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.

Posted in arsenal | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment