Jan 152012
 

Swansea 3 (Sinclair pen 16, Dyer 57, Graham 70) Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 5, Walcott 69)
(Premiership)

Two weeks ago, the Arsenal fanbase was pretty content. A win over QPR had lifted us back amongst the top four at the turn of the year, a remarkable turnaround given the position we were in after seven games. At the time, the mental strength was being praised (by all and sundry, not just Wenger), and our chances of retaining a Champions League spot, the primary target after that nightmare August, seemed promising.

Just two games later, the vitriol is back. In the topsy turvy world of football support, particularly on the internet, a team has to be brilliant or terrible, a player either a world beater (or one in the making) or worthy of a public flogging. The manager is either a genius or ripe for the axe. There is no grey, no middle ground, nothing other than the dramatic. Because, after all, the dramatic sells newspapers, gets hits, and provides a satisfying point to a rant in the moments after a disappointing result.

So before getting to the rational, allow me to indulge in the black and white. We were pretty crap today, more so in the second half than the first. In the opening forty-five, I thought us adequate but unspectacular, with Swansea’s excellence being the reason for our difficulties, rather than any lack of application or quality of our own. At half time, I hoped our opponents would fail to maintain their terrific play, but they continued for the full ninety, while our level dropped. The more we pushed forward, the better they defended, and the more they opened us up at the back. Swansea fully deserved their three points today, and it was refreshing to see an opponent approach the game in a free flowing way – no cards were shown throughout, although you could argue that losing that sort of game is a bad sign for us.

Moving on.

Since the full time whistle, the analysis has been strong and vicious. Particular players have had their every trait dissected and criticised, leading to the inevitable conclusion of ‘crap, lazy, overpaid, sell him‘, usually interspersed with at least three words we should always reserve for the opposition. And the end result is always the same – we need to buy X, Y and Z, we need to strengthen in this position, that position. And for me, that is overly simplistic.

We have been educated, largely by the paid press, that transfers are the silver bullet to all problems. Don’t like a player? Sign a replacement. Got a gap in a position? Don’t even think about promoting from within, or altering your formation, buy buy buy. That the media have promoted this is hardly surprising – ‘Arsenal seek to sign £20m replacement for misfiring Arshavin‘ sells far more copies than any attempts to better accommodate players, tactical changes to enhance their effectiveness, or even the player themselves simply improving. And so it is transfers we always read about, from the fanciful to the daft, and the myth that the chequebook is always the way to go is perpetuated.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to buy. Our transfer activity on the final day of August showed that – we obtained the big centre back we needed, to give experience to the back four and keep Squillaci one further step away from appearing, and Arteta’s influence in central midfield cannot be overstated. As for Andre Santos, we’ve missed him greatly despite his short time at the club. Signings can be a great fillip. But they are not the only way.

Take a look at our squad, and count the players that fall into the following criteria : Talented, underachieving. My bet is you’ve named at least three, perhaps more. Given that we have that talent at our disposal, it is not more prudent to focus on getting full value from them, above and beyond bringing in new blood? To all those who keep saying we need to spend thirty, forty, fifty million, I’d counter that if we already have superb players at our club who aren’t performing, is it not a possibility that our problems run a little deeper, and simply adding more of those players may not help?

To give some examples, I’ll pick some names out, starting with the obvious – Andrei Arshavin. He was sixth in the World Player of the Year awards the year before we signed him, and he is often credited with getting us into fourth that season. He has given us unforgettable memories and is clearly a sparkling jewel of a talent. I would go as far as to say that buying a player with a greater level of raw talent would be exceptionally difficult, so if there were any way of getting him back to his best, I’d certainly favour that over buying another. For the record, I think he will leave in the summer, and unlike many, I will be sorry to see him go.

Then there is Chamakh. I recently watched a few of his games from early last season, and was staggered by the contrast with his more recent performances. He was bustling around, powering past defenders and making intelligent runs, and looked a completely different player. Again, this is not a ‘crap’ player as many opine – go watch those games if you want the empirical evidence. But the Chamakh we see now is a shadow of that. If we could get him back to his best, we would again have a player on our hands.

