Archive for January 13th, 2009

13
Jan
09

What happened to the beautiful game?

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. — Henry Ford

I came to love the Arsenal at arguably an inopportune time. Chance put me at a place where I was angry with the cable company for making me pay a monthly charge on my cable modem and the federal and local government put all of my city in a place where we could buy internet and cable television services from them instead of the big cable company. In a moment of anger,  I ditched Comcast, signed up with my city’s cable company and sat back to watch television.

Of course, the television didn’t get any better, but what I did get was all the “digital cable” channels for the same price as basic cable. It was a pleasant surprise, the icing on the cake as the idiom goes. Hidden in those digital cable channels was a small, relatively new channel called Fox Soccer Channel and little did I know the profound effect that channel would have on my life.

Like I said, I came to love Arsenal at an inopportune time. If I had been some kid who grew up in Watford or Wycombe or Slough who’s dad just happened to take me to a game when I was a child, I think it would have been better for me, for my soul, because when I was a child, Arsenal sucked. They sucked ass, and with the exception of an FA cup and an FA cup 2nd place finish in 79 and 80 (when I was 10) Arsenal were a middle of the table team.

Instead, I had to fall in love with a team that had Denis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, and Tony Adams on it, which is simply unfair. For most teams, players like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira are once in a lifetime players, so to have both on a team at the same time was a coup of epic proportions — and to add in Bergkamp and Adams is just, well, unfair. I picked up Arsenal when they would,  in just a few years time, become invincible and would play the most beautiful football I have ever seen.

How does that become someone’s introduction to football? “Here’s a team who will become the best team you will see in a generation, enjoy a life time of wishing that every team from then on is half as good as the one you’re watching! Oh yeah, and you have no context in which to put this whole experience so you don’t even get to enjoy it while it’s happening!”

That’s not fair. That’s not a standard that anyone should ever have to live up to. It’s like being handed a video game console and playing an entire season on the “easy” setting, against the computer. When your friend inevitably comes over and plays you, it shatters your perception of reality.

I think something similar has happened to the Arsenal team that we see on the pitch right now. I complained the other day, in my Good-Bad-Ugly, that Arsenal had become boring and I have to admit in retrospect, that’s not fair. I’m judging this team based on my experience with The Invincibles which is unfair because both the team has changed and, as Wenger pointed out, the league has changed.

I actually noticed the change in the league when I was watching the Man U/Chelsea match on Sunday. As I was sitting there, picking up the pieces of my lost morning, I saw something very familiar in the way that Chelsea were playing: they were moving the ball quite well, maintaining possession pretty well, but when they got in the Man U final third, United picked up the ball pressure, forced Chelsea to the center of the park, dispossessed whoever had the ball, and started a beautiful, flowing counter. This happened a lot and if it didn’t happen and Chelsea were able to get off a shot, it was either lacking teeth or it fell prey to the old “over elaborate play” problem — then it dawned on me…

HOLY S*&T! CHELSEA HAS BECOME ARSENAL!

I knew that Roman has always fancied his club as the new Arsenal, from the transformation of Arsenal from small club to world classs in the 1990s down to the players that Arsenal had on our squad: if Arsenal was interested in a player, Chelsea simply read about it in the papers and bid double. Chelsea even went so far as to tap up Ashley Cole. I mean, this is a club that wanted to be Arsenal so bad, they fired the most sucessful coach in their history, not because he wasn’t winning, but because the team wasn’t playing beautiful football! That’s insane.

Emulating Arsenal seems like a goood idea, but the problem is that Roman didn’t expect that the entire world would unlock the secret to beating Arsenal: solid defense in a 4-5-1 formation.

And of course the world figured it out, all they needed to do was look at a history book. That’s exactly what happened in the 1930s when teams used to play a 2-3-5 and it was Arsenal who innovated the change! Arsenal started playing a solid back line under Herbert Chapman and won titles with it. So it should be no surprise that teams would see Arsenal playing effectively a 2-4-4*  and say, “ok, let’s play a 4-5-1 to counter that.” They have 9 players defending, we have 8 players attacking. You do the math.

That’s how Fulham ground out a win, that’s how Stoke ground out a win, that’s how Aston Villa ground out a win, etc. Teams like Arsenal have become entirely predictable and their opponent’s response to us has become entirely predictable as well. As Wenger points out, this is only natural, after all, the difference between relegation and staying up is millions of pounds in revenue so teams do whatever it takes to stay up; beautiful game be damned.

Ocassionally, a team playing the 2-4-4 will get an early goal and that throws the whole plan into disarray; because then the 4-5-1 team starts attacking, which opens space in behind them and allows the more offensive minded team freedom to create. But that’s not happening as much for us as it once did, which we can blame on injury, transfers, lack of creativity, lack of a wide player, *ahem* not shifting our tactics when faced with all of the above, and so on.

But yes, the league has become predictable, and yes, the beautiful game is essentially dead; at least when teams come knocking at Arsenal and Chelsea’s door. The only thing that is unpredictable right now is how teams like Villa and Fulham will play each other and, normally, how the top four will play each other. This explains the topsy-turvy season that we’ve had this year up and down the table.

If we want the beautiful game back, Wenger is going to have to inject some fresh tactics, fresh bodies, and a fresh approach to the game. It’s what every great Arsenal manager before him did. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Arsenal will never get the beautiful game back. It’s possible that Arsenal’s beautiful game was just a once in a lifetime thing; a combination of great scouting, lucky buying, a change in diet, good team balance, and having the older players around to Shepard the younger ones.  Moreover, it’s entirely possible that it’s just my spoiled inner child who wants another Invincibles, who wants to switch the Playstation on easy mode and play against the computer one more time — so that I can relive a tradition that never really existed instead of living in the moment and enjoying what we have.

Nah… BRING BACK THE BEAUTIFUL GAME ARSENE!

*We can argue this ad nauseum but basically I see Clichy and Sagna as the only two players providing any width to the team — which is similar to Chelsea with Bosingwa and ACole — making them the midfielders and Nasri and Eboue actually strikers. Just look at how centrally Eboue and Nasri play and how often Clichy and Sagna are wide and deep.

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