Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where do we Go from Bradford? Painful Times Ahead for Arsenal.

As is customary for me now with midweek games, I turned off all contact with the Arsenal world on Tuesday afternoon, and waited until I got home to watch the game “as live.” Since moving to America I’ve discovered that while getting up early on the weekends to watch games is a pain,  missing matches, or having to watch them on delay, because they’re played midweek while I’m at work is even worse. It’s a major reason why I think some form of European competition will start to be played on weekends sooner rather than later. Anyway, I digress.

I accidentally loaded Facebook at about half-time while the game was playing, and was surprised to see no updates about the match. This meant that Arsenal hadn’t scored, or that we were behind, as Arsenal’s Facebook page apparently refuses to allow for the existence of opposition goals. When I sat down to watch the game, I thus had an inkling that we may have started it poorly.

As the game started, I tried to explain to Mrs Goonerboy the rules of the League Cup, and that Arsenal were almost certain to win because we were playing a team in the fourth division. She nodded, and then looked on in bafflement as Arsenal conceded, and played out the remainder of the first-half in some sort of deranged, half-baked manner.

I don’t have the energy to replay every moment of the game, so here are just a few of my thoughts on the game:

·        *  Gervinho. When Gervinho signed, I felt much better about losing Nasri. The ridiculous fee that we received for Nasri from Manchester City has led to an inflation of his actual worth as a player – I maintain we got about six months of good performances out of him over three years. Gervinho, I hoped, would provide a more consistent goal threat. Instead, he’s been rubbish. A few instinctive goals aside, he just doesn’t look good enough to play at the highest level. This had been, I hate to say, my opinion of him when I had watched him play for the Ivory Coast in the 2010 World Cup. He runs down blind alleys. He almost constantly chooses the wrong option. He not only misses the target with headers, he usually puts the ball out for a throw. His shooting, when not instinctive, is almost comically wayward. Maybe he has a future as a squad player, but as a member of the staring XI – please, be gone.
*  * Podolski. I mentioned this on Twitter the day after the game, but it’s well worth re-reading Goonerboy correspondent Bobby’s scouting report on Podolski, as he basically nailed him. Bobby said that if we played Poldi on the left: "his mobility, fitness, and defensive abilities will be open to question." Check. Bobby also said Poldi was like RvP except "only heavier, less destructive, who moans more, and who is slower." Again, hard to disagree. Gervinho, for all his many faults, is a trier. He never hides. Part of the reason we think he’s so poor is that he’s constantly on, or showing for the ball. I have a degree of respect for Gervinho because, in a tough season, he’s never gone missing, regardless of his ability. Podolsksi? Almost the opposite. He clearly thought this match was below him. And he has been, if we’re being charitable, “inconsistent” since his arrival at the club. His inability to finish 90 minutes has become a joke and it’s only December. Poldi needs to start pulling his weight because he’s beginning to annoy me.

·        *  Szczesny. He has a winner’s mentality, but does he have a winner’s ability? If Almunia had collapsed into the net in the fashion that Szcz did for the Bradford opener, there would be pitchforks and torches outside his house the next day. Yes, Szcz made a few stops in the shoot-out, but I continue to believe that he has fundamental problems with his positioning, hence why he fails to save so many shots from outside the box, with players taking advantage of the fact he is in the wrong place. I would put a goalkeeper fairly high on our list of transfer priorities, because, at the least, we need someone better than Mannone and Fabianski to challenge Szcz.

I could probably go on for some time listing individual player faults, such as Vermaelen’s periodic inability to defend, or Cazorla’s failure to hit the target with about 90 percent of his shots. But the defeat at Bradford really came down to higher issues – the management, both in terms of the team and the club as a whole.
I said this on Twitter immediately after the game, and I stick by it – almost any other manager in the Premier League would have been sacked if he were in Arsene’s position. I desperately don’t want Arsene’s time at the club to finish on a sour note, because he is a demi-god. But, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, leaving all other things aside, another manager might be able to get better performances out of the current squad than Arsene can at present. And, it’s also hard to escape the feeling, that the majority of signings that Arsene has made since about 2008 have been poor. As 7AM Kickoff asked on Twitter, can you really name any signing that Arsene has made in the last five years that has been an unqualified success? I can’t. Arteta, maybe? Nasri, maybe? The majority seem to have some form of fatal flaw – Koscielny’s own goals, Cazorla’s shooting, Arshavin’s laziness, and that’s before we even get on to the Deadwood Saloon of Squillaci, Park, Chamakh, and former patrons such as Silvestre. In short, even if money is available, should Arsene be the one to spend it? It’s a legitimate question.

What is becoming increasingly apparent, is that the board are pushing a line that money is there to spend, and that Arsene is unwilling to spend it. During the Q&A with Gazidis and other management figures, this line was firmly put out by the club – Arsene doesn’t want to spend. The AST has predictably lapped this up, rushing to make some very strongly worded comments about Arsene in the press yesterday. I fear this is the beginning of an extremely messy stand-off between Arsene and the board, and if Arsene decides to take the gloves off and fight back, an extremely difficult period in the club’s history could be approaching.
But it isn’t all Arsene’s fault. Not even close. During the Q&A, Gazidis said that Stan was “obviously […] not happy with the way the team is performing” (quote, possibly paraphrased, via Darrenarsenal1). Why is it obvious that Stan is unhappy with the way the team is performing? We are still well on course to challenge for fourth, thus keeping our place in the Champions League, and keeping the value of Stan’s shares ticking ever upwards. That is his only motivation for owning the club, as far as I can tell. Stan has said virtually nothing to supporters. He has attended fewer home games than Park Chu-Young. There is nothing obvious at all about how Stan is feeling because Arsenal fans have virtually no knowledge about what this man wants from Arsenal football club.  We are a ship with a silent captain, with no idea where we’re going.

For a competition that supposedly our lowest priority, the League Cup has been fairly devastating to the club in recent years. In 2007, Arsene perhaps submitted to his greatest moment of hubris by putting out a side of kids and reserves in the League Cup final against Chelsea. In 2008, we suffered a morale sapping 5-1 defeat at the hands of Spurs, just before that promising season began to unravel. And, of course, most of our current problems can be traced back to that fatal moment of miscommunication between Szcz and Koz in Wembley in 2011. The quality of the squad has diminished at an incredible rate since that day, and we’ve never really recovered as a club.

So, where from Bradford? Who knows. But it’s clear that Arsene’s actions during January are now not just pivotal to the club’s future, but also to his own. Or, at least they should be. But it’s also clear that Stan needs to drop the “silent” fa├žade, and make clear that he actually gives a damn about this club before we spiral further downwards.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Black Scarfs and a Dire Performance: 9 Thoughts on Arsenal 0 Swansea 2

A historic defeat, or the new normal? Thoughts as follows:

* Whether we had won or lost, this match would have generated headlines of "Arsenal in crisis", owing to the Black Scarf march (or "walk", or whatever) that preceded it. Judging from photos, a fairly sizable amount of people joined the Black Scarf leadership as they walked to the ground, and it's clear that their views can no longer be ascribed to a lunatic fringe. I may write about them in more length as and when they grow further in size, but I have to say that I agree with a large number of their aims. Ticket prices should be cheaper, whether we are winning or losing, and there should be a wider variety of options available to supporters to help them pay for their season tickets. And Kroenke should be made to make a firm commitment that he will not take money from the club. Some of their other aims are ill-conceived, however. If they are opposed to greed in football, why are they so keen to get another billionaire on board, especially one who has a somewhat less than transparent past, shall we say. And while I understand the notion of a "season ticket lite", whereby season ticket holders wouldn't be forced to pay for tickets for cup games, could we then blame the team for not taking these games as seriously as those in the league, if the supporters themselves openly claim them to be a lower priority? To sum up, I see the Black Scarf movement exists because of legitimate grievances, but they need to think through some of their stated aims a little more clearly before I can give them my full backing.

* It was pretty obvious from early on in this game that we were going to struggle to win. I tweeted at half-time that Swansea had almost completely outplayed us in the first-half, and that we would need to substantially up our game in the second if we were going to come away with a victory. Angel Rangel and Nathan Dyer both had golden opportunities to put the Swans ahead, owing to defensive mistakes on our part, and only a decent double-save and a last ditch block from Vermaelen saved us from going in behind at the half.

* Indeed, Szczesny had an excellent game in goals - perhaps helped by not having to save shots taken from outside the area - and was the only reason we weren't trailing at the break. While I am still unsure about Szcz, on days like this it's hard to argue against his potential to become a really top keeper. 

* We upped our game a little bit in the second half but not enough. Swansea weathered a period of pressure from us, and then promptly turned the screw again. Whether Arsene had blasted the team or not at half-time, it was disappointing that we only really looked like the better team for a perhaps 10-15 minute period of the entire game.

* As the game sloped towards its conclusion, I thought that the game did not "feel" like a 0-0. It was a far cry from the dull, uninspired fare that had been served up at Villa Park last Saturday, and, if anything, we were the team who were luckier not to be behind. 

*So, of course, Swansea scored almost immediately. Michu - who is surely the signing of the season, given his immediate impact and price - took advantage of the total chaos in our defence caused by a reasonably straightforward through-ball, took his time, and expertly put the ball in the net. Watching the replay of the goal is cringe-inducing. Vermaelen and Mertesacker appear to be playing for different teams, such was the total lack of coordination between the two over whether the line was stepping up or not. Tim at 7am Kickoff remarked that our high-line is now becoming a major defensive liability, and it's hard to argue otherwise, especially if we're not even going to get the offensive benefits that such a tactical deployment should bring. Until we can regain some defensive solidity, perhaps it's better to sit a little deeper, and prevent the chaos that seems to occur every time we try and play the offside trap (oh for a new Tony Adams...).

* The second goal said a lot about the problems we currently have. Jenkinson couldn't find a forward pass, and so was harried backwards, where he was dispossessed, allowing Michu to easily finish. Only one Arsenal player bothered to try and make it back and stop him, Rosicky. I.e., problems arise when you throw a still inexperienced, young defender into the Premier League, and when the rest of your team is so knackered from over-playing that they don't even attempt to track back. 

* Speaking of the final point, the extent to which Arteta and Cazorla are not being overplayed is now verging on the ridiculous, and this was a problem that could be foreseen back in August. Whatever quality our first xi has is being frittered away by a lack of options in the squad. Aside from his demolition of 10 man spurs, cazorla has recently looked like a shadow of the player who lit up the league in August and September.

* At the final whistle, there was a huge amount of booing, coming just seven days after Wenger was subjected to "you don't know what you're doing" chants at Villa Park. 

This is all terribly sad, but Wenger's future as manager is now a question that is legitimately up for discussion. We are enduring our worst start to a season for almost twenty years, and you have to wonder, leaving everything else aside, whether a different manager could get more out of this set of players than Arsene. Our tactics seems stale, and trying to pigeonhole players into a 4-3-3 that doesn't seem to benefit very many of them is increasingly maddening. 

Moreover, there is the issue of the January transfer window. Even if we assume that we have the proverbial "warchest" of funds to spend (why always the military metaphors?) should wenger be the one to spend it? At the moment, his success rate with transfers is hardly dazzling - do we want another 20-30m wasted on the likes of Chamakh, Park, Santos, Squillaci, Gervinho, etc.? And if the money isn't there, for one reason or another, now is surely the moment for Wenger to go public, and stop fronting for a board that don't deserve him.

All I will say is that things are probably going to get worse before they get better. How we're possibly going to cope with the density of games that we're going to face over the Christmas period is truly worrying. We may be relying on the January transfer window to save our season, but how much damage could be done before then? All in all, worrying times.