15 June 2014

And again, Spurs teach Arsenal a lesson.

It's happened again. The mighty, money-laden, glitzy megaclub has been laid low by the more-modest, talented but less glamorous squad. Despite assembling one of the best rosters that money can buy, this nouveau riche club, so bereft of history that few can even remenber its existence prior to the late 1980s, has again fallen short of glory, beaten again by the Spurs. Of San Antonio. Of the NBA. If you were expecting this post to compliment the inner workings of a certain lily-livered, lilywhite club from White Hart Lane, well, I apologize. It's just that, with the Spurs' winning their 4th championship in 11 years, they've offered a model for winning that Arsenal would do well to remember, if not emulate.

Szczesny, Koscielny, Ramsey?
We even have a closer-to-home parallel to explore: Cesc Fàbregas. Without making too much of the connections, Lebron James jilted his hometown club, the one that everyone assumed he would lead to glory, and went to the Miami Heat. The similarities between this and Fàbregas's move to Chelsea are intriguing if not exact (for example, Fàbregas was open to returning to Arsenal but may have been told by Arsène that he was unwanted). Setting aside the finer details, we have the "villain" against whom to direct our ire.

Previously, the parallels were a little less personal, a little less specific. Now, they do take on a finer edge as we ponder how best to move forward. The temptation (one that I succumb to more often than not) is to borrow the methods of our rivals—spending freely and wantonly to assemble the critical mass of mercenaries needed to win in this day and age. However, the Spurs offer a welcome reminder that it isn't necessarily the only way to win. After all, the Spurs have a core of three players who have been together for what feels like eternity, around whom they have built a squad of younger, up-and-coming players who take turns in the spotlight. One of those aging, "big three" players, Tony Parker, led his team in scoring with the lowest per-game average since 1954 when a shot-clock was introduced in order to force teams to take shots rather than pass the ball endlessly to burn the game-clock. Contrast that against the scoring average for Miami's Lebron James, who was second in the league in scoring but couldn't lead his team to a championship. This isn't offered as proof, just as evidence that it's not strictly necessary to have a league-leading scorer in the squad in order to win.

Now, it's not as if the Heat's formula has failed. Far from it, although it has fallen short of expectations. They've appeared in the Finals in four consecutive seasons, having won twice, and so it would seem that their model is just as viable (if not more so) than the Spurs'. They've done what they can to build around their Big Three, but those contracts are so substantial that it's hard to sign more players without violating the NBA's salary-cap agreement (which parallels UEFA's FFP in some ways, such as its, er, flexibility). Be that as it may, the Heat have struggled to surround their three best players with others who can contribute meaningfully and consistently, settling instead of a variety of ageing, past-their-prime stars and eager, not-yet-shaving ingenues. They've splurged so much on a few players that they simply can't afford to bring in a few more, not without incurring significant fines and penalties. UEFA may lack the chops to impose similar fines—so far—but they may yet grow into their role in ways that will make the Chelseas and Manchesters of the world rue the day.

Back to the Spurs and Arsenal, both teams practice financial sanity and development from within. Rather than going out and buying the best available players, each club, for the most part, has focused on identifying, recruiting, and developing young talent. The proof has been in the pudding for the Spurs because, unlike Arsenal, they have held on to their talent rather than see it depart at inconvenient if not tragic junctures. Where might the club have been with just one or two of those who bolted?

Therein lies the key: a plan. All too often in recent years, we seem to have approached the transfer-windows with diffidence or a lack of purpose. When we knew that van Persie or Fàbregas were thinking of leaving, for example, a key signing or two might have convinced those players to stay (if it was ever possible to do so). The best we could do was Lukas Podolski, not enough to sway van Persie. When it became clear that Fàbregas wanted to leave (and we would have £30m or more to spend on replacements), we brought in Mikel Arteta, who has turned out to be a wonderful addition but for £60k a week or so, he's still a budget-minded buy rather than a direct replacement. The signing of Nacho Monreal may not have happened at all if Gibbs had not been injured. We all know that Arsenal has worked within its budget for years now, and this is not a call to suddenly spend like it's going out of style, but there have been too many puzzling signings and far too few defining signings to convince us or marquee players that there is a larger plan beyond fiscal stability.

We may not need the likes of Balotelli or Cavani, although they'd certainly help. The larger question becomes, "how do we balance the principles that have helped to make this club what it is with the expectations that have also made it what it is?" It's one thing to balance books, but at some point, we have to ask ourselves just what we're up to. Do we have to adopt the methods and the madness of Mourinho and Man City? San Antonio's experience and accomplishments suggest that we don't—if we can bring in the players we need. Campbell and Aurier may not set pulses racing at the same rate as Balotelli and Griezmann, but they and a few other shrewd signings could be enough to elevate us to the next level of competition without forsaking some of the values that have made this club what it is.

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