Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Arsenal Finally Show Up: One for the Ages



Where to start? I've been fortunate enough to see Arsenal win a load of trophies over the 25 years that I've been following the club. This ranks up there with the best of them. A tale of triumph against the odds, and a victory as sweet as any I can remember.

Some thoughts:

* The build-up to the game reminded me a lot of our win over Parma in 1994. No one gave us much of a chance - we were playing against (supposedly) superior opposition, and we had our share of injuries. Back then, we were missing our best striker (Wrighty); now we were missing, essentially, our entire defence. It meant some big game-time calls for Wenger - Monreal as a CB, Mertesacker recalled, and Chamberlain as a LWB. When you add the faintly ludicrous decision to play Ospina, our defence, a weak point all season, looked ripe for the picking by Chelsea.

* In terms of Ospina, he was one of many players who had a good game - although one could argue he was somewhat at fault for the goal - but the system of playing back-up keepers in finals really needs to end. While I will take almost any opportunity to link to this video, playing back-up keepers in finals has almost rebounded on us catastrophically in the past. Let's not do it any more please.

* As for Mertesacker, something weird has clearly been going on with him and Wenger this year. He has been fit - as far as I can tell - since January, yet Wenger has shown no inclination to pick him at all. As it turned out, he was MOTM. He must has given some indication in training he was capable of such performances, so why he has been locked out the team is something of a mystery. For Per to come in, after such a long time away, and put in one of the all-time great Arsenal performances in a final elevates him to legend territory. I don't think its hyperbole to call it The Mertesacker Final - he was immense.

* A special word too for our other two CBs. Holding is now a member of the starting XI, regardless of whether Mustafi and Gabriel come back. He looks composed, reads the game beautifully and, crucially, can take care of himself on the pitch. To be a truly world-class defender, you need to have a dark side. Telling Costa he's mental, on top of taking out Arnautovic a few weeks in Stoke, is a major difference between Holding and a half-dozen other defenders Wenger has bought over the last few years. To directly compare him to Chambers, for instance, both are very technically proficient, ball-playing centre-backs. At the moment, Holding has an edge to his game that suggests a very promising career in a way that's less easy to see with Chambers. As for Monreal, we all need to step back and appreciate his contribution to the club since he joined. A true pro who went through a ragged patch of form, and surged back into the first team, he was brilliant.

* Much praise has gone to Xhaka, and it's no surprise that he has blossomed when playing in front of a more stable defence and with Ramsey as his partner. You can't fault Coquelin's commitment, but he is not good enough to start in midfield for Arsenal, and he seems to drag down the performances of those who play beside him (Cazorla excepted).

* Ramsey has also gone up a level when playing next to a partner who properly compliments his game. He's scored two FA Cup winning goals - if you don't appreciate him at this point, you never will, and you don't deserve him. He ran 14.4km in the final; a record. I have long maintained that Ramsey gets stick because he never hides. He will make mistakes, but he is an elite central midfielder when used correctly.

* Who knows what the future will bring for Alexis and Ozil, but if this was their last game, it was a fine way to bow out. The amount of rubbish I have read about Alexis this season is incredible. He wins games. He scored over 30 goals this season. I couldn't care less if he gives the ball away a lot; it's his job to make things happen, and he does it. It is hard to overstate what a massive loss he will potentially be to the team. Ozil has had a more frustrating season but stepped up for the final, and really should have capped a great performance with a goal. I think there is a fair chance he will stay; it's hard to see another elite club offer him the same role that he has at Arsenal. On days like yesterday, his technical leadership on the pitch is vital, and he simply needs to add goals to take his game to the next level.

* I felt that the change to 3-4-3 would be a temporary fix for a deeper problem, and the match against Spurs showed that it is hardly a foolproof system. Yet the overall picture since its implementation is now fairly clear - we've won almost every game we've played using it. Moreover, we've won games while rotating personnel. For a long time, it felt that Arsenal only bought rubbish centre-backs; but i think that using a system that leaves the defence almost entirely exposed is going to make life difficult for almost any centre-back. It's great - and long overdue - that Arsene sorted out systematic reasons for our defensive difficulties, and it begs the question why it took him so long to do so. Our best run in the Champions League, for instance, came on the back of a system that prized defensive stability. I can only assume that we will persist with the system moving forward, and it would be mad to go back at this point.

* The game hammered home that winning a cup is infinitely more rewarding than finishing in the top four. It's a false dichotomy to suggest that we even have to pick one or the other. But yesterday meant much more than anything but winning the league. Just look at the players and the fans' reaction - everyone knows this. Look at Rob Holding showing off his medal to the fans, or Ramsey's face above. Players want to win. It's one of the greatest myths of modern Arsenal that we don't have the resources to compete on multiple fronts. We have huge amounts of cash, a massive stadium and an enormous fanbase - trophies should be the norm. It's one reason why I hope we treat the Europa League seriously. We haven't won a European trophy in over twenty years, and we should go into the competition as favourites. Moreover, you only have to look at Atletico Madrid to see that some clubs have been able to use the competition as a spring board to further success in domestic competitions.

* We have to end with Arsene, and ask whether this is the end for Arsene. Until yesterday, I had been 99% sure he was staying. But there was a notable change in his tone in the interviews he gave before and after the final. This didn't seem like a man who was certain of his future, nor one that was, crucially, even in control of his future. He is clearly angry at what he considers a betrayal. The media have largely pinned this on the fans, and I imagine Wenger is surely angry at the sub-section of the fan base who have embarrassed the club over the past few months. You can't argue we are a club with 'class', then hire a plane to fly a banner over a stadium, or promote barely intelligible interviews given by fame-hungry morons on social media. Some "fans" are clearly more interested in their grubby personal brands than how the club is perceived. They will obviously argue otherwise, and there is clearly a legitimate case for the removal of Wenger from the club; but don't forget that some people profit from the advertising linked to the idiotic ramblings of supposedly adult men.

Fans aside, however, Wenger's ire is probably more squarely aimed at the board and, in particular, our seldom seen CEO. If I were to speculate, I would imagine that Arsene felt a renewal was likely until around the time of our meltdown against Bayern. He may well feel that the board did not back him during this difficult period, and essentially hung him out to dry as anger in the fan base grew. His anger here is justified to a certain extent; if I had done a job for 20 years, I would expect a little more loyalty from my employers. But it highlights the dilemma the club faces. Arsene has been an incredible manager, yet on the basis of this season (let alone last year, when we blew the easiest title race in twenty years) he should go. This should have been announced before the final, and this should have been his magnificent send off.

* Whatever the outcome, sometimes Wenger gets it completely right: “Look, let's enjoy the win tonight, not worry about the future, and live in the present.”

Yesterday was what you live for as a football fan. We played like The Arsenal of old, and showed we can win when it matters most. Ten, twenty years from now, you probably won't remember some of the low points of this season; you will remember Aaron Ramsey stooping to head the ball barely a minute after Chelsea had equalized, and how those last ten minutes felt like an eternity before an explosion of joy.

Cherish days like yesterday. They are the reason we love the game and this club of ours: The Arsenal.

Gb.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Gazing into the Abyss: Bayern 10 Arsenal 2

What did we expect today? To go out of the Champions League. There was maybe a small part of me that felt a comeback might, just might, happen, but the odds were so long that it was basically a fantasy. Beating Bayern 4-0 at home was never really going to occur. And if you believe it could have happened, you're almost part of the problem. It's one thing to support the team; it's another to so blindly believe that the best might happen, that you ignore how bad things really are. Enabling is destructive.

The officials certainly changed the game. Had the penalty been given for the trip on Walcott in the first half, and we go in at 2-0, then maybe things might have been interesting. But they didn't. There isn't a conspiracy, it's just incompetence. Just like it was blind, mad incompetence to upgrade Koscielny's yellow to a red, and end the game. So what. Those are the breaks. Deal with it.

The real crime tonight was what happened to the team at 1-1. It's the difference between Arsene and the truly great managers of our time. Had this been a Ferguson managed team, the final result would have been 1-1, maybe 2-1. Why? He would have shut up shop, put his players behind the ball, and told them to grind out the rest of the game. Keep it boring. Keep it respectable. Focus on the battles you still might win.

Instead, we fell apart. Who knows what, if any, instructions were issued from the sideline. Maybe at 1-1 there was still some mad belief that we could get 4 goals and win it 5-1. The fact is there was no order. No semblance of sense. Just a bizarre, self-pitying collapse. No shape, no discipline. Players openly abdicating responsibility as the goals rained in. Sanchez trying to dribble it out before being dispossesed by Robben. Costa having enough time to light a cigar before scoring the third. Ozil not bothering to press properly for the fourth. Wide open spaces for the fifth.

I can't stress this enough. This is a total disgrace. A total disgrace. Teams get players sent off. It happens. The best teams show substance, passion and pride when they're backs are against the wall. You can lose with a semblance of honour. This was a team who couldn't be bothered; leaderless, rudderless, spineless. I'm watching clips of Sanchez laughing on the bench, and this is where we are.

The final result was the heaviest home defeat in Arsenal's European history. Bayern scored 10 (ten) goals against us in two legs.

It's over. It's been over for years. I'm sure we'll beat Lincoln and might even have a run at the FA Cup this year but please, please leave before this gets really ugly.

I read Gunnerblog's excellent article on Arseblog this week about why he's struggled to maintain his passion for blogging about Arsenal. I couldn't agree more. I started this blog a few days after Arsenal beat Real in 2006. That might not have been the best team in Arsenal's history, but it was an exciting one. The future seemed full of possibilities. Now all we've been left with is the abyss.

"And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.'

Gb

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Arsene, Arsenal and Hypernormalisation


I recently watched Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalisation – you can find it on the iPlayer and YouTube. It’s an interesting yarn about why the world is in such a mess at the moment, but this blog is not about the connections between Syria, Gaddafi, Blair, Trump et al. Instead it’s about the concept of hypernormalisation. Curtis borrowed the title of the film from a book about the Soviet Union by Alexei Yurchak, a professor at UC Berkeley: “Everything was Forever, Until it Was no More.” To quote a review of the film in The New Yorker, Yurchak contended that in the final twenty years of Soviet rule:

[The] Soviet system had been so successful at propagandizing itself, at restricting the consideration of possible alternatives, that no one within Russian society […] could conceive of anything but the status quo until it was far too late to avoid the collapse of the old order. The system was unsustainable; this was obvious to anyone waiting in line for bread or gasoline, to anyone fighting in Afghanistan or working in the halls of the Kremlin. But in official, public life, such thoughts went unexpressed. The end of the Soviet Union was, among Russians, both unsurprising and unforeseen. Yurchak coined the term “hypernormalization” to describe this process—an entropic acceptance and false belief in a clearly broken polity and the myths that undergird it.

Remind you of anything?

Look – I’m aware that comparing Arsenal and Wenger to one of the most brutal governments of modern history is ridiculous. I know. But read the quote above again.

Arsenal exists in a state of hypernormality. There is an inherent falseness to the picture we are painted each season as supporters. We are told we can compete with the top teams in England and Europe; we never do. We are told that Wenger can change things this season; he never does. We are told that this our season in Europe; it never is. We will win the league this season; we don’t. We're always 2-3 players from glory.

We lose by huge margins each season in the first knockout round of the Champions League, never showing any improvement; yet we celebrate finishing fourth, and qualifying for the same competition. We cannot even beat Leicester City to the league title, when, finally, all our rivals flounder; yet we are told that finishing second is a great achievement, proof of Wenger’s consistency in qualifying for Europe.

We have the same injury crisis each season, involving the same players in the same positions, but nothing can be done to prevent it. It's just bad luck.

Look at Giroud’s statistics! He failed to score in any of the games during the crucial run-in last season. Koscielny is a world-class defender! He makes catastrophic errors on a regular basis. Petr Cech will win us 15 points a season! He hasn’t. Cazorla, a 32 year old with knackered Achilles tendons, can be the lynchpin of our midfield! He won’t play again this year. The team is entirely composed of players who are both good enough and not good enough at the same time. They are Schrodinger's players - both world-class and not world-class simultaneously.

And what it all comes back to is this: Arsene Wenger can build a winning team this season! No, he can’t.  Hasn’t been able to do so for a decade. He can build a team that gets the requisite points for the Champions League cash cow, but the days of him building a winning team are years gone. Thirteen Years to be precise. The same mistakes, the same self-destruction, the same limp capitulations are replayed each year. But who can imagine an Arsenal within Arsene? Who could possibly do better?

Pundits know this, yet engage in the same nonsense. Gary Neville gives extended tactical analyses on Arsenal’s shortcomings almost every week, and then calls supporters ‘embarrasing’ when the ask for change in the club’s management. But I suppose he can give a cheeky grin, get on AFTV, and pretend to be a man of the people.

This is Arsenal’s hypernormalisation. We are painted a picture of a well-run club that plays great football with a fantastic manager. So why have we not won the league in 13 years? Why have we not mounted more than 1 or 2 credible title challenges in that time? Why have we had only 1 or 2 decent Champions League runs in twenty years. Why have our performances, if anything, regressed against the big sides, both domestically and in Europe. 8-2, 6-3, 6-0, 5-1, 5-1, forever. Either our expectations are too high (they aren’t), or the reality is not what it is purported to be (it isn’t).

In the end, Wenger will leave Arsenal, and the club will continue. Everyone knows the system is failing and one day it will end. When? Sooner rather than later. We will look back at the final years of his reign and wonder why it was allowed to carry on for so long, how a legend of the club was allowed to tarnish his reputation in this manner.

So why does it continue? As with all decaying forms of governance, ask the simple question: cui bono? The answer lies in the boardroom. Because for all Arsene’s faults, he is the only true football man in the senior ranks of the club. Kroenke and his idiot son don’t have a clue. Gazidis has been chancing it for years. The fans are told to pipe down if they dare raise a point of dissent at the AGM. Give us your cash and shut up – the system is working. "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." The banal inertia of Wenger’s reign makes a lot of money for a lot of people. They literally do not care if we lose 5-1 away at Bayern every single season as long as the cash keeps coming in.

But for the fans it’s not enough. All we can hope for is that, one day, reality will return, and the club is honest about where it currently stands. And if nothing else, when the end comes for Wenger, it will certainly be both “unsurprising and unforeseen.”

Gb.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

And Now is the Window of Our Discontent


It all started out so well.

Finally, after ten years without a world class goalkeeper, we acted ruthlessly and bought one. And from a major rival no less. Petr Cech was coming, and Almunia, Mannone, Fabianski, Szczesny and Ospina would all be consigned to the dustbin of history. Smokey McShowerson was even sent off to Rome. It was a statement of intent. Ozil, Alexis, now Cech - we were serious about getting elite players, and constructing a squad that could challenge for the big trophies.

And then nothing. Even as things sped up in the last week, there wasn't even the usual avalanche of half-baked rumours that usually surface before the window shuts. I was reduced to ever more desperate searches on Twitter. Benzema posed in his Real kit and laughed at our transfer hopes. Arsene was pictured in Paris, for reasons unknown. And as the De Gea deal broke down, Stones stayed at Everton, and United punted a fortune on a teenager, the Arsenal negotiating team was presumably down the pub enjoying its third pint of the evening. We are the only club in any of the top five leagues in Europe who didn't sign an outfield player this summer, unless you count the mighty one known only as "Jeff". Barca signed more players than us while being under a transfer ban.

So where does this leave us?

In summer's past, the debate would inevitably have revolved around money. Namely, did we have any. We can't afford to compete financially! We'll do a Leeds if we buy a player for more than 10m! FFP! Financial doping! Despite the ample evidence from Arsenal's accounts that we were loaded, this excuse was bounded around for years. But it took the arrival of Ozil and Sanchez on whopping fees for the it to be finally dispelled. We have financial firepower. We have loads of it. We are a billion pound club with the tenth biggest wage bill of any team in any sport. Arsene is on 8 million a year. We've just concluded massive deals with Emirates and Puma, and are receiving the benefits from an enormous new TV deal. If you are really still using the 'we can't compete financially' excuse you probably have difficulty counting your fingers and toes.

So a new argument has emerged, essentially a variant of the above - "there were no players available who a) are better than those we have b) who wanted to come and c) we could afford". Let's just assess this for a moment. Arsenal have 25 players, give or take, in the squad. Are these the undisputed 25 best players in the world? Are they all such titans of their profession that the mere idea of upgrading any of them is patent nonsense? No, of course not. Arsenal have a core of elite players - Ozil and Sanchez for sure, Ramsey just about, and now Cech - who are near to being the best in their respective positions. Beyond that, everyone in the squad can be improved upon. Are there no better full-backs in world football than Debuchy and Gibbs, for example, that we could afford and who could provide real competition to Bellerin and Monreal? Tomas Rosicky barely played a game last season yet is taking up a squad spot and wages. Joel Campbell failed to GET OUT WHILE HE COULD and is now deadwood.

And then there are the real problem positions. Arteta's legs are so badly gone that he can barely play twenty minutes of football. Yet he was given a new deal, and takes up a spot and wages. It's very nice that he 'has experience', but I'd rather have someone who can, y'know, play football for an entire match. Flamini is so bad we couldn't get rid of him on a knock-down price. I'd rather we pay off his contract than worry about getting a paltry fee. Coquelin seems to have risen to superstar status by having some degree of defensive nous, but is so inept at building from midfield that Wenger has to play Cazorla next to him as a passer by proxy. I simply refuse to believe that we tried hard enough here. I wonder if Wenger is now caught up in the vanity project of Coquelin's resurgence, and, again, just won't take that risk to see if we can truly upgrade and push on. Kondogbia took our midfield apart in two games against Monaco this season - he was available for a price we could afford and we didn't buy him. But of course there are no players in the world better than what we have who were available.

We also now go into the third season since van Persie left without a world-class striker. Giroud is petulant, lightweight, wilts in big matches, and simply misses too many chances. Arsene has now reached a point where he is dropping OG for big games, yet there are fans out there who would claim he couldn't be improved upon. Theo is, conversely, a big-game player. He's also injury-prone, drifts almost completely out of games, and is one-dimensional. Against Newcastle, I think he fell asleep at one point he had so few touches on the ball, save where he missed an open-goal from less than five yards. I like Welbeck, but he is not a clinical goalscorer, and, as shown at United, will end up being deployed on the wing ultimately. Again, the notion here that there is not one striker in the entirety of world football who we could afford who is better than these three is utterly absurd.

The idea that we can't upgrade on this squad is the refuge of the unambitious, or of those with a near cultish devotion to Arsene. We've been making excuses for Arsene and Arsenal's transfer activity for so long now that fans have arguments outside the Emirates about the correct accountancy terms to use when discussing the market, fella. We have enough money to make big, big transfers happen, but we are choosing not to do it. This is fundamentally how a huge amount of transfers work - clubs don't want to lose players, so you effectively bribe them into doing so. Arsenal can make that happen, but chose not to this summer.

What are we doing as a club? Where is the money going? We have the highest ticket prices in Europe yet we are content with a collection of players that have proved incapable of mounting a credible title challenge. The inertia of the club is startling. We would rather slip into the comfortable familiarity of the third-place finish, than think long and hard about whether what we have is good enough, and whether we can really do better.

Indeed, it is interesting that Arsene continually argues for 'cohesion' and 'stability'. It's almost as if he might have a vested interest in doing so, as the longest running manager in the Premier League. Two trophies in ten years would hardly seem to provide substance for Arsene's arguments of the need for continuity over change.

And this is the rub. The need for change goes all the way to the top at Arsenal. Watching us fall apart in big games, playing the same tactics every week, losing to the same teams in the Champions League each season, there is a profound sense that this is as good as it gets under Arsene. We have the recent FA Cup wins, which have been great. But we are now at a plateau. Ozil, Sanchez and Cech aren't enough to gloss over persistent failings in the transfer market. Bu they are enough to show we could build a better squad, headed by a better manager. There are no transfers that happen, or don't happen, at the club without Arsene's rubber stamp. Until he goes, we won't build a squad capable of a title challenge. The problem is, he shows no sign of going. A sobering thought.

Gb.


Saturday, November 01, 2014

Is Alexis Football Club as good as it gets?

I've realised that my - albeit infrequent posts - seem to only appear after defeats. So here's one after a victory:

* The line-up for the match was interesting. The defence, faute de mieux, essentially picks itself at the moment. Bellerin seems like a nice lad but is, let's face it, out of his depth. As a lesser of two evils, Monreal at centre-back rather than Bellerin at RB and Chambers in the centre is preferable. The rest of the selection showed some interesting choices on AW's part. The lineup was essentially a 4-4-2, a formation that we might as well play against lower-half of the table sides who are going to sit deep against us at home. Choosing Flamini and Arteta as our central-midfield partnership probably represented something of an insurance policy on Arsene's part, to ensure we we had enough defensive cover were Burnley to break. This did mean Ramsey not getting a start, which was a little bit of a surprise, but this may also have been to preserve him a little for our two forthcoming matches.

* The other interesting decision was Campbell being dropped from the matchday squad, apparently in favour of Sanogo. I have never been on the Joel bandwagon but thought he did OK in his recent substitute appearances, without necessarily producing anything spectacular. That AW sees Sanogo ahead of him in the pecking order is quite telling, and you get the impression that Joel's days at the club are numbered, perhaps begging the question of why we didn't just sell him in the summer. I do think Wenger settles on pet projects, and, unfortunately for Joel, "it's Sanogo" for him.

* We started the game well with a good tempo. Although, really, if you're not able to dominate Burnley from the start then we might as well just pack it in and go home for the season. This didn't really translate into too many tangible efforts on goal aside from some world-class shots from Alexis, and even these curled wide. One thing I have felt, and which hasn't been much remarked upon, is that we lose a little bit of subtlety as a team without Ozil. I know subtlety isn't necessarily a characteristic you think recent Arsenal teams need, but without Ozil we have quite a lot of players whose instincts are to use pace to beat players and flash shots from distance when they get frustrated. There were a few instances in the first half were I thought we tried to force the play, and where a little of Mesut's nuance might have been nice.

* Burnley were predictably quite quiet. There was, however, still a few opportunities where we nearly contrived to shoot ourselves in the foot, as is our wont. The particular culprits here were Mathieu "a disease on our game" Flamini, and Szcz. Flamini, put simply, is rubbish. He was a welcome shot in the arm at the start of last season when the club was in a bit of a mess, and his performance in last year's North London derby deserves to be remembered as massive. But there has been a slow regression in his performances since then to his current state, where he is barely able to dominate Championship-level midfields. The sooner we buy a competent DM the better. As for Szcz, he seems to be metamorphosing into what I would call "full Almunia". This is a condition where a goalkeeper is unable to stop himself from blundering, whether it be rushing off his line, incorrectly positioning himself, failing to catch basic crosses, or clearing the ball so terribly that it should be recorded as an assist. His confidence, so welcome after the gaunt, hollow eyes of Manuel, now appears to be little more than hubris. Had we not bought an injured goalkeeper - side note STOP BUYING INJURED PLAYERS - I have no doubt Ospina would be getting minutes in the league at this point.

* The breakthrough, when it came, was somewhat inevitable. Despite the clock ticking down, it did seem that Burnley would have the one lapse of concentration that is fatal in games such as this, and with Chambers' follow-up occurring so soon afterwards, the final twenty minutes were among the most enjoyable this season. Podolski contrived to miss despite hitting the ball about as hard as it's possible to legally do so in a match, and Walcott made a welcome return. How Theo fits into the first team will be fascinating to see. He essentially missed the whole of last season, and the prospect of a team with Sanchez, Ozil and Walcott all fully functioning is quite exciting.

* Indeed, Alexis has hit the ground running at the Emirates. Where we would be without him this season is not pleasant to think about. He is clearly a player capable of scoring all types of goals - long-range efforts, scrappy shots in the six-yard box, headers - and can, critically, make his own chances when others are unable to provide. He reminds me hugely of Suarez - without, of course, the "unpleasantness" shall we say - an elite attacking force capable of bending games to his will. The flipside to this is that he is operating at another level to the rest of the side at the moment, in a manner reminiscent of van Persie in 2011-12. He seems to relish responsibility in a way that is almost the complete opposite of Ozil, and I hope that this will improve the latter's performances as well. The only concern I have is that we become "Alexis Football Club" - a team that is too reliant on one player, and which falls apart when he is either injured or fails to perform. I suppose we will just have to see how that plays out.

* In the final analysis, and despite the wonder of seeing a world-class player absolutely slay a team, this is all a bit predictable at the moment. We seem to be sailing gently towards the pattern established since 2008 - defeat the stragglers in our Champions League group, do enough against teams outside the top six in the league, and struggle in the remaining matches. Looking at the table, we're already in fourth place, and given how poorly Liverpool are playing this season, I don't think Champions League qualification will pose too many difficulties this season. The question is whether we can now use this modicum of momentum to actually kick-on and go further - something we probably won't find out until the game against Man Utd in three weeks' time. Otherwise, Alexis Football Club may be as good as it gets this season.

Gb

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Arsene Wenger: The Testimonial Years

Few thoughts on today, this week, and this season:

* We came into the game on a high, battering Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday in one of those games that we still seem able to cruise through. Unfortunately, this leads to the conflation of our ability to win games against mediocre opposition to our overall ability to challenge for trophies. We are capable of the first, but a million miles away from the latter. As long as the two are confused, AW defenders will continue to trot out the same defences for his tenure, and the club will not progress. Anyway, I digress...

* There were a lot of things about this game that served as subtle indictments of Arsene's current management of the club. One of these was the happiness that we had not conceded three goals in the first ten minutes, as we did during out meltdown at the Bridge last year.  Really, that should be the absolute least you can expect of an elite football team - to not be comprehensively destroyed in the first minutes of a match. Yet that is where we are as Arsenal fans nowadays.

* The reason for this was, however, somewhat positive. Clearly, lessons had been learned (to an extent) and our suicidal defensive line of last year had been abandoned. Chambers and Gibbs only pushed forward with caution, and Mertesacker, Koscielny and Flamini actually formed a decent defensive triangle for good portions of the first half. Chelsea played a high pressing game, predictably, but we were not overawed and kept our composure for the main part. Arsene, at last, seems to have realized that we can't just play versus the big teams away in the same way that we would against weaker teams at home. But would this be enough?

* Well, no. Because, predictably, a calamitous defensive error undid our good work. Hazard (another player we missed the opportunity to sign) made a brilliant surging run from midfield, ghosting past two players before arriving in the area. Koz thought "why not stick out a leg?" So he did. And thus a penalty. Koscielny, for all the hype, is an accident waiting to happen in every single game he plays. According to Orbinho on Twitter, he has given away more penalties than any other player in the premier league since 2010. Any other player. This is on top of the red cards, own goals, and general errors that blemish his otherwise good defensive performances. Essentially, you have a player who has the potential to be world class, but who is always a moment away from disaster. That's not really good enough, and it's why I advocated to buy a central defender this summer who would challenge Mert and Koz, rather than just being a back-up. Of course, we did neither, so there you go.

* Despite playing quite well in the first half, we really didn't do much with the ball. We'd win the ball, counter briskly, then things would fall apart at the edge of the area. After Welbz's goals vs. Galatasaray, I'd hoped that there would be a little more incision to our attacking play. Instead, we allowed CFC enough time to organize, and things would gently fall apart. Indeed, the real highlight of the first half was Wenger beasting Mourinho on the sideline after Cahill should've been sent off for a challenge on Sanchez. Small victories.

* I thought we actually also started the second half well too. But again, where was the cutting edge? A goal in the first 10-15 minutes after half-time would've thrown the game wide open. Instead, our final pass was lacking, and repeated periods of good pressure fell apart. With the introduction of Mikel, there was the slightly odd sight of Chelsea, at home, parking the bus. But really, they were just biding their time for the right moment, content to keep us at arm's length while we feigned danger.

* The moment, when it came, was utterly, utterly predictable. I'm not a betting man, but this was the type of bet you take out a 2nd, 3rd, 4th mortgage to make. Fabregas with a killer assist to Costa, who danced through our defence and chipped the ball over Szcz's head. Again, massive questions to be asked about Koscielny's positioning for the goal, while Mertesacker's lack of pace was completely exposed. But it was the sheer predictability of it. Fabregas playing an inch perfect long ball, Costa beasting our defenders. This was every Arsenal/Chelsea game in the last ten years in ten seconds.

* And a word on Fabregas and Costa - let's be absolutely clear on this: we could've afforded both. We could've signed both players. They could literally be playing for Arsenal right now. Instead, Arsene refuses to work with Jorge Mendes, so we couldn't get Costa. You might say it's a bit of a problem if our manager refuses to work with the world's biggest agent. You might. And then Fabregas. Again, Orbinho tweeted a killer stat during the game: Fabregas has more assists than the entire Arsenal team this season. The decision to not re-sign Fabregas was yet another self-inflicted wound in the transfer market, borne from Arsene's hubris. Given our inability to make and score chances when he left, to not sign him was an act of gross negligence, which will pay for heavily this season.

* So what of our attacking options? I like Ozil but I increasingly get the feeling that there is a poor fit between what we need from him and what he can provide. For 42m, we need and want the next Bergkamp - a guy that not only runs a game, but who will step up and seize the moment when required. Instead, Ozil seems content to drop deep and try and orchestrate things from afar, picking passes that are effective in terms of maintaining pressure and possession but not necessarily ones that are going to scythe through the opposition ranks. Now, part of this is due to the lack of runners in front of him. Yet theses are the games that you want Ozil to dominate, and he is not doing that at the moment. If we're going to build the team around him, you expect more.

* I would still say, contrary to many, that Ozil was one of our better attacking options. Sanchez, for example - I love his attitude and his pressing, but he gives the ball away far too frequently. Cazorla did not take the chances that fell his way, despite playing well in a deeper role than normal. And Jack continues to confuse. What is his role in the side? An attacking midfielder? Deep-lying playmaker? Box-to-box player? Who knows - and this is a problem.

* After the second goal, the game might as well ended. Wenger sent on two of his biggest frauds - Podolski and Rosicky - who contributed next to nothing as the clock ticked down. And for all our attacking options, we did not manage a shot on goal till stoppage time. That is a massive concern, no matter how nicely we countered and knocked the ball around at times. In many of these away games, we simply seem to end up in a holding pattern of sterile domination. Too many of our players are unable or unwilling to seize the moment, time slowly slips away, and more dripped points have been recorded before you know it.

* To sum it all up: this is it. This is the next three years - same as the last three years. I tweeted at the end of the game that expectations have now been lowered under Wenger to the extent where not getting a thumping at the bridge is considered some form of minor triumph, and I said that only partly in jest. Wenger's record against Mourinho says it all - he simply cannot beat the man. He's tried everything- taking the game to him, not taking the game to him, even playing a team of kids in the 2007 league cup final. Wenger cannot get the best of him. And so Wenger's record against Mourinho stands as perhaps one of the most damning pieces of evidence for his decline as a manager. The start of his travails against Mourinho lines up almost exactly to the start of the "one trophy" era that has spanned approximately the last ten years. Mourinho may be a monster, but he's a modern manager. Arsene increasingly looks like a dinosaur with each passing game.

Wenger has been left behind. Sure, we can all celebrate the cup win last season, but that should have been the triumphant endnote to his Arsenal career, a moment to say goodbye on a high. Instead, we've gone into the season after another transfer window in which we failed to build a squad capable of challenging for the league. We look like we will continue to lose the big away games that decide the CL and the league. Wenger is either out of ideas, or he's unwilling to change. And so the next three years have become his testimonial seasons; a long, sad unwinding, a few great wins interwoven with long periods of dross. As long as Kroenke gets to keep lining his pockets with higher ticket prices, he won't intervene. The club will continue to do the bare minimum required to be considered "elite". And we'll have to keep watching YouTube vids to remember what is was like to see a title winning team under Wenger.

Gb.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Reasons Why we Should, and Shouldn't, Re-Sign Cesc Fabregas

I've been going over this subject in my head a lot over the last few days, and thought I'd share my ramblings with you. So here's the case for and against bring Cesc back home, or taking him away from home, it's all quite confusing really.

Why we shouldn't re-sign Cesc:

- He's a bit of a knob, really. Imagine someone gives you a massive break in your career, enabling you to perform a job you love for millions of pounds. How do you repay them? Well, by saying, on almost a weekly basis, how you will leave this job and go back to your former employer - the one you left in the first place precisely because they refused to give you a chance. I found Cesc's continuous flirtation with Barca during his Arsenal career both tiresome and deeply disrespectful to both Arsene and Arsenal. I get it - you're from Barcelona. If you loved it so so much there, why did you leave? Arsenal are a massive club, and the whole "Barca DNA", "We all know I'll go back one day" story annoyed me hugely. We are not some kind of finishing school for footballing prodigies before they go on to the true club of their dreams. We are Arsenal and you should be honoured to play for us. Basically, don't come crying back to us after running off with your high-school sweetheart and finding out, or in fact remembering, they're a total psycho. You made your bed and you can lie in it.

- Beyond his yearly flirtation, there was the actual manner he left. Trying to push through a move after the 2010 world cup, failing, and then sulking for a season. Let's take a step back here - again, this is a guy being paid millions of pounds to play football, and he's sulking. It was a pathetic, shameful farce. That we allow such things to occur is a major reason why western civilization is ultimately doomed. Then, in 2011, there was the alleged "strike" - again, the self-entitlement and disrespect here is unbelievable. Yes, Cesc is far from alone in the self-entitlement stakes when it comes to football. But, do we want to re-sign such a person? There seems to be a good culture in the dressing room, with very few of the current squad in the primadonna mould that previous squads used to have in spades (I'm looking at you, van Persie, Adebayor, Nasri, etc.) Could Cesc re-adjust to being a squad member, rather than being club captain? Could he take on a auxiliary, rather than central, place in the team?

- He's certainly had an odd time at Barca. Despite creating and scoring tons of goals, the club's fans have never really taken to him. He doesn't seem to have grasped what many thought would be his destiny, and become the new Xavi. There is a school of thought that suggests he is incredibly undervalued by Barca, and this is probably true. But his inability to fit neatly into the team ethic of Barca is interesting. There is only player allowed a free role at the club, and that's Messi. Cesc doesn't seem to have the discipline to play a more controlled deep game, or play further forward. Spain have also seemed to be unsure of where to deploy him - he basically started the European Championship final as a false nine, blowing the minds of hispters around the world. One of the Barca coaches basically said he was a very chaotic player, if I remember correctly. This kinda fits in with the primadonna personality - I play where I want. This pays off most of the time - like in the European Championship final - but it's hard to build a team around such a player, or even to put your full trust in them on the field.

- The club would seem to have a plan for transfers this summer that doesn't include Cesc. In terms of our priorities this summer, a new right-back, striker, goalkeeper and (please please please) a holding midfielder are surely higher up the list. There is an argument that Cesc would be a luxury signing that would take up a large chunk of our budget. I can definitely see this argument in some respects (although I will entirely dismiss it later).

- Which brings us on to my main area of concern - I didn't actually like the style of play, or the footballing culture I suppose, of the Cesc-centric teams seen between about 2006 and 2011. Think about the best teams under Wenger and the attributes that they had - power, strength, and speed. You would be hard pressed to use any of those adjectives when describing Cesc. I read a great quote from Lehmann the other day, who said that when we transitioned from the invincibles side to that centred around Cesc, the team basically slowed down. Two touches were replaced by three or four. We went from a team that destroyed teams on the counter-attack to one that tried to pass the opposing team to death. Remember how many games in 2002 to 2004 were over by half-time? How we would come flying out the traps and knockout our opponents before they had time to settle? And then think about all the games of the Cesc-era where the first half would pass everyone by. Where we would allow the opposition team to park the bus, rather than drive their bus off a cliff. Endless passing triangles involving Cesc, Hleb, Rosicky, Nasri, Denilson, etc. At its worst, the Cesc led teams were the definition of sterile domination. And I do put a large slice of blame on Cesc for this style (and, of course, Arsene for enabling it). Cesc essentially replaced Vieira in the side. We went from a guy who was so direct that he would tackle and pass the ball in the same motion to one that would want about 3-4 touches before even thinking about the next move. For the life of me, I can't work out why Wenger abandoned the mould that had brought his so much success - speed and power - and replaced it with the wimpy, tiki-taka football that made us a laughing stock. The only reason I think he did so is because he had Cesc, he believed in him, and he built a team in his image. People often call Cesc direct, and he is in a Barca team where passing is treated as an almost holy event. But for Arsenal, he was the orchestrator, and he often orchestrated not a lot. A return of Cesc would upset the balance of a team that could, if everyone was fit (please stop laughing) have a good deal of power and directness to it, as typified by its new leader, Aaron Ramsey.

So this, for me is the case against Cesc - a disrepectful brat who would disrupt the balance of the team, both on and off the pitch, and who might see us return to the dark days of the weakest teams of the Wenger era - teams that were regularly bullied off the pitch, but only after completing hundreds of meaningless passes. He might also take up a big slice of a transfer budget that needs to be focused on other positions.

Why we should sign Cesc:

- As mentioned above, he's hardly alone in the acting like a knob stakes when it comes to transfers. From Odemwingie to Berbatov to Bale to even our failed bid for Suarez, footballers have a very loose idea of contract law. Namely, the contract is great in terms of the money they make from it, but the idea this is a binding agreement to actually keep them at a club is something that footballers appear to be astonished by on a regular basis. Ronaldo described himself as a slave, lest we forget, because United tried to hold him to his 100k+ a week contract. So, yeah, while Cesc didn't cover himself in glory during his departure from the club, very few footballers do. I'm not saying he deserves a pass on this one, just that most footballers act like knobs most of the time.

-  Seeing him come back will undoubtedly be very emotional, and it would almost be a symbolic statement of how, after years of selling our best players, we are now committed to not only keeping ours, but buying top players from other teams. In other words, it would help to prove that Ozil was not a one-off signing but the start of a parade of top players coming to the club.

- For 30m, it's a bargain. And what was the point of spending months of the 2011 summer window haggling over a buy-back clause if we're not going to use it? It just looks like a colossal waste of time, another damning part of a summer that should have cost Arsene his job. Players like Cesc don't become openly available on the market very often, and certainly not at knockdown prices.

- If we don't buy him, he will go to Chelsea. Chelsea. Let's just repeat this again - he will sign for Chelsea if we don't sign him. The worst club in world football. And he will play against us, and score against us, and we'll have to watch as he celebrates winning all kind of stuff with Chelsea, and it'll be gross. I would be up for paying 30m just to make sure he didn't play for Chelsea.

- The most compelling reason, is pretty simple - he's really good at football. Really, really good. This might seem at odds with my takedown of the "Cesc-era teams" above, but I'm not that stupid. He was  the bright spot in some of the worst teams I've seen Wenger put out at the club. A midfield combining Cesc, Ozil and Ramsey would surely be the best in the Premier League. If, and this is a big if, we could harness all the great parts of Cesc's game - his creativity and vision - and find a way to put them into the team without destroying the nascent balance that seems to exist there...it could be very fun to watch.

- Wenger's transfer "plans" have, by and large, utterly failed in the last few summers. Let's not pretend there was some kind of master plan last summer. We signed Yaya "competition winner" Sanogo (still yet to score an Arsenal goal), re-signed Flamini (who has been rubbish since about December ), a goalkeeper who played 2-3(?) games, and, of course, Ozil. But we only signed Ozil after failing to sign Higuain, Suarez and god knows how many other strikers. If you think there was a Wenger masterplan to wait until the 11th hour to sign Ozil, then you probably have a figurine of Wenger in your bedroom who you pray to every night. And what about January? No striker, despite Giroud's form having fallen off a cliff. Instead, we signed an over-the-hill midfielder who was injured. And let's go further back. The debacle of 2012 - selling the lynchpin of our midfield, and the best striker in the country to our supposed rivals. As for 2011, where to start? Selling our best two midfielders. Signing Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos. Haggling for months over Joel Campbell, who, to date, has still to make his Arsenal debut.

In short, I'm not convinced there is a plan. Or to put it another way: if there is a plan, recent summers have shown that Wenger is terrible at executing it. I'm fairly convinced, for example, that Jenkinson will start the first game of the season. We are already being linked with a host of strikers, but we have failed to buy a striker in the last four windows. (Bonus trivia question - when was the last time Arsene bought a world-class striker in his prime?) So, rather than rely on Wenger's masterplan, how about we actually sign a top player who's a) available and b) cheap.

- And my final piece of the puzzle - we have loads of money and should actually spend it on top players. This for me, is really important. We heard a lot of guff this week from Gazidis about the "strict budget" that Arsene is working with - this is patently nonsense. It is total spin, and I have no idea why the club is doing it. We are coming off the back of the biggest TV deal in history. We have massive, new sponsorship deals. We are charging the fans an extra 3% on top of the highest ticket prices in England. We have 100m in the bank, at least, already. We could sign Cesc for 30m and still have more than enough money to buy a world class right-back, defensive mid, striker and goalkeeper. We really do. If you think we don't, someone has lied to you. The money is there, in black and white, in the club accounts. We already have the 11th highest wage bill in the entirety of world sports. We are loaded - totally loaded. We can afford multiple, big transfers this summer.

Why we don't spend this money is an interesting question. There is the issue, of course, that the club's large cash balances make our absentee owner richer each day. I don't think that should ever be ignored. But I think there is a wider issue here. Despite the purchase of Ozil, Wenger is ultimately a conservative in the transfer market. He is already talking up "internal solutions", because he prefers to work with what he knows, than take risks. I imagine that Martinez will be promoted to back up keeper, for example. This is the strategy that saw Bendtner become our second-choice striker for parts of last season, and which saw us re-sign Flamini instead of the clearly more talented Gustavo.

If Wenger doesn't re-sign Cesc, it smacks of a fundamental conservatism to transfers that, to be frank, is holding the club back. Once you have gone big, as we did with Ozil, the secret is out - we can afford these deals. My concern if we don't go in for Cesc is that it shows that Wenger hasn't really changed. The FA Cup win of this year will not be the start of a new era, but a poignant moment of unjustified hope that fizzled out as soon as it arose.

It's the start of the summer, so we shall see how things play out. Maybe we will get all the players we need. But past windows under Wenger suggest we won't. There's only so many disastrous periods of transfer activity, or inactivity, I can take.

And, my very final point, as Gunnerblog pointed out, is this: is there really a scenario where we regret buying Cesc? It's hard to imagine. On the contrary, there are loads in terms of the opposite - Cesc scoring the winning goal for Chelsea in the Champions League final. Cesc celebrating with Mourinho. Cesc having to do the "non-celebration" as he completes his hat-trick against us at the Emirates. Imagine all of these for a moment before saying you don't want him back. This isn't just knee-jerk emotionalism - it is the potential scenario of watching a top player, who we could have signed, bring success to another club.

But the biggest reason for me to re-sign Cesc is I want to see real proof that Arsene has changed. That the new contract was justified beyond largely sentimental reasons. If not, we may be looking down the barrel of another summer farce, with at least two more to come.

I genuinely hope I'm wrong.