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One Of Us Speaks – Journey Through The Past

Call it fixing a hole if you want, but when I’ve had the chance recently I’ve been watching a lot of old football videos online. Due to my age I never got to see any football on television before around 1989, or in person before 1994. So that means I’ve missed my fair share of important players and moments – don’t blame me; blame my parents I suppose.

I don’t have the patience to watch entire 90-minute matches from decades ago as a routine, but thankfully many other people do. And what’s more, these beautiful bastards cut the videos down to include only individual performances by certain players.

Obviously these videos aren’t the perfect way of sizing up a player, since they don’t capture off-ball movement, and record only his touches – usually in grainy, primitive footage. But they’re bite-sized and ideal for people with short attention spans.

Anyway, what was I talking about?…Oh yeah

So, watching these performances 30, 40 or 50 years after they happened doesn’t suddenly give me licence to talk about people like Pélé or Johan Cruyff with any authority; really, I just feel I’m doing my duty as a fan of the game to check out these players at their peak – so I can pretend to talk about them with authority!

But often without realising I’ve forgiven the greats every time I’ve watched them. If there’s something that looks somehow gauche or unathletic I’d accept automatically that I’m watching a match from a different time, with different standards of skill and physical preparation.

That’s before we talk about tactics. On one of my timid visits to the football pantheon I happened across Franz Beckenbauer, facing England in the momentous encounter during the 1970 World Cup. The man they called the Kaiser would pick up the ball from the ‘keeper and stride forward in his trademark style time and again, riding challenges and threading passes for the attackers.

Something wasn’t right, and it was only when I read the comments underneath the video that I realised what it was; none of the England players were closing him down. Yeah, I learned something from a Youtube comment!

Granted they were playing in searing heat, at an elevation of almost 2,000 metres above sea level, but there seemed to be no interest in halting the progress of one of the best players in the world before he got to around ten yards from the penalty area.

Well of course. I’m a novice at tactics, but, for what I know, pressing wasn’t widely adopted as part of a team strategy at this point. But it’s not like England are standing off him and hoping to clog the area in front of the box either; Beckenbauer’s being given the freedom to lope past an attacker and a couple of midfielders before anyone wondering whether this bloke who’s not half bad at football has gone far enough.

Afforded so much space, it’s not surprising to see Beckenbauer find his teammates so often. One player who seems only to find his teammates a few times during an entire match is the Brazilian winger, Garrincha. In the 1962 World Cup he carried a winning international team to success in a way that no other player has done since, apart from Maradona in 1986.

And such was his popularity that he was known as “The Joy of the People”. In a sport of emperors, princes and galloping majors, Garrincha’s epithet is endearing for its sense of humanity, and the love for the game that it expresses – that a footballer should be a source of gladness for people under an authoritarian regime.

When he’s got the ball you can see how he earned the tag. There can’t have been many more unpredictable players around at the time. By most accounts he made more additions to the dribbling lexicon than any other footballer to have played the game. You probably know this, but his spine was crooked, and one of his knees pointed the wrong way from birth. This is partly what allowed him to change direction in such bewildering ways.

I can remember talking to someone who said he was a football scout in the pub a few years ago. That’s the level of insight you’ve come to expect from one of my posts!

He said that among the first things they assess in a kid are his or her knees and gait. By today’s recruitment standards, Garrincha wouldn’t have got past a minute of assessment. And, if you didn’t already know, his knees did give in, but not until he’d changed the way people thought about how an individual can express himself on a football pitch.

But even in his great performances he gives the ball away far too much for the taste of fans living in the era of possession-obsessed teams.

So I suppose the point – banal as it may be – is that we’ve got to admire these guys for clearing the path for future generations. As late as the 80s, the greats played with leather footballs that would get saturated by water when it rained, toiled on poorly maintained pitches, in matches officiated by referees who often didn’t just overlook but encouraged violence. As I mentioned, these footballers changed what people thought was possible.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Football is evolving, and each innovation is assimilated then eventually countered. The rules have been changed to allow skill and enterprise to flourish – raised boots and tackles from behind earn straight reds and backpasses are illegal. We have better guidelines for developing youngsters, technically and physically. We know the importance of mental and tactical preparation. Garrincha would step onto the pitch without knowing who his opponent would be!

