Crisis schmisis blisis isis danger zone

Crisis schmisis blisis isis danger zone

It’s -5 here this morning. I’m sure there’s a metaphor to be made about the cold, lifeless heart of Arsenal, or something, but I can’t be arsed. I just wish I had boiling hot Bovril instead of blood. Mmmm, beefy.

We have West Ham tomorrow with talk of a ‘crisis meeting’ at the club yesterday between the manager and players. It’s an interesting one, mostly because after any difficult defeat or run of bad form, the ‘crisis meeting’ story is one you can roll out without too much fuss. Maybe there was one, I don’t know, but if there was I hope it was more than the manager barking at the players.

I think he’s right to expect more from them, but are they entitled to expect more from him? Are they content with the squad? Do they feel it’s good enough to achieve what a) is expected and b) what they’d like to in terms of winning trophies and, at least, competing for the league. We know players have left this club in recent seasons, some for more money, some because they felt they couldn’t win things, and while there’s a unique irony in footballers leaving a club because the club can’t hold onto its best players, or doesn’t seem willing to  buy new ones to improve things, it’s also hard to escape the fact that it keeps happening.

Arsenal lose their best players when they don’t want to and can’t get rid of the ones they don’t. Although they’re not at the club week in, week out, Denilson, Bendtner, Park, Chamakh and Djourou are on all loan. Guys like Squillaci and Arshavin, considered surplus to requirements, have no interest in going elsewhere until their contracts are up. The squad is imbalanced, reliant on a core of 14 or 15 and when you go beyond that, as we saw against Chelsea, the options are limited.

So, if the manager is demanding more from his players, I’d love to know if the players were demanding more from him and the club. Not that they should go out and buy a Messi or a Falcao or a Cavani, much as we’d all like to see it, but that they don’t sit there eyes closed, hands over their eyes going “lalalalalala, can’t hear anything”, until the transfer window closes.

Look at the situation involving Yanga-Mbiwa, he’s off to Newcastle for £7m. He can play centre-half, he can play as a defensive midfielder, he looked very impressive when we played Montpellier in the Champions League, and he’s a player in who we had a great deal of interest last summer before he signed a new contract. Now, we’re a centre-half down with Djourou gone, Squillaci is a step closer to first team action, it’s hard to find anyone who wouldn’t fancy a bit more steel in midfield, and where are we when this is going on? Even the Montpellier president thinks going to Pardewland is a mistake, saying:

It’s not my fault if he’s an idiot. Newcastle really isn’t a good choice

Maybe the fact he’s going there is proof of his idiocy, but maybe that’s his only option. Would he go there if he had to choose between Arsenal and Newcastle? I don’t think so. Perhaps something has changed between summer and now, perhaps we know he’s a bad guy off the field or not as good as we thought he was, but our summer interest was real enough and our need for players now is more pressing, so it’s a tough one to figure out. Especially as it’s a signing that seems to fit us perfectly from a financial point of view, not to mention ‘footballistically’.

Anyway, it’s just impossible to make any sense of what’s going on, why we’re not in the market, and why it’s come at the expense of Premier League points this month. It seems Arsene has got every faith in the players he has and I accept he’s right to expect them not to make the kinds of mistakes they have been this season – but at some point the narrative will change from ‘The players shouldn’t make those mistakes’ to ‘These are the kinds of players who make those mistakes’.

Anyway, yesterday I thought I’d have a look at where we are now compared to this time last season. You can see the table from 2011-12 on top, the league as it stands on the bottom:

The gap between us and the leaders is certainly greater, but with Sp*rs our main rivals for a top four finish it’s somewhat heartening to see a smaller points difference and we have a game in hand. Which is a good thing because I don’t see this Sp*rs side going into a Redknappian freefall like they did last season. I certainly can’t envisage Chelsea slipping away the way they did (they finished 6th!).

But it means that as tough as it is, and as difficult a place as we’re in right now, there’s still a lot to play for and that has to be drummed into the minds of the players as a matter of urgency. We need to get a run of good results under our belt, to put some pressure on those above us at least, and it has to happen soon. I will say though, that if more is expected of the players, then that too goes for the manager, because every single time we lose a game, or drop points, his intransigence when it comes to the transfer market becomes a bigger, pointier, nailsier-in-it, stick to beat him with.

I think all we can do is hope for renewed focus from everybody at the club, players, manager, executives, Dick Law’s houseboy, the lot. If there is, and if we show a bit more of The Arsenal on and off the pitch, then we’ve got a chance to salvage a season that is slipping away from us.

