Tag Archives: Gareth Bale

Open Letter to Tottenham Hotspur

Greetings, The Spurs, and thanks for gracing this humble blog. I’m not here to wind you up—I live a long ways from London, and so maybe I haven’t drunk enough of the Flavor-Aid to hate Spurs as much as a Gooner should, I do want to explain the origins of my animosities towards the club so that, come what may on Saturday, my predictions, reactions, and analyses come in the proper context. My feeelings towards your club may not be based on the geography or the history, but it comes from a deeply personal place that I hope earns your respect  and admits me into the esteemed club of hated Gooners.

I spent most of my early days blissfully, blithely supporting Arsenal without having any real understanding of the rivalry. In those days, I don’t think many of us Yanks knew much of anything about British football, much less the rivalries or the history. I had a poster of Gascoigne, of all people, on my bedroom wall. If you had asked me about Spurs, I would have almost surely assumed you were asking about the San Antonio Spurs, such was my ignorance at the time.

What follows then is a story of when the scales fell from my eyes and I came to understand what it means to hate.

I had a classmate, a guy who was a glorified water-boy of a soccer player, whom we had to put up with because our moms were friends. Car-pooling. Anyway, his mum was the one who would snap at you if you wiped fog from the window and complain about how she’d have to come back out later with Windex and a rag to get rid of the smudges and whatnot, or whinge about how you shouldn’t wash your hands at the kitchen-sink, but I digress. It’s the son, my classmate, who’s at the heart of things here. As the story goes, we were coming back from a match, his da’s driving, he’s riding shotgun, and I’m sitting behind his da. I’m taking off my boots and pause for a moment to look out the window and, well, I’ll let it unfold from there.

     “Hm? What?”
     “Put yer shoes back on!”
     “Gimme a minute, I’m just changing into dry socks.”
     “Shay, no one wants to smell yer socks.”
     Fair point. Still, in a matter of seconds, the problem would be resolved. Ironically, this discussion was slowing me down and prolonging the problem. “Jake, calm yourself. I’m switching to fresh socks. Lemme just take off my shinguards and—”
     The slap brought silence to the van. Six teenaged boys fell suddenly, awfully silent. Jake had slapped me. In the few seconds of silence that followed, I suppressed the urge to unload. It was late at night, we were on a highway, and it was snowy. If I punched him back, would his dad flinch and send us into uncoming traffic. I was seething, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I could feel the anticipation of the other lads in the car urging me on. However, I had to let it pass. Revenge is a dish best served cold and all.
     Fast forward a few days and we’re finishing practice, and this same bellend mentions how he supported a club called Tottenham. I laughed. Admit it—it is a rather silly name, isn’t it? It sounds like an out-of-date name for some tribe living in the bush, not a name for a plucky but put-upon professional football club in London. At any rate, I think you can see the alchemy at work there. Loathsome punk of a lad slaps me in the face, hiding behind his da and the relative safety of the front-seat of a family van, proudly trumpets his admiration for a club that turns out to be the rival of my own chosen club. The rest, as they say, is history. My hatred for Hotspur had its inception there, and I’ve never looked back. I don’t remember that last time Jake and I saw each other. He’s friended me on facebook and followed me on twitter, but I’ve ignored it each time. However, I suppose I owe him some kind of thank-you for helping me understand, even if only by accident, the history of this rivalry.  Fast-forward ten years or so from that moment, and it turns out that one of my best mates is a Spud. Funny how these things turn out.

If you care to dig through my archive, I think you’ll find that I’m still probably too tame in my treatment of your club to prove my bona fides to other Gooners. I wanted Gareth Bale to stay, if that proves anything to you, worrying that he’d wilt under the pressure of commanding a higher transfer-fee than Ronaldo. So much for that worry, eh? He and Modrić have bedded in pretty well. I’ll only bring up your club’s unfortunate tendency to finish below Arsenal in the context of a compliment; your stadium seats how many? 36,000? The Emirates seats almost twice that, and yet, year after year, you push us right down to the wire. How much of that derives from us underperforming or you overperforming matters less than the fact that, despite that imbalance, your club has punched above its weight.

Still, come Saturday, I’d love nothing more than to see our lads punish yours, scoring again and again and again. There’s a chance that you could win, leapfrogging your way to as high as third, but we could achieve the same with a win of our own. Then again, when it comes to a North London Derby, who’s where on the table is almost an afterthought, isn’t it? 

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.