best pieces of superhero media in years. Sharp, inventive, and continually surprising. This series is just a lot of fun to watch, easy to recommend both for lovers of superhero stories and good television in general.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Directed by John M. Chu
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes, Scott Sanders
Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera
Studio Warner Bros
Running time 143 minutes

in the heights hamilton 2021 musical film broadway lin manuel miranda oscars
We've seen this story before. An artist hits the big time and generates a renewed interest in their older works (see: Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code). Lin Manuel Miranda is one of the hottest names in show business today following the runaway success of Broadway musical Hamilton, a star that has only continued to rise with his subsequent work, notably his work with Disney that has earned him his first Academy Award nomination. But he can only produce so much new work in a given year, so it is natural that the studios would dive into his older projects in the hopes that they can rise his name to the bank.

In the Heights is one of Lin Manuel's first works, his very first stage musical and a Tony and Grammy award winning production. Its adaptation to cinema may have been accelerated by Lin's recent superstardom, but as a successful and well-regarded piece of theatre in its own right it was always likely to be on the cards at some point. While the script is credited to the stage play's original writers Lin Manuel and Quiara Hudes, directorial duties have been handed to John M Chu, hitherto best known for 2018's surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians.

As with so many first works, In the Heights is a loosely autobiographical work based on Lin's years living in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood in New York. There's nothing revolutionary in the story here: you've got a love story or two, young people trying to "make it" and break out of poverty, and an ultimately heart warming message about the importance of family and good people.  It's a serviceable but familiar story, with many classic tropes from the overbearing father to the irreverent childhood friend and the local "neighbourhood mom".

It's a similar story with the music. Lin Manuel is currently one of the world's most sough after songwriters, but in this early work you can tell that he is not yet the finished article. The songs here draw on culturally appropriate influences, predominately rap and salsa, but lack the musical diversity and creative genre subversions of Lin's later work. The lyrics display hints of Lin's typical wit and charm and occasionally strike gold, but rarely shock or surprise in the same way as his later writing. That is not to say that it's bad. This is a good musical with some very solid songs, albeit ones that are quite simplistic by their songwriter's standards. Even after a few re-listens of the soundtrack I struggle to recall many of the songs until a few bars in. Compare that to the opening of Hamilton, where right from the first notes you know exactly what you're listening to. Ultimately, these are fine, catchy songs, but lack the distinctiveness that makes Lin's more famous songs so memorable.

Where In the Heights does succeed is in the filmmaking department, and John M Chu will have done his own rising stardom no harm here. There is great vibrancy in every scene with a vivid colour palette, playful special effects and striking imagery throughout. Some of the dance in particular setpieces are very memorable.

In the Heights is a good adaptation of a pretty good musical. While it may not be revolutionary in any respect, it contains all the joy and energy one could want from a summer musical blockbuster. If you want a bit of musical fun in the sun this summer, then this will scratch that itch and could well be a factor in this year's awards season. In the longterm, however, this is unlikely to leave much of a legacy and will serve mainly as fascinating snapshot of a budding songwriter who would go on to be one of the greats.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Genre Mashup
Label N/A; Independent
Producers White Panda

white panda nightcub mashup girl talk best new album 2021

White Panda is a name that will be very familiar to partygoers of a certain age group. The Los Angeles-based duo were part of the pop-mash up trend of the late 2000s that saw the rise of artists such as Girl Talk, Danger Mouse and Norwegian Recycling. That trend has died down somewhat in recent years (at least with respect to mainstream releases), with Girl Talk not having released an album since 2010, and White Panda since 2015. So Nightcub marks something of a comeback as well as a throwback to a style of music that was at one point all the rage.

There was always something a bit more underground about White Panda compared to some of their peers, with albums tending to be shared over social media and via bootlegs rather than through more traditional channels. Indeed, Spotify won't even carry the new album due to copyright issues with the samples. So it seems fitting that for their return to the scene, the group have turned to crowdfunding and word of mouth to get their work out there, going so far as to encourage backers to share the tracks over YouTube, social media and any other means available.

Those backers won't be disappointed either. Nightcub is everything a fan of the genre could ask for, an extremely solid party album that will have you grinning from ear to ear throughout. However, for newcomers and those unimpressed by the nostalgia factor, this might come across as a bit too "safe" of a record.

