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Olympiakos Away - Flashback to November 25th 2003 - Arsenal destroy Inter at the San Siro

We've been here before don't forget. Just over twelve years ago, me and my good mate Trev, met early in the morning at Heathrow for the flight to Milan Malpensa and then spent an enjoyable day "preparing" for the fixture that evening. The weather was persistent drizzle as we took the metro and the tram to the Guiseppe Meazza. As we all know, an Arsenal team missing uber warrior Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp (flight tied), and critical defenders; Martin Keown and Lauren, literally massacred one of the better teams in Europe, a club with a history steeped in the folklore of catenaccio, a team which had beaten Arsenal 3-0 at Highbury by 5 goals to 1. We even had Pascal Cygan playing at centre half!

However, the mists of time are a wonderful thing. Yesterday I looked at a transcript of the game and it's easy to forget that although this was Thierry Henry at his unplayable best, let's not forget it was 1-1 at half time and we didn't string a pass together for 25 minutes, and though the second half performance was fabulous, the last three goals were scored in the final five minutes. Nevertheless, the result did the trick, it was in many ways the springboard of belief that the Invincibles needed and was a critical turning point in the season.

Back to Milan - we took our seats, and then we stood on them for 90 minutes and witnessed one of the greatest away performances by Arsenal in Europe, although Henry received most of the plaudits, I remember Edu's performance as being excellent in particular. After the game, we were kept back for almost two hours, the local Carabinieri demonstrating their colours and lack of good humour and we exchanged with a solitary Gooner, who seemed to have watched the game from behind the Internazionale director's box. Eventually, Trev and I ended up in a restaurant bedecked in black and blue scarves and shirts until the very early hours, and we were treated like a form of football supporting royalty, truly, truly memorable.

So, can we do it again? Of course, there's a chance. We're missing key players, as the 2003 San Siro side were, and the knowledge that the game has to be won lends it the simplicity of clarity. I assume that the manager will play the same team that beat Sunderland on Saturday, therefore a return to the Karaiskakis Stadium for Joel Campbell and it's a huge night for Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil. We're missing our two best players in Sanchez and Cazorla, but the back four is settled and we have a world class keeper to boot.

There will be goals, so I'm going for a see-sawing 3-2 victory to Arsenal.

By Ian Byrne

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Moneyball and how and why Wenger lost the magic touch

I'm re-reading Michael Lewis' Moneyball for the third time. If you haven't read it, or you've just seen the film, check it out, it's fascinating and really well written. The premise of the book is how the General Manager of the baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (below), built one of the most successful teams in the States on a shoestring budget and consistently beat teams with three or four times the budget of his own.

Beane used a myriad of approaches to achieve this. However, the starting point was to challenge the essential foundations on which major league baseball was built and then by analysing specific data to isolate which aspects of the game led to a winning team, buy players who would fit the team's modus operandi, at a heavily discounted price, dictated by his meagre budget.

Therefore, a realisation of what is actually critical to winning matches and exhaustive player analysis was crucial to the continued success of the project.

The similarity to the earlier years of the Wenger project at Arsenal is quite compelling here. Wenger is feted as being responsible for revolutionising the way clubs trained and prepared for games and never spent "big" on players, as his competitors did. The question of interest is why has Wenger abandoned the player acquisition rules of Moneyball and has instead drifted to the dark side, spending £77 million on two footballers? It feels that only players of established high value are being brought into the club, and more pointedly and of more direct concern, when these players aren't available, no one is brought into the club. So what changed?

Wenger's addiction to his laptop and the player performance figures he craves is well known, I assume that this tendency to fire up ProZone is still a big feature of his analysis and preparations. It's when you examine Arsenal's transfer policy, that the ground-shift becomes clearer. Billy Beane's Moneyball policy is dictated by budget, but also a draft system which he played to his enormous advantage. European football, is in a more privileged position, as players can be transferred for a fee whilst in contract, as opposed to a system in MLB which is based on a a players serving a six year lock-in post draft and then being available as a free agent, or players moving between teams depending on their wage demands. This system has been in place since the 1970's.

To Beane risk is mitigated by purchasing numerous options at a low price, as opposed to the one-off superstars that he can't afford anyway.

