Archive for April, 2011

Arsenal’s collapse: The consequence of no consequences

107 comments April 26th, 2011

Thanks to my friend Goodplaya for this damning set of statistics:

2010-2011: With 11 games to go the title was in our hands. We’ve won once in seven and now the title is gone.
2009-2010: With seven games to go we were two points adrift. We won one of our next six and finished 11 behind Chelsea.
2007-2008: We were five points clear with 12 to play. We won one of our next eight.

Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt, and this pattern of recurring capitulation has become horribly familiar. The question everyone is asking, and the one that has been rolling around my head since Sunday, is: why does this keep happening? The simple answer is that it is allowed to. And it can’t continue.

Arsene said the other day that we all knew the move to the new stadium would mean a lean period. He’s not wrong. And in the early days of the Emirates, the fans were understanding enough. However, with the passage of time enough proverbial water has evaporated from our glass to leave it appearing half-empty rather than half-full. What once could be called “transition” now feels like systematic failure.

There have been enough excuses. We’ve been too young, too poor, and too injured for too long. Now we have to be held responsible for our relative failure. That hasn’t happened for a long time.

The players have been getting away with it for a good while now. Their youth and inexperience has acted as a buffer, protecting them from criticism from fans, manager and pundits alike. But as Arseblogger points out, our wage bill is as high as that of Chelsea and United. Our players have been equally well rewarded as theirs for inferior achievements. Whatever the result on a Saturday (or, in this case, Sunday), these players still pick up the same massive pay-cheque – one which they’d be unlikely to get at any other club.

For some sportsmen, of course, that’s not enough. Some players have that inherent desire to be the best, which goes above and beyond the terms of any contract and drives them to sweat blood for the cause. For a long time, we’ve been waiting for our players to show that kind of desire. The accepted wisdom was that it could be learnt. We’ve long believed that all we needed was that first trophy. That, like a shark scenting blood, our hunger for success would suddenly become insatiable.

That was a naive belief. I’m arriving at the conclusion that the kind of mentality inherent in men like messrs Adams, Vieira, Keane Ferguson cannot be “learnt”. Not at Arsenal, anyway. People talk about “born winners”. That’s a misleading phrase. They’re not born, they’re made – usually in adolescence. And almost always in hardship.

The modern day Arsenal Football Club is not a breeding ground for winners. The plush surroundings, fat wage packets and middle-class ethics don’t turn shy wallflowers in to bellowing warriors.

And to cap it all, there are no senior figures from which to learn that behaviour. Jens Lehmann is a fleeting and solitary example. What I would give to have had a Sol Campbell or Patrick Vieira in the dressing room for this critical period. So many senior players have been dispensed with that the Arsenal creche have no role models; no-one to pass down the traditions necessary to bring success. We don’t have any naturally-formed winners, and have lost those players who could’ve cultivated a culture of success in our youthful squad.

And yet this crop of players is allowed to continue, with contract extensions and wage rises being handed out along the way.

The man responsible for that is Arsene Wenger. Unfortunately, he too is part of the culture of permitted failure that enshrouds the club. Arsene is unsackable. That is justifiable. But it doesn’t make it right.

The pressure on Arsene to succeed comes from himself, and is considerable. But I know myself that being self-employed is exhausting and difficult. Arsene and the club would be better served by being answerable to someone; anyone. Stability is a great thing. Stagnation isn’t.

Unfortunately, those who have the authority to make demands of Arsene have thus far had little need to act. As far as the board are concerned, Arsenal are in great shape: continually qualifying for the Champions League and raking in revenue thanks to their massive spaceship of a stadium. This summer they’ll put up season ticket prices by 6% or so, and they’ll still fill all of those seats.

From a business perspective, Arsenal are in great shape. Both the board and the economist in Arsene should be proud. But sport isn’t about economics. It’s about winning.

