ARSENAL TROPHY QUEST: MIRAGE OR REALITY? (PART 3)

 Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. (Albert Einstein)

A new English Premier League (EPL) football season kicked off on Saturday after almost three months of excruciating wait. The players and teams are well rested and am hoping this season promises to be as nail biting as the last. My weekends have been at best lackluster with nothing exciting to do or watch and now that the football season is back on, we return to the regular week- in -week- out action. The rush of blood will rise once more, fans will also begin to jeer, and punches will certainly be traded as fans exchange bragging right over the other.  Another regular feature in football viewership in Nigeria is the change of footballer’s name. Christiano Ronaldo has been renamed Christi. Lionel Messi has also been christened Messiless Messi by some or God have Messi by others. Theo Walcott is nicknamed Okada, Rio Ferdinand is rightly called IGBO and when Alexander Hleb was in form at Arsenal, the name Shakira was screamed aloud when he dazzled defenders with his quick feet. The football culture in Nigeria is simply extraordinary. Love and affection is shown by fans to players considered “theirs” and hate to the others of the opposing team. You feel bitter when your team loses but ecstatic when they win, and we love every bit of EPL-the tension, the hype, the commentary, everything!

Football viewing centers’ will once again make tons of money. The rates per head in some centers have gone up from fifty naira to a hundred naira in many places. The EPL and football at large is big business in Nigeria. Whether the broadcast rights are purchased directly by corporate organizations like Multichoice and HITV or relayed by “SME” in Somolu or Bariga, it doesn’t matter. The vibe is felt by everyone and in every corner. If as little as 50 people watch just one match a week (that’s assuming none of the top four sides are playing against themselves), these viewing centers’ make at least 20,000 naira in a single weekend. And with HITV losing out to DSTV for broadcasting rights, our small entrepreneurs do not have to bother about two pay TV subscriptions. They also have nothing to fear again as DSTV would not bother bullying them into paying levies for showing matches like HITV tried to do.
HITV has nothing else to offer football lovers anymore save for the Carling Cup and I see no way out of this dark (very dark) tunnel for this pay TV Company. Nobody really cares about the Carling Cup until the quarter finals and that’s supposing a top premiership team is still in it. They focused their marketing and advertising on “disloyal” football fans (for good reason), but left out the more important “loyal” house wives, kids, and intelligentsia (who would rather watch a documentary on archeology than a Manchester United, Barcelona final any day).  So when Hurricane Sansui’s swept the banking industry, and the sugar daddy banks couldn’t provide more loans, HITV could not pay up anymore.  Football fans like me and most of you who HITV invested so much in simply went on to renew our DSTV (FULL) subscription. It’s a tough world you know…
Back to the EPL…

The season starts with Manchester United looking to make it 20, while the other title challengers like Chelsea and Manchester City chase closely behind. Liverpool on the other hand would set getting back into the elite four as a major objective. Kenny Dalglish’s sides have added the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Alex Doni to their January signings.  They also look well equipped to compete going into the new campaign considering how strongly they ended last season. The inclusion of Suarez and Carol gave the team the added pep going forward. Manchester City, the new big money spenders have brought in the likes of Sergio Aguero to add to the misery of defenders.  Chelsea FC signed on a new coach who is born in the image and likeness of the Special One. How this works out for them giving that they have basically the same players would be interesting to see.  The only top four team that looks least ready for this season is Arsenal. Arsenal, after Saturday’s game with Newcastle look to me like they have continued from where they stopped last season. There has been no credible activity in the transfer market as far as buying players is concerned.  Watching football now as an Arsenal fan  isn’t really as pleasurable as before. Those days, I relished when Arsenal began their build up on the left with an Ashley Cole pass to Robert Pires. Pires would make a 50 meter dash and find Fredrik Ljungberg or Patrick Viera somewhere in the middle. I could count on Viera to make those dashing runs into the midfield to lay a short pass to Dennis Bergkamp who would flick the ball stylishly to Thierry Henry. Igwe would move the ball to the left a bit and curl the ball with the inside of his right foot into the corner of the post far away from the reach of any goal keeper. And yes, his cocky celebration was always a delight to watch. It made opposing fans mad with disgust. That was pleasure. Oh, I forgot to mention that this counter attack was managed in just 7 seconds! Yes that was the Arsenal I loved to watch. The one where Arsenal meted out carnage to the team that scored us first. For every one goal we conceded, Arsenal scored you double. We didn’t crack up and cry like William Gallas. Viera stood up to Gary Neville and would throw a punch if it became necessary. That’s the stuff the Gunners were made up of back then. We didn’t just play sexy football; we owned that kind of play in Europe. Only Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona and the Del Bosque’s Galacticos could boast otherwise. The name Gunners meant something to everybody. How Arsenal got from where we were then to what we have become now is moot and can only be left for rocket scientist to figure out.

THE MAN WHO CAUSED IT

Arsѐnѐ Wenger, a man who joined Arsenal in 1996 is by far the most successful manager the club has ever had. But lately (I mean in the last five or six years), he seems to have taken deliberate steps to get us back to the boring-boring days. Last season in my opinion is one of the worst the club has ever had in its history. It was simply humiliating. Only true Arsenal fans can share the amount of pain they felt as we watched our team fall before Birmingham, Barca and Man U.  Arsenal had its eyes on four trophies and a most shameful draw at St James’ Park to Newcastle in the Premiership and a loss at Wembley to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final was enough to cripple the rest of the season. Simply pathetic.

