Everton 1-1 Arsenal: Grappling With Context

Fellaini goal

This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com.

Arsenal went to Goodison Park in a somewhat melancholic and overall rather pessimistic mood, yet still maintaining an air of expectancy. Such is life as an Arsenal fan; all game’s are expected to be both won and lost – note: with this, Twitter is an amusing place to be when Arsenal have not won a game, (provided you yourself are not annoyed about the draw/loss). But, I digress. Arsenal have been going through their traditional November slump, having won just one of their last four league games. Coming directly off a shockingly dull 0-0 draw with Aston Villa, three points were not quite of the essence, but really quite needed.


Although they were not obtained this was far from the disaster it could have been, with West Bromwich Albion’s and Liverpool’s losses and Chelsea’s draw (although Spurs did win, which is almost never a good thing). The performance was better than the one at Villa, but that really is not saying very much. Captain Thomas Vermaelen was reinstated at left back, Theo Walcott returned after a shoulder injury and Aaron Ramsey took the place of the ill Lukas Podolski on the left hand side.


Since Wojciech Szczęsny’s return, Arsenal have seen instant defensive improvements. Namely that they are able to defend set pieces again and the defence seem more content to push a bit further up the pitch with someone they have more trust in behind them. However, the Pole is not without his weaknesses. His distribution remains poor and he is extremely susceptible from long shots: so much so that he has conceded 11 goals from outside the box since the start of last season (via @orbinho). These two fairly large – but ultimately repairable – flaws are holding him back from becoming a top level goalkeeper.


While Szczęsny must take some share of the blame for the goal, the brunt of the blame must lie with the usually so reliable Bacary Sagna. It was the first time since his return that he has looked really suspect, although he has noticeably been operating far below his  capabilities. Under little pressure, he sent the marked Mikel Arteta a poor pass, which the Spaniard did well to send back to him, only for Sagna himself to now be being pressed. Quite what he tried to do I am still unsure, but he smacked the ball right across the defence straight into Marouane Fellaini. The big Belgian’s left footed effort curled very nicely around Vermaelen (who could have done more to press him) and past Szczęsny. Sagna was given a nasty evening by Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar and owes Per Mertesacker greatly, for covering his right hand side when they got behind him. There is not an awful lot to read into the right back’s game: he is not usually one for an error-filled performance and Arsenal can hopefully remain that anomalies like this remain just that.


Although Vermaelen started at left back and Laurent Koscielny at centre back, Koscielny’s injury after just three minutes saw Kieran Gibbs come on and Vermaelen moved into his natural position. It was arguably his best game of the season, which is no mean feat given he started strongly. It was the kind of performance Arsenal have come to expect, but see too little, from their captain. He was disciplined on the whole and his game was better for it. His increased concentration at the back allowed him to showcase his good reading of the game, making 4 interceptions and put his aggressive style to better use than flying into tackles. It has been very en vogue to single him out for criticism of late, his performance at Goodison will serve as a reminder to many that he is actually a pretty good defender. When he actually defends.


Another target for criticism has been the unfortunate Aaron Ramsey. Anyone with a fraction of intelligence can see he is a talented player and some of the straight up abuse he gets is mind-boggling. He was placed out on the left wing; a move which means Arsenal look to focus their play more centrally and be more defensively compact. It serves as a way of him adapting his game, too, teaching him to operate in more confined space than he would playing in midfield and hence making him into a stronger dribbler. He provided the assist for Theo Walcott’s goal with a nice reverse pass and overall had a good game. He is not perfect but short of the world class you will not find consistent high level performances from a 21 year old, especially one who spent almost a year out with a broken leg. Encouraging stuff from the Welshman. With Santi Cazorla’s recent struggles on the physical side, it may be worth giving him another run as a number 10.


On Cazorla, he does look extremely jaded. It is understandable: he was in the squad that made it to the final of EURO 2012, then he did not get a pre-season and was thrown straight into the action in a far more physically intense league than the one from whence he came. On top of that, he did just complete a 10,000+ miles round trip to Panama with the Spanish national team. Admittedly he turned in a fantastic performance in the North London Derby, but little more than three days rest since then is bound to have an effect sooner rather than later. He is so central to Arsenal’s play that without him firing, the whole team seems toothless. Tomas Rosicky’s return to the bench is a very encouraging omen than the Spaniard may soon be given a rest .


If Theo Walcott’s demands really are monetary and are also short of the ridiculous, just give them to him. With 4 goals and 4 assists in just 11 appearances (4 starts, 7 from the bench) in the league he is Arsenal’s most productive player. He is becoming an excellent player and to lose him now would be, as stated for around the 432357th time by me, a disaster. However he cannot play as a central striker in Arsenal’s system because his back to goal work is not good enough. Observing Olivier Giroud and his importance is telling. Arsenal do not have the wingers and the all-round creativity to play to a striker who does not aid their possession-based build-up play. Until then, Walcott as a centre forward for Arsenal just will not work.


The greatest investment Arsenal could make in January is to buy Abou Diaby a new right ankle. His presence would go its way to solving quite a few of the problems that they are currently experiencing. As a physical, creative and ball-carrying midfielder, he is everything they need. But he is also made of some sort of sponge cake. He is good enough that he is worth keeping if he can manage one game a week, but investment in that area is vital.


Arsenal are still a team coming together. Interestingly, of the team that beat Everton 2-1 in this fixture two seasons ago (2010/11), only two who started that day started yesterday: Sagna and Jack Wilshere. The staggering rate of player turnover means they are still not wholly comfortable as a unit. This accounts somewhat for the near-total absence of attacking movement at times and the general flatness of many of their attacks, as well as their inability of late to deal with teams who press them high up the pitch. They are still learning to play with eachother so cannot move the ball quickly in more typical Arsenal fashion. It should come together, and soon, but it is worrying that it is the cause of numerous dropped points.


Goodison Park is by no means an easy place to go. In fact, it is bloody difficult. Better teams than Arsenal have struggled to greater degrees (see Manchester United’s loss as a case in point) and in itself, a point there is a decent result with which to come away. But it looks significantly less decent when placed next to draws with Aston Villa, Sunderland and Fulham, a stupid loss to Norwich and a thoroughly avoidable one against Chelsea. Up next Arsenal have Swansea, West Brom, Reading and Wigan (home, home, away, away) – they have to take 12 points from those 4 games and set themselves on a good run before the tough fixtures they have after Christmas.


Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal: A True Nothing-Nothing Game

Olivier Giroud

This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com (link). 

This was not the easiest game to really look at in great detail. Mainly because it was not very good and not very much happened. Arsenal were flatter than an ironed down sheet of paper. After their last week it looked as though Arsenal may have built some momentum; and after Aston Villa’s last week, they looked as though they desperately needed to pick some up. The game was not heavily advertised or built up, and it completely fulfilled to the low expectations placed upon it.


Thomas Vermaelen being placed on the bench shows him he is not untouchable. Quite a few people had reservations when he was given the captaincy, on account of his inconsistency and the fact that there are two arguably better centre backs in the squad in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Vermaelen is a capable and talented defender but his aggressive style often sees him desert the back line and leave mounds of space behind him. Perhaps a reminder of his fallibility could be the proverbial kick he needs to restore him to better form. Considering the strong performances of the aforementioned pair, it will be interesting to see if he is reinstated for the game against Everton.


A brief word on Mertesacker: I’ve written before about his rise since joining but it bears repeating what an excellent and important player he has become. The embodiment of calm.


The return of Kieran Gibbs was something that many hoped would see Arsenal become more dynamic going forward. He originally came through as a left winger and it shows in his touchline-hugging style. The width he provided before his injury allowed Lukas Podolski to operate more centrally and hence Santi Cazorla to drift wider and it has been lacking since his going off injured at Upton Park. Though for some reason – most probably concerns over his match fitness and recovery – he did not commit forward as he did before and on the rare points when he did (almost all in the first half), he stayed closer to the halfway line and seemed to make more narrow runs. The reasons for his more reserved style are not known but what is, is that Arsenal need it back as soon as possible.


Wojciech Szczęsny own comeback from injury has, in just two games, gone some way to reminding people why he is such a highly-rated goalkeeper. As last season ended it was very en vogue to criticise the Pole’s performances – some of that being warranted but a lot of it over the top. Part of his lapse could have been explained with his playing the last 5 weeks with an injury, but in comparison to his fantastic first five months of the season, the second five were poor. Now, after a few months of Vito Mannone in goal, Szczęsny’s virtues are more evident and more appreciated. Most notably, his organising of the defenders at set pieces is of huge importance. The stats on this say it all: in 11/12 Arsenal conceded just two goals from corners and delivered set pieces all year in the league (he played all 38 league games). This year, in Mannone’s 9 league games, they have conceded 5 from set pieces (including Juan Mata’s goal against Chelsea).


Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his terrible start to the season. He seems to have come down with a case of Gareth Bale Syndrome. Namely he has started to think he is the illegitimate child of Diego Maradona and wants to take on the whole team by himself. And he has also seems to have been attending the Alex Song School of Positional Discipline; just as against Montpellier, he was rarely located on the right hand side. His time in the deeper midfield positions may have polluted his mind somewhat. There is no doubting he is a player who fantastic potential but he has some way to go and needs to stick to the positions he is being asked to play.


With almost every game Walcott has played of late, the calls for him to get a new contract have grown. With almost every game he has not, they have grown even louder. There is little more to add on the Walcott situation, but without replacing him with someone better – which, should he go, is probably (very) unlikely – losing him would be disastrous.


Arsenal’s midfield lacked shape and drive. Aaron Ramsey is a good player (contrary to what many say), but he does not carry the ball particularly well, and so the midfield can become somewhat flat without that presence there. There are two men in their squad who can play that position to great effect: the only problem is that one has no ankles and the other has just had new ones put in. Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere are the two physical midfield dribblers that Arsenal so missed at Villa Park. With that they are also players who break into the box on attacks, which Arsenal desperately lacked.  Although they are both extremely talented players, relying on them with their respective injury histories is several levels of insane. This is not to say Ramsey could not become that player, but at this point is just is not it. A signing in this position in January is even more important than one up front.


The late substitute of Francis Coquelin for Olivier Giroud was divisive but rational, to a degree. There was clear logic behind it: Giroud was not having a great game, something needed changing, so he moved to the tactic of playing Gervinho up front and Coquelin’s presence would allow Mikel Arteta and Cazorla to push forward more. Understandable but it was implemented too late to have any real effect. There is also the issue of Wilshere being available on the bench. Arsène Wenger has said that he did not wish to play the injury-susceptible Wilshere on the extremely slippery surface, but then there is another question as to why he was on the bench in the first place, given that the pitch would have been soaked when the bench was decided.


Arsenal’s main problem was their lack of attacking movement. Whenever a player had the ball, no player seemed to want to make a run and aid the man on the ball out. They became lost in a tunnel of sideways passes. It was not aided by said lack of a strong midfielder but the deficiency could have been accounted for had the other forward players worked a little harder. Perhaps this was down to their tiredness after playing in mid-week, but this is little excuse for just how static they were.


Some credit must go to Aston Villa. They were fantastic defensively, working tirelessly the whole game, pressing Arsenal all over the pitch and putting up a strong defensive wall, despite losing Ron Vlaar to injury in the second half. Paul Lambert – although banned from the touchline – is a very impressive manager, working with a very young squad. Relegation was never a realistic fear for them with him in charge, but he will definitely go some way to solidifying them as a mid-table team again in the next few years.

Robert Oh Dear Matteo: The Story of a Doomed Man

As Brian Clough once said, “Good managers make good sides; I’ve never heard of a side making a manager”. Ultimately, this was Roberto di Matteo’s undoing. Despite almost £80,000,000 having been spent since he took over, he could not disguise his flaws and limitations as a manager. He was never long for the job. Originally appointed as interim following the sacking of André Villas-Boas, it was clear to see from the first four-month contract he was given that he was in no way Roman Abramovich’s choice, but after their two cup triumphs in May, the Russian had little choice but to give him a permanent deal.


In some ways it could be argued that the Chelsea owner may even have preferred not to win the Champions League with the Italian in charge. It was the trophy he has coveted most since purchasing the club in 2003 and better managers than he have been dismissed for their failures to win it. Coupled with this is Abramovich’s desire to see his sides play ‘attractive’ football. Di Matteo, like so many before him, delivered on one count, but failed with the other.


Disingenuous though it is to say of a manager who won the Champions League and the FA Cup in one season, Di Matteo was not up to the job. Under his leadership, they were stunningly similar to the Chelsea of Luiz Felipe Scolari; imbalanced, lacking in midfield strength and managed by someone who did not know how to fix things when they went awry. Both have the ingredients for very good team and both sides started their respective seasons very well but did not know how to act when the plans that usually served them well were not working. At the start of the season they were still on a high from having won the two cups in May and ploughed forth like a team who believed in its own invincibility. As soon as the proverbial bubble burst in their home loss to Manchester United – their first of the season – they became aware of their own mortality and panicked.


To start a season well and then be adversely affected by a loss is far from alien to even the best of teams, but Di Matteo, with his lack of experience, control and ability, seemed totally unable to then bring them back to their pre-loss form. Admittedly that is based on just 5 games since said loss, but there was always an inevitability about his Chelsea falling apart, it was just a matter of time.


The wait was a strange one. At almost every turn last season it looked as though it would be coming to its end but it just never did. Even so early in his time as Chelsea manager, the Champions League second leg at home to Napoli could have been it, but through pure force of Didier Drogba, it was not. This became a running theme of his time. It could have been either leg of the semi final against Barcelona, but a combination of Drogba, Victor Valdes, a truckload of Barcelona missed chances, a Lionel Messi missed penalty and luck meant otherwise. It could have been the FA Cup semi final against Tottenham, but through a combination of Drogba, a dodgy goal from Juan Mata and luck in facing Tottenham at a time when they barely needed a nudge to push them to self-implosion, it was not.


It was so very nearly the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. The Germans missed more easy chances than Fernando Torres in the last two years, again including a missed penalty in playing time, this time from Arjen Robben. Then two more from Ivica Olic and the normally so reliable Bastian Schweinsteiger in the shootout. They were saved again by a phenomenal Drogba header and luck. They attempted to play to their strengths and play defensively. Only they did it badly, and in doing so they gave their oppositions a stunning number of chances, almost all of which were squandered.


Although the fact remains that they won the Champions League, this had remarkably little to do with the manager. When the summer arrived he had a huge amount of money to spend. There were huge flaws in his squad. Namely: his defensive midfielders, who consisted of an unconvincing Oriol Romeu, a physically shot Michael Essien and a really-not-all-that-good Jon Obi Mikel; his spectacularly profligate strikeforce of Torres and Daniel Sturridge and the need for another creative outlet. He chose to address the latter flaw three times and signed Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar, for a combined £66,000,000. Then Victor Moses, who addressed none of the team’s weaknesses, except perhaps their homegrown quota and Cesar Azpilicueta who, in fairness, does now give them the option to play with a natural right back and move Branislav Ivanovic back into the centre of the defence, where he is more comfortable.


Oscar and Hazard have both become key players for them very quickly, but did they really need both more than they needed one defensive midfielder? Probably not. Though it is not as if he did not have the money for both. He totally ignored arguably Chelsea’s biggest problem in arguably the most important position in a team. Negligence and poor management on Di Matteo’s part; a decision that was sure to cost him in due time.


Roman Abramovich has been heavily criticised by many and with some justification. Di Matteo was the eighth manager to have worked under him since his 2003 takeover and the seventh to be sacked – Guus Hiddink being the only exception. They have spent £86,000,000 hiring and firing managers, but there is a legitimate argument that only two of those calls were mistakes: José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. In the name of getting the best from the team he has, Chelsea do need a better manager than Di Matteo, however harsh it is on the man who got them the Champions League the owner so craved.


Much to the chagrin of both Chelsea and Liverpool fans, Abramovich has made Rafael Benítez the interim manager until the end of the season (with an option to extend that by another 12 months), seemingly with the hope of getting Pep Guardiola to take over when his sabbatical ends in the summer. Benítez is not the genius many Liverpool fans would have you believe he is, nor is he the inept charlatan many a United fan would claim; he is a very good manager, but he may struggle with fitting this Chelsea team around the more pragmatic, heavy-pressing philosophy his previous sides have followed.


In the 2008/09 season at Liverpool, in which he came so close to winning the title, the whole system played to the focal point that was Torres, while getting the best from those around him. He has the players to fit his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation (which they have been playing all season) but may be lacking in the personnel to make it fit with his aforementioned style. And if Roman Abramovich has hired him to get the best from the painfully past-his-best Fernando Torres, the extension option in his contract will definitely go unused.


Thank you to @LimparHalfway for the headline. And if you’re on the Twitter, follow him.

The Russian Redemption

This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com (link).

As Arsenal drifted closer to their last North London derby, they were in a considerably worse state than they are now. Trailing Tottenham by 10 points, the general mood was something disgruntled, to say the least. In the week between their FA Cup loss to Sunderland and the derby, Andrey Arshavin was loaned to Zenit St. Petersburg; an incident which many thought spelled the end of his time at Arsenal. He won the Russian league, captained his nation at EURO 2012 and returned to the club.


They sought a taker for their now unwanted record signing. Any hint of one was non-existent until the final few days of the window. He was offered to Zenit and Dinamo Moscow on a free transfer, but Arshavin himself turned down both moves, with Zenit’s General Director citing a mysterious “condition” as the reason for its falling through. So Arsenal were stuck with him. Considering their thin squad, some felt that this could end up proving more blessing than curse.


He remained near-totally ignored, only making the bench twice, appearing just once, in the season’s opener at home to Sunderland before the League Cup third round game against Coventry, which he started. He scored a goal and made two assists in an extremely impressive showing. But it was not enough to earn him a place in the side again; he did not feature until the 1-0 loss at Norwich, in which he was introduced to replaced the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.


The 19 year old’s injury moved Arshavin closer to the team; he has had a role in five of the six games, but only starting the League Cup insanity against Reading. Given that his introduction has represented a last, desperate throw of the dice, he has done very well. He was instrumental in creating Mikel Arteta’s late winner in the QPR game, looked like Arsenal’s only potential threat when sent on at Old Trafford and won the penalty which Arteta failed to convert in the 3-3 draw with Fulham. In between all this was another excellent League Cup performance; he provided three assists, as well as having a goal-bound shot blocked on the line before Theo Walcott finished it off. Within the insanity that was the game, Arshavin could be seen working extremely hard, even to the point of actually sprinting(!), right until the 120th minute.


Much of the frustration with him grew from his work ethic, or lack thereof. He was never one for charging up and down the line, covering defensively or working much at all. When he was at his most efficient, this was little problem; but when his form began to wane as the 2010/11 season wound down, it started really adversely affecting the team. His fitness has always been an issue and for this reason it is a risk to start him, especially while Kieran Gibbs is injured and Arsenal need all the protection they can get for whoever is playing at left back.


Though he has the ability that no other Arsenal player does to create chances with little space available. Santi Cazorla looks fairly jaded even now, only a few months into his Premier League career and is struggling with being the only true creative presence in the Arsenal team of late while Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere have been injured or recovering match fitness. From the bench he gives Arsenal another outlet.


His ability had never deserted him, but his motivation had. He does not quite look a reformed character but he does seem to be trying harder in his cameos. It was his choice to stay and he appears to want to prove himself again. The tedious debate on whether he should play centrally is not valid: he rarely drops deep to aid possession play and this could only be accounted for if Arsenal played two holding midfielders behind him, as opposed to a holder and a more box-to-box type.


He is in the final year of his contract and barring some sort of super-heroic effort he is highly unlikely to be renewed. Until the season’s end, he is Arsenal’s, and if his recent games are anything to go by, it might be worth giving him more chances in the team.

Leading By A Poor Example

What do Arsenal do about the issue surrounding Thomas Vermaelen? Robin van Persie’s departure saw him awarded the captaincy almost by default, with his having previously been the vice captain and there being no other outstanding candidates for the role (as examined further in this). When on form he deserves it: he does have leadership qualities and is a very good centre back. But the fears of many have been justified: despite starting very strongly, his form has dipped. Severely; to the detriment of the team. Now Arsène Wenger has the difficult call as to whether to drop his captain or stick with him in the hope that he suddenly remembers how to be a good defender.


On the other side of the (de)fence, Per Mertesacker has taken full advantage of the opportunity given to him by Laurent Koscielny’s injury at the start of the season (see here for more detailed thoughts). He has been near-faultless and has showed that he was no dud, as he was labelled when he first arrived. He was given time in a settled defensive unit, alongside a partner with whom he had developed an understanding. Laurent Koscielny had been tasked with reclaiming his place from the German; but his best avenue may be grabbing Vermaelen’s spot.


Koscielny was unfortunate with the timing of his injury, but he has not done himself any favours with his performances. He was not at his best against Manchester City, his goal covering for a performance littered with small errors, he was very poor against Chelsea and terrible against Reading. There can be little doubting, if you have actually watched him, that he is an exceptional defender, but he has struggled thus far this year. His errors have had their roots in his rustiness but can he be relied on to deliver where Vermaelen has not, of late, given his own recent form?


Perhaps; perhaps not. The problem lies in the fact that Vermaelen does not deserve to be starting at the moment and Koscielny does not either, but something has to give. They are both very good central defenders who greatly under-performing. The Belgian looks like someone who has little fear of being dropped any time soon. Maybe a reminder of his mortal status will be the proverbial kick he needs to push him back to the level of which we know he is capable. And maybe a run of games will give Koscielny a chance to recover his form of last season.


It seems that Vermaelen will be moved to left back for the game away against Schalke with Koscielny coming in at centre back. Although Vermaelen is far, far, far from his best at left back, offers very little going forward and often gets caught out-of-position, he will be less susceptible to the threat of Jefferson Farfán than the even more out-of-form André Santos. It is almost dropping him without actually removing him from the team. Were his centre back performances up to scratch, he would be kept there and perhaps Francis Coquelin or Carl Jenkinson deployed on the left. It should act as a way of telling him that he needs to improve.


The importance of the captaincy is extremely overstated. In recent Arsenal past (and for most teams), the captain has been either the star player or a player who was guaranteed a start every week. Vermaelen is very much an outlier as he fits neither category and must be treated as such. Ideally the captaincy would be viewed as shared between himself and Mikel Arteta and even though this is not the case, he should not be entitled to start every game purely because he has the armband. And if his form does not pick up soon, the bench will beckon.