Blog Archives

One Of Us Speaks: Arsenal Are Not A One Van Band

Big Al has knowledge of many things and as this post shows, some of them are dubious areas of life…

One man team? I doubt it.

But whatever, Robin van Persie is the most important player at the club this season. And there’s no shame in saying that, because he is outrageously good. It’s only natural that we should be building the side around him; it’s just the sensible thing to do. He’s on fire at the moment, and not in the itchy, John Terry kind of way.

No, like expert fluffers, the club’s going to be using everything at its disposal to keep van Persie hot – we don’t want to risk rubbing him up the wrong way and dousing his enthusiasm, nor do we want him burning too quickly, lest we end up with a bit of a mess on our hands. Horse placenta is sticky stuff.

I see Arsène Wenger as a grumpy patriarch tending a barbecue, fan and water-spray in hand, shrugging off barbecue novices who think they know better. On Tuesday night Arsène claimed that his decision to rest van Persie against Marseille didn’t pay off – I’d say it’s probably too early to know that; a draw and clean sheet wasn’t a disaster, we’re still in control of the group and van Persie got a chance to get his breath back after Saturday.

He needs to be rested at regular intervals, but the trouble is nobody’s going to agree when that should be. Every time he drops to the bench we’ll have to get used to hearing about “shock lineups”, “gambles” and, my favourite, “disrespect” for our opponents.

It’s going to be a real test for the manager to help him maintain this level; he’ll need foresight, prudence and the courage to make unpopular calls. No doubt he’ll be weighing up Prozone data (because it worked so well keeping Wilshere fit), and Robin will know now, more than ever, what his body can handle. International breaks won’t offer relief; the Netherlands will be trying to work out how best to use him in the build up to the Euros. A billion goals in 2011 hasn’t been enough to convince them he’s a striker.

The same principle applies to Aaron Ramsey’s form. It’s hard to pin down, but there’s something about the way he carries himself now he’s back on his game that takes me back to early-2010. It’s in his posture – he’s on the front foot again, bustling around, carrying the ball into attack and nicking it away from defenders. I don’t see him as a kind of deep-lying string puller, spotting passes from afar; Ramsey has to get stuck in, and maybe act more on instinct. It’s exactly what I think he’s been doing recently.

It’s another revival that needs to be managed carefully. I don’t want to dredge up what happened almost two years ago, but it seems so cruel that our player should only know be finding his touch again. After the initial injury heals there are less conspicuous physical and psychological barriers to overcome. Such is the ordeal and time lost that it makes you wonder what feats we might have achieved had that and the other assaults been avoided. On Wednesday he looked exhausted, and in the knowledge that Wales will be playing him on the 12th, it might be worth giving him a rest on the weekend

Vermaelen is another player who knows too well London Colney’s rehab centre. His case is a little different as the club feels that they’ve got to the bottom of what kept him out for so long. As you’d expect from the vice captain, he’s said all the right things about getting back into the side. But this is a man who has played just a handful of games in the last 18 months. He’s a defender who likes to win the ball early, and for this to work he’ll need to be in peak condition, so there’s a chance he’ll be vulnerable to lapses in form until then.

It might mean that the manager won’t have to worry about a selection headache in defence. With the need to keep everyone fresh, and as both Vermaelen and Koscielny could play on the flanks, there are enough games coming up to keep everybody happy.

So with a number of important players who need to be carefully looked after, perhaps the best way to see Arsenal is as a nebulous XX, not a granite XI. And I think this is great news.

For one, it suits members like Tomas Rosicky perfectly. This season he’s resembled his old self, but I don’t think he’s capable of more than one and a half matches a week. If he isn’t being called upon too often then he’ll be able to add something to any Arsenal side, knitting together midfield and attack, or sitting a little deeper to help keep possession.

Also returning from long-term injury, Benayoun’s another who would certainly benefit from a rotation policy. Against Bolton he looked like he was starting to mesh with the group. When he came on at home to Sunderland he did a great job of soothing the team’s nerves with some cool passing in the closing stages.

And then there’s the need to prepare for the scenario no Arsenal fan would want to contemplate: Park Chu Young really staked a claim at home to Bolton, but looked a little tentative against Marseille. He appears to be someone who does most things quite well; his movement’s pretty sharp, he’s shown himself to be a clever finisher and he appears to have a fair bit of pace. We’re yet to see him in the league, but the manager claims that he’s ready. As for Chamakh, I’m not sure he deserved to be chastised for his performance against Stoke. He won what should have been a penalty and did more legwork than was recognised.

So really, if the aim has to be to avoid the sort of two-tiered squad that we had last season, with undroppable first teamers and unpickable backups, then over the course of the season it should pay to have a set of players whose futures will be depending on regular rest.

’til Tomorrow.

Robin’s Batman To Theo’s Robin

The fixtures are coming thick and fast at the moment although a lull looms with the international break kicking in after the visit of West Brom to The Emirates. It is a headache for Arsène when those encounters will not include a Carling Cup tie, a match where he will automatically rest most, if not all, of the starting line-up from the previous Saturday. Arsenal have traditionally always played on a Tuesday for their midweek fixtures so the scenario is not new or unusual.

For the manager, the question is complicated by one of the more injury-prone players in the past displaying talismanic properties at the moment. van Persie’s absence in previous seasons is made more galling by the form shown now. The term ‘world class‘ is attached to any Johnny Come Lately in this media-defined era; van Persie has hardly burst onto the scene, more of a slow burner.

Like others before him, the Dutchman typifies Arsène’s reputation for buying cheaply and enhancing a player’s value. van Persie’s cost now must surely be a ten-fold increase on his £3m price tag six years ago. To think that he joined Arsenal six months later than originally intended because the club had a cashflow shortage due to the new stadium project.

That price tag was fuelled by ill-discipline, something he has worked hard on at the club latterly successful in this area. The stunning ignorance of those who inhabit the internet was highlighted with claims of a ‘Nazi salute’ at the weekend.

Any semblance of knowledge about the Dutchman’s personal life would have rendered the idea too contradictory to be believed; such is the desire of some to find scandal in any situation, this gained traction to the extent that the player had to issue a denial via his Twitter account. It is the negatives of this information age, where malicious lies and truths told with evil intent permeate via the electronic garden fence.

van Persie is still the subject of speculation over his future, you suspect that as he enters the peak years of his career such tribulations over his future will always continue. Like many, I take the view that even without the pressures that currently beset the club, van Persie should just be paid what he wants. More than his predecessors, I do believe he wants statements of intent from the club. The former captain wanted a flight home whilst his midfield compadre just wanted a bigger salary. No signings could change their minds. The Dutchman you feel – rightly or wrongly – is content at Arsenal, driven  by a winning mentality.

The perception of Arsenal as football club will do nothing to relieve these pressures, especially with Arsène joining those of us who doubt that Uefa’s FFP regulations have either the substance or substantial backing, to make them succeed. There are simply too many get out clauses and as Wenger pointed out, if Sion a small albeit wealthy, Swiss club has the will to fight the governing body through the courts, their bigger cousins will have no compunction in taking the same route.

All of this on a weekend when the soaring emotions of being an Arsenal fan came through. Such is the rollercoaster that at times you can be mistaken for an entrepreneurial Charon, refusing to take an empty boat back to the shores of the Acheron, filling it instead with the souls of disbelieving Arsenal fans ferrying them back to some semblance of belief.

Elsewhere, Theo Walcott is receiving some overdue praise. I have been critical of some performances and his shortcomings, Saturday proved that he has the talent and ability to overcome them. Having made Ashley Cole look distinctly ordinary, the expectations are there that Walcott will play that way every week. Unrealistic perhaps but he can play to some semblance of that level surely? That is not too great a level of expectation.

More than his actual performance, I was impressed by his intelligence. Stained by the ill-informed contempt of Chris Waddle, Theo cannot do right for doing wrong in some eyes. That is harsh; his goal showed an awareness that many never see, playing to the whistle whilst defenders stopped.

He wants to play centrally; it won’t happen in the foreseeable future at Arsenal and to some extent, performances such as the one at Stamford Bridge hold the key. Able to cut in from the wing, he can finish and create. Like van Persie some believe that he should not play centrally as the lead striker, feeding instead off a taller target man. Arsenal are not likely to play that way consistently and with his strength being pace, a wide position seems his immediate future.

As for Gervinho, well, Big Al did as much a job of making his Superman as anyone.

’til Tomorrow.

Robin’s One Ton Destruction Gives Arsenal The Points

Arsenal 3 – 0 Bolton Wanderers

1 – 0 van Persie (46)
2 – 0 van Persie (72)
3 – 0 Song (88)

Wheater sent off (55)

Arsenal grabbed three points and a clean sheet with a bits and pieces performance, the sort that is necessary to lift the slough which has engulfed the club. On it’s own, the win is not enough to achieve that aim, simply the first building block. If nothing else it has stopped the turgid mindset of those talking of relegation, for a week if nothing else. That could all return with an adverse result next Sunday, of course.

Hero of the hour was Robin van Persie, gleefully telling the world of his position as 17th player to score 100 goals for Arsenal before being knocked sideways with a dismissal of his leadership and a £30m bid from Manchester City. He might reach his next half century a mite quicker if he improves his finishing from set pieces, although he was a whisker away from scoring from Arteta’s firm touch.

It might all have been so different. Bolton capitalised on uncertainty in the Arsenal defence, Sczczesny clawing Pratley’s effort wide. A set-piece and Arsenal were almost undone. The nerves of the previous weekend had yet to be quelled. Wheater had nudged the ball wide before Gervinho found himself through but the leaden touch allowed Jaaskelainen to dim the opportunity. The Bolton ‘keeper had been linked heavily with Arsenal in the past and seemed intent on resurrecting those memories with some outstanding work in the visitors goal. Those moments were fleeting but enough to keep Arsenal at bay for spells.

The first half bustled to its conclusion, flickering into life with half-chances for Gervinho and Walcott whilst Koscielny found that shinning the ball into the net is more difficult than a clean strike of the ball. Halfway through the match, half the objectives achieved with a clean sheet looking likely. It left a lot of work to do in the Bolton half.

And immediately Arsenal set to work. Gervinho was felled on the edge of the centre circle, Ramsey took full advantage of a good refereeing decision to allow play to flow, finding van Persie who taunted and teased Muamba before beating him and Jaaskelainen at the near post. One minute not passed since the restart and a lead established.

It might have been two, van Persie denied and the game turned utterly in Arsenal’s favour with Wheater’s red card. It was not a debatable decision, Walcott had beaten the defender for pace and crucially none of the rest of the Bolton defence were anyway near fast enough to close the space, or create a perception of doing so. No matter how soft the foul, credit to Clattenburg for spotting and acting appropriately.

It changed the dynamic and Arsenal’s rise to the ascendant position in the match went unchallenged. Arteta, Sagna, RvP and Koscielny had efforts blocked, saved and denied before Walcott found space on the right, his cross was into the six yard area with enough pace to tempt Jaaskelainen but not enough to allow him time to gather. van Persie sensed the uncertainty and met the ball with a flick of his foot and goal number 100 had arrived.

Theo has clearly stated his intention of being a central striker in the future – and the now – but did his case harm with an outstandingly poor finish when clean through. It is easy of course to criticise from a distance but he had sold Jaaskelainen a perfect dummy with a cool finish into the corner waiting, instead tamely passing the ball toward goal, allowing the save to be made. It summed up Walcott’s afternoon when he tweaked a muscle and was withdrawn, scans will decide his availability for the coming matches.

As the whistle approached, Alex Song sealed the win, drifting into the area, fleet footed into space and curling home for the third.

The win does not signal a return to form or even hint at it. Three consecutive games scoring three goals shows something is right in that department, raising questions about defending generally with Samba and Cahill on the receiving end in the past two Premier League matches. At least that might have been the argument had the Bolton man played. The point is that such judgements are subjective, neither player is to blame for collective errors. Whilst it is possible to pin some blame directly on a player in some circumstances, no defender is entirely responsible for goals being conceded. Defending is a collective effort.

A clean sheet might instill some defensive confidence though, Wenger rightly highlighting the lack of confidence at the start. Whether the performance will heal that remains to be seen but a repeat in midweek will do no harm at all.

There is a predicted heatwave with sunny weather approaching. Perhaps Arsenal can mirror that with some winning performances in coming games.

’til Tomorrow.

One Of Us Speaks: The Parable of Robin van Persie

Big Al’s back and talking Dutch Masters

After falling foul of a strict corrective regime under Bert van Marwijk at Feyenoord, Robin van Persie slowly found his feet with us in a supportive environment where great care was taken to ensure that he was happy and comfortable on and off the pitch. As soon as he was treated like a grown up, he started acting like one. On the cusp of a season in which he’ll likely play a more central role than ever, his story offers a welcome antidote to the idea that we’re too soft with our young, budding talents.

This is from November 2004:

The way Arsenal take care of young players is incredible; they look after your family, they make sure your house or flat is in the right area. They have special people who are looking after us all the time. At London Colney ’s training ground you get trained to live the life of a top sportsman

Eight years ago, van Persie was the enfant terrible of Dutch football. He left his boyhood club Excelsior Rotterdam at 16 after falling out with the coaching staff. Then after breaking into the first team at local rivals Feyenoord in 2001, he spent much of the following three seasons in trouble with authoritarian manager Bert van Marwijk. Much of the drama sprung from being forced to play on the left wing and adhere to the manager’s rigid tactics.

A trawl through the Feyenoord news archives from this time is like reading the school reports of a nascent supervillain. When he wasn’t lighting up De Kuip with moments of breathtaking skill, he was prone to bouts of on-pitch indiscipline. These included baiting the manager in his goal celebrations, refusing to warm up properly during a crucial Champions League qualifier with Fenerbahce, openly trashing the team system, and consequently kicking his heels on the bench or moping around for the youth team.

He was also a divisive figure outside the club. One of the most dramatic incidents came when he turned out for the reserves at Ajax’s training ground, De Toekomst on 15th April 2004 – a dark day for Dutch football. At the final whistle of a customarily heated encounter between the old rivals, scores of Ajax hooligans stormed the pitch, and you can guess who they singled out for special treatment.

As the mob closed in, teammate Jorge Acuña jumped to Van Persie’s aid and spent the next few days in hospital recovering from bruised ribs and concussion. Robin took a couple of blows, swung back, and was eventually shielded from the melee by Marco van Basten, his future Oranje coach. After the incident he thanked Acuña for intervening, the Chilean midfielder shrugged it off with, “You’d have done the same for me”.

Prior to that, Feyenoord had been trying to find a new home for their precocious but troubled talent, who now had just over a year left to run on his contract. Mysteriously there weren’t many foreign takers for this young tearaway. Steve Rowley had been watching him on and off since his breakthrough in 2001, was convinced that he could be set straight and advised Arsenal to bid. A £5 million offer was rejected. That appeared to be the end of it, and PSV emerged as new favourites.

Even more strangely, after the brawl at De Toekomst, even domestic interest ebbed away. Feyenoord’s asking price was slashed and a new £2.75 million bid from Arsenal was accepted in May 2004.

It’s interesting to read that certain physical aspects of a player at a young age, e.g. running stance, are identified as an indication of how they will develop in their playing career. Could the same apply to mental development? Were the aggression and cockiness of van Persie then, a precursor to the focus and self-belief of today? Was this what Rowley had in mind when he ignored the cloud hanging over Van Persie’s young career?

van Marwijk followed RvP out the door that summer. Despite winning the UEFA Cup with the club in 2002, his lack of success in nurturing Van Persie – regarded by many as a superior talent to the emergent Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben – was seen as one of his major failures.

When it came to filling that precast bad boy role, RvP was a bit of a disappointment in his early Arsenal years. There was a silly red card against Southampton, a harsh sending off in the Champions League against FC Thun, and not much else, despite plenty of provocation most memorably from Chris Morgan and Andy Todd.

On the technical side, RvP’s career has come full-circle. In Feyenoord’s youth teams he started out as a shadow-striker with freedom to roam, which is very similar to the role he now plays, after spending a number of years on the right for Arsenal and the Netherlands. The video below is from 2000:

The technique is familiar – that unbending posture and implausible sense of balance. The big difference is free-kicks; his efforts eleven years ago were a little less violent and a little more lofted. Even when you look back at many of his classic efforts for Arsenal, like at Fulham or at home to Wigan in the Carling Cup, he strikes the ball with a degree of power but didn’t bludgeon them the way he does today. What’s also interesting is that his prowess from dead-ball situations is inversely related to his development as a goal-scorer. Could there be a certain quality that he’s cultivated as an efficient finisher that might hinder his direct free-kick taking?

It’s a minor quibble, as RvP as shown that he’s more than just a goal machine, with 26 of his 25 PL career assists coming in the last three seasons. This campaign should see yet more creative and goal-scoring responsibility as he drops deep to pick out runs by two of the fastest wide forwards around, and finishes moves with characteristic speed of thought and immaculate technique.

And there you have it – a blog about Robin van Persie that didn’t once mention injuries. What? Oh damn.

’til Tomorrow.

Arsenal At The World Cup #6: Robin van Persie v Ivory Coast 2006

Arsenal can have themed days, so can I. Robin van Persie Day continues with a stunning free kick against Ivory Coast during their Group C encounter in Stuttgart. More please this time around, Sir…

RvP, Arshavin & More Cesc Rumours

Andy Gray noted that Robin van Persie was the player that Arsene could least afford to lose. van Persie has the aspirations which match his abilities:

Arsene Wenger said at the end of this season, once I’d come back into the team, that ­people would have been talking about me like Lionel Messi if I had not been ­injured.  I can see what the ­manager meant when he said those things. But I still think I am not in the same class until I have gone a long period without an injury.

And I want to go through next season where I score 30 goals and have 20 assists. Only then I will turn around to the manager and say, ‘Yes boss, you are right’. But I admit that I have a massive desire to get to the level of Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo. And I’d rather do it today than tomorrow.

Last season, Arsenal played 55 competitive matches. van Persie was available for 20 of those, 10 goals and 8 assists were his ‘vital statistics’. The season before 20 and 13 respectively in 44 games. His target of 30 goals and 20 assists is more or less spot on, thought through rather than a ‘finger in the air’ estimate with no basis in realism.

Crucial to this though is fitness. The niggles which blighted his early years at the club are disappearing but the contact injury suffered against Italy is hard to avoid. As a ‘star’ player, he is targeted, the one to stop and as such is subjected to ‘robust’ challenges, frequently fouled. In those situations, he has to have the nous to avoid the tackle and the luck to avoid injury. The latter has certainly evaded him.

He has the desire to win:

I’m 26 and have won three trophies; the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup and the Charity Shield. Yes, I class that as a trophy too. It’s a one-off game with 80,000 people watching and a lot of pressure.

But it is not at any cost. He has principles and a style in which he wants to win:

I’ve always said that I want to win as many trophies as possible in my career, but not at any price. What I am trying to say is that I will work my socks off to get the maximum out of my career, but I won’t move to a club which does not play my style of football.

Of course I love silverware in my football career. But sometimes you can’t rush from A to Z.’’

Wise words. Too often, players move clubs to win trophies, only for it to backfire, the grass not always greener on the other side. One place van Persie will not be going is Real Madrid. He has tried hard to persuade Arsene to sign Rafael Van der Vaart. It would be a popular signing for Wenger to make but he has so far resisted the temptation:

Van der Vaart has said that, if Arsenal don’t sign him, I’ll have to join him in Madrid! But I don’t think that is for me. Real is a fantastic club but the speed of managers and players coming and going is frightening. It must give them neck ache, looking who is coming in and going out.  They have this philosophy: You did not win anything this year. There is the door and here is a couple of million to buy you off. Ready for the next purchase. I prefer the philosophy of Arsenal and Barcelona.

The last sentence will win van Persie few friends. They are a strictly no-go zone for any Arsenal player at the moment and no doubt those who criticise Arshavin and Bendtner will jump down the throat of the Dutchman for daring to allow the media the opportunity to portray him as an admirer of the Catalan club.

Arshavin is frequently chastised for his boyhood allegiance. However, people forget that this was Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team‘, the side everyone in Europe was talking of, managed by possibly the best player of his generation, playing the best football of their generation. They won the European Cup at Wembley and when Koeman scored, most of the crowd applauded and cheered. A lad in Russia would have been no different to those of us at the match.

Arshavin’s response to the question posed on his website was straightforward:

As a child I supported Barcelona, I do not deny that. Actually I continue to root for “Barca” in the Spanish Championship. As for the English Championship, I’ve always liked Arsenal, so when I had an opportunity to join this club, I happily agreed. So I’ve never seen myself as a player of any other English club. Again, I am a Gunner, and I am satisfied with everything.

I am not sure what more Arshavin could say. He has put to bed the recent stories of dissatisfaction, re-affirmed his loyalty once more to Arsenal. What more do people want?

Talking of Them, He is once more in the picture – roll on the World Cup when the football will actually knock this off the media radar. Apparently Arsenal will accept £60m despite not talking to anyone. Wait, no, it’s only £50m but They only want to pay £35m! Yesterday it was £42m. His price rises and crashes like a night on Viagra. Well, at least rising and falling like one anyway. Not that I’m any sort of expert, no.

Let’s go to our Spanish correspondent. What does he say? None of the above but They reckon that everything is Little Stevie Wondered and to be Signed, Sealed, Delivered in the next 48 hours so that Cesc can be presented as one of Their players before Spain depart for South Africa on June 10th.

’til Tomorrow.

TV Appeals As RvP Heals

The news that Thomas Vermaelen‘s red card at the weekend is to be appealed is welcome. If the Football Association accept the decision was fundamentally incorrect, the Belgian will be available for the trip to St. Andrews this weekend. How Martin Atkinson decided that it was a clear, goalscoring opportunity from behind the incident is beyond reasoning; his Assistant gave the penalty and had a clear view that Franco did not have the ball under control. He should have advised the referee of that fact; perhaps he did and Atkinson chose to ignore it which compounds the original error.

The danger for Arsenal is that the appeal may be deemed ‘frivolous’ which would double the original suspension. It is a risk although given the appeal is heard today, that seems unlikely as it is generally an additional punishment reserved for those who follow this course of action to allow a player to play in a match in the meantime. If the suspension is upheld, Wenger has cover. A partnership of Silvestre and Campbell seems unlikely given the respective ages of those players and the fact that Alex Song is a more than capable deputy. Any claim that we need more cover at centre back is frivolous; three of the four ‘first choice’ centre backs are out with injury and as Wenger observed, you cannot have six exceptional players for two places in the side, discontent will surface before long.

It strikes me that there is a genuine grievance about the suspension. Arsenal rarely appeal bans, although they have been out of practice as I read over the weekend that Vermaelen was the first Arsenal player to be sent off in 68 games. Given that the number of red cards accumulated in the first decade of Wenger’s reign, that is an impressive turnaround. We still appear to pick up bookings quicker than other teams, less Arsenal fouls tolerated, than those received, per caution. How much truth there is in that I cannot say since my anorak isn’t that big but that is my perception. Perhaps officials perceive that Arsenal fouls are most likely to have an element of retribution in them hence the apparent swiftness to display a card in those instances.

It was a day of general good news. Sol Campbell might have been less than flattered when Tony Adams described as a ‘big unit‘ but Robin van Persie‘s nearness to a return is a cause for celebration. A month away he may be Arsene but less than a fortnight ago, you were still telling us that it might well be mid-May before the Dutchman was ready. van Persie himself has noted that he needs to build his physical strength over the coming weeks but a return by mid-April puts him back for the last four Premier League games  and potentially the Champions League semi-finals should Arsenal overcome Barcelona.

There is an added benefit for Arsenal. Knowing that van Persie is close to a return puts pressure on the forward players in the team now. It keeps them on their toes, hopefully ensuring that the good form that they have shown in his absence continues. It is also good for van Persie to know that he may not necessarily walk straight back into the starting XI – although you would expect him to do so once he is fit enough – and it indicates that the squad is in a lot better shape than the naysayers would have us believe.

’til Tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: