The Big 60: Arsene’s Birthday and the AGM

Arsene Wenger

Arsene will spend his 60th birthday today at the club’s Annual General Meeting with the shareholders, and, unlike last season, a much more cordial atmosphere is to be expected.

I watched the AGM last year and I have to say that the reports in the press made it seem as though Arsene was attacked and strung up by his legs by the shareholders, who went on to poke and prod him but eventually let him go. Of course, it was nothing like that. A few questioned specific decisions made by the manager, the leaving Arshavin out of the starting lineup in the FA Cup semifinal being the most obvious. And one snippy older shareholder made some disparaging comments that were mostly directed at Silvestre.

One thing you can always count on Wenger to do is defend his players. And he did. It was that comment that lit the fire under Arsene and he began to question some fans’ commitment telling a story about a fan he met in the bathroom after a match that had no faith in the players.

Arsene Wenger in the crowdFor Arsene, and our youth project, it all comes down to faith. He has an unshakable faith in these kids, and so should we. It’s easy to understand why the man would be a bit upset considering everything he’s done for this club. He must have been thinking, “Have I not earned the right to be trusted?”

It’s one thing for Hull fans to question decisions made by Phil Brown. But can the average fan, who maybe watches 5-6 hours of football per week, really know, better than Arsene, what’s best for Arsenal Football Club? That is the very definition of presumptuousness. The man eat, sleeps, lives, and breathes Arsenal 25 hours a day. More than even the most fanatic among us.

Now, of course, this is football and a big part of being a supporter is questioning things like tactics and team selection. We all do that. But that is not what got Arsene upset. Arsene only got upset when one of his players was insulted and it was insinuated that he didn’t know what he was doing. He believes, and told the shareholders, that true supporters always get behind the players and support the team.

Peter Hill-Wood has said:

Arsene is going to say a few words and woe betide any shareholder who stands up and tries to criticise him. I am not going to have it because what he has done over 13 years is unbelievable. If you were a sensible, realistic shareholder, you would be very pleased at what is happening here.

Arsene Wenger 6

Considering that it was right around the time of the AGM and the close of a most frustrating season that Real Madrid came knocking at his door. Almost any other manager would have at least considered it and most would have left. Arsene could have said, “I’m gonna stick it to these ungrateful sods and I’m going to take half the team with me.” Well, of course, HE couldn’t have said that because he is Arsene Wenger, but another manager in a similar position could have said that.

It all just goes to show that this man is dedicated to Arsenal Football Club beyond anything we could ever hope for in another manager. He has said that if we don’t win anything in the next two years, then he will stand up and say he has failed. Somehow, I find that to be a highly unlikely scenario. Happy birthday, Arsene.

In other news, I expect there will be some talk of Stan Kroenke having just recently upped his stake in the club 28.86% He is only one percent short of being forced by law to make a takeover bid. Of course, the other shareholders are not obliged to sell to him but he is required to make an offer.

A Kroenke takeover no longer looks to be a bad thing, especially from Peter Hill-Wood’s perspective:

It does look like he is edging towards a takeover, which I would welcome. I have not asked him if that is what he plans to do, but I am very relaxed about it. If it was to happen, I don’t think you can expect any big changes because he seems to like things very much the way they are.

Obviously, Kroenke is the lesser of two evils, but as time has gone by and he has come into the Board, an eventual takeover by him seems far less ominous now than it did 18 months ago. But make no mistake about it, a takeover will happen within the next few years. However, if it is Kroenke, and not Red & White, we can reasonably expect that there will be no major changes at the club.

Déjà Vu

Carlos Vela taken down by DembeleduSee below for match highlights followed by Arsene Wenger’s post-match interview.

Tuesday’s match with AZ Alkmaar was full of déjà vu on so many levels. Arsenal created a similar amount of chances to most of their other matches this season. Also, our inability to take our chances and kill the game off with the second goal was reminiscent of last season. The goal conceded in the final minute was not only reminiscent of the kind of things that happened last season but also to the first Blackburn goal a few weeks ago.

We never looked comfortable all evening when balls came flying into the box. Five of the eleven goals Arsenal have conceded in the league this season have come from set plays and it is, without doubt, our most glaring weakness at the moment.

Robin van Persie had two quality chances, one after he calmly brought the ball down in the box and made enough space to get a shot off right at the keeper. Another went just over the bar after deflecting off the keeper. The goal came from high pressure from Arshavin with van Persie eventually pulled it back to find an open Cesc coming on unmarked at the far post.

