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Civilian Soccer Tyrants: Leeds and Massimo

August 19, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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Northern English football fans are usually all-in or all-out. At Leeds United, however, the roller coaster highs and lows over the past decade have inner-ear imbalanced supporters. After a rogues gallery of financial disaster club owners, they remain wary of a flashy, volatile new Italian guy for whom “eccentric” puts it mildly. They could be excused for remaining cautiously fill_in_the_blank. (This said by someone who has never been to olde town Leeds and whose defining viewing moment involving the team begins and ends with the storybook match-winning FA Cup goal from an on-loan MLS Thierry Henry a few years back.) But as of August 3, Massimo Cellino, eccentric Italian entrepreneur, convicted fraud and serial sacker of coaches, announced he’s buying back the LUFC stadium grounds that the club’s broke ass previously had to sell, so that’s positive, yes? Yes, Leeds fans? I’ll take that grumbled assent as cautiously optimistic. And you’re no longer in the third tier, though he had nothing to do with that… Robble.

High-flying millennium era Premier League Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 but they walked a razor’s edge to do so, and racked up huge debts in the process. After finishing fifth in 2003, meaning they didn’t qualify for the European competition (and more importantly, the associated TV rights cash), the “spend money to make money” strategy backfired massively. Debt collections led to mass player sell offs and a subsequent plummet down the table. Leeds sold the Elland Road stadium and grounds in 2004, and the team got relegated the same year. In the Championship, the team went into financial administration in 2007, which then triggered relegation to the third division with a 10-point deduction. They found themselves unceremoniously dumped down two divisions within six years. (Still, as Leeds fans will tell you, they’ve won the league more recently than Liverpool.) High-powered consultants were not required to explain the collapse. Simple financial fallout of reckless overspending. Leeds fought the big dogs Cold War CCCP-style and arms-raced themselves to bankruptcy by kiting checks and making bad big buys. They got burned in a very real sense, and have fought to keep creditors at bay the past decade as they heal in the burn victims ward.

Meanwhile, in Sardinia, during the whole rise and fall of Leeds Massimo Cellino operated a separate universe of terror and infamy in his war against the local Sardinian island government and its refusal to allow him to build his stadium how he wanted and where he wanted. As result, he threw one of the most incredible club owner tantrums of all time and relocated the Sardinian home grounds to Trieste, on the far northeastern end of Italy near Slovenia and Croatia–basically as far from the Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy as one could get, 600 mixed-transport miles away. He fired 36 managers in 22 years at Cagliari, the club which he sold in June. The Italian Feds have found him guilty twice, once for agricultural import malfeasance (he’s a corn magnate) and once for accountancy issues regarding Cagliari (okay, for the English FA, that one seems rather pertinent…) with the specter of further charges perpetually overhead. At the time he was buying Leeds, in early 2014, he had some problem or other with customs over his yacht. Tax evasion and import malfeasance, something like that. The usual.

It’s nearly impossible to fail the English FA’s “fit and proper persons” test, but Cellino did. (Apparently, the yacht thing killed him, not the football-specific financial crime, or the other.) That is, before he didn’t, and passed it. He appealed, the FA reversed its decision, and Leeds, after a string of owners that have left it in different stages of ruin and bankruptcy, had a new man on the throne who may further destroy the club or actually scheme it back to the Premier League. He’s clearly got some sleight of hand skills, even if he does keep getting busted. Also he projects promotion to the Premier League in two years as his goal, so naturally ears prick up for the Leeds hopeful, cast out from the top tier for the past 10 years.

In contrast, the hated David Haigh, who managed Elland Road of a sort until last year as managing director, has been sweating in a Dubai jail for three months, incarcerated on charges of £3 million for fraud and embezzlement. From his cell, he counter-threatened previous owners Gulf Finance House Capital with “damaging allegations” of their own misconduct to which the mega corporation remained colossally deaf until it blasted back about a reported tell-all book deal Haigh may or may not slimily have in the works. Gulf Financial House Capital still cling on as 25% current minority shareholders. Again, Leeds has endured a run of pretty bad owners. And that’s just a fraction of the nonsense.

But back to Cellino. First, in the President’s vision to the masses, he plans to deliver the ancestral grounds. Next, the promised land: the top tier of English football. Unless the whole continental shelf erupts in the process. Past owners have showcased a sort of object lesson in what not to do, and then along comes Mr. Volatile, very likely to blow up an already detonated landscape, but promising to buy back the land. It’s contrasting but compelling, especially for Leeds supporters more than ready to “March on Together” back to the Premier League again.

Cellino doesn’t do warm and fuzzy, but he does do money and he kept (sometimes) island-bound Cagliari in the Italian top flight for a long time. Fans may see him as a crook, but if so, at least one who has the financial mind to make the right moves economically–like buying back the stadium at Elland Road, previously liquidated at massive long term cost to come up with cut-rate quick cash. Though the actual squad lacks Premiership star quality, he has brought in inexpensive but promising players from the top two tiers of Italian football, making use of his connections in and knowledge of players in Seria A and B. The club has lost and continues to lose money, and on the controversial side, In July, after 4 months, he has sacked his first Leeds manager for the second time (surprise!) in his first three months, having only bought the club in April 2014. He’d pared the budget also by firing well-liked staff, academy coaches and, most controversially, the best player, if for a pretty huge price. But Cellino requires all-aboard in righting the ship, by hook or by crook, as some say, but certainly not publicly by any sort of skipper. He doesn’t suffer insubordination lightly. (See aforementened “sacking of Sardinian fan base and moving stadium grounds to Trieste” incident.) But some people still have some beef.

The scarred and pessimistic point to the glaring exit of their source of goals (last season’s leading scorer Ross McCormack, sold by Leeds to Fulham for a fee of £11m). Too many foreign imports, too many young and/or academy players, too much deadweight that didn’t perform up to par in the season past, not to mention the unceremonious sending off of staff that people considered part of the Elland Road firmament. In addition to McCormack, 14 other where’s were sold or released. Hockaday has managed in the Conference, but never the league. These things can mount a bit worrisome for those who value the stability and experience. However…he apparently costs about a tenth of what McDermott earned, so Cellino balances some ledgers right there. Who needs a manager?

According to the Guardian, (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/aug/08/maverick-owner-massimo-cellino-leeds-united-big-mess) new coach Dave Hockaday seemed nervous as he repeatedly referred to Cellino as “the President” (echoes of Il Duce?), in an opening press conference. Fear of his infamously tyrannical new boss is, of course, well-founded. He fired Brian McDermott before rehiring him last season. In the the same Guardian interview regarding the Hockaday press conference, Cellino said, “I can change manager like underwear if needs be.”

After the bizarre, convenient freezing out of main goalie and second highest wage earner at the club because of Cellino’s superstition about the number 17 (more below), this summer Cellino also fortuitously signed young Seria A GK Marco Silvestri, “the best goalkeeper in Italy,” per Cellino, sort of via his other club Cagliari in Serie A. Conspiracy theorists will unquestionably swarm the scene if the £400,000 looks in hindsight an overly kindly price. Silvestri signed on June 9, having just been on loan from Chievo for the previous six months. Cellino then agreed to sell Cagliari itself two days later, embuing his last movements with a whiff of a backroom deal. Not so much as anyone could prove, mind, and Chievo actually owned Silvestri, not Cagliari, but seems like something there nonetheless.

But the day before the sale, in a narrative twist, Leeds had to pay £950,000 to Sport Capital, the company that filed a winding-up petition against the club and had tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April. Apparently backed by David Haigh (former Leeds man of Dubai incarceration) Sport Capital issued the petition in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan, to previous owner (and current minority owner), Gulf Finance House Capital, subsidiary of Bahrain finance giant Gulf Finance House, which owned the club from December 2012 to April 2014 and hemorrhaged debts to the tune of £1 million a month, according to the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/10/leeds-united-repay-loan-sport-capital-david-haigh-court

Sport Capital tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April and slapped petition on the court’s desk in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan to Gulf Capital (wherefore came that information?), and once Sport Capital complained with evidence that Leeds had £1.6m in their bank account, meaning that bank account account could be frozen, they got £1 million (plus legal fees) for their corporate watchdog altruism. Even though the money was to a partner unrelated to Sport Capital. It was sort of a bitch move. Though Haigh soon came into enough trouble of his own in the end.

In the season opener away at Millwall, Leeds lost, 2-0. At home, against Middlesbrough, they won, 1-0. The Serie A and B players haven’t yet scored, but one recent Southampton signing has, Billy Sharp. Sharp scored the lone goal over Middlesbrough in the 88th minute to secure Leeds 3 important points, as opposed to sitting two games into the season scoreless. The Hockaday wear may not need to be discarded yet. Which works for Cellino, because Hockaday comes cheap.

In addition to all his other eccentricities, other stories abound about Cellino’s abhorrence of the number 17, his dropping of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny (coincidentally second-highest earner) for being born on the 17th of a month; his alleged dread of purple (when does that even come up?); and other things that could be fact or fiction. The first two are apparently fact, though. He has actually spoken about them, and at Cagliari, he had all the seats renumbered from 17 to 16B.

Cellino isn’t first-choice as stabilizing forces go, but he could finagle the destabilization into heading upwards. As regards Cellino the cost-cutting yacht owner, he has apparently shut down the training ground cafeteria, which means brown bag lunches for players, and players are also responsible for washing their own clothes. Subtract player wages, manager wages, add player sales, he’s getting there, even if it’s shoestring jerry-rigged. And a lot depends on whether the Elland Road purchase comes to pass. Delivering on that sort of milestone could sway some minds toward his side, or at least serve as a solid first step.

Although, as a tarnish on that silver lining, he did recently get arrested last year in connection with a stadium redevelopment deal in Italy. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/cagliari-president-massimo-cellino-arrested-in-stadium-investigation-8494422.html

He’s a sketchy cat, what can you say?

CommentaryEnglandThe AmericastransfersUnited StatesWorld Cup

Besler-Zusi Axis of SKC Loyalty-Legacy Represent

July 22, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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[Editor’s note: On the eve of Sporting KC’s expected destruction of Manchester City in a stateside friendly–booo, Nasri!!!!–Cameron Garrison, rabid SKC and AFC supporter, weighs in on his unbelievable happiness at USMNT Brazil 2014 standouts Matt Besler and Graham Zusi rejecting offers from England and abroad and staying put at the home of the MLS champions. Loyalty isn’t dead, the legacy is only beginning.]

So, Saturday.  What an AMAZING day for Kansas City and soccer in Kansas City.  It’s really difficult to overstate just how big Saturday was.  We have been fortunate to have a number of fantastic players during this 4-year run.  Many have moved on. Many have stayed. And we have been so successful because Vermes is so brilliant at replacing those that have gone.

But through it all, these two were THE guys. They were the heart and soul of the whole thing. Always.  As the WC approached, I was equal parts thrilled and terrified.  I knew that if they played well, we would probably lose them.  But I also knew that, if that happened,  I would be so proud to see them go.   They *are* SKC.conf

Then it happened. One played pretty well that first match  but had to leave at half because of a hamstring.  The other didn’t start, but he came on, they let him take the set pieces,  and he perfectly delivered the corner that Brooks turned into maybe the second or third most famous USMNT goal ever. The next game brought a masterpiece against Ronaldo, another assist, and I knew the dreams and nightmares were coming true. It was after Portugal that I first told myself that one, and likely both, were leaving. The next two games just reinforced that. When Brazil was over, I was SURE one was gone, and assumed the other was too.  I was already trying to mentally move on.

Then it kept dragging on more and more, and I allowed myself to dream a bit. But just a bit. It wasn’t until this past week that I began to think there was even a chance. And then on Saturday it happened:

@SportingKC: DONE DEAL! #SportingKC re-signs @mbesler and @gzusi to Designated Player contracts.

IT HAPPENED. They’re staying!!! With all those options in front of them, they chose to stay and keep this going. Out of all the choices, they chose to try and win ring after ring at Sporting Park.  This thing that has been so amazing for the last 4 years is going to remain that way for at least 4 more.  And I’ll get to be there for it all. And my son, who lives and dies with SKC, will be there with me. The sheer JOY on his face when I told him they were for sure staying is something I will never forget.

And then, for good measure, we went out and rolled the squad that won the last 2 titles before we took it last year.

I will never forget that day. I can’t possibly ever explain what this means in KC.  With all that we’ve been through with our sports the past couple decades.  Then we finally get a real team.  Then the city totally buys in…we give them our hearts and souls.  Then,  just when it seems like it’s all over, THIS happens.

So. Happy.

We love you Sporting, oh yes we do.

We love you Sporting and we’ll be true.

We will forever, bleed blue!

Oh Sporting we love you.

#NoOtherClubbesler

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The Real Group of Death

June 12, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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[Editor’s note: The good folks at Vocativ.com asked for an article on the Real Group of Death, and Rob from the Cult Football crew gave it his take. Check out the excerpt below and the full article on the Vocativ site. Another article on Klinsmann and lessons to learn from the Hungarian Golden Team of 1953 to follow.]

Fans salivate over the Group of Death that every World Cup inevitably thrusts upon unlucky heavy hitters cage-matched in the same group. This year, however, regional factions are debating which group qualifies as the real Group of Death for Brazil 2014.

American media says Group G—Germany (FIFA rank: 2), Portugal (4), the U.S. (13) and Ghana (38)—holds the title, hands down. In England, tabloid headlines sound a different alarm: English Premier League high-scorer (and convicted biter) Luis Suárez leads Uruguay (7) with canines bared against Italy (9), England (10) and Costa Rica (28) in Group D. But the real Group of Death, in our humble opinion, features a rematch of the 2010 final and allows no margin for error.

The insidious nature of Group B means that coming second equates to a stay of execution. In fact, think of Group B as having only one actual qualifying spot. Spain (1), Chile (14), the Netherlands (15) and Australia (62) will all have to bare-knuckle for first, because the group runner-up plays the winner of Group A, and as sure as Pelé talks about himself in the third person, Brazil will top its group.

