23 March 2013

The Tides Turn

The last few years have seen rats fleeing Arsenal as if it was a sinking ship. Nasri, Song, Van Persie, Fabregas, Clichy, to name a few. It's as if we can gauge the health and future prospects of a club based on the willingness of its current players to stay. Of course, the paradox is that their attempts to leave help the seal the club's fate, undermining its future and further guaranteeing that other rats will leave. I keep using the term rats on purpose because that's what these players are— they doubt the team's prospects, leave and thereby bring about the very slump that they had forewarned, making them seem like geniuses in the process. It may not always feel like it, but we're better off in the long run without 'em.

Croatia 2-0 Serbia: The Power of Sport to Foment or Reconcile

In the midst of an otherwise uneventful weekend from Arsenal’s point of view, Friday’s match between Serbia and Croatia gives us a chance to examine the role of football in helping societies and countries address their rifts. Sadly, in many cases, we’ve seen how nationalism and racism draw their life’s blood from otherwise trivial sports. Friday, however, saw one of the late 20th century’s deepest and bloodiest conflicts played out in a football match that culminated in a poignant, optimistic embrace between two men who had once been bitter, ferocious rivals, an embrace that signifies both the power of football to foment hatred or to inspire reconciliation.

22 March 2013

International Break: Nothing Broken, Thank You

Aside from Walcott's groin strain, various Gunners representing their countries today emerged largely unscathed, so we can now set our sights properly on the match against Reading. Among other news, Mertesacker played a full 90' for Germany's 3-0 win over Kazakhstan while Podolski stayed on the bench, Vermaelen played all 90' in Belgium's 2-0 win over Macedonia, Szczęsny watched as Poland lost 3-1 to Ukraine, Giroud scored and played all 90' in France's 3-1 win over Georgia while Koscielny sat, the Ox played all 90' and notched his second goal at the international level, Rosický subbed in late in the second half as Czech Republic lost to Denmark 3-0, Cazorla played a full 90' for Spain while Monreal sat, and Aaron Ramsey scored for Wales (but Bale did notcontinuing his recent drought) and earned a straight red for his last-man tackle in injury-time, leaving him unavailable for Wales's next match.

And...inhale. All in all, not too shabby. We'll miss Walcott, for sure, but all of our other boys come home (okay, they're doing the opposite of that, in many cases) intact. A few might even bring with them a bit more pep in their steps after scoring for their countries.

And that ends that. A few of Gunners might feel a compulsive need to wash their hands and take a scalding-hot shower after sitting on the team bus with the likes of Cole, Terry, or Busquets. Such are the hazards of international travel. Now that that round one of this ruckus is behind us, we can hold our breath, cross our fingers, and rub a rabbit's foot with the remaining uncrossed fingers as we wait to see how the next batch of matches turns out.

While we may not love the international break, it's a necessary prelude to the World Cup, an annoying distraction to the Prem season. I wish there was some other way to sort these competitions out, but I'm just not smart enough. We'll have to hope that (a) various country's teams either seal up qualification early or (b) drop out just as fast, leaving our boys relatively free from having to strain themselves as they try to help their countries qualify, or (c) hope that various phantom injuries knock a few of 'em out of contention.

And that's that—no need to draw this one out any further. 'Til next time...

That Arsenal DNA

What does it take to play for Arsenal? It's more than just skill, which is unfortunate, because if it were skill alone, we might still field a team that includes Fàbregas, Van Persie, Cole, maybe even Ibrahimović. However, there's more to it than that. The downside is that it complicates our ability to attract and keep good players. The upside, and it's one I think I prefer even for as much as it leaves us in the lurch all too often, is that the players we do keep are players who not only inspire us with the feats on the field but also with how they carry themselves, at least publicly. By contrast, I wouldn't want Ashley Cole back on a free loan. I'm not sure I'd want any of the others on this list back, either. Just don't hold my feet to the fire on that one. Just...don't.

