Know who you are, where you are from, and where you are going

History

Do you even remember 1995? Bill Clinton was president, thanks mostly to H. Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound.” That was the year I graduated from college and got my first (non-military) full time job. With my newfound wealth I was one of the first people to get a cable modem in my town and went from dial-up to “high speed” internet, where I could look at websites like… ok no one really even did web sites back then. All of us cool kids shared stuff on Usenet – that’s where I first learned about flamewars. I’m still having a flamewar with this one guy who goes by the name “Dukeofdanet”.

In 1995 Alt-Right Nationalist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people when he detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The Bosnian War was finally coming to a close, marking the end of the first genocide in Europe since World War II. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, because he convinced a jury that a glove did not fit. Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment, officially ending slavery, on March 16th 1995* just to prove that the Civil War was definitively NOT about slavery (it was).

1994-95 was also the season Blackburn Rovers won the League. Tactics Tim, Tim Sherwood, was the Blackburn captain that season and the team were notable for many players who would go on to be pundits: Graeme Le Saux, Tony Gale, Alan Shearer, and Chris Sutton. Alan Shearer was the top scorer for Blackburn with 34 goals.

Blackburn bought Shearer in 1992 for an English record fee of £3.5m. Blackburn are often accused of buying the League, an accusation which is still much debated but completely understandable. Many fans saw Rovers break records to buy Shearer, keeper Tim Flowers, and then forward Chris Sutton and concluded that Rovers bought the title.

1994-95 was not a good season for Arsenal. George Graham was fired for taking bungs (a cute name for bribes), Paul Merson went to rehab for three months for cocaine and gambling addiction, and captain Tony Adams was at the very height of his alcoholism. Arsenal spent part of the season worried about relegation but eventually clawed 8 points back from their last five games to finish 12th, just 6 points off relegation. Ian Wright was Arsenal’s leading goalscorer and finished the season with 18 goals from 42 matches.

Tottenham also spent the season in turmoil. They started off with a 12 point deduction due to financial irregularities from the 80s but their Lord Sugar was able to get the points reduction removed and instead their fine increased. Tottenham fired their manager, Ossie Ardiles, in November but despite all of this insanity managed to finish above Arsenal in 7th place. Had their 12 point deduction remained intact, they would have finished below Arsenal.

From there, the two teams went in completely different directions. Tottenham sold their leading scorer and FWA Player of the Season, Jurgen Klinsmann, for £1.5m to Bayern Munich and bought Chris Armstrong for £4.5m. Unless you lived in London in the 90s you probably don’t know who Chris Armstrong is/was. Meanwhile, Arsenal went out and bought a guy you may have heard of named David Platt. Oh, and broke the English transfer record by signing Dennis Bergkamp.

Buying Bergkamp was the first piece of a rebuilding process for Arsenal. That next season, Arsenal finished 5th, Tottenham stayed 7th. The next season, Arsenal bought Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka, along with new manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal finished 3rd, Tottenham finished 10th.

Then in 1997/98 Arsenal went on to win their first of three League and FA Cup doubles. Since then they have added three more FA Cup wins in the last four years. Tottenham won the League Cup twice in that same time. Arsenal qualified for the Champions League for 20 consecutive years and finished above Tottenham every season until 2016/17.

It’s natural to want to look back at the past and even to gloat, after all, our history informs our values. And the past is, most importantly, where we learn from our mistakes.

But there is danger in living in the past. As Ferris Bueller once said before he passed out at 31 Flavors “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Luck

When I graduated college in 1995, the computer lab was 12 computers in a hot room on the 6th floor of a corner building. We used to bring floppy disks to school and print our papers which we had written using Word Perfect. I say “we” but it was really just two of us who did that. The labs were almost always empty. The only people using the computers back then were the handful of nerds who liked to play a video game called Doom. Most of the people my age never took the opportunity to learn how the computers worked, to even use those computers that were there for them, instead using typewriters to write their papers. Those people now tell me, when they are asking me for help with their computer, “oh, I’m computer illiterate.”

The choice for me to start working on computers was born of a combination of luck and deliberate choice. When I was 14, my High School in Alaska was one of the first schools in America to get Apple computers. Officially, we used them for math skills. Unofficially we used them to play Oregon Trail. And for those of us totally off course, we used them to write programs in a language called Basic.

If I look back on my history, I might be tempted to think that hard work and good choices landed me where I am today but the truth is that there was a lot of luck. I literally landed the job I have today because I went up to the director of the library and said “I can do the computer guy’s job better than he is.” The director gave me a chance and I guess it worked out.

The same thing happened to Arsenal, though on a much grander scale. David Dein took a chance on a guy back in 1996 who may or may not have worked out. Wenger was a French manager and it certainly wasn’t easy for foreign managers in English Football back then – Wenger became the very first foreign manager to win the League. There also weren’t fancy metrics to measure managers or the players they wanted, there was just a lot of gut feeling.

Dein’s gut was right, Wenger’s gut was right, and Arsenal prospered. Not through lack of hard work, nor through lack of vision, but you certainly can’t rule out the part that a big pinch of luck provided.

Tottenham worked just as hard during that period. They tried everything to claw back out of Arsenal’s shadow. They had goals, they had vision, and on at least two occasions in the last 22 years they were simply unlucky not to finish above Arsenal or to get Champions League football: a bad batch of lasagna, Arsenal pipping 3rd on the season that Chelsea won the Champions League with the luckiest of performances of all time, and even the season that Tottenham should have won the League, they lost in dramatic fashion to relegation club Newcastle on the last day of the season to gift Arsenal 2nd place.

And their transfer dealings since 1995 have been plagued with bad luck and bad choices. In the last five years Spurs have bought players that Arsenal supporters desperately wanted Wenger to buy: Soldado was a favorite on Le Grove, Lamela was my choice for Arsenal, Dembele was a favorite of Arse2Mouse, Dempsey, Paulinho, Capoue, Sissoko, Janssen, Wanyama, Aurier, Llorente have all been touted as the player who would save Arsenal. None of them (maybe Wanyama) have really worked out. What did work out for them was Harry Kane.

Anyone who told you that they knew Kane would become a 30 goal a season striker before 2016 is full of hyperbole. From 2009 to 2014 Kane scored 21 goals. Total. Kane was a total stroke of luck. He wasn’t the result of great planning. He was just a kid who was given a chance and took it with both hands. Just like Gareth Bale before him. The players themselves should be given a lot of credit for the hard work they put in but all of the credit given to Pochettino and Spurs for his outstanding three seasons is spurious.

But sportswriters and fans rarely see the full picture. I recently heard a prominent journalist give huge credit to Daniel Levy for his work over the past 15 years and suggest that Arsenal could do well to emulate him. But Levy’s track record in the transfer market is less than remarkable. He’s not managed to put together a title winner or even a team that lifted a single trophy, despite having literally 175 millions of pounds at his disposal after the sales of Bale, Walker and Modric. Looking at the trash he bought after each of those sales, if I was a Spurs supporter I’d be terrified of the Vincent Janssens Spurs will buy after they sell Kane and Alli.

As for managers, Pochettino is the best they have ever had and also the 11th manager in 22 years. 11th time’s a charm. All of this hardly smacks of good planning. Rather that they just kept trying and trying until they got a combination that worked.

But it has worked and Tottenham are, for the moment, inarguably the better of the two teams in North London.

Planning

A lot has been written about the “power shift” in North London this week. And as I admit above, there is no doubt that Tottenham did finish above Arsenal last season and that they seem like the club in a lot less turmoil this season. Whether that turns out to be a truly seismic event or simply a bump remains to be seen.

What we do know is that Arsenal have three major players out of contract in the summer: Ozil, Alexis, and Wilshere. And we know that this untenable contract failure is the culmination of three years of stagnation. Like there was a lack of planning at the club and that manager, players, and club hierarchy have been happy with status quo.

David Rocastle famously said to Ian Wright: “Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent.” This is the exact kind of reminder that people need from time to time, something which sets them back on the righteous path. But if I could take license I would only change his quote slightly: know who you are, where you are from, and where you are going.

That last bit, about where Arsenal are going, is what strikes existential dread in Arsenal supporters. In 1995 when Tottenham finished above Arsenal and the club was in turmoil, Arsenal started down a path to change their own fortunes. They took a look at who they were, where they were from, and decided to change where they were going.

I expect Arsenal to win tomorrow and I will get up at 4am to watch the match live. But tomorrow’s result is only temporary. Regardless what happens, Arsenal need to take a look back to 1995, the last time Spurs finished above Arsenal, and decide that a change in direction is needed.

Qq

*Technically, Mississippi didn’t abolish slavery until 2013. See, there was just this little “oversight” on the part of some clerks who forgot to register the vote with the national archivist. That finally happened in 2013, after which then secretary of state Dick Molpus said, and I quote… “What an amendment to have an error in filing.” Yes, what an amendment indeed.

18 comments

  1. Good article. I agree about being lucky. Like anything else in life, success in football is a mix of luck and effort. You keep trying till you get lucky by finding something that works.

    As good as Kane is, I think the player who causes the most havoc up front for them is Eriksen. His passing and movement is really intelligent. They would never want to sell him to us of course, but I think he would be a great replacement for Ozil. We could easily double his wages. Popularly referred to as “doing a Bayern”, it’s also a great move to weaken one’s opponent.

