Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arsenal Escapes with a Point Against Hull

Or...

Arsenal Robbed By Another Referee

What's the story to take from Saturday's match?

Depends on your perspective, I guess. Here's mine:

Arsenal is too big a club to drop points against Hull at home. Arsenal is too big a club to blame results on a referee decision that took place 75 minutes before the match ended.

Arsenal is too big a club to win just 2 of its first 8 EPL matches. And Arsenal is too big a club to be 11 points behind the league leaders at such an early stage.

Arsenal dominated the opening 15 minutes against Hull. Alexis Sanchez scored a fantastic goal to take the lead. Sanchez was miles better than any other individual player on the pitch. But Hull were a better team than Arsenal.

Hull were level within 5 minutes of Sanchez's goal. The referee missed a foul when Mo Diame pulled back Mathieu Flamini. But Arsenal also made 2 mistakes in the build-up.

Nacho Monreal played like a fullback thrust into an uncomfortable position. His timid "challenge" on Diame when the Hull player first received the ball was downright cowardly. It's the type of defending you'd expect from a player thrown into an unnatural position.

But luckily, Mathieu Flamini was in position to cover for Monreal. Flamini darted in front of Diame and was in a great position, but rather than booting the ball out for a throw or corner--with Diame (literally) on his back--Flamini bizarrely attempted to play a 5 foot pass to Mertesacker rather than clearing the danger. This is where "keeping the ball" goes wrong.

At the end of the day, I try to analyze what Arsenal can do better. It's useless to worry about what a referee could have done better. We have no control over referees. We have full control over ourselves. And Arsenal made two glaring, foolish mistakes on the buildup to that goal. Mistakes that got punished.

Diame's goal was in the 17th minute. From that point on, Arsenal only had 3 more shots on target.

Not good enough.

This is a tactical problem.

Hull set up with 3 center halves and 3 central midfielders. They simply clogged up any available space for Arsenal to try their preferred short, intricate passing game. And like we've seen so many times, Hull's pragmatic, negative, defensive approach neutralized Arsenal's attack quite easily.

Wenger praised Hull's defending post-match. I'm not sure why. Our new 4-1-4-1 formation is hopeless. Anyone can defend against it.

Arsenal spent more this summer than Hull have spent on their entire starting XI. It's not all about the money, as so many want to believe. Sometimes its about executing a game plan.

Arsenal rarely does.

Hull's second was scored just 31 seconds into the second half as Arsenal came out from the break complacent and lazy. Like a team who thought Hull's first goal was an unfair fluke. A team that deserved to be winning. An over-confident team.

Even after falling behind, Arsenal could not muster a shot on target until the 86th minute, when Sanchez's header was pushed out for a corner by Hull's 3rd string goalkeeper. Santi Cazorla, who had a poor match, took the set piece with his weak foot, overhit it, and Hull nearly countered for a victory-clinching 3rd goal. A miserable pass by Jake Livermore wasted a 2 on 1 opportunity.

When Sanchez received the ball in the center circle in stoppage time, Arsenal were lucky to still be in the game. He proceeded to dribble past multiple Hull players and find Danny Welbeck in a great position inside the box. Welbeck had great composure as he poked the ball in with his left foot.

At that point it actually looked like Arsenal could steal a win. Kieran Gibbs nearly scored on a cross to the back post but the Hull keeper saved it well. And on the very last corner of the match, the ball fell to Monreal in the box with no one near him but the Spaniard whiffed.

Poor preparation led to a situation where Arsenal was forced to play Nacho Monreal at center half. Poor motivation led to Hull's second goal just seconds after the second half began. And poor tactics have led to a toothless, predictable Arsenal attack.

Poor management continues to cost Arsenal a chance to win the Premier League. We can only hope Wenger will eventually recognize his mistakes and address them.

Problem is, there is a decade-worth of evidence suggesting he won't.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Interpreting Today's AGM

Arsenal's board and upper management met with the supporters today for the club's Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Last week I showed how Arsenal under-performs compared to similarly-valued clubs in Europe. I maintain that Arsenal's financial clout is strong enough to put together a much more competitive team than it does currently.

I am convinced Arsenal is under-achieving. Therefore I will analyze the answers given, as well Arsene Wenger's speech, at the AGM with a very high degree of scrutiny.

Chairman Sir Chips Keswick kicked it off with a question about the murky 3m fee paid to the owner's subsidiary company, Kroenke Sports Enterprises (KSE).

I will break down the question, and the answers (or lackthereof) provided:

1) Was competitive tender issued (meaning did KSE have to compete with other sports analytics companies for Arsenal's business)?  No, AFC did not make KSE compete for our business.

2) What specific services did KSE provide? A wide range of services.

3) Why were these services needed? Because it was of upmost importance.

4) Will there be similar future fees? Maybe, that depends.

Sir Chips answered just 1 of the 4 prongs of the question. And the answer he did provide was alarming. Not only could the chairman not describe with any specificity what services were provided, why they were important, or whether they would continue in the future--he also freely admitted that Arsenal did not force KSE to compete with other similar companies for the services rendered.

