Ordinarily speaking, I prefer not to group people and collectively label them based on whatever it is they believe. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: far right political groups, people who don’t like Coldplay and Spurs fans. Another set of people who have recently claimed a place among this most tarnished of lists are a certain section of Arsenal fans. If you are an Arsenal fan or have any connection to this most unfortunate sector of them, you will be familiar with them. The kind who will boo their own players; who use losses and poor results as chances to push their agendas and most significantly, with regard to this particular piece, those who called for the dismissal of the best manager in the club’s history.
The support-base should not be divided into these laboured Twitter terms for the purpose of building factions. ‘AKB’ (‘Arsène Knows Brigade) is one I have had thrown at me quite a lot, while the other factions are described ‘WOBs’ (Wenger Out Brigade) and other such nonsensical terms. These are just methods of labelling those who disagree with you under some cult-ish banner. One could argue I am doing just that with this piece, but this is not to group them all together under one huge headline, but just to point out the folly of those who take forward this most misguided and moronic of stances. Of course, one should not simply take the boss’s statements and actions as gospel – that way madness lies – and naturally questions must be asked, at times, but this piece is targeted at those who are so staunchly opposed to the current coach and will use any opportunity to attempt to deride and denigrate him.
Any person must be several shades of stupid to want Arsene Wenger out of Arsenal. While it has been a season that transcended the word ‘turbulent’ and the last seven trophy-free years have been somewhat trying for Arsenal fans, it takes an impressive level of ignorance not to appreciate that – although the manager has made his share of mistakes – he has done an incredible job to keep Arsenal at the level at which they have been for so long. What he has given to the club over his 15 years in the top job far outweigh any negatives that have come about in this time. I am not planning to evaluate his achievements before 2005: there is no need. He revolutionised the club and English football as a whole, overseeing a team playing a magnificent brand of football. An unbeaten season, two doubles and another FA Cup. Not bad, eh? But since, as we have read so, so, so many times, there have been no trophies. Many a near miss, but no silverware.
“We try to go a different way that, for me, is respectable. Briefly, these are the basics. I thought: “We are building a stadium, so I will get young players in early so I do not find myself exposed on the transfer market without the money to compete with the others. I build a team, and we compensate by creating a style of play, by creating a culture at the club because the boy comes in at 16 or 17 and when they go out they have a supplement of soul, of love for the club, because they have been educated together. The people you meet at college from 16 to 20, often those are the relationships in life that keep going. That, I think, will give us strength that other clubs will not have.”
In 2006, Arsenal moved from Highbury, their home of 93 years, to the Emirates Stadium. The journey was not long, but it was costly. Around £420,000,000 was spent on the stadium alone. Naturally, this would significantly hinder them in the transfer market so, as the above quote would suggest, Wenger planned ahead. He foresaw the problems he would face and so aimed to build a successful team, while having to prematurely break-up the ‘Invincibles’ so that the club could continue to challenge and remain financially stable. They reached major finals in 2006, 2007 and 2011, semi finals in 2009 and closely challenged for the league in 2008, 2010 and 2011. While physical success was absent, it was not that they were disappearing into the abyss; they became nearly men. The culmination of the Frenchman’s plan was supposed to be 2007/08 – perhaps, with reflection, the most painful year for Arsenal supporters. A side described by Wenger as “technically perfect” was strolling its way to the league until that day up at Birmingham that we shall not mention further. After that, there was a blip which eventually saw Arsenal finishing just four points behind winners Manchester United. Following that season, the young squad, so close to achieving a mere morsel of its potential was severely damaged by Mathieu Flamini’s departure to AC Milan and Aliaksandr Hleb’s to Barcelona. There is a theme developing here.
It has seemed for some time now that whenever they threaten to revert to the days of success, a vital part of the team decides that he no longer wants to be a part of it, for varying different reasons. After 07/08 it was Hleb and Flamini – one for ‘ambition’, the other on principle; after 08/09, Emmanuel Adebayor departed (though one could argue that he was sold, rather than taken) – another in search of more money; and as for the last summer, well, losing Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri (again, to money) and then Cesc Fabregas (mitigating circumstances) at one time would damage any team. Alas, these can be looked at simply as ‘excuses’ or ‘being a Wenger apologist’ on my part. He has made errors which have adversely affected the team while in search of trophies, but without him, the ambitions at the start of each season would have been pushed much, much lower.
