Friday, 9 August 2013

Gooner Book Review: The Wenger Code

Book Title: The Wenger Code- Will it survive the age of the oligarch?

Author: Richard Evans

Publisher: GCR Books Ltd

Price: £13.99 from (hardback)

Life-long Arsenal fan and acclaimed sports journalist Richard Evans sets out an intriguing and attractive mandate for his book The Wenger Code. The cover poses the long-unanswered question that few writers have sought to delve into- can Arsene Wenger's management style work in the modern game? So with an acclaimed writer who is a Gooner at heart, an intriguing character in Arsene Wenger as the book's main subject and a question of great interest to answer, this book promises much, and these promises certainly did enough to entice me into purchasing the book.

However, as with many books with set out such an ambitious itinerary, it failed to live up to my lofty expectations. Evans seeks to answer the rhetorical question using 'evidence  vividly bought to life from across the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons'. This appears to be a very smart idea, given that these two seasons epitomised Arsenal's shortcomings under Wenger in recent years, so evidence of Wenger's weaknesses, as well as his strengths, could be drawn upon to good effect. Alas, in his attempt to analyse the two seasons, Evans is drawn into simply writing season reviews, and fails to maintain the required focus on Wenger himself.

Evans also begins to slip into an unfortunate tendency for focusing  on minute, and largely irrelevant details, such as who deflected which shot, and failing paint the broader picture of Arsene Wenger's management. In fact, throughout the first two-thirds of the book Wenger is mentioned on in passing reference. For example, after concluding a lengthy description of a match Evans writes quickly 'and Wenger would not have liked that' in a desperate attempt to give his writing relevance to his original mandate.

As Evans' description of the season progresses, he is continually making attempts at a shallow assessment of the success of Wenger's philosophy, but his analysis of Wenger's shortcomings and the reasons for them, are more akin to the kind of excuses you may expect to hear from Wenger himself. Throughout his commentary of the 2011-12 season, Evans tirelessly curses Arsenal's bad luck, with three common complaints- injuries, refereeing decisions and one-off wonder goals. The facts is, none of these explain why Arsenal have repeatedly fallen short under Wenger in recent years, as all clubs could complain of having bad luck, and in truth, though we may not like to admit it, these are not the reasons for Arsenal not having won a trophy for eight years.

However, Evans fails to admit this, and devotes and entire chapter to his ranting on Arsenal's near misses. Looking in desperation for ways to certify his claims that Arsenal only lost due to these fine margins, scrambling for statistics stating how outcomes would have been different if all refereeing decisions had been correct; how Arsenal's injury record has changed since Colin Lewin replaced brother Gary and noting all the players who scored against Arsenal, who didn't score many goals for the rest of the campaign. For me, he still fails to convince as the statistics are based to a large extent on interpretation and factors that they fail to take into account, so hold little in the way of solid conviction. At least though, they represent an evidence-led and justified in-depth analysis that is largely missing from the rest of the book.

The entire season is commentated on is similar rather fashion, with vivid details and descriptions showing Evans' flair and prowess as a match reporter, but with little meaningful analysis or focus on Wenger himself. When the season is concluded however, the book's last chapter provides more interesting reading.

Using the more unconventional plethora of information that are football phone-ins, Evans seeks to gauge fans' opinions on Wenger's 'code' to reasonable effect, although he does suffer from using a rather small sample size. Evans then proceeds to write probably the most intriguing section of the book, and probably that which is focused most effectively on Arsene Wenger himself, in which, through the eyes of his publisher, Greg Adams, he takes the reader on a fascinating journey to Wenger's little-known roots at FC Duttlenheim, speaking to those who knew him, and sharing gems of detail regarding how Wenger learnt about the game and developed the keen passion he has for football today.

The postscript too, includes carefully chosen quotes which offer the reader gems of insight into the mind and philosophy of Arsene Wenger, but both passages are too little too late, to make the book a good read overall.