I could go on – we’ve seen Djourou, Diaby and many others show their talent, and at their best they are a force to be reckoned with. But for one reason or another (injury, form, confidence) they are not regular top level contributors. Perhaps they never will be, but before pressing for replacements I would want to know that those potential quality signings would not fall into the same category. We all saw Chamakh for Bordeaux and in his first few months for us – surely the last thing we need is to sign another player of high quality who drops his level enormously a few months later?

Consistency is the key, and consistency is not purely down to the sheer quality of an individual. It is a mental attribute, cultivated over a career. Some players have a headstart on others, so on one hand you could say transfers can help (compare Szczesny to Fabianski for an obvious comparison of mental fortitude), but I have to admit a concern that this Arsenal squad consumes players who previously showed a strong mentality, and weakens them. It is, perhaps, our biggest problem, and one I think needs addressing more urgently than any other.

Put it this way – if we jettison players ruthlessly, replacing them at the drop of a hat, then we are doomed to fail, frankly. Aside from the fact that transfers are expensive – with the agents involved I’d compare it to moving house regularly, where all your money is lost in taxes and fees – we would be competing with clubs far richer than us, on their terms. Chopping and changing is what Chelsea have done since Abramovich arrived – remember Tiago, Crespo, Veron, Shevchenko, Duff, Robben, Del Horno? Lots of quality, all ludicrously expensive, but for one reason or another their Chelsea careers stalled and they were moved on. Chelsea could afford that approach, and the resultant losses, we cannot.

So we cultivate, and that means showing more faith in players than many would. Sometimes, as with Alex Song, it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t (hello, Aliadiere). But as fans, it means we have a responsibility to show patience too. Take Theo Walcott – a 22 year old still learning his game. Yes, he is fairly experienced now, but he is still 22 years old. How many players of that age have scored 35 goals for their club without playing up front? Or even gained as many assists?

Theo is the classic example of a player built up too soon, raising expectations to a level he could not possibly reach. And then, when he inevitably fails to hit those dizzy heights, he is vilified, destroyed by the press and by fans, and written off. I’ll tell you what I see – an immensely talented young footballer who has improved each year (his stats back this up) and has the mentality to perform on the big occasion. He scored his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea, in a cup final. He scored again in a win against them last season, and again in the 5-3 triumph at Stamford Bridge. He thrives in the Champions League, inspiring our comeback against Barcelona two years ago – in fact, in the build up to last year’s tie, he was the talk of the Catalan press, not Cesc. It was Theo that was worrying them. And a hattrick for England in Croatia wasn’t half bad either.

Just to be clear – this is a player that a lot of fans want replaced and/or shipped out. Yes, he has facets of his game to improve, and at his age he should. But he seems down to earth, his game is improving, and he is already way beyond most at his age. Why on earth do people want him gone?

I can see the beginnings of the same pattern with Oxlade-Chamberlain. He should be nothing more than a peripheral player for the next two or three years – anything more and he is doing exceptionally well. But I am willing to bet that he will be criticised before the end of this season for a lack of end product, despite his tender age. And we are the ones creating these ridiculous expectations by building a player up to mythical proportions, and calling on his inclusion into the first team far too soon. Can you see where this is going?

So how does this all relate to today’s game? It means we need to lay off Walcott, Ramsey, Miquel and others – players who are young, working hard and showing immense promise. Enough vilification, enough vitriol, enough hate. It helps no-one. There are areas of the squad we need to improve, positions we do need reinforcements, but we have to set more realistic expectations of the ones we have, and stop destroying them when they fail to meet them. As long as they put everything into it, I will have no complaints, and nor should you.

Save your anger for the lazy ones.

Today was a bad day. We were poor, and Swansea fully exploited that with a superb performance. But much as we weren’t going to win the league two weeks ago, we don’t need a complete overhaul now.

Find the unspectacular middle ground. It is where the truth lies.

Dec 212011
 

Tom Goom is a physiotherapist and Gooner. He loves Arsenal, cheese and shooting thirty yards over the bar. He hate grass munching, racist centre halves, and former Manchester United strikers who look like Black Beauty’s ugly diving younger brother.