Firstly, let me preface this bit by saying I think Theo Walcott signing a new deal is a generally positive thing for the club, as outlined here. But if anything illustrates the fact that footballers are living in a different world from the rest of us, and really have no clue how they relate to the ‘common man’, then it’s these kind of quotes when he talks about his new deal:

It has been tough through the negotiations. It hasn’t always shown on the pitch and off the pitch but deep down, it has been tough, not just for me but for my family, my partner. They were all getting hit with it every week and every day. I’m so pleased it’s over.

I can deal with the speculation but it’s more my family and friends, who I thought might not have been able to cope. I’ve dealt with it and I think that shows that I’ve matured as a man. I can deal with these sort of things.

It’d make your head spin.

“Theo, £75,000 per week, image rights, win bonus, appearance fee, performance bonus, goal bonus, bonus for finishing top four, percentage raises, commercial deals, sponsorships and ‘loyalty’ bonus?”

“No.”

Theo, £80,000 per week, image rights, win bonus, appearance fee, performance bonus, goal bonus, bonus for finishing top four, percentage raises, commercial deals, sponsorships and ‘loyalty’ bonus?

“No.”

“Theo, £85,000 per week, image rights, win bonus, appearance fee, performance bonus, goal bonus, bonus for finishing top four, percentage raises, commercial deals, sponsorships and ‘loyalty’ bonus?”

“Stop, this is very tough, I’m going for a lie down.”

Poor footballers, they’d break your little heart.

Finally for today, you might have seen the image of the player fines going around, the full list of Arsenal player fines can be found here.

Till tomorrow.

Tactics: Chelsea’s fantastic three expose Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1

Tactics: Chelsea’s fantastic three expose Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1

They say that all formations are neutral; it’s their application which decides their failures and success. Both Chelsea and Arsenal essentially played a 4-2-3-1 on Sunday but it was Arsenal’s which was made to look inadequate and it wasn’t until they switched it in the second-half, playing with one holding midfielder, did they improve.

A lot has been made of Chelsea’s flaws; that with the beauty that a triumvirate of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata brings, it can be particularly exposed down the flanks. Arsenal might have sensed the opportunity to exploit that given the way they moved the ball against Swansea City in the FA Cup but they were unable to in the first-half because they just couldn’t get hold of the possession. Chelsea went into half-time with 60% of the play and two goals in front.

There was a bit of controversy about the goals, both involving Ramires. The first came from a foul by the Brazilian which went unnoticed by referee Martin Atkinson and off went Chelsea on the break to open the scoring. The second goal involved two tackles; the crucial one being the one which brought down Ramires although it looked like he might have “cleverly” fallen under the challenge of Wojciech Szczesny. However, it originated from his tackle to on the halfway line to dispossess Abou Diaby and for that while Arsène Wenger was unhappy, he wasn’t entirely indignant. Arsenal simply could have defended them better for both goals with Bacary Sagna’s positioning especially exposed when Chelsea scored through Juan Mata.

Chelsea’s platform for dominance in the first-half can be traced back to the way their fantastic three behind Fernando Torres danced in the puddles between Arsenal’s midfield and defence. But as Rafael Benitez was quick to praise, it wouldn’t have been possible without the splashes made by Torres. “Fernando Torres was great,” said Benitez. “He was fantastic for the team. He was working so hard. We needed his effort, his runs, his movement to create the space for the second line [of Oscar, Hazard and Mata].”

The Spanish striker won’t get the plaudits: his touch was heavy and he showed a lack of composure. Indeed, it’s clear Demba Ba is the superior striker at the moment. But Torres worked for the overall strategy of Chelsea and that was to create space for the three behind him to play. He made sure he constantly occupied the two Arsenal centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, neither of whom wanted to be left exposed to his pace. As it was, they probably should have taken the risk as Torres clearly lacks belief in himself, and squeezed the space in front because Arsenal’s midfield wasn’t doing it and that allowed Oscar, Mata and Hazard to revel in the between-the-lines.

With Torres playing on the shoulder, Chelsea’s second line of attackers were able to revel in the extra space. Arsenal’s mentality, however, was too passive and that meant Chelsea were all too comfortable in possession.

It wasn’t until a change in mentality and a tactical switch to a 4-1-2-3 with Francis Coquelin as the sole holder and then later Aaron Ramsey, a bit like how Mikel Arteta has excelled as the best defensive midfielder in the league, did Arsenal cede giving Chelsea “too much room.”

The switch probably highlights the flaws of the 4-2-3-1 formation, a system Jonathan Wilson says has started to lose its shine. He writes for The Guardian that “an intelligent wide man, who drops off the full-back, can prosper against a 4–2–3–1, particularly if the opposing winger neglects his defensive work.” Theo Walcott constantly did just that, staying up the pitch which exposed Sagna.

Even though Arsenal dropped deep, they didn’t know how to deal with Chelsea’s magic three who constantly swapped positions, and as such, the intelligent wide men, as Wilson describes, prospered. Playing one holder in the second-half and pushing Diaby up allowed Arsenal to put pressure of their own and if need be, an extra body in midfield.

Suddenly in the second period, Arsenal turned the tables and led an impressive fight-back. They in turn, nearly exposed Chelsea’s inefficiencies when playing the 4-2-3-1 but Chelsea, especially Gary Cahill, stood firm. Indeed, Arsenal’s passing and movement was at times scintillating and were able to turn Chelsea back to front so quickly that it is still a wonder how a team as talented as this could be so easily inhibited as they were in the first-half.

Clearly the subtle alteration to the formation helped Arsenal to move the ball better, with Santi Cazorla increasingly able to combine and interchange positions with Jack Wilshere.

Questions will certainly be asked why Arsenal took half of the match to react, Wenger stating psychological reasons as well as tactical – of which he addressed in the second-half – for the disparity in performances. Certainly, there was a moment just before Chelsea scored their second which I feel summed up the differences between the two sides.

Abou Diaby picked up the ball in the middle of the park and looking forward for options, dwelt on the ball and was eventually forced to pass it back to Per Mertesacker. After he did, he quickly turned back to Theo Walcott and remonstrated that he should have remained in his position wide right so that he could receive the ball. Instead, Walcott drifted towards the edge of the box where play was congested. When Diaby received the ball again, he was still distracted by the inability to make the pass he originally wanted and was easily dispossessed by Ramires who eventually won the penalty.

It wasn’t that Walcott was wrong to keep wanting to get into central areas -indeed, he was Arsenal’s main threat coming in off the flanks – but he needed to be cleverer, more selective with his runs. Actually, Arsenal’s movement as a forward unit needed to be more intelligent. At the same time Jack Wilshere, overwhelmed by Chelsea’s dominance, was seen constantly gesticulating to his team-mates to press harder and at one point, even looked to the bench to ask them to do something about it. In the end, Wenger might have drawn encouragement from the reaction in the second-half but such psychological freezes that we saw in the first-half have become all too frequent.

They were tactically naïve.

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: paucity of options a problem again

Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal: paucity of options a problem again

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So, it’s 1 point from 9 in January as a dismal first half, coupled with some dodgy refereeing and a bit of Chelsea cheating, cost us yesterday’s game.

The fact that the level of Arsenal’s performance can fluctuate so wildly from game to game has long been a worry, that it can go from one extreme to the other in the space of 90 minutes even more so. It was apparent against Swansea in midweek when a limp first half was followed by a much better second period, and it was the same yesterday – the key difference being that we kept Swansea at bay, and couldn’t do that against Chelsea.

Arsene Wenger said that Arsenal had a physical problem starting the game after a Wednesday fixture, but it’s worth remembering hat Chelsea too played that night, letting a two goal lead slip against Southampton. And our start to the game was good enough to fashion a fantastic chance for Olivier Giroud. On his favoured left foot, at a nice angle, the Frenchman should have scored, instead he fizzed his shot wide. Misses like that against top quality opposition are usually costly, and inside 60 seconds Chelsea were ahead.

Martin Atkinson missed a clear foul on Coquelin in midfield, Sagna was caught moving up field, and when Chelsea played a long ball over the top he was caught out of position and couldn’t get back quickly enough to prevent Mata from making it 1-0. I also wonder if Wojciech Szczesny might have done a bit better but credit to the Spaniard, it was a fine finish. It was frustrating to see replays of the Ramires foul, which merited a yellow card at least, but playing to the whistle is one of the first things any footballer is taught and Arsenal were caught napping.

Similarly, the second goal was a piece of rank gamesmanship from Ramires, thrusting his leg into Szczesny as he tried to sidestep him, but it really was only with the benefit of slow motion that it was obvious. It’s as clever a dive as I’ve seen in a long time, but you also have to ask questions of Arsenal’s defending to allow that position to develop. Diaby gave the ball away, didn’t seem that interested in getting it back, and when the ball came to the Brazilian in the box he had no Arsenal defender anywhere near him. Lampard made no mistake with the penalty.

