01 June 2013

Arsenal's already signed Messi, Jovetic, Higuain, Fabregas, Villa, and Rooney. That's not all...

Done and done. The squad looks remarkably different from how it looked last year, as the only regular still able to find room on the pitch will be Koscielny. Every other position has been filled by a fantastic addition to the squad in a masterful coup engineered by manager Arsène Wenger. Further burnishing his credentials as Le Professeur, and distinguishing himself as an economics guru  par excellence, Arsène was able to sign each player for a fraction of his asking price, astonishing transfer-market experts with his acumen, speed, and efficiency.

"All I did was read headlines in The Mirror and The Sun. Each time we were mentioned in connection with a player, I simply convinced that player to join us," explained Wenger. "How do I convince them to sign for so little, you ask? Let me only say, I can be--how do you say?--persuasive. Yes. That is it." Pressed for further detail, the Arsenal manager flashed a trademark smirk. "I hear all of this talk of 'Arsene needs to spend' and 'Wenger is a cheapskate' so I say, I say to myself, 'it is time to show them. I will buy every player they suggest.' Now we shall see who is the best manager in the world!"

Further confounding experts, Wenger plans to deploy both Valdes and Cesar in goal at the same time, although a few have suggested that this certainly violates some rule or another, or at least violates the spirit of fair play to some degree. At any rate, the team looks set to outscore its opponents on a weekly basis with an attack that features Jovetic, Higuain, Villa, Rooney, and Messi. Wenger has admitted that playing five forwards at once might undermine the defense, not to mention the midfield, as seven starting slots will now be occupied by two keepers and five forwards. Wenger dismissed suggestions that Rooney or Messi might occupy a deeper-lying role, orchestrating the attack and creating scoring opportunities for the other three forwards. Such a formation would at least allow Wenger to field a back-line of four players. Who those players would be, though, is an open question.

"Holy crap," said team-captain Thomas Vermaelen. "It's the first day of June. The transfer window isn't even officially open, we have seven new players already. Sure, a little competition for starting spots is great and all, but this might be a little much. At least he hasn't signed any new defenders." When told that, in the time it took him to say this, Wenger had announced the signings of Skrtel, Capoue, and Williams, Vermaelen pulled out a tattered index-card and read, "I'm happy at Arsenal. I didn't play much, and that was frustration, but things can turn around quickly. I was on the bench, but I could just as quickly be playing again. I'm working hard to make that happen." He then turned abruptly and marched off.

However, in some kind of wrinkle in the space-time continuum, Wenger responded to those who have read this post and criticized him for being "just like Chelsea or Man City, hoovering up star players instead of finding and developing young talent as he used to." He promptly loaned out each player in deals that will allow their contracts to expire, leaving the club exactly as it was just a few hours before. Wenger explained: "Maybe this will make them happy? I am not sure anymore what it is they want. I don't spend money? They criticize me. I spend money? They criticize me. It is hard work following the expert-advice of all of the fans, but it is after all what I was hired to do. If tomorrow, I read that I should never have let Nasri or Adebayor leave, it is them I will sign. Anything to please the fans, who always know more than I how to run a football club." Forensic experts who studied this statement could find no trace of frustration, sarcasm, or irony in his voice, so we are forced to take this last statement at face-value.

A dramatically-revamped, then un-revamped Arsenal squad will travel to Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan in July, and it is rumored that Wenger has his eye on several starlets--hidden gems, it's been said--in each country.

Hey, Spurs, enjoy the Europa!

Far be it from me to rub salt in someone's wounds, but it does get hard to resist. While we stroke our chins and ponder whom to pursue with our purses laden with Champions League money and prestige, our poor, benighted neighbors have to worry and fret over whom to keep with their Europa League status. As much as I don't want them to lose Bale
after finishing 5th in the Prem, I couldn't resist having a bit of fun at their expense. I've been dabbling a bit in photoshop, and this is my second endeavor. The first, "Koscielny, ninja from Lorient", commemorated his game-winning and 4th-place earning goal against Newcastle. All in good fun. This one, I'm not ashamed to admit, indulges in a bit of Spurs-bashing as they are consigned to yet another year of Spursdays in the Europa, visiting Europe's backwaters (no offense, backwaters) in search of a trophy of some kind.