While medals were scant, the retention of Champions League football in spite of such a wealth of leavers has been both miraculous and imperative. Since the wondrous days of the Invincibles, there can be no doubting that Arsenal have receded. But not by an awful lot. The ‘big four’ was something of an elite club between 2003 and 2009, with only one team beyond Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United finishing in the Champions League spots but, due to circumstances well-documented, Liverpool did manage to keep their place in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. A glimpse down the table at Liverpool shows what missing out on the Champions League and a lack of managerial stability can do to a team. Since they first fell short of the top four (and including that season), their league finishes have been 7th, 7th and 8th. Over £100,000,000 has been spent; three managers have come and gone; almost all of their ‘big players’ with the exception of Gerrard have moved. This is not to say Arsenal would definitely suffer the same way, as Liverpool were suffering thanks to their ownership situation, but what they did find was that the best players no longer wanted to stay at a club they could see was going backwards. The best players did not want to go to a club that no longer offered Champions League football and they struggled to invest, to a degree, without the windfall the competition provided, which is estimated to be around £45,000,000. Wenger has ensured that Arsenal have maintained their status in this most exclusive of groups and where others may have taken a more short-termist approach, he chose to prioritise the club’s standing over the cup competitions. While it can be and has been frustrating for the supporters, the benefits of it will be seen in time and are being seen by most now. What is eight years, when one looks at the complete rebuilding job that is afoot up by the Mersey and how many years it will take to restore them to their old heights? And they do not (as of yet, at least) have a huge stadium debt to be fighting against.
So, at the expense of trophies, Arsenal have retained Champions League football for the last eight years. Their general investment as had to be minimal so they can scale down their stadium debt. In this table – which encompasses all transfers up to and including the sale of Nasri – it is clear to see how the onus has shifted with regard to the limitations placed on Wenger by the need to operate financially healthily. It shows that the Gunners have only had a transfer deficit in two seasons since they moved to the Emirates in 2006, with the overall net gain at around £41,052,000 (based on figures from sportingintelligence.com and transfermarkt.de). In September, the overall level of debt stood at just short of £100,000,000, and will only have come down since, with commercial revenue, matchday money, the retention of Champions League football and the recent sale of a property development, which brought in around £30,000,000. This is very much aided by the fans, who pay the highest season ticket prices in the league, as well as those outside the country, who make Arsenal to be one of the top ten most supported club worldwide. In the summer ahead, it is quite possible; if not probable the we will see a “shift” in Arsenal’s transfer policy. With the acquisitions of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud for circa £10,000,000 each and the strong likelihood of others following suit, it looks as though Wenger has now got more access to funds to buy the kind of players he did before the move: more experienced and established ones, such as the aforementioned forwards and akin to the likes of Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Sol Campbell and many others in the ‘old days’.
Within these tougher recent years, some of the criticisms of him have had their merits. His over-paying and over-playing of younger players and some of his mistakes in the transfer market have deserved scrutiny and negative assessment, but these are, in the grand scheme of things, rather minor with a look at what he has achieved and what he will achieve. A glimpse at what former and current players alike have said about him is illuminating. The respect he commands from so many corners is warranted. Most importantly of all, Arsenal have not gone backwards on the stadium’s account, but stagnated. This has its roots in the financial constraints, the player sales and – to a point – just down right misfortune (I think here to some of the injuries); his errors have, in some cases, it can be argued, stopped Arsenal from jumping back up to the pre-Emirates heights. History has shown that he can take Arsenal back to where they were, while that which held them back is slowly dissolving.
Last season was the most important of his present and future in North London. Fabregas and Nasri made way; missing out on the Champions League would surely see the remaining star players leave and in turn, attracting new players would be more difficult without the promise of it. Even though he must take his share of criticism for how it began, the way he fixed the problems and managed to recover from horrible first six weeks and the almost-as-bad January to recover third place meant he emerged glowing. This relative success (after all, third was “our trophy”) must be use as a platform to build and become the team those before it could have been. One would be searching a very long time if they were looking for a manager who could have achieved what Wenger has these last eight years. He will see Arsenal back to the ‘good old days’. If the summer ahead goes as planned, it could be very soon.
The quite frankly embarrassing hyperbole and hurt feelings of a number of British tabloid journalist caused by Daniel Levy sacking Harry Redknapp has meant that genuine conclusions about what his sacking means for Tottenham have been lost, in a certain area of the press, amid the fury of the jilted journalists. Redknapp himself claimed that had he remained in charge, Spurs would have just two years to wait for their first league title since 1961. By reading some writers, you would think ‘Arry had just won the Champions League, rather than fail to make it – or does having criticised him for his role in their collapse mean I have ‘lost the privilege’ of calling him by his first name?
