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Saturday, 29 December 2012

New Year's Chopping List

With the New Year just around the corner, transfer speculation is at its peak. Whilst Arséne Wenger is remaining mysterious about potential movement involving Arsenal, a great many bloggers and reporters with some sort of 'higher knowledge' are apparently very clued up on what the near future holds.

In reality, speculation is all it is, even from those on message-boards and forums swearing that they just saw so-and-so arrive at Manchester airport, or those adamant that their second cousin playing in League One has completed a medical with a Premier League club.

So with the rumour mill gearing up for another furious spinning cycle, is there actually any point whatsoever in discussing possible moves? 'Talk' probably has very little impact on the transfer market, except perhaps to unsettle otherwise oblivious players and force protective managers to take preventative measures.

However, it can't hurt to dream, which is why last week I wrote about which players I would like to see arrive at Arsenal this January, in order to strengthen their fight for a top four finish (which some people still seem to think is a given, despite their worst start to a season under Wenger).

What I didn't mention at the time was, that with a club like Arsenal in particular, transfers are not as simple as bringing in as many new players as you can to add depth to a squad. The other important factor is being able to offload the current ineffective squad members in order to free up space in the wage structure as well as helping to finance potential moves. It is for this reason that I believe it is just as important that Arsenal sell their under-performers as it is that they obtain reinforcements. Even if the transfer window were to pass with more players sold than acquired, this would in fact bode well for the summer, when Arsenal would have higher wages available to offer, on top of the allegedly enlarged transfer kitty.

Of course Arsenal have had no problem in selling some of their most important players in recent seasons, but for some reason, others have been somewhat harder to shift.

Oh alright then. We know the reasons. Arsenal currently have several players who are not of top four calibre (although admittedly most they did not exactly break the bank to sign) who are failing to meaningfully contribute to the team whilst still picking up their enormous payslips every week. Wenger is characteristically too stubborn to admit this until it is absolutely certain and the club would lose money (heaven forbid) if the players were allowed to leave having not been worth the money or gaining a profit for the club. Not that these players would leave, even if Arsenal did accept offers. Their current position of being paid some of the highest wages in England to sit on the bench is apparently preferable to playing regularly for less money in the modern game.

Whilst there will always be debate amongst backroom staff, journalists, pundits and fans over which players are deemed good enough for their club and which they would like to move on, in Arsenal's case more than any club I can think of, fans and commentators are almost unanimous in their belief that there are too many players in the squad who are not worthy of their wages. This January would be a great time to get the ball rolling.

Arsenal's highest-paid player, one Andrei Arshavin, was a revelation in his first season, but has been a disappointment since. Reading are reportedly interested, but Arshavin is likely to snub the offer of inferior wages. Unless a club from abroad is prepared to pay his demands, he will most likely leave on a free when his contract expires in the summer... at a loss of £15 million.

Not far behind the Arsh in wages comes Gervinho, another relative disppointment, but one that Wenger will want to give more time to show his worth, and he will probably remain at the club. Next is Marouane Chamakh, who may leave to West Ham, thankfully not at a loss, as he arrived on a free, but still having guzzled a large proportion of the wage budget.

It is not just in attack that the squad needs pruning though. Andre Santos, Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci are all taking home high wages and none have put in a half-decent performance all season. Any of these three could move abroad in January, though only if reinforcements were acquired as well. Nicklas Bendtner and Denilson are on loan this season and hopefully these will turn into permanent moves.

Although it is highly unlikely that all these players would be shifted next month, Arsenal would do well to start the changeover process in order to free up space for potential new signings in January or the summer.

All it takes is for Wenger to hold up his hands and admit 'I was wrong about signing [insert any of the names listed above].' That could feasibly happen? Couldn't it?

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

New Year's Shopping List

"I think they should find some money somewhere and get some top players in and just go for it."

            This week, ex-Arsenal defender Sol Campbell advised his former club to spend money on players in the coming month’s transfer window. Normally, I do not bother too much with transfer speculation, as more often than not, it turns out to be hot air. However, I have to agree with Campbell that it is crucial that this January does not pass by without Arsenal strengthening their current team.

            Arsenal Football Club is possibly the most talked-about club in England at the moment. There has been heated debate over the manager, the board and the players. One of the few things that almost everyone agrees upon, however, is that Arsène Wenger must buy in the January transfer window.

            Mondaynight’s 5-2 victory over second-from-bottom Reading and Arsenal’s subsequent rise to a season-high (!) fifth place in the table has gone some way towards appeasing the fans, but last week’s League Cup defeat to Bradford and the current fifteen-point gap between Arsenal and Manchester United are proof that Arsenal have just not been good enough this season. There have been more than a few things lacking from recent performances, and although some are calling for changes to be made off the pitch, football is first and foremost about the players. The current Arsenal squad is one of the weakest during Wenger’s tenure, and with an apparent £20 million available for January spending, it is important that the club gets it right next month.

            As I have stressed before, Arsenal are currently a team with plenty of attacking talent, but without a proven goalscorer of the quality of Denis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry or he-who-I-mention-too-much-in-this-blog. The trio of summer signings: Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski have scored twenty-two goals between them in all competitions this season, and they are constantly improving. Arsenal have only scored two less goals than Manchester City in the league, but twelve less than United (the same number that their new signing currently has to his name). Breaking the deadlock seems to be a key problem, with Arsenal’s failure to score in five out of seventeen games the joint most in the league. Therefore while the goalscoring situation is not quite as drastic as I predicted at the start of the season, a new striker would be far from surplus to requirements. Demba Ba and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar seem to have been singled out by the speculators as the front-runners. Both are proven goalscorers at a high level, and both could be available for around £7.5 million. Stephan El Shaaraway’s name has been thrown around of late but his £25 million price-tag could prove a stumbling block.

No, I am not going to suggest Thierry Henry.


            In my opinion though, Arsenal are as much in need of a defensive boost as they are of some clinical attacking. Despite a good start to the season, individual mistakes and injuries have caused a loss of confidence at the back. After keeping clean sheets in all of their first three games this season, Arsenal have only managed three more in the subsequent twenty-three matches. It is worth pointing out, however, that this total of six clean sheets is still the joint second most in the league. Arsenal’s defence has lacked composure and seems to switch off once the team has scored a couple of goals, as they did on Monday. Though they have conceded the fourth fewest goals in the league, Arsenal are also one of only four teams in the league to score three goals in a game and fail to win. FC Basel’s Aleksander Dragovic has been mentioned, and he would be a reasonably cheap option. However, it seems to me that what Arsenal need at the back more than anything is Premier League experience. Arsenal’s average team age has been higher in 2012 than in years gone by, but Kieran Gibbs only stepped up to first choice left-back last season. Per Mertesacker also has just the one Premier League season under his belt and rumour has it that our most experienced defender, Bacary Sagna may not remain at the club much longer (I very much hope that this is just hot air).

Fulham’s Brede Hangeland has been linked with Arsenal for a while but his manager expects him to sign a new contract soon. Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross has looked very impressive again this season, but the style of football he is accustomed to at Stoke is very different to Arsenal’s, as has caused Wenger much frustration when playing them over the years. It also seems unlikely that the club would be enthusiastic about signing the player who broke Aaron Ramsey’s leg. Wenger has also long been an admirer of Phil Jagielka at Everton, though with an asking price upwards of £16 million, and with Everton enjoying their best start to a season in years, this is also an ambitious option.

No, I am not going to suggest Sol Campbell.


In my eyes, the obvious choice is Joleon Lescott. With eight seasons spent playing at the top level as well as twenty-two England caps, Lescott is an experienced and confident professional. He was an important part of the title-winning Manchester City team last year, playing thirty-three games and chipping in with two goals. At the age of thirty, he can continue at the top level at least for the next couple of seasons, and having fallen down the ranks at City this year, would presumably be available at a much more reasonable price than the £24 million that took him away from Everton in 2010.

            Midfield has been Arsenal’s strongest position this season, the trio of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Cazorla has worked well together of late, and we will receive a further boost when Diaby returns from injury. The only reason that the club may need to strengthen this department would be if Theo Walcott were to leave. The Walcott situation is a tricky one. He is an important player for Arsenal, but he is not (yet, at least) seen in the same league as Cesc Fàbregas or even Samir Nasri at his Arsenal peak. If he were younger or perhaps older, had won something with the club, or expected to in the near future, he would probably take the money that Arsenal are putting on the table. As it is, he is a player approaching his best years of football. He has had his best start to a season to date, and as such feels he is worthy of a higher salary. If he leaves, it would most likely be to another English team. If he went to Liverpool, it would only be for the money, as they are likely to finish lower than Arsenal again this season. Though Manchester United are interested, I cannot see how such a move would be beneficial for either party. United have strong enough options in that position and would presumably not be willing to pay that much more than Arsenal would for a player who is still just falling short of his potential. Perhaps the most likely move would be to Chelsea, a club to whom an astronomical wage bill is of little concern. He would be unlikely to hold down a starting position there though, and (although I am biased) I honestly cannot see him doing better from a football perspective at any other club than Arsenal. Unfortunately history is against Arsenal, with an overwhelming number of the club’s top performers of late jumping ship to their rivals as soon as they hit their best form. The point is that if Walcott does go, Wenger needs to have a suitable replacement lined up straightaway.

           Maybe Pirès...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Golden Boot: Does it matter?

            Becoming top scorer in the English Premier League provides entry into an elite club of international superstars such as Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Ruud van Nistelrooy, joining other legends of English football Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

Nine games into the 2012/2013 season, I conducted an analysis on Arsenal’s shooting (mis)fortunes so far. This revealed that had Arsenal not sold last year’s top scorer in the league, and had he scored one goal in each of four key games so far, the team would sit at the top of the table at that point. Robin van Persie’s goals last season (2.85% of all Premier League goals) were a lifeline for Arsenal and may just be the difference between the two Manchester teams this time around.

Van Persie is already looking like he has the potential to become the third player to retain the Golden Boot, after Shearer and Henry, and one of only five to have won it more than once, alongside Hasselbaink and Didier Drogba. He also has the chance of becoming only the second player to win it with two different clubs after Hasselbaink.

The only player currently topping van Persie’s count for this season is Miguel Michu of Swansea, who currently has twelve goals after sixteen games. However, it has been twelve seasons since a player not from Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea has won the golden boot (Kevin Phillips of Sunderland back in 2000).

            Worryingly for other title contenders, United now possess the two highest scorers in the league last year in van Persie and his new strike partner Wayne Rooney. Between them they totaled fifty-seven league goals last term (5.35% of all goals). Since van Persie’s arrival however, Rooney has assumed a deeper role on the field, allowing his (slightly) more prolific partner to go forward. This, coupled with injury has resulted in Rooney only scoring six goals so far in comparison to van Persie’s eleven. The golden boot is amongst the only accolades yet to elude Rooney, but few back him to claim it this season.

            Manchester City’s strike force on paper at least is most likely to challenge van Persie for the top spot. Sergio Agüero was the third highest scorer last season and if he can recapture that form and stay fit, he may run van Persie close. After almost leaving City last season, Carlos Tévez is their most prolific striker so far this season, and the 2011 joint winner could again be in contention. Edin Džeko is just one league goal behind Tevez, but is unlikely to become top scorer from the substitute bench. The currently sulking Mario Balotelli is an outside bet for the award.

Emmanuel Adebayor, out of form and favour at Tottenham, would have to improve dramatically on his so far underwhelming season to be in contention again, as would last year’s top-scoring midfielder Clint Dempsey. Jermain Defoe on the other hand has looked sharp so far, and is perhaps the most likely of those outside Manchester to take the award.

            Newcastle United’s strike force last year was crucial in their climb to fifth place. Papiss Cissé scored thirteen in fourteen games at the end of last season, but has managed just two in the same number of games this year. Demba Ba, who started last season well but was eclipsed by the arrival of Cissé, will most likely be Newcastle’s top scorer, but has yet to prove that he can remain consistent for a whole season.

Luis Suarez has found form at Liverpool, but is literally their only striker, and surely cannot maintain his solo efforts over a whole season. Fernando Torres is Chelsea’s best bet, but Rafa Benitez has his work cut out in trying to squeeze goals out of the underperforming centre forward. Arsenal remain without a natural goal-scorer, Theo Walcott looking like their most lethal threat this season, but he may leavein January, and as such has not held down a starting position.

            Although we have not yet reached the midway point of the season, baring injury, van Persie seems the favourite to take home the golden boot for a second time, but does this have an actual bearing on the league table? In the past ten seasons, the top scorer’s team has failed to win the league on four occasions. In the ten before that, it was seven meaning that in just nine out of twenty seasons the team with the highest scorer has won the league.

            Thus, history shows that a prolific goal-scorer does not always win you the title. Manchester United would have been much less likely to win in 2008 without the thirty-one goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, but Thierry Henry was top scorer in 2005 and 2006 and could not stop Chelsea claiming the top spot in either.

The statistics do suggest however, that having more than one player in the top ten league scorers vastly increases the likelihood of winning the league. Having proven goal-scorers amongst your ranks is a must for Premier League success. Out of the all time top one hundred Premier League goal-scorers, twenty-three are still playing in the top division. Four of these play for Manchester United, three for Tottenham, two for each of Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool. None play for Arsenal. Arsenal did not win the league last year because they over-relied on van Persie, and did not have enough strength or depth. His departure to United strengthens an attacking side that only narrowly missed out on the league last year, and already boast Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández, who chipped in with nine and ten goals respectively last season. Therefore, though van Persie could not make the difference at Arsenal, this year he could very well be the difference for United.