Friday, 30 September 2011

Kroenke’s comments: clarity or confusion?

So, silent Stan has finally spoken – not directly to Arsenal fans, and not via the club, but in an interview with the Telegraph Sport, published today. So what’s he got to say for himself?

Well, the interview seems to have been a wide-ranging and fairly informal conversation of which the topic of Arsenal was actually only a relatively small part. Indeed, Stan talks about his childhood, how he met his wife, his business success and his passion for sport – particularly, it seems, baseball and basketball. Kroenke’s sports ownership portfolio includes the St Louis Rams (American football), the Denver Nuggets (basketball), the Colorado Rapids (Major League Soccer), the Colorado Avalanche (ice hockey) and the Colorado Mammoth (lacrosse). Arsenal do at least get more attention than the lacrosse team, but considerably less than his beloved Rams. Indeed, the interview was actually conducted in the owners’ box during a Rams game, which they lost to the Baltimore Ravens by 37, er, goals, to 7.

Stan does a fair bit of a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ throughout, and the Telegraph piece is peppered with interludes like:

‘There it is, there it is ... WOW!’ shouts Stan Kroenke as he exchanges a high five with his wife, Ann. ‘Now that was an unbelievable play!’ The Rams have scored what turns out to be a consolation touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens and Kroenke has his arm around me.
‘Do you want to know why that was a great play?’ he says. ‘I’ll tell you why. For the quarterback to have that kind of arm strength, on the run, was unbelievable. Watch the replay ... on the run. BOOM! That’s really strong. That’s a big-time play right there.’

Forgive me for being cynical, but if that’s what our owner has to say, then I’d prefer him to go back to being quiet. Suddenly, silence really is golden.

When the conversation moves on to Arsenal, Kroenke’s endorsement of Arsène reads like a hagiography of ‘le Professeur’. He calls him ‘one of my favourite people I have met in the last 20 years’ and ‘a very intelligent guy.’ It won’t come as a surprise to most Arsenal fans that our manager is regarded as a bright chap. But what does Stan see as Arsène’s greatest quality? Well, in a comparison to Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane (seen as a management guru thanks in large part to the book Moneyball, now being made into a major feature film starring Brad Pitt) it is ‘his ability to spend money and extract value. That is what it is all about to be successful in pro sports. If you can do that better than other people, you are always going to be pretty good.’

Well, yes, Arsène is pretty good. We know that. But is ‘pretty good’ enough? On the defensive, Kroenke, taking a lead from Wenger, points to the Gunners' remarkable consistency, i.e. finishing in the top four every season. When quizzed further on the very alarming fact that we might actually drop out of that top four this season, he doesn’t seem unduly worried – although he is concerned, apparently. Here’s some Kroenke wisdom:

‘A wise man was asked, ‘If you had your life to live over what would you do differently?’ He said, ‘The thing I look back on that robbed my life of the joy I had was worrying about things that never happened’. I try not to worry too much because I think that is good advice. Having said that, you are always concerned.’

The man’s a billionaire, so he is clearly doing something right, but I’m not sure his ‘wise man’ is a code to live by. It’s certainly not a way to run a football club.

Stan’s opinions basically centre around the fact that he has firmly and unequivocally put his faith in Arsène and his ‘tried and tested’ methods, i.e. developing young players, creating stability through the stadium and the academy set-up and waiting for financial fair play to be introduced. Ultimately, then, he seems content to leave the decisions entirely up to the manager, ‘the ultimate evaluator.’ This is worrying for those who already think that Arsène is already making too many decisions around the club rather than, well, concentrating on the football.

Predictably, Kroenke does seem to liven up when it comes to marketing the team and (groan) ‘the brand’. ‘We have definite plans for what we want to do on the business side and hopefully we will be able to do as well as Man U. The ownership there was the most controversial but I don’t know how you can do it much better. They have built the commercial side. What the Glazers have shown is that it was way under-marketed. The revenue of the club now is huge. That gives you lots of options.’

Paying the Glazers generous compliments is not a good PR move and these sentiments will immediately set massive alarm bells ringing among Arsenal fans. There is discontent already, and comparing Arsenal to United in this sense will not be viewed positively. Will next season see our own ‘green and gold’ campaign? Perhaps we’ll get groups of fans walking around the Emirates in a load of old Nottingham Forest shirts as a symbol of protest?

However, Kroenke has promised that his purchase will not place any debt or interest liability on the club, and he believes that his track record to date should provide reassurance. We can only hope he honours those promises. He stresses that his ownership group are ‘long term’ and that he is committed to a self-sustaining model – seeing the concept of a private benefactor as unsustainable. This is perhaps, a dig at the increasingly vocal Alisher Usmanov – who isn’t a board member and has been outspoken in his criticism of the Kroenke setup and the current way the club is run, but who seems in many ways to have equally dangerous ideas. Arsenal should not become another United; neither should they become another City or Chelsea. Reliance on a single owner makes a football club entirely subject to the whims of an individual – and typically, the type of individual who is used to getting their own way – and if that individual’s fortunes change, or even disappear, then so, potentially does the club. This is inherently dangerous. Long-term sustainability is therefore important for the future of Arsenal and should be lauded. At the same time, and without wanting to sound melodramatic, we shouldn’t look to the horizon whilst ignoring what we’re about to tread in. Fans want trophies and success, but staying competitive is not just a means to this end – it means we can be proud of the club we invest so much in, both emotionally and financially. On any given day, we want to be capable of beating Barça or Man United – we’ll accept a defeat, but we still want a performance from the team, and 8-2 just doesn’t cut it.

Given that Kroenke really had a chance here to clearly and eloquently outline a vision and strategy for the club to a set of fans who feel as though they have been kept largely in the dark, this interview will be seen by many as frustrating and ultimately a missed opportunity. Admittedly, the Telegraph have presented this as a football piece when actually it seems that Stan was simply making some off-the-cuff observations about Arsenal during a game of American football, but what he says does not seem to be particularly well-thought out or insightful. He will, it seems, back Arsène to the hilt. From the manager’s point of view, this means that with his position secure, the only pressure on Wenger will come from the fans and from himself. This season ought to show whether is capable of rebuilding a competitive team, but it may also reveal just how much drive and passion he still has after 15 years in the same job.

Kroenke still believes in him, evidently. Stan’s positivity in the interview is almost infectious – a good thing – and he seems aware of his strengths and his limitations in the sense that he implicitly acknowledges, MLS experience notwithstanding, that he’s not really a football man. As such, he’s not going to interfere too much. This will come as a relief to some but will not pacify those who think that what Arsène and Arsenal really needs is a firm shake-up from the top down.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Gunners good enough against Greeks

I must admit that I raised an eyebrow on seeing Arsene Wenger’s line-up against Olympiacos last night. Presumably worried about the ability of Ramsey and RvP to play three games in eight days, and perhaps with one eye on the Tottenham game on Sunday, he elected to leave both players on the bench, giving starts to Chamakh and Chamberlain in their place. Evidently Wenger had no such concerns about Alex Song’s stamina, or rather, he had no choice, given the paucity of defensive players currently available.

Although conceivably a risky strategy, initially the somewhat unfamiliar line-up didn’t seem to be a problem at all, as the Gunners raced into a 2-0 first half lead thanks to goals from two new signings – Chamberlain and Santos. The two-goal cushion lasted for just seven minutes but fortunately Szczesny played superbly throughout, and was rightly furious with his defence when Olympiacos pulled a goal back through a free header from a short corner. Arsenal were caught not just napping, but in a complete stupor – how many goals must we concede from set pieces before we wake up and start marking up properly in the box? The zonal system again showed how difficult it is to implement properly.

Arsenal managed to hold on for the rest of the first half and through the second as the game gradually became less frenetic, although exactly how they did so was difficult to explain sometimes. Olympiacos exposed our full-backs time and time again, putting plenty of balls into the box for Arsenal to deal with. With some height in the middle in the form of Mertesacker and Song they coped better than we are used to, but there were still some tense moments. On the plus side, without managing a third goal to kill off the game, Arsenal did some good work creatively to relieve the Olympiacos pressure, at least temporarily. Arteta again showed signs that he will be an instrumental player this season and made a vital clearance off the line midway through the first half. Song was similarly composed and dealt well with the demands of his daunting defensive role. Chamberlain also scored an excellent goal, one which made him the youngest English player ever to score in the Champions League.

With Wenger still consigned to the stands, it was up to Pat Rice to direct the team from the touchline, and admittedly he used his substitutions well by bringing on Ramsey to shore up the midfield and break up play, RvP to try and put the Greeks on the back foot, and ultimately Gibbs to add security to the left flank.

A collective sigh of relief reverberated around the Emirates when the final whistle went. This result was a third consecutive win for the Gunners, and furthermore made us the only Premier League team to win in the Champions League this week. It was an awkward evening that was much less comfortable than it should have been, but nevertheless Arsenal got the result.

Elsewhere in Group F Marseille beat Borussia Dortmund 3-0, a surprising scoreline that flattered the home team, judging from ITV’s evening highlights. That puts Marseille top of the group with 6 points, making Arsenal’s game at the Stade Velodrome in three weeks time a very important fixture indeed.

In the more immediate future, we can look ahead to a North London derby with a certain degree of apprehension. Given his theatrics for City in the past, Adebayor is undoubtedly relishing the chance to play at the weekend and we can be fairly sure that Szczesny will be called into action more than once on Sunday. However there is only so much he can do as long as he plays behind what seems to be an ever-rotating selection of faces rather than a back four made up of the same four players. Hopefully Koscielny, Gervinho and Walcott will all have shaken off their injuries to be fit for the game. It looks a big ask to win at White Hart Lane in our current state, but a loss to Tottenham would really stick in Arsenal fans’ throats. Still, the derby is nothing if not unpredictable, and our forwards do at least seem to be capable of scoring goals, with eleven in the last four games.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Arsenal v Olympiacos – Preview

Arsenal would normally expect to beat Olympiakos at the Emirates tonight. Having said that, Manchester United barely salvaged a draw against Basel at Old Trafford last night. Similarly, City are finding that progressing in the Champions League is far from an easy task (it still seems incredible that many bookies had them as fourth favourites to win the trophy, despite the fact that this season marks their debut in the competition). Both these salient facts add credence to Wenger’s recent assertion that many Gooners have not given the team due credit for their admirable fourteen-season Champions League record to date.

However, despite appearing to be in almost total disarray a few weeks ago, the Gunners showed considerable European nous in getting past Udinese en route to the group stage and if they can now produce another performance to match the Dortmund game then a win ought to be achievable.

Putting such a performance together could be difficult though, largely because Arsenal will be without Walcott, Koscielny and Gervinho. All are big losses, particularly since potential replacements Squillaci, Djourou and Benayoun are out as well. Diaby, Vermaelen and now Wilshere too remain on the long-term injured list. Yet again the team’s lack of strength in depth has been painfully highlighted – worryingly, Mertesacker and Ignasi Miquel are now the only recognised centre-halves available for the game. This would constitute a big test for the young Spaniard, who had okay games in the Carling Cup tie against Shrewsbury and in the loss against Liverpool, but has no experience in European competition for Arsenal. It’s not even as though he would be slotting into an established back-line. As such, Wenger has indicated that Song will partner Mertesacker at the back, and we can only hope this far from ideal pairing comes through this baptism of fire relatively unscathed. In all likelihood they’ll line up in front of Szczesny and alongside Sagna and probably Santos. Ramsey, Arteta, Arshavin and possibly Frimpong and Rosicky will probably feature, 100-goal hero Robin van Persie leading the line to complete the eleven. Frimpong has the quality to play at this level but will need to show maturity and discipline. Composure is key for young Manu, rather than charging around like the proverbial bull in a china shop (or ‘the Demolition Man’, as some Gooners have dubbed him, presumably a reference to the 1993 Wesley Snipes film of the same name - which also makes a nice counterpoint to Aaron Ramsey's ‘Rambo’ sobriquet). It is of course possible that Wenger might put the promising Coquelin in instead, and could conceivably even give Chamberlain the nod over Tomas Rosicky, who seems incapable of playing consistently well for a whole 90 minutes. Age and injuries have taken their toll on the Czech, perhaps, but then he has always had a tendency to drop out of games.

You would hope that still ought to be enough to see off Olympiacos. Fans will note a couple of familiar names in the opposing squad, notably ex-Villa players Olof Mellberg and Jean Makoun, as well as the talented Belgian forward Kevin Mirallas. Olympiacos typically play a defensive 4-5-1, so Arsenal will have to work hard to break them down at the Emirates. However, the Greeks have never won in England, and indeed have only ever scored one goal – against Liverpool at Anfield. We also beat them at home in the Champions League in 2009, so the stats at least are on our side.

Ahead of the game Wenger is being his typically reserved self. He seems to have picked up a Cantona-esque taste for the footballing metaphor recently, calling us ‘a train that started late from the station’ this season. He rightly acknowledges that Arsenal must continue to build on the consistency they now look to be finding, but this will be difficult with such a depleted side. It is also key not to make the same mistakes as United seemingly did last night – namely, being rather too careless and cavalier.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Captain's century from RvP inspires a win

The Gunners produced a really good performance against Bolton on Saturday to get a deserved win that looked, certainly by Arsenal’s recent standards, relatively comfortable. Pleasingly, there were few real defensive dramas – despite some nervy moments through some frustratingly predictable set-piece weaknesses – which, combined with a much improved performance from the Pole between the sticks (sorry), gave us the additional and unexpected bonus of a clean sheet. Both Mertesacker and Koscielny look to be improving their understanding, and if Szczesny provides better direction from behind (he already does so far more effectively than either Fabianski or Almunia) the back-line should continue to consolidate and gel.

At the other end of the pitch the more experienced players in the team stepped up to provide a sustained attacking threat that reaped rewards in the form of a classic striker’s brace from Robin van Persie and an equally adept finish from Alex Song, who fought it out between them for the accolade of 'best player on the pitch'. That now makes it three goals in our last three games. Although Gervinho was surprisingly subdued, Ramsey played well if unspectacularly and both Arteta and Walcott made numerous telling contributions. Mikel was quietly effective, again proving his worth, while Theo was typically menacing but also occasionally erratic, missing a good one on one but on the other hand also providing a good assist for van Persie. Arsenal’s task in the second half was made easier after they grabbed a lead through Robin van Persie in the opening minutes, but the turning point was the dismissal of David Wheater not long thereafter. Wheater was making his first start this season in place of the injured Gary Cahill, whose absence also undoubtedly made the Gunners' task easier. After the sending off Arsenal began to look fairly comfortable and the highlight of the game was a second moment of mastery from our number 10, his 100th goal for Arsenal – a really neat flick that showcased the Dutchman's technical skill. But even putting those two excellent goals aside, it was a real captain’s performance from RvP who showed he was more than prepared to match the physicality of the Bolton players, and in so doing undoubtedly helped to restore some more belief in the team. Whether a 3-0 win against a struggling Bolton team constitutes ‘turning a corner’ I don’t know, but before the game many Arsenal fans (including myself) saw this as a tricky fixture, and the fact that the Gunners came through it with a certain amount of confidence, resilience and yes, finesse (thanks Robin), make it certainly another step forwards.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Arsenal v Bolton - Preview

Arsenal fans are unaccustomed to seeing their team seventeenth in the Premier League table, even this early in the season, and the feeling is both uncomfortable and distinctly worrying. Given that there are only three teams in the league below us, it’s fortunate that one of them – Bolton – are coming to the Emirates tomorrow afternoon. Furthermore, they have lost their last four Premier League games, and arguably the Bolton players are feeling the pressure as much as our own rather forlorn squad. Outside Lancashire, though, little seems to have been said of the malaise currently affecting Owen Coyle’s side. The general feeling is that Bolton, as an established Premier League club, will play their way out of trouble. Undoubtedly they have demonstrated an ability to play decent football, more so under Coyle than under either Megson or Allardyce, and they are a side, therefore, that could cause the Gunners problems, particularly in the shape of Petrov, Klasnic and the ever-tiresome but often effective Kevin Davies. Reports suggest that influential US midfielder Stuart Holden could also return to the line-up after a lengthy lay-off through injury.

However, running an eye over our own squad gives cause for prudent optimism. Wenger tells us that the defence has been worked relentlessly in training this week, while Theo and RvP have both been frank and open in their assessments of what has been lacking so far. We’re entitled to hope, then, for a big improvement over the Blackburn performance. Attention will again be on the defence, which is likely to consist of Szczesny between the sticks, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Gibbs/Santos – it’s not yet clear which of the two will claim the starting left-back position this season. All these players have performed well in fits and starts, but we are now looking for them to do so consistently, and perhaps even more importantly, collectively. The forward line can evidently score goals – three last weekend – and is therefore of less concern, but they will need to take their chances against a back four led by Gary Cahill. He’ll undoubtedly be out to show just how much he is really worth, but Bolton have been leaky of late and a commanding performance from Per Mertesacker at the other end of the pitch would provide a positive contrast for Arsenal fans and manager alike.

I would expect to see Song, Ramsey, Gervinho, RvP, Arteta and either Walcott or Arshavin comprise the rest of the line-up, the final pick depending, it seems, on who wins Wenger’s private coin-toss before the match. Admittedly there’s not much to choose between either Theo or Andrey at the moment, such is their shared inconsistency. It would be intriguing to see Wenger gamble again, as he did with Tuesday’s line-up, by adding a couple of the players who performed in the Carling Cup tie to the matchday squad. Frimpong or Coquelin both impressed in midfield against Shrewsbury, as did Chamberlain and Ryo up front. Either of the former pairing would add bite and solidity to the midfield, perhaps freeing Arteta to get further forward, while both of the latter could test Bolton as second-half substitutes. Chamberlain should be full of confidence after his excellent display. I’ve also got a sneaky feeling that, if Wenger gives him the chance, young Mr Miyaichi could be Arsenal’s Chicharito this season – our karate kid to United’s little pea, perhaps. On current form he would undeniably be more effective as an impact player than Chamakh.

A clean sheet might be too much to hope for tomorrow, but some semblance of defensive organisation would be a forward step, and would also save Lee Dixon from replaying yet another frankly embarrassing example of ineptitude from the Gunners back-line on Match of the Day. Seeing the net bulge a few times at whichever end of the Emirates Bolton are defending would also be a refreshing and welcome departure from last weekend’s own-goal fest.

A small step forward, a decent performance... and a place in the fourth round

Tuesday night at the Emirates was, believe it or not, pretty good fun. All the more surprising since the early signs weren’t too promising – as expected, Shrewsbury were fired up and started strongly right from the kick-off, although a young Gunners line-up were also initially bright and positive, if not altogether convincing at the back. No surprises there, then. Arsenal, featuring a mix of youthful and new faces (and indeed both), put some nice but not particularly incisive passes together and were clearly trying to find time to settle. Unfortunately, they didn’t get it. As we should know only too well by now, the Premier League’s Goliaths under-estimate the upstart Davids of the lower divisions at their peril, particularly when it comes to a team on a good cup run and with two kills (well, Swansea and Derby) to their credit already. That football truism and rather tortured metaphor, combined with the intense pressure on an untested Arsenal side, meant that it was not altogether unexpected when the team from League Two took the lead through a James Collins header from a cross lofted in by Marvin Morgan – both already identified in the matchday programme as the danger men. Evidently, neither Djourou nor Miquel had read it, and worryingly the first-team’s chronic lack of confidence in defence seemed to have permeated throughout the squad.

But despite some groans and murmurs of discontent, the crowd refused to get on the team’s back. Mutterings about the ‘same old Arsenal’ soon turned to shouts of encouragement, and the team responded seventeen minutes after going behind. Kieran Gibbs – who had a good game – popped up with a composed and well-timed header. Thereafter, although perhaps not quite plain sailing, we were certainly on the right tack, and finished the first half having restored parity and beginning, perhaps, to get the edge.

Shrewsbury tired visibly in the second half, while Arsenal seemed to gain in confidence and strength, ultimately dominating the game with various displays of attacking intent that culminated in a superb goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. In the first half he seemed to be already picking up on the Gunners’ tendency to try and walk the ball into the net rather than simply hit it, but in the 58th minute hit it he did – and how. Our new number 15 (infinitely more exciting than the Brazilian crab who wore it last season) was the standout performer of the match, although Frimpong, Coquelin, Jenkinson and Benayoun also performed well. It was good to see Yossi get on the score sheet with a typically well-taken close-range finish, picking his spot well and side-footing into the far corner of the Shrewsbury net after a cut-back from Ozzy Ozyakup. Ozyakup, introduced for the uncompromising but effective Frimpong in the second half, also turned in a good display, chasing some seemingly lost causes and revitalising the play, showing industry as well as desire to get on the ball. We saw an intriguing glimpse of Ryo, who entered the fray as a substitute for the hard-working but fairly ineffectual Park. Ryo showed plenty of skill and good feet, looking quick and keen to get into the box. The towering Chuks Aneke also came on for a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo. He deserves a proper chance to play in this competition at least, after turning in some excellent performances for the reserves, and looks a good prospect. At 6’ 2” and 14-stone, he could be our very own Andy Carroll, but with better hair and no drink problem (judging from some lucid responses in the programme interview, anyway).

The disappointments were the fringe players – Fabianski showed why he’ll probably struggle to get the number 1 spot back from Szczesny, while captain for the night Johan Djourou struggled badly, caught out of position time and time again whilst barely competing with the big Shrewsbury forwards in the air. After looking for a period last season like he would be the best option out of the three first-team CB’s we had to partner Vermaelen, he must now be behind Mertesacker and Koscielny in Wenger’s mind, although probably still ahead of Squillaci – just. Frustratingly, Chamakh was anonymous up front and still looks a shadow of the player who started his Arsenal career so strongly. I am bemused by the apparent change in his attitude and play, which maybe points to unhappiness in London or with his place in the squad. Snap out of it, Marouane – we will need more than solely Robin van Persie to score the goals this season.

The other major positive of the night was the crowd, who were in good voice – certainly those on the North Bank, anyway. Like the team on the pitch, they seemed to be a little younger, a bit less jaded. This might have had something to do with the fact that the club were advertising £10 tickets earlier last week, and perhaps that Carling Cup matches attract a slightly different type of Arsenal fan. An attendance of 46,539 was apparently the lowest ever recorded at Emirates (but still more than any other Carling Cup fixture this season), but they were genuinely loud and supportive. All the songs came out, and Arsène, a man who is, if we are to believe the media, struggling under the pressure of it all, even gave us a wave, after a spontaneous chant rippled through the crowd. It was almost like the good old days.

Arsenal got the win, which although expected was by no means a formality, with a positive display marred only by nervy defending. Nevertheless the team showed a resilience and good character to regroup and retake the lead after going behind. No collapse points to an improvement that will surely add some confidence to the squad. Buoyed then by what I thought was a pretty good performance, all in all, and a new-found faith in my fellow Gooners, I meandered home through N7 in good cheer. When I got home, I turned on the laptop to see what others had made of it all. The few early match reports from the news and sports websites seemed to describe a very different game to what I’d just witnessed (yeah, that’s you, Guardian). Evidently, a few hacks already had their 'Arsenal still in crisis' pieces written and ready to file until the Gunners actually went and won the game. A quick check of some early doors Arsenal blogs, meanwhile, seemed to reveal that they had less to say about the game than bemoan the fact that they couldn’t find a video stream. Now, one of the best things about Arsenal fans is the chance of finding one in any bar in any city in the world, and I appreciate not everyone can get to the Emirates (even when it’s only a tenner to get in) on a Tuesday night, but I didn’t realise that so many commentators and opinion-formers speculate, debate and even criticise without actually watching the games…

Monday, 19 September 2011

Arsenal v Shrewsbury - Preview

Ah, the Carling Cup – perhaps the root of all Arsenal’s recent troubles. Many have pinpointed that agonising cup final loss to Birmingham last season, and more specifically that awkward goal from Obafemi Martins as the moment when it all started to go wrong. Certainly the Gunners’ run of results since then has been exceptionally poor, symptomatic of a shaken confidence that has profoundly affected the team. Arguably it even disillusioned certain players to the extent that they ultimately decided enough was enough and sought pastures new (and wages aplenty).

So what better way to exorcise those demons than go all out to grab firm hold of that three-handled jug in 2011/12, starting tomorrow night, with a confident third-round victory. Arguably there are more important issues to deal with, but a win is a win, after all. So Arsenal’s first eleven can’t beat Blackburn – let’s see if the second string can get past Shrewsbury.

The League Two side have spent much of the last few seasons in and around the play-off places, without quite managing to secure promotion. This is also the first time they’ve reached the third round of the League Cup since 1993 – which, coincidentally, was the last time that Arsenal won it. Even more oddly, they’re also celebrating their 125th year this season – and seem to be making a much better fist of it than we are so far. On their way through to this stage, however, Shrewsbury have already dispatched Derby and Swansea, and a trip to the Emirates is undoubtedly a big game for the Shrews, so they will certainly show plenty of spirit.

Wenger is likely to ring the changes, giving the fringe players a run out whilst taking his usual ‘young guns’ approach to the competition. From a fans’ point of view, this ought to be a good opportunity to evaluate some of the players we have yet to see properly – Ryo Miyaichi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ju Young Park perhaps. But the line-up is anyone’s guess really. Whoever emerges from the tunnel, I hope they embrace the occasion. A bit of youthful bravado and audacity would be quite refreshing given the cynicism that seems to surround the first team at the moment. Hopefully Arsenal will play with the sense of liberation that has epitomised the best of the Wenger era – the sort of football we used to see regularly but now seem to get only sporadically. The Gunners haven’t failed to reach at least the quarter-finals of this competition since 2002/03, and there’s no reason why that record won’t continue to stand. Given recent performances, taking it one game at a time is the most sensible approach right now, and the players selected tomorrow might just surprise us all and thrive in the spotlight.

Back-four blunders a cause for concern

A disappointing performance from the Gunners on Saturday, made worse by the wary optimism that had been engendered by the team’s last two results. Fans were expecting further signs of encouragement and some improvement throughout the team, but instead got a display that at times bordered on shambolic. Two own-goals showed not just a lack of defensive focus but also sheer ineptitude. Rather than displaying signs of progression, however small, Arsenal instead exhibited a worrying inconsistency, not just over a run of matches but within the ninety minutes. This must not become a trend.

Paradoxically, Arsenal actually started the match quite brightly. Sagna and Gervinho initially combined well down the right, the pair of them playing deft one-twos past Gaël Givet with an insouciant grace – Bac might as well have tugged the hirsute Frenchman’s beard on the way past. The Gunners’ first goal was well deserved, Gervinho chalking up his first Premier League strike courtesy of a precision-guided ball from Alex Song played perfectly through the Blackburn defence. It all seemed to suggest the Arsenal of old, and halfway through the first 45 it looked as though the away support was in for a pleasant afternoon.

Yakubu quickly shattered this, however. ‘Feed the Yak and he will score’, as the Everton fans used to sing, and Arsenal should have known better than to let him in for a clever close-range finish. The lack of understanding between Koscielny and Santos, starting his first game at left-back, was perhaps understandable, but this worrying error was the first of a litany of defensive mistakes. With the ball, however, Arsenal looked better. Although the football was by no means free flowing, there were decent spells and another good build-up resulted in a goal for Arteta, nicely finished after Ramsey’s intelligent cut-back, which put us 2-1 up. We should have had another, with Gervinho bursting purposefully into the box and captain Robin van Persie screaming for the ball. The Ivorian, however, had his blinkers on and shot straight at Robinson. RvP was not best pleased, gesturing at his feet and shouting some choice words – including the phrase ‘look up!’ – at Gervinho. Robin was right, and this is one of the most visible drawbacks in Gervinho’s game, but van Persie’s evident frustration with his new team-mate was not particularly constructive and perhaps hinted at discord in the side.

There was certainly no defensive unity discernible in the second half. There had been awkward and tense moments at the back in the first half, but straight from the kick-off Blackburn looked more determined, while Arsenal seemed to deflate completely. Losing Sagna to an injury only exacerbated this. Without Jenkinson named as a substitute Djourou had to step into the breach, and his unfamiliarity with the full-back position was sadly evident as he struggled to contain Junior Hoilett. Our hitherto productive attacking threat down the right-hand side was also negated, and with that avenue closed, Arsenal’s attacking players dropped out of the game almost completely.

The first own goal, deflected into the net very tamely from a relatively unthreatening free kick was a poor one to concede. That neither Szczesny nor a defender got it to it was unforgivable. Indeed, after being man of the match a couple of times already this season, the Arsenal keeper’s performance was not one of his best. He wavered in his decision-making and failed to either command his box or marshal the back-line adequately. Then again, the men in front of him were equally culpable. Blackburn’s third, despite Yakubu being marginally offside, showed a lack of discipline and focus that again should concern Wenger and whoever is supposed to be teaching our back four how to defend. They are also presumably responsible for the newly-introduced zonal marking – a system for which Rafa Benitez was heavily criticised during his Liverpool tenure – which also showed its limitations.

Arsenal, buckling now under sustained pressure, then conceded a fourth goal through some decent Rovers counter-attacking that nevertheless should have been dealt with by Djourou, who missed an important tackle, and then by Song, who should have showed Olsson safely to the by-line and away from danger rather than meekly extending a leg. Failing that Szczesny should have come quicker and dived at Olsson’s feet, preventing him from making the cross that Koscielny turned into his own net, our rather accident-prone centre-back’s positioning and reactions letting him down once again.

Wenger, who had already brought on Walcott for the increasingly anonymous Arshavin, then subbed Chamakh for Song and the Moroccan did pull one back with a decent header via route one football that suggests Arsenal do now have a rudimentary if unsophisticated ‘Plan B’. It was, alas, too little too late, despite a frenetic last five minutes, with a flurry of chances including a free header that a man of Mertesacker’s stature ought to have buried. He could have made himself an instant Gooners hero in the process too, which would have helped silence those who are already voicing concerns about his abilities at the back.

Overall, a lack of leadership was clearly evident. This is inexplicable when you consider that Arsenal have no fewer than seven international captains in their squad. Only three of them were on the pitch yesterday, but still, no-one seemed to take charge. Logically you would look to the man with the armband, but although van Persie can spearhead the attack he is not ideally placed to marshal the defence. Neither Mertesacker and Koscielny looked willing or able to assume command, let alone lead by example. To a certain extent this is understandable – most of this team have only played a couple of games together. Obviously they need more playing time to become a cohesive unit, but even in this interim or transitional period you would still expect players of their quality to get the basics right. This was entirely absent, and is the most concerning aspect of the performance – without a stable base to build on, there’s no way the team can rebuild in order to challenge for the top four again. Furthermore, the defending seemed to expose a whole array of issues rather than a couple of identifiable easy-to-fix weaknesses. We certainly do not seem to be ‘90% there’, as Arsene commented in the post-match press conference.

On the other hand, Arsenal scored three goals (in the right end, anyway), and continuing in that vein would be one positive to take from another game to forget. We are, surely, not going to concede two own goals every time we play, either. Added to which, Blackburn were full of fight – their team and their manager have been under almost as much pressure as ours in recent weeks – and despite many Gunners fans labelling them ‘relegation fodder’, they are stronger than last season and do look to be improving, despite popular discontent with Steve Kean. Added to which, we do find it tough to beat Blackburn – Arsenal didn’t win at Ewood Park last season (the Gunners lost 2-1 thanks to a Christopher Samba winner back in May 2010). In that sense, this loss should again be put in perspective. It’s probably not time to stage our own ‘manager out’ protest just yet (although there are many AMGs who are keen to do so) but Wenger has again heaped pressure back on his and the team’s collective shoulders.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Magic 14?

No, this post isn’t a hagiography of our very own Theo Walcott. Despite his blistering pace and awesome ability to play inch-perfect, defence-splitting passes once in every, er, twenty or so attempts.

Instead, it’s a look back at the Gunners’ Champions League record to date. With a decent start to this season’s campaign, the fourteenth consecutive season in which Arsenal have played Champions League football, it seems an apposite time to review the team’s record in the competition. After all, much has been made of Arsène’s mantra that consistency is key: ‘The most difficult is consistency at the top, and the proof of that is that only two clubs have been able to finish in the top four for each of the last 12 years, us and Manchester United.’ Of course, for Arsène and the board a top four finish = Champions League qualification = £££, a considerable financial reward that is so conspicuously absent from, say, a Carling Cup or an FA Cup trophy. And that's where the priorities clearly lie, rightly or wrongly. Anyway, here’s a season-by-season breakdown of the Gunners’ European adventures since 1998. The initial placing in brackets represents Arsenal’s final finish in the preceding Premier League season, followed by their result in the qualifying round (opponents and aggregate score), group stage placing and points tally, and finally the stage of the competition reached before elimination.

Season 14: 2011/12 (4th) Qualifying round: 3-1 agg. v Udinese.
Season 13: 2010/11 (3rd) Group runners-up (12 pts), Round of 16 (3-4 agg., Barcelona)
Season 12: 2009/10 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-1 agg. v Celtic, Group winners (13pts), Quarter-Finals (3-6 agg., Barcelona)
Season 11: 2008/09 (3rd) Qualifying round: 6-0 agg. v Twente, Group runners-up (11pts), Semi-Finals (1-4 agg., Manchester United)
Season 10: 2007/08 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-0 agg. v Sparta Prague, Group runners-up (13pts), Quarter-Finals (3-5 agg., Liverpool)
Season 9: 2006/07 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-1 agg. v Dinamo Zagreb, Group winners (11pts), Round of 16 (1-2 agg., PSV Eindhoven)
Season 8: 2005/06 (2nd), Group winners (16pts), Final (1-2, Barcelona)
Season 7: 2004/05 (1st), Group winners (10pts), Round of 16 (2-3 agg., Bayern Munich)
Season 6: 2003/04 (2nd), Group winners (10pts), Quarter-Finals (2-3 agg., Chelsea)
Season 5: 2002/03 (1st), Group winners (10pts), Second group stage, 3rd
Season 4: 2001/02 (2nd), Group runners-up (9pts), Second group stage, 3rd
Season 3: 2000/01 (2nd), Group winners (13pts), Quarter-Finals (2-2 agg., Valencia*)
Season 2: 1999/00 (2nd), First group stage, 3rd (8pts)
Season 1: 1998/99 (1st), First group stage, 3rd (8pts)

* Valencia through on away goals

Of course, the statistics above don’t do justice to the team’s travails in that period. Love it or loathe it, the Champions League has played an important part in the Gunners’ recent history. It hasn’t unfortunately, led to any silverware, and there is an argument that it has actually cost us the chance of domestic trophy success, but equally it has given fans some great European nights. Occasions, indeed, that rank up there with – alright, surpassing – the Cup Winners’ Cup win over Parma back in 1994. Ultimately, those fourteen seasons have created memories both good and bad, with some painful defeats but also some memorable wins. As for what it might tell us about this season’s prospective campaign, well, although 3-1 on aggregate against Udinese looks comfortable on paper (and it certainly didn’t feel that way during the nervy win at the Emirates) it pales into insignificance against the maulings of Celtic (sorry Bhoys), Twente, Sparta Prague and Dinamo Zagreb. However, even without Alexis Sanchez, Udinese now are probably better than any of these sides were when we played them in 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006 respectively. Of course, in the first eight seasons of participation we didn’t have a play-off to get through at all…

Also worth noting is that, to date, 10 points or more (indeed 9 points in 2001/02) has always guaranteed progression from the group stages. This is an achievable target in a group consisting of Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Olympiacos, particularly with an away point on the board already after arguably the toughest match of the six out of the way. Anything else? Well, it would be nice to avoid Barcelona for as long as possible – they’ve got an annoying habit of putting us out. Although, if last season’s tie against Barça was anything to go by, playing Pep Guardiola’s men does seem to bring out the best in the Gunners.

Blackburn v Arsenal – Preview

While the pressure has perhaps eased slightly on Arsène and Arsenal after encouraging if unspectacular results against Swansea and Borussia Dortmund, the same cannot be said of Steve Kean and his Blackburn Rovers team. Indeed, a protest is apparently scheduled before the match tomorrow. If that’s the case then the Blackburn fans will have to be up and about early – it’s a lunchtime kick off at Ewood Park.

Rovers’ bad run of form is even worse than ours, and a solitary point gained against Fulham last weekend has meant that they are currently rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table. The problem with that is that the only way is up, and Blackburn will be looking to stop the rot against an Arsenal side that is not firing on all cylinders yet. In addition, they are gradually bedding in their own new signings in the shape of defender Scott Dann and forward David Goodwillie. The Argentine Mauro Formica and Spaniard Rubén Rochina, both of whom arrived in January, are also still finding a way into the Blackburn team. Both look promising, and the latter in particular is a talented striker from Barcelona's famous cantera who scored a great goal against Fulham. Junior Hoilett has also started the season well, one of the few positives for Blackburn fans in 2011/12 so far.

Still, Arsenal should have more than enough to deal with these threats and cause problems of their own. We should get to see more of our own new additions, Benayoun and Arteta, while Gervinho and Song will also return to the side after red card suspensions – they will, I feel, prove to be big players this season and therefore keeping out of the referee’s notebook in future is vital for both. Injury news – apart from the worryingly long list of absentees already (Wilshere, Vermaelen, Diaby, Squillaci) – is that Rosicky and Ramsey are both still doubts, although and Sky Sports suggest that young Aaron might still have a chance of playing. If he is out then the team is likely to be unchanged from the Dortmund game, although it will be interesting to see whether Gibbs keeps his place over Santos. The sensible decision is that Gibbs should start, but he was pretty poor (uncharacteristically so, to be fair) in Germany, and like a lot of fans I’m itching to see what our new Brazilian can offer. Similarly, it would be good to see Ju Young Park get a run-out as a second-half substitute.

Given Blackburn’s appalling home form, three points looks eminently achievable tomorrow and would be another step on the road to recovery for the Gunners.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Precious point looking even better

After tonight’s round of Champions League fixtures Arsenal’s hard-earned point in Dortmund last night looks like an even better result. Manchester United only managed the same against Benfica in Portugal, while City also finished with a point at home to Napoli.

Arsenal’s was by no means a faultless performance on Tuesday, but the final score was encouraging and the game itself showed signs that this team are beginning to play more cohesively. Mertesacker, Koscielny, Sagna and Szczesny all played excellently, as did Alex Song, particularly in the second half. Walcott and Van Persie combined well for the goal, and there was plenty of industry from Gervinho, Benayoun (making his first start – a presumably attack-minded decision from Wenger that surprised me a little) and Arteta. The latter was perhaps stifled creatively by being forced to play a deeper-lying role initially, but when Pat Rice introduced Frimpong for Walcott midway through the second half Arsenal’s new number 8 took the opportunity to get forward and support what there was of an attack. We did, admittedly get rather penned into our own half for sustained periods throughout the match. Arteta had actually done a pretty good job in the face of this prolonged Dortmund pressure, showing his versatility, ability to drive the team and strength in the tackle. But then, this is a player who, after all, spent two seasons with Rangers in the SPL. On top of which, he's Basque. Mikel is beginning to look like a more and more valuable acquisition.

Dortmund were, as expected, dangerous and as well as the wunderkind Götze, Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski also caused problems. Still, the Gunners somehow managed to fend them off, and no-one could really be blamed for the crisp Perisic strike in the 88th minute. The timing, so close to the final whistle, was frustrating, but most fans would have, I’m sure, taken a point at the start of the match. Arsenal, then, have got what is on paper their trickiest group match out of the way with a precious point, which constitutes a decent start to the European campaign. Ten points ought to guarantee progression to the knockout phase, and although Arsenal probably won’t do it the easy way, given their temerity at the Emirates recently, they should be capable of seeing off Olympiakos and Marseille, our other opponents in Group F. The latter represents a stiffer challenge than the former, as they also managed a 1-0 win in Greece on Tuesday, but there are now reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Borussia Dortmund v Arsenal – Preview

Arsenal face a tough test tonight against the Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund in the enormous Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund. Germany’s biggest stadium, it holds 80,720 – which is reduced to 65,718 for international matches due to the all-seater requirement. Still, that dwarfs even the Emirates, and the atmosphere is likely to be fearsome.

Borussia Dortmund play good football and this game perhaps represents the sternest test in the group for the Gunners. The Germans' defence is very good, conceding just eight goals at home throughout the whole of 2010/11, and despite a relatively poor start to the 2011/12 Bundesliga season the team has quality – not least in the form of Mario Götze, a talented 19-year-old midfielder who is already a Germany international (9 senior appearances, 2 goals) and one of the spearheads of the Dortmund attack. Our very own Mr Wenger was reportedly – and perhaps predictably – very interested in young Mario during the transfer window, even attempting a rumoured deadline-day bid. Well, we missed out, and let’s hope that does not come back to haunt us.

Despite an increasingly haggard appearance and some rather odd comments about the ‘hell’ that is football management recently, Arsene seems in fairly good spirits ahead of tonight’s game (either that or just resigned to his fate). He shouldn’t be – he is of course banned from the touchline again, but perhaps he sees this as welcome respite from media glare, and a rare opportunity to blame Pat Rice if it all goes wrong. He also made a barbed comment on the pedants at UEFA, while discounting a suggestion that he might attempt a Mourinho-style laundry-basket dressing room entrance (he’s ‘too tall’ for that, apparently): ‘I will now send my vibes and hope they will not be detected by UEFA. I will give my team-talk at the hotel before we go to the game. When I arrive at the stadium, I cannot go to the dressing room. I don’t think I will be man-marked. I have to leave it to Pat Rice. We will go through all the situations before the game. Pat will make the right decisions. For once, I will have somebody else to blame!’

Team news is mixed – on the plus side Gervinho and Alex Song are both now eligible (or maybe UEFA don’t mind if you slap and stamp all over Joey Barton), but Aaron Ramsey and Rosicky are both out. The young Welshman injured himself in training yesterday, while the Czech is still suffering from the knock he picked up on international duty during the interlull. This is a real shame – I think the chance to play against his former club would have been an excellent motivator for Tomas, who does sometimes look as though he’s in need of one. It will be interesting to see who plays in midfield, with possibly Frimpong and Song both starting to help protect the defence, and – probably – Arteta, Walcott and Gervinho supporting RvP up top. It’s possible that Arshavin could feature in favour of Theo, but Park and Yossi are both likely to be on the bench along with Chamakh to complete the attacking options in reserve.

Arsenal will have to defend well, compete in the midfield and look to create or counter quickly, depending on whether Arsene elects to field pace (Walcott) over artistry (Arshavin). Quality performances are required from Mertesacker, Song/Frimpong, Arteta and Walcott (or Arshavin), and RvP will also need to bring his shooting boots to Germany – but ultimately the whole team will have to be on top of their game tonight. For Arteta, who many will now see as Arsenal’s key creative outlet, this represents a chance to demonstrate his abilities on the big stage – he said he came to the Gunners for Champions League football, and here it is. I’m sure he’ll be relishing the challenge – the last time he played in the Champions League with Everton was back in 2005, when they were torpedoed in a qualifying stage tie by the yellow submarine, Villarreal. That’s a long time away from the Champions League and I hope he takes on die Schwarzgelben in earnest.

It should be a more open game than a typical Champions League group phase encounter, with the atmosphere to match, as both teams like to attack, but I just hope Arsenal approach the game sensibly. That probably means playing Gibbs over Andre Santos at left-back, for example. Not a very insightful analysis, I know, but this is a big task indeed and on current form an away draw would be a very good result. But Arsenal have already shown they have quality in Europe and can get results under pressure – so come on Gunners…

Monday, 12 September 2011

Nervy display produces the points

Arsenal did the minimum that was required of them on Saturday and came away from the Swansea game with three points, thanks to a 1–0 win from a very fortuitous goal. It was by no means a convincing performance but few fans were realistically expecting a goal-fest. Swansea’s Michel Vorm, who up to now has looked a decent keeper, dropped a clanger five minutes before half-time, onto which Arshavin duly pounced. The trademark tongue came out, and the Russian deserves credit for showing the awareness to pick up the ball and finish what was a straightforward if unexpected opportunity from a fairly acute angle. Andrey was actually one of the better players on the pitch, and along with Arteta provided the Gunners’ only consistent attacking threat. New signing Mertesacker played reasonably well, putting in a debut performance that was more convincing than his partner Koscielny’s at centre-half. Wojciech Sczczesny played superbly in goal, somehow keeping a clean sheet – for which, I suppose, the back line all deserve some credit.

Van Persie was lively but isolated up front, and hit the post, Frimpong and Ramsey played solidly without dominating the midfield, and the absences of Gervinho and Song were both conspicuous. Walcott blew hot and cold, often straying wide without looking as though he had much of an idea what he was going to do with the ball. When he did cut into the box on a couple of occasions he looked more dangerous, and one effort indirectly contributed to the goal – it was his deflected shot that had Vorm scrambling along the touchline to prevent the corner. Benayoun did not really get the chance to show what he can do, coming on after 62 minutes, and we are yet to see Park or Santos in action. Chamakh, who has been singularly ineffectual as an impact sub on virtually every occasion he’s been called on, actually helped to relieve the pressure on the Gunners in the last ten minutes by causing the Swans’ defence some problems. A good headed chance went wide, but it was a glimpse of the player who looked so promising at the start of his Arsenal career back in 2010.

Again a deathly hush descended on the Emirates throughout most of the ninety minutes, broken only by a few squeaky bums in the second half and the lusty chants of Swansea’s Welsh fans. Match of the Day commentator Steve Wilson even remarked wryly that ‘if it wasn’t for the Swansea supporters it’d be quieter than Islington Library in here…’ A harsh but probably fair assessment, which is frankly embarrassing. Admittedly, the team’s fairly insipid performance did little to inspire much in the way of singing, but the funereal atmosphere will not help our home form and probably contributed to the nervy display that we saw on the pitch. Perhaps a lot of the Emirates 'spectators' (how many are fans?) don’t know the words to Arsenal chants. Maybe someone should produce a Gooners songbook…

A laboured 1–0 win over a Swansea team that has still not yet managed a goal in the Premier League does not contrast well with other results over the weekend, namely those of the two Manchester clubs, United taking apart Bolton and City doing the same to Wigan, with hat-tricks from Rooney and Aguero respectively. However, as the old adage goes, three points is three points, and the win elevated Arsenal to the dizzying heights of 11th place in the table. They will, however, need to play considerably better to have any chance of getting a good result against Borussia Dortmund in Germany on Tuesday night.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Trouble with Emirates

Without wanting to dwell on the departed Fabregas and Nasri too much, in recent weeks both players have made comments that have resonated, albeit a little uncomfortably, with a lot of Arsenal fans – certainly those who were familiar with the matchday atmosphere in the unforgettable corner of North London that was Highbury. Cesc suggested in an interview that the Emirates did not feel as ‘special’ as Highbury: ‘I have never felt at home as I was at Highbury at any other stadium in the world … Highbury was a special thing that I don't think will happen any more, but Arsenal have to make the Emirates their own home now and with their own cabinet of trophies to start all over again.’

Nasri, on the other hand, reportedly said that Gunners fans were ‘not that passionate’, although he later backtracked slightly by stating that he only meant playing at Emirates was a ‘little bit different’ from the City of Manchester stadium. Presumably he is so desperate to become a cult hero among the blue half of Manchester ahead of Aguero, Savic, Clichy and, er, Hargreaves, that he wanted to get a head start by playing up to supporters. Although I’m sure most City fans would say to young Samir that if he thinks that’s loud, then he should’ve heard the noise at Maine Road. We all have a nostalgic tendency to don the rose-tinted specs, after all. Yet however clumsily made, Nasri’s point is valid. There is a problem at Emirates. But why?

The Emirates Stadium screams ‘big club’. Highbury, on the other hand, didn’t scream anything at all. It was just there; reserved and dignified in its art deco splendour. It was a fantastic ground. And, at its best, it was a fortress. Often, admittedly, when Dixon, Winterburn, Adams, Keown or Bould – and sometimes all five, it wasn’t unknown – were on the pitch. Then you knew that the opposition were going to have to work really, really hard to get the ball in the Arsenal net. Added to which, Highbury had some truly magic nights.

Emirates, for all its advantages, isn’t like that. It’s got good hotdogs (they even put sesame seeds on the buns), you can always get to a bar, you can get a decent view from pretty much anywhere in the stadium, and you can still get Bovril at half-time. It will also give the club long-term benefits, or so we are repeatedly told, in terms of financial stability. But that’s not what makes a good football ground. It doesn’t have the noise, the atmosphere, that Highbury had. And yet, it’s so much bigger. It fits more Gooners inside. A lot more. And they all pretty much turn up every week – Emirates always has at least 55,000. Of course, they don’t all sing. And the noise, such as it is, does seem to dissipate. And if you’re up the top, sometimes it’s hard to even hear the North Bank – which it is still called, in an effort to preserve some tradition. And that's just one thing that's wrong, among numerous others - not least the name. Many of the more dogmatic fans prefer 'the Grove', or just 'the Arsenal'. These are problems that have been noted by others. Regarding the players' opinions, Red Action, incidentally, agree with Nasri and Fabregas, stating that although it ‘hurts a bit’, it ‘needed to be said’. The club themselves have also acknowledged the issue, and to be fair have tried to encourage a policy of ‘Arsenalisation’ (their word). The graphics of club heroes that now surround the exterior of the ground are a nice touch, the red and white scarves placed on every seat at the start of last season (to be waved in unison when Denilson completed another successful short backwards or sideways pass, presumably) perhaps less so. The less grey concrete and the more club colours the better, in general. But they can’t artificially create noise. And at the end of the day, walking round the outside of the Emirates isn’t like walking up Avenell Road used to be. Things are different now.

Of course, atmosphere partly comes from shared memories, a collective history, and that's something Emirates just doesn’t have yet. We probably do need to win something and bring a trophy back there before it will start to feel like home. Which isn’t to deride the team – to some extent it’s up to fans to provide the atmosphere, at least initially – but of course, that’s always much easier when the players are demonstrating some fight, some belief, and showing that they’re proud to wear the red and white. Thierry got it right; he showed how much he cared with 174 goals, and the affection was still there – not just for Highbury, but for Arsenal – when he returned with New York Red Bulls to play in (and win) the most recent Emirates Cup. The reception our old number 14 got then showed how loud Emirates can be, and more of that level of noise would probably help in 2011/12. The solution then, rather crudely, might be simply to sing more. Enough decibels will conquer even the monolith that is the Emirates. But do it the Arsenal way. We’re not Stoke, after all.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Arsenal v Swansea – Preview

It goes without saying that the Gunners could really do with three points at the Emirates tomorrow afternoon, partly to rebuild the team’s confidence, partly to reassure the fans still reeling after the Man United defeat, and partly to claw our way back up the table, since we are already 8 points adrift of the league leaders. Opta also informs me that we are the only Premier League team to date to have had a player sent off in the first three matches of a season, so finishing the game with eleven men would also be a bonus. As well as that, accounting for the tail-end of last season as well as the poor start to 2011/12, we’ve now gone six league games without a win – Arsenal’s worst run since 1994. Bucking all those worrying trends would be a very good thing indeed.

Swansea are a good side and played arguably the most attractive attacking football in the Championship last season. They’ve started their Premier League campaign fairly well, with two draws against Sunderland and Wigan, but also lost 4-0 to Man City – their only away trip so far. Swans’ all-action, open style leaves them vulnerable to teams with pace that can counter-attack quickly. This bodes well for Arsenal, who often struggle to break more defensive teams down at the Emirates. It looks as though Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers is well aware of his side’s weaknesses, since he has signed three defenders in the transfer window, but it seems unlikely that they’ll all play at the weekend since apparently FIFA are yet to give two of the new players clearance.

It is probable, on the other hand, that we’ll see at least some of the Gunners’ new signings in action. Latest injury news is that Vermaelen and Wilshere are both out – possibly for the long term, which could be a huge problem – while Diaby is still injured and Rosicky is also a doubt, as he picked up a knock on international duty this week. Gervinho and Song are both still suspended, and Santos probably won’t play as he hasn’t featured in a competitive match since the Copa America. So Gibbs, who is now fit again, should start at left-back, with Sagna (also feeling better now apparently) at right-back, and – probably – Koscielny and Mertesacker in the middle, with Szczesny in goal, obviously. Theo’s hamstring, which kept him out of the England side that faced Wales, is reportedly ok, so he should feature with Ramsey (man of the match in that game), Arshavin, Frimpong and Arteta, all supporting RvP up front. I reckon we could also see Yossi and Park coming on from the bench, so not a bad line-up compared to the team that took to the field at Old Trafford. It will certainly be an interesting game. I am wary of expecting too much too soon, but positive signs in both defence and attack from the new boys would provide a statement of intent for the season, and would demonstrate that there is still life after Cesc and Samir.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Who's in, who's out...

Here's a summary of all signings, including the 'August Five' as well as previous arrivals in this transfer window, along with a list of those who have left the club, both permanently and on loan.

Per Mertesacker (Werder Bremen)
Mikel Arteta (Everton)
Andre Santos (Fenerbahçe)
Park Chu-Young (AS Monaco)
Yossi Benayoun (Chelsea)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton)
Gervinho (OSC Lille)
Carl Jenkinson (Charlton Athletic)
Joel Campbell (Deportivo Saprissa > loan, Lorient)
Ryo Miyaichi [signed January 2011]

Gaël Clichy (Manchester City)
Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona)
Samir Nasri (Manchester City)
Emmanuel Eboué (Galatasaray)
Armand Traore (QPR)
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Ipswich Town)
Mark Randall (released, Chesterfield)
Jamie Edge (released, West Bromwich Albion)
Gilles Sunu (released, Lorient)
Tom Cruise (released, free agent)
Roarie Deacon (released, Sunderland)
Jens Lehmann (retired)

Nicklas Bendtner (Sunderland)
Kyle Bartley (Rangers)
Henri Lansbury (West Ham)
Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad)
Denilson (São Paolo)
Wellington (Levante)
Pedro Botelho (Rayo Vallecano)
Samuel Galindo (Gimnàstic de Tarragona)
James Shea (Dagenham & Redbridge)

So what does it all mean?
It turned out to be an interesting and busy window for the Gunners, and the flurry of late transfer activity garnered many column inches in the sporting press. Recent reports in fact suggest that contact had already been made with Mertesacker and Arteta before the 8-2 mauling, so it is not perhaps the case that the new players were simply last-minute panic buys. Equally, though, this was not part of some Wenger masterplan, and the boss can be accused of short-sightedness. It was patently obvious that the squad did not have sufficient strength in depth to compete in 2011/12 back in pre-season. At the same time, however, it is important to recognise that Arsenal are not at the top table when it comes to record-breaking transfer fees and player salaries. Whether it is prudent club management and fiscal responsibility, as is claimed, or something more worrying - like Emirates debt repayments - it is clear that Arsenal will not or cannot compete with the super-rich.

I don't think this is the reason for most fans' frustration up to now, however. The root cause has been the fact that certain players appear to have been ignored or, worse, to have slipped through our fingers simply because Arsenal weren't quick enough off the mark, or were unwilling to offer realistic market prices. Cases in point, of course, are Scott Parker and Gary Cahill. Failure to sign these players may prove costly. The most disturbing aspect of this is that the Gunners, once so adept in the transfer market, do seem to have faltered in recent years. Some have pointed to the departure of the undeniably canny and well-connected David Dein as the underlying cause of this. Experienced negotiators and an excellent scouting network are pre-requisites for any big club and this window has perhaps drawn many to question previously held assumptions about the state of Arsenal's activities in this regard.

This is not to dismiss the signings we have made, though. It is difficult to predict which of the new players will have the biggest impact, but all have considerable potential to inject mettle, discipline, inspiration and creativity into the side. Although experience teaches us that not all our August acquisitions will be a success - for every Henry a Reyes, perhaps - key problem areas do seem to have been addressed. Commanding centre-back? Mertesacker seems to fit the bill. A replacement for Clichy and cover for the worryingly injury-prone Kieran Gibbs? Check. Creative midfielders to fill the void left by Fabregas and Nasri? Well, admittedly Benayoun and Arteta are not of the quality that has departed, but they are good players, proven in the PL, and arguably neither have been able to play at quite the level they deserve. Arsenal will give them that opportunity, and with Wilshere’s return plus the options that Oxslade-Chamberlain and Ramsey can offer, the midfield is no longer looking like such a weak link. Arshavin and Rosicky will be looking over their shoulders, and rightly so – both have been accused of lacking the passion and drive that we so desperately need. Similarly, despite not buying a DM in the window, Arsenal do have Frimpong and Song. Both can be effective defensive or holding midfielders - they just need to start destroying opposition play rather than opposition players.

Gervinho’s performances on the pitch, red card nothwithstanding, have already given reasons for optimism. Direct running, plenty of spirit and an eye for goal are all valuable qualities. Those are things that Chu-Young Park also offers, by all accounts. And lastly, there’s Ryo Miyaichi, the somewhat forgotten January new boy. Like others, I am sceptical of his ‘wonderkid’ label – but then, who’s to say he won’t turn out to be just that? Armed with work permit and squad number he might just get the chance to shine.

What of the players that have departed? There is no need to say anything further about Cesc. No-one can really begrudge him a move back to his native city and his boyhood club. The protracted transfer and the bickering between the two clubs does not reflect well on either Barcelona or Arsenal, but, finally, it has at least been resolved. Nasri’s swapping of Emirates for Etihad is more difficult to take. The team will clearly need to adapt quickly; a big ask in a single season, but not an impossible one. Eboué will be missed by some – he was occasionally brilliant and usually entertaining, as well as a useful utility player. But I don’t believe he had the footballing intelligence, the vision or awareness, to ever be a regular on the team-sheet. Similar charges can perhaps be levelled at Nicklas Bendtner. He nevertheless scored some important goals and undoubtedly has talent. It is buried somewhere beneath his ego, and that, ultimately, was the problem. An outgoing loan deal, he is still technically an Arsenal player, but given his recent comments it seems unlikely that he’ll ever return to Emirates in a red and white shirt, except perhaps of the striped 'Mackems' variety. The departures of Traore, Emmanuel-Thomas and other young guns are evidence of a requirement to trim the squad. Randall and Cruise both looked as though they would break into the team; to release them is harsh, perhaps, but on the other hand the image of Wenger as ruthless disciplinarian is not something we are used to. Taking a harder line is perhaps what is needed at the start of a season that many are saying will be the toughest of Wenger's career to date.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The season starts here...

With characteristically perverse timing, I have decided to start a blog about all things Arsenal three games into a new season, with the team currently lying seventeenth in the Premier League table with a solitary but hard-earned point, and immediately after the worst result suffered by an Arsenal side in 115 years. I went and checked this, and Phil Soar & Martin Tyler's Official History of Arsenal (1994 edition) reliably informs me that on 12 December 1896 Woolwich Arsenal lost 8-0 to Loughborough in the Football League Division Two. But if you want to take some positive lessons from history, the next week the Gunners beat Blackpool 4-2 and Lincoln 6-2 the week after that - on Christmas Day, no less. And four seasons later we got our revenge on Loughborough, beating them 12-0 at home, which remains in the record books as Arsenal's record victory to this very day.

It's fair to say that Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are a very different side to the Woolwich team that turned out back in the cruel winter of 1896. But taking some tips from that side and bouncing back against Swansea would be a great way to silence the critics trumpeting the 'Arsenal in crisis' headlines. They're not the only ones, of course; the mood at Emirates recently has been muted to say the least - although I applaud the away fans at Old Trafford, who were superb up until the second or third goal, outsinging the home fans with rousing choruses of 'We Love You Arsenal' and 'Ooh to be a Gooner'. They fully deserve the club's offer of a free ticket.

Admittedly it was a poor performance, and one that exposed the side's frailties on the pitch as well as the perilously thin depth of the squad. Without Gibbs, Wilshere, Diaby, Vermaelen (injury), Sagna (illness), Gervinho, Frimpong and Alex Song (suspensions) it was always going to be difficult to get something out of the game. Arsenal fans can reflect, analyze, evaluate - that's exactly what most of us have done all week - but with some decisive moves made in the nick of time before another frenzied transfer window snapped shut, the Gunners already seem to be in a better place. Ok, there are no marquee signings and few of the names that were flying around the rumour mill a few weeks ago but look at who we have got in - a 6' 6" no-nonsense centre-back with 75 international caps to his name; the captain of South Korea who scored a hat-trick today in an AFC World Cup qualifier (alright, a 6-0 win over Lebanon, but still); an exciting and talented Brazilian full-back; Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta - two creative midfielders with real PL experience. That's to add to Chamberlain, Jenks, and Gervinho - the latter of whom looks promising, and all of whom may yet turn out to be the players Wenger assures us they are. Oh, and there's also Joel Campbell, but he's just gone out on a season loan to Lorient. Perhaps just as well - I don't think many of us would be willing to put our faith in a 19-year old striker right now, but I hope he has a good season in Ligue 1.

Cynics might ask why we appeared to be scrabbling around at 10.45pm to add to a squad that most fans already thought was stretched back in pre-season, but there are any number of reasons for this state of affairs; mostly, it would seem, relating to the backroom changes at the club in the last few years and the somewhat murky financial situation - which does not seem to be as transparent as many fans would hope, but it is difficult to know how responsible Wenger is for this. Regardless, now is not the time to apportion blame or brood on wasted opportunities, deals that didn't happen, or the evils that Chelsea and City's oil millions have brought into the Premier League. Now is the time to get behind the team, not to write the season off already.
We have lost Cesc and Samir, but I don't believe Wenger has lost the plot - yet. This is football, and this is Arsenal - highs and lows. It is the lot of a Gooner, and of any true football fan. For all that Arsene prizes consistency and 14 successive seasons of Champions League football, we do, to a degree, expect elation and disappointment. The one makes the other all the sweeter. And that, perhaps, is one reason to remember the black day against Man United, 28 August 2011. But not too often.

So what now? Well, to quote the motto that sits proudly beneath the rather garish 125th anniversary crest on this season's new shirts - 'forward'!