Wednesday
Jun082016

Vardy approach reeks of desperation

As Arsene Wenger enters the final year of his contract, he has reacted predictably to the mounting pressure he was put under last season by making two unusually early entries into the transfer market. Going into next season with the same toxic atmosphere is not an attractive proposition for a manager that badly needs to get off to a good start. Wenger is therefore banking on early signings changing the mindset of a large proportion of Arsenal’s fan base well in advance.

Another reason for his panicked state of mind is that Ozil and Sanchez have still not signed their contracts and Wenger desperately needs them to put pen to paper. If neither signs a new deal this summer, it would hardly be a ringing endorsement of Wenger’s management going into next season, and Arsenal would have to sell both players within the next 12-14 months.

Approaching Vardy seems a somewhat desperate act on the part of Wenger. Whether a brainless solution to a connundrum Wenger is at a loss to remedy or a despairing final throw of the dice designed to appease supporters and placate doubters in his squad before throwing the towel in, the decision is seemingly based on a knee-jerk response rather than a proactive tactical strategy.

Personally, I don’t see how Vardy fits into Arsenal’s system and I don’t see Wenger adapting his system to incorporate Vardy. As we all know, Wenger doesn’t do tactics. He incorporates a system of play that lives and dies by the functionality of the players within it. There may be a couple of games a season where Wenger demands a different approach (Bayern/Barca), but it inevitably fails when the players succumb to mental fatigue.

Are we supposed to believe that the perpetually inflexible Wenger will suddenly adapt Arsenal’s entire system to suit Vardy or that the Englishman will play merry-go-round with Giroud depending on the opposition? I doubt it. The system will stay the same and Vardy will have to adapt, probably out of position on a flank, hanging off the shoulder of the last man.

However, we’ve seen signs that, even within a system built around Vardy’s undeniable counter-attacking strengths, he was not nearly as potent when teams started to adapt to Leicester’s style of play. Towards the end of last season, Leicester faced more defensive opposition, which had a negative impact on their ability to score goals. The Foxes mutated from being a devastating counter-side team to one that relied on its defence to squeeze out wins.

Vardy increasingly became a spectator on the pitch, scoring just 4 goals in open play from his final 10 games. For England recently, against deep-lying Portugal, Vardy only managed 8 touches in 66 minutes. His pass completion rate is a laughable 64.3% - statistically one of the worst of any player in the Premier League. For a laptop manager that has spent 10 years making robotic decisions based on statistics and moulding players into a system constructed on the principles of pass and move, siging Vardy would be a mind-boggling paradox.

Chucking long balls over the top won’t work because opposition teams already know that defending deep and counter-attacking Arsenal is the most effective method of securing a result. And if Arsenal sit back, that does not compel other teams to attack, you just end up with a tedious stalemate.

One would also have to question whether Vardy - at 29 years of age - has the technique or intelligence to adapt to a possession-based style of football. While it’s true that Vardy has a work rate and aggression that is completely absent in a player like Walcott, for example, he already possessed those characteristics in 2014-15 yet only scored five goals. It's therefore logical to conclude that work rate and aggression were only a minor factor in Vardy's prolific goalscoring record last season, more important was to implement a system tailor-made to his technical and physical attributes.

Besides, the deal is not done yet. Embarrassingly, Vardy - who was playing Conference football four years ago - has requested time to think over his decision. He clearly has nothing to lose in terms of attracting attention going into the Euros and Liverpool are also rumoured to be interested. It’s possible Vardy is prepared to wait to see if Liverpool can secure funds by offloading Christian Benteke to West Ham, assuming Jurgen Klopp can entice him with higher wages than Arsenal are willing to pay.

I don’t know much about Granit Xhaka – signed for approximately £30m from Borussia Monchengladbach. On paper, he is exactly what Arsenal need – a robust deep-lying creative midfielder. However, his disciplinary record is horrendous, which raises obvious question marks over his temperament and ability to read the game. He may need taming in a league as fast, cynical and heated as the PL.

In other news, Jose Mourinho has made his first signing as Man Utd manager, the hot-headed but powerful and technically proficient centre-back Eric Bailly. The 6’2” African is just 22 but was an ever-present in the Villarreal defence last season. Pep Guardiola has also signed his first player for Man City, £20m midfield general Ilkay Gundogan, and has now sets his sights on prolific 26-year-old Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Jurgen Klopp is apparently interested in taking ex-Arsenal centre-back Thomas Vermaelen to Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Everton have wasted little time flexing their new-found financial muscle, prizing manager Ronald Koeman away from Southampton for £5m. Koeman’s 9th managerial role, the Dutchman’s 54% win percentage towers over former manager Roberto Martinez at 39% and is better than Arsene Wenger’s too. One might put this down as yet another opportunity lost.

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Wednesday
May042016

Leicester's legends/Alexis summer exit?

