Saturday, 31 August 2013

Some succour courtesy of Billy Beane

It has been a North London derby week dominated by transfers, and the lack of them.

With the Fenerbahce second leg dealt with as comfortably as we all expected, it has been our ongoing transfer impotence and Spurs splashing the cash which has been the focus of everyone’s attention.

The free transfer of Matthieu Flamini apart, we have been unable to bring in any new faces in the final days of the transfer window and don’t appear close to a ‘marquee signing’.

Meanwhile along the Seven Sisters, our nearest and dearest have taken their total summer outlay to about £90m.

You have to think Daniel Levy is deliberately stalling the Bale transfer to prevent Real Madrid potentially selling players to us to help balance their books.

Given our track record, I seriously doubt we would actually be able to secure any of Madrid’s most prized assets but kudos to Levy if that genuinely is his tactic – it shows the kind of cut-throat approach to the transfer market which we have lacked this summer.

Whatever the reason, it is Spurs’ supporters who will go into tomorrow’s game with the warm glow that comes from seeing new recruits sign on the dotted line.

On the face of it, they appear to have done well. Lamela has an excellent goal-scoring record, Soldado has a ‘been there, done that’ feel and Paulinho has been getting rave reviews from those who (unlike me) have seen him in action.

Their most intriguing arrival is Christian Eriksen from Ajax, who to my unsophisticated eye looks pretty classy and he has a stellar reputation. At just 21 he will obviously get better and it could turn into another Bale-esque success story for them.

But you have to ask why no other clubs were willing to bid for a player moving into the last year of his contract and my mind thinks back to why, despite being equally well-regarded, nobody else apart from us wanted Andrei Arshavin. Maybe Eriksen will ultimately turn out as underwhelming as the Russian.

Anyway, enough semi-positive analysis of Tottenham. There is an interesting piece in The Times today which gives us hope.

It is an interview with Billy Bean, the famed Moneyball stats guru from the Oakland A’s baseball team.

The thrust of Bean’s approach recently has been to focus on cutting the crap from the bottom of their squad and raising the quality level of their weakest link, rather than trying to add cream to the top. And by all accounts it is working for the A’s.

The hope has to be that mirrors what Arsenal have done this summer by shedding so much dross from the squad during the close season. The way we have handled the in-coming side of the transfer window has been dreadful, and we’ll only truly be able to reflect on our business at the strike of midnight on Monday.

But you can’t argue that while our squad is thinner, player-for-player it is better now than it was at the end of May.

Tottenham, on the other hand, can’t be so sure that their new signings will actually improve them overall. As Wenger said yesterday, it is quite a risk to bring in so many bodies at once.

Spurs have a pretty ropey transfer record recently and although Baldini and Villas-Boas have not overseen them all, the latest signings will need to prove themselves on the pitch.

They face their first real test tomorrow, as do Arsenal. The pressure is on both squads, both managers and the way both clubs have handled the ins and outs this summer.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Foughts on Fener / Fulham / Flamini

This is a bit of a retrospective post due to technical glitches but at least it wraps up a pretty positive week.

It was a terrific result on Wednesday and relieved some of the gloomy atmosphere around Wenger and the club following the Villa defeat.

The home side were staggeringly poor. At first I thought they were playing conservatively, then I feared they were lulling us into a false sense of security before I realised that actually they just weren’t very good. It was so straightforward it made me question the need for the lowest placed team from England, Spain, Italy or Germany to qualify for the group stage but looking back they haven’t always progressed and a couple may not this time – we just seem to handle this stage easily.

Every Arsenal player performed decently, with Ramsey winning most plaudits for his effort and goal. His combination with Jack Wilshere was encouraging and having Ramsey take more of the Arteta role gave the side more ballast than Jack offered last weekend. What struck me most was how one-sided our attacking play can be. With Cazorla and Rosicky floating around in an inside-forward position on the left rather than offering genuine width, everything went Theo’s way. Pretty much all overlaps were down the right and while that may be a deliberate tactical ploy on Arsene’s behalf, there are downsides. Firstly, you can’t rely on Theo to consistently deliver quality even if he does have plenty of the ball, it must make it easier for teams who are more defensively astute to stymie our attacks, and we’re limiting any creative input from Gibbs or whoever is playing left back.

