Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool: A lesson in cause and effect

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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.

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.

Jun 132014
 

First off, I haven’t posted anything since the FA Cup triumph over Hull, so can I just stop for a minute and say:

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Thanks. I feel better. A month on, it still feels awesome, particularly given the scores that doubted Wenger would ever lift a trophy again. Screw you, suckers.

Anyway, yesterday was not only the start of the World Cup, but it wasn’t the best of days to be an Arsenal fan. First the news was confirmed that Cesc Fabregas would be joining Chelsea. It is a difficult one to swallow for many reasons – despite leaving under a cloud there was little doubt among many that Cesc really did care for Arsenal, or at least his determined performances and attitude appeared to show it. There will be those that say the move to Chelsea proves he never did, but I see it somewhat differently – had we exercised our ‘first option’ on him, he’d be an Arsenal player now. We didn’t, and he wanted to move to London (for family reasons as much as anything). That left two choices – Chelsea and Spurs – which is bit like being asked to choose between a sandwich made of gnat’s piss or donkey semen. No wonder his smile looks forced.

Ultimately, Barcelona wanted rid, we passed, so he moved to a club we didn’t want him to move to. Not the best of situations, but that was our choice. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in all of this is that neither of his two club affections wanted him any more.

The other thing that has interested me has been the reaction. I feel that if the same had happened last season, there would have been outright mutiny. With a trophy drought ever extending, and a perceived inability (or unwillingness) to bring in the top players, Wenger would have been lampooned beyond belief to pass on a player of Cesc’s undoubted skills. But the reaction has actually been far calmer – an acknowledgement that Cesc isn’t what we need, due to a combination of Ozil’s signing and Ramsey’s spectacular emergence, and that as long as business is conducted properly in the areas we do need to strengthen in, then this quiet acceptance will continue.

Personally, I feel this has a massive amount to do with the cup final win. With that monkey off our backs, everything feels less urgent, less dramatic, and less poisonous. When you’re not winning anything, the desperation rises, so any available player of any talent not signed is seen as a disaster – there are countless examples in the past five years of players who certainly were not good enough for Arsenal, yet caused ridiculous angst when they were not snapped up. That has now changed.

Twitter is a notoriously angry place. Yet the reaction yesterday, while filled with annoyance, was measured, muted and calm. Cesc is already part of history, and our needs lay elsewhere. Time to move on.

Elsewhere, part of our more recent history also moved on, with Bacary Sagna confirming his departure in classy manner. I have nothing but praise for a man who clearly decided not to sign a new contract long ago, yet gave everything in every minute of every match, where others would have held back a little, mentally wandering and protecting themselves for their last big contract. Sagna cared, and gave his all. I wish him nothing but the best.

I doubt there will be much Arsenal news in the next month, aside from Mikel Arteta coming back to an empty training ground and being filled with World Cup melancholy. The focus is now on the Brazilian showpiece, and with seven games in the next two days, it is about to get crazy. Enjoy.

May 122014
 

It feels a little strange to set out on anything resembling a seasonal review when there remains the FA Cup Final looming next weekend, but yesterday’s 2-0 canter against Norwich wrapped up the league campaign for another year, and brought to a close one of the most difficult to assess in recent memory. Ultimately, we finished fourth again, but that is about where the similarities to previous domestic campaigns end. Over the last few years, we’ve been forced to accept dropping out of the title race as early as October or November, and playing catch up for fourth against Spurs (and one year, Villa). Strong finishes ensured that dreadful starts did not result in failure to qualify for the Champions League or a lack of St Totteringham’s Days, but early season form brought the lack of (or lateness of) summer action into question.

This season has been entirely different, more so than it appeared it would after the opening day, where a lack of summer activity contributed to a poisonous atmosphere in a home defeat to Villa. That would turn out to be our only league reverse at the Emirates, and a tremendous first half of the season saw us considered genuine title contenders by most, sitting pretty at the league summit for a long time. But huge reverses in big matches, coupled with some daft slip-ups, saw that dream fade a couple of months from the end, with Everton’s form even briefly threatening our top four berth. Five wins on the spin at the end of the season quelled that concern.

Which is better? Which is worse? Or, as one person put it to me, is reversing the ups and downs of the season just a different kind of stagnation? A difficult one to answer without directly comparing the last two seasons.

2012/13

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Arsenal201213

 

2013/14

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A six point gain and three more wins suggests clear improvement, as does the comparison of how close we came to those above and below us. In 2012/13, we finished a massive sixteen points behind champions United, and only one ahead of Spurs in fifth. This time, the margin to City was a deficit of only seven, with the same gap separating us from Everton. It isn’t all rosy though, as the goal columns attest – we scored fewer and conceded more than last season, evidence of both the improved ability to win close games and the tendency to lose big on occasion.

Turning to the cups, we had a repeat performance in the Champions League, where a tough group was successfully navigated before falling to Bayern in the first knockout phase, we fell earlier in the League Cup (sorry, I refuse to call it the Johnson’s Dry Cleaning Cup, or whatever it is named these days), but as we know, have reached the FA Cup Final, where we enter as strong favourites.

Put simply, this season will be judged almost entirely on that match. Win, and it has to be considered a successful season – for so many years people have pontificated which is more important – fourth place or a trophy – and we’d have both. But a defeat will consign this season to the ‘fourth but no trophy‘ description that blends it in with too many others. While Wenger’s future appears not to hang on the result as some expected, the summer mood does, and with a 3% ticket price rise being felt as the season ticket renewals are distributed, a painful defeat could bring that into sharp focus. It it big. Really big.

Fourth v Third

There is one other thing to note about coming fourth – the Champions League qualifier. While we have consistently navigated these when required, it has often had a lasting effect on our season. We know the club has had a decent bank balance for a while now, but just how healthy has often not been clear until that hurdle has been successfully cleared. This has had an effect on many of our transfer dealings (most notably the summer of Cesc/Nasri), and while there is a strong argument that it should not have made as much of a difference as it did, it has been an added complication.

It should not be a concern anymore, at least financially. With additional TV and commercial income guaranteed from elsewhere, the Champions League ‘proper’, while still lucrative, is not the be all and end all it has been. The line about us being financially strong even with a season out of Europe’s premier competition is now very much true, and there is absolutely no reason for the summer’s business to be affected by August’s unknown, something that is even more important in World Cup year, where the window for getting things done is so much shorter.

Speaking of the World Cup, it could actually be the biggest problem we face this summer. Our cup final appearance means that the players get one less week to recuperate before the tournament begins, and with the final on July 13th, that leaves precious little time to rest before pre-season and that crucial qualifier rolls around. There will be many clubs turning to non-internationals or early fallers as the domestic season restarts in August, while their triumphant summer stars get the rest they will desperately need.

Anyone playing the cup final, a few warm up games, and a long tournament in sweltering Brazilian conditions in going to need careful management on their return. That is by no means restricted to us – managers up and down the country will have to earn their stripes.

I’ll be back later in the week with a broken down assessment of the best and worst moments of the season, the players that stood out (a certain Welshman may feature…) and a look back at the league as a whole, and where our six point improvement sits against our rivals. Until then, I’m going to watch Ramsey’s stupendous volley once again. What a player.