As I write this, the last Olympic medals have been won, and London has enjoyed its send-off to its surprisingly successful Olympic summer. In part. Because most people seem to have forgotten the Paralympics, which runs from 29th August to 12 September. More tickets on sale for that next week, so lets hope the enjoyment, optimism and success of the last 3 weeks, also leads to the best attended Paralympics ever. Sadly Danny Boy wasn’t in charge tonight or he would have given it a plug. Instead of getting Liam Gallagher to sing out of tune. Still just to whet the appetite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuAPPeRg3Nw
Although most Olympic disciplines are either too complex or too simple to challenge the more popular spectator sports in terms of long-term viewing interest or mass appeal, the English Premier League could learn a lot from the last month. Half a famous phrase says that football is a game for gentleman played by animals, and its comparative working class roots are used to excuse players, fans and managers for publicly visible poor behaviour. I think that events like the Olympics and Paralympics can help educate the next generation of how things can be, and perhaps being more gracious and less mercenary, given how many of them have been excitedly tweeting throughout the last three weeks.
Before I start sounding like a Daily Mail features writer, or one of James Lawton’s morally superior crusades, I do of course recognise that those participating in the Olympics are made up of a much broader and sometimes much more affluent social strata, and that while the pressure to perform in your only opportunity for two or four years is massive, it is entirely different to being engaged in the most popular spectator sport in the world week in week out. Also undoubtedly, being both constantly showered with adulation and becoming very wealthy in a short period of time will skew people’s perspectives, especially for those lacking the maturity of life experience to retain a sense of fallibility. But – the way that a bona-fida regs to riches superstar like Usain Bolt conducts himself, with as much showmanship as any footballer, but with a far greater desire to reach out to people, is instructive. Or indeed the new ‘people’s princess’ Jess Ennis (particularly enjoyed by bigoted Tories and Daily Mail writers insulting the idea of ‘multicultural claptrap’) or Mo Farah, or the less known gold medalist Luke Campbell – all of whom came very modest backgrounds.
Some of that was captured by the GB football team, with even Craig Bellamy playing both elder statesman and diplomat, and they played an inventive and progressive style which reflected well on Stuart Pearce’s leadership, much to the surprise of most commentators. I still think a Beckham off the bench cameo would have been good, but team GB were never in the running really. The pitched battle between South Korea and Japan in the bronze medal match showed that it just meant more to some countries, and Mexico’s surprise win against the electric attack and porous defence of Brazil was the result of excellent planning and teamwork. Brazil’s embarrassment of riches seem to exist without a cohesive plan, especially in midfield, whereas Mexico had much more defined roles and a tactical structure that ensured all pegs meshed with their designated holes. They also played with a humility and self-sacrifice that the young Brazilians would do well to replicate.
Relating things back to my first love, one of my favourite things about this current Arsenal squad, is that the vast majority come across as pretty decent, free thinking human beings, who have formed their own relationships with their success. And that you could have a reasonably nice chat with. Its hard to envisage Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs, Lukas Fabianski or even the marketing dream that is Theo Walcott buying a diamond encrusted Bentley and sticking two fingers up at all and sundry like so many players in the EPL. I know people have accused the current and recent squad’s of being ‘too nice’, but going back the the Olympics, David Beckham is a perfect example of how a working class lad can become one of the most successful and famous sports people in the world, achieve gargantuan wealth, remain ambitious, and still handle himself with dignity and give of himself. He’s always been a nice bloke and he has won titles in several countries and only the World Cup has eluded him.
Looking ahead for Arsenal, much is still up in the air with Robin Van Persie’s future still very much undecided, despite Alex Ferguson’s apparent confused plea to the press regarding his inability to understand why Arsenal don’t want to sell their captain and best player to one of their traditional rivals for absolute peanuts. Disingenuous from the Govan growler, and his bullying tactics don’t work as well with major European teams as they do with home grown players. We know the Dutchman wants out, with Man Utd as his preferred destination, but beyond that we all remain utterly ignorant of what will happen and when.
A further possible spanner in the works is the traditional summer Barcelona pursuit of an Arsenal first teamer, with public praise of Alex Song by about half of their squad (despite Cesc refusing to play ball), followed by tapping up, illegal advance contractual agreements, all in an attempt to unsettle the player to lower the eventual transfer fee, be it now or in the future. The fact is that Song has three years remaining on his contract and another good season will see his stock rise even further, so the chance of him attempting to force through a move at this stage is unlikely. I think the Cameroonian is a fine player, but if the bid was anything above £25m, I would consider letting him go, as I’m not sure he provides this team tactically with what it needs. While his passing and dribbling have improved immeasurably, his positioning is still suspect, and the midfield would have better balance with someone who is naturally more defensive and a better one-touch passer. I am certainly not advocating his sale, but I think he comes into the category of replaceable if he really wants to leave.
Beyond that, gooners go their first glimpse today of the three big new signings, in a pre-season friendly at recently relegated FC Koln. None disappointed, with Giroud’s ability to lead the line, Podolski’s lethal finishing and Cazorla’s two-footed inventive passing for all to see. Most importantly, bar a little match fitness, they all look ready to make a significant impact on day one. Though it wasn’t the strongest opponents, the fluidity in midfield in attack with the new boys playing and impressive shifts from Walcott, Gibbs and Chamberlain was very heartening. We also saw the first obvious evidence of Steve Bould’s influence, with the opening goal coming from Vermaelen from close range after a textbook Bould circa 1989 near post flick on by Per Mertesacker. If he can have a similar impact at the other end, many Arsenal fans will be happy. Certainly noises from the camp suggest he is taking on a slightly more specialist role with the defence, which many, myself included feel is overdue at the club.
In the second half we saw another erratically exciting performance from the quick feet and pot-luck decision making of Gervinho, who this summer has repeated his promising pre-season of last year. Its a big 9 months for the Ivorian, who is a stellar dribbler with excellent pace and at times a confident finisher, but who hasn’t put it together regularly in London.
The second 45 minutes was also notable for the late arrival of the now heavily divisive Van Persie (who unsurprisingly copped some stick from both sets of fans), and the start of the rehabilitation of Andrei Arshavin. The diminutive Russian’s performance was suitably microcosmic, with lots of nearly through balls, and combinations of brilliance (including a chance on a plate for Gervinho that was wasted) and mediocrity. The most interesting thing though was that he was deployed primarily behind the front man, which the world and the wife knows is his best position, an opportunity he has very rarely been afforded since moving to London. This at least gives him a chance of returning to the form he has struggled to re-capture since losing the burst of pace that made him a threat out wide.
Overall the signings, coaching alterations and tactical shuffles are almost across the board what most fans have been calling for – almost as if le professeur has taken to reading blogs or forums! Given that he has clearly decided to get rid of Squillachi, Park and Bendtner, and if RVP stays Chamakh will go, the fan base has much to be happy about regarding this summer.
If we get to to September 2nd with Van Persie and Song still in residence, I won’t be alone in feeling more optimistic about the club than I have in years. I am also very excited about the FA youth Premier League, which will provide better competition for our youngsters, and much more chance of cheap cheap tickets for games to see them play at the Emirates. While Afobe has gone on loan to Bolton (a hat-trick in his first friendly), and Joel Campbell to Betis, most of the other promising youngsters remain at the club, and we’ll get to see them in this or the Carling Cup.
Football is back next week, and I can’t wait.
That said, I will watch lots of the Paralympics, and my final thought is a happy summer one… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYtpL5YhWOQ&feature=youtu.be