Monday, January 30, 2012

Gazidis Explains Arsenal's Transfer Policy - 'The Big Short'

Thank you to Arseblogger and his minions for posting this on Arseblog news today: a transcript of an interview that Ivan Gazidis gave with Fox Soccer Channel yesterday. (Edit - watch a video of the interview here.)

I watched the interview, and attempted to live-tweet it, because I found what Ivan said revealing. If I was going to sum-up his comments, I would use a term that Michael Lewis (of 'Moneyball' fame) recently employed in his book about the small group of people who correctly predicted the collapse of the Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) market in 2008: 'The Big Short'.

The collapse of the MBS market in 2008 was a classic example of the deflation of a massive financial bubble. Certain institutions - most notably AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns - essentially bet that the MBS market would continue to expand almost indefinitely. AIG in particular not only bought up tons of these securities, they even provided a kind of insurance to others in case certain MBS became worthless (the famous Credit Default Swaps).

However, a small number of investors saw the MBS boom for what it was - a house built on sand, or, more precisely, a house built on the idea that poor home owners would be able to pay back their sub-prime mortgages in the long-term. These investors bought up a variety of instruments that would pay out in the event that massive defaults started to occur in the MBS market. Needless to say, they became very rich when others hit the wall in 2008. Lewis called this the 'big short' - i.e., these investors 'shorted' (or bet against) the MBS market on a huge scale, and eventually made out like bandits.

What relevance does this have to Arsenal's transfer strategy you might ask? Well, from Ivan's comments, it appears that the club is essentially betting against the current trends in the transfer market continuing in the long-term - they are 'shorting' the market, in a way.

Ivan began the interview by saying something which I've long held to be true - I don't know why there is so much speculation about the state of Arsenal's finances. We are a public company that has to produce public accounts. As he put it:

You know, it’s interesting – there seems to be some mystery about this, but we’re about the least mysterious club in the world, we’re a public company. We publish our accounts. Anybody can have a look at them, they’re publicly available, you can look at them, and you can pretty much work out what our monetary situation is.

Anyone with any modicum of financial training can peruse our reports and come to a pretty certain conclusion on the state of the club's finances - as 'angryofislington' recently did. Namely - we have money, and enough money to buy exciting players, but the Arabic oil barons and Russian oligarchs will always be able to blow us out the water when it comes to the biggest transfers. I would say that we have fairly healthy cash reserves at the moment, but the idea that we can compete for any player is simply not true. We live within our organic cash flows and there is an inherit limit on how much we can spend. Whether Kroenke or Usmanov should give us additional money from their own pockets is an argument for another time. At the least, there is no need for cut-throat arguments among Arsenal fans about whether the club has any money or not - we do have money, just not as much as certain other sides. This means Arsene does buy, but he can't buy anyone. Indeed, Ivan reminded the FSC panel that we do actually buy players. We bought the Ox. We bought Koscielny. We bought Vermaelen. etc. etc. But, there are definite limits to our transfer policy. As IG put it:

We can’t afford to compete with oil money, and we can’t afford to compete with from, you know, super-wealthy individuals from Russia.[...]Our focus is *always* on young players, we’ve got fantastic development system and still there are young players coming through consistently from our youth ranks and that’ll continue to be the way Arsenal do things. [...] We’re about creating star players, not about buying them.

All this builds up to the key passages in the interview:

 I think the more important thing that our model is that it’s sustainable. So, if we’ve learned anything from the world’s economic crisis, it has to be that football clubs need to have responsibility – not just for today, but for their own futures. And,  you know, our business model means that we can continue to do what we’re doing forever [...]

Now of course there’s anxiety when [other] clubs are spending the kind of money they’re spending. We don’t believe that’s sustainable for the long term. We think that has to come to an end. UEFA agrees with us and is bringing limits on spending in, and we’ll continue to do things the way we do them. 

This is Arsenal playing the 'big short'. The club doesn't believe that transfer fees can continue to spiral ever-upward in the manner that they're doing at present. At some point, the club is predicting that all this will come crashing down, perhaps even taking a few clubs with it. Moreover, the club are convinced on this point because of UEFA's recent proclamations about financial fair play. If the market won't correct itself, the regulator will enforce correction. And when the market correction happens, and the bubble bursts, those clubs which have a sound, sustainable economic basis will prosper - namely, us. Until then, and possibly even after then, we will spend our money on astute, reasonable, economical purchases, and young prospects. We're not going to compete with Barca for Neymar, or Man City for whichever superstar they buy next, but we'll get guys like the Ox, Arteta, and Eisfeld.

Does this wash? Well, in a marketplace which played by rational economic rules, yes. But the economics of football are, to be frank, irrational. How long have clubs like Real and Barca racked up debts for? In any other line of work they would have gone bust a long time ago. And the club seem to be placing a lot of weight on FFP having a significant amount of influence. But will it? It's far from certain that UEFA will be able to enforce these rules. And, even if they can, who says that clubs will stay in UEFA in the long-term? Just like the top-four in England managed to set-up the Premier League, what's to prevent the European elite from establishing a European super-league if they don't like UEFA's new rules? Not much, in my opinion.

What it all comes down to is this - in the short-term, Arsenal will not be making any mega-purchases. Our transfer policy will continue to focus on unearthing undervalued gems, and young prospects. In the long-term, the club is betting on the collapse of the transfer-market bubble. Will this happen? Only time will tell. But at least the club is being honest to the fans about how they are directing our transfer policy, for better or for worse.


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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Arsenal 3 Villa 2: Ten Thoughts on a (potentially) Season Defining Comeback?

At half-time today, I admit that I feared the worst. We were losing 2-0 and staring in the face of exit from a competition which, realistically, offered our best opportunity of silverware this season. Fast forward 45 minutes, and Arsenal had completed one of the more memorable comebacks of recent times. My thoughts as follows:

* On the one hand, we were unlucky to be losing at half-time. We had a number of shots on goal in the first-half, including a scorcher from Vermaelen that Given did well to palm over the bar. Villa had enjoyed less shots on goal than us, and hadn't really taken control of the game, despite their goals. The 2-0 scoreline didn't, therefore, reflect the balance of play in the match.

* On the other, who cares what statistics say - we were 2-0 down at half-time, no matter who had more passes, shots and possession. For the first Villa goal, we simply failed to defend a set-piece properly, which was criminal, as was Dunne out-leaping about four of our defenders to head home. Not good enough. The second goal was a bit more of a breakaway affair, and Bent's finish from close range was class. Football is largely about taking chances, as much as creating them, and Villa had taken theirs very well.

* People have speculated hugely about what was said in the dressing room at half-time; but one would hope that Arsene didn't really have to give the epic team talk that has been ascribed to him. I think enough of the players knew that being 2-0 was an unacceptable state of affairs, and I hope the reaction in the second half was down to quite a few of them trying to save their reputations.

* I've seen some writers question how rousing our comeback was, given that it was based, in part, on two penalties. Yet winning penalties in the manner we did was a direct result of the pressure we put Villa under. Last-ditch tackles come from team's who are struggling to hold other teams out. So I would argue that the penalties reflected how we had fought our way back into the game.

* Also, you still have to score a penalty once it's given. And Robin put both of them away with aplomb in a high-pressure situation. According to various sources on Twitter, that put him on 120 goals, equal to that of a certain Mr. Bergkamp. If that's correct, it's fairly astonishing.

* What can you say about Theo's performance? His attempts on goal were almost universally awful, but he showed grit and skill to score his second goal, and he arguably deserved his little piece of luck. A turning point for his season?

* The Ox put in another fantastic performance. Some of his passing is absolutely sublime. I wonder if he has a future in a more central role, given his ability to pick a pass. For now, he is surely now part of the first XI until Gervinho comes back. And Wenger may now have a pleasant headache over who to start between the Ox, Gervinho and Theo after the ACN ends.

* After being at fault for Dunne's goal, Koscielny proceeded to put in a massive performance. Indeed, there was something deeply ironic about seeing him being fouled by Bent for our second penalty. Koz has been massive for us this year, and were it not for Robin's goals, you could make a case that he's been our player of the season.

* The return of both Arteta and Sagna was huge. The game slowed once Arteta came on, but he gives a shape and solidity in midfield which is absolutely vital. We have looked positively adrift without him, and Arsene now has a real conundrum, with Wilshere's absence, of how he is going to manage Arteta for the rest of the year. Because while he is a great player, he does not have a great injury record, and he must not be overplayed.

* It's probably a little trite to say this, but I don't care - Alex McCleish should shut his mouth. His attempt to bring up RvP's alleged 'elbow' in the post-match interview was pure deflection from his side's (embarassing) defeat. It was exactly the same manoeuvre that Warnock tried to pull when we beat his QPR side at Christmas. If you remember, McCleish is the same manager that defended Roger Taylor to the hilt after 'tiny'  snapped Eduardo's ankle in half. Here's to many more victories over McCleish teams in the future.

* Finally, this game will hopefully be a turning point for the club's season. We've had a rough January (to put it mildly), but the manner of the victory today is massive for morale - not just for the team, but also for the fans. Losing today would have been huge - it would have ended our cup run, and meant we were on a four game losing streak. Instead, we have a spirited come-back, and we remain in a competition that we have a real chance of winning. If nothing else, let's just savour the fact that we proved some of the doubters wrong today.

After the game, Ivan Gazidis gave a very revealing interview with Fox Soccer here in the US about Arsenal's current transfer strategy. If anyone has a transcript of this, please get in contact. Otherwise, my blog tomorrow may be based on my slightly hazy recollections of it....


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Thursday, January 26, 2012

After an Awful January, Things Can only get Better?

I don't know if you've noticed, but January has been pretty awful so far. We've lost all three of our league games, and we've gone back to our old habit of throwing away leads. United swept us aside with an ease that was almost saddening, given how massive the games between the two clubs used to be. The one bright spot this month was Thierry's winning goal  in the FA Cup, but, if we're going to look at this in the cold light of day, should we really have needed him to come on and win us the game in those circumstances, given the standard of the opposition we were facing? Nostalgic love for our heroes shouldn't blind us to the inadequacies of this Arsenal squad.

And then there's been the transfer activity, or lack thereof. At the start of the month, it seemed wise to most of us that we should be looking to at least get a player on-loan to cover for the fact that all four of our first-team squad full-backs were injured. But this hasn't materialized. Maybe he'll turn out to be rubbish, but the fact that Taiwo has gone to QPR till the end of the year shows that players were available in this position on short-term deals. Having to rely on out-of-position players has cost us games and goals - look at how many of the goals we conceded in our last three matches started from wide positions near the box. I've no doubt that if Sagna and Santos were fit that we'd be in fourth place at present. Sagna should return soon, as should Gibbs (but let's see if he has a set-back first), but that's still 9 points we've dropped due to inadequate squad management.

Then there's the lack of attacking options in the squad. Park finally made his premier league debut against United, coming on for a bizarre ten-minute cameo at the end. I wonder if we'll see him again before the end of the season. SSN reported that we made an enquiry for Rodallega today, but it will take a lot to get him out of Wigan at such a late stage in the window. There's also been the inevitable round of Hazard rumours on Twitter - I would love him to sign, having watched Lille a fair bit over the last few seasons, but I think he's a dead cert for Madrid this summer. Aside from that - nothing much. And while we have done nothing in the window, Chelsea have bought Cahill and De Bruyne, and I also expect that they'll conclude a deal for Shakthar's Willian before the window closes. It's deals like those which can be the difference between fifth and fourth come May.

