Reviewing the Defence

Manuel Almunia – I remember vividly after we had gone up 1-0 against Chelsea two years ago. Bacary Sagna had just scored his first goal for us off a corner. Then, a frequent visitor to the pub I go to said these words, “I feel safe with Almunia.” I’ve never felt safe with Manuel. Ever. At the start of the second half of the Barcelona first leg, he looked like he was going to vomit. Why did he look that way? He had just pulled off a string of saves and the score was incredibly 0-0. Well, soon after, he proved exactly what he is, a shot-stopper and nothing more. He looked the same way before the Roma penalty shootout from last year. Almunia didn’t save any penalties, they just missed. It would be foolish to suggest that Jens was flawless as the Arsenal No. 1, but at least he had the demeanor of a No. 1. Almunia was a project, one with very little hype or potential. Imagine if Amaury Bischoff ended up a member of our first choice XI and that’s essentially what Almunia is. A nightmare, and one that must be terminated soon.

Lukasz Fabianski – It is easy to call him a clown. That is easily justifiable. You might call him a bargain basement keeper as well, but here’s where I disagree a bit. I’ve documented before that Wenger thinks highly of Fabianski. He’s committed enough errors for Wenger to wave goodbye to him, but something tells me that’s not going to happen. The summer we signed Fabianski, we were linked to many keepers and Wenger chose him. He was signed for 3 million euros and a friendly match to be arranged later. At this point, if he turned it around, it would be amongst the most incredible turnarounds in Wenger’s history. I don’t want to see it even attempted next year. If we had a decent goalkeeper, and I stress the word “decent”, we would have won the Premier League. Unfortunately, that is on Arsene nearly as much as it is on Almunia and Fabianski.

Vito Mannone – He delivered a brilliant performance against Fulham and then showed his years in the subsequent performances. He’s raw. He signed a long-term extension, but he doesn’t impress me much. I give him credit for having the hunger, but he’s the most un-Italian goalkeeper I’ve seen. I’ve yet to make a definitive judgment on him.

Bacary Sagna – He’s steady. He’s never tipped as the man of the match. He’s rarely burned by players. He’s an adequate player who hasn’t reached the heights of his first year with us. I thought he might have been our player of the year that first season, but for whatever reason, he’s failed to find that form.

Emmanuel Eboue – Once a figure of hate, now he’s a lovable fixture. Let’s not mistake what he is though, he’s a useful squad player. He can be used to solidify a defense or as a blunt, direct weapon. On his day, he’s very effective at attacking teams with his forward momentum. When he’s left to think about what he should do with the ball though, he struggles. He’s a good guy to have around because the players love being around this guy. He’s a joy. Not essential to the team, but very useful.

Gael Clichy – I think he may be sold over the summer. Arsenal have three left backs waiting in the wings. He’s coming back from a back injury, and those types of injuries never really heal properly. When he came back, he was torched so often that Martin O’Neill called him a joke. Slowly though, he’s steadied out and he has been one of our best performers in the last month (which is not really much of a compliment). I can remember at least a handful of goals where he was the direct contributor to. I used to love this guy, but he no longer looks likely to eclipse Ashley Cole as a player. If we could get 10 million euros for him, that would be a good price.

Kieran Gibbs – Some are unsure of his ability to be our starting left-back. I need to see more, but when he was on the pitch this year, he seemed to neutralize the opposition’s right wing quite frequently. He’s a better crosser of the ball than Clichy. He has mental strength, seeing how the United Champions League fixture could have severely damaged his career. I like this kid.

Armand Traore – I admire his professionalism, but that doesn’t seem to translate to the football pitch. We can deal with errors, as long as we see real improvement and an attempt to get better. He has speed, a strong left foot, and not much else at this point. He’s flimsy and unless he watches some defensive tapes, he’s not going to make it with Arsenal. He could be sold to a French club and turn into the D-grade version of Marcelo.

Mikael Silvestre – I’m sure he’s a positive influence in that locker room. But that is as far as it goes. Every time he scores a goal, something disastrous seems to happen (look at the Tottenham 4-4 draw last year and the Wigan match this year). He needs a string of games to approach anything near his best form, and he doesn’t get that, so when he does play, he’s often exposed. The fact that every back pass he makes is lightly weighted frightens me. This was a gamble that truly did not pay off. He’s gone.

