Monday, April 30, 2007

An uninspiring win, but a win nonetheless.

It's rare to see a crowd so agitated and unhappy while their team is winning, but Arsenal somehow managed to do just that on Sunday, in another performance which raises as many causes for concern as hope.

The game started with a number of pleasant surprises. We scored first, Baptista not only hitting the target, but finding the back of the net in what may well be his last goal in Arsenal colours. 'Perhaps this is a new dawn for the Beast', many undoubtedly thought. A few minutes later, when he had resumed his customary practice of completely missing the target from positions in which he should score, these hopes were summarily crushed. Adios Julio; thanks for some of the memories.

Indeed, Arsenal quickly reverted to form: possession, possession, possession with no end product. Aside from Baptista's 'scorching' efforts, Cesc had an attempt which hit the target but contained no power, and Adebayor headed the ball almost directly at Niemi from close range, allowing the keeper to make a splendidly acrobatic save.

So, at half-time the boys traipsed in with only a one goal advantage, when the scoreline should have been at least 2 or 3 nil.

And when chances are spurned everything starts to become a little flat and dangerous. At our throw-ins, no one made runs for the man with the ball; Hleb, who was again pilloried for losing possession, at least tried to make runs forward or into attacking positions, unlike the rest of our often static players. Cesc tried to pull the strings, but too many of them remained stubbornly in place.

With more chances spurned, the defence started to dally when clearing from the back. It wasn't too much of a surprise then when Jens rushed from his area to try and clear the ball away: he'd clearly had enough of Toure and co. mincing about with the ball. Unfortunately, and oh so achingly predictably, Jens was then lobbed, and Fulham, by that point deservedly, were level.

Criticism could and perhaps should be levelled at Jens; he certainly seems to have made far more mistakes this season than last. But as I wrote in my last post, I sincerely think that this is due to the shakiness and complete lack of coherence in defence. Goodplaya had a rant about the defence in his last post, and I agree 100%. Individually, all are good-enough, but as a unit they just are not functioning. Certainly, the Toure-Gallas partnership must go, and, on current form, Kolo must feel the axe, I'm afraid. And, most importantly, a defensive coach - Keown? - must return and instil some discipline and order, especially at set-plays.

Jens's worth to the team was emphasised moments after the goal with a decent stop to keep the scores level. The team, as per usual, seemed to need to concede before really sparking out of their collective lethargy, and moments later Adey got a goal.

Adebayor put in a very decent performance on Sunday, even if he still needs a few too many warm up chances before he puts one away. Next to a better striker he will better, and at only 22 I'm growing ever more optimistic about how good this guy could become.

A few minutes later, Hleb's complete and rather cowardly refusal to shoot, saw old-boy Volz bring him down in the area, and Gilberto applied the gloss to a rather uninspiring victory.

Problems are still in evidence almost everywhere therefore, despite the win. The defence is a near shambles; the midfield don't work for each other nearly enough; Baptista still isn't good enough. Diaby, also, was absolutely awful. He can't help being played out of position on the left, but he could have done more, and his overall performance was massively disappointing. Maybe Arsene will stop playing central midfielders out of position one day, but I'm not so sure.

Clichy, on the other hand, was my Man of the Match. He was effervescent, superb going forward, and also firm at the back. It's performances like those which have progressively endeared me to him to this season, and which give me, as with Adebayor, great hope for next year.

So a win is a win is a win. But it might have been oh so much better. And it will have to be next Sunday, when I hope a few players realise 100% is required across all ninety minutes.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why I'm glad Jens is staying.

Well it would seem the Krazy old German is with us for another year, and I for one am thrilled.

Look long and hard at that photo and remember what he's capable of, and watch this video to remember how important he is to our team.

He hasn't quite been in the, to be frank, player of the season form he was in last year, but to suggest that he's suddenly become a has-been or is now expendable is rubbish.

