Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Interesting Times

I'm writing at 11pm on 31 August 2011, the transfer deadline day, and what a strange couple of days it has been. First the 8-2 shellacking at Old Trafford; then the major moves in the transfer market. In past years, TDD has been a frustrating one for Gooners - I remember one where Arsene rather pointedly spent the evening watching the reserves play at Underhill. But not tonight. So, here is a summary of our outgoings and incomings so far:

Cesc to Barca, £30 million
Nasri to Man City, £25 million
Clichy to Man City, £7 million
Eboue to Galatasaray, £3m
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas to Ipswich, £1m
Armand Traore to QPR, £2m
Nik Bendtner to Sunderland, loan
Henri Lansbury to West Han Utd, loan
Denilson to Sao Paolo, loan

Mikel Arteta from Everton, £10m
Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea, loan
Gervinho from Lille, £10m
Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen, £10m
Andre Santos from Fenerbahce, £6m
Park Chu-Young from Monaco, £3m
Carl Jenkinson from Charlton, £2m
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, £5m
Joel Campbell from Saprissa (Costa Rica), loaned to Lorient, £1m
Ryo Miyaichi, obtained work permit

Nik Bendtner is going to Sunderland for a year's loan, but I hope he'll be back; if Chamakh doesn't regain some kind of form, and Nik B has a good year, perhaps Arsenal will swap the Moroccan for the Dane next summer. I've posted about Cesc, Nasri et al before, so the crucial thing is the signings. Clearly, after Sunday, something had to be done. The squad was down beyond the bare bones, to Traore, whose move to QPR must have been lined up beforehand, and to Coquelin, who was handed a debut without having even trained with the first-team squad all summer after being at the u-20 World Championships.

Since then, we've signed Park Chu-Young (to be known as Ju, apparently), who will wear number 9 - a quick, technical striker and captain of his country, Ju will be a back-up to RvP, and will no doubt run his socks off for us; Andre Santos, the Brazilian international left-back, who will make a good platoon with Gibbs (too injury-prone to be relied upon as a full-time starter), an attacking full-back; Per Mertesacker, who has over 70 caps for Germany, is just 26, and is 6 foot 6 tall, solving some of our defensive and organisational problems; and tonight we're chasing two midfielders.

The first is a season-long loan for Yossi Benayoun. I liked Benayoun very much when he was at West Ham, a lively, technical player who I thought could fit in very well at Arsenal in a Bob Pires (minor key) kind of way. I kind of lost track of him at Liverpool but he played over 100 games and scored 29 goals, a pretty decent strike-rate. he signed for Chelsea last summer, but only played 9 games, suffering an Achilles injury. The twittersphere was full of bile when Benayoun seemed to be the only incoming midfielder, but I think he'll do a decent job and is in the same hard-working mould as Ju. What's more, he's 30, highly experienced, and a proven Premier League player.

The other is Mikel Arteta. I've always rated him as a midfield passer, though he has suffered injuries the last few seasons. He'd be an excellent signing if it happens, and would take some of the burden off Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere as creative midfielders. This, then, would be our squad until the January transfer window:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
RB: Sagna, Jenkinson
LB: Santos, Gibbs
CB: Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Djourou, Squillaci, Miquel
DM: Song, Frimpong
CM: Wilshere, Ramsey, Arteta, Rosicky, Diaby
WF: Gervinho, Walcott, Arshavin, Miyaichi, Oxlade-Chamberlain
CF: RvP, Chamakh, Ju

This looks like a much more balanced squad, with depth, pace, quite a lot of goals and creativity, and a solid look at the back. This looks like a squad to challenge for the Champions League places, to me - as good as Liverpool, and significantly better than Spurs, who let quite a few players go this summer without many coming in (although Modric stayed). The future is looking brighter. Especially when we get Wilshere back from his Twittering (which is, undeniably, marvellous, as is Emmanuel Frimpong's. Two top Gooners as well as Gunners.) And talking of Gooners, this tweet tonight from Cesc Fabregas: "I dnt undrstand fans telling me we need a replacement after my departure when weve 1 of the best 3 young players in the world @JackWilshere". Love the "we".

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Hey Johnny Park!

So, Arsenal are close to signing Park Chu-Young, the South Korean skipper who played up front for Monaco in their relegation season in Ligue 1 last year. Cue moaning because he isn't Eden Hazard (who most of the moaners will not have seen play) or Kaka (who was great in 2006... now, not so much). From looking at the vids, this is what I think Park could give the Arsenal:

1. Decent back-up to RvP. Park is skillful, technically very good, quick, and takes a good free kick. It appears he's right-footed.

2. Workrate. His namesake is Park Ji-Sung, Man United's wide midfielder, whose inexhaustible energy and tireless running make him a real unsung hero in that side. All South Korean players seem to have excellent fitness and a willingness to put in a shift.

3. Team ethos. He's not a star player, he'll play without ego. Goodness knows the Arsenal have had enough of ego-maniac players over the last few years, though most have now left the club. He'll fit in to the new team spirit.

So, he'd be a squad player, a decent, experienced option. With Joel Campbell being refused a work permit this year (he'll go on loan and I'm sure will get one next year, as he seems to be a fixture now in the senior Costa Rica side), Bendtner about to be sold and Chamakh very low on confidence, he's the sort of good, ordinary player we need.

As I said in a previous post, this team needs more Parlours, not more Henrys. And as I wrote yesterday, Cahill looks increasingly likely to sign with us before Wednesday, and the fee mooted is around £12 million...

A summer where we sell Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, Eboue, Bendtner, JET; and sign Gervinho, Jenkinson, AOC, Miyaichi, and maybe Park, M'Vila and Cahill would be not so bad. Throw in a left back... and I'll be quite excited.

So you never know. The Arsenal may be signing our own Johnny Park.

Friday, 26 August 2011

You Need Wings

Image of The Bullshit Piled Up So Fast In Vietnam You Needed Wings

Sometimes I think that Arsenal fans are the most gullible in the world. They're certainly among the most eager to set their thoughts down online - new Arsenal blogs seem to appear every day. The latest thing to get the Arseblogosphere's knickers in a collective twist was the rumour mill surrounding the club's interest in Gary Cahill. According to a morning news report, Arsenal had bid £6million (plus add-ons) for Cahill; this was followed up By Owen Coyle's denunciation of Arsenal's 'derisory' offer and Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's re-tweet of some Bolton fan's fulmination against said £6 million offer. At Arsene's 12.30pm presser, he strongly denied the bid was as low as £6 million, and called out Gartside on the matter. Cue much gnashing of online teeth at Arsenal's parsimony.

Come on, friends. At no point did Coyle or Gartside say 'Cahill is not for sale'. What is to be established is a reasonable value for the player, an English centre-back, playing in the Premier League, aged 24, in the last year of his contract. Vermaelen and Koscielny both cost around £10 million, Cahill must be thought of by the Arsenal staff as a player of similar stature. In Cahill's case, 'English', 'Premier League' and 'age 24' push the price up; 'last year of contract' pushes his price down. I reckon Cahill's value to be around £12 million, plus some add-ons. The touted price is £18 million, but no-one (even Liverpool) have looked like paying that amount.

Here's what I think went on today:

1. Bolton leaked a story to a friendly journalist overnight that Arsenal had bid £6 million.

2. Coyle does a presser in which he fulminates against the 'derisory' offer, but without mentioning the actual bid amount. Journos and Arsenal bloggers put 2 and 2 together and make...

3. Arsenal, having banked nearly £70 million this summer, are assumed to be behaving in a 'ridiculous' manner in offering such a low-ball amount. Pressure then comes on to the club by an already disgruntled element of the fanbase to make this transfer happen, 'no matter what the cost' (i.e. driving up the price). Who benefits? Bolton Wanderers.

4. Arsene gets a bit tetchy with journos who take this fairly transparent ploy at face value (or pretend to) and use it as a stick to beat the club with. Relations between Arsenal and Bolton remain good; further negotiations will take place, as Arsenal's interest has been confirmed by both parties. Bringing this out in the open, Bolton must hope, adds to their leverage and, at best, might flush out a competitor club who will make an alternative bid, again driving up the price.

Canny stuff. Arsenal look like hypocrites in not splashing the cash on Cahill, when this week they got £25 million out of City for a player in the last year of his contract; Bolton hold up the value of a player who, come next summer, can walk away from the club for free.

I think this transfer will happen, and have thought that for a while. All the posturing means nothing; Arsenal prefer to do their negotiations behind closed doors as it avoids all this public leveraging. Arsene was right in the presser: either Bolton will sell, or they won't. The can accept a reasonable bid, or they can risk losing Cahill for free next year. It's the choice Arsenal themselves faced this summer, and the outcome of those deliberations make me think that there will be a compromise on the fee eventually. £12 million might be less than £18m, but it's a whole lot better that nothing.

And until next Wednesday, the bullsh*t will keep on piling up. Keep those wings clean.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Be Honest

'If we're really, really going to be honest/ Then we might as well be brief'

So sang David Gedge of The Wedding Present back on the 1989 album Bizarro, and thinking about the reaction of Arsenal fans to the events of the past week, these lines kept going through my mind. At last week's presser, Arsene said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that 'he expected' no-one to be leaving Arsenal, presumably in answer to the question, 'who do you expect to leave this summer?' Arsene was, of course, playing word games - because he was hoping (against hope) that Cesc and Nasri might stay, he could not admit to 'expecting' them to leave. Cue mass Gooner frothing at the mouth, or frothing at the Twitter, perhaps.

In a sense, though, I'd like Arsene to be more honest, because even if you realise he's playing a game with the press, this is a line of communication that the fans take seriously (too seriously, maybe). He can't say who Arsenal would like to sign, and he can only go so far in revealing who may leave; but a little more plain dealing with regard to plans, and why movement has been so slow with regard to major replacements of departing players, wouldn't go amiss. It's of a piece with Arsenal's PR failin gs that I've lamented before.

That said, I expect two or three signings in the next two weeks, especially if, as is widely predicted Nasri leaves in the next day or so. If he does, the list of major departures looks like this:

Denilson (on loan)

with perhaps Bendtner and Almunia to follow. Nasri going for £25million would mean total incomings of over £70million this summer; the sale of Bendtner would take it over £80m. Earlier in the summer Arsene said that if both Cesc and Nasri left, we would no longer look like a serious club; and while I don't think that's true, it certainly will be if we don't get two or three really good players in to replace them. In fact, if we don't, I would take it as an admission of defeat by Arsene, and that this is his last year.

In my last post I noted the four (with Campbell, five) players we've already signed, all but Gervinho aged 20 or below. 6 players have left, with perhaps 2 more to follow (though I wonder now whether Bendtner might be encouraged to stay), and apart from Cesc and Nasri, all of the others have been the subject of Gooner fans' desire to see them gone. Well, you got your wish! But be honest. If you were happy to see most of them go, Cesc's time was pretty much up (and he's started only 20-odd Premier League games in each of the last 3 seasons), and Nasri's head has been turned by the prospect of enormous wages: it's time for a re-think. This is the biggest overhaul of the Arsenal squad I can remember - and it's what a lot of fans wanted after last season's collapse. And, being honest, although the two performances so far have been scratchy, the team have toughed them out and fought for each other - like a team, which is more than you can say about the last dozen games of last season.

Injuries, however, are already taking their toll: Wilshere, Djourou, Gibbs, Traore (though the middle two have form when it comes to injuries), plus suspensions to Song and Gervinho... the squad is looking a bit thin, to say the least. Arsenal have also looked to be lacking a creative spark, even though we've not conceded in our first two games. I think the players we've signed already will, once they've settled in, help give us this spark. (Critics of Gervinho, saying 'he's not good enough' after TWO competitive games, need a reality check.)

But I think our formation is wrong. It was designed with playmakers like Cesc in mind, but I don't think it gets the best out of the players we've got. I would advocate going back to 4-4-2, the Arsenal (not England) 4-4-2, with a deep-lying striker, fluid interchanging, one side tucking in if necessary (a la Parlour) and the other side joing the front two (a la Overmars or Pires/Ljungberg), 4-4-2 becoming a kind of 4-3-3. This is how the squad would look:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
RB: Sagna, Jenkinson
LB: Gibbs, [signing]
CB: Vermaelen, Koscielny; Djourou, [signing]
CM: Song, Wilshere; Frimpong, [signing]
RM: Ramsay, Lansbury
LM/LW: Gervinho, Miyaichi
SS: Van Persie, Arshavin
CF: Walcott, Chamakh/Bendtner, [signing]

In addition, there would be AOC, Afobe, Squillaci, Traore, Miquel, to fit in the squad. The LM/LW, SS and CF positions could do a lot of interchanging, especially if Walcott were given an extended run there to see what he could do - and it's time he was given the opportunity.

What about signings? The injury to Djourou highlights the need for a centre back, and I would now go all-in for Cahill; if not, Scott Dann. A left back is also essential, and if Gibbs is to remain injury-prone, a first-choice signing there is a priority. Even though they don't want to sell Jagielka, I imagine a really good offer for Leighton Baines would do the trick with Everton, as they're completely skint. The most important signing of all is the midfield player; we need someone to be an alternative to Wilshere, a high-tempo, energetic, creative player to get the team moving. And finally, a veteran striker with a bit of pace - I would see whether Nico Anelka fancies coming back to the Arsenal, as he doesn't seem near the first team at Stamford Bridge these days.

If we say Cahill for £16m, Baines for £11m, Anelka for £7m, and a new midfilder for between £15-20m, that would be around £50m spent, with £80m coming in, a net profit of £30m, and and much more balanced squad (and team).

But being honest, I have no idea what, if anything, will really, really happen. And if Arsene should be honest, so will I - the next few weeks will be difficult, but I think better times are on the way, even if we're playing for 4th place, even if we're in the Europa League.

Friday, 12 August 2011

A New Season

The off-season, and pre-season, ends tonight. And tonight, of all things, Arsenal have announced that they have signed a player. But several others have yet to be sold.

So, what to make of Arsenal's summer? I choked back bitter laughter when I read (despite my own self-prohibition) a post by Myles Palmer on ANR who called Arsene Wenger a 'serial loser'; I smiled ruefully to myself when I read a comment on a blog that pronounced 'I want my Arsenal back'; and I have gone from hope, to frustration, to hope again.

So, Cesc is nearly a Barca player; Nasri is nearly a Citeh player; Eboue is nearly a Galata player. Luck to all three, I say. Clichy has already been sold, Denilson has returned to Sao Paolo on loan (but is unlikely to return), rumours today suggest that Almunia may go to newly-minted moneybags Malaga, and Nic Bendtner may go to Stoke City, which I wouldn't wish on anyone. All that should net Arsenal something in the region of £70 million. Which is a fair wedge.

I don't know why anyone took any notice of Arsene's presser this morning; he will say anything other than the truth when it comes to transfer activity. But surely he and Ivan Gazidis know that banking the majority of that money just isn't going to cut it, especially if Arsenal live down to the doomers' expectations in the early season. And this is where I would like to begin: with expectations.

It surely needs no re-stating that Arsenal fans expect too much. Why, with a wage bill that is only the 5th highest in the league, do fans expect us to compete financially with Man Utd (the most high-profile English club globally, with a long history of laying out very large fees and paying top wages); Man City (who with petro-dollar backing can afford to sign, and double the wages of, any player they can persuade to join them, such as Nasri); or Chelsea (who may be towards the end of Abramovich's ability to put them ahead of the pack in terms of spending, but who still took a gamble on Fernando Torres to the tune of £50 million last year)? While I hold out no particular hope that the UEFA financial fair play initiative will ultimately bring the super-club spending to order, I do not want to see 'my Arsenal' (a ridiculous thing to assert, by the way) either putting the club at risk through reckless spending (Leeds Utd, Portsmouth) or put into the hands of Usmanov.

If Arsenal, for the next few years, compete with Liverpool for the 4th CL place, and sometimes end up in the Europa League, what of it? The stadium and squad that is already in place puts Arsenal ahead of Spurs or any of the other upper-mid-table teams that might aspire to 4th. To think we might finish 5th this year would indeed be a disappointment, but I can't see it happening, to be honest. For all their spending, I can't really see Liverpool being qualitatively different or better this year. Henderson, Adam, Downing, Carroll? I don't think I'd be that excited if Arsenal had spent £80 million on those four players, worthy though they may be.

I'm happy to scale back my expectations. A 'selling club'? In the Europa League instead of CL? Aiming for Cup rather than Premier League title success? What of it? I also want 'my Arsenal' back, and doing away with the sour, hateful and hate-filled, bilious and self-lacerating discourses of 'disappointment' with the manager, board, players etc that have filled up the blogosphere this summer is the first step. I was a happier Arsenal supporter in the late 80s, when we were on the verge of winning something, than I am now; the bounty of the years 1998-2004 was a great anomaly that I'm glad I saw, but now could do with putting behind us, because it's distorting the way the grand old club is seen by everyone, even its 'supporters'. Even by me.

So, £70 million's worth of talent out the door, and who has come in? Carl Jenkinson, an Anglo-Finn Gooner who looks a very good prospect as a back-up to Sagna; Gervinho, a right-sided wide player, very quick and with a good eye for goal; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a 17-year-old right-sided winger/ striker who tore up League 1 last year; Ryo Miyaichi, a young, fast, very direct Japanese left winger who played exceptionally well for Feyenoord last year and was awarded a 'special talent' work permit; and tonight, Joel Campbell, a young, fast, left-sided striker from Costa Rica who did very well at both Copa America and World u-20 Championships this summer, who should get a work permit.

See a pattern there?

With the departures of Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, Eboue, Bendtner, and Denilson there is a clear shift in terms of priorities. Between 1998 and 2004, the keynote for Arsenal's style of play was pace and power, dominated by the GG back four, Sol, Vieira and Henry; between 2005 and 2011, 'Cesc's Arsenal', the keynote was technique and possession, which achieved its high-point with the 2008 side, where Flamini and Adebayor gave the (physically smaller) side physicality and tempo; now, we are seeing another change, to explosiveness and speed. I, for one, am really happy to see these kinds of player being signed. I, too, would like a good centre-back, a veteran left-back, and (most importantly) an upgrade on the holding midfielder role, where Song is good but (like Gilberto before him) not a player to dominate or set the tempo. But the side that collapsed last season badly needed an injection of pace, needed runners to break down deep-set defences, needed players with the directness and pace to get past their marker and cause problems. Where the recent side often ran into the sand because all their possession did not translate into goals (leaving them vulnerable to counter-attacks), often playing a lot in front of two lines of four (or even 9 players in a 4-5-1) and never really penetrating, this summer's crop of signings will give the Arsenal a lot more directness, energy and pace.

The player being touted as 'Cesc's replacement', the Brazilian Jadson from Shakhtar Donetsk, isn't a like-for-like replacement, if he arrives. From what I've seen on YouTube, he's not a playmaker, a pure passer; he's a small, dynamic attacking midfielder, like a cross between Arshavin and Deco (with a little bit of Rosicky), a dribbler with a terrific shot from distance. We already have passers in Wilshere, Ramsay, even Lansbury - we need a game-changer. Is Jadson it? I don't know. But I can see the thinking.

I think the doomers have it wrong, in any case. I think there will be further signings once Cesc, Nasri and Eboue are gone next week. Scott Dann looks a strong possibility; I wouldn't be at all surprised if we signed Gary Cahill in the last few days of the window either. I do believe Gazidis and Wenger and others have been working hard to sign players this summer; I believe they knew this exodus was probable, if not certain, and planned for it; I don't believe it's 'penny-pinching' or any other media narratives that have prevented Arsenal from signing more than the four players (plus Miyaichi) they've signed already. It takes time. This will be the biggest upheaval for the club for many a summer, and I would have preferred the deals to have been done earlier; but the club can only play the hand they're dealt.

So, at time of writing, the squad for the season is likely to look like this:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
FB: Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Traore (+?)
CB: Vermaelen, Koscielny, Djourou, Squillaci (+ Dann, Cahill?)
MF: Song, Ramsay, Wilshere, Diaby, Frimpong, Lansbury, Rosicky (+?)
W: Gervinho, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyaichi
F: van Persie, Chamakh, Arshavin, Campbell

That makes 26. A couple of defenders and a midfielder, and I think we'll be fine - in hope rather than in expectation.