Cereal offender

Cereal offender

As weeks go, this one has been a bit like finding out that you’re related to John Terry. Two distinctly different, yet equally disappointing cup defeats have made navel gazing a cottage industry on Planet Arsenal. Difficult as it is, I think the two defeats have to be distilled from one another amidst the maelstrom of angst we have probably all been experiencing.

For me, the Blackburn defeat was infinitely more worrying and hurtful than the schooling Bayern handed us. On current form, the Germans are probably the best team in Europe and it’s not like we’ve ever really been at their level as a club. Even the Invincibles were easy prey for Munich the last time we met. I do rather hope we use Tuesday night’s game as an education though.

Bayern are the sort of super club we aspired to be when we moved stadiums in 2006. (It’s worth bearing in mind the stadium move was a very long term commitment, probably close to 100 years and we’re only 6 and a half years into that cycle now). But there are elements of their team play which I think the coaching staff should use as an aspirational benchmark.

Munich have a good current of stability flowing through the team. They’ve been together for a few years now and that familiarity showed, they are players that trust one another and each man knows his job. This is an Arsenal side in its embryonic stages. With most of the squad core signed up to long term deals, establishing that level of continuity and not hemorrhaging pivotal players is an obvious target.

Bayern’s approach to defence is instructive. Arsenal’s back four are a lightning rod of frustration for our defensive shortcomings. But Bayern realise that defending properly means making life easy for your defence and goalkeeper. They are so good at closing space in midfield and shutting off the lines that they make it very difficult to even progress to their final third. Last Friday evening, Wolfsburg became the first Bundesliga side to register a shot on target against the Bavarians for three games.

That isn’t because their defenders are performing last ditch heroics, it’s because the midfield in front of them are so rigorous and disciplined that it’s a gargantuan task to so much as glance the whites of the centre halves eyes. Arsenal have been able to show this discipline from midfield before. They demonstrated it in the opening weeks of the season. When the midfield and the wide players held their shape, suddenly the likes of Mertesacker and Vermaelen looked much better. It’s not a wondrous coincidence.

The run of defensive intransigence that catapulted Arsenal to the 2006 Champions League Final was precipitated by a move to a disciplined five man midfield, which defended and counterattacked as a unit. Munich showed you don’t have to be defensively open to be a good attacking team either. But their telepathy took time to germinate. They’ve kept a group together and seasoned with careful additions where necessary (Javi Martinez for instance).

Personally, I expected a lesson at their ruthlessly efficient, Teutonic hands on Tuesday. Much more alarming was the Blackburn defeat and the manner in which it transpired. In his downhearted post mortem, some of Wenger’s musings leapt off the page at me

“Mentally, we are not capable at the moment of preparing in exactly the same way for every game…Blackburn was a big game for me.”

When a manager implies that he is not able to motivate his team for certain games, I think it’s time for concern. The circumstantial evidence was already available of course, but the confession sounds almost helpless. There has been a great deal of conjecture about the manager’s future and there is such a flurry of sermons on the subject from both sides of the fence, I find it difficult to see the wood for the trees.

I think the prospect of him being sacked is about as likely as Stan Kroenke changing his name to Dr. Spunky McFunkchunks III. In any case, whether or not you want Wenger sacked only deals with 50% of the issue. The people charged with making that decision would need to have reasonable belief that they could identify and obtain a superior successor. That person may well exist and may well want the job and if that were the case, that would be a stone groove. I do however think it’s a smaller world now and the chances of happening across an untapped resource in Japan aren’t what they were in 1996. Everybody knows everybody these days.

Firing Wenger to “punish” him or to look as though you’re taking assertive action without a contingency plan would be a fool’s errand. There’s certainly anxiety in the fanbase as to the suitability of the people charged with finding a successor, but I have no preconceptions about that myself. There seems to be a yearning for more “football men” in the upper echelons of the club. But I think these so called “football men” are a quasi-mythical construct.

