Posts Tagged 'Arsenal'

Foreign players and markets

Earlier today, on an Exeter City mailing list I subscribe to (yes, such things exist), Mike Blackstone posed the following question:

“What if the only players who were allowed to play in the Premier and Football  League were to be born in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern ireland  and the Republic of ireland? Would this not make the respective  international teams stronger (eventually) as more home grown players
came through the ranks?”

I started replying, the realised it was turning into an epic consideration of all things foreign, football politics, and quite possibly ill-thought through economics of the sport. So, what the hell, I’ll post it on here.

Normally this would go over onto Soccerlens, but it’s very much a work in progress and I’d be interested for other people to throw their own views in here, as I’ve undoubtedly missed a few things or there’s a stunningly good argument to demolish one, or all, of the points. It might get shaped into some kind of article in coming weeks. Possibly.

Here, in all its unrefined glory (or lack of) is my answer to Mike’s question:

***

To go back to Mike’s original question, I think it would make more players available for the teams, but may not necessarily make it stronger. Ok, so there may be more players to chose from, but that won’t help if all the players are of a lower standard than the foreign players they replace. It will weaken the league and, in the long run, damage the international teams, no matter how good the short-term measure would be.

Blaming the foreign influx is an easy way to see a solution to the perceived problem, but there are wider underlying issues here that aren’t the fault of foreign players.

1. First of all, foreign players have benefitted the league. Having world class players like Henry, Cantona, Zola, Bergkamp, etc compete in England has made the league more attractive to advertisers and sponsorship and has resulted in more money flowing in. That clubs lower down have not benefitted from this cash is due to the Premier League and the FA, not foreigners.

2. Players such as Henry et al have provided inspiration for youngsters today to take up the game, and have given our game something different. Previously a player such as, say, Matthew Le Tissier, wasn’t fancied at international level despite being one of the nearest things we had to a continetal playmaker like Totti or Cantona. Now there’s much more of an appreciation of the different types of skills and players and such role models can only be good for the British game. Look at the likes of Aaron Ramsey – he could be that type of player in a few years time. Fifteen years ago, he’d have probably been discarded in favour of a workhorse who would put in energy and muscle but not as much skill.

3. The failure to bring through a generation of younger players is, again, down to the FA and the Premier League. By abandoning the idea of a national centre at Burton, there was no focal point and incentive for PL clubs to invest in their own homegrown talent – indeed, PL clubs weren’t overly fond of the FA taking off their brightest young talents on a regular basis. Owen, Joe Cole and others went through the old FA schools. Reviving Burton will give us a better chance at training and indentifying promising youngsters.

As an aside, the whole system of training our children is probably flawed. The emphasis is on putting them into a position as early as possible, stick to it, and win at all costs from a very early age. Other countries encourage children to play on all positions in non-competitive games in their pre-teen years. That way youngsters can enjoy the game without the pressure of having to win, and develop an apprecation of what their colleagues on the pitch can do, as well as enhancing skills they would not have got had they simply played as a striker week in week out.

4. The strength of our economy over recent years has played a part. Foreign players have an incentive to move here because they will often earn more than in their home countires due to the strength of the pound. Their wage demand and cost would be less than British players, so clubs would go for the cheap option. Although, there’s also a part of this whereby clubs have thought with short-term goals, seen the success of Cantona, Zola and Henry (and some of the players to progress through Arsenal’s ranks) and have tried to do the same, albeit on a cut-price level in line with their budgets. They were cheaper than British players to bring through.

5. By the same token, British players, for whatever reason, have been reluctant to move abroad. Part of this is to do with the inflated wealth whereby they can get more for bench-warming in the Premiership than playing football abroad in a country where the currency is weaker. Also, there’s a slightly suspicious attitude of Brits playing abroad, probably scarred by past experiences. Owen Hargreaves was widely assumed to be no good for a long period of time, despite a successful career at one of Germany’s biggest clubs. This also gave him a slightly different footballing education and exposure to a different style of play. Who is to say that, for example, Justin Hoyte, wouldn’t have been better served by going to Hamburg or PSV rather than Middlesbrough? As has been pointed out, we have a large flow of foreigners coming into this league, but very few going in the opposite direction. A more even import-export ratio of players would benefit British teams.

6. In the midst of all this, you have bad decision making, both from the clubs individually and the governing bodies. No matter how many rules and regulations you put in place, you can’t legislate for businesses making mistakes by buying bad players or overspending so they can only afford cheap foreign imports, and nor should you. Plus, nothing can ever account for Steve McClaren.

7.  Supporters too have their part to play in the current state of affairs. By wanting success instantaneously, they’re less willing to see a club spend time on developing and blooding younger players. Take Theo Walcott – wonder boy at 17, written-off at 18 when he hardly played, now seen as a key player to Arsenal and a huge blow when injured. Less single-minded managers than Wenger may not have given Walcott the time and patience he needed to develop. A medium-name foreign signing comes with little baggage and may temporarily appease fans, regardless of his ability.

8. As with most markets, this process is circular. Cycles come and go, and we may well see with the credit crunch, a return to home-grown players. With the pound a lot weaker in recent years, foreign players may find they’re better served with their careers abroad. Some British players may also decide abroad is the best option. Similarly, clubs that have kept faith in their youth acaemdies, such as Exeter and the likes of Villa in the Premiership, are now starting to reap the benefits with their long-term attitude. In this credit crunch era, with less cash available, many clubs may well start to look at those teams that are successfully bringing through young players and see it as the solution to cutting costs (and external pressures, such as the constant debates on foreigners, may convince clubs its politik to have more home-grown players).

Conclusion: Football is a business, like any other (but also one that does spend a lot of time operating outside the parameters of what most reasonable businesses do) and has now moved into a much more globalised world. This has benefitted the quality of football, globally, as a whole and the Premier League as a market leader in this product. Much of the problems with foreign players can be explained by markets – having restrictions on the market in the form of home-grown only players (short-term protectionism) won’t work in the long-term, no matter how attractive a solution it may seem now.

We’re moving onto another cycle of the market in footballers and this should even out over the next 12 months. English football currently appears to have the best available man for the job in the post who brings a different sensibility to the game and, you suspect, wouldn’t dismiss players from his plans if, say, they moved abroad.

I’m actually pretty optimistic about the long-term future of English future in this current climate. And, yes, looking at the current crop of Welsh players emerging, I’m actually quite optimistic about our chances for Euro 2012 as well.

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The impetuousness of youth

The Emirates has long been on my list of stadiums to visit. There’s somebody about it that just looks like plenty of thought and grace has gone into the design. And, you know me, if there’s any sort of football being kicked about, chances are I’ll watch it. Hence, my attendance at Arsenal Youth Team v Sheffield United in The Competition Formerly Known As The Milk Cup tonight.

There was no time to admire the architecture at Ashburton Grove – a mix up with food in the pub beforehand and a painfully slow Piccadilly Line meant we were running late for kick-off, and with our seats on the top tier, about twelve minutes had already elapsed by the time we parked our backsides on the padded seats.

Yes, a football stadium with padded seats for the proles. You can tell they meant business. Not mean business, but more like business class airline business.

There was still plenty of time to admire the surroundings, however, as it transpired we’d missed absolutely bugger all, and for the next 15 minutes we proceeded to watch bugger all. Arsenal’s youngsters (average age 10. Probably. A least a handful were born after Italia ’90, which is just wrong by my book) stroked the ball around nicely but failed to walk the ball into the net, while Sheffield United looked to break on the counter but, despite (or because of) the presence of James Beattie up front, had no cutting edge.

So, while both teams engaged in a cagey opening, I took time to survey the stadium and was suitably impressed. Despite being back near the top, the view was still perfect, and there was plenty of space for legs, while still maintaining an intimate feel.

The whole place positively glimmers, with a sleek cleanliness that is a perfect design complement to Arsene Wenger’s style of football. You can only really take in the surroundings with a sense of awed hush, which probably explains why the place is so bloody quiet.

Going as a neutral to football matches is always a weird experience, but the atmosphere and noise generated by the fans usually drags me into caring about the game. Not so at Arsenal. Occasional pockets of noise sprung up and once or twice a few people stood up and tried to get a chant going, before being told to sit down. And for the rest of the time, I may as well have been watching a game of tennis or a mildly exciting game of chess.

Actually, make that a game of chess where every slightly iffy move is greeted with groans or, worse still, boos or profanity. Every time Arsenal made a mistake, which wasn’t a great deal, a mixture of all three rang out from around me. I’ve been to plenty of football games, and this was a first. The singing had been dispensed with all together and the crowd had moved straight into frustration.

On the half-hour mark there was finally something to lift the crowd, when Nicklas Bendtner, who had been the Gunners best player up to that point, fired a low shot from the edge of the area that squeezed past Paddy Kenny and put Arsenal one up.

It also stirred Sheffield United a little bit and they looked to respond immediately, but Wenger is no mug. He may have picked a side mostly consisting of teenagers, but in the centre of defence were Johann Djourou and Alex Song, who’ve a good deal of senior experience under their belts, and they succeeded in comfortably repelling any attacks from the Blades.

Ten minutes later Bendtner struck again following a lovely passing move across the pitch before (I think) Ramsey backheeled the back to the Danish striker, who looked suspiciously offside but tucked the ball away nonetheless.

That finally got the crowd going and we got the first and only proper mass chant of the night – Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham – and it was midway through this that Bendtner’s strike partner, Mexican teenager Carlos Vela, slipped through for a neat third goal to put the Gunners three up ten minutes before half time.

The interval was a slightly strange and very dull affair. Adverts beamed down from the screen, interspersed with the Arsenal equivalent of the National Lottery, as if I’d stumbled onto the set of a quaint daytime gameshow. With my companions off getting programmes, I checked on the Exeter Reserves score (2-0 up against Swindon’s second string) and waited quietly in my seat for the second half, as did the rest of the crowd. Had somebody started handing out tea in bone china, it would have felt quite natural.

The second half started in much the same fashion as the first left off. Arsenal’s youngsters, knowing they had a three goal cushion, relaxed and started playing some gloriously flowing football and soon enough the crowd were treated to a spectacular fourth when Vela flicked the ball passed two defenders before excuting a perfect lob over the advancing Paddy Kenny.

Soon after 16-year-old Jack Wilshere, who probably should have been getting ready for bed on a school night, made it five with a low drive from a corner and it really was game over.

The rest of the match played somewhat like a training ground exercise, with neat passing movements between the Arsenal players, while the Blades didn’t look overly inclined to both trying to salvage anything. Soon after the fifth goal, the Sheffield United supporters started a lengthy singsong and made more noise in the stadium than the home fans did all match.

There was time for Vela to complete a well-deserved and sublime hat-trick three minutes from time when he was put through by Aaron Ramsey and slid the ball past Kenny. It was no less than he, and Arsenal, deserved.

By this stage, though, a good 50% of the fans weren’t around to see the icing on the cake. With fifteen minutes to go, people started edging towards the exit and with about 8 minutes left on the clock, about half the seats around me were empty.

Coming away from the Emirates, my thoughts were firmly divided into two categories: the football and the rest of it.

On the pitch, Arsenal were simply breathtaking, despite many of the players having little or no first team experience and not being old enough to drink. Wenger has long specialised in being able to unearth young gems and he looks as if he’s got another team of potential stars.

Vela will get the headlines, and the player has plenty of natural talent, although still lacks an awareness of his team-mates around him on occasions. That will come with time. Bendtner, on the other hand, already had that intelligence after plenty of first team games and his reading of the game was a cut above his team-mates.

In midfield, Ramsey and Wilshere – with a combined age that’s only just over 30 – looked as if they’d been playing together for ten years, so assured were their performances. There was a real understanding between them, and a calmness and maturity to their play, offset by the fearlessness of youth. They were a joy to watch.

But… but… but… regular readers know my love for non-league football – the banter on the terraces, the joys of standing up close to the pitch and singing rude little ditties to the opposition goalkeeper, the atmosphere that comes from a hardy bunch banding together to watch their little team. The exact opposite of the Emirates.

And yet on my visit to White Hart Lane about six months ago, the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. Nobody sat down (sitting is an alien concept to me at football) and everybody sang for 90 minutes. Granted, that game was against Chelsea, while this was a League Cup game against lower opposition. But my Arsenal supporting housemate later told me that tonight’s atmosphere was louder than usual.

And its easy to see why. A plush, comfy new stadium combined with aesethically pleasing football and no real sense of sound, plus branded Arsenal goods at every glance and a slightly weird screaming at weird moments made the Emirates feel more like an American sporting event rather than a blood and thunder cup game between top dogs and plucky scrappers.

I have a lot of time for Arsene Wenger. Often he seems to be a lone voice of sense in the Premiership and I admire his steadfast commitment to building the club on strong, youthful foundations. In a lot of respects Arsenal are a model for any club.

But at the same time, the non-footballing side feels like everything I don’t want a club to turn into. Logo-centric, clean, sanitised sport served with a relaxed, smiling face. Had I ventured into the toilets, Arsenal-branded loo-roll holders and a bathroom attendant would have seemed normal.

Arsenal are a great club to watch. I could happily watch Wenger’s brand of football every week, but I couldn’t watch it there. It would drive me nuts. No jumping up and screaming, no non-stop singing, no banter, no witty spur-of-the-moment chants or comments. Just overly-expectant fans and polite applause. I can understand why Mike Ashley downed his pint now – sitting in such a sanitised environment would drive me to drink (more than I currently do).

At the risk of getting lynched by every part of North London, if you could combine the electric atmosphere at White Hart Lane with the football on offer across the way, you’d have a winner. But somehow Spurs’ feverent passion would, I suspect, feel out of place with the more cerebral style of play on offer at Ashburton Grove and more fitted to the erratic, yet occasionally sublime, nature of Spurs.

But most of all, it served to remind me how much I miss Exeter City. Due to family commitments, birthdays, work, holiday and a few other bits and pieces I’ve not been able to make a single Exeter game this season, and probably won’t be able to until Barnet away at the end of October. And, God, I’ll be ready for it.

I’ve missed the ‘takeover’ of pubs on away days. I’ve missed the array of chants that I still sing at weekend mornings. Quietly. To myself. When I think nobody’s in earshot.

I miss the City club bar – the Centre Spot – which is always rammed and sweaty, but where you can’t take two steps without bumping into an old face. I miss the slightly warm Tribute served there, and the array of ciders and beers from the club’s bottle bar. I miss standing midway down the Big Bank, just to left of the goal, with the same set of people, and Scotty’s mum handing out a bag of sweets. I miss watching our centre-backs hoof the ball aimlessly up the pitch. I miss the surge forward and unadulterated joy of when we score that sees me hugging anybody within range.I even miss the anti-Argyle chants, irrelevant as they currently are.

I miss Exeter City. And no amount of breathtakingly stunning football from precocious youngsters in a sparkling new stadium will ever change that.


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