Season Review Pt. 1 – Player Ratings

Almunia – 6.5
He clearly has improved but still cannot be trusted.

Fabianski – 6.0
I want to believe that he is better than what we saw vs. Chelsea. I want to say that the real Fabianski is more like the player who kept the clean sheet at Old Trafford.

Bacary Sagna – 6.5
We all know he can do better.

Emmanuel Eboue – 6.5
Remarkable turnaround after the traumatic booing episode.

William Gallas – 7.0
Even more remarkable than Eboue’s turnaround was how Gallas rebounded from a hellish first half of the season. Our best defender for a long spell before the Villarreal injury.

Kolo Toure – 6.0
He has tried his best but clearly that best isn’t enough.

Johan Djourou – 6.0
Not a bad season but hasn’t played well enough to give the manager a selection headache

Mikael Sivestre – 6.0
Injuries limited his season but also let us down in the Cup semi final

Gael Clichy – 5.5
He will want to sort himself out. Shocking!

Kieran Gibbs – 6.5
A revelation but also at fault for United’s goal that ruined our chances to reach the CL final.

Theo Walcott – 6.0
Consistency and better decision making please next term.

Cesc Fabregas – 6.0
Well under the required output.

Denilson – 6.0
Has worked as hard as any player this season but has not been the difference maker an almost ever-present should be.

Samir Nasri – 6.5
This is a player who was hand-picked by Wenger. He is capable of a more complete season.

Abou Diaby – 5.5
Abou needs to affirm his role as a footballer. Find your best position and perform well enough to force the manager to play you there.

Alex Song – 7.0
Another revelation. After a slow start, Song has become a top player for us.

Carlos Vela – 6.5
Clearly a player with a lot to offer but like Diaby, hasn’t forced the manager to keep him in the starting lineup.

Aaron Ramsey – 5.5
Cardiff stands out in my mind. Aaron was a ghost on the pitch. He must do better when he gets his chances, to jump ahead in the growing queue of midfielders.

Andrei Arshavin – 7.5
A virtual no-show vs. United at Old Trafford but a magician who’s proven that he can turn a game on his own. A proper pre-season will make all the difference.

Emmanuel Adebayor – 5.5
Villarreal should not be forgotten but we’ve got a very poor return from a player with much to prove.

Robin van Persie – 6.5
Very good for a torrid spell during which a brace at Stamford Bridge reminded everyone watching how dangerous he can be. The goals then dried up when we needed them most.

Nicklas Bendtner – 6.5
A turbulent and inconsistent season for Nik but he’s scored his share of goals this season. It’s just worrying how many more he should have scored.

The Importance of Style

Now that my jinx on United is complete, I can write about something that interests me.

After failing to win the Premier League last year, most people were quick to point out that it was irrelevant whether or not we had played well and with style. The season was a complete failure, and the players followed with this line of thinking as well. Players have to think that way, because they need the main target always in site.

Since we lost, nobody would remember whether we played well or not. People only remember who won the title, people claimed. To that, I feel that’s incredibly short sided. Yes, it is a disappointment. But no, people will not forget football of that calibre.

When a team like Barcelona prevail, they deserve to be celebrated, partly because they won with such style.

Had Manchester United won, they would have been remembered for being victors, nothing else. They have a strong defense and can grind out results, but Manchester United this year have become similar to the dreaded Mourinho teams of Chelsea. They won things, but nobody will remember them in twenty years time. The efficient United is a boring one. They’re a one man show, utilizing one of the best players in the world (Rooney) to stifle opposition instead of trying to show their own flair. It is often said that Ferguson is a copycat glory hound. That’s not necessarily a negative term, but what it’s implying is that we raised the standard and Ferguson met it. The problem for him is that Mourinho raised it with Chelsea, and Ferguson followed suit. The result has been a team that nobody really wants to celebrate other than United fans.

That is something to remember in the face of Barcelona’s triumph. The reason why this Barcelona team will be celebrated for years to come is because they won with such style. The same with the Spain team that captured the European Championship.

It is something that should not be ignored when assessing Arsenal. Arsene Wenger turned us from an efficient, boring side into a footballing side that is only rivaled by Barcelona. Wenger’s imprint goes further than merely winning. And it is not limited to giving younger players opportunity; that is a part of it, but not the entire picture.

Wenger has injected a style to our team that Abramovich craves. Think about that for a moment. A man who can buy almost anything cannot buy that. Chelsea may win a European Cup one of these days, but the path they’re going down, nobody will care about it.

When Arsenal win the Champions League, everybody outside of England will celebrate.

Cockney Reds

There are 13 professional clubs in London. 14 if you include Watford who train next to Arsenal at London Colney. London’s population of 8 million people, therefore, have plenty of choice in what club they wish to support and follow. So why do some, like David Beckham, become Manchester United fans or “Cockney Reds”?

Comparing the cities of London and Manchester is like comparing New York City with Cleveland, Ohio. Both cities reside in the same country, use the same currency and adhere to the same laws but that’s about it.

Manchester has no theatre district. It has one airport compared to London’s five. They eat black pudding and mushy peas in Manchester. True, they do have very good Indian and Pakistani restaurants but so does London and more. Brick Lane will attest to that.

What Manchester has that London doesn’t is misguided arrogance. They think that they are the capital of the north. The competition isn’t that high though is it. Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Hull, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield and Birmingham. You will live a better life in Atlanta or Orlando – cities that American’s look down at – than you would in any of those dark northern armpits.

London knows that it will always be the number one city in the UK. That’s why it looks at New York, Hong Kong or Paris as it’s competition. In the 1990’s, Manchester twice failed to win the vote to host the Olymics. London won their bid at first time of asking.

True, Manchester has a music scene. But so does Nashville, Tennessee. I don’t like bands like Oasis and I hate country music. Plus, if Manchester is so good, why do Oasis live in Primrose Hill, London?

The man that sums up Manchester is boxer Ricky Hatton. He’s a good fighter. An ex-world champion but is he a world class fighter? Watch his last pathetic fight against Manny Pacquiao or his defeat to Floyd Mayweather. The answer is a resounding no. But the hype that he creates made me believe that he was not only world class but unbeatable. I was duped.

Before yesterday’s Champions League final, the hype surrounding Manchester United went into orbit. Not only were they going to beat Barcelona, but Man U were going to create history by winning back-to-back Champions League finals. Remember no other team has done this we were told. This epic feat would be more remarkable than Armstrong landing on the moon or the Wright brothers inventing flight. It’s a shame Barcelona didn’t read the script.

On Sky Sports and ESPN, the coverage before the game was all about ugly Man U fans arriving in Rome, draped in flags and scarves boasting to the cameras the margin by which they were going to win. Even the Man U players joined in, boasting that they could not wait to create history.

They make me sick.

This arrogance that Man U have is a reason why I feel so great when they get beaten. Yesterday was a sight to enjoy. Man U fans everywhere gutted. What they seem to forget is that they were lucky when they won the Champions League in 1999 and 20008. Two fluke goals in 1999 and penalty shoot-out in 2008 is no way to become Champions of Europe.

But the fact is that Man United have won the UEFA Champions League. London clubs have not.

Until this matter is addressed – either by Arsenal or Chelsea – then more Londoners will become Cockney Reds and thus despised by yours truly.

Allez Thierry! Allez!

Ibrahim Ba joined A.C. Milan in in 1997. He, like Gianluigi Lentini before him, was a bust at San Siro. Lentini joined Milan from Torino for the then massive fee of £13m. He never justified the fee. Ba would run tirelessly up and down the wing for the entire 90 minutes but provided very few positive moments for the Rossoneri. He would play a total of 56 matches for Milan, scoring just a single goal.

When I first saw Thierry Henry play for France, I thought I was watching another Ibrahim Ba. He was a pacy player stationed on the right side of midfield. Henry however was skillful but also raw and he too provided very few moments to convince me that he could bring much to the cause.

Fast forward to October 19, 2005 – by then, Thierry Had become Arsenal’s all-time leading goal scorer. No small feat. Mind, there’d been a potentially confidence shattering stop at Juventus on his way to North London. That Henry never received the World Player of the Year award is not a big deal to me. I watched him every week and have always known that he truly was the best player on the planet. And when you finish 2nd for that award in consecutive years, that kind of consistency says more about you than how much better the players who won it really were.

His move to Arsenal was instrumental in transforming the speedy winger without much end product into the world’s best player. Later today, Thierry Henry will attempt to capture the elusive Champions League medal that is one of the very, very few prizes missing from his collection. One that he couldn’t bring to North London. One whose absence from his C.V. that tools like Tommy Smyth have used to label the player as “not a big game player”. It will be well deserved and fitting climax to a wonderful season for the Blaugrana. It will be a fine resurgence to what seemed a waning though prolific career.

I have no dog in the fight when Manchester United face Barcelona in Rome but there will be players lining up whom I like and one or two I actually covet. Little Iniesta reminds me of Alain Giresse – the perfect foil – and Messi is a player who any neutral would pay to see. Rooney is not just the English bulldog but he can mix it with any of the super technical players who will grace the Stadio Olimpico. It is Thierry Henry however who will be my player to watch. It is Thierry Henry who will be most joyful when Barcelona defeat the current holders. It is Thierry who will send millions of Gooners into rapture when he lifts that trophy and the Red Scum watch in defeat.

