26 October 2013

Player Ratings vs. Crystal Palace

As discussed in the game review, this was a bit of a slog. Tired legs and maybe a bit of a jaded attitude left us straggling for long stretches. Fortunately, we found a way to win. Few teams are going to run away with every  game they play, after all. Still, three points taken.

All ratings and statistics come from whoscored.com's match report.
  • Sagna—7.85 Listed as whoscored's Man of the Match, and why not? He co-led the team with five effective clearances and snuffed out any number of attacks on the left side. He even had a cheeky little bicycle kick to clear. A number of good crosses, two of which Giroud nearly headed home. He even had a few chances to score from inside the box...
  • Ramsey—7.79 Shockingly, not a single tackle or interception for a man who regularly led the team. Playing out on the right wing asks him to do different things, to be sure, so he answered with two key passes, 91 passes (led the team), and the assist to Giroud to ice the match.
  • Szczesney—7.74 My Man of the Match, to be honest. He had an answer each time he was challenged, which was far too often for my tastes. Frankly, I want my goalie bored out of his skull. With the number of free kicks  and shots from distance that we conceded, Szczesny did well to keep everything out, including a world-class save against Jedinak despite being screened by Giroud. What's more, he showed some flashes of anger when teammates flubbed their lines, an emerging sign of genuine confidence from the young keeper.
  • Mertesacker—7.69 Another unassuming and solid performance: four tackles, three interceptions, five clearances, three aerial duels won. 
  • Gibbs—7.67 Great game for Gibbs with eight tackles, three interceptions and clearances, a confident performance.
  • Koscielny—7.65 While not quite a dominant performance, he, along with the rest of the back-line kept Crystal Palace out of the box all day. An eye-popping 13 accurate long balls on 15 attempts, which was crucial to keeping us one step ahead of Palace, especially after Arteta was sent off.
  • Giroud—7.4 The man put in a workman-like performance, slogging his way around the pitch, getting pushed around and clattered all day. He looked knackered, to be honest. However, he never stopped moving and made the most of the chances he was given—two strong headers goalward, and great timing to get open to finish Ramsey's pass.
  • Özil—6.94 Another quiet performance from the man, but he did have his moments. He had one great scoring opportunity but chose to one-touch a cross when he might have had time to set himself up. Not a criticism, necessarily, but a result of the high expectations that follow him around.
  • Arteta—6.57 Hard to take the ranking at face value. On one hand, he slotted coolly on the penalty and found time to add seven accurate long balls and three tackles. On the other, the red card was a bit harsh; to judge it as a clear goal-scoring opportunity from that distance—50 yards or so and with Chamakh more intent on clattering Arteta than on keeping the ball—beggars belief. Arsene has ruled out an appeal, so he'll not play Tuesday against Chelsea.
  • Cazorla—6.57 A very quiet evening for Cazorla saw him subbed off for Monreal, which is just as well as Monreal emerged as the livelier attacking threat anyway. A couple of nifty dribbles but little impact suggests that he's still finding his fitness and form.
  • Flamini—6.16 Honestly, he only played for eight minutes, so there's not much to say. He did treat us to a lovely glimpse of the inner thigh once he took a seat, so there's that.
Subs
  • Monreal (72' for Cazorla)—7.13  As mentioned above, Monreal showed some surprising verve with the ball, even dribbling into the box à la Ramsey versus Norwich, and very nearly came away with a goal. Strangely, he didn't have much else to do as we protected the lead. Good to see him back, though, albeit in midfield instead of defense.
  • Gnabry (8' for Flamini)—6.88 A strange substitution at first glance, coming into the defensive midfield, but his heat map does show him playing more as a winger anyway. Some incisive runs and solid decision-making throughout.  He worked his way nicely into the box before getting cut down, earning the spot-kick for Arteta. A ghosted assist, if you will.
  • Wilshere—6.55 (69' for Gnabry) Another odd substitution. I'd prefer that Wilshere just rest, especially after how poorly he played against Dortmund. If we were looking to strengthen the defense, why not send out Vermaelen or Rosický? At any rate, he did fine and looked a bit more energetic, so no harm done.

Arsenal 2-0 Crystal Palace: harder than it had to be

Despite my hopes that we would see a side much-changed from Tuesday's match, we saw an essentially unchanged lineup to start things off, with a backline of Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Gibbs in front of Szczesny, Flamini and Arteta in the pivot, Cazorla, Özil, and Ramsey in the midfield,
and Giroud up top. I would have liked to see some rotation ahead of Tuesday's league-cup clash with Chelsea; instead, we seemed to have seen almost the opposite as all three of our defensive midfielders were squeezed on. As it stands, we'll now go into Tuesday without Arteta, who drew an trivial red card, and we may also be without Flamini, who limped off in the eighth minute with a groin pull. The squad-selection seemed to indicate that we'd see some Academy players feature on Tuesday; the absences of Arteta and Flamini (potentially) all but guarantee it. So it goes.