    Just so I am clear, you are “expecting” us to win tomorrow and not “hoping” correct? I only ask because I have zero expectations from this team. Spurs are a terrific counter attacking team and given the sea of space we like to gift our opposition, we could easily concede the first goal and it would be a long day after that.

  2. I gotta disagree with one thing: Dembele has ABSOLUTELY “worked out” for Spurs. He started slow, but since Poch’s arrival he’s been bloody brilliant for them (though with some injury struggles, and now getting older).

  3. @NYC yeah I was thinking the same thing. If I’m an optimist tomorrow morning I’m expecting a 3-1 defeat.

  4. Daniel Levy is a (very ) poor man’s David Dein: the journo must have been a closet Tottenham fan. They are successful despite him – Pochettino has been their salvation.
    I would obviously love us to win tomorrow but our top 6 record makes me dread top 6 encounters. If we turn up, we’ve got the ability to do it, but will we and will there be a game plan?
    Combined X1 is weighted their way:
    Lloris Aurier Vertonghen Koscielny Alderweireld Kolasinac Dembele Wanyama Alli Kane Sanchez

  5. nice post overall*
    *the 13th amendment reads: Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
    so technically, as far as the us constitution goes, slavery was never completely abolished.

  6. Look we can play defense! Who would’ve thunk it??

    Excellent effort from everyone today. Ozil, Ramsey and Mustafi had super performances.

    I can enjoy my weekend now. Thank you boys!

  7. Stayed up after a long night operating to watch it and worth every minute.

    Great win.
    Especially with the whinging on r/soccer and the blatant Spud homerism of the announcers.

    I do wish Ozil would drive and shoot 30% of the time when he gets the ball at the top of the box. Defenders cheat to play passing lanes. a quick move and he would be in. Even if he doesn’t score it would keep them honest.

    Also Mustafi did not look like a physical coward today.

    Ramsey also seemed more disciplined than usual.

  8. Was at the Emirates today and loved it.. Great performance today.. singing “tottenham hotspurs you’ve always been shit…tottenham hotspurs you’ve always been shit…” has never been sweeter…

  9. Was at the game.. great performance today.. singing “tottenham hotspurs you’ve always been shit…tottenham hotspurs you’ve always been shit…” has never been sweeter…

  10. Now, if we can have media and former members of boardroom call our players useless and underdogs before every game till May, we actually might be able to see what this club can do when properly motivated.

  11. Ok, let’s get the bad news out of the way first:
    1. I still think the 3-4-3 with this team is a mistake long term, unless we buy ourselves a Vieira+Petit level dominant midfield partnership.
    I think we should drop a defender (probably Kola, on current form), play a back four, and play Wilshere with Ramsey and Xhaka for home games and games against weak teams, and a more defensive player (Coq, though I like the look of Maitland-Niles) for one of those three in tighter games.
    2. I still think the main problem is with our midfield area
    Without the ball, there are acres upon acres of space in front of the back three; with the ball we struggle to build from the back or transition up the field quickly after our defense wins it, in large part because we don’t have the numbers in that area of the pitch, and also because they let themselves down with sloppy play and poor decision making. Despite us being the better team for 90 minutes, there were moments in that first half today where we could have given up a sloppy goal, either because our midfield was too easily bypassed on the counter, or because of a sloppy giveaway to their press, often right after we’d won it back. THESE ARE NOT NEW ISSUES.
    3. I’m still incredibly frustrated by Aaron Ramsey
    Believe it or not, I have no intention of Ramsey bashing today. For the record, given his form this season, and our midfield options, I would very probably have him in my starting eleven. I’m certainly not going to fault Wenger for picking him. But certain things about his performances, along with the 3-4-3, are the main reasons I’m still pessimistic about our prospects this season even after a great derby win. I’ll highlight the two biggest:
    (a) His play on the ball in deep areas, especially when getting pressed, is substandard. Part of it’s skill, part of it’s decision making. Even when he doesn’t lose it, he can put the team under pressure in fairly subtle ways (e.g. when he has the opportunity to switch play and thus beat the press, he chooses instead to play the ball back into the pressed area, not just putting that one teammate under pressure but the whole team, as it allowed Spurs to keep the press on).
    Still, while I wish Ramsey would work on these aspects of his game, I accept he’s never going to be Cazorla, and he brings lots of good things to the table (e.g. his skill with the ball seems to work a lot more often farther up the pitch when the pressure not to lose it isn’t quite so high), so I can take the good with the bad. Just think these weaknesses would be A LOT less costly in a midfield three.
    (b) The first weakness is forgivable and something we can just about live with, but the second is neither. Many have pointed out he spends too much time too far forward. This is certainly a problem for defensive reasons, as many have pointed out. But a point which is less often made is that his constant forward runs are a problem FOR OUR OWN BUILDUP. Late runs into attacking areas are great, but the emphasis there should be on ‘late’. Occasionally a very early run can catch the defense off guard, but these should be the exceptions not the rule. It feels like Ramsey is charging forward nearly EVERY BLOODY TIME. He simply goes far too early, too often, in our buildup phase, for a central midfielder playing in a midfield two. There was a moment in the first half that summed this up: Ozil, running down the right wing, played a square pass to where he thought Ramsey would be, only for it to be intercepted as Rambo had sprinted up the pitch without looking where Ozil would want to pass it or considering what other options the German had (there were others ahead of the play already, but no one to make an easy pass to inside). Spurs were immediately on the front foot with Ramsey out of position. Ozil’s pass was a bit loose, but about 90% of quality CM’s in world football would have made themselves available for the pass inside. But Ramsey is almost always looking to push forward immediately, meaning he’s too rarely available for a pass to feet.
    Whether you blame Ramsey or Wenger for the way he plays (answer: it’s both), the point is it’s always going to lead to problems if we’re playing him as part of a midfield two, unless his partner is some awesome combo of Vieira, Cazorla, and Kante. And before Claude or someone else jumps all over me: I’m not saying Ramsey is worse than Xhaka, or necessarily more of a problem than Xhaka (only that Rambo’s contribution to the problem would be easier to remedy), or that Xhaka was worth the money we paid for him or is the ideal player for us in there, etc, etc.
    All I’m saying is that there are egregious weaknesses in the way we play–even on a good day like today–that stem from the combination of the 3-4-3’s two-man midfield and Aaron Ramsey being one of those two (without being properly reined in by his manager), weaknesses that will be exposed by good/lucky teams in this league often enough for us to drop more points this year than we ought to be dropping. What that says about our top 4 prospects remains to be seen, but unfortunately I’m only slightly more optimistic now than I was before this NLD win.

