Archive for April, 2010

Still Ourshavin

8 comments April 21st, 2010

The below is a piece I originally wrote for 2Halves, adapted somewhat. It seems timely. Enjoy.

Andrey Arshavin in action for Arsenal

It is August 31st, 2008.  Spurs fans sit, eyes glued to Sky Sports News, waiting for the flash of a yellow ‘BREAKING NEWS’ ticker.  Any minute now, they think.  Any minute now roaming reporter Bryan Swanson will spot him at an airport, or getting out of a car at White Hart Lane.  In the studio, Andy “Four-Phones” Burton will receive a whispered call or a tweeted message from Darren Bent and the news will be confirmed: Zenit St. Petersburg have crumbled.  A deal has been agreed.  Andrey Arshavin is a Tottenham player.

Of course, as it turned out, he’s not.  Nor was he and nor will he ever be.  Spurs fans with Sky on their telly, laptops on their knees, mobile phones in their pockets and a fleet of carrier pigeons out seeking transfer tidings ought to have spared a moment to remember just how momentously catastrophic their clubs attempt to lure Europe’s most fêted players have proved in the past.

Over the last ten years, Spurs have “almost signed” more players than Harry Redknapp has jowls.  Indeed, the likes of Rivaldo, David Beckham and the original (and fatter) Ronaldo have all almost joined Tottenham, only for the squad numbers set aside for them to be filled by the likes of Ricardo Rocha, Kevin Prince Boateng and, intermittently, Pascal Chimbonda.  Spurs have aimed for the stars and, for the most part, barely struck the weathervane emblematised on their crest.

Following his spell-binding displays at Euro 2008, Arshavin was undoubtedly a star.  After missing the first two games of the tournament through suspension, Arshavin catapulted himself into international renown with an electrifying performance against Sweden.  A career spent entirely in the Russian Premier League had done more than his pint-sized figure to disguise his talent, but on the grand stage of the European Championships, the spotlight was reserved for Arshavin.  That one match demonstrated the number ten’s quick feet, quicker brain and limitless guile.  Football purists purred; football managers pined.  Though Russia would eventually falter to future Champions Spain, Arshavin’s fate was sealed: the big leagues waited.

Most sizeable clubs in Europe found themselves being linked with the diminutive playmaker.  Arshavin’s insidious agent, Dennis Lachter (a man who enhances his pseudo-supervillain credentials by insisting on referring to himself in the third person), would drop the press the name of a major European club, and the journalists had the simple job of post-rationalising the rumour.  Barcelona?  Arshavin’s boyhood club.  Chelsea?  Abramovich seeking to sign Putin’s professed favourite player.   Tottenham?  Now that was trickier.

Why would Arshavin, whose stock was higher than ever, move to a club who offered neither Champions League football nor a realistic chance of competing for the top domestic honours?  Spurs, in spite of past travails when courting football’s elite, were undaunted.

With Berbatov and Keane set to switch to United and Liverpool as part of some kind of evil exchange programme, Tottenham needed a signing to pacify their fans and galvanize the team.  Sporting Director Damien Comolli identified Arshavin as the man, and negotiations were opened.  As Arsenal would find out several months later, negotiating with Zenit and Lachter is no easy task, and so it was no surprise when, at the last minute, Spurs’ pursuit of Arshavin collapsed.

When January 2009 came around, Arsenal needed an injection of quality and Arshavin duly obliged.  Whilst he verbally indicated his interest in joining Tottenham, he didn’t offer to cut his pay by half, as he did when Arsenal came calling.  He didn’t commandeer a private jet to fly himself from a Middle Eastern training camp to Hertfordshire to force through a deal, as he did when Arsenal came calling.  Arshavin might have once consented to join Tottenham, but he was now patently determined to be a Gunner.

Arshavin’s first six months produced a catalogue of stunning, match-winning moments. A sidestep and lofted finish from a preposterous angle against Blackburn, more nutmegs than a rum punch, and a four goal haul at Anfield. His arrival proved to be the catalyst to the run which saved our season and secured our Champions League spot. Arsenal fans were drooling in anticipation of he might produce in this, his first full season in England.

Concerns about a slow start to the campaign where eased by a scorching strike at Old Trafford. Many expected that fiery effort to ignite the Russian’s season, but still we waited for his form of 08/09 to return. Playing in a 4-3-3 system that ought to have been more suited to his wilful self-expression, Arshavin’s exertion suggested he was either jaded or plain lazy. The critics were out in force to condemn a player whose heart, they felt, was no longer in it. Arsene Wenger was forced to defend Arshavin in a press conference, pointing to statistics that demonstrated the player’s efficiency in the scoring and creation of goals.

It has become clear that Arshavin is not a natural team player. He is an idiosyncratic individual, both on and off the pitch. He plays for himself. That’s not to say he’ll shoot every time he gets the ball – he enjoys a perfectly-weighted assist for the same reason he loves finding the top corner from range. He is a student of fashion – an aesthete – who has managed to find beauty in a game which originated as something closer to a maul. It is that vision that makes he and Wenger footballistic soul-mates.

In the nineties we used to talk about something called “second season syndrome” – a condition which afflicted both Johnny Foreigner and Bob Youngster. They would arrive with an explosion which, in their second year, would settle in to a bathetic fizzle. Defenders would be wise to them, and the adrenal boost of novelty would disappear. It is then that the hard work begins.

Andrey Arshavin is, as Arsene has maintained many times, a tough boy. He will not allow himself to fail here. He’s said several times that his form this season has been below-par, but even then he’s contributed some exhilarating glimpses of talent. Failing to qualify for this summer’s World Cup hit him hard, but will prove beneficial: a couple of months of rest and recuperation ought to re-charge his batteries for another title tilt. “Second season syndrome” is a plausible excuse. “Third season syndrome” is a fiction.

August 31st, 2008 remains a dark day for Tottenham Hotspur.  I doubt there’s much that can top the disappointment of missing out on signing a player of Arshavin’s quality, but Spurs managed it: they sold their best player, Dimitar Berbatov, and got Frazier Campbell instead.  For Arsenal, it was a day that gave us an opportunity to swoop for one of the world’s most mercurial but undoubtedly brightest talents.  As ever, we succeeded where Tottenham failed, and the Emirates is now graced by the Russian magician on a regular basis.  Since arriving in England, Arshavin has shown an aptitude for big occasions, scoring spectacular goals against the likes of Liverpool, United and Celtic. This weekend he has a chance of returning to face Man City. In one of fate’s more perverse twists, contributing to a victory then would help Spurs in their quest for a Champions League place. If he can produce the moment that beats Adebayor & Co, he’ll finally provide some consolation for the club who “almost” signed him.

ps. The winner of Nike’s iPod touch competition is Steve Evans from Essex.  Congratulations Steve Evans from Essex. I’ll be in touch soon to deliver your prize – the answer, of course, was ‘Luis Boa Morte’.

Arsenal must learn the difference between fourth and first

530 comments April 19th, 2010

Wigan 3 – 2 Arsenal (Walcott 41, Silvestre 48, Watson 80, Bramble 88, N’Zogbia 90)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Before the first whistle had blown this season, Arsenal were largely unfancied. Only Thomas Vermaelen had arrived to bolster a side who had required a remarkable turnaround just to finish fourth the year before. With United, Chelsea and Liverpool (whoops) expected to contest the title, our Champions League qualification was now under threat. Former stalwarts like Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor had jumped ship to the snowballing threat of Manchester City, whilst Tottenham were insistent yet again that this would be ‘their year’.

When our season began at Goodison Park, we took people by surprise. In a new 4-3-3 system based on Barcelona’s high-tempo model, we hammered a lacklustre Everton 6-1 at Goodison Park. Every one of the front six worked to exhaustion, chasing and harrying and not allowing Everton a moment on the ball. It was exemplary stuff.

The form continued and so did the victories. Before long talk of Arsenal failing to make the Champions League had metamorphosed in to talk of title challenges and ending the wait for a trophy. The players, through graft and no small share of ability, had stuffed one up the critics. And do you know what? They were proud.

Unfortunately, pride – as they’ve said ever since Adam and Eve got a bit haughty about their jungle paradise – comes before a fall. As soon as Arsenal felt they were part of the top three rather than the chasing pack, they were a different team. The points were still racking up, but under different circumstances. The work-rate had dropped and teams were given an easier ride. We celebrated last-minute winners when perhaps we ought to have been wondering why they were needed. The hallmark of this Arsenal side’s early season form was that you barely had time to think, let alone get a foothold in the game.

Fitness problems played their part. The injury to Robin van Persie meant that we lost not only our best finisher but also the natural leader of that attacking line. He was the one who instigated the pressure; who drove those around him to work ever harder. Perhaps it’s also fair to say that as the injuries kept on coming, the players who remained simply tired.

I’m not sure I buy that. We have one of the youngest, most athletic squads in the league – Arsene wouldn’t have it any other way. What actually happened was that this team forgot what had lifted them above the chasing pack and alongside Untied and Chelsea. It wasn’t the skill of Arshavin, the passing of Fabregas, or the shotgun striking of Robin van Persie. The technical ability of this team has never been in doubt. What marked this team’s improvement was working hard for each other and defending as a unit.

You’d think the exhibition of team play that Barcelona put on for us across two legs might have acted as something of a wake up call. It didn’t. Following on from that we were beaten by a super-motivated Spurs team and, from a position of absolute comfort, managed to crumble in just ten minutes against Wigan to be beaten 3-2. “Mental strength”, one fears, is a facade that Arsene’s post-match interviews can no longer keep from falling down.

People will point to individual errors, and rightly so. Only a player far more gifted than Abou Diaby would deserve the indulgence with which the manager has treated his lack of defensive discipline. Lukasz Fabianski, meanwhile, is far more befitting of the “clown” jibe once hurled at his countryman, Jan Tomaszewski. Massimo Taibi was shunted out of United after just four games – one wonders how long Arsene will take to learn the lesson that some players are just not cut out for the high-pressure environment of Premier League football.

However, it’s important to remember that any player can make a mistake. Thomas Vermaelen might go to clear and completely miss the ball, but it doesn’t matter if Sol Campbell is there to tidy it up. If a unit is strong most individual mistakes are recoverable. And, frankly, if you’re concentrating sufficiently on your responsibilities then they’re less likely to happen at all. The problem with this team is that they believe they are the “great entertainers” the press build them up as. But if you don’t do the basic work, skill is pointless. Barcelona recognise that they can’t do any damage without the ball, so they fight incredibly hard to get it.

I mentioned Sol Campbell there. You have to feel for him. As a friend said yesterday, he plays every game as if it’s his last – probably because it might well be. But the thing to remember about Sol is that, a few ‘wilderness years’ aside, he’s done that for his entire career. The difference between a player like him, who has won medals and accolades at every level, and an unfulfilled talent like Abou Diaby is entirely psychological. Campbell can’t hold a candle to Diaby’s technique or fitness. But Sol knows that to win a title you have to fight just as hard if not harder than a team battling relegation. Every ball, every tackle, every header is a statement of intent. Sol wore the armband yesterday, and deserved better from those around him. He must be kept on as an example of the required attitude.

Although Sol was a January signing, this problem is not something that can be remedied in the transfer market. An ethos cannot be bought, and Arsene knows that better than anyone. At the start of the season I was impressed that our usually stubborn manager had revised his thinking: he’d changed his formation, and seemed to have recognised that hard work had as big a part to play as technical proficiency. Over the course of the season, perversely just as success started to come, that philosophy was lost.

The responsibility lies with the manager. It’s no good signing another two centre-halves if the team is not compelled to work for each other. Every player must know that if he does not fulfil his responsibility to the team, he will pay the price with his place. Not in the starting-line up for the next game, but in the squad. If we want success here, we only have room for winners. It’s a lesson the likes of Nani have learnt well at Manchester United. If we want to match their achievements, our players will have to suffer the same kind of tough love. Over to you, Arsene.

Losing Gallas would be an odd way to strengthen the defence

18 comments April 17th, 2010

Tellingly, Arsene is discussing our involvement in the title chase in the past tense.  The race continues, but we’ve pulled up clutching a hamstring just yards from the finish line.  It’s been a brave effort.  Between now and the end of the season, rousing music will play as we stagger to our feet and walk to the line, flanked on both sides by cheering supporters of the first ever Jamaican Bobsleigh Team.  Or something.

The manager’s attention is turning towards next season, and what the team need to do not only to catch up with United and Chelsea, but to stay ahead of the rabid chasing pack.  It’s becoming clear where he feels we need to strengthen:

“We need to add something. I believe defensively in the big games we were too vulnerable.”

It’s hard to disagree.  The way we allowed the likes of United, Chelsea and Barca to hammer goals past us did not carry the hallmark of champions.  So what of the personnel involved?

Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are both outstanding full-backs.  Whilst neither has had their best season, it’s hard to see them being replaced.  Eboue is a capable deputy for Sagna, and Clichy is at the front of a queue of fleet-footed clones – Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore keeping close behind.  Thomas Vermaelen has been a fantastic signing – a footballer with drive, determination, and class.  He’s been effective in the penalty area at both ends of the pitch, and looks to me to be a future Arsenal captain.  Alongside William Gallas, he’s helped form our most solid defensive pairing in years.

So where is the problem in our defence?  I take no joy in pointing fingers, but they inevitably find themselves focusing on the bleach-topped figure of our goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia.  Almunia is a good shot-stopper – but any goalkeeper can make a great save.  Only the best can organise a back-line and command a penalty area.  There is a reason that Shay Given will never be remembered as a true great.  His reflexes surpass those of Almunia, but his problems remain the same.  A great goalkeeper is as crucial to a defensive set-up as a key centre-half.

And so it worries me that Arsene is prepared to let William Gallas leave the club on a matter of principle.  He is not our problem.  The problem is the goalkeeping situation.  Although Arsene has hinted the Number 1 shirt might be up for grabs this summer, I think his quotes suggest that Lukasz Fabianski is in pole position to inherit it – not a new signing.

Earlier this season there was talk of a compromise with Gallas – now Arsene is insisting that we will not budge from our one-year contracts for over-30s policy.  I don’t think we can keep him on those terms, simply because I believe there are other clubs who will be prepared to more relaxed about the length of his deal.  Gallas is something of a mercenary, but he is a very good defender.  And what’s more, a good partner for Vermaelen.

Keeping Sol Campbell would be a great move.  The commitment he’s shown to the cause means we should keep him hear as long as we can – in a playing capacity or otherwise.  The same is not true of Mikael Silvestre, who has done nothing in his two seasons here to suggest that Alex Ferguson was wrong to let him go.  That would leave us with Vermaelen, Campbell and a returning Djourou going in to next season – and I’d doubt the ability of the latter two to play more than twenty games in a season.

If Gallas goes Arsene will be forced to bring in another centre-half, most likely from abroad.  Will they click with Vermaelen?  How will they adapt to the English game?  It could plunge the heart of our defence in to another transitional period.

No revenue will be generated out of losing Gallas or Almunia.  If we can afford to make one stellar signing, then keep the Frenchman and sign a top goalie.

Read Arseblog on the Cesc Fabregas situation – it’s a media obsession, not something ground in the actions of Arsenal or even Cesc himself.  I have a firm conviction that Cesc will be here next season and for a good few years to come.

Wigan Preview tomorrow.

Gunnerblog meets Theo Walcott: Pace, Progress, and *that* Birthday Cake

1,235 comments April 16th, 2010

Last Sunday, just a few hundred yards from the Emirates Stadium, I caught up with Theo Walcott to fire a few of your questions at him.  We discussed his speed, his injuries, and his love of “castles and dragons”. Here’s the film – I’ve carefully removed myself from shot to protect your eyes from my gorgon-esque appearance:

Unfortunately, Caledonian Road was hit by little-publicised tornado conditions, which means not all of the tape was usable. Distressingly for you, that means you’ll now have to take my word for the following. Many of you wanted to ask Theo about how his injury problems have affected him, and he did admit that his shoulder surgery (particularly his first one) had slowed him somewhat. However, he’s now sprinting freely, and in fact it’s since having the surgery that he’s broken Thierry Henry’s club sprint record. And the even better news? He thinks he can get faster.

The only player to rival him for pace at Arsenal is Gael Clichy, and it’s training against him that helps keep Theo’s sprinting sharp.

He remains adamant that he’s first and foremost a striker, though he’s happy to play on the wing. That prompted me to ask – what motivates him? Is it the joy of scoring goals, wanting to please the crowd, or the honour of pulling on an international jersey? Those all have their value, but Theo is clear about what he’ll be remembered for: trophies. Ryan Giggs is the model for that, and if Theo is to match the Welshman’s haul then we need to end our drought – and soon. Hopefully he’ll be able to help us do that, starting next season (barring miracles in this one).

Thanks go to Theo and Nike for making this happen.  In fact, Nike have been in such splendidly generous form that they’ve given me an iPod touch, replete with their new Master Speed app.  And because a) I love you all, and b) I already have a battered but beloved iPhone, that iPod can now be yours.

All you have to do is answer the following question:

Theo Walcott joined Arsenal from Southampton in 2006 – but which Arsenal winger went in the opposite direction back in 1999?

Answers to by 10pm UK-time Monday – the winner will be announced Tuesday.

In other news, Cesc Fabregas has been nominated for both the PFA Player’s Player and Young Player of the Year awards.  Interesting that they’ve had to cut the number of nominees to four as there just haven’t been that many stand-out players: the likes of Gerrard, Torres, and Lampard – all of whom are regular features in these lists – simply haven’t performed to the expected standard.

The ‘Young Player of the Year’ award also needs to be revised.  Football is different now – only the other day I suggested that Lionel Messi may be at his peak at 22.  When the likes of Fabregas and Rooney are dominating both categories at the age of 23/24 something isn’t right.  At 24, James Milner is over a year older than Cesc.  He is not a ‘young player’ – just a player who has taken longer than expected to fulfill his potential. There ought to be a revised cut-off – perhaps as young as 21. It should be given to players who wouldn’t ordinarily stand a chance in the main category, but have shown a lot of promise. Hart, Ramsey, Evans, Rodwell. Those sorts of names.

As we speak Arsene Wenger is delivering his pre-Wigan press conference.  More on that tomorrow, but what we do know is that Thomas Vermaelen won’t play again this season.  It’s been an outstanding year from him, and while we’re on awards, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make the PFA Team of the Year.

Good luck in the competition, and I’ll be back with more tomorrow.  Oh, and in case you can’t remember the cake I’m talking about, here it is in all it’s glory.

Theo's birthday cake

Spurs 2 – 1 Arsenal: Take That, Title chances

34 comments April 15th, 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 2 – 1 Arsenal (Rose 10, Bale 47, Bendtner 85)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I believe it was Gary Barlow who first said:

And we’ve come so far.
And we’ve reached so high.
And we’ve looked each day and night in the eye.
And we’re still so young.
And we hope for more.

That, I suspect, will be the epitaph scrawled on the gravestone of Arsenal’s season, which Tottenham Hotspur took great delight in bringing to an end yesterday.  A draw wasn’t enough, a defeat unthinkable.  But a defeat it is, and one from which our title chances look as remote as they did when hammered by Chelsea and United earlier in the campaign.  This time, however, there is no time for a remarkable recovery.

There are factors beyond the draining sands of time.  Too many of our best players have fallen foul of injury in the final furlong.  We had 63% of possession last night, but without the likes of Fabregas and Arshavin couldn’t find a way through a resolute Tottenham back-line.

In their stead, the replacements looked just that: replacements, and no match for the real thing.  Arsene said after the game that he “would not like to go in to any individual criticism”.  Seeing as I’m not compromised by the same responsibilities as the manager, allow me.

