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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

What is there to aspire to?

This lot earned their places

I did the stadium tour at Ashburton Grove on Saturday. The highlight was, for me, going in to the Arsenal changing room. I had been in the away one before, when I played at the ground, but getting in to the inner sanctum of Arsene's team was a first.
There were more than a few disappointments to be had on the day, as large parts of the tour were closed off. We could not walk up the tunnel, go on to the pitch side area, or sit in the Arsenal dugout (walking out of the players tunnel is the main attraction as far as I'm concerned). Again, I had done these things before, but my six-year-old had not been in those areas of the ground. The seriously posh Diamond Club was also out of bounds on the day. I found all of this especially annoying as I had postponed our visit by a week as the Arsenal website had indicated the tour was reduced. It made no mention that this week would also see the route truncated in any way. All in all that made it a bit of a disappointment, and I will be writing to Arsenal to indicate my displeasure at yet another oversight on their part.
There was one moment of light relief to be had on the tour (before I finally labour towards the actual point of this post). The new tour involves you being "guided" through the stadium via a headset with commentary from Bob Wilson. When you enter the home changing room Bob instructs you to sit down, before pointing out the various features in front of you. He then draws your attention to a whiteboard, with a football pitch etched on to it. The following quote then comes from Bob; "You might think that this is where the players see all the tactics for the game ahead, but it may surprise you to know that this board has hardly ever been used." Really, Bob? You don't say! Now that is schadenfreude of the very best order, and I suspect Bob (and whoever wrote the script) knew exactly what most Gooners would be thinking when they heard it. It certainly made me smile.
Finally, on to the point I want to make. When you walk in to the "players entrance" area you are met with a number of large, framed photographs of great Arsenal moments. It seems, from the commentary, that an image of the Invincibles team has been replaced by a "49-game unbeaten run" montage. However, there is room for a large photo of this years squad. Why? I don't understand why, in amongst all this glory from the past, there is a picture of a group of players that have achieved nothing. When you then go down the corridor that leads towards the changing rooms and tunnel things get progressively worse. On the walls on either side, at about head height, are a series of photos. The timeline begins in the 1930s with Chapman's all-conquering players and their trophies. We move on down the corridor and find time moving on through Allison's 30s team and Whittaker's team of the 40s and 50s, Bertie Mee's Double team, Terry Neill's late 70s Cup sides, and George Graham's team. Eventually we reach Arsene's great sides of the past. However, this is not where this gallery stops. For some reason, almost half of the corridor is taken up with pictures of the current side. Arshavin is in at least three of them. There is one of Lansbury celebrating his Carling Cup goal at Spurs. Jack Wilshere is a regular face staring back at you from the wall. There is even a picture of the team lining up for last seasons Carling Cup game with Shrewsbury Town! As you enter the corridor, Bob Wilson tells you on the commentary that the players are very aware of the pictures that adorn this corridor, and of the history involved. Given that they are actually in half of them I find that hard to believe. How can this group of players, who have achieved nothing for Arsenal, be given the honour of being pictured alongside the greats from the past? They should be anonymous figures until such time as they actually win something.
As far as I am concerned you should have to earn the right to have your picture on the wall, not just be given it in this way. There is a story that Frank McLintock and Don Howe tell with regards to the walls of Highbury back in the late 1960s. As Captain, Frank had gone and spoken to Don and Bertie Mee on behalf of the team. The players had complained that they felt the weight of Arsenal history, and the pressure to achieve greatness, because everywhere they looked were pictures of the team from the 30s, 40s and early 50s. Howe and Mee told  Frank that when his team won something, then the pictures would be taken down and replaced with the new legends. In short, the players of McLintock's era were given something to aspire to. The challenge was laid down to make yourself part of the glorious history of Arsenal. So, if the current team are already "immortalised" on the walls of the stadium, what exactly is there for them to aspire to? I find it all very annoying, but it is sadly symptomatic of the way this group have been given far too much, far too soon.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Squad Review Part 4 - Strikers

King Robin

We finish the annual squad review today with a quick roundup of the strikers in the team. It's not been a vintage year, with the exception of one man shining like a beacon.

Ju Young Park
The arrival of South Korea's skipper is maybe the strangest bit of business Arsenal have ever done. The Club website, obviously, gave much fanfare to Park's arrival. Sadly, the sale of shirts appears to be the only success for him at Arsenal. Given that Arsenal claim to scout players on numerous occasions, and that they went out of their way to poach him from under the noses of Lille, I have to wonder why Wenger decided he wasn't good enough once he got here.
To be fair to Park he's been treated quite badly. We never see what's going on in training, but he scored in a good few Reserves games (both competitive and friendly matches) and he scored a sublime goal against Bolton in the Carling Cup. If his goal for the first-team told us anything it was that Park could finish when given the chance. He never got another one.
It seems unlikely that Park will be with us next season, if we can find someone to sign him. I feel sorry for him as he has wasted an entire year of his football career by signing for Arsenal.

Robin Van Persie
What can you say? We finally got a full season out of RVP and he didn't let us down. An unlikely skipper, for me, he lead the team superbly by example. Were we over reliant on him? Of course we were, but that's not his fault.
Robin was simply outstanding from start to finish. The only shame is that he didn't manage to break the records that were in his grasp. He missed a few chances to have done that, but was also robbed of numerous goals by the referees seemingly getting together to stop Arsenal being given any penalties this season.
There was some nonsense written around January that the arrival of Thierry Henry might upset the ego of Van Persie. It was typical lazy journalism from the gutter press. If anything Robin merely confirmed himself as the natural successor to Thierry. If Henry was the last King of Highbury, then Van Persie is the first King of Ashburton Grove.
We now have to put up with the predictable "will he, won't he" over his contract. As with Fabregas there is an easy way for RVP to stop the speculation. Either sign a new contract, and commit to Arsenal, or relinquish the Captaincy and announce you would like to leave. I hope he will stay, as any sane minded Gooner would, but I only want him if he is committed to us. That would mean a new deal. For me Arsenal should be moving Heaven and Earth to get him to sign, whether in wages, or with who they try to bring in to the squad. Losing Van Persie, after what happened last year, would be one kick in the teeth too many.

Thierry Henry
The King came back and started the team on the road to redemption. If Sagna's goal at home to Spurs marked one important turning point in the season, then Henry's winner at Sunderland was the goal that had set us on the way to a decent finish. It was a seminal moment from one of the all-time greats of Arsenal FC. I was in a Southampton hotel room when news of the goal came over on Soccer Saturday. I dread to think what people in neighbouring rooms made of the noise coming from my door.
Before that, of course, Thierry had returned in the grand manner, and provided us with a moment that Roy Of The Rovers couldn't have written. The goal against Leeds was just one of those things in football that gives you the most indescribable joy. It's the reason we watch football, and the reason why people who don't understand football think we're all mad. I hope he comes back again next season, and I lament the fact that Arsenal didn't extend his deal further - had he been available to come on against AC Milan at home, then who knows how it might have finished?

Theo Walcott
He remains the most infuriating player in the squad. The Spurs game showed him at his absolute worst, and his very best, all in the space of ninety minutes. You just can't put your finger on it with Theo. How can he be so damn awful with the ball most of the time, but then so deadly on the occasion that the mood takes him? There was also the Chelsea game where, in the act of scoring his goal, he gave us a glimpse of everything in his game - he fell over the ball when dribbling, only to get up, destroy two defenders and smash it past Cech. It's really bizarre.
Theo is actually in the same position as Robin Van Persie in terms of his contract. I find it annoying that his representatives appear to be playing some hard-ball with Arsenal over the negotiations. Walcott has yet to achieve anything in football, so should be concentrating on getting the deal done - I don't think too many other Manager's at top sides would put up with his inconsistent play. With Oxlade-Chamberlain being in the Club, he really needs to be looking over his shoulder, but he would still surely benefit from being moved in to the centre.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
What a talent this boy is. He reminds me a lot of Wayne Rooney in terms of his physical appearance and his fearless running at defenders. He is the polar opposite of Theo Walcott thanks to his strength and technique. Chamberlain is as good as any I've seen in a long time, and plays a lot like David Rocastle did in his youth.
I could understand, to some extent, Wenger's reluctance to use him too much at the end of the season. Having seen Jack Wilshere suffering stress-fractures there was no way Wenger was going to risk a similar problem with The Ox. Having said that I think he went too far, and it was to the detriment of Arsenal - it nearly cost us third place in the end. We suddenly saw Santos appearing on the wing, rather than Chamberlain, and that was just crazy in the circumstances (or any circumstances for that matter!)
I am not disappointed that Alex is in the England squad for the Euros. Obviously you would rather he could get a nice Summer break, especially at his age. However, I would rather he spent a few games on England's bench under a good boss like Roy Hodgson, than having to play every minute of a nonsense Olympic campaign under a cretin like Stuart Pearce.

Andrey Arshavin
The little Russian found out that nobody can live on a couple of performances forever. When he did play for Arsenal this season he was nothing short of a waste of space. He clearly had no desire to be here anymore, and we can't go carrying passengers at this time. Arshavin was the luxury Arsenal couldn't afford.
If there is sympathy to be had for him then it is to do with never getting to play in his true position. However, his unwillingness to run and work hard enough meant he could never play in the centre for Arsenal - just look at the way Tomas Rosicky has played these past few months for the necessary contrast. The move back to Russia has been successful for him, but he now needs to persuade Zenit, or someone else, to sign him permanently - he has no future at Arsenal.

The Ivorian looked the dogs nuts on his debut in Cologne last Summer. He scored two real finishers goals and looked a mighty prospect. He started his career proper at Arsenal by falling in to Joey Barton's trap, but his running at defenders was encouraging. Gervinho began to link up well with Robin Van Persie, as evidenced in the goal they combined for at Udinese. Following a goal at Blackburn, with a neat finish across the goalkeeper, it seemed Arsene had found another gem. From there on it all went a bit stale.
As the season wore on the finishing from Gervinho became more and more erratic. He was still getting in to decent positions, but when the ball came to him he looked so out of touch it was embarrassing. Time and again he failed to score goals when it seemed easier to find the net. His running with the ball also became frustrating as there was simply no end product. When he came back from the African Cup of Nations (where he missed the crucial penalty in the Final) he wore the look of a haunted man for a long time, and he never really shook off that hangover.
Next season is make or break for Gervinho. His encouraging start gave him some breathing space, but he was not a cheap purchase and must show his worth next term. If he reproduces the same sort of form we've seen this year, then his days at Arsenal will be numbered very early on.

Marouane Chamakh
What has happened to Chamakh? When you talk of a man lacking in confidence then Chamakh is the archetypal example. He got a goal at Blackburn with a trademark header, but didn't score (and rarely appeared until late in the season) thereafter. Officially the understudy to Robin Van Persie it was just as well that RVP never got his usual injury. Having been recently left out of the Morocco squad, and been dropped at the Nations Cup, he will want to get away from Arsenal and resurrect his career. It's a shame, following his outstanding start to his career in England, that it should end with such ignominy. What happened? We'll never know.

Nicklas Bendtner
Yes, Bendtner did make an appearance for Arsenal this season, as a substitute against Liverpool. His loan to Sunderland has not exactly set the World alight, and it will not be easy for Arsenal to move him on for a fee (especially as he is on £50,000+ per week!) Strange as it may seem, Arsenal could have done with him this season.

Samir Nasri
Played with heart against Liverpool, despite everything that was going on, before joining Man City the following week. Already deeply unpopular with the Gooners, his unnecessary dig at us after City won the Title showed his lack of class (just like Cashley last week).

Benik Afobe
Afobe was struck down by a serious injury just as he seemed about to get his chance around the first-team. When he finally got some fitness he was loaned out to Reading for experience, but injury also hampered his chances there. I watched him in pre-season and he looked a cut above the other players in the Reserves. Another loan spell beckons next season, possibly back at Reading.

Sanchez Watt
Made it to the bench for a Carling Cup tie, but doesn't have the quality to play for Arsenal. He scored on his debut a couple of years back, but that will probably remain his career highlight. Another youngster on a contract long enough to get him another year without being released, but he probably won't really be with us next season and will probably be loaned out to the lower divisions again.

So there you have it, every player in the (extended) squad reviewed (though I missed Henri Lansbury from the midfielders yesterday - my fault and I apologise). It's been a long and tough season, and reinforcements remain necessary in the usual places. Lukas Podolski represents a great start in that regard, now let's finally see some good money spent on good players, and the rubbish on its way out.

No blog until the middle of the week now as I am having to come out of retirement on the cricket pitch tomorrow, before starting nights at work. I hope to write something on Wednesday. I did the Stadium Tour at Arsenal today, and there are one or two observations I have on things there. I might write about them here, I might not. Until Wednesday, enjoy that sunshine.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Squad Review Part 3 - Midfielders

Song - our most creative midfielder

Part three of the annual squad review sees the eye cast over our midfield players, and how they've performed for the first-team this season.

Abou Diaby
I think it is now time to call a halt. We were told that the operation Diaby was to undergo last year would be make or break. He has tried to come back following his surgery on three occasions. On each of those comebacks he has failed to make it through even one half of football.
I've criticised Diaby in the past for his seemingly laid back attitude on the pitch. I see now that I am wrong to have done that. When Diaby was playing to his true ability he was nigh on unstoppable - strong, quick, skillful. He had everything you need for a midfield playmaker. I now realise that the times when he looked anything but those things listed were because he was suffering the pain caused by his horrific injury. It is now six years since a nasty little scumbag named Dan Smith took off with the sole intention of shattering Abou's leg. That one moment has robbed Arsenal, and maybe European football, of a top class midfield player. Dan Smith now plays non-league football. I hope he has trouble with sleeping every night.
As sad as it may be Arsenal can not go on looking to the future with Diaby. He has had his worst season yet in terms of appearances. If anything the surgery he had has made him worse off than before. I would like to see him retire now as it is more and more unlikely that he can ever come back and play properly.
We also must consider the fact that you can name only 25 players in the squad - what is the point of one of those limited positions being taken up by a player who never sets foot on the pitch? That may seem harsh, but business is business, and Arsenal have surely done all they can to get him fit. It's a terrible shame, both for Diaby and for Arsenal, but there's nothing more we can do. I wish him all the best.

Tomas Rosicky
It's been something of a Renaissance from Little Mozart this Spring. There were signs of a bit of a comeback in the second-half at Udinese in August, when he dominated the midfield. We saw precious little more of it, though, until February.
Rosicky has, over the last three months of the season, turned in to the player we thought we had signed in 2006. He looks at least a yard quicker and is beating defenders by running at people. His stats for goals and assists remain poor, but it is his play that has created space for others to play the killer balls to Van Persie. For someone so small, Tomas has also added some physicality to his game, and he has the experience to know when you might just have to make a foul on the opposition.
I had written-off Rosicky as an Arsenal player a long time ago. I read some of the blog from last Summer where I had him among the dead wood that simply had to be shifted from the Club. I suppose on some things Arsene still knows. I don't think he will be first-choice next season, especially if Jack Wilshere can get fit, but he has proved his worth to Arsenal this year. Good on him.

Mikel Arteta
I am willing to admit, from the results and performances following his injury, that Mikel Arteta is very important to the way this Arsenal team plays. I'm clearly still missing what it is exactly, but his sideways passing, and slowing down of Arsenal's attacking play is crucial. I suppose, in some way, I'm admitting to being wrong about Mikel Arteta.
One of the things with Arteta is that he is performing a completely different role to that he played at Everton. Credit must be given to him for having the discipline to not play in such an attacking way as he is deployed alongside Alex Song in Arsenal's midfield. Having said that, I am still incredibly frustrated at times by his complete unwillingness to pass the ball forward. Obviously there is a time and a place for holding possession for a decent time, but I do get annoyed when there is a simple ball forward available, only for Arteta to take another touch and ship the ball sideways to Sagna or Gibbs.
When Arteta does go forward he is capable of providing and scoring goals. He got off the mark with a trademark finish at Blackburn, and finished his season with the magnificent winning goal at home to Manchester City. I would like for him to do more attacking, taking the emphasis for doing so away from Song, but I suppose I should appreciate the role he is playing.

