Tuesday, 30 December 2014

West Ham 1-2 Arsenal: Signs of progress

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

I'm not one for unnecessarily bringing hopes up by overrating the positives. I don't think, for instance, that defending that lead till the death is a huge step or a turning point. West Ham were impressive until we sucker-punched ourselves into the lead - that doesn't mean we were assured as such. The impressive defending that spanned across the calendar year of 2013 looks to me like a one-off, not something we've taken heart from and progressed.

Francis Coquelin was impressive. I for one always rated him whenever I saw him on the pitch, but I assumed he might have regressed since he barely got games in for Freiburg and Charlton. However, I don't really think this might be some sort of career landmark moment for him. He was an emergency player and performed admirably as one. I would like to give him a run of games, for he certainly seems calmer than Mathieu Flamini, but asking Wenger to give someone a chance has become foolish thought nowadays. The man hardly ever rotates.

However, the only positive that I found was about our attack starting to click. I know that many were fans of the Welbeck-Alexis-Giroud trio, but I personally prefer Oxlade-Chamberlain into the mix. The forward trio we had out there, sandwiched with Santi Cazorla in the middle produced one of the finest attacking displays this season.

West Ham at home, particularly this season, are not to be undermined. Manchester City faced them and couldn't find a goal because the likes of Cresswell and Song were so influential. For this jaded Arsenal side to find three valuable points and legitimately claim that we could have won by more is not to be scoffed at. With the defence yet to settle down, I have a feeling our attack may have to carry us for the games to follow.

On a final point to this alarmingly microscopic match report - don't for one second bear any illusions of Arsenal stumbling into the title race. From an Arsenal perspective Chelsea are impossible to overtake, while although Manchester City are not different class as such, we still have a lot to work to do and a lot of fine margins to reach before thinking about them. Imagining Arsene Wenger remedying the minutiae is laughed at for a reason.

Speaking of Arsene Wenger, here's a superb Arsenal Truth piece that goes miles into describing him.

Until then, Happy New Year!

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Arsenal 2-1 QPR: Super Sanchez seals nervy points

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

We've had so many unconvincing wins this season that yesterday seemed almost routine. The pattern was almost familiar - a possession-dominated Arsenal side failed to impress in front of goal, only to be bailed out by the magnificent Sanchez, yet almost found a way to Arsenal it all up. I guess Jesus was on our side for this one, because despite not getting some of the decisions our way, we were fortunate to not concede a penalty which many referees would have given.

The lineup hit me as a bit of a surprise, but on second thoughts, I realized there didn't seem to be much choice for Wenger than to bring Tomas Rosicky for the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain. Apart from that the only other change was Nacho Monreal for Calum Chambers. While I appreciate the rotation, on a personal level I would have tried to being Podolski into the fold, for either Sanchez or Welbeck.

I know that Podolski isn't rated highly by the manager, but it's not exactly a monumental task to trust him to deliver the goods against one of the worst teams in the league at home. He does have his faults in terms of his defensive contribution and his workrate, but he also has utility to the team. He wasn't and isn't a German international by fluke.

Wenger spoke about rotation in the Christmas period, coming out against it with some pretty ludicrous quotes:

“The difficulty is finding the right balance between rotation and the balance of the team without destabilising it. Therefore you sometimes have to limit the numbers of rotation.”

To me it seems like a poorly thought out way to window dress his man management skills throughout the years and promote inaction. Anyone who plays football - it doesn't even have to be Premier League standard - knows that their body is a temple. Carefully managing the team throughout the season (which include the training sessions as much as the Matchday fixtures) is very important. The answer to winning all games isn't playing all the best players by default, especially when you take into consideration that most of the players Arsene has assembled are relatively brittle and are playing football week in, week out since a tender age.

It's amazing how readily people dismiss and downplay the consequences of overplaying a footballer to defend their manager. Any football authority worth their salt will tell you its of huge importance, none more so than Shad Forsythe. However, in the end, Shad doesn't pick our starting XI, Arsene Wenger does. And it is this overplaying that increases the casualty list after almost every match.

Ospina's injury was down to poor management (he's fit now though, bless him). Koscielny, Ozil, Arteta and Ramsey were definitely exerted. It isn't unfair to suggest that at this going rate, the likes of Mertesacker, Flamini, Cazorla, Alexis and Welbeck could pick up an injury pertaining to muscle strains. Even playing them too much too quickly increases the balance of probability in them picking up an impact injury.

Should Mertesacker, for instance, get injured, it will be hard to blame the medical staff. The reason for his injury will be down to him being physically and mentally strained, which goes back to the transfer market. However, Wenger still has control over the Cazorla, Alexis and Welbeck situation. He has players like Rosicky, Podolski and Campbell who can do a job for a few games. He needs to stop using the same group of players and trust other portions of his teams too.

On any manager's level, though, it's easy to understand the temptation to play Sanchez regularly. Even (or especially) when he makes an error in Arsenal proceedings, he hustles and harries to make amends.

After some steady pressure, Traore showed exactly why Wenger let him go when he foolishly felled Sanchez in the box. The Chilean's penalty was admittedly up to the standard of Traore's challenge. I don't know if he was overly confident or what, but he shanked that. Wenger hinted in the post-match presser that Cazorla was supposed to take the spot-kick. And while that speaks of Sanchez's selfishness, it also spoke of his determination.

At that point, I felt that we were going to give the game away. Never mind it was QPR and Harry Redknapp, Arsenal remain Arsenal. I couldn't trust this team to beat Arsenal Ladies anymore. It did seem for a while that things were starting to go haywire. Mertesacker was mispositioning himself into the final third. Around the 32nd minute Sanchez chose not to cross to Giroud, seemingly out of lack of concentration. Even a classy player like Rosicky was only starting to get into the game. A better team than QPR might have punished us.

