08 February 2014

Post-Liverpool Fulminations

You really learn who supports a club after a match like Saturday's. By the time Sturridge scored to make it 3-0, I had learned the following lessons, according to other Gooners, six ways from Sunday:

  • Arsène has absolutely no idea how to build a squad.
  • Arsène has even less of an idea of how to manage a game.
  • Giroud might be wanted by the ICC.
  • Özil was a waste of £42m.
  • We won't win a match in February.
  • There is no way we will win the Prem now.
  • We'll be lucky to finish in the top four.
It's enough to make me brew a pot of coffee, take a sip, and spew a mouthful at this screen in surprise and disgust. Are we, as fans, really that fickle? Really? Good God. We act like we nor any title contender has ever lost a match or lost a match in such a fashion. Yes, I'll grant that conceding four goals in less than 20 minutes is hardly the first accomplisment one lists on a resumé, but we've gone one goal better than at least one previous Prem champion—the 1996-97 Man U side lost at Newcastle 5-0 and 6-3 at Southampton. I'm not making predictions. I'm just saying that there's precedent enough to untwist those panties and stop the god-damned crying.

Look. Those 20 minutes exposed a lot of weaknesses we've been aware of but could sweep under the rug: difficulty in creating changes. A tendency to pass it around with purpose. Set-piece defending. Holding strong against clubs that press aggressively. Pacy counterattacks. Our own lack of variety in the attack. The list goes on, I presume, but my point here is not to air out all of that dirty laundry. It's to try to offer some kind of perspective, and not of of the misty-eyed, soft-headed kind that the eternal optimists offer.

This was a drubbing. A hiding. A tuck-your-tail-between-your-legs loss. No doubt about that. We can whinge and whine all we want about whether Skrtel was offsides—he was—but that's beside the point. It wasn't Oliver who dragged Suarez down or took the set-piece or failed to mark Skrtel just as it wasn't Oliver who took the corner or failed to mark Skrtel again as he headed home, nor was it Oliver who failed to generate a single shot on target in the first half. Was Arsène tactically stubborn or naïve? Tactics kind of go out the window when you go down 0-1 in the first minute, even further defenestrated when you do down 0-2 within 10. It was shocking and demoralizing, and it's a shame that we weren't able to mount any kind of meaningful rally.

Still, three points drop and that's really it. It's the same as losing 0-1 or 1-2. Nevermind the symbolism of it. Those who do are obsessing over other previously shame-inducing results. I saw 8-2 tossed about as if that was the first horseman of the apocalypse and Saturday's scoreline was the fourth. This squad, consisting as it does of many of the same players on paper, is a far-different squad in other ways. Had we lost like this 16 or 18 or 22 months ago, I'd be worried. Back then, it just have sent us into a tailspin. This time 'round, it feels vitally different. It does feel like a bizarre concatenation of elements against a side that has too much firepower to be afforded such chances. This was probably Liverpool's last best chance to make a statement by winning against a top-four club, and they did so with a vengeance.

However, those five goals stay put. None of them carry over to Wednesday against Man U or against Liverpool again on Sunday. The three points dropped don't carry with them some kind of Olympic degree-of-difficulty multiplier. Yet, before Chelsea or Man City had played a minute, many Gooners had consigned us to third place for the weekend, with an inevitable tumble out of the top four.

Get a grip. Have you not seen how this squad has responded in the recent past to such losses?  Hell, after that loss at Old Trafford, we went on a tidy little run of 13 wins, two draws, and two losses. In the same season, we followed an 0-4 loss at AC Milan by going for eight wins and two losses. In this campaign, we followed that 3-1 loss to Aston Villa by winning 10 and drawing two. Again after losing 3-6 to City, we won eight and drew two. Buck up. I'm not predicting another such run. I'm merely suggesting that one loss does not ruin a season no matter what the scoreline or manner of defeat was. I think, privately, even most Scousers were a bit surprised (although pleasantly) at the match. I doubt that Rodgers had drawn up a plan that called for scoring four times in 18 minutes. Then again, maybe he was actually upset that his plan for scoring six times in that span was foiled. Silver linings. Wait. I didn't to go in that direction. When I read it that way, it does sound like it's over...

What? Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! What the feck happend to the Arsenal I used to know? Where's the spirit? Where's the guts, huh? This could be the greatest season of our lives, but you're gonna let it be the worst: "Ooh, we're afraid to go with you, we might get in trouble." Well, just kiss my arse from now on. Not me, I'm not gonna take this. Liverpool, they're a dead club. Chelsea, dead. Man City, dead.

I have a feeling we'll storm back against Man U on Wednesday (who have season-long problems of their own and play on Sunday) and against Liverpool on Sunday. I'll stop short of saying anything bold about Bayern's visit, but I'll say this: stop whining and complaining and get behind this club, for feck's sake. The wheels came off, but we'll put 'em back on and get back on track. Lesser teams have suffered more-demoralizing defeats than this. We're the Arsenal, goddammit, and we have more pride and class in our collective pinky-finger than those who would supplant us at the top of the table. It's times like this that make it easy to forget who we are and what we're made of, but we're much better than we showed on Saturday. Hell, we might even be better than we've been most of the season. At what point have we had a full squad free from injury? Sure, we won't have Walcott back any time soon, but Vermaelen, Gibbs, Ramsey, and this new guy Källström will be fit and available soon enough. Wilshere, Rosicky, Podolski, and the Ox have all come back.

We fumbled a bit as we tried to reload against Liverpool and paid the price. Payback's a bitch, though, and I'm looking forward to a bit of that against Man U, Liverpool, maybe even Bayern. We've been knocked down, but we're not even close to knocked out. Wipe the blood from your lips, lads. Taste the salty sweet. We're gonna split a few lips in return soon enough. 

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: Five things we learned

It's after results like this one that the scales really from the ol' eyes, don't they. Indeed, verily, the season now lays in shambles at our feet. Making matters worse, the squad is so piss-poor that they can't even kick away any of the rubble. Yup. We can drop the façade. The pretense is over. We were never serious title-contenders, and today's result was a long time coming and proof-positive that we were mere pretenders to the throne. It's time, then, to take stock of what remains of our season.
  1. Liverpool is capable of scoring a lot of goals.
    Oh, wait. We knew that, didn't we? I guess this list of mine is off to a poor start. Kind of like today's match, come to think of it. While we did well to shut down Suarez again, holding him scoreless for 180+ minutes, we let our guard drop on set-pieces, and the floodgates opened with two set-piece goals from Skrtel inside of ten minutes. Was Skrtel a little bit offsides on the first one? Sure, but that doesn't matter because we're so terrible that even the refs won't help us out.

  2. Eighteen minutes and 23 seconds is all it takes to make accurate predictions about the season.
    True. Nevermind the 38-game season. The first 18 minutes, 23 seconds of this match is all we need to predict with 100% certainty that Arsenal deserve to be relegated, Arsene has no idea how to run a club, Ozil is a waste of money, Giroud is a terrible, terrible human being, and Arteta should retire. In fact, Arsenal FC itself should be liquidated and all of its assets sold off. Along similar lines, we can forgo the remaining 13 matches as it's clear that Liverpool now deserve to be champions. Any other conclusion that seeks a more nuanced understanding of the match clearly comes from someone who knows less about football than Piers Morgan.

  3. Arsenal is frightfully fragile.
    The players? Maybe. The fans? Certainly. Judging by twitter and reddit, the loss completely and utterly exposed us for frauds, capable only of beating teams fighting relegation and just lucky to be on the pitch against a side as inestimable and invincible as the one we just faced. Why, it was a 3rd round FA Cup match between a Prem club and some League 2 outfit. Because I am incapable of forming opinions of my own, or to draw evidence from any other source, I have no choice but to accept the judgement handed from the twitterazzi. The idea that this might have been a freak confluence of factors, an admittedly embarrassing one at that, is just too outlandish to entertain. Anyone who refuses to admit that we are complete and utter shite belongs to the hapless, deluded AKB crowd, not worth the saliva it would take to spit on.

  4. We were fooling ourselves with all of that "We are top of the league" and "we're undefeated with Kos/Per" stuff.
    The critics were right, after all. Being top of the league after 18 of 25 matchdays proves absolutely nothing about our quality or ability to challenge for the Prem title. All of that talk of how well the Kos/Per partnership has performed was nothing but a pack of lies. They each must have been playing out of their minds or hopped up on goofballs or something, because there's no way that they could have performed that well for that long on anything resembling skill or effort. Now that the truth is out, we'll probably revert to form and go on to lose every single remaining match by three goals or more. The karmic debt we've incurred through all of that chanting and singing has come back to haunt us, and Saturday's result is just the beginning of the repayment plan.

  5. We can kiss all hope of any silverware good-bye for another ten years.
    After all, Liverpool will come to town next weekend and pick up right where they left off, and we'll be out of the FA Cup. Then, Bayern will add misery to miseries by steamrolling us in the first leg, rendering the second leg moot. In between, we'll lose at home to Man U and end the season on a winless streak that well see us end right where we: at 55 points. This might good enough to maybe see us finish 7th, far higher than we deserve. No football ever has lost this badly. Ever.
I've been practicing the art of under-reacting, by the way. Imagine what I'd be saying without that mindset.

In other news, something known as "the table" still shows us in second place, a mere point behind Chelsea. Somehow, a lot us have latched onto the idea that losing on the road to a very dangerous team is more damaging to our long-term prospects than drawing at home to a very feeble team (as Chelsea did 10 days ago) or drawing on the road to an even-worse Norwich (as Man City did today). Yes, they "kept" a point in those matches, but they each also dropped two points that truly are inexcusable. Don't let the severity of our loss to Liverpool symbolize more than it should. Yes, we came out poorly and were punished for it. There is no 25th-week trophy, so as gory as the headlines will be over the next 12-24 hours, the fundamentals haven't changed all that much. We knew we would drop points, and we had to know we wouldn't simply stay top of the table all the way through. Chelsea now has an inside-track, but a narrow one at that, and what was a three-team race still looks to very much the same as it did yesterday.

The last time we lost like this, after all, we reeled off eight wins and two draws in our next ten. I'm not saying we'll repeat the feat. I'm just suggesting that death-spirals are not in the cards for this squad.

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal Halftime Report

A horrow-start saw Arsenal go down 2-0 inside of ten minutes thanks to two goals from Martin Skrtel, and Raheem Sterling added a third in the sixteenth minute. The nightmare continued when Sturridge got in behind the defense to run in on a long pass from Coutinho to slot pass a helpless Szczesny in the 20th minute. It was an unheard of, ridiculous display firepower that might have been worse had Suarez's shot not hit the post in the 13th minute. Four goals in 18 minutes, 23 seconds.

For as devastating as Liverpool have been on the attack, we have been positively anemic on offense. We didn't even register a shot on target in the first 45 minutes, and when three minutes of stoppage time were added, it seemed more like a misguided attempt at pity from referee Michael Oliver, who's earned some ire from Gooners in the past, but there's not much to complain to him about. Sure, Skrtel looked to be offsides on the first goal, breaking into the box before the set-piece delivery from Gerrard, but the finger-pointing will have to stop there as the the other three goals came from some poor marking, failure to track back, and getting caught too high up the pitch.

On the second goal from Skrtel, he managed to elude Koscielny to head home a corner, and the best Kos could do was to stick out a foot that never had a chance of finding the ball. Sterling's goal came as he was able to run into the box unmarked to latch on to a cross from Suarez and poke it home from about 5 yards out. On Sturridge's goal, an excellent through-ball from Coutinho sent him running in behind anyone in Arsenal yellow and all he had to was put it past Szczesny.

For long stretches of the first half, Liverpool have been quicker, more energetic, and more organized, and clearly look hungrier to win than we have. We've looked, to be honest, disorganized, disinterested, and, now, overwhelmed. It'll take an epic, epic comeback if we're to find a point from or even restore some dignity to this match. Here's hoping that the halftime pep-talk is the stuff of legend, as is the second half performance...

Szcz throws down the gauntlet. Can any at Anfield pick it up?

As I write, there are only a few hours left before we invade Anfield. Much of the talk in the lead-up has focused rightly on the midfield battle, and rightly so, as controlling the midfield allows one to dominate the tempo and rhythm of the match. Just as much attention has focused on Luis Suarez, both for his goal-scoring for and for the summer soap-opera that saw us make a £40m+1 bid for the Hungry Argentinian Uruguayan (edited. shouldn't stay up past my bedtime...).

However, it's from between the sticks that the loudest talk has come, naturally, and it's from our Polish keeper, who is in a form to rival that of Suarez. Sure, Suarez has scored goal after goal after goal, but Szczesny has made game-saving or clean-sheet keeping save after save after save. In years past, we've bemoaned the gap between Szcz's talent and performance, wondering when he would leave behind the head-slapping howlers as well as deliver game-changing stops. It appears that this time has come. As I discussed in this post a few days ago, Szczesny is currently the best keeper in the Prem. He's kept clean sheets in nearly half of his Prem starts—11 in 24—and the only keepers to concede less-often than he has haven't faced any penalty-kicks, while he's faced four.

It's not just in the stats that we see the difference; it's in his attitude. It's gone beyond overconfidence; it's settling into a more-mature awareness of his abilities and responsibilities. Speaking at the club-site ahead of the trip to Anfield, Szczesny weighed in:
Our defensive record recently has been very impressive. I think not only the back four but the whole team has been defending really, really well, so we're confident that we can do it again at such a difficult venue. Then we'll enjoy that double against them even more. I think we are on a very good run so we're confident. We know that that it's going to be a very tough game because Anfield is one of the toughest venues in the country but, having said that, we're looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a cracking game.
While this does venture into the kind of trash-talk that can stoke up the opposition, anyone looking for motivation at this point, ahead of a key match-up, is going to need more help than Szczesny is willing to offer. After all, he's not necessarily saying anything new. We can always count on him to make bold statements. The difference to this point in the season has come from his ability, and that of his teammates, to back it up.

Since the drubbing at the Etihad, we've conceded a mere four goals in our last nine matches, one of those an irksome give-away to Aston Villa when Cazorla clicked off for a moment. If there's a worry, it's that all four came on the road and may have come as we underestimated the opponent. However, there'll be no underestimating Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers may have decided that his squad can't compete for the Prem title, but he's certainly eyeing next year's Champions League.

Whatever Liverpool's motives are, Szczesny sounds ready to help shut down Suarez and Sturridge on the occasions that they do get service from their midfield and slip past Kos and Per. They may try to pick up the gauntlet Szczesny has thrown down, but running the gauntlet to to him is another matter. I don't think that a clean-sheet is in the offing, but Szczesny and the back-four may beg to differ.

Kick-off's in about 6 hours as I call it quits here. It's past midnight and the missus will be not be sympathetic to my stumbling around in the kitchen to get my coffee ready...

07 February 2014

Liverpool Preview: can midfield manhandle the Mugsmashers?

Due to a bit of an eye-niggle that I picked up while wrestling with my son, I introduce you to Derrick Mansfield, a former student and faithful fan of Woolwich 1886. Take it away, Derrick!

While it's sometimes dicey to extrapolate from how we do at home to how we'll fare away against a particular opponent, it's just as dicey to extrapolate from a fixture against a completely different team. So it makes sense to focus on our 2-0 win from November 13th as we prepare. There have been some important changes, but I think the outcome will be pretty much the same. I won't call for a clean-sheet, but I see Arsenal emerging victorious. As powerful as Liverpool's offense is, our defense is maybe a little stronger. More important, then, will be if Liverpool's defense can contend with our offense.

Formation
Back in November, Liverpool played a 3-5-2, and this clogged the midfield quite a bit as Flanagan, Gerrard, Leiva, Henderson, and Cissokho made it difficult for us to control possession as much as we're used to, just because they were there. Our possession was 54% on the day, down a bit from a season average of 57%. However, Liverpool has gone to a 4-3-3 in recent matches to make room for Raheem Sterling alongside Suarez and Sturridge (is this SASAS?). For as much as that might give them more attacking options, it means that Liverpool opens themselves up for Arsenal to dominate the midfield even more, because Gerrard, Henderson, and Coutinho will frequently find themselves dealing with four midfielders in the attack (along with Gibbs and Sagna coming down the flanks as well. As much as Sturridge or Sterling or Suarez might be willing to drop down deeper to receive passes, none of them are known for their defensive instincts, or contributions.

In fact I wonder if Rodgers might go back to a 3-5-2 to clog the midfield up. As good as Koscielny and Mertesacker were at preventing Suarez and Sturridge from getting clear paths to shoot, back in November, the 4-3-3 might leave them and Sterling waiting around for touches if our midfield can dominate possession and prevent clearances. Manager Wenger pointed out a similar strategy at the pregame press conference, when he said that one of our keys to success is to "dominate the game and leave them as few balls as possible." When they do get the ball at their feet, the test will be if Oxlade-Chamberlain (assuming he plays DM again) can track back, along with the fullbacks, because Arteta and Mertesacker are not going to win many footraces, leaving only Kos to stop them from pouring forward.

Personnel
The key difference between November and now is the availability to us of Oxlade-Chamberlain and the return to form of Santi Cazorla. His only goal of the first half of the season came against Liverpool, but he's found a groove that is good enough to earn Player of the Month from voters. And why not? In January he scored 4 goals and an assist, and he's starting to look like the Mighty Mouse of old. He might've needed time to rest after a lot of international trips with the Spain national team, maybe he was struggling with the pressure of repeating last year's performance. What ever is the case, Liverpool will have to keep an eye on him, especially Flanagan and Skrtel, who are tall but aren't so good moving to stay in front of quick, scampering dribblers like Santi.

The bigger difference is Oxlade-Chamberlain, he wasn't even available to face Liverpool in November. Playing him as a DM against Crystal Palace was a master-stroke that paid off very well because he scored twice in two very different ways, running into the box to collect a lofted cross and chip the keeper, then playing a tight give-and-go to burst 40 yards into the box and slice another shot home. But don't let the goals hide the face that he had a strong game all-around, he added 103 touches (4th best on the team behind Arteta, Ozil, and Cazorla), and this shows he wasn't just cherry-picking for goals. He also completed 5 of 7 long passes, and this shows that he was very involved in the build-up and springing teammates forward. 4 of those passes went down the left flank to Gibbs or Cazorla. With Oxlade-Chamberlain, we're closer to the screening midfielder/box-to-box midfielder we had earlier in the season with Arteta-Ramsey, so it's not a big surprise that Oxlade-Chamberlain got a brace playing from the spot Ramsey got so many of his goals.

At Liverpool's end...
Liverpool's situation gives us even more reasons for hope. Even though they're great at home, injuries mean they don't have a lot of options, and the options they do have give us opening. For one, Skrtel, Toure, Gerrard, Flanagan, and Cissokho lack pace, this will make it hard for them to track our runs or fill passing lanes when we have the ball. It also slows their ability to advance up the pitch. The slowness of the backline means they'll have to play deep to avoid getting caught on counters or by our wingers making runs in behind, and this might create a gap between their midfield and defense that we can exploit.

The key, of course, is Suarez. When he scores or assists, they usually win. When he doesn't, the drop off is huge even when you think about Sturridge. Suarez has scored or assisted in every game but five this season. Liverpool's record in those matches is 0 wins, 1 draw, four losses. Therefore, if we can shut him down, either by denying him the ball in the first place, disposessing him or forcing him to pass early, or preventing him open looks, this will go a long way to shutting Liverpool's attack down. He's been very disciplined lately, at least in terms of biting or racistly abusing anyone, but he's still as divey as ever. However, if we can clamp down on him, and it starts to look like we can take three points, Liverpool will be locked in a three-way race for fourth with Everton and Tottenham. If Liverpool starts to falter in their pursuit of a European spot for next season, his discipline could disappear.

I'm not looking that far in the future, yet. Let's frustrate him as much as we can just to win this one match, and let him deal with his feelings about missing European competition in his own special way.

Final score: Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal.

Come on, you Gooners!

Thanks for that, Derrick. You can follow Derrick at @dmandemon. Top lad.

06 February 2014

So, Puma wants to help us get Balotelli? What about Agüero instead?

Depending on whom you trust these days, there are reports that Puma, excited at its new deal with Arsenal, would love to bring Balotelli to Arsenal as a way of combining two of their biggest brands and might even be willing to pony up £15m to overcome Arsène's reluctance to spend the £40m or so that AC Milan rates him. At first blush, I thought, "hell no. Yeah, he is capable of scoring boatloads of goals, but he's a basket-case just as likely to lose his head or disappear into a sulk as he is to score. No thanks." At second blush, I reconsidered it: "well, maybe Arsène could calm him down, draw out the man from the man-child, and turn him into the lethal striker he sometimes is." At third blush (I'm kind of a bashful guy), I realized, "why focus on Balotelli? Surely, other players have deals with Puma?"

A quick search revealed that I was right. If we're going to let Puma start making suggestions, we could do worse than to field a starting XI that includes Cazorla, Giroud, Arteta, Sagna, and Rosický, each of whom already has a Puma sponsorship. However, scrolling through the list reveals a savory variety of possibilities, Balotelli included. Here, then, is a quick run-down some of the more mouth-watering prospects...
Player
Current Club
Value
Advantages
Drawbacks
Sergio Agüero
Man City
£39m
·     15 goals in 17 matches.
·     Continues tradition of signing players with umlauts in name.
·     Face it. He’s adorable.
·     Unlikely to leave a league rival.
·     Spats with Giroud over “sexy” vs. “adorable” could get messy.
Radamel Falcao
AS Monaco
£53m
·     9 goals in 17 matches.
·     We’d see what Arteta’s hair would look like if he grew it out.
·     We’d have to explain what “taxes” are.
·     We already have two players with torn ACLs.
Mario Balotelli
AC Milan
£40m
·     13 goals in 25 matches.
·     Acquainted with Prem.
·     Instantly ups the “lunatic” element.
·     Did I mention that he might be crazy?
·     Falling-out with Arsene over what’s harder to use: zippers or trainers.
Marco Reus
Dortmund
£30m
·     12 goals in 26 matches.
·     Idolizes Rosicky. Good taste.
·     Dortmund might have to sell him.
·     I think there’s a limit to how many midfielders a club can have. Some kind of quota?
·     Can he transition from heavy metal to orchestra?
Marta
Tyresö FF
£400k
·     Accustomed to winning silverware.
·     A comparative bargain.
·     Think of the marketing  boost ahead of the World Cup…
·     Accustomed to winning silverware.
·     Is the Prem ready for its first female-player?
Cesc Fàbregas
Barcelona
£44m
·     C’mon. It’s Cesc.
·     It’d be kinda like that awkward fourth-form dance, wouldn’t it?
Now, to be honest, I was surprised to see that Puma's roster contains so many older players—Gianluigi Buffon (36), Yaya Toure (30), Dante (30), Nemanja Vidic (32), Michael Carrick (32), Alessandro Diamianti (30), and Stephan Lichtsteiner (30) are all long in the tooth, and that's not including Thierry Henry (∞). It looks like Puma sees the deal with Arsenal as a chance to reinvigorate its own international profile. With that in mind, rather than letting them try to leverage us to bring on a player from their stable, perhaps we should be leveraging them. Our allure is now so strong that we're now the most-popular club in China, home to 20% of all of humanity and untapped market for football gear.

After all, it's not as if Arsène would suddenly say, after more than 17 years managing the club by his own prerogatives, would suddenly say, "Oh, Puma? You want a little bit to tell me who to sign? This is okay with me" and let them run with it. No, it's far-more likely that the money from the Puma deal will go signing someone whom Arsène prefers, whether it's the likes of Draxler or whoever. Still, there's no harm in dreaming, is there?

05 February 2014

Of ticket-prices and decibels at Arsenal Stadium..

At recent matches at the Emirates, we've been treated to the distinct notion that our away-fans, such as Coventry's, support their club more enthusiastically than our own fans do at home. Toss in the recent row over ticket-prices and allocations for the FA Cup matches with Tottenham and Liverpool, and then the fact that a BBC report shows that Gooners have to pay the highest "cheapest" season-ticket price in the Prem, have the option of buying the most expensive season-ticket and can also request the honor of paying out for the most-expensive match-day ticket in the Prem—oh, and face a pending 3% rise on prices for 2014-15—and there's bound be to some gritting of teeth and rending of garments.

Rail-seating. Brilliant idea.
It stands to reason that, the higher the prices go, the harder it is for regular folk to get to a match. Once there, having forked over a pretty penny for a seat, one can feel a bit harder done-by to leave that seat in order to grab a pint down in the concourse, away from the action, where a gent can express the passions that the pint has provoked. What we're left with, then, is a fair number of the chardonnay-and-canapé crowd who might just as soon sing, chant, and shout as they would wax their own limousine, but let's not tweak any noses. Suffice it to say that those who can afford to fork out the kind of cash to attend matches are, by and large, a bit more sedate in their support. As such, large swathes of the stadium are then filled with polite if diffident cheering, half-hearted chanting, and long stretches of quiet. Even when roused from this cryonic torpor by a goal or near-miss, the flurry is short-lived, and the soporificity settles once again (I know that "soporificity" isn't officially a word).

Growing up in America, I was used to sports whose fans behaved in largely that way. Watching baseball and American football meant that we are more or less accustomed to sitting still until something dramatic happens, cheering for a minute or two, and sitting back down. There were two exceptions to this, at least in Chicago. The Blackhawks (hockey) and the Bulls (basketball) shared the old Chicago Stadium, a claustrophobic edifice from 1929 with terrible sightlines and amazing acoustics. It may not have been what Francis Scott Key had in mind when he penned "The Star-Spangled Banner," but, no matter who came to sing it before a Blackhawks game, you couldn't hear a single note of it through the din and delirium of the crowd. It would stay like that for most of the game. God forbid we scored or a fight broke out—absolute pandemonium would ensue, deafening noise.

I was only lucky enough to attend a Bulls game during their first championship run of 1991, sixth row seats, in fact. The Bulls reeled off 10 points in a row to reclaim the lead, and the crowd noise when the 76ers called time-out crashed down on my shoulders like a waterfall. Almost literally. I could feel the sound-waves pouring down on my shoulders. I shouted but couldn't hear my own voice. Some 18,000 fans were screaming their fool-heads off. Most of them had paid through the nose to be there, but it was the playoffs, after all. The point here is that, between the Hawks and the Bulls, there was once a time when a quaint, archaic stadium combined with affordable prices created a passionate, energizing atmosphere. It's not quite the same in the new stadium. Different acoustics, higher prices, a wealthier, less-besotted fan-base...sound familiar?

Which brings us back to Arsenal. Like the Bulls and Hawks, the Gunners may be victims to their own success, as the cachet of attending a match may draw in those who don't blink at a ticket-price but who are less enthusiastic or vocal in their support of the club. I won't attest to depths of loyalty. What's to be done? On one hand, Arsenal Stadium is the second-largest in the Prem, behind only Old Trafford. That capacity should allow the club to continue to generate healthy revenue from gate-receipts even if ticket-prices could be brought down. On the other, healthy gate-receipts mean more money to spend on player transfers and salaries, and the better the squad is, the more money it can earn through endorsements, advancement in the Champions League, broadcasting, and others sources.

However, in the wake of the new Puma deal, which will bring in an estimated £30m a year, Gooners are still being asked to pay the highest prices in the land, prices that will go up next season. If we bring home silverware during the current campaign, perhaps all will be forgiven. If we don't? Well...

It seems like something has to give. Either clubs like Arsenal become the playthings of those wealthy enough to pay for the pleasure, whether it's of owning the club or or attending the match, or clubs like Arsenal find a way to make attending a match both more affordable and more enjoyable. If I had to pay£26 for a cheap seat, I would like to waste my money by not sitting in it for a damned second. When I first discovered British football, I was stunned that fans were singing and chanting the whole time, even when their side was losing. This was pre-Hillsborough and other tragedies, of course, and the safety regulations instituted since then seemed to make sense. As we've learned more about those tragedies were mishandled and apparently covered up by the police, it's perhaps time to revisit some of those regulations.

Chief among the options would be rail-seating, already in use in many German stadiums including Dortmund's Westfalenstadion. One-third of seats there are rail-seats. 27,000 people can then stand, markedly boosting their ability to chant, sing, and shout themselves silly. You can squeeze in a few more seats per row, which (theoretically) would allow the club to bring down prices a bit. And hey, if one-third of fans at Arsenal Stadium are making noise, how might that boost the lads' spirits down on the pitch? Maybe a section of rail seats in the North Bank to create a resounding volley of "We're the North Bank". Maybe another bank of them in Clock End for the reply "We're the Clock End." I get goosebumps just thinking about it...

Why Wojciech is the best keeper in the Prem. Period.

I was going to qualify that statement by including the term "young" both in deference to Petr Cech's reputation, longevity, and statistics until I took a closer look at them. Simply put, without making grandiose statements meant to be handed down through the ages, Wojciech Szczesny is the Prem's best keeper 2013-14. With fourteen matches left to be played, things can change, but at the moment, no team owes as much to its keeper as Arsenal does to Szcz.

We'll get a quick statistic overview out of the way. As you can see from the chart below, I've looked at six of the Prem's best-performing keepers to date. A few notable exceptions include Newcastle's Tim Krul, whose goals-conceded average of 1.29 knocks him out, and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris, whose average is even worse at 1.34. What stands out? Szczesny has claimed a clean sheet in almost half of his Prem matches—11 of 24—and he's done so while facing more PKs than anyone except Tim Everton's five. Other candidates, such as Cech or Boruc (the only keepers with superior goals-conceded averages), haven't faced any PKs at all and face far-fewer shots per game than does Szczesny. Therefore, whereas Szczesny's goals-against average is third-best, he's kept it that low while facing more shots per game than anyone except de Gea and Mignolet, and their goals-against averages are the worst of anyone I thought to include.  Sorry, Hugo and all the rest.
Player
Games
Clean Sheets
Conceded
Conceded (avg.)
Shots (avg.)
PKs
faced
Whoscored
Rating
Szczesny
24
11
21
0.88
11.5
4
7.09
Cech
24
10
20
0.83
10.3
0
6.72
De Gea
24
7
29
1.21
11.75
0
6.61
Howard
23
10
23
1.00
11.13
    5     
6.77
Hart
17
5
20
1.18
10.2
0
6.61
Mignolet
24
7
29
1.21
13
1
6.72
Boruc
17
8
12
0.71
8.89
0
6.74

After all, at the end of a match, a keeper's job is to keep the ball out of the net. The more often he does so, as a ratio of shots faced to goals conceded, the better he is at his job. By this standard, it's hard to make a case for anyone being superior to Szczesny at this point of the season. His Polish compatriot, Artur Boruc, for example, sports an impressive 0.71 goals-conceded average, but does so thanks in part to facing the lost number of shots per game among the keepers considered. Joe Hart has conceded fewer goals but has played seven fewer matches. Cech has conceded one less goal but also has one less clean sheet and hasn't faced any penalty-kicks. Could he face four PKs and save all of them to preserve that goals-against average? If the small-bore stats don't support my case, the ace up my sleeve is records, and of course, without trumpeting it from the hilltops, no one has a better record than does Sczcesny. We are, after all, top of the table, thanks in no small parts to his efforts.

Statistics, even the team's overall record, only tell part of the story, and the rest of the story is a more personal one. Even at the still-tender age of 23, Szcz has emerged as a far-more confident, consistent, and astute player. That first quality, his confidence, has been both a blessing and a curse; it propels him to attempt audacious plays, charging off his line or making lighting-quick reflex saves, but it has all too often seen him forgo the simple or technically sound, resulting in a goal for the opposition. Confidence is, of course, key to any player's performance, but Szczesny has had to learn, and is still learning, how to temper that confidence before it becomes hubris. Thus far, he seems to have done that, distilling that confidence into concentration and consistency. Of course, he is still capable of a breath-taking and game-saving stop. One of many differences between this year and last comes from that consistency. Aside from the parody of a match that was Man City, there has been only three matches in which he's conceded more than one goal—Aston Villa, Dortmund, and Southampton away. That's an impressive record.

Concentration, consistency, attitude. In past seasons, a goal conceded would result in Szczesny quietly retrieving the ball, a look of rueful regret on his face. This year, however, he seems far-more assertive in communicating with his defenders despite being far and away the youngest player in the area. He's barking instructions, calling out players, making sure players are marked and lanes filled. When teams have scored, it's usually been because of letting an opponent run into the box unmarked or failing to track back to cover the weak-side on a counter-attack, and Szczesny has been left in the crosshairs of an opponent with little to do but slot or blast home. Even then, remarkably, he has come up with stop after stop after stop.  You can see for yourself in this highlight-video, which shows some of Szczesny's best saves.



Of course, you can put together a highlight-video that proves anything, even that Tottenham are good. However, in this case, the converse is almost impossible—you'd be hard-pressed to put together a lowlight-video of Szczesny's performance this season That's a testament to his growth, to his commitment, and to his potential; it's also testament to Arsène's vision as Szczesny has been with Arsenal since he was 16 and has come up through the reserves and making his first first-team appearance in 2009.

His ongoing development and maturation, especially in the last 12 months since his demotion, have been remarkable. It's been enough, along with the slow, almost imperceptible ebbing of older keepers like Boruc, Howard, and Cech, and along with the growing pains of other younger keepers like Hart, de Gea, and Mignolet, to let Szczesny stand atop the heap of keepers, best in the Prem. Even more exciting is the idea that he's still beginning to scratch the surface of the potential borne of his youth, just beginning to plumb the depths of wisdom that come from experience.