As always, it’s easy to over-react to this win, just as it was to the loss on Saturday. We’re not always going roll over teams as easily as we did Fenerbahce and we’re not always going to lose our heads as we did against Villa.

It sounds ridiculous to say it after one league match but if we are to have any hope of getting ‘in the mix’ at the top of the table we had to take three points on Saturday. Not only to get us closer to our rivals but for player and supporter confidence. Even though we appear to have secured our place in the Champions League group stage after only one leg of the qualifier, imagine going to Spurs with one or no points and £150m cash still in the bank.

Thankfully, the team again did well to ignore the ‘crisis’ talk and earned a good three points. Ramsey impressed as 'quarterback’, Cazorla looked far more like his old self, Walcott was sharp and Podolski hopefully did enough to stop the rumours of a transfer away. I don’t think the German will ever dominate a match like Cazorla, for example, but he is a solid international who has a handy goal scoring record for us and it would weaken the team to loan him out or sell him.

Like the Fenerbahce match, it is difficult to read much meaning into this result. I always think of Fulham as one of those sides that if Arsenal do their jobs properly and give everything for a win, it will happen. Fulham will never seek to out-muscle us and should not have enough quality to outplay us but – as they showed last year in the 3-3 draw – if we do not give them the respect they deserve it will cost us.

But it was a professional job and Arsenal did what was required. The only worry is prior to our second goal we continued to play football on the edge – because everyone is so committed to attack, one misplaced pass or mis-control leaves us wide open and there is no solid foundation to fall back on. Mistakes cost us badly against Villa but we managed to limit Fulham to a consolation goal. Better sides will punish us more.

While there were positives to take on the pitch, the story off it remains dispiriting. The latest crack in the transfer window is the possible return of Mathieu Flamini.

On the point about whether Flamini should be ‘allowed’ back after leaving in the first place, I’ve said ever since he departed it was a mistake to not give him the contract he deserved. He was one of our best players, if not the best, in that 2007/08 team that went as close to winning the league as any post-Invincibles side. He was the real captain of that team but Wenger decided to go down a different route and let him go. As much as we try to convince ourselves everyone who leaves are mercenaries, they don’t all fit neatly into that category and for me Flamini deserved better.

But if we are going to sign him, why not do it last week and give us an extra body to choose from on Saturday? Yes, it is only one match but either Flamini is a good addition to the squad or he isn’t. Wenger will probably say it depends on whether we bring in Cabaye from Newcastle. If so, why haven’t we tied up the Cabaye deal if we truly think he is the best choice? It all screams of not having a transfer strategy. Or just being inept at carrying it out.

Infuriating, and I’m not even going to get started on some of the other names we’ve been linked with - there is no point building our hopes up/getting even more frustrated. Suffice to say, the squad will be strong enough to overcome Fenerbahce on Tuesday but we have just one week to get it ready for the far tougher challenges it will face before January.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Only one way we’ll find out who is to blame

We’re almost 24 hours on from yesterday’s match but it still feels like supporters are coming to terms with the result, after another big portion of fans reached breaking point.

It’s obviously not the scoreline itself, the quality of the performance or heartbreak at seeing glory slip through our fingers that is to blame – it was seeing the Arsenal myth get exposed once too often that triggered the outpouring of fury.

We started well and deservedly held a lead after 20 minutes when Villa were awarded the first penalty. It came because a static Jack Wilshere (playing in an anchor role that doesn’t suit him) let Agbonlahor weave past him too easily, before Koscielny missed a straightforward tackle and Szczesny rushed out and took the striker down.

The referee, Anthony Taylor, appeared to let an advantage play out before deciding to award a penalty as well. What was a fairly minor quibble seemed to become a major injustice in Arsenal eyes – particular Jack’s – and they never recovered. They became frantic and ragged, reacting to every questionable decision by the referee as if it were part of a conspiracy. They lost what shape they had held at the start of the match and, like our manager who blamed the referee for much of what went wrong, looked for excuses in others rather doing something about their own shortcomings.

