Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A song for Charlton, and second leg preview.

Yes, possibly the most momentous moment since the departure of Pascal Cygan has occurred: Alex Song has left Ashburton on loan for the rest of the season. The cynical amongst us may see this as Arsene following the dictum that 'revenge is a dish best served cold' - especially as Alex has received possibly the most stick of any player during the Wenger era. While this criticism has perhaps been overstated, it's also not unjustifiable on the performances I've seen. Whether we ever see him in an Arsenal shirt again remains to be seen; I'm certainly not holding my breath.

The team news for tomorrow is not great. Baptista has now been ruled out, a great shame considering his red-hot form in the CCup this season. He definitely seems like a player who's best when he starts and plays up-front, rather than Arsene's current tactic of throwing him on in centre-midfield for ten minutes at the moment. On the plus side, his injury does seem to be less serious than first feared.

While a partnership of Adebayor and Aliadiere is probably the more likely, I would like Theo to get a chance up-front. He needs a goal and playing as a striker would surely facilitate this; on the wing he seems to be struggling to beat players, causing him to lose confidence and impairing his subsequent shooting ability. I heard a bit of abuse directed towards Theo at the game on Sunday, and while he didn't have a good game the crowd needs to get behind him. He's a young lad and heckling him for missing a few chances is not the way forward. I seem to remember Adebayor receiving similar criticism when he missed chances last season and now he's a folk-hero. And, unlike Song, Walcott clearly has the potential.

Who's going to play in midfield tomorrow also remains a question. Walcott may have to play in midfield as, with Hleb and Eboue(?) out, who else will play on the right? And with Rosicky rested and Freddie injured, who's going to play on the left? Diaby didn't seem too comfortable on the left last time, but I think Diaby-Denilson-Gilberto-Walcott may be the line up.

Whoever plays, I still think we'll have too much for them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Feed the Beast and he will score (at both ends)

Firstly, any absences in posting during the coming weeks are due to an absence of domestic broadband. Somehow, improving my service has resulted in me having none. Oh the irony.

Anyway, to business. A fantastic draw for the kids at the Lane on Wednesday - one full of hope and promise for the future, if not the present, of the club. But, it was almost so disastrous. Our first half performance was not very good. A soft goal – perhaps ironically caused by the ineptitude of two of the more experienced players on the pitch – and a pitiful own goal by a man who had a howler of an opening 45 minute conspired to leave us in a rather unpromising position at half-time. My fears that the youngsters could be scarred, rather than blooded, by such an intense game seemed to be materialising.

Yet, I was always confident we could pull ourselves back into the game. Indeed, if this season were to be named, it would be ‘the season of the comeback’. We’ve gone behind countless times this season, and, more often than not, we’ve fought back to get a draw or a win. It seems that this is a trend that all our squad members are following.

The second half performance was as good as I’ve seen by any Arsenal team this season. Spuds couldn’t live with our high-tempo, precise passing, and it seemed only a matter of time before we opened our account.

And thus scored Baptista.

His first goal came from a mixture of battling and admirable composure; his second from putting himself in a fine position to exploit Robinson’s bizarre goalkeeping error. In the end we could, and perhaps should have won, with Theo unable to convert a golden opportunity near the end.

The lily whites aren’t going to get a better chance than that to put one over us, and, to be frank, they blew it, big time. One could almost feel sorry for them. Almost, and especially not after the horrendous treatment meted out to several Arsenal fans after the game.

Quite simply, we oozed class in the second half. Whether it be Fab, who had a colossal game in the midfield, Hleb, who surely won over some of his misguided critics with a wonderful cameo disappointingly ended by injury (4 weeks out apparently – I’m distraught), or Eboue, who looked a real handful on the right wing, our boys had far too much for the relatively average opposition they were facing. As for the rest, Denilson was excellent and looks a real prospect, Traore still looks promising, despite being skinned quite a few times by Lennon, Hoyte is definitely improving, and the Beast is finally beginning to really earn his sobriquet.

My main concerns were Theo and Diaby. Diaby, justifiably, struggled in his first full start after injury as he was played out of position on the left. I have very high hopes for him, but Denilson might be breathing down his neck sooner rather than later. And Theo needs a goal. It’s ridiculous that so much pressure is being heaped on him so soon, but he needs a goal in order to really settle into the team. Whilst he improved vastly when put into a central striker position, rather than out on the wing, I just hope that his head doesn’t drop due to middling performances such as yesterday. He’s the real deal and he’s not fully showing at the moment. I think we all have faith in him though.