Since Bosman became law in Europe in 1995, the canny manager was able to plunder undiscovered jewels from the market, if his club's scouting policy and ability to move quickly was equalled by a supportive board. This was definitively the case at Arsenal, who bought brilliantly, below is a selection of player's bought in the 1996/97 season alone:

Marc Overmars bought in June 1997 for £7 million.
Patrick Vieira bought in August 1996 for £3.5 million.
Manu Petit bought in June 1997 for £2.5 million
Nicolas Anelka bought in February 1997 for £500,000          

These four players were bought for £13.5 million and sold for £68 million. Each was a risk in some way, they were either young and untested, or in the Dutchman's case, deemed to be a massive injury concern, but it was classic Moneyball, they were bought on the cheap, because they each offered Arsenal something different, but something the club needed, furthermore, their re-sale value was huge.

When you scroll through the seasons, the footballers of this vein, brought into Arsenal include Thierry Henry (an unloved substitute at Juventus), Freddie Ljungberg, those two for a combined fee of £13 million, and the list goes on; Lauren (£7m), Edu (£6m), Pires (£6m), all five were Invincibles.

At this time, Arsenal had a massive asset, one overlooked and given little or no credit by anyone at the club these days, including the current manager, David Dein (below). Dein loved the Wenger project almost as much as he loved the club itself and was formidable as a sounding board, hustler and deal maker. He was exceptional at getting the transfers across the line and used his considerable influence repeatedly.

When I consider why Mr Wenger didn't buy one single outfield player this summer and why, of his seven purchases last summer, only Sanchez has featured as a regular, I can only conclude, that were David Dein still at Arsenal, things would be fundamentally different. 

Dein wouldn't put up with the manager's dithering. Arsene Wenger is now in his mid-60's, but his ineffective transfer policy isn't down to age, sadly, it's down to arrogance. The relationship he enjoys with Arsenal's absent owner and the way he is able to dictate to the CEO and the board, has allowed him to occupy a position where he has to answer to no-one. When you lose accountability in an organisation, you lose effectiveness and decision making, you create a vacuum.

Therefore, the days of the Wenger (Moneyball) project aren't numbered, they've gone.

Come back David, we miss you.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal Transfer Window - Incompetent and Ineffectual

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the more that things change the more they stay the same.

In an article from Arseblog from last October, which introduced Arsenal's new Head of Academy, Andries Jonker, he highlighted that it was critical that the club completely overhaul it's scouting network. After a transfer window, in which Arsenal bought one player, Petr Cech, this necessity has been brought into even sharper focus, or has it? Arsenal needed a keeper, Cech wanted to stay in London, did we need an extensive scouting network to spot that one?

The purpose of a scouting network is to provide a list of targets and for the management to decide which is the highest priority. I assume that the scouts are doing their job, as there are frequent references in the press and the blogs, of scouts being present at matches to check out a specific player. I also know that players like Koscielny, for example, were scouted on numerous occasions, I think he was watched over 30 times. So the scouts are in place and presumably fulfilling their obligations. There was an interesting line in the interview with Jonkers, when he said a crucial aspect of the scouting network was to find players "who are at the right age to work with Wenger immediately".

To me, that would point to footballers of an age and experience to go straight into the first team squad, but Jonkers is Head of the Academy and therefore, the more worrying undertone, is that the club's scouts are prioritising players who are the right age for the Academy, therefore in an age group of 16-20, as opposed to established footballers.

At the start of the window, Arsenal needed to sign three players, the keeper was signed, but there was only speculation about signing a centre forward and Arsenal were never linked in any meaningful sense to a holding midfield player. After the early move for Alexis Sanchez in 2014, who was secured in early July of that year, supporters would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a shift in the club's transfer policy. The events of this window confirm that it's a case of plus ca change...

The most impressive team this term has been Manchester City, who have spent £158 million in this window, most notably signing Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, for £49 million and £54 million respectively. City have a similar scouting network to Arsenal, but the fundamental difference is that they have an executive tier that reviews progress and meets regularly to decide the steps required to prioritise player purchases and take action. At Arsenal, Dick Law is the principle negotiator, but it's the manager who has the final say. He prevaricates, he gets cold feet, he changes his mind, we lose players, again and again. You could win a World Cup with the footballers that Arsenal have missed out on.

When questioned about Arsenal's lack of transfer activity, Wenger preferred to shift the conversation to dissecting Manchester United's signing of Anthony Martial. This transfer has raised eyebrows, £36 million for a 19 year old who scores a goal in every four appearances? It does reflect however, a club that is willing to take a qualified risk. Because taking risks is central to running a business, when we recruited a manager who had been sacked in France and was managing a club in the Japanese J-League, that was a huge risk.

