10 August 2013

Arsenal 3-1 Man City: Forget Suarez; we're fine.

Yep. The 2013-14 is off to a roaring start. After dismantling Man City 3-1, it's abundantly clear that the squad is well-stocked and ready to reclaim its mantle atop the Prem, shouldering aside deeper-pocketed ingenues left and right. So commanding was the performance, in fact, that it's safe to say that we will simply run away from the rest of the pack. It's been ten years since something notable happened in this club's history, but I just can't quite put my finger on what it was...

I'm almost sure Carl apologized.
Okay, so I exaggerate a bit. It was a back and forth affair, and the scoreline flatters us a bit. With both teams fielding what amounted to full-strength starting XI's in front of a sell-out crowd, there was something of a "real" feeling to this match, and so the outcome is promising, and we'll leave it at that. Let's not draw any deeper conclusions. Promising. Our attack looked lively with Walcott notching a goal and two assists, Ramsey chipping in a goal and an assist, and Giroud adding a goal of his own.

Despite some early pressure from City, it was us who seized the lead on the 9th minute as Walcott slipped behind Clichy to gather Ramsey's clever through-ball and chip it past Hart. It was a pretty little sequence that suggests deeper confidence and communication between our boys, and Walcott's touch to gather the pass and get past Hart also hint at defter footwork as he seeks to lay claim to his own signature goal-scoring move. Seizing an early lead can do wonders for a club's confidence and momentum, and so it was that Ramsey tallied in the 62nd on a wonderful give-and-goal from Walcott (also notable was Giroud's alertness as he stepped out of the pass's path). Ramsey side-stepped Hart and finished brightly from a tight angle. Last but not least, Giroud showed amazing touch as he gathered a long pass from Walcott while side-stepping over a sliding Kompany and flicked with the outside of his left over the charging Hart. Each goal was prettier than the last, it seemed, and just as important as they enhanced the scoreline, they suggest a squad that's developing some strong cohesion—almost enough, it seems to dispel the need for any major, record-breaking signings.

I'm not the only one who's suggested that Walcott and Giroud could have break-out seasons this year, and it's just a preseason friendly, but their productivity today was encouraging. I'll go so far as to suggest that I hope it was enough to encourage Arsène to look at bolstering areas other than center-forward. During the match, there were rumors that we'd signed Luis Gustavo from Bayern, for example, which would be a welcome addition. We'll have to look into that later on. On-trial Sebastian Perez made a strong appearance, so we might see him sign up as back-up for Arteta and Ramsey as well. Back to the match.

Of course, it wasn't all Arsenal. Man City had more than few chances of its own, but in what's becoming an almost obligatory remark, Koscielny marshalled the defense with such skill and confidence that our keepers were rarely troubled. Aside from Negredo's afterthought of a goal, their shots on goal were few and far-between, despite fielding their shiny new additions Jovetic, Fernandinho, and Navas. The contrast then between their summer activity and our, um "activity" didn't feel as sharp as it did coming into the match, and it offers a mild reminder that continuity and communication are valuable assets, which is not an argument against signings so much as a regret that we didn't sign anyone earlier on. We have a week before hosting Aston Villa, hopefully a soft-enough opener that anyone we do add has a few days to  introduce himself. We have a fair number of players going off on international duty this week, and I don't know if that makes it easier or harder to conduct transfer-business. We'll see...

That should do it for now. We'll take a closer look at Gustavo and Perez if it seems necessary, and we'll prepare for Aston Villa as well. In the meantime, please take a minute to pick your man of the match in the comments below, and go vote in the 2012-13 YAMA  Awards for Arsenal bloggers and writers. Woolwich 1886 is honored to be among the nominees for "Best New Arsenal Blog". Thanks!

Preseason friendly preview: Arsenal vs. Arsenal Jr. (er, Man City)

A quick tidbit of distraction is on offer Saturday as we travel to Helsinki to face Arsenal Jr. Man City in one final tune-up before the Prem League season begins in earnest on 17 August vs. Aston Villa. Ordinarily, I could care less about such a friendly, but it increasingly looks like we will go into the upcoming season under one of three approaches:
  1. Sign Suarez and no one else of note.
  2. Sign a few players of varying degrees of quality.
  3. Sign no one.
Of the three, I'm not sure which one appeals to me the most. It's more a question of which one disappoints me least. On that level, option #2 wins by a nose, if only because we have more than one area that needs strengthening. However, given that the match with Man City looms less than 12 hours away (as of my writing these very words), I daresay we'll go into the match with a batch of very familiar names, minus one Ignasi
Miquel, who for some reason has completed a season-long loan to Leicester. We apparently have a plethora of defenders, making Miquel entirely expendable. 

