Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Thoughts on Cech signing and Szczesny's future

If you pay £11m for a 33-year-old you are either very confident in his quality or have too much money to spend.

We should be very confident in Petr Cech.

Not only does he bring an impressive medal collection to the club, he adds another cool head at the back and can deliver the consistently good performances you need to challenge for the title.

Most people have drawn comparisons with Pat Jennings since he moved from a supposed rival who wrongly assumed he was past his prime.

But Jennings was 32 and 'only' won an FA Cup with Arsenal, something that would be considered a poor return for Cech.

A quick flick through the record books shows his age should not be a concern as there are some brilliant examples of great keepers being successful in the twilight years of the career.

David Seaman won two leagues and three FA Cups with Arsenal after turning 33. 

Jens Lehmann picked up a league and a cup after joining us at that age, while Gianluigi Buffon has won four leagues and a cup for Juventus.

But the best example has to be Edwin van der Sar at Man U. He was 35 when he moved to Old Trafford from Fulham and collected four league, two league cup, one Champions League and one World Club Cup title before retiring at 41.

Is it feasible that we could get nine years out of Cech? One person who will be hoping not is Wojciech Szczesny. 

He is now 25 and has failed to pin down the number one position that appeared to be his for the taking.

The hope is that enough of Cech’s good habits will rub off on Szczesny and he will mature into the first choice in a couple of seasons.

Sadly I have my doubts the story will follow that path given some of the traits he has shown on the pitch and surely he would much prefer to be learning on the job through a loan, but he can shape his own destiny.

Well, he can to an extent because Wenger has always taken quite an unusual approach to handling goalkeepers.

After inheriting Seaman, he dabbled in a bit of Richard Wright, Stuart Taylor, and Rami Shabaan before landing Lehmann. Throw in Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski and you have quite a hotpotch of keepers.

For about half of his time as manager, Wenger has never really fully committed to a keeper - there has been a sense that any of the two or three keepers in the squad could be given a run in the side. 

There might be a school of thought that the 10 outfield players are far, far more important in deciding the success or failure of a team compared to the one in goal but as far as I’m concerned all of the great teams have a clear number one in place.

Wenger’s judgement on which keepers to, er, keep and which to discard has also been questionable.

I never really saw what Wright and Taylor did to warrant being discarded without getting the chance to fully prove themselves, though admittedly neither of them have gone on to do much beyond warm the benches of various Premier League clubs (mainly Man City where didn’t Wright win a league title without playing a game?). 

On the other hand, I saw plenty of what Fabianski and, in particular, Almunia did wrong. Of course we aren’t privy to their training ground work and approach to life like Wenger is, but the loyalty shown to Fabianski and Almunia compared to those who previously tried their hand at the position was baffling. 

And there were alternatives available – I got very excited a few years back at the prospect of Mark Schwarzer joining us, as he was too I seem to remember, and he would have been a clear upgrade even if he might not have been world class.

But back to Cech and Szczesny. And David Ospina, who I suspect will become a footnote in Arsenal history pretty quickly, despite not doing a huge amount wrong apart from being just mediocre.

Does the fact that Wenger has brought Cech in show us that he has sharpened his ability to assess goalkeepers? 

Maybe, but I think it is more likely to show that he doesn't believe in Szczesny. 

Wenger's usual MO when presented with goalkeepers of a similar ilk would suggest the Pole would have regained his place from Ospina after a few games of this season, then lost it again, and then regained it, then lost it… and so on. 

If Cech hadn't arrived on the scene, Szczesny could realistically have battled past Ospina over time. 

But given the amount spent on Cech and the fact he is so clearly the more talented keeper, the chances of Szczesny seriously challenging for a place in the team are remote, and Wenger must know it.

Cech is our number one and could be for a good few years. Everyone associated with Arsenal should be thankful we have him. Apart from Szczesny. Without wanting to sound cruel, we have to hope that the new recruit performs so well that the Pole is forced to look elsewhere to gain the playing time he needs to fulfil his potential. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

My Arsenal scrapbook 20 years on. Part 2: we’ve got Dennis Bergkamp

The Sun, June 21, 1995 (click to enlarge)
It still feels a bit weird seeing Dennis Bergkamp in our beloved red and white for the first time, even knowing full well that he turned into an Arsenal legend.  Imagine then, if you need to, or cast your mind back if you can remember that far, what it was like when it actually happened.

Truly astonishing would be my verdict.

The two signings made prior to Dennis, in the winter of 94/95, typified the calibre of player we had been buying: John Hartson from Luton Town and Chris Kiwomya from Ipswich Town. No offence to them but hardly inspiring. Beyond that, the most recent exotic purchases had been John Jensen and Stefan Schwarz: full internationals but the sort of classic midfield workhorses adored by George Graham.

Enter Dennis Bergkamp. A bona fide world superstar. Someone who every football fan knew about after scoring of ludicrous goals like thisagainst England at Wembley. And crucial ones like this in the return fixture. Or in a World Cup quarter-final just a year earlier.

The rumour mill started relatively late to signing day, with confident whispers only appearing on June 19, the day before the deal was done.

As we all know, tabloid rumours are not always the most reliable. And like the true pessimist that I am, I refused to build my hopes up that it could be true, even though there were quotes from both Dennis and Bruce Rioch.

Daily Mirror, June 19, 1995 (click to enlarge)

The Daily Mirror, June 19, 1995 (click to enlarge)
The difference between Arsenal and the neighbours up the road was made clear in this story, with the capture of Chris Armstrong and Dennis highlighting our different ambitions.

Evening Standard, June 19, 1995

The following day’s papers contained even more reports it was happening, and this time even from a broadsheet. Cue just a smidgen of optimism.

Daily Telegraph, June 20, 1995 (click to enlarge)
Meanwhile, he might not always be remembered for his clarity of thought but George Best showed some pretty sound judgement in suggesting Dennis would be worth every penny (also note how we were also getting linked with a certain Dutch teenager by the name of Clarence ‘Seedors’).

Daily Mirror, June 20, 1995 (click to enlarge)

And then later that day, it finally happened. We’ve all read about how Dennis himself was amazed to see him appearing as the top story onCeefax. Well it was nothing compared to how amazed I was, Dennis, as my scrapbook entry proves:
My scrapbook
The thrust of most coverage is around how mental the money had become, with Peter Hill Wood describing it as ‘madness’ but, in fairness, acknowledging that now was the time to cough up or miss the boat completely.

The Sun, June 21, 1995 (click to enlarge)

Daily Mail, June 21, 1995 (click to enlarge)
Sunday Times, June 25, 1995 (click to enlarge)

The other main angle was whether DB10 would be another one season wonder like a certain German who had plied his trade up the Seven Sisters the previous year. The short answer: no chance.

The Sun, June 21, 1995 (click to enlarge)
And showing an uncharacteristically strong grip on reality, this Spurs fan admitted they were coming second best in the transfer market.
The Sun, June 21, 1995 (click to enlarge)

Finally, Louis Van Gaal had his say on DB10 arriving on our shores and confidently predicted he would enjoy his time here if he was played in the right system.

Daily Mail, June 21, 1995
An incredible few days that would turn out to be some of the most important in the Club’s history. As we’ll see in the next post, there was another big name signing to come in the shape of David Platt but nothing could ever match the jaw dropping nature of Dennis joining.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

My Arsenal scrapbook 20 years on. Part 1: Bruce Rioch arrives

There is a bit of a 1990s revival going on at the minute. Blur have returned, TFI Friday is back on screens and wherever you turn Gazza’s face is smiling/grimacing back at you.

Never one to miss a bandwagon when it is passing, I thought it was time to share the contents of my Arsenal scrapbook with the world.

