Arsenal

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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ITV Sport, lost goals and Clive Tyldesley

I don’t own an HD TV, and when ITV Sport pull another missing-a-goal-through-cramming-in-an-extra-advert masterpiece purely for the benefit of their High Definition viewers, I have little reason to muster any envy for those who do.

I can’t say I’m a fan of ITV Sport. They appear to have an unhappy knack of making any sporting event, no matter how prestigious, somehow seem cheap and just a little bit, well, crap really. And so it proved once again for the World Cup group match between England and the USA, with HD viewers missing Steven Gerrard’s early false dawn for England while ITV broadcast an advert instead.

No doubt it was an honest mistake, but it started me thinking that perhaps HD viewers were the lucky ones – they had an extra couple of minutes without that most grating of living room intrusions: the condescending, skull-drilling squeal of a commentary delivered by ITV’s rambling, hysterical super-irritant, Clive Tyldesley. Tyldesley just about sums up ITV Sport for me: overly portentous, lacking subtlety and obsessed with Manchester United. He tries too hard to make a name and carve a niche for himself, and instead he ends up as the amateurish embarrassment one has to accommodate in order to watch a football match.

And it’s not as if ITV have only recently become rubbish either. Everton fans will tell you that ITV Sport have previous when it comes to missing goals, but long before that we’ve cringed our way through Elton Welsby and The Big Match, (the at times truly bizarre) World Of Sport and – unforgettably – Saint chortling away at Greavsie’s latest ‘witty’ Italia ’90 t-shirts (example: “Gullit’s Bullets vs Voller’s Volleys – Rudi will rule Ruud”).

Even their F1 coverage, which was often recognised as being innovative and surprisingly in-depth, was in no way lamented when the broadcast rights transferred to the BBC in 2009. In fact, quite the reverse. The BBC kept the bits that ITV did well (Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz), lost all the stuff they did badly (commercial breaks during the crucial closing stages of races, being suckered into covering team sponsor’s promotional events as filler in the race build-up, Jim Rosenthal) and brought back Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ as the theme tune. There was only ever going to be one winner.

And so it will be with ITV’s World Cup coverage. They try to compete (periodically poaching BBC anchormen – think Lynam, Ryder and now Chiles) but most armchair fans will always prefer the BBC’s more unobtrusive approach to match coverage, as will be clearly demonstrated when both broadcasters go head-to-head on the Final. (The BBC tend to win these ratings battles by a margin of four to one.)

I must, of course, give ITV Sport credit for one thing at least – the late Brian Moore’s now legendary commentary of Arsenal’s last gasp title win at Anfield in 1989. Enjoy the 21 year old clip, and try not to think of the almost total absence of anything comparable from ITV Sport in the two decades since.

No surprises at the Bridge

I couldn’t honestly say that Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today came as a terrific surprise – it hasn’t been a good week or two for Arsene Wenger’s team.

What was billed as the defining period of the season (Premier League matches against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea, and a Fourth Round FA Cup tie at Stoke) has yielded one point and the end of Arsenal’s Wembley dream for another season. Anyone with a passing interest in today’s fixture could have predicted the Gunners might yet again suffer at the hands of Didier Drogba, and indeed the Ivorian managed to hit Arsenal where it hurts with two killer goals within the first half hour.

Funnily enough for most of the game Arsenal looked the better side at Stamford Bridge (in stark contrast to the desperate non-performance against Manchester United at the Emirates) but yet again there were those well-documented frailties where the team looked naive in defence, highly vulnerable to the counter-attack and seemed to be carrying a goalkeeper whose confidence looks to be completely shot. In spite of what the manager will say, Arsenal’s title challenge is certainly over now. Four games against the other title contenders, four defeats. Enough said.

But before we get into too much of an Arsenal downer it’s probably worth remembering what was predicted for the Gunners before the season started. If the media were to be believed the top three was going to consist of Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool (whatever happened to them?) and Arsenal were going to do well to roll in sixth behind Man City and Tottenham. While I don’t think third place should be the summit of Arsenal’s ambition, the club has definitely made progress since last year, but the question still has to be: how much longer can the team be an exciting project awaiting fruition?

We have, in Cesc Fabregas, unquestionably one of the finest midfielders in the world. His loyalty and commitment to Arsenal have been more than impressive and he never looks like he’s angling for a move to sunnier climes, but who could blame him if he succumbed to this summer’s inevitable advances from Barcelona? Arsenal haven’t won anything since the FA Cup in 2005 and players of his calibre can’t be expected to simply settle for Champions League qualification every year. The Gunners need to win something, and soon.

Don’t be in any doubt that Arsene Wenger has a rather better idea about what he’s doing than any of his critics, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone else in charge of the team, but the Champions League is now the last hope of silverware this season. If Arsenal are unable to surpass the top teams from Spain, Italy and the UK to lift this year’s trophy then the club will inevitably find itself at a crossroads in the summer. Will Fabregas stay? Will Wenger make a significant move in the transfer market? Will next season be more of the same?

Thierry Henry – Is It Because He Played For Arsenal?

OK, cards on the table time: I’m an Arsenal fan who doesn’t give a rat’s arse about international matches (particularly the meaningless ones in which pivotal Arsenal players always seem to pick up injuries). For that reason I haven’t really become overly excited about the Thierry Henry incident in the World Cup Qualifier between France and the Republic of Ireland this week.

Trouble is, I turned on the radio this morning to find ‘they’ are still going on about it, and I must confess that it unleashed all of my latent Arsenal media paranoia. Even as I type, Five Live’s resident Mr Angry (Alan Green) is banging on about Henry’s trashed reputation and, you’ve guessed it, making the inevitable comparison with the Eduardo incident against Celtic earlier in the season. (In case you’d forgotten, Eduardo was the very first player in the history of the game to take a dive in the box, earning a penalty against a team who were already on the way out and who hadn’t managed a shot on goal for the first hour of the Emirates leg of the tie.)

I don’t know whether it’s simply because we football fans are automatically more sensitive to criticism of our own clubs (and their alumni) or whether there is actually a media agenda against Arsenal, but the charge list tends to point to the latter. Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney have all been notorious for tumbling in the box but have any of them been buried under the level of ordure Eduardo was subjected to? You could make an argument that this is because they are all English and are therefore the beneficiaries of a one-eyed, nationalistic media. But what about David Ngog’s laughable dive in Liverpool’s recent 2-2 draw with Birmingham City? Sure there was a bit of fuss for the following 24 hours, but nothing like the level of high-camp outrage that followed Eduardo’s fall.

And now Henry, in my opinion the greatest Arsenal legend of them all, finds that it’s his turn to feel the heat. There is no doubt that his handling of the ball in Wednesday’s match was wrong and it contributed to Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, but can we seriously expect the reaction would have been the same had Robbie Keane pulled a similar trick at the other end? Or if Rooney had done the same for England in a similar set of circumstances? No, that would clearly have been the referee’s fault and we would have read acres of print about teams ‘playing to the whistle’.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the Ireland fans, particularly those who travelled to Paris and watched their team outplay the hosts for much of the game, and I whole-heartedly accept the caricature of Michel Platini’s UEFA as a shady, dithering bunch who were desperate to see France in South Africa next year at whatever cost. What offends me is the righteous indignation of the media (surprise surprise) over a player who will always be a legend to me, come what may, because of the many many great things he has done for the game over the length of his career.

And am I really bothered that the Spurs striker Robbie Keane won’t be going to the World Cup? I’ll let you make your own mind up about that one.