15 February 2014

The anti-Mourinho Rant—with research!

I'm going to take a deep breath and count to ten, in part because getting upset is precisely what a guy like Mourinho wants people to do whenever he opens that mouth of his and starts talking, and in part because I prefer to avoid the cussin' if I can. However, the absurdity of his comments on Friday deserve some kind of reply. I'm pretty sure that he doesn't come around this corner the web very much. Pity. I'd like to give him my two cents. He may need it to keep this little pony of his moving along.

Now, of course, it wasn't entirely up to Mourinho. He was asked about Arsène's own words when asked why some managers claim that they can't win the Prem:
It is fear to fail. It is very open, only Chelsea can lose it because they are in front and all the other teams can win it. There's nothing more to say. If you're not in the race, you cannot lose it. If you declare yourself not in the race, you cannot lose it, simple as that.

Arsenal-Liverpool key match-up: Sagna vs. Sterling

In the build-up to Sunday's fifth-round FA Cup clash, almost all of the attention has focused on the final score, and for good reason. It's not often that a team scores five goals, and even less often that they do so in the first 20 minutes. In fact, Skrtel's two goals inside of ten minutes seemed to all but sealed the outcome before Arsenal had even gotten out of the locker-room. For as much attention as he garnered, and for as much as we focused on shutting down Suarez and Sturridge, Raheem Sterling took advantage to the tune of two goals for himself.

On Sterling's first goal to make it 3-0, Sagna struggled to track his run.
According to Brendan Rodgers, he brought in Sterling on the left "to penetrate and to control Bacary Sagna a little bit." It's difficult to assess how well Sterling controlled Sagna, given how early Liverpool established its lead, but it's quite easy to see how much penetration Sterling created, found, or was offered throughout the match. Of his five shots, all of them came inside the penalty-area, and two of them came inside the goal-box, that is, less than six yards away. Adding insult to injury, Sterling dribbled his defender successfully three out of five times and was fouled four times—no small consideration given the threat Liverpool poses from set-pieces, from which they've scored a league-leading 17 times (not that we need any reminder of that issue after conceding two such goals).

In the case of Sterling's goals, Rodgers's plan seems to have worked to perfection. On Liverpool's third goal, a quick counter-attack saw Sterling spring unmarked down our right flank while Sagna struggled to track back. In fact, Sterling ran from midfield to the six-yard box without a single defender in sight before slotting past a helpless Szczesny. Sagna, pushing up the pitch to try to help pull back a goal. Unfortunately, he was then up too high and out too wide to cover Sterling's run. For Sterling's second (and Liverpool's fifth), Sagna was less-directly responsible. However, he failed to commit to the passer or to Sterling, and Sterling was able to slip onsides to the lofted pass, find plenty of time to collect the ball, size up Szczesny, take a shot, collect the rebound, and slot home again.

Given this display, Sagna will have to remain closer to home even if this means he is less a part of the attack, at least early in the match. With Mertesacker on his left, and with the similarly pacey threats posed by Suarez and Sterling, discretion will have to be the better part of valor. Aside from the first two goals, we saw how quickly Liverpool could launch counter-attacks—three long balls, two of them covering 30-40 yards, decimated our back-line. Reinforcements of a sort may come with the return from suspension of Matthieu Flamini, and perhaps the elevation of Serge Gnabry to the right wing. His pace and defensive contribution could go a long way to curtailing the threat that Sterling offers.

Assuming we can prevent the early set-piece goals that put us on the back-foot, after all, we then have to contend with those lightning-quick counter-attacks. Do this, and we should see a very different match—and outcome—on Sunday. After all, Sagna's playing for a new contract, isn't he? How I'd love to see him remind the Arsenal board of what he's worth by shutting down Sterling or whoever it is that dares to make a move on him Sunday.

14 February 2014

Locker-room talk: the lads lay a trap for Liverpool...

The mood in the locker room was tense. In minutes, the Gunners would take to the pitch to face a key rival in one of their most difficult fixtures to date, just one in a long string of challenges that could make or break the entire season. Players were clearly antsy; even in recent wins, their form had taken a dip, and the press had eagerly seized upon this as evidence that their success to date had been a fluke. It was into this tetchy atmosphere that the manager stepped and address his charges.
"Are we a little bit nervous? Yes, I think this is true. It is for this I want to talk to you."
One by one, players gathered around, some taking a knee, others sitting cross-legged. A hand was raised.
"Yes, Kieran?"
Kieran glanced around nervously before speaking. "Well, boss, I'm not sure we can hold off Suarez and Sturridge like we did last time. I mean, it's one thing to do it at home, but at the Kop, it's, well, it's different."
Arsène glanced around, unspeaking, noting that there were nods and murmurings of assent. "Is this true, what Kieran says? Is there uncertainty today? Perhaps. Is Liverpool top-quality? We shall see. Do I have a plan? I will not comment on speculations."
The players looked around,here, mystified; there, vexed. Some of the longer-tenured players simply rolled their eyes. There was a muttered comment from somewhere in the back.
"I'm sorry? Did I hear a question from the back? Who has asked it? Give me one name. No? Okay. Thank you." Arsène scanned the room. No one met his eye this time. "I say to you that I have a plan of top, top quality. All it is I ask is that you a little bit believe in this."
Players' eyes skittered left and right as they took this in. A plan? The unspoken thought ran around the room: aren't we just supposed to out and play? You know, pass it around a lot, maybe have a shot if we get close enough? That sort of thing?
Arsène watched quietly, a smirk creeping slowly across his face. He waited, letting the tension build, all the better to release it when the time was right. "Look. I have been accused of not taking seriously the FA Cup. I have won it four times. Who has won it a little bit more?"
"The FA Cup?" asked Mertesacker. "Sir, is that not next week?"
Arsène smiled. "Did I overlook a little bit today's match? We shall see. Will I explain more carefully what I mean? Time will tell."
Confused looks now permeated the room. To a man, each player seemed genuinely baffled. What was going on? Is this kind of pre-game discussion really necessary to have at the moment? From outside, the roar of the Anfield crowd caused small vibrations in the locker-room. A hand was raised.
"Do you have a question, Jack?"
Jack lowered his hand, a bit uncertain, looking around for help.
"What, is it Jack?"
"What? Oh. Sorry. I just wasn't sure if, you know, if you were asking me a question or if you were going to answer it yourself, so I—"
"Do I ask questions that I then answer myself? That is the wrong information. I think we have to put a little bit handbrake on that, thank you. Jack, please to ask your question."
"All due respect, sir, but what are you going on about? Aren't we supposed to just pass it in? It worked against Norwich dinnit?"
"Ah. Was that a little bit Wengerball? I refuse to comment. Was it exceptional quality? There is a shortage of top, top information I can give about that. I will say that our plan for today is a little bit to take our foot off the gas. A little bit handbrake, a little less petrol."
The stunned silence that followed was shattered almost immediately. From the back, a French-accented bark "What?! Do you want to lose? Arsène, I've known you a decade. This is the first time you say to us that we, um, lose."
"Matthieu, please speak calmly. Is what you say true? I don't want to comment on that, but yes, I must tell you, it is true. What do I look for from you today? It is for you to lose today. Do I want you to lose spectacularly? I will leave this to you to decide."
"But...but..why, coach?"
"Is this a little bit confusing? Yes, but trust me. To lose today to Liverpool, it allows us a little to relieve a little bit of the pressure in the Prem. It is a very, very difficult situation to remain at the top. I want therefore for us to lose today so we are not in first place. This will also give Liverpool confidence, too much, for the FA Cup next week. Do you see what I am saying?"
A confused silence followed.
"This was not a rhetorical question."
Arteta raised his hand.
"Yes, Mikel?"
Arteta cleared his throat, clearly a bit uncomfortable. "I'm sorry to nit-pick, sir, but what you do isn't really rhetorical questioning. What you do is you pose a rhetorical question, then answer it. That's technically known as hypophora. Actually, it's a very useful—"
Arsène's glare was enough to melt paint from the walls, but not enough to overcome Arteta's coiffure. "Thank you, Mikel. Is that interesting? Realistically, no. Do not overthink this. Go out and lose. Let them score. Two goals, is this enough? Maybe. Three? Footballistically, this is foreseeable. We will allow them to score. Just not Suarez. Anyone but Suarez. Sturridge? This is okay. Skrtel? I don't see why not. That is all. What is essential is that we encourage Liverpool to think they are a little bit better. Do not let them think we have applied the handbrake, though. Do we want them to get a little bit complacent? Yes. Then, we can dump them from the FA Cup on Sunday."
"Got it, coach!" Inspired, the Gunners went out, ready to play out the plan to perfection, laying a trap for the unsuspecting Scousers and taking pressure off of themselves to stay atop the Prem, at least for a week or two. Little did Liverpool know that they were walking into a trap, setting the stage for the kind of 'second-leg' comeback for which Arsenal has become so famous in recent seasons. As the players exited the changing room, a smirk again crept slowly across Arsène's face. He let a quiet chuckle escape. Then, shaking his head, he followed the players out to the pitch.

13 February 2014

Where should Wilshere play? He's no defensive midfielder...

Lost a bit in the hand-wringing and malaise after the draw with Man U was the tepid play of Jack Wilshere. This was a squad-wide issue, with few players distinguishing in a way that might have led to three points. It was nonetheless distressing to see how anonymous Wilshere was. Playing from the defensive-midfield, I expected to see him make more of a mark on the match than he did, whether for good or for bad, but, in the end, he was just kind of there without drawing much attention.

There was the one nifty sequence about three minutes in when he tiptoed around a few defenders to get into the box but couldn't quite get the shot off. Beyond that, however, there's little good to be said about his performance. In fact, were it not for a brilliant Szczesny save on van Persie's strongly-driven header in the 79th minute, Wilshere would have been guilty of a number of cardinal sins: pushing too far up the pitch, getting dispossessed, and failing to track back. Just before the Man U counter that produced the Rooney cross to van Persie, after all, it was Wilshere receiving the ball with his back to the Man U goal, but he lost it almost immediately, and, despite seeing Man U launching a rare counter-attack, he could barely be bothered to jog back.

We've long known and worried about Jack's defensive commitments, but that sequence brings it into sharp focus. To take a broader view, in his role as a defensive midfielder, he registered a veritable 2,000,002 score; that is, 2 tackles, 0 interceptions, 0 clearances, 0 effective clearances, 0 shots blocked, 0 offsides-won, and two fouls. Now, some of those are not his fault as a defensive midfielder is rarely in position, for example, to catch an opponent offside. However, contrast that stat-line against the kind that Ramsey frequently delivers when he's in the DM role, when he regularly delivers tackles and interceptions, occasionally leading the squad in one or the other. Without Ramsey and Flamini available, we've had to slot in other players, including Ox, Rosicky, and Jack.

Of the three, Jack seems least-suited to the DM role unless he can learn to commit more thoroughly to the "defensive" element. At this point, unfortunately, this does not appeal to his skill- or mind-sets, which seem to favor picking up the ball and driving forward. His positional sense and tackling are not yet strong enough to allow him to shield the back-four or negate counter-attacks, unless we're willing to credit Jack for fouls that stop play, which I'm not. In the short-term, until the return of Ramsey, we may have little choice but to rely on Jack there. The Arteta-Flamini pairing seems to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, replacing the defensively-impaired Jack with the offensively-inept Flamini.

The answer, though it may have to wait for the return to fitness of Aaron Ramsey, is to play Jack as a deep-lying central midfielder even if this pushes Özil out to the right. After all, with Walcott out, we have a bit of a gap there to fill as well, and we've seen how Özil has himself struggled in the central role. Allowing him to roam along the flanks a bit might liberate him from some of the pressure he's been under while putting Jack in the middle where he can play as the engine that drives the offense forward. With Rosicky then playing in the DM role, his stronger sense of the role, work-rate, and willingness to press up the field without abandoning his position, such a set-up might restore more of the aggressive push we've lacked in recent weeks.

In the longer term, I see a defensive midfield pairing of Wilshere and Ramsey and salivate. For now, however, Jack doesn't seem ready for the responsibility, at least not against the stronger sides. With Flamini coming back, I'd suggest that he and Jack would work well together, with Flamini barking out instructions to Jack about where to be and how fast to track back. The malaise that has afflicted the squad lately is an issue, and I want Jack on the pitch for his intensity and drive. In fact, with him as a CAM and with Rosicky behind him as a DM, there's a lot of buzzing about that could be available, enough to harass and discombobulate quite a few opponents in weeks to come.

So, our title-chances are doomed. "Doomed!". Fine with me.

All season long, it seems, we've been the front-runners, but we've never quite seemed comfortable with that role. Of course, the incessant braying of the Michael Owenses and Piers Morgans of the world may have had something to do with it as no one outside of the Gooner faithful seems to have taken Arsenal's title-run any credence. Heck, even among the faithful, opinion remains sharply divided, with more and more losing faith and switching over to "it's all over for us" mob.



