Saturday 28 April 2012

Would a Guardiola Arsenal enjoy visiting Stoke?

Managers always shy away from speculation linking them to another job while the incumbent is still in post – it’s against the rules in the management brotherhood.

I have no such qualms.

We have an important and tricky game today which needs to be the immediate focus but Arsene Wenger has two more years to run on his contract and it would be folly of Arsenal not to consider who could replace him, even if they might also offer him a new contract.

Pep Guardiola confirmed yesterday he will quit Barcelona at the end of this season. Over the past few years, he has been one of the names thrown up as a possible candidate for the Arsenal job should our lack of silverware force Wenger out.

Admittedly he is also linked with any ‘big job’ but there feels like more substance to the idea he might pick Arsenal over somewhere like Chelsea or Man City.

Those who claim to be in the know say the relationship between Guardiola and Wenger is a strong one considering the boss doesn’t make a habit of buddying up with his contemporaries – there was even talk that Guardiola stayed at Wenger’s home when he visited London once.

We shouldn’t overlook the importance of Wenger’s opinion on his replacement. In all likelihood he, not the board, will decide when he leaves Arsenal and I imagine his recommendation on a successor will be the one the club will act on.

Are there any other managers out there beyond Guardiola that you could imagine Wenger trusting to preserve, or, heaven forbid, enhance his legacy?

He and Guardiola certainly share the same steadfast belief in playing football the ‘right way’ and also the principal that a club should be about more than buying success. Encouraging youth and fielding a team that has been brought up to play the Barca/Arsenal way are key shared philosophies.

So, while there may be substance to the idea Guardiola could be the next Arsenal boss, will it happen and would it work?

The timing of his departure from the Nou Camp appears to rule it out. He says he wants a break from the game but you can’t imagine that will be for more than a year at most. Wenger continues to remind us he’s never broken a contract and, unless next season proves an apocalyptic disaster, you couldn’t see him getting the boot. That means the Spaniard will be looking for a job before there would be a vacancy at Ashburton Grove. Maybe he will take a job in the middle of nowhere to refresh his love for the job, the equivalent of Wenger’s Grampus Eight adventure, but is it realistic to think he resist being in the thick of the action for two years?

Of bigger significance is whether Guardiola could be the manager that pushes Arsenal from also-rans to winners. My first instinct is to say yes. He inherited a brilliant squad and world class players at Barcelona but the work ethic he has installed in the team and their simple yet devastating approach has moved them to even greater heights.

He is renowned for his perfectionism and desire to win, as well as play great football. Under his guidance, Barcelona were just as capable of being hard to beat as they were at ripping opponents apart. These are all features we lack and which could push us to the next level.

But today’s game at Stoke is an excellent reminder of why that all may be too good to be true.

Just as working at Barcelona or Real Madrid creates unique kinds of pressure, adjusting to the peculiarities of the Premier League would present a whole set of new and unfamiliar problems for Guardiola.

One week his team must thrill 60,000 supporters paying the highest ticket prices in the world, the next it must visit the Potteries, endure 90 minutes of hell and come away with six points from the two games.

His team would have to cope with horrible pitches and defenders that spend more time targeting ankles than the ball. I know all this exists in La Liga as well (to a lesser extent, I suspect) but perhaps the way Guardiola’s and Wenger’s teams approach the game are too similar. Would Guardiola know any better way of coping with Peter Crouch than Wenger?

Our next manager has to fix the problems in the current team, not just accentuate its strengths. Someone with experience of the day-to-day toils of the English game may be more likely to address them. Promoting an assistant or coach would be another good option – which makes the possible replacement of Pat Rice so important.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Manuel Almunia: Wenger’s worst signing

Over the years, my main emotion towards Manuel Almunia has always been sympathy. Here was a guy plucked out of obscurity and ended up becoming the first choice Arsenal goalkeeper. He’s never looked like someone who particularly wanted to be our Number 1 nor actually believed he should be the Number 1 but that’s where our great leader plonked him. Despite it being obvious he was completely out of his depth (and kind of knew it himself), he copped a huge amount of flak for his role in our direst of dire defending in the last few years.

But those feelings have changed after this

"I'm looking for a nice move next season," Almunia told Sky Sports News. "I want to start a new episode of my life."

The keeper insists Wenger is happy for him to move on once his deal runs out and won't stand in his way.

"It's a very respectful relationship and now I'm free, I can do what I like and he's happy with my work at Arsenal for ideas."

And asked if he will remain in England or move back to Spain, Almunia said: "I have got lazy to move too far, because life here in London is fantastic and I hope I can have a club to go to next season so I can stay."

