12 October 2013

Bendtner's boffo brace baffles Buffon

Recently, one of Arsenal's most-promising talents put his foot in it with a public comment so foolhardy that he'll have a hard time living it down. A lot of pundits and critics, yours truly included, took him to task for saying something he might have regretted the very instant the words spilled from his lips. I speak, of course, not of Jack Wilshere's recent molehills made into mountains but of Nicklas Bendtner. He was 22 when, among other gaffes, he said the following:
If you ask me if I am one of the best strikers in the world, I say yes because I believe it. When I see that other strikers score a lot of goals, I realise I need to score those goals, but I think everything else in my game is right even if I believe I can still improve. The goals are the last thing I need to add and when I do I believe I will be the player I want to be. One of the best.
He hasn't ever quite lived up to that boast, of course, but he's shown glimmers of what he can do. Between then and now, he's taken a lot of stick—some richly deserved; some, less-so—but he is hardly the worst person in the world, or the worst player to wear Arsenal red. As such, his performance last night against Italy offers a tantalizing glimpse of what he's capable of: two sharp headers to beat one of the world's (all-time?) best keepers, Gianluigi Buffon, on a night when Buffon became the azzuri's most-capped player of all time, and in a match that Denmark really needed to win. That they came away with a tie can't be pinned on Bendtner as Italy's equalizer came on a cruel deflection in stoppage-time.

During the interlull, of course, we hope for certain things not to happen without worrying too much about what does. Don't get injured. Goals and wins are nice and all, but, above all else, stay healthy. We're through round one with one fresh injury, that on Laurent Koscielny. The silver lining around our squad's raft of injuries is that many of them are not available for international duty. Fine. This first round saw little in the way of new injury, and this absence of a negative (by and large) is good news indeed; to have the presence of a positive is therefore encouraging.

Without making too much of the man, Bendtner delivered a fine performance for Denmark, and there's fair reason to hope that he'll find some confidence, er, fitness and form to bring back to Arsenal. He's usually done better for country than for club, but maybe that will change. We'd be far better with him available and in-form than on the bench or on loan. Even if improved play is just a by-word for auditioning for a transfer, it's a win-win. I don't understand the urge to root against someone who plays for Arsenal. As long as he's in the squad, we might as well hope for the best from him, even if it's merely to make him more attractive to the next club down the line.

Of course, Bendtner's flaw, this remarkable ego, does make it hard to root for him. I don't know if he's as insufferable as a Cole or a Nasri. He may full of himself, but he doesn't seem to come across as being as insufferable as those two (lot of as's in there, if you catch my drift). If he's guilty of anything, it's of letting his ego outstrip his performance. He wouldn't be the first to have committed that sin. For strikers perhaps more than for other players, confidence is crucial, and there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. The first, for our purposes here, derives its life-blood from performance; the latter simply feeds on itself without much else to support it. To come away with a brace against Italy should bolster Bendter's confidence without inflating his arrogance—or so I'm telling myself.

We're still a long way from having someone who can challenge or replace Giroud should he go down, and that's not something we can effectively address until January at the earliest. There won't be many top-flight strikers looking to make a move mid-year, whether it's because they already play for a club challenging for silverware or because they don't want to unsettle themselves in a World Cup year. That said, if we can continue on anything like the run of form we've been on since April, we'll look more and more attractive. If Bendtner can contribute to that in any way, whether it's in league cup, the Prem, or even the Champions League, that's fine with me. Of course, in vintage Bendterian fashion, he celebrated his second goal by removing his jersey, drawing a yellow card, so he won't be available for Denmark's match next week against Malta and their -17 goal-differential. Sigh. One step forward, two steps back, eh, Nick? Maybe this just means he'll be rested up for Norwich?

Until next time, thanks for stopping by. Before you go, please consider voting for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks!

11 October 2013

Pobga, Khedira, Llorente, Song, Sanabria, Guzan...

I'm almost afraid to reveal the findings of my top-secret, spy-vs-spy, international intrigue, undercover operation—but I have to. I'm not proud of what I've had to do to unearth this earth-shattering secret, but after all I've been through—the costumes, the bribes, the double-dealing, the compromising situations from which I've narrowly escaped with my dignity if not my sense of self intact (don't ask me about that night in Stuttgart when my fraulein costume very nearly failed me)—I have to. I owe it to you, faithful reader, to divulge this ghastly discovery, hoping that it will not shake you to your very core. We're only six days removed from our last match, only six day in to the interlull and eight days still to pass before our next match, eight days to fill with something, anything related to Arsenal, however vague or tenuous.

Therefore, gentle reader, I hope you are sitting down. I have prepared smelling salts and a fainting couch should you need them, but I have wasted enough of your time already. For this I apologize. Here, forthwith, are my shock-findings: the interlull exists [inhales deeply and steadies self by placing hand on desk. Readers will notice that the palm slides slightly due to a nervous sweat that has formed] to make...money.

I'll give you a moment. I know it's a lot to take in. Do you need the salts? Very well.

I'm not referring to FIFA or Blatter or these others. They're penny-ante players in this game. The larger game being played includes characters even more nefarious, even more dastardly and underhanded. It's the tabloids and second-string blogs that link us to Pogba or Llorente, that suggest that Alex Song wants a return to Arsenal, or that we're pursuing Barcelona starlet Antonio Sanabria. It's they who have hijacked the league season, creating for themselves a two-week period during which we, craving Arsenal news, will click on anything that has "Arsenal" in its headline, no matter how preposterous. Blatter and his boys are patsies, I tell you. Patsies! They're unwitting pawns, moved around like so many pawns on a chessboard by the real movers and shakers out there, shadowy figures who ply their "breaking news" and "exclusive" updates. Now that I've lifted the veil, there's no turning back. I just hope I can continue my intrepid reporting before the hired goons squeeze my spine into an accordion, and play a polka on me with brass knuckles.

So Alex Song wants out. Fine. Good for him. We don't need him, and even if we did, I'm not sure I'd want him back. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli is open to offers for Paul Pgoba? My stars. There's mutterings about us pursuing Brad Guzan, Sami Khedira, and Fernando Llorente, all of which makes as much sense as predicting the weather four months out. Before any signings could be made official, we have no less than 17 matches to play, so there's plenty of time for thumb-twiddling and rumor-mongering.

In terms of actual news, of course, we have the good news that Rosický has been dropped from the Czech Republic's matches, the somewhat more-worrying news that Koscielny has picked up a calf injury, and the sensational news that Wilshere may be dropped from England's qualifier against Montenegro. I say "sensational" in the double-sense that (a) it's still in the sensationalist, unconfirmed stage and (b) this would be great news for him. He's taken a beating in the press after they set him up as a straw-man to be knocked down, and I think he could afford a bit of incognito-time, not to mention rest. Beyond that, it's slim-pickin's. Cazorla may be back to face Norwich, and as tantalizing as it is to imagine he and Özil together, we'll have to wait and see.

Between now and then, there's very little to distract. Ireland, much as my heart belongs to them, look to get railroaded by Germany tonight. Here's a quick run-down of other Gunners' commitments:

  • England v. Montenegro: Gibbs will start, but Wilshere may be dropped.
  • England U-21 v. San Marino U-21: Jenkinson got his first U-21 call-up for Thursday's match.
  • Ukraine v. Poland: Szczesny and Fabianki will travel to face Ukraine but will likely watch from the bench.
  • Germany v. Ireland: Per and Özil have been named to the squad
  • France v. Australia: Giroud and Kos have been named to the squad, but Kos may not play.
  • Croatia v. Belgium: Vermaelen has been called up.
  • Wales v. Macedonia: Ramsey is in the squad.
  • Spain v. Belarus: it looks like only Monreal is in the squad as Spain's crowded midfield continues to ignore Arteta. 
  • Denmark v. Italy: Bendtner has been called up, but with Denmark needing to win here, he may not feature. I'd like to see him get time on the pitch to force him back to fitness.
  • Ghana v. Egypt: Frimpong travels to face Egypt (unless the venue is changed due to the deteriorating security situation in Cairo).
Safe travels and best of luck to all of them, of course. Until next time, thanks for stopping by. Before you go, please consider voting for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks!

09 October 2013

Exclusive sneak-peek into the pre-Interlullian team meeting

Before Gunners scattered like dandelion seeds on the wind to their various countries, we managed to get an exclusive, insider, in-the-know, fly-on-the-wall, backstage-report on the club's last locker-room chat before the interlull. To wit...

     "Gentlemen, before you go off to play for your various countriez, we need to drum up, uh, some news items to keep zatisfied the press here in England. So, uh, let us have your suggestions, please. No one? Ah. Nicklas?"
     "I'd like to discuss how much more mature I am now that I am a father. I could talk about how much perspective and all I've developed during my travels in other countries, learning that some of them have laws against driving in certain directions and all."
     "No, no, I do not think this eez vhat we are, uh, looking for, and, uh, ve need something of greater, uh, quality. Eet is, uhhh, more in football terms that we need."
     "Monsieur, I could, peut-être, put out something about being injured? Maybe this would stir up a bit of news for the blogs and journalists to discuss?"
     "How do you mean, Laurent? I do not think that Didier vould appreciate such news. Could you please to elaborate?"
     "I don't mean anything serious, maybe just a muscle pull? I have played, after all, quite a lot so far. Tomáš doesn't have to play for Czech Republic, so I was just thinking..."
     "Tomáš, is this true?"
     "Yes, sir, it is. It's really rather a sad story."
     "Ah, interesting. Something to, uh, make readers sad?"
     "Um, I suppose. See, I'm 33, sir, and—"
     "I know this, Tomáš, please."
     "—um, yes. It's just that this is probably my last chance to qualify for a World Cup, and we're in a tough group with Italy and Denmark. Even Bulgaria is above us, and...well, it's—I..."
     "Say no more about this, Tomáš  I will call your manager, I will call this Bílek and to him I will explain ze situation. This is what I mean, gentlemen. This, uh, story from Tomáš will give all of these, these, uh, blogs something to write about while you are gone. But ve need more. From Tomáš we have something sad, and from Laurent something bad, but also ve need something, uh, difficult, something, uh..."
     "Arsène?"
     "Yes, Jack?"
     "Could I maybe do something to get in trouble? I'm getting a little tired of being a golden boy. It's tough being made out to be the next Gunner legend, and they're saying I'll be the next Stevie or Paulie for England to boot."
     "Vhat do you have in mind?"
     "Maybe I could let someone get a pic of me holding a cigarette? You know, just for kicks? Make me look like a bit of a bad boy?"
     "This I like. This vill give them a lot to talk about. Are you sure that you, um, want to do this to your image?"
     "My image? Please. They're the ones who built me up and put me on this pedestal in the first place. I'm just your average bloke, not some god in cleats. I'm practically begging you to let me do this. Please?"
     "Well, okay, but do not, uh, inhale. This I ask you. Just to put it to your lips one time. Once, Jack, or ve vill talk of this and you will play on the wing for ze rest of the ze season."
     "Yessir."
     "This is very good. I like this. Are there any more ideas? Anyone?"
     "Sir."
     "Bacary?"
     "Mon contrat se termine en juin."
     "Yes, yes, Bacary, this I know, but, uh, it is not the time to discuss the contract."
     "No, sir, je voudrais—I am sorry; I would like to create a rumor that I will leave in the summer."
     "Ah, now I see. This also I like. It is difficult, is it not, to discuss contracts at this time? The speculation and the rumors, they always sell, and these, uh, these 'journalists', they crave something, anything, for a story? Very good, Bacary. Merci. We shall talk of your contract, mon ami, do not worry."
     "Merci, capitaine."
     "Arsène?"
     "Jack? Again?"
     "Yeah. Could I maybe do some other stuff, like say some stuff just to stir the pot a bit? I mean, it's time for players to represent their countries, right? What if I say something about how players should only play for their own countries. You know, 'England for the English', and so on."
     "I do not know of this, Jack. This sounds, uh, difficult."
     "Nah, it'll be fine. I'll keep it real vague at first and let 'em interpret it how they want."
     "Perfect. This will occupy them for many, uh, days while you are all gone. Of course, do not do anything else that is risky while you are gone. Some of you I will also ask to report, uh, an injury, nothing serious, just enough to, uh, let you rest. Aaron, where are you?"
     "Here, sir."
     "Thank you. Mesut?"
     "Sir?"
     "Good. Play well, but do not, uh, strain yourselves. It is important that you, uh, stay fresh."
     "Okay."
     "Yes, sir."
     "Thank you both. There was one more, who was it? Ah, yes, Kieran."
     "What is it?"
     "I know it is very, um, exciting, this call-up, but I want you to, uh, to be careful. We need you."
     "Yessir. I will, sir."
     "Very good. Thank you. That iz all. I—oh, excuse, please. I have a text from Dennis. Hm. Something about coming back, is it? This too I like. We have, uh, many things to keep them busy while you are all gone. All the best, gentlemen, except for you Spaniards. I vant to see France at the top of the group!"

Good times, this interlull. All the best to our boys wherever they play. We have almost ten days before everyone returns to face Norwich. How else will we fill the time, if not with a bit of folderol? I hope there isn't anything else Arsenal-ish in the news in the meantime, as it would consist almost exclusively of fresh injuries from international action.

Thanks, as always, for your visit. I hope you'll consider casting a ballot for me in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Until next time...

07 October 2013

The Three Lions' pending debt to Arsène Wenger

With the international break now upon us, our thoughts will turn naturally to the prospect of which Gunner will suffer injury. It's what we do. It's there that our injury woes work in our favor a bit, as key players who have missed recent Prem matches will
also sit out of their countries' various international friendlies or World Cup qualifiers. Tomáš Rosický, for example, has been allowed to miss the Czech Republic's last two qualifiers due to Arsenal's concerns over his injury, and the other walking wounded—Cazorla, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, and Sagna, maybe even Ramsey and Wilshere—will be rested as well. Some may have to travel, but the key teams (England, France, Spain, Germany) don't have far to go, with Germany the only team having to travel, and only as far as Sweden at that. We can therefore breathe a bit easier knowing that we'll return from the interlull at full strength, or at least as close to it as we've been since before the season began.

As an American, I want to wade carefully into the business of the English national team, but I do want to take advantage of the break in Arsenal action to ponder the Three Lions' precarious status. Much has been made of the team's inability to advance past the quarterfinals of a major competition since 1996, and with Brazil 2014 on the horizon, enquiring minds want to know how the squad will fare.

The good news, ironically, is that Arsène, the manager famed for introducing foreign players (especially Francophone) to the Prem, might be providing the Three Lions with a firm foundation upon which to build towards future glory, if not in 2014 then in years to come. Nearly half of the national team's starting line-up could soon feature Gunners, if all goes to plan, and each of those players would owe some if not all of his development to Arsène's tutelage. I'm speaking, of course, of Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, and Jack Wilshere. Coming down the pipeline are quite a few more, such as Chuba Akpom, Benik Afobe, Isaac Hayden, and Nico Yennaris. In that last batch, one might point out that only Hayden's name "sounds" British, but this misses the point.

The point, of course, is that a great deal of a potential resurgence in England's national team depends on Arsenal. Its current squad, after all, features, among others, a 31-year old Phil Jagielka, 33-year old Steven Gerrard, 32-year old Ashley Cole,  32-year old Michael Carrick, 31-year old Jermaine Defoe, and a 35-year old Frank Lampard. Sprinkled in amongst them are various starlets whose mothers may still cut their pork chops for them, but we'll spare them the indignity (and me the typing) of listing them by name. Into the breach step not one but five Gunners in their early twenties, entering their primes and ready to assume the mantle of representing their country. That they owe some large portion of their development to playing for Arsenal should not be overlooked. Under Arsène, we have seen a fair number of heretofore unknowns blossom, and, while it's still a bit early to anoint any of those five as saviors, we could very well see an English national team that features five or more Gunners in its starting XI.

No less an authority than Sir Trevor Brooking, director of football development in England, has said the following regarding player development:
English players can be technically as efficient as Spanish, German, Dutch or any other youngsters if they are coached effectively from a young age, and we are determined to do all we can to try and create an environment for that to happen.
The missing ingredient, according to Brooking, is being "technically efficient," and that is one of Arsène's calling-cards, the finding and forging of technically efficient players. We're seeing the fruits of those labors in Aaron Ramsey (though he features for Wales), and we're starting to see similar fruits in Wilshere and Gibbs, and to a lesser extent in Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, and Jenkinson. Should these five continue on their current trajectories, however, England should be sitting pretty for years to come.

Making sure that youngsters are "coached effectively from a young age" is again Arsène's stock in trade. Each of the aforementioned Britons joined Arsenal at a tender, young age. Gibbs and Wilshere, of course, came in through the Academy, with Wilshere signing at the age of nine, and the rest coming to Arsenal while still in their teens. While it's certainly true that each of them would develop into stars on their own, it's highly unlikely that Jenkinson would realize his potential at Charlton Athletic or that Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott would blossom at Southampton. This is not meant as a slight against those clubs or their managers. Simply put, it's a testament to each player's potential and burgeoning achievements. It won't be long before Gibbs supplants Cole and Baines, before Walcott sidelines Defoe or Rooney, before Wilshere takes over for Lampard or Gerrard. Jenkinson and Oxlade-Chamberlain, as younger, rawer young men, will bide their time as well, but it's only a matter of time before they seize the moment.

At the center of this revival, then, it's more than a bit odd to see at its center one Arsène Wenger, renowned for revitalizing Arsenal and the Prem by bringing in French players such as Henry, Pirès, or Vieira, among others. Speaking of Vieira, the club legend spoke to The Independent and had this to say of his work with Manchester City's youth:
There is so much passion and love for the game among the youth [in England] that you don’t always have elsewhere. That is essential. But now it’s more about the creativity. How do you move around the pitch to be in the right places? How do you control and pass? It sounds really simple but at the end it’s complex and really difficult.
These are, again, hallmarks of football under Arsène: creativity, movement, passing. Therefore, as the Three Lions look to this week's qualifiers, I hope they'll look around the locker room as well and recognize how much is owed to Arsène's approach to football. Whether it's Walcott, Gibbs, or Wilshere, major players already; or Jenkinson or Oxlade-Chamberlain lurking in the wings, the hopes of England's national team seem to lay squarely in the hands of Gunners—not at all a bad place to be.

Thanks, as always, for your visit. I hope you'll consider casting a ballot for me in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks again!

06 October 2013

1-1 West Brom: one point we're lucky to have.

Jack Wilshere's first Prem league goal in three years was enough to salvage a point with West Brom on a day when it looked like the hosts would take all three and arguably should have. The most telling narrative of the match seemed to be Wilshere, for good or bad. I think I spent most of the match counting how many times he was fouled
Image courtesy of arsenalist.com
without the whistle blowing and the potential irony of him getting sent off for complaining about a non-call. It seemed at times as if West Brom were playing "knock Jack down" whenever he touched the ball. Having said that, though, Jack is just as much to blame because he does throw his body around, and it's long been a worry that he opens himself to being clattered. On a day when the referee was terrible for both sides, it's a wonder that no one lost their tempers or took matters into their own hands.

I don't mean to make it sound like the action was intense, but it was odd how passive the referee was, and it's a credit to both sides that the action was clean even if it was rugged at times. West Brom will probably come away a bit disappointed, as it does seem like they were the brighter squad on the day. Coming away with the one point, after being the first Prem team to score first against us, is probably frustrating.  There were periods when they dominated possession (finishing with 44%) and could arguably claim to have controlled the action. It would be lazy of me to call us lackluster, even if we were, but the truth is that West Brom came out harder and more energetic, putting pressure on throughout most of the match. If we had channeled some of the energy we put into complaining to the referee, we might have taken the game by the scruff. On a day when it seemed clear that the calls were not coming, it would have been nice to see our boys grit their teeth and take the game out of the referee's hands. Instead, we seemed content to wander around, make sloppy passes or tackles, and look to the referee when things didn't pan out.

I fretted before the match that West Brom's new signings would cause us some trouble, and it was Amalfitano who finally sliced us open in the 41st minute with a beautiful cross that Yacob headed home thanks in part to some sloppy defending at the near post. We were fortunate to go in to halftime down 1-0 after sloppy finishing from Anelka and some fine saves from Szczesny. Throughout the first half, as we worried about Wilshere's ability to stay on the pitch (whether it would be injury or a red card that saw him off), the calls for his replacement grew louder. I tweeted at halftime that I'd like Wilshere to stay on and score, if only to shut up the tedious references to smoking, as if all of the clatters he suffered were some kind of morality play on the evils of cigarettes. Finally, thankfully, he tallied in the 63rd minute thanks to a nifty exchange that saw Rosický lay it off for him to run onto and score, drawing us level and extinguishing (stubbing out?) the incessant smoking "jokes."

Aside from that, we spurned any number of chances, perhaps none worse than Giroud's, who wasted two beautiful chances. The first came in the 71st minute after a scramble left the ball at Özil's feet, who flicked a little looper to Giroud, but his tame shot rolled harmlessly out of bounds. The second is really more a credit to Myhill than a criticism of Giroud. Wilshere sent an incredible pass from near midfield that curled beautifully into the box for Giroud, who ran in behind the defender. His first touch, however, was sloppy, and he had to outrace Myhill to the ball, and Myhill was lively enough to save. It was more than a bit irritating to see Giroud flop to the ground as if he was making a snow-angel instead of getting back up to try to chase the rebound down.

Whatever was wrong with Giroud seemed to be a squad-wide malaise, and to come away with the point is indeed lucky. It's enough to keep us atop the Prem despite Liverpool's 3-1 win over Crystal Palace. Spurs found a way to lose 0-3 at home to West Ham. Each of the contenders for the Prem League title has dropped points that it really shouldn't have, and we'll have to remember that the points one drops in September and October are just as important, if not more so, than the points available in April and May because of the increased pressure those early dropped points can put on a squad later.

We head into the break then still undefeated in our last eleven matches, but we see that we still have work to do. By the time we return to action to host Norwich on 19 October, we should have Cazorla back, but we'll have to wait a bit longer for Ox, Sagna, Podolski, and Walcott, among others (click here for the injury report). This draw may have slowed us a bit, but it might also remind us that a club's run of form has little bearing on each match—if anything, in fact, the longer a club goes undefeated, the more the pressure mounts and the more-eager each awaiting rival gets to end that run. We may not have the quality of depth to run the table, but I do hope it's quite a bit longer before we drop all three.

Before you go, I hope you'll cast a ballot for me in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks, as always, for your visit!