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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Mid-Season Review

It all started so well

So after all the feel-good energy injected in to the Club after winning the FA Cup in May it's all gone horribly wrong this season. Hammering Manchester City at Wembley in the Charity Shield proved to be the falsest of dawns for an Arsenal side that has only performed to that level on a handful (or somewhat less than a handful) of occasions since. Warm, silverware laden days at Wembley seem a long time ago as we approach the depths of an English Winter.
Back in July I was as excited about the season ahead as I can remember being in a long time. We had signed Alexis Sanchez for big money, and replaced Bacary Sagna with Mathieu Debuchy. We all knew Vermaelen was leaving, but Arsene had gone and got a young pretender in Calum Chambers who would be backed up by the signing of an experienced, quality centre-back to replace the skipper. We were also going to bring in a monster of a midfield player to shore up the area in front of the defence. Add a goalscorer and a decent goalkeeper and we were set. Oh. And that's where it started to go wrong. Well, actually, I suppose it started before that. It started even before Alexis had been captured. Cesc Fabregas had been allowed to join Chelsea despite Arsenal having the option to buy him on the cheap. In passing up the opportunity Wenger pointed to the fact he has Ozil and the likes of Rosicky, Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Diaby. He overlooked the golden rule, of course, that Cesc is an improvement on all of them (Ozil is probably on the same level as Fabregas if only he was actually interested in playing football). The fact that he was then free to sign for Chelsea simply made it worse - by not strengthening Arsenal's squad Wenger had gone and made Chelsea better instead. It was, by any standards, a crazy piece of business.
The rest of the transfer window turned in to an utterly unfunny joke at the expense of the Arsenal fans. Instead of the monster midfielder, promised (by Wenger) centre-half, goal-scorer and decent goalkeeper we got Danny Welbeck (who Wenger admitted he wouldn't have signed had he actually been in the country on deadline day!) and David Ospina to challenge Szczesny - the problem with Ospina is that he signed with a serious injury and hasn't really recovered from it. You would think after the Kallstrom nonsense that Wenger might have learned his lesson, but no. After all, Arsene knows.

The undoubted star of the show

When the football got under way I couldn't wait to see Alexis play. I've not been disappointed by the little man from Chile. There are signs that he might be feeling the pace now, having played more than he has ever done in his career. He is a player who never stops running, and eventually that has to catch up with you. The Christmas schedule must surely see him getting some rest at some point, but he is so important to this side that you can't see how we can afford to lose him. If the other players could display the same attitude to hard work that Alexis has on the pitch then we wouldn't be struggling quite so badly. I make the distinction there about his hard work on the pitch as he certainly doesn't take the warm-up even remotely seriously.
Alexis has been deployed in every attacking position so far this season and he has not been found wanting in any of them. He has also shown that he can score all kinds of goals from long-range stunners to tap-ins, as well as a magnificent header against Burnley. He takes people on, not always successfully, and that is sometimes his weakness. Alexis gives up possession a fair bit, but I would say that he then wins it straight back through his sheer desire more often than not. He has been phenomenal and Wenger leaving him out of the Spurs game is something that puzzles me to this day. It was a crazy decision.

We miss this bloke badly

As I wrote above, we simply haven't played well this season. Aside from Galatassaray (only the first-half in the away game though), Newcastle, 85 minutes against Man City,  and an hour at home to Anderlecht this Arsenal team hasn't performed. We got lucky against Crystal Palace on the opening day, though you had the thought that a last minute winner might set us up for a real good go. That thought was shattered before half-time at Everton the following week. The late comeback showed, perhaps, a little fighting spirit but the holes in the team at the back were all too obvious. By the time we were relying on Sanogo to try and get the goals at Leicester you knew we were in all sorts of trouble really. Signing Danny Welbeck gave us a genuine work horse to play in place of the stricken Giroud, but for all his redoubtable footballing qualities, Welbeck is a man actually afraid of the ball when it gets in the penalty area.
Mesut Ozil was having a disastrous season even before his serious knee injury. He wasn't helped by being played out of position so often - he certainly isn't a winger. He put together a couple of decent displays at Villa and at home to Spurs, only to then be shunted out wide again the following week at Chelsea! You wonder what goes through Wenger's mind at times. I can only hope that having a long time out injured can focus Ozil's mind and make him realise that he is supposed to earn his money. Sadly I think he is scared of being hit hard by a tackle and this makes him a complete waste of space in the Premier League. 
This Arsenal team has lacked pace. Take out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and/or Welbeck and there is simply no speed there. Theo Walcott is still not back after virtually a year out with his knee injury. If he comes back and has lost even a yard of his pace then his career is over. And should we really be feeling dependent on a player who is actually pretty limited and has spent almost as much time on the sidelines in his career as Diaby has? What Theo does bring is a threat that opposition defenders are genuinely afraid of. He adds a dimension to our play that we simply don't have when he's absent. We still haven't seen him get a run of games alongside Ozil, and that's the only defence I have for the German - give him a player making those runs in behind and maybe he'll come alive.
We all expected Aaron Ramsey to take up where he left off last season. It hasn't happened. There has been a regression in to the player of two years ago, all fancy flicks and showboating rather than unquestioning hard work which then pays dividends. It was typical of the way things have gone that, just as he finds something approaching some form, he gets a hamstring injury and misses a load of games at the busiest point in the season. However, he has let us down since the start of the season. When the team is playing badly it needs the star players to step up. That hasn't happened with Ramsey. To be fair, it also hasn't happened with Cazorla until the last couple of weeks, but I thought he was totally outstanding at Anfield on Sunday amid a sea of utter dross in Arsenal yellow.
The Anderlecht home game highlighted something I think most of us hadn't quite realised to any great degree. Mikel Arteta has been brilliant when he has played this season, and his on-field leadership is crucial. Arteta seems a quiet and understated kind of guy, but he is not afraid to leave his foot in. He knows when it is "necessary" to make a foul. I could do with him being in the face of the referee a bit more, but that isn't his character. When he went off injured against the Belgians we simply fell apart. There was no leadership, no organisation, no control in midfield. I believe he slows us down unnecessarily at times, and too often goes sideways with his passing. But there are times when that is just what is required. Arteta is, by and large, a calm head when everyone else is in full Arsenal panic mode. It was Arteta who worked out the need to stop Hull getting the high ball to El-Mohammady in the Cup Final and he went and dealt with it, all the while directing his players from behind the skippers armband. As with Gilberto, though not quite on the same level as the Brazilian master, you maybe notice Arteta more when he isn't there. Flamini tries hard, but I'd rather see him concentrate on his own deficiencies than pointing everyone else in to position all the time. Without Arteta there is no screen for that weak defence. His recurring calf problem is a cause for serious concern, but Wenger can alleviate that by doing business in January. Anyone that would object to the idea of bringing back Alex Song at this stage must be crazy.
The defence is woeful as a unit whenever Koscielny is missing. With a chronic Achilles problem that issue is not going to be remedied in the short-term. It could actually be that Koscielny is pretty much finished, such is the effect this injury can have. Debuchy has been superb when he's played, and is very much a fine replacement for Sagna. Kieran Gibbs is the best left-back in the country, but still seemingly unable to string more than about four or five games together without another injury. Monreal has done okay, or even better than that, given that he has played out of position for most of the season. But the problems are with the others. Szczesny is just too error prone and has not improved. We don't have a proper option to replace him because we signed a crock in the transfer window. Calum Chambers looks more and more out of his depth by the week. I know the lad is very young, but Wenger spent serious money on a player who seems to have an inability to learn from the most basic errors, which he continues to make week after week, and he will never get pace - he is slow and that's no good to us at the moment. And then there is Per Mertesacker. When I wrote this piece last year I was effusive about the BFG and all he brings to the team. He wisely retired from the German team after the World Cup, but he also seems to have retired from the Premier League. Yes, he looks so much better when Koscielny is alongside him, but how is that any good to Arsenal? Mertesacker is 6'7" and is constantly beaten in the air because he never gets off the ground. When he does head the ball it is always flicked or cushioned, never headed with authority, and this often puts us in trouble around our own penalty area. You don't win over 100 caps for Germany if you can't play, but right now he is in the team simply because Wenger didn't do proper business in the Summer. He shouldn't be playing.
And amid all this defensive frailty we have a lad on loan at West Ham who is showing himself to be the best right-back England has, and one of the best in the Premier League - loaning out Carl Jenkinson is seriously haunting Arsene Wenger.

You've sorted the zip, now how about some tactics?

So what about the Manager? I would say that most of my output here in the last couple of years has involved having a dig at one thing or another that he has done, or not done. I have long called for him to be replaced. The clamour grows ever stronger with every new capitulation or disaster. Sunday at Liverpool was a microcosm of what Wenger's Arsenal has become. It was obvious to all that we were being over run through the midfield. Arsene sat on the bench and did nothing to address it. Simply dropping Oxlade-Chamberlain alongside the struggling Flamini might have alleviated the issue. Get a foot-hold, get on the ball and build from there. But as usual the players are expected to figure it out for themselves. Now I'm not saying they shouldn't be able to do just that - most of them are experienced internationals, after all. We got lucky to go in at half-time all square, and then played marginally better against a poor opponent, finally putting a move together and getting a fine goal. But you just knew it was going to go wrong because we don't know how to defend. Wenger makes stupid substitutions, and this invites more pressure. We drop deeper and deeper, failing to find that balance between not being gung-ho, but not allowing the opponent freedom to attack at the same time. Meanwhile, Arsene stays rooted to the bench. The players can figure it out, can't they? And what happens? We let in a last minute equaliser through our failure to mark people at set-pieces, and an unwillingness to attack the ball in the air. Everything about it is woeful.
If it was a one-off you could maybe let things go. But this isn't a one-off. It happens week after week, game after game. We play the same way. It's easy for half-decent opponents to defend against, and even easier for any team with good attackers to destroy us at the back. Throughout it all Wenger gets more and more infuriating. He talks nonsense about the players and comes out with the most ridiculous tosh imaginable (Sunday's offering was to blame a hangover from the game at Anfield last season, overlooking the fact that only a third of the team this week actually played in that game!) 
Watching Arsenal under Arsene Wenger is no longer a pleasure. We don't play good football. We don't score enough goals. We concede goals all too easily. There are too many mediocre footballers. And yet he won't change anything, whether it be personnel, formation, style or tactics. How can he continue to insult the likes of Podolski and Rosicky by not giving them a chance in a side that can hardly win a game of football when it matters? 

A few signings, a lot of points and the FA Cup please

It has been nothing short of a disastrous first half of the season. Injuries haven't helped, of course, but much of that could have been alleviated with proper transfer business. The appointment of Shad Forsyth certainly hasn't improved the injury situation - if anything it is worse than ever. A favourable draw in the Champions League has given Arsenal hope of a quarter-final place for the first time in a few years, but what is likely to happen if we get there? In the Premier League we have only really fourth place to challenge for. Again. That is just not good enough for fans paying the highest admission prices in football. So all we can really hope to celebrate is an FA Cup win again. We will need Father Christmas to work his magic if that is to happen with this Arsenal team.

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