Outrageous stuff.

For a start it reads like we’ve shackled him to the goalposts to make him stay. And, while I know he’s probably trying to be self-effacing and amusing by saying it, the idea of him knowing he’s too lazy to have bothered finding somewhere else to ply his trade after slipping from first to third-choice keeper in less than 12 months angers me beyond belief.

At least he can exit Arsenal in the summer as Number 1 in something: the A is for Arsenal Worst Ever Signings by Arsene Wenger Table.

Admittedly it’s something I’ve created in the past 24 hours but it doesn’t take long to come up with some viable candidates for top spot: Jeffers, Stepanovs, Squillaci, Chamakh and Park Chu-Young could all lay claim for a variety of reasons.

What makes Almunia stand out from the crowd is his longevity. It is one thing for Wenger to have taken a punt on a player only to shift him on after spending a year discovering he was not up to scratch.

But Almunia has managed to rack up more than 170 appearances for Arsenal. He took up one of the key positions in the team and contributed to years of awful defending that cost us silverware. His general inability made team-mates nervous. He rushed out when he should have waited and waited when he should have rushed out. He looked like a miserable git. He was made captain!

In all, he is a symbol of the downturn in Arsenal’s fortunes after the Invincibles. Wenger bought cheap, he got crap and, to make things worse, rather than admit he’d made a mistake and cutting his losses, he kept him in the team and gave him a contract so fat that it become impossible to get rid of him.

And one other thing annoys me royally – Almunia won just as much with Arsenal as Cesc Fabregas. Madness. At least I'll be glad to see the back of this Spaniard.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Crawling to the finish line

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0

If Arsenal do secure a place in the top three/four they won’t do it with much a flourish if this match is anything to go by.

Littered by poor decisions and what they call ‘unforced errors’ in tennis, this was 90 minutes of my life I’d like to get back. I hope most of those who played in red and white yesterday would like to press the rewind button as well because they missed a brilliant chance to move a step closer to sealing that Champions League spot by beating a Chelsea team missing a fair few first teamers and understandably more bothered about Tuesday's game in Barcelona.

The point takes a different light because of Spurs' defeat at QPR (happens to the best of us...) last night. That eases the pressure for a bit longer and should be enough for us to secure fourth but it doesn't mean we're finishing with style.

Chelsea came to defend and did so usually with 10 men behind the ball but I never got a sense that Arsenal were stretching every sinew to break them down.

With Arteta absent through injury, we never played with the sort of tempo or control that he provides. Ramsey was a disappointing stand-in, apart from a couple of excellent long passes in the second half. Wenger made the worthwhile point the other day that this is his first full season in the Premiership but even so he has shown only glimpses of real quality during his time at the club. Like most of our midfielders, I think he would fit best in a four-man unit rather than three because at the moment he looks a bit lost.

In fairness, he was not the exception in a team that struggled overall. Song was poor, Diaby did little when he came on for the anonymous Rosicky and Walcott was having one of his frustrating days, failing to test Ryan Bertrand, a talented full back but making only his fourth appearance for Chelsea, in any way. On the other side of the attack, the Ox was full of good intent but he too made the wrong decision more often than not.

The importance of an in-form Robin Van Persie was made all too clear. We ended up hoping the captain could ‘make something happen’ from a simple boot up field but he was found wanting yesterday.

I said at the start of the season that we were Robin-reliant and that he needed a player of the season campaign if we were to achieve anything. Since he is likely to claim the PFA honours tonight and we look toothless in attack without him firing on all cylinders, both of those points have come true (I’ll take my virtual tap of the shoulder in respect of my soothsaying talents at this point). I don’t envy Ivan Gazidis’ job in trying to negotiate a new contract for Van Persie given his value to this team.

The biggest plus was the pairing of Koscielny and Vermaelen which got back into the groove with few problems following Koscielny's suspension. He was caught out once when he let Kalou run off his shoulder but, frankly, you could employ a flea-ridden, three-legged goat to defend against Kalou and you wouldn’t have a problem. Otherwise, the pair worked well together and Vermaelen even managed to get away with a sly flying shoulder-barge on John Terry which earns him some extra brownie points.

Before the Wolves game I thought winning our three remaining home games, against Wigan, Chelsea and Norwich, would have been enough to get us into the Champions League. We now need to earn those missing points away from Ashburton Grove. And where do we find ourselves travelling first on that quest? Ah yes, the ever-welcoming Stoke. Be thankful that Newcastle’s and Spurs’ final fixtures do not look straightforward.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Must… resist… knee-jerk… reaction!