Firstly, he's pulled out game-winning, top-quality saves on several occasions this year - Sidwell vs Reading, Solksjaer at Old Trafford to name a few. Granted, he was erratic last week at the Lane last week, but he's marshalling, without much credit, a pretty leaky defence at the moment, composed of inexperienced full-backs and a centre-back partnership which hasn't hit it off.

Furthermore, to contend that Jens's form has slipped due to the absence of an international championship to look forward to is ludicrous. Few players in the current Arsenal team wants to win every game as much as Jens. He may have a, to put it mildly, rather confrontational way of motivating the team, but its good to see when the rest of our players seem so mild-mannered.

Comparisons with the over-extension of Seaman's contract are disingenous. Lehmann has not suffered the series of injuries Seaman did, which seriously affected the latter's form after the contract-extension too far. Lehmann is a better and less damaged player than Seaman was at similar ages.

And despite talk of the like of the Pele in France, Craig Gordon, and Akineev, there remains a possibility Wenger might just plump for upgrading Almunia which would be a disaster: he is not a first XI player, and we are kidding ourselves if we think he is capable of making the jump.

Too often in the past Wenger has been right to sell or release, but has not replaced, and another year gives him another year to line-up a permanent successor. We can't make the mistake of casting off another invincible if we're not going to replace him with a similar level of quality.

For me, I'd love us to somehow sign Craig Gordon, but keep Jens for another year as well. I'm not sure how the logistics of this would work, but having a year in which to blood a new keeper, while having Jens as our No. 1 would be the best situation. Of course, with keepers, it's always hard to do this, so maybe a sign and a loan - a la Foster or Carson - would be an idea.

Finally, it'll be nothing but entertaining; Jens can at least guarantee that and I'm glad we have a year in which to plot a fitting farewell for someone I consider a true Arsenal legend.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

'All that glisters is not gold': the great Arsenal takeover mystery

Quite a week, eh?

David Dein, Our most prominent board member, and Arsene's best mate (Trademark), is sacked from the board, prompting mass hysteria and suggestions that the club is on the verge of a takeover.

Peter 'legend' Hill-Wood, says that he will not allow the club to be sold 'across the Atlantic' to those who know 'sweet FA' about 'our' football.

Stan Kroenke buys more shares in the club, and sends a letter out to the Arsenal Supporters Trust, undoubtedly as a precursor to an attempt to buy the 10% or so of shares that small-shareholders control. His stake now lies at just over 12%, with the sale of Dein's 14% stake to Kroenke being just a matter of time.

Arsene is forced to publicly state that he will honour his contract, while remaining cagey on his long-term future. However, his statements about 'his decision' in appointing a sporting director seem to imply he will renew his deal in 2008. Arsene also, contradicting earlier comments, comes out in favour of a takeover.

Phew. So much for us being the 'stable' club of English football.

Whilst I have previously come out in favour of a takeover, now, I have to admit, I'm sharing PHW's views. Is a transfer kitty enough to justify the sale of our club's history and its values? 'All that glisters is not gold', after all.

Of course, many would claim we have already sold out, playing in our 'Emirates' stadium. But a bit of advertising is not the same as a full sale of the club, and it would be disingenuous to compare the two.

Would Arsene even use a transfer budget if presented with it? Our biggest signings in recent years have largely been failures: Reyes and Wiltord. Only Henry has justified his +£10m price tag. Would the ability to buy a few nice trinkets really be worth a takeover? Isn't Arsene's youth policy actually quite a proud and respectable way to go about business?

And what of Kroenke, or 'silent' Stan as he's known? Is he another Glazer? He certainly seems to be at the moment, with his calvacade of US sports clubs and quiet public persona. Has he got the stomach to launch a messy hostile takeover, and what would it say about him if he did? If he and Dein were in cahoots, and secretly plotting behind the board's back, do we really want his sort? Do we really want Dein back if he's willing to act in this way? And how is Kroenke planning to finance the takeover? By taking on debt? Do we want a Glazer situation of a highly-leveraged buy-out on top of large stadium debts? How would that actually benefit the club?

I would suggest it would not, and certainly not in the way many fans hope a takeover would benefit us; but I think a takeover, or at least a serious takeover attempt, will occur. For all the talk of the board resisting a bid, and refusing to sell for twelve months, Kroenke can still push up his stake in the club to a level were a takeover would be necessary for the health of the club. If Kroenke gets to 40%+ shares, the board will sell, even if it is in a year's time.

Of course a takeover can still be resisted, but I wonder if the board really have the stomach for a fight in the long-term. It's sad to contemplate, but maybe our club is just another potential money-spinner for a rich individual, who knows nothing of football apart from its money-making potential.

So I'm with PHW. Call me a little Englander, or someone blind to the contemporary nature of football, but I want my club to be run by people who genuinely care about it. Who care about it on a level higher than money. People, like me, who would pay to come and watch the game if they weren't a shareholder. Call me a cynic, but you are not one of these people Mr Kroenke, and I'm not sure if I want you near my team.

Arsenal dominate but don't win. Again.

First up, don't go and watch Arsenal Spuds games in south-east london. For certain reasons, I found myself dahn sarf at midday yesterday and rushed to a nearby pub that I knew would be showing the match. On arrival, at least half the pub was spuds; at least. And many were the worst sort: they celebrated at half time as if it was full time; they screamed 'seedahn' every time we had a chance; they repeatedly sung the Wenger is a.... chant. Sometimes a little part of me feels sorry for the spuds - never in the title race, always choking; at others I remember what a sizeable portion of their fan-base is like, and I think they have the club they deserve.

Anyway, to football, where, yet again, we dominate a game, create hundreds of chances, but are punished for a lack of cutting edge.

The first half was a reasonably balanced affair, with Adey having a goal wrongly (?) disallowed and Keane sneaking in at the back post to punish some poor defending from a corner. Both Jens and Clichy were at fault for the goal, and whilst Keane's finish was instinctive we shouldn't be conceding sloppy goals like that. Jens, who had a middling game, needs to be better at command ing his area. His antics, which usually help us, hindered our performance yesterday, and contributed to the delays which led to Jenas's 94th minute strike.

But before the half was out Adebayor should have scored, as he blazed over when presented with an open goal. It's misses like that which make me have sympathy for David James's idea of performance related pay for footballers. To be fair to Adey, he never stopped trying despite his efforts hitting posts and being disallowed. He's a real asset to the squad, and hopefully next year he'll have more of a chance to play next to strikers who can actually score.

The defining moment of the match was undoubtedly Freddie's substitution. The team doesn't quite click without Cesc pulling the strings, and despite a superb performance from Diaby, it's clear why Arsene plays Cesc in almost every game. Both our goals came from Cesc-pieces (i'm sorry couldn't resist). That hasn't happened for a long time, and it was nice to see us vary our play, but Cesc's overall performance was a joy to behold. With our utter second half dominance, an equaliser seemed on the cards, and our overall performance should have meant that Adey's goal was a winner.

But when you squander the chances we had, pressure builds, and the chance is always there of the last minute reprieve that the spuds snatched. Also, when a striker like Baptista is up-front, chances are, seemingly, always going to be mised. Despite my hopes, he is clearly not good enough, and with his rant this week about English weather, i'd be very surprised to see him stay.
At half-time I was genuinely fearing defeat; by full-time I was gutted with a draw. Such is football. It was an encouraging performance nonetheless, with several players really shining. Diaby bestrode the midfield and looks a real prospect; Eboue not only looked good going forward but kept Lennon in his pocket; Cesc, even with the flu, dictated the game.

After a thoroughly depressing series of results, we've had two wins and a draw that should have been a win in a week. We've finally started scoring, and we've repeatedly shown enough spirit and desire to drag ourselves back from going one goal down. The defence still looks too leaky for my liking, but it now seems conceivable that we're going to end the season with a flourish. If we could win our remaining three games, and get everyone back to fitness, next season might be very interesting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Let's keep up winning and scoring ways.

The relief at the end of the Bolton game was palpable. Finally, we'd beaten a team who we'd more or less outplayed. Of course, we should have won by 3or 4 goals to one. Take a bow Messrs Diaby, Hleb and Baptista: your finishing was truly woeful.

We had the chances in the opening five minutes of the second half to wrap up the game quite comfortably; that we only took one of these, Cesc's superb, if convoluted finish, made for a distinctly uneasy second period. Bolton always seemed one set-piece away from equalising, and given that the oaf that is Kevin Davies suddenly decided that hitting keepers over the head is fine - why has no one spoken of this incident aside from on Arsenal blogs? English exceptionalism per chance? - it was wonderful when the final whistle went.

Clearly we need to build on the major positive: our midfield has started scoring. Rosicky is a class act and his goal seemed to show an Arsenal midfielder finally driving hard into the box and really wanting a goal. He should get a minimum of ten next season, or he's not fulfilling his potential. Cesc should also be in double figures. It's bizarre that after starting the season with two wonderful finishes in Zagreb, Cesc has struggled to find the net. But his goal-tally should also increase with time. Which leaves the Hleb enigma. Now widely derided, it would seem, by the majority of Gooners, it was a defence splitting pass from Alex which allowed Adey to cross the ball for the first goal. He does have a role in the team; but will it ever be a goal-scoring one? And if it isn't, is he expendable?

Freddie had his best game in a long-time, but again could not find the net. My money would be on Ribery coming in as his replacement come summer. As for poor Abou, his head was down at the end of the game, after three poor misses.

I particularly appreciated the moments when our midfielders finally made surging runs forward, instead of merely passing the ball horizontally. Rosicky and Cesc have the power to make these runs and should make more of them. They unsettle defenders in a way passing sometimes doesn't.

At the back Kolo's contradictory form continued. Beaten in the air and outmuscled for the first goal, he still looks a class defender. But can him and Gallas really form a top-class, complementary partnership together? I'm not so sure. I would also hope that Arsene is thinking hard about the future of our right-backs. We've been linked to Daniel Alves again, who seems a Wenger signing, and would surely be an improvement on either Hoyte or Eboue, neither of whom are more than squad players.

Tonight we need to hope our midfield chips in with a few more goals, for a win which would further cement fourth place. Let's hope we can finally start to build some consistency, even if it has come far too late.

In other news, what is going on with Kerry Gilbert?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Suddenly a takeover doesn't feel like such a bad idea.

I wasn't able to attend yesterday's game, but did I really miss anything? An opposing team scoring the first goal with virtually their only shot? Check. Us peppering their goal with shots, despite the complete reluctance of some of our players to shoot? Check. Us equalising? no. And that, unfortunately, was the major difference between yesterday's game and about, at least, half our other home performances this season.

Arsene has come out after the game and said it was 'unbelievable' that we didn't score. Really? I find it eminently believable. I watched us dominant game after game this season without scoring. I've watched us been knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League due to an inability to score, despite, basically, controlling both games.

And does Arsene really find it unbelievable that some of our players aren't scoring? I'm beginning to wonder if Alexander Hleb's family will be killed if he takes a shot on goal. I still rate him as a player, but without goalscorers playing next to him, he seems to exacerbate problems. All the potential difficulties I noted when we signed Rosicky have come to fruition: he is a great player, but Arsene is wasting him on the left and he, as well, hasn't got the goals Bobby got even last year, let alone in his pomp. Cesc is at least trying to score but he's not their yet.

And at the moment we have strikers who don't score goals, almost a philosohpical paradox. We can continue to posit the 'any team would struggle without their two best forwards' line and it is justifiable to an extent. But United and Chelsea have goals throughout their team in a way we simply don't.

