”2011” just sounds peculiar

Some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

By the time you read this, it will probably be 2011. There's no doubt that, as we get older, the years are starting to sound more and more peculiar. The Eighties and Nineties were nice, manageable enough numbers. But once we were into 2000, it was hard to shake the feeling that we'd all stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The whole decade from 2000-2010 was full of such lurid dates that we were too unnerved even to give it a name -- the "Noughties" was tried for a bit but it never caught on because it made ten years of our lives feel like an extended Carry On film. Now we're into another as-yet-nameless decade and 2011 is probably the most bizarre milestone so far. It sounds more like a rugby score than something you would be confident writing on a cheque.

There are two options in the face of an increasingly futuristic present: have a nervous breakdown or stare confidently down the barrel of what is to come. I've tried having nervous breakdowns before and they tend to be a rather short-term solution to your problem. So, instead, here are some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

Coalition exposed as hoax. Looking at it in the cold light of day, it all just seems a bit unlikely. The Conservatives teaming up with the Liberal Democrats, a party they have virtually nothing in common with? Nick Clegg, whom you couldn't have picked out of a line-up at the start of 2010, getting to be the second most powerful man in parliament? People routinely referring to "the coalition", as if we were in some Orwellian state where the idea of "the government" had been quietly phased out in favour of a smoother euphemism? I don't quite see it. The general election was ever so confusing. I think we'll learn some time in 2011 that, while we were all bamboozled by the mathematics of a hung parliament, somebody took the opportunity to launch the ultimate reality show, in which our reactions to the fake Tory-Liberal axis were secretly taped for Channel 4.

Andy Murray not to win Wimbledon. It's become a tediously predictable annual event to stack 50 years of our national frustrations about tennis on Murray's young shoulders and then mutter about what a grumpy bugger he is if he doesn't do the conga after winning a break point. Cool customer though he is, anyone would feel the pressure of expectation: Tim Henman certainly used to. So let's avoid the mistake we always made in more or less implying that Tiger Tim only had to turn up to win the tournament. I hereby predict that Andy Murray will definitely, definitely not win Wimbledon 2011, even if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal break each other's legs in a freak locker-room collision. So, now that we've put that on record, (whisper) maybe he actually will win it. Clever stuff.

The Queen appears on Strictly Come Dancing. Unlikely? But did anyone forecast a year ago that a whole swath of the population would spend their autumn watching as Ann Widdecombe was dragged across a dance floor like a sack of laundry? The producers of Strictly have set themselves a pretty high bar. John Sergeant was an audacious choice and Widdecombe took the pantomime a stage further. Now, what elderly citizen can they drag out for next year's contest? Logic suggests they can only go right to the top. Aside from that royal wedding, which will be done and dusted by May, Her Royal Highness could certainly fit in the eight weeks' training to get the basics down and then the popular vote would surely keep her in for at least a few episodes.

Snow. Some time in early December, a completely unexpected series of snowfalls will lead to "arctic conditions". The nation's transport infrastructure will be paralysed, Christmas plans will be ruined and all the news channels will run more than three weeks of interrupted coverage of the crisis. The nation will rise up as one to ask why on earth we can't cope with the weather over here, when places like Canada are so good at it. This will continue for a couple of weeks. Then the sun will come out on 29 December and everyone will forget about it until the exact same point next year.

That is pretty much how I see the year shaping up. I went down to the bookies and they offered me fairly generous odds on an accumulator. I think it must have been the Queen-on-Strictly bit that tempted them.

Well, we'll soon see who is right. In the meantime, whatever plans you might be hatching to survive 2011, best of luck with them and have a Happy New Year.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit