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.

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.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool: Cracks widening with every game

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Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Quite often, I get criticised in the ‘Comments’ section of this blog for being “too positive”.  I’m accused of being sycophantic to the manager and blind to the club’s problem.  Those readers will probably enjoy this blog a little more.  Equally, I hope that those fans who enjoy my more positive outlook will forgive the sombre mood of this post – but I was deeply alarmed by what I witnessed today.

When Arsenal took to the field at St. James’ Park a week ago, our first XI looked decent enough.  It was the bench that bothered me.  One week, and a few predictable injuries later, those substitutes have been promoted and are getting game-time.  Their inexperience and insufficiency was exploited ruthlessly as Liverpool recorded their first victory away to Arsenal of Arsene’s reign.  A watershed result in a watershed month for the manager.

I’m not blaming the kids.  The likes of Jenkinson, Frimpong, Ramsey and Miquel tried their very best.  Unfortunately, however, they made rookie errors which, at this level, simply don’t go unpunished.  The truth is that they oughtn’t have been out there today – it is not their fault that the squad has been stripped of experience.

In the first half we were performing well enough without creating any chances of note, until we lost Laurent Koscielny to a back injury.  That setback saw Miquel introduced, and a nervy Arsenal never really found their footing again.  Watching in the stands, the match had a 0-0 draw written all over it – Liverpool were seemingly happy to park their five man midfield and take a valuable point.

The game hinged on the sending off of Emmanuel Frimpong.  Along with the outstanding Thomas Vermaelen, Frimpong had been Arsenal’s best player, but after clattering Lucas Frimpong picked up a second booking and had to go.  Over-enthusiasm and a rush of adrenaline put an end to what was otherwise an outstanding full debut – the FA should be doing everything they can to convince him to change his mind and play for England.

Liverpool, smelling blood, introduced Luis Suarez, who set about tormenting our backline with his speed and movement.  The goals Liverpool got were admittedly graced with luck: both appeared to be offside, and one was the result of a calamitous own goal after Miquel’s clearance hit Ramsey and looped over the advancing Szczesny.  But with ten men and a defence of Sagna at left-back, Jenkinson at right-back, and Vermaelen and Miquel in the middle we were asking for trouble.  For the first time I found myself wondering with concern just where Sebastien Squillaci was.

Miquel did alright, and can obviously pass a ball, but was understandably nervy.  He wasn’t alone in putting in a less than inspiring performance: Sagna looked uncomfortable at left-back, Jenkinson was committed but struggled on the ball, Ramsey was erratic, Walcott anonymous, and Arshavin awful.  But, at the moment, they’re all we have.

The knocks and suspensions we’re picking up are unfortunate.  But we know we have a squad prone to injury and discipline, and have taken no steps to counter that.  When Liverpool went ahead, a good number of fans chanted aggressively, imploring Arsene to spend some money.  I didn’t join in – at that point, the team were still very much in the game and needed our support.  I did, however, entirely understand the sentiment.

Liverpool weren’t brilliant today, but their team looked an awful lot better than it did twelve months ago – and this, let’s remember, was without Gerrard and with Suarez starting on the bench.  It’s no coincidence that since January, they’ve spent about £100m.  Yes, they’ve overpaid for some players, but they’ve got the personnel they needed.  And they’re better for it.

There is a lot to be learnt from their handling of the Fernando Torres sale.  Torres was a symbolic and pivotal figure at Anfield – much like Cesc was at Arsenal.  After selling him to Chelsea, they immediately replaced him with players able to come in and make an immediate impact in their first team.  Crucially, it also gave the entire club a lift, and convinced players and supporters alike that they would recover from the transfer.  I’m not advocating anything as absurd as paying £35m for Andy Caroll, but some new additions would not only plug the gaping holes in the squad, but also give the whole club a boost.

Those holes will widen further if Samir Nasri leaves next week.  The headline news was that he started the game, and I thought he did OK.  During the match a story broke on French TV station Canal Plus that the deal with Manchester City may have fallen through – I have to say I doubt that very much indeed.  Arsene Wenger said he knew nothing about it after the game, but City officials are privately briefing journalists that they’re confident a move will go ahead.  Wednesday will act as a deadline of sorts – if he plays against Udinese, he would be cup-tied for the Champions League (IF Arsenal qualify).

