Maybe Shinji Kagawa is better off on the bench

Doing nothing is underrated.  In a world where everyone is trying so hard to do things to impress people and achieve some sort of success, doing nothing can be a very good tactic – especially if you realise things might be going wrong.

For example, if you ever find yourself sinking in quicksand, an article from todayifoundout.com (who are definitely, definitely experts on the matter) suggests to “stand completely still” as “the lowest you are likely to sink is to around your waste [sic.].”

The article goes on to advise that: “thrashing around, however, has been shown to cause the sediment and water to separate somewhat. This will cause you to sink deeper and deeper the more you thrash, to the point where you’re almost completely submersed; then your thrashing, due to some suctioning effects, can pull you under.”

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, there has been a general feeling that Manchester United may be in a rather troubling position. Even for a side who won the league by 11 points last season, every turn seems to be laced with a nagging doubt in regards to their ability to defend the league title; the recruitment of David Moyes rather than a manager with more prestige, Wayne Rooney’s transfer request, the quite obviously futile pursuit of Cesc Fabregas – even the 4-1 win at Swansea had the echoes of a false dawn rather than the beginning of a new, successful era.

Moyes has also spent the last few months complaining about the fixture list – specifically regarding how his team have so many difficult games so early in the season. This, of course, overlooks the basic concept of a league format: everyone (who doesn’t get sacked after a bad start) plays everyone (who doesn’t get sacked after a bad start). Ah.

In fairness to David Moyes, many of United’s problems are not his fault. He inherited a team from a man who was so brilliant that – on the evidence of United’s ragtag collection of midfielders – he began taking a ‘look, no hands’ approach to management towards the end of his tenure.

Ashley Young is dreadful. Ryan Giggs is 40 in November. Antonio Valencia has spent the last 12 months looking incapable of beating a man or delivering a threatening cross (previously his main two strengths), while Anderson comes across as someone who has genuinely just given up at being a sportsman. As the only player who can actually complete the most basic of midfield tasks, Michael Carrick has essentially become one of United’s most important squad members by default.

Then there is Shinji Kagawa. After seemingly being mollycoddled in his debut season in English football, many expected to see more from the Japanese schemer in his follow-up year at the club. However, it appears that Moyes doesn’t like the cut of his jib quite as much as the critical onlookers do.  And considering United’s results have, at best, been rather mixed, Kagawa’s omissions have been used as a stick to beat the Scot with.

Kagawa is quickly becoming considered a player Manchester United are worse without, despite any solid evidence they are actually any better with him. His action this season only provides us with a limited sample: his one start came against Bayer Leverkusen, where he was rather peripheral in United’s 4-2 victory.

However, being peripheral is absolutely fine for Kagawa. Hell, maybe even better than fine. While he didn’t perform particularly well against the German side, he didn’t do anything notably bad either. Rather than constantly failing to beat his opposing full-back or launching a profuse amount of poor crosses into, and subsequently out of, the penalty box as Young or Valencia would, he instead kept schtum.

Of course, it is the games that Kagawa hasn’t played in where his stock has really risen. By missing the entireties of the defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City, he was completely absolved of any sin. Indeed, the poor performances of those playing in similar positions to the Japanese, leads to a swirl of opinion that Kagawa should be playing and that United need him in order to avoid 4-1 defeat at Eastlands.

As United continue to sink without Kagawa, his stature appears higher and higher in comparison. But, despite the illusion, he hasn’t become any better than the player who was on the fringes of United’s title-winning side and only really put in a handful of notable performances; those around him just look worse.

So don’t feel sorry for Shinji Kagawa, he’s standing still. And the longer he does this for, the more chance he has of being found by someone with a nice long branch, and the willingness to pull him out. David Moyes and Ashley Young are the ones you should be worried for; they could end up sinking completely if they continue thrashing about.

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Transfer Rumours

I wrote this in July. Unpublished.

Ah, summer. For a small period of the year, it’s all “heat waves”, music festivals, and men who dress like Jules and Vincent at the end of Pulp Fiction (or, as Quentin Tarantino’s character puts it, “dorks”). Hay fever sneaks up around this time of year too. Subsequently, everyone takes antihistamine that “may cause drowsiness” (i.e. definitely causes drowsiness) but is the only way to stop yourself continuously doing that air-pressure thing at the back of your itching throat. You know, the air-pressure thing that makes that sound.

