Category Archives: Gareth Bale

Real Madrid, la Decima, and Arsenal’s ambition

What a thrilling, heart-breaking, epic final that was. Though the outcome probably surprised no one, there was a full 90 minutes when it looked as if Atlético would stand at the very pinnacle of European football for the first time in its history. A squad cobbled together with journey-men, loans, never-were’s, and might-be’s hadn’t just pushed the galácticos to the brink, they were seconds away from shoving those overpriced mercenaries off a cliff. It would a glorious result, not just for Atléti but for football itself. By defeating Real, Atléti might also defeat the idea that reckless spending paves a path to glory. Sadly, however, shorn of Costa and exhausted in the waning minutes, Atléti couldn’t hold out against Real’s relentless assault as goals from Ramos, Bale, Marcelo, and Ronaldo sealed a 10th Champions League title. However, there’s still something in this saga for us to study.

This is, after all, an Arsenal site, and I only watch other clubs’ matches to see what I can glean from them as far as tactics to prepare for and players to pursue. In the first case, it’s unlikely that we’ll face either club any time soon, so I can sit back and watch. In the second case, for example, will Benzema convince me that we should sign him? From this match, no. We haven’t really been linked with many other players other than Di María, so, again, I could watch for the pure pleasure of it. As mentioned above, there were 90 minutes that promised ecstasy…if Atléti could just hold off. It’s not enough to have to battle a squad as stocked with ruthless talent as Real’s; Atléti also had to fight a clock that seemed to never quite stop. To see Ramos nab the equalizer in extra time wasn’t just demoralizing; it was devastating. From there, Atléti never seemed to recover.

However, what’s in it for Arsenal? How do we escape the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that we must spend profligately in order to compete with Man City and Chelsea? After all, each of them has poached from none other than Atléti—Agüero to City and, in all likelihood, Costa to Chelsea. Real, of course, is the gold-standard for what money can buy. If we’re going to close the yawning gap between us and our rivals, we’re going to have to spend like it’s going out of style.

Then again, Atléti did just show that it’s not necessary to break the bank, and they did so for far more than 90 minutes. They won La Liga, besting not just Real Madrid but also Barcelona, and they destroyed Chelsea to get to the Champions League final before finally succumbing to Real. They did all of that on a shoe-string; Real’s roster might be seven times more-expensive than Atléti’s. Were it not for a generous allotment of extra time from Björn Kuipers, we might all be hailing one of football’s biggest David and Goliath stories in history, and on one of football’s biggest stages at that.

On its surface, one might look at the scoreline and assume, ‘well, that proves it once again. The rich get richer; the poor get the picture.’ After all, a 4-1 final seems to prove that Real Madrid had thoroughly outclassed and overwhelmed their poorer rivals. However, that misses the preceding process: Atléti looked like they were set to win this thing, and the wheels only came off in the last 10 minutes when, exhausted physically and emotionally, they faded in the face of Real’s relentless, remorseless pursuit of la Decima. By the time Marcelo dribbled into the heart of Atléti’s defense, it was agonizingly clear that those defenders could barely move. By the time Ronaldo “earned” a spot-kick in the game’s waning seconds, it felt like a group of bullies were simply adding insult to injury.

For as glorious as the madridistas might have felt, there have to be nagging questions: what if Kuiper hadn’t gifted them six minutes of stoppage time or shown seven yellow cards to Atléti? What if Diego Costa had been able to play more than nine minutes? For a club that has enough money to buy everything, they certainly did receive a fair few gifts along the way. No one can take away what Real Madrid has accomplished, but there will always be an asterisk attached to it, at least in my mind.

As we look ahead to the summer, the clamor around spending all 100m in our war-chest, if not more, it’s well-worth heeding the reminder that Atléti has offered. No, they didn’t quite pull it off, but they came close enough to prove that a club need not sell its soul to achieve its dreams. None of this is to say that we stand pat this summer, but it does suggest that we can hew closer to certain ideals that have made this club so special and build on the success of our season.

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With Real Madrid through to the UCL final, is Bale > Özil?

Wow. That was a stunner. Defending a one-goal lead from the first leg, Real Madrid erupted for three goals before halftime on their way to a 0-4 win, devastating Bayern 0-5 on aggregate, thus closing the curtain in dramatic fashion on what was once a season for the ages. Long-gone, of course, is Bayern’s assault on an invincible season; gone now as well is their attempt at repeating as winners of the Champions League. The question now becomes, are Real Madrid better with Gareth Bale instead of Mesut Özil? With Real Madrid through to their first Champions League final since 2002, it seems a fair question. Bale, after all, has managed the transition with aplomb, while Özil has sputtered, seeing his stats and stature fall short of expectations.

In 2012-13, Bale made 52 appearances, tallying 29 goals and 16 assists. He’s on a similar pace thus far, with 41 appearances, 20 goals, and 19 assists, and he has four La Liga appearances left in which to add to that, not to mention the Champions League final. His switch from the modest environs of White Hart Lane to the klieg-lights of the Bernabeu has to be admitted as a success. Even if he hasn’t quite lived up to the £87m price-tag, he has delivered. What’s more, he didn’t choose that price. It was affixed to him. At the other end, back in London (which is red, by the way), Özil has shown flashes but not sustained periods of the brilliance that led to our signing him for £42m. The interconnectedness of the deals—the sale of Özil financing the purchase of Bale—makes it well-nigh irresistible to compare their respective fortunes.

Özil seems to suffer by comparison. After all, he made 52 appearances last season, notching 10 goals and 24 assists while further burnishing his reputation as one of the best creative forces in the world. While Bale has apparently validated if not cemented his anointment as an attacker, Özil has seen his own reputation suffer a bit. After 42 appearances this season, he’s managed just 7 goals and 16 assists, enduring accusations of being overrated and a waste of money, even to the point that some have wondered if he might leave Arsenal in the summer. It’s true that, in our remaining three matches, he could very well explode for the three goals and eight assists that separate him from last season’s haul, but would that be enough to dispel the doubts among the Arsenal faithful, not the mention the broader footballing world?

Furthermore, the trends also seem to flow in Bale’s favor. Hindered by injury, Bale got off to an uneven start but has rounded into form. In the meantime, Real won the Copa del Rey thanks to a Bale wonder-goal, continue to contend in La Liga, and will appear in the Champions League finale. By contrast, Özil seemed to burst on the scene only to fade, get jaded, and fall to injury. Along the way, Arsenal tumbled from the top of the Prem and were dumped from the Champions League. Who’s boosted his club’s performance more? It’s hard to argue against Bale on the evidence presented.

Therein lies the rub. I’m not sure that individual stats or even team performance tell the whole story, not until we consider the broader contexts of role and league. For the first, Bale plays as a forward whose primary responsibility is to score, and he does so for a club that looks like it will score 100 league goals and then some for the fifth consecutive season, a frequency that reduces the accomplishment to the banal. In that setting, to have not amassed 20 goals and 20 assists might have been a colossal disappointment. Of Real Madrid’s 162 goals in all competitions, then, Bale has played a direct role in in 24% of them. Not bad. Not bad at all. Let’s look at Özil for contrast. Playing most often as a central midfielder, he’s less likely to rack up the stats that make for good headlines. He depends on others to finish the service he provides. Without pressing the issue, Giroud is not the best finisher in the Prem. Podolski is not Ronaldo. And so on. Arsenal have managed 91 goals in all competitions, a little more than half of Real Madrid’s haul. Özil has had a hand in 25.2% of them. Where would that figure be with a more-clinical finisher somewhere along the front-line? With Walcott running in behind defenses? Try not to salivate.

I can’t come through this all and say there’s nothing in the comparison. There are only two areas in which Özil emerges as a clear winner over Bale, and these relate more to opportunity than they do to success, much as it pains me to say so. Those two areas are key passes and chances created. Bale averages 1.2 key passes per game; Özil, 2.9. With chances created, the story is much the same: Bale offers 1.4 to Özil’s 2.88. While this doesn’t do enough to clearly establish Özil as superior to Bale, it does highlight the more-subtle nature of Özil’s game. To wit, Özil is less prolific a scorer than Bale, and part of that is to be expected given their roles and the leagues in which they play. If I can try to undermine my own comparison any further, it might come through pointing out that so much of Özil’s contributions are intangible. Whereas Bale always (and exclusively?) poses a direct threat, Özil lurks and skulks. Even without the ball, he lures and lulls defenders, at times looking languid and disinterested, at others looking forlorn and frustrated. He disappears only to reappear. To borrow from Jürgen Klopp, Bale is heavy metal; Özil is orchestral. At times, he’s a silent song. You have to listen to the notes he doesn’t play just as much as you do to the notes he does play.

Of course, football is more than a 1v1 exercise. There are other players to account for. Referees. Managers. Come to think of it, maybe I should have gone with something more along the lines of “is Ancelotti > Mourinho?” Hm. Time will tell, perhaps as early as Wednesday. For now, credit Bale with handling his transition from the trenches of the Premier League to the somewhat softer La Liga. I hear that he dove well enough to make Ronaldo proud. Özil may not have dazzled in his own transition, but it’s hard to pirouette or float when you have a Shawcross or an Adams or a Ramires hacking you six ways from Sunday, eight days a week.

Long story short, good for Bale for making good on leaving White Hart Lane. Let him not be the last to do so.

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North London Derby: Walcott wins it from wide

As we go into the North London Derby, a great deal of talk will focus, rightly, on the differences in each squad’s actions in the transfer window. We all know our own sob-story, having only brought in Flamini and Sanogo on free transfers and having unloaded almost 30

players (including a great number of Academy players in their teens). Spurs, though, have been intensively active, signing seven players in anticipation of selling Gareth Bale. With his price-tag looking to be somewhere in the £90m range, Spurs have spent about £84m on transfer-fees. Bale hasn’t played a minute for Spurs so far this season, with explanations ranging from he was given a “rest” to his being fined for missing training. However, Spurs don’t seem to have missed him so far, having won all four of their matches to this point (including two in the Europa) without conceding once and scoring ten.

And that brings me to the focus of today’s column: Theo. I’ve called on Theo to have a break-out season with 20 league goals. After scoring 21 across all competitions last season, it looked like he would vault himself  to the next level this season. I compared him favorably to his former teammate Bale here, for what that’s worth. However, he’s off to a bit of a slow start so far, with no goals to show for himself in our first four matches. He did look sharp in the preseason, with a goal against Man City and against Galatasaray, each of them the match’s opening score. Despite his slow start to the official season, I’m certain that Theo will revive the form that he’s shown against Spurs over the last few seasons, a form good enough for him to tally four goals in our last five derbies.

Of course, he’ll be lining up opposite Vertonghen and Rose, who on paper are no slouches. However, Vertonghen frequently presses forward to join the attack, at times playing almost as if he’s a box-to-box midfielder, and this can expose him on counter-attacks (sounds a bit like Vermaelen, come to think of it). Rose is a fine player on his day, but he’s a perpetual loanee, most recently to Sunderland last season. Given Vertonghen’s eagerness to join the attack and Rose’s relative inexperience, especially in an atmosphere as pitched as the North London Derby, I see Theo getting lots of opportunities. The service he’s gotten from Ramsey, Rosický, and Cazorla so far have been strong; all he’s lacked is the final touch. While I don’t see another 5-2 win in the offing, I wouldn’t put it past the man to bag a brace.

If there’s a downside to Spurs’ signings, it’s that they may not fully understand what this match means. Soldado had some nice words about it earlier this week, calling it “beautiful”. However, listening to teammates explain it differs immensely from experiencing it directly. Their new signings have done well for themselves so far, but the stiffest competition they’ve faced is arguably Swansea, and they have yet to score a Prem goal from open play, relying on spot-kicks from Soldado to defeat Swansea at White Hart Lane and to defeat newly promoted Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

For all of the hand-wringing over our failure to bring in new players, we still field a strong XI on Sunday. There’s little use in speculating on who will start where, as this suggests that there is a great deal of competition in the squad. Cazorla will almost certainly slot in on the left, and the middle of the pitch will be patrolled by Wilshere, Ramsey, and Rosický, hopefully reprising the rotating midfield that so befuddled Fulham. Flamini may make his debut, what with Arteta out and Ramsey nursing a sore groin (does one get those massaged? One wonders…). It’ll be a tense one, that’s for sure, but I have a good feeling about this one. Theo, make me look like I know what I’m talking about.

The clock is ticking…

Bale to Madrid? No like. Not one bit.

The rumors around Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid have heated up over the weekend with suggestions that he’ll complete the move by Tuesday (and perhaps even before this post hits the web). Those of us with the good sense, taste, and fortune to be Gooners might at first react

The last we’ll see from him?

with a bit of glee, perhaps even laced with a hint of spite, laboring under the false impression that his departure dooms Spurs to plummeting down the table. After all, he did produce one of the most brilliant seasons of football in the last campaign, wondrous enough to earn favorable comparisons with Ronaldo, among others. However, I’ve long argued against his departure, here and here, for example. His departure could blow up in our faces for any number of reasons ranging from our options and actions in the rapidly-closing transfer-window to our performance and theirs in the unfolding season. To wit, here’s a quick run-down of why I hope the transfer falls through.

