Sunday, August 26, 2012

Reasons for Optimism; Reasons for Concern: 11 Thoughts on Stoke 0 Arsenal 0

Note to self - don't stay up until 3 AM the night before an Arsenal game, if said AFC game starts at 8.30 AM. Thank you Motorola, and your ridiculously aggressive phone alarm. Anyway, thoughts as follows:

* If there was one name that stuck out on the team sheet, it was Mannone. I feared the worst, but we actually defended pretty well, leaving Vito with relatively little to do. When he was called upon, he acted fairly decisively. Luckily, Stoke's attacking ambitions were very limited. Hopefully Szczesny will have recovered by next week, because whoever is in goal will have much more to do at Anfield, and I don't think Mannone is up to the task.

* Mertesacker had a quietly efficient performance, once again. I really like him as a player - just a pure defender who reads the game, and gets shit done. He's a defender that prevents attacks as much as he reacts to them, which has been rare to see in the Wenger years. Vermaelen will always pick up more of the plaudits owing to his all-action style, but it's hard to say that he's a fundamentally better defender than Mertesacker. Indeed, this raises a problem. When Koscielny returns, logically Mertesacker will have to be dropped, as Vermaelen is captain. But I think our strongest defensive pairing in defence includes Mertesacker, whether it's with Koz or Vermaelen. This is why I was opposed to the Vermaelen captaincy - I don't think he should be a guaranteed starter in the side. You could call this a "nice headache," and I'm sure injuries will soon limit our options. But I worry that Arsene sees a Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership as our strongest pairing, and I don't want Per to be dropped.

* It's also why I'm a bit surprised we're supposedly in the market for another defender. We are actually very well stocked in terms of defence at the moment. Santos has already been reduced to cryptically passive-aggresive tweets about a lack of playing time, and Jenkinson had deputised ably for Sagna so far (who is supposedly close to a return himself). The best aspect of our opening two games has been our defence - a real reason for optimism after so many disasters in this area in recent years. It's why I don't totally buy reports that we are interested in Yanga-Mbiwa, unless, maybe, Djourou is on his way out.

* To get back to the actual game, we probably should have scored one goal via a penalty. I was unsure at the time, but multiple viewings seem to pretty conclusively show that Wilkinson deliberately handled in the box early on in the game. To almost add injury to insult, he also almost crippled Vermaelen in the second half, with an outrageous foul on the edge of the area. What a dick.

* If there was ever a fanbase that deserved their team, it's Stoke. Apparently, if someone breaks your leg and almost ends your career through a horrendous, needless, absurdly dangerous tackle, this is but a minor crime. To not accept the apology of your assailant - well, this is much worse. The booing of Aaron Ramsey was sadly predictable today. This isn't banter, it isn't even mass stupidity. It's simply vicious cruelty from thugs. Since moving to the US, I've found myself sticking up for the UK and England a lot - I think it's a common reflex action among ex-pats. But large sections of the Stoke fanbase are the utter dregs of British society, the part of my country for which I can find no excuse. One day they will be relegated, Pulis will get fired, and they'll return to the hovel from whence they came. One day.  

* Anyway, Stoke are such an admirable, brave side that they shut up shop and played for a 0-0 draw from about the 10th minute of the game. What heroes. This helped our defensive effort, yet frustrated our attacks. We had a lot of the ball (67% possession) but lacked sufficient guile and inventiveness to break through the massed ranks of Orcs. Indeed, despite our dominance, Begovic only had to make one save all afternoon, which is always disappointing.

* This hints at a recurring problem. Selling top players each summer, whether they are replaced or not, means we have to wait for a new set of players to gel. And when you've sold your top scorer, and your top provider of assists, it's no surprise that we struggled offensively. This is a side of the "don't sell your top players all the time" issue that people often miss. Even if we do replace said players, football is a team game, and you can't directly replace the team that they were part of - you have to build a new one, and drop points while this happens. I'm quietly confident that our new players will come good, but it's frustrating that we now seem to treat the August fixtures as part of an extended preseason. We used to thrash teams in August - now we stagger through until the end of the transfer market, and fail to put points on the board in the process.

* As already noted, I thought all three of our new signings played well. Giroud is clearly a cut above the dross that we are trying to shift, even if I wish he would have played Ramsey in at the end, rather than going for the spectacular. Cazorla looked good again, although it is a little worrying that he seemingly wants to play relatively deep. I was hoping that he might drive into the box more than he has - maybe this side of his game is still to come. Podolski looked powerful and dangerous - a goal would have been nice, though.

* Two players who did not play well, by contrast, were Gervinho and Theo. People keep on mentioning the slow starts of former greats, but I really can't see the same happening with Gervinho. There are only so many times he can fail to produce an end-product before you wonder whether he is capable of doing so at this level. Theo was abject again, and I will go on record as saying that I am happy to sell him this week if a decent bid comes in. He is not worth whatever he is asking for in a new contract. Maybe when the window is shut, and he realizes that he's not going anywhere, his form will pick up. But at the moment, he has produced two very poor performances thus far this season.

* Diaby completed 90 minutes! Wow. If he could get a shot on target from six yards, then I really would be optimistic. In all seriousness, apart from his dreadful miss, he produced a few decent moments during the game. I just wish he could drive forward through midfield more often. It's a strong point in his game that he doesn't seem to exploit enough.

* Overall, this would usually be a fairly decent result. Returning from Mordor with a point and our players' limbs intact is no bad thing. But that's four points dropped from two games that we dominated. When it comes to the end of the season, those four points might be the difference between fifth and fourth, or even better. I know almost all clubs try and get last minute deals done, but we seem to make it club policy, and it means we have started the last two seasons notably underprepared. Might we have won today with the additional inventiveness of Sahin on the pitch? Maybe - and I'm a bit pissed off that we yet again refused to speculate and bring in a player who was the best in Germany just two years ago, whatever the exact details of his loan agreement.

You can't help but feel that this is going to be a frantic week at the club, and I know that more deals will be attempted than will be completed. I think the team needs a little bit more attacking spark, given the departures. It might also be nice to make a "statement of intent" signing, rather than just looking around for whoever we can get on the cheap. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. But I'm fairly certain the transfer activity of this week will define the rest of our season. Let's hope we're all happy on Saturday morning.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Alex Song and the Ultimate Betrayal of Arsene Wenger's Youth Project

I remember quite vividly Alex Song's debut for Arsenal. We were coasting through the final minutes of a relatively routine home win over Everton in the autumn of 2005 when Arsene decided to introduce the slightly mysterious loan signing we had made that summer. Song ambled around the pitch for a few minutes, and repeatedly gave away the ball. It was hardly an auspicious debut, and I remember thinking that the young player looked hopelessly out of his depth. But, given that it was only a little more than a year since our league triumph in 2004, Arsene had a considerable amount of goodwill in reserve, and few were going to question his judgement when it came to young players.

Fast forward about a year, and Arsenal are playing Fulham at Craven Cottage. Despite only having a handful of first team appearances under his belt, Arsenal had turned Song's loan into a permanent transfer in the summer of 2006. Yet this was, to my knowledge, his first league start. Song was destroyed that evening by, of all people, Luis Boa-Morte. Again, the young Cameroonian looked completely out of place in the Arsenal line-up. The Arsenal fans in the away end (or at least a good deal of them) chanted "we want Cesc Fabregas" repeatedly, and Song was withdrawn at half-time. Most thought that we wouldn't see him again.

A loan move to Charlton in January 2007 seemed to mark the beginning of the end to Song's odd Arsenal career. Instead, it was perhaps the start. Song impressed while on loan at The Valley, and began to slowly insinuate himself into Wenger's plans the following season. After Philippe Senderos was destroyed by Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final, Song was drafted in to play at centre-back at Old Trafford in a pivotal league game in April 2008. He, to my surprise, acquitted himself quite well, despite our 2-1 defeat, and his stock rose considerably among Arsenal fans.

In the summer following our last serious league challenge under Wenger, we lost Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva. Coupled to the loss of Lassana Diarra in January 2008, Arsenal fans fully expected Wenger to buy a defensive midfielder in the summer of 2008. Instead, we bought Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikael Silvestre. Opportunities were given to Song, Denilson, and Diaby in the central midfield positions that season, and Song slowly began to show why Arsene had persisted with him for so long.

During the 2008 to 2010 period, Song showed that he had the potential to become a world-class defensive midfielder. He kept thing simple. He had a knack for reading the game. He knew that laying the ball off to Fabregas was usually the best idea. And he gradually grew into a solid part of the Arsenal starting XI.

I'm not sure at what point something changed, but from 2010, Song began to get ideas above his station. Particularly during last season, with Areta's arrival and Cesc's departure, Song frequently began to go walkabout, spraying hollywood balls around the pitch (with mixed success, whatever his successful through-ball tally says) and generally leaving the defence exposed in a way he had never done previously.

There was, in short, a progressively growing sense that Song was a wanker; that he seemed more concerned with being the team's maestro than ensuring that the team, y'know, actually won. The arrogance that had grown with his game bloomed in the absurd 3-3 draw against Norwich last season, where he simply could not be bothered to track back and cover the defence when the game became stretched, directly contributing to perhaps two of Norwich's goals.

Now, Song may well have been told to play in an more attacking manner by Arsene last season. But if you see your team is being overloaded in defence, you help out. You don't shrug and walk off, as Song did on at least one occasion during the game against Norwich.

This is all a big way of saying one thing. In my opinion, Song would not be a top-flight player were it not for Arsene. Wenger plucked Song from relative obscurity, and stuck by him after a series of disastrous performances, which led a majority of the fan-base to question why the hell he was at the club. Thanks to Arsene's faith, Song grew into a pretty decent player. But, perhaps in part to the faith that was shown in him, Song's ego then grew to a size that could no longer be kept within the confines of the Emirates stadium.

After the match today, Arsene said, "He [song] expressed a desire to go to Barcelona."

Let's just consider that for a moment. After everything Arsene had done for Song, he turned round and agitated for a move this summer. Based on a number of accounts, Song's agent has been hawking his player around Europe, despite Song having three years left on his current deal. Moreover, Song's attitude in training has been extremely poor, according to multiple sources.

This is, in a a microcosm, both the fatal flaw and the ultimate betrayal of the Wenger youth project. Like all beautiful ideals, it relied upon a fundamentally optimistic interpretation of human nature. Wenger believed that after carefully nurturing his young charges, they would turn around and reward him with loyalty. Instead, why don't we ask van Persie, Fabregas, Nasri, and now Song what their definition of loyalty is.

Football is a game that is obsessed with short-term thinking. Song's agent wants his commission. Young players at Arsenal want the rewards of success without having achieved it.

In the end, Wenger's youth project has achieved almost none of the objectives it sought, except that of keeping Arsenal in the Champions League. Instead of producing a generation of players who had been developed together, and who would thus have an unbreakable team bond, it has fermented a group of egomaniacs, who care about themselves above all else, owing to the unshakable belief in their own ability that Wenger gave them.

Arsene obviously deserves better than this. He is a visionary coach, hampered by his own idealistic view of sport, art, and the world. Who knows what Song's future career will bring. But he has acted disgracefully this summer, and betrayed his mentor. Good riddance not just to him, but to all those who betrayed the faith put in them by Arsene Wenger.

It's Could be a Long, Long Season: 11 Thoughts on Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0

Are you still awake? If so, thoughts as follows.

* It was an interesting line-up that hinted at the current pecking order within the Arsenal squad. Jenkinson is going to be given a chance at right-back in Sagna's absence, rather than Coquelin or Yennaris being asked to fill in. Gibbs is currently a starter ahead of Santos, and Diaby will probably be preferred to Ramsey, if it comes down to a choice between the two. People may say that the line-up today was based on a certain amount of tactical reasoning, but, really, Arsene is one of those managers who does have a first XI, and often tries to pick as close to it as he can. (Indeed, he is notably less of a tinkerer than, say, Ferguson, to Wenger's detriment, in my opinion.)

* People will accuse Sunderland of playing negatively, and for large swathes of the game they were content to stay in their own half. But they had a series of good chances in the first half, and could easily have nicked the game thanks to a few defensive lapses on our part. We still look like a side that can always give the opposition a goal, but Per and captain TV were solid for the most part.

* Fundamentally, we looked disjointed. The beauty of club football, when done correctly, is that allows individuals to become a truly cohesive unit by playing with each other over a period of weeks, months, and even years. Today, on more than one occasion, I saw players run into each other. Put simply, a lot of players seemed unsure with their positioning. In particular, their was a real lack of understanding  between the banks of players - attackers ran into midfielders, and midfielders left huge gaps behind them, as they were unsure about who was meant to be shield the defence. Yes, we have a lot of new players, but isn't this a consistent problem for us in recent years? More on that in a bit.

* Cazorla looked bright. He is clearly a very talented footballer - a smaller, swifter, and perhaps fuller realization of the player Cesc was and might become. His pass to put in Giroud towards the end was breathtaking - a moment of world-class talent that lit up the entire game. Considering he'd flown to Puerto Rico and back this week (fuck you FIFA), it was quite the impressive debut. As long as he doesn't slip into a comfort zone of flashy, but ultimately ineffective passing, he could be quite the player for us.

* Gervinho was the other real highlight. He looked like a player with a point to prove, and opened up the Sunderland defence on a number of occasions. But, he still seems to be a player who lacks an end product. Beating a few players and creating space is useless if you then fall over/give away the ball, or just blast the ball into a cluster of players. Fairly or not, attacking midfielders are graded on their goals and assists, and he provided neither today.

* It's safe to say, however, that Gervinho was a lot better than Walcott, who was, frankly, appalling. His first involvement in the game was to miscontrol a pass, and let it bounce into touch. It set the tone for his performance. Symbolically, I think it's important that Theo gets a new deal, and the fact he was on the pitch today suggests he will be signing a new contract. But I just can't help but feel that he really isn't very good. If he can't grab games like these by the scruff of the neck and make a difference, when is he going to become a top player?

* One thing which was noticeable was the lack of overlapping runs by the full-backs. I fully expected Santos to appear as a means by which we could push forward on the flanks. Jenkinson did OK, but we missed Sagna's bombing forward runs.

* So Song has gone - more on that in a later post. For now, it was clear that his absence equated to a confused midfield. Diaby does not have the discipline to play as a defensive midfielder, and strolled round the pitch in his vaguely effective manner, as is his wont. This season is surely make or break (perhaps literally) for Diaby, so he will be given a chance, but I wonder if he really has the grit to make it as a top-level midfielder. Arteta does - he dropped in when it was clear that Diaby was going walkabout, and did a job, as he always does. I honestly love Arteta at this point. He is majestic. If only we'd bought him earlier. Judging by today, though, we need reinforcements in midfield. Ramsey was poor. Sahin may well come in, but is he what we need? We already have the player we really need  - but when will we see our new number 10 in an Arsenal shirt?

* Giroud - undeniably handsome, but it's hard not to worry about him. One decent season in Ligue Un could mean anything. Today, he could have won the game, but missed the target with the best chance of the game. Taking chances like that is the difference between 1st place and 4th place. Let's hope he settles down soon, because I am terrified of having another Chamakh on our hands.

* I fully admit to chuckling when I saw Arshavin coming on. I didn't think that we'd see the little Russian in an Arsenal shirt again, and there's something slightly poignant about the fact that he won more trophies in a three month loan spell at Zenit than he has done during his entire AFC career thus far. I would still wager on him leaving before the window shuts, but who knows? I've always been a fan, and maybe a second act to his Arsenal career beckons.

* Today, in all honesty, was weird. The season seems to have started far too early (for once) after the Olympics and the Euros. Moreover, it really felt like a lot of people were putting on a brave face when confronted with what's been a depressing week. The fact is, we can crow about getting a good deal for van Persie, but, ultimately, we've sold our best player to a team that have left us behind. We now seem to lose our top players each summer because we no longer compete for trophies. And this puts us into a repeated, vicious cycle, where new sets of players have to try and gel as rapidly as possible, in order to keep us in the champions league qualification places.

If van Persie plays today, we win. And I'd rather win games and trophies than bank another cheque. Yes, we've bought three players this summer who may well be very good. But I still feel we need more. Otherwise, get ready for another long, frustrating season.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Are We Being Left Behind? Robin van Persie and Manchester United.

I started watching football, and supporting Arsenal, in the early 90s. My first footballing memories are of us winning the league in 1991, followed by the cups that we won in the following years. But, I suppose more than anything, I was a child of two domestic football trends: the birth and subsequent explosive popularity of the Premier League, and the dominance of Manchester United of English football.

After our triumph in '91, every year seemed to be marked by Manchester United winning the league (it seemed). I have no affinity to Blackburn whatsoever, but I, like many others I assume, almost celebrated their league triumph in '95, as it seemed to break the monotony of United's inevitable league championships.

United's dominance manifested itself in other ways. They were the preferred choice of most school kids, who, thanks to Sky, were suddenly able to watch tons of United games while safely ensconced miles away from Manchester. I suppose most of these kids now support City or Chelsea, or maybe even Barca, but they were all United in the 90s.

To cut a rambling introduction short, I grew up hating Manchester United. Much more than Spurs -  who, let's face it, we've hated for almost old time's sake for most of the last twenty years. Before Arsene arrived, United were the annoying oversuccessful team that won fucking everything; and, after Arsene arrived, United became our fiercest rivals in a series of compelling league championships. And then, just as it seemed that we'd finally destroyed Fergie and his evil minions in 2004, along came Chelsea's petrodollars and the expense of our new stadium. We subsequently disappeared from the pack of serious title challengers, while United regrouped and came back, if anything, even stronger.

While Chelsea may have replaced United as the opposing team that I now detest the most, you can never fully jettison the raw emotions of childhood, and the games with United are still probably the two I dread/look forward to most each year.

So, the prospect of selling our best players to United hurts. Chelsea and City? Well, we can ascribe it to pure greed. But with United, there is the undeniable tinge of pain that comes from a broader realization - we've been left behind. Even with all the debt that the Glazers have put onto United, they have seriously competed for the league title, and even won it, in the years since petrodollars became a factor in the Premier League. We, on the other hand, have dabbled with a failed youth project, and now face a yearly saga in which our best players want to leave once they've lined up a sufficient number of potential suitors. And they want to leave not just because of the money, but because, to put in bluntly, we've stopped winning trophies. We can try and pretend it away through accusations of greed - and this is a huge factor, obviously - but players want to win stuff, and we haven't been able to seriously offer them that in recent years.

Selling Robin van Persie makes sense on a number of levels - many of which I've outlined here. In short, he's old, injury prone, and he's never going to have a season as good as he had last year. (7AM Kickoff has the stats somewhere, but, basically, it's very rare for Golden Boot winners to score anywhere the same level of goals in the next season.) If we are to be rational economists about this, we should sell at the peak value of our asset, especially when we are offered 22m + 2m potential add-ons.

But, we're football fans, and hence irrational. To me, today marked a potentially sad day in the club's history. It's one thing for Cesc and Thierry to go to Barca; it's another for us to sell our best player to a team we used to rival for the league, but who have left us in their dust.

Hopefully, this is an absurdly over-pessimistic interpretation of events. But I can't help but feel a bit down after they events today. Despite our signings thus far this summer, it still feels like we've taken a step back after taking a few tentative steps forward. I suppose we'll see where we are on August 31st, and then in May 2013, but I hope, at the very least, that the club reinvest this money in the squad, rather than just bank it, as they have been inclined to do so in recent years. If not, our entrenchment as a second-tier team within the Premier League will continue, and events like today will become the norm, rather than the exception.