27 April 2013

Latics, Latics, Latics!

Oh, you Latics. You very nearly earned the undying love, respect, and devotion of legions of Arsenal fans (and by undying I mean "for the next few weeks"). What a heart-breaking, agonizing outcome. For you, of course. I promise that nothing I say has anything to do with how your match with Spurs affects us. I would never be so insensitive as to view your fixtures with anything resembling that kind of selfishness and narcissism. However, I do have to add that, having come so close to stealing my heart, choosing instead to break it is rather callous, and I may just find myself passive-aggressively rejecting you in the future. Should you come calling at some point in the future, on bended knee, you have only yourselves to blame if we slam the door rudely in your face with not so much as a "how do you do?"

Alright, enough of the cutesy-coo. On one hand, Wigan has done us a bit of a favor by holding Spurs to a draw and forcing them to drop two points, which means we now control our destiny, at least as far as 4th place is concerned. Spurs now sit level on games with us but a point behind, meaning we can match them point for point and stay in 4th. I don't want us settling for that. Not at all. It's therefore  not caddish of me in the least to turn up my nose at Wigan's performance today. They almost literally gifted both goals to Spurs, the first on a hilariously inept exchange between Figueroa and Robles, who tried to clear by blasting the ball directly into Bale, who closed his eyes, stuck out a boot, and opened them to see that he had scored. Wigan equalized before I could finish cursing Spurs out adequately and went ahead just after halftime. For 40 glorious minutes, then, Wigan was in control, only to see everything slip away thanks to a Boyce own-goal in the 89th minute. So, so close to victory that you could see Roberto Martinez starting to feel quite good about staving off relegation. Instead, they'll have to spend another week there as they wait to see how Aston Villa does when they host Sunderland on Monday.

I'm torn between wanting to see Sunderland relegated as punishment for hiring Di Canio and making sure we face a Wigan that has nothing left to play for when we meet on May 14th. If Aston Villa beats Sunderland, they're level at 37 and Wigan lingers in relegation at 32. If Sunderland wins, Wigan clings to hope as Aston Villa stays at 34. I don't know to stick to my principles (Sunderland loses, Wigan's hopes stay alive) or go with my dreams (Sunderland wins, Wigan all-but relegated). All the more reason to stick to Man U on Sunday. If we keep these three points, our path is much, much clearer, and I can keep my principles intact, at least for another week.

On a more-strategic level, Spurs really should have taken all three. Dropping points against relegation-threatened teams is inexcusable for a team fighting to qualify for the Champions League. We've been guilty of it, too, so to keep all three on Sunday could effectively end the debate over who finishes in 4th and allow us to set our sights on solidifying a spot in 3rd place for the second year running. Mph. Come on, you Gunners...

Poldi, please pound those... (reader, choose from the best option below)

C'mon--alliteration is fun: (a) punks (b) peckerheads (c) putos (d) prats (e) other (keep it PG, please).
Offer your suggestions in the "Comments" section if you're so-inclined.

In more serious news ,we have a potential barn-burner on our hands here. Set aside all of the melodrama about the honor guard and the histrionics around van Persie's return. These are distractions, silly sideshows to the main event. Frankly, these issues have taken up far too much brain-space over the last week. Whoever is in front of us tomorrow, whether it's a full-strength XI or a bunch of academy call-ups, we could really use these three points. In that last game, no one really distinguished themselves throughout the game. Cazorla emerged well after scoring in injury-time, but even he qualified the achievement, saying this: 
My goal at the end means that the scoreline flattered us a bit, and I think they were better than us in that match.
He has a point. While we had a few chances, Man U did boss us around a bit and spurned a number of golden opportunities, namely Rooney's penalty and a few chances from van Persie. I addressed some of that here if you're curious for some more background. We were in a bit of a mess back then, winning five of our first nine while scoring just 13. Man U was still in its honeymoon period with van Persie's arrival; they had won 9 of 10 while scoring 25 goals. However, I want to look forward, not back. We're a far-cry better than we were at the beginning of the season, and I'd submit we go into Sunday far-hungrier and more confident than back in November.

Therefore, it's with bated breath that I hereby anoint Lukas Podolski as the man to take this game by the throat. I'm not even committing to him starting, but with Giroud out, we need some verve and precision up top, and Podolski has these, if not in spades, then at least more than Gervinho does. He's only played 110 minutes in his last six appearances but has looked lively and hungry. Whereas some of our other attackers struggle to put up shots or to put them on-frame, Podolski has been taking some blistering shots that have forced difficult saves from keepers. At this point, he's the only striker (yes, yes, he also plays as an AMC) we have who puts me forward on the edge of my seat when he has the ball. With Gervinho and even Walcott, I take a more "wait-and-see" attitude. Podolski has the bearing and the skill of someone who wants to score, and he sends thundering shots goal-wards. Even if he's only scored once, his shots are likely to create rebounds for teammates to pounce on. With thirteen goals and ten assists across all competitions, he's also been one of our most-prolific scorers and creators.

I regret that Giroud will be unavailable for two reasons: one, it would have been some poetic justice had he outscored van Persie; and two, his partnership with Podolski frequently brings out the best in both men. In his absence, then, Podolski will have to coordinate better with Cazorla, Walcott, and whoever else surrounds him. I'd love to see him start and get a good 60-70 minutes, if not a full 90. If Arsène does go with Gervinho up top, I hope we don't have to wait very long for Podolski's arrival. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, in either case, he's scoring one and creating another for a teammate. Bring it on, you filthy devils; Poldi is ready and waiting...

