14 December 2013

Man City Preview: Irresistible Force meets Immovable Object

Okay, okay, so Orwell would have my head on a pike for trotting out that old cliché (the one in the title, and maybe again for the one in this first sentence). Making matters worse, I'm not sure which of us is the irresistible force and which is the immovable object. Is Man City the irresisitble force, playing at home where it is undefeated and sporting a +27 goal differential? Are we the immovable object, possessing the best away-record in the league at five wins, one draw, and one loss? I don't know. I do know that this one looks to be a genuine barn-burner of a match, pitting the Prem's two toughest teams against each other, whether we're looking at home/away records or overall form.

First, of course, we have to pay homage to Man City's impressive home-record. They've averaging 4.14 goals per match while conceding a stingy 0.29. There have been a few cake-walks in there, such as a 7-0 win over Norwich, but there are also a few eye-poppers as well: 4-1 over Man U, 6-0 over Spurs, 3-1 over Everton. To keep a long story short, this one looks to be the sternest test we'll face all season, at least on current form. We've perhaps dropped off a bit, what with the Napoli loss and Everton draw, preceded by a couple of pedestrian wins over Hull and Cardiff. Meanwhile, Man City are fresh off a stirring 3-2 comeback win at Bayern (although Bayern hardly played with much urgency, having essentially qualified after two matches in a group in which two teams finished with three points) and are undefeated at home.

Of course, a big part of the build-up has focused on our cluttered fixtures: a Sunday match, a tense Wednesday evening match, and now an early Saturday start. Contrast that against Man City's somewhat softer schedule: a Prem match Saturday, a meaningless Champions League match Tuesday, and Saturday. City were able to rotate in a few players on Tuesday against Bayern; then again, so did we, with Ramsey and Wilshere sitting and Sagna out due to injury. I'm not one to gripe (at least, not excessively). Going into the match, it's reassuring to know that Ramsey, Wilshere, and Sagna are available, as is Walcott.
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On the right
It's perhaps those last two names that offer the most intriguing option. Starting Walcott along with Jenksinson can leave us too expose as Walcott does not track back very well, and Sagna's tenacity and versatility compensate for this. Assuming that Sagna is in fact available, we could then see Walcott prowling the flanks. He'd be doing so against Clichy and the defensively- (and personality-) handicapped Nasri, but Clichy iss rude enough to miss the game due to injury, depriving us of the potential delight of seeing Walcott run riot past two former Gunners. We'll probably see Kolarov deputize for Clichy, then. He's no slouch, but he does seem to lack the focus or positional awareness to fend off the likes of Walcott's pace. Whoever holds down the left side of City's defense, I like the idea of a fresh, rested Walcott zipping around back there.

Key match-up #1; Kos vs. Aguero (and/or Negredo)
Of course, football does not boil down neatly to 1v1 matchups, but Man City's 4-4-1-1 formation does resemble, say, Liverpool's 3-5-2, at least in terms of attack. We handled the Sturridge-Suarez axis quite well, I must say. The Aguero-Negredo combo poses challenges of its own, of course, and Kos will have to be on top of his game, as he's been so often. An aggressive but controlled display such as those he's put in against Suarez, Lukaku, and, yes, Higuain, will be vital to our chances.

Key match-up #2: Ramsey vs. Touré
This one is less of 1v1 matchup, but it's more a reflection of each man's vital contributions. Touré might be the only player in the world to cover more ground than Ramsey has. Both men should come in well-rested as Ramsey didn't play against Napoli, and Touré was suspended. Despite each man being deployed deep, at least initially, each is vital to his team's attack, both through chances created (22 for Ramsey, 18 for Touré and goals scored in the Prem (8 for Ramsey, 7 for Touré). Again, it's not a head-to-head, but the man who shows up might just hold the key to the match

Man to Watch: Olivier Giroud
Like Atlas, a lot has been placed on Giroud's shoulders to this point in the season. He's played just about every minute of every match, we've played, and he's done so without complaint. He's now gone four matches without scratching the score-sheet, his longest such stretch of the season, and I believe he's due for a goal or an assist, if not both. Man City is not without its weaknesses, and chief among them might be through aerial duels. They've yet to face a midfield as fluid and as creative as ours, and so we should see the handsome Frenchman latching on to the end of some nifty crosses, set-pieces, and corners. Whether Pantilimon or Hart is minding the sticks, Giroud should see some chances. Their defense is not impregnable, and I foresee Giroud exploiting a few gaps or making the most of the opportunities his teammates present.

