The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

The Manager Keeps Talking

And talking and talking and talking

I don’t have a problem with him taking shots at fans as such; fans take shots at him and he’s got every right to respond. I do take issue with him having absolutely no idea what fan concerns actually are, and consequently arguing with the caricature of people critical of his decisions he has in his mind. Every fan has their own concerns so I won’t speak for others, but a major one of mine is: very little which is said by club representatives can be trusted these days. A week ago Wenger wanted all his business done by opening day; now it’s the 26th-31st. I understand that plans change, but why tell stories in the press about both days? To put pressure on potential business partners? I thought Arsenal didn’t negotiate in public, a stance which between these comments and the public wittering over Chamakh’s price seems to have fallen by the wayside….

The major issue here is that the club and the people who run it are selling the future and asking fans to trust them. 5 years ago that was reasonable, because they had accrued a great deal of gravitas and auctoritas through a long track record of success, and were rightly viewed within and without as one of the most straight-dealing clubs in the sport. The trust they asked for was trust they’d earned. 5 years later the board is substantially different, there’s constant contradiction between what’s said by one person and what’s said by another or what’s said by the same person week to week, the stories and claims don’t match up with the actions, and the results have fallen away. Finishing 4th isn’t a disaster; finishing 5th wouldn’t be a disaster. Finishing 4th 3 years in 4 and 3rd the other while saying next year is going to be different every year though few meaningful improvements are made, allowing obvious issues to fester, and telling increasingly incredible stories that are contradicted by events is a disaster, because it erodes the trust of people who care about the club and it’s ruined what was once one of the strongest institutional reputations in the industry. The proof is in events; it took years for Wenger to be criticized to his face and years for there to be a substantial portion of fans with grave concerns, and it will likely take years more before they outnumber the “Arsene Knows” contingent.

But that process is now in motion- not because of any one game or any one year or any one transfer or any one anything at all, but because the club and the manager have demanded trust and sold credibility for time, and now the bill is coming due with little to show. When trust is offered from fans to club, it is offered in expectation that those in charge know what’s best and that their methods will eventually bear fruit; right now that trust, if these comments are taken at face value, is being used to begin to prepare fans for the possibility of finishing 5th or 6th. I think fans would accept even that, if they knew why it was happening; but when there’s a real risk of entering a second consecutive season with no decent defensive midfielder after 3 were allowed to leave the club in one year, when there’s enormous surpluses from transfers which aren’t reinvested into the team, when our captain is quoted to the effect that this is “a difficult time”, questions begin to be asked- not from the idiots who think that one 4th place finish is disaster (who seem to be difficult to actually find in the wild), but from people like Arseblog, etc. who are among the staunchest supporters of current management.

And incidentally, if you’re looking to cool down fan interest and celebration of Jack Wilshere, as Wenger claims to want to, comparing him to a player who made his league debut at 16, was sold for over 25 million pounds to Manchester United at 18, won his first club honors in less time than Arsenal’s current drought and has since played regularly for one of the top 5 clubs in the world is not the way to do it. For him to make that comparison, and then complain about how hard it is to hold down expectations in England, either reveals a finely developed sense of humor or total lack of comprehension of how his words sound. Or maybe he’s angling to make 25 million.

Possibly the hardest thing about following this club is the way every offseason follows this pattern. Personally, I don’t need my teams to win to keep me interested; in the 20 years or so I’ve followed the Knicks and Nets and Rangers they’ve won a grand total of 1 title sixteen years ago among the three of them, and have frequently been execrable. I love them still, the incompetent bastards. But I do think it’s fair to want a team or a club to play straight with you, to not continually bullshit you in public and to give best effort. If Arsenal gave their best effort and finished 8th, then so be it; but if they go into another season with a giant pile of money and no defensive midfielder despite losing two midfielders to injury in preseason already, it’s almost impossible to take the club seriously if they tell you they’re really trying to win first and foremost. Other agendas seem to be at work. There’s three weeks to change this; Arsene’s talking about a forward who’s too expensive. So it goes.

August 7, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , | Leave a comment

Pascal’s Midfielder- Worth a Wager

Matuidi, Vieira to sign?

Quick thoughts:

1. I’ve had my say on Vieira, and my opinion hasn’t changed… unless Matuidi comes as well. If the idea is to have Vieira as spiritual leader and godfather to a young midfield (and not a cheapo starting option), than if Vieira is completely on board with that concept it could be a brilliant move. Risky, dangerous, unlikely to happen…but there’s a real upside if everyone is on the same page. It makes even more sense if Wenger thinks that Song’s future is at least in part at center back.

2. There’s two major downsides and two major upsides to Blaise Matuidi. On the downside he’s again one of the cheapest of all options and paying the quoted price for him would still leave the team heavily in the black for the God-knows-how-manyth transfer window in a row, so some of the serious questions about the club’s financial dealings remain unanswered (not that it’s the job of any one transfer to answer them). He’s also yet another juvenile Frenchman with limited top-level experience and none in the Premier League, so it’s hard to project how he’ll perform especially in year 1. However, those downsides are trumped by two enormous upsides: he solidifies options if nothing else at the defensive midfield position and helps to insure the club against the inevitable plague of injuries which will (and have already begun) to happen; and more importantly than anything else it demonstrates for the first time in God knows how long some real evolution in Arsene Wenger’s thinking towards the ideas that defense matters and sometimes adding to the squad is the answer, or at least part of it.

If these moves happen, and if Matuidi is who Wenger apparently believes him to be, and if he can settle in well, and if Vermaelen can as well, and if there’s a bit of luck with injuries… then Arsenal will win the title this year. No doubt in my mind. Andrey Arshavin is quite possibly the best player in the league; a strong defensive midfielder will give Cesc a chance to be himself again; the defense is finally shot of the never-fully-functional Gallas/Toure pairing; Adepaymore is gone and Eboue is leaving, so the contingent of creeps at the club is the lowest in forever; and the competition through attrition and arrogance is the weakest it’s been in forever. I have not really believed that Arsenal had a serious chance to win the league since the last time they won the league; if these moves happen then this year, I think they do.

July 31, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , , , | Leave a comment

Tea Leaves

As always at Arsenal, trying to figure out what’s going on is an exercise in Kremlinology. Arseblog had a long and worthy post yesterday on Kolo and the transfer policy, which is worth a read in and of itself. And yet, there’s always a few extra bits to be sifted out past the surface statements. Like: I believe Arseblog was one of the blogs with club contacts who ridiculed the “Arsenal have only 13 million to spend” rumors some months back as we entered this transfer window, but his blog yesterday seemed to imply (“we might assume that these purchases were made on the basis that the club was budgeting for the sale of Adebayor this summer”) that the Arshavin purchase in the preceding window and Vermaelen together were bought on the understanding that an expected Adebayor transfer would pay for them in large part. Taken literally, it would suggest that Arsenal actually had a nonexistent transfer budget for this window for unsecured additional outlays, and instead went into it on the understanding that players had to be sold before others could be bought, indeed had to be sold to make good the budget for previous purchases. So: did someone at the club tell Arseblogger something in the interim between his two different takes? Has he simply changed his estimation of things based on intervening events? Am I reading entirely too much into this? I don’t know. I do know that the opacity of the club’s policies is maddening, and I’m not even the clicking-refresh-on-newsnow type of fan.

I also have noted that Arseblogger has moved from saying regularly that Arsene Wenger knew more than anyone else just where to team needed to be improved, to an apparent belief that Wenger sees his kids in midfield as good enough. Inside information? A guess? There’s something intensely frustrating as a fan in being reduced to third-hand guesswork about the origins of information available to a second-hand source. Following this team is like a game of Chinese whispers.

If Arseblogger is right though and Wenger doesn’t intend to buy anyone else either because he doesn’t have the resources or the desire, that’s an issue, but I don’t think it’s the one people expect. It may be that Wenger’s kids will come good this year; we’ll see, and it would be wonderful if they did. But if they don’t Arsenal’s problem isn’t going to be what happens, it will be what doesn’t. Wenger is completely unfireable now and for as long as he chooses to remain at the club; there’s clearly a hard core of fans (at a guess- 40%) who cannot be convinced by any turn of affairs to accept a different set of decision-makers at the club; and there’s an even larger group of fans who will side with Wenger and the current board out of the justifiable fear that any change will be to the advantage of the loathsome Usmanov contingent. All of this I suspect will make serious change at the club impossible in the short term (say, 2-3 more years), even if Arsenal were to finish 5th or 6th. Wenger called for judgment at the end of last season, was judged, hated it and rejected the conclusions put to him. Now he calls to be judged in two years’ time. I take him at his word.