26 April 2013

So that's why Man U beat us: Koscielny didn't play...

I've finally unearthed the secret to our 2-1 loss to Man U way back in early November. No, it wasn't because we threw on Santos and Mannone; it wasn't entirely Vermaelen's fault; it was because we couldn't throw on a certain French defender who may have just emerged over the
last few months as our best defender, one Laurent Koscielny, arguably a MOTM against Fulham, but also a rock-solid center-back who has been one of the constants over the last two topsy-turvy seasons. If we can just set aside one bit of unpleasantness, let's address his hug of Edin Dzeko that resulted in a red-card and opened the door to a 2-0 loss. He messed up, simple as that. There's no way around it. Now that that's out of the way, we can get down to business.

In that 2-1 loss to Man U, a lot of the blame fell on Vermaelen, and it's hard to deflect any of that. He was off his game all day, not just on the squibbed clearance that van Persie put home. Vermaelen struggled throughout the match to have any positive impact. He was very nearly guilty of conceding a second goal at the start of the second half, getting dispossessed by van Persie who put a perfect cross in, and only a flub by Valencia saved our hash there. In what is becoming a sadly familiar refrain, it was again Vermaelen who lost track of van Persie on a cross from Young into the box. Mannone's decent save on van Persie's tame shot again kept us safe for the moment. Sadly, it was also Vermaelen who got beat on the second goal, as Evra got in front of him to latch onto and head home a cross from Rooney. Tough day at the office, to say the least.

However, I'm not hear to pile on Vermaelen anymore than he's already had to deal with. After all, he did have the Jolly Brazilian on his left, which arguably left him more exposed. I'm here to extol the virtues of Koscielny, whose absence early in the season may go just as far in explaining our stumbles as does Vermaelen's poor form.

Put simply, he's been a beast of man in the back for us, especially in the last seven games, during which we've only conceded four goals while gathering four clean sheets. Tallying up his clearances and effective clearances over that span (thanks to whoscored.com) shows that he is responsible for snuffing out more attacks than any other player 51 clearances and 25 effective clearances. No one else on the team even comes close. Take the second-highest tally of each game yields Fabianski, Giroud, Sagna, Arteta, Mertesacker, Monreal, and Vermaelen. Put them together and they share 26 clearances and 17 effective ones. Koscielny dominates, gobbling up balls voraciously and putting them at the feet of Arteta or Ramsey or finding deeper passes to start our next attack.

If you didn't do so already, go back up and watch the montage from Xaviergooner, in which Koscielny, time after time after time, snuffs out a Fulham attack or initiates an attack of our own with a incisive pass. His ascendancy from last year, when he seemed a bit at sea, is stark. He plays with much more confidence and skill (so much so that Bayern seemed to poke around to assess his availability), and I'll go so far as to say he's now among the best center-backs in the Prem. He's not world-class yet, but then again, this is only his third season in the Prem, and it won't be too much longer before he is mentioned in the same breath as Terry, Vidic, or Kompany. If he can marshal our defense against Man U as he has done over the last month, we'll be in fine shape, and he'll be shouldering his way into that elite crew of defenders with the same authority that he's been showing on the pitch.

25 April 2013

Race for 3rd: Grow out those nails so you have something to bite...

As we prepare for Man U, we should take stock of where things stand going into the last four weeks of the season. Our most difficult match has become somewhat less compelling but not necessarily easier. Man U has already clinched the Prem and has little else to play for other than chasing Chelsea's record of 95 Prem League points. Most of the talk in the run-up to this game has centered on whether or not we should offer a guard of honor, which I believe we should, and whether or not Man U will show much intensity, which I figure they will. It's not like Ferguson has a history of doing us any favors, and I certainly wouldn't put it past him to do whatever he can to stick to his bestest buddy Arsène, including starting van Persie in as strong an XI as he can find (Vidic and Ferdinand are fit to return, for what that's worth). Even if the players themselves might arrive a little less hungry, we had better be ready for a knock-down, drag-out.

As it stands, we still have to endure some tight times. First, though, a moment of silence as we mourn the demise of Everton's Champions League hopes. With 56 points from 34 games, they sit in sixth place, six points off the pace. Even if the Merseyside derby just got a little less, um, tasty due to Suarez's ten-game suspension, Everton still has to face Chelsea on the final day of the seasona game that could just decide who finishes 3rd, 4th, and 5th. I sincerely regret that the door looks to have closed on Everton. I would have loved to see them dislodge Spurs and/or Chelsea from the top four. Alas, unless something dramatic happens, it may have to wait until next year.

Speaking of Chelsea, they have taken an inside track on advancing to the Europa final thanks to a 2-1 win at FC Basel. Here's to hoping that the Europa continues to sap their energy and attention in the Prem. I wouldn't mind in the least if Benitez gets that trophy while letting Chelsea slip out of the Champions League for next year (might that be enough to convince Mourinho to stay away?). They may now have the toughest remaining schedule with the Europa and some tricky Prem matches: a visit to Old Trafford, at home against Spurs (sure to be a dog-fight), at Aston Villa (striving to stave off relegation), and Everton (still hoping to clinch a Europa berth). The Europa final is set for May 15th, smack-dab between the Aston Villa and Everton matches. Quite a few potential pit-falls there, to say the least.

That brings us to Spurs. Now that they've dropped out of the Europa League, they actually have a tolerably manageable schedule. They face a number of teams just above relegation (Southampton, at Stoke, Sunderland) but it could still be difficult. Stoke is notoriously tough at home, and Sunderland may have been re-invigorated by Di Canio. Nonetheless, they can probably count on keeping most of those points. Their stirring comeback against Man City could generate some momentum, similar to our win over Bayern. Their trip to Stamford Bridge will no doubt be full of drama, with one or both teams guaranteed to drop points. We'll have to wait to see how each of them does in the two Prem matches they each have between now and then before deciding on whom to support there.

