Every EPL weekend ends up as strata of competing headlines. It plays out episodically live, one team’s trauma replaced by another’s, victors and modes of victory hopping around. In the aftermath, everything melts together and the great bulk is quickly forgotten or reduced to anecdotes and snapshots. There’s the overhead picture of the league as a whole, relayed by papers and tv, where every team has a narrative that stands in some sort of relation to the whole. Usually the narratives don’t represent much beyond the need for journos and talking heads to deliver fast, easily repeated lines with an emotional hook. As an Arsenal fan, the tabloid narratives of other teams are all more entertaining than those constructed around the Gunners. This is probably true for most fans whose team isn’t a monolithic win-machine: United have been generally celebrated for a very long time. That looks to change (wow, did they lose this weekend…) and while it’ll be nice to have a new storyline, I’m sure the new tune will get old before long.
I was struck by how sleepy United looked, how disengaged. I’m sure that is more troubling for their fans than their lack of a linchpin creative midfielder, as it suggests something rotten with their spirit. Fellaini, on the inconclusive evidence of this one start, looks like the wrong buy, and an expensive one at that. United picked up the pace in the second half, but looked average and unconvinced by their own effort. It was strange for a derby game. I imagine they’ll rebound, but I doubt it will be a Fergie-sized rebound.
A month has passed since the Luis Suarez transfer affair raised its ugly, improbable head, the EPL season has begun, and Arsenal have yet to buy any new players (bar free Yaya Sanogo). Of course they’ve continued to loan guys out and, naturally, now that they’ve played one real game against one real team, everyone left is injured. For the third year in a row, the team has started off in full catastrophe mode, but for the first time the problems are comprehensively self-inflicted. I’ve always been a Wenger supporter and generally willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it seemed that he was making due with limited means. I like his professorial aura, his unsolicited philosophizing, his abrasive Frenchness, and his ideas of how the game should be played. And of course I liked how much he used to win.
He is less than charming during transfer seasons: it’s clear that the sheer cost of doing business does not sit well with him. He objects to the financial landscape of the sport in a grand sort of way, as though he’s been writing a thesis on it and fully expects that once his findings are published everything will change. Year after year we watch Wenger the economist do idiosyncratic financial battle with the marketplace. How he expects these fights to turn out is a little mysterious, but from the outside it’s been extremely predictable: expensive or highly-sought after players are never purchased. The money involved in the sport is obscene, but money in general is obscene, and since when is sport an escape from obscenity, especially this kind of obscenity? Sometimes it seems like Wenger should be an inspiring coach at a public school. I don’t mean that in a denigrating way: it would be a more morally admirable calling, really.
The defeat to Aston Villa was damaging on pretty much every front it could conceivably be. Obviously it’s not how title contenders begin a season; Arsenal immediately look set on another scrape for fourth place. Wenger’s contention that the team as it is can win appears to be plainly eccentric. The loss illustrated how thin the squad is; Podolski ended the game at left back, which is absurd, and begs all sorts of insulting questions like “Hey, guys, remember that when you sell a bunch of people, those people won’t be around to play for you anymore, so it’s a good idea to replace them with some new people who can play, and are hopefully better than the old ones. You remembered to bring the new players, right? Right?”
This is exponentially aggravated by the expectations set by the club at the beginning of the summer, when Ivan Gazidis promised to spend big. There was talk of how, in a few years, Arsenal’s financial clout and power in the market would approach Bayern Munich’s. Oy. The failure to bring anyone in is a PR disaster, fans are up in arms (especially those with expensive season tickets), and damages the club as an idea. Who can take this mess seriously? Of course the transfer window is still open. There will be, no doubt, some movement. But it promises to be like going through an entire grocery store only to buy a pack of sugarfree gum at the cashier.
Perhaps most troubling, however, is how Arsenal lost. They always lose the same way. Over and over and over again. I don’t feel like describing what this way looks like, it’s too familiar and annoying. Sure, the referee was terrible, and swung the game decisively away from Arsenal, but the bad situations were the same bad situations we always see. When a smart person replicates a mistake so perfectly, over and over again, it suggests that this smart person doesn’t recognize their action as a mistake. I want Arsenal to start losing in different ways. I want to be surprised. It should be more fun than this.
I still like Wenger. But good grief it’s time to change already.
In what seems like a Quixotic move, United are back in for Fabregas. Maybe my last post jinxed something? Hopefully them. It seems super unlikely that Barca would sell another prestigious midfielder after losing (bitterly) the tug of war for Thiago. And where, I wonder, is MUFC’s leverage? Fabregas has no special trap-door playing time clause like Thiago did: in fact, Arsenal are reportedly better positioned to buy him if Barca were willing to sell because of a buy-back clause written into his contract. So I suppose a small part of me is happy that this is happening, as it increases, ever so slightly, the possibility that he’ll return to Arsenal before he gets geriatric (that’s what I imagined him doing when he said AFC was “the only other club I’d play for”… coming back when he’s 37). I don’t think Arsene would miss the chance to get his prodigal son back.
Arsenal might be grinding out a handful of big transfers this summer: it’s hard to tell, because they’ve been totally silent, and all we get is a bunch of tabloid nonsense. Probably the behind-the-scenes scene is depressing, and we’re better off not knowing. So, in the absence of anything exciting in a forthright manner, why not take pleasure in others’ transfer market pain? Especially Manchester United’s transfer pain! This is the most delicious kind of transfer pain, and one we don’t get to taste nearly often enough.
At the very beginning of the summer there were articles everywhere claiming Moyes had Cesc Fabregas as his number one target, and that ManU had confidence that they could make a deal happen. It was going to be a big statement of intent, blah blah blah, and absolutely nothing has come of it. May nothing come of it yet- what a nightmare. Thiago, if the media were to be believed (including big places like ESPN), was their second choice. After it became clear Cesc was unavailable, suddenly the purchase of Thiago was to be a ManU masterstroke. The midfield genius of the future for a song! Thiago would exchange the company of Xavi for Michael Carrick, and in doing so, finally get a starting berth. Alas for the Red Devils a better team in Pep’s Bayern Munich has snuck in and beat them to the punch. I think this is pretty hilarious, and I really hope it’s true. I dislike Bayern, but this United schadenfreude is a blast. It would be better, obviously, if Arsenal was the one twisting the knife, but there’s no reason to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Whether it’s a good choice for a player in search of more time on the field is a different question. Thiago will have absurdly good competition at Bayern, and there won’t be room for error or poor form. He’d have that room at ManU, which says something about the current state of the two teams’ midfields. Bayern’s is much, much, much better. Of course, Guardiola said that Thiago is his only target of the summer, and if he doesn’t get him, he’ll settle for no one. I can’t imagine he’d intend his singular choice to warm the bench. And it’s hard to imagine a player turning down the most vaunted coach in the world’s offer. Especially when the coach was also your beloved mentor.
Who is David Moyes’ third choice, I wonder? Fingers crossed it’s another banana peel.
My friend V and I recently discussed what was going on with Juventus this summer: they appear to have feelers out for at least two offensive players in addition to Llorente, who they’ve already signed on a free transfer from Bilbao. They’re all high-profile players- the team seems to be serious about overcoming their current shortcomings in finishing. But it’s a bit strange to see such a front-heavy wishlist, and they’re apparently also tinkering with the defense. Conte might be contemplating switching from a quintessentially Italian back-3 to a 4-2-3-1, the current tactical trend across Europe.
V isn’t entirely happy with how it’s unfolding, and I thought his insight was interesting:
“My sense is that because tactical trends change over time, it’s not usually wise to chase the pack. There’s an analogy to financial markets. When everyone else is hot on gold, you want to be selling. When enthusiasm dampens, it’s time to buy. It’s called being counter-cyclical. There are a select number of people out there who fit really well in a 4-2-3-1 system; they’ll be highly valued if a lot of sides are trying to play that formation. That means there are people you can get at value who fit better in another system. For this to work full-stop, you have to believe that trends in formation are cyclical; but I think they are.”
I was thinking that a simple (probably simplistic) way of looking at soccer tactics is that it’s the art of deciding where to overload the pitch. You decide where your players need the maximum number of choices available to play the ball. Because you’re dealing with a finite number of players in a finite space, this comes down to where you try to produce one temporarily unmarked man. Since the opposing team is equipped to deal with you man-to-man it’s a kind of sleight of hand: momentarily one team has one more man than the other.
When a tactical trend becomes pervasive, the easiest or maybe just most conservative way to combat it is to buy in. This way, very roughly, your players will inhabit similar parts of the pitch as your opponents, and will be faced with similar challenges and choices. You win, then, by small tweaks: not via revolution or daring strategy or idiosyncrasy. A team as domestically dominant as Juventus might find the tactical traditions of its league burdensome when playing other continental teams: they don’t want their genius to have a big Italian asterisk. Maybe their current system, built around the aging Pirlo, is going to have be changed anyhow, and as it would be impossible to find a like-for-like replacement for magisterial Andrea, it’s come time to transition to what has recently worked tactically for other big teams.
I think the most interesting question here, however, is whether tactics are cyclical. It would be difficult to argue that they have been historically, at least in any macro way: there have been massive and irreversible changes in how the sport is played in the past century. But much of the difference between the modern game and the not-so-distant past is due to sports medicine, and before that, changes in the offside rule. I don’t think we’ll see any holistic shifts as large as these, and it doesn’t seem crazy to say that the game as a whole has stabilized. In “Inverting the Pyramid,” Jonathan Wilson says the sport has reached a “mature” stage, and that tactical innovation will likely be incremental from now on out. Maybe it will be cyclical. Maybe Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan will be like Hypercolor shirts.
Hypercolor is coming back, right?
Stoke City has the sound of a grubby, mean-spirited place, a place Charles Dickens would have a boyish protagonist try to escape from. He’d be chased by a bunch of coal-faced bullies shouting “Oy!” and whatever else cranky English emphysemiac paupers shout, and then Ryan Shawcross would fly in, studs-up, and break his leg.
Lately, they’ve been having a kind of hilarious time. First, they found a pig’s head in the locker room. And of course an American poses with it! They love Americans in Stoke. Then the unlucky man whose locker held the head got angry and bashed a team mate’s car. But it was apparently the wrong team mate’s car. And then it got all leaked to the press, and they had to admit that this sort of thing really isn’t out of the ordinary. They just love playing with decapitated pigs.
Even funnier, though, is that they’ve just replaced the unbearable Tony Pulis with the unwinning-est man of the EPL season, Mark Hughes. The only bad thing that could possibly come of this situation is Tony Pulis moving to the US. He just loves our hats.
So, hypothetically, this should be a less painful transfer season for Arsenal fans. There’s no superstar to lose, no talismanic captain going rogue. What could go wrong? What grapes are left to sour?
Well, what if Cesc Fabregas decamped from Barcelona to Manchester United? So they could have two world class ex-captains? UGH. Their fans are talking about how nicely the two of them could “link up together.” ARRGGGGH.
And, what if on top of that, the Gunners bought one of the most annoying footballers on earth? From United?
That is a nightmare scenario, and why I shouldn’t look at these stupid transfer stories. The Fabregas to United story doesn’t make much sense- I mean, it makes sense that Moyes might pursue Fabregas, but I’d be surprised if Barcelona were ready to sell him. He was bought to replace Xavi, and has barely had a chance to play in position. And Arsenal has right of first refusal if Barca choose to sell, and I’m pretty sure they’d bring him back into the fold, especially if United were the alternative. Still… what a nightmare. And the Nani thing is just dumb. He’ll go to some megabucks oil team and waste away.