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Who Lifted Arsenal More in Their First Season: Ozil or Cazorla?

This is a very polarising topic and one that I have really struggled to write. This is particularly difficult for me because I am against pitting Arsenal players against each other. I am a socialistic supporter: the team wins because all players are great and loses because they all didn’t do enough. Of course, I am not that blinkered to think that all players make equal contributions but I prefer to not over criticise under-performing players and not over-praise the ones on form.

With this mindset, why embark on a venture to draw a line under the performances of 2 of our most important players? Why start a Cazorla vs Ozil battle? Well, as much as I want all Arsenal players to be viewed the same as much as possible, I have no power to make everybody else do this. The implication of this is that people keep praising individual players and giving accolades which aren’t always deserved while making critiques that aren’t always fair. The Libran in me struggles with this injustice and ultimately my desire for justice trumps my unwillingness to pit Arsenal players against each other.

I have had to argue too many times on this site about the impact of Ozil on Arsenal this season and I won’t be surprised if some readers have already concluded that I dislike the guy. Unlike maybe 90% of Arsenal fans, I was not over the moon when I got confirmation that we’ve signed Ozil. I had exactly the same feeling as when I first saw Koscielny with the number 6 jersey on Arsenal.com a few years back. I have always welcomed new signings with a reserved enthusiasm that goes like this:

“Welcome to Arsenal (name inserted), I know you must have good prospects for Wenger to have signed you. I hope that you realise those potentials for the team.”

I know that I am in a very tiny minority but that was my sentiments about Ozil. And yes, I am quite aware of his stats and reputation, I just like to base my accolades on what players have actually done for the team rather than what they are reputed to be capable of. At the same time, I was rooting for Ozil to succeed just as I had rooted for Sanogo and every Arsenal player signed before him. I don’t give a damn about how much it cost to bring Ozil over and to be honest, his high price tag (yes, I know we got him for a bargain) was a kind of put off for me. It’s not about Ozil, I am just against huge transfer deals in principle.

As we all know, Ozil was brought in at the tail end of a campaign of calumny against the manager because he “wouldn’t spend the fucking money”. Spending over £42 million and bringing a player of Ozil’s calibre was like killing 2 birds with a stone. A quality player has been brought in and the “fucking money has been spent”. When I hear the media and many of our fans repeat the mantra: “Ozil has lifted Arsenal”, I want to tear out the little hair in my balding head. Ozil has not “lifted” Arsenal; spirit or performance. Some fans’ obsession to see a big name signing has just been appeased by who the player is and how much he cost; no more, no less. We did not lose to Aston Villa in the first match of the season because the “fucking money hasn’t been spent”. We had also gone on to win our next 4 games, home and away, before the “fucking money” was spent. In short, the Aston Villa loss was quickly proven to be a freak result and the team was back to its usual self before the signing of Ozil was completed.

Ozil hit the ground running and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t give him any stick over it. The guy is real class though and we all agree that the money was well spent. I, unlike many Gooners that I know, however, was never comfortable with the over the top praise of Ozil and I get agitated whenever I hear anyone ascribe the team’s success to his signing. It is not only wrong and unfair to all our other players but shows lack of any sense of perspective on the part of those doing it. I have looked at all our results against the top teams (our one true fair criticism at the moment) and compared pre and post Ozil ones head to head. We came out a little better pre Ozil! Our results against the lower teams have been pretty consistent pre and post.

So, how exactly has Ozil lifted Arsenal? Making disgruntled “buy-buy-buy” brigade happy does not count in my book. I decided to write this piece after thinking about the circumstances that we were in at the time of Ozil signing and that of Cazorla’s. I therefore decided to compare the impacts of the 2 players and hence the title.