Also: No football. Grown men who normally use football as a medium of escapism from their unhappy lives – rather than World of Warcraft, so preferable really – are forced to watch other sports, like tennis, or rugby, or the Confederations Cup (see what I did there?). But, of course, for many people that simply won’t do. So there are transfer rumours. Or “gossip”. Gossip. Does that make it sound like OK! Magazine, or the Daily Mail website’s sidebar? Does it? Well it should. That’s the level of credibility we’re dealing with here.

The old “In The Know” (ITK) twitter accounts are wheeled out by their 14-year-old purveyors, while media sources report mythical “raids” and “swoops” that mostly never even take place in the most metaphorical of senses. But because there isn’t actually any competitive football, transfer gossip is the zeitgeist, and becomes the tonic for people twiddling their thumbs on Saturday afternoons.

Of course, a lot of it is complete nonsense. While websites want hits, newspapers want sales, and “ITK agents” want retweets, general attention and to lose their virginities, when football clubs (or real football agents) do actually let any transfer information go public, it’s completely for their own benefit. And this could be the truth. If a transfer is going smoothly and there isn’t any offence taken by one of the other parties involved, making fans aware that there is a new signing on the horizon (or in Arsenal’s case this season: “oh look we’re bidding for load of players and actually want to spend loads of money this time. Look! Look! Look! … Please?”) isn’t exactly a bad thing for a club.

However, it could also be in the interests of a club (again, or actual agent) to circulate complete fantasy, or at least be economical with the truth. This might be a complete lie about bidding for a Real Madrid striker to excite fans in the same week as the launch of the new away kit, it could be means of encouraging clubs to make bids for a player who wants to leave and/or the club wants to sell. And for some publications and websites, running this is fine. Because it’s that time of year, transfer stories get hits, and the more the merrier.

Attention is the name of the game here. And because transfer rumours are so frequently little more than hot air anyway, it gives publications and websites more room to manoeuvre. And by manoeuvre, I mean run with stories that might not be from a particularly reliable source. And by reliable source, I mean some bloke down the pub.

One of the finest examples of this was last summer, when the ITK agents were in boom. ITV’s football website quoted @agent_153  (the guy who tweeted: “I have MASSIVE news for all English football fans. I need 500 retweets on this tweet for me to release it”) in an actual article, as the source. Not just a source, the source.  Naturally the piece has since been removed, and, once his “ITK agent” chums started outing themselves, Mr 153 exited pretty sharpish, leaving an overweight-teenager-shaped hole in the door in his wake. Regardless, the article was still a) hilarious and b) a fine example of the limited amount of credible validation a spot of transfer gossip needs for a football news website to run it. And that was all the story was: gossip.

Gossip is a word that is now synonymous with something ITV2 would probably try to make sound fun. So maybe the women from Sex in the City sitting round a table in an expensive wine bar, or something mildly associated with The Only Way is Essex.

When you think about it like that, anything that is “gossip” is most likely inherently evil.  The word gossip shouldn’t be patronisingly reduced to its first syllable like they do in adverts for Closer magazine; it should be spat out in disgust, like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character does in Doubt.

So take your sports pages – print out an article from caughtoffside.com if you have to – tear them into pieces, go up to your roof, and throw them into the wind. That is gossip.

Jack Wilshere isn’t as good as everyone thinks he is

Forward: I wrote this for Arsenal Latest in August. The tagline for this blog comes from one of the comments on that original post.

Since Dennis Bergkamp joined Arsenal in 1995, N5 had been home to the most talented footballer in the country (give or take a Cristiano Ronaldo). Thierry Henry joined as the aviophobic Dutchman entered his thirties; Cesc Fabregas upped his game when Henry departed, and then Robin van Persie finally decided to stay injury-free for longer than 6 months, propelling him to definitely-important-PFA-Player-of-the-Year-winning heights.

But now they’ve all gone. All of them. Succumbing to old age, Barcelona, Barcelona again, and a metaphorical little boy-cum-careers advisor, respectively.