They also face teams that are better drilled, and systems that are more detailed. Coaches now spend hours poring over video footage. Arsenal employ people fulltime to compile videos. Personified, its culture might be morbidly obese and on life-support, but on-pitch, standards are higher than they’ve ever been. But then that’s just natural.

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One Of Speaks – Boarding The Tanker At Midnight

People are talking to me like I don’t know the rule. Yeah man, I know the rule; I just chose to ignore it this time. I’ll tell you why later.

So, the rule says that to avoid disappointment you shouldn’t buy into transfer talk until you see the player in an Arsenal shirt on the website. It’s a good rule, but I think we can be more flexible than that – you could take interest a little earlier and still avoid jumping the gun most times. There’s usually a piece on the BBC site before the club announces something.

A little less reliable are the broadsheets, which employ some respected journalists who tend not to engage in idle chatter, but can miss the mark all the same. These guys report or speculate on the early stages of a transfer. They’ll get their information from agents or sources within clubs, who’ll stand to gain an advantage by making the news public, or occasionally they’ll have a direct line to the player.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve been a bit obsessed this week. From the moment Santi Cazorla’s possible move was mooted I’ve paid shamefully little attention to any other Arsenal story. Barely noticed the imperious Laurent Koscielny signing a new deal, and the friendly against Malaysia might as well not have happened. So you can tell that something’s not quite right.

I respect the rule, but then I can’t think of many potential Arsenal deals that have involved a player I admire as much as this one. When I was in Spain he was brilliant – compact, nimble, ambidextrous, nippy and technical. The play flowed through him even though he was out wide. I plucked his name from the babbling stream of Hispanic vowels and consonants thanks to its constant repetition by the commentators. I didn’t know who he was before 2007, but after I saw him the first time I’d occasionally make space on my heavy football platter for the odd Villareal game.

He got injured in 2009, and missed the matches against Arsenal. When he returned he was a slightly different player. He’s hardly slow now, but was a bit quicker in 2007; maybe a little more dynamic in the way he moved. No matter – over time he’s developed a sophisticated passing range and drifts inside more often. His control and understanding of the game has improved.

I remember him in an unjust defeat to Barcelona a couple of years ago. He was out on the left and deep, but brushed off pressing Barça midfielders and, with inch-perfect through-passes, created enough chances for Giuseppe Rossi to win the game for the team. He forced two wonder-saves from Valdés with long-range pile-drivers

The danger of writing a blog 16 hours before it’s published is that the paragraphs above could be redundant and not just a little poignant by Friday morning. I have no inside information, just lots of enthusiasm. Call it a balm for the wounds inflicted by RvP.

It might even be dead as I type this, or he could be an Arsenal player by next week. I don’t have a clue. So, I’ll recount what I’ve gleaned from this story, so at least I’ll know that my week of fixation amounted to something. Most of this is paraphrased from real journalists.

Wenger has always liked him, but the word is that his interest was piqued when Fernando Hierro walked away from his Technical Director post at Málaga in May. The man’s a local hero and wouldn’t take such a decision lightly – there were claims of unpaid wages, overdue tax-bills, reneged-on promises and transfer fees outstanding.

Normally I picture Arsenal as a big cat on the savanna, impassively surveying the herd for signs of weakness or naivety. Giroud had an enticingly low buy-out clause. Podolski was a big player at a small club on its way down. Everton needed to get Arteta off their books. André Santos’ former employers were caught up in a match-fixing scandal.

But only last summer Málaga announced their arrival as one of Europe’s moneyed colossi. Apparently we spotted a chink in their armour when Hierro walked out. It only follows that their star players should start to get restless.

Since then they’ve done no transfer business. It looks to many like nobody has been at the wheel for months. The owners have been quiet, apart from Abdullah Al Thani, president of the club, who took to twitter in the middle of this month to bemoan the unfair distribution of television money in Spanish football.

While most people who don’t support Real Madrid or Barcelona would agree with him, it all begs the question – why would someone whose family is known to enjoy almost unlimited wealth be so passionate about television cash after throwing money around so readily just a few months ago?

Does he want the club to sustain itself now it’s on the cusp of Champions League qualification, facilitating the sale of a big name to make ends meet in the short-term?

At the first hint of his name around two weeks ago, it seemed to me as an uninformed observer like something might be possible. And Wenger’s responses to questions since the weekend have only fanned the flames. Initially he joked that he didn’t know who Cazorla was; later he said the club was working on a deal, and then on Wednesday joined Arteta in praise for the player – all very out of the ordinary.

The consensus is that the player is unhappy at his club. It’s clear Arsenal want him. Respected journalist Sid Lowe claimed that he’s even agreed terms with us. But we all know what they say about best-laid plans, mice and men.

We’ve been dealing with the equivalent of an oil tanker overseen by a disparate gaggle communicating via Chinese whispers. Now Mr Shatat is at the wheel, they might weigh anchor and chug away over the horizon with a newly flush Cazorla on board. Knowing the financial punch the Al-Thani family can pack, the union of Wenger and Cazorla could remain hypothetical forever more. And given the trouble some technical players have dealing with Premier League clatternaccio, maybe the transfer is best admired as tantalising but unrealised potential.

Whatever happens from here – it looks like we’re on the prowl for an attacking midfielder this summer.

One Of Us Speaks – Another Green World

Summer in Spanish cities can be unbearable. All across the country, apart from in the very north and northwest, the heat is stifling, and intensified by the fabric of the city. Most people live in the newer districts, which are dominated by high-rise apartment blocks exposed to the brutal sun, towering over noisy streets choked by traffic.

There’s little public space, save the odd playground or isolated square. It’s the upshot of decades of dubious urban planning and, very often, the insidious influence of developers on municipalities. In the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, shaded open space was barely a consideration.

At this time of the year you envy the old-town dwellers at the compact and dark core of the city in their ageing courtyards. Temperatures on these streets feel a few degrees lower thanks to the shade – the alleys here are narrow for this reason, and the centuries-old stonework gives the air a sanctified quality.

But it’s that grid system of hazy, baking concrete I want to talk about. Uncomfortable enough in the summer that, even as I watch my road in London break its banks again, I never pine for Spain in July.

My walk to and from the office would take me past an inner-city playground. Part of a proper barrio with a strong Latin-American flavour, where the unmistakable reggaeton beat thumped from boy-racers, and there was a pleasing continental aroma of cortados and stale tobacco that wafted from the cafe on the corner. It could be quite an intimidating place, but the kids didn’t come here to waste time; they came to play football.

It never looked very appealling to me. After a few minutes a brand new ball would start to get scoured by the surface. Any kind of spill or slip meant blood. The boisterous spectators, wire cage and sunken pitch gave it all a bit of a forbidding Mad Max at the Thunderdome quality. The other reason I never felt like joining in was because these lads were scarily good.

Slowly I’ve got the vague idea that it was in this imperfect urban environment that the momentum for football’s next big step gathered – where there’s intense passion for football, community spirit and an urge to gather in public, but hardly a grass pitch to be found. Technique and awareness flourishes here.

Teams at all levels trust in an individual’s control. A clean first touch is everything. Patience goes a long way, especially between May and October. The heat makes you more efficient, more economical in your exertions. Diving into tackles is not an option – the same goes for any kind of action that will end with part of your anatomy, aside from your feet, making contact with the unpleasant playing surface.

You start to understand why Futsal does so well. It’s played throughout southern Europe and South America. It arrived in Spanish cities in the early 70s as the cities swelled. Courts are found at local sports centres, or Polideportivos, which in many places offer the only delineated and maintained environment for a game of football. They’re away from the sun and a hell of a lot cheaper to use than the UK equivalent.

Where I live in London there are acres of lush grass pitches ten minutes on foot. I can’t think of an area in the city, apart from maybe W1 that isn’t a few minutes’ walk from the nearest set of goals. Because of the climate, almost all surfaces available are artificial in Spain. You start to wonder if grass is the problem.

