Friday, August 31, 2007

Craig Murray on Alisher Usmanov: not nice reading.

Craig Murray was formerly British ambassador to Uzbekistan and knows a thing or two about the current state of Russian and Central Asian politics.

In this article (unfortunately published in the Daily Mail) he talks about the growing reliance of the UK on Russian energy. However, the bits I have cut out the portions that should interest gooners the most:

Putin signed an agreement with Turkmenistan to expand a pipeline and massively increase the transit of Central Asian gas through Russia.

Key to this triumph has been Alisher Usmanov and his Gazprominvest Holdings. This subsidiary is the channel for massive slush funds. In November 2004, for example, a payment of £44million to Gulnara, the daughter of President Karimov of Uzbekistan, secured that country’s gas contracts for Gazprom from under the noses of the US.

In return for the cash, Putin instructed Karimov to kick out a US military base that dominated Central Asia, and Gazprom secured the strategic kingpin to dominate the Central Asian and Caucasus gas reserves.

Usmanov has become close to former German Chancellor Schröder through the Nordstream project. Analysts believe this has sparked a determined drive by the Schroeder’s political allies to persuade the EU to remove sanctions against Uzbekistan.

These sanctions were imposed following the Andijan massacre in which 700 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by Karimov’s troops in May 2005. It also appears to explain a waning of German support for the rival Caucasus pipeline project.

I ask Kuprianov what precisely are the roles of Schroeder and Alisher Usmanov within Gazprom. Again, he is surprisingly candid.

‘Herr Schröder is chairman of Nordstream. His role is to use his influence with European governments to persuade them to support the Nordstream project and to remove political difficulties. Alisher Usmanov is not connected to Gazprom, but to a subsidiary, Gazprominvest Holdings. Mr Usmanov’s skills as a financier are well known. He devises vehicles for handling our most difficult and sensitive financial transactions.’

I had known from my own intelligence sources while British Ambassador in Uzbekistan that Usmanov was in charge of Gazprom bribery and slush funds. I had not expected Kuprianov to come so close to saying it straight out.

Usmanov is therefore a link between Putin and Karimov. Karimov has been 'president' of Uzbekistan since 1991, and in that time has been repeatedly criticised for human rights violations.

Usmanov is, it would seem, a supporter of a tyrant and has been extensively involved in bribery and slush funds.

Thank you again David Dein. You have clearly been meticulous in choosing who to invest in our club.

Dein sells Arsenal down the river to satisfy his own ego & Usmanov profile.

David Dein cannot be trusted. That has now become abundantly and painfully clear. First of all, he tries to get an American sports owner in behind the board's back; now, after being ousted from the board for that act of dishonesty, he's involved a Russian crook to financially back his seemingly unswerving desire to become chairman of our club.

He has literally whored himself to the market and found, it would seem, anyone who will give him the money to finance a takeover bid that will lead to him being chairman, without a thought to the traditions and principles upon which Arsenal football club was built.

There's a lot that needs to be said about Dein personally. About how trading in Arsenal shares bailed him out of his failed sugar trading venture in the late 1980s. About how that sugar venture failed due to his involvement with a fraudster. About how he's lived off the PR of recruiting Arsene Wenger, and their subsequent friendship, for ten years. That article will be written over the coming days.

For now, let's take a look at the lovely man who now, thanks to David Dein, owns almost 15% of our club: Alisher Usmanov.

Now, let me speculate. I'm going out on a limb here, but I should imagine Usmanov is not an Arsenal supporter. More than that, I imagine he wouldn't even be able to locate the stadium on a map, tell you who Dennis Bergkamp is, who Charlie George is, or indeed anything about the club's history. Well, aside the facts his PR men have told him. His heart and soul is hardly welded to the club; what's he going to do when the going gets tough?

No, Mr Usmanov is only interested in the money and power that Arsenal football club can give him. The financial return is easier to understand, but don't underestimate the power he can and also wield if he controls one of the world's biggest clubs, especially if his pal Roman is controlling Chelsea just down the road. He will gain a level of political immunity that the Russian oligarchs are realising that purely business assets cannot give them.

He had this to say about his usual business strategy:

“All our projects work the old-fashioned way. We borrow money and invest it in a new company that is as a rule either in a state of bankruptcy or in serious financial trouble. After gaining control over its assets, we improve its finances so that we can make a profit off its future activity. After a certain period of time, we return the money to lenders."