You could argue that Brazil winning isn’t a sure thing, but consider this: Host countries almost always perform over the odds, and Brazil is already a super heavyweight. The team has the goal-scoring exploits of Golden Boot contender Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg) and even defenders like Dani Alves (Barcelona).

Host nations have won five of the 19 World Cups. In recent years, France won France 1998, South Korea got to the semis of South Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany reached the semis at Germany 2006. Anything less than a Brazil World Cup victory will amount to a national tragedy—not unlike the 1950 final in which Brazil lost to Uruguay in the dying minutes on home soil, one of the darkest days in the nation’s collective memory, even 64 years later. Desperate to rectify that loss, the Seleção need no motivation.

What our position comes down to, essentially, is that the other groups saddled with the Group of Death label will still send on two teams to live another day. So while Group D has three top-10 teams, Italy will take the top spot, leaving Uruguay and England with an eminently dispatchable Costa Rica and a fair fight between themselves. Uruguay barely qualified for the World Cup; England bottles it at big tournaments. May the best team win.

All four teams in Group G would normally emerge from their group, but Germany could potentially win the tournament, and a Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo fundamentally has the firepower to progress even if the defense leaks goals. Still, both the U.S. and Ghana have the quality to beat Portugal, so ultimately after a fair fight, the best two progress from a tough group.

In Group B, however, either Spain, Chile and the Netherlands will miss out, and then one lucky non-loser must play Brazil. So after Brazil likely slaughters Croatia June 12 amidst the opening day pandemonium, Spain and Holland face off in Group B—two returning finalists drawn in the group stage for the first time. And those two progress, yes? Not so fast. … [continued]

Full article: The Real Group of Death (Vocativ.com)

CommentaryEngland

Liverpool, Awoken from a Dream into a Dream

May 8, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

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On the eve of the final weekend of the 2013/2014 Premier League season, we’d like to thank Bryan Belyea, heart-on-sleeve Liverpool supporter, for breaking it down and sharing his thoughts on the heels of Liverpool’s crushing draw with Crystal Palace on Monday night, when the fairytale title challenge may have faltered at the last.

What to make of Monday night? Pain, disappointment, nausea.

Having time to reflect I pondered why does this hurt so bad?

Who likes being slapped in the face whilst in the midst of a beautiful dream?  Being slapped by reality. The reality we all knew was lingering over our heads amidst this improbable title run. The reality that a team that panics in defense the way we do under pressure has no business making a title run. Yet our beautiful dream went on for so long that we thought it was becoming reality. That despite our fatal flaws we were going to make the impossible possible. We were going to shirk all the doubt and give those that have suffered so much for 25 years a little joy. Our captain was going to get the last feather in his cap that he so richly deserved after years of spilling his blood and guts for the team. A city beaten by economic turmoil was once again going to be home of the league champions.

The loss to Chelsea made us feel desperate. desperate to make the dream come true. Cruising along up 3-0 to Palace we persisted with the urgency of that desperation. The desperation created naivety. Naivety to our fatal flaw. That if left exposed our defense could be cut to shreds.And so it happened.. Palace made it 3-1. But we were still desperate. Desperate to overturn a large goal differential in the title race. So we pressed on with our naive urgency, forgetting about the critical 3 points we needed. Then it happened again… so quickly… 3-2. Now we finally realized what broth we were conjuring… the points were in danger now. But now our flaw was there once again for all to see… a defense shaken… was now shaking. Under pressure like this all season our defense has panicked. Panic begets mistakes. Mistakes provide the unavoidable. 3-3. The blood drained from the supporters in a collective flash flood. Silence. Confusion. That lost feeling of being slapped awake while in the midst of the most beautiful dream.

Now what? We are awake in reality now. Sobering reality. But as the pain subsides and the brain can start making sense of it all we still find ourselves in a place that is amazing given where we started from. If I told you in August that we would be where we are you would have told me that I was dreaming. The best we could hope for was a valiant run at 4th and if we finished 5th with good effort it would be the growth we needed. Yet here we are. Awake in a dream still. A dream that has become reality. The dream that would see Liverpool once again vying for titles. Qualifying for Europe’s most prestigious competition. No playing to get in. Direct qualification for the group stages of the Champions league. European nights at Anfield on the horizon. Money to spend on the 1st team for the summer. Transfer targets being drawn to beautiful attacking football and European competition. And lastly… still hope. Still a chance… a chance at the title. Could Agbonlahor or Carroll become legends to us? Could they now make our biggest dream a reality?!  Who knows? Anything is possible this season. A season in which we have been awoken from a dream into a dream.

No matter what… We HAVE dreams and songs to sing. Of the glory, round the fields of Anfield Road.

CommentaryEnglandWorld Cup

Suárez Scores Goals, Rocks Boats, Alienates People—–Breaking News

December 6, 2013 — by Rob Kirby

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Liverpool striker Luis Suárez is in amazing form, the kind of form that makes a Big Red fan forget about the summer past. That whole lark about the Uruguayan wanting to leave the club, doing anything to leave the club, saying he had a verbal agreement with the club that he could leave, and then the manager Brendan Rodgers essentially called him a liar. None of this matters now at LFC, because he’s in the form of his life, leading the goal charts in England despite missing the first six matches of the season by dint of violent conduct (with his teeth).

Suárez’s run has displayed the sort of impeccable form you can’t help but admire, possibly with jealousy, as an opposition fan, though it doesn’t remotely trigger the Red Liverpuddlian amnesia regarding his back-to-back biting incidents at Ajax and Liverpool. Nor his alleged punch on a Chilean defender in World Cup qualifiers, unseen by the ref at the time, left to slide afterwards. The deliberate handball to block an extra-time inbound header, denying Ghana a goal and ultimately (with a missed penalty) passage to the next round of the 2010 World Cup. And lastly, the man who said that what he said to Patrice Evra wasn’t racist in Uruguay but, upon learning the English connotation of “negro” (Spanish pronunciation), still decided to blank Evra in the next Liverpool-United handshake. He intentionally dumped fuel on the fire in now-full knowledge, he refused to back down despite the fact that both club and manager ordered him to shake Evra’s hand.

Anyhow, just watching the 90 minutes in the midweek match against Norwich, 4 goals and an assist for the fifth, the first and third goals of the most insanely incredible quality, leaves you convinced. Luis Suárez has undoubtedly ripped the mantle of best striker in the league from whomever held it last (Robin van Persie has a hurt shoulder socket in addition to his ongoing groin and/or toe problem). He receives nothing like the service of Agüero, but it doesn’t matter. He ultimately scores when he wants. Despite missing the first six matches of the season through suspension, he’s the league’s high scorer, at 13. He’s scored more goals than games played.

Liverpool fans see his work rate, his final product, their place in the table, and assorted clips of him as warm and fuzzy with his young family and generally think, serenity now, summer water under the bridge. And Suárez does give a hundred percent in everything for the team. He’s just not necessarily as tied up in what that team is at the moment. The Suárez agitation in the press was first portrayed as possibly mistranslated words to the Uruguayan press. That is, until he gave an interview with the Guardian officially announcing a desire to move and a supposed reneging on a verbal promise with Brendan Rodgers and the management. Brendan Rodgers outright denied the claim, declaring Suárez would have to apologize to the team and the manager about what was presumably a bald-faced lie.

All this, of course, transpired through not only an interminable summer with bizarre £40,000,001 bids but also during his 10-game ban for unprovokedly and inexplicably biting Branislav Ivanović in the late Spring matchup against Chelsea. Which followed a November 2010 chomp on a PSV player while at Ajax. Ajax promptly sold Suárez–he had, after all, come to them after a highly-public, acrimonious departure from his former club Groningen, whom he took to an arbitration court but against whom he lost as the court found against him. Everyone recognized a genius with a trouble streak. And with the genius came the occasional Mike Tyson special.

If Suárez gets a pass for a different original cultural connotation to what began the furor with Evra/FA racism charge, he can’t claim that for directly countermanding the orders to club and manger to shake Evra’s hand–a question of interminable interest to the prematch proceedings. He served his eight-game suspension, he coughed up an £40,000 fine, but he chose not to shake Evra’s hand, despite now knowing the public opinion, which ranks as insubordinate, if nothing else. It smacks of acting bigger than the club, something Liverpool fans perennially claim the club will never tolerate, despite all present evidence to the contrary. Yet, as with Stoke and the fans’ continual booing of Ramsey for appallingly forcing Shawcross to act recklessly, break Ramsey’s leg and sideline Ramsey for over a year, club loyalty can cloud the vision, especially with regard to a far-and-away star player like Suárez. The man literally creates goals out of nothing. Who doesn’t love a magician?

Suárez and his goalie’s instincts helped Uruguay claim 4th at the 2010 World Cup. (He later said of the goalmouth handball, “I made the save of the tournament.”) After steering Uruguay to its 15th Copa América in 2011, he won player of the tournament. He’s Uruguay’s all time highest scorer and leads the Barclay’s/English Premier League in goals with 13, despite having missed the opening 6 matches thanks to his summer-spanning biting ban. Uruguay go the the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on his shoulders, and Liverpool’s top-four ambitions rely on him just as pivotally.

As a serial disciplinary case and goal muncher, however, he has no compare. But unlike John Terry, he’s not sleeping with wives and girlfriends of best friends/teammates. So, there’s always that. And he scores more goals, slips less hilariously, has a better pistolero goal celebration.

He’s a great player who acts periodically violent/dirty towards opposition players and has an on-again, off-again relationship with his club. He will almost undoubtedly turn on Liverpool again at some point. If and when that happens, we’ll see how everyone feels about the man who currently divides so much opinion. Liverpool fans may then remember a couple things that bugged them at the time, something naggingly disloyal, perhaps, which at present they can’t quite put their fingers on.

CommentaryEnglandPreviewtransfers

A CultFootball Roundtable: Demba Ba, Agents, Money Business–How Loyalty May Miss the Point

January 5, 2013 — by Rob Kirby

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Some CultFootball roundtable reactions to a Telegraph piece on Ba leaving Newcastle for the money (and why shouldn’t he?):

Tyler:

Roman and Demba, cut from similar cloth?

The Cunning Linguist:

No way!

That article reeks of the old love of the game mentality and “where are English players in the EPL” rant. Ba went to a club that may play Champs League and will get paid more money while slotting into the lone striker role in a 4-2-3-1 set up as opposed to the 4-3-3 of Newcastle.

Football’s a business, a money business. 7.5mm quid for a 13 goal scorer is good business. That said, I’d have preferred to see a recall for Lukaku as I think he can spell a clearly tired and out of confidence Torres.

Lally (aka Political Footballs):

Also, Newcastle put the release clause in the contract whilst not guaranteeing him money if he didn’t play because of his suspect knees. He didn’t engineer the move, merely agreed terms when Chelsea matched the price Newcastle had set for him.

Suman:

I agree with Cunning Linguist that football is a money business, up to a point. If we can get all Clintonian up in here, it depends on what your definition of “is” is. (This also recalls, I think, a class THC & I took together at UofC in analytic philosophy…remember that Tyler? More on that topic to come soon.)

I’d agree if you say professional club football at this moment in time (what some people call “modern football”?) is a money business. but certainly we can agree (can we?) that it’s not been true of club football at all times, and certainly not of our Saturday morning “Mario’s Incredible Liga Fabulosa” matches.

So actually I suppose it depends on what you mean by “football.”

Tyler:

Of sense and reference“,  Frege I believe. Can’t recall the course title.

No arguments against any of the above. Could have easily replaced “Roman” with Walcott/RVP/Nasri. Ba seems risky to me but I think that’s due to his poor form second half of last season. It’s certainly not a bad deal given the relatively low price for him (depending on one’s definition of “low”).

The link was in an Arsenal blog about transfers and I had only skimmed before posting it. After reading further, there seems to be a decent amount of conjecture about team dynamics at Newcastle. Not mentioned in the piece, unfortunately, was that Ba reportedly has 5 agents that will benefit from the deal, which I think was the “what the fuck” moment that made me want to send the link to begin with.

Cunning Linguist:

That’s actually a pretty fair point. The side “business” of holding shares in an individual and multiple business consortiums engineering moves to churn fees is pretty disgusting. Remember the Mascherano and Tevez deals that were churned through West Ham by Kia Joorabchian? Wasn’t Pardew boss at WH back then, or am I misremembering? That agent shit is outta control. Didn’t Big Sam’s son have some involvement with agent fees or some shit?

Tyler:

Arseblog has mentioned repeatedly that Theo is being led astray by his agent. He’s getting everything he wants, he’s been the striker and scored or assisted in each of the last four games, he’s the team’s leading scorer, and he’s paid pretty well. But still no new contract. No legit title contender (Manchesters) will sign him, he probably wouldn’t start for Chelsea, and Liverpool will barely miss out on the top four this season. So it’s not about trophies, it’s about money. He’s a decent and honest guy it seems, but he’s young and marketable, so the money-grubbing agent influence is believable.

Digress… I like the Lukaku idea, and I will be paying attention to Ba’s integration into his new team. After all, isn’t Chelsea the soccer world’s favorite science experiment?

Gu, I think the course was actually called, “Introduction to analytical philosophy”. Is the morning star the same as Venus, unicorns do and don’t exist, etc.

Rob:

The deal with the agents is that there’s not much incentive in them telling the player “you’re happy here, there’s no reason to move and generate a fee from which I’ll take a nice 10% cut.” They can’t do it so often that they run afoul of the player through particularly bad advice, but the move argument is certainly good for a couple paydays.

Then with Ba and others where there may be more than one agent (he’s the only one I’ve heard of, but I imagine there are others), one is a family member, one is the guy they brought in because what real experience does the family member have except for the ear of the player, and so on–I can see where it gets really convoluted really quickly.

Then for Arsenal players, they bring on Darren Dein (of Henry, Cesc, RvP & Song departure fame, and son of someone or other), and it’s history.

