Weekend Preview: An Unbiased Look at Arsenal's Shortcomings

It's been a long time apart, my Arsenal chums, and I apologize for the long spell between posts. Since the last, we've seen Arsenal recover from a loss to Sunderland with a fairly convincing win over Standard Liege to seal up Group H in Champions League, followed by the devestation of Chelsea coming to the Grove and simply dismantling us, and most recently, the Carling Kids being bounced out of the tournament by a bigger and one would have to say better Manchester City side.

Let me start by saying I didn't see the Chelsea match. I got to Nevadas a few minutes after kickoff and was told by New Door Guy that they were at capacity. So I waited through the first half, and judging by the shouting inside was able to discern that the two goals scored had been for Chelsea. At halftime, no one left, so I went home, and by the time I got there the match was mercifully over. I have to say I'm glad. Having watched the highlights, if you can call them such, our defense was exposed by Drogba once again, which demonstrates that we are still ill-equipped to cope with the big, physical strikers, of which Drogba is probably the best. The first goal was a masterstroke on his part, although I thought in hindsight that the marking wasn't nearly tight enough. The second, the OG by Vermaelen, was simply a result of no communication and concentration, and would have been claimed by a better 'keeper. The third flattered the scoreline, but was deserved, seeing as everyone but Almunia knew where Drogba was putting the ball.

We were outmanned and outgunned, and while I'd love to sit here and tell you all that there are 5-plus months left in the season, there's a lot of football to be played, and we can certainly catch up Chelsea in that time, my heart just doesn't believe it. We're 11 points back of the leaders now, and even if we win our match in hand (Bolton), it'll be 8 points, which is bad enough. Yes, we've seen 8-point deficits made up in the past (I'm sure most of us remember Arsenal leading by 8 in 2007-08 in January and finishing third). But since the injury to RVP, we've looked toothless in attack, while continuing to leak goals.

I don't want to remain all doom and gloom, and it's not the end of the world. We've clinched the top of our group in Champions League, and the FA Cup, a much more meaningful bit of silverware than the Carling Cup, has yet to get going. We're still in with a shout in those competitions, and the team we tend to field is, I think, very well suited to European play. But both Chelsea and United are alive and well in both of those competitions, and judging purely from the current state of things, we seem to be missing some elements necessary to beating those teams and that sort. So, as it's now December and nearly halfway through the season, and since we all know what this team can do well, I'm going all Negative Nelly and including the areas where Arsenal are currently falling short (no pun intended).

First off, as I'm sure we've all seen mentioned in plenty of other places, we have a problem with the size of our squad. I don't mean the number of players in the squad, all things considered we have enough bodies. But the bodie we have are mostly midgets, footballistically speaking. Look at the lineup we put out against Chelsea last Sunday: Almunia (6'4"), Sagna (5'9"), Gallas (5'11", listed at 6'1"), Vermaelen (5'11"), Traore (6'), Song (6'1"), Fabregas (5'9"), Denilson (5'11"), Nasri (5'10"), Arshavin (5'4", somehow listed at 5'7"), Eduardo (dubiously listed as 5'10"). First, let me state that the heights I list are provided by Wikipedia, not always the most accurate source, but the official club site doesn't list players' heights, so that's what I had to work with. Apart from Almunia, who among those names is capable of getting above a crowd of players to head a ball? Apart from Song, Vermaelen and perhaps Gallas, which of them would be able to physically boss opposing players when the need arises?

And I'm not faulting the players for being short, it's not as though that's something they can remedy through effort. And I know I need to stop living in the past, but Arsenal was once upon a time populated with taller, more physical players who could use brawn when finesse proved ineffective, as happens often enough in English football. Players like Vieira, Bergkamp, Pires, Parlour, Gilberto. These were players of that calibre, supremely skilled yet tall enough to ride Space Mountain. Has Arsene meant to shift his gaze away from players of this ilk, or are they in short supply? When the "men against boys" comment goes around, it's not purely a judgment of the respective skill levels; to a degree, Arsenal resemble a youth team because, physically, they are built like one.

