Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Interesting Times

I'm writing at 11pm on 31 August 2011, the transfer deadline day, and what a strange couple of days it has been. First the 8-2 shellacking at Old Trafford; then the major moves in the transfer market. In past years, TDD has been a frustrating one for Gooners - I remember one where Arsene rather pointedly spent the evening watching the reserves play at Underhill. But not tonight. So, here is a summary of our outgoings and incomings so far:

Cesc to Barca, £30 million
Nasri to Man City, £25 million
Clichy to Man City, £7 million
Eboue to Galatasaray, £3m
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas to Ipswich, £1m
Armand Traore to QPR, £2m
Nik Bendtner to Sunderland, loan
Henri Lansbury to West Han Utd, loan
Denilson to Sao Paolo, loan

Mikel Arteta from Everton, £10m
Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea, loan
Gervinho from Lille, £10m
Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen, £10m
Andre Santos from Fenerbahce, £6m
Park Chu-Young from Monaco, £3m
Carl Jenkinson from Charlton, £2m
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, £5m
Joel Campbell from Saprissa (Costa Rica), loaned to Lorient, £1m
Ryo Miyaichi, obtained work permit

Nik Bendtner is going to Sunderland for a year's loan, but I hope he'll be back; if Chamakh doesn't regain some kind of form, and Nik B has a good year, perhaps Arsenal will swap the Moroccan for the Dane next summer. I've posted about Cesc, Nasri et al before, so the crucial thing is the signings. Clearly, after Sunday, something had to be done. The squad was down beyond the bare bones, to Traore, whose move to QPR must have been lined up beforehand, and to Coquelin, who was handed a debut without having even trained with the first-team squad all summer after being at the u-20 World Championships.

Since then, we've signed Park Chu-Young (to be known as Ju, apparently), who will wear number 9 - a quick, technical striker and captain of his country, Ju will be a back-up to RvP, and will no doubt run his socks off for us; Andre Santos, the Brazilian international left-back, who will make a good platoon with Gibbs (too injury-prone to be relied upon as a full-time starter), an attacking full-back; Per Mertesacker, who has over 70 caps for Germany, is just 26, and is 6 foot 6 tall, solving some of our defensive and organisational problems; and tonight we're chasing two midfielders.

The first is a season-long loan for Yossi Benayoun. I liked Benayoun very much when he was at West Ham, a lively, technical player who I thought could fit in very well at Arsenal in a Bob Pires (minor key) kind of way. I kind of lost track of him at Liverpool but he played over 100 games and scored 29 goals, a pretty decent strike-rate. he signed for Chelsea last summer, but only played 9 games, suffering an Achilles injury. The twittersphere was full of bile when Benayoun seemed to be the only incoming midfielder, but I think he'll do a decent job and is in the same hard-working mould as Ju. What's more, he's 30, highly experienced, and a proven Premier League player.

The other is Mikel Arteta. I've always rated him as a midfield passer, though he has suffered injuries the last few seasons. He'd be an excellent signing if it happens, and would take some of the burden off Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere as creative midfielders. This, then, would be our squad until the January transfer window:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
RB: Sagna, Jenkinson
LB: Santos, Gibbs
CB: Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Djourou, Squillaci, Miquel
DM: Song, Frimpong
CM: Wilshere, Ramsey, Arteta, Rosicky, Diaby
WF: Gervinho, Walcott, Arshavin, Miyaichi, Oxlade-Chamberlain
CF: RvP, Chamakh, Ju

This looks like a much more balanced squad, with depth, pace, quite a lot of goals and creativity, and a solid look at the back. This looks like a squad to challenge for the Champions League places, to me - as good as Liverpool, and significantly better than Spurs, who let quite a few players go this summer without many coming in (although Modric stayed). The future is looking brighter. Especially when we get Wilshere back from his Twittering (which is, undeniably, marvellous, as is Emmanuel Frimpong's. Two top Gooners as well as Gunners.) And talking of Gooners, this tweet tonight from Cesc Fabregas: "I dnt undrstand fans telling me we need a replacement after my departure when weve 1 of the best 3 young players in the world @JackWilshere". Love the "we".

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Hey Johnny Park!

So, Arsenal are close to signing Park Chu-Young, the South Korean skipper who played up front for Monaco in their relegation season in Ligue 1 last year. Cue moaning because he isn't Eden Hazard (who most of the moaners will not have seen play) or Kaka (who was great in 2006... now, not so much). From looking at the vids, this is what I think Park could give the Arsenal:

1. Decent back-up to RvP. Park is skillful, technically very good, quick, and takes a good free kick. It appears he's right-footed.

2. Workrate. His namesake is Park Ji-Sung, Man United's wide midfielder, whose inexhaustible energy and tireless running make him a real unsung hero in that side. All South Korean players seem to have excellent fitness and a willingness to put in a shift.

3. Team ethos. He's not a star player, he'll play without ego. Goodness knows the Arsenal have had enough of ego-maniac players over the last few years, though most have now left the club. He'll fit in to the new team spirit.

So, he'd be a squad player, a decent, experienced option. With Joel Campbell being refused a work permit this year (he'll go on loan and I'm sure will get one next year, as he seems to be a fixture now in the senior Costa Rica side), Bendtner about to be sold and Chamakh very low on confidence, he's the sort of good, ordinary player we need.

As I said in a previous post, this team needs more Parlours, not more Henrys. And as I wrote yesterday, Cahill looks increasingly likely to sign with us before Wednesday, and the fee mooted is around £12 million...

A summer where we sell Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, Eboue, Bendtner, JET; and sign Gervinho, Jenkinson, AOC, Miyaichi, and maybe Park, M'Vila and Cahill would be not so bad. Throw in a left back... and I'll be quite excited.

So you never know. The Arsenal may be signing our own Johnny Park.

Friday, 26 August 2011

You Need Wings

Image of The Bullshit Piled Up So Fast In Vietnam You Needed Wings

Sometimes I think that Arsenal fans are the most gullible in the world. They're certainly among the most eager to set their thoughts down online - new Arsenal blogs seem to appear every day. The latest thing to get the Arseblogosphere's knickers in a collective twist was the rumour mill surrounding the club's interest in Gary Cahill. According to a morning news report, Arsenal had bid £6million (plus add-ons) for Cahill; this was followed up By Owen Coyle's denunciation of Arsenal's 'derisory' offer and Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's re-tweet of some Bolton fan's fulmination against said £6 million offer. At Arsene's 12.30pm presser, he strongly denied the bid was as low as £6 million, and called out Gartside on the matter. Cue much gnashing of online teeth at Arsenal's parsimony.

Come on, friends. At no point did Coyle or Gartside say 'Cahill is not for sale'. What is to be established is a reasonable value for the player, an English centre-back, playing in the Premier League, aged 24, in the last year of his contract. Vermaelen and Koscielny both cost around £10 million, Cahill must be thought of by the Arsenal staff as a player of similar stature. In Cahill's case, 'English', 'Premier League' and 'age 24' push the price up; 'last year of contract' pushes his price down. I reckon Cahill's value to be around £12 million, plus some add-ons. The touted price is £18 million, but no-one (even Liverpool) have looked like paying that amount.

Here's what I think went on today:

1. Bolton leaked a story to a friendly journalist overnight that Arsenal had bid £6 million.

2. Coyle does a presser in which he fulminates against the 'derisory' offer, but without mentioning the actual bid amount. Journos and Arsenal bloggers put 2 and 2 together and make...

3. Arsenal, having banked nearly £70 million this summer, are assumed to be behaving in a 'ridiculous' manner in offering such a low-ball amount. Pressure then comes on to the club by an already disgruntled element of the fanbase to make this transfer happen, 'no matter what the cost' (i.e. driving up the price). Who benefits? Bolton Wanderers.

4. Arsene gets a bit tetchy with journos who take this fairly transparent ploy at face value (or pretend to) and use it as a stick to beat the club with. Relations between Arsenal and Bolton remain good; further negotiations will take place, as Arsenal's interest has been confirmed by both parties. Bringing this out in the open, Bolton must hope, adds to their leverage and, at best, might flush out a competitor club who will make an alternative bid, again driving up the price.