Piggybacking on what Cunning Linguist said earlier about an old view of club loyalty vs. a modern view, when it comes down to it the globalization of the Premier League in terms of audience, but especially in terms of talent pool, it means that few of these guys are playing for their boyhood clubs. They won’t be retiring after many years of service and reentering the town community, running into fans at pubs for the rest of their lives–or running the pub–as once it may have been. Ba is from Senegal, he’s probably supporting/subsidizing a huge contingent of family, he grew up neither a West Ham nor a Newcastle fan, and if his knee had detonated on him, he would have been cut loose on the spot. I get wrapped up in my hopes for what certain players will do for Arsenal, but with Adebayor, for example, I now respect the fact that he refused to lower his wage demands or fall for any sympathy plays. I think he’s delusional on some levels, but on a money level, he’s right on. I didn’t like it when he did it to us, but I understood his position more when he messed with City (which, really, was just awesome to witness). He wasn’t going to make it easy for them, because he knew he didn’t have to. He has a couple years to make cash, his country is a mess, he knew his negotiating position. Even if he’s not a grade-A humanitarian, building hospitals around Togo (although I think he did fund one), he knows where his allegiances lie: to himself, his extended family, and then far later in the list people like Wenger, Mancini etc.

I used to really dislike Drogba until I learned more about his off-the-field persona. He’s actually an awesome dude. And then I could see how awesome he was on the pitch after shedding my dislike of his diving or continual single-handed reaming of the Arsenal defense year after year.

Anyway, this is a rare moment of perspective. I’ll be fuming about how disloyal some departing player is soon enough, I’m sure.

Suman:

One quick note–the bit about “few of these guys are playing for their boyhood clubs. They won’t be retiring after many years of service and reentering the community, running into fans at pubs for the rest of their lives, as once it may have been” echoed, ironically, Jonathan Wilson’s column about the Zenit fans’ open letter.

The opening paragraphs, in case you didn’t read it before:

Let’s imagine that fans of Sunderland (and I use the example purely because that is who I support), tiring of the constant churn of the transfer market, decide that enough is enough and they want their team to do things differently. They get together and hammer out a manifesto which they then post as an open letter to the club hierarchy. Among a number of points about the need for absolute commitment and an abhorrence of cheating, they suggest they would rather the club focused on local players.

How would the world regard that? Some might argue that is not the most efficient way to run a club in the modern game but most would surely accept that, if nothing else, a strong local identity can help foster a sense of common purpose. Athletic Bilbao select only Basque players while Barcelona are proud of their Catalan core; why shouldn’t Sunderland fans dream of a team built around half a dozen Wearsiders?

Larry:

I have just one question.  Without Ba’s presence already at Newcastle, does Cisse sign there?

Edhino:

Y’all can think wishfully all you want to, hark back to the good old days of club and community loyalty, but the political economy of modern football will ensure a tiered class system of wealthy clubs amassing known talents, mid-level clubs with canny ‘value’ hunting managers (like Wenger) punching above their weight, and the rest pitifully swearing to virtues of local talent as an excuse for their empty coffers. But rather than lamenting this unequal state of football affairs, I forfeit bourgeois sympathy for the underdeveloped clubs and embrace the opportunity for beautiful football that unfettered markets create in the elite level. Who cares about Leeds role in Yorkshire talent development – I wish a rich sheikh would buy it and fill it full of Drogbas and Messis so I can watch the best football that money can buy.

Cunning Linguist:

Preach!

Political Footballs:

You guys did that. It was called the 2000/2001 season. Fat Aussie wanker.

George:

But does a class system not truly offend us at some level?  Yes, sport is not intended to celebrate mediocrity. As much as the super rich clubs have injected quality into the game by assembling an  array of talent until then only imagined in school yards (or fantasy soccer leagues), the gulf between the haves and have nots is so large that it’s a fantasy to think someone other than the big 3 will win it.  “Hey, you never know”. That tagline sells a lot of tickets–and I guess the EPL hopes so too.

I don’t know what happened/went wrong with the likes of Preston North End and Huddersfield Town. Perhaps this current crop of champions will be a memory in years to come. I can only hope.

Tyler:

Without going back through each and every post, I don’t think there has been much yearning for the good ole days in our posts. Cunning Linguist and Rob have made valid points with regard to agents and self-preservation/securing one’s and one’s family’s future.

I too used to HATE Drogba the Gunner Killer, then read about what he’d done for his country, saw him mature on the field, watched him beat Munich, and now he’s a sporting hero of mine. The only problem I have with him moving to China is that now I can’t watch him. Maybe I’d be more upset if I supported Chelsea, but I doubt it. He left at his peak.

That says something about loyalty, I suppose. I shouldn’t like him, right? But at the end of the day sport is, among other things, entertainment and glory and he provided ample amounts of both.

What is loyalty? I chose Arsenal because I discovered FSC and the first thing I saw was Henry change direction and cause two defenders to lose their footing and fall. Then I saw that year’s squad was Invincible. I rooted for France and recorded every WC game of theirs because of Henry, I had recently been to France, I watched more Arsenal the next year and loved what I saw. I know nearly nothing about North London; the most time I’ve spent in England was sleeping on the floor of Gatwick airport, but that’s my team and it always will be.

(I’ll pause and wait for the scoffing to end.)

When some of us complain about player loyalty in this era, we might feel scorned because we expect that the player knows us like we know him. We forget he’s not our buddy, we spend money and set aside our time to watch him while he makes more and more money and has so much time to enjoy a rich and famous lifestyle while never knowing us. We think he should repay our loyalty but he has his own loyalties.

So I sent the Ba link with no comment save for a comparison between him and Abramovich. At least we know where they stand as individuals who want to be successful financially and competitively no matter who gets in their way. The issue we Gooners have with Nasri is that he used the team to get where he is then trashed the team and its fans. So he’s a disrespectful juvenile who we thought was our buddy but he wasn’t, and we moved on (but we love that he was ejected last game because we thought he was once our buddy). Our problem with Adebayor is similar; he has character and temperament flaws and he really provided a reality check for sure–oops, not our buddy! We moved past it and now he just seems sad.

RVP, Theo, Wenger, Arsenal as an organization, the problem we have with them is that they say one thing and do another, but they want us to stay their buddy. Or, they actually say nothing and let us guess, pretending to hope we are their buddy while secretly not caring? Yet they give us just enough to hold on to and because we want entertainment and glory we put up with it, rationalize it, and somehow love it no matter how dysfunctional it gets. We hope!

The reason we’ll never question Cesc or have a problem with him is that we knew where he stood. He proved his loyalty by chastising Spanish press for misquoting him against Arsenal. Henry won everything he could with Arsenal and left to win that one last trophy. We understood and he proved loyalty by returning. They gave us beginning and end and were a bit clearer about it than the others.

Years ago I decided, only half-jokingly, that for fairness and entertainment’s sake, the MLB and the Olympics should offer two separate competitions, one for the purists and one for the dopers. Entertainment and glory would abound, and we would know where they, and we, stand.

A “super fantastic Blatteristic Euro league” full of the big money teams? Why not? (Ahem, next roundtable topic?) Entertainment and glory for sure, talent and competition through the roof. Just don’t expect anyone you’re watching to be your buddy.

Loyalty… I once hated Peyton Manning simply because he was THAT good, a Broncos killer. (For the same reasons as Kobe to the Nuggets but not nearly as vile. Sports heroes are villains because they’re heroes to someone.) But now Peyton is totally my buddy! He’s curious about what I’m having for breakfast and I’m pretty sure we’re going to see “Les Mis” after the Super Bowl. I’m sure of it!

CommentaryEnglandtransfers

The End of the Arsenal Is Not At Hand

December 31, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

wengerjacket.jpg

Calendar finale 2012 miraculously witnessed Arsenal removing the pesky “handbrake” to which manager Arsène Wenger so often refers (why would any team so repeatedly employ such an antiquated and momentum-killing device?) and the team won four successive matches in December: the crisp 2-0 v. West Brom, followed by the toyingly awesome 5-2 v. Reading, the limp but who cares 1-0 v. Wigan, finally concluding with the scoreline-busting 7-3 v. Newcastle. Suffice it to say, two of the four failed to feature historic defensive displays from either side. But no gripes with goals. No, sir. Midfield marshal Santi Cazorla could have even pushed those scorelines higher if ballhog teammates reciprocated on occasion and passed to him on his own forward runs. Theo, to your direction this last statement looks.

After all the negative press bullshit, we marched into the Boxing Day match in fourth place. Fourth! Unexpected, perhaps undeserved, but definitely level with three other teams and above on goal difference. In times like these, one takes the good when it arrives, no questions asked, without a single horse chomper inspected. Then the London subway/tube strike saw the West Ham match postponed while everyone level on points with us won and left us three points behind. Rested, on the 29th, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud then went delightfully über-nuts on Newcastle in the end-of-year goalfest extravaganza, two of those tied-for-fourth fools lost, and we now sit fifth, with a chance to overtake/draw level with Tottenham if we do manage to win the postponed game against formerly resurgent West Ham. And thanks to two certain lopsided scorelines, we continue to pack a superior goal difference.

A bit of union-dispute luck arrived for old Arsenal on December 26, in that the tube strike gave the team a welcome breather. West Ham, though not currently as good as when the Hammers roared out of the gates and back into the Premier League early season, are still good, and the game would have made for three matches in 8 days. Same as everyone else, except then it wasn’t, which can’t but have helped in delivering fresher legs and fewer squad rotations to the second match, where we happened to especially turn it on in the second half against tired Newcastlian legs. Newcastle had just lost a hard-fought 7-goaler against Manchester United three days previous while the Gunners enjoyed their gift certificates for training ground spa days. A postponement in the middle of the Christmas fixture congestion suited us just fine. Perhaps we even engineered the tube strike, and if so, well played, Arsène. I think maybe I get the handbrake thing now.

As to any potential West Ham fear factor, we can get a result against them, almost definitely. Probably. However, there’s still that fundamental uncertainty, not to mention the more certain uncertainty had we faced them in their best run of form. They’ve been above us in the league table for most of the season. As fans, we enter the match with some trepidation. As red flags go, that flaps about as one that bespeaks/be-signals neither a title-contending nor a top-four state of mind. Until we make up the postponement, people will spout off about the “game in hand” as if it’s merely a formality, which just seems asking for a reality check. I, for one, will not do so. I don’t like reality checks in the form of boxed-ear reprisals, fiscal cliffs and least of all in the form of humiliating Arsenal losses.

Even before the Newcastle demolition, the season has revolved around the fates of three people: Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger. (Cazorla and Wilshere get the occasional shout-out.) One already departed, the other threatening and the third beset by villagers with pitchforks and short memories baying for the blood.

Gone are the days of the “Bould effect” and the initial wow factor of Cazorla (who quickly became my favorite player on the team, except maybe Wilshere, or Arteta, maybe Sagna, Szczesny for spirit, Frimpong for the thuggery). It’s all about recriminations of how we let RvP get away, the contract hell of Walcott and the scapegoat for both, the manager.

Fearing that this post would fail to eclipse my previous longest, I asked two friends to weigh in on their thoughts at year’s end. (Note: both sent words before the Newcastle match, which may have changed perspectives. A stomach flu has set me back to the proverbial eleventh hour of the year.)

Roland A. –  “I don’t really have any particularly deep thoughts about The Arse at the moment. Just that Wenger is probably near the end of his rope, he knows it, but the marriage/relationship he and the board seem to share make a divorce such a difficult, and still at this point, improbable proposition. I don’t know exactly what it is that he seemed he used to have—motivational nous?  Contagious belief? But it does appear to have deserted him, and the squad. Really just hoping at this point that 1) he signs 1 or 2 quality attacking options, and 2) he somehow manages to modify his seemingly rigid tactical beliefs to reflect what’s happening on the pitch. I realize that only the first has any decent chance at taking place.”

Sean F. – “Despite the recent results, we need to buy another striker, another defensive mid with some steel and keep Walcott. We are still in 4th place with all the dropped points and fan backlash (a whole another blog), so we just need a good run and some health fortune. Arsenal is so much better when we play with pace and directness. If you look at the tables, our defensive record is not that bad but the lack of scoring is why we end up in ties.”

Wenger, Walcott and the ever-present specter of the departed van Persie.

Let’s start with the second, taking at face value and a minimum of derisive snorts that Walcott’s stalled contract really is about him playing as central striker and not about him wanting something so grubby as the most money at the club.

Walcott is the king of consistency in patches, his words (well, not the “king of” part). Any club that gambles on him–including Arsenal–has to know this, unless he cocoons and caterpillar-transforms into something majestically different than the stop-start-backslide player of the past seven years, where he has reigned as the quintessential mindfuck for Arsenal supporters. He’s just as likely to score a back-to-back hat trick as he is to go the rest of the season scoreless. Especially as the contract situation rumbles. The inner pessimist says he’ll perform out of his skin until he signs a contract extension and no further (until the next contract extension talks begin). So, don’t extend, you say. But then you freeze up, knowing how amazingly he’ll perform elsewhere. But then you relax, remember who you’re dealing with, then tighten, relax, freak out, go full-jelly, then suffer a cardiac infarction. This isn’t a yogic stress relief exercise, it’s Arsenal fan hell.

And like Walcott in particular, Arsenal as a whole confounds and spellbinds because one never knows what team will show up and what fans will get on any given matchday. (There’s anxiety medicine out there for this condition, and yes, every Arsenal supporter should take it.) This is where the narrative comes to Arsène Wenger. (As always, there is no need to actually address van Persie directly. He is like the Ghost of Exceptional Single Season Past that shall forever haunt the present and future.)

Suman, site co-founder with Sean (different than the aforequoted Sean), suggested charting the ups and downs over the course of the year, starting with the best striker in the land Robin van Persie, then the backlash against Wenger, the backlash against the backlash, the backlash against the backlash against the backlash, etc., ad infinitum. Arsène got whiplashed something evil with backlashes all year, with the occasional reprieve in light of a mirage Bould effect or super-signing like Cazorla. Short text version: any such chart, even with all the sharp peaks and nadir valleys, goes steadily down over time like the worst stock pick ever. And then buoys back up every so often just to mess with your head and set you up with a Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich who will totally murder you.

Anyhow, Wenger and the ups and downs. To sit fifth at year’s end, after the all the “Arsène OUT!!!” signs, the post-Bould-effect meltdown and the overall freakouts in general lands somewhere between miracle and justice. As an outsider American who (rabidly) digs the team, I’m always astounded by how maliciously gleefully fans, journalists and haters alike pile on the criticism after any poor showing, regardless of their own particular allegiance. And though I generally publish posts when Arsenal’s doing poorly, as there’s usually more to talk about re: team improvement, the manager and the team deserve props right now, even as a “club in crisis.” They’re grinding out the exact species of results detractors declared impossible, as Wenger had so fully lost the plot.

That said, the argument can still be made that the team is not entirely sitting pretty. Be that as it may, better a fifth place crisis (“don’t forget the game in hand…”—shut it) than one perched further down the table.

For months the makers of facile critiques have taken easy jabs at Arsène, just like every other season since the last trophy (the FA Cup in 2005, in case it hasn’t been seared into the neural hide of your mind from the millions of times it gets incandescently referenced). After seven trophyless seasons, more than a few have taken a swipe at Arsène and his failed youth project—the one that developed Cesc Fàbregas, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, and no-talent ass clowns like that. The same constituents have had their easy snarky goes at Arsène’s idiocy at keeping “perma-crocks” like Robin van Persie who’d never stay fit for an entire calendar year and/or season and become the highest scorer in the league, most likely for two seasons running.

Before the youth project, he fished the seas of France and French-speaking Africa, as if there were any use in that. Nobodies from Africa like Lauren, Song, Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure came and went. From France, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Petit plied their trade, but since they’re essentially nobodies they hardly  merit mention.

Also, if some of those ersatz diamonds in the rough seem distant memories, it’s because they are, although you can still visit a few in Barcelona or Manchester if the mood arises and they haven’t yet been sold off like some sub-par Hleb, Flamini or François the Used Car Salesman (if you haven’t checked out the bizarre extramarital alterego of Kolo Toure, treat yourself now).

Many of those talents—young, Francophonic or both—left for other teams, which theoretically strengthens the argument for those who wish to grumble. Before Arsène, those ass clowns were unknown, but how dare he sell off such now-household names? Whether ironically ungrateful or not, people switched the criticism from “What does Arsène see in these losers?” to “Why does Arsène so idiotically fail to tie these world-class players to lucrative long-term deals?”

A critic’s mantra: Move the goalposts and you’ve always got a job.

Fair enough. While Arsène might be the perfect early career manager for many players, it’s clear that the team has failed to keep many of those same players because they want titles and Arsenal hasn’t exactly been flush with them of late. (They could have stayed and actually helped deliver those titles, but we can all agree that at this point, it’s a moot point.) Maybe it was a board issue, maybe an egomaniacal manager pathologically opposed to spending money, but no matter the case, these players left, and in latter years the players left without titles in the cabinet.

Wenger has made some mistakes and some gambles have blown up in his face like they were Acme Goods and he, Wyle E. Coyote. Fifth place (like third last year) owes largely to a couple players majorly saving us at crucial moments. Cazorla has proven one of the best signings of the trophyless years–a recent one at that, and none too soon. Carl Jenkinson and Per Mertesacker drew heavy criticism until a season later when they emerged as integral players during a difficult spell, namely the departure of our one-man offense. Third-choice goalkeeper Vito Mannone saved the collective bacon when he manned the sticks during Szczesny’s longer-than-expected absence. The emergence of quality from unexpected places has helped compensate for the elephant-sized void where Robin van Persie pulled the whole team on his back last year (himself emerging from the void resulting from Cesc’s departure, Cesc the previous player who pulled the team seemingly single-handedly after Henry, and so on).

I just wish the commentary so often leveled at the team and its manager not be made in such snap-tackle fashion. When you consistently reach the top four with an “abysmal” squad, perhaps it’s not just dumb luck. Arsène has been a great steward for the club. Not to say we didn’t get lucky at times or that we’ll finish in the Champions League spots this year, but the league table generally tells it as it is, especially with regard to year on year. If Arsenal must always feel the brunt of fans pointing to a non-ideal standing in the table, those same fans should likewise give the team credit when they claw their way back up. However, criticism is obviously easier.

Ridiculed for losing to Norwich, the team has now seen many go down to the very same, including Manchester United. We lost to Swansea. Again, they just held off the champions to possibly be.

But though the team situation looks better now than a month ago, or during the summer when van Persie declared he was off, or last year during the fullbackless slide in January/February or the cataclysmic August after the departure of Fàbregas and Nasri, the manager and the club look more than ever like they will part ways. In many ways, this year’s Swansea and last year’s Newcastle demonstrate both the problems at the club and the changed idea of the manager who changed English football. Fortunately, the team we just faced was this year’s Newcastle, not last year’s.

Managers across the league now monitor diet, fitness and spreadsheets the way Wenger once did alone among the crowd. If Wenger arrived in England the only economist versed in Moneyball (or Soccernomics) analysis, most likely have the tomes on their bookshelves now. Wenger’s schtick was once plucking rough chunks of stone from faraway shores and transforming them into gems (Henry, Vieira, Anelka, Fàbregas, Adebayor, Nasri, Song, van Persie), but now that list reads like a who’s who of who left the club for better money or better title contenders. Arsenal scouts that once unearthed the finest Francophones in Africa seem to have been bested by Alan Pardew. Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheikh Tiote and Yohan Cabaye seemed tailor-made for Arsenal but rocketed Newcastle (near) the top instead last season. Instead of them, nowadays we get Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho.

With Swansea, the Welsh underdogs have perpetrated another episode of Wenger identity theft. Overlapping fullbacks bomb forward, names emerge from obscurity, and Laudrup (using Rodgers’ leftovers) produces soccer that’s both easy on the eyes and the managerial checkbook. Michu is the Wenger signing that wasn’t, and not because a bigger wallet came in and snatched the player away before we had a chance. As someone who can’t help but read up about any player linked to us in a transfer window, I never heard the faintest whiff of a link to Michu, who racked up an impressive 15 goals in La Liga last season and looks exactly the sort of buy Wenger once would have made—in for cheap and then a sensation in the league. Cazorla shows Wenger still hasn’t entirely lost that side of his repertoire, but their price tags stand miles apart. Arsenal still got a fantastic deal, but £2 million and £15 million don’t represent parity. More egregiously, though, Swansea passed the ball with attacking fluidity, out-Arsenaling Arsenal at Arsenal’s home ground.