Walcott Goes Down During Training

In news that at first blush appears bad for England and for Arsenal, Theo Walcott has suffered a strain during training for England's match against San Marino. Some sources report it to be a thigh strain, others, a groin pull. In either case, he'll miss the San Marino match and will be unavailable for the Reading match on March 29th and perhaps even the following weekend against West Brom. Of course, you never want to see one of our boys get an injury, but the timing of this one isn't all that bad. It may even be a case of using the injury sheet to buy a player some rest. That's a far-fetched notion, considering that Hodgson rarely does us any favors if he can avoid it. So it goes, I say. Give the lad a rest.

A Plague of Injuries

Oh, to be healthy. Where would we be if key players had remained fit? Looking at just six key players reveals a total of 65 games missed due to injury. Can you imagine where we'd be if we could cut this plague in half? Holy man. This alone could account for the difference between us and Spurs, or even us and Chelsea. Then, instead of peering up at one or both of them, we'd be squinting down at them, and perhaps nipping at the heels of a few clubs from Manchester.

21 March 2013

Arsenal Finally Overtakes Spurs

Click to enlarge.
...in the European Power Rankings, that is. Rebounding nicely from the loss to Spurs, we actually climbed above them as we rose three spots from #17 to #14 while Spurs fell from #16 to #17. For what it's worth, we also helped Bayern drop a spot from #3 to #4.  Of course, we're still far behind the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid, but there's no surprise there. If only these rankings meant something, we'd be 4th in the Prem already.

Woj Takes My Advice, Tells Da to Pipe Down

It looks like Wojciech Szczęsny has all but followed my advice. The post below appeared earlier this morning (Chicago-time), to be followed by news of Wojciech Szczęsny's public statement, available below.
so, I'm disrespectful? Looks like I need to teach you a little
 respect. This will hurt you more than it hurts me, Wojtek...

I'm not Wojciech Szczęsny, but if I were, I'd be telling my dad to pipe down. Frankly, it looks more like desperation than determination for Maciej Szczęsny to criticize Wenger at this point. His points are not timely; they're dated. Wojciech started the season with an injury, paving the way for Mannone to fill in. Upon Woj's return, he performed well, if unevenly. As recently as February, he was talked up as a MOTM for his play against Sunderland. Yes, it's Sunderland, but the point remains: the criticism is coming a little late, and it sounds like a panicked reaction to Fabiański's recent performance than a timely assessment of Szczęsny's form since November.

20 March 2013

Carpe Diem: Gettin' What You Pay For...

Once upon a time, we worried that losing Van Persie might just consign us to the heap of also-rans. After all, his 30 Prem League goals last year would be nearly impossible to replace. Without him, we worried, we would never replicate, nevermind surpass, what we achieved in 2011-12. However, for as much I might deride Spurs as a one-man team or criticize various teams for being profligate in their spending, it's well worth a closer look at what the buyers have gotten for their dollar (or pound).

On on the one hand, we have one Robin Van Persie, scorer of 30 Prem League goals in one season and 19 so far in the current campaign. He's currently earning roughly £200,000 each week. He plays for one of the league's powerhouses, sporting such other marquee names as Rooney, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, and Vidic, an aging if not all-star cast of players. 

Whither Gareth Bale?

After a series of performances strong enough to garner Mr. Bale several MOTM designations in the new year, recent fixtures have seen the man fall back to Earth. Put to rest, at least for now, are the comparisons to Ronaldo, comparisons this writer never quite bought into. Such has been his fall, in fact, that Spurs must be heaving sighs of relief for the international break after results that probably inspire more than a few dry heaves. In fact, since defeating us March 3rd, Spurs have won only once more and gone on to drop three straight matches. Yes, there are eleven players who play at any given moment, but for as much as Bale might deserve credit for driving Spurs' performance, his own recent drop in form might just be the single most-important factor that has undermined the team in the last few weeks, giving new legitimacy to the accusation that Spurs are little more than a one-man team.

The Problem With Two Left Feet, er, Backs

At the risk of knocking a good thing, I still find myself questioning the signing of Nacho Monreal. Back when it first happened, I questioned the move as a panicked signing forced on us by Gibbs's injury and Santos's poor form. Now that Monreal has prove that he does bring quality and with Gibbs back, my earlier objection is harder to sustain. However, I still maintain that, despite Monreal's quality, it was a dubious signing, especially considering other options and needs.