Canny stuff. Arsenal look like hypocrites in not splashing the cash on Cahill, when this week they got £25 million out of City for a player in the last year of his contract; Bolton hold up the value of a player who, come next summer, can walk away from the club for free.

I think this transfer will happen, and have thought that for a while. All the posturing means nothing; Arsenal prefer to do their negotiations behind closed doors as it avoids all this public leveraging. Arsene was right in the presser: either Bolton will sell, or they won't. The can accept a reasonable bid, or they can risk losing Cahill for free next year. It's the choice Arsenal themselves faced this summer, and the outcome of those deliberations make me think that there will be a compromise on the fee eventually. £12 million might be less than £18m, but it's a whole lot better that nothing.

And until next Wednesday, the bullsh*t will keep on piling up. Keep those wings clean.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Be Honest

'If we're really, really going to be honest/ Then we might as well be brief'

So sang David Gedge of The Wedding Present back on the 1989 album Bizarro, and thinking about the reaction of Arsenal fans to the events of the past week, these lines kept going through my mind. At last week's presser, Arsene said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that 'he expected' no-one to be leaving Arsenal, presumably in answer to the question, 'who do you expect to leave this summer?' Arsene was, of course, playing word games - because he was hoping (against hope) that Cesc and Nasri might stay, he could not admit to 'expecting' them to leave. Cue mass Gooner frothing at the mouth, or frothing at the Twitter, perhaps.

In a sense, though, I'd like Arsene to be more honest, because even if you realise he's playing a game with the press, this is a line of communication that the fans take seriously (too seriously, maybe). He can't say who Arsenal would like to sign, and he can only go so far in revealing who may leave; but a little more plain dealing with regard to plans, and why movement has been so slow with regard to major replacements of departing players, wouldn't go amiss. It's of a piece with Arsenal's PR failin gs that I've lamented before.

That said, I expect two or three signings in the next two weeks, especially if, as is widely predicted Nasri leaves in the next day or so. If he does, the list of major departures looks like this:

Denilson (on loan)

with perhaps Bendtner and Almunia to follow. Nasri going for £25million would mean total incomings of over £70million this summer; the sale of Bendtner would take it over £80m. Earlier in the summer Arsene said that if both Cesc and Nasri left, we would no longer look like a serious club; and while I don't think that's true, it certainly will be if we don't get two or three really good players in to replace them. In fact, if we don't, I would take it as an admission of defeat by Arsene, and that this is his last year.

In my last post I noted the four (with Campbell, five) players we've already signed, all but Gervinho aged 20 or below. 6 players have left, with perhaps 2 more to follow (though I wonder now whether Bendtner might be encouraged to stay), and apart from Cesc and Nasri, all of the others have been the subject of Gooner fans' desire to see them gone. Well, you got your wish! But be honest. If you were happy to see most of them go, Cesc's time was pretty much up (and he's started only 20-odd Premier League games in each of the last 3 seasons), and Nasri's head has been turned by the prospect of enormous wages: it's time for a re-think. This is the biggest overhaul of the Arsenal squad I can remember - and it's what a lot of fans wanted after last season's collapse. And, being honest, although the two performances so far have been scratchy, the team have toughed them out and fought for each other - like a team, which is more than you can say about the last dozen games of last season.

Injuries, however, are already taking their toll: Wilshere, Djourou, Gibbs, Traore (though the middle two have form when it comes to injuries), plus suspensions to Song and Gervinho... the squad is looking a bit thin, to say the least. Arsenal have also looked to be lacking a creative spark, even though we've not conceded in our first two games. I think the players we've signed already will, once they've settled in, help give us this spark. (Critics of Gervinho, saying 'he's not good enough' after TWO competitive games, need a reality check.)

But I think our formation is wrong. It was designed with playmakers like Cesc in mind, but I don't think it gets the best out of the players we've got. I would advocate going back to 4-4-2, the Arsenal (not England) 4-4-2, with a deep-lying striker, fluid interchanging, one side tucking in if necessary (a la Parlour) and the other side joing the front two (a la Overmars or Pires/Ljungberg), 4-4-2 becoming a kind of 4-3-3. This is how the squad would look:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
RB: Sagna, Jenkinson
LB: Gibbs, [signing]
CB: Vermaelen, Koscielny; Djourou, [signing]
CM: Song, Wilshere; Frimpong, [signing]
RM: Ramsay, Lansbury
LM/LW: Gervinho, Miyaichi
SS: Van Persie, Arshavin
CF: Walcott, Chamakh/Bendtner, [signing]

In addition, there would be AOC, Afobe, Squillaci, Traore, Miquel, to fit in the squad. The LM/LW, SS and CF positions could do a lot of interchanging, especially if Walcott were given an extended run there to see what he could do - and it's time he was given the opportunity.

What about signings? The injury to Djourou highlights the need for a centre back, and I would now go all-in for Cahill; if not, Scott Dann. A left back is also essential, and if Gibbs is to remain injury-prone, a first-choice signing there is a priority. Even though they don't want to sell Jagielka, I imagine a really good offer for Leighton Baines would do the trick with Everton, as they're completely skint. The most important signing of all is the midfield player; we need someone to be an alternative to Wilshere, a high-tempo, energetic, creative player to get the team moving. And finally, a veteran striker with a bit of pace - I would see whether Nico Anelka fancies coming back to the Arsenal, as he doesn't seem near the first team at Stamford Bridge these days.

If we say Cahill for £16m, Baines for £11m, Anelka for £7m, and a new midfilder for between £15-20m, that would be around £50m spent, with £80m coming in, a net profit of £30m, and and much more balanced squad (and team).

But being honest, I have no idea what, if anything, will really, really happen. And if Arsene should be honest, so will I - the next few weeks will be difficult, but I think better times are on the way, even if we're playing for 4th place, even if we're in the Europa League.

Friday, 12 August 2011

A New Season

The off-season, and pre-season, ends tonight. And tonight, of all things, Arsenal have announced that they have signed a player. But several others have yet to be sold.

So, what to make of Arsenal's summer? I choked back bitter laughter when I read (despite my own self-prohibition) a post by Myles Palmer on ANR who called Arsene Wenger a 'serial loser'; I smiled ruefully to myself when I read a comment on a blog that pronounced 'I want my Arsenal back'; and I have gone from hope, to frustration, to hope again.

So, Cesc is nearly a Barca player; Nasri is nearly a Citeh player; Eboue is nearly a Galata player. Luck to all three, I say. Clichy has already been sold, Denilson has returned to Sao Paolo on loan (but is unlikely to return), rumours today suggest that Almunia may go to newly-minted moneybags Malaga, and Nic Bendtner may go to Stoke City, which I wouldn't wish on anyone. All that should net Arsenal something in the region of £70 million. Which is a fair wedge.

I don't know why anyone took any notice of Arsene's presser this morning; he will say anything other than the truth when it comes to transfer activity. But surely he and Ivan Gazidis know that banking the majority of that money just isn't going to cut it, especially if Arsenal live down to the doomers' expectations in the early season. And this is where I would like to begin: with expectations.

It surely needs no re-stating that Arsenal fans expect too much. Why, with a wage bill that is only the 5th highest in the league, do fans expect us to compete financially with Man Utd (the most high-profile English club globally, with a long history of laying out very large fees and paying top wages); Man City (who with petro-dollar backing can afford to sign, and double the wages of, any player they can persuade to join them, such as Nasri); or Chelsea (who may be towards the end of Abramovich's ability to put them ahead of the pack in terms of spending, but who still took a gamble on Fernando Torres to the tune of £50 million last year)? While I hold out no particular hope that the UEFA financial fair play initiative will ultimately bring the super-club spending to order, I do not want to see 'my Arsenal' (a ridiculous thing to assert, by the way) either putting the club at risk through reckless spending (Leeds Utd, Portsmouth) or put into the hands of Usmanov.

