Monday, 21 February 2011


Being a goalkeeper myself, I have some pretty strong views about the number one shirt at Arsenal - and what a lot there has been to discuss these past few years. We’ve never really replaced David Seaman with a reliable keeper. Possible solutions have ranged from the mad, to the misfiring to the inept. I’ll leave you to decide who comes under what heading.

In recent months however, I thought things were settling down between the sticks. Lukasz Fabianski was given a starting slot due to yet another ‘confidence-injury’ for Almunia. Installed as the automatic first choice he found some form, showcasing the talent that ArsenĂ© Wenger constantly assures us is on display in training week in week out. More recently the youngster Wojciech Szczesny (the man with the name only spelled correctly via copy and paste) came in and made a more than reasonable case to be considered our number one - a natural talent if ever I’ve seen one.

However, the goal conceded at with Leyton Orient on Sunday evening has brought the quality of keepers at Arsenal into the fans’ consciousness once again.

Late on in a game that the Gunners had dominated for 85 minutes, Orient’s ‘super-sub’ Jonathan Tehoue skipped through a static Arsenal back line and fired in a rasping shot from 15 yards to earn the East London side a draw and an unexpected replay.

Now, the paragraph above reads like any dramatic late equaliser. The fresh legs of an attacking substitute getting away from tiring defenders and smashing in the winner. However, when you see the goal you very quickly realise the important role the Arsenal keeper, Manuel Almunia, had in the outcome - the ball flying through his legs.

The shot was hit with venom - hard and true - but it was from a distance of around 15 yards and straight at the unobstructed keeper. A goalkeeper of any pedigree should not be letting the ball pass through his legs from there. Almunia’s view was not blocked, he saw the shot from start to finish and managed somehow not to get anything on it. If I had let that goal in at Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning I know my team mates would be disappointed with me.

A bad mistake from a keeper that has been poor during the past two seasons.

Almunia’s performances have been erratic and when he plays he looks like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s short of confidence and indecisive. This undoubtedly has an effect on the back four. An in-form keeper can give defenders confidence and enable them to concentrate solely on their game, knowing the man behind them has things under control. A poor, indecisive keeper can have entirely the opposite effect. This is definitely the case with Almuina at Arsenal. Remember last season when Gallas couldn’t even bring himself to look at the Spaniard?!

But look, is it really all that bad? We didn’t go out of the cup, we should win the replay in front of our own fans and I think we have plenty going for us between the sticks.

I listened to 606 on Radio 5live for the first time in years after the Orient game and was astonished to hear Arsenal fans questioning why Wenger didn’t go out and spend big on a keeper either last summer or during the January transfer window. Isn’t it blindingly obvious why not? Have they not been watching the side this season?

We have two brilliant young goalkeepers in the squad.

Whatever has happened in the past, upon being considered the outright number one Fabianski has flourished this season. Before the aforementioned shoulder injury cut his season short, Lukasz was fast becoming a fans favourite and was on course to make a comeback of Eboue proportions (but while being actually quite good - if you see what I mean).

Szczesny has shown over the past month that he has a natural talent like no other we have seen at the club for years. To my mind he is now the number one and it is up to Fabianski to win his place back next season.

Almunia has had his day and he knows it. If it wasn’t for Fabianski’s unfortunate injury and subsequent surgery, he would have been sold in the January window. If he didn’t have any confidence before, when he was our number one, imagine how he feels now.

However, the fact still remains - if Szczesny gets injured, Almunia, now our third choice keeper, is back in. That must have been on ArsenĂ©’s mind when deciding to give him game time at the weekend.

I’m generally against rotating keepers. In the past, we’ve done it in the cups to keep the number two happy. We all know that Almunia is done though - he will be leaving in the summer for sure. Christ - even Almunia knows this. I see no merit in playing him in games such as yesterday. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose from his presence in the side.

Ultimately, if Szczesny is our number one, which his undoubtedly is, he should play in all our games from now to the end of the season. He’s not going to suffer from fatigue, indeed he will benefit from playing in as many games as he can during these formative years of his career, and his presence has a calming effect on the whole of the back four, which in turn positively impacts on the rest of the side.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Arsenal vs. Barcelona... Arsenal can’t lose...

...well, obviously they can, and I imagine most people believe they will.

However, in the context of this Arsenal side’s ongoing development, is it really a bad thing that the draw for the UEFA Champions League has, for the second year running, paired them with FC Barcelona?

It’s a mouth watering tie. FC Barcelona vs. the team that some refer to as ‘Barcelona-lite’.

Both teams are capable of wonderful flowing football. However, in the past few years, only one has converted the aesthetics into silverware. This will be an interesting insight into how far away the Gunners are in their mission to emulate ‘the best team in the world’.

Barcelona are seen as the benchmark for anyone who is interested in ‘The Beautiful Game™’. Their high tempo, possession focused, ‘tiki-taka’ football is a delight to watch and, more importantly, it is sweeping aside all those in front of them. Their dominance in La Liga was on full display earlier this season in the quite terrifying 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid. The control they had in that game was simply outstanding. Madrid barely had the ball - they couldn’t get a kick. Barcelona toyed with their closest rivals and, almost at will, pierced their rearguard with five exquisite goals.

I watched that game, mesmerised, excited and absolutely convinced Arsenal would have to play Barcelona this season. It was one of life’s little inevitabilities - a Robin Van Persie injury, a Sebastian Squillaci mistake, a pointless transfer window signing by Harry Redknapp...

But, look - Barcelona have been on a very specific journey to get where they are today.

You don’t just wake up one morning and find the world’s best team at the training ground. Over the past couple of decades, they’ve invested in youth and hammered home the Barca ethos at every level. Xavi Hernandez testified to this in his quite brilliant interview with the Guardian’s Sid Lowe:

“Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, 'Yep, he'll do.' Bring him in, coach him…. It's all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It's the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball.”

In my opinion, Arsenal are on a similar journey - they’re just a little behind. This tie will be a reasonable marker of just how far behind they are.

Towards the beginning of his tenure at the club, Arsené Wenger said that it would take him 10 years to bring through an English player with the required technical qualities to play at the top level. Well here we are.

In a similar fashion to Barcelona, the Gunners have invested in youth, and Wenger has rigidly stuck to his principles of playing a ‘tiki-taka’ style in a league that traditionally rewards a more direct, physical approach. His greatest trick has been to do this while also financing the construction of a brand new stadium and all the time staying competitive in the Premier League.

Recently, much has been made of Arsenal’s five years without a trophy. However, it’s worth noting that Barcelona themselves had six barren years between 1999 and 2005. In 2005, the current crop of players ‘clicked’, a league title followed and they never looked back. My hope is that Arsenal are now on the cusp of a similar moment.

The Arsenal first team is now predominantly made up of maturing players who have grown up together and all completely understand ‘the Arsenal way’. I’m convinced that now, a year down the line, they are in a position to give a more convincing account of themselves than the performances that saw them go out to Barcelona 6-3 on aggregate last season.

In my opinion the key to Barcelona's success is their midfield three.

The combination of ‘Busquets - Xavi - Iniesta’ is absolutely brilliant. The steel and distribution of Busquets, the movement and vision of Xavi along with the quick feet and creativity Iniesta - it makes for a perfectly balanced middle of the park.

Maybe as an Arsenal fan I'm a little biased, but I think you can make reasonable comparisons with the ‘Song - Fabregas - Wilshere’ combination in terms of balance and roles within the side. Barcelona’s three are obviously more experienced and decorated with top honours, but the Arsenal personnel are extremely talented, younger and still learning. This tie represents a magnificent opportunity for the three to show just how good they can be.

In the final third Barcelona have Lionel Messi - without a doubt the best player in the world right now - whereas Arsenal now have the increasingly influential Samir Nasri to provide that little bit of magic.

News that Nasri may be fit for the first leg on Wednesday is heartening. Not just because I’m an Arsenal fan, but also because I feel that ties such as this deserve to have each team playing their strongest 11.

This wasn’t the case last year, when Arsenal were without Robin Van Persie for either leg, lost Gallas within minutes of the start of the first leg, Arshavin shortly after and then Fabregas and Song for the second leg. Hardly ideal, and I still wonder how things might have turned out if we’d had anywhere near our strongest 11 for the trip to Spain.

I feel this Arsenal side are well equipped to finally win something this year. They’re already in one cup final, have Leyton Orient to come in the fifth round of the FA Cup and are arguably now the only realistic challengers to Manchester Utd in the league.

As we get to the business end of the season, the later stages of European competitions can be a real drain due to the intensity of the games and the travelling involved.

In my view, if Arsenal aren’t going to win the Champions League they will actually be better off going out now and putting everything into the domestic competitions.

In a way, the most important work this week was done on Saturday when Arsenal beat Wolves to ensure they’re still in the title race. They can now go into the Barcelona game knowing that:

1) If they win the tie, beating the hot favourites, they should have the belief that they can go all the way in the Champions League having proved themselves against Europe’s best.


2) If they lose the tie, it’s not the end of the world. The team will have continued their education at the top level and can now put their full concentration into the three remaining domestic competitions.

I really believe the end of Arsenal’s barren spell is nearing and, having followed a similar developmental path as the ‘best team in the world’ - the future is looking brighter than ever, regardless of what happens on Wednesday.

Let’s just sit back, and enjoy the battle of the football purists.

*** This post was also published on the Football Pubcast website ***

Monday, 7 February 2011

The three D's. Diaby, Dowd, Djourou.

Now the dust has settled on ‘that’ 4-4, let's make some coherent points...

1) Losing a 4 goal lead is unacceptable at any level regardless of the referee’s performance. Forget the ref... we were in control of the game and, for various reasons, let it go

2) Once the first Newcastle goal went in, it was like watching an elaborate car crash unfold. I think most Arsenal fans will be with me in saying that you could see what was happening and there seemed to be little that would prevent it. We just couldn’t keep the ball. Maybe Chamakh for Van Persie would have helped us with holding the ball up and slowing the game down? Who knows… Wenger obviously thought not and we have to respect that decision.

3) The result is actually not as bad as everyone is making out. To put it into context - at half time, while 0-4 up, not one of us really thought we'd be making points up on Utd. However, events later in the afternoon meant that we did. It's a good thing. It could have been a better thing, but it's still good.

4) We're still in the title race and Utd have a very difficult run in from here.

Right, let's put some meat on those bones.

Understandably, a lot of the focus has fallen on Diaby and Dowd.

Diaby for his part in the defeat.

I've seen a lot of posts on Twitter saying that he should be excused his reaction due to obvious incidents in the past and the fact he doesn't get enough protection from referees.

Two points here…

Firstly, no, he should not be excused his rash and unnecessary reaction to Barton's challenge. My opinion is that the challenge was essentially fair, but at the same time overly strong. Newcastle had been sent out to ‘put it about’ in the second half and see what comes of it. The annoying thing is, with Diaby’s reaction, we’ve made a tactical decision from Pardew bear fruit. Diaby was always going to be sent off for raising his hands and by doing so he let the boys down, put us under a lot of pressure and created the atmosphere that gave Newcastle the belief that something special might be possible. Not good enough.

Secondly, maybe I'm being a bit thick, but I don't understand the whole, "not protected enough by referees" argument. Referees can give fouls and talk to players for bad challenges, give yellows for cynical challenges and send people off for dangerous challenges. What more 'protection' can they afford players? Genuine question. Would be interested to hear people's thoughts. (Twitter is the place for that @viewfromn5).


Terrible performance from the referee. The two disallowed goals should have stood. One for each side so I guess they cancel each other out, however two wrong's certainly don't make a right. Nolan should have been sent off for a similar offence to Diaby's after their first penalty and, most importantly, the second penalty was simply baffling. I still have no clue as to why it was given.

I think the second penalty is an interesting one actually. I'm of the opinion that Dowd was caught up in the moment. The noise of the crowd, the chance of a dramatic comeback, the potential to be involved in a Premier League Classic™. He saw a player go down within a melee of Arsenal players and, I think, reacted all too quickly.

I don’t think we can blame Dowd for the result entirely (most of the blame has to lie with the players), but his performance was poor and I hope will be looked at by the relevant authorities.

The third 'D' - Djourou.

Rather than the sending off, I think Djourou's injury was the main turning point of the match. The reason Newcastle were able to capitalise on the positive atmosphere Diaby’s sending off created.

Put simply, Squillaci is not up to it and his presence in the side creates panic in others.

His bright start at the club is forgotten. I feel the good start may have been a continuation of the late-season form that prompted Wenger to sign him. I fear that it’s only now we’re seeing the real Squillaci and it’s a real concern. He seems more and more likely to be following the path of Silvestre, Cygan et al... and the worrying thing is he drags others down with him. Koscielny is a different man next to Squillaci. Composed and confident with Djourou. Scatty and indecisive next to Squillaci.

Rumours that Djourou might be out for a month or more are worrying in the extreme. It seems Arsene’s centre back gamble may cost us. As long as the right cover is available, I'd probably be in favour of moving Song back in the interim. But who knows what Wenger thinks… we'll just have to wait and see.

Actually thinking about it, this whole business is typical - if there were two players we could not afford to lose for the game against Barcelona, they were Djourou and Nasri. Both out now. It's annoying as I just want us to play the Catalans with a full strength side.

Losing to Barcelona with everyone available is, in my view, somewhat acceptable. However, I still wonder 'what if' after the patched up 11 we had to send to the Camp Nou in the second leg last year...

Anyway - enough of the doom and gloom. The fact still remains that we made up points on Utd this weekend when we didn’t expect to. This can only be a good thing. It could and should have been better, granted, but ultimately it's been a good weekend for us in terms of the table and the title race.

I was positive Utd would lose at some point, and I remain positive that the first defeat will be followed by others.

Utd’s next four league games are against Man City (h), Wigan (a), Chelsea (a) and Liverpool (a). A tough run by anyone's standards. Compare this with our next four league games - Wolves (h), Stoke (h), Sunderland (h) and West Brom (a). All eminently winnable.

How Utd react to their defeat and how we respond to the disappointment of Newcastle over the next three or so weeks has the potential to be season defining.

Come on you reds!