Manuel Almunia was at fault at least once – arguably twice – on Tottenham’s opener.  Arsenal had started relatively well, knocking the ball about without making significant inroads, when Spurs broke up the other end and presented Roman Pavlyuchenko with an opportunity to sidefoot home.  Vermaelen responded with a flying block, and the ball went out for a corner.  The ball was swung in and Almunia, under no pressure, elected to punch rather than catch.  It can look effective, especially when you get as much distance as the Spaniard did yesterday, but it does not retain possession.  The ball dropped to youngster Danny Rose, who struck his first league goal, and he’ll never hit a sweeter volley.  However, though the strike was firm and true, it was straight at the keeper, and ended up going between his hands.  He wasn’t expecting it, granted – but if you punch the ball in to no man’s land you have to suspect it might just come flying back at you.

We responded fairly well, but couldn’t convert keep-ball to cutting edge.  Samir Nasri tried bravely with little support, but alongside him Abou Diaby was anonymous in a big game yet again.  Diaby, more than any of our other players, is emerging as a flat-track bully.  Against the small teams, his size and skill is incredibly effective.  On the bigger stages, as against Barca and last night, he freezes.  He is a very useful squad player, but seems to lack the mentality to be anything more.

Tomas Rosicky’s credentials to influence the big games certainly seem better.  He’s even captained his country.  However, when it’s come to the crunch he’s shown the toll that his injuries have taken.  Having him back in the squad has been both heart-warming and useful: he has experience and good technical ability.  But is he a game-changer?  For me, no.  He helps keep our play fluid, but he offers minimal goal threat and end product.  The same, to an extent, is true of Emmanuel Eboue.

With Spurs managing to hold their lead until half-time, Arsene will have used his fifteen minutes to hammer home the importance of a goal early in the second half.  However, in his excitement he must have forgotten to specify which side the goal ought to be for.  Some slack marking and an offside trap as taut as Harry Redknapp’s face allowed Jermain Defoe to slide in Gareth Bale, Alex Hleb’s weirder-looking evil twin, to tuck home the crucial second goal.

At that point, with us needing three goals, you feared that they’d catch us on the break and it could become embarrassing.  However, this Arsenal side has acquired the habit of rallying late on, and this game was no different.  The introduction of Theo Walcott and, for the first time in almost six months, Robin van Persie, immediately gave Spurs more to think about.

Van Persie’s second touch was a swiveling drag-back in the centre-circle that underlined his class.  He was a man on a mission, and but for some outstanding saves from Gomes could have dragged us back in to the game on his own.  He saw a top-corner bound free-kick, a thumped strike from range, and an electric volley on the turn all palmed away by the once laughable Brazilian.  Note: Gomes cost Spurs some £8m.  If Arsene is serious about rectifying our own goalkeeping problems, he’ll need to find a similar wod of cash.

Unsurprisingly, RVP was involved in our 85th minute goal, playing in Walcott to cross for Bendtner, who bundled the ball in for what proved to be only a consolation.  Van Persie’s efforts and a Sol Campbell header aside, we weren’t able to sustain the pressure, and Spurs held on.  Campbell himself was outstanding – those who have questioned his stamina may have raised an eyebrow as he sprinted alongside Bale in the 93rd minute and managed to win the chase.  He has removed any lingering misgivings about the way he left the club in 2006 and restored his reputation as an Arsenal great.  He must stay around the squad – playing or otherwise.

The title looks to be gone, and at the hands of our oldest enemy.  But there is plenty to take comfort from this season.  As Barlow intones: we’ve come so far.  At the midway point last season we in a crisis comparable to Liverpool’s this year – until today we were right in this term’s title race.  With a bit more luck with injuries and a couple of key additions there’s no reason we can’t overtake the Chelsea and United teams – both of which are going backwards.

There are still games to play this season; places to be fought for and points to be won.  But more excitingly, and brilliantly unique to football: there’s always next season.  We’re getting there.  Like Barlow preaches: Never forget where you’ve come from.

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