Daniel Levy has received a lot of criticism from these corners, but he had a very difficult call to make, and action was most definitely of the essence. In the past few weeks, Manchester United have confirmed a deal for Shinji Kagawa; Chelsea for Hulk, Marko Marin and Eden Hazard, while Arsenal have added Lukas Podolski and all-but signed Olivier Giroud, with much talk surrounding a potential move for Yann M’Vila. And as if Manchester City’s league-winning squad was not good enough, one can be sure they will aim to improve it. In short, their rivals are strengthening. Meanwhile Jan Vertonghen is stalling on signing with them, Rafael van der Vaart is in negotiations with Schalke about a possible return to the Bundesliga, Luka Modric – if Vedran Corluka’s comments are anything to go by – is reviewing his options and Garreth Bale’s agent seems to be touting him to the highest bidder. And today a story emerged that many players are trying to claim their Champions League bonuses on account of the fact that they finished fourth, ignoring the mitigating circumstances meaning they will not be playing in the competition. Quite aside from the stupidity of it – where do they think the money for those bonuses would have come from? – it reflects the current mood at the club: short of mutinous, but very far from Valhalla.
So clearly, something had to change. Attracting new players without the promise of the Champions League would be difficult. After they were 13 points clear in third place, Redknapp was a key figure in their monumental (and hilarious) collapse (my views on Spurs’ collapse and its causes) and Levy clearly felt that while he “rescued them from relegation” 8 games into the season, he was not the man to take them forward. A fair judgement, based on his actions and failings when his team were on the cusp of some sort of contextual success. With their rivals for the top four steaming off into the distance, Levy acted decisively, because he felt he needed to close the gap that was emerging. A perfectly logical decision, with that mindset.
But Redknapp did have the team playing an enjoyable brand of football and had them higher in the league table than they had been for some time. Perhaps, in aiming to look to the long term, Levy was in fact being short-sighted. He was a popular figure with the players; is it possible his departure will trigger those aforementioned players, and others, to force moves with more veracity than they otherwise would have. He had much of that squad bought for him but they were, as the old cliché goes, ‘playing for him’ as much as themselves. Would the squad be as motivated to play for a new manager?
The question of what he brought to Spurs has to be raised, if it is such a bad decision to let him go. Redknapp never brought any physical success, in trophy form. Though he did manage to get them to the Champions League and from there, the quarter finals of the competition. He finished 4th, 5th and 4th in his three full seasons, fighting against the oil-rich Manchester City in his first two seasons and Chelsea in the third. They had the sixth highest wage bill in the league by the time he left at around £130,000,000, almost double what it was when he arrived in 2008, but still significantly lower than the three above them, Chelsea and Liverpool. Considering his adoration for transfers, his net spend was surprisingly low, at roughly £12,500,000. By January 2012 they were comfortably in third place; adored by the media: they were fun, new and different; not the plaything of an Oligarch or a Sheikh (just an English billionaire based in the Bahamas, a tax exile, in Joe Lewis) and this was all seen as fantastic work by Redknapp. But really, with many of those players having been either there when he arrived and his tactical ignorance, it is arguable that he did not have a great effect beyond his motivating the team. Michael Dawson, Ledley King, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Sandro, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart were either already at the club upon his arrival or bought for him.
He did well to achieve what he did with relatively limited resources, but a lot of it was not his work. Indeed, the good form at the start of the 11/12 season which is attributed to him from many corners was, in fact, undone by him. They witnessed a manager descend into panic, almost single-handedly taking them down from their great flight which, to a degree, shows that he was unable to lead them to greater things. While he got them to the top four in 09/10, he was unable to keep them there. Despite Redknapp’s claims to the contrary, Champions League football is monumentally important for attracting players, retaining players and the generated revenue. His failure to keep them among the elite was the reason for his sacking, so by proxy, the new man in charge must be able to do so.
This will define the answer to the headline question. Currently, Spurs are in a curiously precarious position. The futures of their star players remain unknown and as their opponents improve and they struggle to follow suit, their own chances of returning to the Champions League grow more distant with each passing day. However, at this point they have lost no key players and whoever the new manager will be shall have a healthy amount of money to attempt to improve the side. The most popular names connected with the post have been David Moyes, Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas.
Moyes has been working on an extremely tight budget for many years now, at Everton, achieving far more than others net spend would. He has shown that he is well capable of taking a team from mid-table to the top six, but is unproven beyond that. He managed to take Everton to 4th in the 04/05 season but they met eventual semi-finalists Villarreal in the qualifying round and were knocked out. With the chase on which Spurs must embark, his suitability must be questioned, but it is the next logical step up for him and would be a good appointment for them. If it is the next step up for Moyes, it would be a good three or four steps for Martinez and would come too soon for him. He has managed to salvage Premier League survival for rather poor Wigan sides for three years, but they have not made any real progress. They are fighting relegation and surviving by a whisker, just as they were when he arrived. He is a manager with excellent potential, but his next move should either be to solidify Wigan’s position in the league, or to move to a mid-table club. Villas-Boas is, of the bookmakers’ favoured three, the possibly best option. He was unable to implement his style on an ageing Chelsea team who held little respect for him, but the Spurs team’s attributes are far more similar to those of his old Porto side. They are younger and most notably, quicker; used to playing a less rigid, more flowing style. With time and backing, he could build something beyond what Redknapp has for Spurs. But Portuguese media have staunchly denied that Villas-Boas will make the move to North-East London, in spite of his odds’ tumbling.
Levy, above all, will need to be patient. The old top four monopoly looks as if it is returning, only with Manchester City taking the place of Liverpool. If it follows its predecessor, it will be extraordinarily difficult to usurp the position of any of the clubs within it. Their current situation is less-than-satisfactory, but it has the potential to improve with the stability of players’ futures; or alternatively, those players may jump at their chance to play Champions League football, or indeed for more money at bigger clubs. Levy must ensure that he plans for the latter with who he appointment, while hoping for the former. A terrible summer could be ahead for Tottenham, but the potentially numerous blows could be softened with the right man in charge.
A match involving two such high profile teams was always going to stir excitement among those planning to watch it, but the team news managed to send the tactically inclined into an unhealthy state of pre-match adulation. Cesc Fàbregas started in place of Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo to play the much written-about ‘false nine’ role, while Italy started with a 3-5-2, with Daniele De Rossi playing as an old-fashioned libero (much to the excitement of the roaminglibero.wordpress.com!) and their striking pair were Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano seemed nothing but entertaining.
In terms of approach to the game, Spain would, as ever, be playing with a heavy focus on possession, but there were many questions about whether Italy would play a higher-pressing game or revert to the ‘classic Italian’ catenaccio style, and have De Rossi acting as a pure sweeper rather than a libero. The early minutes provided the answer to this, as Italy attempted to force Spain further back with heavy pressing of the ball while Spain attempted to strangle Italy.
Italy’s setup meant that Spain would be limited to relatively few clear cut chances, and Italy would be restricted by Spain’s predictably high rate of possession. David Silva and Mario Balotelli both had efforts from distance in the opening 10 minutes, neither of which troubled the respective goalkeepers. The first real chance for either team fell to David Silva via a Spanish counterattack. A misplaced header close to the halfway line gave the ball straight to his Manchester City teammate. Silva sped forward and cut inside onto his favoured left foot, but under pressure from Giorgio Chiellini, he sent a tame effort towards Gianluigi Buffon. Italy’s best chance of the early part of the first half was a low Pirlo free kick, which was no great worry for Iker Casillas. Around the half hour mark, the game seemed to open up a little more and both teams were making more chances. After a half-cleared corner Andres Iniesta struck a strong volley which, again, was well saved by Buffon. A poor pass from Fàbregas gave way to an Italian counterattack. Cassano’s shot was parried away by Casillas before Balotelli, attempting to pick up the rebound, was penalised for a foul on Gerard Piqué; but replays showed that it should, in fact, have been a penalty to Italy, as the Barcelona centre back caught the eccentric Italian centre forward, but the referee gave the decision Spain’s way – a lucky break for the Spanish.
Claudio Marchisio had a nice volley caught by Casillas and Fàbregas had a good chance blocked by Leonardo Bonucci. The best chance of the half came just before the break and was started by a beautiful heel flick by Balotelli down their left hand side. From there, the play was moved over to the other side and Christian Maggio sent Cassano through. The Milan man sent an excellent cross to Thiago Motta, but Casillas dived low to push the header away. Although the first half had been low on clear opportunities, it had been enthralling.
It was evident to see almost immediately in the second half that Spain had made the conscious decision to be more direct. They had more urgency about their play and looked a far more threatening proposition than they had in the first half. Fàbregas fired a shot from around 25 yards out which prompted another good save by Buffon. Their new style brought the former Arsenal captain more into the game, where he had been something of a peripheral figure before the break. He provided the day’s outstanding performer Iniesta with a very good opportunity to open the scoring, but the Barcelona man dragged his shot just wide. The quality of Spain’s chances had improved, but so had Italy’s; Sergio Ramos was caught out under pressure from Balotelli, who did very well to dispossess the centre half but ruined the chance he had made for himself by taking far, far too long to either shoot or make the pass to Cassano, who was with him in the penalty area. Balotelli had not had a great afternoon and already being on a booking, Cesare Prandelli withdrew him, replacing him with Udinese forward Antonio di Natale.
The change was perfect for Italy. Pirlo broke forward from the Italian half and knocked a fantastic through ball for di Natale, who sprinted between Ramos and Pique and buried the ball into the far corner of the net. Spain reacted extremely well, looking to restore the scoreline instantly. Iniesta had another effort from way outside the area saved with ease by Buffon, but they managed to reap the benefits of the Italians’ first defensive lapse. Fàbregas swept the ball in with a slick left-footed finish, but it was Silva’s assist which was the standout facet of the move. Around 20 yards from goal, he managed to flick the ball with the outside of his boot while it seemed to be between his feet – sublime footwork from the Spaniard.
From here, both sides looked to protect themselves from conceding again but also attacked with more vigour than they both had in the first period, and as a result there were fewer clear chances for both sides, but play moved very swiftly from one end of the field to the other. Spain substituted their goalscorer for a man who was notably not seen many goals over the last two years, Fernando Torres. Along with the Chelsea striker came Sevilla’s Jesus Navas who had replaced David Silva. Jordi Alba fired a volley just wide of the post and just minutes after coming on, Navas sent Torres one-on-one with Buffon; as he advanced towards the ‘keeper, he hesitated and as Buffon made to dive low to pick up the ball, he sprang himself back up and dispossessed Torres with his feet. Buffon appeared to be exploiting Torres’ lack of confidence whenever he got an opening to shoot. The £50,000,000 man was handed another huge opportunity when he managed to exploit a poor piece of control from De Rossi. Buffon was inexplicably on his 18 yard line, as if willing Torres to attempt to chip him, which he did, only for it to end up in the stands. He played as he has most of the season: his movement and positioning meant that he would get chances other forwards would not, but his complete dearth of confidence meant that he would miss them. It seems that, unsurprisingly, his relative flurry of goals in the second half of the season was something of a false dawn for him. But in spite of his misses, Spain did look a better team with an ‘actual 9’ as the focal point for their attacks.
Italy also had two near-misses as the game drew to its end. Substitute Sebastien Giovinco scooped a quite marvellous ball over the defence towards Di Natale but, stretching to reach the ball, he failed to make clean contact with it, knocking it wide with his shin. Italy’s final chance was made and almost superbly scored by Claudio Marchisio; gathering the ball on the halfway line, towards the right-hand side, he sprinted into the open space between Spain’s midfield and their defence, evading two tackles in the process. He then exchanged a wonderful one-two with Motta on the edge of the penalty area, but Casillas made another very good save.
Italy’s defence was their main strength, as they needed it to be. They completed all 15 of the tackles they attempted and made 36 interceptions. They looked threatening on the counter-attack but in terms of judging them through the rest of the tournament, this game was somewhat anomalous; Prandelli has tried to give Italy a more attacking philosophy, but he was forced to abandon it to face the World champions. Their defensive solidity was certainly a plus, but they will need to make sure they remain defensively aware and focussed when they are the side creating more of the attacking play and seeing more of the ball. Spain’s clear improvement with a more direct style and a legitimate centre forward is something Vicente del Bosque will have to take into account, but he will also have to review Torres’ missed opportunities and decide whether Llorente or Negredo may make for better options.
Another as part of my work for GunnersOpinion.com, this time for the Arsenal players featuring in Germany’s game with Portugal.
The Arsenal players available to play in the second game of Group B were Per Mertesacker and new signing Lukas Podolski. But unfortunately for the big, big centre half, he picked up a fresh knock on the ankle he injured against Sunderland in the week, which meant that he did not make the starting eleven, but was on the bench, with Holger Badstuber partnering Mats Hummels at the centre of the German defence. This was Podolski’s first game since officially becoming an Arsenal player, and many supporters were to catch their first glimpse of the £10,000,000 signing.
Germany’s play was more focussed down the right hand for most of the first half. Podolski’s first contribution was a low drive from around 20 yards out, which was well saved by Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio. His next real contribution was to fire a free kick into the Portuguese wall 25 minutes in. A few minutes later he shanked a decent chance high over the bar, prompting a plethora of snide comments from various journalists on Twitter. He saw the ball a little more over the remainder of the half. In attempting to observe the former Köln man it was curious to see how Germany changed shape with and without the ball. While defending they were clearly playing 4-2-3-1, with Podolski out on the left hand side but when attacking, Mesut Özil moved out to the left wing and Podolski further inside, meaning Germany were playing 4-2-4. But it was, overall, a quiet first half for the German forward. It was interesting to see, given the potential for a similar role for Arsenal next season, and the tactical flexibility it could provide.
He struggled for space at the start of the second half, epitomised by the heavy touch he took in the Portuguese area while being closely marked by Real Madrid’s Pepe. He remained somewhat beneath the radar as Germany took the lead through Mario Gomez with 20 minutes remaining. Some minutes before the goal, he had sent a very good cross to the Bayern Munich striker, which he subsequently headed over the bar. Overall, not one of Podolski’s better days, but there were some encouraging moments. He has a lot more to offer Germany and will hope that he is more able to showcase his talents in the games ahead.
The second game of the day involved the two other members of Group A: Russia and the Czech Republic. It had quite the task to live up to the excitement that match that had preceded it had conjured, but where the first game had been quite an even contest, this was more akin to a rabbit in a fight with a bear. The spirit was most definitely present but really, it was a fruitless errand. Russia were reminiscent of their side of 2008, which made the semi finals, only with one very poignant difference – Andrey Arshavin was eligible for the first two games, where he had not been four years ago. For the diminutive playmaker, it had been an eventful four years, moving to Arsenal, becoming a hero and then becoming the scapegoat from certain (more idiotic and senseless) corners and going on loan back to Zenit St. Petersberg in order to get games ahead of the recurrence of the tournament that had been his début to the wider football world.
But to those who had watched Zenit in the Champions League, Arshavin was a known figure, at the time. To those who had not, he was a new discovery. One of the most enjoyable facets of international tournaments is seeing the more hidden players from each country build their reputations to a greater audience. One of those this year, off the strength of his first showing, is CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev; while he is a well-known talent amongst people who have seen him before, to those who have not he was a new man in town – one who will be exhaustingly linked to every team in the Premier League by the media. But I digress: Dzagoev received the ball in the centre circle from Arshavin, evading challenges from two Czech players as he strode forward. He then released Konstantin Zyryanov down the right-hand side, who sent a marvellous cross to the head of Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Zenit striker’s header struck the inside of the post and bounced out, perfectly into the path of Dzagoev, rounding off the move in which he was so instrumental.
Between the two goals, Dzagoev was presented with another brilliant chance, only to send a relatively easy effort into the crowd. But Russia did not have long to wait for their second. It was the result of a beautiful through ball by Arshavin. Around 30 yards out, slightly to the left of the goal, Arshavin spied Roman Shirokov sneaking outside Michal Kadlec – who had an awful evening – and picked out a perfect pass between the two Czech centre halves. At first the pass looked overhit and misplaced; so much so that Kerzhakov is seen to turn around and look at Arshavin making a gesture which, in any language, translates as ‘what kind of pass was that?!’. Only Arshavin had seen beyond the former Sevilla man and Shirokov stole in to chip the ball perfectly over Petr Cech. Russia looked rampant; the Czech Republic looked hopeless.
Early in the second half, the Czechs managed to gain a foothold back into the game. Jaroslav Plasil, like Arshavin had for Russia’s second, opened up the defence with a fantastic through ball to Vaclav Pilar, who rounded Vychaslev Malafeev and squeezed the ball in before any Russian defender could block it. But it did not greatly alter the momentum of the play. The Czech team were still struggling to create anything and with Tomas Rosicky, their main source of creativity, marked into anonymity, they were unable to make the chances needed to draw the scores level. Russia appeared not to have noticed that their opponents had got to within a goal of them, continuing in the fashion that they had before the break. What was so impressive about Russia was their maintenance in the intensity of their attacks, even when 2-0 ahead. They continued to press and pour forward at 2-1 the same way they had before the Czech’s goal and after they recouped their distance.
However, this seemed to be in spite of Kerzhakov’s best efforts. He had Dzagoev and Arshavin providing goalscoring chances a-plenty, but his stats speak for themselves: 73 minutes; 7 attempts on goal; 0 on target. Undoubtedly a talented forward it was, as they say, just not his night. His replacement was former Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko. Russia made clear that they had no plans to sit and defend their lead, but to add to it. And that, they did. Pavlyuchenko spotted Dzagoev just outside the penalty area. One touch took him forward, the second was a vicious strike from the 18-yard line, which flew past Cech. The Chelsea goalkeeper could have done better with the effort, but it was no more than Russia and Dzagoev’s performances deserved. Their two-goal margin was restored; Russia could now sit, content with their lead.
Only they added another shortly afterwards – undoubtedly the goal of the tournament… so far. Arshavin broke into the Czech half and sent Pavlyuchenko onto a free left hand side. The Russian captain ran on ahead of him, but it was clear that the striker had no plans to give him the ball. Cutting into the area, he held off Roman Hubnik and going away from goal, he smashed his shot towards the near post, directly into the top corner. Outstanding play from the Lokomotiv Moscow man – perhaps giving Harry Redknapp some food for thought, as he awaits another year without Champions League football, considering that Pavlyuchenko left Spurs in search of playing time.
While a Russian win was to be expected, the margin was less so. The reaction of the Czech players must be immediate and strong. With the loss and the earlier draw between the group’s other two team, they are now bottom of the group, with a goal difference of -3. Their next game is against Greece and it is a game which they will need to win, so they must not languish in the mire of misery that this defeat could cause. They will need to recover and use the loss as motivation to push forward.
Russia looked better than many expected. Immediately, as earlier in this piece, comparisons will be drawn with their 2008 side. While they looked electric at times, they looked rather pathetic as they were taken apart by Spain. Their desire to score even when comfortably ahead must be an attitude carried through the rest of their games, as must their heavy pressing of the opposition. They looked like a team with hunger and with the potential to spring a surprise, but so have many other teams after one game. They must continue their form and maintain their intensity.
Before the matches which signalled the start of EURO 2012 kicked off, one could only think back two years, to the first day of the 2010 World Cup. That day had seen two very tight encounters end in draws, as all the sides involved feared the effects of a defeat so early in the tournament. The same mentality would carry through many of the remaining group stage games and even when the tournament got going a little more in the following rounds, margins were still minimal and games closed and rigid. There was a widespread worry that the same would happen at this tournament, rather than follow in the footsteps of the fantastic EURO 2008. Based solely on the first game, our fears were unfounded.
Although after a less than riveting first half, between hosts Poland and EURO 2004 winners Greece, it looked as though we would be subject to an opening round like the one we had seen two years previously. Poland were comfortably on top, creating the bulk of the chances. This appeared to be working well after they went ahead through a Robert Lewandowski goal, which was beautifully created down Poland’s ever-threatening right-hand side by the combination of Ludovic Obrainak and Jakub Blaszczykowski. Greece looked like their 2004 side, only without the defensive resoluteness which made them formidable. This looked only as though it would worsen after the, by all accounts, harsh red card awarded to Sokratis Papastathopolous. The first yellow was a poor decision by Carlos Velaso Caballo after he judged the Greek defender to have fouled Lewandowski in an aerial duel he won completely fairly; the second, with the first taken into account, was mystifying. Lewandowski played a through ball towards his Borussia Dortmund teammate Blaszczykowski and under a very slight challenge from the Genoa man, he went over. It was clear to see that the contact in the challenge had been minimal and even then, on the first game of a big tournament, the referee should know better and show more leniency when the player is already on a yellow card. Alas, he did not, and Sokratis was forced to leave the field. Some accused the referee of having ‘ruined the contest’ but with hindsight, he did quite the opposite.
After half time, Greece managed to recover their discipline, which they looked in danger of collectively losing, and being a man and a goal down, they would need to change something in the way of personnel. Winger Sotiris Ninis (Football Manager hero) was replaced by striker Dimitris Salpingidis. Greece looked to be more direct and from here, the game really started. Within five minutes, Greece were level through the substitute. Vasilis Torosidis launched a cross towards Theofanis Gekas, but his header was blocked. Polish ‘keeper Wojciech Szczesny had thrown himself at the ball, but with the block, his presence was needless and he was now out-of-position; enough so for Salpingidis to storm forward and stab the ball into the empty net.
Both teams were now in need of a goal but in contrast to the first half, it was Greece who were on the front foot and looking the likelier to claim the lead. Another high through ball sent a Greek forward through on goal, with only the goalkeeper to beat. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your allegiance), that striker was Georgios Samaras. The score remained 1-1, and there may have been a head injury for the poor soul in Row Z whom it probably hit. Their best chance was a few minutes later, in the form of a penalty. Salpingidis caught out the defender who failed to hold the offside trap, latching onto Kostas Fortounis’ wonderful chipped through ball and advanced towards the now-exposed Szczesny’s goal. The Arsenal ‘keeper tripped the Greek striker, conceded a penalty and received a red card. Przemyslaw Tyton was to take his place, earning just his sixth cap in the process. Greece captain Georgios Karagounis was to take the penalty. And with his first touch, Tyton saved it, sparing Szczesny and attaining some (perhaps temporary) cult status. This miss did not stifle Greece and they continued to attack, having a goal – scored by Salpingidis – rightly disallowed for offside. The game ended 1-1 , but it was an enthralling start to the tournament. While quality was lacking (as expected, given the contestants), entertainment was the order of the day. Well, in the second half, at least.
Over the course of this tournament, I will be writing some reports on Arsenal players and how they are doing for GunnersOpinion.com. This is the first, covering the Arsenal players who featured in the Group A games today.
Poland and Greece opened EURO 2012 and in the hosts’ lineup was a certain impudent young goalkeeper by the name of Wojciech Szczesny. The 22-year old’s first half may rank among the easiest of his career. Aside from a small number of goal kicks, his only contribution was to punch the ball away from a corner, which prompted a counter attack. His kicking was inconsistent as ever, but nothing greatly concerning for the team, as they went to the break a goal ahead thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s header.
His second half was far less comfortable and far shorter. The 22-year old was almost immediately faced with a Greek attack. As a Vasilis Torosidis’ cross came in from the right-hand side towards Theofanis Gekas. The tall centre forward sprinted in front of his marker, but his attempt to head the ball in was blocked. The ball bounced back into the area; only the cross flew towards Gekas, Szczesny had stormed forward in an attempt to catch it. As Gekas’s initial effort rolled back into the path of Dmitris Salpingidis, the Arsenal ‘keeper was nowhere to be seen. Salpingidis’ had an open goal to aim and poked the ball straight into the top corner, drawing the two sides level.
But Szczesny’s day was set to get even worse. A beautiful chipped through ball from Kostas Fortounis was picked up by Salpingidis, who had evaded the poorly-held offside trap and taken a strong first touch on his path towards the goal. Left exposed by his defence, Szczesny appeared to panic, tripping Greece’s first goalscorer in his attempts to upend him. The referee had little choice but to send Szczesny off, with his awarding of a penalty to the Greeks. Szczesny’s proverbial bacon was saved when the man who replaced him, Przemyslaw Tyton, saved Georgous Karagounis’ rather weak penalty. The game ended 1-1 and the Arsenal man will now miss Poland’s game with Russia on account of suspension, but will be available again for their final group match against the Czech Republic.
The two other Arsenal players making appearances on the tournament’s inaugural day were Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky. While the Czech Republic and their captain Rosicky had a brighter start to the game, it was Russia who claimed the opener. The goal came from a move started their own captain Arshavin. His pass to Alan Dzagoev set in motion the move that eventually culminated in the CSKA Moscow man opening the scoring. Arshavin’s contribution for Russia’s second was more pronounced. From the left hand side he sent a perfect, defence-spliting ball to Roman Shirokov, who chipped the ball over the onrushing Petr Cech. Arshavin looked like his pre-11/12 season self. And he was playing down the left, and thriving there. There was no doubt about his ability. His position on the pitch did not make a great deal of difference, either, showing that the root cause of his poor form in the season that has just passed was purely a motivational problem.
The Czechs brought it back to 2-1 early in the second half, although Rosicky was not involved. The first notable contribution from either player in the second half was again from the enigmatic Russian. He threaded a glorious through ball to Aleksander Kerzhakov, but he dragged a very good opportunity wide. On 75 minutes, Rosicky had a strong shot well saved by Vyacheslav Malafeev, but it was Russia who grabbed the next goal, again through Dzagoev. Arshavin then claimed another assist, sending through Roman Pavlyuchenko to score a quite brilliant goal to take the score to 4-1. Rosicky had a subdued evening but Arshavin ran free; he looked reformed. He was a key figure in a team which looks as though it could be a very good bet to do something special at this tournament.