Prepare thy pants

Prepare thy pants

It’s difficult to imagine that there’s been a more keenly awaited North London derby since April 2004. From the neutral perspective, the ingredients for a spellbinding game froth tantalisingly in the cauldron. These are two teams that couldn’t do cagey if they were in a cage fight with Nicholas Cage. For the average Arsenal or Spurs fan, the whole 90 minutes is going to be like a bread knife twisting in the guts.

This is a derby that goes beyond the rolling green hills (ahem) of Haringey and Islington; it’s a top 4 turf war. Generally speaking I’m a placid sort. I consider myself a bit long in the tooth to feel tense about most games and I try – often in vain – to maintain perspective even inside the ground when emotions are high. But playing Spurs at White Hart Lane brings out the worst in me as a fan.

I don’t mean in a punchy, skull splitting kind of way. (There are more than enough wide eyed Neanderthals that await Arsenal fans on the Park Lane looking to indulge that dark art). But emotionally, I become very negative. Because the occasion is so highly charged and the thought of defeat is so unpalatable, I do lose perspective. Every misplaced pass feels like I’ve bet my mortgage and lost. I always think we’re playing terribly and that every Arsenal player is ripe for half time substitution.

Being inside White Hart Lane as an Arsenal fan is an experience like no other. Shoe horned into the Southwest corner of the ground; you feel 33,000 sets of hating eyes staring at you. They are able to focus their ire on a small penned in corner of Gooners and one can almost see a blue fug in the air tumbling towards you. It’s at once exhilarating and nauseating all at the same time.

Out of self-preservation – both psychological and physical – I’d nearly always take a draw at White Hart Lane. I go to so much football simply because I enjoy it. Spurs away is the one game I enjoy almost nothing about in any true sense of the word. Trying to observe a facial expression at total odds with the result on the Seven Sisters Road after the game offers one of the more interesting challenges of the season too. Another reason that the draw tends to work for security reasons.

The players won’t quite have to face down a red carpet of snarling, spitting, lumpen headed goons on the lookout for a bit of the old ultra-violence when they egress Middlesex on Sunday evening. But they too will need a survival strategy if they are to escape unscathed. Gareth Bale is plundering into a rich vein of form that makes him one of England’s most revered attackers. It’s pant filling stuff given Arsenal’s devil may care approach to protecting their back four.

Such is the level of trepidation is such that many Arsenal fans have discussed the prospect of man marking him. I wouldn’t go that far myself. For a start, Villas Boas has deployed a very fluid front 4, with Holtby, Lennon and Bale drifting around behind Adebayor. To man mark Bale would make our setup too askew and ripe for exploitation by other players in the Spurs attack that have license to roam.

However, this isn’t the Arsenal of 2004. We no longer have the quality to roll up at every away ground and simply swot opponents to one side with the quality of our own game. How Arsenal line-up will be fascinating. On one hand, Wenger has opted for a lopsided formation in tougher games since the turn of the year. With Cazorla and Walcott starting from wide but drifting in field to cause havoc.

That system has defensive advantages because it effectively gives us four central midfielders to monopolise possession. It also means Arteta, “the sitter” has defensive reinforcement alongside him, with either Diaby or Ramsey deployed as “the harrier.” This would help counter Tottenham’s triangle of attackers. It also has an offensive use. Teams have used their number 10’s to man mark Arteta this season because he is the instigator of so much of our play, our umbilical cord if you will.

Aston Villa deployed Charles N’Zogbia to ‘sit’ on Arteta and cut off his forward options. This is why Mertesacker to Arteta has been such a dizzyingly regular passing combination of late. It’s not conservatism on Arteta’s part as some have suggested. Teams are wise to his role as the catalyst of our attacks and consciously cut off his options. You’ll notice very few centre forwards harry Arsenal’s centre backs in possession; all of their preventative work is channelled into Arteta.  Having Ramsey a touch closer to him as an ally might be an idea.

Gary Neville wrote recently that Cristiano Ronaldo’s great strength was to identify the weak link in any defence and fasten himself to it. Bale does much the same. The issue with playing the lopsided four man midfield is that it’s very narrow and potentially allows Bale to isolate himself against Carl Jenkinson, who wouldn’t have a dedicated wide player for assistance. There’s a real balancing act for the manager to negotiate between nullifying Spurs and accentuating our own attacking game.

He will not want to instil fear into his team by making an obsession of Tottenham’s strengths. But there again, prior to our first meeting with Stoke City in the Premier League era, Wenger urged much the same caution with regards to Rory Delap’s long throws. We all know how well that worked out.

Spurs are a team that are ideally set up for the counter attack. In fact, earlier in the season they suffered at White Hart Lane and flourished away from home. Yet Arsenal aren’t going to set up in the obstinate fashion that West Brom, Norwich and Wigan did with success at Spurs earlier in the campaign. The ease with which a team as poor as Aston Villa were able to create chances on the counter against us last weekend will simply have to be addressed by Arsene Wenger.

My confidence in Wojciech Szczesny as Arsenal’s number 1 is still steadfast. But Spurs have players that are hardly shy from long range. Bale is an obvious threat here, but Holtby, Dembele and Sigurdsson can let fly too. We had an interesting discussion on Szczesny’s weakness from range on Vital Arsenal this week. A very perceptive point was made about his footwork. Szcz has a tendency to dive forwards towards the ball, rather than shifting his feet along his line when low shots come in from range.

Kyle Walker’s winner at White Hart Lane last season, Tiote’s equaliser in the 4-4 with Newcastle and Andreas Weimann’s strike last week all expose that weakness and Spurs have the players to exploit it. Yet we’ll give them plenty to think about as well. Villas Boas has had his fingers burned against Arsenal trying to play with a high defensive line. With one of Gallas or Dawson likely to play, there’s plenty for Theo Walcott to get his teeth into. Kyle Walker hasn’t realised his form of last season and I always think there’s a rick in Assou Ekotto.

Without Sandro protecting the back four, I fancy Wilshere and Cazorla will target Scott Parker. Even at the age of 32, Parker was rash enough to concede a penalty with a foolish challenge at the Boleyn on Monday night. He was sent off in last February’s encounter at the Emirates because he couldn’t cope with the kinesis of Tomas Rosicky. With the correct approach, I think we can ruffle his side parting into submission.

Wenger has an intricate conundrum between respecting their strengths and imposing ourselves on Spurs and Villas Boas has much the same riddle. It’s delicately balanced on a knife edge. Frankly, I’m already shitting my pants. Both about the game and about my nose still being positioned relatively centrally on my face come Sunday evening. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Derby day approaches, as does a 10 day lull

Derby day approaches, as does a 10 day lull

Good morning and into year 12 we go!

The build-up to Sunday’s game is beginning now with Santi Cazorla talking about the importance of the derby. Not just because it’s Sp*rs, not just because of the local rivalry, but because of what’s at stake.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re not quite as good as we used to be and they’re a bit better than they used to be, which makes the games a bit more important in terms of what the results mean to either team. I don’t think it changes, for one second, how close the games usually are. When we had our best Wenger team, with Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Vieira bringing forth the Yargh they were still tight affairs.

Lots of one goal wins or draws, and while it’s a cliche it’s true that form does go out the window when it comes to these games. With both teams now scrapping for the top four, Cazorla says:

It’s very important, not just because it is a great rivalry or that it’s Tottenham versus Arsenal, but the fact that they’re a side with great players who are fighting with us for a top-four spot.

To beat them and get into the top four and the Champions League, which is our aim for the season, is essential. We know how important it is and I hope we can rise to the challenge.

Winning would be a tremendous boon, losing would make life very difficult, but even a draw would be a reasonable result. At the very least we can’t drop any more points to them as I don’t think they’re as brittle as they were last season. History tells us you can’t ever rule out an T*ttenham implosion but we’d be foolish to count on it.

I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the importance of this particular game has been lost. You can’t play for Arsenal and not know what it means when you play Sp*rs, but I wonder if the ‘British core’ we spoke about yesterday might just ramp it up a little bit. Especially with someone like Jenkinson in the dressing room who knows exactly how it feels for the fans. Anyway, there’ll be plenty more to come on this game between now and Sunday.

It’s also going to be our last game for 10 days. Everton’s participation in the FA Cup means that our home fixture against them has been postponed to a later date, which means we’re going to experience a kind of lull. An Everlull? That sounds a bit foreverish to me, but 10 days off at this stage of the season when there’s no internationals is a bit of a pain in the arse.

That said, it does give the manager a chance to do plenty of work with his team before the trip to Munich, and recharge some batteries. Maybe he could take them away on a training camp somewhere warm. Do a little training, a bit of running, then let them loose to do some ‘bonding’ the way they used to. Like when somebody did a plop in Paul Davis’s shoe, or when Perry Groves got throw into a swimming pool but there was no water in it. Who could forget that time when the lads were away with Terry Neill and they picked up a homeless man and made him dance for them before they killed him and buried his bod- … erm … I’ve said too much.

But you get the idea. It might be a good way to get them revved up for what’s left of the season. Even if they don’t go abroad they could have a fun day out at Alton Towers or go bowling in that place near the 12 Pins which has one less bowling ball than it used to. I have no idea why. What makes you think I know anything about someone how put it under their coat and casually walked out the door with it? You can’t prove anything. Still, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. If Sunday doesn’t go well we might be suggesting they’re stuck on a one way flight to the nearest war zone.

Elsewhere, as I’m sure you’ve seen by now, Dennis Bergkamp is getting a statue. It features him flying through the air, ball on his toe, and no doubt about to bamboozle a defender before sticking it in the net. I suspect the news of this statue has arrived a bit prematurely, on the back of some leaked pictures on Twitter, but all the same Dennis says:

I am honoured that this is going to happen. It makes me very proud. Everyone knows that I love Arsenal and that I had a fantastic time at the club. I will do everything I can to be there when it will be unveiled. It will definitely be a special moment for me which I don’t want to miss.

I bet he’s booking his Eurostar tickets as we speak. And it’s impossible to say he doesn’t deserve it. He was one of the foundations of the Arsenal we know today, simply by making that signing we signalled an ambition that had been lacking for a long time. What he brought to the club on and off the pitch is almost indescribable, and while I suspect he’s got some regrets about how things were for a couple of seasons, he was so instrumental to our success under Arsene Wenger.

Other than that not much to tell you this morning. Thanks to everyone for all the kind birthday wishes for the blog, back tomorrow with an Arsecast. Until then.

Arseblog is 11

Arseblog is 11

It had completely and utterly slipped my mind, but thanks to an email (cheers, Alexander), I was reminded that Arseblog is 11 today.

We’re running out of first team numbers, folks. Just before I go buy a supermarket cake and a bottle of Asti Spumante, I’d like to say thanks to all the other people who contribute to this site these days.

From the podcast guests who give their time so freely, to @AAllenSport, @7amkickoff, @ArsenalColumn, @LittleDutchVA, @jeorgebird, Sul, and on loan @hayleywright.

Cheers as always to Tom for making sure everything mostly works and to Tagadab for hosting.

Above all else though, thanks to all of you for reading, listening, indulging, commenting, emailing, Twittering, Facebook, Newsing and everything else. The site has come a long way in 11 years; it started with glory and trophies, let’s hope we get back there soon enough.

Cheers!

 

Hot air and the British core

Hot air and the British core

Good morning.

It’s pretty quiet. The Arsenal feed on NewsNow is full of stories about how Scott T Parker says that Gareth Bale’s goal against West Ham will have ‘deflated’ Arsenal.

Firstly, Scott Parker is very annoying in his own right. Secondly, shut up. Thirdly, he should jump out a window. And fourthly, perhaps if Scott T Parker had ever done anything worthwhile in his life, like invent the trampoline or a medicine that cures whooping cough, then he’s got a right to say things out loud and in public. But all he’s ever done is chunder around a midfield like a third-rate Biggles with his tally-ho haircut and freckles.

What makes him think anyone bar his mum is interested in anything he has to say? The downright arrogance of footballers these days. Talking. About things. How dare they?

If Bale scores against us on Sunday it could well be ‘deflating’, bearing in mind we’re not a balloon or a lilo or any other kind inflatable object, but I seem to remember him scoring against us the last time we played. It wasn’t particularly deflating as we went on to win 5-2. I also remember Bale diving for a penalty for the other time we beat them 5-2 and whoever the referee is on Sunday ought to remember that no player in history has ever been booked more for ‘simulation’ than Simian Joe.

While there’s no doubt Bale is a fine player, he’s also a big cheating bastard, something the press tend to overlook as they cream themselves into a frenzy about him. When they’re happy to go town on other players for a single incident, Bale just needs to make a kidney shape with his paws and they forget all about his diving and the fact he basically admits to diving because he wants to avoid serious injury. Nobody’s fooled. He cheats because that’s what cheats do, scoring a few decent goals against retarded defences like West Ham’s doesn’t take away from that.

Anyway, enough talk about him and his filthy ilk. There’s a bit of a story around Carl Jenkinson and the ‘British core’ we’ve got at the club now. It’s kinda confusing because he says stuff like:

I think it’s good to have an English core. We’re an English club and with English players and an English squad, the fans can relate to that.

Followed by:

Arsenal Football Club are going to sign players that are the best and I don’t think it will really matter where they’re from.

The boss has long said he doesn’t look at a player’s passport when he signs them, and while I think there are obvious benefits to having this core of ‘home grown’ players, I’m not 100% sure it was a deliberate strategy. It seems to me it’s more circumstance than anything else. Theo Walcott was signed in 2006, Ramsey in 2008, Wilshere and Gibbs have come through the academy, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jenkinson signed in 2011, so it’s taken time for this to come together.

I think he’s looked at his squad, and while it’s not exactly coincidence, he’s seen a group of young British players who have the potential to be part of the team for years to come. But it’s not that different to having Song, Denilson, Vela and Bendtner, for example. All in and around the same age, players he thought could grow together but who, for various reasons we won’t go into, weren’t able to do so with the kind of cohesion he’d have liked.

I think there’s certainly some advantage to having British players like this. For one thing, and I mean this in the best possible way, they tend to be unadventurous when it comes to their playing careers. It might be loyalty, or it might be down to the fact the money in the Premier League is too good, but few, if any, ever consider a move abroad. Compare that to a ‘foreign’ player who has left home at an early age and then has little compunction moving anywhere, domestically or further afield, if they see a better opportunity or if they just feel like it.

Having had his fingers burned more than once by players exactly like that maybe Arsene is banking on that lack of wanderlust to ensure his squad stays together. Of course there’s more to keeping your important core together, but it’s no harm when they’re more ‘local’ than others. Anyhow, we shall see how it all pans out for them, and some have a lot still to do to ensure they’re part of the team in the long-term.

Kieran Gibbs, despite being our best defender this season, has rather unluckily seen injury relegate him to second choice behind Nacho Monreal, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is suffering badly from second season syndrome. He’s not playing very much, he’s not doing a great deal when he does, and out of all them he really needs to get his head down and work his way back into the manager’s thoughts. It’s not to say he’s a bad player, far from it, but he’s yet to tie down a definite position and it’s hard to see how he gets into the team at the moment.

Still, that’ll be the measure of him. Does he have the fight and determination to make it at Arsenal? He’s got a brilliant chance of forging an excellent career here, but it’s all down to how much he wants it.

Right, not a lot else going on. Back tomorrow. Until then, stay on your feet.

The circle of football

The circle of football

Morning all,

no Chamakh, no West Ham win. Simple as that. Well, it’s nearly as simple as all the West Ham players who allowed Cheetah time and space and the luxury of shooting with his left foot … all the goddam time. What’s wrong with them? Why would they do that? Were they thinking ‘Ahh, what’s the worst that could happen?’

As I said last night on Twitter, if I were the West Ham manager I would have executed my defence for the first goal they let him score. As for the second, I’d have brought them back to life, then killed them again in front of their children. Then killed the children too. Nits make lice and all that. It means that Sunday’s game takes on even more importance. We can’t go above them, but we can haul them back a bit. We simply can’t allow them to get any further ahead. Anyway, more on that as the weekend nears.

