Sunday
May092010

Fabregas could be gone within 2 weeks

  

First, let me say that I'm not normally one for writing flashy headlines to get attention, I seriously can't be bothered. I only write when I feel there is something on my mind that needs expressing.

Last night on Sky Sports' live Spanish football I'm pretty sure I heard Spanish correspondent Guillem Balague insist that Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona is a done deal that will completed within two weeks.

I normally trust Balague because he has inside access to the majority of Spanish clubs and has got a lot of big calls right over the years. He's called some wrong too, but transfers do not always go as planned.

The Spaniard is one of the few journalists I trust and respect, and generally he's not a sensationalist, which he easily could be at the behest of the clubs he is often allowed to provide a voice for. It would be fair to say that, in the past, Balague has not sought to assist Barcelona by stirring the pot in their favour with regard to Fabregas transfer stories, so why now?

Furthermore, another link has also emerged today regarding Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure, whose agent Dimitri Seluk mentions could be a success with Arsenal and may be open to a move to the Emirates.

Why would Toure even think of leaving Barcelona for Arsenal? Perhaps if his agent has been notified by Toure's club that they wish to make the player part of a cash plus swap deal for Fabregas?

There was also a much more tenuous link last Friday from The Spoiler website suggesting Fabregas's mother has bought ex-Barcelona midfielder Deco's old flat in the capital - presumably for her son.

On its own, a presumptuous - possibly factually incorrect - piece of information that you would unlikely read much into, but when linked to Balague and Seluk's comments, who knows? New players are often moved into properties belonging to old players when they join a club, as they're typically in a location suited to the privacy of  high profile individuals.

Personally, I have also been suspicious of Fabregas current injury status, and the explanation of how it came about. Broken leg kicking a player standing right next to you? Injury yes, broken leg, hmmmm. If a deal for Fabregas is in the bank then it might explain why the player has been "missing" for the last month.

All conjecture of course - most transfer stories regarding Fabregas are and have been, but the Spaniard will leave one day and I can imagine he's as fed up these days waiting for Wenger to get serious as we all are.

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Wednesday
Apr072010

Barcelona 4 Arsenal 1: Match Report

  

Arsenal started well for the first 20 minutes, or did they?

It was clear Barcelona had a plan. They didn't want to blow themselves out after an hour and leave themselves vulnerable as they did last week at the Emirates, so they started more cautiously, moved into first gear for 20 minutes after Bendtner scored a surprise opener, then got the pipe and slippers out for the second half.

Wenger did the right thing lining up 4-1-4-1; it gave Arsenal a stricter shape and allowed players to cluster centrally and win tackles. Diaby did just that on 18, then set Walcott free, but he bottled shooting before squaring a poor ball to Bendtner that made it difficult for him to get a decent connection.

Fortunately, Valdes palmed the ball straight back into his path, but Bendtner did well to get back on his feet and stab the ball home.

At that moment, it seemed like Arsenal could actually do something, but it soon became clear that Barcelona were only toying. They moved into Ferrari mode and creamed Arsenal, with Messi scoring a 21-minute hatrick.

Messi is a phenomenon, an outrageously brilliant talent - but still Arsenal could have defended him better.

His first goal was admittedly unstoppable, although Silvestre gave him the ball outside the box, the finish was stunning.

But goals two and three?

The second goal, Diaby was next to Messi, then just let him go. Abidal's misdirected cross was not cleared by Arsenal centrally, and Pedro slipped it to the unmarked Messi who accelerated past Clichy and buried past Almunia.

Diaby just left Messi to do whatever he wanted. How can you ever win anything important with players doing things like that?

On 41, Messi wrapped the game up when Clichy made a schoolboy error and failed to push up with the rest of the back four. Messi, clean through with oceans of space, lobbed over Almunia for 3-1.

The rest of the game was a non-event. Bojan was replaced by Yaya Toure on 56 to shore up the midfield, and Barcelona simply passed Arsenal to death - sucking the life out of them.

What was most disappointing was that even when Arsenal did win the ball - and they had more of it than they did last week at the Emirates - their passing was shabby and wasteful, and they made the wrong decisions time and time again.

Barcelona were superb at changing focus, from not having the ball to hunting it down and winning it back, and Arsenal can learn so much from that. For all their technique and flair, Barcelona have a fantastic work ethic and do all the ugly stuff, which Arsenal don't.

Messi scored his fourth of the night on 88. Eboue this time played Barcelona's front line onside, from where Messi was slipped in and allowed two strikes on goal, the second through Almunia's legs. He should have had a fifth as well, on 43, Silvestre slipped allowing him to run clean through but his first touch was unusually poor and he squandered a banker.

Full-time: Barcelona 4 Arsenal 1

A lot of people rave about Messi, and rightly so - he's brilliant, but Sky Sports had their tongue so far up his arsehole they'll need a tetanus injection, and still Arsenal could have done a lot more to stop him.

At the end of the day, four of the six goals Arsenal conceded over the two legs were down to the fact that Wenger is incapable of even educating his players on the laws of the offside trap. Over both games, Song, Eboue, and Clichy (twice) all made elementary defensive mistakes, allowing players to run clean through on goal (as has been happening all season).

Messi just finished easy chances brilliantly - but even Carlos Vela can lob a keeper one on one.

To have your team play strikers onside so frequently is outrageously bad coaching. Once is forgiveable, four times is ridiculous - and those were just the times Arsenal conceded, there were other offside failures that we didn't get punished for.

Of course, Barcelona are a lot better than Arsenal, and even if Wenger had a tactical bone in his body we still probably would have lost - but this wasn't just a defeat, it was an embarrassing annihilation. Hopefully, Wenger will have learnt something from this quarter-final and implement some changes to his team's style - it could yet be beneficial.

Still, like root canal surgery, it's over now and the pain is gone - even if the sick feeling might remain for a few days.

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Thursday
Apr012010

Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2: Match Report

  

Pick the bones out of that one as they say.

On an extraordinary night of Champions League football, by some miracle Arsenal emerged with a 2-2 draw at home to Barcelona, despite conceding an incredible 65% possession and 23 shots at goal.

It would not be unfair to suggest that Arsenal could have been 2 down in the opening 5 minutes, and at least 4 down by the 20 minute mark, were it not for wasteful finishing by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi, a last ditch tackle by Vermaelen, and FIVE excellent saves by Manuel Almunia.

Arsenal were also extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty when Clichy brought Messi down in the box on 27.

For an Arsenal supporter, this was painful and embarrassing to watch, and exactly what I had feared.

Arsenal didn’t complete two straight passes for the first half hour, and practically the whole game was being played in their half - yet by some miracle the score remained goalless after 25 minutes.

On 28, an injured Arshavin was replaced by Eboue.

Slowly Arsenal began to get on the ball, but not before Gallas was stretchered off on 41 with a recurring calf strain. He should not have been picked, it was dreadful management. And the same for Fabregas who was evidently not fit to play in a football match of such intensity.

Wenger compounded his error to pick Gallas by moving Song into the back four.

As a whirlwind first-half came to a close, Arsenal only had a long-range shot from Nasri to show for their woeful endeavours, whereas Barcelona had something like 15 attempts on goal.

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!

To add to Arsenal’s misery, Fabregas got booked for a tackle on Busquets from behind – ruling him out of the return leg.

The second half got even worse for Wenger due to his mistake of moving Song into central defence. Wenger immediately requested Arsenal push up the back four, which would have been ok if he didn't have a DM playing his fifth ever game as a center back.

Within 23 seconds of the second half, Song was found out - too slow to step up, he played Ibrahimovic onside and the Swede coolly chipped over Almunia – who came way too far out of his goal, effectively making Ibrahimovic’s mind up for him.

After 54 minutes, Arsenal finally carved a chance following a Clichy cross that Bendtner headed point-blank at Victor Valdes from 10 yards – a bad miss.

Five minutes later, and Barcelona were two up – more miscommunication at the back, this time between Clichy and Song, saw Ibrahimovic break the offside trap to bury his second high above Almunia. This was Man Utd/Chelsea all over again – Wenger has evidently learnt nothing. 

Walcott entered the fray on 65 and began to test the exhausted Maxwell, who had spent the entire first half bombing up and down Arsenal’s right. This paid dividends on 69 when the youngster scrambled his way into the box and hit a tame shot that Valdes made a complete hash of – diving over the ball. 1-2.

On 71 Pique was booked for a foul on Fabregas, ruling him out of the second leg.

Barcelona continued to push Arsenal, Messi testing Almunia yet again on 75. But the Spanish side had run out of puff and could not keep up their pressing game, finally allowing Arsenal time on the ball, which was usually wasted by bad passing.

However, at least Walcott was making a nuisance of himself – his pace hurting full-back Maxwell. On 84, Walcott crossed for Bendtner who nodded down to Fabregas in the area. About to pull the trigger Puyol closed in and Fabregas appeared to kick the back of Puyol’s leg then went down. PENALTY! Red card Puyol!

I must confess I didn’t see what Puyol did wrong. Fabregas appeared to kick him rather than the other way around, but Arsenal got the lucky call - Fabregas stepped up and levelled the game.

Full-time: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

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.

And who can say this tie is over, with both centre-backs Puyol and Pique suspended for the second leg? Well, it sounds like good news but I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

Fabregas will also miss the second leg, and whether Arsenal can win at Camp Nou without him is not a tall order, it’s a skyscraper order.

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.

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Wednesday
Nov112009

What's REALLY happening at Arsenal?

  

For those not interested in finance or unable to comprehend exactly what has been going on in the Arsenal boardroom over the past few weeks, I'll try and simplify it - because it's important.

On 15th October, number one shareholder and director Stan Kroenke swallowed up another 90 shares in Arsenal Football Club, taking his stake to 28.9%

On Friday, 6th November, Kroenke purchased another 200 shares, taking his holding to 29.9%.

