Go with a smile!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Football Superstition and Whither Arsenal?

Football and Superstition
I’ve probably mentioned it before on this blog, that I’m a little bit superstitious about the football leagues and how they influenced my life. I usually look at two competitions, the World Cup and the EPL. I’ve noted that the four years that follow a Brazil win in the World Cup are usually unhappy years in my life. That the four years that follow a first time Champion are pretty blissful (so I was pretty happy that France and Spain won their world cups). I was too young to remember what it was like in the 4 years that followed Argentina 1978 but they must have been pretty damn awesome. Following a Germany win? I don’t know.

I haven’t tried to analyse what happens when the Champion’s league. Anyway the Champion’s league is pretty boring. Over the last 7 years, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have won the Champion’s League 5 times. And over the last 20 years, they have won it 10 times between them. Regarding the premier league, I was barely into my teens when Liverpool won their last title. I was in my diapers when Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa won their titles, so I can’t really tell what it’s like. In the years when Chelsea were the defending champions, they were pretty average, neither really good or really bad years. So this would probably be an average year. In the years when somebody pretty left field defends the title, like Leeds or Blackburn, they were pretty great years. But as we know, Leeds and Blackburn did terrible jobs at defending their titles. I would have liked to see what it’d have been like if Newcastle had won the title in 1996 instead of Manchester United. It was an extraordinary collapse, and it was a fork in the road. It’s not that Manchester United were a terrible team to watch, and I’m sure that Alex Ferguson would still have led that team to greater heights regardless of whether they won the title that year. But I think that Man U winning that title portended a period of time when relatively few clubs would dominate English football. There was another possibility when Leeds United came close to joining that club, and they overextended themselves so much that they are probably still paying the price today. It’s a little strange to think of Liverpool as a “small” club, but their title challenges in the 2009 and 2014 seasons are pretty improbable, although, you would say that Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are world class players.

Think of the period from 2005 to 2009 when Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal would have a virtual stranglehold on the top 4. And between 2010 and 2015, with only 2 exceptions, Man U, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal have swept the top 4). As it is, Leicester will probably win the title. And even if Leicester doesn’t win, Tottenham will win it. And it will be the first time in my life either of them have won it.

When Arsenal wins the league, it’s really interesting. They were pretty difficult and interesting years, and I’ve had to struggle quite a bit to rise up to the challenge, but at the end of the challenging days, I would find that I had had quite a bit of personal growth. Arsenal were defending their titles when I was taking my PSLE and in my first year in secondary school, when I was in my difficult 14th year, when everybody grows up. (14 years old is the time when everybody stops being friends with each other and factions start to form in high school.) It was my first year in college, my first year in working life. When they won in 2004, that was when my grandmother’s health started to falter and we had to figure out how to care for her. So I have some interest in seeing Arsenal win the title at least one more time in my life.

Whither Arsenal?
Arsenal are an interesting case. At 2004, Arsenal were by some distance the best team in the country, and it seemed like they had finally seen off the challenge of Man U. Man U were in the middle of the lean Van Nistlerooy years, and would not mount a challenge soon. But they were hit with a double whammy. First, there was the rise of Chelsea, which meant that they would never be able to compete financially with them. Second, Arsenal were moving to a new stadium in Ashburton Grove and had to cut back on paying their best players. Their great Invincibles team disbanded quickly: there were some who would be past their peak: Bergkamp, Vieira, Campbell and Llungberg. There were those who never quite recovered their form, like Pires, Lauren, Edu, and Kolo Toure. That would leave Henry and Fabregas as the only genuine world class players in Arsenal for a couple of years.

What followed next is a series of disappointments. There were FA cup wins in 2005, 2014 and 2015. But other than that, disappointment after disappointment. There was the improbable march to the 2006 Champion’s League final in 2006 in Paris, the home city of Thierry Henry. But they spent most of that match playing one man down, and who knows what would have happened? In 2008, they got in William Gallas and made him the captain, in the hope that he’d bring in some of the ethos of the famous Chelsea defence. It didn’t work, and there’s no reason to suppose that it would also work with Petr Cech. There was an infamous end of the season collapse in 2008. There was an infamous match against Birmingham, and I remember not really watching that match, but first, there was the horrible leg break on Eduardo, and his career has never recovered. Then there was the time when Birmingham was awarded a last minute penalty, and William Gallas threw a hissy fit. A week or two later, Man U beat Arsenal in a FA cup match. There was this infamous moment when Nani tried to showboat against Arsenal after they were 4-0 up against them.

Now here’s the thing. We didn’t know it yet, but in 2008, Man U were in the middle of their last great team. They had a lot of promising youngsters, many of which were of Portuguese or Brazillian origin – Nani, Anderson, and the Da Silva twins. And none of them fulfilled their potential. We didn’t know it, but the three-peat of 2006-2009 for Man U was the last time anybody would successfully defend an EPL title. But, I would say that the last 5 years of Alex Ferguson’s reign at Man U were the greatest years of his reign, because he figured out how to take a flawed team, and grind titles out of them. There isn’t any reason why he should have won the titles in 2011 and 2013, but somehow, he managed to do it.

Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, may have been dealt worse hands, but he didn’t manage to grind them to victories. There were many other cases of him snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2011, 2014 and now, in 2016, he managed to take his team to the pole position 2-3 months away from the end of the season, and somehow he managed to contrive a late season slump in form which would see their hopes evaporate. In all the other years, the season would be extremely underwhelming, until a late season flourish would see them grab the 4th place.

In a way, I see this season as a repeat of last season. On average, they would perform as well as this season. Of course, if they ended this season with 79 points like last season, they would win the title, but this is a season where everybody was unusually strong. There’s been a lot of talk about how Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa have suddenly regressed and are the brink of relegation. No, they are on the brink of relegation because everybody has improved to the point where there aren’t 3 other teams which are crap. Only Aston Villa are truly crap, but that’s the price you pay for selling away Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley and Christian Benteke all at the same time. The clubs that came in – Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich are pretty good, although Norwich are in a relegation scrap. West Ham, Southampton, Leicester, Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham are all punching above their weight. Accordingly, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man U and Everton have underperformed. The English Premier League does not have any team which is truly great, but this is a genuinely competitive league.

The problem with Arsenal is that something always screws up. There will always be one or two cards short of a full deck, and it will always be frustrating. During the days of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini, the problem was that their best players would always want to leave. Thus, you had those three leaving in the end, you had Van Persie leaving right after his best ever season, when he still had two good seasons left in him, and when he helped Man U to win the league. You had Gael Chichy, Samir Nasri, Emanuel Adebayor, Bacary Sagna and Kolo Toure joining Man City. You had Fabregas, Hleb and Henry joining Barcelona. Then you had players who were good but were always getting injured, like Abou Diaby, Eduardo, Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey.

Then, of late, you managed to stem the tide, and you have a neat squad with Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchex, Mesut Ozil, Santi Carzola and Petr Cech. On top of good squad players like Arteta and Rosicky who were not always playing, but old heads. So you proved that you didn’t always need to rely on youngsters. Then what? You wouldn’t necessarily solve your injury problems. One season or two ago, you proved that you could win ugly, by going direct and pumping the ball to Giroud. But then of late you’d have one or two players sent off for indiscipline. You finally had a good defensive partnership in Koscielny and Mertesacker, but you wouldn’t have a good defensive midfielder covering him. Or maybe you would have Coquelin looking like the real deal for half a season before he gets injured.

One season ago, you would have the problem that Arsenal would lose all their matches to their direct title rivals, and that would cost your ability to win the league. Fair enough, that problem has been fixed. Arsenal have done well against Leicester, winning against them, a little improbably. They managed a draw against Tottenham, in spite of playing one Coquelin down for part of the match. They beat Man City in winter, and that was the moment when you felt that maybe this might be their season after all.

But then Per Mertesacker would be sent off against Chelsea, and they would lose. Coquelin would be sent off, and they would struggle against Tottenham. Nacho Monreal would concede a penalty to Jamie Vardy, and they would struggle to beat Leicester. Then they would lose to Barcelona, Swansea, Man United (when Man United aren’t that good), and Watford. So now, instead of losing to the stronger teams, they would lose to the weaker teams. They could still string together a string of wins from now until the end of the premier league season, and Tottenham and Leicester are far from infallible, but they would only win the premier league if they do that AND both the other teams screw up, and the chances of that happening are not good. Santi Carzola, Aaron Ramsay and Jack Wilshire are not coming back anytime soon. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott are out of form. In a way, this was like the Chelsea team of last season: during the first half, they were excellent, and in the second half, they were pretty average. But even when they were pretty average, Mourinho would manage to squeeze the last drop of performance out of them, and they did pay for it in the first half of this season, and Mourinho would find himself sacked, but they would have won the title. Arsene Wenger would not do that, and at some point down the road, quite far down the road, his team would have yet another second wind, that would see them embark on a good run. But by then, they would have lost every trophy that was on the table.