If Arsenal, for the next few years, compete with Liverpool for the 4th CL place, and sometimes end up in the Europa League, what of it? The stadium and squad that is already in place puts Arsenal ahead of Spurs or any of the other upper-mid-table teams that might aspire to 4th. To think we might finish 5th this year would indeed be a disappointment, but I can't see it happening, to be honest. For all their spending, I can't really see Liverpool being qualitatively different or better this year. Henderson, Adam, Downing, Carroll? I don't think I'd be that excited if Arsenal had spent £80 million on those four players, worthy though they may be.

I'm happy to scale back my expectations. A 'selling club'? In the Europa League instead of CL? Aiming for Cup rather than Premier League title success? What of it? I also want 'my Arsenal' back, and doing away with the sour, hateful and hate-filled, bilious and self-lacerating discourses of 'disappointment' with the manager, board, players etc that have filled up the blogosphere this summer is the first step. I was a happier Arsenal supporter in the late 80s, when we were on the verge of winning something, than I am now; the bounty of the years 1998-2004 was a great anomaly that I'm glad I saw, but now could do with putting behind us, because it's distorting the way the grand old club is seen by everyone, even its 'supporters'. Even by me.

So, £70 million's worth of talent out the door, and who has come in? Carl Jenkinson, an Anglo-Finn Gooner who looks a very good prospect as a back-up to Sagna; Gervinho, a right-sided wide player, very quick and with a good eye for goal; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a 17-year-old right-sided winger/ striker who tore up League 1 last year; Ryo Miyaichi, a young, fast, very direct Japanese left winger who played exceptionally well for Feyenoord last year and was awarded a 'special talent' work permit; and tonight, Joel Campbell, a young, fast, left-sided striker from Costa Rica who did very well at both Copa America and World u-20 Championships this summer, who should get a work permit.

See a pattern there?

With the departures of Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, Eboue, Bendtner, and Denilson there is a clear shift in terms of priorities. Between 1998 and 2004, the keynote for Arsenal's style of play was pace and power, dominated by the GG back four, Sol, Vieira and Henry; between 2005 and 2011, 'Cesc's Arsenal', the keynote was technique and possession, which achieved its high-point with the 2008 side, where Flamini and Adebayor gave the (physically smaller) side physicality and tempo; now, we are seeing another change, to explosiveness and speed. I, for one, am really happy to see these kinds of player being signed. I, too, would like a good centre-back, a veteran left-back, and (most importantly) an upgrade on the holding midfielder role, where Song is good but (like Gilberto before him) not a player to dominate or set the tempo. But the side that collapsed last season badly needed an injection of pace, needed runners to break down deep-set defences, needed players with the directness and pace to get past their marker and cause problems. Where the recent side often ran into the sand because all their possession did not translate into goals (leaving them vulnerable to counter-attacks), often playing a lot in front of two lines of four (or even 9 players in a 4-5-1) and never really penetrating, this summer's crop of signings will give the Arsenal a lot more directness, energy and pace.

The player being touted as 'Cesc's replacement', the Brazilian Jadson from Shakhtar Donetsk, isn't a like-for-like replacement, if he arrives. From what I've seen on YouTube, he's not a playmaker, a pure passer; he's a small, dynamic attacking midfielder, like a cross between Arshavin and Deco (with a little bit of Rosicky), a dribbler with a terrific shot from distance. We already have passers in Wilshere, Ramsay, even Lansbury - we need a game-changer. Is Jadson it? I don't know. But I can see the thinking.

I think the doomers have it wrong, in any case. I think there will be further signings once Cesc, Nasri and Eboue are gone next week. Scott Dann looks a strong possibility; I wouldn't be at all surprised if we signed Gary Cahill in the last few days of the window either. I do believe Gazidis and Wenger and others have been working hard to sign players this summer; I believe they knew this exodus was probable, if not certain, and planned for it; I don't believe it's 'penny-pinching' or any other media narratives that have prevented Arsenal from signing more than the four players (plus Miyaichi) they've signed already. It takes time. This will be the biggest upheaval for the club for many a summer, and I would have preferred the deals to have been done earlier; but the club can only play the hand they're dealt.

So, at time of writing, the squad for the season is likely to look like this:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
FB: Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Traore (+?)
CB: Vermaelen, Koscielny, Djourou, Squillaci (+ Dann, Cahill?)
MF: Song, Ramsay, Wilshere, Diaby, Frimpong, Lansbury, Rosicky (+?)
W: Gervinho, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyaichi
F: van Persie, Chamakh, Arshavin, Campbell

That makes 26. A couple of defenders and a midfielder, and I think we'll be fine - in hope rather than in expectation.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

All the World's a Stage, And all the Men and Women merely Players

It's nearly the beginning of pre-season: Arsenal play a Malaysian XI tomorrow afternoon. Hooray! Now there's something else to talk about...

Arsene gave an interesting couple of interviews over the last few days. In the first, he denied outright that Arsenal were about to sell Samir Nasri; pressed further in the second, he revealed that Cesc is 'torn' between his love of Arsenal and his desire to return to Barcelona. Arsene also suggested that if the club sold both Cesc and Nasri this summer, quite rightly the club's 'ambition' would come into question. If nothing else, Arsene reveals here that he knows the anxieties among fans about how our club is perceived, and how the fans perceive the club anxiously. He stated that Nasri would not be allowed to leave this summer even if it means that the club ultimately lose out on £20million+ by not selling him now. In a previous post I advocated exactly that, and I'm glad the club are taking this line. This, more than anything else, demonstrates that money isn't everything; what's £20million in the bank if you can't sign a replacement of equal quality, and the presence of Nasri in the team might help them finally win something? Arsene also said that the fact that other clubs are bidding for our players means that there aren't others elsewhere - so we have to keep hold of our own, by whatever means necessary (no matter how temporary this may be).

This brings me on to Cesc. I said in a previous post I expected him to go, and nothing that Arsene said changes my mind about that. If you were offered a dream job, in a place you'd love to live, with the prospect of fulfilling your career ambitions, surrounded by friends and family, would you say no? I wouldn't. Yes, he might sit on the bench. Yes, he's never going to be as central to the club and team as Cesc has become to Arsenal, because there are too many other stars there, Catalan stars at that. But I don't blame him for wanting to go, and to be honest, throughout he has conducted himself with dignity. This can't be said for Barca, or their players, of course, but I think Cesc is pretty blameless. For him, it's not about money, nor (really) even about 'winning things'. It's about going home, and that's ok by me. If Barca can offer something near £40million, with bonuses and add-ons, I'd say, 'Thank you, Francesc, and good luck.'

With Cesc gone, Nasri would then be given his role as the creative 'fantasista' playing behind van Persie, in the middle of the 3 in the current 4-2-3-1. I say, give him the responsibility. Say, 'show us and the world what you can do. If you want the Ballon D'Or, if you want trophies, if you want to move to a bigger club than Arsenal, SHOW ME.' Either he takes the stage, the club win something, and he either stays because he feels he can win with Arsenal or a wealthy club offers him riches; or, he can't pull it off, and there's less interest in him come next summer.

I'm quite excited about Arsenal, strangely, more than for a few years, and two players are catching my eye. One is Gervinho, who looks the direct, quick, technically good and goalscoring winger that we've been missing for years. He dribbles at speed and looks for space between defenders in and around the box - I think he's going to be really dangerous. The other is Ryo Miyaichi, who had a devastating season on loan to Feyenoord last year. He has electric pace (can keep up with Theo Walcott), is also very direct, extremely skillful, and seems to play with his head up. My hope is that Arsene can wangle a 'special talent' work permit for him so he can be around the squad this year - he'd be an astonishing impact substitute, for starters. In the 4-2-3-1, a front four of Walcott-Nasri-Gervinho-van Persie, with Miyaichi a substitute for either of the wide men, and Arshavin a second option in the Nasri role, would look very sharp indeed.

