17 August 2013

1-3 Aston Villa: precisely what we need and deserve

I won't even summarize the events of the match. I'll skip past that step because I'm simply disgusted. We didn't look like we wanted to win, and with the way we played, we clearly didn't deserve to. The only flaws to this outcome, in my mind, is that there are a few fig leaves that
Arsene can hide behind: one, we didn't have a full-strength squad available; and two, the refereeing was truly abominable. As the baying for some kind of signings grows, I'm afraid that these two will be offered as mitigating factors and to somehow try to suggest that we're going to be fine once we get players back from injury and don't have to deal with that kind of refereeing again.

This was an embarrassment, and any attempt to dress it up as anything else would be a sham and a scam to boot. Yellow-cards or penalties aside, this shows that we don't have enough quality on the squad to contend—not that any of us had full-faith otherwise. If this doesn't cause the scales to fall from Arsene's eyes, I'm afraid I may just lose the faith I've had in him. As it stands, my faith in his leadership is hanging by a thread.

This result, then, is perfect. It exposes the squad for what it is. The injuries have depleted us, of course, but we'll go into next week's match against Fulham without Koscielny as well, leaving us with Mertesacker and Jenkinson as our only fully fit defenders after Sagna and Gibbs appeared to suffer injuries during the game. Two years ago, it seemed to take an 8-2 drubbing to convince Arsene to sign Arteta, Gervinho, and Mertesacker—days before the transfer window closed. Last summer, it took the looming departure of Robin van Persie to get Arsene to sign Podolski, Giroud, and Cazorla. This past January, it took an injury to Gibbs to convince Arsene to sign Monreal—on the last day of the transfer window. If we have a manager whose transfer-"policy" depends on responding to injuries and crises, we are absolutely and completely screwed. There's no other way to put it; we'd be left right where we are and have been for the last few weeks, actually hoping something bad happens—a shock-loss, an injury, etc.—before something good can happen to improve the squad.

Of course, 3-1 is not nearly as bad as 8-2, but, then again, Aston Villa is not nearly as good as Man U, and the Emirates is not nearly as hostile to us as Old Trafford. We faced a team that barely escaped relegation last year and who made a few nice additions but are still likely to face it again this year, and we were thoroughly out-classed. Aston Villa averaged 0.63 goals per game on the road last season, and we conceded three. I don't care that two of them were the result of crap-calls You can't concede penalties in the box unless you let opponents carry the ball into the box in the first place, and you can't go out and score only one goal against a team that conceded 2.28 goals per game on the road while still pretending that you're a top-flight team.

We're just not a top-flight team. This is only one result, of course, but it's a damning one, and it highlights too many of our flaws. We depend entirely too much on Koscielny to do everything on defense, and when he falls short of the excellence he's shown, there's little else we can do and no one else to turn to. We depend too much on Arteta to organize the midfield, and when he's out, we lose. It seems to be just that simple. We don't have anyone to depend on up-top, so I can't even single out someone whose absence or poor form doom us similarly.

There are little more than two weeks left before the transfer-window closes. If we don't see any action soon, it could be a long, dreary season.

16 August 2013

Gustavo signs. For Wolfsburg. Who's left?

I just don't know what to think anymore. Yet another transfer-target has slipped through our fingers, this time to a club so far down in its own league that we should be embarrassed. Losing out on Jovetic to Man City is acceptable; I don't think we went after
him all that hard. Higuain to Napoli? At least they finished 2nd in Serie A. But to lose out on Gustavo to 11th-place Wolfsburg is, well, embarrassing. Say what you will about the difficulties of changing countries and leagues. The fact that we couldn't sell a player on the virtues of playing in the Premier League, in the Champions League, for Arsenal, is damning. I can grudgingly accept being outspent by bigger, wealthier clubs that are bankrolled by sleazy tycoons, and even if Wolfsburg are similarly supported from outside, what happened to all of that talk of our ambitions and our war-chest? I'm despondent. Lost. Crushed. And more. And it's not even that Gustavo was likely to be a huge, transformative signing. Maybe he would. He was valued at something under £20m, so we might have broken our transfer-fee record, but not in any dramatic fashion.

