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Random Soccer Musings

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This post by Paul a couple weeks ago has inspired me to post more about soccer. I’ve sporadically written about it in the past, including every major international tournament, occasional mentions of clubs I support or otherwise follow (Celtic, Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Plymouth Argyle, FC Twente, and Seattle Sounders FC), and other random topics. I naively hope to make this a semi-regular feature.

First, the USWNT defeated Germany 2-0 last night to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal. They’re on a pretty decent run of 29 matches without a defeat. I have a ticket to see the Alex Morgan and the Portland Thorns to play in the new NWSL this upcoming summer, and you bet I’m looking forward to it.

The past week has seen the winnowing down of the UEFA Champions League field to the final eight, including three clubs from Spain (Barcelona, Malaga, and Real Madrid), two from Germany (Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), and one each from Italy (Juventus), France (PSG) and Turkey (Galatasaray). The big news is that England do not have a side in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995-6, which is atypical for a league that has had a club in the final seven of the past eight tournaments (Liverpool 2, Arsenal 1, Man U 3, Chelsea 2), and won it three times in that span (Liverpool, Man U, Chelsea).  The draw for the quarter finals is held tomorrow.

EPL sides were dumped out in the group stage (Chelsea finished third in their group hence parachuted into the Europa League, while reigning English champion Manchester City finished a miserable fourth on only three points), or the first knockout round: Manchester United went down to Real Madrid 2-3 on aggregate, while Arsenal went out last night to Bayern Munich on the away goal rule in an aggregate 3-3 draw even though they won in Munich 2-0).  Celtic, of course, were humiliated by Juve 5-0 on aggregate, but when they qualified for the group stage (itself not a given) my best optimistic hope was a third place finish, and I was expecting fourth. Thus to finish second in the group (including a magnificent victory over Barcelona in Glasgow) and to even qualify for the concomitant schooling by Juventus was bonus.

It should also be noted that England’s absence in the tournament at this early stage is ironic given that Wembley is the hose to the final this year.

In the North American version of that tournament, the much heralded CONCACAF Champions League (six syllables that make one’s hair stand on end), Seattle became the first MLS side to defeat Mexican opposition in the knock out round since the tournament adopted its current format in 2008. Going into Tuesday’s match in Seattle down 1-0 from the first leg, Seattle defeated Tigres 3-1 for a 3-2 aggregate victory. This Guardian piece on the match includes a clip of Djimi Traoré’s (yes, that Djimi Traoré) amazing goal from well outside the box. Their reward is a tie against Mexican side Santos Laguna, who knocked Seattle out the previous year. The other semi final has LA Galaxy against current holder Monterrey, so it’s MLS v Mexico, as it should be.

The absolute unconditional faith that Arsenal supporters have had in Arsène Wenger has been attenuating the past several seasons, and this year there have been vocal calls for his removal. The season has been a disaster by Arsenal standards of the past 15 years. Arsenal are five points from fourth place in the Premiership with ten matches to go, which matters because the 1st through 4th place teams qualify for the Champions League the following year. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League the past 15 seasons. Arsenal have also lost to Bradford City of the fourth tier in the League Cup, and were knocked out of the FA Cup to second tier Blackburn Rovers. Embarrassment would be warmly received compared to those two defeats.

What to do about Wenger, who has managed Arsenal since 1996? The NYT article linked above correctly suggests that a large degree of the malaise since winning the FA Cup in 2005 results from the financing involved in building their new stadium, The Eremites. Unlike American sports, clubs are expected to finance, own, and maintain their stadia themselves. The Emirates opened in 2006, and cost between £390 and £470 million. It’s difficult to imagine a baseball or American football team happily paying $600 million for its stadium. Wenger has deserved reputation for buying talent young and cheap, and some go on to be club legends (Thierry Henry), while others are turned around for decent profits (Nicolas Anelka).  Lately, though, Arsenal are degrading into a farm club (Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie). In the past, Wenger was able to hold onto his best players (I remember the annual calls from Manchester United and Real Madrid for Patrick Vieria) but this appears to be no more (Manchester City have particularly benefited from Arsenal in recent seasons).

Wenger has always had a blind spot for defense, and it can legitimately be argued that he inherited the backfield on which his initial success was built (Seaman, Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon, Keown). It now appears that his nous for midfielders and forwards is waning (Giroud?), and for whatever reason, tactical, lack of success, lack of money, he’s no longer to hang onto the players he develops (at least Theo Walcott signed an extension in January). At 63, it might be possible that where he had identified and exploited a market weakness in player acquisition int he past, others have caught up to him; equally, his tactical innovations from the past may likewise no longer afford a competitive advantage. While it’s impossible to argue that Wenger and Arsenal are what they were ten years ago, and few retain the comforting faith that “Arsène Knows”, my question for the detractors is “who?”  A fifth place side, out of the CL, not winning a trophy since 2005, is not an obvious destination for an ambitious, known commodity. And Pep Guardiola has already signed to take over Bayern Munich at the end of the season anyway. The other alternative is to Wenger route itself: pluck a relative unknown from some obscure league or division. But does anybody trust the current board to make an inspired selection? As a Celtic supporter, I’ve long since tired of the naive belief that David Moyes is the solution, since he’d be foolish to downgrade from the EPL to the SPL, but perhaps Moyes could be enticed to Arsenal? It’s far more likely that he’s biding his time for Ferguson to finally retire at Man U.

Finally, it could be worse. A lot worse. Plymouth Argyle, my local club in England, drew 0-0 to Bradford City on Tuesday (the same Bradford City that dropped Arsenal out of the League Cup, made it to the final of that tournament, only to get thrashed by EPL side Swansea). These clubs play in League 2, or the fourth tier in the English pyramid. What was remarkable about this unremarkable goalless draw is with the single point earned, Argyle have progressed above last place in the 24 team division for the first time in a few weeks, if only on goal differential. They’re still in the relegation zone (the bottom two places in this division), two points from safety with only nine matches to play. I agree with Paul on the many benefits of promotion / relegation, but this relegation is different. It would drop Argyle out of the “League” and into the fifth tier Football Conference. While the lowest fully national division, the Conference still includes some clubs that are semi-professional.

My time in Plymouth has corresponded with a particular roller coaster in Argyle’s history.  They won the third tier my first year here, then spent six years in the second tier (including one season where a majority of it was spent in the promotion zone to the Premiership), four at mid table obscurity and two facing relegation up to the last match of the season. When they were finally relegated from the second tier in April 2010, I wrote about it here at LGM. From 2010-12, they were relegated two successive seasons, and narrowly avoided a third relegation last season by two points on the last day. This year they’ve spent a significant chunk of the season in 24th, or the 92nd placed of the 92 clubs in League football.

The Ultimate Drop is a collection of chapters that chronicle different teams that have experienced relegation into the abyss. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I (during one of her rare visits to England) had a couple over for dinner, including a friend who is a passionate Argyle supporter, cofounder and occasional member of the board of the supporters’ trust. I offered to loan him the book. He declined the invitation, saying it would be best to wait until the end of the season.

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