16 November 2013

Whom to sign—Suarez, Benzema, Benteke, Dzeko, Lewandowski?

None of the above? With Olivier Giroud showing signs of fatigue from leading the line week in and week out, starting in all 17 matches (Prem and UCL) and appearing in the one league cup match, not to mention France's World Cup qualifiers, and if we're to sustain any kind of form over the second half of the season, signing a striker will be vital. In years past, Arsène hasn't done much business in the January window, with the exception of Nacho Monreal, whose signing was forced in part by Kieran Gibbs's injury in January. However, having failed to sign any forwards of note this past summer has forced us to over-rely on Giroud, and we've been fortunate that he hasn't yet been injured. Bendtner doesn't inspire much confidence, and Yaya Sanogo, at 20 years old, has been injured for most of the season and has only played 10 minutes of Prem League football. Oh, and Park-Chu Young. Almost forgot. Silly me.

With little actual action to discuss, I'm taking a cue from Nick Halden, who suggested drawing up a post-Christmas wish-list, weighing who might be available and at what price. To wit, then, here are a few players in whom we've been interested along with my completely professional, never at all immature assessments:
  1. Luis Suarez
    Benefits: scores prolifically, not cup-tied, plays for a league rival.
    Drawbacks: bitey racist diver unlikely to last the full season, and will probably cost upwards of £50 million. And one.
    Overall: it's hard to ignore his scoring abilities, and there are plenty of people willing to overlook his sociopathic tendencies because of that scoring. However, there are those who generate personal stats and those who contribute to victory. Liverpool lost just once in the six matches they played while Suarez was banned—to in-form Southampton. Since his return, yes, he's scored buckets of goals, but Liverpool's record is actually spottier. There's no shame in losing at Old Trafford (I hope) or the Emirates, of course, but it doesn't seem like Suarez is as incisive or creative as needed when the pressure's on.
    Verdict: Nope. Not for me.

  2. Karim Benzema
    Benefits: French. Capable of scoring when he's in the mood.
    Drawbacks: French. A little bit rape-y. Allegedly. Seems to pay for haircuts on some kind of installment plan. Cup-tied.
    Overall: I really don't see Real Madrid selling anyone to us again for a while, not after the way Florentino Perez was mocked and how he acted after the Özil transfer. What's more, Benzema has had to defend a poor run of form that saw him go goal-less across seven matches for Madrid and get pipped by Giroud for France's national team. The possible frisson between them should Benzema join Arsenal to again be Giroud's understudy could lead to some fisticuffs. His underwhelming performance of late might make him available for something more like £30-40m.
    Verdict: I just don't get excited about this one, whether it's the looming rape trial, his lazinesss, or his uneven performance. Let's just stay away from this one.

  3. Robert Lewandowski
    Benefits: Arguably among the world's most-coveted forwards, scores a lot, seems like a nice-enough guy, could be available for £40-50 million.
    Drawbacks: Cup-tied, plays for a club contending for the Bundesliga title, has said that he only wants to go to Bayern.
    Overall: it's hard to see Dortmund parting with him mid-season, although they may have to because his contract ends in June 2014, and getting him out of the Bundesliga rather than letting Bayern nab him might be their only option. Could our other Poles in the squad (Szczesny and Fabianski...and let's thrown in Podolski for good measure) convince Lewa to switch? He can't help us in the Champions League, at least directly, but he could certainly take over for Prem and FA Cup matches, allowing Giroud to rest up for those CL matches.
    Verdict: it's probably the least likely move to pull off. In fact, I don't think Arsène has the cojones to pull it off, nor do I believe Gazidis would be willing to spend what it would take to get him. I just read Wikipedia's entry on something called reverse psychology, by the way.

  4. Christian Benteke
    Benefits: Among the less-expensive options (£30m?). Not cup-tied. Claims to love Arsenal.
    Drawbacks: Young and unproven with only one full season of top-flight experience. Inability to distinguish between Arsenal and Aston Villa.
    Overall: This could be an interesting move, given his youth. At 22, he certainly has room to build on last year's impressive display (19 goals in 34 matches). He's huge and great in the air and would present a great target for set-pieces and crosses. He may lack some of the technical skill, work-rate, or ability to contribute to the build-up that Giroud brings, but his more direct approach might be a valuable change of pace. Aston Villa put a £30m price-tag on him this summer, which was apparently too high for our likings at the time.
    Verdict: I like this move even if it's based more on future potential than on track record. He's shown how dangerous he can be, although he has gone pretty quiet since netting those two spot-kicks against us.

