Ssons of Anarchy send England and Rooney packing

At Euro 16, the England football team once again found a creative way to get eliminated from a major footballing tournament. England were knocked out by Iceland, a country with a comparatively negligible footballing tradition and a population compared by the media to that of English towns like Croydon or, suitably enough, Leicester. The Iceland team’s football and team spirit, and the enthusiasm of their fans, have been some of the highlights of the competition, in obvious contrast to the depressing style of England’s play and the even more depressing conduct of many of their supporters in France.

Of course, the English, and particularly English football fans, have a knack for making everyone else hate them, and so the team’s elimination by Iceland was greeted by hilarity and glee across the world. Many of the more cultured England fans themselves seem to have found the funny side of it as well, and the travails of the national team are increasingly viewed with a kind of wry fatalism by many English football followers. But for the most part, travelling English football supporters remain synonymous with hooliganism and the kind of toxic nationalism and xenophobia that results in their main football songs being about bombing Germany in WW2 and ‘No surrender to the IRA’.

For all the hand-wringing in the media and on the TV over the pitched battles involving England fans in Marseilles ahead of their game with Russia, the media paid scant attention to this aspect of England’s footballing culture. Indeed, the revelations about the role of Russian hooligans in provoking fights with the English fans and French police was a welcome distraction for many who prefer to gloss over the endemic racism in English football, which is typified by the aforementioned songs about Germans and the IRA. Considering the behaviour of their fans, is it any wonder that so many of England’s players–many of whom are black–underperform and find it hard at times to muster the famous ‘passion’ so beloved of England’s moronic football pundits?

The fact is that English nationalism, not least due to England’s historic relationship with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, is a particularly and virulently toxic ideology which tends to define itself against large swathes of the population of its ‘own’ country. In this it is at odds with many other forms of bourgeois nationalism, which tend to have at least some theoretical pretense of being inclusive and progressive, like France. Moreover, as recent political events have revealed, British society is deeply polarized even by its own unflattering historical standards, and there is not much in the way of unitary or unifying ideas for disparate parts of the population to rally around. That’s why, in contrast to small countries like Wales or Iceland, or a country like France, there is no well of national or collective pride for the English players to draw on; why they so often look less than the sum of their often talented parts.

The other major problem for English football is the ludicrous celebrity culture which promotes one or two players at any one time–normally but not necessarily the captain–into some kind of demigod status. We’ve seen it before with the likes of Beckham, then with Lampard and Gerrard, and now we get to witness it with Wayne Rooney. Rooney is a polarizing figure at best among British football fans in general, loved by Manchester United fans and hated by pretty much everyone else. He has always been a talented player but his rambunctious and ‘physical’ style of play does not lend itself well to a corpulent body which finds itself the wrong side of thirty. This is the main reason his effectiveness as a striker is not what it was, and it is what triggered his move from the forward line to midfield.

In the minds of many commentators and presumably in his own, Rooney the midfielder is a sort of visionary English equivalent to Andrea Pirlo, with unparalleled footballing vision and eye for a pass. Problem is, Rooney is not as good a passer as Pirlo, and certainly not as good a reader of the game. That was never his strength. But his tyrannical status as England captain means he is undroppable; and so the entire England formation was re-designed to accommodate Rooney as its creative fulcrum. This meant playing others out of position, or not playing someone like Jamie Vardy at all. On the basis of footballing merit, Rooney would have been much better used as an impact sub coming on for the last 20 minutes of a game. As it was, despite playing the majority of England’s four games at the competition, Rooney finished with no assists and a single goal (a penalty against Iceland). Against Iceland he created one chance, a sideways pass that led to a shot some 30 meters from goal; while in the entire game he only made one completed pass into Iceland’s penalty area, which was from a cross. The English Pirlo indeed. In contrast, the much-derided Jack Wilshere, who only played half the game, actually created two chances with forward passes into the 18 yard box. But don’t expect any English pundits to tell you that. (Stats from squawka.com).

Of course, it was inevitable that manager Roy Hodgson would bear the brunt of the blame for England’s failure, and some of it was deserved. But listening to the self-righteous anger of former England striker Alan Shearer on Match of the Day after the game was sickening. He spent most of the time lambasting Wilshere, who spent the entire season before the tournament injured and wasn’t even a starter during the tournament, as well as of course laying into Hodgson. Shearer slammed pretty much every player on the pitch… with the exception of Rooney, the creative maestro around whom the entire team had been built, but who hadn’t created one chance of note in the whole game. Shearer said then that he wanted the England job, and I wished the FA would give it to him. Because you can rest assured, that with this mentality, they are only guaranteeing future England football failures, and next time it would be Shearer being ridiculed–a man far more deserving of it than Roy Hodgson.

Further Down the Spiral

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

The collapse of Arsenal’s season continued last weekend when they were dumped out of the FA Cup in the quarter final by Watford, losing at home by two goals to one. Arsenal had won the FA Cup for the last two seasons but this latest result did not come as much of a surprise. Arsenal have been in a downward spiral for some time now and the 4-0 defeat of lower division Hull last weekend was a mere blip in the overall trend.

Calls for manager Arsene Wenger to step aside are now widespread among an increasingly divided Arsenal fanbase. Wenger is probably Arsenal’s greatest ever manager and it is sad, if not downright tragic, to see his status brought to this level. The problem is, it is his own fault. Arsene has had plenty of opportunities to leave before now and he chose not to. Moreover, this under-performing band of players were all chosen by him and he must be held accountable for their lack of performance. Who signed Theo Walcott to a contract of £140,000 per week? Who signed players like David Ospina and the two Mathieus, Debuchy and Flamini? Who kept playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain week after week when he was costing the side two goals a game? Who kept Kieran Gibbs around for years after he should have been sold off? Who thought Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky could be relied on to provide cover for our only two competent and fit central midfielders? The buck stops with Wenger and week after week we are seeing Arsenal imploding before our eyes.

The first time I thought Wenger should leave Arsenal was after the 8-2 stuffing by Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011. Having grown up with Arsenal’s rivalry with United during the glory years of Wenger’s reign, and feeling nothing short of hatred for Ferguson’s United, the scale of that humiliation was like nothing else I’ve endured as an Arsenal fan. People point out that Arsenal were undone then by the financial pressures of moving stadium, of losing key players, etc., but the team should have been better prepared for that game and the whole club owes it to the fans not to let that sort of thing happen.It was a disgrace.

I briefly changed my mind when Wenger seemed to turn things round when he dropped Thomas Vermaelen in early 2013, reorganized the team and followed that up with the record signing of Mesut Ozil that summer. Arsenal then went on an Ozil and Ramsey-inspired rampage early in the 2013-14 season. However the wheels came flying off again after a 5-1 mauling by Liverpool, followed by a 6-0 humiliation by Chelsea in Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. The latter was particularly galling due to the symbolism of the occasion. Arsenal’s unbelievable frailty against top-quality opposition was in large part facilitated by the absence of a defensive midfielder. Arsenal were supposed to be on a title charge and in the January transfer window Wenger signed one player on loan, the midfielder Kim Kallstrom who had injured vertebrae in his back. Every single football fan on the planet had been going on for years about Arsenal’s obvious need for a defensive midfielder. At the time Arsenal were playing Mikel Arteta in the role, a player who made his name as a number 10 for Everton. Whatever Arteta’s strengths, as a DM he was massively exposed against the best teams–particularly against Chelsea when Wenger made the staggering decision to partner him with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in central midfield. They say the owl of Minerva flies at desk but even at the time partnering those two in the middle was utter madness.

Once again, Arsenal were disintegrating but somehow clawed their way into the FA Cup Final. Wenger has said winning that game helped persuade him to sign a new contract, when in fact it may well have been best to leave on a high. Having decided to stay, Arsenal were presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to win the league this season. Instead, they’ve played probably the worst football I’ve ever seen from one of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. The team has no discernible style or identity and seems to be characterised by a lack of personal responsibility on the pitch, whether it is in possession or in defense. It’s clear from the abysmal finishing, from the lack of movement from players who don’t seem to want the ball, and from the continuous defensive errors and mix-ups. Moreover, in the absence of people like Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere, it doesn’t really feel like an ‘Arsenal’ team at all. Pretty much every player there I can picture playing for someone else, and I wouldn’t really care if we sold them–so long as we replaced them with someone of comparable or better quality. That includes Ozil and Alexis. I’ve never, ever felt so little emotional investment in an Arsenal side, even in the dog days of George Graham’s reign. At least then we had Ian Wright.

It’s all the more infuriating because there is absolutely no reason why Arsenal shouldn’t be winning the league this year. They already have the players for it. They’re also one of the richest clubs in the world and could sign practically any player they wanted–and if we’re honest, Arsenal are short at least a couple of world-class players if they hope to win the Champions League. The only players in the world who could not be bought for any price are Messi and Neymar, and maybe Thomas Muller. Arsenal could buy pretty much anyone else. I’m not saying they should buy Ronaldo or Ibrahimovich, although they could if they wanted to, but the likes of James Rodriguez, Isco or Mario Gotze would be great signings who would not only raise Arsenal’s chances in the league but actually make them realistic contenders in Europe too.

That won’t happen while Wenger’s in charge, of course, and probably won’t happen while Stan Kroenke is majority shareholder. But one of the things I’ve realized this season is that the Premier League is full of managers who are doing a better job than Wenger. Next season there will be at least five managers who I would take over Wenger, plus Mourinho. People go on about what happened at United after Ferguson retired, but Arsenal at the moment are playing as badly as they did under Moyes, and almost as badly as they’re playing now under Van Gaal. Arsenal and Arsene are not the same thing. It’s time the club rediscovered its identity and started to inspire people again.

Wenger has turned things around before, of course, but the entire aura around the team, around him, and around the club feels different this time. With a trip to Barcelona on the cards tonight followed by a visit to Everton on Saturday, all the evidence suggests things are going to get worse before they get better.

Atrophy

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Qualifying for Europe every season is like a trophy.

Having the most money in the bank is like a trophy.

Having the player with the most assists is like a trophy.

Being the only team to beat Leicester home and away is like a trophy.

Being the only team in Europe not to sign an outfield player is like a trophy.

Paying the highest wages to players who are always injured is like a trophy.

Having the longest-serving manager in Europe is like a trophy.

Why are Arsenal fans so angry?

The Vincibles

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Time for another Arsenal post, as yesterday saw the Gunners lose 3-2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford in an insipid performance. This is comfortably the worst Manchester United side in over twenty years, but somehow Arsenal contrived to lose a must-win game against a team largely comprising a mixture of unproven youngsters and ageing has-beens. After their last-minute defeat of Leicester City a couple of weeks ago, Arsenal were supposedly back in contention for the league title, just two points behind Leicester. But Arsenal’s performances have been dire for months now, and yesterday’s thoroughly dreadful and tame display puts paid to any notion that this is a team of potential champions. Leicester and Tottenham both won this weekend, and Arsenal are now five points adrift of the league leaders in third place.

I recently read Invincible, an account of the 2003-4 season, the last year Arsenal won the league. The book reminded me of two phrases which were always used to describe Arsenal’s style of football back then: “progression with possession” and “explosive pace”. Those virtues could not be further from Arsenal’s current style, which is characterized by sterile build-up play, partly due to a lack of movement and control of space. It often feels like Arsenal players just don’t want the ball, and there are often no forward or even sideways options for a pass. Players are often careless in possession, especially the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott who regularly dribble into touch or opposition players, often turning the ball over in dangerous areas. Combined with an appalling reluctance to track back, such turnovers often result in goalscoring opportunities for the other team. Going forward, the team’s finishing ranges from woeful to disgraceful. In the last few minutes of the Leicestser game, before Danny Welbeck’s winner in the fifth minute of injury time, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott shinned wide brilliant chances from around the penalty spot, while Per Mertesacker headed wide from about six yards out when it should have been easier to score. Arsenal players have a pathological inability to score goals.

There has been a great deal of ink spilled over Arsenal’s need for a ‘world class striker’, which for me is wide of the mark. Olivier Giroud is no Thierry Henry but he has done a decent job for Arsenal, on the whole, and has largely carried the team’s attack this season. The problem is not Giroud but the fact there are no goals coming from elsewhere in the team. Last year Arsenal were massively overreliant on Alexis Sanchez. Alexis has been in dire form recently, but that’s probably due to mental burnout after two years of pretty much constantly playing, plus travelling around the world to represent his home nation, Chile. His (surely temporary) decline was completely predictable and Arsenal should have bought another proven goalscoring winger to take the pressure off Alexis. There’s a dearth of ‘world class strikers’ around, but even if you accept that finding a better striker than Giroud was impossible, there’s no reason Arsenal couldn’t have bought another winger like Kevin de Bruyne, Julian Draxler or even Mario Gotze if they really wanted to. Instead, Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger chose to ‘make do’ and run Alexis into the ground, with the results that we are seeing now.

Even Thierry Henry had Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and Wiltord to support him, but this Arsenal side has no midfielders who can be relied on to score goals. Mesut Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world and must be at the end of his tether over the inability of his teammates to do anything with the service he provides. Who could blame him if he decides to move on at the end of this season. This season Ozil has been regularly flanked by clowns like Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, players who can’t defend, pass, score, or assist, but who certainly specialize in securing lucrative contract agreements for themselves. Joel Campbell, an earnest and more modest figure than either of those two, has been banished for the team for unknown reasons despite the fact he can contribute a lot more to the team’s all-round game.

Arsenal’s defence looks good on paper, but has not performed well consistently for some time. Per Mertesacker is being phased out of the team, his lack of pace meaning he can be caught out of position from time to time. But much of this is not his fault but a function of the way Arsenal often give the ball away with seven players ahead of the ball, meaning teams can swiftly counterattack and isolate Arsenal’s big German. Rather than drop him they might want to reconsider their tactics. His replacement, Brazilian Gabriel Paulista, has put in some shocking performances lately, straight out of the Squill-vestre school of defending. Earlier comparisons to Martin Keown look misplaced now. Laurent Koscielny is a good defender but seems prone to dips in confidence and is not a leader on the pitch.

Arsenal’s midfield is a joke, without a central fulcrum who can make a pass. I have never been a big fan of Santi Cazorla but he did a decent job of transitioning play for Arsenal until a serious injury earlier this season. The ageing midfield pairing of ‘Flarteta’ have belatedly been cast out of the first-team picture; Mikel Arteta’s last performance saw him come on as a substitute, score an own goal, and go off injured. The absurdity is that Arsenal do not have one other player in their squad who is capable of reliably managing the transition in possession from defense to attack. It’s insane.

The person responsible for this mess is Arsene Wenger. This Arsenal team is 100% Wenger’s creation, and he has had huge freedom in selecting these players team. Arsenal these days are one  of the richest clubs in the world. Their rivals for the league this year have not been the richer teams from Manchester or Chelsea, but poorer teams. Man U, City, Chelsea, and Liverpool are all clubs in transition; there will never be an easier season for Arsenal to win the league. But they seem determined not to take advantage of the opportunity. For all that I hate the hackneyed use of terms like ‘winning mentality’ that lazy pundits rely on in the absence of any insight or understanding, it is actually true that a desire to win and to push yourself to your limit is important in competitive sport. Some of Arsenal’s players clearly lack that desire, and as a collective they are being shown up by teams with fewer advantages who seem to want it more (and also play better football).

Although this Arsenal team is particularly bad, they have been this way on and off for about ten years. The personnel have changed, but the one constant is Arsene Wenger. I have huge respect and admiration for Wenger and his achievements but he really should have moved on from Arsenal years ago. The routine humiliations by clubs like Man U and Chelsea were bad enough, but in the last couple of years Arsenal have shown themselves capable of losing to anyone. The club is crying out for a new manager. This season, for the first time ever I look at clubs like Spurs, West Ham and Southampton with envy. Who can say Pochettino, Bilic or Koeman wouldn’t do better than Wenger with these players? In the past, no matter how bad things looked I always thought Wenger would turn it round. Now I really feel as if his time at Arsenal has run its course, and he needs to leave. I don’t even think we’ll finish in the top four this season, at this rate.

Arsenal travel to Spurs next Saturday for a game every Arsenal fan must look at in horror. Spurs might not be top of the table but are the form team and surely must be viewed as favourites now to win this year’s Premier League title. Even in recent years as Arsenal have struggled relative to Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal have always been better than their bitter north London rivals. But this season Spurs are playing much better football, playing with belief and togetherness. Most importantly, the days of Harry Redknapp and Tim Sherwood are a distant memory, and in Mauricio Pochetinno Spurs have a young and astute manager. You also have to recognize the role of their chairman Daniel Levy for getting them to this point. While Spurs are over-performing, Arsenal’s under-performance is ultimately the fault of the board, owner Stan Kroenke and CEO Ivan Gazidis. At bottom, the club doesn’t care about winning and just wants to make a profit and have loads of cash in the bank. The attitude of the players on the pitch is a reflection of that philosophy (in some cases it is literally the same).

Wenger rightly gets credit for Arsenal’s success in 1997-2004. So too does David Dein, whose vision was instrumental in creating that side. But Danny Fiszman also played a vital role in shaping that success, by providing the funding for Arsenal to sign players like Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. That set the club on the road for the major success they enjoyed over the subsequent decade. In the end, it all comes back to money, and while Arsenal’s current regime is in place, there are few reasons for Arsenal fans to be cheerful.

Arsenal and Tomas Rosicky

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Arsenal’s season this year is on the cusp of turning into farce once again. Arsenal last won the Premier League in 2004, and for many years after that were routinely out of contention as the costs of moving to a new stadium restricted them, while Chelsea and Manchester City went on a petrodollar-fuelled spending spree. Chelsea and City shared Premier League titles with Manchester United for the next decade until Alex Ferguson’s retirement brought United to their current merry state. But this season, with Chelsea a laughing stock following a Jose Mourinho-inspired meltdown, and United still bewildered by Louis Van Gaal’s “philoshophy”, Arsenal have the best chance to win the league since about 2008.

And they are pissing it away. Having been top of the league just a few weeks ago, Arsenal have been in freefall since a pathetic 4-0 thrashing by Southampton, and are now behind Manchester City as well as league leaders Leicester and even major rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Now, there is still plenty of time to go this season, and Arsenal might still win the league, but all the indications from Arsenal’s recent results and form are of a team in crisis, while their rivals steadily improve. It’s a maddening but completely predictable situation.

Much has been made this season about Wenger’s refusal to sign any outfield players last summer, opting only to sign Petr Cech from Chelsea. Cech is a fantastic goalkeeper and it is a massive relief to finally have a solid ‘keeper, the first since Wenger replaced Jens Lehmann with the ludicrous Manuel Almunia around 2005-6. But last season exposed major weaknesses in the Arsenal team: there was a dearth of goalscoring talent, with far too much reliance on Alexis Sanchez, and an odd central midfield combination of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. This worked well for a period of time but most observers felt it was a precarious pairing with the feel of a temporary solution rather than a long-term fix. Many people expected Wenger to sign a back-up for Coquelin, to avoid a reliance on the limited Mathieu Flamini and perenially injured Mikel Arteta when Coquelin picked up the inevitable injury; and, in my view, Cazorla should have been replaced by a more natural deep-lying playmaker. As it stands, Cazorla has an injury that will keep him out for a total of four months and there is nobody else in the squad able to do that job. Arsenal have relied on Aaron Ramsey partnering Flamini in midfield in recent weeks, which is the football equivalent of playing the Duracell bunny next to a headless chicken.

There was much agonizing during the summer about Arsenal’s need to have a new centre-forward, with a lot of moronic speculation that Arsenal would sign Real Madrid’s main striker, Karim Benzema. I accept the difficulty of signing centre-forwards, as there are very few top-class strikers available and Olivier Giroud is a pretty decent player, who has in fact scored the majority of Arsenal’s goals this season. But it seemed obvious to me that Arsenal should instead try and sign another goalscoring winger, like Alexis, who could take some pressure of him and, again, fill in during the inevitable injuries. There are many more good wingers and inside-forwards around then there are centre forwards. Manchester City signed two last summer–Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne. By comparison, Arsenal have been relying for months on the worthy but limited Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose performances this season have been risible.

Chamberlain was expected to kick on and have a breakthrough year this season, but to me his performances have indicated a player who lacks the basic mentality and attitude to succeed and win at the top level. Roy Keane criticised Arsenal before this season began, saying that players like Chamberlain were more interested in ‘selfies and six-packs’ than in winning, and frankly I think he was correct. Having read Invincibles recently, and thinking back to that team of 2003-2004, I was struck by how much Arsenal then had a core of players who were desperate to win and absolutely despised losing. Who can honestly say this current team has the same quality?

I think this touches on an aspect of Arsene Wenger’s managerial style. People always talk about how he sees the best in players, seeks to recruit intelligent players and trusts them to do their best and learn to work with their teammates. I think this made more sense with Henry and Bergkamp’s generation of players–players who grew up in the real world and actually had what we would think of as normal human characters–compared to the current type of players who are cocooned in the world of elite football from about the age eight, or even younger. Players like Henry have spoken about how Samir Nasri was a spoiled brat, and Cesc Fabregas turned out to be the same sort of person; that is now the norm, for today’s players. You can’t just rely on these players to actually care–their egos are too big and they’re too disconnected from the real world. When the chips are down, they go into hiding–as Van Gaal is finding at United this season. They need something else to motivate them, whether that’s clear tactical instruction or some actual fear. That’s one of the reasons Ferguson was so successful; Mourinho is the same, although prone to madness as this season showed. I hate both those managers, while I love and respect Wenger, but at a certain point you have to change your methods if they’re not working.

Tomas Rosicky is my favourite Arsenal player by far, partly because he has that old-school intelligence and mentality of giving your best and caring about your club and its fans. It comes across whenever you see him play. Other older players in the squad have a similar quality but are fundamentally different. Petr Cech is a Chelsea legend; Mikel Arteta was a lesser player who only played for Arsenal for a few years, while Rosicky has been at the club for a decade, and Arsenal’s barren decade at that. It’s tragic that he has been injured all season, and that during his return against Burnley last week he picked up another injury straight away which may rule him out for the rest of the season. I really hope he does play for us again, and all year I hoped that we would win the league so he would have the medal in his last year with us. When he leaves, my emotional connection with Arsenal will probably be at its lowest ebb since I started supporting them in the early ’90s.

I looked at buying an Arsenal ticket for the Burnley match, which as it turns out may have been Rosicky’s last appearance. To do so you had to have a paid club membership just to be able to buy a ticket. The club has just announced that season ticket holders have to pay a surcharge for the Champions League match against Barcelona. That’s the seventh home cup match of the season and every year the first seven are included in the price, but this year Arsenal’s American owner Stan Kroenke has changed the rules. And what do we get for all this money, and the countless millions pouring in from TV and sponsorship? The pleasure of watching Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott. Jesus Christ.

Leicester City are league leaders and at this point I’m dangerously close to wanting them to win the league, even though Arsenal are still in with a shout. The club I grew up supporting and the club I’ve supported my whole adult life just feel increasingly alien to me. I know that Arsene Wenger has values with which I agree and for which I have a lot of respect, but it’s increasingly obvious that many of his players don’t share those. And if they can’t even make a good show of wanting to win the league in a season when their main rivals are Leicester City, I might just lose interest completely.

Edit: I’ve changed the title of this post as I felt it was too unwieldy.