Stick or twist + RVP’s contract is non-issue for now

Stick or twist + RVP’s contract is non-issue for now

Good morning,

last night I dreamt I was making a movie in New York, funded by mafia money, and it would have all been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that David Thewlis was an inveterate lush. I can never go to New York again lest someone who sounds like Joe Mantegna comes after me for the $76 they gave me to make the film. Oh well.

Last night Arsenal’s reserves played Norwich at Carrow Road, and the team contained quite a few first team players. Andrei Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun and Marouane Chamakh all started – as did Ju Young Park but it’s hard to call him a first team player. Chamakh went off injured after about half an hour, but Park scored, Arshavin scored two, Benayoun scored and Benik Afobe, making his return after months out with a dicky groin (hah) also got on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win. Also involved last night was Carl Jenkinson who played 45 minutes, making his comeback from a stress fracture of his back.

Clearly the manager had an eye on keeping players who have spent a lot of time on the bench sharp for Sunday’s North London derby. Whether it means he’s thinking of some serious rotation and using these players we don’t know but giving them a run-out is, I guess, better than them sitting stewing on the bench. Neither Arshavin or Benayoun were used on Saturday against Sunderland when perhaps they might have been, and it was hardly a surprise to see the Israeli speak about his unhappiness on Twitter:

I guess the manager has got to decide does he stick with the players who disappointed against Milan and Sunderland, or players he doesn’t seem to trust a great deal. Is he willing to make those kinds of changes for a game that he’s got to win or, at the very least, not lose in a way that feels like a loss. For example, a late equaliser by Sp*rs is a crushing blow, a late one for us a sign of spirit and character. The result is the same but people’s perception of it is going to be a factor this weekend, like it or not.

Whether what happened at Carrow Road last night will change his mind in any way remains to be seen but you can’t ask more than for players to go out and score goals, show what they’re capable of, and both Arshavin and Benayoun have done that. We might get a better indication of their chances later in the week but it’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t in some ways. Stick with the others and it’s conservatism, play guys who have been on the bench most of the season and what can you expect from guys who have been on the bench all season (mostly for a reason too). Anyway, more on the weekend’s game in the days ahead.

Elsewhere, there’s a lot of talk about Robin van Persie’s contract, with people trying to out-exclusive each other with information already in the public domain. The latest is that Arsenal are going to put the foot down and insist that van Persie sees out his contract at least, with some suggestion the skipper is  more open to a new deal than he has been. Or something.

The cynic in me thinks that this kind of news emerging at a time when fans are … erm … shall we say ‘mildly crotchety’ … is something of PR bluff. That said, it is a situation I can see happening. It seems much quite likely to me that we’d hold Robin to his contract and let him leave on a Bosman should he so desire a year later. At that point he’d be 30 and could, if fit and healthy, have his pick of clubs and a nice fat package to go with it. Of course, depending on where we are, he might want to stay.

People draw parallels between his situation and that of Samir Nasri but I don’t think they’re the same. Nasri was younger, more mercenary, more driven to leave and, frankly, uncommitted to anything except getting as much money for himself as possible. It’s easy to say you’re leaving for footballing reasons but tarting yourself from club to club doesn’t give you much of a leg to stand on, in that regard.

Anyway, for me this is an non-issue until the summer anyway. While I think one particular player in the same contractual situation as Robin has a huge cheek to wait and see what happens this season before committing to the club, I can understand it better for van Persie. But like players before him who have left when perhaps they didn’t really want to, maybe the best way of keeping him is investing in the squad and bringing in quality players who increase our chances of winning things.

A top four finish is not just vital for the club’s finances but vital for our team. For player retention, for attracting new players and for allowing those we do have to continue playing at the highest level of club football, something which is important for their development as well. I would suggest all van Persie contract stories are best ignored until the summer, we know nothing’s going to happen until then, and if there’s one place beyond the stock markets where speculation is king, it’s football.

