06 December 2013

Everton Preview: lock down on Lukaku

The storyline of the week has focused on the apparent dischord at Old Trafford, where former Everton manager David "Moe Szyslak" Moyes (thanks to @arseblog for the nickname) is under fire for overseeing a plummet from first to ninth place and for motivating van Persie to request a transfer, if the rumors are to be believed. The flip-side to this same coin is the strength of Everton after Moyes's departure. Former Wigan man Roberto Martínez, meanwhile sits pretty in the catbird's seat, having steered Everton to fifth place so far, no mean feat, given the pace set by Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man City.

It's perhaps telling that, despite all the allure of Man U, Moyes was only able to lure Fellaini to follow him. Meanwhile, by contrast, three Latics—James McCarthy, Arouna Kone, and Antolín Alcaraz—followed Martínez despite the somewhat-less glamorous environs and perks of Goodison Park. Everton have long posed a difficult to challenge to us. Since the 2010-11 season, it's true that we've won four and drawn two, taking 14 of 18 points from the six matches, but we've scored seven goals, a rate almost half of what we usually score. Everton's defensive record this season is similarly strong, with only thirteen goals conceded from fourteen matches, and their consistency home and away is remarkable. They've scored more at home than away, but their home-record (4-3-0) is nearly parallel to their away-record (3-3-1). What's more, they'll arrive tomorrow full of beans, having won at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years. Heck, it took Moyes eleven years before Everton could win at Old Trafford. What's that word for when what happens is the opposite of what you'd expect? Oh, yeah—irony.

More to the point, Everton will present a tough nut to crack on Sunday. If anything, the departures of Moyes and Fellaini seem to have galvanized the team. Martínez has brought a more possession-based attack to Everton, relying far less on the width and crossing that Moyes seemed to have preferred. That, and the loan-in of Romelu Lukaku, have propelled Everton to its current fifth-place; at 27 points, they're five points ahead of their pace last year. Then again, we're 13 points ahead of our pace last year, so there's that. Back to possession versus crossing—they'll arrive without Leighton Baines and his vaunted service from the left flank. How this will impact the match is a bit of a toss-up: he's a decent defender, but his real contribution comes from those crosses and set-pieces.

What I'm getting at is this: Baines's absence to injury might at first seem like glad tidings, but Everton's shift away from crosses and towards possession make Baines a bit less-vital. His replacement, Bryan Oviedo, has more than deputized; he scored the game-winner against Man U and added a goal and assist in Everton's 4-0 demolition of Stoke. As such, he may pose a bigger threat at the offensive end than does Baines. It's only a two-match record, but he'll be one to keep an eye on.

Speaking of keeping an eye on players, we have to devote a moment to Lukaku. We've eyed him and for good reason. He's scored eight of Everton's 22 goals. The remaining 14 are spread among ten players. If we can shut down Lukaku, in other words, we'll go a long way towards shutting down Everton's attack. Everton are more than a one-man attack, of course. We've shown that we have the mettle necessary to blunt some of England's—not to mention Europe's—best scorers, and I'm confident that we can do the same on Sunday. If we can deny him service and knock him off the ball when he does have the ball at his feet, Everton will find it hard to score.

From there, a rested Arsenal attack should be able to press its advantage. Giroud should make a return, as may Arteta. I'd like to see an attacking midfield of Wilshere at center with Cazorla left and Özil right, and then Ramsey and Arteta. Behind, them, from left to right, Gibbs, Kos, Per, and Jenks (Sagna's out with a light knock). I hope this balances defense with attack enough to see us through to a 2-1 win. Goals come from Cazorla and Giroud.

Make your predictions below the fold. This one could be a nail-biter!

The Arsenal Amoeba

After avoiding embarrassment this past weekend, Hull manager Steve Bruce said that ''the problem with Arsenal is how do you set up against them? They're fluid in their movement and their interplay. They interchange positions...where does Jack Wilshere play? where does Mesut Ozil play?" He's not alone in this assessment. Commentator Tony Jones, speaking after the win over Cardiff, said, "it is one of the toughest tasks for the like of us to pin down this Arsenal midfield to a precise formation because there is a real fluidity and flexibility and quality." Not to be out-done, Bruce added that "it's the movement where the play the interchange they've got this fantastic fluidity about them, where, you know the rotation the movement is very difficult to play against, plan against, um, you know,they play one striker, and they've got five other players who've just gotta, you know, a fluidity about them which makes it very difficult."

 In previous posts, I've tried to compare the attack to an atom, the nucleus of which would be the center-forward, around whom the midfielders orbit while the ball pings around incessantly. Even given the infinite variety of orbital paths that electrons can take, this analogy just doesn't do our squad justice. After all, each electron is still following a path of some sort or another, and the nucleus is in a more or less fixed position—almost akin to a solar system in which the center-forward is the sun and the midfielders are planets. Again, too stable and predictable to encompass our "system", a term that implies far too much stability and predictability to do the attack justice.  After all, Giroud doesn't just linger around the penalty-area waiting for a cross to swing in. His movement and touch are key to the build-up, and his involvement is part of gives the players behind him to much to work with. He's not a nucleus; he's part of the amoeba as well.

 I'll set aside the scientific details. It's enough to say that our midfield, on its day, is formless and shapeless. Yes, certain players will be at certain positions when the whistle blows, but that is a mere formality. Once the ball is in play, all bets are off. Against Hull, for example, Özil has lined up as the center-midfielder, and Rosický is lined up right. Why, then, are we seeing Özil foraying along the right sideline while Rosický rampages down the left? Why, along similar lines, is Ramsey, a defensive midfielder, roaming ahead of Bendtner, the center-forward? It's the amoeba, a formless, shapeless entity that expands or contracts according to available space. Should an opposing side expose a weakness, the amoeba pours forward, exploiting and devouring the space. Each player, while moving and thinking independently, is constantly aware of where he is and wants to go while simultaneously adjusting to where his teammates are and are going.

 As just the most-recent evidence, look back to the goals against Hull, each of which came from just that kind of off-the-ball movement and apparently unconscious awareness of each other. In each case, Ramsey was the key as he made apparently blind, one-touch passes for teammates who had run on, and in each case, each teammate was ready, as if they just knew that the ball would arrive for them. Indeed, there have countless goals this year, as well as countless near-misses, that have come from truly sublime ball- and player-movement, none quite as exquisite as the Norwich goal.

 As the Hull match showed, it's not just from the starters that we see this. Five players rotated in—half of the field-positions, mind you—and we still saw what this can look like when everyone is attuned. There have been times when rotation has undermined this element a bit, such as in the league-cup loss to Chelsea, and Hull is not Chelsea, of course, but that result suggests what the squad has to offer even from the bench. Label it what you will—tiki-taka, totaalvoetbal, Wengerball—it's truly a sight to behold when it comes together. This style of play is not just attractive; it produces results. For as much as we've bemoaned the loss of key players, it's perhaps the loss of Fabregas that did the most damage as he was one of the few in the squad who could play to that aesthetic. Nasri had his moments, but he's more of a dribbler than anything else. Van Persie might have papered over our weaknesses through raw goal-scoring ability. The signing of Özil has reversed a trend, but, more important, shows the value of finding and developing the right kind of players for Arsène's system. It's not just a matter of technical ability. There's a mindset that a player must have—or be willing to develop—before he can melt into the amoeba.

There's a mind-meld, then, that lies behind our success this year. This is the first season before which we didn't lose key players. Aside from the addition of Özil, we came into the season with much the same squad that we've had for two or three seasons now, and the familiarity that this has bred is plain to say, whether it's silly photos of Poldi and Per on we see on twitter or the telekinesis we see on the pitch. "He's like a new signing," we've heard constantly when an injured player comes back. Much as we've groaned each time, this mind-set is in itself "like a new signing". The understanding that the players share, whether it's Gibbs or Sagna pouring forward down the flank or Giroud dropping down to defend or any number of midfielders prowling and probing all over the pitch, it's a sight to behold.  

Of course, it's easy to extol any system when you're top of the table; it's easy to confuse the cart and the horse, the method and the outcome. The next loss, whenever it comes, might turn all I've said to so much folderol. For now, though, the confidence, the understanding, the performance that have seen us to the top of the table both derive from and contribute to this system. That same confidence and understanding have seen us rebound from the few set-backs we have had thus far, and, what's more, look like they'll be there to do the same whenever the next set-back occurs. It's been a long-time coming, this kind of success and this kind of style, but I'd argue that it's been worth the wait.

 Thanks, as always, for your visit. 'Til next time...

