Archive | December, 2014

18 years on the throne

28 Dec

A good friend sent me the following text during office hours the other day:

After years of striving I’ve finally reached the level of seniority where I can pick up my Blackberry mid-meeting, say “apologies, but I really must take this”, then slope off to the stalls for a dump. It’s a great feeling.

There was more than a little pride in my chum’s honest words. Here was a man who, like all of us, had done his shift on the bottom rung. He’d battled his way through the mire and could now proudly announce that he was operating at those two special words. Mid-level.

Such behaviour is all part of a growing workplace self-importance that accrues as one’s career progresses. Whether it’s an arm confidently slung over the back of your chair. A foot casually resting on top of the waste paper bin during conversation. Or even some unnecessarily loud humming just to let people know that you’re there. Seniority lends itself to greater ownership of the stage.

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Imagine, then, what it must be like to be Arsene Wenger, and you’ve been operating at the top of your game for twenty years. There probably isn’t even an air of pretence when Wenger senses a pending movement. Barely a moment’s hesitation as the great man punctuates another annual general meeting with a familiar stride to the door. No way was Wenger going to sit through “Any Other Business” when he could be taking care of his own.

And why not? Wenger ought to bow to no-one for what he has achieved in English football. The Premier League’s first modern manager. Arriving on these shores an unknown, he immediately and comprehensively outgeneralled his peers by using such trickeries as diet and ball-playing foreigners. Arsene’s Arsenal would blister through teams with hitherto unseen amounts of movement, precision and a good deal more passes than Charles Hughes would have deemed permissible.

Success came quick and was plentiful. The doubles, the Indomitables, the European finals. Wenger’s band of wily Frenchmen and Ray Parlour went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the preeminent rivalry of recent times.

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And then it stopped. Suddenly, one fateful day in 2005, the sun went dark and the birds fell out of the sky. Football, quite literally, went post-apocalyptic. All that mattered was oil, and who owned it. And Arsenal didn’t have any of the stuff.

The superstars fled to more profitable springs. The silverware dried up. Murmurings of discontent started to ring around the terraces of a trophyless Ashburton Grove – a gleaming new stadium built to house a successful team, precisely at a time when Arsenal had stopped winning anything.

This was no laughing matter for Wenger. All of a sudden, the porcelain began to feel a little chillier on his hamstrings. The paper less comforting. The man from Alsace wasn’t strolling out of board meetings with the same relaxed and confident lavatorial intent anymore. Faced with his own mortality, the great man began to wonder if he shouldn’t perhaps wait for a break in proceedings, even when his sphincter was telling him it was time to shine.

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For nine long years, Arsenal’s challenge for silverware kept hitting the side netting. Discontent grew until, ridiculously, the whole legacy appeared to hinge on one game against Hull in the cup final last May. Wengerites breathed an almighty sigh of relief when the two-goal deficit that day was reversed. Detractors still pointed to the estranged premier league crown and protruded their bottom lip.

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Like the hunch on a taller woman, Wenger’s failure to land the title in recent years is unfortunate but understandable. Wenger’s tutelage has come to be something of a training bra for young professional footballers. A reassuring set of managerial stabilisers until a player is fully-formed. At which point, Wenger is summarily dispensed with in favour of the more glamorous undergarment options of Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United or, the latest in high class lingerie, Manchester City.

Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Ashley Cole, Matthieu Flamini, Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor all tossed Wenger into the bin on maturity. Even Gael Clichy – a man who looks and plays like Ashley Cole minus a chromosome – even he decided he was too big for the Gunners. At times over the last decade, Wenger has looked more like a medic performing emergency surgery than a football manager trying to build a team.

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Fate has been cruel to Arsene. The murky presence of sheikhs and oligarchs has meant he has had to deal with a greater imbalance of power than ever existed.   But we’re in danger of letting economic realities obscure very real achievement.

Wenger has never finished outside of the top four in his 18 seasons in charge at Arsenal. Here is a list of teams that have failed to match this feat over the same period:

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Paris St. Germain, Lyon, Chelsea, Liverpool, and, most recently (fetch the party poppers…), Manchester United.

Quite a lot, right?

In fact, in the five major European leagues, no-one apart from Bayern Munich has achieved such consistency.

