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?