By Tony Attwood
Since Untold started in January 2008 I’ve never thought that Untold would make any reader change his/her mind. Rather I just hoped that I might find a few people who like me, felt that football was not being reported in a reasonable way. And that seems to have happened. At least I feel less alone!
Through the process of probing and searching, over the years I think we’ve picked up on maybe four or five areas where this notion – that the media, for all sorts of reasons, will present a false picture of what football is – has not only been continued but also amplified. And the one element within this we have been discussing a lot of late – transfers – continues to pop up year after year.
The media loves transfers because they don’t require any journalism – you can just make up a story and then when it doesn’t happen, blame the club for being too slow or being unwilling to pay the right amount of money. It is also one where myths can be built up – such as that Arsene Wenger will never spend money – even though he has bought the likes of Ozil and Alexis.
But this constant push in relation to transfers now has a power of its own, in that in some people’s minds, big money transfers are what defines a club’s success. In such a view of the world Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool were actually more successful than Arsenal in the league last season because the spent more money.
Of course the League table tells a different story. But there is more to it than that, as I have been trying to say in articles over the past year…
But it is not just any transfer at a high fee that is wanted. It is a striker. Always a striker. We have also shown that although having the top scoring players in the league in the squad can help a team win the league, it happens far less than one might imagine. The fact is that many of the most successful teams in the League have had a good striker, and at least one astounding wing player, or a brilliant number 10, or a man who can put through assists. It is the combination that works – but is of course less easy to write a simplistic headline about. And the combination of a brilliant winger or number 10, plus a superb always fit striker who scores all the time, is very, very hard to get.
But then argument is that we still ought to buy because some of the transfers work. But as I want to argue here, buying a duff player can itself be a huge problem for various reasons.
First, it hampers the manager. He has invested the big money in the player and that player doesn’t start scoring. The manager is reluctant to drop the player because of the publicity surrounding the purchase so it is very much a case of his name being on the line.
The crowd start to get on the player’s back. Other players in the squad know that this newcomer is having a hard time, and that this is causing the club difficulty. When the club draw or lose instead of getting an expected win, there is moaning in the dressing room that the new man is taking the big salary and stopping the lower paid players getting their win bonus.
The new man tries harder, which is often the worse thing to do because on the field of play you need to have that balance between relaxation and tension. You need the adrenaline and calm.
Such a balance is not something I can talk about from a football point of view since I’ve never played at anything like a decent level, but exactly the same issues arise in the theatre where I have worked, and in musical performance. At the heart of this is the need to realign posture and to avoid unnecessary muscular and mental tension. Get too worked up about your poor performances on the pitch and you start running inefficiently, and respond to stressful stimuli in an exaggerated way.
Everyone involved in performance being sporting or artistic, comes to realise the need for balance. But it is this that often eludes the expensive signing who fails to live up to expectation, and who then causes disharmony.
The problem with football is that because our support is focussed on just one team we tend to be very aware of our own players who fail to realise their ability, and so we blame our manager for buying a player who turned out to be a donkey. But the problem of harmony and balance against the big name purchase is one that every team faces.
Players need to fit into a team, and so each new purchase has to relate to the players already at the club as well as their own personal playing abilities. Robert Pires is a perfect example. Arsene Wenger realised that although right footed Pires played far better on the left because of the way his eyesight worked. It is not at all uncommon for people to have much better awareness of what is happening around them on one side rather than the other. This difference is not to do with handedness (I am right handed but my awareness on my left is far greater than on my right) but to do with the eyes themselves and the eye/brain co-ordination.
Put Pires on the left wing and he was a much much better performer than on the right. But Henry also had the desire to drift out to the left wing, as those of us who watched him week on week will remember with such joy. So Arsene Wenger had to work out a system with the two players as to how they would handle this, and of course it came good – although I think many people do forget that Pires first season at Arsenal as he adjusted to the demand of the approach, was not his best. Indeed the crowd did get on his back a little.
Henry scored 17 goals in his first two league seasons with Arsenal – his second season being Pires’ first, when he (Pires) struggled to make sense of his position in the team, and to overcome the fact that he was chopped down by a thug player every time he got the ball. But in Pires’ second season and Henry’s third, the combination exploded and as a result Henry went up to 24 goals. Indeed it is often said that Pires actually arrived on 31 March 2001, a day many remember as the day David Rocastle passed on. Arsenal played Tottenham that day, Pires was amazing, we won 2-0. Three matches previous to this we had lost 6-1 to Man U. It was impossible to imagine how the team could have been transformed.
Wenger had faith not only in Pires but also in the Pires/Henry combination, and Mr Wenger’s position was safe because the clamour to get rid of managers at the drop of three points was less in those days.
So we’ve seen through these articles that having the top scorer in the league can help win the league, but doesn’t always. That high cost transfers can help, but can hinder. And that the simplistic link between how much a club spends and where it comes in the league is actually a fantasy.
But still, in all this people forget just how many transferred players flop.
I could list hundreds of such players, but here are three, virtually selected at random.
Juan Sebastian Veron – Chelsea. He made seven appearances in his season at Chelsea before being sold on to Inter. It cost Chelsea over £2 million a game.
- 10 July 1995: David Platt transferred to Arsenal from Sampdoria for £4.75. Platt said that Bruce Rioch had been on holiday in Portugal and flew to Italy to make the signing and they “hit it off straight away”.
- 10 July 2014: Arsenal sign Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for around £30m. He became an immediate success being the club’s top scorer in his first season and showing an unending drive and passion while on the pitch.