Hibernation season for Arsenal fans

*DISCLAIMER – This is not a real story.* 

A series of false dawns has led to a delay in the annual hibernation of Arsenal fans.

Arsenal fans have begun their annual hibernation. This year it was delayed by three months due to a run of surprising and rather impressive results. Usually November signals the start of what Arsenal fans unhappily refer to as the ‘period of realisation’ as their team begins an alarming descent towards failure and crushing disappointment.

This year the natural phenomenon began in early February as two poor defeats confirmed the end of any realistic title challenge. Arsenal fan Craig Williams from Barking said, “We’ve come to expect this. Usually we ‘enjoy’ a torturous run-up to Christmas before somehow scraping together a succession of good results. This year we were really at risk of being able to enjoy our season, however, sadly normality has been restored.”

Williams, an Arsenal fan for over 50 years, seemed nonchalant when recalling happier times. “I have forgotten what it’s like to smile. Sometimes I have to force myself to do it. Supporting Arsenal is a bit like waiting for the new Tarantino film. You know that it’s going to cost a lot, and it’s still always going to be grim viewing.”

Many other Arsenal fans have been caught out by this years events. In previous years fans have foreseen the dark times approaching. This usually leads to them harvesting memories from yesteryear, and recalling the events of the Invincibles season. “My friend Chris actually forgot to harvest any good memories this year” explained Williams with a sense of sadness and regret. “He thought this year may be different and so didn’t feel the need to lean back on our past successes. I’ve not spoken to him in a couple of days, but since the Watford result I know that he’s been struggling.”

A member of the Arsenal Habitat Society (AHS) since 2007, Williams has lost many close friends during hibernation season. “Losing your mates at any time is hard – but particularly under these circumstances. You try not to think about it too much but sometimes you just can’t help it!”

Kirsty Barry, the head of AHS, revealed the ways that she and fellow members try and ensure the safety of Arsenal fans during this difficult period. “We provide support networks to help them deal with their problems. We hold weekly crisis meetings where we show games from better times, like the 5-4 win at White Hart Lane back in 2004.” Yet despite these measures being put in place it would seem this year has seen an even greater number of Arsenal fans enter hibernation.

Barry added, “We don’t like to admit it but we’re overwhelmed. It gets worse year on year. We have to try and explain to people that there is still the Champions League to look forward to, but such is the level of despair, and the fact that we’re facing Bayern Munich, most fans can’t even get excited for that!”

Any prospect of Arsenal fans waking from their slumber before the end of May remains unlikely. With attendances expected to dwindle and no real prospect of achieving anything significant this season, Williams and other fans like himself have predicted that they will not be seen until early July.

“I reckon I’ll wake up in time for the transfer window. Although I don’t expect us to sign a strong and commanding central midfielder, I always live in hope.”

If you have been, or know of someone who could be, affected by the issues raised in this story then contact the Arsenal Habitat Society anonymously on 0200204444. 

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Huw Jenkins: The Swansea Slayer

Swansea are bottom of the table and seemingly destined for relegation to The Championship. Simmo looks at why the Swansea chairman, Huw Jenkins, is to blame for the clubs pitiful demise. 

I feel sorry for Bob Bradley – if you were to ask most neutrals then they would probably say the same. The job he took on at Swansea really was a mission impossible.

Looking through that Swansea team it is difficult to see any other outcome other than their relegation to British footballs second tier. I can’t think of a single player, bar the goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and playmaker Gylfi Sigurðsson, who would get into any other team in the Premier League.

The demise of Swansea City is a sad one. When they were promoted under Brendan Rodgers they were an exciting, dynamic outfit that looked to play good expansive football. Players such as Scott Sinclair and Ashley Williams had excelled in the Championship and took their good form into their debut season’s in the Premier League.

It really was refreshing to see a newly promoted team play football out from the back. This was largely down to the philosophy that Brendan Rodgers instilled in the team. He believed that his teams should play in a particular way. It was brave and certainly admired. Rodgers’s reputation soared to the extent that he took over the reins at Liverpool in the summer of 2012. Huw Jenkins acted quickly and sealed the services of ex Denmark and Barcelona legend Michael Laudrup.

