Every UFC there’s a fight with a definitive finish, and afterwards there’s God knows how many people lining up to get off some variation of the phrase: This Guy Sucks. It’s depressing stuff to read and if I’ve been hard on boxing of late I can always say this: one thing boxing fans right now have over MMA fans on average is the ability to analyze fights and fighters along multiple axes. There’s something to be said for 100 years of the influence of the idea that styles make fights. Let me describe what I mean using a specific example: Mirko Crocop.
Does Crocop suck now? Depends how you mean it. If, say, I went into MMA and you saw me fight, you’d say I sucked. I’m decently strong but have no cardio and move like an anesthetized rhino, and I barely know what I’m doing at all. If someone asked you why I sucked and you said I just did, you’d be right- I’d be so awful everywhere that it would be impossible and pointless to analyze in any depth. If you say Crocop sucks and someone asks you why, and your answer is “he just does”, that by contrast is a bit silly: when a hall of fame caliber fighter who was clearly one of the three best heavyweights of his era and maybe of all time becomes a guy who can’t really compete with top-ten contenders, fans who are serious about understanding what they’re watching should be able to say in some detail why this has happened. “He sucks now” tells us nothing beyond his most recent results; it’s got no predictive value as to whether a comeback is possible or if a fighter is simply done, or if he needs new training, or if he needs to stay away from a certain style of opponent, etc. If we want to break this down there’s several areas the basic question needs to be divided into, and I’d propose these three as the best broad areas: skills, athleticism, and other.
I’ve heard it proposed (the Tough Talk podcast post-UFC 103 wrapup show as an example) that the issue with Crocop is one primarily of skills- that he’s still essentially the same guy he was at the start of his career, a kickboxer who’s learned just about enough takedown defense and ground skills to let him use his major skill against most opponents. This, in Mirko’s case, is half-true; he’s clearly still the same basic sort of fighter he used to be, as opposed to a Georges St. Pierre who’s radically changed and improved his skill set as his career has progressed. But for this to explain Crocop’s relative decline several things also have to be true: that he’s as good as he ever was at his major skills (and therefore that those actual disciplines haven’t really evolved), that no other issues are sufficient to explain the decline, and that opponents are starting to take advantage of his relative skills deficits to beat him. There are some fighters for who this is in fact a reasonable explanation: Houston Alexander is as good a boxer-striker as he ever was, boxing has not really evolved, Alexander appears to be athletically similar to the guy he was when he was KO’ing Jardine and Sakara- but he’s never improved his ground skills and fighters have found him out and used that weakness to beat him over and over again. But this does not appear to be the case with Crocop; he was in his prime a terrifying standup striker who liked to keep the fight on the feet, and he’s been the same fighter in terms of skills in all of his recent losses as Junior Dos Santos and Gabrial Gonzaga KO’d him standing and Overeem and Kongo beat him up. People haven’t found a weakness in Crocop’s skills to take advantage of; they’re beating him in those areas in which he’s at his best. He still throws the same viciously hard and accurate head kicks and strong straight punches, he just doesn’t get the same results with them. Why?
For my money a lot of it is the second area of import- athleticism. Crocop is 35 and fighting is a younger man’s game, and for all that people love to cite Randy Couture fighting at 46 as an argument against age being a factor, the reality of the matter is that the reason everyone cites Couture is partly because there’s not a lot of other similar examples and partly for another reason to be noted below. Couture is an outlier, and citing a special case as evidence for a general rule is wholly unconvincing. Crocop is not Couture; people age in the ring at different rates for different reasons, and Crocop at 35 is an old fighter in my opinion. Go back and watch some of Mirko’s PRIDE fights: for the most part he’s the exact same fighter throwing the exact same kicks and punches, except that he’s throwing them all noticeably faster and more often and seemingly with more power behind them. They’re not more technically perfect shots, not straighter or more well-placed on the temple or behind the ear or on the chin- they just get there faster and harder and more often. Despite the advances in training and nutrition and other consideration in all sports world wide it is still the case that most athletes begin their decline athletically in their early 30’s and often still experience a noticeable and dramatic falloff in their mid 30’s. Some manage to make up for this with advances in other skill areas (think Michael Owen’s improved finishing or Michael Jordan’s fallaway jumper) but the majority do not, and it appears that Crocop falls into the latter category. In theory perhaps he could have become a great wrestler or jiujitsu fighter to compensate; realistically the chances of him reinventing himself in his mid-30’s was always slim, and such cases should be looked on as impressive because of their rareness and not expected. Not everyone is gifted with the potential to be world class in all things, and even in boxing- a relatively simpler sport- there’s not an enormous body of fighters who began their career as one thing and ended it as another.
