Something Great

Arsene Wenger cobbled together starting lineups with spit and duct tape and Denilson and somehow the team dragged its ass over the finish line in third or fourth.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tottenham Hotspur: The Anti-Arsenal

As an Arsenal supporter, the temptation to laugh at yet another hapless Spurs team has been almost impossible to suppress. But the point of this post is not really ridicule - it's to demonstrate the difference between a well-run club and one that's managed poorly. Spurs aren't the anti-Arsenal simply because the supporters of the two teams hate one another; it's because their style of management and personnel selection runs directly contrary to that of the Gunners. Not to mention the fact that those that join and leave each club seem to experience opposite effects.

At the beginning of this season, I was convinced that Tottenham had a legitimate shot at cracking the Top Four at the expense of Liverpool or Arsenal. I, like my esteemed colleague, was sure that Arsenal had missed its opportunity to strengthen the squad. Meanwhile, Spurs had made some major moves starting mid-season of the previous campaign. They brought in Juande Ramos, a fine manager with a record of success and a reputation for getting the best out of both his stars and his less-skilled players. Jonathan Woodgate, Luka Modric, Gio dos Santos, David Bentley, and Roman Pavyluchenko have followed. Though all have had some questions asked during their careers, these are (or ought to be) world class players. The same goes for some of the Spurs mainstays: Jenas (whom I despise), is nonetheless a fine player; Gareth Bale shows a lot of promise; and Ledley King, if he could ever stay healthy, would be one of England's top central defenders alongside Ferdinand and Terry.

Meanwhile, Arsenal in the past few years have bought almost no one of note aside from Samir Nasri, and even he was a bit of a gamble. The season before, they signed Eduardo and Bacary Sagna. Nobody really knew what to expect. Wenger began starting players who had formerly served as backups for global stars (Clichy for Ashley Cole; Adebayor for Henry) and told them to pick up where they left off. Lo and behold, it seemed to work. Why? We'll get to it in a moment.

Even before this, Wenger was bringing in unknown players like Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb, and Matthieu Flamini. All of these players became stars at Arsenal. Those who have left have continually run into "the Arsenal curse" and have rapidly lost fitness or generally failed to achieve the same level of personal or club success. I recognize it's far too early to say with Hleb and Flamini, but both their clubs are off to nightmare starts.

Tottenham's curse is precisely the opposite. When good players and managers come to Tottenham, they become bad. And when they leave again, they often rediscover their form. Defoe and Mido, two Spurs striking castoffs, are off to great starts with Portsmouth and Middlesbrough, respectively. Martin Jol has Hamburg off to a league-leading start in the Bundesliga (that won't last, but a Top 3 finish isn't out of the question). Again, why?

The answer lies in how each club approaches building a team. For Tottenham, each year without success brings an outcry from management and the fans to blow up the whole team and start again. And so Spurs sell off players that still have great potential and buy a new load of quality players. These players arrive over the summer and are expected to learn a brand new system and to play with brand new players immediately. Every year, Tottenham sputters out of the starting gate and picks up steam as the season goes on and players grow accustomed to each other. Hell, last year they even managed to string together enough positive results in the middle of the season to win something (the Carling Cup, but still). But in terms of the league and qualifying for the CL, it's always too little, too late. The board and the fans are unhappy again. Solid players are sold at a loss. The hot new stars on the scene are brought in. Failure begets failure.

At Arsenal, Wenger has been given freedom by the board to take the opposite approach. Change is gradual. A good illustration of this comes from his first season in charge. Wenger took over a back line of Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn, and Keown. All of these players were 30+ and were used to a style of play far different from what is now associated with Arsenal. Yet Wenger retained them. And when he bought new players, it was usually one immediate impact player and then five or six for the future. He extended the careers of the veterans and maintained a true sense of team by gradually integrating the newcomers. He was the first to start using the Carling Cup as an opportunity to play youngsters alongside and against first team regulars. Though the pace of this adaptation has necessarily sped up in recent years, the principle remains the same.

Tottenham would do well to emulate this example. Ramos is a fine manager. With time, I believe he can identify the players that will constitute a "heart and soul" base of the squad and add to it. But this means no board hysteria when Tottenham rally to finish 6th this season. No calls for a shake-up, no pressing of the panic button. Listening to the fans is often a good thing, but when the voices of frustrated supporters are given too much consideration (e.g. Tottenham, Newcastle, West Ham), you end up with the inmates running the asylum. And the bottom line remains that you can't buy a league title. (Unless you're Chelsea, and then you get two for your money. But that's a whole other story.)

[Note: I originally drafted this a couple days ago. Since then, Wenger and Ferguson have come out and discussed this issue. Love the picture in that article. And Ramos himself came out and begged for patience. Though I personally don't mind seeing Tottenham embarrass themselves every year, I think Spurs fans would do well to listen.]


Jim said...

Just another thing I'd like to add to this treatise:

I was thinking about other ways Tottenham have managed poorly, and realized that in the past, they've compounded their misery by being guilty of the "impulse football buy." Basically, they've gone into the offseason with specific needs to be addressed and then have completely ignored those needs by buying the shiniest object that came into view. They should've been targeting a decent holding midfielder, a proper winger, and/or a world class goalkeeper, but... OH SOME MORE ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS! LET'S GET THEM! AND THEN PLAY THEM OUT OF POSITION WITH EACH OTHER!

As I said, Milan have most recently been guilty of this. They went into this last offseason in dire need of a top class striker. For some reason they never really liked using Gilardino, Inzaghi was aging, and Pato was just not quite there yet. So what do they do? They sell off Gila, make a lot of noise about signing Adebayor or Drogba, and then... OH, LOOK - RONALDINHO! LET'S GET HIM! Completely ignoring the fact that they already have a brilliant Brazilian attacking midfielder. And then they buy back Boriello and Shevchenko. Seriously?

The New Yorker said...

Subtle wit and brilliant analysis fit for the New York Times. A noticeable shift is a result of this post and TLOCA will struggle to stave off the inevitable denouemont.

Jake said...

thanks for so carefully articulating the gut feeling we all have, tottenham remain in the familiar position of relegation zone early in the year, as a side note best line of man u chelsea match this morning from the anouncer "united today are showing more resolve than their shirt sponsors"

Ben said...

Financial failure is funny