Mr. Wenger Goes to AGM

Quick blog today, because, well, because all the action will happen this afternoon as the newly 60 year old Arsene Wenger attends the Annual General Meeting.

You’ll no doubt be hearkening back to last year’s AGM where someone got up and confronted Arsene with the fact that Silvestre is on the team. But those days are past us, we are currently in a good run of form and besides Silvestre has to get past big Phil to get on the pitch!

Seriously, Arsenal look very sharp right now (despite the disappointment of the 1-1 draw to AZ) and it’s looking like they might actually challenge for trophies this season: knock on wood, fingers crossed, touch my wood, whatever it is that you have to do to ward off the evil voodoo of the last three years. I expect that as far as the team is concerned I won’t think too many shareholders will stand up and call them Geriatric… especially since today is Arsene’s 60th birthday.

Bit of a coup that and I suspect that Ivan Gazidis has his hand in the timing here. Last year, the timing of the AGM was stupid; coming right on the heels of another season of disappointment. Much wiser to hold the meeting now, since Arsenal almost always do well in the start of the season, and all the trophies are still in front of us, plus it’s the old man’s birthday. No one is calling anyone geriatric on Arsene’s 60th birthday!

I suspect that 90% of today’s meeting will be a hagiography looking back at Wenger’s 13 years at Arsenal and looking forward to another 13. This is absolutely well deserved. One only need look up north to Liverpool to see the genius of Arsene Wenger. After the amazing win at Istanbul, Rafa famously said that now he got to build his own team. Benitez then set about spending £229m buying 76 players and has since only managed one FA Cup.  Look at that list of players linked above, he had to buy all those players because Liverpool has no academy. Not only that but there have been a lot of huge failures in that list.

This is in direct opposition to what Arsene Wenger is doing down at London Colney. It took a few years, but Arsenal are now pumping out good, young, English players like Jay Simpson. Arsene isn’t making a Cesc factory, but every player who graduates from Arsenal Academy will be a kid with good values, solid fundamentals, and who is a career professional.

Meanwhile, in the first team, Arsene makes one major investment per transfer window: Eduardo, Nasri, Arshavin, Vermaelen, etc. If you’re a shareholder, you have to be looking at the way the team is being managed both on and off the pitch and think that your money is in a good place.

The one blot on this whole day is what looks like an impending boardroom fight between a guy who has been frozen out of the board and the American. I have no special insider knowledge here but I suspect, having looked at Stan Kroenke’s other businesses that he’s not an impulsive, owner for owner’s sake type of rich guy. No, in fact, I think that he’s probably most attracted to Arsenal because it is run like a very conservative business.

My suspicion is that Stan Kroenke will go over the 29.9% line either today or shortly after today and that then will be obligated to make a bid for the club… which will be rejected. Which means that everything will stay put, exactly as Stan and the board wants it.

As I always say, we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, that’s it for today, baby is up and I’ve got to get to work. See you tomorrow!

Ah Zed Alkmaar 1-1 Arsenal; the Good, Bad, and Ugly

Match Reports

ESPNSoccernet: Arsenal sucker punched by late equalizer

Telegraph: Arsène Wenger had planned to mark his 60th birthday tomorrow with nothing more extravagant than watching Europa League football on television but, after Arsenal threw away victory last night, he might prefer to study DVDs of his team’s defending from set-pieces.

Match Video

The Arsenalist has two videos that you need to watch for today’s match; the AZ Alkmaar video from yesterday and the PSV Eindhoven video from 2007.

Prologue

Despite a clear difference in class, Arsenal played to AZ Alkmaar’s level for most of the match. Proof of that argument comes in the form of both the goal we scored and the goal we conceded.

The goal we scored was perfect “Arsenal football” and made AZ look like rank amateurs; Arshavin steals the ball from their defender, slots in to RvP, who crosses perfectly to Chesk for the finish. Their defenders were everywhere on that play, losing their concentration and playing defense like an MLS team.

Then on the other end, it’s the 93rd minute, AZ have announced their intention to lob the ball forward and try to steal a point just a minute before, and Arshavin is caught offside. The long free kick comes in again, and again Diaby cannot get a head on the ball because he lets his marker get in front of him. Then both Song and Vermaelen allow Mendes to meander through the heart of the defense and power home a shot past a helpless Mannone.  It was the kind of defense that I would expect from a club like, well, like AZ Alkmaar.

If you need any further proof of us playing to their level you need look no further than the pass completion percentage of the two central midfielders. Both Diaby and Cesc were only able to complete 68% of their passes and only combined for 92 passes on the night. Against Birmingham City, when Cesc was supposedly jaded from Nationalism duty, he made 91 passes on his own, completing 82%.

Arsenal weren’t tired, they played to AZ’s level.

Man of the Match

Hands down, hands up, hands all over, Romero was man of the match. Oh yeah, I will give MotM to the opponent, especially when the opponent is a keeper who makes 100% of the high claims, has 7 saves, and single-handedly keeps his team in the game. I’m not blaming Mannone for the goal that Arsenal conceded, that was a team effort. Rather, just suggesting that whoever Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach is takes a look at the tape of Romero’s match last night. We couldn’t get a single cross in on him, shots were parried from all over, and had it not been for the Naivete of his defense, he certainly would have kept a clean sheet.

The Good

Thankfully, Liverpool are in a tailspin and the sharks in the press are all over Benitez at the moment. The idea that he might lose his job is a bit mind boggling, but then again, you have to wonder how much longer he can live off the fumes of Istanbul. Especially since they look likely to be dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage and the Champions League is his one real claim to fame.

Even more shockingly, Barcelona lost to some Russian pub team at Camp Nou, while having 75% of the possession.

Thank the gods because if they hadn’t both lost, every single story in the British press would be about how Arsenal are not the invincibles any more. Obviously, it’s not a loss and Arsenal are still in charge of the group and will certainly qualify. But still you have to thank the other Champions League folks for conspiring to soak up all the negative press.

The Bad

(This is the part where you go watch the video of the PSV game)

It seems like Ronald Koeman has Wenger’s number, a bit. They have met three times and each time Koeman has come off looking the better tactician. Before the game, Koeman even announced his intention to keep the ball and try to steal a goal. Amazingly, he did exactly what he wanted to do.

You can’t simply write Arsenal off as tired from the Nationalism break, we beat the Wigan cloggers on the weekend 3-1 and they gave us a lot more resistance in the midfield than AZ.

No, AZ were simply doggedly determined to keep the ball, at one point so much so that the keeper literally threw the ball backwards to a defender.  That tactic is overcome by one of two options, work hard to win the ball back, or counter attack and take your chances. Arsenal did work hard in the first half and certainly looked like we were going to get the winner but the keeper came up aces.

After that, we sort of sat back and let the game come to us (they edged us in possession) and then at the 93rd minute relaxed and, oopsie! Another Ronald Koeman engineered set-piece goal.

It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a draw, but seriously, we knew what he was going to do, we knew how to counter it and we didn’t execute on either end.

As for the Vela penalty claim: yes, it was a penalty but the video I saw from the referee’s angle looks like the defender wins the ball first. So I don’t think we can be too angry about that, we have the benefit of instant replay from multiple angles, the ref does not.

The Ugly

A lot of folks were praising Diaby yesterday but honestly I didn’t see it. Yes, he put in a couple of tackles and won the ball once, but there was at least one tackle that should have been a yellow card because he was late and over the ball.

Moreover, he was ponderous with the ball at the back, and on one attack, which Cesc was calling for the ball in a wide open position, chose instead to take on three AZ defenders and subsequently the play died.

Those are just two examples of what I saw as a poor match from Diaby. That he also let Pelle get in front of him on the free kick is something that really frustrates me. Go back to the PSV video, who is it that lets Alex in front? Diaby. The Birmingham goal on Saturday? Diaby failed to clear the header. The Man U own goal? Diaby header.

He’s not a bad player, but his defensive instincts and defensive fundamentals are seriously lacking. In fact, they are downright ugly. I worry that teams are going to start taking notice of this and exploit it.

Given how important Song has been and the fact that he’s on his 4th yellow card yesterday looked like Diaby was auditioning for the holding midfielder role on Sunday against W-ham, in order to give Song a rest. Given that tape, I’m guessing that the starring role will go to Song on Sunday with the admonition to please, no matter what, don’t pick up a yellow card.

It’s also insanely frustrating that Arshavin was caught offside for the free kick.  I’ve said it before and he’s admitted it, he’s a lazy player. Usually this doesn’t cost us but last night it did a bit.

Epilogue

A lot of folks are blaming the international break for our players looking tired but I don’t buy it. Arsenal footballers play twice a week pretty much all year round, traveling all over the world for Champions League matches and so I can’t see it as a legitimate excuse for us to get taken advantage of in the 93rd minute of a match that falls a full week after all the international players have returned. If the international breaks are to blame then the Sunderland test at the Stadium of Light on the 21st of November will be a stern test indeed. Judging by last night’s performance, if Internationals take such a huge toll, we’ll be beaten 6-0 by a rampaging Sunderland team.

This wasn’t a tired performance as much as it was Arsenal playing down to the level of their opponents. I think a lot of these guys got it into their heads that they could turn it on at any moment and pick AZ apart so they started coasting. Hopefully, this match is a reminder that ANY team, given a little organization, can nick a point off us. All the post match interviews suggest that the players are aware that they let slip and only time will tell if they take this lesson to heart.

They have 4 days to think about it.

Ah Zed Alkmaar v. Arsenal; Dutch Hercules

Wenger reaches for the stars

Just a few hours to go before Arsenal take on AZ Alkmaar in a Champions League clash that is being billed by some as Koeman v. Wenger. The two have met before and I remember it very clearly, it was a game which was dominated by a masterful defensive performance by Chelsea’s now second string center back, Alex.

