Euro vision

Euro vision

In recent weeks I’ve written extensively about the mood of the Arsenal crowd, especially at away matches. (Saturday’s game at Wigan will be our sixth away fixture in the last eight games). Visceral anger built up over the weeks until it drained into a kind of apathetic sludge at Bradford. Like the last vestiges of soapy, pube strewn bathwater drifting into the plughole.

On Sunday, I watched the West Brom v West Ham game and it struck me just how serious the business of following Arsenal had become. West Brom fans were airing a catchy little ditty about their midfield enforcer Goran Popov to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man.

“Popov the Albion man,
He lives in a caravan.
He looks like a killer, he hates Aston Villa,
He’s Popov the Albion man, toot, toot!”

Wonderful stuff I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s everything a football chant should be. Instantly recognisable, witty, funny, it’s grateful but deprecating towards the player it’s intended for. It portrays him as a cult figure, but, crucially, doesn’t build him up into some kind of apotheosis which would only morph into acrimony when he inevitably leaves.

We don’t tend to sing songs about our players anymore. If we do, we certainly don’t sing anything original or fun because CAN’T YOU SEE WE’RE DRAWING WITH EVERTON HERE? I’M SIMPLY TOO DAMN ANGRY TO SERENADE BACARY SAGNA TO THE TUNE OF RADIO GAGA!  We do seem to have a lot of songs about how our ex-players are cunts and rapists though. Usually to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band or some intolerable dirge like Sloop John B. (I used to like that song).

I realise there’s a difference in expectation between West Brom and Arsenal blah, blah, blah etc. But even in the midst of a stultifyingly dull 0-0 home draw with West Ham, the Baggies fans sounded like they were having fun. Sometimes it feels as though Arsenal should walk out at home games against the strains of The Stooges’ nihilist romp ‘No Fun.’ I guess the trade-off of supporting a big team is that victory is so routine that it is seldom celebrated, whilst each draw is a symptom of an insoluble crisis.

The trade-off of supporting a rubbish or mediocre team is that you rarely win, so you have to cultivate the pleasure where you can. When you think about it, whichever way you slice it, by being a football fan you’re essentially setting yourself up for a life of misery and disappointment punctuated by the bare minimum of memorable moments that make you persist in spite of it all. A bit like Fernando Torres’ form.

Therefore on Monday night at the Madejski, it was genuinely refreshing to respond to one of Reading’s ironic, mocking chants with, “How shit must you be? Chamakh scored twice!” When the Royals fans responded “Brian, sign him up” we duly joined in. I realised that it was the first time I think the Arsenal crowd had laughed together in an orchestrated fashion for a long time. It certainly knocked spots off of ambiguous chants about wanting our Arsenal back.

Whilst not the panacea to all of our ills, Monday night’s tuning up at Reading has been succeeded by the ‘Feel-good Hit of the Winter’ with Arsenal dishing out new deals to some of its brightest young talents. Tying down five players who are all, to varying degrees, in the first team picture can’t really be seen as anything other than a sage move.

I realise there have been some misgivings from some quarters about Arsenal once again rewarding potential over delivery. Unfortunately, fluctuations in contract legislation make this a virtual necessity. The protected period for a player’s deal lasts for three years. So even if you sign them up for five or six years, you’re still essentially beginning renegotiations every two years. The gap between potential and delivery when it comes to renegotiation is non-existent.

Even the supposedly iron knickered Alex Ferguson found this out this summer when he had to climb into bed with Danny Welbeck. Welbeck signed a deal worth £75,000 a week in August. That’s a down payment on potential because I doubt even Welbeck’s mum thinks he’s genuinely worth that at this stage. Ferguson didn’t deem Paul Pogba to be worth going to third base with and lost him on a free transfer.

Contracts have to be renegotiated so perpetually nowadays that if you wait until potential is totally realised, then the player has more scope to string you along and dump you. It comes down to the manager making a reasonable judgement on potential. There are many variables too. Jack Wilshere’s ankle could shatter into a million pieces tomorrow and in two years time; we might be lamenting a fat contract we’d handed out to a player of questionable fitness.

For instance, there weren’t a great many complaints when Abou Diaby inked new terms in January 2010. He managed 40 games that season, having played 36 the season before. Obviously hindsight has been a bitch in that respect. The manager hasn’t always got those judgements on potential right either. The likes of Bendtner and Denilson and even older players such as Chamakh and Squillaci have turned out to be albatross’ that have hindered our attempts to build a new squad.

Though not seeking to defend Wenger on these calls per se, he’s far from alone. Chelsea and City have effectively been able to sign off resource parasites such as Adebayor, Bridge, Ferreira and Kalou. Some clubs’ expensive mistakes cost more than others. I imagine none of our recently signed young Brits to be on terms as generous as those afforded to Scott Sinclair or Jack Rodwell. The new squad rule on home-grown players has also created even more of a premium on British players.

That said, I’m not convinced that their being British makes us any more likely to hold onto the quintet of players, as the club seem to be hinting. You could possibly argue it makes them less likely to go abroad, but ultimately, pay, conditions and on pitch success are kingmakers in the loyalty game. All of the players are relatively young, but if they feel they’ve a chance of a better pay day or a big trophy elsewhere in a couple of years, we can’t expect them to feel bound to Arsenal.

Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were no less flighty for their nationality and Theo Walcott is hardly rushing to commit. In effect, pay and conditions will be linked to success more steadfastly if the brave new world of post FFP materialises as the club expects and hopes. Ramsey, Jenkinson, Chamberlain, Gibbs and Wilshere have demonstrated some faith in that vision by signing on now. Whether they will feel the same when they come to renegotiate in 2-3 years will depend largely on us being competitive in terms of terms and trophies. Assuming of course they have demonstrated value and the club want to re-sign them!

