18 May 2013

Kieran Gibbs will destroy Toon--and, if need be, Ashley Cole next week

I mean it, too. Gibbs will be the man we'll all be talking about after he leads Arsenal to glorious victory with a brilliant performance against Newcastle. In the past, I've gone with the cheap-and-easy picks (not that they've always worked out), choosing the headline-grabbing forwards and attacking midfielders. This week, to close the season, I'm going out on a limb to predict that Gibbs will make tongues wag. I'm not going out so far as to say he'll appear on the score-sheet, but his impact will be such that we'll be hailing him, and a certain charisma-impaired left-back will have been deposed, forgotten, and rubbished once and for all.

Since Cole (and Clichy) left, Gibbs has played off and on in that left-back position, but many Gooners have worried that we'd have to wait quite a while before seeing someone as good as Cole once was (note the past tense; it's very deliberate). After the misadventures of Santos, it's good to see Gibbs rounding back into form, and if he continues his ascendancy, he'll displace Cole on the Three Lions and may someday, sooner rather than later, emerge as the country's best left-back. In the early days, he played as a winger and attacking midfielder with Wimbledon and Milton Keynes Dons, so even if his runs forward are not yet as breath-taking or incisive as Cole's once were, he's starting to offer glimpses of those early attacking days, pressing forward to fill the spaces that Cazorla so often leaves open as the Spaniard drifts more centrally.

Against Newcastle, he's likely to see a lot of action from Ben Arfa, Cabaye, and Gouffran, but I haven't seen anything from them that Gibbs can't handle. I imagine (and hope I'm right) that he'll shut them down quite handily on Sunday. According to whoscored.com, Gibbs is 2nd on the team in tackles with 72 (behind Arteta's 108) and 3rd in interceptions with 63 (behind Arteta's 96 and Cazorla's 69). It's worth mentioning that Arteta and Cazorla have many more opportunities for tackles and interceptions; a more-telling statistic might be success-rate or opportunities converted, but we can't really gauge how many opportunities a player has to intercept a ball or make a tackle in the same way we might with shots on goal. I'd imagine we'd see Gibbs near the top of that kind of list.

Absent that level of analysis, we can hold Gibbs up for comparison against the current gold-standards for left-backs, those being [choke] Cole and Leighton Baines. At first blush, Baines emerges far and away as the Prem's best left back. However, using whoscored.com's statistics, Gibbs doesn't just compete with Baines and Cole, he leaves them in his dust in the categories that matter most to defenders: tackles and interceptions. Baines's superior rating is therefore largely down to his five goals and five assists (Gibbs has three assists, and Cole has one goal and two assists). As important as goals and assists are to any team, the foundation of the left-back position is defending, and on that score, Gibbs just can't be beat. He doubles Cole for interceptions and very nearly does the same on Baines, and he makes tackles more often as well.

With Cole at 32 years old and Gibbs just 23, it's only a matter of time before Cole is watching Gibbs from the bench for England, and it may not be too much longer before conversations about England's best-ever left-back starts with "Cole was amazing, but Gibbs..." In addition to Gibb's pace, determination, and strength on the ball, he has the noted advantage of having actual charisma. I know that a certain ruthlessness is sometimes required in order to excel, but it's refreshing, both for Arsenal and the Three Lions, to see a left-back who brings more to a squad than skill. Let's face it. Cole, for all of his excellence on the pitch, is hard to like, even in that "he might be a jerk but at least he's our jerk" kind of way.

As we go into the last match of the season, then, I'm looking to Gibbs to have the kind of performance that seals three points and 4th place for us. If the unthinkable happens and Chelsea labors to a draw against Everton at the same time, we might just see Gibbs outplay Cole on May 26th. Sure, they play about as far away from each other as two players can be, but it would be glorious and magnificent to see Gibbs is the hero who assists on the game-winner while Cole is the goat who concedes the goal on Gibbs's assist.

First things first, of course. Kieran, do a number on the Magpies. Then we'll see if Cole is up to the challenge.

17 May 2013

Arsenal vs. Newcastle preview

On the face of it, we really should just be able to show up at St. James's Park on Sunday and have our way with a depleted and listless Newcastle. However, it's a revealing indictment of our season that our last few months' run is not enough to instill enough confidence to actually do that, and we therefore find ourselves wondering and worrying. All season, we've shown an ability to play to the level of our opponent, whether it's a 2-0 away win over Bayern or a 0-1 home loss to Blackburn. We've see-sawed back and forth so many times that it feels impossible to know how we'll show up.  Even the fact that we've taken more points from Prem matches than any other team since February has not been enough to assuage our fears. However, we still go into Sunday's penultimate match in firm control of our destiny and on enough of an upward swing that serious plans are being made for a 3rd-place playoff game.

That said, we still have some business to tend to on Sunday. I firmly and enthusiastically welcome Olivier Giroud back from his three-game suspension after his red-card against Fulham. He brings a creative edge that our attack has lacked (an odd reminder in the aftermath of winning a match 4-1). I'd like to see him restored to the central striker role, flanked by his BFF Podolski on the left, Walcott on the right, and Cazorla playing from the center. Poldi and Walcott have recently gone on little runs of their own, with Walcott scoring in three consecutive matches and Poldi netting twice against Wigan. We won't debate whether Cazorla had three or four assists against Wigan playing from the right. The four of them could very well slice Newcastle's defense six ways from Sunday. It's in the midfield, of course, that deeper questions arise. With Arteta likely to sit, there have been many calls for Wilshere to come in, but I feel I must repeat my calls not to rise to the bait. Even with a vital three points hanging in the balance, I simply don't believe we can take risks with Wilshere's ankle. I'm willing to forego his presence on the pitch, believing we can win without him. If we can't defeat Newcastle at this point without him, we don't deserve to keep 4th place, simple as that.

