31 December 2013

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Who's available? Poldi and Gnabry! Mmm, maybe Bendtner...

Going into Wednesday's clash with Cardiff, the injury-list numbers an even-dozen, with long-time injured players joined by a number of players facing late fitness-tests. Among those definitely out are Giroud, Gibbs, Özil, Ramsey, Sanogo, Ox, and Diaby. Facing late fitness tests are Wilshere, Rosický, Walcott, Monreal, and Vermaelen. A few of those might end up playing, but, at the risk of slighting the Dragons—er, Bluebirds—this is the best chance we've had in a while to rest the likes of Giroud, Ramsey, and Özil.

So who's left? The defense looks pretty stable, with Monreal, should he be fit, slotting in for Gibbs. We got by with Flamini filling in at left-back against Newcastle, but I'd much prefer a dedicated left-back over playing Flamini or, say, Vermaelen out of position. Without Wilshere or Ramsey, it looks like we'll return to the Flamini-Arteta defensive midfield, but it's at the offensive end that we'll have to make changes. Giroud is out, which is about the best injury-news we could get—I believe that this is the first match he hasn't played in since the September 25th league-cup match against West Brom.

So let's see Bendtner come in. He showed a glimmer of intensity towards the end of the Newcastle match, when a quick throw-in from Jenkinson could have given Bendter a clear shot on goal with Tim Krul still racing back to his line after looking to score from a corner-kick. Too bad that Jenkinson, either following orders to kill time or oblivious to the situation on the pitch, had turned his back. At any rate, playing Bendtner at striker has worked well enough in the past; in his most-recent start, he did score against Hull, and netted at the Etihad only to have the goal wrongly disallowed for being offsides. If we can play Podolski on the left and Gnabry on the right, Bendtner should see plenty of chances whipped in from either side. Their willingness and ability to stay wide should also present Santi Cazorla, playing centrally for the first time since we defeated Fulham 3-1 in late August, space to work off the dribble, creating chances for those ahead of him as well as for himself.

Cardiff have done admirably well in my estimation, but there's been such off-the-pitch turmoil that it's hard to notice. First, of course, is the controversial re-branding, switching the home-kit colors from blue to red, a bizarre betrayal of tradition. Second came the surprise "resign or be sacked ultimatum" to manager Malky Mackay. Mackay emerged from the fiasco with dignity and will almost certainly be re-hired sooner rather than later, and his dismissal, regardless of how it happened, seems harsh given that the newly promoted club have beaten Man City, drawn with Everton, beaten Swansea, and drawn with Man U, and they sit two points above the drop-zone, ahead of long-time Prem sides Fulham, West Ham, and Sunderland. if owner Vincent Tan expected better results, he might have done more to equip Mackay with a few more signings. The summer did see £35m of new additions, but of them, only the £12m signing of defensive midfielder Gary Medel sent any real signal of intent.

Cardiff come into the match wounded and potentially dispirited after conceding two goals to Sunderland in the last five minutes of Saturday's match, but they have too much team-spirit to be written off.  They'll probably sit deep and clog the midfield with a 4-5-1 set-up, so there may not be much space to work with. We could probably dominate possession, but to little effect, and I might even encourage conceding possession a bit to draw them forward to give ourselves more space to work with. With the relatively fresh legs that Podolski and Gnabry could bring, we could pour forward and strike with speed, rather than trying to pick the lock of a side that will try to keep ten men between the ball and their goal.

Assuming Arsène both peruses this site and weighs my recommendations, I see a 3-1 win (we like those this season, it seems), one goal coming from Bendtner and two from Podolski. Szczesny will prove that the third time is a charm by playing a clearance directly into an opposing striker's face, and this time, the ball rolls in. Make your predictions in the comments-section below. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

30 December 2013

Race for the Title: Can Arsenal stay top of the table?

We've reached the halfway point of the season, 19 matches played, 19 left, and Arsenal reached this juncture with 42 points, roughly half of what recent champions have finished with—whether this pace would be enough to stay atop the table is anyone's guess, but it does look to be shaping up as a three-team race between us, Man City, and Chelsea, with only two points separating first from third.

Of course, other teams could surge forward to complicate the picture even further. Everton, playing attractive, engaging football under Roberto Martinez, have climbed to fourth. Man U is showing signs of recovery after an uneven first half. Liverpool, despite being so shorn of options that they had to throw on a 19-year old defender into the midfield against Chelsea, could explode or implode depending on Suarez's response to the pressure. I refuse to rule out Spurs despite their struggles. Who knows? Maybe Tim Sherwood actually knows what he's doing. After all, he is a self-proclaimed Arsenal fan. We'll see.

Speaking after the win over Newcastle, Arsène was cautiously optimistic as he assessed our status:
Look, we believe in ourselves and we are determined to give our best, absolutely, and to turn back on the season at the end and think we have given our best. I hope it will be enough, of course, but it's a long way to go. It's too early to say [that we will finish in first place].We have come out of very difficult games—we have played Everton, we have played Manchester City, Chelsea, at West Ham and Newcastle. We have dropped some points, but I felt it was more down to the heavy schedule and the short recovery time we have had than to the difficulty of the games.
Those dropped points—two at Goodison Park, three at the Ethihad, and two at home to Chelsea—are not fatal, at least not yet. Aside from the opening-day loss to Aston Villa, we've done well to minimize dropped-points of the sort that title-challengers shouldn't drop. It's really only the draw at West Brom that stands out as a red-mark. However, the down-side to this is that other contenders have been sloppier but remain only a point or two behind. Man City's form on the road has slowed them down considerably, and Chelsea's recent goal-drought threatens to slow them as well.

However, we can't rely on those factors if we're going to claim the title. We've come through a difficult stretch of fixtures, but so too have Chelsea and Man City. Each of us have advanced to the Champions League and the FA Cup, and Man City continues in the Capital One Cup as well. Will Chelsea's depth and Mourinho's negative style be enough to see Chelsea trudge to the top? Will Man City find a way to win away from the Etihad? Will someone else among the next five clubs shoulder their way into the conversation?

For now, it looks like we have a crazy competition on our hands, and, dare I say it? Yes, I do. We look to be getting stronger. Theo and Poldi are back, Cazorla's looking livelier, and the Ox and Sanogo (for what he's worth will return soon. Even Abou "like a new signing" Diaby (yes, yes, I know) could rejoin the fray in March. In the meantime, there's a lot of talk of an actual signing or two in January. I don't see Chelsea or Man City making any moves, in part because of how stocked each of them already is. Then again, they're bankrolled by some pretty wealthy owners, so anything's possible.

Looking at schedules, Chelsea might have the most-favorable one going forward, hosting Man U, Everton, Spurs, and us while facing trips to the Etihad and Anfield. Man City looks to have the most-difficult schedule, especially considering their record away from home: trips to White Hart Lane, Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield, and Goodison Park. Their only chance to trounce other contenders at home will be Chelsea's visit. We're somewhere in the middle, it seems, with visits from Man U and Man City and trips to Anfield, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, and Goodison Park. Of course, there's a baker's dozen of other fixtures to consider.

After years of scrabbling for fourth place and hoping for results elsewhere to go our way, it feels good to consider how to hold onto first place. We don't quite control our destiny yet, but consider that, last year, we had to wait until the second week of February, 26 matches gone, to reach 44 points. With seven matches between now and then, could we reach 60 points? Home versus Cardiff, at Aston Villa, home versus Fulham, at Southampton, home versus Crystal Palace, at Anfield, home versus Man U. Let's hope so—and let's see if that puts some distance between us and our rivals.

Next up: that visit from Cardiff. We'll take a closer look at that one. 'Til next time, thanks for your visit!

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: Giroud shows the handsome side of winnin' ugly

Man, that was not a pleasant match to watch. It was tense; it was sloppy; it was, well, a scrappy affair. Still, style points don't accrue in the Prem, and so a 1-0 win is enough to see us reclaim the top spot for a few more days. Chelsea's defeat of Liverpool, and Man City's win over Crystal Palace, mean that only three points separate first from third; so tight is the top of the table that Liverpool, in first place on Christmas Day, now sits fifth only four days later.

Back to the match itself. I'll freely admit that we escaped with the win and were lucky to do so. Whether it was Szczesny seeing an attempted clearance hit a striker and bounce back toward goal, or Wilshere clearing a would-be goal off the line, among many other close-calls, coming away with three points is indeed fortunate. Heck, we did it and should heave a sigh of relief.

As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get. In the case of one Olivier Giroud, the maxim seems apt to the nth degree. Spending most of the first half being run into and run over by Tioté, it looked as if his day would end before half-time as he went in for a rash tackle on the man and turned his own ankle in an ugly way. For all of the harsh challenges Tioté served up on the day, it looked ironic to see Giroud end his own afternoon trying to exact a bit of revenge. Ironic, or perhaps karmic. I can't keep track of how the universe doles out these consequences. At any rate, so severe was the turned-ankle that Giroud spent several minutes on the ground before limping off, overshadowing Cazorla's injury-performance on the sideline, and both men came off for treatment, leaving us to play with nine men for a few minutes before halftime.

However, Giroud would reap his karmic/ironic reward later on; after busting his hump all over the field to little quantifiable effect, and with Tioté crashing around to terrific effect, Giroud found a way to score after Tioté fouled Cazorla, drawing a set-piece from about 40 yards out. Walcott lofted it straight towards goal, and Giroud did just about the only thing a man can do in that situation—let the ball glance off of his handsome noggin and hope for the best. The angle was difficult, the ball traveling straight at the goal, and so Giroud couldn't put any pace on the header (as Walcott did against West Ham, for example). However, these are "his" goals, these deft, glancing redirects, rather than those thunderous, punishing volleys he sometimes strives in vain for. Whether this goal silences the critics is another question; somehow, I doubt it, as, barely five minutes later, Giroud failed to put that kind of volley on-frame after Walcott's chip was cleared from Debuchy, who was falling backward into the back of the net as he headed clear. Giroud's follow was so poor as to travel parallel to the goal-line, and he fell to his knees in frustration.

Still, a goal's a goal, all the more vital when it's the only one scored, and it's about time that Giroud netted, whatever the fashion or the failings that followed. It certainly won't be enough to put to rest the doubts people have about him, but this strikes me as a suitable compromise—he scored when we needed him to (after all, no one else stepped up) but struggled to seize the match by the scruff, even when other opportunities presented themselves. As such, we earned a vital three points on the road, but we did so in a way that reminds those who hold the purse-strings that reinforcements are still needed. We finished the match, after all, with Flamini playing left-back for Gibbs, who picked up an injury (Monreal was not on the bench), Ramsey nursing his thigh-strain, and Özil also injured enough to miss the next two or three matches.

It's a far-cry from last year's 7-3 riot, but the end-result is the same: three points. We've emerged from a tough, tough string of fixtures and have a few, more-favorable ones, not that we can relax or underestimate Cardiff, Aston Villa, and Fulham. We may not be sittin' pretty after Sunday's win, but we are sitting atop the Prem for the first time since the 2007-08 season. However, before we indulge too much in what our current position means, let's remember that there are still a few matches to be played—19, by my count, enough for even Sunderland to still be in the hunt, mathematically—let's keep those heads down and those shoulders to the wheel.

28 December 2013

Newcastle-Arsenal Preview: will Walcott and Koscielny reprise their roles?

When this fixture was first announced, I doubt that many of us would have envisioned a clash as fraught with significance as it has turned out to be. After all, Newcastle finished the 2012-13 season a mere five points above the drop-zone with only Sunderland between them and relegation.

What a difference a year can make—so far. As it currently stands, Newcastle are in seventh place, eight points behind Man City (with a game in hand) and one point from next year's European competitions. They've scalped a few along the way, including a 2-0 home-win over Chelsea, a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane, and a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Long story short, they're establishing their bona fides quite nicely.

Still, I can't quite get past the notion that their bubble is about to burst, and we're the ones holding the pin. After all, it was roughly seven months ago that we delivered an epic win at St. James's Park, with Koscielny scoring to secure a fourth-place finish, despite the ruse that had a certain North London-ish club delusionally celebrating a fourth-place finish of its own, but I digress.

Come Sunday, we might see the return of one Laurent Koscielny, scorer of that all-important goal. Perhaps just as vital will be the continued return to form of Theo Walcott who, prior to that 1-0 away-win, delivered a hat-trick and two assists in a famous 7-3 win.

I won't go so far as to predict that Walcott or Koscielny will deliver performances reminiscent of the 2012-13 season, but the omens are auspicious: it was a year to the day that saw Walcott claim his hat-trick and two assists, including the "was I tripped? No? Okay, I'll score anyway" goal. Koscielny's goal against Newcastle, the one that seized a 16th consecutive Champions League qualification, came on a set-piece that Walcott took and that Podolski headed on for Koscielny to finish.

I'm not suggesting that we'll see a similar sequence on Sunday, but the stars do align to a certain degree: each of the key-players—Walcott, Podolski, Koscielny—is back from injury. In other words, without quite committing myself to any specific predictions, I do see this trio teaming up in one way or another, the exception being that, instead of claiming a fourth-place trophy, they'll put us back atop the Prem.

Prediction? A 2-1 win, with goals coming from—you guessed it—Walcott and Podolski.

Walcott hits the ground running: three matches, four goals...

After being brought back from injury with caution, Theo Walcott has exploded with four goals in his last three appearances and is now the club's third-leading scorer with five goals across all competitions, despite making only fifteen appearances, (five as a sub). Since coming back from his abdominal injury, he's subbed in six times, quietly refinding some fitness and match-readiness. Since his return to a starting role, he's collected a brace against Man City and again against West Ham, suggesting that, yes, he can be lethal enough to look at 20 Prem goals on the season.

Of course, it's unlikely that he'll continue this pace; with 20 Prem matches to be played, he'd need 16 goals—a rate of 0.8 goals per game, down from his current 1.33 goals per game and nearly twice his rate from last year of 0.49. Then again, with other scorers, namely Giroud and Ramsey, having slowed down, we need someone to step up. Whereas Giroud and Ramsey have logged heavy minutes, Walcott comes in with fresh legs, all the more vital given his pace. Of course, the flip-side to this is that he's come back from injuries that are probably not 100% healed.  That said, he should still have an edge on defenders that is sharper than it might have been had he been playing regularly over the last two months. Now, especially, as players are weary from the Christmas fixture-clutter, we may be seeing the silver lining to being MIA since mid-September.

And we're not referring to goals themselves. He's converting shots at an impressive rate. According to @orbinho, his conversion-rate (goals divided by shots taken) is actually superior to the lethal Aguero and Suarez. I'm not putting him in their class yet, not until he can create his own chances. Still, his conversion-rate since returning to a starting role is even more eye-popping—keeping in mind that it's a small sample-size, his conversion-rate is 40%. Again, this is probably not sustainable over the long run, so let's look at what might happen if he regresses to a more-suitable rate of, say, 15%. To get 16 more goals, he'd need 106 shots. There are 20 Prem matches left, and—I'm just spit-balling here—that's five shots per game. Even if we admit that the Man City match was more slap-stick than football and that West Ham ships more than FedEx, five shots per game is not an absurd target.

Let's not forget that Walcott and Özil are still at that tender, awkward stage of their budding relationship, each blushing a bit, abashed, averting the eyes and tracing patterns with his toe. As they get to know each other better—perhaps through a chance meeting on the Tube or a singles-mixer some weekend—we could just see those buds blossom, whether it's a quick 1-2 or a through-ball that sends Walcott in on goal. I'm certainly not equating the two, but Walcott is similar to Ronaldo when it comes to pace (we'll set aside the dribbling and finishing, convenient though it may be). The salient point here is that, similar to his role at Real Madrid, Özil might find in Walcott a similarly fruitful target, one to whom he can send through-balls that unleash a pacey winger against defenses caught-out on the counter. Walcott may not get five shots per game, but, through the service he could get from Özil (and others), he might get chances handed to him on a silver platter often enough to catapult him towards that 20 Prem-goals target. We could do a lot worse than to hope for that.

Right. Well, we've got a tetchy trip to St. James's Park on Sunday, and I'd love nothing more than to see Walcott continue his run of form. In fact, I'd be thrilled to see him reprise his "oh, I fell—no, I didn't—GOAL!" performance, nearly a year ago to the day. I leave you then, with this moment of glory:


27 December 2013

Olivier, "how many ways are there to miss?"

I've been a staunch defender of Olivier Giroud since his arrival at Arsenal, but after the West Ham match, my faith is starting to wobble. Gone, it seems, is the confident scorer of goals, using all manner of dinks, flicks, and chips to put the ball past hapless keepers; he hasn't scored since his brace against Southampton in November, a span of seven matches and 611 minutes, and he's cut an increasingly forlorn, frustrated, and frustrating figure on the pitch.

If if weren't for his tireless work in the build-up, his defenders would have precious little to fall back on. In a way, he's a bit fortunate to have delivered an assist against West Ham, as it staves off the fiercest criticism, at least for a time.

However, the enduring image of the evening, as it's been for weeks now, has been that of a supplicating, pained gaze to the heavens after scuffing yet another shot wide. Adding to the repertoire, perhaps, was when Giroud had the ball on his left foot but fizzed a shot a few yards wide when he shot to the far-post. Almost immediately after striking the ball, Giroud angrily repeated the kick as he should have struck it. Of course, he should have at least put the ball on-frame, forcing a save from Adrian, but it belies a larger issue.

As with last year, Giroud seemed to struggle the most when he went for power over placement, and he seems to be at his best poaching for goals rather than forcing the issue. Against West Ham, however, he could achieve little to nothing through either approach. I'm hoping that we're merely seeing the weary legs of an overused striker, one who has been putting in full-shifts with little to no respite. Time and again at Boleyn Ground, he was a half-step short, scuffing wide or missing completely a ball put across the mouth of the goal, prompting the announce to exclaim at one point "how many ways are there to miss?" Gibbs had just put a ball across the edge of the six-yard box, and all Giroud had to do, seemingly, was to touch it—just touch it—but, instead, the ball rolled harmlessly through as both Gibbs and Giroud watched in helpless disbelief. Lament the blasted shots that went wide if you will, but those are the opportunities that a striker really must finish.

I realize, even as I lay into him, that we're seeing the culmination of a number of factors—he has his limitations, his fatigue is exacerbating those limitations, and we've been hungry for results after taking only two points from nine available going into the West Ham match. In addition, his early-season purple patch raised expectations, and coming down to Earth was perhaps inevitable. His timing, then, might be a bit fortunate as the transfer-window approaches. It will be difficult to find a quality striker in January, especially in a World Cup year, but an in-form striker would only provide more cover for Arsene to say that he's satisified with our options. Giroud's struggles highlight our threadbare cupboard, with only Bendtner as a replacment of any experience in the Prem. Yes, Sanogo is now apparently back from injury, and there's also Park, but none of the three inspires much confidence.

I'm not calling for an out-and-out replacement for Giroud, as I believe that he makes vital contributions. However, the longer he goes without scoring, the more he presses to score, and the less he contributes in other ways. We need him to score—not just to help us win, but to release the pressure that has piled up on him. 

Arsenal 3-1 West Ham: Player Ratings

After slogging through and stumbling a series of difficult matches (Chelsea, Man City, Napoli, Everton), a vital three points came through a 3-1 win over plucky but overmanned West Ham.  The returns of Walcott and Podolsk sparked the win; Walcott's brace was enough to win it, and Podolski's first goal since September put the game on ice. Here, then, is a quick run-down of each player's performance (all scores and statistics come courtesy of whoscored.com, who start each player at a 6.0 and move them up or down over the course of the match):
  • Santiago Cazorla—8.84: Though he didn't score, this was a classic Cazorla performance as he buzzed all about the field, leading the team in touches (109) and shots (8) while adding in six key passes, second only to Özil's eight. He tested keeper Adrian time and again with strong shots and looked as lively as he has all season.
  • Theo Walcott—8.84: His brace showed a few sides to him that we're not accustomed to, but so be it. His first goal saw him cut to his left through the box and sluice a low shot through a thicket of defenders; his second came through a sharply driven header from a Podolski cross. Beyond that, Walcott menaced the West Ham defense all day, repeatedly getting behind his man.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.94: Please resign this man and let him retire an Arsenal man. Sagna simply dominated. contributing ten effective clearances and three tackles while leading all players with eight aerial duels won. He may no longer merit a place among the league's top five best right backs, but a performance like this one reminds us that he's still very much a force to be reckoned with.
  • Mesut Özil—7.64: Without tallying a goal or an assist, Özil nonetheless delivered a strong performance, perhaps not quite strong enough to quiet his critics. Eight key passes is more than you can shake a stick at, though some will anyway. Give him more time on the pitch with Walcott, and the assists will come.
  • Mikel Arteta—7.46: Controlled the midfield calmly and disrupted what few threats West Ham could muster, leading the team with four tackles while chipping in six clearances and launching counters with six well-placed long balls. Maybe he could have done better on Cole's goal, but he did earn a spot-kick that should have earned a penalty-kick after Mertesacker's shot clearly struck a defender's arm.
  • Kieran Gibbs—7.31: Nine clearances and a number of goal-scoring opportunities mask the fact that Gibbs was beaten repeatedly by Cole, such as byletting his man slip through instead of staying between him and goal. It's not Gibb's fault that Szczesny spilled the rebound, but he could have done better to keep Cole away with better positioning.
  • Olivier Giroud—7.25: Another frustrating performance from Giroud, at least in terms of finishing, as he missed several clear opportunities, prompting the announcer at one point to say "how many ways are there to miss?" and "Lukas Podolski must be going 'please give me a chance like that!'" However, he did contribute very well to the build-up and connected with his BFF to claim an assist. A goal, however, would be a welcome contribution, and sooner rather than later.
  • Thomas Vermaelen—7.24: A quiet, calm performance from the man, who showed little sign of rust while leading the team with eleven clearances and six aerial duels won (second behind Sagna). He's handled his demotion while dignity and class, but performances like this one remind us that he has the skill to challenge Koscielny for more time on the pitch. The two may not pair well, but Vermaelen suggested through this match that he and Per might.
  • Per Mertesacker—7.14: wasn't bothered most of the afternoon but still found time for eight clearances and five aerial duels won. As mentioned above, he should have earned us a spot-kick when his shot clearly struck the arm of a West Ham defender in the box. Still, a comfortable display for the German. It might have been interesting to see how he'd have handled Andy Carroll. Maybe next time 'round.
  • Aaron Ramsey—6.58: A bit of a lukewarm showing from Ramsey, whose 65th minute thigh strain might come at an opportune time as he's slowed down since his scintillating start to the season. Not much to say on the day, to be honest, so we'll leave him to rest up for a match or two.
  • Wojciech Szczesny—6.03: His first real stinker of the season, if memory serves, as he coughed up several rebounds, one that Cole alertly pounced on to open the scoring. He had to make five saves but two of these offered West Ham follow-ups. Still, it's perhaps the kind of performance that gets the man to recommit himself going forward.
Substitutions
  • Lukas Podolski (65' for Ramsey)7.6: Welcome back, Poldi! Is it a coincidence that the scoring commenced once he took to the pitch? Perhaps. He purred like a panther down that left flank, whipping in some dangerous crosses such as the one that Walcott headed home, and chipped in two on-target shots, more in his 25 minutes than Giroud in 90. His goal iced the game and suggests that he's ready to pick up where he left off from September.
  • Matthieu Flamini (81' for Özil)—6.2: Barely on long enough to rate, to be honest, but did what he had to do without fanfare or fuss. He did manage 100% accuracy from 14 passes, so there's that.
  • Nicklas Bendter (85' for Giroud)—5.99: Truly not on long enough to rate, as the outcome was all but settled and people were picking up the prayer-books and heading for the exits. He did manage to squeeze off a shot, forcing Adrian to save, but that's about all there was time for. 
There. Some of these numbers reflect a certain gap in form between the two sides, but it's a welcome-reminder that these were sometimes that matches that would see us drop points that we couldn't afford to drop, and rebounding from that conceded goal shows that we're not as fragile as we were last year, when such an error might have seen us go to pieces. It's good enough to send us top of the table for at least a few days as we prepare for Newcastle on Saturday.

26 December 2013

3-1 West Ham: Walcott and Poldi make good

Well, it took a mild thigh-strain to Aaron Ramsey to do it, but the Walcott-Podolski axis devastated West Ham after a tentative start saw the hosts go ahead. After Szczesny coughed up a rebound just a minute into the second half, gifting a put-back goal to Carlton Cole, our freshly-back-from-injury dynamic duo unleashed a volley of sublime passes and shots that put us ahead with two goals from Walcott inside of three minutes, the first assisted by Cazorla and the second, even more impressively, on a sharp header from a Podolski cross. Barely eight minutes passed before Podolski put the match to bed, driving home a nicely laid-off ball from Giroud to settle the scoring at 3-1.

Let's get the unpleasantness out of the way first. Truth be told, Szczesny turned in his worst performance of the season, highlighted by that hiccup on Nolan's shot that led to the Cole goal. Were that all, we could dismiss it as a blip on the radar, just the kind of thing that any keeper will suffer from time to time. However, he failed to learn his lesson when, barely five minutes later, Szczesny failed to handle a similarly tame shot from Matt Jarvis, only to be bailed out by Gibbs's urgent clearance. Minutes later, Szczesny was caught in no-man's land as he came off his line to intercept a cross only to see Cole beat him to it but put the shot wide. This twelve-minute sequence suggested a lack of focus from Szczesny, perhaps borne from the fact that West Ham has struggled to generate goals all season (15 goals in 18 matches) or from the notion that these opportunities came largely against the run of play.

