Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Arsenal go big: Transfer Window Review

So, at the eleventh hour (almost literally), Arsenal pulled it out the bag and finally went big. What a window - thoughts as follows:

* Was there a plan? I suppose we'll never know. It's easy to say that the window was a shambles, but it may be the case that we simply had lots of high-profile targets, at high-profile clubs, who are simply harder to buy. The rarer the commodity, the more difficult it is to acquire. It did seem to me that we were fairly methodical in how we moved from one target to the next, and there may have been a more orderly approach behind the scenes than that which played out in public. It also didn't help that our biggest rivals bought a number of good players before the season started. So, for that, I a willing to be fairly forgiving about how things went overall.

* But one can't escape the idea that there was a strong sense of chaos to our window, and it may well be that we were saved by Real's ridiculous transfer policy in the final week. OK - getting Suarez, Rooney, Higuain etc. is hard. But there were other areas of the team that could have been strengthened at an earlier date. Did we really have to wait until the last week of the window to get Flamini and Viviano? I don't think so. The fact is that we started the season in a mess, and get absolutely thumped by Villa because of it. We may have saved the window in its final week - but we surely have got some more bodies in before then.

* So, Ozil. This transfer was not mooted until the end of the window, and was largely written off by the ITK mob, until abou 20 hours before it happens. Given the talk of shenanigans that had been going on for a week before the deal was confirmed, I find it amusing that anyone talks with any real authoriy about the transfer market. No-one really knows what's going on.

As for Ozil the player, well, he's brilliant. A marquee signing, one of the best 10 or so players in the world. The notion that he's "not what we need" is absolutely baffling. Did Manchester United "need" van Persie last year? Probably not - but you buy world class players when they become available. I genuinely think he takes our already decent midfield, and elevates it (along with the Flamster) into one of the best in Europe. The size of the fee is a statement, and the transfer has the potential to be a game-changer in the way that Dennis's arrival was all those years ago. Well done, Arsenal - you got this one right.

* But I actually think the re-signing of Flamini will also prove to be an inspired move. I had been slightly skeptical, but the way he instantly resumed his c.2008 performances on Sunday was breathtaking. Flamini is a high-tempo scrapper, but with a refinement to his passing that should only have improved further after his time in Milan (who, after all, offered him a new deal). Given he can fill-in across defence, and with Vermaelen's impending return, I actually thnk we are pretty well stocked defensively, especially given that Sagna hasn't left (a massive coup in itself).

*I am broadly happy with the signing of Viviano, who does seem to be highly rated in Italy. I would have preferred, however, if we had simply gone big on a new keeper. This seems like a signing to keep Szczesny on his toes, and I'd rather we'd bought an experience keeper to simply replace him. Maybe Szcz will make good on his promise, but I have real doubts about his ability, and whether he really has what it takes to become an elite keeper.

* The one absolutey glaring omission to our spending was a striker. Yes, we got Sanogo, but, at present, he looks like a midget thrown into the deep-end of swimming pool - completely out of his depth. Signing a striker is just about the hardest thing you can do in football, given their cost, but I refuse to believe we couldn't have gotten anyone. Given Podolski's injury, we are now a Giroud hamstring twinge away from being completely light up-front. One wonders if our relunctance to pay Ba's 3m loan fee may prove to be a bit of an error. Here's hoping we can get Bendtner to stop running over cars for a few weeks.

* Overall, then, I give this window a solid 8 out of 10. The deadwood were finally swept away (although who know where the hell Park is). We didn't lose any major players (koz, santi, jack, etc), brought in two players of proven quality, and a keeper who may to prove to be a decent option. If we'd pushed through a striker as well, I'd be in wonderland. As it stands, I'm very excited about this season, rather than being completely terrified, as I was only a few days ago.

* This window has also ensured two other very big things. Firstly, Wenger will now get a new deal with minimal protest. He's done the dirty and spent big, and, it would seem, been key to our acquisition of Ozil. I would expect a three-year extension before Christmas, despite the fact that one marquee signing does not make up for all the years without a trophy, and all the years in which we could have gone big but didn't. Secondly, Kroenke's presence in the statement accompanying Ozil's arrival might as well have been marked out in 30 feet high, flashing neon letters. Who knows what role that Stan played in all of this, but it will certainly be used as a means of justifying his continued stewardship, after conspicuous levels of (justified) grumbling from the fans. Given that this wasn't his own money that was being spent, I imagine Kroenke is chuckling to himself as Arsenal's enterprise value ticks up another few million pounds.

*A few quick thoughts on other clubs. Spurs have certainly got a lot of new players, but who knows if they'll gel or not. And they also certainly now appear to be short in the creativity and goalscoring stakes - I think we will finish above them again. Liverpool bought quite a few good players, but I still think they have weaknesses in their side that will keep them out of the Champions League. Chelsea bought some exciting players, yet still have Torres as their main striker (megalolz), and let Lukaku go out on loan (why or why?) Manchester City look like they've bought well, but showed fragility against Cardiff that may reflect bigger problems in the squad. As for Real Madrid - essentially buying Bale for 50m and Ozil is surely one of the worst transfer deals in football history.

* A special word must go to Manchester United, who's window was surely nothing short of a shambles, despite keeping hold of Rooney. The cracks that Ferguson's aura helped paper over have surely now emerged with a vengeance. Signing a player for more than his release fee beacuse they thought they could get better; failing to get Real to register Coentrao's loan deal with La Liga, thus scuppering the transfer; and having, it would seem, a group of chancers represent them in the Herrera negotiations - it's not very good really. This is hardly the well-oiled machine that Ferguson presided over. I think they will be the big story this season.

Anyway, roll on September 22. And prepare to see a lot of umlauts at the Emirates this year.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Shambles Three Months in the Making: It's time for a Change

Welcome to the new season! What fun! Thoughts as follows:

* It was good for five minutes. Rosicky received the ball, spun and released; Chamberlain played a delightful outside of the boot pass into the box; Giroud timed his run to perfection, and neatly slotted home. All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

* And then we all woke up. The tantalizing five minutes of hope evaporated, and what we all knew came to pass - the club is a shambles, and so is the team. We can bang on about the terrible refereeing (and it was bad) but, again, it benefited us to an extent, such as when Woj rushed off his line and gave away a penalty through sheer, bloody-minded, terrible decision making. He should have been sent off, but instead had to suffer the indignity of saving a terrible penalty, only to palm it straight back to the penalty taker. Good times, 1-1.

* After the equalizer, did we ever look like winning it? I don't know. We seemed to get progressively more and more wound up, that's for sure. We bossed possession, but ended up with just four shots on target. That's pathetic. The referee, while terrible, can't be held to blame for the totally mediocre performance that we saw today.

* As for Szczesny - can we finally agree that he's just not that good? He was all over the place today - sprinting off his line for the penalty, rooted to the spot for the third goal, attempting to play midfield at one point when he came charging out of his box for no apparent reason. At this point, I don't care how good he might be - I want someone who's good today. We haven't bought a world-class keeper since 2003 - that is a disgrace, and who knows if Arsene even thinks it's a priority. Crazy. Begovic is openly available for around 15m. Buy him.

* After releasing almost all of our defenders this summer, and buying no-one in return, it was fitting that we got a defensive injury today, and a red-card for Koscielny. I'm almost surprised that chickens didn't literally come home to roost on the pitch, because the defensive shambles we saw today was months in the making.

* Koscielny was unlucky, but both cards were the result of us being overrun in midfield. Koscielny is a reactive defender, and if there is chaos, he reacts in turn with more chaos. He has now had multiple red cards during his time at the club, and, in all honesty, they all seem to be because of the chaos that is strewn across our side.

* The third goal - well, we're down to ten men and chasing the game, so it was almost inevitable. Szcz's positioning was so poor he might as well have just ushered the ball into the net.

* A few remarks on indviduals:

  * Giroud scored. Other than that, he was utterly, totally, completely useless. Still, one more goal for      the statisticians! Who cares if he moves slower than a snail, repeatedly misses the target, ambles        around the pitch without a care in the world! Giroud will never, ever be good enough to start for a    team with pretensions towards the title, but don't worry, he scored twice against Brighton last year!
  * Walcott - what do you do, apart from the occasional useless set-piece? I wish we'd sold him last  summer.
 * Rosicky is the ultimate Emperor's new clothes player, a shining beacon of the mediocrity that has  engulfed the club. He missed a one-on-one chance today by a margin that would have embarrassed  Chris Kiwomya. He runs around a lot, has a nice few flicks, but he is a fundamentally limited player.  Look at his goals and assists record for Arsenal - it's pathetic. He's mutton dressed as lamb, a Carling  Cup player masquerading as a Champions League one.
 * Wilshere - less aggro, more actual contribution please.
 * Ramsey - a squad player. No more.
 * Cazorla - so anonymous he could have committed the Zodiac murders.
 * As I write this, van Persie has just scored a second goal for United. Two words: footballing. reasons.

* When the third goal went in, the boos rang out, and rightfully so. This is *The* Arsenal, one of the greatest sporting clubs in the world. Yet we have a dictator as manager who has now completely, lost the plot. One so wrapped into his world of absolute power, he vetoes deals for players that would manifestly improve the squad. Higuain? Pah. I refuse to pay his fee. Gustavo? Pah. Why pay his wages when we could get *three* Bendtner's for those wages.

We have all known, all summer, that this squad is not good enough. Spurs, who finished one point behind us last season, have spent big under the auspices of a young, energetic manager with new ideas.

I want, and have always wanted, Arsene to succeed. But it's time for a change. He has had three months to prepare for this date, and, instead, we put out a team that embarrassed Arsenal Football Club. That is dereliction of duty. That is allowing your own ego to outweigh the good of the club. Wenger was a genius. Now he is a sad, almost ironic, parody of his former self, a reactionary figure spewing falsehoods to keep himself in the job.

He has two weeks to do the job he had three months to complete. But, whether he finally gets the players we need or not, it's time for a change. The Emirates turned on Wenger today, and I think this is the beginning of the long, sad, slow end to his time as manager.

And I honestly think he only has himself to blame.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Season Review: You Can Ask For More.

The end of the season is usually a time for reflection, but I wondered this year how much I really wanted to reflect on what had just come to pass.

Let’s be honest, this season was a bit rubbish. Yes, we again won the top-four trophy, and, yes, again, we humiliated Spurs in the process – but is this enough? I suppose it depends. It depends on what you want from football. Do you just want to use football as an excuse to socialize, develop friendships with people you otherwise wouldn’t meet, and sink a few pints in the process? If so, I suppose any season would satisfy you. Don’t get me wrong – I love all the gooners I’ve met around the world while supporting this club. But I also want to be proud of the club I support, not just the people with whom I support the club.

In that sense, I don’t think anyone can say this season is going to be remembered as any sort of triumph. Smashing Spurs again was obviously fun, and a 2-0 win against the now European champions at their home ground is also something to be savoured, even if occurred in a match that was, to all intent and purposes, a dead rubber.

We got to watch one of the world’s best players, Santi Cazorla, play for our team on a weekly basis, and he provided a host of magic moments that enlivened a multitude of otherwise dire matches. It was also nice to see the club rediscover the art of defending, although you could argue this was a necessity to make up for the lack of firepower at the other end of the pitch.

Beyond that, and a few other games, like Liverpool away or West Ham at home, it’s hard to take too many positives from this season. It supposedly gives us the basis from which to kick on – but have we not been in this position for some time? The stadium payments haven’t really gotten any more or less onerous this year, even if new commercial deals, and TV revenue, will imminently start boosting our finances.

I simply feel that, as Arsenal fans, we have been sold the future for almost a decade. We have been told to celebrate each top four finish in that period, as it supposedly allows the club to attract and retain the world’s best players. Instead, we’ve lost a host of top footballers, and done the bare minimum to paper over the cracks, and keep ourselves in the Champions League cash-cow.

For me, this season ended the moment we sold van Persie to our supposed rivals. The club hoisted the white flag before a ball had been kicked in anger, and we still haven’t entirely recovered from this rank act of cowardice. To those who say we scored more goals without van Persie this year than with him last year – please, get a grip. If we keep van Persie, and add Cazorla with either one or both of Podolski and Giroud, we score MUCH more than we did last year. In fact, I think we would have had an outside chance of the title had we kept van Persie. After all, look at how far United pulled ahead of City simply through the addition of one world class goalscorer. Instead we sold him, and the title, to a club that operates under some form of bizarre, kleptocratic regime, and yet still shows more ambition than us in the transfer market.

Our season was only saved by Arsene’s realization that we could only get the results we needed by grinding them out. And grind them out we did, with a series of almost unwatchable, narrow wins against the detritus of the Premier League. Yes we did it, but surely we can expect more from a club with our resources.

And this is what this season review ultimately comes down – you can ask for more. Setting aside all blame for the moment, we can ask for more from the club than we currently get. We can ask for a club that treats the most prestigious domestic cup competition with respect. We can ask that the club, as a bare minimum, challenges for the title, even if it doesn’t win it. And we can certainly ask that our best players are not sold year-in, year-out, to teams that we are supposedly competing with for the highest honours. The failure of the club to do all that led to this mess of a season.

And this is where we do have to start playing the blame game. Because someone is primarily responsible for this mess. Is it Stan Kroenke, our absent owner? A man who doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of responsibility that he has as owner of THE Arsenal Football Club. We are not some two-bit franchise – we are one of the world’s most historic social-cultural enterprises, a sporting institution that deserves an owner that at least regularly attends matches, and pretends to understand why fans might be a bit peeved by his refusal to say anything to us about his intentions for the club, beyond the usual, bland corporate statements.

Is it Ivan and his backroom team? Are they dropping the ball when it comes to closing deals? How many other Juan Mata’s are there – deals we should have completed, but failed to do so?

Or is it Arsene? And ultimately, it perhaps has to be Arsene. He is the one who makes ludicrous statements about the top-four “competition”. He is the one that chooses to let us meekly slip out of the FA Cup, year after year, despite the fact that he must know how much this trophy means to the fans. And he is the one who was critical to the sale of van Persie, taking a call from his former Scottish nemesis when he should have hung up and told Robin to shut up, and get back to work, potential transfer fee be damned.

Some fans will read this post and criticize me as negative. Fair enough. But I simply feel that many of those fans that are deemed “negative” are actually optimistic. They believe that Arsenal can do more. That this club can actually compete on all four fronts each season. That we don’t have to consistently sell our best players. That we can be more ambitious in the transfer market without going into some Portsmouth-esque spiral - and as side-note, even if we did, if the club came out owned by the fans, would that be so terrible?

So Arsene gets one more season. One more season to prove that he still has the guts to be ambitious, and the guile to change his approach and make us competitive again. I hope he has it in him. With Chelsea, and both Manchester clubs in flux, now is the time to go for it in the transfer market. Because if he doesn’t, and we’re here again next season, celebrating fourth place like a trophy – it’s time for him to go. Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that. But let’s also forget that no one is replaceable. Given the number of top players sold during his tenure, Arsene surely knows that more than anyone else.