When the Glazers bought Manchester Unite the reaction from the supporters was so fierce, that it forged the creation of a new football club for disenchanted fans to channel their fury. Ironically, under these owners, United have spent enormous, eye watering amounts of cash on players of varying quality - over £250 million in just over the last year and pay weekly wages of £300,000. Which leads me to question what lies at the heart of the problem for Arsenal and it's lack of new recruits. Is it the scouting network, or is it the ownership model?

The simple truth is that Arsenal are owned and led by a small group of individuals who have turned the club's home ground into a corporate shopping mall (Myles Palmer), by prioritising match day attenders as customers as opposed to supporters and have managed to discard the essence of a very proud football club in less than ten years. In all businesses, the strategic direction comes from the very top. Arsenal chooses not to compete with the major forces in European football on acquiring the very best, because it doesn't want to. We don't need a new scouting network, we need a new ownership model.

By Ian Byrne

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Game of two halves? Same old Arsenal.....

Under the existing FA rules, Arsenal should have won last night's game 1-0, Aaron Ramsey's goal, from a delightful through ball from Santi Cazorla, was onside. However, when you take a step back and consider the match in the colder light of day, then a draw was a fair result. Ironically, the late replacement centre halves managed to keep a clean sheet.

I never actually heard an Arsenal supporter pre-season, claim that the team were genuine title challengers, in their heart of hearts, they didn't share the certainty that Chelsea or Manchester City fans did at the start of a campaign. However, there is the unspoken voice, the one you hide from supporters of other teams, that was hinting that having won back to back FA Cups and after one of the most exhilarating performances at the new Wembley, that this season would be the closest Arsenal have been for over ten years.

That voice that has dropped to an even lower register after the first three games. Arsenal were very poor against West Ham, good in patches against Crystal Palace, and very disappointing in the first half against Liverpool and in the second half, played in the exact manner that has been frustrating Arsenal supporters for ages. More of the same...

After a bright start (and a perfectly good goal being disallowed), Arsenal chose to stage a perplexing meltdown, caused by players making difficult passes at tight angles and therefore ceding possession to a Liverpool team, pretty weak and very beatable to be honest, that grew in confidence. Liverpool actually felt sufficiently emboldened to discard their manager's "space management" theory and attack an Arsenal team, whose performance by the half hour mark was littered with mistakes. 

I felt for young Chambers, who had a shocker and in the first half, and the only Arsenal outfield players that could hold their heads up were Coquelin and Monreal. Thank heavens, Petr Cech loves living in London because without his experience, Arsenal would have been 2-0 down at the break.

The second half was an improvement, Gabriel in particular stepped up to the mark and Chambers calmed down sufficiently to concentrate on being a stock centre half. Arsenal remembered that an integral part of passing is ensuring that the ball ends up at the feet of a team-mate and began to threaten. Both Sanchez and Giroud came close, and as he does, Ozil began to flourish in space and actually ask for the ball. Ramsey looked dangerous cutting in from a wide position and Giroud started to lead the line with a modicum of aggression.

However, the result was a stalemate, only Sanchez came close, grazing the post and Mignolet was able to make two comfortable saves. With the exception of 2011-2012, this is the worst start to the season, for six years. There is just over a week left in the transfer window and although I' be very surprised if Arsenal sign anyone of real note or value, the manager needs to listen to his "inner voice" and his supporters, we need a top striker and soon. Anyone for Cavani?

By Ian Byrne

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Are Arsenal perennial slow starters?

There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth last Sunday, Ed Chamberlain had it right on Sky at half time when he said "same old Arsenal". In essence, Arsenal made two (very bad) defensive errors and were punished for both, and how many times have we seen that in the past? Of more concern to me however, was Arsenal's usual paucity in attack, combine the two, and it leads to the question, why do we usually start the league campaign so poorly?

Last season we had ceded the Chavs eleven points by November, we finished twelve points behind them at season end. I have seen several posts on twitter espousing how well Arsenal would fare if the season ran from January as opposed to it's natural start in August. This is errant nonsense of course, but it does highlight that Arsenal do finish the season well, but despite this, are unable to reclaim the ground they have lost in the months before Christmas. 

If you consider Arsenal's first three games in each of the previous six seasons, they have averaged five points in the first three games. Not a disaster, but if that form were to be replicated throughout the season, Arsenal would finish with 62 points. In every year, bar one, in the last six years, that puts us in the dreaded Europa League spot. In only one season (2010-2011), did Arsenal achieve the requisite two wins and a draw which defines a title winning team.

These are the statistics:

2014 - 2015     5 points
2013 - 2014     6 points
2012 - 2013     5 points
2011 - 2012     1 points (including 8-2 away at the Theatre of Muppets)
2010 - 2011     7 points
2009 - 2010     6 points

As I've said, hardly a disaster, but neither a platform for the self-belief that builds in a championship winning team. What made the West Ham defeat worse was threefold: Firstly, it was West Ham, secondly, it was at home, thirdly (and critically for the supporter), Arsenal fans were believing the hype that Arsenal are genuine title contenders.

West Ham had travelled to Romania just three days before, so we would wipe the floor with the Hammers three or four nil. However, we hadn't reckoned on the crafty Croatian Bilic. Don't forget that he had frustrated Arsenal with a canny, defensive performance with Besiktas a year before and West Ham deserved those three points, that was an excellent effort by their back six.

Of more concern was Arsenal's willful motivation to repeat the same attacking shape repeatedly, when it was obvious it wasn't working. West Ham had a two goal lead away at a team they hadn't beaten in 16 previous matches. Therefore, they had every right to put men behind the ball, what did we do to engineer the same score at City last season?

I was abroad when we played in that daft Singapore trophy. I saw the Everton game, and yes, it's a meaningless pre-season match. However, Arsenal were playing with real width, with a three behind Giroud. It looked interesting and Arsenal were getting the ball wide as a tactic and it worked. It allowed Ozil and Cazorla to swap roles depending on the flow of the game. Arsenal used the same philosophy against Lyon and that worked too.

Against West Ham, the first real match of the season, we reverted to type - why?

The next two fixtures are away at Palace and home to Liverpool, the results take care of themselves, based on the imponderables of how well we/they play, luck and refereeing, but it would nice to see Arsenal learn a lesson every now and then.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd

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Arsenal pulverise under par Villa - where next?

I was fairly confident that Arsenal would retain the FA Cup on Saturday, but there was always the niggle that Christian Benteke might snatch a goal. However, on the day, Benteke, like the rest of his team mates failed to register in a largely toothless display. Saturday was all about the Arsenal.

It's wishful thinking to read too much good news into one performance, but it's hard to dispute that Arsenal are making steps forward. The most interesting part in BBC's build up (nice to see the nation's premier football trophy receiving greater prominence from the national broadcaster), was Gabby Logan's interview with Arsene Wenger. Wenger stated that he was most proud of his work at the club between 2007 and 2014, the era best referred to as the "trophyless years". The manager's argument was that the financial straits imposed upon the club by the building of the new stadium, meant that the accomplishment of continuing to secure Champions League football, whilst having to sell his best players, was above and beyond his earlier achievements.

A manager who has just won back to back FA Cups is allowed his opinion, but as a supporter, I remember the doubles of 1997-98, and 2001-02 and the FA Cups of 2003 and 2005 with slightly more fondness. Mr Wenger does have a point however, in that the achievements of 2006-2014, are of the type, which history may judge to be of more importance, whereas for those of us living in the here and now, Arsenal, like every other football club is a constant work in progress.

There was a sense of Arsenal laying down a marker in the final on Saturday and it was an excellent performance. My most persistent criticism of the manager, is of his stubbornness; he can see the deficiencies in his team as clearly as everyone else, but to do something about them confirms that he has made a mistake. This is why he had to be bounced into the decision to recall Francis Coquelin from Charlton Athletic, a decision which in effect turned around Arsenal's season. As a result, the manager has acknowledged what the majority of us having been saying for years, namely, Arsenal were weak in deep midfield and the team didn't have an effective screening player - actually we did, it was just that he was never picked.

So moving forward, a definitive positive from this season is that the management seems to have accepted the necessity of selecting a player who is a specialist as a defensive midfielder. I would strengthen in this area, both Vidal and Schneiderlein represent highly qualified options and now Arsenal are free of the financial shackles placed upon the club by building a 60,000 seater stadium in the most expensive city in the world, the club can afford such investment.

A pointer to Arsenal's continued improvement, is the number of players that club should now buy. Last year Arsenal needed a goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a full back, two midfielders and a striker, This summer, the club needs to buy a new goalkeeper, a holding midfield player and a striker - that is actually progress. However, Chelsea and Manchester City can push their fortunes forward by adding one or two players of huge quality. They have the cash and it doesn't take too long to assimilate one or two new footballers, so we're in the territory of marginal gains.

