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Arsenal – Thoughts on the season so far

Maybe it would have been better to have waited until after Sunday’s game with Man United before writing this. Still, let’s break it down into a couple of parts…

The Manager

A marmite topic amongst Arsenal fans now, and I can understand why. On the one hand, you don’t want to dismiss his lengthy list of achievements in the English game, but on the other there’s clearly a sense of foreboding about where he’s now taking the club.

It’s difficult to shake the impression that he spent a lot of money in August for the sake of it, and that the players he did bring in weren’t necessarily the right ones. Mikel Arteta maybe, but Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos seemed to represent ill-though out purchases. The German’s a case in point, because staggeringly, it doesn’t look as if anybody really researched his strengths and weaknesses before bringing him to the club. I know that there are similarities between the Bundesliga and the Premier League, but there are also key differences. Mertesacker is a good player, but he’s weak when exposed to pace and movement – so why would you bring a defender with the turning circle of a Lancaster Bomber to the quickest league in Europe?

The Squad

There’s a bit of overlap here with the previous section, but I don’t think Arsene Wenger has been decisive enough with certain members of his squad. Andrei Arshavin has contributed nothing this year, and has lived off the back of his first six months in this country for a long time now. With every passing window, the Russian depreciates in value, yet he remains at the club – he needs to go. Theo Walcott underwhelms constantly – an athlete pretending to be a footballer. That situation is especially frustrating when the potential and dynamism of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is sitting on the bench.

Without over-playing the obvious, this side will look a whole lot better when Jack Wilshere returns from injury. Yes, Wilshere brings a creativity to the side, but he also brings a calming presence in possession – which is clearly helpful given Arsenal’s current issues with ball-retention.

Transfer targets

Is it really worth speculating on something that won’t happen? Wenger doesn’t believe in doing business in January, and no amount of late-season tail-offs will seemingly dissuade him from that mindset. Still, cover at full-back wouldn’t hurt, would it?

Overview

I suspect what’s needed at Arsenal is actually an objective pair of eyes, because Wenger doesn’t really seem to see what everybody else does – this is a club slipping back towards the Hinterland of mediocrity. Too many average components, not enough match-winners. Football is unfortunately a short-term industry, and you really can’t eat out on past achievement forever. Squad re-modeling, re-shaping, streamlining; whatever you want to call it – being ten points behind Tottenham in January and heading for the Europa League is not really acceptable.

Arsenal to beat Manchester United – 2.70 with Paddy Power. Sign-up for your £20 welcome bonus.

Best & Worst of the weekend: Swansea & Manchester United/Bolton

Best…

Swansea’s performance against Arsenal

Such is the nature of the media in this country, I’m sure that most of the emphasis will be placed on Arsenal’s shortcomings – but really, the visitors were only as good as they were allowed to be.

The criticism of Swansea this season has been that despite their concentration of possession, they haven’t always used it particularly decisively. Not so yesterday; the triangles, the pretty patterns, the two touch play – it all seemed to have far more purpose yesterday. A cutting edge. Swansea were excellent and fully-deserved the three points.

A minor point but an important one; the reflex reaction to Theo Walcott’s equaliser was probably the most impressive moment of the game. There are too many sides in the league, and not just newly-promoted ones, who would have become very negative after such a concession. Passive play in the face of big reputation opposition is a default setting for a lot of teams – but Brendan Rodgers’ side showed the benefits of sticking to an original gameplan. Attack with pace, deploy as much movement in and around a shakey visiting defence, and hassle the opposition when they’re in possession in their own defensive third.

Two lovely finishes from Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham as well…

Worst…



Peter Walton’s failure to send off Zat Knight

Every week.

At least when refereeing decisions are given in Manchester United’s favour there’s a semblance of explanation for them. Not so here.

Danny Welbeck is in on goal – or in ref-parlance ‘has a clear goal-scoring opportunity’ – and Zat Knight impedes him. It’s a penalty and it’s a red card. It’s not even contestable. Had the defender been dismissed by Walton, then not even the most partisan of Bolton fans could’ve found an argument to dispute the decision.