No, please don't play Wilshere. I say this as one who goes weak in the knees when he is on the pitch. The boy's a beast. That's precisely the problem. He's still just 21, and he plays with the recklessness of one who may never play another game. If we throw him on, all it takes is one clumsy tackle to end his season and knock him out for a significant portion of the 2013-14 campaign. Don't do it, Arsène. Instead, play Rosický there. Yes, Coquelin is available, but he hasn't played since February. If he was close to match-ready, I believe we would have seen him come on in some of our more-comfortable wins such as those against Wigan or Reading. Even if he has the quality (and I believe he does), the chemistry is still enough of a question that I trust Rosický out of position more than I trust Coquelin. With Rosický and Ramsey holding down the defensive midfield roles, I feel very good indeed.

Across the back, the Kos-Per partnership looks set to continue, and I'd like to see Gibbs come back on the left. Nothing against Monreal, but Gibbs looks more and more to be emulating Ashley Cole each week, bombing forward while tracking back with the best of them. If he truly wants to emulate Cole, of course, he'll have to work on his charisma. He currently has some, and that just won't do if he wants to supplant Cole as England's best and least-pleasant left-back. He's already outperforming that [content deleted] and has only that [content deleted]'s reputation to overcome.

On the right, give it to Sagna. By "it", I mean the starting position and the captain's armband. If he does end up leaving in the summer, we can then claim that we're continuing the proud tradition of seeing the captain leave each year. In all seriousness, Sagna is among the longest-serving Gunners we still have, and it would be a fitting tribute to his contributions to this club and his reputation as one of the Prem's best right-backs (even if his form has suffered in this campaign). Give him the armband. If it ends up as his swan-song, we could do worse.

The Szcz looks to finish the season between the sicks, and so much the better. His return from the benching has worked out well. Fabianski's demotion, I mean injury, may be harsh, but Szcz is our first-choice keeper and has seen three clean-sheets and five wins in five matches. Each keeper owes his run in part to the defensive displays in front of him, to be sure, but Szcz has done enough to reclaim the starter's role. In fact, I'm looking to him (and the back-line) to keep one more clean sheet.

At the risk of going out on a limb, I foresee a 3-0 win with goals from Giroud, Walcott, and Podolski. I won't go so far as to predict another three assists from Cazorla. We really should be able to steamroll Toon. I like them and all, if only for the flimsy reason that my first real (non-American) beer was a Newcastle Brown Ale. I know there's no direct connection, but it marked a huge upgrade from the swill I had been drinking up 'til then. Knowing that Newcastle is safe from relegation, then, I harbor no remorse over running roughshod over the club on Sunday.

Come on, you Gunners. Just one more. Three points. Get 'er done!

The loneliness of the long-distance blogger

Caution: a bit of navel-gazing lies ahead.

I have a confession to share. I feel safe making it here because I'm among friends. I can count the Arsenal fans I have met in person with one hand. I know more Chelsea, Man U, and Spurs fans than I know Arsenal fans. I've never watched an Arsenal match with anyone except my children, whose only real interest in staying in the room is to see me hit my head on the basement ceiling if we score or collapse to the ground if we concede. No, I'm not a leper. I manage to bathe regularly. I brush my teeth every night. People seem to like me. However, I'm all alone in my own Gooner universe.

There have been brushes with fellow Gooners. Up until I tore my ACL and MCL a few weeks back, I played on Sundays with one. But that's about it. Here's how bad it's gotten. I was in the hardware store bickering with my wife about a folding table she wanted to buy. I noticed a guy walk past with the Gunners logo on his shorts. Breaking away from the argument with my wife of 13 years, I said, "come on, you Gunners." He didn't hear me. My wife glared, and I ended up buying the table to salvage the day, if not the marriage itself. Driving home, I saw a guy walking his dog while wearing an Arsenal jersey. Before I could roll down the window to call out, he had turned a corner.   For a moment, I seriously considered rounding the block for a second chance. Pathetic, aren't I?

Before you feel too bad for me, I've still enjoyed some exquisite moments, some ecstatic and some agonizing, when I do get to watch a match. However, as the prospect of another St. Totteringham's Day grows more and more likely, I think about how I might celebrate. The games will end late enough on Sunday here (somewhere around noon) that I could quaff a beer or two, whether it's in celebration or despair, but again, it will most likely be alone. I even checked the map for Arsenal supporters' pubs and was sad to see that the Globe Pub had disappeared from Chicago, further deepening my misery.

Alright, alright, enough of the melodramatic horse manure. I'm proud to be a Gooner and I loudly and repeatedly get in the faces of men twice my size and bigger when I see 'em wearing the wrong jerseys out on the town (first problem--you're wearing a jersey out on the town? really?). I do it real-friendly, of course. I did point out that they're usually twice my size. This size-ratio happens a lot when you stand 5'6" (183cm).

One of these days, I'll get to the Emirates and get properly drenched in the blood, sweat, tears, and beer of fellow Gooners as we yet again lay waste to the hopes and dreams of some other London club. That's part of why I'm here writing. Once I earn enough for the plane ticket, the game ticket, and the beer money (it has calories, so I figure I won't need food money), I'll be there. I'll be the short American who's drinking, shouting, and cheering enough to become entertainment for those around him. I wish I could be there on Sunday to cheer our boys on against Newcastle--yet another team whose fans I've met more of. I gotta move to a new neighborhood or something.

There's something of a tribe when you root for a club, a clan to which you can belong. After 30-odd years of rooting for this club, I still don't feel like a full member. I'm a vagabond, a rōnin wandering the wilderness alone. Yeah, I could switch to Man U or Chelsea or something and be welcomed as some kind of prodigal son, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I might be on my own,  but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Mancini and Benitez: do they foreshadow Wenger's demise?