Back to the match itself. This was not a pretty one to watch, and for long stretches, it looked like Crystal Palace could come away with a point, if not all three, had their finishing been stronger. Then again, Chamakh. He had a number of golden chances, as did a number of others. But for a number of brilliant saves from Szczesny, we might have had an even tougher time. By the time full-time was called, we found ourselves on the positive end of a scoreline that flatters us more than a bit. Ironically, we looked livelier and more-intent, if more a bit more ragged, after Arteta got sent off in the 65th minute. He and Chamakh bumped into each other, and Arteta was sent off for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Apparently, the referee didn't notice that it was Chamakh (who leaned into Arteta just as much as Arteta bumped into him), nor did he care that the incident happened 50 yards from goal. Nonetheless, we pulled together.

Even as Crystal Palace pressed for an equalizer and after Cazorla and Gnabry had been replaced for defensive purposes by Monreal and Wilshere, respectively, we continued to look for a second goal. Monreal made two nifty runs into the box and almost struck. Finally, it came in the 87th minute after a nice run from Ramsey, who pulled up short, saw Giroud coming through the box, and lofted it in. Giroud made no mistake, heading home forcefully. Giroud had an off-day, truth be told, but he never stopped moving and working. It's a tribute to him that he found a way to score instead of letting frustration sap his will. Without dubbing him as one—yet—that's what great players do. He may have been off his game, but he never gave up and earned a goal to quiet his critics and settle the match.

The real story to me, though, is keeping a clean sheet for the first time in four matches, our fifth in fifteen overall. Credit goes to Szczesny who made a number of world-class saves to earn that clean sheet, prompting this tweet from @Orbinho. That clean sheet, pretty as it is, hides the unfortunate fact that we're still conceding too many shots, not to mention goals, that make our job a bit more difficult. After all, for as powerful as we've been on the offensive end with 20 goals in the league (tied with Man City) and with a +11 goal-differential, we will have to clamp down even more on defense, or we will find ourselves dropping points. Absent so far are the howlers from last year, such as Koscielny's tackle against Man City, Jenkinson getting dispossessed against Swansea, or Sagna's scything against Man U, but the goals we've conceded have come from mental lapses such as those against Dortmund or West Brom. There will come a time when we find it harder to score, and we'll have to rely on a steelier defense to get us the result we want.

Before this sounds too nit-picky, consider that Palace out-shot us 13-10 despite having only 37% possession. Were it not for Szczesny's saves or Sagna's fine performance, for example, or poor finishing from Palace, this could very well have ended as a draw or worse. This is hardly "back to the drawing board" kind of stuff, but we shouldn't let good results mask flaws or weaknesses.

I'm sure we went into this match feeling a bit of a let-down, both from having lost on Tuesday and from the difference in the stakes. Dortmund sits atop the Bundesliga and are Champions League runners-up; Crystal Palace are newly-promoted to the Prem and struggling for any kind of a foothold. However, no team in the Prem is going to just roll over, and we met a team desperate for a result. Fortunately, we held them off long enough to find an opening or two and secured three points. We'll stay atop the Prem for another week, four points ahead of Liverpool, and five ahead of Chelsea (who host Man City on Sunday). Not bad. Not bad at all.

Before you go, please consider voting for me in 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!

Crystal Palace: match preview

Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park offers us one last, best chance to rest some of the wearier legs. The Eagles (as they're sometimes called) are struggling after earning promotion last year, having scored just six goals while winning only once in eight matches. Despite a promising start that include a narrow loss to Spurs in the opener and a 3-1 win over Sunderland (sounds familiar...), they've now lost five in a row and Ian Holloway has left "by mutual consent", prompting Arsène to say that "it was very harsh..he has done exceptionally well" to get them promoted. News that Tony Pulis might return to the Prem after he parted ways with Stoke will have to wait as Keith Millen steps in for the time being.

The last time we faced Crystal Palace was in 2005, and we won 5-1. Of course, there's not a lot to be learned from that, so we'll set it aside and focus on more recent and relevant issues. One narrative that piques interest would come through seeing Marouane Chamakh lead the line against his former club, but this is hardly enough to strike fear into anyone's hearts. As he did for so many years with us, he's failed to produce much of anything, scoring a single goal in his eight appearances. As I discussed in this post, some of this may be attributable to being displaced when Robin van Persie stepped in, but, then, again, he hardly distinguished himself when given opportunities after van Persie left, even when Giroud struggled to make his mark early last season. Opposite Chamakh, we might even see another van Persie-d striker, one who almost joined Crystal Palace himself, Nicklas Bendter. After all, Giroud has played some heavy minutes, and we have to start thinking about some rotation. Bendtner has shown some glimmers, such as the assist he provided Eisfeld against West Brom or the two headers he scored for Denmark. While he may not inspire much confidence, we have to do something to give Giroud a breather, especially as we look ahead to our first gauntlet of matches, with Chelsea and Liverpool visiting and with trips to Dortmund and Man U beyond that.