So what happens when the one-man-team loses its one man?

Does someone else try to take their place, or does the cliché die? Well, both. The former first, and the latter second, that’s why I wrote them in that order. But the cliché doesn’t die valiantly, and in a blaze of Hollywood “no I in team” glory, but a whimper (unless, of course, you win things AND ARSENAL DOESN’T WIN THINGS LOLZ).

In light of Robin van Persie’s departure just over a year ago, the wisdom of crowds named Jack Wilshere as Arsenal’s most valuable asset. Anyone who makes a joke about Arsenal selling their best player now uses Wilshere as the default. Any Henry Winter clone who wants to construct a narrative about an Arsenal hero looks straight to Arsenal’s number 10.

But there’s a problem here. Have you spotted it yet? If not, go back and read that first bit again. I’ll wait for you… Got it now? Good. The problem is, of course, that Jack Wilshere isn’t the league’s best player, or indeed Arsenal’s best player.

Wilshere probably wouldn’t even be in Arsenal’s best XI at the moment.      

Naturally, he is one of Arsenal’s most gifted players, but doesn’t really fit into any part of the midfield. He’s too young, and not direct or penetrative enough to play where his squad number suggests (in “the hole”), yet doesn’t have the discipline, strength or defensive qualities to partner Arteta in a deeper role.

This partly isn’t Wilshere’s fault. You can’t blame him for Arteta, who isn’t mobile enough to cover the back four on his own, and you can’t blame him for Rosicky or Cazorla, who aren’t really capable of dropping deeper when he goes gallivanting up-field. But his need to be accommodated for means he does have issues within his game that need to be addressed.

Are Game of Thrones references in vogue? Okay, I’ll use one then. If you don’t watch the programme, you can skip this next paragraph.

Jack Wilshere is definitely Tyrion: small, crafty, intelligent and sharp-tongued. But all this often gets him into trouble, so he can be pretty vulnerable without Bronn – that would be someone strong and quick enough to jump to his vertically challenged partner’s aid, yet also offers more intelligence than your average bodyguard. That was Alex Song, but he upped and left a year ago, so now Wilshere is stuck with Arteta, who is probably more comparable to Varys.

But Jack Wilshere is important to England though, right?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in this land, Jack Wilshere’s one-eye is his ability to pass a ball.

Yes, Carrick can do that too, but he’s 32 now, so he’d be a constitutional monarch at best. In the fallout from the 2010 World Cup, there seemed to finally be a realisation in this country that, in order to have a good football team, having good footballers might help. How convenient, then, that Wilshere’s breakthrough at Arsenal came the very next season. And look, he’s small and good at passing, just like those Spanish guys that win everything!

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I am, so there you go.

Of course, Wilshere is a good player. But this in itself is part of the problem: he knows it. And, just like everyone else in the country, he overrates himself.

Jack Wilshere absolutely believes his own hype.   

And this is where we return to the one-man-team thing. Everyone knows it is rubbish, yet so many people lap up the narrative. Don’t believe me? One of the biggest pieces of football fiction in this country is Roy of the Rovers: a story essentially based around one man winning matches virtually by himself. But we all know real football doesn’t work like this, just don’t tell Jack Wilshere. Or perhaps do.

Actually yes, scrap that last bit, definitely tell Jack Wilshere.

You see, Wilshere has a massive Roy of the Rovers complex, and it needs to stop. When Arsenal are losing and/or playing badly, little Jack decides to *deepens voice* ‘take responsibility.’ This equates to him picking up the ball in the centre circle, and running past three players and being tackled by the fourth. To an extent, the thought is appreciated, so thanks Jack, but as gallant as these efforts are, they aren’t particularly productive.

For Arsenal, having Jack Wilshere is good. He’s a home-grown talent who’ll sell shirts and probably does have some affinity with the club. And one day, if he stays fit, he might be Arsenal’s best player. Hell, maybe even the league’s best player. But for now, let’s at least look for someone else to pin all our hopes and dreams on. Hi Santi Cazorla!

Why would Cesc Fabregas want to go to Manchester United?

Forward: I wrote this piece three days before Fabregas publicly announced he wanted to stay at Barcelona, so it got made redundant before seeing the light of day.