Of all the things the book suffers from, one the most significant and most surprising aspects that causes the book to fall short of expectations is that Evans is an Arsenal fan. You would think that this would allow him to write with gripping and endearing passion and indeed it does, but given the very divided nature of Arsenal's fan base with the AKB's and AMG's, it also causes him to be wholly impartial. Evans is, in Lehmann's terms- an AKB. Ultimately, when writing a book that seeks to critique the success of the very man the writer supports so strongly, this is a major hindrance. Hence, Evans' insistence that Arsenal's failings were cause by bad luck, and not Wenger's weaknesses, and that Arsenal's transfer policy is better than Manchester City's. Despite the valiant effort by Evans, the fact is, that the task of analysing Wenger's philosophy cannot be undertaken successfully by one who sits on either side of Arsenal's divided fan base, so unfortunately, the question posed by the book must continue to fester in our minds until an outsider comes along to tackle it, as only then, do I believe the question can be answered with the impartiality needed to write an effective book.

Gooner Rating: 3/10

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Shuffling the Pack- Have minor team rotations rejuvenated Arsenal?

We now head towards the final stretch of a season in which Arsenal have been anything but consistent. This is often the case with Arsenal’s performances, but one thing that often remains consistent through the course of a league campaign is Arsene Wenger’s team selections- with him rarely deviating much from his chosen 11. But despite me often criticising the simplistic nature of Wenger’s approach to squad rotation, compared with Ferguson’s ingenuity, je seems to have made a couple of changes to the team in recent weeks that my just help Arsenal to a strong finish to the season.

When Gooners heads were turned to Munich and Arsenal’s second leg in the Champions League, most were either confused or frustrated by the selection of Lukasz Flappyanski in the Arsenal goal. Many (including myself at the time) saw it as a sign that Wenger was giving up on the tie and focusing on gaining the much-coveted champions League spot, as it would be fair to say that Flappy has hardly set the world alight when he’s pulled on his gloves for Arsenal- something indicated by his nickname.

However, three very solid and respectable performances later the move seems to have been inspired, as Flappy has yet to put a foot, or should I say hand, wrong. He was especially impressive against Munich, where he vocally led a strong defensive display, which saw a team who have been scoring freely all season be shut out in their own backyard- all by a team, with a recent reputation for rather questionable defending.

Fabiankski’s call-up perhaps did make more sense that I first thought, as it’s been clear all season that despite his clearly boundless ability and potential, Wojciech Szczesny has largely underperformed between the sticks this season. He has had the odd majestic performance- his heroics at Sunderland being the best example- but he has been largely disappointed. One cannot help but think that the lack of any credible competition he has faced for the jersey is a factor in his decline in form, as despite him underperforming he could rest happy knowing that the keepers behind him- Flappy, Vito and Damian Martinez have all by-and-large failed when given their chances in the first team. But in a show of confidence, Wenger has thrown the debate wide open by bringing in Fabianski- rather than the new candidate from outside the club that many have been calling for. Szczesny for being short of confidence, not a bad thing, but perhaps complacency had crept in. Given the way Fabianski has performed, he should be anything but complacent now, and hopefully his future performances will begin to show greater concentration and consistency.

I assume that Chez will have many future performances for Arsenal, as I think this change will only be temporary. Although Fabianski has seemed to add stability to our backline, he does not have the natural ability or potential that Szczesny has, and I believe that in the long term, his time in goal for Arsenal will only serve as a kick up the backside for Arsenal’s true number one Pole. Perhaps Wenger has taken a leaf out of the book of Alex Ferguson, the master of squad rotation here, as Ferguson deployed the same tactic effectively in David De Gea’s early days at Manchester United- where following some sub-par performances from the young Spaniard Ferguson made him grow up quickly, by giving first team playing time to the competent and solid Anders Lindegaard. Since then, De Gea has proved himself to be possibly the best shot-stopper in the league, completing his duties with minimal fuss.

The other change that seems to have a sparked a change in our fortunes has been the replacement of our captain, Thomas Vermaelen, who as endured a very poor season. Despite becoming a fans’ favourite for his rather dynamic work at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, (and often way in front of it) Vermaelen has been the clear weak link Arsenal’s regular defensive starters this year. Since taking up the captaincy he has struggled terribly, despite the season being remarkably injury-free for such a fragile player. Perhaps his ultimate low-point came away to the vermin in the North London Derby, where his indecisive and almost comical attempts at commanding an offside trap made for painful viewing.

By this point Wenger had clearly seen enough, and replaced Vermaelen with the inconsistent, yet very talented Frenchman Laurent Koscielny. One of Arsenal’s best players in the second half of last season, Koscielny seems to blow hot and cold more than most, even amongst Arsenal players. A defender with excellent recovery speed and mobility, he compliments the dependable but cumbersome BFG excellently- a theory that should really apply to Vermaelen as well. A change was clearly needed in regards to Vermaelen, and Wenger seems to have picked the right time to make the change, as Koscielny has stepped into the side and performed magnificently, displaying perhaps that he is certainly blowing hot rather than cold at the present time.

I have long attested that Laurent is our most talented centre-half, and I really hope that finally we can see long runs of consistent performance from him, rather than the odd flurry of outstanding displays, followed by unexplainable lapses. As for Vermaelen, it is clear that we cannot have any player in our side regardless of whether they are captain or not, but clearly, the issue of his captaincy, and very being at the club, must be addressed if he continues to fail in justifying his place in the first eleven. This does highlight a greater issue regarding the failed leaders Arsenal have had in recent years, but that is a debate for another time, and not a particularly pleasant one either.

So perhaps the dog has learned some new tricks, as the usually stubborn team selector has placed comprehensive votes of no-confidence in two of the key cogs in his young side, resulting in clear short-term benefits. It will be interesting to see going forward this does prove to be the beginning of a more ruthless management style from Wenger, or whether it leads to permanent changes to the personnel of Arsenal’s defensive core. But one thing is for certain, these changes have coincided with an upturn in our fortunes, so come on you Gunners, time to leapfrog those Spuds!

Note: I wrote this piece before the game at West brom where our defence was certainly not stable and solid.


Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Moving On- Laudrup is the man to replace Arsene Wenger

Although Arsenal’s fan base still remains very divided regarding the predicament of the Frenchman- who has taken sports writers’ columns by storm following Arsenal’s recent defeats to Blackburn and Bayern Munich, there is a growing realisation that the end of the tenure of Arsenal’s is nearing its twilight, and that even if the club wish to try and retain the services of Wenger, it certainly seems unlikely that he will be around for another 16 years.

Only time will how the distinctive Wenger’s legacy of Arsene Wenger will be viewed, but there is no doubt that he has had a great influence on the way things have been done at the club- too much of an influence, some would say- and this means that he will leave a large void when his departure ultimately arrives, and whatever you think of him at the moment, he will certainly not be easy to replace, and indeed, I believe that choosing his successor will be a crucial decision in the history of Arsenal Football Club, as we must try and find a man who is able turn Arsenal into winners again, and create his own legacy in the process. So will our board of directors pick out an obscure gem, like Wenger once was, a young up and coming starlet  or will they turn to a manager who already has experience and working across the ever-changing expanses of European Football. These questions will be answered in time, but currently I believe there would be no better man to lead Arsenal than the Great Dane- Micheal Laudrup.

A man with a highly prestigious playing career, Laudrup won an incredible five straight La Liga titles with Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as playing 104 times for Denmark- a nation who in 2006, placed upon him the accolade of being their greatest ever player. As a player Laudrup clearly knew how to win, a trait which seems to have deserted Arsenal in recent years, and could be a characteristic that could be huge asset for any new manager.

Laudrup has also recently transferred this winning mentality to management, with his Swansea side’s ruthless, cutting-edge displays in the League Cup- in which they recently demolished Bradford City at Wembley to pick up the club’s first major trophy in its history. This win also showed Laudrup’s hunger for trophies and the emphasis he is willing to place on the domestic trophies, a desire which some may Arsene Wenger has lacked slightly in recent times.