Our hopes for being competitive in both areas are inextricably linked to one another. Arsenal, along with other Premier League clubs, will receive a sizeable windfall of TV cash in 2013. City and Chelsea are going to have to bank their slice of the pie as part of their FFP compliance strategies. Hopefully that can help that competitive environment contract and it should mean 2012 is a good time to sign players up, before they start eyeing some of that sweet TV booty for themselves.

Thursday morning’s Champions League draw has thrown out a mouth-watering tie for us. Munich will be tough, no doubt, but if you’re not excited by meeting the heavyweights, then there’s always the Europa League. I went out to Munich in 2005 and have always felt my business there unfinished. Not just because of the diabolical performance we turned out in the Olympic Stadium, but because it snowed so heavily I didn’t get to see any of the city. Flights are booked and I can’t wait for this one. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Five new deals, but the hard work starts now

Five new deals, but the hard work starts now

There’s only one place to start this morning and that’s the announcement from yesterday that five players, British ones at that, had signed new long-term deals.

As expected Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson signed new contracts which will, all going well, keep them at all the club for seasons to come. Arsene Wenger said:

The plan is to build a team around a strong basis of young players, in order to get them to develop their talent at the Club. Jack is certainly the best known, the leader of this group – but the other four players are exceptional footballers, and we’re very happy that we could conclude their new deals at the same time.

Gibbs, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Wilshere represent a core of the squad and it’s an extension for a long period for all of them. I’m a strong believer in stability and I believe when you have a core of British players, it’s always easier to keep them together and that’s what we’ll try to achieve going forward.

It’s an interesting thing to hear him say, especially after I spoke yesterday about the profile of the players he’s been signing recently. The idea of building a team around a talented group of young players is not new, we’ve been down this road before, but now it seems there’s tacit acceptance that for these players to flourish and develop properly they need experience around them.

The Invincibles were dismantled so quickly, too quickly, and the last Project Youth didn’t work as well as it should have. Most people understand why we embarked on that journey, but in my opinion it fell short because there was a lack of guidance and an over-reliance on the best of these young players to educate the others – when in reality they still had much to learn about the game itself. I remember one away day, at Sunderland I think, when Cesc was partnered in midfield with Denilson and an extremely raw Alex Song. We struggled that day and I remember thinking that Cesc was good enough to carry that burden but also that we’d have been a much better team if he’d had an experienced partner alongside him.

There’s also the manager’s style, in which he allows players freedom to think about why things didn’t go so well in a game and while that kind of hands-off approach can work with intelligent, older guys, it’s not ideal for most young players. They need to be told stuff, they need to be helped on and off the pitch by people who have been around the block a bit, and this time around this ‘core’ has plenty of experience around them. These guys represent a small but important part of the squad, but they’ve got big international players showing them the way, super professionals like Arteta who can show them that even if they don’t make the national stage they can have a career that can be respected and admire, and that can only be a good thing.

But, and here it comes, for all that, and for all the help and coaching and advice they’ll get, it’s ultimately down to these players themselves to ensure they make it at Arsenal. Clearly the manager and the club believe in their talent, but as we all know fine well, talent will only get you so far in football. Hard work, dedication, application, attitude, a desire to be the best and to achieve things in their career other than a nice house and a fast car are what’s needed.

We’ve seen players with less natural ability than some of these guys make good, at times legendary, careers at this club because what they lacked in skill and finesse they made up with sheer guts and effort. They’ve all got the potential to be excellent players, some more excellent than others (obviously), but there can be no resting on their laurels and thinking they’ve made it because of a contract and a nice announcement. That’s only the first part of it, and the easy one too, the rest is down to them. They must want to improve, to be better each time and with that comes an acceptance that others might know better than you.

Aaron Ramsey, for example, is a player who divides opinion, Grand Canyon style. I think there’s a very good player under the surface but I fully understand frustration with his game. He’d do well to listen to the advice of Frank McLintock who told the BBC during the week:

He’s a lad that’s got a great engine in him, he’s got a good honest attitude. I would just love to have a chat with him and tell him to improve his performance by a long way by just simplifying his game.

I feel he takes too many touches on the ball. He’s trying to over-complicate it. I’m not trying to sound too critical, I’m actually trying to give him a little bit of advice and my opinion.

Which I think is sound advice, and I don’t think there’s really any issue with Ramsey’s work-rate, but simplifying his game would make him a better player. The other thing to consider is that I’m sure Frank McLintock is not the first person to have offered this advice to the young Welshman, so let’s hope he listens up and becomes the player we all hoped he would until the tide turned against him. Like him, or not, he’s considered part of the future of this club and at the end of the day it works out best for everyone if he becomes a better player.

Overall though, it’s good news and it’s hard not to be pleased that these guys have been secured in the long-term. It shows, also, that talk of how contracts take a long time to sort out is a load of old nonsense and I don’t think I need to say any more than that.

Finally for today, the draw for the first knock-out round of the Champions League takes place today. We’re in the mix with Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, PSG, Malaga, Bayern Munich or Barcelona. No easy games in there, whatever way you look at it. I fancy a bit of Barça myself, we’ve gotta win there at some point, right? And if not, there’s always the Estrella and the Pepito.

The draw starts some time this morning and concludes on Christmas Eve. Thoughts on that in tomorrow’s blog and in the Arsecast, until then take it easy.