There’s also the third area which has important bearing on the explanation for Crocop’s decline: Other. It’s a catch-all category which for Mirko includes things like transitioning to the cage and to a drug-tested environment, and might for other fighters include dramatic step-ups in quality from smaller promotions or exposure to a new type of opponent or changing camps or all sorts of varied life experiences of the kind that can impact anyone’s job performance. Simple confidence can mean everything. I personally have no doubt that this is a huge part of what’s happened with Mirko- he’s fighting in a cage which allows clinch-fighting of a kind which he clearly has trouble with and which ruined him against Kongo, without accusing him of anything it’s clear that transitioning to commission oversight has affected nearly all the ex-PRIDE fighters, and all of a sudden Crocop is facing in UFC a long string of fighters who have a size advantage on him alongside world-class athleticism for the weight. His last 3 UFC losses were to fighters who were seemingly taller and weighed in heavier than him, and who as his athleticism declined were quicker as well. That’s a horrible combination for anyone to face and it shouldn’t be surprising that Mirko’s struggled against it. All of this doesn’t even take into account factors which have a major impact but are often forgotten, like the difference between PRIDE throwing together cards often late in the promotional cycle vs. UFC’s scheduling of fights months in advance allowing fighters to peak on a certain day, or PRIDE’s habit of giving star fighters easy fights against weak opponents. I don’t expect to see Mirko Crocop vs. Dos Caras Jr. or Yuji Nagata or any other pro wrestler in UFC anytime soon.
In addition there’s the issue of how these factors interrelate. Randy Couture is an extreme outlier; but the closest things to him are fighters like Matt Lindland (39) or Dan Henderson (39), all three of whom share a background as world-class or near world class wrestlers. I firmly believe that of all the various background a fighter can bring to MMA wrestling is the one which will allow a fighter to go the longest for many reasons: because it reduces punishment taken, because it instills truly incredible physical discipline, conditioning and work ethic, and because it’s reliant less on physical quickness than on strength and timing, sense of balance, knowledge of leverage and positioning, etc. than any striking skill. If a wrestler still has the quickness to close with you and the strength to manipulate your posture he can still beat you and potentially look dominant in doing so. Wrestlers rarely have that fall-off-the-cliff moment the way strikers do, the way Chuck Liddell and Mirko and Wanderlei Silva have had several times over each. Cropcop at this point retains a lot of his power and physical strength the way wrestlers do- but because he’s not a wrestler the relative utility of that aspect of athleticism is reduced, as he doesn’t have the skills or size required to impose that strength on opponents. Randy Couture could potentially have taken Dos Santos down, held him there and pummeled him to win rounds using strength- as the boxing truism has it, the last thing to go is power. Indeed, even Crocop was able to hit Dos Santos hard enough to cut him and swell his face up; the power in the hands at least is still there. But because quickness goes first and Crocop’s style of skills depends on quickness he no longer can hit the openings he sees with consistency. His athleticism has declined as is natural; his skills unfortunately require a feature role for the aspects of athleticism which decline first.
So does Mirko suck? No, he doesn’t, but he’s declined from being a top-3 heavyweight to a top-15 or 20 heavyweight and it’s not clear that he has any serious option to reverse that fall-off. Given his size and the stage of his career and relevant athletic decline there’s little chance of his developing the skills required to make the most out of what he retains athletically; and while he’s still a skilled and powerful kickboxer who can do damage, he can’t do enough damage against the suddenly larger, quicker and better trained opposition he faces in UFC to win consistently and compete at the world class level. Moreover his confidence appears shot after coming up short in 3 of his 5 UFC bouts and that combined with size disadvantages has resulted in him being pushed around the cage on his back foot or crushed up against it in the clinch, being bullied and losing rounds. Going backwards he’s more hittable as many strikers are and he appears to be seeing openings he can’t capitalize on anymore which is a sure sign of reduced reaction time and quickness. He still throws the left high kick, but now it whizzes by just short or is checked or takes long enough to get off that by the time it arrives the opponent is already gone. He doesn’t stalk much anymore and seems content to try to be a counter-striker; his legs are slow, his movement labored. He can beat many fighters still because he’s declining from such a height, but because of the specific reasons for his decline it’s very difficult to see a road back for him. As a title contender in UFC, he’s done.
The decline of Crocop isn’t the result of any one factor and the state he finds himself in isn’t subject to summation in one phrase; he deserves better than to be described with a curt and rude dismissal. For my part I’d like to see him retire as he seems like a man with other things going on in life who seems likely to be hurt by the decline of his overall ability, but if he decides to continue we as fans can at least put in the effort to really understand what we’re seeing on some kind of a serious level. And Crocop is but one example; you could write something at least this detailed and in-depth for any world class fighter coming off of a definitive loss, and if I have time I may do just that for Rich Franklin later this week or next. The point is that there’s a lot to dig into in determining just where any fighter stands relative to the competition, and the sorts of concerns laid out above are only the tip of the iceberg. Fighting sports are complicated; if they weren’t they wouldn’t be half as interesting.
EDIT: some telling recent quotes from Crocop after the fight. It certainly sounds like he’s looking at retirement and if so, I and I’m sure every other MMA fan wishes him the best. The two things he focused on really tell the tale I think: a worn out body and a worn down drive.
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.
