Happy Endings & New Beginnings

So, in the end we limped to 3rd in season 2011-12, by the skin of our teeth. Having been 17th after 3 games and, more worryingly, 15th after the away game at White Hart Lane: truly a great escape. 3rd is massively important for the club: it is important financially, because automatic qualification for the Champions League group stage has meant none of the last minute shenanigans of last August. But for me it’s far more important that we keep our place in Europe’s elite. It means we can attract top quality players (Podolski, Cazorla) and also hopefully it will mean we can keep the top quality players we already have. In future I hope young players like Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sczezny and Coquelin will be under contract and stay. To the fans being part of Europe’s club elite is very important for bragging rights. Spurs will be playing on Thursdays next year. Finishing top dog in London (again) is back where we belong as far as I am concerned too. I don’t agree with Arsène Wenger that 3rd is the equivalent of a trophy – there’s no day out, not much carnival atmosphere in a match in the midlands – but by ‘eck it feels good.

The pundits went mad over City scoring their title winning goals right at the end. It WAS the most dramatic end to a Premier League season, but I have no idea why they attach this “since the Premier League started” tag to stats now. Yes they tried to get the numbers down to 18 teams, but essentially what happened in 1992-93 was, in football terms (as opposed to financial), a re-branding. Still home and away against every other team, still 3 points for a win, still 11 vs 11. It is lazy journalism (and by George, there’s a lot of that about!) and the best end of season in top flight English football was Anfield 1989. That is the only game that EVERY football fan watched live; it was a Friday night on terrestrial TV, due to the game being delayed because of Hillsborough; it is the only game where two teams contested the last game, both with a shot of winning the English championship; and finally the outcome was not known until so late in the game. An amazing night, never to be repeated, and football’s “Kennedy” moment i.e. fans of all teams, when they find out you support Arsenal, still ask “where were you when Michael Thomas scored?”.

Match of the Day reported that last season saw the most goals scored in the English PL [argh!] I think it was 1066. Not surprising really. How many goals did you see last year where the forward rose unchallenged, and headed home easily? How many times were defences at sixes and sevens, caught on the break? I tweeted a few weeks ago that defending has become a lost art, and I think this supports that feeling. Arsenal are massively culpable: that was my 17th season as a season ticket holder, and I have never seen such our team in such disarray at the back. Defending has been an Arsenal trademark for as long as I’ve been going regularly. I have sat in the Grove squirming at the organisation at the back it has been truly appalling at times. I know stability helps and we have had real difficulty with that but defending corners and free kicks is pretty basic stuff no matter who is on the pitch. The completely open discussion about us moving to a zonal system (December? On MOTD for pity sake) was a debacle as well. There was one game when the opposition had a corner at the North Bank end. Around us people were up on their feet shouting “watch the short one”. There was NO ARSENAL PLAYER IN OUR SIDE OF THE PITCH! The opposition (can’t remember) took a short corner and scored. There have been times at the Grove when the opposition has looked like scoring every time they had the ball! The appointment of Steve Bould as Wenger’s assistant gives us hope that this aspect will be addressed, but don’t expect miracles – this is not going to change overnight. The most surprising aspect of this was that individually Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny are excellent players. All last season we we couldn’t wait for the Verminator to return and them to be partnered. They didn’t seem to gel very well at all with Vermaelen looking nervous and making simple mistakes we haven’t seen before. Now it looks like next season we will be looking for the best PARTNERSHIP at centre back, and with Vermaelen the captain, that means if they can’t play together only one can be left out… Per Mertesacker was a genuinely exciting signing, pedigree at the very top level in the World Cup and Euros, but he didn’t really start to look comfortable until just before his freak injury. Quite often foreign players do take a while to settle. He can read the game very well some of his interceptions are simply superb and I love that aspect of the game (as a former central defender) BUT I have seen milk turn quicker and he has a very thin frame I am still to be convinced that he is going to be a top class Premiership defender.

Going back to 30th August, there’s no doubt we were in the shit. The signings lifted the players, the fans, the whole club – a shot in the arm. The highlight for me at the time was Mikel Arteta as I was a fan of his at performances for Everton, and how that proved to be the case. What an excellent signing he was and look how we missed him, when he got injured. His work was a lot deeper than I thought – I’m still not sure if he was doing a job for the team last year or not – but for long periods he was the string and sellotape that held the team together. We saw flashes of creativity but mostly he used his experience last year to occupy good positions, in and out of possession, and to keep the ball moving. It was always going to be a difficult first year for him, not helped by Wilshere not coming back and I hope he gets his reward for joining us at a bad time with a trophy – he’s a fantastic player. Benayoun worked as a signing as well – he made some telling contributions and brought experience and enthusiasm into the team. It is amazing how a senior pro like him can bring enthusiasm to a young team but I think that is a key part of his game I hope some of that rubs off on the younger players.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way: absolutely appalling defending – see above. I think there is a recognition that this needs addressing by the appointment of Bouldy as Assistant Manager but he is going to have his work cut out as a defensive unit our confidence is in tatters.  I honestly don’t even begin to pretend I know the internal workings of any football club, but I have a feeling being assistant manager is not going to give Bould a real shot at improving the defence. If he had been brought in specifically as a defensive coach it would be different but surely he has a much wider remit than that? His role is not even restricted to first team players he will be looking at all the playing staff surely? And even assisting Wenger with prospective players too, surely. In terms of improving the defence I think the Bould appointment may be a false dawn. Sorry to be so negative but as a club our defending has fallen so far below the previous standards set, I think there is a good couple of seasons’ work there for a dedicated defensive coach.

Continuing with the minuses from last season: the situation with Jack Wilshere.  His injury situation is beginning to rival the debacle with Tomas Rosicky. The original diagnosis, I think during a pre-season game last year, was a couple of months out – that’s a return in October 2011. Now, admittedly after he broke down with a different injury, the latest news is he’s maybe going to be ready in October 2012. Original estimate 2 months, current best 14 months. I understand that medical science is not exact but surely his injuries aren’t THAT unique? Not so long ago our medics were without question the best in the business with Gary Lewin central to the England set up. All the messages that come out of the club are that we have the very best medical facilities, that Wenger was instrumental in designing the brand new medical centre with state of the art equipment, that Arseblog went on a tour and it’s great. Well no matter if they’ve spent the money on better gadgets than James Bond, it’s not great value because our players seem to get more injuries and they are injured for longer.

In goal, Szczesny probably knows now that  it is one thing being a prospect, coming in and surpassing everyone’s expectations.  It is quite another, once the excitement has died down, to get down to it, work on your game week in week out,  and deal with the constant level of expectation of being at a big club and the pressure that brings. He got a bit carried away with stardom (Twitter is not real) and I think it affected his game. Granted, confidence and presence are massively important for a keeper than any other position, but they will only carry you so far. After those, you need to graft and grind to keep improving as a keeper. Someone might prove me wrong but I’d like to see him make some key saves at important moments next season, to get us some points. It’s a perception but I don’t think he’s doing that. Look at Joe Hart at City he’s come through as a top, top keeper now. He keeps his head down as far as I can see, and he’s got his first title medal. Well deserved too he is a great keeper and so glad he is English you can’t win anything at International level with a dodgy keeper the forwards are too good.

The other point to mention about Jack Wilshere is that for me, this boy is still a prospect, really. Although Gooners knew he was good, I don’t think anyone thought his arrival would be anywhere near as explosive and meteoric as it was. The way he walked into the England team, so soon after breaking into the Arsenal 1st team, and instantly commanding a starting position, was unprecedented. His subsequent injury being thought major enough to be on the evening news was quite extraordinary. But this hype needs balancing. Jack has played one full season for Arsenal, half of it when he wasn’t a “name” at all. Look at how many players burst on the scene with a promising first season, and then really struggle in their 2nd season? By the time he comes back, he’ll have been out for longer than he was in the team. Don’t get me wrong I am proud that we have a genuine Arsenal youth system product and I am convinced he will make the very top level, but it worries me that people talk about him as if he’s the messiah. He has played just one full season, he is still young, he doesn’t know how his body works yet. He hasn’t been through a season, recovered, and done it all again. He hasn’t ever had a big injury before. He hasn’t suffered disappointments, and bounced back next game with a big match winning performance. In short he’s not a Vieira or a Keane or a Parlour. You just don’t become a seasoned professional overnight. I fear the pressure on him (depending how we’re doing) might be enormous when he eventually comes back.

As the Wilshere soap opera has gone on and on, it has started to bear a striking resemblance to the situation that occurred with Tomas Rosicky. Both players originally sidelined for quite a short period of time, only to suffer complications which meant they turned into long layoffs of over a season. Rumours circulated widely and publicly which suggested an internal ban which had little substance and were snorted at by the print media. Now it’s been noted that there are similarities with Jack’s situation and similar rumours have been doing the rounds. Jack being an England international this would be a much bigger story so one can only assume that there is no evidence to back this up at all.

A brief aside: this is chiefly the reason I haven’t been able to get motivated for this piece: there really were so many negatives last year that I ended the season feeling the lowest I ever have in 17 years as a season ticket holder. But truly the greatest thing about being a football fan is the start of the new season! One of the collective joys is that you know every fan up and down the country is thinking the same thing: (i) we are going to be better than last year and (ii) we will definitely do our closest rivals this year. Probably not Glasgow Rangers fans this season though… I am totally entranced every year: I don’t really follow all the transfer movements I am less and less interested in those these days.  But when the first match gets near I get the buzz again.

So the three big positives from last year. Firstly, the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and what a talent this boy is. Because he arrived as a “winger” and he joined from Southampton, it is inevitable he is compared to Theo Walcott – an established England international. Well as far as I’m concerned they are chalk and cheese. It’s been well documented that Theo came to the game late, and you can see it in his game. Well the opposite is true of The Ox he is a naturally gifted footballer: he looks like he dropped out of the womb in the centre circle with a pair of Predators on. His body position when he gets the ball; the way he shields it; the way he knows where he is on the pitch all the time. He’s got vision, touch, he can finish, he’s got pace, two good feet and he works to get back. He is the most exciting English player since Rooney came through and yes he is a more exciting prospect than Wilshere. He’s been played on the wing but for me he’s a 2nd striker, playing behind a finisher like van Persie. To play him on the wing is a waste he might hardly see the ball for 10 mins you want a player like him in the game as much as possible.

The other massive plus of last season was the partnership between Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott.  I haven’t looked at the stats towards the end of the season but Theo was getting it to Robin to knock them in on a regular basis they were THE deadliest partnership in the Prem. Some seasons things like that just click but I think a couple of factors were that Theo was getting the ball in much earlier, and van Persie’s movement is excellent in the box. Secondly, at the start of the season The Ox’s arrival definitely had an impact on Theo: he felt a bit of pressure and he fought – good things. The final factor was of course game time for van Persie. Until last season he’d been averaging about 20 league games a year so to get a full season was always gong to make a difference – his minutes per goal was always good.

The 3rd huge positive is that one of the other competitors had the faintest clue how to put 2 or 3 wins together that could have put us into 4th and would have seen us subsequently knocked out of the Champions League. In the end that couldn’t have happened to a nicer club and all the best to them next season in all the games they play on Wednesdays and Saturdays… I was staggered at the lack of drive at the end of the season, not just from us but from Spurs, Newcastle and Chelsea.  We won 1 game in 6 which is relegation form. That is an even luckier escape than “pizzagate” in 2006 and might be looked back on as an important moment. I can’t see we would have signed Podolski, Giroud & Cazorla if we weren’t in the Champions League.

Which does bring me rather accidentally but rather nicely onto the new season.  

The Breaking News as I was writing was that “Captain” Vantastic Robin van Persie was on his way to a medical at Manchester United, the two clubs having agreed a fee of £24m. I have always thought the statement he released was goodbye, and go forth and multiply Mr Gazidis. Who knows maybe he fell out with Wenger too but if he wanted some bigger, more established signings then either he didn’t believe the promises, or he didn’t think the names already brought in we’re good/big enough. I think the truth is, he decided in summer 2011 that he wasn’t staying. Once players get to two years now, the clock starts ticking due to Bosman and they must be re-signed or sold. A top player will not ever sign with a year to go he holds all the cards at that point: in 6 months he can begin to negotiate with ANY club with no transfer fee and, like Arsenal did with Sol Campbell, the club he moves to can put a sizeable chunk of the fee they would have paid a selling club into wages for the player. So van Persie had to be sold as an asset worth £24m on 31st August. On 1st September he was worth the future value of the contribution (let’s say goals/assists) he might make in 2012/13 – a very unpredictable value (and also not uniquely supplied by him only) – minus the wage commitment at £80k a week for a year plus bonuses – something like £4.5m. A very difficult value to judge, and also very risky given his injury record over the last 8 years. A no brainer decision to sell – an on paper gain of £28-30m for a 29 year old player with one of the worst injury records in the league. As with all these things it may well come back to bite us but I have to say the right decision: no player can ever be bigger than the club. Thanks for a great final season Robin and hope your usual luck with injuries is consistent for the next 4 years.

I really don’t know much about the new players. I don’t have time to watch the European league matches and YouTube is not a reliable reference. I have seen a bit of Podolski playing for Germany and he looks tidy but I haven’t seen anything really spectacular but a hundred caps for Germany speak for themselves. He doesn’t look an out and out winger he likes to come inside I don’t think he fits the system we’ve been playing lately. Giroud and Cazorla have all the hallmarks of classic Wenger signings: up and coming players who have shone in the less fashionable European leagues/clubs.  I am always excited by these signings as they carry some risk but it’s good to watch a new player adapt to the English game and hopefully make a name for themselves.

The situation with Barcelona wanting Alex Song has come as a surprise. It was difficult to tell what his role was last year. He certainly wasn’t playing as an out and out defensive midfielder and he created some great goals. The flip side was that his forays forward also left us completely exposed at times and cost us goals and points. Apparently he has been agitating for a move, and according to reports today he has already cleared his locker and said goodbye to his team mates. I thought this was going to be a make or break season for him but it looks like it will be in a Barcelona shirt and we will be £17m richer. Not bad money as long as we replace him.

Finally, predictions.  Citeh for the title now they’ve broken their duck. Mancini held his nerve well last year.  I’d like to see us put a serious challenge together for the title into April but I think with the changes in personnel that’s unlikely.  The realistic target is Champions League qualification but it could be very tough if we don’t get a good start, with so many new players. Last 8 in the Champions League is probably all we can expect but if we get a good draw we could go further. Of course, a good cup run would be absolutely fantastic and I’d love to go to the new Wembley for a Cup Final but the priority has to be top 4, as always.

Wear Your Red & White Scarf With Pride. Say No to Purple.

Post Script
I’ll just tick off  some other negatives, just for the record really I wrote pieces at least mentioning these and a couple of them are why I started R&WS:
– Some Arsenal fans behaviour in the Grove towards each other
– Some Arsenal fans booing Wenger decisions. Although I defend paying fans’  right to do this I hated that it happened
– Some Arsenal fans slagging off Walcott & Ramsey
– some fans almost complete lack of knowledge / understanding of the game
– playing 4 centre backs when we ran out of full backs
– Milan away which I went to & had a great time except for 90 mins at San Siro
– Man Utd away which was frankly the worst day of my Arsenal supporting career. Spending that afternoon with a sniggering Yorkshireman who could barely believe his good fortune. Not that he’s mentioned it every time we’ve met up since either…. All’s fair 😉
– the whole blackscarf / #wobarmy / black bin bag fest.  Just the sheer negativity of it all.  
– Chels winning Champions League but in the process they knocked Spurs out of the qualifying position.

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What’s It All About, Aaron?

The haters have certainly been out in force since a few minutes into the Wigan game. I’ve covered the Theo Walcott situation in the previous post here. The other subject of derision is another, even younger player, who is the Welsh International captain. Yes at 21 years of age this lad has been given the responsibility to wear the armband for his country. International captaincy is not as crucial a role as club level, day to day captaincy, but nevertheless being made captain of your country is a tremendous honour for anyone. The players that get to represent their country are extremely rare – to join the elite band who have led the team out is very special indeed. To have achieved this, even for a small country like Wales, by the age of 22 is evidence of quite a unique individual.

I was genuinely excited when I heard Arsenal were interested in Aaron Ramsey. Cardiff had impressed lots of people with their run as a Championship side to the FA Cup Final in 2008, where they lost to Harry Redknapp’s soon to be bankrupt Portsmouth. It was reported that Ramsey had impressed a couple of the top managers, and I must admit I mentally switched off when I heard there was a race between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson for his signature. It was a very pleasant surprise when Ramsey chose Arsenal over Manchester United and joined in June 2008.

The central midfield was never going to be easy to get into for a 17 year old Premiership new boy, as the squad included Fabregas, Song, Nasri, Diaby, Rosicky and Denilson. Chances were always going to be limited but Aaron had done reasonably well in Carling and FA Cup matches in the first season and a half after he joined. Then he got a run of starts and a couple of goals around New Year 2009-10, and it really began to look like he was settling in. I thought he started to link well with Fabregas when they played together – like there was a special understanding just starting to develop.

Then in February 2010 he unfortunately went for a 50/50 with Ryan Shawcross and ended up in hospital with a double leg break (tibia and fibia). A lot’s been said on this. I don’t think that Shawcross actually meant to break Ramsey’s leg, but it was on the cards. I played to a crap standard, when I was a mere slip of a lad, and I had managers tell me to “get in hard” in the first 10 mins, to “let him know you’re there”. We all know it goes on, we all know nobody means to hurt anybody else. But if you’re a bit vertically challenged, and you think wearing a cap hides your lack of intelligence, and you fill your team with big lads who are crap at passing the ball, who are strong and physically fit. If you wind them up and tell them the only way they can live with these skilful little players is to get in hard “cos he’s gonna destroy you”. Then somewhere along the way there are going to be accidents – and really if you’re anything like a decent human being, you should take some responsibility for it, instead of shying away from it by defending the act.

Remembering back to the “Eduardo” match at St Andrews in 2008, we had completely caved in after his horrific injury. It really looked like the team didn’t have the stomach for the fight that day. Clichy made an awful mistake for their penalty, and then Gallas had a tantrum worthy of one of my girls (8 & 5 at the time) sitting down on the pitch at the end. I’m getting sidetracked but I didn’t ever want to see him in an Arsenal shirt again: as captain I thought he let his team mates, the fans and the club down that day. At Stoke, the reaction of our players on the pitch to Ramsey’s injury looked, if anything, worse. Fabregas and Vermaelen were distraught. However, the team showed immense character that day, picked themselves up and got the victory. At the time, I really thought that might have been a turning point for this team and this era. The Stoke game was the 2nd in a 6 game winning run, and took 21 points from 24. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. We got humped by Barca [well Messi really] and then later gave away a 2-goal lead with 10 mins to go, to lose 3-2 at Wigan, inexplicably. The season petered out when we could have pushed harder to the end.

Back to the plot. Ramsey came back towards the end of last season (2010-11, if you’re watching on “Dave” 😉 other TV channels are available), scored the winner with a sweet strike from outside the box against United, and tentatively started getting his career back on track. With the summer departures of Fabregas and Judas Na$ri, and with Wilshere’s injury, season 2011-12 looked tailor made for Aaron Ramsey to step out of the shadows and fulfill his potential. So where did it all go wrong?

Firstly, Ramsey played the early part of the season as the emergency (I’m convinced Na$ri was meant to) replacement for Fabregas, in the attacking midfield role. There are a couple of parts of his game that mean he is not best suited to this role: his is not explosively quick off the mark, over the first couple of yards; his vision for the short threaded pass is good, but it’s not exceptional like Fabregas’ or even good like Rosicky’s. He can’t really beat a player with skill, or a little change of pace, to just grab that extra half yard. He was good at joining the front man to chase down in the pressing game, and he gets up and down like no other player. I’d love to see the stats on ground coverage, because he seems to me to be all over the place. He didn’t score or create much from that position: I think he didn’t really understand that position properly – it’s a different way to play to arrive early and be in a good position than to arrive late. I think that’s his expert area to join the attack and run onto it late – not really to create the move itself, by making a forward run and turning back towards the play, and continuing the move.

Then secondly, I think he has had a bad run and has not been dropped. This has happened to a few players at Arsenal recently (Arshavin, Walcott, Mertesacker to an extent) and I think it frustrates the fans, but it is obviously not the player’s fault. Who is going to get picked and turn down the place in the team? No-one. Well maybe Wayne Bridge, but he doesn’t really count.

Then there is the perception that, because Ramsey was playing in the same position as Fabregas, that he was Fabregas’ replacement. You’re talking a world class player, with fantastic touch, vision, heart, drive, ambition. At 24 he’s already won the World Cup and the European Championships. Barring injury, by the time Fabregas has finished, there aren’t going to be many players in the history of the game who are more decorated. Then you’re comparing a 21 year with an exceptional talent, and being bitter that he doesn’t come up to the mark. In my view a bit unfair.

There was an argument that he’d been overplayed earlier in the season, which I agree with. He was rested for a few games and since then has had far more regular rest so it’s possible he’s either got a niggly injury or it’s been recognised by the medical staff that he was in the “red zone”. When you take into consideration the mileage that he does (albeit perceived at this stage) maybe there’s not much left in the tank this season…? I’m sure after a break this close season he will be raring to go next year.

Of course, the above problems of being out of position, losing his touch a bit, playing when out of form and also a bit fatigued, mean that he’s had a few bad performances. This has led to the position at the moment where he has almost totally lost confidence. He’s committing cardinal sins at the moment of being tentative on the ball – he knows he’s under a bit of pressure, and I think he’s now not playing his natural game: silly flicks, killer balls all the time, etc. When Arteta went off against Wigan, he finally got his chance in a more withdrawn role, but he kept giving the ball away, he looked clumsy. It really didn’t go that well – a below par performance.

But why this leads to the abuse he gets, I don’t know. He’s not the finished article: he’s a young lad, learning his trade. Learning how to to adapt and play his game, under pressure, at an elite level in a very competitive sport. I can’t see the reasoning behind slagging him off. Imagine how proud his family must have been when they knew he was joining that great English club Arsenal? Following other Welsh greats like Bob John, Jack Kelsey and John Hartson [sic] (and I thought Cliff Bastin was Welsh when I started that sentence…). I sincerely hope they are not able to hear what’s being shouted at him from Block 1 because it’s nothing short of a disgrace. I’ve also read on Twitter that it’s not an isolated incident either, that words have been said in the North Bank as well.

I really want Aaron Ramsey to stay at Arsenal and to have a long and successful career with us. He has got a lot of good footballing qualities: leadership, good engine, touch, vision. He’s rebuilding his game after a horrific injury that a few years ago might have ended his career. He’s been playing out of position. He is still relatively immature for a top level midfielder at only 21. He is not the finished article. I have faith that he will be a great player for us. For want of a better phrase, give the guy a break…

Wear Your Red & White Scarf With Pride. For Our Welsh Dragon.

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We Need To Talk About Theo

Again, I’m choosing to write a piece about a player who generates fierce debate in Block 1, right behind Arsėne Wenger’s seat on the Arsenal bench. It seems to me that Theo Walcott is the Arsenal equivalent of Marmite, polarising opinion amongst Gooners. There are those who worship him – primarily I think because he is young and English – and there are an increasing number who it seems to me hover over him like vultures, waiting for opportunities to berate him.

