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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: van Persie and the dangers of over-reliance

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about Arsenal's underwhelming start to the 2012/13 season, attributing their frustrations mainly to the loss of Robin van Persie's goalscoring talents. At the time Arsenal had been struggling to score, whilst van Persie's goals already had Man United team out in front as the league's top scorers and just one point off the top spot. It was evident that Arsenal had been over-reliant on the dutchman's goals in the 2011/12 season, and the team were unable to compete with United's enviable quartet of goalscorers (with Rooney, Hernández, and to a far lesser extent, Welbeck, making up the numbers).

Just one year on, however, the situation looks very different. As the chart below shows, after eleven games this season, United have scored just eighteen goals, seven of which were provided by van Persie. If you took those seven out of the equation, the team would have the fifth worst scoring record in the league. 

By contrast, if you took the six goals scored by Arsenal's top scorer so far, Aaron Ramsey, away from their total of twenty-two, the Gunners would still have the fifth highest goal count. van Persie's recent goals against Arsenal, Stoke, and Southampton, meant that United have won two and drawn one, instead of drawing two and losing one. Without those five points saved, the team would find themselves wallowing in ninth place. Arsenal, even without the four extra points secured against Sunderland and Swansea by Ramsey's goals, would still be in the Champions League places.

Although last season United set a Premier League record by having twenty different goalscorers throughout the year, just six players have found the net since August. As you can see from the chart above, Arsenal have in fact already had ten different goalscorers this time round.

This gives the impression that it is Arsenal who have the more evenly-balanced squad. The team appears much less dependent on top scorers Ramsey and Olivier Giroud than United are on van Persie and Rooney. Even Liverpool, who are just one goal and two points behind Arsenal, are heavily reliant on the goals of their two strikers, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, who have provided sixteen of the squad's twenty-one goals.

Many fans have voiced concerns that unlike United and Liverpool, who have two prolific strikers apiece, Arsenal rely too much on Giroud for their goals. Yet Arsenal's other attackers have shown that they are extremely capable of supporting the Frenchman, contributing fifteen goals between them. This is a tally not even matched by Chelsea's formidable group of midfielders.

Despite their many different scorers last season, the only United midfielder to makes a significant contribution to the team's goal count was Shinji Kagawa with six. And the only real change to their ranks has been replacing Paul Scholes with Maroune Fellaini, who has yet to replicate the form that saw him score eleven for Everton last season.

There is still more good news for Arsenal fans, who have been without two of last seasons three top scorers, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, for most of their games so far. With these two forwards, who can both play in the central striker position, due to return from injury in the coming weeks, Wenger will have even more goalscoring options available.

Liverpool and United may have the best strike partnerships in the league, yet it is Arsenal's attacking line that has looked the strongest overall in the start to the season. van Persie and Rooney made the difference when the two sides played each other last weekend, but with injured players returning, Arsenal's squad looks much less vulnerable than in recent years. The prospect of signing another striker in January, which already has the papers speculating, would be the icing on the cake. It is now United who are reliant on van Persie's goals, and Arsenal who have the better squad depth.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Özil at Arsenal: What a difference a month makes

Apologies (to anyone that's noticed) for the fact that I haven't written in almost a month. Malfunctioning laptop issues combined with starting my third year of uni have meant that I've only just got around to writing...

AND WHAT A MONTH TO HAVE MISSED! If I'd stated my hopes for Arsenal's upcoming results at the start of September, I don't think I could have written events any better than they have in reality turned out to be. OK, maybe I wouldn't have had us going to penalties against West Brom... but anyway, let's take a look at the best stuff from the last 30 days:

1) 10th September - Arsenal players demonstrate international quality

Wilshere and Walcott started both of England's World Cup qualifiers in which they kept two clean sheets. Mertesacker and Özil started both of Germany's games in which they kept two clean sheets and scored a goal apiece. Koscielny, Sagna and Giroud started both of France's games and kept one clean sheet. Rosicky captained the Czech Republic in both their games, scoring in the first but going off injured in the second. Ramsey captained Wales for both their games and scored once. Cazorla and Monreal both started one of Spain's matches.

It's a laborious way of putting it but the point being made is that those arguing that Arsenal don't possess world class players might soon be having to eat their words. That's eleven Arsenal players starting for their respective countries. Four scored goals. Two were captains. This is a group of footballers that can play, score and lead at the highest level of the game.

From this perspective there's only one negative: Szczesny and Fabianski were sat on the bench for Poland in both their games. That our first and second choice keepers are only second and third choice for Poland doesn't quite have the right ring to it (especially when their number one plays for Southampton).

2) 14th September -  Özil gets his first assist in his first game for Arsenal

We signed the player who has provided more goal assists than anyone else in Europe over the last five seasons. What did you think was going to happen?

3) 22nd September - Özil gets ALL THREE assists in his third game for Arsenal

The man is a genius.

4) 1st August - Özil scores one, assists one as Arsenal beat Napoli 2-0

This is the Napoli that are currently second-placed in Italy, above Juventus, AC Milan and Inter.

So in his first five games for Arsenal, the team has scored twelve, and Özil was involved in 6 of those. Arsenal have been far from a one-man team this season though: Aaron Ramsey has scored eight goals and contributed three assists in ten games so far, and has won more tackles than any other player in the league. Olivier Giroud also has six goals and two assists to his name already.

Most would still argue that Arsenal are far from a team of world class players but there are few players in England right now whose form matches that of these three. And this is before we've got last season's top scorers Cazorla, Walcott and Podolski back and firing on all cylinders again.

There are as always areas that could be improved. Despite our internationals' impressive rate of clean sheets for their countries, Tuesday's victory was the first game that Arsenal hadn't conceded in for a whole month. That could do with being addressed. And I'm refusing to get carried away until Arsenal PROVE that they can beat United, City and Chelsea this season.

But still...

Arsenal currently sit two points clear at the top of the league, five points above City and eight above United. Only City have bettered our goals scored and goal difference. In short this has been Arsenal's best start to a season in recent memory; hopefully this won't go to the players' heads and we can keep this form going. At the end of this month and the start of November the fixture list reads Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, United. That will be a huge test for this team.