Cazorla joined Arsenal for £15 million from Malaga in the summer that we lost our most important player along with arguably our most important midfielder. The loss of RvP and Song was a very big one and it was a despondent time for most of us fans. We did not finish the season before that anywhere near being the best team at the latter half of the season and we have lost 2 very important players. Cazorla hit the ground running and for me personally, he was a beauty and great joy to behold. Cazorla amassed Man of the Match awards match after match and he was the Player of the Month for his first 2 months in the club according to voters on Arsenal.com who I want to believe were Arsenal fans.

Nobody in the media or amongst our fans ever said that Cazorla lifted Arsenal despite the overwhelming evidence that he actually did. Yes, Cazorla got the accolades that he deserved but that silly line about lifting the club was never used. Cazorla ended the season with 5 Player of the Month awards and was justifiably voted Arsenal Player of the 2012/13 season. That was his first season, in case anyone is wondering.

May 2013 Aaron Ramsey
April 2013 Santi Cazorla
March 2013 Santi Cazorla
February 2013 Santi Cazorla
January 2013 Olivier Giroud
December 2012 Theo Walcott
November 2012 Theo Walcott
October 2012 Theo Walcott
September 2012 Santi Cazorla
August 2012 Santi Cazorla

Cazorla joined a badly depleted team that was really low on morale after losing its captain and league’s best striker along with our best midfield enforcer. He joined a team that was not in any kind of consistent run from the previous season. True we came 3rd in the league but it was a crazy season in which Newcastle came 5th and the Tinies threw away a 13 point lead between within 3 months! Okay, I love that bit, especially them making way for 6th placed Chelsea as UCL winners. Happy days! Bottom line, before I wander off again, is that Cazorla indeed lifted Arsenal in his first season and his numerous awards are a testament to that fact.

Ozil joined a very stable Arsenal team that was the best team in the second half of the previous season’s league and that had a very successful pre-season for £42.5 million. The team had already proved with their next four victories that the debacle against Aston Villa was just a blip and they were just carrying on as they ended the previous season. But if anyone had been asleep for the last year, they would be forgiven if they thought that Ozil joined a failing team and single handedly turned its fortunes around.

List of winners of the Arsenal.com Player of the Month awards for the season so far:

January 2014 Santi Cazorla
December 2013 Theo Walcott
November 2013 Aaron Ramsey
October 2013 Aaron Ramsey
September 2013 Aaron Ramsey
August 2013 Aaron Ramsey

In the absence of an objective means of comparing Arsenal players, I think the player of the month is a pretty decent yardstick because it is based on votes by Gooners and they have never been controversial. They are close sometimes but they are never controversial. If an Arsenal player is ‘lifting’ the team, I would expect that Gooners will recognise that and honour him accordingly with votes but the best that Ozil has done is come a very distant second in September and a close second in October, both to Ramsey. A cursory look at the tables shows a few important facts.

1. If we were so eager to use the term “lift the team” for any player, we should have used it for Santi Cazorla who indeed lifted the team in his first season.

2. Ozil is a great guy, a fantastic player and a very humble person but he has not lifted Arsenal. The fact that those who are desperate to see us spend are happy that we signed him is not the same as him lifting the club.

3. We have done incredibly well in the absence of our most important player – Aaron Ramsey. Let’s hope that he gets back soon and returns with his pre-injury form.

An objective look at this team for the last 14 months shows that we are a great team that has been made better by the inclusion of talents like Ozil and Flamini. Based on available evidence, no new player is lifting the team.

Finally, if there is any good thing that can be taken from the media’s latest campaign against the player that they had originally labelled as our saviour, it is the fact that if we win a trophy this season, they (hopefully) won’t give the credit to Ozil. That will be a great injustice to our dedicated band of brothers. All for one and one for all!

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Can Footy Fans Do Their Jobs and Just Support Their Teams, Please!

It’s another transfer window; the most annoying periods in the football calendar. Footy fans are now busy watching Youtube 30 second clips for the names of the next saviours of their clubs, which they will then spam their online support forums with.

“We need to sign a lethal/world class/potent (etc) striker” – This is always on the wish list. No transfer speculator would be worth their onions if their list does not include a striker, described with one ‘killer’ adjective or the other. Many would be kind enough to list a few of such strikers, thanks to Youtube. Interestingly though, on the same threads, somebody would pop up to burst their bubble with detailed information on why the speculated striker signing cannot be possible. Usually, the speculator would just move unto other names, oblivious of the lesson that they’ve just been taught: player signing is very, very complicated!

It is understandable why football fans play the transfer speculation game. We all want our teams to do well, and we naturally want to do our bit to make success possible. This is a noble thing. However, while it would also be noble to rush into a burning building to save people, it would be stupid to do so when the fire-fighters are already on the scene. The fire-fighters are professionals. They know what to do. Any other passionate person around (perhaps with relatives inside) would only be hindering the professionals from doing their jobs by going in with them. Or in respect of us online football fans: screaming ideas and instructions at them from the sideline.

Many of us have been following the beautiful game all our lives. That’s a very long time no matter ones’ age and this gives the false impression of skill at running the game. But all that following football gives us fans is knowledge of facts of the game. In other words, we know the history. Period. I have been wearing clothes all my life but I cannot sew a shirt; and I have used hundreds of them. Some people may be able to sew shirts but it will only be because they’ve learnt how to from tailors. To be fair, anyone can sew shirts but I doubt many would be proud to wear theirs.

One of the major accolades (amongst many) bestowed on the then Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential run was that “he knows what he does not know and he always get people who know to help him out”. Another term for this is self awareness. Know what you are good at and stick to it. At Untold Arsenal, I can guess who wrote an article just by the title. If it is historical, financial, about the media or Tottenham, it is very likely to have been penned by Tony. If it is about officiating or a very enthusiastic title in support of the team, Walter must have written it. Other Untold writers have their forte and tells which can be guessed more easily the more one reads their articles. That is precisely what makes Untold Arsenal what it is today. There are different writers, different ideas and perspectives but all in support of Arsenal.

What also makes Untold great for me is that we don’t play the transfer speculation game here. Damn, I hate that stupid game.

Is Bacary Sagna going to sign a new contract? I have no bloody clue. Am I worried that he might leave at the end of his contract? Of course, I am. I love Sagna. He is the perfect professional or the closest thing to one (but that is only because I don’t want to sound like a sycophant). There is nothing that I would love more than to see him extend his contract (okay, maybe the 2013/14 EPL title).

There are 2 things that we need to take cognizance of here:

  1. Players don’t do ANYTHING because we want or wish them to. They would listen to their agents and others in their entourage before they listen to us. That is if they ever listen to us at all. To be honest, I don’t blame them for looking out for themselves. Football fans would start slagging them off as soon as their forms drop. Or asking for a better player to be signed to take their place. For example: Olivier Giroud!
  2. Whatever worries we might have about Sagna or any of our players for that matter, Arsene Wenger has more and if he doesn’t, it must be that we are worrying for nothing because there is nothing to worry about. Whatever the issue may be with any member of the team, I have full faith in Arsene Wenger to handle it in the best possible way for Arsenal Football Club. He is a consummate professional and a father figure to many of our players. I trust him to act in the best interest of all concerned.

At the beginning of the season, many Gooners did not give the team any chance to do as well as they currently are and this is almost exclusively because Arsene Wenger did not listen to them and splash the cash on world class players. Unlike Chelsea and ManchesterCity who “spent some fucking money” in the summer and are as a result going to compete for the title between them; Arsenal are going to struggle to get 4th place as usual.

This prediction has so far failed to come to pass. The team has led the league most of the season so far. The point gap has gone up and down but no team has had more points than Arsenal, after playing equal number of games, in months. Chelsea and Man city have only led for very brief periods and at the time of writing, 20 games have been played which means all the teams have played each other plus one.

Normally, common sense would dictate that if you’ve failed at a venture, you either give it up or tread more carefully in future when trying again. It sounds ridiculous to read comments admitting to being wrong about the team’s progress so far but then followed with not just expression of doubt but outright certainty about how the team is not going to make it in the end because the same Man city or Chelsea are going to win it. This line is understandable from the fans of the other 2 contenders. Fans are supposed to be optimistic in favour of their teams. It is indeed their duty to prop up their teams and spread confidence amongst the supporters, many of whom will take that swagger to the stadiums, resulting in louder support.

I hope it is not too much to ask the same of us Gooners. I am not oblivious of the doubt that many of us have about how this season will turn out. I have it too. This is what you get after almost a decade of winning nothing despite coming close on many occasions. Doubt is the enemy here and we need to conquer it. Unless one can see into the future, we can never totally conquer doubt but we can limit it or more importantly, desist from spreading it. Believe me when I say that whatever doubt you have about the team, many others share it but are only keeping the faith because that is what supporters do. Don’t reinforce their doubt by repeating yours ad-nauseam. You are not being realistic, as you like to claim; you are spreading gloom and undermining the same team that you claim to love and support.

It is the season of speculation and every fan wants to show off their (often) non-existent knowledge of the game by pulling out assorted, usually, exotic names. My hope is that we will give it a rest and the let the manager do his job as he and his team see fit. If we do ours as supporters by spreading positive vibes about our team, this team will land us the silverware that we all so desperately desire.

Keep the faith.

Sometimes you just can’t let it go

I am not the biggest fan of Mondays. I don’t hate them but Friday and Saturday are my favourite days of the week. While I’ll just get on with it at the dawn of most Monday mornings, I hate that sinking feeling that I get on the ones following bad weekends for Arsenal. Something tells me I’m not alone here. On the other hand, I love Mondays following great weekends for Arsenal. I’ve been having lots of those recently thanks to the Wenger boys.

One of my daily rituals is reading the Metro newspaper during my train commute to work. I quickly flip through the pages, perusing the headlines for happening around the UK and the world. I always read the readers feedback on recent stories and issues about a third way through the paper. I love reading other people’s opinion of issues. It gives me a sense of where I am compared to others and every now and then, someone writes in something profound that changes my view of things. All of these though, are like forcing yourself to eat your vegetables so that you can have your sumptuous dessert in the end. Once I’ve read the readers feedback, I move on to the back pages. If any other story is important enough and not some celebrity gossip, it would be in the early pages.

The sport pages are my actual destination and I take time to read rather than rush through as I do with the other sections. I think Metro does not have any agenda one way or another on Arsenal. They mostly parrot whatever common wisdom is being touted about the club but their match reports and basic reporting on state of things are usually fair, in my opinion. Every now and then, they’ll write something annoying about my beloved Arsenal and I’d just wave it off and let it go. Well, sometimes you just can’t let it go. Today is one of those days.

There is a 2″ by 4″ snippet on Arsenal that is written by one Peter Wood. I quote the snippet verbatim below:

“Arsenal fan and Club Metro reporter Peter Wood is still feeling worried” – Metro’s introduction.

Peter Wood now says:

“You don’t win the league with 11 players, you win it with a well rotated squad. But Wenger has never been a fan of a big squad. So far this season, we’ve dominated with consistent performances and we have managed that because we have not rested players. The problem is, they are now starting to look jaded – they need a rest.”

If I or any Arsenal fan wants to be responding to every rubbish written about our darling team, we’ll not have time for any other thing in our lives. But crap like this just grind my gears. Especially because the writer is an “Arsenal fan”. I will now deal with each of the points raised one by one.

“You don’t win the league with 11 players” – No shit Sherlock. Who knew that you cannot execute a 38 game campaign with 11 players?

“You win it with a well rotated squad” – This is just like the mantra, “spending will help you win trophies”. While not entirely wrong, it isn’t exactly fool proof. Besides, it’s not rotation that helps you to win; it’s having quality players performing consistently in the key areas of the game. What is probably most wrong with this comment is that it is false. Arsenal have already used 25 different players in the league this season. That is 25 players in 13 matches! I don’t know the statistics for other teams in the league but I doubt many have used more. Also, rotating your team is not always a good thing, especially when you are winning. What happened to “never change a winning team”?

“But Wenger has never been a fan of a big squad” – Here is another bullshit statement that is not based on reality or any evidence. Prior to this season, there was a lot of noise about the “dead wood”, about having a big squad of average players and so on. Arsene Wenger has always believed in having a well-balanced squad. It is not really about numbers. It’s about what the members of the team can do and how many of them can do the same thing. In other words, versatility is preferred over huge numbers. A look at our bench last Saturday tells anyone who knows anything about the game that we have strength in depth.

This was our bench on Saturday: “Subs: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Monreal, Rosicky, Flamini, Walcott, Gnabry””

Anyway one looks at this statement, it is still bullshit that was not well thought through.

“So far this season, we’ve dominated with consistent performances and we have managed that because we have not rested players.” – First part of the sentence is basic statement of fact while the other is, well, silly. Only an Arsenal “fan” would write nonsense like this. Why should we rest players who are consistently getting us results? Should we rest Ramsey, the league’s current best player or Szczesney, the league’s current best goalkeeper? Which team did this in the past? Do Barcelona rest Messi or do Manchester United rest RvP, unless they are not fit to play? Apart from dishonest statements, I also loathe whining just for the sake of it. This is whining just for the sake of it!

“The problem is, they are now starting to look jaded – they need a rest.” – As you read this line, please remember that the writer is a REPORTER! I wonder what Arsenal team he has been watching but “jaded” is the last word that any objective observer would use to describe the team after Saturday’s game. This writer is one of those who actually put words in the newspaper for us ‘unenlightened’ folks! He doesn’t know jack! But sadly, someone somewhere would read that and start parroting the same and before you know it, it becomes common wisdom, especially if the writer is well known and therefore influential. Thank goodness he isn’t!

I understand Mr Peter Wood’s apprehension. Even the most optimistic of us (e.g. yours truly) have our moments of doubt but common sense and reality must still prevail. If the players and management are doing their best and succeeding on their way to win our first silverware in over 8 years, the least that we supporters should be doing is supporting and believing in them. We shouldn’t be allowing our own fears to cloud our reasoning to the point of jettisoning the confidence that our good and consistent run have created.

Thanks for reading. See you in the comments

Who Took The Better Penalty This Week: Giroud or Özil?

I know this question sounds like a no-brainer or even rhetorical. Of course, it’s Giroud! Now, may I ask why? The honest answer would be: because he scored! The two penalties were taken the same way except Giroud placed it to the right while Özil went left. Both were low placement kicks with Özil’s being farther to the left than Giroud’s was to the right. Both tried to send the keeper the wrong way. One succeeded while the other failed.

Ricky Lambert said recently: “Penalty kicks are not complicated, just place the ball on the spot and kick it well”. This is not the exact quote but I have written the core of his point. Lambert is on point. One of the reasons why many (often gifted) players miss penalties is over-thinking and being too fancy. Penalty taking is probably the strangest footballing activity. It is, in my opinion, the easiest (as in requires the least effort) while usually having the most dramatic outcome.

I was a pretty poor footballer in my youth. I was never good at the game despite my best efforts. That fact is one of my life regrets. What I would have given to be described as a mediocre footballer! But one area that I excelled in was penalty taking. I used to enjoy the end of our “set” of games when we’d just have one-on-one penalty shoot outs, with the players also being the goalkeepers. Despite being even worse at goalkeeping than in outfield play, I rarely lose in those games. I belong to Ricky Lambert school of thought when it comes to penalties: kick it as hard and as far away from the goalkeeper as possible.

Let’s quickly go back to Giroud and Özil’s penalty kicks and the problem with them both. Every time a penalty taker kicks the ball low and within 2 metres of the goalkeeper, I wince. Every time I hear match commentators say: “he sent the keeper the wrong way”, I think to myself: “no, he was lucky that the player went the wrong way”. The same goes when goalies are showered with praise for saving penalties when they have only gone the “right way”. Readers that are familiar with my writing know my opinion on luck and its influence on success in football and virtually everything in life. There is no aspect of football where luck plays a bigger role than in penalty shoot outs. For anyone in doubt, may I remind you that Chelsea won the Champions’ league in the same season when they finished below Newcastle United in the Premier League! Giroud was lucky with his kick while Özil was unlucky with his.

There are basically 2 ways of taking penalties. There is the Ricky Lambert way, which is about force and precision; and the “tricky or cheeky” way, which is about sending the keeper the wrong way, lobbing over the keeper and other tricky skills. The latter is favoured by flair players and many of them have perfected it to devastating effects. Less skilful, or more appropriately, no-nonsense players prefer the former. Both methods have their merits and flaws. Tricky penalty kicks are a joy to behold when they come off. The problem is that they don’t always come off. And when they don’t, the taker always looks like a mug while probably feeling worse. Forceful and precise penalties on the other hand are bland to watch and they could also come off the post or go wide. But they mostly go in.

By calculation of chance, the forceful penalty is better than the tricky one. Penalties taken with pace and placed as far away from the goalie as possible but not too close to the goal post are the best because they go in all the time. Smashing the ball into the top right or left corner is also brutally effective with the same drawback. Personally, I prefer the forcefully and precisely taken penalty and not just because they are more likely to go in but because their misses are usually easier to stomach and the taker looks less silly. While the effect is never less devastating (depending on what’s at stake), it’s a little easier to let go of a penalty that come of the post or missed the target by a few inches. I know how mad I get when the keeper goes the right way and the ball bounces off his chest or he just grabs the lobbed ball. In the end, the objective is to get the ball into the net. Beautiful penalties don’t count for 2 and bland ones don’t count for ½.

Forceful and precise penalties require conviction. Conviction comes from practice. Penalties like this require lots of practice in order to be able to get it right every time. Ricky Lambert’s unblemished record gives the impression that despite his modesty, he practices his kicks. He reminds me (and I am sure, the many Naija Gooners reading this) of the late Nigerian legendary striker: Rashidi Yekini. He was also reputed to have never missed a penalty. His style was power and precision. Conversely, another Nigerian great that we are all familiar with, Nwankwo Kanu, is notorious for missing penalty kicks! He, as we all know, is a flair player. No other player epitomises the folly of tricky penalty kicks more than Kanu. Many of his misses were just plain embarrassing!

Back to Özil and Giroud’s penalties and the debate that they have generated, I think Özil played the better penalty because it was farther from the goalkeeper than Giroud’s. Mandanda had to stretch to stop it. Had it been hit with more force, it might have gone in and would then be classified as great by the same people criticising him. Olly was fortunate that Boruc went the wrong way as the ball would have bounced off his chest if he had guessed right. His penalty against Fenerbahce at Istanbul on the other hand, is the real deal.

The point of this piece is not to knock Giroud or kiss Özil’s butt. I almost copyrighted the phrase: “I feel good about Giroud” during pre-season when many were salivating over Higuain. I have also commented against the talking point that Arsenal’s season has only been going well because of Özil. I love both players as I do anyone who wears the Arsenal shirt. Being revisionist in order to over praise flukey achievements while knocking unfortunate errors is where I differ from most. Özil’s penalty loss was partially tempered by the fact that it shouldn’t have been in the first place. We were spared the unnecessary tag of “controversial” being attached to our well earned victory.

My hope is that we continue to get our deserved penalties in all competitions and that they regularly get smashed in with power and precision.