Monday, April 14, 2008

Arsenal's season over

A series of enthralling football matches, mostly involving Arsenal, has ended. There are three major competitions in British football (soccer, for my American readers). The oldest of these is the FA Cup, a knockout competition entered by almost every football club in the country, but almost always won by one of the 'big four', Arsenal and Chelsea (both from London), Liverpool and Manchester United. Then there is the Premier League, a series of 38 matches where everyone plays everyone twice (at home and away). The top four clubs (and yes it is the same four) get to play in the Champions' League the following season. This is a mixture of league and knockout matches played between the leading European clubs. This year, like last year, three of the four semi-finalists will be English clubs.

Until fairly recently all four clubs were possible winners of all three competitions. Arsenal were leading the Premier League by five points when they were drawn to play Manchester United (who were second in the league) in the FA Cup. It was a match that fueled expectations of high drama in the spectators. These two clubs undoubtedly play the most attractive football, possibly in the world. They are built around two very different personalities.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Man U manager, is a Scotsman in his mid-sixties who played centre forward for Glasgow Rangers when he was young. He has been there for more than twenty years, having resurrected a club that had fallen on hard times since the glory years under Sir Matt Busby, the legendary manager at the time of the Munich air crash of 1958 that killed some of the greatest football talents that England has ever seen. In an era when television money has drawn the best footballers from around the world, Ferguson has attempted to keep an British backbone to his side, but even his team of the 1990s that included Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt, Keane, Irwin, Pallister, Sheringham, Bruce and the Neville brothers was enlivened by such foreign stars as the sublime Frenchman, Eric Cantona, the ugly Dutchman Van Nistelrooy and the great Dane, Peter Schmeichel.

The Arsenal team that Arsene Wenger inherited a decade or so ago also had a British backbone. The back four of Dixon, Adams, Bould (or Keown) and Winterbourne were drilled like Grenadier Guards as they operated the offside trap. Arsenal were difficult to score against. The fans on the terraces would chant "One-nil to the Ars-en-al" to enshrine the defensive attitude - they were seldom scored against and only occasionally scored. Another touchline chat was "Boring Arsenal." The British backbone has long since disappeared and Wenger has filled his team with foreigners, especially Frenchman or players from former French colonies. Among Arsenal favourites have been Patrice Vierra, Robert Pires and Thiery Henry, but they represent another strand of Wenger's thinking; he sells players who reach the age of 30 and prefers to employ youngsters. One pundit's view, "Kids will never win anything," was belied by the 1999 team of Manchester United which won all three competitions. The influx or foreign players and Wenger's more intellectual approach has produced a game with quick interpassing, imaginative running off the ball, and the daring of the unlikely that is reminiscent of French Rugby.

The Man U v Arsenal cup-tie was eagerly awaited, not least because of the contrast in attitudes in the two clubs. In the event Manchester slaughtered them.

In many ways Arsene Wenger is an attractive character and Alex Ferguson an unattractive one. After a match between these two great teams there is seldom a touch of the hands between them as they studiously ignore each other. Wenger is more cerebral personality. His decisions are clearly thought through and he has been planning his team for a long time. He takes in consideration the need to build a new stadium and how that impacts on his ability to buy players on the open market.

Ferguson is more of a bully-boy. The famous incident where he threw a football boot at David Beckham and his well publicised spat with certain racehorse owners have not given a good impression. However, he is known as a disciplinarian and won't stand for misbehaviour from his young charges. On one occasion he burst in on a party organised by Lee Sharpe and attended by Ryan Giggs. Giggs was disciplined and Sharpe sacked (his career never recovered). Jap Stam was sold when he had harsh comments for Sir Alex in his autobiography. Beckham's lifestyle was inimical had he had to go, and when the Manchester youngsters organised a party recently which resulted in a (false) charge of rape, Sir Alex came down on them like a ton of bricks.

