Archive for September, 2012

Theo should learn from Mikel Arteta

1,668 comments September 25th, 2012

Since the closure of the transfer window, it’s been all quiet on the Walcott front.  Events in the final week of the window followed a confusing trajectory.  At one point Walcott was issued an ultimatum – ‘Sign or be sold’ – only for Arsenal to relent and allow him to stay without reaching agreement on his contract.

As bizarre and unlikely as it seems, my understanding is that is played out pretty much like that.  On the Monday, Dick Law made a series of phone calls to enquire about the availability of other wingers from the continent – presumably as potential Walcott replacements.  Within 48 hours or so, Arsene Wenger was telling the assembled media that Walcott would stay.  In in the interim, the club obviously decided that the upheaval caused by a third major departure was not worth it.

At the time, Arsene said he expected Walcott to sign a new deal.  Of course he said that – anything else would be tantamount to admitting the player was on borrowed time.  But now, a month on, an agreement seems no closer.  Not only that, but Walcott has fallen out of the first-team and was met with a smattering of jeers on his last appearance at the Emirates.

Yesterday, he had his say. Speaking at the launch of the Football Association’s Just Play scheme, he said:

“I’ve been judged, with people saying it’s all about money. It’s never been that with me. Playing up front is important. It’s one of the main factors for me.”

It seems like a well-rehearsed line; he trotted it out to countless journalists yesterday, hence today’s headlines.  I’ve met Walcott – he is one of the most media-savvy footballers I’ve come across.  When you ask him a question, his eyes glaze over and he goes in to an automated, robotic response.  I’m sure there’s a sparkling personality in there, but media training and inherent conservatism have clouded it in the banale rhetoric of football.  For him to say something as arguably controversial as this, it had to be planned.

He went on:

“I signed as a striker. I’ve learnt my trade out on the wing. Hopefully, I’ll get to play up front in the next few games. It’s frustrating being on the bench, but it’s one of those things I have to deal with.”

You didn’t sign as a striker, Theo.  You signed as a sixteen year old.  At that age, William Gallas was a striker, and Kieran Gibbs a winger.  A players development between 16 and 23, Walcott’s current age, cannot be pre-determined.  It’s been seven years, and Walcott looks far more like a winger than a centre-forward now.

Theo’s supposed desire is also tactically naieve: Arsenal play 4-3-3.  That means three forwards.  He is a striker, just positioned in a wide area.  If it’s good enough for Lukas Podolski, it ought to be more than good enough for him.

And if this is really how he feels, then there’s something very childish about his attitude.  Theo hasn’t played upfront for almost a decade.  He doesn’t even really know what that experience is like at the top level.  But he knows what it represents.  He knows what it stands for and he wants, “like Thierry Henry”, to be the main man.

Theo could learn a thing or two from Mikel Arteta.  And by that, I don’t mean about styling his hair a glue-gun rather than a hairdryer.  After Sunday’s game against Man City, the Spaniard was asked about his new role as a holding midfielder. He said:

“It is a big transition but it is more a mental thing. The boss is convinced that is the best thing for the team and I am too, so let’s do it.”

This is a player who is more than capable of playing an attacking role, and yet has sacrificed that for the team.  And this is a guy who, unlike Walcott, does not have a long career stretching in front of him.  He’s on borrowed time in football terms, and yet is prepared to put the team first.

When you add it all up, this “big factor” of wanting to play through the middle doesn’t really seem to make any sense, does it?  And that’s when it becomes exposed for what it is: a cover story.  Another PR spin from ‘camp Walcott’ so that when he refuses to sign a new deal they can protest that it wasn’t about the money.  Perhaps I’m wrong and he will stay, but this looks to me a lot like he’s getting his excuses in early.

Don’t worry, Theo; you’re excused.  I suspect we’ll cope just fine without you.


City 1-1 Arsenal: A moral victory, and a victory for morale

321 comments September 24th, 2012

Arsenal outplayed the Champions
Afterwards, Sky said the draw was “a fair result”. I’d go one step further, and say City could feel a little lucky to come away with a point. On their own turf, they were comprehensively outplayed by a majestic Arsenal midfield. Their goal was the result of a set-piece, and whilst Sergio Aguero did have one superb chance to win the game, Arsenal spurned several similarly presentable opportunities.

What was most heartwarming about our performance was that we played with real character. Even after the setback of conceding the opener, we continued to probe away and stick to our footballing principles. The equaliser was something approaching just reward, but had we gone on to nick it City would have little to complain about.

Arsene got his team selection spot on
On paper it was a surprise to see Aaron Ramsey start on the right wing, but he put in his best performance in months to justify his inclusion and validate Arsene’s judgement. We’re also extremely lucky to have a set of centre-backs that enables us to compensate for the loss of a player of the calibre of Thomas Vermaelen without any noticeable drop in quality.

The debate about zonal marking is painfully tedious
When individuals defend well, zonal marking is a very effective system. In fact, there are at least three factors that contributed to Lescott’s opening goal far more than our chosen marking pattern. Those are:

  • A great delivery
  • A superb header
  • A kamikaze lunge from Vito Mannone

I found it intriguing that when City subsequently conceded from a corner, the pundits didn’t embark upon a similar inquest. Perhaps they, like everyone else, was finally bored of it.

Mertesacker’s performance was inch-Perfect
The big German has been unfairly judged throughout his time in England. He looks ungainly, but his intelligence, cool head, and reading of the game are invaluable. Yesterday was probably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt, but it has been coming – his recent form has been superb. Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger were both centre-backs who didn’t rely on pace in their time, and I wonder if that’s part of why they’ve embraced the BFG so wholeheartedly. Hopefully the British media will soon realise they were a little quick to judge this gentle giant.

Carl Jenkinson threatens to become ‘the new Alex Song’
By that, I don’t mean that he’s going to grow bleached dreadlocks and move to Barcelona. I’m referring instead to his rapid progression, from rabbit in headlights to accomplished technical player. Like Song, he is reaping the rewards of a manager’s faith in him, and like Song he is showing a dramatic improvement. Somebody said yesterday that for the first time they could envisage a future in which Jenkinson is our first-choice right-back. As a life-long Gooner, nothing would mean more to him or the fans than for him to prosper. So far, so good.

I’m surprised anyone was surprised by Gervinho’s performance
Granted he had scored three goals in two games, but that didn’t suddenly make him Thierry Henry. Two of those goals were tap-ins, whilst the other was his first against Southampton – when, frankly, he just decided to put his foot through it. On that day, it flashed in to the net. Yesterday, similarly thoughtless efforts were skewed high and wide. I’m afraid he will always be erratic in front of goal. Arsene knows that, but has presumably decided that what he brings to the team outweighs that particular disadvantage. And to be fair, Gervinho did most of his jobs well yesterday, stretching the City defence with his pace and movement. In that regard, you can be certain the Ivorian will give you willing running and a couple of thrilling dribbles. When it comes to finishing, however, I think he’ll always remain an enigma.

A win against Chelsea would round off a great start
Before the City game I told the Arsenal America podcast that four points from City and Chelsea would be a tremendous return. After yesterday’s draw, we’re well on course for that. With a host of new attacking talent, I think that Chelsea will provide us with a sterner examination defensively, but with morale this high and form this impressive we have every chance of going on to best them, and enter October unbeaten.

City Preview, Wilshere’s return, & Theo thoughts

712 comments September 22nd, 2012

Everyone in the media seems to view this game as the true barometer of Arsenal’s potential.  Yes, they’ve been impressive thus far, but we can only really gauge their prospects after this game against City.  There’s an element of truth in that: City will be by far the strongest side we’ve faced this season, and the way we equip ourselves against them will determine our capacity to compete at the very top.

However, I do think a caveat is required.  Just as our results thus far don’t necessarily make us contenders, nor would defeat on Sunday render us useless.  It’s still very early: Sunday’s result will be indicative, but not definitive.

That said, I think Arsenal should approach this game with confidence.  We are in a good run, unbeaten this season, and appear to be a little more solid defensively than in previous seasons.  City are a very good side, but come in to the game on the back of a draw with Stoke and last-gasp defeat in the Bernabeu.  Their confidence may not be what it was just a week ago.

I expect Arsene to name the same side that faced Montpellier.  Whilst Olivier Giroud may not be in the best of form, he adds to our physical presence against a very powerful Manchester City side.  His ability to defend at set pieces may also come in handy.

If you want to hear some more of my thoughts on City, and indeed the win over Montpellier in midweek, why not listen to the latest episode of the Arsenal America podcast?  No, seriously: why not?

In other news, you’ll all know by now that Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong are now both back in full training.  Whilst Frimpong could be in contention relatively soon, Wilshere is still a good few weeks away, but I have to say that just seeing him able to rejoin training after 14 months made me feel a little emotional.  For a player who loves the game as much as Jack, being away from the pitch will have been agony.  Arsene has preached caution, but at the same time has said “it is certain” that he will return to the levels he showed before his injury.  A mouthwatering prospect.

Another Engishman, Theo Walcott is expected to be left on the bench against City once again.  When he sat down with the print media yesterday, Arsene was asked directly whether or not the winger’s precarious contract situation has a bearing on team selection.  He responded:

“I haven’t picked him, it’s true, and it’s quite a good question. I still hope to sign him and the next two months will be vital because, after that, the longer this situation lasts the more difficult it is.

Let’s hope we can find a solution in the next two months but the fact he doesn’t play regularly at the moment is right, but it’s not necessarily linked with his contract situation.”

Our friend over on arseblog says Theo’s agent and the club are further away from an agreement than ever, and that’s easy to believe.  Prior to the closing of the transfer window, the club made it clear that they would be willing to increase Theo’s wage to £75k p/week – an offer that the player refused, despite a tentative ‘sign or be sold’ ultimatum.  Having seen Arsenal buckle and allow Walcott to stay, his agents aren’t likely to back down anytime soon.

The timeline Arsene is drawing up leads ominously to January.  If a new deal hasn’t been finalised by then, surely Walcott will be encouraged to leave early for a knock-down fee of £5m or so.  In the meantime, his situation has seen him fall behind the developing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a rejuvenated Gervinho in the pecking order.  Until some resolution is found regarding his long-term future, I do not expect that to change.

Walcott could get a rare start in next Wednesday’s league cup tie with Coventry, which would be as good an indicator as any of his fall from grace.  Until then, all eyes are on the Etihad.

Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal: Resilient Arsenal keep Montpellier at bay

1,625 comments September 19th, 2012

Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal (Belhanda (pen) 9, Podolski 16, Gervinho 18)
Match Report | Highlights | Steve Bould’s reaction

There was less rotation than we anticipated…
I suspect there a few major factors in Arsene’s mind. First of all, the injury to Wojciech Szcesny meant that changing more of the backline any more could have resulted in real unfamiliarity. The central partnership of Mertesacker and Vermaelen has been excellent thus far, and disrupting that would be unhelpful at this stage. Lastly, I think he saw the value of getting off to a good start in the group stage, and wasn’t prepared to do anything to jeopardise that.

Arsenal were a bit impetuous early on…
Abou Diaby got himself booked after just twenty-one seconds, and their was an edginess about us in the early part of the game. It came from a good place; from wanting to get the game won as soon as possible. However, it almost cost us the match, with Thomas Vermaelen giving away that penalty after only nine minutes.

The penalty decision was 100% correct…
I find it slightly tiresome Arsenal fans contesting every decision that goes against them. This was a nailed on penalty: Vermaelen failed to get the ball, took down the man, inside the box. Simple. Our complaints are made all the more silly by the fact that many other referees would have punished us with the award of a second penalty right at the end of the game after Abou Diaby hung a leg out in our own box. As for Vermaelen, this was a little sign of his immaturity as a defender: he will learn that the conservative option of shepherding his man is often safer then diving in to a well-intentioned tackle.

Going behind was a test…
We had not been in that position thus far, and I wondered about the psychological ramifications. Our response, however, was fantastic.

Podolski is an unerring finisher…
Speaking after the game, Steve Bould said:

“Podolski has made a real impact. I have to say, I’ve not seen many finishers as good as him – ever.”

Big words from a man who played alongside the likes of Ian Wright. On the early evidence, however, it’s easy to understand why Bould was impressed. Last night, he was calm enough to take a tough, dummy the keeper, and slot home. What I thought last night was this: it is hard to think of a presentable chance he has missed. Long may that continue.

Jenkinson is improving fast…
I’ve long banged the drum about how Carl Jenkinson is the club’s best crosser, and his assist for Gervinho won’t have me putting my drum down anytime soon. His all-round play continues to improve, and his fitness levels are astonishing. His dad was a distance runner, and I’m told that he’s possibly the best stamina athlete at the club too. I thought Arsene might field Coquelin in Sagna’s absence, but his decision to go with Jenkinson has thus far been hugely vindicated.

Giroud was better than lazy pundits would have you believe…
As Giroud was subbed off for Aaron Ramsey after 75 minutes, Alan Smith called it “a night to forget” for the Frenchman. I’m not sure I agree: he was involved in the moves both for goals, provided an assist for Podolski, and worked hard throughout the game. We will need him this season; he gives us shape and a focal point. Playing with a guy like Gervinho at number nine is all very well when you control possession, but sometimes we’ll need to deploy a player who can win it in the air and hold the ball up. Giroud is that man.

The second half was all Montpellier…
Their manager has since admitted that their second half display was the best form they have shown this season. Finally, we saw why they were French champions last year. They played with real tempo and verve, whilst we looked leggy. I found it hard to understand why we didn’t make more changes earlier, but perhaps Steve Bould was loathe to make subs without Arsene’s say-so.

All in all, this was a good night…
The performance wasn’t at the same level as Southampton and Liverpool, but the result is very good indeed. There are no new injuries and our confidence is unharmed. Now the players need to rest up before a massive test on Sunday.

Montpellier Preview: Arsenal led Bould-ly in to group stages

302 comments September 18th, 2012

Arsenal travelled to France yesterday ahead of tonight’s match with Montpellier.  The headline news was that Wojciech Szczesny failed to get the flight – not because he forgot his passport or had a Final Destination-style premonition that the plane would crash – but because he has an ankle injury.

It’s an intriguing situation.  During the second half of Saturday’s game with Southampton, in which Szczesny dropped an already infamous clanger, Vito Mannone was sent out to warm up.  At the time I wondered if Arsene was trying to keep the Pole on his toes by reminding him of the competition.  Now it seems more likely there was already concern over Wojciech’s fitness – with some suggesting he may have landed badly on his ankle just as he dropped the ball and allowed Fox to score.

When quizzed after the game as to whether Szczesny was fully fit, Arsene dead-panned back, “That’s what I am told”.  He seemed to be harbouring an irritation – perhaps with Szczesny, who irked by the threat of Mannone and eager to put the horrors of EURO 2012 behind him, may have come back before he was entirely ready.  With a huge game at Man City on Sunday, no risks will be taken at this tage, and Mannone will start tonight, with youngster James Shea on the bench.

The only other change to the 18 man squad is that Abou Diaby has returned and takes the place of Andrey Arshavin.  It’s telling that in Saturday’s game, Arshavin was not even ushered from the bench to warm up.  It’s clear he is way down Arsene’s current pecking order.

The same fate could befall Theo Walcott if he fails to sign a new contract.  Since the breakdown of talks with him at the back end of the transfer window, he hasn’t started a game, and the longer those talks go on without conclusion the further away from the first-team he’ll find himself.  When asked if the situation had an effect on team selection, Arsene said:

“It can, but at the moment, I still hope to extend his contract so, at the moment, it doesn’t effect me. Of course at some stage … if, in April, it’s not done, you can think it will be difficult to do.”

There’s due to be some rotation tonight, so perhaps Theo will benefit.   I’m not so sure myself.  Aside from Mannone, I think Laurent Koscielny is the one man guaranteed to come in.  I also anticipate starts for Andre Santos and Olivier Giroud.  Abou Diaby would not have travelled if Arsene wasn’t giving serious consideration to playing him, and whilst there’s an outside chance of Aaron Ramsey replacing Santi Cazorla, the Spaniard is already so integral to our game that I simply can’t see him being left out.

If Giroud does start, he’ll be immediately under the spotlight once again.  It’s funny – Arsene said he left him out of the Southampton game to reduce pressure.  Perhaps it would’ve been smarter to play him against the Saints and then leave him out of what’s sure to be an emotional night against his former club.  Giroud, however, will be desperate to play – and I think we need him to.  I think Arsene needs to take another look at him before deciding between him and Gervinho for the centre-forward role at Man City – the two have such different styles and the manager will want to be making an informed choice.

I think we’ll go with:

Mannone – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Diaby, Cazorla – Gervinho,

Giroud, Podolski

It’s a strong side and one that should be capable of getting a positive result against an out-of-sorts Montpellier.  Arsene Wenger is banned from the touchline, so Arsenal will be under the command of Steve Bould – something I have a growing suspicion and hope we might see more of in the future. Come On You Gunners.

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