Sunday, April 29, 2012

It's Time to Call an End to Abou Diaby's Arsenal Career

In January 2006, we were in a bit of a mess.

Patrick Vieira, the lynchpin of three title-winning teams, had been abruptly sold in the summer of 2005 and we had failed in our attempts to buy a replacement. Fabregas and Gilberto did their best to strike-up an effective partnership in midfield, but couldn't cover up the fact that we had a hole in the middle of the side.

After a poor start to the season, we were struggling to make the top four. Arsene decided to go out and splash some cash in the January transfer window, buying three players in the process. Though our opinions of him are, obviously, quite negative now, it's easy to forget that one of these signings, Adebayor, was actually critical to us making fourth place. Theo Walcott was a high profile signing, but didn't actually play a game until the next season. And the other other player was a lanky Frenchman from Auxerre - Abou Diaby.

Abou's impact wasn't as great as Adebayor's, but he definitely made a positive contribution to our quest for fourth place. A dozen league appearances were enough to make quite an impression on us all, and I, for one, was convinced that we had a major talent on our hand.

Maybe we did - but I don't think we'll ever know now. On May 1 2006, at the end of a game that Arsenal had completely dominated and were winning 3-0, Sunderland player Dan Smith made a ludicrous, dangerous tackle that resulted in an ankle fracture. (He's now playing non-league football, where he belongs). While the exact details aren't known, it's likely that Abou fractured both his tibia and fibia, dislocated his ankle, and suffered severe ligament damage.

While Eduardo's injury received considerably more coverage, Abou's was probably almost as bad. He had three surgeries on his ankle before returning to the first team in January 2007, and was told by one doctor that he was lucky that the injury didn't end his career.

After appearing to recover from his injury, Abou made 28 appearances in the 2007-08 season, 36 in 2008-2009, and 40 in 2009-10. Yet he only made 20 appearances last season, and he's played about an hour or so of league football in total this season. (He was ruled out of the last two games of the season after yesterday's game.)

For a brilliant overview of the injury travails that Abou has faced, read this article on the Beautiful Groan.

The article (written by a physiotherapist) basically says this - the severity of the injury suffered by Abou in 2006 was such that it affects the entire way that Abou moves his body. This means his body is almost fundamentally imbalanced, which causes new injuries to occur on a periodic basis.

Now, I think Arsenal fans have been very patient with Diaby - mainly because most of us realise what an incredible talented player he potentially is. Looking through his stats, he has a very unique skill-set - he is a brilliant dribbler, he can pass well, he can score and make goals, and he also has physical presence. He has the potential to be a monster in midfield.

But none of this matters if you can't get on the field.

I just think this season has shown that Diaby will never be a player who can consistently (and that is the key for me, consistently) play football at a top-class level. He will have patches where he is fit, but I think his awful injury has destroyed his ability to regularly stay fit. Ultimately, I think it's time we used his squad place, and the wages we are paying him, on someone else.

Some Arsenal fans have pointed to Robin van Persie as an example of why we shouldn't give up - but I think a more instructive example would be Owen Hargreaves. No one can doubt Hargreaves talent, but United ultimately cut him loose at the end of last season because he could not maintain his fitness, and they could not justify paying someone wages who did not play football regularly enough.

Similarly, others have mentioned Tomas Rosicky as a reason why we should keep Diaby - but Rosicky's injury was nowhere near as severe as Diaby's. Rosicky's was a freak injury that was essentially misdiagnosed; Diaby's problems are better known, but they are simply much harder to fix, and there is the impression that they have fundamentally weakened his ability to play regular football.

I would like nothing more than for Diaby to stay, regain his fitness, and become a dominant member of our midfield. I just don't think this will ever happen. And the longer we keep him, the longer we are denying his squad place to someone who could actually contribute to the team.

Of course, even if we wanted to sell him, there is the issue of the long-term deal he was given at the start of 2010. Quite who decided this was a good idea isn't clear, but it may mean that our ability move him on is limited, due to the inflated wages he is currently earning. But it's now come to the point where I think he needs to leave on a free, if need be. The short-term financial hit will be outweighed by the money we will ultimately save by paying a non-playing squad member for the rest of his deal.

So there you have it - a sad story of a brilliant player, but one who I don't think will ever truly shine in the way we once hoped. Still, at least we'll always have this moment. Thanks, Abou.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inching Closer to the Finish Line: 11 Thoughts on Stoke 1 Arsenal 1

Not really too much to write home about after today's match, but let's go over a few talking points:

* We started brightly and with a lot of purpose, so it was only natural that we conceded with Stoke's first shot on goal. We do this far too often, and it's almost become a bit comical how we don't make it hard enough for teams to score against us. You only have to think back to Wigan, less than two weeks ago, to see how sloppiness in defence causes us problems all too frequently. We've now conceded 44 goals this season - a record for us in a 38 game Premier League season. Yes, the 8-2 has skewed things - but those 8 goals still count. Ultimately, teams which concede sloppy goals don't win trophies, especially when they so frequently mis-fire at the other end of the pitch as well.

* Watching the goal, it's disappointing to see Vermaelen at fault once more. Yes, it's difficult to defend against a player who, really, is a freak of nature. But in the second half, Koscielny out-leapt Crouch, winning the ball, and taking him out (fairly) in the process. Vermaelen could have done more to prevent the goal than he did, ultimately. For me, these little errors that TV makes in defence keep on adding up - and they have cost us a lot of goals this season. By contrast, Koscielny was magisterial once more. In any season, he'd be my run away player of the season.

* But LK isn't because Robin van Persie is a phenomenon. A neat little goal, his first in open play in 7 games, was a welcome sight. He had chances to win the game, but we can only be so harsh on a player who's basically saved our season.

* Tomas Rosicky had a good game, and supplied a fantastic ball to van Persie for the goal. I still worry about Rosicky's almost complete lack of goals, but when's he creating so many goalscoring chances, and he's running his arse off in midfield, he's a great part of our midfield.

* Two other midfielders who I thought had a good game were Benayoun and Ramsey. Yossi is just a consummate professional, and put in a great shift - it was he who won the ball that led to our goal. I like his tenacity, and I think he is a greater goal threat than Rosicky, even if YB doesn't have the same ability to dictate the game. I would love it if he stayed, but I don't think he will because he wants regular football. As for Ramsey, I thought he put himself about, didn't hide, and linked play neatly. He has had a real dip in form over the last few weeks, but today he did the simple things well, and put in a solid 7 out of 10 performance. He just needs to get through the last two games, and have a decent pre-season, and I'm sure we'll see a much better player next year.

* Someone who didn't have a good game was Gervinho. He has had a distinctly average first season in English football; you could even call it a poor one, if you were to be unkind. He has the pleasing ability to get past players and find himself in decent positions, but his decision making is terrible, and he ultimately squanders possession and opportunities far too often. He has to make a big step-up next season if he wants to remain at the club - but with another African Cup of Nations on the horizon, I worry about his future.

* We were lucky in the end not to lose it. We looked fairly flat in the second-half after a decent first 45 minutes, and it was Stoke who came closest to taking the three points. We generally just about dealt with their long-throws and punts downfield, even if Sagna had to acrobatically clear at one point, and Szcz had to make a few rather unconvincing punches. That said, the lack of protection afforded by the ref to Szcz was borderline disgraceful. I kinda missed Jens - I'd have loved to see some of the Stoke players try it on with him in the box.

* I don't think the push on Benayoun was a penalty. If that had been given against us, I would have been furious. Yes, we should have had more penalties this season, but that wasn't one of them. Shawcross's handball was clear as day, in contrast, even if it was probably just outside the area.

* To a degree, the lack of options on the bench was frustrating again. I can understand Wenger's reluctance to play the Ox, because we needed our midfielders to be defensive solid, and there was also the chance that Stoke might try to destroy another one of our player's careers. Santos and Diaby did OK after they came on, but they didn't really change the game for the better. I almost laughed when Chamakh came on. He is a completely pointless player. The occasional ability to hold-up the ball is not enough for a player who probably takes home an eye-watering weekly pay-cheque. He has been an enormous disappointment as a signing, and I can't wait till we see the back of him.

* Stoke fans - it doesn't look good when you boo a player because he had his leg snapped by one of your players. I'd ask you to think about your actions, but this involves, well, thought. I suppose I'd be permanently pissed off if I lived in Stoke, though.

* Ultimately, it's a good point. This has become my least favourite game of the season, and I think I'm right in saying that we haven't beaten Stoke at the Britannia when they've had eleven men on the pitch. Lest we forget, we put in one of our worst performances of the season during this game last year, so today's game was definitely an improvement. With Newcastle getting routed, unexpectedly, our fate is now firmly in our hands. Personally, I think one more win will see us over the finish line, and both our remaining games are eminently winnable. We need to ensure that Norwich at home doesn't turn into one of those games where the team think they've won before they take the field. Complacency may well be our biggest enemy as we head into the final stretch.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Only Third Place Will Do - Five Questions before Saturday's Game Against Stoke RFC

Probably my least favourite game of the season arrives this Saturday, as we travel to the town that football forgot - Stoke. Here's a few things to think about before our clash - and I use that word in the literal sense - on the weekend.

* Is it third place or bust? 
I really didn't think the draw against Chelsea was the terrible result for us, or the triumph for them, that Sky seemed to decide it was. Only because Chelsea put out such a weak first XI was the result a disappointment, but I probably would have taken a point before the game, given how weak our midfield looks without Arteta, Wilshere, and Diaby. After the game, it seemed to me that Chelsea had bet everything on beating Barca, rather than going for it in the league - a foolish strategy.

But after Chelsea's "heroic" win against Barca on Tuesday (NB, it wasn't heroic), I am a bit worried. Surely they've now used up all their possible luck, but a win in Munich, which really isn't outside the realms of possibility, reduces the Champions league spots to three. 

Hopefully Munich will smash them, but I really don't want to be in a position where we have to rely on this. I think two wins out of three will get us third place - possibly a win and a draw at a push. But Stoke is the hardest game of the three and it comes first. If we were to lose, I'd worry about our confidence going into the final two fixtures. 

* Will Diaby play 90 minutes for us this season?
Perhaps it's a silly question to ask, but maybe it does matter. With the news that he's "sick" and out of Saturday's clash, we're again without a player that is seemingly in Arsene's plans. During his brief cameos this season - and they were very, very brief - you could see glimpses of the fantastic talent he has, but it's no good if he can only show it for 60 minutes a year. In short, will he go through a whole season without playing 90 minutes, and, if so, is this it? Do we really persist further with a hugely talent player, but one who's career appears to have been ruined by injury?

* Have Teams Finally Worked Out how to Play Against van Persie? 
It's taken the rest of the Premier League long enough, but it seems a few teams appear to have worked out how to deal with van Persie. Given that he's responsible for approximately 400 percent of our goals, I'm surprised this hasn't happened earlier. I don't buy that he's tired, I think teams are just playing very deep against us, and trying to prevent him for taking shots within the area. Obviously, because van Persie is so good, this strategy doesn't always work, and he really should have put away at least one of his chances against Chelsea. Whether he can re-find his shooting boots, and whether we can get the ball to him in dangerous areas, may well decide how we do in our final three games. 

* Aaron Ramsey has completed more through balls than the entire Stoke team this season (six versus five)
That's not a question - just a fact. Make of it what you will. 

* Does Tony Pulis wear his baseball cap in the shower? 
Actually, let's not think about that. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Arsenal vs. Chelsea Preview: Four Questions to Ponder

We’re less than 24 hours away from our most high-profile game of the season. As I’m going on an all-day stag party tomorrow, I thought I’d do a preview instead of my customary post-game thoughts, as I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to watch the whole game. So, here are four things to think about before kick-off tomorrow.

·        *  Will Robin van Persie re-find his shooting boots? To criticize Robin for a lack of goals is surely the height of churlishness after his amazing season so far. But, only one goal in open play since we played Newcastle on March 12 is a little worrying. As this excellent analysis of Robin’s recent performances have shown, it’s not due to fatigue on Robin’s part, it’s due to the team creating less chances as a whole, and teams restricting Robin to long-distance efforts. Without his goals, we are a far less dangerous proposition, and we need him to find the time and space in the box that he's been denied in recent weeks.

·         * Will Gary Cahill prove us wrong? Linked to the first point, one has to imagine that Cahill will be a part of deciding whether Robin has a good game or not on Saturday. We were, of course, heavily linked with the ex-Bolton player, even putting in our customary, derisory bid. Cahill has done better at Chelsea than I anticipated, and was part of the unit which kept Barca at bay on Wednesday. Now that Villas-Boas’ dangerously high-line has been disposed of, I can’t see us getting near five goals again, but question marks do hang over Cahill’s ability. He may well want to prove a point on Saturday – let’s hope our decision not to buy him is vindicated.

·        * Who will replace Mikel Arteta? It’s a thorny issue. No one else in the squad has his steady, metronomic ability to pass, with, perhaps, the exception of Coquelin. With the youngster apparently fit again, could he come in? It would be a big ask, despite the fact he actually came out of the 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford with a degree of credit when playing in a central role. Ramsey may be the more obvious replacement, but he is a player that likes to push further forward. I worry a three of Ramsey-Rosicky-Song will neglect their defensive duties, and allow the likes of Ramires dictate the game. Whoever slots in will need to play with a level of controlled discipline that seems unfortunately alien to too many of midfielders.

·         * Would you take a punt on Diaby? So, Diaby is supposedly fit enough to be included in the squad, but would you risk him? I’m a fan of Diaby, but I was expecting him to be involved in more games after his supposedly ‘minor’ injury against Liverpool. It’s the type of game that you would expect him to boss, but you can’t boss anything from the bench. Except, maybe, a crossword.

Alright, gooners. See you on the other side. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Overconfident and Outplayed: 12 Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Wigan 2

Our topsy-turvy season just keeps on getting topsier and, er, turvier. A really poor defeat tonight. Thoughts as follows:

* I'm not gonna lie - I had this one marked as a home win. We absolutely bulldozed Wigan oop north earlier this season, and I expected a repeat performance, or at least a reasonably comfortable win. Mais non. I've always hoped that players don't suffer from the same type of overconfidence that sometimes affects fans, but tonight it did seem to be an issue. I don't think we really looked as up for it as, say, we were against Man City. Yes, our opponents play in different ways, but I don't think we would have been so sloppy, and gotten off to such a poor start, if we'd been playing a team slightly higher up the table.

* But, really, we shouldn't have been so complacent. Wigan should have beaten Chelsea at the Bridge a few weeks back, and they turned over United less than a week ago. Martinez is by some distance the best of the managers currently fighting for survival, and Wigan's recent revival is far from inexplicable. 

* The two Wigan goals came from a toxic mix of overconfidence and sloppiness. The first goal just saw too many players forward too early in the game, and not enough of them busting a gut to get back and defend. Kudos to Wigan for being so willing to punish us on the break. The second goal was simply a litany of errors. Moses turned Sagna inside-out, and then Djourou, Vermaelen and Szczesny all need to take a big dollop of blame for not clearing the danger. Just before Gomez pounced to put the ball into the net, all three players seemed to hesitate for a second, allowing the goal to be scored. Really, really poor defending. 
* Indeed, and its a drum I now seem to bang with metronomic regularity, I worry about Vermaelen. He is a good defender, no doubt, but he has a lot of errors in him. His goal showed everything that's brilliant about him as a player, and particularly his incredible drive. But if Koscielny had been on the pitch today, I don't think we would have conceded two goals. That yellow card against Man City might just have cost us three points today, or at least one. There's also no getting away from the fact that Djourou was pretty poor, and a shadow of the player he was last year.

* If the goals were frustrating, then even more worrying was the news that Arteta limped off the pitch, and now has his right ankle in a protective boot. If I was going to be ultra-pessimistic, he is the one player we really, really can't afford to lose. Without him, we're like a jazz-band without a drummer - edgy, possibly even entertaining, but ultimately a bit of a mess. I worry in particular about how much we'll miss him on Saturday against an apparently rejuvenated Chelsea. 

* Every week I have to write something in defence of Aaron Ramsey, and today is no exception. When he arrived on the pitch the score was already 2-0, so the idea that our defeat was due to him is incorrect. He looks completely bereft of confidence, and I don't think he knows what his role is in the team any more. Perhaps if he just stays deep and tries to play the metronome role for a few games, with Rosicky (who was excellent tonight) marauding in front of him, AR can not only gain back a bit of confidence in himself, but also win over quite a few of the fans. Let's not forget, he played 90 minutes when we beat Chelsea earlier this season.

* If we're looking for culprits, I would argue that the likes of Theo and Song had far worse games than Ramsey. Walcott's stats would suggest he's had a good season, but how many games has he this year like the one he had tonight? He was garbage. Song was also completely off his game, giving away a slew of fouls that broke-up our momentum. 

* Sagna also had a torrid night. I was surprised when Moses ended up at Wigan because he was extremely hyped-up as a youngster. A few more performances like tonight, and he'll soon be at a bigger 

* Gary Caldwell is a mug. Don't really need to expand on that.

* Quite quietly, Robin has had a bit of a dip in form. He hasn't scored a goal in open play since we beat Newcastle on March 12. Yes, his chipped penalty was a delight against Wolves, but if we can't get him scoring goals in open play then we definitely look a much less threatening proposition. 

* All credit to Wigan. They may have time-wasted to the nth degree, but they also very effectively nullified us in the second half. The fact we had 23 shots on goal, but only 4 were on target, shows how well they defended. I think they will stay up.

* So, where does this leave us? Frustrated and in a slightly more precarious situation than we might like. We should be 8 points clear of Totts/Newcastle, and 11 clear of Chelsea, but, instead, we remain within striking distance. Norwich at home is probably our easiest remaining fixture. Other than that we have Chelsea at home, and two pretty unappealing away trips to West Brom and Stoke. Unless we beat Chelsea on Saturday, which obviously will not be easy, our passage to Europe may well remain unsecured until the final weekend. Four games to go, and things remain interesting. I suppose that's both a blessing and a curse. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

5 Questions from Arsenal 3 Wolves 0

This is my first attempt at blogging from a smartphone, so it'll be brief and riddled with errors (probably) but here are 5 quick questionable that arise from yesterday's game.

1 - Does the professional foul rule need to be changed when a penalty is awarded?  It seemed a bit ridiculous that the game ender after 10 minutes yesterday after the gentlest of tugs on Theo's shirt. A penalty and red card just seems a bit much for such offences. If it's outside the box, or a Suarez™ handball, maybe a red is needed, but i think decisions like that are unfair, and lead to boring matches. I actually felt for Wolves until Karl Henry came into the picture.

2 - Has Theo had a good season? 11 goals suggests yes, but poor elements in his all- round play means a positive answer can only be equivocal.

3 - Has Yossi done enough for a new deal? I say get him on a rolling one year deal.

4 - Who should be our first choice left back? Santos or Gibbs? I have to go with Santos. He's a Brazilian lateral. He actually plays the joga bonita. He's ace, which isn't to say Gibbs hasn't been impressive this year.

5 - In marks out of 10, how hilarious is spurs' collapse. (N.B. 11 is an acceptable answer).

What do you think? Have at it.

Monday, April 09, 2012

You Need More than Money for Success: Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Man City 0

We left it late, but a richly deserved three points. Thoughts as follows:

* There was a degree of consternation when the line-ups were announced, but it’s hard to know who else Arsene could’ve played. Gervinho was apparently injured, and Ramsey could hardly start after the vitriol he received last week. It was the same XI which started (and won) the game against Spurs, and I think, yet again, Arsene got his team and tactics correct.

* We started the game well, piled on the pressure, and dominated possession. But we didn’t score. Indeed, we didn’t even really create that many chances. While I doubt Man City wanted to concede so much possession, time and space to us, we didn’t really do a lot with it in the first-half. In particular, our penchant for throwing useless crosses into the box was infuriating. We could have done with a little more guile in general when it came to our final ball – if we’d had that, we could have taken the lead much, much earlier.

* When RvP headed the ball towards goal, beat the keeper, and yet was blocked by the head of Thomas Vermaelen, I thought it was going to be one of those days. That impression was only hardened by Robin heading the ball against the post in the second half, and the frankly ridiculous chain of events that saw Walcott have a shot saved, TV mis-kick when faced with an open goal, and then Benayoun dribble the ball onto the post. On another day, all three of those would have easily gone in, and we would have gotten the scoreline we deserved.

 * Another reason why we should have won by a larger margin is that we should have been playing against ten men from about the tenth minute. Balotelli’s studs up challenge on Song was a straight red. In any case, I simply don’t understand why Balotelli was playing. Despite his two goals, he lost the plot last week against Sunderland, and seemed hell-bent on self-destruction in this match from virtually the first minute. Basically, City carried a dangerous passenger for 80 or so minutes. Absurd management from a manager who increasingly appears out of his depth.

* One of the reasons why Balotelli was such a passenger was the monster performances of both Vermaelen and Koscielny. Koscielny may well be my new favourite player. He is pure business when it comes to defending. No histrionics – just gets the job done. After his QPR nightmare last week, it was also good to see TV have a much better game, even if he will be kicking himself for preventing and missing two golden Arsenal chances.

* Nasri – who cares? I mean, really, who fucking cares? In his three years at the club, he had about six months worth of top-level performances. For the rest of the time, he was an average passenger. I couldn’t understand why Mancini thought that Nasri would be so critical to City’s title challenge, and, indeed, he hasn’t been. As far as I’m concerned we got rid of an overrated player for a ton of cash. If anything, we should thank him for being such a greedy bastard.  

* Mikel Arteta – not just our best signing of the season,  but surely one of the shrewdest transfers to take place in Europe last summer. He has been Mr Consistency, worked hard, and kept us ticking over. The antithesis of Nasri, but also, in many respects, a better option than Fabregas, who dominated too much of our playmaking by the end of his time at the club. Arteta has had a superb season, and won over doubters, like myself, that he would only be a mediocre replacement for Cesc. His goal today was brilliant.

* I thought another of our signings also did well when he came on – Santos. With City seemingly, and bizarrely, intent on staying in their own half for the last thirty minutes, we could afford to bring on Santos, who showed some lovely touches and movement during his time on the pitch. I’m really glad we have him. His ‘shoosh’ sign to Balotelli was pure gold.

* I know this is a subject that has been raised many times, but what the hell is Stuart Robson’s problem? Is he not, technically, an Arsenal employee? The vitriol that spewed forth from his mouth about almost every Arsenal player, and even fans at several points, was incredible, frankly. I wish Fox Soccer would give us a bit more Gary Neville, because he has been excellent and impartial every time I’ve heard him.

* This season has been an interesting example of how money doesn’t inherently buy success in football. Liverpool are trundling away in mid-table after blowing almost £100 million on the likes of Carroll, Downing, Adam and Henderson (just think about that for a moment); Man City have just blown the title after spending ridiculous sums on only slightly better players (is Dzeko really that much better than Carroll, for example?). Performing well in the league is a long, arduous task, and you need to build a squad of players who will fight each week for every point, and who will also fight for each other.  After three league games this season, we looked all over the place. But Arsene has bought wisely (well, apart from Park) and knitted a great bunch of players together. Similar, Ferguson has spent less than Mancini, but has built a better team. Mancini can’t seem to motivate his players, and some of his tactical decision making has been baffling. 

For us, the only question now is can we build on this result and entrench ourselves in third place. It’s highly annoying that Chelsea benefitted from ridiculous decisions yesterday, because otherwise we would be cruising towards the Champions League. As it is, we’re still only five points clear of fifth place, and we have some tough fixtures coming up. I think the team now has momentum, and we should now be the favourites for third, let alone fourth, even with our/spurs/chelsea’s fixtures. But there’s a long way to go, and we cannot get complacent. The team and manager have done so much to restore the relationship between them and the fans since September – let’s not blow it now.