16 February 2013

Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn: A Bitter Pill

Theo, I wanted you on from the first minute.
I'm vexed. Fuming. I don't know what to say. For the second time in a season, we've crashed out against a team we should have rolled like an R in French 101. Instead, we've been dumped like someone's second cousin taken to prom. It started with a side notable for a number of exclusions--Sagna, Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Podoslki all started on the bench. For a man who claimed that we take the FA Cup seriously, I'm not sure I understand Wenger's intentions here. I respect Diaby, Rosicky, the Ox, Coquelin, and Gervinho, but I do not necessarily want all of them on the field to start in a match we claim that we need to win. If I'm blessed to start in a game like this, I do look around and wonder, "why am I playing instead of Walcott or Wilshere? Maybe this game is less important than Tuesday's match." I can see resting one or two regulars, but six? The message is all too clear--let's get through this match with our fingers crossed.

Rosicky in particular was an odd choice, given how rarely he's played. He's among my favorites, but he had to be a little rusty. And there's something about Gervinho; as wonderful as he apparently is for Cote D'Ivoire, he's horrid for us, evinced yet again by his howler in the 36th when he had just the keeper to beat. As it is, this all amounts to the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. We now go into a Champions League match against Bayern, not that I care. Even if we had won this match, I see progress in the Champions League as a distraction from other goals, reduced though they now may be to finishing 4th or higher in the Prem.

Blackburn came out and did exactly what we might expect an "overmatched" team to do--they parked the bus and soaked up our pressure, pressure that we ourselves released undermined by spurning chances. Yes, we took 26 shots (12 on goal) to their 6 and 3, but that's not what it seems. Sure, strategy usually dictates that a team outshoot, and thereby outscore, the opposition. Not so when the opposition's strategy is to put as many men between ball and goal as possible and hope for the occasional counter. This strategy makes all the more sense when you consider that all of the pressure is on Arsenal, and that we are not particularly well-known for knuckling down. The more time that passed, the more nervous we seemed to get, and the more nervy Blackburn got. Faced with circumstances like these, it almost seems as if a bit of reverse-pyschology might have been clever--instead of pouring forward relentlessly, trying to score through a thicket of 10 or 11 defenders, why not give the ball away a bit, letting Blackburn stretch themselves across the field, to invite ourselves on a few counter-attacks of our own? Yes, it's true--passing a ball around seven or eleven times at a stretch amasses certain statistics, but there are no trophies for time of possession.  Surely, Podolski or Cazorla or Walcott might have enjoyed and exploited a few openings left in Blackburn's back four better than Gervhinho or Coquelin?

Indeed, by the time Wilshere, Cazorla, and Walcott joined the fray, the team's nerves must have been wound tighter than Gatsby's before meeting Daisy in private. The dread that had built up over 70 minutes must have been nerve-wracking, made all the more-so by Blackburn scoring mere minutes after they came on. Now, it's been twenty-odd years since I played competitive soccer, and it was American high school soccer at that, so I know full-well that my next comment comes with that, um, context. When we would go go a goal down, I would react with grim determination, pride, and rage. I reacted as if my mother, my sister, my ethnicity, and my height (what little there is) had been insulted. Whoever had scored wasn't trying to win a soccer game; they were trying to take and destroy all that I cherished. Aside from Jack, I didn't see anything similar from this bunch. Too many--Arsene included--treat a surrendered-goal as a calamity from which recovery is impossible. Sure, there was an frenetic uptick, but, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "never mistake motion for action." Yes, we were kicking the ball and running around and bumping into people, but it lacked purpose or definition. On one hand, this marked the first period of the game when something akin to urgency could be measured. On the other, it resembled far too much the urgency of a chicken after its head is lopped off. Sadly, this must have been Blackburn's plan from the start: sit back, wait, and hope something happens. Even if we do little else but parry, eventually, Arsenal will crack under the pressure.

Yes, I know full-well that this pressure is something that you and I and all of the other Gooners out there have helped to build up. We demand and cajole and beg and condemn. For a glorious period, we were spoiled by some of the best and most-beautiful soccer around, winning accolades and trophies. Now, we have gone through a bit of a weaning, and it has been difficult. The FA Cup is gone. The Champions League is a dream. The only binky we have now is 4th place in the Prem. Let's crash out of the Champions League (with dignity) and then go after each remaining Prem game with the cold-hearted determination that each match will demand. Bayern, do with us what you will. I'm looking ahead to Aston Villa and, yes, Spurs, upon whom I hope we unleash the all of the fury that this defeat has inspired.

15 February 2013

Bac in Back: The Sagna Saga

Image couresy of The Sun
In an interview with British newspaper The Sun (featuring a photo that accomplishes the impressive feat of somehow making Sagna look weak), Bacary Sagan admitted to a dip in form this year, which comes as little surprise to those who know him--I'm referring not to the dip in form itself but to his admitting to it. He's a forthright man and I admire him for pointing out what had been murmured sotto voce recently. He said: “I’ve not been at my best, I am going to be honest — I am not very happy with myself." He apparently didn't speculate on why, at least in the portions that appear in The Sun, but owning up to it matters. Many of us had speculated that he was sulking as he contemplated other options or was upset at the departure of other long-time teammates like van Persie and Song. It's probably closer to the truth to suggest that a player of his quality who breaks a leg twice is due for a slump. Not that I'm going to dwell on it, but it does make one wonder why we didn't go after another defender during the summer or winter transfer windows. At any rate, he's been on of Arsenal's best players both in skill and in class, whether it was his steady strength against Sunderland, his header against Spurs, or his consistent leadership on the pitch. It's a shame that transfer-talk was bandied about recently,  even considering that such talk is unavoidable when a player of his quality approaches the end of his contract and in the context of other players leaving the club. I'd like to think he's here to stay. Even more than Van Persie, Fabregas, or others, he's one of the faces that comes quickest to mind when I think of Arsenal. I hope they do him right when contract talks come up.

Speaking of others, Sagna also went on to address the departure of certain players, pointing out what I've also asserted, that "we have some diversity [now]. Everyone can score and everyone can be dangerous. It's good for the team." Now, it might just be the old English teacher in me, but his use of the word can grabs my attention. This year, it does feel like anyone can try to score. Last year, there was a  feeling that players had to defer to Van Persie (whether he created this perception or not is another issue). After all, he was a senior member, he was in rare form (finally), and he was in the final year of a contract--all factors that probably contributed to a sense that "we have to keep him happy." Something similar happened to a lesser degree with Walcott this year. Anyway, we are seeing a more diversified attack, both in terms of who scores and in how we try to score. There are times when a team needs an assassin with ice in his veins who demands the ball and will usually hit the winning shot--Michael Jordan comes to mind--but there is also quality in having a number of players who, even if they are less assassin-ish, force a defense to expand more energy on the triage of defending against everyone. Last year, defenses knew that they could key only on Van Persie, even if he did frequently score anyway. This year, defenses have to track everyone, whether it's Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla, Podolski...even Gervinho is a threat, off the radar though he may be thanks to the African Cup (and other reasons, it's true...).

Last thing--it was important and meaningful for Sagna to address Van Persie's departure because of how long the two played together. The man is done and gone, and absent a specific reason to comment on him, such as scoring against us, I hope not to have to mention him again (I already know I'm lying as I plan on one  last bit of analysis on his move in the near future). Sagna's declaration marks, for me, the official "over it" moment. We've sulked and and worn out that mixtape of songs from the Smiths and The Cure for far too long.  We're moving on, and Blackburn is next in the crosshairs.