(Accidentally held over from Friday)
I wish I could link to Dan Rafael’s chat today as illustration of this, but it seems ESPN’s awful software has eaten his responses for like the 5th week in a row. Before that happened however, Dan (who I usually really like) had one of those awesome Old Boxing Fart moments. He took something like 5 or 6 MMA comments during his boxing chat and all of them about Brock, buried Brock and defended boxing against people who brought up Tyson, et al. by citing a chatter saying at least someone like Floyd Mayweather only pretends to disrespect his opponents (which is apparently better). He also complained mightily about Brock’s disrespecting the paying customer with his middle fingers; which was fascinating given Dan’s own insult-and-ban chat gimmick and that Brock’s doing so got him a bunch of attention from Rafael and mentions in a forum he’d never otherwise come up in as a result of his actions. Almost like he was self-promoting and looking for attention. Self-awareness is a terrible thing to lose, kids- especially if your job is substantially composed of deciphering promotional bullshit.
It remains a damn shame that boxing and MMA are far enough apart as sports that it’s very difficult to come up with a functional and logical way to draw on this kind of animosity to build an event. The best I’ve been able to come up with is that Brock vs. Wladimir Klitschko under something like modified San Shou rules would be a huge money fight (prediction: 2 million buys), but unfortunately it’s also got 0.0% chance of ever happening given the injury risk to Klitschko on takedowns, the decent chance that Lesnar would get KO’d quickly, and the fact that both guys can make huge money without it. I will say though- someone in Fedor’s camp should at least bring up an idea like this if they’re determined to avoid UFC once Affliction is cured.
Side note: Rafael also took a sideways shot at “MMA reporters” for letting Brock off easy. I hate when people do this- and there’s been a lot of it about of late in things I’ve read with Arseblog and Goodplaya also taking shots at Myles Palmer/ANR without using his name. My philosophy on these things is simple: if you’re willing to criticize someone for something, you should name them and link to what you’re criticizing if possible so that a reader can make up their minds for themselves. I recognize that this runs the risk of looking like trolling for controversy if it’s a smaller blog criticizing a larger one, but that’s not a good enough reason in my mind to avoid doing so- one of them is a functional problem and the other is an image problem. It’s just way too easy consciously or unconsciously to construct a strawman or engage in over-sweeping generalizations, otherwise.
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.
– He’s trying to “be methodical about everything” but admits he entered large-scale business on PPV with fighters signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars without any meaningful business plan (“we did a huge show, we did a second huge show, now I’m just trying to figure out how we do our third show”).
– Complains about being judged as though he’s had experience on promoting before, fails to consider whether starting out smaller might have made sense.
– Complains of lack of experience, but does not appear to have learned thing one about the reasons for the death of IFL, Elite XC, etc. (among them, the need for good TV plus control of expenditures).
– Has begun blaming his customers (“The fans and the media treat me like I’m on my 10th show”) which is never ever a good sign, and probably indicates that he’s spending WAY too much time reading hardcores on the internet. Not that that’s a surprise.
– In response to the question “So what’s the message you want fans to hear directly from you?“, he answers “First and foremost, that I’m a fan”. Except that he’s now a promoter, at least in theory; but a promoter who thinks like a fan isn’t a promoter, he’s a money mark, and will soon be back on the sidelines from whence he came, standing next to the Bodog guy.
– “‘I’m not saying that we’re pulling out, I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.” What a great tag line for their next show, “Affliction: We’re Out of Money.”
– “I didn’t come out to compete with the UFC, but a lot of people have put me in that position.” Gee, perhaps allowing your major star to issue grandstand challenges to the UFC champions while competing in not just the same PPV industry, but the same MMA section of the PPV industry, may have given people this impression? Perhaps, say, having Randy Couture in the ring with Fedor to hype a fight between them while Randy was under UFC contract and in litigation with Zuffa might have contributed to the perception of competition?
I’m going to blow a synapse if I go through too much more of this stuff. The worst part is, Atencio comes off as a fairly nice guy in interviews and I bought and enjoyed his first two shows and would happily buy the third if they do Fedor/Barnett on top; you almost have to feel sorry for the guy. But my god, the lack of understanding of the business here is amazing, and it’s the kind of thing that should be easily remedied: pick up the phone and call Richard Shaeffer at Golden Boy, your theoretical partners, or else pony up the $10 monthly for the Wrestling Observer and pay attention to Dave Meltzer. No matter how you define the market- PPV, combat sports promotions, specifically MMA, whatever- it’s no longer a business in its infancy. Enough people have tried enough things and lost enough money that we have a relatively clear set of strategies which will work and strategies which won’t, enough so that there’s every reason to believe that a non-UFC promoter who pays attention, like say the guys at Strikeforce, can make a very profitable go at this. Affliction hasn’t done everything wrong of course (they’ve done a good job promoting Fedor into being a low-level drawing card, and their shows themselves are fun), but beyond their small successes here and there they’ve been almost a textbook example of how not to run a fight promotion and this interview really illustrates why. Being a fan is a wonderful thing; but thinking like a fan when you’re a promoter is the kiss of death, because it leads to things like paying Matt Lindland hundreds of thousands of dollars per fight which you won’t make back, because you think he’s really good. Which he is; but he’s also absolutely no buys, which no TV-less startup can afford. Promoting is about understanding how to appeal to average and peripheral fans, not sharing the tastes of hardcores.
Obviously it’s never a good thing when a promotion goes out of business. Lots of people end up unemployed and fighter pay goes down with the reduced leverage for negotiation. But with Strikeforce expanding, I think there’s enough space here to say that sadness isn’t my first reaction to watching Affliction die. It’s a bit like that old-timey news footage of poorly designed flight machines, pre-Wright brothers: an ungainly contraption designed by amateurs and doomed from the start, falling apart in hilarious fashion without ever really getting off the ground. Tragicomedic. Hopefully the next generation of promoters learn from this.
Three examples of a larger point today, about injuries and outcomes:
Let’s start with Arsenal. Fans have been saying this entire season that Arsenal have been hobbled badly by injuries, and just wait until all of our hurt players come back- we’ll be a force then. An example from today at Arseblog: “…imagine this formation with Arshavin and Walcott in place of Eboue and Bendtner and with Cesc in the centre of midfield.” I don’t mean to pick on Arseblog here, this is simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen.
I don’t buy it, and never have. The premise is that Arsenal’s injury woes are somehow uncommon or unexpected, a freak occurrence which is unlikely to be repeated and thus has little predictive value for the future performance of the team. There’s two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that while this year’s team have had a few freak injuries which were largely unpredictable in that they happened to usually durable players (like Cesc, or Kolo’s malaria), there have also been players like Robin van Persie with very long histories of frequent injury who have been almost totally healthy all year long. The uncommon and possibly unrepeatable outcomes have been on both sides of the ledger, so it’s difficult to say that Arsenal’s luck has been exceptionally bad from the standpoint of reasonable expectations of player health.
The second major problem is the assumption that injuries are usually non-predictive events. Arsenal are, in fact, a team full of fragile players: Diaby is rarely good for more than 2 or 3 games at a stretch, Eduardo, sadly, has suffered minor issues after the majority of games in his comeback after a year away, Rosicky’s problems are well known, RVP is usually injured for substantial stretches, Gallas has suffered his share of pulls and muscle problems and such (and is now over 30), Walcott has natural issues with his shoulders which have put him out more than once for extended periods- the list here is substantial and no doubt you can add to it. In all of these cases, there’s a track record of repeated injuries of a similar character which arise from the normal conduct of play, the sort of things which a player is simply going to have to do in order to perform. A non-predictive injury would be one like Cesc’s, where there’s no history of similar injury, or one like the tackle which put Eduardo out for a year which was exceptionally vicious. When Diaby, for example, misses several weeks with a muscle strain, that’s simply to be expected based on prior performance; if that sort of thing was in fact not repeated next year, THAT would be a freak occurrence because of how far it would depart from reasonable expectations. Assuming that next year’s Arsenal will have a better track record of health than this year’s is an expression of hope, not reason.
So what, you may ask? That’s our second example. Take this article as an example of what happens when people fail to take into account the overall team-wrecking effects of having star players with major injury histories which are ignored.
(Aside: I just wiki’ed Eric Lindros, whose page as of right now has been edited to read “Eric “Biggest Waste of a Hockey Player Ever” Lindros (born 28 February 1973 in London, Ontario, Canada) is a retired professional ice hockey player.” Lol, as the kids say.)
The article attempts to defend the acquisition of Lindros on the grounds that what was traded for him ended up being no big deal, and that Lindros was ok. This is foolish analysis on the face of things, since Pavel Brendl’s eventual flameout was not known at the time, and therefore his perceived value could have been used to acquire many other players than Lindros; the trade shouldn’t be evaluated just on the basis of what each player did, but on the potential value of what each asset in the deal could have been used for at the time.
That niggle aside, the real problem with Lindros wasn’t the trade, but what Lindros did when he was with the Rangers. Wiki has the stats; you’ll note a good first year, healthy, followed by a healthy second year with a major statistical collapse, and then a third injury ravaged year before he left the team. If you’d been watching regularly (I had season tickets at the time), you’d have seen a player who was playing in a totally different fashion than he had previously in order to shield himself from further injury (Lindros had a history of concussions which ended his career, for those who don’t know), who had given up his physical style of play and was avoiding certain positions in order to minimize his risk.
The problem for the Rangers then was twofold: firstly they had ended up trading for a player who, even when healthy, was not at all the player he had been before his injuries became a constant risk, and the similarities for Arsenal fans to the situations with Eduardo, Risicky, etc. should be obvious; the second was a much more insidious cost, which is usually still not recognized. Read that article again, and focus on this sentence: “Losing puck-mover Kim Johnsson was somewhat more painful, though not the franchise-magnitude sacrifice Bondy would have you believe compared to the potential upside of Big E. “
That’s everything wrong with this mentality in one line. By the time he reached the Rangers, Lindros had suffered seven reported major concussions. SEVEN. Each concussion suffered predisposes the sufferer to a greater risk of another- was it at all reasonable to assume that a player who had suffered 7 major concussions in 8 NHL seasons was unlikely to suffer any more? But because Lindros was big and strong and had a good touch, people continued to fall in love with his “upside”- even the author of this article, 5 years after Lindros washed out of New York due to…a concussion.