As for the question of whether Arsene Wenger has to go, let’s put it this way. During this season, they called for Mourinho’s head, and they got Mourinho’s head. This season they called for Rodger’s head and they got Rodger’s head. They called for Pellegrini’s head and they got Pellegrini’s head. They have called Van Gaal’s head, and they will probably get Van Gaal’s head in the end. That leaves Arsene Wenger. I think they’re getting a little frustrated that they can’t sack Arsene Wenger. Well, I think we’re in an era where every team is in permanent transition. Nobody ever has a period of complete and total domination in the premier league. Maybe Barcelona and Real Madrid can jointly dominate La Liga, and even then, they had to deal with the rise of Atletico Madrid. Maybe Bayern Munich can dominate the Bundesliga but they had to deal with the challenge of Borussia Dortmund. In the premier league, even Alex Ferguson had to build up 3 great teams, the 1994 team, the 1999 team and the 2008 team, and in the middle, he would lose titles to Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea.

So Man City was unable to build a dynasty that won titles on a regular basis. They might have two titles, but unless they build another Yaya – Silva – Hart – Kompany – Aguero axis, that’s not going to happen. Both titles were nailbiters to the finish, rather than coronations. Liverpool managed to improve to the point where they were within a hair’s breath of the title, and then fall away when they lost Suarez, Sterling, Gerrard and got Sturridge injured. These things ebb and flow. Arsenal ebb and flow too, but they ebb and flow really quickly, often within the course of the season, which is why all their seasons look the same: half great and half crap. No sooner is something fixed than something breaks down again. That is why, I think, I’m not exactly sure that Arsene Wenger has to go. He’s only got continuity on his side. Not very long ago, the premier league had 3 long reigning managers, in Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Arsene Wenger. Then Alex Ferguson said goodbye and David Moyes took over, effectively obliterating those long reigns. Did things improve? No. Man U went backwards. Everton’s Martinez looked good on paper, but they had a fragile mentality, just like Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. They have great players like John Stones, Ross Barkley, Tom Cleverley and Romalu Lukaku, and somehow still can’t climb off the bottom half of the table. The argument is that Arsene Wenger had a great chance to win the title, but he blew it. But consider this: Chelsea has to be rebuilt, Man U has to be rebuilt, Liverpool is still being rebuilt, Tottenham are good but unlikely to be even better next season, Leicester City, even if they win the title, outsiders who win the league often don’t defend their titles well, as Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Leeds and Blackburn Rovers have shown us. They rarely rise up to the challenge of taking it to the next level. The one main exception, and it is a very notable exception, is Manchester United, lest a few of us forget that when they won the title in 1993, they were a bit of outsiders too.

So, I can understand why Arsene Wenger is not going to get fired. He will have one last chance to get it right. You can understand why he didn’t get it right. He is just not good at buying defensive players. Yes, he bought Vieira and Koscielny. But the ones that were successful, like Sol Campbell and Mertesacker were already proven quantities. His teams have a soft center, and that’s why their defenders are often getting sent off. Perhaps he isn’t quite up to date on the latest coaching methods. People are extremely methodical these days, and he talks of giving his players the “freedom” to go “express themselves”. When you read between the lines, that means that his instructions to them aren’t sufficiently detailed enough. The thing is that the premier league is now attracting some of the best coaches in the world. We had Mourinho for a while, then we have Benitez, Pellegrini and Klopp. Slaven Bilic, Ronald Koeman and Pochettino are showing themselves to be great young things, although sometimes I wonder about their lasting power. There will always be the old warhorses like Mark Hughes, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce. And Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford also have bosses with good solid seasons. I think we’d just let Arsene Wenger have one last season at Arsenal, and then we’ll see who next becomes available. Maybe Laurent Blanc from PSG? Maybe Arsenal will take a chance on one of the bright young things? Louis Van Gaal wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Arsenal, but Man U is his last job.

Regarding Leicester, what they have to do is to avoid having a late season collapse, and allowing Tottenham to catch up with them. Claudio Ranieri is a manager, though, whose record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The last time he was in the premier league, he managed to gamely improve Chelsea FC year on year, and he did set up a foundation for Mourinho to build upon. But he has never won a major league title in his long career, although there were plenty of good 2nd and 3rd place finishes. He deserves something, after being a little unfortunate about being asked to vacate his seat for Mourinho. But I’m a little worried for him. I just hope he can take it to the end, because this is his last and best stab at a league title. Next season, Arsenal and Tottenham will be favourites, regardless of whether Leicester City end up as champions.

