02 March 2013

A Tale of Two Spurs Fans

I'll admit that, as an American of the late 20th century, my access to Premier League soccer was woefully poor. The best I could find was highlights late at night on ESPN. When I say "late", I mean late. As in 1am on a Sunday night/Monday morning. Into the early 1990s, this posed a dilemma--how to catch up on Arsenal action without being accused of looking for other late-night, um, action. Nevertheless, I did my best.

At one point in the fall of 1991, I learned that one my most unctuous, irritating teammates on our high school team was a Spurs fan. The fact that most of us had already decided on his unctuousness was, to your astonishment, this correspondent's introduction to the Spurs-Gunners rivalry. By this point, I had "followed" Arsenal for almost a decade without learning of the history and intensity of said rivalry. Remember, this was 1990's United States, to soccer what early 21st century North Korea is to open debate. I digress. Later in that same year, perhaps moving into early 1992, this same unctuous teammate's father was driving us home from an indoor soccer match. We had been utterly demolished by some other team that actually knew how to play indoor. At any rate, I was sitting in the middle bench of the minivan changing out of my socks, and the conversation progressed as follows (more or less, it's been a while):
  • Unctuous teammate: "Shay, put your socks away. They reek".
  • Me: "Give me a sec; I'm just switching to clean ones."
  • Unctuous teammate: "Shay, put 'em away!'
  • Me: "two seconds and they're in the bag."
  • Unctuous teammate: [slaps Shay across the face].
  • Four other teammates: [stunned silence as Shay ponders pummeling Unctuous teammate; weighs risk of doing so at 10pm at night while said teammate's father is driving at 60mph. He declines].
Let it be said that terms were settled later, much to unctuous teammate's chagrin. You would hardly believe how much it altered his appearance for the worse. To shorten the story, had this been the beginning and end of my introduction to the Spurs-Arsenal rivalry, I would have reduced myself to just another frothing-at-the-mouth prosimian baying for Tottenhamian blood less than twelve hours from now.

As it stands, I learned a tamer, more civilized lesson from a dearer mate who went on to marry a girl I've known since I was seven or eight--'round about the same time I learned of professional soccer, professional soccer on the telly, and, most importantly, Arsenal. As the story goes, my friend, whom we'll called Carrie for this story, had met this bloke somewhere around 1996 while I was off doing who-knows-what. She went on and on about how alike he and I were, which only made me suspicious of him. We fast-forward. He and I meet. He says something like "I've never seen snow before", which I make him repeat because I've never heard that sentence before, he's from Australia and has never seen snow before, and his accent is thicker than molasses in January. It was January at the time of this telling, for what that's worth. We'll fast-forward again. He and I are mates/buds/friends now and so on, and I just learned that he's a Spurs fan. This forced me to weigh my allegiances--a team I love but have never seen in person against a man I respect and see much of myself in and see regularly.

The point is this (please hum "kumbayah" as you read the following): for as deep and as intense as the feelings around Sunday's derby may be, it is, after all, just a game, and fans on both sides will go home to family and friends and jobs. Win or lose, the consequences are rather trivial.

Of course, having said all that, I'll believe it more deeply if we've won. If we've lost, everything I've said to this point is little more than manure for next spring's garden. And my Aussie mate? Pffft. Bunch of penal colony send-offs. Just kidding'. May the best team win--and we all know which team that is.

An Arsenal Take-over? Is this really the best time to discuss?

In classically poor timing, The Sun (among others, I'm sure) has published a story detailing a £1.5 billion bid for Arsenal from a group of investors from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Details of the plan would include a buy-out first of Stan Kroenke who, according to the article owns 66.64% of the team and then of Alisher Usmanov, who owns 29.11%. Now, I hold no particular affection for Kroenke or Usmanov even though I feel like they have been detached and disinterested owners on whom I direct most of my ire at Arsenal's recent struggles. However, my real anger at the moment is that this comes out so close to such an important match. I am sure that our players are professionals and can tune out the chatter and believe that the same is true of Wenger. All the same, the only way for the timing to be worse would be for it to come an hour or two before the game. That we have close to 24 offers little solace.

