Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 17 Minute DVD: 13 Thoughts on Arsenal 5 Spurs 2

Well, what to make of that? Quite a game of football, and another classic match in a derby that seems to produce more goals than any other I can think of. Thoughts as follows:

* If you had told me after ten minutes that we were going to win this one 5-2, I have to admit, I'd have been skeptical, even after last year's shenanigans. Tottenham were all over us in the opening stages, and simply overwhelmed us at times. After a goal was (correctly) ruled out for offside they sliced us open again almost immediately, with Szcz producing a good stop that Adebayor was quickest to react to. And while we began to pull ourselves back into it, Spurs looked good for a second until about the 17th minute.

* The reason for Tottenham's early dominance was relatively clear. Villas-Boas sprung a surprise by playing 4-4-2, and, in practice, the formation was pretty similar to that which MUFC employed against us so successfully two weeks ago. Defoe dropped off a bit, and was attempting to do to Arteta what Rooney had done to our metronome at Old Trafford - harry him high up the pitch, and thus stop us from building out play from the back. Moreover, Spurs seemed content to largely knock the ball directly to their forwards, or to Lennon and Bale, who would then come forward as a four and overwhelm our defence.

* Now, this worked well for the opening few minutes, but this was an incredibly direct way of going about things. Villas-Boas may have planned to just try and stun us during the opening stages, and then hold on for a result. So, I don't necessarily think that Spurs would have won without the sending off. I don't think Defoe would have shackled Arteta as effectively as Rooney, and I also think that, eventually, we would overwhelmed them in midfield. Moreover, we saw last year in the 5-3 against Chelsea that we like playing against Villas-Boas's high line in defence. We wouldn't have won 5-2, but it seems fanciful to me that Spurs could have kept up their initial period of dominance for the entirety of the game.

* Anyway, whatever might have been was abruptly ended when Adebayor flew into a ridiculous tackle on Santi Cazorla. On first glance it wasn't clear just how ridiculous this challenge was, but it was clearly a red card, and an utterly absurd thing to do. For me, Adebayor has always had the ability to be a world class attacking player. He has strength, is good in the air, can link up play well, and can finish. However, he's clearly a self-obsessed moron. You do not change clubs with the rapidity that Adebayor has if you have the "mental strength" that top players need. Our fans in particular seem to really wind him up, and it's hard to imagine that he would have made a similarly stupid challenge in any other game. So thanks, Ade.

* After any red card, it's important to score as quickly as possible, before the opposing team have time to reorganize and shut the game down. It was great to see us do just that, and I was particularly overjoyed to see Per get his first goal for the club in such a big game. Per was at fault for the Spurs goal, by stepping up at the wrong moment, and leaving space behind him for Adebayor to exploit. So it was great for one our better performers this season to atone for his fault, and put us ahead with a monster header - one that reminded me greatly of Sagna's goal during the 5-2 last season.

* After that came one of the most joyful periods of football that I've witnessed for some time. For about twenty-two minutes we absolutely battered Spurs, who completely, and hilariously fell apart. Any credit you give Villas-Boas for the way he initially organized Spurs must be tempered by the fact they looked all at sea after they conceded the first goal. I had fancied Podolski to score before the game, and he did - another Ljungberg-esque effort inside the area, and Giroud added a glorious third through a combination of skill and desire, outmuscling two Tottenham defenders to slide the ball home gloriously past Lloris. At that point, if the ref hadn't blown for half-time, we could have added another ten goals - we were seriously that dominant.

* The importance of getting those goals before half-time was clear once the second half started, because  Villas-Boas made some clever substitutions, and tactical adjustments, which put us on the back foot for the opening stages of the half. Tottenham had little to lose at this point, and that was a palpable edge to the match on our part. Reading Zonal Marking, it seems that Tottenham's shift to a 3-4-1-1 in the second half, rather than the 4-4-1 that they had played in the closing stages of the second half, did cause us some difficulties, with Tottenham again attempting to overload us with direct, attacking play, and Dempsey seeking to limit the influence of Arteta at the back.

* Once we had weathered this opening storm, it became clear that there was an ocean of space behind both Lennon and Bale, and Cazorla's goal reflected this, with Podolski driving down the wing on the left, before switching the ball to the right flank for Cazorla to slot home. Cazorla deserved his goal for a wonderful performance that was aided by the extra space he could find against ten men, and he was, on balance, the man of the match. We need a tactical system that gives him time and space on the ball, because he destroys teams when he has this.

* After our fourth went in, I thought we could relax, and perhaps even look forward to a real tonking - but, of course, we then conceded. It was very disappointing goal - Bale was giving about fifteen minutes on the ball, in which he advanced into a dangerous position, picked his spot, and scored. It's disappointing to see Szcz concede from another long-range effort but Bale is clinical if given that amount of time. It worries me that even at 4-1 up, we still didn't have the discipline to stop Spurs from scoring.

* Indeed, there was then an extremely nervy period, and a profound, debilitating sense of deja vu. Thankfully, somewhere around 77-80 minute mark, we woke up and realised that we were playing against 10 men, at home, and 4-2 up, and so there was no need to let the game be as stretched as it was. The introduction of Ramsey helped us put our foot on the ball, and slow things down. And once we took the sting out of the game, Tottenham gave up, and we got a fifth via Theo, after some marvelous work from the Ox.

* The game was so odd, in many ways, that it's hard to produce a rational analysis. What I will say is that almost all our attacking players played well. Theo, Poldi, Giroud, and Cazorla all tore Tottenham apart at times, and all produced world class moments of attacking ability to produce the five goals we scored.  Elsewhere, however, we were a bit more suspect. Neither Wilshere nor Arteta really stamped their authority on the game, despite our one man advantage. And our defence was decidedly ropy. Vermaelen does not look comfortable at all shoved out on the left, Mertesacker made a rare mistake for the first goal, and Szcz hardly radiated confidence after being out for so long.

* Theo has now shown that, without a doubt, he is worth a new contract. I really wish the club would take into account the cost, time and effort it will take to replace him, versus the cost of giving him a new deal. If he is to leave in January, which I stil think is likely, we are effectively losing out best attacking player this year for what will be probably next to nothing. Also, a new deal for Sagna please.

* So, what to make of it all? It was a thrilling match, and, at times, it was utterly glorious. We showed that, in the right circumstances, we have the attacking talent to rip teams apart. Giroud is now starting to stamp his authority on games, and Cazola showed again that he has the potential to be a huge player for us. We were aided by the sending off, but I have the feeling that we would have won anyway. The sending off simply ensured that we would win by a large scoreline. Hopefully, we can build on the confidence this game should produce going into our must-win game against Montpellier on Wednesday.

And, if nothing else, thank goodness for Spurs. Never change.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Four more Years? 11 Thoughts on Arsenal 3 Fulham 3

So, there was no post after the Schalke game on Tuesday because I flipped straight from watching the game to the results of the US election as they started to come in. Thankfully, my newly adopted country decided to not elect a sociopath - but more on that in a bit. Thoughts on Fulham as follows:

* As in Germany, we started well, racing into a two goal lead. The first was a brilliant bullet header from Giroud, from an equally great corner from Theo. Podolski then managed to get himself into the right place at the right time to put us two up. It was an important goal for him, and only his second in the league this season.Things seemed good, right?

* Well actually, no. Seeing us go two goals up with such apparent ease was bizarre  and felt undeserved. But, in the immortal words of Mr Eastwood, "deserve ain't got nothing to do with it" - if we'd somehow eaked out a two goal win, I doubt anyone would have cared. But when Fulham pulled one, then two goals back, it didn't feel like an epic collapse. It just felt, well, normal. Painfully normal. That it would have been a bigger surprise to see us protect a two goal lead at home, rather than collapse in such a manner, is incredibly dispiriting, and a profound indictment of where the club is at the moment.

* The Fulham goals themselves show what a shambles our defence currently is. Surprise, surprise, dropping Santos has not led to use suddenly tightening up at the back - with TV at left-back, we've conceded five goals in the last two games. The corner was, AGAIN, an occasion on which a player had, basically, a free header in the six-yard box. The second goal saw Berbatov tear Podolski and Vermaelen apart, before somebody headed home, again, under virtually no pressure inside our box. Personally, I think Mannone should keep the second out, and you could make an argument that he could have dominated his area for the first goal. But our defensive problems are now systemic - I truly believe that they are down to coaching, and tactical philosophy at this point, and even if we picked up Lev Yashin on a free transfer tomorrow, he'd struggle behind our back line.

* Having conceded two, it always felt like we had the capacity to concede a third, and so it proved. Arteta produced a crazy tackle in the area, and Berbatov swept home the penalty so cooly that I'm surprised he didn't spark-up a cigar during his run-up. It seemed like we had, yet again, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Against Fulham. At home.

* I tweeted at this point that it seemed like the current side had no team spirit, and I stand by that point despite what happened next. Giroud and Podolski both seem to spend most of their time on the pitch throwing anguished shapes in the penalty area each time they don't get the ball. Now, if you're Henry, or even van Persie, you can do this. After a couple of months at The Arsenal, you can't. And even if we did score a third, a team with a real fighting spirit doesn't concede three goals after going two goals up. If you think that statement is unfair, you have incredibly low expectations for one of the biggest clubs in world football.

* Giroud dragged us back into the game with another header, after he had failed to finish with his initial chance. Fair play to him, he was a handful all match, even if I could do without the dramatic moments of anguish. It was also hard to know what to make of his celebration. If I scored for Arsenal, even if we were 10-0 down, I'd probably run fifty victory laps until I was hauled off the field. But when Giroud got our third, it should have been the classic scooping the ball out of the net, and sprinting back to the centre-circle routine. Again, this is Fulham at home.

* As others have said, it's hard to concede to Theo's demands for a central striker position when he's so good on the flanks. I've never been a huge Theo fan, but I feel he's done enough to earn a new contract at this stage, especially because I don't trust the club to replace him with anyone approaching a comparable level of ability. It has also struck me this season that Theo could be on the verge on gaining the consistency that he's struggled to find for so long. Maybe a stint on the bench has done him good.

* Without wanting to be harsh, a quick word on Chamberlain. Can anyone remember the last time he played well? It's been a while.

* People complain about rubbish referees, but rubbish referees have frequently benefited us in the past. The penalty we were awarded at the end was a total joke, and Fulham probably didn't deserve to lose, but who cares? Big teams win games they don't deserve to win. Yet, there was almost instantly a bad vibe about the whole affair. No one wanted to take it about from Santi, and then Arteta snatched it from his hands. He had a good record from the spot for Everton, so fair enough. But this really felt like we were stealing something we didn't deserve, and Arteta's fairly meek penalty was saved by Schwarzer. It didn't really feel like a calamity - just another moment of farce.

* In the end, a draw was the right result, and I wouldn't have argued against a Fulham win. They were excellent, and in Ruiz and Berbatov they have two brilliant attacking players. One might wonder why we weren't in for Berbatov over the summer, but, then again, I suppose this would "kill" Chamakh's career. When you see players like him play so well, who were signed so cheaply, it's hard to argue that the club has got a full handle on our transfer policy.

We, on the other hand, produced another clown car performance. Yes, there were thrills and spills and goals, but it was all a bit embarrassing. I play in defence (badly), and was brought up under the George Graham regime, where defence was considered an important part of the game. It genuinely seems an afterthought for us on days like this, and against Schalke. Seeing a bang average goalkeeper behind a ropy defence just doesn't seem like something a top club should have to put up with - at least not year, after year, after year. Does anyone still think we can win the title?

* And so, back to the beginning of my post, where I talked about the American elections. After FDR was elected to the presidency an unprecedented four times during the 1930s and 1940s, a constitutional amendment was passed in 1947 that stated that a person could only serve as president for a maximum of two terms. There have been a number of presidents since then who could have served for more than two terms - Reagan, Clinton, maybe even Eisenhower. But the US decided it was unhealthy for any person, no matter how popular they were, to hold the office of president for more than eight years.

Sometimes, this seems unfair. If a person is good in a job, why remove them? If it wasn't for this amendment, we might not have the total disaster that was the administration led by George W. Bush. But, generally, I like it. It recognizes the fact that change is a necessary part of life. More specifically, it recognizes that it can be unhealthy for any one person in a position of power to hold an office for too long.