Aaron Ramsey
I think the boyo must be the most disappointing of the Arsenal players this season. Following his impressive return at the back end of last season many expected, perhaps unfairly, that he would kick on this year. It hasn't happened. Since Christmas he has looked more and more pedestrian, while his confidence has gone completely.
There are, in Aaron's case, extenuating circumstances to be considered. Firstly I very much doubt he would have played so many games had Wilshere been fit. The volume of matches, coming back from the leg-break, will have taken their toll on him. Secondly he was being asked to fill the role vacated by Fabregas. He is only young and, as talented as Fabregas was, I'm not sure he could have taken on such a pivotal role following serious injury at a young age (Ramsey also doesn't have Pires, Ljungberg and Gilberto around him in midfield). Thirdly, Ramsey had his World turned upside down with the suicide of his mentor Gary Speed, shortly before Christmas. That's a lot for a young man to contend with.
The season didn't start too badly for Rambo. He got the winner, with a typical finish, against Marseille in a crucial Champions League game, and was still a crowd favourite. The way in which sections of the Arsenal support has turned on him in the second half of the season has been distasteful to say the least. I hope that next season, after a good Summer break (and probably an Olympic tournament) he will come back and be the player we hoped he would be before his leg was shattered (something of a pattern developing).

Alex Song
For me Song is the star of this Arsenal midfield. He has been criticised for not concentrating enough on the defensive role he has in the team, but that overlooks the fact that, without him going forward, we would never cross the halfway line. Song's scooped ball over the top to Van Persie became a feature of the season. Towards the end of the season he was looking to play it, perhaps, a little too often - not every pass can be the Hollywood moment. As I said above, there is a time and a place for the Arteta square ball.
If there is a criticism of Alex Song it is that he still gives away too many unnecessary free-kicks. I agree entirely, and it's something he really needs to address. Given our weakness against the high-ball, it is particularly careless to give away free-kicks that invite such pressure on the defence.
There is work to do for Song, obviously. In the previous season he was in a huge comfort zone, knowing his only "competition" was Denilson. This year, with Frimpong and Coquelin breathing down his neck, he hit the ground running. If Yann M'Villa is brought in then it will allow Song to continue his attacking play, knowing there is proper cover behind him. Alternatively it will provide even more competition for his place. Either way I expect Song to kick on even further.

Jack Wilshere
What a shame. I am worried about Jack. This latest operation, this time on his knee, came out of nowhere. You knew the writing was on the wall for his season when Wenger told us he would be out for ten days immediately after the New York Red Bulls game, which was the last time we saw him. Being so young, and still growing, I fear for what a serious injury will do to him. Jack is so talented that it would be a tragedy if he were to never fulfil that potential.

Emmanuel Frimpong
Frimpong is all-action and 100% effort all of the time. The fans love a player like him as he gives it everything, just like we would if given the chance. What he lacks in technical football ability he more than makes up for with pace, tenacity and an absolute will to get to the ball first.
He was red-carded on his debut against Liverpool after a ridiculous first yellow which summed up Martin Atkinson as a referee. In subsequent appearances he continued to show his physical ability, but must improve his discipline in the tackle. I was surprised when he was loaned to Wolves, as Coquelin's subsequent injury left us short-handed in midfield. He would then suffer a season-ending injury of his own.
After suffering a second cruciate knee injury Frimpong is now facing an uphill task to make it back to the Arsenal first-team again. I think he would be better served in concentrating on his football than on his Twitter account, and I would hope that someone at Arsenal is taking him in hand over the stuff he comes out with on there. He is in danger, at times, of believing his own hype - this is always dangerous for a player who has done absolutely nothing in the game. I hope he can make it back again.

Yossi Benayoun
Benayoun showed how important it is to have experienced players as part of the squad. He ended up scoring crucial goals late on in the season, which only meant further questions being asked of Wenger as to why he Yossi was continually ignored during the awful run in January.
I always liked Benayoun when he was at West Ham and Liverpool. I would dearly like Arsenal to sign him permanently, but I suspect he is a on a very high wage for someone who will only be a bit-part player. He has also stated his desire to play regular football, and that is understandable. It is something he will not get at Arsenal or Chelsea. I wish him well, whatever he ends up doing, and I thank him for his massive contribution to our third place finish. Without Benayoun in the run-in we wouldn't have got close (though I was ashamed of the Manager when he made a loan player Captain of Arsenal Football Club in the Carling Cup).

Ryo Miyaichi
Ryo looked the business on loan in Holland in early 2011, and in pre-season he made a bright start to his Arsenal career. I think Arsenal wanted to get him toughened up a bit before throwing him in, and a succession of niggly injuries have hampered his progress (he is also coming back from a leg break).
I saw him first-hand in the Carling Cup and this boy is seriously quick. He started very brightly on loan when he joined Bolton but, as their relegation fight got more desperate so did their football. He ended the campaign on the bench. There is talk of Bolton wanting him back for next season, but I see little point in that. If Ryo is not part of Arsenal's squad next season then I hope he is loaned to a Premier League side for proper experience. He made his debut for Japan this week to round off a superb 18 months for a lad who had only previously played at school level in his homeland.

Francis Coquelin
Thrown in at the deep end (and surprisingly so) at Old Trafford, Coquelin turned in a fine performance. It is no coincidence that 3-1 became 6-1 within a few minutes of his substitution that day. I have been impressed every time I've watched Coquelin, ever since his debut in the Carling Cup a few years ago.
The two hamstring injuries he suffered have no doubt proved annoying setbacks to a young man trying to force his way in. However, the fact that he was moved back in to the middle of midfield for the West Brom game shows that Arsene clearly believes in him (he also started the game at White Hart Lane, having not played since Old Trafford). Personally, I think he is even better at right-back, covering for Sagna. Potentially I can see Coquelin becoming the new Lauren, eventually moving from midfield in to the full-back role. Whatever happens, I hope his future is with Arsenal. He has had an outstanding first season with the first-team.

Oguzhan Ozyakup
The youngster was, in the end, restricted to a couple of League Cup substitute appearances. Among the Reserves he is regarded as one of those who could have a chance of making the grade.
In the midst of an injury crisis Ozyakup found himself on the bench for the home leg against AC Milan. Early in the second-half he was sent out to warm up, and was coming on, only for Wenger to change his mind. After the game Arsene claimed to have had no midfielders on the bench. Who knows how the youngster might have performed given his opportunity of a lifetime? I hope he gets another.

Chuks Aneke
Another youngster who is highly rated, Chuks made his debut in the Carling Cup. I saw him play in pre-season and he certainly carries a physical presence. He was loaned out after Christmas and did pretty well away from the Club. I suspect he will go out on loan again at some point next season, before Wenger decides if he has a future.

Craig Eastmond
Made the bench for the Carling Cup, but failed to add to his first-team appearances. Eastmond was also loaned out, and lacks the quality required to succeed at Arsenal. Time to let him go and find a career more suited to his level.

I'll review the strikers in the Arsenal squad tomorrow. That shouldn't take too long. I will get that done when I return from a visit to Arsenal where I will be doing the stadium tour. Very nice.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Squad Review Part 2 - Defenders

Koscielny - outstanding season

Part two today of the annual squad review. This post is all about the defenders that have been involved in and around the first-team this season.

Bacary Sagna
Despite suffering a broken leg on two occasions this season Bac has once again demonstrated his quality. He is a crucial part of this Arsenal team, and we look so much better with him in the side. Theo Walcott regularly looks a far better player when he has Sagna playing behind him at full-back, and telling him where and when to make his runs.
When Sagna was missing in the middle part of the season we simply didn't have the quality to cover for him (injury to Jenkinson and Coquelin didn't help) and Arsenal really suffered. For me he remains the best right-back in the Premier League and Arsenal are lucky to have him. I hope his recovery from his second leg break (about which nothing has been done, despite the quite obvious stamp on his leg) will be a quick one. We need Sagna to be fit for as much of next season as possible.
One other thing to say about Sagna is that he loves Arsenal. Anyone who follows him or, more particularly his wife Ludivine, on Twitter will know how much they enjoy being part of things. He also scored the goal, against Tottenham, that got us going and turned the season around.

Per Mertesacker
The tall German gets a lot unfair stick for his lack of pace. It is true that he can be caught out occasionally in that regard, but proper defensive organisation from the team would negate any deficiency in that area. If I have a criticism of Mertesacker it would be that he does not use his extraordinary height to enough advantage. Too often he fails to attack the ball properly in the air, and this can cost us against the high ball. At 6'6" he should dominate everyone he challenges, and there is improvement to be made there.
The positives with the BFG are his superb reading of the game, and his excellent communication and leadership of the defence. His ability to see what's about to happen can largely make up for his lack of mobility as he is usually in the right position. It is also no coincidence that the likes of Jenkinson were rarely caught out when he was alongside them, constantly organising his full-back on where to cover.
I like Mertesacker a lot and was gutted when he got injured at Sunderland. It looks like he will be fit for Euro 2012, so maybe the three months out will have done him some good, and the time he spends with Germany will see him hit the ground running (albeit slowly) next season. I believe he will have a large part to play, fitness permitting.