I'll deal with this in more detail later. For now, a few, quick points to illustrate my reluctance.
  1. We have learned earlier in the week that our financial picture is quite rosy. We have a profit this year of £17.8 million and reserves of £123.3 million. In other words, we're flush enough to go out on the transfer market and be aggressive. We've already discussed going after the likes of high-profile targets like Valdes and Villa, among others. 
  2. This team has dedicated the better part of the last decade towards financing a new Ashburton Grove. Why endure the struggles, especially the tribulations of the last few years, only to part our legs at the first offer to appear?
  3. Financial Fair Play, for all of its flaws, lurks just around the corner. At the risk of exposing the limits of my financial acumen, I'm not sure how much a takeover like this would help us.
  4. We've kept up with Chelsea and Man City admirably (that's a cute modifier, that word "admirably") despite their immense spending and amassing talent. Do we really want to become like them just to beat them?
  5. As I mentioned a moment ago, I do not particularly care for Kroenke or Usmanov, but I don't feel the urgency to get rid of them on the first opportunity. Let's learn a bit more about the new investors before rushing in.
A cockerel (Spurs' logo) is an immature male chicken. A capon? Castrato.
Not sure which one is superior to the other.
As it currently stands, it's not like the story carries a whole lot of substance. In fact, I hope to make this my last words on the subject, at least for the next two to three days. Last I checked, we have a team of lily-livered Lilywhite cockerels to caponize (if I add in a reference to a goose being cooked, does that stretch the Spurs logo too far? Perhaps). On to White Hart Lane we go...

Spurs-Arsenal: T-minus 22 hours...21.5...

Rosický makes the founds after scoring last February. Adebayor watches and wonders what could've been...
This game just cannot arrive soon enough. I'm pacing, drumming my fingers, checking my watch. It's worse than that syndrome when you're hungry and check the fridge, then the pantry, and then the fridge hoping that something has magically changed. Such is the magic of expectation. I had to try to sate myself on today's matches, but nothing all that great happened from an Arsenal point of view. Everton defeated Reading handily, Liverpool looks ready to defeat Wigan (up 2-0 30 minutes in), and Chelsea, despite their increasingly shambolic situation, eked out a win over West Brom thanks to a goal from some chap we barely deigned to bid for in January. So it goes.

How to stop Bale? That is the question on everyone's minds. Like many, I'll admit to worrying about Bale's form. With Sagna out, our right flank is that much more vulnerable. There's an outside chance that Koscielny will be available. However, the player who fills in at right back is not the Alpha or the Omega of the plan to stop Bale. Instead, the key (in my mind) is midfield, and the key to that key is Tomas Rosický -not that he's some kind of defensive dynamo, but his pace, motion, and doggedness might be just enough to disrupt Spurs' midfield and push them further back on their heels so that he, Wilshere, Cazorla, and Arteta can control possession. The longer it takes for attacks to develop, the more impatient Spurs' fans will get, and the more the pressure on them will grow.

For all of the talk of the form Bale is in, the flip-side to this coin is that it intensifies the pressure he will face to deliver on the talk. It's not at a level of Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak, or the Invincible's undefeated streak (always worth a quick mention), but each time Bale takes the field, everyone expects a goal. If he doesn't score, talk takes a turn--maybe he's not as great as his recent form suggests and so on. Therefore, we should deter him and harass Parker and the rest. The more ragged and impatient they start to feel, the more their nerves may start to fray, and they will press and end up doing something reckless or irresponsible, hopefully creating openings that we can exploit. At the risk of sounding crazy, if we can pilfer a goal before Spurs can...well, a boy can dream, can't he?

It may be 'beneath' our position in this derby to point out that we come in as underdogs, but this reflects the fact that all of the pressure is on them to perform. They're at home, they're undefeated in the Prem since December, they apparently possess a Ronaldo-esque scorer, and we're stumbling from fixture to fixture, mere shadows of our former selves. In the words of Gimli, "certainty of death? Small chance of success? what we are waiting for?" Oh yeah--Spurs are the Orcs. We're the guardians of goodness and nobility and all of that. Sure, it feels like there are a lot of factors working against us. Maybe that's an unfamiliar position to be in, especially against Tottenham. However, I like this. There are few things I enjoy more than to waltz into a rival's house, elbow him to the ground, and take what's mine. I certainly be on the field on Sunday, but I'll be channeling each ounce of determination and passion and love of this game towards our boys, and I know full-well that each of you will as well. Game on.

01 March 2013

Arsenal Goes to White Hart Lane: A History

Here's a quick breakdown of how we've fared on our trips to White Hart over the years. It's always been a very-pitched battle, even in our more-glorious years. Our record there is somewhat weaker than our road-record overall this year, having won five, drawn five, and lost three while scoring 17 and conceding 11.

Spurs are pretty rude hosts, with the second-best goals-conceded at home with 12, and this unfortunately does not dovetail well with our away-scoring--of 52 goals, only 17 have come on the road.

