The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

On the bright side, it turned into a fine game by the end.

There’s probably going to be a lot more to say about this game in the next few days as we wait to find out if Wenger’s facing a touchline ban and for any other fallout, but my overwhelming impression just after is that there’s actually a lot to be encouraged about in this one. In terms of quality of play, there was absolutely no difference between the two sides, and when you face the defending champions on their own grounds without your second-best player, that’s a very good sign. A foot lower on Van Persie’s free kick and this probably goes down as a very famous victory; at the Emirates with Fabregas on and Diaby off, this is 3 points. That’s a far more even state of affairs than prevailed at the end of last season, and it’s a mark of the progress which appears to be taking place and how close this Arsenal team remains to greatness. That said, there are two obvious and major negatives to take away, and they should be noted:

– There’s a school of thought- see Myles Palmer- which sees Arsenal right now as a battleground between mature professionals and Arsene’s urchins. Expect to see a great deal of comment along those lines upcoming, because this game fit that narrative as closely as any could. A lead won through a really brilliant individual play from Andrey Arshavin; a lead gifted to the opposition through one of the most ridiculous own-goals you’ll see from Abou Diaby. The contrast is glaring enough so that even if you don’t buy the narrative wholly (which I don’t), there’s a temptation to concede that there’s the germ of truth in it. I like Diaby in general; I thought it was impressive the way he rebounded from the own goal to create a chance shortly thereafter, and he seems like a generally decent sort of guy. But he’s now in his 5th season with Arsenal (has it really been that long?) and he’s still a guy who looks brilliant twice a year and can’t be counted on the rest of the time. I wish him the best, but after this season if things don’t improve it’s probably best for everyone for him to be moved on to somewhere in the upper reaches of the French league.

– Emmanuel Eboue has had one of those weeks which encapsulates his entire Arsenal career. He’s played very well of late and been an important and useful part of the team, but when things were most desperate and someone needed to create something today at 2-1 down, he took one of the worst and shabbiest dives I’ve seen in quite a while, and was justly booked for it. Beyond the impact it did or did not have on the individual game, at a time when Arsenal are trying to defend on principle the insane witchhunting of Eduardo, for one of his teammates to execute such a blatant act of cheating in such a high-profile game was madness. It was selfish, and it demonstrates that at the end of the day Eboue has all the talent needed to play for Arsenal, and none of the class. He’s the only player I’m embarrassed to watch on the team.

Still, this game was nothing like the brutal beatings Arsenal suffered towards the end of last season. There’s much to take away that was positive, and the fact remains that with Arshavin in the side Arsenal can beat anyone, anywhere, at any time; one loss shouldn’t be too discouraging. The season is long, and I still believe that if if there’s some depth brought in before the closing of the window that the title can be won this year. Arsenal looked the better side for most of the game and nearly won away at Old Trafford; meanwhile United’s offense continues to sputter when they’re not being gifted things and Liverpool are losing games they shouldn’t and having to come from behind against Bolton. Chelsea look awesome for the moment but there’s very many games still to be played for them, time enough to become leg-weary and tune out the manager the way they did last year with largely the same group of players. This result is disappointing, but it’s disappointing only because the team and the fans know that Arsenal could just as easily have run away with this.

August 29, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Got Legs and Running

Wenger on Edu being charged by UEFA.

Bit over the top? Yeah, maybe, but the spirit is entirely correct- Eduardo clearly dived, but his dive was no different than a thousand other dives before and likely to be the same as another 20 dives still to come in this year’s competition. There’s zero precedent for suspending a player over this, and so far as I know there’s not even a relevant rule which allows for suspension over what’s a simple yellow card offense if detected. This whole “case” is a tower of hypocrisy built on a foundation of xenophobia and media hysteria, three things which each pose as much or more of a danger to football than a single dive in a single game which had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the final result. A rational and intelligent governing body would use this incident as a chance to retrain referees, or hire additional assistants simply to track and watch for potential dives, or bring in video review and rules changes for retroactive punishment; UEFA instead appears to have decided that there’s no need to improve things for the future when a bit of ad hoc mob justice will do nicely for the moment.

Frankly, I think they have a lot more to be embarrassed about right now than Eduardo does.

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

European Super League

Wenger says it’s coming.

This is one of those instances where I think Arsene Wenger is absolutely 100% correct, and still out in front of the rest of the sport. His point about the financials of the game is one of the two major reasons for the likelihood of a Super League, and the reality of clubs being run on a world-wide basis for profit maximization by increasingly sophisticated executives (men like, say, Ivan Gazidis were not a major part of this sport 20 years ago) points very strongly in that direction. Additionally, assuming such a league were set up as an outgrowth of the Champions League- and thus in conjunction with currently existing league structures- it could also do a great deal to remedy the issue of stratification currently affecting almost all of the major national leagues. There’s always been dominant clubs; but now in Spain, England and Italy it’s a remarkable and shocking occurrence when one of the 2 or 3 really huge clubs per country win something. A super league with a relegation/promotion mechanism gives a chance for clubs below that level to be successful on a national basis with the future hope of international success, and would result in vastly more competitive- and thus interesting- national league play.

The really notable part is how few arguments there are against the concept. It would be a major revenue producer for huge clubs, probably also a revenue-producer for other clubs, it would represent a logical development of the league structure into an era of easier travel, international media coverage and clubs with world-wide support, and it would also create a top-level league with a remarkably high quality of play. With due respect to those smaller sides, I’d rather watch Real Madrid and Manchester United play each other twice a year than watch them beat up on Sunderland or Almeria in one-sided games with little drama; I would also be a lot more interested in Sunderland vs., say, Everton if it had English title implications. It’s hard to see who the losers would be except maybe FIFA and those who want to see international play as the primary expression of the game. To put the objections into perspective, take a look at this from Le Grove which misses the mark on a variety of levels. Players would be no more tired than American sports professionals who travel 3,000 miles from California to New York for games, and part of the point of a Super League would be to put all the huge-spending teams in competition with each other, thus neutralizing their spending from a competitive standpoint to the greatest degree possible. If anyone knows of a better argument against the idea I’d love to see it, but most of the ones I’ve run across have been at about that level.

August 18, 2009 Posted by | Other Soccer, The Arsenal | , , | Leave a comment

Look

I could write 2000 words easily as a preview of this season for Arsenal and God knows I’ve written far more than that just over the summer, but let’s face facts: there’s just not a lot more to be said. There’s time yet for one more player to come in (or not) who might seriously change the calculus, but in all likelihood the squad for this year and the spirit and ethos of the team are set and unchanging except for some few of the names on the shirt-backs, as they have been for several years now. Almost everyone who follows this team, even those who merely glance at it from afar, sees the same things: in attack, majestic and among the best in the world; in midfield, unreadable and varying wildly depending on health and positional assignments; in defense, disorganized and undermanned; in goal, solid and largely dependable. On paper this team is a title challenger and on the field they’re injury-riddled and lacking in confidence, simultaneously more and less than the sum of their parts. Very little has changed in the last several years for all the talk that it has.

Wenger has been quoted today as stating that “The team we have now gets there, and by that I mean it wins the championship”, and of course he may be right. Two out of three of the other serious title challengers are a great deal weaker on paper having lost players who they proved unable to replace, and while some might say the same of Arsenal the fact is that Cristiano Ronaldo or Xavi Alonso are each worth five Adebayors at minimum. Arsenal have arguably the best player in the entire league now in Andrey Arshavin, one of the few players able to steal points and games entirely on the basis of his own unique genius, and the value of such a player is very difficult to overstate. We may yet find that over 38 games the foibles and flaws of this team aren’t fatal when a player of his caliber is present to make up for them. Arshavin, present last year, never allows Tottenham to escape from attacking pressure to come back in the 4-4 game, never allows Stoke or Hull to spend large chunks of those humiliating losses waiting to counterattack and feeling wholly unthreatened by patterned and predictable Arsenal possession, never allows the team to look as listless as they did in the early loss to Fulham. If the question is “can this Arsenal team win the league?” then the answer is: Yes.

And yet, and yet, and yet. This team relies on one or two players far more than is healthy, and if Arshavin or Fabregas miss any serious time the blow may be fatal. The question remains as to how far the manager even trusts Arshavin following the FA cup semi-final debacle from last year, an issue thrown into high relief by the manifest failure of the various cogs and wheels in Wenger’s proud machine to function without the spirit of an Arshavin to drive them. This team has never yet proven able to succeed in the clutch against top opposition; the last truly great and historic game played by Arsenal, the 2006 Champions League final, featured only three players who will be present in the squad on Saturday, five if you count the unused substitutes from that game. In the years since the memories are of Birmingham and Rosicky’s knees and Eboue booed off at home, not of big games or big victories. To expect this club to win at the highest level this year is to expect them collectively and for the most part individually to do something which they have never done before. And that’s possible; but the odds are long.

I don’t think it makes any real sense to bother guessing a league position specifically for Arsenal this year. There’s too many variables at play from the inevitable injuries still to happen to transfer dealings in this window or the next to whether the young players will develop like Alex Song or devolve like Abou Diaby. I would guess, at this point, that the percentages chances for various finishes are about 15% 1st, 15% 2nd, 30% 3rd, 35% 4th, and 5% fifth. Past performance is always the best guide to future performance, and the reality is that this team, assembled mostly of these players, has never finished higher than 3rd in the current era and three years in four has finished 4th. When little has changed, then… little has changed. The same great strengths and same weaknesses are still there. The attacking football is still often brilliant, the defensive lapses are still often glaring. 3 defensive midfielders left the club two years ago and have never been replaced. The only thing different is Arshavin; and therein lies the real interest this year, both on the pitch and off it.

The transfer for Arshavin represented something new in the way this team was designed. Last year, prior to his arrival, the odds were greater than they’d been since the 05-06 season that Arsenal would finish outside the top 4; it’s impossible to say for certain what motivated the purchase of the Russian, but it’s also hard to imagine that the desperation to avoid that fate and the financial implications thereof was not a major part of it. And so, for the first and so far only time since the initiation of the youth policy, Wenger went out and bought a superstar in the prime of his career: a 27 year old dynamo whose value was not in what he might become, or what he might be resold for, or how he fit into a carefully designed blueprint- but in what he did, on his own, on the pitch, right now. Arshavin has been described as a Wenger player and so he is in some ways- small, quick, technical, attack-minded. And yet the transfer to get him was not just an exception to but the negation of the policy which Wenger has chosen and claimed for years to have followed at the club, the purchase for big money of proven quality in order to save the home-grown youngsters from disaster. I don’t happen to buy into the idea that Arshavin was forced on Wenger by Gazidis or anyone else; I DO buy into the idea that Arshavin was forced onto Wenger by Wenger himself. Last year forced the manager to look, finally, at his team and what they really were away from the training ground and in competition. More than anything else I think that’s the crucial and under-discussed importance of Arshavin: he’s the first and perhaps only crack in the story of Wenger’s Arsenal youth policy.

This year will likely determine how far that crack spreads. Last year Wenger fought against it; he pulled Arshavin from that cup semi-final and trusted his policy, and lost. This year he still seems determined to do so, and so it’s two players out and one in at the Emirates and a lot of talk about a 17 year old. Maybe that’s where it ends: maybe Wenger’s Arsenal + Arshavin for a full year is good enough to win it all; maybe it’s not, and the manager, having cracked once, is determined not to do so again and so all the quotes about needing to prove something and judge me after the season will be recycled next year. Either one of those outcomes ensure status quo at the club, one more or less happily, the other not. But it’s the other possibility which intrigues me- that this may be the year when, in the end, everyone who cares about this club has to look, really look, at what’s going on. Because there are a lot of games being played and a lot of lies being told right now, and sooner or later these things must come to a head.

Who runs Arsenal? Who owns it? Hill-Wood, Lady Nina, Usmanov and Kroenke, games-players all. A resolution there is brewing. Diaby, Denilson, Song, Rosicky, Eboue, Silvestre, Nasri, Djourou, Senderos if he sticks around; shown up for what they are by the brilliance and maturity of Arshavin as undependable, undeveloped or simply dross, how many of them will follow Song’s lead and begin to show themselves capable of developing into serious parts of a contending team? Is there even half a season of football left in Rosicky? Does Nasri have an actual position or the ability to show more than on-and-off flashes of brilliance? Is Denilson anything other than a walking argument against taking current stats seriously? And how long can such questions be asked until the answer is: bring us some players who don’t come with these questions. Bring us some men who know their business. Bring us a Patrick Vieira, a Thierry Henry, a Robert Pires, a Tony Adams; bring us the players who used to make this club great, or bring us a manager and an owner who can. Every year this team is riddled with injuries, and the talk is of bad luck and ill fortune; maybe this is the year when fans and decision makers alike look at that phenomenon and take it seriously, plan for it and correct for it in the team and stop using it as the weakest of all possible excuses. It’s the first game of the season tomorrow and already 5 or 6 squad members including 2 certain starters are out injured, some for months. How long can such things persist before someone looks? For two years now the club has been without a serious defensive midfielder and now they’re attempting to play like Barcelona, without the defensive anchor and ball-winner on which that style partly depends. How long can this pass without notice? Another transfer window seems destined to pass by with more stars sold and incomes exceeding expenditures, an essentially unique pattern of business among top level clubs. How long can this go on before the questions about it are asked directly and not just whispered about?

Most importantly, is this the year when everyone who cares about this club looks at the recent history, the statements and attacks and defenses of the policies enacted, and addresses them with a serious grasp of perspective? Nothing else could be as great a boon to the club as that, because so much of what’s gone wrong with Arsenal right now is based on a total lack thereof. Wenger tells the lie that no one has any patience with him, and no one with influence looks at it long enough to say: wait a minute. You’ve had 4 years with a free hand and little criticism, marches in the streets and banners hung in support of you, and the sternest rebuke you’ve faced directly is some pointed questions at a meeting. Some fans tell the lie that Wenger is stupid or that the club is a complete disaster, and because the fan base is so fragmented there’s often few of the rational ones there to say: wait a minute. The club’s long term potential remains incredibly strong, and the fact is that whether his current policies are correct or defensible or not, Wenger is one of the great managers of his era and deserves better than to be called a cunt or an idiot as he so often is on some sites. At the deeper level, there’s all too often a tendency to be caught up in the next game (or the last) and believe that a good win cures a long-term flaw, or a bad finish tars a sound policy. You lose the ability to step back and look at the long game: the need to establish a track record over the span of years, to notice the changes in the sport, the evolution of individual players and leagues and the sport as a whole.

So here’s the bottom line as I see it: this season marks five years since Arsenal’s last trophy, and at Arsenal winning is the measure of success. Five years is long enough to judge a President or a Prime Minister; it’s long enough to judge a policy and a football manager. If Arsenal win something this year that is not a blanket vindication of the policy any more than not winning something 2 or 3 years ago was a blanket condemnation of it, because what matters is the capacity to win or at least contend over time and the ability to field a team with the attributes and attitudes of a champion. If Wenger’s great experiment wins the league, or the Champions League, or even the FA cup this year then he’s proven that it has a chance to work- not that it’s the best policy, not that it can succeed consistently, not that it’s sustainable- but that it has a chance to. That buys him time, another season to do things his way. But if the end result is failure again for a 5th straight season then this thing is over. It will become impossible to hold onto players like Arshavin or Fabregas; it will be difficult for the new owners, whoever they may be, to continue justifying uncritical support of a failed policy and a manager no longer meeting his own standards of success. Most importantly perhaps, it may even become impossible for Wenger to fool himself any longer, to ignore the gulf in class between Arshavin and Denilson, between Arsenal 6 years ago and Arsenal today. In the end he may have to look, really look, at the reality of things.

More than the league or any given trophy, that’s what’s at stake this year.

2269 words; what can you do.

August 14, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , | Leave a comment

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

Missed a Few Tricks

I choose to use black humor to look at the upsides of Nasri’s injury:

– At least now Arsenal will have new signing for January.

– This is all for the best; after all, playing Nasri was killing Wilshire. Now we just have to hurt Arshavin so Diaby can play. Who’s got a sledgehammer?

– 3 months is nothing if you judge the manager every 6 or 7 years.

– Now Eboue can start!

– Actually this is an advantage, as now Nasri will be healthy in time to be sold in January; it’ll pay for another few feet of the lower concourse.

– Mikael Silvestre is a midfielder, right? So what’s the problem?

– He was a bloody foreigner anyway, wasn’t he?

Reports are that Diaby delivered the responsible tackle, so he’s progressed from having his leg shattered by an incompetent goon to being an incompetent leg-shattering goon. This bodes well for Eduardo.

– This gives Arsene Wenger a better chance than ever to prove that you can run black in the transfer market and coach an injury-prone team to the title. By which I mean 4th place. Which is like the title. Sorta. I think there’s less parades- we’ll look into that.

– At least we have such dependable workhorses as Tomas Rosicky to fall back on.

– It’s just a little Old Time Football, Like Eddie Shore.

– One less damn Frenchy for Gallas to bitch about in a book that no one but bloggers will ever read.

– We can harvest his organs to repair several of our other busted players, which is actually like 5 new signings once you control for surgery costs. There’s actually a study on this in regards to the current American health care reform proposals.

– Nasri will be the first player to have his cast signed in 82 separate languages and dialects, including French, Spanish, Russian, Klingon and Time Lord.

– I’m sure there’s some way in which this is fans’ fault, so if we chant “NASRI” extra loud surely our player will be healed.

– At least Nasri didn’t eat some bad lasagna- he could have missed the whole of the Champions League!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On a more serious note, this today from Arseblog:

“I just can’t see him not spending the Adebayor cash though and perhaps, to counter the speculation we have to sell a big name every summer just to keep things balanced, there’ll be a certain amount if pressure from the board, and Gazidis, to spend it.”

Arseblog is fine for what he/it is, but I find reading him of late to be like Kremlinology and/or things from the official website: you know it’s written in conjunction with information from those high up at the club, but which parts and how much, from whom and for what purpose are somewhat harder to disentangle. What I found interesting here was that it’s clear that Arseblog has some sort of functional relationship with Gazidis and/or the elements at the club in the same sphere as him- Arseblogger’s getting his inside information from somewhere, and Gazidis did an exclusive interview with Arseblog not so long ago. That being the case, it’s interesting that after spending so much time of late disparaging the primary Arsenal-blog source of the idea that Gazidis and Wenger are opposed (Myles Palmer/ANR), Arseblogger here forthrightly acknowledges the possibility of tension between the two over transfer policy. A message to Wenger? Pure speculation? Reflection of differing priorities within the board? Smokescreen? I have exactly zero idea, but it does bear thinking about.

Such is the nature of things at Arsenal right now, with so many different agendas and proxies being played, so many disingenuous gambits like Usmanov’s rights-offer. One of the most frustrating things to me about this team is just how incoherent and obfuscated everything about the club is: with any other team I follow or support I can tell you who’s in charge at the major levels (coach, GM/sporting director, owner, etc.), what their plan is, what their tactics to achieve that plan are, and what they hope to achieve in the coming season. With Arsenal the major blogs won’t mention each other or acknowledge each others’ existence with few exceptions and never when there’s a significant difference of outlook, the board is divided into at least two factions (Usmanov/Kroenke) which seem to be at perpetual daggers drawn, no one is quite sure of the manager’s relations with at least one of the factions, there’s unpredictable rogue actors like Lady Nina, no one trusts the public pronouncements of any of the major players involved with this drama, no one is sure of the financial situation of the club and any discussion of such involves a detour into the London condo market, and frankly the whole thing is poised about a half-step between Shakespeare and Hitchcock.

It’s a preposterous state of affairs, and I can’t imagine it goes on much longer.

And for what it’s worth, I agree with Arseblogger insofar as that Arsenal’s fate this season will not be determined by this injury. It will be determined by what happens in what remains of the transfer market, how lucky the team is in regards to further injuries, how the other serious teams perform and whether players step forward this year to fill the roles they’re offered. I firmly believe that the current Arsenal lineup with a new defensive mid and a lot of luck can win the league and maybe more this year; time will tell as to whether that belief is at all realistic.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rumblings

With the exception of Le Grove, all of the blogs I’ve read today have essentially dismissed the idea that Arsene has blamed the fans for forcing Adebayor out. Here’s the actual quotes, taken from the link Goonerblog cites in dismissing the proposition:

“We have lost a great player and we wish him well….He’s done extremely well for the club. I don’t believe that last season he got enough support. That was playing a part in my mind and in his mind, certainly, as well. I believe he wanted to do well but he didn’t find the confidence he had the season before. There was a little resentment you could feel through last summer….Believe me, he’s a great player and he’ll show that again at Manchester City….Big clubs lose big players. Milan have lost Kaka and Milan will go on. Arsenal have always lost players and continued at the top level.”

Here’s additional actual quotes from yesterday, from Football365:

“We’re not on the verge of signing anybody but I’m able to spend the money if we find the right players….We’re not in a hurry because we have a big squad. We’ll see in pre-season if we need to make any additions….If we need to add something we will. Chamakh is one of the players we’ve followed and if we need to go for a striker he’s a possibility. We’re keeping an eye on him….We have Rosicky and Eduardo back so we’ve lost a big striker but have gained two offensive players who were absent last season. We also have Nicklas Bendtner, Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott who can play striker. We have top players we can use as strikers.”

Again, these are the actual quotes only, shorn of editorial slanting or speculations as to meaning. Judge for yourselves. If these quotes are somehow completely made up, no doubt the denial or the libel suit is imminent, and we can ignore these once it’s filed. For my money I think it’s abundantly clear what Wenger thinks of the fans, and it’s been that clear for years now even if it only boiled over last season. Personally under most circumstances, that doesn’t bother me; I can’t imagine that, say, Tom Coughlin gave a tin shit about Giants fans the year he won the super bowl, but given that he brought home the biggest trophy in the land it was really an immaterial consideration to almost anyone. Likewise, Wenger’s attitude towards others wouldn’t be a consideration if he were still winning things. But he’s not. In the same way as a marriage with fundamental issues works fine in flush times and hits the rocks in a recession, so the basic issues between Wenger and a lot of the fans are being exposed now that the club have been an also-ran for several years.

Now, I don’t think Wenger “needs to go” over this; and even if I did it wouldn’t matter because he’s not going to regardless of events, not this year or next or 5 years from now or 10, if he decides to stay that long. It’s been established that Wenger is the club and the club is Wenger right now. But when Wenger gives quotes one game into the preseason which can easily be read as blaming fans for Adebayor’s personal behavior, and when he again suggests that he won’t buy because injury-prone players returning or changing position is the answer, he sets himself up for a re-run of last year’s intense acrimony between fans and players and fans and fans. This, I think, is deliberate and his way of asserting control over the club. He’s not a stupid man, and must be fully aware of the many alternate ways to convey similar points in less abrasive fashion- “circumstances resulted in a breakdown between player and fanbase, and it was best for both that this move happen”, or “while you will understand if I don’t reveal my specific intentions, I’m always on the lookout to improve the squad where I think it needs it”. That he chose a route apart form these means something; and if next season gets off to a rocky start, and if none of the “undisclosed” Adebayor fee is spent, expect both the return of especially angry fan responses and the manager responding in kind. Last year’s issues weren’t buried in the offseason, just cooled for a while.

On a side note, take a look at the players listed in the attacking players quote. Rosicky hasn’t played a real game in 18 months, has suffered from leg injuries and may never be the same player he was; Walcott has rarely played as a striker in the Premier League and is injury prone; Eduardo was rushed back too soon last year, injured himself again and never got on track, hasn’t played a full season since 06-07, and it’s still unclear both what he is in the Premier League and what he is after his leg injury. And this doesn’t even take into account he chances that RVP may return to his own habit of frequent injuries. All three of these players may yet come good in major roles; but on some level it’s simply unfair to ask them given their current situations to carry the load of a club which is probably more desperate now than in many years to win something. I’m very much in favor of bringing someone else in, if only to forestall the possibility of the team being devastated by a plague of injuries again, leaving the few healthy attackers to run themselves ragged playing every game.

For what it’s worth, I think this coming year is probably Arsenal’s best chance to win the league since the Invincibles were dismantled, which I’ll go into more once it’s time for a serious preseason preview. But it’s going to require a lot of luck, and a lot of things to go right.

July 19, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , , | Leave a comment

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 | , | Leave a comment