This week, the grisly details of Abou Diaby’s ankle injury:

May 1st 2006. Injury time at the Stadium of Light. Arsenal lead Sunderland 3-0.  Dan Smith hits Abou  Diaby hard with an over-the-ball challenge, studs down onto his right shin, just above the ankle. It is immediately obvious something is wrong but somehow Diaby manages to limp off, his right foot hanging at an odd angle as the physio helps him to the sidelines.

In the media furore that follows, the usual dialogue takes place; one side deplores the “horrendous” tackle, the other insists “he’s not that kind of player“. That’s all been debated ad nauseum, and my aim isn’t to go into that but rather to look at the impact this has had on what was a blossoming career.

Diaby suffered a fracture dislocation of his right ankle. It is common in these injuries for both tibia and fibula to break, sometimes in several areas. We don’t know the exact details, as football clubs rarely release them – it is, after all, confidential patient information. When the ankle dislocates there is trauma to the surrounding ligaments as well as the bone and ankle joint. The pictures below show normal anatomy (A and B) and potential effects of a fracture dislocation (C and D).

A) Normal X-ray

A) Normal X-ray

B) Ankle bones and ligaments

B) Ankle bones and ligaments

C) Ankle Dislocation

C) Ankle Dislocation

D) Fracture of tibia and fibula

D) Fracture of tibia and fibula

In Diaby’s case, he had three separate surgeries to repair his injury. It is likely that this included an ORIF (Open Reduction Internal Fixation) of some description, depending on the nature of his injury.

I see these fractures regularly where I work as a physiotherapist, and they can be challenging to rehab. The nature of the trauma causes a lot of swelling and stiffness in the ankle joint. It is quite rare for a patient to recover 100% range of movement in the ankle, even with intensive treatment. The fact that Diaby was able to return to action nine months later is a great credit to Arsenal’s excellent medical team. He made 28 appearances in all competitions in 2007-2008 and by 2009-2010 that number rose to 40, before he featured for France in their disappointing 2010 World Cup. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Diaby has reportedly had 29 injuries since 2006. On average a player would expect two injuries per season. He has, on average, had around five per year and faced lengthy layoffs, playing just 20 times in 2010-2011 and featuring just twice this season.

Diaby’s most recent absence has been down to the surgery he had on his ankle this summer. Again few details have been released by the club, but it is possible he had the original metalwork removed, as this can cause problems. That said, professional footballers often have this removed at a much earlier stage. On returning to action Diaby has picked up a hamstring problem that has ruled him out again. I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for him.

It is easy for us as Arsenal fans to criticise Diaby or the Arsenal medical team for his repeated injuries. Many have the attitude that we should “get rid“. I think though that the blame lays clearly at the severity of the initial injury and not its management or Diaby’s ineptitude. Or blame John Terry. Maybe Diaby re-injured his ankle when he volleyed Terry’s hideous concrete block of head?

Kicking racism out of football

Kicking racism out of football

Dorsiflexion

Dorsiflexion

More likely though is the long term effect Diaby’s injury will have had on his ankle and how that affects other areas. One of the most important movements of the ankle is dorsiflexion (see picture for details). We need this for so many functional movements; walking, running, squatting, lunging and many activities that involve impact. Unfortunately it’s very hard to fully restore after this type of injury. Side to side movement (inversion and eversion) is also essential. When we balance on one leg the ankle can adapt by moving one way or the other allowing fine control of balance.

Without these movements it becomes harder to balance and the body often adapts by placing more stress on the knees or surrounding muscles. This may be why Diaby has had knee, calf, hamstring and groin problems since his injury. In addition, if the ankle is forced into a position where it is stiff, during a tackle or striking a ball for example, there can be further injury to the ankle.

So, what does the future hold for Abou Diaby? My hope is that with a gradual return to first team action Diaby will be able to reach the level he did in 2009-2010 where he made 35 starts for Arsenal. Five years of persistent injuries though makes me wonder if this will ever be a realistic outcome. For his sake I really hope he can make it. At 25 he still has time on his side to fulfil some of the potential we’ve seen from him at his best.