As I have said previously, it is good vs. evil.

Allez Thierry! Allez!

The CL and What Really Matters

The UEFA Champions League tomorrow is between the two best teams in arguably the two best leagues in the world. That has not happened since 1994 when AC Milan dismantled Barcelona. It is a match that is laced with interesting storylines. It is a Final that one cannot miss as a football fan.

And it absolutely pains me that Arsenal are not in it. I cannot effectively argue that we deserve to be in it, playing in what would be known as the purist final.

So, for that reason, I’ll approach the final in an extremely objective manner. My hatred for Manchester United runs as deep as other great men, but I will ignore that to deliver a more level-headed analysis. It’s just one person’s opinion, of course, and I would be genuinely excited for it if my memories of United beating us at the Emirates had dulled (they haven’t).

Each team will be missing key personnel. 75% of Barcelona’s back four will be missing. Of those players, Dani Alves is the player who will be missed the most. Quite simply, in a match where I expect United to be cautious and play counter-attack football, he is another weapon to stretch the United defense. Neither Iniesta nor Henry are fully fit either, although they’ll be no way they’ll miss the final. You never know what that extra 15% might cost you in the long run, but the season will be over for both of them after today, so they will play.

For United, Rio Ferdinand is in the same condition that Henry and Iniesta are. In effect, I’ve read that Rio will never be the same again, because it is a back injury. In this game, Rio Ferdinand is by far the more important central defender for Manchester United. Vidic is a fairly good defender, but his power/stopper game suits the English Premier League more than any other league. He’d still be very good, but he wouldn’t shine nearly as much. Barcelona have made him their number one target, and he’d do them a world of good, but he won’t have as much impact as they think he will. The key to this pairing is due to the fact that Vidic is a left sided/left footed defender that matches up perfectly with Rio’s strengths. But leave Vidic on his own, and he can be beaten. Nasri and Theo once hoodwinked him, and so has Fernando Torres. He’s a very good defender, but not an elite one. Rio, with his anticipation skills and speed, will be more adept at cutting out the probing passes put forth by Xavi and Iniesta. His injury could create the fraction of a second they need to score a goal. Darren Fletcher has been praised to no end by Sir Alex Ferguson. He called him an honest player. In Carrick and Fletcher, he believes that he’s found his replacement for Roy Keane (it’s too bad they’re two men, instead of one like Keane was). The truth is, Fletcher is not a great player, but he does do the dirty work for United, and he does it with far more precision than Anderson does. In a game where constricting the midfield will be of primary importance, this is a problem for United.

I expect Manchester United to play a counter-attacking game. They will be cautious, and they will take their chances when they can. This is how they play in finals. Ronaldo has even told the press that they have been practicing penalties extensively, which tells you where their thinking is. Barcelona will attempt to pass their way through the United side, but that will prove to be difficult when Ferguson deploys five men across the midfield.

This match also features the two players that most consider to be the best offensive players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. This will not be the pivotal battle of the night, but one of the players will be a pivotal player in the match. That player will not be Lionel Messi. Theo Walcott was hounded to death by Evra and Rooney on every minute during the two legs against United. Wayne Rooney is such a gifted player, but he’s willing to do all the donkey work to help his team win. He has such bags of stamina that he can track back to defend and join in on a counter-attack. Obviously, Messi is ten times the player that Walcott is, but there is an area where even Theo is better than Messi. Arsene Wenger once commented that Messi does not appear to make good runs. He always receives the ball, sort of like Bo Jackson in Super Tecmo Bowl, and he proceeds to destroy opponents with it. Blessed with the best first touch in the world, he makes it look like the ball is glued to his foot. But, he rarely receives a key pass in a dangerous, final position. He roams for space so he can receive, then attack. Messi will be marked out of the game by the two United players, while Ronaldo, one can never predict what he does. In my eyes, once you remove the antics of Cristiano Ronaldo (something that is incredibly hard to do), you’ll see the best player in the world. Here’s things he can do that Messi cannot. He can score free kicks, he can defend corners, he can use both feet, he can score headers, he can make decisive runs, and he can hold off players using his strength. He’s a prat, simple enough. You could even call him a cheat, but Messi has scored goals with his hand and taken human growth hormones to further his footballing career, so neither is he a complete saint. He’s just a more likable guy, by a huge margin. But Ronaldo is the best player to ever have played for Manchester United. He is the important cog in their challenge next year to win four straight Premier League titles. He leaves for Madrid, you can kiss that goodbye. That’s a guarantee. He is the head, not Ferguson, of this United side, and Sir Alex knows it. The reason why that’s true is because if any other player had done the things he had done this year, Ferguson would have destroyed him. Ronaldo was never reprimanded for any bad actions this year. Never. And there have been great players in the past who Ferguson has gone out of his way to humiliate.

