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.