Sol Campbell – I was not a big fan of Sol Campbell after he walked out of our club. He has restored his legacy at Arsenal, but let’s be clear, he cannot be anything more than a 4th choice defender for this club. His mountain frame and surprisingly fast pace helps him out, but near the end of his run this term, I saw the chinks in his armor. One of these days, one of his last ditch tackles is going to result in a red card and a penalty. That’s a sign that a defender is desperate. He’ll be an awesome influence on our squad, and as a 4th choice defender, he’ll be of more value than Silvestre was.

Thomas Vermaelen – Tony Adams was wrong. Vermaelen was in every pundit’s team of the season list. Along with his defensive prowess, he chipped in with some beautiful goals. He’s angry when we concede. He’s professional when a ref approaches him. This is what you get when you pay 10 million euros for a player. This is what you get when you buy a defender who was the captain for Ajax at a young age. This is what you get when you scout a player for two years. Vermaelen could be a future captain for Arsenal.

Johan Djourou – An incomplete grade. It was revealed recently that Wenger told him that he let Kolo go so that Djourou could play. It’s been written that Djourou was a player who was supposed to be kept secret from the entire world, that’s how much Wenger rates him. He has the physical tools (not necessarily the strength), but it’s yet to be seen if Wenger’s faith is justified. He looks like he’ll get an opportunity though. One can only hope he’s not like his Swiss compatriot, Swiss Tony. Senderos looked the part, but he lacked the heart and the intelligence to be an elite defender.

William Gallas – It looks like he’ll no longer be an Arsenal player. That’s a shame because he produced some of his best form this year. At this point though, he is also an injury prone player (the same can easily be said of Robin van Persie though). He does not have any special attachment to Arsenal, and that’s not meant to sound like an insult. I mean this in the best possible way, William Gallas is a professional footballer. That may make it sound like I’m calling him a mercenary, but that’s not what he is. He truly did care about winning more than anything else. For those that suggest he didn’t play because he didn’t want to mess up a potential contract, look no further than the Barcelona first leg. He crocked himself because he wanted to play on the grand stage so badly. His loss was as big a reason in our failure as anybody else. I will miss him, but the team may not miss him. Nasri revealed today that five players at Arsenal don’t talk to Gallas. He didn’t mean to suggest that they hate him, it’s just a generational difference. Whether they know it or not, Gallas was one of the finest defenders to suit up for Arsenal during Wenger’s regime. It’s too bad that too often injuries and petty squabbles came to define much of his spell. I hope he recovers in time to make the World Cup squad and play well for France. I wish him well.

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Post Season View – Arsenal F.C. 2009-10 Pt. 2

Some have asked if Arsene Wenger is a miracle worker or just a stubborn fool. Considering his ability to reap financial rewards from top four finishes and to manage CL qualification year after year, he might be the former because he spends so little in the transfer market. Considering his general unwillingness to invest in proven players – in a proper goalkeeper in particular – he might be guilty of the latter. It depends on your perspective.

Regardless of your (or my) opinion of Arsene, it’s quite clear that we have players at Arsenal who have not cut it. As my colleague has pointed out, transfers will be greatly affected by the UEFA squad requirements that go into effect next term. Nonetheless, if we are to finally win something, a frank and candid statement must be made about current personnel.

Last summer, I detailed what I wanted from certain players this past season. I felt that those particular players owed us. Below are those requirements. Let’s see who has met them. Let’s see who has paid their debt.

Summer 2009: Cesc – Be the player you’ve shown you can be.
2009-10 season: Jackpot! Enter the new Mr. Arsenal.

Gael Clichy – Stop the mental lapses.
It wasn’t until the final few matches of the season that our LB began to show signs of the player we once knew.

Johan Djourou – Make Kolo, Gallas, and Vermaelen fight it out.
You weren’t even ready. The swelling in your knee was far more serious than first thought.

Vassiriki Abou Diaby – Dominate the center of the park.
Improved but still prone to frustrating performances, leaving questions about his true ability.

Theo Walcott – Justify the fee please. Decision making must improve.
I’m still waiting. I am not convinced that we’ve invested wisely in this kid. Christopher Eagles outplayed Theo at Turf Moor. WTF!