Thomas Vermaelen
This will come as a surprise to many Gooners but I have a problem with Thomas Vermaelen. That problem is that he lacks defensive discipline. It would be complete nonsense to say he can't defend, as he is outstanding at it when he actually troubles himself with his primary role. The problem is that he fails, far too often, to recognise when it is necessary to do so. A number of times this season, especially later on, he was found way out of position as the opposition would score a goal. We would regularly see Vermaelen wandering aimlessly towards midfield at a time when he should have been dropping off to cover the ball in behind. Other times he would be in the opponents penalty area, having launched himself forward to join the attack, only for Arsenal to be caught on the break. Two of the goals scored by Norwich recently fit these profiles.
Vermaelen has "got away" with this kind of play in many of the fans eyes, because he pops up with goals on a regular basis. However, there is a time and a place for such a gamble to be taken. In the last minute against Newcastle, when you need a winning goal, the sight of the centre-back appearing at the far post to win you the game is wonderful. In the first-half against Norwich, when you've just conceded an equaliser and are being comprehensively outplayed at home, there is a need to regroup and get some foundations in place, before the barnstorming football can get going again. The Verminator must learn this aspect of the game as it is hampering an already porous defence. Too often this season he was carried by Koscielny, and also by the roundly criticised Djourou, and that is not good enough.

Laurent Koscielny
The standout performer in the defence this season. I couldn't believe he wasn't in the PFA Team Of The Year, such was the standard he achieved. In a defence that conceded so many goals, he really was the shining light. Things would have been so much worse without Koscielny. As far as I am concerned he is behind only Robin Van Persie as the Arsenal star this year.
Koscielny had shown the odd glimpse of this form during his first Arsenal season, though circumstances led to him being overplayed at a time when he needed to settle in to the English game. This year he has added a yard of pace, been excellent in the tackle, and shown an aerial ability not seen before from him.
At Blackburn his Arsenal career reached its lowest ebb. It was one of the worst centre-half performances I have seen from an Arsenal player. From that game on he went from strength to strength, and has established himself as first-choice. I preferred his partnership with Mertesacker to that with Vermaelen. It will be interesting to see what Arsene does at the start of next season, fitness permitting all round. If Koscielny reproduces his form of this season then he could become some player for Arsenal.

Andre Santos
The "cuddly" Brazillian is a bit of a maverick. On his debut at Blackburn I think we were all impressed with his ability on the ball, and the way he defends in a one-on-one situation. We were probably also concerned at how rarely he was in the appropriate position, and also how unfit he appeared.
I like Santos. I like his ability going forward and, when he is in position, how well he defends. The problem lies in the fact that he is probably too attacking. We shouldn't be surprised as I don't recall too many Brazillian full-backs who actually defend properly(Silvinho was about the most defensive I've seen, but he was hardly a Winterburn, was he?) One thing that Santos has done is score important goals - at Chelsea and West Brom his contributions in the attacking third were crucial to our season. Like Vermaelen it is those goals that have probably kept him popular with the supporters. The injury he suffered in Athens (he shouldn't have had to play that night) set him back at a time when he was establishing himself ahead of Gibbs. Now he must improve defensively if he is to become first-choice. Santos provides an interesting option from the bench, but his deployment as a winger (ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain) was one of Wenger's stranger decisions. I think he will become a bit of a cult hero.

Sebastien Squillaci
Arsenal announced the players being released from the Club a couple of days ago. The absence of Squillaci's name confirmed that he was put on a three-year contract when he arrived. Good God. In my view Arsenal should have paid up his final year and got rid of him.
I thought he was going to be booted out at the end of last season, following his half-time substitution against Aston Villa. Towards the end of this season he was appearing on the bench a bit too often for my liking. Squillaci is, sadly, up there with the likes of Caesar and Stepanovs. Such is the way his career at Arsenal has gone that he is an accident waiting to happen. He produced one outstanding performance this year, in the Carling Cup, but apart from that his rare outings were littered with mistakes. It hasn't worked out, and Arsenal must find a way of shipping him out this Summer. I'm sure he's a nice guy, but he's simply not good enough.

Johan Djourou
The star of the defence in the previous season, Djourou is now firmly fourth-choice. His spell having to cover for Sagna at full-back has seen his star fall further with the supporters, but that is unfair on the Swiss who was having to play in an unfamiliar role. This reached its nadir against Manchester United when he struggled so badly against Nani that Wenger had to replace him with a novice at half-time.
As a centre-back I don't have too many problems with Johan. When he gets a run of a few games he does just fine, as did Senderos before him. The problem with being fourth-choice at Arsenal is that the run of games simply doesn't come. He impressed when coming in for Koscielny at short notice against Villa in March, and signing a new contract earlier this year indicates he's here to stay. Is he good enough to become a fixture? Perhaps not.

Carl Jenkinson
One thing to say about Jenkinson is that he will always do his best for Arsenal. Having grown up as a Gooner, with a Dad who is a season-ticket holder, Carl is living the dream we all wanted for ourselves. He was thrown in at the deep end early in the season, having been playing non-league football less than a year before. He struggled on occasion, as you would expect, but once he had someone at centre-back talking to him he improved. It may have been a blessing for him that he suffered an injury when Sagna first broke his leg, as I don't think he could have coped playing so many games at this level in his first year.That could have seen the crowd on his back, and he really doesn't need that.
My favourite moment with Jenkinson came at Old Trafford, when Theo Walcott clearly felt he could bully the youngster. He could be clearly seen telling to Walcott to "****-off!" and I like the fact that he knew he could, and should, stand up to a more senior player who wasn't doing his own job properly. A loan spell might do him a lot of good, and we would probably find out if he is up to the job.

Kieran Gibbs
Now established as the first-choice left-back, Gibbs again failed to make it through the season without being annoyingly injured. When he did play, in the first half of the season, he wasn't inspiring. It looked like he would be ousted by Andre Santos, but the long-term injury to the Brazillian allowed Gibbs to come back in when he finally got fit.
Late in the season I thought Gibbs got better and better. His defending has certainly improved, but his crossing of the ball in attack has regressed further. There are still questions to be asked over his positional sense, but he is still learning the full-back position. In the final minute of the season he showed he has the desire to put it on the line for Arsenal by making the tackle that secured our Champions League place. More improvement is required next season.

Ignasi Miquel
The Captain of Arsenal Reserves, Miquel found himself involved a lot early in the season. He came on early in the home game against Liverpool and, guided by Vermaelen, produced an outstanding display. He would also play at full-back at different times in the campaign.
If he can develop physically Miquel could yet have a future at Arsenal. He will almost certainly benefit from a loan spell, preferably to a Premier League side, but his relegation in the pecking order, behind Squillaci should ring alarm bells. Kyle Bartley returning from Rangers would push him further away from first-team contention.

Armand Traore
Transferred to QPR less than 24 hours after the Old Trafford debacle. Enough said.

Nico Yennaris
Ostensibly a midfielder Yennaris played at right-back for the first-team. I was impressed by him in the League Cup tie against Bolton, where he put the experienced international Tuncay in his pocket. He is skillful, and useful going forward. The way he defended, though, was what has impressed the most.
In a rare show of faith in an English youngster Wenger threw Nico in to the fray against Manchester United at half-time. Nani had dominated proceedings in the first-half, but was marked out of the game by Yennaris thereafter.
The boyhood Gooner (he was the mascot for Sylvain Wiltord's debut against Coventry in September 2000) looks a real prospect, though a loan deal at Notts County saw him play only twice. I don't understand why that was, but it maybe raises one or two questions. Another loan will beckon next season, hopefully in a higher standard.

Daniel Boateng
The young centre-half came on as a late sub in the Carling Cup win over Bolton. He acquitted himself very well and, whatever else happens in his career, will be able to say he played for Arsenal. Will he do so again? I'm not so certain.

I'll post the review of the midfield players tomorrow.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Squad Review Part One - Goalkeepers

Fabianski - on his way

It's time for the annual squad review. It will be split in to four parts, with goalkeepers first, then defenders, midfielders and strikers. I will be assessing the season of every player have been in and around the first-team at some point in the campaign. There won't be any "scores" given to players as I don't quite see the point.

