Sunday, June 08, 2014

Reasons Why we Should, and Shouldn't, Re-Sign Cesc Fabregas

I've been going over this subject in my head a lot over the last few days, and thought I'd share my ramblings with you. So here's the case for and against bring Cesc back home, or taking him away from home, it's all quite confusing really.

Why we shouldn't re-sign Cesc:

- He's a bit of a knob, really. Imagine someone gives you a massive break in your career, enabling you to perform a job you love for millions of pounds. How do you repay them? Well, by saying, on almost a weekly basis, how you will leave this job and go back to your former employer - the one you left in the first place precisely because they refused to give you a chance. I found Cesc's continuous flirtation with Barca during his Arsenal career both tiresome and deeply disrespectful to both Arsene and Arsenal. I get it - you're from Barcelona. If you loved it so so much there, why did you leave? Arsenal are a massive club, and the whole "Barca DNA", "We all know I'll go back one day" story annoyed me hugely. We are not some kind of finishing school for footballing prodigies before they go on to the true club of their dreams. We are Arsenal and you should be honoured to play for us. Basically, don't come crying back to us after running off with your high-school sweetheart and finding out, or in fact remembering, they're a total psycho. You made your bed and you can lie in it.

- Beyond his yearly flirtation, there was the actual manner he left. Trying to push through a move after the 2010 world cup, failing, and then sulking for a season. Let's take a step back here - again, this is a guy being paid millions of pounds to play football, and he's sulking. It was a pathetic, shameful farce. That we allow such things to occur is a major reason why western civilization is ultimately doomed. Then, in 2011, there was the alleged "strike" - again, the self-entitlement and disrespect here is unbelievable. Yes, Cesc is far from alone in the self-entitlement stakes when it comes to football. But, do we want to re-sign such a person? There seems to be a good culture in the dressing room, with very few of the current squad in the primadonna mould that previous squads used to have in spades (I'm looking at you, van Persie, Adebayor, Nasri, etc.) Could Cesc re-adjust to being a squad member, rather than being club captain? Could he take on a auxiliary, rather than central, place in the team?

- He's certainly had an odd time at Barca. Despite creating and scoring tons of goals, the club's fans have never really taken to him. He doesn't seem to have grasped what many thought would be his destiny, and become the new Xavi. There is a school of thought that suggests he is incredibly undervalued by Barca, and this is probably true. But his inability to fit neatly into the team ethic of Barca is interesting. There is only player allowed a free role at the club, and that's Messi. Cesc doesn't seem to have the discipline to play a more controlled deep game, or play further forward. Spain have also seemed to be unsure of where to deploy him - he basically started the European Championship final as a false nine, blowing the minds of hispters around the world. One of the Barca coaches basically said he was a very chaotic player, if I remember correctly. This kinda fits in with the primadonna personality - I play where I want. This pays off most of the time - like in the European Championship final - but it's hard to build a team around such a player, or even to put your full trust in them on the field.

- The club would seem to have a plan for transfers this summer that doesn't include Cesc. In terms of our priorities this summer, a new right-back, striker, goalkeeper and (please please please) a holding midfielder are surely higher up the list. There is an argument that Cesc would be a luxury signing that would take up a large chunk of our budget. I can definitely see this argument in some respects (although I will entirely dismiss it later).

- Which brings us on to my main area of concern - I didn't actually like the style of play, or the footballing culture I suppose, of the Cesc-centric teams seen between about 2006 and 2011. Think about the best teams under Wenger and the attributes that they had - power, strength, and speed. You would be hard pressed to use any of those adjectives when describing Cesc. I read a great quote from Lehmann the other day, who said that when we transitioned from the invincibles side to that centred around Cesc, the team basically slowed down. Two touches were replaced by three or four. We went from a team that destroyed teams on the counter-attack to one that tried to pass the opposing team to death. Remember how many games in 2002 to 2004 were over by half-time? How we would come flying out the traps and knockout our opponents before they had time to settle? And then think about all the games of the Cesc-era where the first half would pass everyone by. Where we would allow the opposition team to park the bus, rather than drive their bus off a cliff. Endless passing triangles involving Cesc, Hleb, Rosicky, Nasri, Denilson, etc. At its worst, the Cesc led teams were the definition of sterile domination. And I do put a large slice of blame on Cesc for this style (and, of course, Arsene for enabling it). Cesc essentially replaced Vieira in the side. We went from a guy who was so direct that he would tackle and pass the ball in the same motion to one that would want about 3-4 touches before even thinking about the next move. For the life of me, I can't work out why Wenger abandoned the mould that had brought his so much success - speed and power - and replaced it with the wimpy, tiki-taka football that made us a laughing stock. The only reason I think he did so is because he had Cesc, he believed in him, and he built a team in his image. People often call Cesc direct, and he is in a Barca team where passing is treated as an almost holy event. But for Arsenal, he was the orchestrator, and he often orchestrated not a lot. A return of Cesc would upset the balance of a team that could, if everyone was fit (please stop laughing) have a good deal of power and directness to it, as typified by its new leader, Aaron Ramsey.

