Guest Post: How Spain became France v2.0 and what that means for Arsenal by AP
Since 1996 when Arsene Wenger was appointed as manager and Bosman ruling changed everything in football, including limits considering foreign players as long as they hold citizenship of a country from European Union, Arsenal was often labelled (sometimes with xenophobic tone as well) as a French club.
In his first season Wenger did something that became his trademark in years to come – he signed two bright talents of French football Patrick Vieira, a powerful midfielder who struggled in AC Milan, and teenager Nicolas Anelka, the forward who started his career in PSG. After Arsenal missed out on a Champions’ League spot on goal-difference Wenger signed more experienced players Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi who were integral part in the AS Monaco team that won Le Championnat in 1996-97. The scent of France was present in all lines of Arsenal in the amazing 1997-98 season – the heart of the midfield was Petit and Vieira, the best replacement for injured Ian Wright was Anelka while Gilles Grimandi and Remi Garde did their role in defense when they were called up.
When Wenger realized he needed to replace Anelka who signed for Real Madrid, he signed Thierry Henry who – just like Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp years before – struggled to express his enormous potential in Serie A and after EURO 2000 members of the victorious French side Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord joined while we lost Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars to Barcelona.
One could find it interesting that Arsenal players scored and assisted in both World Cup 1998 (Vieira assisted for Petit’s goal) and EURO 2000 finals (Wiltord scored equalizer and Pires assisted for the winning Trezeguet’s goal) and that says a lot about character of players Wenger signed back then. French quartet Henry, Vieira, Pires and, to lesser extent, Wiltord were crucial players in 2001-02 and 2003-04 titles. In European clubs elsewhere French players and talents bought from French clubs played important roles in big teams (Zidane, Trezeguet and Deschamps in Juventus, Zidane and Makelele in Real Madrid, Thuram in Parma and Juventus, Makelele and Essien in Chelsea, Sagnol and Lizarazu in Bayern) for almost a decade.
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However, it seems that Wenger was blinded with excellent performances of France national team in WC 2006 Knockout Stages and didn’t notice the decline of French football (that accidentally or not coincides with Lyon’s 7-year-domination) and that players like Clichy, Flamini and Nasri will never become Abidal, Makelele and Zidane. Zidane’s domination over his opponents in the Knockout Stages didn’t let neither Wenger nor anyone else foresee the rise of a new force, a force that is dominating like no footballing force before despite, certain signs were in front of Wenger’s eyes: he gave 18-years-old Cesc Fabregas the leading midfield role after departure of Patrick Vieira to Juventus. That new force was previously known as eternal losers and chokers – Spain. It is ironic and symbolic in the same time that WC 2006 was the last major tournament Spain failed to win since they were dominated and beaten by France 3-1 despite having 1-0 lead. France played 4-2-3-1, just like they did when they won WC 1998, this time with two world’s best enforcers in midfield (Vieira and Makelele), and outclassed Spain with brilliant performances from Ribery and Zidane.
Six years later, a lot of things changed. Spanish footballing inquisition keep making questions their opponents can not answer. They won last two European Championships but they are also dominating in young categories – they are reigning European champions in the U19 and U21 grades. Since 2006 Barcelona won two Champions’ League titles with a team made mostly of players that went through La Masia, a footballing academy that keeps producing short and fast midfielders with the ability to think faster than their opponents. Xavi Hernandez, brain of the Barcelona and Spain national team, is the prototype of Spanish players, especially midfielders, that are dominating in European football today.
Footballing philosophy that runs the Spanish national side and Barcelona to success is based on ball possession and quick short passes or, like Carles Rexach likes to put it, “not one touch football but half-touch football”. There are fine and recent examples of influence of Spanish players (again, with stress on midfielders) when they go abroad. David Silva was the key player of Manchester City last season, especially in the first half of the season when they looked like a safe bet for winning the title. When his form started to decline, the Citizens started to look shaky due to a lack of chances created by Silva. Silva managed to pick himself up at the end of the season and City saved their season.
Last season Arsenal recorded only one victory in nine matches they played without Mikel Arteta, one of the best midfielders in Premiership ever since Everton signed him from Real Sociedad. Although some pundits and fans pointed at Alex Song when they were picking runner-up in the “Arsenal player of the season 2011-12” choice, but it was Arteta that was a member of Arsenal’s spine together with Vermaelen and our most recent former captain. The fact that he is not in his national team speaks about the quality of the Spanish midfield. While Arteta is taller than a typical Spanish midfielder like Xavi, Iniesta or Silva, he therefore is more similar to his country-mates Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, players that connect the defense and midfield.
Arteta’s new Arsenal teammate Santi Cazorla is an example of why Spain is so dominant. Cazorla is new guy in Premiership but he dominated in all four matches Arsenal has played this season. He is a player that created most chances of all Premiership players (last season Juan Mata and Silva were top creators for Chelsea and Manchester City) so far and he seems to be unplayable at the moment. Cazorla makes the whole team better and each one of his teammates that is included in attacking roles are better players since the Spaniard joined Arsenal.
Cazorla’s philosophy that he learned in his country makes him capable of finding space to pass the ball at the right moment and it will be very exciting to watch Cazorla distributing the ball to both full-backs Sagna and Gibbs when the Frenchman recovers from injury. The absence of Spanish players is also easily noticed as well as their presence. Liverpool failed to reach a Champions’ League spot ever since they sold Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. In 2010-11 Arsenal had 60 percent win-ratio with Fabregas in the team and only 30 percent when their Spaniard was injured. We also lost that Carling Cup final against Birmingham mostly because Fabregas wasn’t on the field to lead his troops.
There are reports that Arsenal will try to sign Adrian Lopez from Atletico Madrid and Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao. Both of them showed special class in their European campaigns and it seems that both of them could be bargain buys (Llorente’s contract expires in June 2012 while Adrian has release clause fee of 14,5 million pounds) considering what would Arsenal get in exchange. It is very hard for Arsenal to keep up with Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in financial terms so we should try to sign players with qualities that most of Spanish players have today. If Theo Walcott doesn’t want to sign new contract, Adrian could be nice replacement since he possesses higher footballing intelligence than Walcott. Llorente would add depth in case Giroud continues to fire blanks. Oh, one more thing: our next fixture in Premiership is Manchester City. Last season, both matches ended 1-0 for the hosts. Goalscorers? When City won, it was tap in by David Silva. When we won, it was long shot by Mikel Arteta. Sapienti sat.