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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Modric: The Missing Piece in Chelsea's Champions League Jigsaw?

For an expereince Chelsea side with an inexperienced manager at the helm, the Champions League remains top priority. In the Premiership, Drogba, Terry, Lampard and co have tasted success. But their hunger for European glory grows as their careers wind down. Terry in particular must surely be haunted by his penalty miss in the 2008 final's shootout against Manchester United.

There is a real sense now that it will be difficult for any club to challenge Barcelona's European dominance, but we should not forget that in 2009, Chelsea were seconds from beating them. If their power has always troubled Barca, it has been a lack of guile that has left them short against Inter in 2010, United in 2011, even as far back as Liverpool in 2005 and 2007.

Since the days of Mourinho, Chelsea have never operated with a central orchestrator- someone like Deco in Mourinho's Porto, or Sneijder in his Inter Milan. Lampard has played for years in a similar position, but in a very different style. While his consistent performances and impressive goalscoring feats have proven invaluable to Chelsea over the years, he has never looked like conjuring a creative piece of magic in a tight European game. And his central role in the team has left no room for a playmaker to flourish.

Lampard is now 33 and ought to be moving towards the end of a fine career. He showed signs of decline last season and these facts suggest that Chelsea's pursuit of Luka Modric is very much warranted. With Lampard on the way out, Chelsea have the opportunity to build their midfield around a different kind of player, one who will not score half as many goals but who could potentially revolutionise their often insipid style and, vitally, make chances for Torres.

If Torres recaptures his best form, and nudges Drogba aside, and Modric arrives and does the same to Lampard, it should freshen up Chelsea's style. And it could also make them a real threat in Europe.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Liverpool clearly miss Alonso...

...because they've just bought Charlie Adam for 7 million!!

Kenny Dalglish's policy of filling his squad with overpriced English talent continues- he's also pursuing Stewart Downing, for whom Aston Villa want a whopping 19 million.

Xabi Alonso has been a huge loss for Liverpool. Their midfield has never since shown anything like his expansive passing range, and Steven Gerrard in particular has faded badly since he lost the partner that really made the team tick.

Liverpool went from challenging for the title in 08/09, with Alonso setting the tempo, to struggling throughout the following two seasons with the Spaniard in Madrid.

Now, it seems, Dalglish is looking to replicate Alonso's impact with the signing of Adam. Adam does share the Spain player's ablity to ping inch-perfect passes over long distances, and his set piece deliveries are excellent.

But his weaknesses may attract more notice in a high profile team like Liverpool. His plodding pace is another attribute he shares with Alonso, but he does not have the Spaniard's ability to shield the ball, and is too often caught in possession- sometimes in dangerous areas in front of his defence.

His constant reversion to long, raking passes can become repetitive, and his accuracy is not totally consistent. Liverpool already have one midfielder who habitually pings over-ambitious Hollywood balls to cede possession; two may be too many.

But at 7 million, it's hardly the riskiest deal we've seen Liverpool seal recently.

Nasri: Dangerous Game

Word is that Arsenal have already rejected a bid of almost 20 million for the wantaway Frenchman, from Manchester United, and told them to come back with 5 million more.

It's a daring ploy, because 20 million is already a hell of a lot of money for a player entering the final year of his contract. Even if he is wonderfully talented. United may draw the line there.

But perhaps the point is to lure Manchester City, who would of course be more obviously willing to part with a substantial sum.

For Nasri personally, United would be the more obvious fit. Alex Ferguson would grant him far more attacking freedom than would Roberto Mancini.

Money may talk on City's behalf, but if playing style and prestige are a concern, then United ought to be Nasri's first choice.

Either way, his likely departure is an ominous sign for Arsenal. All of the clubs linked with his signature- United, Chelsea, and City- finished above Arsenal last season, and all are looking to strengthen while for the Gunners, there is only a struggle to stand still. Genuine, lasting progress on the pitch has been elusive for some time, and as long as the squad is in flux, with some of its better players so often leaving for new pastures, it would be unrealistic to expect trophies or glory.