I actually emailed it to the editor of Backpage Football immediately after writing it. I had previously sent him a sample piece of work, and he seemed very enthused, asking if I could write something new for them to publish. However, after sending him this article, he never emailed me back, or ever again. I can only assume he’s a big fan of The Vaccines.

Manchester United: What did you expect from post-breakup Cesc?

Really? I’m starting with a Vaccines reference? Oh well, it’s been done now. Thanks to Robin van Persie’s removal of the in-no-way-biased “Wayne Rooney is the best striker in the world” sentiment from Old Trafford, it seems that Manchester United’s extended family have discovered that Arsenal did actually have some good players in 2010. So now they want Cesc Fabregas; who, by winning a league title, became better than Anderson for the first time last season. Or something like that.*

You can understand the logic behind the “#Champ20ns” wanting Fabregas. Without investing in another midfielder, their midfield could end up looking like this. And, yes, that joke has definitely never been made before.

But in all seriousness, while United could get away with a near-non-existent midfield under Sir Alex Ferguson, they may not be able to do so under David Moyes – mainly because Ferguson is probably the greatest football manager ever. And because, y’know, it’s David Moyes. Also, with Wayne Rooney deciding that he would rather play for any manager other than Moyes (and at Chelsea, he’ll probably have a few of those to put that preference to the test), Old Trafford will be a potential match-winner lighter in their already-threadbare central areas. United may well have to replace that lost creativity if they want to stop their number 10 carrying the Premier League trophy out the front door, clumsily stuffing it in the boot of his sports car, and driving it to West London.

So United could do with another midfielder or five, and Arsenal’s former teenage icon (sorry, Vaccines again) fits the person specification rather well. He’s a very good midfielder, and they are a very good team. However, he’s already at a very good team – a better one than Manchester United at this moment in time, in fact. So while United’s fans have been sniggering about the prospect of signing another darling of The Emirates, and mocking the Gooner pipe-dream that he may yet make a prodigal son-esque return to North London, the question remains: why would he want to go to Old Trafford either?

There seems to be a train of thought that Fabregas isn’t happy with the amount of game-time he’s getting at Barcelona, which may well be true. However, he played 32 games in La Liga last season, as well as starting against Real Madrid (thrice), AC Milan, and Bayern Munich. That doesn’t suggest he would feel sufficiently under-valued to want to leave his boyhood club for a second – and probably more permanent – time.

But with a World Cup approaching, would moving to a team who would build their game around him help Fabregas obtain a starting berth for Spain? Probably not. He is already competing – and playing – with most of his international midfield rivals at Barca anyway. It seems, for Fabregas, that proving he is capable of breaking the Iniesta-Xavi-Busquets trifecta, or joining it, would be more beneficial to his cause than ostensibly admitting defeat.

Meanwhile, despite him spending most of his tenure with their captain’s armband making eyes at Barcelona, Arsenal are also keeping track of Fabregas’ situation, probably saying something along the lines of: “if you wanna come back, it’s alright, it’s alright.”

(That’s three Vaccines references now. There’s a special place in hell for people like me.)

But this continuous flirting with the Catalan side whilst at Arsenal explains exactly why he wouldn’t want to go there either. What would be the point in spending your final three years in London pining for a move to your dream club, only to return two years later?

All Manchester United’s seemingly futile courtship does is strengthen Fabregas’ position at Camp Nou. Barcelona will be aware that their helmsman, Xavi, will turn 34 this season, so with Thiago abandoning ship this summer, Fabregas will be needed at the bridge sooner rather than later. Having United show an interest in his services gives Cesc a chance to remind his current employers of that fact should they ever ask him to swab the deck.

From this perspective, this saga seems completely pointless, although the notion that Manchester United have been strung along the whole time to empower Fabregas’ role at Barcelona is rather funny – unless you’re a Manchester United fan. But on the whole, the continuous reportage of bids being prepared, submitted, and then rejected has made the narrative seem a lot like a Vaccines song: over-hyped, repetitive and droning.

*At this point I would have linked a wonderful piece by United blogger “Yolkie” for stretford-end.com, in which the writer goes about “exploding the Fabregas myth.” Alas, it has been removed from the website.