Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Arsenal Go One Set Up: Seven Thoughts on Arsenal 7 Reading 5

Whoever said the League Cup was boring? Seven thoughts for seven goals.

* I'm not going to lie, you must have something approaching clinical optimism if you truly believed that Arsenal would win when Reading scored their fourth goal. The first forty minutes or so were simply an utter shambles, and if the scoreline had stayed this way there would have been something approaching a meltdown  after the game among the Arsenal fanbase. As it is, it's hard to know where to start with the goals we conceded. Koscielny, after looking so brilliant for much of last season, now looks all over the place. It's similarly difficult to believe that Djourou briefly looked like a defensive titan during the 2010-11 season. Whatever joy we take from the game, we should never concede four goals in a half in any competition.

* At the time, it was hard to know what to make of it, but Walcott's goal just before half-time was vital. It gave a little edge to proceedings when there had previously been total Reading dominance. Sometime it's easy to criticize the players for giving up too easily, and, even if we don't take anything else from Theo's performance tonight, he showed ability and desire when we 4-0 down to start the comeback. Thankfully, we can take much more, and he showed that he can be a game-changer and a game-winner when given the opportunity.

* The second half saw a series of moments that eventually swung the game in our favour. Giroud and Eisfeld helped turn the game when they arrived, with Giroud scoring a brilliant header almost immediately. Eisfeld looked superb for much of the game, and must surely be pushing for a place on the first team bench. The referee then decided to not send off Koscielny, despite two relatively clear cut occasions when he might have received a second yellow card. That he scored the third goal will not have gone unnoticed among Reading fans. Finally, with the clock running down, Reading decided to make a substitution to try and extinguish the game's final moments. Instead, it provided us with the extra minute or so we needed to score. It's hard to take, but this wasn't "Fergie time" - it was justifiable stoppage time given the substitution.

* What happened with the fourth goal wasn't entirely clear at the time. I couldn't tell if the ball had gone over the line, if the referee had played advantage for the handball, or if he had awarded Jenkinson the goal for his follow-up effort. Whatever happened, it was a goal in the end, so who cares, I suppose.

* Once we got the fourth, I was fairly confident that we'd get a fifth, and so it proved. Chamakh stroked the ball home very nicely from outside the area, and would lob the keeper with similar panache for our seventh in the very last minute from the game. Considering that the return of RvP began his demise at Arsenal, might Robin's departure signal his resurgence? Somehow, I doubt it, but at the least it was a decent showing while he was in the shop-window. If nothing else, he remains one of only two out-and-out strikers we have at the club. Similarly, Arshavin, for the second game in a row, looked busy in attack, and a character who could provide the team with an edge at some point in a game this year. It was his run and shot that led to the sixth goal, and it always warms my heart to see our most enigmatic of players light up a match.

* After completing this most epic of comebacks, we almost predictably didn't know what to do next, and conceded again. Yes the game was crazy, but there's no excuse for leaving two players unmarked in the six-yard box when you're leading a game. I"m not sure I could have handled penalties by this point, so it was a might relief to see us actually get the final two goals.

* So, what to make if it all? It's hard to say. A four-goal comeback is remarkable, and evidence of a fighting spirit within the squad - but why do we give up so many cheap goals with such frustrating regularity? I read a brilliant article by Jonathan Wilson in the Blizzard recently when he noted that Spain now prefer to control games and win by smaller margins, than blow teams away like they used to with the increased potential for conceding goals. By doing so, they've become more consistent, yet less spectacular, boring even, in the eyes of some. I sometimes feel a bizarre pining for the days of George Graham, when we would bore our way trophies.  Winning 7-5 is amazing, but I would be more than happy if we won every other game 1-0 this season, starting with our trip to Old Trafford on Saturday.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Does Kroenke Really Care?: 14 Thoughts on Arsenal 1 QPR 0

Not our finest 90 minutes, but a welcome return to form. Thoughts as follows:

* The big news was, of course, Wilshere's return. And while he was only on the pitch for about an hour, he did a lot to show just how much we have missed him over the last year. Jack can open up the midfield with both his passing, but also with the manner with which he carries the ball. He was our best player in the first half, and it was eminently sensible to take him off when we did, to ensure that he wasn't overstretched, as it were. I don't expect him to feature in the league cup match this week, and, instead, I'm sure he may feature against United next Sunday. With quite a few United fans saying that Cleverley is as good, if not better, than Wilshere, it will be a fascinating battle between the two of them. In the long-term, one has to wonder where Jack will play. In his first season, he actually played quite closely to where Arteta does now - but, especially after having been handed the number 10 shirt, a future further up the field is surely in his sights. We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

* The other big news was the return of Sagna, which was largely, and weirdly, unheralded. Jenkinson has done well in Bak's absense, but let's not kid ourselves - Sagna is a better player. Perhaps not a much better player anymore, but a better player nonetheless. While Jenkinson has been largely solid defensively, Sagna is better going forward. Indeed, based on the stats, you could say that Sagna completed about twice as many crosses on average last season, as Jenkinson did in his starts so far this year. In the long-term, Jenkinson has established himself as a credible successor to Sagna, and I would not be surprised at all if Bak left next summer, but Sagna is our first choice RB.

* The first half wasn't much to write home about. We dominated possession, and tested Cesar a  few times with shots from distance, but never really looked like scoring. It's the familiar story of a team setting themselves out for a draw, and we quickly looked short on ideas.

* Indeed, I was struck by how one-dimensional our attack and midfield looked for much of the game. Without van Persie's movement, and without the pace of the likes of Theo, Chamberlain, and Gervinho, QPR could sit back and watch us pass ourselves to death. Giroud may have been involved in the goal (and really should have scored from his header) but he has simply not come close to replicating the general goal threat that van Persie provided us with last season, and I don't mean just in terms of actually scoring goals. RvP dragged players all over the pitch, and provided a barrel-full of assists. Without van Persie, we often just look flat in attack.

* Which brings me to Podolski, I suppose. I think he is a good, often great player, but he hasn't quite been the goal threat that I hoped. There is also, clearly, confusion over his best position. For Germany, he often plays wide on the left, while for Koln last season he usually played more centrally. He is probably the best finisher we have at the club at the moment, but we still haven't quite worked out how to play him. This then leads into the quandry about substitutions. He does usually deserve to be the player taken off, but, in doing so, we are denying ourselves the one guy who we really want the ball to fall to in the box when a big chance does arrive. A solution to the Poldi problem needs to be found.

* I'm not going to say something as stupid as "Cazorla is overrated" but his inability to take chances is now becoming a worry. My good friend 7amkickoff.com told me that Cazorla has had 38 shots so far this season, and yet he has only scored two goals. It would be one thing if all these shots were pinged, hopeful opportunities from outside the area, but he has now blown clear chances, such as against Chelsea and again today when the ball fell to him in the area. He even had enough time today to steady himself before smashing the ball over the bar. Considering how composed he looks in his passing, it's utterly bizarre that he seems to go to pieces when he takes a shot. Cazorla needs to score more often, in short.

* Arsene appeared to recognise how one-dimensional our play was, and put on players with pace and trickery - Walcott and Gervinho. Unfortunately, it was almost predictable that Gervinho would injure himself given his recent form, and Walcott also didn't produce a great deal after coming on. The problem is, we need players like this, but who are better. We do need pacy players, and dribbly players when the game is tight. But when we introduce players who have these attributes, but who also struggle with, y'know, ball control, it's not quite the same. We seem to now be in a bizarre situation where we actually have a large number of attacking players, but all of them are quite average, in their own unique ways. It's a side of the team we really need to strengthen in January, but I am not optimistic.

* The game was meandering towards a painful 0-0 draw when Mbia lost the plot and swung a leg out at Vermaelen. After a series of poor decisions, I fully expected the ref to bottle this one as well, but he did the right thing and produced a red card. As @Arseblog_Tom pointed out, there was the possibility that this could have made the final minutes even harder, if anything, with QPR now fully content to put their remaining ten men behind the ball.

* Luckily, we did manage to press home the extra man advantage, as QPR were left short in the box when we finally scored. Arteta was clearly offside - an example of poor refereeing in our favour that will undoubtedly be forgotten almost instantly. Still, it was good to see Mikel "should be captain" Arteta with a goal, as he one of the few that really gives his all for 90 minutes.

* QPR promptly woke up after the goal, and should have equalized in the remaining ten minutes or so. Granero took advantage of Vermaelen AGAIN stepping up and leaving a man free behind him to nip into the area, and collect a through ball. He should have scored. Similarly, Mackie then bulldozed his way into the box, only for Jazz Hands to come up with a big save.

* I should say -  fair play to Vito, he probably won us the game with that stop. However, seeing Cesar pull off save after save at the other end was galling, considering we could have acquired him on a free last summer. Yes he would have been on high wages, but he would have been a good foil to push Szcz as he (hopefully) grows into our number 1. Instead, we've had the Mannone "show" for the last two months, which has cost us points.

* Santos has come in for a lot of flak recently, after being largely blamed for the goals against Schalke. No matter that Vermaelen did his "stepping up/leave a world class striker unmarked" trick for the first goal, and that Affelay was completed unmarked for the second - Santos was entirely to blame. There's been a lot of talk of Santos being an Eboue Mark II, which is far of the mark, in my opinion. As I posted earlier on Twitter, Santos led the team in interceptions today, and completed 4/5 crosses, while Sagna only completed 1/9. I'm not trying to say that Santos is a world class player - he's not. But it frustrates me to see players like Vermaelen so infrequently criticised for poor defending, while the likes of Santos are pummelled.

* Ultimately, I couldn't bring myself to blog after the last two games, because I couldn't muster the energy to be relentlessly negative about the team, which both performances warranted. Today wasn't much better, but at least the team played till the end, created much more chances, and probably would have won by more if a lesser keeper had been involved. A win is a win, and sometimes you have to start with a scrappy performance to move forward. Hopefully we can edge out Reading on Tuesday, and try and build a little momentum before we play Man Utd away.

* But it is hard to be enthusiastic about the state of the club at the moment. What was clear from the AGM on Thursday, is that certain, key board members hold the Arsenal fanbase in contempt. Peter Hill-Wood's comments annoy me, but he is a powerless dinosaur, who'll soon be gone. It's the attitude of Kroenke that gets me more than anything. We aren't a "franchise", we're a club. In fact, we're a major insitution in one of the largest cities in the world, with millions of fans worldwide. We aren't the Denver Nuggets, or the St Louis Rams, or any of the other shitty franchises he owns - we're far, far bigger than that, and we deserve better than an owner who appears perplexed over why he has to attend and speak at an AGM, and why fan groups become annoyed when he openly lies about having met with them.

The reason why we have seen the last three performances is that Arsenal have had an extremely poor transfer strategy for what is now amounting to a very long time, and which appears to stretch over the majority of time that Kroenke has been involved at the club. When you consistently reward mediocre players with long deals and large wages, sell your best players, and replace them with others that aren't as good, disjointed, frustrating performances will arise as a result. All I can hope is that Kroenke recognises at some level the current frustration among the Arsenal fanbase, and that he realises that we can't go on like this if we want to maintain our status as a club that realistically challenges for the top trophies in Europe and England. In short, I hope we don't have to wait until Kroenke starts to get hurt in the pocket, before matters on the field are improved.


Sunday, October 07, 2012

Slices of Humble Pie: 12 Thoughts on West Ham 1 Arsenal 3

A good win in a frenetic London derby. Thoughts, including slices of humble pie, as follows:

* I liked the line-up. I think Ramsey has done enough to warrant a start - indeed, in all honesty, I would play him before Diaby even if both were fully fit. Ramsey may not have Diaby's glue-like ability to get the ball to stick to his feet while he runs, but I just feel that Ramsey contributes more, both defensively and offensively, to games on a more regular basis. Also, he seems to be showing that he can recover from a big injury, in a way that Diaby has not been able to do. As for the rest of the team, it was good to see Per back, and to have a much more balanced forward line, with a more traditional type of striker leading up top.

* We started very well. We took the game to West Ham, perhaps knowing that Allardyce would try and see if he could get his team to bully us out of the game from an early stage. We passed the ball slickly, and only a couple of good saves and blocks kept us from scoring. However, there was a fair amount of the ball being simply thrown into the box without much thought, and despite all our possession, I felt we should have created more clear-cut chances during this period than we did.

*So, after our bright, but goalless start, it was almost inevitable that we would concede. The goal was both stupid and sublime. Ramsey will rightly take a fair amount of flak for letting Diame ease past him, but neither Jenkinson nor Mertesacker really covered themselves in defensive glory either. The finish itself was brilliant, and for once you can't really blame Jazz Hands for not making a save, such was the power and whip with which the ball was hit. But Diame had far too much time to line up his finish. It just goes to show, I suppose, how good so many players are in top-flight football, when they're actually given enough time to express themselves.

*After the goal, we appeared a little shaken, and for a while it seemed like we would concede a second. It was during this period that Phil Dowd made one of his multiple blunders, not giving Diame a second yellow for an offence that clearly warranted a booking. To go off on a tangent for a moment, it's really about time that the FA reviewed their policies that surround bookings for celebrations. It seems odd that a player can often get away without a card for scything down a player, but should they, heaven forbid, want to celebrate with their fans, or whip off their shirts in a moment of over-exuberance, it's always, always, a yellow card. Booking people needlessly makes it harder to caution them when they actually deserve a card - it's pretty simple, really.

* Despite Dowd, we hung on in there, and finally made the breakthrough when Giroud got on the end of a Poldi cross. Humble pie moment #1 for me - I had said moments before that Giroud always seemed a yard behind the pace. This time he clearly wasn't. Collins should deal with Podolski's cross, but Giroud, like any good forward should do, gambles that the ball will reach him. The result is a near tap-in, but one manufactured through positional intelligence - it was great to see. I thought Giroud had a terrific game, in all. His shooting was accurate, with four out of eight attempts on target, he held the ball up well, and he played a wonderful pass to Theo to set up our second. I'm still not convinced that he's a twenty goal-a-season striker, but he now has 2 goals and 4 assists in the somewhat limited minutes he's had this year. He is proving to be a useful player.

* The goal was also an example of what can happen if you put accurate crosses into dangerous areas. Gibbs and Jenkinson have both started the season very well, but they did not cross the ball well during the game yesterday. One of Gibbs' six crosses was accurate, while none of Jenkinson's three attempts found a player. Now, accurate crossing does depend on other players getting into good positions. But Podolski showed why he is a world class talent with his pass.

* The rest of the game could have gone either way. Right after we scored, some dodgy defending from a corner led to the ball falling to Nolan after Jenkinson completely switched off. Nolan prodded the ball wide when he perhaps should have scored, and it would have been interesting to see if we would have recovered from going behind just before half-time. As it was, the momentum was with us at the

* As you may have noticed by now, I don't think it was a very good defensive performance yesterday. Mertesacker may have been part of the balls-up that led to the first goal, but he was the one relatively solid player in a back five that otherwise frequently looked all at sea. Carroll won an absurd 17 aerial duels yesterday, and if anyone else on the West Ham team could have finished the resulting chances then we'd have been in big trouble. Carroll isn't a £35m player, but he is effective at what he does, especially in a system like Allardyce's. I don't think we dealt with him at all, and, especially after last week, it seems we may have been a bit premature in talking about a new culture of defensive solidity at the club.

* My second piece of humble pie was served up by Walcott. With West Ham pushing forward a little as they became more confident in their attacks, space opened up behind their defensive line, which Theo gleefully exploited. His goal was an absolutely beautiful finish, and, without wanting to read too much into these things, his celebration did say a lot about the passion he feels for Arsenal. I simply don't understand him as a player - at times, he seems unable to control the ball as he runs with it. At others, he can slip the ball past the keeper in a truly Henry-like fashion. It remains to be seen whether he'll sign his new deal, and I still think it's fairly unlikely that he will do so. But, for all his frustrating tendencies, he can be a game-changer, and those are always useful to have around.

* Humble pie piece #3 was served courtesy of Santi Cazorla. His goal was an outstanding strike, as he basically wrong-footed the keeper with his eyes from outside the area, before pinging the ball into the other side of the net. I maintain, however, what I said shortly before his goal - Cazorla could be more accurate with his shooting. He currently has two goals from 33 shots on goal in all competitions this season. It's nice to see a player who's willing to shoot from distance, but I have the feeling that he might have scored a few more for us already this year, given the positions he's been getting into. Just consider that Cesc has scored 3 goals from 12 shots in La Liga and the Champions League this year. Cazorla is a wonderful player, and has done a huge amount to lift the club since his arrival. A slight improvement in his shots to goals ratio is surely not too much to ask, is it?

* Overall, a good win, which was slightly less comfortable than the scoreline suggested. The last few games has seen us revert to giving away silly goals again, which is a little disappointing, but at least we have the mental fortitude to fight back from losing positions in a place like Upton Park. Looking at our fixture list, we've come through a difficult September, and it would seem to me that all of our next four games are winnable. If we can't beat teams like Norwich away, or QPR at home, then I can't see us troubling the top spot in the table this year. Let's hope we can use the win yesterday as the springboard to a good run of form.

* Lastly, when was the last time we wore a kit in three consecutive seasons? Given Villa play in almost identical colours, I imagine we will even see the yellow kit again this year.