Reply to Ian Herbert on Wenger

Ian Herbert recently wrote an article on the Arsenal-Wenger situation, in which he joined the growing number of writers who seem to view the current state of the club as one of crisis presided over by Wenger:

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenals-majority-shareholder-stan-kroenke-more-motivated-by-money-a7619426.html#commentsDiv

I’m slightly shocked by the rapidity with which respectable, balanced football writers are turning on Wenger and striking the same notes as many of the “Wenger Out” brigade. Why have none of them pointed out that there are two ways to view Wenger’s current situation? One is that he is dragging the club inexorably towards professional mediocrity and unrealised ambition; the other is that he at most guilty of a certain tactical stagnation, but that this current dip is a small price to pay next to the long-term financial stability and professional consistency he has brought. Above all in this view is the acknowledgement that his many years of service and contributions to the game deserve a special view to be taken of his “failures”, in which the club and its fans stick by him longer than at other clubs in recognition of how much he has become part of the same emotional journey they are on. The acknowledgement of the possibility of a new story here, in which narratives and inspiring figures are not sacrificed on the altar of a cut-throat professional competition that prides short-termism and financial delusion over all other values, would be gratefully received if voiced by football writers.

The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.

 

 

Arsenal missing out on plenty if they let Sagna fly away

Arsenal can seemingly never free themselves from the merry-go-round of mediating with players who are approaching the final year of their contracts, and Bacary Sagna’s name is next up on that wearisome list. Whether through some form of fatigue with this issue, or failing to fully appreciate the contribution that an experienced Sagna could make to this regenerating Arsenal side over the next five years, the fans have remained conspicuously silent up to now over Arsenal’s reluctance to tie him down to a new, long-term contract.

That is a mistake. If there is one player who can offer a convincing deconstruction of Arsenal’s blanket policy of viewing all players over the age of thirty in the same diminishing light through offers of one-year contracts at most, it is Sagna. Arsenal fans have spent so long lamenting the loss of a succession of key players that they have blinded themselves to the richly satisfying fact that one player worthy of comparison to those that jumped ship chose to remain behind and dedicate his career to the club. Before his leg breaks, there was a compelling case for Sagna to be compared to the best right-backs in Europe, but he has never once shown a hint of the disaffection that players giving the impression they had outgrown the club regularly displayed. Until injury and uncertainty over his contract status began afflicting him this season, there had never been so much as a waver in the consistency of his on-pitch excellence. Arsenal have been crying out for legends, for players of stature and wholehearted devotion to grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them closer to glory once more, and Sagna has grown into those shoes.

It was in the fraught 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few weeks ago, where Arsenal stood firm against waves and waves of pressure after Carl Jenkinson had been dismissed on 56 minutes, that Sagna both confirmed his status as a sportsman of the finest competitive breed and offered a glimpse of the benefits Arsenal could gain from trading their veterans’ policy for a more meritorious, case-by-case approach. Shifted to centre-back right before kick-off following Laurent Koscielny’s injury in the pre-match warm-ups, Sagna came to Arsenal’s rescue time and again through an outstanding display of last-ditch tackling, towering headers and perfect positional sense. As Sunderland sent yet another threatening cross into the box in those nerve-wracked final few minutes, and Sagna rose yet again to thump the ball clear with a towering header, there was the sense of a player whose excellence was the product of commitment to his club’s cause and regret at time lost to two broken legs as much as through innate ability. It is these kind of qualities, alchemised to such perfection on the football pitch, that have the ability to win the hearts of fans, raise the young nucleus of Arsenal’s squad to greater heights, and forge the intangible spirit around the club that has been so sorely lacking in recent times.

Other clubs have recognised the important role that older players of the finest professional instincts play in creating a spirit around the club that breeds excellence. Barcelona have Carlos Puyol to embody Herculean drive and devotion; Chelsea have long thrived behind the siege mentality so defiantly heralded by John Terry; and Manchester United have Ryan Giggs to put any one below his age at the club to shame for so much as taking a breather during such sacrosanct rituals as training, recovery and on-pitch commitment. Rather than force Sagna to reassess his loyalties by failing to offer him anything more than a one-year contract, Arsenal could seal a warrior for life by giving him a five-year contract to play at both right-back and, increasingly centre-back, and demonstrating that their loyalty to him is bound by something more than concern that the player may be slightly more susceptible to injuries following two broken legs. Their reward for such a faith-based gamble would be the potentially crucial role that Sagna would play on the pitch in forging the type of spirit around the club that makes champions out of their growing stable of young starlets. As Arsene Wenger seeks to build yet another Arsenal team brimming with youth and talent out of the ashes of the last one, he would do well to consider these benefits before ushering Sagna out of the door when he still has much to offer.

Premier League forwards serve up wonderful entertainment, and Suarez is pick of the bunch

The Premier League has been lavishly gifted this season with the array of talented forwards that its top clubs have put together. On any given weekend, fans can marvel at the sight of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck causing spontaneous combustion at Manchester United. Fernando Torres may be struggling to remember what a great striker he was, but that hasn’t made seeing the slick interplay of Chelsea’s talented triumvirate behind him any less compelling. Olivier Giroud is beginning to find his feet at Arsenal, his demonstration of quick thinking allied to remarkable strength in the manic 3-3 draw with Fulham hopefully the first of many to come, and who cannot fail to feel fortunate to be watching the Premier League when two of the best Argentine forwards in the world are strutting their breathtaking stuff in every match for Man City?

However, even in that daunting cast, there is one man who is rising head and shoulders above every one with his exhilarating mix of sheer brilliance and individual fortitude and he is Luis Suarez of Liverpool. The hat-trick against Norwich was the first sign that a player who could score thirty goals a season if he took more of his chances was finally becoming more clinical, but in then single-handedly hauling Liverpool from defeat to the brink of victory against Newcastle, Everton and Chelsea with five goals across all three matches he proved that his talent knows no bounds. It is launched from the springboard of a strong-willed, indivualistic personality with fire in his belly, as proven by his wonderfully cheeky dive in front of David Moyes after scoring a goal, in response to criticism of his antics from the Everton manager, and by the plays he attempts on the pitch. When faced with a defender, he without fail turns to improvisation and attempts a trick that re-creates the childlike joy of football from the street or playground – and which is recognisable to every fan – in the professional theatre of the Premier League. It is a delight to see him mug a well-honed defender who has been prepped with tactical knowledge with a trick that has been invented on the spot and strips the sport back to its basics, just as it is a delight to see how often he looks to bring his teammates into play with inch-perfect passes that are every bit as good as his runs and skills. He radiates brilliance just as he hustles with grit and determination, and this effort is endearing to fans who recognise that his inimitable talent nevertheless draws upon his insatiable work ethic and proud, wilful determination to give everything in service of the cause. It is not just Liverpool who are indebted to him, but every single viewer who is in love with football and recognises the wider zest for life and activity in his play that holds the key to mobilising one’s talent and creativity.

There was an altogether different thrill associated with watching Robin van Persie materialise in Arsenal’s penalty box as if out of thin air to poke home a lofted ball from Patrice Evra in Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat of them two weekends ago. Van Persie failed on that occasion, but the movement was so ghostlike, so sudden, as to be barely believable. Premier League fans should celebrate the variety on display between a van Persie, with his invisible, wraith-like movement and a Suarez or Aguero, who combine outstanding talent with the endearing hustling qualities from the streets of the continent they come from. At this moment in time, Suarez occupies the number one place in many fans’ affections, and perhaps this has something to do with his multi-layered, compelling personality as well as the way his character shines so clearly through his football (much like an Andrei Arshavin as well). One writer imagined the damage Suarez could wreak playing for a Chelsea or a Manchester United, but there is a more tempting hypothesis. What if Barcelona had not bought the faltering Alexis Sanches for the purpose of running at defenders and creating havoc alongside Lionel Messi and Pedro, but Suarez instead? With his intelligence and box of tricks, Suarez would have taken to the task like a box to water, benefitted enormously from the service of Xavi and Iniesta and the glow cast by playing with Messi, and Barcelona would have found the key to unlocking stubborn defences that sit back as most obviously displayed by Celtic a few weeks ago. A player of Suarez’s heroism and talent deserves the stage and acclaim of a club like Barcelona, but Liverpool’s struggles and the way it perhaps elevates his efforts, mean that he is certainly not under-appreciated in the Premier League. Sergio Aguero may be snapping at his heels, and Fernando Torres may be a sad warning sign of how many twists and turns a player can take throughout the course of his career, but right now Luis Suarez is playing at a level and with a determination that will even cause those who claim he is a curse upon the game to reluctantly admit there is something special and likeable about this boy.

Wilshere’s comeback a cause for real optimism amidst the doom and gloom

If there is one reason for beleaguered Arsenal fans to refrain from completely losing hope over Arsenal’s chances this season, it is the return of Jack Wilshere. His comeback brings more with it than the addition of a very good player, and one who will help Arsenal regain a modicum of the composure in possession that was once their hallmark and was alarmingly bereft in the crazed draw with Fulham yesterday. He also brings qualities of passion and fearlessness to his play that have too often been missing from Arsenal’s players in recent times. In the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, there was nothing more exasperating than the sense that Arsenal’s players – apart from a brief ten-minute spell at the start of the second half – were too afraid of their opponents to rise to the occasion and play their best football. While they were cautiously passing the ball from side to side near their own goal in the first half, perhaps more worried of making a mistake than of daring to take a positive step forward, there was only one player who remembered what it meant for Arsenal to play Manchester United and what it demanded: when Jack Wilshere wholeheartedly crunched into a tackle on Robin van Persie, he displayed a stirring sense of pride in his club – all the more heart-warming because of how absent it was from his team-mates’ play –  alongside a determination to correct their slide into impotence. It was a lionhearted tackle from a player who may yet become a lion-heart for his club and provide the missing spark of inspiration to jolt a group of players paralysed by fear into action. Their performances in recent weeks may have understandably led them to privately lower their sights but Wilshere was having none of it, talking this week of how Arsenal may need “a miracle to win the Premier League”, but they now needed to treat each fixture “as a cup game” as his club are too big to abandon the hunt for the big trophies. That tackle and that determined statement from a player who bristles with pride and commitment were rare, and significant, moments of optimism in the troubled last few weeks for Arsenal and throw into stark relief just what a gem of a footballer and personality he could be for the club.

At this stage, where his devotion has also not been tempered by the more career-focussed considerations of older players, one also detects that he will not let the failure of many at Arsenal to match his quality and commitment lead to a change of heart on his long-term future. For the time being, he will do everything in his power to haul Arsenal up to where they need to be and, if that crunching tackle and those stirring statements were just the beginning of a long and fruitful re-acquaintance with Arsenal, its fans may have reason to look to the future with a little more excitement and hope than they had previously thought.

Exciting new clubs need to hold on to best players to ensure Champions League revival is here to stay

It was a refreshing surprise to watch three Premier League clubs receive their comeuppance in this week’s Champions League matches against nominally lesser opposition who have arguably been more deserving of praise in recent times. While Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City (and Real Madrid, who lost to Borussia Dortmund) have grown accustomed to strolling through to the latter stages of tournaments off the running of players attracted to their multimillion dollar salaries and brand names, lesser lights in Europe have quietly been compensating by diligently working on their player development programmes, respecting their managers’ remit and poaching talents from right under the noses of the giant clubs. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, they seemed eager to announce themselves to the watching world and more appreciative of the occasion of the Champions League than their more illustrious opponents.

There was the irritating sense that Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had arrived for the kind of strolls in the park they seem to expect against lesser opposition in the Premier League, without bothering to give magnificent footballing theatres such as the Amsterdam Stadium and roaring Donbass Arena the respect of preparing with the utmost commitment. Manchester City and Roberto Mancini, in particular, were guilty of approaching their game with the same leisurely attitude that has suffused many of their recent near-scares in the Premier League, and the significant defeat inflicted on them by a vibrant, hungrier Ajax side has been a long time in coming. Arsenal’s emphatic defeat against Schalke should have conveyed the worrying message to Arsene Wenger that he can no longer claim to be miles ahead as a pioneer of sculpting exciting football teams from modest resources. Chelsea’s famously granite stubbornness was comprehensively shattered by the uniform wave of noise, ambition and quality that Mircea Lucescu’s enterprising club have been displaying for some years now.

In the face of these deserved reversals, it was a telling sign of the arrogance of the Premier League clubs and inertness of football’s competitive status quo that British papers should have already been focussing on which of the talents of Ajax and Shakhtar would be next to be plucked by their vanquished opponents. Willian of Shakhtar as good as put out the come-get-me call to Chelsea by describing them as “one of the clubs he was interested in” after putting in a starring shift against them for his employers. The Daily Mail noted that he left the Donbass Arena clutching a Chelsea shirt with his name and a question mark on its back given to him by one of the club’s supporters.

However, if Chelsea represent the best of the Premier League and Shakhtar showed that they can be more than a match for them on their day, then why should the billionaire owner of the Ukranian champions contemplate selling a player that they have helped turn into a star? For too long, smaller clubs in both domestic and European competitions have been happy to maintain the competitive status quo by selling their brightest players to bigger clubs in return for hefty sums of cash. This balancing of the books has neither advanced their sporting or business ambitions, and owners of these clubs have failed to realise that the surest way to grow their brand name is by success on the pitch. By retaining a core of players that displayed dynamism and fire in overwhelming Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Shakhtar have generated interest in their club that could be utilised to much greater financial benefit than any one-time sale of Willian. Rather than perennially serving as a stepping board for the ambitions of others, there should no longer be heresy attached to the idea of Shakhtar or Dortmund taking their ambitions as clubs to new heights.

