Pete (The Beautiful Groan)

Aug 152016
 

Hindsight is crystal clear. How often do we see people looking back on events and saying ‘saw that coming‘ as if they were some mystical soothsayer who only refuses to buy lottery tickets because it ‘wouldn’t be fair‘ on the other punters? A quick glance in their history usually shows an unwillingness to stick their head above the parapet beforehand, but a speedy and antagonising willingness to lavish us all with ‘I told you so‘ afterwards. And so we bring ourselves neatly to our opening day disaster….

….which wasn’t like that at all.

We all saw that coming, to some extent. Going into the opening day of the season with none of last season’s senior centre halves was a recipe for disaster, and while injuries are unfortunate (although seriously, how are we not planning for them by now?), some came so long ago that we cannot claim to have been caught out at the eleventh hour. Koscielny was known to be unavailable six weeks ago due to France’s progression in the Euros, and Per’s injury was even further back. Gabriel is the only recent victim, but we’ve had enough ripple effects from a spate of injuries in one area to know that this can happen. Less players available = more minutes for each of the remaining legs = higher chance of injury. We’ve been here before.

So we went into a tough opener with Chambers and Holding as our raw pairing, and I don’t attach any blame to either. Both need seniority around them to reach their clear potential, but days like this are painful lessons that can seriously damage their progress. It is all very well saying that they need to be mentally strong and overcome such obstacles, but I think that oversimplifies things, especially when Wenger had a rare post-match slip and labelled them too inexperienced to cope. I’m sure he intended it as an excuse for them but it was clumsily put, and only served to rile those who were already irritated by what they had seen.

It could have been so much better. We did, after all, score three times against a Liverpool side that are on the rise. Part of our success was due to their defence being almost as weak as ours (hello, Moreno), but that just adds to the frustration – they were there for the taking but we blew it. We weren’t great in the 90 minutes, but it is hard to counter the argument that we shot ourselves in the foot before we even set foot on the field.

All this ratchets up the pressure on Wenger for the rest of the month. Next up is a trip to champions Leicester, who will be looking to bounce back from their own opening day defeat, but they, like Liverpool, have the players to open us up, so we have to improve else we’ll be looking up as the rest race away. Chances are that we won’t have anyone back by then – perhaps a couple of the Euro contingent could be on the bench – and any new signing (stop laughing at the back) would have to be bedded in, so it is an awkward situation all round. With such a tough start to the season, we could not afford our usual summer inertia and we’re seeing the results of it already.

By the end of the month, the squad is likely to be in better shape – Ozil, Koscielny and Giroud will make a huge difference, as will a sharpening of those who started yesterday. And if the desperately needed additions arrive, all the better.

Trouble is, the season has already started.

Aug 142016
 

Welcome to another season, and a new start to the Beautiful Groan – after two years away, this is something of a return, and  what better day to kick off? The Premier League has begun, our campaign opens against Liverpool on Sunday, and it is time to make some predictions. Let’s get straight to it:

Premier League – where will we finish?

I love these predictions, particularly in the press. If you look back over twenty years, you can find members of the print media who have predicted ten or more league titles for Liverpool, and more that fifteen occasions that Spurs would finish above Arsenal. Every single one of them has been woefully wrong (although the latter has been hilariously close on occasion, none more so than last May).

Of course, last season confounded everyone – I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I expected anything other than relegation for Leicester, or anticipated a complete Mourinho/Chelsea collapse, but even in a bonkers season some things were as predictable as ever. We still finished in the top four, and ended up looking down on Spurs. Oh, and those who plumped for Liverpool (yes, they still did) were as wrong as ever.

This season is one of the hardest to call in recent memory, for two reasons. One, an unprecedented number of new custodians of the big clubs, and we genuinely have no idea how they (or their signings) will settle, and two, it feels like so many squads are yet to be finalised, not least our own. Having spent all season clamouring for a new striker, our need for a centre half flew under the radar a little until they started dropping like flies. For tomorrow, we’re left with Chambers and the newly arrived Holding as our only options, unless one of the full backs moves inside. Ouch.

Nevertheless, I do expect these gaps to be filled (how effectively is another question), so I’m plumping for third place. Some will read that and think it optimistic, but having scraped into second last time out it doesn’t strike me as unrealistic.

Who will come above us?

This is where my prediction becomes a little dull, as I agree with many observers on this one – the two Manchester clubs. City have had the best squad in the league for some years without making the most of it, and I expect them to go up a couple of gears this campaign, while Mourinho has a habit of starting well in jobs, and also has a lack of Champions League football to worry about (I think he’ll rotate heavily for the Europa). That is a big advantage, although I don’t think it’ll be sufficient to pip their neighbours.

Rounding out the top four – Liverpool. I think they’ll be decent this season, and edge out Chelsea, who still have squad problems that a new manager and light fixture list won’t easily fix. As for Leicester, I think they’d take top eight right now and some fun in the Champions League.

Spurs? Irrelevant.

What about Europe?

Always tough to predict cup competitions but I see little difference from previous years. I think we’re as good as bet as any to get out of the group, but our Arsenal-y tendencies may mean we drop daft points and come second, leading to a behemoth in the first knock out round. Would be nice to break that particular pattern, as I think we’re all bored of it.

A big season for?

There are a number of players for whom this campaign is a big one, and perhaps therein lies the key for Arsenal. Get the best out of those players and we’ll be strong, see them struggle and we’ll frustrate. So who are those key men?

Aaron Ramsey – let’s start with the big one. Ramsey is a remarkable footballer, and has shown such in an Arsenal shirt before. But the overriding feeling with him is that he is shunted into the team because of his talent, but in positions that do not suit him. He needs to prove that he can be at his best with Ozil in the team – right now there is a suspicion that it is an either/or situation. Granit Xhaka may well be a puzzle piece to aid the Welshman. We all know what can happen if Ramsey clicks.

Jack Wilshere – just stay fit, man. A victim of ‘build ’em up, knock ’em down‘ syndrome in the press, his injury woes and combative nature have allowed many to point fingers at him, labelling him an example of wasted English talent. I still think this is astonishingly harsh, given his performances when able to string a run of games together. He just desperately needs a full season.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – not for the first time, the Ox has impressed in pre-season, but those performances will count for nothing if he looks as lost as he did at times last season. Needs consistency of performance as well as fitness.

Alexis Sanchez – WHAT?? I hear you cry. Unlike the others, this isn’t a big season for him because he has flattered to deceive in prior campaigns – far from it. Instead, this relates more to his position – he has the chance, starting against Liverpool, to make the number nine role his own. He has all the attributes, Wenger clearly wants to deploy him there, and it helps our squad balance enormously if he succeeds. I have high high hopes that Sanchez can take his performances to new heights this season, in an adjusted role that gives us a myriad of options around him.

Other predictions?

Player of the Year – Mesut Ozil

Most Improved – Calum Chambers

Will this be Wenger’s last season?  – Yes, by his own choice

What colour is North London? Red.

What do I think of Tottenham? Shit.

What do I think of shit? Tottenham.

Thank you.

 

Groan’s season preview – 2013/14 – optimism aplenty

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Aug 162014
 

A little late in the day, as the season has technically started, but I’m back with a few predictions for the season ahead – who will shine, who will step up, and how it will all go. Like many, I’m optimistic about Arsenal’s chances this season – the difference between now and a year ago, when we entered into the season under a cloud (that grew poisonous in our defeat to Villa), is remarkable – we’ve been efficient in the market, signed some genuinely excellent players, and while there is still work to do, the signs are overwhelmingly positive.

Premiership predictions

So, here’s the crux – how will we do? The short answer is ‘better than last season‘, but that’s a bit of a cop out answer, so here we go – I think we’ll finish second, which is highest I’ve predicted since I started doing these a few years ago.

