Poor in the Ruhr

Borussian Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal

A few observations now that the dust of the Dortmund storm is settling (ha!)

World Cup focus?

I offer this as an olive branch to Messrs Mertesacker and (in particular) Ozil, neither of whom has started the season on fire. Could it be hard to re-adjust and re-focus after winning football’s foremost trophy? Pah, I hear you say, these are privileged and wealthy sportsmen who should be able to switch back on. But humans are humans and maybe it’s not that easy. (Andy Murray, after Wimbledon, has struggled a bit to adjust too).

Maybe I’m being cruel on the BFG here, but there’s no denying Ozil has been distinctly off colour. Perhaps it’s a physical thing too – a combination of the mind and the body.

Fitting the signings in

Le Boss has often said it’s a dangerous game to make multiple signings and upset a team’s rhythm. The Totts signed about ten players last year and struggled to fit them all together. Utd and Liverpool have done the same this year, and are yet to hit full speed. We’re playing with three new players every week – and maybe we need to make allowances for that.

Or maybe I’m being too forgiving.

The Champions League

Is an annual obsession to get into, but for all our seventeen years of experience, on nights like last night you can’t help but wonder what we’ve learned. We couldn’t cope with the pace and power and tenacity of a team like Dortmund, and it’s not the first time. I suspect it won’t be the last. It’s a competition we fight tooth and nail to get into, but on last night’s showing, seem remarkably incapable of properly competing in once there.

Le Boss

Dissatisfaction with Wenger is never far from the surface, is it? The FA Cup seems a distant memory at times. I can’t see this latent anxiety about him ever going away until we cut these kinds of performances out. His almost-but-not-quite transfer strategy has also had its usual effect.


Were absolutely fantastic. This is a team that competes at the top of European competition – it was in the final in 2013 – and is consistently up there. They’re canny and powerful and as a unit, incredibly effective. We didn’t help ourselves but we had no answer to a performance like that.

Underhill on horizon, and one final rant

14 July – quick poll

12 July – old post

How nice is it to be able to crane the old neck away from the World Cup, and back in the other direction, towards the league, and towards Arsenal. I was getting a crick.

Looking back, it’s very clear that I’ve barely troubled my laptop for blog updates. It’s really not had much of a workout at all since the end of the season – since the blind shock of the Wigan debacle – and has gained a little girth around the space bar as a result. That’ll have to come off.

That’s not to say I’ve not enjoyed the World Cup – I absolutely have. What’s not to enjoy, other than, as an Englishman, watching my team floundering around miserably? Even that enabled the country to let off a bit of steam with a good old moan and a navel gaze. There’ll be a post mortem, and much huffing and puffing, but will anything really change? Don’t Gordon Banks on it.

Respeck? What respeck?

The final was pretty dismal, if eventful.

[rant: begin]

There are plenty of disheartening things in football, many of which are not easy to address on a global level. Money tends to be at the heart of them – at owner, player and fan level (making money, making money and paying money respectively) – but there are some things that could be done to clean the game up on the pitch, but which never, ever get properly addressed.

One such is the total lack of respect shown to match officials – especially when you compare it to other sports. Watching the World Cup final on Sunday, it struck me how impossible it must be to referee. Sure, our very own Mr Webb did not help himself by failing to correctly punish several atrocious early tackles, but players haranguing referees, trying to con them and pressure them is far too common a sight in football the world over. And not just players – managers do it too. Without proper rule changes – zero tolerance – refereeing will remain the impossible job.

How hard would it be to tell players that they simply cannot dispute a referee’s decision? Or to look back, after a game, at any incidences where players have tried to deceive, persuade or cajole a referee and punish them retrospectively? And to do it fairly?

Of course, the referees need to improve too, but making their job a little easier would be a good start, and it’s totally achievable.

The simple fact is that footballers will try something if they are confident they will get away with it. And in football, it’s too easy to get away with it.

[rant: over]

Underhill, around the corner

The best and most important thing of all is we can now concentrate on Arsenal. We’ve got Barnet on Saturday, squad movement still to come – plenty of sticky rumours on that front but little by way of certainty – and we’re only a month or so from the big kick off.

Really, it’s only a month. If I tell Mrs Lower that, she will throw plates at me.

Take cover!

World Cup thoughts: Stunts and psychology

I love the World Cup, and contrary to the experiences of some, I’ve loved this one just as much as any other. Who can argue with three live games of football a day?

Sure, the ball is an aberration but what do you expect from a tournament that is at least in part about Fifa’s bottom line? There’s no need for a new World Cup ball but we have one so that someone, somewhere, can make themselves a bit of money.

I understand that the commercial deals struck before the tournament are key to financing it, (in fact, Fifa are expected to make themselves a tidy $1bn profit from it), but the zeal with which they enforce the rules has been way over the top, as usual.

Prosecuting two Dutch women for organising this harmless stunt is ludicrous, and has in fact done far more than the stunt itself to promote the Dutch beer company that organised it. Talk about a ham-fisted reaction.

Maybe if Arsenal scheduled something along these lines to happen 60 seconds before the end of a dull league game – for example “Spot Perry Groves in a wig and win £100”, we’d have fewer empty seats at the final whistle.

Anyway, small digression there. As I was saying, I’ve enjoyed watching wall-to-wall football, even if England appear to have imploded under the pressure. I have always found the psychology behind the game incredibly interesting, even if I don’t fully understand it.

It’s mystifying to the public how very competent footballers can wilt so badly, but we always underestimate how much matters of the mind can affect football.

A great example is, of course, the majestic 49-match unbeaten Invincibles. With every unbeaten game that passed, they would have considered themselves harder and harder to beat. It helped that they were all exceptional footballers of course, but confidence plays a huge part in performance. That’s why, when they were eventually beaten at Old Trafford, there was an inevitable decline. You could say things have never been the same since, though that is perhaps over-egging things slightly.

The truth though is that winning breeds winning, and confidence breeds confidence, and that a team in the middle of a good patch where both things are in evidence will play much better than it ordinarily would. England thrashed Croatia 5-1 in September last year, and looked the part. Since then they have declined and that’s where we are now. The pressure that accompanies playing for England has exacerbated that.

Of course, it doesn’t really explain how other teams have managed to throw off the shackles and get cracking in their second games – but to me there’s no other explanation. For good footballers to turn in a display that bad, there has to be a collective case of the heebie-geebies.

I hope they can find the solution by Wednesday but like the players themselves, my confidence has drained out of me and my glass is now half empty.

It might be time to change the tune of the England vuvuzelas to this:

(To be fair, the above clip won’t mean much unless you grew up on a diet of crap British telly in the 1980s)

Fab, Theo and Brazil nuts

Remember how Wenger stated he’d like to get his transfers sorted before the World Cup began?

He’ll be lucky.

Most high-calibre players are content to wait until the tournament ends before thinking about what happens next – even if their agents are busy doing stuff in the background.

So when the tournament kicks off a week tomorrow, transfer deals involving players taking part in it will surely be off bounds.

We’ve got a week to go yet though – so expect a few more twists and turns, especially regarding Fabregas. Yesterday’s rebuttal of Barcelona’s €40m offer was very well crafted by the club. They spoke of “immediately and resolutely” turning it down and I must say, I did enjoy the last line.

“To be clear, we will not make any kind of counterproposal or enter into any discussion. Barcelona have publicly stated that they will respect our position and we expect that they will keep their word.”

So Arsenal are reminding Barcelona that, even though the player’s desire to leave makes a deal likely (or at least possible), Arsenal have a big say in things. And they’re also asking Barcelona to do things by the book – which of course, they haven’t and won’t.

But really, the bottom line is that any deal must be on Arsenal’s terms, and €40m doesn’t touch the sides. In a world where Villa have priced Milner at £30m, how can Fabregas only be worth £3m more?

And besides, any negotiator worth his salt will turn down an opening offer, because an opening offer is never a final one.

There was some more rumours yesterday of a deal with Chelski’s out-of-contract Joe Cole. I have no idea if there’s anything in the story or not – but what’s interesting for me is the profile of the player. He’s in his late twenties and very experienced. If he is indeed the kind of player Wenger is looking for then it’s a good sign, because we’ve got promising young players coming out our ears and they cannot do it alone. What we lack are players who have been there, done that and know what it takes.

Which I suppose segues nicely onto Walcott. His omission from the World Cup squad was the cherry on top of the icing of a bad-season cake [must do better – ed] but it’s not that baffling. Thinking back over the season, I can only think of two occasions when he took a game by the scruff of the neck – in the second half against Burnley at home, and in the last third of the Barcelona game when we ended up drawing 2-2.

Nevertheless, it’s no time to panic. He’s only 21 and started a mere 15 games last season. On top of that, he has the overwhelming goodwill of the Arsenal fans in his favour.

And finally…

I spent some time in Sao Paulo last week (took a wrong turn out of Norwich) and on my first day there, walking past a newspaper stall, I was slightly perturbed to see a gaggle of shifty-looking men congregating next to it, exchanging things furtively. There must have been eight of them in all.

Being in a new city – and one with a bit of a reputation for containing ruffians at that – I immediately assumed they were dealing in illegal substances. But as I walked past I peered closer and saw that the illegal substances in question were in fact…. Panini stickers.

That night, I mentioned this to a local and was told this was normal behaviour in a World Cup year. Apparently, in the years when Brazil win the World Cup, Brazilians go absolutely bananas for memorabilia, and completed Panini World Cup albums have a particularly high value in such an eventuality. So the shifty gents by the newspaper stall were simply sniffing out a business opportunity.

Isn’t football great?

Summer transfers: What effect will the World Cup have?

Strewth, it’s quiet.

In fact, there’s been a whiff of close season to things. Partly I suppose because we’ve got the weekend off, and partly because losing to Barcelona seems to have kicked off some early transfer speculation.

Why is this when there’s still so much to play for? Partly, it’s natural to wonder how you can improve things when you’ve been as outplayed as we were over most of the two legs against Barcelona.

And partly, perhaps, because it’s a World Cup year, when the rules for transfers seem to change slightly. On the one hand you have players that clubs are keen to sign early, before the tournament, so that their value does not rise should they show explosive form.

On the other hand, you’ve got the clubs who will keep their powder dry until the tournament is over, hoping to unearth a gem (or ensure that the player they had their eye on before the tournament does not rupture something during it).

Looking back to the last World Cup in 2006, we signed Tomas Rosicky on 23rd May – a signing that fits neatly into the former category. Unfortunately, the rest of the summer’s ins and outs were slightly less tidy.

In fact it was frenzied, late and involved Panini-like swapsies. Reyes was loaned to Real Madrid, with Baptista coming our way in return, on transfer deadline day. On the same day, we sold Cole and bought Gallas.

However, there were extenuating circumstances to events that year. We’d just lost the European Cup final, and that triggered another round of Invincible dismantling. As well as Cole and Reyes, out went Campbell, Pires and Lauren.

We also moved stadium – another sweep for the broom of change.

I don’t expect the kind of wholesale changes that we saw that summer this time round, as the squad is settled and growing. There will inevitably be some departures, but the only key player who I can see leaving is Gallas. I don’t see Fabregas going anywhere, least of all to Man City, though a summer of speculation is a dead cert.

Anyway, what I think I’m trying to get at is we might see a signing sooner rather than later – perhaps a month or six weeks from now. Wenger is the kind of manager who likes things decided sooner rather than later if he can.

He’ll definitely want to avoid a manic final day of trading on 31st August…

Wenger douses the van Persie and Gibbs flames

It must be a bit frustrating for le Boss to have to spend so much time talking down two of his players.

But I guess that’s the peril of a World Cup year.

With van Persie, talk of an early return emanated initially from the Dutch national camp. It was of course on national duty where van Persie suffered his injury in the first place. But they have since suggested he might be back in early April – counter to what Wenger has always said, which is that he might be back in May for the last few games of the season.

Now of course, who can blame the Dutch for wanting to talk up van Persie’s return? Lord knows we could do with him ourselves. It’s been widely reported that before his injury Arsenal scored 55 goals in 19 games, whereas since he was crocked it’s been in 33 in 22 games.

Clearly, it’s in their interest for him to come back as soon as possible so he will have had more than just a few games to regain form and fitness before the Dutch kick things off in South Africa.

For Arsenal – who lest we forget pay his not insubstantial wages and pick up the pieces when injuries occur out of their jurisdiction – the pressure for him to return is tempered by the desire for him to be in top shape next season. I don’t suppose the Dutch are thinking much beyond this summer. So Wenger finds himself trying to douse the flames.

Then there’s Gibbs – an extraordinary story in many ways. We’re talking here about a converted winger who has made just 25 starts for Arsenal being touted as a potential option for England at the World Cup finals. But with Cole injured and Bridge ‘retired’, suddenly there’s a mild panic at left-back for England and it’s perhaps not surprising – were it not for the cast on his foot and his lack of experience – that Wenger is once again fielding questions about Kieran Gibbs.

The answer is pretty unequivocal. Wenger said:

“There is a little chance [that Gibbs will be fit before the end of the season] if all goes well now. I don’t know yet [if he will play enough] because I cannot give you any date of his return to football. It’s very premature at the moment, he is still in a little cast and we are at the beginning of March.”

While Gibbs’ career is undoubtedly on the up, to expect him back, healthy and match fit by the World Cup – assuming he’d even get a look in – is stretching things a bit.

[Who’d have thought it – another post about injured Arsenal players?]