My point is this - it is now abundantly clear that we need change at Arsenal. I don't know the exact nature of the change required, but we can't go on like this. The same mistakes happen week after week, but, if anything, they seem to have gotten worse over the last year or so. We seem stuck, caught in an endless loop of bad, predictable tactics, and inadequate replacements for top players. Where the fault lies for this, I don't know. Having an absentee owner doesn't help, nor does the fact that we have an enormously well-paid CEO who seems incredibly naive about the world of football finance. But some of the blame now has to rest at Arsene's door. Could someone do a better job than him? I would now say "probably" rather than "possibly". And, most pertinently, does Arsene deserve a new deal? Should he sign on for "four more years", as it were. Again, I'm not sure. All I am sure about is that new ideas and new people are needed at Arsenal football club - and, for the first time, I have to say not just on the field, but off it as well.


Saturday, November 03, 2012

No Longer a Rivalry: 14 Thoughts on Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1

Another trip to Old Trafford, another defeat. The site of some of our greatest victories, is now becoming the place where we no longer seem to put up a fight. Thoughts as follows:

* How many times over the last few years have you looked at the respective team-sheets for Arsenal vs. Manchester United and thought, "Y'know what, they aren't actually that much better than us?" only to see us promptly beaten. I think there is a lesson there about tactics and management ability, and I'll get onto that later.

* In the history of probability, van Persie's goal was perhaps the closest to a sure thing that you could ever imagine. The only question was how and when, and it was disappointing to see us give him such a helping hand. As we know, he doesn't need one. He's the best out-and-out striker in world football, and as recently as a few months ago he was doing that for us. Still, £24 million in the bank is much better, as Gazidis et al. will all tell us.

* The goal was marked by another profound defensive error from Vermaelen. I don't know how many times I can say this in one season, but the decision to make him captain was a blunder. Vermaelen should not be an automatic starter in our defence, owing to the large number of mistakes that he continually makes. Koscielny has been forced to the bench because of Mertesacker's form, and has lost his own form in the process. Central defence is now a mess, and it's a mess largely of Wenger's own making.

* A word for our other defenders. I can't believe I'm about to write this, but a fairly convincing argument could be made that Mannone was our man of the match. He pulled off a number of great saves, including one from van Persie that was genuinely world class. He's obviously not the answer in the long-term, but credit where credit's due. Sagna was solid without being spectacular. Santos was predictably pilloried on Twitter, but I thought he was far from being our worst player. None of the fault for United's goals can particularly be attributed to him, he did his best to be involved with our attacks, and Valencia was actually relatively quiet for much of the game. Swapping shirts with van Persie at half-time, though, while still on the pitch perhaps sums up a lot of the frustration fans have with this current bunch of players. They often don't seem to "get" it.

* In total we created very little. Untied barely had to break sweat to contain their lead, and we didn't get a shot on goal until the stoppage time at the end of the game, just like against Schalke. A big part of this was United's effective stifling of Arteta, who only complete around 60 passes - around 2/3rds of his normal amount. The fact that Mertesacker made over 100 passes shows that United were happy to let us have the ball in non-dangerous areas, knowing that we would do very little with it. We actually finished the game with the majority of the possession, but did so little with the ball when we had it.

* I tweeted in anger that Cazorla was overrated today, and I only stand by that remark in terms of what Arsenal fans expect of him. He has two assists from ten premier league games - he's not exactly pulling the strings in the way I thought he might after the first few games of the season. A huge creative burden appears to have been placed on him, and it's not clear that he's fully up to the task - at least with the current personnel.

* That said, Arshavin created as many goalscoring opportunities as Cazorla did all game in his ten minutes on the pitch. Is a recall for the little Russian beyond the realms of possibility? Yes, he's lazy, and drifts out of games. But he has the ability to create something in a manner that very few other players do in the current line-up. His performance against Reading showed that he can still change games against Premier League opponents on his day.

* The not so subtle elephant in the room is the form of Podolski and Giroud. The latter may have had a barnstorming game against Reading on Wednesday, but did very little today. He should have scored at least one of the chances that he was presented with, and, I hate to say it, but Robin would have gotten at least one goal from the service that Giroud received. Podolski is now a problem. Shoved on the left he provided Santos with almost zero coverage again, while also producing nothing of note offensively - no shots on goal, and no key passes. I worried about Podolski's flakiness before he signed, and I really hope he shakes off this current poor run of form, because he is still the best hope for goals that we currently have in the squad.

* Of course, at half-time there were no substitutions. Despite a performance almost entirely lacking in redeeming features, there were no changes, as ever, until Ramsey appeared to be forced off with injury. Why would Wenger change the habit of a lifetime? He obviously knows best. Ramsey again came in for a lot of flak before coming off, but does anyone know his role in the team? Stuck out on the right of our attacking front-three, I struggle to find the tactical rationale for his deployment in this position, other than defensive solidity that would seemingly waste his main creative strengths. After a great 120 minutes against Reading, Walcott did nothing after coming on - perhaps a sobering reflection of the level of his ability.

* At 1-0 we were still in it, somehow, and after Rooney missed another penalty against us, there was a small feeling that we might be able to walk away from Manchester with a point. Unfortunately, we decided to let Evra head the ball in, unmarked, from the six-yard box. Again, whatever the wider problems at the club, the fact we CANNOT MARK is down to coaching. Our consistent propensity to self-destruct defensively comes down to Arsene, ultimately. It's he, more than anyone, who decides how important defence is to our team, and how we defend. And I feel that until we have a coach that cares as much about not conceding as scoring, we ain't going to win many trophies.

* The red card could have been prevented. The fact that Wilshere was still on the pitch was a reflection of the total desperation in terms our squad options. After totally overplaying him in his first full season at the club, Wenger looks set to run Jack into the ground again. It was a tired challenge, born from frustration that was totally foreseeable, especially after he'd already been warned by the ref. Cleverley was lucky not to go in similar circumstances for a rash tackle when he was on a yellow. But let's contrast the reaction of the two mangers. Ferguson immediately removed his youngster, recognizing that he'd become a liability. Arsene left Wilshere on when it was clear he was tired and frustrated, and he was sent off. Yes, the player has to take a huge chunk of responsibility. But this is the essence of MANAGEMENT. Ferguson is a better manager of his players than Wenger is, and has been for a very long time now.

* The late goal was a great finish from Cazorla, coming almost immediately after Giroud should have scored. Having not bothered to get out of first gear, United had failed to kill the game, and the goal did little than completely flatter us. The final score may have been 2-1, but United's domination was almost as complete as in the 8-2 last season. And at least on that day we had a wreckage of a team on show. This was ostensibly relatively close to our starting XI, and we did not compete at all.

* I do wonder how much of this season's strategy hinged on Diaby's fitness. Since he disappeared at the beginning of September, we have slumped. I'm by no means Diaby's biggest fan, but he brings something a bit different to our midfield that is otherwise composed of midget passing machines. If Diaby was meant to be Song's replacement, this strikes me as insane. Whatever his talents as a footballer, Diaby has now proved beyond doubt that he can't be relied upon to stay fit. On the long list of new players we need, I would argue something different in the centre of the park is needed as well. A big bid for Fellaini would not go amiss in January, even if it will obviously not happen.

* Since 2004 - which now seems like a generation away, let alone eight years - we have only beaten United four times in the league. This used to be a great rivalry - it isn't anymore. United have effortlessly pulled away from us for a variety of reasons. They have a better transfer policy than us, without having the resources of an oligarch. Fundamentally, they have a better manager and better coaches than us. To go back to my opening point, Ferguson gets more from his players than Wenger does. He is tactically flexible. He doesn't coddle his squad. While van Persie's decision to move there may hurt tremendously, it's completely understandable. We are no longer at United's level, and we will not challenge for the league title, again, this season. Our greatest chance of silverware appears to be the league cup, but given how we've cocked things up in recent years, that's far from being in the bag.

I tweeted at the end of the game that we have the highest paid manager in the league, the highest paid CEO (especially thanks to his ample bonus), and yet we have a team that is quite clearly not the best in the league. Why does there appear to be a recognition that you have to pay for quality at a management level, yet not among the playing staff? If United had consistently sold their best players for the last eight years, and replaced them with others of lower quality, while refusing to pay top wages, I'm sure they would be where we are now. Instead, they don't reward potential too soon, and they pay their top players, top wages. Until we make the myriad repairs that this squad requires, which have now been needed for years, this game no longer constitutes a real rivalry. United are simply better.