I'd hesitate, after all, to bud Man City as invincible at home. In fact, their home-record may start to work against them; each win or draw increases the pressure on them to sustain the streak. I'm not saying that Saturday is the day that this streak ends, necessarily, but I do wonder if they'te ripe for the plucking. It wouldn't be the first time in recent memory that we suffered a loss only to bounce back in the next match. There's been a lot of talk of being satisfied with a draw; it would keep us six points head of City and, depending on their results, five ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool. However, I'm not quite content with the actuarial approach. We go in, after all, as underdogs despite our respective positions on the table. It's Man City's home-form that will be on trial, not our overall form. Therefore, I'm willing to be bold enough as to see us stealing a win through a Giroud goal and a defiant defensive performance. I'll just leave it at that.

12 December 2013

Mikel Arteta speaks out on the fixture-clutter...

When the fixtures were first announced, we knew we would face a tough stretch in December with six Prem matches in the month, including three against likely title contenders Man City, Chelsea, and Everton. Add in surprising Newcastle and the Champions League's final match of the group-stage and you've got a tightly-wound knot, to be sure.

Speaking after the Napoli match, Arteta had this to say:
The recovery time is very tight. I don’t understand why we play Sunday afternoon, Wednesday evening, get back at 4am and then play again on Saturday morning in Manchester. There is nothing we can do—just recover well. It’s a big game, and we want to win it. The preparation will just be about recovery. It’s not ideal. There is a late warm-down; we try to get our legs back for Friday…travel on Friday and be as well prepared as we can because they will be ready for us. [Man City] rested seven or eight players in Munich. I think we have different options. You could see that we changed the team a bit again against Napoli. We have to be ready, no excuses. We know it can be a big statement if we get a good result against City. That’s what we want.We are looking at top teams who have won their groups easily, so it's a tough time.
He has a point. On one hand, it's a bit much to suggest that there's an anti-Arsenal conspiracy at work. On the other, the FA saw fit to pit us against us two clubs that it should have foreseen as title-contenders in back-to-back weeks coming on the heels of the last leg of the Champions League group-stage. Sure, it would have been convenient of us to have sewn up the group earlier, but what is one to do when handed a group of death? While we had to fight tooth and nail to earn 12 points, City finished in second place with 15—because Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow could only manage three points each. Chelsea won its group with 12 points in part because FC Basel scrounged up eight points and Steaua could only grasp three.

I'm not griping. This is how things turn out from time to time, and it will be interesting to see how we respond. To this point, we've shown remarkable resilience and resourcefulness despite how bare the cupboard has been lain by injuries. As congested as the schedule is looking forward, fresh legs are available. Theo is back, if not fully fit, and Podolski could make an appearance as early as this Saturday's match against Man City.

In other words, Arteta has it right when he points out that our schedule doesn't favor us. However, it looks like we have a few resources available to deal with that. We managed to advance in the Champions League and will find out Monday who we'll face. Saturday's trip to the Etihad will be tense; City has been fierce at home, to say the least. It would be great to get a positive result on Saturday, no doubt about that. I'd be thrilled with a draw, to be honest.

We'll take a closer look at Saturday's clash in a separate post. Despite Wednesday's defeat, I still feel like we can take on anyone, home or away, and give as good as we get. I won't go so far as to predict victory on Saturday, but this club does have a habit of responding well to losses. I'll leave it at that.

Bring on Bayern! (or anyone else, for that matter)

Well, it wasn't the kind of second-leg away-win we've delivered recently, but the 2-0 loss at Napoli was enough to see us through to the next round. It may feel less glorious than winning 2-0 at Bayern, but this scoreline did secure progress to the next round. Now that the dust is settled, we can appreciate that element of it. Be honest with yourself. When the groups were announced, did you assume that we would advance easily, or did you worry that we'd get knocked out? I'll admit that I was more worried, and I'm an optimist. We're through. For an extra bit of satisfaction, we've knocked out a club whose supporters have earned a thuggish reputation—of course, we all remember the attack on Piebury Corner before the first leg, the attack that hospitalized a 48-year old man. Their supporters also clashed with French riot police. There have been enough incidents that UEFA considered closing the second leg to fans. I know that Napoli's fanbase doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of behavior, and that all clubs have some knuckleheads in their midst, but given Napoli's fans' recent history, I'm more than happy to dump them from the Champions League.

At any rate, that's done and dusted, and we can now think about who we'll face next. It might have been nice to have won the group and then draw from AC Milan, Schalke, Zenit, Olympiakos, Galatasaray, or Leverkusen. As it stands, we'll draw from Barca, Bayern, Real Madrid, Atletico, or PSG. Of course, we can't face Man U or Man City because we all represent the Prem, and we can't draw Dortmund because we're both from Group F. The same factors increase the chances that Bayern will again be our next opponent. Whereas Barca, Real Madrid, Atletico, and PSG could face one of seven different opponents, Bayern has only five opponents to draw—us, AC Milan, Zenit, Olympiakos, or Galatasaray. For Bayern, fellow Bundesligans Schalke, Dortmund, and Leverkusen are out, and so is Group D runner-up Man City. I'll spare you the rest of the algebra (you can find the breakdown from @2010MisterChip. I'm using his stats; he deserves the credit). Suffice it to say, Bayern emerges as our most-likely opponent, a 30.798% chance compared to 17.301% of drawing each of the others.

So be it. One does not simply walk into the Champions League and so on, and we're going to have to face some of the big boys at some point or another. Interestingly, we seem to be overlooking the idea that we are one of the big boys. By virtue of qualifying, we're one of the best 16 or so clubs in the world. By virtue of our performance, we might count as one of the top ten, maybe even the top-five clubs in the world. For now, at least. Last season, we might have been seen as one of the weakest group-stage runners-up. This time 'round, of course, we're as in-form as we've been in a long time (even including this loss and the Everton draw), and it's a form that stretches all the way back to March. We emerged from the toughest group, a group in which 12 points wasn't enough to advance. AC Milan advanced with six points. Gala? Seven. Zenit? Six—while sporting a -4 goal-differential. There oughta be a law against that. Anyway, whoever avoids us will heave a sigh of relief, and whoever draws us knows that it may have just met its match. We'll see.

Speaking after the match, Arsène had this to say of the draw (which takes place Monday):
We will see what comes out of the draw and will assess that in February because a lot can change on both sides, on us and the team we play against, so we need to put that to the back of our minds now and focus on the championship.
Well-said, public language champion. We'll take a closer look at our next opponent after the draw. For now, we have a trip to the Etihad to prepare for and a visit from Chelsea the following weekend to boot. One match at a time...

Before you leave off, thanks for your visit. If you have a preference of whom you'd most like to face, weigh in in the comments-section below. Thanks!

11 December 2013

Arsenal 0-2 Napoli: killing the Group of Death

Okay, okay, okay. I was wrong, and it isn't the first time, nor will it be the last. I predicted a 2-0 win with goals from Giroud and Walcott. Giroud very nearly scored early on, but Walcott didn't even see the pitch except from the bench. So it goes. In the end, we backed our way into the knockout stage and by a narrower-than-necessary margin. A 3-0 scoreline would have sent Napoli through and relegated us to playing Spursdays in the Europa; as it ends up, we eked out a victory that, while less than inspiring, extends a fourteen-year streak of advancing past the group-stage.

It didn't have to be this way, Gonzo...
Speaking of group-stages, when the draw was announced, the term "group of death" was bandied about. It's a sign of how much progress we've made since then that, instead of fretting about whether we'd qualify at all, we're now griping about finishing second in the group. Such has been our form that we've come to expect the caviar-esque first-place finish as if it's a birthright, and to fall short of that is not the travesty or the tragedy that some are making it out to be. Yes, I know that I stomped my own feet and insisted that we should play to win, and it doesn't seem like we quite did that, but we're through. We're hardly the first squad to squeak through to the next round.

Yes, the draw for the knockout is a bit tougher than it might have been, but the whole point of the Champions League is that there are very few cake-walks. We'll be drawn against PSG, Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico Madrid. Six months ago, a few of those names would have struck fear in my heart. Heck, I even asked why we should bother trying against Bayern only to eat my words.

At some point or another, after all, we're going to have to beat one or more of those clubs if we're to win the Champions League. The fact that the bell tolls for us a round earlier than we might have preferred is perhaps unfortunate, but it doesn't fundamentally change the equation. Going into the season, I'd wager that most of us saw the knockout stage itself as a distant goal, and anything beyond that as pure gravy. Well, we've transcended those meager hopes, and the curse of it is that we have come to see a wish as a guarantee, and the achievement of that goal now seems a bit tarnished. Rather than rue an opportunity lost, why not, for once, celebrate an opportunity seized?