Everything about this answer is concerning. The chairman did nothing to ease supporters' fears that the owner has simply taken money out of the club in the form of this fee for nondescript "advisory services" to the owner's subsidiary company.

While Man City's and Chelsea's owners use their outside companies to try to artificially (aka fraudulently) beef up the income of their clubs due to FFP, Arsenal seems to be using club revenue to artificially beef up the value of their owner's other companies. When people complain about Arsenal's lack of ambition, this is what they are talking about.

When asked about the appointment of Stan Kroenke's son, Josh Kroenke, to the Arsenal board, Lord Harris replied:

Josh has a chief executive role in basketball, ice hockey and soccer teams in the US. He has a background playing basketball and football. He has knowledge and insight at the disposal of Arsenal FC.

It's true, Josh Kroenke is the chief executive of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids. But as far as his knowledge and insight goes, let's actually look at the Kroenke family's level of success with their 4 US sports franchises.

Stan Kroenke bought the Nuggets and Avalanche in 2000. He bought the Rapids in 2004. And he bought the NFL's St. Louis Rams in 2011. NFL bylaws prohibit any owner from being involved in the day-to-day operations of any other professional sports team, and therefore Josh was promoted to chief executive when Stan took over the Rams.

In over 40 combined seasons under Kroenke family ownership, their teams have combined for a total of 2 championships. 1, the Avalanche's Stanley Cup winning team of 2001, succeeded with the previous owner's players and and the previous owner's coach. The other, the Rapids' MLS Cup victory of 2010, was a team that finished 5th in their conference with a 12-8-10 record (to put that season in EPL terms, that's 44 points of 90 available, a success rate that is usually just good enough to finish in the top half of the table, but nowhere near the top 4) and the Rapids got hot in the Americanized playoffs to come out with an undeserved championship, when judging their season as a whole.

The Kroenke family has a record of sporting failure. I fail to see any positive insights and knowledge Josh Kroenke can offer as a member of the Arsenal board. I am disappointed to see him there.

Arsene Wenger, as always, gave a rousing speech to the audience, proclaiming he is proud of what his team has accomplished and urging the supporters to get behind their efforts.

Wenger: I know you (supporters) are ambitious, skeptical, and critical...I know we have 1 thing in common, we are loyal to this club and we love this club.

I liked this statement quite a lot. I have a very hard time with Arsenal supporters who perceive any criticism of Arsenal--be it the manager, the players, or the general ambition of the club--to be disloyal Arsenal 'hatred.'

If you believe that the role of the supporter is to be relentlessly positive, then support the club that way. There are others who believe criticism is necessary to prevent complacency and stagnation. Both sets of supporters simply want the club to be as competitive as possible, they just have different philosophies as far as how to get there.

The fact is there is no one way to support this club. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same goal. For Arsenal to be as good as possible for as long as possible. So even if you disagree with other Arsenal fans, respect their opinion and don't degrade them for it.

Wenger: We worked on different aspects to strengthen our side. We bought four players, we lost two defenders in Vermaelen and Sagna and bought two defenders in Debuchy and Chambers. We were able to buy as well Sanchez and Welbeck...I believe we have done remarkably well on the transfers. I agree we could have bought one more player, we didn't find him. We will try in December to rectify that because we are a bit short with the injuries we have. We will rectify that in the transfer market in January.

I agree with Wenger for a lot of this statement. The 4 players bought are quality players. But I am concerned with his statement that "we didn't find" the one player the club needed at the end of the window.

First, I disagree that only one was needed. We need 2, a center half and a holding midfielder, at least.

And if Wenger can't find anyone who can do a job, at the least as a reserve defender, maybe he should set his sights a little lower. Wenger is a mastermind of the transfer market, but this skill is somewhat marginalized by his ultra-cautious, reluctant approach. Sometimes, the club would be better served if Wenger was less picky and filled positions of need with one of the best players available, even if he believes that player to be worse than an alternative that might become available at a later time.

And as far as his promise to deliver the player we need in January, talk is cheap in October.

 Wenger: We've tried as well...to strengthen our prevention work for injuries...The team is united. They still lack a bit of confidence because we've been hit hard by injuries again. But this year they've been post-World Cup injuries. Ozil got injured on his own. We had Debuchy get injured on his own. We had Giroud who got injured at Everton from basically nothing.

More of the same, I'm afraid. Wenger has consistently held himself blameless for his club's devastating struggles with injuries every year. This time it's the World Cup's fault, not his.

When Wenger says an injury was caused "on his own" or "from basically nothing," he is saying these are non-contact injuries. The problem with that perspective is, we know fatigue causes injuries just as frequently as a hard tackle. The World Cup was not unforeseen. Adding more depth to the club to be able to rotate more players when others were fatigued and needed rest is the best way to combat fatigue injuries. Depth can keep a strong squad of players available for a longer period of time. Therefore, until the manager is willing to take on the larger burden of managing a bigger squad, I fear nothing will ever change on the Arsenal injury front.

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis then fielded a two pronged question about how the club could raise ticket prices when it sat on such a large sum of cash in the transfer window. Gazidis's justification for raising ticket prices was clear.

We make responsible and reasonable decisions. We understand the pressures. We have tried to take a balanced approach to competing pressures. We have relied mostly on commercial and broadcast increases (in revenue) to compete at the level we demand...Demand for tickets continues to far exceed supply.

It's really that simple, people. Arsenal continues to increase ticket prices because the demand for tickets continues to outweigh supply. Therefore, rather than letting scalpers earn a profit off of the secondary market that springs up when Arsenal keeps ticket prices too low, Arsenal has raised ticket prices to take full advantage of a high-demand product with a limited supply, like any rational business would.

Im not saying those who claim "we pay the highest prices in England, so we deserve a better team" are wrong. Not at all. I agree with that sentiment. But I understand the club's decision to increase prices in order to minimize the profits ticket dealers reap from on the secondary market. It's a decision any responsible business would make.

Gazidis also discussed how much cash was actually available at the end of the window:

There is an inaccurate analysis about cash available. We are not hoarding a vast cash balance. We do not try to broadcast our cash situation but the situation is more complex.

In back-to-back sentences, Gazidis says "we are not hoarding cash" and "we do not try to broadcast our cash situation." So which is it?

Understand that the club has a major incentive in keeping their cards close to their chest on this issue. Negotiating transfer fees only becomes more difficult when your adversary knows you're holding enough money to fund a small country's deficit in your back pocket.

Think critically about Gazidis's answer, and you understand his motivation to lie about/not reveal the true extent of Arsenal's cash reserves.

The good thing is, you can look at the numbers for yourself (and the bad thing is, so can the clubs we try to buy players from).

I used Bobby McMahon's excellent analysis on Forbes.com (and converted US$ to pounds) for all of the below figures.

First, for those fans who still believe the Emirates Stadium debt is the main factor holding back the club, look at what has happened to that debt in the last 7 years. The debt was at its highest in 2008, at 411m. Today the principal balance of that debt has been lowered to just 241m (largely due to the successful Highbury property development). The debt has already nearly been cut in half.

Annual interest on that debt is 13.5m, and Arsenal has paid 19.5m per year for the last few years, paying off 6m from the principal balance on a yearly basis. If Arsenal continued to pay off the stadium debt at these increments, it would take an even 40 years to pay off the principal in full. This is a payment plan that leaves enough income untouched to add much more quality to the team  every year.

Don't forget that Arsenal's annual revenue has exploded since the stadium was built. Matchday income doubled immediately, but progress on the commercial and broadcasting fronts, as the EPL becomes more and more popular worldwide, have driven this growth in revenue.

Look at how Arsenal's broadcasting, matchday, and commercial revenue has increased since the stadium was built:

Revenue source 2006/07 2013/14 % increase
Broadcasting 44 121 175%
Matchday 91 100 10%
Commercial 42 77 83%
Total 177 298 68%

Now let's look at how last year's 298m in revenue was used:

2013/14 REVENUE DISTRIBUTION


The debt payment costs Arsenal just 19m, only 6.5% of Arsenal's 298m revenue. The majority goes to wages, as you can see, but a very large portion of last year's revenue (75.5m) has not been spent.

The club already had 132.5m in cash reserves entering into last season. Add 75.5 more and the reserves equaled 208m when the financial report came out in June.

Here's the thing, if you thought last year's revenue was great, just wait until you see the numbers for this year. Commercial revenue has nearly doubled thanks to new deals with Puma, Emirates, and others. These deals will bring in an extra 70m in commercial revenue next year.

In addition, the 3% increase in ticket prices will bring an increase in matchday income, although not likely a 3% increase due to diminishing returns (i.e. tickets are more expensive, so purchasers are less likely to buy concessions or memorabilia on matchdays). A conservative estimate would be a 1.5% increase in matchday revenue this season. Broadcasting revenue will not rise unless Arsenal's position in the league table improves, or the club makes a deep run in the Champions League, and therefore is on more televisions than last season.

A conservative estimate of this year's eventual revenue would be the same broadcasting revenue as last year (121m), a 70m increase in commercial revenue (147m), and a 1.5% increase in matchday revenue (101.5m) for a 24% increase in total revenue (71.5m) to an astounding 369.5m.

It is impossible to know how that revenue will break down next season, because transfers could yet take place and new contracts could be handed out at any point. We do know Arsenal had a net transfer spend of approximately 64m this summer, and those players will add at most 15m to the wage bill.

Therefore lets look at Arsenal's projected financials, admittedly with some key, and probably unrealistic, assumptions (1: that we finish in the same positions in the EPL and UCL as last season, 2: that no new players are bought, 3: that no current players are given new, lucrative pay raises, and 4: KSE takes the same 3m fee for themselves as they did this year).

PROJECTED 2014/15 REVENUE DISTRIBUTION



The increased commercial revenue, despite a higher net transfer spend and a higher wage bill, has still increased. Unaccounted revenue should rise above the 100m mark over the next year.

Simply put, Arsenal is on track to earn enough money to invest more in the team. Much more. And Ivan Gazidis, wisely, wants to conceal this fact in order to better negotiate with other clubs for future transfers.

Late in the meeting, A supporter in the audience asked whether funds were available to further strengthen the defense this summer, and if so--why were these funds not used.

Sir Chips responded: The board backs Arsene Wenger 100% on football decisions. Its not up to me as chairmain to decide on football, not the fans, it's up to Arsene Wenger...If he has a plan we back it, if he doesn't have a plan we keep quiet.

Gazidis assured: We did not withhold cash reserves from the manager.

Wenger had no comment.

When many people bemoan the lack of ambition by the manager, this is what they are talking about. The board is, and have been, unequivocal in support of Wenger. They have been equally unequivocal, for years, about the resources available to him.

Therefore when Wenger doesn't use the club's significant resources to strengthen his team to the full extent capabale, many say it's because Wenger is not ambitious enough.

I do not agree with this notion. I believe Wenger is ambitious. I believe he wants to win trophies more than any supporter does. I simply think its a case of misguided priorities.

I think Wenger mistakenly values the unity and togetherness a small, tight-knit squad can create higher than the contingency and versatility a larger squad with more depth provides.

And I believe Wenger's mistaken priorities are the root of Arsenal's problems.

Therefore I continue to look forward to--and do not fear--the prospect of a new Arsenal manager in the near future.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Building a Champion

How long do we have to wait?

Arsenal, the 5th most valuable football club in the world, has gone 10 years without winning a European title or their domestic league.

I'm not saying "we don't win anything." I appreciated the FA Cup victory in May. I appreciated it in 2005.

I can appreciate the joy of winning a domestic cup while also understanding that a club at Arsenal's level should be winning more.

Compared to the most prestigious trophies--domestic league titles and European cups--success in a domestic cup is more random than a major trophy. Basically, small clubs can win domestic cups. Only big clubs can win major trophies.

Look at the number, and caliber, of clubs who have won domestic cups in the 4 major leagues (Germany, Italy, Spain, and England) over the last 10 years:

Domestic Cup Winners:

FC Nuremberg
Werder Bremen
Schalke
Dortmund
Bayern Munich (6 times)
Lazio (twice)
Napoli (twice)
Roma (twice)
Inter Milan (4 times)
Real Betis
Espanyol
Sevilla (twice)
Valencia
Barcelona (twice)
Real Madrid (twice)
Atletico Madrid
Arsenal (twice)
Liverpool
Chelsea (4 times)
Portsmouth
Manchester City
Wigan Athletic

That's 22 different teams for 40 available trophies. Of those 22, 13 are listed in the world's top 20 most valuable football clubs, just 59%,

4 clubs (Wigan, Portsmouth, Real Betis, Nuremberg) are not even currently in their own country's top division.

That 59% ratio suggests winning domestic cups has been far more random than winning more significant trophies over the same period of time. To make my point, I will compare that 59% level of economic diversity with the champions of each of these countries' domestic leagues over the past 10 years.

League Champions:

Bayern Munich (6 times)
Stuttgart
Wolfsburg
Dortmund (twice)
Juventus (3 times)*
AC Milan *
Inter Milan (5 times)
Barcelona (6 times)
Real Madrid (3 times)
Atletico Madrid
Chelsea (3 times)
Manchester United (5 times)
Manchester City (2 times)

* in 2004-05 Juventus forfeited the Serie A title as a penalty for match fixing. AC Milan finished second that season. Depending on your opinion, either team won Serie A that season. Since no champion has been officially acknowledged, I have not awarded a domestic league title to either team.

13 teams for 39 available trophies. and of those 13 teams, all but 2 are among the world's 20 most valuable clubs. 11 of the 13 are in that exclusive list, a rate of 85%.

Now let's look at the last 10 Champions League winners.

European Cup Winners:

Liverpool
Barcelona (3 times)
AC Milan
Manchester United
Inter Milan
Bayern Munich
Real Madrid

That's just 7 different teams in 10 years, and 100% of those 7 are included in the world's 7 most valuable clubs.

In total, just 11 clubs have won the 49 significant (domestic league titles and European championships) trophies over the past 10 years.

Clearly, club value has an extremely strong correlation with club success. And Arsenal, despite the club's strong financial value, has not enjoyed the same competitive success both in England and in Europe a their financial rivals.

I decided to plot this information on a graph to further illustrate my point. The below scatter plot shows the expected return (significant trophies) by club value (in millions of US$):


As you can see, Arsenal has vastly underachieved when compared to other similarly-valued clubs over the past 10 years, No club is further below the line of best fit than Arsenal. 11 clubs have won more significant trophies than Arsenal over this time period, 7 of whom have much weaker valuations.

The money is there, people. Even if Arsenal didn't have enormous sums of cash reserves in the bank (we do) Arsenal could easily take loans out against the strong value of the club to put a more competitive team on the field. There is no doubt, when looking at the numbers, that Arsenal could--and should--be winning more significant trophies than we have over the past 10 years.

SO PLEASE STOP USING OIL MONEY AS AN EXCUSE FOR ARSENAL'S SHORTCOMINGS.

The fact is Arsenal have the resources to put together a team with enough quality to win the EPL and the Champions League. We have possessed the necessary resources for a long time. And we have not used those resources effectively.

The only conclusion one can take is that Arsenal has underachieved for 10 years. And somehow, Arsenal have not changed managers during this period of blatant underachievement.

Many Wenger supporters have suggested the manager is striving to build Arsenal into some sort of Barcelona 2.0. That's why so many support "keep the ball" tactics  and so many are willing to accept losses. Somehow, a large portion of Arsenal supporters are willing to accept losses because they still believe that Arsene Wenger will be able to develop his team into an unstoppable force if he can get the time required to develop the club's culture in his vision.

Here's the problem. Teams like Barcelona don't take 10 years to produce results. They do require more than one manager to get there, however.

If we want to be the new Barcelona, let's actually look at how Barcelona developed.

Frank Rijkaard took over for Louis Van Gaal in January of 2003. In his second full season at the club, Rijkaard won La Liga. In this third, he won it again, and added a Champions League victory against Arsenal in Paris in 2006. 3 significant trophies in 2 years.

And then Rijkaard suffered two straight years without a significant trophy. He was sacked at the end of the 2008 season.

When people say Wenger is developing the "new Barcelona" they are presumably saying he can create a similar team to the treble-winning 2008-09 version of Los Blaugrana--Pep Guardiola's first year in charge.

Over the 10 years that preceded that Barcelona team, they went through 5 different managers, including two separate spells with Van Gaal.

The fact is, in aggregate, a new set of eyes adds value to a football club. Turnover at the manager position creates value. It normally does not hurt a club. In fact it is more frequently much more beneficial than destructive.

Situations like Manchester United's are not a warning sign. They are the exception to the rule. A tenure like Sir Alex Ferguson's, where one manager sustains success for an extremely long period of time, has happened just once. Every other big, trophy-winning club in Europe employed 3 or more managers over the past 10 years.

This makes sense. Football clubs stagnate when one manager is given too much time to attempt and reattempt and reattempt to implement their own personal ideals on their team. A new set of eyes is normally able to quickly address their predecessor's overlooked vulnerabilities, while maintaining the old manager's strengths, and win trophies as a result.

It's why Arsene Wenger's attacking philosophy brought so many great results during his initial years at Arsenal. Wenger took over a George Graham team that already knew how to defend. He taught the club how to attack. And in so doing created the best team England has ever seen.

But 10 barren years have shown that Arsene Wenger is not the exception to the rule. He is not without weaknesses. A new manager will be better equipped to address those weaknesses.

Rather than let the club stagnate, Arsenal needs to be brave.

Arsenal needs to sack the best manager the club has ever known. 

To move the club forward.

And build a champion.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time to Question the Manager

Forget the win against Galatasaray. The Turkish giants are somehow managed worse than us. 

Arsenal got knocked out of a cup, and took just 1 point from 2 matches (without leaving London) in less than 2 weeks.

Arsenal entered this season with a new-found emphasis on "keeping the ball," as if possession is the be-all and end-all of modern football. A 4-1-4-1 formation has been used with this directive in mind.

At the beginning of the season, while Mesut Ozil was rested after his World Cup campaign, most supporters believed this formation would be scratched as soon as "the world's best #10" came back. Ozil returned. The ineffective system has remained in place.

A late victory against manager-less Crystal Palace brought 3 points. And then the Gunners drew 4 matches out of 5, with the lone victory coming against a flu-ridden Aston Villa side in Birmingham.

Sunday's 2-0 defeat to Chelsea means this is Arsenal's 2nd worst start ever in Arsene Wenger's career.

The new formation has looked terrible. The lack of depth in defense and defensive midfield has been exposed. The best players in the team have been misused (Ozil in nearly every match) or quizzically dropped (Alexis vs. Spurs) in the name of "keeping the ball."

Arsenal has the third-highest wage bill in the Premier League--higher than Chelsea's this year and higher than Liverpool's last year. 

Arsenal is not in a transition period like Manchester United. Arsenal spent twice as much as Manchester City on new transfers this summer. 

And this Arsenal team is worse than every other Arsenal side in Wenger's reign that did not lose 8-2 at Old Trafford.

There is no excuse. Arsenal has underachieved for years. But this year, the underachievement is worse than ever.

The "strategy" to "keep the ball" is failing.

In the Spring of 2012, Arsenal kept an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation but instructed the defensive fullbacks to play conservatively and not get beaten. The result was a skyrocket up the table, catching the Sp*rs before they could remove their "Mind the Gap" shirts, and securing Champions League qualification when it seemed impossible.

That next fall, just after the addition of Ozil, the same conservative tactics remained. And Arsenal enjoyed good results, leading the table for most of the year until January.

But as the fixtures got more difficult, that defensive solidarity was abandoned for some reason. Suddenly all that mattered was scoring goals, and the fullbacks both pushed forward with reckless abandon whenever Arsenal had the ball, leaving gaping holes at the back.

Results suffered. 

Humiliating losses at City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Everton pushed Arsenal back down to 4th place. 

But rather than blaming the over-aggressive, foolish deployment of the fullbacks, Wenger was able to deflect the blame onto an inability to "keep the ball" in midfield.

The rest of the Arsenal players (and a majority of the fanbase) echoed the manager's viewpoint. All of a sudden, keeping the ball was Arsenal's #1 form of defense. You can tell this by examining the criticism of players like Mathieu Flamini.

Flamini, the only midfielder in the entire Arsenal squad with even the slightest amount of defensive ability, has been blamed for goals conceded because he sometimes loses the ball in midfield. 

Admittedly, when he does lose the ball, there are so few players in defensive positions behind him to clean up the mess that it does lead to goals.

It's true, in the current tactical setup, players like Flamini keeping the ball at all times is crucial to prevent the concession of goals.

But this in England, not Spain. 

Players get kicked, Fouls aren't always awarded. And every player in England, no matter how good their first touch is--or how quick they can find an accurate pass, will sometimes lose the ball in midfield. 

The recent past has proved that a more conservative approach with the Arsenal back-line has brought defensive solidarity while also preserving the potency of Arsenal's attack.

So rather than blaming midfielders who can actually defend, like Flamini, for goals conceded, Arsenal's manager, players, and fans should be concerned with the obvious vulnerabilities of Arsenal's foolishly open tactical system.

But the collective conscious of the club has become obsessed with "keeping the ball," justifying this new, ineffective formation.

And simply put, these tactics are awful.

I cannot rationalize Wenger's decision to abandon the conservative defense-first approach that worked so well in 2012. He has been more conservative this year, but in the wrong areas. And in so doing he has marginalized the most considerable amount of individual talent (Ozil and Sanchez) that is available to him.

Arsene Wenger is misusing the resources available in order to implement his own ill-conceived philosophies, rather than utilizing a system that maximizes his players' qualities. Wenger's system is failing to provide his team the best chance of winning matches.

And at the end of the day, getting the most out of the players available is Wenger's job.

Frankly, Arsene Wenger does not do this job as well as his competitors. 

And therefore, Arsene Wenger remains the single biggest liability holding back Arsenal FC. 

Just 2.5 more years to wait.

Monday, September 22, 2014

EPL Roundup: Arsenal Build Momentum as Rivals Slip

Any memory of last week's terrible trip to Dortmund should be well and truly forgotten after Arsenal thrashed Aston Villa at Villa Park 3-nil on Saturday. The Gunners scored 3 first half goals in 3 minutes to end the contest before half-time.

It was a very encouraging performance from Arsenal, who were without a doubt aided by a horrible illness that had struck many of the Villa players before (and during) the match. Still, Villa threatened early and might have taken the lead if not for a great save from Szczesny on a Villa set piece.

Arsenal had conceded a goal from their first shot on target allowed in all four of their opening Premier League fixtures, and with Ciaran Clark unmarked on the far post, it looked like it was going to be five out of five. But Szczesny did really well to save and keep the clean sheet.

Ozil finally played further forward in a central role, and he responded with his best match of the season so far. Playing just off of new striker Danny Welbeck, the two combined excellently for the first two goals. Welbeck played in Ozil with a great through-ball assist on the first, and Ozil responded with a perfectly-placed cross to Welbeck for the second. When Kieran Gibbs put his cross in a dangerous area in the next attack, Aly Cissokho put it in his own net.

It was a great response by Arsenal after being, frankly, played off the pitch at Dortmund in midweek. And afterwards, Arsenal supporters watched with glee as each of their rivals dropped points in the ensuing matches.

First was Liverpool, who fell 2-nil down in the first 10 minutes at West Ham. a Raheem Sterling rocket made it 2-1, but a late finish by Morgan Amalfitano clinched 3 points for the hosts.

The Liverpool defense is in shambles at the moment. They conceded on an early set piece for the second straight match just as they did a week ago at home against Villa.

Then new "left back" Alberto Moreno allowed Diafra Sakho far too much time and space in the box and he responded with a fantastic chip into the far corner. Moreno had a great goal against Spurs, but he has looked downright clueless defensively.

Right back Javier Manquillo hasn't been much better. And Dejan Lovren, who cost about as much as Mertesacker and Koscielny combined, has also struggled. And of course Steven Gerrard is struggling yet again to be the "shield" in front of these new players. Liverpool had just the eighth-best defensive record in the league last year, they spent over 35m on new defenders to fix it, and they somehow got worse.

Brendan Rogers was forced to add a third center back after just 20 minutes, but it wasn't enough to get the two goals he needed. Liverpool is now in 11th, losing 3 of their opening 5 matches.

Then on Sunday Manchester United looked like they had taken confidence from their thrashing of QPR last week into Leicester. Their shiny new expensive toys were looking great, Falcao made a great assist and Di Maria scored an incredible chipped goal to go 2 nil up. Leicester when right down and scored from the resulting kickoff.

