The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

This World Can’t Stand Long

No, I’m not dead, Dell computers is just giving me an awesome run around about my new computer. “Here,” I say, “have $1800 in a down economy. Enjoy my money!” and yet, and yet, nothing so far- literally, no buys. Hopefully it should be worked out by early next week. Otherwise at the very least you’ll get the mother of all OT and OTT rants on here. Speaking of, there’s an article out there which just cannot go past without comment, so thanks to Sean for letting me borrow his computer for this.

Oh, those quotes. What to say? Where to begin? This is a man who, 5 years ago, was respected for his ability as a football manager at least by probably every single person who understood enough about the game to have an opinion worth noting. Now he’s reduced to being openly mocked in the Guardian in an article which isn’t even a blog or editorial by an author who uses the clever stratagem of facts to confound Wenger’s premise. How can a man renowned for his intelligence and erudition be reduced to not just lying continuously, but to telling such risible and unconvincing lies at that?

Let’s look at the factual issues here:

– United’s golden generation were hardly the only important elements of their great run; my historical knowledge is imperfect, but Sean sent me an email today pointing out that of the 13 most notable players who figured in United’s 1999 cup final with Bayern (a reasonable assumption of the peak of that team), only 4 were really homegrown locals. Not conclusive, but not a great stat to look back on if you’re insisting on that as the framework of your team going forward.

– As the article points out, a huge number of “home grown” players at Arsenal were in fact bought with filthy filthy Anglo-Saxon money from other clubs, almost all at ages in which the vast majority of their technical development was complete and after some of them had already begun to compete and even captain their respective side at junior international levels. This isn’t exactly pulling urchins out of the North London streets and training them to cup finals.

-As the article points out, this is a bit rich after buying Andrei (Andrey? Andre? Andrej? Andrew?) Arshavin at 27 for 10+ million, which was absolutely the right move and absolutely the sort of thing Wenger castigates other clubs for.

– “…we are the only club that has gone for a different policy because we wanted to build our stadium and get this team to maturity.””

As always, one month Wenger has money to spend and total autonomy, the next he’s poormouthing and claiming that the need to build the stadium has constrained him and dictated his policy; the month after that he’s, well, buying Arshavin when the actual effects of that policy turned out to be 5th place. He’s too smart to be this incoherent; these are just bad lies.

The crux of all this is the bit about keeping the youngsters together. As Wenger notes, it was “disappointing” to lose Flamini last summer; but he fails at least publicly to seriously draw the lesson from the departure of Flamini and Hleb which is that, rather than something to be noted in passing or hidden in a parenthetical, their departure and that of Lassana Diarra before them illustrates the fundamental and probably insurmountable problem with this philosophy: players won’t wait. They don’t wait at Ajax or Marseilles or any of the other 2nd and 3rd rate feeder clubs in European football, and there’s a long line of reasons for that.

Partly, as Wenger the economist surely knows and alludes to but doesn’t explicitly state, they’re caught in something like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Many Arsenal players have more to gain financially and professionally in the present by departing for Barca or AC Milan or wherever, that while they might be able if they stayed together to make Arsenal the best and biggest club in the world and eventually reap the individual rewards thereof, for each individual player that decision makes little sense as it would require sacrificing prime earning and competitive years in order to achieve a collective result. The analogy isn’t exact of course since players can talk and collude and the prisoners cannot, but given the backstabbing and lack of trust in world football, the practical situation is nearly the same: Hleb left, Flamini left, Diarra left, Adebayor tried to leave, RVP has talked of leaving, Gallas’s raging in the press- does it sound as though this lot is developing the esprit d’corps required to cooperate? And with each passing year in which Arsenal win nothing and insist on their wage structure, the pressure grows- those players who have broken through to excellence become visibly less and less willing to carry their less adept teammates and wait 3 years or however long until they mature- if they ever do. This isn’t watching fruit ripen so much as fruit rot.

Wenger must know this, on some level; the question is why, if he does, he insists on failing to act on it. Because his public words are almost always somewhere between calculated for effect and outright dishonest these days, it’s difficult to perceive his motives; and so we fans are left with a profusion of theories: that he’s a romantic, devoted to an ideal of attacking football played by tight-knit and inseparable teammates who play for love of the game (possible, judging from these most recent quotes); that he would like to buy and compete, but is hamstrung by stadium costs (possible but unlikely, since Arshavin proves that there is some money); that he would like to buy and compete, but the board is cheap and skimping to pocket some revenues (unlikely- Wenger is many things, but no one’s dupe, patsy or stooge); that Wenger has simply lost much of his ability to judge talent (unlikely but possible- Eboue plays on); that Wenger and the board anticipate that the worldwide economic issues will eventually hamstring many or all of the other major European sides, damaging their model and enhancing the competitiveness of Arsenal’s (who can say, but likely based on some of Wenger’s comments over the years).

