Monday, August 28, 2017

If You Care About Wenger, Make him Leave

A few thoughts on another, entirely predictable shambles.

* The team selection was, yet again, bizarre. Chamberlain is shoe-horned into the team as a RWB with Bellerin, hardly a natural defender at the best of times, pushed onto the other flank. Holding, apparently dropped last week, goes straight back into the starting XI. What a great way to re-build his confidence. Lacazette, our record signing, dropped to the bench. Kolasinac not at CB and not even in the team. It says a lot when the club's social media team actually struggle to work out how we're meant to be playing, and still get it wrong. Mustfi, one of the most expensive defenders of all time, watching on from the bench, apparently days away from leaving.

* Once upon a time, maybe thirty years ago at this point, there was a simple theory to away games at big teams. You keep men behind the ball for the first 30 minutes, make sure it's tight, and don't give away a cheap goal. You let the opposing team become frustrated, and look for chances to pick them off on the break. It doesn't always work, but it usually keeps the game close. Instead, we simply attack from the start. If there is a game plan, it's simply to play the same way we play in any situation, regardless of the team or context.

* It's difficult to muster the effort to analyze any of the individual goals in depth. A common theme, instead, is a lack of defensive thought and anticipation. For Firmino's goal, we actually have a decent number of defenders in the box, but there is no organization or anticipation of a relatively late run into the area from a Liverpool attacker. Watching him throughout the move, he is never closely marked at any point, and has a relatively easy header to put them ahead.

* The Mane goal was perhaps more representative of the mess we were in. It's easy to blame Holding here, and he does deserve some blame for being turned inside-out by Mane before the goal. But where is the protection? Why is Mane able to take all day to twist and turn Holding about before he scores?

* The answer lies in the system. It is useless, absolutely useless, to blame individual Arsenal defenders for goals at this point. They are all slaves to a system of defensive ineptitude. When defender after defender fails in our team, perhaps it's not due to individuals  Jonathan Wilson wrote an article in this week's Guardian about the so-called 'red-zone' between a team's defence and midfield in their own half. Failing to stop teams here is lethal.

*And for Arsenal, we haven't so much abandoned it as deemed it an everlasting no-man's land. A place where no Arsenal player dare set foot, less their total commitment to attacking football be brought into question. This stems from the formation. Ramsey and Xhaka are both good central midfielders, yet, clearly, neither will defend our box unless explicitly told to do so. Ramsey now spends most of the game bombing forward, while Xhaka tries to pick passes from deep with middling effect. Behind them is a wasteland. Re-watch the match and pause it virtually anytime Liverpool win the ball from us. In most instances, they will outnumber the Arsenal defenders and have acres of space to play between our midfield and defensive lines, as much as these exist in the first place. And they are the home side.

* Our failure to defend this zone is both tactical and philosophical. Clearly (surely!) neither Ramsey nor Xhaka is being told to patrol the area in front of our defence, except when we are looking to re-start attacks and distribute the ball. Ramsey, as far as I can tell, is being told to play as an auxiliary centre-forward at this point. The conclusion, is that Arsene sees 3 at the back as an even greater licence to his midfielders to abandon their defensive responsibilities. The constant overloads we've seen in midfield are a consequence of this.

* The other major failure is the space behind our wing-backs. The whole basis for success of the 3-4-3 lies in the willingness, and ability, of the wing-backs to tuck-in and defend without the ball, and then sprint forward to overload with it. Clearly, Chamberlain and Bellerin get the second part, and are more than willing to bomb forward at a moment's notice. Defence? Not so much. In the first week of the season, NBC interviewed Vardy after the Leicester game. He said that they knew to target the space behind our wing-backs as an area where they'd find joy. Leicester put 3 past us in that game. Liverpool similarly destroyed us today on the flanks, and this team we had no answer up front. If before the season even started teams knew how to exploit our system, and Arsene has been unable to prevent this in all three games so far, something badly wrong.

