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.