Certainly the statistical picture is impressive, and especially this season. He trounces the other English wingers in terms of end product (age 23, cost £5m, goals 8, assists 8). Players like Stewart Downing (age 27, cost £20m, goals 0, assists 0), Adam Johnson (age 24, cost £8m, goals 6, assists 2) and James Milner (age 26, cost £18m, goals 3, assists 5) trail in his wake. There is no argument that he is on a par with top quality wingers like Nani (age 25, cost £25.5m, goals 7 assists 8). In fact if you factor in his partnership with Robin van Persie, you could put a reasonable argument together that, based on returns he is at this moment the best winger in the Premiership. If you take into consideration cost, in terms of fees and wages, it looks even more in his favour.

Then you read that Lionel Messi is telling the press that the Barça team fear him, and that makes you sit up and take notice.  Messi isn’t the only fan. Robin van Persie apparently loves being in the same team. But I’d never criticise a work colleague publicly and neither should he, especially as captain. Then you look at the managers who have regularly picked him when fit – Wenger, Erikkson and Capello are amongst the biggest names in management in world football.

Theo’s game relies heavily not just on the pace that he has got, but on the threat his pace brings. This is what gives coaches and full backs problems: the opposition coach has to make a decision about how to play an Arsenal or England team with Theo Walcott in it.  Then each time he gets the ball, the full back has to decide whether to go tight, or to hang back an extra half yard.  If Theo gets the ball with a bit of space behind the full back, and the full back is in between these positions, he can almost literally just kick it past him, and he knows he will win the race. It’s this threat that leads teams to ask their winger to track back, to double mark, or to “park the bus”.

Theo joined Arsenal in January 2006, for a fee of around £5m – lots of money for a teenager. Sven Goran Erikkson made the inexplicable decision to take him to the 2006 World Cup, before hed even played in the first team for Arsenal.  Surely he could have gone without a squad number and just trained with the team? He could have collected bibs, put cones out etc. and who would have noticed if he “made up the numbers” in a couple of practise matches? He didn’t get a game anyway, so that’s in effect all he did. That decision denied a couple of experienced players the chance to reach the pinnacle of achievement in football, to play at the World Cup Finals, which was wrong. It was great for Arsenal as a club, but I don’t know if it did Theo any good really. Then on 10th September 2008 against Croatia, he quite literally became an overnight sensation, scoring a hat trick for England. The press box almost creamed themselves. They are so desperate to build up England players, so that they can knock them back down again (Gazza, Adams, Ferdinand, Gerard, Terry, Rooney). It’s all about selling copies, clicks and tweets – completely unrelated to the game at all. His performance didn’t justify the furore, and from what I remember neither were the goals particularly special. Since then Theo has been in and out of the England team, but he seems to have been picked most of the time to me when he’s been fit, so I’d say he’s an established England international.

So Theo Walcott is in form; he scores and makes goals; he’s a massive threat; he’s an established international player:  why do we need to talk about Theo? Why do certain sections of the crowd at The Grove want him out of the team and the club? Why do they get on his back? How can it be true that some sections of his home crowd sometimes boo him? Why does the miserable grey haired bearded old git who sits behind us in Block 1 wait for his first mistake at every home game, just to slag him off and turn to his mates and go “I told you he was shit!”?

Well many factors come into play. Firstly, I think when Theo arrived, it was a big national news story. He cost a lot of money at the time for a teenager, due to the over inflated prices of English players. He also became an instant hit with the fans – not really because of his performance level, but because the fans were desperate for some English blood in the team. To be honest I can’t really recall the fans being quite so love struck by a player. It is usually performance related. These things put him under pressure when he started competing for a place. Secondly, he’s been injured a lot. There were jokes about his glass shoulders which seem to have been fixed now. This has meant that until this season he has never really got an extended run in the team. When this happens, rightly or wrongly, this leads some fans to believe the club aren’t getting great value out of a player. The wages are so high nowadays – from the outside it looks pretty cushty working out in the gym for a few grand a week.

Another reason is that I think his decision making hasn’t been very good, when you expect top level from an international who plays in the Champions League regularly. This affects a number of elements of his game: defensively, instead of turning outside towards the touch line, sometimes he turns inside into trouble, which is dangerous in your own half. Sometimes offensively he gets in a tangle, or doesn’t take the ball with him, or passes to an imaginary colleague.  

Then there is the running out of pitch issue. I have honestly never regularly seen a top level professional do this as often. It’s become a feature of his game. So much so, that in the FIFA12 for PlayStation game (incidentally, an excellent video game – other games and consoles are available 😉 ) one of the unique abilities of Theo Walcott is that he routinely runs the ball out of play. I didn’t half chuckle to myself after he did it the 3rd time and basically I thought if the programmers at EA sports have taken the trouble to build that into the game, not only is that the sort of attention to detail I can seriously admire but it must be pretty obvious too.

One learned football pundit (I use the term very loosely) suggested that Theo doesn’t have a football brain, and at the time lots of Arsenal people were totally up in arms about it. Although I think Chris Waddle was being deliberately controversial, I do see what he meant. The fact is that Theo has come to the game late, he hasn’t necessarily come through the thousands of games that other youngsters have in their development. He has only appeared in 107 league games to date. This puts him at a disadvantage compared to other players of his age, but I’d argue this one slightly differently, and say that if he has achieved what he’s done with so little game time, imagine what he could be with games under his belt.

Another factor this season has been the arrival in the summer transfer window from Southampton of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who made an instant impact scoring 1 and having a hand in 2 against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup, and has looked more than a little lively when appearing as a sub in the first team. I haven’t always tracked the fees in the past, so I was more than a little surprised when I found out he cost £12m. But when you look at the way he is so positive when he gets the ball, his movement off it, the way he passes the ball, his touch, the way he isnt afraid to take people on, you can see why he cost a bit. His decision making is spot on, he is strong so he can hold people off the ball. Essentially, he always looks completely in control of what he’s doing on the football pitch. He looks like he has eaten, slept, drunk and breathed football all his life. He reminds me of Rooney and is potentially a complete footballer – I can see him playing off the front man in the middle in the future. His arrival has put a bit more pressure on Theo and I think he has responded.

So there are quite a few points on both sides. I have not always been a massive fan. At the end of last season I thought Theo was not going to make it, at the very top level. But I think he’s changed his game a bit this year, which means he is learning from the coaching he’s getting. He gets the ball in a lot earlier, which has led to a few goals. He looks to be working harder, tracking back and covering more. He has had a couple of absolute shockers (Milan away and Wigan home) and he makes a lot of mistakes. But, people forget he is still only 23 – born in 1989, about 10 weeks before it was Up For Grabs Now and Michael Thomas grabbed it at Anfield, and way after Charlie Nicholas fucked Rushies Record Up at Wembley. He probably won’t peak for another 4 or 5 years, if he can avoid more major injuries. I still think there is potential there for Theo to not only improve, but also to affect the way teams set up against us. You really need players who are a threat even when they’re having an off day. When we had Bergkamp, Henry and Pires in the same team, teams just couldn’t contain all of them for a whole game. I think with van Persie and Walcott, that’s two of the three dangerous players we need.

If one of the Spanish or Italian giants does offer, say, £20m, it would be a difficult decision, but I’d take the money for Theo. Players with his explosive pace are a bad tackle or a bad twist away from having their game completely changed – see Michael Owen. Without pace, Theo’s game would be almost completely diminished. I see only two problems with this: how Robin van Persie might react to Theo leaving, and that he might come back to bite us in future years if we sell to a Champions League club (likely).

I think Arsène Wenger will almost certainly offer Theo a new contract and keep him in the Arsenal squad for the next couple of seasons at least. I think that’s probably the right decision – he should be given more time to continue building his game. Also, it will hopefully really annoy those disloyal idiots who sit behind me as well, waiting for the slightest mistake to slag him off, which can only be a good thing.

Wear Your Red & White Scarf With Pride. And watch out for the vultures.

All stats are from soccerbase.com or soccernet.espn.go.com

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David “Rocky” Rocastle

Obviously, this blog hadn’t been created around the time of the tenth anniversary of David Rocastle’s death last year. I daresay all the below has been covered before elsewhere, but I just wanted to put together a brief tribute as he has become such an iconic image of the modern Arsenal.

It’s probably difficult for younger and newer fans to understand what all the fuss is about, at this time of year when thoughts turn to David Rocastle. His sudden and very early death, at the very young age of 33, was a huge loss to his family and friends, robbed by all accounts of a great husband, dad, brother, etc. Although obviously I didn’t know him or ever speak to him, we had some things in common: he was born a month after me in 1967, we shared the same christian name and love for Arsenal. At the time of his death, I had a young family with one two year old and another one on the way. His death triggered – less intensely of course – some of the usual feelings associated with grief: sadness, shock, some bitterness at his bad luck, and wishing it had been someone else. I’d liken it now to the death of a long lost cousin, who you shared great times with when you were a kid, but as you grow up, you almost inevitably lose touch as life moves on.

It really felt like Rocastle was one of us – a fans’ player. A precocious talent, he had come through the Arsenal ranks, broken into the 1st team, had become a pivotal member of two championship winning sides (he played every game in 88-89). He loved playing for Arsenal, and did so well he went on to play for England 14 times. He played with his heart on his sleeve. He had pace, wonderful skills including brilliant dribbling, and amazing commitment to the cause. He could change a game in a split second. In his heyday, he marauded through opposition defences, and scored beautiful goals: he drove the team forward, and battled to get the ball back. He was a fantastic example to kids – he didn’t ever get in trouble off the pitch (in the Adams, Merson era too). In short, David Rocastle was the epitome of everything that’s good about Arsenal. It really was a big shock when the news broke that he was joining champions Leeds in 1992. Apparently it wasn’t his decision, and he was heart broken and cried his eyes out when George Graham told him in the car park at London Colney that Arsenal didn’t want him any more.

There’s really no point reinventing the wheel, so here’s a youtube montage which includes some of his best/most important goals.

There was a bit of racism still in football back then, that you just don’t see now. John Barnes had joined Liverpool and some bananas were thrown on the pitch at a merseyside derby. I think he was the only black player in either of the squads up there at the time. Arsenal had sent the completely opposite message: we didn’t care about the colour of your skin, we had these three brillant young black players that had all come through the ranks – Rocastle, Paul Davis and Michael Thomas. They were all popular with the fans, they all made it to the top and went on to play for England. I’ve written previously about how important it is for Arsenal fans to have home grown players in the team and these three lads were diamonds, with Rocastle the jewel in the crown.

So when you talk about Arsenal Legends, Rocky is the first modern one to have heard his last final whistle. The way he lost his life so quickly, so tragically and so early had a deep impact on fans. Coupled with that, in what have been trying circumstances, Rocky’s family have always conducted themselves with tremendous resilience and dignity, commanding total respect from the Arsenal family. They have always been shoulder to shoulder with the club and the fans who want to keep his memory alive, when I’m sure sometimes it would have been easier for them to say no.

Here’s another tribute from youtube. In it, Ian Wright talks about Rocky some years later and they obviously were very close mates – he almost breaks down because he misses him so much.

And finally, there’s an excellent 1 stop history here from Mirror online – with some of the newspaper headlines of some of the massive important games that Rocky influenced.


RIP David “Rocky” Rocastle 1967-2001. Arsenal Legend.

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Tomáš Rosický: The Resurrection

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been at all religious. My atheism was cemented by being singled out by the head master in secondary school assembly for being unable to hide my disdain during the “burning bush” story. It cost me a thousand word essay, which was thrown in the bin, unread. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that Arsenal is effectively my religion: the rituals, the gathering together, the fellow worshippers, the uniformity of purpose, the singing. Hell, we even have factions infighting and to cap it all, our own version of the devil up the Seven Sisters road! Through good times, bad times, young boy, middle aged, and of course into old age (I hope) it’s been the constant in my life. In the church of Arsenal, we are witnessing a phenomenal story unfolding: the resurrection of Czech international Tomáš Rosický. Right near Easter as well, which is handy when you need a headline 😉 .

Tomáš has been the subject of perhaps more ferocious debate amongst my group of mates, than any other Arsenal player over the last couple of years. Yes, we have agonised over Chamakh and Arshavin, trying in vain to understand which particular metaphorical brick wall they each hit. But Rosický has been especially debated, for the simple reason that there is a very loyal Gooner that sits one seat to the right of us in Block 1, who absolutely loathes the player, and has done for some time. In his eyes, Rosický can do no right. Every single pass goes astray. Every mix-up is his fault. Every run is to the wrong position. Every shot completely pathetic. “John” and Tomáš have suffered a complete relationship breakdown – irreconcilable differences.

“John” was not alone in having reservations about Rosický. But the rest of us have always tried to balance his vitriol, tried to stick up loyally for a player who has always had the ability, and has unquestionably produced the goods in the past. But in the background, when we all sat round the table with a pint, we could all see Little Mozart’s pained expression when yet another pass went astray, and recall a succession of below par performances. We had all concluded that the instruments in his orchestra really hadn’t been in tune for quite a while. My own personal straw that broke the camel’s back, was him being picked to play the “Cesc” role in the Carling Cup Final last year, giving a poor display and totally fluffing a very good chance to win the game at 1-1. After that, although I wouldn’t go so far as to directly criticise a player wearing the shirt, I lost faith in him, and thought the time had come to let him go to another club, to see if he could rebuild his career.

Back in the beginning, immediately after Tomáš joined us from Dortmund, he was an exciting player, who scored a few goals. He had a hunger for the ball; his movement was good about the pitch; he went forward, took people on and went past them. I think initially he was playing out wide, as Cesc was the playmaker in the middle. As I recall, he did quite well in his first season – was almost a regular, scored a few goals, and looked like he was fitting in. He started his second season quite well, then got a mysterious hamstring injury against Newcastle on 26th Jan 2008. The initial assessment was that Tomáš would be out for something like 3-4 weeks. As time went on, the reports of his return seemed to get longer each time you heard, to 2 months, 6 months, the season, etc. It became a bit of a standing joke for us in the pub, and of course tongues were set wagging. A strong rumour circulated that he was spending a lot of time back in Prague, and enjoying substances not usually counted as staple intake for a premiership footballer. It was even suggested the reasons Arsenal were publishing for Tomáš’s continued absence, weren’t necessarily the whole truth. It was rumoured that doctors had had difficulty getting urine samples for the standard random drug testing that goes on now in football: we had a laugh about this because a perfectly common view was that he was taking the piss out of the club. Seriously though, this added weight to the idea, because failure to give samples can lead to a “3 strikes and you’re out” ruling and apparently the club can deal with that internally with a 12 month ban. I’ll stress that none of this was ever confirmed – this is really pub gossip. I didn’t ever see anything like this in the papers. Of course the logic behind it is that it’s simply inconceivable it could have been a hamstring muscle injury for that long – it’s a relatively minor injury. Tomáš didn’t return to competitive first team action until 12th September 2009 against Man City, some 20 months later. Somewhat ridiculously, he was out much longer than Eduardo [a week short of 12 months], whose ankle needed to be rebuilt after a career threatening compound fracture and a dislocation…!

Since his return, until the end of last year, his first team chances were very limited. Obviously, Cesc was always first choice in the middle, with Walcott, Arshavin, Nasri or Gervinho on the wings. He didn’t get many chances to shine, and, when he was picked, he didn’t really take them. With this background of debate amongst our group, he’s been watched very closely, and it was true he was giving the ball away a lot, and constantly taking the wrong option. He looked lethargic and out of tune with his fellow players – sometimes you could see their frustration on the pitch in their body language, with things that he did. You could even sense an awkwardness sometimes, with even the basics: his body shape didn’t look right – he just didn’t look like he was addressing the ball properly. Quite often he would get the ball in a good position with a bit of space in front and 99 times out of a hundred, he’d cut back and make a neutral pass. His play had no cutting edge at all – a bit of an issue for an attacking player. I think a couple of times he gave the ball away which resulted in goals against us as well. The crowd hate that, especially the ones who look for scapegoats, and it gets highlighted (unfairly sometimes, in my opinion i.e. Ramsey) on Match of the Day by the extremely defence minded pundits they have on there. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem was, but clearly his confidence had completely disappeared.

I remember being very frustrated with him, after the Champions League game against Olympiacos. He was picked to captain the side, playing in the middle and he should have been the star man. He simply didn’t turn up, except for the toss up. He singularly failed to impress, giving the ball away, having hardly any influence on the game. After that game I remember thinking: if Rosický can’t dominate a game against this sort of opposition (no disrespect but he is an International Captain with 85 caps – they are ranked 40th in Europe) then what chance has he got of dominating a big Premiership or Champions League game? There were clear indications that Wenger was losing faith, his career appeared to be at rock bottom. I was disappointed as a Gooner as it really looked like a promising Arsenal career had fizzled out, and that he would be on his way in January or this summer.

It is quite difficult to believe the above as we analyse the position now: Rosický has arguably been our most consistent player for the last 6 weeks (barring Milan away when obviously the whole team had a ‘mare). He has made key contributions in 5 of the last 8 matches, including either being voted or seriously cosidered for Man of the Match in 3. In the last game, against Newcastle, I thought he was superb: he looked like a skilful forward player at the top of his game, playing with full confidence: his passing was spot on, his runs off the ball, his linking the play. He is even getting stuck in! Scoring the goal against Spurs, which he richly deserved, has given him a shot in the arm. I couldn’t believe I heard his name being chanted by the Red Section during the Newcastle game, and when he was substituted he got a standing ovation. This would have been unthinkable just 6 weeks ago, when his future at the club was openly being questioned by the majority of fans. I really don’t think many fans would have complained if he’d have been off-loaded in January. The simple fact is Tomáš Rosický has rediscovered his form, at exactly the right time. He has been the catalyst for a scintillating run that’s seen us beat the old enemy, Liverpool, AC Milan and Newcastle.

This upping of his game has occurred dangerously close to new contract negotiations. Over the years, working in central London, I have developed what most people find is quite an extreme level of cynicism. As soon as the two events combined, I certainly didn’t rule out they might be linked. It’s been done before – Adebayor hardly moved a muscle after his new contract took him into the big pay league – and I’m sure it will be done again. Judging by the quality of his performance against Newcastle – after the news broke that he’d signed a new deal – it does look like Rosický is playing for something other than just the money. Long may it continue, because he is now a crucial player for us in the run-in, playing in the “Cesc” creative role that no-one else in the club is suitable for. Aaron Ramsey (still young at 21) gave it a go, but is not best suited to that role: his movement linking the play isn’t as good – he doesn’t find the space as well as Rosický. He is more of a box to box player, and offers more defensively – he doesn’t half cover some ground – but I think he prefers to arrive later into the box in attacking situations. Maybe in a few years as he matures he could play in that position, but at the moment I think he needs to be back up for Song or Arteta in a more holding role.

Who takes the credit for the resurrection of Rosický? Well this is the crux of the matter. Many, many Arsenal fans would have binned Rosický a long while ago. I admit I lost faith in the player, as did most of our group. I missed the Newcastle game, unfortunately, but apparently “John” was adamant Rosicky wasn’t the best player on the pitch, and refused to accept he was even in the top 5 Arsenal players – you just can’t please some people! But there was one key person who stuck by him, who believed he had the skill, the belief and the desire to turn this situation round. A person who has been criticised for being too stubborn, for sticking by his players for too long, for not listening to the fans. You know who I’m talking about – it’s the manager, who is paid more money in a year than most of us reading this will earn in a lifetime. It’s his job to take those decisions, to motivate the players, to understand what makes them tick. A man who, as you know, if you’ve read one of these blogs before, I believe still has the ability to take this club forward, and deserves to be given the same chance to rebuild his reputation.

Mr Arsène Wenger, who is the best manager Arsenal Football Club has ever had – fact.

Wear Your Red & White Scarf With Pride.

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Gazidis on Financial Results – transcript

This is a transcript of the interview with Ivan Gazidis following the announcement of Arsenal’s half year results on 27/02/2012. The video is available free to all fans on Arsenal.com – see the link to the Arsenal Player at the bottom. It is copyright Arsenal FC and I’ve only transcribed it here to benefit fans there is no intention to breach any copyright.

Q: Ivan, you’ve announced the financial results for the 6 months to the end of November today, what’s your assessment of the overall situation?

Ivan Gazidis: Well, first and foremost I think it’s important to acknowledge, that the most important thing for this football club, the most important thing for our fans, and the most important thing for the board and the people that work at the club is how we do on the pitch. The reason we talk about financial results at all – twice a year, we’re very transparent, we publish our accounts – is because it’s the finances that provide the platform for the on field success. And we are healthy from a financial standpoint. All of the money that the club generates is available to be reinvested into the club and into the team. And that’s why these financial figures are important but I’d never want to say they are the most important thing. They’re not. They are the platform for what we want to do on the field.

Q: How much money is available for the manager to spend?

IG: We have a healthy cash balance of £115m at the half year. But it’s important to understand that not all of that money is available to invest in transfers. The reason for that is that we have running costs during the year. Although we get a lot of our money upfront through season ticket renewals, we have running costs of the club – players salaries and so on – so that amount goes down during the year. At the same time we also have to keep something in reserve, in case things don’t go our way. Having said all of that, there is money available. We don’t talk about an exact figure and there is a very good reason why we don’t put an exact figure on that – because it would impact our negotiating position with other clubs and that would mean we wouldn’t be able to do what we want to do as efficiently as we want to do it. But we do have money that’s available. We have to invest efficiently. We have to do it sensibly. We don’t have the kind of money that other clubs have. But we have enough I believe if we do it well to be able to compete at the very highest levels of the game and we’ve got a manager who’s got a fantastic track record over time of getting those types of decisions mostly right.

Q: Would the situation change if we failed to qualify for the Champions League next season?

IG: Well the most important aspect of the Champions League is the sporting one, and that’s what the club is focussed on. We’ve got a fantastic record in the Champions League. We have been there for the last 14 years, and in the last 12 years we have qualified out of the group phase of the Champions League. It’s a really consistent good record of success and an expectation level around the club that we are in that competition every year. At the same time we can’t gear our entire financial model around that expectation because that would place the club in jeopardy if we didn’t qualify. So we have always got to keep something in reserve, in case things don’t go our way, and I can assure fans that we are able to be resilient to reinvest in the squad if things didn’t go our way and if we didn’t end up qualifying for the Champions League so that we would be able to get back into the competition in the following year.

Q: Away from the financial side are you concerned that non qualification for the Champions League will impact your ability to retain and attract players?

IG: Well, first of all we are very focussed on qualifying for the Champions League next year. That’s a priority now and we still remain confident that we will be able to do that and I know the players are incredibly dedicated to that cause and you will see their commitment coming through, through the rest of the season. In terms of players selecting clubs based on Champions League I think there’s [are] very few clubs in the world that you would go to ahead of Arsenal in terms of consistently being there so I don’t believe it affects our ability to attract top players. In fact if anything our Champions League record is a fantastic advertisement for the club and a reason to come to the club and the fact that we have a healthy financial platform means that we can continue as we look forward to consistently be competing at the very top of the game and in the Champions League looking forward as well. So I don’t see that adversely impacting our ability to attract players or retain the top players that we have.

Q: But the fans are asking why the Club is not spending big to avoid the possibility of missing qualification?

IG: Well as I’ve said we do spend all of the money that we generate. We do invest it in the squad. This past summer we spent £75m on new signings and on new contracts for current players – signing players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, Andre Santos, Gervinho, and others. We have to be efficient in the way that we spend our money because we don’t have the kind of money to spend that some of our competitors are currently spending in the market place. That means we’ve got to be very thoughtful about it. We have to spend sensibly. But we certainly will spend the money that we have. We’ve got a manager who has got a terrific track record over time. That doesn’t mean we get every decision right – we don’t. But we do get the majority of them right and that’s been one of the secrets to Arsenal’s success over a long period of time. And as I’ve said we will spend the money that the club generates on our playing staff and the better that we can do that, the more efficiently we can do that, the better we can manage our player pool, the more successful we will be. I’m convinced we have the funds to be able to compete at the top of the game. And football is moving in this direction: football clubs are moving towards more sustainable models. UEFA is mandating that they do that, and they are doing it anyway. And you see the results when some clubs live outside their means can be disastrous. So we feel that as we look forward, the next 5 years or so of Arsenal’s development will be very, very positive provided we can do the job well in terms of how we use the money that we have to invest.

Q: Finally, there is a lot of external noise around the team and the manager at the moment. What is your view on this?

IG: Well, we hear the noise. We understand the concern of the fans. We know that there are issues. We know we are not where we want to be. But I can tell you that this team, our manager, the players are absolutely united against what we have to do for the rest of the season, which is to finish in the top four. That’s not out of our hands – it’s very much in our hands. We have had unbelievable support from our travelling fans: you go away to Sunderland, away to Milan this week. Our supporters have put aside the questions, put aside the doubts, put aside the differences of opinion and got behind the team. And if that can happen from now until the end of the season, I know that we can achieve Champions League qualification again for next year. That we can rebuild and regroup in the summer and come back strong next year. But that will come through “Victory Through Harmony”: the strength of this club has always been its unity and our fans and our players need to come together in this fight for the rest of the season.

It’s available for all fans to watch on Arsenal Player here http://player.arsenal.com/schedule/day/2012-02-27

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Why Always Us, #Arsenal?

This is not a sublime Dennis Bergkamp pass, stroked into the path of a cantering Thierry Henry, who opens up his body, leans left and in one movement, curls it around the keeper into the far corner.  Nor is it a tsunami-like Nigel Winterburn tackle on a tricky winger, that tears ugly brown track marks across the touch line near the North Bank end of the East Stand. It’s nearer the latter than the former: it’s long as well (3k words) so give yourself a bit of time if you’re going to fly into this one…

Firstly, I can absolutely understand fans’ frustration. I get accused of dogmatically following Arsène Wenger, like I’m blinded by the light from his halo. That couldn’t be further from the truth: I have been a season ticket holder since before the “Arsène Who?” headlines. I have seen good and bad players come and go: some players do better than expected, some players do worse: and we only really get acquainted with them properly after they’ve been with the club a while. Like the media, as fans we are under no pressure to get these opinions and decisions correct. We sit on the sidelines or in our living rooms, expertly predicting one thing, and conveniently forgetting it if it doesn’t work out, and crowing about the skill of our own amateur punditry when it does. I do think Wenger makes mistakes – being a bit too rigid around formations and systems, predictability around selections and timing of substitutions, sticking with players for too long – but who doesn’t? And he definitely has some less than perfect traits – stubbornness apparently being one of them, a slight petulance being another (handshakes and bottle kicks). Although I stress I am seeing him about half the time through the media lens and I have never met the man in person.

That said, I believe he has a proven track record of delivery at the very top level in football management, and that given the correct resources he has the ability to turn this current situation around. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happens at senior level in the club – and I expect most of it will stay largely unknown. Certainly some of the things we are talking about now will only ever be known to the fans when Arsène (and other key figures, maybe) writes his memoirs, and I daresay those will not be that revealing as they will need the approval of the club for contractual reasons. I can’t say for sure if he is being given the resources and choosing not to use them, or if he is stubbornly sticking to “the project”.

To explain what I mean by “the project”, which I think is also called elsewhere the Wenger philosophy, or referred to as the sustainable model by Ivan Gazidis. I mean the idea of recruiting and nurturing talented young players, with the aim of keeping that talented core of youngsters together, and creating a winning, aesthetically pleasing football team. The shining example being our Catalan foes Barcelona, who have produced arguably the best European team ever seen in the Champions League era. This philosophy has partly been required at Arsenal, due to the need to fund a brand new £470 million stadium. But I also believe Arsène Wenger had a long held dream to bring this vision to reality. That is the primary reason David Dein selected and groomed him to be the Arsenal manager. Dein had a grand plan for Arsenal Football Club, and he knew Arsène Wenger had the skill set to execute the football part of that plan. The early double successes of 1998 and 2002 were probably a bit unexpected, and of course Dein leaving the board was probably not in their medium or long term plan either. None of these things have changed the overall footballing plan though. To be absolutely clear, this is a different and more extreme method to the tried and trusted “Arsenal way” of bringing local and international youth through the ranks, and blending it with signings. The latter has been the model since at least the 1971 double team, when every single Arsenal championship winning side has had at least one player who graduated through the youth system. I know for a fact from discussions with many other fans on this, over many years, that this nurturing of home grown talent is a source of great pride for Arsenal fans. I believe it is one of the key elements that defines the modern Arsenal.

The project has come under more and more criticism, as the length of time without a trophy has extended. Over the past three or four seasons, there have been chances which people feel should have been either taken – the Carling Cup final last year – or taken further – the championship challenge of 2007-08 which effectively came off the rails at St Andrews in March.  One of the common complaints is that the Invincibles squad of 2003-04 was broken up far too quickly. The emphasis and faith in young players seemed to have become skewed to such an extent that no experienced players were kept even up until their “use by” date, let alone past it. The list of seasoned internationals, with Premiership experience, who were let go over the 4 subsequent seasons reads like a best ever XI: Lehmann, Lauren, Campbell, Cole, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Vieira, Pires, Henry & Bergkamp.  The only player left at the start of 2007-08 was Kolo Toure. Lesser lights with experience were also allowed to leave like Flamini, Edu, Hleb, Adebayor, and finally Toure. Some of these were unquestionably released at the right time (Kolo Toure) but you only have to look at the recent impacts of the returns of Henry and Scholes to the premiership, and Ryan Giggs’ continued influence at Utd, to understand the value of experience at the elite level in English football.

The project did go to plan for a few years.  Wenger concentrated first on his area of expertise – the rich seam of talented French players who took home the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000, and French youngsters like Alidiere and Clichy. In time, the same methods that developed these would begin to produce top quality young English players like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But things were happening that were radically altering the financial landscape in English football. The Premiership became attractive to foreign investors, and particularly one Russian oligarch. The staggering amount of money he pumped into Chelsea made it possible to prise a home grown player like Ashley Cole away. I don’t think this could ever have happened prior to the advent of the billionnaire owner: Cole would never have joined Man Utd or Liverpool for the amount more money they could offer: but the colossal discrepancy between fees and wages being touted made it impossible for Arsenal to keep the player, even when he’d been tapped up! This followed the departures of Edu and Flamini, and later Hleb, and the same trend has continued, culminating in the departures last year of Fabregas and Nasri. The latter in much the same way as Cole, lured away for 5 pieces of silver by the promise of gold, and no guarantee he’d be looked upon as one of the disciples. I doubt Wenger ever thought Cesc was going to stay, but I don’t think he realised or planned for them both leaving together. Nasri had a great season playing out wide, and he had been groomed to play in the free role behind the main striker, continuing the system that had been built around the Catalan. I think Wenger was in denial about Nasri doing the dirty until quite late in the day, and it was something he was powerless to prevent. That was the final nail in the coffin of the  project: it had been obliterated in front of his eyes, and I think that hurt him a lot, and he has been recovering from it ever since.

There was an immediate reaction, with the purchases of Arteta, Mertesacker and Benayoun at quite literally the 11th hour of the window. I don’t understand why these deals were left so late: I don’t believe personally it was anything to do with the Old Trafford result.  What was significant for me was that all three of those signings were seasoned pro’s, and two of them with bags of Premiership experience. These signings, so late in the window, were widely reported as panic buys. A great story, that sells papers and generates clicks and tweets, but it doesn’t feel like the truth to me. Arsenal and Arsène very rarely do things quickly at all. For some reason the deals all came together at the same time, and I think that is because they were dependent on Champions League qualification, which was only delivered on 24th August away at Udinese. If that’s the case, I don’t agree with it: the money was going to be available from the Fabregas and Nasri deals; the club had 11 consecutive years of Champions League stage qualification behind us (with Hill Wood recently saying that the budget had been set “expecting” to not qualify eventually… [?]). The fact is, money to finance deals should have been available.  A lot of this is speculation of course, but if this was the reason then I think the criticism should be of the board’s decision to delay the funding, and not towards the manager, who obviously still managed to get some decent players in during the window.

Moving to the recent January window, I really can’t understand why the theme of experienced signings was not continued. The noises weren’t good, with Wenger stating he didn’t think January was a good time to sign players [although Adebayor, Toure and Eboue were all winter signings which Wenger would probably argue were successful]. It was an ideal time to confirm the change in policy and sign another experienced player or two. The gaping hole that everyone can see is cover for van Persie: Park is simply not good enough, and Chamakh, although he has done it for us, has not produced any form for a desperately long time. As if to reinforce this point, Thierry Henry has dominated talk in his brief spell, with goals from the bench, and crucial ones to boot. I manage risk at work, and in any sort of risk assessment of the squad, the striker situation would score highly, across a number of criteria: the recent performance of all three strikers, their delivery records, the injury history, current form, top level games played, likeliness of fatigue, etc. Almost by any measure you can think of, Robin van Persie comes out on his own. There is a huge risk to the club of relying on a single resource in that position, and it needs addressing urgently. There are various options available, of course, but by far the best one would be to bring in a backup, Premierhip proven striker. The players were available and two made moves in this window – Yakubu and Zamora. I’m not saying we should have signed either of these, but they surely must have been considered as options. I don’t think bringing either Nicklaus Bendtner or Carlos Vela back from loan was a good answer either – they’re out on loan for a reason. To me, this is such a clear gap that the board must have been made fully aware of it and have therefore authorised the decision not to buy: I just can’t see how Wenger would be able to build any sort of case to justify keeping the existing forward personnel the same.

Perhaps a reason for no signings is that the manager does not believe the squad needs strengthening, because of his faith in the players he has brought in – his alleged stubbornness. This might have been plausible, if we hadn’t done the late deals in August. Historically, when the money is available, and Wenger doesn’t want to buy, the message that tends to come out is that the quality players aren’t available, or our wage structure won’t allow us to pursue big names.  None of this happened in January.

Another reason put forward is that players must leave before we can bring players in. The recently introduced innovation of the “home grown” rule, makes this more than a distinct possibility. There’s a full explanation here news.bbc.co.uk but I’ll do it briefly: for a player to be home grown he needs to have played 3 seasons in England before he is 21 (basically). It’s not exactly clear but, for the Premier League only, 25 man squads are registered of players who are over 21 years old. Of these, only a maximum of 17 players are allowed who are not home grown, leaving the remaining 8 to be home grown.  I have read that 8 “must” be home grown but that can’t be true Arsenal only registered 5 last time (Djourou, Gibbs, Mannone, Song and Walcott). The non home grown is a bit of a tight squeeze for Arsenal at the moment, as it’s got the bulk of the squad players Almunia, Arshavin, Benayoun, Chamakh, Diaby, Fabianski, Park and Squillaci. (NB it also contains the core of good experienced players as well Arteta, Gervinho, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna, Santos, van Persie and Vermaelen). According to rumour, there are a lot of players in the £50-60k a week bracket [see forty-nine.co.uk], and a lot of those players are either out of form or injured, so couldn’t have been sold during this window. This could be the crux of the issue: any big name players coming in would take one of these players’ places in the squad, which would mean wages going down the pan. I believe there is more than a ring of truth around this one.

Finally, the board don’t care about the club and the fans, they are running the club for personal profit or are even embezzling money out of the club. Partly true, I don’t think they care about the club or the fans, but this one doesn’t get very far down the track. Huge shareholdings worth millions of pounds are not taken by these people lightly – they are hard nosed, successful business people. They know that success on the pitch leads to increased revenue, and profits, and bigger share prices. They also know that investment is key to driving any business forward. Arsenal have traditionally not been major investors in big name players on big contracts. All of our title winning teams since 1989 have contained home grown players, quite a few of them blended with quite modest signings (Marwood, Dixon, Petit, Ljungberg, Kolo Toure). This approach is based on sound business principles, and has kept the club in the black for a long time. You only have to look at some of the high profile deals in the last couple of years to see they can go spectacularly wrong: Carroll, Torres, Shevchenko. I think the board are very conservative, very risk averse, but that’s no different to 20, 30 or 40 years ago, and they certainly will know the law and have been involved in litigation in their business careers – I can’t see them taking money out of the club illegally.

A more realistic possibility is that the money’s there and the board are holding back because of uncertainties around the future. Consider the situation yourself: if you were about to get divorced, would you be looking to take the other half on that long awaited holiday of a lifetime to Barbados? I doubt it. The lock down on selling shares ends this summer, and that means changes are going to happen. It’s more than possible this is making it very difficult to make decisions for anything but the very short term. Another issue creating uncertainty at board level is the future impact of the UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations, which are coming down the line. Due to Arsenal’s relatively parsimonious history, and successful youth programme, this is likely to impact other clubs more. BUT the real issue here is uncertainty, for a very risk averse board. The implementation of things like FFP will play out over quite a long period, with the passage of time perhaps leading to a watering down of the rules, and they are also subject to legal challenge in the courts, which can take years. Although this isn’t a reason for Arsenal to be worried, it’s probably creating quite a bit of uncertainty for long term contracts.

Whilst I want to blame the board for all the ills, I think they are currently in quite a tight spot. There’s a power struggle going on, and no one wants to commit funds until the shake up this summer. The board have done a reasonable job until now, steering the club through some dangerous waters with the stadium move [and what a fantastic stadium it is, if you ignore the name]. But the sustainable model is just not cutting it with more and more fans, as each year passes without a trophy. They don’t want to finish 3rd or 4th every year, watching the Manchester clubs hoover up all the trophies. Arsenal fans believe that we should be up there with the best. We have won the title at least once every decade except one (60’s) since the 30’s. No-one else can match that record and it’s that consistency, based on the production of home grown talent, that’s core to the club. That’s what the board need to understand is a clear and present danger now: that of them being the men who preside over the gradual and persistent decline of one of the top 3 clubs in England. When the history books are written, when fans make banners, when clubs put dates around a stadium, they don’t record Champions League qualification in 3rd or 4th place. They proudly and loudly record the glory days, forever etched in the memories of their fans, of glittering prizes being raised high into the night sky, of red and white ribbons, of parties in the streets, of smiling faces and sore heads in the morning. Unless the board get their fingers out and sort things out in time for this summer, I fear it will be a long time before any more of these memories are made.

If ever there was a game for all Gooners to Keep The Faith and stick together it’s Sunday. So Wear your Red and White Scarf with Pride.

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