Football

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.

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.

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…

In praise of the Dutch

I love the Dutch (occasional flirtations with ultra-right-wing politicians aside). I’ve spent many happy times in the Netherlands over the years, enjoying their culture, their modern outlook on the world, their warm hospitality and the under-rated beauty of their countryside. And I’ve always been a big fan of their football team, so I’m delighted that they have quietly slipped under the World Cup radar to reach the semis.

The era of Rinus Michels, Johann Cruyff and ‘Total Football‘ was slightly before my time, but my earliest memory of the game is the 1978 World Cup Final between the hosts, Argentina, and Holland. I don’t remember a terrific amount about the match itself apart from my Dad telling me that I should be supporting the Dutch. Ever the loyal son (and, to be honest, quite taken with the orange shirts) I took the Old Man’s advice and I’ve had a soft spot for Holland ever since.

Over the years I’ve had that affection reinforced in a number of ways, not least by some of the great players who have performed in the famous ‘Oranje’ – Gullit, Van Basten, Bergkamp, to name just three. As I’ve said, I’m also a fan of the country itself – its quirkiness, its beauty, its open-mindedness – but most of all I absolutely adore the enthusiasm that the Dutch fans bring to a World Cup – from the madness of ‘Hup Holland Hup’ to the sheer drenching of tournament stadia in orange.

Not for the Dutch the England football fans affliction of grossly-inflated expectation. Holland have never won the World Cup, although many would contend they should have at least once, but they have at times set the competition alight with the astonishing flair of their football (see the grainy old clip below). The Dutch World Cup experience has tended to be one of promise defeated either by pragmatic opponents or personality clashes within the dressing room, and their fantastic, exuberant support seem to be able to live with that.

This time around things look a little different. The 2010 Dutch team seem more pragmatic and less flamboyant than their predecessors, but also less riven with in-fighting and more of a unit. There is little weight of expectation on this team, yet they are now unbeaten since 2008 and have a realistic chance of making the Final.

Standing in the way are arguably the tournament’s surprise package, Uruguay, before a potential meeting in the Final with either Spain (the modern answer to ‘Total Football’) or a stunning German team who have swatted England and Argentina aside in the knockout rounds.

The Dutch are nowhere near favourites to win this year’s World Cup, but no nation could bring more colour to the Final in Johannesburg than the Dutch. Hup Holland Hup!

Time for goal-line technology? No, not really

Prepare yourself for a round of deep scorn, flagellation and recrimination from the tabloids as the inquest into the England football team’s well-deserved World Cup humiliation at the hands of ‘The Old Enemy’, Germany, gets under way from tomorrow. The wise-after-the-event will be dusting off their professional outrage in the traditional quadrennial inquest into the failings of the national game. Part and parcel of that process will be an inevitable debate about goal-line technology following the incident where the match officials missed what would have been an equaliser for England.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt to analyse the woes of Fabio Capello’s team – others will be able to summon far greater hysteria for that purpose, and besides, (unlike its cricketing counterpart) I can’t work myself into a lather over the England football team at the best of times. But as someone who nevertheless loves the game, the sport’s attitude to technology is something that does interest me. Shouldn’t there be a fast and easy mechanism to inform the match officials that the ball has crossed the line?

The arguments in favour are clear and highly persuasive: it doesn’t hold the game up too much, the technology required is fairly simple, and it would have the (very hard to argue against) benefit of making sure teams like England wouldn’t be denied a perfectly legitimate goal (or that teams like West Germany weren’t penalised needlessly in World Cup Finals at Wembley, for that matter). But who said the debate over technology had to be a rational one?

Football is a game which raises the temperatures of those who follow it. Its disagreements and differences of interpretation are among the reasons people read the sports pages and talk about it in pubs and workplaces all over the world. For example, today’s other game (between Argentina and Mexico) saw a controversial opener by a player who was in an offside position when he scored. The goal shouldn’t have stood and all hell broke loose at half time between players, officials and coaching staff on the touchline – and it was great fun to watch.

Controversy is part of the appeal, and there will surely be more before the tournament is over. There are no end of people who will tell you that football has lost something since ‘the old days’ and perhaps they are right. Goal-line technology would take away something else – the talking point – and I think, however irrationally, that the game would be a poorer spectacle for it. It is, after all, meant to be entertainment, and what could be more entertaining than seeing, just to pick a random example, Spurs denied a certain winner at Old Trafford (below) purely because of the glorious incompetence of the match officials? Reason enough to leave things well alone.

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.