Nicklas Bendtner – Finish your chances. Make me forget about Luis Fabiano.
Not as prolific as I would like but certainly did his share when he was fit.

Bacary Sagna – Be the best RB in the EPL again.
Not back to the standards of his first season but certainly better than his second.

Denilson – Add more goals and assists to your nice stats.
The stats weren’t going to save him this season. He has regressed, despite a few shining moments and some fine long range goals.

The first choice keeper – Be unbeatable.
Begone.

Robin van Persie – World Player of the Year.
Injured again. Robin has not played an injury free season as a first choice player at Arsenal.

The expectations were high in many cases but we must strive for excellence if we are to win trophies. I have lost faith in some players. Others still have not done enough. I need to see Alex Song-type leaps and improvement next season from the team as a whole.

The Invincibles are watching. Make them proud. Make Arsene proud.

Keep the Faith

The Bigger Picture

Yes, the result against Alkmaar was a frustrating one. Seemingly, we never got out of first gear. Alkmaar actually possessed the ball more than we did, although they did relatively nothing with it. Compare how Alkmaar did nothing with the ball to how we do when we dominate the play and fail to score a goal, two markedly different types of performances that put to shame simple dissections by English pundits.

Of course, the headlines wrote themselves. The press said it exposed our soft centre once more, ignoring the fact that neither of our centre halves were particularly to blame for the goal. “You just have a feeling about Arsenal, don’t you?” Those words could have come out of any assortment of pundits. While it’s true that we shouldn’t have conceded that goal, I’m seeing a big difference between the defensive performances of last year and this year. That’s not to say that things are perfect, but it’s to say that the boring articles about our team still having the same chinks in our armor are incorrect. They’re just being lazy.

Bacary Sagna claimed that we lost focus near the end of the match. That comment would have only been revealed in these types of circumstances. To that end, such a thing should not happen, but oftentimes does, even with the best of teams.

Consider our position in the Champions League at the moment. We’re top of the group, have two games to play at home, and are not afraid of anybody in our group at all. Dropping points in a Champions League group doesn’t mean very much if you’re still expected to top the group. The only thing you lose is the financial reward for winning a Champions League match.

If the draw against Alkmaar teaches us a lesson about focus and needing to be ruthless with teams like this, then that financial loss will have been well worth it.

And that’s not mentioning the fact that Carlos Vela was clearly fouled in the box late in the game. The draw is not worth getting too upset about, as frustrating as it was.

You cannot afford to lose focus and drop points in the Premier League though, and the team must recognize this.

Playing West Ham at home is never a cakewalk, and this is a classic trap game. As an Arsenal fan, while I fear nobody, I do wish for teams that we play to get a result in the week before our game. That way, they might not necessarily go all out for the crucial result that could turn around our season. That didn’t happen with West Ham and with them being in the relegation zone, they’ll be fighting tooth and nail for a result tomorrow.

Zola is a good man. He was a magician on the pitch, and he wants to be the next Arsene Wenger, something that is much, much, much easier said than done. He said he wants to stick to attacking principles, but luckily for him he has a shrewd tactician in Steve Clarke. Clarke must recognize that they must try to neutralize Arsenal instead of outplaying us, he did operate with Jose Mourinho after all.

Tomorrow may come down to one or two moments, but with Arshavin on the pitch, that may be to our distinct advantage.

Arsenal’s Number One

It was during the tail end of the 07-08 season, and Manuel had virtually won over nearly all of the Arsenal fans. That year, Jens let a ball slip through his hands during a hard contested battle at Ewood Park. As a result, we dropped two points in a match we should have won and Jens lost his title as the Arsenal number one. After that, we ran off a string of victories and the switch was made permanent.

The players liked him. He was nicer than Jens, and he seemed stable. We experienced a breakthrough season that year, and Manuel was one of the players who experienced a positive re-write in terms of what people perceived him to be, mainly a Wenger experiment who was nowhere near becoming Spain’s number one goalkeeper.

He did perform solidly throughout that year, making big penalty saves and showing his great shot stopping ability. I thought he had established a firm foundation upon which he could elevate himself to be a truly good number one.

During a crucial late match at Chelsea, we took the lead courtesy of Bacary Sagna’s first goal for our club. A few minutes later, I overheard a remark from a frequenter at the pub. “You know, I feel safe with Manuel Almunia.” I understood what he meant, but I couldn’t concur just yet. As if tempting fate, Manuel did make critical errors in that game. He rushed a throw that directly led to the feet of a Chelsea player and they scored soon after.

Fast forward to last year’s Champions League tie against Roma. Eduardo stepped up to the penalty spot to kick the first penalty. He missed. What did our brilliant young players do? They stepped up with no fear and buried penalty after penalty. What was Almunia doing? He looked as if he was puking on the side. He didn’t even look at our players taking penalties, and he looked completely fazed by the moment. He was our oldest player on the pitch. The fact that we won has more to do with Roma’s Tonetto skying a kick than Almunia impacting it in any way. Both keepers were rubbish in that penalty showdown.

Later that year, he had a brilliant performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford which kept us in the Champions League tie. A week later, he capitulated. Yes, Kieran Gibbs slipped, but Manuel didn’t rush Park Ji-Sung until after a moment of indecision. Then, he let in a 35 meter free kick from Cristiano Ronaldo that really should have been saved.

Almunia seems to perform well when the pressure is off him. When he’s expected to do well, he rarely does. A brilliant shot stopper, but not a capable leader.

On Saturday, he looked nervous and tentative. He did not come out to claim crosses when he should. He let his defenders head the ball around like a ping pong when an easy catch was called for. Every ball that he did collect, he bobbled around in his hands. He gifted Rooney a penalty. I posted the pictures to prove that Eduardo did the same thing Rooney did. It was not to suggest that Rooney didn’t deserve a penalty. It was partially to suggest that Boruc did a better job of covering himself than Almunia did. Almunia jumped out and extended his arms when some sound judgment would have allowed him to realize that there was no way Rooney would have been able to carve out a threat in that situation.

Yes, Abou Diaby committed an unthinkable error. But did Almunia yell at him that nobody was around Abou and he could have let it gone out for a goal kick? (Correction: Abou Diaby has admitted that Almunia did in fact tell him to let it go. I have no complaints on that now.) How often do you see Almunia actually yelling directions, as opposed to yelling to pump players up? There is a crucial difference between the two things.

Does he have the ability to become a world class goalkeeper? Yes, he does. He has supreme reflexes and is tall enough. Does he have the mentality to be a world class goalkeeper? I’m afraid that I remain unconvinced. At this point, I think Fabianski could supplant him with an extended run in the team (although he is injured, and he has a lot to learn as well). There were rumors that we were in for Robert Green last night before the transfer window closed.

Currently, Arsenal’s number one isn’t a world class goalkeeper. He’s a bit like Jay-Z’s new Blueprint 3 album. High expectations, some bright points here and there, but mostly a disappointment.

Post Match View – Manchester United

The first thing that I would like to do is remind you that Ryan Giggs hates Arsenal as much as anybody you could meet. The look on his face when we play United reflects the anti Arsenal sentiments of every United fan in the stadium. Our players need to understand that when we play against Manchester United, it is very, very serious and personal.

Yesterday’s match has served two very important purposes; the first being that we have shown which is the better team. The objective United fan will admit that a dodgy penalty and an own goal are not good enough. Yes, a win is a win but United were there for the taking yesterday. The second thing that I have taken from the match is confirmation that despite the large global and domestic fan base of passionate, loyal Arsenal fans, the club and Arsene Wenger are hated by even greater numbers, not least English commentators and match officials.

The match was entertaining. Granted the score is a downer, but if you are an Arsenal supporter who watched the game yet still fears United or feels inferior to them, you are a hopeless pessimist.

I feel bad for Abou Diaby. It was not the best decision to even attempt to play that cross but I wonder if the keeper has told him to just let it go. The flight of the ball was the best defense against the cross. It looked to me that no United player would have been able to play it. It is the keeper’s job to command his box and communicate with his players at all times. Further evidence that the communication must improve was in the second half when a ball was played in Sagna’s direction. He played safe and headed it into touch because Nani was not very far away. Upon realizing that he could have made a better decision than to just turn over possession, he looked over his shoulder and gestured to Almunia to talk to him.

