Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Defeat Entirely of our Own Making: Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2

After two enjoyable goal-fests, a horrible result against a horrible team. Thoughts as follows:

* Let's get straight to it - the decision to drop Mertesacker was absurd. Utterly, utterly absurd. I don't want to try and paint Per as some Baresi-esque defensive titan, but he has been our best centre-back this season. The argument can be made, and I'm sure it partly lay behind Arsene's decision, that Koscielny and Vermaelen were more tactically suited to Chelsea's collection of smaller, technical players, especially now the nightmare of having to face Didier Drogba is thankfully a thing of the past. This argument is, frankly, rubbish. If you have a player who's on the absolute top of his game, you play him. It reminded me a little of two incidents in Wenger's reign. Firstly, when Arshavin was dropped for the semi-final of the FA Cup in 2009, and secondly, when Senderos was dropped for the champions league tie against AC Milan. The first was a supposedly tactical decision (Diaby was the beneficiary); the second simply seemed to be a case of dropping an in-form player, as soon as Wenger's preferred player became available. Both incidents send out the troubling message that Arsene has preferred personnel within the squad, regardless of current form. And neither decision led to a positive result.

We saw repeatedly when Gallas and Toure played together in defence that having two similar centre-backs, who both rely on recovery pace, doesn't work. You need to have players who compliment each other, in order to make a team that is fully whole. Instead, Wenger has made Vermaelen captain, despite the fact he should not be an automatic starter. This leaves AW with the choice of either Koscielny and Mertesacker, and I simply feel that Arsene will always favour a Koscielny-style player. Let's hope today was a wake-up call, because I don't think we would have lost the game if Per had played (or at least not have lost it in the manner we did). I think Arsene tinkered our defence to destruction today, in short.

* Both Vermaelen and Koscielny had very poor games. Koscielny, owing to the fact he was "marking" Torres for the first goal, and essentially scored an own goal for the second, will legitimately come in for criticism. But Vermalen was equally as poor. He did his usual running around like a headless chicken routine, giving away needless free-kicks in dangerous positions - which led directly to the second goal. I also thought he struggled with Torres throughout the game. For me, Vermaelen is our third-best centre-back, and has been for sometime. I've always loved his spirit and penchant for getting vital goals, but he is simply not as good at defending as Koscielny and Mertesacker, who should be our first choice partnership in central defence. Arsene now has genuine dilemma over who to pick, but it is one of his own making.

* Here's a thought - it's probably not a great idea to make a player that suffers from multiple, chronic injuries the lynchpin of your midfield. I've had it with Diaby. In fact, I'd had it with him last year, before his 'blistering start' to this season in which he's already been injured twice, and it's not even October. That is ludicrous. He is not a proper football player. Get rid of him, and buy someone we can actually rely on to play on  a regular basis. 

* Mannone had very little to do today, but he should have done better on both goals. For the first, he actually backs away from the shot - I really can't work out what he was doing. For the second, yes he was unsighted by Koscielny, but in those situations you need a dominate goalkeeper who come and claim the ball when it's pinging around the box. Instead, he remained rooted to his line, doing his best "jazz hands" impression. I was struck today, while watching the Spurs vs Man Utd game, that the four goalkeepers involved in that match are arguably better than all of the keepers we currently have at the club. Better goalkeeping could have turned today's game into a draw, and last week's match into a win. We should have invested in this position over the summer. Instead we have a selection of dubious reserve keepers, with Szcz still at this stage only an unproven talent. By my calculations, we haven't had a goalkeeper that I've fully tusted since Jens in 2006-07. That is unforgivable.

* Gervinho scored a brilliant goal. That cannot be denied. He controlled a pass that was fizzed in at speed, and smashed it past Cech. But did he do much else? I'm not sure. He also showed a horrible penchant for being caught offside, which he needs to cut out of his game.

* Still, once Gervinho had scored, the spirit of the team, and the crowd, was palpably lifted, and I felt confident that we would score again. We started brightly in the second half, but were quickly deflated by the ridiculous second goal that we conceded. After that, much of the rest of the performance was thoroughly, and perhaps shamefully, underwhelming.

* Something happened today that I've been worried about since the first game of the season - Cazorla was nullified by Chelsea, and, with it, so were we, by and large. Cazorla has been given such an important role in the team that I worry teams will focus on trying to stop him in the coming weeks. In short, i wouldn't be surprised to see him go through a little dip in form, after his blazing start to the season. I also thought that Ramsey, after such a strong performance in Manchester, disappointed.