Contrast that with Wegner's attitude to his captain, William Gallas, after the match at Birmingham. With a minute to play Arsenal were leading but conceded a penalty from which Birmingham scored. TV replays afterwards indicated that this was a mistake by the referee. Gallas, instead of stationing himself on the edge of the penalty area in case of a rebound, marched to the centre circle and sat down in a colossal sulk that lasted until five minutes after the match had finished. Ferguson would have stripped him of the captaincy, Wegner, in complaining about the penalty, seemed to be saying, "Move over, William, I'll come and sulk alongside you."

Arsenal's season began to collapse. They had to play Chelsea and then Liverpool three times, once in the Premier League and twice in the Champion's League. In each game they took an early lead, but then bottled and lost. So the three English clubs in the Champions' semi-finals will be Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea. Arsenal's remaining chance of silverware this season, was to beat Manchester United yesterday.

For the first 25 minutes Arsenal dominated the game with Belorussian, Alexander Hleb, prominent and they should have scored, but attacker Adebayor was strangely out of touch, while Man U goalkeeper, Dutchman Van der Sar, had more difficulty keeping out deflections from his own defenders. At the other end United were creating chances for Wayne Rooney but out-of-favour German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann pulled off splendid saves. By half time there was no score, but shortly after the break, Adebayor headed home a goal for Arsenal. TV replays later showed that Adebayor had in fact slapped the ball in with his hand, but the referee missed that.

Although Arsenal were now ahead recent experience gave no confidence that they could hold on to a lead. Sure enough, five minutes later William Gallas conceded a penalty by handling the ball in his own penalty area. Player of the season Cristiano Ronaldo, the young Portuguese star, scored with a twice taken penalty and later Owen Hargreaves won the match for United with a well taken free-kick. United will be difficult to stop now, though they have to play Chelsea away and Chelsea could still catch them.

So what is wrong with Arsenal? With a name like Arsene, Wenger seems wedded to the club. He regards English players as overpriced and his team yesterday comprised two from France, two from the Ivory Coast, and one each from Germany, Spain, Cameroon, Togo, Holland, Belarus and Brazil. United on the other hand had six British players. While Sir Alex could bring international stars like Tevez, Anderson and Giggs on as substitutes, Arsene could only call on youngsters. Arsenal have been hit by injuries, but United have had their captain, Gary Neville out for 13 months and have seldom been able to call on the services of their French striker, Saha. Chelsea have similarly been deprived of major players through injury. The fact is that Arsenal do not have enough players of quality. Large squads run the risk of dissatisfaction among players who do not play regularly - Liverpool and Tottenham have found this to their detriment - but United seem to manage the rotation system better than any other team. Compared to their rivals, Arsenal have too small a squad.

In the last part of the season they have been at the butt end of many poor refereeing decisions, but in truth, these even themselves out during the course of a year. It's how you react to these that determines the long term outcome. Arsenal have reacted poorly. Even yesterday, Wenger was hinting at a conspiracy amongst referees against him, when as far as yesterday's match was concerned he was lucky that the Arsenal goal was not disallowed, and both the Arsenal infringements that led to United's goals were obvious and indisputable. Someone needs to say to him, "Get over it."

Most foreign players seem to be Roman Catholics. They cross themselves and touch the playing surface as the enter the arena, as if dedicating their performance to God. They then cheat. There are huge amounts of money at stake. These players often earn at least £40,000 a week and sometimes three times that. One practice has become so commonplace that no-one seems to take exception to it. When awarded a free kick, they throw the ball ten yards nearer the goal while the referee's back is turned. Yesterday Ces Fabregas, one of the best players in the world, was awarded a free kick in his own half. As the referee was running back, Fabregas threw the ball into his opponents' half and took the free kick from there. It was unnecessary because he didn't even kick the ball forward and he gained no advantage from it, but cheating has become so endemic in the game that players cheat even when there is no benefit to be gained.

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