Arsene is simply deluding himself if he thinks players such as Freddie, Aliadiere or Baptista will consistently get goals. They won't; they should leave in the summer and replacements from outside the club must be brought it, not just youngsters promoted to fill the void.

Through the failings of our squad we've blown the Champion's League race wide open. And, as Arseblogger has said, let's not underestimate what a disaster it would be if we didn't qualify. Top players don't want to play for UEFA Cup clubs. Finishing fifth could start a spiral of decline, or of at least mediocrity and empty seats at the Grove.

Amidst all our current woes is the still slightly shadowy figure of Stan Kroenke; a man with a clear interest in purchasing the club. It's clear that a man like Kroenke is going to stop at a 10% stake: he is a sports team owner, not investor. He has a mass of sports clubs in the US under his ownership already, and like any sensible businessman, he's seeking to diversify and extend his portfolio into the lucrative British football market.

We are prime for a takeover and, whilst I never thought I'd say it, maybe it would be for the best. The current board have done a magnificent job in building one of the finest stadiums in the world. But do they have the energy to push the club to the next level? Kroenke seems to be a sensible businessman. He's not going to treat the club like an Abramovich-esque plaything; he'll want to balance the books and make a profit, which can only, really, be done by the club being successful.

I expect Kroenke to launch a £500 million takeover bid within the year, which would fully value the club, given our debt, at around £750 million - a colossal figure, dwarfing Liverpool's recent takeover, and only just shy of the Glazer purchase of United. Only one of Fiszman, Dein and Bracewell needs to sell for a mandatory bid to become a reality, and Fiszman looks the likeliest to sell first given reports which continue to surface.

The logistics of any takeover can't be commented on until prospectuses are issued, and issues such as levels of debt financing are known. I'll say this know though: Arsenal fans aren't stupid and neither are the Arsenal board, and we'll know if an individual or business is trying to destroy the values of the club for mere profitability. Such a takover will be resisted, I would hope, by fans and shareholders alike. Any takeover which saddled the club with levels of debt financing seen in the Glazer deal is unacceptable.

But a takeover, and hopefully the cash that came with it, might be what we need to turn around the club's on-pitch fortunes at the moment. We need new ideas, and Arsene must realise sooner, rather than later, that a lot of our current bunch aren't good enough, and are not going to become the type of players we need to win trophies. The club may have reached a critical points in its development and the rest of the year might prove to be interesting, even if the current season is becoming increasingly tortuous.

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Flamini's off: should we be upset?

I'm coming to the end of a cycle.

I've spent three years at Arsenal and my solicitor has advised me that I can leave from the month of June.

But for that to happen, I have to give the club the last year of my salary.

The Arsenal team is young and it has its qualities but I'm playing less these days.

It's not easy to take and I'm in a situation where every player is asking themselves questions.

The words of Matthieu Flamini who, less than a year ago, was nigh on integral in our run to the Champions League final.

But should we be upset if he does depart?

Matthieu has many qualities - an outstanding work-rate that many of our other players might take note of being among his best attributes. He is a tidy, if not spectacular midfielder, and is one of the few players we have who doesn't seem reluctant to take the occasional shot on goal.

Twice this season I've been very impressed with him: Chelsea away and Liverpool away in the FA Cup. Both performances were quietly solid, and he capped his performance at the Bridge with a fine goal.

And his versatility, or should I say previous versatility, has also been an asset, with Matthieu often playing in defence last year.

But Matthieu clearly made his mind-up at the beginning of this season that he would not become our Phil Neville; he would not be the 'do-a-job' squad member, endlessly shunted around the team depending on who was injured that week. Matthieu must have told Arsene, 'play me in central-midfield or don't play me at all', and in some ways you have to admire his attitude. It's not ingratitude, it's a recognition of the damage that can be done to a player who is unable to establish himself in one position.

Unfortunately for the Flamster, Arsene clearly thinks there are at least 4-5 players before him in the queue for central berths: Fabregas, Gilberto, Diaby, Denilson, and, perhaps, even Alex Song when and if he returns. While the first four players, at least, are more skilful than Flamini, do we really want to release one of the few players in our squad with the drive and determination Flamini often shows? Might he have been a better option than Denilson on Saturday, even if Denilson does, ultimately, develop into a superior player?

On balance, his departure would not be a huge loss as he is a replaceable sort of player. But if he does leave, I would like to see Arsene buy to replace him. What the squad seems to be missing is players of the Parlour and Grimandi mould: not technically the most gifted, but often vital to the strength and spirit of the side. And if Flamini is to go, we need a mature, experienced player of this type to come in, because you have to wonder about the club's future if Arsene merely promotes another youngster instead.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Where do Arsenal go from Anfield?

It's hard to know what to write after a match like the one on Saturday. To be so convincingly outplayed and humiliated is always hard to take, especially after the wonderful performances we'd pulled out earlier in the season at Anfield; those, as I wrote earlier, of the 'false idols'.

The only comparable defeats in recent years that I can think of were the 6-1 in Manchester, and the 3-1 in Munich. Both performances showed that a crop of players were no longer good enough to win trophies for the club. In the wake of the defeat in Manchester we went on to win two titles and a handful of FA cups; the jury is still out whether Wenger has really improved the team post-Munich.

Because it seems clear that a lot of players have, or should have, question marks over their place in the team.

Normally it's the midfield which is the source of our ire, but on Saturday it was clearly the defence that must take the bulk of the blame. Is Eboue really good enough defensively, despite his crosses? Can Kolo and Gallas play together, or do we have a Gerrard/Lampard/overly-similar player situation occurring? I would suggest that given Kolo's current form, a partnership of Senderos and Gallas or Djouorou and Gallas might be preferable. Certainly, Kolo at centre-back is no longer an automatic selection. Gallas played poorly, but he's missing Terry's aerial dominance and he's the best defender in our squad otherwise; indeed the whole team is missing a defender who can dominate in the air. Despite his injury record, if Woodgate is available we should be in for him.

And now on to the midfield. What struck me watching the United-Blackburn game was how many United players stood up to be counted when they fell behind. Could any Arsenal midfielder have scored Scholes's goal, one which was as much about sheer guts and determination as ability? When a player like Carrick is outscoring our midfield, something is clearly wrong.

Indeed the nullifying of our midfield appeared stupefyingly simple for Liverpool. Get tight on Cesc, don't let him pull the strings, and let apathy, indifference and inexperience do the rest. Cesc has become too central to our success, and we need a plan B for if he's off form, or not allowed into the game. Denilson has shown that he has considerable ability, but he should not be playing this many games so young. Neither should Cesc, nor Diaby, who, again, was completely wasted on the left. We need goalscoring wingers, not just central midfielders converted to inside lefts/rights. Hleb was poor again, and he is increasingly looking like a luxury. The last decent performance from him was Bolton away in the FA Cup and his struggles have become worrying, especially as he never looks like scoring.

Up front, Baptista is not taking his chances. Simple as that. He's getting into half-decent positions, but there's only so many times a player can miss before you wonder if he will ever be a consistent goalscorer. Adebayor was the bright spark of the team and deserved a goal. If Dudek had been playing, he would have had one.

So where now? Fourth place again? Maybe not even that is secure but I can't even contemplate not getting it. And even if we were to get it, and despite some excellent performances this season, its hard to say whether we've improved. About this time last year, we seemed on an upward wave and I was genuinely excited about the club's future. Now, I have to admit, I'm not so sure. Sure, we have bags of youth and potential, but when will it gel? Can we face another trophy-less season next year? How long can players like Fabregas accept fourth place?

It's good to see some harsh words from Arsene this week on the unacceptability of Saturday's recent capitulation. I think a re-think is necessary. Because otherwise it's hard to see how we'll get off this plateau.