My years of watching football
I also have to say: I had a period of time when I did care about football. I followed the Malaysia Cup seasons of the dream team of 1993 and the double winning team of 1994, and they allowed a good thing to get destroyed. I remember the World Cup 1994, and there were 3 fairy tales for Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania. I remember how exciting the 1995 race between Man U and Blackburn was, and also the 1996 race between Man U and Newcastle. 1996 was the year of two disappointments, that Newcastle not winning the EPL (although they probably shouldn’t have, they were a bit like a Man City who spent big money). And England not winning Euro 96, when that was their best chance in a generation. How shocking it was that a team like Arsenal could seemingly come out of nowhere and pip Man U to the title in 1998. Singapore’s win in the Tiger Cup in 1998 was a shocker, but how were we to know that it was only the first of four? Man U’s treble of 1999 was very romantic. But then after that, things started becoming a little boring. France winning the Euros in 2000 was nice, although we didn’t know back then that this was the high watermark. 2002’s world cup was pretty remarkable because all the great powers fell relatively early. By right, we should have thought that Turkey, South Korea and Senegal had fairy tales, but they’re not going to be seen in the same light as the Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania teams of 1994. In the end, it was Brazil winning a world cup, and for them to win one out of the 1998 and 2002 world cups sounds about right. After that, though, football got a bit boring, and maybe the reason why a lot of us like Arsenal so much is that in between 2000 and 2008, the only bright spot was the Arsenal invincibles winning the league in 2004. It was a terrible era of defensive football. Greece winning the league in 2004 should have been a fairy tale, but in hindsight, I would have preferred Portugal, with their golden generation, to win it. England had a so-called “golden generation” but a team with Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Cole, Beckham, Terry, the Neville brothers, Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Carragher, Hargreaves and Rooney in it somehow failed to get past the quarters time and again. They would be the equivalent of the Liverpool spice boys of the 90s, a bunch of guys whose reputation and celebrity status exceeded their ability to shine on the international stage.

2008, and enter the wonderful world of Tiki Taka football. That was a welcome break, and I enjoyed Spain winning their 3 trophies – 2 Euros and 1 World Cup. And I’m not counting against them defending their Euros this year! I suppose Man U getting their Champion’s league in 2008 was nice, although maybe this was around the time when I got bored of the show. It’s nice, though, that Barcelona won the Champion’s League 3 times, in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Always nice to be living in the same time period as one of the greatest teams of all time.

But it’s starting to get a little boring. Even the 2014 World Cup, when we had nice little exciting teams like Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile don’t really make me excited. Maybe Lionel Messi winning a World Cup might make me excited. I’m pretty happy that Germany won a world cup, because they got so close in 2006 and 2010, and in the Euros of 2008 and 2012.

Maybe I’m at an age when I no longer am out and about and playing games and learning from them. IT’s hard to be a sports fan after a certain age. I will live long enough to see Arsenal win another league title, I think. Otherwise they might be like Liverpool, people know they were one of the great teams but they’re not winning another title. Or they might be like Burnley, Portsmouth, Blackburn, Huddersfield Town or Wolves, nobody really remembers the period of time when they were dominating English football. The thing is, English football is a little unusual because so many teams have become league champions before. I think that the next year of English Premier League will be quite interesting because this is one of the rare occasions when Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City are not quite at their best.

Maybe some happier topics, like Euro 2016. The hot favourites are Spain, Germany, and France. But England – for some reason England are in a similar position as 1996, when not much was expected of them. They were expected to be shit in 2014 and they were shit. But suddenly, a lot of young talent is starting to flower. In terms of established names, who are stars for great clubs, there aren’t many in England. But in terms of youngsters who are putting in a good shift here and there, suddenly there is an embarrassment of riches. Consider the following names who are potential members of the 2016 squad: Rooney, Vardy, Sturridge, Sterling, Kane, Walcott, Hart, Alli, Welbeck, Wilshire, Smalling, Llalana, Carrick, Butland, Carrick, Butland, Cahill, Milner, Henderson, Dyer, Stones, Delph, Caulker, Lambert, Zaha.

For the first time in a long while, England enter the tournament as veritable dark horses. They aren’t Germany, who can get the best of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. They aren’t Spain, who can put in the best of the two Madrids and Barcelona. But they don’t look like weaklings anymore.

There were years when I was more into football. In my last few years in Singapore, the nights of weekends would invariably be spent trawling a few kopitiam outlets when they would screen matches. I used to like going there because I liked the idea of people in a kampung watching football together. But I knew that that was a bunch of guys which had an unusually high proportion of the bad hats of society. There were years, in the boring eras, when I could place bets on really boring and predictable outcomes, when the big four of the EPL would win their matches with distressing regularity. But now, I'd be pretty foolish to bet on football anymore. I guess, here in Mexico, I can always watch the highlights of recent matches for free, and things have become much less exciting. Still, even though I know that most probably one out of Spain, Germany and France will win Euro 2016, I'm looking for a favourable outcome for England. Likewise, I hope that America will go far in the 2016 Copa America.


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