A shot once grazed the upper 0.025µm of the longest strand of hair on my head on its way into the net. The contact with the ball was so minimal that nobody watching could suggest that it was an own goal. Still, I felt like shit. I can only imagine how Diaby feels.

The image of Arsene Wenger above will stay with me forever. It is a symbol of the way people go out of their way to humiliate him. Well into the five minutes of injury time that were added (a surprise in itself, really) the man who issues more yellow cards than any other in the league, Mike Dean, sent Arsene Wenger to the stands. After realizing that Robin’s equalizer was waved off, Wenger kicked a water bottle. It didn’t strike or harm anyone. And with so little time left on the clock, why has fourth official Lee Probert found it necessary to report the action to Dean? Well, it’s his job I suppose. Then the question is who is being more pedantic here, Dean or Probert? Dean has decided to send Wenger away with less than a minute left in the game for an act that did not provoke an opponent or the crowd. Wenger has every right to be frustrated.

It was a ridiculous move on the part of Mike Dean. The dismissal was academic at best. So much so that it seems an apology will be issued to Arsene from Premier League chief of referees Keith Hackett. I might find it hard to prove a conspiracy exists where Arsenal are concerned, but if you try to tell me that there is no bias against Arsene Wenger and Arsenal in general, I will excuse myself from the discussion because I remain convinced that there is. The injury time dismissal is just one example. Moreover, if you listen to English match commentators you will hear the evidence yourself. Here are just two examples from yesterday’s match commentary by Ian Darke and John Gregory:

1 – Nani falls from a non-existent foul by Bacary Sagna. Free kick is given. As the replay shows that there was absolutely no contact, suddenly the previously chatty Darke and Gregory go silent. Not a word was mentioned about the incident.

2 – The two commented on how a pitch-side reporter had sent them word of Wenger’s “moaning” to the fourth official about Darren Fletcher. Fletcher was getting away with foul after foul without intervention from the referee. Well, shortly after the second half started, Fletcher fouled Clichy. As the referee talked to the United midfielder, the two, in a very ‘oh, by the way manner’, glossed over the foul.

Losing the way we have to United can’t do anything but help strengthen us. Mocking and humiliating Wenger (at least they tried to) will only make him more determined to complete the mission.

The real losers yesterday were not the team in blue.

Finally, the aforementioned breakdown(s) in communication must be sorted out. The keeper must play a very big part in that. For all the shot-stopping heroics Manuel Almunia is capable of, he must control his box better than he has. Another big disappointment came in injury time – the boys were spent, little to no energy left. They tried to gain and maintain possession, to mount that final attack. Almunia throws the ball directly to an unmarked Wayne Rooney.

He still worries me.

How to 4-3-3

In all our preseason matches, we’ve played in a 4-3-3 formation. Most journalists have suggested that this change has been inspired by Barcelona’s conquering team from one year ago. In order to see if this formation could work out, I’ve decided to compare the players from the 08-09 Barcelona starting XI to one we could trot out to emulate their team.

Goalkeeper – Victor Valdes/Manuel Almunia

They are of equal calibre. Neither are extremely consistent. Both are capable of playing above their level and pulling out a string of spectacular saves. Both are also capable of conceding goals that world class goalkeepers just don’t allow. This position is the least pivotal element of copying their side.

Left Back – Eric Abidal/Gael Clichy

Abidal is taller and stronger than Clichy. He is also probably a better attacker than Clichy as well. However, Clichy can defend better, has better recovery pace, and is a better individual defender. Gael had a terrible season last year, but he’s capable of being a better player than Abidal.

Right Back – Dani Alves/Bacary Sagna

Sagna is a better defender than Alves, but Dani is an extremely dangerous attacking player. The right side is deadly for Barcelona as Alves and Messi can overlap runs to cause multiple threats to any team. Sagna is actually a better passer and crosser than people give him credit for, but he’s nowhere near the threat that Alves is.

Centreback – William Gallas/Carles Puyol

William Gallas is better than Puyol in every respect.

Centreback – Thomas Vermaelen/Gerard Pique

I don’t know enough about Vermaelen to comment, but Pique is a solid defender with a high upside. He could end up being a great defender, and he held his own during the CL final. But there are no guarantees. Frankly, defensively, Barcelona are vulnerable. And they know it too.

Defensive Midfielder – Alex Song/Yaya Toure

Toure is a big, muscular presence. Alex Song’s reading of the game has greatly improved though, and his positional sense is similar to Toure’s. Yaya has proven to be an effective attacking force, when it comes to shooting, but Song has a better passing range. Yaya is a better player, but Song is both younger and almost as reliable. He’s coming on strong.

Central Midfielder – Samir Nasri or Denilson/Xavi

Xavi is a disciplined anchor man who can make passes that destroy defenses. I believe that Wenger was training Nasri to be a Xavi-type at the end of the year. Most interpreted it as Wenger trying him out as a holding midfielder, but it seems as though he was really trying to see how Nasri could play mopping up balls and making sharp passes. Denilson could do a similar job. Xavi is a current titan though, and he’s played in a 4-3-3 all his life. It’s a difficult ask for either Nasri or Denilson to become a Xavi overnight.

Central Midfielder – Cesc Fabregas/Andres Iniesta

Iniesta is a nimble player capable of winning matches on his own. He was arguably the most important player in the side apart from Messi. Cesc isn’t as nimble nor does he score goals as frequently as Iniesta seems to. However, Cesc is as strong a passer as Iniesta is. Cesc has never played the same role as Iniesta does for Barca, but that’s why Wenger played him up front for the latter half of last year.

Right Wing – Theo Walcott or Robin van Persie/Thierry Henry

This is the one alteration to the formation. They have Messi on the right wing, and we have Arshavin on the left wing. So, we flipped positions basically. Theo is capable of playing like Henry the winger (Henry the striker, forget about it). So can van Persie. But both lack something that Henry possess as one player. Theo has pace but not enough guile. Van Persie has enough trickery but not enough pace. Either way, both players can cut in and support the way Henry does for Barca.

Support Striker – Andrey Arshavin/Lionel Messi

These two are two of the top five players in the world. Messi though is in the top two bracket and it’s hard to say where Andrey is on the list. Both players are deadly, and I believe the gap isn’t as wide as people think it is. If you watch Messi as frequently as one watches Arsenal, nobody is that brilliant all of the time. Andrey can amaze, just look at his numbers from last year.

Striker – Eduardo or Nicklas Bendtner/Samuel Eto’o

Eto’o is one of the best strikers in the last 25 years. They will miss him dearly. It would be pretentious to say that either Eduardo or Bendtner is as good as Eto’o, but both can be effective men in the box if need be.

Conclusion:

I don’t know if we’ll play 4-3-3 all year. It’s a valid way to accommodate such a huge array of attacking talent on our side, but it’s not a system you just pick up off hand. Barcelona produces players to play in their formation. Wenger has never fielded a 4-3-3 in this form before. It could be brilliant, it could fail.

All I know is, in Andrey Arshavin and Cesc Fabregas, we have two of the best players in the world. That’s crucial to our title hopes this year.

I’m Watching You – Just Do It!

I have my eye on the following players. They owe us more than a little.

Francesc Fabregas – Off form since February 2008 by my count.
Gael Clichy – From sugar to shite in one season.
Johan Djourou – You say you are ready. Talk is cheap.
Vassiriki Abou Diaby – Man up. You look like you’ve bulked up, now man up.
Theo Walcott – Enough talk. Enough hope. Enough hype. Show me the money.
Nicklas Bendtner – Consistency is all I ask.
Bacary Sagna – You can do better.
Denilson – Stats look good but…
Manuel Almunia – Stop the mistakes. Become a legend.
Robin van Persie – Big, big year for my favorite Arsenal player.

My expectations:

Francesc Fabregas – Be the player you’ve shown you can be.
Gael Clichy – Stop the mental lapses.
Johan Djourou – Make Kolo, Gallas, and Vermaelen fight it out.
Vassiriki Abou Diaby – Dominate the center of the park.
Theo Walcott – Justify the fee please – decision making must improve.
Nicklas Bendtner – Finish your chances. Make me forget about Luis Fabiano.
Bacary Sagna – Be the best RB in the EPL again.
Denilson – Add more goals and assists to your nice stats.
Manuel Almunia – Be unbeatable.
Robin van Persie – World Player of The Year.

The expectations are very high in many cases but winning is about excellence and application, not just saying we’ve learned or that we can be this or we can be that.

Just do it!

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