Finally, us. We go into the last few weeks a bit short-handed now that Giroud's three-game suspension was upheld. However, after we face Man U, we have one of the lightest schedules (on paper) of any of the remaining teams fighting for a Champions League spot. We'll travel to Loftus Road to face QPR, who will have faced Reading in a death-match to avoid relegation. If QPR fails to take all three there, they're all but relegated. Even if they're still scrabbling, I like our chances. From there, we host Wigan, striving to avoid relegation, and finish at a Krul-less Newcastle, who, if QPR stumbles at all, will be safely above relegation. In other words, we really should take a minimum of nine of our twelve remaining points. We'd better.

It's all still a bit white-knuckled, though. Let's say we do take nine of twelve. This puts us at 72. Chelsea would then have to take 11 of 15 to overtake us, and Spurs would have to take 12 of 15 to do the same. If they draw with each other, Spurs can only drop one point from their remaining games to finish above us. In that same scenario, Chelsea can only drop two other points to finish above us. Tricky, tricky stuff, as the dynamics behind who "should" win any given game depends heavily on these calculations. If we beat Man U, for example, does this mean Man U goes on cruise control against Chelsea the following week?

If we win all four, we climb to 75, but Spurs could get as high as 76 and Chelsea could climb as high as 77but they can't both max out thanks to their head-to-head. Let's imagine that we, Chelsea, and Spurs win all remaining games except their head-to-head, which ends in a draw. Spurs falls out of the top four with 74 points, and Chelsea climbs up to 75, meaning that goal-differential determines whether we're in 3rd or 4th. Win out, and we almost certainly finish in 4th. I won't even put the next outcome in words. It's that nail-bitey.

Dortmund, the new Arsenal?

After Borussia Dortmund reprised Bayern's 4-0 destruction of Barcelona by itself manhandling Real Madrid 4-1, all that talk of an El Clasico cup final has gone by the wayside. I'll admit to knowing very little about the Bundesliga, at least in terms of teams' personalities. Sure, I know a bit about who's good this year and historically, but I couldn't describe to you how, say, Bayern or Hannover is viewed the way I could Man U or Stoke.
However, the more I learn of Dortmund, the more I find to like, and the further they progress in the UCL, the happier I am. The more I learn, the more I see similarities between who they are and who we've been known as, even if we've struggled recently to live up to our own standards for excellence. In other words, Dortmund seems more and more like our own little brother, if not a mirror image. Under Jurgen Klopp, they're playing an attractive, stylish brand of football, they develop and nurture young talent into superstars, and they do so while living within their meanseven if this means that they have to cope with the departure of many of their best players to bigger clubs, such as Shinji Kagawa to Man U, Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid, or Mario Gotze to league rival Bayern. In other words, they're the Arsenal of the Bundesliga.

We played and defeated Dortmund to advance to last year's knockout-stages of the Champions League, a year that saw them win the Bundesliga for a second consecutive year, this time by eight points over Bayern. Bayern has wrested the league championship back this year, but Dortmund's ascendancy over the last few years under Klopp has been stirring, invoking memories (for me, at least) of our finest years under Wenger. After Dortmund bossed Madrid around, Klopp said that Dortmund is "like Robin Hood....that was total football." They face bigger, better-financed clubs and steal the glory. It always feels funny to me, especially when talking to fans of smaller clubs, to claim that we're out-spent, but we are, as are Dortmund. In 2012, Deloitte listed Dortmund as having 138.5m in revenues, less than half of Bayern's 321.4m and a third of Real Madrid's 479.5m. Therefore, it's gratifying to see a team like them playing beautiful football without simply going out and buying the best players money can buy. Relying on youth, speed, passing, and swift counter-attacks, they gleefully snatch from bigger clubs with bigger names and wages.

It's therefore sad to see players depart the club, much as they have departed Arsenal, for "greener" pastures. On the other hand, many who have left have struggled to regain the form that made them successful enough to attract offers from other clubs in the first place. Shinji Kagawa has shown flashes of his form with Man U, but he struggles to find time on the pitch and will not replicate the 21 goals he scored in the Bundesliga last year. Similarly, Nuri Sahin parlayed a 2010-11 Player of the Season award into a new contract with Real Madrid, where he struggled with injury and form enough to be loaned to Liverpool and then finally back to Dortmund, where he finally seems happy again, if not back in form. Similarly, many players who have left Arsenal, notably Samir Nasri and Alex Song, have stumbled along with their new clubs, and even Fabregas and van Persie have seen their numbers dip, even when arguably surrounded and supported by superior talent.

However, this is not meant as some kind of dismal mourning of a club's slow dismantling. Dortmund seems to have more than enough style, talent, and cheek to bounce back. After all, they've done well without Kagawa's goals or Sahin's orchestration (well, before January, at least). To find themselves as close as they are to Bayern, a team playing as ruthlessly as any team has in a while, says a lot about Dortund's quality. It's a compliment to us, then, that there is so much of us in how they play. We could do a lot worse than cheering them on in the UCL.

If none of this earns Dortmund your respect, you at least have to give them credit for this. Epic.

24 April 2013

No, We haven't signed Jovetic. Calm down.

Reports about Stevan Jovetic signing with Arsenal are flying faster than a 13-year old tweet's about seeing One Direction. What's worse, they're apparently phrased about as breathlessly and excitedly as a ID3D tweet (yes, I do regret that I know what that acronym means instead of knowing something that matters). Click on any number of links,
wait--now I do feel like a 13-year old girl...he's dreamy.
and, yes, the first paragraph is all sunshine and moonbeams about what Montenegrin has accomplished and what he'll mean for Arsenal: he'll be the next van Persie, he'll deliver us to the top of the Prem, he'll restore our former glory, etc., etc. Read a little further and you start seeing words like "reportedly" and "apparently" and phrases like "sources have suggested." By the time you get to the end of the article, you've realized that you've read little more than the latest snake-oil from a suspiciously enthusiastic traveling salesman. I'm not even sure how excited I should be at this point about Jovetic, whom I previously dissected here.

I crave hits and visitors and attention here as much as anyone, but I hate this kind of reporting. Transfer rumors feel like the laziest hackery out thereit's a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Just insert a player's name, make up a transfer fee (probably in the range of 30 million), and attach him to his new club. Done and done. Come to think of it, I feel like I've offered a template. Oh yeah: here. Sure, it's not the sharpest satire out there, but it makes its point, I hope.

I know also that, in the wake of Giroud's three-game suspension, we're extra-susceptible to the latest rumors linking us to the likes of Jovetic and others. However, he's not available for any of our next four games, and Fiorentina is unlikely to be parting with him or even discussing a transfer as they scramble for Champions League qualification (currently 3rd in Serie A, having to win the two-leg playoff to get in). Long story short: don't take the bait. Let's keep our focus on winning our next four games, finish in 3rd (or 4th) to qualify for Champions League play, and assess the market after that. There's no sense in pining away for a Cavani or Jovetic if their current teams qualify for UCL and we don't.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, although it's like spitting in the wind: transfer rumors are a cute way to assess our prestige and direction, but in and of themselves they mean little. How many rumors attached us to Nacho Monreal, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, or Lukas Podolski? More than a few, sure. How many rumors linked us to players who never signed with us? A billion. Until it appears at the official team site or I see the player beaming while holding up a jersey with the Arsenal logo while standing next to Arsène, I won't believe it. Let's deal with the realities right in front of us before turning to the fantasies that may never come to pass.

23 April 2013

Numbers don't lie. We'd beat Barça 6-0.

There's no other way to put it. It's simple math. We beat Bayern 2-0 at their Allianz Arena. Bayern beat Barça 4-0 in that same arena. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that, if it could be arranged, we would beat Barça 6-0, provided that we play at the Allianz Arena. We'd make them look so bad that Fàbregas and Song would beg to return, and Valdes and Villa would agree to join us for free. In fact, all four would pay us for the right to don Arsenal red, thankful to leave behind those god-awful orange-ish away jerseys. And that's all she wrote.

Oh, wait. I'm exaggerating.

Bayern absolutely thrashed the Blaugrana 4-0 today, suggesting that the dominance of Spanish football has peaked and may wane sooner than my earlier post suggested. Instead, we might be seeing the spearhead of German football's ascendancy. After all, Bayern came heart-breakingly close to winning the UCL last year and looks bound and determined to win it this year. For all of the talk of an El Clásico/UCL final, we look one-fourth of the way towards having a...wait, there's not a clever nickname for a Dortmund-Bayern match? That's ridiculous. Someone should get to work on that. Come up with a Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise or something like that.

In all seriousness, Bayern's dismantling of Barcelona on Tuesday offers us tantalizing glimpses of what might be when all of our pieces click. A quick disclaimer: I know full-well that Bayern approached our visit with something approaching complacency, having dispatched us quite tidily 3-1, and they had only to win or draw, or lose by only two goals, in order to advance. At the same time, ever since losing to Chelsea in last year's UCL, they have seemed nothing less than obsessed with returning to the final this year. To say that they shackled Barcelona understates the situation. Barcelona managed to possess the ball 66% of the time while generating a grand total of one shot on goal. One. Ponder that.

Yes, I know that the first leg differs greatly from a second leg, especially when the first leg goes to the visitor as it did when we played Bayern. However, having said that, we've just witnessed a thorough disrobing of Barcelona at the hands of a team that we beat 2-0 in their house. Barcelona's response remains to be seen, of course, but it's difficult to see them coming back from such a deficit.

Even as I typed that, I'm hoping that we're thinking back to our own UCL misadventures last year, when an Ibrahimović-led AC Milan dressed us down at their place before narrowly escaping the trip to the Emirates to advance.

Here, then, is my point. We went through a glorious period there for a while but have stumbled a bit in the last few years. Without grasping at straws, our ability to defeat an obsessed Bayern, who themselves went on to destroy one of the football history's greatest (if waning) squads, signals that we're not far off from returning to our rightful position among the world's elite. One of the key differences between us and the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man U, Chelsea, or Bayern is that we're doing so while being handily outspent. This may seem odd to say for one of the Prem League's biggest clubs, but we're punching above our weight. That said, for all of our helter-skelter over the last few years, we're still knocking on the door, threatening to kick the damned thing in.

If we can close out the season as we should, we might just be a signing or two and some enhanced chemistry away from a proper resurrection, the likes of which see us dislodge a  Manchester club or two from the top of the table. We might even be able to signal our intent within the week. 

We don't need van Persie. How much has Man U needed him?