I’m not satisfied that I see the boards of other top clubs packed with grass stained footballing tsars. In fact, Gazidis probably has the biggest football pedigree of any board member we’ve ever appointed having worked with the MLS for 14 years prior to joining. The Hill Woods and the Bracewell Smiths were bankers; Henry Norris was an estate agent. David Dein and Danny Fiszman had no football pedigree when they arrived at the club either. Arsenal have never been run by “football men.” Most clubs aren’t. Manchester City once had Franny Lee as chairman and they plunged two divisions in his tenure.

A more interesting discussion is whether or not Wenger renews his contract. Given the pressure and the vitriol he currently endures, I doubt he’ll be keen to extend beyond 2014. With Financial Fair Play incoming, suggestions of a settled squad again and Arsenal’s account set to be fattened by new sponsorship deals and TV cash, the competitive environment is about to contract in Arsenal’s favour. (Manchester City and Chelsea are banking their new TV money in order to meet FFP regulations).

Part of me thinks that Arsene should be the man to benefit from that bonanza having kept a steady hand on a rocky tiller all these years. The other part of me thinks that Arsenal are hardly paupers now and Wenger seems to regard the transfer market with the sort of suspicion I reserve for those awful people that eat cereal bars. (I’m sure you’re far too busy and important to pour some milk and rice krispies into a fucking bowl).

Assuming Wenger doesn’t renew his deal; next season will see every press conference become a surfeit of questions about his contract. It’s hardly as if some of the irritating dumbarses that inhabit the nation’s fourth estate require an invitation to repeat their banal brand of questioning ad nauseam. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

There may be more important ramifications of this uncertainty too. Player recruitment could be an issue. Trying to sign players this summer (stop laughing!) could be made more complex if potential targets are unsure what the future holds beyond 2014. Coincidentally, every time we hit a bad patch the phrase “war chest” becomes ubiquitous in the sports pages with reference to Arsenal.

The question as to whether you give an outgoing manager the PIN to that sweet, sweet bounty is one that ought to tax its gatekeepers. Some of our current salary leeches will be gone by 2014 and the decks will be a bit clearer. Arsene’s successor will probably walk into a very nice job indeed. Amongst the hysteria it’s probably worth remembering that that hardly implies that he is responsible for the ruination of our football club, as some would have you believe. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

A closed letter

A closed letter

Dear Arsene,

I’m writing to you because open letters seem to be the flavour of the day, but everyone’s writing to Stan and I don’t want you to feel left out.

I was going to cut out letters from newspaper headlines and stick them together to make a kind of sinister ransom note kinda thing but then I remembered this is the Internet and it wouldn’t really work that well. ‘Look, Arsene, somebody’s sent you a laptop but they’ve bollixed up the screen’, they might tell you when the post arrives at London Colney.

‘Why would somebody buy something then completely knacker it?’, you might think to yourself. And you’d have good reason, but my laptop, your Squillaci, your Arshavin, you know how it goes. And at least my laptop worked when I bought it, I didn’t fall for the old ‘Look at these awesome speakers I have in the back of this van’ scam. You plugged in Sylvester and the sound quality was shite, wasn’t it?

Anyway, that’s by the by. The real reason I’m writing is because, well, things aren’t going very well on the football pitch and people are getting a bit frustrated. Another year without a trophy, another year when you’ve made a choice to seemingly prioritise Europe over the FA Cup, taking a bit of a gamble with team selection that just didn’t come off. Everyone says ‘Never play poker with Arsene Wenger’, but I’d fancy my chances. As a great man once said, “You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”

I realise you’re probably more of a Jacques Brel man but you must know that one. Far be it for me to advocate the hiring of Kenny Rogers, but it’s obvious the boardroom needs a bit of a shake-up. He may not have the footballing background of the Bayern board but he’s got a nice beard and that goes a long way in this day and age. I’d suggest he’d be a better negotiator than Mr Law too. Or maybe I’m mixing him up with that other beardy country singer. We really should change our Dick to a Willie. Have a word with Ivan.

What about the coaching staff? You brought in Bould and Banfield to replace Pat Rice last summer and according to some not-at-all bitter ex-Arsenal players you don’t give them anything to do. Bouldie stands around with his hands in his pockets and you ‘Shhhhh’ him every time he speaks. As for poor old Neil, wouldn’t it be more economically prudent to hire an intern from a government job scheme to go get the coffees?

