Friday, April 30, 2021

The Disaster of Arsenal Past Meets the Disaster of Arsenal Present

It was a weird day. It's hard not to reminisce when it comes to big European nights, and my mind did wander to those hazy days of 2006. The semi-final away against Villareal that year was a tough game, memorialized in one of my earliest blog posts. Looking back, I remember the massive sense of exhilaration and hope that night. The team's progress in Europe that year, plus the imminent stadium move, seemed to herald a new chapter in the club's history - a portent of big things to come. 

Who would have known that this was the peak of the club's performance in Europe. And that the last 16 years have seen us decline from champions league contenders, to European canon fodder, to mid-table also-runs. Put in context, it's a sorry decline, and it's hard not to correlate it to the involvement, then ownership, of KSE. 

The empty stadiums and dismal football have made this a hard season to care about. But a European semi-final is a rare occasion and one worthy of note. What a shame then that Arteta decided to galaxy brain our line-up. It's hard not to see the imprint of his mentor, Pep, in the bizarre team selection for today's game. Too many decisions seem to be made on the basis of short-term patches of form. Xhaka at left-back and Ceballos in midfield appears to still be based on our thrashing of Sheffield United a few weeks ago - one of the worst teams in the modern premiership era. Both were ripe for targeting by a man that we all know is obsessed with video analysis. 

But deciding to, essentially, not play a striker in a game of this magnitude reeked of cowardice and over-complication. I am not sure Odegaard, Smith-Rowe, Saka and Pepe can play in the same team together even if we had a forward on the pitch. That we did not led to some bizarre parody of a false-9 without an actual 10 leading the line. For a team that struggles to score at the best of times, this was a terrible decision. We did not have a shot on goal from open play until after the 90th minute as a result.

The players looked over-awed and confused and we were rightly battered in the first half. Whatever Arteta is doing in training is not working. It's a shame because you can see the raw ingredients of a great coach in Mikel, but he seems determined to shoot himself in the foot. He is scared of starting players that have explosiveness but potentially cost us some degree of control of the game. This could have been the occasion for Martinelli to lead the line on a historic night in Europe. Instead we bothering a vast swathe of the Villareal defence. 

As for Ceballos - again, one great performance against a relegated team does not compensate for a terrible season and, in particular, an abysmally poor season in the Europa League. I can only assume Arteta was too proud to hook Dani at half-time and we paid the price for his stubbornness. 

This is my concern about Arteta. He is completely unproven as a manager, regardless of his success as a coach at City. Many of the attributes that define a great coach in football - essentially helping to put in place the structure for players to realize someone else's plan - are not that comparable to what's needed for a manager. You get little sense that Arteta can roll with the punches and adjust as different scenarios arise. His in-game management is appalling and his tactics barely seem to flex regardless of the various scenarios we're facing. The players appear to have been ordered to build up play in a measured, almost glacial manner, killing the impetus of counter-attacks. I can't tell if this is a stats-driven approach, or simply a desire to dominate possession and hope the win comes from there. Either way, it's boring, results in very few goals, and isn't working. If you're going to be a control-freak perfectionist, you have to be able to make your plan work. 

What luck then that we came up against the disaster of Arsenal's past. I could not imagine a more classic Emery move than subbing an attacker for a defensive midfielder at half-time during a game you're dominating. We were on the ropes and a third goal would've killed us. Instead, Villareal sat off us in the second half and let us back into the tie. Emery's gonna Emery. 

Emery's appointment was its own special kind of disaster, squandering our last, easiest opportunity to return to the Champions League. It remains to be seen where we go from here and, who knows, we may win the Europa League and this whole season will have been worth it. But it's hard not to shake the sense that this season has been a slow-moving disaster for the club, with KSE, yet again, showing little desire to put the club back on the right track. Here's hoping Mikel doesn't overthink the second leg. 


Friday, April 23, 2021

Josh Kroenke Fronts Up - But Why Are We Talking to our Owner's Son?

So the great apology tour has begun. Vinai has apparently been calling various board members at other PL clubs to apologize and I'm sure he's getting an earful. More interestingly, there was a fans forum with him and Josh K yesterday. Kudos to Chris Wheatley at Football.London for publishing a full transcript (and audio) of the event, which is well worth the read. 

Let me put a few cards on the table here: I give Josh some kudos for fronting up, particularly as he seems to have aged about twenty years during lockdown. It's unclear to me whether his dad - the actual owner - will ever speak directly to an Arsenal fan group again after the battering he received a few years ago at an AGM. Josh could have hidden behind his vast wealth too, but it seems like there is some attempt here at building bridges with the fans. 

I wasn't at the event, but there were some tweets, and references in the transcript, about how Josh gave the impression that he didn't really want to be there. And, again, to be fair - would you? This is like being caught cheating on your spouse and having to do a zoom call with their family to apologize. It's grim no matter how much cash you have. 

To be less fair, that we're speaking to Josh says a lot about why bad decisions are being made in European football. As Simon Kuper was discussing in a great thread earlier this week, old white man, their families/mates and ex-players are at the nexus of power in most clubs. This is a tiny, insular talent pool that is predisposed towards thinking in ways that benefit that in-group. There is now abundant business literature that diverse teams make better decisions and drive innovation.  The current Arsenal board, who largely drove the decision to join the ESL, comprises Stan, his son, a retired carpet maker (Lord Harris) and Tim Harris, who only joined in June last year. Stan and Josh may as well be one person, and Chips is  a token figurehead. So basically, at a board level, we just have Tim Lewis, a corporate lawyer that we had to draft in to deal with the *shenanigans* that were going on last summer.

Even if we take into account that Vinai and perhaps a few others in the club were involved in the ESL discussions, is it any surprise that this quarter made a bad decision? Imagine if there had been fan or ex-player representation on the board - they could've told them in ten minutes that the ESL idea was a disaster and bad for the club's image. KSE need to understand that it is *in their interests* to have fan representation at the board level - it will lead to better decisions that will benefit both KSE and the club. Josh signaled that he wasn't entirely opposed to the idea in the fan's forum, but I'll guess we'll see. 


