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.

Gb.

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.'

Gb

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.”

Gb.