But for now let's remain hopeful. It's been a while since we've had the luxury of optimism.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Mesut Özil joins the German Revolution / If the Premier League was won by spending money...

First things first: it would be impossible to write anything about Arsenal FC today without making reference to one particular event which occurred yesterday evening. I am of course talking about the last minute deadline day arrival of £42 million Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Özil. After months of rising anger amongst fans over the club's lack of transfer activity, the majority have now been sent into near delirium by Wenger's audacious move, which obliterates Arsenal's former transfer record by £25 million.

In fact this is the most un-Arsène thing Wenger has ever done.

Le Professeur made his name in this country by signing relatively unknown players for modest fees and turning them into world-beaters á la Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. Splashing out over £40 million on one player was seen as an insane risk, best left to the Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world.

But things have changed at Arsenal. After losing many of the team's best players to big spenders City, United and Barca in recent years, the message seems to finally have sunk in that to compete at the top of the modern game, you need players with star quality. And the last Arsenal player that had that headed north to Manchester twelve months ago.

Though many see the Özil transfer as a game-changer at the Emirates, fans shouldn't get too carried away just yet. At the start of summer it was clear that Arsenal ideally needed strengthening all the way through with attacking midfield ironically already our strongest position. Goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano has been brought in on loan presumably to keep Szczesny on his toes, Mathieu Flamini will temporarily provide defensive midfield back-up and Yaya Sanogo will fill in for Giroud if he gets injured. Whilst those options sound slightly more promising than what we had in place a month or two ago, Arsenal still look weak on the bench. Simultaneous injuries to Giroud and the centre-backs would pose a serious problem.

The other slight concern is the pressure that comes with such a price tag. Taking a look at some previous Premier League signings in the same price region as Özil's (Torres, Robinho, Veron), we are reminded that not all of them are successful. A cynic would also say that after failing in their attempted pursuits of stars like Rooney, Higuain and Suarez, when Bale's transfer freed up Madrid's other attackers Arsenal resorted to taking whichever big-name player they could get. However, the last time Arsenal smashed their transfer record by paying for an established European superstar (Dennis Bergkamp in 1995),  he went on to become one of the club's greatest ever players. Besides, it feels great to finally have a buzz of excitement back at the Emirates.

Özil is the third German international in as many years to join the Gunners, linking up with Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski as well as youth players Thomas Eisfeld, Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem. The German football team are currently ranked second only to Spain in the world, having reached the semi-finals of both the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012. 

It is easy to draw comparisons to Arsène's recruitment of French internationals during the late nineties, when Arsenal players featured heavily in the teams that won both the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. Wenger grew up in the Alsace region in France and was interested in football clubs on the German side of the border just as much as on the French. Perhaps he is remembering his Germanic roots at just the right time.

With all this money flying around, I took the time to compile an alternative Premier League table, showing where each club would finish this season if money spent was all that counted.

As you can see, Spurs would have been runaway winners, though if you subtracted money received to find their net spend, they would be rock bottom. The table does show that even after the Özil transfer, aside from United, Arsenal are still the most frugal of the six big clubs. The squad's lack of depth is worryingly highlighted by the fact that only United, Southampton and Newcastle have signed fewer players than us.

I think realistically what the table suggests is that unless United sign big in January, City and Chelsea will almost certainly get the better of them this time around. After that, it looks as though Arsenal will have an equally large challenge fending off Spurs and Liverpool in the fight for the Champions League spots.

The table conceals the fact that Everton will also be stronger after their deadline day loan acquisitions of Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku. What is clear however is that Newcastle are extremely unlikely to replicate the scare they gave the top four two seasons ago.

It remains to be seen how much of a bearing money will really have on the season's outcome. The Gunners should take confidence from the fact that although Liverpool and Spurs have made good signings this summer, they will need time to gel, whilst the Arsenal squad should be one of the most stable in the league. In fact if we hit the ground running after the international break and make one or two signings in January, I can see Arsenal pushing their way back into the top three this year.

Welcome to Arsenal, Mesut. You're gonna love it here.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Arsenal beat Spurs and it's bye-bye Bale

Christmas comes early to the red half of North London. In fact yesterday was probably the best day to be a Gooner since the victory at Newcastle back in May.

It's amazing how fast the mood can change at Arsenal. After our opening game at Villa things were looking grim from every angle. We'd signed no-one, Spurs had signed everyone and we'd lost 3-1 on the first day of the season. Now just a few weeks on and although the team itself still hasn't been strengthened, the weekend's events will have calmed fans nerves considerably.

Going into the derby I was more concerned than ever about how we'd fare against our near neighbours. As their £100 million worth of shiny new players lined up against our vulnerable and already injury-hit squad I contemplated the scale of the anti-Wenger backlash if we were to lose. In these early season games it is likely that any defeat will be greeted by loud calls for his sacking and, whether these are justified or not, the pressure must be the most immense he's been under at the club. Not that he shows it.

A first half goal was what we needed and Olivier Giroud did the honours, grabbing his third in three Premier League matches to settle everyone's nerves. Or at least it should have done.

Instead the second half was an intense and nervous affair: high tempo, end-to-end attacking and good chances for both sides. We didn't commit too many forward for our attacks and got back to defend well. In the last quarter of the game we seemed to inexplicably lose the ability to clear the ball, and there were several rounds of pinball football inside our area that could have ended up anywhere. As we entered the final five I tensed up, remembering the number of last minute game-savers Bale scored for Spurs last year. Then I remembered that Bale was having a medical in Madrid...

The whistle went and the stadium erupted. Today was all about the three points and although the game could have gone either way at times, it proved to players and fans that whatever has happened off the pitch, when it gets down to eleven vs. eleven, Arsenal will still beat Tottenham.

Whilst missing five first team players.

The day got better when Bale's transfer was finalised a few hours later. The Welshman has been the biggest threat to the North London power balance in decades and though it is sad to see another great player leave the Premier League, the Gooner in me is breathing a sigh of relief. It remains to be seen whether his (seven) replacements will be able to keep Spurs in contention for a Champions League place but beating them at this early stage in the season ensures that we at least get a head start.

The icing on the Sunday dinner would have been a confirmed big-name transfer but with less than twenty-four hours left, we're still making do with rumours, this time of Mesut Özil, Demba Ba and Emiliano Viviano. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I expect at least one move will come off for us today but, unless it's a really good one I'm not going to let Arsène off that easily for what he's put us through this summer.

Yesterday was a good day but there's many more tests to come and we're currently only a few injuries away from a crisis. Today could be good or bad but until 11pm at least, I'm going to revel in what for once was a very fine weekend.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Sticking up for Arsenal

BREAKING NEWS: Arsenal FC have not won a trophy since May 2005!

This is roughly the sentiment that has been repeated in headlines and articles within the British press every few months for the past five years.

THIS JUST IN: A year has passed by and a sports team have not had the success that they had initially been predicted to!

There are a lot of things published by the media that I look at and am forced to ask: 'Why is that news?'. Yet the old chestnut of Arsenal's continuing and apparently fascinating trophy drought is one that leaves me particularly puzzled.

The facts are unarguable. Since the end of the 2004/05 season, Arsenal have failed to win any of the three major trophies for British teams: the Premier League, the FA Cup or the Champions League. For a club that in the eight seasons up to and including 04/05 won a total of seven major trophies, this quite clearly represents a serious decline.

But is it really all that bad? Let's take a look at how the other 116 clubs currently playing in the top five leagues in England have fared in the past eight years. Out of those teams, six have succeeded in winning at least one major competition. Considering that Arsenal have continued to qualify for the Champions League every year since their last trophy, once reaching the final, it still seems fair to count them amongst the most successful of those 110 trophy-less teams.

And yet year upon year the papers recycle their favourite headline buzzwords: 'crisis', 'collapse', 'failure', along with a photo of Arsène Wenger looking solemn. Sometimes it is raining in the photo. Often he wears a coat.

Undoubtedly for a club that ten years ago went an entire season unbeaten, recent campaigns have been underwhelming to say the least. But teams don't go on winning forever.

From the mid seventies until the late eighties, Liverpool FC were the greatest team in England, arguably in Europe. During that time they won domestic and European competitions on a yearly basis, but since 1990 have won just three FA Cups. In the past Aston Villa, Everton and (a lot further back) even Huddersfield Town have been at the top of the English game. Now they are not and people do not expect them to be.

And therein lies the reason that people refuse to stop talking about Arsenal as an 'underachieving' club. Because in reality those people still expect Arsenal to succeed. And why? Because unlike Liverpool. Everton or Villa, Arsenal have stubbornly clung onto their status as one of Europe's top teams.

Despite lack of silverware, in recent seasons Arsenal have transformed their home ground into one of the largest and most impressive in Europe. Their financial stability is rare and enviable within the football world. They have developed their style and played some of the most attractive and exciting football ever seen in this country.

For a few years at the start of the 21st century, Arsenal were able to match Manchester United, the biggest and richest football club in the world, in terms of trophies and success. This was not always the case. (In fact from 1979 to 1989 Arsenal failed to win any major trophies at all). They should be remembered as the first team to seriously challenge Alex Ferguson's incredible strangle-hold on English football.

But this gets forgotten now that Chelsea and Manchester City have risen above Arsenal during the last eight years despite the fact that both these clubs required takeovers by foreign billionaires in order to do so.

They have been overtaken, first off the pitch financially and consequentially on the pitch and they are now vulnerable to being outcompeted when signing and keeping players. The club, like every other in England, has struggled to deal with the rising dominance of billionaire-owned teams.

This is hugely frustrating for a generation of fans that had become used to seeing their team lift silverware every year but there is a need to remain rational. It could always be worse. As mentioned, Liverpool are a lot further off their former glory than Arsenal; likewise teams like Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. Fans should therefore not be totally disheartened by the lack of trophies but encouraged by the fact that we have not dropped completely out of contention.

This does not mean that we should lower our expectations, or not feel justified in ranting if we get knocked out of a cup but we should at the very least be able to laugh when someone tells us their favourite 'since Arsenal last won a trophy' line. Would you rather have won the FA Cup, like Portsmouth and Wigan have, and be where they are now or be playing the best teams in Europe every year?

Not everything is measured in silver.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Arsenal's Pre-Season Asia Tour - Review

For the past two weeks Arsenal have been in the heart of Asia for the first leg of their pre-season friendlies. The team have spent their time training and meeting fans from across the globe (including this fella) in order to increase the club's visibility worldwide. The four games played all ended in victory for the Gunners: a 7-0 demolition of the Indonesia Dream Team and a 7-1 rout of Vietnam, followed by the more modest results of a 3-1 win over Wenger's old team Nagoya Grampus before edging past Urawa Red Diamonds 2-1 on Monday.

Arsenal 19-3 Asia. Not a bad aggregate. These were of course all teams that should have posed no real threat but on the whole Wenger will be pleased with the energy and determination the team has shown in these fixtures. The Emirates Cup begins on Saturday and this will be a more solid test of how the team will look in the new season, with tougher competition coming from Napoli and Galatasaray before a final friendly against Manchester City.

Throughout their tour the Arsenal players have largely looked fit and disciplined and some great attacking football has been exhibited by both established names such as Theo Walcott and Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain as well as youngsters hoping to get a chance in the first team this year including Chuba Akpom and Serge Gnabry. Olivier Giroud looks like he is striving to hit the ground running this August and was top scorer of the tour with a total of six goals. Akpom gave him a run for his money, notching four goals along the way.

Selection-wise it seems as though Wenger will start the season with Fabianski, who started three of the four games, as his first choice keeper. The need to add a central defender to the squad has been highlighted by the injury to Thomas Vermaelen (who Wenger has insisted will remain club captain next term despite falling behind Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in the pecking order).

