22 March 2013

That Arsenal DNA

What does it take to play for Arsenal? It's more than just skill, which is unfortunate, because if it were skill alone, we might still field a team that includes Fàbregas, Van Persie, Cole, maybe even Ibrahimović. However, there's more to it than that. The downside is that it complicates our ability to attract and keep good players. The upside, and it's one I think I prefer even for as much as it leaves us in the lurch all too often, is that the players we do keep are players who not only inspire us with the feats on the field but also with how they carry themselves, at least publicly. By contrast, I wouldn't want Ashley Cole back on a free loan. I'm not sure I'd want any of the others on this list back, either. Just don't hold my feet to the fire on that one. Just...don't.

What it comes down to is the bigger question of what some call the Arsenal DNA. I believe too much in free will to accept that playing for Arsenal is a matter of DNA, but, then again, my DNA might be doing the talking for me on that one.  Perhaps it's naive of me, but I prefer to believe that our players play for Arsenal because they believe in the club, its history, its philosophy, its culture. Wojciech's public rebuttal to his own father expresses this sentiment well. He talked in terms of respect and love. If we peel back the curtain, might we see that his statement is some PR baloney? Yeah, probably. I'm going to leave that curtain where it is and go on telling myself he plays for Arsenal because of how much he loves the red and white.

We all know that football is a business, more so now than ever. Part and parcel of that—players want to go where they will earn the most money and win the most games, and probably in that order with who knows how much space between items one and two.  This is why we've seen players like Cole, Gallas, Adebayor, and Nasri leave, lesser players with little more than blind avarice to motivate them, as well as other, more significant players like Van Persie or Fàbregas leave with a thirst for trophies that only be slaked by going to where such outcomes are already all but guaranteed. In neither situation do any of these players demonstrate this so-called Arsenal DNA. Simply put, these (and others like them) don't have the commitment that we seek. Money-grabbers and shortcut-takers need not apply. Before I criticize them too harshly, though, it's worth remembering that it is a player's right to seek the best possible deal, just like any of us do.

In a way, we have only ourselves to blame. We play a style of football that depends heavily on everyone knowing each other well—it's not a defined, structured system, and each player has to know the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, not just of the guy on his right or his left, but of just about everyone one the pitch. The left back might find himself filling a the right wing's lane on a counterattack and will have to remember that Gervinho, to take one example, is right-footed. If he sends a cross, its natural curl will take it towards the goal, while Podolski's cross, coming off his left, will curl away from the goal. I'm not saying either player has this Arsenal DNA; I just needed players who rely on their dominant foot to make a point.

Building that understanding among players depends on spending time together, which is another reason, in addition to skills and stats, why losing players undermines us. It's one thing to figure out that a player just won't work out à la Arshavin, Squillaci, and others; we can make adjustments. It's another when we identify player who seems to have "it" only to leave us behind. Happily, in a rather self-fulfilling prophecy, those who decide to leave must not have had "it" in the first place.

More seriously, it does look like Wenger is building a strong core of players who get ArsenalWilshere, Jenksinon, Cazorla, Gibbs, Szczęsny, Ramsey...some of them have already earned our affection; others are still struggling to. Don't read too far into the list to assess why I've left out a name you'd like to see. I'm just tossing off the first few that come to mind. All teams benefit from coherence, but we perhaps depend on it to a greater extent. Happily, in another self-fulfilling prophecy, the more coherence we build, the more success we will experience. The core of players that we have, hindered though it has been by its own youth, injuries, and other distractions, may well come together to create the kind of chemistry that in and of itself inspires a team to achieve greatness. Does this mean we don't need to sign a player or two over the summer? No, I'm not saying that. But signing the right kind of player, one who is joining the team and not just burnishing his resumé, is the key.

I know we'll probably never field an XI made up of men who love Arsenal first and foremost, but maybe we can augment the ones we do have with those who can fall in love with the club after they arrive. Maybe.