09 March 2013

Tottenham vs. Liverpool Preview: Hope for a Tie

As promised, a quick look at Sunday's match-up between Spurs and Liverpool. The most compelling storyline for most other writers will be on Bale-Suarez, but I worry that they might miss the boat by focusing too much on goals. Yes, it's true that Suarez leads the league and that Bale has been a tear lately, but the real issue concerning the two is not so much who will score, but will be be booked for simulation first. Between the two of them, it's hard to figure out who's best. Suarez might win for frequency, but Bale makes up the difference through silliness.  Both teams, however, come in in fine form, but Spurs arguably on a longer run of success. Sunday should see Skrtel and Sturridge return to action, but Adebayor may still sit after injuring his knee against us last week. Whether this helps or hurts Spurs is for anyone to guess.

I don't particularly care who plays for which team on Sunday, frankly. I don't bear any particular animosity towards either one. As it stands, one stands between us and a top-four finish, and the other is nipping at our heels for the same. With that in mind, we have to carefully consider our options. Normally, I'd pull for the lowest of the three teams concerned to win, in this case, Liverpool. This way, all three points go to the team least likely to finish above us. However, in this case, the situation is different. Only five points separate us from Liverpool, so a win for them puts them two back. To this point, I have not considered them as contenders for the top four, but five points separates us from Chelsea. If we believe overtaking Chelsea is legitimate, we have to acknowledge that Liverpool overtaking us is just as legitimate. We obviously can't hope for Spurs to win as this would put them ten points up, almost certainly out of our reach with nine games left to play. Further, this would then put them two behind Man City, contending for second place. I may not hate Spurs as much as a loyal Gunner should, but I do enjoy St. Totteringham's Day. So a Spurs victory goes out the window.

This clearly leaves us the only option--a draw. Both teams take a point, but this is our best option. Spurs remain in striking range, although it's long range, at eight points above us. Liverpool inch closer at four points back. Normally, it's best for us for the weaker team to steal all three points. However, given how tightly packed the top of the table is (at least 3rd through 8th), a draw is in this case best for us. For both Spurs and Liverpool, two points disappear from their ledgers, amounting almost to a four-point benefit to us. Along the way, I may claim to be above rooting for injuries to opponents, but I have no such compunctions regarding red cards. Should Bale, Suarez, both, or someone else see red, that's fine by me. The key, though, is the draw. May neither team win.

Everton's Tim Howard Broke His Back...

In news that is just terrible for Tim Howard, if not for Everton and U.S. Men's National Team, it's being reported that Howard has fractured several bones in his back. It's apparently not serious but enough to knock him out for at least four weeks, and his return depends more on pain thresholds than it does on threats to his back or spine.  In any case, this of course throws a wrench in Everton's designs on a top-four finish, but that's as much as I'm going to say on that score. I don't ever want to overtake or defeat an opponent through due to injuries; I want to beat teams at full-strength. At a minimum, no one can then say we didn't "really" win because so-and-so wasn't available blah blah blah. At a higher level, wishing harm on an opponent might be good for idle trash-talk but should certainly not become strategy.  It's probably to blame in no small part for Everton's surprising 3-0 loss to Wigan in their FA Cup match. However, Tim doesn't score goals, so his absence really only offers an explanation for part of that score. With their loss, our match with the Toffees is now set for April 16th, right around the time that Howard might be available to return.

