A truly shocking Arsenal performance

Many Arsenal fans will have been shocked by their side’s bizarre performance at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. The Gunners beat Man City 2-0, yet played with defensive resilience, intelligence and tactical competence. I was shocked, and I presume a lot of Arsenal fans who expected their side to be comfortably beaten were also shocked.

In games like this, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the result was simply down to Man City having a very bad day at the office or their opponents skilfully neutralising them and taking advantage of their mistakes. However, I watched the whole game, and although it was obvious that Man City were not at their best – it was certainly a game too soon for the returning Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany, Arsenal should be given huge credit for negating City from the first minute to the last and refusing them the time and space they needed to penetrate.

Although, you’d expect me to say this, considering it’s common knowledge that I believe him to be a tactical cretin, it’s questionable how much praise Wenger should receive for this performance, or the result. In terms of those picked to play, Bellerin only featured because Chambers has been an unmitigated disaster at right back, Monreal only played because Gibbs was unfit, Coquelin only played because Arteta is injured, and Ospina only played because Szczesny has proven himself to be grossly unprofessional.

However, what also helped Arsenal is that their players were playing in their natural positions and comfortably within their limits. Bellerin is a right back, Chambers is not, Ospina appears predictable and composed, Szczesny is not, Coquelin is defensive minded, has pace and a semblance of awareness, Flamini and Arteta are finished, Cazorla is a CM not a winger, and of course, playing deep allows Mertesacker to focus fully on his positional play without having to expose his lack of pace.

Play to the players’ strengths, and you might get a strong performance – it’s not rocket science, it's obvious.

So the team picked itself and the players took the responsibility upon themselves not to be beaten, encouraged by Man City’s wasteful possession – abetted by Arsenal’s pressing game - and the concession of soft goals. Indeed, Arsenal only had two shots on target, but both ended up in the back of the net due to self-inflicted errors. First, Kompany gave away a questionable penalty after minimal contact on Monreal. Cazorla converted. In the second half, Cazorla’s chipped free-kick was headed in far too easily by Giroud – Fernando’s marking was abject.

As the game wore on Arsenal’s confidence grew exponentially. It would have been interesting had Man City got a goal back, but Arsenal did not allow that to happen, thus avoiding a state of panic.

Arsenal’s work ethic was immense, and it seems unfair to give credit to any one individual, but Coquelin in particular showed the passion and motivation required of a player whose future is on the line. Listening to Wenger trying to claim credit for the performance of a player whose contract has been allowed to expire and was only brought back from his third loan spell due to a plethora of injuries is further evidence of his obnoxious narcissism. Meanwhile, Santi Cazorla’s skill and desire produced a phenomenal performance, one that even overshadowed Alexis Sanchez, yet once again Wenger couldn’t resist stealing the limelight to praise himself, citing Cazorla’s ‘vital’ ability as a two-footed pressure-pot reliever whose best position is central midfield. So why does he hardly ever play there?

This is a manager that doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He just reacts to events. When the performance is drivel, he blames the players instead of himself, when it’s great he quickly takes the opportunity to ensure he receives equal praise. It just makes me detest him even more.

Whether this excellent result acts as template for the future, or is simply a one-off performance dictated by circumstance remains to be seen. However, Wenger would be a colossal fool not to take this opportunity to learn about his players. This game proved that Szczesny and Ozil don’t have the right make-up to play for Arsenal, Arteta and Flamini don’t have the legs, and the omission of Gibbs was a blessing; his lack of positional awareness would probably have cost Arsenal at some point. All five players need to be culled from the squad.

Most of all, this performance is a damning indictment of Wenger. How can it take a team a decade to put in this type of performance away from home against a top club? Because that’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen such a committed defensive performance. It was the performance of a side that respected the opposition, rather than being naively suckered into believing they only had to turn up to have a chance of winning. It was a performance to be proud of.