Wojciech Szczesny
Wearing number thirteen (for some reason) but clearly the undisputed number one at Arsenal. Szczesny actually had an in-and-out kind of season, which is perhaps to be expected of someone so young, playing in goal. When we were being battered at the start of the season it was interesting that Szczesny was getting the plaudits in the form of "player of the month" awards. You wonder how bad things might have been had the big Pole not hit the ground running this season.
Szczesny is obviously an extremely confident person, and this is absolutely necessary for a goalkeeper. I believe it was no coincidence, however, that his best form came when we weren't hearing from him at all in the press or on Arsenal's website. He also shut down his prolific Twitter account. When he got a bit more publicly vocal again at the end of the season his form dipped badly again, and his performance against Norwich was as bad as anything we've seen fro the other 'keepers in the squad.
All in all Szczesny can be pleased with his first full season as first-choice at Arsenal. He is still learning, and is the sort of the footballer who will know his weaknesses and what he has to work on. I am concerned that he makes mistakes in games where it really seems to matter, and only time will tell if he has a problem with his temperament which is masked by a natural bravado. He also gets beaten time and again from direct free-kicks because he continually lines himself up on one side of the goal - David Seaman did that once, but never again. There's plenty to learn for Szczesny, but hopefully he has a lot of time at Arsenal to put it all together.

Lukas Fabianski
We've seen precious little of Fabianski this season. The fact that Szczesny has apparently carried an injury through the last five weeks of the season, yet Fabianski still didn't get a look in, tells us that Arsene Wenger had lost any faith in our other Polish stopper.
Fabianski will look back at the previous season and see his own shoulder problem as a moment of particularly poor luck. He had seemingly established himself ahead of Almunia with a very good run of performances. The supporters still were very unsure of him though, given his past, and the defence still seemed to lack of confidence in him. As soon as Szczesny got in I think the writing was on the wall for Fabianski. I expected him to leave last Summer in search of playing time, and he has made it clear he wants to go now. I don't blame him for wanthing to leave Arsenal, and I wish him all the best.

Vito Mannone
The only other goalkeeper to play for Arsenal this season, Mannone is unlikely to be here next season. He came on as a sub for the injured Fabianski in the dead rubber at Olympiakos. It's fair to say that he didn't cover himself in glory, and also managed to get injured in the match. I saw Mannone play in pre-season for the Reserves and he looked really assured and confident. He was coming for crosses and dominating his penalty area. When put in to the pressure situation of playing proper football he looked meek and lacking in that confidence.
Another loan spell at Hull City has been highly successful for Vito. It is no surprise that he wants to go an play elsewhere as he can get regular first-team football. Being young he will still make mistakes, and he lacks the natural ability of Szczesny. I think he'll have a decent career in the lower divisions, or back in Italy. I don't expect him to be back here next season.

Manuel Almunia
There was a lot of funny stuff going on with Almunia last season. He was actually being treated badly by Wenger for a lot of the time, even having to train on his own at times. When Fabianski and Mannone were injured he had no choice but to bring Manuel back in to the fold. He was on the bench a lot this season, and I fully expected him to play in the FA Cup game against Leeds. Wenger was determined, for some reason, that he wouldn't play unless in extremis, so he put Szczesny in and made Martinez his sub for the evening.
Before Christmas Almunia went on loan to West Ham where he played in place of the injured Robert Green. I don't agree with Arsenal doing anything to help Sam Allardyce, so it was a move that annoyed me. Manuel did okay there, and there was talk of a deal being done at one point. Arsenal's shortage of goalkeepers probably scuppered that, but he is now being released to get on with his career.
Almunia ultimately lacked the ability to be first-choice at a Club like Arsenal. He was clearly a very popular member of the squad, and is a good friend of Robin Van Persie. When you're only "crime" is being not quite good enough, then I think you have nothing to be ashamed of. I certainly wish Almunia all the very best for the future.

Damien Martinez
This time last year Martinez was called up to the Argentina squad for their end of season campaign. He is very highly rated and made the bench for some Carling Cup action, and for the FA Cup match with Leeds (as mentioned above). His season finished with a one match emergency loan at Oxford United. Having established himself as the regular goalkeeper in the Reserves, I can see Martinez being promoted to the first-team squad next season as third-choice, but maybe a loan spell will do him a lot of good. If he fulfils his promise he could become genuine competition to Szczesny in the next two years.

James Shea
Shea was loaned to Dagenham early in the season in order to replace his coach, Tony Roberts, who had retired from playing to take up a full-time post at Arsenal. He had been playing for the Daggers but was called back to Arsenal when Fabianski and Mannone got injured in Athens. That was pretty much the end of his season, apart from a few Reserve games. I would be surprised if James Shea was an Arsenal player next season - he is highly unlikely to ever play for the first-team.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Scum is as scum does - and Joey Barton is scum, Come on Bayern Munich

Any mugs out there still want him at Arsenal?

I'll start with an apology, as ever, for not updating things since Monday. The hours I've been working this week have not been conducive to getting time to write properly. As a result today's post may seem to be a little off the pace, but I've had it in my mind since last Sunday.
On Monday 20th June 2011 Arsenal Football Club was heavily linked with a move for Joey Barton. I was disgusted by the idea that Barton might end up representing my Club and putting our Cannon on his chest. I wrote this piece about the subject and said how I would "have no desire to watch an Arsenal team of which Joey Barton is a part." The comments section of that post makes for interesting, and surprising reading. Those that have contributed their view on this blog were far from alone in wanting Arsenal to bring in Barton, in order to add some steel in the midfield. I wonder what those people are thinking right now, following Barton's behaviour last week at Manchester City?
The actions of Joey Barton last week were truly among the most disgusting I've seen. Here was the Captain of a team facing relegation, drawing 1-1 at the Champions-elect, and knowing a defeat could see them relegated. How did their leader choose to inspire his teammates? The man is nothing more than lowlife scum. Were it not for his football ability (make no mistake, Barton is a very decent player) he would be just another Croxteth scumbag serving time in a prison somewhere. Barton is an animal who lacks any self-control whatsoever. The way he lost it last Sunday was just the latest in a long line of violent assaults perpetrated by Barton, both in football and beyond. The look of pure hatred on his face as he stuck his knee in to Sergio Aguero was something the FA should be looking at before they consider allowing him to play football again. How long will it be before Barton maims someone permanently and ends their career?
I mention the FA there, and I do so in the knowledge that they could have (maybe) helped to avert such an incident occurring with Barton. Obviously they have previously missed opportunities to ban Barton indefinitely as a result of his physical assaults on people. Even more recently than that, they failed to deal with him on the first day of this season. Arsenal supporters will remember well how Gervinho was sent off for "slapping" Barton at St James' Park on his debut. Big hard Joey went down like a sack of spuds, whining to the referee that he had been "punched" by our Ivorian winger. This is the blog post from the day after. The reaction of the Newcastle fans to the blog kind of shows that they disliked Barton as much as anyone, but tolerated him as he wore a black and white shirt. I made the point, back in August, that Barton was "out of control." Nine months later, the failure of the FA and referees to deal with this mad man came home to roost. It nearly relegated QPR, though more fool them for signing him in the first place, I suppose.
If I was an R's fan I'd want him sacked - had Bolton got a winner at Stoke he would have relegated his side with his violent behaviour. If Mark Hughes still has Barton on the payroll come August it will pretty much sum him up as a man and a Manager. The FA should take a stand, and kick Barton out for good - before it's too late. We, meanwhile, should remain delighted that Joey Barton never signed for Arsenal.

It's the European Cup Final tonight and that means that we face the prospect of John Terry raising the trophy. Just consider that for a moment. It would mean that Chelsea would become the first London side to win it. Ahead of Arsenal. This artificial, small club with big money, would beat us to the big prize. Anybody that thinks that is a more palatable outcome than seeing Spurs getting the chance to play a qualifier for the tournament next season really needs their head examining.
I have to say I think Chelsea will win tonight. The way their games went against Barcelona has me believing this is their year. I know the game is in the stadium of their opponents, Bayern Munich, but the Germans' form in recent weeks is pretty woeful. Bayern have quickly shown themselves to be chokers as they threw away the Bundesliga, and were destroyed 5-2 in the German Cup Final last Saturday. Defeat tonight would see them emulate Bayer Leverkusen with a treble of runners-up finishes, having been set to win the lot just a few short weeks ago. Let's hope they can rouse themselves tonight, and be inspired by playing the European Cup Final in their own stadium.
Come on Bayern, do it for London!

