Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Arsenal Reloaded

A name like Arsenal is supposed to channel fear. Cannons booming, women and children screaming, peoples' legs getting sawed off at the knee like that poor bastard in "The Patriot." When I hear Arsenal I think of kneecapitation.

And yet, when I look at the squad Arsene Wenger has assembled in North London, the squad that finished third in the Premier League this year despite a disastrous run-in, I can't help but feel a bit like the Confederates in the Civil War: Dreadfully outnumbered, stuck on the wrong side of a stubborn, narcissistic, idiotic cause while Mel Gibson shoots everyone to death with a pistol. True story, my mom wouldn't let me see "The Patriot" in high school with everyone else in my AP Literature class because it was rated-R. So I did what any self-respecting, self-conscious high school student would do, I forged her signature and went anyway! High-five!

With the season finished, the world's best players on their way to the World Cup in less than a month, and hopefully some new signings on their way to the Emirates too (please, Jesus), it's be the perfect time to try to make sense of the season as a whole, what went wrong, what went right, and where we need to bring in some bigger guns (and which pea-shooters need to be tossed to the ground ... I'd rather use fists in a gunfight than roll out Denilson for another season). Imagine the Civil War, okay? Imagine we're soldiers, lining up on a battlefield, walking in a straight line at the enemy like lemmings, getting massacred because our general is unwilling to change his tactics. Yeah sure, we won a few battles against some smaller armies, but we're getting slaughtered out there when it matters most. Now imagine our side showed up one day with lightsabers and bazookas and thermonuclear missiles (LBTM). That's an arsenal dammit.

Wenger has funds to spend this summer, according to chief executive Ivan Gazidis, as he's managed the finances of the club brilliantly over the last five years, resisted the urge to spend money he didn't have to compete with the rest of the debt-ridden league, reinvested transfer cash into the current squad to maintain stability and growth, and remained true to the financial strategy of the club (stay debt free, utilize real estate assets for long-term sustainability, keep interest down on Emirates loans, spend cash tactically, etc.). But football isn't just a business. If this were Wall Street, Wenger would be smoking Cuban cigars and eating caviar off the tummy of an indentured servant. But you don't have fans lining up in matching suits to cheer on their favorite stock traders.

Football is about the fans, it's about winning, and despite the financial stability of the club, which should never be overlooked, Wenger has to push this team into the next phase of on-field greatness. Yes, Arsenal fans are spoiled to a certain extent. People forget how fortunate we are to have Wenger as our coach, how fortunate we are to have the type of sustained success we've had for the last decade, how fortunate we are to be in serious contention year-after-year for a trophy (we did just win the Academy trophy ... applause?). But Arsenal fans are also a smart bunch. We expect better from our club and our manager, we expect to be competitive and to show the fire and determination of a championship calibre club. We didn't show that this year (aside from Sol Campbell stomping around like a hungry T-Rex) and that, more than anything, has to change.

We need to play angry for the full 90 minutes.

We need to be ruthless against every opponent.

We need to become LBTM-wielding Mel Gibson.

What went right: Arsenal finished third this year, and looking back on the year as a whole, expectations going into the season and all that, third is higher than most of us thought we'd be. It's a respectable finish in the league, albeit extraordinarily disappointing in its execution. It's less of a guillotine and more of a lethal injection (boooring). We started out with a new formation (4-3-3) hellbent on attacking and it worked like a peach from the get-go, Lawrence Tayloring Everton 6-1 in the opener. We also went deep into the Champions League, eventually crashing out to Barcelona, the team that we try to play like but can't be arsed to try as hard as ... if that makes sense (it doesn't, Erik).

It wasn't an overwhelming season, but it didn't underwhelm either, it just whelmed. This season was very whelming. But one thing that shouldn't be overlooked is that Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League for the 13th consecutive season and were, once again, in contention to win the title this year. It's an incredible achievement that needs to stand above the knee-jerk reactions to sack Wenger.

I think we have to look deeper within the various layers of the team to really start to appreciate what we have, at least what we potentially have, at this club. Arsene Wenger's youth policy, selling off the "Invincibles" and trying to home-grow a long-term, sustainable champion, hasn't worked at the top flight the way anyone, including Wenger, would've liked thus far (although it's hard to argue with Alex Song's brilliance and Nicklas Bendtner's clumsy success this past year). But once you peel the smelly onion back a bit -- I'm talking about you, Lukasz Fabianski -- you start to see that we have tremendous young talent in our Reserves, Academy, and even on loan that deserve the opportunity to compete for a first team position. Having that young talent isn't as normal as people take it for granted to be, and it puts our club in position to one day see Dr. Wengerstein's experiment come to life. But the monster will only rise off the table if Wenger's willing to blend that youth with world-class veterans and learn to adapt his tactics beyond tiny triangles.

And no, Bolton, you can't keep Jack Wilshere next year. Piss off.

What went wrong: Where to begin? We had seven players sustain fractures throughout the year and ended up with twice as many injuries as league champions Chelsea. Injuries were a huge issue at the club from a treatment standpoint as well, so much so that Robin van Persie flew to Holland to have horse placenta dripped on his ankle rather than allowing the Arsenal medical staff to treat him.

It's the same theory I impose when my wife tries to make me eat vegetables. "Listen, I know my body, and my body will reject your 'vegetable,' if that's even a real thing. So I'm going to have gummi bears and Mountain Dew, okay? They're like super, super healthy foods for my body ..."

But every team deals with injuries and, frankly, I think it was far too convenient of an excuse for us this season. Manchester United played without Wayne Rooney. Chelsea played months without John Terry's penis. Wenger has a history of manipulating the moment though, blaming injuries when our players aren't injured anymore, blaming youth when our players aren't young anymore, and blaming thuggish tactics when our players just plain get outworked. It's savvy gamesmanship and obviously intended to show confidence in his mentally-fragile players, but as Arsenal's own youngster Theo Walcott said, "We can't use the experience as an excuse now, with the experiences we've had as a side."

Arsenal need a reinvention.

When the Gunners went on their "Invincibles" run in 2003/04, Wenger had built the best counter-attacking team the world had ever seen. We defended as a unit, fought as a unit, and would explode out of the box (that's what she said) off of a turnover like no team had before. It was a team built around world-class superstars, sprinkled with unknown youngsters only Wenger had the guts to show confidence in, who were committed to team defense and team attacking. They were the ultimate team in every regard and went 38 Premier League games without a loss, something the EPL had never witnessed. They were Muhammad Ali playing rope-a-dope, letting another team throw their best punches without a dent and flashing out jaw-clattering jabs that knocked unsuspecting opponents to the canvas. That counter-attacking style was defined by Wenger and, in hindsight, also became his tactical downfall.

Wenger was as in love with his thrilling "beautiful football" as us fans were, but as the league changed and evolved, Wenger stuck, and continues to stick, by his guns. We have become tactically stagnant, like a prisoner who snagged a set of keys, going through each key on the ring over and over again even though none of them will open his cell. Barcelona thumped us because they knew our weaknesses, knew how we'd play before the match even started and trampled our paper castle as we were drawing on the freaking door. That same Barcelona team was dismantled by Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan, who, behind the genius of Mourinho, strategically neutralized the greatest team in the world with the greatest player in the world (Lionel Messi) over two legs of football to reach the Champions League final. It's not a coincidence.

Wenger's not an idiot though, he's just stubborn (although my mom argues they're one in the same). But the same brilliance he showed building the unbeatable Arsenal, he must now show again. It starts with the players, however, and the Arsenal of today doesn't have the horses -- in attack, defense, or between the posts -- to compete with the top of the league anymore (nor with my hypothetical thoroughbred Eyjafjallajökull).

New guns: First and foremost, we have to bring up the top youngsters at our club and give them a go. Sanchez Watt, Nacer Barazite, Jay Simpson. Wojeich Szczesny (yeah, I know how to spell that without looking it up, terrifying, huh?). We've got plenty of attackers at the club and spending a boatload of cash on new ones would be a waste when we've got monumental issues in the defensive+ half of the field. Aside from conceding an abhorrent amount of goals, most of them the type of youth goals your kids give up that make you ponder if a punt down the stairs will hurt, have you seen the Arsenal goalkeepers this year? It's like a bad episode of "Laurel and Hardy" ... okay, it's like an episode of "Laurel and Hardy."

The combination of Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski, or as they're called in my home, Tweedledee and Tweedlewhatthef***, created more baffling goalkeeping moments than any Arsenal fan could've imagined this year. I urge you to look for the videos online. I'd send you links, but I can't bring myself to search for the clips and have to re-watch them.

If Arsene Wenger truly believes Fabianski is a top notch keeper because he can stop a few shots in a five-a-side match in training, well throw some Mickey Mouse gloves on me and send me to London on £50k-a-week wages. Any player who consistently melts down under the brightest lights shouldn't play under them. It's called evolution, it's actually a pretty neat little system ... see, if an organism can't reproduce, it can't carry on its undesirable genes to the next generation of its species, thus sustaining the species' existence. If an organism walks into the open jaws of some Mesozoic monster and gets chomped into a million pieces, it can't reproduce and, luckily, the remaining members of the species who don't walk into the open jaws of said monster will reproduce. The stupid gene ends. Evolution.

In the case of Dr. Wengerstein, the devoured animal is exhumed from the monster's carcass, shocked with tiny electrodes, and sent back out into the world with a friendly pat on the butt and an "I believe in you!" button pinned to its furry hide.

Either give the gloves to Szczesny and deal with a couple seasons of growing pains, or smash open the piggy bank for a world-class keeper. I've heard Gianluigi Buffon is available and hoping for a move to England. Yes please, I'll have some of that.

Defensively, we're in shambles. Thomas Vermaelen was a revelation at CB last season and proved that Wenger still has a keen eye for transfers. Watching Gael Clichy play his way back into the form that had his peers name him to the PFA team just a season ago was a relief and I can't wait to watch the battle between him and Kieran Gibbs at LB for the next few seasons. But outside of that we have some serious, serious problems. Not only have we been defensively short-handed for a few seasons due to mediocre investment into the most-critical part of the team (because, in the last three transfer windows, Wenger's acted like that guy who gives you a penny on Halloween instead of some GD candy), but chances are we're going into next season even more short-handed after rightfully and hopefully releasing Mikael Silvestre, Philippe "Donkey" Senderos, and William Gallas. We should also sell Armond Traore, a young French left back who somehow can't defend OR attack. It's pretty amazing to watch.

Sol Campbell has to stay though. I'd sign him to a 11-year deal: One year as a player, 10 years as a defensive coach.

So that leaves us with Vermaelen and Johan Djourou (who just returned after nine months out with a knee injury ... horse placenta, anyone?) at CB, Bacary Sagna and supergoalscorer Emmanuel Eboue at right back, and Clichy/Gibbsy at LB. Arsenal have dreadfully needed a definitive centreback the last five years, someone well over 6-feet tall who can prevent the aerial attacks that have led to a majority of our concessions, and that should be Wenger's first task. Find Vermaelen a towering partner down the spine of the defense, preferably someone Norwegian (as us Scandinavians are genetically superior footballers in every way, shape, and form). In fact, let's sign two additional Norwegian centre halves and a young right back to round out the squad. He doesn't have to be Norwegian ... Icelandic maybe.

Dropped pea-shooters: Sell Denilson, because he always looks for the pass of least resistance. Sell Traore because he's going to haphazardly break someone's leg on the pitch soon and I'd rather have that incident associated with another club. Sell Diaby, because he lacks the mentality to ever harness his potential and would rather dribble into a turnover 100 times in a row before ever looking to pass. Let Silvestre walk because he should be playing for Notts County. Let Donkey Senderos walk even though I'm going to miss his Fabianski-esque mistakes in central defense.

And, finally, let William Gallas scamper off to PSG for his next big paycheck. You want a pay-raise to stay with Arsenal? Huh? You were stripped of your captaincy two years ago after throwing a temper tantrum against Birmingham, you spent half of this season, and every season prior, on the training table, you're a fussy infant who refused to play next to Kolo Toure, forcing him out of the club despite the fact that you're damn near 100 years old, and FINALLY you lack the necessary social skills to work with your defensive partner and goalkeeper on through balls and corner kicks. You want more money?! GTFOYGB ... it's an acronym, William, figure it out.

I'll give you the last three words: You Greedy Bastard.


  1. You should have started this post with

    "Conan, what is best in life?"
    "Crush your enemies, watch them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women"

    Aside from that, nice story :)

  2. Sounds like the contract negotiations between NBC and Conan O'Brien.

    Thanks Markles!