Sunday, September 25, 2011

A cultured left foot

A cultured left foot is probably right up there among the Top 3 Arsenal blogs. It's a wonderful phrase - one which describes our current captain Robin Van Persie beautifully. He has a much talked about chocolate leg - his right one. But he is truly magical with his left.
100 goals up for The Arsenal. May he have plenty more to come. I fell in love with him from the moment he scored this goal. And the love has only grown since then. 

Arsenal and Murphy's Law

3 points yesterday and the world seems a happier place. A week back, and that was not quite the case. I wrote this long blog below on Arsenal then. The folks at @thehardtackle and @sounak in particular were kind enough, to read, edit and publish it as a proper article on their site.
Below is the original, "unedited" blog format.
Murphy’s law states that if anything that can go wrong, it will go wrong.  Well, if you are an Arsenal fan, like me, you could be forgiven for thinking that the footballing Gods are using our club for proving it.
For Arsenal fans, the last six months or so have been extremely disturbing, distressing, depressing and demoralising (and in that order). During this period, the team has lost the art of winning football matches. Somewhere over the last six years or so, the club has forgotten the art and the desire of defending as well. The annual ritual of selling some of our best players for small fortunes has made the coffers heavy , but the team extremely light on the pitch.
A look back at the transition of the team from the days of being called “The Invincibles” to the present bunch feels something like this. Once upon a time, we had a team which had pace and power; a team which could attack with precision & penetration and defend with both patience & passion. Slowly, as the years went by, the team made a gradual transition, we banked our game on the mantra of possession. Tippy-tappy, but rarely trigger happy, the team got obsessed with scoring the perfect goal.  Passing the ball and sometimes passing the buck, somewhere it felt, that we got more obsessed about the means, rather than the end. That it became more important to “play football” rather than win matches. And now with, many of the best creative talents having left for greener, richer, more ambitious pastures, what is now left is a disjointed, rag tag, bunch of a team, struggling to find its feet and identity. It is a team which has lost its aura and belief.
The slow decline over the last six trophy less years just got accelerated in the last six months. Sure, the journey was not all downhill, but there were fewer ups than downs, but quite clearly the limit of our ambitions for quite some time has been getting a Champions League spot. And all along, we have been also fighting philosophical wars, in a cut-throat-competitive environment.
The global phenomenon, that is the EPL, was built on the pulsating, riveting rivalry of Manchester United and Arsenal. Let there be no mistake about it, but the advent of live football on satellite television in the late nineties coincided with this thrilling rivalry and made viewers hooked on to football and their respective clubs for life. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, Keane and Vieira, the British base of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the Nevilles against the continental flavour of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Ljungberg...this was a  rivalry for the ages. And what is more, while the two teams did have contrasting styles – both were attack minded, which made it spectacular.
Somewhere, the economist in Wenger, realised that in order to compete with United in the long term, the club had to move away from its spiritual home of Highbury to a much larger stadium.  A perfectly valid, well thought strategy. What he could not have predicted that football was about to be changed forever, with the influx of oil money. Roman Abrahamovic and his millions came in at Chelsea and took the scene by storm. So, faced with a constrained budget at home and seeing the competitors having almost unlimited pockets, the club took to scouting talented youngsters and getting them in early at the club.  But when, you are relying on youth, you are taking a gamble as you cannot be sure of how a player will eventually turn out to be. Will he blossom into a Fabregas or regress into a Denilson? Would Diaby become the new Vieira or not ? And quite clearly, very few of the many youth talents, picked up at bargain prices have actually gone on to become world class players.
So, clearly handicapped financially and working on a risky strategy of trusting on young players, the club has been further handicapped by the salary structure that they designed. Wenger’s ideas of equitable pay have meant that: a) The club cannot attract the biggest names; b) No big differentials in pay between the better players and the mediocre ones at the club – possibly leading to frustration for the good players and a false sense of comfort for the not so good ones ; c) Difficulty in transferring out the unwanted players, who are earning more than they deserve at the club because no one else will pay them that much.  
And so while Abrahamovic and Chelsea, pushed Arsenal down to 3rd, Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh and Manchester City have now becoming the new galacticos and Arsenal today are struggling to even be 4th. City, in the process have also become a favourite place for Arsenal players to move on – with some of the best 1st team players in the last 5 years being transferred there.  Arsenal, also face stiff competition from two other old rivals – Liverpool and Tottenham, who while not quite having the matching finances of City and Chelsea, quite easily outspend the Gunners.
Here’s what bothers me as an Arsenal fan. The club, even after all its budgetary constraints, has been turning in handsome profits. The club also charges the most from its fans, with very high priced tickets at the new stadium. Deficiencies in the squad over the last few seasons have been fairly obvious; the club’s refusal to address them has been disappointing. No one wants the team to go down the Leeds United path, but the lack of some experienced figures to bring together and solidify a team of youngsters has been acutely felt, time and again.
Then we come to the matters of injury. This interesting blog, tells us as to how many injuries Arsenal had to contend with last season. The club has suffered three horrific injuries – Diaby, Eduardo and Ramsey in the last few seasons.  A counter argument that can be made is that other big clubs suffer almost the same as well and injuries cannot be used as an excuse. The thing is that Arsenal’s core group of players – who can keep the team competitive in the league is much smaller than their rivals – the lack of strength and depth in the squad is exposed with injuries. To look at it another way, Chelsea or United – missing 6 or 7 starters can still put out a very competitive team, but not Arsenal.
To come to matters on the pitch and it is sad that the description of Arsenal as a football club have got limited to a few damning stereotypes and clich├ęs.
Arsenal play nice football but have no end product.
Arsenal can’t break down teams who defend deep.
Arsenal can’t defend a lead.
Arsenal can’t defend from set pieces.
Arsenal can’t defend against the counter attack.
Arsenal can’t deal with “the physical side” of the game.
Arsenal can’t do it on a wet, night at Stoke.
I could go on and on, but I am sure, you can visualise each and every one of these stereotype and remember plenty of moments, when we validated them. The thing is that, while we have struggled against the top teams such as United and Chelsea, we could be forgiven for not having the personnel to match up with them. But the narrative has too often also been of Wenger and Arsenal at war with the likes of Bolton, Blackburn and Stoke. These are teams that play football in a different manner and offer a contrast to our method. Their more aerial, more physical, more robust, and perhaps more English game has roughed up, distracted and defeated Arsenal far too often. And what has frustrated me has been our refusal to improvise, our reluctance to get on with things. It would appear that throughout the club, there appears to be a sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness about the way we play football. I am sorry – but that does not entitle anyone to victories and points. We have too often let our focus get distracted by players who can wind up the opposition, and rather than allow our technical superiority to take over the game, we have either wallowed in self misery or got ourselves embroiled in petty conflicts and skirmishes. None of this works, what does is putting a few past the opposition and going home with the three points.
The one constant in these tumultuous times has been Arsene Wenger. So much of Arsenal’s modern history is down to the contribution of this one man. The club owes him a lot for the glory days of the 98 double winners and “The Invincibles”. He has given the club an identity, global recognition, some wonderful, wonderful football on the pitch. He had the courage and conviction to take a leap of faith and build a new stadium – something that will serve the club well for the next 50 years. However, the last few months have seen the club go backwards, unable to hold on to its most prized assets, possibly unable to attract the best talents any more. A passionate and committed football man, there have been times when I have actually felt concerned about his health and well being. How much can a man take, to see so repeatedly HIS players, let him down. Again and again, repeat the same mistakes. It must be difficult to see HIS players not believing in his “project” anymore.
I have long been a believer in “IN ARSENE, WE TRUST”. However, that does not mean that he is beyond criticism or always right. I disagree with his wage policies and have found his refusal to sign some experienced campaigners in the last 3, 4 years baffling. Arsenal was much closer to United or Chelsea then and a few more experienced campaigners might just have seen us get over the line.  A combination of circumstances has meant that the squad (even after the deadline day signings) is far weaker that it has ever been under Wenger. I am not sure he is the man capable of turning around a squad, which is defensively so shambolic at the moment, that it does not take much to turn up and score against them. As someone said the other day – there are no transfer windows for coaches – and I do believe that coaching room needs new voices and ideas.
There is one last thing about Wenger, which I have found quite staggering and that is his steadfast refusal to criticise his players in public. This is an almost unbelievable, noble quality in today’s day and age.  As an employee, if I had a manager like that, I would be extremely lucky. And yet, has it always been in Arsenal Football Club’s interest that he has been so protective of his players ? I am not sure whether some public criticism would have actually fired up some players, but it remains one of the most remarkable characteristics of this manager.
You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain – The Dark Knight.
I wonder if Arsene thinks along these lines.
These are also the times of social media, of blogs and twitter. Arsenal is among the best followed clubs and there is great writing on the club every single day. Movie quotes from The Dark Knight have actually become very apt to describe the current situation at the club and were frequently used in blogs. The night is darkest just before the dawn – we thought. Assuming that the Old Trafford massacre was the darkest point. Is Arsene Wenger the manager Arsenal need at the moment ? Or is he the one we deserve ?  Injuries (at Arsenal) are like gravity. All they need is a little push ? J
Enough with the jokes, but things have gone topsy turvy for us. From injuries to bad signings, to facing rivals with unlimited coffers, it has been an uphill struggle. But Arsenal have never finished outside the Top 4 during Wenger’s tenure. Arsenal have qualified for the main stages of the Champions League for 14 consecutive seasons. These are staggering achievements. When you combine that with building a new stadium during the same period, the achievements become incredible. However, right now, the team is in a bad shape. From competing in 4 tournaments in March to – relegation like form this season, the fortunes have changed dramatically.  There is plenty of rage and fury going around in the fan base. It only shows that people do really care about the club and that it means a lot to them.  It is important that the club comes out and tells us – the true state of our finances. What is preventing us from spending the money we earn from selling our players. Come out and set realistic expectations, clear the air and get back to playing football. We could be in a mid table scrap. We could be in a relegation battle. Who knows ? I am not sure, how many Indian fans have actually experienced relegation dogfights before, but that is what could await us this season. I sincerely hope that it is only a once in a lifetime experience, but you have got to back the team. The Club. The Arsenal. There is no other way.
Six years is not that long a barren stretch. Who knows, the next Michael Thomas moment might be just around the corner J