Laudrup’s appointment was seen as a bit of a coup, and indeed he was able to use his substantial connections within the game to convince a host of players to join the Swans during that summer. Players such as Michu, Pablo Hernández and Ki Sung-yueng arrived with burgeoning reputations.

At the beginning of his tenure, Laudrup looked to be building on the good work done by Rodgers. Whilst Rodger’s teams had often been exciting to watch, they lacked the defensive nous to succeed on a weekly basis in the Premier League. Laudrup looked to rectify this, and added steel to the Swansea backline through signings such as Chico Flores. Laudrup had looked to have taken the Swans to the next level. He was establishing them as a Premier League team and was picking up some very impressive results along the way.

Under the Danes stewardship, Swansea won the 2013 League Cup by beating fourth tier Bradford City 5-0 a Wembley Stadium. But even Laudrup’s success was not enough to prevent him from being fired. Poor form and alleged wrangling over contracts and signings led to Jenkins dismissing him in in February 2014.

His replacement Garry Monk was a popular choice amongst fans. Having been with the Swans for a decade, he knew the way in which the club worked, and most importantly, was familiar with the squad of players available to him. As a young English manager, the Premier League can be a daunting place. Indeed, a host of far more established names have fallen victim to the trials and tribulations of England’s top tier. Monk, however, took it like a duck takes to water. He looked assured, tactically astute, and most importantly strong enough to deal with the pressures of the role. What’s more, he made what can sometimes be a difficult transition, from team mate to manager, look effortless.

Monk really did look like he had all the credentials to become a top Premier League manager. That was until Jenkins once again wielded the axe. A poor run of one win in 11 games led to Monk being ‘relieved of his duties.’ Jenkins will look to justify his decision by saying that Monk had accomplished all he had been brought in to do. When he replaced Laudrup there had been an almost instant upturn in form. Monk steered the ship to safety, but as soon as it entered difficult waters Jenkins was more than prepared to make his manager walk the plank.

The appointment of veteran Italian, Francesco Guidolin, was not seen as particularly inspiring. However, the 2015/2016 season proved to be a good one for veteran Italian coaches. Guidolin took Swansea back to basics and led them away from the relegation zone. They sealed Premier League survival with an impressive 3-1 win over Liverpool. Guidolin’s appointment had proved to be a successful one. He won seven of his 15 league games, including impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham.

Under Guidolin, Swansea started the new season well with a 1-0 win at newly promoted Burnley. However, he had lost the services of his inspirational captain Ashley Williams to Everton in the summer. The signing of Mike van der Hoorn for £2 million From Ajax was not the sort of signing that gave Swansea fans a great deal of confidence. Elsewhere, Andre Ayew joined West Ham in a £20 million deal. A sizeable income, however, nearly £16 million of that money was reinvested in the young Spaniard, Borja Bastón, a player who had made fewer than 40 appearances in Spain’s top tier.

It seemed glaringly obvious that Guidolin’s team lacked the required experience to maintain their Premier League status. After winning only one of their opening seven league games, Jenkins once again decided that enough was enough.

This led to the appointment of Bradley – one that was unsurprisingly met with a great deal of skepticism. Although he had managed both the United States and Egyptian national teams with moderate success, his last job in football had been in the French second tier with Le Havre. It was hardly the ideal pedigree.

However those who were judging Bradley by his past managerial experience were simply being naïve. Many managers have arrived in the Premier League from lesser know leagues and enjoyed great success. Look no further than Arsène Wenger, who was brought in from Japanese football.

Indeed there was a certain level of arrogance amongst pundits and British football aficionados. What could an American possibly know about the English game? Whilst it is true that Bradley’s results were not great, people focused on irrelevant details, such as him referring to a penalty kick as a ‘PK.’ The vocabulary that Bradley used certainly was not the reason that his Swansea team struggled so much. Bradley was brought in to try and help ward off another inevitable fight with relegation – yet he wasn’t even given a transfer window to bring his own players in. What was he supposed to do?

