What Is The Correct Level of Analysis After A Pre-Season Friendly?

July 27, 2012

I haven’t been writing regularly recently and that’s mainly because there’s very little I have to say right now. Didn’t want to read too much into pre-season friendlies and transfer rumours don’t excite me anymore. But today I had a good chat with some people on twitter about the game against City and it’s given me enough thoughts to write this post and make some points that have been troubling me for a while.

Most of the comments on my timeline on twitter were of a positive nature. Broadly speaking I agree with the observations. AOC was lively, it was encouraging to see so many shots from distance and many hitting the target, Aneke played some quality passes, Gervinho produced a number of excellent runs and turns, and so on. There is definitely a long list of positives to be had from this game.

Then there was also the defending. Sloppy goals conceded, number of players seemed to be out of position, breaking forward was relatively easy for City, and so on. If someone wanted, and I’m sure many did, they could turn it into a nightmare scenario for the Gunners.

Now I’m trying to figure out what is the correct level of analysis for such a game. Obviously, the players are still working towards their fitness and it will take some time for them to hit their peak. Arsene said after the last game that they were around 70 percent and needed work tactically and fitness wise. Technically it wasn’t a big problem and that’s understandable because you don’t lose technique during a summer break. Fitness drops and based on analysis of last season’s performances the coaching staff has to develop the tactical changes which then take time to seep through to the players via training. So those are the key areas where work is needed.

Since few, if any, of us have first-hand experience of such high-level training it’s difficult to define the timeframes needed for the impact of the work to be seen. As a consequence condemning the players and coaches too soon can be considered unjustified. But you can spin the argument around and say there’s no need to turn a blind eye to the problems.

In the end what I feel, and this is something I’ve said often enough, is that the analysis or opinions we see usually reflects more on the person who is offering the opinion than providing actual insights about the issues.

There’s also a tendency to extrapolate, and we are all guilty of this at some level or the other, which makes matters worse. Some people will find faults and then jump to doom and gloom conclusions. Others will try to spin the story and say Arsenal have a good chance this year. If we pause and reflect, every season shows us that both extremes are proven incorrect.

Arsenal have been written off time and again for the last five seasons or more. Villa were supposed to overtake the Gunners, Everton too, and these days it’s Spurs or Liverpool. It hasn’t happened yet.

On the other hand, some people constantly claim Arsenal can win the title. And this happens every year irrespective of the squad available. They too are proven wrong.

Why do we do this? What’s the point in saying, “Our defence is still sh*t, we’re f*cked, Wenger out, blah, blah”. At the same time why do we need arguments like, “Well we dominated the ball, and X,Y,Z were not playing, when they come back it’ll be great”. Haven’t we been through all this often enough? Don’t you think we’re just going around in circles repeating the same arguments over and over again? Aren’t we just getting more spin from one side to counter that from the other? Doesn’t it just lead to more anger, hatred, and heartache? If you find it fun then I truly envy you but to me it hurts deeply, as much as losing key matches to sloppy mistakes or refereeing decisions.

Why can’t we keep things simple and specific to the narrow context of the current game? For instance, if it appeared that the full-backs were caught out of position, shouldn’t we ask why were they caught out? Was it an individual error on their part or were they exposed and had to cover a big amount of space? Should Bould be working on the positioning of his full-backs or the broader structure of his team? Don’t you think these should be the starting point of the debate rather than criticisms like, “Jenkinson is utterly useless”, or a diversion like, “This is just a pre-season game”.

I don’t want to offer detailed analysis of this game but I want to use two examples.

I saw Arteta make a number of errors in the first half. Should I jump to a conclusion that Arteta has lost it. That’d be absurd, wouldn’t it? The guy has proven himself over a long time and therefore you could say he’s just rusty and will shrug it off. Because of his consistency in the past it would be fair to label his mistakes as uncharacteristic. I’d agree there is no need to read too much into it.

On the other hand, we’ve seen defensive mistakes from Arsenal time and again over the course of many seasons. So do we simply ignore the same when we see them again and magically hope they’ll vanish by the time the season starts? Or is it better to get into some details and look for answers? I don’t condone abuse even when someone digs deep but can you really blame people for trying to understand what’s going on?

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, since we’ve gone through many of these arguments and observations over and over again, patience is running thin in the Arsenalsphere. People read words and their mind goes back to related arguments they’ve suffered through. This happens to both sides. Those who don’t believe in the manager have seen enough excuses and any attempt to debate can seem to be another apology. Those who want to believe are tired of constant negativity. I am not in anyone else’s head so I could be wrong here and would definitely value any feedback on this but I’ll be surprised if we haven’t all gone through such phases.

I don’t want to offer major conclusions in this post, just some observations and questions. Make up your own mind and tell me what you think is the correct level of analysis for pre-season games or any game for that matter. Do we have to link everything to title chances? Is there still some fun to be had in simply enjoying the game and discussing various observations without worrying about the impact at the end of the season? Is it too difficult to allow a different point of view and at the same time is it ok if someone loses patience once in a while?

I honestly don’t know the answers. I only know what I’d like to see but that seemingly ideal state of the Arsenalsphere seems as distant a possibility as the world solving global poverty or population problems. And that hurts me as much as any Arsenal performance ever has.

PS: Apologies to those who didn’t get a chance to see the game and came here hoping for some observations. The points made here have been eating away at me for a while now and they took precedence over the specifics of the game.

Thoughts On The Robin Van Persie Situation

July 5, 2012

By now you must have seen this statement on RvP’s official website announcing his decision to not renew his contract with Arsenal.

This was probably an unsurprising yet gut-wrenching moment for many Arsenal fans. Ever since his decision to postpone talks to the summer, which only led to a ban on media interaction imposed by the club, there have been indications that Van Persie was not happy at the club and will not renew his contract. But the manner in which he’s acknowledged the growing fears is massively disappointing.

I have seen many reactions to the Dutchman’s statement. Hurt or pain is by far the most common sentiment expressed even if people have different ways of dealing with it. Some have channeled that into anger or, worse, hatred towards the player. Others have rationalized and said that Arsenal can win without last season’s Player of the Year. There are also those who’ve found a way to blame Wenger for this scenario while others are against the board or the CEO.

None of these views are completely incorrect or unjustified. However, hardly any respectfully examines the situation from all sides’ perspective.

Let’s start with the player – What’s in it for RvP?

The most common interpretation I have seen seems to be one that Van Persie wants more money and has had his head turned. This line of thought suggests that the Dutchman is trying to force the club’s hand so that he can sign a vastly improved contract at a super-rich club.

Maybe that’s the case. I am not inside the striker’s head so I can’t be certain. But if money were the most important factor why would he not go to Russia or China? Or even if he wanted to stay in Europe, why would RvP not wait another six months when he could sign a staggering new contract in January at a club of his choice as a free agent. Surely, he’d get a hefty signing bonus as the acquiring club will not have to pay any fees to Arsenal. That reason might also tempt some of the biggest clubs in European football if they’re not already interested now due to the fees that they might have to pay.

So why would a reasonably intelligent man sacrifice so many choices and such possibilities to force the club’s hand? The cynical view might be that his value will drop in the next six months, especially if he gets injured, but that really is a matter of luck. Every club that wants to sign him now knows his past record and it won’t dramatically change come January.

If I were Robin and I really wanted a big money deal I’d strongly focus on producing an extraordinary first half of the season for Arsenal in order to secure what could be the biggest deal anyone has seen in football.

Given these thoughts, I find it very hard to accept this is about the money and it is unfortunate that so many people have formed such opinions based on pure speculation. Van Persie will get big money wherever he goes but that will be the effect of his talent and work ethic, and not the cause behind his statement.

Discounting money as a factor we come to the reason mentioned by Arsenal’s captain (former?) in his statement – “it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward”

It’s purposely vague but the bottom line seems obvious. He wants to win major titles, with the team and as an individual. Arsenal have not fulfilled that ambition in recent years and there can be genuine doubts about their ability to do so next year.

Of course, the club have strengthened and significantly at that. Podolski and Giroud are not inconsiderable acquisitions. Clearly though, it’s not enough for the Dutchman. There is an interesting viewpoint that nothing Arsenal did in the market would have convinced him to sign.

This is not hard to see. In order to win the league these days a club has to have strikers worth £25-30M on the bench. Think about the likes of Dzeko, Berbatov, and Higuain, or Shevchenko if we go back a few years. They should also have enough depth to deal with any injuries or issues with key players. Think about Tevez and how City had to deal with him. The Nuri Sahin’s of this world, a class act at a team like Dortmund, are only fillers at these footballing superpowers. And this is not limited to strikers or attacking players, you need depth across all positions in the squad.

To win major trophies like the Premier League, La Liga, or the Champions League teams need a blank check and a squad so deep even the B team could compete for European places. Some clubs do get success through parking the bus shamelessly, but diligently and with superb coordination. It’s worth mentioning that even those squads are assembled at significant cost and the success is over a  short term.

According to this article by Zach Slaton published by Forbes, Arsenal had the sixth highest total expenditure on players in the Premiership and should have finished between 4th and 10th in the last four years. While it does show Arsenal have overachieved given their spending and again highlights Wenger’s ability to get the most bang for the buck, there can be questions about how far the club can go with such a spending policy.

Can we really fault an ambitious, talented, and hard working individual for demanding more or better? Frankly, if I put myself in van Persie’s boots, I’d have similar doubts. As a fan I can find reasons to believe and ways to assuage the disappointment at the end of the season but for a true champion with few years left at the top it’s not the same.

That brings us to related questions like – Can Arsenal win major trophies? What do they have to do in order to achieve that?

The Gunners claim to have a self-sustaining model. To a large extent I agree with that assertion. However, as with most things Arsenal, that is not the complete truth. I am not an Usmanov fan and I don’t think having the Russian on board is the solution to all problems but some of his arguments are not without merit.

In this open letter, his company Red & White Securities Ltd. make the point that, “The self-financing was created to suit the major shareholders at the time, all of whom subsequently sold their shares.”

Kroenke and Usmanov between them have spent close to a billion pounds in acquiring the Arsenal shares. How much of that money has actually gone into the club or squad development? Look up the total amounts spent by Abramovic, Sheikh Mansour, the former and current Liverpool owners, and other foreign owners. Compare them with the Arsenal duo. Pay special attention to the ratio of money spent on squad to that spent filling the pocket of certain individuals. The Gunners are clearly lagging behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Usmanov should be allowed to invest or that the self-sustaining model is wrong. Just that given Arsenal’s approach it is not difficult to see why a brilliant player would not be convinced about the team’s chances to win. He’s not a fool, he can see what’s going on at other clubs and at Arsenal.

Those supporting the self-financing model, myself included, will have to accept that the club will remain strong enough to challenge for the titles, especially as long as Arsene is in charge of the football, but will more often than not fall just short at the final hurdle. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play might make an impact over the long term when the owners decide they don’t want to or can’t sustain their egregious spending but no one’s going to hold their breath.

Since I lack the resources to dig into and discover the real intentions of Billionaires like Usmanov and Korenke I don’t have a clear solution to offer. Yes, many people like straightforward answers. That’s how over simplified narratives develop and gain popularity. But those have little practical value except perhaps in debates with friends or foes.

One person who can do without such trivialized narratives is Arsene Wenger. In this saga he is probably the only person who has the respect of all parties, or at least of the majority. The previous and current owners trust him, even if it’s mostly about making more money for themselves. Majority of the fans know how important he is to the club and how the club have overachieved given the constraints he’s faced. Van Persie has become the player he is because of the manager’s faith and guidance. The striker has acknowledged this often enough.

Nevertheless, it’s Wenger who is once again finds himself between a rock and a hard place. It will be tough for him to get the best out of RvP next season and even harder to replace the striker. People talk about van Persie’s injury record or his age and find ways to rationalize that it’s best to sell him. If it were that simple Wenger, a man who takes major decisions based on detailed analysis of facts, would have offloaded the Dutchman a while back.

The simple truth, and this is very hard to take no doubt, is that it is virtually impossible for Arsenal to replace Robin van Persie over the next season or two. They will, in all likelihood, find it impossible to financially compete for a player of similar class even if they manage to identify one.

Players like Cesc and Van Persie are a rare breed as far as footballing talent goes. The manager will have to change the entire style of the team to fit a replacement in. Of course he’s done it in the past but it’s important to note that Arsenal keep coming close to the title without winning it. Retaining the big players is one vital cog in that winning wheel. It’s something Arsenal have sorely missed and Wenger knows this better than anyone else.

There is no guarantee that Arsenal will win with RvP in the side but the odds of the Gunners tasting success in major competitions without such a player are distinctly lower. With that in mind it’s understandable if Arsene still wants to retain the services of his captain but he will have a hard time either way as the fans will not be so kind or thoughtful.

That brings us to the most interesting and divided stakeholders in this saga, the fans.

We are a curious species. When players and managers offer empty platitudes we are displeased. Yet when they speak their mind we aren’t completely happy either. Fabregas rarely said anything last season amidst all the speculation and many fans didn’t take too kindly to it. Now that RvP has released a seemingly honest statement, even if people have turned it into a sinister plot, many fans have turned on the player.

The beauty here, and it’s a perverse kind of beauty, is that the statement in itself is harmless. Many saw it coming. The damage is not done by the words on the Dutchman’s website but by the reaction to those words by the fans.

If everyone accepted the status quo, and this is clearly an idealistic scenario, and simply went on with their jobs things would be different, easy even! The players are professionals they can deal with it. The manager was prepared to play Nasri last year and he will have no qualms over selecting Van Persie this season. Arsenal would have a strong squad and they could prove the striker wrong.

But the fans will react. And that reaction will cause all the mayhem. Arsenal are now in a spot not because of the statement but because of the way so many perceptions and opinions have changed. The club will most probably be forced to act even if it wasn’t in their initial plans.

There is a valid argument that the reaction has been induced by the statement from RvP, which many have deemed ill-advised and needless. But make no mistake this response from the fans has not been forced. Each one of us has a clear choice in front as regards to the manner in which we deal with Van Persie from this point forward. How many will do the right thing?

On a broad but related note, have you wondered why politician after politician, irrespective of the country, culture, or nature of politics, feeds us lies and false promises? Why do so many people in the public domain put up an act to shield their real selves? Why is there an overabundance of simplified narratives and a real dearth of meaningful analysis in any walk of life? It all comes back to us and how we deal with the naked truth and disconcerting details. This RvP chronicle is a classic example.

Most Gooners can say they have a right to be angry because of the love they’ve shown to the player and the loyalty towards the club. But is that completely true? Was the love a function of RvP’s performances or was it unconditional? Those fans who sang Denilson songs, to take one example, when the Brazilian was having a tough time could claim their support is unconditional but how many such individuals are there? If the support and love from the fans is contingent to a player’s efforts on the pitch and can turn at such short notice, can anyone honestly blame a player for putting his own interests first?

It’s easy to demand loyalty but few walk the path they want others to tread.


So where does all this leave us? What next for the Gunners?

There are only two ways this can go although there are subplots in either case.

My personal preference, predicated on the assumption that it is also Wenger’s choice, will be to keep RvP. Risk a return of his injury woes or a drop in form and gamble on the fact that he’s looked really solid in the last year and a half. Ensure a clear understanding that he’ll deliver the work rate that is vital to converting his talent into genius on the pitch. Groom Giroud, ease Wilshere back in, see how others like Santos and Podolski do over the course of the season. Look for answers to some structural issues, chiefly defensive ones, with the likes of Steve Bould at the training ground. Hope that the fans will back all the players who wear the shirt.

This way Arsenal could have a strong enough squad to compete for the trophies even if they don’t win one. A conscious focus and tactical shift could see this squad performing better in domestic cups and they can go all the way.

RvP might change his mind along the way or Arsenal get some time to find a solution to replace him.

The only real problem here is the loss of transfer fees. The significance of that can only be gauged by the actual amounts that are offered by clubs and not those rumoured in the tabloids. Kroenke might step in and make a decision as he reportedly did with Nasri last season. Arsenal have to take the risk on RvP’s age and injury concerns. You cannot build a competitive squad with relevant and meaningful experience if you quibble over such possibilities.

The other option is to sell the player. This is likely to the more commonly advocated alternative but I am yet to see a strong case made for selling the player that does not seem like rationalization. There is no doubt in my mind the Gunners will be significantly weaker if they sell the Dutchman. This isn’t the same as Henry in his last years at Arsenal where he was clearly dominating/suppressing the other talents in the side. In 07-08 the players were liberated when the Frenchman left but RvP’s departure will not have such an impact. If anything, the Dutchman is getting more out of his teammates through is intelligence, movement, and work rate.

That said, there is no doubt the club is bigger than the player and will survive. The Gunners might not win without the star but they should still compete for the top spots. If the structural issues are sorted and the new signings hit the ground running they could also end up with a bigger points haul than last season.

I don’t think selling RvP will be a disaster but it will be a massive setback that will significantly affect the odds of success in the coming years.