Failings of Arsenal FC…. and reasons for hope, just.
Many Arsenal supporters will be dreading going into work today. They know that they will get quite a bit of stick from rival supporters but that isn’t what they are dreading. What they are dreading is the prospect of either having to admit that Arsenal just don’t have the minerals to see things through or worse, try to string together a coherent argument as to why Arsenal were knocked out of another competition in 13 days but how they will now go on to win the league.
I hope to help out Gunners fans with this blog. Before I put my argument across as to how Arsenal can push on I’m going to highlight what has gone wrong.
It has long been said that Arsenal do not have a quality number 1. Since the departure of Jens Lehmann, a strange but talented keeper, Arsenal have struggled with the No. 1 jersey. Young Szczesny looks to be a fantastic prospect but as his calamitous mistake at Wembley in the Carling Cup final showed, his lack of experience on the big stage and in life in general means he is not entirely ready to be No. 1. I believe he would make a fantastic No. 2 for 1-2 seasons. Almunia and Fabianski are not bad keepers, in fact they are both fantastic shot stoppers. Almunia was immense when he came on for at the Nou Camp.
The issue with Almunia, is decision making, concentration and positional play. Almunia can be caught napping, is often flat footed because of his position and his decision making, especially at set pieces, is poor to average at best. As an instinctive goal keeper he is outstanding, he is a shot stopper, a goal keeper he is not.
Fabianski is very much the same, his main issues are decision making and confidence. The way Fabianski played when he was No. 1 this season was in the main nothing short of exceptional. He did all of the basics right, all of the not so basics right, made fantastic reflex saves and kept Arsenal in a number of games, he looked to have come of age. Had he not have had such a disastrous start to his Arsenal career, Porto comes to mind, based on his performances (Up to Newcastle’s 1-0 win) he would have been acclaimed as one of the top keepers in the league. The boy is talented, no doubt, but he lacks confidence and that screws up his decision making and in turn loses Arsenal points and games.
Having said that about these keepers I don’t think they are totally to blame. I think the fundamental problem with Arsenals keepers are two fold. Firstly, they famously do not practice set pieces. This is a grave mistake, one that has cost them time and time again, especially against the likes of Stoke, Blackburn and Bolton pre-Coyle. Secondly, they do not have a great goalkeeping coach. Seaman had Bob Wilson. Lehmann, Almunia, Fabianski and now the boy Szczesny have Gerry Peyton. Surely this is no coincidence, 3 of the last 4 Arsenal keepers, post Seaman, all have issues with crosses and set pieces.
2. Inexperienced Defence
Arsenals defence is reasonably inexperienced, especially at CB. But Squillaci is 30 I hear you cry, Koscielny is 25! True. Arsenal’s issue is this. Adams left, Campbell and Keown were still there, Keown was winding down his career and Toure was on the ascendency. Campbell left, Gallas came in, Toure left, Gallas stayed, Vermaelen came in. Campbell came back. Gallas left, Campbell left, Squillaci and Koscielny in. Do you see the pattern?
Every time a defender of quality left another one was bought or was already there to steady the ship and ‘mentor’ the new boy. Toure became one of the best defenders in the league alongside Campbell, when Sol left Gallas came in, a defender with 5 years experience in English Football. When Toure left, Vermaelen came in, albeit he got up to speed very quickly he still had Gallas there to help with all of his experience.
This season Koscielny came in and was immediately partnered with Vermaelen who although is an excellent defender still only has one year of premiership action under his belt. Then Vermaelen got injured. Koscielny and Squillaci were thrust together at the heart of a title challenging defence with 6 months of premier league football between them and they struggled. Koscielny was immense in both games against Barca but lacked the same heart, desire and skill in the following games against Sunderland and Birmingham. Lack of experience was the main reason he pulled his foot out when Martins mopped up Szczesny’s spill to break Gooner hearts at Wembley. Gallas, Keown, Toure, Campbell, dare I say it, Silvestre, would have put their foot through that ball regardless of ‘getting a shout’ from the keeper. We could then have been looking at extra time and potentially an Arsenal win. What difference would that have made at the Nou Camp or Old Trafford? Quite a bit I feel. Winning breeds winning.
Whilst Djourou has been good in the main for Arsenal he also has a lack of league experience. Unsurprising considering his injury history. Arsenal are lucky to still be in the title race with such an inexperienced defence.
3. Bulldog Spirit
British Bulldog Spirit. Arsenal have two players with this attitude. One is Thomas Vermaelen, a rough and tough hard-nut defender from Belgium with more ‘British Never-Say-Die Spirit’ than most of the Arsenal squad put together. Unfortunately for Arsenal he has been injured for 80% of their season. The other is Jack Wilshere. This lad has talent to burn, he has shone brightly all season but none more so than in the two games against Barcelona. The first game at the Emirates I feel it is safe to say that he ran the show. He was everywhere, attacking, defending, attacking, defending. He may not have outshone Iniesta or Xavi but he burned just as brightly, the words ‘fag’ and ‘paper’ spring to mind. Arsenal of old (1997-2005) had players like this to spare, Campbell, Adams, Keown, Cole, Parlour, Vieira, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Dixon, Lauren, Seaman, Toure etc. Players that would run themselves into the ground and literally put their bodies in harms way to win a match. The Arsenal of the ‘Trophy-less’ years have very few of these players. Maybe the Eduardo and Ramsey incidents play on their minds when they tackle or go to stick their face in front of a boot or a keepers glove to try and score a goal or maybe they are just soft. The actions of Diaby against Newcastle in that famous 4-4 shows that they cannot handle a rough tackle. Had Diaby accepted that tackles like that happen and just got on with it the way Pires eventually did then it would have been 11 v 11 and with all respect to Newcastle a very different story. That for me will be the result that defines Arsenals league season. Keep it steady at 4-0, see out the game and it’s a point behind United with a game in hand. A very strong place to be. Unfortunately for Arsenal they lack players with that sort of grit, mentality and determination.
Arsenal are reaping the benefits of an excellent youth system but they still lack winners. The youth products are being brought up in a club that hasn’t won in a long time and experienced buys are cheap buys coming from clubs/leagues of a lesser stature or unsuccessful clubs.
Arsenal seem to have more injuries, major injuries, than other clubs. Why is this? Every season-end Arsenal look back and say, we would have won that if X was fit.
6. Lack of creativity
It feels odd to say that Arsenal lack creativity but the truth of the matter is they do. Arsenal are so used to playing everything through Cesc Fabregas that when he doesn’t play they seem to pass into the space that he would occupy and have the ball stolen from them. When Rosicky plays ‘in the hole’ he struggles. He doesn’t have the vision or the feet of Fabregas but he is more than capable but never gets a chance to play there so is always out of rhythm and off the pace. He has been more effective on the wing and we don’t have the time to let him get used to playing in the hole again. Arsenal have two players capable of filling Cesc’s shoes to a degree and those players are Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey, sadly they rarely get a chance there and in Aaron’s case have suffered from horrific injuries.
7. Protecting the back four
In recent times Alex Song has grown into one of the best defensive minded midfielders in the premier league and at times can be as crucial to Arsenal as Fabregas or Van Persie are. Arsenal’s issue here is the same as 6. When Song doesn’t play no one is good enough to fill his shoes. Denilson isn’t that player neither is Diaby.
8. If plan A doesn’t work try…er… plan A?!
Arsenal play one way. This makes them easy to defend against if you have the players. Birmingham have dogged defenders and were willing to punt the ball 60 yards to Zigic and hope for the best. The best happened twice and won them a cup. Chelsea and Manchester United are the best at containing Arsenal. I’ll focus on Manchester United for this point. Man U have a game plan against Arsenal. They play one way against Arsenal because they do not need to come up with new ideas. Arsenal will attack and pass and pass and pass and pass and pass (do you get my drift?) and United will soak it up, let Arsenal become brave and cocky and bring all of their players quite far forward and then BANG! they steal the ball, one pass, two pass, long pass, run, run, run, ball in box, keeper spills, GOAL! or steal the ball, one pass, two pass, long pass, run, run, run, ball in box, GOAL! Does this sound familiar? ‘Weaker’ teams can’t do this to Arsenal, clinical teams like Chelsea, United and Tottenham of recent times can do this and do, do this.
9. Offside!… err… no… oh crap they’ve scored
Arsenal invented the offside trap. Well George Graham did. Arsenal of today cannot play offside, its as simple as 1-2-3, one reason, two words, three points dropped. Gael Clichy. Clichy is constantly caught napping and playing countless people onside and it’s a rookie mistake from someone who should know better. The guy has a premier league winners medal for goodness sake!
10. Squad depth
Probably the most crucial issue for me. Arsenal do not have strength in depth in every area of the pitch. Pundits this year have commented on Arsenal’s strength in depth but that seemed to have evaporated at the most crucial times. GK, RB, CB, CDM, LAM are the areas that most people seem to think Arsenal are lacking. I’d add CM to that because I do not think Diaby or Denilson are good enough which leaves Cesc, Wilshere and Ramsey. Two under 21’s and a soon to be 24 year old, albeit a very experienced 24 year old.
And now to how to fix these problems.
A) Bring in an experienced keeper of stature with 2-3 years of top flight football left in him to steady the ship, be someone for Szczesny to look up to and be a real challenge for the No. 1 jersey. Schwarzer could have been that person. Shay Given would be a top choice also.
B) Employ a better goalkeeping coach. Rumour has it that Seaman could be in line for a return as coach. Speed this up.
A) Sell Squillaci, he is too old to adapt to the pace and rigours of the Premier League, don’t keep players to make up numbers.
B) Sign an experienced BRITISH defender, alternatively a defender with 3+ years of experience in British Leagues. Jagielka and Cahill have both been mentioned in the past year, both fantastic choices. Extra names to add to that are Distin, Hangeland, Dunne, G.Caldwell and R.Johnson.
A) Sign more players with spirit and attitude. One bit of grit amongst the flair will not detract from the excellence at the Emirates or the ideology of Wenger. Names that spring to mind apart from the Brit defenders from above are Parker, Nolan or even Barton. All talented footballers. Barton is not without issue but is a good all rounder and would easily fit into Arsenal’s squad. Parker would be the best addition as his age and experience would be of benefit to the team without holding back any younger prospects for too long.
A) You could argue that 3 and 4 are the same but they are not. Players with spirit can play at losing clubs. It’s the never-say-die attitude that Arsenal lack but they also lack players with the experience of crossing the line. Any number of the above names would bring some experience of fighting and some have experience of winning. If a signing of a winner is off the table Wenger needs to bring back old players as coaches, the likes of Seaman and Keown spring to mind. If Pat Rice retires at the end of this year as rumoured then Wenger should try to bring back Adams as his No. 2.
A) Hire Raymond Verheijen or someone similar. Arsenal have more muscle injuries than other teams. Adapt your training methods/staff to counteract this.
A) Play Nasri or Ramsey when Cesc is out. Wilshere has the quality but isn’t ready yet, he seems happy to play deeper. Simples
Buy another defensive midfielder, failing that stop loaning out Eastmond, make him train with Song everyday so you have someone ready to step in.
A) Learn to counter attack from the wings again. The current wingers get the ball run 15 yards then pass backwards to Cesc (who isn’t a fast runner) and the attack is over as the other team regroups.
B) Learn to pull the trigger. Even if you don’t think you’ll score just shoot. Stop tip tapping around the box and make the keeper work, maybe you’ll get a deflection or the keeper will spill or you’ll get a corner. Rattle the opposition with shot after shot, eventually something will give.
C) Play route one when things get difficult or playing against other teams hitting them long. Hit the ball long to Bendtner/Chamakh and have 2-3 players just off them ready to shoot.
A) Teach Clichy to play 2 yards in front of his backline that way he will never be offside. He has the speed to catch most opposing players even when they have 4 yards on him.
A) Spend. Arsenal fans have been saying for years that Wenger needs to spend. Not silly money on one player but £30-40m in a window on 2-4 excellent players.
GK: Given, £4-6m – Schwarzer, £2m
CB: Jagielka/Cahill can be picked up for under £15m – The rest for £2-7m
RB: Van Der Weil – £10m – Eboue is no longer a RB and Sagna can’t play every game.
MF: Parker/Nolan/Barton – £5-8m
One player from each at top price £39m
Now for the reasons for hope.
Lets start with the beginning of Arsenal’s problems, the Carling Cup final.
86 minutes on the clock 1-1, the tide seems to be flowing in Arsenal’s favour, the clock is running down and Birmingham are looking tired. Out of nowhere a horror mix up between CB and GK gifts Birmingham a goal and Arsenal are completely deflated. The air kicked out of them. Now, if that had not had happened then it is pretty certain that Arsenal as the much fitter team probably would have ground out a result or taken it to penalties. I would fancy Arsenal on penalties as Birmingham’s legs looked to have gone around 75 minutes so they would have been dead in the water at 120+.
Let’s say that the goal still happened but it happened on 68 or 78 minutes. with at least 12 minutes + injury time you’d fancy Arsenal to bounce back. At 87 minutes they knew that they’d lost and just gave up.
Cause for hope: Proving the ability to grind out a result against a dogged team – bar one freak error.
Fast forward to the Nou Camp. Despite Barca being the better team for the whole match it cannot be denied that the sending off of RVP changed things. Lets get this straight for all of the people screaming about possession and shots on goal etc etc SOMETIMES THE BEST TEAM DOESN’T WIN! Manchester United will pay testament to that when they lost to Chelsea. Arsenal can lay claim to that in the FA Cup Qtr final but I’ll come to that. Barcelona themselves can lay claim to that when they lost against Inter or drew against Utd and Chelsea. I repeat SOMETIMES THE BEST TEAM DOESN’T WIN! When RVP was sent off it was 1-1 and 3-2 on aggregate in Arsenal’s favour, they were going through. When RVP was sent off Barca were lucky to have 9 men on the pitch let alone 11 after Abidal and friend raised their hands to RVP and in Abidals case actually grabbed his throat. The ref might not have seen but with 5 other officials it can’t have gone unnoticed! Still, the facts stand, RVP was sent off and Arsenal were down to 10. Then is was 2-1, extra time, then 3-1, they’re out, but then right at the death Bendtner could have made it 3-2 and Arsenal are through. Even with 10 men they found a way through right at the death and that says something about Arsenal V Barca. Arsenal are a fitter team and the 4 matches over the past year show that Arsenal come back into it and make things difficult for Barca in the last 15-20 minutes. Regardless of the possession stats etc Arsenal lost the tie by one goal and can rightly feel aggrieved at the manner of the defeat. They almost knocked out the greatest club team in history. But then again that is Arsenal right now, almost men. People can argue that Arsenal would still have lost but the managed to keep Barca out for 42 minutes in the first half and there was less than that to play when RVP was sent off. Things could have been different.
It reminded me of Germany v England in the 2010 World Cup. Germany were winning 2-1 and Lampard scored a fantastic goal to make it 2-2, almost, the goal was ruled to not have crossed the line, incorrectly I might add, and England went on to lose 4-1. Germany were by far the superior team that day but as I have iterated and reiterated sometimes the best team doesn’t win. If that goal had stood then it would have been a completely different game. Would Germany still have won, most likely, but it would have been less of a bitter pill to swallow. Then again it might have deflated a young and inexperienced Germany team and England may have progressed. Similar to Arsenal though, it’s the price you pay for finishing second in your group.
Cause for hope: With more consistent and common-sense refereeing this could have been a much different story. Arsenal can take hope from the fact that Barca have added fantastically (Villa) to their team of supermen and only managed to beat Arsenal by one goal with 10 men on the field with an almost identical Arsenal squad that lost 6-3 the year before. That is progress.
On to the FA cup. Arsenal worked VDS more than United worked Almunia, Arsenal had greater possession and played the better stuff but as I have said and will say again sometime the better team doesn’t win, having said that if VDS wasn’t in such inspired form Arsenal could have been looking at a decent scalp.
Cause for hope: Fergie was scared enough of Arsenal to field 7 defenders. Arsenal should take hope from that. Arsenal should not feel bad about losing to Man U, they should embrace it as a positive. Arsenal now have 5 weeks with no midweek games and if truth be told were damn lucky to make it to OT considering their inability to finish off lower league opposition at the first time of asking.
Looking at the title run in I feel that the ball is firmly in Arsenal’s court.
Arsenal’s title run in:
19th March W.B.A.
2nd April Blackburn Rovers
10th April Blackpool
17th April Liverpool
20th April Tottenham Hotspur
24th April Bolton Wanderers
30th April Manchester United
7th May Stoke
14th May Aston Villa
22nd May Fulham
United’s title run in:
19 Mar Bolton
02 Apr West Ham
09 Apr Fulham
(FA Cup Man City)
23 Apr Everton
30 Apr Arsenal
(3rd May Champions League Semi-F)
07 May Chelsea
14 May Blackburn
22 May Blackpool
TBC Newcastle United
Interestingly they have quite similar run in’s. The key will be the United game with Chelsea which will be crucial regardless of the result at the Emirates the week before because we can safely assume that United will probably make the CL semi’s if they avoid Barca in the quarters. The ball seems to be firmly in Arsenal’s court and with no other games to focus on they should be in better shape that United going into the clash on the 30th April/1st May.
One last thing – United’s run in reads – HAH HA HA HA and Arsenal’s reads AHA HA AHA HA. United look to be laughing their way to the title but Arsenal seem to spring a few surprises before having a final laugh. It’s going to be an interesting 10 weeks.
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