On the flanks, I'd like to see Gnabry on the right and Cazorla on the left, and I imagine that the two of them will create a lot of chances for themselves and for Bendtner (should he indeed start). Both he and Giroud will have a significant height advantage over most of Palace's defense (10-12cm), and crosses and set-pieces could lead to great scoring-chances. It might be worth resting Özil and Wilshere by bringing on Rosický. His pressing and work-rate, not to mention his creativity in the attack, are vital elements, and I'd love to see him buzzing about again, perhaps even grabbing his first goal of the season while he's at it. Let's hope I'm as good at predictions as I was the last time I called on Rosický to score when he scored not once but twice to lead us past West Brom...

Moving to the more-defensive side of things, Flamini is available again after suffering a concussion against Norwich, and his departure from that match and absence against Dortmund challenged us quite a bit, so it would be good to see him retake his role in the defensive midfield alongside Ramsey, a man for whom "fatigue" is a foreign concept and who would probably relish the opportunity to put his error against Dortmund behind him while also disrupting Palace's attack. 

It's in the back-line that I think I might be shuffling things too much. It seemed that the second goal against Dortmund came in part through fatigue on the parts of both Gibbs and Sagna. Gibbs struggled to stay in front of Grosskreutz to prevent the cross, and Sagna didn't get back at all, leaving Lewandowski wide open for the finish. I'm assuming that it was fatigue, rather than, say, a lack of effort or desire, that left us so exposed, but that's another story for another day. Whatever the case may be, I think it's time to send in Monreal and Jenkinson; neither has played much lately and will be fresh. Their more-cautious approaches would see them stay home a bit rather than pressing too far forward to track back effectively. By contrast but for related reasons, I do hope we see Thomas Vermaelen come in for Koscielny, who has logged heavy minutes and looks decidedly less "Bosscielny" of late. This might be the tetchiest of subs, given how little Vermaelen has played, but he's still the captain, dammit, and we need him. He's handled his demotion remarkably well, for all outward appearnances, but I'd rather he know that he's playing over being subbed in on short notice after someone goes down injured.

Last but not least, stay with Szczesny. He's hardly to blame for the Dortmund goals but would probably like a chance to redeem himself, perhaps even by keeping his first clean sheet since the Napoli match? We'll see. I don't underestimate Crystal Palace, and it's true that we've stumbled before, whether it was Blackburn or Bradford or Birmingham, but Palace has looked toothless enough that we should put them on their collective arses quickly and thoroughly.

Arsenal 3-0 Palace. Rosický, Gnabry, and Ramsey to score.

25 October 2013

Cesc talks up a return to Arsenal...

Even as we prepare for Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park, there's tantalizing words from Cesc Fàbregas and a potential return to Arsenal. In an interview in The Guardian, he answers the question "would you go back [to Arsenal]?" by saying this:
Arsenal is in my heart and always will be. I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to go back and play there one day, or maybe after football. It's a club that is always going to be there and will always open its doors to me. The club's like a family, so even if it wasn't as a coach, I'm sure they'd give me the chance to play a role.
Even parsing this optimistically, let's admit that it's little more than a diplomatic response. Of course, it's kind of him to say that Arsenal is in his heart. He seems to dismiss or at least downplay the idea of returning as a player, and, at best, he punts on the idea of returning as a coach. He mentions the croles that Campbell and Bergkamp have played but doesn't mention Henry, who has returned as a player, albeit briefly—and gloriously. Therefore, for as much as it might thrill us to hear Cesc saying he'd like to return, he didn't. Credit goes to him for finessing the response, though. Tekkers, indeed.

Far more interesting to me is what he had to say about how his departure has helped the club, or at least a few players.  Cesc says:
I watch the way Ramsey is playing now, how he looks so liberated, and I think maybe I blocked his way. Maybe I was an obstacle. Sometimes you need someone to leave for you to step forward and say: “I’m here.” I’m saying that about Ramsey just as an example, by the way, because the poor kid had the injury too—I could say the same for Jack. It’s the concept I’m talking about, the idea of stepping up. That mental unblocking is so important. 
Of course, it would have been nice to see how they'd flourish alongside Cesc instead of without him. It's entirely possible that Ramsey or Wilshere would be doing just as well, but we'll never know now, will we? And so we move on. What he says applies to other players as well, of course. Keeping an eye on Crystal Palace, Arsène had this to say about Marouane Chamakh:
He was a little bit the victim of Van Persie. The problem with Marouane Chamakh is once I installed Van Persie in this position as a central striker on his own, he faced competition with a world-class player and that makes you compete.
Everything there rings true except those last few words. It's hard to see where Chamakh competed, for he never really showed us anything even after van Persie left. Aside from contributing to the ridiculous goal-a-thon with Reading last year, he never seized the opportunity that van Persie's departure offered and looks unlikely to do so for Crystal Palace, having taken just one shot in eight matches, a total of 524 minutes of football. Sure, it went in, but just what has he been doing over there?

On the other hand, Olivier Giroud, who, spent his summer pondering his role while we embarked on a series of wild-goose chases to find an upgrade or replacement. Instead of letting himself get run down, he's turned in a masterful early-season performance in part because the "obstacle" never arrived. That obstacle, whether it had turned out to be Higuain or Suarez, didn't get to him, as he said "it would have bothered me a bit, but I was not afraid of competition" even if Higuain, a direct competitor for the central striker role, had joined the club. Since then, of course, lending further credence to Cesc's words, Giroud has already tallied seven goals and four assists in thirteen matches. If he and Ramsey continue to play as they have, Cesc's words will prove positively prescient.

