I’m still finishing up Stillness and Speed – the Dennis Bergkamp biography. I finally got to the part here he talks (at length) about his goal for Holland vs Argentina. FIFA made a documentary about the “Great Forgotten Dutch team of 1998” which is available on YouTube (they won’t let me embed). It’s a quick video, just under 8 minutes, and you should probably watch just to see that goal.

The reason I watched the video is because the Netherlands didn’t make the World Cup. Neither did the USA, Chile, Italy, Congo, Ivory Coast, Wales, Cameroon, Norn Iron, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Australia. Italy missed out for the first time since 1958 and having watched the second half of that match, they thoroughly deserved to go out. Their game plan was to simply boot the ball up field, try to get a cross in, hope that Sweden didn’t defend or that there was a brief lapse of concentration, and that they could get a shot off. It was some of the worst football I’ve seen since the last time I watched almost any English Premier League match between two teams outside of the top six. It was some very Burnley-Brighton stuff.

The whole gnashing of teeth around the Italian loss is weird. Yes, they have historically been in the tournament – as have Holland – but why should they go this year? Just because they have more of a history than Sweden?

This same argument is proffered by Arsenal supporters as to why Chelsea or Man City don’t “deserve” to win the Premier League: because they got no ‘istry. Arsenal, of course, do have ‘istry as do Man U and Liverpool. The three of them have combined to win 51 of the 118 English Top Division titles on offer since 1888. That’s 43% of the titles.

But those titles weren’t won because of those club’s histories. Sport is about innovation, exploiting weaknesses, preparation, and organization. And while not all of those 51 titles were won exclusively because the teams were able to take advantage of those four factors a significant number were.

Arsenal are the example I know best. Herbert Chapman was a pure innovator of the sport. He won the English League with Huddersfield before moving on to winning the League with Arsenal. And he won the League by inventing an entirely new way to play the sport. Prior to that, Arsenal had no history! Chapman the innovator gave Arsenal a history.

The same with the Dutch. Total Football is what made the Dutch famous. Not the other way round. And the Italians – they also invented new and innovative ways to play football. It was their innovations that gave them their history, not the other way round.

Of course the argument against Man City/Chelsea/PSG/etc. is that they gots no ‘istry. But I would say that they did take advantage of weaknesses, they were excellently prepared, and while not so much innovative, were well organized for the singular purpose to win.

Chelsea exploited a weakness in English football: that there were only two teams to beat – Man U and Arsenal. Not only that, but they could afford to spend more than both of those teams – a weakness in regulations – and they were able to attract top players because they were willing to spend more than anyone else. In that sense they were also innovative. You probably don’t respect that innovation as much as, say, inventing a new and beautiful way of playing football, but you have to admit that no one had quite done spending the way that Chelsea had in 2003-2007.

And to Chelsea’s credit they were supremely organized toward winning with a manager who was well known for his preparation and his ability to exploit weaknesses.

In a way, Chelsea just copied what Arsene Wenger had done with Arsenal from 1998 to 2004. Wenger used his knowledge of players to exploit weaknesses in the markets getting relative bargains for Patrick Vieira, Anelka, Henry, and Arsene was able to exploit markets in sales as well, reaping huge transfer windfalls for Overmars, Anelka, and later even with Adebayor, Alex Song, and Gael Clichy. Chelsea used a weakness in the market – that they were the only big spender – to attract the best players. And more recently have been very Wenger-like in their ability to offload players to China for huge transfer windfalls.

Many Arsenal supporters will reject the argument that Chelsea were innovative and I understand why: because Arsenal have always been considered the innovative team and Wenger one of the world’s most innovative managers. But the point of all this is that it takes more than just money to win anything in football. Arsenal won the League three times from 1998 to 2004 because they had a manager who was able to exploit local markets, where players weren’t quite being valued correctly yet, and installed fitness and diet regimes which extended player’s careers and made players better than they might have been. Arsenal were also one of just two teams in the Premier League who spent top dollar to buy players at that time, a fact that is often uncomfortable for Arsenal supporters whose mythology is that the club has always been poor and that we overcome the odds through superior planning, tactics, smarter buying, and other factors. Yes, those things are true, but also we spent the money.

If money just bought the League, Man City would have won every title since 2008. They have won two. They have only won two because they haven’t been doing what it takes to win in sport. But this season with Pep Guardiola at the helm they have finally added the elusive qualities that they needed and they are running away with the title. There are few managers as prepared as Guardiola, as forward thinking, who understand how to exploit weaknesses, and who put the whole club on a well organized path toward winning. Guardiola is often accused of just being a money manager but that’s not entirely true. He’s the manager who created the most beautiful Barcelona team the world has ever seen. Who made Bayern into a machine. And who is doing the same again now with Man City. He has spent an astronomical amount of money. But he’s also the guy who has completely overhauled City’s playing style. So much so that they look like the team to beat in the Premier League and probably even the Champions League.

Are they not allowed to do that? To invest in their club that way and to win the League because they got no ‘istry? Or are they allowed to build their history, like all the other clubs did before them?



  1. There’s a reason the aforementioned countries missed out on Russia, they play boring football and at the moment lack talented players they might’ve had in the past.

    This isn’t to say all other countries that have qualified are easy on the eyes and I second your opinion re the PL quality from the sixth club on down as well.
    A couple of Saturday’s back the PL schedule served up the cocktail of what the PL would look like if the European Superliga came to past and it wasn’t pretty to say the least. Take the current top six out of the equation and unless you are a fan of any particular club remaining, watching them play is borderline masochism.

  2. The only reason for watching any of the PL clubs outside of top six is to see what they might do on any given day to one of the top six, which in essence still boils down to watching one of the top six 🙂

    Remove the top six from the EPL and you might as well watch the Championship.

    A few Saturday’s back the PL schedule served up the “all star “lineup of top six less match ups and half way into the second game of the day I decided that going to work was a more enjoyable option than spending three more hours in bed watching mid table teams struggle to complete three passes.

    If the would be European Superliga ever comes to past, the PL might be in deep trouble.

  3. Re Guardiola, is it just me or is it mostly Arsenal and Wenger fans in particular deriding him and his achievements?

    Even other bundesliga coaches and players that faced him during his three years at Bayern spoke highly and with trepidation about the prospects of playing against him, mostly due to the system he employed.
    And I’m not even talking about Barca here.

    It kinda makes you wonder if the Arsenal fan base are as football savvy as they claim to be.

    1. He’s an incredible manager who both buys players to fit his systems and can also craft players to fit his systems. Look at what he’s done with Delph. Sure, the injured guy would be starting ahead of him but that Delph is able to easily replace him is nothing short of a miracle. He’s also one of the few managers in world football who have been able to take a result off Jose Mourinho in away games – and that was back when it was Barca and Real. With Real Madrid the most spending club ever.

      What set a lot of this Gooner hate in motion is that he didn’t win the League last year. But the underlying stats were the reason why I predicted them to win this year: he had them playing great football but just not quite scoring and giving up just a few goals that they probably shouldn’t. Now he went out and bought two fullbacks (to replace the former Arsenal ones which were seriously broken when he got there) and people are freaking out and calling him just a spending manager. It really does show a lack of understanding about his methods and how he operates. Seriously, if he did this same thing at Arsenal we’d be defending him and probably writing article after article about how “he’s just catching up in spending” or sommat.

      He’s a genius and the game is going to be poorer without him.

    2. I’m not so sure about Arsenal fans piling hate on Pep. I’ve seen some wishing he managed us instead, and most of the sniping against him (as far as I’ve seen) has been from people who hate[d] Barcelona for some reason, transferred that to him and wished him ill (these people found last season very satisfying); Manchester United fans who aren’t yet fed up with their own manager, and; the likes of Stan Collymore in the British press.

      1. I love Arsenal, like Pep, and don’t like the monopoly money of City, Chelsea, and PSG. It is not difficult for me to hold all of these views in my head at the same time.

    3. I don’t know about Arsenal or Wenger fans.

      But Wenger himself is a huge fan of Pep and his predecessor Pellegrini.

      He always talks about them in glowing terms. I think City came in 2nd in one year and Wenger said that it does not matter since in his opinion City played the best football.

  4. Great piece. Very funny bit about ‘istry. Listen though
    1. Oil clubs have every prerogative to do what they are doing but their success based on/facilitated by oil wealth cannot be a stick to flog Arsenal because we work with a different model. Some clubs have spent a billion in very short space of time and there’s plenty more what that came from. The question is not so much “Wenger in” or “Wenger out” but do we want to a benafector that will enable us to spend £50/full-back.
    2, Chelsea’s success is interesting. Even with or without Mr Mourinho they have won trophies. Mourinho is undoubtedly one of greatest managers but even without him Chelsea continue to clean up – in actual fact winning the most coveted and hardest to win trophy (CL) not with him as their manager. The only constant is oil money.
    3. I played a game to consider what our team would like if there was no oil money in football at all. I got as far as
    Mbappe – Draxler – Hasard – DeBruyne….

    1. How about we invest something in line with our resources then? Because we haven’t done that even. Arsene is being flogged because he doesn’t even use the resources he has availablever to build his team. Instead he likesaid to gamble on the fitness and/or potential of players.

    2. Btw Draxler went for 35 Mio. to PSG, De Bruyne cost Wolfsburg (!) 30 Mio., Chelsea paid less than 20 before. Wenger couldn’t convince Mpabbe to come to Arsenal before he joined Monaco. If Arsenal can’t pay the prices when they become superstars , they have to act smarter and step up their scouting. We never did though and have now fallen behind hopelessly.

    3. Faith, I notice your posts are hung up on “oil money”. We are talking about three teams; City, Chelsea and PSG. Real, Barca, Bayern, Liverpool, United, Atletico, Juventus, Dortmund… none of these teams are flush with “oil money” yet they’ve all been more successful in aggregate than City, Chelsea and PSG over the past 15 years. Juventus would crush us in a match-up and they’re below us in terms of financial power and turn-over.

      To be fair, I wouldn’t even put Chelsea in the oil money category as they seem to have graduated to a financial sustainability model.

      Two years ago we had the best roster in the Premier League; balanced and deep. But true to form, as has happened every year for the past 10, we collapsed. That has nothing to do with “oil money”. Stop making excuses for what has been a rich club, badly run, averagely managed and living off the carcass of a reputation made at the turn of the century.

  5. Haha haha. We will have courted them….got them to the Emirates, much like we got Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo to visit; that’s not counting Xavi Alonso, Drogba, etc.

    He should have been eased out(I doubt he will willingly leave), but Wenger has been fantastic, consistent. Admitting that as well as his flaws are not mutually exclusive.

  6. Ok, Tim, I’ll take the bait. Since a fair chunk of what you’ve written here is very similar to what you wrote in a reply to me in the comments to the last article, I’ll take it that the views I expressed there are supposed to be instances of the views attacked in the article here.

    Let’s take a closer look:

    1. You say:
    “Many Arsenal supporters will reject the argument that Chelsea were innovative and I understand why: because Arsenal have always been considered the innovative team and Wenger one of the world’s most innovative managers.”
    “Arsenal were also one of just two teams in the Premier League who spent top dollar to buy players at that time, a fact that is often uncomfortable for Arsenal supporters whose mythology is that the club has always been poor and that we overcome the odds through superior planning, tactics, smarter buying, and other factors.”
    On the earlier thread, you replied to me:
    “I find, ultimately, that the “we’ve got history” argument is one thrown around by fans of formerly big clubs looking back to a glorified past.”
    And in reply to another commenter whose post I was defending, you wrote:
    “What you’re upset about is the fact that Arsenal are no longer number 1 or 2 in total spend. That someone else is now.”

    Can I present these four quotes to my undergrad philosophy classes as perfect illustrations of a certain argumentative fallacy (mentioning it was banned on here a while back I believe; let’s just say it begins with “a” and ends with “d hominem”)? It’s a neat trick: characterize those that hold a position you oppose as jealous, bitter hypocrites who hold that view for entirely self-serving reasons. The problem I have with this move is that it fails to give your opponents the basic respect of assuming they’ve come to their views in good faith.

    2. And on that claim that “Arsenal were also one of just two teams in the Premier League who spent top dollar to buy players at that time [i.e. 1998-2004]”:
    I haven’t gone back and looked at the figures, but I watched a hell of a lot of English football at the time (more than I do now), and I’m pretty sure this claim is just plain wrong.
    Liverpool spent a lot of money in that period, as did the likes of Newcastle, Leeds (who famously went bust because of overspending on transfers), and Chelsea pre-Roman. I would be SHOCKED if Arsenal were shown to have spent significantly more money on transfers in that period than some of these other clubs.
    To put the point another way: if you were to ask any fan or pundit in, say, 1996, if the Premier League was a perennial two-horse race between two super-dominant clubs, Man United and Arsenal, they would have looked at you funny. You would at least have to mention Liverpool and Newcastle in that same breath. Jack Walker’s big-spending Blackburn side had just won the title in 1995, and Chelsea was beginning to attract continental talent like Vialli, Gullit, and Zola to West London. Traditionally big clubs like Villa, Leeds, Everton, and Spurs (lol) had tasted success in the recent past.
    Sure, Arsenal were near the top of the pile in terms of the size and wealth of the club, but the point is, if by, say, six years later in 2002 the PL had become a virtual two horse race, this was NOT because of a large influx of money into Arsenal from investors, but because Arsene Wenger revolutionized the club and the league, and offered the first sustained challenge to Man United’s dominance under Fergie.
    The same, obviously, cannot be said of the success of Chelsea and City. For Arsenal, the key event that led to a period of trophy success was the arrival of their manager. For Chelsea and City, the key event was a foreign billionaire buying the club, suddenly making their spending power dwarf that of every other club (bar Man U). The difference between Arsenal and the other two is not difficult to grasp. Call it “innovation” if you wish, but the fact remains that City would’ve been nowhere NEAR as successful in the last decade (and Chelski in the last decade and a half) in terms of trophies and league positions, if it weren’t for a foreign investor swooping in out of nowhere and giving them the ability to routinely outbid every other team and buy some of the most expensive footballers on the planet. Of course you can’t literally buy the league, which is why City have *only* won it twice (going on three times) in the last eight years (how many times did they win it in the decades before 2009?), but the money allowed them to “jump to the front of the queue” in terms of competing for prestige and for the most talented players and managers–leapfrogging clubs like Arsenal in the process–when nothing about their performances in the years directly preceding being bought suggested the club merited being in front of these other clubs in competing for top talent. Am I seriously the only person who thinks this is annoying and unjust?

    3. I would never claim that only teams with history deserve to be successful. Rather, the question is whether a club has come by their position as a “big club” (in terms of wealth, fan base, prestige, being able to compete for the biggest trophies, etc) “honestly”, i.e. in terms of past success on and off the field, or not. To illustrate the difference, consider Leeds United: historically one of the big clubs in England, but rightly languishing outside the top division because their ex-chairman ran the club into the ground in the early 2000’s. If history were all that mattered, then we’d have to say that Leeds deserve to be in the top flight because of their history, which is obviously absurd. And we’d have to say that Leicester and, to a lesser extent, Poch’s Spurs (who, despite being a famous club, have a rather modest history of actually winning things) don’t deserve their recent success, which is also obviously absurd.

    4. To recap from the last thread: I am all for parity in the Premier League. I honestly don’t want Arsenal to be one of only two teams with a realistic shot at the title. I like the fact that Leicester won the league as much as the next guy (just didn’t like that they beat Arsenal to it). Whether genuine parity is even possible is another story, and I admitted that I don’t know the answer to this question, but I know no one has given it a serious try.
    However, if we must have PL club hierarchies and entrenched inequality, I prefer those at the top of the hierarchy to have gotten there through sustained success on and off the field over many years, and not because a club has won the lottery with a foreign sugar daddy.

    5. Of course Pep is a brilliant, innovative manager (as is Mourinho, if we’re judging purely on results), and of course Wenger and Arsenal have made massive mistakes over the last 13 years. Nothing in the above implies otherwise.

  7. I side more with PFO. I think the arguments that Tim is refuting do exist, and he’s within his rights to refute them, but they are something of a straw man. “You’ve got no history” is an accusation thrown at these clubs for sure, but it’s an idiotic one and not worth engaging with. Every club has a history and every club was founded on dreams, ambition, local pride and a desire to be part of the game.

    It’s possible to characterize any argument against oil money as either an attack of sour grapes because suddenly your own club ain’t so hot any more; or else rose-tinted nostalgia for the innocent days when football wasn’t this ridiculous multi-billion dollar circus (I cop more to the latter than the former, see below). But even if it’s accurate, pointing out motivated reasoning does not address the actual reasoning.

    There have always been big clubs and small clubs, rich clubs and poor clubs, and as a rich club Arsenal certainly don’t have a leg to stand on when complaining about inequality – but inequality used to be measured in percentages, not orders of magnitude.

    It always used to be the case that the big clubs got to be big clubs by being successful (and lucky). Yes it’s true, there were money chairmen who bought success – Clough needed cash to do what he did with Derby and Nottingham Forest, he didn’t whistle up players out of thin air – but a) the chairmen were usually local businessmen and b) they made investments at strategic periods of growth – they acted like your local bank would, not sugar daddies with bottomless pockets, and c) nobody thinks for a second that Nottingham Forest would have won the European Cup without Brian Clough.

    Essentially clubs paid their own way, everyone was working within roughly the same constraints and money was not so directly correlated with achievement. PFO is surely right when he points out that other clubs were spending at least as much as Arsenal but with less success. There were plenty of periods when big, rich clubs wallowed at the foot of the table, like Arsenal did, or even got relegated like Man Utd.

    The chairman model has gone, and we are in a brave new world where Apple inc. could buy Arsenal next week if they wanted to and rename us iArse and move us to Cupertino. I don’t like it but I accept it at a certain level. A criminal oligarch buys Chelsea, I don’t like it – not so much because of what it means for Arsenal but because of what it means for Chelsea. The Glazers can buy Man Utd and load them up with debt, John Henry can buy Liverpool, Stan Kroenke and another criminal oligarch can buy Arsenal, I don’t like any of it. And now OPEC countries can essentially buy their own clubs and give them limitless funds. I don’t know where it was, but at some point in this story a line was crossed and what we are doing now is not club football any more.

    Oil money changed the game, debt financing changed the game, clubs no longer have to be self-sustaining. I think the description of it as “financial doping” is entirely justified and accurate. It does not guarantee success, just as a doped athlete can still be beaten, but it skews the playing field. I feel the same way about Real Madrid and the financial support they get from the city. I’m sure there are other examples.

    Calling all this “innovation” is stretching the meaning of that word beyond breaking point. The new ownership model is financially innovative perhaps, but that has nothing to do with football, and I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t follow the game because I’m interested in finance.

    So I respect Guardiola, I think he’s the closest thing we have to a genius in football management and the way his City side are playing is already a thing of beauty and a great achievement in itself, but there is an asterisk next to City’s name in the record books and that’s a real shame.

    1. The thing is though both City and Cheslea are self-sustaining clubs. The initial investement lies several years in the past. They used their investment to raise their revenue and are both worth much more. So you can have sour grapes about the past, the biggest problem for arsenal is that they’re actually both well-run clubs that maximized their revenue and reinvest into their squads. That’s what Arsenal fails to do.

  8. I honestly don’t see many gooners deriding Guardiola’s achievements. What I see are football fans of all stripes asking some questions — fairly in my view — about what he’s done with the tools he’s had to work with, financial and personnel.

    Inheriting a team with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi isn’t the hardest job in the world. Neither is going to manage the perennial champions of Germany, and the then champions of Europe (a feat he never replicated with Bayern).

    Replacing two ageing fullbacks with two of the best fullbacks in England and France for the no-questions-asked money typical of a petro club, is not hugely impressive to me either (Tim cites those positively). He already had Kun, Fernandinho, de Bruyne, Silva and Stones. Where he’s sparkled is by adding superb quality in Jesus and Sane, one of my favourite players in the league. But he also had misses like Claudio Bravo.

    Far more impressive is what Pocchetino has done with far less resources, than what Pep has done with virtually limitless resources at the three big clubs he has managed. Could he have done with Poch has done at Spurs, with what Poch has worked with? Can we remind everyone as well that City has won nothing in England yet (though they were my pick from the start to win the league his campaign) and we beat them on the way to winning the FA cup?

    The difference between City and us in the recent game was bad officiating, and Arsene’s inexplicable decision to leave out his best finisher (who has just scored two goals for France against Germany). It was an too-conservative decision, and one that signalled clearly to Pep that we came for a draw. I watched that whole game, again, in a bar, already knowing the result. We played bettter than was appreciated and should have got a point from it.

    Pep is a great coach and innovator, but the questions, and the Pepticism, are justified. He hasn’t proved it all to me at yet. I think that Poccchetino is a better coach, and will succeed Zidane at Real.

    1. I think I should qualify that Poch comment, so here goes…

      “Far more impressive in the premier league this season is what Pocchetino has done with far less resources. Pep’s successes have come from having virtually limitless resources, in men and money, at the three big clubs he has managed. “

      Was a bit careless with the wording there.

      And I agree with Greg. No serious football fan would claim that City and Chelsea don’t have history. We simply hate it that they cannnow, literally, buy titles.

      1. The titles were always for sale. The biggest spenders have always bought the title. This has been how it has been forever. Man United and Arsenal had the largest payrolls during their heydays. Blackburn Rovers once bought the League.

        Salary spend correlates to League position.

        It’s much rarer that a team like Leicester or Atletico Madrid win a League than the biggest spenders. Always has been this way.

Comments are closed.

Related articles