Laudrup’s managerial CV prior to his brief reign at Swansea is also underestimated by many. Laufrup started out his career in management as the assistant coach of his native Denmark- a role in which he was seen as big success, he and Morten Olsen masterminding Denmark’s progression to the knock-out stages of the 2002 World Cup. This excellent result led to Laudrup’s appointment as manager of Danish Superliga side  Brøndby in the same year. In his first season with the club, Laudrup led the team to the Danish Cup, and a strong second-place finish in the Superliga, as well as claiming the Danish manager of the year award. In the following season, Laudrup again led Brøndby to a second-place finish in the Danish superliga, this time just a single point behind winners FC Copenhagen. However, he finally led his side to the Superliga title in the 2004-05 season, in which he also managed to complete a double, winning his second Danish Cup in four seasons, this again led to Laudrup being voted Danish manager of the year. After finishing runners-up in the 2005-06 Danish Superliga, Laudrup decided not to renew his contract at Brøndby, and in July 2007, he was unveiled as the new manger of Madrid’s third football club- Getafe.

Despite not being known as a powerhouse in Spanish football, Laudrup led Getafe to a reasonable success, reaching the Copa Del Rey final- in which they lost out to Valencia- and the quarter-final of the EUFA Cup, where they were defeated by Bayern Munich. However, he only stayed one season at getafe before moving swiftly onto Spartak Moscow.

However, Laudrup’s spell at the Russian club proved to be perhaps the one blemish on his managerial CV, as he was sacked in April 2009 following Spartak’s 3-0 defeat to Dinamo Moscow in the quarter-final of the Russian Cup.

In July 2010, Laudrup entered his next mangerial post, returning to Spain to manage RCD Mallorca. In his one and only season with the club, Laudrup managed to help Mallorca retain their place in La Liga against the odds, after the club had had to sell many of theirkey first-team players due to major financial problems, which had also led to the club’s ejection from the EUFA cup. At the beginning of the 2011-12 season Laudrup resigned following the suprise sacking of his assistant, which led to a fallout with the club’s director of football. In June 2012, Laudrup then became Swansea manager, where his superb work has been showcased for all English football fans to see.

As well as his rather impressive CV, Laudrup’s footballing philosphy also makes him an excellent fit for Arsenal. Known widely for his elegance, creativity and technical prowess as a player, Laudrup has clearly implemented the philosophy he flourished under as a player in his managerial career, promoting a short-passing game in all the post he has held- from his job as assissant manager of Denmark to his current job at Swansea. And although there are many things that Gooners may disagree with Arsene Wenger on, one clear pint of mutual agreement is our appreciation of the possession football that Le Professor has brought to the fore at Arsenal, and I believe this is something that most Gooners would want to see continue under Arsenal’s next manager.

If there is one downside to Laudrup, it is his possibly lack of loyalty to the clubs he has managed. I said earlier that the next manager of Arsenal must try and create his own legacy, and as Laudrup has only stayed in many of his managerial posts for a single season before moving on to bigger things, it is questionable that Laudrup would have the desire and commitment to do this, and may simply use Arsenal as a stepping stone before taking over at one of his former clubs Barcelona or Real Madrid. Although, with potentially vast resources at his disposal (all 123 million of them) if the board will let him use them, Laudrup could achieve great success at Arsenal and take them back to Europe’s top table, so possibly there would be no motivation to move on.

So with a highly attractive blend of intelligence, managerial experience across mainland Europe, a stylish and excitng philosphy, a burning desire for success and an infectious enthusiasm and likeability, I strongly Micheal Laudrup to be the best candidate currently available to replace Arsene Wenger. But be warned, if we don’t act fast and decisively, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dane made his move to one of European football’s top brass before we can lure him to North London.

