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Tuesday 15 March 2011

Beautiful Losers

     Arsenal’s loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final was their third straight defeat in a finals appearance since they won the FA Cup in 2005.  This inability to clear the final hurdle has combined with a marked drop off in league performance which has seen 8 straight seasons of finishing either first or second in the Premier League with 5 seasons of third and fourth placed finishes.  Of course there are extenuating circumstances to this apparent decline, namely the rise of Abramovich’s Chelsea, as well as the relocation to and subsequent debt incurred as a result of their new Emirates Stadium; however one must question whether Wenger’s principles of fiscal responsibility, youth promotion, and hypnotic passing have superseded the desire to win.  Has the feeling of moral superiority and aesthetic beauty embodied by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal become the new trophy?

     Wenger’s reluctance to loosen his tightfisted grip on the Arsenal transfer battle box and spend the money necessary to fill in the weak spots of his squad, is borne of both his insistence that financial doping is a problem in the game and his desire to mould his star players from youth.  Poor transfer policy and the short-term nature of managerial appointments, which lead to subsequent pricey severance packages, have been a dangerous, wasteful drain on the money in the game.  Such practices are to the detriment of a club, as witnessed by the struggles of clubs such as Leeds United and Portsmouth, as well as the mountainous debts that drag down clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, and are contrary to the spirit of club football.  The incoming UEFA Financial Fair Play Rules will largely limit the ability of a club to accrue so called bad debt, leaving responsible clubs such as Arsenal with a leg up in the new streamlined economy of European football.

     This fiscal ideology melds well with the concern that if he were to bring in a seasoned player to fill a squad place it would harm the developmental progress of his young players on the verge of being stars.  The two most gaping and talked about deficiencies of the squad are recognized as goalkeeper and central defender.  Szczesny, the young Polish keeper has been in the Arsenal pipeline for a few years now and recent performances do indicate he is ready for the first team, though there will be difficult times.  The uncertainty regarding the injury to defender Vermaelen resulted in the purchase of Squillaci, a less than stellar stopgap solution that has been pushed further than ever intended with each delay in Vermaelen’s return. Wenger is so focused on the pathway to the first team being clear for his promising starlets that he often neglects today’s problems in the name of tomorrow’s promise.

     The real crux of the difficulties and the heart of Wenger’s philosophy is not the finances or youth policy but the style of play. Arsenal’s short passing game of patient build up is wonderful to watch; when it is successful they can truly shred a defense to pieces.  The oft claimed shortcoming of the system is the lack of an effective cutting edge, that killer final pass that creates a goal.  In contrast with their lethal cousins, Barcelona, Arsenal are accused of attempting to walk the ball into the back of the net, while the Catalans are more ruthless with their moves, building slowly then pouncing.  Arsenal are most dangerous on a quick counter, when their lack of experience is overpowered by their athleticism and skill, which can, in slower movements, be smothered by indecision. Perhaps the additional experience of Xavi, Iniesta and even Messi in the Barcelona squad, to know when to press and when to hold is the key to their success and the flaw in Wenger’s plan.  With experience comes a measure of cynicism, the ability to dispose with the plan and do what is necessary to achieve the win. Puyol, is not an elegant defender, he is a warrior, and that is what the Gunners sorely lack, the loss of players such as Gallas and Flamini, who never really were able to replace the likes of Vieira, Adams, and Keown anyways, has left a soft spot in the heart of the field. Wilshere is coming on, Squillaci has the nous, but is not the leader they need, Fabregas has some steel to his game, but can’t do everything. Wenger has failed to see beyond his idyllic vision of an opponent who stands back and marvels at their skills, patiently waiting for their turn to have the ball and have a go.

     This inability to dirty his hands with the nature of the modern game is in stark contrast to the managerial style of Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful managers of recent times.  Mourinho feels no compunctions for the financial ramifications of haphazard spending; his time at Chelsea saw fortunes spent on players used and discarded as required.  Nor does he feel any obligation towards the future stability of a club by the development of youth players.  In fact, youth projects are looked upon as detrimental to the goal of winning now, with experienced, pre-trained and primed players being preferred.  These ready soldiers are then made to run to the limit and left worn out, shells of themselves upon the completion of Jose’s mission. Sir Alex on the other hand has found a middle ground between the short term culture of Mourinho and the future vision of Wenger, by encouraging youth, while spending the cash on a star when necessary; at least in the past this has been true. These differences in managerial ethic, reflections of the individual’s personality, can be seen in the character of their respective squads. Wenger’s inability to push beyond what he desires in order to get that which he needs, points to a disparity between vision and goal.
     Therein lays the key difference between Barcelona and Arsenal, while both strive to achieve the beautiful, both of vision and philosophy, only one still has the drive and killer edge to achieve the ultimate goal of victory.  The second leg of their Champions League clash should be a fantastic affair, but can Wenger’s men exude the necessary authority to take the match and make that step from promise to realization.

Update – Post 2nd Leg defeat to Barcelona at the Nou Camp (March 8, 2011)

     Having watched the match, it was evident that the performance of the young gunners was still lacking something. Fabregas was hardly able to impose himself on the proceedings, whether he was bossed out of the midfield or was struggling with fitness is inconsequential as the result remained that Arsenal could not exert their own rhythm on the game.  They allowed Barcelona to dictate play more than any team would be comfortable with and were made to pay. As soon as Szczesny was injured things seemed to turn, then Cesc’s careless flick in the closing minutes of the 1st half was criminal and when Van Persie was sent off, the writing seemed to be on the wall. But more disturbing to Wenger was how much Arsenal played within themselves.

     They seemed almost frightened out there, they did very little running to create space and no one showed for passes to help their teammates with an outlet, their passes were inaccurate, their touches were poor and the loss was, in light of these shortcomings, inevitable. Having enjoyed so much of how Arsenal normally plays it was shocking to see them so timid, so underwhelming. With that in mind there were positives, it was a closer affair than the tie last year, and Wilshere looked like he belonged out there with the big boys. Perhaps if Fabregas stays on, Wilshere matures and the injury bug stays away, Wenger’s philosophy could still find joy. A young squad has one thing that one of old veterans does not, and that is time.

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