16 March 2013

57% Possession

For the second game in a row, our opponents have dominated possession. For the second time in as many games, we've won 2-0. For a team usually known as pass-happy and possessive, it's startling to see Arsenal come up short in the possession game yet still come away with a win. Going back a few weeks, we see games that feel a bit more like vintage Arsenal. Against Sunderland and Stoke, we held the ball 61% and 60% of the time, winning each match 1-0. However, we'd be hard-pressed feel a whole lot of pride in these games, as each came against inferior teams that we really should have dominated in both possession and goals. That we did dominate the former but not the latter is not all that reassuring.

By contrast, we now have two matches in which the other team dominated possession to little avail as we came into their stadiums and won 2-0. We'd expect Bayern to keep the ball and they did: 55% possession. Even as Swansea's style imitates our own, we might expect to dominate due to superior skill and personnel. However, Swansea actually outdid Bayern and held the ball for 57% of the match. Each time, we won and did so comfortably.

In the middle, we have the Spurs game, one in which we dominated possession 60%-40% but lost. Not that this is rocket science, but it does point out how irrelevant possession is in determining the outcome of the game. Does this suggest that we've adopted a new style, a less-aesthetic but more successful approach to close out the season, or is it more of a temporary admission that we lack the skilled players needed to successfully pursue the "total football" style we've pursued in years past? I doubt that it's the latter option if only because Swansea itself has shown that they're capable of it. With the possible exception of Michu, I don't see anyone over there whom I'm willing to admit is better than any of our boys. I hope it's not the former. Part of why I do love Arsenal is down to the fluidity, motion, and passing that have come to define the team under Arsène. I'm certainly not saying we should all sit on our hands or scan the table for another team to root for by any means. I'd rather stop following football itself.

At any rate, I hope that all we're seeing is a newfound dedication to solidity on defense, and a deeper commitment from each player on the field to defending. If this forces us to concede the possession game to our opponents, so be it. For all of the silly goals we've conceded, a bit more structure and consistency in front of goal can only be a good thing. If it continues to yield clean sheets, so much the better. Sure, possession is a kind of defense as well as a form of offense. There will be time to recalibrate our approach in order to establish the kind of possession and attack we're used to and known for. We've shown twice now, once against a team that had more than held its own in three matches against us and once against an elite team that manhandled us thoroughly, that we can still score without dominating possession. If we were seeing possession drop along with goals, we could wring our hands a little more nervously. For now, my worry, and that of anyone else inclined to fret over such things, can be put to bed.

Arsenal 2-0 Swansea (with video): A Dish Best Served Cold

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Goals from Nacho Monreal (74') and Gervinho (91') paved the way for a nifty victory at a cold and rainy Liberty Stadium. It may not have been pretty, but three points is three points. With Liverpool losing 3-1 to Southampton and Everton punishing Man City 2-0 despite losing Pienaar to a second yellow about with about 30 minutes to play, it was important to keep them at arm's length and to pull up on Chelsea and Spurs. Heck, City's loss leaves them only five up on Spurs. Whether this lends Spurs further motivation to pursue a second-place finish rather than trying to solidify a third-pace finish remains to be seen. Chelsea hosts West Ham and Spurs host Fulham, winnable games for each.

There will probably some similar talk of Swansea out-Arsenaling us again, but the outcome is exactly opposite of our first Prem match when they stole the away-victory 2-0. The scoreline shows that Swansea had 57% possession, not a stat we're used to seeing. However, they mustered only nine shots and none on-frame, while we made much-more efficient use of our time on the ball, creating 14 shots with 5 on-frame and, of course, two through the back of the net. Monreal's came on a bit of a scrum as Cazorla's pass found its way through a thicket of defenders to Giroud in the box, but the best he could do was poke at it because it was behind him (truth be told, there were two teammates behind Giroud who could have taken a clean shot, but why complain? A goal's a goal). Monreal collected it and shot through the thicket to put it home. It won't show up on the scoresheet, but Cazorla terrorized Swansea all day and could have a couple of goals. Similarly, Oxlade-Chamberlain was bright and focused and struck the woodwork twice.

Shortly after the three minutes of stoppage time was announced, a much prettier sequence came on a break. Giroud  pressed forward and found Ramsey on the right wing, and Ramsey had nothing but time and green space, so he played a ball across the top of the 18 for Gervinho, who did well to collect in-stride and curl past Vorm. It wasn't quite Henry-esque, but there were hints of the classic curling right-footed shot in the side-netting.
All in all, a decent game. We played well and withstood Swansea's attack. Only a Michu shot at 16' or so showed any threat, but it squirmed harmlessly wide. With our game in hand, we now sit two back of Chelsea and four of Spurs. We should know in roughly 24 hours whether this has changed. For now, enjoy a second consecutive clean sheet and strong showing.

15 March 2013

There's Something About Michu

In the lead-up to Saturday's match at Swansea, a lot of the talk will turn naturally to Michu and his two-goal performance against us  in early December. At the time, we were perhaps at our schizoprenic best (or worst, depending on how one defines the term). Two weeks before, we had just routed Spurs 5-2. We then labored through two draws, away to lowly Aston Villa and to up-and-coming Everton. Shortly after the loss to Swansea, we would go on to score 13 goals in three matches, beating Reading, Wigan, and Newcastle but also losing ignominiously to Bradford. In short, it was hard to know which Arsenal would show up. Swansea was able to exploit this instability in a performance that all but sealed Michu's arrival as he scored two goals in the last few minutes of the game.

However, for all the hay that's made of his season, a closer look suggests that, while he's had a fine season, there's been a bit of excessive fawning over the forward. He has been fine for Swansea, and 15 Prem goals is nothing to turn up one's nose at, but, as always, the timing of the goals is just as important as the number. Upon closer scrutiny, we find a streaky and opportunistic scorer prone to long scoreless spells interrupted by brief bursts of productivity. To wit:
  • four goals in three games (two against QPR,  one each against West Ham and Sunderland).
  • three scoreless games.
  • two goals in two games (one against Reading and against Wigan).
  • three scoreless games.
  • six goals across five games (one against Newcastle, none against Liverpool, one against West Brom, two against Arsenal (ahem), and two against Norwich).
  • two scoreless games.
  • one goal against Man U.
  • six scoreless games.
  • three goals in two games (two against QPR, one against Bradford).
  • two scoreless games.
Again, not to detract from the upstart, but I do feel like a fair number of his goals have come against lesser competition. Aside from one tally against Man U and the two against us, we're looking at a player who has pounced on some pretty toothless teams. He's a fine player and I do wish him well, but I do also feel as if his reputation outstrips his production.

Of course, should he replicate his earlier performances against us (three goals, including one in the FA Cup), I'll end up looking fairly stupid and many will blame me for jinxing the whole affair. I'm willing to take that risk. He's a good-enough player and a great signing for Swansea. That's as far as it goes. If we play as a unit,  we have little to fear. 

Three goals in four matches against us is, I'll admit, significant. However, it's built up a mystique around the man that strikes me as just a touch unwarranted. I wonder if this mystique may in fact work against him and Swansea as Michu looks for ways to re-conjure this magic on Saturday and, in the process, makes hasty and therefore wasteful decisions.

At the other end of the pitch, I see Walcott having a strong outing, building on his assist to Giroud and his "everyone but the side-judge knew he was on-side" moment against Bayern. Swansea, you'd better be ready.

Arsenal vs. Swansea: Smashin' Time

First off, congratulations to Swansea on a great season. Winning the Capital One Cup in their 100th year must have felt wonderful. Laudrup has them playing well, playing a style that resembles ours, and so I do look at them as a kid-brother of sorts. Of course, we all know what kid-brothers are for--they're to be pushed around so they don't get too big for their britches. We might be proud of what they achieve--and this does include beating us once--but it's time to knock them  down a few pegs.

Coming off of the win over Bayern does give us some momentum and sends a signal to other teams on our fixture-list that rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Bayern hadn't lost at home since October 28th, and see where that got them with us. Swansea hasn't lost since December 8th. As I mentioned previously, Michu has slackened off of his pace from earlier in the season with three goals in his last ten games.  Sure, they have some other players, but I'm convinced enough of our quality and mentality going forward that I'm more interested in the players who take the field for us.

There's been some talk of selling Vermaelen and Szczęsny in the summer, talk that Wenger has quickly rubbished. I prefer not to indulge in transfer talk, but it was good to hear what Wenger said when he elaborated: "every position is up for grabs." Sure, you may scoff as you ponder who sits on our bench and how well they can compete for various positions. Is Giroud looking over his should after each fluffed shot and worrying that Gervinho is about to come in? Probably not. Three days ago, Szczęsny didn't have to worry about Mannone taking his place, not to mention Fabianski, who hadn't played for us since Redknapp was measuring the curtains for the office of England's national team manager. Now, however, the young Pole does have to worry about his position in the starting XI. Fabianski, I daresay, has earned the right to start against Swansea.  Szczęsny is a big boy. He'll figure out that he has to train and come back to earn his spot.

The same goes for Vermaelen. Even as our captain, he shouldn't come to feel that he can just roll out of bed and start each game; he, like everyone on the squad, should feel like he has to prove his quality, if not every week. Let him sit another match. Koscielny is strong, and he worked well with Mertesacker and Jenksinon against Bayern. With Gibbs out, Monreal should also come on, if only so that we can have four different nationalities in the backline.

In the midfield, I'd love to see Rosický come on for Wilshere. Similar drive, more experience, if less talent. His well-timed foul on Robben on Wednesday is the kind of guile and steel we need more of, and his tendency to press higher up the pitch could unsettle Swansea. In fact, why not just throw on the same XI that faced Bayern (except for Gibbs, of course)? People meshed and worked well in an environment much-more hostile than Liberty Stadium. For all of the celebration and plaudits given to Swansea thus far, including naming Laudrup as manager of the season and Michu the signing of the season, Swansea are still a fair-to-middling team at home: six wins, six draws, two losses. Then again, we are a fair-to-middling team on the road at five wins, five draws, four losses. Then again, you're only as good as your last game. Isn't that right, Arjen? Arjen, are you there? Hello?

The Spanish Armada

Midway through yesterday's post, I commented on Monreal and his potential ability to negate Michu on the flimsy grounds that having the same nationality as the Swansea striker might give Monreal some kind of edge--and while we're at it, wouldn't the same logic suggest that Michu would have an edge over Monreal, creating a Fibonaccian spiral of edges, one after the other? Anyway, between that and Málaga's 2-0 victory in the Champions League, I was struck by just how dominant Spain has become, not just in international competitions, but also in the Prem. I'm not claiming that I'm onto something new or that you should be amazed at my journalistic intrepidity by any means. I may have just accidentally revealed my secret superhero identity: Captain Obvious. My sidekick is The Oblivious Kid. We're quite a team.

