09 November 2013

Man U, a wounded beast [Match Preview]

Ahead of Sunday's clash with Man U, there's a great deal of history to discuss, and rightly so. After all, these are two of English football's most-storied clubs, and the battles were once epic. Playing at Old Trafford is always something special; sadly, we've gone winless there in our last nine visits, including eight losses and the infamous 8-2 drubbing last season in 2011. However, history tells us little about where things currently stand. That loss feels positively ancient, but the lesson lingers. Despite their early-season struggles, the squad that takes to the pitch tomorrow will look much the same as last year's, and they've now won four of their last five matches, including wins over Real Sociedad (in the UCL), Stoke, Norwich, and Fulham. While few of those clubs inspire fear in our hearts, the results are enough to suggest that Man U's early-season struggles are a thing of the past. As up-and-down as they were to start the season, they've taken 13 points from their last five Prem matches. Having fattened up a bit in recent weeks, they're sure to see Sunday as a chance to signal their revival.

We go in, of course, on as fine a run of form as I've seen any club ever be on. Just as impressive as the results have been the manner with which we've claimed some of them. Sure, we've swashbuckled our way past Norwich, say, and had our way with Liverpool, but the win at Dortmund embodies the spirit of this squad. There's a grit, a tenacity, a belief that simply radiates from them, a faith in and understanding of each other. They just seem to know where the next man is, whether they're looking to make a pass or going in for a tackle; they know that a team-mate is ready for what's next. The confidence that this knowledge inspires is palpable. Of course, it only takes a setback to cause the whole kit to unravel, but, then again, we've seen those setbacks, whether it was an out-an-out loss to Aston Villa or Dortmund, or a tougher-than-expected-but-positive result against West Brom. In seasons past, such stumbles might have seen us come undone. This time through, so far at least, we rebound; we double down; we win.

That's not to say we'll do so on Sunday, much as we might all hope. One does not simply walk into Old Trafford and so on. However, we can show up feeling confident, having completely shut down two of the world's most-prolific scoring sides in the last week and having gone undefeated in our last 15 away-matches. Going into Old Trafford, then, feels much less intimidating than in years past, especially coming on the heels of having become the first English club to have won at San Siro, the Bernabeu, Allianz Arena, and Westfalenstadion and when we look at Man U's home-record, a middling record of 2W, 2D, 1L and a goal differential of +2. At some point, they're more than likely to shake off whatever the malaise is; this post-Ferguson drop-off can only last so long. Sure, we can crow all we want of being eight points above them as they languish in 8th place, but there are still 84 points in the kitty and plenty of time for Man U to scratch and claw back into things. It's up to us then to push them down and to open up as wide a gap as we can.

In previous years, we've had to hoard precious points against lesser opposition and hope to nick a point or two from Chelsea and Man City and Man U, worrying about clinging to fourth place. For now, that nervousness is gone, and instead of worrying if we can keep a point, instead of asking whether we can beat the big clubs, we've done so twice and in fine fashion. It's too early to invert the question—yet—but winning on Sunday would allow us to turn to the critics and nay-sayers and ask them, "can the big clubs beat us?" Man U has too much quality and pride to roll over for us, but we have such confidence, momentum, and spirit that we should be able to shove them further back into that corner, if only for another week. I'm looking forward to a famous result, but an end to clean sheets, in a 2-1 win with goals from Cazorla and Giroud.

Before we part ways, I'm proud to say that Woolwich 1886 is of six finalists in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blogs" category. I want to hoist a flag for Arsenal by beating out the other nominees, who cover a little bit of everything—rumors, La Liga, Bundesliga, transfer-gossip, etc. I'm banking on the support of fellow Gooners to see this site through. Here's how:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow...

08 November 2013

Olivier Giroud, master of the assist

Olivier Giroud started the season so brightly that we started dreaming of a 20-goal season, perhaps even contention for the Golden Boot. After all, following a a preseason of eight goals with three goals in his first three appearances, and five in his first six, it looked like Giroud would again repeat his second-season tradition of scoring, scoring, scoring. Well, he's come down to Earth, if only a bit, with "only" three goals in his last ten starts. His eight goals do put him second in the squad behind Ramsey's ten, who is playing so well as to make the label "in-form" entirely inadequate. Still, Giroud's slow-down might be more of a concern were it not for something else that doesn't quite show up in the stats: his all-around play.

Last season, I wrote frequently of how hard Giroud pressed and was pressured to be a one-for-one replacement for van Persie, and that pressure, exacerbated by having scored so prolifically for Montpellier, was coercing him into taking ill-advised shots and making tricksy little passes rather than keeping it simple. He may never be a scorer like Aguero or van Persie or Suarez, but that may not be what the squad needs. Instead of one focal point, after all, the movement and passing that our attack is built upon might flow more freely in the absence of that one go-to scorer. Now that there is a bit more of a democratic feel, we've had goals from thirteen players, and Giroud is a huge part of that. With five assists, he shares the team-lead with Mesut Özil, known as one of the best playmakers in the world, and deliverer of 72 assists in the last five years, tops in Europe's five big leagues (so says @orbinho).

A lot has been written recently of Giroud's increased physicality; a search for "Giroud battering ram" will give you 23,000 results in the last week. As true as this may be, it tells only a part of the story. For as hard as he battles in and around the box, and as impressive as his work-rate is, he still displays a deft touch, exemplified by that exquisite interchange against Norwich. The contrast between those two skill-sets—tangling with the Skrtels and Shawcrosses of the world versus delivering a soft flick or headed ball to a teammate—is hard to fully describe. Try muscling your way through a crowd of people, some of whom elbow you and yank on you maliciously, while setting a glass of water on a table. Giroud's headed assist to Ramsey against Dortmund this week was along those lines—fending off Großkreutz while nodding down into Ramsey's path. Strangely, though, it was one of his few touches in Dortmund's box, an oddity for such a poacher whose goals almost always come from in or near the 6.

And that leads into the next point. His willingness to drop down deeper to contribute to build-up, has been vital. Playing frequently with his back to the goal, he's like the nucleus of an atom, with Ramsey and Wilshere and Rosický and Özil flitting about him, pinging balls around in a balletic performance. Consider his heatmap against Dortmund, which shows him working far from goal with only a handful of touches in or around Dortmund's box, and compare that to his passes in the chart below, nearly off all of which are backpasses, indicating that he's spending a good amount of time contributing to the buildup and involving others around him. Again, with our emphasis on possession, passing, and movement, this kind of contribution is key.

Speaking of key, those two yellow arrows indicate key passes. For as legendary as Özil  is at unlocking defenses with a key-pass, it's worth noting that Giroud tallied two key passes against Dortmund, not to mention the assist that won the game. In fact, when we look at how many of his passes are key passes over the season, he emerges as superior to Özil! Of course, this is not a one-to-one comparison because they play in different positions and carry different responsibilities, so let's not go nuts here. Simply put, Özil makes many more passes that are possession-based, which will affect his key pass/total pass ratio.. On the season, though, Özil is averaging three key passes and 71 passes per game; 4.34% of his passes are key passes. Giroud averages 1.7 key passes and 29.4 passes per game for a 5.8% rate. Again, this does not mean that Giroud is a more-incisive passer; I'm simply drawing attention to his contributions to the attack and setting it alongside those of one of the best in the squad.

Arsène spoke glowingly of Giroud, saying this of the man:
If you compare his technical level when he arrived to today, he is highly improved. He enjoys now to combine much more. I think from a player who was just thinking, 'I have to score', he has become a real team player. He fights for the team; he has great qualities and charisma. I am convinced there is a lot more to come from Olivier and that he can convince our fans he is the striker they look for.
I have to say that I agree, almost whole-heartedly, with that assessment with one hedge. I don't know if he is or will be the "striker" fans look for, at least not in the sense of scoring goals à la van Persie or Henry or Wright. Maybe he will. If he doesn't, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes one of the club's leading assist-men. With 14 assists in 63 appearances, he's off to a fine start indeed. Of course, he's the only striker we can really rely on, so he'll have plenty of time on the pitch to add to that tally. Silver lining? Sure. But that's fitting for the number of gilt-edged chances he creates.

Sorry for the play on words there. Couldn't resist. I guess I should leave off before the mood strikes again. Before you go, though, I hope you'll vote for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards. All you have to do is click here to vote via twitter and then send the tweet. If you're not on twitter, you can vote through facebook here, where you also have a chance to vote in other categories for other Gooner sites. I'm the only niche-site in the New Blogs category, going up against some broader, general-interest site, so I hope the Gooner family can lend me a hand. Thanks!

07 November 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Dortmund: Player Ratings

Another fine goal from Aaron Ramsey earned us a  massive win keeps us atop Group F with nine points, but of course he wasn't the only story. We are now the only club in the world to have beaten Bayern and Dortmund in the last 12 months (if not more); you can read the match report here. Here is a quick run-down of how our boys did on the day (stats courtesy of whoscored.com):
  • Aaron Ramsey—7.8:  another Man of the Match for a man, scoring the game-winner of course for his eleventh goal of the season (one more than he's scored in his five other seasons with the club). He could have had another but for a last-gasp deflection from Weidenfeller.
  • Per Mertesacker—7.79: a massive effort to stabilize the back-line and secure a second consecutive clean sheet, some brilliant tackles to go with a team-leading eight clearances. I'd been skeptical of Per in the past, but no longer. His tackle in the 30th minute has converted me.
  • Wojciech Szczesny7.45: He made some crucial saves to keep the clean sheet, such as the one on Reus's header, and his quiet confidence is a welcome change of pace from the cocky but less-reilable performances of the past.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.43: Quieter, more-conservative effort than last time around as he and the rest of the defense committed more-thoroughly to staving off Dortmund's counters. Less involved on the offensive end, but the trade-off clearly worked out.
  • Mesut Özil—7.35: Mercurial comes to mind. Another quiet game with a few careless touches but did send in a well-weighted ball for Giroud to head down to Ramsey for a second-assist. Due for a rest, no doubt, if only to dull the keen edge of our expectations.
  • Mikel Arteta—7.27: led the team with four interceptions while again leading the team with 93% passing accuracy. His guile and experience shined on a night when he saw yellow in the 23rd minute but refused to be baited or booked for the remainder of the game.
  • Laurent Koscielny—7.24: Fierce. Unlucky not to have earned a penalty, but a number of vital tackles and clearances to go with five clearances. He and Per have to be in the conversation for best center-back pairing in the Prem.
  • Olivier Giroud—6.98: Yet another assist for the buteur du charme, whose work-rate and physicality in and around the box have become essential to the attack. He may not be a goal-scoring forward, but the chances he creates for others have been key even if they don't always show up on the score-sheet.
  • Kieran Gibbs—6.94: Like Sagna much less-involved on the attack, staying home to neutralize Blaszczykowski and a whole lot of other letters as well.
  • Tomáš Rosický—6.77: Everywhere and anywhere all evening, leading the team in tackles (4) and interceptions (4) and doing his level-best to remind the Dortmund faithful of his glory days. I lose track of how often he finds the ball on the edge of the opponent's box, whether it's an interception or a 50-50, and finds a team-mate to set up a goal-scoring chance (as he did with Özil). Numbers don't do him justice.
  • Santi Cazorla—6.71: Strangely quiet on the offensive end—not a single shot taken—but he worked hard and found ways to contribute, especially defensively, with a couple of tackles and interceptions to his name.
Substitutions:
  • Nacho Monreal (75' for Cazorla)—6.14: A fine strategic sub to rest an ineffective Cazorla while protecting the lead, Monreal didn't have much time to do much else but did manage two clearances and an interception.
  • Thomas Vermaelen (89' for Rosický): Not enough to rate. Even with stoppage time, I worry that such a substitution is more demoralizing than not appearing at all (compared to coming in closer to the 70th minute, for example). Yes, the Kos-Per pairing has been top-notch, but he should see more time, if only to spell Kos or Per.
  • Nicklas Bendtner (89' for Giroud): Not enough to rate. Touched the ball once, I believe. Meh.
Did I mention that we beat Dortmund? Away? Well, it's worth repeating. We beat Dortmund. Away.

06 November 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Dortmund: Aaron 'Effin Ramsey

Özil flicked it in from the edge of the box. Giroud muscled his way onto to it, heading it down. Ramsey nodded it home. Done. Sorted. In that one sequence, we've regained control of Group F and announced to all concerned that we're more than flat-track bullies. I'm not the first to point it out, but it does bear repeating that Arsenal are now
the first English club to win at San Siro, Bernabeu, Allianz, and now Westfalenstadion. Those first two are nifty little historical footnotes; the last two are far-more dramatic statements because they mark achievements of the current squad. What's more, this win might stand for something even more-vital than the win over Bayern. After all, Bayern went into that now-infamous second leg all but assured of progress, having scored three away-goals. They could afford to take their foot off the gas—or so they thought. By contrast, the outcome of this match was far more essential to both clubs as qualification for the round of 16 still hangs in the balance.

Assuming that Napoli would defeat Marseille (as they did), both Arsenal and Dortmund knew that securing three points on this evening would be crucial. Further, Dortmund had to know at least something of our resilience in such situations. Therefore, although this victory may feel less momentous in comparison to the 2-0 win over Bayern, it's nonetheless a symbolic and strategic coup. We now perch atop Group F, level on nine points with Napoli but with a +3 goal differential compared to Napoli's +1. The remaining fixtures may favor us as we host winless Marseille before visiting Napoli, while Dortmund host Napoli and then visit Marseille. Should we defeat Marseille while seeing Dortmund defeat Napoli, that should be enough to see us through. However, the way that the squad is playing at the moment suggests that we have enough control over our destiny that we need not worry about results elsewhere. While it's still too early to suggest that we're now among the favorites in the Champions League, it's no stretch of the imagination to see us advance to the next round and, with a favorable draw, reach the semifinals. After all, we are the only club that can boast of having beaten last year's champions and runners-up, and on their pitch to boot. Of course, there's a lot of football to be played, and you're only as good as the match you're currently playing.

At various points, we've marveled at the squad's dominance as we've simply over-run opponents. At others, we've seen grit and tenacity see us through against arguably inferior opponents. Wednesday's result might be the first time this season that we've won through that grit and tenacity over an elite squad. This one was a pitched, to-and-fro battle with the edge probably going to Dortmund, at least until Ramsey, against the run of play, scored on the hour. Having weathered the early sturm und drang, it's ironic and fitting that we scored on a counter against one of the world's premiere counter-attacking clubs on their pitch.

Of course, the players who contributed directly to the goal—Rosický, Özil, Giroud, and Ramsey—claim the limelight, and well they should. Rosický did well to find Özil on the flank, and the German sent in a nice ball, but scroll back up to watch the movement between Giroud and Ramsey. As soon as Ramsey sees the ball going to Giroud, he times his run perfectly onto a ball that he just knows will be there. It may not be as exquisite or as intricate as Wilshere's goal against Norwich, but it's just as telling. This squad has players who just get each other, who understand what's about to happen before it happens. This chemistry, this symbiosis, suggests that we're witnessing something special. Of course, before the prose gets too purple, we could find ourselves on the other end of a scoreline, on the short end of a result that begs questions about depth or tactics or ambition. For now, though, we have a few days to enjoy a well-earned three points in the Champions League before traveling to Old Trafford. We'll take a closer look at that one in days to come. Until then, bask in the glow. We've earned it.

Before we part ways, I'm proud to say that Woolwich 1886 is of six finalists in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blogs" category. I want to hoist a flag for Arsenal by beating out the other nominees, who cover a little bit of everything—rumors, La Liga, the Bundesliga, etc., etc. I'm banking on the support of fellow Gooners to see this site through. Here's how:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow..

05 November 2013

Dortmund Preview: Another second-leg comeback?

First, it was AC Milan. Then, it was Bayern. In the last two years, Arsenal has lost the first leg only to storm back in near-historic fashion. Could an away-victory over Dortmund be next? The key difference between those two matches and tomorrow's second-leg is that we're still in the Group Stage, not the round of 16, and so the stakes might seem a little lower. However, with Napoli hosting Marseille and looking likely to win, they'll probably get to nine points, as would the winner between Arsenal and Dortmund, leave the loser stranded in third and looking at dropping out of the Champions League and into the Europa. Therefore, with three matches remaining, a win is vital, and a loss might be fatal, at least to the loser's hopes of advancing in the Champions League.

It's with this in mind that I turn to recent history. Two seasons ago, in the Group of 16, we suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss to AC Milan only to come back home and, in the second leg, very nearly equalize with a 3-0 win. Last year, of course, was even more impressive, as we followed the 3-1 loss at home to Bayern with a 2-0 away win, putting the eventual champions in the throes of panic. Sadly, because these were during the knock-out phase, the wins on their own were not enough to see us through. However, a win on Wednesday would earn an essential three points, keeping us top of the table (or near it) while knocking Dortmund into a desperate situation. Precedents matter—perhaps not as much as current form, to be sure, but they matter. I'm sure I'm not the only one pointing out that Arsenal have stormed back from a first-leg setback to defeat the Bundesliga's first-place team in their own house, after all (I know Bayern recently overtook Dortmund, but the point remains. I think).

More-recent history seems to suggest that we should worry—and, of course, one should never underestimate one's opponents. However, at the risk of sounding overly optimistic, recent setbacks, while worrying on their face, signify far less once we look beneath. The league cup loss to Chelsea is easy enough to look past as our squad included a number of second-stringers and was outclassed by an XI that would rightly be a starting line-up for two-thirds of the Prem, if not more. There. File it way and move on. The 2-1 loss to Dortmund, while more significant, might reveal the result of bad luck more than class. For most of the second half, we were the ascendant squad and looked ready to take the game by the scruff but for one crucial counter-attack on which we got burned. Dubbing this bad luck might be sour grapes; after all, thunderous counter-attacks are Dortmund's calling card. Closer to the truth, we were perhaps due for a comeuppance after an unbeaten streak of 12 matches. Reading too many press-clippings, and all, an coming up against the toughest opponent we may face all year (depending on who we'll face later on in the Champions League *cough*).

Dortmund is not Liverpool, but the dominance of our performance on Saturday bodes well for the squad's confidence and focus. With the exception of Szczesny's little 1-2 with Sturridge towards the end, everyone looked to be clicked-in throughout the match, a quality that was missing against Dortmund if only for that those two sequences, one that saw Ramsey dispossessed just outside the box and the other that let Großkreutz find an unmarked Lewandowski open on the far-post. That's all it takes, of course, but we're once bitten. we've seen that we can't afford to let our guards down, and I'm sure the boys will come out to play a complete match, taking it to Dortmund and play whistle to whistle, until full-time is called. I'll stick my neck out and call it a 2-1 win for Arsenal. Yep, you read it right. We've shown in the past that clubs that manage to beat us seem only to light a fire in us, so it stands to reason that history is about to repeat itself. Right? Right.

We'll go in without Flamini and Wilshere but will likely go in otherwise unchanged in other positions. Therefore, we'll likely see a defensive pivot of Arteta and Ramsey behind an attacking midfield of Cazorla, Özil, and Rosický. It's possible that we might see Monreal in place of Gibbs. Whoever takes the pitch, it's vital that we hold off their first surge of adrenaline on the attack in front of their fans and stay disciplined when they counter. Two weeks ago, in the aftermath of losing in such stunning style, it seemed like the Champions League was out of reach. Let's remind ourselves that two brain-farts are all the separated us from a draw or even a win in the first leg; I'm sure those who take to the pitch know full-well the importance of focused, determined effort. This one could be epic.

Last but not least, I'm one of six finalists in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blogs" category. I want to hoist a flag for Arsenal by beating out the other nominees, who cover a little bit of everything—rumors, La Liga, the Bundesliga, etc., etc. I'm banking on the support of fellow Gooners to see this site through. Here's how (I think you can do all three to vote three times):
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow..

03 November 2013

Prem League Power Rankings: Week 10

It would be hard to ask for a better slate of results from the week without sounding churlish. Yes, the Manchesters won but did so against the feeblest of opponents (sorry, Fulham and Norwich, but it's true). Elsewhere, Chelsea found a way to lose to Newcastle, Everton drew with Tottenham, and, of course, Arsenal defeated Liverpool. Not bad. Not bad at all.

As with last week, this table lists an estimation of each club's momentum, which may differ from its position on the official Prem table. Dropping from the table are Southampton, who drew with Stoke thanks to Begovic's wonder-goal, and Everton and Spurs, who drew with each other. With that, away we go...


Week Nine Power Rankings

Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool: Player ratings

A thumping victory in which the scoreline actually seems to flatter Liverpool. We had a number of gilt-edged opportunities but couldn't quite finish, while Liverpool rarely threatened. After a tetchy couple of performances, this is one that felt in the bag for most of the match, and the persistent question wasn't "will Liverpool pull one back?" but "when will we get another?" I looked at the performances of Giroud and Suarez in this post; here, I offer quick run-down of the entire squad with stats from whoscored.com:
  • Ramsey—8.77: delivered yet another exquisite "goal of the season" candidate with a perfectly weighted volley that might have just kissed Mignolet's fingertips on its way in. A half-inch lower and it's saved; a half-inch higher and it hits the woodwork. Aside from that, another superb all-around performance, 2nd in tackles (6) and interceptions (2), as he and Arteta helped to dominate the midfield and all but nullify Sturridge and Suarez.
  • Cazorla—8.2: just as sublime was Cazorla's goal as the diminutive domino headed a bullet off the post and volleyed the rebound over a helpless Mignolet. He was part of an onslaught that continually shredded Liverpool's midfield and defense, forcing Rodgers to change from the 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 in order to bolster the defense, but it was too little, too late.
  • Arteta—8.09: I don't know how many times I murmured "Arteta" as I watched; he was everywhere he needed to be, shielding the back four, breaking up attacks before they could develop and launching our own attacks. Seven tackles led the team, as did his 106 paases and 94% passing accuracy (others, like Kos actually had a higher accuracy but far fewer passes).
  • Szczesny—7.93: It's a bit odd to see Szcz appear this on the list given how much we seemed to control the game. Then again, he was aggressive and made a number of nice saves, even on plays that were ruled off-sides anyway. He made four saves, but more importantly, he claimed just about every cross that came into the area. Aside from one botched clearance that bounced off of Sturridge and right back to him (let's say he was being cheeky instead of careless...), he was confident without being reckless and earned his third clean sheet of the season.
  • Giroud—7.79: He struggled to score and spurned a number of good chances, but it wasn't a lack of effort or poor finishing. Passes were just inches out of reach, and he had one lob over Mignolet that almost struck gold. More important was his all-around game, which included three tackles, three clearances, two key passes, and last but not least, 79% passing accuracy. This on its own is not terribly impressive, especially held against Arteta's 94%, but it does show a marked improvement from his 65% accuracy on the season and indicates that his contribution went beyond merely shooting.
