Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Lukas Podolski Good Enough for Arsenal? An In-Depth Scouting Report

There's been a lot of speculation recently that Arsenal are going to sign German striker/attacking midfielder Lukas Podolski in the summer.

I don't have any information to add over whether this deal might happen or not. My only source of information is the article which appeared in yesterday's Bild - a German newspaper which, unfortunately, might be equated to The Sun.

The article says that Arsenal will have to pay at least 18m euros for the player, and that Koln may hold out for a fee upwards of 20m euros.

Instead of adding to the speculation, I thought I'd write a report on his abilities as a player, to try and flesh out whether he is someone who we should be trying to sign.

Podolski's well known around Europe, and indeed the world, due to his excellent performances in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the 2008 European Championships. In particular, a memorable performance in Germany's demolition of England in South Africa means he is a well known figure among the English press, making them more likely to listen to rumours about any potential move to an English club.

Yet, his performances on a week-by-week basis in Germany are a bit more mixed.

As a young player at Koln, he scored a hat-full of goals, although the 24 he bagged in 2004-05 were during Koln's stint in the German second division. On promotion back to the first division, Podolski's tally immediately halved to 12 league goals.

Still, he did enough to earn a move to Bayern Munich in 2006 - and this is where my concerns begin. Podolski scored only 15 league goals in 71 league appearances during his three years at Bayern, although is record of 8 goals in 23 European fixtures is more impressive. Due to his indifferent form, Bayern eventually bought Luca Toni, which significantly reduced Podolski's playing time, causing him to move back to Koln in 2009.

In his first season at Koln he only scored 2 goals in 27 appearances. He was hardly much better at creating chances for his teammates, with only 4 assists and an average of only 0.7 key passes (creation of a goalscoring chance) per game. So, in his first season after Bayern, he didn't score many goals, he didn't have many assists, and he didn't create many chances. And to give that 0.7 key passes stat some context - 14 players in the current Arsenal squad have an average of over 0.8 key passes per game this season. His main facet during his first season back at Koln was his dribbling - his average of 1.1 succesful dribbles per game would be the fifth highest in the current Arsenal squad. During this season, he mainly played as one of the two attackers in a 4-4-2

Things improved during the 2010-11 season, where he played just behind the lone striker in Koln's 4-2-3-1 formation. In this position, he got 13 goals and 4 assists in 32 league appearances. Tellingly, in this slightly more withdrawn position, his key pass rate also improved, and Podolski averaged 1.7 KPs per game during this season.

The current season has probably been his best in the German first division. He already has 15 goals in only 18 league matches, probably explaining the large transfer fee that Koln have apparently requested. Podolski has seemingly interchanged between playing up-front on his own, or as a support-striker. His ability to create chances has ostensibly fallen a little bit, however - he does have 4 assists, but his KP rate has fallen to 1.1 on average, per game.

So what to make of all this?

Podolski is clearly a talented player, and has a track-record of scoring goals. He can play as a support-striker, up-front, and also on the left of an attacking three in a 4-3-3 formation. He does also create goals, but not, perhaps, quite as many as he should do. His KP rate has been lower than I would expect for a 20m euro player during his last three seasons at Koln.

Buying him for around 12m euros or less would probably represent a decent deal. Anything above that and I think the risk is too high. While he certainly represents a better option than Chamakh or Park, and he would add some versatility to our strike-force, I still think there are certain question marks about him as a player.

So, good enough for Arsenal? Probably - but only at the right price, and only as a squad player.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What are Arsenal Good At? A Tactical Analysis of Arsenal 5 Spurs 2.

Today's post comes from friend of the blog, Bobby. Enjoy:

In last week’s Guardian, Michael Cox asked: what are Arsenal good at? It was a fair question and one that went to the very heart of Arsenal's perceived decline. They no longer seemed to have an identity. Against Sunderland, they were moving the ball slowly; they looked heavy legged across midfield; they were making careless errors at the back; and all this with experienced personnel in almost every position. No longer were they able to hide behind a charade of ‘progress’.

In truth this lack of identity has been sniffing around for at least 6 months. The summer sales of Fabregas and Nasri, along with the injury to Wilshire has meant that, put simply, the Arsenal midfield has deteriorated in quality. This was very evident against Swansea away in January, when the Swans beat Arsenal at their own game, with Leon Britton and Joe Allen dictating the game and pace of play to the Arsenal midfield of Song, Ramsey, and Arteta.

Identity and style come from the top and Arsene Wenger has taken great criticism this season with team selections (most recently away to AC Milan) and substitutions (most notoriously at home vs. Man Utd). Wenger has also been criticised by commentators, such as Gary Neville, that during this period of transition he has not set his teams up to stifle the opposition. He hasn’t protected his young players, made Arsenal hard to beat, gone back to basics, or more generally focused on the shape and organisation of his team.

Indeed the notion that Wenger occasionally leaves his teams tactically under-cooked has been doing the rounds for a long time, with Sam Allardyce commenting in the Sky studio a couple of years back that he believed Wenger was “tactically na├»ve”. Admittedly Allardyce is a disgraceful person, but there are many in football who would agree with this judgement. Even Arsenal fans would probably suggest that their team are often too open, too expansive, and too easy to pick off on the counter attack. Indeed the player that is notionally included to protect the back four is Alex Song, of whom Michael Cox claims “should be a fine physical force in front of the back four, but the insistence upon midfield rotation means he often ends up ahead of his two midfield colleagues, and is in no position to help.”

So prior to the Tottenham clash, a team that has been so lethal on the counter-attack this season, it was widely held that: (1) Arsenal lacked an identity; (2) have a manager that fails to properly assess the opposition and set up his team accordingly; and (3) were easy to pick off on the counter attack.

What occurred on Sunday should give Arsenal fans huge encouragement. Not necessarily because of the win, but for the first time this season Arsenal played with an identity and a new shape. We witnessed Arsene’s plan for this ‘new’ team.

It seemed to me that for the first time in 6 years, AW ditched his 4-3-3 which has basically achieved very little – especially against the top clubs. What’s more, in doing so, it appeared that Arsene completely out-foxed Harry Redknapp from start to finish. By my reading of the game, Alex Song played much deeper than we are accustomed to seeing him play. He played in the same position as that which is most famously occupied by Sergi Busquetes of Barcelona. At times a third centre back, at times a defensive midfielder. Going back to Michael Cox’s point: how often did we see Song ahead of Arteta, Yossi, or Rosicky on Sunday? Hardly ever.

Song’s deep starting position, allowed Sagna and Gibbs to play extremely high up the pitch – as out and out Wing Backs. Now, these high starting positions caused the first Tottenham goal with Gibbs caught high up the pitch. Commentators will chastise Gibbs for not being ‘on the cover’ – but against Tottenham he wasn’t playing as a full back. His high starting position was not because he ‘fell asleep’ or was not aware of the impending danger, but because he was required to play 10m or 15m higher up the pitch than usual.

Despite this formation being to blame for the first Tottenham goal, it was also the reason for Arsenal’s first. Sagna, playing extremely high on the right flank, found himself in the penalty area and tucked away a bullet header (As an aside, Sagna’s aerial prowess is very underrated – defensively he is probably the best full back in the premiership when it comes to winning headers against oppositions strikers and wingers).

At half time, Arsenal were by far the dominant team, had drawn level, hit the post and had other chances narrowly squandered. Perhaps the thing that made this formation so interesting was how perfectly it was suited to play against Spurs. Since December, Bale has been playing increasingly narrow, most obviously against Norwich at Carrow Road, and against Stevenage last weekend. With Kranjcar playing instead of Lennon, Tottenham were set up without wingers. Wenger knew then that he needed to win the midfield battle and get the ball out quickly to the flanks – where the space had been sacrificed by Tottenham. Recently Arsenal have been slow in possession – the ball played across the midfield and then back again – but with Sagna and Gibbs so high up the pitch, and with no protection to the Tottenham full backs, Arsenal were able to spring attacks extremely quickly, with acres of room in the wider positions.

Worryingly for Tottenham (and potentially for England), at half time Harry’s changes played into the hands of Arsenal. Had Harry brought on Lennon and requested that Bale hug the touchline, the extra width and pace may well have resulted in Sagna and Gibbs being forced back defensively and Tottenham getting a grip on the game in the midfield areas. However, in bringing on two central players in RvdV and Sandro, Arsenal were able to continue to dominate in wide areas. The substitutions basically had no impact and only gave Arsenal’s two centre-backs (Koz and Verm) and one half-centre-back (Song), fewer problems, as Tottenham left only Adebayor up the pitch.

The Tottenham midfield pairing of Parker and Modric have won great acclaim this season. Again this makes me think AW won a masterful tactical battle on Sunday. In playing Arteta, Rosicky, Yossi, and Song (sitting very deep), Parker and Modric were hurried constantly. In fact the only time Modric did have anytime on the ball was when he released Bale to gallop into the penalty area and ‘win’ a penalty. That moment aside, Arteta, Rosicky, and Yossi, used the ball intelligently and really put in a good shift in the middle of the pitch which enabled Song, and Arteta in particular, to release the ball to the wing backs quickly.

Overall, I have not been more optimistic about an Arsenal performance for over a year. AW can rightly be proud of his players but I hope he gets the credit he deserves for battering Harry in the tactical game. I also genuinely believe that this shape and formation will be a sign of things to come. When Wilshere comes back from injury, and when Ramsey finds his form again, this formation could really suit Arsenal's personnel. This formation also means that Arsenal’s width does not come from the wingers (e.g. the now departed Arshavin, Gervinho, Walcott, have all disappointed this season). Walcott can play tighter to RvP (as he always insists he wants to), and AOC can play anywhere across the front 5 positions along with Yossi, Rosicky, Wilshire, Ramsey, Gervinho etc. It really is an exciting formation for Arsenal's current players. It should also mean that the attacking players play tighter to the main man and start sharing the burden of scoring goals.

If this is Arsene’s grand plan for this team, then maybe Arsene knew all along.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Desire and Justice: 14 Thoughts on Arsenal 5 Spurs 2

Well, that was quite a game. A poor start was followed by an absolute rout, and the only disappointment by the end was that we didn't put six past spurs. Thoughts as follows:

* I'm not going to lie - I was bemused by the team selection when I first saw it. I was fully expecting Gervinho to play, and was hoping to see the Ox as well. Benayoun has barely featured this season, and Rosicky hasn't contributed enough, in my opinion, in terms of goals and goal scoring chances. My main concern was that we would see a lot of possession, and passing, but not much end-product. How wrong I was, and credit to Arsene for a bold team selection that few of us would have chosen.

* That said, we were all over the place during the opening 10-20 minutes. The first Spurs goal was simply a mess. Adebayor was given far too much space and time to find Saha, and neither Gibbs nor Vermaelen seemed to know who was responsible for picking him up. There was an element of luck as the ball took a deflection, and looped up and into the net, but we only had ourselves to blame for allowing the chance in the first place.

* Without Mertesacker, our defence lacked organization throughout the opening third of the game, and Tottenham exploited the chaos at the back to win a penalty. Now, let's be clear, Bale was at the very least 'clever' in the way he won the penalty, which, let's face it, is code for 'he dived'. But he got into a position where he could dive to win a penalty by getting past Gibbs and Vermaelen far too easily. With Adebayor just stroking the penalty home, I feared the worst.

* But we then did something which I wasn't expecting. The team, collectively, didn't give up. Maybe there was a sense of anger at the ridiculousness of the penalty decision. We redoubled our efforts and fought our way back into the game, and simply started to effectively make goal scoring chances. Sagna's goal was an example of this - Song and Walcott made a chance for van Persie, which he narrowly missed,  but instead of letting the move dissipate, we recycled possession effectively. Arteta swung another ball in for Sagna, who headed home.

* In retrospect, Sagna's goal may well have been the turning point of the match. It was a moment borne as much from desire and commitment as ability. Arsenal showed that we were not going to give up the game without a fight, and we changed the momentum of the match. As Redknapp conceded in his post-match interview, Spurs were lucky to be 2-0 up, and he was hoping they could just ride it out till half-time, reorganize and consolidate. Instead, we put them on the back foot and began to swing the game back in our favour before Spurs had a chance to regroup.

* It helps, of course, when you have a striker of Robin's quality. His goal was probably the best of the game, a moment of sheer, world-class football. At times like that, you want to do whatever it takes to tie him to the club.

* Harry knew by this point that his game-plan was buggered. He had set up in an ambitious 4-4-2, which had initially caused us problems as we struggled to deal with their two forward players, but which meant that we increasingly overwhelmed Spurs in midfield as the first half had wore on. Redknapp sent on Sandro and Van der Vaart for Saha and Krancjar at half-time, but instead of stabilizing the Spurs' midfield, it seemed to merely confuse several of Tottenham's players, many of whom struggled, throughout the second-half, to work out how offensively or defensively they should be playing.

* This confusion in the Spurs midfield was evident in our third and fourth goals. Watch Rosicky's goal: Van Persie picks the ball up in acres of space near the centre-circle, and has plenty of time to pick a pass. He gives the ball to Rosicky who carries it to the Spurs penalty-area virtually unopposed due to the mountains of space he has, before playing, effectively, a one-two with Sagna and scoring. For Walcott's second goal, there are almost four Spurs players surrounding van Persie before he lays it off to Theo. Only Parker is tracking him, as none of the other Spurs midfielders have taken on any defensive responsibility. And in a foot-race between Theo and Parker there was only going to be one winner.

* Our fifth goal highlighted something also evident in our third - Ledley King may well be finished. For our third goal, King let's Rosicky ghost past him, get goal-side and score. For our fifth, King was completely unable to deal with Theo's pace, giving him enough time to steady himself and score. Dawson may well have been injured, but I find it bizarre that he didn't start ahead of King, who cost Tottenham at least two goals by my count.

* While it is easy (and amusing) to highlight the multiple errors by Tottenham players that led to our goals, we also need to give credit to our own players. Let's start with Rosicky. For too long he has been a player who is more notable for his effort than for his end-product. But today he finally got a league goal for the first time in 49 matches, and he fully deserved it. Watching his surging run and deft finish, I can't understand why he hasn't scored more often in the last few years. Yossi Benayoun was also neat and effective, although perhaps not as effective as some are making out. One successful dribble and one key pass is OK, but not brilliant. Yet, at least he can now be considered a legitimate alternative to AOC and Gervinho, which is vital given Arshavin's departure.

* Theo - what to make of his performance? The vociferous criticism he received during the first-half was perhaps only matched by the outpouring of praise he received in the second. His first goal was perhaps a microcosm of his abilities as a player. He had the pace to beat Parker, and to get himself into a good position, but he actually miscontrolled the ball when he receives it. Yet, he had the talent to dink the ball over Friedel with a fabulous finish. His second goal similarly saw a moment of miscontrol followed by a beautiful shot. If we are to finish in the top four, we need Theo to put in a lot more performances like those in the second-half.

* Song and Arteta were both superb. With Harry conspiring to confuse his own players, they took control of the midfield with both their passing and their defensive contributions. Just as I was beginning to harbour slight doubts about the two players, they both produced phenomenal performances.

* But if I was going to pick a Man of the Match, it would probably be Sagna. He drove us back into the game, and never let-up for the entire 90 minutes. In the last few weeks, we've had the rather unedifying spectacle of certain Arsenal players basically giving-up in Milan and Sunderland. Sagna's determination, as much as his ability, was wonderful to see. He knows how big this game is for the club, and he drove us to victory.

* Overall, it was an amazing game. I predicted a high-scoring draw before the match, but noted that games between us are often decided by who makes more individual defensive errors. After a nervy start, our defence settled while Tottenham's fell apart. Instead of a 2-2 draw, we thus won 5-2. The performances of the likes of Arteta, Song, Walcott, Rosicky and Benayoun show that there is not the gulf between the two teams that many in the media would have us believe. There are 12 games left to play, and only 7 points between us and them. It's going to be very close, come the end of the season.

 But whatever happens, at least we have today. Enjoy it.

Narrow against Wide - Arsenal vs. Spurs Preview

It's fair to say we've had a rotten time of it recently against Tottenham.

We had it so good for so long against them under Wenger, it's come as a shock that our form against our rivals has fallen apart so quickly. From a beautiful, seemingly neverending run of games without defeat, we've now won only once in our last seven league games against Spurs.

Going through the two probable teamsheets for tomorrow's game, one thing prominently stands out: Tottenham's midfield is much stronger than ours. If Spurs go with Bale-Modric-Parker-Lennon; Van der Vaart, that is a stronger line-up than Song-Arteta; Gervinho-Ramsey-Walcott/AOC. Really, on current form, the only Arsenal player who might vie for a place in Spurs' midfield is Arteta, and possibly Oxlade-Chamberlain, although given Wenger's bizarre team selections of late, who knows if our in-form youngster will even start tomorrow.

I also feel that Tottenham's 4-4-1-1 is a better formation than our 4-2-3-1. Tottenham's defenders means that Bale and Lennon have a licence to maraud forward, but that they leave their full-backs less exposed than Walcott/Gervinho/AOC  who have much further to get back when they are forced to defend (when they bother).

Indeed, our current formation seems particularly bizarre when you consider how much pressure it puts on our full-backs, a position where we have struggled with injuries this season. It's no surprise that we've conceded so many goals when you consider that we have players playing out of position in what are possibly the key areas of a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation.  Djourou, in particular, looked all at sea when asked to play at right-back, because he simply couldn't work out where he was meant to be standing at any given moment. It's a formation which only really works when the likes of Sagna and Santos are available, and, even then, it asks them to put in massive performances on a game-by-game basis.

Spurs cover space more effectively with their formation, and they have better players in key areas. It's a real problem for Arsenal at the moment that our best player is our lone striker. It's instructive when you look at the average standing position of our players during games that van Persie is often level with our midfield. He is desperate to become more involved in our games when we struggle, but by dropping so deep, he leaves us toothless up-front.

And the supposed beneficiaries of our formation - our attacking three behind van Persie - have not put in enough good performances this year to justify the way we play. Gervinho was terrible in the game at White Hart Lane in October, and Walcott was not much better. Both will need to be wary of their defensive responsibilities in the game tomorrow, and realise that they must be effective when they are in possession. We cannot have Theo and Gervinho running down blind alleys or crossing the ball into an empty box - together with Ramsey, they must be effectively creative in order that van Persie can stay forward and finish our chances. If they are wasteful, Spurs will press forward and overrun our defence.

I've been bullish all week about our chances in this game, and I still think the gap between the two teams is not as pronounced as media commentators have claimed. But our squad is a mess due to injuries and our terrible transfer market strategy, and I increasingly feel we play with a formation that makes us play in a narrow, ineffective way. By contrast, I think Spurs play with a formation that gives them greater solidity and greater width. They've also, through years of trial and error in the transfer market, finally happened upon a genuinely strong starting XI.

A 1-1 or 2-2 is probably the most likely result tomorrow, especially as Tottenham may well be happy to bag a point and scurry home. But the game may come down to who commits the most individual mistakes. Szczesny's unforced error was the difference between a draw and a Tottenham win last time we met - let's hope we can profit from an individual mistake this time around.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Will Arsenal's Year From Hell Finally End This Sunday?

A year ago today, everything seemed rosy in the land of Arsenal Football Club.

We had just beaten Barcelona in the Champions League, joining only a handful of clubs who have managed to defeat one of the best club sides every assembled. We still appeared to have an outside chance of winning the title. We were still in the FA Cup. We had our first Cup final in four years to look forward to, and our first since the new Wembley had opened.

Were the seeds of our undoing already present? Who knows, but the weeks before the Carling Cup Final had been filled with a few ominous signs of things to come. Fabregas had hobbled off in the uninspiring 1-0 win against Stoke days before the final, ruling himself out of the Birmingham game. Newcastle had clawed back a four goal deficit against us in humiliating fashion. We had been unable to beat Leyton Orient in the FA Cup the weekend before the game.

But going into the Carling Cup final, we were all pretty confident that we were on the cusp of a new dawn; a moment when we feel the sweet, sweet warmth of silverware once more, and when the club would take its first real step towards the dominance that the move to the new ground had supposedly promised.

I can still see Obafemi Martin's goal in my mind now: Foster punting the ball upfield; Zigic beating Djourou to the flick-on; the ball falling; Koscielny sticking his leg out and retracting it without making contact; the ball bouncing off Szcezsny's chest, and falling almost directly into the spot where Martins was standing; my howl of anguish as he passed the ball into the net.

When it happened, I instantly looked to the sideline for a foul, for an offside, for something. It seemed inconceivable that what had just happened could have occurred without foul-play. But, no. We were the masters of our own undoing.

Since Koscielny's half-swing and Szcezsny's half-gather, very little has gone right for the club. We only won 2 of the remaining 11 league games in the 2011 season. We lost due to horrendous refereeing in the Nou Camp, and due to a horrendous performance in the FA Cup.

Then came the summer.

Fabregas sulked and got a cut-price move. (I don't care if he's from Barca, the way he acted was disgraceful.) Nasri actually acted more professionally and was sold for a farcically high fee.  Eboue and Clichy were no big losses, but the former was replaced by a kid from Charlton, and both Gibbs and Santos have seen more of the injury room than the pitch since Clichy left.

And then we couldn't get rid of the pile of dross that littered the squad, eating up our wage bill. We couldn't give Almunia away. We had to loan Denilson and Bendtner because no-one would buy them.

In the midst of the transfer window debacle, we got hammered 8-2 at Old Trafford, and we finally bought in some bodies to try and stop the bleeding.

Since September, our form has vacillated wildly. We lost to Blackburn 4-3, and then looked brilliant for about 3 months, before losing practically all our games in January. We signed nobody in January despite the fact we have only one striker that Arsene has any faith in. We tried to patch things up by bringing Thierry back, but now he's gone and the club is a van Persie muscle-tear away from oblivion.

And then today, after two pathetic performances which have seen us knocked out of Europe and the FA Cup, we decide to get rid of one of the few players we have who has made a difference this season when he's come off the bench.

Maybe the booing incident against Manchester United affected Arshavin more than we know, but to further weaken our already paper-thin squad in a period where we can do nothing to strengthen it just seems to be an act of utter, unbridled madness.

Why do we always buckle? Modric wanted to leave - Spurs told him to shut up and play. Ronaldo bitched about wanting to leave for years and Fergie only let him go on his terms, and for a fee which will probably not be equalled for some time.

In any other business, I would think that Arsenal were owned by corporate raiders, who were methodically asset-stripping the club. When we beat Barcelona last year, the players who had the ball in the build up to our second goal were Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere, Bendtner and Arshavin. With the exception of Wilshere, who's crocked, all those players have left. They've been replaced by Ramsey, Gervinho, Arteta, Park and Walcott.  I'm not saying those players are bad, but they're not as good as what we had even 12 months previously.

It's coming to the point now where something has to change. Either we accept that we aren't going to be among the top-four for a while, or more of the players in the squad have to stand up and make a difference. Walcott  has to show he can be consistent; Park needs to prove he actually exists; Gervinho needs to stop running down blind alleys; Ramsey has to start turning those key passes into assists, or start racking up a few goals himself; Gibbs needs to actually play more than one game a season.

There is no better time or place than the North London Derby, at home, to turn our season around. Especially as we have only won one of the last seven league meetings with Spurs, which is simply unacceptable.

It's time we stopped the rot and started the healing process that will hopefully gather pace in this summer's transfer window, when we finally replace the deadwood currently festering within the squad.

Whatever happens on Sunday, the players must leave everything on the field. There cannot be a repeat of the performance we saw in Milan. Just like there's a time when you sense that the party's over, there's a moment when you can feel your hangover lifting after hours of agony, and you realize you're head isn't gonna explode, and that things will get better.

Let's hope our hangover ends on Sunday. It's about bloody time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Letting Arshavin Leave Now Would be Lunacy

I'm not going to pretend that Arshavin has had the best of seasons in an Arsenal shirt this year, but I was still shocked to read this Tweet by The Evening Standard's Chief Football Correspondent, James Olley, earlier today:

Decision made. #Arsenal agree to loan out Arshavin until the end of the season. Zenit to pay wages & £1m fee. Race on now to sort paperwork

Now, I should be careful to not get into a rage too quickly. Earlier today, Arsene had denied these reports, stating that 'at the moment' a deal wasn't on the cards. But we know how quickly these things change, and it struck me as odd that Arshavin played no part in either of our last two matches at Milan or Sunderland, given that he produced that piece of magic against Sunderland in the league just a few days before.

And that is the crux of the matter for me. Arshavin is till a fantastically talented player. In a squad that lacks depth and quality, he is someone who can come off the bench and provide that one moment that changes a game.

He won us the home game against Swansea with a piece of impetuous brilliance; he provided excellent assists against QPR and Sunderland. He can still provide glimpses of the quality that moved us to spend 15m quid for him three years ago.

I don't want to get into full obituary mode for his Arsenal career yet - I'll wait until any deal is announced or denied before that happens.

What I will say is this - it's one thing not to strengthen in the transfer window when we desperately need attacking talent. I can sometimes excuse that in January due to the lack of talent available, and the eye-watering premiums that clubs sometimes demand  in the winter window. But to actively let players leave, when we can't replace them is surely a sign of chronic mismanagement going on at some level at the club - perhaps even an "emperor's new clothes" moment.

Anyway, more on this story as I hear it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Should Robin van Persie Get a New Contract? Remember Thierry Henry.

Not so long ago, in a stadium not so far away....

Arsenal have had a hard season. On the final day of the campaign they've leap-frogged their rivals into fourth spot and secured Champions League qualification. Yet another worry has not quite disappeared. Their captain and best player has still not signed a new contract. His goals, more than anything else, have kept Arsenal in contention all year, and his hat-trick in the season's final game has secured their spot in Europe. Yet rumours surrounding his departure in the summer's transfer window have persisted, and Arsenal fans continue to worry about the future of their captain as they go into the biggest game in the club's history.

Arsenal lose that game, but keep their captain. Just two days after losing to Barcelona in Paris, Thierry Henry signed a new deal. He stated: "I've never played in Spain and never will. This is my last contract". Arsene Wenger placed Henry's decision to agree a new deal on the same level as winning the European Cup: "I had two aims at the start of the week: to win the European Cup and then to make Thierry stay". 

So how did that work out?

In the following season, Henry scored about a dozen goals in a year that was marred by injuries. He was rushed back for a Champions League game in February against PSV, aggravated old wounds, and was ruled out for the rest of the campaign.

Then, in late-June, Henry left. He signed for Barcelona in a deal worth 24million euros, or about 17m pounds (following the 2007 conversion rate).

So, after all that stress and all that worry, Arsenal basically got one more year, and about ten more goals, out of a player who had already peaked, and whose body had started to lose its ability to withstand the rigours of regular, top-flight football.

Moreover, Arsenal also lost out on a huge amount of money. While we should perhaps be wary of taking David Dein's pronouncement at face value, the former director claimed that Arsenal had turned down two £50 million (about 70m euro) bids for Henry in the summer of 2006. Added to that was the size of Henry's final contract. The AST estimated that Arsenal paid Henry about £10 million during his last year at the club. Not only had he got a notable bump in wages in his new deal, Henry also received a signing-on fee of around £5 million in his new deal.

Arsenal had therefore paid Henry about £1 million per goal during his final season, and they had lost out on maybe £30 million in transfer fees.

Why have I taken this extended trip down memory lane? Because I feel it's relevant when discussing Robin van Persie's potential new deal. At present, there seems to be an agreement among Arsenal fans that Robin has to sign a new deal. If he were to leave, it would be a catastrophe. We would be losing our best player - perhaps our only world-class player.

There is a lot to be said for these fears. If Robin had not been at the club this season, we'd probably be languishing in mid-table. Indeed, if he was to be injured tomorrow, I very much doubt we'd end up in the Champions League spots.

But I feel we have to stand back and think about Robin's potential new deal rationally. Is it wise to give a new, bumper package to a player who, before 2011, had never managed to get through an entire season at the club without a serious injury? Indeed, it's worth noting that even until late 2010, many Arsenal fans would have depicted Robin as a player with tremendous ability, but one that could not be relied upon to get through the majority of a season intact. Now, most of the injuries he's suffered while at Arsenal were contact injuries, rather than inherent weaknesses in his body's physical make-up. But who knows what impact having so many serious injuries in his early career will have on Robin as he enters into his early thirties? With Arsene currently pushing Robin to play 90 minutes in almost every game he plays (even when 7-1 up against Blackburn), who knows what long-term effect that will have on his body?

So my concern is this - should we be giving a new, enormous contract to a player with a questionable injury record; who is, like Henry was, at his peak and who is only going to decline in the coming years; and who's value is only going to depreciate, if he were to leave after 2012?

In short, is there not a worry that we've already seen the best of van Persie? Should we cash-in on our asset at the peak of its value, rather than trying to squeeze potentially lower returns out of it, at a higher maintenance cost? If Robin's injury-problems were to resurface, we could be faced by a nightmare scenario where we do not have the potential funds of any RvP transfer to re-invest in the squad, and where his huge wages could become a burden to the club's ability to grow.

There is also the concern that Robin has become too important to the team. As Henry said, after Arsenal's much improved performance in the 2007/2008 season: "Because of my seniority, the fact that I was captain and my habit of screaming for the ball, they would sometimes give it to me even when I was not in the best position. So in that sense it was good for the team that I moved on". Football is a team sport, and it is always extremely damaging when one player becomes too central to a team's success. Arsenal were rejuvenated in 2007/2008 because the burden of expectation was shared more widely amongst the squad, rather than the team continually looking to one player to produce the magic.

The difficulty in this comparison is that the squad in 2007 was much stronger than that which we have today, and that the level of competition in the Premier League is also higher in 2012 than it was in 2007 due to the rise of teams like Man City and Spurs. I'm not convinced that we currently have the players who could step up in the manner that certain people did during the 07/08 campaign, but this could change with a few wise purchases.  Especially if we continue the clearout of the dross in the squad that started last summer, Robin's transfer fee could help us in our efforts to rebuild the overall quality of the squad.

To conclude, I want to make one thing clear - Robin van Persie is a magnificent player and I think, on balance, it would be good for the club if he stayed. I would be, on an emotional level, gutted if he left. But, and this is the only 'but' I am trying to inject into this conversation, remember Thierry Henry. Giving star players in their late twenties huge contracts is not always a great idea. The club could lose out on a huge amount of money - in both fees and wages - that could be invested in bringing in new, younger talent. Players in their late twenties, especially those with Robin's track record, have injury concerns that cannot be ignored. There is no guarantee that Robin will be able to reproduce his current form in future seasons; indeed, even if he does stay, this will probably be his best season at the club.

My main concern is that the club would simply bank any transfer fee for Robin, as they have done in the last few years. If selling Robin is merely a means to pay-down the stadium debt a little bit faster, then we should resist selling him at all costs. But if Robin's sale was part of a long-term effort to renew a failed squad with better players, would it be so terrible to lose him now?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Get Me Two Pencils and a Pair of Underpants" - Another Trophyless Season Beckons.

While we're not in full-on panic, everything is lost, 'Rome is burning' mode quite yet - let's wait until the Spurs game next weekend to see if that's necessary - it's fair to say that the last two games have meant that we are on the verge of a pretty awful state of affairs. Just like Blackadder, we are faced with a crisis, and, again like Blackadder, I'm not sure that two pencils and a pair of underpants will be enough to see ourselves out of it.

I said last week before the Sunderland league match that Arsenal were facing seven games that would define our season. And, with only three of them played, so it has proved. On a cold, rational level, we won the most important match of these three. Beating Sunderland in the league means we are in fourth, and getting into the Champions League each year is vital to the financial standing and overall stature of the club, however soulless and disspiriting our CL runs have become in recent seasons. Without CL football, we can't attract the best players, or even the most promising young players, and we aren't guaranteed the big bucks that keep the club ticking over. It also keeps, in my opinion, fan dissatisfaction just about at bay.

But on an irrational level, the last two games have been terrible. Just like in February of 2007, we've seen our challenge in the FA Cup and CL snubbed out in the matter of days, and we're staring down the barrel of another trophyless season. Now, let's not forget that gaining qualification to the CL is a kind of trophy, and a very important achievement, but, ultimately, it it's not the same as seeing Robin holding up a cup in front of thousands of gooners. A decent balance sheet isn't enough to satisfy most fans.

Difficult times are now surely ahead. We will be fighting it out with Chelsea and Liverpool for fourth place, and our only real hope is that those two clubs are possibly in even more of shambles than us at present.

Without my usual stats to rely upon, I can't quite do the usual ten thoughts, but here are a few things that struck me:

* I was happy with the starting XI when I saw it, but things rapidly fell apart. Coquelin went off early, and I have a feeling that he was never fully fit to begin with, seeing as it looks like a re-occurance of his earlier hamstring problems. Another case of a player rushed back too soon?

* A CB pairing of Squillaci and Djourou was not something many of us wanted to see, and our defence looked all over the place everytime Sunderland came forward. Squillaci had the ignominy of being subbed off just after h-t. It's hard to know whether he was injured, or whether he was just trying to make it look like he was due to his embarrassment. I am going out on a limb here, but I would put Squiddy up there in our top-ten worst signings under Wenger, especially as his wages are so high that we can't shift him.

* I know Rosicky for Ramsey was in many ways the logical swap, but not if we were chasing the game and needed goals. Yet again, no goals and no assists from a player considered to be an attacking midfielder. Not good enough.

* But perhaps not as bad as poor old Theo. Five touches - yes touches - on the ball after he came on. Added to the 20 he had against Milan, and he probably averages over a grand a touch this week in wages. And he wants a raise!

* RvP has a problem - he is our best midfielder and our best attacker. Hence, in games like this when we're struggling, he drops deep. Indeed, his average position in a lot of matches is about the same as Ramsey or whoever's playing the attacking CM role. Consequently, we don't have a player up-top to win the ball and take shots-on-goal. It's a bit of a vicious circle, stemming from the fact we've lost Cesc and Ramsey is nowhere near his level at the moment.

* Gervinho. Oh, Gervinho. Is he any good? I don't know. I am beginning to worry he is verging more towards Wiltord territory, rather than Pires.

* Djourou. At the beginning of the week, I thought giving him a new deal was fair enough. He's not great, but he's our fourth-choice CB. Could we do better. It turns out, yes, we can. I would even Miguel a go at CB at the moment. Fundamentally, I think there's something a bit off about giving players who've achieved nothing new contracts, but there you go.

* He may have conceded two, but I didn't think Fabianski did too much wrong. His distribution was better than Szcz's for one thing.

* Is possession football dead? We dominated possession againt Milan and Sunderland, but lost both games. Having the ball is clearly overrated if you can't create shooting opportunities.

* There's nothing left to now but to spend the week regrouping. We can't, as AW's teams in recent years seem to have done, feel sorry for ourselves for weeks and let results slip. Anything other than a big performance, and preferably a win, against Spurs next week will be catastrophic. Indeed, were Spurs to win, I dread to think about the fall-out. Let's try to not even think about it, and believe that the team can turn things around.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Our Worst Night in Europe? 10 Thoughts on A.C. Milan 4 Arsenal 0

Well, that wasn't much fun was it. A few thoughts as follows:

* In some respects, I disagree with Arsene when he said that tonight was 'our worst night in Europe'. There have been much more painful defeats than this during his tenure: Chelsea in 2004, Liverpool in 2008, Barca in 2006. But today was painful for a different reason - we were completely outclassed. This was no agonizing near miss. This was a painful, extended dissection, in which Milan managed to expose almost all the weaknesses of this current Arsenal side. The only comparable European defeat I can think of (during Wenger's reign) was the 3-1 defeat against United in the CL semi in 2009. On that night, just like today, we came in to the match with much hope, but were soundly and emphatically defeated.

* But even that defeat didn't have the fin de siecle air to it that tonight's game did. Even more than the 8-2 earlier in the season, the game tonight seemed like a rubicon moment - appropriately enough as we were in Italy. The decline that this club has been in for at least four years was laid bare for all to see. After all, we started the game with what many consider to be our first-choice back five. Players we all thought might be good enough were shown not to be when put to the test. Arsene clearly recognised this to when he laid into the side with both barrels in his post-match interview. You can't help but feel that a massive clear-out is on the way this summer, and the only real question is whether Wenger will remain to oversee it or not. I think that's why Arsene called it our worst night in Europe - this wasn't a valiant defeat by a team which was fundamentally going in the right direction; this was the demolition of a side who are not really all that good.

* So, I suppose we should analyse the game itself. We were never really in it. Milan put themselves into a relatively early lead and never looked back. Zlatan was phenomenal and tore us to shreds. Every time he was on the ball you could see our players panicking, and with good reason. For some reason, Zlatan is still not rated by much of the English media. But tonight he had 5 key passes, 2 assists and a goal. Those are incredible statistics, and proof of a world class player.

* I hate to get on Szczesny's back after his two marvellous saves on the weekend, but I felt he could have done a bit more tonight. Boateng's goal did come at him suddenly, but if Almunia had let that in then I think there would have been questions. Milan scored with 3 of their 5 shots on target today. I think he needs to make more saves, and he also needs to work on his kicking.

* But, our woes were not really down to Woj - they were due to the shambolic back-four in front of him, who put in one of the worst defensive displays you will see in the Champions League this season. Vermaelen's reputation as a supposedly world-class CB must now surely come under the microscope. I maintain that his stature at the club lies in the glut of goals he produced when he first arrived at the club. Every time he has been up against world-class opposition, he has been found wanting. Sagna turned off for the second goal, and Koscielny looked all at sea (and is now probably injured). Gibbs did better than I expected, but I personally cannot wait for Santos to return. As for Djourou - maybe he's good enough to be our fourth-choice CB, but anyone who resorts to rugby-tackling in the Champions League is either not very good or not very clever. I also thought tonight was a very clear indicator of the stability that Mertesacker gave the defence, which we sorely missed.

* I think we handed Milan the initiative with our team selection. It many ways it reminded me of when Wenger dropped Arshavin for the FA Cup semi in 2009. Yes, the Ox is young, but the fact Milan doubled up on him as soon as he came on showed that they feared him. He also had more key passes in 25 mins than Rosicky, Walcott, Song and Arteta did in their entire time on the field. Indeed, can we please put the Rosicky myth to bed? He is fundamentally a very, very average player. At 80 minutes, when we were desperate for a goal, he mis-hit a shot so badly at the edge of the area that it literally hit the corner flag. I don't mean that in the Jamie Redknapp sense of the word 'literally'. I mean the ball actually hit the corner flag. 0 key passes for Rosicky, and 0 successful through balls from 5 attempts. I will say this again - running around a lot does not make you a good player. This is the Rosicky myth. Please get rid of him in the summer, and buy an attacking midfielder who actually contributes assists and goals. Lest I be accused of favouritism, Ramsey was also poor. But he can and will get better. Rosicky will not.

* Speaking of players who will not get better: Theo Walcott. Hopefully the ignominy of being hauled off at half-time will begin the end to his Arsenal career. He is a fundamentally limited player, who regularly goes missing. How Arsene can justify starting him after his car-crash performance at Sunderland on the weekend, only he knows. Walcott has been given his chance and he has been found wanting. Let's sell and move on.

* Despite being isolated up-front, RvP still managed to make 3 key passes, and was one of only 2 players, along with the Ox, to make a successful cross. (Sagna made 0 successful crosses from 6 attempts, by-the-by.) On another day, one of his three shots-on-target would have gone in, and we would have come away with maybe a 2 or 3-1 defeat - bloodied, but still standing. Unfortunately, when Robin doesn't score, then the team usually doesn't either. To be this reliant on the goals of one player is crazy, and it will only get worse, with Chamakh and Park set to return to the fold. If Robin gets injured, we're done. If he were to be ruled out tomorrow until the end of the season, I think we'd end up finishing 9th or 10th, at best.

* Let's get this out the way - yes, the pitch was terrible. But Milan played on it too, so no excuses, please. Wenger didn't try to claim it as an excuse, and neither should we.

* Ultimately, Dennis's criticisms of the club in the interview he recently gave with The Telegraph ring painfully true. We have too many similar players. We don't have a winning mentality at the club (and by winning, I mean actually winning trophies, not just winning the odd league game). Our manner of play is boring and predictable. We don't have enough players who can change a game and score a goal.

Frankly, I don't know when any of that is going to change. But tonight's performance, showed, yet again, that there's needs to be significant change at Arsenal this summer. Whether it's an overhaul in the playing or coaching staff, or changes at the boardroom, something needs to give. Because we are dangerously close, at present, to losing our position among Europe's elite clubs. That is why tonight may well be our worst night in Europe under Wenger.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Substitutions and Karma: 14 Thoughts on Sunderland 1 Arsenal 2

At half-time in this game, I have to admit that I was struggling to think about what I would write in my post-match report. However, and thankfully, the game came alive in the second-half, and will probably live long in the memory of Arsenal fans for years to come. My thoughts as follows:

* As I said, it didn't look like it was shaping up to be a classic in the first-half. Both teams huffed and puffed but not a huge deal was created. If we were playing at home, I'd have been a little bit more confident, but away, at Sunderland, this had all the hall-marks of a 0-0. Indeed, as the second-half started in similarly soporific style, I predicted on Twitter that there would only be 1 goal in the game with around 30 minutes to go. How wrong I was.

* Sunderland's goal was a freak incident, really. Yes, they had tested Szcz with a few long-efforts, which he dealt with very well, and it should be noted that without those saves, which were by no means routine, that we wouldn't have won the game. But, for the goal itself, if Per doesn't go down injured then Sunderland don't score. I don't blame Sunderland for not stopping play, as they were under no obligation to do so, and it wasn't entirely clear until after the goal that Per's injury was serious. Still, if we had lost the game because of a goal like that, we would all have been fuming. If nothing else, it did seem to create a sense of injustice - perhaps even a karmic imbalance. Call me a superstitious charlatan, but I believe things like this matter in football.

* Because we've won the game, I can say this without sounding like a sore loser: Sunderland's pitch was a disgrace.  Mertesacker's injury would not have occurred had the pitch not resembled a cattle-field. It seems incredible to me that club's invest in multi-million pound players and that make them play on pitches such as these where injuries are almost an inevitability. It's difficult to know what to do about the matter, but some form of standard needs to be set. Not every pitch has to be up to the bowling-green standard of the Grove - just something which isn't a potential mine-field for players.

* Mertesacker's injury sounds serious. While we won't know the extent for a few days at least, ankle ligament damage isn't the kind of thing you run-off in a couple of weeks, typically. It marks a low-point for Per in what has been a difficult first season for him in England. Personally, I think he has been under-rated because people misunderstand his talents. Despite his height, Mertesacker's strengths lie in reading the game and making timely blocks and clearances. He has led the team in blocked-shots this year, and is second to Koscielny in clearances. He also has the second-highest pass-completion rate in the squad. Where he struggles, perhaps ironically, is in the air - he is behind KG, LK, AS and TV in terms of aerial duels won. However, I predict that we will miss him as a calming, organizing influence in the defence more than people think.

* That said, at least Gibbs appears to be back. With JD in reserve, and Santos hopefully back within a month, we may well see TV & LK line up as CBs together for quite a few weeks. Personally, I think they are slightly too similar to be a good partnership, but we'll see. In terms of the defence - a word on Sagna today, who was absolutely superb. He won 9/10 of his aerial duels, and made the joint highest number of accurate crosses (with Arshavin!). He's been so good for so long that we forget that he is almost the archetype of a superb, modern full-back: strong in defence and going forward.

* Alas, our wing-play was less than stellar. Before I get onto Walcott, we should recognise that the Ox had a poor game and deserved to be withdrawn. The Ox did lead the team in terms of dribbling and actually had a fairly decent pass completion rate (94%). However, he also only touched the ball 33 times - less than Ramsey, who came on after 72 minutes. He also had no key passes, no shots on target, and was obviously not involved in any of the goals. A lesson for us all about not getting over-excited about him too quickly.

* However, in comparison to Walcott, the Ox might as well have been Pele. After 3 assists and 3 key passes against Blackburn, Walcott reverted to the all-too-common drivel we've seen from him this year. Walcott had 8 turnovers today (a loss of possession due to a mistake/poor control). That is terrible - four times higher than any other player on the pitch. He leads the team in turnovers in the Premier League with 2.4 per average per game. It's one thing to do little with the ball - it's another to actively lose possession on a regular basis. 0 Shots on target, 0 key passes, and 0 impact, I would argue. If he cannot maintain consistency, then he will lose his place in the team, long-term. I actually think he is more likely to leave in the summer than Robin.

* When all seemed lost, we managed to turn around the game through subsitutes. After all the stick Wenger got for his manoeuvres vs. United, it's only right that he should be praised for his tactical adjustments today, which included moving to 4-4-2 for the last quarter of an hour or so. This made sense because, to use the technical term, Sunderland were knackered after playing 120 minutes on Wednesday. They were desperately hanging on at the end, Arsene recognised this and correctly went for it. A more cautious manager may have been content to pull it back to 1-1. Arsene wasn't, and he got it completely right after, what I would argue, was a freak goal that we were unlucky to concede.

 * I've made no attempt to hide my love for Aaron Ramsey, but even his most ardent critics should recognise that he was superb today during his 20 minute cameo. One of only 3 players to have a shot-on-target, his goal was the type of outside the box gamble that we don't see enough Arsenal players make. It wasn't quite a hit-and-hope - more the type of calculated risk that we've seen Lampard make to great effect over the years. A pass completion rate of 97% is none-too-shabby either. Rosicky, who again started ahead of Aaron, actually had a better game defensively rather than offensively, in many respects. With 5 tackles, he led the team, yet none of his four attempted through balls came off. His overall pass accuracy was also pretty poor - only 81% - and he was dispossessed 4 times, the highest number in the team. He did make one key pass, but I maintain that Tomas is a squad player at best.

*Henry came on and didn't really do much - apart from the score the winning goal. He had 0 dribbles, 0 key passes, and the lowest pass completion rate of any Arsenal player - just 67%. But he was in the right place at the right time and he won us the game. He is a natural goalscorer, and that one touch of the ball means we get the two extra points today. His goal was a moment of pure magic, something that all Arsenal fans will remember for a long-time to come. The King returned - and it was magnificent.

* However, the King must now leave us again after the Milan match, and we're left in a situation where Chamakh (1 premier league goal this season) and Park (6 minutes total playing time in the premier league this season) are our back-up strikers. Either Chamakh has to somehow rediscover his form, or Park needs to do, well, something, or Robin has to stay fit for the rest of the season. Whether he does or not will probably decide how our season finishes.

* Arshavin deserves a lot of credit for his short but blindingly effective cameo. Yes, he was up against a tired Sunderland defence, but in 8 minutes he grabbed an assist, made 2 key passes, and made more accurate crosses than any other player than Sagna. I really hope he can start to produce this magic, even if only as an impact sub, a few more times before the summer, because I maintain that he is a magnificent player, who simply never got used to the level of consistency required by a top-four premier league club.

* A quick word on Arteta, who was sensational today. He made 116 passes today, with an accuracy of 94%. That is Xavi-esque.

* To conclude: this was a great win in difficult circumstances. We pulled it out the bag with minutes remaining, and sent ourselves up to fourth place in the league. With Chelsea and Liverpool losing, it was imperative that we took advantage of their dropped points and we did. Thierry's goal will ensure that this game will be remembered for years to come, but, for now, part one of the great Sunderland-Milan away-day adventure is complete.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Seven Games that will Define Arsenal's Season

It's only mid-February but we're already perilously close to what The Flight of the Concords would call 'Business Time'. By that, I don't mean Arsenal football club are going to wine and dine our opponents, and then take them back to the Emirates for some 'business' - I apologise if this is getting a little weird - I mean that we're coming up to the real make-or-break period of the season.

Why? Well, try this fixture-list on for size:

* Sunderland (away) - Sat-11/2
* AC Milan (away) - Weds-15/2
* Sunderland (away - FA Cup) - Sat -18/2
* Spurs (home) - Sun - 2/26
* Liverpool (away) - Sat -3/3
* AC Milan (home) - Tues - 6/3
* Newcastle (home) - Mon 12/3

We can all try to be positive, confident and believe in the team, but let's face it: that fixture list is ridiculous.

We have to travel all the way up to Sunderland, to Milan then back to Sunderland in the space of a week, like some form of deluded Geordie fashion-queen. Three away games in a row is difficult in any set of circumstances, but when they involve extensive travel like this, it becomes even harder. The worst case, and unfortunately entirely plausible situation, is that we are going to lose all three of these games. Why? Well, Arsene will put our strongest possible team out against Milan, so we are going to have to rest players either before or after the trip to Italy. Given we've just had a week off, I think we'll probably play a strong XI on Saturday, a strong XI in Milan, and then try to rotate for the FA Cup. In a nightmare scenario, we could lose to an in-form Sunderland, lose again to a Zlatan-inspired Milan, and then see an under-strength, demoralised team lose once again in the FA Cup.

However, I feel that we have to prioritise our trophies in this manner, even if things don't turn out for the best. For me, this is our proper order of priorities, even if it's a little sad. Realistically, the FA Cup is our best chance of a trophy this season, yet we have to prioritise the league in order that we can continue to re-build in the next transfer window, and I think it's important to the club's morale that we go out to Italy and get some form of result.

An ideal scenario would be to eek out a win in the league, get a score-draw in Milan, then eek out another win in Sunderland. If we were to win at least two of these three games, it will keep our season alive, and massively boost morale. To win all three is, I feel, just a little too much to ask.

Then, after a week's breather, we face Spurs, Liverpool, Milan and Newcastle. These teams currently lie 3rd, 7th, 2nd and 5th in England and Italy. However, three of these four games are at home, which will hopefully make a big difference, especially given the fact we have a nice break between the second leg against Milan and Newcastle.

My prediction? Well, actually, I feel quite confident. Despite the distinctly uneven season we've had so far, to put it charitably, we've hung in there. We're only a few points off the top four in the league, and we have two difficult, but winnable games, in the FA Cup and Europe. The big win against Blackburn has hopefully boosted confident, and key players, like Sagna, are coming back into the team. If other players like Gervinho, Gibbs, Diaby and, even Santos can come back into the squad at some point during this run, we will be difficult to beat.

For now, let's concentrate on our first two opponents - Sunderland and Milan. Two rather different cities, one might say, but two clubs who are both in pretty decent form.

Sunderland have had a notable resurgence under Martin O'Neill's stewardship. There is a stat out there somewhere which says they have the best record in the league since he took over as manager. While they are missing players such as Cattermole, they also have a dangerously in-form players such as Stephane Sessegnon (6 goals, 7 assists this season) and ex-Arsenal Seb Larrson in the team. We just about edged them out when we played at the Grove in October, but games between the two teams are usually close (there have only been only 8 goals in the last 6 games between us) and going up there twice in a week will be a tall order.

Milan, currently lie second in the league, but should be missing a few key players, such as Boateng and Pato. However, after Ibrahimovic's sending off against Juve, he will be fully rested and probably relatively focused (as far as Zlatan ever can be) by the time he faces us. Aside from the red-mist, he has been in superb form for Milan this year with 15 goals, 4 assists, and an average of 2.9 key passes per game. I remember his two goals against us during his ill-fated season with Barca, and he has the ability to do that to us again if our defence drops concentration for a moment.

All that said, I'm only going to predict one game at a time. So, Arsenal 1 Sunderland 0 on Saturday. I think the 120 minutes Sunderland played this week will be a factor, and we will slightly edge them out, setting us up nicely for the game in Italy.

Ten thoughts on the match, as usual, after the game. Till then, Up the Arsenal.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Top Creative Arsenal Players since 2007 - Fabregas and who else?

After my piece in defence of Aaron Ramsey on Sunday, it seemed only fitting that would publish this piece today, which looks at the Premier League's most creative players since 2007.

It divides the number of minutes played by the chances that a player created from open play, producing a mixture of expected and surprising results. Only those players with over 1,500 minutes (approx 17 matches) were included. The stats come from Opta, so I would say they are pretty reliable.

We all knew he was special, but the fact Cesc sits at the top of this pile is unsurprising. He officially created goal-scoring chances at a faster rate than any other player in the Premier League during his time at Arsenal after 2007 - the 266 goal-scoring chances he produced equate to producing a chance every 33 minutes and 14 seconds. Basically, he put someone in a goalscoring position almost three times every 90 minutes, which is pretty staggering.

Just behind Fabregas are two other Spanish players currently lighting up the Premier League - David Silva and Juan Mata. Indeed, that Mata has managed to produce a chance every 36 minutes 46 seconds emphasizes just how quickly he has adapted to the Premier League, and probably also emphasizes just how poor Chelsea's forwards have been this season - not just Torres, but the likes of Anelka and Drogba as well. I was gutted that we missed out on Mata at the time, and the stats seem to confirm that he was a virtual ready-made replacement for Cesc. Too bad Chelsea parked the proverbial dump truck of money on Mata's lawn.

But it's the person in ninth-place which is perhaps most interesting to this piece, especially in light of my recent article. Yes, Aaron Ramsey stands ninth in the list of players who have created the most chances in the Premier League since August 2007. He creates a goalscoring chance every 43 minutes and 3 seconds. This is a more impressive record than the likes of Nani, Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs, to name just those included in the top-twenty. It's also higher than a person that many would like to see i the team above Ramsey - Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky's record is much more impressive than I thought, with a chance created every 45 minutes and 34 seconds. Again, this leads me to the conclusion that Rosicky is a player good enough to rotate with Aaron, but that Ramsey is ultimately the better player, despite the fact he is almost ten years younger than Aaron.

This would seem to confirm the central argument to my recent article - Aaron creates chances very effectively (if not as effectively as Cesc, yet) but he is hampered by a lack of players in the current side who stick the ball in the back of the net. Maybe with the rise of the Ox, Ramsey will finally get the assists to back up his creative play, and prove some of the doubters wrong.

If anything, perhaps the player who should be in the team more is Yossi Benayoun, who stands eleventh in the list. Despite being one of the thinnest players I've ever seen in top-flight football (seriously, he looks like he could break into a million pieces at any moment) Yossi is undoubtedly an underrated player, and I don't think we've really got too much out of him since he's been at the club. We're coming up to a point where we need to start rotating players, and you have to wonder whether Arsene will give him a real go or not. If not, then I suppose we'll always have this:

Two other ex-Arsenal players are on the list which are worthy of note. The first is Alex Hleb, who actually stands one place above Ramsey in eighth. I was always a big fan of Hleb, and, for moments in the 2007/8 season, he looked like he might be the world-class attacking force which could get us the league. However, I have never seen a player so adverse to shooting as old Alex, and maybe the reason he is so high on this list is the fact he always laid the ball off, rather than have a go himself. While he never fitted in at Barcelona, the fact they bought him should indicate that he was a better player than many gave him credit for at the time.

Lastly, there is a player who is one of the great tragic stories of recent football: Eduardo. The fact that he is in the top twenty for chances created, not scored, highlights the all-round creative game that Eddie had during his time at the club. When you combine this with some of the most clinical, ice-cold finishing I've ever seen in an Arsenal shirt, you have yourself a world-class attacking player. He was never the same after his terrible injury, but his ability in front of goal was simply magnificent in the first-half of the 2007/8 season. Given the fact he could also create, I maintain that the club should not have let him go when we did. Ask yourself - would you rather have Eduardo on the bench, or Chamakh and Park? Not even worth asking. And so I'll leave you with an emotional video which showed the scope of his talent. He may only have been here for a few years, but the courage he showed in returning from injury, as much as his deadliness in front of goal, means I will always consider him an Arsenal legend. Being a great footballer is sometimes about more than just kicking a ball:

Sunday, February 05, 2012

In Defence of Aaron Ramsey: a Statistical Analysis

It seems odd to me, but over the last few weeks I've seen Aaron Ramsey come in for a lot of criticism, especially on the angst-spewing machine that is Twitter. The main bone of contention seems to be that he has become an automatic first XI pick for Arsene this year, despite the fact that he has not contributed enough to the team. In particular, there is an idea that he often goes missing in games, yet still plays the 90 minutes, and gets picked again for the next game despite having contributed little.

Personally, I'm of the view that Aaron has been excellent this season, and I believe the statistics are there to back-up this argument. Yet, regardless of stats, what people need to remember is that this is, essentially, Aaron's first season as a member of Arsenal's starting XI. He had only just forced his way into the team when the cavemen broke his leg, and he had only just begun to work his way back into the team last year after a loan to Nottingham Forest. Moreover, he's had to play in a radically altered Arsenal midfield. Fabregas and Nasri are no more, and Wilshere will probably miss around 90% of these season's games. When you add in the 8-2 Old Trafford trauma,  you can see just how turbulent his career at Arsenal has been thus far, to say the least. So, my first point would be - give the kid a break. He's still a relative newbie to the demands of top-level football, and has been subjected to a steep learning-curve this season.

But when you actually break down his performances, you'll see that he has played pretty well this year. Firstly, he has 4 assists in the league, the fifth-highest in the team. This number is pretty decent in itself, but I believe it would be much higher if we had more players who could score regularly within the team.

This can be seen through his key passes statistic - i.e., passes which leads to an attempt at goal without scoring. Aaron has 47 key passes in the premier league this season - an average of 2.1 per game. At Arsenal, only Robin van Persie bests him in this area with 55 key passes at an average of 2.3 per game. Arteta has the same average of 2.1, but has only 40 key passes in total as he has played less games. To put that in a wider context, Aaron is 13th in the list of players who make the most key passes per game in the Premier league this season. He produces more key passes than players such as Suarez, Giggs, Rooney, Dempsey, Lampard and Yaya Toure (to name a few). That the players ahead of Ramsey include Mata, Silva, Nani, and Modric shows the impressive company that Aaron is very close to emulating in terms of the creation of goal-scoring chances in the league. Indeed, if we had more than one consistent goal-scorer in the team, I am certain that Aaron would be near double-figures for assists this year already. (On a related note, it also hammers home how galling it was that we missed out on Mata, who has had a superb first season in England.)

Aaron also passes the ball extremely well. He is second only to Arteta in terms of average number of passes attempted per game, and, out of our midfielders, he is also second only to Arteta in terms of average pass completion rate per game. Despite playing a more offensive role, he therefore makes and completes a higher amount of passes than Song, who appears to attempt a higher amount of riskier through-balls which often don't come off. (Interestingly, Mertesacker has the overall second-highest pass completion rate out of regularly appearing players, which says a lot about the oft-overlooked calming roll that Per plays in our defence.)

In terms of defensive abilities, Aaron completes an average of 2 tackles per game - lower than Song (2.9) and Arteta (2.4), but higher than the likes of Vermaelen (1.9), Djourou (1.6), and Rosicky (1.1). Indeed, it's interesting to note that Aaron completes almost twice as many tackles on average per game than Rosicky, despite the impression that many hold of Rosicky as a player who's always leaping around the pitch winning back the ball. Aaron not only tackles more than Rosicky, he has a higher average number of interceptions per game. For all you Rosicky fans out there, Ramsey also completes a higher percentage of passes, and creates more goal-scoring opportunities than Tomas. Rosicky is a useful option for rotation, but there is no question that Ramsey should be starting ahead of Rosicky at the moment, at least in the league.

Where Aaron's performances have been a little disappointing is in Europe, where his pass completion rate falls to about 75% compared to 87% in the league; where he is only 7th in terms of key passes per game; and where he has 0 assists, although his last-minute winner in Marseille means he is one of only 5 players to score for us in Europe this year. Particularly as he is a British player, it does appear that Aaron has struggled a little to adapt his game to the differing demands of Champions League football.

Despite his exploits on the French Riviera, goal scoring has been a general weakness for Aaron this season. He has only 1 goal in the league, despite having the 3rd highest number of shots per game. When he first arrived at the club, what I liked about Aaron was his directness, and the fact he seemed a bit more willing to shoot than the likes of Cesc and Nasri. One league goal is a poor return for someone who United saw as a potential replacement for Paul Scholes.

Another criticism that could be levelled at him is that his concentration levels are not always as high as they should be. While they don't give the stats to back-up the assertion, lists Ramsey's concentration as 'very weak', calculated by own goals and errors that he has made which have led to opponent's shooting and scoring. How much this has been skewed by his appearance in the Old Trafford bloodbath, or his own goal as our ten-men desperately tried to keep Liverpool out in the 2-0 defeat in August, I'm not sure. But, watching him, I think Aaron does turn off too frequently, which is why I don't think he's quite mentally ready to start week-in, week-out at the moment. While I don't rate him as highly as I rate Aaron, I do think that Rosicky can step into the fray on occasion to give Ramsey a mental breather, as he did to reasonable effect yesterday.

So, what is the overall picture that I'm trying to paint? It's of a player who passes the ball extremely well, and consistently creates goalscoring chances. It's of someone who would have more assists this season were he surrounded by a higher number of players who could finish their chances. It's also of someone who, despite predominantly being an attacking midfielder, does his bit defensively, with a good number of tackles and interceptions. However, what's also clear is that Aaron struggles slightly in the Champions League, that he is as guilty as anyone of the slack finishing which has generally surrounded the team this year (this weekend's result notwithstanding), and that he sometimes lacks concentration.

This, for me, is a classic glass half-empty/full situation. For someone playing their first full year of premier league football, his passing and general attacking threat is clearly apparent, as is his determination to work hard to win the ball back. I also think that, given time, he will start to contribute a higher number of goals to the team than he does at present. However, he has not yet reached the heights of the player he is effectively replacing, Fabregas, who even in an injury-hit campaign last year, still bagged 11 assists and 2.9 key passes per game.

I say, give him time. For me, his stats this season show that he is still developing as a player, but that he is not as far as everyone thinks from being the top, attacking midfielder that we all want him to become. Lastly, perhaps if Wilshere had been fit this year, people would see Aaron in a bit more of a positive light. My great hope for the future is to see a midfield featuring both Ramsey and Wilshere playing together regularly. That, I think, is the basis of a team that could lead us to trophies.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

I'd 7-1 to be a Blackburn fan? Ten Thoughts on Arsenal vs. Blackburn

I'd 7-1 to be a Blackburn fan? No, it doesn't quite work, does it. One day we'll get to the promised land of an 8 goal victory, and all the wonderful pun-based jokes this allows. For today, I think 7 will do. My thoughts as follows:

* We started brightly, and scored after only 2 minutes. It was a lovely team goal with passing across the midfield, leading to link-up play between Coquelin and Walcott, who supplied the assist for Robin. We don't score enough early goals as a rule, although they can sometimes be a bit of a hindrance to a team such as ours, which has such fragile confidence. We can sometimes panic if we don't score another relatively quickly after our first - memories of Wolves at home during December came to mind, or our narrow win over Swansea in September.

* So, despite being on top for most of the opening sections of play, it didn't really come as too great a surprise to me when we conceded. We haven't become confident enough as a team to merely cruise through to the end of the game when we've taken a lead. Indeed, it's worth remembering that we threw our lead away in several games in late December and January. As for the goal itself, if I was being hyper-critical, it's another free-kick that SZCZ has let in this year. Possibly a worrying aspect of his game - or possibly just bad luck to have faced several superb free-kicks this year.

* Yet, importantly, we didn't let our heads drop. Song played a superb through ball to Theo who squared to RvP who was, yet again, in the right place at the right time. Then, RvP set up the Ox for our third. I encourage you to go to Arsenalist and watch our 3rd goal again. RvP's pass was one of the best I've seen in a long time. It completely took our 3 Blackburn players. The Ox's finish was equally superb. He didn't panic, he took a touch, pushed it past the keeper and rolled it in.

* The reason why I've focused on the last two goals is this - we were already winning when Givet made his ill-advised lunge and was sent off. We had already made the comeback and we were in control of the game. There will be a lot of negative Gooners out there who'll say we only hammered Blackburn today because of the sending off. Well, 1) it was a justifiable red-card, so we weren't exactly lucky on that count (indeed, Givet even apologized to Arsene on the way off), and 2) the sending off merely ensured that our victory was to be a rout. I'm confident we would have hammered Blackburn even if they had 11 men for 90 minutes, because we were comfortably beating them at the moment of the sending off.

* Part of the reason I'm confident of this is two players - the Ox and RvP. Robin scored a hat-trick which showed what an all-round goal-scorer he's become. His first two looked easy, but only because he read the game so well, and positioned himself so adroitly for the tap-in. Great goalscorers may tap-ins look much easier than they actually are. Chamakh probably would have been on the other side of the area. As for the Ox - I admit it, I am more and more excited every time I see him play. For me, he has the most potential of any young player I've seen since Fabregas. Indeed, and perhaps because of his range of passing, his goal-scoring prowess, and his general attacking threat, he actually reminds me a lot of a young Wayne Rooney. This kid is going to be massive, absolutely massive. We need to hold onto him.

* Yet while those two got the goals, the strong performance of Arteta and Song were also vital to our victory. Song for example, completed 62 of 70 passes today,compared to 53 out of 68 against Bolton. Moreover, as this chalkboard shows, more of his passes today were forward-looking and penetrative, compared to the largely sideways passes he made against Bolton. Indeed, it was his 'pre-assist' that was the vital part of our second goal. Arteta also increased his pass completion by from 87% to 94% today, and completed all 14 of his long-balls, compared to only 7 out of 9 against Bolton. In short, he passed the ball a lot better today, helping us control possession. Coming up with a great goal also helped - this was his third league game against Blackburn this year, and he's scored in all three! I wonder how many other players have achieved this feat.

* Alternatively, I would say that Rosicky coming in for Aaron Ramsey didn't make too big of a difference, especially if we only compare the last two matches. Despite playing for ten more minutes today than Ramsey did against Bolton, Rosicky only attempted one more pass, and actually completed a lower amount of passes, both numerically and proportionally. Ramsey attempted and succesfully made more tackles. The only statistic that Rosicky bested him on was interceptions. See the numbers as follows:  Ramsey (v Bolton) vs. Rosicky (v Blackburn): Passes 58-59; successful passes: 49 vs. 47. Tackles attempted: 9 vs. 4. Succ Tackles: 3 vs. 0. Intereceptions 0 vs. 1. Key pass: 1 each, and 0 through balls for either. And as this chalkboard shows, Aaron's passsing was much more adventurous against Bolton. Having looked through the rest of Aaron's stats, I would say he has come in for a lot of undue criticism this season - something I'll expand on later this week. But, at least it shows that Rosicky can be relied upon when it comes to rotation. Even if he's not physically tired, a week out of the firing line for Ramsey will surely do him the world of good.

* As for Theo - anyone who gets three assists has had a good game. If he can produce performances of this calibre on a more consistent basis, I will re-find my faith in him, but I still think he has a propensity to run with his head down, and waste potential goal-scoring opportunities. 7 assists this season can't be argued with, however.

* If the last few weeks have all been about the emergence of the Ox, spare a though for Coquelin. This has been his first season as a member of the first-team squad and he has, by and large, produced the goods. He grabbed an assist today and generally made a nuisance of himself bombing up and down the flank. He has proved himself to be versatile, and has a great attitude. Unlike Flamini, he has said that he will play wherever the manger wants him to on the pitch. I predict that he will become a big part of the squad in years to come, even if he struggles to impose himself as a member of the starting XI in the short-term.

* Paul Robinson has now conceded 60 goals against Arsenal during his career. That is quite funny. Looking back, Arsene was probably right to not sign him up in 2004.

* PARK-WATCH: on the bench, didn't come on. At the time, I was flabbergasted by this. If Park couldn't get onto the pitch during the last half-hour of this game, precisely when is he ever going to get on? Arsene said after the game that today will be the last time Thierry plays at home during his loan, so bringing him on makes more sense in retrospect. Still, Park's premier league match-minutes during this campaign currently remains at 10. And it still seems odd to me that RvP played the full 90 minutes of a game that was basically dead for the last 40. Why risk it? And if Arsene isn't going to play Park, why did he not try and get another attacker during the window?

* Finally, while most people on the internet today seemed happy, there were, amazingly, still a few who were not. The blog 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' posted this on their Facebook page about half-an-hour ago.

I'm going to be clear on this - if you can't just sit back and enjoy watching your team beat another team 7-1, then I don't think football is why you are unhappy. For all my attempts at analysis in this column, I'm gonna say straight out - the match today was ace. Yes, it was only Blackburn; yes, it was only Steve Kean's Blackburn; yes, they had a player sent off. But, so what. Today the Arsenal scored 7 goals in 90 minutes. If you are an Arsenal fan, bloody well enjoy it.


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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Sleepwalking Towards the Europa League: 10 thoughts on Bolton 0 Arsenal 0

Given that Sam Allardyce supposedly had the hex over us while he was in charge at Bolton, it was interesting to find out that we've actually won 9 out of our last ten games against Bolton in the league. Until today, our last failure to beat Bolton was the rather galling 2-1 defeat last year, when Nasri choked, and we failed to defend our set-pieces. My thoughts on yesterday's game as follows:

* After 3 defeats in a row in the league, this was always going to be a tense match, and it was vital that we started well. And we did, actually. We should have gone in ahead at half-time, but we spurned a number of chances. Had we managed to get one goal, I think we would have got more, but we wasted our opportunities when Bolton looked a little stretched.

* We were 2 players away from what is probably our strongest side. Gervinho in for the Ox/Walcott and Santos/Gibbs in for one of Mertesacker/TV/LK and you have our strongest XI, in my opinion. Yet the XI we had out yesterday looked like a team which hadn't really played together a lot this year. The problem with constant injuries is they prevent any form of relationships building up between players in the side, and that was very evident yesterday.

* Still, it was good to have Arteta and Sagna back. Sagna was rock solid. We have missed him hugely - he is probably our best defender, and he can also whip the ball in from the flanks very well. Indeed, we should have scored when he crossed for van Persie in the second half, who hit the post, when on another day he would have scored. Arteta maybe slows our play a little, but he gives us a solidity in midfield that we sorely lack without him. Put simply, we play better with him in the side.

* On another day, one of van Persie's attempts would have gone in and we would have won. In particular, his chip was ballon d'or quality, and deserved a goal. Sometimes, games, and even whole league seasons, rest on such margins.

* If you can forgive RvP for missing an outrageous chip from outside of the area, it's harder to forgive Walcott for some of his misses and his overall performance . When you're one-on-one with the keeper, as he was, you simply have to score if you want to be considered a world-class player. It was a catastrophic miss from a player who simply isn't very good. His abysmal sliced shot in the second half confirmed his shooting prowess. Theo isn't terrible - he has a clear role to play as an impact sub, given his speed and his occasional ability to finish. But it has become increasingly painful to watch him his miscontrols, mishits, and failed finishes this season, even with all the assists he's given to van Persie.

* Walcott's limitations as a player have become acutely apparent due to the appearance of the Ox, who is on another level to Theo. Chamberlain's ability to pick a pass, as he did for Theo in the first half, is superb, and his scorcher from outside the area in the second half deserved a goal. He has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark start to the new year.

* PARK-WATCH: on the bench, didn't come on. With every passing day, Park's continued presence at the club, and his transfer fee, become more and more baffling. He's not alone though - why, exactly, did we loan Benayoun, if not for occasions such as yesterday? These are wages and fees that we have pissed away - something which is particularly unacceptable given the season ticket rise last summer.

* SZCZ looked oddly nervous tonight. Even his Cruyff-turns in the area didn't come off. The last thing we need at such a crucial stage in the season if for our most confident player to suddenly lose it.

* Ultimately, a draw was the right result. We had some good chances, but didn't take them. Bolton had a few decent chances as well, and they didn't take them. And thus it finished goalless. Bolton could have had a penalty, but then maybe Mark Davies shouldn't have dived in the first half.

* A draw in isolation isn't a disaster, but fourth place looks further away than ever at the moment. And when added into the rest of our recent form, our lack of activity in the January transfer window is, frankly, absurd. In my last article, I wrote about how Arsenal appear to be engaged in long-term thinking in the transfer-market, refusing to pay big fees until the current transfer bubble bursts. But even if they are, players moved during the last window who are better than those we have, and who we can, surely, afford. Bobby Zamora, for example. Zamora won't set the world on fire, but he has proven Premier League ability, is better than Chamakh and Park, and was available for £4m. Who did we get instead? An over-the-hill hero - and I say that as someone who loves Thierry - and a random kid who's played one match for Dortmund and who has already had one serious injury in his short career. Keisuke Honda was on the verge of a 14m euro move to Lazio, until the Roman club couldn't find a way to structure the fee. We could have afforded that - why weren't we in for him? He has proven quality which Eisfeld does not, at the moment, possess. I simply worry that the club's current obsession with value has gone too far. That we're so obsessed with our long-term transfer strategy, that we've almost forgotten about the short-term. And if you don't pay attention to the short-term, the long-term becomes irrelevant. Arsene will undoubtedly tell us to judge him in the summer, and I worry that many will. I also worry that he is taking too much flak for a club without a firm direction at a boardroom level. Maybe Stan should take a break from buying new sports teams, and concentrate on the ones he already owns.


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