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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Arsenal's Annual Crumble

The rapidity with which Arsenal's trophy prospects deteriorate around the February/March period of the season has become an almost annual occurrence in English football.

In the 2010/11 season, a demoralising defeat to eventually-relegated Birmingham in the League Cup final on 27th February was followed by loss to Barcelona in the Champions League on 8th March. Exit from the FA Cup after being beaten by Manchester United came just four days later and the Gunners' season was effectively over. Last year, having being knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester City way back in November, a 4-0 thumping at Milan on 15th February and defeat to Sunderland in the FA Cup on the 18th all but silenced Arsenal's trophy hopes yet again. This season it was Bradford of all clubs that dumped Arsenal out of the League Cup in December and yet again, a period of just three days has left the club out of the FA Cup and clinging onto the Champions League by a thread.

The pattern that is emerging is not one of a team that is progressing or learning from its mistakes and the calls for Wenger to resign are possibly louder right now than at any other point in the last two tumultuous seasons. 
Looking back, I think the moment that Birmingham's fluke goal trickled in during the League Cup final in 2011 is a poignant one. The psychological impact of the unravelling that was triggered by just missing out on the best shot at a trophy the team has had in eight seasons seems to still be visible in the side, which has not even reached a semi-final since.

The truth of the matter is that this Arsenal squad has no idea what winning a trophy feels like. Most are youngsters that were still coming through the ranks at the club and elsewhere, looking with awe at the Arsenal team that last won silverware back in 2005. Not a single player from that trophy-winning team remains in the current group of players at Arsenal. The interim players dropped the baton and their successors are still struggling to pick it up.

By contrast Chelsea, who won the league that year and Manchester United still employ some of the players from their 2004/05 teams. Cech, Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Giggs, Scholes and Rooney all still remain at their respective clubs, which have been the two most successful sides in England since that year. Manchester United in fact epitomise both the view that success breeds success, and Alan Hansen's age-old epithet: "You can't win anything with kids." United did of course contradict Hansen that very season but by holding on to their experienced players and bringing in world class signings, they proved that both were necessary in order to succeed.

Arsenal on the other hand dismantled their victorious side too fast also failing to bring in adequate long-term replacements. Both these factors were not enforced but chosen as part of Wenger's financial policy of putting faith in his youth system as oppose to paying extortionate transfer fees and wages. It was an admirable attempt, and one that many in football probably wish had succeeded. But it appears that to compete at the very top level in the modern game, this strategy just doesn't pay off.

But still, even after a week like this one, it is not the end of the world or of Arsenal Football Club. Rumour has it that Wenger will have a much enlarged transfer budget at his disposal this summer. With his contract currently expiring in June 2014, it could be his last chance to go all out for success. By this stage, surely Arsenal must have enough financial stability to take a deep breath and pay out for a truly great player (or two) without the worry of bankrupting the club. The time for tentativeness has passed. Signing unproven Moroccans on free transfers will no longer cut it.

Depth is needed as an absolute must. The team has proved over the past three seasons that it is incapable of competing in four competitions at once, hence the inevitable collapse every spring, when injuries reduce their numbers and the busy schedule exhausts those who remain. On Monday a Manchester United team featuring just two first-team regulars comfortably beat a resilient Reading side in the FA Cup. Yet Arsenal have shown again that in resting just one or two of their current first team they dramatically weaken their side to the point that two lower league teams in one season are able to overcome them in the cup.

Against both Blackburn and Bayern, the team did not play terribly. In fact they showed again that in the middle of the park, they can play better football than Europe's finest. But it is at either end of the pitch that they are lacking in decisiveness, confidence and cutting edge.

If there is a positive to take from history it is that after defeat to Sunderland at this stage last season, Arsenal went on to end the season on a relative high, winning their next six and losing just two of their remaining fourteen fixtures of the season. This run of form included the almost-comeback in a 3-0 victory against AC Milan in the second leg of the Champions League tie. A 3-0 win in Munich next month, an ambitious aspiration to say the least, would put Arsenal through and hugely boost morale. People say lightning doesn't strike twice, but you try telling that to Roy Sullivan. Go on, try.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Blackburn, Bayern, and goals galore

Near the beginning of the Premier League season, I published a rather lamenting post about Arsenal's struggle to score goals in the first few games, epitomised by the lacklustre back-to-back 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke. By December, things seemed to have gone the other way. Arsenal appeared to have stopped by the laundrette to collect their shooting boots, but simultaneously left their clean sheets behind.

