Archive for December, 2012

Arsenal 7 – 3 Newcastle: Why I’m struggling to enjoy Theo’s excellence

1,066 comments December 30th, 2012

Arsenal 7 – 3 Newcastle
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I ought to be revelling in this victory.  Instead, it’s strangely bittersweet.

Make no mistake, this was Theo Walcott’s game.  Although his first half performance was patchy, he went on to complete a scintillating hattrick and pick up a couple of assists along the way.  This was probably his finest performance in an Arsenal shirt, and a convincing audition to be the long-term occupent of the central striking berth.

The first goal will invite comparisons with Thierry Henry, coming as it did after an intelligently bent run, matched by an equally intelligent bent shot inside the far post.  The second was a wonderful finish, clipped with little backlift past a wall of Newcastle defenders and in to the top corner.  The hattrick goal was the best of the bunch: after collecting the ball from a short free-kick on the left, Walcott scooted between two challenges, tumbled to the ground, sprung to his feet a la Stamford Bridge last year, and lifted the ball beautifully over the goalkeeper.  It was a goal worthy of a hattrick, worthy of the crowd’s acclaim, and worthy of Sunday morning’s headlines.

It was not, however, a goal worthy of a £100,000 p/week salary.  Not in the mind of Arsenal’s board, who are still locked in stalemate with Theo Walcott’s representatives.  And so, whilst I should have been lost in ecstasy over Walcott’s outstanding display, I was instead consumed with the thought that Theo Walcott might finally be about to explode in to the player he’s long threatened to be, just six months before he walks out of the club on a Bosman free.

Yesterday, there was one man who took more delight in Walcott’s performance than Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal fans, or even Theo himself: his agent.  He will have been rubbing his hands together, as his negotiating position was enormously strengthened by this hattrick display.  The pressure upon Arsenal to meet his client’s demands has never been greater.  Equally, any potential suitors’ interest will have been piqued.  Theo holds all the cards.

I’ve long insisted that if he was going to sign, he would have done so by now.  We are just two days away from Walcott being able to formally discuss a contract with a new club.  It’s hard to question his commitment on the field; equally hard to ascertain his commitment off it.

Arsenal, of course, can’t afford to freeze him out.  In the past Arsene Wenger has had a squad so replete with options that he’s been able to leave the likes of Edu and Sylvain Wiltord out of the first-team squad once it became clear their futures lay elsewhere.  Not so this season.  The competition for fourth place is so fierce, and the squad so bear that an in-form Walcott is a guaranteed starter.

The question I keep coming back to is: if he hasn’t signed thus far, why would he sign now?  He doesn’t even have the threat of being omitted from the team hanging over him.  He can continue to play games, score goals, and let the offers from other clubs roll in.  By the end of the season he’ll have deals on the table that significantly surpass the £100k he is demanding from Arsenal – never mind the £75k or so they’re currently offering.

It’s why I was so gutted when Olivier Giroud volleyed that late opportunity against the bar.  I would have loved to have seen a hattrick scored by a player I am confident will be with us beyond May.  On the subject of Giroud, his introduction saw Theo moved out to the right.  In that position he still managed to score one and assist another inside fifteen minutes.  He’s doing well in the centre, but I’ve not seen much yet that I don’t think he could do coming in off the line from a wide starting position.  His form is not depending on his position.

Regardless of where he plays, it looks like he’ll have a tremendous goalscoring season.  Arsenal will benefit in the short-term, but as long as that contract remains unsigned, each goal will be accompanied by a familiar feeling of gloom as we achingly cheer the name of a player all but certain to desert the club come the summer.  It’s a bit like Robin van Persie last year, all over again.

Before I go I ought to give some praise to Newcastle United, who were excellent up around the 70th minute, at which point they collapsed.  It’s worth remembering that whilst our players had their feet up on Boxing Day, Newcastle were playing out a draining 4-3 at Old Trafford.  It showed, and the ludicrous scoreline in yesterday’s game can be attributed to the fact they completely ran out of gas.

They have some superb players, though.  I was impressed by two young midfielders who aren’t even regular starters for them.  First off, Sylvain Marveaux continued his impressive adaptation to English football, providing one particularly sumptuous cross for their third goal.  Then there was Gael Bigirimana, a 19 year old who last season was playing for Coventry City, who moved the ball intelligently and accurately all afternoon.

As for Demba Ba, if we don’t try to sign him for £7m then it is tantamount to mismanagement.  I made a point of watching him carefully from behind the goal, and his power, movement and finishing is outstanding.  Walcott and Giroud’s goals were heartening, but we’re still in need of more attacking options, and with Premier League experience and an affordable price tag, Ba fits the bill.

Further reading: Player Ratings for Bleacher Report

Newcastle Preview, Theo Thoughts & SKREAMER competition

147 comments December 29th, 2012

Arsenal host Newcastle United today in our final match of 2012.  It’s been an up-and-down year – more on that next week – but victory today would enable us to end it with four consecutive Premier League wins.

The team news is worryingly good.  Worrying in that anything unfamiliar is unsettling, but also because a clean bill of health might encourage Arsene to keep his cheque-book closed in January.  The return from illness of Olivier Giroud gives Arsene his major selection headache: whether or not to reintroduce the Frenchman or persist with Theo Walcott in the central striking berth.

Much of Arsene’s press conference focused on Walcott’s hypothesised evolution in to a centre-forward:

“I like the signs that I have seen.  If you look at my statements, I always said that one day he would play through the middle and it grew in his brain.

He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before. The fact that you play in other positions as well helps your technique.  On the wing you need a shorter technique against the line. Once you [then] play in the middle you can go on both sides.

From [the ages of] 19 to 23, Theo has learnt a lot. Now we will sometimes play him on the flanks and sometimes through the middle. I like what I have seen through the middle.”

I have to say I’m not convinced by this switch.  It seems odd that having resisted playing Walcott through the middle for so long, Arsene has suddenly introduced such a radical shift halfway through the season.  It looks, to me at least, like something of a desperate move, with as many as four possible motivating factors.  The first is his lack of options: Arsenal are patently lacking in quality strikers.  The second is a desire to convince Theo to sign a new deal and remain at Arsenal.  The third is to save a bit of money in January by turning Walcott in to a striker instead of bringing one in.  And the last, and arguably most worrying, is that Arsene might have been influenced by the huge consensus among the media that Walcott deserves a chance through the middle.

I don’t foresee it being a long-term solution.  Firstly, because I’m not certain that Walcott is more suited to the central role than one on the wing, but also because I don’t think Theo will be here come next season.  Arsenal still need a forward, and while Arsene insists he is preparing to be ‘busy’ in January, I am concerned he is mainly going to be busy making excuses about ‘super super quality’ and lack of value.

Today, Walcott is guaranteed to start, and my hunch is that despite all the noise from Arsene it’ll be on the wing.  Rotation is important at this time of year, and Giroud should be fairly well rested and raring to go.  Other than that, the team will surely be as we expect, with Podolski on the left flank, Cazorla joining Wilshere and Arteta in midfield, and Vermaelen and Mertesacker flanked by Gibbs and Sagna.  It’s possible that one of the centre-backs will be rested in the next couple of games, but I don’t think Arsene will take that chance today against the dangerous duo of Ba and Cisse – the former of which he has denied an interest in.  Again, a little worrying.

The fact that Arsenal had a rest of Boxing Day while Newcastle suffered a morale and energy-sapping last-minute 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford means we really have no excuses today: we ought to win.If you fancy a flutter on today’s match, then you can check out my predicted team and betting tips over at Unibet.

In other news today, I’ve got a bit of a competition for you lot.  The guys at Warrior Football have given me a pair of their new SKREAMER football boots to give away.

They’re a really lovely bit of kit.  I wore a pair myself in my final Sunday League game of 2012, and whilst the bright colours probably attracted an extra few kicks on the ankle, they feel great on the pitch.  They’re apparently packed full of scientific advances, much like the Predator was all those years ago, so fair play to Warrior for attempting to do something genuinely innovative.  You can read more about them here.

And if you fancy, you can nab yourselves a pair.  I’ll be running a competition – entry is via Twitter only, I’m afraid, so make sure you’re following me @Gunnerblog.  As we all know, a ‘Skreamer’ in football terminology is a rocket shot – a goal from distance that flies past a helpless goalkeeper.  My question is simple:

Which Arsenal player scored the most goals from outside the box last season?

Tweet me and tag your answer with #SKREAMER to go in to the hat.   You’ve got until Monday to enter.

Good luck to you, and good luck to Arsenal today.  Three points required to end 2012 on a relative high.  And three cheers for Pat Rice, who has been awarded a richly-deserved MBE.  Congratulations to him.

Wigan 0 – 1 Arsenal: Arsenal’s true leader makes it a merrier Christmas

684 comments December 23rd, 2012

Wigan 0 – 1 Arsenal (Arteta 60)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Mikel Arteta has scored some incredibly important goals for Arsenal…
Last season there was the dramatic winner against Man City, and in this campaign alone he’s proved the difference against QPR, West Brom and Wigan, collecting an invaluable nine points along the way.  It’s a record that cements his status as the true leader of this Arsenal team.  Thomas Vermaelen may wear the armband, but when it comes to taking responsibility on the pitch, there is no-one more commanding than Arteta.

Bacary Sagna showed his class, again…
Midway through the first half there was a little moment when Sagna, stuck on the touchline and under pressure from two Wigan players, played a left-footed curling pass between the two onrushing players, across the field, and in to the path of Thomas Vermaelen.  That is impressive enough.  What I haven’t mentioned yet is that as he did this, Sagna was falling over.  It was an incredible show of balance, strength, athleticism and technique.  And, critically, something I’m not sure Carl Jenkinson will ever be able to do.  Bacary Sagna is one of the best right-backs in the world.  It’s essential the club do everything they can to keep him.

Oxlade-Chamberlain should be starting regularly now…
He was our most dangerous attacking threat against Wigan, but a better reason to be playing him is that he represents a huge part of the future of this club.  The other options on that right flank do not represent long-term options: Gervinho is a player whose talent seems to be on the wane; Theo Walcott still looks destined to walk away on a Bosman; and Aaron Ramsey will surely settle as a central midfielder rather than auxiliary wide-man.  The Ox needs game-time to improve, and now he’s showing signs of a return to form, there’s no reason not to give it to him.

Wojciech Szczesny made a couple of crucial saves…
…that suggest he is returning to his best.  It’s clear that being dropped by Poland during EURO 2012 affected his confidence, and the injuries he was carrying in the first half of the year also undermined him.  Now, after a prolonged rest, he looks a better and more mature ‘keeper.  His save from Arouna Kone was the difference between this being one point and three.

The table is outrageously tight…
Yesterday’s results mean that we are now level on 30 points with Everton, Tottenham, and West Brom.  Chelsea sit just one point behind, but have two games in hand.  Despite their impressive form this season, I still expect the Baggies to fall away, meaning the Champions League spots will go to two from the remaining foursome.

The fact we sit in third certainly puts a shinier perspective on things.  Three league wins in a row gives us some semblance of momentum, and our remaining fixture of the year (Newcastle at home) looks eminently winnable.  The New Year will enable us to draw a line under an uncomfortable 2012, and also hopefully under our tentative transfer policy. If Arsene’s New Year’s Resolution is to loosen the purse strings, it could make for a brighter, shinier 2013.

Why I’m not convinced Olivier Giroud is the right striker for Arsenal

760 comments December 18th, 2012

Reading 2 – 5 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I considered writing this article several weeks ago, but was temporarily dissuaded of my view.  After the Fulham match in which he scored a brace, Olivier Giroud was briefly flavour of the month at Arsenal.  He followed that  impressive performance with a goal in the North London Derby, and all seemed well in the world.  At long last, Arsenal had a centre-forward again.

I had slated Giroud early on.  His lack of goals seemed to be me to be down more to poor technique than ill fortune.  I’d been a bit harsh, no doubt, and when he began to score I was relieved and delighted that I appeared to have been wrong.  I, like the rest of the Arsenal fanbase, have been willing him to succeed.  He’s French, he’s handsome, he works hard.  We paid a fair bit of money for him, and he’s got a cracking song.  Naturally, you want him to do well.

Since that derby game, Giroud has made six appearances without scoring.  He is starting to feel the pressure again, as his heavenward glances and angry reaction to not being allowed to take a penalty against West Brom show.  It’s not entirely his fault: he’s been benched on a couple of occasions, and hasn’t had fantastic service.  But therein lies the rub: without good service, Giroud offers very little attacking threat.  And it’s also a very specific type of service he seems to thrive on.

Whenever Giroud is on the pitch, I find myself willing us to cross the ball in to the box.  Of his seven goals this season, four have been headers.  Six have been from crosses.  It’s an impressive conversion rate, but I’m not sure that we’re set up to play as a team with a traditional target man.

Arsenal’s best team performances this season have come when they’ve played with a fluid front three based on pace, movement and dynamism.  Take, for example, the games at the Etihad, against Southampton, or Monday night’s thumping of Reading.  On those occasions it’s been one of Gervinho or Theo Walcott in the central striking role.

It’s a team game, you see.  Giroud might benefit from a style based around crosses, but I’m not sure anyone else does.  I’m not even sure we have the type of wingers who are prepared to get to the byline and swing it on a regular basis.  Podolski can cross, but he’s far happier making darting runs inside to try and get in to goalscoring positions.  Giroud is a significant aerial threat, but Arsenal would have to change their entire playing philosophy to get the best out of him.  The simple fact is that he isn’t good enough to justify that sort of sweeping philosophical shift.  It is rarely wise to mould your tactics around one player.  Admittedly, last season Arsenal did evolve a style that was built almost entirely to provide ammunition for Robin van Persie, but he responded with almost forty goals.  Giroud can not be expected to emulate that kind of efficiency.

I’m not saying he’s a bad player.  I think he’s a very good one.  I’m just not sure he’s the right one.  For years, people talked about Arsenal needing a target man as a Plan B.  Finally, they have one.  Giroud looks twice the player of Chamakh at the moment, and will doubtless become an important part of the squad.  There are times when we will need him.  But his style is opposed to that of the team.  He doesn’t fit Plan A.

Watching the Reading game it was impossible not to be struck by how the selection of Theo Walcott, a far more mobile player, at centre-forward immediately helped restore the buccaneering swagger of old to the Arsenal side.  But don’t be fooled: Walcott does not represent the long-term solution, largely because I suspect he won’t even be here in six months.  The very fact he’s being selected in such a crucial position when his future is in doubt shows that Arsene Wenger is having to be pragmatic to ensure results.  He cannot afford to take a stand.

Unless, of course, he brings someone in.  If I had the key to the safe at Arsenal, I’d be plying all the resources I could in to bringing in a top drawer centre-forward.  As Manchester United showed when they got Van Persie, sometimes it’s worth paying big money to secure that extra cutting edge.  We need someone with electric movement, frightening pace and lethal finishing.  There are goalscorers out there, it’s simply a question of showing the will and commitment to bring one in.  I genuinely believe it could transform the fortunes of this team.

Something Must Be Done. Nothing Will Be.

1,354 comments December 13th, 2012

For a long time now, Arsenal’s fan base has been horribly split. In the bars and pubs surrounding the Emirates, there were some whose pint glass was perennially half full. And then there were another, angrier sort, served up exactly the same stuff week on week, who regarded their glass as half empty, and could really have done with a refill. After Tuesday night’s defeat to Bradford City, I think we’re all agreed that we’re in desperate need of a drink.

In the last few weeks my perspective on the club, team, and manager has shifted considerably, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Recent events have felt significant. After a few wobbly weeks, we reached our nadir at Valley Parade. To lose to a side 64 league places below you is humiliating for everyone associated with the club.

It’s worrying that off the top of my head I can think of several other humiliations in the last few years. It’s a string of traumatic memories that begins with a calamitous Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham, encompasses an 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, and takes in a lifeless 4-0 thumping in the San Siro. In his blog yesterday arseblogger called this current Arsenal side ‘punch drunk’. There’s an argument that ever since Obafemi Martins delivered that knockout blow in February 2011, they’ve been reeling and staggering, occasionally throwing Spurs a decent hook but essentially vulnerable, and heading for the canvas.

Bradford seems to have tipped the scales. I think the fans sensed the opportunity of a trophy. They knew that winning a cup could buy the club credibility, and the manager time. A quarter-final against a League Two team seemed an easy passage. We were three games from Wembley, and four from a modicum of glory. And we let it slip.

Everyone seems to be moving on to the same page now. If there’s one positive to come out of this, it’s that it’s healing some of the rifts between groups of Arsenal fans. What worries me, however, is that the supporters are united in unrest. The atmosphere at the Emirates will become more delicate than ever.

We all seem to be agreed: something must be done. Very few Arsenal fans are happy with where we are right now. There is a yearning for change. Whatever we’re doing right now does not feel satisfactory. It does not feel good. It does not feel healthy.

But here’s the problem. I’m loath to say it out loud, because I feel like it renders all comment and speculation on the subject slightly pointless, but here goes: I don’t think anything will change. Not really. Not for a while.

I love Arsene Wenger. He’s been a great man – let alone manager – for Arsenal. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the fact that the team seems to be going irreparably stale under his supervision. However, I can assure you now, even if we lose to Reading on Monday by six, seven or eight goals: the manager isn’t going anywhere. Not anytime soon. He has never broken a contract in his life, and he has a deal until 2014. The board have neither the will nor the footballing expertise to go about replacing him, and he himself will not want to leave Arsenal on a low point. He will keep pursuing redemption.

The key figures on the board aren’t going to change either. A few unsavoury chants won’t make Ivan Gazidis think about chucking in his exorbitant salary.

The only hope, the only plausible option, is that there is a change of the club’s transfer policy. You’d think that’d make sense, seeing as the policy over the last few years seems to have consisted of selling off the major talent without adequately replacing them, effectively overseeing a gradual decline in the quality of the squad and our chances of challenging for any major trophies. There is money sitting in the bank, and a forthcoming chance to go and spend it – a transfer window of opportunity. Arsenal could make a statement, and buy players of the kind of calibre to ensure that even if we do lose someone like Theo Walcott, the playing side is protected by a depth and wealth of quality talent.

I don’t see it happening. Both board and manager are wedded to our existing philosophy. They’re knotted together, each guilty of leading us in this purgatorial fourth-place pursuit.

I’d love to be proved wrong about that, just as I’d love to be proved wrong about my growing suspicion that the decline of Arsene’s Arsenal is terminal. I’ve waited for so long to see him lift a trophy again, and now I don’t believe I ever will. I want so badly for this club to top up my drink, and make it seem half-full again rather than half-empty. I want something to change, and I’m scared it won’t. Stagnation, it’s worth remembering, leads to rot.

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