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Campbell’s move to Newcastle disappointes me July 27, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer.
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As I think I’ve said before, perhaps not in so many words, I have a great deal of affection for Sol Campbell.

For one, the man and his family have suffered for the homophobia surrounding soccer, by all reliable accounts without even a basis in fact. That is the salient reason for my admiration as a human being. Soccer fans, though, are soccer fans first and human being second, and by that reasoning, my admiration roots itself in a much deeper reason.

Soccer’s reflexive tribalism is the reason I love the sport, deep down, because it is an antidote to the sterility of professional sports in my own country. Simultaneously, it’s also profoundly myopic in its denial of the extent to which the sport’s commercialization, especially in Great Britain, has divorced it from the communities that spawned it. That’s why I laud the bravery of Campbell’s move from Tottenham to Arsenal, and what it has subsequently subjected him to.

There’s also, even more fundamentally, as detailed in the first article I cited, an on-field reason: Campbell battles every day his own personal physical degradation, and that is as compelling a story as any in the sport.

Let’s remember, for a second, that Campbell was once perhaps the best player in the world at doing what he ostensibly does: presenting an insurmountable physique as an obstacle to opposing attackers. In an Arsenal team trading in ascetic deftness, he was the physical bedrock of that approach. He couldn’t pass, really, or even run, but his team needed a man like that to weave its magic. But that physique was so effective because it was wielded with a defensive intelligence that made it sublime, a brain that understood its limitations and could wield the instrument of Campbell’s body in a way that disguised them.

Since he came back up to the English top division with Arsenal last season, Campbell’s story has been one of that indomitable’s instrument’s decay and that admirable intelligence’s struggles to come to terms with it.

Campbell’s critics must remember that Arsenal owed him, for precisely his braveness in moving to the club in the first place, the chance to surmount those difficulties at the highest level. But one can excuse their dispensing with him now, having given him that chance, and shown that, if more limited than ever, he can function in a top-class team.

But seeing him go to Newcastle, as the Guardian reports he will, is disheartening. I don’t want to see Campbell submerged amid the chaos of that club. Newcastle’s defensive fallibility is institutional, I think. How else would you explain the phenomenon that even Titus Bramble has become a sought-after center half since leaving Newcastle? It is so easy, though, to foresee the man who will soon be the senior citizen of that club’s defense blamed for its inevitable frailties.

If such accusations don’t arise, it will be much to Campbell’s credit. At this late stage in his career, though, at which he can no longer disguise the ever-growing limitations of his game, he is coming up to his biggest challenge.

Campbell a liability, but a compelling one. March 14, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer.
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As will be every match he plays in Arsenal’s red for the rest of his career, today’s contest between Hull City and Arsenal was very much the Sol Campbell story. The axis upon which these tales revolve is a question: Do Campbell’s creaky bones still have what it takes for Premiership football? It’s a formula that has not yet gotten tired.

On one hand, you can still see the old Campbell. For one thing, he is still extremely large, but he also retains that magnificent intelligence: Campbell still has that reflexive telepathy, that superpower that foretells an attacker’s next move before it even comes to his mind. But his physical limitations are now a daunting impediment to his capitalizing on that knowledge. He was never the most mobile player to begin with, but now, even though his mind is a step ahead, but his body is two steps behind.

The drama comes from the fact that this realization is only just dawning on Campbell. The horror and disappointment are written deeper into the lines of his face with each new piece of evidence that his body is unequal to the demands of top-flight football. He is becoming a liability, not merely in footballing terms, but in terms of other players’ safety, as Kamil Zayatte’s knee can attest. And yet he is still largely effective: It’s worth remembering that the penalty he conceded should never have been given in the first place because Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was blatantly offside, that for all that it was forceful, violent even, Campbell’s tackle on Zayatte was still a borderline call the referee bungled.

Where Campbell goes from here is unclear. Will the strain of more and more games at the highest level hasten his decay in a way that could cost Arsenal either of the trophies for which the Gunners are still in the hunt? Or will match practice help him come to terms with his limitations and emerge the stronger?

Some other thoughts on Hull-Arsenal:

  • Phil Brown sometimes gets his tactics spot on, but he flunked this one. Against a left-back in Gael Clichy who is manifestly uncomfortable on the backfoot, he couldn’t come up with anyone more dynamic for right midfield than Dean Marney?
  • That player should have been Jozy Altidore, who had a mare of a game up front, but looked very dangerous when Brown moved him out to the left wing. His physicality and aggression on the right would have been exactly the kind of challenge for which Clichy has no answer.
  • Where in the hell is Geovanni, the one Hull City player capable of real magic?
  • Mike thinks Theo Walcott should have started, but it’s hard to think of a more devastating way to employ someone so lightning quick than to inflict him upon an exhausted team that’s just spent almost half an hour defending desparately with 10 men. He’s a great supersub to have.
  • Andre Arshavin created a goal out of nothing and then decided to spend the rest of his evening giving a masterclass in hopeless shooting. In particluar, one towards the death when Samir Nasri let a loose ball run through to a wide-open Arshavin in the box was horrendous.
  • Nevertheless, Arshavin orchestrated the show flawlessly and, while he certainly came nowhere near his Euro 2008 form, when he displayed an unnatural ability to know the location of every man on the pitch at every second, he was doing the same sorts of things. I choose to attribute this to Nicklas Bendtner.
  • Denilson played a better game than he appeared to.
  • What is George Boateng’s problem?
  • Bernard Mendy was hopelessly at fault on Arshavin’s goal, but he actually put in a pretty canny defensive effort and improbably won repeated battles of strength with Bendtner.
  • Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink is a subtler player than many realize. He’s definitely a target man who specializes in getting knockdowns and holding the ball up, but he does it in such a subtle, technical way. If he had been partnered by a slightly more competent finisher than Altidore, he might have gotten an assist.