Anyhow, we're all familiar with Spain's performance at the international level, so I'm not going to go into any detail there. Strangely, they haven't won gold at the Olympics, but that's merely a sidenote to the bigger picture. Beyond that, there's Barcelona and Real Madrid, obviously, both still competing and among the favorites to win the UCL. We could have had a Barça-Madrid final last year, and the same could happen this year. With  Málaga's advancing past Porto, La Liga has three teams advancing in the UCL. Three out of eight teams still competing are from La Liga. The Prem, for all of its history and pageantry? None. Yes, yes, three Prem teams persist in the Europa League, but that's small potatoes, a consolation tournament for, let's face it, second-tier competitors, could-be's, and also-ran's. It's one thing to compare the Prem and La Liga top to bottom to see who's better--is it true that La Liga is dominated by two teams, followed distantly by the rest? To an extent, yes, but the same could be said of the Prem. It's a difference of degree, not of kind. The Spanish league is so good, apparently, that many of its players leave La Liga for a chance to play elsewhere. Top to bottom, the Prem is peppered with players who are key to their teams' successes: Azpilicueta, de Gea, Mata, Michu, Reina, Silva, Torres...there are others who feature for smaller clubs and whose impact I could probably do some research on, but you get my point. The influence of Spanish soccer is not confined to Spain, but is infiltrating the Prem.

The reverse--British players venturing abroad--just ain't happening. the only Brit of note playing outside the Prem would be David Beckham, playing for PSG, which even he admits is more about selling kits than scoring goals. There's a smattering of gents playing here and there, but few who register and even fewer at clubs that can claim any notoriety. Partly, this might confirm the superiority of the Prem and the natural inclination to play not just at home, but in the world's best league to boot. Sure, the Prem is also the first-choice destination for a lot of other countries' players as well, lending further evidence to the Prem's eminence. The best of the best, though, arguably either play in La Liga or hail from it: Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Falcao, Casillas, Busquets, Alonso, Ozil, Ramos...FIFA's World XI for 2012 consists entirely of players from La Liga. And where would Arsenal be if not for Spanish players? Between Almunia, Miquel, and--wait, I mean Arteta, Cazorla, and Monreal, we rely on Spanish players now almost as much as we've relied on French players in the past. It's not for nothing, either.

Even past the level of individual players or even of teams, the Spanish style of football is seen as far superior to that of any other league. The passing, the dribbling, the technique, the skill--we would be hard-pressed to find another source of footballing-style that matches how they play in Spain. Dispute that if you must, but do so carefully--we at Arsenal, for all of our French connections, arguably play the most "Spanish" soccer of any team in the Prem. It offers a brilliant contrast to kicking the ball very far and hoping it lands somewhere near the goal or giving it to that one guy who dribbles and runs fast and getting of his way.  The Spanish style is a beautiful way to play--motion, fluidity, passing--in American basketball, it's akin to the Princeton offense in which players and ball are constantly moving. When  comes together and all of the elements click, it's sublime. Spain may not have invented total football, but the concept seems to have reached a pinnacle there. It's as much an aesthetic as a philosophy, and it's what makes football so much better than all of the other sports of the world combined. Thanks, Spain. Thanks, Johan.

14 March 2013

Apparently, the pressure is on us now

The day's headlines are all atwitter with suggestions from Swansea's Michael Laudrup that we're under pressure to win on Saturday. In other news, water is wet. Yes, there is pressure on us to win. Why this is remarkable doesn't seem to register with me. Reading his comments, it doesn't sound like he's trying to stir the pot or anything. Someone asked him a question, he answered, and that's about it. With little else to comment on at the moment, this story seems to have taken on a life of its own, and, like a game of "telephone", it's now being reported as if Laudrup is responsible for creating and applying pressure on us. I'm sure that a few members of the Arsenal squad realize that beating Bayern should have some carry-over effect on our Saturday match, but little bearing on our standings in the Prem. Whatever. Let these be the last words I spill on the subject of Michael Laudrup.

In more important news, not that it's a surprise, we'll go into Saturday without Sagna or Podolski, and perhaps without Gibbs. Monreal is available, of course, and with him, Koscielny, Jenkinson, and Mertesacker, I like our chances. Does Monreal possess any special insights into how to stop Michu, his fellow Spaniard?  It's possible. It's not as if Michu's been on any kind of roll--three goals in his last ten games (two against QPR, one against some outfit called "Bradford"). Keep an eye on him, of course, but if the backline can perform at a level that resembles Wednesday, we should be fine.

It's worth noting that, last year this point, we narrowly missed out on defeating AC Milan after an embarrassing first leg. At the time, we were seven points behind Spurs. By the end of the season, we had overtaken them and landed in third, one point ahead of Spurs. In other words, success in the UCL does have the power to propel a team to achieve some impressive things. There's not a direct correlation, of course, but the confidence that we drew from our 3-0 win ove AC Milan, and the confidence that we should draw from the even-more impressive 2-0 win over Bayern (tougher team, on the road, etc.) could give us the edge we need, whether it's Swansea on Saturday or anyone else we face. We know we can play with and beat the best, and that's a feeling that's been lacking recently.

