07 September 2013

Özil, Reus, Gundogan, and the house that Wenger built

At long last, it seems, the wait is over. When we were told that we would be moving from Highbury to Ashburton Grove (the Emirates), a large part of the sales pitch for the new pitch lay in its ability to help us attract and pay world-class players. For the better part of
the last decade, however, we've had to bear the pain of seeing our best players sold to finance the new stadium, whether it was Anelka in 1999 or van Persie in 2012. Now, here it is, 2013, and the river's flow has reversed. This is the first season that begins without us losing key players in what feels like forever (does losing Gallas or Eduardo count? Enquiring minds want to know...). Instead, we're agog at the prospect of seeing one of the world's best midfielders come to the Grove. Özil has resurrected our hopes and inspired us to believe that silverware is in the offing without even having set foot on the pitch in an Arsenal kit.

Just as delicious as his arrival is on its face, this could be the beginning of something altogether new. While I would not want to see us become just another club that throws its money around like the nouveau riche that have recently bought their trophies, it's tantalizing indeed to think that signing Özil marks a new era, one in which we not only keep our best and brightest but actually add to the squad. Having signed Özil, Podolski, and Mertesacker, we now have a German contingent that makes the pursuit of players such as Marco Reus or Ilkay Gundogan all the more probably. When we consider Reus and his respect, nay, idolization of Tomáš Rosický, adding him to the squad in January even starts to sound like a certainty.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves and this becomes a drooling piece on who we'll sign come January, let's step back to take in the bigger picture—we are no longer a selling club. Cluck your tongue at paying £42.4m if you will, but that is the market. Bale sold for £96m. Southampton, a Championship squad in 2011-12 , bought not one but two players for £13m each. As for us, we've now registered the third-highest transfer fee in Prem League history and eleventh-highest ever, and we still sit on £30m or so, a sum that we'll only add to as we see tickets and kits sold and Champions League matches won. By the time we get to January, we may see ourselves looking to sign another game- and season-changing player, this time on the possibility that we're competing for advancement in the Champions League (though the player may be cup-tied) and are contending for the Prem League title, not to mention the FA and league cups. Lament if you will our failure to secure a signing earlier in the window. I'll stop just shy of endorsing Arsène's apparent policy of waiting until deadline-day to sign anyone, but it's hard to argue against the result this time around. 

We're still wafer-thin, of course, and one injury could just see us unravel. However, on paper if not on the pitch, we look likely to rattle a few cages and unlock more than a few defenses. I don't think I inflate Özil's importance when I remind us that his impact will be two-fold: one, we're going to win much more often between now and January; and two, we may just see another player or two donning the Arsenal kit in a few months' time. 

Caviar, in other words, is back on the menu.

05 September 2013

Arsène Wenger's the manager players want to play for...

With the inter-lull looming and the transfer-window shut (oh, glorious transfer-window! I just can't quit you...), we have quite a bit to feel good about. The signing of Mesut Özil, of course, vaults us into the top echelon of the Prem League. If you believe the Specious One,
"the signing of Özil makes [Arsenal] title contenders." Of course, he plays mind-games eight days a week, so we'll take it with a grain of salt. However, the larger, perhaps more-subtle conclusion to be drawn from our signing of the midfielder, widely considered to be among the best in the world, is the one that relates to the man who made it happen.

Over the years, we've come to worry that Arsène had become a once-great manager, one for whom the world's best no longer wanted to play for. The departures, the missed signings, the failure to win silverware—these and other factors pointed to an ineluctable conclusion: Arsène's star had faded to the point that he couldn't attract or keep world-class talent anymore, not with his stubborn commitment to his financial principles or "socialist" wage structure. No more. I'm not referring just to the fee we've paid for him. Signing Özil establishes Arsène as, arguably, the manager to play for in the Prem.

Yes, Ferguson's retirement is a factor, and I don't mean to give that short-shrift, but a quick glance at the other managers in the Prem suggest that it's only Arsène who offers a personal draw strong enough to convince players to leave their current club to join a new one. Of Chelsea's vaunted war-chest and Mourinho's ambition, yes, they made two big signings, but nothing on the scale that was discussed over the summer. No Rooney. No Lewandowski. No Khedira. In fact, one could argue that Chelsea did little better than treading water after losing Lukaku. Pellegrini did nice business but again failed to lure any of the world's biggest names. The big story du jour is, of course, the grumblings out of Old Trafford, a situation that ESPN has dubbed an "utter farce of a transfer window". After pursuing Alcantara, Fabregas, and Ronaldo, Moyes was only able to convince Fellaini to join him, and only at the last minute and by overpaying. For as frustrating as our summer had been up until Monday, we've emerged with arguably the best signing of the season.

After all, Özil is among one of the world's most talented players and has his best footballing years ahead of him. For him to choose Arsenal over Real Madrid (and other suitors) is a significant moment for him, for Arsène, and, most importantly,  for Arsenal. It establishes him as arguably his club's best player, thrusting him towards a mantle of leadership. It confirms Arsène's status as one of the world's most-respected managers. Lastly, it re-establishes Arsenal as a prestigious club, if not through silverware (yet) then through respect. Of course, he's only one player, but he is a game-changer, and it will be sooner rather than later that he makes his mark. His arrival also transforms perceptions of the club from "a once-great club that great players leave" to "a soon-to-be-great club that great players want to join". Some critics have suggested, for example, that Özil owes his assists-tally to having Ronaldo to pass to. There's an element of truth to that, but even Ronaldo worries, saying that Özil's departure "is really bad news for me as he was the player who knew best my movements in front of goal". In other words, the fear isn't that Özil's numbers will drop; it's that Ronaldo's will. In the striker's own estimation (and, let's face it, he's not prone to bouts of self-doubt, at least publicly), it's his greatness that depends on Özil, not the other way around. With that in mind, come
January, I doubt we'll be casting about to sign a great striker as we did this summer. Instead, we may have to fend off the suitors. Fancy that.

Look at this heat-hap of  Özil's passes in La Liga and Champions League play. Can you imagine what Giroud will do, receiving all of those passes that arrive right on or around the PK-spot? I wrote yesterday about the potential relationship betwen the two; imagine what a more-clinical finisher will do. If you're not salivating at the prospect, you must be dehydrated. Or daft.

However, before we let ourselves be seduced by the sumptuous delivery and service Özil will provide, let me return to the larger point: this signing restores much of the shine to Arsène's star. For all of the names we've missed out on, and for all of the criticism he's withstood, it's not for nothing that Özil chose Arsenal. As much as one might make of the influence of fellow Germans Podolski and Mertesacker, in the end, it seems that Özil's decision rested largely on the feeling he got from talking directly to Arsène:
I talked to [Arsène] at length over the phone, and he told me his ideas and he trusts me, and I need that as a player. I realised I would not get the full trust of the manager [at Madrid]. I am a player who needs to feel that—and I felt that with Arsenal, and that’s the reason why I’m signing for them.
In other words, one of the world's best players joined Arsenal because its manager instilled a sense of trust in him. Yes, £42.2m had their say, as did the idea of winning silverware, but if those were Özil's most-important considerations, I daresay (without disparaging our club) that he might have had better options. PSG. Real Madrid. Manchester United. Instead, what seems to have clinched the deal is his belief in and respect for Arsène and his football philosophy. Of course, success has a way of confirming the value of any philosophy, and in the signing of Özil, Arsène has taken a dramatic step in confirming the value of his. This should be a beautiful process to watch.

VVC.

03 September 2013

Özil to Giroud: the makings of a world-class striker

The dust has barely settled from the slamming-shut of the transfer-window, and already the accolades are accumulating around Mesut Özil. Although he won't take the field as a Gunner until 14 September at the earliest, he's already drawing favorable comparisons to
club legend Dennis Bergkamp, if only in the sense of already having a reputation for excellent before coming to the club. One wag on twitter joked that he's first signing under Arsène whom we didn't have to look up on youtube. Adding a player of his class, achievements, and stature does more than just destroy Andrei Arshavin's status as the club's most expensive signing; it lays waste to the idea that Arsène won't spend—to the tune of 42 million pounds sterling, almost three times the amount laid out on Arshavin. To have done so on a world-class player, and one who so seems to fit Arsenal's style of way, earns Arsène that much more credit.

Of course, Özil does fit a certain Wenger-esque mold: small, crafty, creative on the ball.... While critics had been howling for a striker and defensive midfielder, it seems odd to sign yet another clever midfielder known for his passing. It's true that the signing does little to address those positions, nor does it do much to address the thinness of the squad in general. However, it's well worth considering how Özil could help Olivier Giroud score this season, repeating a pattern that the Frenchman had established at Montpellier and at Tours before that. For as much as fans may regret the failure to sign Higuain, Suarez, or another top-shelf striker, the signing of Özil might just be enough to vault Giroud towards that category (note that I say "towards" and not "into." Read on).
Consider Giroud's skill-set. According to whoscored.com, Giroud's strength include his strength in the air, having won seven of nine aerial duels against Tottenham (both game highs, according to Orbinho). On the season, he's won 19 of 29 aerial duels. When you combine that with Özil's strengths—set-pieces, crosses, key-passes, according to whoscored.com—we could see a special partnership in the making.

