Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where do we Go from Bradford? Painful Times Ahead for Arsenal.



As is customary for me now with midweek games, I turned off all contact with the Arsenal world on Tuesday afternoon, and waited until I got home to watch the game “as live.” Since moving to America I’ve discovered that while getting up early on the weekends to watch games is a pain,  missing matches, or having to watch them on delay, because they’re played midweek while I’m at work is even worse. It’s a major reason why I think some form of European competition will start to be played on weekends sooner rather than later. Anyway, I digress.

I accidentally loaded Facebook at about half-time while the game was playing, and was surprised to see no updates about the match. This meant that Arsenal hadn’t scored, or that we were behind, as Arsenal’s Facebook page apparently refuses to allow for the existence of opposition goals. When I sat down to watch the game, I thus had an inkling that we may have started it poorly.

As the game started, I tried to explain to Mrs Goonerboy the rules of the League Cup, and that Arsenal were almost certain to win because we were playing a team in the fourth division. She nodded, and then looked on in bafflement as Arsenal conceded, and played out the remainder of the first-half in some sort of deranged, half-baked manner.

I don’t have the energy to replay every moment of the game, so here are just a few of my thoughts on the game:

·        *  Gervinho. When Gervinho signed, I felt much better about losing Nasri. The ridiculous fee that we received for Nasri from Manchester City has led to an inflation of his actual worth as a player – I maintain we got about six months of good performances out of him over three years. Gervinho, I hoped, would provide a more consistent goal threat. Instead, he’s been rubbish. A few instinctive goals aside, he just doesn’t look good enough to play at the highest level. This had been, I hate to say, my opinion of him when I had watched him play for the Ivory Coast in the 2010 World Cup. He runs down blind alleys. He almost constantly chooses the wrong option. He not only misses the target with headers, he usually puts the ball out for a throw. His shooting, when not instinctive, is almost comically wayward. Maybe he has a future as a squad player, but as a member of the staring XI – please, be gone.
·        
*  * Podolski. I mentioned this on Twitter the day after the game, but it’s well worth re-reading Goonerboy correspondent Bobby’s scouting report on Podolski, as he basically nailed him. Bobby said that if we played Poldi on the left: "his mobility, fitness, and defensive abilities will be open to question." Check. Bobby also said Poldi was like RvP except "only heavier, less destructive, who moans more, and who is slower." Again, hard to disagree. Gervinho, for all his many faults, is a trier. He never hides. Part of the reason we think he’s so poor is that he’s constantly on, or showing for the ball. I have a degree of respect for Gervinho because, in a tough season, he’s never gone missing, regardless of his ability. Podolsksi? Almost the opposite. He clearly thought this match was below him. And he has been, if we’re being charitable, “inconsistent” since his arrival at the club. His inability to finish 90 minutes has become a joke and it’s only December. Poldi needs to start pulling his weight because he’s beginning to annoy me.

·        *  Szczesny. He has a winner’s mentality, but does he have a winner’s ability? If Almunia had collapsed into the net in the fashion that Szcz did for the Bradford opener, there would be pitchforks and torches outside his house the next day. Yes, Szcz made a few stops in the shoot-out, but I continue to believe that he has fundamental problems with his positioning, hence why he fails to save so many shots from outside the box, with players taking advantage of the fact he is in the wrong place. I would put a goalkeeper fairly high on our list of transfer priorities, because, at the least, we need someone better than Mannone and Fabianski to challenge Szcz.

I could probably go on for some time listing individual player faults, such as Vermaelen’s periodic inability to defend, or Cazorla’s failure to hit the target with about 90 percent of his shots. But the defeat at Bradford really came down to higher issues – the management, both in terms of the team and the club as a whole.
I said this on Twitter immediately after the game, and I stick by it – almost any other manager in the Premier League would have been sacked if he were in Arsene’s position. I desperately don’t want Arsene’s time at the club to finish on a sour note, because he is a demi-god. But, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, leaving all other things aside, another manager might be able to get better performances out of the current squad than Arsene can at present. And, it’s also hard to escape the feeling, that the majority of signings that Arsene has made since about 2008 have been poor. As 7AM Kickoff asked on Twitter, can you really name any signing that Arsene has made in the last five years that has been an unqualified success? I can’t. Arteta, maybe? Nasri, maybe? The majority seem to have some form of fatal flaw – Koscielny’s own goals, Cazorla’s shooting, Arshavin’s laziness, and that’s before we even get on to the Deadwood Saloon of Squillaci, Park, Chamakh, and former patrons such as Silvestre. In short, even if money is available, should Arsene be the one to spend it? It’s a legitimate question.

What is becoming increasingly apparent, is that the board are pushing a line that money is there to spend, and that Arsene is unwilling to spend it. During the Q&A with Gazidis and other management figures, this line was firmly put out by the club – Arsene doesn’t want to spend. The AST has predictably lapped this up, rushing to make some very strongly worded comments about Arsene in the press yesterday. I fear this is the beginning of an extremely messy stand-off between Arsene and the board, and if Arsene decides to take the gloves off and fight back, an extremely difficult period in the club’s history could be approaching.
But it isn’t all Arsene’s fault. Not even close. During the Q&A, Gazidis said that Stan was “obviously […] not happy with the way the team is performing” (quote, possibly paraphrased, via Darrenarsenal1). Why is it obvious that Stan is unhappy with the way the team is performing? We are still well on course to challenge for fourth, thus keeping our place in the Champions League, and keeping the value of Stan’s shares ticking ever upwards. That is his only motivation for owning the club, as far as I can tell. Stan has said virtually nothing to supporters. He has attended fewer home games than Park Chu-Young. There is nothing obvious at all about how Stan is feeling because Arsenal fans have virtually no knowledge about what this man wants from Arsenal football club.  We are a ship with a silent captain, with no idea where we’re going.

For a competition that supposedly our lowest priority, the League Cup has been fairly devastating to the club in recent years. In 2007, Arsene perhaps submitted to his greatest moment of hubris by putting out a side of kids and reserves in the League Cup final against Chelsea. In 2008, we suffered a morale sapping 5-1 defeat at the hands of Spurs, just before that promising season began to unravel. And, of course, most of our current problems can be traced back to that fatal moment of miscommunication between Szcz and Koz in Wembley in 2011. The quality of the squad has diminished at an incredible rate since that day, and we’ve never really recovered as a club.

So, where from Bradford? Who knows. But it’s clear that Arsene’s actions during January are now not just pivotal to the club’s future, but also to his own. Or, at least they should be. But it’s also clear that Stan needs to drop the “silent” fa├žade, and make clear that he actually gives a damn about this club before we spiral further downwards.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Black Scarfs and a Dire Performance: 9 Thoughts on Arsenal 0 Swansea 2

A historic defeat, or the new normal? Thoughts as follows:

* Whether we had won or lost, this match would have generated headlines of "Arsenal in crisis", owing to the Black Scarf march (or "walk", or whatever) that preceded it. Judging from photos, a fairly sizable amount of people joined the Black Scarf leadership as they walked to the ground, and it's clear that their views can no longer be ascribed to a lunatic fringe. I may write about them in more length as and when they grow further in size, but I have to say that I agree with a large number of their aims. Ticket prices should be cheaper, whether we are winning or losing, and there should be a wider variety of options available to supporters to help them pay for their season tickets. And Kroenke should be made to make a firm commitment that he will not take money from the club. Some of their other aims are ill-conceived, however. If they are opposed to greed in football, why are they so keen to get another billionaire on board, especially one who has a somewhat less than transparent past, shall we say. And while I understand the notion of a "season ticket lite", whereby season ticket holders wouldn't be forced to pay for tickets for cup games, could we then blame the team for not taking these games as seriously as those in the league, if the supporters themselves openly claim them to be a lower priority? To sum up, I see the Black Scarf movement exists because of legitimate grievances, but they need to think through some of their stated aims a little more clearly before I can give them my full backing.

* It was pretty obvious from early on in this game that we were going to struggle to win. I tweeted at half-time that Swansea had almost completely outplayed us in the first-half, and that we would need to substantially up our game in the second if we were going to come away with a victory. Angel Rangel and Nathan Dyer both had golden opportunities to put the Swans ahead, owing to defensive mistakes on our part, and only a decent double-save and a last ditch block from Vermaelen saved us from going in behind at the half.

* Indeed, Szczesny had an excellent game in goals - perhaps helped by not having to save shots taken from outside the area - and was the only reason we weren't trailing at the break. While I am still unsure about Szcz, on days like this it's hard to argue against his potential to become a really top keeper. 

* We upped our game a little bit in the second half but not enough. Swansea weathered a period of pressure from us, and then promptly turned the screw again. Whether Arsene had blasted the team or not at half-time, it was disappointing that we only really looked like the better team for a perhaps 10-15 minute period of the entire game.

* As the game sloped towards its conclusion, I thought that the game did not "feel" like a 0-0. It was a far cry from the dull, uninspired fare that had been served up at Villa Park last Saturday, and, if anything, we were the team who were luckier not to be behind. 

*So, of course, Swansea scored almost immediately. Michu - who is surely the signing of the season, given his immediate impact and price - took advantage of the total chaos in our defence caused by a reasonably straightforward through-ball, took his time, and expertly put the ball in the net. Watching the replay of the goal is cringe-inducing. Vermaelen and Mertesacker appear to be playing for different teams, such was the total lack of coordination between the two over whether the line was stepping up or not. Tim at 7am Kickoff remarked that our high-line is now becoming a major defensive liability, and it's hard to argue otherwise, especially if we're not even going to get the offensive benefits that such a tactical deployment should bring. Until we can regain some defensive solidity, perhaps it's better to sit a little deeper, and prevent the chaos that seems to occur every time we try and play the offside trap (oh for a new Tony Adams...).

* The second goal said a lot about the problems we currently have. Jenkinson couldn't find a forward pass, and so was harried backwards, where he was dispossessed, allowing Michu to easily finish. Only one Arsenal player bothered to try and make it back and stop him, Rosicky. I.e., problems arise when you throw a still inexperienced, young defender into the Premier League, and when the rest of your team is so knackered from over-playing that they don't even attempt to track back. 

* Speaking of the final point, the extent to which Arteta and Cazorla are not being overplayed is now verging on the ridiculous, and this was a problem that could be foreseen back in August. Whatever quality our first xi has is being frittered away by a lack of options in the squad. Aside from his demolition of 10 man spurs, cazorla has recently looked like a shadow of the player who lit up the league in August and September.

* At the final whistle, there was a huge amount of booing, coming just seven days after Wenger was subjected to "you don't know what you're doing" chants at Villa Park. 

This is all terribly sad, but Wenger's future as manager is now a question that is legitimately up for discussion. We are enduring our worst start to a season for almost twenty years, and you have to wonder, leaving everything else aside, whether a different manager could get more out of this set of players than Arsene. Our tactics seems stale, and trying to pigeonhole players into a 4-3-3 that doesn't seem to benefit very many of them is increasingly maddening. 

Moreover, there is the issue of the January transfer window. Even if we assume that we have the proverbial "warchest" of funds to spend (why always the military metaphors?) should wenger be the one to spend it? At the moment, his success rate with transfers is hardly dazzling - do we want another 20-30m wasted on the likes of Chamakh, Park, Santos, Squillaci, Gervinho, etc.? And if the money isn't there, for one reason or another, now is surely the moment for Wenger to go public, and stop fronting for a board that don't deserve him.

All I will say is that things are probably going to get worse before they get better. How we're possibly going to cope with the density of games that we're going to face over the Christmas period is truly worrying. We may be relying on the January transfer window to save our season, but how much damage could be done before then? All in all, worrying times. 


Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 17 Minute DVD: 13 Thoughts on Arsenal 5 Spurs 2

Well, what to make of that? Quite a game of football, and another classic match in a derby that seems to produce more goals than any other I can think of. Thoughts as follows:

* If you had told me after ten minutes that we were going to win this one 5-2, I have to admit, I'd have been skeptical, even after last year's shenanigans. Tottenham were all over us in the opening stages, and simply overwhelmed us at times. After a goal was (correctly) ruled out for offside they sliced us open again almost immediately, with Szcz producing a good stop that Adebayor was quickest to react to. And while we began to pull ourselves back into it, Spurs looked good for a second until about the 17th minute.

* The reason for Tottenham's early dominance was relatively clear. Villas-Boas sprung a surprise by playing 4-4-2, and, in practice, the formation was pretty similar to that which MUFC employed against us so successfully two weeks ago. Defoe dropped off a bit, and was attempting to do to Arteta what Rooney had done to our metronome at Old Trafford - harry him high up the pitch, and thus stop us from building out play from the back. Moreover, Spurs seemed content to largely knock the ball directly to their forwards, or to Lennon and Bale, who would then come forward as a four and overwhelm our defence.

* Now, this worked well for the opening few minutes, but this was an incredibly direct way of going about things. Villas-Boas may have planned to just try and stun us during the opening stages, and then hold on for a result. So, I don't necessarily think that Spurs would have won without the sending off. I don't think Defoe would have shackled Arteta as effectively as Rooney, and I also think that, eventually, we would overwhelmed them in midfield. Moreover, we saw last year in the 5-3 against Chelsea that we like playing against Villas-Boas's high line in defence. We wouldn't have won 5-2, but it seems fanciful to me that Spurs could have kept up their initial period of dominance for the entirety of the game.

* Anyway, whatever might have been was abruptly ended when Adebayor flew into a ridiculous tackle on Santi Cazorla. On first glance it wasn't clear just how ridiculous this challenge was, but it was clearly a red card, and an utterly absurd thing to do. For me, Adebayor has always had the ability to be a world class attacking player. He has strength, is good in the air, can link up play well, and can finish. However, he's clearly a self-obsessed moron. You do not change clubs with the rapidity that Adebayor has if you have the "mental strength" that top players need. Our fans in particular seem to really wind him up, and it's hard to imagine that he would have made a similarly stupid challenge in any other game. So thanks, Ade.

* After any red card, it's important to score as quickly as possible, before the opposing team have time to reorganize and shut the game down. It was great to see us do just that, and I was particularly overjoyed to see Per get his first goal for the club in such a big game. Per was at fault for the Spurs goal, by stepping up at the wrong moment, and leaving space behind him for Adebayor to exploit. So it was great for one our better performers this season to atone for his fault, and put us ahead with a monster header - one that reminded me greatly of Sagna's goal during the 5-2 last season.

* After that came one of the most joyful periods of football that I've witnessed for some time. For about twenty-two minutes we absolutely battered Spurs, who completely, and hilariously fell apart. Any credit you give Villas-Boas for the way he initially organized Spurs must be tempered by the fact they looked all at sea after they conceded the first goal. I had fancied Podolski to score before the game, and he did - another Ljungberg-esque effort inside the area, and Giroud added a glorious third through a combination of skill and desire, outmuscling two Tottenham defenders to slide the ball home gloriously past Lloris. At that point, if the ref hadn't blown for half-time, we could have added another ten goals - we were seriously that dominant.

* The importance of getting those goals before half-time was clear once the second half started, because  Villas-Boas made some clever substitutions, and tactical adjustments, which put us on the back foot for the opening stages of the half. Tottenham had little to lose at this point, and that was a palpable edge to the match on our part. Reading Zonal Marking, it seems that Tottenham's shift to a 3-4-1-1 in the second half, rather than the 4-4-1 that they had played in the closing stages of the second half, did cause us some difficulties, with Tottenham again attempting to overload us with direct, attacking play, and Dempsey seeking to limit the influence of Arteta at the back.

* Once we had weathered this opening storm, it became clear that there was an ocean of space behind both Lennon and Bale, and Cazorla's goal reflected this, with Podolski driving down the wing on the left, before switching the ball to the right flank for Cazorla to slot home. Cazorla deserved his goal for a wonderful performance that was aided by the extra space he could find against ten men, and he was, on balance, the man of the match. We need a tactical system that gives him time and space on the ball, because he destroys teams when he has this.

* After our fourth went in, I thought we could relax, and perhaps even look forward to a real tonking - but, of course, we then conceded. It was very disappointing goal - Bale was giving about fifteen minutes on the ball, in which he advanced into a dangerous position, picked his spot, and scored. It's disappointing to see Szcz concede from another long-range effort but Bale is clinical if given that amount of time. It worries me that even at 4-1 up, we still didn't have the discipline to stop Spurs from scoring.

* Indeed, there was then an extremely nervy period, and a profound, debilitating sense of deja vu. Thankfully, somewhere around 77-80 minute mark, we woke up and realised that we were playing against 10 men, at home, and 4-2 up, and so there was no need to let the game be as stretched as it was. The introduction of Ramsey helped us put our foot on the ball, and slow things down. And once we took the sting out of the game, Tottenham gave up, and we got a fifth via Theo, after some marvelous work from the Ox.

* The game was so odd, in many ways, that it's hard to produce a rational analysis. What I will say is that almost all our attacking players played well. Theo, Poldi, Giroud, and Cazorla all tore Tottenham apart at times, and all produced world class moments of attacking ability to produce the five goals we scored.  Elsewhere, however, we were a bit more suspect. Neither Wilshere nor Arteta really stamped their authority on the game, despite our one man advantage. And our defence was decidedly ropy. Vermaelen does not look comfortable at all shoved out on the left, Mertesacker made a rare mistake for the first goal, and Szcz hardly radiated confidence after being out for so long.

* Theo has now shown that, without a doubt, he is worth a new contract. I really wish the club would take into account the cost, time and effort it will take to replace him, versus the cost of giving him a new deal. If he is to leave in January, which I stil think is likely, we are effectively losing out best attacking player this year for what will be probably next to nothing. Also, a new deal for Sagna please.

* So, what to make of it all? It was a thrilling match, and, at times, it was utterly glorious. We showed that, in the right circumstances, we have the attacking talent to rip teams apart. Giroud is now starting to stamp his authority on games, and Cazola showed again that he has the potential to be a huge player for us. We were aided by the sending off, but I have the feeling that we would have won anyway. The sending off simply ensured that we would win by a large scoreline. Hopefully, we can build on the confidence this game should produce going into our must-win game against Montpellier on Wednesday.

And, if nothing else, thank goodness for Spurs. Never change.

Gb.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Four more Years? 11 Thoughts on Arsenal 3 Fulham 3

So, there was no post after the Schalke game on Tuesday because I flipped straight from watching the game to the results of the US election as they started to come in. Thankfully, my newly adopted country decided to not elect a sociopath - but more on that in a bit. Thoughts on Fulham as follows:

* As in Germany, we started well, racing into a two goal lead. The first was a brilliant bullet header from Giroud, from an equally great corner from Theo. Podolski then managed to get himself into the right place at the right time to put us two up. It was an important goal for him, and only his second in the league this season.Things seemed good, right?

* Well actually, no. Seeing us go two goals up with such apparent ease was bizarre  and felt undeserved. But, in the immortal words of Mr Eastwood, "deserve ain't got nothing to do with it" - if we'd somehow eaked out a two goal win, I doubt anyone would have cared. But when Fulham pulled one, then two goals back, it didn't feel like an epic collapse. It just felt, well, normal. Painfully normal. That it would have been a bigger surprise to see us protect a two goal lead at home, rather than collapse in such a manner, is incredibly dispiriting, and a profound indictment of where the club is at the moment.

* The Fulham goals themselves show what a shambles our defence currently is. Surprise, surprise, dropping Santos has not led to use suddenly tightening up at the back - with TV at left-back, we've conceded five goals in the last two games. The corner was, AGAIN, an occasion on which a player had, basically, a free header in the six-yard box. The second goal saw Berbatov tear Podolski and Vermaelen apart, before somebody headed home, again, under virtually no pressure inside our box. Personally, I think Mannone should keep the second out, and you could make an argument that he could have dominated his area for the first goal. But our defensive problems are now systemic - I truly believe that they are down to coaching, and tactical philosophy at this point, and even if we picked up Lev Yashin on a free transfer tomorrow, he'd struggle behind our back line.

* Having conceded two, it always felt like we had the capacity to concede a third, and so it proved. Arteta produced a crazy tackle in the area, and Berbatov swept home the penalty so cooly that I'm surprised he didn't spark-up a cigar during his run-up. It seemed like we had, yet again, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Against Fulham. At home.

* I tweeted at this point that it seemed like the current side had no team spirit, and I stand by that point despite what happened next. Giroud and Podolski both seem to spend most of their time on the pitch throwing anguished shapes in the penalty area each time they don't get the ball. Now, if you're Henry, or even van Persie, you can do this. After a couple of months at The Arsenal, you can't. And even if we did score a third, a team with a real fighting spirit doesn't concede three goals after going two goals up. If you think that statement is unfair, you have incredibly low expectations for one of the biggest clubs in world football.

