Sport

Arsène Wenger – clearly the worst football manager ever

For my sins I’m a bit of an Arsenal fan. Like the glutton for punishment I am, I also happen to be a Guardian reader (probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my increasingly infrequent pinko leftie-liberal ranting on these very pages). These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to happily combine the two.

I don’t care what any fusty old git says about the Telegraph having the best sports coverage, to my mind the dear old ‘Graun’ wins it by a country mile. Football writers like David Lacey & Kevin McCarra, alongside broader sportswriters like Paul Hayward and Richard Williams, are – if you’ll pardon the rather awkward pun – leagues ahead of the competition in terms of quality, if not readership.

Nevertheless, the (admittedly Manchester-leaning) Guardian seem to have developed an unhealthy obsession with the fortunes of Arsenal Football Club. In fact, scanning the rest of the media, the annual end-of-season implosion of North London’s finest seems to be something of a cause célèbre for everyone else too. Arsène Wenger is variously derided as stubborn, deluded, myopic, deranged, overly prone to whingeing, not to mention tactically inept and – let’s not forget – just bloody well foreign.

An undue amount of attention seems to be given to Arsenal’s sixth season without silverware (although there never seems to be any mention of Liverpool’s trophy cabinet gathering dust for the same period) without anyone pausing to consider perhaps what a fantastic job Wenger has been doing these last few financially-constrained seasons.

During a brief chink of light during an otherwise unrelenting hatchet job on the Arsenal manager, The Independent’s Mark Fleming points out that:

Since The Invincibles season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrei Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m), Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m). Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals – Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.

Wenger’s shrewd management of Arsenal has seen the club finish in the top four of the Premier League for every one of his fourteen seasons in charge while becoming by far the most financially stable club of those that regularly contest the honours. This has been achieved without the backing of rich benefactors, or indeed (as in the case of Manchester United) the scandalous laying of debt onto the future of the club. Oh, and Arsenal still manage to play by far the most entertaining (if frequently infuriating) brand of football in the English League.

Yes, they were found wanting in the closing stages of the season and yes, almost any Arsenal fan would be able to point to areas of the team which could do with strengthening, but it really is time that someone recognised the quite remarkable job Arsène Wenger has done with such limited means. Instead it seems that otherwise respectable organs like The Guardian draw lots among their sports writers to find out who gets the privilege of putting together the daily character assassination of the Arsenal manager (witness these eight pieces in the last week alone). Meanwhile the free-spending scattergun-in-the-transfer-market Harry Redknapp (one FA Cup win in his managerial career) is portrayed as some cheery national treasure, poised to lead the limited players of the England national squad out of the wilderness the moment his country comes calling.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps Arsène Wenger really is the worst football manager ever. Even so, Arsenal would be mad to swap him for anyone else.

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Wayne Rooney – someone have a word…

To the great surprise of just about no one, the FA and referee Mark Clattenberg have ducked out of making Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney face charges for his blatant elbowing of Wigan’s James McCarthy at the weekend. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the FA’s somewhat strange procedure in cases such as these, it does seem rather odd that such a clearly obvious attempt at assault is able to go unpunished.

It’s probably fair to say that I’m not Rooney’s greatest fan. Talented though he is, you’d have to go a long way to find a more over-hyped player in the already never-knowingly-undersold English Premier League. Witness, for example, the wall-to-wall coverage of his overhead kick in the Manchester derby recently – undeniably a great goal, but overseas players frequently produce such feats with only a fraction of the fanfare – or the continuing media obsession with a colourful private life which is, nevertheless, private (or at least, should be).

Of course, it can easily be said that these factors are outside Rooney’s control. He doesn’t choose the headline writers’ puns, either front page or back. What is his responsibility, however, is his behaviour on the football pitch.

Rooney continually cuts a tormented figure, as if his entire life story is one of endless persecution by ‘The Man’. Every decision by a referee is met with a volley of Anglo-Saxon, a scowl or a plain, unadulterated tantrum. He chips away at opponents, bellows at linesmen, lashes out at corner flags and has now managed to add common assault to his less than glorious repertoire.

The argument often given in defence of his antics, not least by his supremely over-indulgent manager or the likes of previously sane journos like Paul Wilson, is that if you take away Rooney’s dark side you lose the part of his game that makes him ‘special’. What complete neanderthal rubbish. Why should we expect talented footballers to automatically behave like petty thugs or indeed excuse the few that do? It was never the case with Thierry Henry, Kenny Dalglish, Trevor Brooking or countless others. Lionel Messi doesn’t rely on assaults to the head to keep his genius ticking over. Yet we’re constantly told that Rooney’s precious talent makes him a special case.

Without necessarily going down the route of conspiracy theory to explain why Manchester United often seem to receive different treatment from the authorities, I do sometimes despair that anyone will ever summon the courage to tell Rooney to pipe down. Referees, managers, sports writers – all seem to develop a blind spot when it comes to the behaviour of England’s ‘Great Hope’, but seriously people, can someone have a word?

The madness of ‘Deadline Day’

Mercifully, this was my first ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ for some years which remained untouched by the hype and breathless speculation of Sky Sports News (I cancelled my subscription some months ago). As it turned out there was probably no need for that particular network’s passion for sensationalism, as another day of extraordinary gambling in the transfer market unfolded with Fernando Torres heading for Chelsea for £50m and – in perhaps the most eyebrow-raising move of recent years – an apparently reluctant Andy Carroll making the switch to Liverpool from Newcastle for £35m.

Every year one of the over-monied English Premier League clubs takes an extraordinary leap for a seemingly ordinary player, and every year there is the inevitable chorus of “this can’t go on”. Yet we know there will be more of the same in the summer and another rash of panic-buying a year from now. There seems no end in sight for a level of spending we all routinely refer to as unsustainable.

I’m no enthusiast for Tottenham Hotspur but – even for a club managed by Harry Redknapp – they too had a remarkable Deadline Day. Bids for Carroll, Blackpool’s Charlie Adams and a seemingly endless pool of £38.5m-rated Spanish centre-forwards were capped by a £500,000 approach for Everton’s Phil Neville, a move their manager David Moyes described as ‘insulting’.

Redknapp, of course, is great copy for the sports journalists during the transfer window. Not for him the quiet reticence of only speaking when you actually have something to say – Harry loves nothing better than discussing other clubs’ players, giving the nod to the journos about the ‘deals’ he’s working on. Some regard him as something of a national treasure, the coming saviour of the English national team. Others see him as a throwback to another era, when players moved on a nod and a wink and everyone in the game ‘looked after each other’ as it were.

Personally I see him simply as an irritant, someone who should learn the concept of good manners and not ‘tapping a player up’. I’d quite like him to take the England job, sooner rather than later preferably, because I’m fed up of Spurs looking like they might be successful. It’s hard to imagine him as a national coach, however. No transfer market and therefore no opportunity to make public overtures towards Spanish forwards who might be able to “come in and do a job for us”. It would be destined to end in tears, but would no doubt be hugely entertaining along the way.

I never quite understood the rationale behind the transfer window. It always seems to be unfairly restrictive on the clubs with the smallest squads and the tightest resources. Newcastle, for example, now find themselves a key striker down with no chance to bring in a replacement until the summer. The ‘big’ clubs, by contrast, can afford to splash out heavily with a few hours of the window remaining, thereby reinforcing their dominance on a league already controlled by sugar daddy owners with deep pockets (or, in the case of the Glazers at Manchester United, large overdraft facilities). Perhaps the worried cries of unsustainability over the years have been wide of the mark, but Deadline Day does rather preserve the status quo – the one reason above all others that nothing’s likely to change soon.

It’s hard not to gloat about The Ashes

I began fiddling around with this post before play had even started on the final day of the Fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, and that is probably another indication of how annoying fans of English cricket will become to Australians over the coming days, weeks and months. Cockiness has seemingly become part and parcel of the England fans’ mindsets over the series so far, at least in the eyes of the Aussies, and the bad news is there’s almost certainly worse to come.

Last night Andrew Strauss’ team retained The Ashes by comfortably winning the Fourth Test, thereby assuring at least a draw in the five match series. The series isn’t won yet – a win or a draw for England in the final Test at Sydney would clinch that – but the gloating is well and truly underway.

The thing is that it’s particularly hard not to gloat about any sporting triumph against ‘The Old Enemy’. I don’t even like rugby, but I couldn’t resist reminding any Australian I encountered of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the 2003 World Cup Final for some months after the event. Similarly, the Ashes triumphs on home soil in 2005 and 2009 were brought up at any opportunity, even if the 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the Aussies in 2006-7 put everything briefly into perspective.

This one is special, however. Every English touring side over the last twenty-four years has had to endure the sneering and sledging of the home nation and acres of accompanying newsprint devoted to the topic of whether such uncompetitive opponents warranted a five match series. Suddenly such commentary has fallen silent while the previously packed venues have steadily emptied as the home side’s fortunes have disappeared down the pan.

The Australian media have been a joy to behold on this tour, one minute claiming their favourites were not fit to wear the famous Baggy Green, the next pointing sharply at perceived English hubris. Now they are left to face defeat, and in so doing have given us a reminder that perhaps the British media aren’t the only ones who enjoy nothing more than giving their own a brutal character assassination. (My favourite outlet of the series has been the Sydney Morning Herald and an example of their no-holds-barred criticism of a deflated Australian side can be seen here.)

So I for one will not be afraid to wallow in a healthy dose of gloating at the expense of the previously unassailable Australian cricket team. Yes, England can still lose the Fifth Test and yes, Australia will almost certainly rebuild and come back stronger, but it’s hard to put away the memories of a quarter of a century of relentless Aussie gloating. It may not be big, clever or even slightly magnanimous, but I can’t take my eyes off the current disaster of Australian cricket – and I’m loving every minute of it.

Jim Clark

While putting together yesterday’s post about Ferrari, I started trawling through some old clips of the great racers of the fifties and sixties. Such an exercise inevitably leads you to, in my opinion, the greatest driver of them all: Jim Clark. Had Clark been racing in the modern era there’s every chance he would have racked up a frightening selection of pole positions, fastest laps, race wins and Championships. Instead, in a time of almost non-existent safety precautions in motor racing, he was tragically killed at the old Hockenheim circuit in 1968.

Here is a clip of him in action in 1963. Note the open-faced helmet and the lack of safety barriers and run-off areas on the circuit. But most of all, note the gloriously smooth car control. I would have loved to have seen him in action.

Ferrari – Motor Sport’s most glorious marque?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” and there are few institutions where the shadow was cast longer than at Ferrari, undoubtedly the most famous name in motor sport. Its founder, Enzo Ferrari was the giant figure who created the marque after a modest driving career, and then presided over the growth of a name which became synonymous with the romance, passion and tragedy of motor racing. In so doing, he created a sporting organisation which regarded itself naturally more highly than any of its competitors, and one which has often given the impression that it feels itself to be above the rules which everyone else must adhere to.

Formula 1 is a different beast now from its 1960s heyday of glamour and danger (as memorably captured in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix) but one constant remains: Ferrari. Ferrari have seen the other great names come and go (Cooper, Vanwall, Brabham, Lotus*, Mercedes*, Tyrell) and survived to become the most successful team in Formula 1 history. But little else about the sport is recognisable from those days.

Whereas in the fifties and sixties Grand Prix racing was the preserve of wealthy enthusiasts, whose drivers regularly risked their lives for the thrill of racing, modern Formula 1 is a massive global industry in which very little is left to chance. The team budgets are huge (the larger outfits will spend in excess of $400m a year putting two cars on the circuit) and the ‘product’ is now carefully marketed on behalf of its sponsors for consumption by a global audience.

It has always been said that the presence and competitiveness of the Ferrari team are crucial to this success, and this has often led people to believe that the sporting integrity of motor racing had, at times, been compromised to ensure that F1’s biggest name always remained in contention. Over the years I’ve been watching the sport events on the track have often been accompanied by rumours of rule-bending, illegal traction control systems and blatant disregard for the sport’s regulations, and there has always been the perception that Ferrari have been afforded special treatment over the other teams.

Now Ferrari have once again found themselves in controversial territory after being referred to F1’s Motor Sport Council and fined a laughable $100,000 for the crude application of team orders in yesterday’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. As a result of Ferrari’s previous arrogance with staged finishes at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, team orders are against the current rules in F1, and the FIA’s response to yesterday’s events – presided over by Jean Todt, former Ferrari Team Principal – will be keenly awaited by observers.

Team orders are nothing new in Formula 1, of course. Many people forget that it is a team sport, often requiring drivers to ‘adjust their strategies’ to suit the team’s Championship aspirations, and this is perhaps understandable at the sharp end of a season. Yesterday was different because both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso are still technically in the title hunt with eight races to go. It should also be remembered that, as a result of the shenanigans in Austria in 2002, Rule 39.1 of the FIA’s code states: “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of team orders, Ferrari clearly, blatantly broke the rules yesterday and they must surely be properly held to account as a result. Enzo probably wouldn’t see it that way though.

(*Lotus and Mercedes both returned to F1 as manufacturers this year.)

World Cup 2010 – the post-tournament void beckons…

Well done Spain. In spite of my pre-tournament hopes for Holland, the better team won on the night, with Spain’s skillful passing game finally overcoming the more prosaic, combative Dutch style in the dying minutes of extra time.

I was disappointed for Holland, even though their first half exhibition of the more physical side of the game (ahem) was probably not to everyone’s liking. They made the most of what they had and, for me, helped make the Final a thoroughly absorbing game until John Heitinga was sent off ten minutes from the end. Although the Dutch can have few complaints about Howard Webb’s decision, I still feel a childlike wonder at how Heitinga can find himself sent off for a relatively minor offence when Mark van Bommel managed to stay on the pitch for the entire duration in spite of a selection of, at times, agricultural challenges on the Spanish players.

For a time it looked as though Spain would allow themselves to be rattled by van Bommel and the lucky-to-still-be-on-the-field Nigel de Jong, but their quality came through in the end with Iniesta’s well-worked late goal. They are worthy winners.

South Africa proved their condescending doubters wrong and organised a hitch-free tournament which gave those millions of us watching on television a sense of the country’s flavour and passion for the game of football. I even grew to love the all-conquering buzz of the vuvuzelas. If only some of the football could have lived up to the character and optimism of the tournament’s hosts.

So now it’s the post-World Cup void stretching out ahead. This is always the worst part of a World Cup year (even though South Africa 2010 was unexceptional at best, at least in terms of quality) as the standard, effort-free conversation-opener will no longer be available for use at the pub, chores can no longer be put off, and wife and family can no longer be ignored. Still, never mind – it’s an Ashes winter this year…