No blog post tomorrow as I'm off to Lords for the Test Cricket. I'll begin the annual squad review on Monday morning.

Monday, 14 May 2012

West Bromwich Albion 2 - 3 Arsenal - Gap Minded

Kieran Gibbs - made the £30million tackle

Thank God for that. I had to spend yesterday afternoon stuck at work with little or no access to information in the outside World. Not knowing what is happening at a game is the most horrible thing. I kept taking the opportunity to try and sneak a view of what was going on via my Twitter feed, but the 3G didn't want to play during most of the game. I had a couple of texts to tell me the score, but the nature of my job meant I was unable to check those messages until about twenty minutes after I'd received them. It was absolute torture. I finally got a break at about 4.40 and went in to a back room where I could get some signal for the internet. I put my Sky Go on and saw a couple of minutes of the City game, and they didn't look like scoring. I quickly flicked over to Soccer Saturday, but they were understandably not going to The Hawthorns by that time. So it was back to Twitter where a number of Gooners were, thankfully, giving regular updates. When my break was over I was relieved to see that what I was dealing with at work had dissipated somewhat, so I was able to move slightly away from the desk, and the 3G was now better. I punched the air when Ray Parlour was the first to celebrate the victory in the Twittersphere. For the first time all day I was able to relax. The feeling was not one of joy and elation, but pure relief. I am pleased that we finished third, but not happy with a third place finish - there is a difference between the two.
I've watched the Match Of The Day and Football First highlights and we really do owe something to Marton Fulop in the West Brom goal. For me he was at fault for all three of Arsenal's goals, and I thank the spirit of Almunia and Fabianski for possessing the Hungarian yesterday. Having said that we have suffered so many times from a goalkeeper playing the game of his life against us. It made a nice and refreshing change to see someone have such a nightmare against us. It was fitting, for me, that Laurent Koscielny should get the goal that ultimately took us to the European Cup - he is by far the most improved player at Arsenal this season. His moment in front of the travelling fans was well deserved.
The less said about Arsenal's defending the better, I suspect. We were unlucky, perhaps, with the first goal. Shane Long was clearly offside (not a close decision) and had received the ball via a studs up challenge on Francis Coquelin in midfield. Having said that, Carl Jenkinson had ignored the position of his two centre-backs as he headed back towards his own goal, while Andre Santos wasn't even in Arsenal's half of the field. The second goal was simply awful as Vermaelen yet again went walkabout in to midfield as a ball was lifted over the top. You can lip-read Arsene Wenger after the goal mouthing "...every long ball over the top it's the same..." and he is not wrong, but I have to question why it keeps happening. Surely if Wenger has noticed what the rest of us have then he should have done something about it.
I was surprised to see Kieran Gibbs left out yesterday. Perhaps Wenger wanted the experience of Santos, and maybe the attacking quality he can bring. It certainly worked in the attacking sense, with Santos getting the equaliser before half-time. I must give credit to Arsene for then bringing on Gibbs in the second-half (though he then left Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench again, and brought on Aaron Ramsey whose main involvement again was to give away possession). It was a change that ultimately got us in to the European Cup. The tackle made by Gibbs in the final minute was the challenge of the season from an Arsenal point of view. It was an intervention worth £30m-plus to Arsenal Football Club. In that moment he turned in to Nigel Winterburn or Kenny Sansom, launching himself with perfect timing to save the day for us. Gibbs has struggled a lot with injury but his form has generally got better across the season. Making a challenge like that, in the most important moment, in front of the England Manager, will have done his future prospects no harm at all. Well done Kieran, and thanks for saving our season. It was a tackle as important as any of Robin Van Persie's thirty goals.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

So we finish in third place. If someone had told us we would be in that position following the game at Blackburn (I stated on here that I felt we were in a relegation battle, and I was not alone that day) we would have bitten their arms off for it. In that respect it has been a fine achievement from this group of players. There is plenty that is wrong, still, but today is not the time to talk about that. What is frustrating for me is that, had the Club done its business properly last Summer then we might have challenged closer to the top two this season. The fact that the worst Man Utd side in 20 years should have won this Premier League tells you how poor the overall quality was. Arsenal were not in a position to take advantage, and it was all their own fault. We can only hope that the relevant lessons have been learned and will be acted upon.
The third place finish of course meant we did get our St Totteringham's Day after all this year. The neanderthal masses were vanquished once again, as they have been for the past 17 years. Back in January we were being told by 'Arry and his journalist mates that they could win the Title. The Tottenham supporters were also believing it (they never learn) and were constantly telling us to "mind the gap". Well the gap has been well and truly minded, and Arsenal have finished above them yet again. In a season of disappointments it is a little bit of a consolation to know that they will not be lording it all Summer. You know it would have been unbearable had they got in front of us, so I'm rather pleased at the outcome, even though my ambitions for Arsenal are somewhat higher than finishing above perennial mid-table dross like Spurs. Just check out that picture above of those idiots before the North London Derby at our place - I'd love to meet those idiots, wouldn't you? Just tell me that doesn't make you laugh. What a bunch of cretins.

I can't sign off today without mentioning Manchester City. Congratulations to them on winning the Premier League. It truly is an astonishing achievement for a team assembled for hundreds of millions of pounds to win the Premier League on goal difference. I mean, could you ever have thought they might have a chance with that method of team-building?
The nature of the finish has given Sky the opportunity to go on and on about the best finish ever to a "Premier League" season. Of course football did not exist in England before 1992, did it? Except, of course, that football did exist, and there was an even more exciting ending in 1989. There will never, ever, be anything to compare to the top two effectively playing-off for the Title. Factor in that the underdogs had to win at the Champions by two clear goals (which hadn't been done at Anfield in years) and did so with the last kick of the season, and you can see that Liverpool losing to Arsenal will always be the most exciting.
I found it galling, though unsurprising, to hear Match Of The Day's pundits ignoring Anfield. Has Alan Hansen forgotten about it? I suppose he was a mile out of position as Mickey went "charging through the midfield" in 1989, but to ignore it completely? Cretinous stuff. Sadly, Hansen was not alone. Niall Quinn, who was sitting on the Arsenal bench at Anfield that night, also couldn't recall it as he claimed on commentary "I've never seen anything like it in my years in football." Paul Merson, who played at Anfield that night, was at it too - "I've never seen anything like it" he exclaimed on Soccer Saturday. What is wrong with these people? Yes, it was dramatic and it was incredible and it was exciting, but not as good as Anfield '89. Nothing ever will be.

Friday, 11 May 2012

West Brom (a) preview

One last chance

So here we go. Nine months of pain and pleasure (mostly pain, let's be honest) all comes down to one final ninety minutes in West Bromwich. If someone had told you after the humiliation at Old Trafford, and the defeat at Blackburn, that Arsenal would have Champions League qualification in their own hands going in to the last game you would have taken it. Conversely, if someone had told you that would be the scenario as we went in to the Wigan match a couple of weeks ago you'd have been wondering how the season could collapse again quite so quickly. It's been that kind of a season I suppose. Now the players simply must rouse themselves to put together a proper performance at The Hawthorns. This group has put the supporters through the mill this season, and they seriously owe us a win on Sunday.
The team news is that Theo Walcott looks like being fit for the game. Just how fit he really is I don't know. I would also question whether it's even worth bothering with Theo if he is any less than 100%. After Gervinho's performance last Saturday, and the fact that Oxlade-Chamberlain must be champing a the bit for a game right now, as well as Yossi Benayoun, we are not short of options in that position. What I would really like to see is a switch to the 4-4-2 that saw us create a plethora of chances in the last fifteen minutes last week. We have to win, and our defending is awful, so why not just go for it? I know many would question the point in bringing in Marouane Chamakh, but he is certainly due a goal! We all know that a change in formation is most unlikely to happen.
At the back we have the problem of how to fill Bacary Sagna's position at right-back. I can see Arsene bringing in Carl Jenkinson, but I would far rather see Francis Coquelin continue there. The energy and pace of Coquelin will be needed in such a game so I see no point in bringing in a lad who hasn't played in weeks. There was a rumour earlier today that Wojciech Szczesny might be injured, but I've not seen anything else about it so I hope it was just a not very funny joke.
West Brom have their own problems. They will be missing their skipper, Chris Brunt, and Jerome Thomas is also doubtful, which might dent the attacking side of their game slightly. Having said that they do have Peter Odemwingie fit again and he has damaged us in the past. Paul Scharner is also fit for what looks like being his final game for the Club. I have always rated Scharner, who will give us no end of trouble at set-pieces, and also with his strength and power in midfield. They also have Ben Foster in goal, and we all know how he has been inspired against Arsenal on the big occasion before - we owe him some real punishment after Wembley last year.
Arsenal have a pretty average record at West Brom. This being Roy Hodgson's final game in charge is another thing that could go against us. Their players should be really up for it, as will the crowd, as they look to give Hodgson a good send off. What we need is for our players to prove, for once, that their words about Pat Rice can be backed up with actions on the field. We simply must win. There is no other option. The consequences of not winning do not bear thinking about.
I'll post a match review on Monday morning when, hopefully, we will be celebrating a place in the European Cup, having finished above that mob from up the road. Please God let that be the case.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Somehow it's still with us, New kit just not Arsenal, Steve Bould promoted?