So, we're relying on returning players and emerging players to be part of our push for fourth. Wilshere should be back soon , and Chamberlain has now forced his way into the first team. We can all hope that the Ivory Coast get knocked out of the AOC soon, as I think January has proved just how important Gervinho has become to the team, despite his profligacy in front of goal (as I write this, he has just missed a sitter in Africa). We also need Arteta back ASAP, as he has been a huge miss of late. Relying on an injury-prone player such as him to play every week was always going to be a risky strategy and I hope his knock doesn't turn into anything more serious. We have no-one else at the club (Jack included) who can control possession in midfield like Arteta does.

On September 1 I had high hopes that the January window would continue to see the overhaul of the playing staff that the summer window had haphazardly begun. Unfortunately it hasn't. And it seems that we are betting everything on hanging in there for fourth before we splash any more money. This seems an incredibly short-sighted strategy. If there was ever a time to speculate a little, surely it's now.

Instead, there's been a bit of an unnerving quiet around the club this week. Bits and pieces have slipped out in reaction to the booing on Sunday, including a full statement from Robin which backed Arsene, but little else. No hints at all that new faces might be coming in. One would hope that the silence is coming from the players closing ranks,  trying to ensure they give a big performance on Sunday through total focus. Looking at the fixture list, most of our games in February are eminently winnable. All we can hope for is that the worst of the season is now over, but I continue to worry about the lack of depth in our squad. Let's hope I'm wrong - surely things can only get better?

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Arsene suffers his 'Eboue moment' - something needs to change at the club.

Some historical context first.

Back in March, 2004, we were leading United by a single goal at Highbury. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, Arsene put Pascal Cygan (remember him) on for Freddie Ljunberg, in an attempt to sure up our defence and see the game out. Instead, Cygan went AWOL up the field, United pushed forward, and Saha scored a later equalizer to deny us the victory.

Fast forward 8 years and a young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is flying after brilliantly setting up a fine Robin van Persie goal. Wenger hauls off Chamberlain and puts Arshavin on in his place. United adjust their tactics to pile pressure on our left-hand side, knowing that the Russian is not the most enthusiastic of defenders. Shortely thereafter, Arshavin lets Valencia walk past him, and the Ecuadorian sets up Danny Welbeck for a late winning goal.

Two substitutions against the same opponents, which almost directly led to us dropping points in both instances. Yet, while in 2004 there were merely a few muttered grumblings that we hadn’t got the victory that our performance warranted, today there was the nearest we’ve seen to a fan revolt against Wenger’s reign as manager.

It wasn’t the substitution that set the fans off today; it was years of frustration finally erupting. We’ve backed Arsene for a long time, but today seemed to be Wenger at his worse, a moment that saw him follow his technocratic instincts, rather than the reality which almost everyone in the stadium, and anybody watching on TV, could see on the field. Maybe Chamberlain really did have cramp, but he looked pretty annoyed at his substitution to me. As did Robin van Persie, who appeared disgusted to see our best attacking player go off. To me the substitution appeared to be Wenger sticking to a pre-match plan of hauling off Chamberlain at around the 70 minute mark, which he refused to change or adapt despite the reality of the situation.

Whether Arsenal’s transfer budget or strategy is entirely in Arsene’s hand or not, as is endlessly debated on the internet, today saw a failure which was entirely of his own doing. Yes, he had the vision to buy and start Chamberlain, but he also made a tactical error which handed the game to United.

The wider context is that we should not be in a position where we are still relying on players like Arshavin. But Wenger and Arsenal have so far refused to enter the market and buy the new attacking players that we need. That a player like Theo Walcott played 90 minutes today is a massive indictment of whatever strategy Arsenal has regarding squad management.

In short, this may have been Arsene’s ‘Eboue moment’ – a moment when the fans’ frustration at years of mediocre players, under-investment in the squad, and bizarre tactical manoeuvres finally came out. If Arsene is to stay as manager of the club, change is needed, and change is needed now. Fans can tolerate occasional tactical failings if the club is headed in the right direction – the frustration that was voiced today resulted from many fans crossing the rubicon, and beginning to question whether Arsene really does ‘know’ anymore.

Other thoughts on the game:

·       *   Arshavin is finished at Arsenal. He’s popped up with a few mistakes recently, but Arsene hung him out to dry in the post-match interview. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shipped out before the window ends. It's sad because he is one of the most talented attacking players I've ever seen at Arsenal - he's just never been consistent, aside from his during his first months at the club.
 * Yennaris’s performance at RB was one of the few moments of positivity that we can take from the game. He was considerably better than Djourou who had an absolute nightmare, and was nowhere to be seen for the cross that led to United’s first goal.
But then, what was Vermaelen doing for both United goals? Let’s not play favourites here – he should have won that header with Valencia and didn’t, and he was no where to be seen once Valencia took the ball round Arshavin for the second.
    *  A failure to get a short-term full-back has cost us 9 points in January, given how many goals we’ve conceded from our flanks in the last month.
   * So, Park isn’t good enough to participate in any league game this year, but he is good enough to play against United with ten minutes to go? Utterly bizarre. I don’t think he touched the ball.
   * We have missed Arteta badly. We didn’t control the game at all in midfield, bar a twenty minute or so period at the start of the second half. Even then, United almost hit us on the break on several occasions.
    * I am not a fan of Rosicky. I honestly don’t know what he offers. He runs around a lot, and makes the occasional decent pass, but he provides no assists and no goals. The moment in the second half when he was clean through and passed the ball was horrible. Can you imagine Vieira, Pires, Ljungerg, Edu etc doing that? No. It was, and it pains me to say this, cowardly. Time for him to leave in the summer.
   *  Koscielny was quietly our best player on the pitch. He has been outstanding this season.
   *  I’ve already mentioned it, but how did Theo stay on the pitch for 90 minutes?  A disgraceful performance. He has no all-round game, just speed, an occasional finish, and a lot of failed step-overs.
*  This is tough to say, but needs to be said: Alex Ferguson is a considerably better manager than Arsene Wenger. In 2004, both Ferguson and Wenger were faced with an oligarch at Chelsea. Ferguson made astute purchases, and got rid of his driftwood; we packed our squad with young prospects. Fast forward 8 years and it’s unarguable who took the better approach. Ferguson buys better players, and he (or coaches who he actually listens to) makes better tactical decisions. Indeed, the success of United is the most damning evidence you can use against those who say that you can’t compete with City and Chelsea.
 * To return to the beginning of this piece – Arsenal vs. United used to be a title decider. Now, we’re just a minor inconvenience to the Manchester clubs. It’s time to face facts – something radical has to change at the club if we are to compete for trophies again. Either Wenger’s approach needs to change, or the board needs to give him some money, or we need new faces within the club’s management structure. Either way, we can’t go on like this if we are to maintain our status among England’s elite.


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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Best of Times, Worst of Times: Arsenal vs. Man United, 2004-2005

 Instead of a preview, I thought I'd look at some classic Arsenal matches against this week's opponents. And when those opponents are Man Utd, there's a lot of games to choose from. So, rather than one game, I thought I'd look at a whole season: 2004-2005. That year, we played United in three games that can genuinely be described as epic (we also opened the season by beating them in the Charity Shield). We lost two of the most memorable fixtures in premier league history, and won a trophy against the odds. This is a story that starts badly, but ends well.

OK, so we actually played, and beat, United in the Charity Shield in August. But, let's face it, no-one should read too much into Charity Shield results. Looking back at the match report you'll see that both teams made 5 subs that day - it's a glorified friendly. It's always nice to beat United, but there's a limit to how much you can read into these games.

So, we have to start with one of the more painful defeats in the club's history - Manchester United 2 Arsenal 0, 24 October 2004. To say this is a day of infamy in the history of Arsenal football club is an understatement. I am convinced that we were robbed in this game. Yes, the unbeaten run had to end at some stage, but not this way.

We had started the 04/05 season with a bang, winning 8 of our first 9 fixtures. Two young Spaniards - Fabreagas and Reyes - dominated the headlines. The former had begun to establish himself as a first team fixture, and played with a composure that was, frankly, baffling given his age. Reyes also began to really show why Arsene had been willing to take such a large punt on him in January, scoring 6 goals in our first 9 games.

At the time, it seemed like we were flying, but there were signs that this wasn't quite the team of the previous year. The 5-3 victory over Middlesborough was an almost farcical game, with the lead changing  multiple times during the 90 minutes, while we had thrown the lead away twice against Bolton in a 2-2 home draw in mid-September.

But going into the match at Old Trafford, I was confident that our unbeaten record would emerge unscathed.

This will probably sound like the ramblings of a typical tribal supporter, but if Mike Riley had not been refereeing that day, we would not have lost the game.  After the match had started at a blistering pace, Ferdinand clearly hauled down Ljunberg when clean through on goal. Inexplicably, Riley didn't even give a foul. The Neville brothers then decided to 'do' Reyes, with a series of fouls that basically put him out of the game. See Gary Neville's reaction to the second nutmeg in the video below. Van Nistelrooy then raked his studs down Cashley's knee in a move that wasn't seen by Riley, but which resulted in a three-match ban. So the fact that United finished the game with 11 men was utterly laughable.

With the game seemingly headed toward a 0-0, Riley added insult to injury, awarding a penalty after Rooney had clearly dived in the area. Horse face stroked the penalty home, and Sky Sports cried tears of joy as he finally earned redemption for his miss the previous season.

We then chased the game which left us exposed at the back, and United hit us on the break, with Rooney making it 2-0 late on.

The game was followed by a massive bust-up in the tunnel - the infamous 'pizza-gate' incident. This is often portrayed as evidence that Arsenal are 'poor losers' - but how else can you take a match in which at least 2 opposing players should have been sent off, and they then win because one of their players dives in the area?

Ultimately, the unbeaten run had to end at some point. And if it had to end against United, then so be it. But to lose in this fashion was incredibly hard to take. It left a very bitter taste in the mouth, and seemed to profoundly shake the club. In particular, it almost ended the career of Reyes, who never replicated his early season form again while at Arsenal. The team won only 2 of its next 7 fixtures, drawing games against the likes of Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Brom, and losing in the last minute against Liverpool thanks to the 15-second highlight of Neil Mellor's career. Chelsea leap-frogged us in the league and never really looked back.

Indeed, by the time we faced United again on Feb 1, we were really fighting for second place with them, rather than the title with Chelsea, who were now 11 points clear.

The bad blood between us and United clearly lingered, with Keane and Vieira having a spat in the tunnel before the game kicked off. Vieira had confronted Gary Neville over his treatment of Reyes in the previous game, and Keane weighed in. I suppose we'll never know what exactly happened, but it's now entered United lore that this pumped them up to win. Maybe it did - who knows.

The game seemed to start brightly for us when Paddy headed home from an Henry corner. Giggs then equalised after we dallied in defence instead of clearing the ball, but we soon re-took the lead from a sublime Bergkamp finish.

That was probably the highlight of the match as far as we were concerned. Everything seemed to go wrong after this. Rooney somehow managed to escape a sending off despite one of the most spectacular pieces of dissent captured on camera in the last decade. A tirade of abuse directly in the face of Graham Poll didn't result in the red card it warranted.

But unlike in October, we lost the game due to our own faults. Our defending was atrocious, with the nadir probably coming during the third goal. Lehman, who Wenger had dropped after some notable errors - such as his walkabout moment against panathinaikos - had been replaced by a figure who would haunt Arsenal for years to come. Mr Manuel Almunia. The third United goal, where the Spaniard had run to the edge of the area, letting Ronaldo head in, uncontested, from a yard, should have been the signal to Wenger that he had ballsed-up in the transfer market. But no - we would have to endure these mistakes for another 6 years and counting.

Indeed, we should have at least got a point from the game when a United player was finally sent off, after Silvestre headbutted Ljunberg in an act that even Poll couldn't ignore. But, instead, we let John O'Shea score the goal of his career. The bubble that surrounded the 2004 team had totally burst, and our form actually seemed to improve for the remainder of the season, now it was clear that the league was beyond this set of players.

As Chelsea cantered to their petro-dollar fuelled league title, we beat United to second place, and managed to get to the FA Cup final. The scene was seemingly set for another titanic struggle between the two clubs, but Henry's injury forced Wenger to do something that I wish  he'd done more during his tenure at the club. He went pragmatic. Instead of the balls to the wall approach we'd favoured in the previous two games, Arsene broke with his 4-4-2 formation, and packed the midfield with Fabregas, Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Up-front, Begkamp was alone, meaning that we effectively played a 4-3-2-1-0 formation, with no out-and-out striker.

Somewhat predictably, we were battered for most of the game. I don't think we had a shot on goal until Robin had a free kick in extra-time. We played defensively out of necessity rather than design, with no outlet up-front to ease the pressure. But, and in the tradition of George Graham, we hung in there in a way that we might not have done had we played with 2 attacked. And, ultimately, United couldn't break the deadlock. The game dribbled slowly towards penalties, and I feared the worst. But the boys kept their nerve, Jens pulled out a massive save against Scholes, and Paddy won the Cup with his last kick as an Arsenal player.

Now, if we'd lost that game in that way, I'd be sick. United out-played us on the day and should have won. But, for once, karma did its work. United had beaten us by foul means in October, and the universe re-aligned when we beat them in Cardiff.

After all this, Vieira was sold to Juventus that summer, and Keane was forced out of United after an explosive interview with the usually pravda-esque United TV. With Arsenal entering the beginning of a decline under Wenger, and the old heart of the United team gone, 04/05 was perhaps the end of one of the greatest rivalries in English football history. These games are still huge, but the level at which they were played from 1998 to 2005 has no equal, to my mind.

Here's hoping we can somehow kick our season back into gear tomorrow, and channel some of the great performance of yesteryear if nothing else.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"So Paddy Got Up - an Arsenal Anthology": a Review.

Returning home after Christmas, I opened my mailbox to find a wonderful surprise awaiting me – a copy of 'So Paddy Got Up', the Arsenal anthology edited by Andrew Mangan of How my brother had managed to be one of the few people to snag a hard-copy, I don’t know, but it was, to quote Arseblog’s famous slogan, ‘fuckin excellent’ to discover that he had.

The first thing to say about the book is that it looks great. Everything from the book’s typeset to its overall design concept is well done. If you’re going to shell out the extra money for a hard-copy, it's well worth it in this instance.

But the real gold is found inside. Arseblog’s main writer, Andrew Mangan, has managed to gather together a cast of thousands (well, 26), who all opine on an Arsenal-related subject close to their heart. Within this number are both bloggers and professional journalists, and when I first heard of this project, I admit to being sceptical. Would bloggers, when faced with producing content for a book, rise to the challenge? Would they all talk about the same thing (Arsenal are so great, etc., etc.)? Would the quality be uneven?

Thankfully the answers to these questions are: yes, no, and not really. Yes, some of the entries aren’t quite as good as others, but the overall quality is very high, and the book is ultimately a great read.

There are too many chapters to discuss them all in detail, so I’ll just bring up a few personal highlights.

Andrew Mangan’s chapter on how Arseblog started is fascinating – almost like reading how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Linked to this are the excellent entries by Tom Clark of Arseblog and James McNicholas (Gunnerblog), who give a wider overview of the evolution of the online Arsenal community. Arsenal probably have more bloggers than any other premier league side, and both pieces hint at how this occurred.

Being a bit of a history buff , I loved the chapters by Philippe Auclair (France Football), Tim Stillman (Arseblog/Vital Arsenal) and David Faber (Goonerholic), which chronicle the club’s past from its inception to the George Graham era. Auclair, in particular, makes a convincing case that Herbert Chapman was Arsenal’s greatest manager, and provides a range of anecdotes about his life which I hadn’t heard previously.

The chapters by Amy Lawrence (The Guardian/Observer) and Chris Harris (an Arsenal employee) also touch a subject close to my heart – the under-appreciated tenure of George Graham as Arsenal manager.
Yes, people always talk about 1989, but people also seem to think that most of his tenure was composed of turgid 1-0 wins and back-handers in brown envelopes. Yes, he took a bung, but he was also one of the greatest managers in Arsenal’s history. He’s the last Arsenal manager to win a European trophy (lest we forget), and Harris’s chapter also gives some long overdue credit to his marvellous 1990/1991 side, which lost only one game that year. They were the team that made me fall in love with Arsenal – I wish some of our current lot had their fighting spirit.

The pieces by Kieron O’Connor (The Swiss Ramble), Stuart Stratford (A Cultured Left Foot) and Tim Payton (The AST) are perhaps the most troubling in the book. They give an overall sense of how far Arsenal has come as a club since 1991 – both financially and in terms of our overall standing in European and international football. But they also hint at some worrying factors – our position among Europe’s elite is not a given; our finances are not, perhaps, as strong as many think; and we have a confusing ownership structure, with a majority shareholder who is not involved in the club as much as he should be. While criticism
of the club can often be excessive within the blogger-sphere, these pieces choose their words carefully, and are a definite food for thought about how the club is currently being managed from top-to-bottom.

But I think the two chapters I enjoyed the most were by Michael Cox (Zonal Marking) and Tim Clark (Arse 2 Mouse).

Clark’s chapter somehow takes one of the most traumatic events in Arsenal’s history – our Carling Cup humiliation against Birmingham last February – and turns it into a genuinely hilarious story. Being a fan of any club involves a fair degree of gallow’s humour, and Clark’s chapter is a full of it. I literally LOL'd.

Being a tactics geek, I enjoyed Cox’s chapter on ‘Arsene Wenger and Tactics’ immensely. In a very short space – only about 10 pages or so – he manages to analyse many of the crucial fault-lines of Wenger’s reign through the prism of tactics. For example, is it a coincidence that we stopped winning trophies in about 2005-2006, when we moved from being a team full of fast, direct players, who played on the counter-attack, to one with much less pace, replete with individuals who would almost always look for a pass rather than shoot? I’m looking at you, Hleb. The move from a very direct 4-4-2 to a slower 4-2-3-1 has perhaps
been our undoing, as much as the players who have filled the positions in our new formation. Similarly, Cox wonders whether a greater degree of tactical pragmatism by Wenger would have seen more trophies during his time at Arsenal. Those times we have been pragmatic, and moved away from the beautiful game, have actually seen a great deal of success – the 2006 CL run, the 2005 FA Cup Final – whereas a lack of tactical adaptation to our opponents has seen us lose several finals to weaker opponents, who have changed their approach to successfully stifle us. I’m thinking not only of Birmingham in the CC, but Galatasary in the UEFA Cup and even Liverpool in the 2001 FA Cup final. Reading it, you can’t help but think that some form of monstrous hybrid of Wenger’s overall philosophy and vision, combined with George Graham’s tactical pragmatism, could have seen Arsenal win a lot more trophies in the last decade.

The criticisms I have of the book are slight. For instance, its organization is little haphazard. Being a little OCD, I would have preferred chapters to have been grouped together thematically, but others may find the scatter-gun approach charming. Secondly, I would actually have preferred a few less writers, but with longer chapters. I could have easily read an entire book by Cox on Arsenal, but I appreciate that Arseblogger probably wanted to involve as many people as possible in this project.

Ultimately, though, these are minor concerns. Overall, I must congratulate Arseblogger on a superb achievement. To put together a project like this must have been daunting, but, make no mistake, if you are an Arsenal fan, I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy this book. And, to paraphrase the song after which it is entitled, you’ll probably want to read it ‘over and over and over again’.


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Monday, January 16, 2012

Goonerboy article on the Arsenal Collective

Hi everyone.

I had the pleasure of writing an article for The Arsenal Collective. This is a wonderful website where any Gooner can write about their memoires and experiences of being an Arsenal fan.

Click on this link to read my entry - 'The only Arsenal Fan in the Room'.

It's about my experiences of being an Arsenal fan as a kid/young adult. I'm sure many of you will sympathise with the sentiments that it expresses!

 Give it a read, and submit your own entries to The Arsenal Collective.


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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ten Thoughts on Swansea 3 Arsenal 2

* It's worth remembering that we started well. Arshavin, for all the criticism he's received today, threaded a lovely ball through to RvP who finished with aplomb. Funnily enough, the goal worried me slightly - scoring early can be a bit of a double-edged sword with a team that is struggling defensively as much as we are at present, as it encourages the opposing side to attack from an early stage. Maybe it's an indictment of the current team that my first thought was about how we were going to hold onto the lead, rather than whether we were going to run away with the game.

* Incidentally, that was Robin's 18th league goal of the season, thus equalling his best ever tally. That we're only half-way through January shows how important he has been for us this season.

* The penalty was very harsh. I didn't think it was a foul, but I can see why the ref gave the decision. But let's not blame our defeat on this, please. The ref didn't score the other two Swansea goals.

* I like Ramsey and I think he's a huge talent. But he has no competition for his place at the moment. Even if Wilshere's return doesn't solve everything, it's vital that we have quality in the rotation of our midfield spots. Ramsey didn't do enough to dominate the midfield today, and he was badly at fault for the second Swansea goal. He needs a rest.

* We missed Arteta hugely. His ability to dictate possession and tempo in midfield is crucial, and Benayoun just wasn't an adequate replacement, I'm afraid. Indeed, while I like Benayoun, I struggle to think about what his role is in the squad. Attacking midfielder? Central midfielder? He doesn't really do either position well enough to justify a start at the moment.

* I don't understand Theo Walcott. Sometimes he looks like a massive talent, like when he spanked home our second goal. Other times, he can barely control the ball. And he goes missing for huge sections of games. Personally, I think he is the archetypal impact sub. It's a testimony to our lack of attacking options that he has started so many games this year.

* Indeed, it's an indictment of the strength of the squad that a 34 year old and an 18 year old were expected to change the game for us. Unsurprisingly, neither did. We need more players in their prime - not prospects and ageing superstars. Speaking of which, Park yet again did not get on the pitch. Increasingly he looks like £3 million (plus wages) that we have completely wasted. Unacceptable.

* Szcz was at fault for the third goal - his positioning was terrible. Again, I like him and think he's a huge prospect, but he has cost us points in consecutive games with poor goalkeeping.

* As a whole, the game was eerily reminiscent of the 4-3 at Blackburn.  We started well, but blew it through repeated defensive mistakes (made in both midfield and defence) and couldn't cobble things back together in the end. The third goal was particularly galling - to concede immediately after scoring is something you simply should not accept from a top-four side. As the SquidBoy on Twitter has pointed out, we've now thrown away wining positions in three of our last four games (Wolves, Fulham, Swansea). Worrying.

* Everything comes down to this, for me. The transfer window last summer was a catastrophe, which directly contributed to our awful start. We now have money in the bank, but we are making no signs that we'll spend it. If we finish fifth, in my opinion it is a self-inflicted wound caused by chronic mismanagement of our transfer strategy. And that is where we are heading, at present.