There. That's done and over. We can now move on the good stuff. Keep in mind that, by contrast with other results, we were not tested to the same extent as we've been tested in recent weeks. West Ham is in the drop-zone, after all, not in the mix for European competitions next year (as are Chelsea and Everton) or fighting for progress in it this year (as were Napoli). That said, it was gratifying to see a more-confident, dominant performance even if we did have to wait until the hour to see floodgates open. At the back, Vermaelen showed that he can still bring it, as evinced by his team-leading 11 successful clearances. Despite Szczesny's hiccup, he and Mertesacker showed that they can work together to lock down an opponent. Given Mertesacker's cautionary play, a Kos-Vermaelen rotation could and should become a more regular feature going forward.

Ahead of them, we'll have to look at options as Ramsey limped off in the 65th minute with a thigh-strain. As Arsene said after the match, "the Christmas period is certainly over for him." We'll await testing to see when he'll return, but with Arteta, Flamini, and perhaps even Wilshere available, Ramsey would be due a rest anyway. Arteta showed no lingering effects from Mikel's studs-up tackle on Wednesday, leading the team in passes (87) and pass-percentage (95%) among those with more than 20 passes. Oh, and he led the team in tackles with four. Vintage performance from the man. Flamini? He was there but didn't do all that much. Sorry to give the defensive midfield short-shrift, but the exciting news comes in the attacking third.

First of all, 29 shots taken, eight on target. No, West Ham is not Chelsea, but Allardyce surely took note of how we struggled to take shots during our mid-week snooze-a-thon. Despite the blueprint for "success" that Mourinho offered, West Ham were unable to even approximate a similar level of success as we took more shots in this match than we'd taken in our previous three matches combined. It should come as no surprise that the chief culprits were Cazorla (eight shots, two on target), Walcott five shots, two on target, two goals), and Podolski (four shots, two on target). Podolski, who came on in the 65th minute for Ramsey, was especially lively, adding in that sublime cross for Walcott to head home. Not to be left out, Özil chipped in with eight key passes, more than many midfielders tally all season. It was a welcome return to form for him, and for Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski, who simply bossed the midfield while decimating the Hammers throughout the second half. Together, they offered a tantalizing glimple, albeit only about 25 minutes worth, of what they can do together. Cazorla may not have scored, but he served notice repeatedly that he can and will shoot from distance, in addition to creating chances for others. Should this kind of form carry forward, and should Arsene find room for all three on the pitch, the results could be devastating indeed. With Poldi's thunderous shots and well-weighted crosses, and with Walcott's pace and increasingly incisive finishing, we might just see an improvement on our status as third-most prolific scoring-side in the Prem.

Last but not least, le buteur du charme. No, he didn't score. However, he did deliver the assist on Poldi's goal, a goal less important to the outcome of the match as it might be to the outcome of future matches. After all, last season saw Poldi and Giroud forge a productive on-field partnership, and their sequence on that third goal suggests that they're ready to pick up where they left off. What's more, he delivered yet another yeoman-like performance, shouldering his way through a thicket of Hammers' defenders to discombobulate and disrupt their formation.

Yes, it was a dominant performance against a squad struggling to escape relegation, but it's also the kind of result that slipped through our grasp in recent seasons, and it stands in nifty contrast to Chelsea's narrow 1-0 win at home over Swansea, Man U's 3-2 win at Hull, Tottenham's 1-1 home-draw with West Brom, or Everton's 0-1 home-loss to Sunderland. Man City's 2-1 win at Anfield might flatter both, and we now have four teams within three points of first place.

We've got a tetchy affair with in-form Newcastle, whose 5-1 win over Stoke flatters them just a bit, coming as it does through two questionable first-half dismissals against the Potters. We'll take a closer look at Newcastle ahead of Saturday's match, but, in the meantime, don't draw any conclusions from their Boxing Day result. For now, sit back and relax in a solid result, one that sends us back to the top of the table.

West Ham Preview: Clobberin' Time...

We've taken two points from nine in our last three matches, and, while we may discuss the in's and out's of drawing with Everton or Chelsea at home or losing at the Etihad, it's hard to resist the urge to look to a Boxing Day trip to Upton Park as anything other than a chance to seize three points. If there are any lessons to be drawn from Monday's tepid draw with Chelsea, there are two: first, don't let the opponent's strategy frustrate; and, two, score a goal or two.

On the first, I don't think that West Ham can man the ramparts to the same degree as Chelsea did. Without slighting Jääskeläinen or his minions in any degree, I doubt that we'll face a defensive effort as strong as the one we saw from Chelsea, either in terms of tactics or personnel. On one hand, West Ham might try to draw a lesson or two from Chelsea's lock-down performance in order to nick a point from us; on the other, we might draw a few lessons of our own in order to seize all three.

To wit, we now have available Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski. As to the first, Walcott looks to be just the kind of winger who can wreak havoc against an unsettled defender, and left-back Rasvan Rat fits that bill. Walcott has sit on the sidelines long enough, nursing that abdominal injury back to health, and he has shown that he can deliver, as he did with his brace against Man City.

From there, I'd welcome the return of Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, even to the point of starting them along with Walcott at center instead of Giroud. Amongst the current squad, Podolski and Cazorla are perhaps the most willing and able to unleash shots from distance. Resting Giroud, then, might then allow us to see what our other attackers can deliver; will it be Walcott running behind the defense? Will it be Cazorla off the dribble, jinking across the top of the box to shoot? Will it be Podolski delivering a thunderous volley? Whoever it may be, it would be gratifying to see us score a goal or two.

We've come through a gauntlet of fixtures and emerged with a few dents and scratches. We won't have Wilshere; we may not have Koscielny. We haven't won since defeating Hull City 2-0 on December 3rd. It's high time, then, that we regained a bit of swagger, a bit of dominance. Should it come at the expense of the Hammers,  so be it.

If there's a lesson to be drawn from the Chelsea match, it's that possession alone doesn't matter, not that this is any kind of shocking revelation. However, by contrast with that result, we might do well to concede a bit of possession in order to draw West Ham forward, all the better to exploit space behind for Walcott, Cazorla, or Podolski to exploit.

At the risk of getting too optimistic, I'd like to see a bit of a run-away, with Walcott and Podolski scoring. West Ham have had trouble getting goals, and so I feel comfortable in calling for a 2-0 win. 

24 December 2013

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Mourinho, you stingy, cowardly...

Scrooge. It's Christmas Eve, and so I'd like to hold my tongue in the spirit of the season, but yesterday's match was such a tepid, timid, limp affair that I'm finding it hard. I'll forego the usual "here's what happened, here's who did well" kind of stuff for now, assuming that it's been done, and skip right to my gut reaction. What a disgusting, appalling performance that was. Not so much from us, mind you, though it is a missed opportunity. We could have, and perhaps should have, done better. We had our chances.

No, the bile that rises to the back of my throat is inspired by Chelsea's—and, more specifically, by Mourinho's—game plan. I get it; it makes sense; I've even promoted it from time to time when we've gone in to face an in-form, even superior, opponen: take a point from top-four opponents and take all three from those below. However, to make it the bedrock of one's season is cynical and insulting. Having brought in Willian this summer for £35m  and Schurrle for £22m, and having brought in Hazard for £40m and Oscar for £32m last summer, not to mention Mata for £27m the summer before that, I'd think Mourinho could afford to be a little more ambitious  than to sit back, eight or nine or ten men behind the ball, launching only the occasional counter-attack. Why, the Hazard-Oscar-Mata midfield alone should be enough to generate some possession, not to mention scoring chances.

Nope. 31% possession was all that Chelsea bothered to achieve. 31% is the kind of possession-stat we might see from Sunderland or Aston Villa or Cardiff (no offense, gentlemen), not from a top-of-the-table, contending-for-the-Prem-title squad whose payroll probably exceeds the GDP or more than a few nations. What a bloody kick in the teeth to paying fans, be they Chelsea or Arsenal, to have to sit through that farce of a performance in the miserable, rainy conditions that they had to endure. It takes a "special" kind of self-serving arrogance to assemble such a stable of players, only to trot out the kind of snooze-worthy, yawn-inspiring drivel that we saw on Monday. What a waste of talent. What a waste of resources. What a slap in the face to all of the other clubs that can't afford one player of the caliber of Mata or Oscar Schurrle, who didn't even start, the latter two not even subbing in until the last 17 minutes or so of the match.

People fork over some hard-earned cash to attend these matches, and while these are not performances put on solely for the entertainment of the fans, they pay on the expectation that they'll see something a little more engaging than the tripe they were served. Chelsea-Arsenal used to be an epic fixture, delivering famous results one way or the other. Not with Mourinho at the helm, it seems. It's been pointed out that Arsène has now failed to defeat Mourinho in ten consecutive matches. We're going to have to start putting an asterisk after some of these results if Mourinho refuses to play football. That wasn't football; that was more like table-soccer, except that Mourinho, that craven, fly-bitten, canker-blossom, snuck in the night before and took all of his foosmen from the midfield and attack rows and put them on defense. It's a strategy that's bound to work; how can one score through such a thicket of arms and legs and torsos? That we came as close as we did through Giroud twice (one he should've done better on, one he did as well as any one could)  is cold comfort.