If we look at what else was said in the meeting, a few things stood out:

* Josh basically tried the, 'we didn't like it, but we had to go along with it' line of argument. This is either pathetic - we're so weak that we have to go along with what the big boys want - or disingenuous. I find it extremely hard to believe, especially after Ivan was snapped having dinner with the Glazers and FSG  in NY a few years ago, that this hasn't been in the works for years. Producing an economically stable cartel is clearly the end-game for the US owners in their drive to make revenues and outgoings more predictable and in-line with the owner-driven model of US sports. So don't insult our intelligence.

* Josh said we'd be seeing a lot more of him over the next few years. Again - good, I suppose. But rather than feeding off whatever scraps they throw us, permanent representation within the club's running is crucial for fans. I'd rather, also, that Stan fronted up. It's such terrible corporate management to hide behind your money and your family rather than be open and candid about your goals for an organization, particularly for such a public institution like Arsenal.   

* He was clear that KSE are not going to sell. Not a surprise. But given the failure of the ESL it begs the question - what is their strategy for the club? My preference, as always, has been for a fan-owned club. If KSE want to own part of the remaining 49% - fine; but the fans should be in charge. If that's not going to happen, we want a clear, detailed vision from KSE on how they are going to make Arsenal a competitive force in English and European football again. Because, at the moment, they have done little other than oversee a 10-year decline and it's not clear to me what their next move is. 


Thursday, April 22, 2021

The ESL Goes Down, But What Now for Arsenal and the Kroenkes?

Well, I wasn't expecting that. When the synchronized statements dropped on Sunday night, I was sure that the the ESL was a foregone conclusion. Yes there would be some wailing and flailing, but the owners, ensconced in their ivory towers, would do the usual - 'thank you for your interest in our affairs' - and we'd soon be all signed up to our new streaming packages. So what went wrong?

Why did the ESL fail? 

If I was to speculate on why the ESL fell apart so quickly, I'd point to a few things:

* Fan pressure - It seems this did matter, particularly when fans can show that they can translate their displeasure into tangible disruption, particularly to the brand or bottom line of their clubs. I still think, because it fits a lot of romantic narratives, that the role of the fans in the ESL's downfall has been somewhat overstated in the press. But it was certainly significant, and powerful, to see the protests at various grounds around the country. That said, portraying Chelsea and Man City fans as the saviours of English football, and seeing their fans carry signs complaining about the role of money and greed in the game, was a level of irony that I'm not capable of processing. More on that later. 

* Player pressure - More significant were the public statements against the league by players. The dumbest move in this whole affair by the ESL ringleaders was not getting the players on board first. This is an elite industry with a small pool of high-level talent - the clubs can't do anything if their players don't sanction it. People, in general, have an intensely strong psychological reaction to things being taken away from them, and without an intense PR campaign to the players, there was very little upside to them for the ESL and plenty of downside - loss of international caps, contracts that didn't reflect the lucrative new competition they were being asked to play in, etc. Once the Liverpool players came out, en masse, against the league, it was a goner. 

* Government pressure - To put it lightly, Boris Johnson knows a populist opportunity when he sees one. Whatever long-term schemes they had in mind about the location of ESL clubs, the English ESL clubs needed the UK government onside, so to speak, with their plan. Instead, BoJo promised a 'legislative bomb' and opened the door to all kinds of long-term repercussions for the clubs. Who knows what was said behind closed doors, but I think this genuinely spooked the ESL leaders, not least because both us, and Sp*rs, have taken huge COVID loans from the Bank of England recently. The irony here, of course, is that successive UK governments turned a blind eye to the successive takeovers of major English teams that led us to this shambles . Had the government enforced fan ownership models in the early days of the Premier League, once the money started trickling in, we'd have seen a much different (and better, league), and one where fans would not have to worry about owners acting against the interest of local communities. Here's hoping the government puts this right in their forthcoming review, although how they would force owners to give up a share of their clubs at this point is questionable. 

* Internal Group Dynamics within the ESL - The ESL was a coalition and the cracks within it soon appeared. The true ringleaders here are the American owners (including AC Milan), the Spanish owners and Inter/Juve. Barca, Real and Inter are financial basket cases, with huge debts that they see little prospect of repaying, particularly as the premier league continues to grow in popularity. The American owners have long sought to push football in a direction where financial risks are mitigated through more consistent (as much as larger) revenues, effective caps on expenditure, and a shift from player to owner power as seen in the various American major leagues. This situation would only be possible in a unified league of Europe's top clubs where a true economic cartel could be created - otherwise players could just shift leagues to chase bigger contracts. The problem for the ESL is that Chelsea and Man City do not really need money, given the source of their funding, particularly in the wake of UEFA's failure to effectively enforce Financial Fair Play. They joined for fear of not being left out and were the first to leave - once they left, the whole thing came crumbing down. The financial doping and disruption that these clubs (together with PSG) have brought to European football was a major reason for both the rise and fall of the ESL. 

* The new Champions League format - While the whole circus was rumbling on, UEFA was able to push through changes to the Champions League. These changes will lead to  more games and backdoor methods of qualification for the big clubs through the fabled 'UEFA Coefficients'. Combined with more money, the new format gives the ESL rebels a lot of what they already wanted. Indeed, it has been hilarious to see UEFA held up as some form of virtuous organization over the last few days. The current Champions League format is awful - it's a quasi-rigged system to ensure the big teams get to the knockout stages each year. It has led to CL money being consolidated into the heads of an ever-diminishing number of clubs, who then dominate their leagues each year. It's been a rubbish competition for at least a decade and is in need of reform, and the ESL clubs will no doubt use this opportunity to push it more in the direction they want, whatever public pronouncements of their 'defeat' will claim. 

Where Now for Arsenal and the Kroenekes? 

The  question posed by many fans in the wake of the ESL's announcement was why Arsenal, a club currently languishing in 9th place in the table and who have not competed in the Champions League for 4 years, should be included in a super league. The answer is simple - we are one of the ten biggest teams in world football. Even if we put aside the colossal history of our club and its achievements, you could basically choose your metric when it comes to the things that owners/money men care about - revenues, fans, brand awareness - and we would be in or around the global top ten. I say this all the time to anyone who will listen: we are a massive, massive club. 

We have been duped into thinking otherwise, largely by the bizarre statements that pleaded poverty after the stadium move and the Chelsea/Man City takeovers, combined with the terrible mismanagement of the club in the last ten years, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch we had the Arsene twilight years, followed by the Emery fiasco. Arteta has shown some promise, but we are on course for our worst league finish in about 25 years, and questions should be asked about his position if we do not win the Europa League. Some of the football this season has been as bad as I have seen in thirty years of supporting the club and it has to change. 

Off the pitch has been an even bigger fiasco. Gazidis was paid millions, yet did little to address the decline in our on-pitch fortunes. He set up a triumvirate within the club to strip power from Wenger, who all (including Gazidis) left the club around the time of Arsene's departure. Sanhelli's time in charge saw us pay overinflated transfer and agent fees for *reasons* and once he was booted out the club we now have two inexperienced leaders in Vinai and Edu basically at the helm of everyday operations. 

It's a mess and it's resulted in the club punching well, well below our weight. I'd contrast our current fate with what's happened at Leicester and Liverpool (altho the latter have obviously taken a hit this week). They have shown that through a smart recruitment policy you can challenge in the Premier League, even if you don't have the financial firepower of Chelsea and Man City. 

The reason for our mess lies largely at the feet of one man: Stan Kroenke. I am on the record in 2007 and 2012 opposing his involvement in the club, because even to the younger, more naive Goonerboy it was obvious that Kroenke was bad news. It's worth re-reading that 2007 post because in the comments there were certainly fans that were open to the takeover. But the warning sides were all there - debt-fueled takeover, minimal involvement in his teams, the mediocre performances of his 'franchises'. 

Kroenke's ownership of Arsenal has been a disaster. He's sat back while we went from a club that challenged for the title, to scrambling into the Champions League spots, to one that could very reasonably finish in the bottom half of the table this season. He has only dropped the hammer a few times, and they all correlate to occasions where he saw a threat to the bottom line - Arsene finally failing to deliver CL qualification and Emery being in a tailspin. Were Kroenke serious about the club we would see much more active investment and involvement in the team - we would not have let Arsene' agonizing decline play out over 2014-2018 to give but one example, including the bizarre summer of 2015 where the club decided to not purchase any outfield players. 

In this respect, it's unsurprising that we backed the ESL - and I imagine we were one of the prime movers in it - because it was a massive get-out-of-jail free card. Ten years of decline reversed with the stroke of a pen and a return to Europe's elite without having to actually do the hard work of competing. 

This was why, if I am being completely honest, I was somewhat on board with the ESL. I do not trust Kroenke to take us back to the top and this seems the only feasible way in the short- to medium-term for Arsenal to re-establish ourselves as a leading club. But that is...awful. It makes me feel like a terrible person for even admitting it. It's essentially saying that we need a cheat code because the club is a basket case. To paraphrase a better man than me, is this who we are, what we are, and what we represent? 

The whole ESL fiasco raises the question as to whether this was Kroenke's long game all along. Maybe, but one shouldn't discount the combination of opportunism and incompetence that were the hallmarks of this entire affair. Covid may have simply been the short-term trigger for an attempted power grab that had been only discussed in theoretical terms over very expensive bottles of wine for years. 

The question is, therefore, where do we go from here? I have to say - I'm worried. There are only two positive ways forward for Arsenal. One - the Kroenkes wake up tomorrow, decide they love Arsenal, and start pumping money and purpose into the club. Let's just say that this scenario is unlikely given virtually everything we have seen about this family over the last 15 years. Two - the Kroenkes sell-up. But to who? Perhaps the government will give financial support to fan groups and introduce compulsory purchase orders, but I'm skeptical. In terms of the private market, who's available that's better than Kroenke and has 2-3 billion pounds needed to buy Arsenal at the moment? Much as I dislike Kroenke, the thought of us becoming the PR arm of a dodgy government/organization makes me even more queasy. Is our saviour out there? And even if he is, would Kroenke do a deal? 

So I think we're stuck. I'd love to end this blog on a positive note, but I don't really have one, other than hoping we can do some good deals this summer and Mikel can finally realize his vision next year. If not, I fear that the end of the ESL may be better for the soul of football than it was for the future of Arsenal. 


Monday, December 14, 2020

Xhaka is an Emblem of Arsenal's Toxic Culture


"In terms of recruitment, don't even wait for January - make sure that Xhaka and Lacazette never play for the club again." - Your's truly from last week's blog.

I guess it's easy to be right about Arsenal at the moment. We keep starting the same players every week and every week they let us down. So why expect anything different? 

The club has a toxic culture that has dragged us into a bona fide relegation scrap. If you think we're too good to go down, I've got news for you - we ain't. The stats are brutal. We've lost four home games in a row. We haven't scored more than once in the league since early October. We can't keep a clean sheet. But stepping away from the numbers, just look at the players on the pitch. Their body language is terrible. They look confused. Their heads go down at the first hint of struggle. And they lash out in anger. 

A few week's ago it was Pepe, deciding to headbutt a player out of frustration. Today, it was a more predictable culprit. Arsenal's idiot-in-chief, the one, the only, Granit Xhaka. 

Look - Arsenals' troubles run deep, as I outlined last week. But if you wanted to put a face on our struggles in recent years, it's hard to look beyond Xhaka. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was a doozy: Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez signed for a combined 100m in what was a catastrophic outlay of money for the club. Holding, signed for 2m quid from Bolton, has probably given more to the club than those three combined.

