Like many of us I was deeply saddened to wake yesterday to the news of the death of Richie Benaud. Sport lost another of the good guys and in the world of sports media that leaves a very short list indeed. Among the tributes being paid many people, myself included, shared Richie’s tips for commentators, which could translate as guidelines for life in general. As I looked down the list so many pearls jumped out all of which are routinely ignored by the swine who usually pollute the airwaves during a football match. ‘Avoid clichés and banalities’ is probably the most often transgressed and ‘The Titanic was a tragedy the Ethiopian drought a disaster, and neither bears any relation to a dropped catch’ is a lesson in the dangers of of being sucked into melodramatic hyperbole which the likes of Savage and Pearce probably haven’t the wit to even understand.
My personal favourite however, was the most succinct of them all. ‘Never ask a statement’. I couldn’t help thinking of this perfect and obvious piece of journalistic advice as I watched a repeat of Arsène and his weekly duel with the reptiles. Count how many times they fall foul of the statement as question mistake and it is genuinely depressing how Mr Benaud’s wisdom has been entirely ignored by these odious people. I got to wondering why they do it quite so often. Why make a long rambling statement expressing nothing more than their own opinion and then end either by encouraging Arsène to agree with them or not even bothering to ask a question at all? If I were in the manager’s position I simply wouldn’t answer until they actually asked me something.
But again I wondered why. They can’t all just be stupid. Owen and Savage aside you need a modicum of intelligence to get into the industry in first place, surely. Then it dawned on me. They’re not really asking anything are they? They are simply trying to write the headline in advance. They have no interest in Arsène’s ideas or opinions. One of the single most intelligent and fascinating men in the history of this or any other sport and they don’t even want to know what he thinks. When they say something like ‘Hector Bellerin has been in great form this season, it looks like you have another fine young player on your hands, but you must fear that one day he might want to return to his home country, perhaps following Cesc Fabregas in returning to Barcelona’ all they are waiting for is any hint of a ‘yes’ in Arsène’s response so they can publish ‘Wenger Dreads Barca Exodus’ with the subheading of ‘Arsenal boss says Bellerin could follow in Cesc’s footseps’ or ‘Want Away Catalan Kid Eyes Camp Nou Return’ and then print some guff about his blood cells or some such twaddle. I believe this is why Arsène always begins answers to these minefield questions with the word ‘look’. It avoids a positive or a negative and buys him the second he needs to marshal a politician’s answer. Which is why press conferences are such a waste of time. Like political interviews they are merely jousts between journalists desperate for a slip and interviewees desperate to say as little as possible.
So we didn’t really learn anything from Arsène about today’s opponents nor today’s game. Nothing we didn’t know already. Burnley’s home form is better than their away from, their latter season form is better than their early season form and they are fighting for their lives in the relegation zone. They were unlucky not to beat Spurs in their last game, have recently beaten Man City and drawn with Chelsea so anyone out there who believes this is a simple guaranteed three points for Arsenal needs their head read. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that I think we can win and that we ought to win, it should go without saying that we need to win. While the opposition has admirable qualities and has achieved the creditable results mentioned above we have more than a few advantages ourselves. For one the greatest manager in world football, the most experienced in guiding his team through the rocky road of a season’s end. For another a collection of truly astonishing footballing talent epitomised by the peerless Mesut Özil. With the likes of Jack Wilshere coming back into contention the side will only be stronger still and at long last the manager has genuine options throughout the team.
Having said that will he change a winning line up? He might just do that. He is above all a master tactician, more capable than his peers at changing the balance of the side so that the innate qualities of the players he chooses alters the way in which the team performs. That is his real genius. He doesn’t just ask the same players to play in a different way as many lesser coaches will. He drops one player who posses one set of qualities and picks replacement possessed of a subtly different style. Bellerin for Chambers, say, or Gibbs for Monreal. Thus the way the team plays alters because you have a quicker or taller or more attack minded player in the position. The style of play, the manager’s philosophy remains unchanged but the emphasis alters. We might need a more offensive, faster or more tricksy right side with a more solid left side. Or we could be facing a goalkeeper with an identified weakness so we might need players adept at exploiting that weakness. How Blackburn must rue shooting low to Mignolet’s left every time. Did they learn nothing from us? Perhaps the midfielder Arsène wishes to play on the left covers his fullback better than the one he chose the previous week and so he picks the fullback best suited to the changes that implies. There seems to me much more going on than just not changing a winning side or simply picking the players we like best or who you and I might think are in the best form.
I know nothing about Burnley’s strengths or weaknesses but you can bet the man who matters does and whichever team he selects will be the one he believes is best able to counter and exploit those qualities and frailties. It would be fascinating to hear his thoughts on these kind of subjects but sadly he won’t be asked a proper question any time soon. We can only dream of a world wherein the weekly presser features Arsène and somebody of Richie Benaud’s capacity sitting in pleasant surroundings and discussing in patient depth the art of football management. Instead of which we have something far more closely resembling Cantona’s flock of screeching gulls diving and screaming hoping for a bite of something they can shit out onto the pages of their sordid, demeaning rags.