Lindros was at all successful with the Rangers because he changed styles to minimize his risk, becoming less effective but more durable; this was entirely predictable based on his history, because the only other option for him was to continue to suffer debilitating injuries which were likely to be career-enders. While he was still somewhat effective, the unjustifiable assumptions (which were not his fault) that any day now he would play just like he did in Philadelphia ended up hamstringing the team for years on end, as they budgeted and made player moves around the idea that big number 88 was going to give them far more than he was physically able to do. The result was three years of failure in which the team finished 11th, 9th, and 13th in the conference, with no playoff appearances. The implications for Arsenal here should again be fairly obvious.
A final example to illustrate probability and outcomes. Take the fighting world, where these distinctions are usually clearest: at UFC 95 recently, Paulo Thiago fought Josh Koscheck. Kosckeck, a striker and wrestler who had previously fought the current champion, was a heavy favorite in that fight and considered a top-5 welterweight in the world; Thiago was considered a less experienced and less well-known UFC debutante reliant on his jiu jitsu. So of course Thiago knocked Koscheck clean out in the first round with a two punch combo.
And yet, anyone who gave the matter much thought would realize that if these two were to rematch, the smart money would all be on Koscheck. He has a far greater skill level, a stronger track record, more options in a fight; that Thiago knocked him out despite a demonstrably lesser skill level is what is colloquially called a lucky punch, but should be understood more specifically as an unlikely but possible outcome. Let’s say you could get those guys to fight 100 times under identical conditions- odds are, Thiago knocks Koscheck out, say, 8-10 times out of a 100; maybe he submits him another few times, ekes out a few decisions, etc. Kosckeck still probably wins 60-80% of those fights based on greater demonstrated ability. That doesn’t make Thiago’s victory hollow, or unimportant; it makes it an uncommon outcome which was always possible, but which it would be foolish to bet on happening more than a small fraction of the time.
An even better if less recent example would be the two Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra fights. GSP, clearly the more talented of the two, got knocked out in the first round in their initial encounter; in their second, he humbled Serra badly and destroyed him in the second round, and not once since then has there been any talk of a third meeting- for many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that UFC matchmakers and most fans instinctively understand the concept of possible but unlikely outcomes, which because they’re so infrequent, have little predictive value for the future.
To summerize: Arsenal have been badly hit by injuries this year, it’s true; but they have not been more badly hit than might have been expected given the histories of their players, and if you’re banking on them being substantially more healthy next year, you’re either assuming they’ll have substantially different personnel, or else you’re counting on a miracle.
Apologies for the absence of updates, my computer is thoroughly dead and I’m typing this up on a loner. With any luck my replacement box should be in by the early part of next week and we’ll be back to the usual. In the meanwhile, it’s been transfer sort of deadline day, which is when I said I’d take stock of where I thought Arsenal are and are going. I’m going to write this up in several sections and with the assumption that the Arshavin transfer- currently said to be waiting for Premier League approval- will go through. So:
The Player In
If you’re reading this you could probably write this section yourself, as Arshavin has been discussed to death since he starred at the Euros. He’s got pace, he can attack a defender with the ball at his feet, he can cross the ball well (who to is a different question) and he’s known to be willing and able to take a shot from time to time. In many respects he’s similar to what Nasri may be at his best, plus some speed. He’ll be an unquestioned asset to this Arsenal team, a grown man professional who can help hold the side together through the avalanche of injuries this squad is doomed to have, and perhaps help teach them as well; after all, he’s already got kids of his own and I can’t imagine they’re any less well behaved than Eboue.
No Players Out
This is the right move, I suspect. This season is in a great deal of danger and Arsenal have had for years a very injury prone squad- the money for, say, Toure right now would not equal the value of losing out on the Champions League because his replacement played like a sieve for the next few months, let alone what might happen if the club suffered another run of injuries in defense. On the other hand this does store up trouble for the summer; choices will have to be made about Gallas vs. Toure and what sort of defense the manager really wants, in light of what resources he’s willing to commit to that area. That’s a post for another day, however.
This whole Arshavin thing has been, in a word, embarrassing. There’s no way that a fan will ever know for sure what went on and which demands were made by who, so I won’t try to dole out specifics of blame and complaint in advance of what we can actually determine. But what we can determine is that these negotiations were embarrassingly public; involved some semi-disgraceful whining on Arshavin’s part of a kind which had an Arsenal player done it would have resulted in mass fan anger (see: Hleb); and dragged on for first weeks, and then hours and perhaps as much as a full day beyond the actual transfer deadline over a relatively tiny difference in valuations (less than half a million up front according to soccernet). This was insane. Zenit are out of season; there was no particular reason for them to delay such as needing to line up a replacement immediately, and there was no reason for Arsenal to delay other than the combination of arrogance and cheapness which sees them seemingly begin every transfer by telling the other club what their player is worth and refusing to move off that figure without an unbelievable amount of fuss and complaint. You may call that tough negotiations; I’d say that if Arsenal finish 5th this season, we may look back and wonder if Arshavin could have won the crucial points had he played in the Everton and West Ham games. What’s French for penny wise, pound foolish?