Yesterday saw Arsenal release their financial results. And they were good. Or bad, depending. Here’s the thing about football blogging these days – although I suspect this is a very Arsenal blog-centric issue – it’s not just about football any more. You have to be a financial expert, ready and able to comment on the workings of sums of money that are ludicrously large and complicated in size. Analysis of what’s coming in and what’s going about is a necessity, as is the need to be a marketing doyen, well versed in doings of the commercial world.

I can’t claim to be any of those things. To me the financial results aren’t in any way remarkable or that different from years past. We’ve made a profit, we’ve got cash in the bank, the profit is boosted by player sales, we’ve got cash in the bank, the match day revenue figure is a bit worrying, and we’ve got cash in the bank. In general it looks pretty healthy. Obviously the fact that match day revenue has fallen is a bit of a worry, but even though we’re seeing a lot of empty seats these days, the tickets are being sold.

I’d worry more if this were a trend that continues and it might well be. Advancing in the Champions League gives you another pay day or two, and more lucrative ones the further you go. Another home round in the FA Cup would add to that too, but in general that’s an issue that can be solved in one way only: having a more successful team. Ticket prices have been frozen for the season ahead, if there’s money invested in the team and it improves, perhaps folk will feel like they’re getting better value for their money, but again this is all dependent on what happens on the pitch.

The wage bill is rising, but I don’t think that’s a problem unique to Arsenal in any way. You can look at the squad we have and see an immediate saving of £10m+ per year when Arshavin, Squillaci, Fabianski and, Bendtner are moved on. Add Chamakh and Park, and any other summer departures, there’s another few million off the bill. But even if you have to pay that money out again because you’ve signed new players, at least it’s a better use of the resources. I’m not arsed getting into the nuts and bolts of our wage bill, we’ve been there and worn the t-shirt, but there’s no doubt there’s been ‘wastage’, and hopefully that’s lessened this summer.

There’s the issue of our commercial income, and in the statement PHW says:

In the second half of the year Commercial revenues will increase significantly as we will start to account for the extended partnership contract with Emirates; revenues from the £150 million contract extension will be combined with the remaining revenues from the original contract and spread evenly over the revised contract term.

There’s also a new kit deal imminent which will boost that income and while I’ve read plenty of people stick the knife into the commercial team, surely we need to step back and look at the job they have. I see comparisons with Manchester United and the plethora of sponsors they have for every little thing. They’ve got an official toilet paper and an official corn based snack in the Phnom Penh province of Cambodia. And why? Firstly, because they have a well developed commercial team who have been at this for years, but secondly because they’re successful.

Brands want to be associated with success. Nobody wants to be the official corn based snack of a team which finished in third place on the final day of the season because the West Brom goalkeeper had a nightmare. You just can’t compare our commercial potential with that of Manchester United, in my opinion. Do we do better than other teams who fight for the top four each season? That’s where the level is right now and where the comparison should be made.

Which isn’t to say things can’t improve or that we don’t have more commercial potential than other sides. Clearly we do. We’re a well known club in the biggest city with a great stadium and the days when we won the league and wowed people with our football aren’t too far in the past. But as for right now? That’s a difficult sell for me. We have the Emirates thing done and dusted, there’ll be more money available through the new kit deal, and that money, along with anything else we have spare must be invested in the playing squad.

Competing for, and winning, trophies gathers its own momentum. Companies will want to be associated with a club that looks ambitious, that excites people on the pitch, and at that point we’ll see the true measure of the commercial team. Make hay while the sun shines, as the saying goes. Difficult to do when the field is all damp and splodgy, like it is right now.

And despite the need to look at finances and sponsorships and marketing, the bottom line is that all these things are dependent on what happens on the pitch. That dictates everything else. You can argue till the cows come home about our cash reserves and player trading and TV money and sponsors for this that and the other, but the very simple fact is if Arsenal were a better football team then everything else would be better too. We’ve now got the structure to ensure that’s the case, when a few years ago we weren’t as well set up for it, and for me that’s the very clear message I get from these results: make the football team better above all else.

Till tomorrow.