Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Premiership Team of the Noughties

I had the misfortune to turn on Talksport one night recently and listen to Stan collymore harp on in a vaguely xenophobic manner about his "team of the decade" in the Premiership. After he dismissed Robert Pires from his rightful position on the left of such a dream team, on the supposed grounds that he LAcKED END PRODUcT, i could take no more.
So here is my riposte to mr. collymore and all of his dumbass callers- especially the guy who suggested Didi Fucking Hamann in central midfield. Admittedly, about half the team will probably be the same as his, but anyway...

I suppose there's still a question mark hanging over Given, and it goes a little something like this: if he's a truly great keeper, isn't it something of an unfortunate coincidence that he seems to always find himself behind a shambolic defence? Does he lack the organisational skills that would render it unnecessary for him to be making five amazing saves every game? Or is it his relative lack of height as a goalkeeper that dissuaded any of the Big Four from ever making a move for him?
Despite these reservations, it remains that Given has been, over the last decade, an unsurpassed shotstopper in the English game. Van Der Sar and perhaps Petr cech could be seen as rivals for this spot but the former always struck me at United as a merely very decent keeper playing behind an exceptional defence, whereas the latter has suffered a crippling loss of form, understandably perhaps, since the Stephen Hunt incident.

consistency wins the day here. He's never been the most pyrotechnic of full-backs, but in terms of longevity and reliability he hasn't had much competition in the past decade. And a shedload of medals doesn't do any harm either. This was probably the easiest choice. Arsenal have had good right backs and Lauren deserves credit for his part in the glories of 02 and 04. Let's hope that in the coming years Bacary Sagna makes himself a shoo-in for the best right back of whatever the next decade is going to be called.

I had to think long and hard about this one. I wanted one centre back adept at carrying the ball out, and one big stopper- so it soon became a question of Terry vs campbell. I've had to go for Terry, probably because we haven't had the pleasure of viewing his inevitable decline yet.

This is a poignant choice in a way because there is already a whiff of stagnation about Ferdinand, not just on account of his injury problems but also due to his form. As a ball-playing centre back who sweeps up behind an aggressive partner, he had serious competition from our own Bill Gallas and Ricardo carvalho. But you have to admit that for the last few years especially Ferdinand was imperious and he seemed to have a special place in his pocket reserved for Thierry Henry.

Moving swiftly on...

So far this team is populated almost exclusively by players I have an intense hatred for. What an awful decade. Here it was a battle between Beckham and the Portuguese ponce. If you gave Ronaldo Beckham's delivery, it would be frightening, but as it is Ronaldo is superior in every other department. And, apart from the ability to score a whopping forty goals in one season- comprising tap-ins, solo goals, twenty-yard thunderbolts, free kicks, penalties, and salmon-leap headers- it's his searing pace that really seals the deal and makes Beckham look a little one-dimensional.

At first I was thinking of picking one of these guys, and a more obviously attack-minded player like Lampard or Gerrard to partner. But here is my logic for picking these two. Firstly, I'm playing a 4-4-2, and Gerrard and Lampard have in my view always been at their impressive best playing in a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 with two other central players to aid them with the workload and allow them to roam forward quite freely. I'm not convinced that either have proven themselves as true midfield generals in the mold of Vieira and Keane in their pomp. Perhaps this is indicative of one big change in the last few years of top-level football. Whereas a decade or so ago, we had players who played from box to box and could dominate games almost single-handedly, now midfield play is more specialist. Neither Vieira or Keane were simply holding players. Both were terrific ball-winners but could also be termed playmakers- witness Keane's famous performance in Turin in '99 where his hypnotic passing provided the platform for United's great comeback. But with the now widespread use of Makalele-style water carriers, it is usually possible to call a midfielder either attacking or defensive, and most teams have one player or even two focussed on shielding the back four. Illustrative of my point is the problem that England had with pairing Lampard and Gerrard in a 4-4-2, with neither really capable of curbing their offensive instincts. Vieira and Keane would never have had that problem. Both could drive forward to devastating effect at different times, with one always willing to drop back and add stability and solidity.
All that being said, there are still players of that ilk today. The fantastic Michael Essien could easily play in a 4-4-2, rampaging from box to box. It is an impossible fantasy of mine to see him in tandem with Fabregas, although both are now playing those aforementioned specialist roles in three or four-man midfields.
Anyway, sorry for banging on, what I really just wanted to say was, Keane and Vieira in tandem, early part of the last decade- when you were done shitting your pants, what would you do to beat that?

Despite Ryan Giggs' recent renaissance, there was only one winner of the left-wing spot. Football Writers Player of the year in 2002 after an astonishing season of roaming creativity from the wing, Pires reinvented himself subtly after a knee injury as a goalscoring midfielder who scored peaches and poached goals in equal number. He had a wonderful understanding with my team's left back, not to mention its two strikers....

I've got to admit this is a sentimental choice in a way, as he is my favourite footballer of all time. But I want my team to be a work of art, not an ungainly battering ram, so there's no better man to drop into the hole and provide the ammo for Pires, Ronaldo and....

I was a bit harsh on him after that handball. He is a bit of a poser but it would be ungrateful to disregard just how staggeringly good this guy was for pretty much eight years on end. Probably, in terms of keeping up an amazing standard for a very long stretch of time, the Premiership's player of the decade. And nearly ever goal was a thing of beauty...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy christmas??

I put off writing anything after the Liverpool game, because of a niggling feeling that our cracks had simply been papered over by the Pool's growing tendency to self-destruct. Another unconvincing away performance against Burnley, yielding only a lucky point, seemed to confirm my suspicions. Anfield had been a false dawn, not a turning point. After that, a home win against Hull was the minimum we could expect. So, it was not the 3-0 win yesterday that was significant, rather the continuing bizarre results elsewhere, results which continue to suggest that, against all logic, this unbalanced Arsenal team could mount at least a semblance of a title challenge.

Trust me to find the negative side even of this happy turn. There is a growing feeling, to me at least, that Wenger missed a trick, even more than is usually the case, last summer. You look at this Arsenal side, and as much as you want to believe that they can win the league, there still seem too many areas of doubt. Our goalkeeper convinces nobody. If either Vermaelen or Gallas get injured, the alternatives as they are now don't bear thinking about. Alex Song has probably been our player of 2009, but he's soon off to Africa leaving no suitable replacement. And, last but not least, Robin Van Persie's devastating injury has left us without a true candidate for the centre-forward position until Bendtner returns (and it's not like everyone's in love with him). Surely a team with all these doubts, with a height and strength deficiency, with a number of players who don't look up to the task (Walcott, Vela, Diaby a lot of the time), players who are almost always injured (Rosicky, and almost ten more), and players who are detested by a lot of their own supporters (Eboue, Diaby), surely this rabble cannot come out on top.

But the tale of the table at the moment is that IF Arsenal continue to win, and win their game in hand (all of this far from certain), they will leapfrog the worst United team in more than a decade, and trail not far from a chelsea side who everyone was ready to inaugurate as champions elect only three weeks ago but who are now showing signs of weakness.

Suddenly the January transfer window takes on serious significance. Frankly, if Man Utd and chelsea do shrewd business, they can in my view make Arsenal an irrelevance in the title race. But all three teams have areas they can improve. Arsenal will lose Song for some weeks, so some back up would not go amiss. I am not expecting this to happen. It would be just like Wenger to entrust Denilson with the task, and hope it works out. He'll probably get injured, and Diaby will be left "patrolling" the area in front of our backline in his own inimitable way. Oh dear.

The long-term injury to Djourou was a particularly cruel one. He would have been the first line of back-up at centre-half and could also fill in at defensive midfield. Instead, we need players in both positions. Wenger might be a tad more likely to buy a defender, seeing as Senderos seems likely to move on- he doesn't even make matchday squads anymore. Silvestre is not, I think it's fair to say, an option worth contemplating for more than a couple of games at a time, if that. So when Gallas picks up his inevitable annual injury, we'd want to have a new man in place.

But Wenger, being the attack-obsessed tunnel visionary that he is, will doubtless prioritise finding a temporary replacement for Robin Van Persie. And that is fair enough, having watched recent games. It is the most pressing issue, but as we've seen far from the only one. And that's not to even mention the goalkeeping situation.

One worry I have is that United and to a lesser extent chelsea will be looking for similar players and wield the greater cash power. United, somehow having seen Vidic, Ferdinand, O'Shea, Brown, Evans and Neville all ruled out at once, are in the midst of a defensive crisis that may need a solution from outside, although one feels Ferguson may be patient enough to ride it out- they really have suffered a bizarre run of luck that is unlikely to either sustain, or repeat, itself. Ferguson may be more perturbed by the inability of either the languid Berbatov or the powder puff, shadow of his former self that is Michael Owen, to compensate for the loss of Ronaldo. So perhaps they will plunge for the Valencia pair, Silva and Villa. Neither of these players are likely to be on our radar- the former we don't need, the latter is agonisingly out of our price range. But United may also be on the lookout for a big, physical striker, much like the one Arsenal crave. Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko is sure to be a man in demand this January.

For chelsea, the feeling is that their squad may only need slight tweaking. But with the possibility of a long transfer ban hanging over the club, Ancelotti may be tempted to do big business. Michael Essien is injured now and will not play before the ANc so they may feel they need a defensive midfielder as badly as Arsenal do (John Obi Mikel hasn't really convinced, and will also be absent in any case). We saw last season just how much they miss his bite and dynamism, and we're already seeing it again in the short time since his latest injury. Ancelotti presided over the retirement home that is Ac Milan, so names like Vieira and Gattusso have been thrown about. But it's upfront where they are most likely to add a player. Drogba will leave for Africa aswell, and both he and Anelka are the wrong side of 30, so with the aforementioned transfer ban a necessary consideration names like Aguero and Pato will be the subject of much rumour. While either of those playing for chelsea THIS season seems a little unrealistic, you could see a deal being struck in advance of a summer move, perhaps.

So all in all, with Wenger having said he only wants to add top quality at the right price, there is a grim possibility that any move we try to tie up could be hijacked by either chelsea or United. And don't forget new city boss Roberto Mancini will doubtless be looking to put his stamp on the club in the shape of one or two signings- again, centre backs are in real demand, and short supply.

What would I like to see? A lot of the time, people moan about the problem but don't have an idea of the solution. I've been guilty of that, so this time I will make one suggestion. Midfielder. He's French. He used to play for Arsenal. He is NOT Patrick Vieira- Paddy's legs have gone, he'd be a good character to have around but we need more. We need the Flamster. I half-follow Italian football and Mathieu Flamini seems inexplicably underused in an ailing, aging Milan side. 10 million. Test their resolve. I know he went for free, but the time has come to disregard economics and shoot for glory. I know, not a hope. But still, I've been pining for the bite and tempo that he provided. Scott Parker would suffice if there's the expected firesale at West Ham... Either of these would be worth having around even after Song's return. In fact, I think a midfield of Song-Flamini-Fabregas would at last provide the solidity we need, without compromising flair. And Ramsey, Denilson and Diaby would be there as cover. Wouldn't it be nice.

Ok, I'm off to dream on something else.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fuck Blind Faith

It's been hard to motivate myself to write anything at all since the chelsea disaster. Games and talking points have come and gone. We've had the carling cup drubbing at the hands of city, followed by more embarrassingly ungracious behaviour by Wenger; the comfortable victory against Stoke in the league, when Arshavin finally found form as an emergency centre-forward; and an outing for the "young guns" in Greece, which showed that the reserves have learned pretty, ineffective football as the first-team, and that carlos Vela may be in danger of becoming the new Jeremie Aliadieire.

Every time I tried to gather my thoughts on the above into something coherent, there was a festering feeling of pointlessness. As if none of it really matters after the team's flaws were so ruthlessly exposed. You can hope, if you are so inclined, that lessons will be learned after such a painful result. But think back a few months- there was that home champions league tie against United in which the boys failed to perform, and got destroyed. Days later, chelsea scored four at the Emirates. And now this. I invite anyone to show me the proof of progress there. So much of the manager's rhetoric rings hollow in the face of these powerful facts.

The sad thing is, we shouldn't be far away. I'be been saying it since the end of 07/08, when Flamini left. He had to be properly replaced, he wasn't, and we've been paying for it ever since. If we had the right players in a couple more areas, I could say with genuine hope that Liverpool are out of the race, that United look vulnerable without Ronaldo, and that chelsea are due a mid-season blip. All of that is true; but it doesn't, or shouldn't, matter to us now because Arsenal have no chance.

It's a sad state of affairs when a once great man allows hope to become the preserve only of the blind.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wenger Delusion: Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea

A few days ago Arsene Wenger made the mistake of billing this a definitive, coming of age moment for the current Arsenal team. Our time had indeed come. For another demoralising spanking from Chelsea, that is.

On a day when we were second best in just about every department, ripped apart yet again by our Nemesis Drogba, toothless in attack, and bullied in midfield, the single most worrying aspect for me was Wenger's sour post-match interview. Ok, grace in defeat has never been the Frenchman's trademark, but if he really believes even half of what he says, our fallow period may be stretching further than we'd like to contemplate.

He refused to concede defeat in the title race. Fair enough, in November there's no need to concede anything, even if he is being a little optimistic. But the way he refused to give Chelsea much credit was embarrassing. Wenger said something along the lines of, not seeing anything in Chelsea today to suggest they wouldn't drop points...??? Ok, they will indeed drop points, but enough to affect such a swing that Arsenal will finish above them? Doubtful. And sometimes you've got to give the opposition some credit. I agree that they weren't THAT good but that's because they didn't have to be. If they can win so comprehensively without ever really getting into top gear, it's a COMPLIMENT to them and a damning INDICTMENT of the team you have built Arsene. Not cause for optimism.

The best that could come out of it is if he admits that, and tries to solve the glaring deficiencies that still exist. He's built a squad made for La Liga that gets bullied in the Premiership. I was very apprehensive about our lack of physical stature in the lead up to this game and my anxiety proved justified. True, we were unlucky to be without Bendtner, Van Persie and even Diaby for the visit of the league's most powerful side, but you'd wonder what difference it would have made. It' sad in itself that I'm pining for the presence of Diaby, a man I've constantly pilloried for months.

I've nothing much to say about the match itself. It was genuinely depressing to watch, as was Wenger's groping for excuses afterwards- the disallowed goal was disappointing but understandable; Vela's dive was reprehensible, never a penalty; and what of the foul commited by Sagna on Anelka in the first half? No mention of that from our myopic leader. We must have had about five efforts on goal all game. Our possession football was largely ineffective, rare were the occasions that the visitors looked stretched. And defensively, we gave up the chances that Chelsea knew were coming, and they were ruthless, efficient, all the things you expect from winners.

You can talk all you want about the good that can come from a chastening defeat against hated rivals. But last season we suffered the same at home to both United and Chelsea. Where is the progress? Is our manager too blinkered, too blindly idealistic to react in the necessary way? After the news on Van Persie- four to five months out- today's match added cutting insult to devastating injury.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arsenal 2-0 Liege, and more apprehension

It's job done in Europe. Arsenal are through as group winners with a game to spare, and with the group we were gifted, that would have been the expected outcome.

That said, as I've been repeating over and over, even on otensibly comfortable nights this team looks vulnerable and there are continuing signs they will come unstuck against top opposition. The next such encounter is upon us and despite the 100% home record so far, I'm far from confident.

The last time we triumphed against fellow members of the top four was at chelsea, in that strange league game around this time last season. As I recall, we didn't really turn up that day, were trailing to a Djourou own goal, and then somehow turned the game without really doing all that much. Van Persie got one goal where he was clearly offside, then another from a half chance, and chelsea offered little in response.

But that was a different chelsea to what we will face Sunday, although the personnel hasn't changed much. They were unsure of themselves at home at the time, and Scolari, in hindsight, was probably already losing the confidence of his players. Since then, the Hiddink version outplayed Arsenal in an FA cup semi-final, battered us on our own patch in the league; United taught us a lesson over two legs in Europe, and won the league with a comfortable draw at Old Trafford; and we've drawn twice with Liverpool. And then this season we somehow allowed an off-colour United to plunder a win from a poor game in Manchester.

That's eight games, five defeats, no wins.

If you want to factor in the city defeat of this season aswell, it leaves the sense that this Arsenal side don't really deal well with the big occasion. It's something they really need to start doing. The young players are building experience, but we don't want experienced bridesmaids, or perennial nearly men. They need to win these sorts of matches, or the trophies will never follow.

It's all very well Wenger lauding semi-final appearances; the fact is in both competitions Arsenal were well beaten as soon as they encountered genuinely strong opposition.

chelsea have been talking up their chances before Sunday, you'd hope Wenger will use that to provide a little added motivation. The last time we beat Man United, I got the sense that maybe Ferguson didn't show us the usual respect. They went for the jugular early and it led to an open game, the type in which Arsenal almost always come out on top. Since then they've returned to the more cagey style that serves them well against Arsenal. But I hope chelsea are now perhaps seeing themselves as the better side and will get a little over-confident. They haven't played many difficult away games, and have lost at both Villa and Wigan. They also struggled at home to United to an undeserved victory, so while they are gaining a lot of plaudits they have some difficult tests ahead, especially, one expects, during and after the African Nations cup.

But let's face it, they'll look at Arsenal and see weaknesses to be exploited. These were shown again in Tuesday's game. While dominating against poor opposition, Arsenal needed two fairly lucky goals- unlikely to happen against chelsea- and gave up chances very cheaply. Liege twice rattled woodwork, should have had a penalty and missed a sitter. And as I watched Arsenal attack, the ghost of a fit Van Persie again haunted my mind. There was some nice stuff played, but not the type of thing you expect to see chelsea troubled too much by.

As stated, I'm not too optimistic about Sunday, though I can imagine it being a draw. Obviously, it's vital that we get the first goal. Then perhaps we could show some of the discipline of the second half of the Spurs game, and maybe open them up on the break.

What's most damning is the palpable panic surrounding the loss of Van Persie and, potentially, Gallas. This situation perfectly illustrates the shortcomings of an uneven squad. We have, on the one hand, Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky, Arshavin, Walcott all available... but not one striker who you'd see as suited to the centre forward role. And when one of our first choice centre halves is doubtful, there is no talk of able deputies, only desperate prayers and nightmarish visions of what Didier Drogba could do to either Mikael Silvestre or, god forbid, his old buddy Big Philly.

Not that any of our rearguard has covered itself in glory against the big Ivorian. Arsenal have never beaten him, and the news that even Lamptard could be back is further proof that perhaps the gods are not smiling on us just at the moment. But then, this is the Premiership gentlemen- the gods will not save you. And the false one in charge of Arsenal should have done more in the Summer to prevent just this kind of "ill fate".

Monday, November 23, 2009

early chelsea thoughts

A bit early to be turning to the chelsea game, with the champions League job still to be done against Liege midweek, but it occurred to me today- personnel dictates that Wenger shall not be relishing the make-or-break game.

Again, my worries revolve primarily around the physicality, or lack thereof, in the current Arsenal team. And we know there's probably no team better equipped to exploit it than chelsea. The likes of Stoke and, in their Allardyce incarnation, Bolton can knock us out of our stride with their attritional assault, but chelsea have players with talent to match their grit, and thus have often proved our worst nightmare. In the FA cup semi-final last season, Arsenal were not just outfought but outplayed too by their London neighbours.

That game is an interesting case study. Wenger is usually stubborn in what he wants his team to do, doesn't take his cue from the opposition. That day was an exception. With the Wembley pitch in tatters, the manager seemed to anticipate a scrappy game, and chose to some extent to play the game on the opposition's terms, playing Diaby and dropping Van Persie into an ineffective five-man midfield. The diminutive Arshavin was benched (and scored four at Anfield when unleashed days later).
This last move by Wenger has been brought up many a time by his critics. But then, on some level you can see the logic. chelsea are lethal from set plays and Arsenal's team lacks height. More bemusing was the exclusion of the combative Song.

In any case, it seems that this weekend Wenger may not even have much of a choice. As I've been saying, the options that would be brought in when added stature is needed- Bendtner, Diaby and to some extent Van Persie, although he'd be playing anyway- are injured. I'm not sure about the Diaby situation, but I'm gonna have to contradict myself and say I hope he's back in time, because I have a bad feeling we could get murdered in the air otherwise. At least Denilson has returned as an option to add solidity in midfield, but he's not a man who'd add a great deal of aerial prowess.

It might take a large slice of luck to come through this game unscathed. The continued unavailability of Lampard, Drogba and Ballack would do nicely, but in unlucky November, I'll not hold my breath...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Kingdom For A Clean Sheet: Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal

There are probably Arsenal fans who are shocked and devastated by a result they will perceive as raising serious question marks over any possibility of a title tilt. Not me. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, as the question marks have been present this season in triumph and in defeat.

I did mention some weeks ago that Arsenal were in danger of straying into pygmy territory with the set of players Wenger has assembled. Now, shorn of Diaby and Van Persie, we finally managed to put out a team with, by my reckoning, not one outfield player standing six foot tall. After seventy minutes of hearing Matt Le Tiss describe very little of note from the Stadium of Light, I was starting to warm to the prospect of a goalless draw. You almost take it for granted now that Arsenal's rhythmic passing game stutters after each international break. So a clean sheet and a point wouldn't have been so bad. But it was always going to be the case that if there were set plays, there would be trouble. Vermaelen attacks the ball brilliantly and has great spring, but beyond him, do we have one player with any aerial ability? Gallas has a knack of drifting into goalscoring positions himself, but in his own box he's often found wanting. And further up the pitch we've got a bunch of diminutive playmakers and goalscorers who probably don't fancy aerial battles, or are not equipped to win them. As I said before, it sheds some light on just why Diaby and Bendtner were often getting picked ahead of ostensibly superior players earlier this season. With the team we had out today, it was always likely that if Sunderland beat Vermaelen from a set play, they could score. And so it proved with the only goal. Hardly ideal preparation for chelsea next week.

In the attacking sense, Van Persie's injury could be very costly. The team is potentially left with no kind of physical presence, no focal point up front. Eduardo has suffered a career-threatening injury, which may have changed his mindset when going into 50-50 challenges. Van Persie of course is no stranger to injuries but he's a big lad and always puts himself about. Eduardo's game is more about movement than physicality. Having him as our only real option up front will heighten the feeling in other teams that they can hassle us out of our stride; this puts great pressure on the silky passing because there is effectively no plan B. Allied to this is the worry that Eduardo has become hesitant in front of goal, his trademark cool efficiency having been absent of late.

In effect it seems that Wenger has assembled a lopsided squad. We have depth in certain areas, but at the moment we can't put out a team suited to a difficult Premiership away game. These selections should always be a case of horses-for-courses, but in a starting eleven like today's, the onus is on Alex Song to provide a platform, pretty much alone, for the rest to play. Reports suggest he was again impressive but he needs help, and Denilson's imminent return won't be a moment too soon. Even then, Wenger seems inexplicably content with the scenario of our only muscular midfield presence leaving for Africa without any adequate cover, and that, my friends, is farcical.

The result today need not be fatal to title hopes, chelsea at home next week providing the platform for instant impetus. But Arsenal's squad looks ill-prepared for the navigation of what is now a make-or-break fixture. And only for the loss of a few players- for all the talk of an extended injury list, that's all it takes for this group to look vulnerable. chelsea were today missing Drogba, Lampard, Ballack. Even if those guys don't make the Emirates game, I won't be overly confident. After all, Sunderland were without Gordon, Turner, clattermole and Jones and still won. The suspicion still lingers that this Arsenal side are flat track bullies who struggle against the better teams in the league. I'll be happy to be proven wrong, but it's the hope that kills ya, so I'll avoid the pitfalls of excessive optimism. For now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thoughts on "the Travesty of Paris" Part 2

Yesterday I focused mainly on France, and Henry, and mentioned little of the finest Irish performance I have ever witnessed.

As mentioned, nothing of what we'd seen in the campaign so far realistically suggested that Ireland could overturn the deficit from the home leg of the tie. Trapattoni had done a stellar job of organising the mess he inherited from Staunton into a genuinely hard to beat side, but he had done so at the expense of any flair or positive football. Andy Reid was thus exiled, despite his often excellent form for Sunderland. While there seems a personal grudge at the heart of the matter, it's also probably true that Trap felt Reid a luxury player for a side that would need ten outfield battlers. It's even worth wondering how the Italian would use the habitually adventurous Stephen Ireland, had he been available.

The ten group games became a success story- not one defeat among them- but six draws told the tale that, aesthetically, this was something of a slog. Of the victories- two against both cyprus and Georgia- none were particularly convincing. Against Bulgaria and Italy, Ireland had some good spells of play. In both of the Bulgaria games, a goal lead saw the Irish fall back into costly cautiousness, but it seemed the manager preferred this to potential defeat arising from a more attacking policy. Likewise the home game against Italy saw a strong start and a goal followed by a retreat into our proverbial shell. Even in the wins and the two goalless games against Montenegro, Ireland barely asserted themselves against the minnows, seemingly unable to take control. The only sustained instance of this was against the ten men of Italy, who dropped back on the defensive in typical style and were punished with Keane's late equaliser.

So, the question was, are these players simply not good enough to play in an expansive fashion, or are they being held back by a negative manager?

That hasn't been answered conclusively, but the Stade de France suggested that these players can play when not shackled by negative tactical constraints. One could counter that they only delivered when there was nothing to lose, but the fact remains that after their beautifully-worked opener, Ireland did not sit back and pray for penalties but continued to attack with conviction. Not just route one, "put 'em under pressure" football either, although there was some of that, but also some incisive passing play. Liam Lawrence was at the heart of a lot of the constructive stuff. The real joy was not in seeing the heroic work-rate, because we expected that of this team. It was in seeing Ireland have the moral courage to take the game to superior opponents.

We should have won it in normal time. First Duff, then Keane were released by Lawrence. Duff was denied by the outstanding Lloris (now there's a keeper, Arsene!), Keane by his own tendency for flash when efficiency is called for. Let's hope his miss does not haunt Duff,who turned back the clock to torture Sagna and was clearly devastated at the end. Even our much-maligned midfield pairing proved more than a match for a French midfield that apparently had a numerical advantage.

You have to wonder, though, about the manager's decisions regarding the two Reids. Even if he despises Andy, or thinks him too unpredictable to be a regular starter, surely he should be in the squad to provide guile when it is desperately needed? An exhausted Lawrence was replaced by the perennially ineffective McGeady and we barely toubled France after that. And while he may say that Stephen Reid is currently in no fit state to take part in a game of such magnitude, was that not also the case for Darron Gibson, the only real option we had to replace the injured Whelan? Either Reid would have been a preferable alternative for me in the circumstances but Trap does not seem to like options. The lack of depth was best illustrated by the game-changing introduction of the bumbling McShane for the limping O'Shea. There was more threat about France just for the presence of the Hull man, and amid all the furore over the handball, it's been largely ignored that the ball never would have reached Henry if the defender did his job.

A replay is highly unlikely, so I won't dwell on that. To be fair, FIFA are right to assert that it would set a dangerous precedent. Many games are decided by such unjustices. True, the stakes have rarely been so high, but ponder this. Ireland were gifted an equaliser at home to Georgia when awarded the most inexplicable penalty I've ever seen. Had that not happened, we might not even have made the play-offs. As Roy Keane said today, Ireland weren't offering Georgia a rematch after such inept authority turned that game.

That said, such incidents have rarely proved as cataclysmic as was the case Wednesday night. Surely now is the time to stop this madness and introduce some form of technology to aid the officials.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts on "the Travesty of Paris" Part 1

It was tempting to see the France - Ireland play off as a head to head between a limited group of players under a shrewd and decorated coach against a group of potential world-beaters under a comically inept one.

On the basis of the two games, the only part of that statement that is unarguably true is that Raymond Domenech is indeed a clown- he is threatening to turn France into also-rans before a ball is even kicked this Summer. As for those other assumptions: well, Trapattoni has undeniably had a very successful career at the highest level of the game over the last few decades, but the nagging, infuriating doubt remains over whether he maximised this team's potential in these World cup qualifiers. It seems churlish to say that, what with the apparent shambles he inherited, but Dunphy and Giles have talked throughout the campaign about the ability that we have, that the Italian hadn't seemed to elicit from the players because of his suffocating tactics. Many laughed as Dunphy overstated his point, talking about how half our team could apparently walk into better sides, but last night those players proved him half right. They'll never be Brazil, we all know that, but they can play when let off the leash.

France on the other hand were deplorable in most departments. Having an inadequate manager is one thing, but when your team is such a character-free zone that Thierry Henry is made captain you're really in trouble, something Arsenal fans know all about. While Domenech certainly makes it difficult for his players with strange selections, such as leaving out Benzema, and a clearly ineffective formation, it's not unheard of for a team of big characters to negotiate such obstacles. When they still had Zidane and Vieira, even while both seemed in decline, they should have won the last World cup despite having the idiot on the sideline. Not many in football have a great deal of respect for Luis Aragones, but his Spain side had the talent and the character to comfortably win the last European championships. And the man who was dubbed "Average Grant" by his own players very nearly presided over chelsea's first European cup win, only for luck to intervene on Man United's side. In all these cases, you would trust the players involved to deliver even if the man in official charge was not up to it. That's not the case with the current France crop.

Highly-rated players were made to look ordinary by their supposedly ordinary counterparts. This suggests that some- Lassana Diarra and Gourcuff in particular spring to mind- need a strong guiding hand and perhaps an odd kick up the hole. Others- Alou Diarra, Gignac- just aren't particularly good. And then there's the Henrys, the Anelkas, the guys who will never be remembered in the very top bracket of world class talent because they don't apply themselves well enough, often enough, and particularly not on the big occasions. Anelkas' been getting rave reviews lately and over the two legs he was the danger man but that danger was never frightening, as illustrated by his lucky goal in the first leg. He'd never before been to a World cup; to me, he didn't look that bothered on a night where surely hunger should have been there for all to see. So, he's languid, or lazy, depending on your personal view of the guy. With Henry, the problem is mental. We shouldn't deny it as Arsenal fans, the guy is a big game bottler. By my reckoning, he's played in eight major finals, had great chances in most of them, and not scored once.

My most bitter memory as an Arsenal fan is of the champions League final in 06, which we should have won with 10 men. Henry had the chance to seal it not long before Barca's equaliser, but bottled a one-on-one with Valdes that he would have buried in a low-stakes situation. He let out his usually hidden darkside in a risible post-match rant where he hit out at everyone- Puyol, Eto'o, Ronaldinho, the ref- but himself. I was devastated myself but even then I felt embarrassed for the guy- what a sore loser. Lastnight, in the same stadium, maybe Henry felt he was exorcising some demons but what he really did was show his weak character again.

The Irish reaction has been a little over the top maybe. He's hardly the first player to act in that manner. But that don't make it right and he's always been the type of poser who'd have you believe he would never try such a thing. He had an opportunity to break new ground in football, to be admired as no player ever before, if he held his cheating hands up and helped the referee out. Maybe that's overly idealistic, I'm sorry, Dunphy inspired me last night. There is something rotten in the state of football and lastnight was a chance to kickstart the game's redemption but it was always going to be too much to ask of Thierry the hypocrite Henry. He's always been a poser, always projected a facade. In the Highbury tunnel in 2005, Roy Keane berated Patrick Vieira for "pretending you're a nice guy". Sometimes I think he picked the wrong target.

One final thought for tonight. Human beings will always be fallible- the players in their actions, and the officials in their split-second perceptions of those actions- but surely the introduction of video technology in some form can't be far away.

Thierry Henry....

.... has been removed from the legend corner

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Striker crisis looms?

Arsenal, having sold Adebayor, started the season with only 3 real first-team strikers. Van Persie and Eduardo we all knew to be injury-prone. Question marks remained over Bendtner's ability. A characteristically stubborn Wenger insisted on naming Vela and Walcott as options, when both have only really played upfront in League cup games. And he even mentioned Arshavin, who is clearly a link player. I always thought that the lopsided nature of the squad would lead to trouble at some point. We have so many attacking midfielders/ wingers/ half-forwards, whatever you want to call it, and very little cover in other areas. As mentioned, two of the three players we would realistically be wanting to spearhead the current 4-3-3 are terribly prone to injury- in fact maybe all three now, as Bendtner is facing a longish spell out aswell. There's not enough cover there. And that's not to mention goalkeeper, centre-half, defensive midfield. All potential problem positions if we pick up injuries or suspensions.

Wenger may complain that RVP's been crocked while playing a meaningless friendly. But worrying about Van Persie getting injured is like wondering if the sun is gonna come up. The manager should have ensured that the squad was ready for this. It's not.

Of the players who can now play in the centre-forward position, Eduardo is the most obvious option. While he's been in and out since his return from the leg break, we can hope that those were just the inevitable niggles one suffers upon returning from such rehabilitation, and that he can now put together a run in the side. We all know he's an adept finisher, but it remains to be seen if he can master the role the way Van Persie seemed to be doing lately. I've always thought Eduardo's team play was underrated- he's far from an invisible poacher like Inzaghi, say- but at the same time Van Persie always had the ability to play in team mates and it's not such a natural part of Eduardo's game.

And what if he gets injured? There's no sign of possible emergency options, Walcott and Vela, of late. Maybe Diaby would finally find his true home upfront????

Or we could just try to finish the job that Wenger seems to be moving towards, a free-scoring team with no real focal point in attack, just five total footballers going wherever they choose?

The truth is, coming at a time when he was reaching the best form of his career, Van Persie's injury is a sickening blow.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Diaby shown up again: Wolves 1-4 Arsenal

I was surprised at Wenger's team selection against Wolves- coupling Ramsey and Diaby in front of the back four. True, I have been calling for the inclusion of the young Welshman, but I hoped it would be in place of Diaby, not in tandem with him.

Well, after 25 minutes or so of Wolves dominance over a lethargic-looking Arsenal, I got my wish, when we were granted the familiar sight of the brittle French midfielder breaking down injured. The difference in performance thereafter- albeit aided by two fortuitous own goals- illustrated that the once-maligned Song is now absolute streets ahead of the once-trumpeted Diaby. At the moment, Song is quite possibly the most IMPORTANT cog in the Arsenal machine.

In modern football, and certainly in a 4-3-3 as attack-minded as Arsenal's current system- the "Makalele" role is paramount. Wenger took a gamble on Saturday that, to me, looked risky from the start. He played six attackers- and two attacking full-backs don't forget- and in my opinion, though the result looks comfortable, a simple twist of fate- and of Abou's leg- may have been decisive.

It didn't take long for the folly of the initial starting XI to be consigned to memory, with three goals scored by half-time. Eduardo forced an own goal from a corner that Hennessy should have fielded. Then his chip after a quick breakaway involving Ramsey looped in (it was heading wide) thanks to a hefty deflection off the luckless craddock. Any likelihood of second period nerves was quashed with a timely killer third before the interval. Sagna- rediscovering the dynamism and accurate delivery that made him such a success two seasons ago- bombed forward, and crossed low to Van Persie's feet. The Dutchman's first-time layoff was subtle and perfect for the appreciative Fabregas who provided another cool near-post finish for this season's collection.

Arsenal were never truly out of second gear all game but what they were after Song's introduction was efficient. The midfield area is called the "engine room" with good reason, and, though I hate to be banging on about it, Diaby truly is a clunky player. Whatever the opposite of oiling the wheels is, that's what he often seems to do. Now, he can't be completely bereft of benefits to the side, otherwise recent results with him in the team wouldn't have been so impressive. But he must not play in the absence of Song unless necessary. Hurry back Denilson!

Second half involved some nice interchanges, some vintage Arsenal overplay, and a snapshot fourth from Arshavin from a half-cleared corner. craddock pulled one back late on when Vermaelen ducked as if expecting Manuel from Fawlty Towers, sorry, Manuel Almunia, to claim a corner. Another softly conceded goal to remind us of the potentially rough waters ahead, but at the moment things are going well. continuing to score at the rate they've kept up so far, Arsenal will not so much break as destroy the Premiership record for goals scored. But if a team this naively idealistic in its commitment to all-out-attack could really win the title, surely Kevin Keegan wouldn't be sitting in the ESPN studio?? The next two league games- Sundeland away, and chelsea at home- should reveal much.

Tomorrow, my long postponed ruminations on the title race overall- including perhaps some complaints about the chelsea-united non-spectacle and some guffaws about the state of Liverpool Football club.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Arsenal 4-1 AZ Alkmaar

The Liverpool match held a bit more intrigue, so I didn't really watch this properly. But I was switching channels so frequently that I didn't miss one of Arsenal's four goals.

The first came when Fabregas, possibly the world's best midfielder on current form, beat their suspect keeper at the near post, after one of those familiar forays upfield by Big Willy Gallas. It was a clever effort but one that should really have been reached by Romero. I guess at the moment cesc is having one of those runs where everything he touches turns to goals, reminiscent of his start to 07/08. Back then, his form was a big part of the springboard for a title challenge. He's surely having his best run of form since that time, and all after I questioned him only a month or so ago. I've gotta stop making these snap judgements.

Anyway, the game was pretty much up for AZ before half time, when Nasri shimmied beyond the last defender from the impressive Arshavin's slide-rule pass, and placed the ball beyond the exposed keeper. Arhavin was again the architect for Fabregas' second, which really illustrated his confidence in front of goal at the moment. Released on the left side of the penalty area, he opened his body out as if to line up a shot across the goal (copyright Thierry Henry 2000) but instead swung his shot high into the net at the near post.

This allowed for a couple of handy changes. I think Wenger's doing well with taking Fabregas off when the opportunity presents itself, not overworking him. He missed out, then, on any chance for a hat-trick, but there was a hat-trick of sorts. Before being replaced himself, Arshavin set up Diaby at the end of a champagne breakaway, which involved Eduardo finding the Russian with a brilliant back-heel. Diaby, I read some fan say somewhere, had a great game. I recorded it so I might watch the whole thing, just so I can destroy that assertion. Or eat a slice of bitter humble pie. He took his goal well anyway.

I must add, for all the flowing football, I thought the midfield was again looking a little too open. Too often that area in front of our back four looked undermanned, and while the Dutch side never really opened Arsenal up, they had a fair few moments that they could have made more of.

Ok, I know, we were in control of the game, and I'm being contrary, but when we come up against the top sides these are the things that simply have to be right. Otherwise your pretty football will be no real comfort. And I'll be disappointed on those days, but I'm a very petty man so I'll also be clinging to the petty comfort of saying "I told you so".

A case in point was their consolation goal. You can say, "it doesn't matter, we're winning 4-0", but to the best, all the pieces matter (I love throwing in little quotes from The Wire). You could argue, maybe, that Almunia is a decent keeper who switches off at times, and what better time than at 4-0 up. But those who've endured his "reign" as number one will know that he does it a lot, at different moments, often very costly moments. So that, allied to his general lack of saves that make you go "Wow", well, it makes him.... shite, doesn't it?

Now, he did make a good save at 3-0, so a pat on his silly peroxide head for that. And I am glad he's back in the team (despite him being kinda shite- I reserve the right to contradict myself). I think it might be good for the team's stability not to be relying on the rookie Mannone. But I think we should buy an experienced keeper in January. Because to me, that seemingly insignificant goal on Wednesday night held the promise of future horror.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Pointless, predictable prelude"?

"I'm not gonna talk about the rest of the European games, as we all know that the group stages have become a pointless, predictable prelude to the real business of the knockout rounds."
September 17th 2009.
Another gem from the prophet who stated a matter of weeks ago that Liverpool would win this season's Premiership.

Arsenal's progress in Europe looks set to continue unabated, after a 4-1 spanking of the rotten AZ, yet for some of Europe's other big guns, some nervous nights lie ahead.

Barcelona and Inter, along with the less illusstrious Dynamo Kiev and the largely unknown Rubin Kazan, have contrived to produce an unexpected Group of Death. In yesterday's afternoon kick-off, the Russians defended doggedly to hold the possession-hogging catalan giants to a goalless draw, proving their win at the Nou camp was no fluke. Later, in Kiev, it looked like Inter were heading for an early exit. Trailing 1-0 to a goal by Shevchenko, and with a daunting trip to Barca on the horizon, even the ultra-confident Mourinho must surely have been shellshocked. But his team conjured two goals in the final minutes to send themselves from bottom to top of the group table.

This leaves us with an unlikely scenario. The heretofore imperious Spanish and European champions could, if they are beaten by Inter and Rubin beat Kiev, exit the competition in the next round of group games. While most neutrals will be hoping that Barca pull through, the high stakes that have been added to the remaining games certainly add some needed early lustre to a competition whose format has been relentlessly criticised of late.

And for Liverpool, the situation is much more grave. It briefly looked, after Ryan Babel's long-range strike, as if Benitez had inspired another Liverpool triumph in adversity. But in the end, the inadequacies of his squad proved decisive. Kyrgiakos' slip allowed Lisandro an opportunity he did not pass up, and in the dying seconds ignomy was snatched from the jaws of victory, and the fortunes of a great but struggling club took another downward swing. Now, with Lyon qualified, Liverpool need them to go to Italy and beat or draw with Fiorentina, or it's hello Europa League. Even a draw in that game, ASSUMING Liverpool beat Debrecen, leaves the Reds needing a win by three goals at Anfield against the Italians. As unlikely as that sounds now though, I wouldn't be altogether surprised if it panned out that way. Benitez' reign has been riddled with bizarre, do-or-die nights like that. But we'll see.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Arsenal seamlessly rotate injury list

Good news: Rosicky's latest lay-off turned out to be a very short one by his exceptional standards, and he's back in the squad for tomorrow night.

Bad news: clichy looks to be out for a month with a back injury. But at least it's a position that's relatively well-stocked, and Gibbs already has a bit of big-game experience. Indeed, until clichy's recent mini-revival, many were calling for him to be dropped in favour of his promising English understudy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Back in their Box: Arsenal 3-0 Spurs

There was a lot of bluster coming out of the Tottenham camp in the lead up to Saturday's derby, so no wonder Harry Redknapp was bitter and graceless in his post-match comments. Robbie Keane's missive about Spurs having superior strength in depth proved particularly ill-advised, for his side looked largely toothless without Modric, Lennon and Defoe. For all their pretensions of swashbuckling football, Redknapp chose to leave Kranjcar out, pack the midfield, and use Keane from the left. This left Peter crouch, to whom Spurs constantly pumped long balls, mostly isolated.

And for all that, Arsenal weren't overly impressive, and maybe that's the most satisfying aspect for us and the most chastening for Spurs. For 40 minutes or so, it was fairly sluggish stuff, but there had been signs that Spurs were there for the taking. Andy Gray praised their well-organised play during that time and he was right to a point but they were probably only impressive because Arsenal's attacking was a bit off-colour. Nonetheless, Gomes had made a great save to keep out Fabregas, and Van Persie had snatched at a couple of passable opportunities (two of these chances came from Spurs giving the ball away carelessly, so the signs were there); at the other end, Keane looked to get in off a crouch knockdown, but the impressive Song tracked back to good effect, and just before the opener, Keane seemed to slip our offside trap but his touch let him down.

And then the vital goal, and it was, for a team with a reputation for over-complicating things, refreshingly simple. The defending was questionable no doubt. Sagna and Fabregas worked a one-two under little pressure to the right of the area, and where the former would usually perhaps begin to work the ball back across the pitch, he swung in an early cross. Ledley King was beaten to the bouncing ball by Van Persie who stabbed it in at the near post, Gomes' hand not enough to repel the effort. Bassong seemed to be missing in action, and King a little slow to react perhaps, but few are the goals that do not arise in some way from an error and I'd prefer to praise a bit of classic centre forward play by RVP. He's flying at the moment. Afterwards, Wenger called him a cross between Bergkamp and Henry. Now, that sounds like some kind of mutant super-footballer, but he has a point in a way. While not having the electric pace of Henry, he is much more a consistent goal threat than Bergkamp, and while not quite capable of the sheer creative genius of his countryman he is fairly adept also at dropping off and threading passes to his fellow attackers. And you know what? Neither of those guys, for all their godlike abilities, would have scored that goal on Saturday.

And it certainly raised the crowd, but that was nothing compared to what followed. In a moment that evoked memories of Jose Reyes' belter in the 5-3 against Boro in 04/05, Arsenal had the ball in the net again with Sky Sports barely finished showing replays of the first goal. I heard a roar from the crowd, saw the camera return to Fabregas bearing down on goal, and gleefully threading a shot past Gomes for number two. Thrilling stuff. And after the devastating sucker punch of Spurs' two-goal salvo in injury time last season, this was a particularly apt way to restore primacy in North London.

The replays showed what had transpired- Van Persie blocked a lazy pass straight from kick off, Fabregas evaded a lunge by Palacios, nutmegged the panicky tackle from King and fooled Gomes with his shot. It was schoolboy stuff from Spurs but a great goal nonetheless, and another moment to illustrate the greatness of Fabregas. He's not renowned for such driving runs- it almost looked like the work of a diminutive Steven Gerrard- but what it showed again was his peerless appreciation of the requirements and openings in each moment of a game. He saw Spurs rocking on the ropes, and where it is his natural style to probe and be patient, here he went for the jugular, and finished the game.

Not that I was willing to admit that at the time, after our troubles in the corresponding fixture last season and last week at West Ham. Two goal leads are a cause for nerves at Arsenal, and the players seemed aware of the danger second half. When Spurs had the ball, we defended with a vigour that I haven't seen in a home game since the 2-1 win against United last season. The next goal was clearly going to be vital, and we did have a sticky period just before finishing the job. The backline seemed to drop a little deeper, which was always going to suit crouch (who Vermaelen dominated throughout), now joined upfront by Keane. Gallas had to be alert to deny Keane once more. He was starting to look a little panic-stricken, and gave away a free kick right on the edge with a handball when challenging crouch in the air. Bentley's free kick was easy for the returning Almunia; he made it look difficult, as is his wont. Then Gallas pushed crouch on the edge- nothing doing this time. Then the nerves were killed off with a third.

Eduardo was floored with a rough tackle on the right but Sagna burst onto the loose ball and beyond the Spurs defence. He saw the linesman flagging for the foul and slowed up, as did the opposing players, but clattenburg had played a good advantage, and when the Frenchman finally realised this he cut the ball in low. Somehow, it evaded the grasp of Gomes and the lunge of the luckless King, and Van Persie was left to gobble up his second.

Thus the contest was ended and I could finally relax. Spurs offered little, but it was encouraging to see Wenger get agitated on the touchline, just after Eduardo had missed an opportunity to make it four, over an inability to communicate defensive instructions to Song and the infuriating Diaby. As acknowledged afterwards, Wenger saw the significance of holding onto a clean sheet.

I thought, yet again, that Diaby had a poor game. To me it's shocking that we've had such a run with him in the side. He plays like the anti-Fabregas. Forever taking too many touches on the ball, he will pointlessly try to hold off a tackle himself when a simple pass would suffice. This sees him surrender possession too much, and he does it all over the pitch. His passes never have the right weight, always short or long or not into the receiver's stride. He has some talent, no doubt, but lacks the intelligence to use it efficiently. Likewise, his physique is misleading because he rarely tackles with conviction and seems disinterested in the defensive side of the game. He was surely the source of Wenger's ire because Song has been playing diligently in front of the back four and has played a big part in our good moments this season. When we are in command of a game, and the opposition striving to turn it, we need another midfielder to drop back more and allow cesc to pick out the front three. Unless you think that Diaby is better at that. Ha. But I worry that he simply lacks the brain and the team spirit to sacrifice his attacking instincts. You'd possibly have similar reervations about Nasri if deployed in the same position but at least he does not disrupt the flow of our attacking as well as burdening the defence.

Anyway, Wenger definitely has to think long and hard about adding to our squad in January, because Song will be going to the African Nations and with Denilson yet to return from a fairly serious injury, the last thing we need is opposition teams marauding through our midfield unchallenged (and in any case I'm still unsure that Denilson can effectively perform the role that Song does).

But here's to a week that saw Spurs talk themselves into a corner and not have the fight to get out of it. Tomorrow I will ruminate at length to nobody about the relative strengths of the established top four and the chasing pack.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

carling cup: Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool

I don't really care that much about the carling cup. I'm as success-starved as the next man, and would like to see Arsenal win it, but there's little chance of that happening. The quarter-finals will feature Man Utd's strong reserves, as well as chelsea, Villa, Spurs and city who will all still play close to full-strength sides. With Wenger's policy of blooding youngsters and giving reserves a run-out, it's hard to see an ultimate Arsenal triumph. Then again, we did get close in 2007, outplaying chelsea's first team in the final, so maybe I'm being pessimistic, we'll see.

Anyway, we all know it's a distant fourth priority, but that often leads to games like lastnight's and that's no bad thing. With the pressure off, there has often been a lot of freedom in Arsenal's play. Liverpool also rested key men, and they played their part. It would have been hard to tell, if you didn't already know, that this was a Benitez side, as the game was largely open. And it was illuminated further by three fine goals. In the first half, Merida and Insua exchanged left-footed screamers to leave the score level. Early in the second, Bendtner, who'd had a stinker to that point, fired in the winner after another flowing move.

The best of these had come earlier when the outstanding Aaron Ramsey started a move around our right back area and a succession of one-twos saw him advance to near Liverpool's area where he played in Merida with a pass that was, dare I say it, Fabregasesque.

I have to say, I hadn't been sure about the Welshman from what I'd seen last season, but there's been a huge improvement this campaign so far culminating in his best performance for the club lastnight (we'll forgive him a couple of sloppy, tired passes towards the end). Between this, and the return of Nasri, I am happy to say that Diaby's first team time SHOULD soon be up.

A word about Senderos aswell. He always looked capable of costing us the game and if Voronin wasn't so bumbling he could have punished us. I have no hatred for the Swiss as a man, he seems genuine and committed despite his difficult situation at the club, but at a team that play on the front foot as we always try to, he is a constant liability. You can see how the move to Everton would have benefitted him. They're less of an attacking side, he wouldn't have to push up to halfway and be at constant risk of getting turned and left for dead... It's a pity for Philly that it fell through, and maybe he can help us if called upon, but I'm praying that Gallas and Vermaelen stay fit somehow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maybe this could have waited til May but....

.... You know that bit in American History X, when the friendly black school teacher asks Ed Norton, who's just been violated in the most horrendous way in a prison shower, "has anything you've done made your life better?".. And Norton sort of shakes his head and starts to cry, and you really feel for him because you know he knows he's wasted a chunk of his life living by a horribly misguided ideal?

Sometimes I wish there was somebody to confront Wenger with that sort of question. It's probably not the most suitable analogy- Wenger's youth policy is certainly more laudable than Nazism- but I'm gonna run with it. Has anything he's done in the lat few years benefitted Arsenal? Of course, he's had his moments, but overall, he's letting principles rule over pragmatism, profits over glory. He can count the cash all he likes, but when it comes to medals, any fan can count to zero.

And why should we be so chuffed about our record turnover? Seriously? The only investment we seem to see is into inflated wage packets for substandard players. The last couple of major signings have been roaring successes- if he tried that more often, we would, in all probability, win the title. Look at the vulnerability of Man Utd. And the trouble chelsea could be in if not allowed to spend in January.

Instead, it seems, we will suffer another case of "so near, yet so far".

I just can't help seeing and hearing a man who's become obsessed with the future at the expense of the present. When these could be such glorious times.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Indecision is final: the goalkeeping crisis rumbles on

The goalkeeping dilemma has turned into a bit of a farce. Mannone is only 21, that's young for a goalkeeper, so mistakes are inevitable. He should be making those mistakes and learning from them in the reserves or out on loan somewhere.

The fact that he's doing it in the Premiership and the champions league betrays Wenger's loss of faith in Almunia. A lot of people feel he's not good enough to be Arsenal's number one, but it's frustrating that Wenger seems only to have developed that attitude, mid-season and outside of a transfer window, rather than seeing it and addressing it in the summer. Again, a lack of decisiveness, of action, looks to be costing us dearly.

Maybe he sees the returning Fabianski as the answer. Anyone who saw his horrendous error gift chelsea a place in the FA cup final last season will be sceptical.

So all in all more disappointing lack of foresight from Wenger. That was seen in microcosm in the game against West Ham aswell when he didn't replace the awful Eboue with an efficient right-winger to help us kill the game. Instead he fell back on negativity and only reacted when the damage was done at 2-2.

For a man renowned for keeping faith with players- Diaby springs to mind, as do Eboue, Song and a few more- he's never been shy of making a scapegoat of a keeper. Ironically enough, this was how Almunia first got his chance in 04/05, when Lehmann was harshly dropped after the "Untouchables" rediscovered vulnerability. Now Almunia falls victim to this policy. As then, I think it's a bad move by Wenger. I don't rate Almunia but nor do I think we're any better off with either of our current alternatives. Now, if Almunia comes back in and this figurative kick up the hole has forced him into improvement, I'll laud Wenger, but I'm not holding my breath. More likely a mentally fragile and fairly limited goalkeeper has had whatever confidence he held before destroyed. To me, a fit Almunia should have been restored, and proper competition, or indeed an immediate replacement, sought in January.

West Ham 2-2 Arsenal: So That's That Then

With Arsenal two goals up and apparently cruising on Sunday, I saw on my laptop that Man city had thrown away a similar lead to draw at home to Fulham. A feeling of smugness washed over me. With United, Spurs, and Villa also dropping points, it seemed for a few moments that: A. Arsenal would not have to fret over a 4th placed finish this season, and B. Arsenal were genuine title challengers. But I should have known what was coming.

Last season could officially be declared a farce after our team of morons blew a 4-2 lead at home to Spurs in the space of a couple of stoppage time minutes. And so it is now. It seems that in the area of character, of mentality- the areas that define trophy-winning sides- little tangible progress has been made.

What's most galling is that West Ham are at the moment a painfully poor side. They never threatened to really open up our defence, which to be fair has become a lot less shambolic with the addition of Vermaelen. He must troop off at the end of games wondering how he's not racking up more clean sheets. Likewise Gallas. They're both playing pretty well, but it's a team game. There are problems at Arsenal bigger than any individual. Adebayor caused problems, was turfed out, we've seen some benefit. That was a simple problem to solve. But there are bigger battles these guys need to fight with themselves, and about half the team seem to be losing those.

That said, we might have got away with a listless, borderline lazy display but for a couple of the now-familiar individual errors that have peppered this season. First, with about fifteen minutes remaining, West Ham won a free-kick, for absolutely nothing as far as I can tell, on the edge of the area. Diamante curled in a fine effort but Mannone reached it and the rest should be textbook for any keeper. But he's young, he's green, he got it wrong. Palmed the ball into the air for carlton cole to nod it in.

The rest was painful in its predictability. The home fans were now up for it, and their team finally showing some initiative. could Arsenal hold their nerve and establish their superior class? could they fuck. There's that chant you hear at away grounds- "always cheating, same old Arsenal"... if those fans had any wit they'd change it to something more accurate like "always crumbling.."

Song is a much-improved player, no doubt, but one thing that a holding midfielder must possess above all else is intelligence and this seems to desert him at times. When cole received the ball in our area with his back to goal, there was no immediate danger, and certainly no need to kick the back of his legs. Outside the box, he does it a lot, and that's irritating, but inside it's criminal. Now, it was still a harsh decision, cole went down very easily, but Song shouldn't have given the ref the chance to appease the baying home fans who'd just had a passable appeal turned down.

We still should have won it. Van Persie forced a great save from Green in injury time, but it never should have come to that. Fair play to West Ham for taking advantage of Arsenal idiocy, but they are rubbish, and we all know there's teams who would have ran up a cricket score given the advantage we had at half-time. Wanna know who? I'll give you a clue, they'll be the ones fighting for trophies in April and May when our season will be, most probably, long over.

* I should add quick reference to the midweek champions league game against AZ Alkmaar, which held the promise of future capitulation in the shape of the last gasp equaliser conceded. After the warning shots of Birmingham and Holland, Upton Park seemed to conclusively prove that this Arsenal team are incapable of learning lessons.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Progress Report: Arsenal 3-1 Birmingham

I only saw the highlights of Saturday's game, so I can only draw half-justified conclusions, but there were a few to be drawn nonetheless. One thing that stands out is the goalkeeping dilemma. Almunia was back from his "flu", but only returned to the bench. We can surmise then that his number 1 spot is under threat, but Mannone may have blown his big audition, and so the plot thickens. Expect Almunia to be starting midweek, and in need of a performance not just for all us fans who are tired of this debilitating flaw in the side, but more importantly for his own fragile confidence.

All of our home games so far had turned out to be relatively straightforward, in terms of scoreline: 4-1, 4-0, 6-2. Yet in all of these games, before the result was decided, we had moments of worrying fragility. Against Portsmouth, at 2-1, Gallas could easily have been sent off for an APPARENT professional foul (replays proved the referee was right- but I doubt if he was right for the right reasons!). Against Wigan, Mannone was forced into important saves as our defence creaked first half at 1-0. And against Blackburn two weeks ago, we were behind twice and could have been level again at 3-3 if the referee had given the trip on Dunn as a penalty.

Against Birmingham yesterday, again the game ended comfortably but for long stretches it was closer than it should have been. Two early goals seemed to herald a bit of a rout. First, a trademark Van Persie finish. I get annoyed when people compare him to Bergkamp, but one way in which he emulates his fellow Dutchman is in the high ratio of eye-catching goals he grabs. For both men, these are often the result of an accomplished first touch in tight areas. Alex Song's pass was well aimed but awkward for RVP to take in his stride. The way he manouevred it onto his left was fantastic, and the finish, when he's on this kind of form, a formality. He has the potential to be more prolific than his legendary countryman, and one feels we'll need him to be this season. When you think about it, how lucky have we been... Bergkamp, Henry, Van Persie. Not many scruffy goals in there, even for the Frenchman who scored more than two hundred.

Van Persie's strike was quickly followed by a second from Diaby, after great work down the right by Eboue and Rosicky. And how great it is to have the latter back. Because he's not a regular scorer it can be easy to ignore him but he really does oil the gears of the team very well and I think we've looked more fluid from the minute he returned. I believe he played twice for the czechs during the international break aswell, so that can only bode well for his contract prospects. Let's be cautious though, we all know his history...

In any case, after that it should have been plain sailing. But Arsenal wouldn't be Arsenal without a soft goal conceded. In one of the few instances he was called upon, Mannone dropped a cross under a slight bit of pressure and Bowyer smashed it in. This happened not long before half time, and it wasn't til the last few minutes that Arshavin put the game to bed with an Henryesque finish on the break. Admittedly, Bimingham didn't threaten to equalise too often, but it's worrying that we made such hard work of them. Then again, the first game after the international break doesn't often see a vintage attacking performance, so we can be pleased with the three points.

The main worries are the aforementioned goalkeeping dilemma, and the equally ever-running injury crisis. The brittle Walcott was predictably crocked after a (legitimate) clattering from Ridgewell, and replaced by Arshavin. From what Wenger said, he's out of the AZ game, and you get the feeling it could be a few more. Also with Eduardo and Bendtner out of the squad, Robin Van Persie was in the unfamiliar position of being the only FIT striker. I said at the start of the season that while our attacking options are plenty in the sense of having plenty of ATTAcKERS, we don't have enough FORWARDS. Two injury-prone strikers, and Bendtner who seems to be getting into the Arsenal spirit of being oft-crocked, is not enough. I've never seen Vela or Walcott play as the spearhead so Wenger naming them as options was disingenuous, a bit disrespectful towards supporters he's developed a bit of a habit of talking down to. So now we're in the position of praying that RVP's glass legs hold up.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Short Digression

come on you boys in green

Monday, October 5, 2009

The King Stay The King: cesc masterclass

Arsenal 6-2 Blackburn

You come at the King, you best not miss, in the words of the great Omar Little. A few people, including myself, have had a pop at Fabregas lately, and his performance against Blackburn on Saturday was an imperious two-fingered salute to those unworthy plebs.

In attack, it was a wonderful team performance but Fabregas was at the heart of almost everything. He was directly involved in the first five goals, with four assists as well as a fine left-footed strike, and not on the pitch for Bendtner's sixth.

Arshavin is an exciting addition and could make a huge difference for us, but we should be in no doubt as to who is the pivotal figure in this Arsenal side. There was a show of apparent commitment after his goal, let's hope that bout of badge-kissing was genuine. It would be a real shame to lose this guy at only 22, having never really surrounded him with the team mates he deserves.

Yet again, notes of caution must be sounded. Two soft goals conceded first half. The first- Robinson kicks all the way to our penalty area, one header, loops over Mannone and in. Comical stuff. After Vermaelen, who'd been outjumped for that goal, hit back with another belter from the edge of the box, we were caught out by a simple counterattack, ending with Dunn somewhat luckily finding the net off Gallas. It was disturbing to see Blackburn break into our penalty area with such ease. Throughout the game, Song looked to miss the help that Denilson had provided in earlier games. This must be part of Diaby's remit but to be honest I'm close to giving up on this guy showing any professionalism.

Blacknurn were unlucky on a couple of occasions second half aswell- Dunn should have had a penalty at 3-2, and one of their subs had a shot deflected onto the post at 4-2. But let's focus a bit more on the positives.

After going 2-1 behind, the reaction was swift and decisive. Two vintage slide-rule passes by Fabregas set up first Van Persie and then Arshavin to put Arsenal ahead. Second half, two more goals at vital moments ensured that we wouldn't have a similar debacle to the Spurs game last season. Shortly after Dunn's penalty appeal came Fabregas's screamer. Then after a period of Blackburn pressure a swift break saw Arshavin tee up Fab, and again he picked the perfect pass, a subtle touch for the returning Walcott who slid the ball tidily into the far corner. Bendtner added the icing on the cake with a late strike, cutting in from the left to blast home via a post.

The substitutes were another bonus. When Theo came on he showed how he can offer something different, more direct, stretching the opposition defence. After his goal Arshavin and Fabregas were replaced by Ramsey, who showed a fine range of passing, and Bendtner who scored a great goal. I realise they were coming on with the job done and little pressure but hopefully it goes some way to dispelling the idea that we lack strength in reserve.

I just hope Nasri is back soon because Diaby is still unconvincing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Champions League: Arsenal 2-0 Olympiacos

ARSENAL 2-0 olympiacos.

[the arshavin situation]
Is it worth making Arshavin unhappy in this 4-3-3? Only if it's a roaring success. can it be a roaring success with an unhappy Arshavin? No. He is, along with Fabregas, far and away our best player. So, with 4-4-1-1 seemingly consigned to the tactical dustbin, much depends on how this natural number 10 can adapt to being a roving left winger.

There were good signs on Tuesday night, and some bad ones too. He was called man of the match by David Platt. I thought that a bit of a giddy assessment because he disappeared for a long stretch in the second half. It's been noted in a few places that he's had a tendency to do that, and these sources uniformly point to his starting position as a debilatating influence. I wonder if we're all missing the point a bit, if maybe it's just in his nature to flit in and out. Then again, I guess the reasoning these people employ is that if he's in a central area it means he simply MUST be extensively involved, rather than having to go looking for the ball.

But in a way now, all of that is irrelevant. Wenger did not sign a commanding midfield presence in the Summer so playing Arshavin off a front man in a straight 4-4-1-1 is unlikely. And the manager probably feels that playing him as a third midfielder, along with Fabregas and Song, leaves us too lightweight. So it seems the left is his home. I'm not overjoyed about it, mostly because he doesn't seem to be, but he was good lastnight so let's see. (that said, the thought of him and cesc as dual central pivots is mouth-watering).

The team's performance in general against Olympiacos was encouraging, and the first half in particular saw some of the most fluid Arsenal play in a while. One move in particular, involving the aforementioned duo, ended with Fabregas- back on typical form- flicking up the ball with his right, and smashing a shot with his left that cannoned back off the crossbar. Thrilling stuff, with a high tempo despite the defending Greek hordes, and good, controlled passing despite the high pace.

Worrying in a way I suppose that it remained goalless so long, but the great merit of the possession football Arsenal now ply is that the opposition inevitably tire if the ball is kept from them for long stretches, and that seemed to allow our opener when it did arrive about twelve minutes from time. A fairly straightforward move in its way, saw Fabregas play in ub Eduardo to the left of the area and he cut back for Van Persie to end the frustration. A cheeky flick from an offside Arshavin made it 2-0 and that was that.

All in all, encouraging stuff, but Abou Diaby will drive me insane before the season is out.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

fulham 0-1 arsenal.. Fabregas on auto? Wenger lost plot?

Arsenal are often derided because of a perceived inability to grind out a result while playing badly, but that's exactly what they did yesterday at craven cottage. Yet while that suggests a question answered, nagging ones remain, and some new ones may even have been raised.

The main one relates to cesc Fabregas. Now, with all the passionate rhetoric in the world, this guy is our captain and he has to let his performances on the pitch do the talking if he wants to prove his commitment. He did set up Van Persie's goal with a trademark moment of vision, but other than that he looked off the pace, giving the ball away profusely, and often in dangerous areas.

I always complained about the way Steven Gerrard would take the plaudits from a game in which he'd disappeared only to provide one moment of decisive quality. It's an admirable trait of course, to be a matchwinner, but for people to then surmise that he's running games Roy Keane-style is a gross misconception- one that was amazingly widespread. Even last season, with Xabi Alonso pulling the strings in the centre and Gerrard playing an adavanced role just behind Torres, you'd still often hear about how Gerrard apparently "made Liverpool tick", "how everything went through him" and other such lazy, trite statements. We're often patronisingly told by ex-players that you have to have played the game at their level to understand its workings properly- I defy anybody to listen to the rantings of pretty much any Sky Sports pundit and then accept their superiority.

Now, having always been disappointed with the sort of undeserved praise that I thought "Stevie G" was getting, I have to be fair and say that I don't think Fabregas is influencing games the way he can, the way that he once did. And it has been a while.

Optimistic people will call this a loss of form. Football365 suggested that he's feeling the effects of injury, having never got a proper rest. I hope and pray that it's either of those things, but one does worry that he's gotten tired of Wenger's lack of action in the transfer market. We aren't far away from being the real deal, and news today of a record annual turnover finally seems to take away once and for all the excuse that Wenger is working under financial constraints, which in turn begs the question, why did he sit on his hands again all Summer? We clearly have areas that need strengthening, not just in terms of depth but in terms of the actual starting XI. I know I bang on about it, but Abou Diaby is really playing too many games, and putting aside loyalty to Arsenal for a second, who could really blame Fabregas for tiring of playing beside turds like Diaby every week? When he deserves so much better?

And our manager, our apparent messiah, just won't provide it.

We have to act like Alex Song is someone to be excited over. Sure, he's a much-improved player, hell, he might be our best player so far this season. But we shouldn't be relying on such raw talent if the coffers are overflowing. Denilson is now out for two months. So people can be optimistic all they want, Wenger won't pull the wool over my eyes.

We're a couple injuries away from a nightmare scenario now. With Denilson out, an injury to Song or Fabregas for any period will spell absolute disaster. THIS IS THE MANAGER'S FAULT. An injury to Gallas or Vermaelan will bring Senderos or Silvestre into the side. THIS IS THE MANAGER'S FAULT. You can talk about bad luck with injuries, but he knows we have an injury-prone squad. He's either gotta make it bigger- I understand that this would make the wage bill ridiculous, so it's unrealistic- or lose some of the dead wood and replace it with better, more experienced and LESS PHYSIcALLY AND MENTALLY BRITTLE talent!!! BUT NO!! [And on the subject of the wage bill- why do people like Diaby earn as much as they do? Seriously?]

Wenger is telling you that he doesn't want to hinder the development of his young squad, who he now sees as genuine contenders (stop sniggering!). He needs to understand something. His loyalty should not be to Bendtner, to Denilson, to Diaby. Not primarily anyway. His loyalty, and theirs, is supposed to be to something bigger. And if these guys are not good enough for Arsenal, and everyone can see it.... well, I've said it before and I'll say it again, questions have to be asked of this man, who talks and acts like a man who thinks he's untouchable. The unbeaten team, now they were untouchable, for one whole league season. He was a hero then to me, but almost ever since it seems like he's severing all his ties with such success, in the name of some principles that can no longer be applied to this sport. It's admirable in its way of course but fans have more interest in trophies, glory, that type of thing. When did Wenger lose touch with that reality?

Sorry, back to the game for a moment. Two big positives, other than the result, in this sea of mediocrity. Van Persie's goal- world class. I asked a question of him regarding the games where he may miss one big chance. Here he provided a moment of stunning quality with what was really just one half chance. We see him do it a lot in fairness but this was a reallt tight game and he's gotta take a lot of credit. If he can start putting away some of the easier chances he'll hopefully build an impressive tally this season although his position in that still stuttering 4-3-3 may prove a hindrance. Don Vito Mannone in goal- 21 years young, in the fourth professional game of his career- did what Manuel Almunia has NEVER done for Arsenal. He won us a game we should have probably lost with a series of saves. Even if it proves a flash in the pan, it's a reminder of what a difference a decent goalkeeper makes.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Arsenal 4-0 Wigan/ city contract kolo-itis

For Arsenal, it was a routine enough win, in the end, against Wigan on Saturday. 4-0 is a handsome scoreline but there was still a lot of the trademark panicky defending, especially with the score at 1-0. I guess though if we continue scoring bagloads at the other end, it won't matter... sorry, that's stupid, we all know we won't score four every week...

But all I can talk about now is this week, this week we could have had eight if Robin Van Persie could familiarise himself with the concept of composure. It might sound harsh but to me the guy's always had a bit of a habit of passing up the more straightforward opportunities he gets. Now, that wasn't such a problem when he played with more prolific partners like Thierry Henry, and later, he whose name shall not be mentioned, back then everyone was happy if he smashed one in from close to the corner flag or scored a volley while jumping seven feet in the air once in a while, but at this point maybe we need less of Van Persie the show stopper and more of a Van Persie who will get into the mundane but necessary habit of just hitting the net. A lot. To be fair, you've got to feel for the guy a little, he's never really been an out-and-out striker, and now Wenger's piled a lot of pressure on him with the formation change. I'm aware it wasn't a problem against Wigan, and loads of his teammates got in scoring positions at different points aswell so that's all positive of course but you would have to worry a little about the tight games where we might just get One Big chance.

As aforementioned the clean sheet was a bit misleading, we shouldn't kid ourselves and better teams than Wigan would have punished us for giving up clear-cut chances. The main points for optimism were Vermaelan's surprising brace, including one lovely curler from the edge of the area, and the fact that we created plenty of chances.

I guess the main areas of interest this weekend were elsewhere, on Sunday, as Spurs went to chelsea after what turned out to be a ludicrous Manchester derby. Three times city hit back after United pushed ahead, but on each occasion their shoddy defence creaked and eventually cracked, decisively so six minutes into stoppage time when the still predatory Michael Owen was granted the freedom of the penalty area to slot the winner.

Mark Hughes has the kind of persecution complex that would give Wenger a run for his money (whingeing about the extra stoppage time) and likewise a hefty dose of myopia (defending Ademanure and this week craig bellamy after that horrible cunt slapped a pitch invader who was BEING HELD back by stewards- classy guy). But I just wonder if he himself may be the man to stop city from breaking into the top four. He looks to be modelling his defence on ours, so that may bode badly for their hopes. I honestly wonder if Richard Dunne would have made a big difference on Sunday, with his old team displaying the aerial ineptitude that now seems inevitable in any defence with Kolo Toure in it. Darren Fletcher, hardly the most obvious goal threat, was twice allowed to head home relatively unchallenged, and if not for the profligacy of Berbatov and the continued brilliance of Given there would have been a few more headed goals for United. Joleon Lescott is fuck all of an improvement on Dunne, in fact he might be the most overrated defender the world has ever seen. His and Toure's partnership looks to be of the headless variety.

And while I thought at first that replacing Dunne with added pace was to allow city to defend higher up the pitch, that now seems strange as they've played predominantly on the counter this season, drawing teams out in order to unleash their own pacey attackers into the space in behind. Surely if they're gonna be defending deep so often they would be as well served keeping Dunne? They were certainly pinned back for a long, long stretch at 2-2, and this is when the cost of the Adebayor ban also really hit home- city were painfully lacking somebody to hold the ball up with Tevez and Bellamy unsuited to that task. The ball just kept coming back at their defence. In fact, United's winner actually stemmed from, and I've not seen this mentioned elsewhere, Tevez cluelessly, aimlessly heading a ball into the air and back to a United player wehen if he was a player with a talent to match his reputation he would have taken it down, laid it off and started a counterattack. Or at least kept the ball for his team. An apt ending perhaps, as city throughout the second half only had the balls or the courage to attack coherently when they trailed. As chelsea found to their cost against Barcelona last season the best way to protect a result is to show some moral courage and try to keep hold of the ball, not to invite the opposition on. counterattacking teams sometimes fall on their sword as happened at Old Trafford and it was probably, let's face it, a good result for us as we've gotta be thinking of 4th place.

United roll on, as do chelsea after a routine enough 3-0 win against Spurs, although the amazingly overrated Howard Webb failed to give Robbie Keane a penalty after he was felled by the serial fouler carvalho with the score at 1-0.

While it looks to be all about those two at the moment, I'm just now getting a sneaky feeling that this will, somehow, be Liverpool's season after they secured a trademark, skin of their teeth 3-2 win at West Ham. That's on the condition that, when Agger is fit, they drop the liability that is Jamie carragher.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I've just realised...

... the fatal flaw of the "ideal" XI I posted below. It would surely be the runtiest team in Premiership history, with, by my reckoning, ONE outfield player over 6 foot (and Van Persie's head has probably made more contact with Adebayor's studs than with a football of late). We already get raped consistently on setplays, and it's suddenly easier to see why Bendtner and Diaby are so often stinking up our starting line-ups. We'll just have to hope we never concede another corner...

The Second Playmaker Situation

The reliance on Fabregas is old news, but he hasn't looked himself lately, and when that's the case the team are bound to struggle.

Another potential facet of the 4-3-3 that must have attracted Wenger is that it allows room for two central playmakers. Playing in a 4-4-2, if Fabregas was closely followed by a man-marker, we would be relying on the creativity of our wide players, something that hasn't really been consistent since the days of Robert Pires.

I guess there were two possibilities that Wenger may have considered in the Summer. One would have been to play Arshavin behind a centre forward, thus giving us added creativity ahead of Fabregas. It's something he tried a fair bit with the inconsistent Hleb in the 07/08 season, and obviously a position that Arsenal fans will forever attach a certain mystique to because of a man with the initials D.B. And no, it's not David Bentley.

But enough about that, because he took the alternative option, that is, a 4-3-3. Firstly, this adds a body in the central area we often find ourselves overrun in. But there's the added bonus that, when fit, one of Nasri or Rosicky can step in beside Fabregas with Song sweeping up behind. This is something that we'll hopefully see in home games in which we face ultra-defensive sides.

Nasri had a mixed season on the left last time out, but one that was fairly impressive for a new signing. He has a good work-rate and isn't scared of a tackle, and he probably looked most comfortable in those fleeting instances during which he was given a central prompting role while Fabregas was out injured. All of this, and Arshavin's role on the left of the front three, suggests that Nasri will be fighting it out with Denilson when he returns from injury.

We've already seen, in the last two games, a half-fit Rosicky play a prominent role in the same position. This for me is the great positive from a difficult period. As mentioned before, Denilson seems to come up short often in his attempts to lessen the captain's burden while we're in possession. We've seen how the Xavi-Iniesta axis has been so thrillingly effective in Barcelona's 4-3-3, and in Rosicky and Nasri we have two players who could in a sense play Iniesta to Fabregas' Xavi.

Indeed, Arshavin could be added to that list, but Wenger seems keen to play him as high up the pitch as possible. I still worry a bit that having him out on the left may negate some of his potentially huge influence, but I guess the reasoning is that he's already proven himself a potent goal threat for us and Wenger wants to make the most of that. Marc Overmars came to Arsenal in 97 with a big reputation as a provider from the flank, and was transformed into a free-scoring wide striker, almost. I think that's the blueprint for Arshavin (albeit that he has a different positional origin and playing style). Both small in stature, both good dribblers (Overmars faster, Arshavin trickier, but with an ability to be equally direct), both two-footed... you can see the parrallels, and if Arshavin proves himself as adept a finisher as Overmars, we might be onto a winner.

IF, and with Arsenal, it's a huuuuuuge if, we got everyone fit, this could be the line-up:
It admittedly looks like it could be got at, and there are question marks over a couple of the players- Almunia's a clown, Van Persie looks isolated at times in the centre forward position, and Walcott is yet to convince me- but even in the latter two areas we have potential alternatives (Eduardo, Bendtner, Wilshere, Vela, etc). Why I'd have Theo in the ideal first XI is that his amazing pace is something we otherwise lack- it would allow us to stretch the opposition, and whatever my criticisms of the guy, he does provide something different in the front three.

Now, it should again be pointed out that talking of Arsenal line-ups as a matter of such ample choice is really a total flight of fantasy, and will remain so until our horrible run of injuries ends, whatever the reasons for it (one suspects it could not simply be bad luck).

Anyway, I'll be brought back down to reality, in all likelihood, by a long ninety minutes trying to break Wigan down tomorrow. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Comedy Week Continues


After all my questioning of the team's character, it might seem a bit churlish to criticise them after they salvaged a win from two goals down, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

As with all fundamentally flawed sides, Arsenal's problems are not far from the surface even in victory. Standard Liege are a fairly limited team who were missing a couple of important players of their own, so the fact that they were 2-0 up after four minutes set those familiar alarm bells ringing again. And in what is becoming the theme of the season, THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE TO DO ANYTHING!!!

First, we gave away a soft corner, from which the clearance reached Eduardo on the edge of the box. He could and should have vollyed the dropping ball away, instead played an extravagant flick that missed its intended target, and the recipient Mangala fired one inside debutant Mannone's near post. Dire stuff. At real, professional clubs, players don't do what Eduardo did in matches because if they tried it in training, they'd get an almighty bollocking. But at Arsenal, it seems, bollockings are off the agenda.

My smirk turned into laughter a minute later when Gallas gave away a soft penalty as one of their players ran into the box (straight towards Alex Song). I think we can now forget this idea that Gallas' decline was all down to the non-partnership with Toure, and that he'd now be consistent. He's been great at times, shit at others. The story of his Arsenal career.

Arsenal faffed about for the remainder of the first half, never really threatening until Bendtner scored from a tight angle right on half-time. Diaby's assist was impressive, I suppose. He continues to be merely a YouTube footballer, at best.

After that you always got the sense that we'd win it. Liege looked like they didn't know what the hell to do in the position they found themselves in, almost by default. They sat back deep, didn't really press, but then we never really managed to open them up. Rosicky was again probably our best player in the attacking third, til his substitution. It's good to have him back.

The equaliser was an almighty fluke, possibly offside, definitely a handball by Song, before Vermaelan tapped it in. He was impressive again but he must be wondering what kind of braindead planks he's surrounded by in this team.

Up to that point we hadn't looked much like scoring, but after it the winner seemed inevitable. Inevitable too perhaps that Eduardo would score it after his ban was revoked and indeed after his error early in the game. He scored a fine poacher's goal, deliberately deflecting Fabregas' corner into the net with his knee.

So, conclusions.. It was another poor performance. Obviously the beginning of the game was shambolic, inept. We STILL look so vulnerable every time the opposition has the ball. After a promising start, the formation change seems only to be making us more toothless upfront while doing little to alter our defensive frailty.

To come back and win from a start like that always seems impressive but I don't know that we really deserved it. It was more a case of Standard not making the most of the further damage they could have done us, sitting back and allowing us back in. Even then it took two late, jammy goals to seal it. I guess we shouldn't complain; in truth it was exactly the kind of winning performance we're often accused of being incapable of. The feeling remains that if we were up against a better side we would have had to do much, much more to turn that deficit around. Against a better side we may have lost heavily.

Our problems when the other side attack need to be remedied and fast. Why didn't it happen in the summer though? The formation change suggets that it's been on Wenger's mind. So maybe it's more a question of personnel- in which case I ask again, for the 34,759th time, why have Mathieu Flamini, Lassana Diarra and Gilberto Silva gone unreplaced??????????????????????

I'm not gonna talk about the rest of the European games, as we all know that the group stages have become a pointless, predictable prelude to the real business of the knockout rounds.