Robin van Persie, Loyalty, & the Modern Athlete

Following the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron James became a free agent. His choice, to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers (the team who drafted him, and for whom he played his first 7 NBA seasons) in favor of the Miami Heat, sent shockwaves through American sports. LeBron was widely criticized for the move, which saw him jump ship to join fellow all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to create the “Big 3” in Miami, more for the manner in which he left Cleveland, and less because he left Cleveland. LeBron held an hour-long ESPN special, all culminating in the announcement that he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” This display of arrogance, by publicly breaking the heart of an entire city, was beyond comprehension for many, even in American sports, and the backlash that followed was largely justified. On Wednesday July 4, 2012, Robin van Persie released what was, in effect, his own “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” on his website, when he proclaimed to the world that he would not be signing a contract extension with Arsenal. In doing so, he became the second Arsenal captain in as many summers to force an exit from the team, and caused most Arsenal supporters equal parts intense anger and severe depression. As LeBron had, he proclaimed for all the world to hear that he was turning his back on the fans who had supported him through the good times (37 goals in 2011-12) and the bad (missing long stretches because of injury in each of his first 7 seasons with the club). Thanks to the wonders of satellite radio, I heard the news over the radio as I was driving to the store in the late-morning over-100-degree heat, in preparation for my Independence Day celebrations scheduled for later in the day.  As the talkSPORT radio personality read the statement to me, all I could get out was a defeated “fuck”, which drew the attention of my lady friend, who was riding along with me. “What is it?” she asked me, and I told her that an Arsenal player was leaving the team and that I had just heard the news. As a bit of background, my lady is not a big sports fan, and only nominally supports Arsenal in that when they win, my mood on the day is better than it is when they do not, but she must have sensed that this was a big deal, because she followed up by asking me which player it was. When I responded “van Persie” even she knew what that meant. “Oh no, seriously?” she replied, and I felt the same way. Seriously? Again? You have got to be kidding me. To be clear, I was not surprised that it was happening, but until the moment comes, do you ever really know if you are prepared? I certainly was not prepared for this. Not now, not this way.

I spent the better part of the afternoon contemplating what this meant for the club. The greatly lessened price Arsenal will get in return for him because of his big fucking mouth. What this means for Walcott. What the starting lineup will look like when the season begins. What should be done to fix the pit that was growing in my stomach. But most of all I just kept thinking about sports, and modern athletes, and loyalty, or more properly the utter lack of loyalty that the modern athlete has. This brings me back to LeBron James, and the state of the modern athlete. I’m sorry to get so basketball-heavy with my analogies today, but that’s what is working the best for me, so I’m going to stick with it. What bothered me most about LeBron fleeing the Cleve for sunny South Beach & the cozy embrace of two fellow superstars was not as much the way he spurned Cleveland, but the fact that he was trying to take the easy way to a championship. This is not what the sports heroes of my youth did. When Michael Jordan was early in his career and he couldn’t get over the Pistons hump, when his Bulls were beaten in the NBA playoffs by the Bad Boys in 1987, 1988, & 1989, Jordan didn’t jump ship on Chicago and try to team up with Patrick Ewing in New York to try to ensure he would win a championship. When Michael Jordan ran into a wall that was keeping him from a championship, he worked harder and got better and made himself great, and eventually he won. That was the mindset of the pro athlete that I grew up idolizing. Jordan would have never thought of leaving the Bulls to try and team up with other superstars to guarantee him a championship every year, and none of those other stars ever thought of teaming up with Michael, because they were focused on beating the best, not simply having the best carry them along to glory. LeBron and the Heat’s Big 3 got their NBA title this year, but does anyone really think LeBron is a greater player now than two years ago when he left Cleveland? Someone probably does, “it’s all about the hardware” they might say, but I don’t. To me, LeBron took the easy way out, he chose to join up with others who could carry him along to glory, rather than working harder to achieve it on his own. Sure, LeBron hoisted the trophy this year, but I’m still not impressed, because to me, that win was cheap, he got there by a shortcut, and I don’t respect him like I would have had he done it in Cleveland, for the fans that loved him all the way up his rise, unlike the front-running Miami fans who only back a winner. Watching LeBron win the NBA finals felt very much like watching Samir Nasri win the Premier League. Nasri isn’t a better player now than he was last year, in fact I would argue he is worse because he spent so much time on the bench, yet there he was getting his medal for winning the league, because he hitched his wagon to a front-runner & in doing so took his shortcut to glory, just like LeBron did, and just like van Persie is trying to do now. Robin may get his silverware elsewhere, but those who are paying attention won’t be impressed, because the real accomplishment is becoming the best yourself, not just riding the coattails of the best to success.

The only loyalty in sports today is that of the fan to their club. Everyone else involved is a mercenary, as LeBron showed us in 2010, Nasri showed us in 2011, and van Persie has shown us in 2012. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that van Persie is refusing to re-sign, but I was saddened. I had hoped that I was wrong, and that not all athletes were mercenaries. I had held out hope that there might be a little loyalty left in our captain, but I was clearly wrong. At the end of the day, as supporters, we pull for the club not the players. The club goes on even when players leave. I’ll still be excited when the season kicks off in August, and I’ll live and die with the Arsenal all the way through May. To the current Arsenal captain, I say good riddance. My only hope is that Arsenal’s next captain is nothing like the last two, as I’m not sure I have it in me to write this article again next year, for the third summer in a row.

How far have Arsenal’s standards actually fallen?

2/15/2012

A friend of mine, who is a Barcelona fan (there are worse things he could be, I guess), recently brought to my attention this article Ben Blackmore wrote for ESPN.com about the declining standards at Arsenal. What I wrote in the email response to my friend ended up almost reading like a blog post, so I’ve made it into one.

For reference, here’s a link to the Blackmore article, titled “Arsenal standards reach dangerous low”: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature/_/id/1022668/blackmore:-arsenal-dropping-standards-to-dangerously-low-levels-?cc=5901

Also, for reference, his general point is that the quality of players Arsenal have now has dropped drastically from the last time they won trophies, and that the only players currently on the squad that have the quality to wear the shirt are van Persie, Wilshere, and Vermaelen. That’s the extreme CliffsNotes version at least, read the whole article for more; it’s a little off, but the thrust of it is on target.

Like a lot of people who probably have only watched a handful of Arsenal matches this year, Blackmore has some misconceptions based on things he’s heard but not observed himself (Full disclosure: that’s an assumption I’ve made. I have no idea how many Arsenal matches Blackmore has actually watched this season). I think the overall point is well taken, that the level of quality on this year’s squad is significantly lower than it was last year, and depressingly lower than it was back in the early-to-mid 2000s. That being said, he’s got some things wrong.

Blackmore points out Djourou and Jenkinson as not being good enough to be on the pitch. While I agree with this, they are easy targets. Djourou is his better point, because Jenkinson wouldn’t have sniffed the pitch other than in Carling Cup matches, were it not for injury. So yes, they shouldn’t be out there playing first team football for Arsenal, but if you think about the defense last year as compared to now, it’s not so dire. I wrote a blog about this previously, but just as a short recap: Djourou was actually considered one of our better defenders until he got hurt in that game at Old Trafford last season.

I totally disagree with Blackmore on Mertesacker and Koscielny, and actually (a bit) on Vermaelen too. I think all three of them are leaps-and-bounds ahead of our central defenders last year (which included a very lost-looking Koscielny in his first year in the Prem, and featured the likes of Squillaci and almost no time from Vermaelen). As they are playing now, however, I’ll take all three of them (TV5, Kos, & Per) over, let’s say, Gary Cahill and a whole host of others out there playing central defense in the Prem. Actually, I think Vermaelen (though I love him) has been the worst of the three as of late, and Koscielny has been the best. Sure they get beat sometimes, but what defender never gets beat? In sum, I don’t think central defense is the problem with this Arsenal team.

The other real problem is depth, as we’ve seen. A couple of guys go down, and we’re screwed. You only need to look at the full back situation to understand how that works. See earlier point re: how Jenkinson has been pressed into action too soon. In the article, Blackmore mentions Clichy in the same breath as Cesc & Nasri in speaking of the quality that left in the summer… So yeah, he’s totally overrated Clichy as a player, but whatever. Gibbs and Santos aren’t great (Gibbs looked especially lost against Milan), but they’re not that much of a step down from Clichy, if any as compared to his declining form last season. Blackmore also rips Sagna, who I will defend. Bac is great, but he’s just got back from injury, so playing on that abomination of a pitch at San Siro didn’t suit him. That he didn’t look great yesterday was no shock, but that performance shouldn’t be taken to be representative of his quality.

As for the rest of the squad, I’ll defend Alex Song by saying this: I bet you can’t name five clubs in the whole of Europe that wouldn’t take him, and start him, as a holding midfielder. Challenge issued, take it if you wish. That is all.

As for the rest, Arteta and Ramsey are no Cesc & Nasri. They can’t even lick their boots, and on a team like Arsenal they should probably be complimentary players. Arteta especially has done well to stabilize the club since coming on, but he and Ramsey should be fill-ins and substitutes for an Arsenal squad. So yes, Blackmore has that part right.

He makes a weird move in talking about the wing play, and focuses on Walcott & Arshavin. The little Russian hardly plays for Arsenal right now, so I’m not sure why he’s even mentioned in the article. Blackmore should be talking about Walcott, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain if he really wants to get it right. That being said, let’s talk about them: The Ox is young, and I think every other team in the Prem wishes they had him, so there’s that. As for the other two, they’re too inconsistent, and frustratingly so. Gervinho, despite not being able to finish since he got here, is probably better overall, but they could certainly both be upgraded. They’re not awful though, in my view the problem is greater in the midfield.

In sum, Wenger has to buy distributing midfielders with creativity, wingers who don’t disappear, and a decent backup for van Persie (everyone agrees that Chamakh has lost whatever magic he had when he first arrived, and I assume there’s a reason Wenger won’t play Park, but no one can tell what since he never even sniffs the pitch). None of that is at all groundbreaking, but at least it provided a vehicle to assess the team heading into the final stretch of the season. It will be imperative for Arsene to hold on to what he’s got (and add more quality to it in the off season. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more talent, as it’s already behind on replacing what they lost last summer, but we all knew that already. Doesn’t make it any less important though.