Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Arsenal won fewer points this season – so are we getting worse?

The dust has just settled on the league season so while acknowledging we still have a Cup Final to play on Saturday, let’s consider whether we have improved compared to last year.

We are better than Man U and Liverpool
Let’s start by pointing out that we finished a place higher than last year, despite the smaller points tally. The difference between one position might sound trivial but it is one less opponent to be better than next year in the race for the title. By that I mean Man U, who finished fourth, will need to improve even more than we do if they want to be champions and of course Liverpool, who fell four spots to sixth, will have to do even more than that.

It is worth remembering, though, that we finished third in 2012, 2010 and 2008 so this isn’t some major breakthrough. And in the seasons following those, we fell back to fourth so there is no trend of us using the higher finishing position as a catalyst for greater things.

Slow starts to blame, in more ways than one
We fell short of Chelsea in two key areas. First, as Wenger himself has highlighted, the awful start to the season, where we took 11 points from a possible 24 in the opening eight games, including draws away at Leicester and home to Hull, and then 17 from 36 after 12 games.

We slipped behind Chelsea after the second round of games and never got close to them again, even extending their lead to 17 points in November.

Secondly, we didn’t win enough games at home. It is something that is rarely highlighted as a big factor in deciding the outcome of titles but since 2003/04 (and probably longer, I just haven’t done the maths further back), the champions have won a mean and median average of 51 points at home (Chelsea won 49).

This season Arsenal won 41 points at home and that difference needs rectifying if they we want to mount a serious championship challenge. If you exclude the Invincibles season from both calculations, our average home points tally has been 42 compared to the champions’ 51, and has peaked at 47 (twice). Fifty-one points equates to 17 wins from 19 games – can you imagine this Arsenal team achieving that?

There needs to be a change in how games at the Emirates are approached. Too rarely do Arsenal start at a tempo that makes it clear to the opponent and supporters that they intend to dominate the game, that they are up for not only winning but tearing the visitors apart. As a result, matches often become a bit of a chore for everyone involved.

Of course it is easy to suggest the manager and players can flick a switch to turn the style on from kick-off. But equally, we can all remember how matches at Highbury would be over within the first 20 minutes and it isn’t crazy given the personnel available to think that Arsenal can do something similar today.
By the way, our away points tally is a lot more healthy compared to the champions – on average the title winners claim 37 points on their travels and this season we amassed 34.

We need to do more than ‘exist’ in the big games
Not getting thrashed in most of the matches against the other big four made for a pleasant change this season. Wenger has described it as us managing to ‘exist’ in those fixtures. Presumably the next step is to compete in them, and following that, win them. When you consider my last point about our home points, it is crucial we take that step if we want to challenge. Over the past three seasons we have won one home game against the other top four sides and taken a total of six points from the potential 27. Champions will invariably win at least two home games against the other top four.

We now have a long-term defensive core
Since last season we have seen the arrival or emergence of Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Debuchy, Gabriel and Coquelin. All of them have strengthened our squad and should provide a stable foundation for a good few years to come.

Compare our current selection of defensive players (including Koscielny, Mertesacker, and probably Arteta) to the crop in 2009: Gallas, Toure, Silvestre, Djourou, Eboue, Sagna, Clichy, Gibbs, Song. You can make an argument that the first choice defences are on a equal footing but surely nobody can question that the back-ups are far, far stronger. Anyone who thinks Song is a better choice as a defensive shield compared to Coquelin has a very selective memory.

Why pick 2009? For me, it was typical of the early Emirates years which, with the exclusion of a short time in 2008 when we looked like a force to be reckoned with, we have had to field economy class players to pay for a first class stadium.

Which leads me nicely on to my next point…

Supporters were misled for years
Compare quotes from Arsene from a couple of weeks ago with one from countless interviews since leaving Highbury and you will see a revisionist version of the truth.

Today he says that for years ‘we had no chance to compete for the championship because we had restricted finances’. In 2009 there was a very different slant on things:  ‘I know people have no patience any more but I agreed on a structure at the club that I believed could work, and we are at the period now when we will see whether I was right. To talk of winning the league is an audacious statement but I built this team and I want to deliver.’

We were fed the line that we could remain genuinely competitive despite having less cash to use as a result of the move to the Emirates. It might have been naïve to believe it, but everyone from Arsenal was adamant that was the case, at least in public. In reality there was no way we could have competed at that time so it was a lie, or at least a half-truth, from the Club as the position Wenger takes on that era now makes clear.

It was done for understandable reasons – to suggest we were realistically only competing to get in the Champions League rather than the title would send all the wrong signals to supporters and players. But it was misleading and I would have preferred to hear Arsene acknowledge a little more candidly that we had our backs against the wall rather than claiming we were aiming for top spot. I suspect the thousands of season ticket holders will believe that even more passionately.

Walcott v Sterling
As an example of our changed financial fortunes, you only have to consider the current speculation about Raheem Sterling joining us, potentially with Theo Walcott going in the other direction. I’ve always thought Theo was wasted on the right wing and his hat-trick on Saturday shows what a dangerous player he is when he works on instinct alone. He could thrive in place of Giroud but perhaps Sterling would thrive even more, as well as give you greater threat as an attacking midfielder.

Sanchez should be our number nine
While Walcott could be a contender for the centre forward position, I think the answer should lie in Alexis Sanchez. He’s had a wonderful first season and having a superstar so clearly give his all every minute of every game is a real pleasure to see. Sometimes he tries too hard and his efforts to dribble his way out of a problem only makes matters worse but he has shown all the tenacity, agility and skill to thrive as a striker in England. I look at Sergio Aguero at Man City, the top scorer this season and comfortably the best forward in the Premier League, and think Sanchez can do the same for us but it doesn’t look like he’ll be given that chance.

Highs in one cup, lows in another
Beating Man U at Old Trafford in the Cup quarter final was one of the highlights of the season (so far at least, with the final itself still around the corner). It was a controlled performance and showed we can beat the big four on their own turf. Some might say the league win at Man City had already shown that but City were in the middle of such a poor run of form that hindsight takes the gloss off what was otherwise an outstanding performance.

The low-point of the season in terms of things only getting better after it was the away defeat to Swansea but in isolation the loss to Monaco (another poor home performance, see a recurring theme?) in the Champions League was much more disheartening. The players looked to have taken Monaco too lightly which is unforgiveable, while the inability to close the game down after reducing the deficit to one goal was embarrassing.

So are we worse or better this season?
It is displays like that against Monaco which make it harder than it should be to judge where Arsenal stands today.

The squad is stronger than 12 months ago, it looks more of a resolute unit and in Sanchez and Özil possesses two of European football’s biggest talents.
And yet we claimed fewer points in the league, never looked like overhauling Chelsea or beating them when we met and went out of Europe at the same stage as last season following the type of meltdown that had appeared to be confined to the history books.

But the deep down gut feeling is we are closing the gap to the champions, even if the evidence is debateable either way.

There will be plenty of supporters who think we would close it a lot quicker if Wenger was not the manager but it is a non-argument as he is going nowhere for at least the next two years.

In the meantime, let’s hope that Wenger’s admission that we were never going to be contenders in the years directly after the move from Highbury is a sign that we are ready to reach the summit again.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Season preview: do we always need ‘one or two signings’?

The theme for many season previews this week has been how Arsenal need to strengthen in one or two areas to seriously challenge for the title.

Even Arsene wheeled the line out in his press conference yesterday as he has done, fittingly, once or twice before. Actually, no, make that thrice.

He’s not alone. Every manager seems to think they need a couple more players to complete their squad and it’s become a bit of a cliché.

So is it true of Arsenal at least?

Well, I’m far more upbeat on the cusp of this season compared to the last one and we definitely have a stronger squad after the summer’s transfer activity. This wasn’t a case of us doing business early, more of us just doing business at all.

Alexis Sanchez is obviously the standout new boy. Being far from an expert on La Liga, I had a gander at youtube to see some of his best bits and had to reload some of the clips because I thought they were playing back at x1.5 speed. No, he’s just that fast.

It was striking last weekend how much quicker and sharper we looked on the breakaway with Sanchez on the pitch. Quick and successful counter attacks became less of a feature of our game as Wenger adapted our style in the second half of his reign to fit different personnel. But it would be a real positive if we can recreate some of the threat which the Invincibles always possessed and that may be Sanchez’s biggest contribution.

I would expect him to become our lead front man in place of Giroud by the end of the season. It seems logical to me to have your best players in central positions and he will have far more influence as a number 9 than trying to cut in from either flank. He might lack a bit of height but he seems like a tough nut and should be able to handle the likes of Shawcross. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Thierry Henry-like conversion over the first half of the season as he adapts to the joys of English football.

Our other signings have been replacements rather than additions, but they still feel like they have put us in a better position. We’ve not seen Ospina in Arsenal colours yet but he impressed at the World Cup and should put more pressure on Szczesny than Flapianski. Debuchy may not be much younger than Sagna but he has stepped in to his shoes admirably for the French national team and there should be no reason he won’t do the same for us.

Calum Chambers appears to have replaced Vermaelen as a third choice centre back, though his versatility will be greater. Chambers has shown real poise in his first friendly appearances and looks a very exciting prospect, certainly a better bet than someone like Chris Smalling who we have always been linked with.

And lest we forget that also since the first morning of last season we bought a certain Mesut Özil. The guy is world class and even if he never appeared to devastate teams single-handedly last season, his influence was still impressive. I still think much of the improvement in Aaron Ramsey last year can be put down to having someone of Özil’s quality to train and play alongside. The arrival of Sanchez should inspire Özil to greater heights. Without wanting to denigrate Giroud, subconsciously Özil will have known Giroud would either not be on his wavelength or he wouldn’t convert the opportunities he created anyway. The same can’t be said of Sanchez and the could create some combination.

So are we really one or two players short? I would still put Chelsea and Manchester City’s squad as the stronger overall. Injuries have taken their toll on us in the past few seasons and even though the arrival of the fabled Shad Forsythe should ease that problem, it is inevitable we will need to draft in reserves.

This is where I hope the ruthlessness Wenger has shown so far this summer, demonstrated in securing his targets without dithering over prices and shipping out the likes of Jenkinson rather than letting him improve on his watch, can continue. Instead of worrying about potentially ‘killing’ a couple of his existing players by bringing in more competition, it would be nice to over-stock. We’ve reached that position in attacking midfielders and if we keep Joel Campbell and Podolski we’ve probably got their up front. At the back, though, we still feel vulnerable to the loss of a first-choice defender.

So maybe like all good clichés, there is a ring of truth to the idea of being ‘one or two’ away from a complete squad. Just like needing to take things one game at a time, perhaps we need to see how the rest of the transfer window pans out before truly believing the title can be ours.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Arsenal’s actual average attendance last season was 53,788

It has long been a bug bear of mine that Arsenal announces official attendances which so often are clearly not accurate. The scores of empty seats at many home matches are clear proof that things are not what they seem.

It's become a bit of a running joke among supporters and everyone seems to have accepted it. But I've got so annoyed with the ‘tickets sold = attendance’ policy that I decided to try and do something about it.

So, armed with a trusty sword of truth and shield of justice, I did what every great conspiracy theorist-in-the-making does and fired off a freedom of information request.

It went to the Met Police, that bastion of fair play and trustworthiness, who eventually delivered what I asked for: the actual attendance figures supplied to them by the Club for every home game last season.

The real attendance stats
The figures (based on the official stadium capacity of 60,338 stated in the 2013/14 Premier League Handbook and which can be downloaded from the image below) make for stark reading:

* on average the actual attendance was 5,998 lower than that stated by the Club
* on average 6,550 seats were empty per game
* the worst attended match was Fenerbahce at 44,779, which was 15,559 lower than capacity and 11,492 below the official attendance
* the best attended game was Liverpool in the league at 57,341
* the real average attendance was 53,788 compared to 59,786 announced by the Club
* a total of 173,945 seats went unoccupied at home games last season

(For reasons only known to themselves, the Met have not published my request and the data on their website, which they appear to do with most other FOIs. But if anyone doubts their validity, the FOI reference was 2014050000832 and Arsenal have said the numbers are ‘broadly accurate’ which I’m taking to mean ‘accurate’. If you want to download the sheet visit )

Hopefully the chart and numbers speak for themselves but I’ll highlight a couple of points that struck me.

Firstly, it isn’t ‘big games’ that necessarily draw the biggest crowds. The Chelsea (Premier League, not League Cup) and Bayern Munich matches were only the 18th and 19th best attended last season while Southampton, Norwich and Fulham were 5th, 6th and 7th.

Secondly, non-weekend matches are generally more poorly attended: Saturday and Sunday games comprise nine of the top 15 attendances compared to only three of the bottom 14. Does that mean weekday travel could be improved or just that supporters are inevitably going to struggle to get away from work / school / college in time?

Thirdly, television coverage appears to be a non-issue. I can’t see a pattern based on whether matches were screened on terrestrial or digital television but I’m open to any suggestions that I’m missing something.

Why oh why
The numbers trigger two ‘why’ questions: why does Arsenal announce the tickets sold figure as the attendance, and why do up to 6,000 people not turn up to every game?

My working theory going in to this exercise was that the Club uses the ‘tickets sold’ number to overinflate the true demand for tickets, thereby helping to justify charging some of the highest prices in the world. It also encourages season ticket holders to renew and avoid potentially missing out on tickets on a match by match basis because they think demand is *so* high. The counter point to that argument is that matches are selling out so surely demand is there. But when you consider there are approximately 45,000 season ticket holders (leaving about 12,000 tickets for match-by-match purchase if you assume 3,000 away fans), there will be many more people who have paid for a ticket that they want to get rid of than those actively deciding to go to a particular match.

However, having looked at things in more detail, I think the real answer to the first question is that a) it’s probably just easier and quicker to give that than the real attendance and b) it appears to be common practice. I dropped a quick email to a dozen current Premier League sides. Of those that responded, only Spurs said their policy is based on actual attendance. Burnley, QPR and Everton all base it on ticket sales. It was by no means a scientific exercise but it at least shows Arsenal isn’t the only club who practice the policy.

What Arsenal say
At this stage I got in touch with the Club to get their side of the story. They strongly rejected the suggestion that the policy was an attempt to deliberate mislead supporters in connection to ticket prices.

Their statement said: “We are clear in all our communication that the figure we are announcing reflects the number of tickets sold.

“The club are comfortable with using ‘number of tickets sold’ as the measurement for attendances, and believe it is a reliable and relevant one. We have no plans to review this at present.

“It’s worth making the point that the Club work hard to ensure that Emirates Stadium is as full as possible on matchdays, through our Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange systems.”

I would dispute the point about them clearly stating that attendances reflect tickets sold. The media are apparently told it explicitly on match day but I don’t see any evidence of it in the programme or Club magazine. It also doesn’t state it on the Club website (though equally it also doesn’t say it is the attendance, it just gives a number which floats around on match reports).

I didn’t ask the Club to explain why they think an average of 6,000 supporters do not turn up having bought a ticket as I think it is an impossible question to answer. The more important point is what they are doing about it and in highlighting the Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange schemes the approach they are taking is clear.

What more can be done
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust asked a series of interesting questions at the last supporters’ forum and the answers also show the Club is looking at improving those systems, with the prospect of a ‘seat utilisation’ scheme in the offing. I would take that to mean incentivising people who do actually turn up or make use of their ticket. That could include rewarding supporters through cup final ticket prioritisation, as Tim Payton, the AST secretary, suggests in this blog. Tim also raises another good way of improving the Ticket Exchange system, by allowing tickets to be bought/sold for less than face value.

There is clearly a problem with the Ticket Exchange system. At the time of writing, there was supposedly half a dozen tickets available through it online for the Crystal Palace game but when you click on them they say they are no longer available. The buying process is extremely user unfriendly and the selling process must be the same – you can guarantee there will be more than half a dozen empty seats on Saturday.

Some other points I would throw in to the debate about getting people to the ground are trying to address the non-weekend travel issues, assuming that is a problem for people as the chart suggests. If the Club successfully pressed the authorities to put on a few more late trains would that be enough to convince people to come to games?

I think the Club could also put more effort into its supporters’ clubs. If the volunteers running them were given more backing, they might attract and keep more members and in turn be able to run more transport to and from games.

Admitting the problem
Whatever you reckon the solution is, the first step is for the Club to acknowledge how serious the problem is in the first place and I think that means abandoning the ‘tickets sold’ policy on official attendance, or at least giving the true attendance as well as tickets sold.

Fundamentally, Arsenal is redefining the word ‘attendance’ and it is misleading. Other clubs do it as well but Arsenal has always claimed to stand for higher values than everyone else and it should do so again here. I hope getting the real attendances into the public raises the profile of the issue and goes some way to convincing the Club they need to rethink the policy. Only then can they talk honestly about how to fill all the empty seats.

PS: On a historical note, the Club also confirmed that the supposed record attendance at the Emirates Stadium (against Man U in 2007) was based on tickets sold. Hope the club historians have their asterisks ready.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Season review: We've got that winning feeling

How different this season review would have felt had Alex Bruce’s header not been cleared off the line by Kieran Gibbs last week. Had we fallen 3-0 behind at Wembley, and presumably gone on to lose the FA Cup Final, no doubt my assessment would have been a lot less positive.

Such is the fickle nature of football supporters and the fine margins between success and failure. At least after nine years of waiting, we’ve managed to get on the right side of the divide.

Winning some silverware after, in Arsenal world, a pretty long wait surely seals Arsene Wenger’s future as manager for at least a couple of years more. As he had talked about the result against Hull having no bearing on his future on the club, I wonder whether he would have moved into a director role if we had lost.

It is pointless speculating and the main point to focus on is that, in the space of 120 minutes, the current group of players have gone from losers to winners. It should have happened in 2011 with the League Cup and it’s intriguing to think what impact taking that opportunity would have had. The hope should be that the injection of confidence and belief, and removing the pressure of not winning, will turn the side into a genuine title challenger.

Does the FA Cup win mean those who argued Wenger should stay have been proved right and those who wanted him out proved wrong? If only it were so clean cut…

Over the past few years I have increasingly fallen in to the latter camp – though not as vehemently as many fans – for a variety of reasons beyond a lack of silverware; namely the way transfer windows were handled, the unwillingness to consider tactical trickery to overcome stronger (and richer) opponents, rewarding players too early with big contract deals that seemed to stifle their desire rather than encourage it, the failure of new signings to contribute and the unwillingness of the manager to admit his mistakes at the cost of the team (ie retaining Almunia in goal for so, so long).

Even Wenger’s staunchest supporters should not now pretend the kind of questions raised over the past eight seasons have been answered with the FA Cup. Equally, it would have been wrong to judge Wenger on the outcome of one match, albeit an FA Cup Final.

We have improved overall this season and it would have been odd to boot him out now having put up with a lot worse in recent years. The key was achieving that Champions League spot again – had the woeful performance at Everton prompted a real collapse and missing out on fourth then there would have been a stronger justification for changing managers.

But instead we can see this as a season of progress. Even taking the hammerings received at Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea into account, doubts about the resolve of the team and its ability to see out a win appear to have been answered once and for all.

The signing of Özil elevated us to a new level and even if he did not consistently produce performances worthy of his £42m price tag (though I expect him to next season), I don’t think we would have achieved what we have without him. Would Ramsey have raised his game as much without working alongside someone like Özil? Would the rest of the team have felt the Club had any sort of ambition anymore if we hadn’t made such a ‘statement’ signing?

In his heart of hearts, though, Wenger must have known this team was not capable of becoming champions, or more specifically its front line was not up to the job. Giroud – at least in isolation – is not a strong enough striker to win a title with.

On days when things are not clicking, you need to rely on a striker who can conjure up a goal from nowhere. While Giroud can perform other roles pretty adequately, neither he or any other strikers in the squad could deliver that. Ramsey stepped up countless times from midfield but an even stronger cutting edge is needed. Wenger’s pursuit of Suarez last summer is proof he realised it was an area of weakness and it will surely be where he focuses most this close season too.

When I look back at my reviews of the past few seasons there have been far more negatives than positives. Whether it was doubts about the mental or physical fragility of the squad, retaining our best players or being able to secure deals for better players there was plenty to weigh on our minds.

Today it feels like those fundamental problems have been addressed and while some flaws still remain – particularly around the club’s injury record which is receiving increasing scrutiny – the outlook is far more positive.

What we (or maybe it’s just me) need to do is accept and embrace Wenger’s faults as much as his strengths for the remainder of his days leading Arsenal.

His philosophy of football and human nature generally mean he’ll never set a team out to deliberately stifle opponents and grind out a hard-earned point. He’ll never straitjacket his players into performing particular tasks. He’ll trust his players to express themselves and find solutions to problems on the pitch.

Forgiving the errors that approach leads to, and enjoying the benefits it brings, is far easier when you have a trophy in the cabinet to admire.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

For once, we visit Old Trafford with genuine hope

It’s been a good few years – about 10, actually – since Arsenal last travelled to Old Trafford and I didn’t fear the worst.

Of course I always have hope that we’ll pull something unexpected out of the bag but usually those feelings are overwhelmed by the thought of us getting, well, overwhelmed by Man U.

How refreshing then that this morning there isn’t a gnawing fear in my stomach about what trauma the boys might suffer this afternoon but instead an anticipation of us going toe-to-toe with them.

Creating a combined form XI at the moment would see a pretty even combination of players selected, probably weighted Arsenal’s way, and that reflects the excellent start to our campaign and the pretty mediocre one they have made.

What’s happened since my last post to bring us to this position? We drew at West Brom in a match we would have lost last year but which it felt like title-winners would have scraped a win; we hammered Norwich with a collection of four sublime goals that made things look a lot more one-sided than they were; we lost to Dortmund after a pretty patchy performance but one that probably deserved a point; we avoided a banana skin at Palace with a professional display; we worked very hard to beat an in-form Liverpool; we rode a bit of a storm in Dortmund to claim three terrific points.

In all, the results have been a lot more impressive than most of our performances over the past few weeks. That sounds curmudgeonly, I know, but there is no shame in not being scintillating every match and it’s also heartening to think that there is room for improvement even when we sit atop the league table.

And improvement is what we will need today. Even though we have just won at the home of last season’s Champions League runners-up – becoming the first English team to do so – it was a low quality game overall and a repeat performance wouldn’t get the same outcome in Manchester.

For Man U, this will feel like a chance for David Moyes to make his mark and I expect he will have his players more fired up than at any other point in his short reign. Ferguson may have left but his ethos of intimidation will return for these 90 minutes.

We need to be ready for that and match it but there is a confidence and serenity about this team at the minute which suggests they can. They’re assured in knowing they are very good players, they have proved they can beat very good opponents, they don’t panic if things don’t go their way.

I’ve said from the start of this season that Arsenal will remain a work in progress for a while and regardless of what happens this afternoon it will still feel like there is more to come. Which means this match doesn’t feel so ‘make or break’ for Arsenal as it does for Man U – but what an impact a win would have.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Keep it up, boys

What a week it has been. Two excellent wins against Swansea and Napoli, the latter a result of one of the best performances from the Arsenal for quite a few years.

It is all worth far more analysis than I can give it here but there is time to make a few points before today’s game against West Brom.

Starting with the Swansea match last weekend and another impressive Serge Gnabry performance. His defensive contribution was noticeable as well as his goal, his first for the senior team. His maturity and composure has struck me most in his short spell as a starter and that was summed up in his finish. As I said after the Stoke game, there is always the fear that someone making his first few appearances plays above himself through all the excitement but the longer it goes on, the more I think that’s just how good he is. Theo must be growing more and more concerned for his place as he watches from the sidelines.

While Gnabry’s debut goal was good, Özil’s on Tuesday blew it away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it before – a searing, first time, side foot, finish of a bouncing pass from 18 yards. Simply wonderful and like Arsene said, if you don’t enjoy that, you don’t enjoy football.

It was typical of an excellent opening 20 minutes which Napoli simply couldn’t match.

What caught them out most was the movement of the front four – Giroud, Özil, Rosicky and Ramsey. The latter pair didn’t play as wingers, they just took up positions wherever they felt they could offer most threat, with Ramsey reminding me of Iniesta. You can’t call the Spaniard a mere central midfielder or a wide player – he is just a great attacking midfielder who goes where he thinks he needs to go. Giroud pulled into wider areas and drew his defenders with him, while Özil floated wherever he pleased.

The challenge now is to repeat that performance, potentially with neither Rosicky and Ramsey in those positions. I’ve no fear Cazorla could take the Rosicky role (and do it better) but could one of Theo, Podolski, the Ox or Gnabry do the same?

Perhaps the most impressive thing from both the Swansea and Napoli wins is just how much more controlled we appear. The days of losing a four goal lead seem very long ago now. That has built up through the end of last season, I admit, but as the Villa defeat showed there was still a feeling of ‘playing on the edge’ at times.

The presence and influence of both Arteta and Flamini, who both started against Napoli, should not be overlooked in helping to give that stability. That attacking four – as well as the overlapping Gibbs and Sagna – could roam around safe in the knowledge that there were teammates filling the gaps they were leaving.

The best way of retaining that level of control is to keep the winning momentum and consistency. It will be interesting to see how Wenger sets up his starting XI today. Will he stick with the two defensive midfielders? Will he be tempted to rest one of the star performers?

And it will be just interesting to see how the players handle the match. Will they be able to keep their mind on the league with the final World Cup qualifiers round the corner? Will they be able to maintain the buzz generated by an outstanding Champions League win during a trip to the Black Country?

If they want to make the most of this great start to the season, the answer to both those question has to be 'yes'.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Home truths

The word of the day before kick off should have been ‘complacency’. On the back of a Champions League trip to Marseille – albeit a winning one – coming home to face the likes of Stoke screamed points let slip.

This was exactly the sort of game where the Arsenal of the past few seasons would start slowly and go a goal behind, or take an encouraging early lead but then stop playing and let the opponent back into the match, only to spend the remainder of the match chasing a precious goal.

Strangely, in many ways the match lived up to those fears but thankfully a pretty mediocre performance still led to three goals and a win.

Does that mean we have witnessed the dawning of a new Arsenal era?

No, not really.

The only surprise in the line-up was the presence of Serge Gnabry – a late swap for Theo – and aside from three points he offered the biggest positive of the day.

I’ve not seen enough of him to know whether it was an overachievement on his part but he put in a very composed performance and certainly wasn’t phased by making his first league start, or his last-minute inclusion in the starting 11.

He didn’t offer the same down-the-line threat as Theo but conversely he looked far more dangerous cutting inside and the ball stuck to him with greater security. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to live up to an encouraging first taste of the Premier League.

Aside from the German teenager’s display, there was precious little else to get excited about except the fact that we have yet to really hit top gear and still find ourselves top of the league and have our best points total after five games for four years.

Games like this must lead to three points if we are to have serious ambitions of challenging for the league.

Last year we won 11 home matches and didn’t win eight (five losses, three draws) and having already lost to Villa we aren’t left with much wiggle room for the remainder of the campaign.

Only twice since the switch to 38 game seasons in 1995/96 has the title-winning team won less than 14 games so that seems a fair target.

Based on yesterday and the other matches so far this season I am unconvinced we will achieve that kind of number.

The fact we didn't succumb to complacency yesterday and that we managed to win without playing well are of course good signs.

But before anyone gets too carried away reciting all the WWWs, DDDs and just one L since March, let me suggest there hasn’t been enough of a restructure to address the defensive faults of previous years - we are simply playing a fraction better as a team and benefitting from some exceptional individual contributions (eg Ramsey).

The hope that the presence and influence of Özil might raise the level of a few players may come to fruition.

Even then, though, my fear is we’ll remain vulnerable to the flaws that have prevented us from turning Ashburton Grove into the kind of fortress a championship-winning side can rely on.

Stoke didn't create many clear chances yesterday but we still have an air of vulnerability that, for example, leaves us serially open to counter attacks from our corners or too often waving legs at balls at the hope of making a tackle rather than being in the right position at the right time.

We have had a good start but there is plenty of work to be done. This team is still under development..

Anyway, before people start shouting at me for managing to sound fairly downbeat after a 3-1 win against Stoke, let me end on a positive.

If anyone with red and white in their veins has not yet read this article, an excerpt from Dennis Bergkamp’s autobiography, then I implore you to do it.

It will give you a warm feeling that the current team also appears to have more players that worship football than use it for their ego (Stephen Ireland, anyone?), but also reminisce about what a genius Dennis was and how privileged we were to see him and the rest of the Invincibles play for the Arsenal.

And it will probably also make you log on to Amazon to pre-order the book.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Özil: Cööl, calm and cöllected

After the initial delight of seeing Arsenal spend real money on a transfer, I’ve had a few more days to reflect on our new record signing.

And I’m pleased to say I’m still very excited.

Generally speaking, all Arsenal supporters have welcomed the addition of Mesut Özil with open arms.

But some pundits have questioned the need for another creative midfielder rather than a striker or someone more defensive.

They are understandable points but if your fundamental aim for any transfer is to make your team stronger, then Özil does that.

I watched him play for Germany on Friday night in their World Cup qualifier against Austria. I haven’t seen him perform often for Real Madrid but if this match was anything to go by he will be similar to watching Robert Pires trying to play like Dennis Bergkamp.

Like both of those Arsenal heroes (Dennis' occasional flying elbows aside), he is a cool, calm and collected character, making himself available for teammates but not demanding the ball off them – as though he trusts them to make the right decision and realising he can be as effective without the ball as he is with it.

That sense of him putting others first comes across in his keen eye for a pass as opposed to shot – a perfect ball midway through the first half along the inside channel to a sprinting Reus was one of his finest moments. His assist record suggests, like Bobby, he gets as much satisfaction from creating a goal as he does scoring it.

Overall, he had a quietly efficient game but the fact he didn't stand out is almost reassuring – Austria were pretty poor opposition and Germany were fending them off fairly easily, so no need to search for top gear, he was comfortably in third.

Where will he line-up for the Arsenal? If he was available last weekend, it would have been in place of Rosicky. I expect Özil will become the new first choice tip of the midfield triangle, with Cazorla playing on either flank and Walcott and Podolski starting on the other, and Rosicky and the Ox as further back up.

Behind them, Arteta, Wilshere and Ramsey will all be competing to take two of the other central midfield positions.

The similarities and differences between Özil and Wilshere are striking for me. Both are very left footed, both have excellent passing ability, both like to dribble their way out of tight spots. What differs is their approach to the game and, as a result, where they end up playing. While Özil has an air of knowing how good he is and not having to prove anything to anyone, Jack rushes here, there and everywhere as though he blames himself for our lack of recent silverware. He throws himself dangerously into challenges, scurries to every loose ball and gets frustrated when he isn’t involved or things don’t go his way. In short, he comes across as an angry young man, while Özil rarely dropped deep looking for the attention of his teammates - he knew he could do most damage to a team by keeping his focus and killing them in the final third of the pitch.

Wilshere is a little more than three years younger than Özil and has a chance to learn from a master of what could be his best position, just behind the striker. That means no more crazy tackles, no more throwing your arms around like a hormonal teenager. Just concentrate on how to hurt the opposition most and keep himself fit to play every match.

Getting Özil means rather than having just enough midfielders and fearing the impact of the next injury, or thinking we cannot afford to rest players, Arsenal have a healthy surplus and a pretty clear hierarchy.

The key now will be to get into the same state in other parts of the field, most notably up front. Adding another German in the shape of Julian Draxler would be a good start.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Özil: a game-changer in all senses of the term

It was a summer that promised much, appeared to be turning into a farce but eventually ended with a record-smashing signing that will hopefully go down as the best in the history of Arsenal Football Club.

Mesut Özil, signed by Arsenal FC for £42.4m.

Yesterday the amount seemed perfectly natural for Arsenal to spend, probably because we have become obsessed with the £75m to £150m kitty supposedly at our disposal.

But the more I look at the words the more staggering it becomes.

All those doubts that Arsenal and Wenger were willing to settle for fourth place... dashed in a day.

All the doubts that they were genuinely willing to put their money where their mouths were... gone.

And all the doubts that we could attract genuine world class talent to the Club... cast asunder.

Why could it go down as the best in the history of the club?

Because if the Club capitalises on it, we could look back at it as the moment where we really entered the big time.

Every Arsenal player will be excited at the prospect of playing with Özil and will be inspired to train with him.

I think about Jack Wilshere in particular here. In essence, he is the English Mesut Özil but who did he have to look up to in our squad? Yes, Cazorla is hugely talented but even he is not in Özil’s class.

Wilshere (and Walcott, and Ramsey, and Gibbs, and Jenkinson...) will now think he needs to raise his game, his standards generally, to do justice to having someone like Özil in the squad.

Equally, other players, agents and managers around the Premier League and Europe will look at Arsenal in a different light.

They will now look at Arsenal enviously because we’ve got a 'Playstation' player that everyone would like to line up alongside, whose clients they would want to be associated with or who they would like to coach.

That includes Wenger who might just get a new lease of life from the move. It was telling how much emphasis was placed on the unity between Wenger, Gazidis and Kroenke in the confirmation announcement, leaving little doubt that Wenger will be offered a new contract.

That will given him the opportunity to deliver on his dream of creating a self-funded, European mega-power. We all knew that potential was there but the doubts were whether someone would take the leap towards realising the ambition.

Wenger needs to change how he does things – even his most staunch supporter must accept that regardless of financial restrictions he has made mistakes and appeared to accept the status quo too easily.

Those changes include the way he handles the transfer window, which has been bizarre.

On the one hand we are told we only want ‘super, super’ quality, and Özil definitely falls into that category. But on the other we have signed an unproven French teenager, an Italian keeper with a fairly sketchy track record and were chasing Demba Ba, who would probably himself admit is far from ‘super, super’ quality.

Even though we need extra strikers, I was pleased the Ba signing didn’t come off. When you set the bar as high as Özil, sniffing around Chelsea casts-offs again, particularly wanting one on loan, would have lowered the tone.

That lack of a striker is living proof that bringing Özil in is not the final part of the plan, in fact it feels more like the first.

But if we do seize the moment it could be a plan that is a lot bigger and a lot more exciting than any other the Club has come up with before.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Forget the hype and just enjoy beating Spurs

There is no better result than 1-0 to the Arsenal.

It is victory in its purest form. No need for a comeback, no opponent letting things slip, no easy street. It is perfect – especially when it comes against Spurs.

There has been so much negativity around the Club recently (much of completely justified but much of it completely not) that it is easy to push victories like this to one side. Likewise, speculation is increasing by the minute that we will finally make that 'marquee signing'.

It is quite right that we should all take an interest in the big issues like Club finances and ownership, and the thought of us signing true world class talent in the shape of Mesut Ozil is exciting, none of it should overshadow the 11 blokes pulling on the red and white.

And when those 11 play as well as they did yesterday we need to take joy in it.

Arsenal performed with a maturity, solidity and cohesion that should bring a smile to the face of every supporter whether they think Wenger should be deified or sacked.

From back to front, there were players raising their games and standing up for their team.

Mertersacker was full of heart and Koscielny always seemed to be one step ahead of the attack.

The returning Flamini, even though he only played about 50 minutes, gets a mention for bringing some much-needed passion to proceedings and his willingness to organise those around him.

Giroud led the line superbly and the touch required for his goal was worthy of Henry and Bergkamp, it was that good. He had run himself into the ground by the final whistle (highlighting the urgent need for at least one striker to be brought in before the window closes) but fully deserved the three points.

Cazorla and Walcott, who was unlucky not to have made more from some well-timed runs, played well too.

But my standout player was Aaron Ramsey who put in one of his most impressive performances in an Arsenal shirt.

While his passing was actually slightly off kilter at times, it was his energy and physical strength that stood out most.

He refused to be outmuscled on at least three occasions when he was clearly second best. They are minor victories in the grand scheme of things but in years past they would have been little defeats. In matches like this it is that kind of attitude that inspires crowds and teams alike and can help to make the difference. Ramsey has been excellent so far this season and there can be no better example of Wenger’s approach to player development paying off.

All of this does not now mean I think we are going to challenge for the league, and perhaps I am guilty of Spurs-esque small-mindedness in taking so much pleasure from beating our nearest neighbours.

But when you think about the consequences had we lost, it throws into relief why we are justified in getting excited about it.

This was a litmus test for the way each club has approached the transfer window and had it turned sour the boos and hysteria following the Villa defeat would have paled into insignificance.

Thoughts will now turn to the transfer window and the prospect of more positive developments after a summer of frustration.

But the window closes in 15 hours – let's enjoy this moment for a bit longer first.