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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Transfers? You want Transfers? Don't come here.

I wish I could furnish you today with news of multiple transfers, but alas I live in the real world. There is very little out there to report.

Looking through this list on Football 365, you realise that we're not alone. There is very little movement happening anywhere in the prem, even at Man City. Are the new Financial Fair Play regulations starting to take hold, I wonder?

Probably not, in all honesty. But it is interesting to see a team like Chelsea play hard-ball (somewhat) with Gary Cahill. From what certain tweeters have said, even they weren't automatically prepared to give him a big wage bump.

I wish I could come up with a list of names, but I can come only come up with a handful, really.

There was a lot of fuss about Salomon Kalou earlier in the week. Personally, I think he'd be an OK squad player, but not much more than that. He infuriates most Chelsea fans I know, and I'm not sure he'd be a sizeable improvement over our current options. But Arsene ruled this out today along with any potential moves for Man United's bad-boy/prodigy Ravel Morrison and also Anderlecht's Matias Suarez, despite suggestions earlier in the week that he'd already sign a pre-contract with us (whatever that means). In terms of attacking players, we need more than Henry to come in during this window, but there is not a lot to suggest that anyone new is coming in.

A player we might have gone for is Maxwell, who's just moved to PSG from Barca. However, if PSG were interested in him then that would have probably ruled us out, given their new money-bags status. Still, it shows that there are players out there, who are available, who we could possibly get if we were really determined to do so. I don't think it's reasonable to say that there is no value in the market.

If we are going to sign a player in this window, it'll probably be an LB on loan. Wayne Bridge's name keeps on being raised, but this has more to do with the British media's knowledge of players more than anything else. But Wwth Gibbs supposedly only 10 days from a return, I wouldn't even bet on a FB coming in.

Indeed, it's been a slow window so far, with no major transfers. After the catastrophe that was last summer, I think a lot of us were hoping for movement this January, to continue to make up for the gaping holes in our squad. Considering our first XI are knackered, we desperately need new bodies. Will they come? I'm not so sure. And if we have two catastrophic transfer windows in a row which lead to us missing out on CL qualification, while still having large sums in the bank, serious questions have to be asked about the management of the club - not just Arsene, but all the way up to the board.

I think the game tomorrow will say a lot about how the second half of the season will go. If we don't get 3 points, it could be the beginning of a long four months.


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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Difference Between Good and Great - The Return of Thierry Henry

I wrote in the blog just before Christmas that I was broadly in favour of Thierry's return when it was just a rumour. If all he does is score one goal, then it's been worth it for a number of reasons.

Firstly, despite returning with Barca and NY, Thierry never really got the send off he deserved. I was there at the Eindhoven game in 2007 which saw his previous last game for Arsenal, and it was a miserable occasion. He limped off the pitch and we limped out of the Champions League. So, if nothing else, it was nice for him to come back and get a real last goal for the club (if it turns out to be that). The emotion that he and the fans showed when he scored was a real lift to the club in what has been a fairly disappointing season.

But...I don't think it will be his last goal. It's easy to think that Henry scored most of his goals at Arsenal through his pace, but he was also simply a phenomenal finisher. Even if he won't burn past players, I don't think he's lost his ability to get into good positions, stay cool, and slot home. And when you consider how much of our travails this season have been down to poor finishing, and a lack of cutting edge in the final third, you have to think he will get chances to score more in the next month or two, and that he will put some of these away.

Lastly, he scored a goal that means we're through to the next round of a competition that I think we can win. Personally, I don't see why we should have to choose between a fourth place finish and winning the FA - surely we can do both, particularly if we get a few more reinforcements in this month. His goal today was the difference in an otherwise fairly lacklustre performance, and means we don't have to go up to Elland Road for a replay. Good stuff, and, ultimately, a good win after the game at the Cottage.

The only dampener I would put on proceedings is that Henry showed the difference between a good player and a great player tonight. Make no mistake, we have very few great players in our current squad. Maybe only one (no prizes for guessing). Until we somehow get more players on the level of RvP and Henry, we won't compete for the very top trophies again. Tonight was the briefest of glimpses of the level at which we used to play - when, in my opinion, we were genuinely the best team in the world, whether or not we won all the trophies that we should have done.

A few other thoughts on the game:

* OK, what is the story with Park? Maybe he would have got on today if not for the injury to Coquelin, but he yet again did not make it off the bench, although at least he made it onto the bench today I suppose. I think there is something odd about this transfer. Park is not an awful player - he did ok at Monaco for several years. I don't understand why he's not been given more of a chance, especially when the alternative is Chamakh. Could he really have been that bad in training?

* I thought Arshavin had a fairly decent match, but his lack of finishing was disappointing once more. I kinda think he might go on a decent run of form if he can just catch a break with a goal at some point.

* Another full-back, another injury. V. disappointing to see the Coq limp off. One wonders where this leaves us now in terms of defenders. Up the proverbial creek, I'd say.

* TH will get the plaudits, but SZCZ made a big save at the end which secured the win.

* I have to say I laughed when Henry took the ball to the corner flag. Ah, sweet memories....

Next up are Swansea. Let's hope we can build some momentum from tonight's game.


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Monday, January 02, 2012

Ten Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Fulham 2

Well, that was frustrating, but let's start at the beginning (always a good place to start):

* We had, in many respects, an excellent first half. We raced out the box and dominated the game - I think we had something like 60% of possession at certain points in the first period, which is brilliant for any performance away from home.

* Our goal was very nice indeed. A great ball over the top was met by Kos who get a well deserved goal, given his recent, excellent form. Ramsey showed at several points during the game that he has the class to be the fulcrum of our midfield.