However, statistics do little to capture the nature of a fixture like this one. It reminds me of some of the great rivalries when, no matter how good one team is and how poor the other is, the games are fueled by such passion and history that mere numbers are washed away in the flood. Last year saw us simply thrash Spurs in a game that may have marked a turning point for both teams, inspiring us to a 3rd-place finish and dropping Spurs to 4th and out of Champions League play, and November's clash was similarly thrilling (for us) even if it provided less momentum. It's a shame that the last goal-fest has to come with an asterisk--having an opponent sent off inside of 20 minutes isn't a strategy we can count on--but we will come into White Hart Lane on Sunday knowing what's at stake and ready to seize what's ours.  Spurs might make for poor hosts, but we don't mind breaking a few house rules and stealing away with the fine china and silverware.

Of Derbies, Revenge, and Right-Backs

One of the few Spurs players we'd actually wanted (with apologies again to Scott Parker) seems to have missed the memo in the lead-up to Sunday's match. Jan Vertonghen, to whom we were linked over the summer (again, sorry, Scott) has made the utterly sensible statement that they "want to win this game not because of revenge but because we want to beat Arsenal anyway, we want to stay in third position and to keep our good run going."  Sorry, Jan, but that kind of level-headedness has no place going into this kind of game. We want you and your teammates so amped up that you do something silly, like getting sent off as Parker did last year and Adebayor did in November. You want revenge, so come in unhinged. No less an authority on the subject than Gareth Bale has apparently talked in such terms, so please buy into the mindset that the only reason we've hung ten goals on you in two matches is due to silly, unjust red cards.

Very good, Gareth! Soon, we'll start on the letter "B"
In all seriousness, though, the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the calm and the craze. It's kind and decent of Jan to speak so calmly, but beneath that lies a deeper urgency--or maybe not, and that's why we didn't sign him. Heck, when I played and we got scored on, I wanted revenge. Imagine how you'd feel if you got scored on five times. Any player who doesn't feel a little rage at that isn't worth his salt. The key, though, is in channeling that. We saw how Adebayor lost his concentration in November because of how worked up he was. Here's hoping that the atmosphere in White Hart Lane is cranked to a fever-pitch such that various Spurs players do something silly enough to get booked. It's at this point that I should probably try to make a joke of books and low literacy rates among Spurs players and fans, but I feel as if the moment has already passed. So it goes.

In more serious news, we go in to the match without Sagna, and the apparent default is Jenkinson. I think Carl will become a fine player in his time, but I doubt that Sunday's game is that time. He'll go in as the weakest link and will line up opposite Bale (truth be told, Bale would probably shift to whichever side Jenkinson starts on). If we're going left to right, we throw on Monreal, Vermaelen, and Mertesacker, but injuries rule out Gibbs, Sagna, and probably Koscielny. I've asked for it before and will repeat it now--I have more faith in Ramsey playing on the back-line than I do in Jenkinson. However, before too much is made of Mr. Bale, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo combines pace with actual footwork and can make mincemeat of defenders by getting them off-balance with about 87 scissor-steps and maybe one other move. Bale, for all of his pace, lacks that weapon. As long as Jenkinson doesn't get caught out of position, and as long as teammates make themselves available (instead of hanging him out to dry as happened against Michu earlier in the season), Jenkinson can probably hold his own. Whatever happens on Sunday, it does seem like signing an established defender somewhere between Sagna and Jenkinson's experience would be helpful. As long as we're on the topic of irrelevant requests, I'd like a Triumph Scrambler, please.

At the other end of the pitch, I'm salivating. I see Walcott eager to dispel the comparisons with his former roommate, Cazorla back in form, and Giroud ready to make life miserable for a 35-year old Gallas, among others. With Arteta, Wilshere, and Rosicky joining Cazorla in the midfield, I think we can control enough of the action to neutralize Bale. I won't go so far as to call Spurs a one-man team, but as Bale goes, so go the Spurs. Neutralize him, and it's hard to find who will step up. The longer the game goes, the more the pressure on Spurs builds.The more the pressure builds, the more their nerves may fray.

Speaking of fraying nerves, I don't know if I can wait until Sunday. It's an extra 24 hours that my constitution just can't handle. It's a good thing--not shaking like a leaf, more like butterflies in the stomach and ants in the pants, that sort of thing. I'l just picture Lloris picking the ball up from the back of the net. In a way, it's like counting sheep....

And, before you go, weigh in--Jenkinson or Ramsey at right-back?

28 February 2013

Paging Scott Parker? I don't have a Mr. Wenger on Line One...

Coming on the heels of what Scott Parker had to say about us after Spurs escaped from Juss Jääskeläinen and 10 foosball men, when he claimed that Spurs has "players that Arsenal would want any day of the week", I stumbled across a rather-delicious bit of news from last year in The Daily Mail. I wasn't paying attention back then, but finding it now shows that I have even better timing than Gareth Bale. Apparently, Wenger was interested in buying Bale from Southampton but Bale, well, bailed and went to Spurs for £7million back in 2007. It seems that the financial terms he ended up signing are similar to the terms Walcott signed with us (click the link  to read if only to remember that we beat Chelsea to get Walcott). Perhaps Bale didn't want to follow Walcott. Nothing wrong with a guy wanting to hoe his own road.

From the Daily Mail article, I learned that Bale grew up as an Arsenal fan, which shows that he has good taste in terms of whom to root for if not in terms of whom to play for. So it goes. It might have been to nice to have him, but I'm not complaining. I don't hold any particularly strong feelings about him one way or the other, to be frank.

Here's the fun part of the article, though--as it turns out, Mr. Parker wanted to come to Arsenal last summer. The article seems to get a little dodgy on its own details, though, quoting Wenger as saying,"when asked if he came close to signing Bale, Wenger said, 'yes, but we had full-backs at the time. We had Clichy, we had Cole". I'm not sure why Wenger would answer a question about Bale by referencing how many fullbacks we had at the time, but the salient point is how it relates to Parker's comments earlier this week about us wanting Spurs players whom we want. He has it bass-ackwards--Spurs have players we demonstrably don't want--him. He's a fine player, don't get me wrong. I have to admit that I enjoy the irony of the situation. Here's to hoping it isn't the last bit of irony in what Mr. Parker has been saying...

Well, in news that actually matters for Sunday, it looks like Sagna will miss the match thanks to his knee injury. Gibbs is still out, and no word that I can find on Koscielny's availability. More on that when it comes available.

Walcott vs. Bale: Formerly Roommates, Currently Competitors

In the lead-up to Sunday's derby with Spurs, a lot of the talk has focused, naturally, on Gareth Bale's form. He is, quite simply, in rare form, having scored two goals (including the winner) against West Ham, and has 15 goals in the Prem to this point, good for 3rd behind Van Persie and Suarez. The fact that he and Theo Walcott played together at Southampton and have such similar skill-sets has prompted further discussion. I've previously compared Walcott to Van Persie as we seek ways to replace all of those goals from last year (which we've done quite well, thank you). Now, as the hype ramps up, it's worth comparing Walcott to Bale, if only to find out if Bale is as good as that hype has suggested and if the gap between them is as wide as it seems.

Across all competitions, Bale has 19 goals in 33 games, including 15 in 24 Prem games; Walcott has 18 in 22, including 11 in 16 Prem games. At the risk of revealing my bias, it sounds like Mr. Walcott emerges ahead of Mr. Bale. The only real distinction that can be offered is that Bale has been on an incredible tear lately. In Spurs' last five matches, he has scored seven goals, all of which have been crucial to Spurs' success. Also remarkable has been the timing of so many of these goals--the winner against West Ham came in the 90th minute, and his goals against Lyon came in extra time of the first half and in extra time again in the second half. In my comparison of Walcott and Van Persie, I emphasized how vital Van Persie's goals have been for United and how "superfluous" Walcott's have been. At this point, though, I'm essentially done extolling Bale's virtues. Yes, he has been on fire--but he's absolutely had to be. Spurs rely on him to a much-further extent than Arsenal relies on Walcott.

Whereas Bale leads his team in goals and is followed closely by Defoe with 10 Prem goals, no other Spurs player has more than five (Clint Dempsey--USA! USA! Okay, I'm done). Looking at Arsenal shows that we have a more-diverse attack, with Cazorla and Walcott scoring 11 each, and Giroud with 9 and Podolski with 8. My point here is that Spurs need Bale to score in a way that inflates (not unfairly) his stats, and this pressure does not similarly drive Walcott's stats. Therefore, a direct comparison is not necessarily all that revealing. If it was a one-on-one match-up, maybe these stats would get us somewhere. However, it ain't so they don't.

Among the chatter, Sir Clive Woodward has spoken glowingly of both Walcott and Bale, saying, "you can see potential greatness even when they are just kids" and "their quality was evident even then as 16-year olds". However, former Southampton manager George Burley is less even in his comparison, saying that   he "always thought Gareth was the better prospect" and was "more the [complete?] package" compared to Walcott. I might be inclined to agree, but I would say in Walcott's defense that his development arguably suffered while playing in the shadows of other forwards for whom inspiring and mentoring are not strong-suits. On the other hand, Bale has played for a team that needs him to develop and has given him room to do so, if only by necessity. Bale has played with the likes of Adebayor, Defoe, and Van Der Vaart, none of whom seem to command as much deference as Van Persie did. With Van Persie gone, Walcott seems well on his way to closing the gap, perceived or real, between him and Bale.

As the game approaches, the talk grows. Some are suggesting that Bale is talking of "revenge", but I haven't seen him use the word. They're sure to be up for this game, including Adebayor, whose red-card triggered our 5-2 win. Huh. It took me a while to find a link to that game, as it appears we've beaten Spurs 5-2 more than once. I was looking for November 2012 but stumbled across February 2012 instead. What a world. Let that be the only actual trash-talk I engage in.

As both sides know, this is a huge game on a number of levels. Neither team can afford to drop points--although I'd settle for a tie. Perhaps. Nah--let's take it to 'em and knock some fillings loose!

27 February 2013

Everton Match Postponed Until 4/16. Or 17.

Thanks to Everton's continued run in the FA Cup, our match on March 9th has been postponed so that they can face Wigan. While some are encouraged to think that this opens up our post-Spurs schedule to focus on prepping for the trip to Allianz Arena to play Bayern on March 13th, I don't think this is worth a warm bowl of spit. No offense, but (1) Bayern is well-nigh untouchable and (2) more importantly, we have bigger more-important fish to fry. Simply put, our sole focus should be UCL qualification next year. I might change my tune if we defeat Spurs on Sunday, but I doubt it. All of this is to me proverbial deck-chair rearranging on the Titanic. Whether we face Bayern on ten days rest, as it now stands, or four, as it once stood, doesn't seem to matter.

Instead, let's maintain proper focus. The biggest question in my mind isn't how this affects our preparation for Bayern; it's how this affects our preparation for Sunday first and foremost and our preparation for Everton whenever we do face them. After Spurs, we face a tricky trip to Swansea, who I hope will still be suffering a hangover after winning the club's first-ever trophy in 100 years. By the by, I think it's awesome. I pull for underdogs, and ever since they beat us, I've admired them. Laudrup has done a fantastic job and am thrilled for their success. I just don't want it to continue when we face them--we'd better arrive with revenge and three points on our minds. After that, there's a week's break until we face Reading on March 30th. Is it possible that we'd face Everton on the 23rd? There are no Prem games scheduled for that week. [see below--ed.]That'd be my choice--I'd prefer to avoid a Monday or Tuesday match regardless of who we'd face the on the following Sunday. After hosting us, Spurs travel to Anfield. It's entirely possible that we could win Sunday, Spurs could lose to Liverpool, and we'd emerge one point behind Spurs and with a game in hand. Talk about pressure--how would Mr. Parker spin that? If we're deflated and reeling from keeping pace, how might he and his mates feel at being in that tenuous position?

UPDATE. As I write, Arsenal's official site has confirmed that the match against Everton will now be on March 16th, unless Everton defeats Wigan, in which case our match moves to March 17th. I can't say I'm thrilled by either option, as both give us three games inside of a week, albeit all of them at home: Fulham on 4/13, Everton on 4/16 or 4/17, and Fulham on 4/20. Be that as it may, it comes on the heels of Spurs' own trio of tough matches, hosting Everton 4/6, going to Chelsea 4/13, and hosting Man City on 4/20. Talk about a manic month of football. "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley" and all that. Buckle up, boys 'n girls.

Bergkamp Gets His Statue

Beautiful. To be unveiled, it is hoped, before the 2013-14 season. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so we'll leave it at that:
Oh ,what the heck. Here's more for club and country.

26 February 2013

Apparently, We're Deflated...

...or so says Scott Parker after Spurs eked out a 3-2 win over West Ham. We're "reeling," apparently. I can't speak on behalf of any actual players, of course, but as for myself, I'm a little disappointed, sure. Obviously, being one point behind is better than being four points behind. Any dunce can tell you that. To say that it's "deflating" to us might be a bit of an overstatement, but, to his credit, Parker does refer only to his own experiences and then projects the cracks in his own psyche onto those of Arsenal players:
"I've been in that position when you're playing and you're watching the scores come in and you hear there's been a last-minute goal in a game that's important for your side. You're praying it's gone the way you wanted it to and then you hear it's a goal for the team you didn't want to score. So it is deflating for a player watching, and I'm sure the Arsenal players are like that." 
Tortured pronoun references aside, it might have been deflating and we might have been praying for a draw or even a West Ham win. However, given that we had won our own match, it might be closer to the truth to suggest that Mr. Parker, in his attempt to redistribute the panicky feeling from himself onto his listeners (all of those you's and your's) might really be giving us a glimpse behind the curtain into his own feeling--"yes, we are winning, and yes, Bale is in the form of his life, but we're still only four points clear against a team we have to face on Sunday." After all, for as hard as they're working and as well as they're playing, our run of form shows us keeping pace quite nicely, thank you.

