Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday July 31 2009
Before starting with the jist of this article, it is worthwhile repeating Paul`s sentiments in the article above and articulating our sadness at the passing of Sir Bobby Robson this morning. The word 'legend` is strewn around all too casually these days (as is the official anointment of 'Sir`), but Robson was a man well worthy of both titles. A true gentleman who will be truly missed. Our thoughts are extended unreservedly to his family and friends.
Whilst the world of football lost one of its greatest gentlemen today, Arsenal Football Club too was spared one of its most humble servants, albeit in far, far less sombre circumstances. Kolo Toure became the latest 'Invincible` to depart the good ship Arsenal. (But not the last, Gael Clichy won a Premiership medal in 2003-04). It seems to be an increasingly rare occurrence nowadays that a player leaves your club with your best wishes- certainly the recent departures of Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor and Cole have left varying degrees of acrimony with Arsenal supporters and the club hierarchy as a whole. Yet whilst just a fortnight ago, the casuistry of Adebayor`s move to Citeh was being remarked upon ad nauseam, Toure is correctly remembered with genuine affection. Kolo always represented the club with a dignity and distinction that made him a firm fans` favourite, the almost child like enthusiasm with which he represented the club drawing avuncular affection from the stands. (Story has it, that when on trial at Arsenal in 2002, he was so eager to impress, that he neatly took Arsene Wenger out with a crunching tackle). In an age where players are willing and able to move more freely, the conservative traditionalist in all of us feels that a bond is being broken. So it is with warmth we cling to characters such as Kolo who, put in Lehmann`s terms (see what I did there?), got this football club. He appreciated how special it was to represent it, how important it was to give his all and respect the values of the club with his humility. Kolo was a player who considered it an honour to play for Arsenal. The likes of Adebayor are players that think it is an honour for Arsenal to represent them. Who could forget Toure`s endearingly immature goal celebrations, such as when he registered his first Arsenal goal at Stamford Bridge and, not knowing what to do, sprinted headlong towards his manager for a high five. His place in Arsenal legend is secure and belongs to the ages. Not because he scored the last ever European goal scored at Highbury you understand, but because he once smacked Alan Shearer in the back of the head. Well deserved it was too.
Kolo was one of the last progenies to an Arsenal side that won trophies for fun and, as such, the sentimentality in his departure can be understood. Much with same as the mischievous speculation around the return of Patrick Vieira (more on that in a minute), we are intransigent when asked to sever our links to better times. Kolo made 326 appearances for Arsenal since joining in February 2002, scoring 14 goals. Kolo won 2 F.A. Cups and 1 Premiership title, representing the club in a gentlemanly throughout- in success and in failure. We thank him warmly for his service. It is notable that nobody has questioned Kolo`s motives for joining Citeh, as a character he has earned that kind of trust (even if he did perhaps go slightly Freudian on our asses when he accidentally referred to his new employees as "Money City" in his unveiling press conference). However, removing the veil of sentiment, I think this was probably the right time for the move- for Kolo and for Arsenal. Whilst many point to the extirpation of the 'Invincibles` squad, the truth is that Toure has under whelmed for a while now. Many point to the 2008 African Nations Cup as the beginning of his demise, but in truth I think it may have been earlier than that. Toure excelled when put alongside physically imposing and verbally commanding centre halves. Undoubtedly the peak of Toure`s time at Arsenal occurred during his partnership with the gargantuan Sol Campbell at the back. It was a symbiotic partnership that bought with it great reward for the club and its trophy cabinet. However, when Campbell`s mind and body began to desert him, Toure was asked to lead the backline alongside the young Senderos. However, to my eyes, Senderos too wore the trousers in that partnership, providing a kind of mini Campbell, strong, physically imposing and a commander at the back. Senderos lacks mobility though- an area Toure was able to assist in spades.
I think therein lies the lack of form over the last two years, Toure has always been an incredible athlete, but he has yet to show that he has developed the football brain of an imposing, 28 year old centre back. At his age, his chief attribute- his athleticism- will only recede. The bout of malaria he suffered will probably have sped that process along; it certainly seemed to eventuate in noticeable weight problems for Toure last year. Of course there is also the Gallas issue; the pair clearly do not get along. One might argue that the disputatious Gallas could start a fight with his own shadow and there may be veracity in that argument- but he`s still clearly a world class defender. Many will point to the fact that Toure came back into the side in the spring having been dropped for Djourou and Silvestre beforehand, and managed to forge a decent partnership with Gallas again. However, when Gallas` knee gave way in Eastern Spain, our season collapsed with his medial ligament. Toure, left to marshal the back line without Lieutenant Willy, came up short as Arsenal began to leak goals with impunity. Herein lay the point, Toure has not stepped up to become the leader we needed and wanted. One way or another, since the arrival of Gallas, Toure has been slowly edged out of the picture- and not necessarily just because he is persona non grata in William`s ever shrinking address book. With one year left on his contract and at the age of 28, £16m represents very good business indeed. (Yet still there are those that harp on about Dein`s role in getting good transfer fees for players. Dein was ushered out of the exit door some two years ago and our ability to do good business on player trading has been untarnished. But please feel free to keep being suckered in by his self promoting, press engineered charm offensive).
It is perhaps then understandable that the mischievous rumours surrounding the possible return of Patrick Vieira have been greeted with misty eyed acclaim. The first thing to say is that this snowballing rumour began with some innocuous and typically ill thought out words from rent-a-quote Ian Wright- Arsenal legend doubtless, but his musings as a media pundit are fatuous at best. Patrick Vieira was one of the greatest Arsenal players I have ever seen, if not the greatest. However, I would ask serious questions if these rumours had any credence (which I sincerely doubt they do). The fact is, even in his last season at Arsenal, Vieira`s physicality clock appeared to be ticking towards midnight in Premiership in Greenwich Meridian Time. Four years later and Vieira now finds himself physically obsolete in the painfully slow Serie A, led to the knacker yard by Inter Milan. I hear many counter pose that Vieira could play the midfield destroyer role, relying on younger legs around him. If that`s such a fantastic idea, then why isn`t Mourinho trying it at Inter? At the age of 32, even the eminently intelligent Gilberto found the position tough going, so I cannot see how a declining Vieira would magically make amends. His injury record since departing these shores has been appalling- as is usually the fate of box to box midfielders- their careers decline at an earlier age. (See Keane, Rosyton circa 2003-05 for a fitting example). If you`re giving me the choice between a rapidly improving Denilson (who A Cultured Left Foot does a brilliant piece on today- illuminating that Arsenal conceded a goal every 157 minutes with Denilson in the side and a goal every 19 minutes in the games in which Alex Song was preferred to him) and an unfit Vieira in the autumn of his years, I would not deliberate for very long. People are often fond of the old "ahh, but what about his influence on the training ground?" mantra, to which I can only answer, what the hell are the coaching staff there for? Why the need for such atavism when we already have the relics from Arsenal`s past such as Bould and Rice on the training pitch?
Many have questioned the sagacity of selling Toure to Eastlands, with the media already sharpening their kebab knives and bracing themselves for Arsenal to be snatched from their lofty perch by Money City. That inquiry can only be answered in the fullness of time, but if indeed we do utilise the contribution they have made to our transfer kitty (and that`s the key question I guess), then one might argue how sapient City have been in boosting our artillery. £40m in the hands of Arsene Wenger is probably the equivalent to £100m to 99% of England`s other coaches. A great deal of the hype surrounding City- for the time being at least- I think is mistaken. Due to the links with Eto`o and Kaka, the public have got themselves all up in a lather about the £94m City have spent this summer. But when one analyses who they have successfully bought, the picture becomes a little clearer. Barry was wanted by Liverpool but considered not worth the money. Roque Santa Cruz`s goal scoring record in his seasons as a professional footballer read as follows: 7, 5, 8, 5, 6, 0, 4, 3, 23, 6. Spot the anomaly. Adebayor and Tevez were such irritating characters that their managers could no longer be bothered with them, whilst Toure is showing evidence of decline. City have bought solid, good players. Very good players. But ultimately players that the rest of the top four could not be bothered with. They finished 10th last season, 40 points behind United. Are their current signings really going to make up enough of the short fall with the players they have bought? I don`t think so, not for this season anyway. City will challenge in the future- it is inevitable. But, and I am here to be shot at, I don`t see it just yet.
With Adebayor and Toure having been shifted and Eboue apparently to follow, I think it`s clear the Professor has something in mind. Maybe there was a divisive African clique in the dressing room? Perhaps Monsieur Wenger took a gander at the teams we are due to play during the African Nations in January and decided to immolate some sacrificial lambs. Either way, I think there is a trend that reveals a master plan of sorts. Wednesday night`s friendly with Hannover saw Arsene tinker with a Barcelona-lite 4-3-3 formation, with van Persie providing the meat in an Arshavin Bendtner sandwich. The signing of Vermaelen is a step towards having a more physical presence at the back; I think our summer so far shows that Wenger is no longer content with treading water in a comfortable top four berth, conversely to what his critics are saying just now. It looks to me as though he is reshaping the team completely. Last season`s midfield saw more permutations than a Joan Collins wedding and I do not think Wenger wants to take the risk of experimenting mid season again. (Last season probably taught him that F.A. Cup and Champions League Semi Finals are not ideal laboratories in which to test new formations). My own personal opinion is that Arsenal could do with two or three more strong squad players- ideally an all rounder at the back and a good central midfield player. I have often said that I think it is not United`s sparkling individuals that sets them apart- such as the Rooneys, Ferdinands and Berbatovs- but the Fletchers and O`Sheas who can be trusted to slot into the team and perform a function in big games. Either way, I think we`re witnessing the dawn of a different Arsenal here. Whether it will be good, bad or indifferent I`ve no idea. But I`m looking forward to finding out.LD.
Date:Friday July 31 2009
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