21 December 2013

Please, Jose, don't start Cole over Azpilicueta. Please?

Ahead of Monday's clash with Chelsea, tongues wagged at the idea that Ashley Cole would be benched because of his appearance at a nightclub at which Arsenal was holding its seasonal get-together. However, the reality is that Cole has been second-choice left-back under Mourinho for some time now, a fact reiterated by the Specious One himself:
From the beginning Ashley's not playing. But today is Friday, the game is Monday. Something can happen in between. I play Branislav Ivanovic right-back, I play Cesar Azpilicueta left-back, I play John Terry, and I have to choose between Gary Cahill and David Luiz.
In other words, Cole's been benched, perhaps not coincidentally, since Newcastle won 2-0 over Chelsea on November 2nd. Still, I'm left wondering, against whom would Theo have the better outing? There are suggestions that Cole has Theo's number, but I'm not sure that's quite true. Since the 2011-12 season, Theo has started four times against Chelsea and netted twice, not too shabby, especially when you consider that he played second-fiddle to van Persie in each outing. One of those two goals came, of course, back in October 2011 in an epic "I've fallen; no, I haven't" effort that saw Walcott get behind Cole and belly-slide only to get back up and slot home in that pulsating 5-3 demolition of Chelsea back in 2011.

Of course, times have changed, and there's little to be gleaned from that heady day. In the interim, Cole has started an inexorable fade; he's now 33 and his trademark pace is a relic of the past. On the other side of the same coin, Theo is entering his prime; he's 24 and perhaps on the verge of a breakthrough. In a way, it's a shame that Cole showed his puss at the Libertine on Wednesday, giving Mourinho more of an excuse to push him further down the rotation. I'm going to go ahead and say something that the better part of me suggested I keep under my hat: I think Cole crashed the party to avoid playing on Monday. I think the idea of facing Theo had him quaking in his boots, literally and figuratively, and so he decided to give his manager even more reason to get benched.

Think about it. It's not as if Azpilicueta has solidified the left side. After all, Chelsea have conceded six goals in their last three Prem matches facing the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke, and Sunderland. This run of form might have convinced Mourinho that Azpilicueta needed a break or even a demotion to put his feet to the fire. After all, it had been eight matches that he's played a full 90' without Cole even getting a warm-up on the sideline, much less an appearance on the pitch. I wouldn't say that the Spaniard has gotten complacent, but I wouldn't have put it past Mourinho to restore Cole against Arsenal just to tweak Arsène a bit. Knowing what we all know about the acrimony surrounding Cole's departure in 2006 (with fines levied on he and Mourinho for their participation in illegal back-room dealings in 2005), I wouldn't be at all surprised if Cole does in fact start on Monday.

In fact, I welcome it.

After all, while Cole's star seems to be waning, Theo's might just be waxing. Of course, he's barely returned from injury, but he's looked lively and likely to start striking fear in opponents' hearts. The only flaw there is that one has to have a heart before having fear struck in it, and Cole might just wriggle free on that account. On a more serious note, Theo has offered signs that he's back and ready to pick up where he left off last season. In his last three appearances since returning from the abdominal injury that sidelined him in mid-September, he's played 153 minutes of football and scored twice while adding two assists. Those two goals came while facing another former Arsenal left-back, Gael Clichy, whom Theo pinned back and exploited time and time again. Theo's runs stretched Man City's defense to the breaking-point several times, forcing an un-called hand-ball from Zabaleta in the box and creating several key-passes even while playing from the left in the second half.

Say what you will about Azpilicueta. He's done quite well for himself since switching from right-back, his preferred position, taking over from Cole on the left in early November. However, he hasn't faced the likes of what Theo can throw at him in his eight starts: West Brom, West Ham, Southampton, Sunderland (twice), Stoke, Crystal Palace, FC Basel. Hardly a Murderer's Row. In that time, he's delivered some strong performances, to be sure, even netting a goal when he faced us in October in that 0-2 league-cup defeat. Then again, he was defending against Ryo Miyaichi. No offense, Ryo, but I doubt that Azpilicueta felt the same pressure to track back against you as he'd feel against Theo.

As such, Mourinho might face a bit of a conundrum. Does he start Cole and risk an aging, past-his-prime left-back whose appearance is bound to stoke the home-fans, not to mention the players? Or does he stick with the up-and-coming and out-of-position right-back who has yet to face the kind of pace and movement that Theo is no doubt primed to unleash? Whichever way you slice it, I'm looking forward to Theo carving Chelsea open all afternoon. Whomever Walcott might face, be it Cole or Azpilicueta, he figures to run riot all along Chelsea's left flank. With the service he'd receive from Özil and others, he could just have a field day. He had one on Saturday. Why not make it two matches in a row?

19 December 2013

So, um, who'll be managing Spurs when we face off in the FA Cup?

Normally, I don't like to go slumming around, but it's a long week between matches, and, let's face it, it's just too fun to wallow in our dear friend's misery over at White Hart Lane. An embarrassing 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool was followed by another, perhaps more-embarrassing 2-1 loss at home to West Ham in the League Cup. One expects to concede goals to Liverpool (unless you're, um, Arsenal), but to crash out at home to West Ham is another matter entirely.

It's a striking contrast to draw when, on the same weekend that we conceded six goals to Man City but emerge with a shoulder-shrug, Spurs concede five and sack their manager. Of course, having lost 6-0 to Man City themselves probably didn't help the situation. André Villas-Boas can be a shrewd tactical manager, but his decision to play a high line against both Liverpool and City, perhaps more than his inability to deliver results despite being handed £100m's worth of new players, sealed his fate. The devastation at the Etihad should have taught Villas-Boas the risks of playing a high line as Spurs were simply eviscerated in late November. However, despite going into the Liverpool with a make-shift back-line that thrust Étienne Capoue into an unfamiliar center-back, Villas-Boas committed to that high line and watched helplessly as Suarez, perhaps one of the best and running behind defenses, led Liverpool to a 5-0 thrashing of Spurs. Villas-Boas was sacked the next day. Excuse me, "the decision was by mutual consent and in the interests of all parties."

So who's next? The list of pedigreed managers is awfully short even in the best of times, but it's even shorter in the middle of a campaign. Caretaker Tim Sherwood, elevated from his previous post as youth-coordinator, admitted that he doesn't know if he'll be in charge when Spurs travel to Southampton on Sunday. It's almost enough to inspire pity for them—almost. However, we are discussing Spurs at the moment, and "pity" doesn't really warrant a mention. I may not hate them as much as I'm apparently supposed to, but I do enjoy a bit of schadenfreude when it's available. It's almost as good as those kebabs that Podolski sneaks into the dressing room.

The FA Cup's third round pits us against Spurs on January 4th, and by then, I'd imagine that they'll have settled on a manager by then. However, as rare as it may be to find a quality player mid-season, it might be even harder to find a quality manager. The current odds-on favorite seems to be Frank de Boer, currently managing Ajax in the Eredivisie. He's hardly unsettled, having led Ajax to three consecutive league titles and hot in pursuit of a fourth (currently second, two points behind Vitesse Arnhem). Furthermore, de Boer and his agent Guido Albers have scuttled any rumors, at least for now. Albers said, "Through various channels it has become clear to me that Spurs are interested [in de Boer], but the club has not contacted Ajax. So from our point of view there's not much to say about it. Frank isn't even thinking about it. He's fully focusing on Ajax."

Nabbing de Boer might prove a bigger coup than any of the player-signings of the summer, as it wouldn't be the first time that the man seized the reins of a club in crisis and steered it towards glory. When de Boer stepped up at Ajax, replacing Martin Jol, he led Ajax to its first Eredivisie title in seven years. Coming to Spurs would reunite him with former Ajax players like Vertonghen and Eriksen, and his intelligent, positive sense of how to play football might offer Spurs a refreshing change of pace from the dour micromanagement that Villas-Boas sometimes preferred.

The sacking of Villas-Boas, though it might throw Spurs into a bit more turmoil in the short run, could lead to a resurrection of sorts, similar to the one de Boer forged when he took over at Ajax. He and his agent have talked down the possibility of moving to White Hart Lane, but talk is cheap. We'll probably see an announcement of one kind or another before the week is out. Will it be de Boer? Capello? Maybe Laudrup? Time will tell...

Appeal denied, Wilshere's suspended for two matches

Perhaps hoping to add "stubborn" to its list of undesirable qualities that it is somehow proud of having, the FA stood by its initial ruling, meaning that Wilshere will miss Monday's match against Chelsea (not much of a surprise) and the Boxing Day trip to face West Ham. The FA still has adequately explained why earlier suspensions for the same offense received one-match bans and this one receives two, other than they have a new protocol and panel for dealing with these offenses. No one seriously doubts that Wilshere flipped off the Man City fans, but no one has explained why the suspension has doubled since last season.

If this is the new policy, fine. I don't actually object to that. After all, I'm all for stamping out this kind of nonsense. Jack was immature and rude, and he deserves a suspension. However, the two-match suspension seems capricious and even a bit harsh, coming as it does without previous warnings, without explanation, and in contrast with previous such incidents. Might Jack have thought twice if he had known that he'd miss two matches? Probably not—as he probably wasn't thinking all that much about it in the first place. It was impulsive almost by nature.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that an unseen finger merits closer scrutiny and punishment than an unseen rash tackle or blown offsides that cancels a goal baffles me. A middle finger is rude and hurts feelings, and, yes, children probably saw it. Stars and garters. Where's my fainting couch when I need it? However, cleats-up tackles can, at the risk of getting hyperbolic, can end careers.

So it looks like we'll be reading tea-leaves rather than knowing for certain ahead of time how the FA will judge further offenses. Will the next middle-fingerer also get a two-match ban, or were their circumstances that mitigated—or exacerbated—the nature of Wilshere's transgression? It's hard to know. The FA offers without much help the following:
Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has been suspended for two matches by an Independent Regulatory Commission. Wilshere was charged by The FA with making an offensive and/or insulting and/or abusive gesture during the fixture between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday 14 December. The incident was not seen by match officials but was caught on video. Whilst admitting the charge, Wilshere claimed the standard sanction for this offence was clearly excessive. The Commission rejected this claim and the two match suspension will commence with immediate effect.
Thanks, FA, for being as transparent as muddy water on this one.  

18 December 2013

Koscielny's injury presents Vermaelen his chance

Ever since his demotion from the starting line-up, Thomas Vermaelen has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism, refusing to complain while continuing to support the club and dutifully living up to what he's been asked to do, which has consisted mainly of sitting on the bench despite being the club's nominal captain while watching Per and Kos rack up an impressive string of clean sheets and victories. In fact, the last time Vermaelen started was against Man U, when we lost 1-0, something that his critics surely hold against him, as van Persie's headed/shouldered goal would be just the kind of thing Per would have shut down.

They may have a point. Hindsight is, after all, 20-20. By this logic, van Persie scored because Vermaelen was in whereas Per would've been there to head clear. However, this is not necessarily fair or true. It's water under a bridge, to be honest. Man U had one shot on target, and it went in. We had only two shots on target. That's not a recipe for success, and to blame Vermaelen for the defeat is missing the point. Heck, if you trust the stats, Vermaelen was one of our best performers on that day, earning a 7.4 from whoscored.com, second-best behind Gibbs's 7.6.

To address the core of the issue, Koscielny looks to be out for about two weeks. An official report is still forth-coming, but an unofficial report in the French newspaper L'Equipe suggests that Kos has received ten stitches and will be out of action for ten to fifteen days. Take that with a grain of salt or two. For what it's worth, the good news is that this implies that Kos's injury is minor, just a flesh-wound as the saying goes, and not anything deeper or more significant. If there had been more-extensive damage, we'd be looking at an absence of months, not weeks. As it stands, it looks as if Alvaro Negredo's cleat sliced Kos's knee but didn't do any major damage. The gash, as ugly as it may look, will prevent Kos from playing against Chelsea on Monday, but he may be available as early as the West Ham fixture on 26 December.

Looking for a silver lining, Kos's injury offers Vermaelen, once one of our most dynamic defenders, a chance to reprove himself. It's ideal, in fact, as it allows him to fill the role that Kos has performed to this point, that of the roaming, attacking center-back supported by Mertesacker's more-cautious, zonal defending. After all, for as consistent and reliable as the Kos-Per axis has been, it's well-worth remembering how well Vermaelen has performed in the past, both as a defender and as an attacker. Not to take away for Kos by any stretch, but Vermaelen's contributions to the attack had been so vital that he's regularly touted as a defensive midfielder rather than a center-back, not that I endorse that sort of thing. His skill-set, if not his mind-set, is best when he has the field and the action in front of him.

Therefore, I don't look at Kos's injury as a setback. It's more of a crisitunity, a chance for Vermaelen to show what he's made of. He's shown what he's made of in previous years, and, rather than ruing the absence of Koscielny, I'm looking forward to the resurgence of Vermaelen. After all of the talk of depth and rotation, it's a welcome change of pace to see that, with the injury of a key starter, his replacement is none other than the club-captain.

In other words, Kos's absence is not necessarily a set-back. It may not be an upgrade. Maybe it's a one-for-one substitution. One way or another, we'll need Vermaelen, vintage 2011-12, going forward. After all, the man has proven his loyalty over the last nine months or so, riding the bench without complaint while Kos and Per forged a strong partnership. Now that he has his chance, I'm sure he'll seize it. Bring it on, Tom; I'd love nothing more than to lavish praise on a dominant performance against Chelsea on Monday...

FA hands down two-game ban to Wilshere; appeal in the cards

Contrary to precedents set through one-game bans to Luis Suarez and Wilfried Zaha, the FA's new three-member panel agreed unanimously that Wilshere's gesture was a sending-off offense and handed down the two-game ban. It's abundantly clear that Wilshere made the gesture, but the difference between his ban and those given to Suarez or Zaha is apparently attributable to the newly formed FA panel set up to review cases such as this when the offense went unnoticed by the referee. An appeal is apparently in the works with a final decision scheduled for Thursday. If it stands, Wilshere would miss Monday's clash with Chelsea and the following fixture at West Ham the 26th of December.

Maybe the FA panel could check this offsides ruling?
I'm not sure what makes Wilshere's finger twice as offensive as Suarez's or Zaha, who were also fined £20,000 and £3,000, respectively, but it feels arbitrary and excessive. I don't say so as a Gooner; I say so as an objective observer. Will the FA start using its three-member panel to assess actual fouls that may have gone unnoticed or that the referee waved off or that the linesmen got wrong? If so, I can think of three, perhaps four goals that we're owed from our trip to the Etihad on Saturday. I imagine Olivier Giroud's leg would also like to be depositioned after Yaya Toure's cleats went straight in, just under his knee.

I know that Gunners get away with more than few favorable calls and non-calls, and I'm not arguing that we've been treated any worse than any other club. However, it does feel like it—then again, I'd wager that more fans than not share the same feeling. Call it the Rashomon effect—each of us sees an event from our own point of view and through our own biases.

So be it. In the case of Wilshere, there's little to dispute; the evidence is clear. However, it's just as clear, if not more blatant in the cases of Suarez and Zaha. So why the discrepancy? I'm not suggesting that the FA is bound by those precedents, but the departure seems, as I said before, arbitrary. The FA says that "Under the new process, if an incident has not been seen by the match officials, a three-man panel will be asked by The FA to review it and advise what, if any action, they believe the match referee should have taken had it been witnessed at the time."

Fair enough, but why two games? Is it because he should have been sent off and suspended from the next match? If that's the logic, it would beggar belief. Because the referee and linesmen missed something that happened in the 68th minute, Wilshere has to serve two full matches? I'm not sure that's what's at work here because the FA didn't explain the reasoning behind the ban. I'm not suggesting that Wilshere get a 22-minute "ban" to make up for the time he should have missed from the Man City match, but it does feel as if a more-complete explanation, or a one-match ban in line with previous ones, is in order. Perhaps an appeal can bring it down to one match. We'll find out Thursday, I suppose.

Meh. Considering the way that Wilshere played, it's probably a good thing that he's not available for the Chelsea fixture. We have options, such is our depth in midfield. Walcott's back, and Podolski could also be available. Enjoy your rest, Jack, and I look forward to seeing you against West Ham!

17 December 2013

Chelsea, a cornered beast or simply dead in the water?

So Chelsea crashed out of the League Cup against Sunderland, going 120 minutes while scoring just one goal and watching helplessly as Ki Sung-Yueng netted at 118' to see Sunderland through to the next round. Of course, caveats and asterisks abound as Cech, terry, Ramires, Oscar, and Mata rested. Of Chelsea's XI, we might see Lampard, Cole, Cahill, and Luiz, each of whom played the full 120'. Given the ages of Lampard (35) and Cole (32), not to mention the latter's reliance on pace, they're likely to be rested. Then again, Essien's yellow-card, his fifth on the season, means he'll sit out and perhaps force a weary Lampard into action.

However, before we go too far into the specifics of the match, let's take a broader view. Chelsea, to put it politely, have been mediocre despite managing to scrabble their way to enough points to sit third in the Prem. Since November, a stretch of eleven matches including the Champions League, they've managed to win six while drawing once and losing four times. Of those six wins, perhaps only their 3-0 win over Schalke in the Champions League stands out for its quality. Along the way, Chelsea have found a way to draw at home to West Brom, lose at FC Basel, win at Sunderland thanks to a late own-goal, lose at Stoke, eke out home-wins over Steaua and Crystal Palace, and lose at home to Sunderland. Yes, three points matter regardless of their manner, and champions find ways to win when quality alone doesn't carry the day, but it's been somewhat shocking to see how poor Chelsea have been—not just on Tuesday at Sunderland, but all season. Each potential signature victory comes with some kind of an asterisk. Defeated Man City? Yeah, but that was at Stamford Bridge. Defeated Arsenal? But Arsenal rotated heavily for the League Cup. In fact, it's remarkable to see how few definitive wins Chelsea can claim and how many shocking defeats they've suffered. Each one, however, reduces the shock-value.

This latest, one that some may defend by saying that Chelsea had rotated heavily, still stands out. Much is made of Chelsea's depth, with the idea that their bench is better than most clubs' starting XI. Well, we saw much the opposite on Tuesday, with Chelsea's XI, which included regulars such as Cole, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Lampard, and Mikel, fail to defeat the Prem's most abject squad, one that has managed only two wins in the Prem from 16 fixtures and that fired its manager six matches into the season. I mean, good God. Were it not for a Cattermole own-goal, Sunderland might have kept a clean-sheet.

None of this is to say that Monday's fixture will be a cake-walk, not by any means. However, so much has been made of the fact that Arsèneh has never defeated Mourinho across nine matches that I felt like it would be worth addressing. Look. Historic comparisons don't matter all that much. We can perhaps look a season or two into the past for some context, but squad change so often, and players evolve so much, that there's little to be gleaned from them. More instructive, perhaps, would be each club's recent form. At the risk of coming across as overly optimistic, we've salvaged a tricky draw against Everton, backed our way into the next round of the Champions League despite losing away to Napoli, and very nearly equaled Man City at the Etihad. By contrast, Chelsea eked out a 1-0 win over Steaua and a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, both at home, and lost 1-2 away to Sunderland. On the surface, both Arsenal and Chelsea have staggered.

There are still six days before we'll clash, but Tuesday's result suggests that Chelsea is the club on the ropes, not Arsenal. How delicious would it be to deliver a knock-out on Monday, not just to Chelsea's aspirations, but to Mourinho's tenure? 

Pep finds the Arsenal draw a bit hard to swallow.

Speaking of the Champions League draw on Monday, Pep Guardiola was full of praise for the Gunners, remembering them full-well from previous encounters while he was with Barcelona. Arsenal "was the most difficult draw...They have huge, huge players, Özil, Cazorla, and, uh, Arteta, Mertesacker, and, they have talented players so they are a very, very good team. I am happy for that, to play with the bests teams is fascinating, and we know so we have to play good. We know as Bayern Munich what happened last season." Whereas some managers might utter the words with all the smarm of a snake-oil salesman, Pep seems to mean what he says there.

However, in a less-guarded moment, sitting with his players as they watched the draw, Pep reacted a bit more viscerally, wincing, tucking his chin to chest, and scratching his forehead as if to say, "eek, this is going to be tough" before collecting his wits enough to nod, suggesting "oh—er, um, yeah, it'll be okay, we'll be fine." That initial, gut-reaction is quite telling, though, as it confirms what many of us suspect or believe: the top clubs do not want to have to face us. Sure, part of that comes from the company we keep—Zenit, Olympiakos, and Galatasaray just don't inspire as much fear. On the other hand, we have shown that we're made of sterner stuff than most of the other second-place finishers and, even coming off two losses, we're not to be trifled with or taken lightly.

In light of our recent encounters with Bayern—and with Pep, for that matter—we've given them something to chew on. I don't see us winning so famously at the Allianz Arena, nor do I see us losing so sloppily at home, either. That second-leg result is of course attributable to the outcome of the first, after all. Should we put forth a stronger display in the first leg in London on 19 February, we might be able to put Bayern on their back foot for that second leg on 11 March. Last year's 2-0 win shows that we can weather the worst that Bayern can throw at us; after Giroud put us up in the third minute, Bayern realized that they'd have to play with intensity instead of lethargy, but even then, they couldn't dent our defense.

A lot can happen between now and February, but the confidence we'll draw from that match and from our form have Bayern's manager tugging his collar and swallowing hard. For those who were starting to worry about our wheels falling off, that's ample evidence that one or two bad results has done little to change our reputation among those who matter—those who have to face us. We're coming, Pep. 

Beat Bayern, then sign Lewandowski. Easy peas.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. Sadly, we won't face Bayern for the first leg in London until 19 February, by which time the transfer-window will have long since shut. However, should we defeat Bayern, we won't simply advance to the Champions League quarterfinal; we'll have served notice to Mr. Lewandowski that we are, shall we say, a club to play for. It might have been nice to have dumped Dortmund in the group stage instead of Napoli, the better to encourage Lewa to consider his options in January, but he might have simply fulfilled his long-held desire to move to Bayern. Now that we've drawn Bayern, we have a chance, however daunting it may be, to show him (and others) what we're up to and capable of.

Awww!
Before I get ahead of myself, I should get one issue out of the way: I harbor no illusions of winning the Champions League (okay, well one illusion. It's the same in which I'm a little taller and have a Triumph motorcycle). I don't think we have the depth or quality to sustain a serious run through to the championship. I do think we can beat Bayern, though, and not just because we've done it before. There's a tiny asterisk around that 2-0 win at Allianz Arena, one that reminds us that Bayern started the match assuming they would coast through on away-goals. Once we seized that opening, though, we did fight for and earn the victory. We won't have that little trick up our sleeves this time 'round. If anything, Bayern will be even more alert to the threat we pose because of that win and, more recently, because of our form. That said, even with the recent setbacks we've had, we don't have to rely on the element of surprise. We've shown that we have the form and the quality to beat almost anyone on any given day. 

No less an expert on the matter than Dortmund's own Jurgen Klopp believes the same, saying back in November, "Yes, Arsenal have the quality to win the Champions League. They are young, healthy and good technically. They were clever enough to get a result tonight. Of course they can win the final if they don't play against Bayern Munich." I'm going to go ahead and ask you to let me parse that as I will. Klopp said we can "win the final [emphasis added]" if we don't play against Bayern. Well, this isn't the final. It's the knockout phase. Therefore, if I understand Klopp correctly, and I believe I do (why wouldn't I?), we will beat Bayern in the knockout stage and, because we won't face them in the final, win the Champions League. No other interpretation is even remotely possible.

I kid.

If we can beat Bayern—a big "if", admittedly—even if we don't advance, we remind Lewandowski of what we're up to. Compare the two squads. Bayern is or has arguably peaked. Many of its key players are past their primes. Ribery is 30. Robben will be 30 in January. Lahm turned 30 in November. Schweinsteiger turned 29 in August. Dante turned 30 in October. These are starters, key players, who are still performing well but on whose careers the sun is starting to set. By contrast, look at Arsenal. Yes, we have a few players getting long in the tooth. Cazorla just turned 29. Arteta's 31. Per turned 29 in September. However, beyond those, we feature Wilshere (21), Ramsey (22), Gibbs (24), Walcott (24), Özil (25), Szczesny (23), and Giroud (27). In other words, not only are we in-form, we're primed to get better. Many of our key players are on the verge of realizing their potential rather than reminiscing about it. I ended that list with Szczesny and Giroud deliberately, and here's why.

As implied by the above-photo, Szczesny and Lewandowski seem to get along. They're mates. Besties. BFFs. They might even go old-school with those necklaces with a heart, split in half so they share it, that says "Best Friends". Maybe. There's something to that. Friends encourage each other to make good decisions. At the other end of the warm-fuzzy scale, Giroud's age and, let's face it, limited skill-set, make him replaceable. Look: I like the guy and enjoy it when he does well. He seems like a likable bloke who works hard and puts forth his best effort. However, as good as he is at several things, he doesn't truly excel at any of them. Not on a regular basis, at least. In the short term, we might have to bolster our striking options in other ways—a loan perhaps, for some decent player who can at least keep Giroud fresh. In the long term, though, the boot would be on the other foot as Lewandowski leads the charge and Giroud comes on for him late in matches or starts here and there.

What would it take to make this happen? Lewandowski will be out of contract in the summer, which might force Dortmund to seek a reduced offer. This would depend, of course, on Lewandowski's wishes. He doesn't have to abide by Dortmund's wishes. However, we could offer him a pay-raise, something in the order of £200k a week, although this might prompt some resentment among the rank-and-file. How would Wilshere or Ramsey or Walcott feel about a teammate earning that much more than them—double, in most cases? Would the idea of winning silverware be enough to offset their interest in higher wages for themselves?

It's pretty clear that a player of Lewandowski's caliber will probably not make a change mid-season, not when his club contends for Champions League and Bundesliga silverware, not in a World Cup year. Let's hope, then, that Zenit stuns Dortmund and that we send Bayern packing, clarifying once and for all that Bayern, even under Guardiola, are yesterday's news and that we are the club to play for.

This year's Champions League may not offer us much of a chance for silverware, but it's an audition of sorts, an invitation to players like Lewandowski and others to make their mark. By all means, then, let's do what we can to demolish Bayern but then turn our attention towards winning the Prem. The list of players who would kill to play for us would include more than just Lewandowski, and that's not at all a bad position to be in.

15 December 2013

Prem Power Rankings: Matchday 16

The power-rankings are a bit jumbled this week as Man City (fourth in the Prem) leapfrogs Arsenal (first) thanks to that 6-3 scoreline. Of course, as a Gooner, it's a struggle to be objective after a loss such as the one we suffered on Saturday. Having said that, Man City's home form could be just strong enough to outweigh their away struggles. Much as I would like to believe that they'll come down to Earth at home, that might be some pie-in-the-sky thinking there. Elsewhere, Liverpool continue to defy my doubts, hanging five goals on Spurs at White Hart Lane, shouldering their way rather rudely past Chelsea and Everton in the process. I've expanded the rankings this week to include 5th-place Everton. After all, it seems only fair for the table to reflect those clubs contending for European competitions next year. Notable absent despite the expansion, of course, are Man U and Spurs. The former have to contend with the month-long absence (and apparent transfer-request) of van Persie while the latter were humiliated, and spectacularly at that, by Liverpool. At home.

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1.  Man City (2)
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6-3 at Arsenal

10-2-4

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After pulverizing Arsenal, many are anointing them the favorites to win it all. However, questions remain about their away-form, which is worse than 11th-place Aston Villa.

At Fulham 12/21
2.  Arsenal (1)
(WWWDL)
3-6 MCFC

11-2-3
1 (35)
It was a farcical performance from one end of the pitch to the other, but the more damaging result may be the injury to Koscielny. There is some soul-searching to be done, but I’d wager we’ll see a rebound rather than an unraveling.

Chelsea
12/23
3.  Liverpool (NA)
(DLWWW)
5-0 at Spurs

10-3-3
2 (33)
Flat-track bullies or serious contenders? It’s hard to rate Liverpool effectively, to be honest. They’ll be without Sturridge and Gerrard for a month, but it’s getting harder to ignore their potential.

Cardiff
12/21
4.  Chelsea (4)
(WWWLW)
2-1 Palace

10-3-3
3 (33)
Another unconvincing display prevents Chelsea from climbing. Yes, they took three points again, but it was hardly convincing. Are they grinding out boring wins or maxing out their potential?

At Arsenal 12/23
5.   Everton (3)
(DWWDW)
4-1 Fulham

8-7-1
5 (31)
Martinez has this club playing some good football at the moment, and it’s a sign of rising expectations that a 4-1 win is viewed by the Toffees faithful as a bit of a disappointment. Still the only one-loss club in the Prem.
At Swansea
12/22

Wilshere faces a one-match ban plus fine...

Shortly after David Silva scored to make it 4-2, Jack Wilshere made his feelings pretty clear, gesturing the their fans with what appears to be a middle finger. It's pretty clear from this photo as well as from the video, and so there's no sense beating around the bush. It looks like Jack will probably sit out against Chelsea, which, given how he played against City, may not be such a bad thing.

Luis Suarez was served a three-match ban and a £20,000 fine for his salute to Fulham fans in December 2011, but a more-useful comparison might be to Wilfried Zaha, who received a one-match ban and £3,000 fine for his digital communication with Leeds fans while playing on-loan for Crystal Palace in March 2013. The one-match ban seems like pretty standard fare, so we might as well reconcile ourselves to that. It's the size of the fine that may vary, and that's more an issue for Jack and his budget than it is for the make-up of the squad going forward.

Suarez's finger was both slower and more blatant than Wilshere's—Suarez came to a full-stop and pointed to his middle finger with his other hand; what's more, his middle-finger came after he had been accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra in October 2011, for which he would be suspended eight games after the one-game suspension for the event at Fulham. In other words, his fine may have been influenced by the preceding allegation of and investigation into racial abuse. That's not something that applies to Wilshere.

More useful, then, is Zaha's gesture. Like Suarez, his was a slower, more-drawn-out motion. Wilshere's was quick and brief. Like Wilshere, Zaha's disciplinary record is a bit less spotty than Suarez's. The one-match ban, though, seems like standard fare, and it seems again like the only real variable will be how much lighter Wilshere's wallet will end up. We'll have to wait to see how the FA responds to referee Atkinson's report. Given the botched calls that went against us—Zabaleta's hand-ball in the box, two goals incorrectly disallowed by an offsides call, to name a few—it might be nice to see something conciliatory handed down, such as a fine but no ban. I wouldn't count on it, though.

I mentioned in my post-match post-mortem that I was more worried about Wilshere and Koscielny's availability going forward than I was about the actual result. We should learn more about each of them in coming days...

3-6 Man City: so, the other shoe dropped.

It was bound to drop at some point. That it did so in such fashion doesn't matter a whit to me. A loss is a loss, and I don't see much more symbolism in it, to be honest.

By the time Man City went up 3-1, I was ready to call it a day. Man City at home is just too tough, and it was clear that we were running on rubber legs.Then, we put in about as bright a fifteen minutes (or so) of football as we would all day, highlighted by Walcott's second—but punctured, sadly by Silva's goal minutes later. That well and truly let the air out. If we looked tired before that, the 4-2 scoreline seemed to literally suck the blood for each Gunner on the pitch. There are excuses and there are factors—our fatigue, be it physical or mental—prevented us from keeping up with the Prem's most dynamic attack, and we paid for it heavily.

However, I'm not getting my panties in a twist over this. I don't think this signals that the title is now City's to lose, nor do I believe we've been knocked for such a loop that we'll never recover. We knew going in that City's offense is cartoonishly powerful, and when chances are presented (at times, gifted), they're more than happy. I'll say this with no spite: I will say that I'm happy Nasri didn't scored. There. We'll move on. Speaking of chances, we had ours. Were it not for Giroud having a woeful afternoon (he could have had a hat-trick had he shown any finishing ability, and he had a chance to pass across an open goal for two teammates to slot home, but he somehow squirreled it out of bounds), and were it not for a number of dodgy off-sides calls, we could have had six goals ourselves.

That's not to say that we would have defended any better, of course, but it offers some perspective. Even when we were clearly not at our best, and even playing in what is becoming a legendarily difficult place to get a result, we had chances and gave almost as good as we got. I was more upset about the third goal than I was about any goal afterwards. Flamini, who was piss-poor all day, couldn't get to Özil's pass (although why a pass to the top of our own box is wise eludes me), and Fernandinho had plenty of time to tee up and blast it home. Poor decision-making. Sluggishness. Acres of space outside our box.

That last one baffled me all afternoon. Time and time again, it seems, City and (Toure especially) found themselves alone with the ball 20-30 yards from goal. It's as if Ramsey and Flamini had decided, without notifying anyone, that they would play wide all afternoon. Indeed, each of their heat maps show no action at the top of our box. That, more than fatigue and even more than City's firepower, struck me as the story of the day. One simply cannot concede that much space in such a vital area. Not once, it seemed, did we shepherd Toure to the side, nor did we ever seem to stop him.

However, before I delve too deeply into the process, I want to put its outcome in context. Yes, we were thrashed, but I don't feel any worse about it than I did after losing 1-0 at Old Trafford. It became comical after a point, but I refuse to get worked up over it. Winning at the Etihad, even before we saw the amazing form City would display to this point, was always a long shot. I would have been happy with a draw, to be honest, and to lose by whatever the scoreline does not distress me. Losing 8-2 at Old Trafford distressed me. Drawing with West Brom had me miffed. Serious title contenders, and yes, Gracie, we still are, can get away with dropping points on the road to other contenders, but they can't afford to drop points to clubs outside of the top five or six. Heck, by that measure, the loss at Old Trafford may turn out to be one of those inexcusable losses.

Man City, as jaw-droppingly good at home as they are, are almost as jaw-droppingly bad away: 2-3 to Cardiff. 0-0 to Stoke. 2-3 to Villa. 0-1 to Sunderland. These are teams that will likely be fighting to stave off relegation, and those losses tell me more about City than their 6-3 win over us. As to us, we still sport the Prem's best away-record. One should pause before reading too much into the results of one game, win or lose (the reading is more fun when we win, of course). Man City may have beaten us, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them lose at Craven Cottage next week.

Speaking of next week, I'm more worried about Koscielny's knee-gash and Wilshere's potential ban for his digital communication with City fans after Silva's goal made it 4-2. When it rains, it pours, as the saying goes. Well, it seems to be raining. Two away-losses. A tetchy Champions League draw Monday. Updates on Kos and Wilshere to come. We knew that there would be some adversity. We knew there would be setbacks and disappointments. However, I'm optimistic.In seasons past, such a scoreline might have sent us into a tailspin. This time around, I sense a different reaction altogether. I'm not saying we're going to obliterate Chelsea, but I do see us bouncing back with the kind of grit and determination and confidence we've lacked in the recent past. Sometimes, a club needs a loss to refocus, to instill intensity and hunger into its efforts.

We'll see next weekend if I'm right.