Saturday, March 31, 2012

We Wanted it Less: Ten Thoughts on QPR 2 Arsenal 1

After multiple wins, it's back to earth with a bump. Thoughts as follows:

* We started sluggishly and never really - and I hate that I'm about to say this - played 'without the handbrake on'. I may not particularly like him, but Hughes clearly instructed his team to play a high-tempo pressing game from the first whistle, and they prevented us from settling into any form of rhythm. When you rely on your ability to dictate the game through passing, as we do, we are are susceptible to teams like QPR who don't give us time to pick our passes, or to find space.

* QPR deserved to score first and they did. Shortly before the goal Zamora had narrowly missed, and when the goal came it was no surprise. It was really disappointing to see ourselves bossed around during the opening stages.

* The big talking point for the goal is Thomas Vermaelen. I repeat what I have repeatedly said about Vermaelen: his reputation is built on his determined character and his knack for getting goals more than his actual ability to defend. It's clear with the eye, and confirmed by stats, that Koscielny is a better (and rapidly becoming a far better) defender. If you were to go through Vermaelen's career, you will see that he has a knack for making errors that lead to goals, and I'm not sure he's really improved dramatically as a defender since he's arrived at the club. This is not to say he's a bad player - he's a good one. But I would strongly question anyone who claims he's a world class defender, especially when he has one playing beside him. It's for this reason I'm glad we have Mertesacker as an alternative option, and it's also why I don't rule out the rumours linking us with Jan Vertonghen.

* If TV is going to take a big part of the blame for the two goals, then Szcz must take some for at least the first goal. He has improved this season, but I would wager this his shot-saving percentage is still quite low. I'm not sure how much he could have done about the second goal, but he definitely could have got closer to the first.

* Our equalizer came against the run of play, and it was really the only effective offensive action that Theo engaged in all day. No key passes and no accurate crosses tells a story, of sorts, but credit to him for sticking away his chance.

* Someone who didn't was RvP. Put clean through, you would have fancied him to score, but he could only force a save from Kenny. Had he scored we may have secured the three points, but we played so poorly today that I could have seen us shipping another goal. Personally, I think Robin will score against City next Sunday.

* Ramsey's performance was fairly woeful, but I'm not sure that being played out of position really helped. I didn't mind it against Everton because it seemed like he was being played there to counter a specific tactical threat, but today it just looked like Wenger wanted to shoe-horn both Ramsey and Rosicky into the side, regardless of whether it would actually work or not. AW should have realised earlier that it wasn't working - leaving the system as it was until the QPR goal was asking for trouble.

* A few people have been criticising Song after the game, and it's true that he did try perhaps one too many 'hollywood balls'. But QPR gave our forward midfielders so little time and space that long balls often seemed like the only real option. Surprisingly, we played with a lack of patience in midfield that was a little worrying to see.

* Again, we didn't really have any options on the bench. Gervinho made almost zero effect when he came on, and when I saw Chamakh I kinda knew that the game was up. I might have thrown Santos on - he would have been more of a threat against a tiring side than either Gerv or Cham. As it was, the subsitutions did little to alter the game, and QPR seemed happy to cede possession and keep their shape during the final stages.

* We had to lose, or at least draw, eventually, so I'm not completely devastated by this performance. What was most worrying, though, was the lack of fight among the team. QPR played like they wanted it more - maybe because their situation is so troubling. We seemed to simply get frustrated at not being allowed to play our normal game, and went into a kind of weird sulk. It was very disheartening to see. If nothing else, it still shows that this team is still not near reaching the consistency required for any kind of league challenge. We still have a few too many passengers - particularly on the bench.

We're still five points clear of Chelsea, and we can hope that Swansea cause Spurs a few problems tomorrow, but with a game against Man City next week, our situation has become rapidly more precarious. In a way, I'm glad we've got a big game next week, because I think the team will be less inclined to go into a funk and blow another potential three points. Whatever happens next week, they have to show more desire than they did today, otherwise we will lose again.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My First Trip to Highbury: From the Goonerboy Archives.

Instead of doing a match preview, I thought I'd do something a little different today, something a little more in line with the excellent Arsenal Collective site. (Please visit it and submit an entry to the 'Memory Bank' - I did.) I also felt a little inspired by Mr Stillman's great piece on Vital Arsenal.

My first trip to Highbury is one of the most profound memories of my childhood. As you'll see if you read my piece on the Arsenal Collective, I was a Londoner exported to South Wales at a fairly early age. I wasn't brought up in a family of Gooners - I became a Gooner and converted my family.

My first football match was in 1990 when I was extremely young. After I had been blown away by the World Cup of that year, my Dad took me to see Wales play Belgium at the old Cardiff Arms Park (the precursor to the Millenium Stadium - scene of so many Arsenal triumphs).

It's hard to emphasise how different that experience was to going to a game at the Emirates. Everything - and I mean everything - inside the stadium was filthy. When I went to the toilet at half-time, the entire floor was covered in an enormous pool of urine. No one waited in line. Men pissed against the walls, in the sink, on the floor.

The game itself was great. Wales came back from a goal behind to win 3-1. But my overwhelming memory of that day is of a ground which was a dark, concrete mess, and a field which was covered in mud.

The Welsh team of that era was actually pretty good, and I went to watch a lot of the Euro 1992 and World Cup 1994 qualifying games. I saw Wales beat the then world champions Germany 1-0 in 1991. And, over time, the surroundings didn't seem as gloomy, and the pitch even seemed to improve.

But my desire to go and see an Arsenal game was near fanatical, especially after I diligently watched every moment of ITV's coverage of our 1994 Cup Winners Cup triumph. My trips to see Wales were like a tiny appetiser that I devoured while waiting for the main course.

Finally, in 1995, my Dad and I took the plunge. He signed me up as Junior Gunner and got two tickets to a match.

Arsenal vs. Leicester, 11 February 1995.

Let's face it, we were pretty awful that season. We somehow managed to get through to the final of the Cup Winners Cup after some penalty shoot-out heroics, but we then lost in the final to the ridiculous punt up the field by Nayim, in a moment that I still consider to be the most painful in my Arsenal supporting life.

All that was to come. In February, the club was, frankly, in crisis. We were not doing very well in the league, and were on course to finish in twelfth place that season, just six points above the drop-zone (bear this in mind next time you complain about Arsene!). My favourite player, Paul Merson, had been admitted to being addicted to just about everything that's bad for you in November 1994, and had only just returned to the team. Tony Adam was struggling with his own demons, although he had not yet fully admitted the extent of his problems.

Another storm was brewing elsewhere, as rumours had begun to spread about illicit payments being made to George Graham as part of certain transfers. I vaguely remember asking my parents what a 'bung' was around this time. Georgie G was the only Arsenal manager I'd known, and it seemed incomprehensible to me that anyone else could do the job. Little did I know that I would witness his last home match in charge.

It was a rainy, Februrary day in North London. My Dad and I may have bought something in the shop - I honestly can't remember. We went through the turnstiles, and my first clear memory is, for some reason, the fact that my Dad's plastic pint-glass had an Arsenal logo on it, which I honestly thought was amazing. We had tickets in the still relatively new North Bank.

The atmosphere inside the concourses was completely different to that in Cardiff. People talk about Highbury being dank in comparison to the Emirates (and it was), but in comparison to Cardiff Arms Park it was a palace. They even had a band playing. Everyone mingled around happily despite our crappy form in the league that year. There was none of the gloom and slight menace that had pervaded my previous experiences at football grounds.

But the moment that truly stands out of that day, the one which I will never forget, was when I walked up the steps to take my seat.

Seeing the inside of Highbury for the first time was a truly once in a lifetime moment. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. The pitch was almost dazzingly green. In my mind, it's a colour which I've never seen replicated anywhere else. The pitch was also so close to the stands. When the ball went into touch, the players - including heroes of mine like Merson and Seaman - were only metres away from you if you were in the front rows, as I was. The famous clock of the Clock End was right in front of me. The other stands looked beautiful. The whole experience was probably the closest I'll come to a religious epiphany. It felt like I was somewhere important; somewhere that I'd always been destined to go.

Then I remember George Graham appearing on the Jumbotrons, and praising the fact that 31,000 people had turned out that day for the match. Leicester were bottom of the league, we were playing poorly, and the game hadn't sold out.

It wasn't hard to see why Arsenal were in such a mess when the team was read out. The likes of Eddie McGoldrick, Chris Kiwomya, and good old Jonny Jensen featured that day. Ian Selley also played, and I didn't realise until looking up the match on Arseweb today that this was actually the game in which he broke his leg - a significant injury from which he never really recovered. Keown replaced Selley when he went off injured, back in the days when he was still playing the odd game in midfield and was widely considered to be a bit rubbish.

Mostly, I just remember a lot of huffing and puffing, and not a great deal of quality. George had formed some of English football's finest teams in the late 80s and early 90s, but things had quite clearly fallen apart by 1995. To put it in perspective, Leicester were terrible, but we were really not that much better. It was also tipping it down with rain by this point, and, being sat so far forward, my Dad and I got absolutely drenched.

With the game goalless at half-time, we retreated into the relative warmth of the concourses, and had a few hot drinks. As the second-half started, we took advantage of the numerous empty seats in the stand, to sit further back in the lower tier.

Arsenal huffed and puffed some more and finally made a breakthrough. On a day in which not a huge amount of quality was evident, good old Merse put away a decent volley to put Arsenal one ahead.

Instead of then giving Leicester a drubbing, Arsenal seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence. Leicester's start player, Paul Draper, eventually picked his way through our defence to score an equaliser without, as far as I remember, a huge amount of time remaining. Seaman then had to pull out a number of saves to keep the game level, and the match finished as a rather disappointing draw.

But it had been more than enough for me. The whole day was easily one of the best of my life. Even the fact we were a bit rubbish just makes me even more nostalgic about the whole thing.

Indeed, to most other people attending that game, the match was probably just another low-point in what was a fairly disappointing season. But, for me, it was something infinitely more special, and a day I will never forget.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finally Better Without Fabregas? Ten Thoughts on Everton 0 Arsenal 1

Another satisfying win. To quote Jamie Redknapp (probably), we are literally going onwards and upwards. Thoughts as follows:

* There was a lot of grumbling about the starting XI on Twitter when it was announced, chiefly, it seems, because Ramsey had come in for AOC. Now, the Ox has been a revelation this year, but I thought before the game that Arsene had made the right call, and events proved his judgement correct. Away from home, it's good to ensure that your team is compact and not going to be overly stretched. I think having another ball-playing midfielder on the pitch gave us more control of the game, even when Everton forced their way back into the match. Indeed, despite the fact that the number of passes we attempted and completed was considerably less in the second-half compared to the first, we still had a total of 62% of possession at the end of the match. Away from home, that's fairly remarkable. Whatever else, we won the game, so it's hard to argue that AW made the wrong decision. Arsene is often criticised for being tactically naive, but I think he got this one spot-on.

* I'm convinced that having Ramsey, Song, Arteta and Rosicky all on the pitch at once was key to our blistering opening period, when we really should have got two or three goals. We just passed Everton off the pitch and made a series of great chances. People may focus on the Ramsey miss, but RvP perhaps should have done better when he managed to create some space for himself in the area. The goal, when it came, was brilliant in its simplicity, and came from unrelenting pressure. Goals from set-pieces are something we perhaps need to improve upon, and it was great to see TV rise and head home.

* I actually think Ramsey played quite well yesterday. I thought he was marginally better than Rosicky and notably better than Walcott, who quietly had quite a poor match. People will focus on Aaron's fairly glaring miss in the opening few minutes, but at least he's not afraid to get into scoring positions and take a punt - it's a refreshing change from the endless passing of recent years. I think some people simply need to have a bete noir within the team they support, and with many of the recent scapegoats now gone they have chosen Ramsey, because he does get caught in possession and he does lose concentration at times. But, it annoys me when I hear fans abuse Ramsey for missing a chance or giving the ball away, and then see the same fans sit passively when he wins the ball in midfield, or creates a goalscoring opportunity. He remains in the top-twenty midfielders in the Prem for key passes, so I'm going to continue to cut him some slack. Put simply, I don't think we would have won the game if he wasn't playing yesterday.

