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Welcome to Arsene’s School of Poker

August 20, 2012 2 comments

Arsenal begin the 2012/13 season, on the back of having completed their very own 7-year itch and headed into the unwanted territory of a sequel. Having been unable to lift a major trophy since the 2005 FA Cup, Arsene Wenger spent the summer in full realization that time is running out for him to add a final chapter to his legacy as Arsenal’s greatest ever manager.

In retrospect, a shift in Wenger’s transfer policy had started during the summer window of the 2004/5 season when Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Nwankwo Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, all key members of the successful Arsenal side of recent years, were allowed to leave without being adequately replaced. However, the summer transfer window leading into the 2005/6 season then saw Wenger decide that club captain Patrick Vieira, having just turned 29 years old, had put his best days behind him, and sanctioned a move to Serie A, where the Frenchman would go on to lift 4 Serie A titles (a 5th was stripped due to the Calciopoli scandal that hit Juventus). He would later lift the FA Cup with Manchester City on his return to England. Robert Pires would also be released from the club, moving to Villareal in La Liga.

Wenger’s First Transfer Policy Shift

During the 2005/6 off-season, David Bentley, Jermaine Pennant and Stuart Taylor, all promising young English players joined Vieira and Pires out on the exit door. They raised circa £20m in transfer fees in that off-season. Until that point, Arsenal had been a net spender in all but one of Wenger’s seasons at the helm of the club. By the end of the season, Arsenal’s spending would have increased, having added big-money signings like Theo Walcott, Alex Hleb and Emanuel Adebayor among others. However, they had still raised more money from transfers out, if you were to take into account the sell-on percentages inserted into Bentley and Pennant’s contracts.

Wenger had clearly decided to build a team from scratch, one that would play a high-tempo fast-paced passing game and would be comprised of youth well ahead of experience. This would be the Frenchman’s “Third Project” to build and if successful his greatest achievement yet. No one questioned Wenger from the word go, despite the fact that Chelsea had broken the Manchester United and Arsenal duopoly in the Premier League. The belief that still existed around the club coupled with the backdrop of moving into a new stadium, the Emirates, meant that Wenger decided that spending “big” would no longer be a characteristic of Arsenal going into this project. This is not to suggest that Arsenal had been heavy net spenders under the Frenchman, as he had always been shrewd in the transfer market, in both bringing raw players in as well as selling them for a profit when they left, usually after they had accomplished their fair share of winnings at the club. It would be hard to recall the last player Wenger had signed but did not go on to make a profit on when the player was sold. Jose Antonio Reyes is one of the few players that fall into that category.

Two former club captains, Vieira and Henry, would leave the club in back-to-back seasons

During the following season, the 2006/7 one, club captain Thierry Henry would leave the club to join Barcelona. Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Lauren, all established members of the starting line-up, would also be sold or released. Denilson, Lukasz Fabianski, Alex Song, William Gallas and Eduardo would be the sort of names that would join the club. Other than Gallas, who was 29 at the time, the other signings were young, raw and largely unknown.

During the summer transfer window leading into the 2007/8 season, Wenger surprised many when he spent more than he raised in transfers, bringing in Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, Lassana Diarra and Bacary Sagna. None of the transfers could be considered as household names or “winners”, although all had undoubted potential. Once again, Wenger had banked on potential over ability, bringing in young and exciting prospects. However, having sold Jens Lehmann, Freddy Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, much needed experience had left the club once again, and they would end the season empty handed once more.

The trend continued into the next season when Gilberto Silva, Alex Hleb and Matthieu Flamini, who had finally been coming into his own, all left the club. Wenger signed Andrei Arshavin, then 27, and a veteran signing with respect to Arsenal’s transfer policy. The Russian would bring in a much-needed winners background, having experienced winning the UEFA Cup and Russian League titles in the past. However, the weight of expectations on his shoulders and lack of other alternatives to carry the weight would be telling. Whilst he may have brought in his best form at the club during his first season and a half, the same cannot be said of his team-mates who were probably too young to match the Russians talent at the time.

