Arsenal.... the new Stoke?
By Terry Baddoo
What’s wrong with route one? Surely, route one is good. Never have I stopped for directions and asked for the most roundabout way possible. I also can’t recall the last meeting or news conference I attended where I wanted the speaker to be more verbose or cryptic. Meandering is not good time management. It’s not goal oriented. In most cases deviation and procrastination are seen as negative qualities. We like straight talk from a straight shooter straight away! So why is directness so disparaged in the world of football?
Patronizing the proponents of route one is the default criticism among this generation of football fans. It makes the wannabe pundit seem sophisticated and knowledgeable without the need for explanation. But it’s supercilious, implying that the person speaking, however unqualified, knows what good football is or should be! So it stands to reason that merely pumping the ball forward to a strong big’un or a quick little’un is undignified; no more than a crude anachronism that debases the game.
Of course, the blame for this snobbery falls squarely on the shoulders of the current 'best club' in the world, FC Barcelona. Inadvertently, the Blaugrana have redefined the notion of what football should be, making their tiki-taka style the yardstick by which all other performances are measured. If you don’t use 15 passes to travel ten yards you may as well be wearing mammoth skin jerseys because you’re only one chromosome short of Neanderthal.
Well, just a Messi moment, there. Surely the strength of Barcelona’s style is that it’s perfectly suited to the players at the club’s disposal? Barca can play the way they do because tiki-taka is part of the club’s DNA. It’s been nurtured in many of their players since embryonic days at La Masia, and those who learned their football elsewhere have been brought in because their skill set is compatible with Barca’s preferred philosophy. It’s the supreme marriage of style and substance refined over more than a decade and perhaps only sustainable at the current level by this uniquely golden generation.
No wonder then that this perfect storm is virtually impossible to replicate. So why do so many clubs persist with a Barcelona-light impersonation?
One of the prime examples of a sheep in Barca clothing is Arsenal. It’s no secret that the Gunners’ long time boss – Arsene Wenger, has been striving to create a team of pass masters in Barca’s image for the bulk of his near 17 year reign in North London, and certainly since Arsenal since fell to the Blaugrana 2-1 in the 2006 European Champions League final.
Unfortunately, Wenger’s ambition is not matched by his budget, the quality of his players, or a youth and scouting system capable of supplying the raw material to suit his purpose. The result is the prospect of an 8th barren year without a trophy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, as evidenced recently during Arsenal’s doomed but gallant effort against Manchester City at the Emirates on Sunday. Faced with a two goal and one man deficit (until the ref evened it up late on by awarding a spurious red card to Vincent Kompany), Arsenal abandoned their normal gun shy, pass n’ move, go nowhere game and really went for it. On came the big man, Oliver Giroud. Up went the even taller, Per Mertesacker, temporarily converted from a center-half into a rampaging striker. Down the flank came the surging Bacary Sagna. Theo Walcott may even have deigned to get chalk on his boots, and keeper, Wojciech Szczesny, actually punted the ball instead of rolling it short. Arsene’s Army was bombing; showing a single-minded direct approach that was all heart. They looked like Stoke!
Okay, so ultimately City’s two goal cushion, earned during the hour they played with an extra man, was enough to send them home with the 3-points. But Arsenal’s no fuss straight up second-half battle earned them a lot of credit and perhaps suggested to Mr. Wenger that looks aren’t everything.
Yes, Barca’s intricate style may have been what Pele was foreshadowing when he coined the phrase “the beautiful game”, but it’s not the only way. Football is a results game, and while the scenic route can be nice, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and no team should be too proud to take it.