in other (and more positive news)

After an excellent win at Derby County, Fulham are in fourth place in the Championship, and stand a very good chance indeed of being part of the promotion-playoff at the end of the season. If they get promoted, then there is at least a chance for them to keep Ryan Sessegnon; if they don’t, then they’ll probably sell Sessegnon for a hefty fee, which, invested in the right players, could lead to a promotion the following year. So all in all, things are looking up for FFC — and I really want, one way or another, to see the kid in the Premier League. 

100254926 sessegnon4

on trying not to live in the past

Trying … trying … but largely failing, along with many long-time Arsenal supporters. Just take a look at this misty-water-colored-memories-of-the-way-we-were post over at Arseblog. (The post is a couple of years old, but it’s been making extensive rounds on Twitter today.)

In an earlier post I wrote that “none of this is going to change until Wenger has retired. And I can imagine no circumstances in which he would voluntarily leave before the end of his contract, and very few circumstances in which the bosses would force him out.” I am still convinced that the  very idea of resigning is anathema to Wenger, but now think it at least slightly more likely that he will get heavy pressure from the board and that he could possibly leave after this season. I don’t remember who first said this, but more than a few people have now commented that the least bad solution now would be for Wenger to announce that he’s leaving at the end of the season, so that (a) the supporters can give him thanks and praise for all that he’s done for the club over the years and (b) the board can get to work making a plan for the future.

I would just add that it would be nice to see the Gunners play badly enough for the rest of the season to fall out of European football altogether, and focus next season fully on domestic football. And that is a distinctly possible outcome.

So if Wenger does resign, then what should the remaining club leadership do?

  1. Hire a new manager by June 1, so that the club can participate fully and confidently in the transfer market. Players looking for a new club need to believe that Arsenal is a legitimate option.
  2. Make sure the manager you hire understands the quality of some of the young players and is willing and able to train them up in the way they should go, as the Good Book says, and to give them opportunities to show that quality.
  3. In between now and the hiring of the New Guy, talk to the best players and reassure them of the club’s commitment to rising again to the top of English and European football. Tell them it’s not their fault (even when you think it’s kinda their fault) and that they’ve been let down by management, but they need not fear, a new coaching staff will be coming in to bring the very best out of all the marvelous players.
  4. I know there will be a lot of disagreement about this point, but I would suggest that the new management not be too quick to cut loose, or even to marginalize, players who have played badly under Wenger for these past couple of chaotic years. Xhaka has typically looked like a wholly lost cause, utterly unsuited for the demands of the Premier League, but he is one of those guys (Ramsey and Mustafi are others) who looks like a totally different and far superior footballer when playing for his country than he does when playing for Arsenal.
  5. This is an extension of the previous point: keep in mind that a number of players feel that they have simply been abandoned by the coaching staff, given no direction, cut adrift, left to their own devices. That Wenger made no substitutions against Man City, even when down 3-0 at the half, even when still down 3-0 after an hour, suggests that he really has given up. The board needs to be patient with players who have been so neglected.
  6. Finally, everyone should pray for God’s mercy and grace.

Why VAR?

Barney Ronay doesn’t like VAR:

The fact is, for all the expertise, the manpower, the money spent, VAR just doesn’t work in football. It diminishes the experience of watching in the stadium. It skews the game decisively one way. It is one of those ideas, like bendy buses, or communism, that would simply be better off abandoned.

As that passage suggests, Ronay’s focus is on the experience of football for people actually at the grounds:

At Stamford Bridge the time spent watching a middle-aged man stand very still looking sad while another middle-aged man watched television in a bunker brought a kind of dissolution. In those moments the air seemed to have been sucked out of the ground, a drowsy numbness falling across the crowd, an awareness of being subject suddenly to invisible outside influence. Whereas, for so long the whole point of the spectacle, the thing that has always marked it out, has been the chance to lose yourself in that communal experience, the joy of complete abandon that for so long was the essence of English football grounds.

He acknowledges, though rather dismissively, that people watching on TV may have a different set of priorities: “In the end a lot of this boils down to what you think sport is for. If it is to be a distantly consumed third person spectacle, a series of coloured blobs moving on a screen, just one part of the digital leisure experience, than perhaps it does make sense to analyse endlessly the precise, elusive mechanics of why a man has fallen over.”

I think Ronay is correct in much of this, but perhaps he should remember that being able to attend the level of football that gets video review is a privilege reserved for only a few (and not just because of economic resources: distance is a factor too). I may believe sport is “for” actually being present but that belief won’t get me to the grounds. And if I have to watch my favorite team on TV that will not necessarily be for me “just one part of the digital leisure experience.”