My local pitches are verdant but inconsistent. Even during the season the grass is overgrown, and the roll of the ball is hampered by tufts and diverted by bobbles.

In many Spanish cities the Futsal court is what they’ve got. They play on a smooth surface with a size four ball that rewards only the deftest touch. Adults trap the ball with their soles and roll it forward like school kids do with a tennis ball on their lunch break. The goals are narrower than what you’ll get at an indoor or 5-a-side football pitch in the UK, making shots from distance just a hopeful punt.

I’m aware that there are plenty of factors that go into a footballer’s development, but one thing’s for sure – the generation raised on Futsal has taken over. Two of the best players from the last 20 years, Messi and the Brazilian Ronaldo, first turned heads on the Futsal court. Much of the Spain team was brought up on this type of football, and when you watch a Futsal match you can see the similarities.

In England the most recognised form of the sport is played on poorly maintained public grass pitches that forgive deficiencies and give the cloggers time to get their challenges in. You could even take that idea up a few rungs:

Sure, it would take a long time to see a difference, and the improvement might well be negligible, but I reckon the simplest way to raise the standard of football in this country would be to encourage teams at all levels to train and play on grass cut as close as possible to 1cm in length. More important than stadium capacity, in the Premier League the Desso GrassMaster surface or equivalent hybrid surface should be compulsory.

In one of the Clásicos two seasons ago, Real Madrid opted to leave the grass in the Bernabéu at three centimetres as part of their plan to contain Barcelona, and it caused uproar. Xavi went to the press – he wasn’t having any of it. To him, those two centimetres only suited the team that didn’t want to play.

But then he never had to go to Stoke, or Sunderland, or Wigan after a Rugby League match. When Arsène talks about pitches in England it draws sneers from the press and frustration from the fans. Of course he wants an advantage for his team, on turf that rewards technical players and shuns the cloggers. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone else wants?

One Of Us Speaks – He’s All Right, Jack

There are a few reasons why we haven’t been able to build much momentum from season to season recently. Apart from being forced to sell players to the league’s financial dopers and watching as rising stars get their legs broken, we’ve had a frustrating habit of losing key players to less dramatic injuries for ages, just as they’d become really, really important to us.

Vermaelen got injured in 2010, van Persie in 2009, and last year’s man was young Jack Wilshere. Maybe I’m biased, but Wilshere’s injury seemed especially cruel after only one full year of senior football.

It’s such a long time since he jogged off the pitch against New York Red Bulls that I figured now would be a good opportunity to try to remember what he can do.

I don’t want to jump the gun; I know he had knee surgery only a few weeks ago. But for the first time since last summer he’s had the chance to recover at his own pace, without everyone aching to find out when he’ll be off crutches/able to walk/run/kick football again. With pre-season approaching we’ll get to find out sooner or later.

I’ll make it clear now – I don’t have a clue if he’ll be back for the start of the season. And say he does come back soon; I’m not sure how long it will take him to pick up where he left off.

But positive thinking never did any harm, and in this post I’m going to assume that he’ll be part of the team and get back on the wagon, because I prefer that possibility to the alternative, even if we shouldn’t discount it.

His name also comes up because, though it hasn’t appeared on a team sheet for more than a year, it’s now a byword for England’s next, supposedly less shit generation. I could try to mock people who see him as England’s answer to the continent’s best playmakers, but I wouldn’t get any satisfaction from it.

Firstly because I rate him. But also because, after Jack, who is there for English football fans to cling to? We’re probably two years away from any of the current midfield prospects breaking into the England team, let alone exerting any influence on it.

As he’s an Englishman it was inevitable that, just by being good, his first real season in the league would be too well received. If we try to be objective about his one full year so far it would be safer to say that he was quietly impressive and showed potential.

What’s Jack all about then?

None of this will be news to you.

For all the promise, there were a few things that he didn’t do in 2011-12. He didn’t score more than a couple of goals, and, despite the subtlety in his passing he managed only three assists in the league, even though he started nearly every match.

There were mitigating factors – the most important being that, as a youngster, the responsibility to score goals and play final passes wasn’t on his shoulders. There were limitations imposed on him by the team’s hierarchy, with Fàbregas, Nasri and Arshavin the main creators in that group.

Whether on the ball or off it, he keeps his head up and always has a good look around before his first touch. Combining that appreciation with good control means he’s able to receive the ball in a crowded midfield and make snap decisions on how to avoid his markers and get into good positions to find teammates.

Also handy for finding space is the speed in his first few strides. Wilshere has got to be one of the slowest players in the squad across 30 metres or more, but he’s as fast as anyone from a standing start. And it affords him the ability to seem to glide past players in midfield. Physically speaking, he’s a bit stocky, with that low centre of gravity enabling him to turn quickly and keep his balance.

Inevitably for someone so young, there were weaknesses. He wasn’t much of a defender. That’s to say; he never demonstrated the kind of nous and ability to cover that Arteta showed last season. Still, Wilshere compensates with energy – snapping at heels rather than closing off angles.

He was strong for his age, but didn’t always pick battles he could hope to win, surrendering possession inordinately during his first few months. But that also improved of course.

Like so many other precocious young footballers, he’s also got an edge. He made a few ugly tackles in the first half of the season, and didn’t exactly endear himself to opposition fans. I’m not sure that’s anything for us to worry about.

At any rate, by the time the first leg against Barcelona came around, he was tackling safely and intelligently against a team that would have done all they could to get him sent off if he showed any sign of recklessness.

So how would he fit into this current team?

Well actually, that’s where things get tricky. Although there were subtle differences to the role, Arteta grabbed that spot in the Arsenal team last season. The Basque was a bit more disciplined, and as I mentioned, read the game better. Further forward, Rosicky was one of the stars during the last few months of the season.

As things stand I don’t believe he offers the team as much as Rosicky and Arteta do, but that shouldn’t stop Wenger from playing him. If he’s fit and not approaching the dreaded danger zone, he needs to play, because of what he could become in a short space of time. Squads have to be dynamic, with space made for players who are still learning, and rotation is vital if we’re going to stave off injury. Steve Bould will have a part to play as well, having overseen much of his career.

But despite setting out hoping to be reasonable, I’ve probably gone too far. First we’ll see if he’s ready to train with the squad. If he makes one of the tours then we can get our hopes up, ready to be dashed all over again.

One Of Us Speaks – Phone a Fool

July 2012, and Annie Brosterhous is worried. It’s nine at night, and Arsène hasn’t emerged from his study since returning from pre-season training in the afternoon. Although football dominates her husband’s life, he’s always been able to set aside a few hours every evening to relax with his loved ones.

But not tonight – Wenger is lost in thought, reclining in his leather armchair, watching a summer storm unsettle the foliage in his garden. And for some reason he gives me a call to tell me his troubles and see if I can help:

It’s a problem that he never imagined could be a problem; Robin van Persie is still at Arsenal. Hardly something to fret about, but, after signing two attackers, what’s concerning Wenger on this rainy night is how to accommodate his newfound abundance of attacking talent.

With an injury-free squad for the first time in at least five seasons, there’s much for the manager to ponder. After getting used to bad luck over the last half-decade, Arsène has been cast into a quandary now fortune’s started smirking at him.

So what to do with all these forwards? Rotation obviously has its merits, but doesn’t apply to players like van Persie. As the captain and all-round best footballer, if there’s no danger of injury, he must play. And this is where the trouble lies.

In the current system there’s only room for one central striker. Not only that, but it’s a system designed specifically to get the best out of van Persie; he gets to decide when to make runs in behind or when to drop deep to get involved in the build up. Off the ball, it’s his movement that catches his teammates’ eyes.

Barring injury, rotation within the current system would mean that van Persie and Giroud get an equal share of games. All told, that wouldn’t be many for either an expensive new signing or the club’s captain. And as for the notion of keeping Giroud as backup on the off chance van Persie should be injured – well that was the plan for Chamakh who played little more than a full league match in the season before.

Podolski is now also at the club, and he doesn’t quite fit the profile of a wide player in this Arsenal front three. He’s rather more direct, apt to shoot on a whim and from ludicrously narrow angles, where most players would favour a cross or cut-back.

He’s capable of linking up, but perhaps one-twos and intricate through-balls are not part of his make-up. He could play on the left as he does for Germany, but most likely to put the finishing touches to moves started through the centre or down the right, not to conduct play from deep.

Of course, you might not agree with what I’ve assumed up to now. But what I’m going to suggest is that for all our attacking players to be included adequately, Wenger might choose to come up with a new formation.

At times last season we played a kind of 4-4-1-1, but that was only briefly, on the occasions in which we threw on Chamakh.

It was also used mostly as a last-ditch effort to try and save matches. As I’m proving here, I’m not all that clued up when it comes to football tactics, but I am aware that 4-4-2 isn’t necessarily ideal for our brand of football – for playing in triangles, between the lines and all that stuff.

At Arsenal there are plenty of good central midfielders – so many that a 4-4-2 would render a number of good options benched or out of the squad completely. With just two spaces between as many as seven candidates you’d risk creating a new headache in midfield before you work out which kind of system suits whom.

Since 2009 we’ve been generally stuck with two relatively deep midfielders – last season it was Song and Arteta – behind a slightly more advanced one. Ramsey had that role for much of last season, but Rosicky played there more often as the season wore on.

So how would you keep three men in midfield, but also free up spaces in attack? Well one option would be to try this hip 3-5-2 that everyone’s been talking about.

That’s two defenders inclined to tackle with aggression and win aerial battles (Vermaelen and Mertesacker), with one dropping a bit deeper and cleaning up (Koscielny). In front of them Arteta and Song pick up where they left off last season, and out wide, a little further forward than usual, André Santos takes up the position that might actually suit his skill-set best, and Sagna’s formidable stamina is put to use on the right flank.

Rosicky or Wilshere head the midfield three. And here’s where it really starts to fall apart – van Persie, Gervinho, Walcott, Giroud and Podolski all vie for two attacking roles. One holds position in the middle (van Persie, Giroud, Podolski), while another (van Persie again, Podolski again, Walcott, Gervinho) plays as a kind of inside forward with freedom to roam. Van Persie could also play behind the front two.

But rather than solve the problem, this further complicates things. For Arsenal fans it might conjure memories of George Graham running out of ideas in early-90s. Wenger has never used three at the back, well not at Arsenal. And we’d need to sign another footballing centre-half in the Koscielny ilk. What’s more, none of these players have played in that kind of formation, at least not recently.

In the end, Wenger regrets calling me up, makes a cup of tea for Annie, and solves the problem his own way.

All the same, what do you think he should do? Can we carry on with the same system and simply rotate, or do we need a new system?

One of Us Speaks: False Sense Of Entitlement

This week some Arsenal fans wondered why we don’t get the billionaires who own big chunks of our club to cough up money for wages and transfers, and instead choose to pay our own way, adhering to the principle of self-sustenance.

Self-sustenance, eh?

The term reminds me of a place that has long been forgotten by football fans. There are quiet moments when we prize ourselves from the blanket coverage and summer transfer sagas, take a deep breath and almost remember that place. But then, dizzied by new transfer talk its very notion flits from our minds like dandelion parachutes on the summer breeze.

So what is this place? Maybe it’s some kind of metaphor? Maybe it’s inside of us?

No, dipsh*t – it’s the real world. FFS, it’s our own lives. Here we must pay off debts and plan for our future. Here we survive by the basic principal that we spend only what we earn. Here, no able-bodied or able-minded grown up takes pride in being in financial thrall to another person.

In Premier League Land incompetence doesn’t preclude success, as long as some rich playboy is picking up your tab; Chelsea and Manchester City, the Kept Men of the league, showed last season that it doesn’t matter how poorly organised they are or how many comical mistakes they make along the way – if they keep spending big, the big prizes will come.

And yeah, I’m miffed about that. I think anyone who doesn’t support those teams would be. And the people who do support them may in future days doubt the legitimacy of their victories, and worry they occurred in the brief years when English football lost its damn mind.

Because right now, the Premier League is only competitive in a theoretical sense. Look beyond the hype and you find that the real excitement is in the frenzied scramble for table scraps and survival. Last season most teams performed according to their means – Arsenal, Swansea and Norwich did better than that; Liverpool, Chelsea and Aston Villa did much worse.

Say in the 80s, even while Liverpool were dominating, there were a bunch of teams that could begin a season encouraged that they might lift the league trophy. Now all the remaining 85% hope for is to exceed modest expectations and confound the rule that expenditure determines final ranking.

Before this season starts we know that the three contenders will be Manchester United, the team that rode the early-90s football wave to become the biggest brand in the world, Manchester City, bankrolled by an autocracy, and most absurdly of all, Chelsea. Yet another new manager and a raft of overpriced signings will likely shift their trajectory after a dreadful league campaign last year.

It’s just unreal that they should be so poorly managed and still be contenders. And so I back self-sustenance to the hilt, and beseech football, “Be more real, you preposterous bastard! You must change; not us”

Only in crackpot football world does an organisation run with foresight, intelligence and responsibility have to answer calls by so many to abandon common sense. Why would you want to disregard one of the things that makes us different, and frankly better?

There, I said it, and I meant it. It makes us better than the clubs hooked on the Ruble ‘roids or Dirham dope. Only you don’t hear it as often as you should. People who care about the game should have it plastered on sandwich boards and should be shouting it into megaphones.

I’ve never believed that there’s any kind of wacky media conspiracy against the club, just that nobody involved in reporting or even chatting about football has any integrity. That’s natural; I have none either. Everybody has a favourite team – even people who claim to be neutral.

We’ve seen it this summer, with perhaps the most articulate and trenchant critic of single benefactors suddenly warming to the idea when his own club won the league on the back of unprecedented spending. This truth gets lost amid loyalties, claim and counter-claim. I say this sincerely – it’s just sports natter, and needs no accountability.

And fans like me get dazzled by the razzmatazz. So, long before the season starts let this be my one moment of clarity.

We’re the only team that has a chance of subverting this hierarchy. We’re the only ones who could possibly demonstrate that success can be achieved without vulgar spending. And besides Manchester United, we’re the only one of the top clubs that really needs our fans for both income and support. That’s why we’re feeling the squeeze.

We don’t get no respect – no respect at all, I tells ya.

The circus keeps on rolling regardless. My attention’s turning to Poland and the Ukraine. After that we’ll have preseason and before we know it we’ll be kicking off another campaign and looking forward to the Champions League, safe in the knowledge that we’re already there this time.

It’s crazy but it’s still thriving in a country mired in a double-dip recession. In Spain Barcelona and Real Madrid are top of the pile and paying players 200k a week, even with 25% unemployment and a bailout for its banks looking necessary.

And even after we despair at the apparent impracticability of Financial Fairplay, and the fixed fate of the Kept Men will always being up there at the top of the league as long as it’s administrated like this, we’ll all forget that the dice are loaded and get back to dreaming.

Me included. If we can keep our wage expenditure tight, hold onto some of our best players for a couple more years and continue to increase commercial revenue there’s still a good chance, because we’re smarter, we get more from our players and get better value for money on transfers. Fans don’t need to doubt this anymore.

The thing I love is the thing that makes me forget; deeply flawed as it is, this needed distraction, with its blend of outlandish characters, movement, speed, graft, angles and artistry just keeps on keeping on. I just wish it could be less ridiculous sometimes.

One Of Us Speaks – Don’t Forget Where We Were

I hope it never happens, but if one day an unreasonable person puts a gun to my head and asks who I’d prefer as a friend – Nasri or Fàbregas – I think I’d take the former.

Here’s why – I reckon most footballers are quite difficult to get on with. All that money at such a young age must make them feel a bit too important. And the drive that gets them to the top of their sport means their minds probably don’t work like everybody else’s.

Early on they need to decide between friends and career. As adults they uproot their families and drag them around the world with them. And that’s before we get to fidelity in relationships.

