Friday, 19 July 2013

The Art of the War on a Far Eastern Tour; Sun Tzu’s guide to the English Transfer Window.

It has become customary these days for the top teams in the Premier League to open their seasons with a tour to the Far East. This is remarkable because the Far East is almost entirely unsuitable as place to go to regain fitness and match sharpness. The humidity and heat are stifling and the travel distances are extreme.  Players often complain that they come back in worse condition than they left. The reason that the teams put their reluctant players through this tour, of course, is money.

For a long time Asia, especially the Far East was a vast untapped market in Football. Despite its huge population, burgeoning economies and the predominance of globalization, Asia was the land that Football forgot. There were no great Asian players and there appeared to be very little interest shown by anyone of importance in establishing the game in the region. This all changed when FIFA decided, in Sepp Blatter’s only known good decision, to give the 2002 World Cup to Japan and South Korea. The tournament was wildly successful with every game a sellout and ardent fandom shown towards stars like David Beckham and Ronaldo. Above all it showed the world that the appetite for the game in the Far East was there if only it could be tapped into.

Marketing managers of the Premier League clubs  were the quickest to grasp the size and value of the Far Eastern Market and many clubs made concessions in an attempt to increase their market share in the region. The first method was to buy players from the country you wanted support from. Manchester United signed the inept Dong Fangzhou from Chinese side Dalian Shide in 2004, the workaholic Korean Park Ji Sung in 2005 and the talented Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa in 2012. I feel it is no coincidence that these three players just happen to come from the three largest Asian markets.

Arsene Wenger had managed Nagoya Grampus out in Japan before getting his Arsenal job and came to a similar conclusion as United, signing the average Junichi Inamoto in 2002. He barely played and was quickly moved on to Fulham. Yesterday it was notable that Ryo Miyaichi, a player whose last two loan moves have corresponded with that teams relegation (Bolton and Wigan), made a rare appearance in the second half of Arsenal’s pre-season game against Vietnam. Is he good enough to play for Arsenal? No. Is he a good marketing tool for Arsenal? Absolutely.

Arsenal beat an Indonesian XI on the weekend and thrashed Vietnam 7-1 yesterday. Chelsea played a best-of–the-Thai-league team, winning 1-0. Man United are now in Australia having already been to Thailand. With all of these top sides encouraging fans in the East to look west for their inspiration, it seems that they have found some inspiration themselves from some ancient eastern wisdom. Given the way the way that this transfer window has been unfolding I have a sneaky suspicion that many of the participants have been reading Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”

The key to the transfer strategies being displayed this summer is that it is not just enough to just strengthen your own squad. In strengthening your own squad you must weaken your opponents. This isn’t the first time teams have done this. In recent years Manchester City in particular and Manchester United have ripped the heart out of Arsenal’s challenge by constantly poaching their best players. Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor went as players to City, club legend Patrick Viera went as head of City’s elite development squad. Like a bad school drama, the new kid (City) picked on another kid (Arsenal) to get respect from the other teams (United, Spurs and Chelsea). In turn, last summer, United forced the sale of Robin Van Persie. Arsenal appeared weak and, for the last few years, before the league had even started, Arsenal had lost it.

“When the Enemy is relaxed, make them toil”

The man under the most pressure this summer is David Moyes. Taking over from the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford would be tough for anyone; it’s even tougher for someone who has never managed a team with title aspirations. Given the pressure, Moyes would have hoped this summer would be uneventful, allowing him to get his feet firmly under the table. Instead the most experienced premiership managers at the top, Jose Mourinho and Wenger have rattled United’s cage by targeting Wayne Rooney. This has put Moyes under serious pressure early on in his United career and it will be vital to his future that he responds in a positive and decisive way so as not to appear weak. If Mourinho, the best at this game, feels that he can get under Moyes’s skin then it could be a difficult debut season for the new United boss.

“Hence that general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.”

If Jose is having fun the
Premiership had better watch out.
In recent days Mourinho and Chelsea have publically had a bid for Rooney turned down. Mourinho then upped the ante by stating that Rooney is their only target and that it was “Rooney or bust.” Despite the fact that this is obviously a bigger lie than Clinton’s denial of Lewinsky, this creates a massive problem for Moyes. Either he keeps Rooney and has a constant destabilizing influence in the dressing room thus exacerbating the pressure, or Moyes sells Rooney and looks weak because it appears that he has been bullied into it.

A misleading picture.
The genius of Mourinho in this situation is that it is certain that Moyes wants to sell Rooney. By publically declaring his interest for Rooney, Mourinho has backed Moyes into a corner from which he can’t escape. Moyes wants to put his own stamp on the team and needs to show the dressing room he is the boss. An ideal way to do that would be to sell a disgruntled star like Rooney to show that the club cannot be held to ransom by any player. As Sir Alex used to say, “nobody is bigger than the club.” Now Moyes has been forced to come out and say that he doesn’t want to sell Rooney, leaving an “angry and confused” Rooney in United’s dressing room. Either way this pans out, I think Mourinho gets his man eventually, Mourinho has won this early confrontation by sowing seeds of discord at United.

“All warfare is based on deception.”

Arsene Wenger meanwhile has got some money to spend and the mojo is back. Wenger’s main target appears to be Gonzalo Higuain. This deal hasn’t gone through due to the fact that Wenger has been having too much fun destabilizing United with his own suggestions of a bid for Rooney and also disrupting Liverpool by kicking their tires over Luis Suarez. Suarez and Liverpool would prefer a move to Real Madrid but as any viewers of last week’s Top Gear are aware, the Spanish are broke. Both Madrid and Barcelona have been operating under a sell to buy policy for a couple of seasons now and this would help to explain the reasoning behind the sell off to Bayern of Barcelona’s best young talent in Thiago Alcantara. This elaborate smoke screen of name dropping is a deception designed to unsettle his domestic opponents and you can tell that Wenger is enjoying putting the boot in to his rivals for once before signing Higuain.  

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack—the direct and the indirect”

On the whole of the internet there is
not a single picture of Moyes
in a hat. Weird.
One way for Moyes to get back at Arsenal would be to strike a psychological blow indirectly. There are no players at Arsenal that Moyes would desperately want so another way must be found. The thing that would really upset Arsenal and Wenger would be if Cesc Fabregas joined Robin Van Persie at United. You would have to imagine their faces looking something like this. Wenger betrayed his fear of this possibility by declaring that it was impossible for United to sign Fabregas because, “he is staying at Barcelona for another year.” Arsenal own the first refusal on Fabregas but if they cannot match United’s bid then they forgo their right to sign him. If Moyes could pull this unlikely rabbit out of his hat he could yet have a chance of winning the war before the games have even started.

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. ”

Manchester City have avoided this undignified ruckus by going on tour South Africa. They have made the astute signing of Jesus Navas, an electric winger who was one the standout players in the Confederations Cup. Fellow Spaniard, Alvaro Negredo, a natural finisher and Montenegrin forward, Stevan Jovetic, will join Navas. All of these players have the natural ability to perform to a championship level next season. Whilst the other teams have damaged each other in the heat of the Far East, Manchester City’s progress under new manager Manuel Pellegrini has been serene. Manchester City have been playing in the Nelson Mandela Football Invitational Tournament. They have not been able to meet Mandela due to his prolonged health problems but if they had, his famously wise and pacifist advice may have gone something like this, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”