I'm not claiming to be the next Michaelmelangelo here, but I do have some fun with this stuff. It's a nice diversion from statistical analyses and dithering over points and tables and so on.

I don't mean to knock the Europa League. Even if it's little more than a consolation-bracket compared to the Champions League, I like the idea of the international flavor. Yes, the national teams compete here and there, but the Champions League and Europa League throw the doors open for clubs to try to amass talent regardless of nationality in hopes of grabbing some glory.

On one hand, then, I don't mind that Chelsea went on to win; it burnishes the Europa's credentials a bit for one of the Prem's biggest clubs to win it. On the other, I do resent Abramovich all the more for dismissing Benitez despite winning the Europa. It may not be on-par  with Ferguson's decision not to compete in the FA Cup in 1999, but Benitez's dismissal further undermines the Europa's reputation. That's a shame for all involved.

It would be nice to see the Europa lay claim to a bit more prestige. However, that's an issue for some other club to grapple with. In the meantime, we'll just have to content ourselves [sigh heavily here] with yet another Champions League appearance. It's been so many that I've quite lost track. What's it now? 16 years? That's effin' brilliant, no matter who criticizes us for "settling" for a 4th-place trophy over the last few years. We are set to compete on the football world's largest stage yet again. Our current squad had this year's champions on the ropes for fifteen minutes (if not more). A little sprucing-up could see us through to the next round, if not further.

Along the way, let's not forget to wish our dear neighbors good luck in the Europa. Have at 'em, Spurs!

31 May 2013

Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal's Spanish Armada

I don't like to spend much time on rumors, but this one is different. Cesc, after all, is one of us--or was until his desire to play for Pep grew too strong to resist. Having sated that desire and with Pep gone, having won a league championship, but having struggled a bit with form and playing-time in a crowded midfield, we may just see the return of our one-time captain. I'm sure we all understand the financials, but let's review quickly: sold for £35m with the right of first refusal, a 50% take of a transfer to any other team, and a buy-back clause somewhere in the realm of £25m. If he does return, we'll have rented a player out at a profit of £10-15m. If he goes to, say Man U, for £50m (not an outlandish fee), we'd net £25m, which we could turn and and invest in other players (on top of what we're already planning to spend). I really don't see Barcelona agreeing to send Cesc somewhere else and splitting. Cesc either stays put or comes home. Going anywhere else essentially forces Barcelona to sell him on at half-price. There's no other option that makes sense for Barcelona to even consider.

Dan Cowan at North London is Red suggests that this might have been part of Wenger's plan all along. I wouldn't put it past the man (Wenger, that is). It's not for nothing he's known as Le Professeur, and he does have a background in economics (and a degree or license of some kind, I believe), which is more than can be said of most managers. If Fàbregas does leave Barcelona, I would love for Wenger to produce a notarized document from, say, March 2011, entitled "Told you so!" and details how he planned this all out more than two years ago. Whether it's to come back to Arsenal or not, Wenger could hold a press conference in which he reads from that document to explain that he knew that Fàbregas's  move would be temporary and that Wenger knew he could out-negotiate his Spanish counterparts to ensure that Fàbregas would either return to Arsenal or force Barca to split the proceeds with Arsenal should Fàbregas go elsewhere. Please have that document somewhere, Arsène. Please. Everyone who has hated on you and mocked you would then have to choke on their words and lick your boots in supplication while he considers whether to forgive them.