Let's remind ourselves from the outset that the balancing act is difficult. Clubs need the strongest starting XI they can find, of course, but finding second-string players who offer similar quality but who are willing to settle for coming off the bench is tough. Many such players look around and, to their credit as competitors, see that they could start, albeit for a lesser team. Once Wenger commits to Gibbs or Monreal as a regular starter, or if he platoons them, alternating them so they each essentially share 50-50, we have a dilemma in that one (or both) will be dissatisfied with the role they're handed. While this might motivate each to play to their best, strengthening the squad as a whole, it also poses risks that must be handled carefully.

Would Gibbs be more susceptible to feeling dissatisfied, seeing the position as his and sensing that Monreal was brought on due only to Gibbs's injury? Gibbs and Podolski had partnered well early in the season, but as Podolski's form wavered, the partnership itself faltered. As I've already implied, this seems be on Podolski more than on Gibbs. By contrast, the Monreal-Cazorla partnership arguably seems more stable, based on two's time together at Malaga. Again, though, this might be down more to Cazorla than to Monreal, so it's a bit of a wash. Heck, throw me on at left-back with Cazorla in front of me, and we'll partner well. More seriously, Cazorla seems at his best working as an attacking central midfield role, muting somewhat the question of who plays left-back.

In a more direct comparison, Monreal appears to have an edge, according to his and Gibbs's stats at whoscored.com. Monreal rates a 7.31 to Gibb's 7.12. However, look at the clubs each has played against and the ratings each earned. At the risk of being harsh on Monreal, he's faced much-lesser competition than has Gibbsonly Tottenham stands out as a threat. whereas Gibbs has faced two top-four teams (Man City and Chelsea), one that is chasing a top-four spot (Liverpool), and a team favored to win the UCL (Bayern). In other words, against markedly stiffer competition, Gibbs has done well. Were it not for the boost that Monreal's three goals gives him (one against Mallorca in La Liga), Gibbs might very well emerge with a higher score.

Beyond numbers, however, Gibbs is arguably a stouter defender and tougher tackler. I suppose you know which way I lean by now. Gibbs, having just signed a long-term contract and having only lost his position due to injury rather than doubts about his form or class, should be awarded the starter's role. What his means for Monreal is harder to assess. Is he willing to accept a second-string role after having just signed? Does he see himself as Gibb's sub or does he aspire to something larger? On one hand, it's a good problem to have as far as problems go, a significant improvement over watching through our fingers as Santos does whatever he calls what he does. Neither Gibbs nor Monreal seems like the kind to turn this into a distraction, and so it just might be possible for the two to thrive through the mutual competition for a starting spot I've discussed in previous posts.

Given a choice between the two, given that they are so close in quality, I confess that I go with Gibbs. At 23, his development suggests a higher ceiling and long-term contribution than does Monreal at 27. Without promising anything permanent, putting him on threatens no drop-off in quality in the short-term and suggests greater growth in the longer term. I wouldn't be upset to see Monreal feature, but I do believe that the club's best interests are best-served by Gibbs getting the nod.

With nine games to play, it's reassuring to ponder the possibilities rather than dread them. 

19 March 2013

A Scintillating Santi

The diminutive Santi Cazorla simply terrorized the Swans over the weekend, seeming to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to. He was a model of consistency and good decision-making. If not for a bit of bad luckpoor touches by teammates, deflections, good positioning by VormCazorla might have had a brace along with two or three assists. As it stands, he'll have to settle for a MOTM performance, something we're coming to expect on a regular basis from the man.

Give this compilation from XavierGooner14 a gander [update: the FA has made a copyright claim, so the video has been taken down, proving that the FA will protect videos of players even if they won't protect the players themselves.]. In it, we would see Cazorla make play after play after play with nary a mistake to mar his performance. Could he have done better on a shot or two? Perhaps, but such nit-pickery will not find an audience here.