Anyway, it seems to me that the major factor missing from Ronay’s analysis is simply this: money. Everyone formally involved with a club — from owners to coaches to players to social media managers — can benefit (or lose) financially from the success (or failure) of the club. In a relegation battle tens of millions of dollars can be at stake. For supporters money is rarely involved, except through lost bets, but social credit can be at stake, and that is sufficient to generate anxiety. Given these various kinds and degrees of investment, it can be extremely difficult for people to accept refereeing errors as simply “part of the game.” The pure pleasure of being at the game is unlikely to outweigh all those other investments — nor can I see why it should.

Team of the Year

EA SPORTS has named candidates for the FIFA Team of the Year. There are some oddities about the nominations: Coutinho is listed as a forward when he ought to be a midfielder, Robben is listed as a midfielder when he ought to be a forward, Busquets is missing altogether … you’ll probably have your own list. But given the established parameters, which mandate a 4-3-3 formation — though I might call it a 4-1-2-3, but I digress — here are my 11 (one keeper, two centerbacks, two fullbacks, one holding midfielder, two attacking midfielders, three forwards) — and not in the usual order by position, but in order of my confidence in choosing them:

  • Lionel Messi
  • Kevin de Bruyne
  • Marcelo (the best left back in the world by fifty miles)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo
  • Harry Kane
  • David de Gea (I might have chosen Navas or Oblak if I’d seen them more)
  • Sergio Ramos (we are not in an era of great centerbacks)
  • Gerard Pique
  • Luka Modric (barely ahead of Dybala and Kroos)
  • Casemiro (he’s amazing, but I hated leaving out Kante)
  • Joshua Kimmich (just squeezing out Dani Alves)

Your alternatives are welcome in the comments.

Arsenal’s future

Of course, since I am no longer an Arsenal supporter, I look upon the sufferings of the club and its supporters with what Samuel Johnson called “frigid tranquility” — really, I do, I am totally tranquil and frigid when I contemplate the Gunners’ performances — like, there’s no way I would’ve leaped up out of my seat and punched the air when Wilshere made that pass to Alexis — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have thoughts about the club.

Everyone knows that the second half of Wenger’s career has been far less successful than the first, though there is some disagreement about why that is. And he has become relatively less successful still at the very point when many observers think the club should be climbing back to the top of the mountain. About that, here’s my take, which combines a few points that are common knowledge:

  1. When the club bosses decided to abandon Highbury in favor of a new stadium, that ushered in a lengthy period during which Wenger simply did not have the resources to sign the players he most wanted or to keep his best players (Fabregas, RVP, etc.).
  2. For a few years, his players were good enough, and Wenger coached them well enough, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League.
  3. Another factor contributing to Arsenal’s (comparative) success was the failure of other big clubs to maintain consistent excellence in the first half of the 2010s. Somebody was always slipping enough for the Gunners to claim that last or next-to-last Champions League place.
  4. But changes were in the offing, and they were pioneered by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. The Russian plutocrat proved that it was possible to buy big success in the PL and in the process to generate a massive return on investment. This brought more foreign investment into the league, especially at Manchester City, and into other European leagues (see: PSG).
  5. Further changes were happening in other venues: an increasing awareness in many clubs of the value of analytics, structural changes that separated the role of the manager from that of the “director of football” or “technical director.”

So by the time that the plan of the Arsenal bosses was complete — the stadium paid for, funds for players liberated — the environment had changed in ways those bosses hadn’t anticipated. Wenger was still determined to run the club as an old-fashioned “gaffer” and in that capacity to spend what he thought of as generous sums of cash — but other clubs were willing to pay more. And, to make things worse, in those several years of finishing third and fourth, Arsenal had come to be seen by players and their agents as a second-tier club. So even when Wenger is willing to pay as much as another big club, that other club is typically perceived as bigger and therefore the kind of place a truly ambitious player would want to go. (That’s how the whole Mbappe saga played out.) Arsenal has become a destination for those who are willing not to win the Premier League or the Champions League.

I’ve not been a WENGER OUT guy, but I have to admit that none of this is going to change until Wenger has retired. And I can imagine no circumstances in which he would voluntarily leave before the end of his contract, and very few circumstances in which the bosses would force him out. Also, it would be very surprising if a new manager could put a strong mark on the club immediately.

So I think those of you who are Arsenal supporters have to anticipate a few more years, at best, of hovering in that Europa League range: finishing each year somewhere between fourth (if everything goes as well as possible) and seventh. And after that? — even the Pacey Winger cannot guess.

“We all know what’s coming”

David Rudin:

We all know what’s coming: A slight bump in form, plenty of ingratiating interviews with friends in the press, a modest win streak that provokes talk of moving on to better jobs, pining for players from the 2012–13 Newcastle side, and the inevitable, months-long slide that Pardew has repeatedly proven incapable of arresting that will eventually lead to his ouster. Been there and done that. We all know this script just like we know the corresponding ones for David Moyes, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and all the usual suspects repopulating technical areas in the lower half of the Premier League.

the inevitable

I speak here not as an Arsenal supporter, mind you, but simply as an interested observer of the Premier League. Here are the facts:

  • Several of Arsenal’s chief rivals dropped points yesterday;
  • Arsenal have an excellent chance to make up ground, since they are playing an inferior club;
  • But Arsenal never make up points when they have a chance to;
  • And Burnley is a very tough opponent to break down, especially at Turf Moor.

Therefore a draw is inevitable. The question is, what kind of draw?

The dreary 0-0?

A piece of clownshoes defending by Arsenal leading to an early Burnley goal, followed by 80 minutes of the Gunners pounding on the goal’s door, which finally yields a Giroud header in the 89th minute?

A brilliant early goal for the visitors, total dominance throughout the match leading to no further goals, and a late equalizer by Burnley on a poorly-defended set piece?

I’m gonna go with number 2.

Gattuso on Pirlo

My son and I have been musing for the past couple of weeks over something that Lee Dixon said on a recent Premier League broadcast. Lee commented that his strategy as a player was to stop the other team from scoring and then pass the ball to players who were better than him.

Let’s reflect on that for a moment: Stop the other team from scoring and then pass the ball to players who are better than you. Such simplicity! Such beauty! Think how the (currently catastrophic) defending in the top leagues would be transformed if defenders made that their mantra, their daily bread, their Jesus Prayer.

You know who understood that? Gennaro Gattuso. Speaking the other day about his longtime teammate, the magnificent Andrea Pirlo, he said, “I played with him for about 20 years when you consider the national youth teams, in difficult moments I just gave it to him, I always felt assured when I was next to him. I understood what I had to do, and he was taking care of the rest. He helped me much more in my career than I did him.”

In difficult moments I just gave it to him. You are a wise man, Rino. A wise, wise man.


Brian Straus:

Russia may be thousands of miles away, but on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team was mere inches from getting there. Watch the replays, if you can stomach them. It’s technically true. Clint Dempsey hit the right post with a long-range bouncer in the second half down in Trinidad. If his shot goes in, the USA almost certainly escapes with a 2–2 draw and is on its way to the World Cup. The margins on Omar Gonzalez’s early own goal were even finer. The beleaguered center back couldn’t hit that slice again if given 100 chances.

And then there was the phantom goal scored by Panama in Tuesday’s 2–1 defeat of Costa Rica. Had the Guatemalan officials realized the ball never crossed the line, the USA at least would be on its way to a playoff against Australia — a few thousand miles in the opposite direction but still, mere inches away.

This is Sunil Gulati’s position — though Straus goes on to say considerably more, and much of it very good. Gulati just wants to talk about the unlucky inches. But here’s the important thing: if the Dempsey shot had gone in, or the Panama “goal” had been rightly waved off, then the USMNT would be headed to the World Cup despite either (a) having scraped a pathetic and frankly lucky draw against the worst side in CONCACAF, on the very last day of qualifying or (b) having failed to scrape said draw and finishing the whole Hexagonal tournament with a mere three wins.

Another way to put this point: That the inches went the way they did forces us to confront the true state of the USMNT, and the national men’s soccer establishment more generally. Had the luck gone our way, people would be saying “Well, that was ugly, but we’re going to Russia!” And that would merely have postponed a day of reckoning that this country’s soccer program desperately needs.

So in a way, I’m glad that things worked out the way they did. Also, next year I won’t have to cringe while watching Tim Howard commit a massive howler that sends us crashing out of the opening round.

dream world

A quick thought, though one that many people have had: Can you imagine what American soccer would look like if the country’s best athletes chose soccer as their first sport? I’m imagining a world in which LeBron is a brick wall of a goalkeeper, Gronk the most terrifying centerback in the world, Chris Paul a wily deep-lying playmaker, Odell Beckham Jr. on the wing, Kyrie Irving threatening defenders with his pace and power…. But that way madness lies. Best to turn my thoughts elsewhere.