* Giroud dragged us back into the game with another header, after he had failed to finish with his initial chance. Fair play to him, he was a handful all match, even if I could do without the dramatic moments of anguish. It was also hard to know what to make of his celebration. If I scored for Arsenal, even if we were 10-0 down, I'd probably run fifty victory laps until I was hauled off the field. But when Giroud got our third, it should have been the classic scooping the ball out of the net, and sprinting back to the centre-circle routine. Again, this is Fulham at home.

* As others have said, it's hard to concede to Theo's demands for a central striker position when he's so good on the flanks. I've never been a huge Theo fan, but I feel he's done enough to earn a new contract at this stage, especially because I don't trust the club to replace him with anyone approaching a comparable level of ability. It has also struck me this season that Theo could be on the verge on gaining the consistency that he's struggled to find for so long. Maybe a stint on the bench has done him good.

* Without wanting to be harsh, a quick word on Chamberlain. Can anyone remember the last time he played well? It's been a while.

* People complain about rubbish referees, but rubbish referees have frequently benefited us in the past. The penalty we were awarded at the end was a total joke, and Fulham probably didn't deserve to lose, but who cares? Big teams win games they don't deserve to win. Yet, there was almost instantly a bad vibe about the whole affair. No one wanted to take it about from Santi, and then Arteta snatched it from his hands. He had a good record from the spot for Everton, so fair enough. But this really felt like we were stealing something we didn't deserve, and Arteta's fairly meek penalty was saved by Schwarzer. It didn't really feel like a calamity - just another moment of farce.

* In the end, a draw was the right result, and I wouldn't have argued against a Fulham win. They were excellent, and in Ruiz and Berbatov they have two brilliant attacking players. One might wonder why we weren't in for Berbatov over the summer, but, then again, I suppose this would "kill" Chamakh's career. When you see players like him play so well, who were signed so cheaply, it's hard to argue that the club has got a full handle on our transfer policy.

We, on the other hand, produced another clown car performance. Yes, there were thrills and spills and goals, but it was all a bit embarrassing. I play in defence (badly), and was brought up under the George Graham regime, where defence was considered an important part of the game. It genuinely seems an afterthought for us on days like this, and against Schalke. Seeing a bang average goalkeeper behind a ropy defence just doesn't seem like something a top club should have to put up with - at least not year, after year, after year. Does anyone still think we can win the title?

* And so, back to the beginning of my post, where I talked about the American elections. After FDR was elected to the presidency an unprecedented four times during the 1930s and 1940s, a constitutional amendment was passed in 1947 that stated that a person could only serve as president for a maximum of two terms. There have been a number of presidents since then who could have served for more than two terms - Reagan, Clinton, maybe even Eisenhower. But the US decided it was unhealthy for any person, no matter how popular they were, to hold the office of president for more than eight years.

Sometimes, this seems unfair. If a person is good in a job, why remove them? If it wasn't for this amendment, we might not have the total disaster that was the administration led by George W. Bush. But, generally, I like it. It recognizes the fact that change is a necessary part of life. More specifically, it recognizes that it can be unhealthy for any one person in a position of power to hold an office for too long.

My point is this - it is now abundantly clear that we need change at Arsenal. I don't know the exact nature of the change required, but we can't go on like this. The same mistakes happen week after week, but, if anything, they seem to have gotten worse over the last year or so. We seem stuck, caught in an endless loop of bad, predictable tactics, and inadequate replacements for top players. Where the fault lies for this, I don't know. Having an absentee owner doesn't help, nor does the fact that we have an enormously well-paid CEO who seems incredibly naive about the world of football finance. But some of the blame now has to rest at Arsene's door. Could someone do a better job than him? I would now say "probably" rather than "possibly". And, most pertinently, does Arsene deserve a new deal? Should he sign on for "four more years", as it were. Again, I'm not sure. All I am sure about is that new ideas and new people are needed at Arsenal football club - and, for the first time, I have to say not just on the field, but off it as well.

-Gb.



Saturday, November 03, 2012

No Longer a Rivalry: 14 Thoughts on Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1

Another trip to Old Trafford, another defeat. The site of some of our greatest victories, is now becoming the place where we no longer seem to put up a fight. Thoughts as follows:

* How many times over the last few years have you looked at the respective team-sheets for Arsenal vs. Manchester United and thought, "Y'know what, they aren't actually that much better than us?" only to see us promptly beaten. I think there is a lesson there about tactics and management ability, and I'll get onto that later.

* In the history of probability, van Persie's goal was perhaps the closest to a sure thing that you could ever imagine. The only question was how and when, and it was disappointing to see us give him such a helping hand. As we know, he doesn't need one. He's the best out-and-out striker in world football, and as recently as a few months ago he was doing that for us. Still, £24 million in the bank is much better, as Gazidis et al. will all tell us.

* The goal was marked by another profound defensive error from Vermaelen. I don't know how many times I can say this in one season, but the decision to make him captain was a blunder. Vermaelen should not be an automatic starter in our defence, owing to the large number of mistakes that he continually makes. Koscielny has been forced to the bench because of Mertesacker's form, and has lost his own form in the process. Central defence is now a mess, and it's a mess largely of Wenger's own making.

* A word for our other defenders. I can't believe I'm about to write this, but a fairly convincing argument could be made that Mannone was our man of the match. He pulled off a number of great saves, including one from van Persie that was genuinely world class. He's obviously not the answer in the long-term, but credit where credit's due. Sagna was solid without being spectacular. Santos was predictably pilloried on Twitter, but I thought he was far from being our worst player. None of the fault for United's goals can particularly be attributed to him, he did his best to be involved with our attacks, and Valencia was actually relatively quiet for much of the game. Swapping shirts with van Persie at half-time, though, while still on the pitch perhaps sums up a lot of the frustration fans have with this current bunch of players. They often don't seem to "get" it.

* In total we created very little. Untied barely had to break sweat to contain their lead, and we didn't get a shot on goal until the stoppage time at the end of the game, just like against Schalke. A big part of this was United's effective stifling of Arteta, who only complete around 60 passes - around 2/3rds of his normal amount. The fact that Mertesacker made over 100 passes shows that United were happy to let us have the ball in non-dangerous areas, knowing that we would do very little with it. We actually finished the game with the majority of the possession, but did so little with the ball when we had it.

* I tweeted in anger that Cazorla was overrated today, and I only stand by that remark in terms of what Arsenal fans expect of him. He has two assists from ten premier league games - he's not exactly pulling the strings in the way I thought he might after the first few games of the season. A huge creative burden appears to have been placed on him, and it's not clear that he's fully up to the task - at least with the current personnel.

* That said, Arshavin created as many goalscoring opportunities as Cazorla did all game in his ten minutes on the pitch. Is a recall for the little Russian beyond the realms of possibility? Yes, he's lazy, and drifts out of games. But he has the ability to create something in a manner that very few other players do in the current line-up. His performance against Reading showed that he can still change games against Premier League opponents on his day.

* The not so subtle elephant in the room is the form of Podolski and Giroud. The latter may have had a barnstorming game against Reading on Wednesday, but did very little today. He should have scored at least one of the chances that he was presented with, and, I hate to say it, but Robin would have gotten at least one goal from the service that Giroud received. Podolski is now a problem. Shoved on the left he provided Santos with almost zero coverage again, while also producing nothing of note offensively - no shots on goal, and no key passes. I worried about Podolski's flakiness before he signed, and I really hope he shakes off this current poor run of form, because he is still the best hope for goals that we currently have in the squad.

* Of course, at half-time there were no substitutions. Despite a performance almost entirely lacking in redeeming features, there were no changes, as ever, until Ramsey appeared to be forced off with injury. Why would Wenger change the habit of a lifetime? He obviously knows best. Ramsey again came in for a lot of flak before coming off, but does anyone know his role in the team? Stuck out on the right of our attacking front-three, I struggle to find the tactical rationale for his deployment in this position, other than defensive solidity that would seemingly waste his main creative strengths. After a great 120 minutes against Reading, Walcott did nothing after coming on - perhaps a sobering reflection of the level of his ability.

* At 1-0 we were still in it, somehow, and after Rooney missed another penalty against us, there was a small feeling that we might be able to walk away from Manchester with a point. Unfortunately, we decided to let Evra head the ball in, unmarked, from the six-yard box. Again, whatever the wider problems at the club, the fact we CANNOT MARK is down to coaching. Our consistent propensity to self-destruct defensively comes down to Arsene, ultimately. It's he, more than anyone, who decides how important defence is to our team, and how we defend. And I feel that until we have a coach that cares as much about not conceding as scoring, we ain't going to win many trophies.

* The red card could have been prevented. The fact that Wilshere was still on the pitch was a reflection of the total desperation in terms our squad options. After totally overplaying him in his first full season at the club, Wenger looks set to run Jack into the ground again. It was a tired challenge, born from frustration that was totally foreseeable, especially after he'd already been warned by the ref. Cleverley was lucky not to go in similar circumstances for a rash tackle when he was on a yellow. But let's contrast the reaction of the two mangers. Ferguson immediately removed his youngster, recognizing that he'd become a liability. Arsene left Wilshere on when it was clear he was tired and frustrated, and he was sent off. Yes, the player has to take a huge chunk of responsibility. But this is the essence of MANAGEMENT. Ferguson is a better manager of his players than Wenger is, and has been for a very long time now.

* The late goal was a great finish from Cazorla, coming almost immediately after Giroud should have scored. Having not bothered to get out of first gear, United had failed to kill the game, and the goal did little than completely flatter us. The final score may have been 2-1, but United's domination was almost as complete as in the 8-2 last season. And at least on that day we had a wreckage of a team on show. This was ostensibly relatively close to our starting XI, and we did not compete at all.

* I do wonder how much of this season's strategy hinged on Diaby's fitness. Since he disappeared at the beginning of September, we have slumped. I'm by no means Diaby's biggest fan, but he brings something a bit different to our midfield that is otherwise composed of midget passing machines. If Diaby was meant to be Song's replacement, this strikes me as insane. Whatever his talents as a footballer, Diaby has now proved beyond doubt that he can't be relied upon to stay fit. On the long list of new players we need, I would argue something different in the centre of the park is needed as well. A big bid for Fellaini would not go amiss in January, even if it will obviously not happen.

* Since 2004 - which now seems like a generation away, let alone eight years - we have only beaten United four times in the league. This used to be a great rivalry - it isn't anymore. United have effortlessly pulled away from us for a variety of reasons. They have a better transfer policy than us, without having the resources of an oligarch. Fundamentally, they have a better manager and better coaches than us. To go back to my opening point, Ferguson gets more from his players than Wenger does. He is tactically flexible. He doesn't coddle his squad. While van Persie's decision to move there may hurt tremendously, it's completely understandable. We are no longer at United's level, and we will not challenge for the league title, again, this season. Our greatest chance of silverware appears to be the league cup, but given how we've cocked things up in recent years, that's far from being in the bag.

I tweeted at the end of the game that we have the highest paid manager in the league, the highest paid CEO (especially thanks to his ample bonus), and yet we have a team that is quite clearly not the best in the league. Why does there appear to be a recognition that you have to pay for quality at a management level, yet not among the playing staff? If United had consistently sold their best players for the last eight years, and replaced them with others of lower quality, while refusing to pay top wages, I'm sure they would be where we are now. Instead, they don't reward potential too soon, and they pay their top players, top wages. Until we make the myriad repairs that this squad requires, which have now been needed for years, this game no longer constitutes a real rivalry. United are simply better.

Gb.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Arsenal Go One Set Up: Seven Thoughts on Arsenal 7 Reading 5

Whoever said the League Cup was boring? Seven thoughts for seven goals.

* I'm not going to lie, you must have something approaching clinical optimism if you truly believed that Arsenal would win when Reading scored their fourth goal. The first forty minutes or so were simply an utter shambles, and if the scoreline had stayed this way there would have been something approaching a meltdown  after the game among the Arsenal fanbase. As it is, it's hard to know where to start with the goals we conceded. Koscielny, after looking so brilliant for much of last season, now looks all over the place. It's similarly difficult to believe that Djourou briefly looked like a defensive titan during the 2010-11 season. Whatever joy we take from the game, we should never concede four goals in a half in any competition.

* At the time, it was hard to know what to make of it, but Walcott's goal just before half-time was vital. It gave a little edge to proceedings when there had previously been total Reading dominance. Sometime it's easy to criticize the players for giving up too easily, and, even if we don't take anything else from Theo's performance tonight, he showed ability and desire when we 4-0 down to start the comeback. Thankfully, we can take much more, and he showed that he can be a game-changer and a game-winner when given the opportunity.

* The second half saw a series of moments that eventually swung the game in our favour. Giroud and Eisfeld helped turn the game when they arrived, with Giroud scoring a brilliant header almost immediately. Eisfeld looked superb for much of the game, and must surely be pushing for a place on the first team bench. The referee then decided to not send off Koscielny, despite two relatively clear cut occasions when he might have received a second yellow card. That he scored the third goal will not have gone unnoticed among Reading fans. Finally, with the clock running down, Reading decided to make a substitution to try and extinguish the game's final moments. Instead, it provided us with the extra minute or so we needed to score. It's hard to take, but this wasn't "Fergie time" - it was justifiable stoppage time given the substitution.

* What happened with the fourth goal wasn't entirely clear at the time. I couldn't tell if the ball had gone over the line, if the referee had played advantage for the handball, or if he had awarded Jenkinson the goal for his follow-up effort. Whatever happened, it was a goal in the end, so who cares, I suppose.

* Once we got the fourth, I was fairly confident that we'd get a fifth, and so it proved. Chamakh stroked the ball home very nicely from outside the area, and would lob the keeper with similar panache for our seventh in the very last minute from the game. Considering that the return of RvP began his demise at Arsenal, might Robin's departure signal his resurgence? Somehow, I doubt it, but at the least it was a decent showing while he was in the shop-window. If nothing else, he remains one of only two out-and-out strikers we have at the club. Similarly, Arshavin, for the second game in a row, looked busy in attack, and a character who could provide the team with an edge at some point in a game this year. It was his run and shot that led to the sixth goal, and it always warms my heart to see our most enigmatic of players light up a match.

* After completing this most epic of comebacks, we almost predictably didn't know what to do next, and conceded again. Yes the game was crazy, but there's no excuse for leaving two players unmarked in the six-yard box when you're leading a game. I"m not sure I could have handled penalties by this point, so it was a might relief to see us actually get the final two goals.

* So, what to make if it all? It's hard to say. A four-goal comeback is remarkable, and evidence of a fighting spirit within the squad - but why do we give up so many cheap goals with such frustrating regularity? I read a brilliant article by Jonathan Wilson in the Blizzard recently when he noted that Spain now prefer to control games and win by smaller margins, than blow teams away like they used to with the increased potential for conceding goals. By doing so, they've become more consistent, yet less spectacular, boring even, in the eyes of some. I sometimes feel a bizarre pining for the days of George Graham, when we would bore our way trophies.  Winning 7-5 is amazing, but I would be more than happy if we won every other game 1-0 this season, starting with our trip to Old Trafford on Saturday.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Does Kroenke Really Care?: 14 Thoughts on Arsenal 1 QPR 0

Not our finest 90 minutes, but a welcome return to form. Thoughts as follows:

* The big news was, of course, Wilshere's return. And while he was only on the pitch for about an hour, he did a lot to show just how much we have missed him over the last year. Jack can open up the midfield with both his passing, but also with the manner with which he carries the ball. He was our best player in the first half, and it was eminently sensible to take him off when we did, to ensure that he wasn't overstretched, as it were. I don't expect him to feature in the league cup match this week, and, instead, I'm sure he may feature against United next Sunday. With quite a few United fans saying that Cleverley is as good, if not better, than Wilshere, it will be a fascinating battle between the two of them. In the long-term, one has to wonder where Jack will play. In his first season, he actually played quite closely to where Arteta does now - but, especially after having been handed the number 10 shirt, a future further up the field is surely in his sights. We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

* The other big news was the return of Sagna, which was largely, and weirdly, unheralded. Jenkinson has done well in Bak's absense, but let's not kid ourselves - Sagna is a better player. Perhaps not a much better player anymore, but a better player nonetheless. While Jenkinson has been largely solid defensively, Sagna is better going forward. Indeed, based on the stats, you could say that Sagna completed about twice as many crosses on average last season, as Jenkinson did in his starts so far this year. In the long-term, Jenkinson has established himself as a credible successor to Sagna, and I would not be surprised at all if Bak left next summer, but Sagna is our first choice RB.

* The first half wasn't much to write home about. We dominated possession, and tested Cesar a  few times with shots from distance, but never really looked like scoring. It's the familiar story of a team setting themselves out for a draw, and we quickly looked short on ideas.

* Indeed, I was struck by how one-dimensional our attack and midfield looked for much of the game. Without van Persie's movement, and without the pace of the likes of Theo, Chamberlain, and Gervinho, QPR could sit back and watch us pass ourselves to death. Giroud may have been involved in the goal (and really should have scored from his header) but he has simply not come close to replicating the general goal threat that van Persie provided us with last season, and I don't mean just in terms of actually scoring goals. RvP dragged players all over the pitch, and provided a barrel-full of assists. Without van Persie, we often just look flat in attack.

* Which brings me to Podolski, I suppose. I think he is a good, often great player, but he hasn't quite been the goal threat that I hoped. There is also, clearly, confusion over his best position. For Germany, he often plays wide on the left, while for Koln last season he usually played more centrally. He is probably the best finisher we have at the club at the moment, but we still haven't quite worked out how to play him. This then leads into the quandry about substitutions. He does usually deserve to be the player taken off, but, in doing so, we are denying ourselves the one guy who we really want the ball to fall to in the box when a big chance does arrive. A solution to the Poldi problem needs to be found.

* I'm not going to say something as stupid as "Cazorla is overrated" but his inability to take chances is now becoming a worry. My good friend 7amkickoff.com told me that Cazorla has had 38 shots so far this season, and yet he has only scored two goals. It would be one thing if all these shots were pinged, hopeful opportunities from outside the area, but he has now blown clear chances, such as against Chelsea and again today when the ball fell to him in the area. He even had enough time today to steady himself before smashing the ball over the bar. Considering how composed he looks in his passing, it's utterly bizarre that he seems to go to pieces when he takes a shot. Cazorla needs to score more often, in short.

* Arsene appeared to recognise how one-dimensional our play was, and put on players with pace and trickery - Walcott and Gervinho. Unfortunately, it was almost predictable that Gervinho would injure himself given his recent form, and Walcott also didn't produce a great deal after coming on. The problem is, we need players like this, but who are better. We do need pacy players, and dribbly players when the game is tight. But when we introduce players who have these attributes, but who also struggle with, y'know, ball control, it's not quite the same. We seem to now be in a bizarre situation where we actually have a large number of attacking players, but all of them are quite average, in their own unique ways. It's a side of the team we really need to strengthen in January, but I am not optimistic.

* The game was meandering towards a painful 0-0 draw when Mbia lost the plot and swung a leg out at Vermaelen. After a series of poor decisions, I fully expected the ref to bottle this one as well, but he did the right thing and produced a red card. As @Arseblog_Tom pointed out, there was the possibility that this could have made the final minutes even harder, if anything, with QPR now fully content to put their remaining ten men behind the ball.

* Luckily, we did manage to press home the extra man advantage, as QPR were left short in the box when we finally scored. Arteta was clearly offside - an example of poor refereeing in our favour that will undoubtedly be forgotten almost instantly. Still, it was good to see Mikel "should be captain" Arteta with a goal, as he one of the few that really gives his all for 90 minutes.

* QPR promptly woke up after the goal, and should have equalized in the remaining ten minutes or so. Granero took advantage of Vermaelen AGAIN stepping up and leaving a man free behind him to nip into the area, and collect a through ball. He should have scored. Similarly, Mackie then bulldozed his way into the box, only for Jazz Hands to come up with a big save.

* I should say -  fair play to Vito, he probably won us the game with that stop. However, seeing Cesar pull off save after save at the other end was galling, considering we could have acquired him on a free last summer. Yes he would have been on high wages, but he would have been a good foil to push Szcz as he (hopefully) grows into our number 1. Instead, we've had the Mannone "show" for the last two months, which has cost us points.

* Santos has come in for a lot of flak recently, after being largely blamed for the goals against Schalke. No matter that Vermaelen did his "stepping up/leave a world class striker unmarked" trick for the first goal, and that Affelay was completed unmarked for the second - Santos was entirely to blame. There's been a lot of talk of Santos being an Eboue Mark II, which is far of the mark, in my opinion. As I posted earlier on Twitter, Santos led the team in interceptions today, and completed 4/5 crosses, while Sagna only completed 1/9. I'm not trying to say that Santos is a world class player - he's not. But it frustrates me to see players like Vermaelen so infrequently criticised for poor defending, while the likes of Santos are pummelled.