Blackburn vs. Arsenal Preview

Tomorrow's match invites Blackburn in for a 5th round FA Cup match. We haven't seen them since last year's 7-1 thrashing because they were relegated. I faced Blackburn last night on the Wii and did quite well, with Walcott netting twice and Giroud once. Final score, which I'll offer as a prediction for tomorrow's match: 3-0. Alright, alright--I know it's not quite the same. After all, I haven't earned enough points to purchase Szczcezczny yet, so Almunia's in goal, but it still serves as a decent proxy, I believe.

Wilshere blows past the Rovers' D...on the Wii.
In real news, Vermaelen will be back, as will Gervinho, and we may see some rotation. I'd like to see Wilshere rested after his injury against Sunderland, and Kos might still sit to rest his calf. Here then is who I'd like to see: Giroud, Walcott; Podolski, Cazorla, Ramsey, Arteta; Sagna, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Monreal; Woj. Gervinho had a nice run in the Africa Cup, so I would like to see him come on, probably for Walcott if only because they're fairly similar in their skill-set and approaches. Time will tell.

On the Blackburn side, they seem to have a number of issues. The Rovers will also be missing a number of players: Josh Morris (cup-tied from time at Rotherham and Campbell), DJ Campbell (on loan from QPR), and then a bunch of injures: Dunn, King, Hanley, Best, Etuhu. I don't know these players all that well, but having seven players out makes us look like we're positively fit as fiddles. Leading scorer Jordan Rhodes broke his nose but did play in their Wednesday match, so we'll almost certainly see him.

Both teams are on tidy little 5-game undefeated runs, and one of those will have to end tomorrow. Apologies to Blackburn, I do with you well in your battle to earn promotion from the Championship, but my goodwill ends there. The Gunners will, I pray, finish this before it even gets a chance to start. See you in about 24 hours...

14 February 2013

Glory Days

Just kidding.
It was Bruce Springsteen or perhaps Soren Kierkegaard who once said, "time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of...glory days, well, they'll pass you by, glory days..." which brings to mind Thierry Henry's comments about returning to Arsenal some day. For those of whose hearts go all a-flutter at the idea of a pantherine Henry loping down the left wing to once again terrorize defenders and keepers, I have two quick comments: one, he'll be 40 before he finishes his Red Bulls contract. Two, stop living in the past.

Sure, when we compare Arsenal v.2013 with Arsenal v.2004, the differences are glaring. The names roll of the tongue, leaving behind a honeyed ambrosia of nostalgia and wistful longings: Henry... Bergkamp...Pires...Tour...Ljungberg...and the images float before the mind's eye, men in red flitting and galloping , balls darting and rocketing past hapless keepers. It was a heady time. But it's also nearly a decade behind us. The men themselves have receding hairlines and ever-growing paunches. It's sad, but true. However, sadder than that is the fan who talks and thinks only of those glory days. We all know at least one. Hell, we've all been that fan at various points. I remember at one point assembling a roster that we coulda had if only certain players had stayed. The mouth waters at the prospect, and--look!--we only need a few players back! And there are even a few more I left out to consider--Adebayor, Nasri, and Cole may sound like a villainous law firm in a Grisham movie, and I can't quite explain why--but if we could just get the ol' gang back together, we'd be #1 all over again! Feh.

Look. I understand why we talk so much about the Invincibles and the last trophy we've won, the 2005 FA Cup. Those were some great times. However, the good times can't--and shouldn't--last. Part of being a fan is sticking with the team in good times and in bad. If your team is always in first place and wins championships each year, it gets a little less thrilling, and the fans become more and more insufferable, like those who root for the Yankees or Man U. I'm not saying teams should just fall apart once in a while just to keep things interesting, but success and failure rise and fall like [insert poetic metaphor here--tides?]. On that note, if 4th place in the Premier League, 5th round action in the FA Cup, and Round of 16 Champions League qualification 13 years in a row all add up to "failure" to you, I would like just a few of the mushrooms you've been noshing for my salad. The fact that we're in this position, while losing the players we've lost and chasing the bankrolled teams ahead of us as well as we have, without prostituting our club to the first sleazy oil tycoon to ogle us is a testament to Wenger's management and philosophy. Quit your whingeing (did I say that right? I'm a Yank, not a Brit) and enjoy it for what it is (most of the time--stylish, enjoyable footballing.

I'm a Chicago Bears fan--they haven't won Super Bowl since 1986. My St. Louis Cardinals did win back-to-back World Series in 2005 and 2006. The Bulls haven't won a championship since 1997. I cherish those days--and, like Arsenal, those teams are chasing better, wealthier teams while looking anxiously over their shoulders at hungrier teams chasing them. However, there's a limit. I don't sit around waiting for Michael Jordan to unretire or for Mark McGwire to pick up a bat again. It was truly wonderful to see Henry come back last year to score one more vintage goal. I still get a little teary when I see it, but that's more of a curtain-call than a strategy for winning. I hope Henry joins the team in some kind of coaching role, but I digress.

We have a solid team that seems to be getting better at the right time. For all intents and purposes, Giroud, Cazorla, Podolsky, and even Wilshere are still adjusting to a new team. They are gelling well even if they don't offer the same verve or flair of others ahead of us (at the moment). Relax. Enjoy. We are still Arsenal, after all, and we play some of the best football in the league. Trophies will come. 

12 February 2013

Blackburn vs. Brighton: Prelude to an FA Cup-tie

Tuesday's match between Blackburn and Brighton should be interesting in that it gives us one last look at Blackburn ahead of Saturday's 5th round FA Cup match. We met and beat Brighton in the 4th round of the FA, thanks to a late goal from Theo Walcott (see vid with thanks to arsenalist).

Blackburn has been on a bit of a run lately, having three wins, two draws, and a loss coming into the match against Brighton. They're on their third manager of the year in Michael Appleton, who seems to have righted the ship somewhat since a very shaky start. Of particular note would be their striker Jordan Rhodes, who has scored 19 goals in all competitions this year, which includes a streak of seven six consecutive games with a goal (broken in last weekend's against Ipswich when replays changed his goal to an own-goal against the Ipswich keeper). Last year's January transfer window had him going to Spurs, Everton, or Newcastle (before we scoff, Newcastle was in the thick of things last year) when he had 29 goals in 33 games for Huddersfield. Simply put, he seems to have a nose for goal. Replicating that success on Saturday is an open question but not one to take lightly given our recent encounters with the likes of Bradford and Brighton.

Overall, Arsenal has won 58 of 119 matches against Blackburn with the two sharing 31 draws (leaving 30 wins to Blackburn for those of you slow on the math). The two met twice last year, one a 3-4 loss at Ewood that included own goals from Koscielny and some guy named Song and that left us in 15th place after five games, and the other a 7-1 thumping at the Emirates that put us in 5th place after 24 games, two points behind Chelsea.

As of this writing, it's Blackburn 1-0 at halftime thanks to a goal from defender Scott Dann. Once highlights are available (for some reason, American cable just doesn't cover second-tier British soccer), I'll skim through 'em to see if there's any meaningful previews beyond what can be gleaned from various youtube clips  in which Mr. Rhodes scores goals set to insipidly inspirational music.

11 February 2013

The Road for 4th Place: A Trophy in Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

As the end of the 2012-13 season approaches, the Gunners continue to contend on three fronts: the Champions League, the FA Cup, and 4th place in the Premier League. Progress on the first front may be a pipe-dream, but the second and third are tantalizing enough to pursue and, realistically, to achieve. A fifth-round FA match against Blackburn awaits us on Saturday. For now, though, it's time to assess this 4th-place "trophy."

A quick glance at the chart above (which will be updated after each set of Premier League matches) will show where Arsenal stands vis-a-vis the other top-flight teams in the league. With apologies to Liverpool, one does not lose twice to the likes of West Brom and continue to expect a top-four finish. Anything is possible, of course, but Liverpool is now 12 points behind 4th place, and if a 12-point lead is enough for Man U to be thinking title, it's enough for the teams scrapping for 4th.

So what we have is enough of a logjam to justify closer scrutiny. Currently, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, and Everton are jousting for 4th place. Everton started the year strong but has faded, while Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal are now separated by only five points: Chelsea 49, Spurs 48, Arsenal 44. With twelve games left to play, this is wide-open enough for us to consider 4th place to be a real possibility. Chelsea, like Everton, has faltered recently, and Arsenal has overtaken Everton. Indeed, much of the chatter over embattled managers has shifted to the point that Arsene Wenger's future no longer seems to be such a hot topic, replaced (for now) by Benitez's shaky status and even Mancini's ever-more tenuous reign (I hope it doesn't come as news to Roberto that you shouldn't go about pissing off highly-paid strikers year after year).

At any rate, as I've covered in the not-too-distant-past, Arsenal have a favorable road ahead with three of 12 remaining matches against teams in the top five. Everton faces five such games, and Spurs have six. Of course, any team can beat any other team on any given day--QPR has beaten Chelsea at Stamford, Wigan beat Spurs at White Hart Lane, Man City lost to Aston Villa at the Etihad...only Everton and--you guessed it--Arsenal have escaped embarrassing home-losses unless you count our loss to Swansea, who currently sit 7th and are hardly in danger of relegation.

I realize that all of this is so much folderol if we find a way to drop points where we shouldn't. Spurs seem unlikely to stumble as they did last year, having a manager this time around who currently has no aspirations to manage the English national team, and we can't rely on Chelsea and Everton to do us any more favors. Last year, 69 points was enough to hold onto 4th place. There are 36 points still on the table for each team. Can we outdo Spurs by five? I'd love a good St. Totteringham's Day--the earlier, the better!

¡Adios, Andre!

"No thanks, Andre. You can keep your jersey. I don't
particularly care for it--or did you not notice?"
So, it's apparently official: Andre Santos's "dream" of playing for Vanderlei Luxemburgo has finally come true. Who knew that his long-term plan was to leverage a move to Arsenal in order to engineer  a loan-out? Well-played, Andre; well-played. In this light, your jersey-swap with Van Persie looks less like star-struck fanboy nonsense and more like Machiavellian plotting. Who knew?

All this time, we had come to see Santos as a bumbling, cheerful oaf who enjoys nothing more than having fun on the pitch and maybe kicking a ball once in a while. All this time, however, each missed tackle or feeble clearance was just another artful brush-stroke for his masterpiece. I could dub us all fools, but to do so insults the fiendish genius of the plan, the likes of which would have ensnared Poirot himself.

I kid. I think the move will be good for the lad. After all, he returns home to Brazil to play for a perennial league-champion. Even if it leaves us a little sparse on the back-line, I rather prefer dropping Ramsey back as we did against Sunderland over fielding Santos at all. A panicked signing after the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, he was thrown on with little time to adjust to EPL football. Too bad.  Nice guy, I'm sure, just not a nice signing. "¡Tudo de melhor, André! ¡Só não deixe a porta bater na bunda em seu caminho para fora!"

The Problem with Jack

Too stoic, Arsene. Make a scene.
During Arsenal's 1-0 victory over Sunderland, Wilshere went off in the 60th minute after a clumsy challenge from Alfred N'Diaye. Although it was infuriating that there was no call, and distressing to see Wilshere have to leave the field, the play itself was actually fairly benign, especially in comparison with some other plays--many of which the referee, Anthony Taylor, either chose to ignore or must not have seen. I know that few teams ever get the kind of calls they hope for, unless coached by Sir Alex, but by the time Wilshere went down, there had been far too many missed calls. Here, without getting too exhaustive, are a few of the lowlights:
  • One minute in, Ramsey gets his legs swept out from under him during a reckless tackle from Cattermole, who misses the ball entirely and catches Ramsey's legs with his hip and shoulder. The ball went to Walcott for the advantage play. A yellow card comes out for Cattermole about 30 seconds later.
  • An "impressive" sequence in the seventh minute sees Cazorla poke the ball away, only to have the Sunderland player grapple him, preventing him from getting to the ball. As Ramsey runs in to get the ball, he gets clipped (by N'Diaye, I believe) and tumbles out of bounds. Wilshere then comes over, only to be slide-tackled by Titus Bramble while Sessègnon clatters through Wilshere from behind. Wilshere pinwheeled to the ground. The tackle from Bramble was clean in that he got all ball, and Wilshere jumped only for Sessègnon to run through him as Bramble's tackle clipped his foot. Seconds later, Walcott went down as he blew past Danny Rose, Rose sticking out his foot as he fell and catching Walcott. This was arguably the worst of the sequence, coming as it did as Walcott has about to get into the 18--this tackle was just as bad as Jenkinson's would be a few seconds later and was much closer to a goal-scoring opportunity.
  • This leads to Jenkinson's first yellow, an admittedly clumsy tackle that missed the ball and caught Johnson across both legs.Proof, if nothing else, that Taylor's whistle does work and that he did bring more than one yellow-card, previous sequence notwithstanding.
Now, I'm not a professional footballer, so my reaction to such a sequence might be, well unprofessional: if I see four of my mates go down under challenges of varying degrees of legality without any call--even a caution against us for simulation--I (a) get angry enough to exact a little payback and (b) assume that the referee has a laissez-faire attitude and will tolerate a little chippiness back and forth. To ignore each of the four collisions and to give a yellow to Jenkinson ignores the very message that the referee had established in the previous minutes while also ignoring the desire of teammates to stick up for each other. Back to the hit-parade...
  • In the 10th minute, Wilshere stumbled and lost the ball, and Craig Gardner plowed into him (as with many of the preceding moments, Gardner got no part of the ball and all of Wilshere's body). Ramsey, bless his heart, proceeded to foul the next available Sunderland player. Wilshere came up limping.
  • In the 13th minute, Jenkinson got called for a foul on a 50-50 with Fletcher, looking to get more foot and less ball. Feh.
  • 15th--Monreal nudges Sessegnon just enough for a foul-call.
  • In the 18th, a call goes against Arsenal, perhaps Sagna, but we don't get to see it thanks to the spinning Premiere Logo that marks the transition from a replay on Danny Fletcher's header.
  • At the 20th minute, Wilshere draws a call for a rash challenge.
I could go go on but will rest my case for now. I'm not suggesting a double-standard, but the inconsistency with which Taylor made calls was infuriating. Arsenal players frequently suffered harsh challenges that went uncalled and were whistled for lighter or retaliatory challenges. I know Rudyard Kipling exhorted us to keep our heads about us when all about us are losing theirs and all, and I'm not asking for special protection. Look, we all know that home teams frequently get favorable calls for various reasons, but a 13-6 line? Arsenal committed more than twice as many fouls as Sunderland's rugby-er, football team? Please.

Which brings me back to Jack. He's been described variously as feisty and scrappy, code-words for "little guy who's fearless." The problem with this is that it's going to leave him vulnerable to just the sort of knocks, bruises, and worse that he's incurred since his return from his ankle injury last year.One of two three things have to happen if we expect Jack to stay on the field long-term:
  1. Wenger adopts a more Fergusonian approach to complaining about referees.
  2. Jack learns to adjust his style of play.
  3. Jack grows 5-6 inches and packs on 40-50 pounds.
The second one is the least desirable although the most effective. I love Wilshere's willingness to clatter into opponents to win the ball, his flicking off a pass at the last second, his refusal to dive. However, unless the first and third recommendations are heeded and implemented, I worry that seeing Jack in and out of the lineup will just become the order of the day.