Arseblogger said, rightly, that Wenger is not stupid; and of course he’s not, he’s one of the most intelligent- arguably brilliant- people associated with the sport. And that’s part of the problem, because men who have his incredible ability and track record of success often find it the hardest to give up on a project or change their way of thinking even in the face of inarguable empirical refutation of whatever it is that they’re attempting. I’m always reminded of Isiah Thomas as GM of the Knicks, one of the most successful players of his generation in the NBA and a bonafide hall of famer and legend, who entered the job with a clear and precise vision for what he wanted the team to be and worked incredibly hard to achieve it. And in many ways he did; it was just a flawed, blinkered, hopeless sort of vision which produced mediocre results and damaged the team he worked for by wasting the better part of a decade on a bad idea poorly achieved. There’s far better examples of this habit of mind from beyond the world of sports; the first two which occur to mind are the time Isaac Newton lost to doodling about with alchemy and the way Albert Einstein misplaced much of his later career attempting vainly to disprove the implications of quantum mechanics which so horrified him (“God does not play dice”). Sports are often like a little recreation of the wider world, and within that ship-in-a-bottle universe in his tiny way Wenger has been to football what those men were to physics. Now it may be that the bill for his early brilliance must be paid as the stubbornness remains even after the returns have diminished.

There’s no way to be sure, of course. Perhaps in his private moments Wenger regrets passing up on Madrid and their 500 quadrillion transfer budget; but I doubt it, and I suspect you, reading this, do as well. Perhaps Wenger would even happily spend another 20 million on this team if he had the chance, and is being denied the opportunity by a club whose bad real estate bets have come due; but now even the staunchest of Wenger’s supporters, like Arseblog, are becoming uneasy and citing the gaffer’s motivations as the location of responsibility for these choices. It’s even possible that Wenger is deliberately letting himself look like the responsible party to take the heat from the board, knowing that they will back him in his job and need some cover in the PR war against Usmanov; but there’s really no way to be sure, is there? And perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter: no matter who’s responsible for the decision, the fact remains that you can’t suit up a pile of money in midfield and you can’t get back the time lost to failed ideas.

July departs and August takes the stage, and we swirl the mug around again and hope to better understand our fortunes. Tea leaves.

July 30, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , | 1 Comment

There Goes Another One

Toure has medical at City

This one likely has a distasteful quality for a lot of fans, given the timing, the club Toure is going to, and the historical importance of Toure to Arsenal. The fee in theory is a lot and probably more than should have been reasonably expected for a player who had such an up-and-down season last year, so I’m willing to wait and see to the end of the summer before I have an opinion on whether it’s a good move or not. But I’ll say here what I said after Adebayor was sold: if the money is not used to add to the squad in other areas then this was not a sporting move, and it becomes harder and harder to avoid the perception that the squad is feeding the stadium and not the other way around. If the 13 million initial reported budget for Arsenal is true, you’re got 13 – 10 for Vermaelen + 25 for Adebayor + 14 for Toure, for 42 million pounds positive in total. Obviously in real life things are more complicated than that based on payment schedules and the possibility that some of those fees are not accurately reported and a hundred other factors, but the general picture is the same: right now the team is very, very substantially in the positive for this transfer window in terms of money, and in terms of players they’ve lost one of their top two defenders and one of their top two strikers, replacing only the former.

There’s still several weeks for all this to change, of course. Here’s hoping.

July 28, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , , | Leave a comment

Local Bits

Sign & Trade?