Fans used to the success and genius that Wenger brought to the Premier League increasingly call for the manager to go. I didn’t see it happening, even last year. But now, more than at any other time, I see Wenger fulfilling his contract and moving on. The differences are not irreconcilable from Wenger’s perspective, but the fans make the relationship increasingly untenable whenever the team goes through a bad patch. Frankly, we no longer deserve Wenger and his loyalty. Arsenal fans are looking more and more like a pack of ingrates. Realistically, who would replace him. What top manager will swoop in and do everything right that Wenger does so horribly wrong? There are many top managers, but something tells me Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, et al, would prefer Manchester United over Arsenal.

Before I forget, getting back to Sean F.’s comment, yes, we need a defensive midfielder. We also need another striker. The specter of Robin van Persie is more than just the goal colossus himself–his absence swells to the lack of all the others who left and were not adequately replaced. It’s the unreplaced Alex Song DM, the unreplaced Nasri, Adebayor, Gilberto and other key pieces left missing when so many top players departed. Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud strengthened the depleted squad hugely, but Cazorla is the only player to come close to providing the spark and precision that Cesc provided. And the exit list still includes: Clichy, Kolo, Gallas, even Flamini and Hleb. Vieira and Henry started it off, and it just kept on going.

Meanwhile, striker-in-training Walcott throws toys out of prams and threatens to go, theoretically to be lone striker at some other Champions League club. Arsène has deployed him in his “dream position” as lone striker the past few matches, which could be seen as a concession for contract talks or an admission that anyone’s better than Gervinho, given Giroud’s illness. Either way, it has worked (so far) and perhaps may induce Walcott to sign a contract extension. Except that’s never really been the issue and isn’t really what has prevented Walcott from signing. He wants more money and his patch of consistency is surely almost up. (Prepare yourself for a bit of a diatribe. Kind of like the last one.)

He’ll sign or he won’t, he’ll stay or he’ll go. If go he must, go he should. Chase the cash, Theo, by all means. However, if he expects to play as lone striker for a Champions League club in the UK or anywhere, really, he will soon find out how much of an idiot he is, something many came to the realization of long ago. His pace makes him good to great on the right flank, but only when the defense gives him space, something they’ve learned not to do, and something they’ll certainly stamp out if he’s in the lead role. He has Henry’s number, but he’s nowhere close to Henry. To be fair, few are.

So go, Theo, go. Arsenal confounds its fans, delights its detractors when the club does poorly. He’ll be making someone happy, at the very least. And if he stays, he should stay as a backup striker. As shown at the end of the Newcastle match when he shunted off to the flank to give Giroud centrality and then put in good crosses and finalized his own hat trick. he can make it happen from the flank. Funny that, as it’s his best, if not preferred, position.

Things may get worse before they get better. Fifth at the halfway point means nothing. Inconsistency has become the Arsenal status quo, just like our mascot Theodore. The day that a player like Theo truly holds the club’s fortunes at his feet has not yet arrived, however. Giroud, for all the negativity leveled at him (until recently), is a real center forward. May he get fully well from illness soon, and may he help the club get truly fit and solid, as well.

For midterm status reports, Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud all have delivered as players midway through their first Premier League season. (Giroud took the longest to contribute, but he did just score a brace against Newcastle, where Podolski and Cazorla had a hand in nearly all the positive proceedings.) Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker have held it down in their second seasons. As new returnee Jack Wilshere can attest, the team is all new, and it’s not all bad. With Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson having all just last week signed on the dotted line, the blueprint of the club’s future is there. Keep Cazorla and the other new boys and it’s still a team in contention. Whether for “trophy” fourth or an actual trophy, we’ll see. Perhaps it will have to wait another year. One way or the other, the season, for all its ups and downs, provides optimism for the future. If others feel different, fine.

Dismiss the Arsenal and, like a departure-scenario Theo, prepare to find out that it’s not always so simple. Arsenal may no longer be a glamor team, nor Wenger the revolutionarily gifted Professor. Arsène should not go. Theo can if he chooses, but best for all if he stays. Stay, Theo, stay. Or go. But know your strengths, know your place, or see you on the Liverpool bench. Or on the right flank. You can get the money you want, if that’s all you want.

Theo provides assists and can display some classy finishing, but anyone who has seen him week in, week out, knows he’s not a Berbatov fox in the box or the second coming of either Thierry Henry or Robin van Persie, the chocolate-legged inner-child-crying-for-United boy wonder.

Anyhow, Walcott’s probably off, most likely on a Bosman at the end of the summer, though January can’t be ruled out. Or he’ll sign the deal and either will or won’t start sucking again. Regardless, his stock has risen in the past few months from the hat trick at Reading in the Capital Cup, the past three matches away to Reading and Wigan and the year-end blowout at home against Newcastle, which must rank as the match of his life. Just before the transfer window opens…

Clubs want him. Champions League clubs want him. Just not for starting striker. He could have a career as an impact sub or the speed demon on the right flank, but he’s unlikely to replace Torres, van Persie, Tevez or Aguero. If Spurs end the season in the top four and clinch qualification for the Champions League, they’d gladly forgive his Arsenal past (especially as a fuck you to Arsenal, landing one of our top players and righting the Sol Campbell wrongs), but he wouldn’t replace Jermaine Defoe or whoever else does replace Defoe. Imagine the reception Adebayor and Walcott would get at the Emirates as the two strikers. It nearly makes you want it to happen. The scenario of them being booed in tandem may come to pass, just not as the “strike partnership” part, and by then Adebayor must certainly will have burned bridges at yet another club. Scoring one goal thus far this season is the first step. That and getting sent off, leaving the 10 remaining men to get hammered 5-2 by their fiercest rivals, namely us.

A lower level team would give Walcott a striker berth, but if he’s too big for 75,000, he’s too big for anything like that. He’ll stay in England and he’ll want a Champions League club.

Okay, enough Walcott speculation, except to say finally that I hope he excels for as long as he wears the Arsenal colors. After that, as long as he keeps his mouth shut about Arsenal, come what may.

Having Wilshere back in the team is huge. He missed far too much football, but he’s getting back into the groove again and the growing understanding between Arteta, Cazorla and the English bulldog can only continue to develop and grow. Podolski and Giroud look increasingly more comfortable in the team and in the league and all signs point to that going yet further in the right direction. The team sheet has utterly changed in the time period separating Wilshere’s injury at the meaningless Emirates Cup in August 2011 and his return this season and his recent return. Cesc, Song, Nasri, van Persie and Clichy out; Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, in. The captain of the South Korean national team even came and went during that period. Park Ju-Young, we hardly knew ye.

Having Cazorla in the team is huge. Podolski, Giroud, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, Jenkinson, Szczesny. I’m not intentionally trying to list the starting XI (obviously, since there are two right backs) but these are the ones that stick out in my mind.

Henry left. Then Cesc. Then Robin. Walcott may. But if Wenger goes–and the odds no longer look so different from that of Walcott–it will be something totally and utterly different. And awful.

But for the moment the Boss is still here. And kickoff kicks off against Southampton sharpish tomorrow, our first match of 2013. Hopefully there will be more rejoicing, fewer backlashes and a nice tidy 2013 line that charts steadily onward and upward.

Come On You Gunners!