As an American, I pray for his speedy recovery. I'm proud and excited to see our boys making news in European soccer, whether it was John Harkes joining Sheffield Wednesday in the 1990's, Jozy Altidore scoring his 24th European goal this year, or Clint Dempsey moving to a bigger club (yes, even though it's Spurs, it matters to this writer. Would I like to see him at Arsenal? Sure. For now, I have to content myself with progress in any form it takes). It's a been a long, slow climb for true football to gain traction in the United States, and I'm excited any time I see one of us making some noise where the sport really matters. I don't think we're ready to claim a spot among the big boys; instead, I think we have to spend a lot more time paying dues so that, if we ever do achieve something, we'll know we've earned it without having to worry that we seem like, well, American tourists or something. As exciting as it is to have former Gunners like Ljungberg or Henry come to the States to play in our league, we're still very much a second- or third-tier league, if that, and I know full-well that these and other chaps come to MLS because they've lost a step but can still run circles around our talent.  We'll get to a point someday when we produce a player good enough to put on an Arsenal jersey, and that will be a proud day for me indeed.

In more-immediate news, there are only two matches that concern us in any way--Spurs at Liverpool, and Chelsea at Man U for their FA Cup match. I'll be hoping for a tie in the first (more on that later) and for a Chelsea victory in the second. You gotta pick your poisons, and spite might be a bitter draught, but I'd love nothing more than for Man U to crash out of two cups in one week and for Chelsea to keep slogging through a congested schedule. Still lots of time for thumb-twiddlin' as regards Arsenal matches, though. Sigh...

Slow News Day. The Sagna Saga...

Happy Saturday, all, as we look to our first weekend without any matches of our own until the 13th against Bayern. There aren't even any matches of other significance today, as Man City's match is also postponed, meaning we'll have to wait until Sunday night's match between Liverpool and Spurs before anything momentous can happen. I don't know if I'm ready to actually root for Liverpool, but they do wear red and will be playing against Spurs. It's a poor facsimile for the real thing, but it will have to suffice for now. Liverpool went down 2-1 back in November at White Hart Lane with Bale scoring twice, once an own-goal, even though Liverpool held possession 65% of the game (and this stat may have been inflated due to Spurs scoring twice in side of the first 20 minutes and then sitting back). Meh. In other news,  it appears that Luis Suarez has earned himself a pay-raise, perhaps doubling his weekly wage to something close to the £100,000 range. In related news, Spurs seem set to do something similar for Bale, doubling him from £75,000 to something more like £150,000 which goes to show that having a striker who can win games single-handedly still need not cost £250,000. Both of these men had been linked with summer moves, which I of course encourage, but these reports might put those moves out to pasture.

I've been circling it to this point, but these issues--wages, value, form--draw me irresistibly to Bacary Sagna.

08 March 2013

Banana-Fan Found and Charged

Thomas Flint will appear in Highbury Corner Magistrates Court to answer charges of throwing a missile--a banana--on the field during the Spurs-Arsenal match on March 3rd. While it's still too early to condemn the man, I do hope, should the evidence and testimony be clear enough, that Mr. Flint not only be banned from all Arsenal matches in the future, but he should also be forced to eat nothing but bananas for a week while wearing naught but a garbage bag around his waist so that he will have to swim in his own defecations until he is deemed fit to re-enter society.

Falling in Love with the Red and White

I still remember finding out about Arsenal for the very first time. We had just gotten cable and I had subsequently learned of rock 'n roll. To that point in my admittedly young life, I had subsisted on the thin gruel known as Duran Duran, not yet knowing that actual music existed. I would stay up into the wee hours to watch Friday Night Video Fights, The Young Ones, and, later, Headbangers' Ball. During one of these late night fests, I stumbled across soccer football. The idea that professional football existed blew my mind, and the fact that it was on t.v. blew me away even further. Sure, I knew football existed, but 1980's America was hardly a hotbed of football action. At any rate, the picture was pretty grainy, and I could barely make out the players nor could I understand the broadcasters very well due to their accents.