* Our three best players were Arteta, Jenkinson, and Gibbs. Praising Arteta has become almost a cliche by now, but he really seemed to be one of the few players trying to inject some urgency into proceedings during the later stages of the game. Our full-backs have perhaps been the revelation of this season. Neither of the goals were due to their errors, and both looked strong coming forward as well. At this stage, Gibbs is rightly keeping Santos on the bench. And with contract renewal discussions also apparently beginning with Sagna, it may be interesting to see if Jenkinson keeps his place in the team, given Sagna's imminent return. A small word for Chamberlain, who had his strongest league performance of the season. He provided an excellent assist, even if, by the end, it didn't seem if he really knew where he was meant to be playing on the pitch.

* Theo and Giroud were introduced as subs slightly earlier than last week, which is something, but neither particularly impressed. Theo, according to, only touched the ball nine times after he came on. Not a great advert for a new contract. Giroud seemed to be more involved, but still missed a great chance at the end. On Twitter, Orbinho revealed that Giroud has now had eleven shots on goal in the league, and only one has been on target. That is not good enough. Giroud may well turn into a handy player for us - but he's clearly not a top striker. I can't see him scoring over 20 goals a year.He's fine as a back-up player, but his inability to be clinical in front of goal has now cost us multiple points in the league. Worrying.

* Perhaps just as worrying is Podolski's almost total anonymity in our last two matches. I think he has been great in general so far this season, but he's clearly not comfortable at leading the line in the way that van Persie used to do. At the moment, our striker-less attack can look great on some days, and utterly toothless on others.

* Overall, this was largely a defeat of our own making. Chelsea are, frankly, not a particularly great team at present. They are nowhere near the terrifying outfit that Mourinho put together - they are an eminently beatable side. Today, thanks to poor defending, we more or less handed them the win. The game reminded me a bit of our 2-1 home defeat against Man Utd in January this year, where defensive incompetency and poor tactical decisions also cost us the game.

If we're serious about challenging for the league, this is the type of game you win, or at least draw. Instead, there are areas of concern all over the pitch. At our worst, we still look like a team that struggles to not make stupid mistakes, and has now lost the trump card that was van Persie. With Spurs also looking handy today against Man United, I would say that we're headed towards another battle for fourth place this year, and another season of not seriously challenging for the title.

* Lastly - John Terry is a despicable human being, and the four game ban he received from the FA is an insult to anyone who is serious about removing racism and racial abuse from the game. And yet many Chelsea fans continue to laud him as a hero. It's a sad state of affairs, and the sooner he retires for good, and the game is finally rid of him, the better.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Good Point, or A Missed Opportunity? 10 Thoughts on Manchester City 1 Arsenal 1.

A engrossing match at the Etihad today. Thoughts as follows:

* I was surprised by the line-ups when I saw them. For City, playing Aguero behind Dzeko seemed like a classic case of trying to awkwardly shoe-horn your in-form striker into the side, at the expense of the team's overall coherency. While Dzeko has been banging in the goals recently (I maintain he's underrated) I was relieved to not see the trickier Tevez in the starting line-up. The selection of Sinclair in such a big game was more bizarre, and he was hauled off at half-time, having not done very much at all. In terms of us, it was good to see Koz back in the side, even if it was only because of Vermaelen being stricken by flu. The other surprise was Ramsey in for the Ox, and I think this was ultimately a good move (more on that in a bit).

* We dominated the first half, and should have gone in ahead. We now have the ability to knock the ball around very quickly, without things descending into the tiki-taka mess that occurred so frequently during the Cesc years. That said, we missed having a central focus to our attacks. Podolski was nominally playing as a centre forward, but dropped deep so often, or onto the wings, that it wasn't always clear where the ball should be going in the final third. It also meant that we didn't really test Hart as much as we should have done.

* Our best chance of the half fell to Gervinho, who was put through by a beautiful pass from Ramsey. Gervinho's first touch was so heavy that it would have collapsed in on itself and become a black hole had Hart not smothered it. It summed up a frustrating performance from the Ivorian. After two productive games, he reverted to type, and squandered a number of good opportunities. In particular, not only did he blast over late on in the match when presented with a clear sight of goal, he also failed to put in the much better placed Giroud. Gervinho clearly has a great deal of ability, but he must be more consistent and clinical if we're going to rely on him as a first choice player.

* The same can definitely be said for Diaby. After a poor performance against Montpellier, I thought he was poor again against City. By the second half, he was repeatedly giving the ball away, and taking those extra, unnecessary touches that so often cost us possession. Yes, he gives us some much needed height and presence in midfield - but I thought we improved when he exited the game, and he seemed to be the flaky Diaby of old, unfortunately.

* After a mostly great first half in which we failed to press home our advantage, we conceded in an utterly needless fashion. I've been waiting for a big mistake from Mannone, and, unfortunately, here it was. The goal was nothing to do with zonal marking - Mannone shouldn't have come for the ball, but, because he did, he basically prevented defenders from challenging Lescott in the air. If he stays on his line, it's a relatively routine save. Mannone did pull off a number of good reaction saves later in the game - particularly from Kompany just after we'd scored. But goalkeeper is, unfortunately, quickly becoming a problem position at the club.

* We were lethargic for much of the start of the second half, and I worried that the flaky Arsenal of old had reappeared. One player who looked good throughout, however, was Ramsey. This was one of his best performances for a long time, and a huge weight seems to have been lifted from his shoulders with the signing of Cazorla. Freed from the burden of being a Cesc-like playmaker, Ramsey has greater freedom to make those penetrative runs he's so good at, which often end with a good pass, and a shot on goal. Personally, I would have hauled off Diaby much earlier, and put on Giroud - Ramsey, Arteta, and Cazorla looked largely in control in midfield, but they needed a central outlet to get the ball to, which Podolski was not providing.

* Giroud and Walcott didn't do much with the ball once they come on. Theo appeared to largely give the ball away with the few touches he had, in fact.But they did help to further change the shape of the game. City defended even deeper, and our attacking midfielders also had a little more time and space thanks to Giroud's presence in the centre. Indeed, I think the substitutions clearly invigorated the team, and I wish Arsene would change things earlier in games where we clearly need a spark to get things going.

* Koscielny returned for his first game of the season and was superb. Given that Mertesacker was, I would argue, even better, (and my MOTM) the dilemma that I talked about earlier in the season has now reared its head. Given that Vermaelen is captain, one of Koscielny or Mertesacker has to be dropped for the game against Chelsea, barring a midweek injury. That's not fair, or good for the team. It will be very interesting to see who lines-up against Torres et al. next weekend. Ferguson has successfully rotated his centre-backs so far this season, and Arsene will have to show similar ingenuity.

* A little more on Mertesacker, who has been awesome in every game so far this season. It's wonderful to see a defender who truly knows how to read the game, and who stops other players through calm, well-timed interceptions. Frankly, he's undroppable at the moment. So, despite his goal, I think Koscielny may well find himself back on the bench next Saturday.

* Ultimately, was today a point gained or two points lost? It's always great to get a late goal, and Man City are unbeaten in their last 32 games at the Etihad. Of those 32 games, they've won 29. It may well be the hardest ground in the Premier League for a travelling team to get a result. The draw also highlighted the great team spirit that now appears to exist within the squad. But, at the end, I felt this was a game we should have won. To go to City's ground and largely dominate, with 59 percent of total possession, is remarkable, and our dominance should have been translated into a win. It's great to keep our unbeaten start to the season, but   today might ultimately go down as a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Good Result, and Lots to Talk About: 12 Thoughts on Montpellier 1 Arsenal 2

I have to admit it - I am jealous if you made the game. Arsenal winning, and a trip to the south of France to boot? It surely doesn't get much better than that. Anyway, a close win, and lot's to talk about.

* The selection - I'll talk about this more in my summing up, but I was very surprised when I saw the team sheet. In many respects, I can't really argue with the team that Arsene picked - it won the game after all. But I though tonight might be a chance to let the likes of Santos, Koscielny, and Ramsey get a run out, and maybe rotate a few other players in the squad as well. Given how narrow the victory was, it was probably wise to start with our best XI - but it was clear that a few players looked knackered by the end. More on that in a bit.

* I thought it was a penalty, and Vermaelen can't really have too many complaints. His game is an all-action affair, often based around busting a gut to make crucial tackles and interceptions, rather than the more composed performances that we see from Mertesacker. Unfortunately, not all of Vermaelen's tackles in and around the box are going to come off, and at least he conceded a penalty in a game we ultimately won. Still, it's an occasionally worrying aspect of his game.

* Note to all penalty takers in Europe - we get it, you watched Pirlo at the Euros. Very few people can take a Panenka without looking insufferably smug, so stop doing it please.

* It says a lot about the spirit of this new team that there was very little wallowing after we conceded. The team just got back up and put itself in the lead. Podolski's goal was a beauty - intricate passing created the chance, and Lukas was clinical in front of goal. As a I said on Sunday, I've never been fully convinced by Podolski before he arrived at Arsenal, but his effort, and his ability to put away chances have been brilliant to watch. He's quickly becoming a favourite player, especially because he seems to recognize the importance of interacting with the fans as well.

* The passing before the goal featured, unsurprisingly, Cazorla, who is now seemingly integral to our ability to direct traffic in the final third of the pitch. My growing concern with Cazorla is that he is being deployed in a manner which makes him very hard to replace - he looked very tired by the end of the match tonight, and he will undoubtedly play 90 minutes on the weekend, after playing almost every minute of the season so far.  Let's hope we aren't burning such a great player into the ground.

* The other heartening part of the Podolski goal was the lovely final pass from Giroud. He may not have a goal to his name, yet, but he now has an assist, and it was a good one. He showed great strength to hold off the defender, and a deft touch to flick the ball through to Poldi. Interestingly, while he did not have a shot on target, he did win seven aerial duels during the game. As I've noted previously, Giroud is undoubtedly not going to be the guy that replaces RvP's goals, but he may well be a very useful player to have in the final third nonetheless - his combination of strength, height, and quick feet may even be the long vaunted "plan b" that we've talked about for so long. That said, I would be tempted to start him against Coventry, if he doesn't score against Man City, because he needs to get off the mark.

* Gervinho scored again, and it's hard not to get excited about his peformances in the last two games. You get the impression that he's a confidence player, and it's a welcome return to form from a player who looked lost in the second half of last season - great to see.

* The other notable aspect of the Gervinho goal was the lovely assist from Jenkinson. I've felt for a while now that Jenks has the ability to be a solid full-back, but I was worried that he might not be able to adequately replace the attacking threat that Sagna brings to our right-flank. Well, tonight he showed that he might just be developing that side of his game. A few more performances like that, and Arsene may have a genuine selection dilemma on his hand when Bak returns from injury. 

* The second half was a pretty painful affair. If we're being honest, Montpellier should have equalised. In particular, Belhanda squandered a great opportunity, with an almost free shot on goal within the six yard box late on in the game. I suppose that's the natural karmic response to a panenka.

*In seriousness, it seemed that as the game wore on, our midfield looked increasingly ragged, repeatedly leaving our defence exposed with sloppy passes. Diaby, in particular, almost completely fell apart in the second half, and made a few very tired challenges for which he might well have received a second yellow card. I know he was returning from injury, but it's performances like today's that make me a little uneasy about the hype surrounding Diaby. He really struggled in the match tonight, and I was very surprised to see him complete 90 minutes, especially with Ramsey and Coquelin on the bench.

* One thing I thought I'd never say is this - Mannone looked pretty assured between the sticks. Late on, he plucked the ball out of the air when under pressure, when I fully expected him to drop it. Perhaps all those bruising nights in the Championship have paid off? I still don't think he's the answer, and you get the feeling that an enormous clanger is just around the corner, but with Szcz both injured and looking uncertain in his one league performance this season, maybe, just maybe, Mannone may become a more permanent fixture in the starting XI. I doubt it, though.

* Overall then, a good win. We rode our luck heavily during the second half, but we're coming back from the south of France with three points, and it sets us up very nicely in the group.

My one concern remains squad depth. I think we have a better starting eleven at our disposal than I thought on transfer deadline day, especially with Diaby and Wilshere apparently having turned the corner on their fitness issues. But players like Cazorla, Arteta, and Podolski have already logged a lot of hours so far this season, and Wenger seems reluctant, at the moment, to change a winning team. That's fair enough, I suppose - I'm not going to complain while we're winning. But there will come a point when we have to shake things up a bit - and let's hope that it's not because of fatigue-induced injuries.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

At Sixs, but Not Quite Sevens: 12 Thoughts on Arsenal 6 Southampton 1

Well, that was enjoyable wasn't it? Thoughts as follows.

