Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Sheikhigarchy, ambition, and that game: an interview with Nick Hornby about “Pray”

The Academy Award-nominated writer of the screenplay An Education, the best-selling author of the book High Fidelity, and the Arsenal-obsessed main character of his memoir, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby is an author whose reach in literary, film, music, and football circles is matchless.

Hornby’s big break was Fever Pitch. A touching and poignant memoir of growing up in England, falling in love with both a woman and a sports team (not in that order), and about losing and finding one’s faith told through a series of football matches from his very first in 1968 to the incredible Arsenal season finale in 1989. And now, twenty years later, and after much success in nearly every other arena, it seems natural that Nick Hornby has returned to write about football.

Pray: Notes on a football season (Riverhead eSpecial; $2.99; available now) is written in the same easy style as Fever Pitch. Matchday by matchday, Hornby takes us back through the most significant moments of the 2011-2012 English football season. From the moment that Carlos Tevez refused to play for his manager to Thierry Henry’s triumphant return for Arsenal to Fabrice Muamba’s near-death collapse on the pitch and on to the thrilling finale in Manchester which saw City lift the title for the first time in 44 years everything is examined through the unique lens of Hornby’s wit and wisdom.

But in typical Hornby style Pray is about more than just the who-did-what of a series football matches. The setting is the game but the stories are the global financial crisis, racism in England, being a sports fan, and the silent prayer that washes over 40,000 normally rabid sports fans as they sit in horror while a vital young man struggles for life in front of their very eyes.

Pray is a welcome return of one of football’s greatest ambassadors and I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Nick Hornby’s time to answer questions about Pray, about his thoughts on Arsenal, and the changing nature of the game.


7am:  Pray reads like the first installment in a serialized novel. Almost like you have set the characters and are laying groundwork for future seasons. There’s our hero, the plucky but underwhelming Arsenal. The villains in the form of the Chelsea, Man U and Man City. Sub plots of racism, just so many stories in one season. What was your intention here with this work? Do you have plans to have a season review every year or was last year so special that it just deserves its own book?

NH: Oh, I’m not sure there was an intention.  I was talking to my editor at Penguin UK, who’s a big football fan, and I told him he needed to commission an e-book about the season, because it contained so many incredible stories. And then I realized that I wanted to write it. I haven’t written much about football since the 90s, and so much has happened since, so PRAY allowed me to get some things off my chest.

I suspect that the problem with writing something similar about every season is that the stories aren’t going to change that much. Money will be a huge issue again this year, and racism, too – but we’re unlikely to get a finish as thrilling as last year’s.

7am:  The book starts off with a lament about the influx of foreign money (which you refer to as a “Sheikhigarchy“) into English football as the two teams from Manchester thump the two from London, but ends with Man City’s win over QPR and the conclusion that “perhaps the only way that professional sport can become interesting is if every team gets hold of as much (money) as possible.” How can an Arsenal fan reconcile these two seemingly disparate positions?

NH: Ha! Well, being an Arsenal fan doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re also a fan of financial prudence!  I didn’t choose to watch them because they’ve drawn some kind of line in the sand – I supported Arsenal long before they decided that self-sustainability was the way forward. The problem that  the Premier League has at the moment is that it’s expensive to watch and not very competitive: we’d all be amazed if anyone other than Chelsea, Man City or Man Utd won the  league this year, next year, and the year after that. I knew before the season kicked off that I was paying very high prices (nobody pays more, in fact, than Arsenal fans) to watch a team that is aiming for fourth place again. Maybe Financial Fair Play would make a difference, but I was merely pointing out at the end of the book that if everyone had Man City’s money, the league would be more exciting. That’s unarguable, surely?

7am:  Would Thierry Henry still be able to help this squad? And if he did return could we please get him his 229th goal back?

NH: I fear that he would be able to help this squad, which of course reflects badly on the squad. It’s interesting how often this is happening, though. Paul Scholes is a vital part of the Man Utd squad after a year in retirement, and at the time of writing it looks as though Drogba may be going back to Chelsea for a few weeks. I’m not sure the Premier League is as robust as people like to make out.

7am:  You also hit on this issue of Arsenal’s ambition to finish fourth and how top football clubs don’t take the FA Cup and League Cup seriously anymore, quoting the boss from the year before about how “the Champions League is compulsory, the FA Cup is something for enjoyment.” This is something that Wenger has been saying for years and yet when Wenger said it again at this year’s AGM there was massive uproar. Why does this shock people and why is it that Arsenal are suddenly a “club without ambition?”

NH: It shocks people only because there is now a substantial number of Arsenal fans who want Arsene to go, so they’re using his apparent lack of ambition as a stick to beat him with. And yet if he’d won the League Cup two years ago, when Arsenal lost, shockingly, to Birmingham, nobody would be satisfied now. The last two League Cup-winning managers got the sack at the end of the season, which indicates the low regard that the competition is held by owners – and possibly even fans, seeing as there wasn’t any real outcry about those sackings. Everybody – and I’d probably include the fans in this – wants their team to play in the Champions’ League more than they want them to win a domestic Cup.

The AGM took place against the backdrop of poor results and the sale of Robin Van Persie. But how can it be any different? We’ve sold a couple of our best players every year since the move to the Emirates, and there isn’t much we can do about it. Nobody is going to turn down the chance to double their wages, especially if trophies, big trophies, are more or less guaranteed at the clubs they’re moving to. We have lost players we wanted to keep to Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Barcelona - nobody else. If they were going to Spurs, or Everton, or Milan then I’d understand the outcry, but they’re not. And it’s always been like that, my entire supporting life. Frank Stapleton went to Man Utd in 1981. Wenger’s incredible success between 1998 and 2004 has made people forget what Arsenal have been since 1945.

7am:  One of the best articles in the book is a piece on the two cases of racism from last year (Terry and Suarez) and the difference between the way the FA and the clubs tried to deal with the players. At the time you were writing, the Terry case was still ongoing but we now have a conclusion and while he was found innocent in court, the FA found him guilty and chose to ban him just 4 games. I’m curious about your thoughts on the way this case has been concluded?

NH: The length of the ban was peculiar. I’m presuming the FA felt that the court case, and the length of time it took for the case to come to trial, provided a different context from the Suarez case, where the law wasn’t involved. I don’t know why people seem to think that his legal innocence has any bearing on the FA’s disciplinary process. Clearly there are different codes of conduct within professional organizations – after all, taking your shirt off to celebrate a goal can result in a loss of earnings, and that’s hardly legally enforceable. And Rio Ferdinand – in one of the more complicated misconduct charges of the year – was fined a lot of money for tweeting “Hahaha”, which would have made for an interesting couple of days in court if he’d chosen not to pay it.

7am:  5-2 against Tottenham, 5-3 against Chelsea, 8-2 Man U, 4-4 Newcastle, 5-7 against Reading, 6-1 for City against United, 5-4 for Chelsea against United all results in the last two years. Can anyone (other than City) play defense anymore?

NH: 5-2 against Tottenham twice, in the same year! These are no longer extraordinary scores, and clearly something in the game has changed profoundly. In the book I suggested that the players are simply too rich to bother with that kind of drudgery, but I suspect that it’s also something to do with the rapid turnover of playing staff, and on top of that the need to rest players. Arsenal used 16 players in four competitions in 1970/71, when they won the Double, of whom 14 were properly involved in the squad. We’re not halfway through this season, yet they’ve already used more than twenty in the Premier League alone, and another dozen or so in the League Cup. And yet defense involves working as a unit, with a goalkeeper. It must be almost impossible to work together effectively if the line-up changes constantly.

7am:  A lot of people considered the final game of the season between City and QPR as analogous to Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in 1989, a pivotal event in your memoir Fever Pitch. You called it the most “electrifying” ending since 1989 but steered clear of comparing the two, for good reason. I don’t know if I have a real question here except that I wonder how you react to people making the comparison?

NH: Clearly it was every bit as unbelievable for City fans – and they needed two goals, rather than Arsenal’s one, in the last couple of minutes. Our game was a straightforward head-to-head:  the two contenders playing each other in the last game of the season. That never happens. But the big difference, I think, was Arsenal’s underdog status, and Liverpool’s formidable reputation. You didn’t go to Anfield hoping to win, in those days, let alone win by two goals. And I think a lot of the country was rooting for Arsenal to do it, simply because of Liverpool’s dominance over the previous decade. Most neutrals were more ambivalent about City. They were at home, against a struggling team, and they’d spent hundreds of millions on players. And yet if they failed to win, then the trophy went to Man Utd, the  biggest team in the world, who’d won it countless times before. So something about it didn’t feel right, even if it was completely enthralling to watch. I think our moment still has the edge. I would say that, though. That’s become the lot of the Arsenal fan - clinging on to old glories! I never really relax into a season until every Premiership team has been beaten once, and our Invincibles record is preserved….

PRAY:  Notes on a Football Season
Nick Hornby
Riverhead eSpecial ($2.99) Available for purchase at most eBook retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple or directly from the publisher here.

Thanks to the folks from YESNetwork for making this interview possible and especially to Mr. Hornby for taking time to answer questions from some blogger.


He's so happy

Everton 1-1 Arsenal: I did my best, but I guess my best wasn’t good enough

“All I ever ask is that Arsenal give everything” is the rallying cry of the despondent Gooner after every game in which Arsenal listlessly drop points to a fierce opponent. And on those occasions it’s usually followed by “tonight they didn’t give everything. It’s the manager’s job to motivate them and he didn’t, again. Perhaps it’s time we look at a new manager.”

But what about games like last night’s match where both teams clearly did give everything but fell just slightly short in the face of fierce opposition? In those cases we shouldn’t we praise the team for their effort?

I am.

Goodison is always a tough match and it was made tougher by a well organized Everton side who are playing at the top of their game and who know Arsenal’s weaknesses and sought to exploit them. But Arsenal fought back and but for a few careless moments, which happen in nearly every game to every team and every player, could have even earned all three points. In the end, the draw was the right result.

Arsenal started brightly and Theo Walcott took the ball from nearly the first kick of the game and drove straight at Everton’s back line. Jagielka didn’t do enough to stop Theo and his attempted clearance bounced off the Arsenal man and he was free in acres of space. Theo then played a nice ball to Ramsey who did very well to hold up play and slip the pass back to Walcott who had made a run around Ramsey.

Theo side-footed the shot, which maybe took a deflection but was almost certainly going in on goal regardless, and the ball sailed past Howard and nestled into the side of the net. It was the perfect start to the game and from there Arsenal wanted to play with patience and hit Everton on the counter using Walcott’s pace.

Everton’s Scottish manager, David Moyes, countered by using Fellaini to mark Arteta out of the game which is a tactic we have seen work well against Arsenal a number of times this season. Wenger countered that tactic by playing Wilshere next to Arteta in a 4-2-3-1 and Wilshere did a fantastic job carrying Arteta’s water: Wilshere led Arsenal in passes and completed long passes playing more of a deep lying midfield role while Arteta was there to help him recycle the ball. The front three in Arsenal’s system were literally all over the  place, swapping sides, dropping deep, playing in crosses form both sides, making runs, on and on. Despite a few gilt-edged chances, nothing came off for the Arsenal.

Despite that sort of feverish approach to the front four from Arsenal once the ball got out of the Arsenal midfield is when we saw a second tactic from Moyes: targeting Aaron Ramsey. Anyone near Ramsey pressed instantly and the most notable instance came just as Arsenal were trying to kill the game with possession.

Jack played a pass to Ramsey who took a touch casually and straight into the onrushing Steven Peener. Peener, took the ball, and skipped over Ramsey’s clumsy attempt to win the ball back with a tackle, dribbled past Wilshere who didn’t even try to tackle and then played a nice diagonal in to the box. Jelavich had run past Sagna but the ball was just too close to the keeper and Szczesny slid out quickly and claimed.

From there, things should have been ok, as Szczesny rolled the ball out to Sagna who had acres of space and time and Arteta to his left. Unfortunately, Sagna played Arteta a hospital ball and Peener just took it from him but his tackle gave the ball back to Sagna. Under pressure from Peener, Sagna rushed the clearance and hit the ball across the D, right to Fellaini who controlled and curled in an unstoppable shot past Vermaelen.

Twitter lit up with blame for that goal, on Aaron Ramsey’s give away a minute earlier. Ramsey was to blame for a lot of things in that game, he was dispossessed 6 times, and it is frustrating to watch Arsenal’s attack break down time and again and see an Arsenal player easily harried off the ball. But Ramsey was only tangentially to blame for the Everton goal. If you want to blame an Arsenal player, blame Sagna. Sagna let Jelavich in behind him. Sagna made the terrible pass to Arteta. Sagna made the poor clearance. And Arsenal fans can say that was either a goal created by Peener’s hustle, or a goal conceded by Bacary Sagna’s terrible defending, but blaming Ramsey is plumbing new depths of self loathing.

Ramsey is a decent player but he does have an Achilles heel in that teams who pressure him can get him to cough the ball up easily. It’s also a fact that the referees don’t afford him any protection and that yesterday’s referee had no compunction allowing Everton to go through Ramsey’s back time and again but call a foul when an Arsenal player tried to do the same.

In the end, though, both teams fought hard for the win. Looking at the stats we see both that Arsenal lifted their performance from the listless draw at Aston Villa and battled hard for the point. Arsenal matched a hard-edged Everton side, at Goodison, where they haven’t lost for 10 straight, tackle for tackle. Arsenal matched them pass for pass. Arsenal matched them header for header and clearance for clearance. Both teams had chances to win the game but spurned those chances and in the very end it was Arsenal’s keeper, Szczesny, who made two important saves that ensured Arsenal a share of the points.

It’s just about what both teams deserved and while it wasn’t the most flowing match from an Arsenal fan’s persepective, the very least you have to admit is that Arsenal gave their all.

Which is all we ever ask for, right?

Well, that and getting 60,000 Gooners to sing “Just Once” by James Ingram. Come on, let’s make this happen.



Where could Arsenal buy? Pt. 3: Forward — plus recommendations

Does Arsenal need to buy “just one player?” And if so, why is it that no one can agree on the “just one” player that Arsenal need to buy? Also, why is it that Arsenal need to buy a different type of player every three months when someone new goes down with injury? In this series of articles I have looked at the defense, the midfield and now the forwards to see if Arsenal need to buy anyone, whether it’s more than one player, and today I offer some players who might be good buys in January.


Lukas Podolski

Offense 8/10: Arsenal’s most clinical finisher, has six shots and three goals in Champions League play and 4 goals off 19 shots in the League. Also quite the provident passer and has already tallied 4 assists in both leagues. Efficient, doesn’t get the ball a lot, but doesn’t need the ball a lot. Has already shown a decent partnership forming with Giroud. Can’t really create his own shot. Would benefit enormously from having a creative wing player on his left.

Defense 5/10: Tracks back nearly every single time. Takes his duties seriously as a winger in Arsene’s 4-4-1-1 defense. Tackles at a decent rate for a forward, fouls a little too much, and doesn’t read opposition passes very well. Should have higher defensive numbers considering how much his side of the field has been targeted this season. Can’t complete 90 minutes, almost certainly due to the physical demands of playing as a winger.

The Oooo Walcott

Offense 9/10: Can’t dribble, but dribbles better than Podolski (11 v. 9 and Theo has had less time on the pitch). Can’t finish, but finishes better than Podolski (has a goal every 4 shots).  Can’t cross, but has 4 assists all from the wide position (leads Arsenal in assists). Poor touch, but the best Arsenal player for touch at pace. Flat track bully who has also added 5 goals and 3 assist in League Cup games.

Defense 3/10: Historically considered a defensive liability and still has some of the lowest defensive numbers for any Arsenal player in the Premier League. Plays significantly better with Sagna behind him than Jenkinson. Can play defense (see Schalke) but would rather play as a 2nd striker in a 4-4-2.


Offense 6/10: Arsene moved Gervinho into the center forward role and the Ivorian flourished-ish. Movement is good and when he scores they are usually good goals. But his touch is often dreadful at pace and as a result it’s not the goals he did score that many remember but the goals he should have scored or sometimes, worse, the shots he should have taken but didn’t because of his poor touch. Effective dribbler who always dribbles to the same place and almost always drops the ball to the same place. Why no one (offensive or defensive) has figured this out yet is going to be a Leonard Nimoy “In Search Of” special. Started last season strong, finished horribly after ACN. Cannot cross the ball, probably the reason why Arsene moved him centrally. Would rate lower but that would be unfair due to the fact that he has five goals.

Defense 4/10: Actually, a better defender than Theo Walcott, only just. Doesn’t take defensive duties as seriously as Podolski but still averaged twice as many tackles per game as Theo last term and has a surprising number this term despite being used as a center forward.

Alex Ox

Offense 5/10: Remember we are rating on actual play, not potential. Has the drive to break down opposition defenses, can dribble “the village” and is dispossessed a ridiculously low 0.9 times per game but has very little final product right now. Has just the two assists and one League Cup goal in 11 apps to keep his rating low.

Defense 5/10: On par with Podolski in that he takes defense seriously and tracks back nearly every time. Decent tackler, but like everyone at Arsenal would rather play centrally than wide.


Offense 2/10: Played in two games, has 2 goals and an assist. On the merit of that probably deserves a higher rating. But he’s been dropped from even sitting on Arsenal’s bench in the last few games and scored just one goal for Arsenal all season last year. Would rate lower but don’t want to incur the wrath of the Chamakh lovers.

Defense ?/10: There’s nothing to rate him on. Played in that 5-7 win over Reading but not responsible for any of their goals. Is a center forward.


Offense 7/10: Needs a lot of shots to score but has added headed goals to his scoring repertoire. Wins a lot of aerial duels. Gives Arsenal an option up front that they were looking for from Chamakh. Poor passing range, poor vision, but some times pulls off the amazing assist pass. Looks to be finding his place in this Arsenal team, could rate higher very quickly.

Defense 8/10: Compared to a winger or a defender, Giroud doesn’t deserve an 8, but he is always back to help clear the ball on set plays and puts his head on the line. And besides which I like a good defending forward!

Verdict: £ — Received wisdom is that Arsenal need a striker, someone to back up Giroud, but I completely disagree. Arsenal have a backup to Giroud in Podolski. Podolski would thrive in the center forward spot because he’s strong, he’s a better passer, and he’s much much much more efficient than Giroud. But the problem is that Arsenal can’t play him there because they need him playing defense on the wings and covering for Gibbs/Santos. It’s a strange situation, the only three players in Arsenal’s 25+ man squad who like too play wide are Gibbs, Sagna, and Jenkinson. Everyone else wants to be a center forward.

That said, Arsenal do need to spend some money on either replacing or securing Theo Walcott as he is Arsenal’s only other wing threat. There are right wing players out there who could fit the bill if Theo’s demands are too odious but they will cost dearly in the January transfer window.

Overall verdict

I would like to see a backup keeper at Arsenal. Given the fact that he has bid on several over the last few years, I think Arsene Wenger wants a backup keeper at Arsenal — for the right price. That said, who sells their best keeper in January? No one, in Europe. Major League Soccer produces a lot of fine goalkeepers and I wonder if Arsenal shouldn’t take a look at Jimmy Nielsen from Sporting KC. He is a fan favorite over here and would almost certainly not turn down the chance to retire with Arsenal.

The other problem that Arsenal need to sort out is the fullback situation. First, it is critical that Wenger sign Sagna or replace him with a player in the 23-25 year old range. Fagner is having an amazing season, though it could be a one off, and his tackle numbers (5 per game) are almost as absurd as the fact that he averages 2.2 dribbles per contest. This is a situation that can wait until summer but if Sagna won’t sign, Arsene has to replace him. Second, Arsenal need a left back. Santos’ was signed to do the job and has never convinced and whether it’s his on or off-field antics something is keeping him from first team football. This is more pressing for me because Gibbs is injury prone and Vermaelen is not ideally suited for the role. Left backs are hard to find and everyone wants me to say Leighton Baines but I’m going to suggest Argentinian Pablo Alvarez from Catania instead. Or Baines!

In the midfield I am surprised by the number of people who don’t believe that Arsenal need a holding midfielder. It’s been something on my list for 5 years and while Arteta has impressed greatly, he’s not ideally suited for the role, and given his history will not be able to play 50 games there for Arsenal this season. Coquelin seems like a nice kid and I’m sure he’s loyal but he’s not been impressive for me. He’s always going too far forward and he’s not as tidy with the ball as needed for a position like that. Last season I recommended Yann M’Vila and I’m sticking with that recommendation despite  his France ban and the drop in form this year. His problems are not with his technical ability or footballing intelligence, they are off-field problems, and they are hurting his performances on-field. He  is  still the same technically gifted, positionally disciplined, hard tackling, defensive midfielder with a great field vision that he was last year, he just needs a change of scenery. Ettiene Capoue has been stellar for two years and I wouldn’t turn him down but my intuition tells me that M’Vila is a more gifted footballer.