In news further afield, Inter mauled Spurs in their Europa match, 4-1, but Spurs advance on away-goals. It looks like Spurs tried to sit on their away-goals and it almost backfired--Bale and Lloris didn't play at all, Lennon came on late in the second half, and Defoe came off early in the second. Good on ya, Spurs. May you progress far, far into the Europa League. I'm being sincere. Honestly. Detect not a trace of sarcasm in my voice. Chelsea is currently tied with Steaua, and they'll need to put at least two more in to advance after losing 1-0 away. We're all pulling for them, I'm sure.

 Right, then. That's about it for now. I'm still a bit sluggish from over-hydrating last night. 'Til next time...

This Hangover Is Completely Worth It

The only problem with a hearty celebration is the aftermath. Through the cobwebs and haze, I remember a wonderful victory that verged on utter ecstasy. As it is, we're out of the UCL and have only Prem matches to occupy our thoughts from here on out. Perfect. I wouldn't have it any other way. As affirming as advancing on aggregate might have been, replicating the task against the remaining gauntlet is enough to ruin any team.  Instead of having to worry about that, we can now focus our energies, which we now have much more of, on securing that precious top-four finish.

With a visit to Swansea coming up, we might just want to stay with the crew that delivered us that 2-0 win. Koscielny, in addition to his goal, helped to solidify a back-line that looked stronger against Bayern's vaunted attack than it has looked against far-weaker opponents. Yes, we permitted some 21 shots, but only eight on frame. Even as Bayern pressed forward to secure a single goal to protect its aggregate, we held them. Robben's fast-break led to a shot inside the 18, but most (all?) of those other shots were launched from considerable distances. I might even be tempted to use catenacchio to describe the performance. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but, yes, we were organized and disciplined and made none of the errors that have bedeviled us in the past.

However, I don't want to detrack from Fabianski's performance. He did have more protection than Szczęsny's had, but he also faced much more intense pressure without making mistakes. A few shots came directly to him, sure, but this is as much down to his position as it might be to the shooter's aim. I'm not going so far as to say we have a new number one, but we would be remiss to pull him from the Swansea match after his performance. Let Szczęsny rest up a bit and consider his role so that he can come back more focused and on-point.

Speaking of Swansea, it was gratifying to see the strength of Jenkinson's play. He's come a long way since being caught out by Michu earlier in the season; his performance against Bayern's attackers was consistent and reliable. In fact, the young Brits all had solid games--Ramsey worked and linked well to Walcott, whose assist led to Giroud's goal, and Ox came on late to add some vigor and pace. Only Wilshere--oh, wait. Walcott, of course, stands out. His assist was perfectly placed, nevermind the suggestion that he might have been shooting. You can see him size up who's where, and he places a right-footed pass that curls away from goal and into Giroud's path. Walcott's right leg finishes its swing by back upfield, all clear indications that he wasn't shooting. If it weren't for a god-awful offsides call against the lad, he'd have been in for a golden opportunity to have a proper shot. No guarantee that he'd score, of course, but if he did, we'd be hailing him from here to kingdom-come. Too bad, too, because scoring a goal like that in a game like this can vault a player's career.

As it is, we're still draped in some wonderful memories to propel us forward. Ten more games, and thirty points on the table. Suddenly, it feels like all of our games are in play and winnable. Eminently winnable.

13 March 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Bayern (w/ video): I'm Stupefied

Wow.

I'm stunned and amazed. I spent the last week low-balling myself in the expecations game, and this happens. A 2-0 victory over one of the best teams in Europe at the height of its powers, and we just owned them. Well, "owned" might be a little strong in a game in which we were outshot 21-4, but then again, we outscored them 2-0. There were some nervy moments, to be sure, with Arjen Robben looking dangerous all over the place in the second half. I might even go so far as to nominate a certain Polish goalkeeper as my MOTM. He snuffed out several dangerous shots, not least of which came on a Robben breakaway. He parried Robben's shot, despite the distraction of a defender sliding in front to deflect. The scoresheet may list "only" four saves, but each of them was key--no muffs, no dangerous rebounds for second shots, just good, solid keeping. Well-done, Lukas; well-done indeed.

We almost pulled off something historic, which would have been even more momentous than Barcelona's 4-0 win over Milan. To have won 3-0 on the road? Are you kidding me? We almost did it, too, and I don't mean in the generic sense of 2-0 is one away from 3-0. If not for some poor officiating, we'd have done it. Ten minutes into the second half, Walcott burst free absolutely unmarked and had a one-on-one with Neuer. The side-judge flagged him offsides, but replays appear to show that he timed his run perfectly. Later, in the 78th minute, Gervinho had a glorious chance but put it just wide under tough pressure. It wasn't a typical Gervinho miss; he had a defender draped all over him, another sliding in, and a tight angle to try to curl past Neuer. Even so. he almost put it home. Maybe he should have just flopped a la  Bale or Suarez.

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In a game in which yellow cards were slung like hotcakes, at least to Gunners, there was one yellow less than there should have been. Lahm took out Cazorla with a tackle from behind and scissored Cazorla's leg but didn't get booked--a similar tackle from Tomas Rosický earned him a yellow a few minutes later. Perhaps the ref didn't want to send Lahm off (Lahm picked up his first yellow at the end of the first half). We were looking just dangerous enough that a one-man advantage might have been enough to see us nab one if not two more goals.