As an aside though – there’s a very interesting piece about van Persie and his contract on Goonerboy. He looks at the final contract dished out to Thierry Henry at a similar stage of his career and wonders if the van Persie situation might be similar. Whether you agree or not it’s a good read.

And that’s that for this morning. As expected it’s been pretty quiet this week, no doubt there’s plenty of taking stock going on and, you would hope, a lot of hard work to get the team focused before Sunday.

Till tomorrow.

An interesting question and an obvious solution

An interesting question and an obvious solution

Morning, the week of introspection continues and we’ll start this morning with a fantastic piece from Michael Cox (of Zonal Marking), who asks the obvious, but until yesterday, un-uttered question – What are Arsenal good at?

Using Sunderland’s  last two games against us he highlights how they modified their approach to render Arsenal pretty much ineffectual in the FA Cup tie. It also ties in nicely with another couple of observations made recently. On the Arsecast last Friday Philippe Auclair bemoaned the fact that our passing, so crisp and pacy in the past, lacked the speed to make it effective. Michael Cox points out that we move to the ball too slowly to wide areas, allowing defences to get men behind the ball and deny us the space we want to exploit.

We know we struggle when teams sit back, ‘park the bus’ if you will, and obviously Arsene Wenger saw that and tried to bring in something of a Plan B with Marouane Chamakh. A target man who was good in the air and held the ball up well with his back to goal seemed like the ideal purchase at the time, but I doubt anybody could have foreseen the transformation when our Moroccan butterfly decided to become a caterpillar again.

His continued deployment of Nicklas Bendtner, another player who despite his flaws was most effective through the middle and capable of an aerial and physical threat, on the right hand side of a forward three was always confusing. I know he had van Persie down the middle but when did we ever see him do what he did on Saturday, putting another ‘striker’ on and dropping Robin slightly deeper? It was always Bendtner throwing in crosses he should have been trying to get on the end of.

The other issue we have when teams play like that against us is our tendency to concede from the oppositions few chances on goal. If our conversion rate is high then theirs is remarkably low. Amy Lawrence pointed out that Arsenal are a team set up to play counter-attacking football but who fall prey to counter-attacks time and time again.

In his piece in So Paddy Got Up, which looks at Wenger’s tactical approach throughout his Arsenal career, Michael talks about how the signing of Gervinho, combined with Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the departures of Fabregas and Nasri suggested a more ‘vertical’ game in possession But he’s also right to point out the fact that players like Arshavin, Hleb, Rosicky and Nasri became much less direct under Wenger, ‘ball hoarders’, he calls them. And how often have we bemoaned the backwards pass when a shot was on, allowing the opposition more time to get back and regroup?

If you look at the Invincibles side – and we have to take on board this was a once in a lifetime side that we were so lucky to have enjoyed – it seemed to have everything. Pace, power, speed of thought, lightning on the counter and built on a decent, if not outstanding, defensive platform. Yet this team that swept all before them in the Premier League struggled in Europe. Perhaps this was why Wenger decided to modify things, and it’s a curiosity that some of our most effective European campaigns have dovetailed with the lack of domestic success.

Now, Arsenal are a team that have defensive issues, whose midfield lacks the creativity to pick tight defences apart and to move the ball quickly enough when we do counter, and two first choice wingers whose decision making in the final third is, for the most part, pretty poor. But for one of the best strikers in the world right now, it’s hard to see where the goals would come from on a consistent basis.

So what’s the solution? I know Arsene references ‘internal’ solutions all the time but some of them are there. A consistent back four would be a good start. I don’t see too much wrong with Szczesny – Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen/Mertesacker + left back, whoever that might be. Ensuring we’ve got a left back fit enough to start most games would be a real fillip.

Jack Wilshere’s absence this season has been keenly felt. I know a player’s quality increases exponentially with the amount of time he’s out injured, but his tigerish drive has certainly been a big miss. And up front, well, this where we’ve all had our say in recent times, where we all wanted him to buy in January yet the cheque-book remained closed aside from the few glorious weeks we got to spoon with Thierry again.