It was the transfer window that ultimately got Arsene sacked. After failing to take advantage of the historically poor form or our rivals in 2016, and letting Leicester win the league, 2016 was meant to be the year we went big and pushed home our advantage. Xhaka was seen as a necessary upgrade on the middling Francis Coquelin, and I was excited by the prospect of his arrival after Xhaka impressed in the 2016 European Championships. 

Instead, he anchored the midfield that finally saw Arsene and Arsenal fall out of the Champions League. And it's all been downhill from there. For some reason, I thought Xhaka would be some form of defensive lynchpin to our midfield, closing down players and building our attacks from deep compared to the limited destroyer role that Coquelin played. 

In reality, Xhaka is an average player at best. He clearly does not have the defensive nous to read the game, spot patterns and break up play. He gives away half-decent tactical fouls to stop attacks and, even then, these are typically clumsy enough to earn him a card given his snail-like speed. He doesn't track runners or break-up play in an intelligent way. As a defensive midfielder, Xhaka is extremely limited, and typically compensates by dropping deeper and deeper until a chasm emerges where our midfield should be. 

This might be ok if Xhaka was some titan of midfield passing - but no. He is painfully one-footed, constantly working around the ball to get it onto his left foot. To boot he is incredibly susceptible to pressing. Put Xhaka under any form of pressure and he panics. 

What you're left with is a painfully slow player, who can't really defend, and who can only pick his passes when given time and space. These are not the ingredients of an elite premier league midfielder. Even if one looks simply at his player profile, it's beyond me why he's been given so many chances at the club.

And all this is before you get to the real heart of Xhaka - his temperament, or lack thereof. There are too many examples to name, but the ones that come to mind are his brain-dead penalty against Brighton in 2019 which helped put an end to our champions league tilt, and his infamous shirt throwing against Palace. The latter should have been the end of his Arsenal career. Instead, it merely hastened Emery's departure. 

The red card against Burnley was typical Xhaka, more concerned with playing the hard man than thinking about the team and the result. With a three-game suspension incoming, hopefully that is the last we see of him in an Arsenal shirt, but honestly who knows given Arteta's current proclivity to pick him. 

But Xhaka is emblematic of a broader poisonous streak running through the club. There is a cadre of experienced players who simply let Arsenal down over and over again. There was a reason why Freddie ditched half the first team for his last game in charge. He was trying to send a message that there is a group of professionals who are on fat contracts, who don't want to change, and who are prepared to sink the club rather than change their ways or leave. It's a toxic culture and Arteta has been throw in the deep end to fix it. These players have brought down Arsene, Emery and even Freddie and they are now sinking Arteta's ship. 

In a 'normal' environment, half these players would have been shown the door this summer. But we couldn't find buyers for even relatively premium assets like Guendouzi and Torreira, much less the likes of Ozil, Kolasinac, Lacazette, Mustafi, Bellerin, Sokratis, and Xhaka. If anything we've swelled the ranks of discontent by adding David Luiz and Willian. The former, as others have noted, almost seems to be a harbinger for dressing room unrest and managerial downfall wherever he goes. 

This is the problem facing Arsenal at present and it's massive. We have such a bloated squad that we couldn't even register the likes of Ozil and Sokratis for the prem. Yet the massive deflationary pressure placed on the European transfer market by COVID means we can't shift a group of toxic players that are dragging the club further and further down. To boot, we have a first-time manager, a Director of Football that is completely out of his depth, and a Chief Exec who has no record or experience to draw upon. Above that, we're basically being managed by a billionaire's son who's treating the club like a glorified internship. It's fun times all around. 

It's reached the point where some big moves have to be made in January. If there are players in the last six months of their deal and we can't shift them, cancel their contracts. Why have experienced pros hanging around the club spreading a poisonous atmosphere? Get rid or ban them from the club till their contracts expire. Promise agents fat premiums if they can get their players out of the club. Try anything.

At the same time, we have to sign some creative midfielders and hope that Partey can return to fitness. Until then, play some of the kids. Balogun looks like a baller - give him minutes. He's shown more presence in about 30 minutes of Europa League games than Lacazette has in three years. I'd rather see Reiss Nelson play than Willian. And,  as I said before, I think Smith-Rowe is a clever player who can create chances in the final third. Crucially, these *don't* always involve a cross. 

Much will depend on Arteta now. I am aghast that he keeps picking the same players in the league, no matter how well the Europa League players do. We need to do something different and that involves rolling the dice. If he doesn't, the future looks bleak and he deserves to go. 


Tuesday, December 08, 2020

What is the Path Forward for Arteta?


Where We Are

It's been a grim year and Arsenal are closing it out with a party of pure doom.

A derby loss, where we were comprehensively outplayed, is our sixth defeat in 11 league games. Even after 4,000 crosses, we can't buy a goal. The defensive solidity that Arteta briefly brought to the club has evaporated. We're fifteenth in the league and the prospects of Europa League football next year, let alone Champions League, seem distant. It's very hard to argue that the table is painting an unfair picture of where we are as a club at the moment. We're a mess. 

What we're seeing happen at the club is a toxic mixture of problems that are finally coming to a head. Some of these are long-term issues that have festered for years, while others are a result of the extraordinary short-term circumstances we all find ourselves in. Before I get into that, I think the simplest way of summarizing our current plight is this: it's not fun to watch Arsenal anymore. And it hasn't been for quite a long time. 

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else (and, living in America, it seems it hasn't taught our leaders anything at all) it's the importance of fun in our lives. Of distractions. Of novelty. Of spontaneity. 

What we all seem to be facing right now is the crushing monotony of social distancing, face-masking, sanitizers, temperature checks, closed pubs, empty grounds, FaceTiming friends and family, and the sheer, relentless need to be on your guard at all times. The need to be safe, predictable and boring. Because if you make just one misstep, you could find yourself on a ventilator. 

