An unhappy international break for Arsenal

The international break isn’t a very happy time for anyone in football.  You never hear a fan say:

“Oh good, the glamour and excitement of the Premier League is over for a fortnight.  Now, finally, I can see how Moldova are getting on.”

Equally, you never hear a manager say:

“Oh good, my players are all leaving to go and play for someone else, on an undulating excuse for a pitch in Moldova.”

If it sounds like I have a vendetta against Moldova(ns), I don’t.  I have a vendetta against the international break.  If anyone stands to benefit from this hiatal hernia in the season, it’s the players, who have at least the dubious honour of wearing their country’s colours.  Even if they do have to go to Moldova.

However – and I concede I might just be projecting a negative spin on to this – it seems to me that this international break was particularly unenjoyable for Arsenal players as a whole.  Let’s look at their fortunes on the field.  The English pair of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott started off well, conquering their opponents in Chisinau, but Theo ended up vomiting his way out of the squad, whilst The Ox was part of a dispiriting 1-1 draw at home to Ukraine.

Abou Diaby’s international break had a similar trajectory – it started off well as he scored his first international goal against Finland, only to pick up a predictable niggle that could rule him out of Saturday’s game with Southampton.  His France team-mate Olivier Giroud rounded off his iffy start to the season by being booed from the field in his country’s colours, whilst in the gallic U-21 side, Francis Coquelin managed to get himself sent off. Aaron Ramsey’s Wales got hammered by Serbia, Lukas Podolski’s Germany stumbled to a meagre 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands, and Gervinho went another week of his life without realising quite how desperately he requires a haircut.  It was not a good week.

There was the odd highlight.  Santi Cazorla struck for Spain, Conor Henderson scored a wonder goal for Ireland U-21s, and Gervinho knocked one in off the bar (presumably by mistake).  But basically this week was conclusive proof that international breaks are the work of the devil.

Even those players left at home found themselves in trouble.  Andre Santos’ run in with the law continues, whilst Bacary Sagna got a rap on the knuckles from the club for his comments about the sale of Alex Song.  I have to say that whatever Sagna might make of goings on at boardroom level, I agree with Arsene that there is no questioning his commitment on the pitch.

Speaking of the board and all that, it is well worth reading the full Q & A with Ivan Gazidis that prompted all those ‘New Deal For Wenger’ headlines.  What he actually said was this:

Presumably having led you through that tough period, you want to see Arsène Wenger lead you through those good time as well?

Gazidis: It’s not a sense of sentimentalism, not a reward for our services, it’s a belief that we have an incredible manager who loves this club and is the best man to lead us forward.

We’re really confident about the direction that the club is heading. We’re coming through strongly and we believe we’re really well placed. We hope and believe that Arsene will be a part of that as we move forward.

And of course he’s going to say that.  Whatever your opinion of Arsene Wenger, I think we all accept that barring a complete on-field disaster he is here until 2014.  At this stage, Ivan Gazidis is not going to say anything to undermine his position.  Equally, we should all know by now that Arsene is extremely unlikely to sit down and talk about a new contract until he has entered the final year of his present one.  It was ever thus.  I’m not sure that this is really a story.

Anyway. Proper football is tantalisingly close now.  Just one more sleep away.

Bac says, Arshavin stays, & Arsene prays

Hello all.  That is, if there’s anyone out there, and you haven’t all turned away from football entirely during the dark times that constitute any international break.  Unusually, there is actually some Arsenal news to report, although not all of it is good.

Gooners will have been slightly alarmed to read the comments of Bacary Sagna yesterday.  He told L’Equipe:

“I expected Robin’s departure, but Alex, that was a surprise. He’s 24 and had three years on his contract.  When you see your two best players from last season leave, you ask yourself questions.

In the street, supporters sometimes come to see me. I can understand that they’re annoyed. I’m like them – I don’t understand everything.”

In some ways it’s reassuring to see that the players share our sentiments.  However, it’s not ideal for the club to see those thoughts emerge in print, especially when it calls the decisions of the manager and the board in to question.  It’s surprising these words have come from Sagna, though – a guy whose brilliance on the pitch is underlined by a stoic professionalism off it.  If anything, that lends the words more gravitas.  The departure of Song in particular will have hurt him as the pair were close off the pitch.   However, I’m confident that once Bac is back and playing his concerns will fade.  What I do hope, however, is that Arsenal don’t let the mistake of allowing Sagna’s contract to run too far down.  We won’t find a better full-back.

One player who isn’t leaving is Andrey Arshavin.  The Russian transfer window slammed shut last night, with the player still firmly on English soil.  Both Dinamo Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg claimed to have reached agreement with Arsenal to take Arshavin on a free transfer, but in both instances he turned them down.  His motivation, as far as I understand, is simple: he doesn’t want to leave London.  When he joined Zenit on loan last year, his family remained behind.  His kids are in school and he’s hopeful of getting them citizenship.  I have to say, I’m a little bit glad he’s stayed.  We saw glimpses in EURO 2012 of what he’s capable of, and he’s not a bad squad player to have around.  I’d still choose Arshavin over Gervinho in most circumstances.  The little Russian’s desire to stay for off-field reasons is clear; now he has to earn it on the pitch.

Tonight sees a host of international games kicking off, and Arsene will be anxiously watching on, hoping his players return intact.  No-one will cause more concern than Abou Diaby, who is set to be involved for France in their game against Finland.  Ahead of the game, Diaby has been talking to Le Parisien about his injury nightmare:

“I have revenge to take over the time I lost but I want to prove to myself that I can go higher.

All I wanted was to play again. I am born with a strong temper. I never give up. Maybe some people would have given up in my position but it was out of the question for me.  It was my destiny, it was written [to come back].”

There’s some lovely translation in there, that makes Diaby sound like the revenging swordsman from The Princess Bridge.

“My name is Vassiriki Abou Diaby.  You broke my ankle.  Prepare to die.”

In seriousness though, it’s great to see him back, but I think we should sound a note of caution.  The chances of him being able to play every game this season – even if he avoids injury – are slim.  After that long out his body will need rest and recuperation, and hopefully the return of Jack Wilshere will allow Arsene to lighten the load on both injury-prone midfielders.

It’s been interesting to note that our start to the season has seen our title odds significantly shorten. I don’t think we’re candidates – I envisage a familiar fourth-placed finish. What can’t be denied is this: the bookies and online casinos such as www.bellerockentertainment.comobviously recognise the potential of Arsene Wenger’s new-look team.

Till next time…

Midweek musings: RVP, Podolski, Andre Santos

Greetings, one and all.  I’ve been so busy of late that a midweek blog has become something of an unaffordable luxury.  However, with the horrors of Internationals upon us, I reckon it’s probably best that we huddle together and warm ourselves by a reassuring, Arsenal-flavoured fire.

I don’t know what percentage of the readers of this blog follow me on twitter.  If you don’t yet and are considering it, abandon that plan:  I will only stress you out, as I seem to have devolved in to the football fan equivalent of Chicken Licken.  In the last  48 hours I have stated, on separate occasions and with a worrying degree of certainty, that Robin van Persie and Mikel Arteta were both suspended for the game at Anfield, and that Van Persie had picked up an injury in training with Holland.  On each occasion, I was incorrect: the fact that Arteta and RVP have reached five yellow cards ceased to be relevant after December 31st, and the decision to let Van Persie sit out training with Holland last night was predominantly precautionary.  The sky, it seems, is not falling after all.  Apologies: I shall endeavour to be more thorough in the future.

Of course, we’ll still all be praying that RVP and others come through tonight’s internationals unscathed.  We have a massive game at Anfield on Saturday morning, and to be without the Dutchman in particular would be an enormous blow.  There’s rather a nice piece by Henry Winter here which makes clear his importance to the club.  Some papers have attempted to attach some drama to the fact that Van Persie will not enter in to discussions about a contract renewal until the end of the season.  To most Arsenal fans, however, it comes as no surprise.  Van Persie will want to know whether or not Arsenal will be competing in the Champions League, and in the interim one cannot question his absolute commitment to making that happen.  When those talks do happen, I don’t doubt that Arsene and Ivan will attempt to throw money at the problem by offering Robin a very competitive contract.  In some respects, they’d be better throwing it elsewhere: what’s most likely to keep him is a competitive Arsenal team.

Perhaps one of the summer recruits will be Lukasz Podolski.  German tabloid Bild claims the player has decided that his future lies with Arsenal – the sole obstacle is for the two clubs to agree a fee.  Knowing us, that remains rather a big obstacle, and the article itself seems speculative at best.  Let’s wait and see on this one.

A bit of good news to end with: Andre Santos has said on Twitter that he expects to be back playing in the next fortnight.  That’s a huge boost for us – prior to his injury, his form was outstanding.  Although Kieran Gibbs recovered from a shaky start to have a strong second half against Spurs, for me Santos is a superior player, and certainly provides a more experienced option at left-back.  When Santos returns, we’ll discover if Arsene sees it the same way – if, that is, Gibbs can stay fit long enough to make Arsene have to choose.

Right, that’s all from me. Enjoy your Wednesday.

International break ramblings

Hello all.  I’m not dead.  It may appear so from the lack of activity on the site, but instead I’ve entered a kind of stasis,  cryogenically freezing the Arsenal-obsessed part of my brain to protect it from the onslaught of boredom provided by the international break.  Now I’ve temporarily awakened it, and the ennui is already flooding through the window.

In the past few days I’ve taken time to reflect on the events of the weekend.  I certainly feel more positive about it now than I did on Monday morning – even though I am mercifully spared the gloom of trudging in to an office job to be faced with gloating colleagues.  Losing to your local rivals is always painful, but the Spurs and Arsenal squads are about on a level pegging at the moment.  Losing to a team who are about as good as you, at their stadium, is no great shame.  Objectively, it doesn’t appear a disaster on par with Old Trafford, Ewood Park, or the home defeat to Liverpool.

Of course, it will matter more, because it’s Spurs.  I had a fascinating and at times terse conversation with a good friend of mine last night, who is not a football fan.  That is to say: he doesn’t mind playing, he’ll even watch as a neutral, but he doesn’t support a team.  He described a scenario where he walked through Kensal Rise, and saw a crowd of Fulham fans singing about their hatred for Chelsea.  He simply doesn’t understand the tribalism, and asked me to explain or justify it.  Why, he asked, do I say “we” won when I had almost nothing to do with it?  And why ‘hate’ other teams?

I have to say I didn’t find his questions easy to answer.  Explaining it away as a geographical loyalty to your local area becomes impossible with the number of fans who have no history or heritage in the city where their team is based.  Let’s not forget a fan in Africa recently committed suicide on the back of an Arsenal defeat.

I think it’s certainly tied to some sort of tribal instinct – an inherent “us against them” mentality.  We live in a world with a decreasing number of foot-soldiers.  Football provides an outlet for that aggressive instinct, and occasionally I’m glad that the vitriol I witness inside a football ground is contained within that relatively controlled environment, rather than being unleashed out on the streets somewhere.  When it spills over, however, as with the unacceptable chanting from both fans on Sunday, it’s a very ugly sight and sound indeed.

I suspect one of the main reason people invest in the fortunes of their team is as a form of vicarious living.  As lovers of sport, we are imbued with a competitive spirit, though not necessarily the ability to actually compete on the great stages of the world game.  Pinning our colours to a club’s mast allows us to share in the glory of victory and the catharsis of defeat.

Above all else, I suspect that in an increasingly blurred, globalised world, people are more willing than ever to ‘belong’ or cling to whatever they can use to construct an identity.  In this relatively secular country, football is the obvious way to do so.

This is a real ramble, straight from my brain to the page via a pounded and punished keyboard – a stream of consciousness splashing all over your unsuspecting face.  If you have more considered opinions, I’d love to hear them.  We need to fill the time somehow.

Right.  Back in to the stasis tank.