It was a petulant response and the problems were made worse when a tired or under-prepared Santi Cazorla twice lost possession easily, the first time leading to the second Villa penalty and the second Koscielny’s sending off.

Mikel Arteta’s absence played a major part in the lack of cohesion within the team and the lack of focus on the task at hand. But you have to wonder as well whether the players are even more frustrated than the fans at the lack of new arrivals over the summer – they know better than anyone that without reinforcements they have no chance of challenging for honours and another year of their career will slip by without silverware. As much as we think footballers are all mercenaries, they want to win things too.

It triggered more desperate pleas inside and outside the ground for money to be spent. Leaving aside the question whether new signings would actually make much of a difference when there are real tactical problems to be addressed, both the board and Wenger are being blamed for the lack of signings.

Surely even his strongest supporters will acknowledge that only when the manager is replaced will we truly know whether it is Wenger or the board’s intransigence that is the root cause.

Personally, I think it is Wenger’s but I hope the board stand up and show some leadership by deciding this really is his final season instead of hiding behind him. What that means for the remainder of the transfer window (would you really expect a board like ours to bankroll spending for a boss they may replace?) is anyone’s guess but I’m preparing for things to get worse before they get better.

Arsenal v Villa - ref decisions analysed

I’m going to write about the match and why we lost separately later but considering everyone - not least of whom Wenger - has been getting worked up about the referee Anthony Taylor’s performance I thought I’d look at each decision he made.

I’m not usually a referee basher but he did get at least two big decisions wrong – he appeared to play an advantage (but didn’t signal it) on the first penalty and then still awarded a spot kick; and he should have sent off Vlaar in the second half.

Other than that, I think most of the incidents, such as the second penalty, were arguable either way and Villa got the rough end of a few decisions too - Luna didn’t deserve his booking and Rosicky probably should have been booked. Koscielny’s red card was one that, if he was managing the game better, would not have happened. Overall, I wouldn't say Taylor was as much of a factor in the game as Wenger and others are making out.

For the record, I’ve only looked at the fouls given and bookings made so if there were separate incidents that should have resulted in free kicks then they are not included here. Also, the timeline is in reverse order as I’ve lifted the match text commentary from the BBC website here:

And no, I don’t have anything better to do this Sunday morning…

Gabriel Agbonlahor is cautioned by the ref for unsporting behaviour.
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Jack Wilshere by Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Fair and fair. Should have been booked earlier, another deliberate kick.

Unfair challenge on Bacary Sagna by Christian Benteke results in a free kick.
Fair. Benteke stands his ground. No real intent to move Sagna in mid air but he does land horribly.

Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Jack Wilshere by Leandro Bacuna.
Fair. Shove in the back.

Foul by Karim El Ahmadi on Tomas Rosicky, free kick awarded.
Fair. More harrying.

Santi Cazorla is cautioned.
Not fair. Given the amount of ‘first foul’ leniency earlier in the game this is a harsh booking.

Foul by Santi Cazorla on Fabian Delph, free kick awarded.
Fair. Miscontrolled, late tackle but no impact made.

Fabian Delph gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Carl Jenkinson.
Fortunate. Both players collide, but if anything Jenkinson looks late on Delph.

Theo Walcott fouled by Ashley Westwood, the ref awards a free kick.
Marginal. Two players jumping for a bouncing ball.

Ron Vlaar gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Tomas Rosicky.
Very not fair. Should have been a booking and then a sending off for his second yellow; no difference in principle to the Benteke caution a few minutes earlier.

Red card for Laurent Koscielny.
Laurent Koscielny challenges Andreas Weimann unfairly and gives away a free kick.
Mmmm… Arguably fair because Weimann appears to leap out from a challenge that was never made but Koscielny was late trying to get to the ball. Given the doubts the ref surely had in his mind from the first yellow, I would have expected a stern warning. Mertesacker lucky not to get a yellow in the follow-up advantage and Benteke does him a favour by not making a meal of his two footed challenge.

Ashley Westwood is shown a yellow card.
Unfair challenge on Aaron Ramsey by Ashley Westwood results in a free kick.
Fair. Challenge from behind. No complaints from anyone.