Even if this is little more than conspiracy, perhaps the sly dog has had other tricks up his sleeve. Since Fabregas left, we've added a few Spaniards to the mix: Arteta signed two weeks after Fàbregas left, and we've since added Cazorla and Monreal. The first two have been fantastic signings in and of themselves (congrats, by the way, to Santi on being named Player of the Season), and Monreal has been a solid deputy for Gibbs. Beyond that, though, Arsène may have had one eye on the possibility that having a few more Spaniards around to further entice Fàbregas back. I'm not suggesting that there would be some kind of telepathic communication among them, but the dynamism that Fàbregas and Cazorla could unleash together, supported so ably by Arteta (and Monreal at times), could . Completed transfers are frequently rife with reports of teammates at the national level convincing each other to join clubs, so the idea that Monreal, Arteta, and Cazorla might try to encourage Fàbregas to return to Arsenal is well-worth considering. Heck, along similar lines, Wenger may have even sold Song to Barcelona to irritate Fàbregas into wanting to leave. It's possible. Entirely possible, if not altogether plausible.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Fàbregas might even be an option as a center-forward. After all, he's done pretty well there, with four goals and three assists in nine appearances from that position. If Giroud were to make way for Fàbregas, this might even bring us closer to a total-football ideal, one in which he, Cazorla, Wilshere, and Walcott are in constant motion around the ball. If there's one long-term concern I've had with Giroud, it's in how he changes our style of play from quick, short passing and movement into a more traditional, long-ball and crossing attack. He's good to have for when we need a more-direct attack, such as when teams park the bus and try to keep us out of the box, but a more-versatile center-forward, one who can dribble in and out of tight situations and who can unlock defenses with incisive passing, might throw open the door for Walcott, among others, to score almost at will. That's an exciting prospect.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, however. As far as any of us knows, Fàbregas isn't leaving Barcelona any time soon. Until it appears at the Arsenal site, all we're doing is dreaming. It's not unpleasant, but the problem with getting one's hopes up is that it's so easy for them to get dashed. 

30 May 2013

Have a sweet tooth? Indulge it with this discounted Spurs celebration cake!

I don't usually go in for the Spurs-bashing one might expect from a Gooner, but I'm not above a little cheek. With that in mind, I offer you a tantalizing offer: one Spurs celebration cake, price reduced, not once, not twice, but three times (if the overlapping stickers are any indication). It now can be your for just £1.30p, perfect for those Spursday nights spent watching the Spurs take on FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk or Esbjerg FB.

This might be just enough to scare off one Gareth Frank Bale, who could use the £40m said to be on offer from Real Madrid to buy about 50,000,000 such cakes for friends and well-wishers. I'm not much of sweet-tooth, but I wish him well--and actually prefer that he stay with Spurs. There. I said it.

Seriously, though, the rivalry is good for both teams, and his departure would diminish that rivalry significantly no matter who Spurs could bring in with the money Real would apparently pay. Even if they signed a scorer as prolific as Bale (this year), it just wouldn't be the same. Like it or not, we define ourselves against each other. While many Gooners might be glad to see Spurs plummet so far as to get relegated, I for one think we'd end feeling a little empty inside. Sure, there's still Chelsea and Man City and Man U, but it's just not the same. It's just not the symbiotic, mutualistic relationship each fanbase has come to depend on.

Ah, whatever. We're in the Champions League; they're in the Europa. Thierry Henry himself put it well when he said, not in criticism but by way of explanation, the following:
People gave [the players] a go about the pictures and the celebration, but I can tell you I think it was more the fact for any Arsenal player, when you really feel the shirt and really play for that club, putting Tottenham out of the top four--and I do hope that is what they were celebrating because that's the only thing you can celebrate if you're an Arsenal [fan] through and through. That is like winning something for me. I said it when we did it to them in 2006; it wasn't the fact that we qualified for the Champions League. It was the fact that we kicked them out and went in again.
There. It's been said. There really ought to be a St. Totteringham's Trophy, an offical one, that goes back and forth between the two clubs (let's be honest, though. It may visit White Hart Lane from time to time, but its home will always be with Arsenal). American college football is full of this kind of thing--rivalries between two teams marked by some random trinket that goes to the winner each year. Maybe Arsenal should buy up this cake, have it bronzed, and make it an official trophy. If nothing else, we'd be all but guaranteed a trophy every year.

Theo Walcott, clinical finisher?

Theo Walcott's emergence this year, while hardly a break-out of the kind that former teammate Bale had with Tottenham, has many Arsenal fans drooling at what he might have in store for the 2013-14 season. Playing his first full season out of the long shadow cast by Robin van Persie, he led the team with 14 Prem goals, including three in Arsenal's final four games, each one vital to the team securing maximum points to close the season (he scored the go-ahead game winner in the 4-1 win over Wigan). His 21 goals across all competitions seems to have further strengthened if not secured his status as an elite scorer, but he'll have to show greater consistency and incisiveness if he's to climb the ranks of Prem league scorers. His Prem total, promising though it may be, still sees him in the mixed company of subs, injury-hampered players, starlets, and has-beens.

However, a quick review of his goals and assists on the season, courtesy of XavierGooner14, shows that many of Theo's goals have shown a clinical, even delicate touch, an array of dinks, curlers, and others that float just past a keeper's outstretched fingertips into the back of the net. While they may lack the ferocity or intensity of the howitzers that other attackers unleash, Theo has shown that he has this weapon available and is not afraid to use it. A quick view of the video shows that roughly a dozen of his goals came on well-placed shots rather than power-shots, as Theo looked to put the ball out of the keeper's reach rather than blasting it past him. As gratifying as those cannon-blasts are from a highlight-reel standpoint, a goal is a goal, and nothing is more deflating to a team than to see the ball in the back of their own net.

While it's true that Theo hit a dry-patch, failing to score in eleven matches from February to late April, van Persie, for example, was scarcely better across the same span, scoring once in eleven matches. In fact, according to whoscored.com, Theo still managed to contribute during that patch, tallying four assists to van Persie's one. Of our 12 goals from set-pieces, Theo assisted on four, showing great placement on these and on crosses, putting the ball reliably just outside the six, freezing keepers on the line for the likes of Mertesacker and Giroud to head home. Again from whoscored.com, Theo features in their "Best English XI" on the strength of his 7.4 rating playing from the right.

Further, Theo is developing a signature-move that echoes that of no less a scorer than Thierry Henry--sprinting down the flank, running onto a through-ball, and curling one in off the far-post as a helpless keeper splays and clutches in vain. The more proficient Theo gets at this, and the more renown he claims, the more-lethal he'll be in other ways. That is, as keepers learn to fear that curl to the far post, the more Theo can shift gears, going to the near-post or dinking over a keeper who's committed to stopping that curl.  This might even allow him to build on his 66% shot-accuracy (from squawka).

None of this negates or eliminates lingering concerns over his reliability. Until he can eliminate (or at least reduce the length of) the dry-spells, he won't join the ranks of the Prem's best scorers. He's 24. Van Persie didn't deliver more than 14 Prem goals until he was 27. I don't think we'll have to wait three more years in Theo's case. I think that when we revisit the issue a year from now, we may just be celebrating his break-out season. I, for one, would love to see a pantherine #14 loping down the flanks, terrorizing opposing defenses at the mere thought of what he's going to do next.

Let's not waste money on Jovetic. He ain't worth 25m. Go for Benteke!

Stevan Jovetic's name has been bandied about in connection with Arsenal since 'round about the Pleistocene Era, it seems, but I have to admit that I'm not impressed with the man. I don't think he represents a significant upgrade on who we currently have as our #1 center-forward. This is not to say that I'm entirely satisfied with that center-forward although I do think he will settle in quite well and show us more of his quality in his second season in the Prem. Giroud may have only scored 11 goals in the Prem this year, but I'd suggest that he was straining too hard to replicate van Persie's heroics from last year. Once he plays his game rather than van Persie's, I think we'll see his goals and assists grow tidily enough that we'll be thanking him, if not altogether lauding him.

Which brings us back to Jovetic. I'm still not sold on this guy being worth £25m. Heck, I'm not sure I'm willing to see us spend £15m on him. I've dived into his numbers just a bit, something I've done before, here and here and here, if you're interested. In its simplest form, he doesn't seem to represent a significant upgrade on Giroud. He might just outclass Gervinho, but, then again, so does my cat, and she doesn't seem to understand what I'm doing when I send a through-ball past the ottoman. Nonetheless, she puts it home more often than not.

That, after all, is the purpose of a center-forward: put it home. By that measure, Jovetic doesn't do this more-often or more-effectively than Giroud does--certainly not enough to justify the price-tag. When you compare Giroud to the other forwards we've been linked to, a few key insights emerge. One: Jovetic is not a dramatic upgrade. At twice the cost of Giroud, he might put a few more shots on goal, but fewer of those shots find their way home. Contrast that against Benteke or Villa. Each of these forwards seems dramatically stronger than our current option (with apologies to Gervinho). I'll put Villa on the back-burner if only because he's 31. Benteke's stats jump off the page--he puts twice as many shots on goal compared to Giroud or Jovetic (or nearly so), and he has by-far the highest conversion-rate of any of the four. Even Villa, playing for one of the most prolific teams in the world, can't match Benteke, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that Benteke is the only Acorn to tally double-digits in goals. In other words, every Prem team would focus on stopping Benteke, and he still found ways to become the league's #4 scorer, behind only van Persie, Suarez, and Bale.

Actual goals aside, Benteke still outclasses Jovetic. Of all of Jovetic's shots, only 29.9% are on-goal. Contrast that against Benteke, for whom 41.4% of his shots are on-goal. Long story short: in addition to scoring more-often than Jovetic, Benteke creates far-more pressure on keepers, leading indirectly to more second-chance opportunities for teammates along the way.

The resolution, therefore, seems crystal-clear. Instead of spending £25m or more to land Jovetic, offer Aston Villa £16-18 for Benteke (and maybe throw in Gervinho along the way). Jovetic isn't even Fiorentina's best finisher, having two teammates who pose a similar threat and therefore diffuse opponents' defenses all the more. Benteke has been a one-man wrecking crew, going into each game knowing that the defense will be keying on him but scoring again and again all the same. The fact that he has outscored Jovetic, and that he has done so in the Prem, all-but by himself and more clinically, makes him a far-more logical choice for us than does Jovetic.

Not that it matters a whole lot, but signing Benteke would fall in line with Wenger's philosophy. Signing Jovetic, by contrast, might skew things too much. He'd become Arsenal's highest-paid player with a pen-stroke, out-earning the likes of Walcott, Wilshere, or Cazorla without having played a minute in the Prem. Even if he does deliver, I worry about the impact such a signing would have on other players who have represented Arsenal year after year. Far better in my book, then, to try to land Benteke at a more-modest sum (even if still outpacing his current value). He represents a far-better investment, both in terms of actual statistics as well as in the far-muddier terms of philosophy and chemistry.

I don't like to kick a team when it's down, but, Aston Villa, I'm sorry to say that my modest recommendation is that Arsenal go all-in for your best player. I'd love to see Benteke play for us. His size and Walcott's speed could be absolutely massive for us next year. Two twenty-goal scorers on one team? A boy can dream...

27 May 2013

17 points behind Man U in the Prem, 0.02 points behind in quality...

I know we're all rightly upset to have finished so far behind Man U that we can barely see them with a telescope, and that there are some who have their knickers in a twist over our 4th place celebration, but I'd like to suggest that, even without a game-breaking signing or two in the summer transfer window, Arsenal is actually a lot closer to reclaiming a position among the world's elite than it has seemed over the last 12 months. A quick glance at a break-down from whoscored.com shows us a meager 0.02 points behind Man U on quality, finishing second-highest among Prem League teams and 0.06 points ahead of Man City and Chelsea. If only there was a trophy involved, we could then celebrate rightly and truly. As it stands, it's worth noting that the statistical breakdown of our quality has placed us 12th in the world, behind only some of the world's biggest (and freest-spending) clubs, not to mention ahead of several of them as well.

Quite a few lips have been flapping over Freddie Ljungberg's comments about our current squad's fourth-place celebration, and he does have a point. Lost in the kerfuffle over his comments is the compliment he offered to Arsène when he said this:
It's hard for any team if you let your best players go every year. It's not even possible to compete to win then, and Arsène Wenger has done really well with the squad he has.
It's worth noting, then, that Arsène has once again done quite a number on his rivals and has, I must say, proven how much better he is at his job than is Ferguson or Guardiola or Mourinho or any other modern manager. He's worked on a shoe-string budget for years and has had to see his best players leave--players whom he has forged into the players they are today and who have left without so much as a by your leave, not to mention a thank-you.

There are two key points to take away from this chart. One, of course, is to burnish Arsène's credentials as one of the best managers in the world. Say what you will about how he's handled transfers (and I know full-well that there's plenty to criticize). Even his harshest critics will have to admit that, even when he's been hamstringed by player-defections, his own philosophy, or the board's stinginess, he's kept this club competitive in the short-term while establishing a firm foundation for long-term success. Can the same be said of Ferguson, Mourinho, or Guardiola? Time will tell. However, on the surface, a hefty portion of these managers' successes can be chalked up to massive war-chests and teams so deep that their third- and fourth-choice players could still beat a fair number of other clubs' first-team selections. That's not management, per se; that's ego-massage. Give me Ramos, Casillas, and Ronaldo; Rooney, van Persie, and Vidic; or Messi, Iniesta, and Puyols, and I'll look like manager of the year. The list of top-flight, legendary players Arsène has worked with in the last few years is stunningly thin, but his ability to steer Arsenal to a Champions League qualification year after year after year surely qualifies Arsène as a manager of the highest quality.

The second point to take away is the financial one. In a world in which money talks louder than ever, Arsenal is the only team in the top twelve teams in the world, save Dortmund, to maintain a positive balance-sheet over the last five years (according to transfermrkt.co.uk). Of course, there is no trophy for financial prudence, but look at this for what it is: Arsène's plan for establishing the club's long-term success, something he has achieved without sacrificing the club's short-term achievements. Each club that has finished rated higher than Arsenal has only done so through aggressive, potentially reckless spending, the likes of which may just hobble them for years to come.

There's nothing sexy about balancing the books. However, if we could engineer an alternate reality in which Arsène, Mourinho, Ferguson, and Guardiola had to take turns managing each other's squads in an imaginary Champions League, I have to think that Arsène would hoist the trophy each and every time. Therefore, when I look at what Arsène has achieved, and when I look at the young men who represent this club, I feel pretty damned good about our prospects. Scroll through our young players, and how many of them could you see having a break-through season? I'll toss off a few names to whet your whistle: Wilshere. Gibbs. Ramsey. Jenkinson. Walcott.

If just one of these lads realizes his potential, we could certainly become the best team in London. If a second one joins in, one or both Manchesters will be nervously scrabbling to qualify for the Champions League. In the process, we'd be hailing Arsène as the best-ever manager in the Prem. This is all without any signings.

Falcao looks to join Monaco? Lewandowksi has joined Bayern? Neymar already signed with Barcelona? Fine. Let these weak-willed glory-hounds seek the cheap-and-easy. When we at Arsenal do finally hoist a trophy, whether it's a league cup, the FA Cup, the Prem League championship, or the UCL, we'll have earned it rightly and truly. The vindication of Arsène and his methods that this would deliver would be simply delicious. Fault me for being overly optimistic if you wish, but I don't think I'm wildly off-target here. We're on the verge of something big here...

Dr. Lewandowski or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfer

Okay. Apparently, barely 24 hours after losing to Bayern Munich, Robert Lewandowksi may have pulled a van Persie and joined one of his former club's biggest rivals, a move that comes weeks after Mario Götze did the same. I'm sorry, but these moves have crossed a line for me. There's no other word for it than betrayal. Sure, both Lewandowski and Götze have known for quite some time that Bayern would win the Bundesliga. I get it. I don't understand how one and then both men rats could be counted on to give their best effort on Dortmund's behalf while at the same time entertaining talk of a transfer to a team that they would soon face on football's biggest stage. If either one can look us in the eye and honestly say, "yes, I can separate my future desires from my current obligations", I may have to offer apologies. However, my anger and, yes, despair at these moves make it heartbreakingly difficult to take anything these mercenaries say at face value.

It's enough to make me look at van Persie's move to Man U with magnanimity, with understanding, and maybe even sympathy. After all, Man U had come in second place last year and only on goal-differential while Arsenal lucked into third. For as much as we've vied with Man U, it's been a while since we can truly say we've gone head-to-head with them in the Prem. I can almost, almost, accept his move as one of a player nearing the end of his career. It still seems like the desperate gambit of a graying man. It paid off for him, so good for him, I guess. I still believe that staying at Arsenal might just have led to a similar result for us this year, but what do I know? By contrast, Götze's decision to move to Bayern, and that of Lewandowski should the rumors prove true, lay waste to the competitive ideal. Pardon my French, but where the f*#@ would sport be if each team's best player simply crossed over to join the best team in the league? Götze is 20. Lewandowski is 24. They have plenty of time to achieve. What the hell ever happened to looking at your rival, at the champions, and saying, "eff you. We're knocking you off next year"?

I mean, good God. I now find myself wondering if Götze's injury is legitimate or if it was some implied contractual term: "now that he belongs to Bayern, I'm afraid we must insist on protecting our investment. Therefore, I'm sorry to say, he mustn't unduly exert himself in the closing weeks. That's a good boy." As to Lewandowski, he hardly distinguished himself against Bayern on Saturday, earning a Gervinho-esque 6.58 from whoscored.com. How much of that average rating comes from him all but knowing that he'd soon be switching sides? How do his teammates feel after that loss (assuming that the rumors are true)?

Look. I know that players have a preciously short window in which to win trophies and earn money, but there's a limit. I still remember the Chicago Bulls of the late 1980s who, year after year after year, crashed out of the playoffs against the Detroit Pistons. No matter how transcendent Michael Jordan was, no matter how much his teammates improved, it seemed that the Pistons were always better. However, instead of switching sides, Jordan came back each year more determined, more ruthless, more skilled, until he and his teammates broke through, sweeping the Pistons out of the playoffs and winning the championship. Tell me that that trophy doesn't taste sweeter than the one that Lebron James "won" with the Miami Heat or the one that van Persie won with Man U or the many that Götze (and Lewandowski?) is/are sure to win with Bayern.

Come on. Really? If trophies are that easy to buy, what are they really worth? It's ridiculous. With enough money, you can amass enough players to win whatever the f@)# you want, but for what? When it gets that easy, how satisfying is it, really? How much of it can you really claim to have earned?  It's a crock of shite for all I care, and I don't care if I completely misused British slang just now. These lazy, self-indulgent bastards who believe that they're owed a trophy in their lifetimes can take a flying leap, for all I care. You got a trophy? Great. Good for you. Did you earn it, or would the team still have won it without you? Were you a great white, or were you a remora?

These short-cut taking simpletons have convinced me of at least one thing: I never wanted them wearing the Arsenal kit in the first place. You want the cheap and easy? Go play for Man U or Man City or Chelsea or whichever club is willing to rent the flavor of the month. I want players who are willing to dig in, get grimy and dirty, and get a little dirt under their nails instead of a weekly manicure and to look at the success of a cross-town or league rival and say, "They don't deserve that. That is mine. They may have it this year, but we're knocking them on their arses next year." Any player who is willing to take the path of least resistance is not a player I want in Arsenal red, trophies be damned.

In America, we have a folk-singer by the name of Utah Phillips. At one point before his death, he said to a room full of 16-year olds, "they're going to clear-cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist, because the profit system follows the path of least resistance, and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked." I worry that too many players are following the path of least resistance, choosing the quick and easy. Yeah, they get to where they want to go, but what have they become in the process?

I don't want the quick and easy. If it's true that Lewandowski has signed with Bayern, I never wanted him in the first place. He might then lack the grit and tenacity that I look for in a player. I want guys who look at the successes of others not with envy but jealousy: "you have taken what is mine, and I have no choice but to dedicate every fiber of my being to taking it back". Van Persie lacked that. Nasri lacked that. Götze lacked that. Perhaps Lewandowksi lacks it as well.

There was a time when I extolled the virtues of Borussia Dortmund (or at least of its players). They seemed to remind me of Arsenal of a decade ago, populated and led by young and hungry players looking to knock off the Titans. Now, however, I look at Dortmund's best and brightest and find myself doubting their character thoroughly and completely. If Götze or Lewandowski is eyeing greener pastures, I guess I shouldn't begrudge them too harshly for seeking some gratification. However, they'll still earn more in a few years of footy than I will in a lifetime of toil, so I have my limits. To some degree, sure, I owe these players a debt for their skill and their artistry, but that is not the same as saying that I should accept, part and parcel, their ease in displaying all of the consistency of a weather-vane.

Ambition is one quality; nihilism is quite another. Give me a one-club man, one who is dedicated to and believes in the club itself. It's not the name on the back of the jersey that matters. It's the name on the front that matters. Lewandowski has signed with Bayern? Fine. I never wanted the likes of him anyway. Jovetic wants to switch from Fiorentina to Juventus? Good for him. Give me a guy who's willing to lay it all on the line over the guy who sees each club as a stepping-stone to the next.

I'm not so naive as to expect every player who dons the Arsenal kit to be a die-hard Gooner. That would be ridiculous. I simply want a squad of players that show up each day bound and determined to do their damned-best without calculating how their performances affect their market value. Is that too much to ask?

26 May 2013

First, a little spring cleaning...about £29,000,000 worth should do it

Amid all of the of breathless chatter about who we're pursuing and who is available, we're overlooking one other pressing issue: clearing out the clutter of loaned-out players whose contracts still weigh heavily on our books. For the most part, I bear no ill will to these men, who are both victims to and beneficiaries of the current financial system. In its simplest form, they signed contracts that are arguably more generous than their performance before signing would warrant, and they are now too expensive than their performance since signing deserves. As such, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to unload them unless they are willing to accept smaller contracts from smaller clubs, even if they do earn a chance to shine, thereby re-earning a chance at a larger contract (just not from us).

The case study for this problem is, of course Nicklas Bendtner. While he showed flashes of brilliance, he's hardly been worth the money we've paid him. His fall from grace has been so thorough that we can't seem to give him away, much less transfer him, at least not to the kind of club he deems worthy of playing for. His loan to Juventus has not led to much playing time, and it seems that our only option for getting rid of him once and for all depends on him accepting a transfer to a "lesser" club, one that would actually lead to some playing time that he could use to display his no-doubt limitless talents and play his way back to the top. Given his, um, self-esteem and his glaring lack of charisma or awareness of how to operate a car with discretion, he might the most-difficult of our various on-loan dead weight to unload. Fortunately, it should be tolerably easy enough to clear out other players, either due to better character or more-reliable performance.

When you look at who's on-loan, you start to get the impression that we using loans as a way of ignoring disappointments instead of giving young players a chance to develop. While we do have a fair number of young men out on loan, (Miyaichi, Anebe, etc.), just look at how many more-senior players we're paying to play elsewhere, players who are known qualities (for better or for worse). These are grown men who, while still capable players, are probably past the point of making dramatic improvements in ability or attitude. The sooner we can unload them--even at drastic discounts--the better-off we will be.

Using a variety of sources, I've come up with an estimate of each of the above-players' current annual salaries and, using transfermrkt.co.uk, their current market values. What's remarkable is how apparently valuable these players are. In total, we're paying out nearly £30m a year for ten players (including Gervinho) who I'd argue have little to add to the squad next year. If we can clear them out this summer, even if we have to settle for less than we'd like, we'd still do better than keeping them six months. We already face the prospect of simply writing off Arshavin, Fabianski, and Squillaci's contracts and getting nothing for them to the tune of nearly £10m--enough to sign Ashley Williams or perhaps Christian Benteke.

It's a shame when we sign a player and it doesn't work out, for course, but there's no good reason for keeping these players around. The worst that can be said is that they've grown lazily accustomed to the high wages and soft lifestyles we've made available to them, and the prospect of trading down--in lifestyle, prestige, salary, etc.--is an understandably distasteful one to them. Living in London and sitting on the bench at the Emirates is certainly far preferable to living in, say, Kazan and playing at Central Stadium. I wouldn't wish suffering on any of these players (well, maybe Bendtner), but I do believe it's better for Arsenal and arguably better for them to move on. They're not going to play for us any time soon, and if they're serious about being footballers, they'll accept a permanent transfer somewhere, anywhere. We'll then free ourselves up that much more to sign players who can contribute.

The balancing act, of course, is to find players good enough to contribute but not so good that they demand more playing time or look to leave for more playing time elsewhere. However, a quick look at the list of players above suggests that we've achieved neither goal. None of them is good enough to contribute, and few if any are good enough to be wanted elsewhere, at least not urgently. If any club makes any reasonable offer, I say take it. Twist the player's arm until he signs it. Offer to sweeten the deal if necessary. Point out, for example, that he has to take the offer or be let go when his contract runs out. Offer the sad example of Andrei Arshavin, who attracted almost no interest from anywhere and now faces a forced retirement. If a player of his quality, faded though it maybe, can't find a new home, what choice would the likes of Chamakh have?

Long story short, it's in the best interests of players and club to part ways. May the parting bring sweet sorrow to us all.