Archive for August, 2011

Udinese thoughts: Pride, Passion and Pace. Lots of pace.

40 comments August 26th, 2011

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

In the run up to this game, I’d have been lying if I’d said I wasn’t worried.  When I saw the XI we’d be fielding, those concerns only grew.  I was sat in an Irish bar in Italy, far removed from the constant team news bulletins and probable line-ups I’m accustomed to.  As I watched the team emerge from the tunnel, I saw their faces: youthful, raw, and understandably anxious.  Six months ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing conference football.  This was Emmanuel Frimpong’s second senior start.  And here they were, in the preliminary stages of the world’s greatest club competition: the Champions League.

I was nervous, but I was a mere TV viewer; not even in the stadium in the stadium to lend my support.  These lads were right in the firing line, directly responsible for securing the cash and cachet that Champions League football begins.  By the end of the night, their furrowed brows had turned to smiles, and my panic to pride.

It’s not just Frimpong and Jenkinson.  Compared to some others, their contribution was modest.  To a man, they stepped up and responded brilliantly, providing a reprieve for a manager and a club who have been struck by blow after blow in recent weeks.

You all know the result by now, and how it came about, so I don’t need to dwell on the detail of the game.  I’m sure we were all fearful when Di Natale’s header looped beyond Szczesny and in to the net, drawing Udinese level, but the fact remained that a single Arsenal goal would leave the Italians needing three.

When that goal eventually came, it was no surprise that Gervinho was the creator.  I thought the Ivorian was superb.  His movement, speed, and ability to dart in from either the right or left make him a nightmare to mark, whilst his close control means he’ll win plenty of penalties over the coming months.  We saw all this against Newcastle, but against Udinese we saw something else: end product.  Driving in from the left, he dragged the ball beyond a defender, accelerated to the byline, and cut it back for the waiting Van Persie to sidefoot home.

That should have been that, but Arsenal being Arsenal, we almost found a way to throw it away.  A very debatable penalty was awarded for a supposed handball by Thomas Vermaelen, and it required a quite stunning save from Szczesny to deny Di Natale a goal that could have transformed the tie.

As it was, Arsenal ended up putting the seal on the victory in style.  Bacary Sagna, whose solidity in the unfamiliar role of left-back is just another exhibit in the growing list of evidence that he’s one of Arsene’s best ever signings, played in Theo Walcott, who scooted beyond the defence and finished confidently in to the near post.

Walcott and Gervinho were ultimately too much for Udinese to cope with.  The summer additions of Gervinho, Chamberlain, Ryo and Campbell suggested Arsene was keen to provide an objection of pace, and these two provided that in spades.  They also allowed us to recapture what was one a crucial component of our game: the lightening counter-attack.

There were other impressive showings: Sczcesny was commanding, Vermaelen committed, and Tomas Rosicky put in a brilliant second-half shift as a ball-winning midfielder.

Congratulations to this group of players for triumphing in the face of adversity.  With their backs to the wall, a mishmash team pulled the manager out of an ominous hole.  I hope he’s wise enough to know they won’t be able to do so every week – either domestically or in Europe, where we find ourselves in a challenging group with Marseille, Olympiakos, and Dortmund.  These are good, committed players.  But to flourish, they need reinforcements.  With Champions League football in the bag, we should have both the means and the might to lure them.

Nasri won’t be missed like Cesc

30 comments August 26th, 2011

“Imagine the worst situation — we lose Fabregas and Nasri. You cannot convince people you are ambitious after that.

You can’t then pretend you are a big club, because a big club holds on to its best players and gives a message out to all the other big clubs that they can’t come in and take our players.”
Arsene Wenger, July 11th

August 15th: Cesc Fabregas signs for Barcelona

August 24th: Samir Nasri signs for Man City

It seems a long time ago now, but when Samir Nasri arrived at the club, it was as a replacement for the outgoing Aleksandr Hleb.  After a largely indifferent few years, Hleb had one impressive campaign as a key component of Arsenal’s title charge in 2007/08.  It would be his final season, as Hleb moved on at the first opportunity, joining Barcelona after threatening to invoke the ‘Webster’ ruling and buy out his contract.

Nasri’s departure certainly evokes memories of Hleb’s exit.  Last season was comfortably the Frenchman’s best, and seems to have left him with both an inflated ego and idea of what he ought to be paid.  After turning down a £90,000 p/week contract extension, Nasri left Arsenal with a clear choice: sell him now, or risk losing him for free in twelve months time.

For me, it’s a no-brainer.  As Arsene pointed out, both “economically and psychologically”, the club only had one option.  And, for economic and psychological reasons, Arsenal will be quietly delighted to have sold the player to City rather than United: his original suitors.  It’s worth noting that whilst Hleb left for the mediterranean sun and footballing Mecca of Barcelona, Nasri is moving to Manchester.  Whilst I’m sure he has doubts about Arsenal’s ambition, it’s clear that money has been the major motivating factor.

Hleb’s career has tumbled downhill since leaving: he has found himself unable to replicate his success at Arsenal elsewhere.  He’s an unusual, idiosyncratic footballer, who needs a manager with the patience to indulge a player who, whilst technically brilliant, is prone to overelaboration and seems to be allergic to shooting.

Samir Nasri will have no such problems adapting.  He’s a more effective but more straightforward footballer: quick, skilful, and a smart finisher.  However, by the same token, he is also easier to replace.  Whilst hugely talented, he lacks the intangible quality of ‘vision’ that marked out Cesc Fabregas, say, or even Hleb.  As a goalscoring wide-attacker, the likes of Gervinho and Walcott are well-placed to try and fill the gap left by Nasri’s departure.

The bigger problem remains the creative void created by Fabregas’ move.  Arsene’s plan, of course, was to use Nasri in that role.  As outlined above, I’m not sure he would’ve been the right man for the job.  Cesc was good for twenty assists per season.  I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I believe last season Nasri got one.  Nasri can walk through an open door with plenty of style; Arsenal need someone who can unpick a lock.

Arsene may live to regret the statement of the top of this piece – but he doesn’t have to.  If he spends the £50m or so he’s received for Nasri and Cesc on players of similar quality, then all is recoverable.

Five days.  And counting.

Four factors in another massive week for Arsenal

197 comments August 22nd, 2011

To my slight surprise, I’m jetting off to the continent this week.  I’ll spend much of it locked in a room, away from internet access and my beloved Arsenal.  It’s unfortunate timing.  All summer a host of Arsenal bloggers, including myself, have heralded the start of a “big week” at Arsenal.  This week might just be the biggest of them all, for the following four reasons:

Champions League Qualification

I don’t need to tell you how important this is, both economically and for the morale and stature of the club.  We’re so accustomed to dining at Europe’s top table that actually securing qualification would be met more with relief than joy, but don’t let that mask its significance.

Udinese showed in the first leg that they’ll provide a huge test for us, especially with our injury problems.  We could also be without Arsene Wenger on the touchline, after UEFA extended his touchline ban by two games for “not abiding by the decision of the control and disciplinary body during the Champions League play-off game against Udinese last Tuesday”.  Arsene will be furious, as he and the club spoke directly with UEFA before the game to make sure they would not be in breach of the regulations.  Presumably if Arsene appeals the decision, the ban could be delayed, which would allow him to be pitchside on Wednesday.

The latest news on the playing front suggests that both Jack Wilshere and Johan Djourou could be in contention, which would be a massive boost.  Song and Gervinho are also eligible, and Robin van Persie will be able to take part after missing the first leg through suspension.  There is another player who was suspended from that first leg, whose potential participation is already the subject of some debate…

Samir Nasri

If Arsene picks Samir Nasri on Wednesday, and Arsenal qualify, he will be unable to play for another club in the Champions League this season.  Obviously, that would jeopardise any move to Manchester City.  Therefore, I expect some clarity in the next 48 hours or so as to whether or not this deal will go ahead.

There are a lot of mixed messages coming out of both camps – City and Arsenal – and the truth of the matter is rather difficult to unpick.  City, however, must realise that if they want the player they have to act now.  And even with the ragged state of our squad, I can’t justify turning down £20m for an asset we will lose for nothing at the end of the coming season.

I don’t think Nasri will play in Udine, especially with Wilshere and Song available.  I’m less convinced that the clubs will be able to agree on a deal before then – this might drag on until the very end of the window.

Further depatures

If he does go, Nasri won’t be the only one.  The club still anticipate the departures of Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia – the Spaniard isn’t even mentioned by Arsene Wenger when discussing his goalkeepers for next season, and has, for all intents and purposes, been ‘released’ from his contract.

Personally, I’m hoping that Bendtner can’t find a club and ends up staying – on current form, he is far more of a threat than Marouane Chamakh.


The precise sums we’re prepared to spend will probably depend on Wednesday night’s results, but it’s clear that some strengthening will have to happen between now and the end of the window – ideally before Sunday’s potentially morale-sapping clash with Manchester United.

All sorts of names are being tossed around, but there’s nothing tangible there.  Arsene told TF1 that he was “still involved in the French market”, which has fuelled speculation around Rennes and France holding midfielder Yann M’Vila.  His club, however, say they know nothing of any bid.

There are predictable links with Lille winger Eden Hazard, as well as that quartet of English-based centre-halves – Samba, Jagielka, Cahill and Dann.

I don’t think it’s at all unrealistic to hope for three signings between now and next Wednesday – especially if Nasri goes.  One must be a centre-back, another a central midfielder.  The third could be anything from a left-back to a centre-forward.