The Market
Just as we were closing in on Gonzalo Higuain, Napoli sold Cavani for £55m on July 16th. By July 27th, Higuain had signed with Napoli for around £35m. Obviously the direct route—Napoli sells one striker and buys another—yanked a rug out from under us. Such a direct route is less likely for Spurs should they sell Bale. After all, they don’t have the Champions League to entice players to join. The fall-out could still likely undermine us anyway even if Spurs can’t or don’t poach our transfer-targets (whoever they may be at this point). Bale’s selling price is apparently somewhere around £90m, and that is likely to inflate prices on other players we’re looking at. Once Cavani sold, it seemed that Real Madrid looked at our bid for Higuain and decided to hold off for a better offer, one that, sadly, we were either unwilling to make or too slow in making. I worry that something similar could transpire again, whether it’s Suarez or Rooney or whoever else it is we’re bidding for.

Bale himself
I’m squeezing this one in somewhere in the middle because I know that it will be unpopular and might ruffle a few feathers. Bale is good for British football. He’s a brilliant player, capable of stunning displays of skill…but I fear that a move to Real Madrid might overwhelm him. The klieg-lights that will shine down on him will be withering—think of it: he may displace Ronaldo as the world’s biggest-ever transfer and join Ronaldo amidst comparisons that he is the next Ronaldo. I just don’t see this as going down well with Ronaldo (how many more uses of “Ronaldo” do I need before it stops being a name and becomes just a sound?). He doesn’t seem like one who suffers upstarts gladly, even less those who score (or misfire) instead of him. More to the point, instead of being his team’s first, last, and only option, Bale would have to find his way in a pecking-order, presumably beneath Ronaldo, maybe even below Benzema. Even without that pressure, it’s only a matter of time before defenses key on him more doggedly. Of his 31 goals for club and country, 15 came off that left foot of his. Sooner rather than later, defenders are going to sit on Bale’s left hip, daring him to go to his right, with which he only scored four times last season. How could he justify his transfer-fee if he’s not scoring at the rate that earned the fee in the first place?

Of course, having £90m to spend is only as good as how you spend it. We’ve heard the brags and the boasts of our transfer war-chest, but it sits there gathering dust (for all we know). Spurs, however, have already been very active in the transfer-market, whether in an attempt to persuade Bale to stay or to reload should he leave anyway: Capoue, Soldado, and Paulinho make for a respectable if not intimidating haul. Selling Bale at, say, £90 would leave them £53m in the black (give or take). They beat us to Vertonghen and Lloris last year; who’s to say that a motivated, bitter rival won’t smell the blood in the water and beat us to a few more players this year? I don’t think they could convince Rooney or Suarez to come to White Hart Lane, but they might have enough to convince a Pogba, Eto’o, or di Maria. Maybe. Even if they can’t legitimately pursue these players, they could throw enough of a monkey-wrench into the negotiations that we see a player’s asking-price spiral—and we already know all too well how allergic Arséne is to overpaying.

Previously, I worried that Bale’s departure might sap some of the squad’s intensity; after all, the likely drop-off in Spurs’ competitiveness without Bale (and even with a signing or two) might lull our players into assuming more blithely that we can anticipate a Spurs collapse. This mindset, subtle or unspoken though it may be, could see us drop points here and there, at first innocuously and later more ominously, until we find ourselves in another desperate late-season scramble against Spurs, Everton, and Liverpool. Like it or not, knowing that Bale was around last year and was capable of saving a game through a dramatic goal is in part what inspired us to finish as we did. Should that disappear, a more blasé attitude might infect the squad, if only enough to see us drop a handful of points. Given that we secured fourth place last season a mere 38 minutes before the end of our season, we simply can’t afford to drop points. This, unfortunately, is a very abstract argument in August and only gains urgency in March and April, by which point it might be too late.

More recently, my worries over urgency have shifted from the squad to management. Should Bale leave, I worry that this might undermine the sense of urgency that Arséne has already seemed all too immune to. We haven’t signed anyone of note (with apologies to Sanogo). With Bale gone, I worry that Arséne would size up the competition and decide that we don’t truly need anyone to help us secure a fourth-place finish. Arteta, Vermaelen, the Ox, and, yes, even Diaby will return eventually, and the “like a new signing” idea might just gain enough traction to convince Arséne that we’ll be fine if we just can hold our own until those players do return to fitness.

And that, inexorably, brings us right back to where we’ve been since the close of the 2012-13 season, hoping and praying for significant signings to bolster the squad. Spurs, with Bale or without, are likely to provide even stiffer competition, and we simply can’t afford to let the transfer-window close without key signings, nor is there enough lasagna to ensure another late-season collapse. Arséne has claimed that “75% of things happen in the last ten days”. By his own estimate, with eight days left, 20% of those last ten days have passed and we still have nothing to show for it. If we don’t act soon, we may find ourselves competing with a Spurs club flush with cash and ambition. “Be careful what you ask for,” the old saying goes; “you just might get it.” Bale’s departure, something we’d probably asked for more than once over the course of the last season, might just come back to haunt us. The “panic-buy” phrase has been bandied about, and if we wait to see what happens with Bale’s future, even that phrase may be inadequate to describe our options or our reaction.

