Monday 26 March 2012

Few could cope with this resurgent Arsenal

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0

Good weather, a perfect playing surface, a visiting team that had little belief – all the ingredients for a convincing Arsenal home win. So often in the past, though, we’ve not taken advantage of the opportunity and let opponents build confidence as games progressed. No chance of that on Saturday. We started in top gear and barely eased up throughout the first half, tearing Villa apart before they had chance to even think about getting a foothold in the match. Then we saw the 90 minutes out with assurance.

It was exactly what we needed to keep the momentum building, especially after the Spurs-Chelsea draw at lunchtime. I’ve seen some comments recently from fellow born-pessimists arguing the team is playing like it is now because the pressure is off. I can’t agree and Saturday showed why; the earlier result meant we had a perfect chance to pull away from Spurs in the race for third and we didn’t buckle under the expectation. Before this run of league wins started in earnest our season was on the verge of collapsing early again, we risked slipping out of Europe's elite and the criticism of the boss was reaching boiling point. That is real pressure in my eyes and the players have produced their most impressive displays just when they needed to.

What struck me in the opening spell of the game were the positions Walcott and Gervinho found. During the more pedestrian parts of this season, we’ve played crab football and often our front three would look isolated and restricted in their movement. Against Villa, they were drifting in-field more often and staying there for far longer. It obviously unsettles defences and encourages more interplay and overlaps than having wingers stuck only on the sidelines. Walcott was excellent in the first-half. When the ball sticks with him and he remains consistently dangerous like Saturday he becomes a major weapon. And his goal showed he is a stronger finisher than many think.

Theo and Gervinho’s impact was made all the greater thanks to Sagna and Gibbs pushing so far forward. As with the Newcastle game when Sagna’s flicks from Szczesny’s clearances were helping set Walcott away, so again both full backs were advancing way beyond the halfway line and forcing their opposite numbers deeper and deeper. And that results in chances for Gibbs like the opening goal.

The downside to the more adventurous approach is that we look even more vulnerable to counter attacks. Villa did have a couple of openings in the first half that stronger teams could have exploited. Let’s be clear, this Villa side looked disinterested at best and relegation fodder at worst. Even so, if that is the price we have to pay for a more daring approach up front then it may be worth it – this was a great win which puts us in pole position to take third spot.

Our form at the moment reflects a trend of Wenger’s era – when his Arsenal machine reaches full speed, few teams can stand in its way. The problems come when things aren’t clicking – we struggle most in adversity. But the team has proved that theory wrong once after recovering from this February’s losses. If we can make that resilience as much of a character trait as the attacking football showed this weekend then we'll have a campaign to remember.

Saturday 24 March 2012

We’ll have space for quality AND quantity signings, Arsene

The boss gave the first inkling of his summer transfer policy yesterday and unsurprisingly it’s not radically different to his usual mantra…

“We will not be a lot on the market, quantity-wise I mean. Quality-wise, certainly,” he said.

“But the [maximum] number of the squad is 25. We have many players out on loan and we will take a gamble if we find top, top quality of course.

“But don’t forget we have many players out on loan and we have not had Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby for the whole season.

“These players will be back and it means that number and quality-wise we are strong because we are in the position we are in without these players.”

I wish I could be bothered to search the archives to see how many times he’s said something similar over the past 16 years but I guess it is about 15. And he’s been wrong on quite a few of those occasions, with the squad rarely proving to be deep enough to fight on two or three fronts and not even good enough to do it on a single one in the past seven seasons.

By my reckoning we could have space for five new signings over the summer and we need to make them. Why? Firstly, every season we suffer an injury crisis we cannot cope with – the other day the manager blamed the New Year stumble to having ‘no full backs’ – because Wenger takes an almost puritanical approach and keeps the squad size at a bare minimum. Secondly, even if every member of the current squad remained fit, I still don’t think it has the ability to win major trophies.

The calculations work a bit like this. I don’t think it is stretching things too far to assume four members of the current Premier League squad will depart in the summer. In order of likelihood, they’d be Benayoun, Arshavin, one of Fabiankski/Almunia/Mannone and Squillaci. Chamakh could be another prime candidate for the exit door (presumably in addition to some of the loanees like Denilson, Vela and Bendtner and the usual few youngsters which don’t really impact on this debate). This is all assuming these players will opt to eschew their very comfortable Arsenal wages for a season or two and actually depart more let’s assume they do.