In all seriousness, this is on one hand a preseason friendly that offers all of the intensity of chamomile tea served at room temperature; on the other, it's one more chance for Arsène to suggest, if only to the Gooner faithful, that we are serious contenders for a Prem League title, if not a top-four finish. There was, after all, a point during last season's run-in when it looked like we might overtake Man City, but that hope faded. Instead, we have to look at the possibility that a revamped Man City squad under new management might be ripe for a drubbing. 

After all, we've lost (or lost out on) a few players to them over the years, whether it's Clichy or Nasri or Jovetic, and as such, part of what we'll see on Saturday will feel a bit like looking in the mirror. How much more confident might we feel if Clichy were available to play left-back? Would Jovetic have been a solution to our center-forward dilemma? Pellegrini continues to size up his options, so we'll probably see a fair number of unfamiliar faces as well, whether this be Jovetic or Fernandinho or Negredo. Put simply, the contrast between Man City and Arsenal has been stark, as they've managed a number of high-profile signings (Jovetic, Negredo, Fernandinho, Navas)  against our one (Yaya Sanogo). They've also shed a few key players (Tevez, Toure, Maicon) to match our clear-out (Squillaci, Arshavin, etc.)

With these factors in mind, the outcome of the match itself matters a little less to this correspondent than does the difference in approaches. While I'm not clamoring for a deep-pocketed sponsor to simply bankroll the club to glory, it is worth noting that Man City have shown ambition and acumen in the transfer-window, signing not one but two center-forwards for somewhere in the realm of £45m while we at Arsenal flounder on in hopes of signing one center-forward at a price still to be determined (and at a value still in contention).

Therefore, without making too much of a mountain out of this molehill of a match, I do hope we see our first-team players run circles around theirs, if only to temporarily suggest if not prove that we can compete for a top-four finish. For Man City, this is one last tune-up to see how new players can coalesce with the old guard. 

For Arsenal, this is more of a toss-up. Some have suggested that an embarrassing loss might shake Arsène and the board into some last-minute signings. Others have proposed that we have enough quality, don't need to sign anyone, and just need a bit of seasoning to see the current squad realize its potential. I tend to lean towards the latter camp, if only because I feel like I have to. We'll see what happens while reminding ourselves that (should we fall behind) it's just a friendly or that (should we stake an early lead) this is for all the marbles. It's a win-win situation. Isn't it?

09 August 2013

Will we really face Fenerbahçe with only 18 players?

We learned this morning that we will face Turkish club Fenerbahçe with the first leg on 21 August in London [correction: Istanbul. I misread the info at the team's site] and the second on 27 August in London. Despite the fears that Fener is one of the toughest clubs we could have drawn, not least because of the distance we have to travel and the lingering doubts left behind by losing to the last Turkish team we faced, this is a team that we should be able to dispatch. Yes, the Şükrü Saraçoğlu Stadium can be a claustrophobic cauldron of intensity, but hopefully we can go ahead early instead of letting pressure build.

At the risk of overlooking what is, of course, a tricky match (anyone who can qualify for the Champions League has some mettle), my worries lie further down the road. Let's set aside Fener's legal troubles due to match-fixing, as their appeal will not be ruled on until 28 August, the day after the second leg. Simply put, if we focus on playing our game, the status of the appeal won't matter.

What does matter, however, is a different deadline: 12 August. This is a date that UEFA has set for registered players to appear on a team's roster  for the play-off round, the one in which we face Fener (click here and scroll down to section 18.08 for more detail). In summary, a team must have 25 players on List A, including two goalkeepers, eight "'locally trained players', and no more than four 'association trained players'". I believe we're settled on that account. More troublesome to me than those numbers is this one: 18. That is the number of first-team members we currently have available to face Fener without Monreal, Vermaelen, and Diaby (all injured) and excluding on-loan or on-their-way-out players such as Frimpong, Bendtner, Miyaichi, Chamakh, Park, and Bendtner. As it currently stands, unless there is some shifty paperwork going on, this is our roster as we face Fener.