Thankfully, we punished them for their lack of opportunism. Welbeck picked up the ball around the centre of the park and fed Santi on the edge of the box. Cazorla, with his back to goal, rolled in Gibbs, who crossed towards the far post. Armand Traore's positional sense was shot to pieces when he realized he left Sanchez in so much space I thought he was offside. Green didn't help by leaving his goal open either, and Sanchez took the gift with both hands. Or his head. You know what I mean.

Stephen Caulker almost negated the lead within a minute, but missed his header. No matter, as Arsenal took advantage of QPR's meh-ism and bossed the ball. Around half-time I remember possession stats reading 71% in Arsenal's favour. I always love that when we're winning.

Of course, all those feelings of "thank God we're finally getting it together" we're squished early into the second half when Giroud got himself needlessly sent off. And look, I know that I get some stick for being a Giroud supporter (people who support Giroud but not Arsene Wenger live in a lonely world, believe me!) and I'm not at all advocating his head-to-head stupidity. However, I really think had Onouha not done his bit of theatrics and instead rivaled with Giroud's head, the both of them would have been on yellows. It's happened a lot of times in the league where two players have had a coming together, gone on each other's faces but stayed on the field. Maybe it's just my opinion, but I feel that Onouha contributed decisively to Giroud's sending off as much as Olivier did.

Another point to consider - why wasn't Rio Ferdinand shown a second yellow when he physically manhandled Giroud? Needless to say it's another joke on the FA when they choose to ban him for three games for abusing an internet troller but won't lay a finger when he catches the back of someone's neck on the pitch. I know it's a bit off-topic, but something has to be done.

Leaving aside the mitigations of the situation, the red for Giroud was expected and once again invited a mentally frail Arsenal to make hot water of an easy task. Wenger went with a weird ten-men formation which had Welbeck on the left flank, Sanchez as striker, Rosicky as a right attacking midfielder, Cazorla in left central midfield and Flamini playing defensive midfield. Picture that in your mind if you can. Of course, employing such a "formation" left only Debuchy guarding the right side. Harry Redknapp tried to exploit that by taking off Traore for Hoilett.

It started to work, but not before Sanchez took the team on his stocky shoulders again. Picking the ball dead center, he went past two Rangers defenders before finding Rosicky in space. The Czech showed his rustiness with an uncertain strike, but a kind deflection and an even kinder goalkeeper helped the ball into the net. Regardless, you could see what that goal meant to him. He wasn't different class on the pitch, so to say, but he did make himself known when he was given the time. Hopefully (ha!) Wenger gives him an extended run.

QPR brought on Zamora for Jordan Mutch. It was supposed to seem that they had nothing to lose, but on the pitch it seemed like Arsenal were 2-0 down! What particularly struck me as baffling was when Mertesacker and Debuchy went ahead for a corner around the 76th minute. It's one thing to go 10 men down and leave only Debuchy to guard the right hand side, but it's very much another for even the Frenchman to abandon his much-needed post.

Of course the corner came to nothing and QPR broke. They waltzed forward into the final third - where Rosicky was playing left back - and Hoilett found himself with space on Arsenal's right side. A retreating Debuchy stuck out a nervous foot at Hoilett, he went to ground and the ref pointed to the spot. The decision was debatable, but was partly the consequence of our own actions. Leaving a 10 men side that exposed is criminal.

Charlie Austin converted the penalty and then it was back to the walls stuff for Arsenal. We aren't very good at it in all honesty, and legs were also starting to tire. Wenger made his first change at - I kid you not - 83 minutes when he took off Rosicky for Chambers and later Welbeck for Coquelin. If you don't count Bellerin as a first-team defender, we had all of our fit defenders on the pitch at that moment.

They had a late Zamora penalty shout, which I felt should have been given. Obviously I was chuffed that it wasn't, but it was just another example of how panicky we tend to get under pressure. It isn't a personal thing for Gibbs by any means - it happens to almost every Arsenal player during the crunch time. Last season we kept our heads very well, but we seem to have regressed massively on that front this time around. It's cost us a lot of points already, and almost did yesterday.

Arsene Wenger has his own opinion of why Kieran sort of lost it, saying:

"The last five minutes were a bit edgy because we conceded a late goal last week and you could feel that was a bit in our mind. But overall I think we were in control for big parts of the game and in the end we have shown resilience and fortunately got the three points."

I always love me some Boxing Day points, but today was another example of how at Arsenal mistakes aren't rectified and minds aren't set straight. Today we were bailed out by a quite remarkable Chilean and an unconvincing opposition, but West Ham tomorrow won't be as polite.

There's a reason why they are above us in the table. We have to start exhibiting some of those, too.

Extra reading | Arsenal 2-1 QPR : Rangers fail to take man advantage [Crazy About EPL]

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Thursday, 25 December 2014

My predictions for Arsenal's 2014/15 campaign

With the Champions League die cast, the data is laid for me to make a prediction on how Arsenal will fare come May. Last season around, I had predicted Arsenal to finish third in the league and get knocked out by Bayern Munich, adding that the January transfer window would be part of the reason why. In that regard, I don't believe I was entirely off the mark.

Regarding the FA Cup, I did say that last year's team were strengthened, confident and united enough to potentially win it. However, I also said that Arsene Wenger's "insistence to play reserve players against a mediocre side is what's going to cost us another trophy, with a side like Swansea or Norwich possibly knocking us out in a shock one-niller." Obviously I was proved wrong, but Yaya Sanogo's looming figure against the likes of Everton, Wigan and Hull (games we almost lost) suggest that fine margins dictated my inaccuracy.

Anyway, this post isn't to check the validity of my previous prediction. Even if I had predicted Arsenal to win the Premier League and the Champions League last season I'd still be here, trotting away of what I reckon is to come. So, without further ado, here I go.

Season spoiler alert!

