…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.

Futile friendlies in need of a rethink

It was the sight of stars as worthy of protection as Fernando Torres, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta trudging vacuously up and down the pitch during a meaningless friendly in Puerto Rico, just three days before they are required to put their bodies on the line in wholehearted contests in Europe, that made me wonder whether the Spanish national board really had its players’ best interests at heart. As happy as they are to help this golden generation win sporting glory for Spain, it is clear that they are almost as keen to exploit their talent whenever there is a suitable cash reward to be had. Playing in Puerto Rico reportedly earned the Spanish board three million Euros, with a portion of the rest of the money the friendly generated presumably going to FIFA.

The only way in which such bloated and callously scheduled international friendlies (coming as they do on the heels of two recently concluded major international tournaments) can be justified is if the money generated is entirely put towards assisting the smaller, host country’s football development. The one mitigating quality of the meaningless exercise that was carried out in Puerto Rico on Wednesday was witnessing the unabashed joy and enthusiasm that scoring against the world and European champions brought the Puerto Rican fans. This potential cannot be harnessed to good effect by a friendly from which almost all the money disappears into the pockets of the Spanish board, but might have longer-term benefits if the funds are instead used to build the footballing infrastructure Puerto Rico needs to take advantage of the popularity of the game throughout the country. All it takes is one footballing icon to emerge from Puerto Rico for a multitude of generations to be inspired to improve their lot through his example, and it would give international exhibition matches a reason to exist beyond fattening the wallets of the undeserved. It is also a cause that footballers like Andres Iniesta, who currently has valid reason to criticise the madness of flying halfway around the world to play in an aimless fixture, would fully identify with and get behind (all the more so if a more thoughtful date can be found to fit such matches in the international calendar).

In the interim, the players’ unions should demand that national boards and FIFA account for every dime that is earned from their stars plowing through these matches, so that we can rest assured that the money is being put to causes similar to the one described above rather than going directly into top officials’ bank accounts. It is an infuriating characteristic of FIFA and some associated national boards, that their role as governors of the world’s most populous game does not give them a sense of responsibility to explain every action that football’s stakeholders are unhappy about. After their recent shenanigans in awarding World Cups in suspicious circumstances whilst displaying a seemingly pervasive atmosphere of corruption – as well as the dubiousness of some high-ranking Spanish officials’ past activies (e.g Sandro Rosell’s business relationship with Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and FIFA) – it is the least that they can be expected to do.

Van Persie seals exit from Arsenal hearts

So Robin van Persie got his way on every last detail of his desired migration from Arsenal: the big fat final pay check (reported to be £200,000 a week), the move to a club that can lend validation in the form of silverware to all the goals he could score for them – and his specific wish to trade Arsene Wenger and Arsenal for Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

Had van Persie moved to City, Arsenal fans would have explained it away as a money-motivated decision, while transferring to Juventus might have even shown his respect and unwillingness to tarnish the relationship he had built with Arsenal. However, in choosing United, and flagrantly disregarding the particular chagrin and dismay such a choice is causing Arsenal fans, Van Persie has given a startling insight into the coldly self-centred soul of the modern day prima donna footballer that should make them and Arsene Wenger think twice before ever believing a player could be as loyal to one club and his vision again. When picturing Van Persie’s thought process as he deliberated which club to emigrate to, it is both deeply hurtful and a rude awakening to realise that his settling on United as the destination of choice might have paid little more than scant consideration to what this would mean to the club where he spent such a long part of his career. If his honeyed words on topics as ephemeral as sharing similar values as Arsenal and growing a bond with the club meant anything, it may yet trouble him on some small level to know that Arsenal fans have cast him out of their affections for good and that door might never open again. He joins Nasri on the list of exiles, a player of lesser meaning to Arsenal hearts than Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry – and that should yet trouble him.

Despite the force of feeling directed against van Persie from Arsenal fans, the moving on process is bound to be swifter and surer than last year. It is not a shock for anyone connected to Arsenal that he has left – least of all the board and manager, who have known there was no chance of him staying from the minute he concluded his meeting with them in May and they signed Lukas Podolski. His exit remains a loss and, by strengthening both Manchester rivals in two consecutive seasons, Arsenal have struck an effective blow towards voting themselves out of the title race (which may never have been in the board’s sights for this season anyway). Nevertheless, the new buys have added talent and, most refreshingly, hunger (Giroud’s career arc is a testament to that and the world’s biggest league gives him more incentive than ever to prove himself; likewise for Cazorla, who has never been at a bigger club, while Podolski is driven by a determination to resurrect his career and reputation), and this should at least give Arsenal a slim outside chance of challenging at the top of the table. If not, then they are a very strong contender for a top four berth and, as the last star of Wenger’s lost post-Invincibles team leaves to consign that project to the waste heap, that may not be a bad result for the season.

Arsenal face a process as tumultuous as a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire, and right now, the ashes are still smouldering. They need to take it game by game, and showing the same focus against Sunderland on Saturday that was on display as they ran through Cologne despite the distracting presence of Van Persie would be a good place to start.

Cazorla’s and Sahin’s mooted arrivals increase optimism at Arsenal

News that Arsenal are working hard and drawing closer to deals that would bring Nuri Sahin and Santi Cazorla to the club should be encouraging to its supporters. Along with Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, Arsenal’s four signings this summer represent a change in approach to the transfer market that has every chance of bearing fruit on the pitch – even if Robin van Persie is granted his wish to leave.

Of the two names, it is Cazorla’s who sparks the most interest. Arsenal have never been short of a fine player, but it is exciting to imagine that they are on the verge of acquiring one whose ball-skills are complemented by deep pride and fierce caring for his career. How else to explain his decision to turn down a move to Real Madrid in 2008 because “there are many things in football besides Real Madrid and…he already felt very satisfied and valued at [Villarreal]?” Such surety and individualism in his decision-making bears the mark of a man who does not make his decisions lightly, gives his all once he has committed to a project and is the kind of football-loving professional that Arsenal have been in desperate need of over the last few years. The value of having a player who cares deeply about his football and seeks to build a bond with his club can never be approximated, but when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal last season in the twilight of his career with his mind uncluttered by thoughts of money and glory at the Barcelonas of this world, he somehow found the right mix of talent and love to score a last-minute winner against Sunderland that led to the point advantage to Tottenham that kept Arsenal in the Champions League. Cazorla’s talent, hunger and actions suggest he can play a similarly inspiring role for the club once he settles in, and help move Arsenal’s young players on from the kind of complacency that has seen them lose countless games in silly fashion over the last few seasons.

Changing circumstances should give cause for hope that Arsenal’s youthful squad are already beginning to locate that missing sense of urgency and pride for their club’s fate and grow into their roles and responsibilities for the team. The prospect of van Persie, their talisman and a player whom they relied upon to get through most of last season departing, comes as a timely shock that should spur on those in need of a push to greater competiveness and maturity on the pitch (particularly Theo Walcott and Gervinho). The growing competition in the Premier League – and particularly the way Manchester City have gorged on Arsenal – would have alerted the players to the fact that the oncoming season will require consistently better performances than they have yet produced, whilst pricking their pride could also yield positive results. Indeed, there have already been hints in stirring performances enroute to beating Chelsea (5-3), Manchester City (1-0) and Barcelona (2-1) over the last two seasons that Arsenal find release in their relatively new casting as underdogs among the Premier League’s elite. Add to this the elevation of a stern defensive taskmaster in Steve Bould, Cazorla’s personal and football qualities, and the likely arrival of a highly determined young player in Nuri Sahin desperate to make up for lost time and prove his worth to Real Madrid, and Arsenal will have set themselves up for the post-van Persie era with a fighting chance.