Wenger – A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Wrapped in an Oversized Coat

Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, Football, Premier League, Transfer Window

Here it is then; the football season has begun. Yes, I know it began weeks ago, but it never feels real until the transfer window closes. Teams are still to be decided, big name signings and sales can still destroy the equilibrium. We battle through the opening rounds, hoping for damage limitation from our side before the real big guns are settled. I am sure that is what Arsenal fans were thinking. Benzema, Cavani, Reus, Draxler, Verratti, Rabiot, Ibrahimovic – the names went on. All of the potential incomings swirling around North London, the heady, intoxicating list of superstars. This was it; after the promise created by Ozil and Sanchez, this was the summer that Arsenal went for it. A few signings away from a title winning team; this was where they would fill in the missing pieces and join the elite once more.

You often get the feeling that Arsene Wenger is wilfully becoming a parody of himself, and he pulled his ace card by being the only manager in Europe’s top 5 leagues not to sign a single outfield player. Arsenal desperately need a defensive midfielder and a striker; an injury to Coquelin or Giroud and their whole season will capitulate, yet Wenger continues to be Wenger. He is a fascinating man, an enigma that I admire hugely, and simultaneously want to slap. He seems such a noble, principled figure, a lone ranger sticking to his beliefs in the ugly face of modern football. Other clubs throw obscene money around, the social media age means more than ever clubs and fans are desperate for a quick fix, for instant results. Managers, players and clubs can go from hero to zero, or vice versa, in the space of a few minutes, let alone a few weeks. Yet there he stands, putting in bids £1 above buy out clauses, sticking to his guns about value, refusing to use the money available at one of the world’s richest clubs. He is determined that his beliefs will prevail, that even in the largely reprehensible modern game he can nurture and develop players, and build a winning team without compromising his values.

However, it is equally frustrating, because it seems clear to everyone that his principles will not win him titles any more. The transfer market has evolved, and to get the best you have to pay obscene money. It is sad, but it is true. Certainly, you can develop world class players, and it would be deeply upsetting if Arsenal stopped doing that, but there are clear deficiencies at Arsenal that have been obvious for years, and no one in their ranks can solve them. He is now not even buying young talents, he just isn’t buying.

Gary Neville was right, it is either arrogance or naivety, and I think it is probably the latter. I am continually astonished that, for such a successful, experienced manager, Wenger seems to lack nous in situations. I understand that he doesn’t want to compromise, but he seems to have such little tactical awareness. Last season against Monaco was the prime example, and while he corrected it in the victory against Manchester City, it is still evident. We have seen it already against West Ham this season, when it was so clear that Arsenal needed some width. Wenger’s obstinacy continued, determined to pick holes through the middle of a compact defence. Yet you have to love him for it, his steadfast commitment to aesthetics and enjoyment, knowing that once in a while it will culminate in a glorious, dare I say perfect, moment like this:

He has huge flaws, and even as a non-Arsenal fan he leaves me tearing my hair out, but I know that I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope I am wrong, but he seems like the last bastion of what made football beautiful. There he is, swimming against the tide, trying not to drown in the morass of amorality and greed that permeates the game that he loves. He is an easy figure to ridicule, indeed he often warrants criticism, but try to imagine English football without him. It is not a happy thought. Whether openly or not, I believe we collectively dream of one final hurrah for Wenger, just one signing or moment that will give them the required extra spark. All football fans must hope for a 2003-04 type Wenger side, there has been nothing more joyful in the Premier League era.

Plus, Wenger royally pisses off Piers Morgan, and that can only be a bonus.

Is This Just Fantasy?

Addiction, fantasy football, Football

I wrote an article a few months ago about my addiction to Football Manager. Those of you who read that brave, inspiring piece will know that, after years of struggle, I have largely managed to kick the habit. As heart-warming as that is, I did not tell the full story. For, you see, as one addiction faded into the past, another similar vice took its place. Much like the heroin addict who becomes hooked on methadone, I weaned myself off Football Manager…and onto Fantasy Football.

If the love of Football Manager is a mystery to the uninitiated, then Fantasy Football is an unsolvable conundrum.

“Do you have a hobby?”
“Yes, a very important one”.
“Ooo what does it entail? The reading of a great work of Russian literature, an exercise that expands the mind, revealing numerous philosophical notions and passages of thought? A sport that keeps you healthy and active, where you may compete for awards and meet other like-minded people? A love of travel, visiting far-flung places of the globe, interacting with new cultures and broadening your wealth of experience?”
“Sort of. It primarily consists of statistical analysis of, say, the West Brom or Sunderland defence, or the comparison of Danny Ings and Saido Berahino. I’m currently devising a table to assess Aston Villa’s prowess from corners”.

It’s ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous. And yet…

I will sit in the pub with my fiancée, or my friends, perhaps basking in a summery beer garden, enjoying the conversation and the drinks. What a glorious Saturday afternoon. Wait – Saturday afternoon. Oh my God. It’s 3:20pm. Have Southampton conceded yet? Gylfi Sigurdsson could have an assist or two. Theo Walcott could have gone ballistic. Oh God, I didn’t captain Aguero. Oh God, oh sweet Jesus.

I will covertly check my phone. “Just checking the football scores”. That is an anti-social act in itself, certain to get a hostile response, but the truth is worse. It must be hidden. A scowl is etched on my face. I say it’s because Everton are losing. A half-truth, but there’s more to it than that. A lot more. The double West Brom defence, that one that was such a good idea because of Tony Pulis? Andre Wisdom has conceded a penalty, and Boaz Myhill hasn’t kept it out. George Boyd has scored for Burnley, but where is he? He’s sat on your bench. How can you ever recover from this?

You see other addicts online; some of them don’t even know they’re junkies yet. You weep for them. You are more realistic, you know that this is not normal behaviour. “It’s fine, it’s perfectly common to be asking a group of strangers whether I should transfer in Hector Bellerin at 3am”. Your heart bleeds; they can’t see the truth. You want them to get out now, to tell them there’s still a chance, but you know it’s too late. They have been bitten, and you are a Fantasy Football zombie watching them transform.

The uninitiated are probably thinking “well, it must enhance your enjoyment of football? Like betting – it matters more when there’s money on it”. I shake my head and chuckle. You do not know what it’s like. I have watched Everton games and seen us take the lead through a Romelu Lukaku penalty. I leap for joy, my team is winning, but in the back of my mind it’s there. It’s niggling. “Real football matters more, real football matters more”. I keep telling myself that, but I know it. I have Leighton Baines in my team. Leighton Baines, the reliable penalty taker. I spent a chunk of my budget on that man for his set pieces, and now? That is 6 points gone. And the bonus points. Think of the bonus points.

A player scores a wonder goal, picking the ball up 40 yards out before beating 6 men and chipping the goalkeeper. The pub erupts. “Get in!” “What a goal!” “YESSSSSSS!!!!!” A lone cry can be heard over the noise. “Did anyone see who got the assist? Was it Dusan Tadic?”

Last season, I witnessed a vintage Arsenal performance, where they put 4 past Liverpool in a display of slick, balletic, technically wonderful football, and what was my main feeling during the game? Overwhelming disappointment. I had decided against bringing Mesut Ozil into my team.

Each season, a year of exciting, rollercoaster football is transformed into a desperate quest to win your mini-league (the one with 6 people and a grand total of £5 for the winner), or to finish in the top 1,000. The reward for that? Nothing. Well, nothing tangible. Just as I took great pride in the renaming of Goodison Park after my multiple Champions League victories on Football Manager, I have seldom been as smug as when informing people that, in 2013, I finished 296th in Fantasy Premier League. Yes, that’s 296th out of 3.5 million. Just email me for an autograph.

It is enjoyable for a while, “I won’t take it seriously, it’s just a game” you say. We’ve all heard it before: “it’s just one drink on my own”, “I’m only a social smoker”. Step away from the computer. In a few years, this will be you. Entering a Fantasy Football tournament based on the U21 Championships, as you frantically try to research 20 year old Swedish players to see who may give you the best hope of an assist. If it was a full-time career, you would be promoted at an alarming rate. The work ethic, attention to detail and investigative prowess you are displaying is remarkable.

I lie here now, surrounded by cigarette butts, scrawling the 2015/16 fixtures and the predicted player prices on receipts and old tissues. The game opens for the new season soon you see. Here I lie, soaked in cheap wine and my own tears. I have been thinking about the week that I took the captaincy off Charlie Austin on the Saturday morning of his hat trick. I am too far gone, but you, you go on without me. You can save yourself, I know you can. Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead.

Hi I’m John, and I’m an addict

Addiction, Arsenal, Football, Football Manager, London, Yaya Sanogo

Where can one turn with an addiction? Hallucinations form, images appear where there is nothing, thoughts drift rapidly, inexorably, back to the same place. One’s mind cannot focus on anything, anything other than where the next fix is coming from. I have suffered. I have suffered greatly. Not heroin, not cocaine, not Toblerone. My hands shake as I unwrap the packaging, press the button on the side of the laptop and try to insert the disc. The disc, that thin sliver of joy and despair, slips. I gasp, but eventually it’s in. Load. Load, God damn you, load. I am, of course, talking about Football Manager addiction, and as a new version is imminent, it is a problem more prominent than ever.