Lest I get too caught up in ruing what could have been, it's time to celebrate a wondrous victory. Maybe this will inspire some momentum--it does, after all, prove that we have quality. Even as Bayern got desperate, we continued to manufacture chances. When Koscielny headed home in the 86th, you could see them panic. The scrum in the net as Neuer tried to keep the ball from various Gunners shows how freaked out he and his team now felt, and the energy on our side was off the charts. Ah, Koscielny. Even before that goal, having him on the back-line was a sight to behold. He snuffed out shot after shot and closed on defenders with aplomb. We actually looked strong on defense.

When three minutes of extra-time was called, I could see the fear in Bayerns' players. It didn't seem like they'd be able to hold us off. However, Robben almost killed the dream with a screamer in the 91st that Fabianski blocked terrifically, sending the rebound out a good 30 yards. However, the dream died out anyway. Robben got away with a ridiculous flop in the corner, and the time ticked off as Bayern dilly-dallied.

Oh well.  Doesn't matter. I clearly have some taunts coming my way after my earlier declamations regarding this game. I'm gonna go ahead and pretend I never denounced this match. I might even go back and delete a post or two.

Long story short: We are Arsenal, and we are back in business. Swansea, you're next.

Eating Crow Never Tasted So Good

So it's already 1-0 to Arsenal. Sure, it's not quite ten minutes in, but Oliver Giroud has scored a delicious goal in the third. After all of my kvetching and tut-tutting about we shouldn't make a big deal of this, we have a bit of a ballgame on our hands. While there's still plenty of time on the clock, our boys are playing with some fluidity and energy while it's Bayern looking rather toothless. If this stands, I will gladly suffer the taunts of the die-hards who insisted that we had to have this game. Even if it doesn't stand, we're showing mettle enough to restore some of our pride.

Giroud in particular is looking sharper than he has in a while and has snapped out of his slump, not only in scoring but in form. With Walcott back out wide again, the team is creating chances. If not for a missed touch from Rosický and some nices saves by Neuer, I daresay we could have had two by now. Defense is bending but not breaking to this point.
A quick look at the stats would convince a casual fan to assume that Bayern is in control of the game--nine shots (two on frame) to our one, 58% possession, two corners, three offsides...however, the one stat that matters is only one we need. We'll never know if Bayern had planned to sit back because of how quickly Giroud scored. The goal was a veritable comedy of errors--one defender spins himself to the ground, Walcott nutmegs a defender on his pass, and Giroud sends it home so quickly that that the ball has bounced back out of the net before Neuer can even try to dive for a block. I know that Walcott wants to play more centrally, but this goal, and so many others, show that he might be best-placed on the wing, not only to take advantage of his speed, but also because his connection to a central striker seems to bring out Walcott's best as well. This assist reminds me of so many more that he has tallied, and if he and Giroud can settle on roles, their relationship could become very productive indeed.

Well, before we get ahead of ourselves and make too many grand plans for the future, there's a second half to be played. Gibbs has picked up a yellow, so he'll have to mind his manners. God forbid we pick up a second goal--that third "goal" that Mandzukic scored in the first leg, one of the ugliest goals I've ever seen, could also become one of the most painful we've conceded. Game's back on. Come on, Gooners...

Arsenal vs. Bayern Preview

Arsenal go into the Allianz Arena today needing to score three goals in one game against a Bayern team that has conceded only nineteen in thirty-seven games.  In those games, it is true that Bayern has been more generous at home, where they've conceded twelve of those goals.  Only once have they conceded three goals in a game--against BATE Borisov, a game of such low priority that only 16,000 fans bothered to show up. At a stadium that seats 40,000 or so, not even Borisov's fans seemed to care enough about the game. It's such an anomaly that it doesn't offer much of a blueprint for the Gunners to draw hope from, even if we were fielding our best, which we're not.

Much of the talk has been on how a strong performance matters in order to generate momentum for our upcoming Prem fixtures, but I just don't buy into it. A draw would positively thrill me, even if it comes about through a mixture of stern backline play and a Bayern team content go through on aggregate rather than press their advantage. We haven't kept a clean sheet since February 9th against Sunderland, and with attackers such as Wilshere and Podolski out, scoring falls lower on the list that a tight defensive display.

As a second matter, the talk of needing a strong outcome as some kind of momentum-generator falls flat or rings hollow, I can't decide which. In either case, it falsely raises the stakes for a match that we just don't need. I almost added "and just can't win" but I just don't subscribe to that way of thinking. We can win this match, and I don't mean in that "on any given day" kind of stuff, nor will I appeal to the "if BATE Borisov can do it..." rationale, either. We do have enough quality to grapple with and, yes, beat Bayern. However, there are too many factors to contend with--scoring three goals against any team is a challenge, nevermind one in Bayern's form. We're on the road. We go in short-handed and without two of our more-energetic attackers. Yes, we're demoralized--but that's not due to the 3-1 loss, nor does changing that mindset hinge exclusively on doing something historic tonight. Sure, a win tonight would be great, and a going through to the next round even moreso.

On the other hand, it's not like a loss will further demoralize us. Other losses have been more demoralizing--games against opponents we simply should dispatch, like Blackburn. Will a loss tonight throw us into a tailspin? I doubt it. A loss against Swansea or Reading has more power to do that. Even before the first leg matchups were announced, we knew that advancing in the UCL was unlikely, so what does it matter if we don't advance, which is what we expected? Surprise losses and upsets are demoralizing. Heck, I might even be able to watch this match with complete detachment, maybe even enjoying Bayern's organization and skill. If nothing else, it beats getting my knickers in a twist over something I can't control. Better to sit back with some popcorn and a bevvie or two and enjoy whatever unfolds.