There's a pathology at work here, a self-loathing of sorts, that prevents us from admitting progress or quality. On its face, yes, we lost and let slip an opportunity to face Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Schalke 04, Zenit St. Petersburg, or AC Milan—but these are no slouches. Yes, we've finished second in the group and will face stiffer competition in the knockout, but it's still miles ahead of where we might have predicted a few months ago.

At the start of the season, even after the Özil signing, few of us would have been so bold as to predict a Champions League title. If we crash out in the knockout, so be it. My sights are set on the Prem League. This may change should we bring in a striker in January, be he cup-tied or not.  It would have been nice to send notice to our rivals, Prem or otherwise, but when you're competing at this level, there's not a lot of fear to be instilled in those rivals. I don't think anyone in Barcelona, Paris, or Munich is feeling calmer thanks to this scoreline. If anything, they're looking at the full tapestry we've woven so far and wondering why they may be so unfortunate as to draw us. After all, we're almost certainly the most threatening draw for those first-place finishers. I'm not saying we're a top-flight squad by any means, but we have beaten last year's UCL champion and runner-up.

Go ahead, then, and celebrate the loss. Ironic though it may be, it was enough, just enough, to see us through to the next round. Yeah, it complicates the fixtures for February and March (and beyond?) but that's an embarrassment of riches. So be it. 

Will it be Giroud or will it be Walcott who scores? Both? Neither?

I don't quite like making home-and-away comparisons for matches, especially when so much time has passed, but it's hard to resist looking back to our 2-0 win over Napoli as we prepare for today's second leg. It was arguably our most impressive performance to date, as we went ahead early and dominated the rest of the match. However, the advantages of playing at home, not to mention having more time adjust to their new manager or the urgency of needing to win, should feed Napoli's performance today. However, if we can exploit Napoli's weaknesses, we should be able to reproduce that successful outcome if not the dominating performance itself. As we look for goals, there are two factors, and two players, I look to: will it be Giroud exploiting Napoli on set-pieces and crosses, or will it be Walcott running rampant behind that high line and left flank?

The case for Giroud
Napoli's frailty on set-pieces and aerial duels has seen them concede goals frequently, such as when they twice conceded goals from corners to draw at home to Udinese—who are a shadow of the team we faced in 2011. Between Reina and the backline, none emerges as particularly strong in the air. If we can get the ball into the box, whether from corners, spot-kicks, or crosses, Giroud should find plenty of chances for headers or his trade-mark near-post tips. After all, the second goal against Napoli came from Giroud, who timed a run to the center of the box to slot home a pass from Özil—not quite a cross, of course, as it came from just outside the six-yard box, but enough to suggest that Giroud will be able to find space and present a target for teammates to send balls into. He has a tidy height advantage over all of Liverpool Napoli's backline, including Reina, and his intelligent movement and strength in the air should result in more than a few goal-scoring opportunities.

The case for Walcott
Against Napoli, both of our goals came from the left flank as sharp interplay overwhelmed what seemed to be a disorganized or discombobulated defense. It doesn't seem as if matters have improved much as Napoli have conceded eight goals in their last three matches as opponents have exploited their high line. Speaking of exploiting high lines, I hope we'll see Walcott start; if not, I hope he comes on soon after halftime. Teams have been finding plenty of space behind them for quick counters. The space they're condeding between the defense and keeper should have Walcott chomping at the bit, and just as we exploited the left side of Napoli's defense the first time around, we should find similar opportunities. It's not as if Napoli adjust this tactic against superior opposition known for launching counter-attacks; witness their 3-1 loss to Dortmund. If Walcott makes an appearance, it's not just through counters that he'll find opportunities. His ability to get behind defenders and to run into space should be enough to give him chances to put shots on goal or lay off to teammates as the defense gets stretched out of space.

Splitting the difference
Between the two of them, assuming both get to play, I hope I know what I'm talking about and each man will have his chances and makes the most of them. Napoli is sure to press hard for the entire match, knowing that they need three goals to leap-frog us, and this will present a lot of opportunities for us on the counter. This might favor Walcott, but it could also generate fouls and corners as Napoli attempt to regroup. It should make for some gripping action, that's for sure.

Amid all of the talk of not losing by three goals, we've lost sight of the idea that we're still on a fine run of form that has seen us concede just two goals in our last eight matches while facing some high-octane offenses, and we haven't conceded more than two goals since opening day. Aside from the trip to Old Trafford, we've scored in every match in which we've fielded a full-strength squad. I don't see us breaking either of those trends today.

So who's it going to be—Walcott, Giroud, both, or neither? Your thoughts below the fold...

10 December 2013

Napoli Preview: lies, damned lies, and statistics

I never thought I'd go into a match having to toss over so many permutations. Can we look to Dortmund to draw or lose at toothless Marseille, or will we have to assume that Dortmund will win, putting them at 12 points in the group, thereby forcing us to do better than a 3-0 loss to Napoli in order to advance on goal-differential among the teams level on points, goals against Marseille excluded? After all, should we lose to Napoli and Dortmund win, the three of us finish at 12 points, and it comes down to goal-differential. UEFA's rule 6.05b. says that, in the event that two or more teams finish level on points, the tie-break comes down to "superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question". In other words, goals against Marseille don't matter.

On that score, then, Dortmund has to win but can do little else. They're in a position of relative strength, though, as they are +3 in matches against Arsenal and Napoli. We're at +2 at the moment, and Napoli are at -3. Hence the reference to statistics. If Napoli can win 3-0, they go to a goal-differential of zero and we fall to -1, and rule 6.05.b sends them through. I assume that Dortmund will take care of business in Marseille, winless in the group and thirteen points adrift of the lead in Ligue 1. Last I checked, we were revelling in a certain Mancunian club being thirteen points off our pace. In other words, Dortmund looks certain to get to 12 points, thereby applying pressure to us.

Here's where my irritation comes in. Despite a fine run of form to end last season and begin this one, we're still pulling out every abacus we can find to determine just how well we must play or how poorly we can afford to play and still advance. We're a shoddy refereeing job and a lucky shouldered goal away from being invincible, and here we are scrabbling around to understand the in's and out's of how to qualify. It bespeaks a certain lack of confidence, one understandably borne from seasons of frustration but that in no way reflects our performance on the pitch. So we drew with Everton this weekend. Does that mean that we've somehow lost our verve, that we're staggering, reeling, about to fall to the mat?

Nope.

This is not the Arsenal of the last four or five years, limping across the finish line in fourth place yet again. It's not even the Arsenal of seven months ago, needing a desperate goal in the final match of the season to secure a fourth-place finish. We're playing with vim and vigor these days, thanks to the chemistry and camaraderie forged in last season's cauldron and brought to boil by the current squad's form, stoked by Ramsey and Giroud and Szczesny and Özil and so many others—it's a team-effort.

With that in mind, I'm done with calculating the various permutations of how we can back-door our way into the Champions League knockout stage. That's not who we are. I'm not going to stomp my feet and demand that we trounce Napoli, but I will ask that we set aside the spreadsheets and focus on playing a little bit of football. We did deliver one of our finest performances of the season when they came to town, for what that's worth.

It's a measure of the gap between our recently depressed expectations and the current form we're in. The pessimism that has seeped in prevents us from fully recognizing that, yes, we are legitimate contenders in the Prem and perhaps in the Champions League as well. As such, we resort to looking for the loopholes in UEFA rules instead of simply believing that we'll advance. I don't care to assess the odds of various outcomes and the maths involved, not because I'm blithely arrogant about us but because I've seen enough of us in action this season and in seasons past to recognize that we're better than that. We're not great—that kind of designation is usually awarded retroactively—but we're pretty damned good, good enough to see a positive result at the Stadio San Paolo.

Hell, the last time we traveled to Italy, it was to deliver a 3-0 smack-down of AC Milan. For those still quibbling over goal-differentials and points and UEFA regulations, take that to heart. Yes, that rally fell short, but we've shuttled those who bottled out their chances (van Persie, Gervinho), but we don't quite need the historic rally this time 'round.

Still, I don't see us backing our way through the door to the next round. I'll stop short of calling for a repeat of recent UCL away-legs (we have, after all, won at Dortmund, at Marseille, and at Bayern), but I do believe that we have the cojones to see ourselves through regardless of what happens in Marseille. We tore into their left flank the first time around, and that was without Walcott available to run behind their defenders. A goal from Walcott, who could have a field day running behind Napoli's high line and left flank, and maybe one from Giroud, should see us through.

09 December 2013

FA Cup draw yields a North London Derby

Conspiracy theorists would have a field-day with this one as, for the second time in as many domestic cups, we've drawn another Prem League rival earlier than might be expected. First, in the League Cup, we went from facing relegation-threatened West Brom to facing Chelsea in the next round. Stretching back further, we might as well include the Champions League group stage draw, which puts us into a Group of Death of sorts with two other teams with legitimate aspirations of progress. In Dortmund's case, they might even have had realistic aspirations of returning to the championship match. Now, the draw for the FA Cup pits us, not against Watford or Stevenage or Preston but against Spurs.

Some of the fainter of heart or lilier of livered might wring their hands and rue such a draw, pointing especially to those of other rivals who have drawn weaker opponents: Chelsea (Derby), Man City (Blackburn), Liverpool (Oldham or Mansfield), Everton (QPR), and Swansea (Man U). Feh. We're made of sterner stuff than that. Bring on the Spurs, I say. I think the conspiracy-shoe is on the other foot—it's Villas-Boas and whoever plays for Spurs these days who are quaking in their boots (as always, sorry to mix metaphors).

That’s not to say that Spurs will be easy. If anything, they may have found some rhythm by the time we face each other in January. After all, they’ve lost their most talismanic player of the last decade (or more) and brought in a slew new players in the last two years, most of whom log heavy minutes. There’s bound to be an adjustment-period. We can scoff and snort all we want about their inability to score from open-play or how much we enjoy Spursday nights and more, but drawing them in the FA Cup is a bit more perilous than, say, Blackburn or Bradford or Birmingham. That said, we all know how those draws turned out, which proves two ideas, one temporary and the other transcendent.

The temporary one is that our form in recent years was, to put it mildly, uneven.  How else to explain how, last season, we were dumped out of not one but two domestic cups by clubs who spend less on their entire squad’s wage-bill than we might spend on one or two players, but we also went on to defeat Bayern in their house? The point here is that it matters little who’s in front of us if we play how we are capable of playing. 

I’m not going to debate Spurs’ quality relative to Bradford or Bayern. What I’m trying to say is that, in the past, we’ve shown that we can play up—or down—to almost any club we face. This season, though, feels a bit different even if we take into account the losses to Villa, Man U, and Chelsea. Each had its extenuating circumstances. This, then, is the temporary matter. Our form wavered and may waver again.

The more-important point, the transcendent one, is this: part of the beauty of the FA Cup and the League Cup is that they pit the biggest of the bigs against the smallest of the smalls, and anything can happen (although the predictable usually has its day). In recent years,  we've lost to Bradford. And Blackburn. And Birmingham. Looking further afield, Wigan defeated Man City to win the FA Cup and Swansea, new to the Prem as of 2011, won the League Cup. Yes, it’s going to be a cakewalk for some Prem club or another nine times out of ten, but that tenth time is something glorious and historic.

Just not for Spurs this time ‘round. This won’t be their year for upending a bigger, better club. They claimed a 2-1 win last March and Villas-Boas crowed that we were in a death-spiral. We all know how that turned out. I won’t go so far as to say we'll hang another 5-2 scoreline on them, but I will suggest that we can pencil in a fourth-round FA Cup date. Who knows? Maybe we’ll face Southend or Leyton Orient or some other club with legimitate designs on silverware.

Prem Power Rankings: week 15

A number of missteps this week shake up the power rankings. Chelsea stumbled at Stoke, most importantly, while the other key clubs—Arsenal, Man City, and Everton—each drew. A notable exclusion is Liverpool. Despite sitting in second place with 30 points, they still don't impress me as having staying-power. With Sturridge and now Gerrard out for a month, we'll see if they have the mettle to rise to the challenge. For now, I'm content to pencil them in in fifth, just out of sight. Should they prove me wrong, I'll happily make room for them, either by elevating them to the top four or by expanding my table. Elsewhere, Man U lost at home to Newcastle, who have climbed to 27 points, good for 7th place. Man U has now fallen to ninth. The knives are sharpening. Spurs eked out a 2-1 win over Sunderland, enough for the knives to be laid down if not put away. Southampton righted things a bit; drawing with Man City ends a three-game losing streak. It looks to be a three-team race, with us, Man City, and Chelsea the front-runners. For more on that, see @goonerdave66's run-down at 1nildown2oneup.

Without further ado, here are this week's power rankings...

Power (previous)
Last Five
(old to new)
Record
(W-D-L)
Prem
Table
Comments
Next Fixture
1.    Arsenal (1)
1-1 Everton
(LWWWD)
11-2-2
1 (35)
A tough but well-fought home draw against one of our toughest opponents yet keeps us five points clear, but does it suggest a loss of momentum?

At Napoli Wednesday (UCL)
2.    Man City (2)
1-1 at Soton (WLWWD)
9-2-4
4 (29)
While not quite a tonic for their away-woes, the draw was a tough one to claim, even with Soton’s recent slump. That said, they looked strangely passive in the second half while Soton nearly found a winner.

At Bayern Wednesday
(UCL)
3.    Everton (4)
1-1 at Arsenal
(DDWWD)
7-7-1
5 (28)
Another impressive away-display earned a vital point. Without the glamour of its rivals, and without European commitments to distract them, the Toffees are quietly serving notice that they are for real.

Fulham Saturday
4.    Chelsea (3)
2-3 at Stoke
(DWWWL)
9-3-3
2 (30)
Yet another unconvincing display knocks Chelsea down a new notches. After struggling to beat Sunderland last week, conceding three goals to Stoke suggests that there are nagging doubts about Chelsea.
Steaua Wednesday
(UCL)

Arsenal 1-1 Everton: disappointing at first blush but a fine result, actually...

On a weekend that started so brightly, with Man U and Chelsea losing and Man City drawing with Southampton, it feels a bit disappointing that we didn't maximize the opportunity by seizing all three points against Everton. After all, we were at home and have gone for six wins and a loss from seven fixtures. However, timing is everything.

With that in mind, we would do well to remember that comparing matchday results is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Chelsea lost to Stoke, and Man U lost to Newcastle, and on the same weekend we drew with Everton. On its face, this looks like an opportunity lost. After all, key rivals (a label less and less relevant for Man U, it seems) dropped points. by reason, we should seize all three on the same weekend to take advantage. However, we drew with Everton, a team that has lost just once in fifteen matches while conceding just six goals in its last seven matches, and three of those came in the Merseyside derby.

That's not how it works. The season is 38 fixtures long. Our draw with Everton may look like two points lost when compared to other results of the weekend, but it's closer to the truth to compare like-results. On one hand, Everton won at Old Trafford where we could not. On the other, we beat Liverpool at home, something Everton could not do. We have yet to face Chelsea or Man City in the Prem. The point is that, when it comes to point, clubs do not score on a weekly comparison; it's a 38-fixture marathon. On that measure, the draw with Everton may not maximize our advantage, but it certainly extends it.

We now sit five point above Liverpool and Chelsea, six above Man City, seven above Everton, and thirteen above Man U. Yes, yes, there are a few other clubs in the mix at the moment, but we'll see what kind of staying power they have.

I mentioned timing. While a draw might feel less than extraordinary, how might it feel had we drawn with Everton on Saturday and then, on Sunday, seen Chelsea and Man U lose while Man City draw with Southampton? More pertinently, how might it feel to have gone down 0-1 to Everton only to equalize? The sequence of events matters almost as much as the outcomes. Had the sequence been reversed, we'd be hailing our fighting spirit and ability to maximize our advantage over other contenders.

That's not the way that reality played out this time around, of course, but, of the clubs at or near the top of the table, Arsenal-Everton was really the only marquee matchup of the weekend. I don't know if I'm quite ready to dub Everton contenders—it's starting to feel more and more like a three-club race—but they're starting to attract attention, and for good reason. Martinez has them playing some attractive, positive football. I'd assume that most of us had pencilled in victories for Chelsea and Man U, if not for Man City, and had done the same for Liverpool and perhaps Tottenham. To be wrong on four of those six would be unthinkably optimistic. Meanwhile, the Arsenal-Everton match, even if it would be at the Emirates, was much more of a toss-up. Yes, we've won four of the last six, but we've only scored seven goals in those six matches (see my match preview here). Coming away—escaping—with a draw is a point kept, not two dropped.

Heck, had Giroud's exquisite shot in injury-time curled just an inch or two more to the left, we'd be talking of another candidate for goal of the season and another famous victory. In its own way, it was more exquisite than Özil's goal even if it didn't find the back of the net.

Credit Everton—not in some flimsy, back-handed way, but in a very sincere "you guys are for real" kind of way—because they again took it to their hosts and looked, for long stretches, like they might come away with an away-win.

From our perspective, it would be great to sit seven points above anyone else, but we alone faced a contender serious enough to finish among the top four and kept a point. Those others had fixtures that should have seen them waltz their ways to three points. They're the ones who stumbled. Us? We found a way to a stalemate against a quality opponent. 

08 December 2013

Prem League Round-up: schadenfreude edition

Well, well, well. What a weekend it's already been for Arsenal, and we haven't even kicked off. The misery of others has, at the risk of making us seem a bit churlish, brought a fair amount of glee. Where to begin? Do I go right into the misery at Old Trafford, or do I save that as a dessert? I guess I'll get the unpleasantness out of the way first, all the better for enjoying the succulent sweets at the end.

Liverpool won. No surprise there, really, except that West Ham scored on itself (twice) more often that it scored on Liverpool (once) in a 4-1 loss. It's a result that shoots Liverpool from fifth to second, four points behind us while we have a game in hand (for a few hours, at least). Suarez managed to score to bring his league-leading tally to 13. Flat-track bully, I still say. Remember, I preemptively dubbed this post schadenfreude, so don't get your panties in a twist. At the risk of mixing metaphors into innuendo, this is all a bit of tongue-in-cheek cheekiness.

Closer to home, at least geographically, Spurs managed to continue their parsimonious scoring from open play by letting Sunderland's own-goal make the difference in a 2-1 win. The result was good enough to keep Spurs nibbling at the edges of European competition just in case they fail to win the Europa this time 'round. Sixth place is pretty good—until we consider that Man U, usually at or close to the top of the table, now sits in ninth place. One would expect to see Spurs climb higher, not fall lower, especially after spending £100m to bring in new players. Time will tell if they'll make me eat my words. I have the taste for caviar, I must say.

Just a bit farther afield but still just as close to my heart, Chelsea found a way to let Stoke score three times in a match—just the second time they've scored more than twice—on their way to a 3-2 win over Mourinho's minions. Chelsea's now conceded six goals in its last two matches while playing clubs who have managed six wins from 30 matches and who share a -23 goal-differential. Despite the result, Chelsea still sit third, level on points with Liverpool but three behind on goal-differential. We may be able to write off Liverpool and Spurs, but Chelsea, despite the ups and downs, look like they'll be in the mix for quite a while.

We go from the satisfying to the tantalizing in Southampton's 1-1 draw with Man City. City continues its lackluster away-form and were strangely passive in the second half. This was the one match I watched closely. Osvaldo's goal was a nice piece of work, but had he been slightly less rubbish, Southampton would have come away with the win. He was wasteful, spurning any number of fine chances as City seemed to play like a Championship club. Their home record: seven wins from seven matches with a +27 differential. Away? Two wins, two draws, four losses with a -1 differential. Should they sort that away-record, they'll be contenders.

On, finally, to dessert. Spiteful, venomous dessert. Perhaps it's a dish best served cold—but there's still plenty of time, and anything can happen, whether it's Moyes getting sacked or van Persie getting transferred. Ahead of Man U's home-loss to Newcastle, rumors circulated that van Persie had put in a transfer-request. No surprise. Tell me if this sounds familiar: after one season of glory, he got impatient, nay, disloyal to his club and demanded a transfer. It's just a rumor at this point, but it rings true. I called Suarez a flat-track bully, but maybe the moniker suits van Persie a bit better. It's therefore served with a side-dish of delight that Man U lost two in a row at home for the first time since 2002, even more so when the equalizer was denied because none other than van Persie was ruled offside. Karma, man. Karma. Man U are now 12 points behind us and only nine points above relegation. Should Aston Villa defeat Fulham by three or more (not unthinkable, given Fulham's -6 goal-differential at home), Man U would fall to tenth place.

Look, I get it. We have to get over van Persie's departure/betrayal. I am over it. I don't want him back in the least, and I actually understand his motives: Aging. Injury-prone. Dubious about Arsenal's ambitions. He did what a lot of us would do: get while the getting's good. However, this doesn't mean that I forgive. Suffice it to say that I notice the difference between our squad's form and his. The distinction matters, and it's one I may return to in a later post. Our squad, that is, all of the players, sense a shared responsibility and opportunity. That, just as much as the form of Ramsey or Sczcesny or Koscielny or Özil, lies at the heart of our success. Van Persie, the individual, doesn't seem to get that. Too bad. I don't wish ill on him, nor do I wish him well.

I mentioned karma a while back. I don't want to dwell too much in the realm of schadenfreude for fear that it will come back to haunt me. Does it redeem me at all that I was rooting for Southampton and not against Man City? Perhaps. I hope. We go into our clash with Everton primed, I'm sure, for a nail-biter of a match. In my preview, I called for a 2-1 win with goals from Cazorla and Giroud. Let's hope I know what I'm talking about.