In the aftermath of Man U's 20th Prem title, Robin van Persie has attracted a lot of plaudits, but how much of the credit does he actually deserve? Yes, he's scored 24 goals so far, including three on Monday against Aston Villa, but just how much has his presence enhanced Man U's performance? After all, they had Wayne
Rooney coming off of a career-season of his own with 27 goals last year, good for a Golden Boot of its own more often than not, and Man U had scored 89 goals. This year, with four games still to play, they've scored "only" 78. They'd need to average three goals a game to close the season out in order to top last year's total. In other words, suggesting that signing van Persie was a master-stroke that delivered the Prem title to Man U is overstating things just a bit. In their rush to judgement, pundits have fallen over themselves to lavish superlatives on van Persie and what he has meant to Man U. I almost gagged when ESPN offered an article with the word "Vanchester". I'm not going to link back to it. Find it yourself if you're so inclined. Van Persie is a tremendous scorer of goals, it's true, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking he deserves all of the credit.

Sour grapes, you say? Perhaps, but I still think I have a legitimate point. The only real reason I would accept for how van Persie's transfer to Man U helped them win the title is one that I haven't seen discussed much: it might have stopped us from winning it. In other words, it didn't add so much to Man U as it took away from us. Even then, I'm not so sure how far this one goes. In the past, I've compared van Persie to Michael Jordan, but I now wonder if a comparison to Kobe Bryant is more apt: remorseless competitor, absolute assassin of a shooter, but too domineering for his own good. Like Bryant, van Persie wants the ball and will do wonderful things with it more often than not. However, his skill sometimes begs the question, how does this stifle other players?

It's not as if Theo Walcott has become the second coming of Thierry Henry in his first year out from under van Persie's shadow, but he has already delivered his best-ever season for us, with 19 goals and 16 assists in 29 appearances so far. On this basis, then, it does seem as if Walcott has started to blossom, if only a bit. What's more, he's joined at the top of our goal-scoring list by three players new to the Prem: Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud. Whereas Giroud and Poldi came in with reputations for scoring, Cazorla, like Walcott, has tallied a  new career-high 16 goals and really should have made the PFA list. Nature abhors a vacuum, and van Persie's departure created a vacuum that several players have readily stepped into and begun to flourish.

By contrast, look at the much-diminished Wayne Rooney. At the beginning of the season, there was a great to-do about how he and van Persie would form the most lethal attack since, well, ever. With 57 Prem goals between them in the previous year, there would be little doubt that each would feed of the other in a veritable orgy of goals. However, it hasn't worked out like that. Van Persie, whether by design or chance, has shouldered Rooney aside so brusquely that there's considerable talk of Rooney's departure. He's a shadow of his former self with only 12 Prem goals to his name, or just one more than either Walcott or Giroud. His decline has been so steep that it's hard to attribute to much else other than van Persie's arrival and propensity to hog the ball à la Kobe Bryant. Despite his awful new hair-do, I rather admire Rooney. He's 27 and still has some good footballing in him. He may just be sulking now that van Persie has taken the limelight from him. For all of his grit and passion, Rooney sure can be thin-skinned at times. Whatever the case may be, his patchy form this year does lend further credence to the idea that there are only so many goals a team can score, and van Persie, like a Hungry Hungry Hippo™, is going to gobble them up before anyone else can.

Our goals-by-committee approach has seen us do quite well even if we still find ourselves enmeshed in a trickly scramble for a top-three finish while the Manchesters are again alone at the top. We may not reach our total of 79 Prem goals from last year, but we still look set to finish as the 3rd-highest scoring team in the league. I'm not the first to say it, but it's worth repeating: how many clubs can see their best player leave without dropping a half-dozen spots or more down the table? It's again testament to Wenger's management and philosophy, but more importantly, a tribute to the quality and tradition of Arsenal itself. Players come and players go, but but class is permanent.

Giroud's red card and three-game suspension upheld

Proving that the FA does not have sense enough to find its way out of an empty room, the official Arsenal website has announced that Giroud's three-game suspension has been upheld, leaving the striker out of our upcoming matches against Man U, QPR, and Wigan. While this is not a crisis, it is an insult. After all, Giroud's only mistake was in allowing his foot to roll over a balla ball that he was nearly in possession of, mind youas Fulham's Stanislav Manolev ran into said foot. I won't use the word travesty or injustice because that's a bit histrionic for the situation. It's an inconvenience and a dilemma.

Without Giroud, I guess we should throw on Podolski to see how he'll handle the more-central role, unless we're willing to tweak formation to play two strikers alongside each other. Maybe a Podolski-Walcott two-pronged attack will allow both to thrive. It's worth pondering. However, with Champions League qualification still hanging in the balance, it's not really the best time for experimentation, even with a newly coronated Prem champion potentially still basking in the glow of its own excellence and still dealing with a bit of hangover.

Giroud's foul was so slight, incidental, and inconsequential that I'm surprised it was anything more than a spot-kick or even a booking, much less a straight red. As it was, he had had little to no impact on the game, which, in his defense, is largely true of most of the players who played against Fulham. However, his inavailability for Sunday is significant as it means we'll have fewer attacking options available. Those who knock Giroud continue to misunderestimate him, as in they underestimate him in the wrong way. Put simply, he's not the focal point of our attack in the same way that Van Persie was, either by skill-set or demeanor. For better or for worse, Van Persie demanded the ball and insisted that others get out of the way. More often than not, this worked to our advantage last year because, let's face it, he's pretty good at scoring goals. By contrast, Giroud brings something different to the table, which makes him at times a maddening player, especially by contrast with the man he putatively replaced. There are times when he tries too hard to imitate Van Persie and in the process tries something too fanciful or complex for the situation. Then, there are times when he seems to go too far in the other direction, trying to make a too-too cute pass to a teammate so they can score. He's at his best when he can find that happy medium, shooting when appropriate and passing when apt. He seems to get caught ping-ponging between those two extremes as he struggles to find that balance or at least to swing more slowly like a pendulum so that the differences seem less stark.

If nothing else, the FA really should have remembered that it did overturn Kompany's red card against us in January and, in a sense, owed us one (not that I'd dare suggest that refs or the FA ever offer "make-up" calls. Never.). In a week that saw Suarez deliberately handle a ball and bite someone without getting sent off, it is just a bit harsh indeed to see Giroud serve a three-game suspension for allowing a defender to kick his own shin against Giroud's extended heel (which again was, it's worth remembering, touching the ball at the time).

Whichever way we slice it, his suspension makes our attack just a little thinner as we prepare to face Man U.  I'm more-angry that it nullifies my own suggestion that a bit of poetic justice might be on order if Giroud can score a few while we hold Van Persie goal-less. Yes, the fact that Man U has already clinched the Prem diminishes somewhat the intensity of the match, but we must still prepare for a difficult battle. Not having Giroud makes that preparation just a touch more complex.

22 April 2013

Uh, congrats, Robin, I guess...

So Man U has won its 20th Prem title on the back of a Robin Van Persie hat-trick. Some might say this culminates all of Arsenal's fears ever since Van Persie left: Man U wins the Prem, doing so thanks to Van Persie's heroics, and he emerges with the Golden Boot. That last one is still, technically, to be decided as Suarez's punishment is not yet announced and Bale could conceivably go on a torrid tear to claim the prize as his own. I wouldn't mind that (unless it impels Spurs to overtake us). However, I really find myself with little more than a meh. I ripped the "Van Persie is gone" bandage off long ago. I really have no reaction to Man U's league title other than to acknowledge that it happened. We knew coming into the season that the Prem would come down to Man U and Man City and maybe Chelsea, so for it to go to Man U should not come as much of a surprise. Good job, Man U. Well done. Sorry if I sound a little flat on that.

However, I can't help but feel that there's going to be a certain emptiness to the achievement, at least from Van Persie's point of view. He may not admit it, he may not even be aware of the concept, but his contributions to Man U's title are not all that significant. Yes, he has again scored innumerable goals, and a few of them, including one today, have been highlight-reel worthy. However, how much can he really claim to have achieved? He helped a team that finished in second place on goals last year finish in first place this year. How much of this is attributable to his contributions as opposed to Man City's own season-long hangover? Any team that wins a championship is going to stumble a bit in the following season, and any team that comes agonizingly close frequently comes back more focused and determined than everwitness Bayern's season-long "scorched-earth" approach after finishing second in the Champions League. In other words, it's quite likely that Man U would have ended up precisely where it is without Van Persie. A marginalized Wayne Rooney might have simply replicated his own performance from last year instead of having been shouldered aside by Van Persie.

Yes, I know that he has led the drive to the top, and 24 goals is quite a bundle, but, then again, only four came against teams with legitimate top-four aspirations (sorry, Everton and Liverpool, but I'm leaving you out in the cold). I'm not saying he's merely feasted on lesser opponents, but you can look up apophasis on your own if you're in the mood). For us last year, he had as many as seven, and I'd submit that he had many more highlight-worthy goals, for what that's worth. On one hand, maybe this suggests that he's traded individual glory for team success. However, that's not why I see.

Maybe this is little more than sour grapes. I'm willing to own up to that. After all, we're talking about a man who single-handedly (it seems) propelled us to our 3rd place finish last year and who abandoned us to achieve a 1st place finish this year. The bigger question, for me at least, comes down to this: do you want to be "just another player" on a team that just wins and wins and wins like a mindless automaton, or do you want to become a legend for a team with a deeper philosophy? Looking at this situation as an American, I'm reminded of two teams: baseball's New York Yankees, who remorselessly buy up any player it can find, and the Los Angeles Raiders, whose motto is "just win, baby." In both cases, the rapacious commitment to championships trumps (and yes, I want you to imagine Donald Trump right there) all else. Sure, the trophy-cabinet is stuffed to overflowing, but each one is reduced to just another tawdry trinket.

I'm no fool. I know full-well that money makes the money go 'round. I don't lament the idea that we could have won our own championships with Van Persie (much). I do regret the idea that Van Persie, had he stayed, could have become one of the legendary players to wear the cannon. Now, he's just another player for Man U, indistinguishable from so many other names. I rue that. He was, after all, the last remaining link to the Invincibles. Had he stayed, he might have earned his own statue outside the Emirates. As it is, he's become little more than Ibrahimovic-lite, pursuing that next payday, mistaking the zeroes before the decimal on his contract as validation of his legacy.

I'll leave you with this: ESPN's biography of Van Persie starts by saying "Little was known about Robin Van Persie when he came onto Arsene Wenger's radar in 2004...." We don't buy superstars; we make them. Van Persie may have always had it in him to become the striker he is, but it was only through his time with Arsenal that this happened. 

Man U 3-0 Aston Villa: Sunday's fixture loses a bit of its edge

Well, they've gone into halftime at Old Trafford as I write, and Van Persie has a flawless hat-trick to put his club ahead 3-0. This all but clinches the Prem title for them unless Aston Villa, scorers of only 20 goals in 16 away-games, can somehow tally four in one half while conceding none. A tall order, indeed, tall enough that I'm willing to go out on a limb and predict that this is it for the Prem, not that it's such a bold prediction to make. The other, more exciting(?) news is that this puts Van Persie ahead of Luis Suarez on goals for the season, 24-23, and with Suarez looking at a suspension likely to last several games into the 2013-14 season,  Van Persie will probably win this year's Golden Boot. Good for him. I may resent Van Persie for leaving, but I can't stand the thought of Suarez emerging from a season like the one he's had with any kind of honors attached to his name. Wenger has asked for us to respect Van Persie. I'm not really willing to go quite that far. He left, he got what he wanted, and that's that. Last year was wonderful, but it's in the past. I'm not going to jeer him (he won't hear me from where I am anyway), but I certainly won't applaud him either.

