by Harrison Stark
Watching Arsenal labor to a 1-0 win at home over Udinese on Tuesday, one was struck by the similarities between the Gunners and their Italian counterparts. Both teams had finished fourth in their domestic leagues, playing a slick brand of counter-attacking football. Both had seen their respective best player disappear into the Catalan sunset to join the European Champions FC Barcelona.
And yet, there were more than just coincidental parallels. Lining up against Udinese's diverse starting eleven, hand-picked from the far corners of the globe, there was a sense that Arsenal was playing itself in disguise.
Udinese is the epitome of Europe's new, globalized style of team management. Using a vast network of international scouts, Udinese recruits up-and-coming players from obscure locations few other teams dare to look. Its starting line-up on Tuesday contained players from Slovenia, Chile, Morocco, and Colombia. On the field, there were as many Brazilians and Ghanaians as there were native Italians. Discovering and training these players itself, Udinese has profited by selling its cosmopolitan superstars for enormous sums.
Once upon a time, it was Arsenal themselves that pioneered this global model of squad development. Over a decade ago, their coach, Arsene Wenger, who is a mathematician and economics graduate, began using a network of statisticians to analyze player potential for soccer players around the globe. Deploying a web of scouts and analysts around the globe, Wenger was able to uncover world-class talents where no-one else saw them: he discovered players like Kolo Toure in Abdijan, Ivory Coast, he converted Thierry Henry, then a below average French winger at Juventus, into one of the greatest forwards of all time, and he found an unknown 15 year old at Barcelona named Cesc Fabregas (Wenger sold Fabregas, now a World Cup winner and international icon, back to Barcelona earlier this week for close to $40 million).
But globalization has caught up with soccer, just as it has caught up with everything else. Today, Arsenal and Wenger are no longer special. Now, every high-class team has scouts all over the world, and Wenger's original statistical approach to discovering talent is commonplace. Even in Italy, traditionally hostile to foreigners, Udinese's globalized squad is now the norm.
Arsene Wenger's once-innovative approach to recruitment is now commonplace (courtesy AP)
And in the era of YouTube and Footytube, where highlights are uploaded to the Web in a matter of minutes, there are no more hidden gems to discover. Today, everybody knows everybody. Gone are the days when Wenger could surprise the world with an unheard-of signing (like he did with Jose Antonio Reyes or Mathieu Flamini). Every starlet is tracked by a host of scouts from Europe's top clubs from adolescence and teams now go to absurd lengths to land 'the next big thing' -- like Real Madrid, which offered a contract last month a seven year old.
In this new, globalized incarnation of soccer, Wenger's once-innovative vision is now the norm, his team no longer special. And as we saw on Tuesday, by setting the standard for the rest of the soccer world, Arsenal has become the victim of its own success. Sadly, it may be too late for Wenger to change the game again.Wikipedia: commonplace definition: '''archaic''' a striking passage entered in a commonplace book. →