    1. Ok, now the good news (this is much easier, and more fun, to write):

      1. Our front three looked awesome. Honestly, think they could be on a par with almost any attacking trio in Europe. Unless we get silly money AND have a replacement already lined up (e.g. Lemar and/or Fekir), I wouldn’t sell either Ozil or Sanchez in January. It’s too disruptive in the middle of the season, and the money on offer will almost certainly be too modest (maybe we should’ve sold em in the summer, but that ship’s sailed).

      2. Our back three were even better. Mustafi was immense. Actually, all three were immense. I love it when Kos puts in one of his vintage boss performances. And Nacho’s having the season of his life (I think he deserves to go to the World Cup).

      3. We pressed! Maybe Arsene’s been reading Tim’s recent articles 🙂

      4. We have a seriously good (if flawed) bench. Wilshere must be wondering what he needs to do to get a bit more playing time, if only as a sub. (Fly in the ointment is that I think he’s gone at the end of the season, if not before.)

      5. I’ve been pretty critical of Bellerin this year, and while I don’t think he’s back to his best yet, he’s moving in the right direction.

      6. All 11 players fought for every loose ball as if their lives depended on it. That’s how you play a North London Derby! And the crowd responded by creating a great atmosphere (or maybe the causal relationship went in the opposite direction?). It’s a cliche, but that’s the level of intensity we need every week.

      7. Despite my complaints above, Ramsey and Xhaka both had good performances. Actually, all 13 players did.

      8. Mike Dean didn’t screw us over for once.

      1. Agree 100%. Particularly with your point about the atmosphere. I noticed it as soon as I turned on the game. I was thinking about the data suggesting crowd support influences referees and whether that helped Mike Dean see the foul on Alexis that led to the first goal. As if on cue, the announcer then said “The irony is that the Arsenal fans are baying at the referee’s expense.”

        Maybe we are too far behind City to win this year, but I would love it if the players and the fans brought the same intensity to the rest of the season. Give me that intensity, the return of St Totteringham’s day and another FA Cup and I would call it a highly successful season.

  12. PFO, no disrespect by I skipped your entire ” bad news” part of the post and went straight to the “positives”.
    No disagreement there , however, and 6. especially stands out from your list.

    While I am well aware it’s highly improbable, and perhaps even impossible to expect this sort of commitment from the players week in and week out , it has to be much closer to this level, than what we’ve seen on too many occasions from Arsenal for them to be as successful as we all think they can be.
    The last Arsenal performance resembling this sort of commitment from all players and the manager , I might add, was v Chelsea in the FA cup final.
    That in itself speaks volumes.

  13. Dr DUH, I think Wenger’s harsh words towards referees after the Man City fiasco had as much , if not more , to do with both off side calls going Arsenal way rather than the crowd pressure, although I do agree with the general consensus and the data on the subject.

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