Thursday, 20 February 2014

Five thoughts on Arsenal 0 Bayern 2

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2

The referee took a massive punt
Whether the rule of giving a penalty and a red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity is fair or not, it was entirely moot last night: Wojciech Szczesny did not deny a clear goalscoring opportunity. He fouled Arjen Robben, certainly. But before any contact was made, Robben went to control the ball and a reasonably heavy touch pushed the ball away from the goal, well to the left of the goal-mouth. As Szczesny brings Robben down, two Arsenal defenders come over to cover the goal-line, so that even if he had stayed on his feet and managed to get the ball back under control, it was far from a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrible decision.

But here's the really important thing: even if you buy the argument (which I don't) that it's incredibly hard to judge these things in real time, the ref still then took a massive punt on deciding it was a clear goalscoring opportunity. Given the disproportionate harm to the defending team of taking such a punt - not to mention that he was wrong - it seems a very bizarre thing to do.

And at risk of sounding like a broken record, it continues a long, long run of highly contentious decisions going against us in the Champions League.

Sometimes there's not a lot you can do
There's a completely absurd column from Tony Cascarino in today's Times criticising Arsene Wenger for being tactically inflexible and basically blaming last night's result on this. I know this will annoy a lot of 16 year-old tactical whizz-kids, but sometimes there's not a lot you can do.

An Arsenal win was the least likely result going into the match, before playing 55 minutes a man down. The idea that it was Wenger's tactics which made Arsenal lose is frankly ridiculous.

In reality, by playing very narrow for most of the second half, we actually kept a very good shape. A 1-0 defeat to a brilliant goal while playing a man down would have been quite a good result. Should Mesut Özil have gone off instead of Santi Cazorla? Maybe, it's very hard to say. I think Özil provides more of an attacking threat and you need to continue to offer a threat or the opposition will just throw everybody forward.

The second goal was a disaster
After playing really very well for 87 minutes, the second goal was a real hammer-blow, killing the tie competitively with one swift flick of Thomas Muller's head.

It's particularly galling as it came from our most atrocious phase of play of the night. Laurent Koscielny drove forward from defence, winning a free kick just inside the Bayern half, finally giving us some breathing space. To pass it sideways and retain possession would have been a reasonable option - Arsenal were tired and running the clock down, at least a bit, would have been a reasonable option. To commit five or six players to the box, pushing Bayern back and giving us a goal threat would also have been a sensible choice.

Instead, they chose some sort of middle way - Koscielny went forward, there were maybe two other Arsenal players in the box, and it was easy to defend for Bayern. The lack of defensive organisation then stemmed from it taking Koscielny an age to get back into defence and in my opinion, almost certainly contributed to conceding what was a very soft goal. Bill Clinton might have advocated for a 'third way' but on this occasion it was a bad, bad decision.

The sheer absurdity of the away goals rule
I'm not one for inductive reasoning and obviously four matches is a very small sample size, but in all four Champions League games this week, the away team won, furthering the case that playing away in the Champions League really isn't that great a disadvantage. Given all the other reasons which Jonathan Wilson has gone into about it being a misguided rule, isn't it time it was scrapped?

The myth of Bayern 0 Arsenal 2
The narrative promulgated by the media about Arsenal's victory in Munich last season is that it was borne out of complacency. This really is utter bollocks. Bayern had 21 shots to Arsenal's 8, 9 shots on target to Arsenal's 3. The idea they weren't trying is just untrue. So to therefore claim Arsenal have no chance in the second leg as "Bayern won't make the same mistake again" is just unfair.

What is true is that it was a freaky result - there is no way on the balance of play Arsenal deserved to win 2-0. But Arsenal are now much improved. Score the first goal in Munich and they might get nervous: they were certainly rattled in the first twenty minutes last night.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The strange case of Lukas Podolski

There was a point towards the end of August, when despite Arsenal's only summer signing being Yaya Sanogo, the papers were insistent that Lukas Podolski was about to move to Schalke in a swap deal for Kyrgiakos Papadopoulos. Even ignoring the press' obsession with pretending that real life is like Football Manager and that swap deals are a regular and realistic option for clubs, it raised a very important point: Arsenal bought Podolski for around 11 million pounds, a cheap fee because his beloved Köln had been relegated. He then proceeded to have a successful first season and in August was 28, in the peak years of his career.

In other words, it would have been fair to value him at about 20 million pounds. And yet I couldn't think of one team who would pay that and I would be upset if my team did for a player of Podolski's calibre. Therein lies the problem: people speculate about him being off this summer but who is going to pay his fee? Maybe that means he is worth less than 20 million - typical Tory argument about the market always being right - but if so, the benefit to Arsenal of selling Podolski is diminished.

More to the point, at which top team is he going to get more game time than he is currently getting at Arsenal? All speculation about him leaving is entirely contingent on him being happy to go back to being the best player at a mid-table club, and that sort of club being able to afford him. I think it's unlikely.

I find the idea that the manager doesn't "fancy him" slightly fatuous. If you look at how often he has picked Podolski when he is fit, it suggests that he is indeed a player who is highly rated at the club. That he hasn't come off the bench in certain recent matches is more an indicator of how in a tight game, introducing a player as defensively incompetent as Podolski is a big risk. It's not that he doesn't attempt to track back - he does, that's why he's always knackered after 65-70 minutes - it's just that he's not very good at it. He doesn't understand defensive positioning and consistently helps to leave his full-back exposed. The contrast with Cazorla is vast. Santi wasn't especially good defensively when he came to the club, but has improved enormously. He was even making slide tackles against Man United - my friend Chris has nicknamed him "Santi the enforcer".

The idea that Podolski is subbed off for any reason other than fitness simply does not explain why he is consistently subbed off. If Wenger simply "didn't fancy him" why would he start Podolski and play him for 65-70 minutes before taking him off? Even the argument that he wasn't subbed off much at Köln has little substance to it - at Köln he had far fewer defensive responsibilities as a central striker, and hence played a less tiring role. And As Köln were relegated, striving to emulate them is probably misguided.

It's certainly true that Podolski has been subbed off less for Germany than for Arsenal, but that's probably just because he has played alongside players with even worse stamina - Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller stand out here. Given that the vast majority of substitutions are made for physical rather than tactical reasons - and Wenger consistently replaces Podolski with another left winger - it's reasonable to surmise from all the evidence available that the main reason Podolski is subbed off is because of his fitness.

With regard to the wider question of how good Podolski is, I think the answer is not as good as his record suggests. People who compare his conversion rates with Giroud's miss the point - Podolski almost only shoots when a goal is likely. That's not a criticism of him. But if the entire team played like him, the 'SHOOOOOOOT' brigade at the Emirates would get even angrier, so comparing the two strikers' conversation rates to work out who is a better player is absurd. In general, one stat on its own reveals almost nothing and quite often actually points you in the wrong direction.

People rave about his bullet shot but guess what - opposition managers watch Arsenal too. The reason he's not banging in brilliant goals the whole time is that opposition teams know to close Podolski down when he gets the ball in a shooting position, a job made considerably easier by - how shall I put this delicately? - Podolski's less-than-brilliant anticipation. He grabbed the headlines as he scored the winning goal, but there was more than one occasion during Sunday's match against Liverpool where I was screaming "run Lukas, run" as Mesut Özil held the ball up for what felt like an eternity for Podolski to catch up with the play. Even when he's up with play, his movement in terms of getting into positions where he can actually pick the ball up and look threatening, without team-mates' producing moments of sheer brilliance to assist him, are few and far between.

This might seem like a hyper-critical take on Podolski, and to an extent, it is. But the value of a player who both struggles to play centre forward in Arsenal's current system, and also lacks the defensive nous to protect his full back effectively as a wide player is limited. Certainly Podolski gets lots of goals and assists, and in a way he reminds me of Theo Walcott three years ago, in terms of being able to point to end product. The difference is that Walcott's pace was an added advantage for the team as it made difficult for the opposition to commit vast numbers of players forward; Podolski doesn't have a similar attribute.

Realistically, I expect Podolski to remain at Arsenal in the summer and continue in roughly the same vein: contributing a reasonable number of goals and assists, playing regularly against smaller teams where his defensive lapses matter less, but playing in fewer big games than some pundits might like. Podolski is a very good player but not a great player. And he should be viewed in that light.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Why I hate Manchester United so much

I had something of an epiphany around September 2010. For many years I had attended Arsenal matches and gone home raging when Arsenal failed to win, moaning about refereeing conspiracies and how the other team cheated. To this day, my mother continues to check the football scores to find out what my state of mind will be like.

But that autumn I started going to the pub after matches. This might seem like a benign addition to the matchday experience, but it actually fundamentally altered it. From being pretty much the only part of going to the football, the actual match became relatively insignificant. Sure, I prefer it if Arsenal win but ultimately I acknowledge that football is played by 22 mercenaries kicking a bit of rubber around some grass, and that they probably only play for my team because they cannot earn more elsewhere.

I accept that any meaning football has is purely constructed and so while I derive enormous enjoyment from seeing my team win, I also enjoy seeing them draw or lose. Afterwards, I go and have three or four pints with a group of friends and by the time you’ve been chatting for two or three hours, it’s unlikely we’re even discussing football anymore and the result has probably become incidental. So I’m far less likely to go home angry and moan about referees, even if I still do the latter quite a lot.

Except with Manchester United it’s different. The visceral hatred remains. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. For other Gooners, they hate Tottenham or Chelsea the most but for me it will always be Manchester United. For one thing I’m a child of the 90s and the first seven or eight years I spent attending matches involved Arsenal and United being by far the best teams in the country.

But I think much more importantly, the hatred has always been spurred on by knowing a comical amount of United fans. Coming from a Jewish family in North London, you’d probably expect me to know many more Spurs fans than United fans but that’s genuinely not the case. It might seem like a tired joke about United fans coming from the South – hey, it is a tired joke – but it also remains true. Not only do they come from the South, but they make up absurd reasons for supporting their team rather than just accepting they’re glory hunters: “It doesn’t matter I lived in South Africa until I was 8 and then moved to North London because Great Uncle Herbert once flew over Manchester and was so captivated by the view of Old Trafford from 30,000 feet that it was simply impossible for the whole family not to support United. Despite broadband internet not existing then and a lack of satellite TV, I remember watching every single of the treble-winning season”.

I’m not even exaggerating and it’s enough to make anybody retch. It’s the same with the wearing of the yellow and green scarves until they continued to do quite well under the Glazers. Manchester United fans literally do not care about anything as long as their team wins.

And that’s probably the second reason I hate Manchester United so much: the countless refereeing decisions that have gone in their favour. If you’re tired of being told that Arsenal haven’t won anything in eight seasons, just remember the comical penalty and free-kick United were awarded at Old Trafford in the title-deciding game in 2007/08. Or the impact Wayne Rooney’s dive had on the 2004-05 season.

More generally, Patrick Vieira was right to call Ruud Van Nistelrooy a cheat and when Arsenal and United were the two best teams in the country, United repeatedly set out to cheat against us. Witness the Neville brothers’ malicious attack on José Reyes, Ole Solskjaer feigning an elbow from Sol Campbell to get him sent off, and the general attitude of United players that it was okay and within the rules to kick Arsenal players, an attitude encouraged by the consistently favourable refereeing United received in matches against Arsenal. And this is without even mentioning the number of questionable decisions United have consistently been given against other teams.

This is why when we play Manchester United I still care enormously. Patrice Evra continues to irritate me more than anybody else in football and there is something particularly satisfying about beating United, as well as enjoying their demise this season.

If nothing else, even fifteen years on, I still have nightmares about Ryan Giggs’ phallic chest-hair design. That alone is enough to make anybody hate Manchester United.