A 5-2 scoreline away at Reading was shortly followed by a 7-3 victory over Newcastle. Such contests undoubtedly made exciting viewing for neutrals, but masked some woeful defensive errors by the Arsenal back-line. Errors that, in matches against teams who are better able to combat the counter-attacking pace of Walcott, and the subtle string-pulling of Cazorla, have cost Arsenal the points.

In high-scoring fixtures this season, Arsenal have largely come out on top. Out of the eight matches they have played in which four or more goals have been scored, Arsenal have won six and drawn two. In the eighteen games in which there have been three or less goals, Arsenal have won six, drawn six and lost six. It would appear that the goal-fests are what is currently keeping Arsenal afloat in the table.

Ironically, failure to get off the mark at all in games looks like the flip-side of the team's worries. Arsenal have already drawn 0-0 three times out of the twenty-six League games so far this season, the same number as in the whole of last season. The team only went a whole match without scoring in five games in the 2011-2012 season, but have already failed to score in six games so far this time round.

The early signs of February are promising. Arsenal have beaten both Stoke and Sunderland with a 1-0 scoreline, the same teams who held them to 0-0 draws in the opening two games of the season. This would indicate that the team has learnt from its early frustrations. Results against these two teams are traditionally tight, with their physicality designed to prevent Arsenal from playing their preferred style and the soaking up of pressure often resulting in a poor outcome for the Gunners. Managing to penetrate such teams and, importantly, not letting them back into the game (even, as in the Sunderland match, when down to ten men), is a skill Arsenal must master in a league in which you can't always play the 'beautiful' game. Hopefully that lesson has sunk in.

The goals Arsenal have conceded against Reading, Newcastle and Fulham show that it is not just against top opposition that the defence has struggled. This leads me feel more concerned than I should be about the FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. To Wenger's credit, Arsenal very rarely go out of cup competitions to much lower-standing teams; at least, less often than most other top Premier League teams (Manchester United included - Southend 2006/7 anyone?). The loss to Bradford on penalties in December however was absolutely calamitous and you could tell it stung. The manager's response was to field strong teams in the third round replay and fourth round FA Cup ties against Swansea and Brighton respectively. These selections were made despite the fact both games came just four days before important Premier League matches against Chelsea and Liverpool.

So why am I worried about the coming week? A major reason for Arséne to go against his recent cup selection policy is the occasion of the club's biggest game so far this season, the first leg of the  Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, coming up three days later. Obviously a weaker team will be fielded against Blackburn in preparation, but do Arsenal have the squad depth to do this with any confidence? The fact that against Brighton, (who are just a place above Blackburn in the Championship) a starting eleven in which most of Arsenal's first team players featured could just about scrape a hard-fought 3-2 victory, does not bode well.

Arsenal's summer signings have integrated well and a full-strength team is capable of damaging any team in England. However, take out even a few key players (Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud for example), and replace them with either youngsters or benchwarmers (let's say Coquelin, Gervinho and Arshavin), then suddenly you have a dramatic difference in quality and creativity between those two teams. I'm in no way saying that they would be incapable of beating Blackburn, but the FA Cup, as has been proven again this season, is a competition in which the natural order can very easily go out the window.

This week will be especially problematic in terms of defensive selection. Although I was a strong supporter of shifting a few players from Arsenal's wage book in January, I also stressed the need to reinforce if said shifts went ahead. Replacing André Santos with Nacho Monreal was definitely a good move but the team also lost a covering centre back in Johann Djourou who has not been replaced. At the close of the window, many warned of further instability at the back were two of Arsenal's main centre-backs Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Koscielny to pick up injuries. Few, however, would have been so pessimistic to predict (accurately) that this is exactly what would happen within two weeks time.

So Wenger, as usual, has a fair bit of thinking to do in terms of both team selection and how to tactically cover-up the team's weakened defence. Like Arsenal, Bayern are no strangers to high-scoring matches this season, with a 6-1 and two 5-0 victories in the Bundesliga, and another 6-1 win in the Champions League. Over two legs then, neutrals could be in for goals galore. For the sake of the Arsenal fans' nerves though, I think we'd be happier with another one of those one nils.