Monday, 2 May 2016

Time for change should have been 2011

Expectation levels are relative among every set of football supporters: what counts as success and failure depends on what you hoped was realistic at the start of each season and the history which precedes it.

Success and failure lies in the eyes of the beholder and as supporters are the lifeblood of the game, it is their right to form their own view.

For that reason I was saddened to see the criticism of the protest organised by a group of Arsenal supporters this weekend.

Regardless of whether you agree or not with their ‘Time for Change’ call, the right for every supporter to have a view should not be denied. Debate about the validity of the argument is healthy, but much of the opposition has focused on whether Arsenal supporters, as people who follow one of the wealthiest and traditionally successful Clubs in British football, should be allowed to complain at all.

Why should disagreement about what is happening at a football club be confined to Clubs that perennially struggle or have a history of mismanagement? Every supporter should be allowed to have their say in whatever way they want to do it – though personally I think the definition of a ‘supporter’ is somebody who backs the 11 players on the pitch during the 90 minutes of a game.

Change what?
So while defending the right to protest, the meat of the matter is whether you agree with what they are saying.

The reason the protest failed to resonate is the hole at the centre of the argument: change what? The difficulty is nobody seems willing to put their finger on exactly what should change or how it should be changed but I'll have a go.

Kroenke - best of a bad bunch
Let’s start with Stan Kroenke. Here is a someone who chooses to make money through sport(s). As well as being incredibly wealthy from his real estate background and ability to tap into the Walmart empire through his wife, he is a professional sports club owner who wants to manage the value of his his assets as much as, if not more, than seeking glory on the field of play.

If the two things happen simultaneously it will be a happy coincidence but make no mistake, this is no stereotypical sugar daddy of yesteryear who, having made his money, was now happy to throw a hefty chunk of it towards making their favourite team better. Indeed, this one is much more likely take money out of it than putting it in.

But is his concern for the bottom line inherently a bad thing? Couldn't be a useful check and balance among the emotion of the game to have an owner who is unwilling to sacrifice good business sense in the pursuit of glory?

The ‘Time for Change’ question on Kroenke boils down to what kind of disgustingly rich owner do you want to change him for. An oligarch with links to oppressive Russian presidents? A Middle Eastern sheik with connections to regimes with a disregard for human rights? It is a shallow well in which to search and sadly the American sports mogul might be the best of a bad bunch.

Wenger - culture starts not quite at the top
And so to Wenger. In some ways, the same points can be made of him. On one hand we want a manager who refuses to countenance anything other than winning a league as success – something at least publically Wenger does not appear to sign up to given the emphasis he places on finishing fourth as the first priority – but on the other we want a steady leader who can build a team as much through developing players as they do through the chequebook.

Add two FA Cup wins in the past two years, plus the wonderful Highbury years, into consideration and the verdict on Wenger becomes even more complex to reach. There is also a lack of viable alternatives who would be a clear upgrade. Without doing any calculations to check whether the cliché is true, it feels like we live in an age when managers’ shelf-life is shorter than ever and managers have less time to build the CV wanted for such a high profile job. That could explain why the shortlist for potential replacements for Wenger is so small, especially when two of the better alternatives – Guardiola and Ancelotti – will start jobs with new employers next season (both could come in the future but Guardiola seems less likely having made Man City his choice of all his options but the Ancelotti, whose Chelsea connections seem a distant memory, is 10 years younger than Wenger so has time on his side).

So you can understand why there is a reluctance to have phrased ‘Time for Change’ as ‘Time to change the manager’ despite it being a clearer message.

But I think it would have been a valid one, possibly more so than ‘Time for a new owner’. One reason is just how much influence Wenger has on the football strategy of the Club – far, far beyond the first team remit of most modern managers – and it being this part of the Club which is arguably underperforming the most. People highlight how the culture of the club needs to be overhauled and that this stems from the top, from Kroenke. I agree to an extent but any check on Kroenke’s track record shows how he and his people leave the football – or the basketball, or the ice hockey – to the sporting experts and they focus on ‘winning off the field’, to borrow a phrase from another NFL executive.

I tweeted recently that Kroenke deserves his share of criticism given the issue about culture but on reflection it is set by Wenger. Football managers, particular high profile and successful ones, have an almost unique ability to set the tone for the organisation, far more than a chief executive, chairman or owner, especially one so long in post as Wenger. The back office takes its lead from the dugout and the flaccid atmosphere found at home games could be switched in a season with a different man at the helm.