Lionel Messi is perhaps the greatest player in the world, but I suspect a team of 11 Messi's would ship quite a few goals. Then there is the issue of health: smaller players tend to be bounced and tossed around in the course of matches; therefore, they tend to sustain more injuries. It's not as though the players I mentioned earlier were never hurt, far from it. But you wouldn't call them injury-prone either, would you? I do believe this to be true. It's either that, or Arsenal have saved money on a physio by hiring a medieval re-enactor for the job.

Next, there is a certain defensive frailty about this squad that goes beyond the physical. Our back four should, physically, be able to stand up to anything most teams can throw at them in attack. But one of the things that allows the 4-3-3 formation to work well when it does, is a full shift put in by all 11 men, and that includes defending by all of the midfield and even the attacking players, and this is where we have rather often come up short, especially without van Persie in the team. Eduardo and Arshavin are brilliant creative players, but neither one is often to be seen harrying a defender to win a ball or sprinting back to help defend. It is crucial to have these contributions as our fullbacks spend enough time going forward to be considered half-wingers, one of whom (Traore) is our third-choice left back and is still learning on the job. Part of what impressed me the most in our opening match against Everton was how easily the 4-3-3 could be an effective defensive formation as well, assuming everyone worked hard on defense. We have gotten away from this and have paid for it.

Third, Manuel Almunia. The Spaniard/naturalized English 'keeper has had plenty of problems, and has certainly been given more chances afterward than the man he succeeded, Mad Jens Lehmann, ever was. Lehmann made two goalkeeping errors to begin the 07-08 campaign and lost his place permanently. Almunia has been solid at times, positively nerve-wracking at others ever since inheriting the number 1 shirt. I would say exactly the same of both Fabianski and Mannone when they have been given runs in the team. At least Mannone made for better songs. I don't want to go on sandbagging any of our players, but it's not as though this is the first time anyone's questioned Almunia's abilities or decision-making in the sticks, is it? If you were to ask someone to name the 10 best goalkeepers in England, how many do you think would include Manuel? And that's 10 'keepers out of 20 teams! Manuel Almunia makes some amazing saves, but he also makes some absolute howlers. The one adjective I would not use to describe him as a goalkeeper is "consistent." Sadly, that is the first word I would want to describe my 'keeper.

Apart from the lack of a suitable central striker due to the concurrent injuries to Bendtner AND van Persie (and let's face it, I don't think anyone, even knowing Arsenal's injury history, expected a situation this dire), which Arsene has already said he will address in January, is where the biggest issues lie. Are things all bad? Absolutely not. We have a great many skilled attacking players, and once they start to click on again, things will certainly look a bit more positive. Add to that the expected return from injury of players such as Bendtner, Clichy, and even Diaby (dear god am I actually pining for Diaby's return?), and the lack of height and physical presence will certainly not be as stark in contrast with what we're seeing now.

One final negative note (of course) is the news that Theo Walcott has apparently picked up another knock, presumably to his vagina, and will be unavailable yet again. I know Theo is an immensely popular player, particularly in England, but for the life of me, apart from his being the lone Englishman getting regular first-team minutes (when healthy), what has he ever really done for Arsenal? The bulk of his quotes that I've seen over the last 2 seasons have been mostly about England and the World Cup. He seems to have played nearly as often for England as he has for Arsenal. Theo to me is a player with great physical gifts but who seems to be getting by largely on reputation. It's time for young Mr. Walcott to get his mind (and hopefully his body) right and start putting in performances for Arsenal. And a little mind-correction with regard to international football might do Comrade Arshavin a world of good as well. Russia are out. Finish crying, then pull your socks up and go to work.

Well the title of the post is, in part, Weekend Preview, so I'll not make myself a liar. I've droned on quite a bit already, so on with the picks:

Portsmouth v Burnley
Pompey haven't looked as awful as I'm accustomed to seeing them this season, despite being trounced by United. Burnley have shown a bit of spark, but will need to show a bit more if they're to stay up.
PREDICTION: Portsmouth 1-1 Burnley

Aston Villa v Hull City
Villa have been on good form, but Hull seem to have gotten their shit together in spite of Phil Brown's ugly orange face and complete lack of managerial acumen.
PREDICTION: Villa 2-1 Hull

Blackburn v Liverpool
Blackburn have been better at home than they have away, and the Liverpudlians have been kind of shit everywhere, but not so shit as to drop them out of a European place altogether.
PREDICTION: Rovers 2-3 Scousers

West Ham v Man Utd
I'd love to see the Hammers pull one out here, I really would. But it's just not in the cards.
PREDICTION: Irons 0-2 United

Wigan v Birmingham
Two shit teams locking horns in a match that is sure to have more than its share of dull, listless play. Boo.
PREDICTION: Wigan 0-0 Birmingham

Wolves v Bolton
Both of these teams have their problems, but Bolton seem to have a few bright spots, or at least fewer issues.
PREDICTION: Wolves 1-2 Bolton

Man City v Chelsea
Despite a win over Arsenal's kids, City are hardly on a roll. And they're hosting the best team in England right now. And Adebayor is a cunt. Although so are all the cunts on Chelsea. But Chelsea will win the Battle of the Cunts. Cunts.
PREDICTION: City 1-3 Chavs

Fulham v Sunderland
Fulham have been able to keep afloat and out of the relegation zone due to a defensive mindset and some scrappy play. Btw, Clint Dempsey is on fire right now. Still, they're going against a largely full-strength Sunderland side who are plenty strong themselves.
PREDICTION: Fulham 0-1 Sunderland

Everton v Tottenham
Everton are just god-awful this season, and I just can't see why. Apart from a handful of injuries, their squad is largely the same as last season's, and I don't think David Moyes has forgotten how to manage all of a sudden (although there's something wrong with that guy's mouth... it's just creepy). If Spuds can't beat this team, they're as sorry as we all think they are.
PREDICTION: Everton 1-1 Tottenham

Arsenal do in fact have a match this weekend, at home against Stoke City. Now if we can't use this opportunity to right the ship and pick up three points, the shitstorm of negativity above will look like a religious revival in comparison with what I'll end up typing. Tony Pulis is a shit manager who has been bailed out quite often by the freakish throw-in skills of Rory Delap and nicking points off of goalless draws. Let's not kid ourselves: this is NOT a very good football team, and it is a team that Arsenal can and should beat. Being that we're at home, I think we can all expect a very defensive effort on Stoke's part. We can only hope that Cesc & co. can break down the defensive wall they throw up and get a goal early, forcing Stoke to attack us in earnest and set them up for counterattacks. If that happens, we'll have little difficulty taking all three points. If not... well let's hope we don't have to think about that. A bitmore bad news though: as Arsene inexplicably played Song on Wed. and he picked up a yellow card, he will miss this match through suspension. Let's all hope Denilson can fill his shoes.

PREDICTION: Arsenal 2-1 Stoke

One quick note, Arsene had every right not to shake Mark Hughes' hand after the match on Wed. Hughes' behavior was no less than I would have expected from him: rude, confrontational and boorish. A handshake is a sign of respect, and that sort of thing is earned, not automatic. His recent behavior on top of his managerial resume (consisting of keeping Rovers around by encouraging his players to act like complete thugs and kick the daylights out of the opposition) earns him no more than what he received from Wenger: nothing at all. As for Tony Pulis, I'm sure Arsene will be happy enough to shake your hand after handing you your team's ass.

In other news, The Gooner Review is offering LIMITED EDITION Christmas bundles, such as signed Bob Wilson caps, signed Peter Marinello books and 'The Gooner Review 08-09' DVDs from only 4.99 (plus p&p).

In conjunction they're running a Christmas competition to choose the best Christmas Gooner wishes from fans. See the site for Tom Watt's and Judge Jules' personal wishes.
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Deadline for International orders: Friday 3rd December
Deadline for UK orders: Mon 14th December

That's it for this week. Join us again on Monday when I'm celebrating a long-awaited three points or possibly hanging myself.

- B, a Gooner.