Laurent Koscielny shown a yellow card.
Gabriel Agbonlahor fouled by Laurent Koscielny, the ref awards a Penalty.
Fairish. If you’re Villa you say it is a penalty, if you’re Arsenal you say he won the ball. Koscielny does win the ball but he also does make quite a big impact on Agbonlahor’s trailing leg. Camera angle gives a ref’s eye view and, trying to be neutral, I struggle to see how he would see him clipping his foot when he would surely have been focusing on the ball?

Christian Benteke is shown a yellow card.
Christian Benteke concedes a free kick for a foul on Aaron Ramsey.
Fair. Ramsey looking to start an attack and is brought down. No complaints from Benteke.

Matthew Lowton concedes a free kick for a foul on Jack Wilshere.
Fair / not fair. Cynical follow through after ball played away but, again, ‘first foul’ theory comes into play.

Per Mertesacker concedes a free kick for a foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Fair. Classic example of a player winning a free kick. Sees Mertesacker coming, gets in front of him, is held and then falls over.

Unfair challenge on Andreas Weimann by Bacary Sagna results in a free kick.
Not fair. Just two players jockeying for the ball. It’s a man’s game!

Unfair challenge on Jack Wilshere by Gabriel Agbonlahor results in a free kick.
Fair / not fair. Another chase back by Agbonlahor where he made contact. Not as deliberate as his last one but arguably could trigger a booking given the totting up theory.

Caution for Antonio Luna.
Free kick awarded for a foul by Antonio Luna on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Fortunate. Both players slide with knees (ie not studs) first and appear to make contact simultaneously. Could be argued as a foul either way and can’t see how it is a booking for Luna.

Ashley Westwood concedes a free kick for a foul on Jack Wilshere.
Fair. High foot, though not really endangering Jack.

Free kick awarded for a foul by Aaron Ramsey on Fabian Delph.
Fairish. Slightly mis-timed interception.

Unfair challenge on Aaron Ramsey by Gabriel Agbonlahor results in a free kick.
Fair. Deliberate clip of the heels.

Ashley Westwood concedes a free kick for a foul on Tomas Rosicky.
Fair / not fair. Cynical hack from behind from Westwood. Fabled ‘first foul’ rule probably applies but could have been bookng.

Free kick awarded for a foul by Tomas Rosicky on Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Fair / fortunate. Another poor challenge by Rosicky, his third, could easily have led to a yellow card.

Karim El Ahmadi challenges Jack Wilshere unfairly and gives away a free kick.
Fair. El Ahmadi runs into the back of Jack.

Jack Wilshere booked for unsporting behaviour.
29:51 Booking
Unfair. Wilshere reacts to Vlaar’s foul by getting up and shoving him. Unless he said something out of turn to the referee it doesn’t appear to warrant a caution.

Ron Vlaar is given a yellow card.
Ron Vlaar concedes a free kick for a foul on Jack Wilshere.
Fair. Vlaar wipes out Wilshere and rightly gets booked.

Olivier Giroud concedes a free kick for a foul on Antonio Luna.
Not fair. Unless the camera angle from the ref’s side shows Giroud’s elbow makes contact with Luna, it just looks like he jumps higher than the defender who doesn’t make any effort to head it.

Wojciech Szczesny goes into the book for unsporting behaviour.
Penalty awarded for a foul by Wojciech Szczesny on Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Unfair and fair. Definite penalty but referee clearly only whistles after seeing Weimann’s shot go wide. No signal of advantage given. Szczesny could have been sent off, though.

Free kick awarded for a foul by Bacary Sagna on Fabian Delph.
Fair. Delph hits the ball too far but Sagna clips him after slightly mis-timing the attempted interception.

Foul by Olivier Giroud on Matthew Lowton, free kick awarded.
Fair / not fair. Giroud doesn’t jump for a bouncing ball and does move toward a leaping Lowton and knocks him in mid-air.

Unfair challenge on Karim El Ahmadi by Aaron Ramsey results in a free kick.
Not fair. El Ahmadi’s heel may flick Ramsey accidentally but contact looks minimal and certainly doesn’t look intentional.

Free kick awarded for a foul by Tomas Rosicky on Ashley Westwood.
Fair. Clumsy, late tackle by Rosicky who chases a poorly weighted lay-off from the Ox. Gets a lecture from the ref.

Foul by Aaron Ramsey on Christian Benteke, free kick awarded.
Fair. Ramsey misplaces a pass and in his eagerness to make up for his mistake runs into the back of Benteke.

Andreas Weimann is penalised for handball and concedes a free kick.
Fair/fortunate. Ball bounces high and Weimann controls it with what looks like the top of his arm but from a distance could be his upper chest.

Unfair challenge on Fabian Delph by Tomas Rosicky results in a free kick.
Fair. Rosicky slides in the rear side – gets the ball but also takes Delph’s legs in the same motion.

Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Jack Wilshere by Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Fair/fortunate. Agbonlahor harries Wilshere at his back but nothing major.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The season doesn’t start here

It’s strange to arrive at the morning of our season opener and not feel the usual mix of excitement and optimism, or at least intrigue.

That’s because the summer usually involves new signings or squad promotions which bring fresh blood into the team, making me either convinced we’ll overcome our faults and challenge for honours or scared witless that everything will come crashing down.

This time round it just feels like we’re in for more of the same. Arteta’s injury apart, the team we field against Villa today will in all likelihood be exactly the same as the one that won at Newcastle on the final day of last season.

Really, our season will start against Sunderland on September 14, the first match after the transfer window shuts. It’s a stupid system that everyone is left dangling until the first three league fixtures – not to mention both legs of the Champions League qualifiers – are completed before we know who our squad members will be for the campaign.

But that is nothing compared to the stupidity of the way Arsenal have done their transfer business this summer.

The good ship Prudence was launched with high expectations after Ivan Gazidis’s ‘new era of financial firepower’ rhetoric, it coasted through the Higuain speculation before hitting weather off Irony Bay with the signing of an injury-prone French teenager in the form of Yaya Sanogo. Then it crashed into the Suarez £40,000,001m storm and has now properly run aground in Plain Embarrassing Straits with Wenger blaming the market and other clubs for doing business early as the reasons we haven’t signed anyone of note.

I could moan away for another 1,000 words about how badly the Club has handled things but, in the interests of readers’ sanity, let me try to be brief: we have no transfer strategy; our scouting system is failing; we don’t have the manpower to complete deals; the messages from Gazidis and Wenger are not the same and yet there never appears to be any pressure placed on the boss; Wenger’s perception of ‘value’ is the same as ‘discounted’; signing Suarez would have/still could undermine a huge amount of what Arsenal Football Club stands for.

These aren’t completely new problems but I’ve always managed to be persuaded that they were excused by the financial constraints of financing the construction of Ashburton Grove. Now, with new commercial deals secured and having oodles of cash in the pot, I just see them as inherent flaws in Wenger’s attitude and the way that part of the Club is run.

The one plus has been the amount of deadwood we have managed to chop out. Bendtner and Park Ju-Young remain but getting rid of Squillaci, Arshavin, Denilson, Santos, Chamakh and, best of all, persuading Roma to pay actual money for Gervinho, in the course of three months is pretty sharp.

But of course virtually all of these players represent failures of our transfer policies in the first place. With the exception of Gervinho they have had to be written off by the Club because they were literally worthless.

Questions need to be asked both about how and why we targeted these players in the first place and also about how they were treated (by that I mean coached as well as the atmosphere within the ‘Colney creche’) once they arrived. Basically, were they crap when we bought them or did we make them crap? But there is no feeling that those questions ARE being asked, either by Wenger or anyone supposedly above him.

So we arrive at the start of the season not having suffered the traditional trauma of selling our best player but equally not having taken the opportunity to use some of our mammoth cash pile. The teams that will be competing for the title have all undergone upheaval to a greater or lesser degree by appointing Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini. This was a chance to add even more pressure on them by – crazy thought this – buying players that are better than theirs.

It all still may happen in the final days of the window. But it hasn’t so far this summer and it hasn’t in any of the last eight or nine so don’t build your hopes up.