The production is slick and high quality throughout, but never feels like it is trying to push the boundaries of the genre. As much fun as it is, a good chunk of the album's hour-long run time amounts to little more than 1) find two songs that sound kind of cool together, 2) match tempo, 3) let her rip. And that's fine, it works, it sounds good. It sounds like a night out at the club with a good DJ. But compare that with some of the high points in the genre (albums like Girl Talk's Feed the Animals) which exhibit more intricate and creative methods of production: playing with pitch and tempo, breaking tracks down to their constituent parts and piecing them together in such a way that it almost sounds like a completely new piece of music. By contrast, Nightcub is more simplistic and only occasionally demonstrates that level of ambition or craft.

But while Nightcub may not quite reach the heights of the genre, there are moments where it comes close. Some of the combinations, like Britney Spears and Ozzy Osborne, are absolutely inspired. Nine Inch Nails with Ava Max? Who would ever have thought that one up? Some of the editing work, most notably for me on Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life is extremely well done and materially changes the mood of the original track. It's also great fun just to hear some more recent tracks given the mash up treatment. I never thought I'd be humming along to Kim Petras, but her mash up with Van Halen is fantastic. 

It's a similar story when it comes to the variety of source material. Nightcub often plays it a little too safe, mixing songs that are overused or that we've heard prominently mashed up before (can we stop using that one Eminem track over and over?). But when it treads off the beaten track, Nightcub does deliver some quite shrewd and unexpected song choices (Tegan and Sara, a Smash Mouth song that thankfully isn't All Star).

Nightcub is an album that retreads old ground a little too often, is mostly brilliant when it doesn't, and ultimately is just great fun. This has been one of the musical standouts of my summer and I'm sure it will be for a lot of people.

Must Listen :
N/A; the entire album is one big mix

Thursday, 3 June 2021

There's something reassuringly normal about a football season where the craziest thing that happens is Chelsea becoming Champions of Europe. The world is reopening, fans are returning to games, Arsenal are midtable. Let's take the opportunity to enjoy this moment by taking stock with our traditional end of season awards.

premier league 2021 manchester city champions klopp pep guardiola tuchel lampard chelsea ephemeric european super league
There may not have been any fans at the grounds for much of the season, but the conclusion of a largely uninterrupted season of football will come as a welcome sign of normalcy. Indeed there is a reassuring familiarity in Manchester City once again romping their way to a well deserved, if highly predictable title. Despite their domestic success, however, it would prove to be another season of frustration as Pep Guardiola's boys once again missed out on the biggest prize in club football, losing the Champions League final to Chelsea in a shock result that may or may not have forced me to re-write significant portions of this post. 

Last season's champions, Liverpool, slumped somewhat disappointingly off the pace of the last few seasons, ending trophiless and only just squeaking into the top four. Instead, runner up position was left to Manchester United. The red devils stuck with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through a rough start to the season before a storming run of form took them to second, reminding us once again of the virtues of patience. In stark contrast, see Chelsea FC, who sacked arguably last season's manager of the year Frank Lampard at only the first indication of trouble, resulting predictably in a stuttering, inconsistent season that somehow inexplicably resulted in an unlikely Champions League win. If ever there was a club that thrives in chaos, it's Chelsea, and for better or worse it looks like this is going to be the game plan for the foreseeable future.

Of course, no discussion of poorly run football clubs would be complete without mentioning Arsenal. Moving swiftly on to more interesting clubs, Leicester City were nearly men once again, riding high in the top four for most of the season, only to once again drop out of Champions League qualification in just the final days. On the bright side, they have the FA Cup for consolation this time. It was a much happier story for West Ham United, who capped a very impressive season under a revitalised David Moyes with a return to European football.

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 2021:

Winners: Manchester City - A return to the Premier League's summit for Manchester City. Certainly, it is fair to say that their competition has not been up to the standard set in recent title challenges, but that shouldn't detract from a City side that ranks among the very best in world football today.

Relegated: Fulham, West Brom, Sheffield United - It was a disastrous season from Sheffield United, who proved unable to replicate last season's heroics and will face relegation. They are joined by Fulham who, despite major financial investment, just can't seem to find a winning formula at this level, as well as West Bromwich Albion.

Player of the Year: Harry Kane (Tottenham) - It might seem surprising not to award this prize to one of the title winners, but in my view there is only one choice. Harry Kane topped both the goals and assists table despite playing in a team that was bang average throughout. There is simply no more complete striker in the country, and few anywhere in the world right now.

U-21 Player of the Year: Mason Mount (Chelsea) - If last season was Mason Mount's breakthrough, this was the season where he truly arrived on the global stage. Doubts have persisted ever since Lampard promoted the Cobham academy product to the starting eleven of one of Europe's top clubs, but those doubts have surely been silenced following a year in which the 22 year old set the game alight with his creativity and industriousness. For a player so young, Mount already looks the complete package and can only get better.

Best Goalkeeper: Emi Martinez (Aston Villa) - Arsenal's loss is Aston Villa's gain. The Argentine goalkeeper has been in electric form at the back of an Aston Villa defence that vastly exceeded expectations. It's even more impressive when you look at the statistics: Martinez has the fourth best save % in Europe, the best PSxG (percentage of expected goals saved) in Europe, and the third highest number of clean sheets. Not bad for a goalkeeper playing behind a newly promoted defence.

Top Scorer: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (23) - This year's player of the season picks up his third Golden Boot. 23 might seem like a modest number of goals for the league's top scorer, but it gets even more impressive when you consider...

Most Assists: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (14) - ... that Harry Kane also topped the assists chart, a feat not achieved since Thierry Henry some twenty years ago. With a combined outlay of 37 goals produced for his team, there are few more complete and productive forwards in world football right now.

Overachievers: West Ham - At the beginning of this season few would have fancied West Ham for anything other than lower half of the table obscurity, particularly following the uninspired appointment of David Moyes, a man who had already had a previous (also uninspired) stint with the club. Well Moyes and West Ham have proven us wrong, resulting in a remarkable season which ended in European qualification, with a very real chance of breaking into the Champions League right up until the final days of the season.

Underachievers: Arsenal - The perennial underachievers of the Premier League, 2021 will surely mark a new low for Arsenal as they finish bang in midtable. Expectations had been high at the start of the season with the Arteta vibes going strong and the high from last season's (truthfully undeserved) FA Cup win. This season just reminds us that bad referees might help you out for one game, but they can't paper over the cracks for an entire season.

Manager of the Year: David Moyes (West Ham) - Credit where it is due, the job David Moyes has done with West Ham season has been remarkable. To be punching at the top of the table with the squad he has available, is very fine work indeed, reminiscent of the glory days of Moyes' Everton side.

Best signing of the season: Ruben Dias (Manchester City) - If there was one player other than Kane who might have claimed the title of this year's player of the season, it's Ruben Dias. Dias has been the core of Pep's formidable City side, running the league's most miserly defence like a general and forming a rock solid partnership with John Stones. A stellar debut season.

Worst signing of the season: Willian (Arsenal) - So much expectation when the two-time Premier League winner (with Chelsea) made the switch to the Emirates, and Willian's strong start to the season certainly bode well for the season to come. Sadly as the weeks rolled by Arsenal fans would eventually learn what Chelsea fans have known for years, consistency is not one of Willian's strengths.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2021:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2021

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

Sunday, 9 May 2021

With everything else going on in the world, and indeed in the sport of football, it is easy to have overlooked that we are approaching a fairly significant anniversary. The coming year will mark one decade since the implementation of UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, one of the most major and far reaching reforms in the history of the world's biggest sport. Ten years on seems like an appropriate time to look back and ask ourselves, has the regime worked? Was it truly a good idea in the first place? That is what we will be discussing today.

financial fair play ffp european super league football premier league champions league uefa fifa real madrid chelsea manchester united city arsenal tottenham disaster drama
Let's begin with a quick recap for those who do not follow football as religiously as I do. Financial Fair Play (FFP) was a broad set of regulations implemented by European football's governing body, UEFA, ostensibly to protect football's solvency and hold back the encroaching influence of money on the game. 

Admirable though these goals may sound, there were some voices at the time (this very blog included) that vociferously opposed the rules as written, and dismissed them as little more than a disingenuous power grab by football's ruling elite, masquerading as a populist and noble undertaking.

At the time, my (and others') objections were largely criticised. As a Chelsea fan, my views were often dismissed as being fuelled by football tribalism, seeing as the prevailing view at the time held that FFP was intended to restrict and punish clubs such as Chelsea. Of course, this is not and was never the case. In fact Chelsea, along with most of Europe's big clubs, have likely benefitted massively from the rules.

FFP's headline feature is a limitation on the net spend of football clubs. Subject to certain exemptions, football clubs can not spend more money than they raise in revenue. On the surface this is supposed to protect the solvency of clubs, preventing situations where a club spends recklessly and ends up going bankrupt when things don't work out as intended. Slightly below the surface, this is intended to stop wealthy oligarchs like Chelsea's Roman Abramovich from coming in and buying his way to the top of the game, and thus in theory protecting the sanctity of the game from the corrupting influence of money. But, as these past ten years have clearly shown, even further below the surface these rules are intended to do one thing only: enshrine a permanent elite of football clubs whose hegemony can not possibly be challenged by upstarts except in the most rare of circumstances.

