The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Ups and Downs

So Marc Pelosi, a seventeen-year-old rising star of American soccer, may be be headed to Liverpool to develop his skills in the Reds’ youth program. He has made an interesting comment: “I have been told the current Barcelona coach said that if you don’t go to Barcelona, the second best place to develop is at Liverpool. It’s a great, top notch organization.” (Pep Guardiola has indeed been reported as having said that, but I can’t track the quote to a reliable source. It would be surprising, though, if Guardiola didn’t have nice things to say about Liverpool’s youth program, since it’s run by people with Barça pedigrees, José Segura and Rodolfo Borrell.)

Not an especially important item in itself, but indicative of what most Premier League fans will have noticed, a steady rise in the buzz surrounding Liverpool since the ownership and managerial changes of last season. It’s really remarkable how quickly the Reds have pulled out of a dramatic tailspin and converted it to a steep reputational ascent—especially when you consider that they only finished sixth last season.

And it’s equally remarkable how Arsenal has made the opposite move: half the team, it seems, wants out, though they finished fourth in the Premiership and were in contention for league and various cup honors until fairly late in the season. Arsenal’s last few seasons have of course been disappointing and hardware-less, and they are still a young team, but a certain mood seems now to have settled, fixedly, on the players, their fans, and team management alike: a mood of hopelessness. I wonder whether a top-four team in the Premier League has ever been so universally seen as a sinking ship.

Why has this happened? For one thing, the “we’re still young” explanation, even if valid, has been trotted out too many times. But more important, I think, were the strange events of the month of February: the casual relinquishing of a four-goal lead against Newcastle on the 5th, followed by the admirably tough-minded come-from-behind defeat of Barcelona in a Champions League match at the Emirates on the 20th, followed by the brain-cramped last-minute loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final on the 27th. The wild mood swings of that three-week period seem to have left the team shell-shocked, and the rest of the year was terrible: one win in all competitions for each of the next three months.

The result is that while the Arsenal brass have made some half-hearted noises about keeping Fabregas and Nasri, they’ve also talked about signing Stewart Downing as a possible replacement for Nasri. Stewart Downing? This is the height of Arsenal’s ambitions? Nobody seems to care too much about the loss of Clichy or the likely loss of Almunia and Bendtner, but shouldn’t a club of Arsenal’s stature be able to hold on to the likes of Nasri, and be in contention for many other top-level signings?

Maybe they will be. But even among the most devoted Gunners a lassitude seems to have set in, an air of being resigned to a period of decline, while hopes are skyrocketing at Anfield. If you look at the rosters of the two clubs and at their recent performance, there shouldn’t be such a gap in expectation and mood—but there is, and this kind of momentum is not easily arrested. A great deal could change in the next few months (first in team rosters, then in performance) but at the moment it is just hard to imagine that in the next Premier League season Arsenal could finish ahead of Liverpool. And for the longer term, one wonders whether Arsenal will be able to keep its reputation where young players can come to blossom. The inertia of reputation is a strange and powerful thing.

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Ups and Downs

by Alan Jacobs · July 11, 2011

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