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Arsenal - Time to try three at the back?

Losing Hector Bellerin has had a significant impact on Arsenal's dynamism and attacking play. The young Spaniard has quickly cemented the right full back berth as his own, elbowing aside Mathieu Debuchy, a full French international with 27 caps, although he is just 21 years old.

Although young Hector is returning to light training, in Arsenal terms this could mean his return could be days or weeks away. Given the availability of two excellent centre halves in Kosielny and Mustafi, augmented by the erratic, but talented Gabriel, is it time for Mr Wenger to try playing three centre backs? I believe that a switch to this approach can reap genuine benefits to the team, especially when Bellerin returns.

Antonio Conte's return to his preferred defensive formation has seen Chelsea flourish, in fact they are yet to lose a point since moving to three at the back. Ironically, it was the 3-0 drubbing handed to the West London by Arsenal that convinced Conte to switch and since then they have won seven league matches on the bounce, conceding a single goal.

Conte used the system throughout his tenure at Juventus and as national coach of Italy. He was able to do this as he was blessed to have three centre halves in Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci, that provided an immensely solid platform, understanding implicitly that their primary function is to defend. The three at the back system also propelled a talented, resourceful Welsh team to the semi finals of the Euros, Chris Coleman exploiting the balance of his team to pack midfield whilst also being able to play two up front.

The critical hinge on which the system succeeds or fails, is the availability of fast wing backs, preferably natural full backs, but the system also opens up the possibility of playing wide players with defensive nous. Bellerin is certainly in that category, Monreal can play the role and it would definitely play to Kieran Gibbs' strengths. The other direct benefit is that the manager can play two forwards with a number 10 playing directly behind and in a central position. Therefore, when fit, Arsenal could play Sanchez, Giroud and Ozil. Furthermore, you can also play with one or two holding midfielders, Arsenal's first eleven could line up as follows:

Cech: Koscielny, Mustafi, Gabriel: Bellerin, Xhaka, Cazorla, Ozil, Monreal: Sanchez, Giroud.

Arsenal have used the system before, in the utter delirium of May 26th 1989, it is often overlooked that George Graham used all three of his centre halves, admittedly in more of a back five!

By Ian Byrne

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Wenger Bottles his Last Chance - Timidity in the market to cost Arsenal dear

Brian Clough famously said that: "Every player is available - for the right price". Clough regularly infuriated chairmen at Derby County, Leeds and Forest, by signing footballers for prices deemed over the odds, but justified this because the players he bought would often fundamentally improve the quality of his squad. When he signed Dave McKay then aged 32, McKay's £16,000 a year salary, was the highest in all four football leagues, at this point Derby County were 18th in the old division 2. That's risk taking for you.

Arsene Wenger has re-written the rule book at Arsenal. Initially in a constructive, positive manner through the introduction of new training techniques, scouting new territories, diet etc... Latterly however, it is clear that the internal constitution that governs Arsenal as of 2016, has one principle architect, author and guardian. The club is made in Wenger's image and no manager in history, has enjoyed the exclusive control he does. He has a supplicant board and an indulgent owner, content to allow the Frenchman free reign, as long as the key financial criteria that define the club's ambitions are met. 

What puzzles me, is why this all powerful polyglot, and self absorbed leader, is so willing to abide by the rules laid down by others is the transfer market. One of the more irritating quotes in the Wenger self-justification canon is "we didn't know that he was available". Every transfer window, Wenger and his team under-perform in the market, as whereas other clubs target the very best, players who are the most prized members or teams and squads, Arsenal target the "available". 

Although the summer window has concluded in a broadly satisfactory manner, you can't help think that this is a chance missed.

The summer started brightly and early, Granit Xhaka signing for £35 million in May was a positive declaration of intent, especially as our sharpest competitors often conclude their transfer business swiftly. Xhaka gives Arsenal more midfield presence, he likes a tackle and is combative with controlled aggression and a fine passer of the ball. Furthermore, he looked a player in the Euros, an effective demonstration of his value to the club.

After this however, an activity vacuum. Rob Holding was recruited on July 22nd. Holding was obviously "one for the future", but has ended up playing all three games of the season so far. I like him and I have a funny feeling that he may, ultimately, be the best Arsenal signing of 2016, but he was on loan at Bury last season. For a good while it seemed that these two (I've purposefully discounted the other two fringe signings), would be the totality of Arsenal's business.

Over a month later and right at the end of the window, Arsenal added Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, for £36 million and £17 million respectively. I do feel that Mustafi is the type of pedigree centre half we needed to sign but, and I hope I'm wrong, does a £17 million outlay for a striker engender a feeling of confidence? Again, we can wait and see, but the biggest hole in the Arsenal first 11 last season, was a 20+ goal striker.

Arsenal did spend over £90 million - well done, 6 out of 10, but both the Manchester clubs spent double this amount, Chelsea invested £140 million, for most of the window, Arsenal lagged £5 million behind Watford in money spent. This might be Wenger's last season and as such you might have suspected he would be tempted to aggressively pursue a centre forward that would fundamentally change Arsenal's prospects for the new season. We offer Champions League football, we are based in one of Europe's greatest and most cosmopolitan cities, we have lorry loads of cash in the bank - £17 million for an uncapped 27 year old from Deportivo who has been on the list for months? 

Another opportunity spurned, I fear that our title rivals may be over the hill by Christmas.

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I've started to hate watching Arsenal

Another installment in Arsenal's underwhelming season. Crystal Palace are a decent, competitive team, but 16th in the league before yesterday's kick off, some good players but eminently beatable. But what was so frustrating about yesterday's performance wasn't the result, it was the manner of the display.

Alan Pardew is a competent, shrewd coach, and up until Christmas his South London team were over performing against expectations and our 2-1 victory at Selhurst Park was a good result - it's a hard place to win, but we needed an own goal to do so. We also played the Eagles in August, when the majority of matches go to the form guide. Nevertheless, they should have been there for the taking yesterday, they were pretty much safe from relegation, and with a point from the Emirates, certainly are now.

Before watching the Arsenal V Palace match, I'd seen most of the Old Firm SFA Cup semi final and Leicester V West Ham. These were blood and thunder games, you'd be staggered if Celtic V Rangers wasn't and for Leicester, needing three wins (and still doing so), the fixture against West Ham was huge. Both matches didn't disappoint, thoroughly enjoyable, passionate examples of British football, not necessarily at it's best, but with all the composite values associated with football on this island; passion, energy, tackling, spite, anger, aggression, commitment.

How many of these were really on display yesterday in north London? It's a slight misunderstanding, that Arsenal's footballers aren't passionate about their club. They are very aware of their responsibilities and I'm sure were "gutted" not to beat a team anchored to the bottom of the league at home, the manager seems to receive most of the criticism, but the players have to hold their hands up too. I saw a lot of performances like yesterday in the 1980's at Highbury, mainly in the earlier part of the decade when we were manged by the late Don Howe. 

From 1980 onwards (until 1986) Arsenal never looked like winning anything, we would usually qualify or the UEFA Cup, but that was it. Accordingly, matches were tepid, we were missing quality footballers never replaced and we had become a faded shadow of ourselves, employing a mix of "over the hill" players there for the cash and the prestige and some youths with heart but whose lack of accomplishment pointed to a failing picture within the club. Simply, we were crap and we knew it.

Attendances suffered, looking at programmes from the period, average gates rarely troubled the counter much past the 30,000 mark. So it's very difficult to under estimate the huge change that the arrival of George Graham brought in 1986. There wasn't a revolution as such, George, a real Arsenal man, understood what needed to be done. Standards which had slipped were rigorously tightened, he was even nicknamed Gadaafi due to the extent of his despotic demands. He put in place a clear footballing philosophy, worked closely with the youth set up and started giving those players a chance and bought cannily; Smith, Bould, Dixon etc...players we needed.

Three things happened; Arsenal started winning, attendances went up, the crowd started to enjoy their football again. What we were watching wasn't Ajax 1971, but we could understand what the manager an his players were trying to achieve and correspondingly we got behind our club. Match days in the late 80's were fantastic, the semi final against Everton when there were over 50,000 is one of my favourite games ever,

Thirty years on I can't say the same. I don't look forward to matches with anything apart from trepidation, I'm sick of seeing us lose sloppy goals, like Bolasie's equaliser yesterday and Cart Horse Carroll's hat trick last week, but we don't threaten much either. We don't inspire any more, we flatter to deceive, but in every game there are moments of true excellence and that seems to be sufficient for the manager and his coaching team to believe that "we are still going in the right direction". Well, we're not are we? It's patently clear to anyone watching that this isn't working.

We're a bit crap, we know it and so does everybody else.

By Ian Byrne

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Wenger - Stalin to Mr Bean

Fact - Football supporters have very short memories and very little sense of perspective.

Back in the "dark days" at Arsenal, when the club had sacked George Graham and were pondering whether recruiting Bruce Rioch would be a good idea, I remember saying to a fellow supporter, that I'd be happy with any manager able to pick a team capable of putting a few passes together. I suppose I was demonstrating exactly the lack of perspective that I see in spades on twitter after the latest setback affecting Arsenal Football Club.

Let's not forget that although those days seemed pretty grim, it was only two years after a period when Arsenal had won five trophies (two leagues) in a six year span. My gripe, and that's all it was, a gripe, was that Arsenal were falling behind our competitors in terms of playing style and competitive calibre. To be frank, the football in the last few months under George was poor, his early teams were unfairly criticised for being long ball and gung ho, but in the last days, that criticism was very valid.

Bruce Rioch was appointed, and the football did improve - marginally, that Arsenal had paid £7.5 million to acquire the services of Denis Bergkamp obviously helped, but the manager lasted only one season. In 1996, Arsenal shocked English football by recruiting a largely unknown (I had no clue who he was...) Frenchman, then managing a team in Japan. 

The rest is history, and it really is, Wenger won the double in his first full season, built one of the most exciting sides seen in any league, shattered Manchester United's dominance, fundamentally changed the way football was coached and managed in England, as well as leading the strategy for the building of new training facilities and a brand new 60,000 stadium. Such was Wenger's involvement in the delivery of the new Colney that he had a say on the design of the coffee cups.

20 years on and he's still with us. His salary is reputed to be somewhere between £9 million and £11 million a year, his position at the club seems to be as solid as reinforced granite - in effect,  the Chief Executive reports to him, but after some encouraging results this season, the inability to beat Watford, Swansea, a frankly crap Manchester United side are looking exactly what they are, indications of a manager whose tactics and overall approach aren't cutting the mustard anymore. 

The Stalin - Mr Bean quote was levelled at the former iron Chancellor, Gordon Brown by Vince Cable in the House of Commons (apparently they are good friends....) and perfectly summed up the then PM's demise. Brown, like Wenger, seemed to be the last to realise that his powers had waned and he found himself in the type of negative mode, whereby, the harder he tried to get things right, the more they went wrong.

Sadly, our glorious leader finds himself in the same, leaky boat. Arsenal haven't played well for months, we were proficient against Tottenham, did a "good job" against City at home, but haven't played really well since beating Manchester United 3-0 in October 2015. It's the same every week, we swarm around opposition team's massed defences because they invite us to do so, as they know that's how to play us. Sanchez, a genuine top draw footballer, collects the ball wide and turns inside the full back time and time again - almost always nullified by a centre half, Joel Campbell can't buy a regular starting berth, neither can Danny Welbeck. Match after match we create a host of half chances convert the odd one, here and there and rarely look like winning unless we score first.

We will get hammered in the Nou Camp, and will probably draw, at best at Goodison Park. So in the space of three weeks we will find ourselves out of every competition. Tragically, the nature of corporate management and ownership dictates that we are stuck with our odious, unambitious owner and board of directors. For the record, they are the real problem, but their go-to man, who collects over £27,000 a day, must answer for another season of disappointment.

He's a class act and his done great things for Arsenal, so he deserves a dignified exit and conclusion to his 20 year tenure, but it must end.

By Ian Byrne

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Leicester City - The most important league game since 23rd February, 2008

We all remember that early kick off on Saturday 23rd February 2008, the abiding memory of the day is the appalling injury suffered by Eduardo Da Silva who was the victim of a catastrophe of a tackle by "footballer" Martin Taylor. There were two goals from a very young Theo Walcott, a late meltdown by captain William Gallas, as Arsenal dropped two points, a trend they were to continue by drawing with Villa, Wigan, Middlesbrough before losing to Chelsea. By the end of March, the title had been lost. Arsenal finished the league in 3rd place.

This team was capable of far more. Based around a midfield of Fabregas, Hleb, Flamini and Silva, with Van Persie (when available) and Eduardo or Adebayor leading the line, and with new signing Sagna, Gallas, Toure in a capable defence, it was a team able to play excellent football in intricate patterns and at pace. I was at Anfield that season as we were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter final stage and can remember Arsenal's second goal as clear as day, the Walcott sprint with the lovely crossed pass to Adebayor. Fabulous, fast attacking football, but with an Achilles heel.

Therefore, it was a team destined always to be the bridesmaid. Perhaps there was something missing? Maybe it was the blend of age and experience that was slightly out of kilter, the injury to Eduardo was decisive, Almunia wasn't an adequate replacement for Jens Lehmann and selling Diarra mid-season was very short sighted.

Whichever, the results are there on record, this team finished 3rd in the league, was knocked out of the Champions League by a Liverpool team that finished seven points behind it and let's not forget took hidings off Manchester United in the FA Cup and Tottenham at the semi final stage of the League Cup. Accordingly, it was a group of players that promised much and delivered nothing.

This Sunday's game against the extraordinary current vintage of Leicester City is just as "big" as the match eight years ago against Birmingham City. Like the 2007-2008 side, this is an other fine Arsenal team, but seems to lack the hallmarks of a truly great side (1970-1971, !988-1989, 2003-2004). It has two superstar outfield players in Ozil and Sanchez, a superb and highly experienced keeper in Cech, a functioning back four, and options in midfield that should allow the team to defend or attack. Good enough to beat Leicester City? Definitely. Will they? Well......

Another critical home game that comes to mind is the demolition of an excellent Norwich City side on May 1st 1989 (like Leicester enjoying an unexpected league challenge that season). Although far later in the calendar, this resounding victory was the injection of confidence and belief that was hugely important in the last stages of that successful league campaign. Sunday would be the perfect platform for a repeat. It's best not to place undue importance on earlier matches against league opposition in a given season, but Arsenal did hammer Leicester 5-2, Alexis Sanchez being almost unplayable in the away tie last September.

To beat a first rate Leicester side and don't just concentrate on their front three, their defensive shape against Manchester City last week was the equal of anything George Graham organised, Sanchez and Ozil need to click. Vardy looks as good as anything I've seen this year, fast, aggressive, super confident so not the game for the big German, Gabriel and Koscielny give Arsenal a chance of containment and tracking.

In midfield, I'd pick Coquelin and Ramsey, with Joel Campbell on the opposite wing to Sanchez, he doesn't give the ball away in dangerous situations with the alarming frequency of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlaine and Giroud, badly in need of a goal, will be just as useful defending set pieces.

It will be a tight game, one Arsenal have to win, while hoping for a draw in the 4.00pm Sunday game. Will they win? Well.....

By Ian Byrne

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Can Arsenal win the title?

It's a moot point as to where the run-in begins in a league season, but as far as I'm concerned it began the day after Arsenal went to Southampton and were hammered 4-0, since then, Bournemouth and Newcastle United were defeated at home and Arsenal managed two away draws against Liverpool and Stoke City (one away victory in 34 years).

Yesterday's draw at Stoke was an important indicator of Arsenal's ability to win the 2015-2016 title. Most supporters will be relatively happy with the two points from the last two away games, as they were probably the fairest results. The most important aspect of both performances, however, was the ability to dig deep; away at Liverpool, to get back into the game, and at Stoke, to battle gamely against a physical team and a referee willing to "let things go". 

This is a quality that's hard to define and almost impossible to build on a training pitch. It's forged rather than acquired and it is the foundation of all successful titles winning sides. It can be described as backbone, fighting spirit, call it what you will, but Aaron Ramsey's header off the line and the blocks and tackles made by the hugely under-rated nacho Monreal, are just as important as Mesut Ozil's sublime assists.

Arsenal lead the league with 44 points after 22 games. I believe that the title will be won this year with as few as 78 points, therefore, to take a very old fashioned over simplification, if Arsenal win all their home games and draw all their away games, bingo! However, sadly football isn't like that and for Arsenal to win the title, the crucial games are:

  • 24th January - Home to Chelsea
  • 28th February - Away at Manchester United
  • 5th March - Away at Tottenham
  • 19th March - Away at Everton
  • 7th May - Away at Manchester City

Much has been made of Arsenal's poor record against other "big 5 clubs" and with good reason, it's been rubbish, but this season things have improved. City and United were dispatched quite comfortably, albeit at home and there's never been a better time to play Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton away are always difficult, but if Arsenal can secure eight points from these fixtures, I would feel that the first title in 12 years might be on.

You will notice that I didn't include the home fixture against Leicester City on February 13th as a critical game, and this is because I feel that Leicester will slip away, the away game at Arsenal follows matches against Tottenham, Stoke, Liverpool and City. They are having a fantastic season, but I feel that they are one injury away from losing momentum.

One element that gives ground for optimism to Arsenal, is the availability of first team players. Arsenal have (hopefully) suffered their injury crisis, as they usually do in the first half of the season. Alexis Sanchez will return against Chelsea, soon after, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky will be fit and ready. Francis Coquelin is not far away and I would anticipate the new signing Elneny slotting in quickly. Although the first half of the season was softer, more home game against league rivals, the size and depth of the squad available in the second half of the season is a positive picture.

By Ian Byrne

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