Chelsea could have scored more with Ramires and Torres missing good chances, while at the other end Arsenal did little of note. Our players were back out early for the second half, clearly something had been said during the break, and whatever it was, it worked. We were quicker and stronger, more involved and on top of the game for the long periods of the half. Walcott pulled one back, his run and finish was excellent after Cazorla’s through-ball cut the Chelsea defence open, but as much as we huffed and puffed the second goal wouldn’t come.

They could have gone further ahead a number of times, thankfully Torres couldn’t match the quality of his runs (which twice left Vermaelen trailing) with a finish, while the captain did brilliantly to prevent Demba Ba from scoring after Szczesny went full Almunia. The Belgian fired a free kick wide, Giroud headed just over late on after a series of Arsenal corners, but we lacked the quality on the pitch, and particularly on the bench, to get another.

This was highlighted by the fact that Arsenal Football Club went to Stamford Bridge and the only attacker we had on the bench was Andrei Arshavin – an out of shape, disinterested player whose Arsenal career has essentially been over for at least a year at this stage. While it’s easy to be critical of a player who seems content to coast along, go to training and pick up his money, it’s not as if the Russian’s lack of fitness/sharpness is a surprise to anyone, least of all Arsene Wenger who has steadfastly refused to use him for most of the season.

It’s not as if we’ve suffered an injury crisis either, it took illness to Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain to strip the squad of attacking options from the bench, and frankly it’s just not good enough. The frustration is made more acute by the fact that Arsenal’s second half performance was pretty decent, and you wonder what might have been if we’d had another striker or a winger to throw on.

The refusal – and that is the only word I can use this morning – of the manager to improve his squad in January is costing us points. I know we’re dealing in hypotheticals to a certain extent but it’s impossible to look at yesterday’s game and not see how a couple of new players might have improved us. Similarly, would those new players have prevented us from needing an FA Cup replay thus going into this game fresher and without the burden of a midweek fixture before it? It’s all a big pile of ‘what if’ though because those players haven’t arrived and we saw the stark effect of that yesterday. You need to get back into a game, a game you desperately need something from, and what are your options? A clutch of defenders and midfielders and an overweight Arshavin. It’s not right.

We can break out the clichés about ‘super quality’ or ‘exceptional’ players till the cows come home, but the bottom line is you cannot look at that Arsenal bench yesterday and not feel anything but huge frustration when Arsene talks about how it’s difficult to find players better than the ones we have. I’d suggest that if you can’t find better than what Arsenal had yesterday then you’re either not looking hard enough or you’re not looking at all, and my fear is that it’s the latter situation which has seen Arsenal’s powder kept dry in this window.

I simply don’t believe that between Arsene Wenger, his scouting team, and the rest of his staff, that none of them have come up with a name which could improve this squad. It’s just not possible. Every single one of us could do it, which isn’t to say we’re experts or better at managing a football club, but we’re not scratching around for diamonds in the rough here, we’re a club with money at our disposal and a manager who just won’t use it.

Even if we do make signings now, you can’t convince me they’re part of a plan or strategy of some kind. If so, the groundwork would have been done before January and the signings made as soon as the window opened. Three Premier League games later (D-L-L) isn’t the time to give your squad what it needs. I mean, the need is even more pressing now but it’s a question of whether or not you trust the manager to spend the money when up until now he’s refused to do so.

He says he’s worried about making the top four, he should be. I know we’ve come from further back in the past but a quick look at the table shows us 22 points behind the league leaders, we are the very essence of a mid-table team this season. We’re a football club with one striker, a guy who I like but who is clearly limited, and a manager who won’t do anything about it. When there’s the chance to sign a player like Demba Ba he says he’s too similar to Giroud, but imagine the second half yesterday with Giroud and Ba side by side. I think it’s fair to suggest we’d have had a much better chance of getting something from the game.

Arsene keeps talking about the quality of his squad, and while to some extent I think we’re capable of better results than we’ve been seeing, the true measure of quality is results, not how we perceive the players we have or how we look on paper. If we continue making mistakes, continue conceding silly goals, continue missing chances, and continue losing games and dropping points, that’s how you judge the quality of the team, and we’re being found wanting far too often.