* After our opening dominance, Moyes showed a degree of tactical nous himself. He adjusted his side and got Everton back into the game, and they were extremely unlucky to see a quite clearly onside goal ruled out. That moment was probably the turning point in the match. Had Everton equalised at that point, who knows how the game would have turned out. It may have deflated us, or spurred us onto victory, but it would have been a quite different game, and Everton have every reason to feel aggrieved. We can make lists of all the refereeing woes that have befallen us, but we also need to recognize that we've benefitted from officiating errors this season as well.

* Robin didn't score, which is fairly remarkable. For once, his zen-like composure in-front of goal seemed to fail him, and he only managed to get one of his three shots on goal on target. He still got an assist, but it is interesting how much closer games are in which Robin doesn't score. Even when the team is playing well, we still rely on Robin's goals to such a massive extent that when he doesn't produce the goods it's always a bit nerve-wracking. The fact that our joint second-highest goalscorer in the league this season is Vermaelen speaks volumes about how poor too many of our midfielders have been in front of goal this year. Hopefully they will turn this around in the next few weeks, because the likes of Theo and Gervinho really need to be getting at least 10 goals a year in the league if we're serious about challenging for trophies.

* If we have a few problems in attack, the same cannot be said about defence. I was a bit skeptical about whether Vermaelen and Koscielny could play together, but they were absolutely mega last night, admittedly against a rather poor Everton attacking line-up. Tougher tests are to come, but hopefully this is (at last) the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
* It's really no surprise at all that our current great run of form most notably coincides with one thing: the return of players who can actually play at full-back. You should know by now how much I rate Sagna, and how I think he's been consistently underrated since he arrived at the club. Considering some of the dross we've seen in the last few years, he's been a consistently high performer. He won 14 aerial duels yesterday which is, frankly, absurd. He's a warrior of a player, and deserves trophies. I have been more sceptical about Gibbs in the past, because of his injury record but he's also been brilliant in recent weeks, both offensively and defensively. Having them both in the side gives the team a much greater amount of natural width, and defensive solidity. Had they been fit in December and January, the current league table would look much nicer.

* Another reason we won yesterday was the dominance of Song and Arteta in the centre of the field. Not only were they first and second in the team in terms of tackles, Song provided 2 through balls (to add to his league leading average) and Arteta made 2 key passes. After years of having a star playmaker in the centre of midfield (Fabregas), it's nice to go back to a more solid, less spectacular, but arguably more effective combo of players in central midfield. All our success under Wenger was built on solid combinations such as these - usually Vieira with the likes of Petit, Gilberto or Edu. Maybe Arsene has realised that you need that quiet stability in the centre of the park upon which to build the more spectacular fringes, and not the other way around. It has taken a while to get there, but I think we are a better team without Fabregas.

* Arsene got his subs right yesterday. Gervinho didn't misplace any of his passes, and really should have had an assist. I winced when I saw Djourou come on, because defensive subs have often been a source of our undoing, but he did OK and we saw the game out without much fuss.

* Should mind the gap become the club's new motto? Maybe, but there's still nine games to play, and I'm not getting cocky yet. It was painful to support both Man City and Stoke yesterday, but their performances have helped to throw us up the table. Tottenham's collapse has been epic, even by their standards, but you could argue that their run-in is easier than ours, and I can't see them being this bad for the rest of the season. Similarly, Chelsea will surely close the gap in the remaining matches, but I really can't remember a Chelsea team this poor for quite some years. We've seen the league table transformed in four games, and there are nine games left, so let's keep our feet on the ground for now.

Overall, I think we've reached a glass half-full/half-empty moment in terms of the league table. After the 8-2 in August, I'd have bitten your hand off to be in our current position. But there is still a gap of 14 points between us and United in second place. That's a bit depressing. Of course, we could be even further off the pace, so we should be grateful for what we have. But I really hope lessons have been learnt from last summer and last season. Finishing third is important as you can sell Champions League football to players from June, not late-August. And, if we are to sell key players this summer, we need to shift them early. losing a spate of early games, and giving our rivals, in essence, a head-start because of a poorly managed transfer window must not happen again.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Short Post for Fabrice

I was watching the game yesterday, and went to make some food just before Fabrice Muamba collapsed.

When I came back and saw the game had been stopped, and that a huddle of medical personnel were on the field, I assumed that a serious injury had happened. But it was when I saw the faces of the players, and the tears in the eyes of many Tottenham fans, that I realised something really serious had happened.

I eventually turned off the TV and went out, because I couldn't handle what I was seeing. If you look at my Twitter timeline, you can see that I initially tried to post updates on his condition, but, eventually, I couldn't take any more speculation or rumour.

I came back later that evening to find out that Fabrice was in intensive care, and, as of now, he remains in a critical condition.

If there's one thing we can say with certainty about Fabrice, it's that he's no stranger to either facing or overcoming adversity. I desperately wanted him to make it at Arsenal because I find his life story so inspiring. While he didn't quite make the grade with us, I've followed his progress since he left the club - as I do with a lot of former Arsenal youngsters - and I've been heartened to see him carve out a career in the Premier League.

I've been blown away by the response to what's happened. Footballers across the world have sent Fabrice good wishes. The Tottenham fans at yesterday's game were magnificent. We all love football, but some things are infinitely more important than a game, whoever we support.

All I can say is that my thoughts are with Fabrice and his family. Please send your messages to Fabrice through the club website, and take care of yourself and your loved ones.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Verminated: 14 Thoughts on Arsenal 2 Newcastle 1

Football, bloody hell, etc. etc. After a really crappy January, and two painful cup defeats, we have now decided to exclusively win games from losing positions. It's a lot of fun, but I'm not sure it's good for my heart. Anyway, thoughts as follows:

* The Newcastle goal is a catalogue of defensive errors from Arsenal. Vermaelen was sloppy in possession, gifting the ball to Newcastle. Gibbs was pushed forward and left space behind himself. Ben Arfa could thus pick up the ball, skip inside with skill, and take his chance neatly. He's a good player, and it's easy to forget just how close we were to signing him in the summer of 2008 (we ended up with Nasri instead). If I was being hypercritical, I don't think Szczesny should be beaten at his near post. But the shot came in quickly and was well placed. 

* The Newcastle goal celebration was rubbish. They deserved to lose for that alone. 

* On balance, I didn't really think that we deserved to be behind. Newcastle has been OK in the opening stages, but they were far from dominant. So when we equalized seconds after the Newcastle goal, I thought it was fair. 

* RvP's goal was world-class. His first two touches were Bergkamp-esque, and his finish was superb. It's getting to the stage now where we expect him to score in every game, which is almost absurd. 

* Is RvP as good as Bergkamp? No - not yet. He's been at a world class level for about a year and a half now. Another 3 or so years at this level and maybe we can talk about Robin being at Dennis's level. Dennis wasn't just brilliant because of his ability, but because he produced it for such a long period of time at Arsenal, and because he won a barrel-full of trophies in the process. Regardless of his current form, Robin hasn't done this yet. 

* Theo came up with another assist tonight. He now has four in the league, the joint fourth highest in the Prem. He also came up with a lot of other great moments in the match, with 5 key passes. I still think it's worrying that he struggles to control the ball at times, and that his decision making can be poor. One also wonders how many assists he would have were he not playing with RvP. But he is, and our best player loves playing with him. If he keeps up this form until the end of the season, he will have earned a contract extension.

* Arteta ran the game. Twice as many passes as any Newcastle player, and 20 more than the second highest player in the Arsenal squad. All 6 of his long balls were accurate, as were 2 of his crosses, and he came up with 4 key passes. He is a pass master, and we play better with him pulling the strings.

* Gervinho's performance was a bit odd. I don't really think that he did much after coming on, and he mis-kicked the ball when presented with a golden opportunity to score. But I think he does worry defences, and I hope he finishes the season well. 

* Rosicky showed why he's earned a new deal. Personally, I would like to see Ramsey get more minutes as he is the future of the club. But I'm glad that we're keeping players like Tomas. He seems to have really upped his game in the last few months. Here's hoping he can have a golden last few years at Arsenal after all those months that he was out injured. 

* We completely bossed the game in the second half. Newcastle seemed to completely draw back into their shell, and didn't really create any chances of note. The only question was whether we could break down Newcastle's defence, and with every chance we spurned the draw seemed ever nearer. But credit to the team - they didn't give up, and they kept pushing for the win deep into stoppage time.

* With Newcastle playing so deep, we started employing a manoeuvre which can often wreak havoc - marauding centre backs. Vermaelen and Koscielny began to push forward, either with or without the ball, with Song rotating into defence. Newcastle couldn't work out how to track LK and TV's runs, and you could see before the goal was scored that they were struggling with our attacking CBs.

* What to say about Thomas Vermaelen? He is a true competitor. Players who don't have that drive and desire don't score the goal that he got today. I still think LK is a superior defender, and TV was partially at fault for the opening goal. But the Verminator seems to me exactly the type of player who could score the winning goal in a cup final of some sort. I'm glad he's at the club.

* Howard Webb (rightly) comes in for a lot of stick, but at least he diligently added on at least some of the time that Newcastle wasted. Another ref might have blown up at 94 mins and we would have ended the game with only a point. It's been part of a nice trend in recent weeks - cheats haven't prospered. Whether it be Bale or Suarez diving, or Krul timewasting, we've had the last laugh in all three instances. Karma, bitches.

* "Mind the Gap"? It's now only 1 point. We have a very tough away match at Everton next week, whereas Spurs have Stoke at home, so it may yet be a few weeks before we pass them. But they seem in real difficulties at the moment, and we now have huge momentum behind us. Five wins in a row, and the last four have all come from losing positions. That is mental strength. Maybe we might just be having a good end to the season. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Exclusive Scouting Report: Lukas Podolski's Performance for Koln Against Hoffenheim

Hi everyone. Regular readers of the blog should remember 'Bobby' and the marvellous piece he wrote about the North London Derby a few weeks back. Well, Bobby gets to go to a fair amount of Bundesliga matches, and he recently attended the Koln vs. Hoffenheim match in which Lukas Podolski took part.

Given that Podolski has reportedly agreed to join Arsenal, Bobby's report on the German striker's performance should interest all Gooners. Enjoy:

To watch Lukas Podoloski play football for Köln is to watch a man who clearly does not enjoy playing football for Köln, or at least doesn’t like playing with the players of Köln.

He first joined Köln in 1995, and with the exception of a rather unimpressive three year stint at FC Bayern, has been there ever since. He is a truly active member of the Köln community and enjoys a close relationship with the local community – in particular during the February Carnival season where he annually dresses up to the hilt and is usually as drunk as the average German party-goer. Given this close relationship with the fans, his fondness for his adopted club, and his incredible goalscoring ratio (he has now scored 50% of all Köln’s goals this season) I was expecting to watch someone who was content, happy, and enjoying his football.

Instead, the most memorable aspect of his performance was his desperate swearing, moaning, and cajoling of his colleagues, the manager, the opposition, the referee – in fact just about anyone.

Prior to last Sunday’s visit to the Rhine Neckar Arena, I remembered Podolski as a livewire winger, starting wide on the left or right for the German national team, and with short bursts of pace and thrust finding himself in goalscoring positions at major tournaments. With a wand of a left foot, he was named the 2006 World Cup Best Young Player, and went on to score at the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup. I remembered him as being skillful, deadly in front of goal, and quick. In short, I remembered him being a great potential addition to the Arsenal squad.

(A quick note on the price: Having spoken with members of the German public the majority believe that EUR 20 million is too high, most place his worth at between EUR 12 - EUR 15 million.)

Against Hoffenheim on Sunday, Podolski played as a central striker in a classic 4-4-2 formation and was relieved of all defensive responsibilities: he hardly ever closed down defenders, he failed to provide any outlet for the away team by ‘running channels’, and he rarely dropped into midfield when Köln didn’t have the ball (which in the opening 60minutes was almost all the time).

When Köln did have the ball his starting position was that of a classic number 9. He then often dropped deep to collect the ball (moving into a number 10 position) before using his vision and technique to bring colleagues into the game. However, with Hoffenheim deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, the room that he was attempting to exploit (i.e. just in front of the Hoffenheim back four) was being protected by two Hoffenheim holding midfield players. This meant that he was often quickly disposed or found he had very little time on the ball. During the opening 80 minutes, Hoffenheim did a pretty good job in keeping him quiet.

When he did have the ball his touch and skill were clearly evident, but so was his larger frame. He has definitely lost any pace which he may have had, and appears far less explosive. He links play up nicely and his vision has not deserted him.

But, worryingly, at 26 years of age he plays more like a 36 year old. Following neat passes and good distribution, he now fails to “catch the play up”, and by the time the ball is delivered into the box he is often at least 10 yards behind the play. In fact, the only time he found himself in a goal-scoring position when the ball was out wide, was for his equalising goal in the 80th minute, a deft glancing header into the far post following an excellent Köln move, and a good run from the far post to get in front of his marker and display once again his intelligent footballing brain.

If reports are true and a deal has been done between Arsenal and Köln for Podolski it will be extremely interesting to see how he fits into the Arsenal team, and indeed the Arsenal squad. Arsene Wenger has unearthed gems such as Henry, Anelka, and van Persie but he has also bought duds including Jeffers, Chamakh and Park.

Podolski is clearly an intelligent player but he struck me as very much enveloped in the Team Podolski mentality at Köln. He wears the number 10, he moans to referees, he moans to players, he kicks the ball at a camera man in frustration, he is the fulcrum of the team, he is in the centre of all the players during warm up, he is consoled by players following the match (no idea what made him so upset), he took all the free kicks, and his team mates were constantly looking to pass to him. At Arsenal, as with at FC Bayern 5 years ago, Podolski will not be the most talented player in the squad and it will be interesting to see how his personality deals with this. We are told that he has matured and that he is ready for the step up again: for sure he has the talent but I have big question marks surrounding his temperament and physicality. At 26 he is no longer an explosive winger and the player he most closely resembles is Robin van Persie… only slower and not as good.

If he does move to Arsenal it will probably be under the following, potentially problematic conditions:

· He is shunted wide left: his mobility, fitness, and defensive abilities will be open to question

· Used as back up for RvP: I cannot imagine a player who has enjoyed 3 years of being the star man will enjoy keeping a bench warm

· Used to replace RVP: if Arsenal are preparing for life after RVP and have identified Podolski as the man to fill the mantle they are buying an identikit – only heavier, less destructive, who moans more, and who is slower.

Podolski will score goals in the Premier League and he will add further quality and experience to the Arsenal squad, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by numerous aspects of his game. That said, he scored an important goal towards the end of the match, and I wont mind too much if he does that for Arsenal.


So, there you have it. A potentially exciting player, but doubts about his ability are clearly evident in Bobby's report.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

It was the Squad that Lost It: 12 Thoughts on Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0

Well, what to make of that? One of the most exhilarating matches I've watched for a long time. We came close, but not close enough. Thoughts as follows:

* In my preview, I argued that we could win the game if we got one goal early on, and one before half-time, which would make the second half anyone's game. Not only did we do that, we managed to go one better. To go three goals up against any team before half-time is impressive, but to do it against Milan was pretty much incredible. It's funny to talk about 'mental strength' when you consider that a good number of players on the pitch tonight were also present during our three worst defeats this year, at Old Trafford, Ewood Park and the San Siro. But they really believed they could do it from the first whistle, and they created a first-half which was about as good as it gets for an Arsenal fan. They deserve massive credit for that.

* You could make an argument that we never really got started in the second-half. Milan managed to regoup during the half-time break, and imposed themselves to a much greater extent during the second period. They had several chances, and really should have put the tie to bed before the final whistle. Nocerino's miss, in particular, was nothing short of spectacular. When faced with an open-net, he somehow only managed to muster a feeble back-pass to Szczesny.

* But Nocerino's failed attempt was nothing compared to the moment upon which the whole game hinged - van Persie's miss in the second-half. I'm not sure what Robin was thinking, but he tried to dink it over the keeper from close range when a slide finish surely would have been better. Indeed, despite his brilliant penalty, you could argue that Abbiati got the better of Robin over the course of the two ties, pulling off great saves in both matches that got Milan through to the next round. You can't really blame Robin though - 4 shots on target from 4 attempts is superb, and another day he would have gotten us the crucial goal.

* One can't help but wonder how things might have been different if Chamberlain had started in the San Siro. His whipped corner was the type of ball into the box that we too often don't produce. He terrorized the Milan defence throughout the first half, and it was his driving run that won us the penalty for our third goal. As his performance dipped in the second half - hopefully just due to fatigue - it was notable that Milan began to control the game more successfully. The Ox is a phenomenon, and, unfortunately for us, I think he will end up going to the Euros in the summer. England better not break him.

* Speaking of players that we missed in the San Siro - Laurent Koscielny put in a Man of the Match performance tonight, utterly dominating in defence. I very much doubt we would have conceded four goals in Milan had he played the full 90 minutes. It's interesting that he led the team in interceptions and offsides won tonight - he is becoming an organizing influence in the defence, and his reading of the game seems to improve almost weekly. Indeed, the rate of his progression is so startling that, in my opinion, he is now the senior player in his partnership with Vermaelen. Which is not to say that Vermaelen didn't play well tonight - he did. He was superb. It's just that LK was even better.

* The other main contender for man of the match was Tomas Rosicky. After his barnstorming performance in the North London Derby, he was relatively subdued at Anfield, but he was superb tonight. I've often been critical of Rosicky but it's mainly from a sense of disappointment. When we bought him in 2006, it seemed like we'd acquired one of the real, future superstars of world football. Instead, injuries have largely destroyed Tomas's time at the club, and we've only seen glimpses of the player we could have had. Tonight was one of those glimpses. Even though we lost the tie, I'm glad that we have a few more fond memories  of Tomas. And on that performance, I'm pretty sure he'll still be at the club next year.

* I also thought Sagna and Gibbs had, overall, decent games. Wenger asked them to play very far up the pitch, understandably, and they were caught out of position on a number of occasions. They did their duty piling up and down the flanks, but neither player put in an accurate cross all night, which is fairly disappointing. Especially with Gervinho and Walcott both having disappointing matches, we could have used more of an attacking threat from our full-backs.

* Walcott  - in some respects, it's difficult to know what to make of his performance. Theo never went hiding, and stretched the Milan defence with his pace, but zero accurate crosses from five attempts tells its only story. Although, Rosicky's goal came from a misplaced Walcott pass, ultimately. I also felt that he cut inside too often, overcomplicated our play, and lost the ball far too many times. It may sound harsh, but I still don't think Theo should be an automatic first team pick. He simply doesn't create enough chances, or score enough goals.

* It's easier to know what to make of Gervinho's performance: it wasn't very good. I have an awful feeling that his season is going the same way as Chamakh's last year. A bright start, followed by a few doubts, followed by the need for a replacement. Let's hope it doesn't get to the latter stage, but I can't remember the last time he had a good game for the club. Today, he was indecisive, he struggled to control the ball, and didn't provide enough of a threat against a weak full-back.

* Park and Chamakh - or, it was the squad that lost it. If we'd had just two quality players to bring off the bench, we might have won this game. Instead, we left players like the Ox and Theo on for too long, the pace of the game slackened, and we lost our momentum. We left them on for too long because are only options were Park and Chamakh. The stats for the two players make grim reading. Chamakh only touched the ball 6 times in 16 minutes; Park only 3 in 6. Park completed 1 pass; neither player had a shot on goal. In short, they didn't do much, and they disrupted the shape of the team. We piled too many players forward and didn't have enough bodies to pick passes in the midfield.

At the very end, we had a break forward and Song had the ball. A relatively easy pass lay to his left - Park. A harder pass lay to his middle and to his right. His chose the harder pass. Maybe it was just a moment of overconfidence, or maybe it shows that the senior players in the side can't work out why we bought Park either. I bloody can't.

* In light of my last comment - should we have got rid of Arshavin? Would you rather he or Park/Chamakh had come on tonight? I still don't understand his loan move

* So was tonight all for naught? Yes and no. A cold-hearted rationalist could look at tonight's game and say - who cares? You still lost - you just lost with a little grace. But, I think tonight's win was important. We keep our run of good form going, and we proved the we can still hand out a beating to other members of Europe's elite. Hopefully the players will concentrate on the positives from tonight's result, and use them as the basis for winning more games during our run-in. And, maybe just as importantly, tonight continues another rebuilding process - that of the relationship between the fans, the team and Arsene. We've had some rough times this season - this wasn't one of them. This was pretty fucking ace. Let's just enjoy that for now.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Would You Play Robin van Persie Against Milan?

It's been such a good fortnight that I'd almost, almost forgotten about our crippling, humiliating 4-0 defeat to Milan in the San Siro.

After that loss, we politely excused ourselves, and bid adieu to the FA Cup. But after shipping two goals against Spurs, the players picked themselves up, and drove themselves to victory in two big games.

And, obviously, one man was a vital part of those two wins - Robin van Persie.

An assist and a goal against Spurs, and two goals against Liverpool helped ensure the three points in both matches, but it also leaves with us a conundrum: do we play van Persie against Milan?

Let's consider the case both for and against:


He's not only our best player, he has a strong claim to being the best player in the world at the moment. Only Messi and Ronaldo can claim to be anywhere near his level, and they both play in teams which are far stronger than Arsenal are at present. We are not a one man team, but let's not kid ourselves - we would be in a far worse situation at present if we hadn't had Robin this year.

His stats tell it all. You don't even have to do a deep dive. 25 goals and 8 assists in 27 league appearances. 2 goals in 2 appearances in the FA Cup. 4 goals in 7 games in the Champions League. That's 31 goals in 36 apperances this season. Indeed, had he managed to put away either of his two chances in Milan, the debate over whether he should play would be absolutely moot.

We have scored four goals or more on four occasions this season - Wigan away, Chelsea away, Blackburn home and Tottenham home. In each of those games, Robin scored at least one goal, and had at least one assist.

Put simply, if we are to have any chance, any chance at all, of getting the minimum of 4 goals that we need on Tuesday night, Robin has to play. I just don't think the team is capable of doing it without him.

And while it's unlikely, a win is not impossible. If we were to get a goal early on, and perhaps another before half-time, it would be anybody's match in the second half. Against Spurs, we scored 5 goals in about half-an-hour. Milan are better than Spurs, but they may well be overconfident, given their lead.

While it may come from the utterly irrational part of my Gooner soul, I still believe we might be able to do this. But only if Robin plays.


The reality of the matter is that we are out of the competition. I'm pretty sure that Arsenal fans are the only people on the planet who don't think that Milan are already through to the second round. Looking at Betfair, we are 27-1 to go through to the next round, even if we are favoured to win on the night.

The first leg was a perfect result for Milan. Four goals at home and none conceded. Had we got just one goal, the whole dynamic of the tie would be different - but we didn't. And, as such, if Milan score at the Emirates they instantly destroy any last vestiges of hope we might have.

And this is my worry. There are simply too many utterly predictable scenarios about what could go wrong.

We could play Robin, score 4 goals, get into extra time, and then concede in the 120th minute, knackering our entire team in an ultimately pointless exercise. And that's a relatively positive potential outcome.

But the real disaster scenario is this - we play Robin in what is essentially a dead rubber, and he picks up an injury.

We collectively refuse to face the reality of the situation, think we can do it, play Robin, and he breaks his leg. Or ruptures his knee ligaments. Or turns his ankle. Or anything. In a match that, to all intent and purposes, we've already lost.


I don't know the answer. This is one of those times where Arsene has to earn his seven million quid a year.

All I will say is this - we either totally go for it, or we, essentially, concede. If we don't play Robin, we might as well play the likes of Squillaci and Park.

As a realist - I say give him a rest. As a Gooner - I say play him, and let's go for it.


If there was ever any doubt - it seems Arsene is a Gooner. We're gonna go for it tomorrow night.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Suarez vs. Van Persie: Thoughts on Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1

Now that my heart rate has sufficiently stabilized, it's time to go through some of the major talking points of our big, big win against Liverpool.

* To judge the game dispassionately, Liverpool took control of the midfield at a fairly early stage of the game and never looked back. They had 54% of possession, and had more shots on goals. They also blew us away in another category which is often indicative of attacking dominance - they had 12 corners, while we had zero. But, and this is a fact we've had rammed down our throats on more than one occasion, possession and shots on goal don't matter if you don't score goals. And, as I said in my prediction before the match, Liverpool have been terrible at scoring goals this season.

The numbers are there to see from this game alone. They had 12 shots on goal to our 10, but 7 of our shots were on target compared to Liverpool's 4. Yes, they hit the post twice, but they still means they missed the target, and when a team consistently fails to score in the way that Liverpool does, it goes beyond luck. Exactly the same can be said about their penalties - they've now missed 4 out of their last 10. It's because their attacking players aren't particularly good that Liverpool didn't win today. Ours are better, so we did.

So, my first thought is this - Liverpool may have dominated the game, but they actually didn't do enough with that dominance to justify a win, no matter what the media and LFC fans will say after the game. Until their shooting accuracy improves, they will deserve to lose games in this fashion.

* Another reason Liverpool didn't deserve to win is because they have a player who cannot stop himself from cheating. Luis Suarez dived for the penalty - it's that simple. Watch the replays and there was no contact made, whatsoever. Szczesny dived in, but Suarez vaulted over his leg to win the penalty, ergo he cheated.

As one Liverpool fan put it on Twitter, when Suarez cheats in this manner, you can't help but feel that he's a dishonest person, which obviously affects how you feel about the whole Suarez-Evra court case. I'm going to say more about this elsewhere, but I think he has been an absolutely disastrous signing for Liverpool.

* Thankfully, Szczesny proceeded to pull out an absolutely huge penalty save, followed by another equally superb stop to prevent the rebound going in. I have been critical of Szcz at times, but he was enormous today. Arsene was right to say that he was our joint MOTM with RvP. To put it in another, faintly terrifying  way: if Almunia or Fabianski had been in goals today, we would not have won.

* The Liverpool goal was exactly the type of self-destructive moment that I hoped we had eradicated from our game. The cross was coming in at pace, but Koscielny was not under pressure, and he has to accept that it was a very poor mistake. However, overall, LK actually had a very good game. He led the team in tackles (including one last man tackle), interceptions, effective clearances, and offsides won. He also had the best pass completion rate in the defence. Aside from aerial duels won, where Vermaelen bested him with 2 to 1, Koscielny led the defence in every statistic today. He has quietly turned into an monster defender for us.

* Our equalizer came a little out of the blue, as it were. I said in my preview that RvP vs. Carragher should be promising for us, and so it was. Sagna's cross was a thing of absolute beauty, beating three Liverpool players before Robin headed home. Interestingly, it was our only successful cross of the game, compared to Liverpool's 8.

* At the time, the challenge by Henderson that led to Arteta's injury seemed an accident. But having watched the replay several times now, it does seem that Henderson deliberately lent in towards Arteta as he ran towards Song. Just because Henderson felt sorry afterwards does not mean it was not intentional. Thankfully, Arteta seems fine, and the Oxygen mask and stretcher were largely a precaution.

* Arteta's injury led to Diaby's second league appearance of the season . His 28 minutes on the field may well sum up his Arsenal career. In that time he completed 2 successful dribbles (the most of any Arsenal player), had a shot on target, and completed all 15 of his passes. Moreover, 3 of these passes were long balls, so not all were little lay-offs. He also made 1 interception. For me, this shows Diaby's potential strengths as a player. He is tricky, and can go past players with the ball while dribbling. He does have an eye for goal, and he can pick passes. He also possesses defensive strengths. Personally, I felt he seemed to contribute more during his cameo than Benayoun did during his entire performances. However, ability is meaningless if you can't stay fit.  His withdrawal was only a precaution, and was not due to a serious injury, but it is still worrying he can't complete a game when he comes on after an hour. Personally, I think he has two months to save his Arsenal career. He has to show he can stay fit for the rest of the season after this game, or I think Arsene will try to sell him in the summer.

* After Diaby came on, I thought the game became a bit more of an even contest. Liverpool were still edging it, perhaps, but they were no closer to scoring. What the game needed was a moment of class, and it was no surprise who provided it.

Simply put, Robin van Persie takes his chances. He was given two chances today - both of his shots were on target and both were goals. And his second goal was a ridiculously good finish. As a rule, keepers shouldn't be beaten at their near post, but Robin took the chance so well that Reina could barely react. No team have scored more than twice at Anfield in the league this season, but then no other Premier League team has a striker as good as Robin. He is a phenomenon - the difference between us being in fourth and mid-table.

* We shouldn't overlook the other vital player in Arsenal's second goal - Alex Song. His pass was simply world class - Robin didn't kiss Alex's boot after the goal for nothing. It has been fascinating to watch Song's development as a player this season. In many respects, he's taken over a lot of the creative responsibility from Cesc after the former's departure. Song now has 7 assists in the prem (joint second for Arsenal behind RvP), and actually leads the entire premier league in average successful through balls per game. As he collects the ball so deep, he is often better positioned to pick vital passes than our other players.

* A final, quick word on Suarez. I said before the game that I think he is massively overrated, and I stand by that assertion now. For a player who has the third highest average for shots on goal per game in the Premier League, Suarez's finishing is woeful. Only one of the three shots he took today were on target. He made 0 key passes, and led the Liverpool side in turnovers. He is only consistently good at one thing - flashy dribbles. During the first-half he beat a series of Arsenal players before forcing a save from Szczesny. Yet flashy dribbles without end-product don't win you games. I strongly suspect that the racism row has covered up the fact that Suarez is not having a very good season. Ultimately, as I put it in a tweet earlier, we have van Persie and Liverpool have Suarez. That's why we are higher in the league than them, and why we are a better team than them.

* Just as we did against Sunderland three weeks ago, we came from behind, away from home, to snatch a vital victory. Arsene often bangs on about 'mental strength', but on days like this it's hard to argue with that assessment. Despite deflating defeats in Europe and the FA Cup, we've secured three big wins in the league in a row. And with Chelsea just having lost to West Brom, whether or not we finish in the top-four is now in our hands. After the terrible start to the season that we had, you have to give the team a lot of credit for keeping us in contention for a decent league finish.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Liverpool Preview: A Detailed Report on Arsenal's Opponents on Saturday

Our difficult period of games continues this Saturday with a trip up to Anfield.

Let's try and work out what we can expect.

Arsenal's Recent Performances Against Liverpool

Games between the two teams have been relatively equal in recent years. Liverpool defeated us at the Emirates earlier this season, but both goals in their 2-0 victory only came after Frimpong had been sent off. Had it remained 11 vs. 11, the game might well have ended a draw.

Indeed, both games between the two clubs last season finished in a draw. Both also featured last minute drama. At Anfield, Pepe Reina knocked the ball into his own net at the death, after a header by Chamakh  (remember him?), while in London, Eboue gave away a penalty in the 108th minute of the game, after Arsenal themselves had scored a penalty in injury time. That 1-1 draw was a particularly sickening moment in one of the worst run-ins in recent Arsenal history.

The last time Arsenal won at Anfield was in December 2009, when Andrei Arshavin scored a stunning goal in a 2-1 victory. Prior to this result, you have to go back to the Invincibles season to find another Arsenal victory against the Scousers, when a Bobby Pires curler sealed the three points for us.

That we've only beaten Liverpool at Anfield twice since 2002 shows how hard it is to get a result on Merseyside.

Liverpool's Season so Far

Liverpool spent big in the summer with very mixed results. I'm not sure many people would agree that Stuart Downing is a £20m winger, nor that Jordan Henderson has really set Anfield alight.

Yes, they've won the Carling Cup - just. I'm not sure scraping a penalty shoot-out victory against a Championship side is too much to write home about, but they did knock out Manchester City in the semifinals of the competition, after the latter had eliminated us in the fifth round. And a trophy is ultimately a trophy.

However, their form in the league has been less than impressive. They currently lie in seventh place, and even if they win on Saturday they will not move up the table.

Liverpool's overall form needs a little bit of deciphering. They're unbeaten at home, but have only won four of their 12 games. Indeed, while they've lost 6 games away from Anfield, they've actually also won more away games than home games (6). Their problems are thus two fold - they lose too many games away from home, but they also don't win enough games at home. Draws with the likes of Stoke, Swansea, Blackburn and Sunderland at Anfield are not particularly impressive, and the only team in the top-half of the table they've beaten at home is Newcastle.

Liverpool's main problem this season has been a lack of goals. They've only scored 29 goals all season - by contrast we've scored 29 goals at the Emirates alone and another 24 away from home. When you consider all the money that Liverpool spent on Carroll and Suarez (more on him in a minute), they have to be disappointed with the amount of goals they've scored this season.

Liverpool's main strength is their defensive record. They've only conceded 23 goals in the league this year - the second best defensive record in the Premiership after Manchester City.

Yet, the story of Liverpool's season largely centres on one man: Louis Suarez. I don't really want to get into this too much, but, as someone who comes from an academic background, I tend to trust the opinions of expert witnesses with doctorates more than the speculative assertions of internet football fans. Call me crazy.

Anyway, whatever happened, Suarez was banned for eight games, and the whole incident has been hugely damaging for the club, with one PR debacle following another in recent months. However, as a player, Suarez may not have been missed as much as some have claimed, as I'll detail below.

Liverpool's Key Players

* Louis Suarez.

I admit to being quite disappointed to hear that Liverpool had signed him last January, although I think we may have dodged a bullet by not getting him in more ways than one. Aside from his very questionable character, a case could be made that Suarez is a bit overrated. He has only 6 goals and 1 assist in the Premier League this season  (Theo Walcott has 5 goals and 7 assists). Suarez also averages a fairly decent 1.9 key passes per game, but this is lower than RvP, Arteta and the frequently maligned Ramsey.

The main thing Suarez seems to do is take lots of shots on goal - an average of 4.3 per game. This is only slightly less than Rvp (4.5), but RvP has 23 goals this season. One can only conclude from this stat that Suarez is not very accurate or effective with his shooting. His pass completion rate is a fairly risible 77%, and the only other thing Suarez seems good at is dribbling. Suarez averages 1.9 successful dribbles per game - only the Ox (2.3) has a better average than this in the Arsenal squad.

So Suarez is a bit of a Dribbly McNoscore, in my opinion, and one could argue that the whole racism row has overshadowed the fact that he hasn't really played that well this season when you consider how much Liverpool paid for him. Now that I've said that, he'll probably bag a hat-trick on Saturday.

* Charlie Adam

Adam has actually been fairly decent since he joined Liverpool. He leads the team with 6 assists, and his 1.9 KP per game on average is as good as Suarez. He also leads the team in accurate long balls, and provides a reasonable amount of successful crosses. He is also joint top with Suarez for through balls (0.4 per game on average). In short, Adam has shown he can create chances and goals for Liverpool. Whether our midfield can stop him from picking his passes will be a key part of the battle on the weekend. I would suggest distracting him through strategically placed pies around the field.

* The Defence

I am consistently told that Agger and Skrtel are world-class central-defenders, but I really can't see it. I would genuinely prefer Koz, Verm and Mert. Similarly, I've found it strange that Pepe Reina's relatively frequent errors aren't given more attention in the media.

But, as a unit, the Liverpool defence has shown itself to be formidable this season. No one has scored more than one goal against Liverpool at Anfield in the league this year, and we will need RvP to be on absolute top-form to find a way through.

Update: It's been pointed out to me that Agger appears to have come off injured on Sunday and will be out of the game on Sunday. RvP vs. Carragher looks good for us.


Unlike last Sunday's goal-fest, this will be a very tight game. Liverpool will struggle for goals, but so will we, given the strength of Liverpool's defence. Both teams will be on a high after their victories last weekend, but there is always a chance that Liverpool might suffer a post-Carling Cup hangover.

So, and despite the fact that Liverpol are unbeaten at home so far this year, I think we can eek out a 1-0 win. But a more likely result is a 1-1 draw. That would be no disaster, given that Spurs have a tough match against Manchester United, and Chelsea travel to West Brom.

In short, I am quietly confident that we will still be in fourth place come Monday.