And with that, I love the idea of looking forward, rather than backward. Sure, Cesc was great for us, and merely mentioning him sparks some wonderful memories, but we're going to get anywhere by continuously looking back. It's one thing to get nostalgic or to learn from history, but it's quite another to fixate on it. We've got a fine squad that looks capable of creating quite a few new memories of its own. Similarly, after the loss to Dortmund, we put it behind us and regroup for the next match. We'll preview that later today. 'Til then, enjoy the day...

Before you go, please consider voting for me in 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!

23 October 2013

Arsenal complete phase one of Operation: Dash Supporters' Hopes

LONDON- in a surprise news-conference, Arsène Wenger revealed to reporters that Tuesday's disappoint 2-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, was, in fact, the exact-right result that he was hoping for as it sets in motion a plan hatched at the end of last season.

"It is, uh, exactly the result we were hoping for, as our master-plan since last season has been to raise the fans' expectations to impossible heights, all the better to dash them over the course of the season," the long-time manager said.
"We have had only one mistake in this plan; it is the loss to Aston Villa. We had hoped to inspire in the fans the hope that we would have another season like the Invincibles. It is for this reason that we ended the last season as we did, getting so many good results. We had hoped to continue this form up to this point. However, Aston Villa played a good match, so we had to make adjustments to the plan."

Wenger went on to explain that the entire summer transfer-window was one long exercise in flirting with and then quashing fans' hopes, first by making bold declarations about the club's ambitions and finances, then leaking rumors to the effect that Gonzalo Higuain had agreed to personal terms for a three-year deal, only to let him sign with Napoli instead, and then arranging with Liverpool to engage in a soap opera-esque pursuit of Luis Suarez. Each of these was but a ploy to lure in casual fans and to then ratchet up their interest so that, along with more committed, long-time fans, there would be a wider pool of saps, rubes, and marks whose emotions could be toyed with.

"We looked at our squad and, to us, it was important to have a 'feel-good' story. In these situations," continued Wenger, "it is not enough to merely play well and to win matches. We wanted a speical player for the fans to root for. It is for this reason that we decided to give to Aaron Ramsey the chance of shining for the club. After all, for him to come back to the form he showed before his injury, it was vital that he perform for the fans."

Indeed, it looked as if the plan was already ripening to perfection as last season's run-in saw the squad go undefeated across its final 11 matches, and Ramsey drew plaudits from fans and foes alike as he settled into a defined role, that of defensive midfielder. Even Piers Morgan became a true-believer. It was decided that the plan would be expanded. It wasn't enough that Ramsey had found a role that allowed him to thrive; he had to start making headlines. For this reason, the team contrived an elaborate scheme that would put him in positions from which to score goals. Each passing week seemed to bring yet another goal for the in-form Welshman, converting even his harshest critics into dyed-in-the-wool believers.

Wenger went on to explain, "this for us was the important element. We needed a hero, and he had to embody many of the, how do you say, the 'typical' Wenger signing qualities? We signed him when he was young, when no one else noticed his quality, and we brought him along. Then, he suffered injury and struggled to regain the form and the confidence, which is so essential. Such is the story of so many of the players we have brought to the club, so Aaron was for us the perfect player to embody the new spirit in the squad."

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a brighter example of a resurrection than that of Aaron Ramsey. His story almost beggars belief, as he's gone from whipping-boy to toast of the town. However, the operation would not be complete without a shock-departure from those "typical" Wenger signings. Wenger himself explained:
It was after the Aston Villa loss that we saw the need to do something dramatic, to reassure fans that there was, in fact, something special at work, and for this reason we signed the player Mesut Özil, knowing that he would reinvigorate the fans' unrealistic hopes. It is enough for me to say that it has worked perfectly. We did not plan for this; we hoped to use the transfer-window only to manipulate the fans. However, the loss [to Aston Villa] made it necessary for us to make adjustments.
It comes as no surprise then that the Özil signing, for as dramatic as it felt to Arsenal fans, or "Gooners" as they refer to themselves, was merely a prop to shore up a faltering scheme. His arrival inspired legions of fans to double down on their allegiance to the club, pinning even more of their emotional stability on the vicissitudes of the club's performance. Little did they know that the short-term ecstasy, the lording it over supporters of Tottenham or Manchester United, these were but gambits in a longer-term game, one that would see their hopes elevated to the highest of heights only to come crashing down with a terrible thud.

As news of the operation spread, it came as no surprise that Ramsey's gaffe against Dortmund, the one that opened the scoring in a depressing home-loss in the Champions League that leaves further progress hanging by a thread, was merely part of the plan from the beginning.

"We decided that, um, Aaron should commit an error that might allow Dortmund to score, and it worked to perfection," Wenger explained. "We suspected that the fickleness of many fans would be tested by this, just as it would if we lost. The operation needed a strong run to, uh, increase fans' expectations, and when the moment was right, we would, as it is said, lower the boom."

