Sunday 29 January 2012

Arsenal: from yin and yang to just yang

As has become the norm following our general downward trajectory over recent years, there has been a lot of soul-searching this week following the loss to Man U.

One item that caught my eye in particular was this analysis and assassination on Arsenal News Review about where things have gone wrong.

In short, ANR’s argument is that Wenger is a control freak who was always going to sub the Ox at that time against Man U. He daren’t keep him on despite playing so well because he was showing Walcott up and that could lead to descent in the camp, a camp that is focused on earning its next big pay day.

I disagree with a lot of it – every great manager is a control freak to a greater or lesser extent so it’s not really a major flaw; Wenger has been inflexible with substitutions since day one; and I don’t sense this group of players are motivated by money any more or less than every other. You can’t attribute our lack of success to those factors, however lamentable they are.

But what does ring true is the idea that Wenger seeks harmony inside the squad.

Calming influence
When he first came to Arsenal, Wenger brought with him a sense of Japanese serenity and order to a squad that was desperately in need of it. A side containing ‘volatile’ characters like Wright, Adams, Parlour, Keown, Merson et al stoked up by Bruce Rioch benefited massively from Wenger’s calming influence; he brought the yang to their yin (if you excuse the levering in of a bit of Asian philosophy).

Players drafted in around that time like Cole, Vieira, Ljungberg, Lauren, Henry and Lehmann, were schooled alongside the influential old brigade. The balance prevailed and it continued to bring success.

But during the years either side of the move to Ashburton Grove, Wenger – through a mixture of economic necessity and under-estimating the importance of experience – shipped out most of the key players from the earlier era.

Meek and mild
He replaced them with a new breed who haven’t brought the same fire required to balance the influence of the scholarly Wenger.

Some of it can be attributed to the youthfulness of the new Arsenal – a teenager will rarely be as headstrong as a veteran. But look at the older players that have been brought in too, people like Rosicky, Chamakh, and Arteta who can’t be called passionate.

Arguably there are some exceptions to my argument. Gallas, Van Persie and Szczesny are hotheads but generally we now have a squad that is meek and mild.

The balance has gone. We have a team and manager that are both yang.

I don’t think that is down to control-freakery on Wenger’s part. I think his obsession with the technical side of the game to the detriment of the mental side has cost us. His approach worked when the squad contained world-class players and the vocal influence of people like Adams but without them we struggle as the balance is lost.

So when the manager is yang and the squad is yang, what is the solution? We could always offer Jose Mourinho a way out of Madrid as I’m pretty sure he would fall into the yin category.

I think I’d rather get The Romford Pele out of retirement…

Monday 23 January 2012

Wenger in the ManUre / a cause for Oxtimism

Arsenal 1 Man Utd 2

Arsenal-Man U games have a history of providing incidents that overshadow the matches they are connected to. Think of the Busby Babes playing their last game on English soil at Highbury, the two Old Trafford melees or the Ian Wright-Peter Schmeichel spat.

I would never have thought we could a substitution to that list but the replacement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Andrei Arshavin – or more precisely the fury directed towards Arsene Wenger by the home fans as a result of it – certainly has the air of another landmark.

It feels like the moment when the general discontent among a large number of supporters – maybe now the majority – towards Wenger made itself clear to the world on one of the biggest stages possible.

I doubt whether the Ox would have been more able to prevent the Man U winner than Arshavin and more of the blame should be directed towards his defensive colleagues, namely Song and Vermaelen, for letting two one-twos to be completed in the box than the Russian.

Nevertheless, what I can be sure of is that Ox had put in one of the best individual displays of the season by an Arsenal player and he should have been left to continue it. Tired or not, he still would have offered more in attack than Arshavin.

Wenger made things worse by offering up a terse, ‘Do you know who I am?’ response when questioned about the decision.

All the boss does by being so aloof and defensive is aggravate whatever doubts are held by increasing portions of the Arsenal populace.

In truth, we didn’t play that badly and I don’t think our first half was as terrible as some commentators are making out. We started each half well but after the two time-sapping injuries, to Jones and Nani, we were incapable of picking up where we’d started. Whether that’s just coincidence or another sign of our mental fragility I don’t know.

