Arsenal, Liverpool and the Tug of War for Luis Suarez
Cliches like "statement of intent" pepper discussions and reflections on the on-going transfer saga involving a triangle of actors: Luis Suarez sits regally atop the tip of the triangle, like the newly erected statue of a domestic blue bird in the Trafalgar Square of London; at bottom left is Arsenal; and on the right, Liverpool.
Liverpool are not amused by the saga. A number of voices have emerged from that part of the world, expressing either disdain, disappointment or defiance.
To the owner of Liverpool, Arsenal must be high on something to so audaciously bid for a player whom they so treasure and would, with Orpheus, enter hell to fetch him back were anything (say Arsenal) dare to drag him down to that dreadful realm.
We can, of course, quibble on the exact sense of Mr. John Henry's words if our mood admits amusement. For example, is it the £1 over the £40 million that scandalized him, or Arsenal's audacity at daring to bid for this player?
But perhaps Mr. Henry values Suarez's on-the-pitch worth over the significant profit he stands to make were he to yield to Arsenal's overtures and sell. Mr. Henry's question as to what exactly Arsenal are smoking down there in London has disdain written all over it.
What do you think they're smoking over there at Emirates?— John W. Henry (@John_W_Henry) July 24, 2013
Then there is shock and disappointment.
Many Liverpool supporters, whether merely in emotive flourishes or in well-considered analysis of the situation, cannot believe that Suarez would dare to even consider leaving the club after all the trouble he has generated for the club, in spite of which it has stood firmly (even blindly so) by him.
This sentiment has been aptly represented by John Aldridge, the club's erstwhile striker. He describes Suarez's behavior in wanting to move away from Liverpool as a "massive lack of loyalty there and especially [considering] the way Liverpool have stuck with Luis." See the report by The Telegraph.
"The fans have been loyal, the manager’s been loyal, his comrades have been loyal, and the hierarchy have been loyal to him. They’ve done everything in the powers possible to back him up and he’s basically put a custard pie in everyone’s face," he continues.
What is amusing is the word he emphasizes: "loyalty"—the word on the lips of every Arsenal fan last summer when their own prized star, Robin van Persie, forced them into a similar situation.
Then everyone, including Liverpool fans, laughed at those sorry North London fans. The wisdom then was that, of course, Van Persie had to leave because Arsenal lacked ambition.
Few considered the constraints that led to Arsenal's troubles; few, beside Arsenal fans, wanted to hear the word, loyalty—a word they said does not exist in football. What does and matters, they advised, is ambition.
Now on ambition's shaky ground, Suarez seeks to generate a move to a club that offers Champions League football, since Liverpool does not.
By this, Liverpool's manhood feels threatened since by the fans' own reckoning, Liverpool is still a bigger club than Arsenal, no matter that it has been in the shadow of the North London club for a while now.
But who can blame them for reasoning so? Don't Arsenal fans employ the same logic in regard to Chelsea, who as of late have overtaken their own club?
Observers of the current saga wonder how Arsenal hope to curb Suarez's wild instincts—which attract trouble like nectar does the bees—and his custom (for so now it seems) of generating transfers away from his clubs whenever it suits his whims.
"Don't Arsenal think that should they sign him he might double-cross them too in the next transfer cycle?" They wonder. See for example, this reflection by Rory Smith for ESPN.
Perhaps the answer could be that, at least, Suarez would feel obligated to stay for a minimum of three years at Arsenal. If Arsenal's gamble comes off, that is more than sufficient since by then they'd presumably have ended their trophyless desert sojourn, inspired by the player for whom they are willing to spend bucket load of money.
And of course, should Suarez last three years at Arsenal, he'd be at the twilight of his career at 29, a less attractive prospect for any top club. So Arsenal, by this, can feel confident in going ahead to sign him.
Then there is the fact that Arsenal may not be afraid to sell at the right price. For if it is true that Arsenal have now acquired a strong financial muscle that is big enough to enable them to compete with the top clubs in Europe, then should Suarez pull his wonted trick, Arsenal could quickly sell in the full knowledge that they'd attract other big stars.
The lesson in the face of Aldridge's lament is the Janus-faced nature of fans. Liverpool fans, diehard supporters of Suarez, will change quickly and sing tunes contrary to the ones they hymned in the season before last when they could see nothing wrong with Suarez's behavior in the Patrice Evra situation.
Already, some Arsenal fans, salivating at the prospect of Suarez coming to London, have changed their own tune, which before now had been firmly in harmony will other tunes sung outside of Anfield. Now Suarez is merely a flawed-hero, a misunderstood genuis. It is so amusing; it beggars belief.
Finally, we come to defiance. Brendan Rodgers is the face of this reaction from Liverpool. "We will not sell short of £50 million,” he says. Refer to this BBC report. This of course, is arrant opportunism, greased by greed.
It is a condition that may boomerang and affect Liverpool itself, in its own quest at securing new players. Should the inflated price, which billionaires are willing to pay without flinching, be the benchmark of prices in the market?
This is the market, though, and who would settle for less if he could gain more? If you can't keep him, squeeze as much money as you can out of him. This is sound thinking, so one can hardly blame Rodgers. And precisely here is where Liverpool hold the trump card.
Arsenal are clearly under pressure to sign big this season. It is known that Real Madrid are Suarez's destination of choice, and they are the club Liverpool would rather sell to since they are not the club's immediate competitor.
Should Madrid show intent, it is not unimaginable that Liverpool could hastily sell to them, and where would that leave Arsenal, who already have missed out on one of their coveted targets, Gonzalo Higuain?
For Arsenal, then, the conclusion of this saga could highlight their newfound powers, or it could leave them looking like fools. I doubt, for example, that they'll be willing to meet the £50 million benchmark drawn by Rodgers for Liverpool. And one must ask whether it'd be worth it if they did.
Suarez threatens to undermine the values Arsenal have cultivated in the past decade. Arsenal have tacitly presented themselves as a club guided by strong ethics. How will this hold up in the face of a player that seems to value certain virtues as the sow values treasures?
Any objection to the prospect of Suarez at Arsenal isn't in lieu of recognizing his remarkable abilities as a footballer, but whether these are separable from character is a question worth considering.
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