Two of those spots will be taken by Ramsey and Szczesny, incoming ‘homegrown’ players (born or at least registered for three years before they turned 21 in England or Wales) who will have turned 21 (you can have limitless numbers in the under-21 category) since the last deadline.

Factor in that we only supplied 22 of a possible 25 names on the squad list this season and you have five gaps to fill. I’m not a fan of the plan but seemingly Lukas Podolski will fill one of them which leaves us with four more spaces, all of which could go to ‘non-homegrown’ players. If one keeper goes he may chose to bring another in but he wouldn’t need to as the reserves keeper Martinez looks capable enough and has even been called up to the full Argentina squad.

Does four plus Podolski represent a large quantity of players? For Wenger, yes. When he says he’s aiming for quality not quantity because his squad is well stocked, I imagine he usually refers to one or two targets.

So I fear for the summer plans. If the boss is starting down this path we’re not going to have improved enough to close the gap to the top come August. I’m not suggesting Wenger needs to rip things up and start again; there is a spine in the team and a core of very good players that needs to be built on. But beyond that, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The other factor we can’t ignore is money. We don’t spend as much of it as other clubs and we seem to have over-spent recently in the wrong places, eg giving big contracts to players (Almunia) who will never be good enough to play regularly for the club. But if we can shift four names off the wages list, plus a couple of the loanees, there should be enough space to accommodate better talent. The fact the boss didn’t raise that as an issue, preferring instead to take about the size of his squad as the key consideration, is an encouraging sign.

I know life isn’t as simple as a game of Championship Manager where you can move players around on a whim. But Wenger needs to get ruthless and start wheeling and dealing. The most positive element of his comments is that he doesn’t want a repeat of last summer’s muddled activity, the fallout from which is still being felt now.

Get Van Persie to sign a contract and seal the Podolski deal before the Euros, then start working that contacts book, Arsene.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Let’s learn from Spurs’ mistake and keep the pressure on

Everton 0 Arsenal 1

Let us cast our minds back a mere 40 days to Saturday, February 11. The North East sides suffered a North London double whammy – while we managed to grab a late winner at Sunderland, a couple of hours later our nearest and dearest rivals swept Newcastle aside 5-0 to restore a 10-point advantage over us.

Spurs were flying high; being led by a manager who had just had the shadow of tax evasion charges lifted and someone who was ready to be chosen as the next England boss, one defeat in 11 (to Man City too), a mere five points from the top of the league. Things were easy. Life couldn’t get much better for them…

Exactly, it couldn’t.

Forty days, four games and one point later, the Tottenham garden is looking far less rosy. More poison ivy, in fact. Meanwhile down the road, the Arse have managed to pull out six wins on the bounce, including a demolition of the aforementioned Tottenham, and now we find ourselves a point ahead of them.

Why do I offer this précis of the past few weeks? Quite simply to show how quickly and inexplicably the football world can change.

My only theory about why Spurs have suffered such a drop in form is that they thought their Champions League place was neatly sewn up and took their foot off their gas. I don’t study their squad list closely but I’m not aware of any major injury problems or suspensions; the speculation about Redknapp getting the England job may have contributed to the problems but, even then, it can’t be the full reason for taking one point from a possible 12.

I don’t really care what the explanation is, the important point is that we now find ourselves in a similar, if not quite as comfortable, position as Spurs did on February 11.

Everything is going right for us, including last night’s dogged 1-0 win at Everton coinciding with a defeat for Chelsea and a home draw for Spurs.

Our displays have improved, confidence is growing and we’re definitely earning whatever luck we’ve enjoyed (such as the Drenthe on/offside decision) to help us claw our place into third position.

But we can’t afford to think the hardest part is over. However much I want to believe the team has hit a hot streak because it is tougher or less willing to lose, in the back of my mind is the sense we remain only one defeat from a meltdown.

The evidence against that, of course, is how we didn’t collapse after the Milan/Sunderland double defeat. Keeping a settled side, especially in defence with Vermaelen restored to the heart of it, has paid off and maybe not suffering from injuries is the key to our fortunes. But part of me just feels like we’re continuing to do what we’ve done all season, it’s just paying off more often at the moment. I hope I’m wrong, and the longer our streak continues the more convinced I’ll be that we’re a genuinely new team. Whatever we do, we can’t think we’re in for an easy ride.

