Sunday, February 7, 2010

Clearing the Arsenal bandwagon like it's the Titanic and various other ridiculous analogies...


After watching first Manchester United and then Chelsea once again come down on Arsenal like a ton of bricks, I think that I finally have to re-evaluate my view of Arsene Wenger’s side. Until now, I’ve been firmly entrenched in the minority of people who believed that Arsenal were, very quietly, the favorite for the Premier League title. I know it sounds crazy (and, in reality, it was) but looking up and down the Arsenal roster, the first and foremost characteristic is that they’re chalk full of world-class talent. Whether its Cesc Fabergas pulling the strings in the middle, Robin Van Persie as a multi-functioning striker or Thomas Vermaelan as the attacking libero, the Gunners certainly would dominate the league were it based on a skills competition. Everyone on their team seems capable of putting the ball on the ground and passing it around with precision.

On paper, this looks like a dream come true. In the current age of soccer where top notch, nutrition enhanced athleticism is matched with skill and creativity to form an ideal player, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger appears to have assembled the ideal organization for success. The Arsenal he has built (in his image I might add) during the past decade finds these players by scouring the globe. Literally; Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, North America. While much has already been said about their lack of Englishmen, not enough is made about the full and vast extent to which Wenger’s scouts have truly put together a world team.

With this in mind, I was eyeing Arsenal as a dark-horse this year. They’ve had a couple of years to mature as a unit and with Ronaldo’s exit from Manchester; I was looking at Wenger’s team as a potential filler-of-the-void in Premier League mastery. I didn’t (and still don’t) dismiss teams just because they’re young and ‘immature’. After growing up watching Alan Hansen eat his words about Becks, Paul Scholes and the rest of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ at United (when he famously declared them a failure: “you don’t win anything with kids!”) I dismissed the common theory that they’re ‘too young.’

Instead there’s something else. It’s a subtle, yet very self evident flaw in the Arsenal squad’s makeup. Once you do notice it, then you’ll know why I can’t stay on the Arsenal wagon.

The Whiz Kids

Arsene Wenger is one of the most forward thinking men in his business. He uses statistics, is renowned for watching film hour after hour and is never afraid to put his unorthodox methods into practice. Wenger has utilized this approach throughout his time with Arsenal and has amassed a well deserved reputation for buying low and selling high. He got Cesc Fabergas from the Barcelona youth academy for nothing and will probably sell him for millions. He scooped up Patrick Viera from Inter Milan for a base price and sold him back to the Italians for a small fortune. The list goes on (Ashley Cole, Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Nicholas Anelka etc). No one is better at finding the diamonds in the rough.

And yet, despite his prowess for finding good individuals, Wenger’s side seems to lack something. It reminds me, in a way, of another group of talented individuals who looked spectacular on paper. They, like the current Arsenal team, were youngsters, prodigies who had excelled at every level before coming together. With their past success catapulting them into the limelight, they ultimately failed in a way that still resonates nearly 50 years later.

The cabinet of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (the so called ‘Whiz Kids’) were known, like Wenger’s Arsenal, to be the unmatched in terms of pure talent. Nobody was more efficient than Robert MacNamara (Secretary of Defense). McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had been the youngest Dean in Harvard history. Kennedy himself, the youngest President in U.S. history, was the smartest and most capable of the bunch.

These were the men that came together, answering the call of what Kennedy called ‘the new generation.’ They were supposed to take our country forward. And, theoretically speaking, it was a perfect cabinet. Intelligence, efficiency, rationality all rolled into one. They set out to (and largely succeeded in) ‘trimming the fat’ of the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy. They were men of action, who did not hesitate in the never-ending business of solving the nation’s problems. In the end though, the Whiz Kids failed. But why? They had seemed so perfect?

“I'd feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff”

What author David Halberstam so famously described (the very same sort of thing that I’ve noticed with Arsenal) was that, for all their individual brilliance and collective talent, the Kennedy cabinet lacked an ability to view the big picture. They might be the most productive team ever at solving individual problems, but to what end? When they looked at Vietnam, the ‘can do’ attitude (as Halberstam called it) instinctively told them they could solve it. It sums up their one massive flaw: that with Vietnam and all the problems it entailed, they were so busy figuring out how they could do it (getting involved and going up the escalating chain), they never stopped to ask if they should.

