The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Obligatory Comment On Arsenal

The same reason I don’t write much about them here is the same reason for today’s result: nothing ever changes. Every year the same players, give or take, train the same system under the same coaches and exhibit the same strengths and same frailties, achieving so far entirely the same results. If this goes on long enough they’ll get a win in some competition somewhere as a result of random variation, but the bottom line is that Arsenal are the third-best team in England and for the moment, they appear quite comfortable and happy with that level. Right now to all appearances winning trophies is not the first priority, making money and allowing the manager free rein both being ahead of that in the hierarchy.

I say this for many reasons, but here’s the most pertinent one at the moment: it has been written and said all over the community of Arsenal blogs for a month or more now that if the manager did not spend any of the funds he’s boasted about having available to replace RVP or otherwise augment the side, he was making a rod for his own back, taking a risk, etc. What none of them have said is what, precisely, that risk was. If it was risk of allowing the team to win nothing this year, and that is taken as being implicit, fair enough. But the reality is that other than that disappointment there are no consequences for failing to win at Arsenal. The manager’s position is guaranteed regardless of performance, his pay is guaranteed, profits are guaranteed by the structure of the club and the enormous prices charged for everything, and it is exceedingly rare for any player in the side to be dropped for reasons other than health; and those who are, are usually the victims of personal clashes with the manager and not dropped due to performance. Every year half of the first team sign lucrative new contracts. It may be a rough day at the office for everyone involved with the club when they lose a game as they did yesterday, but the reality of the situation is that no one is really at risk of losing anything important to them no matter how many times they disintegrate in big games like this.

That, to me, is the most important issue with the club right now: because no one risks anything, no one learns anything, from success or from failure. The signing of Thomas Vermaelen in the offseason was Arsene Wenger at his best, locating an imperious and talented young player from a smaller league who was ready to burst onto the big stage of world football and could be had for a price that Arsenal FC felt comfortable with. It was a fine piece of business. And so moving on from that success, the manager has decided to… not buy anyone else even through the team is again wracked with injuries, his lead striker is again going to miss half the season and his goaltender is having one of the worst campaigns of any player at a CL club. Nothing learned from success. The failures of mental strength to which the team as a whole, and especially the younger players, are subject sank last season in successive fixtures against Man U and Chelsea which resulted in two ugly losses. Moving on from that debacle, the manager has decided to… keep essentially the same collection of players in place for 3 more games against those two clubs so far this year, resulting in an aggregate score of 8-2 against. Nothing learned from failure. There’s a million examples like those.

The overwhelming sense I get from the club at present is that there’s an inner core of players, mostly those who have won elsewhere, who are intensely frustrated with results and want more: Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas, Vermaelen,Van Persie when he’s fit, a few others. These are the players who (Arshavin aside, he defines the phrase “mercurial”) give an excellent account of themselves game after game, and often raise their performances in big matches; they’re professional and dedicated. Much of the rest of the team, it must be said, are just not mentally on that level- some games they show up for, some not, sometimes they give you a half, sometimes 70 minutes, sometimes 10. Sometimes they play a great 90, with one moment of total madness like Diaby at Old Trafford earlier this season. Because they are as a group immensely talented this is often good enough against the lesser sides, but so far it’s almost never good enough against the bigger sides where something more than pure talent is required. Nevertheless, through injuries and stubbornness by the manager they get into the side regardless week after week. If good performances and bad performances bring the same check and the same playing time, what motivates someone to improve? The best will always be self-motivated by a desire to be among the best, but the rest will be Denilson or Diaby or Almunia: still making the same mistakes after years and years with the club. Arsenal have far too many players like that right now, and no mechanism for getting rid of them. And as excited as fans are for what Ramsey or Wilshere might be in a few years, bear in mind that they will be walking into the same situation which created the players who drive fans insane now.

And there it sits really, as it has done for years. Arsene Wenger is a hall of fame caliber manager in a way of speaking, and if he could be divorced from his illusions he would still be easily the best choice to run the club. But there’s little evidence he can; results don’t do it, fan anger doesn’t do it, the board certainly won’t do it- maybe the cumulative shame of having his hopes and expectations dashed repeatedly by the players he’s placed so much trust in may in time, but so far it doesn’t seem to be having much effect. Every year he talks in advance of each big game about how now is the time for his team to “show their quality”; and when they get obliterated, the last thing to occur to him is the possibility that they have. So nothing changes. Training will pick up at Arsenal on Monday and run just as it always has, and nothing more will be said about Sunday’s result, because Sunday’s result just doesn’t mean much to Arsenal and many of the people running it and representing it right now.

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February 1, 2010 - Posted by | The Arsenal

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