* Ultimately, I couldn't bring myself to blog after the last two games, because I couldn't muster the energy to be relentlessly negative about the team, which both performances warranted. Today wasn't much better, but at least the team played till the end, created much more chances, and probably would have won by more if a lesser keeper had been involved. A win is a win, and sometimes you have to start with a scrappy performance to move forward. Hopefully we can edge out Reading on Tuesday, and try and build a little momentum before we play Man Utd away.

* But it is hard to be enthusiastic about the state of the club at the moment. What was clear from the AGM on Thursday, is that certain, key board members hold the Arsenal fanbase in contempt. Peter Hill-Wood's comments annoy me, but he is a powerless dinosaur, who'll soon be gone. It's the attitude of Kroenke that gets me more than anything. We aren't a "franchise", we're a club. In fact, we're a major insitution in one of the largest cities in the world, with millions of fans worldwide. We aren't the Denver Nuggets, or the St Louis Rams, or any of the other shitty franchises he owns - we're far, far bigger than that, and we deserve better than an owner who appears perplexed over why he has to attend and speak at an AGM, and why fan groups become annoyed when he openly lies about having met with them.

The reason why we have seen the last three performances is that Arsenal have had an extremely poor transfer strategy for what is now amounting to a very long time, and which appears to stretch over the majority of time that Kroenke has been involved at the club. When you consistently reward mediocre players with long deals and large wages, sell your best players, and replace them with others that aren't as good, disjointed, frustrating performances will arise as a result. All I can hope is that Kroenke recognises at some level the current frustration among the Arsenal fanbase, and that he realises that we can't go on like this if we want to maintain our status as a club that realistically challenges for the top trophies in Europe and England. In short, I hope we don't have to wait until Kroenke starts to get hurt in the pocket, before matters on the field are improved.

Gb.


Sunday, October 07, 2012

Slices of Humble Pie: 12 Thoughts on West Ham 1 Arsenal 3

A good win in a frenetic London derby. Thoughts, including slices of humble pie, as follows:

* I liked the line-up. I think Ramsey has done enough to warrant a start - indeed, in all honesty, I would play him before Diaby even if both were fully fit. Ramsey may not have Diaby's glue-like ability to get the ball to stick to his feet while he runs, but I just feel that Ramsey contributes more, both defensively and offensively, to games on a more regular basis. Also, he seems to be showing that he can recover from a big injury, in a way that Diaby has not been able to do. As for the rest of the team, it was good to see Per back, and to have a much more balanced forward line, with a more traditional type of striker leading up top.

* We started very well. We took the game to West Ham, perhaps knowing that Allardyce would try and see if he could get his team to bully us out of the game from an early stage. We passed the ball slickly, and only a couple of good saves and blocks kept us from scoring. However, there was a fair amount of the ball being simply thrown into the box without much thought, and despite all our possession, I felt we should have created more clear-cut chances during this period than we did.

*So, after our bright, but goalless start, it was almost inevitable that we would concede. The goal was both stupid and sublime. Ramsey will rightly take a fair amount of flak for letting Diame ease past him, but neither Jenkinson nor Mertesacker really covered themselves in defensive glory either. The finish itself was brilliant, and for once you can't really blame Jazz Hands for not making a save, such was the power and whip with which the ball was hit. But Diame had far too much time to line up his finish. It just goes to show, I suppose, how good so many players are in top-flight football, when they're actually given enough time to express themselves.

*After the goal, we appeared a little shaken, and for a while it seemed like we would concede a second. It was during this period that Phil Dowd made one of his multiple blunders, not giving Diame a second yellow for an offence that clearly warranted a booking. To go off on a tangent for a moment, it's really about time that the FA reviewed their policies that surround bookings for celebrations. It seems odd that a player can often get away without a card for scything down a player, but should they, heaven forbid, want to celebrate with their fans, or whip off their shirts in a moment of over-exuberance, it's always, always, a yellow card. Booking people needlessly makes it harder to caution them when they actually deserve a card - it's pretty simple, really.

* Despite Dowd, we hung on in there, and finally made the breakthrough when Giroud got on the end of a Poldi cross. Humble pie moment #1 for me - I had said moments before that Giroud always seemed a yard behind the pace. This time he clearly wasn't. Collins should deal with Podolski's cross, but Giroud, like any good forward should do, gambles that the ball will reach him. The result is a near tap-in, but one manufactured through positional intelligence - it was great to see. I thought Giroud had a terrific game, in all. His shooting was accurate, with four out of eight attempts on target, he held the ball up well, and he played a wonderful pass to Theo to set up our second. I'm still not convinced that he's a twenty goal-a-season striker, but he now has 2 goals and 4 assists in the somewhat limited minutes he's had this year. He is proving to be a useful player.

* The goal was also an example of what can happen if you put accurate crosses into dangerous areas. Gibbs and Jenkinson have both started the season very well, but they did not cross the ball well during the game yesterday. One of Gibbs' six crosses was accurate, while none of Jenkinson's three attempts found a player. Now, accurate crossing does depend on other players getting into good positions. But Podolski showed why he is a world class talent with his pass.

* The rest of the game could have gone either way. Right after we scored, some dodgy defending from a corner led to the ball falling to Nolan after Jenkinson completely switched off. Nolan prodded the ball wide when he perhaps should have scored, and it would have been interesting to see if we would have recovered from going behind just before half-time. As it was, the momentum was with us at the

* As you may have noticed by now, I don't think it was a very good defensive performance yesterday. Mertesacker may have been part of the balls-up that led to the first goal, but he was the one relatively solid player in a back five that otherwise frequently looked all at sea. Carroll won an absurd 17 aerial duels yesterday, and if anyone else on the West Ham team could have finished the resulting chances then we'd have been in big trouble. Carroll isn't a £35m player, but he is effective at what he does, especially in a system like Allardyce's. I don't think we dealt with him at all, and, especially after last week, it seems we may have been a bit premature in talking about a new culture of defensive solidity at the club.

* My second piece of humble pie was served up by Walcott. With West Ham pushing forward a little as they became more confident in their attacks, space opened up behind their defensive line, which Theo gleefully exploited. His goal was an absolutely beautiful finish, and, without wanting to read too much into these things, his celebration did say a lot about the passion he feels for Arsenal. I simply don't understand him as a player - at times, he seems unable to control the ball as he runs with it. At others, he can slip the ball past the keeper in a truly Henry-like fashion. It remains to be seen whether he'll sign his new deal, and I still think it's fairly unlikely that he will do so. But, for all his frustrating tendencies, he can be a game-changer, and those are always useful to have around.

* Humble pie piece #3 was served courtesy of Santi Cazorla. His goal was an outstanding strike, as he basically wrong-footed the keeper with his eyes from outside the area, before pinging the ball into the other side of the net. I maintain, however, what I said shortly before his goal - Cazorla could be more accurate with his shooting. He currently has two goals from 33 shots on goal in all competitions this season. It's nice to see a player who's willing to shoot from distance, but I have the feeling that he might have scored a few more for us already this year, given the positions he's been getting into. Just consider that Cesc has scored 3 goals from 12 shots in La Liga and the Champions League this year. Cazorla is a wonderful player, and has done a huge amount to lift the club since his arrival. A slight improvement in his shots to goals ratio is surely not too much to ask, is it?

* Overall, a good win, which was slightly less comfortable than the scoreline suggested. The last few games has seen us revert to giving away silly goals again, which is a little disappointing, but at least we have the mental fortitude to fight back from losing positions in a place like Upton Park. Looking at our fixture list, we've come through a difficult September, and it would seem to me that all of our next four games are winnable. If we can't beat teams like Norwich away, or QPR at home, then I can't see us troubling the top spot in the table this year. Let's hope we can use the win yesterday as the springboard to a good run of form.

* Lastly, when was the last time we wore a kit in three consecutive seasons? Given Villa play in almost identical colours, I imagine we will even see the yellow kit again this year.

Gb.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Defeat Entirely of our Own Making: Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2

After two enjoyable goal-fests, a horrible result against a horrible team. Thoughts as follows:

* Let's get straight to it - the decision to drop Mertesacker was absurd. Utterly, utterly absurd. I don't want to try and paint Per as some Baresi-esque defensive titan, but he has been our best centre-back this season. The argument can be made, and I'm sure it partly lay behind Arsene's decision, that Koscielny and Vermaelen were more tactically suited to Chelsea's collection of smaller, technical players, especially now the nightmare of having to face Didier Drogba is thankfully a thing of the past. This argument is, frankly, rubbish. If you have a player who's on the absolute top of his game, you play him. It reminded me a little of two incidents in Wenger's reign. Firstly, when Arshavin was dropped for the semi-final of the FA Cup in 2009, and secondly, when Senderos was dropped for the champions league tie against AC Milan. The first was a supposedly tactical decision (Diaby was the beneficiary); the second simply seemed to be a case of dropping an in-form player, as soon as Wenger's preferred player became available. Both incidents send out the troubling message that Arsene has preferred personnel within the squad, regardless of current form. And neither decision led to a positive result.

We saw repeatedly when Gallas and Toure played together in defence that having two similar centre-backs, who both rely on recovery pace, doesn't work. You need to have players who compliment each other, in order to make a team that is fully whole. Instead, Wenger has made Vermaelen captain, despite the fact he should not be an automatic starter. This leaves AW with the choice of either Koscielny and Mertesacker, and I simply feel that Arsene will always favour a Koscielny-style player. Let's hope today was a wake-up call, because I don't think we would have lost the game if Per had played (or at least not have lost it in the manner we did). I think Arsene tinkered our defence to destruction today, in short.

* Both Vermaelen and Koscielny had very poor games. Koscielny, owing to the fact he was "marking" Torres for the first goal, and essentially scored an own goal for the second, will legitimately come in for criticism. But Vermalen was equally as poor. He did his usual running around like a headless chicken routine, giving away needless free-kicks in dangerous positions - which led directly to the second goal. I also thought he struggled with Torres throughout the game. For me, Vermaelen is our third-best centre-back, and has been for sometime. I've always loved his spirit and penchant for getting vital goals, but he is simply not as good at defending as Koscielny and Mertesacker, who should be our first choice partnership in central defence. Arsene now has genuine dilemma over who to pick, but it is one of his own making.

* Here's a thought - it's probably not a great idea to make a player that suffers from multiple, chronic injuries the lynchpin of your midfield. I've had it with Diaby. In fact, I'd had it with him last year, before his 'blistering start' to this season in which he's already been injured twice, and it's not even October. That is ludicrous. He is not a proper football player. Get rid of him, and buy someone we can actually rely on to play on  a regular basis. 