It’s hard to believe that as I sit here writing this Leicester City are the Premier League champions. Arguably, what Claudio Ranieri and his players have achieved is the biggest shock in the history of English football, maybe world football, although I’m not educated enough to know about what's happened in every other country to claim that.

When Nottingham Forest won the First Division championship in 1977-78, having just been promoted from Division 2, it was an astonishing achievement but they were very much seen as an underachieving club and at least had positive momentum on their side.

But Leicester have battled very different odds, and you can’t really compare football today to then. The pace of the game means that far more physical demands are placed on the players so you have to utilise a bigger pool, which requires squad depth. Unlike 40 years ago, the massive financial disparity means that the big clubs in England can pick from some of the best players in world football.

Yet Ranieri somehow managed to cobble together a team of warriors and utilised his vast experience to guide them step by step to the peak of the Premier League, winning the competition with two games to spare.

English football should thank Leicester for what the club has done for the game, shattering the financial cartels that are in operation and humiliating those who labour over financial excuses, proving that spending insane amounts of money is not necessarily the only route to success and 'poor' clubs can compete with their cash rich peers.

Although some have said that Leicester have achieved the “impossible”, Atletico Madrid are not far behind. Despite having a much higher profile and a much weightier history, the Spanish club is achieving miracles on an annual basis. They won the Spanish title with a wage bill of £54m – only £6m more than Leicester’s - and challenging for major trophies has become an annual event.

However, what Leicester’s achievement does show is how, for many clubs, money has actually become an OBSTACLE to success. In their desperation to compete and stay at the top, clubs have spent vast sums of money, wrecking stability and team unity. As Leicester City have proved, if you want to challenge the best and succeed, the same footballing tenets remain: strong defensive discipline, tactical awareness and a team mentality that ensures you are stronger than the sum of your parts. Having a good manager helps of course, but Leicester, and Chelsea in recent years, have also proved that changing managers can lead to instant success if the right conditions are in place.

Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd should all hang their heads with shame at their underachievement this season. All three clubs have the financial might to provide the best possible infrastructure for their players and the resources to cherry pick the best footballers and managers from the four corners of the globe (expensive or otherwise).

As we know, Arsenal are a law unto themselves and have become a stale, boring, dead club whose manager has failed from every conceivable angle. Every lame excuse Wenger has come up with over the last decade has been trampled to dust by the success of a multitude of other clubs around Europe with far fewer resources and better managers.

Despite the Premier League being pretty awful to watch for the most part this season, Leicester have made what was expected to be a tedious and predictable season a fascinating and memorable one. Tottenham should also be applauded for their contribution. If it wasn’t for them, Leicester would not have had a challenger.

I watched Spurs’ hopes vanish in smoke on Monday night against Chelsea in spectacular fashion. Albeit entertaining, it was, at times, a brutal and ugly game. A very young Tottenham side became embroiled in the heated, supercharged atmosphere. Realising the title was slipping away – and with no margin for error, they were reduced to committing some reckless fouls, albeit mostly tactical.

Many Arsenal supporters will, and have, ridiculed Tottenham’s failure last night, but will secretly be envious. Spurs clearly have a far superior manager, their season was competitive to the very end and the players have a passion and spirit that is completely absent in their North London neighbours.

To me, Spurs are not the enemy - they're just another football club. I have found their football entertaining at times this season and applaud the job Mauricio Pochettino is doing. However, like Leicester there is no doubt that they have benefitted from the underachievement of their peers.

The Wenger/Kroenke Out protest at the Emirates on Saturday was a damp squib because there were around 10,000 empty seats vacated by unhappy supporters, of which a significant proportion probably would have protested had they bothered to turn up.  It gave the illusion that Wenger has far more support than he actually does, something he has already latched onto in a desperate bid to manipulate everyone's perception of him. 

Unfortunately, the clown will still be at Arsenal next season, but hopefully we’ll see a continuation of protests that will become better organised, bigger and louder, wearing him down and making his position untenable as he hopefully comes to the end of his tedious reign in 2017.

Alexis Sanchez’s behaviour on Saturday was strange. A team player, always positive – he stormed off the pitch when substituted in the 84th minute. Arsenal were winning 1-0, he had played most of the game and it was out of character because there was no logical reason to behave like that - unless of course this is the beginning of him trying to engineer a move away from the club.

As I warned a couple of weeks ago, Wenger has let down Sanchez and Ozil by not surrounding them with players who can help them fulfil their potential. By not signing their contracts, they are clearly not committed. If Wenger stays, I predict they will leave before long.

Sanchez’ behaviour, and the lack of an explanation, could be nothing or a lot more than nothing. His body language will be interesting in Arsenal’s final two games.