So this, for me is the case against Cesc - a disrepectful brat who would disrupt the balance of the team, both on and off the pitch, and who might see us return to the dark days of the weakest teams of the Wenger era - teams that were regularly bullied off the pitch, but only after completing hundreds of meaningless passes. He might also take up a big slice of a transfer budget that needs to be focused on other positions.

Why we should sign Cesc:

- As mentioned above, he's hardly alone in the acting like a knob stakes when it comes to transfers. From Odemwingie to Berbatov to Bale to even our failed bid for Suarez, footballers have a very loose idea of contract law. Namely, the contract is great in terms of the money they make from it, but the idea this is a binding agreement to actually keep them at a club is something that footballers appear to be astonished by on a regular basis. Ronaldo described himself as a slave, lest we forget, because United tried to hold him to his 100k+ a week contract. So, yeah, while Cesc didn't cover himself in glory during his departure from the club, very few footballers do. I'm not saying he deserves a pass on this one, just that most footballers act like knobs most of the time.

-  Seeing him come back will undoubtedly be very emotional, and it would almost be a symbolic statement of how, after years of selling our best players, we are now committed to not only keeping ours, but buying top players from other teams. In other words, it would help to prove that Ozil was not a one-off signing but the start of a parade of top players coming to the club.

- For 30m, it's a bargain. And what was the point of spending months of the 2011 summer window haggling over a buy-back clause if we're not going to use it? It just looks like a colossal waste of time, another damning part of a summer that should have cost Arsene his job. Players like Cesc don't become openly available on the market very often, and certainly not at knockdown prices.

- If we don't buy him, he will go to Chelsea. Chelsea. Let's just repeat this again - he will sign for Chelsea if we don't sign him. The worst club in world football. And he will play against us, and score against us, and we'll have to watch as he celebrates winning all kind of stuff with Chelsea, and it'll be gross. I would be up for paying 30m just to make sure he didn't play for Chelsea.

- The most compelling reason, is pretty simple - he's really good at football. Really, really good. This might seem at odds with my takedown of the "Cesc-era teams" above, but I'm not that stupid. He was  the bright spot in some of the worst teams I've seen Wenger put out at the club. A midfield combining Cesc, Ozil and Ramsey would surely be the best in the Premier League. If, and this is a big if, we could harness all the great parts of Cesc's game - his creativity and vision - and find a way to put them into the team without destroying the nascent balance that seems to exist there...it could be very fun to watch.

- Wenger's transfer "plans" have, by and large, utterly failed in the last few summers. Let's not pretend there was some kind of master plan last summer. We signed Yaya "competition winner" Sanogo (still yet to score an Arsenal goal), re-signed Flamini (who has been rubbish since about December ), a goalkeeper who played 2-3(?) games, and, of course, Ozil. But we only signed Ozil after failing to sign Higuain, Suarez and god knows how many other strikers. If you think there was a Wenger masterplan to wait until the 11th hour to sign Ozil, then you probably have a figurine of Wenger in your bedroom who you pray to every night. And what about January? No striker, despite Giroud's form having fallen off a cliff. Instead, we signed an over-the-hill midfielder who was injured. And let's go further back. The debacle of 2012 - selling the lynchpin of our midfield, and the best striker in the country to our supposed rivals. As for 2011, where to start? Selling our best two midfielders. Signing Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos. Haggling for months over Joel Campbell, who, to date, has still to make his Arsenal debut.

In short, I'm not convinced there is a plan. Or to put it another way: if there is a plan, recent summers have shown that Wenger is terrible at executing it. I'm fairly convinced, for example, that Jenkinson will start the first game of the season. We are already being linked with a host of strikers, but we have failed to buy a striker in the last four windows. (Bonus trivia question - when was the last time Arsene bought a world-class striker in his prime?) So, rather than rely on Wenger's masterplan, how about we actually sign a top player who's a) available and b) cheap.

- And my final piece of the puzzle - we have loads of money and should actually spend it on top players. This for me, is really important. We heard a lot of guff this week from Gazidis about the "strict budget" that Arsene is working with - this is patently nonsense. It is total spin, and I have no idea why the club is doing it. We are coming off the back of the biggest TV deal in history. We have massive, new sponsorship deals. We are charging the fans an extra 3% on top of the highest ticket prices in England. We have 100m in the bank, at least, already. We could sign Cesc for 30m and still have more than enough money to buy a world class right-back, defensive mid, striker and goalkeeper. We really do. If you think we don't, someone has lied to you. The money is there, in black and white, in the club accounts. We already have the 11th highest wage bill in the entirety of world sports. We are loaded - totally loaded. We can afford multiple, big transfers this summer.

Why we don't spend this money is an interesting question. There is the issue, of course, that the club's large cash balances make our absentee owner richer each day. I don't think that should ever be ignored. But I think there is a wider issue here. Despite the purchase of Ozil, Wenger is ultimately a conservative in the transfer market. He is already talking up "internal solutions", because he prefers to work with what he knows, than take risks. I imagine that Martinez will be promoted to back up keeper, for example. This is the strategy that saw Bendtner become our second-choice striker for parts of last season, and which saw us re-sign Flamini instead of the clearly more talented Gustavo.

If Wenger doesn't re-sign Cesc, it smacks of a fundamental conservatism to transfers that, to be frank, is holding the club back. Once you have gone big, as we did with Ozil, the secret is out - we can afford these deals. My concern if we don't go in for Cesc is that it shows that Wenger hasn't really changed. The FA Cup win of this year will not be the start of a new era, but a poignant moment of unjustified hope that fizzled out as soon as it arose.

It's the start of the summer, so we shall see how things play out. Maybe we will get all the players we need. But past windows under Wenger suggest we won't. There's only so many disastrous periods of transfer activity, or inactivity, I can take.

And, my very final point, as Gunnerblog pointed out, is this: is there really a scenario where we regret buying Cesc? It's hard to imagine. On the contrary, there are loads in terms of the opposite - Cesc scoring the winning goal for Chelsea in the Champions League final. Cesc celebrating with Mourinho. Cesc having to do the "non-celebration" as he completes his hat-trick against us at the Emirates. Imagine all of these for a moment before saying you don't want him back. This isn't just knee-jerk emotionalism - it is the potential scenario of watching a top player, who we could have signed, bring success to another club.

But the biggest reason for me to re-sign Cesc is I want to see real proof that Arsene has changed. That the new contract was justified beyond largely sentimental reasons. If not, we may be looking down the barrel of another summer farce, with at least two more to come.

I genuinely hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Season Review - Trophies Matter

There was a moment during yesterday's game, I think after Cazorla had scored but before Koscielny had equalized, where I had my head in my hands and was mumbling to myself, in a near catatonic state - "please don't lose", "please don't lose". I'm surprised I wasn't asked to leave the pub I'd found myself in, as I probably represented someone on the edge of a full-on, falling down-esque collapse. Even after we've won, I still think about how I would have felt yesterday, today, and probably for a long time to come if we'd lost the match yesterday, and it isn't nice. It would have been some form of perma-gloom, a constant headache of how the club just can't win things anymore, an open sore of misery.

So, you know, I'm quite glad we won. Because this is what supporting a massive club like ours is all about - winning stuff. This is what it all comes downs to - winning - and this is why I moan so often. We are in a privileged position of being a club that expects to win trophies each year. There's probably only 3-4 clubs in England who can say the same, and maybe less than a dozen in all the major European leagues combined. I love the camaraderie of watching and following Arsenal, and I would happily do it even if we got relegated down to the conference, but we are a massive club and this is the pay-off we can, and even should, expect: trophies and open-top bus parades.

To go nine years without a trophy at a club like Arsenal: it's justifiable to question the position of senior management. And this season has been a rollercoaster ride that has, through luck as much as skill, thankfully ended with us not stuck upside down on one of the loops.

I am so happy for Arsene, for the players, for everyone associated with the club. Watching Arsene with the trophy yesterday, you know that he knows the "fourth place trophy" line is total rubbish, and he probably hates it just as much as we do. He is a phenomenal man, and manager, and has won us a trophy on a sustainable basis, while competing with clubs that are, to all intent and purposes, cheating. We can take the trophy we won yesterday and use it as a springboard for further success. The squad really only needs additions in a few key areas for us to compete for the title next season. And, overall, I consider this season a success, because we improved our league performance, and finished it with a trophy.

But....yes, there is a but. There have been times this season where I have felt as low as at any time of my twenty-plus years following the club. There have been times where Arsene's entire legacy was on the line. The epic thrashing at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and Anfield rank among the worst performances I have ever seen from this football club. And, only about a month ago, we were staring down the barrel at Wembley, 1-0 down against a Championship club, and seemingly out of ideas. Per's equalizer that day saved us from humiliation, and, probably, saved Arsene his job.

I had written last summer that our squad seemed perilously light, and so it was, despite the last minute, and surely unplanned, capture of Ozil. With a squad that benefitted from no pre-season international tournaments, and which had a favourable run of league fixtures in the first half of the season, we came racing out of the blocks, and flew to the top of the table. This was, admittedly, unexpected. I have always been a fan of Aaron, but had never expected him to become quite so deadly in front of goal. Things were going so well that a 6-3 tonking at the Etihad was largely ignored as an aberration, and not a hint at how the second half of the season would be considerably more challenging than the first.

To maintain ourselves at the top of the table, Arsene stuck, as much as he could to a core of 13-14 top class players that we have in the squad. This led to him burning out several players - notably Ramsey and Walcott - who may have made a difference in the run-in. I don't actually buy the line that we were unlucky with injuries because we were fortunate in many respects. Sagna - a total warrior once again - didn't pick up a serious injury at all this year, meaning we thankfully didn't even have to rotate and rely on Jenkinson at all. Koscielny and Mertesacker were also fit for the vast majority of the season, meaning that exiled "club captain", and error machine, Vermaelen did not have to be called upon too frequently. Arteta, our only decent holding midfielder, got through most matches. And, up front, we relied on our only proven striker - Giroud - so frequently, that his performance finally fell off a cliff in February, and we were forced to give Yaya "competition winnner" Sanogo a chance.

So injuries were a mixed bag. Where we failed again was to build a squad that could challenge on all fronts in the two transfer windows. We have failed to sign a world class striker in four consecutive transfer windows. In January, when Giroud was on his last legs, we messed around with Draxler for a month, before signing an injured central midfielder on loan. This was total, inexcusable madness.

This was a season of change in the Premier League's top teams, and one we should have exploited. A bigger squad, rotated more frequently, might have been fresh for the big matches in the second half of the season. A more pragmatic tactical approach in the games against Chelsea and Liverpool might have seen us pick up a point, rather than a traumatic beating.

So this is why trophies matter. Because I think that while we showed progress in the league this season, it was ultimately an unsuccessful league campaign. But, when you've won the FA Cup, who cares? The inanity of caring whether you finish in the league other than first comes into focus when you win actual silverware. When you get to have the victory party with the oldest club competition cup in your hands. When you look at Arsene's face full of joy and it almost brings you to tears.

It's nice to qualify for the Champions League; it's much nicer to win things. That's why, ultimately, this season was a success. I remember reading a Wigan fan blog last year after they'd won the cup - "We got relegated but who cares - we won the cup". Well quite.

I may post a few more pieces this week because of my giddiness at winning the cup. But, if not, I'll hopefully see some of you in New York in July - hopefully with the cup on display, and a pint in hand.

Gb.

ps - thank you for putting up with my moaning on twitter this year. i promise to do it less next year.

pps - that is a non-legally binding promise.


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.

Gb.

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.

Gb.



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.

Gb.