* Let me get some negatives out of the way first. Overall, I found the game reminiscent of the 6-0 drubbing we meted out to Blackpool in 2010. In both cases, we were playing newly promoted teams at the start of the season, and, in both cases, naive defending led us to score a barrel-full of goals. Yet, after a promising start, the 2010 season ultimately ended in that dreadful three month period following the Carling Cup final, when we basically stopped winning games. In short, the season is still very young, and, impressive as yesterday was, let's not rush to conclusions about this team just yet.

* The other negative from yesterday, which has to be mentioned, was Szczesny's performance. The cherry on top of yesterday's delicious cake would have been another clean sheet - instead, we handed them a goal (almost literally). While Jenkinson did block Szcz's path, Szcz should have cleared him out and caught the ball. Instead, and weirdly for a keeper who is so confident, Szcz seemed to hesitate, and dropped the ball through indecisiveness. One wonders if he's fully fit (and if he wasn't, it says a lot about what Arsene thinks of Mannone). The other negative from Szcz's performance was a rash of poor kicks in the second half - an area of his game he really needs to improve upon. It's sad to say, but, as it currently stands, Szcz is now the weak link in our massively improved defence. He clearly has bags of potential, but I know no longer feel as confident about him between the sticks as I once did.

* After so many games/years in which we've started slowly, it was great to see us race out of the blocks, and end the game before half-time. Winning games in the second-half is great, but it's obviously a good thing if we can conserve a little energy by smashing our opponents in the first half.

* It's easy to say that own goals are "lucky/unlucky", but, really, they often aren't. Both the own goals that Southampton conceded yesterday were caused by us pressurizing them into making mistakes.

* It's easy to force teams into making mistakes if you've got a guy like Podolski on your team. I admit to being skeptical about his signing, but, so far, I am more than happy to be proved wrong. I knew that Poldi would get us some goals, but what I hadn't anticipated was the sheer level of effort he puts into his performances. The first goal, which will go down as an own goal, and which came about from a shot by Gibbs, was all about Podolski. He battled in midfield to win the ball, he slipped the ball through the defence, and he harried the defender into putting the ball in his own net. Top stuff. His free kick was an absolute beauty as well. After several years of living under the myth that van Persie was good at free kicks, it's nice to have someone who doesn't just put the ball straight into the wall/the stands.

* Even more than Podolski, perhaps, the performance of Gervinho yesterday was wonderful to see. After struggling for several months now, Gerv seemed to revel in a more central role. While he can dribble with reasonable effectiveness, maybe he's better in a position where he can play more instinctively, and smash the ball on target more frequently.

* That Giroud didn't start the game, and only made a brief substitute appearance, put paid to the hopes of some that he would break his duck against Southampton, like Mssrs Bergkamp and Henry. Now, firstly, Giroud will never, ever be as good as those two. He might well start banging in a few goals eventually, but let's be reasonable, eh? I fully expect him to start against Montpellier, and I would even bet on him scoring on Tuesday. One does wonder at the moment, though, if he will be a regular part of the starting XI this season. I have a feeling that he may start more games away from home than at the Emirates, as he is demonstrably good at holding up the ball, which will help us relieve pressure in away games.

* Coquelin did pretty well in midfield, coming in for Diaby. Diaby is meant to be travelling to Montpellier, so maybe, for once, his minor injury is actually minor. I don't think Coquelin is quite ready to regularly start league games at the moment. Indeed, I think it was notable that after a shaky start to the second half, the introduction of Ramsey for Coquelin seemed to shore things up.

* Ramsey's performance was his fourth impressive cameo of the season, and he was desperately close to scoring a goal. Relieved of the burden of replacing Fabregas and Nasri, Ramsey seems to have regained a little bit of confidence in his game, and, as I mentioned above, I think he helped us regain dominance in midfield after a slightly dicey first twenty minutes of the second half. I expect Ramsey to start in Montpellier, and I think he may well surprise a few people this season who have been too quick to write him off

* Oh, Theo. Aside from a well taken goal, his cameo was laughably inept at times - the high/low point being when he failed to play in Giroud who was open in the middle of the box. It's hard to ask for the wages that he's, allegedly, asking for if you can't even dislodge an 18 year old in the side. I actually think that Chamberlain was a little too quiet once more, but he's certainly better than Theo at present. I really don't know how the Theo situation will be resolved, because, on current form, he simply does not deserve a bumper new deal.