* Mannone had very little to do today, but he should have done better on both goals. For the first, he actually backs away from the shot - I really can't work out what he was doing. For the second, yes he was unsighted by Koscielny, but in those situations you need a dominate goalkeeper who come and claim the ball when it's pinging around the box. Instead, he remained rooted to his line, doing his best "jazz hands" impression. I was struck today, while watching the Spurs vs Man Utd game, that the four goalkeepers involved in that match are arguably better than all of the keepers we currently have at the club. Better goalkeeping could have turned today's game into a draw, and last week's match into a win. We should have invested in this position over the summer. Instead we have a selection of dubious reserve keepers, with Szcz still at this stage only an unproven talent. By my calculations, we haven't had a goalkeeper that I've fully tusted since Jens in 2006-07. That is unforgivable.

* Gervinho scored a brilliant goal. That cannot be denied. He controlled a pass that was fizzed in at speed, and smashed it past Cech. But did he do much else? I'm not sure. He also showed a horrible penchant for being caught offside, which he needs to cut out of his game.

* Still, once Gervinho had scored, the spirit of the team, and the crowd, was palpably lifted, and I felt confident that we would score again. We started brightly in the second half, but were quickly deflated by the ridiculous second goal that we conceded. After that, much of the rest of the performance was thoroughly, and perhaps shamefully, underwhelming.

* Something happened today that I've been worried about since the first game of the season - Cazorla was nullified by Chelsea, and, with it, so were we, by and large. Cazorla has been given such an important role in the team that I worry teams will focus on trying to stop him in the coming weeks. In short, i wouldn't be surprised to see him go through a little dip in form, after his blazing start to the season. I also thought that Ramsey, after such a strong performance in Manchester, disappointed.

* Our three best players were Arteta, Jenkinson, and Gibbs. Praising Arteta has become almost a cliche by now, but he really seemed to be one of the few players trying to inject some urgency into proceedings during the later stages of the game. Our full-backs have perhaps been the revelation of this season. Neither of the goals were due to their errors, and both looked strong coming forward as well. At this stage, Gibbs is rightly keeping Santos on the bench. And with contract renewal discussions also apparently beginning with Sagna, it may be interesting to see if Jenkinson keeps his place in the team, given Sagna's imminent return. A small word for Chamberlain, who had his strongest league performance of the season. He provided an excellent assist, even if, by the end, it didn't seem if he really knew where he was meant to be playing on the pitch.

* Theo and Giroud were introduced as subs slightly earlier than last week, which is something, but neither particularly impressed. Theo, according to whoscored.com, only touched the ball nine times after he came on. Not a great advert for a new contract. Giroud seemed to be more involved, but still missed a great chance at the end. On Twitter, Orbinho revealed that Giroud has now had eleven shots on goal in the league, and only one has been on target. That is not good enough. Giroud may well turn into a handy player for us - but he's clearly not a top striker. I can't see him scoring over 20 goals a year.He's fine as a back-up player, but his inability to be clinical in front of goal has now cost us multiple points in the league. Worrying.

* Perhaps just as worrying is Podolski's almost total anonymity in our last two matches. I think he has been great in general so far this season, but he's clearly not comfortable at leading the line in the way that van Persie used to do. At the moment, our striker-less attack can look great on some days, and utterly toothless on others.

* Overall, this was largely a defeat of our own making. Chelsea are, frankly, not a particularly great team at present. They are nowhere near the terrifying outfit that Mourinho put together - they are an eminently beatable side. Today, thanks to poor defending, we more or less handed them the win. The game reminded me a bit of our 2-1 home defeat against Man Utd in January this year, where defensive incompetency and poor tactical decisions also cost us the game.

If we're serious about challenging for the league, this is the type of game you win, or at least draw. Instead, there are areas of concern all over the pitch. At our worst, we still look like a team that struggles to not make stupid mistakes, and has now lost the trump card that was van Persie. With Spurs also looking handy today against Man United, I would say that we're headed towards another battle for fourth place this year, and another season of not seriously challenging for the title.

* Lastly - John Terry is a despicable human being, and the four game ban he received from the FA is an insult to anyone who is serious about removing racism and racial abuse from the game. And yet many Chelsea fans continue to laud him as a hero. It's a sad state of affairs, and the sooner he retires for good, and the game is finally rid of him, the better.

Gb.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Good Point, or A Missed Opportunity? 10 Thoughts on Manchester City 1 Arsenal 1.

A engrossing match at the Etihad today. Thoughts as follows:

* I was surprised by the line-ups when I saw them. For City, playing Aguero behind Dzeko seemed like a classic case of trying to awkwardly shoe-horn your in-form striker into the side, at the expense of the team's overall coherency. While Dzeko has been banging in the goals recently (I maintain he's underrated) I was relieved to not see the trickier Tevez in the starting line-up. The selection of Sinclair in such a big game was more bizarre, and he was hauled off at half-time, having not done very much at all. In terms of us, it was good to see Koz back in the side, even if it was only because of Vermaelen being stricken by flu. The other surprise was Ramsey in for the Ox, and I think this was ultimately a good move (more on that in a bit).

* We dominated the first half, and should have gone in ahead. We now have the ability to knock the ball around very quickly, without things descending into the tiki-taka mess that occurred so frequently during the Cesc years. That said, we missed having a central focus to our attacks. Podolski was nominally playing as a centre forward, but dropped deep so often, or onto the wings, that it wasn't always clear where the ball should be going in the final third. It also meant that we didn't really test Hart as much as we should have done.

* Our best chance of the half fell to Gervinho, who was put through by a beautiful pass from Ramsey. Gervinho's first touch was so heavy that it would have collapsed in on itself and become a black hole had Hart not smothered it. It summed up a frustrating performance from the Ivorian. After two productive games, he reverted to type, and squandered a number of good opportunities. In particular, not only did he blast over late on in the match when presented with a clear sight of goal, he also failed to put in the much better placed Giroud. Gervinho clearly has a great deal of ability, but he must be more consistent and clinical if we're going to rely on him as a first choice player.

* The same can definitely be said for Diaby. After a poor performance against Montpellier, I thought he was poor again against City. By the second half, he was repeatedly giving the ball away, and taking those extra, unnecessary touches that so often cost us possession. Yes, he gives us some much needed height and presence in midfield - but I thought we improved when he exited the game, and he seemed to be the flaky Diaby of old, unfortunately.

* After a mostly great first half in which we failed to press home our advantage, we conceded in an utterly needless fashion. I've been waiting for a big mistake from Mannone, and, unfortunately, here it was. The goal was nothing to do with zonal marking - Mannone shouldn't have come for the ball, but, because he did, he basically prevented defenders from challenging Lescott in the air. If he stays on his line, it's a relatively routine save. Mannone did pull off a number of good reaction saves later in the game - particularly from Kompany just after we'd scored. But goalkeeper is, unfortunately, quickly becoming a problem position at the club.

* We were lethargic for much of the start of the second half, and I worried that the flaky Arsenal of old had reappeared. One player who looked good throughout, however, was Ramsey. This was one of his best performances for a long time, and a huge weight seems to have been lifted from his shoulders with the signing of Cazorla. Freed from the burden of being a Cesc-like playmaker, Ramsey has greater freedom to make those penetrative runs he's so good at, which often end with a good pass, and a shot on goal. Personally, I would have hauled off Diaby much earlier, and put on Giroud - Ramsey, Arteta, and Cazorla looked largely in control in midfield, but they needed a central outlet to get the ball to, which Podolski was not providing.

* Giroud and Walcott didn't do much with the ball once they come on. Theo appeared to largely give the ball away with the few touches he had, in fact.But they did help to further change the shape of the game. City defended even deeper, and our attacking midfielders also had a little more time and space thanks to Giroud's presence in the centre. Indeed, I think the substitutions clearly invigorated the team, and I wish Arsene would change things earlier in games where we clearly need a spark to get things going.

* Koscielny returned for his first game of the season and was superb. Given that Mertesacker was, I would argue, even better, (and my MOTM) the dilemma that I talked about earlier in the season has now reared its head. Given that Vermaelen is captain, one of Koscielny or Mertesacker has to be dropped for the game against Chelsea, barring a midweek injury. That's not fair, or good for the team. It will be very interesting to see who lines-up against Torres et al. next weekend. Ferguson has successfully rotated his centre-backs so far this season, and Arsene will have to show similar ingenuity.

* A little more on Mertesacker, who has been awesome in every game so far this season. It's wonderful to see a defender who truly knows how to read the game, and who stops other players through calm, well-timed interceptions. Frankly, he's undroppable at the moment. So, despite his goal, I think Koscielny may well find himself back on the bench next Saturday.

* Ultimately, was today a point gained or two points lost? It's always great to get a late goal, and Man City are unbeaten in their last 32 games at the Etihad. Of those 32 games, they've won 29. It may well be the hardest ground in the Premier League for a travelling team to get a result. The draw also highlighted the great team spirit that now appears to exist within the squad. But, at the end, I felt this was a game we should have won. To go to City's ground and largely dominate, with 59 percent of total possession, is remarkable, and our dominance should have been translated into a win. It's great to keep our unbeaten start to the season, but   today might ultimately go down as a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Good Result, and Lots to Talk About: 12 Thoughts on Montpellier 1 Arsenal 2

I have to admit it - I am jealous if you made the game. Arsenal winning, and a trip to the south of France to boot? It surely doesn't get much better than that. Anyway, a close win, and lot's to talk about.

* The selection - I'll talk about this more in my summing up, but I was very surprised when I saw the team sheet. In many respects, I can't really argue with the team that Arsene picked - it won the game after all. But I though tonight might be a chance to let the likes of Santos, Koscielny, and Ramsey get a run out, and maybe rotate a few other players in the squad as well. Given how narrow the victory was, it was probably wise to start with our best XI - but it was clear that a few players looked knackered by the end. More on that in a bit.

* I thought it was a penalty, and Vermaelen can't really have too many complaints. His game is an all-action affair, often based around busting a gut to make crucial tackles and interceptions, rather than the more composed performances that we see from Mertesacker. Unfortunately, not all of Vermaelen's tackles in and around the box are going to come off, and at least he conceded a penalty in a game we ultimately won. Still, it's an occasionally worrying aspect of his game.

* Note to all penalty takers in Europe - we get it, you watched Pirlo at the Euros. Very few people can take a Panenka without looking insufferably smug, so stop doing it please.

* It says a lot about the spirit of this new team that there was very little wallowing after we conceded. The team just got back up and put itself in the lead. Podolski's goal was a beauty - intricate passing created the chance, and Lukas was clinical in front of goal. As a I said on Sunday, I've never been fully convinced by Podolski before he arrived at Arsenal, but his effort, and his ability to put away chances have been brilliant to watch. He's quickly becoming a favourite player, especially because he seems to recognize the importance of interacting with the fans as well.

* The passing before the goal featured, unsurprisingly, Cazorla, who is now seemingly integral to our ability to direct traffic in the final third of the pitch. My growing concern with Cazorla is that he is being deployed in a manner which makes him very hard to replace - he looked very tired by the end of the match tonight, and he will undoubtedly play 90 minutes on the weekend, after playing almost every minute of the season so far.  Let's hope we aren't burning such a great player into the ground.

* The other heartening part of the Podolski goal was the lovely final pass from Giroud. He may not have a goal to his name, yet, but he now has an assist, and it was a good one. He showed great strength to hold off the defender, and a deft touch to flick the ball through to Poldi. Interestingly, while he did not have a shot on target, he did win seven aerial duels during the game. As I've noted previously, Giroud is undoubtedly not going to be the guy that replaces RvP's goals, but he may well be a very useful player to have in the final third nonetheless - his combination of strength, height, and quick feet may even be the long vaunted "plan b" that we've talked about for so long. That said, I would be tempted to start him against Coventry, if he doesn't score against Man City, because he needs to get off the mark.

* Gervinho scored again, and it's hard not to get excited about his peformances in the last two games. You get the impression that he's a confidence player, and it's a welcome return to form from a player who looked lost in the second half of last season - great to see.

* The other notable aspect of the Gervinho goal was the lovely assist from Jenkinson. I've felt for a while now that Jenks has the ability to be a solid full-back, but I was worried that he might not be able to adequately replace the attacking threat that Sagna brings to our right-flank. Well, tonight he showed that he might just be developing that side of his game. A few more performances like that, and Arsene may have a genuine selection dilemma on his hand when Bak returns from injury. 

* The second half was a pretty painful affair. If we're being honest, Montpellier should have equalised. In particular, Belhanda squandered a great opportunity, with an almost free shot on goal within the six yard box late on in the game. I suppose that's the natural karmic response to a panenka.

*In seriousness, it seemed that as the game wore on, our midfield looked increasingly ragged, repeatedly leaving our defence exposed with sloppy passes. Diaby, in particular, almost completely fell apart in the second half, and made a few very tired challenges for which he might well have received a second yellow card. I know he was returning from injury, but it's performances like today's that make me a little uneasy about the hype surrounding Diaby. He really struggled in the match tonight, and I was very surprised to see him complete 90 minutes, especially with Ramsey and Coquelin on the bench.

* One thing I thought I'd never say is this - Mannone looked pretty assured between the sticks. Late on, he plucked the ball out of the air when under pressure, when I fully expected him to drop it. Perhaps all those bruising nights in the Championship have paid off? I still don't think he's the answer, and you get the feeling that an enormous clanger is just around the corner, but with Szcz both injured and looking uncertain in his one league performance this season, maybe, just maybe, Mannone may become a more permanent fixture in the starting XI. I doubt it, though.

* Overall then, a good win. We rode our luck heavily during the second half, but we're coming back from the south of France with three points, and it sets us up very nicely in the group.

My one concern remains squad depth. I think we have a better starting eleven at our disposal than I thought on transfer deadline day, especially with Diaby and Wilshere apparently having turned the corner on their fitness issues. But players like Cazorla, Arteta, and Podolski have already logged a lot of hours so far this season, and Wenger seems reluctant, at the moment, to change a winning team. That's fair enough, I suppose - I'm not going to complain while we're winning. But there will come a point when we have to shake things up a bit - and let's hope that it's not because of fatigue-induced injuries.

Gb.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

At Sixs, but Not Quite Sevens: 12 Thoughts on Arsenal 6 Southampton 1

Well, that was enjoyable wasn't it? Thoughts as follows.

* Let me get some negatives out of the way first. Overall, I found the game reminiscent of the 6-0 drubbing we meted out to Blackpool in 2010. In both cases, we were playing newly promoted teams at the start of the season, and, in both cases, naive defending led us to score a barrel-full of goals. Yet, after a promising start, the 2010 season ultimately ended in that dreadful three month period following the Carling Cup final, when we basically stopped winning games. In short, the season is still very young, and, impressive as yesterday was, let's not rush to conclusions about this team just yet.

* The other negative from yesterday, which has to be mentioned, was Szczesny's performance. The cherry on top of yesterday's delicious cake would have been another clean sheet - instead, we handed them a goal (almost literally). While Jenkinson did block Szcz's path, Szcz should have cleared him out and caught the ball. Instead, and weirdly for a keeper who is so confident, Szcz seemed to hesitate, and dropped the ball through indecisiveness. One wonders if he's fully fit (and if he wasn't, it says a lot about what Arsene thinks of Mannone). The other negative from Szcz's performance was a rash of poor kicks in the second half - an area of his game he really needs to improve upon. It's sad to say, but, as it currently stands, Szcz is now the weak link in our massively improved defence. He clearly has bags of potential, but I know no longer feel as confident about him between the sticks as I once did.

* After so many games/years in which we've started slowly, it was great to see us race out of the blocks, and end the game before half-time. Winning games in the second-half is great, but it's obviously a good thing if we can conserve a little energy by smashing our opponents in the first half.

* It's easy to say that own goals are "lucky/unlucky", but, really, they often aren't. Both the own goals that Southampton conceded yesterday were caused by us pressurizing them into making mistakes.

* It's easy to force teams into making mistakes if you've got a guy like Podolski on your team. I admit to being skeptical about his signing, but, so far, I am more than happy to be proved wrong. I knew that Poldi would get us some goals, but what I hadn't anticipated was the sheer level of effort he puts into his performances. The first goal, which will go down as an own goal, and which came about from a shot by Gibbs, was all about Podolski. He battled in midfield to win the ball, he slipped the ball through the defence, and he harried the defender into putting the ball in his own net. Top stuff. His free kick was an absolute beauty as well. After several years of living under the myth that van Persie was good at free kicks, it's nice to have someone who doesn't just put the ball straight into the wall/the stands.

* Even more than Podolski, perhaps, the performance of Gervinho yesterday was wonderful to see. After struggling for several months now, Gerv seemed to revel in a more central role. While he can dribble with reasonable effectiveness, maybe he's better in a position where he can play more instinctively, and smash the ball on target more frequently.

* That Giroud didn't start the game, and only made a brief substitute appearance, put paid to the hopes of some that he would break his duck against Southampton, like Mssrs Bergkamp and Henry. Now, firstly, Giroud will never, ever be as good as those two. He might well start banging in a few goals eventually, but let's be reasonable, eh? I fully expect him to start against Montpellier, and I would even bet on him scoring on Tuesday. One does wonder at the moment, though, if he will be a regular part of the starting XI this season. I have a feeling that he may start more games away from home than at the Emirates, as he is demonstrably good at holding up the ball, which will help us relieve pressure in away games.

* Coquelin did pretty well in midfield, coming in for Diaby. Diaby is meant to be travelling to Montpellier, so maybe, for once, his minor injury is actually minor. I don't think Coquelin is quite ready to regularly start league games at the moment. Indeed, I think it was notable that after a shaky start to the second half, the introduction of Ramsey for Coquelin seemed to shore things up.

* Ramsey's performance was his fourth impressive cameo of the season, and he was desperately close to scoring a goal. Relieved of the burden of replacing Fabregas and Nasri, Ramsey seems to have regained a little bit of confidence in his game, and, as I mentioned above, I think he helped us regain dominance in midfield after a slightly dicey first twenty minutes of the second half. I expect Ramsey to start in Montpellier, and I think he may well surprise a few people this season who have been too quick to write him off

* Oh, Theo. Aside from a well taken goal, his cameo was laughably inept at times - the high/low point being when he failed to play in Giroud who was open in the middle of the box. It's hard to ask for the wages that he's, allegedly, asking for if you can't even dislodge an 18 year old in the side. I actually think that Chamberlain was a little too quiet once more, but he's certainly better than Theo at present. I really don't know how the Theo situation will be resolved, because, on current form, he simply does not deserve a bumper new deal.

* A quick note on the defence - they all played well, once more. Vermaelen seems to have stepped up a gear this season, and it was heartening to see Arsene stick with Mertesacker, who should surely now be first choice. Gibbs and Jenkinson also played very well, and Gibbs is making sure that Santos can't get in the side.

* So, let the good times roll. When Arsene's teams play like that, it's hard to begrudge him a new contract, which is supposedly on the table. So far this season we have shown great defensive solidity, and we now also appear to have an attacking edge as well. It helps when you have a magician like Cazorla pulling the strings, who, at the moment, looks like a more efficient version of Fabregas. It's also interesting that our best formation may well be a 4-6-0, or a 4-3-3-0, if you catch my drift. After relying so much on one striker last season, we've almost dispensed with the position this year - a potentially genius strategy. It's still too early to tell how this season will go, but days like yesterday should be enjoyed regardless of where we finish in May.


Monday, September 03, 2012

Six Quick Thoughts on Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

Most of the main points from yesterday's game have already been covered, so here are five quick thoughts to chew on:

* The defence remains brilliant, and it's a team effort. Mertesacker made several impeccable interceptions, and continued to disprove the notion that you need huge amounts of pace to be a top defender in the Premier League. Jenkinson put in another good shift, even if his lack of attacking prowess means that Sagna will get his place back when he recovers from injury. Gibbs occasionally pushed a bit too far forward leaving our left-side exposed, but Podolski filled-in admirably. Indeed, the most important thing to take from our three consecutive clean-sheets, is that we're defending as a unit. The idea that we simply needed new players to become better in defence is simply not true - the ability to prevent goals is as much about the willingess of a team to act like a unit, and have a commitment to defending as a whole, as it is about individual moments of brilliance. Steve Bould has obviously had a role in this, and one might ask why members of the famous back four were not brought into leading coaching positions earlier. But I also think that Arsene may have been stung by the record number of goals we conceded last season, and he appears to have acted decisively.

* Arteta was absolutely pivotal to our performance. I am frankly terrified of the prospect of him picking up an injury, because we just do not have anyone else in the squad that can do that job as well, except, perhaps Jack Wilshere. Diaby rightly won a lot of plaudits for his peformance, and it's incredibly heartening to see him finish 90 minutes again. But, for me, Arteta' selflessness and discipline is a site to behold. Quite possibly my favourite player in the current squad - a real team player.

* If one thing has not been noted recently, it's that the performances of Oxlade-Chamberlain have become much quieter. He also put in an decent shift defensively, but it's now been a while since he really provided a moment of brilliance, or a spark within a game. He's young, and we should not expect too much of him. He's also a considerably better option than either Theo or Gervinho at the moment. Hopefully he can score a couple against his alma mater in two weeks time.

* Cazorla was fantastic again, and fully deserved a goal, even if he was assisted by Reina. His interplay with Podolski was brilliant at times, and I think we'll see those two link up for a lot more goals this season. Cazorla has been given a really interesting role in the team - almost a free role behind the forward. It's a huge responsibility to take on, and he has risen to the occasion. What we must not do is make our attacking play overly reliant on him, and turn him into a Fabregas mark II. At the moment, defenses are struggling to deal with him, but I don't want to get to a situation where if teams stop Cazorla, they stop Arsenal.

* As I've already said, I though Podolski was fantastic - a brilliant goal, coupled with a willingness to defend. Giroud, well, he's getting into good positions, but he now badly needs a goal. It's all very well saying he needs time to adapt, but if we're serious about the league, we can't afford that time. Just like the Ox, a goal against Southampton would be nice.

* I hate to rag on other teams, but Liverpool were very, very poor in my opinion. Rodgers may well get their midfield functioning more fluently in a few more games, but they seem all over the place at the moment. If we think we did badly in the transfer market, Liverpool had an absolute nightmare, and as it stands I can't see them troubling the Champions League spots come the end of the season.

Gb

Saturday, September 01, 2012

As Long as the Share Price Goes Up, Why Worry About the Team?


So, here we are again - another deadline day is gone, and the world of transfers is (officially) over for the next few months. How did we make out? Not quite like bandits. Analysis as follows.

The Good

Santi Cazorla has already shown in his first two matches that he is a top quality purchase. If we had managed to get hold of him last summer, I think we would have forgotten about the Fabregas-sized hole in the team much more quickly. My one concern about Cazorla is that too much of our traffic may end up going through him - I don't want us to be overly reliant on one midfielder again, as we were, all too frequently, during the days of Cesc. Still, Cazorla is a world-class player, and you can never complain too much when you sign one of those.

Signing Podolski and Giroud before we sold van Persie was no mean feat, and helped to slightly cushion the blow of the Dutchman's departure. If I were to be utterly negative, I'd say this is a bit of a "moneyball" move - get rid of one world-class player, and replace him with two merely "good" players. Podolski bombed out at Bayern, and Giroud really only has one season of top-class football under his belt. However, it would be unfair to judge these two before they've had a chance to show what they can do. Podolski is quite clearly capable of getting goals, and, having watched him a few times now, Giroud also looks like he will not only get goals, but also hold up the ball well, and give us some proper strength up-front. In an ideal world, we would have these two AND van Persie, allowing the new players to settle and get used to the Premier League. But that would be the mentality of a big club.

We did the bare minimum required in the market. All three new signings featured in both of our opening fixtures this year, and we look a more solid team than last season. Granted, we were only playing Sunderland and Stoke, neither of whom showed much in the way of attacking intent. But we looked far less like a team that will be bullied out of games than we have been on many occasions in recent years. If all three of our new players can hit the ground running, it gives us a range of new options in attack. If relatively inconsistent players like Theo, Gervinho, Ramsey and the Ox can produce the goods more regularly, and Diaby and Wilshere can come back strongly from their injuries, I think we have a pretty decent squad. Is it a squad that can challenge for the title? I don't think so. But if we're lucky with injuries (stop laughing) the FA Cup and a top-four finish is certainly conceivable.

The Bad

* Robin van Stapleton. I suppose the signs had always been there, but we just didn't want to see them. Robin is a, ahem, strong-willed individual, and refused to cower even to Thierry Henry back in the day when the rest of the youngsters were terrified of TH. I thought there was a high chance that Robin would leave the club, but I genuinely didn't think he would sign for United. Clearly, he doesn't care about the club he claimed to love, and he's only interested in himself and his career. What should hurt Arsenal fans the most though, is that top players now see a notable gulf between Arsenal and the real elite tier of teams in Europe. Y'know - the ones that actually win stuff. This gap has grown each year since about 2008, and is now a canyon, to all intents and purposes. We finished 18 points behind the Manchester clubs in the league last season, and Robin is 29. His career is coming to a close, and they are the clubs in England that are the only realistic option if you want relatively guaranteed silverware (even including Chelsea, I would argue). It was distressing transfer in a number of ways therefore - from Robin's personal betrayal of the Arsenal fan-base, to what it says about the current state and direction of the club. But more on that in a bit.

Alex Song forcing through a move. If losing van Persie was hard to take, then losing Song was not, in all honesty. He's a good, if not great player, and we picked up a decent fee for someone who showed a real lack of willingness to work for the team last season. However, and as I have written previously, this transfer was perhaps the moment that best showed how Arsene's youth project has been an almost total failure, other than keeping the club in the Champions League. The problem with heaping praise on young football players is that most young football players already have colossal egos. The fact that Song was demanding a new deal with three years left on his current contract, after winning precisely zero trophies at Arsenal says it all. The time and effort that Arsene spent moulding Song into a good player, only for Song to then push through a move, shows that Arsene deserves better than the young egomaniacs he has to work with. Song will fit in well as a squad player at Barcelona, and I am comfortable with the club's decision to sell him in most respects, but it is another member of the starting XI who's left the club. The transfer also, hopefully, ends the association of the Dein family with Arsenal - people who have made millions of pounds from flogging Arsenal's players and shares, with little concern of the impact of those decisions on the club's overall health. Good riddance, I hope.

Not replacing Song. I am not happy about the decision to sell Song in one huge, colossal, overweening aspect - we didn't replace him. We literally sold one of our starting XI from last season, and did not purchase anyone as a replacement. We are going to gamble big on the fitness of players like Diaby, Wilshere and Arteta, and the ability of players like Coquelin and Ramsey to have breakthrough seasons. That is a bit mental really, and a a a troubling indictment of how the club is currently being run.

How much will we rue the decision not to purchase Sahin? A lot, I'll wager. He might bomb out at Liverpool, but make no mistake - Sahin is a "top, top quality player",  and I simply don't understand the logic behind not picking him up. As soon as Wilshere, Diaby, or Arteta is injured, we are short in midfield. It's one thing not to buy players - it's quite another to openly reject quality players when they want to come to the club. This is like the Xabi Alonso situation in 2009 all over again.

The Ugly

* Theo's contract. The situation with Theo's contract is, frankly, odd. He's clearly rejected what the club feels to be a fair, and perhaps final, offer. Yet he's still here. Is he going to sign a new deal before next summer? Maybe - but maybe not. And who's going to fork out a transfer fee in January knowing they can pick him up for nothing if they wait just a few more months? Perhaps only Man City. Theo is a player who I don't think should be part of our starting XI - he is too inconsistent, and still displays a worrying lack of ability when it comes to fairly basic footballing manoeuvres, such as ball control. But losing him on a free would be a bit sickening, and another slap in the face for Arsene, after all the faith he has shown in the player. I have no idea how this situation will be resolved, but I will say it's probably more likely than not that he won't be an Arsenal player next season. Neither selling him, nor tying him to a new deal, shows how chaotic it's been behind the scenes at the club this summer, yet again. Whoever negotiates our deals needs to be replaced, as they are now openly negligent.

Selling our best players every summer. This was a trait of Arsene's early years in charge that we seemed to get rid of after flogging Petit and Overmars to Barca in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, we did not sell our best players and, surprise, surprise, these were the most successful years of Arsene's tenure. Since the sale of Vieira to Juve in 2005, we've sold, or lost on free transfers, a major first team player every year: Cole, Henry, Hleb, Gilberto, Adebayor, Flamini, Toure etc. etc.. At least with some of those players we could claim that we were losing people who were past their prime (although keeping older players has hardly hamstrung Manchester United). But in the last few seasons, we have started to lose our best players while they are essentially in their prime - Nasri, Clichy, Fabregas, van Persie, Song. If we look at this from a purely business perspective, we have squandered human capital on an epic scale, and in a manner that has stopped Arsenal being a competitive club at the very highest level. It's not good enough. Any enterprise that consistently loses it's top performers, and doesn't replace them with individuals at a similar level, will eventually suffer the consequences in terms of its efficiency and ability to perform. As I said at the start of this piece, I think we have done the bare minimum in the market this year to keep us at a level that we are a top four team. But we are no longer seen as a trophy winning club. And the longer that this issue is not dealt with, the harder it will be to overcome. In short, spend some f*cking money.

The value of Stan Kroenke's shares. I can't find a valuation for the price that Stan Kroenke paid for his initial 10 percent stake in the club back in 2007. It was probably less, however, than the between £8,500 and £10,500 a share Kroenke paid for a 28 percent stake in Arsenal in 2009, and the £11,500-12,000 a share that he likely paid for a further 32 percent of the club in 2011, taking his holdings over 60 percent, and giving him control of the club. That he then offered £11,750 for the remainder of the club's share capital, under takeover rules, hints that this was around the price he paid for Bracewell-Smith, Fiszman and the rest of the director's shares in 2011.

As it currently stands, Arsenal shares are valued at around £16,600 by Plus Markets - although there have been sales of shares for over £17,000 this year.

To put things really simply, Kroenke's shares are now worth considerably more than what he paid for them. If he were to cash out tomorrow, he would make hundreds of millions of pounds from his investment in Arsenal. And this is the really troubling thing for me. If the club won the league or the Champions League, the value of the club would increase. But, the value of the club's shares are increasingly regardless of whether we win silverware. In short, what reason does Kroenke have to push for big signings, and a squad that can really compete at the highest level? If we trundle along, doing the bare minimum in the market, and keep qualifying for the Champions League, the value of the shares will keep going up. Sure, they might go up further and faster if we were winning trophies, but is the investment required for that worth the risk? Why deplete our balance sheet and the club's valuation?

Now, I'm obviously not Stan Kroenke, and I'm not going to get myself sued by casting categorical aspersions on his reasons for involvement in Arsenal football club. But ask yourself this - what motivation do you have to bet big, if you're already making a killing while betting relatively small? If the value of Arsenal shares keeps on ticking upwards, regardless of trophies, are we ever going to see serious investment in the squad?

Who knows. There's nothing for it now except to get behind the squad. But, and it pains me to say it, I foresee a season of discontent at Arsenal Football Club.

Gb.