We’ve now slipped back into tabloid ‘crisis club’ territory but we have to remember we had reached similar levels earlier in the season and recovered enough to get back in the race for fourth spot.

Reaching the Champions League places is certainly not out of our reach, though we still remain severely weakened by the defensive absentees and lack of quality in midfield, where Ramsey looks increasingly poor.

The one ray of light is the performance of the Ox. If he can reproduce that regularly we have something to build on.

Perhaps the more pressing question is whether Wenger still has the sense to realise he deserves the chance to reproduce that form.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Going backwards / injury record / Ancelotti

There’s been quite an outpouring of anger following the Swansea defeat on Sunday. But like the 8-2 defeat to Man U when we were forced to field a severely depleted line-up, I personally didn’t find it quite so offensive. At least, I didn’t find it surprising that we lost considering five/six first-choice players, and at least two next-best stand-ins, were missing.

Of course, that highlights two things – our inability to keep key players fit and that the quality of our squad, as opposed to our best XI, is not good enough.

It’s incredibly difficult to objectively assess the club’s injury record – pessimistic supporters of every team must reckon they have more crocks than everyone else.

But it does seem we suffer from a stupidly high number of lingering injuries; injuries that are diagnosed as a relatively minor problem before turning out to be something far more significant that involves missing a major chunk of a season. Or players who return too early, playing just one or two games before disappearing for another two months.

It could be plain bad luck but surely that can only last a finite period. The number of serious injuries we have suffered over the past few years suggests there is something more fundamentally wrong, either with the way we train, the way we diagnose injuries or the way they are treated. Whatever the cause, something needs to be done to rectify it.

What we can be more sure of is that the injuries we have suffered have exposed the lack of quality in depth in the squad. Without having a coherent defensive foundation to rely on it leaves us floundering when the likes of Vermaelen and Arteta are missing.

So we find ourselves having lost the momentum picked up after the abysmal start to the campaign and now we find ourselves going backwards with no prospect of investment being made in this transfer window (though frankly I think the faults are too big to deal with in one month anyway).

Great timing to meet Man U, then. Oddly, we beat them 1-0 at the end of last season when we going through a similarly bleak spell and, typical of our inconsistencies, I wouldn’t put it past us to do it again. But if Man U show as much appetite as they did during the 8-2 horror show it’s going to be another long afternoon for Wenger to endure.

Any chance of an Ancelotti-Wenger job swap?
As I said in November, and has now been confirmed by the man himself, Carlo Ancelotti was hoping for a stab at Arsenal or Spurs come the summer.

That’s a real loss for us, though what odds he and Wenger will do a job swap when the boss does get the boot?

At least it shows the calibre of coach we should be able to attract when the time comes – the world won’t end when Wenger departs. Actually, it will feel a sunnier place to be.

Thursday 12 January 2012

He's more steam-powered than HS2 now but Henry can prove a point

It was almost inevitable that Thierry Henry would be the saviour on Monday against Leeds. The whole night was his night.

And who should begrudge him that? He’s a bona fide Arsenal legend – perhaps the only player we’ve ever had who was at times the best in the world. He’s earned at least one evening of pure adulation.

I’m unsure how much more impact he can make over the six weeks of his loan considering he’s chunkier, and doubtless slower-paced, than at his peak.

But his bigger contribution may come off the pitch.

One of the concerns about his comeback has been that it might knock a few noses out of joint in the dressing room, now our star names will be overshadowed for a few weeks.

Judging by the exuberant celebrations (compared to Henry’s usually laid-back approach to life, at least) after the goal and at the final whistle, I get the feeling that’s what Henry wants to do – he wants to make the players aware of how fortunate they are to be plying their trade for the Arsenal.

It sounded a bit corny, but when he said he was playing the game as an Arsenal supporter for the first time it had a ring of truth to it. He’s been there, done that and won the medals as an Arsenal player so understands how important the club is to us fans.

Of course, I’m basing all this on his body language over the course of about 20 minutes and his comments certainly don’t suggest he’s got a bigger, psychological agenda in mind.

But if he manages to get inside some of the egos in the dressing room and show those players whose performances have been, at best, hit-and-miss what playing for a club like Arsenal should mean to them, then his time here will be a success.