05 December 2013

Power Rankings: Matchday 14

No changes this week as all four of last week's top-four won their matches. Looking further down the table, Liverpool is still on the outside looking in despite demolishing Norwich 5-1 because, well, Norwich. Further down, there are four teams within a point of each other—Spurs (6th; 24), Newcastle (7th; 23), Southampton (8th; 22), and Man U (9th; 22). Much as I hate to say it, Spurs seem to be right were they're supposed to be. We'll keep an eye on them, though, as they continue to search for some cohesion and direction. Newcastle, by contrast, may be punching above its weight, as evinced by a 3-0 dressing down by Swansea. What's with Southampton? They've conceded eight goals in three consecutive losses after only conceding seven in their previous eleven matches. Last but not least, let's all revel in Man U's ignominious defeat as they now sit 12 points behind us. A certain amount of post-Fergie fall-out was to be expected, but to be just three points from falling to the bottom half of the table is shocking. Still a lot of football to be played—24 matches—so we'll leave the gloating at that. For now. Here, then, are my power rankings...

Team (previous)
Latest
(old to new)
Record
(W-D-L)
Table
Comments
Next Fixture
1.    Arsenal (1)
2-0 Hull
(WLWWW)
11-1-2
1 (34)
The run continues as, even with heavy rotation, we saw off Hull with little trouble. A crucial string of fixtures awaits; will the four-point lead over Chelsea hold?

Everton
Sunday
2.    Man City (2)
3-2 West Brom (LWLWW)
9-1-4
3 (28)
City cruised to a 3-0 lead only to see the Baggies pull back two late goals, but the outcome was never really in doubt.

At Southampton
Saturday
3.    Chelsea (3)
4-3 Sunderland
(LDWWW)
9-3-2
2 (30)
Barely escaped the Stadium of Light thanks to a late own-goal. Unconvincing, but it’s the kind of win that keeps a team in contention.

At Stoke
Saturday
4.    Everton (4)
1-0 Man U
(DDDWW)
7-6-1
5 (27)
For the first time in David Moyes’s Prem League coaching career, Everton won at Old Trafford. Too bad he was coaching Man U. Everton remains the only one-loss team in the Prem.

At Arsenal
Sunday

Arsenal 2-0 Hull: Bendtner, I owe you an apology...

...of sorts. Like many Gooners, I've heaped abuse on the man, much of it richly deserved. Why, as recently as my last post before the match, I scorned him by saying that Hull's aerial weakness is a problem "that even Nicklas Bendtner (should he get the nod over Giroud) should be ready to exploit". Imagine my bemusement when, barely ninety seconds in, none other than Bendtner himself puts us ahead with a finely headed goal, his first Prem goal in nearly three years. He could've made it his second at the 14th minute when McGregor coughed out a rebound from an Özil shot, but he was caught flat-footed (no fault of his own, really). From that point on, he'd proven his worth, if only for the day, as we were able to ride out the rest of the match in fine fashion. Giroud? Rested. Three points? Claimed.

Let's pause for a minute to give credit where credit's due: me I did, after all, get nine of eleven starters named.  I called for Vermaelen in Koscielny and missed that, and slotted Walcott in on the wing only for Rosický to appear there instead of playing center-mid. Not too shabby. I also got the final scoreline right in my match preview. Okay, okay, I did also suggest a 3-0 final score, so I'm guilty of trying to have it both ways, but, as is my habit, I'm sweeping that under the rug for now. I trust you'll do the same.

More pertinently, it is worth pointing out that Bendtner's goal came from some nifty action along Hull's left flank, as Rosický, along the sideline, played a back-pass to Ramsey who one-touched toward the endline for Jenkinson to cross into the box. Bendtner, bless his chonmage-ed cranium, nodded home. The traffic went all one way for most of the match, will Hull showing little threat on the counter, mustering only seven shots to our 20, putting only two on target. Szczesny claims yet another clean-sheet, but as I'm sure he'll be the first to tell you, it's largely because of the dominating performance in front of him.

We did dominate possession to the tune of 67% and the ball spent most of its time in Hull's defensive half, which is no surprise. If there's a nit to be picked, it's that we didn't run away from them as perhaps we "should' have, as Liverpool did in their 5-1 thrashing of Norwich. Nit-picking. It's always on offer but rarely worth pursuing.  Hull rarely threatened, nor did they look inclined to. Had it not been for Bendtner's goal, one might have thought that they would be content to park the bus and hope for a point. It was not to be. In fact, they came way flattered a bit as we had a few chances that could have led to a rout.

Huh. Just sayin'.
Aside from Bendtner's miss in the 14th minute (again, not a criticism as the rebound caught him wrong-footed), Aaron 'effin Ramsey had a fine shot saved in the 31st minute, denying him a 14th goal on the season. Pause to appreciate that statistic. Last season, we were contented, perhaps ecstatic, that we had a someone tally 21 goals—on the season. Here it is, the first match of December, and we already have a man who's two-thirds of the way there. We've just barely passed the one-thirds mark. Chew on that, Piers Morgan.

On the subject of Ramsey, let's step back for a minute to enjoy the sublime pleasure of his assist. Working in tight space just after the half, he and Özil executed a tidy little give-and-go for the second goal. Credit Ramsey with the deft, no-look pass to Özil, who had little to do other than slotting home past a helpless McGregor.

Sorted.

Hull look like they'll stick around the Prem for a bit, and I always root for the promoted clubs but for the times we clash with them. We arguably posed their most-difficult fixture to date, and, by Steve Bruce's own admission, they were fortunate to avoid an "embarrassing evening" and were able to keep it respectable.

So it goes. We took care of business, which is more than Man U can say, losing at home to Everton. Southampton also lost at home to Aston Villa, and our other rivals eked out victories of varying degrees of quality. We'll host a stubborn Everton side fresh off that victory at Old Trafford, but we'll go into the match with four clean sheets and nine goals scored in our last four matches. Not bad. Not bad at all.

04 December 2013

Walcott and Gnabry: Release the hounds!

In the run-up to today's match against Hull, I struggled to find a way to make room for both Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry on the pitch. To get a few options out of the way right off the bat, I'm almost dead-set against playing Theo through the middle. It doesn't play to his strengths, and, what's more, it changes how we play too much for my liking. Similarly, playing Gnabry on the right puts him out of position. Simply put, because they are both at their best on the right, why not play them both there?

Not at the same time, of course. That would be madness. Playing them together did work against the Indonesian Dream Team over the summer to the tune of a 7-0 win. Then again, that was the Indonesian Dream Team. Gnabry and Walcott were on the pitch together for the first half before a wave of substitutions to start the second half. If there's a further caveat, it's that the second wave scored five goals while the Gnabry-Walcott line only bagged two.

Let's not get too bogged down in the details of that match, as the take-aways have too many asterisks attached to them. Instead of trying to find space on the pitch for both of them at the same time, why not start Walcott and see how well he does and how long he lasts? It would be his first competitive match since going down to injury back in September. Giving him 50-60 minutes would give him a chance to find some match-fitness and form without wearing him down too much. By the time he's starting to fade, Gnabry can come on, using his fresh legs (and, let's admit, superior strength and dribbling) to run amok through a weary, frazzled defense.

Between the two of them, we'd be throwing two of our fastest players at a team whose formation provides plenty of space down the flank in that final third. The threat that each of them poses, whether from running onto through-balls, on the dribble, or simply making runs into space, should so thoroughly discombobulate Figueroa and others that both Walcott and Gnabry should get plenty of chances to shoot or to find unmarked teammates in and around the box. Hull will be without Curtis Davies, suspended for his 5th yellow card of the season, which may force James Chester on; his weakness in the air only exacerbates a squad-wide problem, and is one that even Nicklas Bendtner (should he get the nod over Giroud) should be ready to exploit.

The emphasis here, though is on Walcott and Gnabry. Between the two of them, they should be able to eviscerate Hull's taller but slower defenders and take advantage of the space that Hull concedes. They should tear that right flank to ribbons. They should—well, you get the idea. Along the way, I hope that one or both of them scores. After all, I've called for Walcott to go for 20 goals in the Prem this year. Now that he's finally ready for action, I hope today's match sees him kick his season in to gear. In my original match preview, I called on Cazorla and Walcott to score. I'll stand by that and go so far as to summon Gnabry to chip in as well (literally or figuratively).

Final score: 3-0.

03 December 2013

Aha! The Return of Podolski

Speaking ahead of Wednesday's clash with Hull, Arsène has confirmed that Lukas Podolski, who has been out since scoring a brace against Norwich Fulham on August 24th and adding an assist against Fener on August 28th, will return to normal training later this week. Without committing to a specific date, Arsène did go as far as saying that Podolski "should be back in normal training after the Hull game" and that "he will then be available, but he lacks match fitness. It will take at least a week with normal training to consider him fit for the squad." He'll miss the Hull match, of course, and will certainly miss Everton on the 7th. It's possible that he could be available to face Napoli on the 11th but more likely that we'd have to wait until the Man City match on the 14th before he makes any appearance—most likely a substitution.

What this means for the handsome Frenchman who has slogged and and dragged his way through almost every single competitive fixture we've had to this point is that he'll probably have to continue to the brunt of the heavy lifting for a few more weeks. In my match preview, I've suggested that Bendtner start against Hull on Wednesday, but I'm not sure if Arsène is a regular visitor to this site. Meh. Even when Podolski does return, starting him as a center-forward would change how we play. He's not built nor is he inclined to play with his back to goal, and so we would more likely see him playing through the left, a position from which he delivered 15 of his 17 goals and 9 of his 10 assists last season, the others coming from his six appearances as the center-forward. We might get away with playing him there from time to time, but even against the weaker opponents, he didn't deliver much from the center—two goals and an assist in 450 minutes against Sunderland, Reading, Man U, QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle. Maybe we'll see him take over from Giroud at the end of the month against West Ham or Newcastle, maybe as a late sub for Giroud against Man City or Chelsea.

At any rate, I'm salivating over the idea of seeing him prowl the left flank. His delicious, thunderous left—a stürmischschlag, if I may use an online translator—is something we've missed despite how well we've done to this point. Simply put, he's one of the few players who can take a shot from 25 yards and send a frozen rope at a terrified keeper. The thought of him getting service from fellow German national Mesut Özil has me drooling even more. We've scored some nifty, tiki-taka goals in recent weeks, but I would love to see a sexy, screaming shot tear through the back of the net. As far as I can find, however, the two have not yet linked up for club or country. I reckon that'll change sooner rather than later, and I'm positively giddy with delight and don't care how silly I sound when I say so.

Hull City Tactical Preview

After Hull famously defeated Liverpool 3-1 on Sunday, I celebrated a trifecta: Suarez suffered, Liverpool dropped a vital three points, and a newly-promoted side won. That last one I love to see as often as possible except, of course, when we're involved. The scoreline from Sunday initially made me wonder just how wary we should be, and we should be wary, but no more so than we might have been before they kicked things off at KC Stadium. After all, for as hard as Hull played to earn a victory, Liverpool's performance was a bumbling comedy of Keystone Kop-quality errors: shoddy defending, tepid attacking, and an all-around limpness that would see Liverpool plummet down the table should it persist. Sturridge's absence, said to be 6-8 weeks, is going to heap pressure on Suarez, and we all know how well Bitey McRacist handles pressure. Should be fun.

Back to Hull. They deserve credit for a famous win, perhaps their most famous since, well, since winning 2-1 at the Emirates back in September 2008. There's not much to be taken away from that one, of course, as it was five years ago. The only players involved in that match who are still present would be Sagna and Walcott for us (okay, and Bendtner) and Paul McShane for them. Then again, McShane was credited with an own-goal on that day, so we might want to remember him. More important of course are the current squads. I'm sure we're familiar with our lot, although there should be some rotation, not that we're overlooking this one. December offers another grueling stretch of matches, and to drop points against a mid-table team (Hull sits 10th, just four points behind Spurs) is just not something that clubs with serious ambition do. With that in mind, we should be able to bring in some fresh legs without suffering a huge drop-off in quality. Aside from Bendtner, each man I've named has been a regular first-teamer who has made strong contributions and is someone from whom we should expect a quality performance.

For as tenacious as Hull has been at home (4 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss; +4 GD), they've been toothless away (1 win, no draws, 5 losses; -8 GD) with their only win over Newcastle in the season's fifth week. As to how they'll probably line up, we should see something similar to what we saw when we faced Liverpool, albeit with less of an attacking edge: a 3-5-2. This formation works well when your defenders are agile, strong in the air, and astute positionally. I'm not sure how true this is of Hull's back three, and we should find or create plenty of space on the flanks as Hull's defenders try to sit tight and central. Starting Walcott on the right should give him plenty of space for his trademark runs, both to take shots and to stretch their defense out of shape. If he can pull Maynor Figueroa out of position, the openings that will present themselves to Rosicky, Cazorla, Ramsey, and Bendtner could multiply exponentially. On the other side, I was tempted to start Gnabry even if most of his time has been on the right. His preference to stay wide might work similar havoc on Hull's shape, but I think Cazorla is ready for a break-out performance. His dribble should be enough to see him round Davies and Bruce more than once in a while.

From the midfield, we should dominate possession even more than usual as Hull's formation and tactics seem to concede possession and look to attack in short bursts through long-balls up to Koren and Sagbo, who only have scored two goals between them so far. In other words, they don't quite pose the attacking threat that Suarez and Sturridge do (and which we snuffed out completely a month ago). Rosicky's high-press should disrupt a lot of Hull's counters; when he's in, he buzzes around the edge of the opponent's box and seizes loose balls almost as soon as they're created. Behind him, Flamini and Ramsey should be more than up to the task of snuffing out long balls even before they're launched, and when long balls do get through, we've seen in the past that our back line, even with a number of substitutions, is drilled and skilled enough to absorb such pressure.

I think we'll see big games from Cazorla and Walcott, both because of the openings they should see for themselves and because both are due. Walcott hasn't netted since 18 September against Marseille; Cazorla, not since 2 November against Liverpool). I'm calling for a goal from each of them, along with another clean sheet from Szczesny, in a 2-0 win. Your predictions below the fold...

02 December 2013

Could we see Álvaro Morata at the Emirates in January?

A report in the Daily Star suggests strongly that Real Madrid's 21-year old forward Álvaro Morata is set to be loaned to Arsenal in January. The transfer-window is still weeks away from being officially open, but our form has been so strong recently that we're being linked with all manner of players. I have a long-standing policy of ignoring
the trees for the forest, so to speak. That is, I care less about the likelihood of players actually joining the club than I do about the general direction of player-movement. In years past, of course, we've had to endure the angst of losing key players. This past summer is the first in recent memory in which we've seen that tide turn, so much so that we were able to unload dead wood and sign one of the world's most influential playmakers. As such, the transfer-tea leaves we're starting to read—Draxler, Costa, now Morata—suggest suggest that we're among the most-desirable clubs to play for (not that any of us ever doubted that, but you know how fickle others can be...).

So what of Morata? As is typical of such reports, the Daily Star quotes no one. We'll have to take this one with a few grains of salt, to put it mildly. As we look over the menu, then, let's see what all the fuss is about. A few particulars to whet our whistles:
  • Age: 21
  • Height: 187cm
  • Weight: 80kg
  • La Liga: two starts, seven sub-ins—two goals.
  • Champions League: two sub-ins (11' v. Copenhagen, 15' v. Juventus)—one assist
He's hardly set the world on fire, at least not with Real Madrid, but he's easily a fifth-choice option behind Ronaldo, Benzema, Khadira, Isco, and Di Maria, all of whom he's subbed on for at various points (most often for Benzema). He also has to compete with Jesé, a 20-year old who also plays forward. With all of this competition, it stands to reason that a mid-season loan would work for Morata as well as for Real Madrid. He wants more playing time on the pitch in order to develop, and Real Madrid could see how he handles the rigors of playing in a—ahem—more-challenging league.

More seriously, I look at this and think, "why not?" Another club is willing to pay us to give playing time to a promising young player? It's certainly an improvement on our own preference of paying clubs to babysit our ne'er-do-wells or ne'er-will-bes. After all, it seems that the ship has sailed on Bendtner and Park (whether they were ever seaworthy is still an open-question). We certainly need some kind of relief, maybe even competition for Giroud. True, Morata is cup-tied thanks to his 26 minutes of action in the Champions League, but he could still relieve some of the pressure that Giroud has handled so well. Rather than splashing cash on a higher profile but also cup-tied forward, Morata might offer a tidy short-term solution that doesn't hamstring us for the summer transfer-window, when we might look to sign someone truly top-flite instead of rummaging around in January for who might be available. Many of the names we've been linked to, after all, have hefty asterisks. Suarez? Expensive time-bomb. Lewandowski? Expensive, cup-tied, pining for a move to Bayern. Benzema? Again, pricey, and this time also lazy and sulky.

How well would Morata fit in? Does he offer a skill-set similar enough to Giroud's that he could slot in neatly, is he different enough to vary our attack, or is he a thrift-store option who offers a little of this and a little of that without filling the bill? Reports suggest that he's very good in the air and can play well with his back to goal, holding up the ball and contributing to the build-up. That's promising. It's also been said that he brings clinical finishing ability. All of this bodes very well for his future. Then again, he's a babe in the woods, a 21-year old with less than 10 full matches-worth of top-flight action, so it's hard to fully assess his productivity in the six months to come—changing clubs, changing leagues, changing languages, might be too much for him to absorb. 

With all of this in mind, I certainly don't oppose the idea. He's free. As long as he's not brought in as an actual solution, I say, why not? 

All hail Koscielny on his 100th appearance!

On Saturday against Cardiff, Laurent Koscielny turned in another masterful performance, marking his 100th appearance with the club. When we look at the confident, even dominant player he's become, It's hard to remember the gangly, error-prone player who first joined came to Arsenal in 2010. From those early days, he had shown flashes of his talent, whether it was his willingness to go in for a tackle or his ability to score a goal. It's hard to believe how quickly he has risen—just a few years ago, he was a second-string center-back in France's Ligue 2. Now, he's shouldering his way into the conversation as one of the Prem's best center-backs. With many competitors aging—Terry, Ferdinand, Jagielka, and Vidic are all on the other side of 30—and others, such as Kompany hampered by injury, Koscielny is well-positioned to make a case for himself.

Of course, before we get ahead of ourselves, let's remember a few crucial areas that have dogged him: discipline and own-goals. In seasons past, for as well as he's performed, he's been involved in some truly awful situations, many of which had led directly to dropped points. His disciplinary record has, in past years, been a sore spot, as he's been seemingly unable to avoid senseless fouls that lead to spot-kicks and being sent off. The current campaign started off in similar fashion when Kos was sent off against Aston Villa, drawing two yellow-cards in the 3-1 loss. The difference between those bookings and previous ones, however, is worth discussing. Dragging down Edin Dzeko in the box is inexcusable. Both yellow-cards in the Aston Villa match came on what looked to be legitimate tackles. Beyond that, his only disciplinary problem occurred in France's first-leg with Ukraine when he lost his temper during a scuffle. We'll just sweep that one under the rug for now as it was an issue for Deschamps to deal with. Ahem. To date, then, he hasn't seen red since that mugging of Dzeko. Aside from the second-yellow send-off against Aston Villa (part of a refereeing performance so poor that the ref was dropped from the following week's matches), Kos's disciplinary record is spic and span.

A related issue has been his involvement in own-goals or other howlers that have allowed teams to score, such as an own-goal in a 4-3 loss to Blackburn in 2011 or that horrific miscommunication with Szczesny that led to Birmingham defeating us in the 2012 League Cup (same season, for what that's worth). His last such flub, though, ended up as fairly innocuous, coming as it did in that epic 7-5 win over Reading in last year's League Cup. Since then, there's been nary an own-goal to be found. The trade-off, such as it were, may come eliminating goals altogether, as he hasn't scored since his game-winner against Newcastle to clinch 4th place last year. That might just count as a better-than-even trade. After all, a defender's highest priority is to defend. Scoring is icing on the cake, but for a defender to score an own-goal can be a huge strategic set-back, not to mention a demoralizing one to boot. If Kos goes a full season without scoring, and such is the price of eliminiating those own-goals, then so be it.

Of course, reducing errors is just one way of improving. Kos's improvement stems from much more than that. In the past, he was aggressive to the point of recklessness when he went in for tackles, apparently heedless of his opponent's position or proclivity for diving. While he may have succumbed to this as recently as the Aston Villa match, he's become much more astute positionally and in timing his tackles, resulting in increased his interceptions and clearance rates. He's therefore been involved in ten clean-sheets already this year, and our goals-against average when he's on the pitch is a paltry 0.58. He's not alone in deserving credit for those last two stats, of course, but it's no accident that he's part of it. He's been instrumental in shutting down some powerful offenses such as Dortmund, Liverpool, and Napoli, and it's because of him that Szczesny said "Yes, I am keeping clean sheets, but I have not had many saves to make". I'm not sure that the stats support this, but I'm going to trust Szcz's impression of the situation. He added that "if one of [Laurent or Per] is not nominated for Player of the Month, I will be amazed." The way that Kos has been playing (along with Per), this would only be the beginning of many more clean sheets to come.

Congrats, Kos, on reaching that 100th match. May you be around for hundreds more!

01 December 2013

Prem League Power Rankings: Week 13

It was looking like a nearly perfect week for Arsenal after coming away with a 3-0 win. Liverpool lost to Hull, Spurs drew with Man U, a result that helps neither, and Southampton went ahead early at Stamford Bridge. Sadly, the stars didn't quite align as Chelsea managed to pull away for the win, and Man City coasted to a 3-0 win over visiting Swansea. There's a bit of shuffling as Liverpool and Southampton stumble out of the top five to be replaced, tentatively, by Everton. Whether this means that Liverpool and Southampton's pretenses have been exposed is now a relevant question; Liverpool without Sturridge looked toothless, and once Boruc left the match, Southampton conceded twice. December is a cruel month to most clubs here; there will be six Prem matches for each, and Man U, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, and Chelsea have international commitments added to the mix. We're now one-third through the season. It seems that we have three legitimate contenders for the championship: Arsenal, Man City, and Chelsea. Who will shoulder their way in—is Everton for real, or will Spurs and Man U regroup? Can Southampton right itself after two demoralizing losses? Will Suarez respond well to carrying Liverpool without Sturridge beside him, or will he implode? These and other questions come to mind as we look at this week's Power Rankings...