The Champions League will be richer and more fascinating for it. The suggestion that players such as Van Rhijn at Ajax were driven to exceed themselves in the knowledge that the Champions League represented an audition of sorts to Europe’s traditional powerhouses is an insult to the clubs who nurtured them, and a shrug of the shoulders to the idea that the tournament will ever be anything more than an annual shootout between familiar names. If these players can drive success on the pitch, money will pour into the coffers that can be used to fund more lucrative salaries for them and provide an incentive to stay put. The theory implicit in Willian’s plangent call for a big club to take him off Shakhtar’s books was that the level of quality remains higher in certain leagues. To that the owner of Shakhtar can offer the sound riposte that their club beat the best in England in a competition that already represents the apex of European football. Shakhtar’s success will in turn inspire more interest in Ukrainian club football, and so it is vital for the landscape of Champions League football to be any different than the stale, monotonous state of the last few years that Willian stays put. Much the same could be said of Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund, who has recently been the subject of much interest. The list of pretenders for the final rounds of the Champions League has grown considerably this year, and it is making for a more interesting and vibrant tournament.

Deprived of the opportunity to exert financial muscle to cherry pick players crafted at other clubs, Premier League giants may just start rediscovering their sense of obligation towards bringing through youngsters, and creating teams of hunger and with a collective idealogy. There remains something ineffably exciting about witnessing sides such as Dortmund or Ajax in action, who have clearly been the product of creative ideas, hard work and a collective sense of purpose and are now reaping the rewards of their approach. The likes of Chelsea and Man City can offer nothing so tantalising beyond lumping together star names and pitting them in a yearly Champions League glamour match with another big European name. The continuation of this state of affairs, through breaking up the bright work of many rising clubs in Europe with money and power, would be depressing to say the least.

Walcott’s divorce from Arsenal would be difficult pill to swallow

It is frustrating how often the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to Arsenal, both in terms of familiar failings on the pitch and in tying players down to long-term contracts. While the intent on display to re-sign Theo Walcott has been notably more muted and measured – both on the part of fans and club – than it was for Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, they have nonetheless failed to find a resolution or to keep the club’s supporters updated with the kind of urgency that an important situation might require.

If the current impasse does result in Walcott upping stakes, it would be a greater shame for Arsenal than its fans currently realise. For all his frustrating inconsistencies and seemingly perennial inability to accelerate his development, Walcott still encapsulates a thrilling precocity that is quite unlike any other in the game and carries a magic all of its own. On the few occasions on which he has untangled the mysteries that sometimes hold him back, the results have resounded across the footballing stratosphere – from his hat-trick in the demolition of Croatia on the international stage to the way he scythed Barca with his pace enroute to hauling Arsenal back from the brink in a thrilling 2-2 Champions League draw at the Emirates. These were stunning individual displays against opposition of the highest quality at club and international level, and the single-handed effect he had in turning around those games was enriched by a blinding turn of pace that thrilled the senses. There has always been something pure and rousing to the soul about the sight of Walcott put through on goal, haring towards the keeper and slotting away with the coolest of finishes. It was on display when he scored in Arsenal’s last league match against West Ham, as a poignant reminder of the kind of talent they would be forsaking in giving up the battle to keep him.

It may be that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain carries more natural technical talent in one boot than Walcott has in two, and that the fans do not see his potential loss to be as great as those who have left the club in recent times. However, that is to miss the point of how perfectly Walcott captures and reflects the essence of Arsenal. For all those fans who still regard the values that Arsenal have upheld during Wenger’s tenure at the club as worth fighting for, letting go of Walcott would be a significant forfeiture of almost every one of them. Here is a young player who has yet to fulfil his box-office-sized talent or to find the confidence that could define his career, and that Arsenal have made a habit of coaxing out of the charges in their stable. More importantly here is a player who, at the top of his game, conveys the thrilling abandon of football perhaps better than anyone in his sport, and whose lack of an abundance of natural technical talent whilst doing so merely enhances the message that football is a sport of pure joy, to be celebrated by anyone. Above all the pass wizardry and Spanish imitations, it is this pure enjoyment and love of football as a sport that Arsenal under Wenger have sought to communicate and Walcott – through the unaffected way in which he plays and the eternal hint of the promise of youth in his persona – is the living embodiment of this notion. If Arsenal give up on him without a fight, the light will go out on Walcott’s power to captivate at clubs where the pressure to contribute something material is much more suffocating and Arsenal in turn will have signalled that hardening up as a result of some tough experiences with players in recent years has not come without a cost to the things they are celebrated for.