As it stands, this is the summer that Arsenal's true standing in the game really hit home. There were hopes that the Emirates Stadium would help elevate Arsenal to a higher plane, and that may still be so, but so far it is a slow, laborious process. The lack of any injection of cash from a member of the board, the lack of megabucks sponsorship deals, and the lack, until this summer, of clever commercial initiatives to open up new markets, has ensured that Arsenal's progress as a club has been minimal, in terms of their financial power. As Myles Palmer says, at Highbury, they were the world's biggest small club, and at the Emirates, they are the world's smallest big club.

So, sadly, although his own behaviour has been despicable, especially when contrasted with that of Fabregas and Clichy in similar situations, there remains an element of truth to Nasri's claims that his desire to leave stems from a sense of ambition. There seems, for the next few years at least, a concrete limit to what Arsenal can achieve. United and City both won trophies last year and have the potential to win many more. And if money is a factor, so what? Only in football are people condemned for wanting to move to a job with better money.

We may debate Nasri's class and his character, and whether he has really earned the right to demand astronomical wages, but the fact that he has attracted the interest of three better teams speaks for itself. He has great quality and the basis for his desire to leave is fairly sound. The way he has conducted himself, however, leaves a bitter taste.

But that's the way of Arsenal in recent years. One season's hero is that summer's wantaway villain. Wenger's frugal policy has not bred success, and that perhaps is forgivable. But nor has it bred loyalty in his best players. So he will spend more on potential, develop that potential into another star, the star will decide he's too bright for the Emirates, and the cycle will continue.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cesc: Liberation Theory


It looks like the captain is set to finally get his move. His feelings are clear, and few would have any ill will towards him.

Barcelona stil refuse to pay the money they should. Arsenal apparently want 40 million, and in fairness, considering some of the prices we have seen paid in the last few years, and indeed this summer, for lesser players, 40 million should be a minimum asking price.

He is probably the best midfielder in the world outside of the Barcelona team. The irony being, he is going to the one place where he will not be guaranteed a starting place.

Of course, the last time Arsenal lost their "captain and best player" was with the departure of Thierry Henry in 2007, also to Barcelona. Despite the apparent enormity of this loss, and the lack of a marquee replacement (Eduardo da Silva was brought in), Arsenal were much better in 07/08 than in 06/07. They led the league table for much of the season, only to suffer the now-familiar implosion in the run-in. Throughout the season, there was a sense that players who had been happy playing second fiddle to the "star" of the team were now taking on more responsibility, and thriving.

Numerous individuals, and the team as a whole, showed massive improvement on the previous season.

So does this memory offer cause for cautious optimism in the face of Fabregas's impending flight?

It is certainly likely that some players have looked to Fabregas to win games for Arsenal, and been happy with their own smaller share of the responsibility. Fabregas is a ceaselessly creative player and the onus was always on him to make the chances, despite the fact that Arsenal have plenty more players who would call themselves "creative midfielders".

In the space Henry left up front in 2007, Adebayor came into his own, transforming himself from an often frustrating, clumsy forward into a strong, pacey goal machine a la Drogba. Could one of Arsenal's remaining midfielders step up in similar fashion after Fabregas leaves? There will certainly be high hopes for Wilshere and Ramsey, and this may make Wenger reluctant to splash cash on an obvious, direct replacement for the Spaniard.

But overall, the expectation has to be that Arsenal will struggle without their skipper. The nucleus of players at the Emirates now is not as strong as it was in 2007. And let's not forget that Fabregas himself was already an outstanding player despite his youth. He made huge strides at the time, adding goals to his trademark vision. He was helped by the fact that Mathieu Flamini made amazing progress, from a squad player to a midfield lynchpin. Much will depend now on whether one of our current "squad players" can show the kind of desire to improve that Flamini did. Diaby? Denilson? I don't think so. Perhaps Alex Song will continue his steady progress, but the suspicion is that Arsenal need an injection of true grit in the centre of the pitch.

Fundamental to this debate is the difference in personality between Henry and Fabregas. Neither could be called natural leaders, but Henry was often an unpleasant, overbearing character and this certainly affected team mates at times. Just ask Jose Reyes.

Fabregas is just as talismanic a figure as Henry was, but he does not have the rampaging ego, and was never seen berating or staring down team mates. You could say that oftentimes, the team played for Henry, but Fabregas always played for the team. His vision and passing ability invite comparison to Dennis Bergkamp- they share a status as the kind of players who make lesser team mates look better.

In other words, while some players may have been secretly pleased with Henry's departure, it is hard to imagine anyone waving good riddance to Cesc Fabregas. Will they choose to wallow, as they so often do, or will be the catalyst for a revival in some stagnating careers? Over to you, Arshavin, Diaby, Denilson etc.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Goodbye Gael Clichy

The left back has left Arsenal, joining Man City for 7 million.

Because he only had a year remaining on his contract, and because most observers now routinely question both his defensive and attacking prowess, that's decent money.

Whether it's a good deal overall depends on a couple of other factors.

If Wenger is not going to sign a direct replacement, but rather depend on Kieran Gibbs, it's worrying. Gibbs has looked a good player in spells but those spells have come sporadically. He's had more injuries than impressive performances.

We also know that Thomas Vermaelen can play at full back as well as in the centre, and that Arsenal are chasing a centre back, so perhaps a positional shift could be on the cards for the Belgian. That would be a pity considering his impressive first season, but he would surely provide more solidity on the left of Arsenal's defence than Clichy ever did.

Of course, after his almost season-long absence through 10/11, there is uncertainty now over Vermaelen's fitness aswell.

It would not say much for Arsenal's immediate ambitions if Wenger does not spend on another left back. If he wanted Clichy to stay, then he did not want Gibbs to take over. Allowing a young understudy a first team chance is what Wenger usually does though, so I won't hold my breath for a new signing in this area.

Clichy's Arsenal career has had, at least in the last four years or so, a gradually declining trajectory. When Arsenal had experienced players, Clichy slotted in and although a raw talent, looked like he could develop into a fantastic player.

He has roaring pace and endless stamina, but the mental side of the game has always presented problems for him. His most common defensive contribution of note was to win the ball with interceptions high up the pitch and set up counter attacks. But he was often led a merry dance by tricky wingers, his positional sense is shown up regularly, and as the more experienced pros flooded out of Arsenal, more and more mistakes crept into Clichy's game.

Many now see him as a liability. And the attacking threat suggested by his pace was never really much of a threat, because his final ball is horrendous. He has hardly produced ten decent crosses in his eight years at the club.

And he, more so than William Gallas, proved the catalyst for Arsenal's 2008 implosion. Gallas's meltdown was a response to Clichy's utter stupidity.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Wenger's Revolution: Leaders Out, Mercenaries In?

One possible defence of the Arsenal manager is: He cannot do anything about the mercenary culture in football today. If Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy refuse to accept perfectly fair contract terms, because they get the whiff of bigger bucks elsewhere, what can the manager do? He has taken these players under his wing, trusted them, developed them into stars, and they have betrayed that trust.

But Wenger can hardly cite tradition as an ally when he has done so much in recent years to dismantle Arsenal's on-pitch traditions. Revolutionising the playing style and off-pitch affairs and guiding the club to an unprecedented period of success ensured his status as a legendary Arsenal manager. But has his latest revolution, which seems at the moment an ill-advised one, tarnished his legacy?

Sometimes, vociferous criticisms of Wenger overlook the fact that he moved Arsenal to a bigger stadium, and always acknowledged that this would necessitate an extended period of careful financial management. He has often hinted that the priority in this period was simply a top-four place, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League. And he has also admitted at times that the financial constraints applied by the stadium deal meant Arsenal now needed to sell big before spending substantial amounts.

The problem sometimes arises from Wenger's own muddled rhetoric. If it's true that Arsenal are presently aiming for Champions League football, and are at a disadvantage when it comes to winning the big prizes, perhaps he should stick to that line of thought. It would, of course, prove unpopular with many fans, but it would also be honest.

In the last few seasons, Wenger has played an infuriating game. He talks up his team's chances of winning trophies, even if a lot of the time, their actual performances are not great. And when they implode and end up empty-handed, he reminds everyone that in the current climate, a place in the top four is a trophy in itself. It has been six years, but fans haven't yet forgotten what silverware looks and feels like.

Circumstances in this period have been kind on the one hand, cruel on the other. No other English club has yet emerged with the consistent quality and stability to challenge Arsenal's spot in the top four. So Wenger's primary priority for the last few years has been met, usually comfortably. At the same time, teams above Arsenal have, particularly in the last couple of seasons, been weak by previous title-challenging standards. For long stretches of 09/10 and 10/11, Arsenal seemed close to mounting a serious title charge, even though they never really seemed to have the necessary nous. So it proved in the run-ins both seasons. But fans have been enraged by the perception that success is so close and yet, because of the manager's obsessive frugality (and other personal flaws) so far away.

It has probably surprised the manager that his team have failed to give the fans a little something to cheer for in the shape of a League Cup or FA Cup victory. From that viewpoint, the loss to Birmingham last season in the Carling Cup final- a team that was eventually relegated, remember- represents an almighty gaffe by the Gunners. If they don't banish that memory with some silverware in the next couple of years, that day will surely come to be seen as emblematic of the failures of this Arsenal side.

It was a defeat secured not just by Birmingham's doggedness and determination but by Arsenal's contrasting characteristics. Without Fabregas, they lacked any sort of leadership in an awful first half performance. They should have been more than one down by the time Van Persie volleyed an outstanding equaliser. But he injured himself in the act, soldiered on ineffectively until late in the game, and Arsenal never developed a great deal of momentum. They were given the initiative in the second half by a retreating Birmingham, but failed to create a gilt-edged chance from all that attacking and, in a very Arsenal irony, they managed to present Obafemi Martens with an open goal from Birmingham's only attack of the last half hour or so, one barely worthy of the name.

Koscielny and Szczesny, two rookies playing in spinal positions, handed the game and the trophy to Birmingham.

When you have wilfully built a team of rookies, as Wenger has, without any guiding hand of experience on the pitch, you can't really call it bad luck. 'The Invincibles' were a team of experienced players playing at their peak, or close to it. Henry, Vieira, Pires, Campbell, Edu, Gilberto, Lehmann, Lauren. Arsene Wenger dismantled this team with amazing speed. Clearly, he felt that by selling on some of these players in the years after 03/04, he could secure funds for Arsenal for players who had passed their peak, and also allow young players like Fabregas to establish themselves as the new guard.

Some problems with that: Fabregas is a one-in-a-million talent and Arsenal have not brought in any young players close to his level since. The other youngsters have proven brittle, flakey under pressure, and, as I've argued countless times, their technical excellence is too often overstated.

Perhaps more importantly, Wenger has been far too committed to a policy of selling off senior players. "Passed their peak" does not equate to "useless". When did Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes pass their peak? Quite a long time ago, but they continued to play a central part in United's success over recent seasons. The same was true of Dennis Bergkamp in the twilight of his career.

Quite apart from their refined talents, these guys could provide a guiding influence on the pitch, even in the dressing room. Gilberto Silva was rightly displaced in the team by Mathieu Flamini in 07/08, but was it really necessary to alienate him, then turf him out that summer? Especially when Lassana Diarra and Flamini himself departed at a similar time?

We see the bitter fruit of this agist policy in games like the 2011 Carling Cup final. Arsenal have no leaders, no know-how. And while we may find it easy to dismiss Clichy and Nasri as mercenaries, we should also acknowledge that Arsenal have lost something of their identity in the last few seasons. I don't really mean that in the historic sense. More that the characteristics that brought success in Wenger's early years as manager have been discarded, and the unintentional effect has been to create something of a mercenary culture, where players get itchy feet as soon as bigger, richer, more prestigious clubs come calling.

Whereas before, Wenger chose to profit from the sale of his ageing stars, now his own young stars- Nasri and Fabregas are both 24- choose to leave his project.

I have spoken about Arsenal's lack of on-pitch stability and to understand it, all you have to do is consider a list of experienced, first-team pros who have left even since the initial dismantling of the unbeaten team. It's common for people to talk about the team having changed completely since 03/04, but by the end of this summer, it's likely to be totally unrecognisable from the team that challenged for the title as recently as 07/08.

First eleven from that season: Lehmann; Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky; Van Persie, Adebayor.

The expected departures of Clichy and Fabregas will leave only Sagna and Van Persie. That was Sagna's first season, but Arsenal are in such constant flux that he is now as close as Arsenal have to an established servant.