I know Arsenal aren’t in the worst shape. To be in the top three sides in the country, and probably the top ten sides in Europe, is something most football fans can only dream of. But sport – all sport – is about trying to get to number one. A team that spends a decade as number two won’t be remembered in the history books, other than with regretful sighs about the paucity of their ambition.

Things need to change. Players, manager, and board need to become accountable.

For players, that means being shipped out when they fail to perform, rather than rewarded. We need to get tougher in our negotiations, and make sure that contracts are dependent on winning rather than loyalty. And if they don’t perform, get shot of them. Some of them have had enough chances. I accept it might be hard to move players on when they’re on such high wages, but maybe, as with Eduardo, that means we have to take a hit on the fee. Call it a ‘loss leader’.

The manager has to be held up as responsible for what happens on the pitch. He needs a clear set of targets, and chief among those must be the accumulation of trophies. And, hard though it is to say it, there need to be consequences if he fails. We love Arsene, but we’re in the business of results, not nostalgia.

As for the board, they and the new owner could soon find the situation reaching a critical point. I can’t remember a time when the mood around the club was so negative. If attendances and ticket renewals start to drop off, their hand will be forced.

If they want to avoid that eventuality, they need to start acting now. Stan Kroenke is reportedly a smart man. If he is, he’ll seek to arrest the culture of comfort and complacency that is handicapping our club.

This is not a creche. This is not a middle-class country club where players can pursue the art of tippy-tappy-tastic ballet. This is Arsenal Football Club. The period of transition needs to be closed. We have a proud history, littered with trophies. We deserve a future to match.

Thoughts between Spurs and Bolton

25 comments April 24th, 2011

Our title challenge is, by my reckoning, over.  A slip by United against Everton yesterday would have kept the door slightly ajar, but Javier Hernandez’s 84th minute header looks like a title-clinching goal.

People will lament our failure to win at Spurs having been 3-1 up.  Disappointing though that is, it isn’t where we lost the title.  Nor is the 1-1 draw with Liverpool.  Neither result is, in isolation, disastrous.

What was disastrous was the capitulation at Newcastle, and our failure to beat the likes of West Brom, Sunderland and Blackburn at home.  These are the sort of games which any title challenger needs to look on as a banker.  Rather than banking it, we bottled it.

Today we travel to the Reebok playing for two things: second place, and pride.  After a succession of draws a win is essential.  Get out there and make a point.

Come On You Gunners.

Liverpool Post-Mortem and Derby Preview

82 comments April 20th, 2011

A consequence of feeling so sick about the Liverpool game that I barely had a word to say about it is that I end up discussing both it and the Spurs match together. It’s probably for the best. The two are bound together by a mutual significance, and tonight’s result will always be indelibly linked to Sunday’s.

If we go there and win, then maybe we can look back on the horrors of Sunday as a turning point. If we lose… well, it barely bears thinking about. Derbies are always big games. Rarely, however, have they been quite this big.

First, we look back to Liverpool. There’s been a lot of talk about Lucas diving, about Liverpool time-wasting, and about the referee granting them a four-minute window in which to look for reprieve. Frankly, it is us who is wasting time if we pursue that line of thought.

We have only ourselves to blame. This Arsenal team are in serious danger of becoming a joke where the punchline (capitulation) never gets old. It is often said that we’re the neutral’s favourite team to watch. This used to be because of our effervescent and enthralling style. Now, it is because our games can never be declared dead. Even at 4-0 up at half-time – or indeed 1-0 up in the 98th minute – we have an unrivalled capacity for collapse.

On Sunday it was partially the fault of an individual, Emmanuel Eboue, who made an entirely unnecessary challenge. More, though, collective blame should be laid at the feet of a team, squad and manage who panic under pressure, and don’t have the psychological strength to ensure victory.

It is embarrassing. The reason the comments of people like Patrice Evra hurt is because, frankly, they are true. Our boys just don’t know how to win.

I’m not suggesting they’re bad at football – they’re not. A glance at the league table will tell you they’re the second best team in the country, which is no mean feat. However, it is the sense of chronic underachievement which pervades this team’s identity. The pedestrian way in which United have strolled in to a seven point league in the lead underlines how much Arsenal have let this title slip.