No one would turn down the big name signing of a out and out striker like Falcao or Cavani. That said, signing either would mean dropping Giroud to the bench or changing the lineup to play two strikers. Doing the former is fine but doing the latter would require Arsene to buy actual wing players as the Gunners have none. Unless you really believe that Arsenal could play a front line of Podolski (wing), Falcao, Giroud, and Cazorla (wing). Maybe you do? I tend to think that they would all try to go to the same spot  in the middle of the pitch simultaneously and form one weird ball of forwards — “Palcoudla”.

Podolski has a lot of caps for Germany and plays out wide for them but it’s patently obvious that he’s not physically equipped to deal with the sprints required to play as a outright wing player in the Premier League. Arsenal have no winger on the right, unless you want to put all your eggs in one Ox cart, stick Cazorla out there (he could do it but would be wasted a bit), or hope that Theo can somehow magically become a better defender.

Given the above, the question is “Do Arsenal need a forward or a winger?” I would say the latter: a left wing player would provide width, dribbling, pace, and defense down the flanks. This would free Arsenal to make tactical changes, play a 4-4-2 with Theo and Giroud or Giroud and Podolski. And would give Arsenal options to play Cazorla on the right or in the middle of  4-3-3.

The big name players right now are Andre Schürrle on the left and Mario Goetze on the right (though Goetze likes to play… centrally). Both of these players have great dribbling skills, great vision, expansive passing range, dangerous crossing, and will do the dirty work. Both are also going to break the Arsenal transfer record: Bayer turned down a £20m offer for Schürrle from Chelsea. The reality is that it’s hard to find anyone who wants to play wide. Perhaps that’s why Arsenal don’t have any and why so many teams are adopting the 4-3-3. Miyaichi is a real wide player, though he has been struggling to impress at Wigan and has only come on as a sub. Don’t count on him getting a start for Arsenal this year.

The point of this three day and 5,000 word exercise was to show that Arsenal are not just in need of one player, there are a number of positions which the club is weak. Arsenal have two of the best midfielders in the world right now in Cazorla and Arteta and there are plenty of forwards in this club who are willing to play centrally and even one center forward willing to try to play defense (Podolski). But after that, there’s a lot of gaps in the Arsenal midfield due to injury and other issues and none who are able to play wide. Also, there are some scary issues with the only width that Arsenal have in the fullbacks area. And, there’s the not so small issue with keeper that has never been really resolved since Almunia deposed Lehman.

Maybe I’m wrong. I will be the first to admit it when I am. But there’s a stern test of the squad depth of this team between now and the close of the January transfer window: 11 League games, mostly against mid-table teams, mixed with League Cup, Fa Cup, and Champions League matches, will almost certainly decide the season.


P.S. — Felliani

I was remiss not addressing many Arsenal fans’ desire to recruit Fellaini for the holding role at Arsenal. He fits the bill in many ways: big, aerially adept, and a hard tackler (e.g, “broke his own ankle stamping on someone in a Merseyside derby”). The problem with Fellaini is that he’s not playing in a defensive midfield role and really hasn’t been for a year and a half at Everton. This raises a lot of questions for me. Would he be happy doing the dirty work for Arsenal in order to let Arteta be more creative? That’s a tough sell. Once a defender gets a taste for goals and the Hollywood feeling of offense it can be hard to reign them back in (see Alex Song Billong and Vermaelen). But more difficult that that would be a transition from outright starter at Everton, who gets to play any role in midfield, to backup for Arteta at Arsenal. I don’t see him doing that. I also don’t see him as a legitimate #10 (which is sort of what he’s doing for Everton). That’s another big reason why I chose M’Vila: not only is he very conservative in terms of positioning he is also trying to rehabilitate his career and might accept the backup role/more purely defensive role that Arsenal need someone to play.

Also, watch for Fellaini today; Moyes will almost certainly use him to mark Arteta out of the game which might be in Arsenal’s favor, actually.