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Arsenal, Chelsea, and the stereotypes that just won’t go away

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People tend to obsess, when they read football reporting and commentary, over issues of objectivity. It is often asserted that a supporter of a club should be mistrusted when he or she is consulted to give an opinion on their team, as their view is surely a ‘biased’ one. It is fair to assume that most journalists, since they have sufficient interest in the game to make a living writing about it, support a team or at least did when they were younger. Television broadcasting is awash with ex-professionals with their thinly veiled allegiances to ex clubs. So the search for an unbiased view is a futile one.

Incidentally, being objective is not the same as being ‘even handed’. One can fall down heavily on one side of an argument while still viewing the issue at hand with a cold mind and intellectual honesty. Supporters of clubs are exactly the people who should be asked for an opinion on a topic related to their team, since they are the people who watch them every week and are familiar with the fluctuations of form, tactics etc. The view of the footballing public in general tends to lag behind that of individual fan bases; taking months for instance to give a player positive recognition when supporters of that team had been signing his praises all along. Stereotypes can be hard to shake off.

This issue came back to me following the match between Arsenal and Chelsea on Sunday. It dawned on me that a several well-worn stereotypes are being peddled about both teams and managers, none of which are really appropriate. One manifestation of this, has been the obsession with the ‘boring boring’ taunts from Arsenal supporters towards Chelsea, since it neatly fitted the narrative of Chelsea being obdurate, cynical, arch pragmatists. In any case, what made them media treat the chant as if it were Arsenal fans’ judicial appraisal of the game is anyone’s guess.

The vast majority of fans if asked by the time they got home would accept that Chelsea are worthy champions. They were simply trying, in their own stadium, to have a dig at a much detested rival. Of course the chant was silly and not grounded in facts. But then, Arsenal are not ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ either, but fans still sing that to try and get behind their team and create an atmosphere that often is lacking at The Emirates.

Arsenal vs Chelsea is an ideal fixture for the media since they are often viewed as the complete antithesis of each other. Both teams possesses what the other lack; its entertaining, offensive Arsenal against the durable but tedious Chelsea. Its the Bank of England club with a history to match against the club bankrolled by an oligarch who made a killing purchasing previously publically owned assets after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its Arsene Wenger who just tells his players to do what they like and pays no attention to the opposition against Jose Mourinho who moves players around the pitch as if it were a chessboard and spends hours dissecting opposition as if they were a lab rat.

These are the stereotypes. But the truth is rather more complicated. True, there is a clash of philosophy and styles but neither team is as extreme in their nature as the stereotypes suggest. It’s a long time since Arsenal were a side driven solely by ball possession; that was back in the days of Alex Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. During that era, just after the stadium move, Arsenal were a fantastic footballing side with incredible powers of ball retention under pressure, but were lightweight and inexperienced. They were rattled when teams got physical with them, were vulnerable to slip ups against inferior opposition and exposed at set pieces. Look back at the archive filled with defeats at Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, at home to Hull, for the evidence of this. The apotheosis of ‘that’ Arsenal was surely the 2011 League Cup defeat to Birmingham City.

That era is long gone, and Arsenal are a different type of team now, but the stereotypes persist. One recalls Jason Roberts demanding that Reading ‘get physical’ with Arsenal prior to the recent FA Cup semi-final. Though their dismal record at Stoke persists, this type of tactic no longer disturbs Arsenal. In the past two seasons they have been remarkably consistent against bottom half teams; the best in the league in fact in these fixtures. They are an experienced team, with added height in recent years thanks to the additions of Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker. Following the loss of Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie, with less quality at his disposal Arsene Wenger formulated a more pragmatic approach and eked out a number of tight wins to beat Tottenham to 4th in both 2012 and 2013. They have been very adept at squeezing out narrow wins recently to, as results at Crystal Palace QPR, Newcastle and Burnley testify.

Following Sunday’s game, Chelsea’s defending was contrasted with Arsenal’s suggesting that this was the reason behind the 10 point gap in the table. In fact, in the five meetings against Chelsea since Mourinho’s return, Arsenal are yet to score a goal, suggesting the problems lie further up the pitch. But of course, this can’t be squeezed into the narrative, because Arsenal are free flowing artists and that’s the end of the discussion.

The same goes for Chelsea. They are the league’s best defensive unit and their tactic in recent weeks, prompted by the loss of their two best strikers and a tiring squad, has involved sitting back and soaking up pressure. But they are still the second top scorers in the division. They hold the record for the most goals scored in a season, achieved under Carlo Ancelotti in their double winning season of 2009/10. They were the League’s top goal scorers when they first won the title under Mourinho in 2004/5.

In the first half of this season they were definitely the best footballing team in the division, and they are noticeably less direct when compared to Mourinho’s first stint at the club when they counter attacked through Robben and Duff. Through Hazard, Oscar and Willian they are extremely measured and patient when moving the ball in the last third, too much so I suspect for some Chelsea fans. True, they are rather more chameleon like than Arsenal say, willing to change tact to meet the needs of the match at hand. But they are not quite as negative in their approach as many would have you believe.

In terms of team structure, Arsenal and Chelsea are remarkably similar. Both operate at present with in a 4-2-3-1. In the two in central midfield there is a defensive-minded ball winner (Matic/Coquelin) and a deep lying ball player (Fabregas/Cazorla). On the left of the three is right footed dribbler who looks to cut inside (Hazard/Sanchez), in the centre is a traditional creative midfielder or no. 10 (Oscar/Özil), and on the right a technically proficient hard worker (Willian/Ramsey). Up front there is a centre forward in the traditional mould who is adept with his back to goal and at linking play (Costa/Giroud). Arsene Wenger may well give his players more freedom within that structure; one would have to check the oft cited ‘heat maps’. Matic is a more polished and imposing player than Coquelin and Costa, given that he offers more in behind, is a more complete striker than Giroud. Nevertheless, there is some irony to be found in such tactical similarities.

The purpose of this article is not argue that there is stylistic equivalence between Arsenal and Chelsea. There are obvious differences between them and their two managers. But the depiction of each team as being at the extreme of either an offensive of defensive style needs not be done away with. It limits the discourse surrounding both teams to a narrow set of inferences and obstructs any form of nuanced analysis.

University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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