Arsenal v. AZ; Wenger talks about Kroenke, Injuries, Robin, AZ, and Diaby is “good in the air.”

Arsene Wenger sat with the media ahead of tomorrow’s AZ Alkmaar clash for a mere 15 minutes today and it seems to be the interview that launched 1000 news stories, so there’s lots to get to today. We’ve got Kroenke, injuries, Robin, AZ, Diaby, and an invitation from me to help write a bit.

Kroenke increases shares to 29.6%

Wenger was asked about Kroenke’s share-buying activity this week and in typical fashion deflected and suggested that the reporter ask Stan the Man himself about what his intentions are. When pressed by the reporter Wenger jokingly said that at the moment Kroenke “flirts” with the 30% mark, but has not gone all the way. Personally, it looks more like he’s gotten to 3rd base than just flirting.

All signs point to a shareholder who is consolidating his position rather than moving in for a hostile takeover. There’s good reason for Kroenke to purchase loose shares: to consolidate his and the board’s grip on the shares needed to keep control of the board, and to prevent his main boardroom competitor from getting a larger foothold in the club.

It cannot be stressed enough that even if he reaches the magical 30% threshold, the other shareholders are not obliged to sell to him. This means that it looks like a plurality of ownership will remain. His business model is a combination of co-ownership and outright ownership — with the bigger ticket items co-owned and the smaller, more risky, teams owned outright. Thus, Arsenal as a huge and safe bet fits right into his co-ownership model.

The Arsenal Supporter’s Trust released a statement today which outlines their position on any possible takeover and, having spoken with representatives of KSE and Stan himself, has stated directly that they do not feel a takeover is imminent:

The AST has repeatedly stated that we are generally opposed to a takeover and would fight any plans that require the club to incur debt to pay for a takeover as has happened at Manchester United and Liverpool.

Two red lines that cannot be crossed are the use of debt secured on the club’s assets to fund a takeover and an ownership structure which excludes small shareholders.

The AST’s own assessment of today’s development is that a takeover is not imminent and that today’s purchase is the consolidation of an existing position.

I agree with everything they have said.

Injuries

Wenger described Bendtner as “quite seriously injured” which won’t surprise anyone who saw the way he was holding his adductor on Saturday — I’m not calling it a groin pull, that sounds childish, it’s an adductor pull which sounds serious, or at least studious. Bendtner is out for “at least” 4 weeks.

As I know from T-Town Alex, who is French, French time is different from English time. If T-Town Alex says he’ll be there in 15 minutes, it actually means 30 minutes. So, Wenger’s  “4 weeks” puts Bendtner back in the team in January.

The good news in that position is that Rosicky is back but will not get the start to cover on that right hand side. I like the idea of bringing Rosicky on late on the right against Alkmaar because his close control and dribbling will be essential for breaking AZ’s 10 man defense, especially when they have tired legs.

Clichy is the other big surprise injury and Wenger said he suffered a “stress fracture” in his back and will be out for “a few weeks.” A few weeks? I seriously doubt it. If this is a recurrence of his back problems of last year, we’ll be looking at more like “a few months” or maybe “the rest of the season.” I’m not trying to second guess or hype the injury but I’ve broken my back and it takes more than “a few weeks” to recover. Gibbs, future England number 3, will be called upon to step in and Traore will provide cover with Wenger joking that this club is fortunate to be gifted with left-backs. I was sort of joking about an England call up, but just today, Gibbs was talking about how he needed to prove something for Arsenal before he could even start thinking about the England side. I guess he’ll get his chance?

In the keeper spot Almunia is now and forever Arsenal number 1 and Mannone is backup: until Almunia makes a mistake.

Half Henry Bergkamp Half van Persie

Wenger wanted to clear up the notion that he claimed Robin van Persie is “Half Henry — Half Bergkamp” and did so in typical AW fashion:

He’s a little bit of a mixture of Thierry Henry and a little bit of Denis Bergkamp because he’s not purely a target player like Thierry was and he’s not a runner of the ball like Thierry was but he can play up front on his own. And he’s not a Denis Bergkamp because he’s not purely a passer of the ball, a final ball giver like Dennis. He’s a bit of both, he’s also a sexual tyrannosaur, half shark alligator half man, and a sprinkle of piranha, that’s why he’s van Persie.

I understand he’s also a considerate lover.

