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Sunday, 27 January 2013

January Round-Up

So University exam season is over and January is following hot on its heels. I pledged at the start of the year to stay out and away from all things football over the new year period. What I realised along the way that this is of course absolutely impossible. Football in this country is now so prominent, that even if I was to shut down Twitter, Facebook and BBC Sport, turn my phone off, throw my laptop out of the window and lock myself in a dark room, I would probably still hear passers-by discussing the weekends fixtures through the window.

All this is usually fine by me, except during the month that I needed to be focussing more on Cavour's foreign policy in the 1850s than Cazorla's passing technique in the 17:45 kick-off.

So whilst I have actively resisted the usual temptation to read every intriguingly-titled article that flashes up on my twitter feed, I have still noticed the phenomenally increased frequency that rumours and opinions have been been flying around the web since January 1st.

Especially regarding the Arsenal. If all I had heard/read (which is not that much) in the past month was to be believed, Arsenal would have at least three entirely new squads. As it stands, they have yet to sign one player (more on that later). The @ArsenalNewsUK twitter feed posts around (and often more than) ten new stories per hour, of which the vast majority are transfer-related. Ten players per hour. Even for the most talked-about team in England, this is getting ridiculous.

So in reality what actually has happened this month. For starters my admittedly ambitious predictions were revealed as just that. Having hoped optimistically in my last post for an unbeaten run and a potential four points from the two big games against Chelsea and Manchester City, two draws against Southampton and Swansea were followed by losses to both the teams in blue. The Manchester City match was particularly frustrating, as Laurent Koscielny's poor decision-making brought him a red card within ten minutes, effectively ending any hopes Arsenal had of getting something out of the game. The Chelsea match was a microcosm of Arsenal's inconsistent season so far. The Gunners did not appear to have shown up for the first forty-five minutes but dominated after the break and were unlucky not to earn at least a point.

Those results leave Arsenal with just one point from five games against the rest of the 'top four' (if we can still count ourselves within that), with Manchester United still to play. Last season the club took seven points from a possible eighteen against these teams. The season before, it was ten.

The poor results were only somewhat countered by three FA Cup matches in which Arsenal narrowly edged past two teams that in any other season should have been easy prey. An emphatic win in their re-arranged boxing day fixture against West Ham saw all the summer signings getting on the scoresheet again, another of the few positives to take from recent weeks. Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski have totalled thirty-two goals between them in all competitions so far, with Walcott adding another seventeen of his own.

January has also seen the culmination of the 'Walcott saga', which has been one of the most dragged-out stories of the season. Roughly every couple of days, fans were updated (and I use the term loosely) by (spin) Doctor Wenger, who produced such gems of vagueness as the infuriating 'I was optimistic last week but I'm a bit more optimistic this week', 'Our priority is to keep players at the club' (to which a slow clap would not do justice), and the mind-blowing 'There is a possibility [Walcott will sign this week]'.

I know that the media is also to blame for the relentless scrutiny of the situation but the whole debacle must have had fans of other teams in stitches. This is sadly the state of affairs at Arsenal now. Whilst other top teams (with the exception of the Lampard situation at Chelsea this season) keep their negotiations behind closed doors, Arsenal's discussions are always the most public ones. Let's just hope that the positive to come out of it all will be that in seasons to come, fans will look back on it as the turning point that Arsenal stopped being seen as a 'selling' club. No team wants that reputation.

Aside from Walcottgate, the transfer market has been an anti-climax for the club. Wilfried Zaha is the latest of Wenger's targets to join one of our rivals, following on from Holtby and Ba, who I mentioned in my last post. Transfers out have also failed to materialise, with the three loanees in Frimpong, Djourou and Chamakh heading off just until the end of the season. The latter two of these moves seem fairly pointless. Arsenal need to be shifting some of the deadwood from the squad on a permanent basis and unless these moves have potential to turn into long-term deals, or attract other clubs to take the players on, they serve only to weaken a squad already lacking in depth and seemingly not to gain reinforcements this month after all (I could quote Wenger's 'insights' on this for hours).

One game remains this month against Liverpool, and Arsenal are fast approaching the stage when every game becomes a 'must-win' in order to recapture fourth place (which is most fans' realistic ambition for this season). The club is still in both the FA Cup and Champions League, but the league is vital if they are to remain in the latter next season.

In summary, a quiet transfer window and inconsistent form was perhaps (annoyingly) what was realistically expected of the team anyway. Some great attacking play has again been undone by defensive weaknesses, with the mentality of 'we'll score one more than you' prevailing in recent games against Newcastle and Reading, erasing the hopes I held back in October for new defensive solidity under Steve Bould's guidance. Whilst this is also a 'tactic' that Manchester United seem to have adopted this season (having conceded more than Arsenal at this stage), they have been more successful due to their persistance and ability to keep working for the points right until the last minutes of extra time.

Fight is what Arsenal need to learn in the coming months, whether they get it from transfers, training or spinach. Over to you boys.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Reasons why the next month is crucial

In my last two posts, I have stressed the importance of the coming month in terms of which players (if any) may be moving in and out of Arsenal during the transfer window. Five days in, and Arsenal have not been the most inactive of clubs so far. Whilst fans are yet to see real progress being made on any players coming in (despite plenty of gossip), the club has already seen two of its... ahem... less valuable members being farmed out on loan for the rest of the season (Marouane Chamakh to West Ham and Johan Djourou to Hannover 96). This has already created a slight anti-climax, in that many supporters feel that the club should be looking for more permanent deals for its underachievers. Wenger has so far suggested that the moves are to help the players get some playing time, implying that he is still not convinced, as most others are, that he should cut his losses with them. Well, you didn't expect him to admit he was wrong did you?

It has also been reported that the club is seeking moves away for Sebastien Squillaci and Andrei Arshavin, though these high-earners may well linger on until summer, unwilling to forfeit their generous wage packets. In respects to players coming in, Arsenal have so far been unsuccessful in their negotiations, with two players Wenger was interested in, Lewis Holtby and Demba Ba, recently signing contracts with Tottenham and Chelsea respectively. I will continue to stand by my belief that a new defender is a must this window, especially as Arsenal now have only one covering centre-back to call upon. If there is a ray of hope amidst the mostly frustrating Arsenal news of late, it is that the most recent reports have suggested that Theo Walcott is moving closer towards signing a new contract. Talk of a new striker continues to rumble on alongside this.

However, transfer window aside, January is a crucial month for Arsenal more than most this season. Assuming only surplus players are to leave, and at least one or two decent replacements are to come in to replenish the admittedly poor squad depth, Arsenal do not actually have a bad-looking squad going into the new year. For a side who are constantly said to be 'rebuilding', glancing down the current team-sheet provides more optimism than in previous Januarys. This is the first year without an established 'star' in the squad at this point and Arsenal's league position does betray that fact. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic. Our injury list (touch wood) is not as long as it often is at the midway point. Arsenal's current starting eleven usually contains three players who have only been with the club since the summer in Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, and a further two who arrived the summer before that: Arteta and Mertesacker. Wilshere has also recently returned to this this new-look side, having been out for over a year. Five or six out of eleven counts as a new team: new teams need time to gel.

Something I noticed watching Everton beat Newcastle at the weekend was how well the team had gelled. The core of the Everton team has been playing together for several seasons now, with only a couple of (albeit important) recent signings slotting in to the starting lineup. The players I watched beat a dogged Newcastle side were disciplined and confident, seeming to understand each other's playing styles and being able to anticipate each other's runs and moves with ease. This contrasted sharply with the Arsenal performance against Southampton, where a misplaced pass from Podolski arguably cost them two points. This looks to me to be the reason why Everton have sat above Arsenal in the table for most of the recent months.

Now that Arsenal's 'new' team has been playing a few months together, I would expect results like that against Southampton and Norwich to decrease, and this is a crucial month. All five games over January are against decent opposition who have punished Arsenal before. Not only a victory but a good performance in their FA Cup tie against Swansea, who have already out-played Arsenal once this season, would be a huge boost. It goes without saying that the following games against Manchester City and Chelsea are massive, and four points from those two would at this stage be a great achievement. To go the month unbeaten could turn the season around. Good results though are dependent on seeing a rapid increase in the consistency of Arsenal performances.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), this intriguing month in football coincides with this student's exam season. Therefore this will be my first and last post for the month as, however much I will undoubtedly want to comment on whatever occurs in the Arsenal circus in the coming weeks, I need to compensate for the lack of Uni work done over the past months that I have spent with one or both eyes glued to events in the footballing world.

It will be interesting to look back on this post in February with hindsight, and in all honesty it really could be a great month for Arsenal. However, as this is Arsenal, it could also be an appalling month, or more likely, a complete mixed bag.

Until February then!