Ramsey, Chamberlain & Fan Perception

Aaron Ramsey was criticised by fans last night

Aaron Ramsey is out-of-form and, as it happens, out of the team.  By that I mean he was only given a chance in his favoured central midfield role at Wolves in order to afford Tomas Rosicky a rest.  At Everton and QPR, he was shunted in to an unfamiliar left-wing role in order to fulfil a defensive function – an unhappy square peg in an ill-fitting round hole.  The only reason Ramsey came on last night was because of the unfortunate injury to Mikel Arteta.  And in a fully fit squad, he would not have been first off the bench: both Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, entirely absent this season, would be ahead of him in the pecking order.

He knows he’s not playing well.  You can see it in his desperation in front of goal; his desire to make a tangible contribution to the team.  The manager knows it too –  he doesn’t make excuses for players who don’t need them.  But there are mitigating circumstances with Ramsey.  His horrific injury means that this is his first full season in the Premier League.  He made his first start for Arsenal post leg-break on the 19th March 2011 – barely a year ago.  This season he has been involved in no less than 40 games, starting 32.  The weight of responsibility has been significant: Arsene Wenger expected to retain Samir Nasri, and have Jack Wilshere available for selection.  Instead, Arsenal have leaned heavily on a 21-year old, who has only recently been able to share the burden with a rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky.

In that period he himself would admit that he’s not scored enough goals, or provided enough assists.  Throughout the season I’ve been quick to criticise him for being a little impetuous in his decision making, or for attempting a difficult pass when the simpler ball is a better option.  However, one thing I can never question is his commitment.  Despite his poor form, he’s never hid.  He’s never let his head go down, or stopped trying things.  He’s a player of enormous mental fortitude – he probably wouldn’t even have been able to make a top level comeback if that weren’t the case.

Last night, however, sections of the crowd and huge swathes of the global fanbase couldn’t wait to get on his back as soon as he got on the pitch.  His touch was admittedly uncertain, but immediately a man sat yards from me leapt to his feet and demanded he be subbed off.  In the aftermath of the game, the criticism of him ranged from the illogical (“Ramsey cost us the game”) to the obscene (death threats and encouragement to take his own life sent directly to his Twitter account).

Let’s deal with the facts first: Ramsey was not to blame for our defeat.  By that point we were already two nil down, and whilst he was poor during his time on the pitch, he was no worse than many of his team-mates.  Secondly, what do these so-called ‘supporters’ hope to gain from this behaviour?  It’s hardly going to spur Ramsey on to improve.  As I’ve stated many times, there’s no question over his commitment – he’s simply been asked to do too much this season, and has finally hit a rut of poor form.  He will come again.  There is not a team in the country who wouldn’t want the 21-year old captain of Wales in their squad.

Of course, part of the fans’ collective frustration is that by this point they were already baying for ‘The Ox’.  After a run of starts in January and February, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has recently been used almost exclusively from the bench.  The fans question the wisdom of Arsene’s selection policy, but the fine form of Theo Walcott and our impressive winning run suggests its not entirely foolish.  However, as soon as Arsenal found themselves two goals down yesterday, there was a collective sense that only Oxlade-Chamberlain could save us.

Indeed, when he eventually did come on, after chants of ‘Ox Ox Ox’ from an impatient crowd, his arrival was met with the loudest roar of the night.  I have to say, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.  Encouragement is good – pressure to be the Messiah is not.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shows off his talent in Europe

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an outstanding young player, and that has been recognised by his fellow professionals nominating him for the Young Footballer of the Year award.  However, that nomination is more a recognition of his talent than his contribution this season.  Look at the names alongside him – Aguero, Bale, Sturridge.  They have been regular starters for their team, scoring in to the double-figures and featuring regularly at international level.  Chamberlain has just five Premier League starts to his name.  For all his promise, he has much to learn, and his contribution when he came on was indicative of that.  He showed plenty of passion, charging at defenders and turning this way and that, but on two occasions he lost the ball and left us facing a dangerous counter-attack when a simple pass was on.  He will learn, because he is good enough, and intelligent enough.  But the level of expectation around this boy is becoming absurd.

He is not Messi.  He is not Ronaldo.  I daren’t say he won’t ever reach that level – I would never set limitations on anybody’s talent – I’ve seen improvements in players that defy belief.  But he’s a long way from that yet, and Arsenal fans need to show patience with his development, and measure their expectations accordingly.

I would certainly have him ahead of Gervinho in the pecking order, but once Arsene had made the call to introduce the Ivorian, surely the most sensible way to use the remaining substitute was to deploy a second striker in Marouane Chamakh?  I was as baffled by Arsene’s decision as I was by the fans’ jubilant reaction.

It’s good to back youngsters.  But here’s my worry: when Aaron Ramsey was 18 years old, I’d say his potential was roughly equivalent to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s now.  People were talking about him as a future Arsenal captain, a ‘Steven Gerrard figure’ and part of an exciting new generation of British talent.  Ramsey is a lesson that the hype and expectation around a young starlet can quickly turn to frustration – just ask Theo Walcott, who was pilloried last night for a performance that was nullified more by Wigan’s outstanding tactics than any failings on Theo’s part.

It is my firm belief that Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will become massive players for Arsenal Football Club.  What they both need from the fans is time, patience, support, and a bit of perspective.  Let’s give them that.

Sunderland 1 – 2 Arsenal: Thierry’s Fabulous Fond Farewell

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SUNDERLAND 1 – 2 ARSENAL

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

When I last filed an entry on this blog, Arsenal had just beaten at home by Manchester United, to the audible irritation of a mutinous crowd.  It got worse.  In the next game, an FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Aston Villa, Arsenal found themselves two nil down at half-time, and staring down the barrel of a fourth defeat in five games.  Since then, there has been a remarkable upturn in our fortunes.  An upturn which, I should add, has coincided with my enforced absence.  Perhaps I should stay away.

First off, Arsenal fought back to beat Aston Villa 3-2, scoring a trio of second half goals inside eight minutes.  Then a 0-0 draw at Bolton was followed up with a stunning 7-1 victory over Blackburn – a game memorable for the first Premier League goals from the emerging Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and a stoppage time strike from Thierry Henry on what could be his final Emirates appearance.

It was not, however, to be the last contribution of Henry’s loan stint.  On Saturday, in the final Premier League appearance of his farewell tour, the man who writes scripts with a swish of his right boot rather than a pen emerged from the bench.  There was just half an hour to play in our game against in form Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.  After Aaron Ramsey had clawed back an equaliser to James McClean’s opener, Henry’s expertly volleyed home a stoppage time winner to hand Arsenal a vital three points.  229 Arsenal goals and, with a game against AC Milan to come, still counting.

It was a massive result on a day which saw Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle all succumb to defeat.  As things stand we’re currently in fourth place, which is invaluable considering that we are about to enter a period of fixtures that will almost certainly define our season.  We return to Sunderland in the FA Cup and face Milan in Europe, whilst our next three league games see us come up against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle.

It looks like we’ll have to do without Per Mertesacker for that period, after the big German was stretchered off in the North East.  He’s actually been a very consistent figure in the Arsenal side – of the outfield players, only Laurent Koscielny, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie have started more games this season.  The one saving grace is that his injury comes at a time when we are able to welcome back Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs on the flanks, giving Arsene a rare opportunity to pair Vermaelen and Koscielny in the middle.

Another player we’ll soon be welcoming back in to the fold is Gervinho, who is expected to return to London on Tuesday.  His African Cup of Nations campaign ended in unceremonious fashion as he missed the crucial penalty in the shoot-out which saw underdogs Zambia take the title.  The players lack of confidence in front of goal was underlined by the fact that, despite being an attacker, he was Ivory Coast’s ninth penalty taker, even refusing to take the eighth and sending defender Kolo Toure up instead.  If you haven’t seen the penalty, it’s about as bad as you imagine it to be.  Gervinho has undoubted qualities, but for a man whose tax return reads ‘footballer’, he is surprisingly bad at the actual ‘kicking the ball’ bit.  Nevertheless, one has to feel sorry for any player who is the victim of a shootout, and let’s hope it doesn’t knock his confidence too much for the remaining period of the season.

It’s nice to be back and blogging again.  It’s also nice to be able to write positive things.  There’s nothing like a few decent results to ease any tension among the fanbase.

An exciting trip to Milan looms large, and Thierry will soon be back in the San Siro.  Would you bet against one final magical moment?

Arsenal 1 – 2 Man U: Mutiny at the Emirates

Yesterday, Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United, which is no great disaster. It’s certainly an improvement on the 8-2. However, yesterday Arsene Wenger lost a lot more than a football match. In one moment, he seemed to lose the trust of the Arsenal faithful.

The discontent surrounded the substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Chamberlain had been Arsenal’s most promising attacking player, and had just created an equalising goal for Robin van Persie. However, Arsene decided to replace him with Andrey Arshavin, who is currently as far from being a fan favourite as he is from his hometown of St. Petersburg.

The decision was met with huge boos. Even Robin van Persie visibly declared his disbelief at his manager’s choice. As Oxlade-Chamberlain trotted off, there was some brief respite as the fans praised his contribution. But when Arshavin subsequently took to the field, the booing returned – louder and longer than it had been before. To be honest, it was unclear if the jeers were for Arshavin, for Arsene, or both.

Let me start with the decision to bring Chamberlain off.  Sources in the Arsenal camp indicated he was physically tiring, and that doesn’t surprise me in the least. An 18-year old on his first Premier League start was never likely to complete ninety minutes, however well he was doing. The explanation that he was suffering from fatigue seems to me to be entirely credible.

And even if the switch was purely tactical, it did not merit the howls of derision it received. I thought the behaviour of the fans in the stadium yesterday (and before anyone labels me an ‘armchair’ fan, I was there myself) was pretty pathetic. It was the sort of stuff I’m more accustomed to seeing from Blackburn fans. After a first-half in which the Emirates lived up to its ‘library’ reputation, swathes of the crowd managed to wake up to boo the team off at halftime. And then to follow that up by greeting a substitute with boos? Ridiculous.

Having this debate last night on twitter, many fans felt inclined to point out that the substitution “ruined our positive momentum”. Yeah, well thanks for levelling things up with all the booing. That sure helped restore the positive vibe.
Truth be told, folks can say what they like on twitter. Or here. Pretty much anywhere.  But when you’re in the stadium, you get behind your team. Let’s not forget, at this point in the game we were drawing 1-1 with the Champions, and the fans were chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at the manager.

This is the same manager who took the bold decision to start Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first place. The same manager who made an intelligent and effective change at half-time, introducing natural fullback Nico Yennaris for the struggling Johan Djourou.  This, lest we forget, was Arsene Wenger.

I suppose the vitriol on display is a symptom of a relationship under strain. The reaction yesterday was about more than one substitution – it’s about 6 trophless years, a baffling transfer policy, and most recently a run of three consecutive defeats. Patience with Arsene has been thinning and yesterday, for many, it gave way.

I do understand how those fans feel. I occasionally feel exactly the same. I merely don’t  agree with how they chose to express it. We are in a very sticky situation now. To be without a league point in January is not good. We’re in a poor run of form that, in the battle for fourth place, we can ill-afford.

Truth be told, I think our record is simply levelling out to something approaching an accurate reflection of our ability. Robin van Persie carried us to a long unbeaten run pre-Christmas, but I think in that spell we did disproportionately well.  Expectations may have been raised higher than was appropriate, and that seems to have led to complacency in the transfer market.

Despite the disparity in scoreline, the feeling among Arsenal fans is very much as it was after the Old Trafford hammering. We’re staring down the barrel of catastrophe with a few days to dust off the chequebook and sort it out. This time, however, I’ve no confidence that we’ll get any reinforcements, let alone half a dozen.

I opened the blog up by saying that losing to United is not, in itself, a disaster. I stand by that. However, finishing outside the top four, for both financial and footballistic reasons, would be. And at the moment, that feels increasingly probable. If there are any steps Arsene and the board can take over the next week to avoid that fate, they simply must. The natives are increasingly restless.
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I’ve typed this rather hurriedly on an iPad, so don’t have the usual fancy links and stuff. Forgive me.

Red, white, and relieved

I’m mildly surprised I still remember how to do this.  Blogging, it seems, is a bit like riding a bike: painful and disaster-prone at first, but when you return to it after an absence muscle memory takes over and eases you through.  I’ve been reading the comments since my last blog – frankly, ages ago – and there is speculation as to whether I’m “dead” or merely “a disgrace”.  I’m afraid it’s merely the latter – this blog does not come from beyond the grave.  Instead, I’ve been in hibernation whilst the internationals have bored the living daylights out of anyone foolish enough to watch them.

The major Arsenal story of the international break – the one that almost tempted me in to actually writing a blog – was the outstanding form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  After notching four assists in his previous game for the England U-21s, Chamberlain went as far as to score a hatrick in the game against Iceland.  His last competitive match had been his Champions League debut, in which he also scored, after which he was left out of the matchday squad for the North London derby.  Arsene Wenger is clearly determined not to rush his development, and says:

“He is ahead of schedule.  Overall I think he has to add some ingredients to his game that will be absolutely necessary at the top but he has the basic talent – nobody can dispute that.

I am very happy for bringing him here. But of course now we want from him the commitment and the urgency that is requested in the Premier League.

One second of lacking attention defensively can cost you a game. That has changed in the modern game and that is why he is ahead of schedule. I think in the next few months he can add that to his game.”

That’s the second or third time Arsene has mentioned the defensive weaknesses in Alex’s game – though how he can say that whilst continually picking Andrey Arshavin in a similar position baffles me.  Perhaps he’ll be involved in some way this weekend.