And why does this happen? Well, sadly I believe it is embedded in the culture of the club. It was telling that the most urgency on Sunday came, remarkably, from substitute Andrey Arshavin -a man who grew up in distant climes, far from the Wenger creche, and who has won trophies with another major club.

The majority of this squad have grown up together under Wenger’s paternal eye. They’re like a family. The problem with families, however, is that too often too much goes unsaid. Where are the characters who will stand up and say what needs to be said – who will look their team-mates in the eye and demand more? When I look at our squad, I see two men with the seniority and presence to do so: Jens Lehmann, who is semi-retired, and Thomas Vermaelen, who in terms of his availability this season might as well be.

Things need to be shaken up. The Diabys, Denilsons and Eboues no longer need to feel they are part of a hand-holding, back-slapping support network. Every man in the squad needs to fight for his right be there, and subsequently for the trophies that the fans will now inevitably demand.

If we end the season trophyless, it will have been a failure. There was a clear agenda at the start of the year to bring home silverware – others we would never have put as much time and energy in to the Carling Cup. Failure to do so – as now looks most likely – will have to go down as a black mark against Arsene Wenger.

Rarely have I written so negatively about an Arsenal team, but I think I, like a lot of fans, am tired of our identity as ‘nearly men’. Moreover, I am worried that I can’t see it changing without a major shake-up. I worry that Arsene’s constant insistence about his faith in this group of players means they enter every season with little to prove other than to themselves, and they don’t seem to have the sort of characters to enjoy winning purely for the sake of winning.

When I look at the improvement in Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish, with much the same squad of players, I can’t help but worry that maybe the only way to arrest this issue is to change managers. That’s certainly simpler than ripping apart a thirty man squad.

If my mood is bleak this morning, it will swiftly change if we can win at White Hart Lane tonight. United’s draw at Newcastle last night means we still have an improbable opportunity for title success, but it is dependent on victory this evening.

I sense it’s a good time to play Spurs. They’ve expended a lot of energy in the Champions League in recent weeks, and might just be beginning to fade.

Regardless of what condition they’re in, the players owe the fans a victory tonight. Our collapse in the reverse fixture was humiliating, and only a thumping victory tonight would begin to undo the pain that caused.

As I said at the top of the piece, tonight could represent a turning point. But I’d be lying if I said I felt that was likely.

Still, it’s derby day. Get behind these players. Lord knows they need it.

Friday Round-up: RIP Danny Fiszman

7 comments April 15th, 2011

Hello all.

As you’ll all know by now, the boardroom events of the past week have been overshadowed by the sad death of Danny Fiszman.  It’s a “big loss” to the club according to Arsene Wenger, but at this time our thoughts are primarily with Danny’s friends and family.

It was widely know that Danny was suffering the ravages of throat cancer, and the timing of the sale of his shares to Stan Kroenke is brought in to stark relief by this news.  Clearly he was looking to get his affairs in order and safeguard the club’s future.  A custodian right until the end.

It is fitting that a lasting tribute to Danny Fiszman will stand in the form of the South Bridge at the Emirates Stadium – now renamed the ‘The Danny Fiszman Bridge’.  The Emirates is the most prominent part of Danny’s legacy to the club – he led the relocation project along with Ken Friar, who has been honoured by having his name adorn the North Bridge.

RIP Danny Fiszman, and thankyou.

On the pitch, the news has been better.  Wojciech Szczesny and Johan Djourou are both ready to return to the side, just in time to face Liverpool’s new-look strikeforce of Carroll and Suarez.  Carroll caused us plenty of problems at the Emirates in Newcastle’s colours, and we’ll have to be firm at the back if we’re to triumph on Sunday.

We’re in a position now where we must win every game.  With United facing City in the Cup, this is an opportunity for us to make up ground on the leaders and reduce the gap to four points. With us still to face United at the Emirates, that suddenly feels much more manageable.

It won’t be easy by any stretch, but it is possible.

If Danny Fiszman’s life and legacy has taught us anything, it’s the value of showing some fight.  He fought for the club to remain in Islington, he fought for the construction of that spectacular stadium, he fought a terrible illness with bravery and dignity, and he fought to protect the future of the club he loved.

Compared to that, giving 100% on the football pitch really is nothing.  Our boys would do well to remember that.

More takeovery thoughts

6 comments April 12th, 2011

Before we get started, here’s a compulsory reading/listening list for anyone who wants to know anything about the takeover:

Those two links will give you all the context you need to understand what is happening to Arsenal Football Club – or, in this instance, what we should probably call Arsenal Holdings PLC.

I don’t know about you but I always thought a ‘takeover’ would feel more exciting.  Perhaps the sense of ennui comes from having seen this one coming from quite so far away.  Stan Kroenke first bought in to Arsenal in April 2007.  In September 2008, he was invited to join the board of the club.  From that moment on, he was the new owner-elect.  Inviting him on to the board, having originally spurned his advances, was seen as a way of safeguarding the clubs future: particularly against the threat of Alisher Usmanov and his Red & White Holdings.

Kroenke’s ascension will be relatively popular primarily because he is regarded as the lesser of two evils.  Usmanov is widely unpopular for a variety of reasons – within the confines of the Arsenal boardroom, the prejudice against him has a more specific cause: his association with one David Dein.

Ever since Dein was frogmarched out of the boardroom and on to the Emirates concourse – for, of all things, supporting a Kroenke-led takeover – his name has been blacklisted at Arsenal.  How ironic that Kroenke now finds himself welcomed in to the fold, with Dein and Usmanov left out in the cold.

So what will change now we’re under American ownership?  As things stand, very little.  The club will most likely become more commercially aggressive, starting this summer: ticket prices will rise and the team will tour to the Far East.  But beyond that, there will be little discernible difference.  The current board will remain, including the bumbletastic Peter Hill-Wood as Chairman.  Arsene Wenger has already received Kroenke’s backing.  The status quo will, in essence, continue.

As things stand, that is.  All of the above could hinge on Alisher Usmanov’s decision over what to do with his 27% stake in the business.  Kroenke is legally obliged to bid for it at a price of £11,750 p/share.  If Usmanov decides to hold on to his lot, Kroenke will only ever be the majority shareholder, with about 35-40% of the company owned by minority parties.  If, however, Usmanov sells up, we’re probably looking at an outright buyout and privatisation of the company.

I don’t think this is necessarily what Kroenke expects, or wants.  In the offer document, KSE state they have no intention to force Arsenal off the stock market. Kroenke has publicly recognised the value of small shareholders in the past.  His obligation to bid for every available share does not mean he wants to hoover them all up.

Whilst Usmanov will ultimately decide their fate, it is the other minority shareholders whose interests you’d like to see protected: the fans; the Arsenal Supporters Trust and all those who invested in the club through the Fanshare scheme. I like the idea of fans having a share and a say in the running of the club, but there is a worrying trend of pro-Usmanov propaganda creeping out over the web.  Apparently Red & White have indicated a willingness to sell some shares back to supporters.  This to me is the hollow promise of a man who knows – and has known since 2008 – that he has no realistic chance of purchasing the football club.  Let’s not let our desire for a degree of fan ownership cloud our judgement in this case.

It will take days, weeks, probably months for this all to play out.  Whatever happens, the events of yesterday only served to underline one thing: that to my mind, who actually owns the shares is what not gives a club its identity.  We were Arsenal before Stan Kroenke had even heard of us.  We were Arsenal when he bought his first shares in the club.  We are still that same Arsenal, even now he owns 62% of a company called Arsenal Holdings PLC.  We will continue to be Arsenal, long after Stan has been bought out by the latest in what will become a long line of ‘custodians’.  Some will be better than others, but we will endure.  We are The Arsenal.  And that is something that no-one can buy.

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