The thing about Nasri is that he’s forthright and he won’t sugarcoat it for Arsenal fans; he left because he wants to win trophies in a team in which more talented players would do the work for him, and was able achieve that at a club that has spent the last four years “building” the most expensive squad ever in English football.

Man City were always going to win the title eventually. If building a winning team is like bridging a ravine, then City have done it by filling the hole with the expensive wreckage of a succession of collapsed bridges. And sorry to get all righteous, but if you look closely at the mess you might even spot a few thousand migrant workers from India and the Philippines.

Anyway, back to our two favourite sons. Nasri like most footballers is unsentimental, disloyal and headstrong. And so is Fàbregas, but at least one is honest. While Nasri’s agent, harbouring years of bitterness since the Marseille match-fixing scandal, was waging a personal war against Arsène Wenger, Cesc was pussyfooting us with a kind of soft strike.

Because bloody hell, that chronic hamstring knack cleared itself up pretty quick. Within days of his transfer he was on the pitch for Barcelona. And since then he’s stayed fit all season, unctuously claiming his love for Arsenal, probably out of some fixation with being wanted, even by the people he stepped on.

Why am I dredging this up now? Well that is the scene that faced the manager as he planned Arsenal’s 2011-12 season. A flaky captain feigning injury to get a move, and one of the stars of the previous season, also desperate to leave, being used as a pawn in Jean-Pierre Bernès’ scheme to cause as much trouble as possible for his former rival.

They were drawn out, for different reasons, and no doubt demanded all of our administrative resources. When they were finally resolved, as late as possible, we had to get to work and find replacements with the clock ticking. Yes, it was a trolley dash, but we’d figured out the shopping list a long time before. Looking back, only Park’s dramatic hotel raid and kidnap seems like a bit of a punt.

By this point though, the club’s youngsters were stumbling through a brutal fixture list. Udinese are formidable opponents to meet in a qualification stage that in the past had given us teams like FC Twente and Celtic. No weaker for having sold their stars, Udinese are now the third-best team in Italy.

I don’t need to remind you who we had to play in the Premiership and what the score lines were in August and September. It might seem implausible to you, but we really did lose to Liverpool during those difficult weeks.

All of this – losing two important players, trying to get the newer players to integrate into the side, and facing disapproval from most quarters – has made the achievements of the manager and the team since then more impressive. No, we didn’t win a trophy, but I think Arsenal fans are a bit more realistic about the Premier League pecking order now.

When you’re in a league with Manchester United, who are the big worldwide football brand – from which they derive commercial revenue the likes of which the sport has never seen; or when you’re battling Chelsea and Manchester City, who have spent the GDP of developing nations in recent years; it pays to take a little perspective.

And I’m no prophet of the past. I knew the team would improve, but in October I was worried where we were going to end up. I think everybody was. Every time Wenger faced the press he was asked if he was going to resign. At one point they were wondering if he was worried about relegation. He had to cope with all that and keep the team focused on fighting its way back up the table.

Arsenal fans recognised that the situation was grave, and also responded. Whenever I was at the ground last season it felt like everyone was digging in together. In 2011-12 the stadium felt more like home than ever, to me at least.

In the end the turnaround was pretty quick. We were near the top by Christmas, but after that the injuries began to bite. We had to cope without our full-backs and their replacements for three months. Football boffins like Jonathan Wilson have banged on about how important wide defenders are, but I never took them too seriously until we had none.

I’m not sure, but I think in a spending league we sit around fourth or perhaps fifth in the table behind Liverpool. Our wages are higher than Tottenham’s but for Arsenal players, European football isn’t an aspiration; it’s home. We don’t well up when we hear the Champions League theme before matches; for us it’s just the ambient noise on another midweek evening. And it’s been like this for 15 years straight.

So to wrap up, I don’t think footballers would make great friends, but this season more than any other rammed home the fact that in spite of all appearances they are actually human beings. And there isn’t a football fan around who wouldn’t like to see guys like Abidal, Muamba and Petrov playing the game they love again as soon as possible.

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