After all, all but one of Giroud's goals for Arsenal in 2012-13 came in the penalty area. What's more, they all came just outside the six-yard box as Giroud latched onto a cross, lob, or through-ball from a team-mate and finished from close range. While many of these goals lack the drama of a thunderous volley, those headers, flicks, and toe-pokes still found the back of the net often enough to see Giroud score 17 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions. This is clearly not enough for a squad with designs on trophies. However, as Giroud looks to settle into and define his role more clearly, he already looks like he'll score more often while also increasing his conversion-rate, a woeful 12% during the 2012-13 campaign. Then again, how many shots did he send soaring into the cheap seats because he was pressing too hard? It will be interesting to see how that conversion-rate might change under less pressure and with more frequent crosses, lobs, and through-balls from Özil, widely considered to be among the best in the world at his position.

Over the next 12 days or so, the time between now and Arsenal's trip to the Stadium of Light, Özil and Giroud should find plenty of time to work together, learning to read each other, assess each other's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, and forge a mutual understanding that could bear fruit. At the risk of engaging in too much schadenfreude, it will be interesting to see how Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema, two other Arsenal targets, will fare without Özil's service. At various points, the bid for Higuaín had been criticized because Higuaín's skill-set was apparently too similar to Giroud's. If that is true, we might see Higuaín's stats slump while Giroud's stats surge. Arsenal's fans might have gnashed their teeth and rent garments when they saw that Napoli had signed Higuaín, but the signing of Özil, and his budding partnership with Giroud, could prove to just enough to help them forget all that they thought they had lost.

Özil seems to pick out the just-right pass, whether it's a vertical lob or through-ball that allows the striker to run under and put a shot on frame or whether it's a slanted pass that cuts across the box for a striker to intercept. He's done this time and again, whether the finisher was Ronaldo or Higuaín or Benzema, and Giroud's intelligent movement off the ball suggests that he's already queuing up to receive any variety of passes from Özil. Since he arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, he  has had 47 assists, more than any player in Europe's top-five leagues (thanks again to whoscored.com).

Arsenal may still lack depth up-top, and Giroud may not be quite ready to lead the attack, but the partnership between him and Özil could become something remarkable. The German midfielder can pick the pass; the French striker can send it home. Against lesser opponents, securing an early lead could be enough to see the likes of Yaya Sanogo or Chuba Akpom come on to ply their wares. It's a far-fetched notion, but Gooners could fare far worse.

Looking down the road, Arsenal goes into the January transfer-window with a fair amount of money in hand; by then, the squad will have passed through the gauntlet that is December, jam-packed with difficult Prem fixtures, not to mention league cup and Champions League ties to boot. By that point, we'll have a clearer sense of the club's ambitions and achievements, and we could well see another significant signing or two, sussed out on the club's progress or struggles to that point. I daresay that messieur Giroud and Herr Özil, among others, shall have done enough to entice another player or two to come to the Emirates.

02 September 2013

Özil is Öfficial: Team Site announces that he's signed!

ÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigöd. It's official. Mesut Özil is a Gunner, announced officially at Arsenal.com. For those who doubt me, here's the link and a screenshot that I swear to you
is not photoshopped. Arsène has this to say about the German midfielder:
We are extremely pleased to have signed Mesut Ozil. He is a great player, with proven quality at both club and international level. We have watched and admired him for some time as he has all the attributes I look for in an Arsenal player.
The deal is said to be for £42.5m for five years and weekly wages of £150,000, along with bonuses. It's ironic that our first key signing of the transfer-window addresses one of our lower-level needs, but the addition of Özil should make a dramatic difference in our prospects. How many times have we fallen behind to an inferior opponent—heck, even to one of the three teams to finish ahead of us—and seen them park the bus for the rest of the match? I'm not saying that Özil will, by himself, magically solve that problem for us, but he'll make it dramatically easier to overcome those deficits while also making such deficits much rarer in the first place.

Talk about your dramatic turnarounds. Only a few hours ago, we are lamenting our inaction and lambasting our manager for ineptitude, tight-fistedness, and worse. With one fell-swoop, he's answered his nay-sayers. Even if this is the only signing of the season (and there's still about an hour before the window closes as of this post), we're looking like legitimate contenders. While it's true that Spurs have been active, they'll have a hard time replacing Scott Parker and that other guy who left. The clubs that finished above us have been made a few moves of their own, of course, so it's not as if we can just show up against those three and simply take all three points, but consider how close we were to doing so last year. A flubbed clearance at Old Trafford against Man U. A bizarre take-down in the box against City. An own-goal of sorts against Chelsea. We've come up just short against these squads, close enough to taste a point if not all three, and Özil's addition could be enough to make a difference in reclaiming a few points here and there while also keeping all three against the other 16 teams in the Prem. All of a sudden, that 16-point gap between us and Man U seems much less daunting, not to mention the five points that separated us from Man City and the two that separated us from Chelsea.

Arsène, I apologize for doubting you. This signing may not be enough by itself to see us finish atop the Prem this year, but it's enough to show that you do have a trick or two up your sleeve. To have out-maneuvered PSG and Man City to obtain Özil's signature takes a sleight of hand I had doubted you possessed. For that, I 'm sorry, and, of course, merci.

Özil signs; thanks to Bale for the assist!

Reports from the BBC, Telegraph, Mirror, and numerous others have stated that Mesut Özil has signed with Arsenal, apparently to a five-year deal worth £42.4m, and is set for a physical in Germany. Of course, until it's official, these are just rumors, and we've been burned before by reports suggesting that terms have been agreed and a player is ready for a physical, so let's not get ourselves all worked up into a frenzy. It is worth noting, however, that skybet has the move rated at 1/10, meaning that a £10 bet would only win you one more pound—such a low rate of return implies that the oddsmakers see this as all but a done deal. [UPDATE: odds now at 1/25. Big change in our favor]. Still, as the old saw goes, "I'll believe it when it's at the official Arsenal site." (Yes, I did go to check once I finished that sentence. Nothing as of 7:12am Chicago (CST).

Still, this would be amazing and startling news; I never imagined that a player of Özil's class would be available, believed even less that we'd make a move for him, and believed even less still that we'd make an offer attractive enough to prise him away, certainly not while clubs such as PSG with their bottomless buckets of money were also in the running. While Özil may not offer the same kind of defensive intensity as many of our current batch, and while we still might feel like we need a top-shelf striker, can you imagine the beauty that he would bring to the midfield attack? Between he and Cazorla, the chances that they can create for themselves and others could be breath-taking. With Giroud in fine form, having bagged four goals in five appearances already this season, and Walcott knocking on the door as well....wow. Just wow. Özil has had 30 assists in La Liga over the last three seasons. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Bernabeu, that's an impressive stat. I'd long since suggested that Giroud and Walcott would have break-out seasons all by their pretty little selves, but the potential addition of Özil could propel both men skyward. Giroud, as mentioned, already looks like an entirely different player—not just through scoring, but in playing an all-around game. After his second goal-line clearance of the year, I joked on twitter that he's invented a new position: the box-to-box striker. The chances that he and Walcott could get from Özil could make both men look much more like top-shelf strikers (not that they are, just that they'd "look like").

According to whoscored.com, Özil "created a chance more often than any other player in Europe's top five leagues last season" and created 24 clear-cut scoring chances, again the most in Europe's top five leagues. his ability to unlock a parked defense with a key pass will be vital, as in all too many cases last year, we'd concede an early goal and struggle to get through a wall of defenders. Özil's sense of the game and his ability to pick out a pass, whether through possession or on a counter-attack, could be vital in releasing our forwards to score. Whereas we all too frequently saw our players nibble around the edges of the box in a vain attempt to create a clear-cut shot only to settle for a an ill-advised blast, Özil has shown that he can pick the lock of many such defenses through his passing as well as his intelligent movement off the ball. This signing, should it actually come to pass, could send us into contention for Prem League silverware. Speaking of such ambitions, what does it say of Arsenal that a player like Özil would leave all-but-guaranteed trophies with Real Madrid, spur such similar guarantees from PSG, and come to Arsenal, a club already well-stocked with midfielders but suffering a trophy-drought of more than a few years? We're on the march, and his signing could see another player or two ask his agent to dial up Arsène.

Yes, Isco's arrival has made Özil a bit more expendable, but the arrival of Bale makes Özil even more so. Financially, of course, even a club like Real Madrid can't just spend £86m on Bale without at least trying to balance their books. With the increased scrutiny they're under for dodgy land deals and preferential tv revenues, they've forced themselves into a position that they can only get out of through selling assets, and Özil is as fine an asset as any.

A lot has been said about how astute and aggressive Spurs have been—and it's true. Despite losing to us, they look like they'll get stronger as players bed in. However, for as much as they've spent, it's the money they'll get back that they may end up regretting. Yes, selling Bale has financed the acquisitions of Capoue, Paulinho, Soldado, and others, but it's that same sale that has forced Real to sell and, moreover, encouraged them to sell attacking midfielders. Should we actually sign Özil, Spurs will look the most foolish club in the transfer window, having parted ways with their most talismanic player since Gazza only to see their cross-town rivals nab at least one player as a direct result. We may not stop with Özil. Would we still be after Di María or Benzema (or both)? This could be a master-stroke on Arsène's part. Waiting until deadline-day to sign even one player of Özil's caliber would be sublimely brilliant. Doing so while sticking it to Spurs in the process would be delicious. If the deal is actually confirmed at the club site, Arsène will have well and truly answered his critics and in fine fashion. It would be one thing to sign a top-shelf player; giving Spurs the proverbial middle finger in the process would be the stuff of legend.

Still nothing at the Arsenal site. Fingers crossed so hard they're starting to cramp up...