25 January 2014

The Ox talks up togetherness, a factor in the squad's success

After the FA Cup fourth-round win over Coventry, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who played 71 minutes, spoke about an oft-overlooked element that has been driving the club's success: togetherness. Speaking at the club site, Ox pointed out that "[t]he main group and the spine of the team has been together for two or three years so it’s starting to form that togetherness." I'll stop short of calling this togetherness a "new signing," but it's most-definitely a a crucial factor. For as much as we've enjoyed the arrivals of Özil and Flamini, the early-season form of Giroud and Ramsey, the unity and coherence of this squad has allowed it to grind out results. That element may not inspire headlines—"we like each other" is a bit less attention-grabbing than, say, "Arsenal agree to £45m deal with _________"—but it's hard to overestimate its importance.

As we all know, last summer was the first from several that didn't see key players depart. That speaks in part to the club's improved standing during last season's run-in, itself a product of a galvanized squad that found strength in each other after dispiriting losses to Tottenham and Bayern, the kind of losses that might have been so demoralizing as to see an entire season collapse. However, the spirit that Ox mentions must have already been there, nascent but ready to burst forth. Sure enough, ever since the start of the current campaign, the spirit and togetherness of the squad is hailed from almost every direction.

As Ox was talking, he was referring to a mistake he made that led to Coventry very nearly scoring to make it 2-1. Describing the response from Per, Ox had the following to say:
I gave the ball away and it resulted in them hitting the post. I knew what I did wrong there, and Per just gave me a friendly reminder. That's what you need; you need to keep each other's standards high, and we'll be doing it all season. But it's important that we do it in the right way, whoever it is. If it's Per, he'll have a shout, but then afterwards he will come and explain it to you, and that's what makes you respond to it. He doesn't do it in a negative way, and that's the way we go about it. We just keep doing things positively.
This isn't the first time Per has stepped up and lain into a teammate for a mistake, whether it was Cazorla's give-away against Aston Villa that did lead to a goal to make it 2-1 or excoriating Özil for failing to applaud the away-support after the loss at the Etihad. Ox's larger point about doing it "in the right way" is vital here, as a squad struggling for some kind of identity, cohesiveness, or form can't get into such issues without it looking and feeling like sniping, quarreling, or worse. It's not that winning gives players more leeway to launch into tirades or that losing paints everyone as a complainer; it's more that the spirit in the squad itself both drives a desire for success and an understanding of how to rely on each other to achieve that success.

There's something to be said for how harmony within the squad can bring out the best in each member—each player knows the others' abilities and preferences and can start to play to that, whether it's remembering that a teammate likes to receive a pass on a certain foot or that another teammate can be counted on to make a run or track back. Conversely, it can come from remembering that a certain player doesn't have the confidence or technique to use his left foot or is feeling a bit overmatched against an opponent. From the outside, it's difficult if not impossible for us to notice such ineffabilities, but they're there, and the lads clearly feel it and feed on it.

The transfer-window may yet close without Arsène signing anyone of note, at least not a flesh-and-blood player who dons a kit, but he's built a squad from top to bottom, a squad whose members are ready to go to war for each other, and that's beautiful to see.

Odds of a Draxler signing now at 1/5...

It's getting hard to ignore the buzz around Julian Draxler, a buzz that is approximately on-par with a squadron of helicopters, but we've been here before, most recently with Gonzalo Higuain, and we all know how that turned out, for better or for worse. Before going any further, it's worth mentioning that Higuain's current club didn't advance from the Champions League group-stage. We did. Napoli sits third in Serie A, twelve points off of Juve's pace. We are currently top of the league (try not to chant that, even mentally). Moving on.

My point here is to remind ourselves that anything can happen, including Draxler signing for Arsenal now or never, and that Arsenal, with or without Draxler, are in fine shape. However, the prospect of such a talented player joining in January keeps me drawing me like a moth to flame. Pouring petrol all over said flame are the likes of John Cross, who reports that we've made a bid of around £25m—well-short of Schalke's valuation and of Draxler's £37m buy-out clause. Even more intriguing, Jan Aage Fjørtoft, who accurately called the Ozil transfer a few hours before it was officially announced, has chimed in with a similar tweet, saying "I understand that Schalke and Arsenal have agreed a fee. If he will leave now I don't know. But this is latest info". Of course, this is little more than window-dressing, albeit some fancy dressing at that. Unlike Cross or other paid outlets, I can't discern a financial motive in Fjørtoft's role here; posting on twitter just doesn't pay the bills (even if there is some spillover to his role as a tv commentator).

No, more interesting to me than these sources is how the betting sites rate a potential Draxler move. In the last few days, the fractional odds for Draxler to Arsenal have now dropped to as low as 1/5, meaning a £5-bet wins a measly £1. Other clubs to which Draxler has been linked, such as Chelsea or Man City, come in at relative long shots of 33/1. The tabloids, blogs, and other sources draw their lifeblood by sucking on the hopes and dreams of fans desperate to see their clubs sign some big names. Betting sites, by contrast, aren't necessarily in the business of peddling stories; they make their money by trying to accurately assess the odds on player-movement so that they're not paying out more than they take in. As such, it seems to me that they are putting their money where theirs mouth are to a greater extent than tabloids. It's still a long way from confirmation, of course, but then again, there is news of a press conference for Monday, most likely to show off the new Puma kits for next year, but who's to say that we won't see Draxler in one?

The Telegraph, among others, describe Draxler as "the German forward who is desperate to move to the Emirates this month" and goes on to say that he's the one who is "forcing the issue" of completing the move before the transfer-window shuts. The "when", in addition the "how much", seems to be the issue moreso than the "if." Of course, if we could bring in Draxler now, that's far-better than waiting. Even if he's not ready to play centrally, he'd be far-more expensive in the summer, and with Chelsea moving Mata, Chelsea's soul-less remorseless player-eating-machine might start casting its baleful, hungry eyes salaciously about. If we're serious in pursuing Draxler, and it seems we are, by all means sign him now.

We're down to five business days before the transfer-window closes. As Arsène has claimed, most big deals happen in the window's final days. Well, those days are upon us. I'd love to see Arsène prove his own words true, through and through. Arsène? What say you?

24 January 2014

Arsenal 4-0 Coventry: The Return of Podolski

Two first-half goals from Lukas Podolski ensured that Arsenal will advance to the FA Cup's fifth round, and late goals from second-half subs Giroud and Cazorla flattered Arsenal a bit on a night when Coventry, even if overmatched, showed determination and even flair in stretches.

It's a far cry from last year's fourth-round win, a squeaker of a win over Brighton & Hove that seemed to foretell the debacle to come in the fifth round against Blackburn. It started with a strong line-up, with a good number of first-teamers or other regulars and no real debutantes to speak of, unless we mention Gedion Zelalem—the first Gunner to be born after Arsène became manager.

Announcing his return with some authority was one Lukas Podolski, who opened up the scoring in the 15th minute, gathering a soft pass from Özil, rounding the keeper, and slotting home from a rather-tight angle. From there, one might assume that Coventry would pull up the tent-stakes or at least park the bus; instead, Baker danced around and unleashed a corker of a shot that Fabianski did well to tip over. This wouldn't be the only time that Coventry threatened; thankfully, Fabianski was up to the call each time.

In the 27th minute, Gnabry sent in a very good corss, which Per flicked through from the front of the six-yard box, and Podolski was there to nod it home at the far-post. That seemed to settle the outcome of the match if not quite stifle Coventry's fight.

There was of course the 35th minute protest as Coventry's away-fans held up their "Why?" signs to announce their displeasure at having to travel 35 miles to Northampton for their home-matches, such as they are, and credit them for taking full-advantage of the televised match to air their grievances. There may have been some kvetching about a Friday-night match, but the Sky Blues away-fans have shown time and again that neither distance nor inconvenience will stand in their way. I have to admit, from the relative safety of having advanced, that a part of me was torn between wanting Coventry to win in spite of their owner's crass attempts to run the club into the ground and wanting Coventry to lose to further shame those owners into actually running the club properly. In either case, it's further testament to the need for financial sanity. So it goes.

This wouldn't be the last time Coventry would come calling, as Leon Clarke, running onto to a clinicaly pass from Baker, very nearly pulled one back were it not for Fabianski making a bit of a lucky save. As it to one-up himself, Clarke drilled another shot that just may have dented the woodwork. Even if it didn't find its way home, it was another strong declaration that Coventry would not go quietly.

In the 61st minute, the "Keep Cov in Cov" movement again announced itself, marking the 1961 hiring of Jimmy Hill and the beginning of the "Sky Blue Revolution". The fans' "When?" signs asked when will Coventry again be allowed to play in Coventry? Finally, a Coventry fan (presumably) invaded the pitch wearing a "Sisu Out! shirt. To the stewards' credit, they allowed him his moment before escorting him off. Much as we've gnashed our teeth about the role of Abramovich at Chelsea, for example, Coventry offers a painful counter-point to the risks of cold, remorseless ownership.

Despite my own calls for Bendtner to come on and bag a brace for himself, it just wasn't his night, and he did more to highlight the need for reinforcements than he did to assuage our concerns. It's not for nothing that Giroud, subbing on for him in the 78th minute, scored a few minutes later from an admittedly feeble cross from Gibbs that somehow squirmed past a pair of defenders. By that point, the traffic was all one-way, and Cazorla's goal to make it 4-0 felt a bit like pouring on a bit in a way that might make more sense in a competition in which goal-differentials mattered.

I wish Coventry nothing but the best and hope that the result bolsters the fans' attempt to overthrow Sisu/Otium in favor of a wiser, gentler owner that might restore a bit of success and pride to a still-proud club.