The second reason is the inability over almost a decade to end the same mistakes being made, and address flaws shown, on the pitch.

During much of that time the argument could be justifiably made that our financial position was holding us back, though I didn’t really fully accept it at the time and I still don't: the mis-judgements made to allow so many sub-par players like Almunia, Eboue and Silvestre to have extended Arsenal careers completely undermine the idea that lack of money was our biggest problem.

But today – especially with Leicester City and Sperz topping the league table – that argument holds even less water and Wenger is left exposed to the same criticisms: lack of leadership, lack of impetus, lack of defensive nous when it matters most, lack of willingness to invest in better players.

The end of an era is (still) never pretty...
Some of the supporters’ criticism of Wenger has been disrespectful, and sadly some of it offensive. But to dismiss the protests as the work of a bunch of spoilt brats who feel entitled to see their club win everything, or how one set of supporters’ ire is less genuine than another’s, is as nonsensical as it is insulting.

I concluded a blog entry in April 2011 entitled ‘The end of an era is never pretty’ with these words: “The criticism of the team and Wenger continues to increase and more and more of even his most steadfast advocates are beginning to believe things will never improve until he is replaced. It might be different if our problems and faults were not so familiar, bordering on pathological. The end of an era is rarely pretty but we can only hope the atmosphere surrounding this one is not allowed to get so bitter that it spoils the joy of what came earlier.”

How times change...

We could, maybe should, have started protesting at that point. The five years since have seen two FA Cup wins, yes, but Arsenal have not moved closer to becoming the best team in England or Europe which is the measure by which we define our success. That isn’t supporters’ fault but we are the people left waiting for the one change that will make it happen.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Arsenal’s all-time away record: Crystal Palace is our happiest hunting ground

As we start our away fixtures against Crystal Palace later today, I thought it would be interesting to look at which trips away from home traditionally provide the most and least success for Arsenal. Well, interesting to me, at least.

How it has been done
I’ve come at it from two directions: firstly, looking at Arsenal’s record in every away match, in all competitions, against each of this season’s Premier League teams except Bournemouth who we have only ever played once (all of the data for that has come from the Arsenal World database of head to head results). I’ve ranked the teams by their winning percentage and by Arsenal's and combined the two to collate an amalgamated overall table.

Secondly, I’ve pulled out the outcomes of the last 10 league games only to assess things on a more recent basis.

For seven of the 19 teams, that means looking at the past 10 seasons as they have been in the top flight alongside Arsenal throughout that time. For the other 12 it has involved going back to the early 2000s, sometimes the 1990s and in a small number of cases the 1980s to collect 10 sets of league results.

In Swansea and Watford’s cases, it meant working with a reduced set as they have only ever hosted Arsenal six and eight times respectively in the league.

What is the point?
As the famous stocks and shares warning goes, previous performance is no guide to the future. Can you really learn something today from the fact that Arsenal lost 2-0 at Vetch Field in October 1981 or that Woolwich Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win at Aston Villa in the 1907/08 season?

Well, I think history can offer a decent indicator of where Arsenal fair worst and best, particularly at the extremes of good and bad.

Who knows why certain trends can be seen: perhaps getting to particular locations may be more awkward for a team based in North London; maybe the opposing supporters or Club as a whole have a particular hatred or respect for the Arse that lasts generations; maybe the slope of a pitch may freak out our players for no particular reason.

Whatever, if nothing else it gives a useful guide whether the pre-match gut-wrenching pessimism or inspiring optimism is justified by earlier results.

Arsenal's all-time, all competition away record
Click to enlarge
The happy hunting grounds
Reassuringly, Crystal Palace are the club where Arsenal have the best record overall, winning a massive 59% of games compared to the Eagles winning only 6%. It is the only place where we have won the majority of matches and from our most 10 recent league encounters at Selhurst Park we have claimed five wins and five draws. We could certainly do with improving that record even more today to kick-start the season after last weekend’s deflating loss against West Ham.

Speaking of which, the Hammers sit near the top of all of my tables, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I imagined many more variations in outcome given the passions and fireworks a London derby can involve but we have a 6-3-1 record at Upton Park over the past 10 league games and have won 43% of all games there.

Arsenal's record away from home: by actual points won
Click to expand

Sunderland is Arsenal’s most productive destination recently, with the Gunners dropping just seven from 30 points available. But historically Sunderland has proved a more difficult task, the fifth toughest destination in our history by my reckoning.

Another team that Arsenal have improved against more recently is Aston Villa. Villa Park has always felt like somewhere you should be happy to take a draw from but in the last 10 years we are unbeaten and have won six times there. During all of Arsenal’s away trips, though, Aston Villa have been the seventh hardest to claim points from.

To a lesser extent, Liverpool have also slipped away from their loftier perch, with Arsenal winning 13 of the 30 points available at Anfield since 2005/06 but they remain our second worst destination historically, winning just over a quarter of matches. You can also lump Newcastle into that group of club's whose hoodoo over the Arsenal is seemingly starting to wane, with us claiming five wins and suffering only one defeat in the past 10 matches.

The bogey teams
We can split the bogey teams into two: those that are expected and those that are not.

The most high profile names in the first category are obviously Man Utd and Chelsea. As we all know, Chelsea has no history so their place in the overall table is fairly high with wins, draws and losses split almost exactly in thirds.

Man U claim the bottom spot of each of my rankings although, before collating these figures, I would have said we earned more at Old Trafford than Chelsea recently but actually an extra win at Stamford Bridge means we have accrued at extra point there over the past 10 seasons. Only one win at ManUre in that time speaks volumes for the two clubs’ respective trajectories over that time and even taking on the fairly ropey Moyes and Van Gaal editions only generated a single point for the Arse.

Arsenal's record away from home:
by percentage of points won
Click to expand
Trips to White Hart Lane have led to Arsenal winning an average of one point per game in the past 10 years which, even if we have finished above them in the league over those 10 seasons (and the previous 10), sounds par for the course for such an intense rivalry. I did assume we had won more than twice in that time, though, and that is well below the historic win percentage of 32%.

Southampton, meanwhile, sit in the surprise bogey team list, particularly over the shorter term. Arsenal have only won 13 points from the 30 available over the past 10 matches on the south coast, the same as at Anfield. Yes they have had some tidy players during that time but even then rarely finished beyond mid-table, and more often it was closer to relegation than most so it is certainly counts as an under-performance by Arsenal. Over the longer term, the Saints have been less heavenly, sitting fifth in my table of Arsenal happy hunting grounds.

Then there is Leicester, where we have won only half of the points available recently and less than a third of our matches against them overall. Even though the majority of the last 10 league games date from the Martin O’Neill era which must count as the best in their history, you would think Arsenal would have defeated them more than three times.

Arsenal’s record at Swansea counts as another turn up for the books. Although based on only six games, we have been defeated there as often as we have won. Watford’s record is based on a slightly larger set of results, eight, but is even more bleak. Arsenal only won three and managed to lose five at Vicarage Road. Even though the majority of fixtures, and all of the losses, date from the era of Graham Taylor’s over-achievers it is still a horrible record of Arsenal’s.

And finally we come on to the ultimate bogey side: Stoke.

Arsenal being rubbish at Stoke in the 1980s
(courtesy of The Oatcake website)
It doesn't come as a shock to know we have a poor record in the Potteries but it isn’t the recent Pulis-inspired, long throw-wielding human orks to blame: Arsenal have been getting beaten there for more than 100 years.

We managed to lose all of the last three league games we played at Stoke got relegated in 1985 (which make up the first of the 10 games included in my tables), and since they returned to the top flight in 2008 Arsenal have won there only once.

In fact, looking at our league record at Stoke dating back to 1904/05, of the 44 trips we have returned with a win only 10 times. That leads to our worst league record anywhere outside Man U and Liverpool and given the relative potential of all four clubs, it is incredible – and to Stoke's credit, in many respects - that they have achieved so much against Arsenal and keep company in my rankings with two of the most decorated clubs in Europe.

Supporters of other clubs may view it as arrogance that I assume(d) Arsenal would have stronger records than many of their opponents even on their travels. But even neutrals would assume, given the relative resources at their disposal and the success that Arsenal have enjoyed over the years that they would be better than most.

Actually we have won more than we have lost over all encounters at only four of the current top flight, increasing to eight of the 19 if you look at only the past 10 league games.

The history of a club and their status in your formative years play a big role in how you judge how 'big' a club is, where they sit in comparison to Arsenal and how you view what constitutes success against them. Hopefully this exercise has cut back some of the myths and reinforced the reality about how much effort is required to reach the summit of the league again.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The alternative Arsenal 2015/16 predictions

Every pundit and journalist in the land has filled in the obligatory season preview pack over the past week or so but instead of picking all the winners and losers, I’m treating you to a special Arsenal-focused alternative set of predictions by way of previewing the season. It should be an interesting one…

Who will be Arsenal’s top league goal scorer?
Here’s a bold one to start with. If Arsenal are going to win the league, it needs to be Welbeck. It might sound strange but I see him as someone who backs himself to score much more often than Giroud. Could you see Giroud claiming the only goal in a vital 1-0 win at Old Trafford? No, I can’t imagine he does either more tellingly. But Welbeck on the other hand is someone who could be that match winner. Not someone who will run a team ragged but someone who will snatch vital goals here and there as well as filling his boats in the more straightforward encounters. The other runners for the top scorer prize will be Sanchez and Walcott. But with Sanchez seemingly allocated to the wing (even though I’d prefer to see him used through the middle) it would mean we are not firing on all cylinders if he is grabbing most goals. Meanwhile Theo is someone who is just as likely to start on the wing, up front, on the bench or in the treatment room so you can’t back him to take the honours. I won’t even mention Karim Benzama…

How many assists and goals will Mesut Özil contribute in the league?
It doesn’t matter. I can’t recall seeing a player have more influence on matches without actually scoring goals or delivering the final pass. Özil is a rare breed and like all unusual varieties he needs to be protected and cultivated. The hope must be that Wenger places him at the centre of the action instead of trying to shoe-horn him into a wide position that doesn’t do him any favours. But if it is numbers you really want, I say he’ll play 30-32 games, score six goals and make 11 assists.

How ridiculous will Olivier Giroud's hair get?
If we hadn't won the FA Cup so gloriously, I think the blonde highlights plus fake tan option that Giroud sported for such a prestigious occasion would have seen him run out of N5. Can it get worse? Possibly: as we stride proudly on to San Siro turf for the 2016 Champions League final, here comes Olivier to take his place on the bench sporting a clip-on David Seaman pony tail.

Will Petr Cech help Arsenal to keep more clean sheets than they did last season?
It will be fascinating to see how Cech influences a team which will surely have a far greater desire to attack than any Chelski team he has ever played in, or at least do it in a much more cavalier fashion. Last season Arsenal kept 12 clean sheets, just less than one every three games but the season before that was 17, a season earlier 14, so you would expect us to do better than last season regardless of Cech’s arrival. If he can reach the 17 figure that will be a success.

Who will get sacked first: Rodgers at Liverpool or Pellegrini at Manchester City?
One of them is going to suffer the Sterling curse. I reckon it could be David Brent himself, as his American employers stick with their Moneyball principles and realise he’s bought some right donkeys with all the cash he’s been given over the years.

Will Debuchy or Bellerin and Monreal or Gibbs start more games?
Debuchy and Monreal. I really like Hector and I think he could become our right back for the next 10 years – if he doesn’t get poached back by Barcelona – but I expect Debuchy to have reached ‘reliable workhorse’ status by the end of the campaign, although he may need the young Spaniard to get injured before regaining his place. The battle for the left back spot is just as fascinating. Monreal had a terrific run of form last season, although he doesn’t appear to have made the starting spot his own yet. I’m not sure what more he can do to do that as his consistency has been excellent recently.

When will everyone start to remember they thought Wenger should have retired two years ago?
Sadly I can pinpoint the most likely date now – the weekend of January 23/24. On the back of two defeats at Liverpool and Stoke, I can just see an injury ravaged Arse suffocated by dullards extraordinaire Chelski to register a third consecutive defeat. Cue apoplexy and complaints from Arsene about the absence of a winter break.

Are Arsenal going to get beyond the last 16 in the Champions League?
Every year there is a surprise package who get to the semis, or even the final, but it is a stretch to see Arsenal fitting that bill. With a kind draw it wouldn’t be a complete surprise but it feels like the Wenger, the squad and the club as a whole has something they want to prove domestically first.

Is Alexis Sanchez going to burn out?
Over the past three seasons Alexis has started 155 games for club and country. For comparison Santi Cazorla has started 150. There is of course a difference in how they express themselves on the pitch and Alexis plays with an intensity only usually seen on the face of a Sperz fan watching a bulb light up but it doesn’t necessarily stack up that he has been overplayed. That said, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Arsene to excuse him from League Cup action this season.