So, hopefully the kids can dispatch the spuds next week and a rather appetising cup final with Chel$ki will be on. Although, if the Arsenal system of developing youth were to come face to face with a policy designed around spending ludicrous wads of cash, I fear some form of nuclear explosion will occur.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Arsenal player ratings from Sunday.

As promised, ratings are as follows:

Jens, 7: Not the dominant, colossal presence that he was at Old Trafford earlier in the season, and he flapped at a few crosses. Fine subsequent saves made up for this, and he was sound otherwise.

Eboue, 7: The pros and cons were there for all to see. A fabulous, world-class cross for Henry came after a number of embarrassing theatrics. However, he is improving as a defender and I can’t see Wenger buying a new right-back in the summer.

Phil, 7.5: The only defender we have who has a real presence in the air. Watching him win so many headers was a joy. But, not as comfortable on the ball as Djourou, and he was partially responsible for the annoying long-ball stratagem.

Kolo, 7: Quietly solid and booked with unjustifiable alacrity early in the game.

Clichy, 7: Nullified Ronaldo and Giggs. Good going forward, and not over-awed by the occasion. Hopefully he can continue with his current rate of progression. Slightly at fault for the goal.

Hleb,5.5: a poor game by his standards, and seemed to miss Gilberto as an outlet. The occasional pass did come off, but the lack of his usual creation and penetration was a major cause of the regression to long-balls.

Fabregas, 7.5: Kept going for 95 minutes and dominated Scholes in the middle of the park. Not quite at his magisterial best but still the best midfielder on the pitch.

Flamini, 7: Good, solid performance; did enough to suggest he can be a squad player who can come in for the big games and not be the weak link. Best when keeps things simple.

Rosicky, 7: Another player who battled to the end, and was instrumental in both goals after switching to the right. Still acclimatising to the team and the premiership but his class is obvious.

Henry, 7.5: Not a big game player, apparently. Floated about for most of the game, in an occasionally insipid manner, but came good when it mattered. Individually saluting the fans at the end was a lovely touch.

Adey, 8: Didn’t actually threaten in the manner he has in previous matches, but lead the line in a vibrant, physical manner that Arsenal fans haven’t seen for a long time. His hunger is palpable and we will win things with him leading us forward.


RvP, 7.5: Superb finish for the goal from a difficult angle. His injury is a major blow though, and the absolute best we can hope for is that he’ll be back sometime around the PSV game.

Baptista, 6: not enough time to get into the game. These ten minute cameos are not the way forward for him. Robin’s injury is his opportunity.

Ashburton Grove comes of age to open up the title race.

Well, they don’t come much sweeter than that do they?

I’ve never attended an Arsenal United game before but they’ve defined much of my footballing life. Whether it be my vague memories of the OT brawl in 90/91, my crystalline recollection of the scuffles of ’03, the fabulous winning goals of Wiltord and Overmars, or a number of Thierry’s wonder strikes, Arsenal vs United has provided some of the real highs of my time as an Arsenal supporter. And also, unfortunately, a number of the lows.

It was with a degree of trepidation, therefore, that I approached the Emirates on Sunday. And when the two teams opened lethargically I wondered what type of game would transpire. United had opted for a rather curious 433, with Rooney on the left and Giggs down the middle. To my mind Ferguson incorrectly started Larrsson in front on Saha as he hoped to remind us of that night in Paris. But he didn’t seem to overly trouble our defence. Saha’s pace might have given Senderos a few more difficulties.

A few rather curious refereeing decisions were made. Kolo was booked immediately for a challenge rather than giving him a verbal warning; Henry and Adebayor were denied two 50-50 penalty decisions. A lid was kept on the rather farcical handbags between Eboue and Rooney, which again highlighted the deficiencies of Eboue as a character. He really needs to cut it out.

An anti-climatic first half was ended by two good saves from Jens; saves that he might not have had to make if he had been a bit more decisive in coming for the ball from corners. As the players trooped off at half-time, 0-0 seemed about right.

But United almost instantly pegged us back from the re-start. Evra – who until the 83rd minute was probably MOTM – crossing for Rooney who headed in his customary goal against us. Questions could be asked - again - about Clichy’s positioning for crosses, but it would be harsh to criticise what otherwise was a fine performance - one in which he effectively shackled Ronaldo and Giggs at various points. Where Eboue was for the cross could also be asked.

A stirring comeback did not immediately seem to be on the cards. We carved out a few opportunities but seemed to be reduced to speculative long-range efforts. Even worse, we began to repeatedly hack long balls up to Adebayor, who was consistently beaten in the air by the excellent Vidic. We gave up trying to play our brand of football and an air of desperation began to grow. Hleb – who had a disappointing game – was withdrawn yet Robin struggled to create a threat.

But football [and its cliché time] is a ninety minute game. The game was quite even until the eightieth minute, and based on the performances of Evra and Vidic, United might have deserved to edge it. Yet the breed of ’07 – even if they do go on to win the league - don’t have the legs or resolve of the United teams of the late 90s. Rather than grab the game by the throat after taking the lead, they resorted to time-wasting tactics, while sitting back and soaking up the pressure.

We seemed to have a fitness and tenacity that they didn’t and eventually, after Farbregas and Rosicky doggedly won the ball from Scholes, Tomas crossed, Henry stepped-over, and Robin scored. It was a fantastic finish from an acute angle and the way Robin has grown into a genuinely world-class player this season has been wonderful to see. What was less wonderful was the foot fracture sustained during understandably zealous celebrations.

As soon as we scored United visibly aged. The euphoria which greeted the first goal was transformed into a steely determination to push on and win; United must have been regretting their time wasting antics as time justifiably ticked on. At the death, neat play on the right between Rosicky and Eboue saw a fantastic cross by Manu placed on Thierry’s head.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Henry.

Unrestrained jubilation. Mass hugging in the stands. Men fell from their seats and crashed down through the rows as insanity temporarily reigned. The bulk of the crowd had stayed til the end – for the first time – and at the final whistle we all sang together as the players huddled near the centre-circle. Magic.

A colossal victory therefore, one that truly christens Ashburton as a grove where historic games have and will take place. The atmosphere at the game’s end was special and seeing Henry score a last minute against United will stay with me for some time.

It leaves our season in the balance. Could we push on to the title? Probably not, but second now seems a distinct possibility. Suddenly, the game against Chel$ea in May becomes very interesting. And hopefully, the first real chapter in Ashburton’s history has begun.

Player ratings are posted separately, in a special bumper Goonerboy…

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lauren's off: where does this leave our full-backs?

Yes, he of the 10,000 mile death-stare has gone to play 'abroad' [as Sol thinks at least] at Portsmouth. It does seem a bit odd that Arsene so hastily shipped him off after Ralph was within days of a return to the first team after a year on the sidelines. One can only conclude that Arsene thinks that he'll never be the player he was before the injury, or that in keeping Ralph he could impede the development of Justin Hoyte and Eboue.

The latter would seem to be the case given some of Arsene's recent comments. Indeed it seems incredible that Justin has gone from a player who many thought had no real future at the club, to perhaps becoming our first choice right back. Whilst Eboue undoubtedly has the edge on Justin in terms of attacking flair, he remains painfully suspect at the back. Like Gael, he too often lets the ball float over his head to players on the wing behind him, or lets players behind him cut in to score. Moreover, his theatrics are becoming an embarrasment to the club. Arsene has publicly voiced his displeasure at Eboue's diving and play-acting, and even his team-mates seemed to give him short-shrift during his confrontations in the Spud derby.

Could Justin, therefore, be first choice right back? Perhaps. He has definitely shown signs of improvement over recent weeks - including a very Lauren-esque death stare against Tugay in the Blackburn match last week -but he struggles when getting forward.

A combination of Justin and Eboue's plus points would therefore possibly create an ideal right-back; individually, neither of them are anywhere near the finished article. Personally, I would have liked Arsene to have retained Lauren to oversee Justin and Manu's development for the rest of the season at least. I'd definitely have preferred Lauren's experience for a few more months than the paltry sum we'll receive from Portsmouth.

The question remains therefore: will Justin or Manu really make the grade? And how long should we wait until we find out. Similar questions could be asked about the ability of Clichy to really become a permanent replacement for Cashley. I do worry that, at least at present, we have 3 full-backs who would all be excellent cover, but don't warrant starting positions. Could a case be made for recalling Kerry Gilbert, or does his future lie elsewhere? Hopefully, they'll all prove me wrong.

To finish, a picture that says everything about Lauren's commitment to the Arsenal. Goonerboy, obviously, does not condone violence on the football pitch. But United? at OT? That game, along with the 0-0 v madrid recently, were surely two of the greatest 0-0s of all time. It was worth the fines and suspensions. Thanks and so long Ralphy.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Transfer window round up: Lauren, Freddie, loanees, Beckham.

Busy times for Goonerboy this week, as the post Christmas malaise of returning to work fully hit home. Hence the lack of posts, which I shall try to rectify this week.

It's been a good week for the club, with our youth system received a stunning vindication in the 6-3 crushing of Liverpool at Anfield. I wasn't able to watch the game, and turned on the BBC website at half-time to find we were 4-1 up. A pleasant surprise I have to say. From accounts I've heard, almost everyone played well - notably Baptista, who is beginning to re-earn his 'Beast' sobriquet, Aliadiere, and (who would have thought it) Alex Song. Liverpool didn't put out a full strength team, but the likes of Gerrard, Garcia, Bellamy, Fowler and Alonso were present so they can hardly say they were understrength in comparison to us. Indeed, it was interesting to note how ineffective Gerrard was, who I think has become a typical English player: arrogant, and unwilling to do the gritty midfield duties, forcing Benitez to play two defensive midfielders next to him as he plays Roy of the Rovers.

Anway, Aliadiere's fantastic performance was surely only a stay of execution regarding his transfer. He stated after the game that he wants to 'stay and fight for his place' but I don' think he's being realistic. We now have four top quality strikers in front of him: Henry, Adeabayor, van Persie and Baptista, with Bendtner and Walcott waiting in the wings. He's not good enough to displace those 6, so, unless he's content with being a peripheral squad player, he should leave.

One man who almost certainly will leave by February is Lauren. A great shame, I feel, as he was usually a rock at right-back, and also physically stood up for the team, something we've missed over the last year. I think Arsene must believe that Ralphy won't ever fully recover from his injury, and, due to his age, selling him now makes sense, albeit in a fairly ruthless way. I'm still not convinced we have another quality in our full back positions, however.

A player who should leave is Freddie, but I think he won't go til the summer, when a move would be better for both player and club. He can't cut it anymore, but unless we get someone of the likes of Ribery in, we need him as cover. Arsene must, however, not see him as a first XI player anymore.

In the Friday press conference, Arsene also confirmed that Larsson would be leaving - a shame, but I don't think he'd make it for us - and that Muamba and Bendtner would return. It'll be interesting to see whether the latter pair get a run in the first team, because they've been very good for Birmingham.

Finally, a word about Beckham. He was, once, a good player, and, from dead balls, he still is. However, like Michael Owen, you get the feeling with Beckham that he was a young player that people thought would become a true great, but instead was merely rather good. It's a shame that he's decided to go to America, because the move, surely, is not about football. To suggest that you can just get in a few big players and change American attitudes towards football - I was appalled he was calling it 'soccer' - is incorrect. American's like american football, american baseball and american basketball. There is, as I know from my blog stats, a sizeable minority who do like football - and I applaud them for their good taste - but bringing over Beckham won't be the start of a societal change of attitudes towards football. I think there's a lot more dignity in seeing out your career as a sub in the Bernabeu, or even as a starter for a lesser premiership club, than playing in a half-empty pitch in a far away country for shed-loads of cash. But being a sub isn't good for brand Beckham - how will he become an even bigger celebrity? The move sums up everything that is wrong with modern football to me.

Half an hour til Blackburn - let's hope we can continue our good run of form.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Arsenal show themselves to be a big game team at Anfield.

If it's one thing that's become abundantly clear over the last twelve months, it's that our current bunch of players do have the ability to step up and perform on the real big game occasions. We showed this in the Champions League against Madrid and Juventus, but also in the final when, considering we only had ten men, we were within a whisker of winning. More recently, our victory at Old Trafford, our draw at Stamford bridge and our home performance against Liverpool have shown we can beat the top teams. Indeed, it's been our inability to grind out performances against the teams below us in the league which have ruled us out of contention this year - something that is hopefully in the process of being remedied. Whether it's because the 'big' teams play more openly against us I don't know, but we have to find a way to beat the 'park the bus' teams.

It's been a long time since Liverpool have been beaten at Anfield; and they would have been even more up for the game considering they're holders of the cup. Thankfully, 'tinkerman' Benitez left Bellamy on the bench, a player who might have caused us some real problems. Conversely, Wenger got his tactics spot on, playing not so much a 4-4-2 as a 4-2-2-2, with Gilberto and Flamini playing as defensive midfielders, and Hleb and Rosicky roaming around in front, rather than playing as anything approaching conventional wingers.

Whisper it quietly, but today, and only today, the suspension of Fabregas may have helped. His suspension precluded Wenger from playing the Rosicky-Hleb-Fabregas midfield which has over-elaborated play so much of late. Instead, Flamini came in and had an absolute, if understated, blinder. Flamini and Gilberto were so good that they practically nullified Gerrard and Alonso - no mean feat. Perhaps there's a case for saying only two of Fab, Hleb and Tom should play if we're only going to play four in midfield? Either way, with Diaby also soon to re-emerge, I would question the logic in purchasing another central midfielder.

Beside them, Hleb and Rosicky were excellent. It's funny watching pundits, because they never directly say how good a player Hleb is. They always lump into 'Arsenal's style of play', which does him a disservice as he was instrumental in the first goal. Moreover, he tackles very well in midfield, and also very rarely gives the ball away when he's on his game like today. I wish he could gain a little more consistency, because when he's on song, he's one of the best players in Europe. It was wonderful to see Tom score two fantastic goals, both of which were long overdue. He has the ability to get the 10-15 goals a season we need to make more of a challenge for the league next year. Like Hleb, consistency is the key.

There were a few edgy moments, notably after the Liverpool goal, but its a credit to the team that they held on. And to see Thierry score his trademark 'run the length of the pitch' goal after we held out so well just about made my week. Despite having a quiet game, make no mistake, he's back. A word also for Phil Senderos who was excellent, winning the headers which most of our other defenders struggle with.

Sometimes on here - like after our defeat at Sheffield - I post a rant. After this game I hope it's clear why: the potential and the quality that the team demonstrates in games like today needs to be shown more often, because if we can find consistency, even in only one competition, we will win silverware this season.

Friday, January 05, 2007

What is the point of Arsenal's loan system? And other transfer thoughts

It seems that Anthony Stokes is on his way out of the Emirates. Not that he was ever really in of course, but after his blistering form in the SPL, you might have thought he'd have been given half a chance at the Grove. Especially as he can't be any worse than Jeremie 'where's the barn door' Aliadiere. The SPL is no match for the Premiership, but it's no worse than the Championship - where the bulk of our other loanees are. And surely his value can't fall so much in half a season that he isn't worth keeping for at least that period of time. The mooted £2.7 million is a decent price, but it seems an unnecessary sale.

With Stokes gone, Larrson and Lupoli practically out the door, and Bendtner and Muamba by no means guaranteed a future if and when they return, the question must be begged: what is the point of our loan system?

Is it to give promising youngsters a chance at first team football, in order to assist their development into our first team? Or is it just a 'try before you buy' situation - a shop window for their quality so we can get a decent price? I was always of the impression it was the former situation, but, given the events of late, I'm inclined to think its the latter. It's notable that youngsters such as Walcott and Fabregas - who obviously have the quality and who Wenger has clear faith in - are retained by Arsenal in order to oversee their progress. I think from now on, I'm going to view loans as almost invariable precursors to sales, a situation I hadn't fully accepted until now.

If we are to believe Arsene then no-one will be arriving any time soon. But it's fun to speculate. And that wry Alsace smile of his can be taken in a number of ways.

If ANR [back on www.anr.uk.com at the moment] are to be believed, Nigel Reo-Coker could be on his way. I'm not sure I fully do believe them, and do we really need another central-midfielder? Especially a sulky one who's likely to cost upwards of £12 million?

The same prima-donna behaviour puts me off buying Buffon. He's a fine keeper, but can the Emirates, large as it is, contain his ego? I'd much rather us try and buy one of Scott Carson, Ben Foster, or Craig Gordon, who have all been oustanding, if young, and who all know the English game.

The other players I'd like to see the club buy are Ribery and Gareth Bale. We need more options at left back, and a winger who can get goals - if Ribery can play on the left, it would be a done deal for me.

I expect us to buy no-one and that may be, even with a weak squad, the best way forward. Perhaps some consistency until the summer will help to separate the wheat from the chaff in the squad. I do remember Arsene saying he'd buy no-one last year as well though...