  5. Edin Dzeko
    Benefits: a super-sub, plays for an in-league rival, a relative bargain (£20-30m)...
    Drawbacks: doesn't contribute much on defense. Cup-tied.
    Overall: He must be getting frustrated at having fallen further down the pecking order at Man City despite the departures of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez. Sergio Aguero's recent form and the arrivals of Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic have kept him on the bench just as often as he's started. Making a switch would almost certainly give him more opportunities to play, and any increase in playing time would certainly be a welcome change, especially as he looks to impress during Bosnia-Herzegovina's run to the World Cup. Man City's struggles on the road suggest that they might be looking to shake up the squad a bit.
    Verdict: I like this one. Maybe more than a move for Benteke. Maybe. 
January is a long ways away, and there are plenty of matches to be played. We're in good position to advance from the Champions League group stage, and the FA Cup will be added to the mix in January, so reinforcements, whoever he (or they) turn out to be, would bolster our prospects in the second half of the season. Taking care of business between now and then—advancing to the knock-out stage, continuing to challenge for the Prem title—would make a move to Arsenal all the more enticing. Who, then, should be atop the list?

Szczesny commits to Arsenal

News from the official team website has Wojciech Szczesny signing a new long-term contract. I'm proud of myself for having not said something cringe-worthy, like "the club's future is in good hands". Then again, I just did. Let's move on. Details of the deal have not been released, but rumors floated in the murkier corners of the internet suggest that it's a four-year deal that would double his weekly wages, from a (reported) £50k. Whatever the numbers really add up to, the math at our end adds up nicely.

Ever since his benching last season, he's shown much greater maturity, purpose, even leadership. In previous posts, I've bemoaned Woj's apparent inabilty to make game-changing saves, succumbing instead to boneheaded flubs that would cost the team points. Since the beginning of the season, he's thankfully improved markedly in both areas, making vital saves when called upon and cutting down (if not eliminating altogether) the poor decisions that have been our keepers' calling-cards all too often in recent seasons. While he has certainly reaped the rewards of a more-organized defense in front of him, he also deserves credit for the solidity of his own performance to date.

A quick look at his whoscored ratings show a string of impressive performances. Setting aside the woeful, club-wide performance against Aston Villa, it's hard to point to any goals that he should've saved; most, if not all, of the goals we've conceded have not been Woj's fault. In fact, the closest I can come to knocking the man is on the goal from Man U when I felt that he was out of position, caught between charging out to punch or staying on his line. That would be some nit-picky stuff, though, because of how chaotic things get in the box on set-pieces. Taking stock of his season, I think we could list him as one of the five-best keepers in the Prem. It's not often that a keeper claims a Man of the Match rating, but Woj did so after the 2-1 win over Marseille and should have earned one for Poland despite conceding twice against England. Of course, in an ideal world, one's keeper is anonymous, tallying no stats at all—no goals conceded, of course, but no saves, no punches, no nothing because no shots are even allowed in the first place. In reality, Szczesny has done quite well, having conceded less than a goal per game (0.91) while averaging 2.45 saves per game (stats from squawka).

Statistics, of course, can only tell part of the story. In Szczesny's case, the more-telling metric might be his attitude. He's more consistent and more confident—not cocky but confident. There were stretches last year when his cockiness undermined his performance as he relied on talent rather than technique, and this led to his demotion for most of last season's run-in. When he came back, he was more focused and determined, claiming four clean sheets from six appearances to help the team finish fourth on the season. After this season's opening-day debacle (which included two goals from dubious penalties), Szczesny has largely left behind the gaffes and the arrogance that have plagued him in the past.

At only 23 and having already spent three seasons as Arsenals' first-choice keeper, an inflated sense of self-esteem is perhaps understandable. Already, though, Szczesny is showing signs of the kind of level-headed focus he will need to make the leap from potential to potent, whether he's publicly contradicting his own father or commenting on the demotion of Joe Hart by saying that "When you’re out of the team you have time to sort things out. It is very important to relax and maybe have a bit of time away from the pressure, getting the right mindset. It seems to be working for me". Speaking last year, Szczesny pointed out that he realizes that "it's the little details that win you games in football. You could be one kilogram too heavy and just get your fingertips to the ball but not quite turn it around the post—so that one [trip to] McDonald's during the week could have made all the difference!"

In other words, he's starting to realize that it's not just talent that makes a superstar—it's training, mindset, focus, the little things. Over the summer, I hoped for the signing of an experienced keeper, such as Julio Cesar, to challenge Szczesny but also to mentor him. I'm not saying he's magically matured so fast as to no longer need such a mentor, but he does seem to have learned important lessons from his demotion. He claims that Fabianski keeps him on his toes, and the same may be true of Viviano. Time will tell. It's been a long while since we've been able to look at the man between the sticks and feel completely confident—arguably, not since the days of David Seaman. Szczesny is not on that level yet, not nearly, but he's certainly moving in that direction. When it comes time to talk of another new contract for him, I hope we're still talking of him in similar terms. He says at the club-site that "Arsenal is like my family and I’m so happy to be committing my long-term future here". His best years are still ahead of him, so it's exciting to think of how good he might become, this year and in years to come.

'Til next time.

15 November 2013

Putting the Invincibles to bed...

Ever since March 2013, Arsenal has been on a run of form that would see it finish atop the Premier League. In the 21 Prem matches since losing to Tottenham, the squad has take 50 points from 63, a rate of return that would, over the course of a full, 38-match season, see us claim 92 points—just a few ticks off of Chelsea's record-setting 95 points in 2004-05. Were it not for a shocking loss at home to Aston Villa to open the 2013-14 season, we might be talking off a campaign to rival the Invincibles season of 2003-04. The more-recent away-loss to Manchester United has further muted such talk, but comparisons inevitably, unfortunately, persist.

I say "unfortunately" because, almost by definition, an undefeated season is a once-in-a-lifetime event. After all, the only other time it's happened was way back in 1889 when Preston North End finished a 22-fixture season without a loss. Twice, then, in the history of British football, has a squad finished undefeated. However, ever since that legendary, mythical 2003-04 season, every Arsenal squad since then has had to face comparisons to a squad that included no less than four of the top-ten players listed among Arsenal's 50 greatest players of all time: Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Pirès. Take that in for a moment: in the club's 127-year history, four of its top ten have played in the last decade. By that standard, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the feats, if not the glory of such a squad. After all, more than one-third of the players who took to the pitch would have to equal or surpass the achievements of the club's legends. That's a bit much to ask.

 There is something epic about an undefeated season, regardless of how many games or matches are involved, so it's natural to venerate those squads that pull it off. Those salad days—at the risk of stretching or straining the metaphor—have made it all the more challenging to accept the sausages of recent seasons. It seems that each season since 2003-04 has left us wondering when, if ever, we'd see such dizzying heights of glory. By that standard, though, any squad will suffer in the comparison. Even if Arsène could find a way to assemble such a collection of players in the current, hypercharged, pre-FFP climate, there would be the naysayers and the critics: "yes, they finished undefeated, but they suffered 13 draws compared to the Invincibles' 12" or "the Invincibles beat Chelsea twice; this squad only managed a win and a draw" and so on.

 We've enjoyed some pretty heady days. Having done so makes it harder to enjoy anything else at face value, whether it's individual players or the squad as a whole. Will Theo ever be the next Henry? Will we ever find Vieira's heir? Is Özil the next Bergkamp? These questions, these comparisons, will repeat themselves ad nauseum until time consigns to the scrap-heap of history or some squad replaces them. No other club bears this burden—certainly not Preston North End, current denizens of League One. Would anyone mistake Manchester United's 2012-13 campaign as the stuff of legend? No. Arsenal has earned for itself a a unique status, and so it is understandable that the current XI and its recent run be held up for comparison.

 However, there will be no undefeated season this time 'round. Some among the Gooner faithful will grumble and grouse, and that is their lot in life. It's still early days, of course, and we could very well see a tumble from the top. Then again, we could also see something famous and memorable in its own right, and it would be a mistake to suggest that such a season suffers when set side-by-side with the Invincibles. Should the current squad achieve something, we know already that they won't replicate those days of caviar. In a way, they did themselves a favor by losing to Aston Villa on opening day: they set aside the possibility of an undefeated season so as to clear the table for a run at the top of it. Rather than insist that Ramsey, Wilshere, and the rest replace or imitate their forebears, is it not enough that they simply help us forget? We're seeing a familiar swagger, a panache, that we haven't seen in a while. Rather than say "yes, but...", let's enjoy the ride we're currently on. For those keeping track of such things, we're only four points off the pace that the Invincibles had set by this point in their season. Sure, we're likely to see a few more dropped points between now and May, but let's keep hold of the larger perspective: this is still a squad fully capable of putting to rest the comparisons—if not by going undefeated but by winning silverware.

 Should that day come, it would be more than a bit churlish to say "yes, but...". By the lofty standards of this club—standards that no other can claim, despite the frequency of their titles—anything short of an undefeated season might feel like a letdown. That's not altogether a bad position to be in. If nothing else, one can settle most arguments at the pub with that same "yes, but..." mentioned just a few sentences ago, as in "yes, but has _____ ever gone undefeated? Well, then..." In six months' time, we'll know more about where the current squad rates. For now, however, let's enjoy what it offers for its own sake. We already know that this squad won't match that one. Why not set the comparisons aside and just take it in, one fixture at a time?

12 November 2013

A Bergkampian Giroud needs a break. Thank you, interlull...

Another interlull is upon us. Somehow, however, I can't quite get into the spirit of the season. Seems like Halloween was just yesterday, but all of the shops are already putting up their Interlull displays and merchandise and that one radio station has already switched to all-Interlullian carols and—oh. Nevermind. This interlull does come at a decent time, in all fairness, as our lads must be completely wrung-out after a madcap dash, especially in the last week. I know that losing to Man U is never ideal, and losing to them thanks to a goal from the Dutch Skunk makes it seem that much more distressing, but the reality is that we're still on as fine a run of a form of any club around. Losing at Old Trafford feels like a speed-bump rather than a flat tire. Whereas the previous interlull looked like it might disrupt our momentum (but didn't), this one comes around just in time. We're clearly knackered, if not from the matches themselves but the pressure as well. Each positive result increases the pressure for another positive result, and perhaps a loss pops that bubble and allows the squad to relax a bit.  Here's hoping then that everyone comes back in 12 days' time with a bit more spring in their step.

The only national team with much on the line at the moment would be France, which has to face Ukraine twice, away 11 November and at home 15 November, in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. Everyone else is either through or eliminated and will play various friendlies here or there. The big concern here is, of course, injuries in pointless matches, but perhaps a more serious one is simply fatigue. Arsenal, as one of the Frenchiest of Premier League clubs, has to wonder about whom Deschamps will name to his side. Facing pressure to advance, he'll surely look to name a full-strength squad, and this might force Olivier Giroud to lead the line despite clearly suffering from the stress and fatigue of being Arsenal's only real option. It would be wonderful to see Benzema or Remy play instead, but we'll have to see what Deschamps does. Speaking ahead of the trip to Ukraine, Laurent Koscielny had this to say of Giroud:
It’s true that he’s not scoring but he is setting them up, like he did against Dortmund, but he’s also playing game after game and hasn’t had a rest, so maybe he’s feeling a bit of fatigue. He’s very important for us—strong and always answers the call on the pitch. If you look at the games, he weighs enormously on the opposition’s defense. All the balls he wins are in the air with his back to goal. He works very hard up front.
mmm, not quite the Flying Dutchman...
It's that last bit, his work-rate, that gets overlooked, especially when he's struggled to score lately. We're still looking for that one, talismanic player who can score goal after goal, even more so after seeing van Persie score against us. However, we then overlook the other contributions that Giroud makes. He might be the best link-up player we've seen since—dare I say it?—Dennis Bergkamp. No, he's not as skilled or as incisive as Dennis, not by a long shot, but when it comes to winning balls or creating chances for teammates, it's been a long time since we've had a forward who fills that role. Van Persie was more of a scorer, less involved in build-up play, and others like Bendtner, Adebayor, or Chamakh are barely worth mentioning. When Giroud struggles as he did at Old Trafford, the entire offense sputters. He and Ramsey (among others) have scored some fine goals, but we've lacked the finishing touch that Podolski might bring, or the defense-stretching pace that Walcott offers. Fortunately, by the time the interlull ends, we could have those two back, and the entire squad should be a bit better rested. We might then see more of the fruits of Giroud's labor.

I'm nervous about the Giroud-Bergkamp comparison for two reasons—one, some are going to misunderstand me and assume that I take Giroud to be as good as Bergkamp. He's not. Few can be. In this one area, build-up play, he may be the best since Bergkamp, which doesn't mean "as good as Bergkamp." Two, I worry about making any comparison to Invincibles-era players because, by their nature, the Invincibles are incomparable. They played some of the most-exquisite football we'll ever see. They also benefit from the passage of time, which burnishes their accomplishments, warming our hearts all the more. Any player who plays for us will suffer in the comparison (and rightly so). There may come a time when individual players, or the squad as a whole, deliver moments as memorable as tose players did. For now, though, let's focus on what we've got—a fine squad in its own right, good enough to be atop the Prem and Group F. There are needs to address, of course, and a lot of football to be played. Who knows? We could falter and again scramble for a fourth-place finish. We could also resume this run of ours and start to look like serious contenders in more than one competition. Time will tell.

Speaking of competitions, it looks like I'm getting trounced in the Football Blogging Awards, at least on twitter, where Futbolpulse's stable of writers is racking up the votes. I'm still hoping that the Gooner family can rally its support by voting for Woolwich 1886. I can't match Futbolpulse's breadth of support but hope I can beat them on depth, as well as quality. If you're with me, I hope you'll vote in one (or more) of the following ways:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til next time
...

11 November 2013

Prem League Power Ratings: Week 11

Crazy week atop the Prem as a lot of clubs dropped points. Only Liverpool and Southampton claimed all three points as Arsenal, Everton, Chlesea Tottenham, and Man City dropped points. Man U climbs higher, but this might be due more to the stumbles of others than to their own quality. There's quite a logjam at the top of the table with eight teams within six points of first place, and questions still to be answered: are Southampton for real? Has Man U overcome its struggles? And so on. Keep in mind that each team's position here reflects my estimate of their momentum, which may or may not match their position in the Prem. Arsenal, for example, holds onto first despite losing because the loss was not entirely unexpected. Others, like Man City, Tottenham, and Chelsea dropped points they arguably should have taken. It's a long season, so take this all with a healthy grain of salt..or two.

Team (Last week)
Latest Result
Overall Record
EPL table (pts)
Comments
1.   Arsenal (1)
0-1 Man U
DWWWL
8W1D2L
1st (25)
A disappointing result dented momentum but does little to alter the fact that Arsenal is still top of the table and came out of a difficult slate of matches far-better than most had anticipated.
2.   Man U (3)
1-0 Arsenal
WDWWW
6W2D3L
7th (20)
A less-than-convincing win is still worth three points; Man U is now undefeated in its last five matches. They may have found their form going into the weekend.
3.   Soton (—)
4-1 Hull
WDWDW

6W4D1L
3rd  (22)
Just can’t ignore the Saints any longer, still the stingiest defense in the league. Having won at Anfield and drawn at Old Trafford makes for a convincing case.
4.   Liverpool (5)
4-0 Fulham
WDWLW
7W2D2L
2nd  (23)
Gaudy stats but still unconvincing; where will the goals come from if/when Suarez hits a dry patch—or gets suspended?
5.   Chelsea (4)
2-2 WBA
WWWLD

6W3D2L
4th  (21)
A dubious spot-kick awarded in stoppage time to draw at home against West Brom? Scoff if you will, but it’s just the kind of black magic Mourinho will use to stay in the race.

Arsenal 0-1 Man U: Player Ratings

As discussed in the post-match review, the outcome dents but doesn't destroy title hopes, a welcome-contrast to previous years when this fixture felt like a veritable train-wreck. It's a disappointment, to be sure, but a lackluster performance from a weary, perhaps under-the-weather squad battles a determined, perhaps desperate one and very nearly nicked a point anyway. So it goes. Here, then, is a rundown of the players' performances, using whoscored.com's statistics and ratings:

  • Thomas Vermalaen—7.49: Put in his finest performance in a long way despite having been thrown on last-minute due to Per's illness. Hustled and battled well, led the team with 10 clearances and four aerial duels won, and co-led with four interceptions and played the kind of assertive but aware performance we've looked for from him for months.
  • Mikel Arteta—7.46: shared team lead in interceptions with Vermaelen and Gibbs, shared most-tackle honors with Sagna and Ramsey, and did everything else we've come to expect from him. Team-high ten long balls embody our disjointed attack, relying on optimistic attempts rather than patient build-ups.
  • Kieran Gibbs—7.39: might have had a goal on one of Sagna's many fine crosses but fluffed the header by ducking too much, strong from the back with four interceptions and seven clearances but ultimately not his best day despite those numbers, looking tentative and less-confident than usual.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.28: arguably the most dangerous playing going forward with a number of great crosses, well-placed beyond the in-form De Gea's reach, that teammates simply flubbed or otherwise failed to finish. He co-led the team with key passes (2) and was typically ferocious on defense with four tackles and six clearances. My MotM, for what that's worth.
  • Laurent Koscielny—6.54: without Mertesacker filling the zone behind him or organizing things, Kos seems to have played more cautiously than usual, eschewing more aggressive tackling for conservative play. Very nearly deflected Rooney's shot in a dangerous new direction. Eight clearances in an otherwise quiet performance.
  • Wojciech Szczesny—6.48: recovered well from getting crushed by Phil Jones's skull but didn't have much else to worry about. He might have done better on the goal by either charging out to punch clear or to stay one the line; hovering about four yards out left him in no-man's land for the ball to float over him.
  • Aaron Ramsey—6.35: a muted performance from the man whose most-vital contribution was those four tackles. An atypically anemic 76% pass-accuracy highlights how out of sorts we seemed in the midfield as we struggled, really for the first time all season, to find or maintain rhythm for such long stretches.
  • Mesut Özil—6.26: cleary another one of Wenger's flop-signings after failing to score or deliver an assist. Kidding. Seriously, though, this might have been his least-effective showing of the season. He might have done better on Ramsey's cross but seemed to 
  • Santi Cazorla—6.23: a starkly anonymous performance from the man, just one shot taken and little else to point to on the evening, perhaps bothered more than he should have been by Smalling on the wing. It felt like the only time I really noticed him was when he was subbed off by Bendtner. Weary? Ill? Let's hope the interlull is good for whatever ails him.
  • Matthieu Flamini—6.13: seemed sluggish, even flaccid at times, as he works his way back from injury. Not much to comment on as far as statistics although he did pick up his customary yellow card and will miss the Southampton match.
  • Olivier Giroud—5.73: There wasn't much for him to do; what's worse, he didn't do it well. He looked forlorn and frustrated all night. In his defense, he's played about 87,213 minutes this season and might be due a rest. Then again, Bendtner, so...
Substitutions
  • Jack Wilshere (61' for Flamini)—6.23: brought a welcome bit of intensity and purpose that had been lacking but found few who could match it anyway. He changed the tempo and momentum, but only drew a yellow card of his own for his troubles.
  • Nicklas Bendtner (78' for Cazorla)—5.97: after his whingeing about still being at Arsenal, I can't believe he was thrown on at all. Almost let a Sagna cross bump into him but couldn't be bothered, perhaps worried too much about mussing his E. Honda chonmage
  • Serge Gnabry (83' for Arteta)—6.14: as with Wilshere, he brought some intensity, not to mention pace, enough to make me wish he had come in earlier. He adds a dimension that we sometimes lack, all the more against a strong side. I love the deftness and flair of Cazorla and Özil, but sometimes we just need something a little more direct. 
Well, the other shoe was bound to drop at some point, and maybe that's what happened. With World Cup qualifiers and friendlies coming up, France is the only country still looking to qualify and have to face Ukraine twice over the next eight days, but everyone else is either already through (Germany, England, Belgium...) or eliminated (Wales, Czech Republic, Poland) and is playing friendlies of some kind or another. Let's hope managers all around have the good sense to rest some weary legs...

10 November 2013

Arsenal 0-1 Man U: like night and day...