Yet now there’s little point of talking about what we should have done in January. There is nothing we can do now to augment the squad. What we have, we hold, and maybe the solution can be found from the article and the two games at the Stadium of Light. Is there any particular reason why Arsenal couldn’t do what Sunderland did? Not so much in terms of parking the bus, because I don’t think we have the defensive confidence to do that, but in terms of pressing other teams?

When we’ve seen Arsenal do this – and the 3-1 at home to Chelsea last season comes to mind almost immediately – it appears obvious that it ought to the blueprint for the way we should play. Contrast it to the way we played in Milan, stand-offish and passive to the point where it almost looked a deliberate ploy to allow them so much time on the ball, and it’s hard to understand why there isn’t more focus on what we do when we don’t have the ball.

Clearly Arsene’s focus is on how we play our own game. It has always been this way, there are no dossiers on the opposition, but it seems we lack a consistent approach when it comes to opposition possession. Do we actively try and win it back? Do we put pressure on them in midfield? At times it seems we’re content to let them play until such time as they give it back to us, when maybe we should be more proactive.

It takes a lot of work and you need to be very fit to play a pressing game but these are professional athletes with the best facilities in the world at their disposal. People often point to the way Barcelona play but surely it’s not an unrealistic expectation for them to be able to work as hard as Sunderland did in both games against us – and let’s not forget that while we might have had heavy legs last Saturday, so did they the week before after 120 minutes in the FA Cup.

In the absence of a transfer window, without the ability to bring in new players, then the only option we have left is to work harder on the pitch and try and exploit the strengths we do have. There’s little point chucking on Walcott as a central striker against a team who are sitting deep, and while lack of options may be an issue, perhaps we need to use the squad more efficiently.

What’s slightly ironic is the fact that this new ‘vertical’ approach would be far more effective with somebody who had the passing ability of Fabregas in midfield, again maybe Wilshere is the missing component here, but again we can only work with what we have. And if what we have is somewhat lacking in quality then it can be made up with application.

In other news the AST met last night to provide some analysis of Arsenal’s upcoming financial results. The profit is expected to be in the region of £40m but seems to come mostly from player trading, without that we’re breaking even. Which is still a lot better than many other clubs. For me the key point is the efficiency of the wage bill and the obvious financial impact lack of Champions League football would have next season. None of this information should be of any great surprise to anyone and we’re not treading new ground in any way.

On the other hand, I do have to wonder why the statement asked questions that the AST, who surely know the club as well as anyone, can have no realistic expectation of being answered. Regardless of who’s in charge, be it Kroenke, Usmanov or anyone else, the inner workings of how and why certain decisions are made won’t be for public consumption, and perhaps by focusing on things they cannot influence or have explained it takes away from the issues they can. Day to day – but crucial – ones like ticket prices, for example.

Right, that’s yer lot. Till tomorrow.

Knowledge, trophies and Stan’s jetting in

Knowledge, trophies and Stan’s jetting in

You know what’s curious after a bad defeat, or even a couple of bad results? It’s that it seems to open a font of knowledge from which newspapers and journalists can sup and then pass on to eager readers.

Within hours, sometimes less, of it happening, with no time for anyone to have had a conversation of substance with anyone of substance, there’s all this info out there of such great detail and precision it makes you stop and wonder. For example, in the wake of the Milan defeat one high profile English paper suggested quite emphatically that two players were done and dusted at the club, while another’s career was hanging in the balance.

Fast forward to Saturday and both of those players appeared against Sunderland, as substitutes, while in the meantime another high profile outlet was telling us that the player who was in the last chance saloon was about to be offered a new deal. That’s odd, right? It’s almost as if they’ve simply made up stories using the weight of public opinion to drive and add credence to them.

After Sunderland there’s a story in the Sunday Mirror about how all of a sudden the manager has been handed a “WAR CHEST” and will be allowed spend a bazillionty million pounds on wages. I mean, it took two defeats in a week for someone to come to that conclusion? Or somehow the paper in question managed to get into the inner-workings of the board between 7.30pm and the print deadline?

Now, I know some journalists do indeed have good contacts at the club. I know the club also like to get information out there via these journalists, but when you see stuff like ‘Arsene Wenger has had enough of …’ immediately after a defeat you can be pretty sure it’s fiction. I’m sorry, but Arsene is not likely to tell a journalist, or a anyone who might tell a journalist, what his plans are for a player in these circumstances.

Anyway, it’s a small point but I always find it a bit annoying the way these stories appear and because of the timing of them there’s a desire to find them true. It would be nice to think that the “WAR CHEST” (haven’t heard that before, eh?) is there, and that the wage structure at the club will be done away with so we can pay the most overpaid people in society even more, but until I actually see evidence of it by way of signings and the like, I’ll remain dubious.

Meanwhile – and I suspect there’ll be much focus on this today – Arsene has done himself few favours by going down the old ‘fourth place is a trophy’ route. Speaking after Sunderland he said:

The first trophy is to finish in the top four. And that’s still possible. I believe finishing fourth is vital for us, so let’s focus on that.

Whatever else you have to admit that Arsene has added to the Arsenal lexicon in a way that will never be forgotten. ‘4th is a trophy’ is right up there with ‘Like a new signing’ when an injured player returns, but I do wish somebody at the club would tell him how badly this particular aphorism comes across. While I think everyone gets the jist of what he’s saying, fourth place is not, never has been and never will be, a trophy.

It is, at best, an achievement. In fact, this season, more than any other, it’ll be an achievement and a half if we manage it, but when the club has just crashed out of two cup competitions in a week, competitions which provide a real and actual trophy at the end of them, to spout this again was as ill-timed as a Martin Taylor tackle.

I mean, I get it. It’s important, crucial, critical, essential and everything else, but is Arsene really that out of touch with what fans think that he can’t see how comments like that would go down? If we must reference fourth place it should be to say that is the minimum expectation for a club like ours, with the resources we have.

Maybe we have become spoiled, maybe we need to be reminded that our presence in the Champions League season after season after season is indeed a measure of consistency, especially when the manager has been working within certain financial restraints that other clubs have not. Yet as we prepare for interim financial results, and the expectation of a very healthy profits, questions will be asked as to whether those restraints are steel handcuffs locked to railings or some old twine that might be wriggled out of if one was in the mood.

And how do we tally Arsene’s statement that ‘finishing fourth’ (note: not finishing in the top four) is ‘vital’ for us with the club’s inaction in January. Clearly the Henry loan deal was an indication that we felt we needed something more in the striking department, but that was as far as it went. I realise Gervinho was away in Africa but what we say is seemingly at odds with what we do. If it is so ‘vital’ why do we not act like it is?

It seems as if Stan is flying in this week to have meetings, and while I’m sure the financials will be a part of it, there are more important things on the agenda. At a time when confidence in all areas of the club is being eroded – somewhat at odds with the fact the business side of things is going so well – the owner has got to show some leadership, to show that he has a real plan for this club and that things that need to change will change.

Concerns about his stewardship of the club are quite valid (Arse2Mouse has a good piece on this). Even if he is the hands-off type, content (and perhaps sensible) to delegate to people who may indeed have more knowledge and experience of football than he has, he is the majority shareholder of a club on the verge of a real crisis. I don’t use that word lightly, because it’s bashed out day in day out in the media for the smallest of reasons, but with a North London derby coming up and the general feeling one of discontent then it works in this context.

I’m not sure what exactly he can do. He doesn’t seem the inspirational type, not for him Churchillian speeches or chest thumping, but we need to know what the club are going to do about the place we find ourselves in. How long are we going to let the business side of things drive us, seemingly at the expense of the footballing side? But he’s got to do, or say, something.

I like Arsenal’s business model. I know many would love a billionaire to come in and pump in ‘free money’ but I don’t believe that’s right for us, and I don’t believe it should be right for any club for that matter. We are set up well, we make profit, we have huge potential with a big stadium, a massive fanbase, great tradition and everything else, but until it is made clear to Arsene, or whoever might be in charge of the football team, that those resources must be used to their fullest extent, then surely we’re doing nothing but making life more difficult for ourselves.

At this stage of a season, for a club like Arsenal, the focus should be on actual trophies, cups with handles and ribbons, and not figurative ones which drive people mad when they hear about them. So let’s see what this week brings, if the pressure is on the manager and the players, then it’s got to be on the owner too. As much as Arsene or anyone else, he’s got a part to play in putting things right.

Till tomorrow.

Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal: a bad week gets worse

Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal: a bad week gets worse

Match reportVideo

So, out of two cup competitions in a week. Sadly it’s an all too familiar feeling these days. We looked for a reaction from Arsenal yesterday and the saddest part for me was that while we tried, we just weren’t capable of it.

The team was pretty much as I expected. Oxlade-Chamberlain started ahead of Walcott, Gervinho came back in, van Persie started up top. The only surprise, if you can call it that, was the absence of Kieran Gibbs who, after making his comeback against Milan, missed out for what I can only assume were medical reasons. His replacement, Francis Coquelin, lasted just eight minutes before he twanged his hamstring, which meant Squillaci made his first appearance since Leeds in the last round and Thomas Vermaelen moved to left back.

We had started quite brightly, we looked purposeful and, dare I say ‘up for it’, but when we had our Coq pulled off we seemed to lose the rhythm we’d created. Ramsey turned an ankle and was obviously not right after that and the game fell into much the same pattern as last week. Sunderland worked hard, pressed us quite high up the pitch, got men behind the ball whenever we were in possession and looked to hit us on the counter.

All the same we fashioned a good opening for Gervinho who forced a decent save from Mignolet before a Song pass almost got van Persie in behind. There was the slightest touch of the ball from John O’Shea and I’ve seen less convincing penalties than that given plenty of times before, but when you’re looking for the rub of the green to it rarely comes when the chips are down.

Djourou then picked up a booking for a foul he really shouldn’t have had to make, Sunderland whipped in the free kick, it was headed half clear and Kieran Richardson’s shot deflected into the bottom corner off Sebastian Squillaci. He’s got a touch of the Murphy’s Law about him, whatever can go wrong generally does, and it was an unhappy performance again. It’s not nice seeing a player struggle like that, an experienced pro misjudging headers like that smacks of a player shorn of any belief, and injury might not have been the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, or us, as he came off not long into the second half.

Here though, is where I felt things went really wrong. I don’t think the substitutions were right and I imagine Martin O’Neill was licking his lips when he saw the double change. Ramsey was replaced by Rosicky, more or less understandable even if he is a man who has not scored a goal for over two years, while Walcott came on for Squillaci as Song moved back to centre-half. This was as wrong as it gets, especially when he deployed Walcott as a central striker playing just behind van Persie.

To my recollection Walcott has never played there before for Arsenal, despite his constant bleating about how he’d like to, and against a team like Sunderland who were happy to sit back and deny us space behind their defence – the only area in which Walcott can be effective – it was a shockingly misjudged substitution. Why not put on Arshavin, who created something last weekend and for all his lack of form at least has the ability to spark now and again? Or, considering our tippy-tappy pass pass pass approach wasn’t that effective on a bobbly, nobbly pitch, why not throw on Marouane Chamakh?

I know the Moroccan is hardly the darling of the terraces and his record is poor but he’s an actual striker, and doesn’t he at least provide something different. If not quite a Plan B, a Plan E, which would have allowed us to mix it up a bit, go long, hope for a knock-down and put pressure on the Sunderland defence. Arsene’s aesthetics won out and the fact that the only time I can remember Walcott touching the ball is when he was given offside but his first touch put it out for a goal kick says it all.

Sunderland’s second was unfortunate but hardly a surprise. Oxlade-Chamberlain lost it high up the pitch, Sunderland broke, Larsson’s eventual shot hit the post and cannoned in off the unfortunate youngster who had, at least, chased all the way back to do his defensive duty. Clearly he was gutted but it would be churlish in the extreme to apportion blame, at least he was trying to make something happen when he had the ball.

The remainder of the game played out as you’d expect. Arsenal barely threatened and the lack of intelligence in our approach was summed up when, with just a couple of minutes to go, Alex Song took a short corner and immediately lost possession when we had a chance to get a decent ball into the box. I hate short corners in general but that was almost criminal.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

We put in a committed performance and gave absolutely everything that was left in our legs. It was a very difficult game.

At the moment it is best to let people talk, criticise, analyse and destroy and on our side it is important to show internal strength and resilience and come out with a strong performance in our next game.

Overall, I think the most disheartening part of the defeat – which was tough enough in itself because we all know the consequences of that – was the fact that you looked at the players on the pitch and found it tough to see anyone, bar van Persie, who might make a difference. But even the best strikers in the world need supply, very few (maybe Messi), can make something out of nothing.

As time goes by you can see the enormous creative hole that the departure of Fabregas has left in the side. Tight games like this might have been turned as he picked a pass which created an opening but there’s nobody like that now. When teams play like Sunderland played – and surely that’s now going to be the blueprint for any team when they face us – we end up passing it around with little or no end product.

I don’t think we can fault them for effort, the real issue is quality, or the lack of it. On Friday’s Arsecast Philippe Auclair make a striking point: bad nights like Milan can happen to any team, but when you look at this Arsenal team it’s one beset by mediocrity. It’s not a pleasant conclusion by any means but it’s impossible to escape the truth of it.

Arsene has built great teams during his time at the club. This, sadly, is not one of them. Its limitations exposed in four days by an experienced Milan side and a Sunderland team who will finish mid-table at best. The manager’s decision making was poor yesterday, hampered by injury I know, but when a player like Walcott coasts through a huge Champions League game – a fact the manager recognised by dropping him – what kind of lesson does he learn when he’s straight off the bench in the next game? How can we expect to get anything from Benayoun or Arshavin when the manager essentially tells then they’re worth less to the team than a player he dropped because he played like shit in midweek?

Arsenal looked a broken side yesterday – that was literally true as we picked up three more injuries ruling Coquelin, Ramsey and Squillaci out of next weekend’s game – and Arsene looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And perhaps, for the first time, a hint from him that all is not right behind the scenes. Asked about the fact this is another season without silverware, he said:

I do not want to speak too much about that, if you want we can speak a long time about it one day but at the moment we have to focus on our next game and try and win it.

It feels like we’re lost at sea a bit, rudderless, directionless, with Arsene trying to paddle furiously as Stan sits back and lets it all happen. If people suggest to the manager that his team lacks leadership, and not without merit, isn’t it also a case that the club, as a whole, lacks it too? I think many this morning will think that something’s got to give, changes have got to be made as you cannot keep failing the same way over and over again, but where is that change going to come from?

From an owner who doesn’t go to games? From a board whose passive acceptance of the club’s problems on the pitch seems borne out of their contentment with good financial results? Will it take a hit to the balance sheets for them to wake up? It’s all well and good talking about 2014 and increased sponsorship deals, but surely those will be affected by a team that lacks success, by empty seats, by Europa League or no European football. Try selling those corporate boxes then.

It’s all well and good shouting for change – something I am not opposed to if it can make things better – but without real leadership and direction from the very top, without drive and ambition, you wonder what effect it would have and whether or not it’s being made for the right reasons.

Arsene’s oft rolled out quote about top four being a trophy has never felt more hollow, but that’s all we have left.

Sunderland v Arsenal – live blog!

Sunderland v Arsenal – live blog!

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