In the following season, the 2008/9 one, Emanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure were sold to an up and coming rival in Manchester City. This proved to be a psychological blow, one that signalled that Arsenal no longer “willingly” sold their players, but had, for the first time, been forced to sell some of their best players to their rivals in the Premier League. Thomas Vermaelen would be the only big-money signing to join the club. A player of huge potential, he was still young and relatively inexperienced despite having captain Ajax.

Kolo Toure and Emanuel Adebayor took the opportunity to run towards Manchester City’s newly found riches signalling a shift in Arsenal’s domestic transfer policy

During the next season, Wenger would again spend more than he would recoup, but the fees in question did not total to more than £14m in transfers in. Marouane Chamakh, Sebastian Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny joined the club. Whilst Squillaci was experienced, Koscielny was a raw player picked out from Ligue 1 on the back of 1 season in the top flight. He would need a full season before he began to show the quality that Wenger had been sure he could produce. Chamakh had never been a goal scoring forward but had just experienced his best return in Ligue 1 for Bordeaux. However, none of the three had boasted the sort of experienced pedigree required to nurture the club’s existing young talent.

During the 2011/12 season, Wenger would establish his biggest spending spree whilst at Arsenal with over £50m being sanctioned. However, when taken into the context that some of the signings were last-minute and rushed during the final hours of the summer transfer window and the fact that Arsenal had sold club captain Cesc Fabregas, Emanuel Eboue, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy among others for a combined total of over £70m, the picture becomes clearer. Whilst experienced players like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos all joined the club, none could boast the sort of winning mentality and background that would lift the Emirates Stadium towards past glories.

Arsene Wenger had to look within himself and re-assess the principles behind his “Third Project” during the 2011/12 season

Although Wenger had always sought out young and talented raw players and developed them to the point where they’d lead Arsenal to successes on the pitch, the fact that the project had been reset to start from Day Zero meant that the players signed in the period 2005-2012 would not be supplementing an established winning group such as those Wenger inherited when he took over at Highbury as well as those he had nurtured to winning the league title as the “Invincibles”. This was a significant factor that inhibited the new group’s development. If one adds the fact that the lack of success on the pitch had a knock-on effect where the said young players would not realize their peak potential at Arsenal, instead choosing to experience that in a new team, then the blow for Wenger would be doubly painful and would virtually deem his “Third Project” a failure, based upon those two inter-related factors. The 2011/12 season would be one of internal strife for Wenger and a sort of interim period between projects. Question marks were raised about his position for the first time but by the end of the season he had arguably silenced those critics to a point, at least temporarily.

Winning the Alternative Premier League

Whilst it may be of no consolation to Gunners supporters, had the Premier League table been re-calibrated to be based upon a points per pound spent analysis, then Arsenal would have been league champions during the 2007/8 and 2009/10 seasons. This analysis was done using the m£XIR Analysis undertaken by Transfer Price Index. It provides interesting further reading on the relative successes that Arsene Wenger’s side have had in every respect other than winning trophies during the “Third Project”.

Admitting Past Mistakes

Whilst Arsene Wenger has not publicly and unequivocally admitted that the attempt to build his “Third Project” was a failure, steps he has taken during the 2012/13 season suggest that he has done so, at least, privately. The reasons established above already highlighted how Wenger’s policy had been undermined both by himself, through distancing the gap from experience to youth too quickly, as well as through a by-product of failing to be successful on the pitch (probably more so than not being able to compete financially). Consequently, Wenger became unable to retain the same sort of players that he had been purchasing as youngsters during his tenure as Arsenal manager to the point of them realizing their potential whilst at the club, instead of at their next club. Almost every major player that has left Arsenal during the 2005-12 period has gone on to win trophies at their new clubs, many if not all, experiencing winning for the first time during their careers.

However, during the 2012/13 pre-season, Wenger’s policy shifted once again. Firstly, on the back of the shock of losing 3 key members of his starting line-up the previous summer and only reacting to replace them during the latter stages of the transfer window, Arsenal would, this time, makee their forays into the transfer window quite early. They brought in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Podolski is an experienced German international who is almost certain to become Germany’s record goal scorer if he stays free from injury. He has 2 third place finishes in the World Cup with Germany, along with a runners-up spot in the European Championship. He’s also lifted both the Bundesliga and German Cup during his stint at Bayern Munich. He has just finished his best goal scoring return in the same league where Papiss Cisse shone, before joining Newcastle United.