* A quick note on the defence - they all played well, once more. Vermaelen seems to have stepped up a gear this season, and it was heartening to see Arsene stick with Mertesacker, who should surely now be first choice. Gibbs and Jenkinson also played very well, and Gibbs is making sure that Santos can't get in the side.

* So, let the good times roll. When Arsene's teams play like that, it's hard to begrudge him a new contract, which is supposedly on the table. So far this season we have shown great defensive solidity, and we now also appear to have an attacking edge as well. It helps when you have a magician like Cazorla pulling the strings, who, at the moment, looks like a more efficient version of Fabregas. It's also interesting that our best formation may well be a 4-6-0, or a 4-3-3-0, if you catch my drift. After relying so much on one striker last season, we've almost dispensed with the position this year - a potentially genius strategy. It's still too early to tell how this season will go, but days like yesterday should be enjoyed regardless of where we finish in May.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Six Quick Thoughts on Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

Most of the main points from yesterday's game have already been covered, so here are five quick thoughts to chew on:

* The defence remains brilliant, and it's a team effort. Mertesacker made several impeccable interceptions, and continued to disprove the notion that you need huge amounts of pace to be a top defender in the Premier League. Jenkinson put in another good shift, even if his lack of attacking prowess means that Sagna will get his place back when he recovers from injury. Gibbs occasionally pushed a bit too far forward leaving our left-side exposed, but Podolski filled-in admirably. Indeed, the most important thing to take from our three consecutive clean-sheets, is that we're defending as a unit. The idea that we simply needed new players to become better in defence is simply not true - the ability to prevent goals is as much about the willingess of a team to act like a unit, and have a commitment to defending as a whole, as it is about individual moments of brilliance. Steve Bould has obviously had a role in this, and one might ask why members of the famous back four were not brought into leading coaching positions earlier. But I also think that Arsene may have been stung by the record number of goals we conceded last season, and he appears to have acted decisively.

* Arteta was absolutely pivotal to our performance. I am frankly terrified of the prospect of him picking up an injury, because we just do not have anyone else in the squad that can do that job as well, except, perhaps Jack Wilshere. Diaby rightly won a lot of plaudits for his peformance, and it's incredibly heartening to see him finish 90 minutes again. But, for me, Arteta' selflessness and discipline is a site to behold. Quite possibly my favourite player in the current squad - a real team player.

* If one thing has not been noted recently, it's that the performances of Oxlade-Chamberlain have become much quieter. He also put in an decent shift defensively, but it's now been a while since he really provided a moment of brilliance, or a spark within a game. He's young, and we should not expect too much of him. He's also a considerably better option than either Theo or Gervinho at the moment. Hopefully he can score a couple against his alma mater in two weeks time.

* Cazorla was fantastic again, and fully deserved a goal, even if he was assisted by Reina. His interplay with Podolski was brilliant at times, and I think we'll see those two link up for a lot more goals this season. Cazorla has been given a really interesting role in the team - almost a free role behind the forward. It's a huge responsibility to take on, and he has risen to the occasion. What we must not do is make our attacking play overly reliant on him, and turn him into a Fabregas mark II. At the moment, defenses are struggling to deal with him, but I don't want to get to a situation where if teams stop Cazorla, they stop Arsenal.

* As I've already said, I though Podolski was fantastic - a brilliant goal, coupled with a willingness to defend. Giroud, well, he's getting into good positions, but he now badly needs a goal. It's all very well saying he needs time to adapt, but if we're serious about the league, we can't afford that time. Just like the Ox, a goal against Southampton would be nice.

* I hate to rag on other teams, but Liverpool were very, very poor in my opinion. Rodgers may well get their midfield functioning more fluently in a few more games, but they seem all over the place at the moment. If we think we did badly in the transfer market, Liverpool had an absolute nightmare, and as it stands I can't see them troubling the Champions League spots come the end of the season.


Saturday, September 01, 2012

As Long as the Share Price Goes Up, Why Worry About the Team?

So, here we are again - another deadline day is gone, and the world of transfers is (officially) over for the next few months. How did we make out? Not quite like bandits. Analysis as follows.