Those who have not tried it will never understand. “It’s just a game, it’s stupid, you don’t even do anything, you just click buttons, the computer does most of it”. How I laugh. They have not felt its grasp; the cold, clammy hand that greets your every move. You kick the addiction for a few months, then names come flooding back. Cherno Samba, Tonton Zolo Moukoko, To Madeira, Yaya Sanogo, Khouma Babacar. Legends to a man. Oh the halcyon days. You wonder where they are now. Plumbing the depths of the lower leagues, retired, working in Lidl, fictional, sitting on the Arsenal bench? It does not matter. They are immortal.

Just one quick game. Half an hour, maybe an hour, before bed. You get through the opening transfer window. What’s the time; 10/10:30pm? It is 4am. No point stopping now, just plough through until tomorrow. No sleep? It doesn’t matter, you have signed Bojan. That’s what counts.

There are others out there. You may not see them; they are shamed into retreating under bridges, in alleyways, away from the glare of the real world. They are not helped, they are scorned. I have sought help, but members of Narcotics Anonymous do not take kindly to one’s presence. I tried to explain to them how my addiction was just as damaging as theirs, but if anything that just made the situation worse. They did not listen. I will not hide any more.

There are others who have it worse. There are stories of players dressing in suits for matches, playing the Champions League theme before those big European nights, shaking hands with the opposing manager – the doorknob. Football Manager has been cited in more than 35 divorce cases. My proudest moment was not my graduation; it was an incident a few weeks prior, when Everton renamed Goodison Park ‘The O’Connor Stadium’, having seen their team win 3 consecutive Champions League titles.

I have grown since my younger days. That’s what I tell myself. At 23, my Football Manager time is restricted to playing the Kindle version while travelling. I am currently in my 5th season and on the verge of the title with Leicester City, having brought them up from the Championship. The board have been patient and they are reaping the rewards. They are in the Quarter Final of the Champions League, and have a manager with a proven track record. The Leicester City faithful have never seen 5 in midfield, 2 deep lying midfielders dictating play, a fluid front line, out and out wingers one game, inside forwards the next, one ball playing centre back, wing backs bursting down the flanks, a deep lying forward bringing others into play, crisp, short tiki-taka passing. This isn’t your average side – we are building something special here.

Since I have moved to London and, most importantly, been living with my girlfriend (I have learned something from those divorce cases, and she has been a rock through my battle with addiction), Football Manager has taken something of a back seat. It is secondary now, but nothing can take away those memories. That 2011 Everton first team rolls off the tongue of every football fan on the planet: Areola (not only was he the best keeper in the world, but his name allowed for lots of comedy “Areola makes a tit of himself/boobs it up” remarks on the very few occasions that he made an error), Azpilicueta, Chiellini, Otamendi, Criscito, Hamsik, Sanchez, Pastore, Ozil, Babacar, Sanogo. The heroes.

Yes, my life has progressed, as have theirs. We have gone our separate ways. I have faced my addiction, and Football Manager no longer controls my mind as it once did. Now I can go for hours, even days, without needing my next fix.

As I walk down the streets of London with my girlfriend, hand in hand, in love, the sun shining, I think of all of the beauty that the real world has to offer. We may nip into a pub for quick refreshment on our jaunt around the city. There is football on the screen. Arsenal are playing. I hear the team sheet, and my heart flutters. Yaya Sanogo. I bow my head and a smile creeps across my face. 52 goals in a season. I can feel the glint in my eye, tears welling, my bottom lip trembling. Yaya Sanogo. An idol.

Separating the personal and the talent

Bill Wyman, Chiellini, Football, Italy, Jimmy Page, Liverpool, Roman Polanski, Suarez, Uruguay, Woody Allen, World Cup

So, he’s done it again. Luis Suarez, perhaps angling a move to Juventus, has decided to get a taste of Italian football early. There were early refereeing controversies, but for the most part this has been a glorious tournament of excitement, attacking play, and goals. It comes as no surprise that a major blotch has come eventually and, unfortunately, the culprit was even more predictable. Trying to account for any potential Evertonian bias, surely Suarez has far passed the point of no return. Does morality, as Oscar Tabarez has claimed, have no place in football? It is a place of rash tackles and confrontation, but biting an opponent not once, twice, but three times? The fact that these do not constitute his worst offences, after the Evra incident, is a damning indictment. Perhaps biting is a sign of affection in Uruguay.

