Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The differing joys of six

Two identical scorelines over the last four days in football - 6-0 - showed that two markedly different schools of thought in attaining success as a football club are still relevant, even if they're taking those ideas to the very extreme.

Manchester City's incomprehensibly rich new investors have raised the bar in foreign ownership. It wasn't too long ago that Roman Abrahmovich's relentlessly deep pockets, as they seemed, were scathingly criticised for 'buying' Chelsea's first league title for 50 years. Yet in the short years since that trophy landed at Stamford Bridge, foreign investment in top football clubs has become a common sight, and most recently reached an unprecedented era of bankrolling when the Abu Dhabi United Group agreed to formally buy Manchester City.

Middle Eastern money is a very real force in the modern world, least of all football, but the billions upon billions backing Manchester City now make previous target for money cynics Abrahmovich look a pauper. The club were able to simply wade into the protracted 'Robinho to Chelsea' saga, flex their new-found financial muscle and within 24 hours, Robinho was a Manchester City player. Chelsea were simply not prepared to be bullied over the £32m price-tag: for City it was merely a matter of making a higher offer. In the previous weeks, the club had without blinking forked out £19m for Brazilian Jo - a dubious decision at the time but the player does look genuinely to have the stuff to make it in the Premiership - and enough cash to buy back Shaun Wright-Phillips with minimum fuss. It capped a remarkable final day in the transfer window - and an expensive one for City.

It was short-lived owner Thaksin Shinawatra whose original funds cemented the signings of the then manager Sven Goran Eriksson - another Brazilian Elano, Martin Petrov and the exciting (but injury prone) Valerie Bojinov - and which saw City make a real attempt at challenging the established order in the Premier League. It faltered before any significant inroads could be made, but this season, with results like the 6-0 demolition of Portsmouth, the signs are there to suggest that the almost infinite bank balance at the disposal of City's owners, coupled with sensible long-term planning, low-key involvement from on high and the integration of existing players and youth players, could give City a very real possibility of disturbing the peace at the top of the table.

By contrast, Tuesday night saw another 6-0 demolition, Sheffield United taken apart by an Arsenal side superior in every single way. While the scoreline is surprising on its own, it's the fact that Arsenal's first XI consisted of mainly teenagers; the team's average age was 19. Arsene Wenger had put this team together from gifted - and mostly inexpensive - youngsters sourced from all over the world, with 17-year old Aaron Ramsey the notable exception following his £5m transfer from Cardiff City. Mexican Carlos Vela (19) stole the show with a breath-taking hat trick, while 16-year old Jack Wilshere scored his first goal for the club. Wenger is notorious for unearthing talent from outside of the UK: names like Song Billong, Merida, Vela and Denilson do not exactly suggest players learned in Joey Barton's football philosophy, while the steal of Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona at 16 might be the best transfer ever done. However, Wenger's side also consisted of equally adept teenagers from these isles; Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Randall and Lansbury all playing some part in the fixture.

The sheer brilliance in technique and ability, not to mention the physicality, of these young players, was testament to Wenger's own brilliance, and the legacy he is building at Arsenal. Though he's already been there 10 years, it might be that the Frenchman has only now started to put on show his plans for the club. He's been quoted as saying the current crop is the best group of players he's ever had to choose from, and it's remarkable to consider that he may have spent his time at Arsenal thus far plotting this, a wunderteam, never mind wunderkids. There is no other club in world football doing quite the same thing, and for fans everywhere as well as Gunners the possibilities are just mouthwatering.

That a team of teenagers can rip apart another fully professional club who, only one season ago, were in the same league as Arsenal, is a powerful commendation to the cause of developing a youth setup capable of schooling and producing young players that can, as a team in their mid to late teens, play football in a manner so glorious and so undeniably brilliant as to stylishly thrash opposition with ease.

The two schools of thought, then: 1) buying the top of the range finished product to give instant results, or 2) developing your own top of the range product steadily to give long-term return on investment, are completely different in terms of time and money investment, planning and thinking. But, for the moment at least, two clubs in the English Premier League have provided evidence to suggest that both remain viable methods to bring results in every football club's endless search for success.

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