Monday, March 14, 2011

The Ugly Game

Photo nicked from Arsenal.comby Dick Mac

I have written about my introduction to world-class soccer in the past.

When Mrs. Mac was transferred to London in 2000 and we made a home there, another American expatriate invited us to a soccer match at Highbury, in North London. I was apprehensive, but our friend encouraged me by saying he guaranteed I would have a good time. I had notions of fans stabbing their neighbors in the stands, of missiles being launched at the opponents, and police rounding-up hooligans.

We watched Arsenal beat Manchester City 5-0, and None of that happened, of course. What did happen was that my entire view of soccer was changed. I was hooked, I was a fan. A fanatic!

That day I watching the amazing play of Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Gilles "Che" Grimandi, Sylvain Wiltord, David Seaman, and Thierry Henry. Their performance helped me understand why soccer is called the beautiful game.

I was now a supporter of the Arsenal, I was now a "gooner"!

I began to read about the Gunners every day. I researched the career of Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager. He is French, and he had a not-so-illustrious career as a player before becoming a manager in other leagues, which led to his position at Highbury.

He became the manager in 1996, and soon thereafter began recruiting his own players and put his stamp on the Arsenal brand. Many of his decisions were met with suspicion by Arsenal detractors and supporters alike. Wenger hired so many French players (that is, so many top-notch French players), that when France won the World Cup in 1998, one London newspaper proclaimed "Arsenal Win World Cup"!

Truthfully, although there were many French players on Arsenal, there were only two Arsenal players in France's World Cup squad (Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira). Another English club, Chelsea, had just as many players in the France National Team as Arsenal, but you will never hear Chelsea being referred to as a French team.

Wenger built his brand of soccer by hiring the players he liked. He hired more international players (that is, more non-English players) than any other manager in the English Premier League, and Arsenal was the first (and possibly only) English club to ever field a starting line-up with no Englishmen.

It was hard to argue with Wenger's tactics and philosophy, since he was winning a lot.

Wenger developed a strict hiring rule that states no player over the age of twenty-eight would be granted a multi-year contract. Get to 28, and it's year-to-year, even if you're the beloved Thierry Henry. And Wenger's squads know how to move the ball.

Oh, my, do they know how to move the ball. It's almost like ballet. There is always a pass to be completed and there always seem to be multiple players available to receive it. Wenger's game is, most certainly, the beautiful game. Arsenal's grace and style, combined with speed, strength and athleticism bas made for some of the most amazing soccer to be played.

The Wenger style is so amazing, so graceful, so impressive that it is lovely to watch. Even when Arsenal fails to score, their possession of the ball and their ability to move it forward makes watching the team a joy.

When Arsenal decided that Highbury was too small (which it was), and that a new stadium would have to be built, everyone feared the obvious: another top-flight team spending hundreds of millions for a new stadium and accruing debt they will struggle to pay.

The Arsenal board, along with Wenger's acumen, decide to enter an austerity program that allowed them to keep the payroll down, build the stadium, and remain one of top 4 teams in the league.

For those who do not know, those are the "money" spots; teams that end the season in the top four positions are invited to play in the prestigious UEFA Champions League the following year, and that brings the team a lot of money.

As long as Wenger kept the team in the top four, then the lack of silverware might keep the hordes from turning on him.

On top of that, Wenger managed to continue providing beautiful soccer with a lower-budget team than his competitors.

We are a happy lot, we Gooners. Those of us who support Arsenal are fortunate to have such a manager; a man who can see real talent, players who will fit in to his style, and he can develop them into a world-class team without world-famous names.

So, for the past few seasons there has been plenty of beautiful soccer without any silverware.

Suddenly, this season, although in second place in the league, Arsenal seems to be unraveling. The last three matches have been dreadful:

A 0-0 draw with lowly Sunderland in a league match;

a 3-1 drubbing by Barcelona in the Champions league. The match was nowhere near as close as the score might suggest. Arsenal had ZERO shots on goal and it was an own-goal by Barcelona that prevented a shut-out; and

the loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final. This was not just a loss to a lower ranked team, but a humiliation. Arsenal played as if they were possessed by the spirit of a last-place MLS team.

And it is not like we are used to. Usually when the Gunners lose some matches, we can turn to each other, and our detractors, and say: they lost, but their play was beautiful.

The last three games have been losses by an Arsenal team that is playing ugly, losing soccer. No grace, no athleticism, just losses.

I don't know what is happening, but I do know that it must be time to revisit the team's current hiring strategy.

Our backline is horrible, and it is beginning to feel as though Wenger is hiring French players now just because they are French, because they certainly are not up to snuff: Gael Clichy, Bacaray Sagna, and Sebastian Squallaci are from France, and Johan Djourou is from Cote d'Ivorie (which is almost the same as being from France). These four players form what has to be the weakest back line Wenger has ever fielded. I have never complained that players should be of one nationality or another; but this Franco-centric back line is an embarrassment.

To this backline, add a young captain who is focussed not on his squad, but on his future with FC Barcelona, and a weak-kneed and petulant striker, and we have a team that is unable to succeed.

My friend, Liz, sometimes says that Wenger is "losing it." Now I think it must be his mind that he is losing. Even with his reduced spending ability, Wenger must be able to find a decent non-French defender.

Listen to me, I can't believe it! I sound like a Brit, complaining about the French! I have nothing against the French or French players. My point would be the same if the manager and his back line were Americans or Italians playing in England. Wenger has to do something about that back line, and perhaps he needs to search outside of France and its former colonies for a solution.

There are glimmers of joy in the younger players: young Englishmen Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshire and Kieran Gibbs form what could be the foundation of the future. Until the future, something must be done. My Arsenal is playing ugly soccer, and it makes me sad.

On a side note, 1998 France player Youri Djorkaeff played his last two seasons with my Red Bull New York side. It was a joy to have him in the team and it was fun to watch him. We were lucky to have him, even in the twilight of his career.

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