When Ander Herrera made it 3-1, it looked like game over. But the Foxes responded with 4 goals to win 5-3. The best part? All the United players in utter shock when a foul wasn't given their way in the build-up to Leicester's second goal.

Manchester United had just found out what it was like, for so many years, to play against... Manchester United.

Like Liverpool, United have some serious problems in defense. Like Liverpool, part of the problem is a lack of protection from midfield. Their simply isn't enough balance in the United team. They don't look good at all right now. Ed Woodward's thoughts on the matter? "Maybe we need another striker."

And then Chelsea faced Man City at Eastlands. The Blues scored from a good counter attack after Zabaleta had been sent off, and it looked like Chelsea's perfect start to the season would continue.

But Diego Costa hit the post when he might have scored, and Chelsea were eventually undone by none other than Frank Lampard, whose late volley was enough to secure a draw for City and keep Chelsea from opening up a sizeable gap on the competition.

I've never been so happy to see Frank Lampard score a goal in my life.

Arsenal will take a huge amount of momentum after seeing everything go their way this weekend into the North London derby* Saturday. Next up, however, is a Capital One Cup match for the reserves against Southampton tomorrow night.

* to top off the hilarity, the Spuds lost 1-nil at home to West Brom on Sunday, who were bottom of the league heading into White Hart Lane. Not exactly a title rival slipping up, but icing on a very delicious cake

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Leicester Reveals Weaknesses, Will Welbeck Fix Them?

2 days ago, Arsenal was lucky to take a point from a trip to Leicester.

The finger was pointed at Yaya Sanogo in his first game since Giroud's injury. Sanogo's touch and decision making was poor, as attack after attack ended with him.

To be fair to Sanogo, I thought he was scapegoated somewhat. He was getting the ball constantly because he was working hard, making good runs into good positions, but he struggled to deal with the physicality of Liam Moore and Wes Morgan. But young Yaya was far from the only Arsenal player to have a poor match.

Most of the team struggled Sunday. Mesut Ozil put in a completely forgettable shift on the wing, and Aaron Ramsey's passing continued to be over-ambitious and wasteful.

The tactics employed (a 4-1-4-1 which looked more like a 4-1-5 as all 4 attacking midfielders pushed forward without caution) didn't help our cause either. I feel Wenger is perhaps too worried about scoring goals, especially now that Giroud is injured until January, and he instructed the team to push recklessly far forward. Flamini was the lone anchoring midfielder as the rest of the "midfield" didn't seem to have any defensive responsibilities. The gap between was enormous. On top of that, both fullbacks were encouraged to push forward as well, which left the team very vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Indeed, Leicester's goal came on the counter just a few minutes after Alexis Sanchez scored the opening goal. Leicester's Jeffrey Schlupp caught Debuchy out of position and bombed down our right flank, and his cross found Leonardo Ulloa who headed home with ease from a great position over a dazed and confused Laurent Koscielny.

Frankly, Koscielny should not have been on the pitch for the goal. He was finally subbed off shortly after, but he clearly was not at his best and the team paid the price. Had Koscielny been subbed off as soon as the injury occurred, Callum Chambers would have come in and Mertesacker would have slotted into Koscielny's spot in the left-center of the defense. Not only might Chambers have been more quick to defend Schlupp's cross, Mertesacker would surely have been more alert to Ulloa's position to defend the header.

Either way, the Leicester equalizer came from a mistake from the Arsenal sideline. The tactics and the decision to leave Koscielny on when he needed to come off were punished by the home side.

Leicester were dangerous on the counter for the entire match, to be fair, even after Koscielny had subbed off. Ulloa missed a golden chance to take the lead after Chambers slid in naively and missed the ball. And Szczesny made a fantastic late save which saved two points. But fingers were pointed at Sanogo as the focal point of the Arsenal attack.

Arsenal dominated possession but failed to create many good chances. Of Arsenal's 24 shots, over half were blocked by Leicester's defenders. The build-up was too slow, too predictable, and not wide enough to open holes in the Leicester defense.

The away fans sang "Sign a f-ing striker" to Wenger when the match ended, and Wenger obliged yesterday.

We've signed Danny Welbeck.

"Not good enough!"

"20 goals in over 120 appearances!"

"Man United has never sold us a good player, its Silvestre all over again!"

Now, I'll be the first to admit I'm never afraid to criticize Wenger and the club (just look to my analysis of our tactics against Leicester above). But sometimes I think a portion of Arsenal supporters are bound and determined to never be pleased, no matter what.

The fact is, Welbeck had the 4th highest goals/minute ratio in the EPL last year, despite most of those minutes being out on the wing. He's an experienced England international and he's just 23 years old. He is proven in the Premier League and could really grow when given an extended period of time in his favored center forward position. Time he will get at Arsenal thanks to Giroud's injury.

Welbeck is a huge upgrade on Sanogo, and for those complaining about the fee, he cost just 4 million more than Shane Long. He was roughly half the cost of Romelu Lukaku, and brings nearly all the same attributes. He's extremely athletic, strong enough to hold off defenders and fast enough to run by them. He links up well with midfielders. He works very hard for the team. And he scores goals from the center forward position.

18 months ago Daniel Sturridge, aged 23, moved to Liverpool from Chelsea for 20m after a series of underwhelming performances on the wing for the Blues. When given a chance and an extended period of games in his favored position, he became a 20-goal a season striker.

I don't see any reason why Welbeck can't make a similar leap.

Arsenal may have underwhelmed a large portion of its fanbase last night (and some would say the anger was directed more towards the club for neglecting to add defensive cover to the team--but more on that to come later this week). At the end of the day, the most pressing need for Arsenal was at forward, due to Giroud's injury. We desperately needed a striker who could play right away. We got one from a Premier League rival, on a permanent deal, who is still young and should be able to contribute immediately.

Welbeck is a fantastic signing for this club and I'm delighted we've signed him.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

5 Stages of Grief: Manchester United Edition

Imagine you spent your summer supporting Manchester United.

If you're like me you probably want to stick a knife in your eye right now. I don't blame you. But stick with me, it isn't reality. This is all hypothetical. Just pretend for a few minutes.

You had just suffered through your club's worst season in the Premier League era. You put all the blame on 1 man who had been at the club for 9 months, David Moyes. You were eager and more than willing to throw Moyes under the bus. And you suddenly felt better.

Next up was Louis van Gaal, a man who had won things everywhere in Europe. Problem solved! Soon you'd be back on top!

Imagine yourself watching the World Cup, thoroughly impressed by your new manager as he coached Holland. Imagine your glee when his team annihilated the defending champions 5-1 in their first match.

You watched each Holland match and got more and more excited, convinced that the new boss was a genius who would easily fix all of Moyes's mistakes. He'd do it in his first training session!

You loved the new tactics, 3 at the back with wing backs pushing forward. You told yourself "Valencia can be twice the player of Daryl Janmaat!" And "Holland's center halves are nowhere near as good as Evans, Smalling, and Jones--consider the defense fixed!"

Manchester United destroyed teams in their preseason tour of the US, and your expectations grew and grew with each demolition. Surely the famous Guinness International Champions Cup was the first of many trophies you'd win this year!

You loved the new signings. Luke Shaw was the British Roberto Carlos! Forget Pogba! You had Herrera!

And then the injuries piled up. Shaw, Valencia, Evans, and Carrick were all out for the opening match against Swansea. Van Persie wasn't fully fit yet. But surely you'd still win! Nothing could stop this team!

And when United lost to Swansea, you made excuses. You were in Denial.

The injuries, the new tactics, the commercial tour of America as opposed to a proper preseason. "Our best players are all injured, we just need time," you told yourself. "It will all turn good, I know it."

But then you watched United draw with Sunderland on Sunday, and your confidence began to falter. Van Persie was back, but you still weren't creating chances. And you couldn't defend either.

You became Angry. Some winger named Will Buckley ripped you apart in his first ever Premier League match. Who the hell is Will Buckley? What is going on?

You took out that handy pitchfork, on which you so satisfyingly skewered Moyes in April, and pointed it directly at executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

"Woodward you imbecile! We need better players! You said you had all that money to spend, so spend it!"

The Bargaining began. If you just had better players, world class players, that would fix the problem. Woodward needed to get those world class players right away.

Woodward obliged. Yesterday it became clear you would soon have Angel Di Maria in your ranks. What a player! The man who single-handedly won the Champions League!

"Who cares what he costs? Who cares that he doesn't fit in the 3-5-2? Angel Di Maria is twice the player Ronaldo ever was!"

You were excited when you woke up this morning. You watched with glee as Di Maria held up that gorgeous red Chevrolet shirt. You thought you might go out and buy yourself a pickup truck.

Next you'd watch United build their confidence by thrashing some lower league team that you hadn't ever heard of in the Capital One Cup. It was all set up for a wonderful Tuesday.

Never in your wildest dreams did you think United would get embarrassed 4-nil. To MK Dons.

Suddenly you are humbled. In 10 days, the club you support looks nowhere near challenging for the title and you've already been knocked out of one of the cups. In 10 days, all of that excitement--from van Gaal at the World Cup, the new signings, the great preseason form--its all gone.

You hit Depression.

There is only one more step to go.

Acceptance.

The fact is, your beloved Sir Alex left behind an awful squad of players. The club is paying a long-term price for Ferguson's last grasp at glory.

Your defense was getting worse by an average of 5 goals per season over Fergie's last 3 years. The unit declined as Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evra aged. The signings of Smalling, Jones, and Alex Buttner didn't fix the problem. The weakness grew.

Sir Alex also allowed the midfield to deteriorate. Fergie converted Giggs into a center mid and brought Scholes out of retirement instead of letting his younger players get valuable experience and grow.

Even when Sir Alex played younger players, he played the wrong ones. He played Tom Cleverley and Anderson ahead of Paul Pogba, so Pogba left. Now United can't give Cleverley and Anderson  away as no club will take them, and Pogba is the best young midfielder in the world.

United's squad was nowhere near good enough to compete for any trophies last season, and they still aren't good enough right now.

Time to accept it.