* For all our dominance in the first half, the score was only 1-0 after 45 mins. Yes, we should have had a pen for the foul on Gervinho, who was definitely caught by Senderos, but we were creating enough chances around the Fulham box that we really should have scored a second. Indeed, the game's major turning point may have been when we hit the post just after we scored. If we had gone 2-0 up at that point, we could have really romped home.

* But we didn't, and the difference in our performance in the second half was worryingly huge. Whether Arene had told us to play deeper, or whether it was due to some heavy legs after so many recent games, we barely got out of our half for most of the second period, and even before the sending off Fulham really should have scored, with Dempsey and Senderos both going close.

* A major reason that we didn't go 2-0 up was the performance of Walcott and Gervinho. Walcott gets far too much abuse, in general, from Arsenal fans, but he was truly woeful today. When he's prevented from linking up with van Persie, he looks worryingly one-dimensional. Together with Gervinho, they were responsible for the majority of our attacks breaking down on the edge of the Fulham box.

* And this obviously leads into a wider concern - there is no real competition for Gerv and Walcott's places. I've talked a lot about our need for new strikers, but we desperately need new attacking options in midfield. Rosicky came on and did his usual running about routine, but, as usual, provided no goals, assists or even any real defensive cover. I like Benayoun, but he didn't offer a lot when he came on. In terms of the squad, I am growing increasingly bemused by the Park signing. Where was he today? When we needed to rotate the team a little, he wasn't even on the bench. Bischoff mark II?

* The sending off was the turning point in the game, and was the culmination of a series of poor refereeing decisions. By my count we should have had two penalties, and we did not get many decisions in our favour all afternoon. At one point, Riise shoved over Walcott in front of the ref, who gave nothing. In addition, I think that's about 6 penalties in the last 3 matches which we haven't been given. Arsene will get into trouble for his comments after the game, but I think that we haven't had a lot of decisions go in our favour recently.

*Squillaci will undoubtedly get most of the ire for his ten minute cameo, not least because of his 'assist' for the second Fulham goal. But Zamora was completely unmarked, just outside the six-yard box - who was meant to be covering him? Squiddy can't be blamed for everything that goes wrong in defence.

* Indeed, he can hardly be held responsible for the first goal. My article on SZCZ drew a fair amount of criticism, but he was massively at fault for the first Fulham goal. Yes, he made some excellent saves beforehand, but the last thing you want when you're trying to see a game out with ten men is for your keeper to make a massive error when under virtually no pressure.

* Overall, it's days like today which make me think we'll finish fifth this season. Over the festive season we got a great win at villa park, dropped points at home against wolves, scraped past QPR at home and then lost at Fulham. That's 7 points from 12, from a set of fixtures where you'd really hope us to take 10 points out of 12. Chelsea are now back above us, and I have a feeling that they and Spurs will edge us out for fourth come May. Maybe if we get in another 2 players in January in addition to Thierry, then I'll be proved wrong. We've also played all the top four away from home. But today showed how thin our squad is, and that a few players are running out of steam half-way through the season. If nothing else, Wilshere, Sagna and Santos really can't come back too soon.


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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Ten Thoughts on Arsenal 1 QPR 0

* In terms of stupid statistics, the one that was frequently mentioned before the game yesterday - that Arsenal hadn't won a league match against QPR in over a decade - was particularly stupid. They haven't been in the prem for that long, that's why, not because they have some form of hex over us.

* Arshavin shouldn't have been named MOTM - I thought Kozzer was perphaps more worthy - but Arsh did show that he still has some definite value to the squad. His time at Arsenal has never quite lived up to that glorious opening few months when he almost single handedly got us into the Champions League in '08. But he isn't lazy - he's just been struggling for form. He didn't do a lot yesterday, but his assist was a moment of pure class, and shows that we would be stupid to sell him in January.

* We need someone else to start scoring goals. That said, Robin's finish was brilliant.

* Theo Walcott's finish wasn't. Clean through, he has to score, or, at the very least, force the keeper to make a decent save. His attempted finish was appalling, and if he can't take chances like that, then he has no right to ask to play through the middle.

* Gervinho is better than Nasri. Nasri has reverted to the level of form that he had for about 2/3rds of his Arsenal career. Gervinho consistently offers a threat going forward and is much more of an all-round menace, but his decision making needs to imrpove. He often gets into threatening positions, and doesn't seem to know whether to shoot or pass.

* Vermaelen's injury is precisely what we didn't need. Surely we will now have to get a full-back of some sort on loan.

* QPR aren't very good. I expected us to beat them and, really, we should have got more goals. I think they are a major candidate for relegation - any team with Traore at full-back is going to struggle. I say that in part out of hope because Neil Warnock is one of the more odious members of England's footballing establishment, not because of any rancour towards QPR as a club. His comments about RvP's 'clever' tactics - he constantly fouls players in the air, apparently - were needless, and was a classic attempt to deflect the reporter from probing him on why QPR have been so woeful of late.

* SZCZ made a great save early on from SWP. He sometimes has a tendency to needlessly punch the ball, rather than catch it, but you wonder if we would have kept a clean sheet yesterday if Almunia or Fabianski had been in goals.

* It was a good weekend for us in general, with all our major rivals dropping points. We have to build on the advantage we've gained by beating Fulham on Monday, but I wonder what kind of team we're going to put out. There look to be a lot of tired legs out there at the moment.

 * If you look at how far we've come since the 8-2, we've done really well to get the season back on track. We're now only a few points behind Spurs, are ahead of Liverpool and Chelsea, and are into the knockout stages of the Champions League (again). That said, there has been some talk on Twitter today about us winning the league, given our recent form and the fact we're only 9 points behind City, after their defeat at Sunderland (check out Martin Tyler's commentary of Sunderland's goal if you can find it on YouTube). This is silly. We are going to be in a very tough struggle for fourth place, and City will end up winning the league comfortably. If their form goes through any form of prolonged dip this month, they'll buy someone. It's not fair, but they will buy the league this season.


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