Robin van Persie and Cesc celebrateIt really is so disappointing to completely control and an away tie in the Champions League only to concede in the final minute from a deep ball into the box because of a momentary loss of concentration. Of course, Arsenal should have been awarded a penalty when Dembeledu clipped Carlos Vela from behind in the box in the 84th minute. From the replay, it is obvious that Vela was fouled, and even more disappointing was that the referee looked to be in a very good position to make the call.

Vito Mannone continued in goal despite the apparent fitness of Manuel Almunia, who did not look very pleased on the bench this past weekend during the Birmingham match. It’s obvious now that Almunia has fallen out of favor with Wenger after a few shaky performances earlier this season. It appears he has SERIOUSLY fallen out of favor.

Mannone has deputized well, but if Arsene doesn’t want to go with Almunia, then, for me, it has to be Fabianski. Mannone has done well to get experience in both the league, against smaller teams, and in Europe, but I would not be comfortable heading into the knockout stages of the Champions League or big league matches against Chelsea or United with him in goal. At least, not yet. The achievement on his part is that I could easily see him developing that kind of confidence in me if he continues to play well and cuts out some of the mental errors.

Yet, this should prove a great learning experience to this side, who seem to have already gotten used to pounding teams that are not of their calibre. Luckily, this was hardly a must-win match for is, in the way their match against Lyon was for Liverpool. An away point in the Champions League to the Dutch champions isn’t anything to worry about and with three matches remaining, Arsenal stand one win away from certain qualification.Cesc Fabregas at AZ

However, in the league this absolutely would not do. We are four points off the lead with a game-in-hand. If we secured the points-in-hand, the match is against Bolton, tentatively scheduled for December 2nd unless we should progress  past Liverpool in the Carling Cup, then we would be level with the Chelsea side all the pundits have been falling all over themselves about for the last two months.

But, with the way the club is generally playing, and considering the strength, or lack thereof, of our remaining Group Stage fixtures, it is fairly easy to not get too upset over last night’s result. I’m disappointed, sure, but getting a learning experience from a draw is better than getting from a loss and I believe this result will prove a lesson, especially to the younger players.

In other news, Samir Nasri came through his return to action in the Reserves’ 2-2 draw vs Wolves last night along with Lukasz Fabianski. Nasri set up the opening goal by Gilles Sunu. Also, some of the press seems to be coming around and recognizing the potential of this Arsenal side. Arsenal have a big week ahead of us, away to West Ham on Sunday, Liverpool at home in the Carling Cup on Wednesday, and, of course, the early-kickoff North London derby on Saturday, the 31st.

The Perfect Gift for Wenger’s 60th Birthday

Robin van PersieSee below, as always, for match highlights and a post-match interview with Arsene Wenger.

Another multi-goal margin of victory. Another “more than two goals” tally. Another soft goal conceded. Arsenal have seemingly picked up  where they left off before the international break. Birmingham’s visit to North London proved to be an entertaining match that is open to interpretation.

Goonerholic, rightly, stressed the grittiness of the victory. This is the type of match which, in late 2007-08 and 2008-09, we would’ve been likely to concede a second goal and end up walking away having given away two points. However, and it’s a testament to the growing maturity of the side, I never really feared that we would give away an equalizer, even as we continued to push forward without qualification.

That may be just one supporter’s growing confidence in the side, but I suspect many of you felt the same way I did. Of course, there will be many who have become a bit jaded over the last couple of years that would’ve still expected such disaster but I suspect that even they are beginning to soften their pessimism.

On the other hand, this was a match which Arsenal dominated as well. We had 19 goal attempts to Birmingham’s 3 and shots on goal were 11-2. We completely dominated play until the 39th minute when Bowyer drew one back for Birmingham with their first shot on goal.

Was Mannone Theo Walcott injuryat fault for the goal or was he impeded? Both, I would say. The replay angle from behind the goal certainly looks like Bowyer impeded Mannone’s arms. But, at the same time, Mannone needs to be more decisive and go get the ball. His challenge should have been strong enough to withstand the minimal contact offered by Larsson.

When asked whether or not Almunia would be starting in goal on Tuesday, having recovered from the longest chest infection known to man, Arsene said, “I don’t know.” Mannone is not ready to hold down the number one spot but it appears that Wenger’s confidence in Almunia has taken a hit and I would like to see a healthy Fabianski get a run of games and a genuine chance to lay claim to the spot.

Meanwhile, Theo Walcott’s injury nightmare continues after a crunching tackle from Ridgewell. Ridgewell got the ball first but his trailing leg just demolished Walcott who fell awkwardly over the Birmingham player bent over his back. Walcott now is almost certain to miss Tuesday’s Champions League fixture at Alkmaar. He will be scanned today to determine whether his knee is just bruised or whether there is a problem with his ligament, in which case he could be out for a few weeks.

The concern over the lack of scoring by the forwards a bit earlier in the season can now be seen for what it was… useless worrying and media fear-mongering. Robin van Persie’s goal showed him and his technique at its best. He has now scored once in each of Arsenal’s last four matches and even the concerns he voiced about the need to become more comfortable as the spearhead of the 4-3-3 should be assuaged.Andrei Arshavin 4

The third goal, and the fifth against Blackburn two weeks ago, are perhaps the most encouraging for me. Both were lightning-fast counterattacking goals. The thing that I have felt that separated this Arsenal side from the Invincibles, and even the Wenger teams before that, was the counterattack. The Invincibles were, quite simply, the greatest counterattacking side I have ever seen. They broke with pace, precision, intelligence, and creativity regularly.

In the last few years, as the play has been completely directed through Fabregas, in a deeper position than this year, and our style has become more about intricate passing, we seemed to have lost the will or initiative to counterattack in that manner. That is why it is so encouraging to see these quality counterattacks from the current side. They seem more willing to get the ball up the pitch quickly. How much of this has to do with the formation or Fabregas’s more advanced position I am not sure, but who cares?

With the personnel we have in Arshavin and Walcott, we now have the capability to be devastating in counterattacking situations in a way we were not when we had Hleb and Rosicky on the wings. Arshavin is so dangerous in a one-on-one situation from a wide position, especially when he’s running at defenders. Their reluctance to close him down in those situations is due to a fear of being embarrassed when he blows right by them. So they give him space and he can either do what he did yesterday or what he did against Blackburn.

The third goal looked easy but what made it possible was everything Arshavin has done before. The 4 goals at Liverpool, the great debut goal, and all the other stunning moments in his brief Arsenal career. Because of those, he poses a threat to defenders that is not equaled by many, if any, in the league when he is on the ball. That is what made the third goal possible… defenders’ fear.

Since September 16th, Arsenal have played 7, won 7, scored 21 goals, scored 2 or more goals 6 times, and conceded only 5. Not too bad for an immature side that was in such crisis and unable to challenge for any trophies, according to the media, following the two Manchester defeats.

Alex SongI should also mention the solid matches had by Alex Song and, even, Abou Diaby. Besides for his goal, Diaby put in one of his better off-the-ball performances. Song continues to grow on a weekly basis in the holding role and the better he gets, the better the team gets. The holding role has become almost necessary in modern football but it is definitely so for Arsenal. When Flamini played it well, the club was flying. Last year, with Song just learning the position, the side struggled. The team’s maturation is tied to the development and maturation of Song as a holding midfielder.

Those who question the depth of the side should have a look at our bench yesterday. Almunia, Sagna, Silvestre, Traore, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Arshavin, with Eduardo, Nasri, and Vela besides. Depth for this side is not a problem. As long as Senderos remains, we are only troubled depth-wise when we reach the number four center-back. And even that is only because of Djourou’s long-term injury. We are most certainly deeper than Liverpool, and I would dare to say that we are also deeper than United this season. Chelsea look to have depth but that will be put to the test come January and the African Cup of Nations.

So it’s on to Holland for our Matchday 3 of the Champions League Group Stage to face Ronald Koeman’s AZ Alkmaar. Underestimating this side would be a big mistake as they are the current champions of the Dutch Eredivisie. However, should we come away with maximum points from our first three group matches, our qualification for the knockout round is all but assured.

And the biggest benefit will be that when the fixture list gets hectic, with 8 games each in December and January, we will be able to afford to rest key players in the latter part of the Group Stage.

If we beat Alkmaar and Standard Liege at home in the next two matches, we would be able to rest players for what is the most difficult fixture of the Group Stage, Olympiacos away. This would greatly play to our benefit with Liverpool away in the league only four days later.

And, so, in the week of Arsene’s 60th birthday, he is given the gift of seeing this side, which he has created from scratch and nursed for years,despite massive criticism of both himself and the players, finally maturing and approaching something resembling their potential. We’ve waited a long time for this and I believe we are finally bearing witness to the coming-of-age of this seemingly forever-young side.

Arsene Wenger Post-match Interview