Instead, I'm hung up on the symbolism of it. Our ineptitude is truly staggering. Even as I remind myself that it's possible that Arsène is playing some larger game, securing some massive signing so secretive that no one even knows about it, and these rumors are just concocted to throw everyone off the trail, I'm struggling to believe myself. Even my vaunted Wenger's Law offers little but cold comfort at this point. What's left? Are we to summon man-servant Bendtner from the Pit of Ultimate Darkness? We may just have to.

Arsène has painted himself into a corner through his inability to seal the deal, and having missed out on Gustavo is one more brush-stroke, and a big one at that. He may just have to do something dramatic, if not for strategically addressing this squad's needs, then for proving that he's serious about contending for silverware. I've long resisted the idea that we need to prove anything to anyone through the symbolism of a huge signing, but the transfer-window closes in barely more than two weeks and it may take more than a few shrewd, cost-effective signings to allay fans' fears and, yes, anger. I alluded yesterday to torches and pitch-forks. I wonder if effigies are being considered next.

I need some good news. We go into tomorrow's match against Aston Villa without any new signings; Sanogo's hamstring injury likely keeps him out of action, and there's no one to whom we're realistically linked as far as I can tell. The only solace I can find, such as it is, is the fact that we'll have actual football to watch in 24 hours. It can't arrive soon enough.

15 August 2013

Will injuries force Arsène's hand? Please?

So it's come to this. I've reached a point at which I greet injuries to our players as potentially good news. On Wednesday morning, I was praying that no one would get hurt on international duty. "The squad's thin as it is," I told myself, "we can't take any more
injuries". At that point, all we really  had to worry about were Walcott, Ramsey, Sanogo, and Wilshere, each of whom had various knocks. If we can get through the friendlies without aggravating their injuries, we'd be fine, right? If only. The aftermath of these pointless international matches shows that we might go into Saturday's match without a number of key players. In addition to sending out Djourou, Miquel, Coquelin, and perhaps even Jenkinson out on loan, here's where we currently stand, injury-wise:
  • Mikel Arteta could be out for three to four weeks with a thigh injury.
  • Nacho Monreal's back injury will keep him out of our first few matches.
  • Thomas Vermaelen's back injury will keep him out for several more weeks.
  • Aaron Ramsey's ankle-injury kept him out of Wales's match against Ireland.
  • Bacary Sagna injured his ankle in France's match against Belgium.
  • Theo Walcott was subbed out of England's match due to concerns over his knee.
A squad that we were already bemoaning as alarmingly threadbare is now looking like the waiting-room of an underfunded hospital. Not only will we definitely be without Monreal or Vermaelen, we might have to go without Arteta as well. At a minimum, he will likely be impaired and more vulnerable to injury; the same is true of Ramsey, Sagna, Walcott, and Wilshere. Compounding the problem, of course, is that more strain falls on the
(relatively) healthy. I started scanning the fixture list to assess how difficult each one will be and whom we might have to call on to play.

Then, I stopped myself. "Crisitunity," I murmured.

This could just what we need. After all, the last time we spent significant money to bring in a new player (again, apologies to Yaya) was when Gibbs went down in January and Nacho Monreal came in at the 11th hour of that transfer-window. In one of my very first posts, I bemoaned the signing as the kind of panicked move that wouldn't significantly alter our fortunes. However, such is my state of mind at this point that I'm completely and totally ready for our current epidemic of injuries to force Arsène to sign a raft of players. Gustavo. Martinez. Williams. Cesar. Uchida. Eto'o.

Something's gotta give. Other squads have been making improvements, and as much as we might tell ourselves that certain players are going to improve and that chemistry through continuity is a strength, we just don't have enough to contend. I've been steadfast in my support of Arsène, consistent in my resistance to signing Suarez, and faithful to the idea that we shouldn't break the bank, but my faith is faltering. The eminently winnable games that we have to start the season are the games from which we simply must take maximum points. It's one thing to drop points against the best in the league, but if we expect to be the best in the league, or even just among the best, we simply have to beat the piss out of everyone else. One does not simply walk into the Britannia Stadium, as that one guy from Game of Thrones once said.

The silly season has gone on long enough, but what's worse, our own silliness has exacerbated the problem. If we don't see signings and soon, the restlessness in certain quarters may only grow. We have two tricky matches with Fener, not to mention a North London Derby, all before the close of the transfer-window. If we stumble in one or both of those, and I'm putting all of my money on torch and pitchfork futures.

14 August 2013

Gustavo could be a Gunner by Friday; Suarez? See ya...

First the good news: the stories about Luis Suarez staying at or leaving Liverpool are flying back and forth faster than I can track them. Honestly. I had started writing about his comment that he would apparently be staying at Liverpool "owing to the affection of the people" (I can only assume he means "the money", but I digress). However, before I could
track down that quote, I stumbled across another one that has him denying the first quote, claiming that, in Suarez's words, "I didn’t say that, maybe someone else did". At first, of course, I was outraged. How dare he go back on what he'd previously said! I thought. Then, I realized that I live on Earth and calmed down a bit. This won't be the first time a human has misled another human or simply changed his mind. If this particular, miserable excuse for a human being stays at Liverpool, that's fine with me. Liverpool think they can overtake us, Spurs, and Everton to climb into the Champions League, and I'm willing to let them think that. They've completed a few transfers, but none that have me shaking in my boots. I see them struggling to keep up with us or Spurs, who have made a couple of nice pick-ups (but could still lose Bale).

Of course, we're all up in arms about our own lack of activity (sorry, Sanogo, but it's true). I worry then that missing out on Higuain, Jovetic, and a few others is pushing some among us to have stopped thinking things through and are at risk of acting rashly. It's as if we're looking around and thinking, "we can't risk losing out on another transfer-target. We've been after Suarez for weeks now, so it would be too embarrassing if we lose out on him as well." It's akin to being out at the pub and striking out with a few, um, romantic interests and panicking when last-call is announced, and so you find the drunkest, most-attractive target left and throw everything you have at him/her so you can at least prove to your mates that you still got some. Suarez is now that drunken floozy. Thankfully, his posse are trying to usher him away from our lascivious eyes. That's fine with me. At the risk of straining the metaphor, I'd rather go home alone than contract whatever diseases he's carrying. Thankfully, the odds-makers still peg Suarez to stay at Liverpool (1/4 at bwin, 2/7 at bet365). The news at transfermarkt is similarly promising, with the site rating the likelihood of him joining Arsenal at 46% and falling fast.

On to the better news: there are reports that suggest that Luiz Gustavo could join Arsenal before our match against Aston Villa. That, of course, is some headline-generating rumor-mongering, but it doesn't stand alone. There are no sites taking bets on Gustavo going anywhere, and transfermarkt suggests that there is a 54% (and rising) chance of him joining Arsenal. Their estimate of him going anywhere else—Napoli, Man U, AC Milan—are in the low teens, and their estimate of him going to Wolfsburg, the other club as closely linked as we've been, come in at 38% and falling. He's set for a press-conference on Thursday, and it's anyone's guess as to what he'll say, but the tea leaves are encouraging. I've been excited for this signing, certainly more so than I've been for signing Suarez; I believe he could solidify our squad by ensuring greater stability from defense to offense, and this could go a long way towards helping us climb the table. With our early-season fixtures among the softest in the Prem, it would be ideal to have him (or others) available to provide time to get acclimated without unduly affecting chemistry (something that Gustavo seems likely to enhance; something that Suarez seems likely to disrupt).  We'll be eager to see what Gustavo has to say after the Brazil-Switzerland friendly, that's for sure.

In other news, it looks Jenkinson might go out on a season-long loan to Sunderland. At first blush, this looks ludicrous as it would leave us with only one first-team right-back in Bacary Sagna, even if Sagna has shone brightly during the preseason. However, there must be method to the madness; I'm more certain than this than I am of Gustavo signing: it must mean that we are about to sign someone. It's well-worth remembering what Arsène loves to conduct his business in as secretive a manner as possible, and I wouldn't put it past him to surprise with a high-quality signing at right-back. Schalke's Atsuto Uchida has been mentioned, as has Málaga's Jésus Gámez. I'd certainly be open to one of these, if not ecstatic.

Right. That's about all the transfer-business I can manage. I'm proud of two accomplishments as I arrive at the end of this: one, I didn't attempt any bad plays on the Luis/Luiz spellings; two, I didn't even try to use the word "defenestrate", despite the temptation to do so. Enjoy the friendlies if you dare; you can click here to see the official listing of who's where. 'Til tomorrow, then...

13 August 2013

Arteta paves the way for a Ramsey/Gustavo pairing...

Let's get one notion out of the way right off the bat: even at 31, Arteta is not about to fall from the starting line-up, at least in my book. However, at 31, we should be looking around for how to transition from his leadership in the defensive midfield. He has shown little sign of his age yet, but we'd be remiss to assume that he can keep this up forever. With that in mind, I'm excited at the prospect of bringing in a true defensive midfielder, the likes of Luiz Gustavo. Arteta and Ramsey have developed into solid defensive midfielders, but both are by disposition more attack-minded players who have needed time to understand the defensive responsibilities they were asked to take on.

Future partners?
Arguably, Arteta, as a more-seasoned veteran, more quickly mastered the transition; Ramsey, still only 22, took a bit longer. Because of this learning process, we sometimes struggled as one or both of them either pushed too far forward, exposing our back four, or sat too far back, creating a gap between defense and attack that opponents could operate in. The understanding that they have forged together has gone a long way in addressing these issues, contributing to our form in last season's run-in.

However, the double-pivot that they've formed continues to pose dilemmas for joining defense to attack, especially as we look to make more room for Wilshere's attack-minded approach. With Ramsey and Arteta paying closer attention to defensive responsibilities and Wilshere pressing forward, we could often find ourselves with that gap. Bringing in a true defensive midfielder like Gustavo could see us start in a 4-3-3 that operates as more of a 4-1-2-2-1 in practice, with Gustavo in front of the defense, Ramsey and Wilshere patrolling the center-midfield, and Cazorla and Walcott as attacking midfielders. The continuity from defense to attack and back that such an arrangement allows might, at the risk of overstating it, be just as important as signing a pricey striker. Let's remember that we did have a prolific offense over the course of the season; our problem lay in too many scoring orgies and long droughts and in conceding an early goal, frequently through individual errors.

Many of those individual errors could be attributed to playing a high line to close that gap I mentioned earlier, which exposed our defense to being caught out on counter-attacks (think of Swansea's second goal), or which gave opposing midfielders time to probe for a through-ball (think of the 2-1 loss to Spurs). With a truly defensive midfielder in Gustavo, we might see a more-confident defensive line, one less worried about pressing too high up the pitch or sitting back too deep. That middle-road between aggressiveness and caution could further stabilize our defense while also creating quicker transitions from defense to attack. It would also allow us to more-thoroughly dominate the midfield, not just for the sake of inflating our possession-stats but for launching actual attacks.

Of course, I don't mean to leave Arteta out of this. It's too soon to put him to pasture by any means. Arteta has melded Ramsey into an admirable protégé; they regularly contend with each other to lead the team in tackles, interceptions, passes, and passing percentage. Seeing the two of them come to understand each other and their roles has been one of the feel-good stories of the past season. The addition of Gustavo, or that of a similar player, would simply add depth and versatility—a three-man rotation of Arteta, Gustavo, and Ramsey, depending on the opposition and match. Adding a Gustavo, then, shouldn't be a replacement or an upgrade so much as a reinforcement. When Gustavo partners with Ramsey or Arteta, the latter two could reprise their original roles as creative playmakers—a role that earned Arteta many awards while at Everton, and the kind of role many have envisioned for Ramsey since his arrival. The service each could provide from a slightly more advanced role could be something to behold: witness Ramsey's pass to Walcott for the first goal against Man City as a recent example.

In short, then, this may not be the "marquee" signing we've been clamoring for, but it could be the kind of signing that's even more instrumental to building an actual squad that can contend for silverware. We've whipped ourselves into a frenzy (and, to be fair, we've been strung along and burned more than a few times), but that shouldn't force us to focus too exclusively on signing someone in the £30m-40m range. If Gustavo can offer the quality that he seems capable of, by all means, bring him in! At £14m or so, we'd still have plenty left over to splash on a striker à la Jackson Martinez, Robert Lewandowski, or Karim Benzema.

With international friendlies looming, I don't know if this gives Arsène more time to swing deals or less contact with players. We have a few injuries already to stress over with Ramsey, Walcott, and Sanogo picking up knocks and with Wilshere still coming back to full fitness. We'll have to cross our fingers and hope that their respective managers have the good sense to rest them.

That's all for now, I guess. Thanks for stopping by, as always, and feel free to comment below. Also, go vote in the 2012-13 "You Are My Arsenal" Awards; Woolwich 1886 is honored to be nominated as a Best New Arsenal blog. Thanks! 

12 August 2013

Nearing a deal with Luiz Gustavo

It seems that our pursuit of Luiz Gustavo is heating up to a point that allows us to consider what all the fuss is about. The Brazilian, who wasn't a first choice for Bayern's treble-winning season, shouldn't be blamed for wanting more playing time; Bayern's midfield was already crowded before the arrivals of Götze and Alcántara, and Gustavo certainly would appreciate more playing time in the run-up to his country hosting the World Cup next summer. He's a skilled, experienced player, and he might make for a nice addition to the squad. From our end, the move would make a good deal of sense: cover and competition for Ramsey and Arteta, an back-up of sorts at left or center back (where he's also played), and a player with Champions League and championship experience.

From his end, though, I have to admit, the move seems to make less sense. If he seeks more time on the pitch, he'd have to consider that our midfield is already fairly crowded—Ramsey and Arteta have formed an effective double-pivot, and Wilshere is looking to reclaim his role after overcoming the ankle injuries that have deterred him over the last few years. In other words, if his primary motivation is more playing time, his interests might be better served by moving to Wolfsburg. The advantages of playing for Arsenal are obvious: greater prestige, European competition, league contention, better salary (maybe). Should Gustavo come to Ashburton Grove, however, he'd have to fight for time. If he's up for the fight, so much the better as he'd add much-needed depth and versatility.

Our offer for the man is said to be somewhere in the £14-to-18m range, and if we can get a player who can help us to address as many as three areas (defensive midfield, center-back, and left-back), albeit to varying degrees, it would be hard to find fault with the deal from our end. In fact, even as I scan through possible flaws, the best I can come up is "we could still use cover for right-back" and "maybe his value or quality is inflated by playing for Bayern". Each of these is such a stretch that they're not worth considering. He's tough on the ball, fearless going in for and winning tackles, great with passing and crossing, quick, and intelligent.

This might not be the kind of squad-changing signing we've craved; it's unlikely that Gustavo alone would vault us to the top of the Prem, but he could certainly strengthen us in the aforementioned ways. If we can get a player of his skill and experience at the prices being bandied about, we'd be fools to let him slip through our fingers on the vague notion that playing for Wolfsburg, who finished 11th in the Bundesliga last season, would give him a better platform for convincing Scolari of his quality. With Arsenal, he could play with greater confidence than at Wolfsburg; he'd know that he's surrounded by quality players who know how and when to make themselves available for a pass or to provide defensive support. By contrast, and without disparaging Wolfsburg, he might find himself frustrated at being dispossessed because it was that much harder to find an open teammate or at getting beaten on a give-and-go because no one was covering the "go" passer.

At Wolfsburg, in other words, he might become the best player on the squad, but in a way that would leave him isolated and irritated. Look at it this way; if he signs with Wolfsburg at £16m, he'd instantly be their most expensive player and would command close to 20% of Wolfburg's total market value. There's pressure there, no doubt, and pressure that would be hard to live up to without the kind of quality around him that he's grown accustomed to. On the other hand, if he comes to Arsenal at that same £16m, he'd slot right in financially in the middle of the pack while having far-more support around him, providing him a better platform for his skills.

Therefore, I hope Arsène and the board make this one happen before the week is out. We've waited long enough for good news on the transfer-front, and signing Gustavo would count in my book as that kind of news.

That's all for now. All's quiet on the Suarez front except that he won't apologize for his remarks last week. Fine with me. International duty pulls a number of players away, so it might be a quieter week. With that mind, fill your time by casting your vote in the YAMA Awards for Best Arsenal bloggers and writers; Woolwich 1886 is nominated as a Best New Arsenal Blog. Thanks!

11 August 2013

Wilshere sticks it to Man City...

As we bask in the glow of having given Man City a proper spanking, one that they deserve for employing the likes of Samir Nasri as well as a matter of principle, we can take a step back and study the game for what it was: a preseason tune-up meant to assess where our squad as a whole stands and how individual players are doing. The first issue has been talked to death already; I think we all agree that we're alarmingly shallow and need a few additions. The second one, though, offers some reassuring prospects. Scoring three goals against Man City, even in a preseason match, is notable, especially when we remember that they were the only team to concede fewer league goals than us last year. However, before I go too far down the "big picture" road, I want to focus more closely on Jack Wilshere, perhaps our most talismanic player.

In last season's run-in, I had my concerns about him playing as often and as much as he did. I would have much preferred that he focus on recuperating from that long-running ankle problem. Better to to drop a point or two now than risk hobbling the man long-term, I thought. Why risk it? As urgently as I believe we need his braggadocio and his intensity, discretion is the better part of valor, and how to put this? Discretion is not among Jack's more-refined traits. He'd run over an opponent every chance he got, bless his soul. Given his injury history, Arsène opted for caution, saying:
I decided before the game to play him only 45 minutes because I want to build him up step by step and because he will go with the national team when England plays against Scotland on Wednesday night. That as well will be a very committed game.
As to the match, let's get the bad news, such as it is, out of the way. As you can see in the clip below, Jack still takes a lot of knocks when he carries the ball. He charges at players when he has the ball at his feet and holds the ball a split-second too long. Making a pass one step earlier or adding a dribble to side-step a defender might see him avoid getting fouled so often and allow him to keep possession. It's one thing to earn a spot-kick in the attacking third; it's quite another to see him aggravate an injury. As a defender, he's eager to go in for a tackle, but his timing and technique are a bit rusty. For example, his slide-tackle on Silva just outside the box (at about 2:12 in the clip) show him come in from the right and go for the ball with his left foot; a cleaner tackle would have seen him go with the right, both for a cleaner tackle and to increase the chance of clearing the ball. This may have been a subconscious desire to protect that right ankle or just from being lefty. Again, as with the dribble, refining that could see him commit fewer fouls while winning possession more often.

That's that. On to the good news. Jack showed tenacity, purpose, and energy throughout the first half and, as far as I could tell, showed no lingering physical affects from last
spring's surgery. His passing was crisp and direct, he was fleet of foot, and he tracked back well. Despite wearing #10, one of the concerns regarding him is that he doesn't add enough goals or assists to be considered a trequartista or attacking midfielder, a role that Cazorla or Rosický might fill more effectively. Then again, his ability to drop back into the defense allow him to link defense to attack meant that on more than occasion, he could make a tackle or intercept the ball to make a long forward pass to Walcott or the Ox. Jack therefore seemed to play as more of a deep-lying playmaker on Saturday, receiving or winning the ball most often in the center-third and rarely if ever venturing deep enough to take a shot. In many ways, Jack was quite literally a box-to-box midfielder, pitching in on defense and initiating the attack.

However we might end up labelling the position, his performance against Man City was a welcome one, and I'm sure we can look forward to many more. An injury-free Jack Wilshere would be a force to be reckoned with. It's hard to believe that, at 21, he's earned comparisons to the likes of Iniesta, Gascoigne, or Gerrard. However, at the rate he's going, he'll someday earn the right to stand on his own achievements.