Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wenger Deserves To Leave Arsenal On His Terms Only

'Where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters.'

Arsenal Fan 1: What about the last home game last season?
Arsenal Fan 2: What about it?
Arsenal Fan 1: They were rubbish. They were fucking rubbish.
Arsenal Fan 2: They weren't that bad.
Arsenal Fan 1: They were fucking rubbish last year. And they were fucking rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the League, they'll be fucking rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking.
Arsenal Fan 2: I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't.
Arsenal Fan 1: Well, you live in hope, don't you? 

                                                                                                                     Fever Pitch, 1997.

There will be a statue eventually. And when it's unveiled, people will talk only of the good times, out of respect. A bit like a funeral. In times of sombre reflection, no one wants to venture down the path of criticism, of finger-pointing, of asking those probing questions, of pointing out the faults. It feels bad. Disrespectful. Wrong. And it feels wrong chastising Arsene Wenger. It feels wrong discussing his demise. It feels wrong to call for his head. He's done too much for Arsenal and deserves better.

Or does he? The numbers are alarming, certainly. An eighth season without a trophy. But what would a trophy achieve? Would an FA Cup success this season have been applauded? Not really. The stat would simply be altered. 'Just one trophy in eight seasons', 'No league title in nine years', etc. The narrative never changes, only the details do. The Blackburn defeat was largely irrelevant. The Cup is not a priority for Arsenal or for any top Premier League team. It's a bonus. Will winning a Cup competition attract high-profile players? Will it lead to substantial financial reward? So, it should be treated like any other loss. It's disappointing, it's never nice to lose but let's move on. But it's been used to illustrate a fragility at Arsenal, a deep-rooted unhappiness and frustration. Recent history suggests tonight's clash at the Emirates will restore some faith, for the moment.

At this juncture last season, Arsenal had 46 points and were in joint-fourth place in the league, trailing Spurs by seven. They'd finish the campaign ahead of their local rivals,  qualifying automatically for the Champions League group-stage. Right now they're on 44 points and in fifth, trailing Spurs by four. Premature to write them and Wenger off? Perhaps. 

Much was made of how Arsenal would struggle without Robin van Persie. They have missed his ruthlessness, his ability to carve something from nothing, his leadership. But they haven't missed his goals. 53 scored by this stage last term, 50 right now. The Dutchman single-handedly won the club 27 points owing to goals he scored last season. This time, it's been a collective effort. Walcott, Giroud and Cazorla lead in terms of 'important goals' but Podolski, Arteta, and even Koscielny have contributed match-winning strikes. It's not as eye-catching, it's not as explosive but it's working. 

The most important objective for Arsenal is to push themselves to the limit of their capabilities, be they financial or otherwise. From a football perspective, they haven't challenged for a title since 2008 and, on average, have finished 15 points behind the eventual winners in subsequent seasons. But if they can't compete for first and second, consistent Champions League qualification is the next best thing. And Wenger, a man so desperate to claim a European Cup, would not accept failure to do so. Yesterday, hearing him talk of his team's 'fantastic opportunity' to win this season's tournament, leads one to believe Wenger seriously fancies Arsenal to win a first ever Champions League before another championship. But gone are the days when a domestic also-ran claimed Europe's top trophy, last season aside. 

Harsh, perhaps. But it's the biggest problem facing this Arsenal side - mediocrity becoming acceptable as the norm. Their start to last term a reminder of what can happen when a club rests on its laurels, Wenger forced into a humiliating emergency sweep of the transfer market to plug the gaps. But, the turnaround was superb, assisted by an unbeatable February and March in the league. He did turn it around. He did get there in the end. But, if there is a managerial change, expectations are lowered. The new man will need time. A delicate process. Suddenly, the traditional Champions League qualification isn't there anymore. The club is in transition. The club is in free-fall.   

But, loyalty doesn't follow in the modern game. And where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters. It's difficult to come back from that place - the constant struggle to prove yourself correct to those you've never had to. But Wenger deserves the right to back himself in situations like this. He deserves as much time as he needs. He deserves a statue.    

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Solid Away Performance Gives United Steady Foundation

Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester United - Champions League Round of 16 - First Leg

'An astonishing act of athleticism. Ronaldo suspended in the air for what seemed an eternity, seemingly defying science, certainly defying the constant critics.'

Stereotypical in many ways. A terrific goalkeeping display, a little bit of good fortune and plenty of hard-work and energy. Manchester United got what they wanted from this away leg - a fixture they had been worried about. A difficult place to go. A Madrid team built on a glorious counter-attacking philosophy. Jose had Fergie's number. Madrid had United's. More nerves when Ferguson's starting XI was named. No Vidic, four attacking players selected, Phil Jones in central midfield. What happens if he gets it wrong? Was this side really capable of containing Cristiano Ronaldo?  

There was plenty of trepidation in United's ranks, showcased by the early exchanges. United guilty of paying the Portuguese far too much respect. Everything became about him. Rafael the biggest culprit, diving recklessly into tackles, the rushes of blood to the head costing him position, balance and a booking. With so much energy (and personnel) sacrificed in trying to quell Ronaldo's influence, gaps emerged for other Madridistas to step through. Angel Di Maria was a constant threat throughout the first half, always looking to cut inside and either unleash a thundering shot or a deft pass while Mesut Oezil drifted superbly between the lines, going close a couple of times in the first half. It took United some time to take a breath and begin to properly understand the pattern and rhythm of the game. An attacking outlet came in the form of Madrid's occasional high line and Kagawa's movement off van Persie.  The tactic saw the Japanese get in behind on four separate occasions, three of those attacks involving a through-ball or flick-on from the Dutchman and the last of which resulted in the corner that Welbeck scored from.

But it wasn't surprising that Madrid's equaliser came from the left side. Too often Rafael was isolated, with little back-up - Rooney having difficulties making up so much ground in transitions - the early chance for Fabio Coentrao perfectly illustrating United's huffing and puffing early on. But as the visitors improved their positioning, Madrid rotated their two wide-men, bringing Di Maria across to the near side and if United had succeeded in driving Ronaldo away from his natural habitat, they also succeeded in allowing a mercurial left-footer too much time to deliver a brilliant cross, albeit slightly too high. But Ronaldo applied a stunning finish, the leap so outrageous that his feet were in line with Patrice Evra's chest upon contact with the ball - the United full-back rooted to the spot as his former team-mate placed the header perfectly inside David De Gea's near post. An astonishing act of athleticism. Ronaldo suspended in the air for what seemed an eternity, seemingly defying science, certainly defying the constant critics.

As much as the game will be (and should be) remembered for the sublime beauty of Ronaldo's equaliser, there was another marvellous moment of agility in the second half. Kagawa, now swapped to the left side with Welbeck moved inside to keep tight to Alonso, suffered a defensive lapse, ball-watched and allowed Sami Khedira plenty of space to drill right across the six-yard area. Rooney reacted too slowly at the far post, allowing Coentrao to get in front of him, the full-back throwing himself at the ball, managing to drive it towards the near-post. De Gea, scampered across his line and, legs-first, diverted the ball to safety. Unconventional, unique and eye-catching. A metaphor for the Spaniard in one single save.

United's shape was much better in the second period. They did drop much deeper but as a result, more bodies were behind the ball, restricting Madrid's counter-attacking by being very disciplined and positionally astute - Phil Jones did this, almost to perfection, in the second half. The introduction of Ryan Giggs for Kagawa ensured more solidity on the back-foot though the ageless wonder did have a great chance to score with ten minutes to go - taking a needless touch in the area when a first-time strike was required.

By playing deeper and inviting the opposition to attack at every opportunity, United did endure some nervy moments late on. But, the quartet of Ferdinand, Evans, Carrick and Jones in particular were dogged and determined - winning challenges, getting vital touches and, essentially, doing the basics right.

In many ways, United's counter-attacking, when it happened (admittedly not very often), was very impressive in the second half. Welbeck, Giggs and Van Persie all had chances to score - the Dutchman will be haunted by his mis-hit, left-foot volley though Diego Lopez deserves credit for tipping his earlier effort onto the bar and, in injury-time, pushing away his low strike that arrowed toward the far corner.

Ultimately, a solid away performance featuring some rousing displays from younger players. Jones was immense while Welbeck went some way to answering those who constantly question his inclusion. The return game will be more of the same and pay little attention to the importance of the away goal - Madrid will score at Old Trafford - but do pay attention to the graft, energy and concentration. Three things that have been missing from United's European displays in recent years.