Jun 062012

Long time and all that.

May 13. The final day of the league season and the last time I wrote anything on this blog. Been a while, hasn’t it? I have to say, I never fail to be impressed by bloggers who manage to maintain a regular routine of reading, analysing and writing, without taking long breaks to recharge, particularly when so many do it for free. Some achieve a small modicum of income, others have ambitions of making it in the traditional journalism space, but the vast majority do it purely out of a love for the subject upon which they write.

You’ll see many of those to the left of this post – writers who keep us entertained even when there are merely scraps of news to discuss. Have a click, have a read – they are all worth it, I promise you.

As for me, well I definitely needed the break. Since last autumn I have been doing a mixture of long hours, side projects and mammoth commuting (getting up at 4am every day for six months is not something I particularly want to repeat). Work, family, and driving thousands of miles in a few months left precious little time for anything else, notably this blog, upon which my scrawlings have been seen just sixteen times this year. A little less than impressive, you might say.

Why do you care, I hear you ask? Well, you are here right now, which means you are either a reader from back in the days when I actually wrote regularly, or you are someone having a poke around for something new to read. Or, you are immensely bored. Whatever your reasons, I hope you stick around – from today, The Beautiful Groan becomes a daily blog. Yes, you read that correctly. Daily.

It is amazing how much extra time you get when you don’t have to drive five hours every day just to get to work and back.

So what can you look forward to, if you do return? Over the next couple of days I will be looking back over the season, the highs and lows, the success (or otherwise) of my pre-season predictions and do something of an analysis of the state of the club at this point in time. In addition, I’ll be looking forward to (and making predictions for) the European Championships, focusing on the Arsenal interest in particular. Whatever you may think of internationals during the season (and I despise them passionately) – the tournaments themselves are always fun, largely because the format ensures that shocks are likely, rather than the Champions League group stages, for example, through which the big teams always progress. What’s that, Manchester?

So what have I missed? Not a lot, it seems. Some clubs have signed some players. Some players have revealed themselves to be pricks. Some managers have abandoned their existing contracts to move on to bigger clubs, where they will presumably extol the values of loyalty amongst the playing staff. Harry Redknapp is still talking nonsense from his car window. Billionaires are still flagrantly ignoring Financial Fair Play. UEFA still have no backbone. Fans are in uproar that no progress has been made on transfers and contract negotiations involving players expressly banned from engaging in them until the Euros are over. And the transfer window hasn’t even opened yet.

Hop on. It could be a fun summer.

Mar 062011

Tuesday night is huge. Taking a lead to Barcelona is essential if you have any hope of knocking them out of the Champions League, but such a situation is far from a guarantee of success. In fact, I’d go as far as to say we are still heavy underdogs – very few people seem to give us a chance. The ‘that was a great win but you’ll come unstuck in Spain‘ line is commonplace.

They could be right. We might pull off a stunning result in the Nou Camp and progress, or we might go out. If the latter occurs, I have to be honest and say I won’t be as gutted as perhaps I should be. It seems strange, but it feel like a bonus game somehow – losing to Barcelona is no disgrace, and we’ve already proved in the first leg that we can mix it with the best. But more than that, if we aren’t going to win the Champions League, going out now is the best thing that could happen for our chances of lifting silverware this season. Right now, it feels like we’re crawling from one game to the next with walking wounded, a familiar situation that isn’t a sign of squad weakness as the pundits claim, but merely a byproduct of fighting on four fronts. The same analysts who criticise our reserve defenders make excuses for United’s when Vidic and Ferdinand are missing.

The prospect of winning the league is very realistic. United’s defeat leaves us three points behind them with a game in hand. They still have to come to the Emirates, and they still have to play Chelsea. I am certain they will progress past Marseille, so their fixture list is about to get very taxing – no squad in the league can boast a reserve team of stars to step in, even the financial powerhouses of Chelsea and City, so that would bring an inevitable weakening of their team from match to match. The same eleven cannot play every game, as we are finding, and in a way, it is those who step into the breach that are the most important members of the squad.

On Tuesday we are in the Nou Camp, at the weekend we travel to Old Trafford. Van Persie, Vermaelen and Walcott won’t play either, Cesc and Song are doubts for the former, but while that sounds disastrous, it is largely short term. We have only had one midweek off since Christmas, and even that was for the international break in early February. Following next weekend, we have a precious seven days before a trip to West Brom. After that comes another international break, and two weeks until a home game with Blackburn. The midweek that follows is reserved for the Champions League.

Imagine that Barcelona knock us out on Tuesday night. Our fixture list would then look like this:

12 March – Man United, a (FA Cup)

19 March – WBA, a (Premiership)

2 April – Blackburn, h (Premiership)

10 April – Blackpool, a (Premiership)

17 April – Liverpool, a (Premiership), or FA Cup semi final.

Now that is a spaced out fixture list, exactly the sort of thing you need when you have a squad packed with niggling injuries. Vermaelen and Van Persie aside, everyone should be fit by the end of the month, even allowing for setbacks, which means they will only miss one more league game. Not too disastrous for a Premiership title tilt.

Progression in the Champions League would, ironically, make our chances of lifting silverware slimmer, so while a glorious night in Barcelona would be a special occasion, it is in reality a win-win – a loss, and the bookies will slash our Premiership odds.

In other news, the blog will be taking a short break for a family holiday, but only for a few days, so don’t expect anything around the game on Tuesday night. I’ll be doing my best just to watch it, and put up with foreign commentary (which, in fairness, is likely to be an improvement). I also missed celebrating another blog birthday (four years old now, bless), and as usual I will be giving the site a belated birthday present on my return.

What present, I hear you ask (perhaps)? Well, from next weekend I’ll be doing my best to make this a daily blog rather than the infrequently updated site that it currently is, with a few new weekly features to look out for, and to add to that, the podcast will return on March 16. It ran only for three episodes last year, and if I’m totally honest it was a little placid, so I’m looking to liven it up a little. Stay tuned for that.

So all that is left to say is enjoy the week, enjoy Barcelona and I’ll see you on the other side.

Apr 202010

First things first, let’s get the site news out of the way. Regular readers of the blog will notice that it looks very different – I’ve been working on a redesign for some time now, and it finally went live today. So have a poke around, see what you think and if you spot anything out of place, please let me know.

The extra observant among you may have noticed the two new features. The first is a long overdue subscription service, so you can finally get Groan updates by email if you so wish. Just click here, enter your email address and you’re away.

The second is the Beautiful Groan Podcast, which is due for launch on May 5 (a fortnight away), and will run every Wednesday from then on. And yes, I am aware that the first episode comes out four days before the season ends. My timing is impeccable.

So back to Arsenal news, and no matter where you go, it feels as if the season has ended. Barring a few worriers who are spending their time looking over their shoulders at City and Spurs (to think either can get near us considering their run-ins and the already substantial gap is fanciful in the extreme), everyone is talking about next season. And I’m not just referring to us fans – the club are at it too.

Nasri has been defending the lack of a trophy, claiming that this season has set us up well for next year:

“I think we have more merit as a club than those who have built their teams with millions of pounds whereas Arsenal have brought in young footballers, who have come here to play a certain kind of football and who have developed.”

“I am hoping that our squad will stay unchanged because we are really good and with a year more experience, we can achieve some great things next season.”

He isn’t alone. Wenger claims this season to be a success, pointing to the sustained title challenge:

“I feel we have made huge steps forward this year compared to last year and the year before that. This year I feel we have appeased our fans a lot. We have always shown a great attitude, a great response when needed.”

Aside from the questionable timing of praising the attitude of the players, you can’t really argue with either quote. We have improved this year despite a deeper injury crisis, and those who believe us to be static forget how poor we were in the early stages of last season. Sorry defeats like the capitulation to Wigan were happening on a regular basis, but with an improved team ethic we have made great strides.

But am I alone in thinking these platitudes can wait a few weeks? We have three games to go, and whatever you think of our position, those games mean an awful lot. I don’t mean as a bearing on the title race, which we’re out of, or for securing Champions League football, which is assured with one good result, but as a way of finishing the season strongly, leaving the fans on a high throughout the summer, and giving us reason to look at the campaign with a smile, not the tainted memories of a late season collapse.

These three games could define how the entire season is viewed – close to the top pair, or fighting it out for third and fourth – and that alone gives them a huge importance. And when you take the opposition into account – Adebayor, Bellamy, Allardyce – you cannot say the season is done and dusted.

So while everything Nasri, Wenger and others says is true, those seasonal summaries can wait until the campaign is over. And it isn’t over until we’ve given ourselves a feel good ending.

It isn’t June. It isn’t May. It is only April, and that means there’s football to be played.

Mar 242010

Let’s start with the disappointing yet ultimately unsurprising news that the FA have rejected Arsenal’s appeal over Tomas Vermaelen’s red card.

Everyone agrees that Vermaelen was harshly sent off, but it seems that ‘harsh’ is not enough for the FA. It hasn’t been for a long time – anything even remotely subjective gets thrown out without a second glance. In that way, the appeal was futile from the very start – only if the players had been ten yards apart would the FA have considered retracting the decision.

Some feared that the ban might be extended, but that was an unnecessary worry too – if you look at the appeals deemed frivolous this season, they are all clear cut cases, usually violent conduct. Appealing a red card when you’ve walloped someone in the face is stupid, this one doesn’t come close.

So Vermaelen will miss the trip to Birmingham, leaving Wenger with a major decision to make. Assuming Campbell can play either at Birmingham or against Barcelona but not both, he has to decide where the big man is more important. With Gallas still out (and I’m told he won’t be fit for Barcelona, contrary to reports), Sol and Vermaelen are our main pair, but does he play them both in the Champions League and partner Silvestre with Song at the weekend? That would be risky.

Personally, I think he’ll partner Song and Campbell this weekend, and Song and Vermaelen next Wednesday. Why? Simple – I think he’s lost faith in Silvestre. When Vermaelen was sent off at the weekend, the obvious substitution was Silvestre for Denilson, but instead, he pushed Song back.

Now consider that Song was putting in a man of the match shift in midfield. Despite the obvious damage removing Song from our midfield would do, Wenger still considered it a better option than Silvestre at the back.

What this does show is how lucky we were that Gallas and Vermaelen stayed fit for the first half of the season. With Djourou out, Silvestre was the only cover, and frankly, had he been forced to play even semi-regularly, we wouldn’t be in the title race.

So instead of bemoaning Vermaelen’s suspension, let’s just be glad he has remained injury free all campaign.

Elsewhere, the papers are stirring the pot again. There are the scurrilous Cesc to Inter stories, which are laughable in the extreme, while Arshavin is quoted as being concerned by the state of the squad:

“I am still of the opinion that to win trophies Arsenal needs more players.”

“There is the simple fact that last summer we sold two players and bought only one. So there is an obvious deficit of at least one. Then we lost Van Persie, Gibbs and Ramsey for a long time. So for me it is natural we need new players.”

It seems pretty clear to me that these words have been taken out of context. The press are having a field day, claiming that the Russian is ruling us out of the title race, but given that he is talking about last summer’s activity, it makes sense to presume he was asked about what he hoped Arsenal would do this summer. When you put his answer in that context, it seems perfectly reasonable, with him seemingly suggesting that we need to keep strengthening to win trophies on a regular basis.

No arguments here. The timing has been questioned, but Arshavin seems to be a guy who answers all questions put to him, which takes the timing out of his hands.

Finally, we come to Tony Pulis, who has had yet another dig at Arsene Wenger, claiming that his team are getting no respect from the bigger sides:

“Everywhere you look there’s people who want to shoot us down.”

“It wasn’t in the script for us to be competitive. That’s why you get people like Arsene Wenger moaning on at you – because we have made it difficult for them and we’re not supposed to do that.”

Where to start with this idiot? Firstly, Wenger had a go after the recent game because Ramsey’s leg had just been shattered. And quite frankly, I thought he was impressively restrained – perhaps indicative of how used he is to seeing that sort of incident.

Pulis, like so many others who like to ‘rough up’ the big boys, think that we expect them to roll over when they come to town. We don’t – the fact that anyone can beat anyone is the league is why it is so fantastic. We are even relying on that competitive edge denying United and Chelsea points between now and the end of the season, so to claim that they ‘weren’t supposed to be competitive’ is ridiculous.

For the record, Stoke’s Premiership record against the three title contenders this season is Played 4, Lost 4.

What Wenger rightly objects to is the style of football that is intended to hurt and injure, and the tactic of rotational fouling where no individual catches the eye of the referee, but they all take turns to kick players. That isn’t football, but the problem we have is the likes of Pulis and Allardyce believing it to be a legitimate approach. That they get away with it is a sad indictment of the attitude of referees. On the continent, they would not survive.

As for respect, I’m sorry, but if your two tactics are to a) kick lumps out of the opposition and b) get a player to spend 45 seconds drying a ball on a towel and then hurling it into the box, then you aren’t going to get any. Deal with it.

That’s about it for today. In the next few days you will notice the site take on a different look – I’ve been working on a redesign for some time and it is (finally) nearly ready. Stay tuned for that, and more goodies.

Until tomorrow.

Mar 012010

Three years ago, I started this blog to little fanfare and even fewer readers. Back then, I would be lucky if ten people popped along to see what I’d written, and my jaw would drop anytime a comment arrived.

Three years and two server moves on, I am having more fun with it than ever, thanks to its interactive nature. Writing for no-one gets dry fairly quickly, so I’d like to thank readers, commenters, abusers and mailers for all your time, whether you’re a silent reader, someone who agrees with what I have to say, someone who doesn’t and is happy to debate it, or even those just here to start an argument. It wouldn’t be the same without you. In fact, it probably wouldn’t still be going without you.

The blog got a new hosting company and a makeover for its second birthday. For its third it got an early birthday present of another new hosting company, and a dedicated server all to itself. A new look will follow as and when I get the time to design it.

For now, I just want to say thanks – please keep reading, keep the feedback coming, and enjoy the year ahead.

Happy birthday Groan.