Whether he stays or not, I wish Arsene would stop telling us how much Nasri “loves” the club.  Today he said:

“I have always said I will try to keep Samir Nasri. I have never changed my mind. I played him, much to the surprise of everybody, because he loves this club and at the moment I am happy he is here.”

Right, let’s get this straight: Samir Nasri doesn’t love this club.  Or, if he does, it’s a love which comes second to monetary gain, which is no kind of love I know.

The fans in that stadium today love the club.  Unlike Nasri, they’re putting their money in to the club rather than taking it out.  And unlike Nasri, they’ll be here next week.  And next season.  And beyond.

I didn’t join those who left early, or who booed.  But I understand why they’re frustrated.  For the first time, I have serious doubts about our ability to qualify for the Champions League both for this season and next.  I hope, with all my heart, that I’m proved wrong.

All very un-Friendly as Henry comes home

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It should have been a day for celebration.  One of Arsenal’s most cherished sons, Thierry Henry, returned home to a rapturous reception.  In a neat piece of symmetry, as we looked back at the career of one our all-time greats, a young striker hailing from Dagenham, Benik Afobe, was making his debut.  And, with Arsenal leading thanks to a Robin van Persie header, it should have been rounded off by Arsenal lifting their own trophy in their own stadium.

Unfortunately, Henry had other ideas, splitting the defence with a typically precise pass to invoke a move that ended with Kyle Bartley turning in to his own net.  Immediately, the atmosphere soured, like coagulated milk.  The unpleasant stench of last season enveloped the Emirates, and the full-time whistle of a friendly game was met with booing.  Yes, booing.

I can’t condone that at all.  The Emirates Cup is a “Cup” only in name – otherwise our previous successes in it would mean we wouldn’t be accused of any kind of trophy drought.  It is an exercise in two things: fitness and revenue.  The players run around, the club make some money, and Emirates get to plaster their name all over something else.  Whilst a positive performance is always a boost, the result, ultimately, doesn’t matter.

I can, however, understand the frustration.  The boos were not so much for conceding an equaliser.  Nor were they for failing to win another, admittedly pointless, trophy.  They were boos born out of what has been yet another painful summer, in a year when Arsenal fans really needed it to go more smoothly.  They were boos which were almost as articulate an expression of the concerns around the club as this piece by Amy Lawrence.

There’s still time for the situation to be rectified.  There’s still time to find a resolution to the Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri stand-offs and redress the balance caused by any departure.  There is time to add an experienced centre-back, or maybe even a left-back.  But it is running short.  The season is now less than two weeks away.  Events at full-time yesterday showed that Arsenal fans are still deeply hurt by the back end of last season.  The players are too, and even they are clear about wanting reinforcements.  In the next couple of weeks, the manager has a chance to take decisive action, regain everybody’s trust, and make the home crowd feel that little bit better about that 6.5% extra they’ve paid to watch us in the coming months.

It’s important to remember that the game was not without positives.  Gervinho continues to impress me with his direct running and movement off the ball.  Having a wide player who is prepared to dart through the centre and in to the six yard box will add something to this team.

Robin van Persie looks sharp, whilst having Thomas Vermaelen fit again is a huge boost to the squad.  Afobe also made a decent impression on his first-team bow, albeit in unfortunate circumstances, as Jack Wilshere was withdrawn with an injury.  It doesn’t seem like a serious one, and if it means he can miss out on international duty with England then that’s probably no bad thing.

It was fantastic to see Thierry looking, in my opinion, happier than he ever did in a Barcelona shirt.  Arsene had planned to give him 5 minutes in an Arsenal shirt, but the rules forbade it.  That’s no bad thing: I’ve got enough memories of him in red and white to last a lifetime.  There’s never been a more electrifying sight than Henry in full flow.  We’ll be lucky to see his like again.

Right, that’ll do for now.  Something tells me there could be plenty more to say come the end of this week…