Archive for November 3rd, 2008

Arrested Development

3 comments November 3rd, 2008

Stoke City 2 – 1 Arsenal (Fuller 11, Olofinjana 73, Clichy 90) Highlights here

Here we go…

The blog hasn’t got a title yet.  I’m hoping one will emerge as I write it.  I don’t even know if this bit will be in the blog when I post it.  But I’ve got to start somewhere.

So, I went to Stoke.  I don’t go to many away games, but on a whim, I went to Stoke.  Total up the ticket for the game, train travel, the ‘food’ I ate at the ground, and you’re easily looking at the best part of £100.  In return, I was served up with a) the most hideous pie I have ever tasted, and b) the worst Arsenal performance that I can remember.  Quite seriously, whilst I’ll admit I might be blinded by my rage, I cannot remember a worse performance, certainly not during Arsene Wenger’s reign.

Occasionally a terrible performance is masked by an acceptable result – not so on Saturday.  With respect to Stoke, we (a “Champions League” club) managed to lose to a team who are good at two things: being tall, and throw-ins.

It would be different if it was a one-off.  But we’re barely into November, and we’ve already suffered defeats to Hull, Fulham, and Stoke.  Two of those are in their first Premier League season, whilst the latter two remain among the favourites to go down.  Throw in a narrow escape at Sunderland and the debacle against Tottenham, and it’s been a dreadful start.  And, struggling Spurs aside, we’re yet to play any of our major rivals.  The next month includes games against Manchester United, Aston Villa, Manchester City, and Chelsea.  It could be about to get much worse.

And what really hurts, as arseblogger so astutely points out, is that we could all see it coming.  The squad was not sufficiently strengthened this Summer, and we are now suffering the consequences.  And the buck for this has to stop with the manager.

I have to take at face value the information we receive about our financial position.  And that means that we had money to spend this Summer, and Arsene chose not to use it.  If a manager signs a player who turns out to not be very good, he receives criticism.  It should be the same if a manager fails to sign the required reinforcements.  The net result is the same: the personnel in the side are not good enough.

People complain about going several years without winning a trophy.  I won’t.  My primary interest is not prizes, but progress.  As long as your football club is on an upwards trajectory, it is hard to complain.  Last season represented real progress.  After a couple of years competing for a Champions League spot in our own mini-league (with the likes of Spurs and Liverpool), we were suddenly back in the title race proper.  After Thierry Henry’s departure, a new team emerged – one based on Fabregas’ partnership with Flamini, and their intelligent interplay with the mercurial Aleksandr Hleb.  Upfront, Emmanuel Adebayor blossomed into a serious goal-threat, and we developed a style of play that was both attractive and successful.

There were still deficiencies.  We were inexperienced, lacking in leadership, and our central defensive pairing of Gallas and Toure had many cracks that were papered over by the outstanding attacking football we were capable of producing.  These flaws took their toll late in the season, as our challenge both domestically and in Europe collapsed, and we finished trophyless.  But no matter.  Having been tipped to finish fifth by many pundits, we had defied the odds and came within just four points of the league title.  It seemed that with a couple of quality, experienced additions, we would be very serious contenders in the forthcoming season.  And the early signs were good: our deal for Samir Nasri was all but done from early on in the window, and Arsene was vocal about our need to sign a tall centre-back to deal with high balls through the middle.

And then the problems started.  For one thing, a centre-back of the promised calibre never arrived.  Perhaps even more significantly, two of the stars of the season, Flamini and Hleb, followed through on their desire to leave the club.  Due to various contractual issues, we were unable to do anything about it.  Adebayor embarked on a series of actions that would turn him into the loathed ‘Greedybayor’.  Furthermore, when the often unused but still effective Gilberto receieved a huge offer to join Panathanaikos, Arsene claimed he felt he had an obligation to give the Brazilian the chance to leave.

What followed is devastatingly simple: the players were not adequately replaced.

That’s it.  That’s all there is to say.  What was required was to retain the side that had challenged on almost every front, and supplement it with some serious quality.  Having lost the aforementioned players, Arsene was then required to replace them with sufficiently capable players as well as adding new depths to the squad.

The only new depths we have since explored are those of losing to the likes of Stoke.  I’m not going to go into detail about the players Arsene has brought in – they’re not to blame.  What is clear, however, is that this Summer, from a very promising position, the manager oversaw a transfer window in which the squad undoubtedly went backwards.

Increasingly, the decision to let Gilberto go before signing a replacement baffles me.  Yes, Gilberto was a good servant and a nice guy, but he was under contract to the club.  And I don’t think anyone could reasonably suggest he would have done worse than Denilson or Song have done in recent weeks.  Would a side featuring Gilberto have conceded four goals at home to Spurs in that manner?  I sincerely doubt it.

Gilberto’s absence highlights another serious problem with the side: the lack of leadership.  Enough has been written about William Gallas, but what of Kolo Toure, the vice-captain who wore the armband on Saturday?  At the Britannia Stadium, I witnessed an incident that sums up the lack of respect for authority among the current crop of players.  We had won a corner, and Kolo wished to go up to challenge for it.  However, in order to do so, Toure needed the advancing Alex Song to stay back on the halfway line.  Several times Kolo barked the order at Song.  The midfielder turned around, heard the man wearing the armband, shook his head, and ignored his request.  Had it been Gallas, I doubt Song would even have turned around to listen.

Had Gilberto been retained, does anyone doubt he would have done a better job in midfield than Denilson and a better job as captain than Gallas?

I’m not blaming Denilson.  Again, the fault lies with the manager.  Take the example of another promising Brazilian central midfielder: Liverpool’s Lucas.  He is regarded as a player of great potential, and has already (unlike Denilson) been involved with the senior Brazil team.  But look at the players that Rafa Benitez has assembled ahead of Lucas in the pecking order: Gerrard, Alonso, and Mascherano.  Denilson and Song are about as good as Lucas and Plessis.  But whereas Liverpool have that trio of word-class midfield players, we have only Cesc Fabregas, whose patience must be wearing increasingly thin.

And therein lies the problem with Arsene’s entire philosophy.  If I believed we could retain all of these youngsters until 2011, I am sure we might be able to mount a serious challenge for the major prizes around then.  But as Hleb and Flamini’s departures indicate, that will not be possible.  At this rate, the next two to go will be Cesc and Adebayor.  Whilst the latter of those two might not upset too many Arsenal fans, the loss of Cesc would be huge.  Seeing him trudge of the pitch at the Britannia, throwing his shirt into the crowd as he went, his move back to Spain felt closer than ever.

Our slide remains arrestable.  Unlike most, I do not neccessarily subscribe to the idea that it’s been a four-year decline.  Progress is measured by more than trophies.  In that period we’ve reached a Champions League Final for the first time, and last season showed the potential to at least challenge for the league.  The real mistakes happened in this past Summer.  Unfortunately, we can’t put them right just now, but we can in January.  Whether Arsene likes it or not, spending money is the only way to do that.

For that reason, I hope the board get out there now and appoint a tough, football-savvy CEO -and, crucially, that they make the appointment without Arsene’s input.  The manager shouldn’t be hiring his own boss.  If we don’t bring in someone who can regulate Arsene’s stubborn principle-driven methods with a bit of harsh reality, the downward spiral of the team will continue. 

Arsene knows.  He knows an awful lot.  But he is not God.

I talked about our tough fixture schedule over the coming weeks.  But it wouldn’t surprise me if amidst those games, we pull out some big results.  Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this side is their ability to raise their game on big occasions, only to slump when faced with more ordinary opposition.  But even if we somehow manage to beat someone like United, I can guarantee that unless major changes take place, results like yesterday’s will reoccurr.  As this season’s calamities prove, these defeats are no fluke.

Arsene has come in for plenty of criticism, and I can understand why.  Player acquisition is a huge part of modern football management.  However, despite what some might suggest, we do have one of the world’s greatest managers.  Now, it is simply time for him to prove it.

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