 Posted by at 6:32 pm
Dec 062011
 

Over the past few years Arsenal have had some exceptional players. For all the bemoaning of the lack of trophies, there has remained a bountiful supply of top talent strutting their stuff at the Emirates – Cesc Fabregas remains the best young midfielder in Europe, one we kept for seven years, and we have more that could be labelled ‘amongst the best in their position, or for their age‘ – the likes of Vermaelen, Van Persie and Wilshere can certainly be counted in those categories, with others knocking on the door. Even the likes of Nasri and Adebayor had golden patches with us, even if they may end up joining the long line of those who wished they’d never left (hello, Hleb!).

When you reel off the names, the six year trophy hunt is a little baffling. We aren’t Liverpool – look at their teamsheet and ‘mediocre’ is the word that pops out. Against Fulham, their midfield contained the less than inspiring names of Adam, Spearing and Henderson – hardly a frightening force, even when you take their respective visages into account. We genuinely have had world class players, but for whatever reason something hasn’t clicked since the Invincibles disbanded.

This year, a case could be made that the overall quality of our squad is down – it is certainly an argument the pundits make. Personally, I’m not convinced – we may have lost Cesc and a bottler, but we’ve gained in other areas, particularly defensively, and the added experience of many of the younger players bridges that particular gap. However, it is probably fair to say that man for man, our individuals may not scare teams as they used to.

Yet something feels more positive. The atmosphere around the club is much improved from the poisonous nature of a couple of months ago (of course we are winning, which helps, but something more fundamental seems to have changed), there is a greater unity within the club, and the players are less inclined to wallow in the more negative moments – we’ve conceded the first goal a few times of late, only to come back impressively, a trait that we lacked up until recently.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has made the players seem more driven, more positive and more willing to fight, and also why the fans are suddenly so much calmer and able to forgive the bad moments. Six weeks ago, the Fulham draw would have resulted in a cacophony of boos, but was instead met with an understanding shrug. Quite the contrast. And I think I know why.

For all the talent in the club, there has been a feeling over the last few years that some players haven’t known the value of pulling on the Arsenal shirt, or at least they haven’t always shown it on the field. They may be motivated players, talented players, but that stops a little way short of what we have now – fans playing for the club.

Consider our spine. Szczesny hadn’t made his Premiership debut this time last season, yet is now a firm favourite with every one of us. Antics such as leading the crowd in a song last weekend, and his constant Chelsea and Spurs baiting on Twitter certainly help, but you can also see the pride he takes from being Arsenal’s number one, and how it hurts him personally when we’re struggling. He cares. It makes him feel like one of us, because in a way he is like one of us. Only better at football.

In front of him you have Vermaelen, who is furious when we concede a late goal in a 5-1 victory, and passionate enough to be determined to haul us back into the game after he scores an own goal. He simply refuses to lose, to give up, or to give anything less than his maximum for the club. And he doesn’t tolerate excuses, from himself or anyone else.

Further forward, and you find more of the young players who grew up with Arsenal in their blood. Jack Wilshere has been with the club from the age of eight, and without wishing to coin a painful phrase, has Arsenal DNA coursing through his veins. He also happens to be the brightest English prospect of a generation. And ours. But you don’t have to be English to be emotionally tied – for evidence of that, take one Emmanuel Frimpong. Ghana-born he may be, but he is Arsenal through and through – he joined the club when he was nine, and has progressed all the way through the youth ranks, determined to represent the club he loves. His anger at Nasri’s behaviour shows where his loyalties lie.

At the tip of the spine, we have Robin Van Persie, the most freescoring forward outside the unbalanced Spanish league. Feyenoord may be his first love, but Arsenal is his second, and unlike the Cesc situation, a return to his homeland would not be the final step to the top of the mountain. Right now, he is adored by the fans of a club he fights tooth and nail for, and one he is proud captain of. It still annoys me that many doubt his commitment, despite every one of his actions countering that assertion.

When fans get the feeling that the players do not care, or are going through the motions, we get angry. We yell at them and cannot understand why anyone in such a privileged position would give anything less than their all. But it is different with the current crop – for many of these players, success would be less sweet if tasted anywhere other than at home. And their home is the same as our home. The Arsenal.

We love them. They love us. The ties are stronger.

Dec 052011
 

I’m going to take a small break from writing about Arsenal today to vent on a subject that has infuriated me since listening to the European Championship draw on Friday evening, and that is the supreme arrogance of English pundits with regard to the national team. We all know that England are forever overhyped before major tournaments, but it is the dismissive contempt for many of the other countries (those not called Spain, Germany or Italy) that winds me up the most.

England got a relatively kind draw (at least compared to other groups), with Ukraine, Sweden and France their three opponents. But by the same token, those three countries probably feel they got a kind draw with England – after all, Germany and Italy were also in pot 2, and would be expected to go further. Despite this, Radio 5 had Paul Ince and Darren Anderton (I know) talking about the draw, and both concluded that England would be favourites for all three games, and should progress with ease.

Really?

Let’s start with France, the opening game. They’re terrible, right? Laughable in the World Cup, an imploding disaster of egos? Well, no, at least not anymore. Since Domenech’s hopeless reign ended, they’ve enjoyed something of a renaissance, qualifying top of their group, and embarking on an unbroken 18 match unbeaten streak, stretching back fifteen months, and including a comfortable win over England, something they have managed on each of the last three meetings between the countries. Even with Rooney, England would not be favourites for that one.

Next up, Sweden. England’s recent friendly win over the Swedes was their first triumph over them in 43 years. In between, the two countries had met twelve times, with Sweden winning four, and the other eight clashes ending in draws. Hardly a record that backs up the ‘overwhelming favourites’ label. The Swedes may not be as strong as they have been in previous years, but it takes remarkable arrogance not to notice that the same could be said of England. A draw, as ever between these two nations, is the likely result.

And then, finally, England face Ukraine in Donetsk. Hosts are always terrible in international tournaments, right? And as we know from club football, Ukraine is such an easy place to go and get results, isn’t it? Oh.

The fact is – all four teams in the group will be pleased with the draw, and confident of progression. But to hear pundits dismissively talk down the other three countries is exactly why so many nations are willing us to fail. Time and time again we convince ourselves that we’re amongst the contenders, but a quick look at the statistics reveals a telling tale.

Of the 16 countries competing, nine (Germany, Russia, Holland, Italy, Spain, Czech Rep, Denmark, France and Greece) have lifted the trophy. One more (Portugal) has competed in the final. You can also add Ukraine (four finals, and one triumph, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union) and Croatia (two finals when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia) to that list, which leaves just four of the sixteen countries as nations yet to appear in the final.

Those four countries are England, Ireland, Sweden and Poland.

Given that, it is remarkable that there is any optimism around the national side, particularly when you consider that the ‘golden generation’ (which was hardly golden, at all) has passed, and the only striking threat is suspended for the entire group stage. It says everything about England’s lack of forward options that he will still be taken.

But I have nothing against optimism – having unrealistic hopes is part of being a football fan. But listening to Ince and Anderton dismiss our opponents as trivialities en route to the knockout stages was cringeworthy in the extreme.

England are often criticised for being a quarter final team. To be so again could be argued an overachievement.

Nov 232011
 

I see a lot of frustration brewing around how the media have been portraying Arsenal in recent weeks. After a couple of months of daily ‘crisis’ articles, many have been chasing other negative angles due to the team’s improved performances and results on the pitch. There was Van Persie’s contract (which still has nearly two years to run), Walcott’s contract (ditto), the ‘one man team’ nonsense, and finally the completely out of context claims that Wenger said he might leave at the end of the season.

On that note, does anyone else spot the irony that the press claim we’ll implode when Wenger leaves, just weeks after saying he was past it and should be replaced?

It is easy to get annoyed. After all, our last twelve games have produced an impressive 10-1-1 record, and even our much maligned defence is showing signs of tightening up, but despite that, there is still a negative overtone to almost every article we see. As an example, each Van Persie goal now guarantees an analysis along the lines of ‘totally reliant on him, they’ll plummet when he gets injured’. It is almost as if we should apologise for having a world class striker at the club. Do they think he is here by accident?

But take a step back for a moment, and realise that being the underdog, the team that no-one expects to succeed, is no bad thing. We’ve seen in recent years that the squad haven’t always handled expectations particularly well, so the longer the press refuse to talk us up, the longer we can carry on quietly working our way back up the table, slipping under the radar (in other words, we’ll be the anti-Spurs). We’re level on points with Chelsea and Liverpool, still in all four competitions, and could progress to the Champions League knockout stages tonight (while other English clubs are struggling to qualify). Some crisis.

The press have always taken a long time to come round to anything, good or bad. Only now are they beginning to realise that John Terry is slow, that Cech isn’t what he was, that Carragher and Gerrard’s best days are behind them. Likewise, they still haven’t noticed how solid Koscielny has become, or how effortlessly Arteta has fitted in. They even think Ramsey isn’t ready for first team action, despite assist after assist.

And it isn’t just Arsenal – they take ages to come round to any player. I remember it took Malouda about four months of brilliant performances in his second season at Chelsea before people realised he wasn’t as terrible as they thought. Outdated punditry views is nothing new – it is a cross between laziness that stops some of them from keeping their opinions up to date (here’s looking at you, Match of the Day), and a total refusal to back down on an opinion that has been proven wrong.

To bring it back to Arsenal, witness the analysis of Robin Van Persie. 31 goals in 29 league games in 2011 is a quite ridiculous record, the sort reserved for Messi and Ronaldo, who play for brilliant teams in a league containing an obscene disparity of quality between clubs. The Premiership is tighter, which makes the record even more impressive, and that is before you take into account that we haven’t had the best 2011 as a club.

But instead of focusing on the record breaking, they keep banging three drums. The first is the one man team garbage, which is ridiculously disrespectful to Ramsey and Walcott, who keep presenting chances on a plate to the Dutchman. Yes, he got both goals against Norwich at the weekend, but Vermaelen was the best player on the park by a distance. Any mention of that? Of course not.

The second is that Van Persie isn’t a natural striker. Really? The reason he gets so many goals is that his movement around the box is top notch, one of the key assets of being a ‘natural striker’. His finishing isn’t half bad either. To say he would be good in the Bergkamp role is probably true, but to say he should therefore play there is plainly stupid.

The final tired line is that he ‘is no leader’. Again – really? Aren’t we always told that the best leaders are those that lead by example? Those that the team look to for inspiration? Surely that makes him a more than adequate captain? I find English pundits have a massively outdated view on what being a captain actually is, as if shouting is all in entails. If you hadn’t noticed, the man they think should wear the armband – Vermaelen – isn’t a shouter either. He is quietly authoritative, and organises well, but he isn’t barking orders like Tony Adams once did. Yet he is clearly a good leader too – there are many different types.

A lot of the frustration comes from Match of the Day, where Hansen and Lawrenson are so painfully dinosaur-esque in their approach to punditry, harking back to the old days where flying tackles were okay (how many times have you heard them utter the phrase ‘nowadays, that is a yellow/red card’, as if ‘nowadays’ is so much worse?), managers shouted, captains shouted and everyone hoofed the ball past the ‘two banks of four’ to the big bloke up front. The irony is that a man most thought would make a terrible and annoying analyst – Gary Neville – is providing ten times the insight over on Sky, and is currently one of the best to listen to. Yes, I really did just say that.

But instead of getting angry about it, chuckle at their ignorance and move on. So what they that don’t give us a hope? So what that they think Koscielny is terrible, that Mertesacker’s 80 caps mean nothing, that they think we’ll have an exodus in the summer? Or that they think Spurs will finish above us? After all, we’ve heard so many of those lines before, and by May they are usually dismissed for another year, buried away as secretly as Harry Redknapp’s financial dealings.

Let them chuckle, let them taunt. As long as we have the last laugh, I couldn’t care less who is shouting loudest now.