 

What comes through in these situations is the disconcerting tribalism of it all. The use of t-shirts to support Suarez in the midst of the racism incident was an appallingly mishandled piece of blind loyalty by Liverpool, and to see how they deal with this case will be fascinating. The response of the Uruguay team and manager since Tuesday has been a risible attempt to defend the indefensible, blaming Chiellini, Italy, and the English press for their star player biting an opponent after virtually no provocation. I have, unfortunately, read some (by no means the majority) of Liverpool fans claiming that the bite did not happen, and that it is a witch hunt. It brings to mind David Brent in ‘The Office’ Christmas special, after heaps of evidence that he is a pillock:

 

Stitch up. It was a stitch up. They filmed hours of material, and most of it is a good bloke doing a good job at work, and the one time I accidentally head-butt an interviewee makes it to the programme. You’re gonna look a prat. You head-butt a girl on telly, and you’re labelled a prat, and that’s the game. And the BBC must have taken what, about eight hours footage a day, and got it back and most of it was like, you know, “Oh, look. Here’s a good guy, he’s getting on. He’s their friend as well as their boss. He’s a motivator, an entertainer. There’s lots of good stuff. Oh, he’s made one mistake, like any human would, should we just cut that out?” “No, what? Put that bit in, cut the other stuff out. We want a scapegoat, we want to dumb down, we want to give them the biggest plonker of the year”. You know…I’m not a plonker.

 

The crux of it may be that Suarez is the ‘star player’, the golden boy of Uruguay and Liverpool. Can anyone really imagine the t-shirts, the excuses , the protesting if Suarez was a reserve goalkeeper? This is a question that permeates other aspects of life and ‘celebrity’. On a personal level, I continue to enjoy the work of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen after their personal transgressions and misdemeanours. I celebrate Phil Spector as one of the greatest music producers of all time, despite a crime far more heinous than anything Suarez could ever, presumably, be even able to comprehend. Following the monstrous actions of Ian Watkins, anyone found listening to Lostprophets would be condemned, and many stores stopped selling their records. Both Jimmy Page and Bill Wyman dated 14 year old girls, with accusations that Page even kidnapped a teenager and sexually abused her, but has anyone had any qualms about listening to the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin? I know that I haven’t, and in fact did not know about Wyman’s and Page’s wrongdoings until recently. Ezra Pound and Richard Wagner were fascists, but their work was so crucial to their fields that they cannot be eliminated from the artistic consciousness.

 

The difficulty is where to separate the talent and the person. Can we take art as a separate entity when it is so tied up with the individual; their thoughts relayed through their chosen medium? Do people employ double-standards in such scenarios based on the artistic merits of the offender? It would be harder to condemn Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin to the annals of history than Lostprophets, and for neutrals/rivals, it is far easier to demand a lengthy ban for Suarez than it is for Uruguayans or Liverpool fans. Does the madness contravene the genius? Would Jimmy Page’s obituary focus on Led Zeppelin or statutory rape? Would Gary Glitter’s focus on his great music (file not found) or his paedophilia? One cannot imagine that there would be consistency. Should the quality of the work impinge on the personal reputation? Do people of such ignominy deserve effusive praise for their work? On Polanski, the American writer Calvin Trillin articulated:

A youthful error? Yes, perhaps.

But he’s been punished for this lapse–

For decades exiled from LA

He knows, as he wakes up each day,

He’ll miss the movers and the shakers.

He’ll never get to see the Lakers.

For just one old and small mischance,

He has to live in Paris, France.

He’s suffered slurs and other stuff.

Has he not suffered quite enough?

How can these people get so riled?

He only raped a single child.

 

Why make him into some Darth Vader

For sodomizing one eighth grader?

This man is brilliant, that’s for sure–

Authentically, a film auteur.

He gets awards that are his due.

He knows important people, too–

Important people just like us.

And we know how to make a fuss.

Celebrities would just be fools

To play by little people’s rules.

So Roman’s banner we unfurl.

He only raped one little girl.

 

Polanski’s Chinatown is one of my favourite films, I am likely to listen to Led Zeppelin over the next week or two, I believe Woody Allen to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and I have even listened to, and somewhat enjoyed, Charles Manson’s music. Maybe I am able to separate the personal from the talent. Maybe I am wrong to do so.