Get well soon, Fabrice
I’ve not posted anything since our last match a week ago during which time Fabrice Muamba suffered his shocking heart failure. It goes without I wish him all the best for his recovery, particularly given his Arsenal roots.

Let me give a special mention to the Tottenham fans at the match when he collapsed (apologies for spending more time writing about Spurs than Arsenal in this post, normal service will be resumed next time). I’ve always considered them to be a few DNA strands short of the normal human species but they acted with compassion and genuine good grace so we should give credit where’s it due – well played.

It’s a lot easier to pay Spurs a compliment now they’re back below us in the table...

Tuesday 13 March 2012

From ‘one of those nights’ to ‘one of those goals’

Arsenal 2 Newcastle United 1

We’ve earned some very satisfying last minute wins this season. To a list featuring a smash-and-grab job in Marseille, a deserved comeback at Sunderland and a rather fortunate victory at Anfield, we can now add Newcastle, when a night of frustration became one of ecstasy in the length of time it took Thomas Vermaelen to sprint from one box to another and smash in the winner.

‘Frustration’ is a recurring theme when you look back at the game. We’d dominated from the outset but had never been able to turn the overwhelming possession into shots on the Newcastle goal. The stats suggested we had 20-odd chances but this wasn’t an evening when Tim Krul pulled out a performance of a lifetime to deny us in the same way Wayne Hennessy did for Wolves earlier in the season.

Instead it felt we were fated to have ‘one of those nights’ regardless of how well we played up to the final third. Although Newcastle offered little in attack, they defended solidly and did enough to feel they would take a point back home.

You couldn’t argue with them if they had, but how annoying it would have been to let Spurs off the hook after their defeat to Everton. Here was our chance to really put the pressure on our neighbours and make the final 10 games of the campaign just that little bit more interesting.

And then came Vermaelen. Theo’s ball into the box was exactly what was required in the circumstances and you know the rest. A moment to remember.

Wenger reckoned it was Walcott’s best ever performance which seems a bit over the top to me. His crossing was definitely more reliable than usual (including creating the two goals) but his close control and ability to hold the ball up was, well, frustrating. Perhaps the manager thinks Theo’s confidence needs a boost – or maybe it will help in the contract discussions.

And frustrating is the best description for RVP’s performance too. Even though he scored, he must have thought his luck was out as the ball bounced off his knee or skewed off his foot rather than being at his usual beck and call.

It goes to show how reliant we are on him for goals, or even goal threat – defences are more than happy to let a midfield of Song, Arteta and Rosicky advance on them because they know they won’t back themselves to shoot. How we could do with one of those or our wingers to hit a Ljungberg-like hot streak in the run-in.

But let’s worry about that another day. Last night was a result to savour and keeps the pressure on. After the season threatened to succumb to another collapse and more introspection, it’s nice to just keep the momentum going.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Fine effort, but not sure that counts as honour restored

Arsenal 3 Milan 0

It was a valiant display by the boys last night and they went far closer to reversing the disastrous first left result than I expected. The general reaction has been one of ‘heroic failure’ or ‘honour restored despite defeat’. I might be being churlish but I’m not sure about that conclusion.

We played well for 45 minutes of a tie that lasted 180. Milan were befuddled by the frenzy with which we went about our task but it could only be sustained for the first half. Robin’s near miss chip-shot was our only effort of note after the interval so, really, while I applaud us for getting to within a goal of parity, we missed a great opportunity to press home the advantage fully – including injury time there was 50 odd minutes to grab a fourth.

In fact, even before fatigue set in and despite scoring three goals there were passages of our play where the passing was poor and other openings were spurned. That just got worse in the second half where for long spells we struggled to even get the ball off Milan.

But what really makes me dubious that honour was restored is the first leg performance. It just gets worse and worse the more I think about it.

There were three differences between the XIs we faced – including Prince Boateng and Seedorf who were missing last night – but that’s no excuse for the woeful showing in Italy. Nor was the fact that our pitch was made of grass while the San Siro is predominantly mud and lumps – both teams shared the same turf and they seemed to cope just fine. A good 45 minutes has not repaired the damage that was done three weeks ago.

The brightest spot again was the quality of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Until he appeared to pull his hamstring early in the second half he had shown terrific confidence and quality. He has an air of assurance about him that suggests he’ll make the right decision and pick the right pass. He looked very much at home in a central position and the prospect of him teaming up with Jack Wilshere once he returns is an exciting one.

