Thursday, 15 January 2009

I Spy 2009

Fellow I-Spyers will be glad to hear I have spotted the first fledgling of the new year. Anyone else who can spot the 'return of injured player "X" is like a new signing' (see previous post) may award themselves 20 points.
Clue: see

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Balance part 2

Another Saturday, another frustrating 1-0 win. It was vital to get those points, otherwise Arsenal would have been 5 points behind Villa, and only 1 ahead of Everton. It's still a possibility that Arsenal might miss out on Europe altogether next season.
That's why I scratch my head slightly at the mooted signing of Arshavin. Granted he's an excellent player on his day, and we could do with an experienced, skilful winger (in the continuing absence of Rosicky), but is it the greatest need? The central midfield area is far more in need of attention, it seems to me. Denilson, Diaby and Song, three of the 'junior' pros in the taxonomy I suggested in my last blog, are not good enough to propel Arsenal into the Champions League places this year. I like Denilson as a neat and tidy player, but he reminds me a little of the Spurs player of the 90s, Vinnie Samways - who David Pleat (even) described as a player who liked to keep the ball on a string: I give it to you, you give it back to me. This kind of player gives you high possessions stats, but lacks penetration. And today, Arsenal had 75% possession, but just scraped a 1-0 win. I won't repeat what I said about Diaby and Song previously.
What Arsenal really need is to get Flamini back on loan, or to get Veloso on loan, to get a terrier-like midfield scrapper with high energy levels to inject some dynamism into the team. They need not be a world-beater; they need not be great technically; but they need to be the motor for the team. I would settle for a John Jensen at this stage, still less a Stefan Schwartz (not to mention Ray Parlour). Surely we can find a 25-year-old John Jensen-alike, or even a 32-year-old version? A big old unit like Everton's Fellaini would be perfect - where did they find him?
Failing that, perhaps Arsenal should think of getting someone like Paddy Vieira back on loan, to provide presence, leadership, a steady hand on the tiller. Even if his knees are knacked, could we get 15 games out of Vieira? It would allow Nasri to come into the middle of the park to add creativity, without making the midfield even more worryingly flimsy. My ideal for this role in the slightly less short-term would be Marc van Bommel for a season or two, but I don't think he wants to leave Bayern until the end of this season - too late.
The other thing about Arshavin is that he isn't really a winger, not like Cristiano Ronaldo or even Albert Rieira. Arshavin is a Number 10, what the Italians call a 'fantasista', a playmaker: and in the Arsenal squad, so are Rosicky, Nasri, Wilshere, Ramsey, possibly Diaby (he'd like to think so, as would Bendtner), Bischoff, Merida. Hleb was a Number 10. Arsene has collected them over the last few seasons, but hasn't even signed a proper wide midfielder (Pires), let alone an out-and out winger (Overmars). Walcott's really a forward who is learning his trade in wide areas. The current Arsenal squad is over-burdened with these attacking midfielders - we need some water-carriers to take up the load.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A Balanced View

After reading a couple of very sensible blogs in the last week or two - one by ArsenalVision on the 'media myths' promulgated about Arsenal, the other by Untold Arsenal, who I hadn't come across before, but which is by a blogger who writes for the venerable fanzine Highbury High - I've become less pessimistic about the Arsenal. I'm still not sure whether they'll get fourth place, but I do see them improving slowly, gaining some confidence. A couple of signings (Arshavin now looks like a real story, and another central midfielder might be on the cards) and the season might start to look a lot brighter.
Something that struck me was in all the analysis of the deficiencies of Arsenal over the last months, not very much detailed attention has been given to the importance of age in the Arsenal squad. Sure, there's endless whining about depth, and lack of experience, 'you don't win nothing with kids', but no-one has really looked at the issue in detail. So I thought I'd group the Arsenal squad into four age groups - oldsters, seniors, juniors, youngsters - to try to gauge the seemingly problematic chemistry within the squad.
1. Oldsters: Gallas, Toure, Almunia, Silvestre. Sold since 2005: Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Lehmann, Campbell, Henry, Gilberto. This list alone shows where some of the problems have come from. In three years, Arsene has moved on seven squad members - first-teamers - who are now in their thirties. This is the problem when a team or squad is 'of an age': they grow old together, and have to be replaced together. The same happened to Liverpool at the end of the 1980s, and they have still not won a title since. The ideal, of course, is to integrate new, younger members into the team as individual players are felt to go into decline - but this isn't always possible. Contracts, the possibility of outside interest, personal issues, can all be a factor here. I would say that with only four remaining players in this category, Arsenal are very unusual; some teams, like Bolton for instance, would balance their squad the other way, with more older (cheaper) players who are on the downward part of their careers. This can lead to leadership problems if, as in Arsenal's case, there isn't a strong leader on the pitch.
2. Seniors: Fabregas, Rosicky, Eduardo (all long-term injured), Sagna, van Persie, Adebayor, Eboue. Sold since 2005: Cole, Hleb, Flamini, Diarra. These are players in the prime of their careers - Fabregas is in this group because of his very young entry into the team, despite his age. The problem here is injuries, and 2008 was a horrible year for Arsenal for long-term injuries. If Arsenal currently had all these players fit and on form, we'd be pressing for the title. It's interesting to note that of the four players who have left in their prime years, only Diarra has gone on to to show more than he did at Arsenal.
3. Juniors: Clichy, Djourou, Nasri, Walcott (long-term injured), Diaby, Denilson, Song, Bendtner, Senderos (on loan to AC Milan), Fabianski. With injuries to the senior ranks, the burden then falls onto the junior pros, and this is where the bulk of the problems lie. Clichy, Djourou and Nasri are excellent players, who show occasional inconsistency because of their age; Walcott's importance has been exposed by his absence, in terms of pace and penetration; Song and Bendtner are not quick enough mentally to be really effective playing in the Arsenal style; and we will have to wait and see whether Senderos comes back. The big problem here, I think, is Diaby, and again, this was caused by another long-term injury, inflicted in a similar way to Eduardo's. This injury has held back Diaby's development. By now, I would suggest, Arsene would have expected Diaby to have grown into the central-midfield position, to have learned tactical discipline, to have become more consistent in his effort, to concentrate and think quicker and move the ball quicker. He plays Diaby behind the strikers because Diaby hasn't developed at the rate required, and so playing him in a central midfield two is a gamble. Diaby did play there against Plymouth, with some success: I would hope that he is played there again regularly this season to allow him to become the player we all hoped he would be. For this, we may need a more defensive-minded player alongside him to provide insurance. Song does not have the speed of thought to do this effectively over a Premiership season. Denilson will learn a lot from this season and will, I think, mature into a very fine player next season.
4. Youngsters: Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Vela, Coquelin; Bischoff, Randall, Lansbury, Merida, Simpson, Traore, Barazite, Gavin Hoyte, Nordtveit (most of whom are, or have been, on loan). I think the first five named are truly excellent players who will light up Ashburton Grove for years to come. One or two of the others might come through. This is the Carling Cup side, pretty much, the best reserves, who didn't go as far as previous years, having come up against a very good Burnley team at Turf Moor. Not much can be expected in terms of full first-team games from 16 and 17 year olds, but they have all shown enough to indicate their talent.
The organisation of these four groups within a typical squad would be a bell-curve: less youngsters and oldsters at either end, more juniors and seniors in the middle. The average age of the squad would therefore be 26, or 27. This year, because of injuries and the changes in the squad, Arsenal are top-light, so to speak, or bottom-heavy, accentuating players of 21 or less, so the average age goes down to 23. Not surprising, then, that confidence is easily lost, inconsistency is the rule, and rumblings of discontent are felt among the fans. Not only is this bell-curve highly unusual: even with excellent youth scouting and development (like, say Manchester City), few managers can expect more than two or three players in any one youth generation to come through as top-class players. In Ferguson's time at Manchester United, this has happened once, with the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham: with the passing of time, this seems ever more conclusively a freak occurence. What Arsene is relying upon is also a freak occurence, that four or five international-class players will come through together. Considering what we have seen of the youngsters, it may well be a gamble that pays off; but it is a gamble nonetheless.
So, what we have going on at Arsenal currently can be summarised as follows: the necessary break-up of the Invincibles; serious and long-term injuries to senior players; the (predictable) inconsistency of the junior pros; and a reliance on a stellar group of young players to see Arsenal into the future.
The Untold Arsenal blog prophesies doom for many of Arsenal's rivals in the current economic climate, particularly highly-leveraged and indebted clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United (let alone West Ham). The writer suggests that Arsene is so forward-thinking that fans cannot comprehend his plan, which is based upon sustainable spending and long-term strategic success. Three years without a trophy is a mere bagatelle if the future of the club is secured and others begin to fall apart. Arsene did say recently that football still believes it is in a 'bubble', and I think a crash is quite likely in the near future, so the board should be praised, rather than vilified, for their prudence.
Mind you, a couple of astute signings, without breaking the bank, and success may come sooner than we think possible.