The point of all this is, absolutely no one outside of Wenger and the current board and possibly some other major shareholders has any idea just what Arsenal are up to at the moment. What they’re trying to achieve and why are unclear; the methods which they’re using as the backbone of their attempt are theoretically highly flawed and practically being refuted by events so badly that probably 80% of the fanbase is fed up and the media is full of open mockery. The impression is of secrets and agendas unspoken at the club, of a divided board which has seen the expulsion of David Dein and Lady Nina, first the rejection and then the co-opting of Stan Kroenke, long periods of time without a proper CEO, the dismissal of other notable figures at the club like Keith Edelman, and now the ever-lengthening shadow of Usmanov. The last 5 years of club history have been a soap opera, and there’s little chance of that changing it appears.

Cards on the table time. I’m a newish fan and an American at that, and so I’ve tried to be circumspect in expressing my opinion and have tried to rely on Sean- a generally much more positive fan of longer standing- for historical perspective to avoid overreacting. But at this point, I am absolutely certain that something has gone profoundly wrong at Arsenal either at the planning and strategic level, or the tactical and execution level, or both. Arsenal still have many talented players, and will have more in the future, and in a sports environment with multiple single-elimination cups to compete for they may yet win something this year or in the near future; but until there are some serious changes at the club or the majority of other major clubs self-destruct, Arsenal will not be able to consistently compete for honors in any serious manner.

I have this advantage as a newer, American fan: having followed so many teams in so many sports, and having seen several of them go profoundly rotten, I’ve learned to see the signs- the ways in which performance increasingly means less to decision makers than holding the course and being vindicated, the way practicality becomes devalued in favor of theory, the way money concerns overtake competitive concerns, the way dissenting voices are slowly weeded out. All of this happened locally with the Knicks, as the team lost useful decision makers with track records like Checketts and Grunfeld and Van Gundy and replaced them with Isiah Thomas- another man with a track record of success who had a plan he was sure going to stick to, regardless. That team lost years and years to an insistence on holding to Isiah’s plan combined with a desperate need to just eke into the playoffs for revenue purposes; I can’t help but draw the parallel to Arsenal’s trophy-less years and frantic scraping to get into the revenue-rich Champions League. The parallel again isn’t exact and the similarities are clouded somewhat since Arsene is vastly better at his job than Thomas was at his, and Arsenal have structural advantages which the Knicks do not in a salary capped sport, but at this point I’d be straining to avoid a sense of deja vu if I didn’t note the similarities.

Isiah lasted from October of 2003 until April of 2008, about 4 1/2 years. In some of his last comments before being shitcanned, he said: “I want to leave something that’s going to stand for a long time. I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave a tradition. I want to leave an imprint, a blueprint in terms of how people play and how they coach and how they respond when they put on a Knick uniform…. I want to leave a championship legacy.” Compare and contrast to some of Wenger’s recent public comments, and all the talk of the “Arsenal Way.” Arsenal’s trophy gap is coming up on 4 years now.

I will freely state that I have no idea what changes exactly are needed or possible. Usmanov is in no way a positive and I don’t want him at the club; I’m almost ready to want Wenger out, but have no idea who else would want this job or what strictures they would be working under; it’s tempting to want the current board out, but who other than Usmanov is a likely buyer? With the difficulties stated however it has to be understood that at any comparable club, the current situation at Arsenal would be considered untenable. As the biggest club in perhaps the richest and best city in Europe, Arsenal should be the jewel in the crown of world football; instead they’re slowly sinking into irrelevance, their vaunted manager a figure of sport and mockery, their board troubles the stuff of tabloid gossip. Maybe the stadium debt will be paid down and unleash this team financially; maybe Wenger will reevaluate his plans and change course; maybe some of these players will, against the odds and their own best interests, stay and build what Wenger has in mind; we can’t yet rule out change from within, I suppose, though I would not bet on it right now. But from within or without change must come, because what’s happening now is unacceptable.

February 24, 2009 - Posted by | The Arsenal, The NY Knicks | ,

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