Sunday, March 25, 2007

If he really cares about England, Steve McClaren should resign.

Little to talk about today, really, on the old Arsenal front. International weeks are always slow, so there's only been a few mildly silly stories floating about.

We've been linked to Andy Johnson, again, who's ours for the paltry price of £14 million. That much money for an English player seems slightly un-Arsene, it must be said. Adebayor and Eboue are near to signing new contracts: good news on Ade, not so sure about Eboue. Is he really a player we want at the club in the long-term? His crossing ability must be weighed against his theatrics, which have damaged the team's performances at times. Finally, Inter are after Tomas Rosicky for £10 million. Despite a middling season, I can't see that happening.

And so to England.

The game yesterday was a farce, an embarassment, a disgrace. Israel defended in depth behind the ball and managed to break up our play reasonably well, but was I the only Englishman hoping for Israel to win? Hoping that it would be the blow that forced our sub-standard manager out the door at last? A manager who refuses to confront the Lampard-Gerrard problem; a manager who throws on Stuart Downing for our best player in the last ten minutes of a game; who still chooses Phil Neville, despite Gareth Barry having his best season for some time in the premiership; a person who swaps right-backs when we're meant to be chasing the game.

In McClaren's defence, his players were awful yesterday. Even if he is not organising them properly, which he clearly isn't, far too many of our Galacticos, and I will use that term, don't seem to be able, or perhaps willing, to reproduce their club form at international level. Maybe if they took ten minutes out from collecting MBEs or writing best-sellers or spouting rubbish about 'English heart' being key to our performances or organising their 'bling', we might actually get somewhere. On their performance yesterday, I'd be willing to call up some of the under-21s to give the senior squad a kick in the backside. At least they'd show some desire. Players like Lampard, Gerrard, Ferdinand, and Rooney must be wrenched from the comfort zones they are currently basking in.

Maybe failing to qualify for next years championships would be the best thing for our current squad. Hopefully the FA would look past nationality when they recruited, and get someone who can finally organise the spoiled brats that make up our first team; someone who might actually pick our best performers, not just our best-known.

And I thought Croatia was a nadir.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The false idols of Anfield further exposed.

Well, it's all getting a little depressing isn't it. A month ago we had cup ties galore to look forward to, including a cup final no less, and Thierry seemed to have regained form and fitness after a difficult few months.

Now look where we are: dumped out the cups, twenty points adrift in the league, and with a struggle for third, if not fourth place, on our hands. Where did it all go wrong?

Perhaps some answers can be found earlier in the season, in a moment of wonderful hope for the team's future. Namely the 6-3 victory at Anfield, where our young guns rightly earned themselves a page in our, and Liverpool's, history books.

Several myths have emanated from this moment, not least that Liverpool were supposedly playing their first team. (Whilst they had more first-teamers out than us, this was not a full strength Liverpool eleven by any means.)

Yet, and perhaps fatally for the second half of our season, two players had an absolute stormer that night: Messrs Aliadiere and Baptista.

Aliadiere not only scored but created goals with the nonchalance, ease and almost serene aura of a younger Thierry; the Beast justified his sobriquet with a double-brace, a game in which he perhaps should, incredibly, have had a double hat-trick.

At that moment, both players undoubtedly convinced Arsene that they could cut it in our first team. So rather than, say, give Aliadiere the chop in January and, perhaps, bring in a new striker, Jeremie stayed. We all seemed rather confident that we had five top-quality strikers.

What we actually had was a crocked Henry, a soon to be crocked RvP, an Adebayor who needs one of the first two next to him, and the two Anfield idols, neither of whom have really cut it since that night. Sure, we've had a few goals from Baps, and some verve from Aliadiere, but neither has really looked like a threat in front of goal.

And thus yesterday. Another game in which we've carved out chances, but had no-one to take them. Jeremie had more inexcusable misses; Baptista ran about a bit, without really looking like scoring.

Did they fool us on that night in Liverpool? Were we duped? They still have a few more games to convince us, but I would suggest that Aliadiere does not have what it takes, and its 30-70 whether Baps has it. A greater depth of quality is needed in our strikeforce and hopefully its in this area, as in a few others, that Arsene is thinking of bringing in a 'super-super' player this summer.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Finally, a slice of luck in a hard-earned win.

I didn't see the game last night so I can't comment in length. The only footage I've see thusfar was on the big screen in Waterloo station this morning and a 3 minute clip on YouTube.

The main points seem to be:

* Finally, a bit of luck. Whilst Diaby has been credited with the goal, it almost seems like a Lampard special: hit from outside the area, catching a nasty deflection and screwing in past the helpless keeper. It's nice to see us score a goal like that once in a while, rather than our normal 'walk the ball over the goal-line' style antics.

* However, Baptista's performance was otherwise poor. Was he really injured? It's the first time I've seen a manager tell a player he's injured; things are usually the other way around. Is this the beginning of his end?

* Aliadiere has returned to being the nearly man. Missing a point-blank header and a chance after being put through is, unfortunately, not good enough.

* Would a more clinical team have punished us? Villa certainly seemed to have the chances to win the game, and we can count ourselves lucky, perhaps, that they did not capitalise on them.

* Did the Denilson-Fabregas partnership work? Should Gilberto be playing centre-back? Do we still need a big tackling presence in midfield?

After all's been said, I'm happy with the three points. We only mustererd a dire 0-0 at Villa last year, and I think this season's Villa team is a stronger outfit than the ones we faced then. Arsene certainly seemed relieved - looking rather dapper in a tracksuit - and its important that we build on this victory with our tough trips to Merseyside forthcoming.

Finally, a word regarding ANR: I have to join the chorus of condemnation regarding Myles's last effort. To claim that Johann Djourou 'shamed his African ancestors' by taking two foul throw-ins, demonstrates a level of idiocy and callousness that I do not wish to be associated with Arsenal related websites. Moreover, if Aliadiere or Fabregas had taken a foul throw, would they have shamed their ancestors? Or can only black players do this? I also thought that his flippant comment that the Emirates was full of 'council-estate kids' last night was in poor taste.

I used to read Myles as his columns were, once upon a time, rather good, and if nothing else thought-provoking. Nowadays he comes across as an egotistical old fool. Unlike the real ANR of course. I urge you to read Mr Mendacious.

Anyway, enough cat-fighting. Here's hoping we can pick up another three points on Sunday, when we should have a few players back.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Henry's worst season at Arsenal is over, but let's not over-react.

So, surely we've reached a nadir in Thierry Henry's Arsenal career. An injury plagued season, in which he has only, in many games, hinted at his abilities, has been brought to a premature end.

I've been shocked, at times, by the reaction of some of the Ashburton crowd this season. I've heard shouts of '**** off to Barcelona' when Thierry has lost the ball or missed a chance. I haven't really heard the Thierry Henry song sung which much enthusiasm, aside from the beginning of the season, and, of course, in the last minutes of that wonderful win over the Mancs.

We've seemed a bit unsure as to what's happened to the rampaging Thierry of old and, to be frank, so does Thierry.

Because when Thierry isn't on his game, he looks like he's not trying. Thierry strolls through games, casting himself almost above the action, only involving himself when he feels he can really make a difference. When he's scoring, everyone forgets about his odd, almost serene manner of playing; but when he's not, accusations of a lack of effort, and second thoughts regarding Barcelona, are easy to throw.

Thierry has scored some vital goals for us this year, and is still our second highest goal scorer. My only hope is that Thierry can come back refreshed and re-energised next season, and that niggling injuries and fatigue have been the cause of his current malaise. If darker forces are at work - the decline of his pace - we may never see the Thierry we used to know again. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If the metamorphosis of Thierry into a deeper-lying player, relying less on speed has begun, so be it. He is still a massive asset to the team, even without 25 goals a season. Whether Arsenal fans, and Thierry can accept this, is another matter.

What the whole team is crying out for, is goal-scoring, penetrative midfielders. We need rampaging wingers to share the goal-scoring burden and help get Thierry back on track. We may already have one in Theo, but perhaps more mature players also need to be brought in, especially as Freddie must go in the summer.

Whilst the Thierry injury may, ultimately, be good news for him and the club, it still leaves us in a difficult situation for the rest of the season. The word seems to be that we many not see RvP again this season either - an equally damaging loss to the team - in which case Adebayor, Baptista, Aliadiere and Walcott will be the ones, hopefully, firing us to fourth, if not third spot.

Whether these players have the goals in them or not is of course the question. And, if nothing else, it may make the last few weeks of the season a little more interesting, if only in a painful way.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dilettante Arsenal suffer their first defeat at the Emirates.

Normally my predictive powers are second to everyone. But I feel if you take the concerns I raised in this post, and times it by those in this one, the result is last night's performance.

The wheels have come off our season; the inadequacies of our squad have been exposed for all to see.

Technically, of course, it wasn't a defeat. But trying telling that to the loyal Gooners - myself included - who stayed until the bitter end last night, sitting in muted silence as another European season came to an abortive end far too early. Almost as soon as Alex's header hit the back of the net, the sound of thousands of seats snapping up-right was heard around the ground. Never have I seen a stadium empty with such ferocity and alacrity as in the last moments of our doomed campaign last night.

Normally, I abhor this type of behaviour; but as the empty red seats multiplied before me, perhaps Arsene might have reflected on a few things.

Firstly, shooting is not optional in football: it is encouraged. Some teams even consider it superior to endless passing and re-working of the ball in final third. Some teams even put players into the box to attack balls worked into dangerous areas.

Some teams have midfielders who can score goals. Imagine that! Imagine Hleb deciding to shoot instead of pass. Imagine Fabregas being able to hit the target with a free shot from the edge of the box. Imagine Freddie, frankly, doing anything that really troubled the opposition. Imagine not having to rely on raw teenagers in the most important game of our season thusfar.

We have a collection of midfielders who possess wonderful passing and technical ability, but who have no inclination whatsoever to pepper the target with shots. Playmakers are needed, but we have too many makers and not enough finishers. Either our midfield steps up and starts scoring, or we buy in the summer. Simple as that.

And what to make of our strike force? A perma-injured Henry who looks like he's losing his pace and ability to dictate matches. A bustling centre-forward in Adebayor who misses chances he must score in big games. A 'Beast' who is struggling and out of confidence, even if he is at least getting into dangerous positions. And a Dutch-man who, whilst supremely talented, struggles to stay fit.

I wrote two weeks ago that this leg would say a lot about whether last year's campaign was a one-off or not. On the basis of last night, it appears that we still don't have the squad to really challenge for honours, especially in Europe. And for all the talk of potential surrounding the club, if potential isn't turned into concrete success sooner rather than later, who's to say that our young talents will want to stay? They want to win now as much as we do. How long will Fabregas tolerate a trophy-less state of affairs?

Arsene needs a re-think. I hope he realises that some members of our squad our not at the required level and may not reach it. I hope he realises that goals are the fundamental aspect of footballing performance, not style, regardless of how much I enjoy the artistry of our current players.

For the whole of this season I've felt the club has been 90% from perfection or disaster. Whilst finishing third or fourth in the league is no disaster, losing three cup games in a week is not far from that description. And a hard look at the squad needs to be taken between now and August, to ensure this fiasco does not re-occur next year.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Player ratings vs. Reading

Jens, 8: A towering performance. Desperately tried to wake-up and enthuse the team when sloppiness began to creep in, and pulled off a match-winning save in the last few moments of the game. If I had a two year contract, I would make him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Djourou, 6: A Reasonable performance, and certainly looks more confident on the ball than some of our other defenders. Gave away the ball in a few dangerous positions, which was a worry.

Gallas, 7: Has an imperious swagger to his defending, which can't be said about too many others of our lot. Must be played at centre back, and must also make up with Jens for the good of the team.

Gilberto, 7: Looks so comfortable with the arm-band on, and shouldered the burden magnificently with a well-struck penalty. Wenger must be thinking, long-term, about employing Gilbs as a centre-back, even if he did not always look entirely comfortable.

Clichy, 7: His run and desire earned the team the vital breakthrough. I'm increasingly impressed by his performances and he needs to stay fit.

Hleb, 6: Enigmatic to say the least. So often the initial impetus for our attacks, he drifted out the game in the second half after an excellent first period. We need a big performance from him on Wednesday.

Denilson, 6: Huge potential, tackled well, distributed well, if looking a little bit rawer than a few of his last performances.

Fabregas, 7: No goals in the Premiership this season and his awful miss does not disturb that fact. That aside, he was excellent, and should have had an assist with a delightful chip over the defence to Walcott.

Freddie, 6: A good performance by his recent standards, but I really think that as an attacking player he does not bring enough to the team any more. His habit of falling over and complaining is also becoming quite wearisome.

Theo, 6.5: A much livelier performance, and he looked far more at ease as a striker. Could and perhaps should have scored, but if we can continue to expand his education while winning games, quite a player will be waiting for us in the near future.

Baptista, 7.5: Superb goal, and really offers something to the team. He does lose possession through a rather dubious first touch, but I'm growing increasingly convinced that he should be signed at the end of the season.


Aliadiere, 5: Ran around a lot and made a bit of nuisance of himself, but did not look like a real goal-threat. Living on borrowed time.

Diaby, 6: A brief, exciting cameo, with some wonderful turns and passes. Needs to be played centrally.

Senderos, n/a: I could be harsh and blame him for the goal, but I won't.

Fabregas's miss sums up Arsenal's season.

In many ways, an enigmatic victory on the weekend. A game we dominated, and won, yet one in which we still managed to look distinctly uneasy.

The first half summed up much of this season's frustrations, as we once again dominated without scoring. Hleb, who had a good first half, was often the player who provided the initial impetus for our best play, whether it was a delightful through ball for Baptista to set up the Fabregas miss, or a surging counter-attacking run which led to Freddie's poor miss when clean-through on goal.

Fabregas's miss encapsulated our season. We were dominant in possession, actually found not one, but two killer passes, yet lacked a clinical, cutting edge, even when presented with the most straightforward of chances. It could be called a 'freak' miss, and in many ways it is, but with Rosicky missing a similar chance earlier in the season, one has to wonder whether a basis lack of killer instinct when it comes to shooting has cost us points and games this season.

Freddie's ability to shoot has certainly gone, and his miss in an otherwise thrilling break was all too typical of his indifferent form. He certainly had a good game on Saturday, even beating a man for pace at one point, but his deficiencies still clearly outweigh his worth to the squad.

Just when it seemed it could be one of those days, we finally scored. Clichy, who has improved at an almost game-by-game rate, flew into the box before being clumsily brought down. Gilberto then managed to send the ball just past Hahnemann's finger-tips, and a sense of relief broke out in the crowd.

A lot of the tension that had been built from three losses in three competitions seemed to dissipate from the team, and moments later Walcott should have scored from a sensational through ball from Cesc.

And then up-stepped the Beast. After the game Hahnemann stated that the Reading players were bowled over by Baptista's physical presence and strength. Whilst his first touch often leaves a lot to be desired, his goal was a true power-house effort that no-one else in our squad would have scored. His tenacity, strength, and composure earned him and the team a goal from which we should have gone forward.

Instead, we let Reading back in the game with some pretty sloppy defending. Jens was even more incandescent than usual, barracking Hleb to the extent he was substituted - especially after a poor second period - and almost causing Gallas to square up to him.

Say what you will about Jens, but the team needed the rollicking to prevent lethargy denying us three points. Can you imagine Almunia doing that? Can you imagine Almunia pulling off a, frankly, stunning save from Sidwell to guarantee us the points? I can't and I hope Arsene
doesn't think so either.

So, in the end, it was a game which we desperately needed to win, but one in which we ended up playing rather desperately. And we'll have to play far better than that to turn over PSV on Wednesday, with or without a certain Frenchman.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arsenal do not have enough goalscorers.

Same old story with a different cast.

Arsenal, by far the better team in terms of passing, movement, verve and imagination, fail to do the one really, really, important, indeed quite fundamental thing, in football. Score. Maybe one day, football matches will have a panel of judges who give marks out of ten for artistic impression; until then Arsene needs to sort out the worrying lack of goals in this Arsenal squad.

Because beneath Henry, van Persie and Adebayor, who's going to score them? Rosicky and Gilberto have chipped in with a few but its not enough. Fabregas has not scored in the Premiership this season; Hleb's one shot last night went so far wide that it curled out for a throw in; Freddie is so far gone that you would think his leg was made out of wood if you watched the replay of the glorious opportunity he had.

Which is why I'm actually warming to Baptista. Granted, he had a howler in front of goal last night, heading over a golden opportunity, and squandering another ball which was floated into the box. But at least he's getting into those positions; at least he seems to realise that if a cross is put into the box, it might be an idea to stand there to receive it. He looks like he has goals in him, and if he could find some confidence and form I think he can become an asset for the team.

Others who played last night are ready to leave. Aliadiere, despite flashes of potential, won't make it. It's a shame because I like his attitude and he does perhaps the ability in him to make it for us, but he won't get enough goals, which is supposedly his main objective in the position he plays.

Freddie, despite the Bolton goal, was abysmal, squandering a golden opportunity he would have tucked home in his sleep during his pomp. A winger who hasn't the creativity or pace to beat players is a waste of space. An out and out left winger is desperately needed.

Of course, it could be argued that we lost yesterday due to some abysmal refereeing from Graham '3 cards' Poll. One definite penalty, and one probable penalty, was not given by this paragon of refereeing, who also allowed Blackburn to engage in their usual thuggery for most of the game. I counted around 6 or 7 vicious tackles by Tugay before he, reluctantly, was given a card. I advise you to check out today's Goodplaya to see the ludicrous double standards we're being subjected to at the moment.

But even if we'd been awarded a penalty, who would have taken it? If Arsenal had got to a penalty shoot-out last night, could five takers have been found? I'm not so sure anyone in the team last night would have filled me with confidence from the penalty spot.

The fact of the matter is that we don't have enough goalscorers in the team; we look too often like a team of midfielders. We're badly missing, as East Lower pointed out, the predatory instincts of RvP, because at least it feels with him as if goalscoring is his priority, which can't be said for too many other of our players.

Ultimately, we squandered our dominance and allowed Blackburn a chance, which, admittedly, was taken with considerable aplomb by McCarthy. A dire 1-0 it was, as I suggested yesterday.

This leaves us with only the Champions League and 3rd/4th to play for. And if we don't start scoring a few more goals, both will be a challenge.