The reasons for this seem pretty clear. In retrospect, it is surprising that it was not clear to so many others. By linking the spending limitation to a club's revenue, the rules clearly hand a massive institutional advantage to the game's wealthiest football clubs. How can, for example, Real Betis ever hope to challenge Real Madrid, when their spending is limited to a mere fraction of what the larger club is allowed to spend? The answer is that they can't. Even more damning is the "billionaire" loophole, which states that a club with a wealthy owner is allowed to expand the spending limit, so long as the owner takes on that extra spending personally. It's pretty clear who these rules were intended to benefit.

The idea of FFP was sold to the masses based on a fantasy where footballing success is not necessarily linked to wealth (paradoxically so, considering the proposed means to achieve this fantasy was by limiting spending), but in reality this is not so. Money is directly correlated to on-the-pitch success and always has been. Just ask Herbert Chapman's Arsenal of the 1920s and 1930s, Leeds in the 1970s, and countless others during the 1980s and 1990s global expansion of the game. The only thing that this limitation has achieved is making it practically impossible for any small, upstart club to compete at the same level as those already fortunate enough to sit at the summit of the game. 

If there was any ambiguity left as to whom these rules were written to benefit, we need only look at how infringements of the rules have been handled over the past decade. FFP allows UEFA to hand out punishments ranging in severity from a fine to an outright ban from UEFA competitions. Full competition bans have been handed out to the likes of Malaga, Rapid Bucuresti, and Metalurh Donetsk, for infringements that amounted to a difference of tens of thousands of euros. By contrast, Manchester City and PSG both made headlines in recent years for blowing well past their spending limits and attempting to cover it up with above-market "sweetheart" deals with their own private companies (essentially an illegal owner cash injection disguised as a legitimate sponsorship arrangement). The magnitude of these infringements was in the hundreds of millions of euros. Their punishment? A fine and a slap on the wrist. Ask yourself why there is this disparate treatment.

In retrospect, it's actually a little spooky just how accurate my piece from a decade ago proved to be. I warned that FFP, and the institutional advantages it afforded the elite clubs, would kill competitiveness in European football. Accordingly, the decade since has seen three of Europe's biggest leagues, the Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1 and the German Bundesliga, turn effectively into one-club leagues. 

The difference before and after FFP really is shocking. The previous decade saw 5 different Italian champions, 6 French champions, and 5 German champions. The decade following FFP has seen just one club (Juventus and PSG) win 9 out of 10 seasons in Italy and France and one club win 8 out of 10 (Bayern Munich) in Germany.

The other major prediction from this piece was the revitalisation of German football. The FFP rules were written in such a way as to confer a clear preference to the German economic model of football and I predicted that this lack of restriction would allow the Bundesliga, and Bayern Munich in particular, to really break into that top level of European super clubs. Even aside from their domestic domination, the results speak for themselves. Bayern Munich have reached the Champions League final on four occasions in the past ten years, having only reached it twice in the previous three decades.

The bottom line from all of this is that FFP was never about making football fair, or equal. It was never about what was best for the fans or the communities. It was simply UEFA picking and choosing its preferred clubs and giving them a massive advantage. Why do this? It's obvious. The big clubs are UEFA's money makers. When they do well, UEFA does well. By protecting their elite status, UEFA ensures that a) the game's power-brokers are happy, and b) the money train keeps rolling. 

The fact is that FFP, even in theory, was always a bad way to achieve its stated goals. A football club, like any other business, needs to be able to spend and take on risk in order to grow. All those elite football clubs? They already did that, years or even decades ago. If it backfires and the club goes into financial difficulty? So be it, the club takes that risk at their peril and the more conservative institutions are free not to do so. There is nothing wrong with allowing a club to take that risk, in fact that is the basis for our entire economy. If businesses were not allowed to engage in debt spending, no one would ever be able to succeed without the financial backing of a more established company, the result would be the mega-corporations of the world monopolising industry.  Right now we are seeing the equivalent of this in the football world. Football's elite pulled up the ladder behind them and received a full backing from UEFA to do so, under the pretence that it was all being done to help "the little guy".

It is an especially appropriate time to be discussing this in the wake of the recent European Super League scandal, in which twelve clubs attempted to form a breakaway league with the express purpose of enshrining their permanent elite status and killing off any legitimate form of competition. This essentially would do what FFP has already been doing for years now, albeit in a more explicit and risk-free fashion. If this piece accomplishes anything, I would hope that it is a reminder that UEFA are no better than these clubs.

The Super League was met with global condemnation and protest, imploding spectacularly over night. Where was this outrage a decade ago with FFP? I blame a naive set of football supporters who had not yet learned of the abject corruption in football's global authorities, as would become spectacularly clear in the years following. But more than that I blame a media who, at the time, was obsessed with portraying the upstart nouveau-riches clubs of Chelsea and Manchester City as the villains in the game, while turning a blind eye to the monopolistic practices of the elite clubs.

I can forgive people ten years ago for not wanting to believe the worst about UEFA and FFP. But now, ten years later and with abundant confirmation of these facts, it is time for us to accept the reality of what has happened in the game and speak out about it. Let's use this anniversary as an opportunity to admit our mistakes and right this wrong. The defeat of the Super League shows how much power the fans have, we need to keep this momentum going and challenge all the other institutions that prevent the beautiful game from taking place on a fair and equal playing field.

Sunday, 25 April 2021


oscars 86th academy awards 2014

Welcome back to The Ephemeric. It's that time of year again where this blog astounds you with its super accurate Oscar predictions. Ideally I would have liked to post this last week, but unfortunately it has been about four months since I have been able to get away from work. Instead, we will need to make do with what is a very last minute effort!

I'm busy, you're busy, I won't waste your time. Please find below predictions for the big night. You may not have seen the big films this year, or be familiar with the latest hype tearing through Hollywood; if so consider the following a crib sheet for what lies ahead tonight, and perhaps even a sneak peek at who might just be walking away with the big prize.

Best Picture

  • The Father – Philippe Carcassonne, Jean-Louis Livi and David Parfitt
  • Judas and the Black Messiah – Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King and Shaka King
  • Mank – Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth and Douglas Urbanski
  • Minari – Christina Oh
  • Nomadland – Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears and Chloé Zhao
  • Promising Young Woman – Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Ashley Fox and Josey McNamara
  • Sound of Metal – Bert Hamelinick and Sacha Ben Harroche
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Stuart M. Besser and Marc Platt
And the winner: Nomadland
Who should really win: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director

  • Thomas Vinterberg – Another Round
  • David Fincher – Mank
  • Lee Isaac Chung – Minari
  • Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
  • Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
And the winner: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
Who should really win: David Fincher – Mank

Best Actor

  • Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal as Ruben Stone
  • Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as Levee Green
  • Anthony Hopkins – The Father as Anthony
  • Gary Oldman – Mank as Herman J. Mankiewicz
  • Steven Yeun – Minari as Jacob Yi
And the winner: Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as Levee Green
Who should really win: Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as Levee Green

Best Actress

  • Viola Davis – Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as Ma Rainey
  • Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday as Billie Holiday
  • Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman as Martha Weiss
  • Frances McDormand – Nomadland as Fern
  • Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman as Cassandra "Cassie" Thomas
And the winner: Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman as Cassandra "Cassie" Thomas
Who should really win: Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman as Cassandra "Cassie" Thomas

Best Supporting Actor

  • Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7 as Abbie Hoffman
  • Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah as Fred Hampton
  • Leslie Odom Jr. – One Night in Miami... as Sam Cooke
  • Paul Raci – Sound of Metal as Joe
  • Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah as William "Bill" O'Neal
And the winnerDaniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah as Fred Hampton
Who should really win: Leslie Odom Jr. – One Night in Miami... as Sam Cooke

Best Supporting Actress

  • Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as Tutar Sagdiyev
  • Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy as Bonnie "Mamaw" Vance
  • Olivia Colman – The Father as Anne
  • Amanda Seyfried – Mank as Marion Davies
  • Youn Yuh-jung – Minari as Soon-ja
And the winnerYoun Yuh-jung – Minari as Soon-ja
Who should really win: Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as Tutar Sagdiyev

Best Original Screenplay

  • Judas and the Black Messiah – Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King; Story by Berson, King, Keith Lucas and Kenny Lucas
  • Minari – Lee Isaac Chung
  • Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell
  • Sound of Metal – Screenplay by Abraham Marder and Darius Marder; Story by Derek Cianfrance and D. Marder
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin
And the winnerPromising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell
Who should really win: The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja and Dan Swimer; Story by Baron Cohen, Hines, Nina Pedrad and Swimer; Based on the character by Baron Cohen
  • The Father – Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, based on the play by Zeller
  • Nomadland – Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
  • One Night in Miami... – Kemp Powers, based on his play
  • The White Tiger – Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga
And the winner: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja and Dan Swimer; Story by Baron Cohen, Hines, Nina Pedrad and Swimer; Based on the character by Baron Cohen
Who should really win: One Night in Miami... – Kemp Powers, based on his play

So there you have it, The Ephemeric's picks for the year. Enjoy the Oscars this tonight, and when the results go as predicted, remember that you heard it here first! 

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