The other good news is that our boys managed to come through the games unscathed.  Tomas Rosicky picked up a minor problem, as is his wont, but should be fine for Sunday’s game with Sunderland.  An extra days preparation is a real bonus for those players who’ve traveled to far-flung corners of the world, and should enable us to stave off any post-international fatigue.

Abou Diaby and Thomas Vermaelen, you may recall, were supposed to be fit to return after the international break.  Predictably, they’re not.  Both players are expected to be fit to return in around two weeks, with Diaby pencilled in to make his comeback in the Carling Cup clash with Bolton.

Arsenal have a new absence to contend with – that of Bacary Sagna, who is sidelined for several months with a broken leg.  Arsene Wenger has suggested that Carl Jenkinson will fill the void this weekend, but once Vermaelen returns to action I wonder if Laurent Koscielny might be shunted wide, with Mertesacker and the Belgian in the middle.  I suppose much will depend on how Jenkinson acquits himself over the next few games.

Jinx-hungry Robin van Persie, meanwhile, says he’s never felt fitter.  Oh dear.

As I type this, stories from Arsene’s afternoon press conference are beginning to emerge.  They essentially seem to be the same as the ones I’ve written up above, only with slightly different wording.  Nevertheless, I’ll update you on those and preview the Sunderland match properly over the weekend.  Because Gunnerblog is back.  And football is back.  Sweet, sweet relief.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Olympiacos: Arsenal Avoid Greek Tragedy

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Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wheels away after opening the scoring against Olympiacos

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s Pat’s reaction

Arsenal picked up their first win of the Champions League group stage last night, meaning we were the only English side to win in Europe’s premier competition this week.  We also now have more Champions League points than Manchester City and Manchester United combined.

Arsene gambled a little with his team selection, and got away with it.  I support his decision, and would have done even if it had backfired.  We have a huge squad now, as the fact that even with the amount of injuries we’re carrying we were able to rest players demonstrates.  The XI he picked was plenty strong enough to win this game at home.

With that said, I think we all may have been guilty of underestimating Olympiacos a little.  Granted, we don’t see much of them in England, but I thought they were great last night – all technically capable, and organised too.  They were smart in their tactical play, looking to break against our attacking midfield, and closing down Mikel Arteta whenever he got the ball.  Their goal was the result of some intelligent thinking: recognising that we’re adapting to a new zonal marking system, they threw a spanner in the works by taking short corners.  Frankly, we looked as if he hadn’t covered that situation in training yet.

They looked the more dangerous side for long periods of the game, but fortunately we were already two goals ahead thanks to strikes from two recent signings.  First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his impression adaptation to top-level football by dribbling inside from the right and firing left-footed across the goalkeeper to become the youngest ever English goalscorer in the Champions League.  The second and third youngest, in case you’re wondering, are Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.

Andre Santos’ goal also came off his wrong foot.  He galloped forward to meet a Tomas Rosicky through-ball, but his cross for Chamakh was cut out.  When the ball rebounded back to the cavalier left-back, he skipped in side his man and knocked a right-footed effort in at the keeper’s near post.

We did struggle to retain possession at times – Emmanuel Frimpong looking particularly raw in midfield – and Olympiacos gave us the fright of our lives by striking the crossbar from range in the second-half with an effort that probably deserved better – but we held out for the win.

There were plenty of positives for me, particularly with the makeshift centre-half pairing of Song and Mertesacker.  Song was tenacious and calm on the ball, and the German had his best game in an Arsenal shirt.  I’ve noticed an interesting trend in his play: unlike most Arsenal centre-halves, he doesn’t charge straight towards the ball.  At times he backs away or runs in to an area which seems to make no sense – only to be perfectly positioned to clear when the cross comes in.  He’s economical and efficient – at times last night he knew when his best option was just to boot the thing away.

I also felt Santos played well, and the battle between he and Kieran Gibbs looks set to run and run.  Santos has a remarkable upright dribbling style – his touch is immaculate and last night he showed some steel to match the flair.

It’d be impossible not to mention Chamberlain.  Although I felt he faded before being withdrawn on the hour mark, it’s clear we’ve got a huge talent here.  The most obvious comparisons to make are with Theo Walcott – not just because of their Southampton heritage, but because they’re competing for the same spot in the team.  Last night Pat Rice said:

“From Arsenal supporters’ point of view, they are going to be seeing a lot of this boy. Whenever he breaks in permanently he has a big, big challenge to now get in front of Theo. I know that Theo is a very strong-willed guy as well and he won’t give in easy. It all bodes well for England anyway.”

For England – and, more to the point, for Arsenal.

In summary: we won.  United’s home draw with Basel shows how treacherous these games against ‘lesser’ opposition can be.  The Greek league is significantly stronger than the Swiss, and we came out on top.  I’m happy with that and you ought to be too.