18 October 2013

Norwich and Dortmund, points and priorities...

Ah, it's good to be a Gooner at the moment, isn't it? Top of the table in the Prem and in the Champions League's Group of Death, making a bit of progress in the league cup, a roster chock-a-block with players rarin' to play...it's enough to make one take stock, isn't it? While the cup doesn't quite overrunneth, we at least go into Saturday's match against Norwich with options, which is a nice change of pace from how things have gone recently, even during this impressive little run we're on. As it stands, Arsène now has to make difficult choices. Instead of crossing his fingers and hoping against an inopportune injury or red card, he now has to figure out how to make room on the pitch for an ever-lengthening list of players.

Without underestimating the challenge that Norwich may offer (it's worth remembering that they did beat us last year around this same time and threatened to do the same as recently as April), some of these selections do depend on Tuesday's clash with Dortmund. Who should start in midfield, for example? Cazorla is back from an injury, and he could probably benefit from some time on the pitch. After all, it's been more than a month since he featured—47 days, in fact. He's therefore a bit rusty, then, and it's not selfish of us to look forward to seeing him start against Norwich. In a similar vein, we've craved the moment when we could see Cazorla and Özil together. Although we all panicked more than a bit at the idea that Özil had suffered a knock during the interlull, he looks ready and available to play against Norwich. Similar questions arise elsewhere. Could this be a time for Vermaelen to reappear? After all, while Mertesacker rested during Germany's rather-pointless match against Sweden, Koscielny played a full 90 minutes in France's 3-0 win over Finland, which was only marginally necessary as France might have qualified automatically if only Spain lost to Georgia by three goals or more. There was really no threat of France failing to qualify as they went in five points ahead of third-place Finland anyway. Sigh. Whereas we might benefit from seeing a "full-strength" midfield that includes both Cazorla and Özil, we might look for a "second-choice" defense that includes Vermaelen ahead of Koscielny. 

Elsewhere, there are a few other choices to make for Saturday. Arteta might supplant Ramsey, who featured in Wales's 1-1 draw with Belgium. If this leads to Flamini earning a fifth yellow in the 89th minute and drawing a one-game suspension (and missing the upcoming match against Crystal Palace), so be it. On defense, neither Gibbs nor Monreal played during the interlull, so both are fresh. On the other side, Jenkinson played for England's U21s last week. In a 4-0 win over San Marino, he's probably still fresh as a daisy. 

Therefore, as we consider who should face Norwich and should face Dortmund three days later, what it comes down to is this: which points are more vital? It's not an either-or proposition, of course, but priorities must be set on some basis or another. On one hand, Norwich is struggling, and we should be able to claim those points. On the other, seizing three points from Dortmund all but guarantees that we advance in the Champions League and sends a strong signal to everyone else on our fixture-list: we mean business. If these matches were further apart, and if we didn't face a gauntlet of matches in the near-future, Arsène could throw on anyone he fancies and let the chips fall where they may. However, for as brightly as we've started, we're still level with Liverpool and barely ahead of Chelsea with 31 matches still to play. With 16 points from seven matches, we may still need 70 points or more to win the Prem. At the other end, we've taken six points from two matches in the Champions League, and ten points from our four remaining matches should be enough to see us through to the next round.

On its face, triage might suggest that we marshal our resources to better-target Tuesday's match with Dortmund. It's higher-profile on many levels, and success there might signify something deeper than success against Norwich. However, given how much flux there is in the Prem, and the idea that we really should take all three from Norwich, perhaps Saturday's clash is a bit more significant? Dropping two points, even all three, to Dortmund wouldn't be fatal, as we'd still have four matches from which to claim four points—win at home over Marseille and draw on the road against Napoli or Dortmund, and we should be through to the next round anyway. By contrast, should we drop points to Norwich, we may come to regret it further down the road. After all, without slighting the squad, winning the Champions League is a bit more of a stretch than winning the Prem.

Having said all of this, I wouldn't mind (or be surprised, frankly) if we win tomorrow and again on Tuesday, regardless of who plays when. I'd love to see a full-strength side announced for Saturday, if only to start the match, with a bit of rotation, if necessary, for Tuesday. At any rate, it's a good place to be in, this picking and choosing instead of fretting and fulminating. 

Right.  If I had any influence on squad-selection, who knows where we'd stand? Certainly no higher, that's for sure. I hope to have given you food for thought, if not reason to vote for me the Football Blogging Awards, in which I'm nominated as a "Best New Blog." Click here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks!

Is Walcott withering on the vine?

As we head into Saturday's clash with Norwich, we're naturally fantasizing about Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil prowling the midfield, but I've had another injured Gunner on my mind: Theo Walcott. Even before his injury, he's been all but invisible, tallying but a
single goal in seven appearances, almost 600 minutes of football. It's not as if the team has struggled to create chances, and Theo has spurned more than his fair share of them, and so a question is nagging at me: is there room in this squad for Theo? It's an odd question to pose, given how optimistic I've been with him in the past, suggesting he'll go for 20 goals in the Prem this year or that he'd see a surge akin to Gareth Bale's last season. I really thought that this would be a season that saw Theo finally become the goal-scorer we've been waiting for since he joined the club in 2006. As it currently stands, however, he may soon be the second-best player we've signed from Southampton in recent years.

Of course, it's not that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is better than Theo, but the Ox's development and untapped potential seem far vaster than Theo's, who seems to have stagnated. There have been moments when he's reminded us of Henry loping down the flank and curling a shot past a splayed keeper to the far post, but that's all those have been—moments. Even these haven't been pitch-perfect, as Theo's shots have squibbed under the keeper or glanced off the keeper's palm instead of floating past outstretched hands and tucking in to the back of the net. Some of his moments have been fantastic, of course, such as his I-fell-but-it's-not-a-foul-so-I'll-get-up-and-score against Chelsea (and again against Newcastle), but he's still far too anonymous. While his pace can be an important contribution even if he's not scoring (such as against Norwich last year, when he seemed to stretch their defense out of shape and create openings for teammates to score three goals shorty after he came on as a sub). He's only 24, so it's not as if that pace is going to degrade soon, but the larger concern is that pace seems to be the only asset he really has to offer.

Given the depth we now have across midfield, I don't know if we can afford to throw on such a limited attacker when it means that a more-versatile if less-seasoned player is available. We've seen glimpses of what Gnabry and the Ox can do, of course, and they're still works in progress—but, then again, so is Theo, it seems. When everyone is fully fit, Arsène also has Cazorla, Podolski, Özil, Rosický, and Wilshere, and while not all of them is best-deployed as a winger, they're all very versatile, and their fluidity and creativity make it harder to see where Theo's chances would come. It's arguable that our best midfield has Wilshere playing centrally with Cazorla and Özil wide. The three of them buzzing (or in Özil's case, floating) around the midfield certainly inspire more confidence in me than seeing Walcott waiting around on the flank to run onto a through-ball.

If he can come back from his injury and regain his form, that might change things a bit. However, even on his best days, he may not be the best option. These feel to me like harsh words, considering how much of a cheerleader I've been to him, but as one wag put it after seeing the Arsenal Ladies hang eleven goals on CSHVSM-Kairat, "look what a team without Walcotts can do." This is not to say that we do score more without Walcott, but we certainly haven't had trouble scoring in his absence. More seriously, we are going to need Walcott to find his form soon, as November and December offer a sadistic meat-grinder of matches. Even if he's "only" appearing in relief against inferior opponents so as to rest current first-choice teammates, I would love nothing more than to see the Theo who tore Newcastle apart last December do the same against, say, Crystal Palace or Hull. Heck, if netting a few can give him some momentum and confidence to do the same against Chelsea or Man City, so much the better.

Right. We have Norwich tomorrow. Walcott or not, these are three points we should really seize, so I hope we'll see Özil and Cazorla together at last, if only for a half. Until next time, thanks for your visit. 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!

16 October 2013

Özil's knee will be fine for Norwich; Vermaelen's pride, however...

Further proof (such as it is) regarding Mesut Özil's availability comes courtesy of physioroom.com, which reports that he should be back by 19 October along with Rosický, Walcott, Cazorla, and Sanogo. I'll understand if some of those names elicit more excitement than do others. Here, for your consideration, is physioroom's
Courtesy of physioroom.com
estimation of each man's return. Of course, this is at least a level or two removed from an official announcement, but it's reassuring to see a site with some degree of legitimacy put its money where its mouth is. Whether the man plays on Saturday seems more like a matter of priorities than of fitness, then. Should Özil play alongside Cazorla to help them get acquainted, or should one (or both) rest ahead of Tuesday's clash with Dortmund?

On one hand, Dortmund offers the more glamorous challenge, what with Lewandowski's coy flirtations and the chance of us making progress while finishing atop Group F. On the other, our strong start still sees us level with Liverpool on points and only a whisker ahead of Chelsea. It's a toss-up, then. We have six points and need ten to advance from the group-stage (10.2, if you believe Arsène) and have four matches to play. As to the Prem, we can't afford to drop points against Norwich. It would be nice to see Cazorla and Özil play the first half to see if we can establish an early lead, with a reassessment at halftime to see if we can afford to rest them. It's not quite the luxury of choice, but it's a far-cry better than where we were after the 82nd minute of Germany's match with Sweden.

On to a touchier subject, there have been some murmurings, even grumblings, regarding Thomas Vermaelen's role. He touched a nerve, apparently, when he had this to say:
I’ll have to think about [my position] when it’s necessary. January is still a few months ahead. Of course, never playing will not be the ideal situation for me to go to the World Cup, that’s for sure. People ask me if I panic because I’m not playing a lot, but I’m not [panicking]. I have spoken to the manager, but it will remain private between us. Things can happen in a split second and change my situation. That can happen tomorrow or next weekend. In that case, we will speak differently in January. I have to be ready for that.
As always, more has been interpreted than has been said. He was asked a question about his role in the squad, and he answered, perhaps more forthrightly than is diplomatic. Then again, he is the current captain, and it has to eat at him to know that he's played 11 minutes of first-team football during this campaign, and those came as a subbed-in left-back in the 80th minute against Sunderland when we were already winning 3-1. These are hardly the bona fides of a team-captain, not to mention those of a man who hopes to play for his country in the World Cup. As it is, the criticism he's gotten for speaking his mind seems a bit harsh. The last time he played a full 90 minutes, was perhaps fittingly against Norwich back in April when we won 3-1 (ironic book-end, that). Between then and now, he's been asked to sub in three times, each appearance lasting a minute or two at most, and I have to say that he's born up under this rather well, celebrating the club's successes and, until that comment above, holding his tongue, to all outward appearances being a team player.

That's a lot to ask of anyone, even one whose form dipped as much as it did during the 2012-13 campaign. Between that and the remarkable form shown by the Kos-Per tandem, it's little wonder that Vermaelen has struggled to find match-time, just as it's small wonder that he finds himself sizing up his options. It would be one thing if there was some kind of rotation to allow him some time on the pitch, but he seems to have been all but frozen out. Between Per, Kos, and now Sagna, Vermaelen barely rates as an option at center-back, so is it any wonder that he's mentioned January? He hasn't asked to leave; he's merely pointed out that he and Arsène have spoken and that things can happen, which is about as revelatory as pointing out that rain is wet. Between now and the January transfer-window, there are no less than 17 matches to be played and 73 days in which to play them. a match every 4th day or, on average, and we're going to need more poor Tom sooner rather than later.

The last time I touched on the subject of Vermaelen's form was when I gave him a D+ on the year while hoping that he "will come back next year stronger and more-focused, ready to challenge for a starting role, even if the captain's armband goes to someone else along the way." I still hold to those words and hope that, should the opportunity arise, Vermaelen rises to the challenge. It's too early (I hope) to start talking in terms of boosting his value in the transfer-window; I'd prefer to think of him re-establishing himself as a first-choice center-back, rotating in and out depending on strategy or fitness. What do you think, though? Is there room for Vermaelen in the long term, or should we look to move him in January?

Özil: just a flesh wound

So another interlull has come and gone, and true to form, it's delivered a bit of bad news mixed in with the good. First, the good: a number of Gunners did well for their countries, whether it was Ramsey's late equalizer for Wales, Mertesacker watching
from the bench as Özil scored and assisted in Germany's wild win, Szczęsny almost single-handedly holding England to a singe goal, Giroud scoring in France's win, or Vermaelen finally getting a chance to start. The biggest news for Gooners, of course, was the fear inspired by the idea that Özil was subbed off due to an apparent knee-injury. Fear-mongers and conspiracy-theorists did what they do, wallowing (or is it revelling) in the swamp of self-pity as they predicted the worst. It felt positively Sysiphean; just as we were set to see some of the sexiest footballing we've seen in a while once Özil and Cazorla take to the pitch together, we'd see that prospect slip cruelly from our grasp. We'd worked so hard and been so patient, only to see the terrifying tweets and headlines that Özil had gone down.

So it should come as a bit of a relief that today's news suggests that the injury is mild enough that he could play on Saturday if needed. Despite there being reports of an injury to the ankle or hamstring, it appears that Özil took a cleat to the knee and has suffered some bruising but no lacerations or deeper damage, and he walked off on his own. Going down the tunnel for immediate treatment sounds urgent, but coming off in the 82nd minute in a 5-3 game whose outcome won't change the table is hardly desperate measures; it's more like common sense. In the absence of firmer indications of his fitness, Podolski tweeted (since deleted) that he "called Mesut, he felt pain on his knee. But it's not in danger and he'll be ready for Norwich." Podolski's not a doctor, of course, and it's unlikely that a teammate would be permitted to share status-updates ahead of team officials and so on, but it's reassuring enough to conclude that Özil is available to face Norwich. Without slighting the Canaries, I have one eye on Tuesday's visit from Dortmund when I say I'd like to see Özil play at least a half on Saturday, if only to get some time on the pitch with Cazorla so that they're not still sussing each other out against the stiffer competition Dortmund will offer (assuming they're both match-ready, of course).

As the saying goes, "if it bleeds, it leads," so it's no surprise that the early responses to Özil's injury were of the frantic variety. I caught myself refreshing twitter a few times before realizing that, if there's an update to his status, it's not coming in the first few minutes after the injury, and it won't come via twitter. Problem solved, and sure enough, I awake to more measured reports that he'll be available if required. Fine. With three-plus days before the Canaries, I'm sure Özil will be turning hand-springs in no time.

Having dealt with that, I suppose that the next major event is the AGM, which will provide a lot of sturm und drang as the Black Scarves and others try to get some kind of response from Kroenke, who has not deigned to meet with supporters at all, despite committing to do so back in 2011. For what it's worth, he faces re-election this year, but holding 42,000 shares means he can essentially elect himself. However, there's a lot less to complain about than there was last year at this time. We've spent a bit of money to bring in Özil, we sit top of the table, and are well-positioned in the Champions League group-stage. Anything can happen, of course, but things as they currently stand are fine with me. I don't expect much to come of the AGM, nor do I care much for Kroenke, so anything good that does come out of it will be a pleasant surprise. There will be some speeches, some angry, pointed questions followed by glib non-answers and that's about it, I imagine. It's a bit of a double-edged sword in that few clubs offer supporters as much access as Arsenal does. However, if they're just going through the motions, is this really any better than having less access? These are issues for someone more well-versed than I, frankly. I'd rather focus my attentions on the pitch if only because I know a little more about how to play football than I do how to run a club.

Right. Enough for now. 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!

15 October 2013

Cazorla and Özil together in t-minus four days and counting...

Sorry to look past England's qualifier with Poland later today, but, like many Gooners, I'm positively drooling over the possibilities on offer from a midfield that features both Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. Lost in the hype over Özil's actual signing and his own
injury, Santi looks set to return in time for Saturday's clash with Norwich. It's hard to resist the temptation to envision them simply eviscerating defenses, as each man brings such sublime skill-sets to the pitch. Between the two, they are arguably the most technically-gifted players in the squad, and their combined vision, dribbling, passing, and movement will likely unlock the most-stubborn of defenses. Add in the fine form of Ramsey and Giroud, among others, and it's hard to imagine any defense holding us off for a full 90 minutes.

Cazorla, for one, contributed 12 goals and 14 assists to last year's campaign, and it's amazing to consider that we still sit atop the Prem without his contributions (or those of Podolski or Walcott—the three of them accounted for a total of 37 goals and 30 assists last year, and after seven matches had tallied six goals and five assists). It's ironic to consider the embarrassing wealth of riches we will soon have at our disposal, but I imagine that Saturday won't show us much more than flashes and spurts and moments of brilliance as the two of them figure each other out—and as Arsène figures out how best to deploy them along with his other midfield options. With the Ramsey-Arteta-Flamini rotation in that defensive pivot, Özil, Cazorla, and Wilshere look set to prowl the midfield on Saturday (with others like Rosický and Walcott potentially available as well).

Making room for all three need not be a matter of assigning permanent positions to each, but it might make the most sense to deploy Wilshere in a central role with more defensive responsibilities, send Cazorla down the left, and Özil down the right, not that they would be playing as wingers as Podolski and Walcott might. If there's a weakness to Özil's game, it's in his defensive contributions, but that's grasping at straws a bit. Playing in front of Wilshere, Ramsey, and Flamini should offer Özil and Cazorla the freedom to roam, and the threat each of them poses, with or without the ball, will alternately stretch defenses out of shape and slice them wide open.

Özil's languid, effortless style and Cazorla's frenetic, helter-skelter jaunts may end up on opposite flanks, but each man's tendency to venture towards the middle should pull defenders and midfielders every which way. It's far too early to summon such comparisons, but it's almost obligatory to wonder whether we're going to see football on a level we haven't seen since the days of Henry, Pires, and Bergkamp. I won't use the capital-"I" word, but I will invoke another: intimidation. It's been years since we could intimidate a team even before a match could start. In years past, we've appeared shaky, especially against Man U, Man City, and Chelsea, and it's been rare that we'd go into a match simply believing that we'll come away with all three points. Heck, a year ago that we suffered a 1-0 defeat to none other than Norwich. Just as shocking was the feeling that it wasn't actually all that shocking in the uneven and sluggish start to last season's campaign.

Contrast those dismal days to now, when we don't just sit atop the Prem; we've gotten there with some electrifying play and strong performances throughout the squad—and we're not even at full-strength yet. The returns to fitness of players like Cazorla, and the continued bedding-in of new signings like Flamini and Özil, come just as our fixtures start to get tougher, both in frequency and intensity. With the verve and skill that Cazorla and Özil bring, though, we look to have an edge over most of our competition, if not in skill but in confidence as well. We still have to play the matches, of course, but it's a welcome change of pace to sense that we have that edge before the players take their positions.

I could go on, but I should stop. 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!

14 October 2013

Benzema, Bergkamp, and Lewandowski...

Sigh. Another interlull day does what it does. I can't even drum up much excitement for the qualifiers. Germany and Belgium are all squared away, but England, France, and Spain still have to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror. The Czech Republic could still sneak in, but Wales and Poland are both eliminated. One might hope then that Poland rolls over for England to assure that England finishes above Ukraine, who travel to winless, goal-less San Marino and its minus-45 goal-differential. Coming on the heels of Ukraine's fans' despicable behavior towards San Marino in the first leg, one hopes that a bit of karma delivers San Marino a famous 10-0 victory. Time will tell.