We do share some of the blame. We had to know that Chelsea would come out and offer just such a parked-bus, brass-knuckle affair. That Willian or Ivanovic weren't sent off for cleats to various body parts embodies the cynicism of the evening.  However, we had to know that Chelsea were going to sit back and defend and absorb pressure, and we just didn't do enough to unlock them. Maybe Cazorla should have started instead of Walcott, or at least replaced him once the depth of Chelsea's stubbornness came clear. Maybe Giroud should have been dropping deeper for the build-up. Maybe we should have conceded possession more often to lure Chelsea forward and catch them on counters more often. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

One thing's for sure: Mourinho is a tight-fisted, boring old Scrooge. He got his draw, but he's hoarding talent and scrounging for points like the worst of misers. It's ugly to watch, whoever you root for. I can see it from clubs that lack the wealth that Abramovich has, clubs that hope for a famous draw at the Emirates or Old Trafford, but from Chelsea, one of the wealthiest, well-oiled, and deepest clubs in the world, it's more than boring—it's a bloody black mark on the game. You waste everyone's time, Mourinho—the players, the fans, the stadium-workers—and I really hope Abramovich tires of you sooner than he did with those managers who actually use the players he's splurged on over the years. I rued the departures of Di Matteo and Benitez, even Villas-Boas, among others, but I can't wait for you to get sacked. Lumps of coal in your stocking, indeed. 

23 December 2013

The Enigma of Özil, as explained by Mourinho

This week finds your correspondent some 10,500 feet (3200m) up in the Rockie Mountains with a feeble internet connection, great views, and the threat of altitude sickness a sobering possibility—literally, as the last time I went above 10,000 feet, I got a touch of the stuff and couldn't summit the 14,000 Mt. Eolus. Apparently, one should not go from sea-level to 10,000 feet and consume whiskey at normal rates. Live and learn.

But I digress. This is not a personal diary. We're here to prepare for Monday's momentous clash against Chelsea, one that will either confirm throughout the ages that we will win the Prem or that we're absolute shite and might as well disband. These are the only two possible outcomes. Well, and drawing, but let's file that in under "absolute shite/disband" because, let's face it, there's been a bit of build-up around this one: we come in on the heels of two consecutive losses. We've fallen from the top of the table (gasp!). It's Chelsea, exhibit A in how to buy titles. Chelsea, who ended the Invinicibles' run to the 2004 Champions League. At Highbury, no less. It's Mourinho, whom Arsène has never beaten in nine tries.

However, I'm not a big fan of such historical comparisons. So many players have come and gone from each club that a reference to 2004 matters little. Even our most recent clash, a 2-0 loss in the league cup back in October, is not all that instructive as each club fielded a mixed XI. Therefore, while we can't separate the match from context completely, it's difficult to find a proper context. Had we faced off earlier in the season in the Prem, a direct comparison of form might be easier to make. We don't have that. It's not as if we go into the match completely blinded to the risks and possibilities, but the closest we might come might be to compare how we've each done against a particular opponent. There's too much algebra involved in that, not to mention, despite my opening declamations, too much whiskey. So much for living and learning.

One of the intriguing storylines is found in the Özil-Mourinho axis, as both men left Real Madrid and now find themselves pitted against each other. Speaking ahead of the match, Mourinho was effusive and warm in his praise of the playmaker:
I know his strong points. Not the weaknesses. I think I know how to try to stop him to be in the game (for) 90 minutes, with 90 minutes of direct influence. But it's impossible to stop him for 90 minutes, because these kind of players, they will have always a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop them and they end up showing why they are so good. To stop him completely, I don't believe we can.
I find myself surprised to be agreeing with the man. I think many of us saw the arrival of Özil as a defining moment, as Özil would slot in instantly and start delivering moment after breath-taking moment of exquisite football. The man himself fed that fire in his first appearance in Arsenal red, delivering a deft pass to Giroud against Sunderland. Many of us succumbed to the idea that we would be served a non-stop highlight-reel of similarly sublime passes, delicate dribbles, and dominating displays. That has not come to pass. Instead, there's been an apparently maddeningly string of lack-luster performances and diffident displays, punctutated only occasionally by a moment of gasp-inducing brilliance.

Such is the burden of said brilliance. We overlook, in our hunger, the notion that a player like Özil cannot come out and, for a full 90 minutes, dominate a game. Defenders swarm to Özil, sometimes two or even three at a time, when he has the ball. Without the ball, Özil is prone to disappearing, which some knock him for without realizing that this, in fact, is a strategy. Let the defense forget you, and openings appear. What's more, his game does not deliver end-products like Messi or Ronaldo; he offers service to others who finish—or don't, as is their skill or wont. Even the Messis and Ronaldos of the world offer stretches of hum-drum and then, suddenly, breathlessly, mesmerizingly, they deliver a moment of such reality-defying skill that one is left stupefied.

However, those moments come only a few times a match if they come at all. No player can deliver an historic goal or assist with each touch he gets. Come match-time, I'd be more than happy with Mourinho's suggestion that Özil will deliver "a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop" him. In matches such as this, Mourinho's brand of boring football has more often than not been enough to carry the day. In Özil, we may just have the kind of player who can unlock that approach, whether it's finding Walcott running in behind Azpilicueta or Cole or lofting a well-weighted set-piece cross in for Giroud or Mertesacker to nod home. Özil's been guilty of a few poor touches and, yes, he has faded late in matches. However, I'd still suggest that, on the balance, he's spruced things up just a bit since his arrival, and after a few quiet matches, might be ready to remind us all—including Mourinho—what he brings to the pitch.

21 December 2013

Please, Jose, don't start Cole over Azpilicueta. Please?

Ahead of Monday's clash with Chelsea, tongues wagged at the idea that Ashley Cole would be benched because of his appearance at a nightclub at which Arsenal was holding its seasonal get-together. However, the reality is that Cole has been second-choice left-back under Mourinho for some time now, a fact reiterated by the Specious One himself:
From the beginning Ashley's not playing. But today is Friday, the game is Monday. Something can happen in between. I play Branislav Ivanovic right-back, I play Cesar Azpilicueta left-back, I play John Terry, and I have to choose between Gary Cahill and David Luiz.
In other words, Cole's been benched, perhaps not coincidentally, since Newcastle won 2-0 over Chelsea on November 2nd. Still, I'm left wondering, against whom would Theo have the better outing? There are suggestions that Cole has Theo's number, but I'm not sure that's quite true. Since the 2011-12 season, Theo has started four times against Chelsea and netted twice, not too shabby, especially when you consider that he played second-fiddle to van Persie in each outing. One of those two goals came, of course, back in October 2011 in an epic "I've fallen; no, I haven't" effort that saw Walcott get behind Cole and belly-slide only to get back up and slot home in that pulsating 5-3 demolition of Chelsea back in 2011.

Of course, times have changed, and there's little to be gleaned from that heady day. In the interim, Cole has started an inexorable fade; he's now 33 and his trademark pace is a relic of the past. On the other side of the same coin, Theo is entering his prime; he's 24 and perhaps on the verge of a breakthrough. In a way, it's a shame that Cole showed his puss at the Libertine on Wednesday, giving Mourinho more of an excuse to push him further down the rotation. I'm going to go ahead and say something that the better part of me suggested I keep under my hat: I think Cole crashed the party to avoid playing on Monday. I think the idea of facing Theo had him quaking in his boots, literally and figuratively, and so he decided to give his manager even more reason to get benched.

Think about it. It's not as if Azpilicueta has solidified the left side. After all, Chelsea have conceded six goals in their last three Prem matches facing the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke, and Sunderland. This run of form might have convinced Mourinho that Azpilicueta needed a break or even a demotion to put his feet to the fire. After all, it had been eight matches that he's played a full 90' without Cole even getting a warm-up on the sideline, much less an appearance on the pitch. I wouldn't say that the Spaniard has gotten complacent, but I wouldn't have put it past Mourinho to restore Cole against Arsenal just to tweak Arsène a bit. Knowing what we all know about the acrimony surrounding Cole's departure in 2006 (with fines levied on he and Mourinho for their participation in illegal back-room dealings in 2005), I wouldn't be at all surprised if Cole does in fact start on Monday.

In fact, I welcome it.

After all, while Cole's star seems to be waning, Theo's might just be waxing. Of course, he's barely returned from injury, but he's looked lively and likely to start striking fear in opponents' hearts. The only flaw there is that one has to have a heart before having fear struck in it, and Cole might just wriggle free on that account. On a more serious note, Theo has offered signs that he's back and ready to pick up where he left off last season. In his last three appearances since returning from the abdominal injury that sidelined him in mid-September, he's played 153 minutes of football and scored twice while adding two assists. Those two goals came while facing another former Arsenal left-back, Gael Clichy, whom Theo pinned back and exploited time and time again. Theo's runs stretched Man City's defense to the breaking-point several times, forcing an un-called hand-ball from Zabaleta in the box and creating several key-passes even while playing from the left in the second half.

Say what you will about Azpilicueta. He's done quite well for himself since switching from right-back, his preferred position, taking over from Cole on the left in early November. However, he hasn't faced the likes of what Theo can throw at him in his eight starts: West Brom, West Ham, Southampton, Sunderland (twice), Stoke, Crystal Palace, FC Basel. Hardly a Murderer's Row. In that time, he's delivered some strong performances, to be sure, even netting a goal when he faced us in October in that 0-2 league-cup defeat. Then again, he was defending against Ryo Miyaichi. No offense, Ryo, but I doubt that Azpilicueta felt the same pressure to track back against you as he'd feel against Theo.

As such, Mourinho might face a bit of a conundrum. Does he start Cole and risk an aging, past-his-prime left-back whose appearance is bound to stoke the home-fans, not to mention the players? Or does he stick with the up-and-coming and out-of-position right-back who has yet to face the kind of pace and movement that Theo is no doubt primed to unleash? Whichever way you slice it, I'm looking forward to Theo carving Chelsea open all afternoon. Whomever Walcott might face, be it Cole or Azpilicueta, he figures to run riot all along Chelsea's left flank. With the service he'd receive from Özil and others, he could just have a field day. He had one on Saturday. Why not make it two matches in a row?

19 December 2013

So, um, who'll be managing Spurs when we face off in the FA Cup?

Normally, I don't like to go slumming around, but it's a long week between matches, and, let's face it, it's just too fun to wallow in our dear friend's misery over at White Hart Lane. An embarrassing 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool was followed by another, perhaps more-embarrassing 2-1 loss at home to West Ham in the League Cup. One expects to concede goals to Liverpool (unless you're, um, Arsenal), but to crash out at home to West Ham is another matter entirely.

It's a striking contrast to draw when, on the same weekend that we conceded six goals to Man City but emerge with a shoulder-shrug, Spurs concede five and sack their manager. Of course, having lost 6-0 to Man City themselves probably didn't help the situation. André Villas-Boas can be a shrewd tactical manager, but his decision to play a high line against both Liverpool and City, perhaps more than his inability to deliver results despite being handed £100m's worth of new players, sealed his fate. The devastation at the Etihad should have taught Villas-Boas the risks of playing a high line as Spurs were simply eviscerated in late November. However, despite going into the Liverpool with a make-shift back-line that thrust Étienne Capoue into an unfamiliar center-back, Villas-Boas committed to that high line and watched helplessly as Suarez, perhaps one of the best and running behind defenses, led Liverpool to a 5-0 thrashing of Spurs. Villas-Boas was sacked the next day. Excuse me, "the decision was by mutual consent and in the interests of all parties."

So who's next? The list of pedigreed managers is awfully short even in the best of times, but it's even shorter in the middle of a campaign. Caretaker Tim Sherwood, elevated from his previous post as youth-coordinator, admitted that he doesn't know if he'll be in charge when Spurs travel to Southampton on Sunday. It's almost enough to inspire pity for them—almost. However, we are discussing Spurs at the moment, and "pity" doesn't really warrant a mention. I may not hate them as much as I'm apparently supposed to, but I do enjoy a bit of schadenfreude when it's available. It's almost as good as those kebabs that Podolski sneaks into the dressing room.

The FA Cup's third round pits us against Spurs on January 4th, and by then, I'd imagine that they'll have settled on a manager by then. However, as rare as it may be to find a quality player mid-season, it might be even harder to find a quality manager. The current odds-on favorite seems to be Frank de Boer, currently managing Ajax in the Eredivisie. He's hardly unsettled, having led Ajax to three consecutive league titles and hot in pursuit of a fourth (currently second, two points behind Vitesse Arnhem). Furthermore, de Boer and his agent Guido Albers have scuttled any rumors, at least for now. Albers said, "Through various channels it has become clear to me that Spurs are interested [in de Boer], but the club has not contacted Ajax. So from our point of view there's not much to say about it. Frank isn't even thinking about it. He's fully focusing on Ajax."

Nabbing de Boer might prove a bigger coup than any of the player-signings of the summer, as it wouldn't be the first time that the man seized the reins of a club in crisis and steered it towards glory. When de Boer stepped up at Ajax, replacing Martin Jol, he led Ajax to its first Eredivisie title in seven years. Coming to Spurs would reunite him with former Ajax players like Vertonghen and Eriksen, and his intelligent, positive sense of how to play football might offer Spurs a refreshing change of pace from the dour micromanagement that Villas-Boas sometimes preferred.

The sacking of Villas-Boas, though it might throw Spurs into a bit more turmoil in the short run, could lead to a resurrection of sorts, similar to the one de Boer forged when he took over at Ajax. He and his agent have talked down the possibility of moving to White Hart Lane, but talk is cheap. We'll probably see an announcement of one kind or another before the week is out. Will it be de Boer? Capello? Maybe Laudrup? Time will tell...

Appeal denied, Wilshere's suspended for two matches

Perhaps hoping to add "stubborn" to its list of undesirable qualities that it is somehow proud of having, the FA stood by its initial ruling, meaning that Wilshere will miss Monday's match against Chelsea (not much of a surprise) and the Boxing Day trip to face West Ham. The FA still has adequately explained why earlier suspensions for the same offense received one-match bans and this one receives two, other than they have a new protocol and panel for dealing with these offenses. No one seriously doubts that Wilshere flipped off the Man City fans, but no one has explained why the suspension has doubled since last season.

If this is the new policy, fine. I don't actually object to that. After all, I'm all for stamping out this kind of nonsense. Jack was immature and rude, and he deserves a suspension. However, the two-match suspension seems capricious and even a bit harsh, coming as it does without previous warnings, without explanation, and in contrast with previous such incidents. Might Jack have thought twice if he had known that he'd miss two matches? Probably not—as he probably wasn't thinking all that much about it in the first place. It was impulsive almost by nature.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that an unseen finger merits closer scrutiny and punishment than an unseen rash tackle or blown offsides that cancels a goal baffles me. A middle finger is rude and hurts feelings, and, yes, children probably saw it. Stars and garters. Where's my fainting couch when I need it? However, cleats-up tackles can, at the risk of getting hyperbolic, can end careers.

So it looks like we'll be reading tea-leaves rather than knowing for certain ahead of time how the FA will judge further offenses. Will the next middle-fingerer also get a two-match ban, or were their circumstances that mitigated—or exacerbated—the nature of Wilshere's transgression? It's hard to know. The FA offers without much help the following:
Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has been suspended for two matches by an Independent Regulatory Commission. Wilshere was charged by The FA with making an offensive and/or insulting and/or abusive gesture during the fixture between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday 14 December. The incident was not seen by match officials but was caught on video. Whilst admitting the charge, Wilshere claimed the standard sanction for this offence was clearly excessive. The Commission rejected this claim and the two match suspension will commence with immediate effect.
Thanks, FA, for being as transparent as muddy water on this one.  

18 December 2013

Koscielny's injury presents Vermaelen his chance

Ever since his demotion from the starting line-up, Thomas Vermaelen has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism, refusing to complain while continuing to support the club and dutifully living up to what he's been asked to do, which has consisted mainly of sitting on the bench despite being the club's nominal captain while watching Per and Kos rack up an impressive string of clean sheets and victories. In fact, the last time Vermaelen started was against Man U, when we lost 1-0, something that his critics surely hold against him, as van Persie's headed/shouldered goal would be just the kind of thing Per would have shut down.

They may have a point. Hindsight is, after all, 20-20. By this logic, van Persie scored because Vermaelen was in whereas Per would've been there to head clear. However, this is not necessarily fair or true. It's water under a bridge, to be honest. Man U had one shot on target, and it went in. We had only two shots on target. That's not a recipe for success, and to blame Vermaelen for the defeat is missing the point. Heck, if you trust the stats, Vermaelen was one of our best performers on that day, earning a 7.4 from whoscored.com, second-best behind Gibbs's 7.6.

To address the core of the issue, Koscielny looks to be out for about two weeks. An official report is still forth-coming, but an unofficial report in the French newspaper L'Equipe suggests that Kos has received ten stitches and will be out of action for ten to fifteen days. Take that with a grain of salt or two. For what it's worth, the good news is that this implies that Kos's injury is minor, just a flesh-wound as the saying goes, and not anything deeper or more significant. If there had been more-extensive damage, we'd be looking at an absence of months, not weeks. As it stands, it looks as if Alvaro Negredo's cleat sliced Kos's knee but didn't do any major damage. The gash, as ugly as it may look, will prevent Kos from playing against Chelsea on Monday, but he may be available as early as the West Ham fixture on 26 December.

Looking for a silver lining, Kos's injury offers Vermaelen, once one of our most dynamic defenders, a chance to reprove himself. It's ideal, in fact, as it allows him to fill the role that Kos has performed to this point, that of the roaming, attacking center-back supported by Mertesacker's more-cautious, zonal defending. After all, for as consistent and reliable as the Kos-Per axis has been, it's well-worth remembering how well Vermaelen has performed in the past, both as a defender and as an attacker. Not to take away for Kos by any stretch, but Vermaelen's contributions to the attack had been so vital that he's regularly touted as a defensive midfielder rather than a center-back, not that I endorse that sort of thing. His skill-set, if not his mind-set, is best when he has the field and the action in front of him.

Therefore, I don't look at Kos's injury as a setback. It's more of a crisitunity, a chance for Vermaelen to show what he's made of. He's shown what he's made of in previous years, and, rather than ruing the absence of Koscielny, I'm looking forward to the resurgence of Vermaelen. After all of the talk of depth and rotation, it's a welcome change of pace to see that, with the injury of a key starter, his replacement is none other than the club-captain.

In other words, Kos's absence is not necessarily a set-back. It may not be an upgrade. Maybe it's a one-for-one substitution. One way or another, we'll need Vermaelen, vintage 2011-12, going forward. After all, the man has proven his loyalty over the last nine months or so, riding the bench without complaint while Kos and Per forged a strong partnership. Now that he has his chance, I'm sure he'll seize it. Bring it on, Tom; I'd love nothing more than to lavish praise on a dominant performance against Chelsea on Monday...

FA hands down two-game ban to Wilshere; appeal in the cards

Contrary to precedents set through one-game bans to Luis Suarez and Wilfried Zaha, the FA's new three-member panel agreed unanimously that Wilshere's gesture was a sending-off offense and handed down the two-game ban. It's abundantly clear that Wilshere made the gesture, but the difference between his ban and those given to Suarez or Zaha is apparently attributable to the newly formed FA panel set up to review cases such as this when the offense went unnoticed by the referee. An appeal is apparently in the works with a final decision scheduled for Thursday. If it stands, Wilshere would miss Monday's clash with Chelsea and the following fixture at West Ham the 26th of December.

Maybe the FA panel could check this offsides ruling?
I'm not sure what makes Wilshere's finger twice as offensive as Suarez's or Zaha, who were also fined £20,000 and £3,000, respectively, but it feels arbitrary and excessive. I don't say so as a Gooner; I say so as an objective observer. Will the FA start using its three-member panel to assess actual fouls that may have gone unnoticed or that the referee waved off or that the linesmen got wrong? If so, I can think of three, perhaps four goals that we're owed from our trip to the Etihad on Saturday. I imagine Olivier Giroud's leg would also like to be depositioned after Yaya Toure's cleats went straight in, just under his knee.

I know that Gunners get away with more than few favorable calls and non-calls, and I'm not arguing that we've been treated any worse than any other club. However, it does feel like it—then again, I'd wager that more fans than not share the same feeling. Call it the Rashomon effect—each of us sees an event from our own point of view and through our own biases.

So be it. In the case of Wilshere, there's little to dispute; the evidence is clear. However, it's just as clear, if not more blatant in the cases of Suarez and Zaha. So why the discrepancy? I'm not suggesting that the FA is bound by those precedents, but the departure seems, as I said before, arbitrary. The FA says that "Under the new process, if an incident has not been seen by the match officials, a three-man panel will be asked by The FA to review it and advise what, if any action, they believe the match referee should have taken had it been witnessed at the time."

Fair enough, but why two games? Is it because he should have been sent off and suspended from the next match? If that's the logic, it would beggar belief. Because the referee and linesmen missed something that happened in the 68th minute, Wilshere has to serve two full matches? I'm not sure that's what's at work here because the FA didn't explain the reasoning behind the ban. I'm not suggesting that Wilshere get a 22-minute "ban" to make up for the time he should have missed from the Man City match, but it does feel as if a more-complete explanation, or a one-match ban in line with previous ones, is in order. Perhaps an appeal can bring it down to one match. We'll find out Thursday, I suppose.

Meh. Considering the way that Wilshere played, it's probably a good thing that he's not available for the Chelsea fixture. We have options, such is our depth in midfield. Walcott's back, and Podolski could also be available. Enjoy your rest, Jack, and I look forward to seeing you against West Ham!

17 December 2013

Chelsea, a cornered beast or simply dead in the water?

So Chelsea crashed out of the League Cup against Sunderland, going 120 minutes while scoring just one goal and watching helplessly as Ki Sung-Yueng netted at 118' to see Sunderland through to the next round. Of course, caveats and asterisks abound as Cech, terry, Ramires, Oscar, and Mata rested. Of Chelsea's XI, we might see Lampard, Cole, Cahill, and Luiz, each of whom played the full 120'. Given the ages of Lampard (35) and Cole (32), not to mention the latter's reliance on pace, they're likely to be rested. Then again, Essien's yellow-card, his fifth on the season, means he'll sit out and perhaps force a weary Lampard into action.

However, before we go too far into the specifics of the match, let's take a broader view. Chelsea, to put it politely, have been mediocre despite managing to scrabble their way to enough points to sit third in the Prem. Since November, a stretch of eleven matches including the Champions League, they've managed to win six while drawing once and losing four times. Of those six wins, perhaps only their 3-0 win over Schalke in the Champions League stands out for its quality. Along the way, Chelsea have found a way to draw at home to West Brom, lose at FC Basel, win at Sunderland thanks to a late own-goal, lose at Stoke, eke out home-wins over Steaua and Crystal Palace, and lose at home to Sunderland. Yes, three points matter regardless of their manner, and champions find ways to win when quality alone doesn't carry the day, but it's been somewhat shocking to see how poor Chelsea have been—not just on Tuesday at Sunderland, but all season. Each potential signature victory comes with some kind of an asterisk. Defeated Man City? Yeah, but that was at Stamford Bridge. Defeated Arsenal? But Arsenal rotated heavily for the League Cup. In fact, it's remarkable to see how few definitive wins Chelsea can claim and how many shocking defeats they've suffered. Each one, however, reduces the shock-value.

This latest, one that some may defend by saying that Chelsea had rotated heavily, still stands out. Much is made of Chelsea's depth, with the idea that their bench is better than most clubs' starting XI. Well, we saw much the opposite on Tuesday, with Chelsea's XI, which included regulars such as Cole, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Lampard, and Mikel, fail to defeat the Prem's most abject squad, one that has managed only two wins in the Prem from 16 fixtures and that fired its manager six matches into the season. I mean, good God. Were it not for a Cattermole own-goal, Sunderland might have kept a clean-sheet.

None of this is to say that Monday's fixture will be a cake-walk, not by any means. However, so much has been made of the fact that Arsèneh has never defeated Mourinho across nine matches that I felt like it would be worth addressing. Look. Historic comparisons don't matter all that much. We can perhaps look a season or two into the past for some context, but squad change so often, and players evolve so much, that there's little to be gleaned from them. More instructive, perhaps, would be each club's recent form. At the risk of coming across as overly optimistic, we've salvaged a tricky draw against Everton, backed our way into the next round of the Champions League despite losing away to Napoli, and very nearly equaled Man City at the Etihad. By contrast, Chelsea eked out a 1-0 win over Steaua and a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, both at home, and lost 1-2 away to Sunderland. On the surface, both Arsenal and Chelsea have staggered.

There are still six days before we'll clash, but Tuesday's result suggests that Chelsea is the club on the ropes, not Arsenal. How delicious would it be to deliver a knock-out on Monday, not just to Chelsea's aspirations, but to Mourinho's tenure? 

Pep finds the Arsenal draw a bit hard to swallow.

Speaking of the Champions League draw on Monday, Pep Guardiola was full of praise for the Gunners, remembering them full-well from previous encounters while he was with Barcelona. Arsenal "was the most difficult draw...They have huge, huge players, Özil, Cazorla, and, uh, Arteta, Mertesacker, and, they have talented players so they are a very, very good team. I am happy for that, to play with the bests teams is fascinating, and we know so we have to play good. We know as Bayern Munich what happened last season." Whereas some managers might utter the words with all the smarm of a snake-oil salesman, Pep seems to mean what he says there.

However, in a less-guarded moment, sitting with his players as they watched the draw, Pep reacted a bit more viscerally, wincing, tucking his chin to chest, and scratching his forehead as if to say, "eek, this is going to be tough" before collecting his wits enough to nod, suggesting "oh—er, um, yeah, it'll be okay, we'll be fine." That initial, gut-reaction is quite telling, though, as it confirms what many of us suspect or believe: the top clubs do not want to have to face us. Sure, part of that comes from the company we keep—Zenit, Olympiakos, and Galatasaray just don't inspire as much fear. On the other hand, we have shown that we're made of sterner stuff than most of the other second-place finishers and, even coming off two losses, we're not to be trifled with or taken lightly.

In light of our recent encounters with Bayern—and with Pep, for that matter—we've given them something to chew on. I don't see us winning so famously at the Allianz Arena, nor do I see us losing so sloppily at home, either. That second-leg result is of course attributable to the outcome of the first, after all. Should we put forth a stronger display in the first leg in London on 19 February, we might be able to put Bayern on their back foot for that second leg on 11 March. Last year's 2-0 win shows that we can weather the worst that Bayern can throw at us; after Giroud put us up in the third minute, Bayern realized that they'd have to play with intensity instead of lethargy, but even then, they couldn't dent our defense.

A lot can happen between now and February, but the confidence we'll draw from that match and from our form have Bayern's manager tugging his collar and swallowing hard. For those who were starting to worry about our wheels falling off, that's ample evidence that one or two bad results has done little to change our reputation among those who matter—those who have to face us. We're coming, Pep. 

Beat Bayern, then sign Lewandowski. Easy peas.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. Sadly, we won't face Bayern for the first leg in London until 19 February, by which time the transfer-window will have long since shut. However, should we defeat Bayern, we won't simply advance to the Champions League quarterfinal; we'll have served notice to Mr. Lewandowski that we are, shall we say, a club to play for. It might have been nice to have dumped Dortmund in the group stage instead of Napoli, the better to encourage Lewa to consider his options in January, but he might have simply fulfilled his long-held desire to move to Bayern. Now that we've drawn Bayern, we have a chance, however daunting it may be, to show him (and others) what we're up to and capable of.

Awww!
Before I get ahead of myself, I should get one issue out of the way: I harbor no illusions of winning the Champions League (okay, well one illusion. It's the same in which I'm a little taller and have a Triumph motorcycle). I don't think we have the depth or quality to sustain a serious run through to the championship. I do think we can beat Bayern, though, and not just because we've done it before. There's a tiny asterisk around that 2-0 win at Allianz Arena, one that reminds us that Bayern started the match assuming they would coast through on away-goals. Once we seized that opening, though, we did fight for and earn the victory. We won't have that little trick up our sleeves this time 'round. If anything, Bayern will be even more alert to the threat we pose because of that win and, more recently, because of our form. That said, even with the recent setbacks we've had, we don't have to rely on the element of surprise. We've shown that we have the form and the quality to beat almost anyone on any given day. 

No less an expert on the matter than Dortmund's own Jurgen Klopp believes the same, saying back in November, "Yes, Arsenal have the quality to win the Champions League. They are young, healthy and good technically. They were clever enough to get a result tonight. Of course they can win the final if they don't play against Bayern Munich." I'm going to go ahead and ask you to let me parse that as I will. Klopp said we can "win the final [emphasis added]" if we don't play against Bayern. Well, this isn't the final. It's the knockout phase. Therefore, if I understand Klopp correctly, and I believe I do (why wouldn't I?), we will beat Bayern in the knockout stage and, because we won't face them in the final, win the Champions League. No other interpretation is even remotely possible.

I kid.

If we can beat Bayern—a big "if", admittedly—even if we don't advance, we remind Lewandowski of what we're up to. Compare the two squads. Bayern is or has arguably peaked. Many of its key players are past their primes. Ribery is 30. Robben will be 30 in January. Lahm turned 30 in November. Schweinsteiger turned 29 in August. Dante turned 30 in October. These are starters, key players, who are still performing well but on whose careers the sun is starting to set. By contrast, look at Arsenal. Yes, we have a few players getting long in the tooth. Cazorla just turned 29. Arteta's 31. Per turned 29 in September. However, beyond those, we feature Wilshere (21), Ramsey (22), Gibbs (24), Walcott (24), Özil (25), Szczesny (23), and Giroud (27). In other words, not only are we in-form, we're primed to get better. Many of our key players are on the verge of realizing their potential rather than reminiscing about it. I ended that list with Szczesny and Giroud deliberately, and here's why.

As implied by the above-photo, Szczesny and Lewandowski seem to get along. They're mates. Besties. BFFs. They might even go old-school with those necklaces with a heart, split in half so they share it, that says "Best Friends". Maybe. There's something to that. Friends encourage each other to make good decisions. At the other end of the warm-fuzzy scale, Giroud's age and, let's face it, limited skill-set, make him replaceable. Look: I like the guy and enjoy it when he does well. He seems like a likable bloke who works hard and puts forth his best effort. However, as good as he is at several things, he doesn't truly excel at any of them. Not on a regular basis, at least. In the short term, we might have to bolster our striking options in other ways—a loan perhaps, for some decent player who can at least keep Giroud fresh. In the long term, though, the boot would be on the other foot as Lewandowski leads the charge and Giroud comes on for him late in matches or starts here and there.

What would it take to make this happen? Lewandowski will be out of contract in the summer, which might force Dortmund to seek a reduced offer. This would depend, of course, on Lewandowski's wishes. He doesn't have to abide by Dortmund's wishes. However, we could offer him a pay-raise, something in the order of £200k a week, although this might prompt some resentment among the rank-and-file. How would Wilshere or Ramsey or Walcott feel about a teammate earning that much more than them—double, in most cases? Would the idea of winning silverware be enough to offset their interest in higher wages for themselves?

It's pretty clear that a player of Lewandowski's caliber will probably not make a change mid-season, not when his club contends for Champions League and Bundesliga silverware, not in a World Cup year. Let's hope, then, that Zenit stuns Dortmund and that we send Bayern packing, clarifying once and for all that Bayern, even under Guardiola, are yesterday's news and that we are the club to play for.

This year's Champions League may not offer us much of a chance for silverware, but it's an audition of sorts, an invitation to players like Lewandowski and others to make their mark. By all means, then, let's do what we can to demolish Bayern but then turn our attention towards winning the Prem. The list of players who would kill to play for us would include more than just Lewandowski, and that's not at all a bad position to be in.

15 December 2013

Prem Power Rankings: Matchday 16

The power-rankings are a bit jumbled this week as Man City (fourth in the Prem) leapfrogs Arsenal (first) thanks to that 6-3 scoreline. Of course, as a Gooner, it's a struggle to be objective after a loss such as the one we suffered on Saturday. Having said that, Man City's home form could be just strong enough to outweigh their away struggles. Much as I would like to believe that they'll come down to Earth at home, that might be some pie-in-the-sky thinking there. Elsewhere, Liverpool continue to defy my doubts, hanging five goals on Spurs at White Hart Lane, shouldering their way rather rudely past Chelsea and Everton in the process. I've expanded the rankings this week to include 5th-place Everton. After all, it seems only fair for the table to reflect those clubs contending for European competitions next year. Notable absent despite the expansion, of course, are Man U and Spurs. The former have to contend with the month-long absence (and apparent transfer-request) of van Persie while the latter were humiliated, and spectacularly at that, by Liverpool. At home.

Power  (previous)
Latest

Record
(W-D-L)
BPL Table
Comments
Next
1.  Man City (2)
(LWWDW)


6-3 at Arsenal

10-2-4

4 (32)
After pulverizing Arsenal, many are anointing them the favorites to win it all. However, questions remain about their away-form, which is worse than 11th-place Aston Villa.

At Fulham 12/21
2.  Arsenal (1)
(WWWDL)
3-6 MCFC

11-2-3
1 (35)
It was a farcical performance from one end of the pitch to the other, but the more damaging result may be the injury to Koscielny. There is some soul-searching to be done, but I’d wager we’ll see a rebound rather than an unraveling.

Chelsea
12/23
3.  Liverpool (NA)
(DLWWW)
5-0 at Spurs

10-3-3
2 (33)
Flat-track bullies or serious contenders? It’s hard to rate Liverpool effectively, to be honest. They’ll be without Sturridge and Gerrard for a month, but it’s getting harder to ignore their potential.

Cardiff
12/21
4.  Chelsea (4)
(WWWLW)
2-1 Palace

10-3-3
3 (33)
Another unconvincing display prevents Chelsea from climbing. Yes, they took three points again, but it was hardly convincing. Are they grinding out boring wins or maxing out their potential?

At Arsenal 12/23
5.   Everton (3)
(DWWDW)
4-1 Fulham

8-7-1
5 (31)
Martinez has this club playing some good football at the moment, and it’s a sign of rising expectations that a 4-1 win is viewed by the Toffees faithful as a bit of a disappointment. Still the only one-loss club in the Prem.
At Swansea
12/22