Friday 6 January 2012

'Only' three points worse off than last season / goals / investment

As the league takes a break for the FA Cup, I thought I would look back on this time last year and see whether our season has been as poor it feels. And it surprised me to find that after 20 games we have accrued just three points less, 36 compared to 39.

Optimists will reckon that shows things aren’t as bad as we all fear and we've done well to recover from a terrible start; pessimists would say it shows we underperformed last season as well as this. Realists, meanwhile, will be rational enough to point out that assuming we don't suffer another Spring meltdown we could actually finish with a better points total come May.

But what does that matter when the gap between us and top spot is expanding? Last year our 39 points put us in third place and five points from the summit after 20 games, this time we find ourselves fifth and lagging behind by 12 points.

Our decline has been accentuated because the best of the rest have all performed better – Man City and Spurs are respectively 10 and seven points better off compared to their 20-game totals last season. Even Chelsea and Man U, who are generally thought to be having off seasons, have two points and one point more.

Goals, goals, goals
My calculations were nicely timed with a piece on the club website yesterday which assessed our 2011 performance. I like to think I’m pretty up to speed on most Arse facts and figures but I was stunned to see the gaps between our top scorers – Robin Van Persie weighed in with 42 in all competitions during 2011. He was followed by Theo with eight then Arshavin with five.

Staggering. Of course I knew RVP had had a stand-out calendar year but it never really dawned on me that almost NOBODY ELSE scored.

I ventured on Monday after the Fulham defeat that the longer we fail to recover our October/November form, the more it will feel like Van Persie’s goals were the source of our up-turn in fortunes rather than the result of it.

Well, I think the chasm shown in the goal scoring chart lays that debate to rest – when it comes to attacking, we’re a one-man team.

In my season review back in May (highly recommended for anyone who likes a juicy AFC stat, if I may say) I talked about how we were failing to score enough goals, particularly at home. The 20-game totals show things have not improved, with six goals less being scored at Ashburton Grove, though having played one game less.

Investment required
Relying so much on one man is certainly not the way to address that shortfall and it shows how the reputation we have earned for adventurous football is becoming more misleading by the year (our goals scored per game average has dropped again so far this season to 1.6 – for comparison, Man City’s average is 3.1, Man U’s is three and Spurs’ is two).

The possible temporary signing of Thierry Henry might help but we need to make our formation work for us more, so we develop a goal threat throughout the team and that requires money to be spent

Our current points total show we've managed to survive the sale of Fabregas and Nasri and may even end the season with the same number of points achieved with them last year.

Not a disaster but let's show some ambition. We need proper investment, either in this window or more likely in the summer, otherwise the gap between us and the rest will get bigger and our chances of staying in the Champions League elite will disappear.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

A deserved defeat marks the start of 2012

Fulham 2 Arsenal 1
Arsene Wenger’s smokescreen ranting about the referee shouldn’t fool anyone. This was a poor start to 2012 and one that brought our flaws to the fore.

Much has been made of the ‘game of two halves’ but for me it was a game of thirds – we won the first won and Fulham took the other two convincingly. After taking the lead and squandering a great triple-chance to double our advantage, we lost our potency and began being dominated by the home side.

Without Vermaelen to steer things, the defence and midfield was pulled out of shape easily and looked badly positioned more often than not. Think of the way Ruiz strolled through midfield shortly before half-time – it was clear at that point Fulham were the better team.

Fatigue has been pinpointed as a factor for the poor individual displays and considering the, surely, fresh Coquelin was our most impressive player suggests it is a valid reason.

But it isn’t an excuse for the failure to adjust things tactically to disrupt the Fulham pressure or at least keep possession more in the second half. It was clear we were keeping the lead more by luck than judgement but nothing was changed and inevitably we conceded.

It brings to an end a topsy-turvy run of Christmas results and performances. Two wins and a draw from trips to Villa and Fulham and home games against relegation fodder QPR and Wolves is a poor return. Add the preceding defeat at Man City to the list and that’s seven points accrued from a possible 15.

The longer our mis-firing continues, the more it makes you question the good form we showed during October and November. Were Van Persie’s goals really the sole cause of our upturn? The bottom line is despite the reinforcements made at the end of the summer transfer window we remain short of quality throughout the squad.