12 March 2013

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

As I'd earlier suggested, news continues to trickle out of various first-teamers who won't make the trip to Allianz Arena on Wednesday. Of course, as we well know, Jack Wilshere will be out due to an injury to his "good" ankle, not the one that required surgery last year. I'm willing to bet that he overcompensated his stride to protect the damaged one and, in the process, put more stress on the other. Take no chances with him, I say, with apologies to good Gooners who put down some money to see him (and others) play in Germany.

Joining him on the metaphysical sidelines will be Wojciech Szczęsny, sitting in favor of Lukas Fabianski. Why Vito "it rhymes with bologna" Mannone won't start instead is a puzzler. Does Fabianski have lots of family coming in from Poland to see him play? Whatever the case may be, it's a good game for sitting Szczęsny if only to remind him that he's not as great (yet) as he might believe. Stakes are low, but the message can still reach him.

 In front of Fabianski, the news cuts both ways. Kieran Gibbs is finally available, but I don't see the need to throw him on. Bacary Sagna will rest his sore knee, and with Monreal cup-tied, we'll probably see a back-line of Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Jenkinson. Whereas Fabianski might earn a play due to home-town-ish connections, the opposite appears to be happening to Lukas Podolski. It's not like the Bayern fans are going to howl him down, I don't think. He posted to facebook that he's not fully fit and hoped to play Wednesday, but it's not to be. So be it.

The less that he and other first-teamers feature on Wednesday, the better. It further lowers expectations and pressure on us to deliver any kind of miracle. With our third-string keeper in, and our first-string right-back, and two attacking midfielder, we can blithely chalk up any drubbings to injury rather than actual gaps in talent. Yeah, Bayern will go in without Ribéry, Schweinsteiger, or Boateng, but it's not a concern. I don't see Bayern coming like bats out of hell. They have a 3-1 lead and may just content themselves with defending that or perhaps tallying once. Heck, it's possible that president Uli Hoeness might ask the team to take its foot off the pedal due to his apparent regard for Wenger.

Some were calling for an epic performance of the kind that might just launch us on a momentous run, and many of the players have talked gamely about their desire to go in and achieve something. Even at full-strength, I didn't see us winning by three. Let's just go in, have some fun, and play some footy. After all of the pressure they've been under, the boys deserve a more-relaxed evening. Odd that it would come in the UCL against, say, QPR or Reading, but hey. I know I'll appreciate having a chance to watch a game a bit more casually, rather than getting all worked up about every potentiality. Having said all of this, it's possible that Gervinho will have the game of his life and score five. And I'll wake up to that Triumph Scrambler I've been wanting.

Arteta Eviscerates Arsenal...

Well, "eviscerate" might be excessive, but the Spaniard did have some strong words on the season:
I can't believe this is the closest I can get to Lego Arteta.
We have a very good team but we are missing that little thing which makes a difference. We can’t be in that position, because we have the best basic structure I’ve ever seen at a football club, great philosophy, good players, we’ve got financial backing to do whatever we want, unbelievable crowds for the stadium. That's where we need to find the key, but with 10 games to go, it's an impossible catch (the title chasers) and that, for me, is not acceptable. I think everybody knows that. I think the board knows that and hopefully this summer we'll do something about it.
On its surface, this is some tough talk bordering on condemnation. It even sounds a bit like throwing in the towel. Once you use the word "impossible", you leave yourself very little wiggle room. The fact that we've left ourselves very little wiggle room is, of course, the bigger issue. With ten games to play, however, "impossible" feels like too strong a word. We will have to hope that other teams drop points while not dropping any of our own, but this is not impossible. A baby counting all the grains of sand in the universe in the blink of an eye is impossible.

Maybe it's just the eternal optimist in me, but I see grains of hope in Arteta's comments. First of all, he's the vice-captain, and it's his job to take the lead on issues like this. The same statement from another player might feel too much like complaining. I don't mean to criticize Vermaelen by implication. Arteta's comments are most important to me when he talks about structure and philosophy. He's previously spent time at Barcelona and PSG, as well as Everton, Rangers, and Real Sociedad. The following is more-true of certain clubs than others, but for Arteta to say we have the best structure he's seen is meaningful. To compare us to Barcelona especially is strong praise indeed. Yes, he switches from "great" to "good" when he mentions players, which he may not mean anything by, but it's true. We'd be hard-pressed to label any of our current players "great". That will change, in some cases due to development and growth and in other cases through acquisition, to which Arteta himself alludes.

He mentions the board and diplomatically "thinks" they know. They'd better know. The idea that we somehow need or should fall out of fourth is some kind of wake-up call to spur the board into action is, on its face, ludicrous. If they don't see that the club is regressing and that fans and players are frustrated, they should be ousted, bought out, fired, whatever it takes, and replaced with people who believe in the club and have its competitive success as their highest priority. Financial stability is great and will become more important under FFP, but at the end of the day, the purpose of the club's existence is to win games, not balance books. There are times when these two goals are at odds with each other, of course, but we've proven better than most at reconciling them and look set, as Arteta suggests, to make some moves to strengthen the squad come summer.

I'll disagree with Arteta's "impossible" comments, but I admire the man for his forthrightness and for his belief in Arsenal.

UPDATE: Wilshere Out Three Weeks

In further evidence that I'm less intelligent than I think I am, an interesting paradox to say the least, news is out that Jack Wilshere's ankle injury is serious enough to knock him out for three weeks, meaning he'll miss the match against Bayern as well as against Swansea. I don't mind much at all that he'll miss Bayern; in fact, I'd prefer that he rest even if he was 100%. Missing Swansea is the bigger hit, as it makes an already-tricky match that much trickier. If there's good news in the announcement, it's that the injury is to his other ankle, i.e., not the one he had surgery on last year. I hope we see Tomas Rosický come on against Bayern, if only to give him some match-time to prep for Swansea. His drive, determination, and energy are similar to Wilshere's, even if they're not on the same level.

Before we despair too mightily, I want to make a quick comparison that feels apt to me. In Michael Jordan's second season with the Chicago Bulls, he broke his foot and missed most of the season, and they won a woeful 30 out of 82 games. More importantly, he went on to become one of the world's most-famous and most-accomplished athletes, leading the Bulls to six championships in eight years. A similar parallel might be the Bulls' Derrick Rose who injured his knee during last year's playoffs and hasn't played a minute this year. The team has performed admirably in his absence, but it's essentially a lost cause--a full season in which we know the Bulls will not achieve anything significant. However, when he does return, the team will likely become odds-on favorites to vie for a championship next year. I'm not suggesting that Wilshere is ready to achieve similar feats. All I'm suggesting is that nothing is ever as final as it initially feels. Yes, it's depressing to learn that Wilshere will be out for a while, and it certainly damages the team's prospects for this year. In and of itself, it does not shut the door on a top-four finish. I'll trade that top-four finish for a Jack Wilshere who is fit and healthy for next year, in fact. It might be heresy to admit that dropping out of the top four is acceptable, but it's just one season. I look forward to a decade or more of Jack Wilshere in an Arsenal jersey, though, and imagine that he will bring the club back to glory, if not this year but for years to come.

11 March 2013

Aw, Shucks--Wilshere's Ruled Out Against Bayern

I hope I don't unduly upset anyone by saying I'm not at all disappointed that Jack Wilshere has been ruled out of Wednesday's match against Bayern. Of course, if it turns out to be the real thing--an actual injury--I may live to regret saying that. As it stands, I find the timing of the announcement just fishy enough to make me wonder if the real issue is giving him time to rest. He's apparently been in Dubai recuperating from an injury he picked up against Spurs. He wasn't subbed off, so he did play the full 90 minutes, and it's been a eight days since the match. My theory, amateur as it may be (at least until someone pays me to have them, changing me to a professional possessor of amateur opinions), pertains to Ribéry just as well: coaches if not players are using the injury report to recuse themselves from games. It wouldn't be the first time a coach or player has gone this route. Ribéry, perhaps sensing that his services just aren't needed for this second leg, will simply sit out to rest up for some other, more vital match. Wilshere, perhaps perceiving that his services just won't matter terribly much, can rest up for Saturday's trip to Swansea, where his presence does significantly alter our prospects in a game we need much more. After all, for as remote as victory on Wednesday may be, the team could not just announce that Wilshere would sit; this would be unacceptable capitulation, a signal that we've quit. A ginned-up injury provides adequate cover. Assuming that I'm onto something here, I wouldn't mind if, say, Cazorla woke up with an ouchie that keeps him out as well.

Having said all of this, it's all together too painful to read anything that contains the words "ankle injury" and the name "Jack Wilshere." His ankle surgery was just over a year ago, and he only returned to action in November 2012. There's no word on whether it's the same ankle. His surgeon from the April surgery, Håkan Alfredsson, plies his trade in Sweden, and the only other reports I could track down refer only to "world-renowned specialists". Not enough to prove me right, unfortunately. Whatever the case, we shall pray that the sands of the beaches of Dubai give Jack a chance to flex, stretch, and roll that ankle into playing shape by the weekend.

Wenger is On His Way to Bayern

So it seems that Bayern's president Uli Hoeness has told The Sun that he and Bayern have tried to bring Arsène Wenger in as manager, saying, "even before [Wenger] went to Japan, Franz Beckenbauer and I went to Nice and discussed with and everything was clear, but he decided to go to Japan....Over the years, whenever we were looking for a new coach, Wenger was always one we considered."  He goes on to talk about how fantastic Wenger has been and is generally warm and complimentary; however, I don't see why this has to come out ahead of Wednesday's match. It's not like Bayern is looking for a new manager after having signed Pep Guardiola for next year. What's the point? On one hand, it's nice of him to say because it does remind the critics that Wenger was and remains a highly respected manager and that big clubs seek him out. I'm sure his name featured prominently in their pre-Guardiola discussions, especially when calls for Wenger to step down or be fired reached near-hysterical levels. On the other, it's just a pointless distraction It's not like Bayern is so afraid to play us that they're resorting to silly mind-games. At first, I was annoyed. Now, I'm just amused.

It does provide a convenient reference-point, however, for revisiting what had once been a streak of rather petty yellow journalism earlier in the season when it seemed that one could barely open a newspaper I mean visit a website without being greeted by headlines shrieking "Once Wizardly Wenger Wished Away by Fans!!!" or "Furious Fans Vent Fury at Feeble Frenchman" and so on. Look, I know that Wenger has made mistakes and bad decisions. At the same time, he is still one of the best managers in football. He is absolutely to blame for allowing the departure of various players and for failing to adequately replace or upgrade afterward. Is there more going on behind closed doors between him, Kroenke, Usmanov than we know? Yup. Do we have a right to know more? Yup. In the absence of knowing more, should we stop baying like hounds for Wenger to leave? Again, yup. It's not for nothing that we're still where we are despite losing the players we've lost. I submit that most other managers would have seen their teams plummet, simply plummet, to the bottom of the table and beyond. In my eyes, astigmatic as they might be, our current form and position is remarkable. Is it good enough? No, not nearly. Should I stop asking and then answering my own questions? Maybe.

All I'm saying is that we should be careful what we wish for. If and when Wenger does step down, it's hard to identify someone good enough to take the reins. I'll admit that I fancied Guardiola and may even have been a touch disappointed to hear that he had signed with Bayern. Don't even ask me about Mourinho. He's a great manager, but I just can't stand him and would have a very hard time seeing his arrogant smirk every single week. I am aware of his track record, so don't bother reminding me. My feelings might change if he were to deliver results, of course.

I would hate for Wenger to leave now. We'd probably then find out how many other clubs have sought his signature in the past 12 months. He's alluded to it, but I'd be willing to bet it includes most, if not all, of the following clubs and plenty more: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus, Chelsea, Man City, Paris Saint-Germain. This in and of itself is not reason enough to keep Wenger, hoarding him away out of jealousy, but it is a suggestion that we have one of the world's best. Should he leave, he will most likely land at a club like one of these, be given a bottomless pool of money (not to mention talent), and go on to win all sorts of things while we see just how quickly things utterly fall apart under whoever we find to replace him.

At a minimum, there is a lot of football to be played between now and whenever any kind of decision should be made. If we fall out of the top four, maybe it's time to take a hard, unsentimental look at what this means for the future. I'd prefer that we focus all of our energies--fans, staff, players, coaches, manager--on winning.

The Race for 4th, Week 28.5 (or something...).

Bit of an odd day today as most of the teams at the top of the table didn't play this weekend due to various postponements. The one result that did matter worked largely to our favor as Liverpool beat Spurs. Apparently, Spurs defender Assou-Ekott was foolish enough to bump into Suarez in the box, who predictably went flying. I've seen worse in the queue for the bus, frankly, but it was Suarez after all, a man who is to staying upright in the box what Spurs are to holding onto 4th. By which I mean, neither one happens. So Suarez outdid Bale on both counts, scoring once and diving once. At any rate, Gerrard tucked it home without much trouble, and that was that. In all honesty, Suarez's dive wasn't all that bad--Assou-Ekott did jump into Suarez and shouldered him. A player who is less susceptible to gravity would have kept his feet and simply scored. The ball ended up in the back of the net regardless, and the top of the table is now a bit tighter than it was with Liverpool climbing up into a tie for 6th with Everton.

A glance at the chart shows Liverpool shoving its way in the conversation, if only because they've played one game more than most everyone else. Chelsea hosts Steaua on Thursday and West Ham on Saturday, Spurs go to Inter on Thursday and Fulham on Saturday, Liverpool goes to Southampton, Everton hosts Man City, and we have to go to Swansea after our Wednesday trip to Bayern. This might just be a week that sees Chelsea leapfrog Spurs. As tough as our trip to Swansea might be, the schedule gives us a little help in that everyone save Chelsea faces a tricky match, and two of our toughest competitors for a top-four finish do so in a cluttered week. Yes, we have to face Bayern, but the task of winning is so far-fetched that I wouldn't mind us throwing on Squillaci and ten other cardboard cut-outs. Chelsea and Spurs, by contrast, face games that matter more and will therefore require more effort. Even if Franck "don't forget the 'C'" Ribéry himself might be out, along with Schweinsteiger and Boateng, few would blame us if we rest a few key players against Bayern in order to stay fresh for Swansea.

There's other noise out of Germany about Wenger and offers and stuff, but it's too irritating to deal with right now. I'll come back to it after I've had some coffee.

10 March 2013

Liverpool 3-2 Spurs, Chelsea 2-2 Man U. I'll Take That.

Not bad, not bad at all. Okay, I didn't get what I asked for, but this is a close second-best. Liverpool took all three points from Spurs today, in the process moving into sixth, two points behind us. Spurs remain seven above us, and we have a game in hand thanks to the Everton rescheduling. All in all, not bad. In even better news, however, Chelsea stormed back from 2-0 down to tie with Man U, meaning that both teams will have more clutter in their schedules. This doesn't really matter to Man U, whose grasp on first seems impregnable. It does matter to Chelsea because they now have at least one more match added that they just don't need. True, they're five clear of us (straight, no game in hand for us here), but they've been careening from match to match and look every bit as shambolic as we have, today's outcome aside. They'll have to squeeze in an away watch with Fulham and another FA match with Man U in short order. Chelsea has a surprising second-leg in the Europa, having lost to Steaua Bucuresti 1-0. I'll be praying that they pull off the 2-0 victory to advance. Fine with me if they make progress in the Europa League.

Sadly, there's little worth saying about Arsenal other than some tall talk of miracles and making the impossible possible when we visit Bayern on Thursday. Even before our 3-1 loss in the first leg, progress in the UCL was very low on my list of priorities. Of course, if our boys do pull something off, I'll be among the loudest and bounciest Gunners, all too happy to endure the "I told you so's" and "o ye of little faith" comments others may toss at me.  Well, in the absence of anything deeper and more momentous to say, we'll leave at that for now.

'Til next time...