In the interview, much to the chagrin of the Arseblogosphere, Arsene also said that the club are looking to sign 'one or two more top, top players'. With Jenkinson and Gervinho, this would make four in; with Clichy gone, Bendtner and Almunia negotiating with other clubs, and Cesc very likely to leave, that makes four out. I would say that this is probably enough, though if an offer were made for Denilson (whose end-of-season comments seemed to burn some boats) I'd expect the club to accept that too. A nine-player turnaround for the squad would mean one of the biggest upheavals in the Wenger period - bloggers who call for a cull of five or six players and the same amount in are deluding themselves. Not because of parsimoniousness, but because of continuity.

And even if the Cesc money comes in at around £40million, who do Arsenal buy? I think the top priorities are a centre-back and a dynamic centre-midfielder as a different option to Song (who is a good player, but can be a bit languid. If the Professor could gene-splice Song and Diaby, we'd have a hell of a midfield general - in fact, we'd have Paddy mk2). Cahill, Jagielka, Vertongen - any of these would be fine, to my mind, and one that could cover lefvt-back (like Vertongen) might have the edge. Squillaci can be put out to grass. But who would you sign as the centre-midfielder? Is there another Michael Essien out there (who we can get to before Chelsea or Citeh or United do)? Is there even another Didier Deschamps? I wonder whether we might give Owen Hargreaves a call, if his legs are up to it - a fit Hargreaves would certainly tick the boxes. I dunno - we'll have to wait and see if Arsene will pull another rabbit out of his magic hat.

Which brings me back to the interview. In the Premier league, I feel that to be a successful manager, in terms of the media, one must be a performer. Sir Alex is like the last of the ham actor-managers (see his performance last year when Rooney wanted to leave for Citeh), a footballing Orson Welles who gets what he wants by imposing his will on others, often to brilliant effect. Harry Redknapp is, of course, the comedian, a luvverly fellah with jokes just the right side of blue not to make the missus blush, and is mates with everyone. Mourinho, while he was part of the show, operated the puppet theatre. And Arsene? He's the prestidigitator, the illusionist, playing straight but giving absolutely nothing of his act away, producing rabbits out of hats. This is what provokes the ire of journos such as Myles Palmer, who have lived with the act for too long - there's only so much mummery one can stand. I think it puts the Arsenal supporter in a tough spot, which is why the summer has been so hysterical: the back pages are full of nonsense, planted stories, half-baked rumours, fabrications and speculations; and Arsene plays three-card-monte with the 'truth', now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, as a kind of tactic. What to believe? The real answer, of course, is 'nothing'. But such scepticism is tough act to pull off for the audience when the whole summer show is arranged for us to live through the entrances and exits of the players.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Looking forward

Interesting news today, away from real life: Samir Nasri has been offered the same contract as Cesc, £110,000 a week, to stay at Arsenal. Whether it's true or not, it comes as a good sign. If it was a story planted by Nasri's agent, then it may indicate a paving of the way to the signing of a new contract: 'we fought the club and won a better deal'. If it is a story planted by the club, at least it shows that they're trying to assert some control over the story, and if the player is eventually sold, it would not be because of penny-pinching on Arsenal's part. As I stated in the last post, I'm not at all convinced that the whole Nasri story wasn't stirred up by the agent to gain greater leverage in contract negotiations with the Arsenal - to sell him to Man United, even for £25 million, would be folly and (symbolically, for the fans) an admission of defeat. Personally, I would rather the club forced Nasri to stay and run his contract out than sell him to United this summer. The perils of player mobility yet again.

And once again, the shrill plaints from the arseblogosphere, calling Wenger out for his lack of activity. I don't know what some of these 'fans' want: for Arsene to declare that he's intent on signing Player X and have the price of the player go up, put the other club on the back foot and be less likely to do a deal, and (most importantly) indulge himself in precisely the same kind of public tapping up that we all so deplore with regard to Barca's pursuit of Cesc? No.

Now, let's begin with a few assumptions about next season.

1. Cesc is sold to Barcelona, some time in late August, for about £37 million.
2. Nasri signs a new contract.
3. Bendtner, Denilson, Squillaci and Almunia are eventually offloaded for varying amounts, sum total about £15 million.
4. Gervinho arrives early next week, for £11 million.
5. Arsenal sign a centre-back; let's say Cahill for £17 million.
6. Arsenal sign a dynamic, experienced, defensive centre-midfielder (Motta, Vidal, Barton, who knows?).

Some of the young players will go out on loan again: JET, Aneke, Miquel, Afobe for the first 3 months. I would keep a couple of others at the club who have been knocking around for a while: Henri Lansbury and Kyle Bartley. Both did really well on loan last season, the latter gaining Champions League experience with Rangers, and must be a better option than Squillaci as a fifth central defender (and with our recent injury record at this position, 5 players in this position in the squad would make a lot of sense). Lansbury did well at the Under-21 Euros as a sub for England, outshining Jordan Henderson, who Liverpool paid £20 million for. (Today's speculation is that Norwich will offer £2million for Lansbury - this seems a gross underestimate of his quality.) I'd also see whether Frimpong can come back from his year of injury and be the physical presence in the middle of the park he appeared to be last pre-season.

Here, then, are two teams that we could play from an updated squad, both playing 4-2-3-1:

Sczeczny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Cahill, Gibbs; Song, Wilshere; Gervinho, Nasri, Walcott; van Persie.

Fabianski; Eboue, Djourou, Koscielny, Jenkinson; Diaby, Frimpong; Ramsay, Arshavin, Miyaichi; Chamakh.

Add to this: Bartley, Lansbury, new central midfielder, Rosicky, Mannone.

I think this looks a pretty good squad. I hope Miyaichi can get a permit: I've seen extensive highlights of last season, when he played left-wing for Feyenoord, and he was electrifying. Great acceleration, very quick, skillful and with a good trick or two, played with his head up, good finisher. He is small, granted, and it was 'only' the Dutch league, but he reminded me of two other small, dark-haired wingers who had a great impact in their short Arsenal careers: Anders Limpar and Marc Overmars. Like the latter especially, Miyaichi is fast, direct, and can cut inside from the left and finish well off his right foot. I really like the look of him.

Miyaichi and Gervinho would give the Arsenal what they've lacked for a few seasons: directness and pace. I'd also start Walcott on the left, just off van Persie, as a striker rather than a wide player. If a new, dominant, dynamic central midfielder played alongside Wilshere instead of Song (the ideal being Paddy at age 24) then we'd have a hell of a team.

I do think Arsenal fans underestimate the qualities of some of our own players; I do think that, despite the collapse at the end of last season, the current squad is very good and could, with a bit of luck and a tweak in style (and fortitude), pick up a trophy. I don't think it needs major surgery - a bit more time, and as Arsene said today, 'one or two more' important cogs in the team, and there would be every reason for optimism.

And that would be true even if Nasri is sold.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Clichy/ cliche

I've fallen off the wagon - after months of keeping away from the Arsenal blogs, I'm back on NewsNow, searching for transfer news, the inside dope. The dope, however, is me - I'm going to swear off again.

A bizarre article in The Guardian today by Dominic Fifield is, to all intents and purposes, a call for Arsenal to break their pay structure and to pay its players what they receive at Chelsea and Man United; a demand for financial irresponsibility, in other words. It's curious how twisted the logic gets. Rather than lament spiralling wage bills (which have, and will continue to produce, calamitous and near-catastrophic consequences for large clubs - does no-one remember Leeds or Portsmouth?), the article attacks Arsenal's parsimoniousness. We should pay Samir Nasri (who has half a great season to his name) £120,000 a week, opines Fifield, because United or Chelsea or Citeh can. Well, Arsenal shouldn't. In fact, if these really are his wage demands, they should sell him, preferably abroad, and in 5 years time he can look back, as I'm sure Hleb, or Adebayor, or even Nico Anelka do and he can ask himself: 'what did I do that for?' I have a strong feeling that a lot of the Nasri tittle-tattle is his Mr 20% stirring the pot to strengthen their hand in negotiations, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to read that Nasri's staying in the end. However, you can't really expect Arsene or Ivan Gazidis to comment on this if it's all ongoing.