Giroud, other other hand, has just won Ligue 1 with Montpellier where he finished top scorer of the league as well as being called up for France’s Euro 2012 squad. Worryingly, he has only scored 1 goal in 10 internationals. Podolski, currently 26, and Giroud, who will be 26 next month, are at an age where they should experience their peaks at the club. Wenger’s biggest coup, though, was without doubt the signing of Malaga and Spain maestro Santi Cazorla. Equally adept on the wing or in an attacking midfield role, the Spaniard is a World and European champion, so the winning mentality is definitely written into his psyche. At 27, he, too, should be entering the prime of his career. His passing quality had seen him called out to be heir to Xavi in the Spanish national team. Furthermore, he is possibly the most established world class player Wenger has ever signed, and probably also the club have since Dennis Bergkamp, not overlooking the fact that most of Wenger’s signings joined raw and with unfulfilled potential including players like Fabregas, Nasri and Robin van Persie.

Ridding the Rotten Core of the Third Project

Another big shift in Wenger’s approach this summer has been the lack of “fight” he has put up in letting go some of his players. In the past, the Frenchman had been quite resistant to his star players wanting to leave. This summer he sanctioned the sale of club captain van Persie as well as Alex Song, to Manchester United, in a bitterly sour blow to supporters, as well as Barcelona, respectively. Once again, Wenger received excellent transfer fees for both, as he has always done when he’s sold his star players.

However, one might argue that having privately admitted defeat in his project, Wenger did not resist two of the ever-presents of that project leaving, especially considering the fact that they, like many Arsenal supporters, had lost faith in the project. Even though Wenger is seemingly turning the leaf over, it may have been too late to re-embed new found belief to convince van Persie that a trophy would be in the offing. In the case of Song, question marks over his motivation had been raised in recent times and getting a fee of circa £15 million for a player who not many, if any at all, would consider world class, is some achievement for Arsenal.

From that original core of players that were almost ever-presents in the 7 year dry spell that Arsenal experienced, Theo Walcott is one of the last remaining members. He’s been hesitant to sign a new contract too and with Wenger’s new found ruthlessness, do not be surprised if the inconsistent winger is sold before the end of the season. Walcott has been one of the players who has arguably received the most support from Wenger throughout his inconsistent career and probably owes him a certain degree of loyalty. However, even if he is sold, the question remains would Arsenal truly miss him?

Conclusions

Arsene Wenger’s “Third Project” clearly failed. Even the Frenchman reluctantly agreed to this principle, at least privately. Whilst Wenger has continued to expand the club’s coffers as well as make big profit on players he signs, develops and sells off, it has seen Arsenal fall further behind the leading clubs in Europe.

Wenger’s main falling grace has been the fact that, contrary to the past, he’s been unable to develop his signings in a winning environment, where winning breeds confidence as well as ability. His signings have grown frustrated at the lack of honors at a time when they would be approaching their peaks and lose faith in the club’s project just when they are approaching their peaks and probably rightfully so. It had created a never-ending vicious cycle. The Frenchman probably did not envisage the importance of the experienced core that he held at Arsenal during the creation of his first and second groups of champions, culminating in the Invincible side.

Three Arsenal signings from the 2012/13 off-season (Cazorla/Giroud/Podolski) (From the Official Arsenal Website)

However, this summer has seen a shift from Wenger. Even though, the club’s transfer activity continues to place them as net sellers, shrewd signings of 3 established players who have experienced winning at the highest level, bringing in a necessary mentality and leadership into a dressing room already disenchanted, will be uplifting. The next phase of this policy has been the sale of key ingredients from the failed project. Van Persie and Song have already left and so has Almunia. Nicklas Bendtner is on his way out and Theo Walcott may follow suit unless he commits to the manager’s new project. Arsenal arguably no longer have any more big “stars” from the previous project remaining. Vermaelen is the closest they have to one and he only joined during the latter end of that project. He has been made club captain and that does not bode well if history is a reflection.

Nevertheless, Wenger is still in the market for players and at the time of publishing this he was close to confirming the signing of Turkish international Nuri Şahin, a former Bundesliga winner with Dortmund during a season in which he was named the Player of the Year in Germany. His signature could be the missing piece to the puzzle which catapults Arsenal back into the mix of challenging for trophies in England.

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Watch The Throne: Barça’s New Guardi-an

May 3, 2012 1 comment

Disclaimer: I really don’t know what will happen next season. Tito Vilanova’s reign at Barcelona might end in utter disaster after a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season and Sandro Rosell’s supposed dream might come true and “Big Phil” Scolari will take over on an interim basis until Muricy Ramalho becomes Barça coach in 2013, bringing in Neymar and Paulo Ganso as key signings, as Big Phil moves upstairs as Sporting Director. It might also end at the other end of the spectrum and Tito may become even more successful than Pep Guardiola ever was, if “bettering” his era is even remotely possible. This article is not a prophecy or prediction, but will try to objectively analyze why Tito Vilanova was appointed over candidates such as Ernesto Valverde or André Villas-Boas in a decision that no one, other than Pep, Andoni Zubizaretta and Rosell, knew about. 

FC Barcelona took an extraordinary decision this week to replace their most successful coach in history with Tito Vilanova, someone who hasn’t coached a top division club anywhere ever. The decision is further surprising because it was stated, in the Spanish press, that one of the reasons pushing Guardiola to resign at the end of the season was Vilanova’s health. Tito had a tumor removed from his mouth and therefore his health was always a lingering issue over the season. As an example, he couldn’t join the team on their trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, looking towards the challenges ahead, which Barcelona face in replacing Pep Guardiola whilst maintaining their winning and convincing* form of the previous years, this decision makes more sense.

There are 3 pillars to Barcelona’s success over the short and long term future:

1) Make sure Lionel Messi stays happy

After the Champions League Final in 2011, Guardiola was asked about how Barcelona can continue their success and maintain Messi’s excellence. His answer was short and precise, “make sure he is happy”. Messi might be a genius, arguably the best player over the past 20 years, one of the all time greats and deserving of all the plaudits you read every week. However, Messi is also a “difficult” character. The difficulty comes from him being a very introverted person, who does not speak too much and his silence, not from his motivation for football or anything specific in particular. If Messi doesn’t feel well mentally, or he is not happy, or is frustrated as evident once in a while on the pitch, he won’t perform. There have been actions taken by the club in order to make Messi happy. Signing Javier Mascherano and the contract extension given to Gaby Milito are two clear examples, but the signings of his old friends Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas might have also been motivated by keeping Messi happy. Whoever was going to replace Guardiola would have needed to understand Messi and make sure he can get the maximum out of him. There might just be no one better to do this than the guy who knows him longest, the guy who coached him(as well as Cesc and Pique) when he was 14 years old and the person who was first to know about Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Maybe both Valverde and Villas-Boas would have been able to get along with Messi as well, but there’s almost a guarantee that Messi won’t have problems with Tito Vilanova.

Messi, Cesc and Pique, during their time under Tito Vilanova, as youngsters

2) Make sure success-ion and the La Masia philosophy continues

A lot of key players at Barça are coming into the twilight of their career, notably Puyol and Xavi. A couple of players are entering the best years of their career, Fabregas and Pique being the examples. There’s also a great generation of Masia “products” coming through the ranks or already there, notably Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. The idea of succession, bringing up players through the ranks, as well as the idea that the current playing philosophy the team upholds continue are key to the future success of the brand/sect/club called FC Barcelona. It’s arguable whether this is good or bad. Some might have the idea that football needs new influences and not altering your formula and relying too much on similar players is a mistake. However, this would ignore the fact that all of the players coming through from La Masia are different in one way or another. Sergi Roberto, for instance, is not the next Xavi or Fabregas, as he plays much more direct, is more a threat from the second line and prefers to move with the ball at his feet more than in any other way. If we take the recent examples of wingers coming through the ranks, Tello is not Cuenca and neither of them is Pedro, but they are all different players with different characteristics. The key to a successful La Masia policy is to know the players coming through, their characteristics as well as the needs of the first team squad in terms of which type of player should be integrated in order to add something new and different.