Follow me on Twitter @goonerwalker

'McManaman-Gate'- The Tackle, Post-match recation and punishment (or lack of it)

Following Wigan youngster Callum McManaman’s challenge on Newcastle’s full-back Massadio Haidara- and Mark Halsey’s totally obstructed view of the challenge- there is been heated debate across social media, the radio, the internet, the TV and just about any other platform you can imagine. Just to inform those who have been in a very deep slumber, the storm was caused by Mcmanaman’s studs-up, knee-high challenge on Haidara, which failed to draw even a free-kick from unsighted referee Mark Halsey.
For those who haven’t seen it- here it is
Following the incident, people failed to disappoint with their instantaneous response of outrage and shock. The tackle was undoubtedly very bad- but quite how bad it was clearly became exaggerated in a myth-like fashion. In fact, as is the way in the age of social media debate, it wasn’t long until an unsuspecting twitter user would have been forgiven for mistaking that McManaman had committed murder, such was the ferocity directed at him.
In regards, to my own opinions on the challenge- it was a clear red. Despite getting a slight touch on the top of the ball he all but missed and went over the ball, with his studs up and leading leg well off the ground, making heavy contact with Haidara’s right knee- causing the subsequent serious knee ligament damage that will see Haidara miss the rest of this season. So I certainly agree with Dave Whelan, who asserted that the challenge was “fair”. A puzzling statement, which caused an understandable mix of outrage and bemusement across media airwaves. Whelan’s comments could have be perceived as staunch defence of the club he holds dear to him, but even if they were his honest opinions, to make the comment in public was at best ill-advised and at worst plain stupid, as they only served to strengthen the regular view of Wigan as a small club adopting an ‘us against the world’ mentality.
However, it was clear that McManaman was making an effort to win the ball- albeit a careless one- and that there was therefore no intent to injure Haidara. Although the matter of intent certainly shouldn’t impact whether or not the challenge merited a red card- which it definitely did- it should be taken it account when a retrospective suspension is awarded- a point which many failed to account for- calling for McManaman to serve a long-term ban, or some even calling for punishments almost equivalent to a prison sentence.
I personally think that the lack of malicious intent in McManaman’s tackle should mean that a standard 3-game ban would be sufficient, or at most a 5-game ban, as the challenge was simply ill-judged and a costly mistake, but banning McManaman for a lengthy period would do no anyone good. There was no need to ‘make an example of him’ as the laws regarding tacking in football were firmly laid down long ago; handing out a severe suspension won’t aid Haidara’s recovery or likely make him feel better at all; McManaman is young, and will undoubtedly learn valuable lessons from this regardless of the length of the ban and a lengthy ban would rank McManaman’s innocent error alongside actions with clear malicious intent- such as Suarez’s racism and Ryan Shawcross’ vicious assault/tackle on Aaron Ramsey (yes, I still clench my fists in anger at the thought of it). Before people jump to saying that Sunday’s incident and the Ramsey-Shawcross incident were similar, I’ll point out why they were not, and why Shawcross merited a ban in excess of 3 games, whilst a 3 game ban would suffice for McManaman’s offence. Firstly, the tackles themselves were very different. Shawcross jumped into the air with both feet off the ground, chopping down on Ramsey in a scissor-like motion, despite the ball always being positioned on the ground, which immediately shows the intent that existed in the challenge- if there had been no intent to hurt Ramsey, he would not have left the ground. This is a contrast to the McManaman tackle, which despite being high, was made at the height of the ball- quite a logically concept- and one which shows the opposite, that McManaman only intended to win the ball and not hurt the player. Another clear difference is the past records of the respective offenders. As far as I am aware, Callum McManaman has no previous history of making dangerous tackles- a contrast to Ryan Shawcross, a repeat offender, who broke Francis Jeffers’ ankle in 2007, injured Adebayor with a nasty challenge and a season later made his worst challenge yet in the same fixture- and those are just a few of the horror made by Stoke's Mr No-malice' Shawcross. Clearly this shows that Shawcross hadn’t learned, and that to make him learn, a ban longer than the standard 3 games should have been issued. With McManaman, it should work the opposite way, with no previous history, a 3 game ban would be suitable for a starting point in regards to disciplining the young player.

Here are some clips of Mr 'No-malice' Shawcross in action
However, this is all hypothetical. Shawcross’ challenge was only punished with a standard 3-game ban, and McManaman’s...well, here we go again, the stupidity of the FA’s disciplinary system has been highlighted once more. The key flaw is the pointless and ludicrous rule- totally and unsurprisingly unique to football- that if so much as one match official casts an eye over the incident, retrospective action cannot be taken. Yes, I find it as puzzling as you undoubtedly do. If an official makes an incorrect decision, they should stand to be corrected by a judiciary panel. This is not to say that blame should be attributed to officials, it is a simple fact that they cannot get every decision right and I’m sure they would admit that they get some decisions wrong. It would not undermine their authority whatsoever, as on the field of play they would still be 100% in charge of proceedings. All this would simply do is mean that when a referee has innocently made a bad mistake or, in Mark Halsey’s case, not even seen the incident due to a player blocking their view, then they should be given assistance in assuring that the best and fairest outcome is reached. This isn’t the first time this ass of a law has been brought to the attention of eagle-eyed football fans, and unless the law changes, it won’t be the last. The FA- who were yesterday the victims of a fiery, yet largely justified rant by Newcastle’s managing director Derek Llambias would be well-advised to take the simple steps required to amend the rule, as it will help restore the ever waning credibility of their disciplinary system, as well as appeasing the masses of football fans, players, managers and pundits alike, who are craving for change.
I would also wish to end by wishing Massadio Haidara a strong, quick and full recovery from what was clearly a very unfortunate incident and I hope it does not affect the promising career of a talented young footballer.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Gooner Book Review- Theatre of Silence: The Lost Soul of Football

Theatre of Silence: The Lost Soul of Football by Matthew Bazell

Having seen this book advertised on an e-mail update from Arsenal's protest group- The Black Scarf Movement- I hoped that the book would really help bring to life the issues with the modern game from a fans' perspective and leave with a lot of satisfaction, as my lack of eloquence has often meant I've struggled to express these issue to many of TV-watching friends who adore Monday night football. But with ths book my anguish was quelled, as Matthew Bazell (who is a Gooner!) manages to articulate my views for me, making the book a satisfying read, as I was able to read it cover to cover constantly nodding and grunting approval at Bazell's views.

Although many of the ideas Bazell presents in the book are not the most complex, flowery and fantsyful figments of the magination, he writes the book with a cutting honesty and realism, with his passion being poured into each and every word. As a reader this really allows you to be submerged in his passionate thoughts and feelings, as he vividly brings to life the issues with modern football, from a very personalised and heartfelt standpoint- which makes the book all the more effective, as the reader can appreciate Bazell's standing as an everyday fan. He is one of the 'people' that the 'people's game' should be providng for with greater care.

The book itself is quite simply. It neatly comprises of different chapters, which each in theory, summarise one or two issues with modern football. bazell sticks to this simple theory relatively well, managing make each chapter differ suitably by introducing light-hearted anecdotes to back up his points, drawing on his experiences of the diffrent issues and helping fans to relate to them. If one criticism can be made of the book, it is that Bazell can sometimes become a little repetitive-especially towards the latter stages of the book- and some issues and particular points of frustration can be reiterated a little too much, although he manages to cut short his repetition with a well-manufactured and subtle ending, which ties up all loose ends well and arrives at one of the major points of the book.

This book may essentially be a rant, venting frustration at the way modern football is governed, but it is certainly an erudite, controlled and often witty one. Indeed, Bazell manges to balance his somber realism with appropriate doses of sarcasm, irony and humour, adding a more light-hearted shade to a book that may appear at a glance to be overly downcast.

So for all football fans who can see the issues of the modern game, and wish to face up to them once for all, with a straight-talking and honest account from one of their own- look no further than this book.