Thursday, 29 November 2012

Five thoughts on Arsenal's form

Theo Walcott's importance to this team misses the point...
Anybody who knows me or who has read this blog knows that I am far from a Theo Walcott fanboy. Yet even I, in the giddy aftermath of the North London Derby was moved to declare that he had improved a great deal.

This is true. He is playing at a consistently higher level than ever before. He has also hit a purple patch of form and been particularly good for the past couple of months. Even so, it only takes those of us with a memory longer than eight weeks to remember just how appalling he was in his substitute appearance vs Chelsea.

But the truth is he's been good. The issue is he's been no more than that; his importance to the team is more an indictment on our general attacking play. So sure, give him a new contract - but that shouldn't be mutually exclusive with serious attacking reinforcements. And if it is a choice of one or the other, I would choose the new signings; even in his purple patch, Theo has continued to be a flat-track bully with his poorer performances coming against the better teams we've faced.

There's a legitimate case for Arsène Wenger to go…
But unfortunately, it's being made by the wrong people. And in the wrong way.

That Arsenal did not win anything between 2005 and 2011 is of very little bearing to me. I did not believe Arsene Wenger should go then because the team was competitive. So banging a drum about how we've won nothing for seven years and therefore he should go is absurd.

At the beginning of 2007/08, we went on a 22 game unbeaten run. We were a win at Old Trafford away from winning the Premier League and a couple of very dodgy decisions away from a winnable Champions League semi-final against a Chelsea side managed by Avram Grant. That team wasn't rubbish; that team didn't merit the sack.

Even as recently as April 2011, it's worth questioning what happens if Eboue doesn't bundle Lucas over in the 101st minute? Would we have gone on to win the title? Probably not, but maybe. So I don't accept the idea that Wenger's failings are long-term.

The current team is pretty bad. Since Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri and latterly Van Persie left, we are quite clearly a much weaker team. I'm inclined to agree with the manager that third was about as well as the team could hope to have done last season - but I'm also quite happy to hold him responsible for that. He signed the players; the poverty of the squad is largely his fault. I think he's slightly unlikely that the current generation of youngsters (Jack apart) aren't up to much, but he should probably have done something to counter-act that.

As far as I'm concerned, he should stay because no manager could make drastic changes to the playing staff until the summer - but then his position should be seriously considered.

What to say about the lack of saves from our keepers?
It is very hard to work out exactly what is going on in goal. When you concede a lot of shots from outside the box, is it fair to criticise the goalkeeper, the defence, or both? And if both, to what extent is each culpable?

I'm prepared to believe that the skill of our defence means that opposition chances (when they do occur) are of a higher quality because they come from a mistake by one of our players - but that does not excuse our keepers saving nothing.

When there was speculation a couple of years back about Szczesny's contract, everyone wondered what Wenger's issue was; it's pretty obvious now.

It's pretty much impossible to win with substitutions…
I remember when I used to complain when Wenger used to bring on striker after striker in search of victory that it was a move bereft of any real tactical nous, and doesn't really help if you're trying to create chances.

But then, if you bring on a winger for a winger, it's termed 'like for like' and therefore not changing the game. And, if heaven forbid you bring on a defensive player when chasing the game, you are clearly a complete buffoon who hasn't got a clue.

The truth about substitutions is that unless the substitute quite clearly wins the game, it's very hard to evaluate them. In pretty much all football analysis, the importance given to them is grossly disproportionate to their actual importance.

The great irony in all this…
Is that after the press went on and on and on and on about how we've won nothing for seven years, we're 2/1 to win the Carling Cup with this team. If Thomas does lift the trophy, no doubt we'll hear about how it's not a real trophy. Them's the breaks.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Some opinions presented as facts. What's going on at Arsenal?

- It is profoundly odd to argue this Arsenal team is not a mediocre Arsenal team. That we were an incredibly poor side in the 1950s and 60s somewhat misses the point, for two reasons: it's not short-term thinking to compare the team with the last 20 years - that's a reasonable data-set - and this is the worst Arsenal side in that period, at least on form.

But more importantly, the mediocrity needs to be viewed in context: when you have the fourth largest wage bill in the League, the team should be performing much better.

- That said, the argument going around at the moment that we cannot hold a lead is patently false: it is unfortunate to blow a two goal lead twice in a week. The fact remains though that the only other time this season we have been pegged back after taking the lead was the ridiculous match against Reading. It is simply untrue to say we cannot hold a lead.

- Explaining the lack of defensive stability is difficult. It's easy to blame the goalkeeper but he was in goal at the beginning of the season when we were more solid. Certainly, losing Gibbs to injury has not helped, and Thomas Vermaelen has not played well this season, but the biggest issue has been losing Abou Diaby.

Diaby would sit in front of the defence and contest all the aerial balls, meaning that Koscielny/Vermaelen/Mertesacker could do what they do well - mopping up all the loose balls and winning the ball on the ground. Mikel Arteta, for his many strengths, cannot do that and what the table below shows is that although we're conceding maybe one more shot on target per game than when Diaby was fit, a much higher proportion are going in.

It's a little simplistic to blame it solely on Diaby's injury - Mannone has made some clangers and there's been a series of defensive mistakes - but teams have been getting chances which are easier to convert and that's certainly partly because we're not competing in the air; it's also shown by us repeatedly conceding from set pieces since he went off injured against Chelsea.

- Even so, before this week, nobody would really have accused this Arsenal team of leaking goals. At current rates, we're projected to concede about 38 goals this seasons, which whilst nowhere near good enough to win the League would be a staunch improvement on last season. The problems with the defence have been over-hyped - get Szczesny, a keeper the defence trust, back in goal and the players in front of him will play better and the keeper will also save more of the shots on target.

Obviously we're a much stronger team when Diaby plays - but that's a bit like saying we would have scored more goals in the last six seasons if Van Persie had always been fit. It's true, but completely irrelevant, because neither Diaby or Van Persie are players whose fitness can be relied upon.

- So what's the problem? It's basically the midfield and attack. Not exactly a small problem then.

All the midfield players are too similar, which puts a massive onus on Cazorla to create chances. When Wilshere and Rosicky are back playing properly that will be less of an issue, but the lack of another player who can create chances is an enormous problem. It's why - I suspect - Wenger persists with picking Aaron Ramsey: at least he tries to create chances. For all we mocked Alex Song and his chipped through balls, he still had the most assists at the club last season - and that from what was ostensibly the holding midfield role. Compare and contrast with Mikel Arteta.

Our forwards' conversion rates are not bad, but we don't create enough for them.

It's especially galling because one of the reasons we're weak defensively is that Walcott and Podolski don't defend anywhere near as much as they should do. In theory, this should mean they're in great positions for counter-attacks but it's just not happening. That particularly irritates me because Andrey Arshavin does create chances (where Podolski doesn't) but isn't allowed to play because of his supposed lack of defensive nous.

The wingers just aren't particularly good players - Chamberlain's done nothing all season, Gervinho couldn't cross a ball if he was paid to (oh wait, he is), Walcott's decision-making is awful and his new thing is shooting when he should cross to prove he should play up front, and I'm very confused as to what Lukas Podolski actually does.

I like Olivier Giroud but even Robin van Persie - the best player in the League last season - struggled with this motley bunch, so he's not exactly in an easy situation.

- This really hits at the key problem at Arsenal - and why so many fans are unhappy. Yeah, the ticket prices are high but London is one of the most expensive cities in the world and ticket prices are also high at Chelsea and Tottenham and it's a complete straw man to keep on bringing up ticket prices as a reason the fans are unhappy, not least because the stadium is (still) consistently sold out.

It's inconsistent to complain about the club not extracting enough from sponsorship deals and then complaining about the tickets being overpriced: the club does not care about the individual supporter and no Premier League club does - when you're turning over tens or hundreds of millions of pounds, one fan not spending a thousand pounds is unimportant.

As long as the stadium remains full, the board - rightly - will not care about ticket prices.

But the real problem is then not spending the money from the gate receipts on players: when we challenged for the League in 2010 we had Nasri, Fabregas, Song and Van Persie; instead, we now have Podolski, Cazorla, Arteta and Giroud - not bad footballers, but nowhere near as good as their predecessors who (lest we forget) didn't manage to win anything. So where we needed to move forward, we've actually regressed.

And alongside them, there's a series of very average players - Vermaelen, Ramsey, Chamberlain, Coquelin, Walcott - and some absolute dross.

The great irony is that a few years back we were praising the medium-priced players Wenger was signing (Eduardo, Sagna, Nasri, Arshavin) and asking for more of them. The difference then was the quality of the young players coming through was much higher - people of the calibre of Clichy, Song, Fabregas (and the slightly older) Van Persie came through to play for the first team and were key players.

Because these days the young players are nowhere near as good, the need to go out and spend on the top young players - like, for example, Juan Mata - is tremendous, but the board/the manager appear to be ignoring it. And therefore, we will only challenge for the top four, if we're lucky.

- To come full circle and go back to the original point about the wage bill, there's an argument often made that the only reason teams want our top players is because they're very talented.

That's true. But the reason teams don't want our squad players - despite them being quite talented - is because of their wages. It's something which needs to be sorted out, because although our wage bill is large, it's artificially large as it doesn't represent the strength of the squad. And that's the reason we may well finish outside the top four.

Keep the faith.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Here's the big test: Manchester City preview.

Since Man City became a top team, a trip to Eastlands has become a real acid test. Arsenal's 3-0 win at Eastlands in October 2010 was impressive in its own right, but it's particularly noteworthy in light of the series of close results between the two teams since. City dropped just two points at home last season and to pick up a positive result on Sunday would be particularly impressive.

There's certainly a case to be made that Arsenal have performed roughly to expectations so far for a team which will finish in the top four, if you look at the results from last season. Dropping points at home to Sunderland was two points dropped compared to the previous campaign, but a win against Southampton was better than two points dropped against Wolves.

In the world where Twitter seems to dictate the moods of many, three consecutive wins is a sign we can compete for the League, and a dodgy draw means sending messages to Aaron Ramsey telling him he's the worst player evah [sic].

In a sensible world, Arsenal have performed creditably in the last three games, but there was enough cause for concern in Montpellier, and the two previous games were against weak(ish) opposition. That's not to say the team hasn't looked good. Having a playmaker, particularly one as good as Cazorla, has improved the team immeasurably. 

Although the criticism that Arsenal were a one man team last year was false, we didn't create enough chances, which meant that there was a certain reliance on Van Persie to take those which fell his way, which he inevitably did. At least so far, the efficiency of our wingers seems enormously improved, which more than counteracts Van Persie's absence, and this is partly down to Cazorla putting them into better positions.

And so, to this particular fixture. In eight years at Arsenal, Van Persie managed one Premier League goal versus City, so it's not as if he has a great record against City for United fans to look forward to or for us to miss. That said, City haven't looked as fragile defensively in a long time as they have in their first few matches last season. For all of Sergio Aguero's goals, City won the League last season (in my eyes) by having the best defence. I would expect them to press us a lot more around the penalty area than they have in their last few matches, which means our players' first touches will need to be on song (yes, I'm looking at you Theo Walcott). 

The reality is that although City have started the season relatively poorly, they've still won both home games they've played, and it's not exactly embarrassing to lose in the Bernabeu. Without Wojciech Szczesny, Mannone will continue in goal, and although he's done well thus far, he hasn't really been tested. Having watched him play for the reserves multiple times over a few years, I've never been convinced that he's a good goalkeeper, and it's hard to think he won't face proper scrutiny on Sunday.

The other area to watch - for me - is central midfield. The one time we've beaten City in the last five attempts, Alex Song caught Yaya Toure on the knee early on, and Toure hobbled around for fifteen minutes before going off injured. Apart from his replacement failing to tackle Arteta before the winning goal, Toure is one of City's best players. Whilst we're certainly a better team without Song, we've lost his physicality, and much will depend on how Diaby and Toure match up.

Whatever happens, I think it will be an interesting and low-scoring game of football, and hopefully we can come out on top!

Keep the faith.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Seven conclusions from Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

1) If we insist - rightly - on giving new signings a chance, then it's pretty inconsistent to jump to extensive conclusions too quickly. Have Arsenal looked better defensively in the first three games of the season? Yeah, absolutely.

But to argue that this mean we now have the best defence in the League is not so much over-egging the point as scrambling it (if you'll forgive the terrible metaphor).

On two counts it seems a little presumptuous. First, Sunderland didn't even attempt to attack, and yet Szczesny had to save us early on from arguably the clearest chance of the game. Against Liverpool, we conceded 15 shots on goal - one fewer than in the corresponding fixture last season, when we were completely outplayed. Granted Borini did seem to want to shoot from any position, but even so those are high numbers.

On top of the number of shots conceded, some of the distribution in the opening half an hour from Mertesacker and Jenkinson was truly calamitous. I'm not saying the team is poor defensively - it's not; but equally, we shouldn't rest on our laurels.

And this hints at the second point: let's wait until we play a strong attacking team before getting too excited.

2) Talking of Liverpool's attack, it can't be long before attention turns to Luis Suarez, again. His goalscoring record isn't bad - one every three games - but his chance conversion rates are absolutely dire. He's been protected from criticism for his footballing performances by Andy Carroll's price-tag, but Suarez was signed for a hefty 23 million pounds, and really needs to deliver more. The chance he missed late on - while unlikely to have changed the result - was really one he should have taken.

3) Considering how often I complain about decisions going against us, it's worth emphasising how lucky we were not to concede a penalty early in the second half. Yeah, Suarez has a reputation for going over easily but Mertesacker was all over him in the box. On another day, Liverpool would have had a penalty and it might have been a completely different result. Football rests on these small margins.

4) As obvious a point as this is, Abou Diaby was absolutely outstanding yesterday. There are few finer sights in football than watching him stride forward imperiously with the football, and he had ample opportunity to do this, creating several chances in a man of the match display.

Raphael Honigstein tweeted last night that three years ago Wenger said Diaby was the most talented player in the squad. That might be an exaggeration, but I'm still delighted to have Abou back and playing like he can.

5) What next for Theo Walcott? It's hard to believe that Arsenal kept him unless he will sign a new contract, but can the increased terms really be countenanced? His record last season was inflated by playing with a striker as good as Van Persie, and few would suggest picking him currently ahead of Chamberlain or, dare I say it, Gervinho.

I've long failed to 'get' Walcott, and while he's clearly a useful player, I certainly don't think he should be one of - if not the - highest paid players at the club.

Also, as long as Sagna remains injured, Jenkinson doesn't provide the overlap Theo desperately needs to take on a full-back - which could deter Arsene from picking Walcott in the short-term. It's certainly a situation I'll watch with interest.

6) A couple of weeks ago, I thought that Liverpool looked like they could challenge for the top four if they kept their squad and brought in some attacking talent. Instead, they let Andy Carroll go, signed nobody, and look bereft of ideas. Good news for Arsenal in the race for fourth place.

7) Outside Anfield, there is a statue of Marouane Chamakh - the invisible man. When the other two senior strikers at the club start and Chamakh can't even get in the match squad, I do wonder what that says about Wenger's appraisal of Chamakh's talents. And yet, surely, we'll need him to play 15 games this season. Distinctly odd.