Watching football - let alone Arsenal - struggle forward in this environment has been both inspiring and depressing. The sheer profit motive that drives all modern sport ensured that any cessation in hostilities would be temporary. And, at least when compared to some other sports (I'm looking at your, NFL), the Premier League has done a half-decent job in setting up structures that protects its players. 

It's also been heartening to see football take a knee on racism. Perhaps this has been easier because fans were not in stadiums to complicate the picture, as we all saw with the booing at Millwall last weekend. But, for once, it seems like the game's authorities listened to players who wanted to make a simple gesture in defiance of the racism they have faced, and continue to face, in their lives and careers. 

The empty stadiums have been tough. At first, they felt like a temporary sacrifice to try and bring something pleasurable back to our lives. But now - even with 2,000 fans back - it's just a weekly reminder of how horrible everything is. 

How we Got Here and the Squad(s) We've Got

And on that positive note, let's talk about Arsenal. It's been two years since I last blogged. I wrote many times over the years about the danger of letting Arsene continue for too long. Any student of history will tell you that the longer a leader stays in power, the harder it is to replace them. Arsene was always going to leave a colossal vacuum in the club when he left - not just in terms of the loss of his own knowledge and experience, but also all the areas he had neglected for nigh on a decade when he was finally shown the door. 

Gazidis deciding to leave at the same time says a huge amount about that man - he was a chancer who hid behind Wenger. Ivan let the club drift while pocketing millions. He left the moment real responsibility fell at his door. Not before, of course, the disastrous appointment of Emery.

Since then, things have gotten genuinely dark at the club. Once Mislintat was shown the door, we became a juicy target for the true vulture of modern football - executives and super agents who realize that the biggest money to be made in the game is through player trading. What our absentee owners in Denver knew about what was going on, I don't know. But a well-run football club would not have signed-off on 72m for Pepe - a player who's not as good as Saka, an academy product - especially as it's not clear where all that money went. They wouldn't have given an exorbitant multi-year contract to Willian, a player in his early 30s, and they certainly wouldn't have let him sign his deal at the house of his notorious agent. They definitely wouldn't have signed David Luiz, a disaster of a player, as their replacement for Koscielny - our club captain who they had years to replace but singularly failed to do so.  

We got rid of Raul and that will hopefully ensure less money is wasted moving forward. But, let's face it - our transfer and contracts strategy has been a disaster for years. Just one stat. We signed Xhaka, Mustafi, Lacazette and Pepe for more than Liverpool spent on Salah, Mane, Firmino and Wijnaldum. That is bonkers. For a long time, the argument at Arsenal was whether we had money to spend or not. As we saw with Partey this summer and Pepe last year, the club does have money. Maybe not PSG/Man City levels of money, but we can compete for good players in the market. 

The club's fundamental problem is that we've not just bought mediocre players, we've rewarded these players with huge contracts. As Le Grove pointed out, we tried to even give Mustafi - MUSTAFI - a new deal this summer. A player who is surely, based on his transfer fee, our worst ever defensive signing. 

This approach is one of the reasons the pandemic has hit us so hard. We were already one of the big clubs who were most reliant on matchday revenue, yet we were also a club desperate to shift a load of overpaid players to rebuild the squad. Instead, we were hit by a devastating deflationary event in the transfer market just when we were looking to sell. Hence why Torreira and Guendouzi - two prime assets - went out on loan, and why the like of Sokratis and Kolasinac stayed put. 

This situation is why I do have some sympathy for Arteta. In 'normal' times, a new, midseason manager would work with the current squad to get the best results possible over the remainder of their first season. The summer transfer window would then be a ruthless rebuilding period, with players shipped out who the new manager doesn't fancy. Instead, Arteta essentially has three signings to his name - Willian, Gabriel and Partey. I think the latter two are quality, even if the first is rapidly entering 'financial disaster' territory. I will give Arteta a pass on Soares and Mari as I am not convinced he had a huge say in those signings, which seem to largely have Edu and Raul's fingerprints on them. 

With Partey clearly the best midfielder at the club by a mile, Mikel rushed him back for the derby, and then lost him to injury. So we finished the game with 9 players on the pitch who were Emery/Wenger-era players. That is the challenge facing us. Indeed, our the squad can roughly be divided into three groups:

Team Arsenal Retirement Village

Willian, Luiz, Sokratis, Ozil even - dare I say it - Auba at the moment. These are old players on fat contracts who are not currently pulling their weight. Three of these leave next summer, at least. I won't get drawn into the Ozil situation, but he should have left last summer and he's destroyed any legacy he had with the club based on his current antics. 

Team We Will Always Let You Down

Xhaka, Bellerin, Mustafi, Kolasinac, Lacazette, Ceballos, Pepe, Chambers, Holding. These players will always let you down in the long run. Yes, they can pull off a cup run when drilled to within an inch of their lives to play compact, counter-attacking football. But they are all fundamentally limited players.  Either let them leave next summer (Mustafi, Ceballos), or take whatever fee you can get. I'd honestly let Lacazette leave on a free tomorrow if we could cancel his contract. 

Team Hope

Saka, Tierney, Leno, Gabriel, Partey, Martinelli, Maitland-Niles (just) - these are the players who should have a future at the club. Notice how there is only one fit attacking player in this list, who's 19, when we're wondering why we can't create chances at the moment.

There are a handful of players here who are either inexperienced or who haven't played enough for the club to truly judge (Willock, Nelson, Nketiah, Smith Rowe, Mari, Soares, Saliba). Elneny also remains an enigma to me - sometimes hopeless, sometimes good. 

But this is what years of club management has wrought - about 5-6 players who are genuinely good enough to play for Arsenal in the long-term. That speaks to a colossal failure by the club's executives, and we've decided to ask a first-time manager to clean it up. 

Arteta's Problems

If I were to end on a truly dark note, it would be to ask whether Arteta has it in him. He's a very thoughtful and charismatic leader, who (I thought) had a clear vision of how he wanted the team to play. The FA Cup win was impressive and I thought we played good football at times in the league during the back-end of last season. He seemed to find a level of form in the likes of Xhaka and Mustafi that I didn't think possible, and had Auba firing on all cylinders. 

Things have completely fallen apart this season and I'd argue two related things are going on. Arteta, firstly, recognized that we were a mess defensively when he took over. Having played under Arsene, he would have known for years that defence has been undervalued at the club. The 3-4-3 we played for most of the end of last year got the job done in this regard. It gave players clear, defined roles, and made us defensively sound. We became harder to beat and harder to score against. With Auba providing the goals, things looked promising. 

This year, without a true transfer window to rebuild the team, the squad has collapsed due to its contradictions. Players have horrendously regressed to their horrible means. We have bad faith actors within the squad, as the likes of Ozil and his PR team stir the pot online. The signing of Willian seems to have been a complete disaster - destroying Pepe's already fragile confidence while saddling us with a huge financial liability. 

Teams have worked out that our players - even if coached more effectively - are still, largely, the rag-tag band of mediocrities they were before and have stopped being intimidated by our tactics. We've had no answer for teams that hit us quickly on the break with our collection of sub-par central defenders and midfielders. When in possession, we ponderously stroke the ball around. The relentless pressing of the opposition high up the pitch has disappeared. We've stopped waiting for players to commit before passing the ball, a hall-mark of our game from last year. 

Amidst all this chaos, the goals have dried up and Arteta has (bravely or foolishly, depending on your perspective) attempted to execute his pivot from 3-4-3 to either 5-3-2 or his preferred 4-3-3 to give us more attacking spark. The essential problem with this attempt is that it seems to be entirely predicated on the fitness of Partey, and his ability totally dominate whatever midfield he's playing in. I might venture that basing an entire tactical system on the fitness one player is, shall we say, a gutsy move.

Short of Partey, our tactics have devolved into endless probing down the flanks and ineffective crossing to forwards that can't head the ball. It's been a mess. 

The Path Forward for Arteta

There is no easy way out of our current situation. This is not a quick turnaround. Regardless of his cheerleaders in the press and in Kroenke HQ, if we're hovering around the relegation zone after another ten games, Mikel won't last the season. Arsene hung on for so long because he kept us in the Champions League and its associated money for so long, but was summarily removed once it was clear we'd failed to qualify for the second year in a row. Emery was similarly removed once things started to go south quickly. Arteta is one of the biggest prospects in European coaching, but he ultimately has a very short CV at present. I think he's on much thinner ice than public pronouncements might suggest. 

One card that Mikel does have up his sleeve is Edu: the one person demonstrably doing a worse job than Arteta at the moment. Recruitment has been shambolic since Edu joined, with half of the deals seemingly revolving around his connections vs. a defined strategy of finding the best player for the job. Moreover, for someone whose remit supposedly encompasses team harmony and acting as liaison to the squad, we have toxic employees aplenty. 

A no-brainer for me is to sack Edu, find a world-class Director of Football and give them whatever they want to join. We can't have two novices steering the club. We've seen with the appointment of Tim Lewis that the Kroenke's have some sense of the importance of decent corporate oversight and we need reinforcements. Look at the success of Liverpool, Leicester and even that mob down the road from us. Vinai seems a nice guy, but he needs help, and Edu ain't gonna cut it. Get someone i and give us the piece of mind that the long overdue culling of over half the squad is finally on the horizon. 

Until then, Arteta needs to back to basics. Look at what you have, not what you want. Re-start the season and go into damage limitation mode. If we have to grind out fifteen 1-0 wins to put some form of gloss on this season, so be it. I watched the dregs of the George Graham days, I'm ready for it again. 

In terms of recruitment, don't even wait for January - make sure that Xhaka and Lacazette never play for the club again. See if you can find someone in the Middle East or MLS to take Willian off our hands. Unilaterally cancel Ozil's contract in January (or before) if he won't leave. Ban him from the training ground if that's not possible - I'm being serious. High-profile, toxic employees destroy team culture. 

It's time to find out whether some of our youngsters are going to make it too. Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock are at make-or-break moments in their Arsenal careers - give them a run of five games in the team. See if Smith-Rowe can play #10 - he cannot be worse than Willian or Lacazette in that role. Up-front, start putting Balogun on the bench or give him a chance in the side while we wait for Martinelli to return. Supplement this lot with whatever you can get into the squad in January. It's time to roll the dice.


Personally, I think Arteta is going to ride this out. It may seem like he's in a Moyes spiral at the moment, but I think he will swallow his pride and make some biggish changes. More than anything, he - and the club - need to be honest about where we are. We have fallen out of the English, let alone European, elite and we are in the early stages of a long-term rebuilding project. That should be the guiding principle for all our future moves. 

Stop the short-term, agent-driven decision making and get smart. We need to cash in on whatever assets we have and rebuild. Give Arteta some proper help when doing so. And maybe then, in 2021, it will be fun to watch Arsenal again. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

There Will Never Be Another Arsene Wenger

The Beginning

When I was growing up, I couldn't imagine Arsenal without George Graham. He was Mr Arsenal to me. The immaculate blazer. The slicked back hair. The back 4. The 1-0 to the Arsenal. 

And then he was gone. There it was on the front of the papers - the bungs. 

Then there was well-meaning Bruch Rioch. Bergkamp too. But Rioch was not Arsenal. He fell out with Ian Wright and the countdown began. 

My Dad saw Patrick Vieira's debut. He came home and told me he'd seen a that had run the game. He could do it all. And this was a Wenger player.  

Before Arsene took over, I'd never seen Arsenal win at Highbury. But '98 was different. We went to Old Trafford and Overmars scored and it was possible. Then I saw Dennis score against Sheffield Wednesday and we were closer. 

Then I saw us put five goals past Wimbledon. Overmars again. Bergkamp. Petit. Wreh. Adams. Every goal took us closer. I walked out of Highbury with my family and people sang about how we were going to win the league. And we did. 

If you've supported Arsenal since the 90s, you have a favourite moment that Arsene gave you. A gift. Maybe it was when we won the league at White Hart Lane. Maybe it was when you saw Pires or Henry play for the first time. Maybe it's when Sol came over. Maybe it's just that feeling in April and May, when the days start to stretch out, when Arsenal were always in the running, even if we sometimes fell short. 

Maybe it was when we achieved perfection. When Arsene created a masterpiece. They celebrated a draw while we celebrated a title, unblemished. We were fed caviar by the spoonful. For ten years, Arsene created a haze of happiness. We didn't just win, we won playing the best football this country has ever seen. 

In the beginning, Arsene was the greatest manager in our club's history and we got to see it all.  

The Fall

My last game at Highbury - I was at the third row from the front in the West Lower. Lauren took a throw in front of me. He took a few steps back and I could have touched his back he was so close. 

A year later, I was at the first game in the Emirates. It is a magnificent edifice. Beautiful sightlines. Comfortable seats. Pristine toilets. Just no soul. When we the moved, something changed. And so did Arsene. 

I have read, by apparently sincere people, that Arsene's greatest achievement was keeping us in the champions league year after year, a competition we never came close to winning after our trip to Paris. Indeed, Sky flashed a graphic about Arsene's net spend when his departure was announced. And there you have it: the act of accounting, that dullest of professions, becoming something we should celebrate. 

After nine years without a trophy, the drought ended. And yes, we saw - sometimes - patches of great football at the Emirates. But this wasn't the Arsene of old. This was a slow-motion decline from title challengers to a cup team. The big money signings finally came and plastered over the cracks, but the writing was on the wall when a mediocre United side battered us 8-2. That Wenger survived for seven more years after this moment of abject habilitation is a testament to his survival skills and the inertia that had overwhelmed the club.  

What went wrong? A number of trends coalesced and Arsene was left behind. 

1- Big Money. When Arsene took over, Arsenal were the Bank of England club. Bergkamp was a record fee for a UK transfer. We were behind United, but not by much. We were - and still are - filthy rich. But we weren't big money. We weren't an oligarch from Russia. We weren't a petro-country. We couldn't buy and dump 30m pound players in a season. But Arsene's answer was to retreat even further from a transfer market he clearly despised towards a vanity youth project. We'll likely never know how much we were financially constrained by the stadium move. But we definitely had more money and money that we had could have used better. We flew the white flag to Abu Dhabi and Abramovich as quick as we could. We stood still as we paid off the mortgage and filled Stan's coffers. 

2 - Lost Allies. When Dein was forced out, Arsene lost his fixer. Post-Dein, we became a shambles in the transfer market. Players ran down their deals and held us over a barrel. It's hard to imagine that the summer of 2011 would've happened with Dein around. And with Dein gone, Arsene retreated further into himself and his ideas. Genius left unchallenged becomes eccentric. And when the parasite from Colorado arrived, Arsene was emboldened further. A symbiotic relationship was struck between Stan and Arsene - Arsene made Stan richer and Stan let Arsene do whatever the hell he wanted. Arsene let the club drift while chasing his various ideals and Stan had no inclination to correct him. 

3- Silk without Steel. All three of Arsene's title winning teams were built upon the rock of Patrick Vieira. Behind him, were an elite defence, whether it was Adams and Bould or Campbell and Toure. After 2007, Wenger apparently gave up on the idea of steel. Instead we would pass. Pass, pass, pass. Then pass. Then pass again. The '98 and '02 run-ins, the unbeaten season, getting to the Champions League final: these were all built by Arsene on a solid defensive core. The lesson from 2006 should have been that steel means progress in Europe. Instead, we signed Alumnia, Squillaci, endless parade of defensive mediocrities. We had a team of lightweights for a decade. For someone who talked so much about mental strength, we were feeble when the going got tough.

4- A Failure to Change. Arsene is the radical who became a reactionary. Everything he brought to Arsenal in 1996 was ahead of its time in England. He was so far ahead of the curve that it took 10 years for the opposition to catch up. Yet new ideas were not welcome. Ferguson found a formula for Wenger in 2005 and barely took an L from Arsenal in his last 8 years at United. It took ten years for Wenger to beat Mourinho. Sometimes things clicked into place and Wengerball got us a result. But we started to scrape into the top four as our years of dominance waned. Wenger stood still for ten years and the new breed overtook him. 

The End

I still didn't think it would end now. I fully anticipated that Arsene would see out his contract. One more grim slog of a season. Two things did for him in the end.

1- We have been truly terrible this year in the league. Blowing the title to Leicester (Leicester!) in 2016 was the start of rapid decline in the club's fortunes, as our rivals regrouped and overtook us. Last year was bad. This year was terrible. Playing once a week - effectively - has not helped at all. The team can't win outside of Islington. We spent over a 100m on new attackers in the last 12 months and no-one thought to defend. Not building a new core to the team in 2015 was a monumental act of hubris that led directly to the detritus of the last year. Ultimately, even if we win the Europa League, our current trajectory is clear and the board finally accepted that Wenger would not correct it this time around. If one were being cynical, the football has finally got bad enough to threaten Stan's wallet, and he finally acted as a result.

2- The fans stopped caring. Arsene hasn't been hounded out. His reign has ended with a whimper, not a bang. The humiliating performance in the league cup final was the last straw for most. Why bother to turn up if the team wouldn't either? The empty seats spoke of a declining empire, a club in freefall. It couldn't go on like this and Arsene was finally put out of his misery. Apathy can sometimes be more deadly than hatred. 


I was a child when Arsene took over. He's always been there as I grew up. I'm not ashamed to say I will miss him terribly as a constant in my life. He's someone who, on some weird level, I could always rely on. I have wanted him to leave for the last 7 years not because I hate or despise him, but because I want him to be remembered in the right way. He is one of the few individuals in the world I truly admire and I will never forget the happy memories he gave me at the peak of his powers.

Looking at the reaction to his departure, I would say my position is far from unique. Watching his decline has been an incredibly painful process. I'm glad it's finally over. I can let nostalgia wash over me and ignore the rest. 

Because there will never be another Arsene Wenger. There will never be another Bould chipping over the top to Adams. Another Henry slaloming through the Bernabeu. Another Wiltooooord. Another Pires lobbing it over Schmeichel's head. Another Battle of Old Trafford. We've seen things you people wouldn't believe. And it's all thanks to him. 

When I think of Arsene, I'll think of the beginning. Merci et bonne chance mon ami. 


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Alexis Gave More to Arsenal Than Theo Ever Did

Change, it seems, is afoot at Arsenal. Gazidis has finally pulled the trigger and is starting the long overdue re-build of the club to prepare it for the post-Wenger era. We’ve got Sven doing transfers, the guy from Barca as de facto Director of Football, and Huss doing contracts. Quite how Wenger fits into this, and who actually has the final say over transfers is unclear. But surely, the monolith has begun to dissolve.

As a consequence, this has been one of the more consequential January transfer windows in recent history. Within it, two players have been sold, both of whom stand as emblems of the club’s decline under Wenger.

The first is Alexis. It’s easy to forget now, but Alexis was signed in a period of great hope for the club. We’d signed Ozil, broken our trophy drought, and seemingly taken a number of steps towards reinforcing our squad in the summer of 2014. Alexis hit the ground running, we won the cup again in 2015, and we were poised to take the great leap forward with a few more additions.

But none came. Wenger, in one of his signature moments of imperial decline, decided to sign no outfield players in the summer of 2015. We lost our opening home game to West Ham, recovered, then blew the easiest league campaign in a generation, with Leicester (Leicester) winning the title as our nominal rivals struggled.

When you look back at Alexis’ career, his second season at the club was largely bereft of open displays of insolence, but this was clearly the moment he realized he’d been had. Unlike most of the dross that has populated the team in the last decade, Alexis is an elite football player; a true winner. He will do anything to win and doesn’t care what bridges he burns along the way. This, of course, blew minds within the squad. While Giroud was busy celebrating a draw at Bournemouth, Alexis threw his gloves at the ground in disgust. He, wait for it, didn’t like being substituted. He told team members how he felt about our mediocrity in training; shock rained down. He fell on his haunches in Munich, appalled at the humiliation we’d received.

So, of course, the club have relentlessly briefed against Alexis since he was dropped for the away game at Liverpool earlier this year. He’s difficult, he plays for himself, he’s selfish, he’s a brat. We’re better off without him.

This is curious, because Alexis is, by a distance, the best player that Arsenal have had since the Invincibles. He has consistently produced. He has scored goals in big games against virtually every team. He scored in both cup finals he has played in for the club. He has single handedly won games on countless occasions. Until Lacazette scored yesterday, he was our joint top scorer in a season he had supposedly given up on, were we to believe the lines coming out of Colney.

The truth is that Alexis exposed the ever-diminishing expectations of the late Wenger era. Arsene has passed from revolutionary to reactionary and refuses to countenance players that expose him. Alexis asked simple questions – why aren’t the other players as good as me? Why don’t they care as much about winning as I do? What are we going to do to stop this relentless momentum towards mediocrity?

Alexis will earn a huge payday at United. Within the warped world of football wages, he deserves it. He is a game-changer, a force of nature who only cares about getting that next goal, regardless of the score. Seeing the logistical cartwheels that Arsenal fans have undergone in the last week to claim that losing Alexis for an inferior players is ‘the best we could’ve done in the circumstances’ is instructive. We have become so relentlessly attuned to underperforming that losing our best player to our supposed rivals has somehow become something of a triumph.

The circumstances should never have arisen. We should have brought proper reinforcements in 2015, won the league in 2016, and be basking in a golden ending to the Wenger era. How far we done fell.  

Contrast Alexis to Theo. There has been nothing but good wishes for Theo. Good old Theo. Stats Theo. A goal every 4 games Theo! Never complained did Theo. Loyal servant to the club. No mischief from him.

Just lots and lots and lots of bad performances. The fact that Theo got to almost 400 games in an Arsenal shirt is emblematic of the lowered standards that plagued the second half of the Wenger era. His stats are bolstered by braces and hat-tricks against the likes of Bate Borisov and League Cup nobodies. Theo’s record stands at about nine-ish goals a season. This was a guy who twice held Arsenal to ransom over his contract, culminating in his ludicrous stint at centre-forward. Bayern were surely quaking in their boots when they realized old Theo would be up against their centre-backs. When the signature phrase of your career is "unlucky Theo", it's not because you were a world-class player.

And look – Theo is clearly a nice guy, But who cares? I’d rather 11 winners who hated each other and won than 11 Theos who had a nice time at work together and took L after L when it counted. The fact that Theo’s greatest moment for Arsenal, his slalom run against Liverpool in the Champions League, happened ten years ago says it all. If you wanted a figure that summed up the second half of Arsene’s reign, it would be Theo – flashes of brilliance, injuries at key moments, and a lack of bottle when it ultimately counted. It may sound churlish to talk about Theo in this way, but he should have left the club long ago. To put it another way, Alexis could’ve fought Ljungberg or Pires for a starting spot in the Invincibles XI; Theo wouldn’t even make the bench. Given our colossal resources, it’s not unreasonable for us to demand players of the calbire and mentality of Alexis, rather than Theo, as the norm at the club; we must resist every attempt to make us think otherwise.

That the likes of Theo and Coquelin are finally being cleared out is a reason for hope. But only if Arsene follows. Otherwise, no matter who we sign over the next few weeks, the club cannot move forward.  Here’s hoping.