Back in the summer of 1995 I decided to start collecting Arsenal newspaper stories.
My Arsenal scrapbook, complete with badly drawn club crest

Usually you associate this with the 1950s and 60s, or at a push the 1970s, when people were so impressed with the invention of colour they thought they needed to store it away in case it disappeared.

But no, aged 14 – when there were almost certainly better things I should have been doing with my free time – I thought it was a good idea to start cutting and sticking the main news stories from the day.

And it turned out to be decent timing: I have a record of some pivotal years in Arsenal’s modern history and there are some fascinating, hilarious, and prescient comments in just the first few pages.

I confess I have only rooted out the first few editions and can’t remember how long I did it for but hopefully you’ll enjoy the trips down memory lane before I run out of material in a couple of years…

Bruce Rioch arrives: June 9 to June 15, 1995 
I distinctly remember when George Graham was sacked in February 1995 that, probably for the first time in my life, I checked the league table to see how likely it was Arsenal would be relegated. On the day he went, we were 13th, just four points better off than West Ham who occupied the highest spot in the relegation zone at 19th. We finished 12th, six points from the relegation zone, and then lost our Cup Winners’ Cup crown after Nayim’s freak last minute goal in the final.

In short, while not a total disaster, in comparison to the title and cup-winning seasons that had gone before it, the season was nothing to be proud of and the star names like Tony Adams, David Seaman, Ian Wright and Paul Merson had collectively failed to live up to expectations.

While Stewart Huston led the team for the rest of the 94/95 season after George departed, I don’t think anyone felt he was genuine manager material. If he had won that CWC final, perhaps the Board would have felt duty-bound to give him a shot full-time, who knows.

I have no cuttings from earlier in the summer but my scribblings in the front say there were rumours Bobby Robson was the first choice but his then employers Porto wouldn’t let him go. So in the end they opted for Bruce Rioch, who had just led Bolton Wanderers to the top flight via the playoffs, and who was unveiled as Arsenal manger on Thursday, June 8, 1995.

Daily Mirror, June 9, 1995
This story alludes to the Club wanting to avoid another bung scandal rather than him not having control of the purse strings, I would say.

The general theme was one of him imposing some law and order, rather than introduce sexier football as he gradually did.

Sunday Times, June 11, 1995
He was chosen to be a tough task master like GG and make sure they looked after themselves just as much off the pitch as delivering the goods on it. Merson had already confessed to his addiction problems, but TA had not and in the May of 1995 Ray Parlour had been fined for punching a taxi driver after going on a bender during a club tour to Hong Kong (detailed almost minute-by-minute here by the South China Morning Post).

Daily Telegraph, June 9, 1995
Daily Telegraph, June 9, 1995
 With hindsight, I think he was trying to do what Arsene Wenger eventually achieved – play good football, get players to live better lifestyles – but went about it in a way that failed to win over an experienced bunch of players who had won far more than he had. In the end, I think it became a choice of him or some of the star players and the club chose the players. But we’ll get to that in a year’s time – though as that last story shows, Rioch himself ironically predicted the outcome on the day of his appointment:

For now, let’s look at Rioch’s obvious pride at being given the job which is clear in all of these stories and would be through the rest of the single season he was in charge. In fact, that pride has come through even after he was replaced by Arsene Wenger, as I’ve never seen him say a bad word against the Club since then.
The Sun, June 15, 1995
That story appeared on the same day that Rioch responded to a letter I sent him wishing him good luck:

Letter to me, June 15, 1995

In terms of transfer speculation, there were – and would be for the rest of the summer – rumours that Rioch would revisit Bolton to buy ‘classy’ centre back Alan Stubbs and/or midfielder Jason McAteer.

Daily Mirror, June 13, 1995

They were not particularly exciting rumours at the time. For that, we would have to wait a few days more, as the next batch of stories on the arrival of a certain Dutch legend will illustrate.

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.