Thoughts On The Champions League Final

May 30, 2011

That was a game worthy of a final. I was worried it might turn into a tight encounter with both teams adopting a very cautious approach, Barca with the ball and United without it, but thankfully that didn’t come to pass.

Ferguson’s tactics were, in my opinion, the reason this tie was such an open encounter and also for it to be a completely one-sided final. United had moments when they pressed Barca but that was really nothing more than some pesky disruptions to the otherwise predictable pattern of the game. The English side also got a goal but it seemed more down to basic mistakes in defending, especially by Busquets. United rarely threatened the Barcelona goal otherwise, those counting Arsenal’s shot on target might want to note that considering this wasn’t even at the Camp Nou.

I was really surprised to see Hernandez in the starting line-up. The Mexican has been an excellent goal-scorer for United in his opening season but he is also a very limited player who doesn’t often makes a meaningful contribution outside the box or in possession. Chicarito is a finisher, and a very good one, but in such a game did the United manager really expect him to get a chance? That too with Giggs, Carrick, and Rooney playing in midfield?

Frankly, I never expected Ferguson to go against the single biggest strength his team has – organization and hard work.  Not that they completely abandoned it, for large parts of this game United did put up a good defensive performance – I’ll talk about it later in the post – but the team selection and approach meant that there were always going to be moments when they struggled. The second half should have been one where the English side grew in strength but it proved to be one where they fell apart.

Normally, Manchester United defend in numbers and against Arsenal they’ve often played with three defensive midfielders and Park. In this game they had Rooney and Giggs in the middle. That meant more work for Park and Valencia on the flanks but it also meant that the cover in front of the back four was going to break on a regular basis.

The first goal was the result of exactly that. Xavi got in behind the midfielders and that meant the defenders had to worry about the man on the ball and the attacking players. If we notice the way Vidic moves – initially he gets sucked towards the centre because he has to provide cover for Ferdinand and then he tries to run back across to close Pedro down – we can see that even the best defenders struggle when they have to deal with two attacking players. This is a problem Arsenal defenders face on a regular basis. Manchester United normally have enough midfield players to help the defenders in that area just outside the penalty box.

For the second goal too Messi was able to get in between the lines and the midfielder, I think it was Park, stopped chasing him. Again, it’s a problem we see repeated quite often by the Arsenal midfield. Some might expect the central defenders to step up and close him down but if you watch the whole game closely, Vidic and Ferdinand rarely stepped up when a player was running at them with the ball. They maintained their shape and kept an eye for runs into the box. This allowed them to make a number of excellent tackles inside the box. At United the job of closing the runners is down to the midfield. This is an aspect that Arsenal have to incorporate in their game with better efficiency.

Another aspect that the Gunners can learn is that playing offside just outside your own box is a very risky proposition. The most recent example in my memory is the second goal Bent scored at the Emirates when Sagna tried to step up at the last moment. In this game we saw the United defenders tracking the runs and staying goal-side of the attacker. It wasn’t enough but it did prevent Van der Saar from being exposed in one-v-one situations.

Playing off-side is not a poor strategy as Stewart Robson would have us believe. Barcelona showed what an excellent weapon it can be for an attacking team.

This game showed us that a team can have defenders like Vidic and Ferdinand with a goalkeeper like Van der Saar behind them but, if the midfield doesn’t do its job as required, even top quality players can’t prevent the opposition from scoring. As usual, this isn’t a black and white issue. The fault doesn’t lie solely with the midfield or with the defenders. There are eleven players on the pitch and each has a role to play. A mistake by one can lead to a chain of events that ends up in a goal. On other occasions someone else covers for that mistake and it goes unnoticed. The odds of conceding a goal are directly proportional to the number of mistakes a team makes because the defenders will falter at some point if they’re overworked.

Ferguson’s side didn’t have a strong defensive midfield in this game and that meant the defenders had a lot more work. Eventually, they had to crack.

As I wrote this piece I realized it is not often that one can say Ferguson got his tactics wrong. This should not be interpreted as a claim that I know better but it does tell us how difficult the job is and how simple it can appear to be with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure if someone scans through the United fan forums, there will be questions about the presence of Anderson, Gibson, et al in the squad. Some fans will be making statements like, “Buying a good defensive midfielder would have won us the game” and so on. I understand that’s how some fans are. There are also those who can take some distance and look at the bigger picture with all its complexities and nuances. That even makes us appreciate the mistakes because we can see why they were made and just how fine the line between the right decisions and the wrong ones can be.

On the whole, despite my feelings, I must congratulate both the teams. There were a lot of quality moments in the game, offensively and defensively. I will try to cover some of those using the snapshot analysis.

Why Can’t Both Teams Lose The Champions League Final

May 28, 2011

That’s the sad part of the biggest game of the season I guess. One of the two teams will go home as winners. I am finding it hard to pick a team to support and that will make watching the game that much more difficult.

When the same sides met each other three years ago it was easy to support Barcelona. Since then the antics and attitude of the various members of the club, from the players to the board, has been classless and shameful to put it politely. And I don’t have to remind gooners how intolerable United can get.

It will take me a long time to condition myself in order to focus on the game and not on the players/clubs. Those who will succeed in watching the game for the sake of football will find a lot to observe. Such a game might not be an enthralling end-to-end contest, but it will have immense educational value.

Many consider Barcelona to be favourites but I feel this game will be a very close battle with an odd moment of magic or individual mistake settling the tie in a 1-0 result. That’s another disappointing aspect of these big games; they tend to be cagey affairs with very few memorable moments.

Fergie will undoubtedly send his team out to stifle the opponents. It is their single biggest strength so we will get an excellent example of how to keep a defence organized even against the best of attacks. It might be interesting to watch this game and then revisit the Arsenal-Barca games soon after. The difference in styles between the two English sides will be stark even though both will be chasing the ball. I am pretty sure United’s performance will highlight some of the systemic issues that have been troubling the Gunners.

All the noise and nuisance created by the Dark Lord after his side were convincingly dispatched by the Catalans will help Fergie and his players. The referee in this game is likely to be extremely lenient and that will allow the English side to thrive. I also expect more focus on Barcelona so their theatrics might be punished even if they’re somewhat justified.

The point made by Wenger – Barcelona look tired – is valid and will have an impact. Don’t be surprised if Ferguson copies Arsene’s tactic of attacking these opponents late in the game. Guardiola’s team might start as favourites but if the game is deadlocked after an hour his side will struggle.

Both teams have relatively poor away records, certainly when compared to their respective home form. If I’m not mistaken, Messi hasn’t scored yet in England (unlucky to have the goal at the Emirates ruled out). Since the game is at Wembley United might have an edge.

For gooners, there are some aspects that we can learn from both teams. Barcelona will show how to play a patient possession game. This includes the art of defensive possession, preventing counter-attacks by unparalleled pressing and positioning, and picking the right moments to penetrate. There are times when Arsenal try too hard against opponents like United. It stretches the Gunners out of shape and opens the game up for the opponents. I’ll be surprised if Barcelona do it even once. The Manchester side will have to produce quality football to get a goal; they won’t get a gift (They might get one from a set-piece).

From a defensive point of view we will be able to see the importance of concentration as the English side chase the ball and close the opponents down. Their positioning, shape, and decision making (when to press and when to back off) will also be worth watching. I believe Arsenal struggle on this front. There are times when the players get their decisions wrong. On other occasions players are not in sync, some press while others back away. United will show what a well-drilled defensive machine they are. Exemplary if you can tolerate it.

Unless there is a freak early goal, this game is not likely to have too much goalmouth action. It will be boring from that point of view. But to those interested in the details it will be a fascinating duel. I’ve already started conditioning my mind in the effort to focus on the game. Hopefully, it will work out by tomorrow afternoon.

Can Any Coach Teach Football To Wenger?

May 27, 2011

Around the time of the Fulham game, Wenger gave a statement in his press conference that caught me by surprise and forced me to think.

By now you probably have seen this line,

But it will be difficult to find a coach who teaches me how to manage a football team.

Some fans have read arrogance and obstinacy in that statement but I disagree. Those who have actually handled responsibility and have read or heard the complete comment will not make the mistake of assuming haughtiness on the part of Arsene.

For the sake of reference this is the complete comment,

We are open-minded. We always add people, you know. When you compare to when I arrived, how many people work with the team? Today we have so many analysts, you always add people. I don’t know yet [if someone will come in], frankly.

The problem when you don’t win is to always raise the right questions. Those who win the games are those on the football pitch and not those who talk in the stands.

I have enough experience to know what is important and what is less than important. It will be difficult to find a coach who teaches me how to manage a football team.

I think that is a pretty honest and intelligent statement just as one would expect from Wenger. You could say it has been taken out of context and misinterpreted by some just as one would expect of an Arsene comment that actually forces people to apply their minds.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strongly in favour of adding to the coaching staff. I have been talking about it since before it became a somewhat popular notion. But as I have said about other issues, nothing at this level is as simple as some people like to believe.

Wenger has mentioned that he is open minded and has been adding people on a regular basis. I am pretty sure if he finds someone he will not hesitate to augment his staff. Therein lays the complexity.

I refuse to accept that Pat Rice, Boro Primorac, Steve Bould, et al are no good. They have been at Arsenal for a long, long time and have given a lot while making significant contributions that led to some glorious triumphs. I also reject the idea that they are all yes men. The club would never have been successful if that had been the case. Such opinions are extremely disrespectful and reflect poorly on the speakers/writers rather than men who have worked hard and achieved success.

That brings us to the question – Who do we need or what kind of coach will significantly improve this group of players and staff?

Before we get into that let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.

Suppose an uber-rich man is able to create a dream football project and hires the likes of Hiddink, Wenger, and Mourinho to work for his team. Do you think that team can become the best ever? Surely three great football minds will create an unplayable squad, no? Arsene knows all about attacking football, Mourinho is a master of the dark arts, Hiddink is somewhere in between and understands both sides; will the whole be greater than the sum of the parts? Can these three excellent managers combine to make one all-conquering force?

I’d say the answer is no. When three such people come together, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of the parts.

If you’re having difficulty in understanding that ask yourself this – Can three presidents do a better job than one? Can three CEO’s run a company better than one?

It cannot happen. If you have three equally strong people at the top decision making will go haywire because each one will have his own approach and vision. Three, or two for that matter, strong personalities at the top can never work.

It is safe to say the person that Arsenal need has to offer something more and different from the people we have at the club and should be one who can gel with the overall philosophy of the club. It is extremely hard to find such a person and that is what Wenger meant by his statement.

Of course, there is an option of changing the man at the top and bringing in an entirely new approach/vision. Some fans are in favour of that but I believe it will put Arsenal in mid-table obscurity so I don’t dwell on that idea for long.

Despite that I do hope that Wenger finds someone this summer. It seems highly unlikely but without that addition it will be near impossible for Arsenal to win the big trophies.

I realize there is a completely different viewpoint to this issue which says the same staff was good enough to win 3 league titles and 4 FA Cups in the past, including two doubles and an invincible season, so how come they are suddenly in desperate need of help?

I think it is a combination of factors.

Firstly, the Premiership has seen unprecedented investment in the last few years and the overall quality of the League has gone up by several notches. In the past a team could win titles despite some weaknesses because many of the games were easy. If you are struggling to understand this, just look at AC Milan. They won the Italian title this year but never looked like beating the fifth placed team in England. A few years ago the quality of teams in England and Italy was reversed.

Second factor is the number of injuries to key players. In the last few seasons, Arsenal have missed more than one key player for a long period. It could be a factor related to the increasing competitiveness of the league amongst others. In the earlier title winning years the main stars made massive contributions. And while people like to believe otherwise, it’s not easy to find players of the calibre of Van Persie and Fabregas even if you are willing to spend money. Just ask Barcelona.

The third factor is the impact of the referees. One might say the referees have always been that way. I don’t really have an argument against that but when combined with the first point it does make life difficult. In the early part of the decade and that of the Wenger reign, Arsenal could get past smaller teams even with the refereeing decisions going against them because those teams weren’t as good. The same can no longer happen. Experts in hindsight analysis who praise the winners and criticize the losers might not get it, but those who have been watching the football should be able to see the improvement in quality of the smaller teams.

Due to these factors everyone at Arsenal has had to work extremely hard just to maintain the position in the top four. But in order to go a step or two higher the Gunners need something extra. It could be in the form of some players but I have seen too many individuals make similar mistakes to believe that will suffice.

This summer’s biggest acquisition will have to be behind the scenes or it will have to be some conversations with other thinkers of the game that could lead Wenger to an epiphany.

How Does The Season Stack Up Against Predictions

May 26, 2011

Now that the horror end to the season is behind us I thought it worthwhile to look back at the predictions I’d made before the start of the season and after the summer transfer window had closed.

In this article, written before the season started, I’d mentioned United as the title favourites.

As of now, I’d say United are favourites. I know many people think Rooney will not be able to maintain his form and Fergie’s team will struggle this year. I’ll be delighted if that happens but I think the Scot is a wily old fox and will change his game style this year. They’ll try to get more from Berbatov, Hernandez, and Nani by playing a more defensive style.

That was a time when many Gooners and pundits were writing them off and predicting a poor year for Fergie’s men. Hate to say it, but the United manager did get a lot more out of Berbatov, Hernandez, and Nani.

After the transfer window closed my predictions were – United, Chelsea, and Arsenal followed by City, Liverpool, and Tottenham battling it out for 4 to 6.

This was my prediction for Chelsea,

I expect them to have some extremely dominant periods and some phases when they drop a lot of points. Second in the League is my prediction.

For United,

I think Fergie understands the Englishness of the League better than anyone else and that will help them a lot. Berbatov looks like he will do much better this season and that should ease some burden of Rooney. United fans will also be hoping for more from Nani, Valencia, and the refs (their twelfth man, especially at home).

It is impossible to ignore the contribution of referees to this United title.

For City,

I think they’ll be fourth because of their squad that should help them see off the Spuds and Liverpool. They will only finish higher if one of the top three really make a mess of things.

Arsenal did make a mess of things.

For Arsenal,

I’d mentioned that the fitness of Van Persie and Fabregas will be the key. RvP showed us his value after Christmas. But I haven’t forgotten the calls to sell him during the January transfer window because he was supposedly made of glass. Of course, that wasn’t anything more than the partly amusing and somewhat annoying routine of a vocal minority of fans changing their tune based on the current form.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Fabregas struggled for fitness and completely disappeared at the business end of the season. Others like Nasri failed to rise to the occasion and some of the younger players, who’d done well thus far, disintegrated under pressure.

I will review the season over the course of the summer so don’t want to write definitive opinions in this article. But the lack of contribution from Fabregas during key moments of the season did make a big impact on the results. If he’d been fit for the Carling Cup final or if he’d played well in the final couple of months we might have had a completely different finish.

That’s not an excuse, nor is it a comprehensive explanation. It’s just one part of a complex puzzle that was the Arsenal season.

As far as the cups go I didn’t expect a strong run in the Carling Cup. That was a pleasant surprise. Runs in the other two competitions were going to depend on the draw. We all know how that turned out.

Overall I’d say the season went largely as expected although the final few weeks were extremely disappointing and frustrating given the quality of performances prior to the Carling Cup final.

PS: I was doing the Daily Mail crossword online and the following clue brought out a chuckle – A split at Tottenham Hotspur concerning money-management (6). The setter must be a prescient Gooner with a sense of humour 🙂

Fulham 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

May 24, 2011

This game wasn’t that critical from a result point of view so it was good to see Wenger trying something different.

Chamakh started up front with Van Persie in a free role behind him. Nasri was deployed on the left and Ramsey on the right. It was surprising to see Theo on the bench. My guess is that Arsene wanted a good balance between players who could retain possession and move the ball around, and those who are more focussed on creating and scoring. With Walcott in the side the team would have struggled for possession. Some might say that could have worked to our advantage and it’s hard to argue against that conclusively.

Before a minute was up, Fulham had successfully hoofed the ball into the Arsenal defensive third and created half a chance. That particular routine was repeated countless times during the whole game.

Arsenal’s defending was embarrassing at best but I don’t blame the back four. Wilshere is really struggling physically, Diaby wasn’t close enough to the defenders on many occasions, and playing RvP in the hole meant there wasn’t an extra midfielder – this lead to poor cover for the defence and way too many open spaces for the opponents.

The fact that, despite the ease with which Fulham reached the final third, Szczesny wasn’t being tested that often showed that the defenders were working really hard despite the systemic problems.

The first goal for Fulham was a classic Arsenal tragedy of errors.

Ramsey latched on to a loose ball in the center circle. At that point he was the furthest forward and hence had to run sideways to retain possession. Nasri made a good run taking two players with him. Chamakh and Van Persie ran forward down the middle. Rambo attempted a tricky backheel towards Wilshere who just wasn’t alert to the possibility.

Dempsey was able to get on the ball and play it forward for Zamora in acres of space. Djourou played the striker onside by being 5 yards behind all other defenders.

Gibbs did well to charge back and close Zamora down. Vermaelen was jogging back instead of reading the game as the Fulham striker had few options from a tight angle. Sidwell was a couple of yards behind Wilshere but ended up five yards in front of him as the young England international jogged back without realizing the danger. Finally, Szczesny let a tame strike go through his legs.

If Almunia had conceded a goal in that manner people would have claimed even schoolboys would have done better. If Denilson had jogged back the way Wilshere did, he would have been crucified. I don’t have to remind you about the criticism Squillaci received for Villa’s first goal. Why do people think Djourou is any better? Vermaelen again showed he doesn’t read certain defensive situations very well.

Despite all this I don’t really blame the defenders or the midfielders. Blaming individuals is a pointless exercise. Someone else is going to come in and make other mistakes. It is inevitable given the way Arsenal play and will not improve unless there is a major change in training, which can only come with a new coach.

Soon after though, we saw a glimpse of the quality that has gone missing in recent weeks. Diaby beat the Fulham pressing with a neat turn and nimble feet. As he galloped forward with giant strides, Chamakh dropped into space to play a simple but effective one-two. Diaby’s first time through ball was a bit heavy but Van Persie’s touch was excellent. The Dutchman’s finish showed a keen awareness of the Goalkeeper’s technique and the corners of the goal.

Apart from the goal there wasn’t much to cheer in the first half but one piece of attacking play stood out. In the 18th minute, Arsenal moved the ball well with many players getting involved. Wilshere found RvP, his touch took the ball towards Chamakh who played it wide for Nasri. The Frenchman laid it off for Gibbs to cross. The ball was high and went over everyone but I was impressed by the numbers Arsenal had in the box and the fact that Sagna was there at the back to collect it. The Right-Back crossed it back in with his left foot. It looked like a harmless floater when out of nowhere Gibbs attacked it and forced a good save. Both these aspects – someone collecting an over hit cross at the far end and a full-back/winger attacking the back post – are more reminiscent of United than Arsenal. We need a lot more of this in such games. It was a shame this was the only occasion in the game when the Gunners did this.

The second half was very similar to the first. Fulham pushed Arsenal back with ease and the Gunners struggled to get their shape right. Van Persie was booked for complaining as Hangeland got away with a blatant foul. In contrast, Djourou was penalized for a foul when Zamora was grabbing his shirt. Will buying a defender get Arsenal this ability of winning ridiculous decisions from the ref? If so, Wenger should buy half a dozen.

The second goal for Fulham was just as annoying as the first. Hangeland got on the end of a hoof from an Arsenal defender. He was allowed to play a penetrating pass to an unmarked Johnson just outside the Arsenal box. Fulham were able to move the ball across the face of goal with ease before it came to Greening on their left. Sagna didn’t close him well enough, Zamora peeled away from Djourou, Vermaelen couldn’t get in front of the striker in time, and Szczesny was caught in two minds.

Again, how many players do we blame? What’s the point of it all? You could have a big, tall defender but height doesn’t help when the striker moves away from him. You could have a good keeper but if he can’t decide whether to come for the ball or stay on his line he won’t have a chance. Defensive training is a broad term, but Arsenal specifically need to work on balls in the air. Whether it is long balls down the middle or diagonally hit ones, crosses, corners, or free-kicks; everyone in this squad has to do better in terms of maintaining their shape, reading the situation, decision making, and attacking the ball.

Wenger made three changes just after the hour mark. It was surprising to see Wilshere on the pitch even though he is physically struggling, while Diaby was taken off. Walcott came on for Ramsey, Eboue for Gibbs, and Arshavin for Diaby.

The game didn’t change much. Gera received a deserved red card for a dangerous tackle. If all such tackles had led to red cards, Arsenal’s opponents would have been a man down in almost every game. But even with ten men Fulham were able to hold on as the Gunners struggled for ideas and inspiration.

The equalizer was another glimpse of what this Arsenal side can achieve. Vermaelen played a wonderful diagonal ball towards Theo who chested it past the defender and fired home after bursting into the box. Walcott can be lethal when he gets space. Arsenal have to learn to play to his strengths more often. When the ball is given to him after twenty touches there usually are two or three opponents crowding him out. This is another tactic we must develop.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Disappointing again. But as I have said in the past, Goalkeepers will struggle unless Arsenal sort out the systemic defensive issues.

Sagna: Should have done better to block Greening. Put in some delightful crosses. Fairly good on the whole.

Djourou: Very Poor. Bad positioning for the first goal, should have done better for the second, decision making was shaky at best.

Vermaelen: Should have done better for the first goal. Worked hard but tired towards the end. Made a couple of excellent last gasp tackles. Showed his passing range with some passes, especially the for Theo.

Gibbs: Good pace. Good header on goal. Struggled with the ball over the top but he’s not alone in that.

The back five weren’t convincing but they had to do a lot more than their fair share. Wenger could sell all the defenders and goalkeepers at the club and replace them with “proven players”, it won’t change a thing unless the Gunners learn how to defend as a team.

Diaby: Had a couple of great moments. Was instrumental in the first goal. Needs to offer a lot more in front of the defence.

RvP: Wasn’t really playing as a midfielder. Roamed all over the pitch. Work rate was good but didn’t have many options to create.

Wilshere: He looked exhausted but continues to fight. I appreciate his ability to chat up opponents and referees. It can develop into a useful leadership trait.

The midfield should have played much deeper and closer to the defence. This would have reduced the influence of the long balls. It would also have created more space behind the Fulham defence. It would also have given the team an opportunity to better manipulate the tempo of the game.

Ramsey: Didn’t play like a winger. Was more of a working midfielder like Ray Parlour. He has been struggling since his return from that injury. A proper pre-season should help.

Chamakh: Good movement but has to learn to attack the ball better in the box. Should have scored when Schwarzer spilled it (others do it too you know!). Should also have been alert after the Gibbs header. Needs more playing time to develop. Hard work in the summer will help.

Nasri: Won a number of individual battles, often against two or three players. Didn’t have enough options in front of him once he got clear. Still one of his better games in recent times. Good free-kick that forced a save. Good to see him getting into the box more often.

Subs: Walcott scored a beauty. Arshavin struggled. Eboue did a good job in an unfamiliar position.

Wenger: Surprising to see Wilshere in the starting eleven despite his well-documented exhaustion. Starting with Ramsey in the middle and Walcott on the right might have been a lot more effective. It was good to see a genuine attempt at something different. One just has to count the number of times a Fulham player was able to run, with the ball, 20-30 yards towards the Arsenal goal, or the ease with which the ball moved from the attacking third to the defensive third to realize that he needs quality help.

Smart Choice By Wilshere. And By Bendtner?

May 23, 2011

Stuart Pearce has left Wilshere out of the U-21 squad. Coming soon after the honest interview given by Denilson that filled most of us with hope, this is the second piece of highly encouraging Arsenal news. I hope this trend develops and the summer turns out to be as memorable as the last few weeks have been miserable.

The England youth manager explained his decision by indirectly hinting that Wilshere wanted out.

I spoke to Jack last week and he explained that while he told me in March that he wanted to be part of the squad, he now feels he is not in the best condition to take part in the finals. That is based on the number of games he has played for Arsenal this season, sports science data which Jack was presented with last week and concerns he has for his fitness looking ahead to next season.

Since these aren’t the exact words of the Arsenal star, I don’t want to read too much into it. Some people could turn this into a negative story saying Wilshere’s turned his back on his country, but, thankfully, this particular news doesn’t seem to be going in that direction.

I think that Jack has been extremely smart about this issue and has taken the right decision based on valid, scientific facts and most probably his own exhaustion. Even without that data, many who watched the last few Arsenal games could clearly see that the youngster was struggling physically and perhaps mentally as well.

I am amazed by the maturity shown by someone so young. Playing for one’s country, even at the youth level, is a matter of pride. Balancing the requirements of the body against the emotional urges anyone is likely to feel when presented with such an opportunity requires exceptional clarity of thought and decision making abilities.

Going to Denmark would have done no good to Wilshere, Arsenal, or the English team in the long run. It was a classic lose-lose situation and the key men in the English set-up should have been experienced and knowledgeable enough to see that on their own.

A small but important point worth noting is that Wilshere was shown some sports science data last week that helped him make the right choice. I wonder who could have done that 🙂 The complexities and subtleties of a football manager’s job never cease to amaze me.

Hopefully, there won’t be further twists to this saga and the future of Arsenal will get a well deserved rest in the summer.

In another interesting rumour, that could further enhance the trend mentioned at the start of this post, Bendtner’s father has reportedly said that his son wants to leave Arsenal.

Nicklas is 100 per cent open now to a change of clubs. He has made his decision and he has told it to Arsenal. Nicklas needs to be playing regularly from the start, so, sadly, he must leave. He wanted to finish the season first, so no-one could say he didn’t fight for a first-team place right until the end.

I am not a fan of attaching too much value to third person statements on what a player wants to do, even if that person is the father of the player. But the future of Bendtner has been open for discussion and I have a feeling the best option for all concerned would be to let him go.

I like Bendnter as a player and admire his confidence and professionalism. He can carve a fantastic career in Italy or Germany. At Arsenal, I am not convinced he will be that useful in the system that Wenger is using. And based on the manager’s recent interviews, I am not sure he is too keen on adding certain variations that could get the best out of the Dane and make him a valuable player for the Gunners. If the manager cannot adapt certain aspects of his tactics to suit the players he has, he will have to find players who better suit his style.

This transfer could be another win-win for all parties if Arsene can get good value for the Danish international.

I want to discuss some other points covered in the recent interviews and press conferences that Wenger has given, hopefully in the next day or two. Some friends had come over from Canada and the weekend just passed in a blink without giving me much time to write. I wasn’t even able to watch the game so the match report will be delayed till later tonight when I can find a few hours to watch and write. Apologies to those who are interested in the match analysis and have been waiting.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Fulham

May 21, 2011

Don’t know about you but I am glad that this season is ending. It’s hard to see a turnaround in the way this current side is playing without a proper break. The summer will be an agonizing period for all of us addicted to the beautiful game and the Arsenal, even more so for those who hate waking up to nonsensical transfer rumours, but it is a necessary evil at this stage. As I think about that I have to salute the fans that will be travelling to Craven Cottage. That kind of support deserves better accolades than anything I can imagine.

I guess some of you must have realized I don’t really have any hopes from this game. Fulham has been a tough place to visit of late and I don’t see that changing on Sunday.

The key battle against Fulham is always in midfield. At the Emirates this season they started off with a conservative approach and held back. This allowed Arsenal to dominate. But once the Gunners scored, Fulham pushed forward and pressed us really well in midfield. Coupled with a simple tactic of hoofing the ball over the top of the central defenders, this was an effective approach to bring the game back to 1-1. Only some magical footwork and finishing from Nasri saved the day for Arsenal.

I expect the hosts to play with an aggressive approach right from the start. On the positive side, that will inevitably leave space behind their defence, something that Arsenal crave for but rarely find. However, in the past the Gunners have struggled to use this space effectively, especially when Cesc has been missing. Theo can be unstoppable in this game if the midfielders show they can hold of pressure and find the right through balls.

Fulham’s attack, like almost all our opponents, will be completely predictable but that hasn’t stopped other teams from scoring and I don’t expect to see a clean sheet from the Gunners in this game either. Long balls around the Left-Back and over the top of the central defenders will lead to goals either from open play or from set-pieces. Won’t it be ironical if Senderos turns out to be the big centre-back who scores against us!

I have said this quite often in the recent past but will repeat it again. Song and Wilshere have to play a lot deeper than they have been playing. In all probability, Fulham will come out to play higher up the pitch but if they don’t then Arsenal have to lure them out. We must not play the sideways passing game in front of the Fulham box.

I also believe Wilshere will need better support from the left sided attacker because he is completely exhausted. Playing Arshavin will be a huge risk as we have seen in the last few games.

The attacking job must be left to RvP, Theo and Ramsey. Wilshere must pull the string from deep. Song should provide cover on the right while a defensive minded player supports the left. If Nasri is fit he would do the job in front of Clichy or Gibbs.

This game can lead to a goal-fest if Arsenal score early, but it could also be a tough midfield battle if Fulham get one in.

The starting line-up is difficult to predict as there are many players who will be undergoing a fitness test.

Szczesny – Sagna, ?, Vermaelen, Gibbs/Clichy – Song, Ramsey, Wilshere/Diaby – Walcott, RvP, Nasri/Arshavin/Bendtner.

It will be nice to finish on a high but I also believe that having expectations in such cases is an open invitation to misery.

Bye-Bye Denilson, Welcome Renewed Hope!

May 20, 2011

I will be surprised if there is any Gooner who isn’t happy at the news that Denilson wants out. There are fans that support Denilson but even they will be hard pressed to find a positive in keeping the Brazilian at Arsenal any longer. This seems like a good move for the club and the individual so even his fans should support it.

I don’t really hate Denilson (except for a few hours after some games) and I try to find positives most of the time. But this young man hasn’t turned out as expected. It could be his fault, or that of Wenger, or just the way things happened. That’s not important anymore.

The only thing that matters now is that his agent finds him a club that can give Arsenal a decent value. He wants to move to Spain or Italy and there should be plenty of clubs who could use his technique and ability to read the game. Even then, in an inflated market, I don’t expect more than 5-8M because this season has seen his value drop drastically. Moreover, now that clubs know he wants to move, Arsenal’s bargaining power will be negligible.

Hopefully, this will also put an end to the hate, most often unjustified, being directed towards the young man. I read his interview and, taking into account translation issues, I found honest words from a disappointed sportsman. When read in the right context, he isn’t really blaming the club, the manager, other players, or the fans. Most of his statements voice the same opinions that others have said. Blog posts deriding the interview seem over the top and based on an inherent dislike of the individual rather than the content of his interview.

I think it is better to focus on the future and the possibilities. A squad space will open up and I hope Wenger will find the right player to fill it up. All through this season I have maintained that Arsenal need an extra defensive minded player who could play at least two roles. This transfer, when it happens, will only strengthen that. Some might even say a specialist defensive midfield player is needed and I find it hard to argue against that.

The difficult part, of course, is in identifying and getting the right player.

Scott Parker is a name that has gained popularity on the internet. I don’t see how he will get into the starting eleven ahead of Song, Wilshere, and Cesc. Ramsey, and even a fit Diaby, will be picked ahead of Parker as they offer a lot more. Will he be happy on the bench after being a talisman at his current club? The West Ham player, at 5’ 9”, doesn’t really offer the physical presence Arsenal need on set-pieces. So what can Parker add to this Arsenal side? Leadership? It’s hard to accept that looking at West Ham’s position in the table. I believe Parker has been hyped up by some hacks pretending to be football writers and the sheer numbers of their articles has meant that his name has permeated into the blogosphere. He might be a good player but I don’t think he is as good as he is made out to be and certainly not one who will drastically improve this Arsenal side.

There are some options from others leagues but in England I haven’t seen anyone who can come in and take Arsenal to the next level (Tiote did look impressive but I haven’t seen enough of him to judge consistency).

Wenger can also wield his magic wand and convert one of the current defenders into a midfielder. It’s an option that has been discussed quite often but we will have to wait and see. Transfers and the pre-season will tell us Wenger’s approach.

I think it is more important to leave the names aside and look at the qualities needed. My preference is for a player who can think about the game from a defensive point of view. A player who naturally stays close to the back four, can handle physical pressure, can contribute on set-pieces, is a consistent performer, has a fair bit of experience, and a strong mindset.

The last three qualities are tricky ones. There aren’t too many such players available. I have read many names on the internet but not many have won something significant or possess all the qualities. This is important because if you think about it, even Squillaci has won League titles in France and domestic cups in France and Spain. The Premiership has evolved so much in the last few years that some players who have won titles in other leagues can look woefully out of place at times.

Finding the right player at this level is not an easy job despite inputs from the Football Manager experts. That is the reason I mentioned renewed hope. As fans, we can only hope Arsene is able to find the right player. It would have been wonderful if the conviction of the FM experts could be meaningful in real life but it just doesn’t work that way.

Nevertheless, this seems like a really positive start to the summer. Hopefully, it will only get better.

Who Do You Want To See Relegated?

May 20, 2011

This article has nothing about Arsenal but I just wanted to share my views on the teams fighting the battle for survival at the wrong end of the table.

Two out of Blackburn, Wolves, Wigan, Birmingham, and Blackpool will be joining West Ham in the Championship next season.

To be perfectly frank, I am disappointed that some good sides are struggling to survive. Blackpool have been a breath of fresh air and it will be a real shame if they go down. But if Fergie does play a full strength side they could struggle to get a point at Old Trafford, a result that will almost certainly condemn them to the lower division.

Wigan are another team that I like. They have the right approach to the game. I understand some people prefer to judge football games based on results in the next day’s newspapers but I prefer to make my opinions based on what I see. From that point of view, Wigan will be missed if they go down.

Wolves are a tricky one. The likes of Karl Henry running amok on a football pitch are hard to tolerate. But after some stinging criticism in the early weeks, Mick McCarthy has done a good job with his side and they have played some quality football without being overly physical. I think they deserve a place in the top flight.

Blackburn would have been my prime candidates for relegation if Fat Sam has still been in charge. But now they have new owners, Indians to boot, and have changed their playing style under Steve Kean. They are another team I’d like to see in the top flight with the young manager being given a full season to show his worth but if some team has to go down it might as well be Blackburn. It’s probably unfair but I think their fans deserve it for unabashedly supporting some of their previous managers and the violence perpetrated under those regimes. Some Gooners might also want to see them relegated as it might increase the chances of Samba being put on the market but I’m not a big fan of the giant so it doesn’t affect my thinking.

Birmingham are my top favourites for relegation. I can’t see a single positive about that bunch of thugs. Can the Tiny Totts do me a favour by thrashing them convincingly?

So my preference would be for Birmingham and Blackburn to go down but I have a feeling it will be Wigan and Blackpool fans that will be enjoying, if I can use that word, Championship football next season.

Btw, I did read that news about Denilson but haven’t yet had the chance to read the full interview. Undoubtedly though, if he can find a club, it will be a good start to the Arsenal summer. More on that once I get the time to read the full interview from a couple of sources.

Can Bartley Be The Next Wilshere?

May 18, 2011

A new series of articles has been appearing on the official website these days called Loan Review. I have noticed two posts so far, one featuring Ryo Miyaichi and the other on Kyle Bartley. Both youngsters have received glowing reviews from journalists who follow their loan teams. The articles are worth the time in case you haven’t read them already.

Miyaichi is an exciting prospect and could turn out to be a genuine, world-class winger. But I don’t want to focus on him right now. Nothing against the Japanese wonder-kid but Bartley is a guy who seems more pertinent based on my current thoughts around the defence.

When I wrote this piece about Wilshere last summer, I didn’t realize it will turn out to be a pretty decent trailer of his season. Now I’m being a bit greedy and hoping the same happens with the former Bolton trainee.

I haven’t followed Rangers at all and haven’t seen a single live game. That makes it hard to write about the prospect but based on some videos on youtube, found at the end of this post, certain aspects stand out.

The most important one is that the young man has a lot to offer in terms of aerial presence and physicality. That’s a quality the Gunners have missed dearly in some games and certain situations.

Another interesting observation is his ability to get away with fouls in the box. I know the videos are not enough data to form a conclusive opinion, but by virtue of being English and his size, I think Bartley can get away with a few more fouls than a player like Koscielny does. There isn’t any statistical evidence for this, but I’m a firm believer that one of the aspects that makes the likes of Vidic, Ferdinand, and Terry top class defenders is that they can get away with fouls in the box.

That in itself doesn’t make Bartley a great prospect but it would certainly be a very valuable trait in some of the more physical games.

Having a player like him would also mean that Arsene can then play someone like Vermaelen or Koscielny in the midfield in games that are supposed to be physical battles. Of course, the main point here would be the manager’s willingness to make such a change, and I will cover the importance of this in the coming weeks. But if we assume that Arsene will make these changes, it’s not hard to see how someone like Bartley can be immense.

He also has a bit of a Bolton feel to him and doesn’t seem to mind rough tackles or some tussles with the opponents. It can be a real bonus in some instances.

Another advantage of having him in the squad is that he won’t take up a spot in the 25 player quota because he is still U-21. With the likes of Walcott and Gibbs moving past the 21 year mark for the next season, this will be an important consideration while balancing the squad.

With tongue firmly in cheek, one could also say that the kid has the experience of winning the League at Rangers as well as the youth double!

Arguably, Bartley hasn’t been as impressive as Wilshere was, has suffered some serious injuries, and the SPL is not really comparable to the Premiership. But the youngster has also shown decent technique and passing abilities that should help him settle in with the first team relatively easily. It would be premature to consider the youngster a regular first team player but I can’t see him doing any worse than Squillaci or Silvestre.

I know the popular opinion right now is that Wenger needs to buy a central defender. Personally speaking, I can’t see anyone coming in and doing better than Koscielny, Djourou or Vermaelen as long as the current systemic problems continue to exist. And if those issues are addressed these defenders will look world class. The popular opinion will then change as it does all through the course of each season.

Here are some videos that I found on youtube. Let me know what you think. Can Bartley have a breakthrough season just like Wilshere did?

And here is a bit of Bolton in him. I enjoyed his body language after the tackle 🙂

A big Thank You to the guys who have created these compilations. Your effort is much appreciated.