Of course, we've probably submitted a roster that includes a number of call-ups from the Academy to bolster the squad, but I don't see the likes of Miquel, Akpom, or Bellerin thriving in Istanbul's tempestuous stadium where Fener's 2-1 win over Gala in May was marred by on-field scuffles between players, monkey-chants directed at Drogba, Webo, and Eboué, and the stabbing death of a Fener fan. In other words, hardly a walk in the park. It's therefore vital that we make a strong showing in the first leg in order to render the second one less significant, both to ensure advancement and to keep ourselves fresh for the North London derby on 31 August.

Back to UEFA's rules on rosters, a team can "may register a maximum of one new eligible player on List A after the above-mentioned deadlines, provided the quota of locally trained players is respected. Such registration must be completed by 24.00 CET on the day before the relevant first-leg match". In other words, after 12 August, we can only add one new signing to our roster, no matter how many new signings there have been. On paper, our starting XI is far-superior to that of Fener, but all it would take is an injury to Gibbs or Koscielny or an early goal for Fener in that first leg to royally botch things. We might then face the prospect of a white-knuckle affair in Istanbul followed by an similarly intense derby four days later.

Then again, maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about (always a distinct possibility). Maybe Arsène has already completed several signings and submitted the requisite paperwork with UEFA, and we're just being made to sit and chew our nails as penance for doubting and criticizing him. Yeah, that's the ticket. For what it's worth, I'm still a firm supporter of this manager, as I attested to yesterday. Let's hope there's some kind of rabbit in that magic hat of his and that we get to see it sooner rather than later.

Thanks for visiting. We have Man City coming up on Saturday. Some are braying for an embarrassing loss to shock Arsène into some panicked signings, which makes about as much sense as losing on purpose to prove a point. It's a friendly. Don't read a whole lot into it either way (unless we win, which clearly means we'll go undefeated again. No other interpretation is remotely possible). Right. I should have a match preview available later on.

For now, at risk of sounding like a broken record (ask someone with gray hair and a walker to explain that reference), go vote in the 2012-13 YAMA Awards for "Best of..." Arsenal bloggers and writers. Woolwich 1886 is humbled to be nominated as a "Best New Arsenal Blog". Thanks, as always for your visit.

08 August 2013

Wenger's legacy and the current transfer window

Lost in all of the hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, and garment-rendering of the last few months is a bigger question, one that has been gnawing at my conscience as each day passes and it seems less and less likely that we'll land a marquee player or two to vault us to the top of the Prem. I have a lot of mixed feelings about what we're up to (and not up to,
depending on whom you ask) as I look back on the last seventeen years of Arsenal football—almost two decades. A generation has passed since Arsene came to the helm, and, in that time, Gooners have seen some truly wondrous football. Whether we look at silverware or style, outcomes or approaches, I hope we can all agree that his tenure has been an unvarnished success, a period of glory that most clubs would be hard-pressed to replicate without massive funding to make that happen.

Therefore, as I look to the close of this year's transfer-window, I worry—not just for our fortunes over the coming twelve months, but for how this man will be remembered. His current contract, after all, runs out in June 2014. A failure to finish fourth or higher, new signings or not, could end this legend's time with a whimper instead of a bang.

I know that we are all supposed to support the club and to acknowledge that players—and, yes, managers—will come and go, but Arsène strikes me in a different way. He's synonymous in my mind with this club, and that's not just because of how his own name echoes that of the club. He's the only Arsenal manager I've known. For most of time following this club since discovering it in the early 1980s, I haven't been able to follow Arsenal at all: no television coverage to speak of, no newspaper coverage, and internet coverage only recently. If  my defense of the man comes across as misguided or myopic, you at least know why.

As I look then at our inactivity and misadventures in this transfer-window, I'm nervous. I'm nervous for strategic reasons, of course: like most, I believe we need two or three quality additions if this squad hopes to build on last season's run-in and climb above Chelsea, Man City, and  Man U. We have a lot of quality on the squad, and with the transitions that our competitors are entering under new managers, we are poised to strike. A few key signings could make all the difference. However, it's a testament to Arsène that we've been as good as we've been despite his tight-fistedness, and I wonder at how his legacy might change if we abandon the philosophy behind that financial caution too quickly. In my mind, part of what makes Arsène such a great manager, despite his tactical stubbornness, is that he actually seems to manage players rather than merely purchase them. Who else has taken so many uncut stones and forged them into such gems? I'll spare you a listing and let your own memories do the heavy lifting.

