Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Champions League Round of last 16: Arsenal vs. Bayern – 1:3
It’s almost exactly 8 years ago that these two met in this competition at precisely the same stage of 1/8 finals (February 23rd, 2005), with Arsenal ultimately getting knocked out on goal difference due to Bayern’s home win by 3 goals to 1 (Arsenal won the return leg 1-0). The two had locked horns before that in the 2000/2001 tournament, with Bayern also going through on that occasion, on the strength of a home win in Munich (1-0) that the Gunners could not overturn at home (2-2 at Highbury). So the historic odds were not favorable to the Londoners tonight, and given the form of the visitors, there is no huge shame in the evening’s final outcome (and especially considering that 2 of the 3 goals for the visitors were highly scrappy).
Back then in 2005, the result was definitely not a given, as Arsenal was still considered one of the favorites within the English Premier League (EPL), and Wenger & Ferguson formed a formidably intimidating & untouchable duo of senior football aristocrats that would invite much ire from new contenders, and notably a newly competitive Chelsea (under José Mourinho’s direction) and its defenders. So it was that I rejoiced with much glee at Bayern’s win 8 years ago with the following article (in French: http://www.subfoot.com/artman2/publish/2004_2005_39/Le_probl_me_de_la_France_Bayern_Munich_-_Arsenal_3_267.shtml – but don’t bother reading it, it’s mainly rubbish really).
Fast forward 8 years and, at the time of writing, Arsenal are 5th in the EPL and in their 13th consecutive season in the last 16 of Europe’s top clubs, a feat that very few can lay claim to (certainly not Manchester City, nor even great Fergie’s Manchester United, who – it should be reminded – were eliminated at the group stage by ‘lowly’ Basel last season). Yet, if you were to assess the situation only on the basis of UK tabloids’ reports (and around Europe generally, modern day lowest common denominator consensus obliging), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal are about to be relegated to oblivion to the netherworld i.e. the Championship and/or (shock horror) the Europa League. So it is that Wenger cuts an increasingly lonely and isolated figure each day, deemed to be out of touch with the faithful and generally assessed by the “experts” as being inept and responsible for the “ignominy” of Arsenal not collecting any titles for now eight consecutive seasons. Needless to say, you would not find many takers for a bet in Arsenal’s favour, and certainly not in the British media who were still busy digging their teeth into Wenger & his team for the home defeat in the FA Cup versus Blackburn Rovers on the weekend.
As a self-declared Mourinho die-hard supporter, it would be easy for me to rejoice at this witch-hunt against one of the most disingenuous managers in the history of the EPL (alongside Fergie). However, I’m not one to join with the chorus of the obvious. Not because of any sympathy with Wenger, but rather because the obnoxious sense of entitlement exuded by segments of Arsenal fans and especially a number of UK tabloid hacks (some of them disgruntled Arsenal fans) is simply so base & short-sighted that it is impossible to relate to with any degree of seriousness.
From the standpoint of criteria applying to any other profession, what Wenger has accomplished as general manager since taking over is simply outstanding. Not only is the club financially stable and debt-free, but Arsenal consistently competes at the top level on all four fronts (EPL, CL & the two cups) and furthermore offers a style of play that, while sometimes nerve-wrecking, is nevertheless broadly entertaining and technically laudable. Add to that an increasing propensity for supporting local British talent, and you have a near perfect recipe for an-all time darling for the cause of British football.
That it is not the case today is partly Wenger’s own fault, as his autocratic and generally defensive communication style has over the years alienated many. A lack of good fortune also played its part in near misses that might have allowed for more breathing space, such as the defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at the end of the 2011 season. Wenger probably has his share of blame in all this, at a technical level (coaching & recruitment skills in recognizing the importance of, and consolidating defensive capabilities) but potentially more so through the subtle but pernicious influence of his obstinate defense of the club’s impressively consistent but unglamorous results. By doggedly defending as a major achievement the club’s track record of finishing in the last 4 (of the EPL) and accomplishing decent runs in the Champions League, he has arguably contributed to lowering ambitions in the dressing room. It is impossible for outsiders such as journalists and fans to assess such things, one can at best speculate.
But fundamentally his low stock of late is less reflective of a real problem of competency than the paradox of modern football fans’ expectations, which were brilliantly illustrated by WSC in a recent issue (as below). At the end of the day, having tasted glory in the modern era, and despite the fact that they should know better than to envy the increasingly ridiculous shenanigans of Abramovitch and his poodles, or the outrageous financial dealings of the Glazers ilk, some segments of Arsenal fans (or is it really only journos, ultimately?) can’t help themselves but yearn for a piece of glory, and as time goes by, are increasingly prepared to throw caution to the wind just in order to have their 5 minutes of indulging greater fantasies of basking in the sunlight of a trophy. For victory is never guaranteed, it must be earned.
Funnily enough, it seems to me as if the real losers who need to prove themselves in all this were not the boys in red & white, but the ones in black. It has now been relegated to the archives, but few care to remember Bayern’s identity-tormenting 2006-2007 season that not only ended without trophies, but saw the club ‘demoted’ to a year in the Europa League, which at the time prompted scathing comments from that most sensuous of goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn. More recently, Bayern qualified for the Champions League final twice in the last 3 years, only to be outplayed both times, by Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, neither of which were seen as favorites on the day.
Like the German national team, Bayern Munich tend to impress in the early stage of competitions and the first few rounds of “when things get serious”, attracting plaudits from everyone including your mom to that annoying bloke at the office whose understanding of football stems solely from reading tabloid headlines. But they then proceed to fall flat at the critical moment like a deflated soufflé, and with remarkable regularity. Will it be so again this year, or will they finally show the mettle required of winners? If not, perhaps there is a bit of a challenge remaining for Pep Guardiola – the universal darling of all – to bring his managerial skills to bear. It would certainly help to counter what otherwise seems to be an illustration of a penchant for safety in his rather sedate choice to tie the knot with the Bavarian ogre that looks set to win the Bundesliga by a considerable margin. But then again, it will not be the first time that he inherits a well-developed structure & winning team to perform with – a fact that will be conveniently forgotten by all as soon as he wins any trophies. Because as we all know, success washes away all sins.
So, the Russian finally has his coveted European trophy… and I am sure he was amongst those least likely to think he would earn it with this assistant coach, following the worst season (from an EPL standpoint) since his arrival. Hop Di Matteo!
But is it so unexpected? 9 years after the start of the Chelski project, but more importantly, 8 years after the arrival of another previous assistant and the club’s first successes in this modern era, these are the ripe – and yes, somewhat unlikely – fruits to be reaped from the seeds that the Special One sowed back then. In their joy, the current team may not be bothered to thank him now (and will be forgiven if so), but this footprint was not missed on those that know the club’s history of play, and notably during the two legs against Barça. It was during those two ties that Chelsea laid the foundations of their defensive solidity and concentration, with grit and determination borne from the teachings of their first mentor who turned them from perennial underachievers (à la Spurs) to champion material.
For days the papers will be full of praise for the two main heroes of the evening, Peter Cech & Didier Drogba, and rightly so. Even in victory, Didier has shown that he is a great and humble athlete. What they may forget to mention alongside their (and their teammates’ various exploits along the way) is who put them up there, along with the relatively uncelebrated (at that point in time) Frank Lampard and John Terry. But it is not this scribe who will forget that the signing of the Ivory Coast striker, fresh from a great (but single) season with Marseille, was one of José’s first signings for the Blues, and yet one of the most heavily criticised. If you do not believe me, see the following links 1, 2 and 3 for some good examples of the kind of shock and incredulity back then, which went on for a while as the Drogba scored “only” 16 goals that 1st season. £24m may have been a lot to pay back then, especially for someone who had previously not fetched more than £4m (£3.3m according to some reports). But who will dare to come out and claim now that it was too much? Probably not one of France’s golden generation, Mr. Frank Beef, who was strongly suggesting an exit for the striker during the “disappointing” 2010-2011 season that saw the Blues get only to second place in the EPL.
We all love a good comeback story, and last night’s victory is all the more endearing for this generation of players because so many – in the style of the afore mentioned french defender – had written them off and already consigned them to the dustbin of football has-beens. It is a silly mistake to have made, especially since José’s Inter had shown similar verve in accomplishing their historic treble only two years ago.
Which is all very reassuring – there is balance in the universe after all. It’s not just about joga bonito, but also about determination, spirit, abnegation, collective solidity, self-confidence – in other words, normal football. At the very least, the Blues should be acknowledged and thanked for restoring that balance once again.
No one should be particularly surprised about Chelsea’s nth elimination from the quarter finals of the Champions League. Even a cursory analysis of their performance at Stamford Bridge during the 1st leg of the fixture against Manchester United would be enough for most punters to conclude they did not have many chances of making it through.
However, unlike for some other clubs covered in these pages, Chelsea’s issues are actually profound and significant. Ever since the abrupt and unexplained dismissal of assistant coach Ray Wilkins last November (apparently due to his challenging the owner’s impromptu feedback session after a defeat), the collective quality and hunger of this supposedly effortlessly winning team has consistently and significantly dropped, only to be further exacerbated by the arrival of the undesirable arch-rival Torres. It was very obvious to any observer at Stamford Bridge last week that the Spaniard is a complete outsider to the squad. Despite a relatively industrious work ethic and the procurement of a few biting chance (like the header which forced a great save from Van der Saar in the 2nd half), the former most promising young Spanish talent seems a faint shadow of his former self. Importantly, all that shoulder shrugging, mistimed racing and generally perplexed facial expression indicate that he does not appear to be in sync with his teammates who generally seem to regard him with as much affection as a bride’s spy gatecrashing a bachelor party (spiteful tongues might hasten to specify that the bachelors in question are rather old). Has he already contracted Shevashentitis at such an early age? It was not yet suspected of being contagious.
Unfortunately, as was evidenced by the recurring agonizing cringe sequences experienced by the Blues’ faithful during the 1st half of the Stamford Bridge leg, the problems are more fundamental. With barely an opponent in sight, Chelsea’s players were frequently unable to effectively sequence simple one-two exchanges, let alone mount any kind of serious assault on Man U’s defenses. Other than getting very upset at the referee for supposedly unfair decisions, there was very little genuinely inspired and focused effort dispensed, so much so that throw-ins would often take several tens of seconds to execute, such was the lack of players seeking the ball.
One might be tempted to explain that by laying the blame on Ancelotti for picking a somewhat unusual squad, with the inclusion of the extremely underwhelming Bosingwa and totally disoriented Zhirkov who UEFA Cup heroics now seem a very distant memory. Chelsea’s 2nd leg performance, of a slightly better caliber and with a classic Drogba goal, lends some credibility to this theory. However, closer inspection of the lack of attacking spark and above all genuine commitment to the collective cause suggests a team at the end of a cycle. One had just to catch a glimpse of Salomon Kalou’s face as he was waiting for Anelka to crawl off the pitch: I would expect to find more enthusiastic marines for cleaning out the plastic toilet boxes in the Iraqi desert.
At this stage of the discussion, the standard analysis by the attendant TSR (1) consultant recruited from the nearest local bar will inevitably highlight the presence of too many stars within the Chelsea squad, the supposed problem of “big egos” and top of this amazing insight with the habitual singing of praises of old timers Giggs & Scholes on the other side (2). While the above analysis did evidence a group of players mechanically going through the motions, it is most certainly too early to write off some if not all of them, just as it was too easy for the French media to write off Patrice Evra who is possibly having one of his best club seasons ever. Aafter all let’s not forget that Chelsea won two titles last year, and the likes of Ramires, Essien or even John Terry, who plied his usual trade rather effectively across both legs, still have great potential.
And yet, it is perhaps time to move on. But not for the reasons supposed by most. And in fact therein lies the main challenge – how does one do that with a club whose management structure is inherently short-term oriented and dysfunctional? The fundamental problem, as illustrated by the club’s recent history, is that of a team’s (coach and players) collective coherence slowly and surely eroded by the constant and generally incompetent meddling by senior management (and not just the owner) in the sporting affairs of the team.
Roman should not be surprised that many fans are dreaming about the return of José to Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately – with this management in place – they can keep on dreaming.
(1) Television Suisse Romande
(2) If you’re in luck, you might even get a reminder of the French team’s “mutiny” against Domenech last summer at the World Cup in South Africa