On tomorrow’s match

As I pointed out in yesterday’s “10 match review” this Arsenal team have been bitten a few times from lack of concentration and focus in games. So far, this disease has been exclusively the domain of away games where our record in the EPL is 2-1-2 and our goal differential is a measly +3 which includes a 6-1 win over Everton. Since that opening win over Everton, Arsenal’s away GD is -2. A lot of people can point to what happened at AZ Alkmaar and rightly say that it wasn’t as much of a blip as a continuation of poor away form. So, while I agree with Arsene that this team needs to show focus and resolve tomorrow, I’m not worried that they won’t because our home form has been spectacular. In fact, in 9 home games in all competitions Arsenal have scored 32 goals (avg. 3.5) and allowed just 6 goals. Given the level of competition we saw from AZ in the last match, I’m just being honest, I suspect a 3 or even 4 to nil score line.

Winning tomorrow would basically qualify Arsenal for a 10th consecutive knockout stage berth, but Wenger wants more, he wants to win the group. I completely agree with this philosophy. Great teams don’t back into a tough competition, they go out and crush their enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.

The Hollandaise press are making a big deal of Ronald Koeman “never losing to Arsene” and even going so far as to suggest that Koeman has Wenger’s number. Arsene just laughed about this and said that Koeman didn’t score the last minute equalizer at AZ. In a sense he’s right, but in a sense he’s wrong. Koeman has played a very specific tactic against Arsenal one that even a novice manager can see and it’s been pretty effective — if by effective you mean “securing a draw at all costs and sneaking a win.” Don’t be surprised if there’s a “park the bus” tactic for all 90 minutes followed by a brief flurry of activity as AZ try to steal a goal on a set play at the end.

Diaby

Put down your coffee…

Ok, ready?

When asked whether Diaby has proved himself in the absence of Denilson, Arsene Wenger said

I think he has done extremely well. He is a player who is good in the challenge, which we have been criticized for lacking in the past. He is good in the air. He has a high work-rate and he gives us a good balance in the midfield. He likes to play up front behind the strikers but because he’s so strong in the challenge, I see him, later, a bit deeper, in front of the defenders because he’s very good in the air, he’s very quick, very strong in the challenge, and when he wins the ball, he can accelerate the game.

This has to be the most egregious example of Arsene Wenger blowing smoke up our asses I have ever seen. I know that he protects his players, I know that he likes to talk about the positives, and I can think of a lot of positives to say about Abou Diaby but I can’t think of a single person on this earth who thinks that Abou Diaby is good in the air. He is very tall and he jumps very high but his timing is terrible. He’s more likely to put a ball off his shoulder than his head.

Incredibly, Wenger does then go on to criticize him, by saying that he’s “attracted like a magnet” to the goal and that we don’t need 7 players going forward. But… but… but… THAT’S HIS BEST QUALITY!

It’s really incredible stuff. Maybe he’s using this as an opportunity to try to mould this player into something different than he already is? Maybe by “good in the air” Wenger meant that while on the airplane from London to Europe he’s always very polite, unlike Sp*s who are utter cocks wherever they go? I don’t know, but it’s mind boggling to think that Wenger would actually say that Diaby is good in the air and not burst out laughing.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a January signing of a hard man in the middle of the field you might as well put that wish list away — Diaby looks like he’s going to be our man when Song is gone.

“Man” on the scene

And finally, I’d like to extend the offer to anyone who attends any game to help write a section of the Good, Bad, and Ugly which I am tentatively calling “‘Man’ on the scene. ” A lot of my readers are foreigners (as far flung as the Philippines and Thailand) and what we get on television is a watered down snippet of what happens when you actually get to a match. So, if you’re going to a match and you’re willing to write a few hundred words about the atmosphere before, during, and after the match or pretty much anything you want to write about (around match day) drop me an email:

7amkickoff at gmail dot com

I’d love to include some match reporting from the actual matches.

Right, that’s it for today. Tomorrow’s match kicks off at 11:45 am PST and I know for a fact that Doyle’s in Tacoma is playing it live. I also know that I cannot watch the match live but my good friend Russ at Doyle’s is taping the match for me and I’ll get to watch it after work. Drop me a line if you want to get together tomorrow afternoon and watch the match.

I’ll probably do a brief blog tomorrow followed by a full on internet blackout (by me) until after the match. So, see you tomorrow, and UP THE ARSE!

10 games in, who are the challengers, the pretenders, and the also-rans?

After this weekend’s action every team in the league has played at least 10 games. Most clubs have played 11 matches and notably, Arsenal, City, and Villa still have a game in hand. Even with three title challengers having a game in hand, a bit of a clear picture has started to develop in the league as to who the real challengers are, who the pretenders are, and who the also-rans are. Let’s have a look.

The Challengers

Arsenal: Arsenal have played 10, won 7, drawn 1, and lost 2 for a total of 22 points. More importantly, Arsenal have also scored 32 times in the first 10 games for an average of 3.2 goals per game, which is leading the league by 4 goals over Chelsea — who have played one more game. Not just scoring bags of goals against relegation fodder, Arsenal have scored these goals against what many thought would be top competition at the start of the season — putting 6 past Everton and 3 by Tottenham.  It’s a team which is custom built to score goals and while 100 goals in a season seems implausible (they’d have to average 2.7 per game) Arsenal have the best team to do it.

Just look at where they are getting their goals: Thomas Vermaelen has 4, Fabregas has 5 and van Persie already has 7. That’s just in the league, folks. Goals are pouring in from all over the pitch at the moment and as long as that happens the Arsenal must certainly be considered title challengers.

They are not without their problems, however. Arsenal have shown a tendency to fall asleep in matches this season and let their opponents score easy goals on them. If Everton, Pompey, and Blackburn all showed that weakness, it was Man U and (more painfully) Wet Hams which proved that despite their star Summer signing, Arsenal can be exploited at the back.

Where Arsenal most need to focus and pick up points is in their away form. Arsenal have allowed only 4 goals in 5 games at home on their way to a perfect 5-0-0 home record. On the road, they have allowed 9 goals in 5 games on their way to a 2-1-2 record. And while they have scored an amazing 20 goals at home, they have only scored 12 on the road — 6 of which came against Everton.

Verdict: Arsenal need to figure out a way to get more points on the road with either better defense, better offense, or a combination of both. Up next, Wolves at the Molineux, the perfect opportunity to get that record started. If they can learn to do better on the road, and they can find a replacement for Song in January, then they could have a chance at the league.

Chelsea: Press darlings Terry, Lampard and the two Coles are off to a roaring start to the season having played 11 games and amassing a league leading 9-0-2 record on 27 points. Ancelotti’s diamond system is playing right into Drogba’s hands to the tune of 9 goals already this season and the rest of the team is chipping in a few bob as they are second in the league with 28 goals scored. Moreover, Ancelotti inherited one of the best defenses in the league and has managed to actually make them stronger so far this season, as they have allowed a paltry 9 goals all year — only 1 of which has come at home.

Teams who come to play can sometimes get burned on the road and similar to Arsenal, Chelsea’s away record is a bit of a blight on their season. In 6 games they have allowed 7 goals on the way to a 4-0-2 record. It’s a bit scary that the worst thing I can say about Chelsea is that they have a bit of a poor away record.

The one thing they are going to have to worry about is the African Cup of Nations. The British press may be all atwitter about the “English spine” of this team but if you look at the performances, the actual spine of Chelsea is African. Drogba and Essien will be missed in January but fortunately (for them) Chelsea are playing Hull, Sunderland, Birmingham, and Burnley that month. Not exactly a massively challenging schedule.

Verdict: I hate to admit that they are the favorites to win the title, unless Drogba and Essien get injured. Anyone know a good witchdoctor?

Man U: I’ve watched a ton of Man U games and the thing that impresses me most is that they have that belief that comes from back-to-back title wins. So, despite their aging and foul prone back line, the fact that they are leaking goals at home, and the fact that they have 2 losses and 1 tie, only fools would count them out of the title race.

Verdict: I wondered at the start of the season where they planned on getting replacement goals for Ronaldo and Tevez, but it looks like they are just cobbling them together. Still, I think that Chelsea and Arsenal look much better and Man U will fall to 3rd amid a cloud of expletives from Ferguson.

The Pretenders

Aston Villa: Have simply and quietly just gone about their business. This team is playing very well at the moment and have amassed a 5-3-2 record while allowing opponents a mere 9 goals, in 10 games.Their one weakness is that they are not scoring as many goals as a top club needs to score, having only found the net 14 times this season.

Verdict: It’s safe to say that they have recovered from the loss of Gareth Barry and that they will push teams this season. I also think that the hype of last year put a lot of weight on a young team’s shoulders and they seemed to collapse last last year. If they can start finding the net, maintain their defense, and stay under the radar, they could crack the top four.

Liverpool: Their current record is no blip. I pointed out at the start of the season that their defense looked like an adult diaper — old and leaky — and that they would find the loss of Alonso too much to bear despite my high regard for Lucas Levia. Worse still, they have been exposed as a team which needs Torres on the pitch for 90 minutes or they will have a tendency to collapse. Torres was out when Sunderland beat them and as soon as Torres was withdrawn against Fulham, the Liverpool lions suddenly lost all teeth.

Their home record isn’t bad, but what’s killing them is the 12 goals they have given up on the way to 4 away losses. That’s abysmal and proof that their reliance on one or two star players is going to cost them this season.

Verdict: Liverpool are right where they belong right now, 6th place with Villa level on points but with a game in hand. Liverpool will need to really pull deep to come back from this hole. Wednesday’s match away to Lyon will likely decide the season. If they lose, Rafa will probably get the axe, which will throw this club into a tailspin.

Man City: Off to a great start to the season, winning 4 matches in a row with the capstone being turning Arsenal over 4-2 at the Eastlands. Since then their record has been 1-4-1 and their star striker, the £25m pound Adebayor, has not managed to find the net even once.

There was never any doubt that City has amassed a team of talented mercenaries. What is in doubt is the attitude of those players. The bellicose Bellamy is playing well now but is only a pint and a 6 iron away from attacking his own teammates. Sated with City’s cash, Robinho has been looking at winning-er pastures and is, incredibly, basically demanding a trade to Barcelona in the papers. Adebayor is clearly more interested in Arsenal than City, with his weekly tirade against Arsenal and us fans finding the front page of every paper for several weeks running. And Tevez’ teammates are criticizing him in the papers for his lack of English — which I think is unfair but it does point out the mental state of that team.

Verdict: Manchester City are just one training room brawl away from implosion. However, if they can keep it together and find a way to fix their terrible away form, they have the talent to finish 5th or even 4th.

Also-rans

Sunderland: “Do not go gentle into that good night” should be Sunderland’s motto. A tough tackling team with two gigantic bruising strikers up front who strike terror in the hearts of grown men, Sunderland aren’t messing around and demand to be taken seriously. Summer signing and ubiquitous Arsenal target Lorik Cana has continued his form from l’OM and is currently tackling his way through the Premiership. In fact, I suspect he will be the first player in Premiership history to tackle every other player in the league.

Matching Cana’s 5 yellows already this season, Kenwynne Jones is on 5 goals,  but the real surprise is that former Tottenham striker Darren Bent is on 8 goals.  With Cana freeing up Lee Cattermole the midfield is providing steel and service to their big men. Do not take this team lightly.

Verdict: Will hard tackling and big men up front be enough? They have a couple of hard tests coming up in a home match against Arsenal and an away match to a wounded Spurs team. I don’t think they will break into the top 4 but they will likely get Europe and the reputation of being the team that no one wants to play.

Tottenham: If you had asked folks before Saturday’s North London derby they would have said that Tottenham looked like a team who would challenge for top 4 honors. After that match, the sentiment would certainly have changed.

I chalk that up to press hype: Lennon and Defoe have been outstanding this season and what with the British press always looking for England National team players on the rise they were getting a lot of column inches. What was not getting press was the 14 goals they had let in and the fact that their defense relies on Johnathan Woodgate, Ledly King, and Sebastien Bassong — three of the most overrated central defenders ever to sit in the treatment room.

Verdict: After the Arsenal destroyed them on Saturday, Tottenham have now let in 17 goals and Bassong came up injured. With that type of defense, coupled with the fact that they have only scored 21 goals, they look like a middle of the pack team rather than a top 4 contender.

Conclusion

Arsene Wenger said after our cracking start to the season we have to wait until the 10th game before we can assess how the season’s going. Is there anything he’s ever wrong about? Ok, Francis Jeffers, but that’s it!

These first 10 games have exposed teams’ weaknesses and shown their strengths. Wenger says that the race is wide open, but for me, it’s these next 10 games that the title race will really be decided. Can Arsenal shore up their away defense? Will Chelsea start to show some cracks in the armor? Can United bank on belief alone? What do we think of Tottenham? (Shit) How many more losses can Rafa Benitez endure? Will Villa creep up on everyone and steal their hubcaps?

10 more games and the picture will be clearer.

Arsenal 3-0 Spuds; Roast Chicken with a side of Humble Pie

I prefer Coq a vin, but roast chicken will do in a pinch

Match Reports

The Independent: van Persie makes a mockery of Spurs’ class pretensions.

ESPNSoccernet: Keane’s pre-match comments suggested Spurs’ squad was as good as Arsenal’s, although their gameplan relied on stifling Wenger’s side through hard work and punting the ball forward to Crouch.

Telegraph: Superiority confirmed.

Quote(s) of the Day

It’s too hard to pick just one, Wenger was in rare form in the post match presser, so, I’ve decided to go with four of the best gems from Le Boss:

Brilliance means taking advantage of the mistakes of your opponents.

Football is not about opinion, it’s about performance.

I threw my jacket because I was frustrated, I couldn’t communicate with the players because of the noise of the stadium — I’m not used to that.

Man of the Match

This is the toughest MotM I have ever tried to decide. Instead of giving a simple man of the match, I’m going to rate the top players on a scale of 1-10 so that you can see how close it really was:

  • Alex Song — The Telegraph has him making a match leading 94% of his passes yesterday which alone boosts him above the 8.0 mark. Throw in the way he dominated the Spuds midfield and the fact that his shielding of the back 4 was crucial to the clean sheet and you can see why I rate him at 8.7
  • Vermaelen — Thomas was nothing short of magnificent at the back. Before the match Twitchy Redknapp was bragging about how the ironically named 7’3″ Peter Crouch was going to dominate Arsenal aerially. He did win a few headers, as is to be expected with his huge height advantage, but for the vast majority of the match TV5 kept Crouch in his pocket. That’s a tall order, and worth an 8.8 from me.
  • Sagna — I will never doubt you again. One official assist and a second cross that was too hot for Gomes to handle put him at an 8.9.
  • Robin van Persie — What do you give a guy who scores a brace in the game? A 9.1 that’s what!
  • Cesc — There isn’t a scale big enough to rate the importance of his second goal. I have seen some amazing derby goals from Arsenal when we beat Tottenham 3-0 , this Henry goal is probably the best individual effort:  but for what it meant to the team in this game, and how it lifted the fans from joy to ecstasy, and though we’ll have to wait to see what effect it will have on our season Cesc’s goal was probably the best goal I have ever seen from an Arsenal player. Watch it again and you’ll see why, despite a bit of an underwhelming performance for 40 minutes, Cesc Fabregas earned Man of the Match with a 9.2:

The Good

Before the match, Robbie Keane claimed that Tottenham was “on par” with Arsenal and that their bench might even be better. After yesterday’s match, it’s pretty clear that Tiny Tots aren’t “on par” but more like “needing a three stroke handicap.”

Watching them sit back, play slow, and try to hoof the ball up to the great wall of Crouch was comical. I guess I can’t really blame them, they didn’t have much choice: Bentley on the wings played the entire match trying to relive past individual glories. His pathetic left footed attempt to reprise his goal from last season was actually laugh out loud funny. I swear I saw Almunia chuckle and shake his head. And the rest of the team seemed more intent on playing in the style of Blackburn than the supposed flowing football that ‘arry has brought to Spurs. No, at every position Arsenal outclassed Tottenham yesterday.

    In the end, though, we don’t want to compare to Tottenham, they are chasing 4th place and we want to win the Premiership.

    I want to quickly mention Almunia’s play. There was one bobble early on, but after that he was solid and judging by Wenger’s post-match comments, he’ll be our number one from here on. Unless he gets another chest infection, or family problem, or, whatever.

    The Bad

    Bendtner is out 4 weeks, at least — he is a good player and we’d like to have him on the pitch but Arsenal have a lot of players who can play on that side; Vela, Walcott, Rosicky, Eboue, Eduardo, Nasri, and you could even put Diaby out there — he’d be less of a threat out there than in the middle of the park.

    Yes, I know that I just mentioned three players who are injured, but I think all of those players are not far off as far as fitness. Vela’s knee injury is minor as far as I know. Rosicky was 50-50 for this match so I expect him back any day. And Walcott is due back just in time to pick up another injury during the Nationalism break in two weeks.

    So, while I hate to see a player go down, this is a very deep Arsenal side and Bendtner’s loss is someone like Vela’s gain.

    The Ugly

    Mark Clattenburg is not good enough to referee my Sunday pickup matches. Yet somehow he’s managed to referee two Arsenal matches already this season: against Spurs yesterday and infamously against Man City at the start of this season.

    Two matches managed, two matches bottled. I guess the good news is that he’s two for two this season!

    Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn, and Wigan fans all remember Clattenburg’s name as well, because he was publicly rebuked by Chief Hackett after huge gaffes in last year’s Merseyside Derby and after a series of bizarre calls in the Blackburn v. Wigan match. I don’t want my column to be nothing more than a moan about the ref, but the fact is that Clattenburg allowed Adebayor to stamp two players in the City clash, one stamping which he claims not to have seen despite this video evidence which shows him looking right at the incident:

    Like I said, I don’t want to moan about Clattenburg but I feel like I have to say something when he lets David Bentley get away with a studs-up, ankle breaking tackle as he did yesterday. Clattenburg was simply all over the place, playing advantage to Arsenal on one end of the pitch and then stopping play on the other end, and the only thing I really want from a ref is consistency.

    The only thing that I can tell he’s consistent about is allowing players to get away with red-card offenses. How much you wanna bet they put him in charge of the Carling Cup match against City?

    Conclusions

    It’s goo, goo, goo to be a Goonah!