Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Neverending Transition

Arsene Wenger's utopian project was supposed to conjure progress and stability.

Instead, his team is in a constant state of change. This summer, its captain and only truly world class player looks certain to depart. That means that in season 11/12, the Arsenal team will again have a very different look to it.

A team that was built around Fabregas, and often looked rudderless without him, will have to find yet another new image.

Serious questions remain over the mercurial talent that is Samir Nasri, and many other players besides, meaning that Wenger may be forced into more rebuilding than he has ever had to undertake in the course of one summer.

Any real sense of continuity or stability is being lost. Consider the centre backs that Arsenal used last season- Vermaelen had only one year of PL experience. Squillaci and Koscielny had the sum total of none. Djourou had been around quite a while but never played many games. And people wondered why Arsenal lacked defensive nous.

Alex Song will probably be the senior member of Arsenal's first choice midfield next season- and he remains a young player whose game is speckled with naivety.

While Robin Van Persie is a player of immense talent, and impressed many with the way he reportedly confronted the idiotic Abou Diaby at half time of the Blackpool away game last season, the extent to which he can lead the team is compromised by his constant vulnerability to injury.

Many young, inexperienced, or just plain stupid players leads to many mistakes. And many mistakes leads to no trophies. Players like Fabregas and Nasri will always want to win trophies.

The mooted replacements and new signings do not suggest an easy consolidation of Arsenal's top four ranking. Arsenal have been heavily linked with centre backs from Bolton, Blackburn and Everton. Gervinho has performed well for Lille, but the French league is an unreliable barmometer of quality. Juan Mata would be a rare exciting signing but Arsenal are unlikely to stump up the necessary cash, particularly if other Premiership clubs show an interest.

Arsenal might well spend this summer replacing very good players with merely good ones, and clearly, that is not a recipe for great improvement, especially under a manager who has little interest in the tactical or defensive sides of the game.

The transition continues. 2004-????

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fabregas Leaves and Nasri Stays?

It has been suggested in some quarters that Arsene Wenger would reluctantly accept one of Barca's borderline-insulting bids for our wantaway captain if Samir Nasri would finally commit to a new deal.

It's generally believed that Nasri's best position is the one that Fabregas has been playing in. He would definitely prefer it to playing out wide, and so there is even a possibility that the loss of Fabregas would help persuade the Frenchman to stay.

That said, he has surely sullied his relationship with the Arsenal fans through his behaviour this summer. Fabregas has remained dignified throughout the last year or so. We all know he wants to go. I think he deserves to go. It makes me sad to say it, but he's too good for Arsenal. He deserves to win the kind of trophies that he is unlikely to win at Arsenal.

Despite all that, he has not rocked the boat, and he has not handed in a transfer request.

Nasri, off the back of a season which was one half brilliant and one near-anonymous, is apparently looking for more money, and also flirting with the affections of a very bitter rival in Manchester United. He has been fairly brash about the whole affair, and some might say this is indicative of a petulant character.

People enjoyed his fued with William Gallas, because Gallas is viewed with disdain by most Arsenal fans, but Nasri does seem overly cocky for someone who, like practically all of his Arsenal team mates, has achieved nothing.

In the summer of 2008, after a superb goalscoring season, Emmanuel Adebayor indulged in some self-promotion on the transfer market, and although he did stay for one more year, he was often booed mercilessly by his own unforgiving fans. Although Nasri has not been quite as shameless in touting himself to other clubs, it will be interesting to see how the fans treat him should he still be at the Emirates in August.

Will he play out the final year, as Flamini did? He surely won't be allowed to. Wenger will want the situation resolved soon. He would hate to lose a player that he bought for more than 10 million and not even receive a transfer fee.

But to lose Fabregas and Nasri in one summer, and without much chance, considering Wenger's usual spending policy, of bringing in replacements of equal calibre, will raise yet more questions as to where exactly the club is going.

One last note: the idea that Nasri could replace Fabregas is very contentious. If creativity is measured by the ability to create chances for team mates, statistics show that Fabregas is the most creative player across the top leagues of Europe. Outside of the team he wants to join, he is arguably the world's best midfield player, certainly one of the very best passers.

Nasri is a very different player. He is a better dribbler than Fabregas but has nothing like the Spaniard's vision or passing ability. If Arsene Wenger hopesto replace Fabregas from within- and it is a viable, if risky, option- there are a number of possibilities, but all would entail a slight change of emphasis and style.

Arshavin, Nasri, Ramsey, the near-forgotten Rosicky and even Wilshere would enjoy playing in the role that the captain fills in the current formation. None of them are close to Fabregas, however, in terms of consistently incisive passing.

Nasri is more of a tricky, individual player. Arshavin is a direct dribbler, and also a goal threat, but Wenger has never given him a chance in a central role, and with his apparent decline over the last season, it's unlikely to happen now. Ramsey might play off the front in a style more similar to Steven Gerrard than Fabregas. Wilshere may be the closest thing Arsenal have to another Fabregas but his performances in a more withdrawn role have been so convincing that Wenger is unlikely to upset his development with a positional shift.

There is also the possibility that Wenger could switch back to some sort of 4-4-2. It's easy to forget that Wenger used to be a 4-4-2 disciple. Robin Van Persie would relish the chance to play a role similar to the one Rooney adopted behind Hernandez for much of last season- and the one his fellow Dutchman, the great Dennis Bergkamp, played with such distinction in his years at Arsenal.

Alternatively, and this is one I'd like to see tried, Van Persie could play up top with Arshavin floating around behind him. But the fact is, with so many players who prefer to play as the central creative force in a midfield three, and the lingering question over whether we have the players to play wide in a 4-4-2, Wenger is unlikely to deviate from the formation used last season.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Clichy: Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

When Ashley Cole left Arsenal in such acrimonious circumstances in 2006, there was widespread belief amongst Arsenal fans that it wasn't that bad a deal. Arsenal had received money, and William Gallas. And Gael Clichy had always looked too good to just play understudy all his career. People thought he was ready to step up.

So how did that work out?

Well, Gallas was a fine defender. But he and Kolo Toure did not form a complimentary partnership. They were probably too similar- quick and hard to beat along the ground, relatively weak in the air.

Then there was the legacy of his season as captain. In 07/08, he started in inspirational mood, scoring some important goals. But as Arsenal suffered the first of many title race implosions in recent years, Gallas buckled under the pressure. He exploded at Birmingham after a certain Mr. Clichy gave away a penalty with a mistake of awe-inspiring stupidity.

He was eventually stripped of the captaincy but fans never really forgave Gallas for his tantrum at the end of the Birmingham game. It was pretty embarrassing stuff, but I always felt for Gallas a bit. He had come from Chelsea, where he was surrounded by big characters, to Arsenal, where he was asked to be the big character. He was never really captain material.

His poor relationship with Toure meant that Kolo left in 2009, and his poor relationship with Nasri probably contributed to Gallas's own departure in 2010. In other words, while it was not all Gallas's fault, he ended up causing more problems than he solved in his time at Arsenal.

But what about Clichy- how did he fare in trying to replace Ashley Cole?

Being lenient, you would say he has been an adequate left back, but certainly not as good as his predecessor. Being a little more harsh, but honest, you would say that he has often been a downright liability. 07/08 may well have been his best season- he even produced a few decent crosses for once- but it was tarnished in a big way by the aforementioned mistake against Birmingham. And it's not as if we hadn't been warned- he made a very similar error, one that also cost Arsenal a goal but not the game, against Manchester City a few weeks earlier. His game has been sprinkled with errors ever since that season. His concentration and consistency are just not up to scratch. You won't win titles with a left back like that.

Clichy's problems are made more clear by Sagna on the other side, who is a real seven out of ten every week full back- solid and reliable. He is better in defence and, although not a frightening player going forward, he is certainly more productive than Clichy- although he could also do with improving his crossing.

The sad fact is, as much as Arsenal fans would hate to admit it, they have missed Ashley Cole hugely. He has almost always, since his departure, been one of the two or three best left backs in the world. When Clichy first came to Arsenal and broke into the team while Cole was injured, there was genuine hope that Wenger had unearthed a Cole Clone. The truth has been rather different. In fact, Mathieu Flamini was a more reliable defender at left back in the run to the Champions League final of 2006 than Clichy has ever been.

Now, with a year to run on his contract, Clichy has refused a new deal and seems certain to leave this summer. Because of his contract situation, it will be a cut-price deal, and Liverpool have apparently just offered 5 million pounds for his services.

Wenger may be loathe to sell to a fellow Premiership club, but while Clichy has been a decent servant to the club, and was no doubt a popular figure in the largely French dressing room, he should not be sorely missed.

Some will now suggest the promotion of Kieran Gibbs but that would be a little rash. His impact in the games he has played has often been overstated- as these things often are where young English players are concerned. More importantly, he spends far too much time out injured to be trusted with the role. In other words, it looks like Arsene Wenger has yet another pressing transfer priority for this summer- a reliable left back.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Penny-Pinching a Problem

United have spent 16 million pounds to bring in Phil Jones from Blackburn- a player Arsenal might have had an interest in, but certainly not at that price.

Liverpool have spent an initial 13 million, and also given the much-maligned David Ngog to Sunderland in part-exchange, to sign Jordan Henderson.

Jones is just 19, Henderson 20.

It is an understatement to say that they have paid over the odds for the two players. Henderson in particular comes to Anfield off the back of a largely unimpressive season. He broke briefly into the England squad early last campaign but has since struggled to replicate the form that got him there.

Both of the deals represent gambles on potential. They also point to the expensiveness of young English players. Arsenal fans can only hope that these deals do not set the tone for a summer of exorbitant transfer fees, because Arsene Wenger is renowned for refusing to pay a cent more than the value he places on a player.

There is almost always better value in signing foreign players, but I for one have come around to the viewpoint that Arsenal need more English blood. Not all English players, in fact very few, have the talent of Jack Wilshere, but the blatant complacency and lack of commitment from some of Arsenal's Frenchmen has grown tiresome.

And the fact is that most of the time, when an Arsenal player starts to deliver on heir potential, they start to dream of a move to a bigger club. After a season that was one half outstanding and one half borderline-anonymous, Samir Nasri is already looking for a hefty pay rise that he will otherwise get elsewhere.

In the George Graham days, Arsenal had players loyal to the club. In the successful Wenger days, the players were loyal to him. Now, I'm not sure either is the case. Fabregas has already shown some loyalty to the club and the manager who helped make him a star, and Van Persie shows an admirably idealistic commitment to the manager and his vision of the game, but too many of Arsenal's foreign players invite the term "mercenary".

Some English players could help give the squad more character and help mend the bitter relationship that has lately developed between fans and players, but when Bolton are said to be asking 17 million pounds for Gary Cahill, a player with a single year left on his contract, you can't really blame Wenger for looking elsewhere.

One other thing should be said. If Jordan Henderson is worth 20 million or so, Barcelona should double the money they have apparently been bidding for Cesc Fabregas.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Where Are We Going?

Arsene Wenger has managed to resist some supposed crises in the past but he will do well to get Arsenal back to anywhere near their previous level, if this summer takes the course that seems likely.

Fabregas wants out, has done for quite a time. It's criminal that he never had a shot at winning the big prizes at Arsenal, because his manager surrounded him with mediocre players. There will be no criticism of Cesc when he leaves. Great players want to win trophies and there is little chance that Arsenal will win the Premiership or Champions League any time soon.

Samir Nasri is flirting with Manchester United, of all teams, and with only a year left on his contract, and no sign of the new offer being accepted, he too looks ready to jump ship. While players like Abou Diaby have been rewarded for their lack of impact with contract extensions, Nasri's contract has, amazingly, been allowed to play out.

Arsene Wenger has, for too long, had too much faith in the lesser elements of his squad. And now, clearly, some of his better players are losing faith in him.

His flawed project is now in danger of damaging the club. Optimistic fans were hoping for a clear out this summer, but they envisaged the sale of dead wood, and that Fabregas, Nasri and the other players of quality would be added to.

Instead, it may well be that some of the dead wood are set for a promotion.