That’s not just quite impressive. That’s a sustained level of performance up there with Sting and Trudy. Wenger’s outlasted an entire generation of Labour government. His brand of fast flowing pass-and-move football bridging the gap between Major and Cameron. Until the Scots lost their bottle in the 89th minute, Wenger very nearly outlived the entire Union.

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3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th.

You don’t stop being a genius just because your 1st and 2nd place finishes become 3rd and 4th place finishes. Not when such decline coincides with two teams becoming so incredibly rich that they render all hope of genuine competition futile. Any other conclusion is odd and wrong.

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If the nation is critical of Wenger, it is because he is a manager eminently more open to reason than his peers. Mourinho doesn’t care what you think. He might treat you to a response laced with charm – if the mood allows – but he won’t answer a question that he doesn’t like. Make the wrong enquiry of Alex Ferguson and you risked a 3-month ban from the Old Trafford press room.

Wenger, though, sees his life’s work as a scientific study. He feels intellectually obliged to defend his stance when brought under scrutiny. You might struggle to get Arsene to see an incident on the pitch, but he’s one of the few coaches who will engage with a well-reasoned cross-examination off it.

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Arsene never lost it. Magic is real, but only if you believe in it. On a budget that, until recently, was not much greater than Sunderland’s, the French sorcerer has been turning water into wine for years.

Tottenham are shorn of Gareth Bale and they flounder. Liverpool lose Luis Suarez and they look like a team that’s lost its car keys. The Arsenal squad gets rifled through like a lady’s underwear drawer every single summer and those top four places just keep on coming.

I’m prepared to bet all the money in Too Good’s petty cash drawer that the next time Arsenal finish outside of the top four is the first year that Arsene Wenger isn’t at the helm. You want to know why? Because Arsene knows. He knew then. And he knows now.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Genius at work.

Genius at work.

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The trial of Lampard and Gerrard

19 Dec

The nation umm-ed and ahh-ed on whether to draw the curtains on a centuries’ old union this summer. In the end, it was another antiquated and fractious relationship that was put out of its misery. While those north of the border daubed their ballot paper with a streak of yellow – dashing dreams of a McLiberia for another five hundred years – England finally put an end to its own tricky West Lothian question in the centre of the park.

As Steven Gerrard came on alongside Frank Lampard against Cost Rica in the World Cup, in what will now for certain be their final international game together, it occurred to me that it would be quite amusing if the two of them really “clicked”. The sight of Lamps and Stevie G gelling together would have been a pleasingly ironic denouement to a bleak tale.

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It isn’t difficult to imagine Lampard and Gerrard getting horribly mixed up when they greeted each other at England camps. One attempts a handshake, the other goes in for a hug. Both shotgun the same side of the bed. I’ve never seen the two of them attempt to lift a heavy sofa up a flight of stairs, but I suspect it wouldn’t end well.

This, of course, is old hat though. That Gerrard and Lampard couldn’t play together is common knowledge. What jabs in the ribs a bit is no-one has ever properly drawn up a charter for blame between the pair. Public opinion seems content to stain the legacy of both, apportioning equal volumes of tar and feathers to either Number 8 jersey. Were both really at fault? Or is one conviction unsafe? As Lampard now beats a gentle retreat to the gallows’ humour of the subs bench, with Gerrard surely soon to follow, the time has come for a full and final appraisal of the pair. Too Good embarks on a mission of mercy and seeks to exonerate one of these godforsaken millionaires.

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But before we do so, let’s lift up the bonnet and remind ourselves of the component parts of this uncomfortable portmanteau. Starting with Lampard first.

Arriving on the scene as a slightly chubby-faced teenager, Lampard made an awful lot from physical attributes that were by no means extraordinary. Not especially quick, and couldn’t beat a man for pace nor skill. Not a terrible passer, but nowhere near the wizardry of some at unlocking defences. In fact, in general play, it’s difficult to tell what Lampard actually does well, other than the rather nebulous concept of playing “effective football”.

Lampard’s silver bullet was having perhaps the most accurate shot 20 yards from goal we’ve ever seen. The boy from Essex wasted about as many shots from distance as he did cafeteria deserts during his formative years. It wasn’t just the howitzers from range, either. He would arrive late into the penalty area with the regularity of an Alpen eater. Goals were Lampard’s currency, and he was good for gobbling twenty plus of them a season.

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Gerrard, by contrast, could do it all. Roving midfielder, support striker, winger, full back, it didn’t matter. If Frank was Hot Shot Hamish, Stevie was definitely Roy of the Rovers. Watching Gerrard take a game by the scruff of the neck was like watching a chariot go full speed round a corner on two wheels. Daring and courageous, testing the limits of the possible. Such was Gerrard’s God given ability, if he had applied himself to being a centre-back from an early age, he could quite conceivably have ended up England’s best centre-back instead.

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And it’s Gerrard’s raw ability that forms the noose around the neck in this trial by narrowly read media. With Lampard – the less naturally talented of the two – room for manoeuvre was always comparatively scant. If Lampard wasn’t camped on the edge of the penalty area, one suspects there would have been little else in compensating factors. In truth, he had to be there to be effective.

Gerrard, though, a Rolls Royce who could play any position on the park – famously filling in at right-back towards the end of the Champions League final – surely he could have found a way to make it work?

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The 2013/14 season provided the smoking gun. Gerrard got caught elbow deep in the cookie jar when, under Brendan Rogers’ tutelage, he showed what a wonderful deep-lying playmaker he could be. Anchored in front of the back four, Gerrard was like a reverse Nile delta – the tributary to all angles of Liverpool’s attack, spraying a series of long diagonals that bore as deep into the soul of every Liverpool fan as they did the opposition half.

In many respects, it was Gerrard’s crowning glory; a true display of what a complete footballer he could be even at 33. Both a glorious swansong and, yet, contrastingly, a firm one across the chops for all those England managers who battled endlessly to find a way for he and Lampard to co-exist. As if to rub salt in the wounds, the cheeky blighter’s at it again this year. Taken as evidence, Gerrard clearly had it in his locker to square the England circle or, more specifically, the midfield diamond.

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It begs the question quite how Brendan Rogers was able to persuade where so many England managers had run aground. That delicate art of moving a hero fifteen yards back. How did he do it? What cajoling nuggets of wisdom, steeped in Brendan’s dulcet Northern Irish tones, were able to convince where Sven’s Swedish, Fabio’s Italian and Steve’s Dutch had all failed?

This is an important question. After all, no-one is in any danger of forgetting the ascendancy England were in during Lampard and Gerrard’s collective pomp. Especially in that 2004 sweet spot. Three of the four starting midfielders at this time were regular features in Ballon d’Or voting. The fourth was Paul Scholes. Up front we had wonder kids past and present and, at the back, we had to get by with title-winning regulars Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Neville. Roy Hodgson would trade his entire back catalogue of astronaut jokes just to have half of that lot in the current side.

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Ultimately, football is a team game and the truth is Steven Gerrard never quite grasped this. Hubris man-marked him his entire career. There is something very jarring about watching Gerrard – the Liverpool captain – push team-mates away when he wants to celebrate a goal. I can’t think of another team captain that does this. He might have single-handedly dragged Liverpool over the line in Istanbul. He might have triumphed in the 2009 FA Cup Final through sheer force of will. But such anomalies are part of the vagaries, and wonder, of cup competitions. They can be won through the performances of an outstanding individual. The collective efforts required to secure a league title weed out these one man bands. August through May is an awfully long time to be Roy of the Rovers.

That Liverpool’s most talented footballer of a generation was never exactly imbued with the John Lewis collective spirit is perhaps one small factor as to why Anfield never saw a title lifted on Gerrard’s watch. It is certainly a more telling detail in why England never came close to a major final during his tenure. Getting a team of irregulars to perform as a cohesive unit isn’t especially easy when one of them thinks he’s a super hero. In terms of the game’s biggest honours, it now looks like history will remember Gerrard’s Champions League medal as a platinum-tinged wooden spoon. A top of the range bicycle one Christmas from an otherwise estranged father.

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Gerrard’s been in the dock before, but this time it isn’t for defending the honour of Phil Collins. This time he’s charged with foregoing the collective in favour of the individual. Shackled by conceit, and trapped by his own reflection, he stands accused of dousing a nation’s hopes in petrol and tossing them onto a bonfire of vanity. Steven George Gerrard, how do you plead?

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Lamps was unflustered.  This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.

Lamps was unflustered. This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.