After watching that, we do have to come to an agreement--the performance stands out not so much for its dominance or transcendence, although it does flirt with those qualities. Instead, as alluded to before, he simply doesn't make mistakes. Each pass or dribble seems pitch-perfect as if he's seeing the game a few steps ahead of everyone else. If we really want to get persnickety, we might ask why his cross trailed behind Giroud by a half-meter or why his one-time volley dipped right into Vorm instead of curling right or left. However, doing so would be akin to asking da Vinci why the Mona Lisa is so small. A bit of an exaggeration, but I hope you see the point: he delivered a masterful performance.

Quick note: that z gets the th treatment as in Cathorla. I work with a woman who, for some reason, roots for Osasuna, which is akin to rooting for West Ham. Back to the matter at hand: the man has easily earned our attention to pronunciation. He came into the Prem and made an immediate splash, instrumental in securing early season wins over Liverpool and Montpelier and draws against Stoke, Sunderland, and Man City. Sure, some of these don't sound all that impressive until we remind ourselves of the gaps we were trying to fill and some of the challenges of adjusting to the rigors of the Prem League. This is a man who has seamlessly transitioned from La Liga. Although he suffered from a bit of a mid-season lull, he may have rounded back into form, with three MOTM matches in the new year (according to whoscored.com).

Here is a man whose 11 goals last year vaulted a previously mid-table Málaga into this year's UCL. Not to be outdone, he has already scored 9 goals in the Prem, an impressive accomplishment even if his goals-per-game has dipped slightly. His transition is all the more impressive given the intense scrutiny over Van Persie's impending departure; Cazorla's ability to step in to help fill the void arguably helped to stabilize the entire club in the early going.

He continues to improve as he establishes himself and forms relationships with his teammates. While his Spanish connections might help him with fellow Spaniards Arteta and Monreal (a former Málaga man himself), he's bonding well with Wilshere even as each fills a similar niche.

After a few downbeat posts, it's nice to be able to extol the virtues of a player whose performances so frequently garner such descriptions as "virtuoso", "masterful", and more. It's too soon, of course, to make any predictions about his longer-term contributions to the club, but it's safe to say that he's already earned the admiration and respect of this fan, if not of Gunners everywhere.

Plagiarists, Originality, and Hit Counts

If a site is going to offer Arsenal news, I damn-well wish that only actual fans could provide the coverage. What we might lose in journalistic je ne sais quoi we would more than make up for in passion, dedication, and ownership.

I say this because, apparently, an article at arseblog, a site that I regularly consult and definitely admire, re-appeared at other sites as if it was original content at those sites. You can read a bit more on  it at arseblog itself. Now, before I get too high and mighty, I will start with a few disclaimers:
  1. I am a full-time English teacher who composes in the wee hours and waits for what seem like opportune times to post the material. As such, I have a keen eye and low tolerance for those who would repost others' content as their own. Further, whenever I include information from elsewhere, I make sure that I (a) point this out by naming the source-site and (b) providing a hyperlink to the original (as I did above).
  2. I strive for originality. This does mean that I peruse other sites to try to find an angle that hasn't been covered yet. I might respond to something, such as when I mentioned that there were rumors that Szczęsny might leave in the summer and be replaced by Petr Čech. but I'd never pretend to have discovered or revealed this on my own. 
When you come here, I hope you're finding original opinions and analysis based on stuff that has already happened--the games themselves, highlights, and statistics. I love this club more than a healthy person probably should, and this drives me to think about what it means when, say, we unexpectedly win or lose or when a player has an uncharacteristically good or bad game. I think long and hard before, during, and after I write in order to deliver interesting opinions that might also be insightful and helpful. On one hand, I might be just a bit flattered if I found that one of my posts reappeared at some other site. Imitation is the sincerest form, as the saying goes. On the other, I'd be hoppin' mad that someone is getting hits at their site thanks to my work. I might be just another naked chimp at a typewriter, but dammit, I'm proud of it. Not so much the naked part or the chimp part, but you get the picture, even if you don't want that particular picture bouncing around in your head.

If you're coming here and enjoy it, fantastic. If not, offer a comment (a polite one, I'm a tender soul). Too optimistic? Wildly inaccurate? Blithering idiot? Bring it on. I look at these sites that blindly repost articles and can at least say I wrote mine all by my pretty little self (I'm not referring, by the way, to aggregating sites but to other sites that will lift a story, post at their own site, and pretend they created it). 

This might all amount to little more than a hill of beans, but this is my hill, and these are my beans. That's all for now. Thanks for reading.

Up next: Cazorla's brilliance.

Between the Sticks: Szczęsny and Čech...

Is Petr Čech about to replace Wojciech Szczęsny? Yesterday, apparently, a story made the rounds that suggested that Szczęsny might be on his way out due in part to recently being dropped in favor of Lukas Fabianski. Having been locked away for jury duty, I largely missed it other than to see the headlines once or twice when I had a moment to use my mobile. Frankly, I was too lazy to attempt to post on it, not least of all because the task of spelling the lad's name would be too much for my mobile screen. At any rate, it ended up being a whole lot of nothing, which is how it usually goes with 99.9% of transfer tales. However, it does raise the question of how to handle the keeper situation. Fabianski has had two solid games for us, but Szczęsny is still far and away our #1.

However, as I've previously written, the young Pole has not distinguished himself to the level we expect or need. Yes, he's been hung out to dry on many occasions, but that happens to all keepers from time to time.  In that earlier post, I bemoaned the fact that we so rarely emerge from a match with Szczęsny having delivered a MOTM-type performance and having a endured a MOTM-type performance from an opposing keeper. There are keepers who, by reputation and by performance, instill doubt and fear in opposing strikers  and, sadly, Szczęsny is not there yet on either element.

With this as background, I'll admit that I glanced at headlines suggesting that Szczęsny might be on his way out and didn't respond with much alarm. It might be down to Fabianski's recent play, the fact that we are now well within striking range of Spurs, or the idea that Szczęsny himself just hasn't impressed of late. However, he is only 22 and has made 72 Prem League appearances for that, so he figures on having a long and illustrious career. Now, news out that Chelsea's Petr Čech is on his way to Arsenal over the summer. This is as close as I'll come to transfer talk. I will say that this does excite me. He is among the Prem's best keepers and, at age 30, still has some legs in him. In fact, a signing like this could be ideal as it might provide a few years during which Čech and Szczęsny could alternate, the youth learning from the sage, until Szczęsny, with a few more years' seasoning, emerges as a more-polished, mature, and dominant keeper.

On the other hand, maybe a little transfer-talk is all we need. Szczęsny has no doubt seen the headlines and watched Fabianski. If this doesn't provide motivation for him to double-down in training and in matches, little else will. Signing an older keeper, maybe even older than Čech (Lehmann? Friedel?), could provide Szczęsny with a mentor who is content to stay on the bench and tutor. Signing anyone much younger than 30, such as Victor Valdes, might convince Szczęsny that his time is up. While this might prompt him to up his play briefly in order to pump up his financial value, it may leave us scrambling to replace him while relying more heavily on Fabianski and Mannone

As the season draws to a close, I hope that our two Poles can man the sticks well enough to help us cross the finish line among the top four. After that, we can well and truly assess our options and how best to move forward.

18 March 2013

Stuck in the Middle

So much attention has been paid to our offense and defense that it seems we're simply assuming that the midfield will be fine--a middle-child syndrome if ever there was one. While we fret and moan about how we defend and score (or don't do enough of either), the midfielders just quietly go about their business (unless it's Cazorla or Wilshere making some noise) without drawing much attention. That's a shame, not just because of how important the midfield is in general, but to Arsenal's style in particular.

I confess to being partial to midfield. Having played there for most of my own career, I've come to look down a bit on the other positions. You can only cover half the field? Pfft. Even in a total football-esque approach such as Arsenal's, one in which all players are expected to cover more ground, defenders pressing forward on attack and forwards tracking back on defense, it's the midfielders who play endline to endline game in, game out. An energetic midfielder might run up to 10 miles in a game, or so it's been said. Whatever the true number is, our midfielders do a lot of work for precious little gratitude.