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Wednesday
Apr272016

Arsenal board setting their demise in motion

Leicester City hammered Swansea on Sunday and Tottenham slipped up against West Brom, drawing 1-1. Spurs were unlucky by all accounts, but with so little margin for error the dropped points are an almost fatal blow to their title ambitions.

I didn’t think Leicester would miss Jamie Vardy that much against Swansea, because he doesn’t score very often playing against teams that defend deep.

The title will go to Leicester if they can win one of their remaining three games. However, I hope it’s not against Man Utd on Sunday because I want Man Utd to come fourth and knock Arsenal out of the Champions League spots.

Being out of the Champions League has no effect on Arsenal supporters because Wenger is such a tactical dimwit he has 0% chance of competing for the competition and the revenue Arsenal make from it is rarely spent anyway. But it will pile more pressure on Wenger and the board, and that’s what I want to see.

Long overdue protests are now planned for the home game against Norwich on Saturday - in the ground. The stadium looked half empty against West Brom last week, so it will be nice to see even fewer people turn up, and many of those that do protesting.

Fan groups such as REDaction and the Black Scarf Movement are set to give signs for supporters to hold during the match protesting against Wenger and owner Stan Kroenke’s farcical lack of ambition.

Some say this will have an adverse effect on the players, but the club is more important than the players and the club needs change.

The players also need change. They deserve a manager that can help them realise their potential and make the most of their careers, so you could argue that supporters protesting during the game is for the players’ long-term benefit.

As supporters, we should always think of Arsenal FC as a holistic institution, and how that institution is governed is more important than anything. If it’s overseen by individuals that first and foremost only care about stuffing their pockets with your money, then they need to be removed.

Gazidis, Kroenke and Wenger are all in it together. They are risk averse and afraid to gamble their cushy jobs and self-appointed salaries and bonuses. By keeping the status quo, they can continue to pay themselves disproportionate amounts of money at the expense of your satisfaction and the club’s future.

Like all businesses, it is investment that brings success, and if you don’t invest you fall behind. Investment requires having a vision. Experience and good judgment reduce risk. It is the board’s lack of these qualities that has resulted in their cowardly denial of responsibilities.

Their refusal to sack a manager that has become a farcical shadow of his former self only demonstrates their impotence and has resulted in a never-ending pattern of mediocrity that is boring the supporters to tears.

Fans are not stupid (well most of them), and are now completely fed up. This was all obvious six or seven years ago. Some of us had a level of insight, but too many have an agenda based around refusing to admit they have misjudged Wenger. Those fans have been manipulated and their loyalty thrown back in their face.

Will Wenger be at Arsenal next season? Probably. But if there is a slim chance he won’t, then it’s incumbent on the fans to enforce change if the board won’t. In my opinion, the board needs to wake up as it is skating on thin ice. Through their inaction, they have very much become a target of the fans ire, and once the wheels are properly in motion it’s very difficult to reverse them, as suspicion and intolerance becomes ingrained in the supporters’ psyche.

If the Arsenal board wants to avoid fanning the flames of its eventual demise, Kroenke and Gazidis need to utilise whatever experience they do have and start making the big decisions required to push the club forward. That starts with letting Arsene Wenger go and being bold enough to stand behind their decision to appoint the club’s managerial successor.

If that appointment was to end in failure – perhaps worse than the current failure that Wenger is, they will be forgiven for at least trying to steer the ship in the right direction. The biggest failure is inaction. Accepting hopelessness, and the perpetual mediocrity served up by an insufferable hubristic dictator, can no longer be forgiven.

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Wednesday
Apr202016

75th minute walk out at Arsenal tomorrow night

Surprisingly, considering how infrequently I post, Arsenal Truth still gets thousands of visitors every week. That’s why I’m putting it out there that there is a stadium protest at tomorrow night’s game at the Emirates against West Brom.

With that in mind, I would urge all supporters who give a damn about the club to either not go to the match at all or, if they do, get up and leave on 75 minutes.

On its own, the difference this ‘protest’ will make is probably negligible, but it attracts publicity and helps promote a culture of negativity, reinforcing the supporters’ desire for change. Small things add up to big things, inaction does nothing.

Wenger is vowing to at least see out the last year of his contract; it is therefore incumbent on the supporters to make his position as uncomfortable as possible between now and the end of the season in the slim hope of invoking change.

I watched Leicester draw 2-2 with West Ham at the weekend, and saw signs that the pressure is seriously beginning to tell on the PL leaders. Despite being five points ahead of Spurs, if Leicester lose their nerve and start to succumb to the pressure by defending as recklessly as they did at the weekend, a collapse is on the cards.

Both West Ham goals were given to them on a plate due to Wes Morgan’s unnecessary foul in the box and the resulting effect of that penalty decision. Leicester were lucky to equalise when Andy Carroll’s shoulder nudge resulted in a soft last-minute penalty for the home side.

In my opinion, losing Jamie Vardy for the home game against Swansea on Sunday won’t make much difference. Swansea will probably sit deep, so there won’t be much room for Vardy’s incisive runs in behind. But the home side need to win this match to calm the nerves; this game could be the key to Leicester winning the title in that respect - even a draw would make them vulnerable as Spurs have an easy home game against West Brom the day after and a far superior goal difference.

Neither side have an easy  final three games, but you feel Spurs are better-equipped to make up a three point gap than Leicester are to extend their lead should they falter.

Liverpool play Everton tonight; something to watch while I'm on the treadmill at the gym.

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Monday
Apr112016

Arsenal’s future bleak with Ozil and Sanchez likely to leave

My mind is made up. It’s taken me until the 33rd game, but I truly believe Leicester City will now win the title. Not much of a revelation is it? But Leicester are in unchartered territory and I’ve never witnessed a team achieving what they are achieving in my lifetime. Every player will go down in history as a club legend, and the season will be written into folklore.

Despite their 3-0 home win against Man Utd yesterday, Tottenham are unlikely to get maximum points in all their five remaining fixtures so Leicester probably only need two more wins, which they’re more than capable of getting.

Lately, Leicester have been squeezing out 1-0 wins George Graham-style as their opponents have adopted a negative game plan sitting deep to prevent them from utilising their counter-attacking potential. It hasn’t been pretty, but Champions need to win ugly at times.

Leicester invariably find a way through packed defences because they’re on a magnificent ride, are playing with great confidence and have individuals like Riyad Mahrez who can change a game in the blink of an eye.

And as Sunderland found out yesterday, one lapse of concentration and Jamie Vardy is still as deadly as ever.

Leicester still have some tough fixtures coming up, but they’re equally as likely to beat Everton or Man Utd because they will have more opportunities to utilise their counter-attacking threat than they would against a defensive team.

Next up for Leicester is West Ham, and you can bet they will deal with Andy Carroll better than Arsenal did on Saturday.

Clearly, Wenger did nothing in training to help his team counter Carroll’s aerial threat. You can blame the players all you want – and some of them are obviously cack, but they’re clearly not being given the right tactical guidance, information or knowledge they need to counter specific threats. In fact, I’d wager they’re not being given any guidance at all. I’d put my house on the fact that Wenger would have said nothing whatsoever about Andy Carroll at Colney last week.

But forget Carroll, I reckon Arsenal are now in danger of losing their two biggest attacking threats. Ozil is slowly coming to the realisation that Wenger is clueless and he is wasting his career working under him. All the signs are there in his press statements, which have caused friction with his manager.

Ozil is 27 and his next contract could be his last chance to play for a big club at the very top. He’s clearly not looking to sign a new deal unless Wenger can give him a good reason to stay.

Alexis Sanchez is in exactly the same boat, his indifference is starting to show on the pitch, where he no longer bothers to track back and help his teammates. These are the early signs of players who are not fully committed, fed up with the players around them and looking for something to be done about it before heading for the exit door.

Both Ozil and Sanchez’s agents will be more than happy to pocket a big payday by moving their players on and Wenger is giving them all the ammo they need to build a persuasive argument for their clients to leave. You can bet that several big clubs will already be sniffing around the duo, as their contracts expire in 2018 and Arsenal will have to sell next summer  - at the earliest - unless they want to risk throwing £60-£70m down the toilet.

After another season of abject failure, symbolised by the incompetence, negligence and arrogance that Wenger typifies, I believe that Arsenal’s future is starting to look particularly bleak. Apart from the contractual issues mentioned above, the club is in a rut and needs to dump a lot of players and spend big.

Debuchy is as good as gone, there is no future for Flamini, Arteta or Rosicky and decisions need to be made on Wilshere – who is draining the wage bill despite never being fit, and Cazorla who is getting old now and may struggle to be the same player after surgery for a serious knee injury. Some would be justified in claiming he is not good enough to achieve the Arsenal supporters’ objectives anyway.

The striking department is a mess. Never has Walcott looked more of the clueless footballing imbecile that we always knew he was, and Welbeck and Giroud will always be profligate. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s defence may be good enough to help Wenger secure his precious Champions League placing – just, but that scenario will shift next season if Spurs and Leicester repeat their heroics and Man City, Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea all improve, which I would think is a complete and utter certainty.

At the moment, the future seems bleak whether Wenger stays or goes. Some big decisions need to be made, yet one has to wonder whether there is anybody at boardroom level that is brave or educated enough to make the right choices. 

Regardless, if they leave the nutter to his own devices, it’s ten times more likely the club will nosedive out of the top four and lose its crown jewels (Ozil and Sanchez) next season than Wenger rise like some phoenix from the flames. Any sane supporter must surely pray that 2016/17 will be Wenger’s last, and equally pray the club has an intelligent succession plan in the offing.

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