Then there’s the players. They look like they lack confidence and belief, they start game slowly, they concede silly goals and they just don’t convince anyone that they’re capable of winning the trophies everyone desires. Have you considered hypnotism? Would it hurt to put Giroud under and convince him he’s Jean Pierre Papin? Turn Podolski into Gerd Müller and Thomas Vermaelen into somebody slightly better than Thomas Vermaelen?

There’s also this thing called the transfer market which you can use to bring in players who are better than the ones you already have. It’s got some simple rules, such as:

1 – Find a player you like and then give the club he pays for enough money so they sell him to you

2 – It is not mandatory to wait until another player is injured before buying another one

3 – You do not have to get your arse handed to you by a major rival to spark some activity

4 – You may buy players from any club, not simply ones who are struggling financially

5 – Value for money is great when you’re a lone parent trying to feed three kids on a meagre budget; not so much when you have millions sitting in the bank and a team which needs to be improved

We know you have an economics degree but come on. I have a qualification in sound engineering but it’s many years since I spliced together quarter-inch tape having just done a recording on a reel to reel machine. It’s great to try and make the most of the resources you have, but not using them at all doesn’t make much sense either.

And then there’s the whole wages thing. Guys earning a fortune because of this ‘socialist’ thing you have going on. History should have told you it wouldn’t work. The books will show that Richard was a far more effective Marx than Karl. The fact is some people are better than others and some people deserve to earn more. Lots more. Lots and lots more. Otherwise you get Bogarded, dude. Squillaci and Arshavin turned down loan moves to Brighton and Reading. It wouldn’t have cost them a penny, they’d have had a bit of a kick-around on a Saturday but they preferred to stay put because it’s probably nicer at Arsenal. None of that having to work for a living stuff.

So in the future, how about this: pay the most important players the most, pay players for their standing, not their potential. If they want to earn more, they have to improve. They’ll see that, for example, Jack Wilshere earns a lot because he’s really good. And while you can’t polish a Chamakh shaped turd into a Jack Wilshere, that doesn’t mean players with lesser ability can’t become important. Ray Parlour was no Pires or Bergkamp, he wasn’t an Henry or a Vieira, but he was a vital part of your best teams, so you know where I’m coming from here.

I don’t doubt you work hard, that you want to win, that you give 100% to this football club. That’s in your nature. But it’s hard working alone. Everyone needs some help. Look at Bon Jovi, huge success as a band that worked together, but now everything’s gone a bit Richie Sambora solo album. Come on Arsene, ain’t nobody got time for that.

There’s no shame in accepting you need a hand. Did Jekyll not need Hyde? Where would Stan (not that one) have been without Ollie? Bert without Ernie? Arnold Fererro without Trevor Rocher? There are people you can trust, to whom you can delegate and, from time to time, listen to because they might just have a better idea than you do.

I write this in the knowledge that you retain the full support of the Arsenal board and that you have a contract until 2014. You’re a frustrating man, Arsene, but it would be a right shame if you left this club under the kind of cloud that’s currently hovering overhead. It’s painful to hear people call you the kind of names that I would reserve for the very worst people in football, but you’ve got to sit down with Stan and Ivan and Lord Pluckingham of Milton Keynes, and change your ways.

There’s lovely new sponsorship money coming in, there’s cash in the bank, you’re not a single mum and we’re not three loveable, streetwise urchins you have to feed. We can do better than shopping at Aldi, for all that entails, and while your dinners are self-sustainable, they lack a little bit the delicious.

Anyhow, I’ve rambled on enough. I know you’re probably busy, with any luck you’re planning on taking Gervinho out into the woods and driving off. Cruel to be kind, and all that.

I hope you can sort this lot out because we’ve got a big job on our hands to finish in the top four. I don’t think we can bank on that lot up the road collapsing like they did last time around. Or the time before that. Or the time before that. Or the time … well, maybe, but it’d be better if we got ourselves going again.



ps – Rabbits and dogs and the passing time … you know yourself.