The real problem, though, is who we have and how they play. In the current formation, essentially a 4-2-3-1, there are five midfield positions to fill and nine players to fill them. This feels like a bit much, or at least a whole lot of quantity in place of quality:
  1. Arteta
  2. Cazorla
  3. Coquelin
  4. Diaby
  5. Podolski
  6. Oxlade-Chamberlain
  7. Ramsey
  8. Rosický
  9. Wilshere
What's more, I look at the list and, although I do like many of these players, I really only see two who are game-changers or could be game-changers: Cazorla and Wilshere. Cazorla's performance against Swansea, for example, was masterful. We so far have not missed Wilshere much, and although he has had fewer goals, his impact on matches has been invaluable. Beyond this, though, we have a longer list of players who are solid or decent or reliable at best. That might be good enough for a holding midfielder or defensive midfielder; Arteta, for example, excels in such a role. What seems to be lacking then, is the kind of electricity and transcendence we've come to expect from our midfielders. From this list, how many of them can generate that electricity or achieve something transcendent? 

I know that looking back at past players--Vieira, Pirès, Brady, Ljungberg, etc.--gives them an unfair advantage. Many of them played during some truly historic years (and those years are historic precisely because of how rare they are). In the time that has passed, the facts have evolved into legend, and current players like Cazorla or Wilshere have achieved moments that, as they marinate over time, will become similarly epic in our hearts and minds.

However, even they struggle to manufacture something out of thin air in ways that announce once and for all that opposing teams simply must plan around our players out of desperate fear for what could happen. In time, Wilshere can grow into that role. So too may Oxlade-Chamberlain or Diaby, for that matter. I'm not saying we should dump the rest and rebuild. Maybe I am. I don't know what I want. With time, the players we have just might grow into the kind of players we remember fondly a decade from now and memorialize with a statue or two. Heck, in the nine games we have left, maybe one of them will pull a goal out of thin-air, a game-changing and season-defining goal that elbows its way into a "Ten Best Arsenal Goals of All Time" list, and I will happily eat my words. In fact, I'm looking forward to having to do exactly that.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Diaby?

I think we'll agree that Abou Diaby has been one of  the most frustrating and disappointing players of the last few years. As this season began, he appeared to have come back from last year's injuries through a string of strong performances, such as when he completely dominated Liverpool when we went to Anfield. Then, he went down again in September against Chelsea. Since his return in January, his performance has been uneven, and that's putting it mildly.
However, before we come down too hard on the man, let's remember a few things--he's "only" 26, for one. I say this because, due to his injuries, he's made just 122 Prem appearances for us over eight years. That's a number that a healthy player can reach in just over three seasons. This deprives him of valuable experience and delays his development. To miss all of those games and practice sessions can only mean that his form is going to suffer. Then there's the mental aspect of it--once a player suffers an injury, the doubt and tentativeness set in: "will I get hurt again?" What's more, one injury can trigger another. It seems that Jack Wilshere's new ankle injury, if only to prove that it happens to everyone's fave, could come down to adjustments he made to his stride, consciously or otherwise. The number of knocks Diaby has suffered must also be personally frustrating to him. He doesn't strike me as a lazy man content to draw a check for doing nothing. If he was, Arshavin is there to remind that him that that position has already been filled.

Now that he's back and apparently healthy, and with Wilshere down for a few more weeks, we need him to stay healthy. He turned in one of strongest performances of the year against Swansea (granted, he's only made ten appearances) even if he was occasionally tentative, rusty, or slow. Despite this, he brings elements to the game that we sometimes lack. For one, he's the only midfielder we have who can't moonlight as a Smurf. He's been compared to Patrick Vieira and Yaya Toure as he can bomb up and down the field, box-to-box, and constantly looks to press forward. It's ironic, given his history of fragility, that he's one of our more-rugged players, looking for and making aggressive tackles. Maybe it's not so much ironic as apt that a player who goes in for challenges is going to get hurt. Most of his injuries are strains--and this is something that can be prevented through stretching, yoga, and warming up. I can't claim to know what his pre-game ritual includes, of course, but more of x, y or z might be worth considering.

There have been calls suggesting that we should sell him in the summer, but I think we'd be fools to do so. He wouldn't be the first player to show flashes of brilliance from beneath a veneer of injuries. A certain striker struggled through injuries for just as long as Diaby has; when he finally played a full season, he scored 30 Prem League goals for us. I'm not suggesting that Diaby is going to emerge from his own history in similar style. I'm just saying that, for as rare as those moments of brilliance have been, it's worth keeping him around just a little longer. He should have at least five more years of quality football left in him, and if he can regain any of the form and class he showed against Liverpool, it would be a fine time indeed.

The Jury is Still Out--Lunch-Break Post

Ah, so I'm on jury duty, that bulwark of democracy that separates our government from all others. Unfortunately, it means that I have no internet connection until I weasel my way out of this. Weaseling out of things is, after all, what separates us from the animals. Except the weasel. I promised not to live-blog any court proceedings, but the courthouse doesn’t even have a wireless connection, and I can’t even access the web through my cellphone due to the fact that they must have built the courthouse out of lead in order to stop us from tweeting about the trial: lolz this guy is accused of sex w neighbors dog #bestiality. And so on.

Anyway, it means that I’ve schlepped my laptop all the way here for nothing. I've managed to get a lunch-break, so here we are. I was starting to feel like a character in Sartre’s play No Exit, locked in a room with about thirty strangers, and all there is to do is studiously ignore each other and let the sounds, smells, and appearances of others irritate us until someone explodes and does something memorable—and switches from juror to defendant.

Aside from nearly becoming a Fulham fan over the weekend, a curse I avoided by reminding myself that (a) they sold Clint Dempsey, (b) they sold him to Spurs of all clubs, and (c) they’re not Arsenal, there’s not a lot going on today. There’s sure to be some chatter about Spurs dropping to 4th after their loss and Chelsea’s win. I was musing over the Spurs-Arsenal rivalry and the venom it can sometimes inspire when I realized something. Hating Spurs fans is akin to hating someone who smokes cigarettes. Ponder that. For a while, it’s enjoyable, but then, despite the awful side-effects—the bad breath, the hacking cough, that lingering smell, the diseases—they persist in rooting for Spurs. They come to need it and depend on it just to get through the day.  Criticizing them for it would only cause them to get defensive, even whipping out a cigarette and blowing smoke in our faces despite our best intentions. Like any addiction, it offers moments of pleasure followed by long periods of pain and self-loathing. Rather than hating on them, we should find ways to help them to transition away from this self-abuse and towards something ultimately more fulfilling in the long run.

Now, I’m sure there’s some parallel universe in which a Spurs fan might make the same case, but it’s that bizarro-world in which Superman is a bad guy and Earth is a cube instead of a sphere. In other words, nothing in that world is as it should be.

Speaking of things being not as they should be, Spurs are above us in the table. For now.  No phone calls from Satan, teeth a-chattering, complaining about a cold front, but that could be down to the 20th century citadel I find myself in. I rather savor the prospect of chasing Spurs and overtaking them more than I might always seeing them in the rearview. I may claim to be above the venom of the North London rivalry, but I’m not above indulging in it from time to time. May we find ourselves one point back a week from today.

17 March 2013

Race for 4th: Week 30

Berbatov's cheeky little panenka over Lloris gave Fulham a shocking win over Spurs at White Hart Lane, throwing the door for a seat at the table at wide-open. In fact, Chelsea's win over West Ham vaults them past Spurs into 3rd, dropping Spurs to 4th, only four points above us--and we have a game in hand.  This is delicious. When I looked at each team's remaining fixtures, I figured that Spurs would make short work of Fulham. Instead, Spurs have now lost three in a row (counting their away-leg at Inter). Could they be about to fall apart as they did last year? Somewhere, Redknapp is enjoying a spite-fill laugh as he ponders the possibilities. Don't mothball your St. Totteringham finery just yet, fellow Gooners. Things just got real.

Spurs is the only team in contention to have played thirty games (sorry, Liverpool, but today's loss may have just knocked you out for good. I'll keep you on the table because stranger things have happened). Between now and the end of the season, Spurs and Chelsea still have the Europa League to distract them. Spurs have to squeeze in a home-game against FC Basel between their trip to face Swansea and then host Everton, then travel to face FC Basel ahead of their trip to face Chelsea. Crazy. Chelsea fairs little better, squeezing in their home leg against FK Rubin Kazan between an away trip to Southampton and before hosting Sunderland, then traveling to FK Rubin Kazan before hosting Spurs. I hope I don't sound insincere when I wish the both of them the best of luck in their European adventures.

Not only do Spurs and Chelsea face more cluttered fixtures in coming weeks, they also arguably continue to face stiffer domestic competition than do we. Having dropped points to Fulham may not be catastrophic (after all, we did draw against them ourselves), but it certainly comes at a terrible time for Spurs. Amidst their home and way legs with FC Basel, they also face three of the Prem's top six teams in Everton, Chelsea, and Man City. Having two of them at home matters little--they barely escaped when we came to visit, and now Fulham has waltzed out of White Hart with those three points. Chelsea has a couple of similarly tricky Prem matches coming down the pipeline, and I do hope that Liverpool finds its form by then. We'll see.

We look set to go on a tidy run if we can take care of business. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we should be able to handle Reading and West Brom, and we really owe Norwich after losing to them early in the season. Heck, a week from now could see us one point back if we dispatch Reading and Swansea bounces back to beat Spurs. If the nerves are frayed at White Hart now, just imagine how they'll be feeling if we can close the gap that quickly.

It could just be that beating us was the worst thing that could have happened to Spurs. If they do stumble out of the top four, it may be because they built up the importance of that game far beyond its actual significance, and winning has now led to such a letdown that they will struggle to recover. We came out of that loss, not dispirited or defeated, but determined. They came out believing that they had apparently accomplished something, forgetting (at least temporarily) that there are still games to play. After last year's collapse, each dropped point is going to murmur ominously to remind them. Let's see what we can do to amplify that murmur to a dull roar.

I ♥ Carl Jenkinson

Basking in the glow of two solid wins, we've talked a bit about clean sheets, keepers, and a strong defense. Lost in the shuffle has been one Carl Daniel Jenkinson of Harlow, England. While a quick glance at his stats at whoscored.com doesn't reveal any scintillating improvements, his performances in the last two games show a young player coming into his own.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's remember that he's still only 21 and has made only 23 Prem League appearances, a still wet behind the ears babe in the woods. Nevertheless, he has shown much greater confidence and competence, if not actual skill, in recent weeks and seems well on his way to leaving behind some of the awful memories of his first season, including being thrown to the wolves at Old Trafford. Progress is also uneven, as evidenced by his fluffed header that led to Aston Villa's goal. By contrast, in his performance against Bayern, easily a more intimidating test, Jenkinson performed admirably, helping to shut down Robben, Mandzukic, and Kroos all day. Have a quick view of his performance, thanks to @XavierGooner14. In it, we see Jenkinson make errors, some unforced, it's true, but he also recovers well, makes strong decisions, and wins the ball. The closest he came to being punished for a mistake was when he slid in to attempt a block on Robben's breakaway. Had the ball glanced off of him, or had Fabianski flinched, we might have had a 1-1 tie and a much tenser finale. On the other hand, he was going all-out to make a last-ditch play to cover for other teammates' mistakes that allowed Robben to break free in the first place. And it's perhaps that effort more than skill that's driving Jenkinson's improved performance.

During a season in which we've endured far too many jaded performances and dejected players, Jenkinson's pluck shines that much brighter. Here's a man who, perhaps due to his youth, still seems to love playing football and, even more, loves playing for Arsenal. His dress-down of Geoff Shreeves after the Bayern win, delivered pointedly but politely, shows the progress he's made. Largely gone is that deer-in-the-headlights look from before. It still pops up and will probably continue to do as Jenkinson works and continues to improve. It's too early to call him our #1 right-back or to make long-term plans around him. On the other hand, his growth is such that I no longer dread what may happen with him in the line-up. Still too one-footed, and still a little shaky, it's true, but a far cry better than before.

The man has a bright future ahead of him, and I know he's still muddling through more than he's mastering the domain, but I believe we'll be thanking him more and more effusively in years to come.