It's when we look ahead that the nature of Parker's thoughts seem to distill down to their essence. A quick review of remaining fixtures might be in order?
The chart to the right lays 'em out for us. Simply put, we are much-better positioned to end the season strong. I don't think it's generous of me to label eight of ours as winnable games (in green, with red suggesting difficult, too-close-to-call games). Only the trip to Swansea, which I've also dubbed winnable for Spurs, feels iffy. Of course, we still have to show up and play. Between us and Spurs, they're more likely to advance in the Europa League than we are in the Champions League (to be honest, I just wanted to casually remind us of who's in which league). Parker referred to "what happened last year" as a motivator, but, truth be told, it places the pressure firmly on their side of the equation: can Spurs bear up under the furious scramble of the last few weeks of the season, or, as they did last year, will they fold faster than Superman on laundry day?

Right. I like a little bit of friendly trash-talk, especially when there's nothing but time to waste. Parker did go on to say that Spurs has "players that Arsenal would want any day of the week." I suppose that might be true--I'd enjoy having Clint Dempsey, but that stems from my own Yankee pride than from any other factor. Vertonghen? Maybe. After that, I do see a few former Gunners on their roster, but none I'd particularly care to have back. Be that as it may, I'm curious to see what other chalkboard material comes out over the rest of the week.

See you tomorrow unless my evening pint(s) gives me inspiration.

Captain Jack

He does wear it well...
In an otherwise-slow week for news, we're left to ponder possibilities, whether it's coming up with a wish-list of players on whom to lavish our riches, agonizing over top-four finishes or miracle 2nd-leg comebacks against Bayern, or whether Jack Wilshere should be Arsenal's captain next year. I've previously gushed about Wilshere's quality and symbolic value, so I'll try to restrain myself rather than shrieking like an 11-year old at the site of Justin Bieber (sorry; just threw up a little in my mouth. And we're back). With each game, Wilshere's value and skill seem to grow, and it's not for nothing that his absence may have cost us against Bayern, and more importantly, against Blackburn. He has said that he wants to play every single game, but for as much as I respect the man and for as many goosebumps as he gives me, I'd prefer to see him rest from time to time.

We all know that the captain's armband has been a bit of a curse over the years, with previous wearers Fabregas and Van Persie leaving. More recently, some have speculated that Vermaelen's relatively poor form is to be attributed to wearing the armband. I don't know if it's that heavy--does it drag on his arm, causing him to list to one side? More than form, of greater import to me is the personality of the person who wears it. Simply put, Vermaelen doesn't carry the aura of a man who will lead a team. He doesn't intimidate; he doesn't swagger; he doesn't command. These are not criticisms, as much as they just sounded like it. I'll say the same of Arteta. These are both players whom I do truly like--I just don't see them as captain-material. They're quiet and unassuming, for the most part. We need a captain who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and drag it home, a captain who will get in the face of any opponent who doesn't mind his manners, a captain who can castigate and inspire those around him. I'm not saying that Wilshere is there yet, but he's a heck of a lot closer to it than other options.

In the wake of comments from the likes of Arjen Robben, who suggests that he doesn't know "if Arsenal can keep him if they are not winning things", some may see the captaincy as bait for keeping Wilshere at Arsenal. I think this is a bit of lazy thinking, not from Robben, who made his point pretty well. It's the speculation from others that makes little sense. Wilshere has made statements about his intentions that are pretty direct, and he did just sign a five-year extension. Beyond that, he has quickly and thoroughly earned the kind of adoration that money just can't buy. I've spoken in the past about trophies and legends and would  further suggest that Wilshere has a chance to earn both by staying at Arsenal.

More than that, though, Wilshere stands out as a strong captain for Arsenal, not just because of his achievements so far or because of the accolades he's earning, not just to lure him into staying, but because he  already leads through virtue of his immeasurable desire to win and through his ability to bring out the best from those around him. That's leadership, and that's what's been lacking from the armband in recent years.

Of course, the pressure and expectations such a move could create could be enormous; it could amount to a coronation, and that's a risk that Wenger and Wilshere would have to discuss. The man is still young, and he might feel like he has to take over, overextending himself and risking burnout, red-cards, or injury.  If Wenger feels that Wilshere can handle that, and that he and other players can support Wilshere, then why not do it? This is quickly becoming Jack's team, and the faith he inspires in those around him lead to an almost-inevitable conclusion.  With a vice-captain like Arteta to provide counsel and to buffer against the pressures, I like where this is heading....

Below the fold, share your thoughts--should Wilshere be named captain next year, or should this wait?

25 February 2013

West Ham 2-3 Spurs: Bale's Brace rescues Spurs

After last week's tribulations, it's hard to imagine things going a whole lot better than they have this week: we won, Chelsea lost, Everton lost, and Spurs, well Spurs ended up winning on a goal from Bale in the 90th minute. Tough break for West Ham Oh well. If we're going to climb the table, it'll have to come down to us, not other teams doing us favors.

For all of the hand-wringing we have subjected ourselves to, and for all of the plaudits Spurs have garnered for how spectacular their form has been--yes, yes, Gareth Bale can run fast and score goals when he remains upright rather than falling all over himself when a defender exhales too loudly--isn't it nice to see that, after today's match at West Ham, our lovely London neighbors are still only a few points ahead of us? While they seem to be more consistent than they were last year at this point, and we can't count on them stumbling as they did under Redknapp, the fact remains that a mere four points separate us with eleven games to play, including a key head-to-head match on Sunday.

I'm going to avoid the venom that sometimes poisons the Spurs-Arsenal debate. We all know the history and the rivalry and all of that, and I'll celebrate a good St. Totteringham's Day with the best of them, but I just don't buy into the rather-pathetic vitriol that goes back and forth. They're rivals and the derbies matter, but, frankly, beating them is just as satisfying as beating Man U or Newcastle or Wigan.
See? 4th place trophies do exist!

Back to the matter at hand. Perhaps it's revealing of each club's ambitions or status that such similar positions  in the table provoke such different responses from pundits and fans. Arsenal has been one of the Big Four along with Chelsea, Liverpol, and Man U, for what that's worth, and a top-four finish has been one of our hallmarks for most of the last twenty years. Check arsenalist for a history of tables. Yes, it has been some time now since we hoisted a trophy, but Spurs' trophy case is hardly overflowing--they have a League Cup trophy from 2008, yes, but we have to travel all the way back to 1991 to find their next one, the FA Cup. I don't remember whom they beat to get to that final. Honestly. This year has seen Villas-Boas lauded for steering Spurs so well while Wenger is raked mercilessly over the coals. If they're doing so great--and it's true that they haven't lost a Prem game since December 9th--why are they only four ahead of us?

Sunday's trip to White Hart Lane will of course be huge. Win, and we're back to a one-point difference. There's a long week ahead, with only a midweek FA Cup match for Chelsea against Middlesboro to distract us. Time to catch up on some thumb-twiddlin', it would seem.

£17.8 million

Wow--according to several reports out today, Arsenal has reported a profit of £17.8 million and is sitting on £123.3 million in cash reserves. Sure, the sale of key players has boosted these figures and is not a long-term strategy for raising cash (or winning games), but this is an impressive statistic that gives us something to think about for the summer--should we renew our pursuit of the likes of David Villa, or are there other priorities? I don't think we need such a high-profile signing. Villa is likely to cost a fair amount, maybe upwards of £14 million. The lure is there, sure. Who wouldn't want a striker who has scored as often as he has? On the other hand, he's 31 and is coming off of a broken leg, so I'd prefer that we look somewhere else--how about Benteke? He's 22 but is proving his worth, having scored 11 times in 20 games. With Theo Walcott coming into his own, and with our summer signings showing flashes of form, goal-scoring isn't necessarily our highest priority--we are, after all, the 3rd-highest scoring team in the Prem. Better instead to shore up our back line. We could go after Valdes or Reina--Reina's recent fade might make him more of a back-up than a competitor for the starter's role.

It's not just the keeper position that we should address; the backline could do with some sprucing-up. It's funny to talk in these terms when we have the 4th-lowest goals allowed in the league. As I said in my previous post about Szczęsny, we need some presence back there, someone who can intimidate the opposition. Of our defenders, only Sagna seems to possess any kind of visible fire or steel in his play. Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Miquel, they all seem like good players, but none of them seem able to summon the kind of intensity or strength that other defenders can. None of them seem able to intimidate opponents as Vidić, Terry,or Puyol might (whether this intimidating quality stems from skill or personal repulsiveness is another question. Mr. Terry, I'm looking at you, much as it pains me to do so). With that in mind, would someone like Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Amorebieta fill the bill? He seems a little too pretty. We've previously been linked with Etienne Capoue, another defender (and midfielder) who seems steely and flinty enough to give opposing forwards pause as they think about trying to get inside the 18. 
Most of the headlines that have come out on Arsenals' finances have been critical, pointing to past sales and Wenger's apparent refusal to splurge. Instead, I prefer to look at it as an early Christmas present, and there's nothing wrong with a little window-shopping, is there?

24 February 2013

Shaky Szczęsny

Having cleared the hurdle that is Aston Villa (a hurdle that had earlier tripped Liverpool, Everton, and, yes, us), and seeing that a long week lies between now and Sunday's match against Spurs, we have a chance to take a closer look at the man who minds the goal,  Wojciech Szczęsny. On one hand, he is regularly touted as one of the best young keepers in the league. However, based on his performances, can we really see his name as a top-five or even top-ten keeper? Does his name readily come to mind when one composes this kind of list? It's hard to mention him in the same breath with the likes of Hart, Čech, Begovic, or Mignolet, not to mention Jaaskelainen, Cesar, Howard, or others. Do transfer rumors swirl around him as they do for Begovic? There's been some talk of us pursuing Victor Valdes, which might be interesting if only because it might imply to Szczęsny that he has to run a tighter ship if he expects to hold the starting position.

Before I come down to hard on the man, let me say that I do think he will become one of the league's best keepers. He's talented, he's 6'5", and he's clearly our best keeper at this point. He's young, especially for a keeper--his 22nd birthday is in April. His age and lack of experience are certainly issues that will resolve themselves with time, but in order for Szczęsny to become the kind of top-flight keeper he's capable of becoming and the kind of keeper we need, he has to do more than simply amass experience and birthdays. Hart and Begovic are only a few years older, but they seem well-past the point of being discussed in terms of potential or talent; they seem more like established, experienced keepers. This comes down to more than just age or experience; it comes down to presence, maturity, and command. While Szczęsny is capable of incredible saves, he is too often caught out due to his own positioning or poor play from his defenders. He was arguably victim to both of these for Aston Villa's goal, and this is what complicates the issue. If it were just down to his defenders hanging him out to dry, he could get up after a goal like that and eviscerate teammates--as a goalkeeper should. However, without that presence and strong positioning, all he can do is lie there ruing another goal. Similarly, he was perhaps blameless on Bayern's first goal, a beautifully struck shot that he had little chance of saving. Because Szczęsny does not yet possess presence, he can't tear teammates a new one: not Arteta for failing to close, nor Cazorla for failing to stop the pass, nor Mertesacker for failing to block Kroos's shot.

Even if he did scream his fool-head off, he'd have to account for his own flub on Bayern's second--failing to handle a corner undermines his ability and perhaps his willingness to get up and shout. You can see him try as teammates wander back up the field, but his manner suggests someone who's complaining rather than commanding. It's notable that whoscored.com suggests that he "has no significant strengths" and that he is weak in concentration and in dealing with long shots. I started to delve deeper into statistics, but these are notoriously hard to quantify. Some keepers will face a lot of shots because of their defense or style of play, and others will face far-fewer shots. Clean sheets and goals per game are decent proxies, but at the risk of an artful dodge, I'd prefer to focus on presence. Against certain teams, I think "we're going to have a tough time getting past ________", and after certain games I think, "man, we should have scored five goals, but _______ was brilliant." I don't know how many Spurs fans or Everton fans think similarly about facing Szczęsny. For as talented as he is, I want opposing players and fans to dread the prospect of facing him. I fear that far too many salivate instead.

I'm not suggesting a replacement, but it does seem clear that we need a second-string keeper who can push Szczęsny. Valdes is unlikely to fill that role. Begovic is apparently available, and how delicious would it be to beat Man U to his signature  and also snatch him away from Stoke? I don't know if we'd need such high-profile signings; I do think that Szczęsny needs someone behind him to keep him on his toes. Mannone is a nice-enough chap, I'm sure, but he's not enough of a threat to Szczęsny's position to do that job. At this point, of course, there's little to be done about it until the summer transfer window, so we'll just have to cross our fingers and wait. Until then, there's no harm in dreaming, is there? With that in mind, whom should we pursue? Valdes? Begovic? Someone older to tutor the young Pole--how about Napoli's 36-year old Morgan de Sanctis? Share your thoughts below the fold.