We all knew that Van Persie would win things sooner rather than later, so it makes little sense to feel anything about Man U winning the Prem. It would be like getting upset at, say, gravity or magnetism. There's nothing we can do to stop it from happening, so why feel upset? Van Persie only did what a lot of us would probably do: found a higher salary for his services (even if we might have matched the offer) with an employer that could offer more perks (trophies, visibility, etc.). So it goes.

I guess that this will now force us to consider whether or not to actually give Man U a guard of honor on Sunday. Out of respect for Aston Villa's second-half chances, let's pretend that it's too early to consider the guard of honor in earnest and so on. Moving on, it's a dicey one with Van Persie involved, to say the least. Sure, Man U gave us one in 1991, but I don't recall there having been any touchy issues related to player movement at the time. I guess we should go ahead and do the right thing, the professional one, and give it to them. It's polite, after all, and refusing to do so would look petty and spiteful and immature. The only reason not to offer the guard of honor, in my mind, is if Ferguson asks us not to because he wants to celebrate at Old Trafford instead of as a visiting team. It's not up to me, though, so sorry for having wasted however much of your time you just invested in reading that.

In more significant news, it's worth considering what, if anything, this means for our Sunday match. Will Man U throw on a bunch of call-ups? Whom will we face, and how hard will they try? With little else to play for, except perhaps trying to top Chelsea's record for Prem points (95), Man U is likely to come in somewhat less intense than if Man City had managed to hold off Spurs on Sunday. In a way, then, Spurs' victory may actually work in our favor. Yes, they stormed back to take three points in a stirring victory, and this might give them some momentum going into the coming weeks, but it also takes our most-difficult remaining fixture and changes the dynamics just a bit. I've previously said that Man U was fortunate to have beaten us at Old Trafford, needing a flubbed clearance from Vermaelen to go ahead while playing against the likes of Mannone and Santos in back. Going ahead three minutes changes a game dramaticallyjust ask Bayern.

I actually kind of regret the fact (sorry, Acorns) possibility that Man U will come in with little to play for on Sunday. Despite my earlier declamation against spite, it would have been nice to deny them the title, if only for another few days. As things now stand, we have all the more reason and opportunity to seize this game by the throat and take three points from a game many of us might have written off. Now, we just wait to see if the FA will do right by us and overturn Giroud's red card so he'll be available...

Arsenal will appeal Giroud's red card

According to the official team site, the club is set to lodge an appeal against Giroud's red card in the closing minutes of Saturday's match with Fulham. The article is one sentence long and states that the FA will make its decision on Tuesday afternoon. I assume this is London time, so this American writer will have to wake up a bit early to catch the news. Here's the statement from arsenal.com:
Arsenal Football Club have lodged an appeal to the Football Association for the wrongful dismissal of Olivier Giroud during the Premier League match against Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday.
An FA regulatory commission will hear the claim and make a verdict on Tuesday afternoon.
As I stated in my previous post, anyone who cheers his suspension as some kind of addition by subtraction is a bit nuts. He's not Robin Van Persie even if he was hired to fill the man's boots. He's been a decent if maddeningly inconsistent and profligate striker, but he's the only one on the squad who can play the role that he plays. It's not his fault that he's the only one who can effectively hold up play. This is simply not a strength for Walcott, Gervinho, or Podolski. He does seem to make others around him better through his willingness to create chances for others by creating that second-ball off a cross or corner or making a pass in the box for an uncoming team-mate, such as Podolski's strike against Norwich. In fact, if just a small handful of his passes in the box had been converted, we might be lauding him for leading the team in assists. After all, across all competitions, we've won 21, drawn 9, and lost 11 with him in the starting line-up. Not bad.

The red card was harsh, in my opinion, as Giroud was making a play on the ball and had his foot on the ball at the time of the foul. A biased fan might even argue that it was the defender's fault for running into Giroud. Check the video: Giroud's foot rolls over the ball and it appears that the defender clips Giroud's heel. I don't feel like I'm exaggerating, either.

Contrast that against Sidwell's red card in which he went in cleats up and got nothing but leg. It's possible that Giroud's red was issued in part as a sop to the home crowd, similar, now that I think about it, to Kompany's red card against us in January that "evened out" Koscielny's red in the 10th minute of that match. Kompany's was overturned on appeal, and that challenge was far worse in appearance and intent than Giroud's. Kompany, after all, managed to poke the ball but upended Wilshere in a way that looked awful at the time but not quite so bad on replay.

I'd say that Giroud has a fair-to-good chance of having this one overturned, and I sincerely hope he's available for Sunday's visit from Man U. How great would it be to see him return to the line-up and score one or two for us with Van Persie there watching?

21 April 2013

Race for 3rd: Mixed Nuts

Well, we almost got everything we wanted this week: we took all three, Chelsea dropped two, but Spurs managed to steal three with a reprise of our comeback against Norwich, notching three goals inside of seven minutes to come from behind against Man City. These results keep us in 3rd place for the week, one point above Chelsea and two above Spurs.
With the game in hand that has them facing each other, I submit that we strengthen our hold on a top-four finish. It would have been nice, of course, if Man City had seen fit to hold its 1-0 lead or salvage the draw, but Liverpool's Luis Suarez did find time between outrageous offenses to equalize against Chelsea in stoppage time, so, all in all, a decent weekend. One quick note on Man City, just to get it out of the way: seeing them win would have been nice, not just for its deleterious effect on Spurs, but because it would disabuse us of any notions of grandeur. As things now stand, their loss keeps second place tantalizingly within reach. However, City's remaining schedule is so soft that I doubt we'd close that gap. On the other hand, it's always nice to have a carrot to chase.

The big news out of the weekend will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez's apparent bite on Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic. The FA might take action against Suarez, and considering his history, he might be done for the season, if not longer. He was banned for seven games for a bite while with Ajax in 2011, for that tells us. Chelsea must (and should) be outraged that the bite went unpunished or that Suarez was still on the field in the first place after his handball earlier in the match. To drop two points on his goal in what felt like the 17th minute of stoppage time must be infuriating to the extreme. I just hope they take it out on FC Basel and not on any Prem opponents.

In the short run, Man City now maxes out at 83 points, so Man U need 84 on the season to clinch the Prem. They currently have 81, so beating us on Sunday has that sharper edge to it. Then again,  they have five games in which to earn three points, so their sense of urgency could be here, there, or anywhere come Sunday. Regardless of their motivations, these are three points that I've dubbed a toss-up for as long as I can remember. As fantastic as it would be to keep all three, it won't scupper us to drop them either. With Chelsea dropping two today, we could still clinch a 3rd or 4th place finish even if we do drop points come Sunday. I'm not a big fan of spite, but it would be nice to delay Man U's coronation, even if only by a week. A win Sunday would be huge, no doubt, but not because it knee-caps Man U. That's quite far down on our list of priorities behind the following:

  • finish in the top four.
  • finish above Chelsea.*
  • finish above Spurs.
  • finish above Man City.

  • *yes, I do rate finishing above Chelsea as a priority higher than finishing above Spurs. I currently rate Man City and Chelsea as the worst symbols of how money distorts football, followed closely by Man U. Spend enough, and, yes, you will win. To borrow the phrase, we don't buy superstars; we make them. Any team can rent a cabal of superstars. However, it's akin to renting the hottest prostitute versus building an actual relationship. This might be the married man in me talking, but I'll take the latter for all its frustrations because the exhilirations are all the more-sublime for who you share them with. 

    However, lest we go too far down a rabbit-hole, let's get back to business. I've taken Man City off the chart for now, and I've done the same for Everton. The race seems to be narrowing to now only include us, Chelsea, and Spurs. It's still nail-bitingly close, but a number of issues continue to work in our favor. Spurs may have dropped out of the Europa League, allowing them to focus on the Prem, but even their dramatic win today leaves them needing to go on quite a run to overtake us. Chelsea's continued foray in the Europa is sure to sap their energies, especially as it's Benitez's last, best chance to emerge for his fiasco of a season with a trophy to wave under Abramovich's nose.

    As we can see, we have a very favorable draw over the remaining weeks. Should we emerge for our match with Man U with one or three points, this might be enough to confirm our finish in the top four. By the time we face QPR, they're all but certain to have been relegated. Aston Villa only needs two points from its five games to confirm that. The situation with Wigan is a little harder to call, given their FA commitment. Newcastle is already safe, and without Krul to mind the net, we really should be able to take all nine points there, putting us at 72 on the season, give or take the points to be decided against Man U. Should we take those nine, Spurs would need 13 points from its five remaining games and Chelsea would need 10, if not 11, from its remaining five to overtake us. It's difficult to see both of them pulling that off, given that they have to face each other with one or both guaranteed to drop points. I'm not arguing for us to back into the top four thanks to the stumbles of others, but it's worth keeping track of the variables.

    Chelsea, with its Europa commitments and harder Prem schedule, is more likely to drop points than is Spurs, with a cleaner and somewhat-softer schedule. If everything else works in our favor, we might just find ourselves rooting for Spurs to beat Chelsea on May 8th. Crazier things have happened.

    Speaking of crazier things, we're going to have to sort out the reaction to our display against Fulham. Various Gooners seem to have been cheering Giroud's three-game suspension while jeering our performance. Last I checked, we took three points on the road. Last I checked, we're talking about the only striker to have scored in April. To suggest that we're somehow better off without him is short-sighted, to say the least. As much as I would like to be proven wrong, we have  some sorting-out to do up top if we expect to pull off any of the afore-mentioned feats off.

    Olivier Giroud: that's the way the cookie crumbles

    In the aftermath of Giroud's red-card in the waning moments of a victory, it seems harsh in the extreme to condemn the man. But for an inch here and an inch there, we might be hailing the man as a hero. Instead, he's being lampooned far and wide as a buffoon, a waste of space, and worse. I don't think anyone could have replicated Van Persie's stats from last year, certainly not at the £15 million we signed Giroud for. We now face the
    inconvenient reality that the Frenchman will be unavailable for us for three matches, and we only have four left. Say what you will about his deficiencies; criticize his profligacy in front of goal; point out the many ways he falls short of RvP (version 2012-13, at least); do all of that. However, do so while remembering that he's actually done fairly well. Has he run rough-shod over opposing defenses? No, nor has he done enough to help us forget the departure of the Graying Dutchman (have you seen photos of that man? He makes the portrait of Dorian Gray look positively pre-pubescent). Despite all of this, Giroud's hardly the abject failure some have suggested.