I said before the first leg that I thought Milan were there for the taking and our first half last night showed why. We could have gone a lot further in this competition with a favourable draw (ie avoiding Barcelona and Real Madrid) but we just didn’t turn up for the first leg. It wasn’t merely our defending or attacking that was at fault but our attitude to that game that cost us. That we put so much effort into what was essentially always a hopeless task last night makes it even more painful.

Back to the positives…
At least the possibility we will be back in the competition next season is looking stronger. I didn’t write about Saturday’s win at Liverpool at the time but, in short, we rode our luck but got a very valuable win.

It kept the positive form of the Spurs game going and the win last night – plus a very welcome clean sheet, however fortunate it was – builds on that. In the league, we have ticked off two of the toughest challenges we faced in our run-in. Chelsea have sacked their manager and replaced him with an even more inexperienced stand-in; Spurs have hit a sticky spell. Lady luck is working in our favour at the moment and the last ‘end is nigh’ crisis period after the Milan and Sunderland defeats seems a while ago.

There are some tricky fixtures to come, including a couple of uncomfortable away trips, but if we show the attitude of the last few matches until the end of the season we can ask no more in the short-term.

Thursday 1 March 2012

The Arsenal 'brand' must focus on winning

There’s been three stories this week that, when threaded together, offer a clear insight into where Arsenal finds itself at the moment and why we’re not getting any closer to winning silverware.

This article in the Guardian emphasised how the marketing men at Ashburton Grove have been surprised by how the ‘Arsenal way’ of conducting its business and playing attractive football outweighs short-term trophy wins in drawing supporters overseas to support us.

I accept it is right to define our USP compared to our rivals. Running a football club is a competitive global business. We’re not just looking to appeal to potential supporters in North London or England as we once did, we need a profile in every corner of the world – if we don’t, we risk losing potential fans to other teams and consequently damaging our chances on the pitch.

But if winning is third – or maybe even further down – on the list of priorities behind our style and the way we conduct ourselves then we risk undermining the whole point of the club.

Football is a sport and the aim of sport is to win. Yes, you should win with style and by acting honourably but ultimately the aim must be to win. If you don’t hold that as your ‘raison d’etre’ how can you expect people to buy in to what they are seeing every match? While I want to be entertained if I’m paying £1,000 a season ticket, I also want to know what I am watching is pure competition, not a spectacle that puts style before substance.

Is money being spent the right way? Podolski transfer would prove it isn’t
The bottom line is the bottom line, of course, and this week’s interim financial results show we remain a very wealthy club but one that sells before it buys.

There was an interesting debate on Radio 5 Live this week involving four of the main characters in the drama that is football – the businessman (Christian Purslow, former MD of Liverpool); the player (Martin Keown); the supporter (Nigel Phillips of the Arsenal Supporters Trust) and the journalist (Jeremy Wilson from the Telegraph and seemingly Stan Kroenke’s favoured reporter).

It is definitely worth listening to while it’s still available (six days and counting) as it highlights the conflicting ways you can interpret Arsenal’s and Wenger’s situation. Purslow and Keown showed support for the current set-up because the club’s books are generally very healthy and Wenger has kept the team among the elite during the huge stadium-building effort. Meanwhile Phillips questioned the efficiency of our spending.

My reading of the accounts echoes Phillips’ and is reflected in the final of the three stories this week.

A manager lives and dies by the transfers he makes and Wenger’s record is increasingly poor. It doesn’t look like improving considering speculation about Lukas Podolski being our major summer signing is getting more and more intense. I expect this is similar to the Chamakh transfer where it just became an open secret that he was becoming an Arsenal player.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think Podolski would improve our team. He is typical of the sort of signings Wenger has made in recent years – a highly technical player who is a safe bet because you know what to expect from him. He represents a ‘good investment’; he will produce consistently six- or seven-out-of-ten performances, but won’t offer anything to push the team to the next level yet will retain his value on the transfer market.

At the same time, he’ll also be very, very handsomely paid. Perhaps not among the world’s highest earners, but for the talent he has he’ll be more than adequately recompensed.

And so we complete the circle of stories by returning to the Arsenal ‘brand’ – the signing of Podolski will be done in the right way (including paying him very generously), he’ll no doubt help to produce ‘attractive’ football on the pitch and will be a good asset on the balance sheet.

But it won’t help us win things.

And that's what the Arsenal brand should be about – there’s no better way of attracting new supporters and keeping existing ones happy.