Why Arsenal can’t afford to lose Gareth Bale

Amid all of the hype over who we’re bringing in, whether it be Higuain or Jovetic or Sanogo or whoever, one player, one who is perhaps just as key to our perennial Champions League qualification run, may be lost: Gareth Bale. We might just lose him to Real Madrid, and that should be enough to give us pause.

The Monreal headline froze me. Date: December 2012.

As far as Bale’s concerns, I worry that he’d crumble under the pressure of replacing Ronaldo (if that’s what he’s being brought in to do). Sure, he’s been described as “the next Ronaldo”, but it’s easy to say and harder to do. He’d be leaving the world’s 11th-largest club to join its biggest. That’s quite a leap even without having to replace one of the world’s most-prolific scorers. Put in context, his 2012-13 season was so remarkable that it very nearly accounts for half of all the goals he’s ever scored (26 out of 60). On the basis of this one season, then, he’s being touted as a replacement for Ronaldo, who has three times scored more than 50 goals in a single campaign. Real is said to be preparing a bid of £100m. No pressure. Bale could rise to the occasion or just as easily fall off the cliff. I pray, then, that he stays.

Hear me out. As it stands, the top three Prem teams qualify automatically for the Champions League. Under the current hierarchy, that’s Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. Assuming that nothing else changes other than managers, that hierarchy is unlikely to change. We’re therefore looking at the fourth, qualifying spot, which we earned on the last day of the season (thanks, Kos). Would we have done it without Bale to inspire use? Without a time-machine and alternate-universe replicator, we’ll never know. I’ll say this, though: one factor that drove us to 4th place this year, and it’s by no means a small one, was our knowledge that, at any given moment, Bale would score. It was therefore beyond vital that we outscore each of our opponents to nullify him. I worry that, if he leaves, we will lose some of the urgency that impelled us over the last ten weeks of the 2012-13 season. Imagine it: how often, before a game or after a lackluster first half, did the whispered name “Bale” bring our players’ edge back? For some, it was fear. For some, determination. For others, anger? Sure. Whatever it was, some unquantifiable percentage of our players’ motivation and achievement came from knowing that they had to top Bale week in and week out.

Think of the contrast: how threatening would Spurs have felt to us without Bale? Without him, they’re Newcastle (sorry, Toon) or Aston Villa (no offense). Without that bogeyman, I worried that we might never have regained the sense of purpose and intensity that saw us win ten of our last eleven matches. We might have lolly-gagged a bit more, letting Everton or even Liverpool close the gap. The biggest favor Bale may have done for us this year is to score on us at White Hart Lane (word has it that he’ll try to trademark that dopey heart-hand sign. I’m pretty sure tween girls everywhere will file a class-action lawsuit to stop him). It was dispiriting at the time, sure, but look at how we responded.

And that leads into my next line of reasoning. Without Bale, our entire co-dependent relationship with Spurs crumbles. Sure, we have rivalries with other clubs, but there’s nothing quite as sumptuous and as textured as ours with Spurs. We know each other; we understand how to push each other’s buttons and read each other’s little tics of exasperation and depression far better than we know ourselves. Should Bale leave, he’ll be replaced by someone, but it just won’t be the same. It’ll be like when that decades-long marriage tends, and the rebound-girl looks like and reminds you of the ex in so many ways, and yet…More seriously, though, we do define ourselves against the other. If Spurs tumble, so to do we. I’m not about to whip out John Donne’s Meditation XVII on you, so don’t worry about that. I will say this, though: with a lesser, weakened Spurs team, we risk losing the villain against whom we define ourselves. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spider-man has Doc Ock. You see the trend. Arsenal has Spurs. Without them, we’d have to start a new rivalry from scratch, casting aside more than 100 years of tension, animosity, and outright hatred (from some). Among the other London clubs, I dislike Chelsea utterly and thoroughly, but the feeling there doesn’t carry the same savory flavor.

Last but not least, should Bale leave, we face the unthinkable: commiseration. We’d see ourselves in them, and they’d see themselves in us. They lost Bale, we lost van Persie. Two heartbreaks–in consecutive years, no less–might just be enough to bring us together in a heart-salving embrace. Spurs fans and Arsenal fans would trade scarves instead of salvos. Adebayor and Gallas and Campbell, among others, would be accepted on both sides of the divide, and the UN would declare both clubs as ambassadors for peace. Now that I think of it, it could in usher a golden age of brotherhood and harmony and—

Bollocks. Let him leave.