Now we’ll discover whether Wenger’s craving for self-aggrandisement forces the players to sink back into a system and style that is comically self-destructive, or takes the opportunity to prescribe a new path. Let’s not forget, we’ve seen this before. When Steve Bould and Martin Keown were allowed defensive input, the results were tangible, yet with the acknowledgement ebbing away from him, the control-freak decided he had to abandon it all and re-establish his failed philosophy.


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Wenger has Hubris Syndrome disorder

Received a comment from Nic: "I recently attended a conference where someone gave a talk on "Hubris Syndrome". For anyone who has never heard of this syndrome, Google it. It describes Wenger to a T."

I took Nic’s advice. There is a book called ‘Brain’ - A Journal of Neurology, written by former politician David Owen. In it, Owen describes Hubris Syndrome. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate description of the "dictator" running Arsenal Football Club.

Here are some extracts:

"Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence—these qualities are often associated with successful leadership. Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale. The attendant loss of capacity to make rational decisions is perceived by the general public to be more than ‘just making a mistake’. While they may use discarded medical or colloquial terms, such as ‘madness’ or ‘he's lost it’, to describe such behaviour, they instinctively sense a change of behaviour although their words do not adequately capture its essence.

"A common thread tying these elements together is hubris, or exaggerated pride, overwhelming self-confidence and contempt for others. How may we usefully think about a leader who hubristically abuses power, damaging the lives of others? Some see it as nothing more than the extreme manifestation of normal behaviour along a spectrum of narcissism. Others simply dismiss hubris as an occupational hazard of powerful leaders, politicians or leaders in business, the military and academia; an unattractive but understandable aspect of those who crave power.

"'Hubris syndrome' is seen as an acquired condition, and therefore different from most personality disorders which are traditionally seen as persistent throughout adulthood. The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.

"The ability to make swift decisions, sometimes based on little evidence, is of particular importance—arguably necessary—in a leader. Similarly, a thin-skinned person will not be able to stand the process of public scrutiny, attacks by opponents and back-stabbings from within, without some form of self-exultation and grand belief about their own mission and importance

"Dictators are particularly prone to hubris because there are few, if any, constraints on their behaviour."


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Fabregas the answer to solving Mourinho's attacking rigidity

Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal in September 2003 - aged just 16, and was thrust into the first team by Arsene Wenger within two months of his arrival to become Arsenal’s youngest ever first team debutant.

By the age of 21, Fabregas had been made Arsenal’s captain and the Spanish youngster spent eight years at the club in total. His technical brilliance, allied to his agile, light frame created a ticking metronome at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. An assist machine, with a steely determination to win, he soon become one of the Premier League’s hottest imports and most sought after talents in European football.

Arsenal had repeatedly rejected advances for Fabregas to rejoin his boyhood club, but the Spanish club’s unsettling tactics, combined with Fabregas’ clear desire to move, resulted in a bid of approximately £30m being accepted by Arsenal in August 2011.

When Fabregas joined Barcelona, the assumption was that he would be on the bench acting as understudy to Xavi before gradually taking over his role in the first team. However, Pep Guardiola had other ideas. Despite 212 appearances in the Premier League and 61 in Europe, and although Fabregas was considered by Pep Guardiola to be far from the finished article, the plan was to convert Fabregas into a ‘False 9’ striker - not to replace Lionel Messi, but to give the manager another option.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘False 9’, the role is similar to that of the central attacking midfielder, but perhaps more difficult to fulfill. The idea is that the False 9 acts primarily as a lone striker but drops deep into midfield where defenders can be dragged out of position, allowing the exploitation of space in behind via through balls to onrushing wingers or late runners from midfield. However, apart from having to be able to create in an instant, the False 9 also has to have the adaptability to be assertive in the final third, and be able to score goals too. Successfully adapting to the position requires tactical intelligence; intelligence that Guardiola believed Fabregas either possessed or could be honed to possess.