* At 2-0, the game was lost. All that was left was the familiar, bizarre cavalcade of substitutions. Coquelin on for Ramsey. Lacazette on for Sanchez, to play as a left-winger. Nothing improved and were simply picked off twice more on the counter.

* Six years ago I moved to America.  My first season over here was the 2011/12 season which we started in catastrophic style. A horrendous 2-0 defeat to Liverpool followed by the nadir of the Wenger era, the 8-2 at Old Trafford. Shortly thereafter, we went on the trolley-dash and eventually salvaged our season.

The 8-2 was the moment I became Wenger out. It's been a shorter or longer journey for others of you out there, but surely we are all here now. Incredible as this may sound to the final loyalists out there, it's possible to respect his previous achievements and still want him gone from the job.

Every post-game interview makes my heart wrench. Today's was typically awful. A hero, a true hero of mine forced to face up to his latest failing. One he will never be able to resolve. The past is a foreign country.

The only question left is what comes next. Does the club have the guts to do what's best and finally end it? Or will it be two years (at least) of further decline? Two years where we watch, almost each week, our greatest manager stripped further and further of his dignity.

Let's end it now and get working on his statue. Every day he stays is another blow to his legacy. The faults are obvious and we'd be hard pressed to find someone who' do a worse job.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Wenger's Final Years - Scorched Earth

If you're looking for an analogy of Arsenal's summer, the video above is hard to beat. Even more than ever, given our recent demotion to the Europa League, we were fed the same lines in June. "Early purchases," "catalyst for change", "statements of intent" etc. etc. Notwithstanding our FA Cup performances, we'd hit a low in the second half of last season, with one calamitous performance following another. Even our usual Spring uptick in form was not enough to save us this year.

And, as so often happens, the summer started quite well. We actually signed a striker and, by the looks of it, a half-decent defender. We were supposedly in for not one but two of Monaco's brightest talents making, it was alleged, a bid of a cool 100 million euros for Mbappe. This was statement of intent stuff. A well played game of chess.

Instead, our strategy has ended up resembling the random machine-gun fire that follows the supposedly careful plan. If there was one, we ballsed it up. We've been linked with Lemar all summer, yet have been unable to close a deal with a club that's clearly willing to sell its best players. As an upgrade to the summer of 2011, we've moved to 3 players (rather than 2) who are undergoing painful, failed contract negotiations that we've left too late to resolve. Ask yourself - does any other major club in Europe let so many of its major assets reach contractual crisis points like these. While I would dearly love Sanchez and Ozil to stay, if it was clear at the start of the summer that no renewal was on the horizon, surely cashing in and reinvesting would be wiser than subjecting ourselves to the caprices of two individuals playing for contracts at other clubs, who will clearly look to ensure they don't pick up serious injuries along the way next year. As for the Ox, he can do one, in all honesty. Barely ten goals in seven years, and no sense of his role in the team, says it all. Again, a player we should have let go and reinvested. And that is before we even get to the likes of Wilshere, Gibbs and Theo, who should all have been moved on years ago.

Indeed, Arsenal are in a fairy incredible position this summer of not being able to get rid of the players we want to sell, while not being able to get the players we want to keep to commit to the club. If we are periodically collecting huge stores of deadwood at the club, while failing to tie down the players we want to keep to long-term deals, something is badly wrong with our internal negotiating strategy. Yet nothing changes. Arsene bristles and acts indignant at the idea a Director of Football would deign to help out.

And this is all before we get to the problems on the pitch. The fundamental issue here, and it is quite simple, is this - Arsene will *never* change. He is stuck within a vortex of his own beliefs and prejudices about how football should be played, no matter the reality that faces him. This was fine as long as his brand of football was still among the best played in England. It no longer is.

That he would seek to self-sabotage a tactical formation that almost saved our season is no surprise. The man got to the final of the champions league using a tactical outlook focused on defence, and never repeated it because he was so disgusted at the quality of football it produced. He does not value the defensive side of the game. When a virtual cavalcade of centre-backs fail at Arsenal, it is not to do with individual quality; it is a philosophical decision to deprioritize the protection the team affords them.

