Archive for November, 2008

Bendtner papers over The Grand Canyon

Add comment November 26th, 2008

Arsenal 1 – 0 Dinamo Kiev (Bendtner 87)

I really don’t know what to think.  I had two responses to yesterday’s game:

The first was rational.  We got our first win in 24 days (though it has felt like forever).  We qualified for the next round of the Champions League.  With all the injuries and controversy surrounding the team at the moment, a victory of any kind was quite an achievement, and of course on a logical level I recognised that.

The second was emotional.  The first eighty-seven minutes were pretty dire, and as I sat in our plush new stadium I actually felt really sad.  The players were so bereft of confidence, and the fans who had bothered to turn up were almost silent.  It was a real chicken and egg situation, and impossible to guage whether the poor performance of the team or crowd had engendered the other. 

That sadness turned into anger at the fact that two players like Song and Denilson are now regular starters in our team.  That should never have been allowed to happen.  It’s great that we’ve qualified for the next round of the Champions League, but we won’t go much further with a joker like Song in the side.

Maybe I’m being excessively negative.  Maybe the combination of a long day and the cold has dampened my positive outlook.  But that’s how I felt and it would be wrong to report it otherwise.

In order to preserve a little bit positivity, I ought to reaffirm that yesterday was the start of something new.  And it started with a victory, which is as much as anyone could ask – as Wenger points out, it could be a first step to better times.

Update: Arsenal have just appointed Ivan Gazidis as the new CEO.  He’ll begin work in January.  Yet another neccessary change has finally arrived.  More on this when I know on earth he is.

With Cesc as Captain, Yes, We Can.

73 comments November 24th, 2008

Yes we can?

Yes We Can?

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that Arsenal is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our football club, today is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around burger vans and programme stalls in numbers this club has never seen; by people who sat refreshing for three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voices could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, North Bank and Clock End, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - supporters who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a bunch of corporates and fairweather fans: we are, and always will be, Arsenal.

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many (I’m looking at you, Hansen) to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It’s been a long time coming, but today, because of what William Gallas did on Wednesday, in today’s press conference, at this defining moment, change has come to Arsenal.

A little bit earlier this evening I received an extraordinarily gracious call from William Gallas. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he’s fought even longer and harder with the demons in his mind. He has endured sacrifices for Arsenal that most of us cannot begin to imagine – namely his sanity. We are better off without the service rendered by this ‘brave’ and ‘selfless’ leader.

I commiserate him, as I commiserate Alexandre Song, for all they have failed to achieve, yet I look forward to working with them to renew this team’s promise in the months ahead.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you: the Arsenal fans.

Cesc was never the likeliest candidate for this office. He doesn’t come with many trophies or much experience. His campaign was not hatched in the halls of Clairefontaine – it began in the streets of Cataluña and the living rooms of Barnet and on the training pitch at London Colney.

It was built by hard work and board members who dug into what little savings they had to give £5,000 and £10,000 and £20,000 to the cause.

It grew strength from the young man who rejected the myth of his generation’s apathy; who left his home and family for a job that offered bitter cold and plenty of kicks; it grew strength from the not-so-young people who took in a perfect stranger and help him acclimatise to life in this country; from the thousands of Arsenal supporters who cheered, and supported, and proved that more than one hundred years after its founding, a club run by fans and for fans has not perished from the Premier League.

This is your victory.

I know you didn’t do this just to sort the captaincy issue and I know you didn’t do it for Cesc Fabregas. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of Arsene’s reign – the threat of Aston Villa, a midfield weaker than balsa wood, the worst financial crisis in a century.

Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Arsenal fans waking up in the streets of Islington and the suburbs of Hertfordshire who risk being mocked by Spurs fans, Chelsea fans, and more.

There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll face their co-workers on Monday morning, or reconcile themself to the existence of Emmanuel Eboue, or forgive Adebayor’s latest indiscretion. There are new players to buy and new staff to be appointed; new partnerships to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one month or even in one season, but Arsenal – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a club will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy Arsene makes as manager, and we know that buying can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.

And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this club the only way it’s been done at Arsenal for 122 years – block by block, pass by pass, crunching tackle by crunching tackle.

What began four years ago with Arsene’s decision to do things his way cannot end on this winter night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of togetherness, a new spirit of support.

So let the players summon a new spirit of passion; of service and responsibility where each of them resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only themselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this recent crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Carling Cup team while the first team suffers – at this club, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people: Victoria Concordia Crescit.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our team for so long. Let us remember that it was a manager from this club who first carried the banner of ethical football to the Premier League – a club founded on the values of self-reliance, creative liberty, and team unity.

Those are values that we all share, and while the Arsenal fans have won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lee Dixon said on Match of the Day 2: “We are not enemies, but friends… though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

And to those Arsenal fans whose support Arsene has yet to earn - he may not have won your vote tonight, but he hears your voices, he needs your help, and he will be your manager too.

And to all those Arsenal fans reading tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around laptops in the forgotten corners of the world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of Arsenal leadership is at hand.

To those who would tear our club down – we will defeat you. To those who seek beautiful football and financial security – we support you.

And to all those who have wondered if Arsenal’s beacon still burns as bright – today we proved once more that the true strength of our club comes not from the might of our centre-backs or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: attractive football, sensible finances, opportunity for youth and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of Arsene - his Arsenal can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This week had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a man whose been an Arsenal fan as long as he can remember.  He’s a lot like the thousands of others who logged on to this blog to make their voice heard in this captaincy debate, except for one thing – Steven Rogers is 106 years old.

He was born just a generation past the club’s birth; a time when there were no Jumbotrons in the stadium or prawn sandwiches in the crowd; when someone like Cesc Fabregas couldn’t be captain for two reasons – because he was 21, and because of his nationality.

And tonight, I think about all that he’s seen throughout his century with Arsenal – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that Arsenal creed: Yes, we can.

At a time when Herbet Chapman was called mad and his innovations dismissed, he lived to see Chapman stand up and speak out and add those white sleeves. Yes, we can.

When there was despair in the changing room and depression across the pitch, he saw a team conquer fear itself with an Unbeaten Season, new players and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.

When the cranes arrived at Highbury and takeover threatened, he was there to witness a stadium rise to greatness and a club was saved. Yes, we can.

He was there for Alan Sunderland’s winner at Wembley, Charlie George’s sliding celebration, the tragic death of David Rocastle, and a preacher from Strasbourg who told a people that “we shall overcome”. Yes, we can.

A man broke our all-time goalscoring record, Highbury came down, a team was created by science and imagination. And this year, in this season, he logged on to a poll about Arsenal’s captaincy, and cast his vote, because after 106 years with Arsenal, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, he knows how Arsenal can change. Yes, we can.

Arsenal, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if Cesc should still be here in two, or even three seasons time; if I should have a son lucky enough to see a Cesc Fabregas-led side in 2015, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.

This is our time – to put our players back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of beautiful football; to reclaim the Arsenal dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a club: yes, we can.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless Arsenal Football Club.

Gallas must be sacrificed on the altar of our future

Add comment November 24th, 2008

Today the players trained at London Colney, and William Gallas was among them.  Sky Sports News even ‘understand’ he will be considered for selection in tomorrow’s game against Kiev.  I can’t imagine that ‘consideration’ will last particularly long: however shoddy our defence is, bringing Gallas back would render Arsene’s bold decision to punish the former captain somewhat pointless.

I believed the decision to remove Gallas from the team and the captaincy was a watershed moment in this team’s development – a decision that might be detrimental in the short-term but was part of a long-term strategy to put things right.  If he is reinstated, that all goes to pot.  And what’s more, I don’t think the fans will accept it.  It’s cruel, but with the manager being untouchable, a scapegoat is required to obtain a feeling of catharsis.  The unloved Gallas is a neccessary sacrifice.

In other news, Nicolas Anelka has taken the proverbial biscuit and covered it with poo instead of chocolate, blaming a meaningless poll for his decision to leave Arsenal.  Whatever he achieves with Chelsea (missing penalties in Champions League Finals etc), it won’t make up for the near-decade he spent in footballing backwaters like Bolton as a result of leaving Arsenal.

Anyway.  No point worrying about Anelka now.  We have serious problems of our own to worry about.  I believe Arsene has a press conference today – whether or not he’ll be any more forthcoming than on Saturday remains to be seen, but it’ll be interesting nonetheless.

The Arsene Paradox: Patience Required

Add comment November 23rd, 2008

Ow.  Just ow.

Manchester City 3 – 0 Arsenal (Ireland 45, Robinho 55, Sturridge (pen) 89)
Highlights here; Wenger’s Reaction here

A picture speaks a thousand words.

I’ve linked to Arsene’s post match reaction, but I can tell you now that there is no point in reading it. It’s an exercise in pure rhetoric from the manager. Our latest catastrophic result is not enough to prompt him to change the habits of a life-time: he will publicly defend his players until the day he retires.

Likewise, Arsene has decided to keep the details of the Gallas situation in-house, refusing to divulge the nature of the defender’s punishment and the future destination of the armband.

This is certain to frustrate fans who want to hear a bit of honesty from the manager. They are aching to know that Arsene is not as myopic as some would suggest. They want to hear him say that he knows he made a mistake with Gallas; that this team is not good enough and urgently require reinforcement; that the fans who travelled to the City of Manchester Stadium deserved better.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Arsene knows all of those things. In dropping Gallas and removing the armband, he has acknowledged that he made a poor choice of captain. And as for the quality of the team… well, results speak for themselves. With five defeats in the league this season, we’ve now lost more games than the likes of Hull City and Everton. Publicly slating the team will not help the situation. Arsene knows that he has been a significant part of the creation of a right old mess, but he’s going to clean it up behind closed doors, far from the public eye. If he believes that’s the best way to go about it, so be it. There is plenty we can criticise Arsene for at the moment, but his stance in post-match interviews is not one of them.

As the season goes on, I am increasingly reluctant to discuss the details of games. This is primarily because we are increasingly rubbish. Perhaps foolishly, many fans (including myself) expected an immediate reaction to the catharsis of Gallas’ absence. Sadly, it was not to be.

The result yesterday was extremely poor, but what else could be expected? We were missing some incredibly important players, and were coming off the back not only of the defeat to Aston Villa, but also the mid-week controversy surrounding Gallas. Furthermore, some players had only arrived back from International duty on Friday. Add in the fact that we’re plainly just not very good at the moment, and it was hardly a recipe for success.

None of the above is an attempt to excuse the result, but more to explain it. We were poor from front to back. Whilst the injuries we had going into the game were crippling, we ought to have a squad more capable of coping. And to add insult to injury (no pun intended), the worst culprits yesterday were not players like Gavin Hoyte, or Johan Djourou, who are usually well down the pecking order, but the likes of Denilson and Song: players who are becoming worryingly regular starters.

A common criticism of Arsene is that he is becoming too indulgent of the young players: that he has too much patience with players who are failing to perform at the required level. I would suggest that, paradoxically, Arsene is not showing enough patience with these players.

So obsessed is he with his youth project that he has thrown all the youngsters in at once, without the experienced pros required to groom them into world class players. The likes of Bendtner, Diaby, Denilson, Djourou – hell, maybe even Song, might well one day go on to be good enough to play for Arsenal. But they would be better served by being slowly blooded rather than thrown right into the fire of the Premier League. Denilson started, what, less than half a dozen league games last season? And now he is expected to be good enough to play every single game. On what basis?

The youngsters we have assembled are remarkable. But by playing them all in this unsuccessful, experimental side, we will kill their careers. Yesterday I saw fans calling for all of the youngsters I mentioned in the above paragraph to be sold. Arsene’s policy is resulting in the fans losing patience with players who are years from achieving their potential. Denilson is 19 (or maybe 20, I forget): he should be a bright light in the Carling Cup, someone we are excited about seeing in the first-team in the next two or three years – not someone held accountable for what is ultimately the failure of the manager to sufficiently strengthen the squad.

All of that being said, Denilson, Song, and Diaby reached new levels of insufficiency yesterday. Song in particular was occasionally guilty of just passing the ball out of touch, for seemingly no reason. Perhaps people in the crowd were calling for the ball and it confused him. Only Song himself knows.

It’s not right to pick out individuals: we were utterly insipid all over the park. I spoke yesterday about a leader emerging from adversity, but no player managed that yesterday. Gael Clichy, one of the candidates for the captaincy, made a hash of a clearance leading to City’s first goal, and looked jittery throughout.

Experienced pros like Silvestre and Van Persie were as poor as any youngster. We lacked direction or desire, and our best performers were undoubtedly the travelling fans, who spent the last twenty minutes of the game in raucous song.

The home fans must follow suit. It’s clear that the problems in this side cannot be correct overnight, and enduring support will be required. A piece of major surgery has taken place in removing Gallas, but a full recovery will take time. We must go game-by-game, and collate as many points as we can. We need to stay afloat, and get as far as January, when the cavalry must arrive.

Christmas is usually a time for unwrapping. However, we need to be wrapping up the youngsters in cotton wool and putting them back in the box.

Mark my words, this is a crisis. And in a crisis, you need a few grown-ups around.

It’s easy to captain a side that is winning

1 comment November 22nd, 2008

So, Gallas is all but gone.  But it didn’t always look as if it would end this way.

After the 2-2 draw against Man Utd in November 2007, I wrote:

“William Gallas put in an outstanding captain’s performance. Not only was he solid at the back, but he found himself way up the field in stoppage time and scored one of the many crucial goals that have littered his career. His “never say die” attitude will be crucial if Arsenal are to win anything this season.”

And it wasn’t just me raving about the new skipper.  Kolo Toure claimed at one stage that Gallas would rank alongside Vieira and Adams:

“William gives everything for the Club.  Both on and off the pitch, William is a really good captain. He is loud in the dressing room and he has a big heart. Everything he says and does is for the team and the Club. That is the most important quality in a captain.  William seems to enjoy the responsibility. He is a really mature player, he has played in a World Cup Final and he is 30. Age and experience really helps as a captain. He leads by example. 
When Titi was here, he was outstanding, Patrick was strong and Tony as well. I have played under some fantastic captains and you just follow them.  I think he deserves to be mentioned among those names as captain because he is such a strong figure. He has great maturity in a really young team so that’s so important.  The young players, when he says something, they really listen to him because they respect him.”

And, of course, there’s Arsene Wenger, who after a Gallas goal helped us defeat Chelsea, said:

“I feel he pops up when you need it, when you want it, and he’s the leader – that’s the best definition of a leader, when you need it you show the example and he did that. I believe as well that Arsenal is a special club where it takes sometimes a few months to be penetrated by the spirit of the Club. I think William this season has taken that completely on board, and he’s completely the leader because he represents how we want to behave.”

In the light of events of the recent days, those words seem laughable.  But there’s no point in being revisionist about it: there was a time when the experiment of Gallas’ captaincy looked like it might just pay off.

But that was a very different Arsenal.  It was an Arsenal which had leadership in other areas.  On the pitch it had the drive and passion of Mathieu Flamini, an inspired Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor, as well as the experience of Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva in reserve.  Furthermore, and in part as a result of the aforementioned factors, this was an Arsenal side which was winning.

Captaining a successful side is not difficult.  It is when things go wrong that a skipper is put to the test.  In the face of adversity, true leaders emerge.  But infamously at Birmingham, and on countless troublesome occasions since, Gallas has crumbled.

What this young side needed was a veteran who could stand up against and stem the tide of anxiety, harnessing the arrogance of excellence to continue to perform at an elite level when everything was going against the team.  We needed someone who the players collectively admired and respected – whose disapproval they feared and appreciation sought in equal measure.  It may sound like I’m asking for someone superhuman, but then this is Arsenal Football Club.  We are one of the world’s top football teams, and have had some truly inspirational captains throughout our history, particularly of late.  Now, at a time when we require that kind of leadership more than ever, Gallas has come up short.

That is not his fault.  I don’t doubt that he has done his best as captain.  But without wanting to revert to cliché, he is simply not a ‘natural leader’.  His recent comments have destabilised the dressing room and presumably left a lot of the players feeling they are unable to trust the man who is supposed to be their figurehead.  A fresh approach is neccessary, and removing the armband from Gallas is the first part of that.  I’m glad Arsene has finally done what was so patently required: in a similar situation, Alex Ferguson released Roy Keane.  For our manager, it’s been comparatively easy: Gallas is no Roy Keane.

Whether or not Gallas has any kind of future at the club remains to be seen.  As far as the captaincy goes, Manuel Almunia is expected to wear the armband today, whilst the trio of Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, and Kolo Toure remain the front-runners to hold the position in the long-term.  Toure would be the obvious choice were it not the for the fact that he has been out of the side of late.  I don’t expect Arsene to make any decision public until next week at the very earliest, though it will certainly be fascinating to hear his thoughts on the matter in his post-match interview.

The list of first-team players we have missing is quite extraordinary: Senderos and Traore (of course), Gallas (similarly of our own volition), Sagna, Eboue, Toure, Fabregas, Rosicky, Eduardo, and Walcott.  On top of that, there are rumours that Emmanuel Adebayor aggravated an ankle problem representing Togo in the week and is not available for selection.

Taking that into consideration, there could well be starts for the likes of Johan Djourou, Alex Song, Gavin Hoyte, and Aaron Ramsey.  It’s going to be an incredibly young side whoever plays.  However, the axeing of Gallas as skipper does seem to have had a exorcising feel on the club.  The flames are definitely doing their best to claim our season, but we must aim to rise, phoenix-like, out of this disarray and re-establish some pride, if nothing else.

I spoke earlier about true leaders emerging in great adversity.  Today is a day for someone to stand up and be counted.  Let’s hope eleven men in red-and-white do that today.

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