Stoke’s whipping up of anti-diving fervour deflects real issues

It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when Stoke manager Tony Pulis called for Luis Suarez to be retrospectively banned for diving, and then another when one of his players – Michael Kightly – took up the baton of painting a gloomy picture of how divers were ruining the game. As far as bringing corrosive influences into the Premier League is concerned, Stoke rank up there with the best of them in how they have successfully managed to gain acceptance for a brand of play that pushes some of football’s most important laws to breaking-point. For every time Suarez tries to con the referee with one of his fairly hopeless dives, there will be at least five occasions on which one or more Stoke players are successfully pulling off a cynical foul either in full view of the officials or behind their back. If these are full-blooded enough to rough up the player, so much the better as it will knock them off their stride and lead them to fear holding onto the ball with quite so much confidence later on in the match. Such are the bully-tactics that Tony Pulis has instructed his team to go out and play with – and on at least two occasions, it has resulted in one of his players breaking an opponent’s leg and perhaps irreversibly altering their career paths for the worse (Francis Jeffers in 2007 and Aaron Ramsey in 2010 – both by Ryan Shawcross’s boot).

For a club who have steadfastly refused to take any blame for the hurt and trauma their style of play has inflicted on other players, it is galling that they should now seek to lecture the Premier League on the framework in which the game should be played. It may be to Pulis’s advantage to ride the anti-diving wave that deflects attention from the kind of on-the-limit tackles that his team routinely make, and perhaps even loosens the protection that referees are prepared to grant players on the receiving end of them. It is noticeable that Michael Owen, now a Stoke player, also chimed in with his own take on the issue and carelessly added a xenophobic element to the discussion by accusing foreign players of bringing it to English shores. However, if Stoke see themselves and the kind of football they peddle as quintessentially English, and worthy of protection against divers, then English football has hopelessly distorted the notion of a ‘contact sport’ and muddled up its morals. Diving will always pale in comparison to the importance of keeping a tight leash on the kind of tackles regularly dished out by Stoke players that carry the brutal power to cause permanent physical and psychological damage. The theatrics of Suarez and co may affect the outcome of matches, but English football seems to have forgotten amidst the current furore that this is a small crime when compared to what the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Dan Smith have wrought on their fellow players in recent years. Some perspective would be gladly appreciated – especially as referees are doing a better job than ever of hauling up divers in matches – and a refocusing of scrutiny on eradicating tackles that result in broken legs (which are still made on a regular basis on weekends in the Premier League) would not go amiss.

Mancini’s great chance to take Manchester City forward lies in the Bernabeu

Tonight’s glamour match of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Manchester City represents an opportunity that Roberto Mancini would be foolhardy to pass up. City struggled badly under Mancini in a tough group in their first test in the deeper waters of the Champions League, during a campaign that did nothing to dispel the perception that a manager who had failed to replicate domestic success at Inter on the European stage had his limitations. However, if ever there was a chance for a manager and team who are both making steady and impressive strides to maturation to make the final leap to being serious contenders at the highest level, the luck of the draw has given them it. Cancelling out, or even overcoming as tough an opponent as they are likely to face in the Champions League is not beyond the realms of possibility for City anymore, and doing so right from the off will set them in good stead for the rest of the competition. If they seize the opportunity to shine against the best that has been presented before them tonight, it could serve as the graduation of City as a football team and Mancini as a manager to the highest level.

Lessons of Hillsborough and Karachi tragedies must be absorbed to prevent further unnecessary loss of life

Remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy has been forefront in everyone’s minds over the past week, and its lessons stretch well beyond the boundaries of British sport. It was as shocking to read about how 96 innocent football fans were asphyxiated to death in a section of the stadium amounting to a death trap, as it was to hear that 264 Pakistani workers were trapped by metal grilles and a lack of safety exits while a factory fire raged around them and they were burnt alive. In Britain, the Hillsborough tragedy ensured that safety standards were upped, while the silver lining in the cloud of revelations that came to the fore last week lay in the ability of its citizens to hold the government accountable and thereby bring about changes that could save lives. In Pakistan, what guarantee that the recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore will result in honourable resignations and an urgency to correct antiquated structures that imperil people in such ghastly fashion?

As far as sport is concerned, it is always notable how cricket in the subcontinent is played before a fanatical following, who turn out in overwhelming numbers for T20 and one-day internationals and whose pens are delineated in the stadium by strong grilles in the front and to both sides. It would be a surprise to any Pakistani if the safety officials inside the stadium were aware of how many people each pen could take before the risk of a human crush like the one that happened at Hillsborough became a reality, or if they had measures in place to check the number of people in each pen at any given time. Similarly, there is little faith that safety stewards would know how to effectively stagger the number of people entering any pen in the stadium by standing at the entry tunnels, which was a key failing of the police at Hillsborough that resulted in fatal overcrowding.

The intersection of the Hillsborough report with the fatal fire in Karachi places fresh impetus on the Pakistan government to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. As far as sport is concerned, it falls to the Pakistan Cricket Board to order a review of safety at all major cricket grounds so that one of the few instances in which people turn out en masse in that country can never be subject to the sort of irreversibly sad disaster that befell Hillsborough. India, too, has a track record of getting up to speed on sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Indian Grand Prix in the most shabby and delayed fashion possible, and would do well to check back and ensure that no potentially fatal shortcuts were taken in the construction of stadiums, stands and terraces.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.

Real Madrid’s relentlessly optimistic financial results beg closer scrutiny

Despite all the newly arrived clubs whose deep pockets are changing European football’s landscape, it is still Real Madrid whose actions and largesse provoke stronger criticism. Younger and older fans alike may struggle to reconcile the club’s habit for preening itself as an institution of history and tradition with its routine practices of amputating managers’ careers, accumulating trophies through spending near-grotesque levels of cash on players and capitalising on close ties with government institutions in Spain that border on incestuous. This is a club that wiped nearly 206 million euros of debt off at a single stroke by somehow convincing Madrid’s city council to spend such a lavish sum on purchasing their training ground, and that once again called on Spanish banks to secure £157 million of public money at unusually low interest rates in a time of recession to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009.  It would not be too far-fetched to claim that, given the amount of public money that Madrid have pilfered with the assistance of Spanish banks in a fifteen-year period, they are directly responsible for a significant part of the economic woes of the people who pledge them their support.

However, while the Glazers’ reliance on English banks to bankroll their takeover of Manchester United has seen the club fall into a logical, cause-and-effect based spiral of debt and struggles to refinance the debt, Madrid’s comparable levels of borrowing have not brought them the same problems. Rather, a club who reportedly took out 300 million Euros’ worth of bank loans at the start of Florentino Perez’s second spell as president have gone from strength to strength, proudly announcing a record turnover of 514 million Euros for last year and that their debt has been cut to 124.7 million Euros. Indeed, despite assembling a team that cost roughly 300 million Euros and having to deal with interest payments, there has not been a single financial year in which Madrid have failed to either increase their revenue or announce impressive profits. The latest revenue sums are, as the club’s website boastfully states, “the biggest of any sporting institution in the world” while Madrid have managed to continue reaping in more money than Manchester United and Barcelona even during a period that has seen them fail to claim the Champions League for ten years. We are constantly told that they have an enormous fan base spanning the world (and, in the eyes of Perez, probably any alien worlds as well), but anyone living in South and Southeast Asia will confirm that there are far more Barcelona shirts with Messi on them than Madrid ones with Ronaldo going around. In the Middle East, where Spanish football is more popular than the Premier League, their fan base is pretty much equally split with Barcelona. So too is their TV rights deal with Mediapro, which earns each club roughly 160 million euros a season.

So, if the allure of their players, their on-pitch successes and commercial draw has not been stronger than Manchester United’s or Barcelona’s at any point over the last six seasons, how is it that they are constantly in a position to declare themselves the most lucrative football club and best-performing sporting institution in the world? One suspects that the continued affiliation of Real Madrid with the Spanish government has seen them secure advantageous terms on everything from sponsorship deals, to loan arrangements, interest rates, and payment deadlines. If this did not have such a draining effect on the Spanish economy and its unemployed masses, it would not appear to so much resemble corruption. Yet as it stands, Madrid’s reliance on money to stay competitive is far more damning than that of clubs owned by sugar daddies whose extravagant expenditure was not sourced directly from a public who couldn’t afford it.

As they begin to implement Financial Fair Play rules in full force, it would be an oversight on UEFA’s part not to examine the sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements Real Madrid have secured, and adjudge whether the money accrued is the result of their apparently Midas-like business touch or more dubious special relationships with public institutions that have been in place since the dictator Franco anointed them his club and began lavishing them with his patronage. It is these murky foundations on which the “history” of Real Madrid, and its first five Champions League titles was built, and it is this same culture that has continued to prop up the club’s status today despite a relative lack of on-pitch success.

Ronaldo’s want of more money is an indictment of football’s cash culture

The problem is that, if it turns out to have been a question of money, he will lose the respect of a significant portion of football fans around the world – and he was not exactly ahead of Messi anyway – because at the end of the day, if Ronaldo feels undervalued at Real, he may have a reason to be ‘sad’ but, if he is only after more money, then his comments are an insult to those who have a proper reason to be upset.

The above quote formed the main thrust of a football article in the Guardian newspaper recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/sep/04/cristiano-ronaldo-sad-money-affection?commentpage=last#end-of-comments), which sought to condemn Cristiano Ronaldo’s apparent greediness in asking for more money at a time when the rest of Spain and Europe are locked in financial crisis.

I think people from the football community who are sanctimoniously deploring Ronaldo’s request for more money don’t realise just how two-faced and small-minded they sound. Every Madrid fan currently lambasting him for wanting a pay raise must have been punching the air in delight when their club lavished 80 million pounds of public money to buy him from Manchester United to start the fightback against Barcelona. Along with him as the flagship signing, Madrid’s squad is one of the most gratuitously constructed – financially speaking – in football, and it is the short-term demands of the fans that partly drives this vicious culture of spend-to-win. If you were looking for sporting culprits responsible for exacerbating the woes of the Spanish people, you would point the finger at Madrid first rather than Ronaldo. Football’s disregard for money is a cultural disease of which Ronaldo merely forms a symptom rather than an underlying cause. He has likely cast an envious eye at what Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero – players whose worth arguably does not outstrip his – are earning at clubs with similarly wanton financial cultures as Madrid’s and feels he is in line with a pay raise according to today’s market rates. It should be the clubs and, by association, condoning trophy-hungry fans who take the blame for inflating today’s market price to such worrying proportions rather than Cristano Ronaldo.

Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.

However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.

Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins).  It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.

It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

…while Wenger mixes unswerving faith with welcome dose of pragmatism

It is for the opposite reasons to those spelt out in my post about Alex Ferguson below (http://talksportblog.com/2012/08/20/ferguson-driven-silly-by-citys-relentless-spending/) that Arsene Wenger grows in stature year upon year. Which other manager sticks to his principles quite as bravely in the face of an overwhelming chorus of criticism, and in the conviction that football has so much more to offer its exponents and supporters than just a glittering piece of silverware? As Alex Song left, he was talking as much about what it would mean for his strategy as he did about how they had endeavoured to give him a meaningful education: “Part of our club is to influence people’s lives in a positive way.” If this also means demonstrating to them and supporters that the onus is on coaches to put in the hours to develop their players, rather than risk financial meltdown through adopting a model that no-one in the real world abides by, then so be it. Arsenal have slipped as a result of his determination, but there is no other elite manager who has even attempted to deal with the football-specific problems he faces every day. Ferguson’s instinctive reaction to the first sign of danger was to panic-spend on the best striker currently in the Premier League in a way that financially burdens his club; Wenger has instead made brave sacrifices because he wishes to protect a long-term vision of his club’s prosperity that doesn’t even enter the thinking of his counterparts.

However, today I want to instead applaud the more pragmatic measures Wenger is taking in the knowledge that a long-term vision can only be fulfilled if short-term goals are accomplished. Arsenal must find themselves in the Champions League places again at the end of the season to avoid permanent divorce with their fans, and Wenger has realised (surprisingly, some would say) that this is threatened currently by the lack of requisite quality in his midfield. His remark that Arsenal were maybe “one creative player short” after the Sunderland game tied in with the opinion of fans that the club still needs to compensate for the departure of Van Persie by adding more quality to their team. A player of Nuri Sahin’s reported characteristics and discipline will add to Arsenal’s technical excellence, and take some of the burden of responsibility in that area off Cazorla’s shoulders (as of Monday night, Arsenal were still locked in negotiations with Madrid over aspects of the transfer, and overcoming any stumbling blocks could prove a ‘swing’ factor to whether they maintain their residency in the top four this year). Equally encouragingly, Wenger is alert to the threat of falling short in defence should injury strike once again and has promised that Arsenal are trying to bring in “maybe one more defender.”

More generally, amid the doom and gloom, there are flashes of hope that Arsenal fans can justifiably entertain. Wenger has finally adopted a more pre-emptive, necessarily selfish approach to culling bad influences from the club by selling one of his more ungrateful students in Alex Song. Spending on new blood also means that, for the first time in a while, important players in the team have not yet had their heads turned by more glitzy proposals from other clubs and are fully behind Wenger’s plans. Cazorla in particular has already voiced his opinion in various matters concerning Arsenal, and his engaged presence bears all the hallmarks of a player with the ability to develop into the inspiring general that Wenger has been missing for years (mainly as a result of player disloyalty). It is also inevitable that a leading player like Jack Wilshere will, despite his best intentions, have his loyalty tested by subliminal doubts in the wake of another star’s departure from Arsenal. Negative thinking is contagious, breeds negative performances and thus contributes to the vicious cycle where players eventually have their doubts confirmed and want out of the club. Cazorla has happily arrived with exactly the opposite mindset, and should his commitment translate to success on the pitch, it will provide the earnestly loyal Wilshere with the reason he is looking for to banish those lingering doubts and play wholeheartedly for his boyhood club once again.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.