How far have Arsenal’s standards actually fallen?

2/15/2012

A friend of mine, who is a Barcelona fan (there are worse things he could be, I guess), recently brought to my attention this article Ben Blackmore wrote for ESPN.com about the declining standards at Arsenal. What I wrote in the email response to my friend ended up almost reading like a blog post, so I’ve made it into one.

For reference, here’s a link to the Blackmore article, titled “Arsenal standards reach dangerous low”: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature/_/id/1022668/blackmore:-arsenal-dropping-standards-to-dangerously-low-levels-?cc=5901

Also, for reference, his general point is that the quality of players Arsenal have now has dropped drastically from the last time they won trophies, and that the only players currently on the squad that have the quality to wear the shirt are van Persie, Wilshere, and Vermaelen. That’s the extreme CliffsNotes version at least, read the whole article for more; it’s a little off, but the thrust of it is on target.

Like a lot of people who probably have only watched a handful of Arsenal matches this year, Blackmore has some misconceptions based on things he’s heard but not observed himself (Full disclosure: that’s an assumption I’ve made. I have no idea how many Arsenal matches Blackmore has actually watched this season). I think the overall point is well taken, that the level of quality on this year’s squad is significantly lower than it was last year, and depressingly lower than it was back in the early-to-mid 2000s. That being said, he’s got some things wrong.

Blackmore points out Djourou and Jenkinson as not being good enough to be on the pitch. While I agree with this, they are easy targets. Djourou is his better point, because Jenkinson wouldn’t have sniffed the pitch other than in Carling Cup matches, were it not for injury. So yes, they shouldn’t be out there playing first team football for Arsenal, but if you think about the defense last year as compared to now, it’s not so dire. I wrote a blog about this previously, but just as a short recap: Djourou was actually considered one of our better defenders until he got hurt in that game at Old Trafford last season.

I totally disagree with Blackmore on Mertesacker and Koscielny, and actually (a bit) on Vermaelen too. I think all three of them are leaps-and-bounds ahead of our central defenders last year (which included a very lost-looking Koscielny in his first year in the Prem, and featured the likes of Squillaci and almost no time from Vermaelen). As they are playing now, however, I’ll take all three of them (TV5, Kos, & Per) over, let’s say, Gary Cahill and a whole host of others out there playing central defense in the Prem. Actually, I think Vermaelen (though I love him) has been the worst of the three as of late, and Koscielny has been the best. Sure they get beat sometimes, but what defender never gets beat? In sum, I don’t think central defense is the problem with this Arsenal team.

The other real problem is depth, as we’ve seen. A couple of guys go down, and we’re screwed. You only need to look at the full back situation to understand how that works. See earlier point re: how Jenkinson has been pressed into action too soon. In the article, Blackmore mentions Clichy in the same breath as Cesc & Nasri in speaking of the quality that left in the summer… So yeah, he’s totally overrated Clichy as a player, but whatever. Gibbs and Santos aren’t great (Gibbs looked especially lost against Milan), but they’re not that much of a step down from Clichy, if any as compared to his declining form last season. Blackmore also rips Sagna, who I will defend. Bac is great, but he’s just got back from injury, so playing on that abomination of a pitch at San Siro didn’t suit him. That he didn’t look great yesterday was no shock, but that performance shouldn’t be taken to be representative of his quality.

As for the rest of the squad, I’ll defend Alex Song by saying this: I bet you can’t name five clubs in the whole of Europe that wouldn’t take him, and start him, as a holding midfielder. Challenge issued, take it if you wish. That is all.

As for the rest, Arteta and Ramsey are no Cesc & Nasri. They can’t even lick their boots, and on a team like Arsenal they should probably be complimentary players. Arteta especially has done well to stabilize the club since coming on, but he and Ramsey should be fill-ins and substitutes for an Arsenal squad. So yes, Blackmore has that part right.

He makes a weird move in talking about the wing play, and focuses on Walcott & Arshavin. The little Russian hardly plays for Arsenal right now, so I’m not sure why he’s even mentioned in the article. Blackmore should be talking about Walcott, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain if he really wants to get it right. That being said, let’s talk about them: The Ox is young, and I think every other team in the Prem wishes they had him, so there’s that. As for the other two, they’re too inconsistent, and frustratingly so. Gervinho, despite not being able to finish since he got here, is probably better overall, but they could certainly both be upgraded. They’re not awful though, in my view the problem is greater in the midfield.