Pre-season is not always an accurate indicator of how the season will pan out but Arsenal fans will be pleased to hear that Manchester United have so far lost two, drawn one and won just one of their own July fixtures. City have also lost two of their initial games. Arsenal also in theory have an easier start to the season than most, not having to face either Manchester side or Chelsea before November.

The transfer window continues to drag on and still nothing exciting looks to be heading Arsenal's way. I read an interesting blog about on this situation this morning which suggested that Arsenal need a boardroom shake-up in order to allow the club to take bolder leaps in the transfer market. Either way, though it would not be the end of the world to start the campaign with this current squad, a few injuries in the opening months could seriously damage Arsenal's season if they don't make one or two signings. On the pitch then things are looking good whilst off it speculation remains the main ingredient.

There are three weeks until the Gunners kick of their 88th consecutive season in the top flight of English football. Let's hope it's a good one.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Should Arsenal fans accept Suarez?

Following two months off after pledging not to post again until some concrete news involving Arsenal emerged, I have nonetheless decided to come out of the woodwork to comment on what seems to be the biggest Arsenal-related issue at the moment.

It has been a summer of frustration so far, with none of Wenger's supposed £70 million transfer kitty being broken into as yet. The talk has largely been positive in my eyes. A strengthening to the team's spine seems to be the most pressing issue and in a world without agents and complications, bringing in Ashley Williams at centre-back, Maroune Fellaini at centre-mid and Gonzalo Higuain at centre-forward would be both feasible and (just) within the budget. There has presumably been enough space made within the wage structure following the departures of Denilson, Arshavin, Squillaci, Santos and Mannone.

But for whatever reasons no moves have yet been made. Two weeks ago it emerged that Arsenal, seemingly out of frustration had tabled a bid for Luis Suarez. This initially seemed more of a statement than an indicator of genuine interest but today it has been reported that Wenger has upped his bid to £35 million plus add-ons.

This has led to a flurry of twitter-talk and some angry exchanges between Arsenal bloggers and commentators about whether a Suarez deal will be made and, importantly, how the fans should feel about it. After reading a lot of interesting and passionate opinions, I couldn't resist throwing my own out there.

Many of the bloggers that I respect and frequently read have been broadly arguing that were Suarez to join the club, they and that most of Arsenal's supporters would put aside whatever criticisms they may have harboured and accept him. A recent poll suggested a slim majority of fans agree. It seems that people are able to swallow their reservations if a player is talented enough. This sounds to me like desperation from fans deprived of silverware.

Personally, I reserve the right not to want a player like Luis Suarez at my football club. Of course he is a fantastic footballer, probably within the top three or five in England at the moment, but standing back from the excitement of attracting a top player like that, surely people can see that such a move would be unwise. One fan tweeted:

'I couldn't care less who plays for Arsenal as long as they win us games. That's their job and that's what they're supposed to do.'

This suggests that footballers should be immune from moral judgements because all that matters is their ability to play well and win games. This is the wrong way to think about sport. It also suggests that winning is everything and that any means necessary (for example cheating) justify the end. This is also (obviously) the wrong way to think about sport.

Why does it matter if a footballer is a racist and a cheat if they are good? Do you seriously need to ask? Modern footballers are not only role-models for a huge number of young people but they are also paid a ridiculous amount of money. Do we want to further embed the message that it's fine to misbehave if you're talented, rich and famous?

Yes, everyone makes mistakes and I'm not suggesting every player with points on their driving license be banned from the game but Suarez has repeatedly and unashamedly shown his true colours on a number of occasions. He admitted unapologetically to using his hand to prevent a goal at the World Cup finals. He dives. A lot. He has physically bitten an opposition player on the pitch. He has been found guilty of racially abusing an opposition player on the pitch. And these incidents continue to occur without fail, every season.

The argument that these matters are 'off the pitch' does not make sense as Suarez's controversial actions have always been on the field and have directly affected his team (most notably through his frequent bans). As if you needed more convincing, see how he is also now agitating for a move away from the club that have stood by him while he continuously damaged their age-old reputation.

Not to mention the fact that the fees and wages necessary to secure Suarez would be astronomical, particularly when we could strive for a player not too far behind in quality for a much more reasonable price (such as Higuain).

Signing any player who will score you a lot of goals will not always be a good move. This one in particular is extremely likely to damage the club's reputation, cause friction amongst the other players, divide the fans and cost a lot of money. The player would also spend a lot of time in the stands serving bans and at the end of it all most likely blame it on somebody else and consciously disrupt and undermine the club until he was allowed to leave.

And if he does join? I'd assume I'm in a majority in believing that my football team is worth more to me than one player, so I would still support Arsenal with Suarez in the team and I would probably celebrate his goals. But I could never see myself chanting his name as I have done for Bergkamp and Henry.

Winning is not everything and a club with Arsenal's reputation should carefully consider the consequences of such a transfer.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Arsenal 2012/13 - Firm Foundations?

Thank god that's over. By 'that' I am referring to the month of May. The reasons for this are both personal and football: on a personal note, my exams are now over and on an Arsenal note, WE GOT 4TH PLACE.

Jubilation all round. I'll admit that I as I watched the nerve-wracking final five minutes of Arsenal vs Newcastle on my laptop in Newcastle University Library, where I could almost hear the Geordies' roaring their team on, I was on the edge of my seat. It was all so predictable. After a goalless 45 minutes I said to myself (quietly - I was in the library) that Bale would definitely score a wonder goal in the last ten minutes. He has dug Spurs out of the pickles they've got themselves into on several occasions this season. I don't have the stats to hand but without his late goals they would certainly have finished a few places lower down in the table. Late goals are his speciality. Come on United he's custom-made for you!

In seriousness a move to United for him would bring a sigh of relief from the red half of North London. He ran us close this time but even if he stays, I believe that Arsène will sign the players in the summer to cement our hegemony. Besides we should relish their challenge.

Now the dust has settled on yet another 'transitional' season, Arsenal are left all too aware of how close they came to missing out on their regularly-reserved place in Europe's biggest competition. There has been talk of big money and big names. Yet this summer it looks like it will be more difficult than ever to attract the top players. There are potentially big changes underway at both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Arsenal, having consistently struggled against the top teams this year cannot point to their victory over Bayern in March as proof that they can challenge at the top level with their current squad.

We seem to be the only club not undertaking big changes in management this summer. Who would have guessed that in December!? Ferguson, Mancini, Benitez, Mourinho, Heynckes, Moyes, Martinez and Pulis all leaving their posts but Wenger still in place! This makes him the current longest-serving manager in the Premier League by a gap of fourteen years.

There are also big changes afoot in playing personnel. Neymar to Barcelona, Götze to Bayern, potential moves for Bale, Rooney, Lewandowski and a shed-load of cash thrown around by the newly oil-rich Monaco.

2013 will be a big year in the football history books. But where do Arsenal fit in to all this?

In the transfer arena to be honest fans are none the wiser. At least we can finally shift Arshavin and Squillaci, who are out of contract and out of luck. Further than this, permanent moves away for Bendtner, Denilson, Djourou and Chamakh to name a few would be greatly appreciated. Wishful thinking that a clear-out on this scale will take place but we can dream.

Aside from that we should endeavour to hold onto the players who have played a part this season. In my view that definitely includes Vermaelen and Fabianski. Even though neither will be in the starting eleven come August, squad depth is what Arsenal have been lacking for a long time, and both these players can still play a part for us.

Names are being thrown around about potential transfers in, none of which have been particularly convincing as yet. Obviously the obligatory unknown Frenchman has already been drafted in in the shape of Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre. Hard to comment on how Wenger plans to use him except maybe as backup for Giroud.

Positives from our current group of players? Well defensively the team are being lauded from all quarters. It is true that apart from that mid-season slump where all our dreams of silverware were once again dismantled, the defence has been greatly improved. Koscielny is the stand-out performer and I expect to see more of the same next season before we get carried away.

In my very first post on this blog in October, I mentioned how little Arsenal's fans were obliged to dust off the 'one-nil to the Ars-en-al' chant in recent times. As it turned out, the last game of the season saw the team's seventh one-nil victory of the season, and their third in five games. Hopefully they can bring this ability to scrape wins in tight games into the start of next season.

As you would expect from a side who lost their star player over summer and replaced him with three new players, Arsenal's attack this season had been a testament to the 'team' effort. Glancing over a few stats from Opta, this becomes even more apparent. The debutant trio of Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla all hit the ten league goal mark this term along with Walcott, who reached double figures for the first time. This makes Arsenal only the third team in Premier League history to have four players to hit more than ten goals in a season. Cazorla, Walcott and Podolski also made up three of only seven players to achieve more than nine assists this season.

So both defence and attack are looking good. Perhaps not world-beating but there are firm foundations here. With Wilshere fit again hopefully that gap in midfield will be plugged. A couple of additions over summer would make for a tenacious looking side come August. Hopefully the other big clubs will take time adjusting to their new managers and Arsenal can actually start a season strongly for once.

Though this summer will certainly not be quiet in football, despite the lack of a big competition, this blog will probably be infrequently updated. I'm making no promises but I will aim to only post when something Arsenal-related actually warrants comment, and I do not include speculation is this. So over to you Arsène. Give me something to write about.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

Time to 'finish the job'

Right, this is only going to be a quick one. It's been about two weeks since my last post, which followed the draw against Man United. The reasons for the drought in writing are twofold:

Firstly, the last weeks of Arsenal's seasons for the past couple of years have not been the most exciting of times. This year, as before the team have hit a good run of form and are still plugging away at gaining qualification for the Champions League next term. As such there are not too many interesting developments to speak of.

Secondly and most importantly, it's that time of year again and I've been stuck revising for my exams therefore having to limit my football-related outpourings to 140 character tweets.

Now with just one game of the season remaining and for Arsenal at least, everything still to play for, I am signing off until the end of May, by which time the football season will be well and truly over (unless Arsenal and Chelsea have to play a third-place playoff) as will my exams.

In the meantime I'm going to have to keep my recent musings on Arsenal's strengths, weaknesses and summer prospects to myself, and will probably unleash a tirade of pent-up poorly-structured stream of consciousness shortly after leaving the exam hall at the end of the month (I may also be drunk at this time).

By that time we will know which of Arsenal Chelsea and Spurs has finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in the league. Everything else that matters in English football has already been decided. United have won the league and City are ending up a not-so-close second. Everton finish sixth and Liverpool seventh (actually an improvement on last year for both). QPR and Reading were realistically relegated months ago and Wigan are the team that will join them in next year's Championship.

Sorry Wigan. Like most people seem to be all of a sudden, I am sympathetic to Wigan, not because they play 'great attacking football' (which seems a popular overstatement of late) but because their story of resilience and drama over the past few seasons has been refreshing. I hope they make a speedy return, though as Wolves have demonstrated, it's dog eat dog in the Championship.

All that now remains for Arsenal is, in Wenger's words, for them to 'finish the job'. Victory at Newcastle will not be as easy as Alan Pardew has made out but if we pull it off we are in the Champions League next season. If fate really was smiling on the club then Chelsea would slip up and Arsenal could even nip into third place, though this is less likely. The season is very much not over yet for three out of twenty clubs.

There have been good omens from recent games, with the team really starting to play like one. The last few fixtures have seen good team performances and it seems we are relying on individuals less and less (ahem - apart from Santi's 4 assists on Tuesday).

Giroud will be back from suspension this weekend but I think on the back of a convincing 4-1 victory in which he scored twice, Podolski should retain his place. Unless of course he's too tired.

I repeat that Newcastle away, despite their current league position will not be an easy game. Newcastle is the city in which I currently reside and I know that the home crowd on the last day of the season will really be urging their team on to make amends for a fairly awful nine months of football. It also wouldn't be the first time they've spoilt our party.

Hopefully the players will stay as focused as they have been in recent matches and Chelsea (maybe tired from their Europa Cup win tonight) will be less than focused, and at the final whistle on Sunday we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

If not my mood will be even worse when I have to tackle a two-hour exam first thing Monday morning. So I'll echo Wenger in urging the boys to 'finish the job': St Totteringham's Day has been too long in the coming this year.

I'll be back in two weeks' time.


Monday, 29 April 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: Isn't he on our team?

Arsenal 1 - 1 Manchester United

Yesterday's game was one of fluctuating elation and frustration. It still felt surreal seeing the league's top scorer in a Manchester United shirt at our place, but hopefully it provided some kind of closure for the whole debacle. I stressed before the game how badly I wanted Arsenal to win, and I don't think I was too blinded by impartiality to think, as I still do, that it could have been our day.

The guard of honour that had been built up by fans and the media passed by with nothing controversial to speak of save a loud but not deafening chorus of boos. The Arsenal team and bench both looked strong again, despite the absence of Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere from the starting lineup. This in itself was promising: in the past when two or three first team players have been unavailable the team has looked flimsy on paper. If nothing else, replacing one extraordinary attacker with three very good ones has improved the squad depth.

The game's goals originated from players on both sides seemingly forgetting that Robin van Persie was a United and not an Arsenal player. In the second minute, the dutchman himself, apparently suffering momentary amnesia, pinged a pass straight to Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs and in one slick move (Cazorla - Podolski - Rosicky) Arsenal had the first goal. Theo Walcott just about put enough power on his shot to see it squeeze under David de Gea and into the net.

Elation. The cameras showed that Walcott had been just offside, but none of the officials or the opposition players noticed and, especially when you're playing United, it is easy to make the 'these things even out over a season' argument. For the rest of the first half Arsenal dominated but in their usual frustrating fashion by which they passed the ball around the outside of United's penalty box without really threatening to find the final ball. Most of the attacks were down the right flank, and I lost count of how many times Bacary Sagna got in a good position to cross and then decided against it.

In fact it was Sagna who was the next to be confused by last summer's personnel change. With half time approaching and under pressure from Nani, the Arsenal right-back played in none other than former teammate van Persie who made a beeline for Wojciech Szczesny's goal. Noticing his error with horror, Sagna did well to catch up with RVP inside the box, before promptly scything him down. It was an obvious penalty, and directly caused by one of the worst individual errors I've seen this season.

Frustration. Of course van Persie took the penalty. Of course he scored it. Szczesny did well to stare him down and guessed right with his dive, but it was a perfectly powered and placed shot. RVP did not celebrate.

The second half was a stalemate, with chances for both sides resulting in good saves, including a great one from Szczesny's face. The game was scrappy at times, with both sides, possibly still unsure which side RVP was playing for, mis-hitting some of their passes. Three Arsenal and five United players were booked by referee Phil Dowd who marshalled the game well overall. It was encouraging to see Arsenal not allowing themselves to be outmuscled, chasing every player down and making some powerful tackles. There was even a throwback to the Arsenal-United games of the noughties, with Jonny Evans squaring up (or down) to Walcott at one point.

It was a fairly even affair and frustrating that neither side really seemed that determined to find a winner. A draw was a fair result and not a bad one for Arsenal, but I can't help thinking if one of our players had taken the game by the scruff of the neck we could have dug out a victory. Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla all went awol at times, and Sagna looked worryingly out of touch. Perhaps starting Jenkinson in the next game would make him aware of the competition.

Focus remains on qualifying for Europe next season, Chelsea have a tough run-in but fourth place is still looking more likely than third and I know I'm not alone in prioritising finishing above Spurs. A point should not be complained about but the team needs to find some ideas on how to beat the biggest teams if they want to be in contention with them next season.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: salt avoided, wound still raw

I can't say I'm usually a particularly emotional football fan. I have often watched in amusement while the die-hards rant and rail at the TV screen when things aren't going their team's way. I reserve a special kind of excitement for the north London derby and European ties with huge deficits to be overturned, but aside from that I'm more of a sulker than a screecher.

However even I'll admit that when I woke up on Tuesday morning and the first thing I saw on my computer screen through my hazy hungover eyes was that a Robin van Persie hattrick had won Manchester United their 20th Premier League title, my stomach plummeted.

It's not that this was particularly surprising: everyone knew that after the title race was won on goal difference last season, whichever of the Manchester clubs won the battle to sign last season's top scorer effectively had the title as theirs to lose. Yet the manner of United's victory still managed to worsen my day.

Many Arsenal fans are seeing Monday's result as a let-off for the club. Had United slipped up against Aston Villa, they would have had a very real chance of sealing the title on Sunday in front of 50,000 Gooners at the Emirates. A year ago the thought of seeing our best player and captain celebrate winning the league at our home ground whilst wearing a United shirt was incomprehensible; as it turned out this was just a few points short of becoming reality.

Whilst Arsenal have been spared the greater indignity, they still have to entertain the newly-crowned champions on Sunday, and know that defeat will deal another serious blow to the club's Champions League aspirations. No one will miss the poignancy of the juxtaposition. In the past year while their ex-captain has taken his career to the next level; Arsenal remain in exactly the same position.

As far as RVP's reception on Sunday goes, I feel the fans have a right to make their opinions heard. I sincerely hope there won't be a repeat of the vulgar abuse that some subjected Emmanuel Adebayor to after his departure, but Arsenal are right to feel betrayed. Even if it is too much for a club to ask that their players stand by the team they have professed their love for, despite said club's inability to offer instant success, it is surely not too much to request that said player not be sold to their arch rivals. All parties had justifications for the move, but to deny fans the right to show their outrage at it is unreasonable.

I don't think even the calmest fan can claim any level of indifference to the outcome on Sunday. It could be the biggest game of the season... again. In fact, this weekend's match is the most I can ever recall wanting Arsenal to win a game.

And that's why after that quick vent, I'm going to put the matter out of my mind. Arsenal need to use the circumstances as a motivation, not a distraction, and European qualification (both this season and long-term) is all that the club should be focussing on right now.

The United game will be extremely difficult, with their confidence and form peaking right about now, and a record points tally in the forefront of their minds. The following three games, though against much lowlier opposition will also require hard graft. Though QPR are all but doomed, Wigan and Newcastle are both even more desperate for points than we are, and will be giving it their all. Any more slip-ups will almost certainly mean Arsenal being leapfrogged by Chelsea and Spurs.

Provided the injured players return to the fold and no more are lost, a top four finish is within reach. Olivier Giroud will miss all but the last of the games through suspension, but this could provide Lukas Podolski with his long-awaited chance to prove his worth as a central striker. The German has earned the 'super-sub' tag in the second half of the season, and has played the full 90 minutes just twice in the league overall. Let's hope he's been saving his energy for the run-in.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Do Arsenal deserve to be in the top four?

Just the four goals against Reading this time, Arsenal? You clearly aren't trying hard enough...

Saturday saw a convincing win for Arsenal against this season's whipping boys Reading, who had already been on the receiving end of a 5-2 and a 7-5 scoreline against the Gunners earlier in the campaign. It was by all accounts a one-sided affair, with Arsenal again dominating possession and chances created. Whilst a three-goal margin is a resounding victory on any occasion, Arsenal could and should have put more goals past bottom-of-the-table Reading, the one team in the league who are almost unanimously tipped for relegation.

Against the team with statistically the worst defence in the Premier League, Arsenal might have been expected to convert more of their twenty-three shots on goal. They should also rue the fact that the opposition were able to spoil their clean sheet, despite only managing four attempts on goal all game. Reading's one in four conversion rate tops Arsenal's one in six, making Reading the more clinical side in this encounter.

It is not difficult to imagine that against most other Premier League defences, Arsenal's attackers would not have been allowed such an easy ride. Gervinho, praised by many after having a hand in all but one of the goals was still guilty of dithering on the ball in the build-up to all three and against more adept defenders would have found it much more difficult to produce (his and Arsenal's holy grail) the end product.

I do not mean to be too harsh on the Ivorian; a goal is a goal no matter who the opposition. But at the top of the top level (a position we Arsenal fans still believe our team to be clinging on to), you need to be able to perform against the top teams. Just ask that other tenacious Ivorian Didier Drogba. Gervinho is not the only member of the Arsenal team yet to prove he is capable of this.

One of the things that has been most humiliating for Arsenal this season (one which has included losses to Bradford and Blackburn - as if you'd forgotten) has been their form against the 'big' teams. Of those defeated by Arsenal this season, Bayern Munich are the one side I would consider as being within this category, though even that game was a hollow victory as it only confirmed another trophy-less campaign.

The table below illustrates just how dire Arsenal's results against the best teams in the country have been this time around. It shows how many points each Premier League team has gained so far this season in their fixtures against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. The brackets show the maximum points each team could have earned from these games.


Points gained against the 'big three'

7   (/15)
7   (/18)
5   (/18)
4   (/12)
West Ham
4   (/12)
3   (/15)
3   (/18)
3   (/15)
3   (/15)
West Brom
3   (/15)
2     (/9)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
Aston Villa
0   (/12)
0   (/15)

Aside from the surprise of seeing Southampton and QPR both in the top three, the next most noticeable anomaly is Arsenal's embarrassingly low position in the table. The fact that only Aston Villa and Wigan have won fewer points against the 'big three' is poignant testimony to Arsenal's below-par performances when faced with tougher opposition.

The argument could be made that Everton, Tottenham and Liverpool would be more deserving of a Champions League spot than Arsenal, as they have all demonstrated their ability to compete against the best teams in England - something Arsenal have failed to do. Would one of theses teams be more hungry for success in Europe than the Gunners?

Out of this season's remaining eight fixtures, undoubtedly the biggest game is at home to Manchester United at the end of this month: Arsenal's last chance to land a blow on one of the teams trying to push them further away from the top of the English game.

Arsène Wenger needs to look at his team's record against their rivals this season and act to make sure that the club does not allow these big fixtures to become forgone conclusions. Finishing inside the top four this year would be a lot more justifiable, not to mention easier if Arsenal had managed to take a few points off the other contenders.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Beating Bayern is not a 'fifth trophy' for Arsenal

Bayern Munich 0 - 2 Arsenal

Swansea City 0 - 2 Arsenal

On paper this has been a good if not a great week for Arsenal Football Club. That's what someone whose memory lasted not longer than, let's say, a week could be led to believe. Since Wednesday's match in Germany, bloggers and tweeters took to the web en masse, waxing lyrical about 'going down fighting', 'heads held high' and 'pride restored'. Nobody can deny that a 2-0 win away at Bayern Munich is anything other than a great result for any team in the world at the moment, and for a team currently sitting in fifth place and twenty-four points adrift in the Premier League, the achievement is intensified.

BUT, let's hold onto our horses before they get carried away by this swell of North London pride. The win at Bayern was part of an aggregate loss (admittedly only on away goals) but a loss nonetheless. 

Those whose memories do not stretch as far back as the 3-1 loss to Bayern in the first leg at the Emirates last month will by extension not be able to recall that an almost identical situation occurred for the team this time last year against AC Milan. A drubbing in the first leg was followed by an emphatic victory in the second, meaning that for two years running Arsenal were dumped out of the Champions League by a solitary goal.

This is perhaps the most damning proof yet that Arsenal are currently stagnating in terms of team progression. Whilst defeating Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Barcelona the year before that shows that the seasons since 04/05 have not been completely without success, Arsenal need to learn to compete over a two-legged fixture in order to get any further in the competition.

The game in Munich saw a great defensive performance from a back five who for the first time in a while were all staking their claim to starting places that were by no means theirs by right. Before Wednesday, Fabianski had not played in a year and his performances in both games will put pressure on Szczesny. Equally, Mertesacker and Koscielny made strong cases for Wenger to leave out captain Vermaelen on a regular basis. At full-back, Gibbs looked like a man who is rightly looking over his shoulder at the increasingly impressive Monreal, whilst Jenkinson is also giving Sagna a run for his money. In front of them, Ramsey and Rosicky did well to fill Wilshere and Podolski's boots. This is exactly what has been lacking for Arsenal this season: depth, determination and competition.

Despite these positives however, Bayern themselves were by no means at their best. Also missing players through injury and suspension, the Germans went into the game knowing all they had to do was avoid a 3-0 defeat. This is why when Arsenal got a fortuitous early goal, the Germans did not deviate from their gameplan or panic, knowing that the game was still a long way from becoming a serious contest. For the next 80 minutes, Bayern dominated the game in terms of possession and opportunities but a combination of solid defending and poor finishing meant that none of their twenty-one shots on goal were successful. Thus when Arsenal finally managed to get another goal late on, Bayern remained unfazed and diligently saw out the match.

Thus a good result in which Arsenal scored twice despite only having three shots on target was a confidence boost, but in reality nothing more. Bayern Munich were never going to exert their full strength in a game that was already all but a foregone conclusion, and the victory should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, and as a wake-up call (as if they needed one) that Arsenal need to shake things up.

Likewise the win at Swansea, a team who beat Arsenal by the same scoreline at the Emirates in December and who Arsenal are as close to on points as they are to Manchester City, was in isolation another good result. Yet these performances should be the rule and not the exception, and back-to-back clean sheets should come more frequently for Arsenal than four or five times in a campaign. The team has still failed to match the seven-game unbeaten run that kicked off the 12/13 season.

This time last month I was writing after the 1-0 victories against Stoke and Sunderland and just before the Blackburn match. During the thirteen games between the Bradford and Brighton fixtures, Arsenal had lost only twice - to Manchester City and Chelsea - and I was feeling optimistic. The fact that this period was followed by one in which Arsenal exited two cup competitions and lost to their bitterest rivals has left me with the inability to get carried away by two 2-0 victories, no matter who the opposition were.

So whilst there are many positives to take from the past week, this should not mean that Arsenal can take their foot off the gas and become complacent once more. They have shown that the battle for fourth and third place is not over but still have to play five of the clubs involved in the relegation battle, as well as Everton and Manchester United. There will be no easy games and if the club misses out on Europe next season, it is not stagnation that will be the concern, but real and genuine decline.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Arsenal's Annual Crumble

The rapidity with which Arsenal's trophy prospects deteriorate around the February/March period of the season has become an almost annual occurrence in English football.

In the 2010/11 season, a demoralising defeat to eventually-relegated Birmingham in the League Cup final on 27th February was followed by loss to Barcelona in the Champions League on 8th March. Exit from the FA Cup after being beaten by Manchester United came just four days later and the Gunners' season was effectively over. Last year, having being knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester City way back in November, a 4-0 thumping at Milan on 15th February and defeat to Sunderland in the FA Cup on the 18th all but silenced Arsenal's trophy hopes yet again. This season it was Bradford of all clubs that dumped Arsenal out of the League Cup in December and yet again, a period of just three days has left the club out of the FA Cup and clinging onto the Champions League by a thread.

The pattern that is emerging is not one of a team that is progressing or learning from its mistakes and the calls for Wenger to resign are possibly louder right now than at any other point in the last two tumultuous seasons. 
Looking back, I think the moment that Birmingham's fluke goal trickled in during the League Cup final in 2011 is a poignant one. The psychological impact of the unravelling that was triggered by just missing out on the best shot at a trophy the team has had in eight seasons seems to still be visible in the side, which has not even reached a semi-final since.

The truth of the matter is that this Arsenal squad has no idea what winning a trophy feels like. Most are youngsters that were still coming through the ranks at the club and elsewhere, looking with awe at the Arsenal team that last won silverware back in 2005. Not a single player from that trophy-winning team remains in the current group of players at Arsenal. The interim players dropped the baton and their successors are still struggling to pick it up.

By contrast Chelsea, who won the league that year and Manchester United still employ some of the players from their 2004/05 teams. Cech, Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Giggs, Scholes and Rooney all still remain at their respective clubs, which have been the two most successful sides in England since that year. Manchester United in fact epitomise both the view that success breeds success, and Alan Hansen's age-old epithet: "You can't win anything with kids." United did of course contradict Hansen that very season but by holding on to their experienced players and bringing in world class signings, they proved that both were necessary in order to succeed.

Arsenal on the other hand dismantled their victorious side too fast also failing to bring in adequate long-term replacements. Both these factors were not enforced but chosen as part of Wenger's financial policy of putting faith in his youth system as oppose to paying extortionate transfer fees and wages. It was an admirable attempt, and one that many in football probably wish had succeeded. But it appears that to compete at the very top level in the modern game, this strategy just doesn't pay off.

But still, even after a week like this one, it is not the end of the world or of Arsenal Football Club. Rumour has it that Wenger will have a much enlarged transfer budget at his disposal this summer. With his contract currently expiring in June 2014, it could be his last chance to go all out for success. By this stage, surely Arsenal must have enough financial stability to take a deep breath and pay out for a truly great player (or two) without the worry of bankrupting the club. The time for tentativeness has passed. Signing unproven Moroccans on free transfers will no longer cut it.

Depth is needed as an absolute must. The team has proved over the past three seasons that it is incapable of competing in four competitions at once, hence the inevitable collapse every spring, when injuries reduce their numbers and the busy schedule exhausts those who remain. On Monday a Manchester United team featuring just two first-team regulars comfortably beat a resilient Reading side in the FA Cup. Yet Arsenal have shown again that in resting just one or two of their current first team they dramatically weaken their side to the point that two lower league teams in one season are able to overcome them in the cup.

Against both Blackburn and Bayern, the team did not play terribly. In fact they showed again that in the middle of the park, they can play better football than Europe's finest. But it is at either end of the pitch that they are lacking in decisiveness, confidence and cutting edge.

If there is a positive to take from history it is that after defeat to Sunderland at this stage last season, Arsenal went on to end the season on a relative high, winning their next six and losing just two of their remaining fourteen fixtures of the season. This run of form included the almost-comeback in a 3-0 victory against AC Milan in the second leg of the Champions League tie. A 3-0 win in Munich next month, an ambitious aspiration to say the least, would put Arsenal through and hugely boost morale. People say lightning doesn't strike twice, but you try telling that to Roy Sullivan. Go on, try.