The other major issue here is what this says about the club’s basic negotiating ability and reputation. There have been stories for years, some just rumors and other confirmed by the club, of Arsenal being in for great players (Kaka, Ronaldo, etc.) in the youth of their careers and missing out after dickering and dithering over the price until a larger and simpler bid came in. Over the summer there was the Alonso saga; before that, a trip through the comments of most any blog will reveal a huge number of fans frustrated with the way Adebayor’s near-defection was handled, and prior to that the way the departures of Viera and Henry were handled. There have certainly been some successes, but the majority of those have all been in what you might call unequal transfers where Arsenal were clearly the much larger club negotiating to take a young player into the major leagues of Europe for the first time. I come away from this track record with a strong suspicion that Arsenal do best in negotiations when they can dictate terms to a large degree; dealing with their peers on a format of equality or near-equality seems far more often than not to cause problems. I strongly suspect this is one of the underpinnings of the current youth policy, and it’s a major and recurring issue.
Where We’re At Now
On the bright side, Arshavin coming in does prove that there’s a floor of uselessness beneath which Arsene is not prepared to see the team slide regardless of what he believes is morally correct; that’s some evidence of a core commitment to practicality the possession of which could justly be questioned after the course of last summer and the season to date. This is tempered however by the recognition that Arshavin is still very much an Arsene style player in many respects (age and nationality aside), which brings us into deeper issues.
Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott, Fabregas, Diaby, Denilson; these players form a huge part of the core around which Arsenal are built, and they are all very similar in most respects: small, slight, technical, non-English (bar Walcott), very young (bar Arshavin), excellent passers, mediocre shooters and scorers, highly injury prone (bar Fabregas except this year, and hopefully Arshavin), and largely average in speed (bar Walcott and Arshavin). Unsurprisingly the team plays to this general cast of abilities: majestic at retaining the ball, here and there in regaining it; a superior passing outfit but one without the quickness or dribbling skills to unlock a tight defense, the speed to break past defenders before they’re completely set up, or the shooting ability from midfield to draw defenders out of their positions; a team which excels at employing their initial gameplan, but which lacks the experience to adjust if that doesn’t work, and which crumbles more often than not when put into a difficult position; a team which is regularly reduced to playing with second and third choice players due to entirely predictable injuries. Obviously Arshavin will help this, partly because he brings needed speed and maturity to the table and partly because he’s likely to be better at playing this way than most of the other players in this class. But with that acknowledged, he’s still for the most part a player in this class. Wenger may have spent some money for once which is a partial contravention of his principles, but he seems to be holding firm on the basic stylistic conventions of this iteration of Wengerball. It’s questions about the viability of that which are not only unanswered, but totally unaddressed at this point, and will likely remain so for as long as Arsene is in charge of the team.
Having given it some thought, I believe I’ll break here and simply say that the results of this window are a positive for the club, but there are still a large number of questions to be answered. Over the next few days/weeks I’m going to pick out as many of those issues as I can individually, since dealing with them all now would make this far too lengthy.
A final note/plea to Arsenal fans: let’s be rational here. Arshavin will probably be very good, and almost certainly not a savior; Arsene Wenger is a football manager with clear strong positives and negatives-he is neither a stupid cunt nor an unquestionable genius; the club is currently in a long and short term tight spot, which does not make them the Worst Team in the World- but neither does the frustration of some fans mean They Should Go Support Chelsea, Innit. If fans want to be taken seriously for what they have to say about the club and want a seat at the big boys table in regards to the making of choices about the club’s future, they will have to behave in something like a rational and intelligent manner in public. There have been plenty of times this season when I’ve felt that those in charge of the club were exhibiting disrespect for fans; there have been more than a few times when I’ve read things that have made me understand why. Let’s do better, folks, so that when the time really comes to take a stand , we can be taken seriously. That time may be coming soon enough.
It’s almost embarrassing to have to point out remedial points like this, but:
1. Racist and homophobic abuse is in fact different, because in addition to expressing disapproval of an individual it promotes hatred of a group- the same argument which underlies all hate crimes laws. There’s certainly strong counter-arguments about whether that’s acceptable reasoning legally and morally, but it’s clear enough so far as it goes and enjoys a substantial measure of support across many societies.
2. Abuse within a football stadium and abuse outside it are obviously different things. Different situations within society have different rules based on mutual agreement either at the social, legal, or private levels, which is why nudity within and without your house are different unless you’re exceptionally good looking. Football works on several implied bargains, two interlocking examples of which are that fans agree to provide irrational passion and loyalty expressed partly through financial support, and football players agree to accept somewhat unconventional working conditions, including a strong measure of terrace abuse, along with their enormous paychecks. That’s the deal. If footballers and the custodians of the game wish to change the bargain they can certainly make their case; they may find the broad support and financial loyalty of fans is changed as well.
To link the two together it should be obvious enough that while any given footballer, let’s say Ashley Cole, has effectively accepted this bargain along with his money, he cannot do so on behalf of all the people who sort of resemble him in some way. So calling Cole a dishonest cheating cunt and waste of life at a match is more or less within the bounds of the bargain, and attacking him for his race is not. This really should be obvious, and I have to assume the only reason it’s not is that some people want to retain the option to feel morally superior to the bargains they participate in- which is its own kind of loathsome.
This post will be the last I have to say on Ebouegate, unless the issue pops up again later this season, as I rather expect it will. It’s an attempt to provide a little cross-situational perspective.
