Tuesday, December 13, 2011

1-0 to the Arsenal

Arsenal 1-0 Everton

Arsenal celebrated 125 years on Saturday, and if the spectacle of the game did not match the grandness of the occasion, there was at least a goal to remember.

Though a lot of the play was scrappy in the opening 45, Everton were giving up clear chances. Arteta robbed his old partner Fellaini and released Walcott. With Gervinho and Ramsey square, a goal seemed certain, but last ditch defending denied the Ivorian. Song played in Ramsey, and the Welshman twisted onto his left foot, but only found the top of the net with his scooped effort. Almost immediately an Everton player inadvertently sent Gervinho through on goal, but his finish was predictably artless, and Howard parried.

Everton improved after half time. They denied Arsenal space in the centre. Van Persie was having an off day, overrunning the ball on a few occasions and not enjoying many sights of goal.

Even after sending on Distin and serving notice of their contendedness with a stalemate, it was Everton who were beginning to threaten more. Arsenal looked like they might need a scruffy goal, because they had not really put a move together all game. Instead, they scored a goal of real beauty.

Song found space in midfield and curled a perfect through ball over Jagielka's head to Van Persie. Despite his performance up to that moment, the Dutchman still had the confidence to take the ball first-time on the volley, and his technique matched that of the pass, the ball flying past a static Howard and glancing in off the far post.

While Arsenal never hit their stride except for that one moment, it would be hard to argue that Everton deserved anything from the game. They had shown an almost absolute lack of ambition despite the evidence that their opponents were not at their best.

That said, there were a couple of late half chances for the away side, both stemming from Mertesacker's continued uncertainty. One substitute, Gueye, dragged an effort wide when well-placed. Some a similar but more difficult chance, another sub, Conor McAleny, struck a brilliant effort that had Szczesny beaten but dipped just wide of the far post.

For the umpteenth time this season, Arsenal were indebted to the brilliance of their Dutch striker. But Song should also take some credit for the quality of his pass. He has again shown his underappreciated creative side. It's hard to think of any other "holding midfield" players who pass incisively with the regularity that Song does. As much as anyone else, he has softened the considerable blow of losing Fabregas's precision passing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fabianski and Mannone remind us of the Dark Days...

....and United Crash Out Basel 2-1 Manchester United

When Manchester United destroyed Arsenal at Old Trafford by a surreal scoreline just a few months ago, who could have predicted that in the final round of Champions League group games Arsenal would be able to field the reserves in a dead rubber, while United would try and fail to secure the solitary point they needed against Basel. It has been a strange and unpredictable season.

United endured numerous warnings on their way out of the competition. They never truly convinced in any game, and were within minutes of losing at home to Basel after leading 2-0. They came from behind to lead the home game against Benfica, but immediately gave up an equaliser that left them in a precarious poition. Still, few if any expected that they would fail to get at least a draw in Switzerland. Instead they succumbed to soft goals and a lack of punch up front that has hampered them in recent weeks.

United started the season in freewheeling form, knocking in goals seemingly at will. They were freakishly clinical against Arsenal and in the game at home to Chelsea they led 3-0 after being outplayed for 45 minutes. Their run of form was ended in spectacular fashion by Manchester City, and Ferguson responded to that scalding defeat by falling back into cautious mode. In the league, it has worked. United have kept clean sheets, and won games 1-0. They are not playing expansive football but that may come later.

In Europe, however, the air of vulnerabilty that City exposed has been almost constant. When United exited the Champions League at the group stage in 2005/06, it was a little less shocking. The group was more difficult, and in the years previous United had lost knockout ties against Milan and Porto, while also seeing Chelsea and Arsenal romp to Premiership titles.

This time, the group was seen as a formality. After all, United have recovered from their 2005/06 nadir to reach three of the last four finals. United have however embarked on a period of reconstruction, as shown by the youthful look of thei line ups this season. As Arsenal know only too well, setbacks are inevitable in this situation. But Ferguson has shown himself willing, where Wenger has not been, to break the bank in order to reinvigorate his side. United's summer transfer policy focused on bringing in youth but January might bring about a different approach.

Olympiakos 3-1 Arsenal
Olympiakos took advantage of Arsenal's patchwork line up to secure a deserved win, only to be denied a place in the next round by Marseille' stunning comeback in Germany.

The game was noteworthy as a reminder of the days not long ago when Arsenal were something of a laughing stock thanks to the infamous Goalkeeper Situation. Fabianski settled quickly into his familiar comic routine, but it was Mannone who provoked the biggest laugh of the night with his slapstick swing at Fuster's tame shot.

The more religious of Arsenal fans will be praying that Szczesny stays healthy and disciplined.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fulham Halt The Revival... Wigan Provide Little Resistance...

Premiership: Arsenal 1-1 Fulham
After Arsenal's hard-fought win at home to Dortmund, there was a hangover. The players looked knackered against Fulham; it was an all-too-familiar display of lethargy from thr home side at the Emirates. The game was played at the pace of a pre-season friendly, and the Gunners missed the injection of speed and penetration that Gervinho has already provided in his short time at the club. Arshavin, though he did net a neat but offside goal, was typically ineffective in general.

Fulham attacked in fits and starts, as the away side usually does at the Emirates, and although Arsenal's defence has seen a marked improvement in recent weeks, the opening goal here was largely the result of one of the sporadic bouts of ineptitude that has blighted the team in recent years. After Arsenal were caught trying to be too clever playing the ball out from defence, Murphy had time to size up a typically canny diagonal pass into the box for the onrushing Riise. The Norwegian's touch ran away somewhat, but a panicky Vermaelen miscued his clearance and the ball trickled past Szczesny and into the corner.

That the comical opener came soon after Van Persie had been denied by a desperate goal line clearance seemed to suggest that this was not to be Arsenal's day. But credit to Vermaelen, he responded to his mistake in characteristically buccaneering fashion, storming up the pitch in open play to nod in Theo Walcott's superb cross. In the late stages after the equaliser, Arsenal had pressure but no real chances, and Fulham held out for a draw that they deserved after a compact and solid performance.

Carling Cup: Arsenal 0-1 Manchester City
The Carling Cup game against City was notable mostly for the return of Samir Nasri, who had a subdued game in front of his hostile former admirers. Arsenal's mix of youngsters and squad players gave a good account of themselves, as they usually do. City's back up players failed to gel except in the moment that decided the game. A lightning break saw the ball shuttled from one end to another, Dzeko to Johnson to Aguero, and the Argentine slotted clinically past the exposed Fabianski. Arsenal had had a lot of possession, and Oxelade-Chamberlain looked particularly dangerous, but City hd the class and the cutting edge to engineer the killer moment in a tight match.

Premiership: Wigan 0-4 Arsenal
A welcome return to winning ways was found at Wigan, though in truth they offered little by way of tough opposition. There was an early scare in which Santos deflected a point blank shot wide, but Arsenal slowly took control. Still, the first two goals were the epitome of soft. Arteta's shot was well struck and moved a little, but still should have required only a routine save from Al-Habsi. Instead it found a way through him and into the net. Then Vermaelen pounced with a well-aimed header from a corner, but one that would not have been so telling had Wigan positioned a man on that post.

Of course, Arsenal have disturbing recent memories of leads thrown away at the JJB and elsewhere, and so there was no room for complacency. The game could not be considered safe until a patient move led to a beautiful 1-2 between Van Persie and Song. A dummy from the Dutchman left the wretched Caldwell sliding into the middle of next week, and though his right-foted effort was parried by the keeper, Gervinho was there to pick up the pieces.

Walcott squared unselfishly to Van Persie for number 4, and Arsenal thus continued their impressive away form of recent weeks.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Van On Fire (Part 2)

...and Song's on Song...

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund

Another Van Persie brace, another win.

As has been the case in quite a few of Arsenal's wins this seasons, it was not a barnstorming performance, and there was no surfeit of chances, but the Dutchman is so clinical at the moment that the results are starting to stack up.

But Song was the real star of the show, and after an iffy start to the season, he is showing signs of yet more improvement on last campaign's impressive displays.

The term "holding midfielder" is a ubiquitous term nowadays, and not without some reason, as most teams field three central midfielders. With that system dominant, there is a greater number of midfield "specialists", and less midfield generals like Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane in their pomp. A midfielder is usually seen as a creator or a destroyer, and while there are some players who occupy some kind of middle ground between those two simplistic terms, there are few nowadays who combine combative tackling with incisive passing and an instinct to drive forward.

Song has, since his return from that vital loan spell at Charlton, often looked a little too talented to be just another Makalele clone. What with Arsenal's defensive travails over recent years, most fans just wanted him to be a disciplined and effective presence in front of the back four, good enough to provide a shield, win the ball and shuttle it on to someone else, preferably Cesc Fabregas. But he has more technical ability than your average destroyer. That has become more evident still since Fabregas's departure.

A lot of this is probably down to the maturity of Arteta, who is proving to be a much better version of Denilson, doing what the Brazilian was meant to all along. Arteta gets tackles in, helps Song protect the defence, and does not get ahead of the play too often, leaving Ramsey closest to Van Persie out of the three midfielders. Song and Arteta have already forged a decent understanding and Song must feel more freedom to push forward as he likes to, knowing that his team mate is likely to fill in behind.

We have seen some nice slide rule assists from Song- for Gervinho's opener at Blackburn and for Van Persie's winner at Norwich. This time, the game-breaking assist came from a jinking run and a pinpoint cross that allowed Van Persie to power a downward header past the keeper.

It had been something of a stalemate up to that point, with neither side creating a great deal. Dortmund had just won in impressive fashion at Bayern Munich and set about Arsenal in a similarly intense fashion. Their pressing was quite effective and it took something out of the ordinary from Song to open them up.

The second goal was also out of the ordinary, by Arsenal's current standards. Or out of the distant past, perhaps? A corner, a near-post flick on, and a poached finish...it could almost have been Paul Merson, Steve Bould and Ian Wright after a week of tough training under the watchful eyes of George Graham. In reality it was Vermaelen and Van Persie who combined to convert Arteta's inswinger.

And with only a few minutes to go, that was that, although there was time for the concession of a very late Dortmund consolation. It was the result of some sloppy play in the corner by Song and, especially, Djourou. With the game won, maybe the most heartening image of the night was Vermaelen raging at his team mates. It's the kind of professionalism and passion that have been lacking in too many of his team mates over recent years. It's good to have him back.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Van On Fire (part 1)

The revival continues, with one man's name a constant in the headlines.

Norwich 1-2 Arsenal

Away at Norwich, Arsenal threatened to revert to the old stereotype. First, chances were squandered. By Van Persie himself, and by the worryingly profligate Gervinho. Then, an achingly soft goal was given away. Mertesacker hesitated in dealing with a bouncing ball, and was mugged by Morison, who slipped the ball past Szczesny.

Arsenal bounced back to level. Walcott had already been denied a goal for himself by a brilliant goal line clearance. This time he made one, beating his man with ease, and crossing low into the six yard box, where Gervinho completely missed his attempt at a flick and Van Persie tapped into the unguarded net.

After half time, the Ivorian was again guilty of a missing a gilt-edged chance. Van Persie released him with a wonderful through ball, and he seemed to have made space to slip the ball past the keeper, but mishit his shot and allowed Ruddy to save.

Van Persie made no such mistake with the next big opportunity. Norwich lost it in midfield to Arteta, Song took over, drove forward and, given the choice of aiming for Gervinho or Van Persie, naturally took the latter option. The Dutchmansteadied himself and clipped a gorgeous right-footed finish over the keeper and into the net.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

...Wasn't Expecting That

Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

Many would have feared for Arsenal in the lead-up to this clash. Chelsea had just suffered a noble defeat to QPR, dominating the game and unlucky to lose despite playing with nine men for more than half the contest.

Arsenal had been labouring to victory in matches they were once expected to win comfortably. But progress is progress, and results had improved hugely since the dark days of Old Trafford and Ewood Park.

The worry for many, and certainly me, was that another capitulation against Chelsea would send Arsenal back into crisis mode.

In fairness, some of the worries about Arsenal were well-founded. Their defending for much of the first half was shambolic. But the mental weakness that so often accompanies and exacerbates the defensive vulnerability was not as evident as in the past. And to add a further excitement to what became a surreal game, Chelsea provided their own moments of uncertainty at the back, and contrived to outdo the Gunners in the self-destruction stakes.

Twice Arsenal fell behind to fairly soft goals- and twice they roared back.

The game started in a raging whirlwind of goalmouth action. A minute had not passed before Ashley Cole exposed the downward-spiralling Djourou, offering a poor impression of a right back, and only a timely intervention from Koscielny prevented Torres from latching onto the low cross.

Santos on the other wing was faring no better, and Arsenal's suicidally high line was next broken down his flank, but this time Sturridge dithered too long over an obvious pass across to Torres, and when it came the low ball was too close to Szczesny.

Arsenal responded with menace, and Theo Walcott twice showed uncharacteristic productivity, only for others to waste his good work. First, he was released down the right after excellent breakaway play by Arteta and Ramsey. Cole was left for dead on the touchline, and the low cross was perfectly measured for the onrushing Gervinho, but with Cech making a desperate lunge to save the ball, the Ivorian was put off and screwed an awkward effort wide.

Similar poor finishing by Gervinho had been punished by Tottenham during Arsenal's last defeat and one would have been forgiven for thinking that would be the case again as, after Van Persie skied another chance from another excellent Walcott cross, Chelsea hit the front.

Terry hit an accurate, raking crossfield pass that left Mata facing up to Santos, and the Spaniard easily cut inside the Brazilian before whipping in a vicious cross. With Mertesacker looking flat-footed and unable to head clear, Lampard ghosted in in trademark fashion and placed an emphatic header past Szczesny.

Sturridge had a chance to give Chelsea a two goal cushion. Lampard lofted a first time pass over Arsenal's backline but Sturridge screwed the bouncing ball well wide of the goal, and Arsenalk were still in the game.

The first equaliser was the result of Ramsey's creativity and Gervinho's unselfishness. The Welshman threaded a Cescesque ball through Chelsea's static rearguard and Gervinho squared cleverly to Van Persie as Cech came out. The finish was a formality. Gervinho's pass was simple, and clearly the efficient option, but it remains the kind of pass that professional footballers often fail to spot in the heat of the moment.

Chelsea responded well to the setback. Sturridge soon had the ball in the net, but from an offside position, and as the interval approached, Terry bundled in Lampard's corner after as Arsenal defended with their typical lack of authority- Mertesacker culpable again.

2-1 down at half time, but Arsenal had surely noticed that Chelsea were far from watertight at the back, and set about testing the Blues again straight from kick off. Ramsey hooked a half chance over the bar after Gervinho had roasted Bosingwa. Then Song turned skilfully in midfield and hit a peach of a left footed pass to release Santos, who had left Sturridge trailing. The defender, enduring a torrid afternoon to that point, bore down on Cech and slipped a shot under his right leg for 2-2.

The staggering openness of the match continued. For the third time, a Lampard pass opened up Arsenal with worrying simplicity, and Cole reached the ball first only to be upended by a desperate Szczesny. The keeper had the look of a man who expected a red card, as did most of the viewing public, but he got away with a yellow; a vital moment.

Arsenal took the lead for the first time. Walcott ran at the Chelsea defence with Cole busy complaining about a soft free kick award. The winger tripped himself up, then jumped to his feet as the home defenders hesitated, and after a nice trick and aburst of acceleration, he was through on goal. He blasted his shot inside Cech's near post and a surreal game had a rather surreal goal.

There was more to come. Although Arsenal defended deeper and with more authority for much of the second period, they were undone with ten minutes to go by some more slack play from Santos, some poor refereeing, and some bad luck. The Brazilian presented the ball to Mereiles with a poor pass but looked set to seize on the latter's heavy touch before he was blocked off by Lukaku. No whistle sounded, and the ball was moved inside to Mata. His shot took a hefty deflection off the sliding Song and looped wickedly into the top corner of Szczesny's goal. In recent years, Arsenal have so rarely come out on top in a high-scoring game, and it seemed that hoodoo was to continue.

Instead, it was Chelsea who imploded in the closing stages. Malouda panicked Terry with an overhit backwards pass that had Van Persie interested. The two seemed set for a foot race until the troubled England captain slipped (or, as some have mischievously suggested, took a deliberate fall). Van Persie had a clear run on goal. He calmly rounded Cech and slotted home and Arsenal were in front again.

4-4 is a familiar result for Arsenal of late and there were some predictable moments of panic at the back before a stoppage time counter attack saw Arteta release Van Persie again. The Dutchman took a touch and then leathered a swerving shot past Cech and inside the near post. Arsenal celebrated wildly after this goal and after the full time whistle.

Can the revival continue? Suddenly a top four finish looks possible again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

1-6: Changing of the Guard or a Freak Result?

Manchester United 1-6 Manchester City

Man United's defence has been unconvincing so far this season, and their vulnerability was finally, and brutally exposed by their bitter, and now dangerous, local rivals.

City have won derbies over the last decade or so, but previously, those results had little significance beyond the local. At the end of every season, United were hoisting trophies, and City remained a sleeping giant at best.

While the lopsided nature of last Sunday's scoreline is largely due to the dismissal of Jonny Evans with the score at 0-1, it is, nonetheless, very impressive. United have had numerous difficult spells during Ferguson's long reign. But no team has previously had the talent or the balls to come to Old Trafford and hand them such a whipping. Circumstances played a big part, but boy did City take advantage of their opportunity to lay down a marker.

Just how significant will the game prove to be?

It should send City's confidence sky-high. They already have the best squad of players in the league, and are playing the best football (despite their manager's reputation for negativity). They are rightful favourites, at this point, to win the title.

But United under Ferguson have the handy habit of turning adversity to their advantage. One would expect them to be just as galvanised by their own humiliation as City are by their moment of glory.

With that said, there are deficiencies in the United team that were cruelly exposed by their neighbours and this has surely shot some holes in the aura that often allows United to coast through games against lesser sides. Their relatively ordinary central midfield and a defence that has been unsettled by changing partnerships and by an apparent decline in the performances of its senior members are primary concerns.

They do not have a player with the creative flair of David Silva, or indeed a player with the destructive zeal of Nigel De Jong who, frighteningly enough, City don't even seem to need at the moment.

The evidence is that if United are to make it title number twenty, they will need to rely on their neighbours' oft-showcased appetite for self-destruction.

David Silva was the star again. His imperious volleyed pass through to Dzeko for the final goal has garnered much of the attention, but he was involved in so much. He has that admirable habit, like Bergkamp before him, of making the players around him look better. He attracts the attention of defenders, and that frees up space for others, and he has the vision, technique and selflessness to help those other players exploit the space fully. Witness the build up to Balotelli's second goal, and how Silva waits and releases to Milner at just the right time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Better, Closer, Warmer/ RVP

Arsenal are grinding out wins, dismantling the wall of discontent brick by brick.

Since that defeat in a close-fought North London derby, the Gunners have twice been indebted to their captain and talisman Robin Van Persie. He scored braces against Sunderland and Stoke respectively to ensure six points from the last two home league games.

His performance against Sunderland was memorable not only for two well-taken goals- one smashed in with his right, the other a free kick curled home with his left- but also for an audacious attempt that so nearly proved a goal of the season contender. With the score at 1-0, Van Persie collected an Arteta pass, bamboozled Kieran Richardson with a cute dragback, and lofted a cheeky chip from the edge of the box that confounded the keeper but rebounded off the upright and out.

He is certainly Arsenal's best player, and his familiarity with the woodwork means he is probably the league's unluckiest.

There have been many improvements in Van Persie's game over the last few seasons. He is now very two-footed. He scores a lot with what he once termed his "chocolate leg", and the chipped effort in the Sunderland game also came courtesy of his right foot.

His team play has improved a lot since his early Arsenal days, when he was an exciting and often spectacular player with a very individualistic style that sometimes angered team mates.

He is more mature, more of a leader, deserving of the armband.

Lastly, and most importantly, he is scoring many goals, different goals. His vicious left foot and his considerable ability meant he was never starved of goals (except while injured), but in the early days, he was as likely to score from twenty yards as from three. Although never as averse to the tap in as Bergkamp, Van Persie was something of a DIY finisher, a man who would wait for the ball to be played to him, feint this way and that, then smash a shot from whatever angle he saw fit. It often made for spectacular viewing, but nobody ever suggested he was the much sought "fox in the box" that Arsenal are always said to lack.

Against Stoke, however, his match-winning brace was more reminiscent of Van Nistelrooy than Bergkamp. Both goals were the product of intelligent, hungry movement inside the box. And this is typical of Van Persie's output in the last few seasons. He is scoring more in and around the six yard box and this is why he is more prolific. It's actually been a while since he scored a truly spectacular goal- his free kick against Sunderland was the first such goal he has scored in a long time, and there has been nothing of late to rival his comic strip volley against Charlton or his sumptuous curler against Blackburn- but that does not matter, because he has become a better, more effective player.

New boy Gervinho has already shown frequent signs of a good understanding with the Dutchman. He may not be quite as quick as Walcott, but he uses his pace better when running with the ball. Walcott so often looks clueless when confronted with a full back and the ball at his own feet. Gervinho, on the other hand, has a handy habit of cruising beyond his marker with a sudden burst of acceleration. This led to Van Persie's two goals against Stoke, and also the vital equaliser in the away leg against Udinese. Gervinho also teed up the Dutchman's first against Sunderland with a nicely weighted pass. With this Arsenal team struggling to find much rhythm or swagger, the forging of some fruitful partnerships is vital. Signs are that there is genuine chemistry between these two.

Between the Sunderland and Stoke games, Arsenal executed a classic smash and grab in a sleepy Champions League game against Marseille, leaving qualification as group winners a distinct and welcome possibility. The game was a non-entity. Marseille's league form has been terrible, and they somehow managed not to trouble Arsenal's wobbly rearguard. With the match petering out in a dreary stalemate, a late attack saw Gervinho's micontrol fall kindly for Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman's first touch threatened to take him into traffic but he kept his composure and swept the ball home.

Last night, Arsenal reserves beat a strong Bolton side in the Carling Cup. Former Gunner Fabrice Muamba opened the scoring for the visitors, but Arshavin levelled with a fine run and finish. The Russian quickly turned provider. After another positive run he waited patiently to allow Park onside, then weighted his pass perfectly so that the Korean could shoot first time. His confident, curled finish was hopefully a sign of things to come, as Arsenal badly need another regular goalscorer to take some of that weight off Van Persie's shoulders.

So the last few games have provided some kind of lift in mood, but talk of a real revival may be premature. Arsenal have failed in all of the big tests so far, and while results are always paramont, there is still a feeling that lately, they have been labouring to victory against poor opposition. They have not played well for a solid ninety minutes, they still show no notion of how to defend set pieces, and they are still without an away win in the league. And next up, they go to Stamford Bridge.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So Much for the Gulf: Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

I prefaced last November's North London derby at the Emirates- a game Spurs came from 2-0 down to win- with a post entitled "Is The Gulf of North London Closing?".

Consider it closed.

Last term, Spurs had the upper hand in head to head league meetings- they produced another comeback from a two goal deficit to force a draw at the Lane- but Arsenal were still way out in front overall. Spurs never threatened a title challenge, and fell back out of the top four, unable to balance the twin demands of Champions League and Premier League.

Now, without the distraction of Europe's premier competition, and having held onto Luka Modric, they look a better bet than Arsenal to challenge for a top four place. For the first time in a long, long time, they probably have a better team than the Gunners. And the old hoodoo is well and truly over. The days when Spurs could not buy a win against their North London neighbours are a receding memory.

I remember, during Arsenal's long unbeaten run against Tottenham, many games in which the gulf in class was not particularly evident. Arsenal rarely produced their fluent best against Spurs, and Spurs often took the lead in these games, but always seemed to choke. Arsenal had the ability to grind out at least a draw, and often a win.

That old grit is gone. This was Spurs' turn to play an average game and scrape through.

It might have been different had Gervinho buried a very presentable first half chance. Van Persie, who was otherwise subdued, skinned Kaboul on near the touchline, and cut back for his team mate, who snatched a miserable effort wide of the near post.

Minutes later, Spurs scored a fine goal that was two parts skill and one part luck. Adebayor picked up the ball in the kind of space that Arsenal too often afford opposition attackers, and flighted a pass over Mertesacker to Van Der Vaart. The Dutchman controlled with his upper arm and, as the ball sat up, struck a clinical shot across Szczesny and into the net.

It had, to that point, been typical Arsenal. An advantage in terms of possession is not really an advantage at all for this team. While they seemed in control for periods, and could point to Gervinho's missed sitter, the fact remained that Spurs had twice forced Szczesny into heroics before the goal. First Scott Parker and then Van Der Vaart were denied at close quarters. How many chances woudl the home side have created if they were in better attacking form? Also, despite Redknapp's needlessly gung ho selection of Modric, Van Der Vaart and Bale behind a front two of Adebayor and Defoe, Arsenal failed to turn a numerical midfield advantage into incisive attacking play.

Second half was largely more of the same. Arsenal equalised when Song took advantage of Van Der Vaart's lazy attempt to close down, and crossed low for Ramsey to turn the ball in. Again, despite Arsenal's possession and their illusion of control, the best chance came at the other end. Adebayor was played through by Van Der Vaart but his shot was turned wide. Another brillint save by Szczesny.

Which made the winner all the more cruel. Sleepy play by Arteta and Ramsey allowed an opening to form down Arsenal's right from a quick throw in (Sagna had departed with a bad injury, and Jenkinson was deputising). The cross found Modric, and his shot was blocked, but Kyle Walker seized on the ricochet and blasted an effort that the Pole seemed to be behind. The swerving ball skipped over his fingers and into the net.

Szczesny, depite his considerable talent, is a young goalkeeper and mistakes are inevitable. More disturbing was Arsenal's reaction to the goal. Or rather, their lack thereof. Barely three passes were stitched together by the men in red during the rest of the game. As the clock ticked down, Arsenal often struggled to get out of their own half. They looked resigned to their fate. They failed to fight convincingly for themselves, for the club, or for their manager.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Basel Expose United's Soft Centre

United's suspect defence was evident in the defeat of Chelsea and even, strangely enough, in that ridiculous hammering of Arsenal. It was forgotten, naturally enough what with the lopsided scoreline, that Arsenal had chances after the break to bring the score back to 3-2 and make it at least a contest. Not that I'm suggesting that Arsenal would have won any points had that been the case. I'm merely pointing out that the praise of United up to this point has rather ignored their unusually soft looking defensive work.

There is an argument that the lower lights of the Premiership don't show enough ambition against United, especially in games at Old Trafford. United's fearsome home record is enough to psyche out most opponents, and managers tend to set their teams up defensively, hoping for a draw. Against many teams- Arsenal being an obvious example- defending deep in numbers and springing on the counter attack is a worthwhile ploy. But United typically play with tremendous width (Arsenal, as we know, don't), and their wingers tend to provide great service on a fairly consistent basis. When United need a late goal in a tight game, how often do they score from a cross? Ask the same question of Arsenal, and you get a very different answer.

In other words, defending deep against United has proven over recent seasons to be a fruitless strategy. Basel showed that, when you catch them on an off-night, attack really is the best form of defence. United found themselves 2-0 up thanks to Danny Welbeck's brace, but Basel had made chances and did not allow themselves to be disheartened by the deficit. Rather than fall back on damage limitation, they continued to plug away in attack, and plundered three goals to lead. It would have been an unprecedented result- Sir Alex Ferguson has never presided over a game in which United led by two goals and lost.

But Basel visibly tired in the latter stages, and United equalised very late when a super deep cross from Nani found Ashley Young in acres at the far post, and he nodded firmly downwards and into the back of the net.

Despite a very easy dra for the group stage, United find themselves with only two points from the first two games. They will still, of course, go through, but Basel's performance showed that United's impressive results in the Premiership owe a lot to a lack of strength in depth in that league.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Silva: Bergkampesque

With Van Persie reaching a hundred Arsenal goals at the weekend, he invites comparison to another great Dutchman who played in North London- Dennis Bergkamp.

But it was a player in blue who reminded me of Bergkamp this weekend.

David Silva was paid an unwanted compliment by Everton manager David Moyes. The Scot tasked Jack Rodwell with following the Spaniard around the pitch, in an attempt to upset Manchester City's rhythm. To an extent, it worked- the match was tight, and the home side huffed and puffed, but eventually a deflected Balotelli shot broke the deadlock.

Then, in stoppage time, with Everton chasing the game, a poor pass gifted the ball to Silva, in space at last. He ran briefly at the exposed Everton rearguard, paused, turned and waited for the run of Milner, before flicking an exquisitely weighted through ball with the outside of his left boot. Milner could shoot first time, and managed to poke the ball through Howard for 2-0.

In his expert shielding of the ball, while waiting for the right moment to play the pass, he reminded me of Bergkamp's famous, audacious assist for Freddie Ljungberg against Juventus in 2001. The technique and weight of the pass brought memories of the non-flying Dutchman's amazing through ball to set up Vieira at Stamford Bridge in 2004.

I have to admit that when I saw Silva in Spain's team during Euro 2008, I thought of him as one of the weaker links in a very strong side, someone who finished off the moves of more talented players, but could never influence a game like Iniesta or Xavi or Fabregas. I thought of him as a sort of Luis Garcia figure- a midfield goal threat who would give the ball away a lot with ineffective flicks and tricks, but make up for that by getting on the score sheet.

I was wrong. He is thriving for City in a more central, playmaking role. He is one of the outstanding players in the Premiership at the moment. And if there is one criticism of his game, it's that he is actually not the goal threat I initially thought he was.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Even The Silver Linings Are Turning Grey

Arsenal 3-0 Bolton

The first half was another slog, but the Gunners finally cut loose in the second to record a comfortable victory.

Bolton started well and could have opened the scoring early on. A fine volley from Darren Pratley was acrobatically repelled by Szczesny. Thereafter, Bolton pursued a policy of containment, and it worked very well for the duration of the first half. There were precious few openings.

The best came when Arteta released Gervinho with a defence-splitting pass. The winger's first touch was so woefully overhit, it was practically a back pass.

Van Persie curled just wide from a free kick, and Gervinho cut inside to blast a shot over the bar, but it was familiar, pedestrian fare at the Emirates. Arsenal's midfield was not responding well to some robust scrapping from Wanderers, and there was little in the way of creativity.

Seconds into the second half, Van Persie blasted the floodgates open. Gervinho was felled on the turn in a central position, and Mark Clattenburg played a canny advantage, allowing Ramsey to drive on. He found Van Persie in the box, and the Dutchman took a couple of touches to escape the attentions of Reo-Coker, and drilled a low shot inside Jaaskelainen's near post.

Bolton are even worse form than Arsenal, and a goal was always likely to dishearten them. They had still less cause for optimism after David Wheater was dismissed. Ramsey's through ball threatened to release Walcott, only for the winger to tumble under a light tug from the centre half. The kind of "dive" that is widely practised in modern football: feel the contact, take the fall. Wheater could have no complaints.

It says much about the fragility of this Arsenal team that even at home, against ten men, against a team that had shown so little adventure, they still gave up a reasonable chance. Bolton broke after an Arsenal corner and suddenly, Chris Eagles had a sight of goal, but his early shot was close to Szczesny and Arsenal escaped.

Walcott, in typically frustrating form, soon helped put the game to bed, speeding onto Ramsey's pass and squaring for Van Persie, who deftly shinned the ball beyond Jaaskelainen for his 100th Arsenal goal. Walcott was denied by the Finn in a one on one from Song's pass, before the Cameroonian iced the cake with a fine curled shot in the closing stages.

Some blessed relief in the form of a result, but the aftermath has provided more cause for tortured introspection. Van Persie, by a distance now Arsenal's most valuable player, has refused to commit to a new deal. His current contract runs out in a couple of years.

Looking at the current state of the team, and at the fact that Van Persie is 28 years old, you'd have to assume he is thinking seriously about a change of scenery next summer. That's without even contemplating the kind of pay rise Manchester City, or any of the other big spenders, could offer him.

The news comes mere days after Wenger admitted his concern that Arsenal cannot compete when offering deals to the top players. I read an interesting article a few weeks ago that suggested Wenger was at loggerheads with the board during the summer. The story went that while the board were willing to provide money for large transfer fees, they were not willing to change the club's wage structure. Thus, perhaps, the inability to complete the capture of Mata before Chelsea blew us out of the water.

The pay structure of the club is certainly in need of review. It seems that most of the first team players earn a similar amount. In effect, our best players earn less than they should, and our worst players earn much more than they should. Hence the trouble Arsenal have had with moving on players like Bendtner, Denilson, and Almunia. No club wants to pay those mediocre players the same money they've been earning at Arsenal.

Conversely, there will be plenty of clubs willing to offer RVP a nice juicy financial incentive to go and fulfill his sporting ambitions elsewhere. And frankly, it's hard to find many reasons he'd want to stick around.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Schoolyard Football: United 3-1 Chelsea

It has been a strange but refreshing start to the Premiership season. Big games that had previously been cagey and cautious have produced an avalanche of goal and incident.

Mancini's Manchester City have even, unexpectedly, started to entertain. Judging from their loss of a two goal lead against Fulham at the weekend, that new outlook might have compromised their familiar defensive solidity. The absence of Nigel de Jong can't be helping that side of things either. But Nasri, Silva and Aguero are thrilling neutrals.

Two games involving the other big Manchester team have been emblematic of the adventurous start to the season. First, there was the unprecedented drubbing of Arsenal. Then, this weekend, another game of end-to-end attacking, mistakes, goals and glaring misses.

There could have been another ten goals, and this time they would have been shared more evenly. Chelsea, especially in the first half, were the better side, and can feel aggrieved to have lost by a two goal margin.

The goals were a mixture of the soft and the sublime. Early on, Smalling escaped the attentions of Chelsea's slack marking to power a header home from Ashley Young's swinging free kick. Replays showed he was marginally offside but the fact that Chelsea's players did not protest suggested that they had lost concentration. United doubled their lead with a spectacular strike from Nani, who collected the ball on the right (offside again?), swayed inside some challenges, and powered past a leaden footed Cech from the edge of the area. Right on half time, a Phil Jones run caused panic in Chelsea's rearguard, a floored John Terry attempted to clear, but the ball struck Nani and ran kindly for Rooney, who swept home from close range.

United had an interval lead that contradicted the balance of play. All their on-target shots had produced goals. They were attacking with menace at times, but Chelsea had peppered the United goal with efforts. Juan Mata was having an influence, and the Blues were playing with a swagger that suggested that Villas-Boas may be succeeding in starting to revolutionise their style of play.

Then again, there will only be rare occasions when they will face a midfield as open as United's was.

The first of the game's many glaring misses came at 1-0, and was surely crucial in shaping the outcome of the game. Mata attacked United's backline and released Torres in behind with a finely weighted pass. The Spaniard rightly squared the ball for Ramires, who seemed certain to score, but perhaps put off by Daniel Sturridge, stabbed a weak effort straight at the scrambling De Gea.

At half time, Villas Boas sized up Chelsea's predicament and, commendably, decided to chase the three goal deficit. He replaced Lampard with Anelka, moved the latter onto the left of the front three, and shifted Mata into the number 10 position. The change brought dividends almost straight from kick off. Anelka cut inside from the left, and played an excellent reverse through ball for Torres. The Spaniard, who was looking at last like his old self, full of pace and twists and turns, dinked imperiously over De Gea. It was a finish at odds with his wretched run of form over the last few months, and Chelsea were back in the game.

But now, with the schoolyard shape of the game continuing, it was United's turn to miss chances. Nani broke and smashed another thunderbolt off the bar. On the rebound, he was adjudged, harshly perhaps, to have been felled by Bosingwa. Rooney had a chance from the spot, but his standing leg gave way and he shanked the penalty wide.

He was wasteful again when an Evra run and cross found him six yards out. Rooney's left footed shot was scuffed, and dribbled off the post. Hernandez steamed onto the rebound but could only smash into the side netting, and was crippled for his troubles by Ashley Cole's nasty late challenge.

Shame then, with both sides missing easy chances, that the game will probably be remembered for the profligacy of one man, who may now struggle to ever reproduce the swagger of old. Torres was, along with Nani, the best player on the park. It was very much like watching the player of old only for one rather important factor- his finishing. While the goal was a beauty, there was a hat trick of head-in-hands moments. Early on, he conjured an opportunity for himself but snatched wide. Towards the game's final act, he jinked brilliantly on the edge of the area, and hit a decent left footed shot that was parried, but when the rebound bobbled his way, he leaned back and smashed skywards. Then, with only minutes left, the worst miss in a match of misses.

Again, there was brilliant play to make the chance. Ramires's through ball was incisive, and Torres confounded De Gea with a confident dummy. His touch brought him a little wide of goal, but the hard work was done and the finish should have been a formality. Maybe he relaxed too much, maybe he couldn't relax enough. The shot was tapped wide of the near post.

There was still time for one more scramble, as Rooney broke clear and squared to Berbatov, but a goal line clearance denied the Bulgarian's scuffed effort. United ran out, according to the scoreline, comfortable winners, but rarely has a scoreline been so misleading. Firstly, there should have been at least a few more goals. Secondly, Chelsea outplayed the hosts for long periods, particularly during a first half that somehow only produced goals for United.

While United's goalscoring exploits and their relentless attacking vigour are impressive, pundits are being a little rash in predicting a procession towards another league title. Statistics show that De Gea has been the busiest keeper in the whole league so far; as with City, United's new adventure has had an inevitable impact on their defensive solidity. The Champions can point, of course, to the absences of Ferdinand and Vidic. They have faced Arsenal and Chelsea with an unfamiliar back four featuring three youngsters, and while they never looked solid in either game, it doesn't matter much when you score eleven goals.

So the early advantage is undoubtedly theirs, but for City and, on this showing, Chelsea, there is still plenty of hope.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Oh Dear

Another interesting weekend in the Premiership.
Yet another painful one for Arsenal.

Blackburn 4-3 Arsenal

The seriousness of Arsenal's problems was underlined. The defence, despite the presence of new boys Santos and Mertesacker, was its old shambolic self. The lack of belief among the players was clear in the manner in which they folded after Blackburn's second equaliser, and allowed the game to slip away. A late rally produced a goal, a grandstand finish, and a flurry of chances to level the game, but the damage had been done, and a salvaged result of any kind would only serve to paper over the widening cracks. Arsenal are in big, big trouble this season.

The first half was, in some senses, a reminder of the kind of football Arsenal are still sometimes capable of. Song, Ramsey and Arteta were impressive in midfield, and the two Arsenal goals were the result of some fluid, incisive attacking. Gervinho opened his Arsenal account from a clever, slide rule pass by Song. The shot took a slight deflection and beat Paul Robinson on its way to the far bottom corner.

Blackburn were not really in the game, but Yakubu punished Arsenal's defensive frailty with a smart finish when the worst offside trap in football malfunctioned again. The striker confounded the onrushing Szczesny with an early, audacious flick of his right boot, sending the ball rolling slowly but unstoppably into the corner of the net. A throwback to the kind of player he once was.

Arsenal responded some minutes later with the goal of the game. The midfield trio linked well again. Song released Ramsey down the right with another incisive ball, and the Welshman ignored the obvious option of firing across the six yard box, instead cutting back cutely for Arteta, who swept the ball high into Robinson's net.

Arsenal might have extended the lead before half time, when Arshavin forged an opportunity for Gervinho, but he saw his selfish attempt blocked, much to the ire of the better-placed Van Persie. Blackburn were granted a reprieve; Arsenal were to gift them a whole lot more in the second half.

The difference between the Alex Song of the first half and the one who emerged after the interval is symbolic of the brittle mentality of this Arsenal team, their violent mood swings. Song started the collapse with an own goal, although the fault was not all his. Rocha chipped in a free kick from Blackburn's right, and despite the lack of pace on the ball, nobody in red took decisive action. The ball struck Song and dribbled past Szczesny.

Rovers were pressing more effectively and Arsenal had lost the control they seemed to exert in the first period. More set piece mayhem saw the home side hit the front. A deep, driven corner left Koscielny butting at thin air and the ball dropped at the feet of Nzonzi. He blasted a cross-shot that was turned home by Yakubu, lurking marginally offside. No flag, another soft goal for Arsenal's extensive collection.

Arsenal mustered some pressure in response, and Van Persie dithered too long when presented with a decent chance, but the awful defence succumbed again, this time to a breakaway sucker punch. Blackburn countered at roaring pace and Djourou, on in place of the injured Sagna, was roasted by Olsson. The winger entered the area, beat Alex Song and turned the ball into the goalmouth where the increasingly inept Koscielny failed to sort his feet out in time and turned the ball comically into his own net. Two own goals, a two goal deficit, was there any fight left?

To be fair, there was, and Arsenal spurned enough chances to win the game. Chamakh scored a powerful, towering header from a wicked Van Persie cross, but the Moroccan was also guilty of a weak effort in stoppage time; Van Persie was denied on a couple of occasions by Robinson; Mertesacker headed over in the dying seconds; Walcott was denied a penalty shout. It was more frantic and desperate than it ever should have had to be. Going to a mediocre Blackburn side, you expect that if ou score three goals, it's job done. But this is the New Arsenal, and another ridiculous result has been added to the roll of dishonour.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


No deflection on Perisic's strike. What a goal.

Dortmund 1-1 Arse

As long as Arsenal can do their business at the Emirates- which has ceased to be a comfortable home- a draw in Dortmund should eventually be looked back on as a positive result.

Given Arsenal's recent troubles, it can already be viewed that way, but the feel good factor is lessened by the fact that the German side's equaliser came so late, after Arsenal had worked hard to cling to Robin Van Pesie's opener.

Overall, however, a draw was a deserved result for the home team. Arsenal could have no complaints. Again, the Gunners failed to find any real groove.

They did gain a lead, close to half time. As against Swansea, the goal stemmed from opposition sloppiness. A casual, underhit pass across the Dortmund back four was seized upon by the alert Van Persie, who slid into nudge the ball to Walcott. This time, the mistake left Arsenal with a bit more to do than aim the ball into an unguarded net, and what they had to do they did very well. Walcott played an unusually incisive through ball with his left foot. It was perfctly weighted for Van Persie, who smashed home impressively with his trusty "chocolate leg".

Arsenal failed to build on that and found themselves under the cosh for much of the second half. Still, this had the look of a difficult trip- would have been difficult even without the negative atmosphere around Arsenal at the moment- and so Arsenal's resilience is a good sign.

They came close to holding out for the 1-0, but were denied by a very late equaliser. Gibbs headed a free kick away, but only to the edge of the box, and Perisic struck a first time volley that dipped into the top corner, leaving Szczesny standing. While it initialy looked a wonder goal, I think there was a slight but crucial deflection off Benayoun.

After that there was time for another Dortmund chance, but Szczesny came to the rescue. His form has been the single biggest plus point of the season so far. There are so many problems on and off the pitch, so it is a relief that one of the longest standing issues- the lack of a top class goalkeeper- appears to have been solved.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Win's A Win

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea

Sometimes you need a dash of luck to lift you out of a rut.

Arsenal under Wenger have, even at their best, been a team of fragile confidence.

It took one unfortunate defeat at Old Trafford in 2004 to turn the 'Invincibles' into a vulnerable side again. They never recovered the old swagger.

In 2002/2003, I remember a run of four straight defeats, started by Wayne Rooney's wonder goal for Everton. That rotten run was only stopped by a comical Steve Marlet own goal in a tough away game at Fulham. Even that very good Arsenal team needed a helping hand.

The 2011 incarnation of Arsenal don't have the quality of past versions and so any win, in current circumstances, must be welcomed.

The luck came in two large slices.

First, Arshavin's goal. Well-finished, but he never should have been given the chance. The Swansea keeper inexplicably rolled the ball against the heels of his own defender, and the Russian found the net from a fairly tight angle.

It wasn't the last open goal of the game. In the last seconds, the otherwise fantastic Szczesny missed a corner, and the ball bounced down to Danny Graham, who swivelled but spooned the bouncing ball over the bar.

A big moment, potentially, in Arsenal's season.

The performance, after a promising start, was largely disjointed. Arteta played well and provided two gilt-edged chances at 0-0. Ramsey skewed the first wide, very early on. The second was bobbled past the keeper by Walcott, but cleared off the line.

The goal came at a time when Arsenal were, worryingly, starting to run out of ideas in their attempts to break Swansea down. And there was little improvement in that during the second period. The nerves jangled throughout, and Swansea looked to have more pace and vigour in attack when they did get forward. Arsenal's tempo was sluggish, but ultimately Swansea's attack could conjure nothing as telling as their goalkeeper's mistake.

While Arteta enjoyed a promising debut, he was not aided much by Frimpong's passing. Like many such energetic midfield players, Frimpong's distribution is very erratic. If he can smooth out the rough edges of his game, Arsenal will have a fine player.

Mertesacker had a decent game, although he would struggle to win a sprint against Cygan or Senderos. We can only hope he won't become as calamity-prone as that pair. But Arsenal's habitual high line does make things difficult for the German, as does another enforced absence for Vermaelen.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Good Haul?

By Arsene Wenger's standards, it was a spree. But if that's panic buying, it's a pity he doesn't panic more often. Hindsight can be a bit of a pain, but it's hard not to look at the past few seasons and wonder what might have been achieved if similar deals were done then.

Instead, it took a long run of relegation form, culminating in a historic massacre at Old Trafford, to finally force the stingy Frenchman's hands into his bulging pockets.

And still, Arsenal haven't spent much. This constitutes no great betrayal of Wenger's ideals. It's a natural compromise that should have been struck a long time ago- bringing in some older, more experienced heads to help the youngsters along. Before, a hugely talented 24 year old midfielder was being asked to carry some dead wood and some promising but callow youngsters on his shoulders. Now that he is gone, the squad has been given more balance. Arteta and Benayoun are useful players, and although not really in Fabregas's league, they will bring character and they will fit with Arsenal's style of play. Maybe most importantly, they have Premiership experience. They should take a lot of the pressure off players like Ramsey, Wilshere and Walcott. Arsenal were in danger of becoming very reliant on some very raw young talent.

The Korean striker Park Chu Young is a player I know little about. He, like Benayoun and Mertesacker, is captain of his national team. With Bendtner's departure on loan, Arsenal needed a new frontman, and Wenger decided that Park fitted the profile. He was just relegated from Ligue 1 with Monaco, and does not have a history of prolific scoring, but a browse of YouTube (hardly the most accurate barometer of ability, I know) suggests that he has a great work rate and decent vision and touch in and around the box. It's hard for me to shake the perception that Bendtner has been hard done by, but hopefully the Korean can replace him as a useful understudy to Van Persie, or indeed to the first choice wide men, if that is where Wenger plans to use him.

It would have been ridiculous to leave Gael Clichy unreplaced, with Gibbs so clearly unable to stay fit for a sustained period, and to that end Wenger brought in Andre Santos, a Brazilian international who ought to be approaching his peak years. The word is that Santos likes to bomb forward, and may be suspect defensively. A consultation with YouTube suggests that he can only be loosely described as a left back, and comes from the Dani Alves school of adventure. He also has a very powerful left foot which will hopefully help banish the memory of Gael Clichy's years of wastefulness in the final third.

Lastly, Mertesacker. It was a bit of a surprise after the months of speculation regarding Cahill and Samba and Jagielka. It seems a bit of an obvious solution: team with hopeless inability to defend set pieces and aerial attacks signs 6 foot 6 German giant. Maybe this time, the obvious solution will work. Many have written him off because of his lack of pace, and that is sure to be exposed at times- even Vidic at United has had numerous roastings from nippy forward players. But if Mertesacker can provide the kind of consistency and solidity that the Serb typically gives to the Champions, his slowness won't matter much. There is the potential for a nice partnership with Vermaelen, when the Belgian's injury problems are finally left behind, as he is more aggressive and pacey.

What will be more important than anything is that Mertesacker- who is, like Arteta, Benayoun, and Park, a captain- can show his leadership abilities and help whip that defence into shape. They have looked chaotic on a fairly regular basis over the last few years and it needs to cease.

In the summer of 2001, Arsene Wenger made a lot of signings. Richard Wright, Junichi Inamota, Gio Van Bronckhorst, Franny Jeffers... none of those players had a big part to play in Arsenal winning the double that season, but one new signing did. Sol Campbell came from Spurs and helped to form a newly solid defensive unit. If Mertesacker can have a similar impact, Arsenal might yet scramble back into contention.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Eight Two.

Eight fucking two.

It has taken me a week to recover enough to write this thing, and it has been an eventful few days since. Reinforcements have finally arrived, but I'll leave that for a seperate post. This one will focus on a game that will never be fully erased from the memory.

Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans surely feared the worst. Sagna was added to the list of casualties, meaning the full backs were Jenkinson and Traore. The midfield consisted of Coquelin, Rosicky and Ramsey.

Given the personnel, there is an argument that attack was going to be the only form of defence. The front three was Arshavin, Walcott and Van Persie, so it was certainly a lot stronger than the makeshift back four. And Arsenal have, in the last few years, been incapable of shutting up shop and staying solid.

Sure enough, the game started in an open fashion, and kept going that way. It was immediately apparent that Arsenal were struggling to deal with the tempo of United's passing. The absence of Michael Carrick and the rejuvenation of Anderson invests their midfield with a lot more dynamism than was the case for much of last season. Their strength on the flanks and their fast, direct style meant they were set up to hit Arsenal where they were weakest.

With United playing Rooney and Welbeck up front, Arsenal had an apparent numerical advantage in midfield, but they only sporadically made it count. The tempo of United's passing stood in stark contrast to Arsenal's half-assed pressing. Wenger spoke afterwards of the draining effect of the Udinese game but to hear such excuses so early in the season is a bit much.

The Gunners needed the "senior members" of the back four to stand firm, but the first United goal exposed Djourou's alarming regression. With Walcott, yes Walcott, ranting at Jenkinson over some poor positional play, United took a quick throw and worked the ball infield to Anderson. The Brazilian's scooped pass initially looked more speculative than incisive, but Djourou inexplicably refused to attack the aerial ball, instead trying to block off Welbeck and allow Szczesny to claim. The ball bounced through, Djourou was outmuscled, and Welbeck nodded the ball over the keeper. An absolutely shocking goal to concede.

Soon afterwards, Arsenal found an apparent route back into the game. Arshavin played a nice ball behind Evans for Walcott, who made the most of some contact and went down. Shock horror, Howard Webb gave the penalty, but equally predictably, the usually reliable Van Persie's nerve failed him in Arsenal's theatre of nightmares. He abandoned the usual tactic of hitting hard to the keeper's left, and rolled it to De Gea's right. De Gea read it and made a routine parry.

Straight away, Ashley Young collected a pisspoor defensive header by Traore, weaved his way inside Coquelin, and bent an exquisite shot into the top corner from long range. That's when you knew it could get ugly.

The frightening thing is- it could have been even worse. Arshavin was throwing himself into reckless challenges and could have been sent off twice over.

Just before half time, goals at both ends. A panicky foul by Jenkinson on the edge of the area was punished by a spectacular Rooney free kick, then Walcott ran onto Rosicky's slide rule pass and fired through De Gea's legs. 3-1 at half time.

Easy to forget now, Arsenal's strongest spell came after the interval. There were two gilt-edged opportunities to turn the game back into a genuine contest. First, Rosicky flipped a ball over United's static backline, and Van Persie volleyed first time with his chocolate leg, only for De Gea to again deny him with a save at the near post. Van Persie had oceans of time to take the ball down and if he did so it surely would have been 3-2. Then Arshavin got through down the left and bore down on goal but snatched his shot just wide of the near post.

And then Arsenal fell to pieces. Coquelin was taken off, and United exposed the hole where a holding midfielder should have been protecting an awful defence. The wretched Djourou gave away a free kick within range, and again the foul was punished, again by an imperious Rooney free kick. He disguised his intention, wrong-footed Szczesny, and bent his shot in off the far post. Game over again, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare.

The next goal arrived a minute or so later and was an even better illustration of Arsenal's shambolic defending than Welbeck's opener. A swift United counter attack found Rooney on the edge of the area, and with half the back four stepping up, and half standing still, he slipped an easy pass through to Nani. The winger had all the time in the world to conjure yet another impudent piece of showboating for his Arsenal scrapbook, shaping to drill the ball and then dinking it over the flailing Szczesny. Exhibition stuff from United, but atrocious defending.

Park Ji Sung was introduced as a sub and it was not long before he scored his customary goal against Arsenal, benefitting from more woeful "defending" from Djourou and burying a left-footed shot into the corner from the edge of the box.

Van Persie was presented with an easy chance at the other end after good work from Jenkinson, and blasted home an angry shot to make it 6-2. Normal service was quickly resumed as Jenkinson was caught by the pace of Hernandez and bundled over the Mexican on the edge of the area. Second yellow for the young defender, but Rooney failed to complete a hat trick of free kicks.

A regular hat trick would do though, and he got that after Arsenal's nemesis Evra stormed into the box and was tripped by emergency right back Theo Fucking Walcott. Rooney sent Szczesny the wrong way. Seven goals conceded- unprecedented stuff. Another three goals for Rooney against Arsenal- and on the subject of Rooney, has any player been so awful and so sublime in the space of less than twelve months???

United were not finished. Near the end, they piled on the misery with a fourth belter, this time Young's second. Eight two. Amazing. As bad as Arsenal were, you could only admire the ruthlessness of United's finishing. At least four of the goals- Rooney's two free kicks and Young's two curlers- could only be classed as half chances.

To some extent, the result stemmed from exceptional circumstances- you would hope Arsenal will never again field a team like that in any league game, let alone at Old Trafford- but those circumstances were partly of Arsenal's making. Wenger did not ask for a lengthy list of injuries and suspensions, but he did discard players like Clichy, Denilson, and Eboue and failed to replace them with players ready for Premiership action. That's not to even mention the slow response to the Fabregas and Nasri debacles.

And for all the talk of Arsenal's makeshift defence, United's defence, midfield and even attack were all completely different to the norm from last season. Jones and Evans at centre back? Smalling at full back? Anderson and Cleverley in the centre of the park? Welbeck partnering Rooney? None of this is particularly familiar, but Ferguson and United are making it work, whereas Arsenal played like a bunch of strangers, and seemed resigned to their fate from the off. The game showed up the terrifying discrepancy between the two squads.

Whatever about the subsequent transfer action, the most worrying legacy of this game is the growing sense that nobody at Arsenal football club can coach defence. Arsenal have been ripped apart by good, bad and indifferent sides at pretty regualar intervals over the last few years and there is still no sign of anything being done about it. There has been too much talk, in fact, of a makeshift defence being an excuse for the result. Ok, two naive full backs, but Djourou and Koscielny were first choice players almost all last season. They are not awful players but Djourou in particular has suffered a worrying loss of form and you wonder if that would have happened if he was at a club that put more emphasis on the defensive side of the game.

As I said, this has been a problem for some time. You only need to look at the regular ridiculous scorelines Arsenal have been involved in since the start of 08/09. 4-4 at home to Spurs. 4-4 against Liverpool. Some crushing home defeats to both Chelsea and United. Losing at home to Spurs after leading 2-0. Drawing 3-3 with Spurs at the Lane after, yet again, leading by two goals. And who could forget the second half collapse at St James' Park.

And now this. But there is, perversely, more optimism around the club now. Maybe it needed a catastrophic result like this to open Arsene Wenger's eyes. Maybe the season can be salvaged from the wreckage of one result.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Storm Warning

,Few Arsenal fans will forget the merciless pasting the team received at Old Trafford in 2001. Dwight Yorke scored a hat-trick, and Solskjear, Keane and the odious Teddy Sheringham piled on the misery as United mauled a makeshift Arsenal back line.

A young Ashley Cole played at left back, with Sylvinho in front of him. Oleg Luzhny was ripped apart on the other flank, while Igor Stepanovs and Gilles Grimandi proved an inept central defensive pairing.

Today, Arsenal face Manchester United at Old Trafford again, and as then, a gulf seems to have opened up between the sides. And this one threatens to endure. Back then, Arsenal's decline proved temporary. They bounced back very strongly. A year on, with Sol Campbell shoring up the defence, they produced a defensive masterclass to seal the double with a 1-0 victory at the same venue. Few would have predicted that on the day Yorke tore Arsenal to ribbons.

But the feeling is that if United hit their stride today they could dole out the same kind of humiliation we saw in 2001. And this time, Arsenal's ability to respond positively would have to be called into question. Young players could be scarred by a chastening defeat. Already disgruntled fans would again question the manager's hesitancy in the transfer market this summer.

It does seem staggering that a team of Arsenal's stature can enter a season in such tattered shape, but if the players can find strength in adversity, as they did in Udine, Old Trafford could provide a springboard for the rest of the season. An unexpected good result, or even a valiant effort, a gallant defeat, a performance of substance, could give us reason for cautious optimism.

Still, it's sad that things have reached a stage where Arsenal must look on a trip to Old Trafford with such trepidation, and so little expectation.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Crisis Averted- For Now

Udinese 1-2 Arsenal (Agg 1-3)

Arsenal came out with a morale-boosting victory after an entertaining game against a positive Udinese team.

The first half in particular was thrilling, end to end stuff. For Arsenal, there seemed an acknowledgment that with an unfamiliar-looking midfield and defence, attack was the best policy.

But that inevitably left them vulnerable at times. There were a couple of real scares before the opening goal eventually came.

Di Natale served notice of his finishing prowess with a lovely, angled volley into the bottom corner, but was rightly flagged offside. Then he turned provider with a cross for Pablo Armero, who could not conjure a clean header, the ball bouncing off the post before another linesman's flag ended the scramble. Then came the biggest let off, when Isla rampaged down the right, and centred low for Di Natale, stealing in ahead of Djourou. The striker could only hit the post from close range.

After that, Arsenal showed some profligacy of their own. Gervinho produced a positive, direct run down Arsenal's left, beating challenges, advancing into the area, and then squaring for Walcott close in. The finish lacked conviction however, and Handanovic parried. He saved again from Van Persie's follow-up effort.

Shortly before half time, Udinese scored the goal that the game's quality had deserved, and it was a wonderful effort from Di Natale. Pinzi played a clever reverse cross from the right, that found the striker peeling away from Djourou and into space. The cross lacked pace, but from a standing position, Di Natale found power and accuracy, sending the ball looping beyond a static Szczesny and in off the post.

Arsenal weathered a storm until half time, and then responded well. Wenger was positive in replacing Frimpong, who was playing ok, with Rosicky, who became very influential in the second half. Udinese, perhaps tiring, dropped off a little, probably hoping to play their natural, counter-attacking game. The next goal was obviously vital, and Arsenal scored it. 55 minutes in, the impressive Gevinho again beat his man and cut back from the byeline, and Van Persie couldn't really miss from six yards out.

Before Arsenal could think of relaxing, Udinese were awarded a harsh penalty for Vermaelen's supposed handball. Di Natale stepped up and smacked the penalty, but Szczesny made a Seamanesque save, deflecting the ball onto the roof of the net with one strong hand. An amazing stop and one that helped break Udinese's spirit.

The game was made safe (well, maybe not quite where Arsenal are concerned) when Udinese's high line was caught out by a simple, incisive one-two between Walcott and Sagna down the left. Walcott sped through on goal, opened his body out for the Henry-style finish, but instead swept the ball confidently inside the near post. Job done.

A few players, and the manager himself, have to take a lot of credit for a very good result. Szczesny's save was vital, and his performance in general was superb, as against Liverpool. Rosicky helped change the game in the second half. And Alex Song was brilliant in that period, his use of the ball particularly impressive. Gervinho showed his abundant potential.

But there are holes in the current Arsenal squad that Manchester United will remain confident of exploiting this weekend.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool first impressions

If it takes a nightmarish August to wake Arsene Wenger up, maybe it will be worth it.

But listening to the man talk about Arsenal's defeat afterwards, you would wonder if he is beyond waking up.

"I believe the goal was offside today. And that is absolutely scandalous, that every single decision in the last three or four months...."

He trails off here, perhaps at last losing belief in his own narrative of self-pity.

Suarez was, marginally, offside just before Miquel unluckily knocked the ball off Ramsey, over Szczesny and into the net. But this idea that "every decision" is going against Arsenal? First of all, why is he even dwelling on last season? Secondly, if he wants to dwell on last season, surely it would be more constructive to acknowledge Arsenal's tendency towards self-destruction, rather than blaming it all on some imagined official bias.

Maybe when Wenger talks of decisions in the last few months, he should talk about his own decisions in the transfer market. Spending substantial amounts on players of potential, players who cannot make an immediate difference, and ignoring the widely acknowledged need for experience, and for players who can make a difference now.

In some senses, Arsenal suffered bad luck today. They were missing players. Fabregas has departed. Song and Wilshere usually form a stronger base in midfield- both were missing. With Djourou and Gibbs out, losing Koscielny early on was harsh luck. It left Arsenal with three very inexperienced players on the pitch- Jenkinson at right back, Miquel alongside Vermaelen, Frimpong in central midfield. Sagna was out of position at left back, and Nasri was playing for a team that he wants to leave. None of this is ideal, and some of it is bad luck.

But "luck" is an overused word in football. Arsene Wenger had a long summer in which to get the Arsenal house in order, and he has failed to do so. That is what I personally find scandalous, over and above the fact that the linesman failed to spot Suarez a few inches offside.

He was surely aware of the likelihood of Fabregas's eventual departure. And of Nasri's desire to leave. Yet Arsenal have done no business as yet that will ease those losses.

Apparently, Arsenal missed out on signing Juan Mata because they allowed a deadline to pass and a buy-out clause to go out of date. That, too, is scandalous. If the club knows they are practically certain to receive sizable sums for two departing players, why are they still acting like they don't have money to spend?

Except, of course, on players that are young, have no experience of top-level football, and are unlikely to make much of a difference this season.

They may be stars of the future, but Arsenal need to start thinking of the short term, because make no mistake, there is a scrap on for 4th place this season.

Also on the subject of bad luck, it is not bad luck that got Alex Song suspended, it was stupidity. Likewise Gervinho.

And Frimpong's second yellow today was not remotely unlucky- it could have been a straight red. He is naive, enthusiastic. If you keep inviting a reliance on young and naive players, that's the kind of "luck" you get.

In summation, it was not a totally unexpected result, considering the shape Arsenal are in at the moment. That Arsenal are in such a mess is, in my view, solely down to the manager, and he deserves little sympathy. There is a bad atmosphere around the club at the moment, and booing at the end of the season's first home game, played in such difficult circumstances, is disappointing; but it's also understandable.

The players did not fall short in terms of effort and I think it should be understood that the jeers are not really directed at them but at their manager. The bad atmosphere was present at the end of last season, but the arrogant Wenger has allowed it to grow and grow over a summer of inaction and that, more than injuries or misfortune, is the reason Arsenal are in a sorry state at the moment.

Only three points were lost today, on the face of it, but it does not bode well for the rest of the season, or indeed for the next few days. The squad is already decimated, confidence is low, and Udinese will scent blood in their efforts to overturn a narrow deficit in that vital Champions League qualifier. Then, next weekend, it'e very hard to see how Arsenal can get a result at Old Trafford.

The manager's downbeat demeanour is also a bad sign so early in the season. As is the constant flipping and flopping over Nasri. Should he stay or should he go? Is there any plan at all?

If August continues in such a miserable vein, it becomes more likely that Wenger will abandon his trademark caution and make the kind of signings we should have had tied up weeks ago. But even with some worthy additions, it's already shaping up to be a very difficult season.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patronising, Moi?

Greatness can breed hubris.

Arsene Wenger is (was?) a great man, a great manager.

He transformed Arsenal FC.

But these days, he often sound arrogant, stubborn, out of touch.

He had the nerve to suggest that the Arsenal fans who are voicing their justifiable frustrations have been manipulated into that position by the media.

What a patronising attitude.

Everybody saw the embarrassing way Wenger's team imploded last season.

Everybody read his promise to mend the team through a summer of action.

Everybody has held their breath through a summer of inaction.

And everybody has seen Arsenal's best player, and one of their better ones, seek a way out.

There is no need for the media to put any spin on that.

People are capable of forming their own opinions.

But Wenger has become so arrogant he no longer respects any opinion but his own.

Even if the opinion is coming from real Arsenal supporters.

His name is Arsene. The club's name is Arsenal. If someone was new to watching football, and saw the way he runs the club, they would be forgiven for thinking that he created the club and named it after himself. He is a dictator and he no longer heeds dissenting voices.

It is not a healthy state of affairs.

Fabregas 2003-2011

Any reasonable man could only be happy for Cesc Fabregas. He has gotten his wish- a move back home, to play for the best team in the world, the best team many of us have ever seen.

As an Arsenal fan, however, his departure is a sad moment. It sums up Arsenal's current status as a selling club- developing talent, then feeding it to the big boys.

Before, Arsene Wenger got the best out of his big players before they moved on. Overmars, Petit, Vieira, Henry. Their best years were at Arsenal.

Cesc Fabregas is only 24. At Arsenal, the total reward for his endeavours, in trophy terms, is a solitary FA Cup, won in flukey fashion against Manchester United in 2005.

Few would deny that he is moving on to better things, even if he might have to sit on the bench for a while. In fact, considering his recent injury-plagued seasons, some bench time may be the very best thing for Cesc at the moment.

He goes from being Arsenal's top dog to another mega-talented cog in the well-oiled Barca machine.

Fabregas may well, in the final analysis, be seen as the greatest player who ever played for Arsenal. The lack of success at the club during his time there is not down to Fabregas. In a cruel twist of fate, his best years at Arsenal came at a time when the club could not afford to spend substantial amounts of money.

Arsenal's other recent midfield great, Vieira, left weighed down with medals. But he played with Bergkamp, Petit, Overmars, Henry, the old back four, Seaman, Ljungberg, Pires, Gilberto, Campbell... throughout his Arsenal career, Vieira was a big character in a team of big characters.

Fabregas was blooded alongside Gilberto and Vieira in the 04/05 season. After that season, Vieira left, and from then on, experienced players were sold, and not brought in. By 07/08, Fabregas was the team's de facto leader, despite his youth. The squad was now so light on leaders that the mentally fragile William Gallas was given the armband. This ended in well-documented disaster, and Fabregas was made captain in 08/09.

For the last three seasons, Fabregas has been asked to carry some fairly mediocre players. Patrick Vieira never had to do that. He fought admirably for the cause, but you can't help feeling depressed over the last few years. One of the finest midfielders in the world, but without a team worthy of his talent. The last good partner he had was Flamini (07/08). Maybe Diarra could have complimented him well, but Wenger ditched him, even in the knowledge that Flamini was likely to leave on a free that summer. And when Xabi Alonso wanted to join Arsenal at the start of 08/09, the move collapsed because of some trademark Arsenal penny-pinching. Missed opportunities abound. Fabregas has had some very kind words for Wenger, but I think the manager let his best player down.

It has been an extended period of transition- one still ongoing- and whatever Wenger's public proclamations, the club's main priority has been to qualify every year for the Champions League.

They have done so. Without Fabregas, this would not have been the case. Will it continue to be the case, now that he's gone?

The Post-Cesc Era Begins: Arsenal 1-0 Udinese

A good result, considering the team Arsenal fielded. The season is only beginning, but the squad is already stretched almost to breaking point.

Two clean sheets from two games may suggest signs of a new defensive solidity, but scorelines can be misleading. Arsenal's high line was broken with disturbing ease at times. This happened as much through unforgivable sloppiness from those in red as it did from Udinese's creative prowess.

That said, the Italians remain a very decent side, despite some high profile departures in the summer. The Italian season has not yet started, but they still looked the more coherent outfit.

Arsenal's nerves were, of course, not helped by successive injuries to Gibbs and his replacement Djourou, leaving Karl Jenkinson to enter the fray second half. Yet another injury to Gibbs; the fact that Arsenal need a new left back is blindingly obvious to all but Arsene Wenger.

The early goal was pleasingly direct and well-taken by Walcott. Sagna's ball over the top was clever, Ramsey's run and perfect cross provided a snapshot of the kind of cutting edge he is capable of providing, and the winger's confident finish was another reminder that he would be more comfortable up front than falling over himself on the wing.

After that, a clean sheet was paramount. That Arsenal kept Udinese out was largely down to Szczesny, who had a very solid game. But the tie remains very much alive. Di Natale was unlucky on occasion- his free kick rattled the bar and he was also denied by an excellent Djourou block- and one feels he will fancy his chances against the Arsenal rearguard next week.

Marouane Chamakh's wretched display provides yet more cause for worry. The hope at the start of this summer was that Wenger and Gazidis, having watched on in horror as the team collapsed last spring, had a concrete plan as to how to get the Gunners back on track this season. All the evidence suggests that there is no real plan at all, or that Wenger's plan is a very risky one, perhaps one only he understands.

With Gervinho apparently earmarked for a role as a wide forward, and Bendtner apparently on his way out, Chamakh is the squad's only obvious understudy for the notoriously brittle Van Persie.

But Chamakh is suffering from a clear, extended crisis of confidence. It is easy to forget how impressive he was when he was Arsenal's only fit striker in the early days of 10/11, and we cannot say that he will not be impressive again, but he is certainly struggling at the moment. He has not had a decent game in 2011.

Van Persie's injury record suggests that Chamakh will at some point this season have to shoulder the burden up front. Is Wenger confident in his ability to do so? It is far from an ideal situation. But Arsenal have stopped dealing in ideal situations.

In 09/10, Wenger practically threw Arsenal's title hopes out the window with his refusal to sign a striker in January when Arsenal did not have a single fit front man. He knew Chamakh was coming for free in the summer, and so he sat on his hands, and we were presented with the ridiculous spectacle of Arshavin playing as centre forward in a couple of massive games.

There is uncertainty in every area of the pitch. Szczesny is a goalkeeper of great promise, but his understudy is a mistake waiting to happen. The defensive unit is suspect and ravaged by constant injury. Squillaci is seen, rightly or wrongly, as one of Wenger's worst signings. Of course, the defensive burden should be shared by the team as a whole, and when the most defensive-minded of your midfielders is the strolling, complacent Alex Song, you know you're in trouble.

What the central area lacks in solidity, it may now also lack in creativity. Europe's most prolifically inventive midfielder has just left, and two young, promising British players look as if they will be tasked with replacing him. No pressure, lads.

Up front, a strikeforce that looked toothless through much of last season may look even less threatening without Fabregas's service. Van Persie's record in 2011 speaks for itself, but so does his injury record, and Arsenal don't have another player with the same goal threat. Walcott is a good finisher but in Arsenal's current formation he can only play on the wing, and on the wing he often looks clueless. Arshavin is undeniably talented but also erratic and frustrating. Nasri could be on his way, and even if he stays another year, few would trust his attitude to hold up very well. Gervinho looks a decent signing but will take time to bed in.

2010/11 was a thoroughly unconvincing campaign. Arsenal, despite the myth to the contrary, did not often thrill with their football, and their contention in the title race was the result of glaring weaknesses in all the other challengers. They collapsed so completely in the final weeks that they finished 4th in a two horse race.

Despite fighting talk at the end of that season, Arsenal have now embarked on the new one with the squad clearly weakened. Fabregas is gone, Nasri is going, and while some of the perceived dead wood has been cleared, the only new arrivals are young players unproven at the highest level. Arsenal were very weak last May and now they are weaker.

It is hard to see Arsenal navigating the next three games with anything other than great difficulty. There may well be uproar at the first negative result. Wenger will see it as unfair but he alone has engineered this situation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

False Start: Newcastle 0-0 Arsenal

Considering the current state of things at Arsenal, an away point can be seen as a decent start. It can be.

It can also be seen as worrying. Arsenal's next two league games are against Liverpool and Manchester United. If those games don't go well, then a point at St. James' Park will look like a bad result.

The performance did not provide much cause for optimism either. Against a very ordinary Newcastle team, Arsenal failed to create chances. Van Persie looked unfit and with the Dutchman not carrying his usual threat, the Gunners looked lacking in ammunition. At the start of the game there was a good tempo and signs that Gervinho can help restore a more direct thrust to Arsenal's play in the final third, but as the contest wore on, you became more aware of the Cesc-shaped hole in the middle of the pitch. Wilshere's absence did not help matters. But for one exquisite dink over the top from Arshavin that should have been buried by a dithering Van Persie, Arsenal lacked invention. Rosicky played well but he is nearly as incisive as Fabregas and while Ramsey has abundant potential, his passing game remains slightly erratic.

More happily, Newcastle posed little threat themselves. Koscielny and Vermaelen linked well and comfortably repelled most of what the Magpies had to offer- which was, in fairness, very little. Unfortunately, not every Premier League forward is as impotent as Shola Ameobi.

The main talking point stemmed not from the insipid footballing "action" but from a late bout of handbags that saw debutant Gervinho dismissed. The new boy went down easily under a challenge in the area- replays showed that there was some contact and thus a penalty may have been justly awarded- and the wonderfully entertaining Joey Barton arrived frothing at the mouth. He grabbed Gervinho, yanked him around a bit, and as players crowded around, was felled by a slight slap to the chops. In an ironic twist, Barton, having been enraged by what he perceived as brazen play-acting, clearly informed some Arsenal players that he had been punched.

To find out what a punch looks like, check out YouTube, where you can find CCTV footage of Joey Barton beating seven shades of shit out of a man during a night out.

It is greatly amusing, and a little disturbing, that a man twice convicted of assault can get high and mighty about the idea of gamesmanship, especially when he then responds with his own act of, well, gamesmanship. But I do enjoy Joey Barton. He's more entertaining than the football was on Saturday.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bad Mood Rising

The cynic in me is tempted to say that the draw with NY Red Bulls at the weekend represented the end of Arsenal's hopes of silverware for another season.

But seriously: jeers at the end of a friendly game? Has the world gone mad?

Arsenal's fickle followers are finding new ways to voice their disapproval. It seems ludicrous that a draw in an essentially meaningless game can have any negative effect, let alone provoke such discontent, but that is a measure of the mood around the club. The supporters are clearly angry that there has not been more pressure on Wenger to succeed from the board, and they are compensating by voicing their own doubts about the manager.

The games against Boca and New York did showcase failings that are frustratingly familiar, but the booing was about so much more than that. There was talk as the summer began that Arsenal would be active in rebuilding a malfunctioning team. So far, with the new season closing in, that talk has proven empty. It has been a struggle getting rid of the unwanted players. And as for bringing in new blood, Wenger seems to be falling back on the old option of waiting to see which of our stars leaves, and for how much, before searching for replacements.

People would feel a lot better about the possibly impending departure of the skipper if a player of similar, established quality had already been brought in. Hell, if Wenger's ambition was really, as he claims, to keep players like Fabregas and Nasri, the best way to do it would be by buying more top class players.

By refusing to do so, for whatever reason- idealistic stubborness, lack of funds- he can surely only reinforce the desire Fabregas and Nasri to seek a new start.

The manager is on shakier ground than ever before, as illustrated by the behaviour of the fans at the Emirates Cup. It was unsavoury, sure, but it's an apt example of just how pissed off a lot of people are.

Wenger is not acting as sure-footed as he once did. His desire is to exact the right price from Barcelona, but if the debacle drags on until the end of this month, who will win the game of bluff? Is Wenger really going to hold the boy against his will? For another season lacking in real promise at Arsenal? Barcelona may well be playing a clever game. Wenger does not want an unhappy player on his hands, no matter how talented that player is.

What, then, of the Nasri situation? It seems the manager is willing to keep him another season, then lose him for free. That suggests that, with Fabregas gone, Wenger does not see adequate replacements on the market and feels that losing Nasri too could lead to collapse.

But is Nasri the kind of character to pull up his socks and try to inspire a team he knows he will soon leave? I have grave doubts about that. And Wenger would only be postponing the problem of replacing him. And would have less money with which to do so.

They used to say Arsene Knows. It doesn't seem likely that the boss, or anyone around the club, knows quite what's in store for the coming season. But there's a bad mood rising, and the fixture list has thrown up a difficult start.

In the recent past, Arsene Wenger would have been astronomical odds to lose his job during the course of a season. Those days are over. The team that can't handle pressure will have to deal with it from the get-go in this camppaign. Can they dig the manager out of this hole? Can he take his head out of his own?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bendtner: Hard Done By?

It will be hard to banish the memory of last season's troubles, but some of the men who played a starring role in the collapse look to be on the way out.

Eboue will leave us with the memory of that foul, Bendtner with the memory of that miss. Almunia will leave us with a scrapbook of calamitous moments.

But Bendtner's apparent status as dead wood seems a little unfair. His constant self-promotion does invite ridicule, because he is often clumsy and wasteful and does not deserve the lavish praise he gives himself.

But more than anyone else in the last couple of seasons, he has given Arsenal a different dimension in attack. He has also- and this cannot be said of many Arsenal players- never hidden, and did a lot to give Arsenal a chance in 09/10, scoring some important goals.

Chamakh started exceptionally, but as it stands now, who would you back to score an important goal for Arsenal in a big game? Chamakh is an amazingly shot-shy striker- a practical parody of the perception that Arsenal "always try to walk it in". He may be a better team player and is as strong in the air as Bendtner but he is less of a goal threat overall and has not as yet looked comfortable in an Arsenal shirt.

The great contrast between Bendtner and Chamakh is that one has a cocksure arrogance and the other looks to be full of self-doubt. Neither of them are world class strikers but when the chips are down you'd rather have a man who believes in his own greatness than one who is all-too-aware of his own limitations.

Bendtner has been scapegoated for many things- his inadvertent block of Fabregas's shot against Liverpool in that Champions League tie will live long in the memory- but at the end of the day, it's not his fault that Arsenal are chokers. In fact, he's less a choker than many of the other more lauded members of the squad.

Friday, July 29, 2011

More Summertime Ramblings

Arsenal are being heavily linked with a couple of pricey moves- for Everton's Phil Jagielka and Valencia's Juan Mata.

The news suggests that a Fabregas move is only a matter of time. There is no way Wenger would spend 15 million on Jagielka and 20 on Mata, on top of the 10 on Gervinho, if there was not a substantial amount coming in.

If I may speculate, the plan is probably this: push through those two moves and, if Barcelona offer around 40 million, send Cesc home.

It's hard to see Fabregas staying any longer even if Arsenal have to compromise and accept a bit less. Wenger wants to get what the player is worth, but he has never been a man to hold onto an unhappy player and Fabregas clearly doesn't want to hang around anymore.

It's a strange situation. He's by far Arsenal's best and most important player, and he would walk into any team in the world- except Barcelona. Barcelona are being asked to spend 40 million on player who would in all likelihood warm the bench for much of the next season or two. You can understand their reluctance to pay big bucks, but they have engineered this situation. They could have waited a year or two to make their move, and then Xavi would be at an age where he would probably welcome some bench time himself. Instead, they have waged a relentless campaign to unsettle a player they want but don't really need. Fabregas's desire to go home and win some medals is palpable, but I'd love it if he realised that Barcelona are being disrespectful to both him and Arsenal, and decided to hang about for one last tilt at the title with the Gunners. I'd certainly rather Fabregas stay one more year and leave for 40 million than Nasri stay one more year and leave for nothing. Sadly, it seems the latter is much more likely.

Jagielka- a good player. He has Premiership experience and that, more than anything, is what Arsenal need at the back. Again, it seems Wenger has decided against bringing in a more physically imposing centre back. Samba and Cahill may be bigger men but Jagielka is a better player and his name alongside those of Vermaelen, Djourou and Koscielny makes up, on paper at least, a very strong quartet of central defenders.

But don't be surprised if both of these mooted deals fall through. This is Arsene's Arsenal after all.