In the aftermath of Mancini's dismissal from Man City and that of Benitez from Chelsea, there are no doubt some who wish that Arsenal's board might be a little more ruthless in dealing with Arsène. After all, Mancini won the Prem last year and the FA Cup the year before that. In his first year, he led City to its highest-ever league finish and has finished in the top-four every year since. He's won nearly 60% of his games. Benitez, hired as an interim, is in a bit of a different situation. However, he did just help Chelsea win the Europa League championship, and he replaced a guy who helped Chelsea win the Champions League last year before getting sacked in November (a move that may have actually complicated Chelsea's attempt to advance from the Group Stage this year). He's won 57.5% of his matches with Chelsea and might finally be resurrecting Fernando Torres's form. Arsène, by contrast, has won only 56.9% of his games, and we all know about the trophy drought. Why, then, is he allowed to stay on when other managers have had such recent successes?

Has loyalty blinded us? Has Arsène hoodwinked us with an early flurry of glory that lulled us into a complacent torpor? After all, with the Ferguson's retirement, Moyes's move, and Mancini and Benitez's dismissals, Arsène is now the only manager of a top five-club to have served for more than a year. There's something to be said for stability, continuity, tradition, loyalty, among other values, but each of these runs the risk of fossilizing or metastasizing into something altogether different. The definition of sanity, they say, is doing the same thing and expecting something to change. Arsène runs the risk of falling into this rut. Year after year, we lose some of our best players in their prime and try to replace them with budget-signings or rushing young players into first-team action before they're fully ready. As the summer transfer window approaches, will we see more of the same? The rumored first-signing has us linked to Yaya Sanogo, a 20-year old from Ligue 2's Auxerre. I'm sure that most of us could have completed that sentence with some minor variations: 19-20 years old, French, small club... We've seen this script many, many times before. Sometimes, it's worked out quite well. Others, not so much. It's enough to drive a good Gooner (redundant, I know...) mad. However, it's a formula that Arsène used to revolutionize English football, finding and molding young players in a system of daring, attractive football. Sure, one element in that formula has been price.

The risk to the approach is two-fold (well, there are others, but these are the two primary ones as I see them). One, the player may never develop as we hope he will. We've seen this happen many, many times. We end up rending garments, gnashing teeth, and burning effigies. Some of us do, at least. Most of us shrug and remember that the player in question came in for pocket-change and will be loaned out or otherwise fade from memory with little harm done. The second risk is the more-serious, more-damaging one: the player does develop as we hope he will. The risk here is that he then gets an offer he can't refuse from some other club, reducing us in the process to a feeder-club for other teams. Among other teams, Man City has us to thank for Nasri, Clichy, and Touré, and Chelsea can thank us for Cole ("thank" might be a strong word to use with the likes of Nasri or Cole, but I digress). Along the way, Chelsea can thank us for not pursuing Juan Mata or Eden Hazard more aggressively, as they apparently wanted just a bit more than we were willing to offer. Can you imagine us with Clichy, Cole, and Touré, and Hazard, Mata, and Fabregas, not to mention van Persie? I know it's not that simple, but wow.

That second risk, that of young players simply up and leaving for more money, seems to be forcing  Arsène to reconsider this formula. No longer can we build a squad through young players. There's just too much money out there. Speaking of which, Arsenal is positively flush with money and ready to spend for the first time in years. Now, instead of rumors linking us to the latest starlet or ingénue from some second-tier club in some unknown backwater, there's been talk of signing marquee players. Rooney, for example. The kind of players for whom bids will start at around £25m. It seems that, if Arsène is serious about contending in the Prem--not just settling for a 4th place spot but serious about actual contention--he will have to make some high-profile signings like Rooney or Falcao or Higuain.

However, the risks here are also great. At one level, Arsène may feel like he has to make a big signing to answer his critics, and therefore throw too much money at a player just to show that he's willing to spend to win, to undo years of penny-pinching. Thankfully, I think he's wise enough and shrewd enough to avoid that pitfall. It's the second risk that has me worried. If we go the way of Man City and Chelsea or Man U, spending bucketload after bucketload of money on anyone who's available, we become like them. I don't want to become like them to beat them. I know that many clubs would love to trade their budgets for ours, but I don't want us to trade our budget for that of Man City, Chelsea, or Man U. If we do go out and sign three or four or five players, each for £25-30m, we've entered a rat-race. The problem with entering a rat-race is the winner is still a rat. Yes, a trophy would be nice. I'm more concerned with entering this rat-race and not winning, though. If we sign these players and still finish behind one or more these clubs, we'll have sold our souls and tarnished a great manager's reputation--for nothing.

And that brings me back to Mancini and Benitez. To varying extents, they have been successful managers at their current clubs as well as with other clubs in the past. However, they work for clubs whose ambitions and appetites are so rapacious that nothing less than real silverware each and every year is cause for heads to roll. What, exactly, is Mancini's crime? He couldn't keep up with Man U, who added the Prem's leading scorer from last year to a team that had already outscored its opponents by 64 goals last year. Yes, he lost to Wigan in the FA Cup final, but the whispers had already grown to a dull roar that even a win would not be enough to save his skin. Benitez's situation, as previously mentioned, is different as he was hired on an interim basis. His predecessor was at the helm when Chelsea at long-last won the Champions League. Di Matteo may not have guided them through the UCL, but he was there when they, defeating Bayern and Barcelona, in the process. In short, each man works in such a ruthless, voracious setting that their supervisors (overlords?) will never be sated. They devour whoever is in front of them and start leering hungrily at their next victim even while swallowing down the last bites at the previous sorry soul.

Arsène deserves far better than this. Not because of what he accomplished in those glorious early years, not out of loyalty for his years of service and hard work, but for continuing to be one of the best managers in the Prem, if not the world, despite facing such mindless, empty power-lust. He's a veritable knight in shining armor, a paladin standing up against the orcish horde. If this were to be his last season in charge, that might be a more-fitting end to his tenure than to see him try to follow in the footsteps of Mancini or Benitez. We've seen where that path leads. Silverware, yes, but at too high a cost.

This is not to say that we should go into the summer feeling smug and superior in our high-minded morality. Our squad does need some dressing up, that's for sure. Amid the talk that Mourinho might have a war-chest at his disposal, we do have to make changes. However, the gap between us and Chelsea, and even that between us and Man City, is razor-thin. A few well-made signings, even if they don't satisfy the loudest critics who are calling to bring only the biggest names, damn the price, could just be enough to see us climbing a few spots higher without changing the character of the club or jeopardizing the legacy of the man who's led it so well for so long.

16 May 2013

With Arteta likely out, why not play Rosicky?

As the club assesses the strained calf that Arteta suffered in Tuesday's defeat of Wigan, we're left wondering who might be called on to deputize. Wilshere's name has come up, and as exciting as it might be for us to see him return to action, I still insist that the long-term risk to his health is larger than the short-term benefit to playing him, especially when we have other options. Arsène has addressed the situation thusly:
For the weekend, we have uncertainty over Mikel Arteta, who had to come off just before the end of the Wigan game with a calf-strain. His chances of being available are minimal. I have to be realistic and prepare for another solution. [Wilshere] is an option, yes. We will monitor him until Sunday, and I will make a decision very late over what I will do.
Of course, we won't get a one-for-one replacement for Arteta's consistency, pass-accuracy, and mentality. I can't think of another player on the squad who possesses a similar skill-set, other than Ramsey. Absent an effective cloning-machine, then, we do have to consider other options.

I don't like throwing Wilshere back on. In fact, I'd recommend he go and have the planned ankle surgery immediately so that there's no temptation to play him. He needs to have a pin removed from a previous surgery, and I'd rather he have a nice, long summer to recuperate. Given his style of play and how often he gets fouled, he's just as likely to re-injure the ankle against Newcastle, doing more damage and necessitating another surgery and longer lay-off, possibly stretching into next season. He's 21. I want him to have a nice, long career, un-plagued by recurring and nagging injuries of the kind that have haunted Abou Diaby and, to a lesser extent, Tomáš Rosický. Speaking of Rosický, why not give him the job? He's every bit as feisty as Wilshere, and it's not like Wilshere is quantum leaps better than he is for the defensive midfield role. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

A quick look at their stats at whoscored.com show enough similarities and parallels to lend the suggestion greater weight. Rosický gets a few more interceptions per game than Wilshere, 1.3 to 1; Wilshere makes a few more tackles per game, 1.4 to 1.1. Passing accuracy: Wilshere 86.3%, Rosický 86.9%. Everything is essentially a wash. Rosický's smaller sample-size means that we should take his stats with a grain of salt, but his numbers still compare very well with Wilshere's, enough so that it would work out just fine. While it's true that Wilshere has featured more often as a defensive-midfielder than has Rosický, Rosický is a more-disciplined player with enough wisdom and experience that he would understand the role he's asked to play. We can trust him to partner with Ramsey and hold down the midfield.

As much as we need these three points, we also need Wilshere hale and healthy for the next decade or so. I'm having too many nightmares of his original injury. It was just one month ago today that Arsène admitted to having rushed the lad back too soon. Why make the same mistake twice in one season?

15 May 2013

The burden of 15 years in the Champions League...and counting.

As Gunners calculate and recalculate the team's chances of securing a top-four finish, wondering if we'll stave off Spurs to claim 4th or even overtake Chelsea to seize 3rd, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Arsène's 15-year streak of Champions League qualification. Absent any actual trophies, this streak has had to placate the Arsenal faithful; it is, in fairness, an unparalleled achievement in modern football. It's one that we should rightly be proud of even if it hasn't led to an actual trophy. The trouble is that the streak itself has achieved a life of its own. As a result, the burden of the past threatens to drag down the present and sink the future. Simply put, this streak will have to come to an end at some point. I'm not calling for it to end this year or at any time in the near future. As heretical as it may be, I'm simply saying that it will, at some point, end.

A streak creates tremendous pressure, and its end can bring relief. When Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak finally ended at 56 games, for example, he said, "I'm glad it's over. I've been under strain."The burden of sustaining such a streak can be immense. Whether it's an individual player or a team, each game poses a double-challenge: one, you must continue the streak to feed history. Two, you must win the game to sustain the present.  At times, these challenges coincide: go all in to continue the streak and climb the table. At other times, these challenges conflict: go all in to continue the streak even if it jeopardizes your form in the league. We've seen quite a few examples of teams that have relentlessly pursued one at the expense of the other. Last year, to cite a recent example, Chelsea put all of its eggs in the Champions League basket and won it all. In the process, however, they dropped to 6th in the Prem. Competing on both fronts--the Prem and the Champions League--will sap the strength of the biggest and best. One is like kryptonite to the other. It's therefore a bit unjust to our current squad to insist that they continue this streak. It's Arsène's streak; it's the club's streak; it's not the current squad's streak. Many of our players have joined the club long after the streak began, and that's a heavy burden to inherit. After all, it's arguable that a lengthy portion of that streak is down to how Arsène revolutionized how football is played and how players prepare. As the rest of the world has caught up to, imitated, and stolen from him, it has become infinitely harder to replicate that level of success.  Nonetheless, he and the club have continued to do it, often by confronting and, every once in a while, triumphing over clubs that spend and spend and spend.

Arsenal will never be mistaken for a minnow, not in Europe and certainly not in England. However, one of our trademarks of the last decade has been our ability to compete with and dispatch clubs with bigger budgets and more blue-chip talent. At the risk of this becoming an ode to Arsène, who else has achieved so much with so little? It's therefore a bit troubling to hear Theo say this about the streak:

The Champions League is big for the future of the club and the players. We have been in it for the last 15 years, and we don't want to be the players who are not part of that. We just have great experience in knowing what to do when the time is right. It happens every year, and we tend to finish very strong. I think it is just because the players want it so much.
His attitude speaks volumes about his emergence and growth of the man and the player. "We" have not been in it for the last 15 years; the club itself, represented by any number of players, has been. He attests to it more truly when he says, "we don't want to be the players who are not part of that." No one wants to be the one who breaks the streak. That creates pressure. That pressure can breed mistakes and miscues and may even explain some of the errors and dropped points we've suffered this year. The streak, then, becomes the proverbial monkey on our back.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Arsenal will continue this streak of Champions League qualification for another decade, long past Arsène's reign, long past the tenure of any current player. However, with each passing year, the burden of that streak will only grow larger. In an ideal world, we fall just short, just once, if only to break the streak. Then, instead of fighting to finish 4th or better, Arsenal can focus its energies on winning Prem games as a path to the top of the table and let Champions League qualification become an afterthought instead of an achievement in and of itself.

