Tuesday, 12 July 2011

All the World's a Stage, And all the Men and Women merely Players

It's nearly the beginning of pre-season: Arsenal play a Malaysian XI tomorrow afternoon. Hooray! Now there's something else to talk about...

Arsene gave an interesting couple of interviews over the last few days. In the first, he denied outright that Arsenal were about to sell Samir Nasri; pressed further in the second, he revealed that Cesc is 'torn' between his love of Arsenal and his desire to return to Barcelona. Arsene also suggested that if the club sold both Cesc and Nasri this summer, quite rightly the club's 'ambition' would come into question. If nothing else, Arsene reveals here that he knows the anxieties among fans about how our club is perceived, and how the fans perceive the club anxiously. He stated that Nasri would not be allowed to leave this summer even if it means that the club ultimately lose out on £20million+ by not selling him now. In a previous post I advocated exactly that, and I'm glad the club are taking this line. This, more than anything else, demonstrates that money isn't everything; what's £20million in the bank if you can't sign a replacement of equal quality, and the presence of Nasri in the team might help them finally win something? Arsene also said that the fact that other clubs are bidding for our players means that there aren't others elsewhere - so we have to keep hold of our own, by whatever means necessary (no matter how temporary this may be).

This brings me on to Cesc. I said in a previous post I expected him to go, and nothing that Arsene said changes my mind about that. If you were offered a dream job, in a place you'd love to live, with the prospect of fulfilling your career ambitions, surrounded by friends and family, would you say no? I wouldn't. Yes, he might sit on the bench. Yes, he's never going to be as central to the club and team as Cesc has become to Arsenal, because there are too many other stars there, Catalan stars at that. But I don't blame him for wanting to go, and to be honest, throughout he has conducted himself with dignity. This can't be said for Barca, or their players, of course, but I think Cesc is pretty blameless. For him, it's not about money, nor (really) even about 'winning things'. It's about going home, and that's ok by me. If Barca can offer something near £40million, with bonuses and add-ons, I'd say, 'Thank you, Francesc, and good luck.'

With Cesc gone, Nasri would then be given his role as the creative 'fantasista' playing behind van Persie, in the middle of the 3 in the current 4-2-3-1. I say, give him the responsibility. Say, 'show us and the world what you can do. If you want the Ballon D'Or, if you want trophies, if you want to move to a bigger club than Arsenal, SHOW ME.' Either he takes the stage, the club win something, and he either stays because he feels he can win with Arsenal or a wealthy club offers him riches; or, he can't pull it off, and there's less interest in him come next summer.

I'm quite excited about Arsenal, strangely, more than for a few years, and two players are catching my eye. One is Gervinho, who looks the direct, quick, technically good and goalscoring winger that we've been missing for years. He dribbles at speed and looks for space between defenders in and around the box - I think he's going to be really dangerous. The other is Ryo Miyaichi, who had a devastating season on loan to Feyenoord last year. He has electric pace (can keep up with Theo Walcott), is also very direct, extremely skillful, and seems to play with his head up. My hope is that Arsene can wangle a 'special talent' work permit for him so he can be around the squad this year - he'd be an astonishing impact substitute, for starters. In the 4-2-3-1, a front four of Walcott-Nasri-Gervinho-van Persie, with Miyaichi a substitute for either of the wide men, and Arshavin a second option in the Nasri role, would look very sharp indeed.

In the interview, much to the chagrin of the Arseblogosphere, Arsene also said that the club are looking to sign 'one or two more top, top players'. With Jenkinson and Gervinho, this would make four in; with Clichy gone, Bendtner and Almunia negotiating with other clubs, and Cesc very likely to leave, that makes four out. I would say that this is probably enough, though if an offer were made for Denilson (whose end-of-season comments seemed to burn some boats) I'd expect the club to accept that too. A nine-player turnaround for the squad would mean one of the biggest upheavals in the Wenger period - bloggers who call for a cull of five or six players and the same amount in are deluding themselves. Not because of parsimoniousness, but because of continuity.

And even if the Cesc money comes in at around £40million, who do Arsenal buy? I think the top priorities are a centre-back and a dynamic centre-midfielder as a different option to Song (who is a good player, but can be a bit languid. If the Professor could gene-splice Song and Diaby, we'd have a hell of a midfield general - in fact, we'd have Paddy mk2). Cahill, Jagielka, Vertongen - any of these would be fine, to my mind, and one that could cover lefvt-back (like Vertongen) might have the edge. Squillaci can be put out to grass. But who would you sign as the centre-midfielder? Is there another Michael Essien out there (who we can get to before Chelsea or Citeh or United do)? Is there even another Didier Deschamps? I wonder whether we might give Owen Hargreaves a call, if his legs are up to it - a fit Hargreaves would certainly tick the boxes. I dunno - we'll have to wait and see if Arsene will pull another rabbit out of his magic hat.

Which brings me back to the interview. In the Premier league, I feel that to be a successful manager, in terms of the media, one must be a performer. Sir Alex is like the last of the ham actor-managers (see his performance last year when Rooney wanted to leave for Citeh), a footballing Orson Welles who gets what he wants by imposing his will on others, often to brilliant effect. Harry Redknapp is, of course, the comedian, a luvverly fellah with jokes just the right side of blue not to make the missus blush, and is mates with everyone. Mourinho, while he was part of the show, operated the puppet theatre. And Arsene? He's the prestidigitator, the illusionist, playing straight but giving absolutely nothing of his act away, producing rabbits out of hats. This is what provokes the ire of journos such as Myles Palmer, who have lived with the act for too long - there's only so much mummery one can stand. I think it puts the Arsenal supporter in a tough spot, which is why the summer has been so hysterical: the back pages are full of nonsense, planted stories, half-baked rumours, fabrications and speculations; and Arsene plays three-card-monte with the 'truth', now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, as a kind of tactic. What to believe? The real answer, of course, is 'nothing'. But such scepticism is tough act to pull off for the audience when the whole summer show is arranged for us to live through the entrances and exits of the players.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Looking forward

Interesting news today, away from real life: Samir Nasri has been offered the same contract as Cesc, £110,000 a week, to stay at Arsenal. Whether it's true or not, it comes as a good sign. If it was a story planted by Nasri's agent, then it may indicate a paving of the way to the signing of a new contract: 'we fought the club and won a better deal'. If it is a story planted by the club, at least it shows that they're trying to assert some control over the story, and if the player is eventually sold, it would not be because of penny-pinching on Arsenal's part. As I stated in the last post, I'm not at all convinced that the whole Nasri story wasn't stirred up by the agent to gain greater leverage in contract negotiations with the Arsenal - to sell him to Man United, even for £25 million, would be folly and (symbolically, for the fans) an admission of defeat. Personally, I would rather the club forced Nasri to stay and run his contract out than sell him to United this summer. The perils of player mobility yet again.

And once again, the shrill plaints from the arseblogosphere, calling Wenger out for his lack of activity. I don't know what some of these 'fans' want: for Arsene to declare that he's intent on signing Player X and have the price of the player go up, put the other club on the back foot and be less likely to do a deal, and (most importantly) indulge himself in precisely the same kind of public tapping up that we all so deplore with regard to Barca's pursuit of Cesc? No.

Now, let's begin with a few assumptions about next season.

1. Cesc is sold to Barcelona, some time in late August, for about £37 million.
2. Nasri signs a new contract.
3. Bendtner, Denilson, Squillaci and Almunia are eventually offloaded for varying amounts, sum total about £15 million.
4. Gervinho arrives early next week, for £11 million.
5. Arsenal sign a centre-back; let's say Cahill for £17 million.
6. Arsenal sign a dynamic, experienced, defensive centre-midfielder (Motta, Vidal, Barton, who knows?).

Some of the young players will go out on loan again: JET, Aneke, Miquel, Afobe for the first 3 months. I would keep a couple of others at the club who have been knocking around for a while: Henri Lansbury and Kyle Bartley. Both did really well on loan last season, the latter gaining Champions League experience with Rangers, and must be a better option than Squillaci as a fifth central defender (and with our recent injury record at this position, 5 players in this position in the squad would make a lot of sense). Lansbury did well at the Under-21 Euros as a sub for England, outshining Jordan Henderson, who Liverpool paid £20 million for. (Today's speculation is that Norwich will offer £2million for Lansbury - this seems a gross underestimate of his quality.) I'd also see whether Frimpong can come back from his year of injury and be the physical presence in the middle of the park he appeared to be last pre-season.

Here, then, are two teams that we could play from an updated squad, both playing 4-2-3-1:

Sczeczny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Cahill, Gibbs; Song, Wilshere; Gervinho, Nasri, Walcott; van Persie.

Fabianski; Eboue, Djourou, Koscielny, Jenkinson; Diaby, Frimpong; Ramsay, Arshavin, Miyaichi; Chamakh.

Add to this: Bartley, Lansbury, new central midfielder, Rosicky, Mannone.

I think this looks a pretty good squad. I hope Miyaichi can get a permit: I've seen extensive highlights of last season, when he played left-wing for Feyenoord, and he was electrifying. Great acceleration, very quick, skillful and with a good trick or two, played with his head up, good finisher. He is small, granted, and it was 'only' the Dutch league, but he reminded me of two other small, dark-haired wingers who had a great impact in their short Arsenal careers: Anders Limpar and Marc Overmars. Like the latter especially, Miyaichi is fast, direct, and can cut inside from the left and finish well off his right foot. I really like the look of him.

Miyaichi and Gervinho would give the Arsenal what they've lacked for a few seasons: directness and pace. I'd also start Walcott on the left, just off van Persie, as a striker rather than a wide player. If a new, dominant, dynamic central midfielder played alongside Wilshere instead of Song (the ideal being Paddy at age 24) then we'd have a hell of a team.

I do think Arsenal fans underestimate the qualities of some of our own players; I do think that, despite the collapse at the end of last season, the current squad is very good and could, with a bit of luck and a tweak in style (and fortitude), pick up a trophy. I don't think it needs major surgery - a bit more time, and as Arsene said today, 'one or two more' important cogs in the team, and there would be every reason for optimism.

And that would be true even if Nasri is sold.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Clichy/ cliche

I've fallen off the wagon - after months of keeping away from the Arsenal blogs, I'm back on NewsNow, searching for transfer news, the inside dope. The dope, however, is me - I'm going to swear off again.

A bizarre article in The Guardian today by Dominic Fifield is, to all intents and purposes, a call for Arsenal to break their pay structure and to pay its players what they receive at Chelsea and Man United; a demand for financial irresponsibility, in other words. It's curious how twisted the logic gets. Rather than lament spiralling wage bills (which have, and will continue to produce, calamitous and near-catastrophic consequences for large clubs - does no-one remember Leeds or Portsmouth?), the article attacks Arsenal's parsimoniousness. We should pay Samir Nasri (who has half a great season to his name) £120,000 a week, opines Fifield, because United or Chelsea or Citeh can. Well, Arsenal shouldn't. In fact, if these really are his wage demands, they should sell him, preferably abroad, and in 5 years time he can look back, as I'm sure Hleb, or Adebayor, or even Nico Anelka do and he can ask himself: 'what did I do that for?' I have a strong feeling that a lot of the Nasri tittle-tattle is his Mr 20% stirring the pot to strengthen their hand in negotiations, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to read that Nasri's staying in the end. However, you can't really expect Arsene or Ivan Gazidis to comment on this if it's all ongoing.

A little honesty from the club wouldn't go amiss, though. If there's little to spend, say so. If the Arsenal cannot compete against the 'financial doping' of Chelsea, Citeh or United, say so, loudly and often. Remind the fans that Arsenal are currently trying to play an equitable game against the house (the football-media-spectacle complex), and wins against the house are rare.

And so to Clichy. Farewell; a good player, but suspect defensively, caught out by not having a left-midfielder to track back ahead of him, leaving too often exposed. Arsene expects a lot of his full-backs - not only do they (in gridiron parlance) have to be 'shutdown corners', snuffing out the threat of opposing wingers, they also have to create the width going forward. Clichy didn't quite match up to Ashley Cole, or Sagna, or Lauren, or the blessed Nutty. He might do well in Mancini's more prosaic, defensive ethos. But a catastrophic loss? No. After all, he was part of the team that ended last season with a record that bespoke relegation rather than challenging for the title. (So was Nasri, let us not forget.) Replacing him shouldn't prove that costly or difficult, even if Gibbs's injury-prone young legs do not prove more robust. Even if what we have instead is a more stay-at-home, defensively minded player.

In fact, I wouldn't mind at all the signing of some meat-and-potatoes players, some gritty workers (for despite what Martin Samuel says here, Arsene has never bought superstars - he makes them). Perhaps Benzema would set the front line alight, but he might not, and he hasn't exactly done so in Madrid. I can't say I'm excited by, or give any credence to the Kevin Doyle rumours (nor Stewart Downing for £20m, etc) but if we did buy, say, Leighton Baines, and Parker or Barton, and Samba or Cahill, none of these are 'superstars'. But I wouldn't be unhappy with them. Add in Gervinho, and maybe one other, and I think we'd have a pretty good mix with our current squad, even without Clichy, Nasri and even Cesc. This Arsenal team needs more Ray Parlours, not more Thierry Henrys.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The crisis narrative

Arsenal in crisis, yet again. Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, even RvP to be sold? The first three, anyway. What can we make of this, other than the Arsenal really need some media managers who are (a) more competent at handling the traditional media outlets and (b) are more pro-active at getting positive stories across the Arse-blogosphere, even by (as some American sports teams do) by personally engaging with them in q & a's or other kinds of communication? At the moment, the club seem prepared to let the hysteria blow itself out, a risky stratgey considering the negativity around.

There's an excellent post at the Yankee Gunner blog about the 2007-8 team, which explores what happened to the side that nearly (and should have) won the title in 2008, then lost Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor, Rosicky and eventually Toure and Gallas and Eduardo over the next couple of years through a variety of reasons. What struck me was that the 2008 team was itself remarkably different from the 2006 Champions League finalists, which was the last hurrah for the Invincibles. Here are the two starting line-ups:

2006: Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Pires, Silva, Cesc, Hleb, Ljungberg, Henry. Subs: Almunia, Flamini, Reyes, Bergkamp, Van Persie, Senderos, Clichy.

2008: Lehmann, Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy, Hleb, Flamini, Cesc, Rosicky, Adebayor, Eduardo.

and for purposes of comparison, a starting 2010-11 line-up:

Fabianski, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Cesc, Walcott, Arshavin, van Persie.

In effect, Arsene has been forced to reconstruct the side twice in five years. Cesc and van Persie are the only points of continuity. In a previous post I noted the importance of player mobility and contract status, which has, if anything, accelerated in the interim. The problem now for Arsene isn't money - Arsenal have never spent the kind of sums that rivals like Man United and Liverpool (or latterly Chelsea and Man City) have afforded, in terms of fees and the wage bill - it's time. Not in the sense that Carlo Ancelotti might understand it, but in terms of building a team; a team not built from off-the-peg superstars, but from specific components that Arsene sees as re-shaping the dynamic of the team. If the right player costs £5 million rather than £30 million, all well and good, but it's the role they play in the overall shape of the team that's important.

And if Arsene has 'failed', I don't think it's in his unwillingness to fork over £30 million of the club's cash, nor in the 'youth project' (which I would understand at least in part as a response to the increasing problem of player mobility, as well as to the changing economic landscape of European football) - it's the shape of the team that has come into being since 2008. Recent acquisitions have placed technique over size and power, which is fine, if you want to play that way (it works for Vermaelen). However, what has been lost is pace, and penetration. There's no Overmars, there's no Henry. In terms of the squad, I think it's time to move Walcott off the wing and into a central role, as a striker - Arsenal need to rediscover the art of the through-pass and the searing burst of pace. The threat of this would make opposing defences play deeper, giving the midefield more room - and even if Cesc and Nasri go, we still have quite a few creators.

I'd also suggest a move back to 4-4-2, but the 2002-style formation, when we still had Ray Parlour on the right, tucking in to form a central 3 when necessary; and a goalscoring, attacking player wide left, switching with the support striker and the left midfielder as necessary. (Arshavin, bought to play there, doesn't like the role.) One possibility would be to switch Theo to the left - to play the Overmars role, cutting in from the left and striking with the right foot. The current Arsenal team need to pass and to move with greater pace, to switch positions with more creativity, to play on the counter more effectively. They need a tempo player in midfield, a strong centre-back and either a left-winger or a striker. Even losing Cesc and Nasri and Clichy, buying good, effective players in these positions would be an excellent first step towards undoing the damage of the end of last season.