This suits me juuuuuusssssst fine, so well, in fact, that I'm willing to use a few extra u's and s's to make the point. Let's slip below the radar a bit—but not too far, of course. We're still just a point behind Chelsea, and two ahead of game-in-hand Man City, and while the idea of slipping to third may put a few people out on a ledge, it's not the catastrophe some are making it out to be.  In fact, it might be just what the lads in the squad need after a long, sustained run at the top.

It's bound to fray the nerves and create extra, unneeded urgency around a campaign that is already fraught with tension. Expectations soared sky-high, after all, once Mesut Özil was signed, and for good reason. His reputation, his statistics, his style, the size of the signing, all seemed to state that we were serious. We reinforced those expectations through our performance on the pitch, carrying over a fine end-of-season run-in with a start to this season that saw us spend 11 weeks in a row, and 17 out 19, top of the table. This seems to have bred a certain expectancy on our part that we would simply stay there. For a bit of perspective, our legendary Invincibles spent 26 weeks out of 38 in first place—established by an end-of-season run that started after matchday 22. They spent 26 weeks in first place over all.

However, there are no trophies for being in first place after 13 or 26 or 31 matches. There's just one trophy, and it goes to the squad that's in first place after matchday 38 (Yes, yes, I know that some teams have it sewn up earlier than that, but—just—try to focus on the larger point). With this in mind, our recent little slump could release a bit of  pent-up pressure, and this lower profile might just put a little more wind in our sails. Sorry to mix my metaphors. This paragraph is really turning into a mish-mash.

There. New paragraph. Sorted. Instead of trying to run away from the pack, which can make every single match a win-or-die scenario, we might feel more comfortable in the role of plucky underdog. Despite Mourinho's "little pony" comment from last week, we are far and away the David in this David vs. Goliath vs. Goliath battle. Yes, we splashed 42m on Özil, and no, we're not paupers by any stretch. However, that's the kind of transfer-activity that Chelsea and Man City conduct two or three times per season, year in and year out. Hell, the fact that the two of them haven't run away from us or the rest of the league indicts them, not us.

All season, we've been beset by injuries, one after another, to a squad woefully short on options in key positions. By contrast, both City and Chelsea have second squads that could challenge for a top-five spot in their own rights. Maybe. I don't want to oversell it; you get my point. The pressure, then, should build up on them. Why, despite deficit-spending that would make the Labour Party green with envy, Chelsea and Man City are barely more than a point ahead of us, and this takes into account our first real dip in form all season. I doubt that Pellegrini or Mourinho have written us off yet, but the media, perhaps more-famous for its short attention span than for its interest in things like nuance and subtlety, has already started beating the drum for our demise, and the ascendancy of Liverpool, Everton, and Tottenham. Scan the headlines, and it might seem as if we're already locked in a all-out scrum for fifth place.

We're not. We sit second, albeit tenuously thanks to City's postponed match with Sunderland. As I say, fine with me. If this gives Giroud and Özil and others a chance to play more freely, without so much internalized pressure to do every single thing perfectly, so much the better for them, their performance, and our results. Everyone's been pressing, pressing, pressing so relentlessly that they're more-nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs. Every single mistake has become a referendum on their ability, their careers, the season...

Let's accept things for what they are—a mild slump whose significance is exacerbated by a dramatic scoreline and a less-than-satisfying draw against an historic foe—and enjoy the gift for it is. It's a chance to take a deep breath, let someone else try to lead the pack for a while, and draft behind them for a little while. Along the way, we can play that underdog role to the hilt until the time. Let Chelsea and Man City plunge deeper into the Champions League and see their league-form dip as a result. We'll bide our time in the long shadows they cast and emerge, hopefully, atop the Prem.

Stranger things have happened...

Can we still stand by Giroud, or will he be behind Balotelli?

In a sense, the question, to quote Jesse Jackson from 1984 or thereabouts, is moot. Whether we like it or not, he's our #1 striker until something bad happens. By bad, I mean he gets injured, and Sanogo is one more niggle away from our being our only striker. Scary thoughts. Before anyone goes wishing harm on the handsome Frenchman, it's worth pausing for that moment to realize what it is we're wishing for. With the transfer-window closed, of course, it's Giroud or bust.

I've stood by the guy. I've defended his workrate, his contribution to the build-up play, his defensive contributions, but I'll admit that I'm losing the faith. For as important as those elements of his game are, the lack of goals is getting harder and harder to take. It's not that his goal-tally is all that bad. Set aside the eye-popping numbers being generated by Liverpool and Man City and he'd be the third-best scorer in the Prem. As it stands, he's seventh-best, knotted with van Persie. He's keeping fine-enough company, and we're frequently judged by the company we keep. However, van Persie has played in only 14 matches, compared to Giroud's 24.  The idea that Giroud will make good on his history of going for 20+ goals in his second season with a new club is fading fast, and we're going to need him to turn it around even faster if we expect to stay in the hunt.

However, it's after Wednesday's draw with Man U that I'm doubting more and more that Giroud can turn it around enough to improve much on his haul from last year, when he bagged 11 goals. I can forgive him the missed header in the first half; he got too much head on it, so to speak, and sent it harmlessly wide, but Vidic was crashing through him like the proverbial 32-year old Serbian without the speed or agility to do much else. There wasn't enough contact for a foul, but there was enough to disrupt a header, which is tetchy under the best of circumstances.

No, my faith was shaken most by Giroud's whiff in the 77th minute, when the slightest of touches might have been enough to nudge Sagna's damned-near perfect cross past de Gea. Yes, again, Vidic was dragging him to the ground, but Giroud's effort was light, gentle, flick-ish, when it should have been desperate, hungry, forceful. After all, here's a golden chance, served up where only he can get a touch to it, and he can't even force de Gea to make the save, can't even touch the ball. I'd prefer that he bundled it out of bounds. This would have at least spared me the agony of seeing the ball roll harmlessly across the open goal. Say what you will about clinical finishing; all that was required there was contact. Worst circumstance? It goes out of bounds or de Gea makes an easy save. Best? Giroud nutmegs de Gea for the goal. Along that spectrum are other great outcomes like "it squirts past de Gea on the near post" or "de Gea makes a reaction save but Cazorla is there to slot it home.

Nope. None of that happened. Giroud missed. At least he didn't gaze up at the sky with his hands over his mouth.

Not to heap pressure on the man, but we've struggled to score lately. Without Walcott or Ramsey available, Giroud has to know that he has to score, or at least put his shots on frame to force rebounds, corners, and the like, but he's just not doing it. Maybe he's too tired. Maybe he's just not up to the task regardless of energy. I don't want to heap criticism on the guy; after all, it's not like he's lolly-gagging. He's certainly not whining. He's busting his butt—but he doesn't anything to show for it. He's in his highest gear, it seems, but he's still off the pace.

Unless he can find another gear, unless Arsène can figure out some other way to generate chances (82 crosses? Hmmm...), goals are going to have come from elsewhere. But from whom? At the moment, the answers are few and far between, so much so that we're already talking about the summer, when we might go after Mario Balotelli? That kind of solution is not going to help us in any way, shape, or form during the last four months of this campaign—unless the chatter somehow motivates Giroud to prove all of his critics wrong. 

12 February 2014

Arsenal 0-0 Man U: Player Ratings

Well, after all the huffing and puffing, no one could blow the door down, and each team is left with one more point than it deserved and two less than it needed. We had a chance to slam the door shut on Man U's season and, well, I'm kind of out of door-related metaphors at the moment. The gloom-and-doom crowd will whinge about we just had to defeat Man U, both for points and symbolism, but it was not to be. Contrary to their all-out crossing display against Fulham, Man U defended deep and well, looking only for the occasional counter, and so we muddled through with a consolation point that, if nothing else, keeps us on Chelsea's heels, although Man City now have a game in hand after their match with Sunderland was postponed due high winds.

We'll take a longer look at the match and its ramifications later. For now, a smaller-bore look at player-ratings, with stats courtesy of whoscored.com...

Starters
  • Laurent Koscielny—8.1: Another fearless performance from the with eleven clearances to lead the team to go along with 95% pass-accuracy, also best among field-players despite attempting six long balls (connecting on six). A vital last-man tackle helped to preserve the clean-sheet, and he very nearly headed home a brilliant header only for Valencia to clear. MotM-type stuff from Kos at both ends.
  • Santi Cazorla—7.95: He may not have scored, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Two strong shots forced de Gea to make crucial saves, and his 101 touches (second in the side) showed that he was about as involved as anyone can be in a match. Four tackles and two interceptions suggest that his defensive contribution is getting stronger as well. Four key passes include that well-struck corner that Koscielny nearly nodded home.
  • Kieran Gibbs—7.94: Seven clearances, 2nd behind Koscielny, and a stunning 105 touches to lead the team, showed how involved, vital, and important Gibbs is. Not to slight Monreal, but Gibbs showed us a lot of what we've missed. His passing was a bit off, and he has a ways to go before his crossing poses a threat, but he went endline to endline in a strong return from injury.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.83: Only a silly yellow card late in the match for a clumsy challenge on Rooney (who was a bit divey to boot) marred Sagna's performance on the evening. he won seven aerial duels to lead the team, adding four tackles and six clearances as well, Had his nearly perfect cross glanced off at Giroud's stud in the 77th minute, well, that might have capped off the night in fitting style.
  • Mesut Özil—7.76: It was the kind of night that will not satisfy his critics as he failed to register an assist or a goal; however, it wasn't for trying. Seven key passes and four successful dribbles showed a revitalized, more-confident Özil, one willing his teammates to score, but it was not to be as our finishing was, as ever, off. He did find time to add in a couple of tackles and an interception, if only to prove that he's more than a one-trick pony.
  • Mikel Arteta—7.68: Very nearly a horror-start saw Arteta cough it up to van Persie, who squandered the chance. From there, though, he performed tolerably well, neutralizing Rooney for long stretches while tallying five tackles and five interceptions (both led the team). Still, questions are arising about his age, pace, and ability to shield the back four against the top clubs. Then again, we did keep a clean-sheet.
  • Wojciech Szczesny—7.26: The man made a couple of vital saves, none more crucial than that 79th minute save of van Persie's driven header. Truth be told, though, Man U didn't muster very much pressure on him, but he was there to save the day. I feel bad giving him such short shrift, but, to be honest, there's not much more to say
  • Per Mertesacker—7.00: A quiet but solid night for Per, especially with the performances of Arteta and Koscielny ahead of him. Managed to claim six clearances and three interceptions, but he was very nearly caught out when van Persie was played onside but decided to cut back to his right, allowing Per to get back in position. His lack of pace is alarming at times like that...
  • Tomáš Rosický—6.82: Despite my dream of his bagging a brace, it was a quiet affair for Tom as he didn't stand out in any dramatic way. Yes, he buzzed about the pitch as he always does, but he seemed to lack that final bit of flair that so frequently leads to good things happening. Subbed off at the 74th minute for the Ox as we sought a more-direct attack and burst of energy from fresh, youthful legs...
  • Jack Wilshere—6.42: Very nearly split the game wide-open in the fourth minute with a deft series of touches to get in on goal, but a deflection sent his shot out for a corner. Beyond that, sad to say, a very quiet performance with literally zero tackles or interceptions. He was almost guilty of inexcusable lack of effort after getting dispossessed and failing to get back on the sequence that led to van Persie's fierce header. He may want to play centrally and feel more comfortable there, but he's not defensive enough. He fouls rather than tackles, and he might have done more from the CAM role, with Rosický playing the DM. 
  • Olivier Giroud—6.1: Well, whoscored.com starts players at a 6.0, so to get to 6.1 means that Giroud barely had an impact on this match. He made about as much impact on the match as his cleat did on Sagna's cross, the one that he almost nudged home. All evening, he seemed a half-yard or full-second late in ways that will lead to sharpened pitchforks and lit torches among the Gooner faithful. Then again, he did have Nemanja Vidic draped over his shoulder or cold-cocking him with a forearm between the shoulder-blades, and this just might have slowed Giroud a bit.
Substitutions:
  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (on for Rosický at 74') —6.3: he did well enough with the time he had, roughly twenty minutes including stoppage-time, but he wasn't the gamebreaker we might have hoped for. Rosický may have tired and needed the substitution, and that's that.
  • After him, of course, it's a sign of the times when our only other available players are Fabianski Monreal, Jenkinson, Podolksi, Bendtner, and Sanogo, none of whom come across as the types who could strike a late winner.
So there it stands. Strategically, the draw is perhaps a relief in that it allowed us to right ourselves a bit after the Annihilation at Anfield™. 

channeling Billy Bragg: "I dreamed we scored four goals tonight"

I dreamed we scored four goals tonight—
a brace from Rosicky;
says I to Tom, "you're not done yet."
 "I always press," says he;
"I always press," says he.

I dreamed Szcz did keep a clean-sheet,
no goals for RvP.
Says I to Szcz, "you're best in Prem"
 "I won't concede," says he;
"I don't concede," says he.

These oil barons, they flaunt their wealth;
They ignore what matters most.
Says Arsene “they could never beat
 the superstars I make;
They try to buy instead.”

“Though football’s changed and critics sneered,
the players I have trained
Might be as good tonight as
 when we last won the Prem,
when we last won the Prem.”

 When the Arsenal chants ring out loud
From North Bank and Clock End,
Where Gooners sing and chant their love,
We’ll be atop the Prem.
We’ll be atop the Prem.

I offer apologies to Joe Hill, Phil Ochs, and Billy Bragg, because the original song extols the fight for freedom and civil rights. Then again, Arsenal can claim among its supporters the American singer Steve Earle, who is cut from cloth similar to Bragg and Ochs, so maybe there's something there. I did actually dream that we scored four against Man U, including a famous brace from Tomáš Rosický, on our way to resounding victory. I awoke with Billy Bragg's version of the song on my lips and thus was this version born. I won't recast our clash with Man U as any kind of freedom-fight, and I'll resist the urge to paint us as the side of nobility and equality fighting against the side of oily greed. Maybe someone can do that in the comments-section.

11 February 2014

West Brom held Chelsea. Our top-of-the-table spot awaits.

Proving that one loss does not undo a season's worth of work, West Brom managed to draw with Chelsea at the Hawthorns with Victor Anichebe scoring a late equalizer to lift the Baggies out of the drop-zone, but only on goal-differential, and to keep Chelsea only two points ahead of Arsenal at the top of the table. All of a sudden, our loss to Liverpool doesn't seem so devastating. In fact, it's part and parcel of a Prem season. In order to stake a legitimate claim to the title, there are three basic keys to keep in mind:
  1. keep all points from inferior opponents (those outside of the top five)
  2. keep as many points as possible while hosting top rivals.
  3. look to nick few points while visiting top rivals.
Of course, a team can always try to shoot the moon by simply never losing, going a full season undefeated, but that would be preposterous. Ahem.

Moving on, of course, that three-step formula is awfully simplistic, but it still serves its purpose. Of course, teams are going to drop points here and there. The overarching question is, "to whom will a title-contender drop points?" Whether hosting or visiting teams lower on the table, it's essential to secure almost all of those points. Dropping all three to a relegation-threatened team, regardless of location, is inexcusable. Dropping two on the road to a mid-table team might be acceptable, given how difficult it can be to play in certain stadiums. However, the mark of a serious title-contender is its ability to avoid these dropped points because, in an almost tautological sense, title-contenders are supposed to take them because they are title-contenders and the opponent is not. There are bound to be hiccups, of course, and so the follow-up question is "how often?'

When it comes to items two and three above, things get a bit more muddled. We've seen how explosive Man City can be, especially at home, and how defensive Chelsea can be when playing anywhere against a serious rival (such as against Man U in matchday two, when it still seemed as if Man U might compete for a top-four spot). Unfortunately, we fared poorly in our trip to the Etihad and suffered a draw at home against Chelsea (I'm not yet willing to include Liverpool in the discussion. Chalk that up to petty spite or the four points that separate them from third place). Man City traveled to Stamford Bridge and lost, hosted us rather rudely, then hosted Chelsea and lost. Chelsea has done best in these head-to-head bouts, drawing at the Emirates and beating City in both legs.

Then again, having played one extra match overall, Chelsea is only two points ahead of us and three ahead of Arsenal. Chelsea squandered a chance to open up a temporary but psychologically significant four-point lead against a stubborn but beatable opponent (after all, we drew with West Brom as well). Had they won, we might go into Wednesday's clash feeling a little tetchier knowing that we'd have to win just to keep pace. Their draw tamps things down just a bit. We still "have" to win, after all (see item #1 above).

The head-to-head battles involving us, Chelsea, and Man City only account for twelve points from four matches to each team. In a season that might come down to only a few points, those points are precious—but no more so than the other 102 points available from the other 34 matches each team plays. Therefore, for as symbolic and fraught with tension as the head-to-head matches can be, taking care of business in the lower-profile matches is just as vital, if not more so. Yes, we lost in horrific fashion at Anfield. Three points gone against a squad with a strong grasp of fourth place and ambitions for something higher. We drew at Southampton. Another two points dropped, this time against a squad that hopes to finish in the top ten. However, in the same span of time, Man City lost at home to Chelsea and then drew with Norwich at Carrow Road. Chelsea, either side of that vital win at the Etihad, suffered a draw at Stamford Bridge against West Ham and then drew with West Brom. 

Each of us, then, has dropped a similar number of points, but the manner of the droppage (dropitude?) differs a bit. We dropped all of our points on the road against some serious competition. Without slighting Norwich, West Ham, or West Brom, the points that Chelsea and Man City have dropped were low-hanging fruit that both clubs really were expected to seize without difficulty. The manner of our play against Southampton, coupled with the magnitude of our loss at Anfield, seems to have added a mutiplier-effect to those dropped points so that they seem bigger or more numerous than they really are. 

However, the cold, hard reality is actually quite reassuring. With a game in hand, we're two points behind Chelsea. Despite losing to Man City, we're a point ahead of them. This isn't idle grasping at straws. A win on Wednesday puts all the pressure back on our rivals. Let's do this.

Man U Preview: Özil shall rise...

Those still lingering morosely in the aftermath of Saturday's loss are predicting, glumly and pessimistically, that such a loss foretells the end of our title run, suggesting that we will fade from the race and stumble into a squabble for fourth place with none other than the very team that destroyed us. A target of particular ire—or at least doubt—has been Mesut Özil, who, let's face it, has been off his game recently. He's had a solitary assist since Christmas, a span of seven matches, and that laconic ghosting of his has more than occasionally resembled apathy or diffidence. Making matters worse, he played the wrong role in two goals at Anfield, inviting further derision.

However, calls for him to be dropped strike be as a bit premature. He is, after all, still one of the best players in the world, if not in the squad, and we're going to see him revive the early season form that had us lionizing him and making wallpapers and buying kits with his name splashed across the back. He suffers from a few factors, three of which I'll delve into briefly...

Stats
Simply put, the statistics he generated with Real Madrid are not replicable outside of that set-up. Real Madrid played a swift and devastating counter-attack that offered Özil and others more clear-cut chances on the break than does our more possession-oriented style, which can frequently push opponents back into their own box as we pass around the edges. Perhaps more to the point, Özil was able to rely on the assassin-esque finishing of Ronaldo, quite possible one of this generations best scorers. By contrast, finishing has long been a sore spot 'round these parts. The combination of those two factors—fewer clear-cut chances and poor finishing—go a long way to explaining the gap between Özil's stats this season and in seasons past.

Pressure
By nearly tripling Arsenal's previous record for a signing, massive pressure heaped on Özil as many of us dreamed (and rightly so, given the point made above) that Özil would deliver one key pass after another, assist after assist, as he eviscerated defenses with his vision and his touch. To an extent, he's delivered, with a team-leading 2.8 key passes per game, good for third in the Prem behind David Silva and Luis Suarez (playing for teams that have scored 68 and 63 goals, respectively) and eight assists, good for second in the Prem behind Wayne Rooney. However, that doesn't seem like a return on our investment, especially in the last few months. The pressure of that reputation and that price-tag must be enormous, and even for an athlete of Özil's stature, living up to that can wear a man down. With each game that goes by without a goal, an assist, or jaw-dropping pass, that pressure builds while the confidence required to rise to it fades.

Adapting
This one comes in two parts. I'll get the obvious one out of the way: Özil is still adapting to the Prem's pace and physicality, to the lack of help offered by referees, to the schedule. La Liga takes a two-week break in late-December during which time we played four matches. This part has been covered, so I'm keeping it brief. We know (or should know) that adjusting to a new team, league, language, and so on will take time, and that some of our own best players needed a full season to adjust. Of course, in the middle of a tense title-chase, time feels far-more precious than it might otherwise.

The second part of the adaptation process falls on us, the fans. We expected Özil to come in and simply dominate games, flicking and slipping passes through impossibly tight spaces for teammates to simply tap in past befuddled defenders and mesmerized keepers. It's happened just often enough to stoke those fantasies. Further, he now suffers by comparison to players like Eden Hazard, who plays a similar position but an altogether different role. Give the ball to Hazard and he's going at defenders, taking them on the dribble, and having a shot. That's a much-larger part of his game than passing, and it grabs more attention than passing and off-the-ball movement.

That last bit—movement off the ball—is as much a part of Özil's game as the passing is. However, its impact is hardly noticeable, especially to the casual fan. After all, it doesn't command attention, isn't tallied as a stat, and, for those watching from home, may not even appear on the screen. Watch Özil. I mean, really watch him. Force yourself to ignore the ball if you can and just track Özil's movements along with the defenders' responses. At times, he will move away from the action, apparently, and drag a defender or two with him, both vacating and creating space for teammates to flow into and exploit. At other times, he will simply withdraw from the action as if to suggest that he is too tired to be involved. This might be the truth more often than we'd like. However, it's also a strategy. Withdrawing encourages the defender to let his guard down, to turn his head back towards the ball, and this allows Özil to slip away unmarked. Whether this give him space to receive a pass or to draw other defenders towards him, the offering is the same: room for teammates to run, pass, or dribble into.

Conclusion
As we prepare for Man U, then, both Özil and fans have to adjust. It's clear that Özil has to elevate his game, if not to the levels he displayed at Real Madrid, then to the levels we saw earlier in this season. Along the way, though, we have to adjust our understanding of his role. Against a Man U side that features a creaky defense that might be without Evans, Ferdinand, Jones, and with ageing players like Evra and Vidic, Carrick and Fletcher, Özil should find opportunities to work a bit of the magic that has been missing. Man U's defense looks shaky and slow; their entire squad looks defeated and dispirited.

I'll stop short of making any specific predictions for Özil's performance. After all, I just spent a good amount of time suggesting that a portion of his play doesn't show up in any statistical categories. However, I'm feeling good about the idea that he will help us to forget some of the lackluster performances of the last few weeks.

Right. Let's set aside the gloom and get ready to give Man U the greeting they deserve.

Where have all Man U fans gone?

It was a slower than usual afternoon at the Globe, a pub on Chicago's North Side, and Gary and Anjola, with little else to do, got to talking.
"Funny."
"What do you mean, Gar?"
"It's quiet. A little too quiet, if you follow me."
Anjola could only look at Gary quizzically. "'fraid I don't, unless you're wanting to expound just a bit more on your theory there?"
"Well, this is The Globe, innit?"
Again, Anjola eyed Gary, this time a bit bemused by the corpulent man who now turned in his bar-seat. "Thanks, Gary. I thought I had wandered in to church to give confession. Good thing you mentioned that we're in a pub and not in a house of worship, what with all of these scarves, jerseys, and flatscreens around. Forgive me for my blindness, for I—"
"Oh, hush, you Nigerian knob! This is in face a house of worship, 'what with all of these scarves, jerseys, and flatscreens around', as you put it. My point is, where is the congregation? The flock? The followers?"
"Well, I'm here. You're here. Monica's here (but I think she's a scouser). There's a few lads in the back. Whaddaya want, Gary? It's a Tuesday afternoon. No match, no 'congregation', as you put it."
"Right, right, but you miss my point."
"Which is what, exactly? You haven't quite said anything that we could call a proper 'point' just yet."
"Patience, Anjola, patience." Gary took a long, slow sup from his pint.
"If patience is a virtue, Gary, I'm ready to be sainted. Will you get to it already?"
Gary eyed him over the edge of his glass, a glimmer in his eye, but not a word from his lips.
Anjola sighed. "Get on with it, man. I'm losing interest."
"Fine, fine. Look around. What do you see?"
"Again with this crap? I tol' ya. You. Me. Monica behind the bar. Scarves and jerseys all over the place. Flatscreens with nuttin' on because it's Tuesday. So what?"
"So you agree that we're here?"
"Are ya blinkin' mad, mate? Where else would we be? Monica, cut this man off, spewin' nonsense!"
"Easy, Anj, he's just messin' with ya."
"I know that, Monica, and I'm wantin' him to stop or say what he's so fired up to say. Or not say. I don't know. I don't care."
"Anjola, you're a Gooner."
"'Til I die."
"Okay, okay. Easy now. I'm a Gooner."
"Yeah? So?"
"Arsenal lost on Saturday."
"Pfft. Don't remind me."
"However, we're still here. You and I."
"Again with this? We've been over this already. Get to it, man, or I'll get to you!"
"You're missing my point."
"What IS the bleeding point, man?" Anjola, clearly agitated, picked up his pint, poured it down his throat in one go, and slammed the glass on the bar.
"Easy, luv, those glasses are glass." Monica eyed him with a mix of amusement and concern.
"What? Oh, sorry, Mon."
"Anjola, look around at what you don't see."
"What I don't see? Elephants. Dinosaurs. The Taj Mahal. You want more? The Eiffel Tower. My wife. The Falklands. The—"
"If you're going to insist on being obtuse, we can end this little discussion here and now."
"Discussion? Me, obtuse? You've gone on and on, you little devil, you, and—"
With that, Anjola's eyes widened. His hand grasped, fingers fluttering for the bar-stool to steady himself. "Devils. There are no devils."
"As in?"
"There are no Red Devils. They're usually here no matter what. Dozens of them. What happened?"
"I think you and both know the answer to that question. Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"No, no. I get it. They're playing like shite. What are they? 6th?"
"7th." Gary sat back and watched as Anjola connected the dots.
"Right. It's as if all of their fans have simply stopped."
"Well, 'all' is a strong word, but you're on to it now."
"It's as if—it's as if they're all a bunch of front-running, fair-weather fans."
"Exactly. Flat-track bullies, some might say. And what do you think will happen if we win on Wednesday?"
"Well, we may not be top of the table because Chelsea gets to play the Baggies and—"
"Set that aside. Think of the fans."
Anjola paused, pondering the possibilities. "A lot of Man U fans...will...stop supporting Man U....they'll switch...to Arsenal?"
"Good show." Gary leaned back on his bar-stool and clasped his hands contentedly over his belly.
"But we don't want that, do we? I mean, they'll—"
"Anjola, fans like those follow success. Man U's been the only club Americans really know about, no thanks to Beckham. Now that they're fading, those fans are going to desert Man U like rats desert a sinking ship. Hell, some of the players are thinking of doing the same. We can't control who roots for what club, so these fans who switch to Arsenal? There's no need to be rude to them. If they know football, they'll stick around for the long haul. Once they learn what Arsenal is and what it means to be a Gooner, they'll know. If they don't, well, they'll switch to some other club soon enough. So it goes."
"Are you sure? Shouldn't we quiz them on—"
"Trust me, Anjola. These problems usually sort themselves out on their own."

Note: I strongly doubt that Pete Seeger followed football very closely, but in the wake of his death the 27th of January, I hope he won't mind this little homage.

10 February 2014

A tale of two clubs—Man U and Arsenal

I was going to go off on some poetic meditation about the storied rivalry between Arsenal and Man U, extolling each club's proud tradition, the number of trophies they've each claimed, the epic on- and off-pitch battles, the personalities, and so on, but after this weekend's results, it hardly seems worth it. Suffice it to say, one club dropped points in such an embarrassing fashion that Wednesday's match-up no longer feels like a heavyweight bout.

I refer, of course, to Man U's absurd draw. At home. To Fulham. Four minutes into Fergie, er, stoppage-time. A lot of folks, some of them Gooners, worry that it's Arsenal's loss at Anfield that has fatally wounded us and our prospects in the Prem. However, we only managed to come away with a result that most people predicted, even if the scoreline causes the eyes to boggle a bit. However, whether it was a one-goal loss or a four-goal loss has little to no impact on the next match, and it's not as if Saturday was some kind of first leg ahead of the FA Cup-tie with Liverpool next weekend. Therefore, for as shocking as the first twenty minutes of that match felt, it still leaves Arsenal firmly knotted in the middle of a three-team race for first, a point behind Chelsea and a point ahead of Man City.

Man U's draw with Fulham did more than cause them to drop two points. In a season full of forgettable firsts, this was just the latest: losing to Stoke for the first time since 1993. Losing to Sunderland for the first time since 2000. Losing at home to Swansea for the first time ever. Losing at home to Everton for the first time since 1992. Failing to beat Fulham at Old Trafford for the first time since 2003. The beat goes on and on, and Man U, despite adding Juan Mata, look like a club adrift, with talk of mutiny. Vidic has decided to leave. Ferdinand is ready to retire as well. Chicharito is "frustrated", according to Mexico coach Miguel Herrera. There is open debate over who will be shipped out in the summer, numbering as high as six to eight players. With a squad that includes six regulars over the age of 30 and two or three more at 28, there's little room to develop younger talent.

However, this is not a time to fret and ruminate over Man U's inner workings. It is a time to prepare to smash their teeth in (figuratively, of course). Nothing spiteful, but there's a championship to pursue, and we're not about to let some seventh-place squad interfere with us. They apparently still harbor some hope of climbing back into the top five so as to secure a spot in the Europa League or even the Champions League, and it's up to us to snuff all out all hope. For those who worry about Man U's apparent psychological advantage—I barely dare mention 8-2 without first getting a fainting couch and smelling salts—let's remember that our XI included Djourou, a brand-new Jenkinson, Traore, Lansbury, and Coquelin, not to mention a host of regulars who have since become among the best at their positions but who were at the time wet behind the ears: Szczesny, Koscielny, Ramsey, and Walcott. Still not convinced? Our last three matches against these wankers have come down to the slimmest of margins—a feebly shouldered "header" in November, an unfortunate Sagna tackle on van Persie, a squibbed clearance from Vermaelen—these are not the methods of a team that lords it over another.

Yes, van Persie has become a bit of a bogeyman, but both he and his club offer pale imitations of who they once were. In a way then, our loss at Anfield is a qualified "good thing". Of course, it would have been nice to have nicked a point, but all hope of that went out the window about ten minutes in. Instead, we have fresh motivation to go out and pummel our next opponent, who just so happens to be Man U. Set aside the history between these two clubs. Forget the last two or five or seven years. Forget that Man U has the best record against Arsenal of any club in the Prem. None of that matters. We go into Wednesday not facing a track record a but a squad that couldn't beat Cardiff Fulham or Sunderland or Swansea or Stoke and that barely escaped with a win over Hull. There's blood in the water, and we're the sharks.

We want you back, Bac! Arsene, show him the money!

It appears that contract-talks between Bacary Sagna and the club have again bogged down, with Sagna holding out for a pay-rise from his current £60-to-70k-weekly salary, or so I'm gleaning from headlines in The Mirror and Daily Star. Others may have been too busy lining bird-cages or wrapping fish in the papers, but I own no birds and eat no fish, so here we are. Quick aside: it was once possible to purchase those, uh, 'news'papers on actual paper. Brave new world, innit?

If the stories do hold water in addition to bird droppings and/or fish-oil, we could see the long-serving Sagna, who will turn 31 on Friday, leave the club for free in the summer. This, I have to say, would disappoint me to no end. Although there are a few players who have been with the club longer, namely Bendtner, Walcott, and Rosický, none of them signifies Arsenal to me as much as Sagna does. I'm not claiming he'll become an Arsenal legend, or even that he's among the club's best-ever defenders—but he's up there. To see him leave, for free, when we could keep him on at little extra cost to the club would sting.

The club's latest offer is apparently a two-year deal but doesn't include a pay-rise. Of course, many players who are over 30 rarely get more than a one-year deal. Sagna, however, is different from many 30-year olds, especially in light of his service to the club, marked as it is by consistency and performance. There have been times in his career when he's been among the best right-backs in the Prem. He's stuck with the club when he might have had better chances elsewhere, for contracts or silverware or both. When teammates (and, probably, good friends) have left, he has stayed. Loyalty might not be worth much these days, and sentiment can be an albatross, but, dammit, Sagna matters to me. If it were up to me, I'd match whatever offer he's gotten from PSG or Galatasaray or Monaco. It might be more than market-values dictate, but he's been golden to me. I know that he's not the player he was even two years ago, but he's an Arsenal man and I want to see him retire as one. If age slows him down, can we not see him move over to center-back? He's already shown that he can do well there.

I say all of this knowing full-well that the era of the one-club player is all but gone. Who's left? Gerrard. Giggs. That's it, at this point. I know that Sagna doesn't make that list, but he's been with the club for what seems like forever. Coming up on eight years, he's made 200 appearances. That kind of loyalty, not to mention performance, is worth something, isn't it? Players' salaries reflect their current and future values, of course, but how much would it hurt to pay someone like Sagna for his performance to date? Could we go to six figures for him for two more years, or would this break the bank?

I don't know, to be honest, and I wish I knew enough to say, "give him £110k per week. We'll still have enough to sign a striker, a holding midfielder, and another center-back." I do know that the club can't simply throw money around and that loyalty doesn't always figure into these discussions, at least not prominently. I hope though that the club can find a way to make an allowance for the man.

Looking at it another way, if Gala or PSG or Monaco are willing to give him more than two years and are willing to bump him up to a six-figure weekly salary, there must be something in it, not that we should run around matching other clubs' valuations. Other clubs are a bit more reckless with the cash, but not even they are going to simply throw money away on a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and who, in Sagna's case, has a twice-broken leg, not with FFP lurking.

I'm not going to go into those details, though, because to me they muddy the issue and miss the point. There's value and there's worth. What is Sagna worth?  £60 a week?   £115? I don't know. His value to the club, however is much harder to quantify with mere numbers. How to separate "worth" from "value" when they overlap so much? "Value" derives from the Latin valere, which also gives us "valiant" and that, Sagna has most definitely been. Call me maudlin or overly sentimental if you will. There are certain players whom I want to see retire with this club. Sagna's one of them.

09 February 2014

Van Persie manages to get hold of Arsène...

It was a pleasant afternoon, as far as such a thing can be said for a February weekend in London. It wasn't quite freezing, and the sun peeked from behind the clouds. All in all, it was an afternoon that invited reflection. And so it was that Arsène nestled into his favorite armchair, wrapped the afghan around his shoulders, and decided to close his eyes—not to sleep, mind you, just to rest them. The cares of the world slipped away. Gone for the moment were concerns around the squad's performance on Saturday. Gone were the worries over how the players would respond. Gone, too, were the—
The phone rang.
Arsène, vexed, glanced over but did not turn his head, nor did he move to answer it. 'UNKNOWN CALLER', the display read. Assuming it to be a telemarketer, Arsène shrugged his shoulders and once again closed his eyes. "Where was I? I don't want to comment on speculations. Ah, yes, I was little bit thinking about—"
Again, the phone. More shrill this time.
Annoyed, Arsène answered this time. "Allo?"
"Arsie! It's me!" The voice, though familiar, sounded a bit strained, as if it was trying too hard for jollity and therefore failing.
"Who? Who is this I am talking to?"
The voice, again, sounded forced. Too happy. "Robin. C'mon, Arsie. Don't tell you've forgotten your old friend Robin already! How's things?"
"It is too early to talk about that. Please apply the handbrake. What is it you want?"
"Well, I was thinking, Arsie—you don't mind if I call you Arsie, do you?"
"Well, yes, actually, I—"
"Great, great. Well, I was thinking, see, you need a striker, right?"
"Yes, there is a little bit speculation about this. Am I looking to make signings? At the moment, no."
"That's okay. Just hear me out on this, 'kay? Just—just listen for a minute."
"Do I want to hear? No, I think there is a little bit niggle in the connection. We will, uh, have to see at another time."
"No, no, NO! There's no TIME. Don't you SEE? I mean, um, there's no time like the present, right? Uh, haha. Ha. Um, yeah..."
"Robin, I do not think now is the time for these informations. I have to rest. The weekend it has been difficult and—"
"That's exactly why I called, Arsie! My weekend was also difficult. In fact, this whole damned season, well, I won't lie to you, Arsie, old boy—"
"Please, it is time to stop calling me Arsie. I coach in this league 17 seasons, I think I deserve a certain respect."
"Right, right. Exactly. That's why I'm calling. I want to come back because I respect you. I want to help you win. I don't know if you've noticed, but we're struggling a little bit. Ha! Get it? I said 'little bit' just like you do! See? We're buddies! We go way back, don't we? And buddies help each other out, don't they?
"I ask already to stop calling me Arsie. And that is the wrong information. I don't say 'little bit'."
"Riiiiight. Anyway, look. You have a problem. I have a problem. One hand washes the other right?
"Do I have a problem? Maybe. I don't know. Do you have a problem? Yes. What is your point?"
"Well, Arsie—I mean, Arsène—why don't I come on back to the ol' Emirates? I mean, I know we'd have to wait until summer and all, but it could be old times. You, watching me, me, scoring goals...what do you say?"
From the earpiece, Robin couldn't hear a thing.
"Arsie? Arsène? Hello?"
Still, silence.
"Hey! Arsène!  Are you okay? Answer me!!!"
"Oh. I'm sorry, Robin. I forgot. You can't hear a smirk over the phone."
Robin pulled the phone from his ear and gawked at it. Even at a distance, he could hear the click, then the dial -tone. It took him several minutes to grasp what had just transpired, time enough for Arsène to turn off the phone, rearrange the afghan, and doze off, murmuring, "I always know he was a little bit thick, but..."