With the way last season ended, it was obvious that we needed to do something defensively. Arsenal conceded more goals from set pieces than all Premiership teams combined. Silly defensive errors cost us games we could have easily won.  Andy Carroll’s goal at Emirate Stadium comes easily to mind. Home and away games to Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham are other examples of our lack of defensive capabilities and yet we are yet to see a defensive addition to the team in the beginning of a new campaign.
Up front if we had half a striker to support Robin van Persie, the gunners would have certainly won at least one trophy. Maroaune Chamakh has been quite disappointing and is simply unreliable.  And what does Arsene Wenger do to help; he buys three players whose average age is 17.  The lack of depth and experience is the crux of the Arsenal problem and so the logic behind Arsene’s decision to buy “kids” in addition to those in the crèche is unfathomable? He has sold virtually all the experienced players we have in exchange for these teenagers. What kind of impact do Oxlande Chamberlain and Ryo Miyachi hope to enact on this team? Who are these new players going to learn from? Is it Jack Wilshire or Walcott? How will the pair manage against aggressive players like Anderson and Nani in the midfield? Good players like to play alongside other good players. Which sensible established player would agree to sign for Arsenal with the current pack? Save for Fabregas (who is on his way out) and Robin van Persie, no other Arsenal player has a trophy to his name.
Wenger’s philosophy which made him buy unknown players and groom them till they become stars has failed. It worked with players like Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry but the truth is that football has changed and Wenger has refused to conform to the current realities of the sport leaving the club to suffer for it. In recent times, his budding stars have left the club prematurely causing a disruption in the team. We have had to start two separate team rebuilding processes because of unforeseen exits of key players.
Now at the start of a new campaign, the mass exodus of players is yet imminent. Even if I can justify the selling of Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera (who by the way are still playing competitive football), how does he defend the sale of Alexander Hleb, Flamini, Lassnna Diara, and to a lesser extent Emmanuel Adebayor. Countless times Sir Alex Ferguson has stood in the way of transfers away from Old Trafford because he always considered the club above the player. In Wenger’s world, when a player seeks a transfer it is handed to him because he doesn’t want an unhappy or “unsettled” player in his team.
If he knows it is impossible to keep the talents we bud, why doesn’t he guy established players. Players who would add some confidence and experience into the team. Yes, I agree that Fabregas has given his all to the club but selling the captain without any replacement will certainly be detrimental to the club. We will indeed be lucky if we finish in the top ten.  Right now as it stands, without Fabregas, Arsenal cannot create goal scoring chances. I watched the game against Newcastle and one of the pre season games and it is obvious that we cannot compete at the top level.  There was absolutely nothing close to the much needed creativity Cesc brings to the team. Girvinho might be a good player but he is certainly not a great player. He is not Arsenal quality and he certainly is not the kind of player that can replace Cesc or Nasri at the moment.
Fabregas’ loss would be damaging to Arsenal. He is arguably one of the most creative players in the world. Fabregas arrived England eight years ago known virtually by nobody outside Catalonia where he hails from. He is now one of the most celebrated players on the planet and a brain child of Wenger’s genius. He has scored 57 goals in 303 appearances for Arsenal with the 2005 FA Cup trophy has his only trophy for Arsenal. He created 72 chances from 1887minutes played in the 2010/2011 season. Fabregas has created more chances than any other player in Europe’s top five divisions (England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Seria A, France’s Ligue 1 and Germany’s Bundesliga) since 2006-07. He surpasses Barca’s Xavi, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Francesco Totti of Roma with a staggering 466 chances to his name. Cesc was injured for a good part of last season and yet only Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, Mesut Ozil of Real Madrid and Barca’s Lionel Messi provided more assist for league goals. Barca do not only want their boy back, they want their star back. They know what he will be worth to them and that says a lot about what we are about to lose. Fabregas is someone who would have gladly stayed longer in England had Wenger heeded advice to buy established players. Fabregas wants trophies and the present squad cannot deliver it. Belief and determination alone cannot do it but Wenger remained adamant. What is happening to the club now is his fault and he needs to know it. How he plans to remedy the situation is something only God can tell.
One nagging point I have still not gotten over is this: why did Arsene have to wait untill now before he realized we were in a crisis. As a manager, he has mismanaged the situation. The Cesc transfer rumors have been rife since the start of last season yet he carries a placid look on his face like he is surprised all this is happening to him.  We missed out on keeping players like Flamini and signing others because of needless discrepancies in pay. The way things are going, we are heading for another trophy less season. Top flight football isn’t even about just buying players. The players have to stay and play together to get used to themselves. If and when Fabregas goes, it would mean the team would have a new captain. It would also mean they would have to adapt to a new style of play because presently Arsenal play around Fabregas. Isn’t this the kind of stuff teams resolve before starting new campaigns. It took the Gunners one season to adjust to playing without Hleb and Flamini, now the whole circus is about to go on again.
THE NASRI DILEMA
The other key player poised to leave the club is Samir Nasri. He would join Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy if the transfer to Manchester City is completed. It looks sensible to sell Nasri now because he will go for free next season when his contract expires. He would fetch the club close to 20 to 25 million pounds if he leaves goes now.  But Nasri also knows he would be the biggest beneficiary of a Fabregas exit. He would be given a freer role to play and hence a chance to prove himself more.  If he leaves for City he would meet an overcrowded Man City midfield with the likes of Edin Dzeko, new signing, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez. Going to a club where he would have to fight for a shirt is not so wise to me. My advice to Wenger is to keep Nasri so as to have a semblance of continuity in the team. If anything comes out of the campaign, he may eventually sign for us but if he doesn’t what is 30 mil pounds compared with not seeing Champions league football next season.
CONCLUSION
I do not know how the season will end but I do know one thing: if we continue this campaign without Fabregas and Nasri, our trophy quest will certainly be a mirage.
©2011 Ewoigbokhan Otaigbe Itua
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