So, he's clearly marked us out as an operation he can turn round and make money off. This money will not go back into the team, club or community, but back to banks and his already considerable back pocket. The man is worth over $5.5 billion, after all. At this level, he is interested in the club as a 'financial investment', not as a sporting operation which means much more than that to the millions of Arsenal fans around the globe.

But let's get personal. This man is a crook and possibly a gangster. He's a man who was 'wrongfully' imprisoned in the 1980s for extortion, and spent 6 years, yes 6 years, in a Soviet detention camp. Of course, as his lawyers have pointed out, he was wrongfully imprisoned. I wouldn't be surprised if they claimed he was the Uzbek Nelson Mandela.

Since then, he has made his fortune in the bandit capitalism of 1990s Russia, investing in the metals, mining and media sectors in particular. It is around this time that it is alleged that Usmanov made substantial connections with the Russian underworld; it has even been suggested that the British National Criminal Intelligence Service was monitoring him at this point for alleged links to mafia figures.

On the arrival of Putin, Usmanov cottoned on pretty quickly - unlike his compatriot Mikhail Khordokovsky - that to do business in Russia nowadays, you tow the Kremlin line. And while he has denied it, his purchase of Kommersant - a major Russian business paper - at the same time that Putin was re-monopolising state control of the Russian media is a pretty big coincidence, one Usmanov has been forced to deny. After all, this is what happens to journos who don't agree with Putin's policies.

So, here's man who's been imprisoned, who's helped erode freedom of speech in Russia, who's best mates with the lovely Mr Putin, who's undoubtedly made his money in the shall we say 'slightly' shady ways that the other oligarchs did, and who has been consistently linked to the Russian mafia.

You can say that there's a lot of speculation in this article, and there is. But this is only because every Russian oligarch, including our friend Roman, is notoriously secretive about their pasts. I'd love to know more about how Mr Usmanov went from being a convicted felon to a multi-billionaire in the space of a few years, but the information is simply not out there. And whilst its a cliche, in this case there is certainly no smoke without a quite considerable fire.

I would say a few things. One, this man does not have the interests of the club in any way at heart. He is only thinking of himself, how the club can financially benefit him and, as importantly, how it can politically protect him from meeting the same fate as Khordokovsky. The purchase will raise his persona and protect him from any tenuous 'fraud' charges.

His nationality, and I will say this clearly now, has nothing to do with it. If he was English and had led the same life I would say exactly the same thing. It's who he is, not where's he's from that bothers me. Sometimes money, despite what it can bring you, is tainted. His certainly is.

Ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself is this: even if this man can bring us trophies, does selling the heart and soul of our football club in return constitute a fair deal? I don't think it does and I would say this to Mr Usmanov in the vain hope he's reading:

Fuck off. You know nothing of our club and its history. You are not needed nor wanted.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dein's Arsenal shares sold for £75 million.

This has just been released:


Red and White Holdings Limited ("Red & White") today announces that it has
purchased a 14.58% stake in Arsenal Holdings plc ("Arsenal") from David Dein for
£75m, and that it has appointed David Dein as its Chairman. Red & White also
announces that it has committed funds to enable it to increase its stake in
Arsenal. However, Red & White confirms that it has no current intention to make
a takeover offer for Arsenal or to acquire a shareholding in Arsenal which would
trigger an obligation to make a takeover offer for Arsenal save as set out in
note 1 below.

Red & White is an investment company established specifically to hold equity
interests in Arsenal. Red & White is jointly owned by Mr Alisher Usmanov, a
leading Russian businessman, and Mr Farhad Moshiri, a London-based investor and
long time business associate of Mr Usmanov.

In his role as Chairman David Dein will develop proposals to support the future
success of Arsenal and will focus on increasing Red & White's stake in Arsenal
as outlined above. Red & White believes that in light of the fast-changing
landscape for football, both in the UK and globally, it will be able to assist
Arsenal and ensure that it will be able to thrive in the future and become the
leading football club in the world. Specifically, Red & White believes that in
order to remain competitive at the top level of the game, Arsenal will require
access to significant funding.

Additionally, Red & White believes that the continued involvement of Arsene
Wenger, over and above any renewed contract, is vital to the future success of
the club.

Red & White intends to approach the Board of Arsenal in the near future to
discuss its ideas, to understand the future direction of Arsenal and to explore
areas of potential cooperation.

Commenting on the announcement, Farhad Moshiri said:

"We are very excited not only to secure a significant stake in one of the
world's most famous football clubs but also to have secured the involvement of
David Dein for the future. Arsenal is a great club with huge potential and we
look forward to increasing our stake and exploring ways to help support the
future development of the club for the benefit of all fans and shareholders."