Terrible on Saturday

Like most Gooners I was convinced we'd blown it after the 3-3 draw on Saturday. It really was an awful performance all round - and I include Robin Van Persie in that as the chances he missed were easier than those he put away. The attitude was once again all wrong. Yossi Benayoun's magnificent opener should have seen the players pressing home their advantage. Instead they took it as their cue to stop playing. Defensively it was as shambolic as any other this season. Had Norwich been capable of taking their chances (and the referee been worthy of his position) we would have been four goals down at half-time, and five shortly after. The Manager has admitted that the players once again had the wrong mind-set going in to the game. How can this be the case time after time? It is his job to make sure that's not the way the players are approaching any game. If he could see they were underestimating the opponents then why did he do nothing about it? Or is it the case that he is no longer capable of motivating the players appropriately?
I've seen the usual criticism of Alex Song after he gave the ball away, leading to the third goal for Norwich. Fair enough, it was absolutely criminal at a time when keeping it simple was all that was required. Lack of "discipline" in this part of his game has long been a problem with Song, but perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to forget the inch-perfect pass that set up Van Persie for Arsenal's second goal.
There are two players that I really want to examine from Saturday. The first is Thomas Vermaelen. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Koscielny and Djourou had been taking it in turns to carry him defensively. It seems some more people are now noticing that there are some serious deficiencies in the Belgian's play. I mentioned that Song has lacked a certain "discipline" and the same applies to Vermaelen. We can all enjoy him bombing forward when needs must (Newcastle at home being a great example of the positive side to Vermaelen's game), but when you're pegged back to one-one and struggling to defend already, there is no excuse for being 90 yards out of position when your opponents take the lead. His involvement in Norwich's third has also been overlooked by most. Having seen Song give it away on halfway, surely Vermaelen should have been stepping back in, and covering the ball over the top. Instead of that he was charging forward, presumably trying to play the laziest offside in history, thus allowing Morison through on goal. It is an area that Vermaelen must improve on as his ability to score goals is currently masking the problems in doing what he is really being paid for.
I also want to talk about Wojciech Szczesny. Two of the goals on Saturday, despite the defending, should have been prevented by him. The first goal was one of those things that, had it been Fabianski or Almunia, would have seen the vitriol raining down from the stands. He was also at fault (as well as those already mentioned!) for the third goal. Having started to come towards the ball, he should have kept going. At the very least he would have forced Morison wide, rather than giving him a free shot across goal in to an area he couldn't cover having got his bearings all wrong. His all round game on Saturday was not good. Goalkeepers will make mistakes, and the best keepers are the ones who make the fewest errors. There is no doubt in my mind that Szczesny is going to be World-Class. However, at the moment he seems to have a problem in games that really matter. The Carling Cup Final is a case in point, where he had the mix-up with Koscielny that cost us the trophy. There was also the error in the game at White Hart Lane that cost us that match earlier this season. It is something that David Seaman seemed to suffer with in the early part of his Arsenal/England career. If Szczesny can go on to become as successful as Seaman then we can all look forward to exciting times, but I despise the fact that Almunia would have been crucified, while the Pole gets no criticism whatsoever.
Somehow, after Spurs messed it up on Sunday, third place remains in our hands. Quite how we are still in this position I do not know. It should have been wrapped up two weeks ago, and it should have been taken away from us this weekend. Now that we have been let off the hook yet again there can be no excuses at West Brom on Sunday. There is one game left, against a team that shouldn't live with us. If the players can not gather the necessary motivation to want a win more than the opposition this week they should all hang their heads in shame. The equation is a simple one - win the game and finish third. Is it really too much to ask?

Man Utd's new shirt?

Nike have done it again with yet another disastrous Arsenal shirt. The Club is trying to spin the blue hoop on the sleeve of the shirt as being a throwback to Herbert Chapman's hooped socks. I'm all for such tradition, but surely a hooped sock is better commemorated with another hooped sock? The amount of blue on the shirt is distracting. For me the shirt looks more like something Manchester United would wear. They might have got away with it slightly had the neck been white. There is simply too much blue in the shirt. I don't understand what is so damn complicated with designing a red shirt with white sleeves. Adidas were more than capable of producing different designs on the proper theme, so why can't Nike?
If you think the home shirt is bad then just wait for the away shirt. This year Nike have given us purple (redcurrant) and black hoops to wear. Ivan Gazidis informed the Supporters Forum members on Saturday that yellow and blue are "no longer our away colours" as they "do not appeal to the Worldwide fanbase" (apologies if I am misquoting the odd word). That's right folks, as long as people in Nigeria and Malaysia are happy, then stuff those of us who know the importance of a yellow shirt to Arsenal Football Club. No other club has a traditional change strip that can be considered as iconic as its home colours. And how many of these "Worldwide" supporters actually get their shirts exported from Arsenal via online shopping? Why would you spend £70+ on getting the shirt from Arsenal.com when you can head down to the local Bangkok market and buy the same thing for £1.50? Even better you can just get your cousin to bring one home from the factory where it's been made! Once again the heritage of the Club is sold out to people who know nothing of where we have come from, and what history really means to those that go to Arsenal and support the players in the flesh.

Still got no hair

It seems that Steve Bould is set to replace Pat Rice in the seat next to Arsene Wenger next season. Steve Bould scored the first Arsenal away goal I ever saw live. It came at Sheffield Wednesday in late 1991. Bouldie scored the equaliser with a header, right in front of the travelling support. For the last twenty minutes of the game the Gooners who had sold out the Leppings Lane End sang Steve's song over and over again. It was a fantastic atmosphere, and made my first away game a special one to remember. He was part of the "back four" of course and is an Arsenal legend. However, I fear that those who are hoping Bouldie can drill this defence in to some sort of shape may be disappointed. When Arsenal TV was having its brief run on Sky a couple of years back we enjoyed extended highlights of all youth-team games. With Bould as their coach the youngsters had as much of the headless chicken about their defending as the first-team has. I may be doing him a disservice, and I'm certainly not going to judge Bouldie before we've seen the first-team coached by him for couple of months, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can organise a defence accordingly.
It is also believed that Steve will be joined at first-team level by Neil Banfield, promoted from the Reserves. I have to say I don't like the in-house nature of that. One of the biggest criticisms of the Wenger staff in recent years is that they are "yes men". To promote one of them to work even more closely with him (Bould was as detached as you can be working with the youths, but Banfield was not) is a bad move for me. Neil Banfield seems a really nice bloke, and may be a very fine coach, but does he have the sufficient gravitas to work at that level? Time will tell, but I really wanted to see some more of the old-guard involved.
Tony Adams has been spending much more time at Arsenal recently than he has at any time since his retirement as a player. I think most people would baulk at the idea of Tony being installed as Manager of Arsenal. However, I also think most of us would be more than happy to see him coaching the first-team. He has had success as a number two to Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth. As we've seen from Arsene's comments this week the players have a problem with the motivation aspect of football. I somehow suspect no such problem would exist with Tony Adams charging around the dressing-room before kick-off. In my view Arsenal Football Club needs Mr Arsenal to be involved, and Martin Keown should be brought back too. There is a dream coaching line-up to be had here, if only Wenger would do it. If the new "team" fail to improve matters at the back next season, then we will be in a whole lot of trouble come this time next year. I wish Bould and co well, and I sincerely hope my fears are proved to be unwarranted.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Pat deserves a proper send off, Norwich (h) preview

