Sunday, October 31, 2010

November: The Month From Hell

Tonight, Odhran steals an idea from Myles Palmer as the theme of his post.

As long as I've supported Arsenal- since the days of bungs and cocaine addictions- they have been shit in November. And the next month could make or break this season.

The first half against West Ham was sadly familiar in its lethargy, its lack of tempo, and we can be grateful that the opposition lacked the adventure to test that rickety back four.

To be fair, Arsenal did up their game after the interval. The visitors, while dogged in defence, were far from watertight; Robert Green however had one of his rare good days and kept Arsenal out until the final knockings when after seven years of flattering to deceive Gael Clichy finally produced a final ball worthy of the name. When he cut in ono his weaker foot, I was expecting the now horribly familar excited slice into row Z; instead he dinked a lovely cross into the goalmouth for Song to gleefully head in. The Hammers defence had completely gone missing, probably buying into the Arsenal stereotype and anticipating an ineffective pass across the edge of the area.

Funnily enough, good as the cross looked, Green just froze when he should really have claimed it. In fact that probably sums him up- on his best day, he'll keep you in the game... until he costs you the game.

Sub-par performances can still contribute to a sense of momentum when they are capped by late winning goals. After the resounding result at City, there is the temptation to believe that Arsenal have turned a corner but we have said that many times over recent years and as yet nothing tangible has been found around any of those corners. Except maybe a few head-on collisions with juddering disappointment.

So now we are faced with the start of a long, hard winter- the dreaded November looms.

Some dirty looking fixtures. Wolves and Everton away in the space of a few days. And the home derby with Spurs- who, while inconsistent, have a vibrancy on their best days that few English teams can match at the moment (and they have Gallas, who's bound to score). The month from hell will be rounded off with a trip to Villa- and Wenger doesn't have a great record against that doyen of dourness, his pal Houllier.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

City 0-3 Arsenal, Significance Uncertain.

Is a win in a big game automatically a big win?

Regardless of circumstances, the result on Sunday must have lifted a great weight off this Arsenal team's shoulders.

It had been almost two years since they defeated a team that could be described as title rivals, so we can hope that this game will go some way to erasing the inferiority complex that seems to infect Arsenal against Chelsea and Manchester United.

At the same time, there is a tendency to judge matches only on their scorelines and this is something that should be avoided. For instance, when Chelsea beat Arsenal recently, the consensus was that the Gunners were outclassed, despite dominating the game and failing to take some early chances. Chelsea scored from two half-chances, and their second goal came late, but they were depicted as comfortable, superior winners. All on the basis of the scoreline.

Arsenal having won 3-0, at Eastlands, suggests a gulf in class, but that is not so.

A fifth minute red card is going to have a huge effect on any game. Even more vitally, Arsenal scored soon afterwards, leaving City with a mountain to climb. But Arsenal gave up chances throughout the game and so any praise for a newfound maturity may be a little unjustified.

When you break it down, the game told us little about Arsenal that we didn't already know. Their defending is rotten. Djourou was roasted by Tevez in the first minute, leading to a chance for Silva. He was embarrassed again by Micah Richards with the score at 1-0. Despite playing against ten men, there was little sign of the game being killed off until Song buried the second goal. City always looked threatening up to that point.

City enjoyed large doses of luck against Blackpool last week and here it ran out. The red card was justified but they were unlucky to lose Tevez early in the second half. Yaya Toure looked formidable first half but he too had to be teken off (his replacement, Wayne Bridge, teed up Song's goal with a lovely lay-off). They had chances but encountered a keeper who is finally finding some form.

There were of course poitives for Arsenal. If the first half was a little hot-headed and nervy, the players did more to defuse the situation after half time. Fabregas, Song and Denilson had all been booked but curbed the instinct to lunge into any more silly tackles.

Nasri was outstanding, took his goal beautifully. He set up Bendtner's too. And he has been steadily improving since the back end of last season, moving out of Fabregas's shadow.

Chamakh has already proved a wonderful signing; it becomes clear why Wenger was happy to wait for him rather than rush into buying another striker last January. While Van Persie may be a more explosive player, Chamakh arguably has a more rounded game, and the Dutchman may find it difficult to regain his place at centre forward when he returns from his latest injury.

The Moroccan's falling over skills were in evidence again- how many red cards and penalties has he forced already this season??

Fabregas, despite the missed penalty, showed few signs of rust despite having just returned from a fairly lengthy lay off. He provided the pass slide rule pass that sent Chamakh through, having already released a wrongly flagged Arshavin moments before. These facts form a riposte to Mancini's assertion that City would have won 11 v 11. Of course we'll never know, but the signs were that both sides would have made chances, and it may well have gone either way. But that game never materialised, and instead, maybe this Arsenal team got exactly what they needed in a big encounter.

The significance can only be decided by what comes next. Remember West Brom, that's all I'll say.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Re: Imaginary Card Waving

do people constantly complain about imaginary card waving in football?

It is the single most trivial probem that has e'er been stressed over in the history of civilisation.

Sympathy for a Shawcross, spite for a foreigner who waves his hand to signify that, well, maybe the referee should book the clogger that's just scythed somebody down. Criminal stuff.

It strikes me as a TELEVISION problem. We see what goes on on the pitch, but hear none of it. A foreign player may not have the grasp of the English language necessary to suggest politely, THAT'S A FACKING RED CAAAAWWWD REF!!! and so he uses sign language to communicate. Guess what? We can't hear, so we don't know beyond doubt, but we can assume that every footballer tries to influence the referee into making important decisions that favour their team.

Only the mime artists get condemned.

Friday, October 22, 2010

City - Arsenal A Match of Contrasts

Arsenal play a positive, attacking game, while City are as dull as ditchwater.

City are solid at the back, where Arsenal are porous.

The midfielders in blue are robust but limited. In red, they are slight but creative.

City have two of the best keepers in the league... Arsenal, two of the worst.

HOPEFULLY, Nigel De Jong is suffering, distracted by the negative press he has received of late. Last year, he muzzled Fabregas at Eastlands in City's 4-2 victory, but last weekend, he and City's other midfielders couldn't get near Charlie Adam of Blackpool.

You would hope, then, that Arsenal's creative players can give City problems.

ADEBAYOR's hat trick in Europe could bode badly for us. While essentially a part-timer now thanks to his rotten attitude, he is unlikely to need motivation against Arsenal. His replacement by David Silva last weekend pretty much won City the game, so he's hardly going to start against Arsenal, but substitutions could be vital in what ought to be a close-fought game.

Arsenal continue to struggle with the oppressive weight of their recent failures in big games. That makes this weekend another crucial one. City have the players to soak up pressure and hit a team on the break, and Arsenal invite that kind of strategy, as has been seen against Chelsea, Manchester United, and City themselves in the recent past. Scoring the first goal would be a nice change, but even in such a situation, can Arsenal's rickety defence ever be trusted to hold firm? It promises to be an interesting game.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Enough of the Rough Stuff [Typical Arsenal Fan]

Danny Murphy’s recent comments on the overuse of physicality in the English game were laudable on many levels. He was honest, and brave- especially when you consider that he still has to play against the teams he condemned.

The most significant aspect of this is an easily overlooked one. With so much negativity surrounding the English national team, critics should spend less time decrying the substandard performances of a substandard team, and more worrying about changing the culture of their game.

Every time there is an incident like the one involving Shawcross and Ramsey last season, and many in the game show sympathy towards the perpetrator and not the victim, they help cement an outdated attitude that it is ok to go in hard and hurt players. Not many would accuse Shawcross of intending to do the damage he did- that would make him a sociopath- but he has a proven track record of causing injury and so he is clearly acting recklessly.

Physicality is something that is important to the Premiership’s image as arguably the most exciting of the world’s football leagues. Rightly so. But in a game played so fast, by big, strong athletes, there has to be more emphasis on the safety of the players. It would serve England well.

Few seem to see the link between the encouragement of brutal play in the Premiership and the perceived underachievement of the English national side. There is plenty of artistic play on show in the league, but it must be said that most of the technical excellence has, in recent years, been provided by the continental players who have flooded it since the mid 1990s. There are less and less English players of the technical calibre of a Glenn Hoddle, a John Barnes, or a Paul Gascoigne, perhaps because the English clubs know they can import class from abroad, and look to their English players to provide grit and hard work.

And when an unpolished gem like Jack Wilshere is unearthed, look at the treatment that is dished out- he has already been the victim of some unnecessarily tough tackling this season, with more undoubtedly to come.

I don’t mean to be too black and white about the debate. It’s not only British players who apply brute force on a football pitch- Nigel De Jong plays like an assassin, and George Boateng has been at it for years, and there are plenty more continental examples. But I do think that aggression is over-emphasised in English footballing culture. Even looking at a Gerrard or a Rooney- they often have the look of a bull in a china shop, and they are regarded as the most skilful of English players.

This aggression, when allied to a reckless nature like that of Karl Henry or Ryan Shawcross, is dangerous and destructive. It can destroy careers. And if it is weeded out of the game, I believe it would be of immense benefit to the English national team, as technical brilliance may finally come to be privileged over the clichés of 110%, putting ‘em under pressure, and kicking the skilful players in the air until their spirit- or their legs- are broken.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Arsene Wenger's Reign of Two Halves

People often talk about the ‘brand of football’ that Arsene Wenger has cultivated at Arsenal. It is true that he has revolutionised the club- where less than two decades ago the name Arsenal was synonymous with negative football, now it’s associated with the opposite, and this is almost solely the work of Arsene Wenger. But it strikes me now that his reign to date can be divided into two halves. Initially, there was the period of 1996-2005, which included a flood of silverware: the double in 1998, another in 2002, an FA Cup the following year, the unbeaten league season in 2003/04, the somewhat fortuitous FA Cup victory against Manchester United in 2005. And since then, no trophies, and growing discontent.

Optimistic fans will hope that it is more a case of two acts, with a third, triumphant one to follow in which all loose ends are tied up.

Of course, the above does not tell the whole story. The game has changed since 2004- thanks to the growing influence of ‘sugar daddies’ like Abramovich who see fit to pump seemingly endless funds into football clubs, the opposition were able to strengthen at a time when Arsenal were fundamentally weakened by the stadium project. While Wenger had to sell to buy, Chelsea bought to win, and did win. Then United returned to their previous position at the top of the English game. Last season, there seemed the hint of a vacuum at the top, one that Ancelotti’s aging Chelsea eventually rose to fill. This campaign, they still look strongest without having spent a whole pile. United have an air of transition about them. It falls to Manchester City to throw money around, and they have filled their squad with bland, overpriced workhorses- Carlos Tevez, donkey to Rooney’s Shrek at United, has emerged as the king of Eastlands.

Many will argue, with some justification, that it was always going to be difficult for Arsenal to win trophies in this climate. If the stadium was to be developed, Arsene Wenger, out of necessity, had to develop a youth system to match, and had to put faith in younger, cheaper players. What is interesting is that now that there is constant talk of funds being in place for Wenger to use, he continues, out of choice and not necessity, to trust the players who have come through. And, in the final analysis, they have continued to let him down.

Then there is something that is too often glossed over: the philosophy has changed on the field as well as off it. Arsene Wenger’s teams have always tried to play attacking football, but the emphasis has changed. His successful Arsenal sides had an equal emphasis on stature and technique. The names speak for themselves. Vieira, Petit, Adams, Keown, Campbell. Pace and power are not adjectives that spring to my mind when describing the Arsenal of recent seasons. They are more stealthy, perhaps, more continental, but they have suffered for it in the Premiership.

Why the switch in emphasis? I think the emergence of Fabregas in 2004 was the catalyst- Wenger saw the opportunity to build a more possession-oriented team. Indeed, his best teams had been fairly rotten in Europe- his first few years in the Champions League with Arsenal saw group stage exits, and it was only in 2006, with many of the ‘Invincibles’ already departed or in decline, that Arsenal got a sniff of glory. That was when the change in emphasis took root. A five man midfield. Fabregas and Hleb- smaller, more technical players. More emphasis on keeping the ball.

Previously, Arsene’s Arsenal had been more direct, more adept on the break, but often unable to dictate the European games. I think that Wenger’s subtle change in playing philosophy was a response to that, a by-product of his obsession with the trophy he has never won. The tragic irony is that with Wenger switching to a more continental style, English teams became more powerful in Europe than they had been since the 80s. Between 2005 and 2009 there was always at least one English team in the final.

Even on a purely aesthetic level, is the New Way a better way? I certainly miss the dynamism of the old sides. Not many would ask for the impending departure of Fabregas, but was it necessary to fill the team with ball-playing, diminutive midfielders who always want the ball to feet? It’s a recipe for sideways passing, and at times, boredom.

The most significant reason it frustrates is because it has proven ineffective in the biggest games, particularly over the last couple of seasons. Barcelona exposed Arsenal as a bad imitation outfit in the two one-sided legs of the Champions League tie last season, while Chelsea and Manchester United have hatched seemingly foolproof and fairly straightforward looking plans as to how to defuse Arsenal’s threat- sit back, soak it up, and exploit the inevitable gaps. Arsenal used to be able to do that themselves, but it’s happened less and less since 2004. So what lies in the third act: decline or resurrection? Over to you, Mr. Wenger.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jack Wilshere, Man of the Moment.

Jack Wilshere's emergence this season echoes that of a seventeen year old Cesc Fabregas six years ago.

In Belgrade, when Wilshere provided an inventive assist for Arshavin's opening goal, he displayed the kind of vision and awareness that is particularly rare in English footballers. He is already becoming important for Arsenal, but he could be a huge figure for England.

That Champions League moment reminded me of Fabregas's wonderful reverse pass to set up Freddie Ljungberg in that bizarre 5-4 win at White Hart Lane in 2004. It was a moment that made you sit up and take note. Of course, Fabregas has been producing moments like that with increasing consistency in the years since, and has improved in almost every aspect of his game, and that is now the challenge for Wilshere- to show the maturity, the professionalism, and above all, the desire to be great.

That is an area in which many English players have struggled under Arsene Wenger. There was a not dissimilar buzz about David Bentley when he chipped in a lovely goal against Middlesbrough, I think it was, in the FA Cup during the unbeaten season. But it seems that he has lost himself in an unjustified self-love that has fatally stalled his development. He's more interested in hair styles than in becoming a better footballer.

Other players have lost their way in some manner or another. Jermaine Pennant was another wide player and wide boy, who got his head turned by extra-curricular activities. But he never had that much talent anyways. Walcott has his head screwed on, and although I have doubts about his ability, he has shown signs of improvement. The problem being, the next injury is never far away.

The early signs with Wilshere are good though. As mentioned before, he already looks a more seasoned central midfielder than Diaby or Denilson, despite being, at this level, a novice in the position. Since the first day at Liverpool, he's had the look of a lad that wants to learn, wants to improve, wants to earn a place. So the attitude is there. And he is more talented than Bentley, Walcott and Pennant put together.

England must surely, already, hold great hope in his future development. They have long lacked a player in midfield who can control a game. Paul Scholes should have been that man but he was often misused. Steven Gerrard is talked up as being that man but he's nothing of the sort. Wilshere is already showing signs that he could develop into that kind of player.

It is also a great relief for Arsenal that Fabregas's inevitably impending departure will not be the prelude to a mad scrabble for a direct replacement. Even if Aaron Ramsey's horror injury stalls his development, we have Nasri, a semi-rejuvenated Rosicky, and now, we have Wilshere.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Belated Thoughts about GroundDrog Day.

An improved performance after the West Brom debacle, but still not good enough.

It confirmed much of what we know: Chelsea are ruthless, Arsenal are profligate. Chelsea give nothing away and Arsenal are generous. Chelsea have a tried and tested way of beating Arsenal and Arsenal are no closer to finding an answer to it.

Scoring the first goal would have made things interesting but Koscielny wasted a sitter in the opening exchanges and the writing was on the wall. The game developed into a very similar pattern to the corresponding fixture from last season. Arsenal enjoyed (endured?) most of the possession- because Chelsea allowed them to. The blues kept men behind the ball, and when they won it they sprung forward into the space that Arsenal constantly leave in their own half. Arsenal struggled to make a clear chance despite the approach play being decent at times, while Chelsea always looked like scoring when they attacked. And it was no surprise that when they did, it was Drogba, the man Arsenal simply cannot handle. Also no surprise that Cole set it up because he has become another scouge of his old club. He provides a cutting edge that is beyond the remit of his regressing replacement and it was inevitable that he would lose Nasri at some point and provide a telling ball.

To be fair, Arsenal exerted a lot of pressure throughout the game, but by the end, after Alex's blockbuster finished the contest, it seemed as if all that was just part of Chelsea's plan. A grim inevitability, and familiarity, about the whole piece.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wenger Unwittingly Sums Up The Five Year Rot

"Last weekend did Drogba score at Manchester City? No, he didn't and he played against Kolo Touré. When Kolo played for us, you said he couldn't handle Drogba. Suddenly, when he moves to Man City, he's stronger."

It's called defending as a team and you're supposed to be coaching them to do it.