In sum, Wenger has to buy distributing midfielders with creativity, wingers who don’t disappear, and a decent backup for van Persie (everyone agrees that Chamakh has lost whatever magic he had when he first arrived, and I assume there’s a reason Wenger won’t play Park, but no one can tell what since he never even sniffs the pitch). None of that is at all groundbreaking, but at least it provided a vehicle to assess the team heading into the final stretch of the season. It will be imperative for Arsene to hold on to what he’s got (and add more quality to it in the off season. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more talent, as it’s already behind on replacing what they lost last summer, but we all knew that already. Doesn’t make it any less important though.

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Arsenal Faces Make or Break Month

2/11/2012 - Thierry Henry celebrates his later winner against Sunderland (Michael Regan / Getty Images)

It’s a horrible cliché to say that that any one stretch of matches is the most important of the season, especially when there are so many games remaining, but the way the schedule is laid out, I honestly believe that the next month will decide Arsenal’s fate this season.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead. In the next 30 days, Arsenal have the following fixtures:

February 15 – Away to AC Milan (Champions League Round of 16)

February 18 – Away to Sunderland (FA Cup 5th round)

February 26 – Spurs at Home

March 3 – Away to Liverpool

March 6 – AC Milan at Home (Champions League Round of 16)

March 12 – Newcastle at Home

When the next 30 days have concluded, Arsenal could be still alive in two trophy competitions, and putting a little distance between themselves and the other contenders for 4th place in the Premier League, OR they could be out of everything except the Premier League, and could be looking up at as many as 6 clubs in the table, or, of course, they could be (as is more likely) somewhere in between. Every one of Arsenal’s next 6 matches is of great importance, as even their Premier League schedule includes two of Arsenal’s three main rivals for the 4th spot, oh and some other team from North London too.

Henry will soon be gone, back to New York, but Gervinho will be back (and hopefully without any mental or physical hangover from the ACN), as will Chamakh (of course, whether or not the return of the latter matters at all is a completely separate issue). Even though Mertesacker just picked up an injury at the weekend, it’s good to see Sagna back in the squad, and once Gibbs returns Arsenal will be able to field a squad that includes two center backs and two actual full backs for the first time in over a month. Though the return of Wilshere before season’s end may still be a pipe dream, the squad is nonetheless getting healthier overall, with Jenkinson and Diaby scheduled to return soon. Injuries seem to always be a story for Arsenal, but if Arsenal are to keep their run of Champions League appearances in tact, they have to be able to put injuries aside and get results with the players on the pitch.

It’s no excuses time for this Arsenal club. I don’t expect them to win all of their next 6 matches, but I do not think it unrealistic to expect them to move on in one of either the FA Cup or the Champions League, and to also keep hold of their current 4th position in the table. Let’s be honest, Sp*rs have a hell of a team this season, and are in great form, but Arsenal have them at The Emirates, and it’s not too much to ask for them to scrape a draw. In my view, the most important games will be away to Liverpool and Newcastle at home. Both are very winnable games, and honestly if Arsenal expect to finish the season in the top 4, they have to get 6 or 7 points out of their next three Premier League fixtures. All that’s left now is for Arsenal to go out and get the results they need. They face stiff competition, but if Arsenal want to continue to compete on a level with other top European clubs, and want to hang on to their best players, they have to go out there and win games over crucial stretches like the next month. No excuses.

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal – Match Reflection

Ian Kington / AFP / Getty Images

Reality Bites

Let’s get real. It might sting a little bit, and believe me, I want to do this even less than you, but it has to be done. Arsenal are 7 games in to the 2011/12 Premier League campaign, and sit 15th in the table. It’s time to take a look at who this team really is, and what we can realistically expect from them this season. Oh yeah, and they played some little game this weekend against Sp*rs, we should probably talk about that too. The only way I can stomach this match reflection is to break it down, so here’s the good, the bad, and the oh-so ugly from Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane.

The Good

For the second match in a row, Arsenal have had an unproven youngster emerge as one of the best players on the pitch. Mid-week against Olympiakos, it was Oxlade-Chamberlain; Sunday at White Hart Lane, it was the twenty year-old Frenchman Francis Coquelin. I thought it was telling that Frimpong played in the Champion’s League against Olympiakos, a game in which Wenger rested van Persie & Ramsey, and it was Coquelin who got the nod in the North London Darby. I’ve thought Coquelin has appointed himself well whenever given a chance, so I was glad to see him get the call, and as with The OC, he rose to the occasion. To my eyes, Coquelin was Arsenal’s most dynamic player on the pitch against Spurs, and especially in the first half he seemed to be everywhere on the pitch. He looked confident on the ball, covered back well on defense, and even held his own when pressed into duty as both right back (briefly due to Sagna’s injury, before Jenkinson came on) and center half (when Mertesacker moved to center forward in the waning minutes of the match).

Arsenal were the better team in the midfield, and as a result had the lion’s share of possession throughout. For stretches Arsenal put the Spurs defense under consistent pressure. The best stretch of sustained pressure led to Ramsey’s 51st minute equalizer, which was again created by Alex Song, as he drove deep into the box with the ball, and put a nice cross right on to Ramsey’s boot. Song again appointed himself well playing out of position at center half, and kept Adebayor in check all match long.

The Bad

Despite a good finish giving him the only Arsenal goal of the match, Ramsey never seemed to get in the flow of the game. Walcott also never got involved in the game. I’d have thought he’d play with a little more urgency after the performance that Oxlade-Chamberlain made in the Champion’s League.

The team again did not respond well to adversity, and seemed to wilt after van der Vaart’s opening goal. Speaking of van der Vaart’s goal, did he settle that ball with his chest or his arm? It’s no excuse for the poor defending, but that may have been a bad no-call. More on that goal later in the “ugly” section.

Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. It would be nice if just once Wenger didn’t have to burn one or two of his substitutes due to injury. This time it was Sagna who had to be replaced, giving was to the not-ready-for-prime-time-player Carl Jenkinson. It’s not Jenkinson’s fault, as he should have never been in the game, but he looked completely overmatched against Gareth Bale. Bale’s pace was far too much for Jenkinson to handle, exposing him repeatedly on the defensive right side. The worst news was that Sagna fractured his fibula, and will be out for three months. In years past, Jenkinson would not have even sniffed the pitch, except perhaps in the League Cup, but due to injuries and the overall lack of depth, Jenkinson has and will continue to play for the first team.

After the start to the season he has had, it’s a surprise to see Szczesny’s name in the “bad” column of the match report, but his overall strong performance was marred by the soft goal he gave up to Kyle Walker in the 73rd minute, which ultimately proved to be the decisive score. Walker’s strike was strong, but it was from far outside the box, and was a ball that we have come to expect Szczesny to get to. Let me correct myself, he did get to the ball, but it went straight through his hands, and we are right to expect better from the young Pole.

The Ugly

While the match was pretty ugly overall, it was ultimately again the defense that let Arsenal down. Again set pieces and secondary runs were Arsenal’s undoing, but this time Szczesny contributed an uncharacteristic howler for the winning goal. With a defense playing as poorly as Arsenal’s, it doesn’t matter how well Arsenal holds the ball, or how dominant it looks in the middle, because every counter attack looks as if it will produce a goal. This game was a perfect example that possessing the ball means nothing if you cannot finish consistently, and if your defense is a sieve. I think we all realize this by now, but this Arsenal team can concede a goal at any time, out of nowhere, so no one goal lead will ever be safe. What was so ugly about this weekend’s performance against Spurs was that for the large part of the game, Arsenal looked the better team, but they could not finish, and every time their defense was tested, it looked shaky.

Getting Real

The rational fan has now seen enough of this Arsenal team to realize that this is not a top-4 team in the Premier League. This looks to be a middle of the table team, which will do alright at home, struggle on the road, and be frustrating to watch all season long. We can hope for a cup run, and isn’t unforeseeable that this team could make it to the knockout round of the Champion’s League, but to expect anything more out of this year would be foolish. Wenger will again be faced with dire needs after the season, assuming nothing major gets done during the January transfer window. The team is thin all the way around, and to be able to compete in the Premier League, it takes more depth than Arsenal have. They simply cannot weather the injuries that they have had, and that every club has. You can blame it on bad luck to have lost Vermaelen, Wilshere, and now Sagna for long stretches, but I blame the club for not being prepared to weather the inevitable injuries. Again, the international break seems to come at a good time for the club, perhaps allowing Arsenal to get a little healthier, and attempt to shake off what has been an historically bad start to the season. Let’s all hope that we don’t pick up any more injuries over the international break, and get behind our team again on the 16th againstSunderland, because all we can do is keep marching forward.

Man Of The Match – Younes Kaboul (the difference in the match was that Spurs’ fill-in defenders rose to the occasion, while Arsenal’s did not)

He Deserved Better – Francis Coquelin (he was a bright spot, I can’t wait to see more of him, and likely will as he looks to have passed-up Frimpong on the depth chart)

Best New Dad – Jack Wilshere (Big congrats to Jackie Boy, who welcomed his first child into the world on September 29, 2011. Archie Jack Wilshere, a real gooner from the start. Now let’s all hope that the new daddy’s ankle heals quickly, please.)