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.