Udinese Challenge Makes It A Thrilling Fortnight

August 5, 2011

Newcastle (A) – Udinese (H) – Liverpool (H) – Udinese (A) – Manchester United (A)

Five games in 16 days, each with its unique degree of significance. I don’t like dramatizing the consequences of each match, especially at the start, but one gets the feeling, before the end of August Doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani ho jayega. I don’t know the perfect way of expressing that in English but – truth will out – seems succinctly appropriate in the context.

I believe starting at the venue of last season’s calamitous 4-4 draw can provide a strong impetus. The Barcodes have let two key players leave while others like Enrique and Barton don’t seem to be too happy.

After that Arsenal have the first leg of a tricky Champions League Qualifier. Udinese are an exciting team that are more than capable of springing a surprise. I would have been a lot more comfortable if it had been Twente, Zurich, or Odense but off late the Gunners seem to have developed a knack of drawing the strongest side in the draw.

This article provides some interesting details about the Italian side’s tactics and strengths. It will be interesting to see whether they still follow the 3-5-2 described in that piece or the transfers of key men like Sanchez, Inler, and Zapata forces their manager to modify his style. Assuming the guy is as good as he is rated; I won’t be surprised if he too tries to blend younger players into a system that he believes in. That should make for an exciting tactical contest.

These two games should provide a complete test for Arsenal. Udinese will be hard to break down, are dangerous on counter-attacks, have excellent free-kick takers, can cross and finish with accuracy, and will test the Gunners with balls over the top, especially second balls from set-pieces.

Di Natale will obviously be the biggest threat offensively. I have a feeling Vermaelen will struggle against his movement in and around the box. It will also be interesting to see how Koscielny deals with him.

I will try to cover this in more detail in the pre-match write-ups. For now you can enjoy these excellent, well-edited highlights from almost all their games last season on the club’s website.

Then there are games against Liverpool and United, teams that have been amongst the biggest spenders this summer. By popular logic, Arsenal should lose both games comfortably because the opponents have strengthened considerably whereas the Gunners have been indecisive and dormant in the transfer market. It might all change in the next couple of weeks but can any new arrival make a big difference in such a short period of time? I am going to watch these games to see whether Wenger and his players can get the better of popular opinion once again.

There are two home games after the visit to Newcastle and they should give us a fair indication of the vibes in the stadium. Will the Gunners have to perform this season despite the fans or will the fans finally make their presence felt on a consistently positive basis? Only time will tell, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.

Nevertheless, from a football point of view this fortnight should be a feast.

Analyzing The Real Problems Afflicting Arsenal’s Football – Part I

August 4, 2011

I want to start off by acknowledging the response to the previous article. Thank you. And I am sorry I wasn’t able to respond to the many considered opinions that were shared. Right now I am really struggling for time, which is also forcing me into compressing two or three articles worth of content in one.

In this piece I want to focus on a key systemic issue at Arsenal. Regular readers know that I have been talking about weaknesses in the system for a long time and have covered some in the past.

I believe the system of play is a team’s single biggest strength. This comes from the manager and the way he thinks about football. It could also be a philosophy of the club as is the case of Barcelona. Often the two are interlinked.

In order to understand this ask yourself the following questions – How can Wenger keep Arsenal in the top four even while fielding the likes of Almunia, Eboue, Denilson and Diaby in the starting line-up on a regular basis while other managers like O’Neill, or those at Tottenham, spent a lot more money on supposedly established stars but failed to dislodge the Gunners? Why didn’t Manchester United struggle after losing and not replacing the likes of Tevez and Ronaldo? Why was Ibrahimovic a flop at Barcelona, even when the club was successful? Why is the same Ibra a success in Italy?

None of these questions have straightforward answers and they lead us back to the quality of the managers and the systems they use. Ibrahimovic didn’t fit into the Barcelona style. Ferguson and Wenger have much stronger systems than their counterparts at other clubs. This allows them to get more out of their players and they can dominate other teams that spend a lot more money.

A system, in my opinion, is not limited to the numerical formation. A 4-3-3 system deployed by two managers can be as different as sugar and salt. Take a look at the two World Cup finalists as a case in point.

Wenger has often said that the system he plays is based on the players he has. It’s not as simple as 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. A lot of details go into making a distinctive style and as Vermaelen was quoted on the official website today, it’s the little details that make a difference.

I want to look at a few snapshots from the 3-3 draw with the Tiny Totts towards the end of last season. This example is from the 88th minute. I would suggest that you not focus on the instance per se but more on the conceptual discussion.

In the first image we see that Song has just played a pass to Cesc who is running towards the opposition box. Wilshere is next to him and moving in the same direction. Sagna and Bendtner can be seen on the flank. Arshavin, who is supposed to be the left sided attacker, is on the edge of the box.

Click on the image to view a larger version

The Russian and Cesc were able to pass the ball in a tight space which created half a shooting chance for Fabregas. It is interesting to note that only Van Persie is in the box. Bendtner can hardly contribute from his wide position.

Click on the image to view a larger version

The shot is blocked and it falls to Wilshere. Note the two Spurs players just outside their box. These players are free and can counter attack if an opportunity arises.

Click on the image to view a larger version

Eventually, Wilshere chooses to cross with only the Dutchman as the target. The ball floats harmlessly over as he is well marshalled by the two central defenders.