Obviously much more to be said about this one if it happens, but on paper it’s a weird one. Boozer’s a good player, but he’s a #2 or #3 player on a title contender- and as a #1, he’s the kind of player who makes you just good enough to never get the draft pick you need to have a real #1 player. Also, stats- pick the player:

Player A: 0.34 2-year, A+/- PER last three years of 24.1, 21.9, 17.2.
Player B: -1.32 2-year A+/-, PER last three years of 20.2, 18.0, 19.0.

A is Boozer and B is Lee; throw in that Lee is younger and cheaper, and I’m not entirely clear how much (if any) of an upgrade this even would be. Maybe it’s best explained as a shell game move- use the Booze to make the Knicks passable this year and keep (some) fans (a little) happy, and then use his expiring deal as part of whatever arcane 2010 machinations are afoot. As for Utah’s end, search me; don’t they already have a Paul Millsap?

Invest in Nets!

A couple of things to be said about this one. First and most obviously: the Corey Bookers and such of the world really need to give it up. Ratner et al. Have put far, far too much time and money and energy into this deal to allow the Brooklyn move to fall apart so long as they have any influence or control on the matter whatsoever. I’ll not pretend to be unbiased on this one as a Brooklyn guy, but still. Secondly- one of the reasons I remain so frustrated and frankly irritated by the way finances are discussed at Arsenal is because I come from a sporting culture here in the US where intimate details of the financial dealings of various teams are reported as a matter of course for their interest to fans, and addressed as such by team personnel. There’s not the tendency to treat routine financial issues as state secrets and no real attempts to lie to fans other than boilerplate encouraging talk from some cost-cutting teams, which is accepted as part of doing business without being taken seriously. Name me an NBA franchise and I can probably give you a reasonable approximation of their financial perspective as it impacts on their competitive efforts, and that includes teams like the Bucks or the Grizzlies about whom I could not give the least part of a care. With Arsenal we can’t even guess the budget, “we” being even the most obsessive of fans. It’s a fucked up state of affairs.

July 27, 2009 Posted by | Other NBA, The Arsenal, The Nets, The NY Knicks | , , | Leave a comment

Here’s a Shocker

Management/ownersip figure demands wage controls, guaranteed profits.

I’m too tired and busy to go over the same old arguments again and again, but three major points:

1. I watch the Bundesliga. I like the Bundesliga; it’s a fine league. But it’s been nearly a decade since a German club won the CL, and only 2 have done it in the last 25 years. The cost of unilateral wage and club financial controls is a vast drop in competitiveness.

2. Speaking of competitiveness, if Gazidis really believes in the policy he’s suggesting he should realize that he’s the last man in the world who ought to be out front advocating it. Arsenal have been borderline noncompetitive at the highest level for years now partly because they’ve chosen to unilaterally disarm in the expenditures race for players. Whether or not you believe that to be a sound policy for long term financial or timeless moral reasons, that choice means that any call from someone affiliated with the club for forced top-down restrictions on club expenditures is going to look like Arsenal trying to force themselves back into competitiveness by regulatory fiat rather than sound football management. Among the people in charge of the game in England, few if any will fail to note this and rightfully or wrongly dismiss the call on those grounds. The only people likely to be convinced are some section of fans looking for a reason to dismiss the success of other clubs, which of course may be the point of this in the end. Few clubs or franchises in Arsenal’s position have ever been above whipping up hysteria at overpaid players as a cover for their own inability or refusal to compete.

3. This needs to be said over and over and over again: salary capping without collectively bargained hard revenue-sharing agreements is unjust. It would amount to an enormous interference in the market for no discernible reason, a forced regulatory transfer of huge revenues from millionaires to billionaires, from people like Samuel Eto’o to people like, well, Alisher Usmanov. There’s no benefit or gain in that alone for fans or the sport, and if you think doing that alone is going to drop the price of your season ticket you’re dreaming- so long as the stadium stays full at current prices, the only question is when those prices will go up again. I agree that over the long term something like the general North American system would be needed- see further down our main page- and I think Gazidis is smart enough to recognize that, but when the call is for wage caps alone in a sport with much weaker unionization than, say, Major League Baseball or the NFL, I wonder. There’s a lot of money there for owners if they can convince people that players alone deserve to be blamed for the present state of affairs.

July 3, 2009 Posted by | Other Soccer, The Arsenal | , , | Leave a comment