Once upon a time back in the early part of this decade I had season tickets for the New York Rangers, and made a regular practice then and even after I gave those seats up of attending many of the team’s games in that time period. The raw numbers and roster compositions of those teams are available on the inestimable hockeydb here, for your viewing…pleasure….
I mention those teams which I usually consider wholly unmentionable in the context of the Eboue scandal, because from time to time in those seasons, I booed them. Not as badly as some Rangers fans who were booing the opening faceoff on some occasions, but I did it. Booed them off the ice between periods, booed them back onto the ice as well. Booed them at the end of games. Booed them in a 7-3 home loss to a Penguins team with the worst record in the league, which will always stand out to me as the worst hockey game I’ve ever seen. I never singled out an individual player as such though many Rangers fans did: I will also never forget arriving at the Garden for a game and seeing 7 or 8 fans together in the lobby holding a bedsheet on which was written “trade Kamensky” or something to that effect. In fact I made it a point to cheer Valeri Kamensky after that since I figured he could use one fan at least, and he was nowhere near as bad as he was made out to be. But the rest of them? Booed. And I don’t regret it at all. I’ve written here previously about the need for fans to have some sort of outlet and means of expressing themselves. There are very few means of doing so: blogging, chanting at games, refusing to renew or buy tickets, the occasional mass protest or booing are essentially all that’s available. If a fan is going to be honest and serious about their support, they’re going to have to weigh how and when to use each of those tools. Let me explain my reasoning.
The first thing to understand about those Rangers teams is that they were awful, and not just an ordinary kind of awful but a special kind which marked them out as probably the very worst team in the league if you’re willing to concede that institutional incompetence trumps simple won-lost record as the best measure. In the pre-salary cap years they spent and spent and spent the way Chelsea does in the Premier League today, but they certainly didn’t achieve similar levels of success. No indeed: despite being among the top spenders in the league for many years and bringing many of the biggest names in the sport to town- Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, etc.- as well as important lesser lights, they spent 7 full seasons out of the playoffs in a league in which, currently, more than half the teams make the postseason. Worse still, they were laughing stocks for the way they did business. Eric Lindros, an injury-ridden shell of a player who had never really reached his potential, was acquired for what was thought at the time to be a king’s ransom and spent much of his Rangers tenure injured and not reaching his potential. Pavel Bure and Alexei Kovalev were acquired at cost, with the one retiring due to knee injury and the other quickly moved on when he didn’t work out. B0bby Holik was acquired from the rival Devils on a monstrous free agent deal and spent his tenure in New York giving a half-assed effort for a team he clearly didn’t respect or care about regardless of how rich they’d made him. The names Igor Ulanov, Vladimir Malakhov, Theo Fleury and Tom Poti each have an equally bad story attached. Coaches came and went with no great effect, the nadir coming in 2002-2003 when Bryan Trottier, who had spent most of his career as a player with the hated Islanders, was selected head coach and then fired for incompetence 54 games into the season, never to be named to a similar position again anywhere. Picture someone like, say, David Ginola or Ledley King managing Arsenal and you’ll get the picture. The rest of the league laughed at the Rangers, and they were right to.
Those were the teams I booed. Many players on them I loved and admired as a fan: Brian Leetch, perhaps the greatest Ranger of all, was on many of those teams and my room here at home is adorned with a signed hockey puck of his, the only real bit of sports memorabilia I own. Mike Richter and Mark Messier, heros of the Rangers’ legendary ’94 Cup run, were on some of those teams as well. Didn’t stop me. I booed those teams because at the time it was, I believed, the best possible option to start the team in the right direction again over the long term. Players were giving half-assed efforts; management was non-local, insular, divorced from fan concerns and following a plan, or series of plans, which were producing no results and were rather predictably doomed from the start; the team was an object of league-wide public ridicule; there wasn’t an obvious alternative method to register an opinion and urge the organization into a more productive path. So at first I booed, and was hardly alone in doing so. Then I stopped my season ticket, and judging by how desperate the club was at the time to get renewals, I doubt I was alone in that either. Then the lockout came and killed a season leaving a salary cap in its wake, and here we are.
Today’s Rangers are a very different lot. They’re not really title contenders in any serious sense, but they’re far from embarrassing. Two years in a row making the second round of the playoffs; Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg aside, the last couple of years the team has given you a solid and respectable professional effort night after night; and they’re finally being designed differently than they had been, focusing more on developing the farm system and younger players and creating a team style instead of having several different players freelancing in different ways with little guidance from the bench. Moreover they seem to be much more willing to compete and fight to come back from behind, showing spirit not seen since the ’97 conference finalists. And, it must be said, they seem a lot closer to the fans: they’ve taken up the gesture of giving a unified stick salute to fans after every home game, and as corny as it may sound, that has meant something. When you attend a game now you don’t feel like you’re expected to cheer on a player who’s giving mediocre effort, and is only in your team’s uniform because they doubled the next best contract offer. Today’s New York Rangers seem to actually care in many cases about being New York Rangers.
Is that the result of the booing back when? Not completely, no. The salary cap has a lot to do with it, Glen Sather coming to his senses has a lot to do with it, the presence of various new front office people and an excellent new coach has a lot to do with it, and there’s certainly a variety of other factors relating to changes in rules and the general style of the league. But I honestly believe the fact that the majority of fans took a stand and refused to be embarrassed any further by the team had something to do with the changes. The old New York myth is that you can never rebuild in this town, fans won’t stand for it; the weakening ticket demand and vocal disapproval for the Rangers teams which embodied that philosophy probably helped to break down that belief, and paved the way both for the rebuilding job now being done on the Knicks (who share ownership with the Rangers). That does matter, and it’s helped to build the current solid Rangers and the future Knicks of 2010 and beyond, and it could never have been achieved if Rangers fans had continued to cheer players who didn’t give a damn and didn’t try, simply because they wore the shirt. That’s not a blanket endorsement of booing in all circumstances, or even most circumstances; that’s an example of how, in some circumstances, it’s the right thing to do for the team.
Is it the right thing to do for Arsenal fans now? Ultimately, I think no, and I wouldn’t do it. But it’s not so open and shut a case that it makes sense to condemn the fans who take the option without understanding why they do so. Many fans are frustrated, as Rangers fans were back then: they believe management has tracked up a blind ally and can’t or won’t find their way back out, following a philosophy which doesn’t bring results. Arsene Wenger has a fine record as a manager, but it’s not a record all that different from Glen Sather who won 5 Stanley Cups in 7 years with Edmonton at one point. Wenger now puts all his faith in young players; Slats put his in big names and big free agents. Both achieved little in doing so, and began to hear the boos and the “Wenger out”/”fire Sather” calls about 3 or 4 years into a period in which they had nothing to show for their efforts, in the Rangers’ case a playoff berth, in Arsenal’s a trophy. Both teams charge enormous ticket prices. The differences are that Wenger’s mistakes are much easier to fix than Sather’s, that Wenger has achieved with the team he now manages while Sather had not, Arsenal are not nearly as bad off now as the Rangers were then, and that booing is taken by Arsenal players much more personally than it ever was by hockey players, who let’s face it are simply more thick-skinned about that sort of thing. Rangers players knew the booing was about Sather and the way the team was designed as much as it was their individual effort in many cases, and the players who gave an honest effort trusted that the fans recognized that, and didn’t mean anything personal. Arsenal players think it’s about them individually, and given how badly handled the Eboue thing was, in that case they were right. It’s all about context: booing Eboue won’t help because the booing was badly done, too personal, not clear in what it was trying to convey, occurred while the team was winning, and was done in circumstances in which it was viewed as an ultimate betrayal and not a fairly common and legitimate way for fans to express themselves.
And yet there has to be a way for fans to convey those feelings en masse, or else they give up all of their oversight responsibilities over a club. Managers come and go; players come and go; even stadiums are torn down eventually. Fans remain; and they draw no salary, indeed they commit in money and time and attention and emotion as much as anyone associated with any team. They have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to care and to express themselves. That right must be exercised responsibly, which it was not against Eboue; but that does not condemn all instances of fan expression, even negative expression, any more than Eboue having a terrible afternoon condemns him totally as a player. I’m not sure what the answer ultimately will be for football, but I do know it’s not going to be either the rabid personal venom which was directed at Eboue or the blank unreflective cheerleading which so many people advocate as the only acceptable behavior at the stadium, often as they write things online which they’d be ashamed to say to a player’s face. I’m comfortable with having booed my Rangers because in the context of the team at the time, in hockey culture, in New York, it got across exactly the message I meant to convey which was that I loved my team but that I believed it had gone thoroughly off the rails and needed a rethink. If that was more or less the message that the people who booed Eboue wished to send, and I believe it largely was, then it will ultimately prove a whole lot more useful to find a productive way for them to do so than it will to spend endless hours condemning them.
Very interesting Arseblog today, defensive and almost a little scared in tone, and followed up by Arseblogger having an extended and somewhat vicious argument in the Arses with someone taking umbrage at his comments. You can see the division in the fanbase starting to become very clear, in rough thirds: the highly motivated fans who made themselves heard en masse in their booing in the game (call them the we’re-sick-of-this-shit-ers), the highly motivated fans who are making themselves heard on blogs condemning the first group (the no-criticism-ever-ers), and then the rump who don’t seem to be making themselves heard much at all. We can probably assume they’re best represented by the empty seats at the Wigan game.
The one thing the first two groups have in common is that neither one respects or is willing to acknowledge the right of the other group to have any say in the club. The third group, by contrast, seems increasingly not to respect their OWN right to have a say in the club. And so it goes, as the biggest talkers choose sides and vie to represent the rest, pushing the discussion to ever more extreme places while claiming themselves to be the only “true” fans, and the fans who don’t want to deal with this sort of rancor and stupidity tune out. They’ll be called plastic bandwagon cunts when they show back up in good times, but sometimes I don’t half wonder if maybe they don’t have the right idea. I love sports, or I wouldn’t write this blog, but at this point a lot of the people in the first two groups just creep me out; you’d think they had nothing else in their lives but this, the way they talk. That’s not passion, it’s obsession, which rarely ends well.