There are an awful lot of people who know a lot about the intimate details of players salaries and transfer fees these days. Which is quite surprising given the wide divergence in the sums quoted by different people on the same subject. What surprises me – and it doesn’t at the same time – is the willingness with which these figures are lapped up, the speed with which an unsubstantiated comment becomes a fact. Just remember that before you quote anything, question how that person got the information, what is their source? Better still, ask what is their agenda for making it public or claiming that their information is right?
Plenty of advice is given to players, quite freely in these columns and by me as well. It was of no surprise to see headlines that told Johan Djourou to find another club, lots of people have been telling him to do so for the past twelve months. Even his national team coach is now joining in and you wonder if that is going to carry a tad more weight than a significant number of other peoples’ words.
Hitzfeld is, from a purely selfish point of view, understandably worried about the lack of matches in which his player participates. Having played 37 times in 2010/11, Djourou might have expected to reach a similar total in 2011/12, especially with the number of plaudits he received for his performances. The signing of Per Mertesacker would have signalled a significant obstacle to that but more than anything, the improvement and consistency of Laurent Koscielny presented the biggest blockage in his path. Koscielny made himself an automatic first choice.
It meant abits and pieces campaign for Djourou. Injuries stopped some opportunities and his obvious discomfort at right back precluded significant runs in the side when Bacary Sagna was missing. That was a step too far in his versatility; the competition for places in midfield, most noticeably the emergence of Francis Coquellin, and Alex Song’s continued fitness mean that Djourou is unlikely to be called upon in that position.
The question of whether to stay or go must rage through Djourou’s mind. He has received a good education at Arsenal but at the age of 25, surely his career demands that first team football on a regular basis be commanded if he is not to be left with regrets when the final curtain is called on his playing time?
But Djourou is a very modern problem. The rules that limit squad sizes mean that he is the type of player that clubs want to retain. Despite what is said of him, Djourou is not a slouch as his thirty or so international caps show. By the same token, he is going to find it hard to displace any of the three centre backs ahead of him on a regular basis such is the consistency of their form. Injuries offer opportunities but unless Johan is spectacular in his own game, he will inevitably be dropped. That is not a modern problem, football’s history is littered with similar players: a step above the journeyman but not able to quite take the next step themselves.
He is a good squad player to have though and this where he becomes a modern problem. As more money flows into the game, squads at the highest level become less threadbare. Quite often in the past, if you scratched below the surface, the substance of playing staff left a lot to be desired. In a lot of cases now, that is still the case. The grass though is greener on the other side; envious eyes are cast to Manchester as City set about signing anything that moves.
Arsenal cannot compile a squad using that much money, everyone accepts that. Well, aside from those who believe that a tubby Uzbek is the Second Coming even though like politicians, he makes the right noises out of power but when on the coalface? Different story.
With Football Manager or Championship Manager played to a startling-wide degree, player management is a simple game. Squad is unhappy at not playing just ignore them, they have a contract; tough, get over it. The real world is a lot different with agents, players and clubs all looking to move players to new clubs for sizeable fees and gold-gilted contracts. Obscure teams emerge from nowhere and a judicious phrase whispered in the right ear makes a superstar.
The squad player is not expected to be a diligent, hard-working player any more. He has to be a superstar in the making or better than the player replaced. If not, if a performance-level drops, a scapegoat is formed even if the player is nothing to do with the goal conceded or chance missed. The squad player does not have the chance to play themselves in over a game or two, more often than not they will have two performances consecutively and then spells on the sidelines until a minor cup comes along.
No chance that those weeks of inactivity will be borne in mind. Years ago, a bad performance (or even an average one) from the ‘reserve’ would be tolerated, forgiven with a good performance in the future. That was the norm although criticism could be sustained. Now condemnation is instant, forgiveness noticeable by its absence; redemption just does not seem possible.
The footballing authorities are to blame for that. Without a competitive reserve league, players lack match time as preparation. It means that they are moved from months on the training ground into a competitive match environment. Even with the best will in the world, the training pitches do not – and can never – replicated a match intensity. Yet players are expected to be instantly ready for this scenario. Moves are being made to rectify that but the focus on the first team is so intense that forward planning by officialdom is utterly forgotten beyond those spheres.
For players such as Djourou it brings on a unrelenting criticism that is not justifiable in the long term. All of the talk of squads is a smokescreen: it’s the first XI or nothing.