Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The New Ozymandias

The beautiful game. Oh the cliches. The truth is that the game stopped being beautiful long ago. No, I take that back. The televised game stopped being beautiful long ago. The beautiful game still exists, far away from one that is shown on tv. The beautiful game can be found in streets around the world, dirt fields, bumpy/patchy open areas or any section of space that is transformed into a make-shift soccer field.

There is beauty in the movement, there is beauty in the passing, there is beauty in that perfect pass that is conceived in the mind but is yet to materialize. And finally, there is the ultimate beauty in a goal, the move that started it leading up to the ball ending up in the net. Joy for the team that scored and despair for the other. The ultimate emotional soap opera.

It is with these eyes that I once viewed the game, both on tv and on those streets far away from any cameras. But the game on the tv changed, slowly at first, and then rapidly. The movements became faster coupled almost with the fast pace of cash being poured into the game. Money does not always translate into wins even though the common perception is that the winning team is the one that spends the most. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City banished that belief back in 2016 but that was a rare occurrence in the Premier League which seems to only distribute titles among a select few. 

They also say that money buys quality. But what is quality? In a 90 minute game, that quality only shows itself for 2-3 minutes and usually it manifests itself in a single goal. But a 1-0 win is still a win. And that is all that matters. A single goal.

4-5-1. The end of the beautiful televised game started with that. The suffocating formation used by two coaches to drain the game of any quality. 0-0 games. 90 minutes of 0-0. Nothing happened in those games. Now, 4-5-1 does not directly imply 0-0 but it is all in the execution. But two managers in England, one Portuguese, the other Spanish, used this formation in the most negative game killing manner possible. And then others followed. Then that formation eventually went away but the idea of game killers and negative players remained. Sure, 0-0 went away for the most part but somewhere along the way, attacking players, especially centre forwards started disappearing. The tradition centre forward is an endangered species in the game now. Most teams lust for a defensive midfielder in lieu for an attacking player.

As the money poured in, only a few teams were left competing at the top. The European Cup was once a tournament where a team could emerge from the shadows and steal a win. But slowly, the big clubs wanted to be there all the time. And so the Champions League was born. Teams who finished 2nd to 4th in their domestic league wanted to be there all the time. Such is the case of Arsenal.

For Arsène Wenger, going from an unbeaten championship season to 4th became the norm. The Arsenal board told Wenger that he had to ensure 4th every year until the new stadium debt was paid off. Prior to this requirement by the board, Wenger proclaimed that Arsenal could dominate English soccer like Ferguson’s Man Utd. Clearly, Ferguson didn’t take that well because he stayed in the game long enough to ensure no one could ever match his trophy haul. Ferguson delayed his retirement and found new ways to keep bouncing back and winning titles. Man Utd and Ferguson were Wenger’s rivals but after 2004, Wenger found a new rival in the foreign money coming into the league. Wenger was irritated by the new money that flowed into the English League and that likely reminded him of the bribery that took place in the French League back in the early 1990’s. The influx of money meant that Wenger changed his ways. His goal changed to be only 4th by spending as little money as possible. In doing so, Wenger would forget his own target of dominating the league and winning league titles.

It has been 13 years since Arsenal last won the league. It has also been 13 years since this blog was started, with the first entry coming five days before Arsenal finished the 2003-04 season unbeaten.

So much has changed in this blog over that time, the structure, look, and content. My love for this blog has not changed in that period but the frequency of posting has gone down. That has not been by choice but by circumstances. Many posts have been written in my mind or my computer but never made it on the website. A perfect example is this post has been written in my mind many times over the last 7 years yet never actually posted.

It was January 2010 after Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Man Utd that I uttered that Arsenal would never win anything under Wenger again. In a way, I was proven wrong as two F.A Cup titles arrived in 2014 and 2015 but the league has stayed elusive. Back on that day, Man Utd raced to a 3-0 lead and for once, there were no excuses for Wenger to hide behind. Until that game, Wenger could always blame other factors for his team falling short, such as an incorrect ref decision, a nasty foul, a bad pitch. Yet, on that day, Man Utd didn’t need to foul Arsenal, they didn’t need Rooney to dive for a penalty, they didn’t need a waterlogged pitch. On that day, Man Utd showed the tactical difference between the two teams. That game highlighted that Wenger had fallen well short of Ferguson and there was no catching up.

I uttered these words to other fans but was told to shut up. The belief in Wenger was strong back in 2010. Those fans said that it was only a matter of time before Wenger would lead Arsenal to glory again. That glory has not arrived. Instead, painful defeats have arrived at such a regular frequency that it is no longer a surprise. 

There is no fun in watching Bayern win 5-1 over Arsenal every time. Of course, there is no fun in watching Bayern play anytime, anywhere. Certain members of Bayern Munich’s establishment like to think their values are above the crazy spending of the English League. Yet, Bayern have poached many players from Dortmund. If Bayern had any values, why would they buy players from their rivals and keep strengthening at the expense of their opponents? As far as on-field play goes, a player such as Lewandowski can score at will. But, he also dives when needed. There lies the problem. Talented players who don’t need to dive continue to cheat all the time. It is now a part of the game. But it should never be part of the game. Divers can be punished afterwards, even if their name is Ronaldo, Messi, Lewandowski, Neymar, Rooney.

There is also no fun in watching La Liga where Ronaldo and Messi are always in constant battle to score more goals than each other. Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate the headlines and are so big that every player in every league says one thing “It is my dream to play for [Real Madrid/Barcelona]”. The interviews are all the same. New players come and go, coaches are fired or forced out, goals are scored frequently, titles are won and the cycle continues.

Real Madrid, Barcelona represent the need to win titles at all costs while Arsenal are the opposite and represent a team that never wants to win titles at any costs. Neither situation is healthy. Yet, that is how things are. The Arsenal board and owner don’t care what happens. Wenger doesn’t care about winning and is intent on staying, like a dictator from one of those countries you read about in the news. Of course, this is how the cycle works. The man who transformed Arsenal from a boring football team into an exciting force is now also the man who has overseen its decay. He has tarnished his legacy and the bright future that he once oversaw for Arsenal is now in ruins.

I can finally say what I have wanted to say for a long time. Arsène Wenger and his stubborn ways have slowly destroyed my love for the televised game. He should have left 7 years ago, 3 years ago, 2 years ago. Yet, he wants to continue at Arsenal for another 2 years. He should not be allowed the luxury of that decision. He should not even be given another day at Arsenal.

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