Which game will our players most regret having to wear a skin-tight kit?
Last season it was during the torrential downpour at Swansea where for 10 minutes all you could see was players desperately tugging at sleeves and shirt bottoms to make the shirts feel just slightly less hypothermia-inducing. This year’s kit looks a bit more forgiving but that away shirt is still a bit spray on so my vote goes for a windswept trip to Sunderland in early December.

Could Gabriel Paulista become a first choice centre back by the end of the season?
He has the talent to but it would need an injury to Mertesacker or Kos to give him the chance, I would say. Wenger is always reluctant to break up a partnership when it becomes established but in Gabriel and Chambers there are two back-up players who shadow the first choice selections very closely.

Which signing by another club are you most intrigued to see in action?
For once, I’ve not really been jealous of any other British club’s signings. It will be interesting to see whether two relatively low-key stars of the Bundesliga, Robert Firmino at Liverpool and Shinji Okazaki at Leicester, make an impact. And Max Gradel, who looked great for Leeds and has done well in France could annoy a few defences for Bournemouth. I’ll be watching how Chancel Mbemba fares at Newcastle as he impressed me when Arsenal played Anderlecht last season. Affelay at Stoke could become Arsene’s next ‘we could have signed him when he was 12’ claim. Outside England, I would have loved us to have snapped up Kondogbia who went to Inter. One player who has not moved, at least yet, who I would love to see in red and white is Julian Draxler from Schalke. He reminds me so much of a young Van Persie but I think he could be better than him in the long run. It would be a shame to see him move to Juventus but we do have a history of rejuvenating attackers depressed by Serie A so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Should we have signed another defensive midfielder in the summer?
Not necessarily a defensive midfielder, just a midfielder. Coquelin has clearly established himself as the first choice player for the destroyer role, and Arteta and Flamini will be able to fill in occasionally when required. I would like to see Arsenal pick up an athletic midfielder who is equally interested in attacking and defending, not one or the other as our current crop seem to behave. The balance at the moment isn’t quite right – Ramsey is slowly turning into David Platt with his ‘late burst into the box’ special move and Cazorla, although excellent at Man City, was poor in a few big games in the centre. Jack Wilshere could be that person to offer the balanced blend of offense and defence but the poor guy’s legs just don’t seem to give him a break, if you forgive the expression. Calum Chambers should develop into a terrific centre back for Arsenal but maybe this season he will first emerge as a central midfielder, solving a variety of problems in the process.

Do you still think Roberto Martinez will be the next Arsenal manager?
When we were in the Austerity Arsenal phase, I thought Martinez might be the man Wenger ordain to be his successor given their similar managerial characteristics: focus on youth, parsimonious spending ethos, devotion to playing nice football. But now the money is flowing a bit more freely, you would have to question whether a bigger name than Martinez, or at least someone with the CV to immediately earn the respect of a dressing room containing the likes of Özil, Sanchez and Cech, would be targeted. Martinez’s Everton were stretched too thin last season but without Europe to distract them perhaps he will win over any doubters, most likely via a decent cup run which Toffees supporters would go wild for. The impact that Tomas Tuchel has at Borussia Dortmund and the progress of Roger Schmidt at Bayer Leverkusen should be watched carefully at Emirates Towers too – if either of them can challenge Bayern Munich, they might start to ping the radars of Premier League chairmen.

Who is going to get relegated?
Sperz, Sperz and Sperz.

And finally… where are Arsenal going to finish in the league?
The major factor for me is winning home games. Teams that win the league claim about 17 wins from the 19 home games. This Arsenal side seems more capable of doing that then any over perhaps the last 10 years but it would still be a surprise if it managed it. At least it feels like this group is going in to the season with a genuine intention of achieving that kind of record, rather than just making sure they don’t finish fifth or lower. The tone needs to be set from the kick off, both of every game and the season as a whole, starting with West Ham on Sunday.

Think I'm right? Think I'm wrong? Any other burning questions you need answers to? Leave a comment in the usual space or reach me on Twitter.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Arsenal scrapbook 20 years on: Farewell Stefan Schwarz

I loved Stefan Schwarz and he was possibly the biggest plus of what, admittedly, was a pretty awful 1994/95 season. Although we didn't know it at the time, he was a poor man's Manu Petit but with a greater streak of malice.

Meanwhile, in reminding myself of Schwarz's career through a bit of light Googling, I came across this fantastic story about how he was banned from travelling into space when he signed for Sunderland in 1999.

It includes the comment from the chief executive that "one day it could become quite acceptable to put such clauses in various contracts".

Quite the Nostradamus.

The Sun (click to enlarge)