It was only when the table flashed on-screen that I snapped to attention. Amid a sea of unfamiliar or downright irritating names, standing out in that hodgepodge of cities and hams and -wiches and and -tons, one name seemed to shine forth like a beacon: Arsenal. Even at my tender age, I knew the definition of the word, and it floored me to learn that teams could have any other name besides the city in which they play their home games. What a perfect, perfect name for a team. Even now, when my pacifism and generally liberal political bent might otherwise agitate for a more politically correct name, "Arsenal Gunners" wins, hands down. I was hooked. Further helping matters was that they were not in first place, appealing to my early preference for underdogs. Sure, had I paid closer attention or if the good people of Swansea FC had been more creative in naming their club, things might have turned out differently. However, I rather like the element of destiny that seems to have brought me here and look forward to exacting a bit of revenge on said Swans in due time.

When the highlights came back on, I was drawn in more deeply in the Gunners' embrace through the uniforms, that pitch-perfect shade of vivid red and high-contrast white not only just works for my vision (I have mild red-green color blindness and this combination simply arrested my gaze. Put it all together, and the romance took flower and has bloomed ever since. Each night, still too young to realize that Prem League was more of a weekly thing, not a daily one, I'd turn to ESPN hoping to see more Arsenal action. I figured it out after a week or two when I finally saw that highlights only came out on the weekends.

Ever since then, I have followed this club through thick and thin, surviving on a meager trickle of ESPN highlights in the days before the internet and the growing popularity of football in America prompted newspapers, magazines, and television finally saw fit to cover European soccer. Now, instead of hoping to get to ESPN in time to catch a 30-second rundown of the best Prem League games, as I did in the 1980s and early 1990s, I can actually watch complete games. The difference has been not unlike going from flirting with someone through text messages to actually embracing and kissing.

I see fit to consort with fans from other clubs, like Man City, Chelsea, or Man U. It's like high school community service--I listen patiently to their stories and ask polite questions, making sure to say mm-hmmm and "oh really?" from time to time to give off the appearance that I'm listening. Inside, I feel sorry for the poor  saps who learned about football only recently and who cast their lot in with whoever happened to be in first place or whoever had won the FA Cup at time. For the most part, these fans have never had their loyalties tested and have know little else but salad days. Do I envy them, even ever so slightly for having experienced their successes while we wonder why our club has faltered? I guess I do, but, still, I would never trade what I've had and will continue to have for what they have. Am I crazy? Yeah, but aren't we all? "Fan" comes from "fanatic", after all.

Sorry if this echoes previous musings, but it's been on my mind a lot. In the absence of actual matches, and in the light of my attempts to ignore transfer-talk, this old man's mind tends to wander back into the past....

Please, sir, I want some...more?

Ah, Olivier. You scored so much and so well for Montpelier that you convinced us that you'd replace Van Persie himself. Well, we convinced ourselves of that and insisted that you live up to the billing. In retrospect, a bit unfair of us, I suppose. However, even by a more-objective standard, as a stand-alone, I think you'd have to agree it's been a bit of a let-down to this point. The transition from Ligue 1 to the Prem can be a tricky one, and nine goals is a decent number, but I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds when I say we expected a little more, if not in actual goals but in overall play.

Okay. End of fake "letter to the player" format.

07 March 2013

That Old Song and Dance

Confound you, rumor mill.  I feel like Pacino in The Godfather, Part III: "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Of course, I have only myself to blame. I fiend for news, particularly of the good variety, and so I was sucked into speculation that a former Gunner might make his way back to us in the summer. I believe the headline was "Barcelona Midfielder to Return to Emirates?" In my mind, the only Barcelona midfielder who could make a return would be Fabregas; I couldn't even remember anyone else who left here to play for Barça. Oh, wait--Song doesn't play for Barça. He sits on the bench.

Vermaelen to Barcelona? Hmm..

Just as soon as I'd finished my promise not engage in transfer-talk, news from The Guardian is that Barcelona are preparing a £15 million offer for the man.  This comes on the same day that Arseblog's Sam Limbert suggests that the captain's armband has become too much of a burden and may be responsible for Vermaelen's poor form to this point in the year. The responsibilities may distract from his own duties, and he may feel additional pressure to overachieve in order to live up to the role once held by Van Persie and Fabregas. Speaking of them, perhaps we should sell Vermaelen if only to keep with tradition. Wilshere slides into the captain's role, and--oh. On second thought...

Transfer Targets to Turn the Team Title-wards

Reports out of [insert name of country and publication here] have linked Arsenal with [insert top-tier team or obscure backwater team name here]'s [name over-priced 31-year old or unknown 17-year old], who has turned heads with his [choose one: prolific scoring/ tenacious defense] and has lead his team to the top of [insert name of European football league here].  Arsene Wenger is believed to have discussed an offer of [roll six-sided dice four times and put sum here]. There is likely to be competition for his signature, however, with other reports suggesting that [add several names of various European teams here] are also following [player's last name here]'s progress. According to [player's last name here]'s agent, the player is keen on a move to the Premier League and the Emirates is a distinct possibility. "We have had some interest from several European clubs, it is true," said [player's last name here]'s agent. "We have had talks with Arsenal, so a move in June is possible."

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

If you read the headlines, our defense is terrible and leaky and error-prone. If only we could sign a world-class keeper or another center-back, we'd be in fine shape, right? However, a closer look at the actual numbers reveal that this is clearly not the case.

Ours is the 4th-best defense in the Prem, having conceded 32 goals in 28 games, behind Man City (24), Chelsea (30), and Man U (31). Our scoring record even sees us move to 3rd-best, with 53 goals, behind Man U (68) and Chelsea (56). So what gives? Why is it that, with these apparently-solid if not strong numbers, we languish in 5th place? After all, you'd expect a team with the 4th-best defense and 3rd-best offense to sit somewhere in 4th, if not 3rd, instead of clinging shakily to 5th.

06 March 2013

Baby, I'm A Masochist

Before you go and get too excited, however, let me explain.

By most teams' standards, we're in fine shape. Of course, we're not most teams. We're Arsenal (I hope you were sitting down so that that stunner didn't floor you). By our standards, it's been a bit of a rough patch. However, I don't mind it. In fact, a part of me actually enjoys it. Well, "enjoy" might be a bit strong. To help explain what I mean, I want to bring you back to the late 1980s and the Chicago Bulls. Year after year, the Bulls would put on a strong showing and make it through a round or two of the playoffs. Then, they'd run up against the Detroit Pistons--think of Stoke City but with an actual offense. They'd dump us out of the playoffs. Then, in one glorious year, we swept them, winning the best-of-seven series 4-0. This led to the Bulls' first-ever NBA championship, which became three in a championships in a row. Michael Jordan retired, tried his hand at baseball, and came back to help the team win a second set of three championships in a row. In that final, sixth championship, the Bulls won a ridiculous 72 out of 82 games, a feat of near-invincibility that perhaps even the Invincibles would struggle to match.. It was a wild ride. However, by the end of it all--maybe as early as the 4th or 5th championship, I was bored. Even our nemeses, teams like the New York Knicks or whoever we'd meet in the championship, didn't seem to offer much resistance, and there certainly wasn't as much passion around winning as there once had been. The Shot--his 1989 game-winner against the Cleveland Cavaliers--was one of the most ecstatic sporting moments of my life. By the time he hit the game-winning shot in to win the 1997 championship, the thrill was gone. We won, and, yes, it was enjoyable...but not exciting. Is it my fault for getting jaded? For letting myself get spoiled? To an extent, yes, it is.

That's a feeling we're all guilty of.

The Injustice Of It All...

Monday saw two miscarriages of justice serious enough to warrant an inquiry at the International Criminal Court. That they might both negatively impact Arsenal is completely, totally, and absolutely not my first concern regarding either case. Oh, wait. It is.

In the first, "striker" Nicklas Bendtner was caught in Copenhagen driving drunk and has been given a three-year driving ban, a six-month suspension from the Danish national team, and a fine of 113,000. Perhaps worst of all, Juventus are now apparently exploring their options as the weigh cancelling Bendtner's loan, meaning that we'd have to take him back. I wasn't even going to waste any time thinking about the issue until I learned of this consequence. Look--I'm sure Bendtner has his talents, but I'm not so sure that redirecting a ball into the net is one of them. He had done tolerably well for us when he was here, but I still don't see him as a better option than Walcott, Giroud, Podolski, or even Gervinho. Were he a fraction as good as he thinks he is, I'd reconsider. As it is, I'm left hoping that Juventus is just stuck with him, or maybe we were clever enough to insert a moral terpitude clause in his contract, but I doubt it, because this would have allowed us to dump him all the more promptly. In all seriouesness, though, I'm angry at Bendtner on two fronts, one admittedly trivial and selfish and the other just a touch more grave.

05 March 2013

Why Qualify? We're Gonna Get Crushed Anyway...

Some of the pessimists among us look ahead to our second leg of the Champions League and anticipate a deeper drubbing at the hands of Bayern, and they also make the mistake of conflating our struggles in the UCL with a reason for why we should not even bother with qualifying for next year. After all, their reasoning seems to go, why qualify for a competition that we will only get dumped from in its second round and have no hope of winning?

This line of thinking, as I've already implied, is sorely lacking on a number of fronts. At its lowest, qualifying for UCL is entirely different from competing in it. For some teams, in fact, qualifying is the only issue that matters. Some teams, like Bayern, Barcelona, and Juventus, arrive with realistic expectations of making it all the way to the final, if not winning the whole thing. Others, like Dynamo Zagreb, Olympiakos, or Man City, are lucky to be there, even if they know they'll go winless and leave with a -4 goal-differential. For this latter group, the thrill and the prestige of qualifying is reward enough.To have a chance to go the Camp Nou or Old Trafford might just just be a player's lifelong dream--so what if his team gets absolutely blitzed? He got to shake hands with and maybe even nutmeg (or get nutmegged by, more likely) players like Ronaldo or Messi or Pirlo? Thirty years from now, that's a memory he can cherish and share with children and grandchildren. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, it gives a team a rare chance of glory--actually beating one of the giants of the world, as Celtic did to Barcelona this past November. I cried tears of joy after that game.

04 March 2013

The Race for 4th:

Now that we've had some time to convince ourselves that a 2-1 loss to Spurs is not the latest sign of Armageddon, it's worth taking a moment to assess what this means. Does it mean that Spurs have leap-frogged us in this historic rivalry and are now the superior North London club? Perhaps. Does it mean that our chances for 4th place have disappeared? Less likely. The fact remains that our schedule still gives us reason for hope. The chart above shows where the key teams stand (with apologies to Liverpool). Yes, today's loss has blunted our momentum, but it was not a shocker.

Ban the Banana-Fan

So it seems that an Arsenal fan threw a banana at Gareth Bale during the 26th minute of Sunday's match. Why? To mock Bale's looks? Talk about pointless and stupid, not to mention dangerous. Who might slip on that and tear a ligament or go cleats-up on some one else's knee? Long shots, admittedly, but still. Moron. There are three areas to me that are pointless to criticize--age, height, and looks. We don't control them, so we can't brag about them and shouldn't mock them in others. Yeah, yeah, makeup, exercise, fashion sense can alter looks. Just--don't distract me here. I have a point to make. Taunt a guy for mistakes, bad plays, bad decisions, and other elements that he can control.

Coaching vs. Playing--It Ain't Arsene's Fault

In the aftermath of Sunday's debacle  temporary setback, critics have predictably piled on Wenger for our defensive failings. However, he wasn't the one on the field; Vermaelen and Monreal and others were. Say what you will about offsides traps or zonal vs. man-marking or formation. It comes down to some pretty fundamental footballing. Our boys are paid handsomely and, rather than looking too far up the hierarchy, we do have to point the finger of blame in the proper direction. Simply put, a player at this level should not allow an opponent to make a run behind him without tracking him (in man-marking) or making absolutely sure that a teammate has picked him up (in zonal marking). Similarly, a defender must close on the man on the ball.

In each of Spurs' goals, Bale and Lennon were allowed to make unmarked runs directly through the heart of our defense and receive unchallenged passes inside the 18. On Bale's goal, no one closes on Sigurdsson, allowing him plenty of time to make eye contact with Bale and place the ball perfectly. Given his form, as well as his position on the pitch, it is unconscionable that Arteta allows him to slip through unmarked. The fact that so many players rage for an offside call is similarly distressing. More on that in minute. Lennon, who had been dangerous in flashes in the first half, more so than Bale to that  point, starts from about 30 yards out, runs in front of Monreal, who releases him, and behind Vermaelen, who simply does not notice him. The pressure on Parker is half-hearted, allowing him ample time and space to see Lennon's run and play the pass through.

03 March 2013

Arsenal 1-2 Spurs: Two Blips is All it Took

Well, I'm gutted, obviously. The stakes were high, and we came to play. In fact, I was amazed at how hard we pressed and how disorganized Spurs were from the get-go. I even started thinking that we could pull off something memorable. And then, barely two minutes apart, we conceded two goals. The partisan in me calls them "against the run of play", which the more-objective side of me sees as only slightly a stretch. We were dominating possession comfortably, and both goals came on counters and due to lazy defending. On the first, Arteta somehow let Bale drift behind on the left-flank and then run onto a nifty pass to slot home. Before fans could even sit down, we were down 2-0 after Monreal released Lennon (again on our left) but without telling Vermaelen, who was left to flail his hand to call for offside. Perhaps Woj could have done better, but there's little a keeper can do in a one-on-one. Without those two lapses, this could have very easily gone our way--at least in terms of a draw if not a victory. Aside from Giroud, to whom I'll return in a moment, we put forth a strong effort of which I'd say we should be proud. However, I'm not a big fan of moral victories or esteem-building exercises, so I won't say that.

The Baby and the Bathwater

As the minutes tick down towards today's derby, some are already warning that a loss to Spurs amounts to the final nail in the coffin of Wenger's career. Let's just take a minute to put that to rest.  This is not Ohio State-Michigan or Bears-Packers (references to American football rivalries), in which coaches might lead a team to a near-perfect season but lose to that rival and be fired, or lose every other game except against that rival and get a raise. Wenger was not hired for the sole purpose of beating Spurs. As important as today's match is to our season, it alone should not be used as a barometer for Wenger's career.

There are a few variables here to consider, listed roughly in order of preference:
  • win or draw at White Hart and finish 4th or higher.
  • lose at White Hart but still finish 4th or higher.
  • win or draw at White Hart but still not finish 4th or higher.
  • lose at White Hart and fail to finish 4th or higher.
As sumptuous as a victory today would be, and as strategically important as it is in our pursuit of UCL qualification for next year, it is not the be-all and end-all. Whatever happens today, there will be still be ten matches left to play--time enough to close the gap between us and Spurs and even between us and an increasingly brittle-looking Chelsea. Time enough to evaluate our options for next year after the dust has settled, not just after this match, but after the other ten matches.

Now, having spent a moment trying to sound cool, calm, and collected, I've gotten that out of my system. In all sincerity, I hope that our boys deliver such a famous result, that we so utterly demolish Spurs today, that they fall into a complete tailspin, finishing behind not only us but behind Chelsea and Everton. If I could just channel the adrenaline surging through my veins and send it across the Atlantic, I'd have no doubt about the outcome. You've never seen a man whip up a batch of pancakes (game-time is 10am here) for his wife and kids, wash the dishes, and hustle said wife and kids out the door quicker than I have today.

Let's settle in for a few hours and see where things stand...check back in after the match for analysis and prognosis!