Halberstam always said his favorite quote from the book he did about Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest) was by Senatorial powerhouse Sam Rayburn. A mentor of the newly elected Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Rayburn listened to the towering Texan rave about the very first Kennedy cabinet meeting:

"After attending his first cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them was that fellow with the Stacomb on his hair from the Ford Motor Company, McNamara. 'Well Lyndon,' Mister Sam answered, 'you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.'

It’s a fascinating and eerily accurate quote. Rayburn touched on the hidden flaw that would eventually ruin the Whiz Kids. They had intelligence, but for all they're 'abstract quickness and verbal faculty,' had they any wisdom?

The same philosophical problem plagues Arsenal. It’s not that they’re too young. It’s that they’re mentality is all wrong. There is a serious naivety about them. They think their skill and talent will always overwhelm the opponent. They have no understanding of reality. Just as Kennedy’s smartest men miscalculated on the intentions of the North Vietnamese, so too do Arsenal week after week in the Premier League with their opposition.

Look at their game plan during any League contest. There is never the flat decision to simply contract and play a little defense for a while. Wenger’s continuous commitment to attacking is something that fans certainly enjoy, but what fans truly enjoy (winning) is something Arsenal simply cannot consistently attain while they stick with the current strategy.

Wenger must accept the idea that many Premier League teams will continue to play a very physical game against them so long as they believe Arsenal have no answer. Teams like Aston Villa, Manchester United and Everton all discovered in the last month that they could either hold Arsenal goalless or force a fatal error by simply pressing them constantly as well as exploiting their lack of size. And since the Gunners insist on playing a precise short passing game all the time, they’re never capable of breaking the press.

The fatal egotism is certainly a parallel between Kennedy’s and Wenger’s Whiz Kids. Both groups are and were convinced that they were doing the ‘right thing.’ Just as Wenger believes that his club (as larger club) has a duty to try and play beautiful soccer, Kennedy and his cabinet believed they had a duty to uphold the virtues of the Domino Theory. Also, both possess a stubbornness, completely and utterly refusing to believe they might be wrong, no matter how much proof is thrown right in front of their oblivious faces.

For Arsenal, all they have to do is look at players like Darren Fletcher or Michael Essien. Both of them (admittedly different in their own right) hold attributes that Arsene Wenger would not value very highly. Neither are as slick in their passing as someone like Cesc Fabergas or even Abou Diaby, yet both Essien and Fletcer have tasted Premier League success while they’re technically superior counterparts have fallen short. Why has this happened? Perhaps it’s because of the same reason that Arsenal has also fallen short in the last few seasons: for all his intelligence, Mr. Wenger cannot measure qualities like heart and hustle in statistics.

The humanist element of a soccer player remains the most important, as it does in any athlete (or professional for that matter). Former Arsenal captain and defensive stalwart Tony Adams may not have been the most technically sound defender. Yet he possessed an admirable charisma that buoyed up his teammates at crucial junctures where the current Arsenal crop comes up short. Dennis Bergkamp was certainly a Wenger player, yet it was his ability to act as a catalyst for team chemistry that Wenger has been unable to consistently replace. Both of these attributes represent the equivalent to Halberstam’s theory about the Kennedy Cabinet lacking wisdom. They might be talented on paper, but in practice they lacked some very essential qualities.

No matter how athletically capable and measurably skillful Arsenal’s team is, they will never win a trophy as long as they lack these immeasurable humanist qualities. Howard Zinn once said of America in Vietnam that “it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.” Kennedy’s Whiz kids and Arsenal have an equal lack of understanding in this way. Basic humanism will always defeat a more complex adversary. And Arsenal, for all their complexity, need to gain this wisdom, less they go down the same path of failure and cataclysmic fall from grace that befell Kennedy’s cabinet.

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