Having broken his tibia and with little hope of participating in the 2011/12 season, David Villa’s loss was Fabregas’ gain, with Guardiola deeming the Spaniard ready to fulfil the False 9 role – albeit ahead of time. Alexis Sanchez was recruited to play on the left flank, with Lionel Messi on the right and Fabregas rotating in-between. 

Few people really understand the level of detail, intelligence, focus and exertion required for a manager like Guardiola to create his brand of attacking football. Every run and movement has to be strategised and tirelessly rehearsed in training. There is a reason that Guardiola has become one of the most revered, successful and tactically disciplined managers of his era – and, like all managers, it stems from detailed work on the training ground.

Indeed, Fabregas commented on his period of adaptation, “I was free to do whatever on the pitch at Arsenal, and I wasn't tactically good," he said. "I was playing wherever I wanted, up and down. Here I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically.”

This is not a position that any player could easily adapt to, and make no mistake, Fabregas did struggle to adapt. He no longer had the naive freedom offered to him at Arsenal, and his tendency to play a more direct style, which had almost become part of his DNA, tended to upset the fragile balance of Guardiola’s precise choreography.

As Barcelona lost grip of the title in 2011/12 to Real Madrid, Guardiola grew impatient and started to lose faith in Fabregas’ ability to fully adapt. Despite putting in some impressive performances, Fabregas struggled to fit convincingly into the manager’s jigsaw.

When Man Utd came forward with a £40m bid in the summer of 2013, Barcelona were keen to sell, but Fabregas was not keen to give up his dream so easily, or move to Manchester. However, two months later, a change of heart. In an interview with The Guardian, shortly after the dawn of a new season, Fabregas opened the door to a return to Arsenal with a thinly disguised patronage of his former club.

The interview also made interesting reading for another reason, with Fabregas offering a reasoned analysis of why it was easier for him to flourish in the Premier League, but not Spain. On English football, Fabregas stated: “It's much more crazy, out of control, everyone attacking, pouring forward” The crowd plays a part. The crowd roar and the full-back bombs forward and then the other full-back goes forward… sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere. It motivates you but it means you lose control.”

In England, the aggression and high tempo was not a detriment to Fabregas’ ability to spot a pass or control a game from midfield, but an asset. Unlike Spain, players get caught up in the atmosphere of a match, move out of position, lose possession easily in the searing pace, thus creating more space for the likes of Fabregas to operate, not less.

Fabregas continued: “In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional. A Spanish-style footballer, like [David] Silva or Özil, if they can find two seconds to think, will see the pass because there'll be space. In Spain, you're up against a Mario Suárez or a Gabi and what a pain they are! In Spain, reducing space is worked on more.”

Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso once mocked the English mentality towards aggressive football: 'Tackling is not really a quality, it's more something you are forced to resort to when you don't have the ball…I can't get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.’’ Fabregas agreed, “That's how we tend to see it in Spain: defenders don't swallow the dummies as quickly. In England the attacker goes, ping! and the defender dives in quickly, flying by, wheeee! In Spain the defender stays on his feet longer. “

For all the criticism of Fabregas’ perceived failure to adapt to Spanish football – or the Barcelona way, in his final season, the Spaniard's stats as a creator were only bettered in the whole of Europe by Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria. It is true that Fabregas’ goalscoring did show a trend of dropping off towards the ends of each season, but 42 goals in 151 matches can hardly be described as a poor return. Indeed the ratio was far better than he managed at Arsenal.

Throughout 2013/14 Fabregas’ was Barcelona’s third most used player behind Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano – but then, for Barcelona it was never about goals scored and assists provided, but adapting to a philosophy where anything other than perfection was dissected. At Barcelona, if a cog has a blunt edge and cannot be quickly polished, it's just as quickly discarded. 

From a winning perspective, Fabregas’ time spent at Barcelona could not be considered a failure; he got the domestic trophies he wanted, including La Liga, plus the Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Supercups. With Fabregas feeling he was being forced out, and Barcelona keen to sell, it was Arsenal that had first refusal, yet Wenger declined, preferring to stand by Mesut Özil and the emerging Aaron Ramsey.

