Sunday 10 November 2013

For once, we visit Old Trafford with genuine hope

It’s been a good few years – about 10, actually – since Arsenal last travelled to Old Trafford and I didn’t fear the worst.

Of course I always have hope that we’ll pull something unexpected out of the bag but usually those feelings are overwhelmed by the thought of us getting, well, overwhelmed by Man U.

How refreshing then that this morning there isn’t a gnawing fear in my stomach about what trauma the boys might suffer this afternoon but instead an anticipation of us going toe-to-toe with them.

Creating a combined form XI at the moment would see a pretty even combination of players selected, probably weighted Arsenal’s way, and that reflects the excellent start to our campaign and the pretty mediocre one they have made.

What’s happened since my last post to bring us to this position? We drew at West Brom in a match we would have lost last year but which it felt like title-winners would have scraped a win; we hammered Norwich with a collection of four sublime goals that made things look a lot more one-sided than they were; we lost to Dortmund after a pretty patchy performance but one that probably deserved a point; we avoided a banana skin at Palace with a professional display; we worked very hard to beat an in-form Liverpool; we rode a bit of a storm in Dortmund to claim three terrific points.

In all, the results have been a lot more impressive than most of our performances over the past few weeks. That sounds curmudgeonly, I know, but there is no shame in not being scintillating every match and it’s also heartening to think that there is room for improvement even when we sit atop the league table.

And improvement is what we will need today. Even though we have just won at the home of last season’s Champions League runners-up – becoming the first English team to do so – it was a low quality game overall and a repeat performance wouldn’t get the same outcome in Manchester.

For Man U, this will feel like a chance for David Moyes to make his mark and I expect he will have his players more fired up than at any other point in his short reign. Ferguson may have left but his ethos of intimidation will return for these 90 minutes.

We need to be ready for that and match it but there is a confidence and serenity about this team at the minute which suggests they can. They’re assured in knowing they are very good players, they have proved they can beat very good opponents, they don’t panic if things don’t go their way.

I’ve said from the start of this season that Arsenal will remain a work in progress for a while and regardless of what happens this afternoon it will still feel like there is more to come. Which means this match doesn’t feel so ‘make or break’ for Arsenal as it does for Man U – but what an impact a win would have.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Keep it up, boys

What a week it has been. Two excellent wins against Swansea and Napoli, the latter a result of one of the best performances from the Arsenal for quite a few years.

It is all worth far more analysis than I can give it here but there is time to make a few points before today’s game against West Brom.

Starting with the Swansea match last weekend and another impressive Serge Gnabry performance. His defensive contribution was noticeable as well as his goal, his first for the senior team. His maturity and composure has struck me most in his short spell as a starter and that was summed up in his finish. As I said after the Stoke game, there is always the fear that someone making his first few appearances plays above himself through all the excitement but the longer it goes on, the more I think that’s just how good he is. Theo must be growing more and more concerned for his place as he watches from the sidelines.

While Gnabry’s debut goal was good, Özil’s on Tuesday blew it away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it before – a searing, first time, side foot, finish of a bouncing pass from 18 yards. Simply wonderful and like Arsene said, if you don’t enjoy that, you don’t enjoy football.

It was typical of an excellent opening 20 minutes which Napoli simply couldn’t match.

What caught them out most was the movement of the front four – Giroud, Özil, Rosicky and Ramsey. The latter pair didn’t play as wingers, they just took up positions wherever they felt they could offer most threat, with Ramsey reminding me of Iniesta. You can’t call the Spaniard a mere central midfielder or a wide player – he is just a great attacking midfielder who goes where he thinks he needs to go. Giroud pulled into wider areas and drew his defenders with him, while Özil floated wherever he pleased.

The challenge now is to repeat that performance, potentially with neither Rosicky and Ramsey in those positions. I’ve no fear Cazorla could take the Rosicky role (and do it better) but could one of Theo, Podolski, the Ox or Gnabry do the same?

Perhaps the most impressive thing from both the Swansea and Napoli wins is just how much more controlled we appear. The days of losing a four goal lead seem very long ago now. That has built up through the end of last season, I admit, but as the Villa defeat showed there was still a feeling of ‘playing on the edge’ at times.

The presence and influence of both Arteta and Flamini, who both started against Napoli, should not be overlooked in helping to give that stability. That attacking four – as well as the overlapping Gibbs and Sagna – could roam around safe in the knowledge that there were teammates filling the gaps they were leaving.

The best way of retaining that level of control is to keep the winning momentum and consistency. It will be interesting to see how Wenger sets up his starting XI today. Will he stick with the two defensive midfielders? Will he be tempted to rest one of the star performers?

And it will be just interesting to see how the players handle the match. Will they be able to keep their mind on the league with the final World Cup qualifiers round the corner? Will they be able to maintain the buzz generated by an outstanding Champions League win during a trip to the Black Country?

If they want to make the most of this great start to the season, the answer to both those question has to be 'yes'.

Monday 23 September 2013

Home truths

The word of the day before kick off should have been ‘complacency’. On the back of a Champions League trip to Marseille – albeit a winning one – coming home to face the likes of Stoke screamed points let slip.

This was exactly the sort of game where the Arsenal of the past few seasons would start slowly and go a goal behind, or take an encouraging early lead but then stop playing and let the opponent back into the match, only to spend the remainder of the match chasing a precious goal.

Strangely, in many ways the match lived up to those fears but thankfully a pretty mediocre performance still led to three goals and a win.

Does that mean we have witnessed the dawning of a new Arsenal era?

No, not really.

The only surprise in the line-up was the presence of Serge Gnabry – a late swap for Theo – and aside from three points he offered the biggest positive of the day.

I’ve not seen enough of him to know whether it was an overachievement on his part but he put in a very composed performance and certainly wasn’t phased by making his first league start, or his last-minute inclusion in the starting 11.

He didn’t offer the same down-the-line threat as Theo but conversely he looked far more dangerous cutting inside and the ball stuck to him with greater security. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to live up to an encouraging first taste of the Premier League.

Aside from the German teenager’s display, there was precious little else to get excited about except the fact that we have yet to really hit top gear and still find ourselves top of the league and have our best points total after five games for four years.

Games like this must lead to three points if we are to have serious ambitions of challenging for the league.

Last year we won 11 home matches and didn’t win eight (five losses, three draws) and having already lost to Villa we aren’t left with much wiggle room for the remainder of the campaign.

Only twice since the switch to 38 game seasons in 1995/96 has the title-winning team won less than 14 games so that seems a fair target.

Based on yesterday and the other matches so far this season I am unconvinced we will achieve that kind of number.

The fact we didn't succumb to complacency yesterday and that we managed to win without playing well are of course good signs.

But before anyone gets too carried away reciting all the WWWs, DDDs and just one L since March, let me suggest there hasn’t been enough of a restructure to address the defensive faults of previous years - we are simply playing a fraction better as a team and benefitting from some exceptional individual contributions (eg Ramsey).

The hope that the presence and influence of Özil might raise the level of a few players may come to fruition.

Even then, though, my fear is we’ll remain vulnerable to the flaws that have prevented us from turning Ashburton Grove into the kind of fortress a championship-winning side can rely on.

Stoke didn't create many clear chances yesterday but we still have an air of vulnerability that, for example, leaves us serially open to counter attacks from our corners or too often waving legs at balls at the hope of making a tackle rather than being in the right position at the right time.

We have had a good start but there is plenty of work to be done. This team is still under development..

Anyway, before people start shouting at me for managing to sound fairly downbeat after a 3-1 win against Stoke, let me end on a positive.

If anyone with red and white in their veins has not yet read this article, an excerpt from Dennis Bergkamp’s autobiography, then I implore you to do it.

It will give you a warm feeling that the current team also appears to have more players that worship football than use it for their ego (Stephen Ireland, anyone?), but also reminisce about what a genius Dennis was and how privileged we were to see him and the rest of the Invincibles play for the Arsenal.

And it will probably also make you log on to Amazon to pre-order the book.

Monday 9 September 2013

Özil: Cööl, calm and cöllected

After the initial delight of seeing Arsenal spend real money on a transfer, I’ve had a few more days to reflect on our new record signing.

And I’m pleased to say I’m still very excited.

Generally speaking, all Arsenal supporters have welcomed the addition of Mesut Özil with open arms.

But some pundits have questioned the need for another creative midfielder rather than a striker or someone more defensive.

They are understandable points but if your fundamental aim for any transfer is to make your team stronger, then Özil does that.

I watched him play for Germany on Friday night in their World Cup qualifier against Austria. I haven’t seen him perform often for Real Madrid but if this match was anything to go by he will be similar to watching Robert Pires trying to play like Dennis Bergkamp.

Like both of those Arsenal heroes (Dennis' occasional flying elbows aside), he is a cool, calm and collected character, making himself available for teammates but not demanding the ball off them – as though he trusts them to make the right decision and realising he can be as effective without the ball as he is with it.

That sense of him putting others first comes across in his keen eye for a pass as opposed to shot – a perfect ball midway through the first half along the inside channel to a sprinting Reus was one of his finest moments. His assist record suggests, like Bobby, he gets as much satisfaction from creating a goal as he does scoring it.

Overall, he had a quietly efficient game but the fact he didn't stand out is almost reassuring – Austria were pretty poor opposition and Germany were fending them off fairly easily, so no need to search for top gear, he was comfortably in third.

Where will he line-up for the Arsenal? If he was available last weekend, it would have been in place of Rosicky. I expect Özil will become the new first choice tip of the midfield triangle, with Cazorla playing on either flank and Walcott and Podolski starting on the other, and Rosicky and the Ox as further back up.

Behind them, Arteta, Wilshere and Ramsey will all be competing to take two of the other central midfield positions.

The similarities and differences between Özil and Wilshere are striking for me. Both are very left footed, both have excellent passing ability, both like to dribble their way out of tight spots. What differs is their approach to the game and, as a result, where they end up playing. While Özil has an air of knowing how good he is and not having to prove anything to anyone, Jack rushes here, there and everywhere as though he blames himself for our lack of recent silverware. He throws himself dangerously into challenges, scurries to every loose ball and gets frustrated when he isn’t involved or things don’t go his way. In short, he comes across as an angry young man, while Özil rarely dropped deep looking for the attention of his teammates - he knew he could do most damage to a team by keeping his focus and killing them in the final third of the pitch.

Wilshere is a little more than three years younger than Özil and has a chance to learn from a master of what could be his best position, just behind the striker. That means no more crazy tackles, no more throwing your arms around like a hormonal teenager. Just concentrate on how to hurt the opposition most and keep himself fit to play every match.

Getting Özil means rather than having just enough midfielders and fearing the impact of the next injury, or thinking we cannot afford to rest players, Arsenal have a healthy surplus and a pretty clear hierarchy.

The key now will be to get into the same state in other parts of the field, most notably up front. Adding another German in the shape of Julian Draxler would be a good start.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Özil: a game-changer in all senses of the term

It was a summer that promised much, appeared to be turning into a farce but eventually ended with a record-smashing signing that will hopefully go down as the best in the history of Arsenal Football Club.

Mesut Özil, signed by Arsenal FC for £42.4m.

Yesterday the amount seemed perfectly natural for Arsenal to spend, probably because we have become obsessed with the £75m to £150m kitty supposedly at our disposal.

But the more I look at the words the more staggering it becomes.

All those doubts that Arsenal and Wenger were willing to settle for fourth place... dashed in a day.

All the doubts that they were genuinely willing to put their money where their mouths were... gone.

And all the doubts that we could attract genuine world class talent to the Club... cast asunder.

Why could it go down as the best in the history of the club?

Because if the Club capitalises on it, we could look back at it as the moment where we really entered the big time.

Every Arsenal player will be excited at the prospect of playing with Özil and will be inspired to train with him.

I think about Jack Wilshere in particular here. In essence, he is the English Mesut Özil but who did he have to look up to in our squad? Yes, Cazorla is hugely talented but even he is not in Özil’s class.

Wilshere (and Walcott, and Ramsey, and Gibbs, and Jenkinson...) will now think he needs to raise his game, his standards generally, to do justice to having someone like Özil in the squad.

Equally, other players, agents and managers around the Premier League and Europe will look at Arsenal in a different light.

They will now look at Arsenal enviously because we’ve got a 'Playstation' player that everyone would like to line up alongside, whose clients they would want to be associated with or who they would like to coach.