Well, it's a disappointing result, obviously, but not an entirely surprising one. Contrast it against trips to Old Trafford in previous seasons, when last season's a 2-1 loss left us in 8th place, eleven points behind Man U, and in 2011 when that 8-2 scoreline shocker seemed catastrophic. Sunday's 1-0 loss,
by comparison, seems like little more than a shoulder-shrug given how much things seem to have changed. Losing to Man U, in other words, has recently felt demoralizing and symbolic. This time 'round, however, feels like little more than a wasted opportunity. The loss signifies less than the win would have, and as wonderful as it would have been to seize three points, we knew that winning at Old Trafford is a dicey proposition regardless of the current squad's form (theirs or ours). Had this result happened in the first few weeks, when Man U seemed to be in shambles, it might feel like a sharper disappointment. Even given our impressive week, I came away from the loss stoic if a touch deflated. In my match preview, I predicted a 2-1 win. So it goes...

On a day when other rivals suffered more-surprising setbacks—Spurs lost at home to Newcastle, City lost away to Sunderland, Chelsea salvaged a draw at home against West Brom under the shadiest of circumstances—it would have been glorious to see us take three points and widen the gap. To point out that we're still top of the table offers a bit of consolation, but the fall-out is not nearly as severe as it's been in seasons past. Of course, suffering the loss on a goal from van Persie cuts a bit deeper, but sour grapes matter little in the broader scheme of things. Speaking of sour grapes, the man celebrated with an intensity that suggests a degree of joyless schadenfreude, as if the goal vindicated his move, finally. In a week when Moyes found it necessary to defend van Persie's move, saying "I am sure he'd say he's made the right choice," this match seems more even more fraught with symbolism for them.

On a day when Man U needed three points desperately and was playing at home, we had to know that they'd come out hard to try to score first. Indeed, they had chances early, and van Persie's goal in the 26th minute came in part because they did succeed in putting us on our heels. Without Mertesacker, we seemed to lack the organization necessary to prevent corners and crosses from happening in the first place or the height to defend them properly when they did occur. Van Persie's headed goal was well-played. It might have been different had Mertesacker been on the field, or if Giroud had arrived a split-second earlier, or if Szczesny stayed on his line instead of drifting forward into the box. For as solid as he's been, that was a mistake—either join the fray to punch clear or stay home to make the save. He got caught in a no-man's land of sorts, and there was little Gibbs could do at the post to stop the ball going in.

Truth be told, though, Man U controlled the tempo of much of the first half, and we were a bit lucky to go into halftime down only one goal down. The second half was a different story as we looked for an equalizer, and the departure of Nemanja Vidic just before the half might have provided us more chances to score. In fact, we created chance after chance after chance but just couldn't finish. Özil teased the faithful by putting a shot into the side-netting, but it did look like we'd find the equalizer in due time. Although Rooney very nearly finished us off in the 59th minute but sent it wide, Sagna delivered two or three crosses that floated harmlessly through the box, and there were any number of scrambles inside the box that amounted to nothing, and despite there being four minutes of stoppage-time, we just couldn't find the back of the net.

Feh. Despite the result, I'm heartened a bit, actually. Aside from the goal itself, I don't think anyone can say we were outclassed or outplayed. We came into one of the most-hostile environments in the Prem and might have come away with a point despite going down a goal early on. This run we've been on was bound to come to an end of some kind, but the feeling I'm left with is worlds apart from previous trips to Old Trafford. Instead of the emptiness or despair of the last few seasons, I'm disappointed. It's more of the "shucks" variety than the soul-sucking, existential angst, though. There's been some lazy reporting claiming that the outcome "blows the title race wide open". We're 11 matches into a 38-match season. Anyone who had written off Man U or even penciled us in as champs should perhaps take a few lessons in patience. It's November. Yes, the table is a bit tighter than it might have been had we won, but the team that loses on one day knows that it has to find points elsewhere on another. Frankly, I'd rather lose now to Man U than lose to some mid-table team later on. If this loss forces us to to refocus, shakes us out of a sense of complacency, Man U just may have done us a favor. I'm nothing if relentlessly optimistic.

Speaking of optimism, I hope you'll help me win in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blog" competition. If twitter votes indicate anything, I'm in second place behind Futbolpulse. I'm hoping that the Gooner family can help me overcome this bigger, broader-themed site. In other words, I hope I can say I've got the Gunners and the numbers:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow...