Gilberto Silva keys Arsenal collapse
He's captain of Brazil, has a World Cup winner's medal and more than 60 international appearances to his credit. But even so, Gilberto Silva is surely one of the reasons that Arsenal is set to complete another season without silverware.
The big defensive midfielder has given good service to the North London giants. But when he has been called upon in this campaign, he hasn't looked up to the task. Maybe the years have taken their toll.
Gilberto is now 31, an age when players start to lose some of their athletic capacity -- and as his strengths are more physical than technical, it seems that he has felt it more than many.
The great Liverpool sides of the 1970s and '80s -- which never, incidentally, got the credit that the quality of their soccer and organization deserved -- should serve as a reference on this point. In terms of team-building, they were utterly ruthless.
Every year they were looking to replace one or two of their team members, the players who they felt were starting to run the risk of going into decline. It is inconceivable that they would have persevered with Gilberto through a season like this one.
In the wonderful boxing book King of the World, David Remnick writes that '60s heavyweight champion Sonny Liston's "punches were not especially fast ... Liston had a way of saying 'Ahem!' and then throwing a punch."
It's a bit similar with the passing of Gilberto. There always seems to be a pause before the ball is released; seldom is the ball off quickly and crisply to its destination. The difference is that when Liston's punches did arrive, they were ferocious.
Remnick quotes Muhammad Ali's legendary trainer Angelo Dundee as saying that Liston would have beaten Mike Tyson at his best. The unimaginative sideways passes of Gilberto carry much less attacking weight. In the vital Champions League tie against Liverpool, when he came on as an early replacement for the injured Mathieu Flamini, the rhythm went out of the Arsenal side.
Defensively, he's also not having an easy time. He has slowed up, the runners are getting past him and to compensate, he's throwing himself to the floor in desperation to make the tackle. As is often the way with tall holding midfielders, he can be off-balance and clumsy when the ball is on the ground. The free kick from which Manchester United won last Sunday's big game resulted from a foul Gilberto had unwisely committed on the edge of the penalty area.
Full disclosure: Even in more useful times, Gilberto has never been my kind of player. I see him as a symbol of a depressing trend in Brazilian soccer. Its central midfielders used to be amongst the finest passers of the ball in world soccer.
More recently -- although there are some hopeful signs -- in the words of high-profile coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, the Brazilian game has "prostituted its characteristics" in the way its has changed the emphasis in these positions. Giving complete freedom for the fullbacks to push forward has stretched teams out and obliged them to play runners and markers rather than artists in the central midfield roles.
The logical conclusion of this is Gilberto, a converted center back, holding down a role which once belonged to a player as technically gifted as '70 World Cup genius Clodoaldo. And with Brazil, at least, Gilberto's interpretation of his role is lacking in imagination.
I recall a conversation I had with the great Mário Zagallo, who was an assistant coach of the Brazilian national team at the time, a few months before the '06 World Cup. He was commenting on the physical evolution of the game, and gave the example of Zinedine Zidane -- a wonderful artist, he said, but put a man on him to mark him and he won't be able to play, his game won't appear.
Soon afterward, Zidane bossed the game when France eliminated Brazil in the quarterfinals. Surrounded by athletic players to do his running, Zidane tore Brazil apart from a position around the halfway line. And Gilberto seemed unable to read the situation and respond. He stayed miles away, in his usual position almost on top of his own center backs, all of them taken out of the game when Zidane managed to thread through one of his passes.
It probably benefited Brazil that Gilberto was serving a suspension and missed the final of last year's Copa América against Argentina. Coach Dunga was, as a result, able to get his team marking higher up the field, where it carried out its gameplan of interrupting the circuit of Argentina's passing and then breaking right to expose the lack of pace of Argentina's left back Gabriel Heinze.
Those are my criticisms -- and we are all entitled to our own opinions on what takes place on the field. Gilberto can mount a pretty convincing defense. No one gives away World Cup winner's medals for free. He has been a fixture in the Brazil squad under three different coaches and can look back on some very happy and successful times with Arsenal.
He is clearly a good collective influence -- he captains his country and has captained his club -- and the fact that he was Arsenal's penalty taker shows a willingness to take responsibility.
But soccer is ruthless -- it's a "what has he done for us lately" kind of sport -- especially now, when the financial rewards are greater than ever but so is the physical intensity of the game and the sacrifices needed to keep playing it at the top level.
Gilberto has complained this season about losing his place to Flamini, but in truth, the mistake Arsčne Wenger has made has been to show an excess of loyalty to the Brazilian.
In all competitions this year, from the Champions League to the Carling Cup, there have been times when Arsenal has needed Gilberto to perform, and he has not done so. If he had been with the great Liverpool sides of the '70s and '80s, he would have been shown the door by now, with no regrets.