Messi has never impressed in the most important occasions, neither for Barcelona nor Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo has unfinished business with Portugal, to be sure

Last year, Manchester United accomplished a historic double in the 50th anniversary of Munich. This year, they can achieve a historic defense of the Champions League since the new format premiered on Matt Busby’s 100th birthday. Sir Alex Ferguson is a man who thrives off achieving history. He has almost done it by tying Liverpool in League Titles.

The key players for Barcelona tomorrow will be Xavi, Iniesta, and Thierry Henry. The fact that Barcelona have two players of Xavi and Iniesta’s quality is devastating. Cesc couldn’t walk into this team. The luxury of having two players like that is that if space is restricted, you can always reset and re-position to open up new opportunities. You shut one player down, and the other one will take the mantle. Iniesta, although not fully fit, is more likely to score of the two, because he knows how to pop up in the right position and he’s also possesses a shooting foot. Dani Alves would have been another huge weapon, because he could have made it harder for United to mark Messi out of the game. He has guile and the skill to make things happen, but he will not play tomorrow.

For Thierry Henry, redemption could possibly await. Henry has played well against Manchester United in the past. We all remember his stunning goals against them. He genuinely dislikes them, because he’s a great man. But, Henry is also keenly aware that he blew an opportunity to hand us our first European triumph. That must eat away at him at night. He must be thinking about it right now. For Henry, if he’s to win it, his time is now. But a part of me feels as though that ever since he changed his white Nike boots for black Reebok boots, he became human. He was a legend in his prime, but he’s still very good now. Which will be key, because John O’Shea will be playing right back. And if there’s a player to target in the United defense, it’ll be him. No matter where he is, I’ll always root for Thierry.

Arsene Wenger said the other day that Barcelona would not win the English Premier League. When he says that, I know exactly what he means. Of course, if Barcelona were in the Premier League, they would have to build their squad differently. But Messi has never scored against an English club, doing so tomorrow will help immensely. Manchester United have the ability to suffocate the match in midfield, leaving the Barcelona three of Eto’o, Henry, and Messi without supply. It is a tactic that has already worked, albeit in a horrendous manner, last year.

One could write even more about this Final. It is simply that good of a matchup, but I’ll wrap it up here with a prediction, which I’ll make because there’s nothing really on the line and Arsenal are not involved.

Manchester United will win it 2-1. The first goal will come from a set-piece and Ronaldo will have some role on it. In the second half, United will score a counter-attack goal and go up 2-0. Barcelona will score in the final ten minutes, but it will not be enough.

Writing all these positive words about United is making me sick. I want to vomit. I hate this team with a passion, but I see United winning definitively. Or perhaps, I have just put a jinx on the entire team and city of Manchester.

And with that, I’ll post a picture of something I care about more than anything else at the moment:

The first FA Youth Cup in eight years. Effectively, the first with Wenger’s influence in full. The Future is not far away at all for players like Jack Wilshere, Kyle Bartley, Francis Coquelin, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.

I love The Arsenal.

Hicks of Northern England

Here are some interesting facts about certain cities and towns that have Premiership clubs:

The London borough of Newham, where West Ham play, is the most ethnically diverse area of Britain.

There are no black communities in Stoke-on-Trent, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Hull, Sunderland, and Wigan.

99% of Wigan’s population is white. Hull and Sunderland are not far behind with populations that are approximately 98% white.

The north-west towns of Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton have large Pakistani communities. Over 20% of Blackburn’s population is Pakistani. Yet, 99% of it’s season ticket holders are white.

Blackburn’s population is only 105,000. Wigan has a population of 81,000

Burnley has the smallest population, only 73,500 and is only 12 miles away from Blackburn.

What these small towns have in common is clear. They have small populations that are about as ethnically diverse as Hitler’s Germany. They have high unemployment rates, high teenage pregnancies, and high drug use. The result is an increase in white trash getting high and procreating.

This sounds like the Hicks in South Carolina or Alabama. It’s not far off.

In the eyes of the Stoke, Blackburn and Hull fans, clubs like Arsenal represent everthing that they are not and never will be: ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan, urban, modern, properous and foreign. The last point is important. If you support a team like Hull, then you have to accept that your team is never going to win anything – unless it’s a promotion play-off.

In fact, supporters of teams like Stoke and Hull will endure more disappointment than success. Every season they face a battle to stay in the Premiership. Eventually, however, they will go down and disappear like Bradford City. It’s the reason why their supporters take a bigger interest in the English national team than any of the fans from the top four clubs. Supporting England gives them a superiority complex that Hull or Stoke never can. Success is far more likely to be achieved with England than any Wigan or Blackburn.

So when a club like Arsenal employ mainly foreign players and coaches, supporters from clubs like Stoke are resentful. After all, Arsenal are an English club, yet contribute nothing to the English national team.

But this xenophobia isn’t just related to certain English fans, it’s widespread among English coaches. Fabio Cappello and Sven Goran Eriksson are secretly despised by English coaches like Sam Allardyce. In the eyes of Allardyce, the England job should be for an Englishman not a foreigner. England is the home of football and beer. Italy is the home of pasta and opera.

So why is Arsenal the target for this English xenophobia and not say Chelsea, a fellow London club that has a foreign owner, coach and just as many foreign players?

The answer: Arsene Wenger.

Wenger epitomizes everything that coaches like Alladyce are not: sophistication, style, multi-linguist, international and educated. Wenger was the first foreign Premiership manager. He revolutionized English football with sports science, continental coaching methods, diets, communication, training facilities and foreign players. Because of Wenger, Arsenal will always be the founder of change in the way Premiership clubs, think, act and play. But not everyone likes change.

Wigan chairman Dave Whelan says he will never appoint a foreign manager. He hates the foreign influence on the Premiership, stating that it has brought an increase in diving. However, the biggest xenophobes are the managers at clubs like Stoke. Tony Pullis thinks that his coaching methods are just as good as fellow foreign managers.

Pullis has never coached or studied abroad. His experience is with lower league teams like Bristol Rovers. He has never coached a team that has played in any European competition, only English teams that fight relegation. He knows that he will never coach a top four club. Those jobs rarely come around and when they do, they go to foreign coaches. That fact hurts him.

So when Arsenal play teams like Bolton, Blackburn, Stoke, or Hull there are certain factors you have to remember. They employ managers like Phil Brown, who like to play traditional English football – long ball, in-your-face, no time to settle, kick and rush. They pick big, burly, physical players like Ryan Shawcross to score goals from set-pieces or crosses. They play for a draw, stating that they are fighting relegation even though it’s September.

All of their managers are English, born and raised in these small, white, northern hick towns.

They hate Arsene Wenger. It’s why they try so hard to beat Arsenal more than any other club.

Wenger represents everything they know they can never be or will be. Wenger represents change. He is a pioneer. He is Arsenal. Without him Arsenal are nothing.

The Negatives need to remember that.

How Do You Measure Progress?

Progress, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:

• an expedition, journey, or march through a region
• a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal) : advance
• gradual betterment ; especially : the progressive development of humankind
• in progress : going on : occuring

However the word is interpreted there seems to be a divide between the forward-looking Arsenal supporter who understands that great teams are not built over night and the one who feels the club must win at all cost. The Wenger model that I often speak about is a work in progress. The ‘win now’ types neglect the fact that a sustainable plan is an absolute must. They long for big money buys in the transfer market, popular star names, and to be like Chelsea and United – successful even if with a precarious plan. Success is not just in winning a trophy now but in building a base for multiple titles.

The weight of fan expectation and Arsenal’s own success (under Wenger) have helped undermine the current project. Add the strength of the other “big four” clubs and it is understandable that fans are frustrated. The forward motion and development of the club are clear to see but fans only care about trophies. At least the short-sided ones do. The balanced view of a supporter accepts that it is a journey we’ve embarked on.

While the signs of progress are evident i.e. CL football next term yet again, reaching the last four in Europe without our best team/players, the healthy financial figures that Emirates Stadium was built for, we can and will do better. There was joy and laughter under the bright sunshine yesterday as we defeated Stoke rather easily but it only served to remind us that we went missing or just couldn’t get it done in matches when it mattered most. Timely goals were an issue in 2007-08 and remained so this term. Suggestions that the manager should leave elevated the matter to crisis proportions yet if you listen carefully to what he says, you will feel that he’s not leaving Arsenal. In past seasons when we’ve won, his remarks about contract negotiations and his future in general have been far more cryptic and non-committal. This time around he has said enough to clearly suggest that he will not leave the job. He’s been far more open. Maybe due to the obvious need to get things right or just that (as I believe) this is the only club for him. Regardless, there’s room for major improvement even if not via major changes to the squad.

And he knows it.

My measure for progress next term will be if our season is extended to this month’s two remaining finals – CL and FA Cup – and obviously by winning the damn league.