Look at our current core: Wilshere, Gibbs, Ramsey, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott. Britons, all. We've come full-circle then, haven't we? It's all too fitting for a manager who revolutionized British football. Before he came along, the 'hoof-and-hope' approach was all the rage, yet Arsène not only brought in foreign players but brought in a style that, at that early stage, was still but a rumor in England. The pacey, movement-oriented style, dominated by passing and possession, is now de rigeur in England, thanks in large part to Arsène's innovations. It might be a pale imitation of what they do at Barcelona, but it still demands skilled players at every position, players who can do more than run at or over opponents to chase down a long ball, and it has resulted in a style of football that is much, much more enjoyable to watch. That he did so originally with foreign players (especially French ones) has become a running joke even as he's focused more on signing and developing Englishmen again. Now, England's best players are all but impossible to send to the Continent, while the world's best clamor to play in the Prem. The Prem League is Europe's most important and prestigious league thanks, in part, to Arsène.

If we can set aside the criticism over transfer-window intransigence (a rather large request, I know), we have to ask ourselves how fair we're being. If we could take Arsène's first eight years and flip them with his second nine, imagine the difference for his legacy. If he had brought us a league double in 2008 and 2012 instead of 1998 and 2002, or an undefeated season in [deleted for fear of jinxing it] instead of 2004, would there any doubts as to his quality, his legacy, or his value to this club? If he's guilty of anything, it's of having peaked too soon—and of falling victim to his own success. Not only did he achieve some of this club's greatest glories in his first eight years, but he's had to watch as wealthier clubs waited for him to do their scouting and developing and to then sign away those players just as they've come into their primes. This financial doping is, I hope, something that FFP will minimize, if not remove, from European football, if only because it would repudiate the successes of those clubs who've seen fit to ride Arsène's coat-tails. Had FFP kicked in just a few years ago, would we still be looking up at Chelsea or Man City or Man U? How much of their success is down to spending without having to worry (not to mention signing away some of our best and brightest)?

Sadly, we can't flip Arsène's first eight and last nine years, nor can we go back in time to hold other clubs accountable to the same kind of financial discipline we've held ourselves to, and that's a shame, because I strongly believe that this club, our Arsenal, wouldn't have been scrabbling to cling to fourth place each year; instead, we'd have been demolishing teams with verve and style, playing swash-buckling, breath-taking football, and Arsène, instead of having to endure some pretty shabby treatment over the last few years, would hear his name echo down the ages, not just as one of Arsenal's or England's or the Prem's best, but as one of the world's best. I get carried away sometimes. I hope I'm not overstating it.

I do hope, having said all of this, that we learn of a few signings that, while differing from Arsène's "classic" signings of years past, don't obliterate what he and the club have come to stand for over the last 17 years. After all, you have to stand for something. Arsène, for better or for worse, has stood for player development, financial sanity, and beautiful football. It's that last quality, more than any other, that I hope stays with us as we ponder a future without Arsène—a future that I hope lasts quite a few years longer, regardless of what happens in this damned transfer-window.

Thanks, as always, for your visit. Before you go, offer a comment and, if you haven't already, vote in the 2012-13 YAMA Awards for Arsenal bloggers and writers. Woolwich 1886 is honored to be nominated as a "Best New Arsenal Blog." Thank you!

07 August 2013

It's hard being Luis!

In an interview with The Guardian on Tuesday, Luis Suarez lays out why it's time for him to leave Liverpool. Put simply, it's hard, hard work being him. Proving nothing else other than his "Word of the Day" Calendar recently defined "loyalty", "honor", and "promise", Suarez bemoaned the fact that he signed a contract and that Liverpool insist that he abide by it. Apparently, he was led to believe that there was an oral agreement that would allow him to leave if the club didn't qualify for Champions League play. Despite him giving "absolutely everything," of course including racistly biting, diving, and middle-fingering his way through the season, pissing on an historic football club and on the sport itself, of course, Liverpool didn't qualify, and now Bitey McRacist wants out of the contract he so readily signed because he also  received some vague oral agreement he claims he received.

Put another way, this self-indulgent hypocrite complains that Liverpool won't hold up its end of their agreement while conveniently overlooking the rather glaring fact that has done "everything possible" to evade his end (yes, those are his words in quotes, and, yes, I'm willfully quoting them out of context for ironic purposes).

I'm not going to quibble over the 40m+1 issue. I'm not qualified to. There are lawyers and agents whose specialty it is to clarify or obfuscate these issues. If Liverpool's people didn't make the clause airtight at their end, tough muffins for them. If Suarez's people didn't make it airtight at their end, well, tough muffins again. The bigger issue here is the "stepping-stone" problem.

We've endured it a number of times over the years when players we found and developed decided that they were bigger than the club, so they screwed us over in pursuit of a bigger club. Suarez touched on this, saying, "it's like anyone asked if they want to change jobs and move to a bigger company. Everyone aspires to the highest levels and all I did was give an honest answer: 'Yes, I would.'" He's right, but he's missing his own point. No one asked him a priori if he wanted to change jobs; he decided that he wanted to and set about trying to ensure that he would have to change jobs by doing "everything possible" (again, irony) to get transferred. Now, he's complaining that his current employer won't follow through on its end of a bargain he's conjured up in his head, and without any football to actually play at the moment, he can't commit any more irrational acts to burn the ashes of the bridges he thought he had already burnt. Let's say we do sign this, um, man (I define a man loosely as one who accepts responsibility for his decisions and actions). What if we go into April 2014 and we're in fifth place? Can we count on Suarez to roll up his sleeves and put his shoulder to the wheel, or is he just going to find the closest rolled-up sleeve and bite?

 Sure, we all want the best for ourselves, but wanting, needing and deserving are very different ideas. Suarez doesn't get that. In his own words, he says, "I need to be playing in the Champions League. I waited one year and no one can say I did not give everything possible..to get us there". Wow. One year of waiting. Luis, your stoic patience in the face of this trial is awe-inspiring. I don't think I can come up with anyone anywhere who's had to wait as long as you have for something they so clearly deserve. You feel you have "done enough to be playing in the Champions League?" Why doesn't this include staying on the pitch instead of earning three different suspensions in one season? Why doesn't this include keeping your middle-finger tucked away barely a week after getting an eight game ban for racial abuse?

I'm sorry. In my post yesterday, I was starting to flirt with the idea that I could come to terms with Suarez playing for Arsenal. After this interview with The Guardian, I find myself regretting that dalliance. This self-indulgent, sociopathic hypocrite doesn't understand anything unless it serves his goals. He doesn't deserve Champions League football. He doesn't deserve Arsenal. He doesn't deserve Liverpool. The sooner this sordid saga is over, the happier I'll be.

06 August 2013

What Drogba reveals about Suarez

As painful as it was to see Didier Drogba catch us with our pants down, not once, but twice, the damage was fairly minor in the end. Yes, we end up losing our own tourney, but it was a pre-season friendly kind of deal rather than a "must-win" chance at silverware. As such, his goals, whether you think his dive was a dive or somehow rate it as something legit, do us a massive favor and one, I must admit, that has me reassessing my position on Luis Suarez. I am hardly coming around enough to embrace him, but I'm at least seeing him in a different light, one that I knew exists but had preferred to avoid, even when there's precedent in my own life.

Put simply, Drogba, and perhaps Suarez—perhaps—is the kind of player one hates because he plays for an opponent but becomes the player one loves when he switches sides. He's divey and dirty and seems to get away with murder (this is Drogba I'm focusing on, by the way), but his fans absolutely love him because he delivers when it seems no one else can. Arguably, Suarez has done this at least once in a while, such as with his handball-save against Ghana, but I'm not yet ready to anoint him with the same kind of crown that Drogba wears. There are players who know how to win. Drogba seems to be one of them. Whether Suarez is that kind of player is another question that remains unanswered, at least in my mind. Personal stats? Sure, he appears to be great, but personal stats are only part of the story.

I mentioned precedent in my own life. In 1995, the Chicago Bulls signed Dennis Rodman, once a member of the famed Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys. Up until he joined the Bulls, Rodman epitomized the kind of basketball I hated: rough, dirty, brawn over brains, etc. In fact, of Detroit's Bad Boys, no on seemed like more of a cheat and a flopper than Rodman. He was funny-looking and unashamed of the dirty tricks to which he resorted to get an upper hand. His nickname summed him up pretty-damned well: The Worm. Nothing was beneath him.

However, once he joined the Bulls, I found myself coming to terms with his antics. I told myself that if Pippen and Jordan can accept him, so can I. I hope I can honestly say that I never embraced him, but I might be lying to you and to myself as well. I'll save you the convoluted twists and turns my conscience took as Rodman helped the Bulls to an unprecedented record of 72 wins and 10 losses as well as a playoff run that saw them win 17 of 20 games on their way to a 3rd championship in five years.

It's with that backdrop that I've looked on Drogba's antics and performances against us, whether it was in Sunday's Emirates Cup match or over the years when he was with Chelsea, and I've looked closer at our squad and what we're lacking. We have plenty of talent and potential; we even have bucketloads of skill and charisma. What we're lacking, maybe more than a world-class striker (or such a player at any one position), is the kind of cunning and guile and ruthlessness that separates the merely good from the great. I'm not claiming that Drogba is among the world's greats by any means, simply that, in addition to the many skills he does bring to the pitch, his ability to change a game, regardless of method, is remarkable. He sees an advantage and seizes it remorselessly. Was his brush with Miquel within the bounds of fairplay? It's debatable. After all, we'd have to be careful how loudly we complain barely 24 hours after earning a soft penalty against Napoli. The difference, of course, is that Drogba went down like a sniper had hit him square between the shoulder-blades and Gibbs did take a bit of an ugly knock on the knee.

To us, Drogba's penalty is rank simulation and deserving of a yellow-card, if not red; Gibb's penalty is justice served for putting his body on the line. I'm sure that fans of Gala and Napoli have their own interpretations.

This, however, is not an argument for signing Suarez. I've come to the end of this with my resistance intact, if nothing else. Sure, some of his antics would fall under the same banner as Drogba's or Rodman's, and I might feel fully comfortable in glossing Suarez's future indiscretions should he commit them in an Arsenal kit. However, I'm taking a longer view in hopes that I can bypass that uncomfortable moral accommodation. Too many of his choices have been selfish and have sabotaged his team rather than advanced it. He doesn't just have a killer-instinct that impels him to succeed or carry his team to victory in the same way that Drogba so frequently has.

There must be someone out there who strikes the balance between the paladins we have and the assassins we need, someone cold enough to submarine a team other than his own in pursuit of glory. Villains don't always wear black (although Galatasaray and Liverpool frequently do), and good guys don't always finish last, but I'm sure getting tired of finishing fourth. Let's hope that there is something to celebrate before week's end.

That's all for now. I hope you've had a chance to vote in the 2012-13 YAMA Awards for Arsenal bloggers and writers. Woolwich 1886 is honored to be nominated as a Best New Arsenal Blog. Go over and vote! Thanks!

05 August 2013

Jackson Martínez, the signing we're all really hoping for...

With all of the excitement over the Emirates Cup, the talk around Luis Suarez has ebbed a bit, and that's more than fine with me.With Napoli in town, there was bound to be some angst over Gonzalo Higuaín's appearance, but the real drama now might come down to a third club's striker—Porto's Jackson Martínez, scorer of 26 goals in 30 Primeira Liga matches. He's been linked with a move to Napoli, but I doubt that this will come to pass. I'm hoping that Arsène used the Napoli-Porto match as a chance to get a closer look at the dynamic Colombian.

After all, Porto has been in full fire-sale mode in the last few seasons, losing Hulk in 2012 and then James Rodriguez and João Moutinho already this summer. They managed to win the Primeira this past season but will be hard-pressed to do so without the latter two. If Martínez is interested in continuing to compete in European competitions, then, he'll almost certainly be looking to move.

His rise has been quick, but not so sharp as to drive his price to ludicrous heights. In his first season of European competition, his market-value is, depending on whom you ask, in the mid-£20m range, a comparative bargain when compared to the likes of Higuaín or Suarez.

Napoli, who have been linked with a move for Martínez, have a negative transfer balance of £104m over the last five years, and this includes the £54m sale of Edinson Cavani. With the addition of Higuaín, Napoli have five center-forwards on the squad, ranging in age from 19-year old Soma Novothny to 31-year old Emanuele Calaiò, so it strikes me as unlikely that they'd be in the market for yet another center-forward.

Why not pursue him? He's strong, fast, and good in the air, and he's skilled and agile enough to create his own shot. Of course, the Primeira is a step or two down from the Premier League, but these attributes suggest that he could make the adjustment. His transition from the Mexican Primera League seems to have come off without a hitch, and he did well in European competition as well, scoring three goals in eight appearances as Porto advanced to the last 16.

As we look at how best to improve the squad, the Emirates Cup has reminded us that we need more than firepower up-top. We go into the season with five healthy defenders (one left-back, two center-backs, and two right backs, one of these still, um developing), two defensive midfielders who offer very similar skill-sets, and without anyone to challenge Sczcesny between the sticks. With these concerns, it would be risky to put so much of our money where Suarez's mouth is. Inquiring about Martínez's availability might allow us to strengthen the attack and still make one or two more high-quality signings.

After all, let's not make "ambition in the market" with "signing the most-expensive player available." Moving aggressively in the next week or two to add two or three or four players isn't just a away to shop prudently; it might be the best way to build depth and competition within the squad, deepening focus, intensity, and effort throughout. That would be beautiful thing to see.

04 August 2013

Arsenal 1-2 Galatasaray: I blame Koscielny

This is all Koscielny's fault.  It's his fault we finished so strong in last season's run-in, his fault that we beat Newcastle on the last day of the season to qualify for the Champions League, his fault that we managed a tie against Napoli on Saturday, his fault that we suffered a loss against Galatasaray on Sunday. It's all his fault that we haven't had any significant signings this summer.

Without him, we might have stumbled out of the top four, thereby convincing Arséne that, yes, we do in fact need signings. There was so much love lavished on Kos that we came to believe that we are going to be just fine, that Per's lack of pace is more than made up for by positional awareness, that we could field a back-line of Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker, and Miquel against Drogba and Sneijder. Without Koscielny, we would have made enough signings by now that we'd be obliterating the likes of Galatasaray, but no. This morass we're in, this imbroglio, this cess-pool of mediocrity we now find ourselves in, is all his fault. Even the fact that he wasn't on the pitch against Gala is his fault. 

I kid, I kid.

This little set-back is, I believe, actually a good thing as it reminds (those of)us (who need reminding) of our needs; strengthening the defense and offense. Almost all of our focus in transfer-talk has been on forwards—Jovetic, Rooney, Higuain, Suarez—with barely a murmur of shoring up the defense. Yes, it showed greater cohesion and organization during the run-in last year, but let's be honest. We backed into fourth place thanks to a favorable schedule and some help from Spurs. Losing the Emirates Cup to Didier Drogba Galatasarary should serve, I hope, as one more reminder that all is not quite as good as we had led ourselves to hope or believe. We have Aston Villa coming to town on 17 August; that's thirteen days to conclude any signings in time for a player to be ready. The early fixtures afford us a little time for bedding in, but that's no excuse to dilly-dally.

We've seen how thin we are at back over the last two days. Jenkinson, though a bit better than he was on Saturday, still needs more time than we have. To keep the ball on his right, he will take three left turns instead of one right, making him vulnerable to losing the ball deep in our defensive third and preventing him from making passes anywhere. Miquel showed his inexperience, forgetting or not knowing that Drogba will fall like a man shot if molecules of your sweat land on him, especially when he's in the box. A cagier defender would not let himself fall victim to that, knowing that Drogba is to diving what fish are to swimming. It's just what he does. His second goal, however, lays bare Mertesacker's deficiencies: caught flat-footed, he was unable to keep up with Drogba as the pass from Sneijder arrived, nor was he able to change direction quickly enough to get in front of Drogba to prevent the shot.

Of course, at the other end, it was a familiar story as we were unable to unlock a defense. Lots of passing and dribbles amounted to nothing as we couldn't actually get off enough quality shots (for the grammarians out there, let "enough" modify both the number of quality-shots as well as the quality of shots themselves). When we did, our attackers too often shot high, wide, or directly at Gala's keeper. Sanogo looked promising, but that's as much credit as I'm willing to give. Even Walcott's goal was an accident, as everyone expected some kind of deflection. When it didn't come, the ball just bounced on in. We need more offense than that kind of rubbish (sorry, Theo). A forward like Higuain might have come in handy, if not for the direct-threat he could pose but for how he'd help to stretch a defense out of shape to open up chances for teammates. Sanogo had some chances, but he isn't ready to have that effect, and on a day when others squandered their chances, we were left with precious few options.

It's with all of this in mind that I eschew a more direct reflection of the game. The result is about as much as we deserved after relying on a fluke-goal for 78 minutes and conceding twice in ten minutes to a player who has bedeviled us far too often over the years.

Yep, all the pieces are now in place for a dramatic signing or two this week. Thank you, Gala, for helping the scales to fall from our eyes. I refer, of course, to the crust I'll be rubbing from my eyes when I wake up Monday morning to read of some beautiful, beautiful signings. Please?

Arsenal v. Galatasary match preview

After a nifty comeback to earn a draw against Napoli, we face Galatasary, who bring long-time nemesis Didier Drogba and old favorite Emmanuel Eboué back to the Emirates. This should be an exciting game; our two-goal draw with Napoli leaves us in second place with three points, and Porto's one-goal victory leaves them in first with four. Winning on Sunday wins us the Emirates Cup, plain and simple. Should we draw and Napoli defeat Porto, Napoli takes the Cup.

Gala's manager Fatih Terem favors an attacking style, and with the arrivals in January of Sneijder and Drogba, he moved to a 4-3-1-2 to position Sneijder in a #10 role, allowing him to distribute to Drogba and top goal-scorer Burak Yilmaz. Of course, the big story of this match is the return to London of Eboué, who has waxed rhapsodic about coming back, and it should be lovely to see him squaring off against Arsenal. 

Interestingly, Gala fielded a nearly full-strength squad against Porto and didn't seem to make any substitutions that I could find record of. It looks like Sneijder, Drogba, Melo, and Eboué were still on the pitch in the 80th minute as far as I can tell, so their fitness for Sunday's game is questionable. Sneijder at 29 is the spring-chicken of the bunch, Melo and Eboué are 30, and Drogba is 35, so I imagine that they and even their younger teammates may come in a bit winded. Despite playing so close to full-strength for so much of the match, Gala was lucky to advance as Porto dominated possession but missed on two penalty kicks. Yilmaz didn't play on Saturday, so he may come on in place of Drogba and might just be the more-dangerous attacking option. 

By contrast, our rotation against Napoli not only seemed to rejuvenate us and spark a comeback, it keeps us comparatively fresher. Fabianski, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Rosicky, and Giroud played a full 90' (highlighting the need for greater squad depth in defense and at forward), but rotation elsewhere was strong as Sagna replaced Jenkinson and Walcott replaced Gnabry at 56', Arteta replaced Wilshere at 64', and Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Ramsey at 63'. Chuba Akpom joined the fray at 88' for the ineffective Podolski, for what that's worth.

In their 4-3-1-2, Galatasaray can leave themselves exposed on the flanks, which we could exploit through some combination of Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gnabry (all of whom should be fresh), or Podolski. Gedion Zelalem was on the bench for the Napoli match, so we may see him make an appearance as well. Even if Cazorla isn't available, our attack looks dangerous. Giroud seemed rejuvenated over the last 25-30 minutes of the match, and a bit of confidence and relief from scoring could allow him to relax enough to create some great chances. No one on Gala's defense stands taller than 1.84m (6'), so Giroud has a good 8cm (4") of height to work with as well.

If we can start this match as we finished against Napoli, we should have little to worry about. I said in my Emirates Cup preview that Napoli were the most-dangerous team we'd face, and I stand by that. Despite playing only 30 minutes of so of quality football, we nabbed a draw. I'm not a big fan of this kind of extrapolation, but Napoli did beat Gala 3-1 in a friendly on 29 July and did so without Higuain or Reina, so that's an encouraging sign in our favor. Looking within, I think that the draw with Napoli was just the right amount of a jolt after the Asia Tour; we'll likely go into the match with Gala reminded of the importance of starting strong and playing well for a full 90', and that should be more than enough to earn us a victory.