And so we start a game against Stoke with a 3-4-3 formation including 1 centre back. We sign a left wing back who made the Bundesliga team of the year and shoe-horn him in at centre back. We play a right back at left back to accommodate a contract rebel who's not worth keeping. The one centre back we do play, the most expensive in our history, we are apparently looking to sell. We play two central midfielders who have no inclination at all to protect the team's defence. And we lose. We hog the ball, as Wenger loves, but we lose because we're not good enough to do anything meaningful with it. Wenger will soon return to his beloved 4-2-3-1 comfort zone, and we can go back to losing in the way we know best. All so we can sooth Arsene's arrogance.

And so we enter into the last week of the window in a state of total shambles. We could lose our two best players for nothing next year, along with a raft of squad players. We have, to my knowledge, made no effort to tie down any of the 2019 renewals, such as Aaron Ramsey.

I have read a variety of theories over the years about why Wenger refused to leave Arsenal. A popular one has always been that he wants to leave the club in as strong a position as possible. Instead, unless some serious signings or renewals happen imminently, he will have done quite the opposite. If we thought last year was bad, we still have a long way to fall over the next two years.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Arsenal Finally Show Up: One for the Ages

Where to start? I've been fortunate enough to see Arsenal win a load of trophies over the 25 years that I've been following the club. This ranks up there with the best of them. A tale of triumph against the odds, and a victory as sweet as any I can remember.

Some thoughts:

* The build-up to the game reminded me a lot of our win over Parma in 1994. No one gave us much of a chance - we were playing against (supposedly) superior opposition, and we had our share of injuries. Back then, we were missing our best striker (Wrighty); now we were missing, essentially, our entire defence. It meant some big game-time calls for Wenger - Monreal as a CB, Mertesacker recalled, and Chamberlain as a LWB. When you add the faintly ludicrous decision to play Ospina, our defence, a weak point all season, looked ripe for the picking by Chelsea.

* In terms of Ospina, he was one of many players who had a good game - although one could argue he was somewhat at fault for the goal - but the system of playing back-up keepers in finals really needs to end. While I will take almost any opportunity to link to this video, playing back-up keepers in finals has almost rebounded on us catastrophically in the past. Let's not do it any more please.

* As for Mertesacker, something weird has clearly been going on with him and Wenger this year. He has been fit - as far as I can tell - since January, yet Wenger has shown no inclination to pick him at all. As it turned out, he was MOTM. He must has given some indication in training he was capable of such performances, so why he has been locked out the team is something of a mystery. For Per to come in, after such a long time away, and put in one of the all-time great Arsenal performances in a final elevates him to legend territory. I don't think its hyperbole to call it The Mertesacker Final - he was immense.

* A special word too for our other two CBs. Holding is now a member of the starting XI, regardless of whether Mustafi and Gabriel come back. He looks composed, reads the game beautifully and, crucially, can take care of himself on the pitch. To be a truly world-class defender, you need to have a dark side. Telling Costa he's mental, on top of taking out Arnautovic a few weeks in Stoke, is a major difference between Holding and a half-dozen other defenders Wenger has bought over the last few years. To directly compare him to Chambers, for instance, both are very technically proficient, ball-playing centre-backs. At the moment, Holding has an edge to his game that suggests a very promising career in a way that's less easy to see with Chambers. As for Monreal, we all need to step back and appreciate his contribution to the club since he joined. A true pro who went through a ragged patch of form, and surged back into the first team, he was brilliant.

* Much praise has gone to Xhaka, and it's no surprise that he has blossomed when playing in front of a more stable defence and with Ramsey as his partner. You can't fault Coquelin's commitment, but he is not good enough to start in midfield for Arsenal, and he seems to drag down the performances of those who play beside him (Cazorla excepted).

* Ramsey has also gone up a level when playing next to a partner who properly compliments his game. He's scored two FA Cup winning goals - if you don't appreciate him at this point, you never will, and you don't deserve him. He ran 14.4km in the final; a record. I have long maintained that Ramsey gets stick because he never hides. He will make mistakes, but he is an elite central midfielder when used correctly.

* Who knows what the future will bring for Alexis and Ozil, but if this was their last game, it was a fine way to bow out. The amount of rubbish I have read about Alexis this season is incredible. He wins games. He scored over 30 goals this season. I couldn't care less if he gives the ball away a lot; it's his job to make things happen, and he does it. It is hard to overstate what a massive loss he will potentially be to the team. Ozil has had a more frustrating season but stepped up for the final, and really should have capped a great performance with a goal. I think there is a fair chance he will stay; it's hard to see another elite club offer him the same role that he has at Arsenal. On days like yesterday, his technical leadership on the pitch is vital, and he simply needs to add goals to take his game to the next level.

* I felt that the change to 3-4-3 would be a temporary fix for a deeper problem, and the match against Spurs showed that it is hardly a foolproof system. Yet the overall picture since its implementation is now fairly clear - we've won almost every game we've played using it. Moreover, we've won games while rotating personnel. For a long time, it felt that Arsenal only bought rubbish centre-backs; but i think that using a system that leaves the defence almost entirely exposed is going to make life difficult for almost any centre-back. It's great - and long overdue - that Arsene sorted out systematic reasons for our defensive difficulties, and it begs the question why it took him so long to do so. Our best run in the Champions League, for instance, came on the back of a system that prized defensive stability. I can only assume that we will persist with the system moving forward, and it would be mad to go back at this point.

* The game hammered home that winning a cup is infinitely more rewarding than finishing in the top four. It's a false dichotomy to suggest that we even have to pick one or the other. But yesterday meant much more than anything but winning the league. Just look at the players and the fans' reaction - everyone knows this. Look at Rob Holding showing off his medal to the fans, or Ramsey's face above. Players want to win. It's one of the greatest myths of modern Arsenal that we don't have the resources to compete on multiple fronts. We have huge amounts of cash, a massive stadium and an enormous fanbase - trophies should be the norm. It's one reason why I hope we treat the Europa League seriously. We haven't won a European trophy in over twenty years, and we should go into the competition as favourites. Moreover, you only have to look at Atletico Madrid to see that some clubs have been able to use the competition as a spring board to further success in domestic competitions.

* We have to end with Arsene, and ask whether this is the end for Arsene. Until yesterday, I had been 99% sure he was staying. But there was a notable change in his tone in the interviews he gave before and after the final. This didn't seem like a man who was certain of his future, nor one that was, crucially, even in control of his future. He is clearly angry at what he considers a betrayal. The media have largely pinned this on the fans, and I imagine Wenger is surely angry at the sub-section of the fan base who have embarrassed the club over the past few months. You can't argue we are a club with 'class', then hire a plane to fly a banner over a stadium, or promote barely intelligible interviews given by fame-hungry morons on social media. Some "fans" are clearly more interested in their grubby personal brands than how the club is perceived. They will obviously argue otherwise, and there is clearly a legitimate case for the removal of Wenger from the club; but don't forget that some people profit from the advertising linked to the idiotic ramblings of supposedly adult men.

Fans aside, however, Wenger's ire is probably more squarely aimed at the board and, in particular, our seldom seen CEO. If I were to speculate, I would imagine that Arsene felt a renewal was likely until around the time of our meltdown against Bayern. He may well feel that the board did not back him during this difficult period, and essentially hung him out to dry as anger in the fan base grew. His anger here is justified to a certain extent; if I had done a job for 20 years, I would expect a little more loyalty from my employers. But it highlights the dilemma the club faces. Arsene has been an incredible manager, yet on the basis of this season (let alone last year, when we blew the easiest title race in twenty years) he should go. This should have been announced before the final, and this should have been his magnificent send off.

* Whatever the outcome, sometimes Wenger gets it completely right: “Look, let's enjoy the win tonight, not worry about the future, and live in the present.”

Yesterday was what you live for as a football fan. We played like The Arsenal of old, and showed we can win when it matters most. Ten, twenty years from now, you probably won't remember some of the low points of this season; you will remember Aaron Ramsey stooping to head the ball barely a minute after Chelsea had equalized, and how those last ten minutes felt like an eternity before an explosion of joy.

Cherish days like yesterday. They are the reason we love the game and this club of ours: The Arsenal.


Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Gazing into the Abyss: Bayern 10 Arsenal 2

What did we expect today? To go out of the Champions League. There was maybe a small part of me that felt a comeback might, just might, happen, but the odds were so long that it was basically a fantasy. Beating Bayern 4-0 at home was never really going to occur. And if you believe it could have happened, you're almost part of the problem. It's one thing to support the team; it's another to so blindly believe that the best might happen, that you ignore how bad things really are. Enabling is destructive.

The officials certainly changed the game. Had the penalty been given for the trip on Walcott in the first half, and we go in at 2-0, then maybe things might have been interesting. But they didn't. There isn't a conspiracy, it's just incompetence. Just like it was blind, mad incompetence to upgrade Koscielny's yellow to a red, and end the game. So what. Those are the breaks. Deal with it.

The real crime tonight was what happened to the team at 1-1. It's the difference between Arsene and the truly great managers of our time. Had this been a Ferguson managed team, the final result would have been 1-1, maybe 2-1. Why? He would have shut up shop, put his players behind the ball, and told them to grind out the rest of the game. Keep it boring. Keep it respectable. Focus on the battles you still might win.

Instead, we fell apart. Who knows what, if any, instructions were issued from the sideline. Maybe at 1-1 there was still some mad belief that we could get 4 goals and win it 5-1. The fact is there was no order. No semblance of sense. Just a bizarre, self-pitying collapse. No shape, no discipline. Players openly abdicating responsibility as the goals rained in. Sanchez trying to dribble it out before being dispossesed by Robben. Costa having enough time to light a cigar before scoring the third. Ozil not bothering to press properly for the fourth. Wide open spaces for the fifth.

I can't stress this enough. This is a total disgrace. A total disgrace. Teams get players sent off. It happens. The best teams show substance, passion and pride when they're backs are against the wall. You can lose with a semblance of honour. This was a team who couldn't be bothered; leaderless, rudderless, spineless. I'm watching clips of Sanchez laughing on the bench, and this is where we are.

The final result was the heaviest home defeat in Arsenal's European history. Bayern scored 10 (ten) goals against us in two legs.

It's over. It's been over for years. I'm sure we'll beat Lincoln and might even have a run at the FA Cup this year but please, please leave before this gets really ugly.

I read Gunnerblog's excellent article on Arseblog this week about why he's struggled to maintain his passion for blogging about Arsenal. I couldn't agree more. I started this blog a few days after Arsenal beat Real in 2006. That might not have been the best team in Arsenal's history, but it was an exciting one. The future seemed full of possibilities. Now all we've been left with is the abyss.

"And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.'


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Arsene, Arsenal and Hypernormalisation

I recently watched Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalisation – you can find it on the iPlayer and YouTube. It’s an interesting yarn about why the world is in such a mess at the moment, but this blog is not about the connections between Syria, Gaddafi, Blair, Trump et al. Instead it’s about the concept of hypernormalisation. Curtis borrowed the title of the film from a book about the Soviet Union by Alexei Yurchak, a professor at UC Berkeley: “Everything was Forever, Until it Was no More.” To quote a review of the film in The New Yorker, Yurchak contended that in the final twenty years of Soviet rule:

[The] Soviet system had been so successful at propagandizing itself, at restricting the consideration of possible alternatives, that no one within Russian society […] could conceive of anything but the status quo until it was far too late to avoid the collapse of the old order. The system was unsustainable; this was obvious to anyone waiting in line for bread or gasoline, to anyone fighting in Afghanistan or working in the halls of the Kremlin. But in official, public life, such thoughts went unexpressed. The end of the Soviet Union was, among Russians, both unsurprising and unforeseen. Yurchak coined the term “hypernormalization” to describe this process—an entropic acceptance and false belief in a clearly broken polity and the myths that undergird it.

Remind you of anything?

Look – I’m aware that comparing Arsenal and Wenger to one of the most brutal governments of modern history is ridiculous. I know. But read the quote above again.

Arsenal exists in a state of hypernormality. There is an inherent falseness to the picture we are painted each season as supporters. We are told we can compete with the top teams in England and Europe; we never do. We are told that Wenger can change things this season; he never does. We are told that this our season in Europe; it never is. We will win the league this season; we don’t. We're always 2-3 players from glory.

We lose by huge margins each season in the first knockout round of the Champions League, never showing any improvement; yet we celebrate finishing fourth, and qualifying for the same competition. We cannot even beat Leicester City to the league title, when, finally, all our rivals flounder; yet we are told that finishing second is a great achievement, proof of Wenger’s consistency in qualifying for Europe.

We have the same injury crisis each season, involving the same players in the same positions, but nothing can be done to prevent it. It's just bad luck.

Look at Giroud’s statistics! He failed to score in any of the games during the crucial run-in last season. Koscielny is a world-class defender! He makes catastrophic errors on a regular basis. Petr Cech will win us 15 points a season! He hasn’t. Cazorla, a 32 year old with knackered Achilles tendons, can be the lynchpin of our midfield! He won’t play again this year. The team is entirely composed of players who are both good enough and not good enough at the same time. They are Schrodinger's players - both world-class and not world-class simultaneously.

And what it all comes back to is this: Arsene Wenger can build a winning team this season! No, he can’t.  Hasn’t been able to do so for a decade. He can build a team that gets the requisite points for the Champions League cash cow, but the days of him building a winning team are years gone. Thirteen Years to be precise. The same mistakes, the same self-destruction, the same limp capitulations are replayed each year. But who can imagine an Arsenal within Arsene? Who could possibly do better?

Pundits know this, yet engage in the same nonsense. Gary Neville gives extended tactical analyses on Arsenal’s shortcomings almost every week, and then calls supporters ‘embarrasing’ when the ask for change in the club’s management. But I suppose he can give a cheeky grin, get on AFTV, and pretend to be a man of the people.

This is Arsenal’s hypernormalisation. We are painted a picture of a well-run club that plays great football with a fantastic manager. So why have we not won the league in 13 years? Why have we not mounted more than 1 or 2 credible title challenges in that time? Why have we had only 1 or 2 decent Champions League runs in twenty years. Why have our performances, if anything, regressed against the big sides, both domestically and in Europe. 8-2, 6-3, 6-0, 5-1, 5-1, forever. Either our expectations are too high (they aren’t), or the reality is not what it is purported to be (it isn’t).

In the end, Wenger will leave Arsenal, and the club will continue. Everyone knows the system is failing and one day it will end. When? Sooner rather than later. We will look back at the final years of his reign and wonder why it was allowed to carry on for so long, how a legend of the club was allowed to tarnish his reputation in this manner.

So why does it continue? As with all decaying forms of governance, ask the simple question: cui bono? The answer lies in the boardroom. Because for all Arsene’s faults, he is the only true football man in the senior ranks of the club. Kroenke and his idiot son don’t have a clue. Gazidis has been chancing it for years. The fans are told to pipe down if they dare raise a point of dissent at the AGM. Give us your cash and shut up – the system is working. "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." The banal inertia of Wenger’s reign makes a lot of money for a lot of people. They literally do not care if we lose 5-1 away at Bayern every single season as long as the cash keeps coming in.

But for the fans it’s not enough. All we can hope for is that, one day, reality will return, and the club is honest about where it currently stands. And if nothing else, when the end comes for Wenger, it will certainly be both “unsurprising and unforeseen.”