Premier League : 4th (sigh)

Let's not even consider Arsenal finishing above Chelsea. Manchester City may, on the off-chance, get close to unnerving Mourinho, but on the whole it's not at all unreasonable to suggest that Chelsea may well walk this league campaign.

On paper, I believe Arsenal have the squad to rival Manchester City's. However, we certainly don't have the manager to flourish the team's potency. That, according to me, leaves us with third or fourth to fight for.

I must confess that I didn't think Louis van Gaal would have the players and the know-how to get United above Arsenal after assembling an unbalanced squad. Don't get me wrong - their run of good form may have been a happy-go-lucky incident. However, their efficient dismantling of Liverpool would have done wonders to their confidence. And confidence, as we found out last season, can lead to tremendous dividends.

Even if I don't know the Dutchman, if I had to give the benefit of the doubt to either Louis van Gaal or Arsene Wenger, I'd reluctantly choose the former.

Champions League : Quarter-finals

Yes, we got Monaco out of all the possible monsters and parasites of Real, Bayern and Barca, and it's fantastic that fortune favoured us at last. But does it infinitely increase our chances of winning the competition? Of course not.

Monaco have delayed, not prevented the inevitable. Expecting to win the Champions League without facing any of the top teams is not going to happen, and even if it does, it won't feel deserved. Do you remember we had faced Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona on the way to Paris 2006? Picking random balls from the pot may help us infiltrate the outskirts to a certain extent, but it won't give us a safe and sure passage into the castle.

If we want to be the best, we have to take out the best. Most of the pretenders get filtered out in the Round of 16, as we have done all these years. When it comes down to the quarters, only the elite remain. And seeing that Arsenal find it difficult to hold on to a lead against a 10 men team without a striker, it's very hard to see the same team putting a sword to Europe's finest four months down the line.

FA Cup

It's always hard to predict what the Cup may present season after season, because the draw is completely random and there are no time to make amends if the team slips up. Looking at Arsenal, a team that have made hot water of Swansea, Hull, Leicester, Stoke and whatnot, there is an element of assumption in saying that draws against Coventry and Wigan. In addition, since the league is pretty much over with Chelsea comfortably leading the line, the likes of Manchester City and United may shift focus to the Cup.

I don't think Arsenal will get past Chelsea or Manchester United should we meet them in the Cup. There is a chance for us to beat Manchester City if that time comes, though, because they don't seem to be as good in holding their nerve as many would have you believe. Balance of probability still comes into play, though.

Obviously it's nigh on impossible to study the permutations and the probabilities and come up with the exact round where we may get knocked out and against which team, but if I have to guess, I think Arsenal will be eliminated somewhere beyond the quarters, because that is when the Championship and the League one and two teams exit and the Premier League teams remain.

While I would love another cup run, last season did have some element of luck to it. Granted, we faced Spurs, Liverpool and Everton, but we also never left London, rode our luck with playing Sanogo against Liverpool and Everton, and it was touch and go against Liverpool, Wigan and Hull. Of course it wasn't undeserved, but it still could have easily gone the other way.

So, yeah. Looking at the form and the morale of the team (not to mention the state of its players), I don't think we'll retain the Cup.


To end this post on a somewhat brighter note, I just want to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas. Now I'm no huge believer in the origin story of Jesus Christ, but nevertheless I'd like to extend my gratitude to my regular readers on this joyous occasion. I have had a lot of disagreements and fights with Arsenal supporters on email, Twitter and in person, but I've tried hard to not think ill of any Gooner, regardless of their stance on the Arsene Wenger subject. In the end, the support I get is amazing and the banter on Twitter is awesome.

Thanks a ton for introducing me into the Arsenal world with such warmth!

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Monday, 22 December 2014

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal: Getting difficult to rephrase the same old

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

Familiarity breeds contempt. It also breeds difficulty in blogging.

Let's be honest - much of what happened yesterday weren't anomalies. We knew that we are injury ravaged, yet we don't do the minimum rotation we can. I know it's an increasingly redundant debate and definitely not the father of the thought, but why isn't Lukas Podolski getting a game in? Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez have to be in crimson zones, forget red. Such overplaying and elementary errors seek to compound already complex injury situations.

Arsene was forced into playing half-fit Oxlade-Chamberlain in a relatively unknown position. On second thoughts, "forced" may not suffice appropriate terminology. It's more of driving into a ditch he can see. Mikel Arteta, on his last legs, isn't physically capable of holding it together on one of the most physical positions in the park. Aaron Ramsey played a pointless game against Galatasaray. Mesut Ozil played in every game since he returned from international break, and was instructed to complete 90 minutes against Chelsea despite picking up a serious knee injury. Jack Wilshere is the exception to this norm.

Laurent Koscielny was overplayed. So was Monreal. So are Chambers, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Flamini, the aforementioned Ox, Cazorla, and the front trio. The Theo Walcott and David Ospina situations weren't well-handled. And we wonder why Arsenal pick up injuries?

It's not sheer misfortune, it's appalling man management from the manager. And, for obvious reasons, it's costing us.

I wish I could use the "less said about the game the better" phrase and try to run away from getting into the excruciates, but I don't see the point in keeping this blog, then. Which is why, for the zillionth time, I will trudge on.

To an extent I rate Brendan Rodgers tactical nous (especially in the attacking sense), but to me, it seems like Wenger made him look good. His 3-4-3 was meant to pack the midfield, and clearly it worked. Arsenal couldn't play the way they wanted to, which stung confidence and momentum. What does Wenger do?

Rodgers played Sterling as a false nine striker, but later switched him to the left flank in an attempt to discomfort Chambers. Clearly it worked. On more than one occasion Arsenal were exposed on their right flank. What does Wenger do?

Okay, despite playing abjectly (to say the least), the team managed to take the lead through the only discernible attack I can remember. Okay, there are lack of options on the bench owing to the injury crisis. I still don't see how that justifies removing Giroud for Coquelin. We needed Olivier's hold-up play, set-piece defending and ability to keep ball. Chances were we'd be lumping a lot of balls clear which meant he could have harried those clearances and made a nuisance of himself. Instead, we put a tiring, wishy-washy Welbeck as striker.

