Utterly figured out

Tim Stillman column - Arseblog

It seems putsch is all the rage amongst Arsenal fans at the moment. Whether it be indignant marches about what colour our away kit should be, or contrived stroppy walk outs immediately prior to the team’s lap of appreciation next week (though for it to be effective, a lot of people are going to have to stay until the end of the game, which I doubt many have the forbearance for. I mean, what if you have to queue for the tube as a result?!), it seems we are all searching for choreographed ways of staging one giant hissy fit.

But rather than indulge impotent willy waving, I am plotting an altogether more cunning form of revolution, comrades. So why not join me as I petition FIFA to sodding-well ban set pieces! Imagine this utopian nirvana friends, no more corners dribbling miserably into our net off of a pigeon that happened to be roosting in our six yard box. No more Arsenal corners that huff, puff and trickle their way along the grass with barely enough relish to reach the front post before being hacked away by gleeful opposition defenders. No more Gooners sat in the upper tier, shielding their eyes as van Persie lines up another orbit bound free kick.

If the Manchester United game was a small geyser of glory in a forgettable two months, Sunday at Stoke was the big wet curry fart that extinguished it. Probably the poorest performance of the season from us. For most football fans, every single game that is so much as drawn is usually down to “a lack of desire” or because “the players don’t care enough.” Often, that’s little more than melodramatic pouting posturing as analysis. I hadn’t had an issue with effort in even Arsenal’s most inept performances this season. But on Sunday, we were certainly found wanting on that score. I doubt that was even Stoke’s most industrious performance of the season. Truth is, they didn’t have to do anything at all special to beat us. Hell, one of their players scored just by standing still in our six yard box!

Jack Wilshere and various dribbling fucksticks
Jack Wilshere and various dribbling fucksticks

It wasn’t particularly fun to sit through at the Britannia and the Stoke fans had an absolute field day. And that hurt because Stoke fans are, generally speaking, a pack of dribbling fucksticks. Amongst their mocking chants, (I have to say I tittered when they sang, “Arsene Wenger, he didn’t see that” in reference to a poor Wilshere challenge) the one that hurt most of all was their simple retort of “Boring! Boring!” as our midfield repetitively nudged the ball sideways at speeds of about 0.0001 mph.

Arsenal are capable of producing pyrotechnic football, but our style relies heavily on the zest and confidence to play the passing game with zip and conviction. Think back to New Year’s Day at St. Andrews when Nasri and Fabregas were pinballing the ball between themselves at a rate of knots and tearing the Brum defence in twain at will. But when we’re in a funk and playing with all the conviction of Mark Lawrenson’s punditry, it becomes laboured. The most hurtful aspect of Stoke chanting “Boring!” was that it was true.

The manager often talks about his side playing the game they love, the style they believe in. But they didn’t look like they believed in it on Sunday, as 20,000 or so Stoke fans ridiculed our style, our manager, as well as tunefully vindicating their own approach with choruses of “3-1 to the rugby team” and “we’re Stoke City, we’ll play how we want.” I realise footballers usually need to demonstrate better professionalism than to pay too much attention to the crowd, but should that not have irked them and stung them into action if they genuinely believed in their methods?

One of the things that struck me on Sunday was that the 4-3-3 formation deployed over the last two seasons has been utterly figured out. Two banks of four; squeeze the middle of the pitch, force Arsenal to play the ball wide and sit back and relax as they cross the ball to absolutely nobody. Rinse, wash, repeat. Even the most mediocre sides on the most horrific of runs have found joy nullifying Arsenal in this way. Liverpool, Blackburn, Sunderland, Stoke, Bolton- none of these sides produced Herculean defensive displays of calcio vintage. None of them are particularly brilliant defensive sides.

Ultimately this points to the fact that the attack have been as much of a letdown as our much maligned defence since February. As I said last week, if it’s not Fabregas or van Persie, it’s nobody. One of the first points of order when the team reports back for pre season training would be to build in a little more tactical flexibility. With the game going a shape of the pear by half time, Chamakh and Bendtner are good options to deploy from the bench when it’s clear it’s not going to be the day for weaving intricate patterns. But to then shoehorn them into exactly the same failing system and use one of our most effective penalty box players on the wing verges somewhere on the cusp of madness.

I sit firmly entrenched in the pro-Bendtner camp. I think his goalscoring record given the amount of minutes he’s played is incredibly impressive and he gives us variety. But honestly, if you’re going to bring him on for Arshavin, don’t then ask him to play exactly the same role as the diminutive Russian. You wouldn’t put Arshavin on for Bendtner and ask him to be a battering ram centre forward that should look to get on the end of crosses into the box.

United can turn up at a game and play any one of four formations with players capable of filling a multitude of different roles. It makes it difficult to neuter their play, because you don’t know how they are going to set up. You cannot say the same for Arsenal and that’s something I think could be addressed at London Colney if it isn’t already.

Minds have already turned towards the summer and speculation has started to hum gently with regards to the contracts of Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. I know there is a lot of disenchantment around contracts from Arsenal fans, with the popular complaint that we reward players too readily. The mitigation is in the small print- the Webster Clause has changed football contracts and Arsenal have been smart to react to that.

Under David Dein’s stewardship, the contractual situation at the club was a mess, with Wiltord, Kanu, Flamini and Edu all allowed to leave on frees and (whisper it) Ashley Cole becoming disillusioned with the way his contract was handled, leading to an ill tempered fallout. Whilst Arsenal’s position in the transfers of Alex Hleb and Thierry Henry to Barcelona was inestimably weakened by their contract situations.

Henry watches Hleb signing for Barcelona

Hleb was in a position to invoke the Webster Clause and buy his contract out (a threat he and his agent were, reportedly, very willing to act on). Henry was given such an extortionate salary, despite a debilitating sciatic injury, that we were forced to sell him for under his market worth just to get his contract off the books. Contracts were the first thing Gazidis sought to resolve upon his arrival.

The Webster Clause means contracts have to be renewed every two years for clubs to protect themselves in the transfer market. And contract renegotiations always equal upward negotiation of salary. That said, it’s difficult to understand why two members of the starting eleven, in Clichy and Nasri, have been allowed to get to the point where they have only 12 months left on their current deals.

I am rather left with the feeling the manager’s rather downcast appearance over recent suggests the last two games are going to become an audition for some players futures. Almunia and Denilson still cannot make the bench, even with injuries in their respective areas of the team clearing their paths. That suggests they are as good as gone. Others might find they are not far behind if performances against Villa and Fulham are not satisfactory.

Well, Dennis above, that was a rather miserable blog! I’m off to a darkened cellar with only my Jesus and Mary Chain LPs for company so I can have a good old gaze at my shoes until the Villa game on Sunday. Up the Arse. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

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