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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Why I'm not jealous of Chelsea (honest!)

Saturday brought with it a collective sigh of relief from Arsenal fans, as the team reassumed their rightful place above Tottenham in the league table. If there’s one way to silence critics of our season so far, it’s reminding our favourite whipping boys who’s boss in North London. Whilst I’d love to gloat further, I have to acknowledge that the sending off of Emmanuel Adebayor with little more than fifteen minutes played made the game very one-sided. However it also gave the new boys Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla a chance to endear themselves to the home fans with goals in our most important fixture. I have previously railed against Arsenal’s lack of clinical finishing this season and putting five goals past a team like Spurs is a great confidence boost and message to the critics (myself included). Individual mistakes again though allowed us concede two goals, which, in another game, could have been vital. Hopefully getting our injured defenders back in action and not losing any more will bring the desired stability and consistency in the coming games.

The mood at the club then is more buoyant than two weeks previously, after the team’s limp display against Manchester United. The week after the defeat saw the renewal of Arsenal’s critics, commentators and supporters alike calling for the removal of Arsène Wenger as manager. Almost to a man, the Arsenal ‘faithful’ agreed that despite a vastly improved score-line, the feeling after this season’s visit to Old Trafford was somehow even worse than that of last season (it wasn’t). It is perhaps the most well known and most talked about fact in the Premier League that Arsenal are now into their eighth season without winning a trophy: by far their longest drought in the Wenger era. This is not a dry spell that you can imagine would be tolerated at Chelsea, Manchester City or even Tottenham or Liverpool.

            Premier League managers today are chopped and changed faster than ever before, a fact we were reminded of just hours ago by Chelsea’s unjust removal of Roberto Di Matteo. Only three of the current Premier League managers have been in their jobs for over ten years: Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and David Moyes. It is no coincidence that the two longest-serving managers are also the most successful in Premier League history. Liverpool have employed six different managers during Wenger’s reign and none of them have won the Premier League. Chelsea have had twelve and have won it the same number of times as Arsenal. They have also been beneficiary to £1 billion of a certain Russian oligarch’s money. Manchester City have received a similar amount in half the time and won the title for the first time last season.

            Wenger has recently been derided for claiming that Arsenal’s consistent qualificationfor the Champions League is a better indicator of success than winning a domestic cup. We have played in the competition every season for fifteen years, a record only bettered by one English club: Manchester United. Wenger has won manager of the year on three occasions. He has lead Arsenal to two double-winning campaigns and taken them to a Champions’ League final. Perhaps most importantly he has built Arsenal into one of the most financially stable football clubs in Europe (Manchester City’s latest figures reveal a record loss of £197 million in 2010-2011, compared to Arsenal’s £36.6 million profit). Wenger has always acknowledged the vast financial superiority that Manchester United has over the club. Since the takeovers of Chelsea and Manchester City, they too have been able to out-compete Arsenal financially.

            The trophy drought is a constantly growing thorn in Arsenal’s side. However, I still believe that things are not as gloomy as most fans make out. For example, when viewed in comparison to Liverpool, the team who dominated English football in the seventies and eighties but are now into their twenty-second season without a title, Arsenal’s troubles are put into perspective.

            The frustration felt by Arsenal fans is understandable though; the long-term project that Wenger has been building for years still has not yielded results. Seven years is a long time in football. I for one though, have always been glad that Arsenal, like Manchester United, are not part of the recent football culture in which teams change managers faster than kits in a desperate and in most cases unfruitful clamour for success. It is partly this old-fashioned view that makes me put my trust in the man who has been at Arsenal’s helm since I was four years old. This is a man who does not just manage Arsenal; he genuinely lives Arsenal. He has put more into this club than anyone and has led them through the good times and the bad. His importance to the club is obvious on the pitch as well as off. Arsenal’s football remains the most entertaining to watch in the league. Even when they are not getting the results to match, viewers still tune in all over the world to watch them play.

Wenger is part of Arsenal and its long-term project (even if only he knows exactly how long-term this is). To remove him now or in the near future would be catastrophic. One man, however important, does not determine a club’s success. There are millions of other factors and people involved in a football club. Besides that, who would currently be able to fill Wenger’s shoes? And would they be able to do anything differently with Stan Kroenke and Ivan Gazidis looking over their shoulder?

My opinion that Wenger has to stay has been strengthened today by the news that Chelsea have sacked their eighth manager since Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003. Yes, Chelsea have been more successful than Arsenal during this period in terms of trophies. For many modern fans, that is all that matters. This trophy haul has however come at a price. Abramovich has compromised Chelsea’s integrity as a football club. Sure, he can afford to waste ridiculous amounts of money, like £50 million on buying Fernando Torres, or the payout the club had to make to terminate Andre Villas-Boas's contract, and the team will still win the big competitions, but Chelsea are essentially a vanity project; the supporters are bought off with trophies whilst the people within the club live in constant fear of the axe hanging over their heads. Not to mention the damage Chelsea’s philosophy of hiring and firing at a rapid pace does to managers' and players' careers. They remain an unstable club who are still a long way off playing the best football in the league. No manager, however expensive, can get a team playing a consistent, attractive style of football when given eight months in a job. This is not how I want Arsenal run. All fans crave success, but it comes at a price.

Arsenal have problems; no one can deny that. But these problems will not be solved by sacking Wenger.

In any case, even if not everyone agrees with Wenger that Champions League qualification is preferable to winning the FA Cup, surely most Arsenal fans would agree that the ‘sixth’ trophy, finishing above Tottenham in the league (a title we’ve held for seventeen years) must at least be worth as much as the League Cup?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

In my defence...

Timing is a tricky thing. As most of you will remember, after the Arsenal vs QPR game on Saturday, I wrote a piece voicing my concern at Arsenal’s recent struggle to find goals. In the piece, which you can read below, I not only berate the team’s failure to score, but also commend them for their solid defensive form so far this season. The day after writing the blog, which has since also been posted on, Arsenal took on Reading in the fourth round of the League Cup.

In this game, Arsenal conceded five goals.

And scored seven.

            Anyone reading my blog after this game probably thought I was being sarcastic. However, I believed and still believe that my argument was and is still valid and concerning. Therefore I decided that in order to settle any doubts, I should take a minute to explain why the points I made remain plausible.

            First off, my entire argument is wholly concerned only with Arsenal’s league form. At no point did I make any mention of the team’s performance in the Champions’ League or League Cup. The League Cup in particular is a unique anomaly in English football. For several years now, the top teams have used it primarily as an opportunity to give youngsters and reserve players a taste of first-team football. This has filtered down to the lower Premier League clubs so that even Southampton made eleven changes to the team that played their last league match before their cup game on Tuesday.

The point being made here is that when the Arsenal contingent at the Reading match sang ‘we want our Arsenal back’ at half-time, they were right: the Arsenal team playing was literally, not just figuratively, a different team. Not a single player who started the QPR match began for Arsenal against Reading, the most sorely missed clearly being defensive-organiser Thomas Vermaelen who is apparently more crucial to our back four than we knew.

            On top of this, smaller teams with nothing to lose are bound to attack a lot more in League Cup ties. Reading were always going to come out firing on all cylinders, something our less-experienced players were clearly unprepared for. Manchester City also conceded four goals to Aston Villa in the third round of the cup this year. Liverpool and Tottenham were this week knocked out by Swansea and Norwich respectively. This is what is different about League Cup matches. More goals, more upsets. There has never been a game with twelve or more goals in Premier League history. The Reading game was (perhaps sadly) an exception to our season so far. Five of the goals Arsenal scored were after the eighty-eighth minute against an understandably exhausted team.

            That said, no matter which of our defenders were playing, if you’re wearing the shirt, you are an Arsenal player and shipping four first half goals to any team in any competition is unacceptable. However, while there are clearly still defensive areas that need serious work, I do not believe that our performance in this one unbelievable game is indicative of how our Premier League campaign has gone so far.

            While I still believe in the strength of our defence and that our goal-scoring must improve, I now look ahead to our next fixture. Manchester United are the top-scorers in the league so far and they also have the second-worst defensive record in the top half of the table. There is therefore the likelihood that my hypothesis will be put to the test once more this weekend. I only hope that it is just our attack who will prove me wrong this time, not our defence.