David Dein, Chairman of Red & White, added:

"I have always had the best interests of Arsenal at heart - I've had a love
affair with the club since I was six. I firmly believe that the involvement of
Red & White with a significant stake and the long-term commitment of Arsene
Wenger are absolutely the best outcome for the club, fans and shareholders
alike. I am delighted to have found, in Farhad Moshiri and Alisher Usmanov,
individuals who share my vision for Arsenal and of where it needs to go to be
the world's leading football club."


So not Beresovsky, but another very rich Russian. And Dein is still involved.

Haven't time to comment further on it at the moment, but will later.

This values the equity of the club at just over £500 million, and, given Arsenal's net financial liabilities of around £230-250 million, attributes a total value to the club of around £750 million.

Interesting? Worrying?

Arsenal massacre Sparta, but tactical problems remain.

As I said yesterday, the first goal in last night's game was always going to be crucial. A quick Spartan goal, and we might have been under the cosh a bit. As it was, we pinged in an early goal and the remainder of the game turned into a pre-season friendly.

The return of Gilberto to central midfield brought some much needed stability to proceedings, but the performances of a few other players was worrying.

Diaby still seems to think he has ten minutes on the ball every time he collects it, and even then he often gives the ball away. I still see a lot of potential in him, but the way he conducts himself sometimes seems to strike me as lazy. I know I'm being critical but I think he could improve his attitude a little.

van Persie is searching for a partner. Him and Eduardo did not go to plan last night, although obviously it's far too early to completely rule out the possiblity of the two of them working together. So far, Bendtner seems to be the only one capable of really giving Robin the ball where he wants it. Some of my doubts about his attitude and selfishness are resurfacing, I have to say.

I also would have like to have seen Bendtner more involved last night and I worry that Arsene is not using him enough. He's going to be a fantastic player, but he's very different to what we currently have; a good thing, I feel. Whether Arsene thinks so as well, I'm not sure, and it would be a terrible waste to not implement Nicklas's talent properly. He will be a success somewhere; I hope it's with us.

At the back, I would say that Senderos and Hoyte both did what was asked of them. Hoyte will probably never be more than a squad player, but he's a very good one to have around. Phil has the potential to be first XI, and after a difficult year last season, he really has a chance to prove himself again. I hope he does.

Theo had a bit of an odd game. He started brightly with an assist, and some zippy running and passes, before descending into obscurity. His crossing notably dipped in quality, and seemed to involve punting the ball into the air as high as possible at times. Odd. So encouraging signs from Theo, even if they only came sporadically.

Eduardo, overall, did well, especially after Fabregas came on. He provided a lovely assist to Fab, before scoring a goal INSIDE THE SIX YARD BOX at the end. I've capitalised this freak occurance, such is its importance. Maybe the fox in the box has finally arrived, after years of searching by Wenger. Moreover, the fact he looks fairly comfortable on the left-wing, means we may have finally found a Bobby mark II. Here's hoping.

Fabregas also took his goal well and touchingly dedicated it to Puerta. I've debated this with others, but I'm still of the mind that there should have been a period of silence before the games last night.

So we're through to the more lucrative rounds and our odyssey to Moscow can properly begin; I hope. It was nice, if a little boring, to have a comfortable win, even if the role of certain players in the team remains slightly fuzzy. Onward to Russia!

A major pointer to Arsenal's future to be announced this afternoon.

My good friends over at Arseblog and Gunnerblog have their ears to the ground a lot more than me, and have found out that David Dein is to have a press conference this afternoon.

It could mean that the play we were all expecting, Dein selling to Kroenke as the first stage in a takeover bid, is about to transpire.

However, other names, darker names, have been mentioned, chief among them - and I stress this is merely a rumour at the moment - Boris Berezovsky.

This man cannot become involved in our club. He is a crook and a gangster. He acquired his business skills and empire in the bandit capitalism that gripped Russia during the 1990s. He is, however much he denies it, probably the force behind MSI, the group responsible for the Tevez and Mascherano debacles. He has suffered several assassination attempts, the most recent occuring in July of this year.

Moreover, the only man to attempt to investigate Berezovsky's murky past was murdered. In 2004, Paul Klebnikov, who wrote the book 'Godfather of the Kremlin' was shot dead in Moscow.

I won't write any more on this man for now, as it's too early to tell what's going on, but even I would prefer Kroenke to him.

Here's hoping tonight's conference isn't too unsettling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Adriano, Jens and 300, the sequel; Antonio Puerta RIP.

First things first: comment must be made about the alleged Adriano transfer. And when I say alleged, it was definitely offered: Arsene doesn't comment in the way he did unless something was put on the table.

The exact details seem unclear. It seems we were offered Adriano on a year long loan, while Inter wanted either Rosicky or Flamini in return. Whether they wanted those players on loans or permanent deals, I'm also unsure.

To my mind, Arsene was right to turn this deal down; the last Brazillian we had on year-long loan hardly worked out, and Baptista was in a lot better shape than Adriano. To put things simply, Adriano is overweight and has an appalling work ethic. He has obvious, devastating talent, but he's in the process of wasting it. We probably do need another striker, but I would be loath to lose Rosicky, or even Flamini, on a player we would have to rehabilitate with no guarantee of reward.

Another player who won't be leaving the club is Jens, despite some fairly scurrilous reporting in the media overnight. Whether he's injured or not is, obviously, a matter of contention, but Arsene would be stupid to let him go now. I'm fairly sure, unless Almunia suddenly starts to display Cech-esque abilities, that Jens will be back between the sticks in two or three weeks time. Hopefully this period of chastening will sharpen his form.

The Spartans return tonight, but this is no Thermopylae, especially as Repka is out injured. Whilst I don't think the game will be a repeat of Liverpool's walk in the park last night, I would be surprised if we were tested too stringently by Sparta. Who knows, an early goal could make things uncomfortable, but, and similarly, an early goal from us could turn the game into a training match.

Personally, I'm hoping to see the likes of Bendtner, Diaby and Walcott given a chance. Perhaps the game might be a good occassion for Eduardo to open his Arsenal account. I also hope that the Spartans don't try and inflict any serious injuries on us after the brutal game in Prague.

Finally, I'd like to mention Antonio Puerta. Purely by chance, I watched the Seville game in a local pub and saw Antonio collapse. I've never seen first hand something happen like this in sport before and I have to admit to being rather affected by it.

By all accounts Antonio was a lovely guy and a wonderful player. I can also say with some certainty that he had, or even was, been monitored by Arsenal scouts.

It's at times like this that, as fans, we have to look past the essentially petty divisions between clubs and recognise that what has happened affects all football supporters. It is an unmitigated tragedy and, as such, I would like to forward my heartfelt condolences, and those of my readers, towards Antonio's family and friends. Rest in peace mate.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Are the draws turning into wins?

It's funny how a goal and a win can change the perception of a match. For 80 minutes yesterday, Arsenal built pressure and had shots on goals without scoring and flattered to deceive. A 0-0, perhaps worse, seemed on the cards.

And then the little Catalan steps up, works his magic, and a game we might have drawn last year is three points. A win is a win, but its games like these that we should be winning more comfortably, and the team still seems to lack a little coherency and balance.

Credit where it's due though: City have improved massively. Richards and Dunne are as good a centre-back partnership that exists in the premiership, and with better players in front of him, Elano would have had an assist. One thing does need to be cleared up: Schmeichel did not have a good game. He was protected by a superb defence, and when he was tested he flapped and parried. His penalty save was illegal (he was about five metres off his line when it was taken) and not very difficult (RvP hit it straight at him). Just because his dad was good doesn't mean he was 'impressive'; he wasn't.

A few things in particular need to be said about our performance. Firstly, the Djourou loan is increasingly looking like madness. We have, at current, one fit centre-back at the club. Gilberto is not a centre-back and looked uncomfortable there.

Secondly, while he can 'do-a-job' there, Flamini is not a right-back. He was particularly guilty of allowing Petrov acres of space which a better played would have punished.

Hleb was our man of the match. Cesc may have scored, but Hleb won a penalty, got an assist., and caused all sorts of trouble. Finally, I think, people are starting to give him some credit, and he's been outstanding so far this year. Yes, Hleb can lose the ball; but at times he looks like the only one of our players who wants to make something happen. His continued unwillingness to shoot remains my major criticism of him, but this seems to be gradually changing.

Almunia was solid, yet only had two real saves to make. The jury remains out, but he didn't put a foot wrong yesterday.

Rosicky is becoming a worry. He's not scoring, even though he's been afforded chances. Personally, I don't think a right-footed central midfielder should be playing on the left. We so clearly need a left-winger, I would almost see it as wilfully negligent of Arsene not to go for broke and try to sign one in the next few days.

Bendtner should have come on after an hour. Adebayor didn't look fit and struggled badly at times. Bendtner looks like a player who can change a game from the bench, and Arsene needs to make this substitution earlier in future.

van Persie was effectively nullified by the City centre-backs and started acting petulantly. He had a visible fall out with Rosicky, and also was unhappy at a final ball from Eduardo. Lets hope he can keep these primadonna tendencies in check.

Overall, 3 games, 2 wins, 1 draw. I can't help but feel that last year, we would have drawn this match, and possibly that against Fulham. When Mark Lawrenson even begins to visibly hedge his bets regarding us and a title challenge, perhaps our status as dark-horse contenders is not wholly unjustified.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

For better or worse, Jens is still the best we've got.

Long-time readers of Goonerboy (yes, I'm talking to both of you) will know that I'm a big fan of our mad German keeper. I went as far as to entitle a post 'Jens Lehmann, I love you' in the wake of our victory against Villareal, in a game which now seems an age away.

Clearly, Jens has had his peaks and troughs in form since joining the club. He was, in what remains a largely unsung role, the keeper for the majority, if not all, of the unbeaten season. The next year, a series of howlers led to Manuel Almunia taking his place in the side. Manuel's, er, 'abilities' led to Jens's hasty re-instatement, which in turn led to Jens's finest season at the club, 2005-6, where, if it had not been for us all being desperate for Thierry to stay, Jens would surely have been voted player of the year.

Jens's contribution to the club can perhaps be summed up in his role in the famous Champions League campaign of 2006. His saves against Madrid and Villareal got us to the final; his mistimed run perhaps cost us that game. That's what you get with Jens: a goalkeeper who can both win and lose you a game at almost any level, whether it be world-cup quarter-final, or away at Blackburn.

It's undeniable that he's started this season in remarkably poor fashion. His error, and his error alone, cost us a goal against Fulham and two points against Blackburn. And looking at Jens, something seems up. He seems a shadow of his former self. Where is the pure ire, the self-confidence, the, well, madness? Watching him play, he seems distracted, shorn of confidence, almost like his mind is elsewhere, which, for a player like Jens, is so odd it's almost unsettling.

But the fact of the matter remains this: he's still better than Almunia and Fabianski is a complete unknown quantity. Either we throw the young Polish lad in now, or we do nothing. Almunia will cost us more points than Jens. Almunia has cost us points and games before, and he'll cost us as many in the future if we reinstate him. There is a vocal section of the fanbase which wants Almunia to be started in the team, but I genuinely believe this will be a regression from our current situation.

What makes all this even harder to stomach is seeing Craig Gordon already pulling off blinding performances for Sunderland. Yes, £9 million is a lot of money. But £9million for a world-class keeper who could be your number one for a decade? The transfer pays for itself.

But as things stand, let's get behind Jens. Something is clearly up and we should support him.

As for the game today: a point at Blackburn is not to be scoffed at. We could, and perhaps should, have won, but I would have taken a point before the game. All the game served to demonstrate, ultimately and apart from Jens's keeping problems, is how thin our squad is. With Gallas out, was loaning out Djourou really such a great idea?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

It's all grim oop north but Arsenal can do it.

Tomorrow's game may not be entirely dissimilar to that on Wednesday night. When Arsene says, "Teams reflect the character of their managers and yes, of course, Blackburn have the aggression of Mark Hughes" you hardly have to work at Bletchley Park to decode the meaning. In our two visits to Ewood Park last year, Blackburn tried to outmuscle us, and not without a degree of success. I particularly remember Tuguay putting in several vicious challenges before being withdrawn in our ill-fated FA Cup replay.

But in the league match in Blackburn, Arsenal triumphed against the odds. We did so, after Gilberto was sent off, through superb passing and possession football from a midfield triumvirate of Cesc, Hleb and Rosicky. However, it also took a wonder goal from the Barca Boy to secure the win and another Arsenal player will need to conjure something up tomorrow if we want anything from the game.

Blackburn haven't a great deal to them, but they have enough to force a combative victory if, as predicted, conditions are difficult. They have possibly the biggest player in the Premier League in the form of the centre-back Samba who has impressed me with his sheer power on the occasions I've seen him. Striker Matt Derbyshire is a real prospect and should be knocking on the doors of the top four and the England squad soon. Friedel is a very decent keeper, and, regardless of his personality, David Bentley could cause us troubles if Gael isn't careful.

As for us, the wafer-thin nature of our squad is already apparent, with both our starting 'wingers' - Eboue and Rosicky - ruled out. What that means for the flanks is anyone's guess. Hleb on the left? Flamini on the right? Will Walcott be thrown his first start so early? Will Diaby be forced to play on the left yet again? All the injuries have shown is that we desperately need a new left winger if we are to have any depth to our squad, especially if Rosciky keeps on picking these niggling injuries.

Eduardo may be given his first start, but I would hope to see Bendtner feature: we could use his power. RvP has a very decent goalscoring record against Blackburn and there's no reason why it shouldn't continue. Despite the recent form of Hleb, it would be a shame to waste Robin by continually isolating him as we seem to be doing at present, so maybe a more traditional 442 would be an idea.

The game is a good early test in the season for the team. The North-West 'graveyard', a physical team, and bad weather should give an indication of what the squad is made of. If we're serious about the title we should win the game; a draw would be a fair result but it's imperative that we maintain a good start to the season.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Don't blame Arsenal for fighting back.

What's been one of the major criticisms of the team in recent years? Ok, there's been a few - profligacy in front of goal, over elaborate build-up play etc., but one that always sticks in the mind is that we, apparently, don't like being roughed up.

We don't have any physical players, so the line would go, since the likes of Vieira, Keown and even Grimandi left. Put in a few late tackles, don't let them play, and they'll soon roll over. This strategy even preceded the departure of some of these players: the end of the unbeaten run at Old Trafford saw a concerted and vicious attempt by the United players to kick us out of the game. Ruud v Nface raked his studs down Cashley's knee, while the treatment meted out to Reyes by the 'special' Neville brothers jars me to this day. Jose was never the same player again in England.

So, finally, after several seasons in which we've been accused of being nothing more than lightweight artistes, Arsenal starts to fight back. We're like the quiet, yet brilliant, kid in the classroom who suddenly starts to return the punches that the bullies have being throwing for too long.

Too many teams for too long have tried to defeat us by kicking us off the park. We've seen the strategy four times this year already: in the pre-season friendlies against Ajax and Inter, and in the last two matches against Fulham and Sparta.

And in each game, the Arsenal team has done nothing more than justifiably stand its ground and defend itself vigorously against aggressors.

All fine, until this is published. Apparently 'Sport lost' on Wednesday. The gist of the article seems to be this: despite Repka verbally claiming, repeatedly, before the game that the key to beating Arsenal was to 'kick them', Cesc's challenge on Repka which saw him leave the field of the play, was the moment that 'Sport lost' out.

Really? I would be inclined to take the opposite view. Instead of allowing another team to crudely destroy the way we play, the Arsenal side on Wednesday took matters into its own hands and ensured that they would not be intimidated. If this means a thug such as Repka gets an injury, I won't lose any sleep. He barely deserves to be called a 'footballer' in any case.

So Cesc is a spiky character. So what? Was Zidane any less brilliant for his headbutt? Great players are often aggressive, especially when they have been subject to physical intimidation for much of their careers.

Violence for violence's sake is obviously abhorrent. But aggression to counter the unjustifiable physicality of other teams, to protect the way your team plays, and to ensure that violence as a tactic doesn’t succeed is another matter. On those latter occasions, standing up to be counted should be applauded, not condemned.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

That was Sparta, but Repka is no King Leonidas.

The banner in Prague proclaimed ‘This is Sparta’, and while most of us laughed, the Spartans (of Prague admittedly) did make a concerted attempt to rough up our youngsters. Yet if Repka was their captain, or their king if we continue to follow this prolonged metaphor, he was hardly a Leonidas. And if he was, then Cesc was his Persian assassin. Ultimately we came out victorious in the physicality stakes in a tough game, something which was obviously great to see and which is a notable change from last season.

Credit to the players: not only have they come through another tough test, they did so with almost flying colours.

I’d love to say I’d seen more of the game, but thus far I’ve only seen the goals and some sporadic highlights, on top of the radio commentary. The reason? Setanta. It seems that to ensure a fair market place for the viewing of English football teams, the consumer, ultimately, must have to pay more.

So on top of the season ticket, the Sky subscription, and the Sky PPV matches, we now have Setanta scraping the last few remnants of change we have from our pockets. It’s nice to see that the British government have attempted to break up Sky’s monopoly on football –but how does that benefit the average football viewer? Not a lot, it would seem. Bring back the Stalinist monopoly I say.

The goals both came from surging runs from our full-backs. Clichy seems to be making goal-creating runs with wonderful alacrity at the moment, while Sagna has swiftly made a notably positive impact on the side. Cesc showed that he has the potential to contribute heavily to our goalscoring, while Hleb seems transformed in front of goal. Whether he can continue to play in a position which seems to isolate RvP remains to be seen, but hopefully the end product to his play will start to win over a few more of his doubters.

Jens showed his worth with a number of top-class saves, and Gallas had one of his best games in the shirt. A player who didn’t was Tomas Rosicky, and questions over his role in the team should surely start to be asked if he continues in this poor vein of form.

To be frank, I wondered where he would fit into the team when we bought him. He’s a central midfielder, a half-striker even, and Wenger is quite clearly wasting him out on the left. He doesn’t have the ability to cut open defences that Hleb has, and his goalscoring record remains average, at best. He really needs to step up a gear or two and quick.

Alex Song also seemed to give the ball away without almost deadly inefficiency once he entered the fray. He does have his backers, and I’ve tried to like the lad, but maybe Charlton was his level. He’s only ever looked out of his depth when I’ve seen him play for us.

We’re obviously not through yet, but being two away goals to the good sets up the second leg nicely. If that’s the new Sparta, the sequel won’t be coming out soon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Groundhog day or a new beginning?

For 80 minutes at Arsenal Fulham on Sunday you could have been forgiven for thinking that last season had never ended.

Arsenal only had one new player, albeit a very noticeable one, on the pitch; Fulham scored with literally their first attack on goal; we played some lovely football, assiduously put on pressure, but couldn't bloody score.

Jens's mistake was one of those things that had to be seen to be believed. I almost laughed when it happened it was so farcical - it was a genuine moment of tragi-comedy. The laughter soon stopped when I realised that goals aren't disallowed for being ridiculous and we were one-nil down after only 50-odd seconds of the new season.

Fulham were not the pushovers they had been purported to be. They battled hard, perhaps a little too hard, and, unlike other occasions where teams have gone one-up against us at the Grove, they had chances that could have put them two or even three goals up.

While Tony Warner was excellent in the Fulham goal, we should have scored long before we did, and poor finishing was again the culprit for our travails. Rosicky should have scored twice, Hleb was denied by the tip of Warner's foot and Zat Knight's leg, Fabregas wasn't quite quick enough to get onto Hleb's lovely through-ball, and van Persie couldn't seem to get into the game.

The formation was rather curious and didn't entirely work. RvP doesn't seem like a player who likes to be up-top on his own and even with Hleb marauding behind him, he struggled to make an impact at times, often reduced to quick-fire attempts on goal.

Fabregas and Eboue were both disappointing, despite Fab's last minute assist. Whether he suffered from being stuck between Flamini behind him and Hleb in front is a matter of debate, which will only become clearer if we stick with the formation. Flamini himself did not break up the play well enough and his passing was poor. However, his attitude can't be questioned: we need his spirit to become infectious if the old Arsenal never-say-die belief is to be reborn.

Hleb revelled in his new more central role, and was easily my man of the match.
If he continues to play more centrally he'll get more goals and at the moment, he should be starting ahead of Rosicky if it were to come down to a choice between the two. Rosicky still isn't sharp enough in front of his goal, and for all his running, still flatters to deceive somewhat.

At the back, Sagna was excellent, Toure was inspiring, Gallas captained the team excellently, and Clichy was full of energy.Yet as a unit, the defence is still all over the place. Fulham opened us up with worrying ease on a number of occasions and this needs to be remedied.

As for Jens, a mistake is a mistake. He's never looked that comfortable with the ball at his feet, but still pulled off a great save from Davies to keep us in the game. Don't even think of calling for Almunia.

Theo came on and did more than Eboue without really impressing. Bendtner was excellent, actually winning balls in the air and changing the shape of the game. We may, at last, have a plan B, and I have very high hopes for Nicklas.

Overall, I've never seen the grove so excited since the games against United and the Spuds. Few people left in the last ten minutes and there was a real buzz around the place. It's not surprising: a last-minute goal, a melee, the most farcical goal of the year: there was a lot to be excited about.

There seems to be a new spirit crystallising in the team and this season could turn out to be better than first thought. However, the squad remains too thin: signings are needed to ensure that injuries don't put pay to our efforts yet again.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

If Arsenal are going to make a signing, we should make it soon.

I'm not one of those people (well at least I hope I'm not) who are desperately crying out for new signings, and pretending that we're doomed if we don't follow the splurges of United or, er, Man City. And I'm also mindful of the 'silent' manner in which Arsenal conduct transfers.

But I would suggest that if we are to make a new signing, it'd be preferable to make it sooner - in fact as soon as possible - rather than later.

Why? Because once the season starts it inevitably becomes harder to integrate players into the team. In a perfect world, all new signings would be made on the last day of the previous season, allowing the new players to fully participate in the pre-season schedule. It's important that players get the opportunity to acclimatise to their new clubs as fully as possible, and I'm sure that Sagna, Eduardo and Fabianski have all benefited from playing with their new team-mates in the recent friendlies.

There are, of course, just over three weeks left of the transfer window, but I would be mindful of bringing in players at the last minute. Whilst Gallas managed to slot into the team with reasonable ease last year, Baptista, our other major deadline day signing, took several months to even get to full fitness, after Madrid had seemingly put him out to pasture.

With the competition between the top-four so intense, it's vital that we get off to a lightning start this year. If we have a repeat of last season - draws - our title-challenge could be non-starter. We need a competitive squad now, not one compiled at haste on the last day of the window.

Who might come in is anyone's guess. What I think many people would like to see is wingers; but who? Quaresma - who this blog has spuriously claimed is coming - is available, but reports in the Spanish press value him at €40 million and I can't see us paying more than €20m for anyone. There's been a great deal of hype around Drenthe - who does look a real prospect - yet I think he's bound for west London or central Spain. Luka Modric of Zagreb has also been mentioned; who know's on that one, to be frank (not Goonerboy).

Hopefully, and in the vein of the Eduardo transfer, a new signing will suddenly drop from the sky very soon. If not, perhaps the cheque-book is actually closed.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Gallas looks a decent captain; van Persie looks sensational; a perfect pre-season?

An interesting pre-season, it has to be said. Aside from the games in Austria, we've been involved in two reasonably big tournaments and come out triumphant in both. Whether pre-season friendlies actually mean anything is, of course, a matter for debate, but it's always nice to win trophies.

The main highlights for me have been the performances of certain players and the new sense of unity in the team.

The first, and most obvious, player who's starred has been Robin van Persie. His goal against Inter was so good, you almost wished he'd saved it up for a more important occasion. His persistence and even his abrasive attitude were also good to see in the Ajax game. It's never a bad thing to have a few spiky characters on the pitch.

Gael Clichy has been outstanding. His run against Ajax which led to the goal was little more than sensational. For a long time it may have been wishful thinking to say this, but we may actually have the best left-back in the premiership.

Alex Hleb has looked a lot better in a more central position, even if it's one he probably won't get to occupy come the beginning of the season. It was great to see him score against Inter, and his overall range of creativity is a joy to watch. The way he carries himself on the field, and his desire to find defence-splitting balls, makes him the player in our current squad who has the greatest potential to really replace Dennis.

Nicklas Bendtner has proved intriguing, scoring twice, providing an assist and missing a penalty. He clearly thinks a lot of himself but, to be frank, so what if he's performing. There's something to him, I'll say that: when I was watching the PSG game you could sense he might be a really big player for us, and not just in terms of his height. He gives us options, if nothing else.

Eboue is a winger. I'm glad we've sorted that out. He could be a real handful this year, even if I implore him to cut out the diving. Sagna has looked good and has proved that we needed a right-back of proven quality. He also seems capable of putting in tasty challenges, which we've needed.

Gallas looks like captain material. Gilberto could, and has, done the job very well hitherto, yet I wonder if Gallas has that aggressive attitude that captains need? I think the first team is in good hands under his stewardship.

The defence as a unit continues to worry me. It has looked reasonably solid but we're still leaking goals. The individual players look fine - it's the inability to co-ordinate which is costing us. A decent defensive coach is needed.

Overall, the team looks more like a team again, rather than 10 players and Thierry. I don't think it's unfair to say that we have the whiff of a dark horse team this year. And Gallas is right: if we concentrate on getting fourth place, we'll become a fourth place team. The title should be our goal for this year and the fans shouldn't forget that. The squad as it stands is still a little thin for my liking but we're only a few steps away from something really quite exciting.

And, while I don't normally do this, I shall make the following transfer predictions for the next twenty-five days: we will sign someone; it won't be Diarra from Chelsea; it may well be Quaresma.

Arsenal to sign Quaresma: there, I've said it. It's based on nothing more than a gut-feeling; one which may, in fact, be nothing more than the beer from last night awkwardly swilling around inside me.

Gallas for captain? Hleb the new Bergkamp? Quaresma to Arsenal? I've either lost it or triumphant vindication is around the corner.