an image to remember

Barney Ronay

There has been a lot of talk about Ronaldo’s stripped-down role in his late prime. But this was a performance of such minimalism it might have been etched on a grain of rice, a vision of the ultimate endgame some years from now whereby Ronaldo is wheeled on to the pitch by a litter of footmen, emerging from his bathing machine to patrol a roped-off zone around the penalty spot, sampling the air, occasionally dropping into a series of “muscle poses” while in the background a football match takes place.

Farewell Arsène

There are so many thoughts. But, as someone who is on record saying that it’s time, and a little past time, for this change, I want to call attention to this passage from Amy Lawrence:

Here’s the thing. Wenger’s own apparent acceptance of more modest fare is perhaps the most intriguing element of all. He knew exactly what ingredients were needed to build a conquering team. So why settle for less? He could have left Arsenal at several points along the way, not least when he knew he was in for a few challenging seasons in the immediate aftermath of the move from Highbury to the Emirates. Finances were restricted, the football landscape was changing rapidly with the arrival of oligarchs and investors from far and wide. He chose not to be tempted by offers from some of Europe’s giants, clubs with more financial muscle and stability, to oversee a huge redevelopment. There was no trophy for that even if Wenger regards that period – keeping the club near the top – as one of his successes.

It’s true, and it’s important. Wenger stayed at a club that he knew could not, for several years, compete with the wealthiest clubs in Europe, and he did it at a time when his reputation was as high as that of any manager in the world. It would have been easy for him to bow out, head for one of the giants where he would have been welcomed with hosannas, and leave any messes at the new Emirates for his successors to try to clean up. Instead, he stayed and kept Arsenal in the top four even when he was forced to feature Nicklas Bendtner and Johan Djourou as front-line players. He remains proud of this accomplishment, and he should be. 

It is really only in the last three or four years, when the quality of his squad improved but his results did not, that it became clear that he was simply not adapting to today’s game. That was sad to see — and difficult to come to terms with. 

He is one of the greats. As Lawrence writes, “He is the last of the managerial overlords, the long-term managers who dedicate decades to one club. After all Wenger’s yesterdays, Arsenal without Arsène will take some getting used to.” 

my only hope …

… for Arsenal’s season now is simply that they end up with no European football next season. That they fall below Burnley in the PL standings and fail to win the Europa League. Should that happen, Wenger might — might — be talked into retiring, and then the new manager would be able to spend next season focusing on the league and domestic cups. 

That’s my hope. My fear is that Arsenal will just barely squeeze into European football for another year and that Wenger will consider that, plus making the semis of the Europa League, a justification for returning for one final year — which will simply postpone the reckoning that the club desperately needs to make. 

In short: I’d prefer pain now and possibilities later. So I will do my best to root for Newcastle tomorrow morning, and Atleti at the end of the month. (I doubt whether I’ll be able to achieve it — but I’ll try.) 

Turkey Striker

One of the oddities — to these American ears — of British football commentary is how players are described who play for their national teams. Jordan Henderson is not an English international but an England international; Seamus Coleman not an Irish defender but an Ireland defender. The usage makes sense, because it makes an important distinction: between players who come from a certain country (who are be English, Irish, etc.) and players who belong to their country’s selección

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but snicker when, a few minutes ago in this Merseyside derby I’m watching, Arlo White referred to Cenk Tosun as “the Turkey striker.” As if it’s not already hard enough being a turkey. 

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.