Arsenal v. Wigan: preview

I was sitting in the hotel bar the night before Arsenal’s League Cup final against Birmingham and two Blues supporters sitting next to me were talking about the game the next day. The one who looked remarkably like Mr. Rat was loudly talking up his team’s chances whilst the one who looked like Mr. Mole sat quietly looking rather nervously around the room to make sure no 6’4″ Arsenal supporter came over and smashed their faces in. Mr. Rat then proclaimed “these Arsenal supporters are all the same, they talk big about how they are going to do us but you offer one a bet and watch them melt. Because they know, we have a real chance. I think we will win.”

I sat there snorting into my drink at each proclamation and thought to myself that I should go over and take this guy up on his bet. Why not? I was full of confidence, we were the much better team, and we had beaten them just a few games prior. But instead of confronting the braggart and taking the bet, I finished my whiskey and went off to bed.

Seeing how Arsenal lost that match and I didn’t take his bet I guess he was right on both counts.

A similar, if amplified, mood pervades today’s FA Cup semi-final between Wigan and Arsenal and it’s quite understandable why: Arsenal are once again over-dogs, Arsenal are once again on the brink of winning their first trophy in years, Arsenal are missing a number of key players, the manager’s position is being questioned from all quarters (including Tim Stillman), Arsenal have a recent history of stumbling in big games against small opponents, and that 6-0 loss to Chelsea on the occasion of Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game seemed to cause many of us to join the other lemmings going over the cliff at full pace.

Arsene Wenger seems to have learned a lesson from the harsh losses of the last few weeks and is vowing to get the team to focus more on defending and attacking as a unit. Arsenals defense has been fantastic when they play within themselves and have proven that time and again against Liverpool, Tottenham, and the comeback win over Everton in this same competition when I was there last month. In each of those matches, Arsenal were able to sit back and invite the opposition to attack and yet repel each attack with solid, organized defending.

Wigan will probably come out looking to hit Arsenal with the 1-2 punch like they did against Man City at the Etihad stadium. Once they went ahead, they defended as well as I have seen from any team at Man City’s ground.

This puts a lot of onus on Arsenal’s early game because Arsenal play the same way, early high pressing, and we could have a wide open free for all in the first 15 minutes. What has many Arsenal fans worried is that this is exactly how Arsenal have been undone in each of their huge losses this season. Each time Arsenal have lost big it has been because the opposition have adopted Arsenal’s exact same tactic.

Another concern is that Wigan employ a 3-5-2 combined with a high pressing game so that they play a lot like Liverpool. Arsenal did beat that system twice this season and both times were able to do so by not allowing the opposition to overload the Arsenal fullback areas. Everton and Chelsea played a similar tactic in that they invited the Arsenal fullbacks forward and reserved an attacking player in behind the Arsenal midfielders. Shurrle and Lukaku both played on the right (Arsenal’s left) cutting back in in those games (and Liverpool played Suarez there to do the same in their 5-1 win over Arsenal) and I’d put almost any amount of money on Wigan trying the same. Basically, if we see both Arsenal fullbacks in the Wigan final third, it’s time to panic.

Wenger himself acknowledged that Wigan is a team full of Premiership players who happen to be playing in the Championship. So, as much as we’d all like to say that this is a lower division team playing against an upper division side it is nice to hear the manager aware of the threat that these guys possess. Fortune (the Wigan forward and not every gambler’s harsh mistress) in particular is a real threat off the bench. But I’m hoping we get to the point where Wigan are looking to the bench for a little good Fortune.

Wigan are not a crap team, again a fact Wenger points out by mentioning their record getting to the FA Cup semi final. They are second in the Championship in shots taken per game (15.1) and 5th in shots conceded (12.5). Defensively they are 4th in tackles made per game and 5th in interceptions (14.1). They are also a real threat from set plays having scored a 3rd best 16 goals from that position and they love to cross the ball with a 3rd best 24 of those per game. Like Wenger has said, this may be a Championship side but they are full of Premiership players and they play like it. Wigan are a hard nosed defensive side who get in the faces of their opponents and get goals off set plays. They have had a bit of bad luck in the last few matches but their losing margins have been slim.

Still, despite missing a number of players, Arsenal have four crucial players available for tomorrow’s match: Ramsey, Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud.

Even though he missed much of the season with injury, Ramsey is still Arsenal’s best player statistically. He is fearless in midfield. He works tirelessly to get open for passes and never hides when the team needs an outlet. He is also an underrated tackler (leads Arsenal in per game tackles) and constantly presses to get the ball back high up the pitch. And is if that weren’t enough he is third overall in scoring and assists. Truly a stats stuffer and while people poo poo stats, they show that Ramsey is a player with tremendous heart and work rate.

Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud are all this competition’s best scorers remaining. Podolski and Giroud have 6 goals between them and Podolski’s goals have all been winners. Cazorla only has 8 goals and 5 assists but having been shunted off to the side and playing second trumpet to Özil has really limited his ability to contribute. Meanwhile Giroud is Arsenal’s leading scorer with 20 goals this season. He’s only scored once in his last six matches but he scored a double against Everton in the FA Cup match before this one.

I expect Arsene will start with Giroud up front, Podolski as second striker, Ramsey in midfield, Cazorla on the left, Ox on the right, Arteta as defensive mid and the back four picking itself (Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, and Gibbs/Monreal). Fabianski will be in goal.

I’m expecting a very tough game from Wigan but hopefully the Arsenal quality will shine through and Ramsey will get us an early goal which will allow Arsenal the chance to sit back and defend for a while.

Something they are very good at.

Qq

pizza

Mighty Arsenal Pizza Recipe

Arsene Wenger spoke today about getting Arsenal back to basics and having the team play solid defense against Wigan tomorrow. This is a great idea. I actually wish I had recommended that idea on my blog before the Chelsea match, or recommended that idea before the Everton match, or on my most recent Arsenal America Podcast appearance prior to this match against Wigan which if truth be told I am very worried about Arsenal losing.

But what is more basic than defense? Bread. And more basic than even bread? Pizza. If you want to learn how to bake bread, you should really start with pizza. Because you basically cannot donk up pizza. No matter how badly you shape the dough, no matter if you accidentally leave the dough on the counter overnight, as long as you even vaguely get the ingredients and technique right, you can (probably) still make pizza.

Special Equipment You (might) Need

Scale
Dough bucket
Baking stone (or a sheet pan!)
Pizza peel (or a silicon baking mat!)

Measurements

(Makes 6 individual pizzas)

325g – Water
25g - Olive oil
450g - Flour (I use a mixture of all purpose (350g) and whole wheat 100g. You can vary this as much as you want knowing that the more whole what you use, the more water you need to use)
10g – salt
8g – yeast
7g – sugar

__________________________________________________________________________

150g – cheese
100g – olives
100g – salami (we use Genoa salami, you could use pepperoni I guess)
Sauce - I use store bought marinara. Yes I do!

nutrition

 

Sorry, but the Mighty Arsenal Pizza recipe does not convert measurements to cups and tablespoons. Why? Because

Dough Method

Put everything except the marinara (ed.), cheese, olives, and salami in your dough bucket.
Mix together until it starts to form a sort of… dough.
Put the lid on it and let it sit on the counter for a few hours.
Throw it in the fridge over night. Or for a week if you want.

Pizza Method

Take the dough out of the refrigerator, pop the lid off, and smell the dough. Just like the FA Cup, that’s the magic of the fermentation tub.

Get your bucket of flour near by.

Take a little flour and dust the top of the fermented dough. Then reach your clean hands in to the bucket and grab a hunk of dough. Feel how wet and stringy that is! It’s just how I imagine that Alan Sunderland’s hair felt after a shower. Pull out about 1/6th of the dough. This is for individual pizzas. Use more dough for bigger pizzas, though you can be sure that Arsene Wenger will have a look at you if you’re going to sit down and each a huge pizza all to yourself. Why not have a piece of fruit or a salad and a small pizza instead of some big calorie feast?

Turn and fold the dough under several times to form a ball. Use a little flour to keep it from sticking and put a little flour down on your resting surface. Technique is everything here. This is where your magic happens. Aveline and I will post some photos later to show you the technique. For beginners I recommend to rest the dough on a silicon baking mat. They are the Robert Pires of cooking, nothing sticks to one of those.

Now you have to let the dough do its thing for a while. How long? 70 minutes. Do not do anything for 70 minutes. I don’t care what the situation demands. Crying babies in the terrace. Armchair pizza chefs at home. Do not touch that dough for 70 minutes.

Well, that’s not entirely true. You do let the dough sit for 70 minutes and do nothing to it, but if you’re using a pizza stone, you need to get that pre-heated to 500F, 260C, Gas Mark 10 for at least 20 minutes. So a simple recipe here would be 1) shape the dough into a ball and let it rest for 50 minutes 2) put the pizza stone in the oven and turn it on for 20 minutes 3) shape your pizza into a pizza shape and pup it in the oven.

 

Anyway, you have time. Now is a good time to read a chapter in Rebels for the Cause. I recommend chapter nine, “Big Willie” about former Arsenal defender Willie Young.

After the 70th minute, your dough will be soft, pliable, and full of holes.

If you’re using a pizza stone you should have already put it in the oven. If you don’t have a pizza stone and can’t afford to buy one in the January transfer window, you can use an inverted sheet pan, this is the equivalent of playing Mertesacker as a center forward. It will work, just watch that you don’t burn your pizza. Really, I recommend buying a striker in January instead. I mean a pizza stone.

Now you shape the dough ball into a pizza. Start from the center and use your thumbs to stretch the dough. It’s like driving a car: the dough is the steering wheel and you’re Nicklas Bendtner, all thumbs. Drive the pizza dough car into a ditch, flip the pizza dough car, then get caught on video drunkenly begging for pizza.

All you have to do now is put a little sauce, some cheese, and some toppings on it and put it in the oven. Don’t overdo the toppings. Seriously. Americans tend to be obsessed with building these god awful gigantic pizzas, cover every inch with pepperoni, and put a pound of cheese on every slice. This is the reason we are so fat. All that pepperoni and cheese reacts with the GLUTEN and you get fat. If you use less meat and cheese on your pizza the gluten has nothing to react to and you get less fat. These are stone cold facts that I have pure anecdotal evidence to back up.

One last thing, there can be a bit of a problem with the transfer. What? You thought making a pizza was as easy as buying a defensive midfielder? This is where a pizza peel comes in handy. The pizza peel is the David Dein of pizza cooking. You throw a little corn meal on that sucker, put your pizza shaped dough down, then your toppings on the dough and you can shake the finished pie right on to your baking stone, or your inverted sheet pan. Or you could just form the whole pizza right on an inverted sheet pan and toss the whole thing in the oven and bake until it’s sort of done.

Here’s a pizza that Wenger would be proud that you ate.

8339447012_62d69c963b_b

 

Note the hole structure, indicating good technique and the fact that I am basically eating a salad and bread with a little cheese and meat.

Qq

P.S. I will upload photos demonstrating the technique for forming the dough into a ball and for stretching the dough into a pizza round tonight. With the help of my assistant.

Update

mountain

Looks like Mt. Rainier!

ball

A shaggy mess.bucket

After a day in the fridge

 

 

 

 

silpat

Silpat for the winglutenRoll that beautiful gluten footage

turn

See how I’m turning the dough inside out? That develops the gluten cloak.

rest

Rest your balls.

DAD

Finger licking good!

pre-zza

 

Too many toppings ruin the final product.

pizza

Mountains of the moon.
sdone

We cut our pie into five slices with four cuts.

holesThe money shot. Look at those holes. And that’s with a whole wheat crust.

 

Wenger-microphones

Arsene Wenger; sign or resign?

The greatest moments in my time as a sports fan all took place when Arsene Wenger was manager of Arsenal.

  • Arsenal winning the League at Old Trafford.
  • John Terry falling over, Freddie Ljungberg’s mop of red hair bobbing as he curled home the winner, and Arsenal winning the FA Cup.
  • Tony Adams, arms spread wide as if he wanted to hug every Arsenal fan.
  • Back-to-Back FA Cup wins.
  • An entire season of football unbeaten.
  • Arsenal winning the League at White Hart Lane.
  • Arsenal winning the FA Cup with Patrick Vieira’s last kick in a red and white shirt.
  • My first ever professional football match, Arsenal beat Charlton 3-0 at Highbury.
  • Arsenal building a stadium using their own money (this is just not done in the States) and renovating Highbury, keeping the historic Art Deco facade.
  • Arsenal’s amazing run to the Champions League final, beating Real Madrid off a mazy Henry run and goal. 
  • Arsenal beating Barcelona off Arshavin’s goal.
  • Arsenal beating Bayern Munich in Munich 2-0.

The most heartbreaking moments in my time as a sports fan all took place when Arsene Wenger was manager of Arsenal.

  • Arsenal losing to Barcelona in the Champions League final after Lehmann is sent off and Arsenal went ahead 1-0.
  • Arsenal losing the League Cup final in 2007 to Chelsea, Adebayor and Toure sent off after Arsenal went ahead 1-0 from Theo Walcott’s first ever Arsenal goal and with the manager fielding a team of kids.
  • Arsenal pushing Chelsea and Man U for the title in 2007-2008 only to have our title hopes smash by Martin Taylor and his tackle on Eduardo in the 7th minute of a cold February afternoon in Birmingham.
  • Arsenal losing the League Cup final in 2011, at the last minute, to Obafemi Martins.
  • Arsenal going top of the League for 19 weeks, getting beaten by Liverpool 5-1, then losing 6-0 to Chelsea on the anniversary of Arsene Wenger’s 1000th, and 3-0 to Everton two weeks later to utterly decimate any title hopes and strike fear in the hearts of fans as the club tumble headlong into the FA Cup semi-final against minnows Wigan,

That is to say that I know both the heartbreak and the joy that is Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. He is all I’ve ever known.

The problem, if you will even allow that there is a problem at Arsenal, is that there are two distinct periods of Arsene Wenger’s career: his first 500 and his second 500. Arsene Wenger last won a trophy in game 497. Since then, he has managed over 500 games and been close to trophies four times and each time faltered at the final hurdle. And now we reach his thousandth game and he is close again, yet far away.

His record is also neatly bifurcated along the 500 match mark in terms of League position. In the first 500, Arsenal were 1st or 2nd nearly every year. In the second 500 Arsenal have been 3rd or 4th every year. This is hardly a disastrous record as many would point out. Ask just about any fan of any club if they would take 16 years of top four football, front loaded with 11 trophies and they would almost certainly take it.

Arsene Wenger revolutionized football. He built the best football team I have ever seen play. He took that team to the pinnacle of footballing consistency by going 49 games unbeaten. And he then went into a phase of rebuilding and built Arsenal a Colosseum which will last for generations. Along the way hatching a youth team program as a counter balance to huge spending teams like Chelsea and Man City which would push those teams to the brink. Arsene Wenger’s legacy, then, is settled. He is the greatest manager Arsenal have ever had.

Arsenal undertook this stadium project in order to compete financially with Chelsea and Man U. That was the promise. That we as fans and he as manager would go through a period of austerity which would have as its promised outcome, the ability to spend big money and produce a football team that would challenge Chelsea and Man U for the title. We needed to be up at the top and we couldn’t do that at Highbury. As Arsene Wenger himself once said “The heart wants to stay at Highbury, but the brain wants to go somewhere else.”

That quote was from the 2002 Annual General Meeting of shareholders. The writing was on the wall even then that Arsenal would need to spend to stay at the top of the table, Wenger himself put it thus:

We want to win more. We want to be a dominant force, not only by winning trophies. We want more trophies and we want to be consistent over the years and not be a team who wins only one year. True champions win every year. And that’s what we want to achieve.

But somewhere between that AGM and the 2006 season at Emirates something drastically changed — Wenger went from being a manager who bullishly proclaimed that he wanted to win the League every year, to a manager who saw 4th place as a trophy. This chart shows you exactly what changed.

In just three years, Roman Abramovich dumped £450m in transfers into Chelsea FC. The culmination of that spending was back to back titles, the first of which saw Chelsea nearly repeat Arsenal’s unbeaten season from the year before. Man U had dropped to third that season, they saw what was happening and joined the race to spend. Liverpool too started pumping money into their transfer budget and nearly won the League as a result.

Then along came Man City and suddenly the Premier League had two teams spending huge. This was followed by the acquisitions of PSG, Monaco, and several Russian teams who are now top spenders in world football. All of these teams are currently stockpiling players. Chelsea have 25 players on loan, including Romelu Lukaku who would be a walk on starter for any Premier League team. The price of buying a simple defensive midfielder went from the £3.5m Arsenal paid for Vieira to £30m that Chelsea paid for Essien. Abramovich changed football forever.

Arsenal, meanwhile spent next to nothing. Arsene Wenger’s net transfer outlay over his career is just £61m — Manchester United spent £67m this season alone.

All of this is to say what a fantastic job Arsene Wenger has done at Arsenal. Very few managers in the world could do what he has done with the resources available to him. Note that I didn’t say that no manager could do what he has done, because there are plenty of examples of young managers who have done what he has done, and more.

Diego Simeone has taken Atletico Madrid to a dreamland where they beat Barcelona (today), where they are one point off the top of the table in their league, and where he has won the Europa League, the Copa del Rey, and beat Chelsea in the UEFA SuperCup. He’s done that and made his team over £40m in the transfer market. Jurgen Klopp has basically zero net spend over the last 5 years. Along the way, he won the Bundesliga twice, the Pokal, and the SuperCup. Roberto Martinez at Wigan and now Everton has shown some real flair and tactical nous along with ideas about fitness and training. All three of those managers have fresh ideas, in fact, it’s a hallmark of a great manager that he wants to inject his ideas into the team and that the team responds positively to those ideas.

When Wenger came to Arsenal he was full of those ideas as well. He came to England and changed football with revolutionary thoughts about diet, training methods, and tactics. He then changed English football a second time between 2006 and 2011 when he emphasized youth and flowing football over the more agricultural style on display at the time. This is what I love about Arsene and Arsenal. This is what I mean when I say that I connect with Arsenal. There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Arsenal way. I’ve always been that way and I think so too has Arsene.

But since Cesc Fabregas left Arsenal, Wenger looks like he’s run out of ideas and the team looks lost as a result. What is the Arsenal way right now? I can tell you easily what that way was in 2004 and 2007 — they were two different ways of playing football but they were both magnificent to watch for different reasons. But what is the Arsenal way right now?

The Arsenal way right now is that we are stagnating as a team these last three years. One measure of that stagnation is that in the Premier League, Arsenal have struggled to create shots since Cesc left. It was telling that our leading playmaker in van Persie’s one season at Arsenal was Alex Song. From there we got in Cazorla and now Özil, but the actual number of shots we are taking per game is still going down. This is a major reason why Wenger wanted Suarez in: I nailed it this summer when I called him a chucker, he is — where I was wrong was that Arsenal didn’t need him, we really did and still do.

fuck

Arsenal’s record is even worse in the Champions League. Most pundits don’t rate Arsenal’s chances to win the Champions League and haven’t for a few seasons now. The reason why is clear — Arsenal have been at or on the bottom of all 32 teams in terms of chance creation per game for three years:

double fuck

People will complain about the Champions League numbers and say that they are so low because we faced so many top teams the last three years and they are right, our groups have been hard. But that shot dominance by the opposition only proves the pundits more right, against the top teams, Arsenal are dominated.

That same theme runs through the League as well. When Arsenal face a top 6 team they are routinely outshot. Against the top six teams this season, Arsenal only lorded shot superiority over Man U (both games) and we took one more shot than Everton in that 3-0 blowout. In the three huge losses Arsenal were outshot 22 to 12, 22 to 11, and 21 to 11 and in all others against the top 6 Arsenal took about 11 shots a game. Arsenal are bullied by big teams.

I could go on and talk about our injury record and myriad other problems at the club but I think I’ve made my point. Fresh ideas and a new approach to playing football that isn’t easily exploited by the big teams is needed. Fresh approaches to training, fitness, and a willingness to spend the money needed to get this squad up to snuff both in terms of the starting XI and their backups.

Change is exactly what Wenger brought to Arsenal in 1996 and change is what is needed at Arsenal right now. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change from the outside, you can change from the inside but therein lies the central question of this blog: do you trust Arsene Wenger to change?

That quote from Wenger about heart v. brain regarding Highbury also describes how I feel about my answer to that question. I can see all sides of every argument and they all make valid points. In the end, my heart wants him to stay, wants him to be the change that he has been in the past and that Arsenal need right now, but my brain is telling me that he has had years to change, that he hasn’t changed, that we keep seeing the same mistakes over and over, and that it might be time to look somewhere else.

This isn’t reactionary. My reactionary position is actually to defend Wenger. But I’ve said for two years now that Arsenal need serious investment in the squad in order to compete. This summer I said that I would reevaluate Arsene and Arsenal’s management after they all promised us that they would spend some money. They bought one player when we clearly needed three or even four. They even bid on at least two of each for forwards and defensive mids, proving that they knew they needed a forward and a defensive midfielder, but eventually getting Özil on a record and Flamini on the cheap. Then in January, when the club were in first place and getting rocked by injuries, when it was clear that Giroud was tired and that the goals were drying up, Arsene bought defensive midfielder Kim Kallstrom, on loan, to go on the disabled list.

I know all the arguments and counter arguments people will make to everything I’ve said. We’ve been over that ground so many times now that it’s cliched — if you go back through the history of this blog you’ll see that I made most of those arguments, I might even be the patient zero for things like “buying a player isn’t like buying a loaf of bread,” and “I’m not so sure Arsene Wenger actually has money to spend.” It’s pretty clear that I’m not a Wenger out guy. I’m a change in guy. The consistent injuries, parsimony in the transfer market, tactical intransigence, and the performances of this team over the last three years all demand change.

I suspect Wenger sees it too. He has had a contract in front of him now for months and hasn’t signed, there’s a reason for that and that reason is Arsene himself. Eventually, he has to pick a time to retire from his managerial role at Arsenal. I say “he has to pick” intentionally, because I don’t think the board or Kroenke are going to force him out. Maybe he’ll stay for three more years regardless of the outcomes from this season, spend £50m every year bringing in top class players to play along side Ramsey and Özil and Arsenal will really challenge for the title. Or maybe he’ll put everything he has into winning the FA Cup this year and announce his retirement during the open bus parade.

Only Arsene Knows.

Qq