Wenger badly let down by his players

It is often said that the best way to deal with an emotional setback is to talk or write about it. Talking or writing is meant to be therapeutic, and if so, it is a measure of the pain caused by Arsenal’s defeat that I immediately felt the urge to write about it in its aftermath. By delaying that process for a while longer, I only found my repressed emotions about the match had a knock-on effect on other little things that impact one’s mood throughout the day.

Nor is there any cause on this occasion for non-football fans to scorn at the oft-justified lack of perspective that us fans can display about a win or a loss. This loss was about more than a simple match; it was about one man’s legacy, the shame in seeing a fine oeuvre unjustifiably sacrificed by the brittleness of his players, and the pain of knowing it all seems to be heading towards a very unhappy end. Arsene Wenger is no ordinary manager, and just as he is held to a seemingly impossible standard in comparison with managers who have trodden a more familiar career path, so the pain caused by seeing his career come to the type of end suffered by so many in this profession is also unique.

The performance encapsulated the promise and bitter failure of so many post-2006 performances: a rousing first 48 minutes in which Arsenal looked every inch a team with the right balance between flair, steel and cunning, followed by the rest of the second half in which they characteristically threw away all their good work in stunningly naïve fashion. Not even on a school pitch would you see players perform as abjectly as Wenger’s did for him in the moments after Bayern went 2-1 up.

The sense of Wenger as martyr is increased by signs all around him of the necessary, functional ingredients other teams enjoying success have which, for practical or principled reasons, he has been unable or unwilling to acquire. For all their class, Bayern Munich are essentially an unimaginative football team who owe their success to the sense of entitlement that money can buy. While Wenger was being assailed by his fans yet again for lacking tactical nous, Carlo Ancelotti could get away with the respect of football fans the world over despite fielding the same 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger is derided for and owing his champions league trophies (another thing Wenger is derided for) to working with the most brilliant players of their respective periods. Bayern’s arrogance in victory yesterday underlined a sense of entitlement born of riches and access to the best players, which merely heightens the frustration that Arsenal – a team that, despite all their problems, still carried the unique Wenger stamp of free flowing football in patches yesterday – could not be a more consistent match for them and thereby stand in stark contrast as a standard-bearer for the best qualities in football. If Bayern represent the mechanised evolution of football in the era of pressing and mammoth clubs, Wenger’s failure to adapt has at least preserved Arsenal’s status as a club trying to do things the right way on the pitch, committed to a strategy that others would deem foolhardy. For Wenger undoubtedly manages players with lesser talent than many of his opponents; for all the claims that Arsenal match up on paper to the best in the Premier League, they are far below what Chelsea or Bayern can boast.

In this age of mechanised football, it is impossible to totally rule out the suspicion that Wenger is missing one more ingredient which has distanced the gap between Arsenal and the rest: drugs. The stats will show Bayern ran as much as Arsenal yesterday, but Arsenal consistently look outpaced and slower in 50-50 challenges compared to their immediate rivals (not to mention suffering injuries on a far more believably human level than the Clark Kents at other clubs). While giving football the benefit of the doubt, the history in German football of doping, the lack of thorough testing in football, and the history of other sports means it would be foolish to take everything we see at face value.
For all these reasons – finances, the players at his disposal, the injuries he has suffered and, above all, the manager he has been and the man he is – there is no way this blog will come even close to adding to the vitriol now being poured on his head.

Instead, the fans should turn their attention to the players towards whom he has only been guilty of one fault: affording them his trust and patience for too long. The manner in which they collapsed yesterday made it clear that it did not directly emanate from the dressing room, in the sense of tactical misdirection, but rather from a childlike inability to deal with the disappointment of going a goal down in the second half. From that moment on, Arsenal played with a callowness that is unbecoming of professional players and indicative of a subconscious complacency which has taken advantage of the loyalty of their manager. From the time that Flamini left for AC Milan, Arsenal players have shown a selfish disregard for the idealism and vision of their manager to create a unique project at Arsenal. This applies to the dumpers like Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie and, perhaps on a lesser scale, to those who have not developed to the level which would have been expected of them by now, and even to those such as Sanchez who have sometimes shown a tendency to hog the ball on the pitch in a manner antithetical to Wenger’s vision of dazzling, collective attacks. The sense now that he is approaching the end on his own, with a storm raging all around him, is galling to those to whom he has meant so much over the years.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Fabregas’s stature diminished by switch to Barca

Cesc Fabregas has revealed that new boss Tito Vilanova wants him to make slight adjustments to how he played the role Barcelona assigned for him last season. Instead of being so “static on the inside left”, he is instructed to “be more mobile…and look for space, help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.” To anyone who saw him scale rare peaks during season upon season of increasing excellence at Arsenal, the mere suggestion that Barcelona have prescribed a role for Cesc that circumscribes and modifies his talent to the base requirements of the team is scandalous. A player of his potential should not be running around like a makeshift winger in a team whose pretentious attempts to make midfielders play like forwards contributed to their own downfall last season. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Cesc being denied the chance to fill the prime years of his career in the position that he was born to play: playmaker, dictating everything that happens on the pitch and treating lovers of the game all over to a demonstration of rare artistic talent and footballing intelligence.

However, it is fast becoming apparent that the freedom he enjoyed at Arsenal that was behind his rise as a footballer of rare genius will not be afforded him at Barca. Xavi and Iniesta’s occupation of the most privileged berths football has to offer is warranted, but Cesc’s love of Barca may well blind him to the point at which they begin selling him short and stalling his career through rigid tactical game plans and the evergreen presence of Xavi. The level of acclaim he commanded among the entire footballing fraternity has already diminished since he left Arsenal – not because he is among finer company but because his unmatched footballing intelligence is being circumscribed and starved of the chance to shine in his misplaced role at Barca. It is sad to see him being relegated to just another name amid players with greater technique but lesser vision in discussions of the best midfielders in the world today. It is a reversal of the path of thrilling ascent that Arsene Wenger set him on at Arsenal, and may well ensure that the second act of his career is not quite as luminous individually as the first was. One would not go as far to say that his accelerated return to Barcelona was a misguided decision, but Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the challenge of leading Arsenal to glory would have had far greater value for Cesc than being just another champion at Barcelona will echo around for him for as long as he takes to find terra firma at his boyhood club.