Monthly Archives: October 2012

Theo Walcott

Reading 5-7 Arsenal: Walcott plus Arsenal, the Gunners’ most effective duo

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Arsenal were so dire against Reading in the the first half since the manager choose a team who were overall short on experience, hasn’t played together much, and those who have played together featured several pairings which historically have not worked. But some times there’s no explaining football, it just ends up working.

The game against Reading was Carl Jenkinson’s 12th start (in all competitions) for Arsenal this season. That would be the most starts for any of the Arsenal players on the pitch yesterday. Coquelin was next in terms of overall starts for Arsenal with just 5, Koscielny 4, and Walcott has had 3 starts and 8 subs. There have been two starts for each of Arshavin, Miquel, Djourou, and Martinez and yesterday was the first start of the season for Fimpong, Chamakh, and Gnabry. As you can see, there were three players who were handed their first Arsenal start this season and a huge handful of players who almost never play together.

The players who have played together almost never do well. Walcott and Jenkinson don’t seem to understand each other and though they didn’t argue last night, as I have seen them in the past, they rarely hooked up in terms of passing. Instead, Walcott was most effective when he came inside and Arshavin could find him with a through ball. Coquelin and Frimpong are another pair that just don’t work together. Both are just too sloppy in possession to have on the field at the same time and they seem to have a problem passing to each other, covering for each other, and generally don’t seem to get along (cue the interview on the official site showing them as best friends forever). Add to that the pre-match interview with Frimpong in which he said that he’s not ready to play for Arsenal and you can see why Arsenal’s midfield allowed Leigertwood to bypass them and score like they were mired in treacle.

On the left, Arsenal played Miquel and Gnabry and it was an even bigger disaster than Coquelin and Frimpong or Walcott and Jenkinson. Miquel couldn’t cover crosses, always drifted into a center half position (though not in a way that helped as the Dread Pirate Roberts got between him and Koz), didn’t get  much defensive help from Gnabry, and Gnabry was a terrible outlet up front.

And the center back pairing of Djourou and Koscielny is one I hope to never see again. Koscielny looks to have reverted to the form from his first three games at Arsenal: he was thrown off the ball several times by Roberts (who, to be fair, got away with an extraordinary amount of shirt pulling), he scored an own goal, he couldn’t win a header, he played a man onside for their 5th goal, and he couldn’t clear the ball. Djourou had a better night, though he was also shucked to the ground by Roberts and didn’t really do well in the air despite his size advantage.

Meanwhile, the pairing of Arshavin plus “his prefered central midfield position” looked dangerous all night, both offensively and defensively. Clearly he had a good night offensively. He managed three assists, though there should be a dubious assists panel since at least one of those was a shot, and normally three assists is a great day at the office. But he was also his frustrating flick on, cute pass, wasteful self, who gave away the ball in the Arsenal backfield.

What do you do with Arshavin? Clearly he’s not going to change. He is never going to be a possession first type of player which is exactly what makes him both a genius and a fool. 50% of the time he’s passing a magnificent slide-rule pass to an onrushing Theo Walcott and 50% of the time he’s gifting possession back to the opposition with a Hollywood pass in Arsenal’s half. These stats are 100% true, because 50+50=100.

If there was one pairing that we’ve rarely seen work, however, it’s Chamakh plus Arsenal and to be fair to my criticism, he was horrible for most of the night. Yes, I am saying that a player who scored two goals was horrible. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it happened. Chamakh spent 110 minutes looking like a player who didn’t want the ball and 10 minute like a player who could score 40 goals for the club.

Frankly, I don’t know how 5-7 is at all possible, I can’t find an instance of a score like that in Arsenal’s history, but a 5-7 with Chamakh who scored twice, and both were from distance is simply some sort of surrealist art. Or maybe a 5-7 win with Chamakh scoring two goals from distance is Dada. Like Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s Shit”.

Chamakh’s Goals
Contents 2
Preserved on DVR
Shot from distance
in October 2012

And finally, the pairing that no one is talking about but which should be the only thing we are talking about is Theo Walcott and “A New Contract.” The Arsenal man scored a hat trick last night and also managed a hat trick of assists. That is 6 of the 7 goals that Arsenal scored. That alone is proof that he never gave up on this Arsenal team.  From the moment of kickoff to Chamakh’s last goal of the game, Walcott was the Alpha and the Omega.

Walcott had Arsenal’s first goal and it was a goal that you could see was coming: Arshavin had been trying to find Theo’s run down the middle for 45 minutes before Reading finally gave up the space that Arsenal needed to exploit Theo’s pace. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pick up a through ball like that running at pace but I can tell you that it’s a lot harder than it looks and Theo’s first touch was as perfect as the little flick to score the goal. It was more than a goal, Theo rescued Arsenal with that goal and I don’t jusst mean rescued the match, he may have rescued Arsenal’s season. It gave the team just a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very dark first 45 minutes.

He then rescued Arsenal again at what looked to me like Arsenal’s lowest moment of the season, the 18 minutes after the second half kicked off. Arsenal started the second half looking like a team that was going to concede 8 to Reading. But there in the 64th minute, Theo Walcott took a corner and whipped a ball into Giroud. The big Frenchman did especially well to steer that on target but the pace on the ball did just as much work. 4-2 now and the little Englishman was feeling it.

Then in the 94th minute, again when all seemed lost, with the final kick of regulation time Walcott got on the end of a Chamakh header and powered a shot over the line. 4-4 to the Arsenal. Arsenal’s Newcastle moment and as dramatic a comeback as you will ever see without the help of the official awarding the comeback team two dubious penalties and a red card.

Reading would equalize again in extra time after Arsenal took a 5-4 lead from one of those two Chamakh long-distance shots. And then at 5-5 with literally no time left on the clock who would be there to score the sixth and rescue Arsenal from a penalty shootout? Theo.

Arshavin, who to his credit hadn’t stopped running all night, somehow found the energy to get all the way down field and past the entire Reading defense before hammering a shot that was cleared off the line. Fortunately, the Reading defender only got the ball to Walcott who blasted into the top of the net. The score was now 5-6 and Walcott’s subsequent celebration in front of the away fans, whom he seems to love so dearly as he spends a long time after every match applauding them, was pure love and adrenalin.

And then with the penultimate kick of the match, it was again Walcott. It always had to be Walcott. Kevin Friendofreading had added something like 20 minutes of time at the end of the game to give Reading another chance at winning, but Walcott hoofed the clearance up field, Chamakh was there to take it and with an extraordinary moment of lucidity chipped the keeper from distance. 5-7 to the Arsenal.

I know what I’ve been told was the stumbling block over the Walcott contract situation and at this point I’m starting to understand his demands. With yesterday’s hat-trick against Reading and a hat trick of assists, Theo Walcott has scored 7 goals for Arsenal (leads the club) and put in four assists. All of that in just three starts.

I’m not one to be over-reactive from a single game but yesterday’s 6 goals haul by Theo Walcott capped what has been an extraordinary season for any player, much less a player who is in the middle of a contract dispute with his club. What more does Walcott need to do to get an improved deal? Worse, what will the fallout be from Arsenal fans if Theo is let go in January? Even if he is replaced with Falcao, we will always wonder what could have been if Walcott had been played in his favorite pairing: Walcott plus Arsenal.

Qq

Ambitious Arsenal field youth in League Cup

There are probably as many ways to define ambition as there are people who aspire to some goal. The junior partner at a law firm who wants to make senior partner and puts all his efforts into that goal, certainly feels ambitious. The community organizer and one-time senator who runs for president of the United States, also has ambition.

Football clubs, too, have different levels of ambition. For Reading, they aspire to “Premier League Survival” and perhaps to ”do one over on a big team to give everyone a memorable night”. A run deep into the FA Cup or the League Cup can actually be seen as detrimental to a squad vying for the Premiership Survival Cup. Moreover, the League Cup provided cold comfort to the fans who had to watch as Birmingham City crashed and burned out of the Premier League with Alex McLeish at the helm.

And let’s make no mistake about this. The reason why the Premiership Survival Cup is so important to Birmingham and Reading is money. Cold, hard, cash. Those clubs can never aspire to be anything without money. Money might not buy you love but it will buy you the badge-kissing superstar footballer who can ensure that your club wins the next level in the money ladder. Each successive rung in that ladder is leading up to Champions League qualification and the multi-million dollar jackpot that competition ensures.

For Arsenal, the club’s ambitions were set out by the manager at a fiery shareholder’s Annual General Meeting last week. After the management team and ownership were angrily quizzed about their ambitions, about whether they plan on taking dividends out of the club, and what the legal definition of “meeting with the fans” is, Arsene Wenger reassured everyone over the club’s ambitions. Those ambitions are, in this order; to win the Premier League, win the Champions League, win Champions League qualification, win the FA Cup, and win the League Cup.

Is there an an irony in a shareholder’s meeting where the shareholders complain that their company is profitable and self-sustaining? I think so, but I digress. Those shareholders reacted angrily and bitterly that Arsene Wenger finally admitted the least best kept secret in the history of football: after winning the League and winning the Champions League, Arsenal consider winning qualification to the Champions League as a goal.

How exactly this surprised anyone I’m not sure. Wenger has publicly stated that Champions League qualification is their third goal every season for the last few years. And even if you’re not a fan who ever reads the manager’s words you wouldn’t have to be particularly astute to look at the teams he fielded in the FA and League Cups and reach the conclusion that they were lower priority than the final position on the League table.

But what really perplexes me is how this goal of Champions League qualification became a stick with which to beat the club. First, if your goal as a fan of the club is to one day win the Champions League trophy (old big ears) so that you can lord it over your cell mates at work you do understand that in order to win that trophy, you have to qualify for the tournament, right? Second, you also realize that if you want to one day win the Premier League, you have to have the money available to buy the superstar badge-kisser, like Falcao, who will score the goals you need in order to win the League, right? You also realize that, with very rare exception, players like Falcao won’t sign for your club unless you have that Champions League qualification, right?

Given those facts, how, exactly, is it a stick to beat someone with that they count Champions League qualification as a goal for their season? Or worse, how does ranking Champions League qualification as the third goal of every season qualify as “lacking ambition”? A phrase I have read so many times in connection to Arsenal the last few weeks that its lost all meaning.

The argument is that the board, the owner, and the manager only really care about Champions League qualification and nothing else matters. But that is, frankly, a lazy assertion. Since the demise of the Invincibles, Arsene rebuilt his team around Cesc Fabregas with the goals of winning the League, the Champions League, paying for a new stadium, and creating a youth program par excellence. All within their budget, something that shareholders should be happy about.

The Arsenal team of 2007/2008 finished the season just 4 points off the title and were purpose-built around Cesc Fabregas to compete with two major title rivals: United and Chelsea. The next year, Sheik Mansour took over Man City and immediately injected hundreds of millions of pounds into the Blues. Suddenly, there were four title contenders. To date, Man City have lost £400m+ in acquiring their one League trophy, which they won by the slimmest of margins on the last day of the season. Arsenal could spend every penny of the £75m estimated to be lying around in war chests by the AST, they could spend every dime from the new Adidas contract, and (if they could find the players) they would still have to borrow £300m to approach the spending that Man City have put out in the last four years. Which, of course, would only put Arsenal on par with the spending of Man City and wouldn’t guarantee any titles, but is the way that people “show ambition” in football. Spending.

There is another way to show ambition and that is to do something radically different. To break the mold as it were. Arsene has been very clear about the club’s desire to break the mold and said again as much in the AGM meeting, something which no one seems to have heard because they were too focused on their own egos: Arsene wants “60-80%  of players come to from our own ranks.”

Combined with the stated goals of winning the League, winning the Champions League, and Champions League qualification, this is a heady aspiration indeed. In fact, only one team that I know of won the Premier League with that many players who came through their youth program: Manchester United’s so called “golden generation”.

So, tonight, when Reading field their Premiership Survival team and Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld take the pitch with Francis Coquelin, Carl Jenkinson, Manu Frimpong and Nico Yennaris, you are witnessing Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s fundamental challenge to the model of the “Sheikhigarchy”. Arsenal are using the competition as a breeding ground for new talent. As a place where young players can cut their teeth against seasoned opposition.

It might not be the way that you would do things, and fair enough to you. But the one thing you can’t say is that the project lacks ambition. Considering the climate in world football, it may very well be one of the most ambitious projects that football has ever seen.

Qq

Clattenburg v. Chelsea proves point: League are targeting diving

Chelsea’s incredible complaint that a Select Official racially abused their players will now overshadow what was an all around horribly refereed match by Mark Clattenburg. A match which saw several red-card fouls go unpunished, two cards given for diving, and an offside goal allowed to stand. And anyone who is surprised that Clattenburg is at the center of controversy can not have been watching football for long.

Clattenburg has a long and storied history of getting calls wrong. Not just small calls, big calls. There was the infamous Nani goal, where Tottenham’s keeper Gomes placed the ball on the ground thinking that the referee had called an obvious handball as Nani very clearly reached out and handled the ball to stop play. Clattenburg did not call the handball, he played advantage to the Tottenham keeper. And so when Gomes put the ball on the ground, Nani scored. And Clattenburg was seen shrugging his shoulders as if to say “what do you want me to do about it?”

There was Adebayor’s incredible stamp on Robin van Persie. From literally yards away, and looking directly at the action, Mark Clattenburg did not see this foul.

Then there was the bizarre penalty awarded to Chelsea, against Fulham. Danny Murphy appeared to have lunged, two-footed, and Clattenburg pointed to the spot. After the match, however, it was revealed that Murphy spoke with Clattenburg and the referee assured him that the penalty was for an infringement by a different player. Replays showed no fouls.

Or how about yet another incident between Tottenham and Man U which involved Mark Clattenburg? Pedro Mendes hit a shot from the center circle which bounced off United’s keeper, Roy Carroll, and went so far over the line that the keeper just barely kept it from rippling the net. Apparently neither Clattenburg, nor his assistants, saw the goal.

I could go on but I will spare you, the point is that you could watch any match refereed by Mark Clattenburg and find 2-3 incidents in which a player should have been booked or even sent off but which Clattenburg either doesn’t see the foul or doesn’t think it’s a foul. And the Chelsea v. Man U match for which he is now coming under fire is no different from any previous.

In the first half, there were several moments I felt Clattenburg was too permissive, but the announcers applauded for “letting play go on”. The first was a high boot by Rio Ferdinand, one of his now patented “kung-fu kicks” where he goes for the ball studs-up, at head height. No call. Torres returns the favor and kicks Tom Cleverly with a high boot. This prompts Clattenburg to get out a yellow for what could have easily been a red.

The second was a series of fouls involving Wayne Rooney. Rooney had been doing his level best to intimidate everyone on the pitch for 10 minutes or so and Clattenburg was doing his best to let him. Ramires gets angry and tackles Rooney from behind, Clattenburg calls the foul. But Man U right-back, Rafael, doesn’t stop and absolutely clatters Ramires from behind in what looks a lot like retaliation for the foul on Rooney. Clattenburg does nothing.

In the second half, with both teams feeling like the referee is treating them unfairly, Clattenburg clamps down. Dishing out two red cards to Chelsea and awarding an offside goal to Man U. But the moment that should give everyone pause is the second yellow and subsequent red card for Torres’ obvious dive.

There is no doubt that Torres dives. Yes, there is contact, but even if I concede there’s a foul I am a firm believer that you can have both a foul and a dive. Watch the gif again, Torres is slightly clipped on his right foot and takes a step with his left foot. Then he clearly decides not to put his right foot down and raises his left leg, thus falling to the ground. As a defender, I’ll admit that looks like a foul by Evans, lord knows he does use the universal sign of guilt when he raises both hands as if to say “I know you think you saw contact but that wasn’t me!” But there is also no debate in my mind that Torres simulates more contact than actually happened in order to get a call.

But what’s interesting here is that if Mark Clattenburg is calling dives then clearly the Premier League has decided to take a reactionary stance against diving this season. For example, in all 380 Premier League matches in 2011-2012, referees gave 20 yellow cards for “diving”. The season prior, nine. The season before that, when the Daily Mail did their witch hunt against foreign divers, there were 23 cards for diving. And so far, in just 89 matches there have already been 10 yellow cards for diving. Four against Chelsea.

Just to put that into perspective, if the trend continues (and it almost certainly will not) there will be 42 yellow cards for diving this season. That’s an incredible tally for a league which steadfastly refuses to give yellow cards* and who hold up referees like Mark Clattenburg as one of their very best precisely because he doesn’t call fouls or give yellow cards.

Should the League target diving? Is this really the biggest problem in the Premier League? And, the elephant in the room, how on earth can the match officials be expected to call diving correctly without the benefit of the same video replay that you and I get to see over and over and over?

My answers are no, no, and they can’t. This is just the League papering over the cracks in a broken refereeing system which treats a studs up challenge to Cleverly’s chest equal to an attempt to con the official into giving a foul.

Qq

*Did you know that Barcelona already have 16 yellow cards in La Liga (lowest in the league)? Arsenal have 7 (second lowest the the EPL).