That includes Wenger who might just get a new lease of life from the move. It was telling how much emphasis was placed on the unity between Wenger, Gazidis and Kroenke in the confirmation announcement, leaving little doubt that Wenger will be offered a new contract.

That will given him the opportunity to deliver on his dream of creating a self-funded, European mega-power. We all knew that potential was there but the doubts were whether someone would take the leap towards realising the ambition.

Wenger needs to change how he does things – even his most staunch supporter must accept that regardless of financial restrictions he has made mistakes and appeared to accept the status quo too easily.

Those changes include the way he handles the transfer window, which has been bizarre.

On the one hand we are told we only want ‘super, super’ quality, and Özil definitely falls into that category. But on the other we have signed an unproven French teenager, an Italian keeper with a fairly sketchy track record and were chasing Demba Ba, who would probably himself admit is far from ‘super, super’ quality.

Even though we need extra strikers, I was pleased the Ba signing didn’t come off. When you set the bar as high as Özil, sniffing around Chelsea casts-offs again, particularly wanting one on loan, would have lowered the tone.

That lack of a striker is living proof that bringing Özil in is not the final part of the plan, in fact it feels more like the first.

But if we do seize the moment it could be a plan that is a lot bigger and a lot more exciting than any other the Club has come up with before.

Monday 2 September 2013

Forget the hype and just enjoy beating Spurs

There is no better result than 1-0 to the Arsenal.

It is victory in its purest form. No need for a comeback, no opponent letting things slip, no easy street. It is perfect – especially when it comes against Spurs.

There has been so much negativity around the Club recently (much of completely justified but much of it completely not) that it is easy to push victories like this to one side. Likewise, speculation is increasing by the minute that we will finally make that 'marquee signing'.

It is quite right that we should all take an interest in the big issues like Club finances and ownership, and the thought of us signing true world class talent in the shape of Mesut Ozil is exciting, none of it should overshadow the 11 blokes pulling on the red and white.

And when those 11 play as well as they did yesterday we need to take joy in it.

Arsenal performed with a maturity, solidity and cohesion that should bring a smile to the face of every supporter whether they think Wenger should be deified or sacked.

From back to front, there were players raising their games and standing up for their team.

Mertersacker was full of heart and Koscielny always seemed to be one step ahead of the attack.

The returning Flamini, even though he only played about 50 minutes, gets a mention for bringing some much-needed passion to proceedings and his willingness to organise those around him.

Giroud led the line superbly and the touch required for his goal was worthy of Henry and Bergkamp, it was that good. He had run himself into the ground by the final whistle (highlighting the urgent need for at least one striker to be brought in before the window closes) but fully deserved the three points.

Cazorla and Walcott, who was unlucky not to have made more from some well-timed runs, played well too.

But my standout player was Aaron Ramsey who put in one of his most impressive performances in an Arsenal shirt.

While his passing was actually slightly off kilter at times, it was his energy and physical strength that stood out most.

He refused to be outmuscled on at least three occasions when he was clearly second best. They are minor victories in the grand scheme of things but in years past they would have been little defeats. In matches like this it is that kind of attitude that inspires crowds and teams alike and can help to make the difference. Ramsey has been excellent so far this season and there can be no better example of Wenger’s approach to player development paying off.

All of this does not now mean I think we are going to challenge for the league, and perhaps I am guilty of Spurs-esque small-mindedness in taking so much pleasure from beating our nearest neighbours.

But when you think about the consequences had we lost, it throws into relief why we are justified in getting excited about it.

This was a litmus test for the way each club has approached the transfer window and had it turned sour the boos and hysteria following the Villa defeat would have paled into insignificance.

Thoughts will now turn to the transfer window and the prospect of more positive developments after a summer of frustration.

But the window closes in 15 hours – let's enjoy this moment for a bit longer first.

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.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Suarez and Rooney – between the devil and the shallow red git

We all remember those breath-taking transfers. For me, the hallucinatory sight of Dennis Bergkamp standing in red and white at Highbury and a beaming Sol Campbell shaking hands with Arsene at London Colney stand out as the real jaw droppers. Even thinking back to those moments now brings a smile to my face.

Should the growing speculation of Arsenal’s desire to sign Luis Suarez or Wayne Rooney be proved true, it will feel similar but without any of the joy. How could you take pleasure in recruiting two players with such ugly histories?

I’ll deal with Rooney first. I know it is almost 10 years ago but I’ll never forgive him for his contribution to ending the Invincibles’ run at Old Trafford.

I’ve watched the clip of him diving over Sol’s leg again for the first time in years this morning (remind yourselves here if you dare: Rooney dive video) and it still riles me. Fine, Sol shouldn’t have flashed a leg at the ball, but that was a dive by Rooney, pure and simple.

That leap, in a game were there was nothing to choose between the two teams, triggered the end of that glorious period. It was a group so committed to the beauty of football that to see the unbeaten run end in such an unjust way was devastating for them. Of course they could have shown more resilience afterwards and not stumbled for so long but Rooney had a central role in sparking them fall from the top of the tree and I can’t forgive him for it.

Now for Suarez. This is a man who has been banned for racially abusing a black player, showed great delight at committing a handball in a World Cup quarter final, has twice been banned for biting opponents and is currently in part way through a 10 match suspension for the latest of the two chomps.

How can you want to sign a person who has done all that? Forget whether they will improve your starting XI or not, what on earth would want you to bring someone like that into your football club, nevermind potentially blowing at least half of your transfer kitty on him?

There is no shame in wanting to work to a higher standard compared to other clubs. It is a proud part of our tradition that we have at least strived to be a club that does things honourably and in recent years our self-sacrificing pursuit of living within our means and taking FFP seriously while our rivals have been ‘financial doping’ has reflected we still try to work to a better set of rules. Wenger forever lauds our topping of the fair play league whenever it happens (where’s the trophy for that!) so it must be close to his heart.

I have no doubt there would be double standards involved if these two had done what they did in an Arsenal shirt - dozens of my Arsenal heroes have bent the rules over time and I have continued to worship them regardless. But I’d like to think even as one-eyed a supporter as me would draw a line at backing an Arsenal man who committed any of Suarez’s most heinous acts.

Both players are not Wenger players, not Arsenal players. For a man who puts so much store by how players live their lives, how could Wenger want someone with Rooney’s lifestyle? And for a man who believes so strongly in multiculturalism and looking beyond a passport, how can he want someone with Suarez’s attitudes?

I don’t understand why we would want them in the first place or, if the speculation isn’t true, why the club wouldn’t quash rumours linking us to such degenerates.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Will ‘big’ signings even make a difference?

So the Arsenal purse strings are supposed to have been loosened and the money is set to flow.

Judging by the way the long-expected Higuain deal has panned out, there probably won’t be any evidence of that until the clock strikes midnight at the close of transfer window.

But let’s assume Arsene does actually splash the cash a bit more freely. My fear is that the tiki-taka-lite style we deploy and the attitude among the squad means no matter who we sign we still won’t challenge for the title.

I should rewind slightly and – on the off chance that this is the only blog that survives the end of the world – offer a bit of context since my last post following the Sunderland game in February. My hope then was that a team spirit could be forged which would propel us on to better times. It didn’t really turn out that way. As much as you could admire the way the team didn’t crumble after defeats to Blackburn, Bayern Munich and Sperz – not to mention another immensely satisfying last day win to deny our nearest and dearest neighbours a Champions League place – when you look back on the run-in there was little to draw inspiration from.

The clean sheets gained and home draws against the likes of Man U and Everton did not reflect a new-found resilience but were the result of giving up what attacking flair the team did possess for some pretty stodgy defending that got the job done.

It is too hopeful to think the end to the campaign offered a platform for greater things this coming season, just like a couple year back when Arsene lauded our unbeaten run and chose to ignore the fact that most of the results were draws not wins.

And it’s that aspect of history repeating, despite the pledges of Gazidis that money will be spent, which is most dispiriting. We have been ready to wipe the slate clean and start afresh at the end of almost every season since the move from Highbury. But while Arsene has changed the characters pretty often, the script has remained the same – a lightweight team, playing too often at a meandering (aimless?) pace, not possessing the ‘belly fire’ or nous to beat title rivals.

