Head and Heart

arsenalfansWenger out! Having finished second in the Premier League, which, as fantastic an achievement as that might be for most clubs, is a grave disappointment for the supporters of Arsenal Football Club. This is understandable, for Arsenal have everything they need to win the league, financial muscle, a new, gargantuan stadium, affluent and ardent support, players of talent, guile and experience, promising youth pushing the veterans, consistent entry into the continent’s most prestigious and profitable competitions, etc., etc. ad nauseam. And yet, Arsenal have finished second.

3dd8d2b0d5d69a4e584f157cd7c48192Think of a football club as a person, head, heart, arms, legs, all of it. The supporters are the heart, ever vital, beating, driving the club forward. The board and management are the head, navigating the way, trying to stay sharp, to harness the heart’s energy. For the purposes of this analogy, we’ll stop there, but you can fill out the picture with the club’s commercial arms and legs, with their geography and history as the body.

Arsenal Football Club are, by all measures, healthy, fit, and brimming with energy. Why can’t they win the race?

Here are the factors working against them:

1) The other mega clubs, backed by billionaires, are not sitting still. They are veritably spraying money at every aspect of their growth and development, competing for the best players, pushing the most modern methods, bringing in cutting edge managers. Each of them have accelerated the cycle of trial-and-error that used to last a season, but can now see a club’s entire playing strategy overhauled in the space of 10 games.

2) Many of their competitors have adopted the methods they pioneered. When Arsene Wenger came to the Premier League, a somewhat puzzling hire fresh from a spell in the Japanese J-League, he brought with him a philosophy and way of working that shocked England’s stodgy, kick-and-run approach to top level football. Wenger’s technical, passing game, wed to steely, physical, English defending became the template for success in the late ’90s, with even Alex Ferguson himself cadging many of Wenger’s basic ideas (and taking credit for them).

3) For the most part, evolution works slowly in football. Reinvention is difficult. Having changed English football once, engineering the next game changing idea is a bigger challenge than most supporters are willing to allow.

arsenal-supporters-1960Despite all this, Wenger has achieved something no other manager has, consistency, that least sexy of all charms. Ironically, it’s this consistency that really highlights Arsenal’s lack of a championship. Greater oscillations in finishing position might produce something closer to joy among supporters for a second place finish.

Instead, the club’s fans seek explanations for the failure to crest that final rise. The common denominator is Wenger. If all the ingredients are there, and still no Premier League trophy arrives, the problem must be the manager, an easy target now at retirement age.

But this is the challenge of balancing the head and the heart. Ungoverned, the heart will beat itself to exhaustion and collapse. As the heart of the club, the supporters can’t see, won’t see, the future. That’s management’s job.

When you’re as good as Arsenal are, at some point you win the league. The bookies will tell you that. But it’s also true that, again at some point, they’ll fall out of the top four, and the consequences of that are both diminished financial means AND reduced ability to recruit the best players. It can be argued that Arsenal don’t do the best job of marshaling their resources, but it’s likely better to have the money and not maximize it, than not to have it at all.

Supporters need look no further than their most-hated foe in Manchester to see the consequences of parting ways with an iconic manager. United have finished 7th, 6th and 5th over the last seasons. Everyday is turmoil at Old Trafford as the Red Devils consider parting ways with another manager. Once a team is untethered from the sort of stability Wenger delivers, the results become less and less predictable. No doubt Monsieur Wenger allowed himself a satisfied chuckle, for example, at the sacking of old friend Jose Mourinho.

The heart wants what the heart wants, and Arsenal supporters aren’t wrong to bemoan their club’s seeming inability to reach the heights Wenger taught them to expect. But the head knows that it’s a shorter distance from second to first, than from 10th to 4th.

The Arse-lona Conundrum

Arsenal lost to Barcelona, at home, in the Champion’s League this evening by a score of 0-2. The Gunners played well, though the Catalans held them to just 34% possession and three shots on goal. None of this is the point though.

cruyfffag_crop_northThere is a passage in the book Soccernomics that addresses Johan Cruyff’s influence over modern football, how the irascible Dutchman took early notions of ‘total football’ and turned them into refined and specific systems of passing the ball. Those systems bore fruit, first at Ajax, and then at Barcelona, where Cruyff altered the club’s approach, from youth academy all the way to the senior squad, forging the methods of Barca’s famed La Masia (The Farmhouse), which would go on to produce modern masters like Xavi, Iniesta, and of course Leo Messi.

Today, there are a number of proponents of Cruyffian football, managers like Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique (both La Masia graduates), Arsene Wenger, Louis Van Gaal, Frank de Boer, Frank Rijkaard (Ajax products) and lesser lights, like Michael Laudrup, Brendan Rogers and Roberto Martinez. Labels like ‘tiki-taka,’ primarily applied to the Barcelona style of Guardiola, don’t really do justice to this football philosophy, which really seeks to maximize possession through set passing schemes executed by superior technical players.

That brings us back to Arsenal vs. Barcelona in the Champion’s League.

Arsene-WengerArsene Wenger brought passing, possession-based football to England, and found early success by merging stout English defenders (Adams, Keown, et. al.) with continental technicians like Bergkamp, Pires, Henry and more. As time went on, other English clubs incorporated some of these principles and drew closer to Arsenal’s technical level, while deploying robust physical challenges to blunt the Gunner’s superiority. Wenger, perhaps nobly, perhaps stubbornly, persisted with his approach, and one can view the evolution of his side over the last five or six campaigns as the patient cultivation of the technicians he needs to implement his purest vision of football. Young players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Bellerin have been combined with imported talents like Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez.

When the north Londoners face Luis Enrique’s blaugrana, it’s the clashing of two sides built, more or less, in the same image. Both seek to grow the players they need and augment with only the best imported talent. Barca have a core from La Masia (Pique, Busquets, Messi, Iniesta, Alba) and technicians from afar like Rakitic, Suarez, and of course Neymar Jr.

Like Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, who crashed out of the Champion’s League to Barca so spectacularly last season, Arsenal found they couldn’t out-Barca Barca. And that, in essence, is the Arse-lona Conundrum™. It is not a great secret what the most effective footballing philosophy is today. The world’s elite clubs all play some flavor of Cruyffian, possession-based soccer. The question, then, is who can create or recruit the best players to implement it.

Bayern have come closest with Guardiola, the Spanish manager more or less admitting that Messi, and his five Balons d’ Or, was the difference between his Bavarian Barcelona and the real McCoy.

Laurent Blanc has assembled his Paris-St.Germain team along the same lines to great effect in a weaker French league. Juventus are the Italian version, bossing midfield through Pogba, Marchisio and Khedira, as well as a back line of technical defenders. Manchester City, in England, do the same with David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero. Louis Van Gaal, a rival and cultivated enemy of Cruyff’s, still holds to many of these same principles, but you can see how ill-suited his current Manchester United side is to actually executing them.

It’s no mystery that the team with the best players wins most of the time. Barcelona have been both very clever, by adopting Cruyff’s philosophy so thoroughly, and very lucky, by “discovering” Messi, a generational or even historical talent. What is interesting about the Arse-lona Conundrum™ is that it can be used as a lens to understand the machinations of the biggest European transfers, their successes, e.g. Luis Suarez to Barcelona, and failures, e.g. di Maria to Manchester United.

It’s also a useful way of understanding what Arsene Wenger is playing at, long term, which is a steadfast pursuit of only very specific types of players, rather than scatter gun accumulation of talent, though Gunner’s fans will have wished for a little more scattergun and a little less steadfastness in the wake of their most recent 2-0 loss.

The Unbearable Sadness of Manuel Pellegrini

Never mind that Manuel Pellegrini has been fired. In fact, he hasn’t. Manchester City have simply announced that Pep Guardiola will the their manager next season, turning Pellegrini into something of a zombie. He hasn’t been fired, but, like a lie of omission, City have opted to leave the Chilean out of their future story.

pellegrini-448701Look at Pellegrini’s face, deeply lined, eyes inscrutably deep, impossibly blue. Is there a sadder face in world football? It’s as though he knows it’s all a sham, that his fabled dignity is only ever meant to serve as a counterpoint to the ludicrous circus going on around him.

The Citizens of the blue half of Manchester are in a true purple period. Formerly Alex Ferguson’s “noisy neighbors”, Abu Dhabi’s billions have finally delivered the status the club’s supporters always craved, and likely deserved after sticking by their team through two relegations and the long climb back.

You have to ask yourself though, given the time it’s taken to finally rise above United in organization, craft, ambition as well as league position, just how much influence the manager has ever had. From Mark Hughes short run through Roberto Mancini and into Pellegrini’s reign, the team have made steady progress, an FA Cup and league title under Mancini, a League Cup and another championship for Pellegrini. Success has meant nothing for the manager. It takes time for money to find its way through a whole club, into the youth setup, the senior squad, the stadium and scouting network. The newly assembled team of stars coalesces slowly. Results come, but because Chelsea and United and Arsenal aren’t sitting still, true hegemony never does.

Look across the Manchester divide. Even Alex Ferguson didn’t deliver the championship every year. So what will City get by changing from Pellegrini to Guardiola? Success probably. Maybe even the European Cup.

But here the trick is on City.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group D - Barcelona v FC Copenhagen - Camp Nou
Guardiola

Guardiola himself is Pellegrini’s truest heir, a deep thinker, suffering for his art, gone gaunt with the worry and stress of managing the world’s super clubs. Guardiola may even have elevated the performance through his insistence on moving along every few years. His love burns brightly, but ultimately flames out, even with his childhood sweetheart, Barcelona’s blaugrana.

Perhaps they can bring back Pellegrini, when eventually, inevitably, Guardiola chooses to omit them from his own future story.

Van Gaal’s Poisoned Chalice

53906f2f36Louis van Gaal looks distinctly uncomfortable, week after week, sipping from Alex Ferguson’s poisoned chalice. The Dutch icon couldn’t have believed it would be this hard or that the British press would so gleefully fail to spare his feelings. Van Gaal, it must be clear at this point, is the wrong man for this job. It is not the toothless attack, poor results or middling league position that make wor Louis unsuitable. It’s something more fundamental

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Van Gaal’s main sin is his age. Though you’re not allowed to ask a candidate’s age in a job interview, Ed Woodward and the Man United board knew this was likely to be the Dutchman’s last job. And so, this was never a long term project. The remit was simple, stabilize the squad, consolidate the club’s league position in the top four. No trophies strictly speaking necessary, the sense was that United were adrift after a season under David Moyes and then Ryan Giggs in a caretaker’s role. With the club in free fall, Van Gaal was meant to be the parachute that arrested their plummet.

Those who would beg this manager more time, Woodward chief among them, are missing the root problem with the appointment, which is that it was never meant to afford time.

United’s history, like any great club’s, is marked by their dynastic periods, the last of which is widely thought to have begun with the 1990 FA Cup 3rd round victory over Notts Forrest that saved Ferguson’s job. He’d been in charge since November ’86, and the club had backed him by staying steadfast through poor results, even shipping out difficult players rather doing what today’s clubs do quite as easily as switching 3rd kits, sacking their manager. It was then that United departed from the annual or even semi-annual sturm and drang that other clubs subject themselves to with hair trigger managerial appointments and attempts to horse trade their way up the table with big money transfer gambles. It’s not that United didn’t spend a penny during Ferguson’s first period of sustained success. Rather, it’s that Ferguson struck a balance between youth development and shrewd transfer business. Having gambled on their mercurial Scottish manager, United were rewarded with an almost unimaginable stability compared to nearly any other elite British club, with a respectful nod to Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.

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O’Farrell & Busby

Looking even further back, and acknowledging that times have changed and paradigms have shifted, United would know that replacing legends is well nigh impossible. When Sir Matt Busby stepped down from the United job, failures and disappointments followed first under Wilf McGuinness, and then after Busby returned briefly to right the ship, under Frank O’Farrell. The lesson United ought to have learned is that succession is more new beginning than simple sequel. In order to regain stability, a period of failure has to be tolerated.

When David Moyes was sacked after less than a full season in charge, the club signaled a departure from the ethos that delivered all their happiest days. Compounding the mistake, and without contending that Moyes himself would eventually have become a worthy recipient of the crown, Woodward turned to Van Gaal, an apparently known quantity, but one without time on his side.

It is easy now to look at United, out of the European places, and bay for the Dutchman’s blood from the stands or the cold comfort of the couch. Those arguments are sadly bolstered by an abject failure of transfer policy, massive funds having been expended without the squad either being strengthened  or any real depth being achieved. And of course, the football has been boring, though memories of United as a swashbuckling, attacking side are only intermittently accurate, Ferguson’s true success having been founded on an ability to grind out a 0-1 victory away to the league’s less glamorous sides.

No, the reason to move on from Van Gaal is that there is no future for the Dutchman, quite simply by virtue of age and a wandering eye toward retirement. In a real sense, the future is now for United, and the longer they delay in embarking on it, the longer they delay the stability, and ultimately the success, they crave.