The saving grace of course, is that the decision didn’t effect the result of the game, but that doesn’t excuse it. With every decision like this, a new precedent is set – another example that confuses what should be a really straight-forward issue. Last-man commits a foul? Off he goes.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how difficult the job is, how many cameras there are scrutinising, the pace of the game etc – but sorry, this was just a clear failure to apply the rules. Ineptitude at its worst.

Segue out of that quickly – who read Richard Scudamore’s comments about refereeing this morning? Here, if you missed them.

Things we’ve learned – Arsenal, Man United, Everton.

Manchester United are a shambles

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Forwards being fined for poor training performances, no midfield to speak of, part-time full-backs, and no clear first-choice goalkeeper.

Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly given a lot of credit for adapting and evolving his team over the years, but all of a sudden this is a side that looks increasingly rudderless. Rather than just being a knee-jerk reaction to the chaos at St James’ Park, this is the long-term product of United being able to trade off their own success and the complacency that has brought with it. You can’t win a Premier League title without a properly defined midfield – and in United’s case, that area has become worryingly makeshift.

Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Anderson; these are players that are being deployed in the middle of the pitch, but without any clear role – nobody seems to have any responsibility in that part of United’s team. There’s no ball-winner, there’s no creativity, and there’s a chasm between that bank of four and United’s forwards. There’s no specialisation.

You can argue that the future of the midfield is for it be fluid and the positions to be interchangeable, but then if so, you really need to possess multi-occupational players with the requisite talent level. United don’t have that, and in any case, the 4-4-2 that Ferguson persists with doesn’t really allow for it.

Ferguson needs to address the personnel at Old Trafford now, or he’s going to spend the rest of the season worrying about Tottenham rather than Manchester City.

David Moyes’ special status is under-threat

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How often are we told about the ‘incredible job’ that David Moyes is doing at Everton? Yes, I know, the club has no money etc, but at some point that has to stop providing immunity from criticism.

Why do Everton always start the season badly? Why do they so frequently fail to beat poor teams at Goodison Park? Why are talented players(Rodwell/Drenthe) misused? And why do previously influential players(Cahill) have such lengthy slumps in form?

These are not questions for Bill Kenwright’s Bank Manager, they’re questions for Moyes. I understand the limitations on what he can bring into the club, but that doesn’t excuse the apparent mismanagement of what’s already there.

Arsenal can have no complaints over Johan Djourou’s sending off, or their defeat at Fulham

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From Arsene Wenger’s post-match press conference:

“When Djourou got the first yellow card, they tried every time to get him a second yellow and the referee was naive enough to give it,”

I like Arsene Wenger, and I have the utmost respect for what he’s achieved in the game, but his excuses are beginning to grate.

Firstly, Arsenal lost the game – not because of the referee – but because they played so passively in the second half at Craven Cottage that concession was inevitable. Fulham deserved their equaliser, but only because the away side had spent the second forty-five minutes inviting their hosts on to them and allowing momentum to gradually build.

The sending off. It is a second yellow-card, and in fact Djourou was lucky not to receive it earlier for a foul higher-up the pitch on Kerim Frei. As for the incident that convinced Lee Probert to actually dismiss the Swiss defender? It’s more the product of Djourou finding himself in a bad position than any over-zealous refereeing – sorry Arsene, but that’s what happens when you play a centre-defender at full-back.

“We lost the game because we were down to 10 men.”

No, you didn’t, you lost the game because you were profligate in front of goal, Theo Walcott has no final ball, your goalkeeper dropped a cross, and your left-back gave Bobby Zamora the freedom of South West London to score the winner.

Liverpool and Arsenal target Georginio Wijnaldum

This is a name that has started creeping into gossip columns lately; PSV’s 21-year-old winger Georginio Wijnaldum.

In fact, those who were playing Football Manager circa 2006 may remember him as an absurdly-talented teenager that you could poach from the Feyenoord’s academy.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal have been linked with the player, and you can see why – he would fill a gap that exists in both sides. An attacking-midfielder that can play on both flanks as well as through the middle, he possesses that combination of creativity and goal-threat that both sides could benefit from. After a season of 10 goals and 5 assists in the Eredivisie, he’s now a full Dutch international, so anybody that wants to bring him to England will be paying a comfortable eight figures for his talents – plus, he only joined PSV in July, so the club would probably need an un-refusable offer to give-up the player.

He’s only 5ft6, so the predictable questions about his ability to exist in the Premier League remain unanswered, but his undoubted class – as well as his versatility – might prompt somebody to take a risk. Everybody knows that Arsene Wenger hates spending money in January, but Kenny Dalglish is quite the opposite – and actually he would provide the natural right-footed width that Liverpool are missing at the moment.

We’ll see.

Fulham vs Arsenal: Preview

Tuesday 5.30pm, Craven Cottage.

Fulham 3.75 Draw 3.40 Arsenal 2.00

Martin Jol will be without Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson for this London derby, although Damien Duff has a remote chance of being involved.

Treatment room-regular Thomas Vermaelen returns to his natural habitat after picking-up a calf strain during the win against Queens Park Rangers.

Fulham are one of the league’s true ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ teams, and have seemingly lost some of their traditional resilience this season. Craven Cottage has also apparently lost some of its awkwardness to opposing teams, as the nine Premier League fixtures there this season have been split 3-3-3. The 5-0 humbling aside by Manchester United aside, they are a side who thrive against the bigger teams. Liverpool, Manchester City, and Tottenham have all been bloodied down by the Thames, and Arsenal should be wary of giving their hosts a foothold in the game.

Bobby Zamora’s absence obviously hurts Fulham, but in Moussa Dembele(f/g) and Clint Dempsey(f/g) they do possess two of the most underrated players in the league – both of whom will be a test for this patched-up Arsenal defence. Watch out for Bryan Ruiz as well, who’s becoming more of a creative force as he finds his feet in English football.

The visitors approach this game knowing that they need to produce much more of a cutting-edge than they did when these teams met at Emirates Stadium at the end of November. Fulham are a blue-collar team that will look to subdue the creative forces in the Arsenal side, that means the order of the day is slick, non-ponderous football – and preferably an early goal to make their opponents chase the game.

Arsene Wenger will probably restore Gervinho to the first eleven, and will hope that combined with Theo Walcott, Arsenal’s flanks can give the ageing John-Arne Riise and the shaky Stephen Kelly a rough ride. Arsenal will be delighted that Cameroon failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations this year, as it means they will retain Alex Song – another unheralded Premier League performer. Song is as key to Arsenal as Robin Van Persie(f/g), because everything that the team do seems to go through him at some point – he’s a far more complete midfielder than anybody seems to give him credit for. Expect Song’s performance to be key to the result, and Arsenal’s ability to subdue Danny Murphy and the forward-thinking Dembele.

Arsenal 2-1.

Best Bet: Over 2.5 match goals at 1.83.

Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie – All 20 goals from this season

Exactly as it sounds – here are all Robin Van Persie’s goals from his season so far. Fantasy team gold.

Aston Villa vs Arsenal: Preview

Wednesday 7.45pm, Villa Park

Aston Villa 4/1 Draw 5/2 Arsenal 3/4

If I was a Villa fan, and I had to pay to watch the insipid rubbish that Alex McLeish has served up this season then I’m not sure I’d have any optimism approaching many games – especially not ones involving the top 6.

Darren Bent, Emile Heskey, and Chris Herd are all sidelined for the visit of Arsenal, but Gabby Agbonlahor is available after suspension. For the visitors, Johan Djourou is absent after suffering a groin strain at the weekend, and Alex Song starts a one-match ban.

One of the big criticisms that Villa have faced this season is over their inability to successfully link their forwards into the play. There were fleeting moments against Liverpool where Charles N’Zogbia looked like an effective conduit, but they were all to brief – the return of Agbonlahor should help them pose more of a threat, but Bent’s continued absence is an obvious weakness.

All over the pitch Villa are substandard; they can’t pick anybody up at set-pieces, they’re lightweight in the middle with Fabian Delph, and both full-backs are suspect.

Arsenal’s renaissance may have been founded on Robin Van Persie’s goals, but the Dutchman’s form has been the catalyst for a number of players lifting their own level of performance. Slightly ungainly though he may look, Gervinho looks more of an attacking threat week-on-week, and Aaron Ramsey was outstanding against Manchester City. The defence too is noticeably improved since the dark days of August – the development of Koscielny, the return of Vermaelen, and the performances of Szczesny all add up to much healthier picture.

You have to take Arsenal here, because they have the quality of movement and the personnel to open their hosts up. Plus, who’s providing the goals for Villa? There’s really not an area of the pitch from where you get create an argument for a home win – very bleak times, and you’re hard-hearted if you don’t sympathise with what Villa fans are having to put up with.

Arsenal, 2-0.

Interesting Fact: Arsenal have only led at half-time in 25% of their matches.

Best Bet: Draw at half-time, Arsenal win at full-time (7/2)

Arsenal Chairman Peter Hill-Wood on Robin Van Persie’s contract

This one’s going to rumble on for most of the season unfortunately, as Robin Van Persie is still no closer to signing a new contract with Arsenal – not that any alarm bells should be ringing just yet.

Chairman Peter Hill-Wood:

“I think Robin wants to stay. He seems very happy. Nothing has been discussed, though it is obvious we want him to stay. He doesn’t want to talk about a contract now and that’s fine with us.”

Just a thought – but Van Persie’s contract is good for another 18 months, through to the Summer of 2013. How urgent is this situation really? The Dutchman will be thirty by then, and given the toll taken on his body by injuries, how long is he going to be able to operate at his peak for? If I was making the decisions at Arsenal, I wouldn’t be overly keen to extend his contract for more than a year or two – that could well be the sticking point between the two parties if there is one. As players approach the twilight of their career they want more security than two years, and Van Persie will presumably be exactly the same.

That’s obviously a hypothetical, and we’ll have to see how this pans out. But the melodrama over him not signing a new contract yet is fairly irrelevant, he’s already tied to the club for what should be his peak years.

Wolfsburg circle Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky

It’s never quite worked out for Tomas Rosicky in England, has it? Well, Werden Bremen may be poised to launch a bit to bring the Czech Republic international back to Germany.

This is a bit like that option in Football Manager, where you’re allowed to declare that ‘you’re an admirer of’ a certain player to try and unsettle him.

Felix Magath, Manager of the Bundesliga side, on being asked about the Arsenal midfielder:


“Tomas Rosicky is definitely a quality player, there should be no doubt about that.

And he is on top of his fitness. A few years ago, he was chased by all of the big clubs in Europe.”

If the player does leave in January it will bookend a period of unfulfilled promise, because on paper he had all the attributes to fit seamlessly into Arsene Wenger’s footballing philosophy. Derailed by injury, and probably disrupted by his sporadic spells in the team, he’s just never quite delivered on what he’s capable of.

Anyway, here are some highlights from his Borussia Dortmund days…

Arsenal vs Everton: Preview

Saturday 3pm, Emirates Stadium

Arsenal 4/7 Draw 15/4 Everton 13/2

Games that involve Everton are notoriously difficult to predict, because as last Sunday’s loss to Stoke seem to show, form seems to play no part in how they play.

For Arsenal, Andre Santos joins Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, and Kieran Gibbs on the sidelines after picking up an ankle injury against Olympiakos. Everton have no new injury concerns.

With Chelsea not playing until Monday night – and likely to drop points against Manchester City – a win here will see Arsenal jump over their London rivals back into the Champions League places. Quite miraculous when you consider their start to the season.

In spite of their well-publicised defensive woes, Arsene Wenger’s side are conceding under one goal a game at home on average – and the return of Thomas Vermaelen has made that back line look a whole lot more secure.

It’s obviously fashionable to laud the job David Moyes has done at Everton – yes, he’s managed to create a talented team out of minimal resouces – but I’m not quite as enamored as so many others seem to be. He has a talented team, but they never really achieve anything – and at the moment their season is defined by sloppy results and half-hearted performances. Financial restrictions effect what you can bring into a club, not what you do on the pitch. Moyes has done a good job, but his Everton team are still inconsistent and a soft-touch away from home – sometimes at Goodison Park too.

Arsenal win this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Everton don’t have enough going forward – when Tim Cahill is playing to his potential he’s obviously an aerial threat, but don’t be expecting to see him punch any corner flags tomorrow. Secondly, I really like what’s developing between Gervinho, Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott. Van Persie has got, rightly, the bulk of the media attention because of his goals, but the other two are greatly improving on what they showed at the beginning of the season – even Walcott’s final ball has looked decent in recent weeks.

Arsenal 3-0, Everton meek and mild.