Monday, 23 April 2018

Au revoir

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After 22 years in charge of Arsenal Football Club, Arsene Wenger announced on Friday that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. The news came as a shock to all in the world of football, as not even a single journalist had caught wind of the news before it broke.

Although the atmosphere around the club had grown toxic in recent seasons and the feeling of apathy had certainly reached its climax this season as thousands stayed away from the Emirates in a form of silent protest against the perceived lack of ambition and desire for change amongst the decision makers at club; it was difficult not to be hit with a tinge of sadness at Wenger’s departure.

After all in over 130 years of the club’s existence, Arsene Wenger is without doubt the greatest manager in the club’s history. You have to go back to the 1930s and Herbert Chapman to find the next man on that list and so in truth it has been a privilege to have witnessed Wenger’s era with the Gunners. The Frenchman has singlehandedly won more trophies than most clubs have in their entire history. He won three league titles (more than Spurs), went an entire season unbeaten, holds the record for most FA Cup wins by a single manager and revolutionised the English game with sports science and some of the most breath-taking attacking football this country has ever seen. Despite what some so called fans will have you believe, this man is an Arsenal legend.

It was therefore difficult to understand how any true Arsenal supporter could genuinely rejoice at the news that Wenger would not be in charge for a 23rd season. The view that change was needed and the time had come for him to step aside had been widely accepted amongst the Gunners faithful but you cannot forget just what an incredible job Wenger has done. He transformed the entire image of the club from “boring Arsenal” to one that every football pundit freely admitted they would happily pay to watch. It was this World-wide growth in popularity that led to the move from Highbury to the Emirates and led to Wenger having to work on a restricted budget and failing to win a trophy for nine years.

It was during that barren spell that the media began to sharpen their knives and mocked the club time and time again for their barren trophy cabinet at the Emirates. Finishing in the top four was the priority during that time, a target that was also derided but has now become an acceptable degree of achievement given that more fashionable managers at Tottenham and Liverpool are achieving this. Not even three FA Cup victories in the last four years were enough to appease the fans or the media as they continued to measure Wenger against the exceptionally high standards he had set throughout the first half of his reign.

Since that time however, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have significantly moved the goalposts in terms of spending money on new signings time and time again and therefore in effect Arsenal are now fighting in another league. Can they seriously compete for the league title again when Manchester City have the capability to spend the best part of £200million on their defensive unit in one transfer window? The answer is unlikely but that is not what we as fans want to hear. The role of the fan is to dream, no matter how unrealistic our dreams may be, while the role of the manager is to deliver those dreams. Unfortunately Wenger just couldn’t deliver another league title. There were opportunities, most notably when Eduardo was seriously injured at Birmingham with Arsenal set to mount a serious title challenge, only to see that cruelly disappear in the weeks that followed. However there was also the season that Arsenal finished second to Leicester City, having only signed Petr Cech, when outfield reinforcements would have surely seen them win the title.

It is possibly Leicester’s triumph which significantly turned the tide against Wenger amongst the supporters. Fans can accept the likes of City, Chelsea and United winning the league with their financial superiority, but Leicester? If they can win it then why haven’t Arsenal even mounted a serious challenge? Came the question. Unfortunately Wenger just didn’t have the answer and every time he tried to explain it or to come up with reasons for it, then the more deluded and out of touch he sounded. To a certain extent the board and the players let him down too. During the austerity years as Arsenal paid back the stadium loan, the board would release statements regarding the supposed significant transfer reserves available, but the club would then sell its best players to rival clubs such as Man City and United, for which Wenger took the brunt. He was made to look foolish and unnecessarily frugal as his team continued to slide further and further away from the top of the table while resentment amongst the fans grew. The players must also take their share of the blame as they failed to rally behind the manager and repay the unyielding faith he placed in them. Heavy defeats away from home time and time again were as much to do with a lack of organisation or planning as with a lack of character from the players. The call for genuine leaders within the group has long gone unanswered but ultimately in football the buck stops with the manager. If only he had been more amenable to change, refreshed his backroom staff and took their counsel for new ideas to reenergise a squad that appeared to have grown tired of the same routine and same instructions, then maybe things would have been different. Unfortunately we will never know.

Wenger took the brunt of the pressure and the abuse and has now decided enough is enough. The feeling is that this was not entirely his decision, that he was pushed by a board fearful of the number of empty seats at the Emirates growing game by game. Wenger’s comments after the win against West Ham regarding the lack of unity amongst the fan base was somewhat pointed. 22 years is an incredibly long time and many of those who hurled abuse in his direction, raised banners demanding his exit and ludicrously paid for that plane at West Brom last season, do not remember a time before Wenger and therefore do not truly appreciate just what he has done for this club. He has brought so much joy to everyone associated with Arsenal Football Club and has been such a loyal servant of the club that it is a crying shame he now feels let down by those that he served with such dignity and class for 22 years. It can only be hoped that the fans now unite to bid Wenger a fond farewell and most of all to say thank you Arsene.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Embarrassing Gunners get just desserts!

Nottingham Forest 4-2 Arsenal

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Arsenal’s defence of the FA Cup ended in embarrassing fashion on Sunday evening as the Gunners were dumped out of the third round of the competition for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Hectic game ends all square

Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea

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Arsenal were left to rue yet more dropped points on Wednesday night following yet another manic game in which poor defensive play undid the Gunners excellent attacking play once more. It was the same situation against both Manchester United and Liverpool with Arsene Wenger’s side appearing to be unable to learn from their previous errors.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Problems away from home continue

West Ham 0-0 Arsenal

points against West Ham on Wednesday night, as the Gunners played out a frustrating 0-0 draw.

The game took on a familiar pattern with Arsenal enjoying the lion’s share of possession against a side determined to sit deep and defend in numbers. Yet although the Gunners enjoyed up to 70% of possession, they did not do enough with the ball to create goal scoring opportunities. As their dismal away record shows, this is not the first time this has happened this season as Arsene Wenger’s side appear unable to break down the opposition away from home. In fact, the fine win away to Everton aside, Arsenal have failed to score more than one goal in any of their other away games so far this season.

This must be something that is extremely perplexing to Wenger as his side’s home form has been excellent so far. Apart from the recent loss to Manchester United, Arsenal have won all of their home games this season and it is not as if they face two completely different approaches from their opposition. Whether they play at home or away, Arsenal will more often than not come up against a side that will allow them to have the ball and will defend deep and in numbers. Yet while the Gunners have dealt with these tactics comfortably at the Emirates, they have appeared flummoxed when faced with them on their travels.

In general, the key to breaking down such sides is to move the ball quickly, with players tacking one or two touches at most, before releasing the ball. Movement is also key as the players must be prepared to give the ball to a teammate and then make a forward run to move the opposition out of position and create space in between their defensive lines. Movement also presents the man on the ball with passing options and therefore prevents him from dawdling on the ball and tempo being reduced to a snail’s pace as a result. The final key ingredient is to make the pitch as wide as possible by getting the ball out wide and attacking the opposition down the flanks rather than attempting to play intricate passes through the already congested middle of the pitch.

Unfortunately Arsenal have not been doing these things on a regular basis away from home and results ultimately speak for themselves. Wenger elected to move away from his system of three at the back against West Ham, elected to go back to a back four instead, but still there was little improvement. With Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi either side of Olivier Giroud, in theory Arsenal could switch the ball wide and then get crosses into the box for Giroud to attack. However neither Sanchez nor Iwobi stayed wide and in fact kept on drifting inside, narrowing the attack and effectively playing into West Ham’s hands.

Up front, Giroud offered very little movement and it was therefore rather easy for the West Ham defenders to defend against him. The Frenchman didn’t hold the ball up well either and therefore could not link up with the midfield, who did not attempt to run on beyond him, in the hope of running onto a flick on, as a result.

With Iwobi and Sanchez failing to offer any width to the side, the onus was on the full backs, Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Although the youngster did perform rather well and did deliver a few quality crosses into the box, he tends to favour his right foot and therefore as he was deployed as a left full back, he would turn in to deliver the ball with his right foot which gave West Ham the opportunity to close him down. On the other flank Bellerin, who has performed far below his best so far this season, seemed reluctant to ever cross the ball without taking a touch first. Therefore whenever Arsenal had generated some space for the right back and switched the ball towards him, Bellerin would negate the space that had been created by taking a touch rather attempting to cross the ball first time. In such a congested area, with West Ham defending in numbers, taking a touch only served to provide the opposition with an opportunity to recover, having been caught out of position. A first time cross, delivered well, which in fairness has been beyond Bellerin this season, would have caused panic amongst the defence. Therefore even if Giroud couldn’t get on the end of the cross, the chance of a West Ham player deflecting the ball into his own net or executing a poor clearance, would increase significantly. Instead, Bellerin’s attempted crosses were blocked all night long, much to the frustration of the Arsenal fans.

At the final whistle the Gunners could at least point to a clean sheet which had been there undoing in their previous two league outings. However in the final minutes, Arsenal did their best to throw the game away, with Koscielny’s poor and inexplicable pass across the box, eventually falling to Javier Hernandez who saw his shot come back off the underside of the bar. Replays showed Petr Cech had done well to get his fingertips to the ball and divert it onto the bar but the goalkeeper had produced a poor performance up until that point. His punching from crosses into the box had been abysmal and only a goal line clearance earlier in the game had saved his blushes.
Ultimately Arsenal must do better. There is no point in dominating possession if you do nothing with it. The Gunners are simply not doing enough to create opportunities and there is a feeling that they simply expect chances to present themselves having dominated the ball for large parts of the game. That is not good enough for a club of this size and Wenger should demand more from his players. This poor run away from home will only continue if his players do not wise up to the basics required to break down stubborn sides who sit deep and in numbers.  

Monday, 11 December 2017

Poor start costs Gunners again!

Southampton 1-1 Arsenal

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Arsenal were once again left to rue a poor defensive display on Sunday, which completely undermined their chances of securing all three points against Southampton.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Clinical United punish sloppy Gunners

Arsenal 1-3 Man United

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As the final whistle sounded on Saturday evening, Arsenal fans around the World had the same stunned expression on their face. They had just witnessed an exceptional attacking performance from their side, against one of the best teams in the league, but yet somehow had still ended up on the losing side.

For several years Arsenal’s attacking play has been lauded while their defensive work has come in for severe criticism. However, there cannot have been many previous occasions when the disparity between the two units has been so vast during a single match. The Gunners were simply outstanding going forward, carving out chance after chance after chance against a side managed by Jose Mourinho, the supposed defensive guru who always knows how to stifle the opposition’s attack. By the end of the match Arsenal had registered 33 efforts on goal but unfortunately could only find the back of the net once as they came up against an inspired David de Gea who made a total of 14 saves to deny the hosts, the joint highest in Premier League history. The numbers themselves were ridiculous, the kind of numbers that would be impressive had Arsenal registered them against one of the smaller sides in the league, let alone one that has had vast sums spent on it during recent transfer windows and is supposedly fighting for the league title. Sure Arsenal were not as clinical as they should have been, but at times the ball seemed to simply refuse to go in, coming back off the crossbar or being deflected just wide or saved by de Gea.

In contrast Manchester United were supremely clinical, converting three of their four shots on goal to take all three points from a game in which they deserved nothing and would have been humiliated were it not for their goalkeeper. All those associated with the Gunners could feel immense pride in defeat but ultimately there were also feelings of extreme frustration. Arsenal should have easily won this game but didn’t, not as a result of bad luck but as a result of a terrible defensive display.

Shkodran Mustafi has been excellent since returning from injury, but against Manchester United the German was simply abysmal and Laurent Koscielny alongside him, so often so reliable, was equally poor. The two were at fault for United’s opening two goals which arrived within the first eleven minutes of the game and ultimately cost Arsenal any hope they had of securing a victory. For both goals, first Koscielny and then Mustafi attempted to carry the ball out of defence, were robbed of possession and panic then set in. For the first goal in particular, five Arsenal players were attracted to the ball, which left Antonio Valencia completely unmarked on the edge of the box and the Ecuadorian had the simple task of slotting the ball beyond Cech to give his side the lead. The fact the shot went in through the goalkeeper’s legs didn’t exactly help matters either. To commit such a grave error after only four minutes was bad enough but to then commit an identical error only seven minutes later was disgraceful. Why Arsenal’s defence were attempting to carry the ball out from the back so early on in such a big game is something only the manager can answer. The main focus in such games must always be to not concede early on, but instead Arsenal committed football suicide and essentially threw the game away.

Even after Lacazette had pulled a goal back for the home side and got them right back into the game, Arsenal still contrived to throw it all away again. With the fans firmly on their side, having witnessed a first half in which the United goal had been peppered with shots, all the momentum was now with the Gunners. Having somehow failed to score in the first period, an early goal in the second half was vital and when it arrived thanks to an excellent delivery by Sanchez, picking out Ramsey, who laid the ball back for Lacazette to fire home, there was a real feeling that Arsenal would soon be back on level terms.

Yet the same old defensive failings arose once more. Kosicelny was at fault once again as he allowed Pogba to get around him in the box far too easily before passing the ball across the Arsenal box to the completely unmarked Lingard who had the simple task of tapping the ball into the empty net for his second of the game. Granit Xhaka had been stood in front of him, but didn’t have any idea that Lingard was behind him until it was all too late. Unfortunately the Swiss international just does not have the defensive mind set to sniff out danger, even when it is blindingly obvious. Lingard was the only United player in the box and therefore the delivery from Pogba was only ever going to go towards him, yet Xhaka didn’t take up the appropriate position to clear the danger and suddenly Arsenal were 3-1 down and completely out of the game.

Pogba’s late sending off therefore did little to change the course of the game as at that stage United were already sitting back to protect their lead and although the Gunners could point to a clear penalty on Welbeck which would have brought them right back into the game once again, in truth Wenger’s men somewhat ran out of steam towards the end. At the final whistle it was difficult to understand what had happened during those frenetic 90 minutes and equally difficult to know just how to feel about the game. Arsenal had been outstanding going forward and had produced quite possibly one of their best ever attacking displays under Arsene Wenger, yet their defensive play had been abysmal. You cannot give away a two goal lead to any side in this league, let alone a title challenger, and expect to still take something from the game. For far too long the Gunners defence has been allowed to be a liability and undermine the team’s progress. Wenger appeared suitably annoyed after the match to suggest that changes may be afoot but this has been allowed to drag on for far too long and therefore it would not be surprising if in actual fact nothing changed at all and the same mistakes are allowed to happen all over again.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Last gasp Gunners do it again

Burnley 0-1 Arsenal

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Arsenal followed up their victory in the North London derby with a last minute winner to seal all three points against a dogged and determined Burnley side.