The Good

Santi Cazorla has already shown in his first two matches that he is a top quality purchase. If we had managed to get hold of him last summer, I think we would have forgotten about the Fabregas-sized hole in the team much more quickly. My one concern about Cazorla is that too much of our traffic may end up going through him - I don't want us to be overly reliant on one midfielder again, as we were, all too frequently, during the days of Cesc. Still, Cazorla is a world-class player, and you can never complain too much when you sign one of those.

Signing Podolski and Giroud before we sold van Persie was no mean feat, and helped to slightly cushion the blow of the Dutchman's departure. If I were to be utterly negative, I'd say this is a bit of a "moneyball" move - get rid of one world-class player, and replace him with two merely "good" players. Podolski bombed out at Bayern, and Giroud really only has one season of top-class football under his belt. However, it would be unfair to judge these two before they've had a chance to show what they can do. Podolski is quite clearly capable of getting goals, and, having watched him a few times now, Giroud also looks like he will not only get goals, but also hold up the ball well, and give us some proper strength up-front. In an ideal world, we would have these two AND van Persie, allowing the new players to settle and get used to the Premier League. But that would be the mentality of a big club.

We did the bare minimum required in the market. All three new signings featured in both of our opening fixtures this year, and we look a more solid team than last season. Granted, we were only playing Sunderland and Stoke, neither of whom showed much in the way of attacking intent. But we looked far less like a team that will be bullied out of games than we have been on many occasions in recent years. If all three of our new players can hit the ground running, it gives us a range of new options in attack. If relatively inconsistent players like Theo, Gervinho, Ramsey and the Ox can produce the goods more regularly, and Diaby and Wilshere can come back strongly from their injuries, I think we have a pretty decent squad. Is it a squad that can challenge for the title? I don't think so. But if we're lucky with injuries (stop laughing) the FA Cup and a top-four finish is certainly conceivable.

The Bad

* Robin van Stapleton. I suppose the signs had always been there, but we just didn't want to see them. Robin is a, ahem, strong-willed individual, and refused to cower even to Thierry Henry back in the day when the rest of the youngsters were terrified of TH. I thought there was a high chance that Robin would leave the club, but I genuinely didn't think he would sign for United. Clearly, he doesn't care about the club he claimed to love, and he's only interested in himself and his career. What should hurt Arsenal fans the most though, is that top players now see a notable gulf between Arsenal and the real elite tier of teams in Europe. Y'know - the ones that actually win stuff. This gap has grown each year since about 2008, and is now a canyon, to all intents and purposes. We finished 18 points behind the Manchester clubs in the league last season, and Robin is 29. His career is coming to a close, and they are the clubs in England that are the only realistic option if you want relatively guaranteed silverware (even including Chelsea, I would argue). It was distressing transfer in a number of ways therefore - from Robin's personal betrayal of the Arsenal fan-base, to what it says about the current state and direction of the club. But more on that in a bit.

Alex Song forcing through a move. If losing van Persie was hard to take, then losing Song was not, in all honesty. He's a good, if not great player, and we picked up a decent fee for someone who showed a real lack of willingness to work for the team last season. However, and as I have written previously, this transfer was perhaps the moment that best showed how Arsene's youth project has been an almost total failure, other than keeping the club in the Champions League. The problem with heaping praise on young football players is that most young football players already have colossal egos. The fact that Song was demanding a new deal with three years left on his current contract, after winning precisely zero trophies at Arsenal says it all. The time and effort that Arsene spent moulding Song into a good player, only for Song to then push through a move, shows that Arsene deserves better than the young egomaniacs he has to work with. Song will fit in well as a squad player at Barcelona, and I am comfortable with the club's decision to sell him in most respects, but it is another member of the starting XI who's left the club. The transfer also, hopefully, ends the association of the Dein family with Arsenal - people who have made millions of pounds from flogging Arsenal's players and shares, with little concern of the impact of those decisions on the club's overall health. Good riddance, I hope.

Not replacing Song. I am not happy about the decision to sell Song in one huge, colossal, overweening aspect - we didn't replace him. We literally sold one of our starting XI from last season, and did not purchase anyone as a replacement. We are going to gamble big on the fitness of players like Diaby, Wilshere and Arteta, and the ability of players like Coquelin and Ramsey to have breakthrough seasons. That is a bit mental really, and a a a troubling indictment of how the club is currently being run.

How much will we rue the decision not to purchase Sahin? A lot, I'll wager. He might bomb out at Liverpool, but make no mistake - Sahin is a "top, top quality player",  and I simply don't understand the logic behind not picking him up. As soon as Wilshere, Diaby, or Arteta is injured, we are short in midfield. It's one thing not to buy players - it's quite another to openly reject quality players when they want to come to the club. This is like the Xabi Alonso situation in 2009 all over again.

The Ugly

* Theo's contract. The situation with Theo's contract is, frankly, odd. He's clearly rejected what the club feels to be a fair, and perhaps final, offer. Yet he's still here. Is he going to sign a new deal before next summer? Maybe - but maybe not. And who's going to fork out a transfer fee in January knowing they can pick him up for nothing if they wait just a few more months? Perhaps only Man City. Theo is a player who I don't think should be part of our starting XI - he is too inconsistent, and still displays a worrying lack of ability when it comes to fairly basic footballing manoeuvres, such as ball control. But losing him on a free would be a bit sickening, and another slap in the face for Arsene, after all the faith he has shown in the player. I have no idea how this situation will be resolved, but I will say it's probably more likely than not that he won't be an Arsenal player next season. Neither selling him, nor tying him to a new deal, shows how chaotic it's been behind the scenes at the club this summer, yet again. Whoever negotiates our deals needs to be replaced, as they are now openly negligent.

Selling our best players every summer. This was a trait of Arsene's early years in charge that we seemed to get rid of after flogging Petit and Overmars to Barca in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, we did not sell our best players and, surprise, surprise, these were the most successful years of Arsene's tenure. Since the sale of Vieira to Juve in 2005, we've sold, or lost on free transfers, a major first team player every year: Cole, Henry, Hleb, Gilberto, Adebayor, Flamini, Toure etc. etc.. At least with some of those players we could claim that we were losing people who were past their prime (although keeping older players has hardly hamstrung Manchester United). But in the last few seasons, we have started to lose our best players while they are essentially in their prime - Nasri, Clichy, Fabregas, van Persie, Song. If we look at this from a purely business perspective, we have squandered human capital on an epic scale, and in a manner that has stopped Arsenal being a competitive club at the very highest level. It's not good enough. Any enterprise that consistently loses it's top performers, and doesn't replace them with individuals at a similar level, will eventually suffer the consequences in terms of its efficiency and ability to perform. As I said at the start of this piece, I think we have done the bare minimum in the market this year to keep us at a level that we are a top four team. But we are no longer seen as a trophy winning club. And the longer that this issue is not dealt with, the harder it will be to overcome. In short, spend some f*cking money.

The value of Stan Kroenke's shares. I can't find a valuation for the price that Stan Kroenke paid for his initial 10 percent stake in the club back in 2007. It was probably less, however, than the between £8,500 and £10,500 a share Kroenke paid for a 28 percent stake in Arsenal in 2009, and the £11,500-12,000 a share that he likely paid for a further 32 percent of the club in 2011, taking his holdings over 60 percent, and giving him control of the club. That he then offered £11,750 for the remainder of the club's share capital, under takeover rules, hints that this was around the price he paid for Bracewell-Smith, Fiszman and the rest of the director's shares in 2011.

As it currently stands, Arsenal shares are valued at around £16,600 by Plus Markets - although there have been sales of shares for over £17,000 this year.

To put things really simply, Kroenke's shares are now worth considerably more than what he paid for them. If he were to cash out tomorrow, he would make hundreds of millions of pounds from his investment in Arsenal. And this is the really troubling thing for me. If the club won the league or the Champions League, the value of the club would increase. But, the value of the club's shares are increasingly regardless of whether we win silverware. In short, what reason does Kroenke have to push for big signings, and a squad that can really compete at the highest level? If we trundle along, doing the bare minimum in the market, and keep qualifying for the Champions League, the value of the shares will keep going up. Sure, they might go up further and faster if we were winning trophies, but is the investment required for that worth the risk? Why deplete our balance sheet and the club's valuation?

Now, I'm obviously not Stan Kroenke, and I'm not going to get myself sued by casting categorical aspersions on his reasons for involvement in Arsenal football club. But ask yourself this - what motivation do you have to bet big, if you're already making a killing while betting relatively small? If the value of Arsenal shares keeps on ticking upwards, regardless of trophies, are we ever going to see serious investment in the squad?

Who knows. There's nothing for it now except to get behind the squad. But, and it pains me to say it, I foresee a season of discontent at Arsenal Football Club.