The one crumb of comfort I have is the 2007/08 season when we suffered no major departures in the close season and a stable, decent team was augmented by a ‘fox in the box’ striker (assuming Higuain plays the role of Eduardo) and went on to play like champions for six months. No, it wasn’t a full season but I’d settle for six months right now.

So perhaps I am being a bit too Stewart Robson and Arsene can make this style and system work and things will change now he has a bigger wallet – to answer my question in the blog title, maybe a ‘big’ signing(s) could make a difference.

But can you imagine a Wenger Arsenal side, even with Higuain and perhaps another stellar new name, once more going to Man U, Man City or Chelsea with a genuine expectation (not hope) of winning? I can’t and that’s why, sadly, the one transfer I was getting genuinely excited about was seeing Arsene replaced. I’d like to see us take a different approach to solving the same familiar problems and acknowledge that playing with more power and pace does not immediately make you a worshipper at Fat Sam’s anti-football alter.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Real teams are forged by wins like this

Sunderland 0 Arsenal 1

It was always going to take a performance this satisfying to bring me back to blogging. 

The past four months have produced some highs but too many familiar lows as sparks of flair have been more than extinguished by errors and displays that were, frankly, depressing.

But yesterday was different. The team showed all of the character that has been missing since the heady opening few games of the campaign. Determination, stubbornness and genuinely good defending (and not a little creativity when required) are things that put this supporter, reared on George Graham’s Arsenal, in a happy place.

The word generally being used to describe Sagna’s performance was immense and it is spot on. Drafted in at last minute to centre back, he produced some majestic blocks, tackles and headers as Sunderland kept coming forwards. And when he wasn’t putting his body on the line, he was busy organising his defensive colleagues, pointing people to the right spot and helping Aaron Ramsey find his feet at right back.

It was great to see Sagna back to his best after a few weeks where he looked to have switched off. His contract discussions rumble on but if he shows more of the same kind of effort he’ll no doubt earn a new payday from us. It worked for Theo Walcott, after all.

The other defensive star was Szczesny. I thought he looked solid enough on crosses but he produced two, maybe three, match-winning saves. He was decisive enough to put off Fletcher in the one-on-one and then athletic enough to tip over the late header (from Graham?). Just like Sagna, it was pleasing to see him shine. He’s young to be relied on as a first team goalkeeper and you feel he needs days like yesterday to reassure himself – and maybe Wenger too – that he’s worthy of the position.

Elsewhere, Wilshere and Cazorla were again clearly on another level to everyone else on the pitch. At times I felt sorry for them seeing Giroud and Walcott fumble their way around or just not have the speed of thought to understand what tune the conductors were trying to play.

The biggest winner though was the team. Was it a real Arsenal team that gave away a winning position at home to Fulham? Or lost to fourth-tier (remember that, FOURTH tier) Bradford City? Or performed so meekly for much of the Chelsea and Man City defeats? Far more than 7-3s against Newcastle or 5-1s against West Ham it is victories like the one at the Stadium of Light that help to form a real team.

There has been so much player turnover in the past few years that the common bond that fixes everyone – teammates, partnerships and defensive and attacking units on the pitch, as well as supporters off it – has been missing. They and we haven’t been through enough ‘together’ to really get to know one another.

To illustrate the point, if you compare the squad fielded for the match closest to February 9 four years ago (Tottenham away, Feb 8, 2009), just one of our starting XI that day, Sagna, is still at the club. Of our subs, six remain, though two are on loan (Arshavin, Gibbs, Ramsey, Fabianski, Djourou, Bendtner). Contrast that with Man U, where six of their starting XI away at West Ham on the same day remain (Ferdinand, Vidic, Rafael, Carrick, Giggs, Scholes) and four of the seven subs still there with one on loan (Nani, Welbeck, Fletcher, Fabio). In total, ignoring injuries, five Arsenal players from that day could have been fielded yesterday compared to nine from Man U.

It takes time and victories like yesterday to build the sense of joint purpose which successful teams need. Over time they transform players from professionals who happen to play for Arsenal to Arsenal footballers who are linked to each other and with us, the poor souls who survived it all with them. Hopefully it marks the start of a new phase for this group – the same spirit will come in very useful over coming weeks and months.