People will point to the fact that the Swans leaked goals under the American. Yes, this was certainly true. However Bradley would almost certainly not have sanctioned the sale of Williams had he been in charge.

Therefore the problems at Swansea seem to all lead back to one man – Huw Jenkins. He is the man that has now sacked four managers in the last three seasons. He is the man who let Wilfried Bony go, sold Ben Davies to Tottenham, and of course let Williams join Everton. He is the man that seemed to crave rapid Premier League success over a long term and clearly defined project.

His latest appointment, that of Bayern Munich assistant, Paul Clement is again an odd one. Whilst Clement is widely regarded as one of the finest British coaches around, having held positions with Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid, and of course Bayern, he has only had one very brief experience in first team management, a partially successful half season with Derby County. Once again it is hardly the sort of appointment that gives you much hope of ensuring Premier League survival.

In my opinion Swansea’s six year stay in the Premier League will be over come May. Either way, whoever is in charge when this Swansea side goes down must be given the chance to rebuild. Not since Rodgers has a Swansea manager been in charge for two consecutive seasons. This lack of stability is an inherent problem, and breeds uncertainty right the way through the club. Sustained long term success is only ever really achieved when people are given a chance in the short term. Jenkins has so far been unwilling to do that.

Why Stones needs more than just a Pep talk

Since joining Manchester City, John Stones has hardly set the world on fire. Poor performances in several games this season have led to questions regarding whether the 22 year old defender has what it takes to succeed at the club. But is Stones really at fault, or does City manager, Pep Guardiola, have to take responsibility for his player’s early season struggles? 

John Stones has had a poor start to the season. Anyone who fails to recognise this is really very much in denial. Since joining Manchester City for a staggering £50 million in the summer, the ex-Evertonian has been error prone, naive, and a genuine defensive liability.

Much has been expected of Stones. Ever since he left Barnsley to join Everton in late January 2013 he has been heralded as different from that of most other English central defenders. Composed on the ball, confident in bringing it into midfield, and able to pick a pass. What was there not to like about him?

Certainly his brand of football appealed to Pep Guardiola. When the Catalonian joined City in the summer he quickly identified Stones as the man to help him implement his passing out from the back style. Yet despite Stones’s outstanding technical ability, he has consistently demonstrated a lack of game awareness and an inability to perform even the most rudimentary defensive tasks.

Most people would agree that Guardiola’s teams play beautiful football. He believes that being able to play in all areas of the pitch enables his teams to attack vacated space and in turn penetrate the opposition. It has been effective – in Guardiola’s 7 seasons in management he has won a remarkable 22 trophies. He would point to this as a vindication of his methods.

Yet you nearly always get one chance against a Guardiola team. Essentially, he has hardly been a stickler for defensive discipline, and instead has very much shown a preference for attacking flare over defensive solidity. Historically, his teams have always been vulnerable at the back. It did not matter quite so much at Barcelona because he had Messi and co. to dig him out. At Bayern the relative weakness of the opposition meant that defensive lapses were not quite as readily punished. However, in his first three months in England, Guardiola has quickly found out that the Premier League is far more unforgiving. All of this may well lead to compelling viewing, yet it is hardly what Stones nor Manchester City need.

At 22, Stones is still in the infancy of his career; time is very much on his side. Yet worryingly he seems to have made little progress over the past 18 months. When Roberto Martinez was Everton manager, Stones and his team mates were given an almost tactical blank sheet. They were allowed to play their own brand of football almost wherever they wanted on the pitch. When mistakes inevitably happened Martinez would staunchly defend his players, suggesting that these mistakes were part and parcel of their development.

Of course what Martinez said had a certain amount of truth behind it; young footballers will often make mistakes, that in itself is not new nor surprising. However, what we tend to see after mistakes is a change and a realisation that things have to be improved. Martinez did not enforce that on his players, and particularly on Stones. Time and time again we saw the same schoolboy errors – playing passes in dangerous areas, diving into tackles, tactical naivety, and an inability to mark properly.

There would be those that argue that these mistakes are offset by Stone’s supreme talent on the ball. Michael Owen in particular has been vociferous in his praise for Stones, declaring he would be the only England player that would get into the Barcelona team. A somewhat sweeping statement, and one that is hardly a compliment to defenders who pride themselves on clean sheets and rock solid defending.

Others such as Rio Ferdinand, Phil Neville and of course Roberto Martinez have been forthright in their positive assessment of Stones. Yet this constant praise regardless of whether mistakes are made, seems to be having a negative effect on him. From the outside looking in it really does seem to have gone to his head – it is almost as if Stones believes his own hype.

If this is the case then it sets a dangerous and worrying precedent. Stones should not be allowed to think that he has played well, because, if we are being brutally honest, he has not.

When England played Scotland on Friday night there were reminders of just how vulnerable he is. His passing was lacklustre, his reading of the game was poor, and most worrying of all he seemed completely inept at marking from set pieces. In the first half, with England holding a slender 1-0 lead, he lost Grant Hanley at a corner. Stones’s body position, his inability to track the run, and then his petulant reaction shone a light on his defensive fragility. It was something more akin to Sunday league football, let alone an international fixture at Wembley.

Twitter was less than kind…

Although Hanley’s header was poor and sailed well over the bar, the incident was a reminder of how quickly things can change in football. Had he scored people would have been rightly criticising Stones and an inquisition into his defensive capabilities would have begun. Yet because Hanley missed, and England went on to record a comfortable 3-0 win, people chose to forget and avoid an issue which simply had to be addressed.

The worry is that Guardiola probably saw that mistake and yet will not have been particularly concerned. Stones will go back to City and little if anything at all will be done to ensure there is no repeat. Yet if Stones was still an Everton player he would be returning to a manager who prides himself on defensive resilience.

Ronald Koeman was one of the finest central defenders of his generation. A remarkable defender, his record of 253 goals in 763 games would please most centre forwards – for a central defender those sorts of stats are unprecedented.

Koeman played in the same Barcelona team as Guardiola, even captaining and scoring as they recorded their first triumph in Europe. That Barcelona team was managed by Johan Cruyff, seen by many as the father of the tika-taka football that Guardiola has employed throughout his managerial career. Koeman has also looked to adopt a possession style, yet he has never allowed his teams to be quite so readily exploited defensively. He simply would not have tolerated one of his central defenders defending like that from a set piece.

There are certainly parallels between Koeman and Stones; both excellent on the ball, neither conventional centre halves. Under Koeman, Stones would have prospered. The Dutchman would have been rigorous with Stones, ensuring that he learnt when to play and when not to. He may even have dropped him had he deemed it necessary.

Koeman has proved so much at Everton. Stones’s international team mate, Ross Barkley, has not been immune to criticism this season. Koeman’s approach is one of tough love, he is not one to pander to his players if he believes they are letting the side down. He came out and publicly criticised Barkley, and explained the reasons why he was being dropped and the ways in which he could improve and get back into the team. It is impossible to imagine Guardiola doing the same thing to Stones. Nevertheless, it increasingly seems that Stones would benefit from a Koeman-like approach.

However, there will be those who argue that Stones’s development is entirely normal and the mistakes are a small sacrifice for the other things he brings to the team. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that the immediate priority for any central defender is to keep clean sheets. That should be a pre-requisite, and it should give them as much satisfaction as a striker gets when scoring a goal. Quite frankly, anything beyond that should be considered a bonus.

The important question here is whether people see Stones as that sort of defender, or one that brings the ball out of defence and plays slightly more on the edge. Those who favour the latter would argue that such is his precocious talent on the ball that restricting it would ultimately be counterintuitive to his game.

It remains to be seen whether signing for City was the best for Stones’s career. Only time will tell, yet is he continues in the same vein of form then the signs are ominous. Something has to be done to address Stones’s failings, and the sooner the better.