Instead, Fabregas made his return to the Premier League at Chelsea in June for £30m, where once again he is likely to find the space to terrorise defences as he had done at Arsenal three years earlier. He might not fit into Barcelona's system, but back in England it will be like hand in glove. Indeed, Fabregas is perhaps even more dangerous now than before, operating under one of the most tactically astute managers in Europe whilst still coveting Guardiola’s principles in his memory bank - Fabregas could be the key to unlocking Mourinho's Chelsea potential, particularly their stilted attack.


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Chelsea is my tip for the title

I’m tipping Chelsea for the Premier League title.

I thought Mourinho did a good job on his return to the club last season, but he was clearly hampered by a strike force of collective duds. Therefore the £32m signing of Diego Costa is likely to be an upgrade, and while Didier Drogba is unlikely to terrify defences the way he used to, he will still be a good addition if used intelligently.

Cesc Fabregas is an inspired signing. Still only 27, we all know of his creative quality, but Fabregas could get double figures from midfield too. However, I am very surprised that Fernando Torres is still at the club. His goal record is poor and he’s lost a yard of pace since his Liverpool days – I can only imagine his wages are too high to provoke an offer.

Chelsea had the best defence by a mile last season, so Mourinho’s focus will be on the attacking end, and with Costa, Drogba and Fabregas supplying additional firepower - and the rapidly improving Andre Schurrle pushing on, I can see them getting close to the 90 point mark.

Fighting Chelsea for the title will be Man City. They have too much talent to fade away, but will need to start better than they did last season and be more focused throughout. Despite being Premier League champions, they were sloppy at times and a mess at the back whenever Vincent Kompany was absent. But the £32m signing of centre back Eliaquim Mangala and addition of defensive midfielders Fernando and Bruno Zuculini provide evidence that manager Manuel Pellegrini is looking to address these defensive concerns.

With Louis Van Gaal in charge, I would be astounded if Man Utd did not make the top four this season. Obviously, he has an aura about him that David Moyes did not, and that, married to his experience and the fact that United do not have the distraction of European football should make a big difference to them.

United had the joint best away record in the Premier League last season, keep that up and rectify their baffling home form and they’ll be right up there. However, my doubts about Utd’s ability to sustain a title challenge revolve around their defence; I’m really surprised they haven’t bought a centre back yet. Although there’s still time, it’s hardly ideal preparation for the new season.

Obviously this is a concern for Van Gaal, hence the 3-5-2 formation used in pre-season, and such doubts make me wonder whether United are capable of putting in a strong title challenge.

I expect the battle for fourth place to be between Arsenal and Liverpool, with Arsenal edging it. The effect of Luis Suarez’s departure, and the fact that Liverpool will be playing in Europe next season, cannot be underestimated. Suarez was a force of nature. The Uruguayan took all the pressure off the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Stirling; they excelled alongside him but will now have to step up and shoulder the burden of winning matches – a big ask.

Having said that, Brendan Rodgers is clearly a very intelligent and flexible manager. Rickie Lambert will give them another option, Adam Lallana further attacking threat – but for me they need to buy a world class striker capable of scoring 20+ a season, and so far their attempts appear to have hit a brick wall. Centre-back Dejan Lovren has joined Lallana from Southampton, but for me Liverpool are still weak at the back and for all his influence and ability to control a game I don’t see the ageing Steven Gerrard as the right man to shield the back four.

As for Arsenal, the signing of Alexis Sanchez is an excellent one. If the Chilean can duplicate his attacking prowess at Barcelona, he will certainly add goals from wide positions. When Theo Walcott is fit, Mesut Ozil will have multiple angles to hit, which should make him more effective following a dismal debut season.

Still, Arsenal’s problems remain much the same, notably Wenger’s tactical inflexibility and a squad that is blunt at both ends. Olivier Giroud doesn’t cut it against the top sides, and if he gets injured for a long spell there is no one that can be relied upon to deputise. Arsenal’s defence has the same problem, threadbare with only Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker as trusted centre backs, while there is a question mark over whether new signing Mathieu Debuchy has the same defensive quality as the departed Bacary Sagna.

Then of course there’s the defensive midfield role, still occupied by Mikael Arteta, who is inadequate at shielding the defence in key games. Following the departure of Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal’s defence appears to have gone backwards, and asking 19-year-old Calum Chambers (£16m) to fill the void and provide the quality required to compete for major trophies is a typical Wenger gamble that could backfire.

Finally, Everton and Spurs are likely to provide stubborn opposition. Everton have blown £28m on Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry has joined on a free from Man City, but these players were already at the club last season, so the Toffees have not upgraded anything yet.

Tottenham have also been slow to make additions, but do have a bright managerial prospect in Mauricio Pochettino. This could make Spurs the surprise package next season in the battle for fourth, but I wouldn’t’ hold my breath, or open my wallet and bet on it.

Of course, we still have the mad scramble known as ‘Deadline Day’ on August 31 to look forward to, but at present this is how I see the top 7 finishing:

1.       Chelsea
2.       Man City
3.       Man Utd
4.       Arsenal
5.       Liverpool
6.       Tottenham
7.       Everton


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Damning verdict four years ago still stands today!

It's not often I look at posts I've previously written, but today I travelled back in time to April 2010 - four years ago, and read the content of my own Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2 match report.

The purpose of this blog piece is not to big myself up, but to try to gauge how I could foresee four years ago what so many Arsenal fans still cannot see today. And wonder what makes them think that if Wenger continued, things would be any different four years from now.

Here are some excerpts from that match report:

31/03/2010: Champions League Quarter Final Leg 1: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

"It was only a miracle that the Gunners were not a handful down as Wenger’s tactical ineptness was brutally exposed.

"For all Wenger’s genius in turning youth into world class talent and assembling teams capable of playing excellent pass and move football, I'm absolutely convinced that, tactically, he’s the worst top level manager in the business – and the first half proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.

"Yes, Barcelona are an excellent team, but for Arsenal to get utterly obliterated in this fashion on home turf is quite frankly a disgrace. Let's not forget, FK Rubin Kazan drew with and beat Barca in the group stages - but thanks to Wenger, they made Arsenal look a pub team.

"His choice to play injured players was selfish and detrimental; his team played too deep, and the man-marking was utterly shocking – both in open play and from set pieces. For some reason, players were closing down individually - not as a team, when one tackled, the others were standing 10 yards away so nobody was on hand to pick up the loose ball.

"As it happened, it didn't matter - for all their flair and technique, Barcelona won almost every tackle.

"The wide forwards did practically nothing to protect the full backs, there was no communication or leadership from anyone, anywhere on the pitch - and no organisation. Half the team was going one way, and half the other, meanwhile Barcelona were having a party in the space between.

"There were two or three occasions when three or four Barcelona players were left unmarked IN THE BOX!

"It seemed as if God was on Arsenal’s side at the Emirates last night as Arsenal were ripped to shreds by a rampant Barcelona, but through sheer good fortune – and good goalkeeping (for 15 minutes) – somehow clawed their way back into the match.

"The fact is, after watching last night’s game and despite the undoubted excellence of Barcelona, I have never been more mortified by Wenger’s tactical ineptitude. He sent that team out there utterly naked, reprehensibly clueless as to what to do with regard to team shape, marking, communication, gameplan – anything. It was an abomination.

"If Barcelona creates a similar volume of chances next Tuesday, they will pummel Arsenal into the ground. I simply can’t believe the Gunners will be able to get away with this sort of performance again – presuming you think a two goal home deficit is curable, and it will probably be even more painful to watch than last night.

"Good luck to these boys though. I feel sorry for them – and they stuck at it when they could have died of humiliation out there and completely surrendered to Wenger's worthless tactics."

 Arsenal lost 4-1 at the Nou Camp six days later. 


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