Arsenal 1 Wigan 2

The doom-mongers are out in force today after one of our worst defensive performances of the season. I’m trying to resist the urge to join them.

Let’s start with some not-so negatives.

1. Credit must go to Wigan who played out of the skin. They handled going unexpectedly two goals up far better than we handled going two goals down and deserved the three points.

2. Having to overcome that deficit tempers how critical you can be of the Arsenal attack. We have memorably come back after being two goals down before this season but it isn’t going to happen every time so even though our attacking was pretty unimaginative, especially in the second half, it doesn’t mean we’ll never score a goal again.

3. Wenger has thankfully said exactly what I’d hope he’d say after the match. It looks like he’s had a bit of a whinge about the time-wasting but otherwise has laid the blame squarely at the ‘not acceptable’ defending. So at least he’s admitting the faults and not burying his head in the sand.

And now to the out-right negatives…

1. We’ve been here before. Memories of Fulham earlier this season came flooding back during the second half with the lack of impetus and invention up front. It’s clear as day that things aren’t working but there’s no willingness or ability to change things tactically

2. Outplayed by Wigan! First Swansea deservedly beat us playing ‘the beautiful game’ and now Wigan have done the same thing. At least Swansea were at the heady heights of mid-table at the time, Wigan are scrapping for their lives. These aren’t Sam Allardyce-inspired anti-football hoofers, we’re getting beaten at our own game.

3. Still no real defensive cohesion. For years we’ve not gelled as a team and we rarely show the kind of stability you need to succeed. Even last week at 2-0 at Wolves, I wouldn’t have staked anything valuable on us keeping a clean sheet. As it turned out we did, but we’ve got to be more resilient over a long period – without losing the attack edge and become draw merchants.

So all-in-all, last night’s defeat doesn’t mean our mini-revival has necessarily come to an end and it doesn’t necessarily mean dreams of third or fourth will be dashed.

But it also proves there are plenty of weaknesses in the team and any hopes of mounting a title challenge with a couple of signings in the summer deserve a hefty dose of scepticism until they are put right.

Individual absences are not the issue as far as I’m concerned. Koscielny’s suspension should not have led to the woeful defending last night, just like full back injuries should not have caused so many problems at the turn of the year. Those inherent flaws need to be addressed on the training ground with a coach willing to drill a system into the player’s brains.

Monday 9 April 2012

Man City put out of their misery / long shots / Nasri

Arsenal 1 Man City 0

It’s always a strange feeling hosting a team in the throes of title failure. Having been in the same position as Man City supporters in the past, we know how painful it is to watch a championship challenge blow up as players turn into shadows of themselves. Yesterday felt like we were doing them a favour by finally ending their diminishing hopes of silverware.

On the other hand Arsenal played with the diligence of a team looking to seal third/fourth as quickly as possible. This was not a classic attacking display but it was a game we dominated and deserved to win. The willingness to keep pushing for a goal despite being repelled for the majority of the game was a pleasing sign that our hunger was not affected by the ending of the winning run last week.

I admit I wasn’t convinced we’d make the breakthrough, even though we were getting closer and closer as time wore on. After controlling the first 30 minutes and seeing Vermaelen deflecting RVP’s header off the line, we appeared to run out of impetus as the first half came to an end. Life would have been made easier if Balotelli had rightly received a red card for his shocking tackle on Song but enough is already being written about Mad Mario so I’ll not add to it here.

The second half followed a similar pattern of controlled possession without much of a cutting edge. Inevitably we fell into sideways football at times – frustrating but understandable given the way Man City were filling the box with players. We should have scored one of the chances which hit the woodwork, from Van Persie’s header and Walcott’s shot, but I was still hoping someone would attempt a dribble or try something different given we were struggling to carve out chances. It made the substitution of Ramsey for Benayoun all the more bemusing when the Ox was ready and waiting. It highlighted the absence of Gervinho, who didn’t even make it to the bench. No word as far as I know about why he was missing – has he really impressed so little that Wenger prefers Ramsey on the wing?

Thankfully Arteta’s superb shot brought us the goal our domination had earned and killed off Man City’s stodgy effort at keeping the title chase alive. You can’t even say they came for a draw, even though they defended well for the most part. They just looked to be hoping for the best now that their season has spiralled out of control. Apart from Kompany, that is. He stood out as easily the best defender on the pitch, as he did at Eastlands earlier in the season.

If you don't buy a ticket...
I love a 25-yard screamer. We see precious few of them from the Arsenal nowadays, seemingly under orders from Wenger to keep the ball moving and create an opportunity closer to goal. I’ve said before we’d be a much more potent attack if we had a threat from distance – defences back off Song in particular because they know he won’t even attempt a strike, making things even more difficult to find a killer pass in a congested area. Arteta’s goal not only reminds Wenger how potent a weapon the long shot can be but will also add a seed of doubt into opponents’ minds in the future.

And so, after Spurs’ draw at Sunderland, we move clear of them again in the race for third/fourth. The players shouldn’t think like this but I would hope winning our remaining three home games, including Chelsea, would be enough to get us there.

Moving on from Nasri
As we reach the climax of the season, it was fitting to see Samir Nasri again. This time last year the speculation over his desire for a transfer – in addition to the rumours about Cesc – epitomised the uncertainties surrounding the end to the last campaign. It was followed by the messy handling of Nasri’s move, part of a rather chaotic summer.

Going into the final six games this year everything feels a lot more settled and far fewer first-team players want to be elsewhere. Van Persie’s contract renewal remains the big counterpoint but the difference is there hasn’t been any agitation from his side – not yet, at least – to force a move. This summer’s transfer activity and planning should be built on a more solid foundation. If Wenger can make the right decisions over the next few months, it bodes well for the position we could be in another year’s time.

Sunday 1 April 2012

A timely reminder Arsenal remain a work in progress

QPR 2 Arsenal 1

Arsene Wenger has, refreshingly, been very critical of yesterday’s performance but I have to question why. Leaving aside the fact that I thought we were worthy of a point, this was typical of the kind of display we put in against less talented but more determined teams intent on ‘making life difficult’ for us. In such games we invariably struggle to impose our passing game and are left hoping we don’t give goals away with the kind of mistakes Thomas Vermaelen made yesterday.

His errors – a misjudged attempted interception and a slip to let a cross be made – mean it would be easy to dismiss the defeat as solely his fault. And if Paddy Kenny had not produced a great save to deflect Van Persie’s vicious strike early in the second half it could have been a very different result.

But there is a trend to be seen here. We have visited four of the current bottom five – Wolves, Wigan, QPR, Blackburn and Bolton – and claimed four points, with the Wolves trip still to come. Equally, we have won at Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton, all places where you wouldn’t bank on us getting three points, but also lost at Fulham and Swansea where you probably would.

So what’s the trend? Inconsistency or, less concisely, not knowing what you’re going to get from this team, especially away from home. Football is, for want of a better cliché, a funny old game and individual matches can follow bizarre patterns. But over a string of games a team should be able to produce a stable level of performance. Away from home, this Arsenal team hasn’t been able to do that and you don’t know what you’ll get from one week to the next, regardless of how good the opposition is – a record of seven wins, seven losses and two draws backs that up.

Some of our inconsistency is attributed to a lack of maturity or, really, a lack of game ‘know-how’. Yesterday was a great example of that. Firstly Vermaelen earned a yellow card for a totally over-the-top reaction to a minor grievance with Mackie. It meant he then couldn’t bring down the same player after falling over in the build up to the winning goal without getting a red card. And shortly after Vermaelen’s booking, when the scores were level and the home crowd was starting to find its voice, Alex Song gave away a silly free kick, shoving over Joey Barton as he dribbled towards the by-line. That earned him a yellow card too but more importantly it added to the feeling we were losing control. A minute later QPR scored their second goal.

Small moments but they reflect a wider problem of not having a reliable defensive foundation. It wasn’t working up front yesterday but we couldn’t hold out at the back. I don’t think that can be blamed on inexperience, it’s more about the system we use because this is not a one-season issue. Last year we accrued the most away points in the league, something Wenger regularly highlighted to argue his team had ‘inner strength’. What he conveniently chose to ignore was that the total (31 points) was the lowest best in the 16 seasons of 38-game Premier Leagues.

Formations are a part of the problem but it feels like a lack of defensive cohesion is the real issue, players not knowing what he is responsible for and how that fits in with his team-mates. Having better individuals on the pitch may help and summer defensive-minded signings will be useful. But no matter who takes to the field, the real work needs to be done week-in, week-out on the training ground. Until that happens, third or fourth place – which should still be achieved this year despite this defeat – will remain the limit of our ambitions. The seven-game winning run raised hopes that this team had 'come of age', 'turned a corner' and realised other metaphors to give hope for next season. The attacking positives from those victories need to be combined with solutions to yesterday's defensive negatives  – then we'll really be ready to challenge for titles.