Category Archives: The Panenka

Abou Diaby – A symbol of Arsenal’s failings?


Amidst what amounted to no more than a free for all by journalists worldwide against Arsene Wenger on the Robin Van Persie saga, Arsenal’s opening press conference of their tour of the Far East contained a significant bit of transfer news. Yann M’Villa, the young French defensive midfielder from Rennes who throughout May and June the Gunners were supposedly on the brink of signing, was officially no longer on Wenger’s radar. The 20 year old, who so impressed at the base of France’s midfield at Wembley in Les Bleu’s victory over England in November 2011, was now being dismissed. Apart from his suspect attitude, brought to light by his role as a perceived trouble maker and dissenter as France’s Euro 2012 campaign descended into anarchy, Wenger highlighted that Arsenal still had one Abou Diaby to return, offering that “when fit, Diaby is number one on the France teamsheet”. Yes, Abou Diaby, he of only four appearances in the whole of last season, three of which he entered as a substitute only to not even last the duration of the 90 mins.

Sound familiar? At a press conference in the beginning of January, Arsene Wenger when questioned on the possibility of signing the prodigiously talented frenchman Yoann Gourcuff, replied ‘We have choices in midfield. We have Abou Diaby coming back from injury”. Fast forward a month, when mulling over Jack Wilshere’s latest injury setback, Wenger spoke of Diaby “needing three more weeks of training. Late February at the earliest”. Let’s go back further: January 2008, with Arsenal top of the league; following Tomas Rosicky’s injury, Wenger asserted a replacement from the transfer market was inconceivable; “I believe that we have the needed quality because Diaby develops very well”. Diaby then predictably picked up an injury “making a simple pass” and missed the rest of the season as the Gunners finished 3rd.

This is not an attack on the 25 year old Frenchman, who for all the world clearly has the talent to become the authoritative midfield figure Arsenal and France have lacked since the talismanic Patrick Vieira. Indeed, on the rare occasions Diaby does take the field for the Gunners he appears to offer a directness with the ball, as well as unpredictable trickery capable of unlocking the mass defences Arsenal encounter week after week. His most injury free season, 2009/10, highlighted Diaby’s qualities as he notched 7 goals from midfield before going on to become France’s standout failure in their disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa. However, Diaby is clearly suffering the effects of a horror tackle from Sunderland’s Dan Smith during the dying moments of a game in 2006. The undoubted trauma of that tackle, which left Diaby’s leg and ankle in tatters, has marked his career and injuries to the extent that the Arsenal website often does not even mention him in articles noting returning injured players. Indeed, last season when Diaby would be substituted injured only a matter of minutes after he had made his return to the team via the bench, the sorry sight was greeted with laughter from Arsenal fans, rather than sorrow. It has become evident to them that Diaby is a symbol at the crux of what has gone wrong at Arsenal under Arsene Wenger since 2005.

Diaby, as talented though he may be, simply cannot be relied upon. Wenger appears to be blind to his inability to string a stretch of games together and thus the dominant midfield presence Arsenal so clearly need is left vacant due to the continual wait for Diaby to “come back”. Diaby is not an isolated example. Of course, Robin Van Persie’s form has been sensational since the beginning of 2011, but it must not be forgotten how his previous lengthy lay offs, rather than spurring purchases of top quality attackers, have left Wenger shopping for bargain basement back ups – the likes of Chamakh (2 goals in the last 12 months) and Park (5 minutes of Premiership football to date), spring to mind, as Wenger continually spoke of the Dutchman’s eventual return. Kieran Gibbs provides another example whilst sadly, Jack Wilshere is the latest Arsenal crock who’s return Wenger continues to speak of, rather than go out and buy a replacement. These injury-prone players, such as Diaby bloat Arsenal’s wage budget to the extent that Wenger speaks of “Nobody (coming in) above the highest level we have here”. Herein lies the hypocrisy of what Wenger has done at Arsenal. Yes, Diaby’s potential is vast and must be nurtured but the old adage is that no player is bigger than the club. If the reliance on him is due to the fact that Wenger’s hands are tied financially, then more transparency is needed at board level. Otherwise, Wenger’s already diminishing reputation will only continue to dwindle under this apparent confusion.

Adam Mazrani

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Cazorla arrival puts Arsenal on course for successful summer


The supposedly imminent arrival of Spanish international Santi Cazorla at Arsenal has brought some positive light to the Gunners’ pre-season, which has been dogged by the Robin Van Persie saga. The issues surrounding their Captain and talisman has threatened to derail Arsenal’s preparations for the new season for a second consecutive year. Indeed, after the debacle surrounding the sale of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas last summer, which resulted in a period of transfer inertia before a calamitous start to the domestic campaign reaching a nadir with that 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis pledged that this summer would be different. Transfer targets would be approached and snapped up early whilst key players would not be allowed to leave. Up until the 4th of July, all seemed to be going well. International class forwards Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud had already been signed, while all signs seemed to be indicating that Van Persie would sign a new contract. The Dutchman’s decision to go public with his intent to leave the club thus seemingly plunged Arsenal into another disastrous transfer window, with the shadow of a player’s inevitable sale overshadowing all affairs. However, as the signing of 27 year old Cazorla draws ever closer, as well as continued speculation over further recruits, it could be argued that even with the sale of Van Persie, Arsenal are on course for one of their best transfer windows in recent years.

Along with the undoubted experience and class of Podolski and Giroud, who will surely help share the goalscoring burden amongst the forward line after Van Persie was forced to shoulder the goalscoring burden alone due to the “efforts” of Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu Young,the Malaga schemer, crucial in their march into the Champions League with 9 goals, 5 assists and a series of sparkling, inventive and impish performances would fit like a glove into the Arsenal system and provide something that has been missing since the departure of Fabregas. Since their former skipper’s return to Barcelona, Arsenal have often lacked the invention or eye of the needle pass to unlock the packed defences that face them week in week out, particularly at the Emirates. With Mikel Arteta more a steady influence, rather than incisive, and Jack Wilshere, Fabregas’ intended successor, taking up residence in the Arsenal treatment room, the onus on creation ironically fell onto Alex Song, nominally a defensive midfielder. Whilst Song forged an eye-catching partnership with Van Persie, leading to the stunning volleyed goals v Everton and Liverpool, the midfielder’s undoubted creative limitations would be highlighted more often than not as Arsenal struggled to find the back of the net at times. Cazorla provides exactly that with a probing style of play reminiscent of David Silva. Sceptics may point to Cazorla’s lack of game time with the Spanish national team in their recent international dominance. However, 45 caps and 6 goals in a team that frequently fields Xavi, Iniestia, Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Villa, David Silva and Fabregas all at the same time should not be sneered at. Cazorla’s mere presence in the Spanish squad is testament to his quality.

With Cazorla on board, capable of playing either wide or more centrally, the Gunners can proceed into next season with a possible starting midfield three of Song, Arteta and Cazorla – creativity, experience and steeliness in abundance. This is not forgetting the likes of Wilshere when he eventually returns, the ever-developing Aaron Ramsey, Abou Diaby (when fit), Tomas Rosicky, a man who appeared reborn in the second half of last season, as well as the likes of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, earmarked as a future creative midfielder. Additionally, with rumours surrounding the potential arrival of deep-lying playmaker Nuri Sahin, the inspiration behind Dortmund’s Bundesliga triumph in the 2010/11 season, Wenger appears to be formulating a squad that can well and truly challenge for honours. On paper, with Cazorla as the midfield kingpin, Arsenal will have a midfield with a variety of options that rank alongside the very best in the Premier League and will surely provide enough ammunition for Giroud and Podolski to settle quickly into English football in the eventuality of Van Persie’s departure. If the Dutchman was to somehow stay at the Emirates, then Arsenal’s possibilities going forward would truly be mouthwatering. Far from being the disaster many journalists seem to keen to push, Arsenal’s pre-season could be about to hit the jackpot.

Adam Mazrani

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Theo Walcott – a case for the defence.


For some Arsenal fans, he is the young speedster who’s torn the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona apart, not to mention Croatia and Sweden at international level for England. Indeed, none other than Lionel Messi himself declared Walcott as “the player we (Barcelona) really feared” after the Arsenal forward was in hindsight as admitted by Fabio Capello himself, wrongly left out of England’s 2010 World Cup squad. However, for other Arsenal fans and an ever increasing number of them,Walcott remains somewhat of a symbol of the club’s failings in recent years. Capable of brilliance but all too often too spasmodically. Walcott himself somewhat bizarrely referred to his performances last season as having “consistency in patches”. Moreover, there are some Arsenal supporters, particularly those who aired their grievances so vociferously at the Emirates Stadium in February, with the Gunners struggling at 2-0 down to their closest rivals Tottenham, who see Walcott as nothing other than a Greyhound; an athlete, one who’s sprinting ability far outweighs his talent with the ball at his feet. Such arguments are now conceivably at the front of the agenda within the powers that be at Arsenal, where the decision must be taken whether to extend Walcott’s contract, which currently is like skipper Robin Van Persies’, due to run out in 12 months time. With Walcott and his representatives seemingly asking for six figures a week, the decision must be made on Walcott a full six years after his ambitious move from Southampton to Arsenal. Has Walcott shown enough to justify matching his demands, or is it better placed to sell him on to clubs who would undoubtedly be willing to give Arsenal a profit on their initial investment?

Walcott has faults, of that there is no doubt. His technique with a football is clearly not at the level of a Luka Modric, or if we put it in comparison with other Premier League wingers; Nani, Eden Hazard or Hatem Ben Arfa. Walcott often appears uncomfortable dribbling with the ball at his feet, incapable of taking on players and beating them in the way Gareth Bale and Antonio Valencia seem to do so easily. Occasionally, his speed seems to affect his usually consistent level of finishing as his legs tangle and an embarrassing moment ensues. The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Arsenal, seemingly fighting against Walcott for the right wing position has also put pressure on the 23 year old from Stanmore, London. Oxlade-Chamberlain appears to be a winger in every sense of the word, fully comfortable left and right, excellent at taking players on and possessing a natural technique that Walcott has never been fully capable of executing. But is the problem simply that Walcott, played on the right wing ever since his arrival in North London is not a winger. Walcott’s best performances for Arsenal and indeed for England have often seen him arriving to finish off moves, running onto balls that are played through to him in between and behind defenders, in the striker mould of a young Michael Owen. Walcott, The Tottenham game in February is a clear example. In the first half, Walcott toiled as he received the ball deep in the opposition half, closer to the half-way line than the goal. In such positions, Walcott’s talents are rendered inert. The second half saw Walcott at his best, running onto two precise through balls from Van Persie and Song, and cooly finishing both chances with all the accuracy of a striker. I myself have often called for Walcott to be played up front with a Van Persie in behind, in the mould of a Bergkamp/Henry combination. This is not to try and compare the talents of Walcott and the Frenchman, Arsenal’s record goalscorer, but simply that when given the service and in particular balls for Walcott to run onto in behind the defenders, there is arguably no more effective player in the Premier League.

Walcott has also more than proved that even on the right-wing, he is capable of providing an effective and match-winning influence. His statistics from the last two seasons match up with any right winger in the world, let alone the Premier League. Last season, 13 goals and 11 assists made him Arsenal’s second top goalscorer and top assist maker. Not bad for a team who finished 3rd in the Premier League behind the might of the two Manchester clubs. Walcott’s ability to produce against the biggest teams and the biggest games also points to a player worth keeper. He has scored four goals in his career against Chelsea to date, as well as causing Barcelona numerous problems. The likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United have all suffered under Walcott’s onslaughts. A big game player is always of great value, none more so at Arsenal where the players often appear to buckle under the pressure. Walcott’s detractors argue that this is simply because of the greater space afforded to Arsenal against the better teams, meaning that Walcott’s limitations as a footballer in tight areas are masked. Surely however, the argument is – so what? Should a player who is proven to be a matchwinner against the biggest of teams be binned simply because it is “only” due to him having more space? The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo have often failed in the pressure matches so the idea that Walcott is undeserving of praise for consistently producing is laughable.

In conclusion, Theodore James Walcott is evidently far from being the perfect footballer. However, what he brings to Arsenal in his sheer presence seems to scare the opposition into dropping ten yards further back, thus allowing more space for the likes of Van Persie and this season Podolski and Giroud to wreck havoc. It has also been noted that Walcott is exactly the type of player Arsenal have struggled against for several seasons now. Thus, when Ivan Gazidis and Arsenal’s contract negotiator Dick Law sit down to discuss the merits of giving into Walcott’s demands, the young Englishmen’s sheer ability to hurt opposition from nowhere, literally in a flash should be considered. As one of England’s brightest stars, to let him go in a summer where the Gunners might also lose Van Persie would be a disaster.

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What the European Championships taught us


Three Thoughts on the Euros

1.) More enjoyable than the World Cup

The World Cup brings the excitement of seeing countries from across the globe take battle: the samba stars of Brazil, the exhilarating Lionel Messi for Argentina or the raw power of Didier Drogba and his Cote d’Ivoire team. However, compare the opening stages of this Euros (or the last for that matter), where the sublime Russians destroy the Czech Republic, only for the Czechs to qualify at the former’s expense, whilst the next day saw Denmark overcome the much-fancied Dutch with a brilliant piece of individual skill, to the tedious opening stages of the last World Cup, where we saw Slovenia and Algeria do battle in a woeful game decided by a goalkeeping howler, while Japan and Cameroon made up another painfully bad “contest”. Of course, circumstances vary from tournament to tournament but what the Euros gave us was 16 on the whole well-matched teams, all sensing an ability to beat each other and thus competition was fierce and great. Can the same be said of the 32 team World Cup, where one can simply fall asleep through the group stages and still predict who will go through? Can South Korea realistically harbour hopes of beating Argentina? No. But can Croatia realistically believe they can put out the all conquering Spanish? An Ivan Rakitic point-blank miss was the only prevention from doing just that. This of course makes a mockery of UEFA’s plan to increase the size of the Euros to 24 teams for 2016, with Michel Platini citing the need for “good teams such as Lithuania and Scotland” to take part in the tournament. Did anyone watch Scotland play a relatively limited (as this Euros told us) Czech Republic in Prague in 2010, famous for the Tartan Army’s 4-6-0 formation (played in a very different way to Spain’s strikerless formation)? Exactly.

2.) Deep-lying playmakers are in vogue.

Ask for many peoples’ player of the tournament and a good number would say: Andrea Pirlo. Brilliant, they said. The way he controlled the tempo of matches from a deep lying position. Superb. For Spain, Xavi and Xabi Alonso picked up the plaudits for their distribution from deep. The Portuguese marvelled at the displays of Joao Moutinho, particularly in the tournament’s latter stages. What these players all have in common is that they really move forwards with the ball at feet; their position rarely advanced enough to be described as “attacking midfielders”. Rather, they sit deep, pinging passes long and short and dictating the tempo of matches. The “Makelele position”, that of a deep midfielder that simply destroys is slowly dying. Holland supporters and observers for example, harangued their coach for playing two destroyers in midfielder, Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel. Instead, their were calls for Rafael Van der Vaart to arrive in place of one of them as a deep lying playmaker. For England, following the lesson handed out to them by Pirlo, the hopes on Jack Wilshere, seen as a deep-lying play maker, grew further. Fundamentally, as teams become more defensively solid and impenetrable,  Even at club level, the need for holding midfielders to do more than simply “hold” is becoming paramount; none more so shown by Barcelona, who play without a conventional “destroyer”, while Arsenal’s “holding midfielder” Alex Song proved quite the creative force last season. Even Yaya Toure, so often seen as a pure “destroyer”, has become a monumental attacking presence for Manchester City, whilst his more defensive counterpart Nigel de Jong, has been marginalised.

3.) The striker is not dead

The Golden Boot winner Fernando Torres, top-scored with only 3 goals from just over 2 matches played, Spain produced a display of such artistry and goal-scoring potential in the final playing a formation with playmaker Cesc Fabregas as the “false 9”, while other strikers, such as Gomez, Rooney, Kerzhakov and Benzema flattered to deceive. The end of the striker? Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer seemed to think so on the BBC during the final. Is it however? Consider Spain’s 4-0 final victory. As brilliant as it may have been, let us not forget that the scoreline only increased from 2 to 4 once conventional number 9 Fernando Torres entered the field, making vertical runs that stretched the Italian defence. Suddenly, a Spanish team that looked comfortable sitting on a two goal lead looked like running riot. Similarly in the Spain v Italy game earlier in the tournament, it was only through the introduction of two conventional strikers in Antonio Di Natale for Italy and Torres for Spain that saw a greater goal threat emerge. In other matches, without the predatory instincts of Mario Gomez, where would the goals have come from in Germany’s opening two matches versus Portugal and Holland. The Holland game in particular saw Gomez produce an exquisite turn and finish in the box that only a pure finisher could have produced. Similarly, Italy’s vanquishing of the Germans in the Semi-Finals were hugely down to the vertical runs of Mario Balotelli, who’s two goals obliterated the dreams of the tournament favourites. Even from an England point of view, the sheer beauty of Andy Carroll’s headed opener v Sweden showed that a striker will forever be needed in football. Of course, there was something magical about Spain’s striker-less formation, where 6 attacking midfielders buzzed around to almost cerebral effect, but let us not forget that Spain were often on the brink at times due to such a striker-less formation and indeed their best group stage performance came (albeit against the Irish), when Torres was introduced from the start. Essentially, as defences become tighter, whilst prompting and probing attacking midfielders are useful; there are occasions when predatory striking instincts are what’s needed to make the difference. 

Adam Mazrani

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