Gooners need no reminder of the outcome of that match, of course; a narrow loss leaves them level on points now with Dortmund and Napoli with two tough fixtures looming. As the press conference drew to a close, Wenger seemed to wax philosophic as he pondered the possibilities that now lay in front of him:
We now must decide how best to toy with the fans of the club, how best to torment them. Should we press on beyond the group stage, or is it more effective for our purposes to, as they say, "crash out" of the Champions League? We could then compete in the Europa League, could we not? Perhaps we could meet Spurs in the final. How then should we elevate the fans' hopes?
His musings continued almost as if he had stopped paying attention to the array of microphones in front of him. Among the overheard comments were the following: "we could win the Europa, if only to satirize the end of this so-called trophy drought..." and "non, Arsène, non! nous devons perdre de prouver le point; c'est évident!" 

Noticing that the press pool was leaning forward to eavesdrop on this sotto voce moment, Wenger cast a glaring eye around the room, declared "Wenger out" and strode off.

1-2 Dortmund: Player Ratings

We've been waiting for a match that would finally see us stumble, and Tuesday's clash with Dortmund was apparently it. That's too bad, but it's not a crisis. It complicates things moving forward, of course (more on that here), but we can take stock and set it aside in order to regroup for the trip to Crystal Palace on Saturday. Here, then, is a quick run-down of our boys' efforts last night (all statistics courtesy of whoscored.com):

  • Arteta: 7.5/10—did all of the things we've come to expect, leading the team with 11 tackles to help disrupt Dortmund's counters and 9 accurate long balls to initiate ours, trying to support the back four...some have knocked him for a lack of pace, and there might be truth to that, but he was arguably our best on the day.
  • Koscielny: 7/10—Did his job well keeping Lewandowski at bay for most of the evening. He might have Busquet-ed a bit more after getting elbowed, but the referee made an odd call anyway (the elbow should have drawn red or nothing). 
  • Giroud: 7/10—did well to finish a tricky sequence to equalize. On a day when we only put six shots on target, he made the most of the limited service he did receive.
  • Szczęsny: 6/10—very little he could do on either goal. Then again, coming up with a save on one of those, as improbable as it seems, is what world-class keepers can do. I'm not knocking Woj; I'm just waiting for when we'll see him pull a save like that out of his hat.
  • Gibbs: 6/10—led the team with interceptions and clearances (7 each), reflecting the fact that 45% of Dortmund's attack came down his side. He really should have done more to close down on the cross on the second goal. By then, though, he might have been a bit knackered, and sending Monreal in might have made sense. After all, Gibbs did have to contend with the fresher legs of Aubamayeng and Hofman, both on at 66'...
  • Rosický: 6/10—a typically Rosickian effort on the evening, but aside from Hummels' stellar goal-line clearance, he was not as effective or incisive as was needed.
  • Mertesacker: 6/10—five clearances on the night, but an otherwise standard Mertesackerian game. Quiet. Assured. Did what he had to do. He knows his limits and stays within them, by and large. Those limits, though, do begin to beg certain questions in my mind.
  • Özil: 6/10—a largely anonymous performance, strangely muted. Four key-passes but only 56 passes overall. 
  • Sagna: 5.5/10—nice cross, which should get him credit for the assist, but I haven't seen it listed. He looked tired, though, and was notably absent on Dortmund's second goal. Clips show him trotting back but apparently not crossing midfield as the attack unfolded. As with Gibbs, a sub might have made sense if only to offset Dortmund's midfield subs.
  • Ramsey: 5/10—made a bad mistake on the first goal, trying to dribble out of a tight situation and getting dispossessed. Then again, he received a pass in a near-impossible position. Turning to the flank rather than the middle might have been the better move, but this would have been a complete 180. Beyond that, an all-around sub-par performance, so I'm sure his critics are sharpening their knives. Piers Morgan, are you there?
  • Wilshere: 4/10—First, I apologize for initially laying into him for being absent on the second goal. I've deleted that but should be taken to task for my own mistake! As ClockendJim points out below, he was on the bench by that point. Nonetheless, he contributed little all evening. 65% pass-accuracy on 20 passes means he gave the ball away seven times, and he was a complete non-factor on defense, getting credit for zero tackles, interceptions, or clearances. Only 36 touches on the night was the lowest of any starter—lower, even, than his replacement. Cazorla, playing 42 minutes, had 41 touches. We ask and expect a lot of Jack, and he doesn't have to live up to those expectations, but this was a poor showing by any standard.
Subs: As mentioned above, shrewder substitutions might have made a nifty difference. Throwing on Cazorla almost changed the game; tossing Bendtner and Gnabry to generate more offense was too little, too late, if only because neither really the time to contribute.
  • Cazorla: 7/10 (58' for Wilshere)—as alluded to above, he was energetic and incisive and very nearly scored, hitting the woodwork and buzzing about. Had he started...oh well.
  • Bendtner: n/a (86' for Ramsey). Not on long enough to rate.
  • Gnabry: n/a (89' for Rosický). Not on long enough to rate.
That's that. We'll lick our wounds, learn a few lessons, and get ready for the next one.

22 October 2013

Arsenal 1-2 Dortmund: and back to Earth we go...

Well, it had to happen sooner or later, so it's really not terribly surprising that we dropped three points to Dortmund, arguably the best club we've faced to this point. That we came so close to keeping one point on a night when we were merely average
actually offers me some encouragement going forward. For as poorly as we played, we still came within 10 minutes of drawing against last year's second-place UCL finishers. Yes, we were at home, and yes, we hoped to seize all three points, but this was one match that caused some apprehensive feelings from the moment it was announced—a mixture of fear and excitement. A win would confirm our status among the world's elite, if only for a few weeks; a loss would undermine all of the progress we've made so far. Such is the binary nature of a club's form: world-beaters one week, also-rans the next.

The downside to going on a run such as the one we've been is that it does dull a squad's intensity. On each of the goals we conceded, there was a marked lack of intensity. On Dortmund's first, the first accusing fingers point directly at Ramsey. After all, he lost the ball as he tried to dribble across the top of the box between three Dortmund players. However, questions should also be posed to Arteta for passing to Ramsey when a more-forward pass to Wilshere might have been wise, and we could also ask Koscielny why he had such trouble closing on Mkhitaryan. Up to that point, and too often afterwards, there was a disturbing lack of urgency or purpose in the squad, as we settled for lackadaisical passing, casual tracking and marking, and a decidedly tepid performance all around. Dortmund's second goal was the more galling of the two, and we'll deal with that shortly. Having said all of that, we came close to keeping a point on a night when we didn't really deserve it.

Giroud equalized on a bit of fortuitous play shortly before half-time as Sagna's cross was first deflected a bit by Subotic and then mishandled by Weidenfeller, leaving Giroud with an open net into which he blasted home. We had some chances but have little to complain about; Cazorla hit the woodwork, and Hummels had a goal-line clearance, but, in the end, we got what we deserved. No squad concedes two goals as we did while still claiming a right to win. Not against the likes of Dortmund.

Speaking of complaining, there's bound to be some kvetching about Lewandowski. He seemed to clobber Koscielny with an elbow to the nose, but he only earned a yellow. That's an odd, Solomonic compromise, as the offense should have drawn red or nothing, as I understand it. Once the referee issued the yellow, odd as it may be, our boys had little choice but to dig in deeper and refuse to let this distract them. While I won't go so far as to suggest that they lost focus, it's telling that Lewandowski went on to score the go-ahead goal by coming down our right flank completely unmarked. It's as if Sagna, Ramsey, and Cazorla simply decided that Lewandowski could be safely ignored. As the play unfolded, we can see Mertesacker tracking back through the center of the box while marking Hofmann, Arteta trailing but not marking anyone, Koscielny caught between marking someone or committing to the ball-carrier Großkreutz, and Gibbs making a half-hearted attempt at closing down on Großkreutz. Nowhere near the play are Sagna, Ramsey, or Cazorla. Whether Lewandowski should have been on the pitch in that moment had been decided fifteen minutes prior; to then let him roam unmarked on a twenty-yard run into our box is inexcusable.

On a day when two of our most-dominant players had thoroughly average games, and when no one was especially effective, a one-goal loss to one of the world's best teams is hardly the death-knell that some will make it out to be. In the end, then, it's not a catastrophe. It complicates matters, to be sure. However, we still sit atop the UCL table even though we're level on points with Dortmund and Napoli. Marseille's poor form means that victories over them don't count; only matches played between teams level on points matter right now. As it stands, then, we're top of the table thanks to goal-differentials:
  • Arsenal 2-0 Napoli, Arsenal 1-2 Dortmund. Arsenal +1
  • Dortmund 1-2 Napoli, Dortmund 2-1 Arsenal. Dortmund +/- 0
  • Napoli 0-2 Arsenal, Napoli 2-1 Dortmund. Napoli -1
We therefore have a bit of a log-jam, and we may have to rely on Marseille's help if we expect to advance. Here is each club's remaining fixtures:
  • Arsenal: Dortmund (A), Marseille (H), Napoli (A).
  • Dortmund: Arsenal (H), Napoli (H), Marseille (A).
  • Napoli: Marseille (H), Dortmund (A), Arsenal (H)
This doesn't favor us as we now likely need at least four points from three matches to advance. Assuming we can defeat Marseille, we then have to take one point or more from trips to Dortmund or Napoli. Along the way, of course, we'll have to hope that Dortmund and Napoli draw with each other while Marseille finds a way to win. If we can defeat Marseille and Dortmund or Napoli, we should be through. However, if we beat Marseille and draw with Dortmund and Napoli, we'd have eleven points. We'd then have to hope for results elsewhere that favor us: Marseille winning its remaining matches, Dortmund and Napoli drawing with each other, and so on. It's a bit squeaky, then, isn't it?

To settle our nerves and digestive systems, we'll have a few days before Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park to face newly-promoted but struggling Crystal Palace, led by none than other Marouane Chamakh. More on that when the time is right. For now, lick your wounds and put Tuesday's loss behind you. It's a speed-bump, little more.

Before you go, I hope you'll consider voting for me in 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!

Die Borussen! A match preview...

Stay calm; I'm not calling for Dortmund to die. It reads "the Prussians", one of a seemingly endless number of names and nicknames for BV Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund. Whatever name we choose, Dortmund comes in as the real marquee match of the season. For as fine a form Arsenal has been in, 22 October has been a date that we've looked forward to with anticipation and, yes, a bit of dread ever since the fixtures
were announced. After all, for all of the history and enmity between us and Spurs, going into this match tomorrow raises the stakes quite a bit as this shapes up to be the toughest test we've faced to date. It'll be a bit like looking in a mirror in many ways. Like us, Dortmund play a creative, attacking brand of football and prefer finding talented players and honing them in that brand. Like us, they've suffered the sting of seeing those players leave the club just as they're realizing their potential, whether it's Mario Götze leaving for league rivals Bayern this past summer or Shinji Kagawa leaving for (and languishing at) Man U. They join us in being one of only two clubs to beat Bayern in the last eight months. The similarities, however, only go so far and matter even less.

Similarities aside, the biggest news from our point of view is Flamini's concussion and subsequent absence. His head-on-head clash on Norwich's Tettey leaves renders him unavailable, and, as understated as his arrival was, his presence on the pitch has left an indelible mark, whether it's his marshalling of the defensive midfield, his grit and tenacity, or his willingness to do the dirty work behind the more-glamorous midfield. In his absence, we'll almost certainly see Arteta and a more-restrained Ramsey hold down the pivot in front of Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Sagna as we look to hold off one of the liveliest counter-attacking teams we've faced all season. I've salivated over Lewandowski in the past, and he'll come into London for the second time in as many weeks, sure to leave an impression stronger than the one he left while representing Poland. Speaking of which, countryman Wojciech Szczęsny posted a facebook message to Lewandowski saying "żarty się skończyły! London calling:)" or "jokes are over! London calling". This could be read as an invitation (to join Arsenal) or a challenge (we'll defeat you). Either way, I like the spirit.

On to more serious matters, we have to caution ourselves against too much braggadocio. After all, we've done as much as we should have, with the only stand-outs being a 1-0 win over Spurs and a 2-0 win over Napoli. Beyond that, without slighting other opponents, we've only done what we should be expected to do, Özil or no Özil. Few expected a 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa, of course, but most of us expected to win out over the other clubs we've faced. The style with which we've done so, of course, should inspire a small degree of confidence.

Aside from Flamini's absence, we'll able to field a very strong side against Dortmund, who will be somewhat hobbled by the absences of Ilkay Gündogan, Sebastien Kehl, Lukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels, and manager Jürgen Klopp. That's four absences in the heart of Dortmund's defense (including CM Gündogan), and this should leave Dortmund vulnerable. Add in the home-field advantage, and we really should be able to take these three points. This is not idle boasting. It's hard, after all, to argue against the form we're in. Not just the results, but the manner in which we're earning them. The strength and creativity we can offer in the midfield should be well-positioned to seize the advantage over Dortmund's midfield; between the absences of Kehl and Gündogan and the bedding-in of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, we should be able to neutralize their counters and control possession, at least enough to come away with a win, leaving us with nine points from three matches and probably needing just one more point from three remaining matches to advance.

Before we go, I'll leave you with some words of inspiration from Özil, who reminded us of this:
Even if it did not run perfectly for Real against Dortmund, I scored or set up a goal in nearly every game against a German side; that gives me a good feeling. Moreover, we play the first game in London. That's an advantage.
Indeed, his form, as well as that of the rest of the squad, should create a bit of confidence going forward. That said, I'm calling for a 2-1 win with goals from Giroud and Cazorla to set the pace. Make your own predictions in the comments-section below.

Before you go, please consider voting for me in 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!

20 October 2013

Player Ratings vs. Norwich. Parental Advisory: Explicit.

Saturday's match delivered us some sexy, sexy football, the kind of eye-candy one could only find in the wee hours of the night on HBO or Cinemax Skinemax. It was sultry; it was sweaty; it was orgasmic. The only downside to orgasmic experiences is the recovery period. Thankfully, our boys were vital enough to rouse themselves to their full and upright positions after each score quickly enough to deliver one stunner after another. To wit, then, the rankings.

  • Giroud: NC-17. Delicious deliveries on two of four goals. Didn't score for himself but set up Wilshere and Özil in fine fashion.
  • Özil: NC-17. Proving himself as the steal of the summer transfer window with two goals and three key passes (actually lowering his rate to from 4 per game to 3.8 per game).
  • Wilshere: NC-17. A goal and an assist tell only part of the story as he also matched Özil with three key passes and was vital throughout. That goal? That goal on its own should earn the retired "X" rating. 
  • Gibbs: R. Could have closed better on Norwich's lone goal but an otherwise solid all-around performance, including a team-high five tackles.
  • Sagna: R. Led the team in interceptions with four and adapted well to the departure of Flamini.
  • Szczesny: R. Beaten on a nice rabbit-chaser of a shot, he otherwise did well to parry a number of shots and turned in an assured but not cocky performance.
  • Arteta: R. Showing a few signs of rust, he nevertheless turned in a confident performance with 95% passing while leading the team in passes (94).
  • Cazorla: PG-13. Helped to initiate one of the most beautiful sequences in recent memory but otherwise a bit rusty. Some nice passes and dribbles to tantalize us once he's back to fitness...
  • Kos 6.8: PG-13. Second in the team in clearances (3) and launched the second goal with a well-timed interception. Only complaint? Didn't boss the game.
  • Per 6.6: PG. Fluffed a clearance but did lead in effective clearances (5). Kept the defense organized even after Flamini left and, with him, the threat of blinding opponents.
  • Flamini 6.3: PG. Despite only playing 37 minutes, he led the team with six accurate long balls and knocked himself unconscious for a moment, sure to lead a to a Chuck Norris-esque meme. 
Subs
  • Bendtner (78th minute): PG. Led the team with 100% pass-accuracy (calm down, he only attempted nine) but did well to pass on the 4th goal when pressure might have otherwise forced him to shoot.
  • Rosicky (59th minute) 6.3: PG. He changed the energy of the game when he came on, and his cross to Ramsey (who headed down to Özil for the goal) was spot-on.
  • Ramsey (37th minute): X. Yum. Sumptuous. Pressed into duty after Flamini knocked himself out, Ramsey scored and assisted while sharing with Özil the team-lead in shots on target (3) and key passes (3) and leading in successful dribbles (5). Um, he also shared the team-lead for tackles with Gibbs (5). Did I mention how he undressed three defenders on his way to scoring?

Arsenal 4-1 Norwich: Bringin' Sexy Back...

Wow. Just...wow. That was one of the sexiest goals I have seen in a long, long time. That it involved no fewer than six touches in less than six yards and in less than two seconds? Sublime. Scintillating. Sexy. I refer of course to Jack Wilshere's goal,
his second goal in his last two appearances, which involved such a sparkling sequence that it's already emerged as a candidate for goal of the year. Sure, we're only eight matches into a 38-game season, but it was so beautiful that it's going to take something truly miraculous, probably with blindfolds, flaming hoops, and a rabid spider monkey to top it.

Cazorla to Wilshere, Wilshere back to Cazorla, Cazorla to Giroud, Giroud to Wilshere back to Giroud back to Wilshere and in. By the time this sequence had passed, Wilshere found himself through on goal with four flat-footed Canaries so befuddled that all they could was watch. It was almost as if they wanted to watch, if only to have a bit-part in this flowing canvas of football, the better to appear in the background of such a work of art than to mar it by interfering.

I don't mean to do a disservice to Norwich, for, truth be told, no defense could have done much to stop that. I know that I had suggested there would be moments of brilliance on a day that saw Cazorla and Özil together, but I didn't imagine that goal. It was almost good enough to make the other goals pale by comparison. We could, for example, nit-pick Cazorla's pass to Giroud as being a foot behind him; nonetheless, the Frenchman collected his second assist with a well-timed lob into the box to find Özil on a lung-busting run, who headed home from 12 yards out. Similarly, we could nag Ramsey and his goal by asking why he didn't find Mertesacker instead of shooting. Lastly, it might have been nice for Özil to have played to Wilshere instead of finishing Ramsey's lay-off himself. This is all of course a matter of comparison; each goal on any other day would have been wondrous and beautiful. It's just that, on this day, no other goal could compare.

The game wasn't without its moments, of course, and Norwich looked much livelier than the scoreline suggests, especially after Flamini went off with an injury after clobbering Tettey. I was almost hoping he'd draw a yellow-card to get suspended for the match against Crystal Palace and clear his slate, but Norwich threatened quite enough after Flamini was subbed off, thank you very much. For as snarky as we were when Flamini came back (He's French! He's free!), his grit has been vital, and his absence challenged us to get sorted before Norwich took advantage. Their goal came off a nice bit of work, assisted by a poor clearance from Mertesacker and feeble closing-down from Gibbs, but credit goes to them for a strong sequence. Ramsey's goal, a nifty series of cutbacks in the box, left three defenders on the floor and all but settled the outcome, though, and after a tetchy draw with West Brom, it's nice to see us go out and run away with a game rather than have to dig in and scrape out a 1-0 win.

There was a nice bit of rotation involved, too, with Rosický relieving Cazorla at 59' and Bendtner taking over for Giroud at 78'. As we look ahead to hosting Dortmund on Tuesday, this is no small matter. We've accomplished a number of goals, then: taking three points that we need, giving Cazorla and Özil time to get acquainted, and staying relatively fresh for Tuesday's clash. Those three points earned will be important come May; we saw Liverpool and Man U draw and thereby drop points that they may come to rue, but Spurs, Chelsea, and Man City kept the pace with their wins. We've taken 19 points from 8 matches and may need 85 to 90 to win the Prem. For as strong as we've started, we've yet to face Chelsea, Man U, or Man City. When the fixture-list was announced, I stated that "if we're not at or near the top of the table at the end of October, we'll really only have ourselves to blame." We're almost there, with one match still hanging in the balance. Not bad.

Thanks, as always, for your visit. Before you go, I hope I may have earned a vote from you in 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!