Having said all that, I'm by no means ready to see the streak snapped this year or next or any year after that. Let's dispatch Newcastle to continue the streak for another year, and then set our sights on sharpening up the squad enough to dislodge one or both Manchesters from the top of the table. With Arsène at the helm, and with our current squad, we've shown enough quality to challenge. If we finish the job this year, we come back all the stronger. The addition of one player, maybe two, might be just enough to see us through.

Whatever the future holds, it looks to shine bright. The last two months of this season have seen an impressive, if not indomitable, string of results. 23 of 27 points taken. A defeat of Bayern at their house. One loss since February. Defeat Newcastle, and the streak continues. Victoria Concordia Crescit, indeed. 

Chelsea's slippery grasp on 3rd place--could Arsenal pry it from their hands?

After a right thrashing of Wigan on Tuesday, our eyes turn naturally to the table. Instead of peeking nervously in the rear-view, we are now close enough to Chelsea's bumper to start trading a little paint. Sorry to mix my sporting metaphors, but it's apt. Chelsea now sits a mere two points above us, and this position looks increasingly fragile. We'll face Newcastle on Sunday, safe and sound mid-table, while Chelsea has to face Everton, a stubborn team whom we had to draw twice. Chelsea did manage to beat them 2-1 at Goodison Park, but the Toffees still offer a stiff challenge. Chelsea will have to host after their Europa League final on Wednesday and may be suffering from euphoria (well, "euphoria" might be a bit strong) or deflation, not to mention a little fatigue. They'll be without Hazard and perhaps Terry (update: Terry looks to be fit) for that one and perhaps against Everton as well. Ramires will definitely miss the Everton match after seeing red against Aston Villa. In other words, fragile. If we win, they'll have to win as well. A loss obviously drops them to 4th, but a draw sees us both finish at 73. The tie-break is then goal-differential; if we're tied on that, we go to goals scored. Chelsea has 38; we have 37. If we're knotted up there, we share 3rd place. According to the BBC, there could be a play-off to determine Champions League qualification, with the winner claiming 3rd place and qualification and the loser taking 4th and having to play in. With Chelsea playing Man City May 23 in the US, scheduling would get complicated, to say the least. Therefore, a few scenarios.

As you can see, we can only take 3rd through a combination of us winning and Chelsea losing--or drawing in a certain way depending on our outcome. Of course, if we don't win, nothing else matters.

There's an old saying that, um, says, "may you live in interesting times." Well, here we are. Instead of the boring security of having already secured a top-four spot, we are in the "interesting" position of still needing to secure 4th place while also striving for 3rd. Interesting times, indeed. The American writer Mark Twain once said, "those of you inclined to worry have the widest selection in history." Will we beat Newcastle? What will happen without Arteta? Should Wilshere start in his place, or is he too forward-thinking? Can we count on Sunderland or Everton to snatch points?  These are tense times, no doubt, almost enough to make you wish we could have "saved" a goal or two to use against Newcastle to ensure victory.

I don't feel like I'm being overly optimistic in asserting that we might just overtake these filthy chavs. whether we do so outright or if it comes down to a playoff. Chelsea has already play 93,000 matches this year, and with Benitez set to leave, they look ripe for the plucking. How brilliant would that be after this up-and-down season?

14 May 2013

Finally, a solid thumping

It's been since March 30th since we well and truly spanked a team, and it was a 4-1 score that time as well. Aside from the minor blip that was Mike Dean's gift to Wigan, we really did run rough-shod over Wigan in famous style. Even with Maloney's goal, the outcome never really felt like it was in doubt.

Interestingly, although we'll have our complaints on the Arteta's "foul" on Arteta, it was an opportunity Wigan had earned. To the 30th minute or so, we were pushing our possession up close to 60%, but by the time Maloney went down in the 45th (gravity must pull on him extra-hard), possession was even at 50% as Wigan pressed. Credit to them; even before Podolski's goal, they played positive football, in part knowing that they needed all three points but also in part to Martinez's approach. It's a credit to them and a shame that they're relegated as a result. Too bad there aren't a few points available to teams that try to play the game well. Having said that, Maloney fell pretty softly there, enough for the Emirates to rain down abuse on Mike Dean. Too bad they didn't get a legit goal, settling instead of a dubious at-best direct kick.

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Our attack was aggressive and sharp throughout most of the game, speckled a bit with missed chances. A quick look at who missed shows you how bright we were looking: Walcott charged down the right, pulled two defenders with him, and put in a short cross that Cazorla just wide. Gibbs put a shot just wide after a rebound from a Sagna shot. Koscielny just missed poking home a corner at the near post. Walcott netted but was rightly flagged offside. If any one of these had gone home, it would have been game over. The goals would come in the second half.

Our first half goal was a nice bit of work from Podolski, who drifted from the goal-line on Cazorla's corner, caught it on the short-hop at the six, and headed home. It was almost eerie how everyone cleared out for him. It was as if they were spots of grease and he was a drop of dish-soap. Bad simile, but you'll see what I mean in the highlights. Podolski was a revelation in the central role, netting twice and looking like a threat all night. Were it not for Cazorla's four assists, we might be tabbing Poldi as the MOTM. His second was a nifty piece of work as Cazorla headed forward for him to charge into the box, beating Robles to the ball and deftly flicking over him with the outside of his left. The lad has a nose for goal and how has 11 in the Prem. I'm not suggesting we've suddenly found an in-house answer to our striker needs, but an in-form Podolski is certainly a sharp arrow to have in the quiver.

Walcott had netted in the 63rd, slotting home a Cazorla cross, meaning that he has now scored in three consecutive appearances, each vital to securing points: two wins and a draw. I've been calling for and suggesting that he's on the verge of a break-through. I don't want to make too much of this recent run of form, but how sweet it would be to see him get to the next level. Today's goal nudges him into the top ten in the Prem, level with Fulham's Berbatov, West Brom's Lukaku, and Southampton's Lambert. If he can continue and build on a strong finish to the season, we might see ourselves mentioning him in more direct comparison to the likes of van Persie, Suarez, and Bale, 20-goal scorers all.

Of course, that's not all. Aaron Ramsey put the game on ice by collecting a delicious Cazorla pass down the sideline, carried it into the box, sized up Robles, and drilled it past him. 4-1. He was his usual consistent self, with 85% passing accuracy and  93 touches, and led the team with five tackles. It's nice to see him burnish those "boring" stats with a headline-worthy goal, and a sharp one at that.

Of course, Wigan's relegated, and that's too bad. I wish we could have found a way to let Wigan stay up and Sunderland get relegated as punishment for hiring Di Canio, but it just won't work out this year. So it goes. We're back in 3rd 4th (sorry, got a little too excited) as we into the the final weekend. Everyone plays at the same time Sunday, so no one gets any advantages. Of course, if anyone needed a rival's result as motivation at this point, they're fools. We'll face a banged-up but safe Newcastle and Spurs will face a potentially fiestier Sunderland under that putz Di Canio, but as long as we manage our affairs, we can ignore Spurs' result. Heck, it's even possible for us to wrest 3rd place from Chelsea. If we win by two and Chelsea loses or draws, we'll claim third on goal differential. After their Europa League final match on Wednesday, they'll face a stubborn, stubborn Everton squad playing its last game for Moyes. They'll be without Ramires after his second yellow against Villa, and they could still be without Hazard and Terry, who left the same game with injuries. Good times.

Arsenal 4-1 Wigan

I offer a sincere apology to Wigan for relegating them today. As much as I admire Wigan for not playing defensively, and for playing positive football despite the risk it would backfire, we needed these three points. I don't want to rush into any analysis just yet, other than to say it was wonderful to celebrate an orgy of goals. In the absence of commentary, and in response to an image making the rounds on Twitter, I only offer this image. It's a bit amateur-ish as I teach myself Photoshop, but it should do for now. Congratulations, Spurs, the ball is in your court.

Aw, crud. I put in the wrong date. I'll go in and fix that and re-upload the correct image as quickly as I can!
There we go. Sorry for the error. I was so worked up for Spursdays that I went with that date instead of Sunday's. Enjoy.

Gonzalo Higuain "agrees" to join Arsenal and--sigh. No. Rumor. Back to Wigan.

Apparently, the Prem season is already over and we've secured a Champions Leauge berth place by beating Wigan 37-1 and Newcastle 23-0, vaulting past Chelsea into 3rd place. I say this because, isntead of focusing on actually winning these games, people are finding time to dabble in the latest rumors, this one suggesting that Gonzalo Higuain has already agreed to deal. Once you get past the article's headline, you start stumbling across the familiar phrases: "reports suggest...", "an unnamed source...", "close to agreeing..." etc., and the word agrees always seems to be inside quotation marks of the kind that suggest the kind of air-quotes people use to indicate sarcasm, disbelief, or dishonesty. I've learned not to click on these links anymore, only going so far as a quick search for "[player name] Arsenal" and reading the 1-2 sentences available in the search results. Frankly, all you're going to accomplish by clicking on those links is to read a bunch of unsubstantiated rumors, maybe one or two anonymous quotes, and a run-down of the player's achievements and potential reasons for wanting to leave. If the reporting is particularly energetic, the story might even find evidence of previous links between Arsenal and the player as if this proves anything now. All of that rumor talk reminds me of the Simpsons episdoe in which the giant advertisement-mascots come to life and start destroying the town. The remedy? A catchy jingle: "Just Don't Look." Have a gander (key scene at about 5:00).

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Good times, that. Look. I'm happy to be wrong. I think Higuain would be a nice addition. However, I have bigger fish to fry (well, at least in the sense that there's an entire team to beat instead of worrying about signing just one). It's a worrisome prospect, moreso than it should be. The idea that we feel unsettled facing Wigan is a sign of our own low confidence. For all we know, our squad is positively chomping at the bit and licking its chops, and Wigan's players are either cowering in a corner or groggily drinking down the hair of the dog and grimly schlepping their stuff to the Emirates, each one thinking up an excuse for why they can't play: "I stepped on a fork." "My religion forbids me from playing on Tuesdays." "My sister's sitter cancelled so I have to watch my nephew." And so on. We could go on a rampage of our own, going up three goals in the first 15 minutes, and all of our worrying and hand-wringing would be for nothing.

Wigan plays an odd formation, a 3-5-2, that worked well because (a) City only deployed two strikers in Aguero and Tevez and (b) Mancini was just not smart enough to adjust. They were therefore outnumbered and unable to stretch the defense. If we can convince Cazorla and Walcott to stay wide instead of drifting towards the center, they'll be better-able to distort that back three and create openings for themselves and for teammates. With the congestion that those five midfielders can create, we'll need some crisp, quick passing and intelligent movement--in other words, how we play anyway.  I'm not going to spend any more time weighing how Wigan's FA Cup win and relegation status affect their motivation. We know what we need, and three points today are vital to our position. Therefore, if our attacking middies can stay wide and we can control possession (as we usually do), we should be able to manage the game.

On one hand, it's a bit of a pickle to be in, needing three points at this point in the season, but it's not as much of a condemnation of our form as it might seem. Chelsea has spent money hand fist to get to where they are, and Spurs are riding a career-defining season from Gareth Bale. Despite those factors, and despite some of our own mis-steps, we still control our destiny, and I do believe our boys will seize that destiny. today. Come on, you Gunners!

13 May 2013

Arsenal v. Wigan preview: Walcott to win it

There's been some cautionary talk in the lead-in to Tuesday's match with Wigan: they beat us last year at about this time and in similar circumstances, and they just slayed Man City in the FA Cup final, proving that they have some fight in them and can hang with the big boys as well as anyone. They're an odd combination, perhaps an historic one, as they might just be the first Prem team to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. There's a schizoprenia to them: one part wounded animal, one part triumphant hero. We'd be wise not to overlook or underestimate them as these are three points we can't afford to drop as we did last year. We can't blithely count on them to show up complacent and hung-over after defeating Man City and driving home the last nail in the coffin of Mancini's tenure. Arrivederci, Roberto!

On that note, let's put the FA Cup in context. It was a glorious win for Wigan and for football itself as this tiny little team of the quaint, eight-figure market value dispatched one of the spending behemoths of the world. Without diminishing the accomplishment, Man City has fallen far short of its accomplishments from last year, crashing out of the Champions League's group stage, failing to win any domestic trophies, and falling 14 points lower while scoring 31 fewer goals than it did last year. This was a team ripe for the picking, and Wigan gladly seized the opportunity. Good on you, Wigan. May they make a "Hoosiers"-style movie out of your season.

Having said that, it's time to look to this game. Wigan comes in knowing that they need to win this and their next game against Aston Villa to stay up, but they also need Sunderland to lose at White Hart Lane (entirely possible) and Fulham to lose at Swansea (again, entirely possible). Setting aside Wigan's trip to the Emirates for the moment, if Villa draws with Wigan, Wigan's relegated. Even if Wigan wins their last two games, they still depend on favorable outcomes. Given the choice between beating their brains out over the next two weeks in order to qualify for another season of getting whipped versus enjoying the FA Cup, getting relegated, and doing the whipping in the Championship next year, I wonder if Wigan is ready to mail it in.

I don't want anyone who's actually playing for us on Tuesday thinking in these terms, though. I want them baying for blood and circling for the kill. Let's remember Wigan's sass in winning last April and give them a sound whipping. I'm tabbing Theo to have a break-through performance as it's a game in which he approaches the 10,000-minutes-played threshold, a talismanic number that seems to serve as a tipping-point for other strikers who, after crossing that same threshold, have seen dramatic surges in their goals-per-game. Without suggesting that Theo's in this class, we're talking about a doubling of the GPG for van Persie, Bale, Messi, and Ronaldo.

Walcott has netted in our last two matches, the win over QPR and the draw with Man U. In both cases, he did so inside of the first few minutes of the game. If Wigan offer up the same 3-5-2 that they used against Man City, they'll be sitting deep and conceding the wings, and it's therefore paramount that Walcott stay wide and resist the temptation to drift in early. If he stays on the wing instead of imitating a more-central role, he's better-positioned to exploit Wigan's three-man line. His pace on the wing can stretch Wigan's left-side, creating openings that he can exploit for his own shots or for lay-offs similar to the assist he had for Podolski against Norwich, peeling in from the flank to lay off to the top of the 18 as defenders collapsed to him. As Wigan's defenders will probably press high up on the pitch (this is a team that needs all three points; one point does them nothing), Theo should find plenty of space to run onto through-balls on counter-attacks. on top of these factors, they'll have two central midfielders playing out of position as the left- and right-back positions, further exposing them to aggressive work up those flanks. At the risk of getting too specific, I see him scoring one signature-goal early, receiving that through-ball wide and finishing with a curler to the far-post à la Thierry Henry and perhaps adding a second one, one that sees him work his way in from the flank and, instead of laying off to a teammate as he did against Norwich, keeping it and slotting home for himself.

Here, then, is my call for the XI:
  • Back line: Monreal-Koscielny-Mertesacker-Jenkinson
  • DM: Arteta-Ramey
  • AM: Cazorla-Rosický-Walcott
  • F: Podolski
With news out that Wilshere will undergo some "minor" ankle surgery, I'm more than happy to rest him when we can get away with it (read: against bottom-of-the-table teams), all the more so if it gives Rosický some time. Regular visitors will know that I'm a big fan of the Czech.

I hope I don't end up sounding too much like a scratched record, but we're due for an orgy of goals. We've grinded out our last few matches, and it's been since March 30th's 4-1 drubbing of Reading that we've truly had a chance to score for fun. Without denigrating Wigan or tarnishing their FA Cup glory, let's well and truly  soak them. I'm willing to forgo a clean-sheet if it means we net three or four goals. Let's get it done. It's high-time we scored early and scored often. 

Come on, you Gunners. 

12 May 2013

Dear Pep, back off and f@#$ off.

Dear Pep Guardiola,
News is making the rounds that you want to sign Jack Wilshere this summer. All due respect, but this had better be little more than a bunch of b.s. cooked up by amateurish publications desperate for ad revenue (and yes, I know that I'm little more than a part-time amateur who gets no revenue to speak of for his efforts). Pep, if there's anything to this rumor, I will find a way to set you straight. Quick hint: it involves your ability to taste my shoe leather for weeks.

Pardon my French, but just what the hell is this even about? Have you checked the Bundesliga standings? Bayern is 22 points ahead of Dortmund and won the league so long ago that van Persie still had black hair. Boom. On top of that, y'all just signed your chief rival's best attacking midfielder, or had you forgotten? Mario Götze joins the likes of Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Müller, Ribéry, Mandzukic, and Robben in a very already-prolific attack, so what the fudge are you on? They've tallied 94 and conceded 15 in the Bundesliga. Just what is it that you think Bayern needs?

Do you have something against Arsenal for playing a style similar to Barcelona's but at a fraction of the price and in the toughest league in the world? Yes, I'm sure Real Madrid tested your patience from time to time, but let's face facts. La Liga consists of a small handful of difficult teams and a bunch of cannon fodder. If you're pursuing yet another Arsenal middie, it makes you look petty and weak. It suggests that your model and philosophy just don't work without Arsène there to do your dirty work, scouting, recruiting, and developing young players for you to poach and deploy as you see fit. Ask Alex Song or Cesc Fàbregeas how their moves have worked out for them. Flashes, maybe even stretches,  of brilliance sandwiched between longer stretches of mediocrity or worse. Yeah, you can blame Vilanova for mismanagement, but the reality is that you can only play 11 at a time, and a few of these have to be defenders and forwards, not to mention a goalie. There's only so many midfielders one team can play, even on one that plays so much tiki-taka/total football.

Really, Pep, I thought you were better than this. For one, I really don't think Bayern even needs Jack. They've already demolished everyone who's stood in their way (well, except Arsenal), including your dear Barcelona. Is that 7-0 aggregate not enough for you? If it turns out that you are in fact seeking to sign Jack, I actually pity you. It suggests a certain paranoia on your part, a fear that you will be exposed as a bit of a fraud of a manager who can only succeed when he's surrounded and supported by the best players in the world. Gone would be your reputation as a magician who can weave together players into a squad; in its place would be a little man squealing, "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

Even as I write this, Pep, I'm hoping that I'm just over-reacting to the latest silly rumor. I fully expect to wake up Monday morning to read follow-up stories in which you fully and thoroughly discredit these stories. You owe it to Arsène, who, after all, showed you that total football could work. By the time you stepped in at Barcelona, he'd spent a decade showing all of Europe how this style of football can succeed in the long-term and against fierce opposition. If you try to swoop in to snatch Jack or any other Arsenal player, you only confirm your debt to Arsène and reveal the copy-cat nature of your success. Take his philosophy and style of play, but strip away the financial sanity, and you're no better than Man City. Friend, any manager's philosophy will "work" with the best players in the world deploying it. Give me Bayern's current roster, and I'll tell them they can only touch the ball with their weak foot. They'll make it work. This doesn't make me a good manager.

Long story short: show us what you can do with what you have. What you have is currently among the world's best. If you can't win with the current squad, if you have to raid and pillage other team's rosters, we're going to see you for you really might be: a charlatan who only looks to manage teams already guaranteed to win. I'd introduce you to Phil Jackson, but I worry that such a move would only backfire.

Therefore, stand down, Pep. Leave Jack alone. In fact, maybe you should loan out a few players to prove just what you're capable of. Just an off-the-cuff, amateur recommendation.

Cheers.

Race for 4th: Acorns and Latics and Potters, oh my...

Well, shucks. Two 2-1 scores went the wrong way this weekend, and as disappointing as that may be, neither result was much of a surprise. The only real surprise was that Stoke and Aston Villa scored at all, not to mention that each scored first. Each game, therefore, flirted with our ardent hopes that Chelsea and Spurs could drop the kind of points that would have made a huge difference in the battle for 3rd and 4th. Had Chelsea drawn, we'd have a chance to match them at 70 with a win over Wigan. Had they lost, a win would put us in third. Had Spurs lost or drawn, it would have all but closed the door on 4th for them. Instead, we have to put up with the (hopefully temporary) indignity of seeing both of them ahead of us as we fidget in 5th place until we face Wigan.

Each game had its moments, from Benteke's goal and his first yellow (which could have been red) to Terry's own should've-been-red and, of course, Benteke's second yellow. Chelsea comes out a bit worse for wear after Ramires was sent off with a second yellow late in the game, and both Terry and Hazard left with injuries, Terry being stretchered off and probably unavailable for their Wednesday Europa League final. In other words, we have seen the last of John Terry in Chelsea blue. At 32 and looking increasingly brittle and slow, I wouldn't be surprised (or disappointed) to see him leave. Maybe he could join Galatasaray, where Eboué could once again break his foot. I'm not recommending it, just pointing out that it is a possibility. At any rate, Chelsea's qualified for the Champions League next year unless we win both of our games and Spurs win their final by at least 17 goals, plus or minus the score of Chelsea's last match with Everton. Shucks. Benitez, I've been sympathetic to your plight, but no more. You've given Abramovich something he craves, and for that there can be no forgiveness.

It's no better with Spurs. Stoke went ahead after only three minutes but let Spurs win it after some truly horrific defending allowed Dempsey to chip Begovic, who had come out to the top of the box to clear a ball only to see defender Marc Wilson slide in front of him to clear it himself, but straight to Dempsey. All he had to do was one-time it as Begovic watched on helplessly. This could be just the kind of goal that could convince Begovic once and for all to get out of there. By the time Charlie Adams was sent off for a ridiculous tackle of Vertonghen, it was looking like Spurs would pull this one out. Sure enough, Adebayor went on to score. By that point, I had to give up. No team that allows Adebayor to score deserves to win, simple as that. I haven't seen one team benefit from so much luck/stupidity than have Spurs in the last few weeks. Nothing else to report from this one, really. Bale was quiet, but no injuries or red-cards to slow them down.

Nothing has changed since I woke up (games start here in Chicago at about 7am), then. As nice as a few dropped points would have been, we're right where we were and still control our own destinies. As long as we don't slip up against Wigan, there's little to worry about. A few more teams look to have climbed far enough away from relegation that Wigan's chances are dwindling down to "slim" or "none." They can only get to 41, and Norwich and Newcastle are now there with one game to play. There are now only four other teams that could get relegated: Southampton, Fulham, Aston Villa, and Sunderland. In this sense, I think Aston Villa's loss actually works in our favor as it keeps that Aston Villa-Wigan match in contention for both teams, and this makes Wigan's task all the harder. Had Villa won, Wigan might have been emboldened coming into Tuesday by thinking that Aston Villa would arrive at the DW Stadium on May 19th complacent and secure. Now, all three teams--Arsenal, Wigan, and Aston Villa--still have something to play for, and this works against Wigan and for us.

That's really about as much as I want to say. No offense to the hard-working players and their long-suffering fans, but I feel a little grimy after spending so much time rummaging around in that cellar. Let's just win on Tuesday, please, and let the relegation settle itself after that.