As to us, we're through to the fifth round, of course, and have to prepare for Tuesday's clash with Southampton. All the best, Sky Blues, in your campaign to oust Otium and to win promotion this year and the next.

Of Julian Draxler and Wenger's Law

So. Seven days until the transfer-window closes, and there have been no signings. Indeed, Arsène has even thrown a bit of cold-water on the likelihood of there being any signings, saying "It's looks unlikely that we will sign anyone. We are not close to anything". Alas, it seems, this all but slams shut the door on anything happening to strengthen the squad. We can't even look forward to the return of Abou "like a new signing" Diaby this time around. Yes, yes, Yaya looks ready to make an appearance or two before too much longer, but I can't say I'm too excited for it.

However, I have to admit to being excited about something else entirely—the biannual appearance of Wenger's Law of Inverse Relationships, a Law that operates with almost the same degree of certainty as the Law of Universal Gravitation or the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Wenger's Law "stipulates that there exists an inverse relationship between how early and numerous are the rumors linking us to a player and the likelihood of us signing him." The quotes are there because I take the words directly from the only person who even closely resembles an authority on the subject—me. I invented this theory, tested it rigorously, and decided unilaterally that it is now a Law. As a proposed corollary, the further back into the past the rumors stretch, the less likely the signing becomes. To wit, how many headlines linked us over the summer to Higuain, Benzema, or  Suarez? As many as there grains of sand on all of the beaches of the world. With Higuain, the rumors had started as early as March. Suarez, a bit later, the beginning of July. We didn't sign either one.

By contrast, the rumors around Mesut Özil, numerous though they may have become, didn't start until the end of August, just a few days before the close of the transfer-window. In fact, the buzz around Özil came in one intense flurry just five days before his signing was confirmed. The one, ineluctable conclusion is that we signed Özil as a direct result of Wenger's Law. The window was nearly closed, there had been no chatter or rumors around the signing until it was all but confirmed, and—just as we had given up hope, especially after the Aston Villa debacle—boom. Signed. From theory to Law. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before those blokes who pass out Nobel Prizes come sniffing around.

On to the bad news. If Wenger's Law holds true, we may have to put to bed our dreams around Draxler. We've been linked to him since September, and the stories in the last month have proliferated past the point of countability. Yes, I could count them, but (a) I'm too lazy and (b) isn't it much more fun to savor the mystery? It would be like cutting down a tree to count its rings in order to find out how old it is. Yes, we'd know how the old tree is—or was, anyway, because chopping it down, I'm pretty sure, kills it. So it goes with the Draxler story. Better to let it ive on, perhaps, than to kill it off, even if this does invoke Wenger's Law.

The good news from Wenger's Law is that its opposite permutation suggests that the signing of a striker, whoever it may end up be, could come from a nearly endless list of players to whom we have not been linked. Salivate over that for a minute. Without breathing their names for fear that The Sun, Metro, or other scurrilous purveyor of pulp catch wind of and run with the "breaking news", quietly ruminate over the players to whom we haven't been linked. The world's our oyster. I'm sure that, come 31 January (and no sooner, knowing how he operates), Arsène, smirk firmly in place, will pry open that oyster to reveal his newest pearl. No, it may not be a Draxler or a Costa, but who knows what treasures are to be revealed? Could it be Draxler? After all, there's always an exception to prove the rule.

If nothing else, I'll leave you with a few words from John Steinbeck, an American author. This comes from his short novel The Pearl:
For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.
In other words, on one hand, this feeling of never being satisfied is both a blessing and a burden. It prevents us from ever really enjoying what we have but impels us forward to always ever seek improvements. Should the transfer-window close, we will of course feel dissatisfied, forgetting what we do have. We've been good enough to this point to be in first in the Prem, to have advanced to the FA Cup's fourth round, and to advance to the Champions League round of 16. That may not be quite the same as saying we're currently good enough to win silverware in one, two, or all three, but, well, we'll see if it will have to be good enough in seven days' time...

Right. There's a match coming up, one that will see whether we're good enough to advance to the FA Cup's fifth round. Let's start there.

23 January 2014

Thank you, Mannone; thank you, Man U...

Each of them deserve a hearty thank-you from Gooners everywhere. Man U, of course, earn our gratitude by losing in horrific fashion, but a more-heart-felt thanks goes to Vito Mannone. In a delicious, delicious performance, Vito turned away Man U's fifth and final penalty in the shoot-out to dump Man U out of the league cup, help Sunderland advance to the final, and remind his old mates at Arsenal of the risks of overplaying one's hand in these tournaments.

Part of the glory of the FA Cup and league cup is the possibility that some club from out of nowhere, with a payroll dwarfed by each member of their opponent's starting XI as well as that guy who pops to fix the corner flags, can slay a giant. Hell, it happened to us twice last year, as League Two Bradford knocked us out of the league cup's quarterfinal, and again as Blackburn beat us at the Emirates in the FA Cup's fifth round. However, those shockers feel like they were ages ago, coming as they did before we became the first Prem club to win at Allianz Arena and before we went on a ten-game unbeaten streak to close the 2012-13 season. Gone, it seems, are the soul-searching and angst, the calls for Arsène to be sacked or Ramsey sold.

How times have changed.

However, the portents are clear. Bradford knocked us out the league cup in a shoot-out, just as Sunderland did to Man U. Before we lose our senses in gleeful schadenfreude—trust me, there's ample time for that later—let's remind ourselves of what's at stake. It's easy to write off Coventry due to the morass that their owners have sunk them into. Relegated.  Put into administration. Playing home-matches 35 miles away. However, there's a lot of pride coming from Coventry, rightfully so, and, as happened in that cinematic classic Major League, the players and fans seem to have rallied around their hatred of the club's owners. Spite can be some powerful, powerful stuff.

Therefore, Mannone's save on Rafael's shot, the one that meant that Sunderland would get to the final against Man City, might be one of the more-vital saves he's made for Arsenal. No typos there. By denying Rafael, at Old Trafford no less, Mannone sent a beacon of hope to Coventry, yes, reminding them that the overmatched need not get overrun. However, he also sent ample warning to Arsenal, reminding us of the same. The warnings and reminders of Blackburn and Bradford may have lost a bit of their edge over the last twelve months, give or take, but a fresh omen from just two days prior to our match can snap minds back to attention.

Of course, I'm not in the locker-room or on the training ground, so don't mistake me for being in the know about the squad's state of mind. For all I know, Arsène is looking into ways to calm the players, so amped they are to go out and destroy the Sky Blues. For all I know, each player has taped to his locker an image from the Blackburn or Bradford matches, searing into his heart and eyeballs the memories, motivating him to go out and play pitch-perfect football en route to a 10-0 shellacking of Coventry.

However, it's also just as likely that there's a lot of "it's only Coventry" and "this is just another in a soft stretch of fixtures" going about. Heck, we drew Chelsea in the league-cup and Tottenham in the FA Cup, each in the fourth round. From there, there's bound to be a bit of let-down when facing a side that haven't played in the Prem since 2001. Look around, and most of the predictions (mine included) are for Arsenal to win 3-0, if not more.

Pride goeth before the fall, as it's been said. With that in mind, I'm thankful that Mannone's save reminds our lads that anything's possible, just in case anyone forgot. Thanks, Vito.

Against Coventry, look to a Bendtner brace

It's a bit dicey to predict who's going to have a MotM-worthy performance, especially in an FA Cup match when the manager's squad-selection casts an even-wider net than usual. Of course, there are a few players out of contention, namely Ramsey, Arteta, Sanogo, Diaby, Vermaelen, and Walcott. Speaking ahead of the unusual Friday-match (the first such match Arsenal have hosted in almost a decade), Arsène did mention that Nicklas Bendtner is fit enough to be called on, if necessary.

Good enough for me. Continue to rest Giroud and then surround Bendtner with midfielders who can provide plenty of service as well as width: Gnabry on the right, Podolksi on the left, Cazorla through the middle. Between the three of them, there's enough variety to flummox Coventry. Cazorla's balletic, jinky runs, Podolski's hammer-like left, and Gnabry's pace and incisiveness, on the right—these could all make for a very long afternoon for Coventry's back-four, and a very productive one for Bendtner. With crosses whipping in from left and right, and with Cazorla and Podolski the two most-likely to unleash shots from distance, Bendtner should find plenty of opportunities for headers and second-chance put-backs of the sort that he's feasted on in his few appearances. Well, okay, so "feasted" might exaggerate it just a bit when we're discussing a man who has scored just two Prem goals. On the other hand, he's been there when we've needed it, whether it was a second-minute goal against Hull or a more-crucial 88th minute goal to finally open up Cardiff. Let's not forget that he did also score against Man City only to have it disallowed because the offsides rule at the Etihad means "anyone who ever gets behind Man City's defense is offsides". Two goals from 157 minutes leaves him scoring every 79th minute or so, which ain't all that bad. Luis Suarez, in the form of his life, is scoring a goal every 69.4 minutes. I'm not equating the two or suggesting that Bendtner is in Suarez's class by any stretch; after all, Bendtner's sample size is a tenth of Suarez's. All I'm suggesting is that Bendtner is not as piss-poor as his critics like to suggest.

He may never reclaim his status as The Greatest Striker That Ever Lived, but we don't need him to. All we need is for him to play well. As the closest, one-for-one replacement that we have for Giroud at the moment, he can slot in without forcing any significant disruptions to how we set up or how others around him play (as we do when Podolski or Walcott slide over from the wings). Until we get another striker, Giroud is going to need some back-up. At the risk of getting a bit whiny, Giroud is looking ragged, Bendtner is hobbling on that tender ankle, Akpom has been loaned out, and Sanogo has been injured almost from the moment the ink dried on his contract. As such, we simply have to play Bendtner whenever we can afford to. Without slighting or underestimating Coventry (even though that's what I'm about to do), Friday looks to be one of those times.

In fact, I hope that the Great Dane delivers not one, but two goals to help us progress to the next round. It was just around a year ago that we were bounced out by Blackburn due to our failure to score. With Man U's inglorious defeat to Sunderland in the league cup, we have ample warning of how anything can happen in these single-elimination knock-outs.  I was thrilled to death to see Sunderland win, not just because it heaps misery on Mancunia, but because I do like to root for the little guy. Just not on Friday, thanks all the same.

22 January 2014

Man U moves for Mata; does this up the ante for Arsène?

Numerous reports suggest that Juan Mata has agreed to move to Manchester United, in the process laying waste to two notions about the January transfer-window, perhaps altering the balance of power in the Prem, and begging questions about how Arsène will respond, if at all. Let's deal with these in order of importance, then, as there are a mere eight days left in the transfer-window.

First, the two notions having been laid waste to are these: one, it is well-nigh impossible to make significant signings in January, even more so in a World Cup year; and, two, any significant transfer-activity happens in the last few days. Should the Mata transfer go through, it's enough to prove that these notions are wrong. Mata is arguably among the Prem's most-creative midfielders. having been Chelsea's Player of the Year two years running, and a £37m move upends any preconceived notions about what's possible in January. Yes, Mata has been marginalized under Mourinho, but this say more about Mourinho's priorities than it does about Mata's abilities. Almost from the moment The Specious One arrived, he's undermined Mata, just as he undermined Casillas at Real Madrid. As always with Mourinho, it's about mind-games and manipulation, and shedding Mata might be the kind of power-play that Mourinho makes just to show that he's in charge. Whatever. I don't care very much about his mind's inner-workings. The transfer might be enough to revitalize Man U, launching them back into contention for a top-four spot, if not more. Such a move—in mid-January, no less—proves that squad-changing moves are in fact possible.

On the other hand, Man U did just crash out of the league cup, arguably its last best chance at silverware for the season. This could just be a panic-buy, albeit a very good one. With Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, and Adnan Januzaj, Man U's highest priority may not have been another creative force in the midfield. Their more-pressing needs are probably at the defensive end, what with Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evra aging rapidly. It remains to be seen how Mata would slot in and how this would impact other players in the squad. He does not answer some of the most-pressing questions that nag at Man U under Moyes. As creative as Mata is, he does not bring the grit or tenacity that has been lacking as Giggs (not to mention Carrick, among others) has faded and after Scholes has departed. Is this enough to restore Man U to the discussion about who will win the Prem? Probably not. With sixteen games to play and a fourteen-point gap to cover, it's still too much to vault this Man U side to that level. It might be enough, though, to restore them to the discussion about who will qualify for European competition.

Again, though, I care less about what this means for Man U's inner workings and more about the implications for our side. If a fading Man U can sign the likes of Juan Mata, surely, we should be able to make a marquee-signing of our own. We've long known that we could use another striker to support, if not compete with, Giroud. It might also be nice to find someone who can play center-back or on the right. Seeing that a player of Mata's quality—already cup-tied in the Champions League and looking to prove himself to his nation—is willing to make a mid-season move lends just a bit of urgency to the talk of us signing the likes of Draxler, Costa, Mandzukic, or Tello.

It's not so much that we have to be wary of Man U overtaking us, after all, but we do have to look for ways to add meaningful reinforcements as we contend for the Prem title (as well as the FA Cup and Champions League). Giroud is slogging through quicksand, and Bendtner is injured and jaded. Please, Arsène, sign someone significant—for morale and for results.

21 January 2014

Next, I suppose we'll be apologizing to Spurs for beating them...

Let me just get one thing out of the way—it was inappropriate for Santi Cazorla and Robert Pires to hold up the sign they held up, what with the language it contained. Sincerely. They should have read it before holding it up, leading to it getting tweeted over and over again. Santi has since apologized, tweeting out "Our apoligizes [sic] to the Totenham [sic] fans, we couldn't see the paper. #alwaysfootballalwaysrespect."

Done. Dusted. Apparently, our neighbors to the north are a sensitive lot, prone to catching a case of the vapors at the slightest of disturbances, be it a hastily scrawled sign or the scoring of a goal or two in order to defeat them. God forbid anyone point out the scoreline of such a match or worse, the state of affairs in North London.

Let's not shoot the messenger, after all. It's hardly the fault of Santi or Robert that Tottenham is what it is, and for them to broadcast this "news" is like pointing out that water is wet, the Pope is Catholic, or that bears Tottenham in the woods.

Look. Spurs are a big club. Aren't they? As such, they and their fans deserve a bit more civility and respect. They've outspent us in four of the last five years, and if money doesn't buy the kind of class that commands that respect, well, what's left? They've spent some £230m on players over the last five years. It's not our fault that we still haven't finished below them since 1995.

It must be hard, hard work to work so hard and still sit where on the table? I'm so used to keeping track of the top four that I have to look it up. Ah. Fifth. Not too shabby. I can see where this sense of pride, this taking of umbrage, comes from. They might sit a spot higher had we let them score a goal or two in September. They might still be playing for the FA Cup had Santi not scored against them—maybe that's it or if we hadn't won the league on their pitch in 2004. Who scored there? Oh, yes—Pires. A bit of salt in the wounds, there, I suppose.

In fairness, the Spurs' reaction, so far as I can find it, is a collective shrug of the shoulders. Why complain, after all? It's all a bit of banter. In the future, we'll have to mind our manners a bit more, though. With that in mind, Santi, no more off-color jokes, okay? If you keep that kind of stuff up, the Tottenham could really hit the fan.

20 January 2014

Is Diaby about to bid us adieu?

Reports out in the last few days suggest that Abou Diaby may have already made his final appearance for Arsenal, with rumors of a Diaby retirement making the rounds. Should the rumors prove true, it would sadden me a great deal as the man has done his level-best but, through circumstances largely beyond his control, have fallen so far off the radar that it might just be time to move on.

In the case of Abou Diaby, the travesty is of course the injuries that have bedeviled him. In his eight years with the club, a span of time that might have seen him accrue some 400 or more appearances, he's only managed 178. His career tells a cruel story, one reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson's character in the film Unbreakable. Like Elijah Price, Diaby seems especially fragile and prone to injuries at any moment. He's suffered 35 significant injuries during his time with the club, the latest one an especially cruel rupture of the ACL that seems to have ruled him out the rest of the 2013-14 season. He'll turn 28 before the end of the season and would need quite a bit of rehabilitation and recovery before he could see first-team action. Given his history, though, the next injury could yet again lay him low only a few matches into his comeback. When he's been fit, he's shown flashes of a kind of dominance that is comparable to Vieira's, an ability to dominate from endline to endline, his lanky length allowing him, almost like a spider, to reach out and snatch the ball from any direction and launch a counter-attack almost single-handedly. Just as he was set to reclaim the kind of form that saw him demolish Liverpool back in September of 2012, his ACL rupture in March 2013 laid waste to those hopes, and we'll be without his services for the remainder of the current campaign.

When he does come back, if ever, he'll find a midfield even more-crowded than he left, and chances for action even fewer and farther in-between. Of course, Arteta and Flamini are no spring-chickens, but a defensive midfield of Ramsey and Wilshere would leave Diaby languishing on the bench. Given his history of injury, this might be a good thing, as the rigors of playing 80-90 minutes a week might be more than his brittle body could bear, but would such a role suit him? Most of the talk around Diaby's future with the club has centered around whether or not the club should keep him or move him on. However, the severity of his latest injury, the long recuperation time, and his advancing age may have changed the terms of the debate, maybe even to the point that Diaby himself would bow out rather than being cast off.

I've agonized over the man's plight, here and here if you care to dig deeper into the archives. Simply put, he's literally put his body on the line for the club, and, sadly, his body has paid the price. Years from now, he may struggle to walk unassisted, get out of a chair, or simply sit comfortably, as the aches and pains he's accumulated in these eight years marinate and get ornery. Much as I have wished to see him return with a clean bill of health and run amok on the pitch, I worry that those days are behind him. Much as I hope that I'm wrong on that score, I'd rather he choose his destiny rather than let the cold hand of fate lay him low one more time.

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these lines, lines that seem to imbue Diaby's plight with deeper significance:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
So it goes with Diaby. He has been burning the candle at both ends, producing moments of that "lovely light''; sadly, however, it couldn't and hasn't lasted long. I hope we haven't seen the last of this man, but it's increasingly difficult to cling to such hopes. What might have been seems to loom larger than what could be...

Silent Stan's in London. Might there be more than one contract to sign?

It's being reported that majority owner Stan Kroenke is in London to finalize a new contract with manager Arsène Wenger, said to be a three-year deal worth £24m. As important as it is to secure Arsenal's near-future by keeping it in Arsène's hands, I can't help but hope that there are other machinations and agreements to be made.

On one hand, handing a new contract to Arsène is on its own reason enough for Kroenke to hop across the pond, but, on the other, it is January, and the transfer-window will only be open for a few more precious weeks. Could the two have more on their agenda than Arsène's deal? Please?

New rumors come and go with the frequency and constancy of a Miley Cyrus scandals, so it's hard to focus attention on any one of them at any given time. However, with talk around Draxler persisting, and now Juventus's Mirko Juvinic, among others, please don't blame me for getting my hopes up.

As I discussed in my previous post, I suspect that Arsène is looking beyond his time with the club, building a squad that can adjust to a new manager because of its own strength and cohesiveness. With that in mind, if I have any inklings or insights into the man's thinking, signing players like Vucinic, Berbatov, and even Jackson Martinez or Mario Mandzukic seem less and less likely to me because their ages reduce them to short-term stop-gaps at best.

At the risk of letting my optimism get the better of me, then, a three-year contract for Arsène keeps him at the club until the close of the 2016-2017 season, at which point a player like Julian Draxler would have matured, reaching the heights of that potent elixir of youth and experience as the rest of the squad, men currently in their early twenties, may well have coalesced into one of the most-dominant sides in the Prem. Yes, other players would be needed, especially on defense, but there is nothing to say that players like Koscielny or Mertesacker can't play another four or five years—after all, John Terry and Nemanja Vidic, while not the dominant players they once were, are still candidates in the debate for best center-backs.

While it's far more likely that Kroenke has come to London to put ink to Arsène's contract, and that we may have to wait until summer to see significant signings, I daresay that confirming Arsène's presence at the club could go a long way towards convincing certain players to commit to a club about whose fture they might otherwise have concerns about. Look down the table at other clubs that are under new management, and it's easy to see why players might want to know who'll be in charge of Arsenal before they commit. It's not just stability or continuity that Kroenke and Arsène would be signing off on; players would know for certain that they'd play under a manager renowned for taking talented, young players and turning them into superstars, even legends.

The contract Arsène is apparently about to sign (or has signed already) would bring him to his 67th birthday, and it might then be the last time for young players to play under one of this generation's best managers, one singularly capable of putting polish to diamonds in the rough to bring out their brilliance in a way few other managers, if any, can. Knowing that Arsène will be at the helm for another three years might be just enough to convince Draxler or Costa or Pogba to more seriously consider a mid-season switch in order to maximize their time with Arsène.

It's not as far-fetched as it may sound (at least, that's what I keep telling myself). Let's hope that Stan and Arsène agree to terms quickly and then can turn the discussion to which player or players should and could be brought in to strengthen our title-chase. I could think of no better send-off for Arsène than to win a few pieces of silverware, this year and in years to come.

19 January 2014

Özil, Draxler, and a future without Arsène

Earlier in the week, Arsène, pressed on his future with the club, said, "there is a point where you have to decide and there is a point where you have to make your decision public. You can take of that sentence the way you want it." Perennially coy—and apparently enjoying it—Arsène, ever the wordsmith, always the artful dodger, is in the catbird's seat along with any number of clichés one might apply here. After eighteen years, the last ten of so amounting to a drought, the man has a right to enjoy where things currently stand. However, for as rosy as things are, I'm sure I'm not the only one casting anxious eyes further down the road to a post-Arsène future.

If you were to label me, I'd probably fall more often than not in the "Wenger Knows Best" category. I'm not blind to the man's faults, nor am I unduly blinkered by his successes. However, the prospect of his eventual retirement, whether it happens after this season or five years, ten years down the road, is an unsettling prospect to me. One need look no further than fourteen points and six spots down the table at what can happen when a club loses an iconic manager.

I speak, of course, tongue planted firmly in cheek, of Man U, lurching back and forth like some Adderall-addled zombie, just can't seem to show any signs of life or footballing intelligence under David Moyes. For as much fun as it is to heap abuse on Moyes, Man U's problems pre-date his arrival, almost to the point that I doubt that any manager, regardless of stature, experience, or prowess, could do much to overcome them. Let it be noted, for example, that Mourinho, ever cunning and shrewd, eschewed an offer to take over the reins at Old Trafford. To wit, a quick glance at Man U's roster shows glaring weaknesses that Ferguson was able to gloss over through sheer force of will and, of course, money. Bringing in van Persie allowed Ferguson to continue to play a mix of unproven starlets and long-in-the-tooth veterans—ignoring, in the process, a gaping hole in that vital Goldilocks Zone, that time in a player's life when his youth and experience are in perfect balance.

Coming into this season, Man U's roster included Carrick (32 years old), Ferdinand (35), van Persie (30), Rooney (28), Valencia (28), Fletcher (29), Giggs (40), Vidic (32), and Evra (32), all of them playing heavy minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, there's de Gea (23), Jones (21), Rafael (23), Cleverley (24), Januzaj (18), and Welbeck (23), among others. Both groups, to Moyes's chagrin, are acting their age. The gray-beards are slowing down, falling to injury, losing their edge; the greenhorns make mistakes, don't yet understand the nuances of the game, don't have the referees' respect. The first group is brittle; the second, raw. Under the direction of an arguably overmatched and out-of-his-depth manager, those flaws have seen Man U in its worst position since, well, the formation of the Prem.

With issues like that in mind, it's intriguing to see Arsène Wenger, legendary master of the low-budget signing, first pursue the likes of Higuain and Suarez before finally "settling" for Mesut Özil, in the process obliterating his previous record for a signing almost three times over—and be serially linked with an attempt with a similarly outsized signing of Julian Draxler. Could it be that Arsène, sizing up his transition and legacy, is looking to build a squad capable of adjusting to his departure in three, five, seven years?

The current squad boasts a raft of players just about to enter the prime of their lives: Szczesny (23), Gibbs (24), Wilshere (22), Ramsey (23), Özil (25), and Walcott (24) are all essentially regular starters, meaning that six of eleven starting positions are effectively covered for the foreseeable future. Waiting behind them are the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain (20), Gnabry (18), and Jenkinson (21). Picture that starting line-up in a few years' time. Add in someone like Draxler (20), and confidence brims.

Of course, on the other hand, there are veterans who are starting to size up their options. Sagna, aged 30, is looking for his last big contract. Mertesacker (29), Vermaelen (28), Koscielny (28), Flamini (29), Arteta (31), Rosický (33), Cazorla (29), and Podolski (28) are all likely to retire (much as I'd like many of them to do with Arsenal) or move on to greener pastures. The Chicagoan in me would thrill to the idea of a Chicago Fire line-up that included any of these specimens, but that's another topic for another time. For now, it's clear that reinforcements, especially defensive ones, are in order.

It's there that the contrast between Ferguson and Arsène, between Moyes and whoever replaces Arsène, crystallizes. Ferguson did not retire on short notice. However, he made few if any plans for his successor—there were no signings, no grooming process, nothing. Despite the considerable allure—financial, competitive, and otherwise—of playing for Man U, only Marouane Fellaini bothered to come to make the switch following the abject failure to sign anyone else earlier in the summer, and he did so on the closing day of the window.

And so it comes back to Arsène again, and to the difference between managing versus purchasing players. Always with an eye to the future, Arsène has continually brought in young players, even if many of them, maddeningly, have not panned out. The last five years have seen a larger number of "bigger" signings than in years past—with "bigger" being a relative term. This past summer, of course, saw the £44m signing of Mesut Özil. During the 2012-13 season there were four signings totaling £48m (Monreal, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud). During the 2011-12 season, there were five significant signings totaling £51m (Arteta, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, Santos). It's not that Arsène has been averse to such big signings prior to to 2011, but the increased frequency of such signings is notable. It's as if Arsène has a long range plan for the club, one that might ensure success even after he rides off into the sunset.

I'm sure that most of this is down to the pressure of this trophy-drought, of course, and the attendant need to produce results in the short term. However, it's perhaps just as true to suggest that Arsène is building a squad that can continue to deliver results in the longer term. Far be it from me to throw brickbats, but it does seem to me that Ferguson, either deliberately or carelessly, left Man U in the lurch, perhaps to bask in the reflected glow of his successor's struggles, accentuating his perceived greatness as the club stumbled in his absence. I doubt that Arsène is cut from similar cloth. In fact, I prefer going to bed on this and on many nights to come believing that he has a long-range plan for Arsenal, one that he has entrusted to a core of young but not callow players who are capable of continuing to deliver the same kind of attractive, attacking football we have come to know for the better part (on several levels) of the last two decades.

Many Gooners have known nothing but Arsène and Wengerball for the entirety of their lives. Good on them; may they always know such salad days. The good news for them and the rest of us, as I see it, is that the man, so synonymous with the club that some even think that the club's name derives from his, has built a stadium and a squad that should enjoy successes for years to come, whether his successor is Klopp or Laudrup or Bould or Bergkamp or any of the other names bandied about. Whoever it is, it looks increasingly like they'll inherit a squad inherently capable of winning. There is no apparent void in experience or leadership as there is at Old Trafford. The current core of Arsenal, should it remain intact on the whole, might be just as much a legacy to Arsène's time at the club as the Invincibles.

On a parting note, may I just say how much I revere this man? It's rare, perhaps now more than ever, that anyone can stand by principles as doggedly and with as much self-respect as he has. All around him, he was suffered fools who have learned from his innovations, copied and bastardized it and gone on to more-frequent successes than he has had, and still, he has refused to change. Some would call that stubbornness. I'm going to go ahead and and quote to you from one of America's folk-treasures, Utah Phillips, who once said, "They're going to strip-mine your soul. They're going to clear-cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist, because the profit-system follows the path of least resistance, and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked."

Before I make Arsène out to be some kind of paladin with motives pure as the driven snow, I know that he understands full-well the machinations of the market. He knows that money makes the world go 'round. However, it seems to me that he has resisted the path of least resistance; he has gone against the current. The momentum that he has created might be just enough, then, to carry this club forward even when he is no longer at the helm.

From my lips to God's ears.