Monday, 30 March 2015

Why Arsenal's recent run of form is a mirage

It's wrong for supporters to base their entire perception of the team on results. Yes, we're in a results business and they hold greater credence than performances. I'd rather see Arsenal winning ugly than playing pretty tiki-taka football but not getting the requisite points.

My chief problem lies with Arsenal making a habit of it. Invariably, it's a good performance that leads to a good result. Scrapping victories when the team is not at the races may be fine for a couple of games, but a run stretching beyond that quickly turns to papering over the cracks.

Recently, our well-documented run of form since the Southampton game has read WWWWWLWWWLWWWWWW. That's 17 games with two losses in between to Tottenham and Monaco. It may seem excellent on face value, but a closer analysis suggests otherwise.

Let's hold our hands up and admit it - wins against QPR, Crystal Palace and Everton were far from convincing. We were quite uncertain for large parts of the game and these encounters could have gone either way. A recent showing against Newcastle could also be part of this category.

Leicester City was, on a performance-based level, quite disappointing as well. We have terrific players and supposedly huge ambitions as a football club - it's almost a right to expect more in terms of domination (or indeed, goals) against a disinterested Nigel Pearson side.

I understand why people were chuffed by winning against Manchester United in their own den, and I was too. However, that performance was hardly convincing for a huge chunk of the game. United being quite dire helped our cause, even though they pretty much dominated the first half. Their odd Plan A of lobbing the ball to Fellaini was meat and drink to us as it would have been to any other team not fielding Oompa-Loompas in their starting XI.

Welbeck's goal was a gift - Angel di Maria's sending off was even better. It's also worth remembering that on another day, a worse ref could have awarded United a penalty. I'm not saying Arsenal were particularly awful, but United being, well, crap (apologies for using the technical term there) was a bigger factor in our victory. Kudos for that win, but on that day even Burnley could have got something.

In fact, upon reflection, only the wins against Hull City, Stoke, Manchester City, Villa, Middlesbrough and Monaco could be considered convincing. And mind you, matches against Hull, Stoke, Villa and Middlesbrough (at home) are games any above-average team are expected to win. Only the wins against Manchester City or Monaco could be considered a barometer of our progress.

Winning ugly is a sign of champions, yes. However, making a norm of it is not, and certainly not against teams like Leicester and QPR. We've been stumbling our way from game to game and getting through the finishing line, which would have been great if the teams or the occasion was monumental. Most of these matches haven't been of the same ilk.

Expectations may have been raised higher than is appropriate. Truth be told, I think our record could level out to something approaching an accurate reflection of our ability in the future. On paper, the results may be looking to go toward Arsenal's way, but in all honesty we've only done disproportionately well. Gooners are, once again, flirting with the familiar danger of being overly optimistic.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Friday, 27 March 2015

Szczesny, Coquelin and the Theo Walcott saga

You wouldn't have to be a terribly avid follower of this blog to know that the posts have dried up the past couple of weeks. Or months.

Incredibly, The Arsenal have chosen to move on without me.

Jokes aside, these past few months have seen plenty of developments take place. The emergence of Coquelin and Bellerin, the falling out with Szczesny, the goals of Giroud and the whole Theo Walcott saga. There was also the customary falling out of the Champions League and the possibility of reclaiming the FA Cup.

Because I haven't had the time slash interest to carry on for a while (wait, hadn't you heard?), the Arsenal part of me was exploding inside. And since I'm too selfless to keep my deranged thoughts to myself, here I go.

Let's start from the back shall we?

The Szczesny-Ospina situation...
Look, I entirely get why Szczesny tends to rub people up the wrong way, but in my mind he's the better keeper. Even if he's not, the portrayal of him being a Flamini or an Almunia is ludicrous. It's almost as if fans reboot their thinking at the dawn of a new season and forget the immediate past, because Szczesny was ace last season. There are no two ways about that fact.

I do not doubt Szczesny's quality. Even though he's had a hiccup this season, for me he retains the frighteningly exciting potential to be Arsenal's David de Gea. To an extent, I don't even doubt his attitude. True, I would be loathe toward a player who has all the cockiness but none of the skill (a la Nicklas Bendtner), but at least Szczesny has the accolades and the talents to justify that.

And as long as we're being perfectly honest, I felt his errors against Southampton were way overblown. Sure, for the first one he was almost entirely at fault, but I didn't think the second one was down to him. Upon watching the replay of that goal again, it becomes apparent that there was nothing Szczesny could do apart from kick the ball away in desperation. There was chaos in the box, and Szczesny did not have the time to collect it. Sticking a foot at the ball was more of a last resort.

Now look, if Arsene Wenger decided to drop Szczesny for Ospina purely on a disciplinary level then that's grand. That's his stance and a really good one. But please, don't confuse his goalkeeping skills with his smoking ones is all I'm saying. I really think we should stick with Szczesny, especially after seeing what's gone on with David Ospina.

While I was all for giving Ospina a chance, I must say that his performances have been significantly overrated. Yes, he's a decent kicker of the ball and dives really well. However, his parrying technique is all wrong and he simply cannot instill calmness during set-pieces. He doesn't have the height for the game either. Moreover, I cannot be the only one to think that his dives are way too Hollywood. There are times where he unnecessarily leaps into the air to push around the post a strike that a goalkeeper like Szczesny would simply collect.

The only advantage that Ospina seems to have on Szczesny is that he doesn't muck about and try to dribble players before hoofing the ball halfway.

Ospina's not a terrible keeper by any stretch, but him getting the confidence of the Arsenal supporters was more down to a settled defence and the "a new option is always better" mentality than his actual quality.

Szczesny responded brilliantly for more than a season after being dropped for Lukasz Fabianski two years ago. I am firmly of the opinion that should Wenger find a path for bringing Szczesny back into the foray, we could see a Pole performing at that similar ilk.

Francis Coquelin's emergence...
I'm not going to rehash all of the "well if you had told me this lad was barely playing at Charlton over three months ago I would have called you my drunk uncle's wife" stuff because while I'm over the moon for the guy, it's getting boring to hear of people bleeding out his resurrection.

I know we wanted a combative DM, but this is ridiculous!

What I will say about Coquelin is this - he was exactly what we needed. We didn't need a complicated player, we needed a straightforward one. Essentially, what we needed was someone to do the dirty work who would spare no chance in welcoming his opponent to the British way of playing. Arteta is too nice to lose his cool even if someone ruffles up his hair. Flamini was a great short-term solution until he just, faded away.

If I have a worry about Coquelin, it is that there yet exists the real danger of him fizzling out like Flamini did, should opponents get wise to him. We have to make sure that Coquelin's form, as welcome as it has been, is not the big all and end all in terms of Arsenal's defensive midfield woes. Buying an extra defensive midfielder is yet mandatory, because Arteta and Flamini aren't getting any younger, and there are doubts over the Ramsey-Wilshere pair in central midfield as well.

We have the resources, so I don't see a reason why Francis must be shown the light of complacency, if that makes any sense.

Is Theo Walcott Arsenal quality?
What I found really typical about this whole Theo Walcott issue was that several pro-Wenger fans (sorry for the labeling) knee-jerked their opinions too quickly the moment it became apparent that Arsene Wenger does not rate Walcott anymore.

Look, I try not to attack portions of Arsenal's fanbase directly but these levels of hypocrisy irk me.

When Arsenal oh-so predictably ceded the title last season, Wenger spared no expense in shifting the blame to injuries, injuries that wouldn't have happened if he hadn't overplayed the likes of Ramsey, Ozil and Koscielny until they could barely walk. Overrating the absence of pace (why not buy in January, then?) meant that people could overstate the importance of Theo Walcott to the team. Suddenly Theo was the Robert Pires of past - an indispensable cog to Arsenal's attacking engine.

Fast forward to this season, and people have already made their peace with Walcott's potential departure because, let's face it, Arsene Wenger has. Don't get me wrong - while I think Walcott is a good player, he is by no means absolutely essential to the success of Arsenal Football Club.

What bugged me, however, was the blind following toward Wenger akin to original logic.

When Francis Coquelin was loaned out to Charlton as a death sentence, no one really rated him. However, when he was forced to come back after four injuries and did excellently, no one was willing to eat humble pie, but were instead praising the manager's "unbelievable" faith in the Frenchman. What tosh. To add to the aforementioned debate, most of the reason Wojciech Szczesny gets a lot of undeserved stick is not because he's a terrible goalkeeper, but because he has quite obviously lost the faith of Wenger.

Again, don't get me wrong. My argument is not related with the quality of the player, - it's to do with the supporters adjusting their thoughts to suit their basic "Arsene knows all" argument. If Lukas Podolski was not on loan to Inter Milan and was getting games at the club, I truly doubt people would be giving him the amount of flak they do now.

Theo Walcott typifies this situation. Opinionated websites like Arseblog are not ashamed to point out his deficiencies in his overall game now (and rightly so), but where was all this analysis a year ago when Arsene Wenger was bigging up his absence? No Arsenal fan could be delusional to such an extent that they yet believe that before his injury, Walcott was not bang-on average when he wasn't scoring or assisting?

For the record, I'd like Walcott to stay. In fact, to add a little spice to my argument, I'd like Arsenal to try playing him as a center forward, if there are issues about his defensive workrate on the wings. It's about time we try to adapt to an attacking approach with a faster striker, because while Giroud's improvement has been terrific (before you get all "I told you so", I was one of his backers), I still think he should be a Plan B option. I'm not a fan of the traditional-target-man approach with build up plays involving pivots and back-to-goal hold ups, because it does not guarantee a huge goal output. Olivier Giroud may be huffing and puffing and scoring goals, but Arsenal will always remain offensively static with a limited striker like him up front.

Part of the reason I was excited about Danny Welbeck's signing was because I felt he could herald a new beginning to a more fluid, dynamic Arsenal. In that respect he has disappointed, because his finishing is pretty mediocre. If we want to score more goals and find a proper use for Theo Walcott's pace and finishing, playing him as a lone striker wouldn't be a bad idea. Obviously he's no Thierry, but Theo's pace means that he may be an acceptable surrogate.

And of course, if it should work the black lining to the silver cloud would be having to tolerate the "Arsene Wenger is a tactical genius" comments from the same people berating him right now.


Right - I understand that there have been way more developments over the past months than I have touched upon, but the international break means that I have the liberty to spread my opinions throughout this following week of torture. And I intend to take advantage of that.

Finally, apologies for being absent for most of this season. 2014/15 for me has been a real blur at times and I haven't quite been myself with respect to my Arsenal life. Hopefully all that claptrap ends soon.

Until then, cheers, enjoy, laugh at the awkward ending of this post, but don't watch the Cricket World Cup finals. It's not interesting now that India's shown the door.


-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Monaco 0-2 Arsenal: Lather, rinse, repeat

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

It's hard to feel any regret today. Yeah, you read that right.

On earlier occasions I would have been downright furious at the referee for not awarding Alexis Sanchez a penalty. Or towards Giroud, for his intervention towards the end meant the Chilean could not head the ball in the net. Or, predictability, towards Arsene Wenger and his suicidal tactics which led to the 3-1 deficit in the first place.

Not today. Familiarity may breed contempt for some, but it tends to make me bored. I didn't feel enough anticipation or excitement last night because, well, we've already seen this before haven't we? At Munich, against Milan and against Barcelona. We know the spoilers. We know how it ends.

Last night was a commendable performance, but it still doesn't do anything for the progress of the team. It's not turning a corner and it's not a significant morale-booster. Much as we'd hate to admit it, this season was yet another wasted one.

Yes, we can win the FA Cup and we can finish higher than fourth and I'd love it if we do. But is that what we should come to expect of Arsenal FC? When last season ended I immediately expressed my expectation of wanting to see Arsenal challenge for major honours next season. I refuse to believe I was alone in that line of thinking.

Look at the fourth prediction (heh) I had given last season about this season.

"4. Arsenal will not win the EPL, nor will they come close to winning the Champions League. We might win the FA Cup or the Capital One, but we won't win trophies a club of Arsenal's stature should win."

It's about time we stop easily forgiving failure. It's about time we call a spade for a spade and realize that while Arsene Wenger has done excellently in building a base for the club, he is not the one to reap its rewards. We cannot afford to be mucking about when it comes to the success of Arsenal FC.

I trust that many would agree when I say that Arsene Wenger is not bigger than Arsenal, but I'm unsure they understand the significance of that statement. It means that we should keep sentiment to the side and look at options who offer progress. While Arsene has assembled a very good team, he looks incapable of making them realize their potency. And make no mistake, if we give Wenger yet another opportunity to make things right "the next time around" and he fails, the players won't be as forgiving.

Cesc Fabregas' transfer to Chelsea proved that footballers do not think about loyalty, gratitude or repayment anymore. All they want, understandably, is money and success. The brilliance of Ivan Gazidis has brought the big bucks to North London, but Arsenal are yet to witness any major trophies since 2004. Gems like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will not wait around for Wenger to resign to witness a rejuvenated Arsenal. They don't have the same levels of loyalty and patience towards the club as we do did.

The exodus in 2011 and 2012 wasn't entirely down to lack of funds. It was because players had lost faith in Wenger ambition and were hungry for footballistic success, not monetary ones. The warning signs were there back in the mid-2000s, when Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira left because they felt the team was losing ambition.

We took a huge fall in 2011. We lost Cesc, Nasri, van Persie, Clichy and Alex Song because they no longer believed in Arsene Wenger. Upon reminiscing, you may be reminded that it was a long and painful journey back to restoring their enormous voids and having a relatively stable platform again. It took a lot of time, money and patience to get back to the threshold of the elite again. However, Arsenal may be setting ourselves up for failure once again if we aren't proactive enough.

And by we, I mean Ivan Gazidis. Blaming Arsene Wenger and trying to expose his flaws is almost becoming a moot point. I know he's incompetent, I know he's not the final key to Arsenal's success, and I trust that there are others who know the truth as well. I know that under Arsene Wenger, Champions League scraps and elite purgatory is something of a given.

However, the onus is on Gazidis to ensure that we don't fall into the same manhole twice. Yesterday was a reminder of how far Arsenal are away from Champions League and Premier League success, but it was also a reminder of how we can get there. In terms of players, we almost have the real deal. All Gazidis needs is a manager who can make them flourish, and he needs him fast.

I'd love to say that the reason I haven't been blogging for the past two months was because of work commitments, which is partly true. However, although I have had my pockets of opportunities to vent my thoughts on Arsenal, I've chosen not to take them. I love Arsenal and I love the supporters and the players, but seeing Wenger waste yet another season (and, crucially, not seeing the board do anything about it) has bored me. I haven't written because Arsenal, to an extent, have begun to bore me.

I want the CEO of one of the world's biggest organizations to grow a pair. I want a manger past his sell date to depart. I want unpredictability. I want competitiveness. Is that too much to ask from a football club as big as Arsenal? 

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]