Arsenal 3-0 Cardiff: Ramsey, Özil, Szczesny rule the roost

Five matches. Four wins. Eight goals scored, one conceded. That's quite a month, and we're still not up to full-speed. Key players injured, others working their way back to full fitness, and we're still running rough-shod over opponents. We've secured our hold on first place for until Saturday; our key opponents play today, and so we'll see what the gap looks like in a few hours. For now, we can sit back and enjoy watching others squabble over who gets to be in second place. Credit goes to Cardiff for a hard-fought match. I'm not wasting any breath on talk of "moral victories", either. The scoreline flatters us a bit, especially considering that we netted twice in the last five minutes and needed vital saves from Szczesny to keep that clean sheet. There were long stretches when Cardiff looked more organized and applied more pressure than we could muster against them. Even after Ramsey's sublime header put us ahead thirty minutes in, there were some nervous times when it looked like Cardiff could equalize. Frazier Campbell, in particular, was dangerous in the air all afternoon, putting his head to a number of crosses only to send them wide or see Szczesny make the save.

On the other hand, there were moments of near-brilliance that could have put the game away from the get-go, such as Wilshere's crunching shot that struck the woodwork barely a minute in. A little later, Giroud got behind the defense so perfectly that he stopped short, anticipating an offside whistle, allowing Caulker to block his shot.  By the time we got to that first goal, it did look like we would be running rampant. Özil whipped a near-perfect cross into the box, and Ramsey perhaps did him one better by heading from about 14 yards out, lofting the ball just out of Caulker's reach and under the cross-bar. Ramsey's reaction made a golfer's clap look exuberant. It must have been a tricky afternoon for both he and the Cardiff faithful, but he handled the pressure well. That was about it for the first half...

Much of the second half went to Cardiff as they pressed for an equalizer. I'd say we looked content to sit back to absorb pressure, but it's probably more-accurate to say that Cardiff's determination and energy tilted momentum in their favor. By the time Szczesny dove to save Campbell's header in the 52nd minute, it looked like anything could happen. It's a testament to our defensive fortitude that we held firm, with the back line claiming a perfect 35 of 35 successful clearances. They managed to snuff out almost everything that Cardiff could throw at them, and when they faltered, Szczesny was more than up to the task. Were it not for Ramsey's brace or Özil's assists, we might be talking of Szczesny as a man of the match, so vital were his saves. On a day when he knew he would see a lot of dangerous action in the box (Cardiff attempted 19 crosses), Szczesny was always there to catch or punch clear. He's becoming one of the most in-form keepers in the Prem, enough so that some are calling him the best in the Prem. Suffice it to say that he's looking like the kind of keeper we can depend on—and his new contract is well-earned.

Back to Özil and his assists. I actually found it necessary to defend him in this post earlier in the week. Although he looked exhausted by the time he was subbed off in the 89th minute, he more than lived up to his promise with two assists and four key passes. As splendid as his first assist was, his second was about as perfect as I've seen. In the 85th minute, atching Flamini slice into the area, I thought, "well, that's a nice run and all, and I hope it creates some space behind him to—" and in that same instant, Özil had slotted a pass perfectly, behind one defender and just inches past not one but two sliding defenders for Flamini to smash home. That puts him atop the Prem with six assists and should be more than enough to settle Özil's critics for a week or two, and it certainly settled some nerves, if not the match. By the time Walcott came on for him, Özil looked positively spent. Maybe conjuring such assists depletes his qi or something. At any rate, Walcott, perhaps channeling that same energy, found Ramsey for the third goal in stoppage-time, by which point the Cardiff fans seem to have accepted the outcome and decided to celebrate him. Ramsey, while walking back up the pitch, applauded the fans and even joined in the Cardiff-signature "Ayatollah" celebration. Form and class. He's the only non-forward in the top five for Prem goals (tied with Remy and Lukau with eight, two behind league-leader Aguero). One Aaron Ramsey, indeed.

We can look to a midweek visit from Hull, who host Liverpool later today. With three yellow-cards (Gibbs, Arteta, and Ramsey), not to mention some weary legs, it might be a good time for some rotation. We'll look at that match later on. For now, enjoy another fine win!