Monday, 23 December 2013

Five thoughts pre Arsenal-Chelsea

Jack Wilshere is an idiot
It wasn't so long ago that Arsenal fans were bemoaning Jack Wilshere's prolonged absence, expecting his return to catalyse an often ponderous Arsenal team to improved performances. Certainly Wilshere has suffered from a weight of expectation - not helped by the club giving him the famous number 10 shirt while he was out injured - but to a large extent, he has also just not played at the same level since returning from injury.

This is entirely understandable: although there's a tendency amongst Arsenal fans to always need to have someone to criticise, I think it's natural that a young player coming back from a serious injury would need some time to bed back into the team. With the signings of Ozil, Cazorla and Flamini, as well as the improved performances of Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere's position in the team has gone from assured to under threat.

This lengthy preamble is intended to contextualise Wilshere's place at Arsenal. If you're performing brilliantly, you can get away with picking up a two-match ban for no reason whatsoever a lot more easily. Where once I thought of him as "a cunt but our cunt", now I really don't know what to think of him. I found the response from Arsenal fans to him being banned utterly bizarre. Whether it should be a one-match ban or a two-match ban is irrelevant to the greater issue of why he was behaving in a way that would inevitably see him punished post-hoc. Poor performances I can deal with - the talent is there and has been on show at times this season. So I can cope with how poor Wilshere was against Man City. What I can't abide - and frankly, there should have been a lot more opprobrium thrown towards Wilshere's proverbial door - is getting yourself unnecessarily banned before a series of three matches in five and a half days. The boy needs to learn.

Defeat to Chelsea would not be a disaster
Given Chelsea's patchy form and dodgy defensive record, this is certainly a chance to get an important win in a big game that would also re-enforce Arsenal's emerging confidence. But it is by no means a must-win game.

I've seen it mentioned all over Twitter that defeat would leave Arsenal fourth in the table. What's not been mentioned is that first to fourth would then be separated by one point.

After this game, there'll be 21 games left. Keep up the sensational form in so-called 'smaller' fixtures and it will all be moot.

It's a tough Christmas fixture list
Maybe it's because I've been convinced for a week now that West Ham will beat Arsenal on Boxing Day, but regardless, I'm worried about these Christmas fixtures. I can see Chelsea grinding out a win and going away to Newcastle, one of the most in-form teams in the League will be far from easy.

It's a strange one: there's no necessity to be Chelsea, but the momentum would be very useful before a couple more tough games in very quick succession.

Maybe Tim Sherwood isn't such an idiot after all
I was discussing Spurs' tactics against Southampton with my brother and he convinced me that Tim Sherwood has probably been a victim of a media narrative, or at least has taken unfair stick.

Whether AVB deserved to be sacked or not, it's clear he was trying to pick the best players in the squad, irrespective of whether they had actually gelled into a team, rather than picking players who could play together. Spurs have many players who are probably not quite good enough to propel them to fourth, but are still pretty decent players. Against a Southampton team riddled with injuries, perhaps it makes sense to forgo the defensive solidity of playing a double pivot and attempting to play to the strengths of your side.

It's a little disingenuous to dismiss him as a tactical neanderthal on the basis of one game, where the tactics actually seemed to work out pretty well. I think it's a nonsense to praise him for playing in 'the Spurs way' when this actually just seems to mean scoring goals in big games but ultimately losing, but equally, it's also a nonsense to simply dismiss 4-4-2 out of hand.

Maybe this is me being a simpleton, but I always feel that you pick a team to try and beat your opponents, and as Southampton are riddled with defensive injuries, trying to get at them seems quite a good idea.

For all the merriment and mirth generated by Spurs' heavy defeats to Liverpool and City, they're only six points off the top of the table. Everything is very constrained, and if they can get (some of) their summer signings working effectively, there's a lot to be optimistic about at Spurs. Alas.

The League table has now taken shape
That Spurs remain so close to the top of the table underscores what a tight season this is proving to be. Even so, I'd be shocked if any team currently in the top eight ends up outside the top eight. Beyond that, it's difficult to say what's going to happen.

Chelsea have done okay without performing especially well but I've seen nothing to suggest that they can put together a string of eight wins to go and win the League. They've averaged 70 points over the last two seasons, and it's going to take a considerable improvement on that to win the League.

For the top four, I genuinely do wonder whether United will make it. Suarez is inspiring Liverpool, Spurs aren't at all bad, and City, Chelsea and Arsenal all look to have better teams. One thing's for sure: the standard's the highest it has been for several seasons, and the next few months should prove very exciting.

Keep the faith.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Six thoughts on Manchester City 6 Arsenal 3

This was very unlike Arsenal this season
Since March, there's been a clear tactical shift from Arsenal from a possession-based game to more of a late 1990s swift counter-attacking style. For the first time in a number of years, the team has been happy to surrender possession in return for a good defensive shape and a tight backline.

Which is why I found the tactics today very odd. Without dominating possession like they used to, Arsenal still allowed the game to be very open. There was very little cover offered to the full-backs and this was compounded by giving the ball away in dangerous areas.

Normally, you might be able to moan about a team scoring six goals from seven shots on target but it's not as if Szczesny had a bad game - City repeatedly cut Arsenal open, leaving the goalscorers easy finishes. It was even worse after Flamini was withdrawn. There was no link play to get the ball to the attackers and Arsenal were even more under pressure.

Given City's obvious attacking strength, it would have made far more sense to keep it tight, as Arsenal ended up playing a very different style from how they've played this season. Unsurprisingly, they payed the price.

There will doubtless be a gross over-reaction to this result
It's not just that much of the Arsenal eleven played in Napoli on Wednesday night. It's that - like in so many of these games which finish with comedy scorelines - City scored two goals between the 88th minute and the end of the game. What made Spurs' defeat here so extraordinary was that they were 5-0 down after 55 minutes.

The implications for Arsenal's title challenge
With a tough and relentless run of games coming up, Arsenal are now one injury away from Bacary Sagna at centre back and Jenkinson at right-back. It's not good. I felt at the beginning of the season the squad was a defender light and a lack of injuries in that area has gone some way to covering that up.

More generally, this was certainly the hardest game of the season. If City can play like this away from home they will win the League - but they haven't managed that all season.

Removing Flamini was a terrible substitution
It's often easy to criticise these things with hindsight but I did actually comment at the time that it was an odd change. If you're being over-run in midfield with scant protection for the defence, removing the only protection they do have is just strange.

In a very similar situation in Manchester two years ago, Wenger removed a French holding midfielder for a winger and it ended 8-2. The way City dominated after Flamini went off, they could have scored even more.

If you're struggling because of a lack of defensive protection, all-out-attack is an odd response. It certainly didn't work.

Olivier Giroud is knackered
I don't expect him to be a brilliant finisher - he's not. I'm doubtful he ever will be. But Giroud's defensive work, off-the-ball and hold-up play was the worst I've seen it all season today. The guy's biggest asset is that he is a brilliant defensive striker, but that requires enormous energy, something he simply didn't have. He desperately needs a rest: I don't need the stats to tell you he is in the famous red-zone.

Mertesacker was in the wrong
You can debate at length whether players should go and applaud the away fans. I tend to think that even if it's a token gesture it requires very little effort and the reaction to not doing it makes it worthwhile.

But I think it's comparatively a lot worse to see two senior players having an angry argument on the pitch. It's the very opposite of what Arsenal have been about all season: a team with an enormous sense of unity. It brought back memories of Adebayor and Bendtner at White Hart Lane in 2009 and it gives people the impression there are divisions in the camp.

Perhaps Mertesacker was right. If he was, he should have told Ozil in the dressing room - there's no reason to air your dirty laundry in public.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Arsenal have improved. Deal with it.

There is a bizarre fascination in the media with pointing out that Arsenal have taken fewer points and scored fewer goals than in the corresponding 14 League games from last season and therefore, nobody quite knows what. But it's important dammit and they're going to keep on saying it to make it more true, even though having dropped points against West Brom and Villa, it would have taken an unlikely result at Old Trafford to stop this stat remaining true for several weeks.

Leaving aside how fixtures are obviously not directly comparable year-on-year (squad turnover, refereeing decisions, the rarity of goals within the course of a football match), it is just cognitive dissonance at its finest.

Are we supposed to have watched Arsenal this season and think the team look poor? Presumably. It's certainly the conclusion I would draw from harping on about this statistic, devoid of any further context.

It might have been an interesting stat after five or six games because of a lack of a sample size this season, but after twelve it's pretty fair to say Arsenal have improved. The other reason it's entirely meaningless, is that seven of the twelve games being compared year-on-year were played from February 2013 onwards. Nobody disputes Arsenal improved in the last third of last season, so comparing those fixtures is even more pointless. Given Arsenal had the best League form of anybody in the last third of the season, it's probably quite good to be about on a par with that so far - it signifies a title challenge which is all anybody who supports Arsenal has been speaking of.

Seriously, I am genuinely confused. Presumably what they're trying to show is that Arsenal are not as good as Chelsea or Manchester City. But I don't - and I think almost all Gooners - don't dispute that. The media have not so much destroyed their own straw man as utterly obliterated it into a ball of anti-Arsenal flames.

And what happens if Arsenal beat Man City or Chelsea or even both? Then we'll be told there's still half the season left. It's an odd attack on a much-improved team to say "well they're not the best yet so we're not going to give them any praise at all". Having lost to United, a quirk of the fixture list means Arsenal need to wait until the 8th of December (a month on) to try and improve our year-on-year record, and meanwhile the press can wheel this largely pointless statistic out to prove what? That Arsenal aren't top of the League? They are. I promise.

It's particularly odd as there are legitimate statistical points to be raised with this Arsenal team: the number of shots on target they've been allowing is worrying, for example, but that's not even brought up.

All a team can do is beat the teams they face. If it's a quirk of the fixture list that they don't face the two best teams until fifteen games into the season, what are we supposed to do? Have some sort of amnesty on proffering any opinions on Arsenal until they've played them? I remain confused.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

On nuance or why you don't need a strong opinion on everything

Modern society seems to have mutated into some crazy arena where not only are we expected to have a view on everything, but that view needs to be exceptionally strong, usually based on limited evidence and strong rhetoric. Let me put my cards on the table and concede that I've certainly been guilty of this at times.

It leads to a society where rather than saying "the referee made a mistake, easily done at that speed" you start saying things like "it was an absolutely outrageous decision to make, completely despicable and it highlights a culture in which match-fixing is rife and bias among referees is common" and people don't even find this particularly outlandish. I digress.

Carl Jenkinson's form for Arsenal has not been brilliant of late. This is partly true but the negative view of it has been exacerbated by people taking an overly positive view of his performances last season, leaving him further to fall. He made plenty of mistakes last season - he had a habit of passing the ball inside and nearly giving the ball away - but as they did not lead to goals, nobody really noticed.

Do I believe a 21-year-old going through a shaky patch is a big deal? No. For one thing, he's played eight times this season and last night was - as far as I can remember - the first time he's made a mistake which led to a goal. But more importantly, it's normal for young players to be inconsistent. This is nothing new.

But what I'm really getting at is that after loads of people called Jenkinson shit on Twitter, you then get the inevitable backlash of people saying he must be brilliant because he was given a new contract and Wenger trusts him.

Like with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle: he's not good enough for the Arsenal first team at the moment but there's no reason to believe he couldn't be in the future.

It's similar with Thomas Vermaelen: the way people talk about him you'd think he's one of the worst players EVAH EVAH EVAH. Whereas in reality, he's not as good as Koscielny or Mertesacker but not a bad player. It's interesting that although ostensibly Koscielny played Mertesacker's position last night, Vermaelen is blamed for any defensive instability. As a wise man once said, hmmmm.

The truth is that having incredibly strong opinions just to stand out is rather silly. Most players have negatives but also some positives. That's why after extensive scouting they were bought by Arsenal.

Keep the faith.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Arsenal are the new Backstreet Boys

...In that they're back. Hopefully this time it's for good.

What I watched on Tuesday night was the finest performance from Arsenal in several seasons. No longer can the recent run simply be attributed to playing not particularly good teams. Napoli are a very good team who out-classed BVB on Matchday One but who were simply no match for Arsenal.

I saw some people claiming that Napoli struggled because they insisted on taking pot-shots from 25 yards but that was the outcome, rather than the symptom. Napoli were forced into taking long shots because of Arsenal's intelligent pressing and defensive shape. In football, when you have the ball you have three choices: run, pass or shoot. At the point the first two of those are repeatedly made impossible, you have to resort to shooting from distance. That this happened means Arsenal deserve a lot of credit.

And it's probably the best thing to watch about this current Arsenal team. People used to mock Arsenal fans for getting jittery when a team came back from 2-0 to 2-1 but it was precisely because Arsenal had a history of letting leads slip and never seemed especially comfortable trying to hold a lead rather than adding to it. From the back-end of last season onwards, Arsenal's defensive positioning and shape has been much better with the team genuinely defending as a team.

The tangible benefits of this are huge. Because even when you are slightly profligate in your attacking play - like against Napoli - if you're comfortable at the back, it doesn't tend to matter. Every time I see Arsenal defending a one-goal lead late on now, I'm very confident they'll hold it.

I've been made to look foolish in the past, but the signs are incredibly encouraging for this team. Finally, the shadow of the twin departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri has lifted. I no longer need to bemoan them leaving because the team can compete again. I said at the beginning of the season that the fixture list was very kind to Arsenal until November - but the team still needed to take advantage of that, and has. And whatever question marks remain over whether they can keep it up in the Premier League, it's six points from six in the elite competition in which Arsenal were supposedly 'dead'.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Five thoughts on Swansea 1 Arsenal 2

Ramsey's goals could inspire a title challenge
The clamour for signing a striker over the summer was driven by a legitimate concern about the number of goals in the team. I felt Arsenal scored 10-15 less League goals than they needed to last season, which was almost entirely because of a lack of goals from midfield. Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere played 76 games between them and scored just seven goals, a figure made all the more damning when you realise that Arteta also took Arsenal's penalties last season. I appreciate Cazorla scored plenty of goals but as a total, the number of goals from midfield was not high enough. In addition, with van Persie, Adebayor, Henry and Ian Wright, Arsenal fans had become used to seeing the team's striker score 20 goals a season, something Giroud never came close to threatening last season, increasing the dependancy on goals from midfield.

This is why Aaron Ramsey's revelation in front of goal is so important. Of course he will not keep up this sort of run of scoring throughout the season (he has been scoring with around 80% of hit shots on target, an incredible statistic) but if he could score 12 League goals, that could be the difference between Arsenal challenging for the League and not. It's worth noting that on the last three occasions Arsenal challenged for/won the title - 2004, 2008 and 2010, there have been goals from midfield. In 2010, Diaby (!), Denilson, Ramsey and Rosicky all supplemented Fabregas' 15 goals; in 2008, Rosicky and Fabregas were to the fore; and in 2004, Robert Pires was still scoring for fun.

The curious case of Arsenal fans and Kieran Gibbs
It has been quite something to read so many people on Twitter saying of Kieran Gibbs "he's a hugely improved player this season" or words to that effect, given that I was mocked for saying Gibbs wasn't especially good last season. Now I'm no philosopher, but presumably for him to be much-improved there would need to be areas for improvement, and given that he's still not a brilliant player after this improvement, this implies he wasn't that good before.

Anyway, I digress. Gibbs has improved but he still needs to improve his anticipation. One of the reasons I rate two of Swansea's defenders - Chico and Angel Rangel - is that they have very high average interceptions per game, which I consider a good measure of defender's ability. On Saturday, much of what Gibbs did that was praised by the commentators was in effect making last-ditch tackles because he was out of position originally. This might look good on TV, but it's not conducive to good football, or in aiding the team in quick transitions and counter-attacking football. It might seem perverse to slate Gibbs given his form has improved, but he's still (in my opinion) the weakest player in the starting eleven and now aged 24, he can't really be classed as 'up-and-coming' anymore.

Michael Laudrup is a class act
Even if he were not a brilliant former player and an astute manager, I would like Michael Laudrup for not wearing a tie. I am of the opinion that ties were a terrible invention and you will rarely see me wear one (the collars on most of my shirts being too small is but an incidental factor in this). But in addition to his cravat eschewal, Laudrup is a very good manager.

When he went to Swansea, his managerial reputation was very much up in the air - he made Getafe play terrific football but was sacked by Spartak Moscow and struggled at Mallorca. I was not alone in pondering whether Swansea could be relegated last season. That they were not even in the relegation mix was partly down to some terrific form at the beginning of last season, partly down to some well-chosen signings (O HAI MICHU) but mainly a result of Laudrup coaching the team to play a distinctive style which really works for them. Listening to his post-match interview, you could tell this was somebody who really understood how football works - his comments about Swansea's positioning immediately after the first Arsenal goal and how they went for it too much there and then were particularly interesting. He's certainly somebody I'd consider as a successor to Arsene Wenger.

Crisis Crisis Crisis!
There are lists of funny Arsene Wenger quotes that are occasionally shared, but on the anniversary of his having joined Arsenal, Wenger made one of his shrewdest comments in a long time: "these days if you lose one match it is a crisis".

That's not a quote that will be joining lists, but it is a good summary of what is so frustrating about 24/7 media coverage of football. The puerile conniptions thrown by the media every time a top team loses to a lesser team is exceptionally trying and exceptionally boring. I always thought the beauty of football compared to tennis is that there's a much larger chance of Arsenal losing to a team from the bottom of the Premier League than there is of the world number one tennis player being beaten by a player ranked 30th in the world, and that was part of football's allure and what made it exciting. But apparently instead we just have to hear the word 'crisis' mis-used. If it were banned from the lexicon, few tears would be shed.

Napoli will be a major test
Next up for the Arsenal is Napoli at home. Much attention will understandably be on Gonzalo Higuain, but their other signing from Real Madrid, Raul Albiol, intrigues me more. A terrifically talented player, he is somebody I am convinced Arsenal made a mistake in not moving for and Ozil will need to be at his best to help us get the better of Albiol and Napoli.

Napoli are a major class above any team Arsenal have faced this season. This will be a real test and the true calibre of this nascent Arsenal team will soon be a lot clearer.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Boy Ain't Bad or How I Learnt To Love Theo Walcott

Anybody who decides to delve into the archives of this blog may find a brobdingnagian amount of abuse aimed at Theo Walcott, much of which I would probably stand by. When I used to write match reports between 2008 and 2010, Walcott didn't even manage to look good in a team containing Fabregas, Nasri, an on-song Arshavin and van Persie. In fact, let's not beat around the bush: he didn't just not look good, he was often absolutely terrible.

It's one of the reasons I find Twitter so trying currently. At least 20% of tweets seem to be people digging out old tweets from people and shouting "HYPOCRITE HYPOCRITE" like it is somehow a bad thing to be able to change your mind. At risk of stating the obvious, changing your mind tends to show reflection and that you're actually watching what is going on.

That rather large digression is intended to head off any idiots who respond to this post and say "but you used to say Walcott was rubbish". I did, I now think he's a wonderful footballer.

In fact, what drove me to write this post was people slagging Walcott off for what I felt was one mediocre performance against Sunderland.

A few things about Theo:

1) His post-match interviews are almost as exciting as watching grass grow.
2) His goals+assists stat clearly suggests he is a better player than he is.
3) He has an infuriating habit of missing one-on-ones which does not befit a player of his calibre.

But so what. If you want me to tell you that Walcott is a better winger than Angel di Maria or whoever because he scores more goals than that player I'm not going to. What I will say though is that he's better than almost anybody in his position in the Premier League: better than Aaron Lennon, better than Young or Valencia, better than Jesus Navas and better than Samir Nasri.

And he's improved enormously as a footballer. When Walcott used to be picked as an impact sub it was because his runs in behind were poor, and so he was only any use with the ball played into his feet. This meant he needed defences to be tired in order to be effective. Now, his runs off the ball are exceptionally good, so much so that together with his pace he often gets one-on-one with goalkeepers. Does he miss more chances than perhaps he should? Yes, absolutely, but his return is still very good and he has scored both big goals and goals in big games.

Plus, just because he missed some chances against Sunderland, that doesn't mean he's not getting better all the time. It's been noticeable so far this season that his first touch is enormously improved, and that can only be down to hard work in training. With Ozil and Cazorla ready to spot Theo's runs, this could be a brilliant season for Walcott, with 20 Premier League goals an attainable goal.

That's doable partly because he's a player who helps to turn the screw against poor teams. For some reason, this is viewed as a bad thing by many people but scoring two or three goals against a bad team is a good way to get the game over early and avoid the players over-exerting themselves. There's a reasonable argument that what undermined Arsenal's title chase in spring 2011 was that almost every game was close in the last ten minutes, meaning the players ended up more and more tired. If players score goals, I am happy. To be particularly reductive, goals are good.

There are still issues with Walcott: he doesn't offer as much protection for his full-back as he should do and his crossing still isn't that great, but the reality is it's very hard to view his contribution as anything other than positive.

I'm happy to hold my hands up: I was wrong about Theo.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Arsenal 2013-14 season preview

That loud chewing sound you've been hearing for the past few days has been that of people eating their words. If you really thought Arsenal were going to go through the summer without spending any money, you've been reading far, far too many conspiracy theories. If you're in doubt, 9/11 wasn't a US plot.

Well, if nothing else, I've got the chaps from the NSA reading now.

Whilst it's something I've done in the past, it does seem pretty redundant to preview the season before the transfer window closes. Heck, even doing so now there's a lot which seems open to chance. Nonetheless, here's a few predictions:

- The Capital One Cup fourth round match will be followed by an eight day period in which we play Liverpool at home, followed by both Dortmund and United away. Assuming we play anybody half-decent, I'd fancy our COC run to end here, if West Brom haven't already ended it. In previous seasons, the domestic cups have been sacrificed for little reason. On this occasion, it looks pretty justified.

- The Champions League group looks difficult but manageable. I was a little puzzled to read that Arsenal had received an easy draw in previous seasons and so "deserved" to pick up the hardest draw possible from pots three and four.

As we know having won the group in the past and then faced AC Milan in the last 16, there's only minimal benefit to winning the group. So what the Champions League group stage is about is finishing in the top two of the group. And while some of the second seeds that have been in our group have been comparatively weak teams - Schalke, Marseille, Porto at that time - it still doesn't really explain our progress on its own.

What Arsenal have consistently done very well in Europe is beats teams from pots three and four. It's something Man United and Chelsea have struggled with - in recent seasons in which they've failed to progress from the group stage, their downfall has been struggles against teams from pot 3. Chelsea were knocked out last season because they blew a two-goal lead against Juve at home; Man United did the same thing against Basel (incidentally in a group also containing Otelul Galati) to not qualify.

But anyway, the idea that Arsenal have had it particularly easy in the group stage is just false. Two years ago when we drew Dortmund they were the German champions - it just so happened that we took four points off them. Despite them finishing bottom of the group, when the draw was made they were tipped up by many pundits as dark horses to win the entire thing.

All of this though does not do that much to work out whether Arsenal can get through the group. I tweeted earlier in the summer that I felt one of the few mistakes Arsenal had made in the transfer market this summer was letting Albiol move to Napoli - I suppose if he wasn't happy being a reserve at Madrid, he didn't want to be a reserve at Arsenal but he's a good player who we've supposedly long held an interest in.

I think it's clear this Napoli team isn't bad - they finished second in Serie A and have since added Higuain, Albiol and Reina, albeit for the loss of Edinson Cavani. In addition, Benitez has an excellent record in Europe. I think if Higuain scores enough goals they will qualify, although he does have a very poor record in the Champions League.

I actually think Dortmund could be the team in bigger trouble. Yes, they reached the final last year but they were also incredibly lucky to get through the quarter final against a fairly limited Malaga team, and their group stage performance whilst good, was over-rated due to Ajax being thought of as a much better team than they are, and some terrible tactics from Mancini. I could be made to look like a fool but I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't qualify. Despite Dortmund possessing four players in the positions where Arsenal are weakest - Lewandoswki, Hummels, Gundogan and Reus - the rest of their team is not special. Even accounting for focusing on the Champions League, their tally of just 66 points in the Bundesliga last season is dreadful. And while Jurgen Klopp is undoubtedly a very good manager, he's up against Rafa and Wenger who are in my opinion two of the five best coaches currently working in world football.

The trouble with calling the group is that Marseille look like whipping boys which will probably make things very close. I know Thauvin is thought of very highly, but throughout their team they don't look to have enough players to trouble the other three teams in the group. What this means is that ten points may well not be enough - like it normally is - to qualify. This will probably mean that we have to go to Naples on Matchday Six needing a result to qualify, but I'd expect us to do so. Anything beyond this is impossible to predict without seeing the draw for the knockout stage. But a favourable draw could take us a long way: with the strength of our first eleven (rather than a large squad), the need to produce three or four brilliant performances to win the Champions League looks a hell of a lot more likely than Arsenal playing well enough in the remaining League games to lift the trophy.

- Predicting how Arsenal will do in the Premier League is exceptionally difficult. I'd expect Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski to all be much better this season now they've had a season playing in the Premier League and playing with their team-mates. Flamini and Ozil are two terrific signings who any team in the League would like, and Flamini will not really need an adaptation period.

There's certainly question marks about many teams in the League - Chelsea barely finished above Arsenal last season and there's a lot of pressure on 32-year-old Samuel Eto'o to score a lot of goals if they're going to challenge for the League title. If I were a Chelsea fan, I'd be angry that a large part of the transfer budget was spent on Willian when other areas needed strengthening far more. I also struggle to see Man United winning the League: even if Van Persie stays fit, I don't think Moyes will play a style away from home that is attacking enough to win the League. (Incidentally, Everton buying James McCarthy for half of what they sold Fellaini for is brilliant business - McCarthy is the better footballer). United look thin in midfield, and an ageing Patrice Evra just has the rubbish Buttner to challenge him. I'm doubtful that Van Persie, Carrick and De Gea can win the League on their own again.

Despite a promising start, I've seen nothing to believe Liverpool are going to be doing more than challenging for the fourth Champions League place. Similarly, while Spurs will certainly improve, the bizarre transfer strategy of hoarding midfielders while picking Danny Rose and Kyle Walker at left-back looks like it cannot possibly end in anything other than Champions League disappointment yet again.

Manchester City are the team who I think will win the League. They have by far the best squad and have strengthened well in the summer. Assuming Nastasic doesn't suffer another major injury, I'd expect them to win the League.

All of this is a lengthy contextualisation of where Arsenal stand in relation to their rivals. If you were going to ask questions about this Arsenal team, it's whether they have enough strength in depth in terms of attacking players - particularly over the next two-three months while Podolski and Chamberlain are injured. The shift in tactics in the latter third of last season (and seen again against Spurs and to a lesser extent Fulham) of when necessary taking up a very solid shape that's difficult to break down was a welcome one and lends encouragement for the season ahead.

Much though we may have wanted to flog Nicklas Bendtner, he is a competent back-up to Giroud with plenty of Premier League experience (and a hilarious Instagram account). My biggest fear is an injury to Per Mertesacker, as we don't really have an 'organiser' like him to come in if he were unavailable. While the decline of Thomas Vermaelen has been grossly over-stated, I think it's fair to say that he and Koscielny do not form a cohesive partnership. It would also leave us quite possibly playing Sagna at centre back, and Jenkinson is nowhere near good enough at right-back to play regularly for a team that wants to challenge for the title.

With Ozil and Cazorla, I think Arsenal once again have the creativity to challenge for the title. Ozil is exactly the sort of signing I was talking about when I said it was clear that Arsenal were trying to sign players of a calibre who could allow them to challenge for the title once again. It's also an important tactical boon - at the point your team is challenging for the League, you need to get a decent return from the ten games against the other top six teams. Last season, Arsenal took nine points from these ten games. Assuming 86 points is the aim, we'd need to increase this to minimum 14-15 points. With Ozil, I think this is very possible. It also means that from a fan's perspective that even if we may win nothing, at least you get to enjoy a win over Chelsea (or whoever).

If Arsenal can keep the gap to the top to six points or less and then strengthen the squad with two or three more players, I think a title challenge is plausible. I would still expect us to finish just short, but a second-place finish would be an enormous improvement on the 4th place struggle of the last two years.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Five thoughts on Fulham 1 Arsenal 3 and the remainder of the transfer window

We had two centre backs available
I read several blogs in the run-up to the game about how we only had one centre-back available and that this was a dereliction of duty from the manager and the club blah blah blah. This wasn't true.

I think it's fair to say that given Sagna played centre back in pre-season and has spoken about training in this position, him playing this position was something under consideration before Koscielny was sent off against Aston Villa and suspended for this game. Whether it's a good thing is another question.

There seems to be a trend among Arsenal fans online that everybody needs to have a very strong opinion on everything. On this one I don't, really. I think having Sagna as in effect our fourth choice centre back still leaves us one player short at the back, but more than that, I think it leaves us little cover for Mertesacker with the other three centre backs all playing a similar style. Still, it's hard to believe that this is anything other than a short-term solution. Seven defenders seems one too few to last an entire season while attempting to compete for four trophies.

The strange case of Lukas Podolski
The weirdest thing about the general bemoaning of Arsenal missing out on Higuain was the focus on his chance conversion rate. This seems a strange stat to look at in isolation without looking at a player's game. For example, a player like Olivier Giroud is never going to have the highest chance conversion rate in the Premier League because many of his chances are headers which are harder to aim in such a way as to guarantee a goal. (For more of the same, witness how Mignolet's high save percentage at Sunderland does not mean he is a very good goalkeeper).

And it's in this light that I view Podolski. Podolski is a bit like a less good version of Higuain. Good against small teams and with an excellent chance conversion rate, but mainly because he shoots from realistic positions where you would regularly expect a goal. That's not meant to be a slight on Poldi, but it does show that if people are frustrated by Poldi, they would have felt the same way about Higuain. After all, it has gone somewhat overlooked that Podolski had the third best chance conversion rate in the Premier League last season.

All this said, he's clearly an excellent player who we can expect more from in his second season. I was discussing Podolski with fans of other clubs this week and they thought my valuation of Podolski at minimum 20 million Euros was crazy. As I said to them, how much less than this would be a reasonable price? Quite.

Should Yaya Sanogo be playing for the first team?
I'll caveat this by saying that I'm fully aware that Sanogo only had 10-15 minutes on Saturday. However, in this time he seemed very ponderous, with poor anticipation and positioning, hampered by seeming quite static. This is to be expected: he is young, has played relatively few senior games, and is in his first season in a new country.

But there was a part of me that wondered whether Wenger subbed him on to show that we have a summer signing who is of high calibre. All summer Wenger has re-iterated that we've signed Sanogo in all his press conferences but he didn't strike me as being nearly ready for the first team. If Le Boss was trying to prove a point, I wasn't convinced.

Turning to Premier League players as transfer targets
It's striking that many players from across Europe have opted to turn down the Premier League this summer, in favour of either staying put or moving to another country. I say this, because it's the only sensible explanation of Arsenal reportedly targeting multiple Premier League players - supposedly Begovic or Krul, Cabaye and Mata.

In the case of Suarez it was different (the apparent clause rendered him good value) but generally, Arsenal under Wenger haven't signed Premier League players for serious money. The only real example of us doing so is Mikel Arteta. Put simply, it's because Premier League players tend to be seriously over-priced due to the 'guarantees' you get when signing them. So if we do move for multiple players who are already based in England, it's a concrete acknowledgment that players based overseas are not interested in moving to England.

What happens in the remaining seven days of the transfer window?
To what extent clubs are posturing when they say they won't sell beyond a certain date (i.e. before deadline day) remains to be seen. It's never struck me that clubs have acted like this in the past, but it's entirely possible they may actually behave this way - as a way of trying to have a successful football club, it makes sense.

Assuming they are and Arsenal still want top players, it's a case of looking at top clubs who are over-stocked with players. The two who stand out to me are Real Madrid and Chelsea. With the arrivals of Isco and Bale, Özil and Di Maria must feel their places are under threat. Chelsea have continued with their strategy of signing ALL the midfielders the summer and reportedly Juan Mata is available. It's hard to believe that Chelsea will sell to Arsenal having finished just five points ahead last season, but Real could well need money to finance their summer business.

My main conclusion from Wenger's messaging in today's press conference when he speaks of "special" signings is that there will be at least one highly impressive signing. But he has been saying similar things for two months. We'll just have to wait and see.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

This wasn't the chickens coming home to roost. Villa match report and thoughts.

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 3

To quote Rudyard Kipling, "if you can keep your head when all about you are losing their and blaming it on you […] you'll be a man". The reaction to yesterday's Arsenal match has been so over-the-top you'd think we'd lost our first ten games of the season, not one match. Fortunately, we have a manager who doesn't view one match as season-defining.

If you predicted us picking up three injuries in one match and the ref having an absolutely appalling game then perhaps this was a case of the chickens coming home to roost and the summer having been mis-managed to the nth degree.

Otherwise, you can look back on a football match in which we utterly dominated for the first quarter, gave away a soft penalty and two enforced substitutions left us relatively few options to change it from the bench when the game slipped away from us in the second half. In addition, a match in which the referee not only gave Koscielny a second booking for what was frankly a complete dive from Andreas Weimann, but also consistently let Villa's persistent fouling go, despite it completely disrupting our rhythm. It wasn't just a case of Anthony Taylor getting the big decisions wrong; it was also a case of him getting the small decisions wrong over and over again. He had no idea what was a foul, let alone what was a yellow card. To my eyes, he completely lost control of the game and we're unlikely to see a worse refereeing performance at the Emirates this season.

And that's the crucial point. You can talk about signings as much as you want, but Arsenal were 2/5 with the bookies to win the match yesterday (implying a 70% chance of victory) and most people expected Arsenal to win.

That's the problem with results-based thinking. The squad needs strengthening. But it needed strengthening irrespective of the result yesterday, and there's no doubt that the team that was put out there was good enough to win the game.

As to why the squad hasn't been strengthened until now, there seems to be a large proportion of the fan-base who genuinely believe that Wenger doesn't want to spend any money so he can wallpaper the walls of the training ground with fifty-pound notes, completely ignoring what has gone on this summer.

I don't view our transfer window as a success, but I don't view it as the unequivocal failure most people seem to. There's a hell of a lot of people who'd be happier if Yaya Sanogo had cost 10 million pounds so they can say we've spent some money.

But if you look at the players we've actually bid for - Suarez, Rooney, Bender, Fabregas - a clear pattern emerges. What the club have tried to do this summer is sign players who could make us challenge for the League once again. Amidst all the talk of how Arsenal regularly come either 3rd or 4th, what's overlooked is that in both 2008 and 2010, we had strong challenges for the title, something we haven't been near for the previous two years.

Of course we could have gone out and bought players of the calibre Spurs have bought this summer - Capoue, Soldado etc - and consolidated the squad to a position where it could definitely achieve fourth place, but the impression I had from almost everybody who I spoke to was that they were tired of not winning things every season and wanted to strengthen to the point we could challenge for the title and maybe even the Champions League.

If another week or so passes and we still haven't signed anybody except Sanogo, I expect the the proverbial net to widen, as the need to sign players who would keep us above Spurs, rather than challenge Chelsea and City increases. But I have enormous sympathy with the club: when Fabregas left Arsenal it was on the 14th of August; when Nasri left Arsenal it was on the 24th of August; when van Persie signed for United, it was on the 15th of August; when Song signed for Barcelona it was on the 20th of August. What all of these deals have in common is that they went through towards the end of the transfer window. When you're signing one of the best players from a club, and the player is going to be in the Champions League anyway, it takes a while for these deals to go through. People talk about parsimony as if it's a good idea to spend more if you can spend less. We can't force deals through with huge money as Man City do, because we don't have that much money.

For sure, Arsenal can afford to spend some money this summer - but it's not worth buying assets who will rapidly lose value while being on high wages, meaning we''ll struggle to make top signings in 2014 and 2015. There's an important middle ground to be struck, which I'm confident the club have tried to find.

So, yes, we could sign players like Ashley Williams and Michu and guarantee 4th place once again, but I applaud the club's strategy of aiming higher than that. People need to be a little more detached from individual results and look at the bigger picture.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Stop worrying about transfers and enjoy the summer.

In general, there's something particularly odd about spending your days arguing on the internet, normally with strangers.

But that reaches a whole new level of odd, when you're spending your days arguing about something you know nothing about, with other people who also know nothing.

The endless, pointless dissection of transfer rumours has to stop. If your only interest is football, find another one. Tweet me and I'll recommend you some books to read; alternatively, go to the pub or take up swimming. I think you get the point.

Aside from my holier than thou attitude that people shouldn't care this much about football, the point is that your arguing achieves nothing. I was at the Emirates in May to hear the MD of our football club say that the club wanted to spend money this summer, a line several of the squad have repeated since. There's two options here: one, the club are telling bare-faced lies, in which case getting upset achieves nothing because they clearly don't care about mis-leading fans. Or two, the club are trying to sign players.

If it's the second one, arguing about the club's inaction so far, when there's four weeks until the start of the season and you have no knowledge of what's gone on thus far seems utterly bizarre.

The only line I keep on hearing is that the club has a history of messing up transfers. By all accounts this is true. But that was also when they were penny-pinching. Judging by what we've heard from Arsenal, that's no longer the case. So to pretend the two situations are analogous is just ridiculous. It would be akin to us drawing Real Madrid in the Champions League and saying we have a great record against them, despite the squad having changed completely since we last played them.

But even if the club are going to do nothing and we start the season with the squad as it stands, I don't think arguing with fellow fans achieves anything. People (I included) spend enough time when the season is ongoing arguing about something they can see with their own eyes - the team on the pitch - that arguing about something when you have no idea what's happening is patently absurd.

You have three months off from football every year. It's a rare hot British summer. Enjoy it.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Seven things the Pope's resignation can teach Arsenal

If you actually thought I would write a post about the Pope and Arsenal, you are a fucking idiot.