Fan 1: What about last season?
Fan 2: What about it?
Fan 1: They were rubbish. They were fucking rubbish.
Fan 2: They weren't that bad.
Fan 1: They were fucking rubbish last year. And they were fucking rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the League, they'll be fucking rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking.
Fan 2: I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't.
Fan 1: Well, you live in hope, don't you
 - Fever Pitch
I do.
Vermaelen & Van Persie: Let's get the fighting spirit back

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Third Man

The recently concluded England vs India Test Series and the subsequent limited overs matches are possibly best forgotten soon. But if nothing else, there will be plenty of memories of Dravid. Rahul Dravid batting. And Emoting. I am not sure how he has felt througout this ordeal, seeing one team mate after another perish. To injuries and to the English. And he has to deal with some tough conditions, tough bowling. And at times tough umpiring. The Bangalore boy has not got too much help from technology either. Yet he has kept on going about his business. As usual. Or maybe not. There has been a bit more feeling about this tour. Raw, pent up, emotions have come out. Of positive delight and uninhibited joy. His Pieterson like celebrations at Lords...

His disgust at dropping catches with this cap throwdown moment at Edgbaston (described so poignantly here by S Dayanand )...
His pumped up, wide eyed demeanor in his T20 debut / swansong, where he hit 3.. yes THREE consecutive sixes....

But among all this, some things have not changed. He has remained as classy, as dignified as ever both on and off the field. He has handled tricky interviews - on the DRS, on the Ian Bell goof up and generally on how bad the Indian Team have been, with grace and honesty. 
Dravid in England has given us all this:
Three Centuries in Tests. Three Sixes in a row in T20. At his best dabbing the ball to Third Man.
India's Greatest Ever Number Three.
Rahul Dravid. More epic than Carol Reed and Graham's Greene The Third Man.
To Dear Jammy. Love and Respect.

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