Aug 102018
 

Here we go again.

After a summer that was equal parts tumultuous and calm, the former due to the unfamiliarity of a managerial change and the off field shenanigans of the last week and the latter due to getting our transfer business done early, Arsenal head into a new season with much less certainty than previous years. That could be good, that could be bad, but one thing is for sure – it makes predictions a whole lot harder. Still….

Looking at the squad, some clear gaps have been filled – Torreira is an exciting new addition in midfield, there is competition for Cech and a mix of experience and youth at the back – but a lot depends on how well they settle, how the existing players adjust to Emery’s methods, and how effective those methods are over a long season.

The team looks strong on paper, with centre half being the area causing most concern, especially with Koscielny out long term. There’s a certain amount of depth across the board, but what is most intriguing is that the first team does not pick itself. Who starts in goal? Centre half? How do Lacazette and Aubameyang fit together?

Short answer – no-one knows, and after the predictability of the latter Wenger years that is exciting in itself. Time will tell whether that excitement leads to thrills or regret. In the meantime, let’s make some predictions!

Premier League Top Six

1. Man City, 2. Liverpool, 3. Spurs, 4. Arsenal, 5. Man United, 6. Chelsea

I can’t see past Man City to retain their title, I really can’t. The only real hope for the chasing pack is that their motivation dips after such an incredible season, and there is evidence behind that – no team has retained the league title since Man United ten years ago – but I think they still have too much.

Liverpool have strengthened well and should finish second, no matter how many pundits think (for the millionth time) that this will be their year. Behind that, it gets a lot closer.

The North London race will be tighter this year, but one advantage Spurs have after their lack of transfer activity is……their lack of transfer activity. They’ve retained players as well as not purchased, so they should hit the ground running. On the other hand, Arsenal will be a work in progress under Emery and I expect Spurs to win the battle to third this year. But, and this is a big but – the aim has to be to make this the last year that happens. North London is red, after all.

Man United are hard to predict – excellent personnel but Mourinho is into his dreaded third season and showing his usual grumpiness – I’d be surprised to see him still there at the start of next season. While I hope for a spectacular implosion as we saw at Chelsea, I think they’ll have enough to remain above his former club, who will struggle for goals.

Other teams to watch

Everton, Fulham

Everton strengthened well at the end of the window and should be a totally different prospect under Silva. They might challenge for the top six if one of those clubs has a poor season. Likewise, Fulham spent like an established top ten team – they will be fascinating to watch.

Relegated

Huddersfield, Cardiff, Watford

Part of me wants Cardiff to do well. The other part looks at Neil Warnock and wants him to have a miserable season.

Arsenal Player of the Season

Mesut Ozil

It’s time. Coming off being blamed for Germany’s abysmal World Cup, and subsequently retiring from international football, there’s a feeling that Arsenal still hasn’t seen the best of Ozil. With a new manager building his team around him, a little bit of anger in him will do no harm, and I think he could star.

Elsewhere, Mkhitaryan could step up under Emery – with a team pressing around him he could find himself in pockets of space from which to do serious damage. And Aubameyang is a genuine Golden Boot contender.

Big Season For…

Bellerin, Mustafi, Xhaka

Bellerin and Mustafi are in similar positions – both had largely disappointing campaigns marked by individual errors, and both have doubts over them going into this campaign. For Bellerin, it surrounds his fitness and pace – he seems to have lost a yard and at his tender age that is a concern – and for Mustafi, it is whether his flaws can be ironed out by a new manager.

Granit Xhaka is an interesting one. I’ve gone on record before in saying that he is someone I’d love to see under new guidance, and I expect big things this year. He has the tools – he is technically excellent, a good passer and has a rocket shot – but he has issues with concentration and awareness that drifted under Wenger’s tutelage. In my opinion those can be resolved, and if they are there is a serious player there. How he and Torreira fit into the same team is another question.

Other Competitions

While a cup run would be a welcome distraction, and the Europa League is one Emery knows how to win having done so three times with Sevilla, this season is all about the bread and butter of the league, and anything else is a bonus. Sort out the abysmal away form, get into that top four and move forward.

The Emery Factor

This is the biggest unknown of the lot – how will the players respond to Emery’s high-energy, pressing demands? How will he cope with a league with no ‘rest weeks’ (remember that in both Spain and France, the big clubs can play at 80% many weeks and still win)? Can he wind up Jose Mourinho with subtle digs and win us all over?

He’ll need patience. Man City is a fearsome opener and Arsenal are rightly strong underdogs for that game. A draw against Chelsea isn’t a bad result so we could easily have one point or none after two games, and if that happens, everyone has to stay calm. The press won’t, the fans must.

Final Thoughts

I’m cautiously optimistic but I suspect the overriding word that will ultimately describe this season is ‘transitional‘. That’s not a dirty word – Man United would have loved transitional instead of the more cutting descriptions of the Moyes tenure, but expectations can’t be set too high. Last season we finished 37 points off the top (32 from the bottom), 12 from the top four, and miles behind Spurs. Progression, even gradual, is all we should ask for.

Wenger coverage is just plain weird

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Feb 182017
 

I am baffled.

The BBC 10 o’clock news has a slot towards the end for a sports bulletin, roughly three minutes long. That isn’t a lot of time, and coverage is usually the verbal version of bullet points – short, snappy, blink and you miss it.

Not tonight. Instead of a series of twenty second headlines, the timeslot was entirely given over to the Arsene Wenger obituary. Or at least that was how it seemed. Reflections on his career, from the ‘Arsene who?‘ introductions, through Bergkamp, Henry, the Invincibles and the recent FA Cup triumphs before ending with the Bayern thrashing. Three minutes to cover twenty years isn’t much, so it was still a speedy retrospective, but anyone missing the opening few seconds could be forgiven for thinking the man had died. Or at the very least abruptly walked away from football.

What brought all this on? One single quote, from the morning press conference:

“No matter what happens I will manage for another season. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, that is for sure”

We all know that the press like to take a single sentence soundbite and create a story out of it (and in fairness, they would have no chance of filling a 24 hour ‘news’ cycle if they didn’t) but this is ridiculous. This is Wenger simply saying ‘I’m not retiring‘ and was in direct response to a question asking him whether he ever got tired of it all and considered packing it in. Essentially, he just said ‘no‘.

Yet all day, this single sentence has been taken as a hint that he will move on at the end of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I think that is very possible, but I cannot for the life of me see how this sentence is supposed to be the ultimate signal. Just prior to this question, he had said that he was yet to make a decision on his Arsenal future, and would do so in the spring. That is no different to previous contracts – he always leaves it late to decide and he always bats away such lines of questioning in the meantime.

So, to sum up, he hasn’t made a decision on his Arsenal future yet, he will do so in the same timeframe as he always has, and he isn’t so fed up of management that he wants to retire yet.

So where is the news story from all this?

I don’t understand why anyone expected any different. Arsene Wenger, for all his flaws, is a considered man. He isn’t going to make a decision on his future based on the emotional fallout from any single football match. The picture is much bigger for him than that, more so than it could be for any of us. The straw that breaks our back is never the same one that will break his.

So anyone expecting him to resign (and the enlarged press presence seemed to suggest some considered this a possibility) or indicate that he was going to was, frankly, deluded. And if his mind is going the other way, he is smart enough to know that now would be a very bad time to say he plans to stay. That left one option – the politician’s approach – calmly answer questions, saying much without saying much at all. He is well practised at handling the press, and giving them nothing is something he can do whenever he wishes.

He gave them nothing, and yet they still created a story that simply doesn’t exist. The sharks are circling (which was evident by every one of the questions put to him this morning), and we can all understand why that is the case. Wenger does too, and despite multiple attempts to get him to say that the coverage of him has been unfair, he refused. He knew that biting would add to the ‘senile old man‘ angle that many are leaning towards right now, unfairly in my view. I don’t think it is unreasonable to be seriously questioning his future, and I can see all the arguments for this summer being one of change. But that has limits, and when some try to paint him as an old crackpot, and get away with it because he won’t be goaded, I think a line is crossed.

Ultimately, the decision will be made based on a number of factors, and fan unrest will certainly play into that. But we are not any wiser on his future than we were yesterday, no matter how many career obituaries are hastily thrown together.

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.