As for Arsenal news, it's slim-pickings indeed, as the most noise seems to come from what didn't happen or won't happen until January if it happens at all. I refer first to the fake Bergkamp twitter account @DBergkamp1969, which has been suspended after it was exposed as a sham. I'm not sure what would motivate a person to embark on such a fruitless project; I worry about the 20 minutes of my own life that I wasted tweeting #RedknappClaims such as "'Arry knew she was a tranny the whole time he was watching The Crying Game." Comic gold, I'm sure, but was it worth it? I'm sure that whoever set up the take Bergkamp account was twirling the ends of his handlebar moustache as he set up the account and said something like "Curses! Foiled again! If only it wasn't for those meddling kids!" once the account was suspended. Shame on me, of course, for following the account. I'm not sure what I expected to get out of it. Did I think I'd manage to tweet him with a just-right mixture of warmth and aloofness and nonchalance that would inspire Dennis to reach out, not with a tweet, but with a sincere and heartfelt DM? Alas, it was not to be, and it's a bit of a shame that we won't be hearing from him, at least via twitter, because his insights into the game, and his recollections of his time with Arsenal, would make for some beautiful reading. Maybe he should skip twitter altogether and just put out a book...

Elsewhere, there's tall-talk already of Karim Benzema being made available at a "cut-rate" price of £20m and of Robert Lewandowski saying that he "never said that [he] will sign a contract with Bayern" and he "would like to play in [sic] Premier League". Each of these has been seized on by eager minds as doors thrown open to Arsenal. First, Benzema. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about him, certainly not as much as I was for Higuain. He's lackadaisical, and aside from a strong showing against Galatasaray, hasn't done much yet to distinguish himself for a free-scoring Real Madrid. One would think that Higuain's departure would have given Benzema room to make his mark, but, aside from a ridiculous haircut, there's been little positive to say about him. The contrast between signing Mesut Özil from Real Madrid and signing Karim Benzema strikes me. The first is the steal of the season and sent a strong signal about our growing ambitions. Özil is, after all, touted as being among the world's ten best footballers, and for him to leave Real Madrid for any club is stunning. On the other hand, we have reports of Real Madrid actively shopping Benzema at a price two-thirds of what they paid for him in 2009. With the market for strikers what is was this summer, something stinks there. He's only gone for two goals from 26 shots in eight matches, and he's apparently second-choice for the French national team behind none other than Olivier Giroud. Giroud has spoken openly about wanting another striker, and perhaps Benzema would thrive in a new setting and under Arsène's management, but I worry about the locker-room tensions there. That said, it's October, and there's a lot of football to be played between now and January. Let's see how Benzema does—and what he might have to say about joining Arsenal—before we get too worked up about him one way or the other.

In similar fashion, Lewandowski's comments feel exciting at first blush...until we remind ourselves that, again, it's only October, and he's highly unlikely to leave Dortmund in January. Even if he's now talking down a move to Bayern, this is probably little more than maneuvering ahead of any negotiations over wages. If he's seen as committed exclusively to Bayern, this could depress his value. Keeping the likes of us, Man U, and Chelsea interested is a solid tactic for extracting the best deal for himself (and I don't mean that as a criticism).  I've joked in the past that we should sign Lewandowski to save Dortmund the anger and disappointment of seeing him leave for Bayern, the same anger and disappointment we felt when van Persie left for Man U, but maybe there's something to it. If he's dead-set on leaving, we'd be remiss to ignore him. He wouldn't be cheap, of course, and might even look to be the highest-paid player in most squads. As with Benzema, I refuse to get excited about him at this point. I am excited about Lewandowski in a way that I'm not about Benzema, and I think his signing could feel almost as good as Özil's was. His potential appearance at Wembley on Tuesday, in front of as many as 18,000 Polish fans, would offer a tantalizing, up-close view of his talents. However, it'll have to sit on the back, back-burner for now.

Looking past that and back to Arsenal itself, it looks like we could have Rosicky, Cazorla, and Sanogo available to face Norwich on Saturday, and the idea of seeing Cazorla partnering with Özil has me drooling already. We'll take a closer look at the match later in the week. Until next time, thanks for stopping by...