Monday, September 22, 2008

Denilson, Song, Eboue, Bendtner: who is this year’s Flamini?

An excellent three-points at the Reebok against a team that used to intimidate us, and who managed to put us on the back foot in the early stages of the game.

Despite opening brightly, and comprehensively out-passing Bolton, they took the lead through a goal which, again, asked questions of our ability to defend from set-pieces.

Designating blame is difficult. It appeared that Gallas lost Davies, but if we were employing a zonal marking system, should that not take some of the blame? Toure allowed himself, again, to be comprehensively out-jumped at the corner, whilst Almunia, as at Fulham, allowed himself to be boxed in on his line, and was no-where to be seen. Rather than heap blame solely on Gallas, perhaps we have to think more about how the team as a whole defends corners, whether the Gallas-Toure partnership really works, and whether Almunia has it in him to dominate at corners.

Anyway, despite falling behind we then conspired to play some of the best football I’ve seen from us in a long-time, passing and moving at a quite dizzying speed which, simply, Bolton could not live with. First Adebayor, then Song both hit the post, before Eboue nipped in (slightly offside it must be said) at the back post to put us ahead.

A second goal came after a beautiful series of passes saw Denilson play the ball across the goalmouth, fining Bendtner who finished neatly.

After that, we continued to pass and move nicely, with Almunia pulling off a couple of nice saves when called upon. Theo’s introduction saw him burst through and past the Bolton midfield (it was particularly gratifying to see Kevin Nolan unable to even foul Theo), before playing the ball to Ade, who set up Denilson for another decent finish.

So, it’s been 4-0, 1-1, and 3-1 from three tough away matches. I, for one, would certainly have taken two wins and a draw before this set of matches.

One of the most gratifying things about the last couple of games has been seeing several players proving their critics (which have included myself) wrong.

Theo, Denislon, Alex Song, Eboue and Bendtner all seem to have grasped the opportunity given to them, and have all been fantastic.

Eboue was, for large parts of the first half, our best player on the pitch and richly deserved his goal. He looked dangerous running with the ball and made a series of passes which cut Bolton open.

Denilson has really come on, in a way I wasn’t sure he had in him. He looks stronger, more tenacious, and has a touch of class to his play that Flamini didn’t have last season. Song, after impressing for Cameroon and Charlton, has looked excellent: composed on the ball, often merely playing the simple, important, engine-room stuff, whilst also having the air of a hatchet man to him.

Nicklas Bendtner also seems to be growing with each game, and confirming the promise that I saw in him back in the Emirates cup in 2007. He’s a very unselfish player, extremely clever and incisive on the ball, and he scores. At the moment, he’s offering more to the team than van Persie.

So which of the four will be this year’s Flamini: a player who suddenly goes from being on the fringes of things to being a central part of our team? It could be any of them; but let’s hope it’s all of them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Enough is Enough: The UK Government has duty to stop any more dodgy takeovers of English clubs.

It's been a pretty sickening week for English football.

Geordies out on the streets complaining about a chairman who hires and sacks a local hero with impunity, after admitting he failed to do proper due diligence on the books of Newcastle before buying the club.

Abu Dhabi deciding, so it would seem, that Man City is nothing more to them than a vehicle through which they can publicise their Emirate. This is an place with an extremely questionable human rights record, which have already led some to ask for the FA to actually bother trying out the 'fit and proper' test on them. Today, news has emerged that Abu Dhabi now want to buy a smaller stake of the club, after finding out about the debts that the lovely Mr Sinawatra ran up before them. Man City have only paid a fraction of the fees that they owe for the big money transfers of players like Jo and Robinho, so if these guys were to pull out, the future would appear to be bleak for the club.

This is on top of unpopular takeovers at other English clubs. Indeed it would seem protests occurred at the Liverpool game this weekend, but these have been overshadowed by the result.

In the Man United case, a profitable club was taken over by Americans with no knowledge or care for the game other than the money it could produce, who subsequently saddled the club with the debt they'd used to buy it. This is standard, well at least before the credit crunch, form for Mergers and Acquisition; but it seems wrong to make fans pay for a takeover they didn't want and to make previously unknown owners even richer. Ticket prices at United have gone up, players are bought with even more debt, and United's total debt now stands at around £750 million, with interest payments alone of around £80 million last year. United will never go bust, but how, may one ask, have United fans benefitted from this takeover? (ignoring their, ultimately transient, successes last year.)

As the Liverpool fan in the linked piece suggests, Gillett and Hicks have been even more duplicitous in their takeover. They promised no debt from the takeover would be put on the club, that plans for a new stadium would procede forthwith, and that boardroom politics wouldn't affect the club. None of these things have happened. No new stadium seems on the horizon for Pool, and, again, the only ones to have considerably benefitted from the takeover are the owners, notwithstanding the abuse they rightfully get when they actually bother to turn up to a game.

A thesis could be written on the Chelsea takeover, but the main points are clear. A Russian with an extremely dodgy past comes out of nowhere, starts shelling out huge wads of cash, and brings the club success. Why? Partly as he wanted a new plaything, perhaps, but the political ramifications of the Chelsea takeover are becoming more and more apparent. Who'd heard of Abramovich before he bought Chelsea? Before then, he was a Russian oligarch probably sweating at Putin's relatively sudden turn against this hyper-rich segment of Russian society. What to do? Buy a football club, move to England, and make yourself untouchable. An English football club has become the get-out-of-jail-free card for this oligarch. Moreover, all the money Abramovich has poured into the club is in the form of loans, and Chelsea have total debts of £730 million, even if these admittedly interest-free.

At Arsenal, the situation is better. We are about to announce record profits for this year, with a turnover/wage ratio of less than 50%. We are a club, at the moment, run in just about the right way. Our ticket prices are still obscenely high (these have to come down, once the stadium debt is paid off), and boardroom politics have affected the club since the loathsome Uzbeki gangster turned up (thanks David Dein). But who knows what the future holds for the club. As Peter Hill-Wood himself said, if the club get a decent offer, the board has a duty to recommend it to share-holders. I genuinely worry for the future of our proud, historic club, if it falls into the hands of the vultures currently circling the premier league.

Of all the foreign takeovers, perhaps only that at Villa has been done properly. No huge debts, an owner who actually, despite not having strong historical ties to the club, seems to care about its welfare, and one who recognises the wider positive things a football club can achieve - as evidenced by making Acorns (a charity) their sponsor. Randy Lerner is an example that takeovers can be done in a 'right' way.

The money that has gone into football since the creation of the Premiership has not, of course, had a completely negative impact. The standard of football we see in the league is unrecognisably higher to that in the early 90s. The best athletes and players in the world populate our teams, and create great entertainment. It's also a lot safer to attend a football match, even if a lot of the atmosphere has been lost in the process.

Yet, there is now a fairly entrenched monopoly over whom wins the major honours in England. Even as a supporter of a team that, arguably,benefits from this monopoly, I would like to see a more competitve league.

I would like to see clubs owned by their fans, as frequently occurs in La Liga and the Bundesliga. This article shows how this ownership structure is both possible and beneficial. The German FA has set laws that ensure that even private limited companies are 51% owned by member associations. These clubs are thus run, or at least overseen, by those with its best interests at heart: the fans.

There is some hope. Andy Burnham, the new Culture secretary, favours the fan ownership system, and is, as David Conn puts it, 'an opponent of a clinically commercial view of football'. Burnham cites the American NFL as an example of a league where:

'which has equal sharing, and in which owners cannot simply pour money in from outside to buy all the best players. In the US, the most free-market country in the world, they understand that equal distribution of money creates genuine competition, which is good for the league. The danger in England is that individual clubs rush for the money today, without considering the long-term future, and so diminish the game.'

There are three main issues to consider, I feel, in sum:

* Clubs being bought by businessmen who merely want to make as much money as possible, thus making the cost of going to football more, and even prohibitively, expensive for the average football fan, alienating them from teams that are a major part of their lives.

* As a corollary to clubs being used as purely profit-making machines, for both players and owners, little concern is given to the grass-roots difference they can make to local communities. Robinho's salary for one week - £160k, reportedly - could fund a project such as kickz for four years, which is helping to transform the lives of youths in some of the UKs most difficult areas.

* Clubs being used for political ends by, let's be frank, crooks. Buying a football club can, potentially, buy dodgy men around the world political immunity or publicity. It is wrong they are being used in this way.

Football clubs were set up, a long time ago, to be community institutions, not global business brands. Somewhere, probably in the midst of the finanical immorality that has gripped the world since the Reaganite/Thatcherite deregulation boom of the 1980s, British football has lost its way. Sure, its great to watch, but at what cost has the present Premier League come?

The only ones that can do anything about this is the British Government. It's time to end a British society in which anything is for sale to anyone. The FA, clearly, will not stand in the way of these takeovers, and has lost so much power since the formation of the Premier League as to become an irrelevance.

Even if the present takeovers can't be reversed, future ones can be prevented, and an overall climate can be produced in English football conducive to fan, or at least responsible, ownership of these clubs, the jewels of English sport and society.

Because if nothing is done, English football is already dead.

Lovely wins at Blackburn and Zagreb cap a great week for Arsenal and England.

Being in the North-West, where as Match of the Day so often points out 'we struggle' (really, we didn't last season?), we delivered an absolute tonking to Blackburn, and a humbling lesson to new Prem manager Paul Ince.

Theo, after his and England's incredible performance in Zagreb, was bursting with confidence. Some of his passing was absolutely sensational; he ran with his head up past players who simply didn't know what to do with him. His assist for Robin's first goal was a thing of beauty.

After years of criticism about Arsenal's lack of contribution to the England team, will the press be willing to eat a bit of humble pie, now Arsne's tutelage has got Theo firing on all cylinders, and after Jack Wilshere, at only 16 years old and a total product of the Arsenal youth system, made his premiership debut? I doubt it.

Elsewhere, Ade has clearly re-joined the party after a couple of games without a goal. His first was clearly the best, when he beat Robinson at his near bost from a excellent cross from Denilson.

Eboue played well, even if he did manage to injure himself diving to win a penalty for our third goal. It was also good to see Aaron Ramsey get his premiership debut, and to get an assist with a defence splitting ball late on.

Overall then, job done. After our stutter at Fulham we've looked excellent ever since, scoring eleven goals with no reply in our last three games. You can talk about the quality of the opposition, but you can only beat what's put in front of you, and we did just that. Nice.

So one tough away match down, two to go. Kiev, will be a hard trip, and I think a point would be a decent way to open our CL campaign, especially as Clichy, Nasri and Eboue are all doubts for the game, which could see Silvestre make his, ahem, 'long-awaited' debut.

A lovely win to cap a lovely week, which saw one of the best England performances I've seen since the 1990 world cup. England actually passed the ball. Our pass completion rate was something like 86%. And the team had balance. An attacking central midfielder, next to a defensive one; a big, imposing centre-forward next to a crafty, 'in-the-hole' striker. Wingers which actually had pace, after years of seeing Beckham act as a glorified 'special-teams' player, as the Americans might say.

Well done Capello. Let's hope he doesn't lose his nerve and put Owen back in the side, or try and play Lampard and Gerrard together again.

Also, John Terry got sent off yesterday, and, as things stand, the Spuds lie bottom of the table. Bliss. Let's enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

No signings means its doom vs. hope.

Well, it was quite a deadline day, wasn't it?

I think the activities that went on regarding other clubs - United's shameful flouting of almost all transfer rules and conventions to steal Berbatov, Abu Dhabi suddenly owning Citeh, and turning them into a major player in one fowl swoop - need to be discussed elsewhere, and in depth.

For now, let's concentrate on our own dealings or, more pertinently, the lack of them.

It's worrying. You'd have to be an optimist of the highest order to think our squad didn't need any additions, or that we didn't attempt to sign anyone last week.

It was rumoured that we put a last minute bid in for Alonso, but Liverpool were always holding all the cards in that deal, and probably asked for a fee nearer £18m, which would have been far too much.

Other than that, it was deathly quiet. Maybe a few of our targets will be more readily available in January, but who knows.

As it is, we have no adequate partner for Cesc. Diaby is perma-injured and unproven, Denilson looks OK without ever really impressing, and Eboue and Song have a hell of a lot to prove if they're going to convince Arsenal fans that they're good enought to take on the holding role full-time.

Whilst it could have been construed as some form of sick joke, the fact that Eboue and Denilson's smiling mugs appeared on they day after the deadline shut probably indicates how important they're going to be to the team this season, or, at least, til January.

I think, therefore, that Arsene has left us short, a situation that may have been exacerbated by the lack of a CFO and CEO at the club, still. Arsene is doing too much, and needs help with transfers - if just to kick him out of the comfort zone. That much, I think, is clear.

Anyway, we shouldn't slip too far into doom-mode. We have a team full of potential, and, let's not forget, none of us would have predicted Flamini becoming the player he became last year, so maybe someone inside the squad will step-up.

We have 3 tricky away matches coming up after what will be an interminably long international break, so let's wait for them before we jump to too many conclusions about the squad.

Monday, September 01, 2008

It's deadline day, an enjoyable performance, and Barton the thug.

Morning, or should I say afternoon, fellow gooners.

Apologies for no blog over the weekend. I was in the process of moving house, something i will have to do again by the end of the month. What joy.

As such, I only caught the second half of the Newcastle performance, but what I did see was rather lovely. Yes, we probably should have won 4/5-0, but, still, sometimes we should just sit down and appreciate the lovely football we can play, and realise that winning by the hugest margin possible isn't always necessary.

I was particularly impressed with Adebayor's performance, despite some appalling finishing, and that of RvP and Cesc.

Despite his goals, it is still a worry that Robin struggled to complete 90 minutes in what was essentially a pretty relaxed match. I think he has the ability to be a great player, but I'm not sure if his body can hack it.

So, no real complaints about our performance. The only thing which left a bad taste in the mouth was the appearance of Joey Barton at the end of the match. Now, and in a rare moment of actual insight, Mark Lawrenson summed Barton up: everyone (almost) deserves a second chance when they make mistakes in life. But his imprisonment was merely the latest in a string of violent incidents he's been involved in during his career. Newcastle should be ashamed he's their player, especially given how Barton decided to involve himself in the match.

In response to, justified, booing, Barton lunged in with a two-footed swipe at Samir Nasri. There's a line between acceptable and non-acceptable physicality in a football match and he crossed it with that appalling lunge.

So I was heartened to see Samir not take it lying down. His cheeky trip was rather lovely compared to Barton's thuggish assault. It also showed that Samir isn't a player to be easily cowed, which is also heartening.

Finally, it's deadline day today, but I have not, really, seen us linked with anyone, apart from the customary links to Alonso, and a rather odd rumour involving us taking Metzelder on loan from Real Madrid for a year.

I'm confident we will sign at least one player today; we certainly need to, and given Arsene's past record, we shouldn't be worried, necessarily, by the lack of public rumours Don't let us down Arsene.