England expects…decent punditry

BBC, Football, ITV, sport, Uncategorized, World Cup

The World Cup. Arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, occurring once every 4 years, the final watched by over 1 billion people worldwide. Around 20 million of these are in the UK alone, the World Cup an occasion that fans anticipate and cherish, forming the backbone of many of our memories (for my generation, watching Ronaldo, not burdened by his bizarre 2002 haircut, banish the heartache of 4 years prior, trying to emulate Dennis Bergkamp’s majestic 1998 goal in the playground, the disbelief at the red cards of Beckham/Rooney, the inevitable anguish when England crashed out on penalties).

 

It would follow, then, that for an event of such magnitude, the titans of British World Cup coverage, BBC and ITV, would undertake a recruitment process as thorough as the international managers, a painstaking, precise ordeal to ensure the best talent possible. Surely they would spend 4 years searching for people with piercing insight into the sport, people with vast tactical knowledge and understanding of the mechanics and details of football, who can provide the public with acumen unavailable through any other medium, illuminating aspects that they could not possibly know themselves, untrained as they are.

 

However, watching the coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the hiring process consisted of opening the 2003 Premier League sticker book, pointing at a player at random, and offering them lucrative wages to partake in the trip to Brazil. Andy Townsend is arguably the most execrable of all, refusing to even pretend to hide his bias, and offering the intuition you may expect from a stranger propping up the bar at his local, not of a man who has captained his nation at the World Cup. His gamut of information seems to solely comprise inane clichés, a stream of “that’s better”, “get in and about them”, “get it in the mixer”, and partisan cries of “go on” and ostensible despair/joy when ‘his team’ concedes/scores. We have heard him cheer when Bale scored in the Champions League final, and endlessly react to English teams as if a man in the terraces, not an ‘impartial’ expert on a national station.

 

His cohort, Clive Tyldesley, is the other half of a double act more intolerable than Jedward. Tyldesley is the Alan Partridge of ITV, spouting tripe with an abominable level of smugness, unable to stop speaking, a phobia of dead air leading to a torrent of banal stats seemingly stolen from Wikipedia 5 minutes before kick-off. He is determined to embed his name in commentating greatness; striving for his “they think it’s all over” moment, saying “why not?” before every shot from distance, hoping it will fly in and he can scream “WHY NOT?!”, and “he can hit them from there”, ideally followed by “BOY CAN HE HIT THEM FROM THERE!!!” He also appears contractually obliged to mention “that famous night in Barcelona” at least once in every Manchester United game.

 

The ITV duo is rivalled by the BBC pundits. Mark Lawrenson seems to detest football, treating a high earning, all expenses paid trip to Brazil to watch the World Cup like an unexpected visit to A&E for an unpleasant kidney infection. His analysis is restricted to sardonic comments and venom, an obvious anger seeping out of his pores at the state of modern football, but accompanied by no comments on tactics, personnel, or what it is like to play at this level. He also takes a perverse interest in an absence of knowledge and, like his counterparts, is seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is a pundit, and knowledge is a relatively important part of his job. In the Argentina vs Bosnia & Herzegovina match, Lawrenson spoke of Maxi Rodriguez’s 30 pass goal in 2006, despite that goal being scored by Esteban Cambiasso, and asked his co-commentator “who do Argentina play next?” As my cousin text me, our enjoyment of the football increasingly clouded by commentators’ ineptitude, it’s “just guess work”. Come on Mark, it isn’t that hard to get hold of a fixture list.

 

BBC have employed a new co-commentator for this tournament. A man with no commentary experience, thrown in at the deep end in the world’s biggest tournament – he must be special. He must have been the chosen one from an unimaginably extensive search, as the BBC’s best men scoured the land for someone to take their coverage to the next level; someone who combines enthusiasm, comprehension and intellect into a perfectly formed punditry superstar. “We need some new blood here. Gary Neville is showing us up on Sky, he seems to have actually watched football, and even tries to impart some knowledge that will be new to the average football fan”. “What? But how will the English public understand anything technical? That’s for foreigners all that stuff. Come on, three lions, roar, hit the big man, they don’t like it up ‘em”. “Well maybe we should try to compete. Shall we search the country, top to bottom, carry out a thorough interview process including ex-players, journalists, pundits on smaller stations – ensure that no football expert is missed? Maybe we can get someone as good as, or even better than, Gary Neville”. “Pfft, sounds like a lot of effort that mate. Can we just get his brother in?” Who can blame them after Phil Neville had such a successful season implementing his tactics on the Manchester United side?

 

Don’t even get me started on Alan Shearer. Before the tournament, he wrote that for Wayne Rooney “to be put in the same bracket as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he needs to have a great tournament in Brazil”. Need I say more?