Jul 122010

An underwhelming final completed a largely disappointing World Cup last night, with Spain edging out Holland to lift the trophy for the first time. And just as in the European Championship final two years ago, it was Cesc providing the assist for the only goal, this time setting up Iniesta to crash in the winner just minutes from a penalty shoot out.

A clash between Spain and Holland was a mouth watering prospect – not only are they usually two of the most aesthetically pleasing teams (along with the current crop of Germans), but there was an added mystique lent by the extraordinary statistic that they had never met in the World Cup or European Championships before. But the Dutch decided to ruin the game by employing strongarm Stoke-esque tactics, and were lucky not to be men down much earlier than extra time – Van Bommel and de Jong getting away with two of the worst challenges of the tournament.

At half time, Alan Hansen laid into the Dutch tactics, calling them ‘a step too far’, eerily reminiscent of the same words used by both Cesc and Wenger after Ryan Shawcross had destroyed Aaron Ramsey’s leg. But on that day, Hansen lambasted Wenger, essentially telling Arsenal to grow up and legitimising the tactic due to it being the ‘only way to cope with Arsenal’s superior technique’.

Well, if that statement doesn’t sum up everything that is wrong the British attitude to football, I don’t know what does. Last night was no different to what we’ve seen for years – teams that know they cannot outpass their opposition so resort to thuggery. It is not a valid tactic in any way, it should not be praised and lauded as such, yet Hansen, Lawrenson and co do exactly that week in, week out. To then do a complete 180 and lay into the Dutch was hypocrisy at its rawest. Those following me on Twitter will have seen me spitting fire on the subject at the time.

Don’t get me wrong – the criticism Holland received was entirely justified. Sure, Spain were no angels, but they were the victims of some frankly shocking challenges, the type of which should grace no game. That Van Bommel was guilty of one came as a surprise to no-one.

But once the first day of the Premiership arrives, the viewpoint will revert. As soon as a Wigan, Stoke, Bolton or Blackburn player scythes into a technically superior opponent, he will be praised for ‘letting his opponent know he is there’ and ‘getting stuck in’. And if those are the traits we value above all, is it any surprise England crashed out so early, struggling even to control the football at times?

Imagine being Wenger today – he will be well aware of Hansen’s contrasting views of Holland and Stoke, and if I were in his shoes, I’d be raising that very point early in the season. But Wenger has more class than that, and understands that such a reaction will give the pundits the satisfaction of getting under his skin. He will instead listen patiently as they slate the lack of an end product to all the Arsenal passes, compare the number of goals Arsenal and Spain score, and shrug with an ironic smile.

Spain did not win the World Cup because of their stellar attacking, no matter what the press are telling you. They scored eight goals in seven games, looking toothless much of the time. No, they won it because they did not concede in the knockout rounds. The difference between Spain and Arsenal is not end product, it is that Spain do not give the opposition an idiotic headstart.

But don’t expect to hear those kind of sensibilities on the BBC anytime soon.

I had high hopes for the coverage of the final – having ditched some of the less useful pundits (as soon as African interest ended, so did Adebayor’s television time), the BBC could have given the tournament a great send off. But each of the panel quickly made their desire for Spain to win abundantly clear, which made for a painful listen, especially given their remit of neutrality.

By the end, I couldn’t stomach any more of Hansen celebrating the ‘victory for football’, or using Wenger’s own ‘anti-football’ phrase to describe the Dutch, so I switched off, although not before witnessing the farcical trophy presentation, where the entire Spanish squad was crammed into a tiny holding area. Ridiculous.

All in all, it has been a disappointing summer. I love the World Cup, I really do, but this one hasn’t sparked me in any way. There were few thrillers, no minnows going the distance, no stunning comebacks. Even the best goals were largely down to goalkeeping errors.

But on a positive note, the end of the tournament signals the beginning of the build up to another season. Due to players being away from their clubs, the transfer window has essentially been compressed, and the next few weeks should be very interesting. Hold on to your hats.

Jun 252010

You analyse the fixtures, pick a match you’re desperate to watch, and get into work early to ensure you’re home in time. Minutes before kick off, you grab a beer from the fridge and perch yourself on the sofa, no intention of moving for a couple of hours. On goes the television, and then comes the big moment – is it on BBC, or ITV? Flick on to BBC1 – The Weakest Link. Crap, it’s on ITV.

Cue painful commentary from Clive ‘Pointless reference to the past’ Tyldesley, analysis from Andy Townsend and Robbie Earle (at least, until he was sacked), and general annoyance from Craig Burley. Adverts that take up more of half time than the programme, endless slow motion replays, and a complete lack of intelligence all round. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even mind Adrian Chiles.

But what really takes the biscuit is ITV Live, supposedly the way to track the games while at work. It seemed such a great idea – streaming the matches online, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the ITV stream is usually around three minutes behind, although on one hand I don’t mind that so much – I can hear someone in the office exclaiming at the goal, and then flick up the images and watch it ‘live’. Or at least I would, if the online coverage hadn’t already dropped out.

You see, the stream cuts out approximately every two minutes. Sometimes it comes back thirty seconds later (and now thirty seconds further behind reality than before), and sometimes it just dies entirely. No matter, you might say, just refresh the page, and since the online coverage is a couple of minutes delayed, you’ll probably get the pictures back before the goal goes in.

Well, that’s true – you get pictures back. Unfortunately they aren’t pictures of the match – they are adverts. ITV have come up with the genius idea that instead of attaching you direct to their main coverage (and therefore getting adverts at half time with everyone else), they will force you to sit through three adverts every time you load the service. Even if a penalty shoot out is at a critical juncture. Or if you have the restart the ‘service’ every few minutes.

What this means is whenever you hear a yelp to indicate there’s been a goal, you flick to the stream, only to find it has inevitably fallen over. You desperately fumble around to kick it back into life, get the ‘loading’ screen, and sit back relieved. Three infuriating adverts follow, by which time the goal (and all the incessant replays) have been shown. Oh joy.

They have been shambolic from start to finish. Their presenting team is painful, I’ve watched more matches on mute than ever in my life, their online service is crap, and the debacle of missing England’s goal against USA would have sounded ludicrous had they not done the exact same thing in the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Everton last season.

Not that the BBC get off scot free. While their coverage certainly seems more professional, they still have the infuriating contrast of the monotone Mick McCarthy and the squeaky over-excited Mark Bright. Both come out with complete nonsense – Bright is a master of idiocy, regularly watching a slow motion replay and describing the events wholly wrongly.

McCarthy, meanwhile, was asked why Argentina were so impressive against South Korea, and replied ‘It’s because they play 4-4-2‘. There was a pause, as clarification was awaited, but none came. That was the full analysis, as if the formation was the sole reason for success. Can’t argue with it, after all Messi has been spectacular for Barcelona this season in a 4-….oh.

But with the BBC, there seems to be higher level of professionalism. With Lineker, Hansen, Hodgson, Dixon and Seedorf providing the intelligent points, their analysis is far more insightful, especially for the bigger games, when the hysterical are ditched and the experienced brought in.

The BBC have their flaws. But ITV have an astonishing knack for removing my pre-match excitement just by knowing it is them covering the game. Some feat.

Jun 182010

After a 2-0 defeat to Mexico tonight, France have become the first big team to come within touching distance of elimination. A Uruguay-Mexico carve-up in the final group games would see both through – a draw sees Uruguay top the group with Mexico second, no matter what France do to South Africa.

It was dramatic, it was exciting and frankly, it was deserved – Mexico were excellent, France poor. Given how much we love to see the big nations brought down a peg, it should have been highly enjoyable.

But it wasn’t, thanks to the commentators and the reactive media (particularly a few sanctimonious ones on Twitter) taking the opportunity to mention that handball in that playoff match every minute of the game, as if France’s loss was more of a victory for Ireland than it was for Mexico.

I don’t pretend to know the entire Irish population. But while those I do were pretty irritated by Henry’s handball at the time, they soon got over it. They certainly put it behind them quicker than the English media, led by a few individuals calling for Henry to be banned for the tournament, France to be thrown out, and other ludicrous and overblown suggestions.

Tonight was a huge win for Mexico. A draw would have left them needing to beat a flying Uruguay, but instead they proved the talent they have in the squad and are on the brink of qualification for the knockout stages. They should have been the stars, yet inexplicably, too many chose to focus on the ‘karma’ of the situation and how delighted Ireland would be, despite a) as far as I can see, the Irish don’t care anymore and b) Henry didn’t even feature in the game.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt for Ireland at the time, and if some still harbour ill feeling towards Henry, and France in general, then maybe they will have enjoyed tonight a little more than most. But the impression I get is that the majority hold no such grudge, so this continued campaign of vitriol is not representative of their feelings in any way.

The more the written press continue this faux holier than thou attitude on behalf of a nation that do not desire or require their ‘support’, the more they irritate me. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

For the record, I have a sneaky suspicion France will still go through. Mexico will fancy their chances of beating Uruguay to top the group, therefore avoiding Argentina in the second round, and that would open the door to France, provided they can hammer a demoralised South Africa. Don’t write them off just yet.

As for the Arsenal representatives, no-one covered themselves in glory. The entire French team was unimpressive, while at the other end Vela missed a great chance before going off with a hamstring injury. In earlier matches, Cesc inexplicably remained on the bench while his teammates lost to Switzerland, and Eboue was part of an Ivory Coast defence untroubled by Portugal.

On the plus side, the entertainment level of the tournament has picked up after a slow and cagey start – Argentina demolished South Korea today, and teams are certainly playing with a freedom missing in the early days.

Betting Update

After a bad day yesterday – three out of three bets failed to come in – Argentina’s big win over South Korea and Greece’s victory over Nigeria boosted the profits once more. Part of me wishes I was staking more than a pound on each bet…

I will continue to place a bet on each match in the tournament, adding some random ones here and there, so keep checking the tracker to the right to see how it is going.

Other Arsenal news

The fixture list is out for the 2010/11 season and we start with a belter – a trip to Anfield to face a Liverpool side hoping to feel the effect of a new manager. Our next crunch game is also away – Chelsea on October 2.

November, often a bad month, will again be tricky – Everton (away), Villa (away) and Spurs (home) provide plenty of challenges, especially surrounded by Champions League fixtures. We complete the trio of away games against the Big Four before Christmas.

If we are in contention at Christmas, having played Liverpool, United, Chelsea, Everton, City and Villa away, we are in with a real shout.

But that is for another time – I have to be honest and say that I struggle to get excited about the season when it is so far away. When the players start training again, and we play our first pre-season match, everything will change.

Before then, we have the rest of the World Cup. And I love it, at least when the TV is muted.

May 192010

It has all kicked off today, hasn’t it?

We always knew this would be the summer of Cesc, or more pertinently, the summer of incessant transfer rumours surrounding our captain, irrespective of whether any truth lay within the articles. Barcelona’s presidential campaign ensured that, and our end to the season allowed the assembled hacks to play their ‘Arsenal in crisis’ trump card.

Today’s rumours began from a fairly innocuous source. Spanish paper AS carried a story in which Joan Laporta (who, remember, will not be Barcelona president much longer) claimed both Cesc and David Villa had expressed a desire to move to Barcelona, with Villa’s negotiations progressing more smoothly of the pair. The Guardian followed up by reporting the story as fact.

Since then, it has been rumour and counter rumour. Various media folk are suggesting that the story is well-sourced, but there is little concrete evidence to suggest that this is anything other than the overblowing of another Spanish media attempt to unsettle a player.

In short, most of us do not know the facts.

What has been incredibly frustrating to watch is the hysteria that has surrounded the story. The day has essentially followed the following pattern:

  • Stage 1 – denial. The story written off as garbage.
  • Stage 2 – hype. More and more people jumped on the bandwagon, giving the story far more credibility than it had previously – whether or not the story turns out to be true, this is the surefire way of legitimising a rumour.
  • Stage 3 – panic. A slew of articles about Arsenal in meltdown, calls for Wenger’s head and the complete removal of the board.
  • Stage 4 – abuse. Suddenly Cesc is disloyal, contemptuous of the fans, and not even that great a player. Worse still, his sister gets a torrent of disgusting abuse on Twitter.
  • Stage 5 – claims of knowledge. Certain members of the written press actually have some knowledge, as do perhaps 5% of bloggers, but most are simply inventing a unique angle on the outcome. Yaya Toure is a makeweight. No, hang on, Ibrahimovic is coming the other way. Or maybe they’ll give us a keeper. Or Xavi.

I have to be honest – it has been truly awful to watch. Fans turning on each other, the management, the players – anyone they can turn their anger on. Hype has turned into hysteria, worry into panic, disappointment into the worst kind of abuse. I have had absolutely no desire to even attempt to add reason to the debate – those who have tried have been comprehensively drowned out by the wailing of the masses.

In the absence of concrete quotes (from reliable sources, at least) or a desire to invent a brand new angle (we’ll have Iniesta, Bojan and £60m please), I thought it wise instead to return to the facts.

Cesc will return to Barcelona at some point. We all know that, and that knowledge ensures that we cannot simply write off these sorts of rumours as complete garbage. One summer, they will be true.

That said, Cesc’s most recent quotes indicated that he intends to stay at Arsenal for a while yet. Of course, his mind could have been swayed by a number of factors – the end to our season, Barcelona’s superiority in the Champions League, or even something as fundamental as missing home.

If any of those reasons have driven him to request a transfer, then I fail to see why we can possibly hold it against him. A return to your hometown would be appealing to any man or woman in any profession, especially if that homecoming included a hefty payrise and the joining of perhaps the biggest name in your field of work (the analogy’s getting weak here, I know).

However, Arsenal are in better financial shape than they have been in years, so Barcelona cannot drive a hard bargain. Cesc will understand the economics of the situation – if Arsenal do not receive an excellent valuation, he won’t leave – it really is as simple as that. He has four years to run on his contract, and seems level headed enough to realise that if Barcelona under-offer, the transfer will not occur.

The key difference between this potential transfer and so many others is that Cesc’s value is not going to drop – he is young and miles away from the end of his current deal. Under normal circumstances, clubs are forced to cash in to avoid losing their star men for free, but we have no such worries.

If Cesc leaves, it will be a bitter blow, but we will recover as we have in the past. If he stays, he will continue to lead in his inspirational fashion.

Either way, I’ll support him from the rafters. Unlike so many raising their voices today, the man has acted with class throughout.

May 042010

Blackburn 2 (Dunn 44, Samba 68) Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 13)

If I were in Arsene Wenger’s shoes this morning, I’d have called the players in, sat them down in front of a big screen, and played them Sam Allardyce’s post-match interview. And once it was finished, I’d have played it again. And again. And again.

Looking at his smug face, gloating at the success of his predictable tactics, should drive the message home to those who failed to put in the required effort yesterday – if you play one of his sides, you have to be up for a battle. Cruise around the pitch, duck out of the physical contests, and you will be beaten. Stand up to the challenge, and your superior ability should shine through.

And for goodness sake, give your goalkeeper a little protection. If three opponents are crowding him, get in amongst them and disrupt them right back. It isn’t rocket science, people.

But apparently, to some of these players, it is. Traore, given an opportunity to prove his worth at left back, shirked every opportunity to drive forward. Vela missed a sitter early on then vanished. Diaby had another of his lazy days.

You can’t afford that against Blackburn. In fact, you can’t afford that against many teams – go away from home in the Premiership and you will face a challenge – it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, they won’t make it easy. If they work harder than we do, any technical advantage is cancelled out.

Of course there are extenuating circumstances – we lost Song, Rosicky, Clichy, Bendtner and Denilson on top of our existing absentees. But while a drop in quality is understandable, a decline in effort is baffling – the thing with injuries is it gives the squad a chance to shine. They not only failed to take it, they didn’t seem that bothered.

We have one game left this season, and third place is still not secure. A draw against Fulham is all we need, and while that might seem a foregone conclusion, so would some of the other games we’ve chucked away in recent times. We fought so hard to be in the title race this season, and the stark contrast in fortunes as soon as that drive slipped away shows just how little we can afford to let up. A small drop in work rate and the points dry up.

Fabianski has taken the flak this morning, and he was indeed at fault for the second goal – he was bustled but he and the rest of the defence need to be stronger than that. But I’m more annoyed with certain other members of the team – the Pole worked hard and made some fine saves under pressure. Some of the rest ambled around as if the game didn’t matter.

It did matter, to the fans who will be here long after they’ve departed. It will always matter against Sam Allardyce, and if they never want to see his smug face again, they’d better buck their ideas up.