Click on the image to view a larger version

In the final image, it is important to note the positions of Bendtner, Wilshere, Arshavin, Cesc, Sagna, and Song. If the ball had been headed out or intercepted, Spurs would have had a break on as the six players above and Van Persie would have been out of the game because of their positions and the way they are facing.

Song would have to compete for the ball and the two players on the edge of the box could easily play a one two around him to get into yards of space with only two central defenders and perhaps Clichy in front of them. This could easily lead to a three-on-three or a four-on-three situation.

In this case it did not happen but just ask yourself how many times have you seen the ball move from the attacking third to Arsenal’s defensive third in less than 10 seconds?

Here is an excellent video of a similar situation, although there are some differences it shows how easy it can be for a team to transition from attack to defence against Arsenal. The replay around the 17 second mark is from an excellent angle.

At the same time it is important to note that more often than not the defenders do make a block, tackle, interception, or clearance. Otherwise the Gunners would concede a dozen goals in each game. Defenders, when put in such situations regularly, can look like chumps but that’s not the right way to judge them.

The problem is that such transitions lead to a number of free-kicks, corners, and throw-ins in dangerous territories. This increases the chances for the opposition to score and puts pressure on Arsenal.

It also affects the confidence of both sides. The opponents know they will always get some chances. Wenger’s men are always wary of making a mistake.

Overall this affects the balance of play and reduces the impact that Arsenal can have with all their possession. That is the reason teams might consider facing Barcelona, United, or Chelsea (in their pomp) a monumental task but they’d always fancy their chances against Arsenal.

These situations are also linked to the decision making by players which in turn is related to their confidence and mentality at the given moment.

When the team is on a roll players tend to make better judgment calls and the whole unit looks a lot more compact and threatening. When they are down, small errors creep in. Someone might cross the ball when teammates are out of position, another might not be ready to chase back, a tackle might be mistimed, and so on. These are the little details that make a world of difference.

In general, when a football team is attacking, it must also be prepared to defend at a moment’s notice. Barcelona do this by having a large number of players in a small space that leads to their suffocating pressing. Most teams rarely get past this but as Arsenal showed, once you do that, the chances of scoring against the Catalans increase manifold. More importantly, Barcelona rarely play a risky pass when many of their players are out of position or on the wings.

Take another look at the last image above and ask yourself, would a Barcelona player ever cross the ball in such a situation? The odds of success are too low and the risk of a counter-attack is high. They just don’t do it. This comes from an instinctive understanding of the game and only when the players have been in a system for a long time. That is one of the reasons it is important to keep the squad together to the extent possible.

United have a different approach. They are a predominantly defence focussed side i.e. they go out with the intention of not conceding before they think of scoring. They also do this by focussing on the shape of the team. Even when they are camped in the opposition half you will never see two of their central midfielders out wide on a wing at the same time along with their wide player and fullback. They get into a shape so that two or three players are available in the box, someone is covering the opposite flank, and at least two players are present between the opposition box and their central defenders. Such a functional approach limits their ability to attack (still it is better than most) and is found out when the opposition is top class but it works for them in most games as they lose very few.

Arsenal are somewhere in between. In some games, especially away ones, we saw more focus on defending and maintaining the shape last season. And we saw the results in the form of the best away record in the League. In other matches, the team tried to dominate the ball and played an attacking, possession based style. Those games had mixed results.

Based on these observations, I believe Wenger will have to work really hard on improving the shape of the team during moments of transition i.e when Arsenal have to move from attack to defence. This is not an easy task but if you look closely enough it’s clear that they are working hard. The away games last season and some of those against the big teams showed the impact of the work being done to improve in this area. But a lot more needs to be done. The pre-season games, while friendly in nature and intended for fitness and development purposes, have shown that the team shape is not at the level needed and the opponents are able to move from their defensive third to the attacking third within seconds.

One big change could come in the form of limiting the number of players who have the freedom to roam. In the above example, we could see that Arshavin was a long way from his designated areas, Cesc naturally had a free role, and Wilshere too was overlapping Fabregas. In the pre-season games so far, Wilshere has shown the tendency to move forward with the ball. It looks good when he can drop the shoulder and beat a man or two but it affects the team. Nasri and Arshavin didn’t get on the ball often enough and eventually got crowded out.

Keeping Wilshere in deeper positions and having him pull the strings while having a broader view of the pitch can make a big difference. He has the talent to switch the flanks effectively, put in telling balls over the top when the defence is reorganizing, and also chase/tackle when the opposition gets the ball.

This might not be the only solution or a comprehensive one but it should make a difference.

If the players have to have the freedom, a lot more emphasis is needed on retaining possession – no obvious passes than can easily be intercepted, lesser number of crosses, etc. – when they are out of position and exposing the defence. The positioning of the fullbacks can also be altered to provide better cover down the middle.

Similar analysis can be done for transitions from defence to attack but I’ll leave it for another day. Then there are issues with defending set-pieces and some others that I want to cover if I get the chance.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not supposed to be a definitive opinion. Fans and students of the game cannot come up with those as we know very little. I doubt even managers like Redknapp, O’Neill, Hughes, et al. can come up with truly authoritative problem definitions and solutions as far as the Gunners are concerned. If they could, they’d have created teams better than the Arsenal by now!

I realize many people like clear cut answers. Media hacks, pundits, and some bloggers provide that. Unfortunately, nothing worthwhile works that way.

Fans have to acknowledge the complicated nature of issues involved and an honest effort is needed to understand them before one can comment on finding solutions. This is just a step in that direction. With your help I will try to go further down this road during the season.

Discussing Arsenal’s ‘So Near Yet So Far’ Predicament

August 2, 2011

Recently I’d compiled a comprehensive list of weaknesses associated with Arsenal. Then I compared how England fared against the same list. I was wondering how a team with over 40 well-known and oft-repeated issues can stay in the top four despite other clubs spending hundreds of millions. Even more interestingly, England didn’t seem to have most of those weaknesses. One often reads examples of the same English players as the kind that Arsenal are lacking. Despite the obvious differences, the end result is the same as the Three Lions haven’t been particularly successful.

Today I want to take this discussion forward. How is this possible? What does it all mean? Is there some explanation that puts it all in perspective? I believe there is.

First I want to establish a general point – In any field, the closer one gets to perfection the harder it gets.

Take music for instance. Most of us are not very good playing any instruments or composing music. I’d say across the world’s population this figure is likely to be in Billions. Many of us have tried though, and the number of amateur musicians is probably in millions. Of course, there are some excellent amateurs and it is highly possible that a few readers would do well with the instrument of their choice. I’d guess in the world there would be thousands of high quality amateur musicians. A slightly smaller proportion would be the total number of professional musicians in the world, perhaps in the lower thousands. One might say there are a few hundred top class professionals around the world and above them only a handful of truly genius level performers.

Don’t focus on the numbers. They are just indicative. The key point is that we are bound to get a pyramid structure that gets narrower as we go to the top. The exact numbers can vary but the general point holds.

Think of this is any field – skateboarding, calligraphy, physics, football – the argument remains valid.

Let’s look at this in a different way. In school, going from 0 to 60 percent marks is not that hard. Many students can achieve 50-60 percent in most subjects. Going from 60 to 80 is harder. The number of students that can achieve that drops considerably. 80 to 90 is even tougher. The difficulty levels increase exponentially as one moves from 90 to 95, then 96, 97, and so on. Very few, if any, can reach 100 percent.

I don’t know how the school systems work in most countries but the argument should hold even if students are given grades or judged on any other criteria. I am using the percentages because it will help me compare the position Arsenal are in.

Most football clubs would fall in the 60 or below category. These are clubs in the lower divisions. Many top flight clubs would come in the 60-80 category. In England, one could say those who end up closer to 60 get the drop and those who can reach 80 or above have a chance for Europe. Then there are clubs like Totnum who are between the 80-90 mark. Occasionally they can hit the 90 and get into the Champions League. But they don’t have the consistency and eventually drop out.

Only the top clubs, that are consistently close to the top, come in the 95 and above bracket. Amongst these clubs, the ones that are able to find something extra during the season and reach up to 97-98 usually end up being the ones who win the big trophies.

When Guardiola says Messi makes Barcelona truly special, this is probably what he has in mind. A player like Messi can take them from 95 and move them towards 98-99, on the verge of perfection. Similarly, a manager like Mourinho can take a team and move them towards the top with his meticulous attention to detail and tactical approach. That also explain why a team with the same players drops a few notches when the Dark Lord moves on to a different club. Fergie has similar abilities to provide the X-factor. Sometimes the impact of referees can be that extra 2 percent.

In the last few years, Arsenal have fallen short in the final stretch. Instead of going from 95 to 98, the Gunners usually end up at 92-93. One often gets the feeling that Fabregas and Van Persie can push the Gunners towards perfection but they haven’t played enough games. It’s not hard to see why Wenger keeps coming back to that point. There aren’t enough players who can do that. Of course, that should not be the only solution otherwise Arsenal would be at the mercy of lady luck all the time.

In a limited context, most of the arguments against Arsenal are valid. There are times when the team lacks a leader, sometimes the mentality is questionable, occasionally (this appears to have worsened but till the 28 game mark last season Arsenal had a better defence than United and most others) the defence is vulnerable, and there are games when the attack fails.

Last season some pundits, media hacks, and fans claimed that it was easy to defend against Arsenal. Yet, if you look at the numbers, last year the Gunners scored one less than the invincibles. Would you say it was easy to defend against the invincibles?

Closer examination of most criticisms against the club and the manager reveals that they are hollow/incomplete conclusions based on valid observations.

I believe Gael Clichy is another excellent example to illustrate this point. He made a number of mistakes and there were game in which he struggled. Those who made these observations would be right. Those who jumped to the conclusion that Clichy was useless could not be more off the mark. This excellent objective analysis by a Liverpool fan shows that Clichy was arguably the best left back in the League, at the very least in the top two, last season.

So on one had we had a number of fans and pundits lambasting the French fullback and on the other we had managers like Dalglish, Mancini, and Wenger interested in his services. That article tells you why the managers were right. It also shows the error of judging a player based on a few moments that stick in one’s memory.

This can be extended to explain many other perceived weaknesses of the club. In most cases, the observations that lead to those opinions are valid but the opinions are based on an incomplete and biased analysis, if any analysis at all. That is also the reason why I often refer to them as lazy opinions. They are not incorrect, but are lacking in terms of depth.

I don’t blame people who form opinions, even if undercooked, based on valid observations. I do disapprove of those who insist these opinions are right and others who can’t see them are blind.

Coming from people who are themselves ignorant about the hazaar tiny changes that are being made to improve the team, criticism that the manager is blind to the problems seems like the pinnacle of foolhardiness.

What one must not forget is that going from 95 to 98 is not easy. Often an improvement in one area can weaken the team in another.

Consider Javier Hernandez. He is an excellent poacher and provided a number of crucial goals for United. Even Berbatov did much better than he had in the past. Why then did Manchester United score fewer goals last season than they’d done in the previous one? The answer is that what they gained from these strikers was offset by what they lost in other areas. Rooney, for instance, wasn’t as effective in a deeper role. Fortunately for them it was enough to win so many will not look at the details but I am sure Ferguson will look at his team and will try to make those tiny invisible changes that are likely to improve their overall play next season.

It is outright silly to think that picking one player from another team and inserting him into Arsenal will solve some problems without creating others. If you are still struggling to understand this, look at the curious case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the valid observations about the problems at the club. Just against the mindless hate.

Recently, I read a very interesting blog on HBR. It was a book review of sorts but I haven’t had a chance to grab the book so will just share a couple of snippets from the article itself.

Worse yet, the most powerful among us have a tendency to bloviating certainty — swatting away doubt and choosing up sides precisely because not having answers feels so uncomfortable and potentially threatening. Opinions, in turn, become polarized and rigid.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Brooks’ core argument is that the vast majority of us have very little understanding of why we make the choices we do, and that we’re influenced instead by peer pressure; impulsive and reactive emotions; a deep and bottomless need for admiration and status; overconfidence in the present; excessive worry about the future; the evolutionary instinct to avoid pain and move towards pleasure; and precious little capacity to delay gratification.

I don’t want to judge anyone right now so I will leave you to form your own opinion on the meaning of those words in the context of the Arsenalsphere.

To sum it all up, I believe this Arsenal team is very close to the top (around the 95 point mark). That gives many of us the ‘So Near’ feeling. But instead of moving towards 97-98, the Gunners end up at 92-93. That generates the ‘So Far’ perception.

There can be a number of ways of closing this gap. One has to understand that the closer anyone gets to the top the harder it gets. And that it’s not a straightforward task. An improvement in one area can lead to a weakness in another. Whether you choose to trust the people who are working tirelessly for the club or not is up to you.

While many observations about the problems are valid, do you really believe buying a couple of players or changing the manager is the answer? Look around, count the number of times it’s been done, and determine the success percentage. Add consistency into the mix and it will get worse.

I do believe that fans can create an atmosphere that provides the extra impetus needed by team. They can be like Gallas and sulk on sidelines while affecting the team morale or they can be the leader the team is missing. If one leader on the pitch can solve so many issues why can’t 60,000 just a few yards away do the same?

Think about it.

Thoughts On The Emirates Cup Performances

July 31, 2011

A lot of excellent football, some dodgy refereeing decisions going against Arsenal, and absolute chaos as the back – nothing seems to have changed.

Another stupid goal conceded towards the end means that this Cup will linger in Gooner memories as one that has further reinforced, if that were possible, the need for significant defensive improvement if the Gunners want to challenge for the top honours this season.

I have been convinced for a while that without the right addition to the coaching staff this team is going to struggle. In the first game both goals were conceded from open play, even though defending from open play was considered a strength last season. So is it the same weakness or is it a new one?

Against the New York Red Bulls the goal was conceded from a set-piece after a scramble so I consider it partially a set-piece situation and partially open play. And just as I have pointed out before, there are so many different players at fault that buying one or two is never going to solve the problem. Indeed, in this particular case, the goal was conceded by a 6’ 3” English centre half who is as physical as they come.

The only way of improving is to get to the root of the issues. It’s easy to say defense is the problem. Anyone who hasn’t watched a lot of football can also identify that. But unless the real problem is diagnosed, it can never be treated. I will try delving into some details before the season starts.

There were plenty of positives to take from the two games. The players moved the ball well in both games. The quality of pressing was better. Gibbs, Afobe, Gervinho, Rosicky, Vela, Arshavin, and Walcott all offered some encouraging signs. Wilshere and Van Persie have picked up from where they left off and will probably get better.

Interestingly, the team seems to be working on a different approach to defending set-pieces. I am worried this zonal marking style is a disaster waiting to happen because the players don’t seem to be completely aware of their roles. There is still time though and two weeks of training can definitely lead to better defending with the zonal system.

On the whole though, some key ingredients are lacking and this squad does not look like championship contenders. Without Cesc, this team and this particular style of play will not be as impressive as it is with Fabregas in the side. Wenger has to sort that one out and will have to modify the playing style to suit the other players if Cesc is transferred. No one in the present market can fill in that role.

Nasri is as talented as anyone available in the market but even he cannot take over from Fabregas in the same system. For the Frenchman to succeed in an advanced midfield role the team would need two dedicated defensive midfielders behind him and will have to adopt a style similar to Inter, Real or the Dutch national side where counter-attacking is the key and the forward players are able to find lots of space in the opposition half on a regular basis. Nasri cannot thrive in the possession based style in which Fabregas dominates the show.

I hope the transfer dealings are settled in the next week or so. It is imperative the key players get settled into their roles and get some time to gel together. There are some big games in the opening few weeks and an unsettled side could easily be found wanting.

On the other hand, one can put some faith in the Arshavin philosophy. In the last two seasons Arsenal have won the Emirates Cup, and rather comfortably at that, but it didn’t lead to any success in the trophies that matter. This time it could be different.

How Do England Stack Up Against Arsenal’s List Of Weaknesses

July 28, 2011

Just over a week ago I made an attempt to document all the complaints against Arsenal in a comprehensive list of weaknesses. As I’d mentioned at that time, I did not agree with many items on the list but was compiling it for the sake of having a reference point.

Today I want to compare the English national team against that collection of gripes. Please don’t mistake it as a judgment on the English team. This is simply a comparison to see how many of those criticisms are applicable to the Three Lions.

I’ll start with the issues against the players

  1. Strikers (and others in general) are not clinical enough
  2. Club lacks a 20 goal a season striker

Over the years, England have had the likes of Shearer, Lineker, Wright, Rooney, and many others who have scored plenty of goals, at least at club level. I’d think the first two points are not valid as far as the English national team are concerned.

  1. Big stars were never replaced

The best players from the club teams get picked for the national side. This argument does not seem valid either.

  1. Players lack a winning mentality

Many of the players have won titles with their clubs.

  1. Players lack leadership

Critics of Arsenal often mention the likes of John Terry as the kind of leader Arsenal have been missing. Tony Adams and others have provided leadership through the years.

  1. Central defenders don’t command their area

Fans often say the Gunners need defenders like Tony Adams, Rio Ferdinand, Terry, and others.

  1. There is no organizer in the team

Similar argument as the points 5 and 6.

  1. Full-backs can’t cross

England have had an abundance of full backs who can cross

  1. Full-backs can’t block crosses

There have been many English full-backs who defended their flanks really well for their clubs.

  1. Very few players can attack balls put in the box

No shortage of such players in the England ranks

  1. Players can’t defend set-pieces

Often the national defenders are amongst the best in the league at defending set-pieces.

  1. Can’t defend long balls

Same argument as point 11

  1. Attacking set-pieces are wasted

The current national side has players like Young, Gerrard, Lampard, and others who can provide excellent delivery. In the box there are players like Terry who have scored many goals from set-pieces. Similar strength was available in the past.

  1. No consistent free-kick taker

Partially same as 13

  1. Club lacks a world class goalkeeper

From Seaman to Joe Hart, England have had plenty of highly rated goalkeepers. There might have been small patches where the Keepers were not as good.

  1. Don’t shoot from outside the box often enough

The Three Lions have almost always had a number of players who can score from outside the box and aren’t shy of shooting.

  1. Not physical (big,tall) enough for the Premier League

Hard to say this was ever applicable to the English side.

  1. Lack grit and determination

Well the argument is more like Arsenal lack English grit and determination.

  1. Some players are lazy

Aren’t English players supposed to be more industrious? There might have been some lazy ones though.

  1. Some players lack commitment

Do the English lads lack commitment while representing their country?

  1. Get injured on a regular basis

Hard to say whether this is valid or not about the national team.

  1. Cannot hold on to leads

Similar argument as point 5, 6, and 7. Players like Ferdinand and Terry are hailed as those who can help the team hold on to a lead.

  1. Cannot counter-attack at pace

Again, the national side does not lack players who can break at speed.

Now let us look at the criticisms levelled against Wenger and his staff

  1. Tactically – Anywhere from weak to utterly clueless

Are all those who have managed the English side tactically clueless? Looking at the resume of people like Capello this is hard to accept.

  1. Defensive coaching is poor

Can we comment on this aspect with regards to the national team?

  1. Playing style lacks balance

England have a wide variety of players available for selection. Does the national team lack balance and has lacked balance for years?

  1. Lack of a plan B

With people who can cross, those who can shoot from distance, clinical strikers, tall strikers, leaders, and those who can hold on to a lead, it’s hard to say England lack a plan B.

  1. Blind to obvious problems

How many English managers have been blind to the obvious problems?

  1. No/Poor training on attacking and defending set-pieces

I don’t really know enough to comment on this

  1. Reluctant to spend money

Irrelevant. Big stars are available for selection.

  1. Arrogant
  2. Stubborn

Hard to say so many English managers have been arrogant and stubborn.

  1. Gives ridiculous interviews/ Makes excuses

I haven’t really heard enough interviews to comment on this

  1. Rewards underperforming players

Don’t think this is applicable to the Three Lions

  1. Happy to finish fourth – lacks winning mentality

How many England managers have lacked winning mentality?

  1. Prefers tika-taka football and ignores the other needs of the team (many points mentioned under players)

Again, hard to say such an argument is applicable to the men who have managed the national side.

  1. No 2 and others are ‘Yes  Men’

Same as 13 above.

  1. Medical staff cannot keep players injury free

I don’t think the national medical staff has that big a role as most of the players are treated by the club medics for majority of the season.

Apart from this list there were some suggestions from the readers

1.       Not Enough English Players

2.       Protects the French players/Foreigners

Can’t say these two are applicable to the national side

3.       Wenger is inflexible with formation and approach

Have all England managers been inflexible?

4.       Money being spent on Real Estate projects and not on the squad

Does not seems relevant in the context of the national side.

Now ask yourself a simple question. When was the last time England won anything of significance?

As a number of people didn’t get the point in the previous article, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to judge the English side or make fun of them. I am just analyzing their performances within the context of the weaknesses that Arsenal supposedly have.

My original list had 38 issues and if we add the four from the readers it gives us 42 separate points that people have used to criticize the Gunners. Very few, if any, of these are applicable to the Three Lions. Still the end result isn’t very different. What do you think is the reason?

Don’t take my word for it. I haven’t analyzed every point in detail. That would need a book not a blog post. Just think about it. The list is in front of you. Look back at England’s performances over the last few decades. Try and explain them.

As I said, I am not judging. I have some thoughts on the issue but will leave them for the next post as this one is already quite long. I am travelling for the next couple of days and after that we will have the Emirates Cup to talk about so I will return to this subject after that tournament.

Thoughts On The Cologne Game and JET

July 25, 2011

Once again Arsene put the same eleven players on the pitch. Well, almost. Gervinho did take the place of Young Miyaichi but the rest of the starting line-up was same as the bunch that impressed in the Asia tour.

Many of us were eager to see how Gervinho performs, and I for one wasn’t disappointed. Far from it, I was well and truly enthralled by the half an hour he got on the pitch. Arsene probably bought him for his intelligent movement, well-timed runs, and the general ability to get into good positions on the pitch. If he can sustain the composure and finishing we saw in this friendly, the Ivory Coast striker will better the goals scored by Nasri and Walcott last year as I feel he is more natural in that role that any of the wide players Arsenal had last year. Previously, I had expressed concerns about his finishing, which seemed completely unfounded on the basis of that performance, but I’ll reserve my judgment till the end of the season. I think he will score when the opposition allows him space to exploit behind the defence. The true test of his finishing will come against tighter defences and parked buses. Nonetheless, Gervinho made as good a start to his Arsenal career as possible and that’s all that matters for now.

Like the previous two friendlies, this game too had the clichéd ‘game of two halves’ feel to it. Arsenal dominated the first period with excellent work in midfield by Song and the irrepressible Jack Wilshere. That kid is only going to improve and will undoubtedly end up in the team of the year when the votes are cast. They were ably supported by the back four and the front three who did their bit of chasing back and pressing. The new man impressed with his willingness and ability to provide support to Gibbs.

In an otherwise well controlled first half, and despite the best efforts of all the players, Arsenal had a few iffy moments when it seemed the defensive weaknesses were peeping from behind a curtain of wonderful free-flowing football.

The own-goal conceded by the hapless Jenkinson was indeed a once in a lifetime fluke that he wouldn’t actually score if he tried a hundred times. As I have said before, Arsenal concede so many freak goals because the defence gets into a mess more often than the other top teams. It’s a simple matter of percentages and, while we might not see the same accident in competitive games, there is no doubt other flukes are going to hurt the Gunners at vital moments unless basic problems in defence are sorted.

On the positive side, apart from Gervinho, Gibbs looked like he is getting back to his old self, Walcott put in some good balls into the box, Wilshere showed he is ready to chip in – literally and otherwise – with more assists this year, Vermaelen and Koscielny were actively looking to spread the ball from the back, and the delivery on the set-pieces seemed more meaningful (maybe it’s just me on this one).

The second half team once again lacked cohesion. There were too many individual moments when players tried to run with the ball or create something. There wasn’t enough focus on retaining the ball or the shape of the team. This put the defence under pressure but some good work by Mannone, some last gasp blocks by defenders, and Cologne’s lack of quality in the final third meant the equalizer was never scored.

Rosicky played some passes that were pleasing to the eye. But his work rate just isn’t good enough for a deep lying midfield role. It’s surprising because he has the talent and the ability to play that role. He can tackle, hold his own in a one-v-one situation, bring the ball out from defence under pressure, and play the simple passes or the exceptional ones. This performance reminded me of his pre-season games and early League ones from last season where he looked sharp. It could be that he loses interest when he doesn’t get enough minutes. It’s a hard one for the manager to solve but he has to get more from Little Mozart and that has to start with a much higher work rate.

Arshavin looks like he has rediscovered his shooting boots. Last season the Russian hit too many shots into the top tier or near the corner flag. In this game he tested the goalkeeper twice and went close on one occasion. Again it’s something that has to last the whole season for it to be valued.

Based on the recent rumours, it seems likely that there will be some significant movement in the transfer market. Wenger has mentioned the need for signing one more defender and there might be others if some players are able to secure their moves away from the club. I don’t want to speculate on most stories but one that intrigued me was the possible departure of youngster Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.

Only last season Arsene had said that he was banging on the first team door with both hands. Now he seems surplus to requirements and good enough only to interest Championship sides? Even the newly promoted Premiership teams are not interested in taking him?

To be honest, I am not surprised by this because I have always been sceptical about his attitude. JET looked like a lad who could dominate the reserves level and create some moments of real magic even in Championship games but just didn’t have the mental discipline to stay focused and perform week in, week out.  In fact, I won’t be surprised if Aneke and Afobe go the same way, especially the former.

It’s a real shame because technically and physically JET had a lot to offer. I don’t know if this mental weakness is an individual issue or one that is somehow linked to the training given to these youngsters. I don’t know the details so don’t really want to judge but it is possible that focus on technical development alone (while ignoring the results aspect of the games being played) could have had an impact on the players’ mentality. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. At a young age one would not want to force the kids to play for results. That would just produce hoof merchants. But an unwavering emphasis on technical skills could just as easily create footballers who can dazzle occasionally but can’t dig in deep when required. A top player needs the right combination of technical, physical and mental abilities. If any one is missing it can finish a career before it begins.

I am sure Wenger and coaches will be as disappointed as the fans if not more. They would not want to invest years of work into some kids only to sell them to some Championship clubs. They’ll have to look at the way the academy works and identify the problems. Only that can lead to a solution and better results with future prospects.

I do hope the transfer document, if and when it is signed, will include a buy-back clause alongside a good sell-on fee. You never know, a couple of years fighting for his place could just be what JET needs for he seems to have everything else.

Vermaelen Touches Upon A Critical Topic

July 21, 2011

Arsenal.com had an interesting article today with some quotes from Thomas Vermaelen. In essence, the Belgian said that the Gunners have to leave the past behind and make a fresh start from scratch.

Everybody starts from zero and everybody has to start again.

You get a new chance and that’s always a good feeling when people give you another chance to win something. The past is behind us and it’s good to look into the future.

That’s what we do now – we start all over again with a new chance and we will go for it this year.

The words are alright. As is the sentiment. Players have to focus on the future and build from the ground up this season. But this is one of those things that is much, much, much easier said than done.

We live in a world where every moment on a football pitch is linked with trophy chances and in the case of Arsenal it tends to be extremely negative. If people can look at a couple of pre-season friendlies and predict disaster, one can only shudder while imagining the reaction to some set-backs that are bound to happen during a long, strenuous season.

On top of it, if my observations are valid, almost every media outlet is highlighting negative stories around the club. There is no doubt in my mind that ghosts of seasons past will be dug up the moment a game is drawn or lost.

It’s hard to say how much the players are affected by the noises on the web or the asinine dross in the press. I doubt any human being can remain completely unaffected by stories that are repeated endlessly. And this is where it’s going to get tricky.

Most, if not all, Gunners have been put through some sort of a psychometric test. They are undoubtedly strong minded and talented individuals who will focus on their training and performances. But what happens when someone makes a mistake, and there is no doubt someone will, sooner rather than later, because that is part of the game and happens to the best of players.

Will the seeds of doubt germinate in the minds of one or two players? Will it then spread to the others?

Imagine a situation when the team is defending a set-piece at a critical moment; say just before full time with a one goal lead. What if someone like Djourou of Koscielny is reminded of the past? Will that minor distraction be enough to drop the focus/concentration by maybe 5-10 percent? What if that leads to a goal?

I believe we have come at an interesting point in this discussion.

It would be easy to say this is definitely going to happen and there is no hope for this team. As I have said before such an attitude has zero constructive value.

Some could also say that these players are professionals and have to perform irrespective of the past mistakes. Ideally, that would work. Practically, it’s not that simple.

If you are the manager, how do you ensure the players will be able to keep the past mistakes out of their heads?

Will buying one or two players suffice? Is it necessary to bring in a sports psychologist? Does better and more intense training lead to enhanced confidence? Is better and positive communication the answer? Perhaps a combination of all these and more is needed.

I believe this year more than ever in the past, Arsene faces a massive challenge in keeping the squad together and the morale high. If the start is anything like the start in 2008-09 (5 losses out of 14), the season will be over before Christmas and all hell will break lose in the stands and the training ground. The damage could be irreparable.

Since I don’t have a solution I will just keep an eye out on the events as they unfold and read/listen to the interviews to see if something is being done. There could be something for us to learn or to lament.

Thoughts On Denilson, Bartley, and Campbell

July 20, 2011

Denilson’s finally moved on. I believe all concerned will be happy with that. Those fans who supported the Brazilian will appreciate a fresh lease of life for him. Others who couldn’t stand him must be delighted he’s gone. For Arsenal this opens up a slot in midfield and saves on some wages. For Denilson it is a chance to get his confidence back and an opportunity to work his way into the Brazilian national side.

I believe, just like the Clichy transfer, this one is a win-win. The important issue here is whether he will be replaced by a new player or via a promotion from within. Clichy, based on Arsene’s statement, will be replaced by Gibbs with Traore providing competition and Vermaelen the back up. I think that will be an extremely risky approach even if we discount his inexperience because the English youngster has had some serious injury problems and might miss a big chunk of the season again.

I am not blaming Gibbs for his injuries. And I believe he has the talent to be a top class left back despite some worrying performances during the slump last season. But to start with him as the main man is like challenging fate to a duel. Your luck will never hold out.

Traore is an interesting player but is not consistent enough to be a top four player in a defensive position. If Vermaelen is viewed as a third choice left back then chances of a new defensive player arriving are also slim because any new signing won’t get enough games with Vermaelen and Koscielny likely to partner as first choice pairing.

By the same logic, if Denilson is replaced by Frimpong I expect to see the squad weakened. That is not to say that the youngster is a bad player. I want him to develop and can see the need for giving him some playing time. But Arsenal need at least one more defensive player who is not in the learning phase, and if both Clichy and Denilson are replaced internally the squad will lack balance.

That brings me to the case of Kyle Bartley who had a decent-ish loan spell at Rangers. I was surprised he wasn’t even on the Asia touring party. Does that mean Wenger rates him as fifth choice centre back or thinks he needs another loan? If that is the case the need for bringing in at least one more defensive minded player is all the more pressing.

Considering the fact that Arsene did bid high, given his standards, for Phil Jones, I am inclined to believe he is looking for such a player. But in this transfer window Wenger will have to be a lot more decisive than he has been in the past. I am not in panic mode though, there is a long time to go and these things can take time. Based on past evidence some fans will be sceptical but I don’t see any constructive value coming out of that attitude.

Finally, I want to express disappointment that the Joel Campbell deal is off. Once it was clear that other clubs were getting involved and offering better deals, or at least hinting at better deals (if they’d offered better deals the transfer might have been completed), it would have been a surprise if his father had agreed to the Arsenal offer. They are looking after their own interests and it’s hard to blame them for that. Arsenal too did their best and I’d not admonish the club for missing out on the opportunity. It’s a shame but its part of life in the football world.

Let’s see if the kid was a flash in the pan or has real talent that shines in the U20 World Cup. If he can perform the Campbells will be well rewarded.

Since it wasn’t a priority signing for Arsenal I am not too concerned. But it’s good to know the club are always on the lookout for talented players in all positions. We should not blame them for the realities of the modern day transfer market.

Now I’m going back to waiting and watching.

Another English Team Gets Between Arsenal And Campbell?

July 17, 2011

I have not been interested in most of the transfer rumours doing the rounds (quite literally!) this summer. But a recent story linking Costa Rican striker Joel Campbell to Arsenal, being run by Gunnerblog and Young Guns, got me excited.

Here was a young, pacy striker that I’d never heard of and Wenger was interested in him. He had to be good and I had to know more. Apart from quality articles on the aforementioned blogs and lazily copied reproductions in regular media, I didn’t find much except this piece on La Nacion, which appears to be a Costa Rican newspaper.

The headline I have used is the same that Google Translate provides for that link. It quotes the youngster’s dad saying,

We got another very good offer from one of the great English team, which is just as interesting in the sport to Arsenal, but more economically.

I will meet now with my wife and together we will make the decision whether to give Arsenal the other or wait for the other option or something else.

I am really not aware of how these things work and whether the source is credible or not. If anyone has a better understanding please share it.

A young, unproven striker is not on top of Arsenal’s requirements but I think such a player could fill a crucial hole this season and in the coming years. More than Gary Cahill, Chris Samba, and the likes, I’d want to see this deal go through.

Seniors Still Sluggish But Young Guns Continue To Excite

July 17, 2011

By the time the first half was over I was regretting my decision to wake up at six on a Saturday morning after crashing at two in the night. Arsene picked the same starting eleven that ended the game in Malaysia and their performance was just as erratic and listless as we saw in the previous game.

While there were some moments of individual quality the half will stay in my memory as one where the defence struggled against modest opposition, no offence intended.

Granted this is pre-season and we should not read too much into the performances or the results. Many top teams lose such games on a regular basis. This season Liverpool have conceded 3 goals in both their games in Asia and the Tiny Totts just lost in South Africa. These things happen. Moreover, Greentown are already a few weeks into their season so their fitness levels were much better than the Gunners.

Despite that, there was something eerily familiar with the way Arsenal struggled. Some people might blame the defenders but I thought the problems stemmed from the lack of balance in front of them. It does not absolve the defenders completely but they do deserve better support. Nasri and Rosicky hardly contributed to the defence as one would expect from midfielders in the modern game, we all know Arshavin fairly well, and Vela almost mirrored him on the right flank.

I have mentioned this in the past on a number of occasions – the defence struggles whenever the team fails to impose its style of play (that is not the only reason the defence struggles but it is one of the primary ones). The opposition finds a great deal of time and space when the passing game doesn’t work. Lack of pressing, poor positioning, and lethargic off-the-ball movement from the midfield and attackers made defending easy for the hosts while allowing the Greentown players the opportunity to pass the ball around and find their runners. This put the defence under pressure and even when a defender won the first header, it inevitably fell to an opposition player.

Clearly, this won’t be the case in most of the games that Arsenal will play this season but based on the evidence of recent seasons, I am worried it will happen often enough to cost crucial points and a Cup tie or two.

There were some positives as well. Nasri looked impressive on the ball. He was able to take players on and run past a couple at will. Van Persie had a few good moments and played a big part in creating the goal. Vela showed he has the anticipation and acceleration to be a threat in the box. Frimpong was strong and energetic.

The second half saw the introduction of the youthful starting line-up from the previous game. With Song and Wilshere marshalling the midfield and the young wingers pressing enthusiastically, Greentown were pinned in their own half for most of the second period. The hosts rarely threatened the Arsenal defence as the work done in front of them offered genuine protection.

But for some saves/blocks and a couple of missed opportunities by Theo this game could have been a comfortable win.

With this Arsenal concluded a successful pre-season tour of Asia. I was impressed by the support and would like to applaud the fans in Malaysia and China. Hopefully, some Gooners who didn’t appreciate Johnny Foreigners might develop a better understanding of the level of passion in people who follow the club from afar.

I am not sure if this tour has achieved the same level of rigorous workout that the players used to get in Austria. Time will tell whether that will affect the performances in the opening weeks of the season or not. I certainly will be a bit more nervous about the Champions League qualifier than I have been in the past.

There is still time though. I think the performances in the Emirates Cup and the friendly with Benfica will give us a much better insight into the level and quality of preparations. By then we will also have seen new signing Gervinho in action along with any others that are bought.

An interesting month ahead.