Petr Cech would be an excellent buy and apparently the Russian has said he can pick his club, and Cech wouldn't need to uproot his family by signing for Arsenal. In this sense, for Arsenal, just having won two trophies in consecutive seasons is a very positive factor, it attracts players who feel that they are joining a team that knows how to win things. Furthermore, yet again, Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League, and the really top players are only really interested in playing in what is the best football competition in world football. If Chelsea force Cech to stay, or refuse to sell him to Arsenal, then it's imperative that Arsenal buy another high quality, proven goalkeeper.

I'm quite happy with our defenders (haven't been able to say that for a while), Monreal has had a very solid season and Bellerin has been something of a revelation, although I think he needs to work on the purely defensive aspect of his game. The centre halves seem established, I'd expect to see Koscielny and Gabriel feature more regularly and I think that young Chambers has the making of a very good centre half.

Up front, we need to buy the type of player that Theo Walcott aspires to be. He played very well on Saturday and now he is fully fit, he can hopefully push on. There are games when Giroud is  the right man to lead from the front (away at Stoke for example), but at home, when we are trying to play through 8 or 9 "defenders", I think that Walcott (or an even better alternative), could be the difference between drawing 0-0 with Sunderland, or losing 1-0 to Swansea.

In midfield, we are as well positioned as any other team in the division. Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez have been fantastic for Arsenal this season, I also love their combination of toughness and cheerfulness. I'd expect Mesut Ozil to get better (although I'm still not his biggest fan), and if Jack Wilshere can stay fit, he will battle for a berth in midfield with Aaron Ramsey.

This is the closest Arsenal have been to having a squad which might challenge for the title. But let's see what Chelsea, City and United do in the transfer market. This is an opportunity to close the gap, but only if the manager has the courage of his convictions, whatever those convictions might be.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd

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3-1 down, 3-0 up? Monaco V Arsenal & Arsenal V Anderlecht

Almost 45 yeas ago, in April 1970, Arsenal ended a 17 year trophy drought by reversing a 3-1 first leg defeat, what are the chances of achieving a positive outcome tomorrow? 

An encouraging league win against West Ham on Saturday and a tub thumping FA Cup victory at Old Trafford have helped to banish the feelings of recrimination that followed the debacle of the home leg against Monaco. But how confident can Arsenal supporters really feel?

Those of us lucky enough to have been at the San Siro in 2003 when Arsenal humiliated Internazionale 5-1, can testify to Arsenal's ability as a club to reverse difficult situations (Inter had beaten us 3-0 in the group fixture at Highbury), but this was a team that was to go unbeaten the next season and included Henry, Pires, Ljundberg, Cole etc....

However, I feel that there are closer parallels with the Inter Cities Fairs Cup Final of 1970. Bertie Mee had inherited the mantle of manager from Billy Wright in 1966. Arsenal had lost two successive Wembley finals against Leeds United and amazingly, Swindon Town in 1968 and 1969 respectively. This was an unloved and under-rated Arsenal side, made up of journeymen and home products. They had beaten an excellent Ajax team 3-0 in the first leg of the semi final, that included the Rudi Krol, Pier Keizer and the great Johann Cruyff. The programme on that day suggested that the Dutchman would represent good value for any club able to "find the £200,000" sufficient to buy him.

The Anderlecht team also outmatched the Arsenal players on paper with another Dutchman, Jan Mulder their stand-out footballer. True to form Anderlecht were winning 3-0 with ten minutes to go, when Mee replaced 19 year old Charlie George with the 19 year old Ray Kennedy. Kennedy's header kept Arsenal in the tie, just. 

Apparently this was one of those moments when cometh the hour cometh the man as Frank McLintock's rallying speech in the dressing room afterwards raised both the players and staff's spirits. Bob Wilson said later that "you could say that the second leg was won at that point".

The second leg was played at Highbury on the 28th April. There was a similarity between the Arsenal of then and now, as the 1970 team was consistently compared (unfavourably) to the great teams of the past, in the same way that this side is compared to the Invincibles. This was used by Mee as a call to arms and the Arsenal men were super-charged from the off.

Eddie Kelly scored a thunderbolt (YouTube it) on 25 minutes, but despite dominating proceedings Arsenal left it late before scoring two quick goals from Radford and Sammels on 72 and 76 minutes. Victory was secured and the drought broken. This trophy success is often over-looked, it was played in April to make way for England's defence of the World Cup and is over-shadowed by the double of 1970-1971.

The lessons of football history teach us that hope is the one characteristic common to all teams. Why shouldn't we feel that we can beat Monaco? 3-0 might be a stretch, but 3-1 takes us to extra time. One thing is certain, Arsenal can't play as badly as they did in the first half. Walcott was obviously given a start on Saturday to see if his pace could trouble the French team's defenders. Giroud is bang in form and signs are that even Ozil might be willing to play a significant part.

So keep your fingers crossed, you never know.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me at @RightAtTheEnd

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Arsenal V United - 2 Games That Defined a Rivalry

I was at Old Trafford the last time we beat Manchester United, just over 12 years ago, 17th September 2006. This was eighteen months before the 2008 global financial meltdown, Tony Blair was PM, and the Scissor Sisters were number 1. 

Failure to win at the Theatre of Muppets in multiple previous visits has meat that the fabled rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United has faded considerably. However, United's inability to replace Alex Ferguson, has led to the preferred choice of the under-40 glory hunter, finding themselves in the territory of the "fight for fourth", Arsenal's chosen stomping ground, since, well about 2006, the last time we had won at Old Trafford.

This is a real shame, Arsenal and Manchester United are two of England's greatest teams and although at the moment, it seems that City and Chelsea, the southern and northern lottery winners have things their own way, there are signs, from north London at least, that momentum is starting to build, albeit at a stealthy pace.

In a spirit of nostalgia, however, let's consider two games, from a time long ago, which would define a 20 year rivalry between two giants. I went to both, and paid £5 and £6 respectively to stand throughout both matches. 

20th February 1988 - Arsenal 2 Manchester United 1 - FA Cup 5th Round

It's easy to forget that George Graham had been in situ at Highbury for six months before Ferguson took over the reigns at Old Trafford. United had beaten Arsenal in the league a fortnight before this FA Cup tie and the score was 2-1 to Arsenal when the referee awarded the visitors a penalty, warranted as well, Micky Thomas clipped Norman Whiteside. Before this, an Alan Smith header and an own goal courtesy of Gordon Strachan had given Arsenal a two goal lead. United had got back into the game via a Brian McClair volley.

Three minutes before the final whistle, who should step up to take the penalty, but goal scorer Choccy McClair. McClair composed himself, took a five pace run up and blasted the ball over the bar, well over the bar, it actually sailed just feet under the gantries of the North Bank. Arsenal's left back, Nigel Winterburn (Nutty) decided to console McClair with a few kind words:

"You're shit you are..."

There were further words exchanged, but a fuse was lit, with the inevitable explosion occurring two years later.

20th October 1990 - Manchester United 0 Arsenal 1 - League Division One

At this point in the journey of both clubs, Arsenal had won the league less than 18 months before at Anfield, but United's long wait for the elusive league title went on. By the time Alex Ferguson would get his hands on the trophy, two and a half years later, it had changed shape, and name.

This match is remembered exclusively for the 21 man brawl in the 2nd half, but the winner that day was scored by Anders Limpar. A fabulous solo goal where he brought the ball in along the goal line and beat the keeper at the near post from a tight angle, right in front of the away supporters. In those days, we used to be squeezed in behind the goal with the home supporters directly behind us, so they could throw sharpened coins at our backs and necks for 90 minutes.

The "infamous" brawl was ignited by Winterburn, going in late on Denis Irwin - to be fair, these days the challenge could have resulted in a red card, unless your name is Oscar, or Gary Cahill. As Winterburn and Irwin tried to disentangle themselves, admittedly while screaming and goading each other, who should arrive, but emotionally bruised Choccy McClair. This time his aim was deadly accurate, as a succession of kicks connected perfectly with the prone figure of Nigel Winterburn, In fact, he was doing so well, it was probably unnecessary for Irwin to join in, but he did.

Players piled in from all over the pitch and the referee Keith Hackett battled to restore order. The pushing and shoving (which is actually what it was), went on for about half a minute. Hackett then booked Winterburn and bizarrely, Limpar. Arsenal were docked two points, United one. Work that out if you can.

An interesting footnote, this was the "almost" invincible season and sadly the fact that Arsenal lost only one game that year, 2-1 away at Chelsea, is often overlooked. Arsenal's error was to come within 90 minutes of an unbeaten season two years before the creation of The Premiership and the arrival of BSkyB, who would have us believe that football before 1993 was as popular as floodlit competitive hopscotch.

After our thumping win against our real rivals on Sunday, I can't wait for Wednesday. Let's hope Unai picks the right mix of players (probably the team from the 2nd half against the tots) and shows the same canniness he's displayed in terms of tactical change and substitutions. 2-1 Arsenal.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd

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Mesut Özil - He pisses me right off!

Perceived wisdom dictates that it may take a season for a footballer used to playing in leagues other than the premiership to get to terms with English football. After all, it took Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and even the God-like Dennis Bergkamp, a significant time to settle and demonstrate their best for the club. Even so, there are exceptions to the rule, Alexis Sanchez seemed to adapt very quickly and almost from the off, his performances were excellent (although he's been under par lately).

Mesut Özil, cost £42.5 million, shattering Arsenal's previous record. This has direct implications for club and supporter. Firstly, it's a sack load of cash, even for an organisation with Arsenal's enviable cash reserves. From our perspective, it weakens our moral high horse - it makes it more difficult when discussing football with supporters of Chelsea, and the two Manchester clubs, where we point out the difference between them and us, you know the one; principally that they are cheque book clubs, whereas we develop teams rather than taking the easy but expensive route of success through substantial player investment, in short you buy success.

At Real Madrid, Özil was a superstar, never quite a Glactico, but he was the assist king of La Liga. He burst onto the scene at World Cup of 2010, when he was considered one of the top three performers at the tournament. However, we all know how good he was before he came to Arsenal, it's his performances since his arrival that matter to me and hopefully to him.

Let's get the nonsense out of the way first, you can read a lot from a player's body language, but your stuck with the boat race God gave you. Mesut's pinched, forlorn, exasperated features don't do him any favours. His body language is another issue however. Sky are running an excellent series of half hour portraits on greats of the premiership (as Sky believe that football didn't exist in any serious form before 1993). Miss the Tony Adams episode at your peril. Tony's on pitch actions and reactions to events are on another planet to the tepid mewlings of Özil. How many times have you seen him lose the ball and then shrug his shoulders and point to where the first ball should have been played. Contrast that to Alexis Sanchez. He loses the ball an then sprints full pelt to get it back - that's what an Arsenal player should do.

Since returning from injury, Özil has been okay. He's scored a couple of goals and he's taken some corners that have resulted in goals - big deal, he cost 42 and a half million quid. Remember:

The cost of a footballer both sets the expectation for his performances and exaggerates the paucity of performances.

Furthermore, my sympathies are in short supply for an individual who earns £130,000 per week for playing association football.

I would like nothing more than for Özil to revive his fortunes to 2010 levels (therefore creating higher expectations of course). But his lackluster showings, despite reasonable "stats", are down to personal attitude and choices he makes on the pitch. In most games I've seen, he's been peripheral to say the least. He was very good against Villa away this season and he was superb against Napoli at home last season. That's it for games when he was a match winner.

So when you see young Francis Coquelin, who has a smidgen of Mesut's talent, throwing himself into every game and Tomas Rosicky (aged 34) busting a gut to get on the end of through balls, it makes you wonder how Özil gets away with it? Perhaps having spent 42.5 million, the manager has to play him, in the assumption that at some point the real Mesut will miraculously appear. Regardless, I feel that most supporters judge a player by what they see over 90 minutes, as opposed to a snippet of OPTA statistics and I don't like what I see.

By Ian Byrne

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Francis Coquelin - In praise of the holding player

A wise football man once said that the most important thing in football is balancing your midfield. It's early days, but for two successive league games, Arsenal have done precisely that. By the simple virtue of playing Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey as a brace of deep lying midfielders, Arsenal have looked compact and dangerous.

If it was that simple, why has it taken so long for the penny to drop? Sometime ago, I blogged about the repetitive issue of Arsenal failing to address this vital aspect of our game. There has been a clamour in the twittershpere for a defensive midfielder (DM) for as long as I can remember. Since 2007-2008 season, when Flamini anchored a three man midfield also boasting Hleb and Fabregas, Arsenal have been porous at the centre of the park.

My contention was that shoring up our midfield couldn't be as simple as signing the new Patrick Vieira, purely because, there was no such player available. What was more important, was ensuring that Arsenal had the right combination of midfielders and more presciently, the right emphasis on obligations and responsibilities, in particular, shape and positioning.

The best player in the world last year was Javier Mascherano. His performances in the World Cup were staggering and Roy Hodgson was spot on for recommending him as the top player during the farce that is the Ballon D' Or. This was notable because it was an acknowledgment of the criticality of this element of the game. As Barcelona would never sell Mascherano (who of course plays as a centre half the Catalans) and there are few players anywhere near his level, Arsenal have had to emulate that degree of cover by playing two players in that area, Ramsey and Coquelin.

It works because both players understand their jobs. This type of player used to be called a "ball winning midfielder". Arsenal supporters of my generation remember Peter Storey terrifying opposition players in the 1970's, few got past him and Peter benefited from a refereeing culture that allowed a couple of reducers per game without sanction from a yellow card. My late father eventually refused to go to Highbury because he hated Storey and his ilk - Nobby Stiles, Tommy Smith, Ron Harris etc..."every team had one" was the byline.

These days, thankfully, players can't try and kill each other and although tackling is still a vital part of the game, footballers like Coquelin and Ramsey defend by patrolling they area of the pitch they occupy and by using intelligent running to close space, it's an art form, and for once, Arsenal seem to have cracked it.

Before, we start congratulating ourselves, however, let's not forget that directly after a clean sheet at the Etihad, we went to Brighton and were wide open in the second half. The value of methods such as playing two defensive midfielders need to be persevered with, not jettisoned as soon as Arsenal play supposedly inferior opposition.

Aston Villa were decidedly inferior yesterday, but the shape was right throughout. The best thing about defensive midfield solidity, is the way it inspires confidence throughout the team, the back four feel better, the attacking midfielders feel more assured when they go forward, as they don't fear losing the ball as much.

So let's stick with it, give the young French lad a good 5 year contract and keep on picking him.

By Ian Byrne

Please follow me @RightAtTheEnd
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Time to ditch Wenger's Laptop

There is a fascinating quote from Gilles Grimandi in Barney Ronay's back page article in the Guardian today. Gilles (Arsenal's chief scout in France apparently) believes that the preponderance of the use of data analytics in modern football has led to players choosing the path of least resistance during games, avoiding dribbling, dodging match winning tackles and making easy passes to improve their data readings

What makes the quote even more compelling is that Grimadi's personal playing style was the polar opposite of the supposed modern player's template. Gilles was an unpolished diamond of a footballer, I always thought that he'd been bought at the same time as Petit and Vieira to make his compatriots look even better.

I remember one freezing evening night at Ewood Park singing his song (you put your elbow in, your elbow out....), as he careered into one reckless tackle after another, impervious to pain and a million miles away from the data conscious 21st century player. What makes this even more precious is that the man who signed him is the John the Baptist of the data analytical world. Arsenal's manager was one of the first to embrace the opportunity presented by analysis of player performance, and there is no doubt that it has a definite place in the game. 

Anyone who has read Moneyball by Michael Lewis, or Michael Calvin's fantastic The Nowhere Men, or, in particular, Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, will be able to relate to measurement of performance as mission critical. Modern businesses spend millions on the data measurement of every aspect of their operations and they always have, so it's understandable that football would catch on (although sometime after baseball).

My concern however, chimes with Grimadi's, in that if this data is being shared with footballers, then it's human nature to assume that they may shape their work rate and actions in a game to ensure that their graphs match the manager's chosen contours and gradients. So, the more data oriented the manager the more data conscious the player? Maybe, but in Arsenal's case the defenders and the goalkeeper in particular seem to be oblivious to any analysis of their performance during a game, given the kamikaze actions they displayed at St Mary's on New Year's Day.

For an individual so much in the thrall of the value of comparisons and measurements, the Arsenal manager seems to be suffering from a myopia so pronounced that his final conclusions miss the most glaring aspects suggested by the raw data.

The simple truth of the matter is that the Arsenal manager's laptop seems to be severely malfunctioning. It doesn't seem to provide the information necessary to point out to him that:

  1. Our goalkeeper isn't good enough and neither are the 2nd and 3rd choice alternatives.
  2. We are short of at least one centre half.
  3. We need a top quality defensive midfield player and have since 2005,
  4. The combination of poor rotation and dated training methods leads to our squad being continuously decimated by injury.
  5. We need another striker.
  6. With one striker banned, one injured, and only Sanchez, Campbell, Podolski and Sanogo fit, he loans out Podolski and is in the process of loaning out Sanogo.
  7. He never plays Campbell.
  8. We only have five natural defenders at the club.
  9. Koscielny is being played whilst struggling with tendinitis.
  10. Our backroon staff is sub-standard.
  11. Our manager is over the hill.

My laptop seems to be able to see this, in fact every Arsenal supporter's laptops can see this, but not the one belonging to the man who pays himself £8 million a year. 

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd
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