Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The off-target Gunners: My thoughts on Arsenal FC and what’s going on

The off-target Gunners
My thoughts on Arsenal FC and what’s going on.
by rick olivares

Michael Cox in a special to ESPN’s Soccernet suggested that pre-season tours by English clubs tell on their fitness that was wanting in their opening Premier League games and I disagree. Last year, FC Barcelona went on an Asian tour yet they still won the La Liga.

If you’re looking for a smoking gun then you will find a smoking gun. You will phrase questions and even fit answers to be that smoking gun. I think even this early, their problems have been building up over a period of time.

Arsenal, since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, has played entertaining and enjoyable football. If they won so often then the praise heaped on Barcelona would be theirs. While Manchester United may be the class of the Premier League, the league is so much more competitive than their Spanish counterpart that is in truth a two-way battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

If the template of Arsenal is the winning side of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, and Patrick Vieira then by now it is obvious that Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, and the list of new finds are not that team. The previous team was one of a kind that won in the Premier League and Europe.

Much has been said about Wenger’s penchant for signing new and obscure talent and developing them. But it has largely worked don’t you think? Henry didn’t become The Thierry Henry until he went to Arsenal. Successive moves to Barcelona and New York point out that the Frenchman was at his absolute best with the North London club.

Many have seen the success of Manchester United when the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes came up from their academy. But a club’s success isn’t only on youth but the transfer market. A mixture of both can mean well for the club. Liverpool in its prime capitalized on that.

But how long has it been since some silverware has been displayed at the Emirates? Six, seven years? And the drought has caused uneasiness. Has Wenger lost his magic? Are the young players still lacking in maturity to properly sprint towards the finish?

The remarks of Cesc Fabregas in an article from the Associated Press following his departure from Arsenal are pointed: "It wasn't really the losing, it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story," said the Spaniard who came up from Barcelona’s academy in La Masia. "Fighting until the end only to see we didn't have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint."

Meltdowns and injuries. Arsenal has come close in winning a bunch of silverware every season but they have faltered. I wonder if maybe it is time – while there still is – for Wenger to change his tactics and approach to the club. I am not going to buy the argument that he’s been around too long because Sir Alex Ferguson has been at Old Trafford for over two decades and the club continues to win.

That might be apples and oranges as United have more money to spend but they had to win first.

When the Frenchman first came to Highbury, he came with a different way of doing things. When a team lost badly, Wenger didn’t read his team the riot act. He believes that one can only rail at his team three or four times in a season and any more than that then the impact would be lost. He does not believe in saying things in the heat of the moment. Even days after a harrowing loss, nothing would be said. The silence often said more. He learned about the art of auto suggestion during his time in Japan which meant, you figure it out for yourself.

That worked with players like Tony Adams and Emmanuel Petit but maybe not with the youngsters – van Persie, Marouane Chamakh, Tomas Rosicky, Nicklas Bendtner, Andrei Arshavin, Jack Wilshere, and Sebastien Squillaci to name a few are looking for more guidance.

Barcelona for all their youth players’ emergence in Gerard Pique, Leo Messi, and Andres Iniesta for example have always had those big time strikers to complement them – Ronaldinho, Sam Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and now David Villa.

So veteran leadership and big time players are just as crucial.

As for the style of play, Arsenal plays as Wenger’s Monaco squads did – high-pressing and dangerous football. A premium is placed on possession and should the Gunners lose the ball, they regain possession by attacking the carrier. If done skillfully in the midfield, it creates gaps between the midfield and the defense that the attacking side can exploit for blazing runs. Essentially it’s a quick counter but with an eye for stretching the defense thin.

Last EPL season, Arsenal finish a disappointing fourth. They had a 19-11-8 record where they scored 72 goals and only gave up 43 for a +29 GD for third best behind United and Chelsea. It was the draws that killed them.

Van Persie offered a reason for their failure, “We lack consistency.”

Yes, that and a belief they can win to go with someone who can strap this team on his back to tow all the way to the championship.

Early in his managerial stint with Arsenal, Wenger explained that it is easier to sell a system or a style of play if the team is winning.

But what I feel is wrong is that Wenger has forgotten that past ingredient for success which is a balance between the youth and veteran leadership. The players acquired have not provided that leadership. And as good as a wizard Fabregas is with the ball, he is not Patrick Vieira.

It started with Vieira, a leader of a player who believed in showing the way with what he did on the pitch. He worked hard in gaining and retrieving possession of the ball. And in doing so everyone else followed suit.

At the heart of a successful team is not just excellent coaching but talented players. A side doesn’t just win on talented players or a team just doesn’t win because of excellent coaching. It takes two to tango and there is the recipe for successful fare.

What made Arsenal successful too, isn’t simply Wenger insisting on an exclusive practice facility and one they did not have to share with another team as well as a diet that lent more to improving health and a sound mind, but the acquisition of smart players.

Then there was Dennis Bergkamp, Adams who eventually was sold on Wenger’s style of player, and the emergence of Henry (although there was the odd man odd in Nicholas Anelka).

This is a skillful and tenuous part of a coach – to determine is a player is the right one for the position. So often, some coaches fell that some players are oft suited to play another position on the field. Maybe  it will work and maybe it won’t.

Looking back two seasons ago, Liverpool’s Glen Johnson was playing left back as opposed to his traditional right back. To say that it did not work was an understatement. It was thought that Thierry Henry was unsuited to playing striker. But if one had done their homework correctly, Henry had played that role in his final ten games for Monaco to staggering results. His being handed the top target man position for Arsenal has paid massive dividends.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to muscle workouts. One is to bulk up to be able to take the hits and finish. The other is coaches believe that coordination is far better than a muscle-bound striker. For me the answer is in between. If you look at Didier Drogba, one reason for his strong finishes that even when the opposing defenders hit him, it is they who fall down and are thus unable to finish.

Thierry Henry supports this. It is in his time in Arsenal where he started to be mentioned in the same sentence as the top strikers of his day – Gabrielle Batistuta, Christian Vieri, Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, and Andriy Shevchenko. “I had to work on my physical strength since coming to England. I used to get knocked aside at the start but this has helped me. They wanted to instill the English way of playing. It was their way of being cruel to be kind.”

Maybe it’s time to knock this team around a bit and see the results.  


  1. Nice piece from a Kop fan.

    As a Gooner, "Project Youth" is a failure (But not really, since a gem has emerged in Jack Wilshire.). I have to agree. In this day and age, a club must sustain it's winnability to attract players from all over. I have to admit, Arsenal has become like Ajax, now.

    We've got just 2 more weeks until the summer transfer window closes, and according to Wenger, he needs two or three signings. With so many names being linked to the club, I hope Wenger will get what the Gooners and the Gunners (players) want: quality and established players.

    If you ask me who are we going to get, I'll name 4: Gary Cahill and Per Mertsacker, Juan Mata and Karim Benzema. Arsenal needs two more CBs in their rotation. Because the back-ups, particularly Squillaci, is not suited to the English game. Juan Mata. He may be expensive, but he is perfect for the Gunner's passing game. I saw his 10 minute cameo against Italy, where he nearly scored a goal and almost had an assist.Juan Mata can do the Fabregas role while Wilshire/Ramsey can do the Ray Parlour role. Benzema. The priciest guy on my wishlist. With Chamakh's poor form and Bendtner's impending departure, who is going to be RvP's back-up? I am sure Benzema would see himself as RvP's partner in crime, though.

    So, the Arsenal's key to success is BALANCE. A balance between youth and experience. A balance in both the offense and defence. Pretty much of the teams of '98 and '02 Double and the '04 Invincibles.

    See you on this Saturday's match. May the best team win!

    Cebu, Philippines

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Ling2x. I try to follow as many teams as I can but it's just so impossible (unless I get paid a lot of money to do that). Outside, LFC, I like Arsenal and have watched lots of their games, read books, and have spoken to people from England who swear by the team. Will do pieces like this for other teams from time to time. I do some stuff for interaksyon and I have a new piece on Borussia Dortmund. But really, I'm prepping a massive story on Liverpool and Juventus. Soon.