Kroenke is now 71 shares away from triggering an automatic takeover bid for Arsenal Football Club. It would cost him just under $1 million dollars to purchase those remaining 71 shares.

Kroenke is certainly living up to his nickname 'Silent Stan'. At the recent AGM, when questioned on his long-term share-buying strategy, he said...... precisely nothing. Legally, there's probably not a lot he could have said, his appearance was purely political.

Meanwhile, the only other shareholder who could trump Kroenke is Russian business magnate, Alisher Burkhanovich Usmanov (aka Red & White Holdings). The 56-year-old owns 26% of the club, and is therefore only 4% away from making a mandatory offer for the remaining shares at the club.

In recent years, both men have been snapping up shares in Arsenal like Pacman, in what can only be described as a game of brinkmanship.

However, Stan is finding it much easier to buy shares - because people like Stan; they don't like Usmanov. I'm sure you've read the papers enough to know why.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Arsenal board plead their ignorance to exactly what's occurring.

Chairman Peter Hill-Wood did, however, make a laughable comment at last month's AGM. He said, "I don't think we are looking for a change in custodian" - even though 100 of the 200 shares Kroenke bought on 6th November were sold to him by Hill-Wood. He then exclaimed, "it's not for me to say what his [Kroenke's] intentions are".

Of course not Peter, you're only the Chairman!

Reading between the lines, it seems there can only be one logical conclusion. At 29.9%, Kroenke has taken himself up to the very edge of making a mandatory offer for the club. Arsenal don't want Usmanov taking control of the club, and have their ear to the ground. They know the name of every single shareholder of Arsenal Football Club - and would tap their phones if they could. 

Regardless, Kroenke can now take over the club in a nanosecond.

Usmanov is 4% behind in this horse race. The board obviously believe that there are enough weak sellers to cave in to Usmanov's demands should he offer any lily-livered shareholders enough cash; but 4% is still a substantial chunk of shares - especially when the Russian is likely finding 'friendly' shareholders a rare commodity.

It's a game of chess; any movement from the Russian and Kroenke is best positioned to say, 'checkmate'. Hill-Wood himself will probably sell Kroenke the remaining 71 shares if need be.

Meanwhile, the supporters look on, and to the layman it's fairly boring stuff, but there is certainly reason for concern.

Should Kroenke be forced to launch a formal takeover - and should it be fully accepted (it might get very ugly and messy with Usmanov unlikely to want to concede his 26% shareholding) - how would the American most likely raise the capital?

Well, at an estimated cost of £460m, Kroenke would likely have to take out a bank loan, dumping huge debts on the club, much in the same way as debt has been dumped on both Manchester United and Liverpool by foreign ownership.

Herein lies a warning.

Manchester United are one of the most profitables club in world football on earnings, yet all their profits are currently being wiped out by having to service their own rapidly increasing, rather enormous £700m debt. The club is paying off the interest but not the debt, which is doubtless the reason why United let go of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in the summer.

It's an action that significantly harms their prospects of winning silverware this term, but crucially,  perhaps not enough to harm their ability to qualify for the Champions League and partake in its humungous revenue.

Regardless, they're on a slippery slope.

Liverpool are in a far worse predicament. Understandably, considering the current economic climate, the club struggled to renegotiate their £350m debt with Royal Bank of Scotland in the summer. They have half the debt of Manchester United, but are nevertheless under huge pressure to maintain their Champions League status. On top of their existing debt, failure to qualify for that competition would cost them in the region of £60m. Should they then choose to sack manager Rafael Benitez, they'd have to fork out another £20m to pay-off the 5-year contract the Spaniard only signed last year.

On top of the precarious nature of servicing such debt based on clubs' footballing success, make no mistake, European national football association UEFA is serious about phasing in financial constraints to stop clubs purchasing players using borrowed money. Real Madrid's ridiculous summer spending spree - based on debt - can only have exacerbated that requirement in the eyes of UEFA.

The ins and outs have yet to be decided/implemented, but it's clear that in future it is expected that clubs will likely be forced by UEFA to operate within their means; only able to spend money on wages and transfers through funds generated naturally via ticket receipts, merchandising, branding etc.

So where does this leave Arsenal?

If offered the choice, Arsenal supporters would doubtless prefer Kroenke take over the club to Usmanov, but debt is debt and Kroenke's dumping of a £460m bank loan on Arsenal Football Club is only the lesser of two evils.

However, the reason Kroenke is the lesser of two evils is because it's not 100% clear if the American does want full control of the club; he's being pushed into it by Usmanov's seemingly relentless desire to mount a hostile takeover; not that Kroenke's takeover would be any less hostile to supporters who want a say in the future of their club.

It seems the supporters have very little say/control over the matter; shareholders could turn down Kroenke's offer of taking over the club, but it's not yet sure whether that course of action is feasible or sustainable - the biggest shareholders will carry the biggest say.

Protests are unlikely to carry much weight in such matters, but the Arsenal Supporters Trust would be the first port of call for supporters who would like to keep tabs on the situation and offer their backing against a full takeover - should it ever be attempted.

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