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Time for Some New Ideas: Thoughts on Arsenal 1 Sp*rs 2

Another week, another defeat. Thoughts as follows:

* The line-up was probably as good as it was going to get, given our current squad. Personally, I would have started Podolski instead of Giroud, and Koscielny instead of Vermaelen, but more on that on a bit. The amount of poor players in the squad has reached such a point that it's actually quite hard to rotate the team. Gervinho may, be the best player in Africa, according to Arsene, but he can't even get off the bench at the moment. Oxlade-Chamberlain's form is in the toilet. Who else is there to choose?

* We started well, for a change, but weren't able to turn our dominance into goals. This isn't a surprise, given that we have a painfully average striker as, seemingly, our first choice forward. Giroud did practically nothing all game. He's incapable of dropping deep to help make things happen, and he can't capitalize on the kinds of half-chances that RvP used to thrive on. There was a moment before Spurs scored where he was fed the ball in a promising position, and preceded to miskick it, and lose the opportunity. It summed up not only his game today, but possibly his entire season. Also, given that he's a pretty big bloke, he has a bizarre reluctance to get in the area, and try and win headers. I've seen enough of him this season to know that he's not going to turn into a world class striker we need, and that we can't rely on him to win us games. I feel like I say this every week, but replacing RvP with Giroud sums up our entire season - when excellence replaces mediocrity, standards slip, and games are lost.

* So, naturally, despite dominating the early phases of the match, we spectacularly self-destructed. When a suicidally high-line is mixed with a complete lethargy towards tracking runners, goals follow. Frankly, watching Vermaelen stand there, nonplussed for both goals confirms the lunacy of making him captain, and thus an automatic starter. He is, simply put, not a very good defender. Koscielny deserves a run in the team. Also, Szczesny hardly covered himself in glory, once again, by neither coming for the ball nor standing on his line for the first goal. Standing in no-mans land, Bale was able to easily prod the ball past him. Another error for the Pole in a season littered with them - but hey, we can't kill his progress and buy an experienced pair of hands. That's cheating!

* At half-time, the game felt like it was lost. I know we've had a lot of great recent comebacks against Spurs, but this did not feel like one of them. For the 5-2 last season, we had the likes of Sagna and van Persie in the mix to create huge moments that swung the game back in our favour. We also had the advantage of facing a Redknapp-managed side - an individual with even less tactical nous than Wenger.

* So, I was a little surprised when we scored almost immediately after the interval. A nice freekick from Theo was flicked into the net by Mertesacker, with assistance from Bale. At this point I half expected the commentator to start sobbing, as the whole things had been portrayed as the Gareth Bale show up to that point. He's obviously a great talent, but the idea that the entirety of Spurs' recent good form is down to him is simply not true. Their midfield and defence was very well organized today, and AVB even dropped his defensive line in the second-half that ultimately helped to keep us contained. All joking about Spurs' history (or lack thereof) aside, this is a good Spurs team, who could be even better if they had managed to pick up a striker in January (sound familiar?). As it stands, I see no evidence that they are on the verge of the typical Spurs end-of-season implosion, and I fully predict them to finish above us come May. They may not have won the league for fifty years, but they look like a club going in the right direction at the moment, which is more than can be said for the current shambles going on in our part of London.

* I suppose you could say we dominated the rest of the match, but what did we really produce? Two shots on target in the entire game is not good enough. Ramsey should have scored when put through, but Spurs also had very good chances to go three ahead. Even when six minutes was held up by the fourth official, there was no real scramble in the box, or last-ditch defending by Spurs. Other than our goal, our set-piece delivery was again abysmal, and Lloris and his defence was able to deal with most of it with relative ease.

* Another game, then, where we self-destructed and largely handed the victory to our opponents. And at some point the question has to be asked: who is more to blame? The players or the manager? If we consistently make the same types of ludicrous defensive mistakes, surely this is a case of the players not being drilled properly on the training ground, or playing in a system that allows opponents to regularly open up our defence. Even at our best under Wenger, he's always built teams that leak goals. The problem is these leaks have become more and more frequent in recent years, and, bereft of a world-class striker, we are no longer able to overcome goalscoring deficits.

Watching Spurs today I was struck by how astutely they have acted in the last twelve months. They got rid of manager in Redknapp who was ultimately lacking in the requisite tactical ideas to make them into a top side, and took a gamble on a young manger with new ideas about the game. This appears to have played off. In addition, they recruited a host of good players for very reasonable prices - Lloris, Vertonghen, and Dembele. All three of those players should have been bought by Arsenal. We weren't priced out of buying these players - we simply made poor decisions. We failed to do the necessary business in two transfer windows, and now we staring at the very real possibility of failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in a decade.

As Amy Lawrence put it, there is a weariness to this Arsenal side. Not necessarily in their energy levels, but in terms of their whole approach to the game. A tired, outdated approach to the transfer market, combined with tired, tactical inflexibility has led to this point. There's no sign that our downward slide will be arrested unless a big change is made - a takeover, a new manager, or a real clearout of the squad. Who knows if any of those things will happen - but we all know Wenger has a job for as long as he wants it, and as long as he does, it's hard to see us really challenging for honours again. It's time for change of ideas, and if Wenger isn't capable of that, we need to find someone else to take the club forward.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Getting Away with It - But for How Long? Thoughts on Arsenal 2 Villa 1

A scrappy win, but a win nonetheless. Thoughts as follows:

* I didn't like the starting line-up, and the midfield looked particularly shaky. There didn't appear to be  much of a sense of balance in that eleven. Yes, it might only be Villa at home, but who was going to do the dirty defensive work in midfield?

* But, for once, we got off to a good start, with Cazorla knocking home a shot at the second time of asking. I have been critical of Cazorla at times this season because I think he has the potential to play at an even higher level to the one he's currently at. Yes, he's not helped by our paper-thin squad, which necessitates that Arsene has to play him every week. But he's been wasteful with his shooting, particularly when he seems to snatch at opportunities from outside or near the edge of the area. Both his goals yesterday were measured, placed shots. He has a good goal tally this season - I think he can score even more next year if he continues to place his shots like he did yesterday, rather than thrash at them like he has done a little too often this season.

* The remainder of the first-half, and indeed the game until Villa scored, was a little odd. Both sides had chances to score. We were, overall, on top, but there was a clear sense that we could be opened up with relative ease. As mentioned above, there was essentially no sense of who should be playing defensively in our midfield. Normally this would fall to Arteta, but it's now become abundantly clear that we need a dedicated holding midfielder, not a converted attacking midfielder, like Arteta. The space between our midfield and defence was constantly exploited throughout the game, and if Villa were not absolutely terrible they would have scored more than the once. When up against better teams, like Bayern, our lack of defensive organization as a team, is fatal. More on this later.

* Regardless of our defensive failings, the game shouldn't have been as close as it was. However, until we get a new striker who is clinical in front of goal, we will struggle to see out matches such as this one. Yes, Giroud has got a fair few goals this season - but he is not good enough to lead us to trophies. It's notable, in my opinion, that barely any of his goals have come against opposition in the top-half of the premier league. He looks like what he is - a player with one good season under his belt in Ligue Un, who has struggled to adapt to a much higher quality league. He's a good back-up option, but he should not be consistently starting games. Unfortunately, that miss against Sunderland on the opening day of the season was a fairly accurate representation of his level of ability.

* But Giroud can't take all the blame. Walcott is as consistently inconsistent as ever. Yes he has 18 goals this season, but the fact that he has become the team's main goal-scoring threat is slightly terrifying, given his propensity to completely hide during games. I have said this a few times - Walcott's representatives played Arsenal perfectly - they were able to achieve a deal that reflected the club's fears that the fanbase would not tolerate the loss of another "star" player. Until he consistently produces, he's not worth whatever inflated wage he is now on. If any good comes from the Bayern game, it's that hopefully the absurd experiment of deploying him as a lone central striker is now at an end.

* Podolski must also come into some blame for a lack of prowess in front of goal. I have heard conflicting reports on the reason for his absence yesterday. There is the suggestion that he has been struggling with an ankle injury for some time that will require surgery at the end of the year. Others, have simply said he was dropped yesterday after a string of lethargic performances. So, what to make of Poldi? He's our most clinical player in front of goal, and I still think he deserves a chance in the central striker spot. But, does he deserve the chance if he can't even be bothered to run for a full 90 minutes? It's a tough call. In defence of Giroud, I know we're getting 100 percent effort and commitment from him, despite his failings as a player. I'm not always sure that this is the case with Podolski, unfortunately.

* So, after squandering a series of chances, it was inevitable that Villa would score. And, being Arsenal, that they would score in risible fashion. After another wasted corner, Villa countered. Total chaos reigned in our defence, with Monreal not knowing whether to move to the player, or move to his position, and Jenkinson generally not having a clue what to do. But, Weimann's shot was not a spectacular effort and should have been saved. Instead, it went through Szczesny and into the net. It's now clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that we need a new goalkeeper. I love Woj's spirit, and he has had big games for us this season. But the mistakes now clearly outnumber the positives, and he has cost us games and points this season. Let's man up and make Stoke an offer they can't refuse for Begovic. If this "kills" Szczesny, so be it. We don't owe any of these players a career. If they're not good enough, they're out. Enough coddling.

* The same goes for Jenkinson. Yes, he's a gooner, and celebrated our winner with enthusiasm. But so what? Is he good enough to replace Sagna as our starting right-back. No way. At the moment he is a mid-table player, at best, who would actually benefit from a loan. If we do make the mistake of letting Sagna go this summer, I really hope we have a plan beyond Jenkinson.

* But the defence can't take all the blame for the goal. The chaos in our back-line stemmed from a certain unearned nonchalance to defending in our midfield. The question is - what type of players are Diaby and Wilshere? There role within our midfield yesterday was not clear at all. Wilshere is a brilliant player. But is he meant to be staying deep? Is he a box-to-box player? Does he have a free role in the side? And as for Diaby, is he some form of bizarre attacking midfielder who never contributes significantly to our attacks? What does he really bring to the team? Not a lot, in my opinion. I hope that we finally get rid of Diaby this summer, but he's clearly a pet project for Wenger, who'll be at the club as long as Arsene is. Unfortunately, our bizarre reliance on a player who continually suffers from injuries will probably mean we won't buy the dominant central midfielder that we've needed for years.

* Our second goal was a moment of absolute joy in a much otherwise characterized by dross. Wilshere floated a ball over the top to Monreal, who cut the ball back to Cazorla, who then finished with a neat curling effort. It's easy to forget at the moment, but it's moments like these which make it so difficult to turn against Wenger. At his best, he produces teams in which players express themselves, and create moments of beauty on the field. It was nice to see Nacho pop-up with an assist as well.

* So, a win. A poor win, but a win. And as we try and climb the mountain to fourth place once more, it's a vital three points.

But it's a win that raises a lot of questions, especially in the light of our defeats to Bayern and Blackburn. From around 2006 to 2010, I was firmly of the belief that Arsene was the right man for the job, and that we were simply 1-2 players away from greatness. Now, I'm not so sure. The total lack of organization and tactical discipline that we've seen on the pitch time and again this season hints at wider faults in Wenger's management that signings potentially don't rectify. There's only so many times you can see a poorly defended set-piece, huge swathes of space left open by disorganized players, or a lack of resolve to get the job done before you start to wonder whether the players on the pitch are the only problem in terms of our performances.

I'm fairly sure that we'll up our game in the next few weeks, and we will probably get fourth place. But this season has really shaken my belief in Wenger. For the first time I wonder whether new signings are enough to make us title-challengers again, or whether more substantial change is required at the club in terms of how we approach the game. Maybe we don't need a new defender - we need a new attitude towards defence. And maybe we don't need to replace Giroud - we need to rethink the entire way we tactically approach a match. Does Wenger have this in him? I don't know.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Best Man for the Job? Thoughts on Arsenal 0 Blackburn 1

I had, by accident, scheduled to have my cable replaced during the game yesterday. This meant I missed about a third of the game, for which I should probably be grateful. This was another season-defining moment, in a season that has largely been defined in terms of absolutely dreadful results. Thoughts as follows:

* The team selection was fine, other than Coquelin starting at right-back. He's not a right-back, and clearly doesn't want to play there. Indeed, I'd go one further and ask what Coquelin brings to the squad. I'd genuinely rather have Denilson in his place at the moment. As Arse2mouse put it, Coquelin's main ability seems to be running around a lot - i.e., the minimum of what you should expect in a game that is fundamentally based around, yes, running around a lot.

* So, I missed most of the first half, but that's not really a problem with Arsenal nowadays. Our first-half performances have become the equivalent of an extended warm-up. We saunter around a bit, stretch our legs, hit some range-finders. The days in which we put three goals past an opposing team in the first-half are long, long gone.

* Still, we certainly should have gone in at half-time at least one goal ahead, with Gervinho scuffing the ball wide when put through one-on-one with the keeper. He may well have lit up the ACN, but he still looks rubbish in the Premier League. I fear that he is soon going to be added to the lengthy list of recent signings at Arsenal who we can't get rid of once it's become apparent that they are not good enough for top-level football. Yes, he probably was really good at Lille. And I'm sure he has stood out while playing for the Ivory Coast. But the standard of much of Ligue Un, and, to be frank, international football, is not anywhere near the level of the Premier League or the Champions League. He looks out of his depth, and we need to ship him out in May.

* There was no marked increase in urgency after half-time, which was strange. You might have thought that the team would feel somewhat embarrassed at not being able to dispatch a very mediocre Championship side, but no. Rosicky, who I still feel should be no more than a squad player, did at least try to make things happen, and was unlucky not to score with a thunderous strike from outside the area which smacked against the bar.

* So, naturally, Arsene took Rosicky off when he finally decided (20 minutes too late) that we needed to make some substitutes. Abou "lovechild" Diaby was naturally left on, for reasons unknown. So far this year, Abou has played about two good games of football, both at the start of the season. Then he, predictably, had a "3-4 week" injury, that saw him miss three months of a 9 month season. Since he's returned, he's gone back to default Diaby mode. Tacking 50 touches of the ball where two will do, and generally strolling around the midfield, slowing down play. For some reason, I've always thought of Diaby as a young player - but he's now 26. Considering the position he plays, he should be dictating matches, and dominating in the midfield. He doesn't really. Our baffling, continued reliance on Diaby has meant that we haven't gone out and done the business in the market that we really need to do. Another one that needs to leave in the summer.

* The goal, when it came, was a predictable comedy of errors. Where to start? Coquelin being all over the place? Walcott not bothering to track his runner? Or Szczesny palming the ball straight back into the danger zone? It was that classic mixture of incompetence and laziness that has seen us concede so many goals in the last few years. It's one thing to be beaten by moments of brilliance by the opposition; it's quite another to consistently self-destruct in the manner that we do all so often. It's pathetic and embarrassing.

* We have to sign a goalkeeper in the summer. Szczesny needs more than Mannone and Martinez as competition. Szcz may well grow into a brilliant keeper, but at the moment he costs us more points and more games than he wins. Yes, he was amazing at Sunderland last week. But how many times has that happened this season? And how many times could the opposite be said? Too many.

* But, in fairness to the defence, their errors are always going to be magnified if we can't score at the other end of the field. And when Theo Walcott is your leading goalscorer, you know you have problems. Giroud, well, I just don't think he's good enough to be our starting striker. A willing back-up, yes. But nothing more than that. I think we've again got a player who looked fantastic in Ligue Un, but who has struggled when introduced to a higher level of competition. It drives me mad that we have one of the most clinical strikers in Europe, Podolski, but we refuse to play him centrally, and instead seem to have given this season over to developing Giroud.

* There was a bit of a scramble towards the end, but for once I just didn't see a comeback occurring  and it didn't. The boos were loud at the end, and expected. Another trophyless season beckons, and this time it's happened with an extra layer of humiliation. Knocked out of the League Cup by a League Two side, and out of the FA Cup by a Championship side. And, in both cases, we put out teams that should have had enough to win the game. We may well get a draw or even a win on Tuesday, but anyone who thinks we will win the tie over two legs has a level of optimism with which I have no empathy.

* And so, here we are again. Arsenal's most successful manager is now presiding over an era that will go down as one of the most barren in the club's history. The quest for fourth place has now become more bizarre than ever. If we, supposedly, don't have the resources to compete on more than one front, then what's the point of qualifying for the Champions League. The pay day that the group stages bring?  Because that's all we've really been getting over the last few years. A few good performances against group stage teams, then a swift exit in the knockout phase.

At this stage, any other manager at any other top-level club would have been sacked. No other club has given their manager as much power or as much leeway as Arsenal and Arsene. Yes, Chelsea and City are committing the equivalent of financial doping. But are United? No. They just have a vastly superior manager who refuses to accept mediocrity in the way that Arsene has at Arsenal for so long now. Would Ferguson allow players like Squillaci and Almunia to hang around the club, picking up paychecks for doing F*ck all for years? Would other top managers play the same tactics week-in, week-out regardless of opposition? Would other top managers continue to see defensive organization as a mere afterthought in comparison to pretty, possession football? No.

I have wanted Arsene to turn this around because he clearly loves Arsenal, and he has taken this club to a level that few could have dreamed of in 1996. But he is now stuck in a rut. The flaws have piled up and multiplied, and I don't know if he is capable of performing the sytematic overhaul of the playing and coaching staff that is required to make the club successful again. Because, as much as we can argue over the finances available to him (and really there is no argument - just look at the annual report), if players aren't "focused" or motivated, or continually play "with the handbrake on" that is largely due to his coaching and his management of the squad.

The final nail in my belief that Arsene is the man to take the club forward was the January transfer window. Yes, we signed Monreal, of whom the jury is still firmly out. But that was it. We still haven't replaced Song. We are still, essentially, gambling on Giroud gaining the consistency that has eluded him thus far. Wenger essentially said that left-back was the only position in the squad that needed strengthening. That, I'm afraid, is mental. We are 21 points behind Manchester United - everyone's position in the team should be under examination.

Ultimately, the question is simple: Is Wenger still the best man for the job? I think it is very hard to answer that question positively at the moment. And, for the first time, I think a majority of Arsenal fans feel that way too.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Either Wenger Strengthens the Squad, or We Get Someone Else who Will.

Oh January, you've been great so far. Thoughts as follows:

* I thought Arsene again picked the wrong team, which is a worrying trend from games this season. There were three decisions that I thought he got wrong, and I'll go through them separately:

 - Koscielny and Vermaelen are not an effective partnership. I think Mertesacker's form has dipped in recent games, and he was made to look a bit of a mug by Michu last week. But he does, overall, bring a calmness and sense of nous to the defence that is always badly missing when he is absent. TV and LK together just seems to be a purely reactive partnership that frequently descends into chaos. I imagine that Wenger was worried about us dealing with city's extremely mobile forward line, but, and just like against Chelsea earlier this season, it was the wrong decision and it cost us.

- Diaby's selection was ridiculous. To be frank, it smacked of desperation and arrogance in almost equal measure - desperation that we don't have better options in central midfield, and arrogance in that Arsene appears desperate for his prolonged faith in Diaby to be repaid. Diaby, on his day, is a fantastic footballer who brings a unique blend of qualities to his midfield. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between because of his appalling injury record. The fact that Diaby was removed after 60 minutes, in what appeared to be a pre-planned move, was incredible. This was not the type of game that you use to re-build a player's fitness. Players are either fit enough to play and compete, or they're not. His performance while not terrible smacked of a player who hadn't played a league game since since September. He is a player that badly needs to be released, and with talk of Fellaini having a release clause at about £22m, this would appear to be a no-brainer for me. But then I suppose I am actually somewhat ambitious.

- Diaby's selection raised big questions about Coquelin - is he good enough to be a part of this Arsenal squad, or not? For me, if he can't be trusted to fill in for Arteta, he shouldn't be at the club. He is taking up the space of a player who could contribute. Personally, I think Coquelin is not a the level required for a club that's serious about competing for trophies. Arsene either needs to give him a chance, or get rid of him at the end of the season.

- A final point about Diaby's selection - it meant that it was not clear who was meant to be playing as the holding midfielder. Given that we operate with almost zero tactical discipline, Silva was given the freedom of the Emirates to run about in the space between our midfield and our defence. It frustrates me hugely to see this, because this is down to a simple lack of coaching.

- Lastly, Theo started centrally again. More on this later, but perhaps some tactical flexibility would have been nice here, given that he was going to be playing against Kompany. Giroud should have started, in my opinion, and I say that as someone who has serious doubts about Giroud's ability.

* People will probably have forgotten most of the game's first nine minutes, but City were already on top when the pivotal moment of the match occurred. It's never a good idea to play the "what if" game, but I think they would have won narrowly with or without the sending off. That's not just me being pessimistic - it's based on the fact that our defence was already a mess, and City have better players than us. That's all. It's also worth remembering that City were without Yaya Toure and Kun Aguero today - I can only imagine the carnage if they had both played.

* Should Koscielny have been sent off? Yes. If Kompany or Lescott had done that to Giroud, we'd have been fuming if they'd escaped without a red. It was an obvious goalscoring opportunity, and Koz deserved to go. After a brilliant, apparent breakthrough season last year, Koz seems to have regressed this year. He always seems to have a calamitous error in him, and he needs to be taken out of the firing line for a while.

* Which brings me onto Vermaelen. Maybe it's the captaincy, but he seems to have regressed as both a player and a leader since August. His positioning is frequently terrible, and directly led to the first goal. Can he improve? I'm not sure. And, at a certain point, you have to wonder whether any player could come in and magically improve the defence, or whether we have a systemic problems that require a complete approach in terms of how we approach the game as a team.

* After the first, a second appeared to be only a matter of time and so it proved. The scoreline ultimately did not reflect City's dominance in the match. Only a few bizarre passages of play in the second half, where they procrastinated over who was going to take the decisive shot on goal, meant that the scoreline stayed at only two. It always felt that they had another gear within them, and I think they will come away from the game with the feeling that it was a closer much than it should have been for them.

* Gunnerblog joked on Twitter, and it's probably true - Theo's wretched performance was undoubtedly evidence that he's signed a new deal. Theo is infuriating - he frequently drifts out of games almost completely, and, I feel, he often outright hides in certain matches, which is unacceptable given the fact he is now an experienced player. I think the "Theo through the middle" experiment has had decidedly mixed results - notably, when up against quality players, like Kompany today, Theo was almost completely out of the game. That said, he almost scored when he did pop-up late on. Ultimately, it says a lot how far the club has fallen that we are being held to ransom, effectively, by a player of his calibre.

* So, Giroud should have come on. But not for Podolski, who remains the only reasonably clinical finisher at the club. Instead, Cazorla should have been removed, who was having, not for the first time, an extremely quiet afternoon. Santi is obviously a great player, but we needed him to step up today after the sending off, and he didn't. It seems that substituting Podolski is Arsene's go-to move at the moment, and I wish he'd leave him on the pitch because he is someone who will take that half-chance when it arrives.

* We were much improved in the second-half, although, as I stated earlier, I do think City were very wasteful in possession. Wilshere stood out and had probably his best game since returning from injury. Not only did he show a huge amount of talent, he has character and determination, which is more than can be said for a lot of other individuals at the club at present.

* It seems that we are really missing someone who can make intelligent runs in the final third. Our play often seems to reach the edge of our opponents penalty box, before breaking down. Losing van Persie has robbed us off someone who creates goals through intelligent movement off the ball. We desperately need to get someone who can open up space in the manner that he used to do.

* What it all comes down to, for me, is this - we need substantial investment in the squad. We are weak in almost every area of the pitch. We have three centre-backs who all seem to have one fatal flaw. We are incredibly reliant on Arteta - someone who has now finally broken down after being massively over-played. Cazorla is knackered and his form has dipped. We lack a spark in the final third. We have a goalkeeper who, penalty save aside, had a mixed game and distributed the ball terribly.

We need new blood and lots of it. If Coquelin and Frimpong have their careers at Arsenal "killed" by bringing in an experienced central midfielder, so be it. If Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo complain about a lack of opportunities because we bring in new attacking options, so be it, etc., etc.

If Arsene claims, as he did today, that it's too hard to find quality players in January, then he needs to go, and be replaced by someone who can find quality players in January. If not Arsene, then our scouting network needs to improve. If it's not the scouting network, then Dick Law, or whoever negotiates our myriad, failed deals, needs to go.

After a disastrous summer transfer window, which perfectly set up this mess of a season, I cannot tolerate another window where we fail to make the necessary improvements to our squad. As 7 AM Kickoff said this week, Arsenal's 2004 side was almost entirely built through astute purchases in the transfer market. Much as it pains me to say this, if Arsene is incapable of effectively operating in the transfer market anymore, we need to find someone who will go out and get us the players we need.

As far as I can see, we have two weeks to find the players to save our season. Otherwise, a humiliating experience at the hands of Bayern awaits, as does the Europa League next season. Because too many of the players that we currently have are simply not good enough for a club like Arsenal, and that's why we are where we are.