I can begin to understand the logic of Coquelin coming on. I like him, unlike others who have formed opinions on him solely on Arsene Wenger's say-so. But by looking at this objectively, won't hooking Flamini (treading lightly on a yellow) or Oxlade-Chamberlain (half-fit, lest we forget) be a better call? Not for Wenger.

Despite Arsenal's phenomenal attempts to throw the game away, Liverpool go a step further. Fabio Borini came on for Kolo Toure and promptly got sent off. At this point, Liverpool were 10 men with no strikers and Sakho and a bandaged Skrtel manning their defence. How could Arsenal possibly screw this one over?

By giving Skrtel a free header, of course. Arsenal probably decided to keep all men in their box to add to the banter than to genuinely try to defend it.

And so ended another innovative Arsenal methodology of Arsenal-ing a game up. As I had said weeks before - Wenger disappointing fans has become routine. The only question is how he does it. Against Stoke it was a fluke-ish half-comeback, which fed hope to Arsenal fans and poisoned their souls. Against United it was dominance followed by sucker-punching. Swansea was just hopeless. Today was more of well we played turd but by some happy accident we're in the lead but it doesn't look like we can keep it at all and oh shit we just gave away a free header and what the fuck and why bother pretending to be pissed when honestly it was pretty much expected and deserved.

I could go on about the management, the injuries, the fourth agenda, the Wenger Out propaganda, the Joel Campbell situation, the transfer window, but instead, I'm just bringing this post to an abrupt end. Because, while I was writing this piece, I just realized that I've ran out of different ways of saying it.

Besides, Wenger will give me plenty of opportunities to look out for them.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Monday, 15 December 2014

Waiting for this inevitable debacle to end...

Disclaimer: Even though I have used the phrases ‘AKB’ and ‘WOB’ in this post, kindly understand that I mean no offence to any Arsenal supporter. I don’t mean to classify or judge any group based on their stance, it’s just a matter of convenience for me to call someone an “AKB” rather than “a person who backs Arsene Wenger”. You may well be a WOB but not resort to personal abuse towards the manager, for instance.

Before I start this, I selfishly hope I'm not the only person who feels this way.
It's not that I don't love Arsenal anymore. I do. I really do. It seems ludicrous for me to have to justify it to people who have followed my blog. However, since the Stoke game I have been feeling a sense of detachiness from the club. It's hard to explain why, probably because even I don't know the exact reason.

Maybe it's because it's all become too repetitive. Football and Arsenal, when I started watching it, was unpredictable and exciting. There were twists and turns and what-ifs and roller coaster rides and memorable goals and down-in-the-doldrums moments, but they were always consoled by the fact that there was hope to negate the bad times with remarkable moments.

Knowing what I do about the precarious situation at Arsenal FC has made me envy the "Ignorance is bliss" phrase. This limbo phase that the club are currently in is getting hard to enjoy. Sure, the last couple of games were footballistically entertaining. Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski scored some belters. Giroud literally pinballed a cross into the net. Santi Cazorla smiled. That was good.

But, upon comparison to how football has made me feel before, it's not good enough. Nowadays, whenever Arsenal win, my happiness is tempered by the ugly truth that tears await at the end. I don't get especially cheesed off when Arsenal lose as well, because when you think of it, there are no repercussions. There are no stakes. It's going to be a long while until Arsene Wenger faces the tangible consequences of his repeated incompetences.

The blog I wrote after Arsenal won the FA Cup seemed to echo some of these sentiments, even then:

"Amidst all this, I am a bit puzzled. While winning the FA Cup was undoubtedly the best moment of my life, a small part of me felt that it would feel better. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel the joy that I thought I would. Maybe because it’s tainted by the fact that it seals Wenger’s future at Arsenal, or because I know that the summer to follow is going to be an embarrassment [LOL, look how that turned out!], but I really felt that winning the cup would have signaled greater euphoria from me."

The fanbase has reached a dangerously fickle phase. An Arsenal loss throws them off the fence, but a positive result reels them back in. A lot of Gooners are on the fence right now, but if you gave them the chance to be Stan Kroenke and take the ultimate decision on the fallen legend's future, they would keep him on. Not because most of them believe he's the one to win the club the Premier League again, but because they are fear change and fear making the judgement call.

It's going to take time for the fans to face the truth. I'd imagine they already know most of the reasons why the WOB (apologies for the labelling) say what they have been saying all these years, and on some level maybe they agree. However, it's only respect and love that's holding them from turning their backs on the man they idolized. A year or two of continuous predictable injuries, tactics, transfers and failures may wear that affinity thin.

A few of those fans (myself included) have already reached that phase. We already know most of there is to know about Arsene Wenger and Arsenal, while we watch the others catch up. Even if certain portions of the WOB tend to exaggerate it or communicate it in an unclassy manner, their opinions are accurate in essentials. They, like me, are likelier to feel equally frustrated in this no man's land, this unfinished divorce, this middle of the end.

Waiting for Wenger's removal has taken a lot out of me. You don't get a lot of WOB members where I come from, so it's not easy to vent my feelings aside from this blog. Every time Arsenal win I have to face stupid, redundant affirmations on why Arsene Wenger is a stud and every time Arsenal lose I have to hear the same fans blame the players, but not him. After a while you just get tired of the vicious cycle and think of jacking it all in. However, it speaks volumes of my loyalty that I won't abandon the ship even when it's facing rough waters.

The fans will get there. The board will get there. But until then, here I stand - an immunized, desensitized Arsenal supporter waiting for this ridiculous debate to end the way I know it will, hoping that these talented crop of players Arsenal have keep the patience and stick it out until then.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What's really going on at Arsenal?

I won't be posting a Galatasaray preview today, mostly because it's a match that doesn't really matter. I still have a post-of-sorts for you, though. I wrote a post for Crazy About EPL which I recommend you check out, but for your convenience I'm copying the entire post here. It may be a tad outdated since I wrote it after the 2-1 Swansea loss, but most of it still applies. It's a pretty long and analytical post, so bear with me!


"The clock, as many opine, is ticking. In the eyes of several pundits and neutral experts, Arsene Wenger’s position at Arsenal has never been any more untenable. The psychologically and mathematically damaging 2-1 loss to Swansea [well, 3-0 to Stoke now] has left plenty arriving to the conclusion that Le Professeur seems more replaceable than ever.

Well, they’re wrong. Arsene’s lowest ebb at the club he’ managed for more than 18 years was not last week, but was indeed the horrific summer of 2011, capped off by the nightmarish 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford. As James McNicholas of Gunnerblog put it, on that fateful day:

“For the most part, I don’t really blame the players – especially not kids like Jenkinson.  As I’ve said before: it’s not their fault they’re out there.  It’s the fault of the manager (and quite possibly the board) for failing to strengthen a squad that has simultaneously been stripped of some of its most prized assets. He sat in the dugout, motionless.  He didn’t even walk to the touchline to cajole his troops.  He just sat there and watched his lambs slaughtered.  

As I watched at home, I briefly (and, I now realise, irrationally) wondered if Wenger might resign in the aftermath of the game.  What changed my mind was our extraordinary fans, who for much of the second half drowned out the United supporters with a chorus of “We love you Arsenal”.  They will have reminded Arsene of his commitment to this club.  He won’t walk away now.
Nor should he. This is his mess, and he needs to fix it.”

Wenger panic-purchased himself into a temporary comfort zone a day or two later, but that didn’t make his summer any less forgivable. He still oversaw the most excruciating and mentally draining transfer saga of Cesc Fabregas, not to mention gifted Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri to Manchester City.

And if that were not enough, he left his team utterly naked – tactically crippled and ruptured of the team’s crucial ligaments. August 2011 was, more than ever, a sure sign that the roof was falling into the house. The FA Cup delayed Wenger’s departure, rather than prevented it. 

And while this season of all has proved that Arsene Wenger is not the right man to lead Arsenal beyond fourth, his extrication from the club is much more complicit than assumed. The internal politics of the club has kept the manager’s tenure secure, while most of the Arsenal fanbase have played a part as well.

The fans

Arsenal’s fanbase is horribly split, classified on the basis of their allegiance with the manager. There are people who believe that despite recent frustrations, Wenger ought to stay at the club (unofficially stereotyped as the ‘AKB’, or the ‘Arsene Knows Brigade’), while there are those who feel the manager is past his expiration date (labeled as ‘WOB’, or the ‘Wenger Out Brigade’).

Disclaimer: Even though I have used the phrases ‘AKB’ and ‘WOB’ a fair amount of times in this article, kindly understand that I mean no offence to any Arsenal supporter. I don’t mean to classify or judge any group based on their stance, it’s just a matter of convenience for me to call someone an “AKB” rather than “a person who backs Arsene Wenger”. You may well be a WOB but not resort to personal abuse towards the manager, for instance.

There is a certain degree of sentiment from the AKB, who take criticisms towards the manager quite personally. Conversely, the WOB have the guilty of resorting to personal abuse in the heat of disappointing Arsenal losses caused by Wenger. More often than not, this means that the aftermath of an unsatisfactory result/performance is a verbal war within fans supporting the same club!

While debating and arguing is all well and good, it tends to change the father of the thought. When the conversation should have been “Is Arsene Wenger fit for the club?”, it instead turns to “How dare you don’t show respect for the club’s most successful manager?” (from the AKB) and “How can you possibly put up with this glorified mediocrity?” (from the WOB). This deterioration of the debate is understandable, but it invariably changes the subject and keeps Wenger’s flaws hidden.

While the WOB have been growing in number and the AKB seem more open to debate, a majority of the fanbase yet remain pro-Wenger; be it out of sentiment, fear of change or because they honestly believe he can recreate the glory times.

Ivan Gazidis

Ivan Gazidis – the CEO of Arsenal FC – has the power to remove Wenger from Arsenal. He was largely responsible for the PUMA and Emirates deals, and cares deeply for the club. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say I think he knows Wenger has to leave for Arsenal to compete for major honours. However, even though he has the power to remove and replace Arsene, his hands are tied.

Gazidis can hardly remove Wenger without finding his job in jeopardy. Sacking Wenger right now will not fly well with the fans, since there are plenty to still back him. In addition, it would also incur Stan Kroenke’s wrath, since Kroenke wants Wenger to stay. (His reasons are written below)

This is purely an opinion, but I think Ivan is the good guy. Sure, he was the reason (or part of it) why Gooners pay the highest ticket prices in the land, but any CEO worth his salt are in for the profit and the prestige. Also, despite being unable to remove Wenger because he has to protect his job, Gazidis has still brought some degree of change at the club through his work on the PUMA and Emirates deals. Through ensuring that Arsenal are financially stable, Gazidis nullified one of Wenger’s fail-safe excuses.
Ask yourself this – if Gazidis hadn’t given his “money to spend” proclamation in June ’13, would Mesut Ozil have come to Arsenal? Publicly declaring Arsenal’s financial firepower didn’t only absolve the board of blame and cleared all monetary-related confusions, but it also made Wenger 100% accountable of any transfers to follow.

Ivan was also vital in setting up a good backroom team of Jonker and Forsythe. Wenger’s autocratic instincts meant that they generally tended to get overruled, but at least Gazidis has ensured that Arsenal’s next manager would have a good staff to work with, assuming he doesn’t David Moyes them!

Stan Kroenke

I’ll be frank – Kroenke does not care much for the footballing success of Arsenal. Even though he’s the majority shareholder, one would be reasonably accurate in assuming that Kroenke has absolutely no emotional attachment to the club.

Kroenke views Arsenal as a financial goldmine. As long as Arsenal keep qualifying for the profits of the Champions League, Stan doesn’t really care what they do. He sees Arsenal as a guaranteed investment – a club from where he can make heaps of profit without spending a dime. That’s any businessman’s dream!

Wenger has his flaws, but he guarantees at least 4th every year. Furthermore, Wenger’s frugal nature of spending (with this summer being the obvious exception) means that Kroenke can take his slice from a financially thriving club. With Wenger at the club, Kroenke is assured the annual profits of CL football and his share of expensive ticket prices, without spending a single buck.

It’s for this reason Kroenke wants Wenger to stay. Gazidis (or Kroenke himself) sacking Wenger would put Arsenal down an uncertain path. Under a new manager Arsenal may finish first, but they may also finish fifth. Why risk the profits of finishing fourth? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?

Arsene Wenger

The CEO can’t sack him because the owner (and half the fans) won’t take kindly. Ultimately, Wenger is accountable to himself. He won’t be under pressure from Kroenke unless he finishes below fourth (which, let’s face it, in this Premier League, is not going to happen).

Since most of the board are filled with businessmen who lack footballing knowledge, Wenger’s given a free reign. In terms of transfers, players, positions, formations – Arsene Wenger calls all the shots. His degree of power even eclipses Sir Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United! Since David Dein’s departure in 2007, Wenger has no one to challenge and question him footballistically. Maybe Ivan Gazidis could, but he dare not.

As Sir Chips Keswick – Arsenal’s Chairman – said in the AGM 2014:

“If Arsene has a plan we back it, if he doesn’t have a plan we keep quiet. So don’t let’s be in a muddle about who calls the shots about football at Arsenal. It is not the chairman, it is not the fans, it is Mr Arsene Wenger.”

It’s this increase in power and tenure that has led to Arsenal FC turning into Arsene’s FC. His dictatorial stronghold on the club is poisonous. None of Shad Forsythe, Andries Jonker and Steve Bould are given much input, because Wenger does not take kindly to criticism. Remember his reaction to Jacqui Oatley’s probing questions and Paul Merson’s post-Anderlecht analysis?

Wenger wouldn’t care to change his outdated methods (why would he, he gets £8m per annum for achieving the bare minimum!) until fan pressure gets to him. It only took drastic situations (the 8-2, the season opener Villa loss, the #PlayOzilAt10 Twitter hashtag) for Wenger to (be forced to) radically change his approach. Since the board and Gazidis can’t hold him accountable for on-field failures, the fans have taken it upon themselves to put Wenger under pressure. Should Podolski or Joel Campbell be given a start against Manchester United [again, apologise because it's outdated], it won’t be because Wenger thinks they deserve a go. It’ll be because the fans have questioned Wenger’s “minimal rotation” policy for too long.

But the fans themselves are so disjointed in their opinions, that there can’t really be any united protests and genuine change unless something disastrous happens.
      And so, keeping the above factors in mind, I see only three ways how Wenger can leave.

      1. The WOB (again, apologies for the labelling) manage to convince the AKB, and fan pressure forces Kroenke’s hand.

      2.  Arsenal fail spectacularly (fall out of the top four, get humiliated in Europe) and the shock of the failure goads the club into action.

      3. Wenger realizes how he has hamstrung the club – does the honourable thing and resigns.

The process of Wenger’s Arsenal exit is undoubtedly complicated. However, when he does leave, Gazidis has to ensure that his replacement doesn’t have the same autocratic personality. Wenger is out of Ivan’s and Stan’s control. Gazidis has to make certain that he can control Arsene’s successor, not feed his egocentrism.

Wenger has led Arsenal through the Emirates Stadium transition, but it’s apparent that he can’t lead the club to “the next level”, so to say. It’s in these troubled times that a real leader is born. Once Wenger leaves, the onus falls on Ivan Gazidis to deliver. Fail, and he’s the villain.

Succeed, and he’s the messiah."


Well, there you go. A huge thanks to those who had the patience to go through all that and contemplate the bigger picture. Be back tomorrow (hopefully) with a Galatasaray review and thoughts on the Wenger abuse thing.

Time to get hyped for Matchday!

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Monday, 8 December 2014

Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Not remotely unexpected, but not remotely disappointing either

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

The circumstances of the loss weren't foreseeable by any means, but if you told me we'd walk away from the Britannia pointless, I wouldn't have batted an eye. Synonymous to Manchester United, Stoke City have become a team we invariably fall prey to, regardless of the players they have. We're scared of the name.

What can you expect when you play a defence as (no other word for it) funny as ours? I've been long crying for Bellerin to start, but playing him at Stoke by force is no show of faith. It's a last resort and even he knows that. That, coupled with a horrific defensive show won't exactly do wonders for his morale.

We should be counting our lucky stars Gibbs didn't pick up a hammy or an impact injury. Needless to say, he wasn't at his best either. One could understand Bellerin's pangs to make adventurous forward forays because he's a kid, but legislating for Gibbs isn't an option anymore. With Bellerin high up the pitch, shouldn't Gibbs have the sense to be pragmatic and stand behind? He's experienced enough to realize that. He didn't, and all balance was ruptured. With only Mertesacker, Chambers and an experienced Flamini providing emergency cover, we looked a banterous back three. All of the goals we conceded came from our left channel.

Or perhaps it's not Kieran's fault. Maybe Arsene Wenger tells him to stay high up the pitch and press the ball. Flamini said something of the sort weeks ago. Maybe it's not the players at fault, but of the manager handing them the instructions panel. We kept it simple in the last three games, but reverted to gung-ho as soon as Crouch scored. As I said - back to basics is always a short-term Wenger solution. Admittedly though, even I didn't think it'd be this short-term.

