Monday 27 August 2012

Another clean sheet, another point, no shattered limbs. Result!

Stoke 0 Arsenal 0

Some people are calling yesterday’s performance at Stoke boring but I can’t be the only person who finds it very satisfying to see Arsenal looking solid for a change. It gives hope that the addition of Steve Bould and Neil Banfield to the coaching staff may pay dividends over the course of a season. Problems up front can be solved more easily – defences take time to construct and this one looks good so far.

From memory there were no simple, high balls sailing over the heads of our centre backs as they so often did. No full backs being sucked into the centre circle only to find the man they should be marking was stood in 20 yards of space and about to bear down on goal.

There was just a new-found air of authority, of each man knowing his job, being determined to stick to it and not letting Stoke's approach get under our skin. Mertesacker revelled in the battle with Crouch, Vermaelen was strong on the cover and Diaby and Arteta provided willing protection in front of them. Meanwhile Jenkinson showed last week’s performance was not a one-off – it is telling that nobody is counting the days until Sagna returns. Even Mannone looked confident of keeping a clean sheet. That it all happened at Stoke, a ground where we have struggled so much recently, makes it even more heartening.

The biggest moment of concern was Jermaine Pennant skipping round Gibbs and falling down under the weight of the defender’s gentle shove. On another day it could have been a penalty but it was almost like the referee could see we had stepped up our game at the back and was unwilling to punish us so strongly for a minor indiscretion.

Chelsea won a Champions League because of their defence. I’m not saying we’ll do that yet but it goes to show how far you can get without producing fireworks in attack. If we can control things as we did at the Britannia it will allow us to go into games knowing one goal will be enough for a win, a facet of our game that has been missing for years.

Of course, that plan relies on actually scoring a goal and our forwards showed little sign they had struck up a bond in a week. Cazorla again looked like a sharp tack among a bunch of dolt bolts but he became peripheral after getting a nasty clout from Marc Wilson. He needs to learn such physical attention is a compliment rather than shrinking away from the challenge.

Podolski played as I expect he always will – on the periphery of the action mostly but capable of doing something game-changing when he does get involved.

Giroud simply looks like he’ll take a while to find his feet but there can be no ‘new boy’ excuses for Gervinho. He knew exactly what to expect and what is expected of him at one of the toughest league grounds to visit and yet he still did not deliver. I hoped his lack of end product last season was part of the settling in process. Two games is too early to judge whether we’ll see the ‘real Gervinho’ this season but yesterday he offered little and it feels like his indecision at the killer moment will always remain a character trait.

Still, the defensive unity is the major plus point from yesterday and if we can embed that it will serve us well throughout the season. That will rely on forming a unit over a long period of time. Getting goals is more a transient issue – a moment of individual brilliance up front can overcome deeper tactical flaws more easily than defence.

The difficulty is with Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea all coming in the next four fixtures, along with Southampton, the goals need to come pretty fast if we aren’t to end up with just a handful of points at the end of September. If we show the same kind of control in defence as we did against Stoke, we should achieve more than that.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Never been to Stoke, Santi? Oh, you’ll love it…

I always wonder who breaks the news to new signings from far off, picturesque lands that at least once a year they have to play a football match in Stoke. And how do they go about it? Does an earlier survivor of the trip recount all the gory details of 9ft centre backs who eat youth players as a half-time snack. Does Wenger gather them in a group and attempt to inspire them to rise to the challenge of whatever is – literally in the case of Delap’s torpedoes - thrown at them? Or perhaps everyone pretends there is nothing to worry about in the Potteries and then just deal with the shellshock afterwards.

Whichever way it happens, I can't imagine Cazorla or Giroud (something tells me Podolski can give as good as he gets) can be truly prepared for their first game at the Britannia. It is the closest they will ever get to days of yore when men were moustachioed, pitches were bogs and football was rugby.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Stoke, as such - if I supported them I don’t doubt I’d love anything which unnerves majestic clubs like Arsenal so good luck to them. But if you’re not a supporter it is just a game that must be overcome rather than enjoyed. It’s grim enough watching from the stands but actually playing must be even worse. A bit like landing on the beaches of Dunkirk – head down, hope for the best and see you on the other side. Maybe.

