Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Losing Our Captain

For anyone who doesn't obsessively follow the day-to-day happenings of soccer's transfer window, here's what you missed: Robin Van Persie has stated that he will not be signing a new contract at Arsenal. The Gunners' captain has one year left on his current deal but has decided that the ambitions of the club do not mirror his own and will not be staying on. Arsenal can choose to let him play out his contract, meaning that he would play the 2012-2013 season with everyone knowing it would be his last, or they can attempt to sell him now to any number of interested clubs (Manchester City, Juventus, and Real Madrid have all been mentioned) in order to receive some value for him, generally believed to be in the €25 million range. These are the options but what terrible options to have.

For those of you who aren't aware of what Van Persie means to Arsenal, this is Aaron Rodgers telling the Green Bay Packers that he doesn't think he can win a Super Bowl with them. This is Kevin Durant deciding that Oklahoma City will never get over the hump. Van Persie is the reason that Arsenal was able to make it back to the Champions League this coming season and he is the reason life after Cesc did not result in an immediate and precipitous decline. He might not ever be a most beloved figure to fans, like how I feel about Kirby Puckett or how Boston Celtics fans remember Larry Bird, because he wasn't in top form with Arsenal long enough and he wasn't the heart and soul of the team as their captain. But he is (turning into "was") the best player on the team, the only one left that all of the "big" clubs in world would want. And now one of them is actually going to get him.

Soccer, due to the history of the clubs as well as the lack of a salary cap, is a severely tiered system. There are the the big clubs, the ones that everyone grows up dreaming of playing for: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, and Internazionale (Inter Milan). Manchester City, Chelsea, and perhaps Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) have entered that conversation recently due to the billions of dollars that they are willing to spend, but that's about it for the big boys. Then, there's everyone else. Of course there are tiers within the "everyone else" category. You'd rather be Liverpool than Fulham, that's for sure. But the distinctions there are more for pride and notoriety than anything else. The simple fact of the matter is that if you're not one of the most important clubs in all of Europe, you're in danger of having your players bought by them.

Arsenal has spent the last 20 years or so thinking that they were in that top tier and they certainly were for a while. But we might be seeing the end of that era right now. In the past, the players who left were either on the decline (Patrick Vieira), desperate to return home (Cesc Fabregas), or general assholes that couldn't be counted on as giving a valid opinion of the club (Samir Nasri). Even last year with Fabregas, Nasri, and Gael Clichey all leaving, fans could convince themselves that Arsenal were still a big club because those guys had their reasons or they were selfish or whatever. Not this year. Van Persie was the driving force behind this team, the captain, the top goalscorer, and the best player in all of England. Now he wants to leave. Not because he demands more money or wants a different place to raise his child. Because he doesn't think he can win with Arsenal.

It is possible that Van Persie is incorrect. He may have disagreed with a very sensible plan that was laid out in front of him. Perhaps Arsene Wenger wasn't going to overpay for players like Eden Hazard because he had other excellent transfer options in mind, other professionals that weren't the hot targets for Manchester City to throw £300k per week at. Van Persie might have wanted too much money to be spent on everyone rather than building the club smartly but still aggressively. Even if that is the case (and it likely is not), the message this sends is devastating. Regardless of Arsenal's plan (and it would certainly help a lot to say something to the fans about this, especially in the wake of Van Persie's announcement), the image is that Arsenal is a feeder team now. A very good, very historic feeder team, but a feeder team nonetheless. The last stop for up and coming players before they move on to the real big clubs like City or Chelsea. The beginning of a career now that our era has ended.

My emotions are mixed right now. I don't believe that the team has slid into the role I have described. At least not fully or not yet. But in order for Arsenal to make the argument that they are still a top team, they need to do so on the field. They need Jack Wilshere to come good on his promise. They need Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by Van Persie. They need Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny to step up and play lockdown defense. They need to go out and challenge in the Premier League, make Emirates a place that teams dread coming to. They need to make the argument that their captain gave up on.

As for Van Persie himself: I cannot be mad. I wish he had stayed. He is a fantastic talent and our best player, one of the best in the world. So I wish that he had stayed to make Arsenal great, to show the world how good this team could be if all of the pieces were together. But even though he's chosen not to, I wish him the best. He was a Gunner and a good one and we should all, as fans, hope that he finds the success that he's looking for. Let's just also hope that Arsenal finds it first without him. As Always, Go Gunners.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

And The Winner Will Be...

...I have no idea.

It shouldn't be that shocking for someone to admit that they can't, with 100% accuracy, predict the future but these days we want more from our experts. We want concrete answers about what will happen. We want locks and guarantees, we want to "mark it down" and so on. We want to know. But I'm afraid that I don't. I'm not saying this to buck a trend or teach some kind of lesson, I just honestly don't know.

Spain is the better team. If both teams played to the utmost of their abilities, Spain would win this match. But Spain hasn't been playing to the utmost of their abilities this entire tournament. They were patient in the group stage and that was fine because they could afford to be based on their play order. The opening draw with Italy was expected, as was the defeat of the "glad to be here" Irish squad (don't mean that offensively, it's just obvious at this point that they were never going to make it out of that group). Croatia was a dangerous team, but Spain had the luxury of playing them when it would have taken a drastic series of events to keep the Spanish team from making the next round. So again caution was the mode of the day and it obviously served them well. The victory over France was a walk in the park due to the baffling lack of heart from the French, but it wasn't a decisive "Spain is back!" kind of win. The penalty shootout win over Portugal was even more troubling because the passing game was interfered with for the first time in forever and even when Spain recovered, they didn't do enough to win the game in regulation. If they pull it all together for the championship game, they're still the best team in the world. But who says they can do that?

Italy, on the other hand, is the in form team of this match. The 2-1 win (which was basically a 2-0 win except for that late penalty) was shocking in that a talented German team was dispatched, but it wasn't fluky or cheap in any way. Italy was the better team throughout and though they benefited from some poor German shooting they also defended incredibly well, controlled the ball when accepting possession, and finished beautifully. Plus they're effing hard. Going to penalties against England was worrying because the 0-0 score showed a potentially fatal lack of finishing, but they controlled the match from the half hour mark on and were very unlucky not to put it away three different times. Mario Balotelli provided the finishing edge for them in the last match, but other than that we only have one goal from the Antonios (Cassano and Di Natale) and one from Andrea Pirlo off a free kick. We can look at Spain and say that they've had similar problems and it would be true, but that doesn't change the fact that Italy hasn't been able to produce straight up wins against anyone but Ireland and Germany (a stranger disparity would be difficult to find). Which team shows up today with it all on the line?

I still don't know what's going to happen, but I will take a guess because that's the role that I am playing. I think that Italy is going to make this a fascinating game with their countering skill and unique forwards (seriously, for all the reasons you may dislike Cassano or Balotelli, they have been fascinating to watch in this tournament; Cassano's movement has been phenomenal and Balotelli is... well, Balotelli). I wrote before that Spain is only as exciting as the opponent they are playing and if that is true, we could be in for a hell of a game that will see Spain regain their form and show everyone why they are here trying to win their third straight major tournament. I won't speak confidently about the type of match we're going to get, but Italy's willingness to play their game regardless of who is on the field with them is incredibly refreshing and I do think it will be a good one. I also think that it will be one where Italy's finishing fails them and we see Spain do just enough to find the net and hold on for their record breaking win. It will not be easy and I would not be surprised to see it go another way, but it is what I'm going with. I wish the best of finals to us all and I hope you enjoy it wherever you are.

Spain 1-0