Archive for February, 2013

Arsenal prepare to get back on the horse

147 comments February 21st, 2013

Realistically speaking, Arsenal have one remaining target this season: to qualify for the Champions League.  That battle recommences this weekend as Arsenal host an ailing Aston Villa side.

It’s ostensibly a good chance to get back on the good foot.  Despite recent positive results against Everton and West Ham, Villa are remain right in the relegation mix.  This is a side that we should be beating, and the odds reflect that: Ladbrokes has Arsenal as 1/3 to win the game.

It’s also a weekend that could see us make ground on our rivals.  Chelsea travel to Manchester City, while Tottenham face a tricky London derby at Upton Park.  If results go our way, we could go in to next week’s crucial North London derby just one point behind Spurs.

The next few games will have a huge say on our ultimate league position.  After Villa, we face Spurs, Everton and Swansea in succession.  We simply cannot afford to allow our downward spiral to continue.

In an effort to bring some spark back to the side, I’d advocate the reintroduction of Tomas Rosicky.  Last season, when things were similarly precarious, his energy and drive was essential in dragging us towards the top four, and his recent cameos suggest he’s capable of making a similar impact in the latter portion of this season.

We are entering that period of the campaign when performances cease to matter: it is all about results.  We need to grab every point we can between now and May, and hope that Spurs combust in their own inimitable style.  An injury to Gareth Bale would probably help, too.

Finally, at a time when the world and his wife seem to writing letters (either open, closed or slightly ajar) to significant figures at Arsenal, it’d be remiss of me not to mention this piece of musical correspondence between Arsene Wenger and Stan Kroenke.  It’s worrying how much of it is still relevant.

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern: Müllered

966 comments February 20th, 2013

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern Munich
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Last night, we dared to expect the unexpected.

Arsenal went in to the game off the back of a dispiriting defeat to Blackburn, but we hoped that against Bayern we might see the Dr. Jekyll to Saturday’s Mr. Hyde.  We needed an Arsenal display better than anything we’ve seen thus far this season, and we needed Bayern to fall well below their usual standard.

Instead, what we got was about par.  We were hoping for a miracle, but got another ordinary day at the office.  Arsenal looked mediocre next to a truly impressive Bayern side.

Arsenal fans had clung to the idea that we tend to turn it on against the big teams.  However, I’m not sure there’s much evidence to support that theory anymore.  This season we’ve faltered in clashes with both Manchester clubs and Chelsea.  When we come up against top class opposition, we struggle to impose ourselves.

Bayern undoubtedly belong in that top class.  They  were compact, organised, and efficient on the attack.  They reminded me of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea sides: a powerful core supplemented by blistering wing play.  In the Brazilian Dante, they have one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen in a while.  Sebastian Schweinsteiger is approaching his peak, and they can even afford to leave the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench.  They are, in short, far better than us.  I wouldn’t fancy any Premier League side’s chances against them.

That said, we didn’t help ourselves.  Conceding two goals inside just 21 minutes is typical of this Arsenal team.  In his post match press conference, Arsene Wenger spoke once again of “nerves”.  He claims the team’s desire to do well inhibits their performance.  If that really is the case, I’d suggest a good chunk of the fortune we have in the bank is spent on hiring a few sports psychologists.  Elite sportsmen should embrace the highest level of competition, not fear it.

I’d also question the selection of Theo Walcott at centre-forward.  This was too much too soon for a player who has only played a handful of games as a pure striker.  As supporters we throw our heads back in anguish when we see Thomas Vermaelen at left-back or Aaron Ramsey on the right-wing.  For me, Walcott at centre-forward is not much different.  That position is no less specialised than any other.  It takes time to learn the tricks of the trade.  Expecting Walcott to be able to perform there against one of Europe’s best teams seemed a little naive on Arsene’s part.  I can understand dropping Giroud to add an extra body in to midfield, but perhaps Lukas Podolski would have been a better option to play through the middle: unlike Walcott, he has extensive experience in that position.  To be fair to Theo, he wasn’t helped by his team-mates, who seemed to mistake him for Giroud, launching long ball after long ball at the space above his head.  Dante and Van Buyten gobbled these speculative balls up, and Walcott was rendered anonymous.

At the other end, our defending was poor.  Against Bayern, you simply won’t get away with that.  Our flaws were ruthlessly exposed, and the scoreline is a fair reflection of the gulf between the sides.  The only surprise was that an Arsenal-esque mistake from the Germans allowed Lukas Podolski to nick a consolation against his former club.

The tie is all but over.  Arsenal will go to Munich and play for pride, but the solemn expression of Arsene Wenger at his post-match press conference suggests even he believes the damage done in this first leg is irreparable.

I didn’t join the chorus of boos at full-time: Arsenal lost fair and square to a better side.  I hoped for more, but it would have been madness to expect  it.  However, the result has compounded the pain of the FA Cup defeat.  Within the space of a few days, the focus of our season has narrowed dramatically: it’s suddenly looking like fourth or bust.

Arsenal will return to the Premier League on Saturday to fight for the right to return to this European stage.  Last night, Bayern provided a stark reminder that even if we make it back to the Champions League, vast improvement will be required if we’re to do anything more than simply make up the numbers.

Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn: The Middle Of The End

547 comments February 17th, 2013

Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

In this game, Arsenal played with such soporific slovenliness that it was as if they were trying to lull us in to such a stupour that the inevitable sucker punch wouldn’t sting quite so much.

To be fair, it worked. When Colin Kazim-Richards ran untracked through the midfield to fire home after Wojciech Szczesny’s feeble parry, I wasn’t surprised. There was a grim inevitability about the whole scene.

When Jack Wilshere fell in a crumpled heap at the final whistle, I felt for him. But any angst on my part was tempered by familiarity. His anguish was fresh, but mine has been dulled by duplication: I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen Cesc Fabregas similarly felled, and Robin van Persie too; great players, folding under the strain of swimming against a tide of mediocrity.

After Bradford and Blackburn, Arsenal now face a cup clash with Bayern Munich. One hardly imagines the Germans are quaking in their boots. A bad result at the Emirates on Tuesday night could all but guarantee us an eighth consecutive campaign without a trophy.

Things could be worse, I know. Whenever he comes under scrutiny, Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that Arsenal are not in a relegation battle. However, I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it.

It’s about expectation. Reading are very much in a relegation battle, but that doesn’t mean Brian McDermott is under-performing. Equally, Arsenal might be well clear of 18th place, but they are falling below the standards expected of the club.

Those who criticise the manager are often characterized as pessimists, but it strikes me that there is an optimistic slant to their discontent. They see the potential of the club to be in a far better position than it currently is.

Replacing the manager doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee of positive change. However, an ever-increasing wealth of evidence suggests that keeping the manager absolutely guarantees more of the same.

I’m often asked when I’ll finally join the “Wenger Out!” brigade. Well, the answer is that I almost certainly never will. I’ve no time for brigades, or any other tactical military formations for that matter. Similarly, bandwagons have always struck me as an outmoded form of transport. I’ll make up my own mind on where I stand. I refuse to buy in to the dichotomy that has been imposed on the Arsenal supporter base, splitting us in to “AKB”s and “Doomers”. The reality, and my own position, is far more complex.

I will never chant for the removal of a man who has given me some of my greatest memories. However, I do believe there are certain fundamental issues with the management of the team that will only be resolved by a change of manager. Whether this summer would be the optimum time to do that, I don’t know: it depends on the availability of alternatives.

It’s moot, anyway. Arsene Wenger is no closer to leaving Arsenal today than he was on Friday. Negative results do not edge him closer to the door; only time and the running down of his contract do that. His current deal runs till 2014, and I find it impossible to foresee him leaving before that date. He may even be handed a renewal.

The extrication of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal will be a long and painful process, for both sides. I’d argue it’s a process that is already underway. It began when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri abandoned Arsene’s project, and will end the day whatever contract he is bound to is allowed to expire.

Ivan Gazidis will not push him. Arsene will not jump. In the meantime, here we are: stuck in the middle of the end.

Blackburn Preview & Betting odds: Return of The Rat King

1,132 comments February 16th, 2013

Clashes between Arsenal and Blackburn are traditionally tasty affairs.  Well, the taste of this one is a little off this morning.  The secret ingredient is, perhaps surprisingly, not horse, but a touch of rat: David Bentley has made a return to Blackburn just in time to be eligible to play at the Emirates.

It’s the return of the prodigal son.  If the prodigal son’s Dad had hated his son, and greeted his return predominantly with boos.

David Bentley is a funny one.  I was there for his remarkable first goal in professional football: a beautiful, Bergkamp-esque chip from the edge of the box.  However, his attitude never quite matched up to his ability, and aged just 28 his career appears to be petering out.  One wonders if he’d shown more patience and remained at Arsenal how things might have turned out.  Football is a game of sliding doors as well as tackles.

As it is, I think Arsenal fans are pretty much united in their hatred of all things Bentley.  It’s everything from his murine appearance to his affiliation with Spurs and preposterously over-gelled hair.  That said, I think we’re all lying if we say we don’t fancy him to stick one in the net against us today.  Were I more of a betting man, I’d put the lives of my imaginary children on it.  He’s got spectacular previous at the Emirates, too.

Whatever Bentley gets up to, Arsenal should have enough to see off Blackburn today.  I expect rests for the likes of Wilshere, Giroud and perhaps even Walcott, but our side will still be strong.  Thomas Vermaelen is likely to play at centre-back, with Nacho Monreal outside him.  Abou Diaby comes in to contention for a midfield berth, and the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho will be hoping to get some much-needed game-time in attacking areas.  I think Gervinho may well get a start at centre-forward, although whatever the odds (5/1 as it happens) I wouldn’t be queueing up to lay money on him to score.

I’m backing us to win this one.  The bookmakers are too, I see (we’re 1.28 to win with

Blackburn are not the force they were, and at home we should be far too strong.  However, I’ve said that before and been wrong.

And with The Rat King in their ranks, you just never know.

A tribute to Patrick Vieira, Midfield Colossus

1,187 comments February 14th, 2013

Hello one and all. Little bit of bonus reading for you today – I wrote the blow piece for former Arsenal player Danny Karbassiyoon’s new website Soccer Without Limits. Be sure to check it out – there are some excellent pieces on a few other Arsenal legends available too.

I’ll be back soon with an FA Cup Preview. Till then.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”
William Shakespeare; Julius Caesar; Act I Scene II

It was September 1996. Arsenal were trailing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday, and midfield dynamo Ray Parlour was struggling with injury. In his stead, caretaker manager Pat Rice turned to a gangly twenty-year old debutant. Before full-time, I had a new favourite Arsenal player.

Patrick Vieira was unlike anyone I’d seen before in an Arsenal shirt. He was tall with a lean build, yet capable of surprising bursts of power. Most strikingly, he was hugely technically accomplished.

His impact at Arsenal was immediate. I remember one of his early starts at Ewood Park when he took Blackburn apart, playing a one-two with Paul Merson and slipping in Ian Wright with a nonchalant swing of his right foot. In the course of that move, Vieira travelled fully 50 yards in a matter of seconds. Arsenal had a player who could defend, attack, and crucially manage the moment of footballing alchemy which allowed him to transition instantaneously between the two.

Arsene Wenger had some idea what he was getting. Prior to taking the reigns at Arsenal, he insisted the club went ahead and bought Vieira from AC Milan, where his career was in danger of stagnation. Wenger had witnessed Vieira’s emergence in the French league, where another of his key qualities had become evident: he was a born leader. Vieira captained Cannes while still in his teens.

It was in summer 1997 that Vieira’s Arsenal career really took off. Arsene brought in Emmanuel Petit from Monaco, and that pair dove-tailed beautifully. I have not seen a better midfield partnership anywhere in football. Both were such complete footballers, able to defend and attack in equal measure. Arsene’s later switch to using three central midfielders is the ultimate compliment to the Vieira-Petit axis: without them, he had to add another player to match their influence.

That season brought the first silverware of Vieira’s time at the club, as the club captured a historic double. They would be the first trophies of many. Vieira’s time at the club is synonymous with glory. He was the figurehead of the first half of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Between his debut in 1996 and his final appearance in 2005 he was a key figure in lifting three Premier League trophies and four FA Cups. Throughout that period, there were many stars: Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and more. Vieira was the constant. He was the beating heart of the side from the moment he first pulled on the shirt.

And he had so much heart. Vieira was a fighter – sometimes literally. His disciplinary problems became infamous, but they showed an inherent battling spirit. It has become de riguer to lament the modern Arsenal’s lack of leadership and fight on the pitch, but in his day Vieira was a true general.

The driving narrative of the early part of Arsene’s reign was the rivalry with Manchester United, and at the very core of that was the battle between Vieira and Roy Keane. These were two of the great players of their era, both driven by a desire for supremacy that spilled over in to antipathy. When they weren’t scrapping on the pitch, they were scrapping in the tunnel.

It was tense, but it was also hugely entertaining. The Premier League has become a very sterilised environment, but here were two players who plainly didn’t like each other and made absolutely no secret of the fact. Thankfully, these were the days before an enforced handshake before the game.

Picking out individual highlights for Vieira is difficult. He was the engine in so many fantastic team performances, and was a fundamentally selfless player. Take a look at perhaps the most memorable goal of the last twenty years at Arsenal: Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette and finish at St. James’ Park. Watch that goal again, and Vieira’s contribution to a sweeping move immediately becomes clear. There is an outstretched left leg to take the ball from his opponent, then an instant burst of acceleration beyond three Newcastle midfielders. Suddenly, Arsenal are in space and have launched an attack.

That was Vieira’s most remarkable gift. The ability to win the ball and begin a counter-attack in the same motion. Arsene Wenger has a habit of talking about Jack Wilshere’s “little burst”. Vieira had a big burst, and it was devastating.

The greatest insult to Vieira’s legacy is that he is remembered by some as purely a destroyer. That’s nonsense: he was as elegant as he was aggressive. Watching Vieira lift the ball over an opposing player’s head, saunter round him and collect it on the other side was an awe-inspiring experience.

Vieira’s reputation is tainted for some by the fact that in several consecutive summers he agitated for a move away from the club. I prefer to remember the fact that he stayed until his peak was past. I saw him play games with his knee strapped and clearly causing him enormous pain, but his determination to win remained absolute. He suffered for the cause.

Vieira joined as just another player, and left as an icon. Like his international colleague Claude Makelele, his name became short-hand for the complete midfielder: any tall athletic midfielder is liable to be labelled as a “Vieira-type”. Such comparisons flatter these players, and yet they persist. One wonders if Arsene Wenger’s continuing patience with the injury-prone Abou Diaby is borne out of a desperate hope that Diaby could be the closest thing to a reincarnation of Vieira’s brilliance.

Any such hopes are false: I don’t think we will ever see the likes of Patrick Vieira again. He was a one-off, and I’m glad I was around to enjoy him.


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