  • Koscielny—7.48: Koscielny turned in his first dominant performance in a while, good enough to forget the moment when Sturridge handed him his jock-strap along the endline. He harassed and closed down on Sturridge and Suarez all evening, even pressing higher up the pitch to make tackles above midfield to deny service to them. Five tackles and three interceptions only tell part of the story because he was so effective in making sure that neither Sturridge nor Suarez were available to be passed to in the first place.
  • Gibbs—7.43: A brilliant turn from the side-line nearly had him in on goal but sadly saw him pull up lame with might be a muscle-cramp, but he turned in a masterful performance as part of a squad that shut down Liverpool's vaunted attack. Though he seemed to stay home in the first half as part of a cautious approach, he increased his forward runs as the occasion permitted. Let's hope he recovers from the knock quickly; he's becoming one of the best left-backs around...
  • Sagna—7.28: Lucky to have only drawn a yellow card for pulling Suarez down, in my opinion. Looking past that, he led the team in clearances with four, but also just abused Cissokho and Sakho as he marauded down their left flank to the point that Cissokho had to be subbed off to preserve some shred of dignity. Sagna might have a few words for Cazorla for failing to head home, but I'm sure he'll get over it and credit himself with an assist anyway.
  • Rosicky—7.25: While he didn't do anything to turn heads, he was everywhere, disrupting anything Liverpool tried to do before they could do it, making life miserable for anyone who tried to get things going. He picked up a number of loose balls that, while not credited as interceptions, kept our attack going or prevented Liverpool from getting a clearance. This pressure kept them on their heels all night.
  • Özil—7.25: a strangely muted performance from the man, which saw a number of poor touches and passes, and he had "only" one key pass and a mere 88% pass-accuracy. That said, his movement off the ball was still as incisive as ever, and just having him on the field forced Liverpool to keep an eye on him no matter how quiet he actually was. Due for a rest, truth be told. However...
  • Mertesacker—6.43: probably the quietest but most assured performance we've seen (do thank me for not typing "Per-formance", won't you?). There are almost literally no stats listed for him—no tackles, no interceptions, only two clearances. Such was the strength of our defensive performance that the BFG had little to do but mop up on the rare occasions when the ball did get past Arteta, Kosicelny, and the rest.
Subs
  • Monreal (72' for Rosicky)—6.2: Didn't have much to do but put in a nice stint as a tactical sub to protect the lead and give Rosicky a break. Led the team with 100% pass-accuracy. Only 17 passes, but still.
  • Vermaelen (78' for Gibbs)—6.07: did just fine. Not much to do, either, but what little there was to do, he did it. Good on him, and important to see him getting chances to play. We'll need him fit and up to form, so the 15 minutes or so that he got matter more for that reason than for what he actually did.
  • Jenkinson (84' for Cazorla)—5.86: a yellow card tanked his score, but like the other subs, he didn't have much to do. Only nine minutes played, so not really much else to be said.

A tale of two strikers: Suarez and Giroud

On a night when neither Suarez nor Giroud scored, it seems a bit odd to focus on these two men. After all, the story-line lies elsewhere, whether it's the goals from Cazorla or Ramsey, the saves by Szcesny, or the understated control of Arteta. For Liverpool, the story may lie in what could've (should've?) been—should Sagna have seen red for tackling Suarez? Should Atkinson have waved play on instead of bringing it back to re-take the spot-kick? And so on. This was a match fraught with subtexts, not least of which was the failed bid to sign Suarez this past summer. At some level, Suarez had to see this match as a bellwether of sorts, a chance to prove something to somebody, either about what might have been had he switched sides or about what will be because he has stayed. Along similar lines, Giroud might have seen this match as a chance to prove why Arsenal shouldn't have signed Suarez in the first place. Looking only at this one match, then, Giroud has to feel pretty good.

It's hard to argue against Suarez as a scorer. He might be one of the best at the moment. However, once you take that away, as Arsenal did on Saturday, he struggles to make an impact. For better or for worse, one of the enduring images of the evening was that of Daniel Sturridge, clearly frustrated, gesticulating at Suarez for taking a shot instead of looking to pass to him as Liverpool sought to pull one back. While it's true that Suarez has a gift for creating chances for himself (and, it must be said, for others at times), a defense that denies him such clear opportunities can effectively negate him. This is what Arsenal did, whether it was Arteta snuffing out attacks in the midfield, Koscielny or Sagna harassing Suarez or Sturridge, or a collective effort that nullified the Suarez-Sturridge duo. It's true that Suarez had a few chances, even glancing off the post at one point, but he never really looked like he truly threatened to score. In fact, some of the best opportunities for Liverpool came from unlikely sources, such as Henderson's surprise, unchecked foray into the box, which fizzled out when he fluffed the shot. It's perhaps revealing, then, that Suarez's heat-map shows most of his action outside of, and considerably at a distance from, the penalty-box. When we consider that Liverpool's 3-5-2 formation encourages Suarez and Sturridge to stay higher up the pitch, it's notable that most of Suarez's action occurs so far from goal. More importantly, he wasn't able to make much of an impact as Arsenal claimed a clean sheet while holding him to a mere three shots.

By contrast, Olivier Giroud found ways to contribute that don't show up on the score-sheet, at least not directly. Like Suarez, he had his chances but failed to convert. Unlike Suarez, he still manufactured ways to contribute and to involve his teammates in order to put them in positions to score. Throughout the match, his hold-up play was remarkable as he brought down balls and laid them off to teammates for them to create. Whether he was chesting a ball down or flicking a pass, Giroud seemed to realize that it would be difficult for him to score, and so he found other ways to stay involved. I lost track of the number of times he dribbled a defender or dispossessed someone to re-launch an attack in the final third. Had he finished just one of the several chances presented to him, he would have settled the debate quite well. However, on the whole, he settles the matter in other ways. For as tricksy and pacey as Suarez is, for example, it's notable that Giroud doubled down on out-dribbling defenders, 4-2, despite being slower than molasses in January (according to whoscored.com).

And it's not just on offense. Defensively, Giroud was second on the team in clearances, behind only Bacary Sagna. He's the team's lone striker, mind you. Suarez didn't contribute much of anything on defense. Of course, a part of this is attributable to formation and responsibility; it's also attributable to work-rate. Giroud, because of his height but also because of his willingness to buckle down, is asked to track back, to win balls, and to defend during set-pieces. It's for reasons such as these that I go out on a limb to defend Giroud and criticize Suarez. On one hand, Giroud may never match Suarez for goal-scoring (then again, he might...). On the other, Suarez may never match Giroud for work-rate, for defending, for hold-up play, for a long list of other contributions.

For lack of a better simile, Suarez is like a Lamborghini. He does one thing well, and that's to score goals. He's also remarkably high-maintenance and prone to breaking down. Giroud may never be mistaken for a Lamborghini, but he has his Lamborghini-moments. What's more, he's willing to be a full-on pick-up truck should the occasion arise. This comparison may slight his intelligence off the ball or his movement, but that's part of the larger point I'm trying to make. There are times when he looks around and sees Cazorla, Ramsey, Özil, Sagna, or Gibbs buzzing around, and he realizes that he may not be the team's best option. By contrast, Suarez looks around and sees a bunch of cones to dribble around—even if some of those are team-mates. Yes, I know he creates chances every once in a while for those team-mates, but these seem decidedly last-ditch rather than strategic.

In the end, the vaunted Suarez-Sturridge attack fizzled. Maybe it  One might say the same of Giroud. After all, he struggled to make his mark. However, he carved out a niche, that of creator, and let those around him claim the spotlight. And that is the difference, it seems, between a winner and a mere scorer. The former looks to the final score; the latter looks to the individual stats. Victoria Concordia Crescit.

Before we part ways, I'm one of six finalists in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blogs" category. I want to hoist a flag for Arsenal by beating out the other nominees, who cover a little bit of everything—rumors, La Liga, the Bundesliga, etc., etc. I'm banking on the support of fellow Gooners to see this site through. Here's how:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow..