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.