Koeman and PSV dominated both legs of the match by employing the same tactic that the “oop norf” cloggers in the Premier League used to be able to rely on; kick, kick, kick, win a free kick, kick it to a big guy, score on a header, and go back to kicking. That second leg, in particular, was very hard to watch. Arsenal were completely disrupted and once PSV gained the away goal advantage, Thierry Henry was thrown on despite suffering a lack of fitness and form, and he was re-injured. It was the last game he would ever play for Arsenal and not exactly the way I would have wanted to see him off.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about Koeman playing “attacking football” with AZ and maybe they will, it would be suicide, but hey, weirder things have happened. He is talking about trying to dominate possession against us and that did make me turn my head a bit, but I suspect Koeman is going to be a realist. I’d be shocked if we saw the type of open, end-to-end match that Man City gave us.

This Arsenal team, though, has since been re-crafted. No longer playing a 4-4-2 or worse the 4-5-1 Arsenal play a 4-3-3 in which every player is called upon to play defense, score, and set each other up for more scoring. I know this will come as a shock to you all so you better sit down: Wenger admitted yesterday was that he thinks offense is defense:

If we score goals, it is because we have the ball. To have the ball, you need to defend. That is why I believe we have a good team ethic, a good working attitude together. We all play on the same wavelength, which is why everybody scores.

It’s team defense, team offense, and team hold onto the gods-damned ball!

From the presser, I don’t get the sense that Wenger thinks this will be a walk in the park. In fact, he warned everyone of the threat from Dutch teams in the Champions League. It matters little that AZ lost a match in league play on Saturday, they will be up for this game. And by up I mean fully committed.

Defensively, Arsenal are re-worked quite a bit from 2007 as well with Gallas and Vermaelen as the new defensive stars in the Arsenal back line. Funnily enough, when asked why Vermaelen and Gallas work so well together, Wenger “big-ups” Thomas Vermaelen by saying it’s his talent, plus Gallas hates playing on the left. There’s a bit of insight into what happened last year. It’s looks to me like both Gallas and Toure hated playing on the left and for some reason Toure got the nod over Gallas. That explains why the two were at each other all year and further explains why Gallas is so much happier this year. I remember back to when Gallas played for Chelsea and one of the main reasons for his departure was down to the fact that Chelsea played him at left-back, so this whole hatred of playing on the left is a long-standing gripe with him. I’m just happy that he’s happy.

Another change, hell a change even this year, is in the keeper spot. Gone is Lehmann, who was replaced by Almunia, who has subsequently been replaced by Mannone. Funny thing about that Mannone replacement… both Mannone and Almunia have played in 4 Premier League matches this season and so I did a little statistical comparison of the two:

Almunia

5 shots  –  own goal, 2 saves    — Man City 4-2 Arsenal
3 shots  –  own goal, 2 saves    — Man U 2-1 Arsenal
3 shots  –  2 saves              — Arsenal 4-1 Pompey
5 shots  –  4 saves              — Everton 1-6 Arsenal
——————————————————–
16 shots –  10 saves             — 8 goals (2 o.g.)

62.5% Save Percentage             — .5 goals/shot

Vito

5 shots  –  5 saves  CLEAN SHEET — Arsenal 4-0 Wigan
8 shots  –  8 saves  CLEAN SHEET — Fulham 0-1 Arsenal
5 shots  –  3 saves              — Arsenal 6-2 Blackburn
3 shots  –  1 save               — Arsenal 3-1 Birmingham
——————————————————–
21 shots — 17 saves, 2 CS        — 4 goals

81% Save Percentage               — .2 goals/shot

Obviously a keeper proves his worth over a long period, obviously 4 games is not really long enough to judge either player, and obviously keepers do more than make saves, but I can see why Wenger is having a selection “problem” in picking Almunia. He’s not been anywhere near top form in his first four matches and when you have a team that only allows a handful of shots on goal, you can’t really have a keeper who is letting in nearly 40% of the chances.

Mannone will start today, I feel confident!

As for the other starts, Eboue is a shoo-in for Theo’s spot up front, van Persie is a fixture at the center forward (what with Wenger comparing him to van Basten) and unless the boss gets a wild hair Arshavin will start on the left. The middle is Cesc and Song and most likely Diaby. The back four is Clichy, Vermy, Gallas, and Sagna — who else would he play? Vela will get some time on the pitch irregardless of the scoreline. Just because he’s in good form and the boss will want to get him some turf time ahead of the Carling Cup match against Liverpool.

Viewing in the States has two options: live on Setanta or tape delay on Fox Soccer Channel. The Publican at Doyle’s in Tacoma has assured me that he will be showing the match live at 11:30am (PST) so, if you’re in Tacoma come on down and watch with me. I’ll be twittering pearls of swine live from the match and you can follow me over at the twitter, if you’re into that. If not, stop by tomorrow for the Good, Bad, and Ugly.

See you then!