Had the internet been around in my father’s day, this morning would have been a match preview. A simple enough affair, one that would have appeared every Saturday and in midweek, which in Arsenal’s case was always a Tuesday for home games. Times have changed and that straightforward pattern, sometimes for the good, others when the world is apparently against you all.
The rest of the time, well, he probably would have been little different from you or I now; a mix of tattle and gossip with interesting stories coming through every now and then. Certainly the manager’s media duties mean everything is seemingly more accessible, the club’s profile raised higher helps. One thing that has been interesting in researching Arsenal On This Day – this morning’s post is a 5-4 win over Manchester City in 1961 – is that transfer speculation has always been around, albeit to a lesser degree than the saturation of today. Which is where Wenger started, refuting rumours of trying to sign Salomon Kalou, whilst observing that Andrey Arshavin‘s inconsistency is not decaying his Arsenal career – he is indeed, efficient – and that the only place Marouane Chamakh is going this January is the African Cup of Nations. The manager indicated that Arshavin might be offered a new contract and that the Moroccan is indeed returning. Nobody has reportedly quipped that it is only to clear out his locker.
Having good-humouredly answered those points, he apparently became prickly on the subject of Tottenham pointing out that this was Arsenal Football Club. It was something quite easily spotted, for example Arsène was sitting behind a desk answering questions and talking to the media. Unlike others who lean out of their Ranger Rover windows, telling the waiting media that “Samba’s a t’rfic player who’d rather come to a war-torn borough in Norf Lahndan than QPR but he’s at Blackburn and I don’t disrespect other teams by talking about the players on their books“, before heading off to Dorest mansions.
The media were the real targets, specifically those who broadcast matches live. Arsène railed against the fixture list a claiming that the process was subject to undue influence from one or more outside sources or even from rival clubs.
It would be – and is – easy to look at Wenger’s words and find little sympathy with the game as a whole. Ever since the early 90s when the big clubs looked through the round and square aerials, their ability to control the fixture list has been eroded. At the centre of this is the archaic notion that televising a fixture at 3pm on Saturday will cause a drop in the actual attendances across the whole of the league. There is no evidence to support the theory but like racism and homophobia, it is deeply entrenched, ingrained into the sport.
And I find it impossible to have any sympathy with Wenger. Arsenal can refuse to have the FA Cup tie against Aston Villa; it is within their power to defy the broadcaster ESPN and choose to have the match played on Saturday or Sunday. Except they the Arsenal board lack the courage to stand up to television even though there are sound sporting reasons to do so. Instead, starting with Aston Villa, there are three games in six days. That is lunacy, even with the squad system and unnecessary considering the other free midweek dates in the rest of the season.
And all this for a measly £125k appearance fee. That is a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things. Whilst the club may argue that there are commerical and marketing reasons beyond the fee, ultimately they should not lose sight of the fact that this is a troubled season for the squad. The poor start has led to a significant margin being opened not just to the top but to even third place. Neither is yet insurmountable but in order to give themselves the best chance to recapture lost ground, surely someone in authority at the club looked at the unnecessary pressure that would be applied to the players? Arguments such as fielding a weakened team do not wash in this instance; Wenger will field a side to win the games knowing that Villa will view the FA Cup as a winnable trophy whilst Bolton and Blackburn will not take any risks with their Premier League survival at stake.
Wenger suggested that the list might be open to abuse. Well, that is the price of success. Or failure. The prime slots in the television schedule will go to the successful teams. Manchester United do not play on Monday nights because Sky know that the prime audience for them is Saturday or Sunday. Alex Ferguson’s silverware haul has arrived at the same time as Sky’s investment in the game. The broadcaster could not have chosen a better team to dominate the English game. Wenger threatened that dominance until the current trophyless run began in 2006. This era’s Leeds United to United’s Liverpool, if you like; the odd smattering of trophies which is successful by any other club’s standards except those of the club winning more.
Is that undue influence over the broadcaster or simply market forces at work? Wenger’s complaint is valid about the lunacy of the fixtures but looking a little closer to home provides him with the real culprits.