The La Masia policy wouldn’t work and make sense if Barcelona would allow players without the necessary quality to play just because they are from the youth ranks. It would put the whole policy in jeopardy. Instead, the key is to know which players have the necessary quality and which positions need to be filled from outside. That will only work with a coach who works for the long-term even, over the short-term period (as all coaching periods are these days), and who knows the youth teams well. While AVB seemed to know the Barcelona youth teams too, as his signing of Oriol Romeu suggests, he might have given up long-term interest over the short-term future of the club and went for the easy way, especially given the fact that he was burned once by following the alternative during his experience at Chelsea.

Young Tito and Young Pep in their early La Masia days

Finally, in Cesc and Pique, there are two players who are the natural successors of Puyol and Xavi both on and off the pitch, despite having different characteristics, again both on and off the field. With Cesc and Pique, the key will be to involve them more in the squad and simply load more responsibility onto them. Pique might be seen as some kind of rich celebrity party boy, but his passion for the club, his position as a team leader and his competitiveness are also beyond any doubt. Again, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the guy who knows La Masia and La Masia graduates best do the job.

3) Keep Guardiola at the club

How do you keep Pep at the club without him actually being at the club? You could replace him with his footballing twin brother. Guardiola and Vilanova share the same footballing ideas and philosophy, with the main difference being Vilanova seems more calm and relaxed. Guardiola is the Barcelona player who has been sent off more than any other other but not because of tackles but rather largely for arguing with referees and getting sent off for dissent. Vilanova, as his interviews, behavior and body language suggest, is much calmer than Pep, except maybe when he faces Jose Mourinho’s finger. This might have been a problem if Barcelona players needed motivation or a strong hand to accept the leadership of the coach, but remember that they have already been convinced and converted to the “Barcelona belief” by Pep. Tito doesn’t need to do anything in that respect, but what he needs to do is to guide the ship and keep the footballing ideas of Pep alive. In theory, he should have very little of the usual problems assistant managers have when they need to replace the first team coach with regards to respect and authority. So again, Vilanova, more than anyone else, makes sense in terms of an appointment. Furthermore, since he appears to be a much more calm and collected person, maybe that’s exactly the Guardiola version the team now needs. Maybe the players would do well with a manager who keeps the tactical and ideological approach but is a bit less tense, which Guardiola was, especially over the 2011/12 season.

Tito and Pep preside over their success in their treble-winning season (Picture by Miguel Ruiz for FCB)

With all that said, success for Vilanova is far from guaranteed, failure might lead to an implosion and Barcelona returning to their turn of the century self or even worse, to the eighties era. One should be aware that Barça is a snakes-pit with lots of vested interests by different groups and while battling a Madrid empire with all their media power is already difficult and tiresome, Barcelona has its fair share of internal strife and enemies through different political groups, such as Group Godo, a powerful media group in Catalonia, who have their own interests to follow and want their share of the power. Guardiola not only had to fight Madrid and the Madrid press, who he called “Central Lechera”, but he also had enough internal enemies in Catalonia, people who, during his time as a player, came up with rumors about his sexuality and ran stories about him being HIV positive. Tito Vilanova has a huge task coming up and it’s far from easy. However, he can be sure of the support of his Sporting Director and the whole squad. He is assured the moral support of Pep and he knows himself that he doesn’t have to change too much from the current squad and that no one expects radical changes as a tool to cement his own legacy, something Villas-Boas tried to do and failed at. After all, Tito is Pep’s twin brother and no one expects him to be anyone else.

*As they say in Spain, it’s not only about winning(vencer) but convincing(convencer) people of your superiority and style. For Barcelona, the second has always been as important as the first, as there is no winning without convincing. This might also have been the explanation as to why the Madrid press and Real Madrid are particularly hostile over recent years towards Barcelona and run ridiculous amounts of conspiracy theories.

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Further reading:

In general, Marti Perarnau is not only one of the best Spanish journalists, but also the best source anywhere with regards to information about Barcelona. His article on Cesc and why his signing was done can be found here(although only in Spanish). It’s highly recommended to visit his blog, also only in Spanish.

A good article by Simon Kuper on some tactical aspects of Barcelona

An old article by Pep Guardiola in El Pais from 2007 that was only about a cup game in a lousy season but that explains the importance of “feeling” and knowing the history and what to play for

Jonathan Wilson on why great teams come to an end for the Guardian