I put Chelsea as favourites for the title, because the additions of Cesc and Costa are, on paper, exactly what they need, and unless Costa doesn’t transfer his form from Spain to England, they look to have the strongest and most balanced squad. Don’t be fooled by the World Cup, when he was unfit and poor, Costa is a class act (well, footballisticly, he is actually a horrible turd who spends a lot of his time niggling and diving). If he struggles to adapt, Chelsea may fail to reach the heights, but of all our rivals, they appear to have improved the most.

I think second is very realistic. We have so much more pace than last season, and because Sanchez (and Walcott, when he returns) will push defensive lines back, space will open up for Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere. We’re a tough proposition to defend against.

The biggest question is at the other end of the field, where we are light on numbers after Vermaelen”s departure. We’ve signed Chambers, but he is very young (talented, but young), and we were actually short on numbers there last season, and lucky that Mertesacker and Koscielny were so rarely unavailable. Sagna’s versatility is also no longer an option.

I think we’ll add a centre half before the end of the window, which will probably end our spending for the summer and give us the deepest and strongest squad in many years. Not quite enough to win the league, but enough for us to be up there until the final weeks.

Behind us, I’ll go for the two Manchester clubs – City third and United fourth. United just lost their opening game, and were exceptionally poor doing so, but I think they’ll take advantage of a lack of European football just like Liverpool did last season and reclaim their spot in the top four. Liverpool are the prime candidates to miss out – the combination of Champions League distractions and the loss of Suarez means they are back in transitional land.

My final prediction for the league is that there will be a massive gap between the have and have nots – Spurs and Everton have challenged a top four berth in the last few seasons but I expect them to be nowhere near this time around.

Key player

Aaron Ramsey is the obvious choice but by the end of this season I imagine we’ll be talking about one man in particular – Mesut Ozil. He needs to be given the appropriate rest after his World Cup exploits, and the sheer number of midfield options available to us makes that possible, but once he gets back up to speed I think we’ll see the best of a man often described as one of the elite of world football, by people who know (no, Neil Ashton, I don’t mean you). The addition of pace up front will also create more space for the wily German, and I can see him stepping into Bergkamp’s colossal shoes. Yes, he is that good.

Most improved player

Otherwise known as the ‘who will do a Ramsey‘ prediction. I’m picking the man who has historically been a year behind his Welsh colleague in development, injury and reintegration, and that is Jack Wilshere. He looks sharp, he looks hungry and he has had a proper pre-season, a luxury he hasn’t had that often. He is almost certain to start until Ozil comes back, and has an early chance to stake his place doing forward. I fully expect him to give Wenger an enormous, but very welcome, selection headache as the season goes on.

I also expect Gibbs to continue his upward trajectory, and make his omission from England’s World Cup squad look like a terrible decision.

Who else is it a big season for?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I’m slightly concerned for him, and not because of his talent, which I think is immense. My concern is where and how he fits in – the arrival of Sanchez has made his path to the first team a whole lot trickier, and he strikes me as a player who would benefit from a run of games. I think only injury will give him that chance.

Joel Campbell/Yaya Sanogo. I’m more concerned about Campbell, if I’m honest – I’m not convinced he will ever fit into an Arsenal system, even though I think he is a decent enough player and will forge a good career somewhere. At Arsenal, I see him more as the occasional fill in who tries too hard to prove himself and doesn’t quite manage it.

I’m more hopeful for Sanogo but I just feel he has way too much pressure on him – he is raw yet exposed in our squad and appears to have little chemistry with anyone else. There is plenty of time for him if he doesn’t get rushed.

How about the cups?

If there is another competition I can see us challenging for this season, it is the League Cup or Champions League, not (ironically, since we’re the holders) the FA Cup. Our depth means that our rotated League Cup team will remain very strong, and our setup feels ideally suited for the Champions League. I can see the FA Cup being sacrificed now that the ‘no trophy for X years‘ mantra has gone, in favour of the bigger European prize, and I could see us progressing a lot further there. The two Spanish heavyweights are probably the favourites there, but if we avoid them I could see us reaching the semis at least.

And there you have it. This time last year I was writing a despairing prediction about how we’d cocked up badly. But we improved, signed Ozil, and went on to have a much better season than expected. I think we can keep moving upward this season, and the signing of Sanchez can have that uplifting effect once more.

“Ozil, through to Sanchez, gooooooooooal!”

Get used to it.

Jun 292014
 

The business end of the World Cup is here. We may be three quarters of the way through the matches already, but with half the teams now gone, the real football starts – exhilarating knockout competition, drama, heartbreak, and of course, penalties.

It took only one match before we went the distance, with Brazil and Chile serving up a wonderful game that in truth, either could have won. Brazil will feel hard done by that Hulk’s goal was disallowed for handball, and they had the tired Chileans on the ropes at times, but Chile were also impressive, and nearly snatched it in the dying seconds of injury time, Pinilla smashing Cesar’s crossbar. Chile missed their first two penalties, only for Willian and Hulk to match them, so it all came down to the final pair. Neymar, with all the pressure of Brazil on his shoulders, did the stuttering run up that so often leads to failure, but calmly slotted it away, before Jara hit the inside of the post to send the hosts through.

In truth, Brazil just about edged it and deserved to progress, and their presence as host nation only enhances what has been the best World Cup I can remember since the first one I was really aware of – Italia 90. All of the top teams have flaws, most of the supposed weaker teams have turned out better than expected, and as a result there has barely been a dull moment (at least, outside Belgium’s group). As a competition, it is wide open, with no single team emerging as clear favourites. Chile coming so close to knocking Brazil out shows exactly what can happen, and I’d expect a number of surprising results over the coming days.

As far as Arsenal interest goes, the game also signals the end of Alexis Sanchez’s involvement, and with him set to leave Barcelona this summer, our interest seems inevitable and genuine. The trouble is that we are far from alone, and Liverpool may hold the prize card if Barcelona want to offer a sweetener in their chase for everyone’s favourite excuse-creating racist biter, Luis Suarez. There are, as always, a load of newspapers and reporters EXCLUSIVELY revealing that he has signed for about five different teams – as always, Arsenal are tight-lipped until the deal is practically done, so my advice would be to ignore the myriad of unreliables and wait for something more official.

As for Suarez, it turned out he went home only a day before his teammates, as Uruguay were comfortably dismissed by the increasingly impressive Colombians in the second of the all South American encounters. All the talk is of the continued brilliance of James Rodriguez, whose stunning volley and completion of a brilliant team move not only took his country to a mouthwatering quarter final against the host nation, but also propelled him to the top of the scoring charts, having already scored in each of Colombia’s previous three victories.

But in truth, Colombia are far more than the abilities of a few superstars – they are a team in the truest sense, knitted together in attitude and tactics, and as a result have scored a few of the most unselfish goals of the tournament, with players regularly passing up a chance of personal glory for a better placed teammate. No wonder Wenger, who values that trait above most, was purring as he provided analysis on French television.

Later today, Netherlands face Mexico and Costa Rica play Greece in the most unlikely of matchups. The only Arsenal interest is Joel Campbell, who will look to further impress against the Greeks.

As for other Arsenal news, it is deathly quiet. There are already dissenting voices, raised whenever a rival signs a player, but we cannot judge Arsenal’s summer by the actions of others – we have to make sure that the right additions are made in good time, but June is too early to be writing that off. It is a strange juxtaposition when people demand we sign players from the World Cup and then show frustration at the lack of action before those players have made it home. Makes no sense.

However, we already know that United, City and Chelsea will strengthen. Liverpool will buy (and have), although the way they handle Suarez will determine whether you can say they’ve actually gotten better or worse. We also need to improve, but I’m not about to panic when the transfer window isn’t even open yet.

Frankly, I’m too busy enjoying the World Cup.

Groan’s 10: World Cup 2014 betting selections

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Jun 132014
 

One of my personal traditions for the World Cup is to spice it all up a bit with a few bets. I know many are the same – if you’re going to sit up until 2am to watch Ivory Coast face Japan you might as well have something riding on it, right?

In 2010 I placed ten pre-tournament bets and then one more on each match, and I’ll be doing the same this year. As always, you can follow along on Twitter and chuckle at my missteps, or see how I’m doing on the panel over to the right.

2010 betting tips (these went quite well)

So, what ten pre-tournament selections did I make this year? Here goes:

1) Argentina to win the World Cup (4/1)

With the World Cup in Brazil, they are naturally the favourites, but I have a hunch that the tournament may be going to another South American country. With a fairly straightforward group and a good chance of a friendly last 16 opponent, they should come into the quarter finals fresh and ready, while having the conditions on their side and matchwinning talents at their disposal. I think the pressure might crack Brazil at some stage, and I can’t see a European nation lifting the tournament this time around. Argentina it is.

2) Top scorer to score five goals (13/5)

So this one is a bit random. The Golden Boot winner always used to score more than this, but scorelines are not as high as they used to me, and the last two Golden Boot awards have gone to players with five to their name. Simply a case of decent odds for a fairly likely outcome.

3) Belgium to be knocked out in the last 16 (13/10)

Belgium are many pundits’ dark horses. They have some stellar young talent, and some are even predicting they could go as far as the semi finals. Not for me – they are a young side and the climate isn’t to their liking, so while I’d give them good odds of doing well at the Euros in two years, I don’t think this is their tournament. So why the last 16? For me, they have the easiest group – Russia, Algeria and South Korea are unlikely to stop them progressing, but then they face someone from Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA). I can’t see them getting past that point.

4) Mexico to be knocked out in the last 16 (19/10)

I have the same tip for Mexico – out of the group but no further. The longer odds are indicative of their tricky group – with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon to contend with, they’ll do well to get to the knockout stages. But I think they have enough about them to pip Croatia, before running into a Spanish brick wall in the last 16.

5) Uruguay to win Group D (7/4)

The English press amuses me. For all the talk of England and Italy it is an often missed fact that Uruguay are in fact the seeded team of the group, and with conditions in their favour have to start as favourites to top it. Given that, I find the odds of 7/4 remarkably generous.

6) Ghana to qualify from Group G (11/4)

This is my favourite bet of the ten. One rule I’ve always followed in World Cups is to punt on an outsider in a really tough group. Germany and Portugal are the clear favourites to progress, with USA also dangerous, but this isn’t the Champions League, where one bad result can be countered over the course of six games. This is a three game process, and it is extremely common for such a group to see a major nation fall early. Whoever loses between the two Europeans is under massive pressure in their other games, and one great result for Ghana could see them through. In what I expect to be the tightest of groups, I see Ghana getting out.

7) No tournament hattricks (9/4)

This one is quite random too, and Neymar made me extremely nervous last night, as it looked for a while as if it would be scuppered in the very first match. But World Cup hattricks are not as common as they used to be, and are particularly rare once you get past the group stage. Ultimately, the reason I ended up going for this was the heat – I can see plenty of situations like last night, when a player with a brace is taken off to rest them for the next game. I don’t expect to see hammerings this year because I expect teams to take their foot off the pedal to conserve energy. Hence, no hattricks.

8) Four tournament shootouts (9/2)

Sometimes you just have a hunch, ok?

9) Netherlands to go out in the group stage (5/4)

In 2010 I tipped the Dutch to lift the trophy, and they got really close. This time I don’t seem them doing well – I don’t feel they have the strength or the star power (at least, I think a lot of their star power has waned), and I think they could be the victims of a really tough group, being ousted by Spain and the underrated Chile.

10) Switzerland to be knocked out in the quarter finals (9/2)

This is my other favourite bet of the group. While Belgium are the dark horses of many, Switzerland are mine. They are exceptionally difficult to beat, and I can see them topping their group, and therefore avoid Argentina in the last 16. Quarter finals is probably as far as they can can go, but I think 9/2 is extremely generous for them getting that far.

Do you have any tips? Any thoughts on these? Feel free to post yours in the comments below, and follow on Twitter to see which matchday bets I place – I’m 0/1 so far as last night’s bet was for Brazil to win by a single goal, and Oscar’s late toe poke ruined that one. Never mind!