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.