szczesny-scars

Szczesny loaned to Roma: is this the end?

In the Tao of Wenger there are three things that make a great player: Talent, Attitude (or Application), and Opportunity. A player can have great talent and work hard to hone it, but without an opportunity to work with a great coach and play on a good team he will never be a great player. A player can have great attitude and plenty of opportunity but without the talent, he’s just a mid-level footballer. And a player can have great talent and plenty of chances, but if he doesn’t have the right attitude, if he doesn’t work hard in training, and if he doesn’t correct his mistakes, he’s Nicholas Anelka.

As for Wojciech Szczesny’s there is no question of his talent. As far back as 2010, while still on loan to Brentford, Wenger said,

I believe one day he will be the No 1 at Arsenal certainly. But we will see next season. It is down to his performances.

People scoffed at the notion of this young Pole taking over the role that greats like Seaman and Wilson had once manned but Wenger wasn’t the only one high on the whiff of Szczesny’s talents. Jens Lehmann, Arsenal’s Invincibles keeper, felt the same. After Szczesny took the starting spot from Manuel Almunia Jens Lehmann echoed that sentiment saying,

“He has got everything he needs apart from the experience and the maturity, so he needs to work hard. He is very talented.”

Another year and another series of great performances by Szczesny had the boss once again singing his praises. Szczesny had given away a spot kick on a dive by Luis Suarez but then saved a Dirk Kuyt penalty and blocked the rebound as the crowd behind him went mental.

How close was I? This close

He earned a lot of praise that day and the compliments flowed like wine. Straight after the 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield, Wenger said,

He was outstanding at Liverpool and I am the first to say that when he deserves it. For me, he is an outstanding talent with an outstanding future. But talent without effort is nothing. he knows that and I have to make sure he knows that.

Szcz played in 48 Arsenal matches in 2011-12 but the next season lost his place to Fabianski after an infamous 2-1 loss to Tottenham in March of 2013. Szczesny made two glaring errors in that game and in the following match Wojciech Szczesny was replaced by fellow Pole Lukasz Fabianski, under the pretense that he “needed a breather.” Fabianski did fine and might have kept Szczesny out of the first team for the remainder of the season if not for an injury.

But Szczesny has a knack for the dramatic comeback. This is a ‘keeper who once broke both arms and returned to playing the next year. So, Szczesny took the gloves from Fabianski and played 46 times for Arsenal the next season, keeping 16 League clean sheets, and sharing the Golden Glove award with Chelsea’s number one, Petr Cech.

Everyone by now agreed that Szczesny was a real talent. And so he started last season firmly installed as Arsenal’s number one. He had a whole season behind him as an award winning keeper, and with 152 Arsenal games under his belt at age just 24, was a vastly experienced young man. Wenger heaped praise on him with this offering,

“What I am sure is that he has the potential to be a historical goalkeeper for Arsenal Football Club,” the boss said. “That will depend on how much he continues to focus, to have the desire to be better, to have the desire to put the hard work in. He is a very young man. I personally believe his composure is better, his reading of the game is better, his level of concentration is much stronger and it comes out with his numbers.”

There is no question that the talent is there with Szczesny. And with 181 games under his belt and the fact that he has been reinstated several times after being dropped, it is safe to say that Szczesny has been given ample opportunity to be Arsenal’s permanent No.1.That leaves only question marks over his attitude and application.

In every single quote above the people have warned Szczesny about not only keeping clean sheets but also about keeping the right attitude. They warned him to keep training hard, stay focused, and not let complacency slip in.

But last season, it looked like complacency had slipped in the back door. Szczesny had 6 defensive errors in just 17 starts. Only one player in the League had more defensive errors last season, Robert Green.

Two of those errors were in the 2-0 defeat to Southampton on January 1st. He made two errors in that game and after the second, went straight for the water bottle. You could say it was an admission that he’d bottled it.

bottle

But worse than the errors in the game was the reported reaction after. We don’t know what actually happened in the locker room. There are reports that there was an exchange of words between the manager and the player and that Szczesny then went off to have a smoke, while still in the stadium, and reportedly even in the locker room.

And there was at least one article, written by Sami Mokbel of Daily Mail, which painted Szczesny as unlikable among many of his teammates and the Arsenal staff and claimed that Wenger was done with Szczesny and was going to buy Petr Cech in the summer. That article was scoffed at my many but turned out prescient.

Szczesny was dropped and Ospina came in. Despite being an underwhelming ‘keeper, Arsenal did better with Ospina than they did with Szczesny: conceding just 11 goals in the last 18 games. That proved that Ospina might not be a first team starter but that he was a more than adequate backup in Wenger’s new pressing system. It also proved that Arsenal didn’t need a “historical” keeper to play good defense: they just need someone professional.

There is no doubt that Szczesny was a fan favorite. From the selfies at White Hart Lane to the double fist pumping goal celebration against Barcelona, Szczesny certainly won the fans over with his enthusiasm. Many will be sad and angered to see him go. Especially now that he seems to finally have a mentor available at the club for him to learn from in Petr Cech.

This is a dream celebration

On the bright side, Roma is not a bad placement for Szczesny. They led the Serie A in possession, allowed the third fewest shots per game, and were second in goals allowed with just 31. Having played for the possession-based Arsene Wenger side of 2009-2014, Szczesny is walking into a familiar situation. This could be the perfect loan for him to go to a side which will demand the same kind of ‘keeper skills that he will need at Arsenal. 

Being dropped and then loaned could also be a the kind of humbling experience that Szczesny needs to straighten out his attitude. Szczesny has said on many occasions that he doesn’t want to leave Arsenal and that he doesn’t want to go on loan and yet here he is being stripped of his Arsenal credentials and forced out the door. If Szczesny is an arrogant man, the kind of arrogant man who would publicly defy a legendary coach like Arsene Wenger, then a little humility might do him some good.

So, for those who want to hold out hope, perhaps this loan move will be good for Szczesny and he will return once again to Arsenal but this time a little more humble and with another 40 games experience. I’ve never seen a player who has made as many dramatic comebacks as he has in his career. If anyone can come back from this latest setback it’s him, just so long as he doesn’t smoke his bridges on the way out the door.

Qq

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Theo Walcott would be a luxury signing but he might just help Arsenal win the League

By Tim Todd, Flip Floppist

It’s funny how I have a tendency to say one thing and then to change my mind, literally, three days later. Maybe it’s not that I change my mind but rather I might soften my position on something. But it’s a fact, that when presented with new data, I simply admit that I might be wrong.

I’ve gotten used to being wrong because it happens to me all the time. I suspect that most people are wrong a lot more then they admit but with me the problem is multiplied by the fact that I have a blog, and it’s read by literally threes or even fours of people, and the fact that I sometimes speak from my intuition rather than from a place of facts and knowledge.

I trust my intuition. My ability to see through things, notice minor details, and to pay attention to things that other people would normally miss – especially bodily clues from human beings – was sharpened on the steel edge of my father’s parenting. So, when I say that I see something different in Theo Walcott’s body language, as I did two days ago after watching him play in the friendly against Everton, I’m telling you that he’s setting off my intuition.

Something was different about Walcott: he seemed more poised, he seemed more powerful, he seemed more determined — he surprised me in that game with the ferocity of his shots and with the way he got behind defenders. He set off my intuition.

Where I go wrong after that is that I draw a conclusion based on my intuition. Rather than simply say “did you notice that Theo seemed different?” I will say “he looks to me like he’s going to score 30 goals next season” or some such nonsense. It’s funny when I do that because it’s classic prejudice or bias and I like to paint myself as intellectually aloof or rational. I guess I’m not as rational as I like to think. Or maybe I’m just a tad too impulsive? Either way, it’s slightly annoying and one of my many flaws. 

Theo Walcott never fails to generate controversy when the topic of whether he is “worth X per week” or whether he should just “sign da ting” is brought up. But I have yet to see a definitive answer on Walcott’s value from a trusted source. Someone to just come along and say “yep, he’s worth X and here’s why.” And the problem is that I don’t know if we can have a definitive answer on Walcott’s value because there are too many complicating factors.

First, his injury record is atrocious: in his first three seasons at the club he had both shoulders operated on. And two seasons ago he tore his ACL and that limited him to just 39 appearances in those two years. That’s just crazy. Anyone who wants to say that Arsenal shouldn’t re-sign him can just point to his injury record. He may very well recover fully from this and go on to have another 5 year career as a top striker but that is a hell of a gamble to take on a player.

Second, on 16 March 2016, Theo Walcott will turn 27 and will have been with the club for 10 years. That means he is 26 years old, the same age as Alexis Sanchez. How long of a contract do you give that man? Do you give him 4 years? Keep him around until he’s 31? Considering his injury record? My intuition meter is telling me that this is probably the sticking point in this round of contract negotiations: he wants a five year deal and Arsenal don’t want to give it to him. That’s just pure speculation of course and I don’t want that to be the main thing you all talk about.

But, as of right now, Walcott has made 192 starts and 111 subs. He has 302 appearances for Arsenal in 9 seasons and has scored just 76 goals.  That’s a goal every 4 games. Walcott is 26 years old, he’s got a history of injury, and bar one season, he’s never really produced at the top level.

Here is a chart of Walcott’s output since 2009, the year after his second shoulder op. Data below is his combined Premier League and Champions League output. I’m not cherry picking data by doing that, I’m actually including all of the data available on WhoScored.com. If his cup competition data was available I would include it, it is not, so I can not.

On the right, I then average Walcott’s 2009-2015 PL and CL output under the misnomer “Career” average. And on the far right, I put Alexis Sanchez’ data from last season with Arsenal. And just to be extra nice to Theo Walcott, I think his 2012/2013 season is his benchmark and so I highlighted that in bold.

I compared Theo with Alexis because both players are 26 years old, both are right footed, both play wide for Arsenal, and both want to play centrally. I think it’s a very fair comparison. Walcott should offer what Alexis offers, especially if Walcott wants Alexis money and an Alexis length contract.

Walcott

As you can see, one of the things that Theo excels at is getting shots on target. And his shots per goal ratio is pretty good, especially in his high water mark season. This actually connects well with my intuition: that Walcott is a good finisher.

The problem is that unlike Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott doesn’t do much else for the team. He’s not a dribbler, his key passes are fairly poor, and his defensive work is basically non-existent: if you add up all the tackles he’s made in Champions League and Premier League play since 2009, he has 2 fewer tackles than Alexis Sanchez made this season alone.

If Arsenal are adopting the system that Naveen, Tim Stillman, and I all think that he is — pressing without the ball — then Walcott’s lack of defensive work becomes a major liability. It’s not like he’s incapable of doing the work, or that he lacks the footballing brain to figure out how, he’s just never shown a desire for defense. Watch Alexis Sanchez for five minutes, he simply wants the ball back and he will harass anyone with it to win it.

The data shows me, then, that Theo Walcott is basically a one-trick-pony. This is the thing I warned against when fans wanted Arsenal to buy Falcao. Falcao is a goal scorer and nothing else and we saw how spectacularly that failed at Man U last season: he can’t hold the ball up (Walcott), he’s not really a distributor (Walcott), he doesn’t win aerial duels (Walcott), he’s incapable of dribbling to break down defenders (Walcott), and unless he gets to be the main target of the offense he won’t offer much else to the team (Walcott).

Here again is a comparison of Alexis and Theo. This time I take all of Walcott’s Champions League and Premier League data and prorate it over a “per90″ basis. In other words, here is what Walcott’s averages look like had he been healthy and played as much as Alexis Sanchez did for Arsenal last season.

Walexis

Once again, Walcott is clearly a good shooter and a good finisher but offers very little else to the team. In his high water mark season (2012/13) he scored 15 goals in PL and CL play. If you multiply Walcott’s 2009-2015 PL and CL averages per90 goals ratio by 38 games you get 16 goals. I think realistically, that’s what Walcott offers: a per90 prorated 16 goals a season.

If Arsenal were Man City, there would be no question; with a per90 16 goals a season ratio and not much else to offer, they would just sign him and play him when they could and where they want on the pitch. He would be a backup on that team, he would make up squad numbers, and help them with their homegrown quota. In that sense, Walcott is a luxury signing.

It’s a coincidence that Falcao and Walcott are similar players – both just goal scorers. And it’s no real criticism of Walcott to say “he’s just a goal scorer”. You need goals to win games. But that’s why it’s not a coincidence that Man U signed Falcao last season and that Chelsea signed him this season. Falcao scored important goals and I think he earned Man U eight points last season, that was the difference between finishing 4th and 6th last season. So, signing those kinds of players, and paying them over the odds, is exactly what big clubs do — especially if they want to win the Premier League.

Qq

Arsenal-Everton-Singapore

Schneiderlin the real deal in person, Show Theo the Money, and a Juventini Dream for Wilshere, Ramsey, and Cazorla

By Tim Todd, Singapore Semaphorist

I’m going to just put this out there: I had to watch the replay of Arsenal’s win over Everton in the Barclay’s Asia Trophy because I didn’t get up until 7am. And I got up so late because last night I went to the Seahawks stadium and watched Manchester United play Club America for the… something or another cup. I don’t have any regrets about either.

Just to make sure I don’t lose any Arsenal street cred, I didn’t buy the tickets; my sister’s husband gave them to me. He didn’t buy them either, they were gifted to him and he took the gift thinking of me and my love of football. How could I turn that down? Besides, I went to root for Club America and to laugh at the Man U fans.*

These friendly cup matches always draw an eclectic mix of fans in the States. There were the obvious people wearing their Man U gear as well as the Club America supporters there to support their team but then there are always the carnival fans, folks drawn to the game for the spectacle of “seeing Man U”. These fans will sometimes show up in their favorite team’s kit and it makes for a bit of a surreal scene when you’re in the stands and you see a guy in a Liverpool shirt at a Man U match.

But as unreal as it may seem to see a Tottenham kit, an Arsenal kit, some Barcelona shirts and other clubs, the weirdest moment of all was the kid in the van Persie shirt. It was an Arsenal van Persie shirt, the shirt from van Persie’s last season with Arsenal.

We get this culture of celebrity thing over here with sports fans. Basketball is particularly ripe ground for that and it’s not at all unusual for a fan to follow a player rather than a team. And it must have been that mentality which led this kid to wear that shirt out at that game. Either that, or he’s just as confused as the little boy inside van Persie.

The game itself was actually not bad. Club America played excellent throughout the match and were unlucky not to have scored and were even a bit unlucky to concede.

Morgan Schneiderlin scored the only goal of the game in the 5th minute with a looping header. After that, United spent the next 40 minutes trying to get the ball into Memphis Depay with little effect. Depay was actually atrocious. Club America played him perfectly throughout the match: nipping the ball off him before he could get to it, bustling him off the ball when he did get it, and keeping him to shots from distance when he had it for any length of time. If van Gaal has dreams of turning Depay into a number 9, they look like pipe dreams at the moment.

Sadly, I have to report that Schneiderlin was exactly as I thought he would be. Van Gaal liked Angel di Maria for his ability to hit long crosses from deep and open up the opposition back line. But di Maria couldn’t boss the central midfield in the Premier League and so with Schneiderlin, van Gaal has the best of both worlds. Schneiderlin hit at least three long cross passes from deep that made the crowd go ohhhh and made several timely tackles that had the crowd on their feet.

Schneiderlin also made some mistakes but he more than made up for that with his positives. I can easily see both of United’s new signings, Schneiderlin and Schweinstiger, forming a formidable central midfield for Red Devils.

Watching the game, I could also envision Schneiderlin playing along side Ramsey and that was particularly painful because I think Arsenal might have missed a chance with this kid. Just to put it bluntly, I was even more impressive in person than I’ve ever been just looking at his stats.

The only other feature of the match was that the second half started out as such a snooze-fest that the Seattle fans started doing the (Seattle) Wave. If you’re ever wondering if two teams have applied the handbrake just look to the crowd. If they are doing the wave, doing “oles”, or if they have left the match entirely, the handbrake is firmly on.

United only sold 46,000 tickets to that match which I thought was a low figure considering the fact that the first time I went to a United match in the States (versus Celtic in 2003) at the very same venue, it sold out all 66,000 seats. I wonder if the novelty is starting to fade here or if the price is just too high at $75+?

In the Arsenal match today, there were no such problems selling tickets. Arsenal played in front of a mostly packed house of 53,000 fans and put on quite the show at Everton’s expense. Arsenal’s twinkle-toed midfielder, Santi Cazorla, was clearly the man of the match and continued his rich run of form from last year providing two assists and a goal in the 3-1 rout of the Blues.

Cazorla opened Arsenal’s account with a perfectly placed long ball into the path of Theo Walcott. Walcott didn’t even need to break stride as he took the ball off the volley and swept it past the keeper.

Arsenal sought out Walcott all game and his speed and movement behind the Everton line wreaked havoc in the Blues defense. He was pulling defenders out of shape and getting himself into dangerous positions time and again. His shots were also powerful and I have to say that Walcott looks very fresh and sharp for the upcoming season.

If Arsenal fans are worried about Walcott’s contract situation at Arsenal it’s for good reason. I’ve been saying that Walcott is about to have a breakout season now for two years and the only reason it didn’t happen last season was because he tore his ACL. There don’t seem to be any ill effects from his surgery because he is as fast and strong as ever before. Walcott’s always had a good footballing brain and this season he also looks powerful, poised, and mature.

I’ll get called reactionary (after one good performance in a friendly) but I have been big on Walcott for three years now and I think Arsenal need to push the boat out a bit with him and give him a big deal. If they don’t, Walcott might turn in a 30 goal season and be off on a free next summer.

Cazorla played in a deep-lying playmaker role for Arsenal, along side box-to-box midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Cazorla was magnificent in the role: as Naveen pointed out in his season preview column, it’s not just that Santi can pass the ball, he also had to learn to play the pressing game and how to position himself defensively in order to help out in the midfield when Arsenal don’t have the ball. I can see Cazorla playing in a Pirlo role at Arsenal with two box-to-box midfielders beside him playing in the Pogba and Vidal roles.

It’s a bit unrealistic to wish for it because introducing a totally new tactical system is stupid after ythe years of work Wenger has done to get Arsenal to this point but I can see Wilshere and Ramsey playing as Pogba and Vidal with Cazorla as Pirlo behind them. And if you really want to find a way to play both Jack and Aaron at the same time, without sacrificing them to the wings, then you can’t argue for a better system. With the speed of Walcott and Alexis Sanchez on the wings up front and the raw power and holdup ability of Giroud in the center it could be an attacking sight to behold.

The problem, of course, is that neither Ramsey nor Wilshere seem interested in playing a defensive role and that system requires them to share defensive duties; when one goes forward, the other has to stay behind. I don’t trust them to do that. So, it’s much easier to use them on the wings where their defensive duties are easily defined. Which is probably how we will see them deployed this season.

All-in-all it was a good day’s worth of football for me. I had fun at the match in Seattle and then woke up and watched Arsenal collect their first major trophy of the season.

What, two more weeks until the real football kicks off?

I guess I better get some more camping and hiking in!

I’m not writing tomorrow. See you on Monday. Maybe.

Qq

*One of them yelled out “I LOVE FCKUING ROONEY!!!” Which has to be my favorite malapropism of the night.