A little honesty from the club wouldn't go amiss, though. If there's little to spend, say so. If the Arsenal cannot compete against the 'financial doping' of Chelsea, Citeh or United, say so, loudly and often. Remind the fans that Arsenal are currently trying to play an equitable game against the house (the football-media-spectacle complex), and wins against the house are rare.

And so to Clichy. Farewell; a good player, but suspect defensively, caught out by not having a left-midfielder to track back ahead of him, leaving too often exposed. Arsene expects a lot of his full-backs - not only do they (in gridiron parlance) have to be 'shutdown corners', snuffing out the threat of opposing wingers, they also have to create the width going forward. Clichy didn't quite match up to Ashley Cole, or Sagna, or Lauren, or the blessed Nutty. He might do well in Mancini's more prosaic, defensive ethos. But a catastrophic loss? No. After all, he was part of the team that ended last season with a record that bespoke relegation rather than challenging for the title. (So was Nasri, let us not forget.) Replacing him shouldn't prove that costly or difficult, even if Gibbs's injury-prone young legs do not prove more robust. Even if what we have instead is a more stay-at-home, defensively minded player.

In fact, I wouldn't mind at all the signing of some meat-and-potatoes players, some gritty workers (for despite what Martin Samuel says here, Arsene has never bought superstars - he makes them). Perhaps Benzema would set the front line alight, but he might not, and he hasn't exactly done so in Madrid. I can't say I'm excited by, or give any credence to the Kevin Doyle rumours (nor Stewart Downing for £20m, etc) but if we did buy, say, Leighton Baines, and Parker or Barton, and Samba or Cahill, none of these are 'superstars'. But I wouldn't be unhappy with them. Add in Gervinho, and maybe one other, and I think we'd have a pretty good mix with our current squad, even without Clichy, Nasri and even Cesc. This Arsenal team needs more Ray Parlours, not more Thierry Henrys.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The crisis narrative

Arsenal in crisis, yet again. Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, even RvP to be sold? The first three, anyway. What can we make of this, other than the Arsenal really need some media managers who are (a) more competent at handling the traditional media outlets and (b) are more pro-active at getting positive stories across the Arse-blogosphere, even by (as some American sports teams do) by personally engaging with them in q & a's or other kinds of communication? At the moment, the club seem prepared to let the hysteria blow itself out, a risky stratgey considering the negativity around.

There's an excellent post at the Yankee Gunner blog about the 2007-8 team, which explores what happened to the side that nearly (and should have) won the title in 2008, then lost Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor, Rosicky and eventually Toure and Gallas and Eduardo over the next couple of years through a variety of reasons. What struck me was that the 2008 team was itself remarkably different from the 2006 Champions League finalists, which was the last hurrah for the Invincibles. Here are the two starting line-ups:

2006: Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Pires, Silva, Cesc, Hleb, Ljungberg, Henry. Subs: Almunia, Flamini, Reyes, Bergkamp, Van Persie, Senderos, Clichy.

2008: Lehmann, Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy, Hleb, Flamini, Cesc, Rosicky, Adebayor, Eduardo.

and for purposes of comparison, a starting 2010-11 line-up:

Fabianski, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Cesc, Walcott, Arshavin, van Persie.

In effect, Arsene has been forced to reconstruct the side twice in five years. Cesc and van Persie are the only points of continuity. In a previous post I noted the importance of player mobility and contract status, which has, if anything, accelerated in the interim. The problem now for Arsene isn't money - Arsenal have never spent the kind of sums that rivals like Man United and Liverpool (or latterly Chelsea and Man City) have afforded, in terms of fees and the wage bill - it's time. Not in the sense that Carlo Ancelotti might understand it, but in terms of building a team; a team not built from off-the-peg superstars, but from specific components that Arsene sees as re-shaping the dynamic of the team. If the right player costs £5 million rather than £30 million, all well and good, but it's the role they play in the overall shape of the team that's important.

And if Arsene has 'failed', I don't think it's in his unwillingness to fork over £30 million of the club's cash, nor in the 'youth project' (which I would understand at least in part as a response to the increasing problem of player mobility, as well as to the changing economic landscape of European football) - it's the shape of the team that has come into being since 2008. Recent acquisitions have placed technique over size and power, which is fine, if you want to play that way (it works for Vermaelen). However, what has been lost is pace, and penetration. There's no Overmars, there's no Henry. In terms of the squad, I think it's time to move Walcott off the wing and into a central role, as a striker - Arsenal need to rediscover the art of the through-pass and the searing burst of pace. The threat of this would make opposing defences play deeper, giving the midefield more room - and even if Cesc and Nasri go, we still have quite a few creators.

I'd also suggest a move back to 4-4-2, but the 2002-style formation, when we still had Ray Parlour on the right, tucking in to form a central 3 when necessary; and a goalscoring, attacking player wide left, switching with the support striker and the left midfielder as necessary. (Arshavin, bought to play there, doesn't like the role.) One possibility would be to switch Theo to the left - to play the Overmars role, cutting in from the left and striking with the right foot. The current Arsenal team need to pass and to move with greater pace, to switch positions with more creativity, to play on the counter more effectively. They need a tempo player in midfield, a strong centre-back and either a left-winger or a striker. Even losing Cesc and Nasri and Clichy, buying good, effective players in these positions would be an excellent first step towards undoing the damage of the end of last season.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Whaddaya got?

I gave up on blogging on the Arsenal about 18 months ago now, because, in a sense, my original plan was completed - I have given up on the Arsenal. Well, that's not entirely true. I have given up on the Premier League. I despise the hype, the boorishness of its culture, the poverty of the analysis that surrounds it, the breathtaking idiocy of some of its blogs, the blindess of its tribalism. I hate its reactionary petit-nationalism, its unthinking commitment to up-and-at-'em, its sexism. I hate its nth-degree consumerism, its assumption that money makes right, its ethical vacuity. I hate MotD and Sky.

But I do like football. I watch Championship matches when they're on the tv, Europa League, the odd Champions League game on ITV (if I can stomach Tildesley). Arsenal runs in my blood. And so...

Looking back over my old posts, it's surprising to note how little has changed. The keynote is still frustration; we need to sign crucial players; the future of several stars in uncertain; and so on. It's as though Arsenal has now assumed a place in perpetual present, a Groundhog day wherein Arsenal always finsih 3rd or 4th, always 'blow it', a vocal minority always calling Wenger a c**t and demanding his removal, an equal weight of voices advising reasonableness and caution. Round and round and round and round.

What's the way forward? How can I or we gain positivity? How can I watch Arsenal TV again with pleasure, rather than in the run of results at the end of 2010-11 where each woeful effort meant I couldn't bring myself to watch it?

I dunno. But the crucial thing, surely, in not to get caught up in the moment's frustration. Man United sign Jones and Young, so Arsenal fans demand signings NOW! And what if they don't happen until next week? I dunno. Nothing, probably.

So: Arsenal in exile. I'm exiled from Arsenal, because I've come to despise the league in which they play. They themselves are in exile because their manner of playing and behaving does not suit the current state of the Premier League. I wish Arsenal were exiled to Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga so I could follow them with less corrosion to my soul.

I no longer support Arsene in everything he does; teh end of last season put paid to that. But I don't think removing him (and replacing him - with Ancelotti or Coyle or whoever) would solve the problems. Because, for me, they're systemic, institutional, cultural. Arsene has done brilliantly in a job, the complexity and difficulty of which I can only guess at. For many younger supporters, he's now a father figure who many would like to see dethroned because they've known no other manager. I can understand this. I agree that Arsenal may not win anything else under Arsene. But he demands my respect. And what happens when Daddy is no longer there?

'What you rebelling against, Johnny?'

The first time I saw Arsenal (from Untold Arsenal)

Highbury in the dark, a cold December afternoon. Floodlights pick out Jimmy Rimmer standing in front of the Clock End, he’s had nothing to do all match. My Uncle Allan, who had taken me to the game, sees me watching Rimmer and says, ‘He’s been in his armchair all afternoon.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but Arsenal were in the middle of a terrible run of form, winning only 4 of 18 games from Autumn through to early Spring. We’re grinding out a one-nothing win against Burnley, who would be relegated come May. I’m cold, I’m six years old, and the warmth of ham sandwiches and a flask of stewed tea is long, long gone from my stomach. But I feel something else in there now. Arsenal are going to win, and it’s a few days before Christmas.

I’m hooked.

We’d finish a moribund 17th that season, and I was there with my Uncle Allan on the infamous opening day of the next season, 1976-7, when we lost to a promoted Bristol City side on a beautiful August afternoon. I enjoyed it all the same, at the time, but I realised only today why I’ve always remembered watching Final Score on the opening day of a later season, 1979-80, sitting in the forbidding front room of my Auntie Margaret’s flat in Harlow. Arsenal won 4-0 at Brighton to top the embryonic table, and I was unreasonably excited. The first day of the season, it’s not a proper table, I know, I know; but I’d never seen Arsenal top of the table before.
Of course, being six years old at the Burnley game, I didn’t know how terrible that Arsenal side were. The bounty of Wenger’s time throws those Barren Years into stark relief. Uncle Allan had bought me a glossy book from the stall beneath the West Stand called ‘Arsenal, Arsenal’ and I’d marvelled at grainy colour pictures of Arsenal scoring against Ajax in the 1970 Fairs Cup semi-final – against Ajax of all teams, the kings of Europe, whose players I’d idolise during the 1978 World Cup – and knew that I supported a club with history. A great history.

Highbury, on a cold dark afternoon in December 1975, against fellow relegation-candidates Burnley, still spoke of grandeur, of tradition, of that great history. The glorious nights against Ajax and Anderlecht still shimmered behind the mundane performances of the 1975-6 team, who were scratching around the bottom of the Division One table as though the Double had been fifty, not five years before. It would be more than thirteen years until I’d see Arsenal win another title, and at times, supporting the team seemed a bit of a thankless task. But I never doubted we were a great club. You only had to go to Highbury to see that for yourself.
What really thrilled me and terrified me, that day, was the crowd. Being seated in the West stand, it wasn’t the surge that lifted you clear of the ground that I’d feel as an adult, standing on the terraces, that shocked me, but the sound. The songs, the shouts of the fans, the swearing at the players. Being a young boy in a mass of men, who generated some kind of visceral, primal, exhilarating and gut-wrenching swell of voices, voices in unison, as one entity, one thing, the Arsenal, it was an unearthly experience. Like nothing else I’d experienced, and by God, I loved it.

I was totally hooked.

The ham sandwiches and the flask of tea were packed in a small vinyl holdall, with a red-brown tartan on the side. As I watched the final minutes of the match, it was at my feet under the West Lower seat, and it also contained a programme, which I’d pored over for an hour while we waited for the match to start. Uncle Allan and I would later board a bottle-green Eastern National 400 bus back home, back to Essex, from King’s Cross coach station, which to me seemed as outlandish and dangerous as the Cyclops’s cave. The dark city outside and the dark station inside blurred together, an overwhelming swirl of dark and light and smells and sounds. I’d read the programme over and over again as the lights on the A127 swung by, reliving the whole day in my head.

It’s the sounds that stick in my memory, 35 years later. The press of people and the whooshing air being pushed in front of the Piccadilly line train as I edged nervously backwards on the Kings Cross Underground platform, the wind tugging at my hair as pieces of litter began to swirl about. The urgent roar of the Arsenal crowd as the team tried to drive home an attack, my own boyish shrieks as I attempted to join in. Overheard banter of men, North Londoners, alien but reassuringly familiar, sounding like my Granddad Jim and my Dad who, like his brother Allan, were part of the post-war London dispersal. And the release, the relief, of the full-time whistle, the clunk of the seats returning to upright, and the shuffle of thousands of feet on the steps.

The return journey has gone from my memory, in truth. I only really remember the bus rides and Underground journeys to the ground, not the ones taking us back home. There’s only one return journey I remember, literally skipping across the road as Uncle Allan and I went back to my grandparent’s flat in Laindon (part of Basildon) to meet up with my Mum and Dad, my heart full of joy for Rix’s sumptuous strike from the corner of the box. In my memory it’s early summer, a hazy sun still in the sky in early evening, golden light and long shadows. I don’t know now whether I remember what was outside or what was inside, whether that Saturday evening was real (I remember it as a 3-1 win against Villa, but trawling the records I can’t find a match that meets the criteria) or whether it was unreal, just some kind of amalgam of my memory, my emotion and my imagination.

Jimmy Rimmer, though, standing somewhere near the penalty spot, all alone, his team-mates attacking the goal at the other end, he’s real. Why was I looking at him rather than at them? I don’t know. It must say something about me. But he’s there still, at Highbury in December 1975, in a green goalie’s jersey, clapping his hands together to keep out the cold, inside my head.

Arsenal, the cult of personality and the collective (from Untold Arsenal)

Another week, another defeat, another round of Chicken Licken posturing from the Arse-blogosphere. I’m not going to dwell on the painful realities of the loss to Chelsea, here, but offer another long-term perspective of Arsenal’s situation. I will start with the cult of personality that informs much football coverage in this country.

If you think about it, there’s very little penetrating analysis of football in the British popular media, from tabloid journalism to MotD to Football First. It often concentrates on personalities, where it does exist: how did so-and-so play? In the worst of the Arse-blogosphere this descends into invective against perceived offenders (the perpetual Denilson, this week Clichy, in the past Song and Eboue) or, of course, calls for Arsène’s resignation, as he’s to blame for every bad performance, not the players.

On a few blogs you read how Arshavin is clearly unhappy, the other players don’t like him and neither does the manager. (If this were true, and if Arsène has total control of footballing matters, why did Arsenal buy Arshavin and why still play him?) The cult of personality has the institution of Arsenal FC, its team and tactics and strategies, replaced by Arsène himself, a one-man band, an obsessive, a crank. I refer you to my previous post for more in this line.

Myles Palmer, himself the cheerleader of the Chicken Licken faction (and who does it for reasons of personal animus and the journalistic ‘story’, it seems, rather than emotional investment in the club) has written recently that Wenger is not a good tactician, rarely winning games through tactical adjustments or substitutions. Instead, Palmer calls Wenger a ‘choreographer’.

In part, I would tend to agree that Arsène is not the greatest manager at tactical switches on-the-fly, but I think it’s important here to make a distinction between those tactics and strategies. Tactics are short-term decisions or procedures that implement a broader, long-term plan of action, a strategy, to achieve a certain goal. While Arsène may have weaknesses as a tactician, as a strategist I think that he is without peer.

Most managers are not, and indeed in the current footballing culture of instantaneous success, cannot afford to be strategists. It is to Arsenal’s credit as a club that in the mid-1990s they employed world football’s most innovative strategic thinker, then completely unheralded in this country, to take the club forward, something that Bruce Rioch was signally unable to convince Dein and other board members that he would be able to do. Since when, Arsène Wenger has overseen the complete remodelling of Arsenal’s training facilities, its move to a new stadium, its re-imagination not as ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ but as the most thrilling footballing side in England, its backroom culture, its recruitment strategies with regard to players. Everything is different now.

What, then, is the current strategy? If we ignore the ‘blame game’ and cult of personality rhetoric which sees Arsenal’s football planning in terms of one man’s stubbornness or whimsical desire to ‘experiment’, how can we analyse what Arsenal are doing with a long-term perspective?

The ‘youth policy’ is fundamental. This is far from being a whimsical experiment to see whether he can win the league ‘with kids’. It’s a strategic plan that responds to long-term developments in football that have still to fully unwind. It begins with the arrival of Sky monies, the transfer bubble, the spending of 70-80% of revenues on salaries which sustained the English Premier league from the mid-1990s until 2008, which has also had the side-effect of producing large numbers of institutional casualties: Leeds United, Charlton, Norwich, Southampton, Portsmouth, and so on. Thankfully, Arsenal have not placed themselves in debt to finance the acquisition of superstars. It’s now clear that Arsène saw the inevitable deflation of the transfer bubble coming and decided upon an alternative long-term strategy to maintain the club’s position as an elite European and Premier League institution. Spending on younger players allows Arsenal to maximise the value of its outlay.
It is also well-known that Arsenal’s current internal culture runs counter to the prevailing English one of nightlife, celebrity and conspicuous consumption. This is why Arsenal develops its own players, to educate them in a different kind of lifestyle. Even media superstars like Thierry Henry behaved differently to Beckham or Terry; Arsenal players like Jermaine Pennant and Ashley Cole, who clearly were attracted to and were part of that English footballing culture, left the club, and it’s to be hoped that Jay-Emmanuel Thomas’s recent misadventure is not a bad omen for him.

That’s not to say that the club rules its players with an iron hand. Instead, the club (and Arsène) is criticised for insulating its players from the world, that they’re ‘pampered’ and ‘soft’. Clearly it would be absurd to take Arsène’s public statements of support for his players as a sign that he is incapable of criticising them in private (though some do), but the crucial thing is that Arsène constantly emphasises group responsibility, group mentality, group togetherness.

This emphasis on teamwork is, I think, a response to developments in the relationship between player and club/ employer over the last 10 years. While the Bosman ruling gave players the necessary freedom to leave a club at the end of a contract, it tended to dissolve the bonds of loyalty that were once the norm. We see very few ‘one-club’ players now. If fans are now customers and consumers, players are contractors, willing to move from team to team if opportunities arise to earn more, or win more trophies. Fair enough; but this must have a negative impact on group dynamics, on team ‘chemistry’. This is also why Arsenal consistently, and rightly, refuse to abandon their wage structure.

It is also the reason why Arsenal have spent the year re-signing young players to long-term contracts. Player mobility is only controlled by the club if they have two years or more on their contract to run, and player value is determined partly by contract length. Vieira and Henry might have seemed undersold at the time of their sales, but contract length as well as age limited their sell-on value. (And if you don’t think sell-on value is important, remember that Manchester United have changed their own transfer strategy to target under-26s, and that Liverpool struggled mightily – and failed – to offload unwanted players like Babel because their estimation of the player’s value was too high.) Limiting player mobility allows for the group to develop together. Incoming players are intensively scouted in order to maintain this team dynamic.

Today’s Arsenal, even though Arsène necessarily embodies the club in the public sphere, is actually wedded to the opposite of the cult of personality: the primacy of the collective. Adebayor and Toure were purged in the summer because their cliques disrupted the collective, and the team has been healthier for it. The primacy of the collective is also the primacy of the strategy over the tactic, the long-term over the short-term, the development of a team rather than the acquisition of a roster of stars.

And here comes an unexpected conclusion: Arsène Wenger is contemporary Arsenal’s Virgin Queen. Like Elizabeth I, Arsène Wenger understands that the long-term continuity of the institution is far more important than the merely personal or individual. Elizabeth rejected the dynastic politics of the 16th century (where geo-politics was conducted through marriage and personal alliances) in order to construct a different nation state that would survive her: ‘England’ was her child, she needed no biological heir. Arsène Wenger has constructed a different Arsenal that will survive him, in terms of its finances, its facilities, its scouting networks, its group of players; and like Elizabeth, a cult of personality surrounds him that obscures, in the popular eye, what he has truly done. Perhaps he likes it that way.

English Football's code of omerta (first published on Untold Arsenal)

I was listening to the radio in the car, driving back after family commitments, when I heard that Aaron Ramsey had been assaulted on a football field in Stoke. I was emotionally thrown back to the day of Eduardo’s injury, ten minutes after which I told an Arsenal supporting-friend: this has finished our season, and Eduardo’s career. And as on that day, I wondered what on earth I was doing in giving my support to a sport that allows the violence of a Smith, a Taylor, or a Shawcross to take away a year or two of the careers of very bright young footballing talent. In these moments, I’ve had enough of English football. It makes me physically sick.

I read the howls of rage, of disbelief, and of grief too, on this blog and others. Like Arsene, likeTony, and like you too I would guess, I believe that Ramsey’s injury is no coincidence. It is the product of a way of playing, a product of aggression and of the tacit condoning by the authorities, by referees and by the footballing media of an over-physical approach by Arsenal’s opponents because they do not have the footballing ability to match our team. ‘Ramsey was too quick for him’, I’ve heard it said. Perhaps. But being slower than another player is not an alibi for breaking his leg.

Tony Pulis’s reaction, to defend Shawcross the person (‘his Mum took him home’) while refusing to acknowledge the horrible severity of the act, should be placed on tape with McLeish defending Taylor, and the ‘tackles’ on Eduardo and Ramsey. It should then be shown to Pulis, to McLeish, to all players and coaches and managers and administrators in England, to show up their self-deception and expose the recurrence of a self-serving and self-deceiving rhetoric of English ‘honesty’ that seems to mitigate or even cancel out the violent act. ‘Honest’ and good men can do horrendous things, even by accident.
Anger in the Arse-blogosphere has been universal and understandable. However, the usual closing of ranks in the mainstream football media has not been consistent. On Sky’s Sunday Supplement talkshow, which I had previously abandoned for its ongoing commitment to the terminally banal (and unwitting exposure of the empty heads of most football correspondents), Brian Woolnough tried to shepherd the panel towards a familiar denunciation: that Arsene had gone ‘over the top’ in his pinpointing of the physicality other teams use against his team. Patrick Barclay and others refused to follow the party line; no, they said. Arsenal are ‘roughed up’ more than others. Wenger does have a point, and his anger is understandable. Barclay went further, to say that there is a ‘wildness’ in the English game that leads inevitably to injuries like that of Eduardo and Ramsey. Arsenal are too often the victims of this ‘wildness’. As the program went on, Woolnough became increasingly tetchy with this show of independent thinking.

Also mentioned in the programme were Craig Bellamy’s comments after the Chelsea-Citeh match. Bellamy, admittedly a loose cannon, said: ‘I know what JT is like and nothing surprises me about it, so I’m not going to comment on that. I think everyone in football knows what the guy is like, but that’s off the field. On it he’s an outstanding player. He’s a great captain for Chelsea.’ ‘Everyone in football knows what the guy is like’: including the journalists who now express such qualms about Terry’s private life but who were happy to keep quiet to enjoy a chummy relationship with ‘JT’.

Bellamy’s comments, like Bridge’s refusal of the handshake, were a breach in the code of silence that informs what I would call (with a big nod to, of all people, President Dwight D. Eisenhower) the ‘football-media complex’: the FA, the Premier League, Sky, the BBC, the news media, the referees, the clubs, the players. This code of silence, what is called in Mafia terms omertà, is ‘an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority’ based on concepts of honour and shame, that is also enforced by fear: ‘He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace’ (Sicilian proverb).

Such a code of silence protects the individual from immediate further harm but perpetuates the corrupt system: individual acts of vengeance are permitted within the system of omertá but not informing to the authorities, because that would disrupt the system itself. The midfield ‘enforcer’ is the emperor of omertà: if your team-mate is kicked, you kick right back. Harder.

In the English ‘football-media complex’, too many things have been taboo, left deliberately unspoken in the code of omertà. But the cracks are beginning to show. In this spirit, here is an incomplete list that can be diagnosed from this week’s football:

1.The FA and Premier League have been criminally negligent in their financial dealings and practices, encouraging a boom-and-bust economic cycle that is now claiming high-profile victims.

2.The level of understanding and reporting of these matters in the mainstream media has also been negligent in the extreme, and has been left to sites such as Untold to lead the way to a better understanding of the economic morass now threatening to swallow weaker (and some stronger) members of the Premier League.

3.The FA has been criminally negligent in its fostering of an internal footballing culture that would help young men with too much money, and too little developed an ethical sense, to negotiate their way in the world without harming others. JT shitting in his own nest, so to speak, has finally revealed to the population at large what the industry has known for a long time: that football is now up to its own ankles in it.

4.The FA has been criminally negligent in the coaching and technical training afforded to most professional footballers. Aggression and strength covers these limitations but fatally weakens England national teams at the highest competitive levels and ultimately leads to Ryan Shawcross’s assault on Ramsey. Shawcross is so technically deficient in the tackle that he deliberately drove his foot as hard as he could through where he thought the ball was, snapping Ramsey’s tibia and fibula. If you look at a picture of the incident, Shawcross’s studs are not up, but he is well over the ball. He is not attempting to injure Ramsey deliberately, but nor is he trying to win the ball cleanly, with technique; he is attempting to drive through ball and player with crushing force. By contrast, think of Moore on Jairzinho in 1970, the ‘greatest tackle ever’. I’ve just watched this again on YouTube. Moore uses no force. With timing and skill he reaches out his right leg and pokes the ball off Jairzinho’s instep, then gets up and plays on. Or think of Bob Pires on Paddy Vieira at Highbury: knee over the ball, foot on the ground, clean and decisive.

5.The FA, Premier League, and the ‘football-media complex’ pays ironic homage to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’s achievements by reinforcing its exceptionalism (a double edged-sword, as Arsenal’s difference is often used as an alibi for its negative treatment). In reality, in terms of the coaching, culture and financing in place at Arsenal, the club should be held up as a model for emulation.

It’s time, then for ‘Clean Hands’, a thorough investigation into the economics, the culture and the practices of football in England, that lets down players, fans and clubs alike. We need to know what happened at Portsmouth, why Chelsea seems to be decaying from within, why English players are so much less than they could be – and why three of Arsenal’s players have had their legs broken in 5 years. And finally, after the courageous win at Stoke, how about a Premier league title for Arsenal, against the odds, without megastar spending, without unsustainable debts, ‘with kids’? If we could do it, with a different economic and cultural field to play on, why not others?

The Arsenal Agenda (first published on Untold Arsenal)

I was prompted to write this following the extraordinary convulsions in the Arsenal blogosphere after the defeat to Manchester United. Chicken Licken bloggers, one of whom claimed they could manage Arsenal better than Arsene, renewed their calls for Denilson’s head, Arsene’s head, anyone’s head. (Unwise bloggers might be encouraged to read this.) It seemed so out of kilter with reality that I thought that there had to be some kind of diagnosis of a collective mentality, shared by the football media in England and the ‘doom and gloom’ Arsenal bloggers, that made them react in such a way. These are my diagnoses.

The Foreign Agenda. Arsene’s French nationality is a constant point of reference, the implication being that Arsenal is now a ‘French club’. (One blog stated that Smalling had chosen United over Arsenal ‘because he wanted to speak English in the dressing room.’) From the old references to ‘discipline’, or rather lack of it (all those red cards, symptoms of a suspect temperament) to the current accusation that Arsenal lack an ‘English spine’, fighting spirit, or physicality, Arsène’s Arsenal fall foul of a particular kind of xenophobia, in both the football media and among our own fan-base. What is unspoken is that Arsenal’s global scouting network is a necessary and far-sighted (and now much-imitated) policy that enables the club to compete, by attracting young footballing talent from a global pool: nationality is secondary to technique, temperament, ability, and athleticism. Arsenal are a post-national club, a difficult thing in a post-Imperial country.

The Logic of ‘Success’. We often read that Arsenal haven’t won anything for 5 years (and counting). The Chicken Licken mantra: ‘We must buy. The kids aren’t good enough. The club isn’t successful. The ‘youth experiment’ has failed.’ As Untold Arsenal has been exploring, finances in English football mean that we have to re-think what we understand by footballing ‘success’. What is success, and how do we measure it? In wins, in trophies, in superstars bought for multi-millions? Or, in building a stable, properly-financed, sensibly run club, which produces and develops its own players, that plays an entertaining and winning style of football, and that will continue as an institution not for 5 or 10 years but for 100?

The Blame Game. ‘Something is wrong with the club.’ ‘Wenger’s lost the plot.’ ‘He’s too stubborn.’ This line of thinking sees defeat not as a necessary component of sporting competition (think of what it would be like to ‘support’ the Harlem Globetrotters), but as a manifestation of some kind of lack on the part of the manager, or some kind of terminal decline in his thinking. When Arsenal are beaten, the assumption is not that the other team played better football on the day, but that Arsenal would beat all others handsomely if it were not for the selection, motivational and tactical deficiencies of Arsene Wenger himself. The Arse-blogosphere looks for someone to blame for disappointment, and lays it all at the door of ’Big Daddy’ (see below). The blame game is clearly linked to raised expectations created by the 1998, 2002 and especially 2004 teams, but is also tainted by ‘declinism’, a belief that the past was a better place, which is very much an English cultural malaise.

The Instant. The Arse-blogosphere is reactive, and places instantaneous reaction above reflection and thought. It also places instant digestion above slow rumination. The Chicken Licken blogs are symptoms of our ‘live’, ‘24/7’, instant access and instant comment digital culture. The culture of instantaneousness means that Arsenal are not allowed to lose, because there is no longer view of things, and a defeat means the end of the world. As the food critic Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, ‘After reading a lot of overheated puffery ... you know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?’

A Sense of Entitlement. ‘We deserve better.’ Chicken Licken Arsenal bloggers and fans believe that somehow they are entitled to watch not only high-quality entertaining football, but all-conquering football. This has been reinforced by the success of Arsène’s Arsenal itself. No-one who watched Terry Neill’s Arsenal, or George Graham’s, can honestly inhabit that sense of entitlement. This sense, not that we are privileged to watch the kind of foot ball seen at the Emirates, but that we ‘deserve’ to do so, is also connected with consumerism.

The Dominance of Consumerism. It’s no great news that the contract between fan and club has changed since the advent of the Premier League, and the post-Hillsborough construction of a middle-class fan-base for top-level football. In treating the fan as a customer, however, our club has helped produce a consumption-oriented fan mentality that now manifests itself on the Arse-blogosphere. A recurrent complaint is: ‘I pay £XXXX for my season ticket, so I expect to see XXXX.’ Chicken Licken bloggers now relate to the experience of watching football as they would to a movie: they want a guaranteed level of entertainment or success, and if they don’t get it, they complain loudly. Of course, the experience of watching a live football match is not the repeatable, guaranteed experience of watching a movie: sometimes a team plays badly, sometimes they lose. Arsenal don’t lose very much, but when defeat comes...

A Culture of Complaint. In 1993, the art critic Robert Hughes published a book called The Culture of Complaint. In it, Hughes argued that ‘we create an infantilized culture of complaint, in which Big Daddy is always to blame and the expansion of rights goes on without the other half of citizenship - attachment to duties and obligations... The emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things, rather than what we think’. Rather than a democratic expression of fan voices, the Arse-blogosphere is largely characterised by this mode of complaint, the football-consumer rejecting the long-term ‘duties and obligations’ of supporting their club in favour of short-term gratification, and instant expressions of blame.

The Importance of Ideology. This underpins everything. The foundational motive for the bias against Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal is economics. Arsène Wenger has been pursuing an economic policy which runs diametrically against the prevailing ideological orthodoxy of ‘Football 2.0’: that financial irresponsibility (spending on transfer fees and wages at a level that cannot be sustained by the club’s business model) is the only path to success (see above). This model is of course the same one that Brownian economic policy has pursued since 1997, the inflation of a financial bubble founded on unsustainable levels of debt, that is now also falling to pieces. Wenger’s foresight is actually astounding, if only the football media and the Chicken Licken Arse-blogosphere could understand it, or perhaps stand to look at it. Wenger’s Arsenal offer a different model of financial responsibility and footballing excellence that rejects ‘borrow and spend’ irresponsibility. When the sky does indeed fall (as Untold Arsenal has demonstrated that it shall – the first drops of a hard rain are falling even now) then Arsenal will be one of the best-prepared clubs to succeed – by whatever measure – in England, and in Europe.