Chambers and Mertesacker had mares. I don't entirely buy into the theory that Mertesacker's dip in form is 100% down to Laurent Koscielny's absence (even if it is, Wenger's at fault for overplaying him). I think Mertesacker is a fine defender who, despite his pace, was one of the world's best centre backs at one point. Back then, it didn't seem like he was reliant on other players to sort out the spoils. The fact that he's tanking may be down to issues pertaining to rocky defences, lopsided formations and confidence issues. Or maybe he's just past it and getting found out.

Chambers was at fault for the first goal, but let's give him a break. We forget that he's 19 and was bound to make costly errors. It's part of a defender's game. And yes, while I agree Calum needs to work on his tackling in general, none of his two yellows were remotely justiciable.

Which brings me to the referee. I thought (and let's face it, even a roadside vendor would concur) he was absolutely atrocious throughout. I don't think he's a biased referee, but he's certainly a bad one. He stopped play when Giroud was clean through. He disallowed a legitimate Bojan goal. He (and let's be honest here) gave us a soft penalty. He didn't award Welbeck plenty of deserved fouls in dangerous areas. And boy, that Charlie Adam fiasco. I remember tweeting along the lines of "Stoke and Taylor should be sent to a concentration camp" at that time.

As insane as the ref was, once again he's a handy distraction from the way we approached the game. Another referee would not have given Arsenal their penalty. Another referee would not have disallowed Bojan's goal, which - it's fair to say - would have meant 4-0 and confidence torn to ribbons. Agreed, a fair ref wouldn't have stopped play when Giroud was clean through in the first half, but based on the sitter the Frenchman missed earlier, would I have placed good money on him to score? Probably not.

Even if Giroud had nodded in that chance, it would have been papering-over-the-cracks and happy-accident stuff. We weren't nearly at the races. The Charlie Adam stranglehold on Alexis Sanchez was a neat symbolism of the game - an undoubtedly talented individual or team jostled away by a more physical and solid one. The only time we really looked convincing was  the last five minutes, which isn't a lot based on the total duration of the game. Personally, I didn't feel especially pissed off or have "oh-my-day-is-ruined" emotions. I was actually laughing like Walter White in Breaking Bad when I thought Bojan scored the fourth. Come to think of it, the last time I felt genuinely anguished after an Arsenal performance was Swansea away. Even losing to United didn't bring the levels of disappointments that I had planned to anticipate. It was more of tepid disapproval than raw, animalistic angst.

Perhaps it's because the failures have become too repetitive to give a toss about. Perhaps it's because the only unexpected variable is "how exactly will Arsenal disappoint me tonight", either through a freak own goal or a capitulation in the dying minutes. Finding genuine positives from a game has become a treasure hunt. We pounce on rare positives like Martinez or Chambers and understandably hype them, only to be brought down to harsh reality. Or maybe the reason Arsenal have become so ennui is because we know that rehashing the same old flaws will not change the way the manager and the board operates, not by one iota. Why would the club take our suggestions? Wenger doesn't give value to Paul Scholes' and Paul Merson's input - why would he care a jack's squat about ours?

The reason I stick it out and try to convince more and more of Wenger's incompetence is simple - loyalty. Supporting any other club for me, and for many more, is not an option. However, even though I cling on to Arsenal like a husband does to a dying wife (that's a terrible analogy), it won't dissuade me from the fact that being a Gooner is not fun right now. I went to see Mumbai City FC play Atletico de Kolkata in the stadium yesterday in a crunch Indian Super League encounter (which is why this blog post is late), and despite the team I support - Mumbai - being bottom of the table, I supported the shit out of them. Honestly though, if I ever get the opportunity to visit the Emirates as of this moment, I'm uncertain if I'll recreate the same passion.

The difference between the two teams is obvious - hope. With Mumbai, even if they're last in the league, at least there's some semblance of hope and possibility of unpredictability. At least I know that if things aren't going well, the club will do all they can to make things better and aim for the winner's spot eventually.

None at Arsenal, though. Being fiercely loyal to the red and white doesn't mean I'll ignore that the club are currently in limbo. That under Arsene Wenger, hoping for anything more than Champions League qualification and genuine competing for major honours is fanciful at the least. I can't ignore that until most of the fanbase realize Wenger was long past it, he and his repetitive errors will stay. All I can do is try to speed up that process by convincing more people, which is one of the prime reasons I started this blog in the first place. But since I don't think justice to the fallen legend is around the corner, all I can do is bide my time until it does come.

Till then, as Le Grove said, I'll sit back, buckle up and watch Wenger's illustrious reign fall apart, trying not to fall asleep on the way.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Friday, 5 December 2014

Arsenal 1-0 Southampton: Giroud sums up Wenger's man managing flaws

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

I don't know about you, but I enjoyed that. I never really fancied us to win the game in the first place, but the fact that we did despite the circumstances is heartwarming. Obviously it does not lead me into any delusions about my perception of the team and the person managing it, but was nevertheless an important step towards rebuilding some morale.

Make no mistake, despite having an easy start to the season, Southampton are a very, very good side. They're a team in the true essence. Perhaps the fact that they're perched high up at third speaks more of the quality of the league than of themselves, but let's not forget they've given almost every team a hard time.

Of course, we were helped. A lot. Morgan Schneiderlin never made the game on account of one booking too many, and Toby Alderweireld was forced off with around 10 minutes at hand. And while I'm by no means suggesting that I advocate the obvious papering over the cracks, but despite our flush hand it seemed we might fold the hand. The immensely relieving fact that we didn't was a tad unpredictable, but for once on the positive side.

This game highlighted a lot of long-stated facts. Welbeck and Alexis are too jaded to be thrown into the deep end continuously. A Ramsey and Arteta baseline helped the team look secure at the back. Oxlade-Chamberlain will have his off days, which is why there is something called depth in the shape of a German smiley.

I don't get why Arsene Wenger is so averse to rotation. Okay, maybe against a team like Southampton it's preferable to play your best players, but why not ensure they're mentally and physically fit enough to perform? Why play a clearly jaded Alexis, Welbeck and Santi Cazorla for West Brom? There were plenty of occasions earlier this season when a Rosicky or a Podolski could carry the cargo and hand our key men a rest. It serves two things - ensures that the team's vital cogs are well-oiled, and that the fringe options aren't too rusty. Treating Podolski, Rosicky and Campbell the way Wenger is makes them feel undervalued. They feel they're not at the cool party anymore. And unless there's an injury-cum-suspension frenzy, they leave due to lack of game time.

Olivier Giroud faded dramatically in the second half of last season because, surprise, he was run into the ground. Fortunately he's a muscular lad who did well to stay away from injury (until a freak one hit him), but it still had a notable impact on his output. On Wednesday, a fully-fit, rested Giroud came off the bench and created three chances. He held the ball up well and added much-needed potency in the final third. It's not rocket science.

Have an honest mind and think about where Alexis is going. While his goals-assists ratio has remained phenomenally consistent, his workrate and focus is dwindling. You can't blame him, in fairness. His form of late may have led some to forget that he is only human. It'll take superhuman strength, stamina and craving for him to run like a motorbike till the end of the season. The fact that we seem to be asking that of him speaks volumes of Wenger's motivational and man management acumen.

The Christmas schedule doesn't make for pretty reading. It's not the quality of the opposition, but the games-per-days ratio that bothers me. We play around eight games in less than a month, which include Stoke City, West Ham and a trip to Turkey. Based on recent evidence, is it fair to expect Wenger to plan well in the medium-term and increase the frequency of his rotations? I suspect not.

True, we don't have much wiggle room in defence, but despite having our options, it's very hard to see Wenger freshening up the final third. There's a good chance the likes of Sanchez, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain will start at least seven of the next eight games. And when, not if, their form and energy levels take a turn for the worse, I hope we're too wise to scapegoat them and repeat the Giroud scenario.

In all honesty, I'm too resigned to hope the fans and the manager will see the light.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Monday, 1 December 2014

"Back to basics" always a short-term option for Wenger

I never thought the nadir would come soon enough, but come it did. Perhaps the 2-1 loss to United was some blessing in disguise, because it finally seems Arsene has gone back to the very rudiments of the game. It's not hard, is it? Keep the full-backs in check, protect the defence with a double-pivot and don't commit once you've got the lead. Quite unbelievable it took Wenger three consecutive specimens to realize that.

Obviously we do need a defensive midfielder, but our last two games against Dortmund and West Brom showed that it isn't the absolute root of our problems. People crave for a William Carvalho or a Morgan Schneiderlin as if the players will solve the entire issue. Well, guess what? It's the system that matters. Better players ensure the system runs more effectively, but only the manager controls the system. Had we bought Carvalho (for instance) in August and not changed our approach play, he too would be pressing high up the pitch and getting caught napping, much in the same ways Arteta and Flamini were guilty of.

Which is exactly why I feel some of the complaints towards the manager are unwarranted. Don't get me wrong, of course he's made many errors in judgement this season, but they were to do with his structure and man management, not (most of) his transfer dealings. Even though being short of a DM in the true sense and a couple of centre backs isn't ideal, this is still one of the best Arsenal teams on paper. The fact that they're massively underperforming and languishing in sixth speaks volumes of the manager, not the players themselves. The question shouldn't be "Why didn't you buy xyz player to strengthen the squad", it should be "Why aren't you making the best of the already excellent squad you do have?"

Give a Rudi Garcia or a Diego Simeone this exact team and they'd be second in the league right now, maybe even higher. You don't get many teams with the magnitudes of quality comparable to Ozil, Sanchez, Walcott, Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Giroud, Podolski and Rosicky. These are hugely talented players with exceptional qualities, most of whom have been at the club for more than a year. Under the right system and rotational policy, they would have ripped the bananas of this regressive league and given Jose lesser hours of sleep at night.

Yes, number-wise defensively the team has taken a step backwards, but it still has quality there. The fact we leaked too many goals were much more down to the modus operandi of the team than the quantity in defence. Kieran Gibbs bombing down the left flank may not mean he doesn't follow instructions well, it may mean the instructions in question aren't reasonable.

Until Wenger became more rational, there were plenty of examples where poor man managing with a mix of stubbornness killed a player's form. Arteta and Flamini used to be way too exposed in the 4-1-4-1. Ozil was left bewildered on the, well, left. Cazorla played all over the pitch until Wenger played him at No. 10, which yielded 3 assists in 2 games. The Ramsey-Wilshere axis just wasn't a match made in heaven, at least not in a 4-1-4-1. Rosicky, Podolski and Campbell had their openings to lift the physical burdens off Alexis and Chamberlain, but Wenger chose to overplay the latter duo.

Yes, Wenger chose one of his last resorts with a more cautious "first, do not lose" approach, but don't kid yourself he's fancy on sustaining it throughout the season. The 4-2-3-1 workable style of play isn't a long-term plan - it's Wenger's reaction to the degrees of pressure he currently faces. Once the burden on him temporarily lifts, he'll lull into a false sense of security and try his outdated methods again.

Personally, I'm not especially fussed how we win games unless we go complete Jose Mourinho and park the bus against mediocre outfits. However, I do believe we can play the football everyone wants us to play and win matches. Last season's formation and approach to games were a blueprint to how we should shape in the future. We now have players who can do a better job in the same structure. Whether the manager has the flexibility to revert to the "Old is Gold" tactics for good is yet another, albeit rhetorical question.

P.S. Apologies for the huge dip in the number of posts, but I've been going through a very busy period. I don't think I'll be posting previews for matches unless they include big names or big stages.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]