Arsenal, man and boy

It is widely expected that Pat Rice will finally retire from his long career at Arsenal when the season finishes next weekend. If that is the case then tomorrow will be Pat's last home game involved with the team. I am a bit surprised that Arsenal have not made a formal announcement ahead of the game in order that Pat can be lauded by those in attendance. Perhaps he has asked for no particular fanfare which would really be a mark of the man. If it is to be his last game then he deserves to be sent off in to his retirement in the proper way.
Pat Rice came through the Arsenal youth-team, having grown up round the corner from Highbury. He was an Arsenal supporter who progressed through the ranks to win the FA Cup as Arsenal Captain in 1979 and took the trophy from Prince Charles (in John Motson's words, he received the Cup from "a young man of around the same age, who grew up in a palace"). By his own admission he was never the most talented of footballers. His story was one of a trier, who did everything he could to make a career at Arsenal. It is probably testament to his determination that Peter Storey was shifted in to midfield in order for Rice to come in to the Arsenal team as a youthful right-back.
Aside from a four year sojourn at Watford right at the end of his career (he was there with Bertie Mee who was assisting Graham Taylor in his early days at Vicarage Road), the life of Pat Rice has been at Arsenal. Before long he was back at Arsenal and Don Howe, and then George Graham, put him in charge of the youth-team. Having been part of the original Arsenal Double team in 1971 Pat was equally successful in his early coaching career. His boys would win FA Youth Cups in 1988 and 1994, and his team would produce players like Kevin Campbell, David Hilllier, Ian Selley, Ray Parlour, Steve Morrow and Andrew Cole. It was quite a production line.
When Arsene Wenger arrived Pat was promoted to work with the first-team. This followed a brief spell as caretaker-manager (he is the only Arsenal Manager never to have suffered a defeat!) The rest, as they say, has been glorious Arsenal history. Pat Rice's association with the Club spans more than forty years, and he was part of every success from the Fairs Cup in 1970 to the FA Cup in 2005. Watch film of Anfield '89 (and even the Littlewoods Cup in 1987)  and you will see Pat sat on the bench being a real cheerleader to the team. I remember the Cup Final and Cup Final Replay in 1993 when our end had maybe gone a little flat after being pegged back in both games. As George rallied the players before the extra-time began, Pat came towards the fans waving his arms in order to get us back up and singing the boys on. He did the same in Paris in 1995 after the 90 minutes were up. He was also the first to be out there consoling the players in defeat - even last year he was there to wrap a fatherly arm around Jack Wilshere after the Carling Cup Final.
Over the past couple of years Pat has come in for unwarranted stick. As things have not gone so well on the field so people have looked for scapegoats. Pat Rice has become one of those scapegoats. Personally I believe that a lot of Man Utd's success under Ferguson is due to the revolving door used by his coaching staff. Arsene Wenger might have freshened up the coaching line-up at Arsenal, but he has always stuck with Pat Rice, as his link to Arsenal's past. And what is his crime exactly - doing his job and being on the Arsenal bench, caring about the result every week?When things are not going so well it's Pat who comes to the touchline to rally the players. The nature of some of the criticism has been nasty, as it has with Arsene Wenger, and that leaves a nasty taste with me. We all criticise, and we all moan, but to abuse such an Arsenal man is completely unacceptable to me.
The dedication Pat Rice has shown to Arsenal in his life is testament to his love of the red and white shirt. He is up there with Tom Whittaker and Ken Friar in terms of a lifetime of service. Arsenal always tend to recognise their own, and I hope that Pat is given something special at the end of a long career. He will probably move in to the hospitality side at Arsenal from next season, but I want Arsenal to honour him with a testimonial match. He had one as a player, obviously, but he should be given the same honour as David O'Leary and Tony Adams, with a second one in recognition of a life spent with Arsenal. Whatever happens, I would like to wish Pat Rice all the best, and his version of the Legends Tour is one I might even pay to go on.

So the final home game of a long season is upon us. The team news is that Abou Diaby is replaced in the 18 by Ju Young Park, and Johann Djourou should be back for Sebastien Squillaci (we can hope anyway). Apart from that there will be little difference from last week.
The situation for Arsenal is simple - win two games and secure a place in the European Cup. The players are certainly capable of doing so, if they get their attitude right. It could actually be finished before the weekend is over. If we can beat Norwich, while Newcastle (as is likely against Man City) and Spurs (who have a tough game at a desperate for points Aston Villa) fail to win, we will have achieved the immediate objective. If someone had told you before we played Spurs that Arsenal would have a clear shot at third place, with two games to go, you would have bitten their arms off for it. What is frustrating is that we should have it wrapped up already. You can point at many games throughout the season, but the ones against QPR and Wigan when it was in our hands to get things over with early, stick out for me. The attitude of the players was bad in both of those matches, and a win in just one of them would have had us needing only to beat Norwich to secure our position. As it is things are far more tense than they ever needed to be.
Norwich looked like a side headed for the beach against Liverpool next week. They have been quite outstanding in their first season back in the Premier League. I just hope that Paul Lambert hasn't managed to get them our of the departure lounge in the week since Suarez destroyed them at home. Given Arsenal's record against the "lesser" teams this season, there is more than a little cause for concern for Gooners. It's time to step up to the plate, and score some goals.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Arsene's new policy

Recognise some of them?

When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal we were very much an English dominated club. Apart from Dennis Bergkamp there weren't too many foreign players knocking about. Obviously a number of those English players were among the very best of their time, which is why Arsenal were able to compete for honours to a reasonable level year on year. At the time of Arsene's arrival England had just got to the semi-final of Euro '96 and seemed to be going places. France, on the other hand, had been dumped out and seemed to be going nowhere. What we didn't know was that France was about to uncover a golden generation of players, led by Deschamps, Zidane and Desailly, that would go on to be a fairly dominant force over the next 10 years, up to the Final of the 2006 World Cup. While we in England were ignorant to it, Arsene Wenger obviously was not.
Wenger's first move, even before he arrived, was to bring in Patrick Vieira. He would go on to be joined at Arsenal by Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord. Each of these players would play a key role, at some point, in that French international success. They all would be crucial to Arsenal's successes in the ensuing years as well.
You can argue that Arsene was very fortunate to be able to take advantage of France's resources when they were at their peak in terms of talent. To do so would overlook the fact that he recognised in these young men (only Petit could have genuinely been considered as an experienced player, possibly Pires or Wiltord at a push) that they were going to be World Class footballers. Off the back of that Arsenal enjoyed a similarly successful period up to 2006. Since that year, when both lost in Final matches they should have won, both Arsenal and France have fallen back in to the shadows. Both are still feared to a certain extent, and often threaten to produce something, but usually fall a little short of the very top, hence no trophies.
So what has Arsene done since the French talent pool dried up? Unfortunately for us he has put his faith in youth and promising players. It is a plan that has not worked out for Arsenal. The likes of Fabregas, Nasri, Hleb etc have regularly burned reasonably brightly, only to walk out for pastures new when it suited them. The year 2011 was a terrible twelve months for Arsenal and for Wenger. Results on the pitch were bad for most of the year, and off the pitch the transfer dealings were simply managed in an unacceptable manner. However, within all of that, and with the recent signing of Podolski I have seen, I believe, a new strategy. This new course being sailed is once again going to be supported by a generation of players from one particular country.
At the last World Cup I think everyone was surprised by the way an unfancied Germany performed. They really weren't expected to come anywhere close to the standards expected of a German side on the biggest stage. Critics were summarily confounded as they played arguably the finest attacking football of the tournament. Along with Argentina they were the only "entertainers" in the last World Cup. Most of this was done with a number of relatively young players. Two of those players are now at Arsenal - Mertesacker and Podolski. We are clearly interested in signing Mario Gotze from Dortmund (sadly the rest of Europe is also watching him). There is another young German in the Reserves now, in the shape of Thomas Eisfeld. He may turn out to be the "Aliadiere" in Arsenal's growing German cast, but I think I can now see what Wenger is up to. Germany are the up and coming international force. We have two of their national team players already. This could act as the same kind of snowball effect that got us Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord. If Gotze, and maybe one or two others, take Arsenal's bait then we could re-live the glory days, albeit with a German-filled side, rather than French. It's enough to make you excited about the future - as long as the necessary business is done to bring in the quality, and ship out the rubbish.