It’s a huge worry that it’s taking a half-time rocket to get them going, it makes you think something’s wrong with the preparation and motivation of the team. That’s coming from the manager. And while I’m very much of the opinion that shopping now will be reactionary and a bit of a nab and grab as desperate times call for desperate measures, these are desperate times.

We have to give everything we have to secure a top four finish. There would be nothing good at all about the club finishing outside the Champions League places. Regardless of how much you want change, for the club itself it would be disastrous. And this goes beyond Arsene Wenger to the board, to Ivan Gazidis and to the man who owns the club, Stan Kroenke – there has to be a collective desire and effort to make Arsenal Football Club as good as if it can be, and at this moment in time they’re failing, badly.

Till tomorrow.

Chelsea v Arsenal – live blog

Chelsea v Arsenal – live blog

Join us this evening for live blogging of Chelsea v Arsenal in the Premier League, kick off 1.30pm

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Chelsea preview: pick up where we left off

Chelsea preview: pick up where we left off

For a big game, and a London derby, the build-up to this game has been surprisingly low key.

Chelsea fans are too busy hating Rafa Benitez to make noise about anything else, while from our point of view we’ve had the twin distractions of Theo Walcott signing a new deal and the genuine excitement of Jack Wilshere still bubbling from Wednesday night.

I think both will start today, and it’ll be interesting to see where Wilshere is deployed. There’s some talk of Lukas Podolski being unwell, in which case I think the manager’s mind is made up him. Cazorla shifts left, Wilshere plays in that central attacking midfield role again, and I’d keep Diaby and Coquelin behind him to provide a platform for him to do his stuff. I think the more defensive minded presence of Coquelin in particular could be important as Chelsea’s wide players will occupy our full backs.

Other than that I don’t foresee any other changes, making the assumption that Arsene has learned his lesson about dropping Mertesacker for games against top 3 opposition. He did it early in the season for the home game against this lot and Koscielny had a stinker, and we all know what happened inside 10 minutes last weekend. And when you consider playing against Demba Ba is the equivalent of playing against a former player you know it’s going to be a tough task.

The ‘Oh, I knew he was going to score against us’ thing applies simply because he’s a player we were linked with, that Wenger admitted liking, but decided against it because of Olivier Giroud. He’s already got a couple against us this season, in that crazy game against Newcastle at the end of December, so the lads at the back should be well aware of what he can do and how he does it. Let’s hope we’re a bit more switched on today.

Speaking of Giroud, I think the Frenchman is due a performance. Although guilty of some erratic finishing against Swansea I thought his all round game was positive. He held it up well, brought others into play and his touch for Wilshere’s goal was lovely, but it would be nice to see a bit more ruthlessness from him in terms of his forward play. He’s a big, strong guy and seeing him throw some of that weight around would be a good thing. He has 9 goals this season, which isn’t a bad return thus far, but after 6 months at the club and all the adaptation out of the way, now is the when you want to see him kick on a bit. Today would be a good day to get into double figures.

And while I think Chelsea have struggled to maintain defensive consistency this season, something I hope we can take advantage of today, they haven’t been short up the other end. An 8, two 5s and a 4 goal haul in recent weeks shows that this is a game that we’re going to have deal with at the back before we can go and win it. We’ve touched on Ba, but Mata and Hazard provide a real threat and even Frank Lampard is scoring again, which is why the defensive side of our game is so important. It’s not just the back four, it’s the protection they need from the midfield, and the cover from our wide men that will be key.

Whatever happens, I don’t see this ending up scoreless. It’s a game from which we really need to get something. Three points would be lovely but a draw would suffice given the opposition and the location. We’ve taken just 1 from 6 in the Premier League in January, 2 from 9 might not look much better but it would give us just a little bit of momentum as we head towards the West Ham game in midweek.

Come on you reds.

In other news, Arsene Wenger is looking for a bit more aggression from his team, and without going into it in any detail, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable desire. I’ve long thought we’ve lacked a little bit of steel in the side. It doesn’t have to be dirty, there’s a very distinct line between hardness and filth, and perhaps we’re a bit too far to the nice side of the former.

That’s why I enjoyed the Coquelin tackle against Swansea which set up a chance for Jack Wilshere. He came in with pace, won the ball cleanly and left the opponent knowing fine well he’d been tackled. More of that, please, and if Jack Wilshere is kicked from pillar to post again today, I hope there’s a reaction from the Arsenal players beyond imploring the referee to do something about.

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Right, breakfast time, then football. Come on Arsenal.