What a boost it could provide if we did manage to take three points, though. It’s too early to say it will be a deciding factor in our fortunes but a team that is still forming its identity after losing two of its biggest names could take a huge amount of encouragement from pulling off a win.

Do I expect that to happen. If I’m honest, no. An Arsenal team needs to be firing on all cylinders and have total belief in itself to take on the likes of Stoke away from home. As last week proved, these players are still getting to know each other but even a draw and at least small signs of, say, attacking cohesion and defensive solidity would be enough to give confidence for the opening stages of the campaign.

Sahin saga - did we really need him?
The ongoing uncertainty over trying to sign Nuri Sahin on loan was frustrating, but mainly because it might have held us up in pursuing alternatives. If we did not complete because, as reported, Real refused to include a permanent transfer clause then that’s fine by me. Why should we act as the rehabilitation unit for a player who needs games and then let Real reap all the benefits if he returns to top form?

In any case, I’m not even sure we needed him. From what I’ve seen Jack Wilshere has everything he can offer and maybe more. People have written about his ability to pick a long pass but Cazorla has already shown he’s not afraid to do that. Missing out on him might prove a blessing in disguise if it allows us to add something new to the team before the transfer window closes. We need a destroyer to prowl in front of the defence, not another playmaker. Someone who would actually enjoy playing at Stoke!

Sunday 19 August 2012

The archetypal rusty start / Song

Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0

You won’t find many better examples of players struggling to switch from pre-season football to the real thing than Arsenal’s performance yesterday.

Full of good intent, they were let down by crossed wires at the decisive moment and just didn’t have the energy to sustain a decent first half.

I’m sure some will argue they should be at their fittest on the first day of the season but like players returning from injury, they need real football in their legs before they reach their peak.

If I was feeling critical, I’d say the botched trip to play a friendly in Nigeria hasn’t helped our preparation but I’m more inclined to argue that the timing of the international friendlies during midweek caused more disruption.

Rather than fitness, the most obvious feature, especially upfront, was a lack of familiarity between colleagues. Podolski spent most of the game pointing to where he wanted the ball after it went in the opposite direction and Gervinho and Walcott got into dangerous positions only to waste their delivery.

Cazorla (a player who I got so excited about on Friday that I spelled his name wrong – updated now but sorry, Santa…) looked every inch a top quality playmaker. I still don’t know whether he is left or right footed and I hope I never find out. His ball for Giroud was a great example of his vision but unfortunately his fellow newbie was suffering the worst of the rustiness.

When will Theo’s time come / Jenkinson
It would be interesting to know Cazorla’s thoughts after the game having seen how his team-mates fared in battle for the first time. I can’t help but wonder if he, like me I’m afraid, thinks the reason Theo hasn’t been offered a new contract is because we don’t want to give him one, never mind his required wages.

At 23 and having been at the club for six years, Theo should be entering his best ever seasons, this should be his prime. And yet he is still struggling to control the ball and his dribbling often defines ‘cul de sac’. Yes, he too may be adapting to proper matches but there is always a feeling that he has much more to offer. I’ve always said he is a striker by nature and we would see the same faults if, for example, Jermain Defoe was asked to play on the wing. But regardless of that, you would expect him to have ironed out basic problems in his game after six years.

You only have to look at this partner on the right yesterday, Carl Jenkinson, to see the improvements that can be made in a short space of time. I’ve never thought he had the talent to play for Arsenal, even if he is ‘one of us’ and would happily be watching from the stands. But I’d say yesterday was his best game for us and he has obviously spent the summer working hard. Of course, there will be far more onerous games to come but I can’t remember him putting a foot wrong.

It takes quite a bit of the fabled ‘mental strength’ to get better, to believe in yourself so much that you don’t just accept things have gone to seed. It is a quality Andrei Arshavin is lacking going by his cameo yesterday. He must have only touched the ball five times and four of those led to Sunderland gaining possession. Chamakh, who didn’t even make the bench, appears to have suffered the same crisis in confidence and both will be best served by moving away, should anyone want them.

Why does it happen and is it a problem that is unique to Arsenal? One to mull over on another day, but it is something I keep in the back of my mind as I hail Cazorla as the saviour of the human race.

System failure
The biggest concern from yesterday was the lack of movement between the front three and the supporting midfielders. We never saw enough of players breaking position to cause confusion in the massed Sunderland defence.

It has been a regular fault of Arsenal with this three-man attack and you have to question why Wenger wasn’t able to change the pattern, or willing to alter the system and bring another striker on (not that that would have helped if he’d been static too). The manager acknowledged all the problems in his press conference but failed to say what he did about them, ie nothing.

It summed up what was a sluggish day all round.

Going for a Song
In the eyes of many, I expect, things went from mediocre to worse with the 5pm-on-the-dot joint announcement that Barcelona had agreed a fee for Alex Song.

He probably had his best season last year when he played a series of very neat through-balls, or more often over-balls. We may well miss them but we shouldn’t really miss – and what he was in the team to deliver – is his defensive ability because I don’t think it was that much better than our other midfielders.

Yes, he got quite a few tackles and blocks in but so should anyone occupying that part of the pitch. Where he struggled was covering ground quickly to press the attack or fill a gap. How many times did he look like an oak tree anchored by mile-long roots when faced by an onrushing forward? He could be a star for Barca but probably because he’ll play centre back. We could never field him there regularly in England given the style of play here but if Javier Mascherano can manage it in Spain, so can Song.

What his departure provides is a gap and money to bring something new to the team. I still think we lack power and action in midfield and that’s where the focus should be. The noises Wenger is making suggest he is fairly happy with his lot in that part of the team but even with a returning Wilshere I wouldn’t bet on Diaby staying fit for any length of time.

Whoever he decides on, it would make a world of difference if they were in the same bracket as Cazorla, established quality, as opposed to a young prospect. He’s got a chance to add someone significant to a team that needs improving if it is to deliver its potential.

Friday 17 August 2012

RVP departs but, oddly, optimism returns

Our captain, top scorer and stand out performer of last season is sold days before the start of the season, triggering the familiar tabloid explosions about Arsenal facing meltdown. But this time round I feel rather more optimistic about the future.

There is no logical reason to be quite so sanguine about our prospects but the signing of Santi Cazorla has had an odd, uplifting effect. He has flawless technique, has won major competitions and will make the team more bold. It’s dangerous to set him up for a fall like this - I may well have said exactly the same stuff when we signed Arshavin. But Cazorla has an air of professionalism, of solidity, that the impulsive Russian lacked.

His arrival this summer, along with Podolski and Giroud, reflects Arsenal’s ‘be prepared’ approach to the inevitable departure of Robin Van Persie. Compare that to the way Arsene and Ivan appeared to be the only people in the world unaware that Fabregas and Nasri were going to leave last season.

Looking back at the timeline of events, I forget that Fabregas actually left after our first match at Newcastle, things were left that late. The rush of signings at the close of the transfer window screamed of panic but this time round there is a sense of calm and a confidence that things will not be undermined by the awful four-points-from-fifteen start of last year.

The more I think about it, the more I think Arsene has pulled a fast one on Fergie in the RVP deal. The quoted £24m will look massively inflated if Van Persie suffers a repeat of his injury record of any of his past eight campaigns except the last one. Yes, he is great player and is getting better as he gets older, but it is a massive gamble to bank on a man just a likely to strain a ligament as he is to score.

Part of my renewed optimism comes from the uncertainty surrounding our potential rivals. Chelsea have spent heavily but you can’t guarantee any of their purchases will pay off. Spurs have lost their biggest asset, Harry Redknapp, and are in the process of selling one of their best players, Luka Modric. You would expect Liverpool to improve under Brendan Rogers but even he has suggested it will be a long-term job.

So even with the sale of yet another captain, we are in a much stronger position than this time last year and I have far fewer doubts about us staying in the top four. It makes a change from the recent sense that the coming season would just bring the same problems as before. Like millions of other supporters across the country, I enter the season with hope in my heart. While I’d rather be confident we will challenge for the title, that’s a start.