Whatever happens, I won’t know too much about it.  I’ll certainly find some foreign bar surrounded by moustachioed men to watch the Udinese game, and if I can find an internet cafe or WIFI connection to share my thoughts on it with you I will.

I return on Friday, when the landscape at Arsenal promises, for a variety of reasons, to be very different.

It is, after all, a big week.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool: Cracks widening with every game

319 comments August 20th, 2011

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.

Liverpool Preview: Nasri in from the cold?

36 comments August 20th, 2011

Apologies for the lack of blog yesterday. A sleepless night and a five hour train journey meant sharing my thoughts with you would’ve been an unpleasant situation for us both. Fortunately, I am now slightly recovered, and feeling rather better. About everything, in fact.

This morning I’ll cycle up to the Emirates for my first live game of the season. In fact, work commitments have prevented me actually getting to games since around March. I watched our end of season collapse on the television, or through my computer/fingers.

The summer hasn’t been any easier on the eye. But tomorrow lunchtime, when I’m confronted with the full horror of Liverpool FC and their fans, all I will care about is that the eleven men in red and white triumph over the eleven men in whatever hideous away kit Liverpool’s marketing men have concocted for this season. And that, really, is what football ought to be about.

For ninety minutes, I’m calling a truce with my angst.  All I want to do is beat Liverpool.  I’m even calling a truce with Samir Nasri, who has been surprisingly recalled to the squad.  It shows how stretched we are when the manager is prepared to risk a £23m asset just hours before he’s due to leave the club.  The fact that Tomas Rosicky has joined Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Gervinho, Alex Song, Kieran Gibbs, Armand Traore and Johan Djourou on the sidelines has forced Arsene to reconsider Nasri’s position, and I now expect him to start in a midfield trio with Emmanuel Frimpong and Aaron Ramsey.

It’s certainly a change of position from when Arsene said he was only prepared to use players who were 100% committed to the club.  And it’s a change brought about, quite clearly, by desperation.  Arsene said:

“You do your job until the last day of your life at the Club – the rest is speculation. That doesn’t interfere with your dedication and the way you do your job.

Nasri is in the squad. If I decide to play him he will play. When you are professional you play until the last day.

Everywhere I have worked in my life I have made sure that until the last second of where I was I did the job properly. He is paid this month by Arsenal Football Club so why should he not play?”

Nasri’s impending move to City has seen his relationship with the Arsenal fans very quickly and very publicly disintegrate.  There will doubtless be those in the Emirates crowd who want to vent their frustrations at a player who has reneged on a new deal at Arsenal to double his money elsewhere.  My advice to you is this: save it for when he comes back with City.  There’s no need for a negative atmosphere around the ground on a day when teenagers like Carl Jenkinson and Emmanuel Frimpong could be making their first league starts for the club.

The team will most likely be:

Szczesny – Sagna Koscielny Vermaelen Jenkinson – Frimpong Ramsey – Walcott Nasri Arshavin – Van Persie (c)

Japanese winger Ryo Miyaichi, having completed his paperwork, is also in contention and is likely to be on the bench.  Interestingly, there’s been no talk of whether or not Nicklas Bendtner could be involved, perhaps in one of the wide attacking roles.  I wouldn’t be adverse to giving the Dane a game, although his lack of match practise might be a worry.

Regardless, it’s a line-up that tells you a lot about the state of the squad and where we require strengthening – especially when you take Nasri out of the equation too.  I was encouraged by the news that Arsenal made an enquiry for Lucho Gonzalez – an experienced, quality player – albeit one whose form has dipped in the last twelve months; but seriously, why would Marseille allow one of their best players, who cost them €18m two years ago, to leave on loan?  Much like when we bid only £10m for Phil Jagielka, I think we were being optimistic at best, and naieve at worst.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting Juan Mata either, with the Spaniard now set to sign for Chelsea.  That’s a shame: he’s a great player and would’ve been a good like-for-like replacement for Nasri.

One player who has signed is Joel Campbell.  The teenage striker will now wait to hear if he is awarded a work permit before the club decide the next stage of his development.

It’s a huge game today.  Our first two matches have come with creditable results, if uninspiring performances.  This is a different kind of test, against the team a whole host of pundits have predicted will supercede us in the race for Champions League qualification.  It’s an opportunity to make a real statement, and give both the players and fans a much-need boost ahead of a very difficult week in which we travel to Udinese and Manchester United.

Arsene looked as fiery as he ever has done in his press conference yesterday, swatting away journalists with defiant rhetoric.  He’s clearly been riled by those hacks and fans who have openly questioned his decision-making this summer, and feels he has a point to prove.  As supporters, we should consider that a good thing.  Three good results in the next eight days would certainly silence many of his critics.

Come On You Gunners.

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